A Travellerspoint blog

China Part 8 - Tibet

Everest Base Camp and the road to Nepal

sunny 34 °C

We could have been very happy with a few more days in Lhasa as we LOVED it there, but as our itinerary already had us leaving China on the last day of our visa...So we headed off in a 4WD towards the Nepal border looking forward to the next 5 days visiting the more remote Tibetan monasteries and of course Everest Base Camp...

"Buddha coming out of the Mountain"...was how our guide described this point. My immediate thought was, "haha, they always come up with funny sayings and they just carve things in rocks to go with the stories. But what we didn't realise at the time is if you look to the left of the painting, you might be able to make out the face of a man/Buddha in profile naturally formed by the rocks...It is funny how sometimes when you are in the moment you don't see things clearly, but when you look back you think to yourself, how did I not see that! Now when I look at the photo, I don't even see the carved and painted buddha anymore, only the natural one. It has made me realize that in life it is so important to occasionally step back and see the overall picture instead of the obvious.
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Tibet is referred to as the "Roof of the World", but it is only after you come here that the name really makes sense - perhaps you can appreciate this from the photos, but standing here at about 4,000 odd metres, the clouds feel close enough to reach up and touch...The beautiful scenery only enhances the experience!
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From the day we left Lhasa, we had days of driving long distances (at least on smooth roads which is one of the few nice things the Chinese have done for Tibet but sadly mainly for the purpose of tourism I think), and the lunch stops were our only chance to see the people of Tibet and get a closer look at the culture. It was often short, but sweet. I just love it when people don't shy away from the camera, but actually embrace it. Not only do the pictures look great, but you gain a certain connection to the place you visit and it makes carrying around heavy camera equipment all worth it! There was a group of ladies chatting to each other and selling cheese on strings and the lady wearing the blue headscarf was genuinely happy to smile for my picture.
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Another stop was at the Kharola Glacier. There was a lady drying sheep wool on her tent made of yak wool. She unfortunately really only wanted me to give her money, but instead of taking a picture of her which is what she wanted (so I would give her money), I had a lovely encounter with her because of the tibetan turquoise I was wearing around my neck. Every tibetan seems to wear a piece of turquoise as they believe it protects you from disease and she was wearing turquoise earrings. After i asked her if her tent was made of Yak, the only thing she understood was the word ,"yak", and said in a very high pitched voice (i think trying to imitate me) "Yak...Yak...Yak!" while smiling her shiny gums at me as she had no teeth.
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Andrew at Kharola Glacier

Gyantse:

Our first stop after a long day driving was at Gyantse, one of the famous monastery sites outside of Lhasa and home of a great yak burger!

Gyantse fort

Gyantse fort

family on motorbike-Gyantse

family on motorbike-Gyantse

inside Gyantse fort

inside Gyantse fort

jump off the cliff!-Gyantse

jump off the cliff!-Gyantse

Gyantse lamastery

Gyantse lamastery

Andrew at Gyantse fort

Andrew at Gyantse fort

prayer flags and gyantse monastery

prayer flags and gyantse monastery

Gyantse view from fort

Gyantse view from fort

horse carraige

horse carraige

Crime evidence at Gyantse fort

Crime evidence at Gyantse fort

Danger at Gyantse

Danger at Gyantse

This video gives you a little insight into our 5 days on the road. Lots of this music blasting in the car constantly, and many animal road blocks. It seems the old lady leading the pack is not phased by our car at all, and either are her cattle!

Shigatse:

Our second stop at Shigatse is the home of another famous monastery of Tibet, the Tashilhunpo Monastery. We had hoped to also have a stop at the Sakya fortress-like monastery, which apparently has the most spectacular assembly hall in all of Tibet, but were told by our guide that the ancient city was closed to foreigners. Although we accepted this at the time, another traveller we caught up with again in Nepal said that the city was definitely open and they were able to visit on the same day we wanted to go...Since we didn't go to this town, it only took 30 minutes to drive from Gyantse to Shigatse and our guide and driver had apparently figured they were done for the day when they dumped us near the monastery. When we asked to be taken to an internet cafe-only 5 minutes away as it turned out, they rolled their eyes and put up a big fight and told us to take a taxi. we didn't understand when we were paying approx RMB1,000 per day for the car, driver and guide. They said "it wasn't on our itinerary". What, so we can't stop on the side of the road to go to the bathroom either because it isn't on the itinerary? We think what happened is the driver was taking advantage of having the car to go visit his family a few hours away from where we were (on our money) and that is why we didn't go to the town we wanted to visit so he could have more time with them. I would have loved to have skipped the town and gone to visit his family with him to see the life of a real tibetan in the countryside, but I don't think that would have been following "the rules" as our guide always put it!

Anyway, the monastery at Shigatse was very interesting, and we spent several hours here and finished it off with a walk around the monastery kora for an incredible view over the city and countryside beyond. We were also able to watch more young monks practicing their philosophic debates inside the monastery. I really love Tibetan architecture. It is almost always rustic and colorful.

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Here we are entering the national park of Mount Everest...we are getting closer, but will we be able to see it??? At this point, it was snowing and cold alright and overlooking the winding road, Everest was currently covered with a blanket of clouds. Hmmm...

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Everest:
we finally arrived nine days after arriving in Tibet. The long awaited glimpse of the highest mountain in the world was getting even nearer. Normally you can see Everest in all its glory from tent city, but still no sight of it as it was really snowing hard now and completely foggy. We stayed overnight at base camp or, Tent City, as they call it. There are about 30 or so large tents made of Yak wool that we slept in with layers and layers of blankets. I had several moments of panic in the middle of the night when I woke up about every hour in complete darkness gasping for air. Some people we came across in Lhasa had prepared me for this, so I calmed myself down by saying, "it is ok, I can breathe, I have oxygen" as I drifted back to sleep or passed out perhaps! At the altitude of 5,000 meters/17,000 feet, that is not surprising. The highest post office in the world in tent city normally has a backdrop of Everest, but was unfortunately closed the day we were there which was not a good sign of our luck to come.
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It is a good thing we have such a good imagination!
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This little girl squatted in the restaurant and peed on the floor...why wouldn't you if you wear pants with a hole in it! I guess it does save the environment by no diaper disposal, but what happens when you are stuck on an 8 hour bus ride with a baby wearing bottomless pants? I have always wondered this.
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This is the friendship bridge leading from ZhangMu a Tibetan transit town, to Nepal. After a very scary drive through the mountains covered in fog, waterfalls gushing over the roads, and car size boulders that had fallen from the mountains onto the road and then finally through a lengthy customs check, we walked across the bridge with a feeling that we were stepping into freedom again. I had the urge to run, but thought that would have caused some alarm with the men holding huge rifles and lets face it, we are in a world of war, but this isn't a movie after all. So I stopped being so dramatic and walked slowly across the bridge. We did however, almost cause an international incident when Andrew tried to take a photo of a plaque explaining the history of the "Friendship Bridge" when guards came running at us from everywhere with their guns. Apparently, stopping for long enough to read the plaque was also forbidden...
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Posted by HT 05.01.2010 20:48 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

China Part 7 - Tibet

Lhasa

sunny 30 °C

Lhasa

Arriving in Lhasa after spending the morning watching the countryside up on the Tibetan plateau out of our train window was very exciting for us, having finally arrived at the home of Tibetan Buddhism. And even with our expectations high, we loved this city - it's passion, food, spirituality, the colours and people - and would love to come back and spend more time exploring.

We had a fairly jam-packed program with our guide (foreigners are practically not allowed anywhere in Tibet without a guide) and started with the Dalai Lama's Summer Residence and surrounding gardens. We were fortunate to have our trip coincide with the Shorten (Yoghurt Drinking) Festival, and despite the somewhat mundane-sounding name and vast quantities of yoghurt to be had, is actually a vibrant celebration full of colour with Tibetans dressed in their traditional clothes as well as dancing and singing performances and Tibetan opera. Of course, the visiting Tibetans also made time to pay their respects and pray at the many sites around the city, including making the famous Barkhor Kora around the Jokhang Temple (a kora is a religious duty performed as prayer walk in a clockwise direction - to do so in an anti-clockwise direction would be a statement of anti-Buddhism - around a Tibetan site of religious significance, including mountains, temples, prayer wheels, etc., and is often completed at least 3 times).

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The Sera Monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, is a famous site, in particular given the opportunity to observe a unique practice of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) Sect of Tibetan Buddhism - the young monks testing each other's knowledge through vigorous philosophic debates. The debates take place each day in a charming pebbled courtyard full of shady trees interspersed with small groups of monks. The debates were often very lively and took the form of one monk throwing questions at one or two other monks in rapid bursts, while requiring fast responses in time with claps of their hands.

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Famous Potala Palace - obviously a long-anticipated destination on our trip here! However, there were several bureaucratic hoops to jump through on our way...our guide is required to make an appointment for us the day before, and once inside, we were only allowed 45 minutes to shoot through for our RMB200 each ticket. Practically no photos were permitted and security was also tight, with airport style checkpoints and a prohibition on liquids (or perhaps that was just to help the vendors inside the palace - it was quite a climb up to the top and around 30 degrees)..so we hid the large bottles of water we had just bought in some bushes outside the palace (and successfully retrieved them later)! Like the Summer Palace, Potala (or the Winter Palace) resmebles more of a museum than the home of Tibetan Buddhism. Most clearly felt, of course, is the absence of the Dalai Lama himself which has created an air of expectancy and hope for a time when a Dalai Lama (clearly it won't be the present one) supported by the Tibetans themselves might be allowed to return to Tibet. In addition, the monks inside the palace are also not permitted to wear their traditional robes and get around in what looks like white lab coats. Nevertheless, climbing the unmistakeable staircase to Potala was an incredible experience and our tour of the buildings gave us an important insight into life at the seat of power for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government. We were fortunate that it was not a busy day, which allowed us slightly more time to linger in some of the inner temples and fully appreciate the stupas (or tombs) of previous Dalai Lamas, numerous inner temples, worshipping halls, reception halls and incredible collections of artefacts (which may or may not be the originals). Given the extreme temperatures in both summer and winter, the construction of Potala also uses a double-layered brick wall with a 2 metre gap between the inner and outer walls which provides insulation something like a vacuum flask I guess.

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There are 3 sets of stairs leading up to the Dalai Lama's working and living quarters, out of which common people were only permitted to use the stairs on each side, with the middle stairs reserved exclusively for the Dalai Lama. Seeing the stairs roped off and guarded by a monk, brought home to both of us the reality of what is missing for everyone here in Tibet.
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Laundry anyone? If you can believe it, this is a hotel.
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I guess we just felt that our trip WOULD be the same if we didn't visit this cafe too, so gave it a miss...!!
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Central Lhasa and the old town is a lively place full of many stalls, people and shops - including many pilgrims walking around the kora spinning their prayer wheels. With so many people in a constant circumambulation of the central temple, there is a strong energy here which draws you into the flow like a strong current - most Tibetans will complete 3 koras every day. When returning to our hostel, it was also impossible for us to avoid joining the kora and certainly we did not want to (or weren't able to) walk the shorter route in an anti-clockwise direction. The famous Jokhang Temple in the centre of town was therefore the focal people for religious pilgrims, who were here for the Shorten Festival and provided a very interesting glimpse of the variety of dress and colours worn by the native Tibetan people. A very strict form of the kora performed by the most devout involves starting from standing position, dropping to your knees and sliding forward on your hands until you are lying prone on your stomach. After standing up and taking one step forward would repeat. It would take almost a whole day to perform 3 koras in this way and the people doing this would be wearing wooden blocks on their palms, as well as pads on their knees and stomachs. One of the most important things we took away from Lhasa was to experience the Tibetan people and religion in all their diversity and not simply as a suppressed people and religious branch of Buddhism.

However, to the latter, there is no doubt that the army presence in Lhasa is significant to say the least - including lookouts on the building tops, hidden cameras throughout the streets and constant armed patrols. Through threats of deportation and confiscation of pictures, the Chinese manage to keep most foreigners fearful of taking any photos that might expose the level and nature of the Chinese presence here. Certainly, if you are expected of being a journalist, you would be subjected to constant searches of your photos and computer equipment. Also, it is important to bear in mind that while we could be subjected to searches, deportation etc, that is nothing compared to the harrassment and possible prison terms that would be inflicted on a Tibetan person suspected of receiving information (regarding the Dalai Lama being the most inflammatory) from foreigners or passing on "state secrets". We had also heard a story of Chinese secret police posing as monks to entrap foreigners wanting to pass on memorabilia (photos of the Dalai Lama were also a big no-no) onto Tibetans.

Although Tibetan cuisine itself is not particularly exciting, we did have several great Nepalese curries and naan bread, which really whetted our appetite for our next stop in Nepal.

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What do you think...could we pass for Tibetans?
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Posted by HT 23.11.2009 19:45 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

China Part 6 - On our way to the Roof of the World

Gaining altitude

semi-overcast 28 °C

We are now on our way to Tibet and hopefully a peak at the highest peak on Earth!

Although there is technically a route south from Kashgar into Tibet Province, it is closed to foreigners and Tibet entry permits (which are needed in addition to a Chinese visa) only allow foreigners to purchase train or plane tickets into tibet through the north- and south-east borders. Nevertheless, we were very keen to take the trip on one of China's more ambitious projects (and that's saying something) which was to build a train from Beijing all the way to Lhasa, making it the highest railway track in the world...to do this we needed to head back east to Xining, now overtaken the old launching pad at Golmud for what I heard was a death defying bus ride!

Zhangye/Mati Si

Since there was no direct train between Urumqi and Xining, we stopped at Zhangye to catch a connecting bus and also visit Mati Temple, famous for its networks of Buddhist caves built into the surrounding steep cliff faces (and no, not horses' hooves!) and minority villages. The name actually comes from an imprint in the side of one of the mountain rocks that resembles a horse's hoof - yet another example of the dichotomy between Chinese imagination centuries ago which far exceeds ours and today...

Our bus fare to Mati Si would have been more accurately sold as a fare to "the middle of nowhere but close to a sign that says Mati Si"...probably wouldn't sell as many fares this way though! From this point, we had to negotiate and hitch-hike a ride the remaining 20km...
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Mati Si is an interesting place to wander around and climb up through the exposed and hidden passageways winding through the rock faces up to seemingly unreachable alcoves at the top of the cliffs - definitely a unique cave system and comparable in scale to Dunhuang's better known caves. Also, the countryside here is quite picturesque for short hikes through the hills and there are several minority groups living in the area - all of the restaurants have traditional food as well as dancing and singing performances all day.

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Before catching the last bus of the day, we also were able to see a much larger-scale minority performance on this stage, which seemed to give examples from each of the local ethnic groups. Although many of these types of performances we see throughout China are somewhat lacking in passion from the performers (perhaps understandable if repeating several times a day for busloads of chattering and mobile-phone wielding tourists!), this guy seemed to be really enjoying himself... The speakers were so loud, I am sure they could hear it Beijing!

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Xining

Xining was a pleasant surprise, in particular, as it was a place that we had not really considered as part of our itinerary and only then as a necessary launch pad into Tibet. It is actually a bustling, modern city with some nearby monasteries (this is also part of the Tibetan ethnic hinterland) together with a diverse and lively bar and restaurant district.

Chili anyone?
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We first visited the impressive grounds of the Kumbum Monastery, which were undergoing some extensive renovations and extensions, but given the massive tourist draw of this sacred site, the atmosphere did lack a feeling of spirituality - as noted by the Lonely Planet, "Kumbum Monastery today seems to have been relegated to museum status by Beijing" - which no doubt also means we can expect RMB100+ entry tickets here soon...There were however some nice photo opportunities!

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We also took a side trip to Youning Temple, which had a much more authentic feel to it, despite being in the midst of reconstruction after its latest destruction during the Cultural Revolution (that was the third time). Given it was more remote, we were the only foreign tourists there all day and were able to wander freely through the main temple and into the smaller temples up in the hills. The monks were very friendly and we spent a long time chatting with several of them - they all seemed to be into foreign currencies and very keen to buy Australian dollars (perhaps they also read the news about the USD/AUD exchange rate!) from me if only I had any! At the very top of the hill, one of the monks also let us taste some water from a small spring that was apparently over 500 years old while we talked (very carefully) on the politics surrounding the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.

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Although we don't normally have the energy for clubbing, we had several days to relax here and having bumped into some younger guys at our hostel, decided to check out what Xining had to offer! We were informed by the hostel that the place to be in Xining on a Monday night was a bar called Suhe (which upon arrival we realised was a transliteration of Soho). However, any resemblance to anything you might find in the US (or HK for that matter) ended right there - with most of the (surprisingly wealthy) Chinese playing drinking games and chugging bottles of whiskey, the four of us felt a bit out of place as we sipped our Heinekens under the distracted gaze of 20-something "security guards" wearing bullet proof vests and construction hardhats! And we haven't even mentioned the entertainment yet - see below for a video Tara managed to sneak before being very promptly told that no photography was allowed...

A taste of the Tibetan plateau...After some of our recent transport experiences, it was a pleasure to ride in what must be China's most modern train (and we wished it could be a template for all other trains!) - no smoking permitted on board (at all!) and oxygen pumped into the cabin for those suffering from any altitude sickness on the way up to 3,600m via a 5,000m pass! For those that are really desperate for a fix, it is possible to get it pumped directly into your lungs (not Zhongnanhai cigarette smoke that is!)...
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Here we are looking out the train at the highest lake in the world and one of our local friends for the 24 hour trip!
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Posted by HT 10.11.2009 22:51 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

China Part 5 - The Wild Wild (North) West

Xinjiang Province

sunny 40 °C

Xinjiang province...

Small disclaimer here...We are actually now back in Hong Kong! Having had no time over the past two months to keep up to date with our blogging, we are doing our catching up now...

Unfortunately, following the riots of early July, there was a large crack-down in Xinjiang which we heard about while in Dunhuang - this means that as well as the massive influx of troops, the Chinese government also closed down all internet access throughout the province as well as international phone calls! And we realised that we needed at least a week's lead time to arrange our Tibet visas for the end of August...Fortunately, we were able to make domestic phone calls in China, so armed with the contacts of one travel agency in Xining, I hurriedly sent off copies of our passports by email while I still could in order to commence the process...however, we were informed that due to my F visa, I needed to provide a letter from my non-existent employer stating the period that I worked for them...In fact, we soon learnt that the content of the letter (it didn't need to be translated) was not nearly as important as it needing to have an official red chop on it, which was impressed upon me in every conversation with our travel agent! That left us with the small problem of how to get a letter from Morgan Stanley without being able to email or call Hong Kong...Fortunately, Dinny in Shanghai (who I could call) and Amanda Cotterman in Hong Kong came to the rescue as they linked up to send a scanned copy of my letter to the travel agent - I didn't even see it until we left Xinjiang and arrived in Xining, but it all went smoothly and our permits were ready on time!

Over to Tara now...

We were really looking forward to Xinjiang as it is one of those places few people visit because it is so far west of China...in fact, they seemed to like us better when we spoke English instead of Chinese...(Chinese is much more prevalent now than Andrew's last last trip to Xinjiang 12 years ago, but the recent riots and crack-down seems to have hardened the cultural divide also). Xinjiang is a world of Uighers, lamb kebabs, baked bread, very friendly people, donkeys with their carts, people dipping their bagels in tea, ie a far cry from the Han Chinese heartland in Beijing! However, despite the benefits of modernisation that the Han Chinese have brought to Xinjiang, this has also contributed to a cultural disintegration that is no doubt one of the underlying sources of tension in this region.

Turpan

Our trip here from Dunhuang was our first China sleeper bus experience, which was actually pretty comfortable, although I didn't sleep very well from visions of flying through the windshield every time a truck flashed its high beams as it passed by in the middle of the night. Somehow, blinding the oncoming traffic seems to be the standard highway greeting in this part of China...either that or be deafened by an incredibly loud horn applied every 30 seconds!
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If it were not for the silk road, Turpan as a destination may never have come to be - it is the hottest place in China (third hottest in the world), one of the lowest places in the world sitting below sea level and the furthest place away from an ocean in the world. With those claims to fame, you might wonder how anyone decided it might be a good place to live...For starters, where does the water come from? Well, the locals came up with an ingenious underground karez tunnel system (to minimise evaporation) running hundreds of kilometres from the mountain ranges to the north to bring snow melt water into the city. Although the rushing canals of water seem to have disappeared from the city of 10+ years ago and it is not nearly as quaint as it once was, a couple of beautiful streets overhung with grape vines have survived and continue to provide welcome shade (and a quick snack...as long as no one is looking!).

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After arriving in Turpan, we didn't have time to shower or check-in to a hotel room as we were rushed to join a tour group heading out immediately...in fact, we were shuttled so expeditiously from the bus to a taxi that the bus driver didn't have time to return our passports (he was holding them for the police checkpoints) and were very happily re-united just before heading off on our tour! The first stop on the tour was the (re-created) ancient mud village of Tuyoq, where the locals live/suffer a bizarre Disneyland-like existence under the scrutiny of tourist groups who must buy entrance tickets to walk around the streets!

Note to self: If you are forced to give your passport to someone you don't know, don't forget it when you leave, especially when they drop you off in the middle of the desert heading god knows where on a bus!

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The caves here at Tuyoq were not open for "safe" problems...!
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Our second stop of the day was the "Flaming Mountain", billed as the hottest place around Turpan where you can see "tongues of flame" licking the sky from the slopes of these red-rock hills. We didn't buy the RMB40 ticket to take photos in front of the thermometer and with the Journey to the West (aka "Monkey Magic") sculptures they had erected in the barricaded area as it was possible to get just as good a view from outside the fence - perhaps the local officials need to visit the sand dunes in Dunhuang to see how to build a proper fence to force tourists to buy an entrance ticket! That large pole in front of the mountain is a thermometer, which we were told was reading over 70 degrees celcius (158 fahrenheit) today! In town, temperatures commonly reach 49 degrees (120 Fahrenheit), and the ground can reach a toasty 80 degrees (176 Fahrenheit)!!. Today was no exception and we were roasting! And because it is so dry, you don't even notice the sweat which evaporates practically the second it peeps out of your pores!
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Third stop was for lunch at Grape Valley. Unfortunately it is less like Napa Valley and more like, well, China's interpretation of what they think it should be. We didn't spend the afternoon wandering amongst grapevines and sipping wine, but we did have a big lunch sitting on a converted bed under a cover of grapevines - including the famous Uigher dish of Dapanji ("big plate of chicken"), a spicy dish with vegetables and chicken and a big serve of fresh noodles thrown on the top at the end to mop up the sauce. We also did try some wine at the "Western Wine Bar" in the Grape Valley...unfortunately their very best wine was completely undrinkable and without a spitting bucket we were forced to swallow the tiny first taste (the smell had given us some warning of what was to come!) - easily the worst wine we have ever tasted. Unfortunately, we had had really high hopes for Turpan wine - while the Chinese would seem to be able to copy practically anything, there are still some things that I guess just don't lend themselves to being copied...

Note to self: If it smells really bad, just don't taste it

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Our second to last stop was the ancient city ruins of Jiaohe (from 200BC) situated smack bang in the middle of the desert but the guys who settled here weren't completely insane and the elevated site was probably easy to defend while having a nearby river to provide water. Given these were genuinely ruins from a very early Chinese community, this was really interesting and by far the best thing we saw in Turpan - although with the heat now at the hottest part of the day, I was starting to look like a lobster just pulled out of a pressure cooker! Clearly the heat was having an effect on us as we didn't remember until we were way out in the middle of the ruins that we had forgotten to buy more water.

Note to self: buy water BEFORE you go wandering around the desert!

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Our last stop was to see the Karez Tunnel Amusement Park...although providing some very basic information on the karez system and being able to look down at one of the karez tunnels flowing into Turpan, it was really a glorified tourist market and winding our way through the site, the 'karez' aspect was very quickly replaced by a ton of tourist stalls and shops selling all the usual trinkets...!

In all, our entry tickets to these 4 sites cost us RMB95 each as we had a special 50% discount for buying several entrance tickets together. If you were to visit all 10 or so of the official tourist sites around Turpan (as many Chinese groups certainly do), it would normally set you back about RMB500 each (or US$70 odd) for some pretty questionable "sights". Outside of these, there is also the Emin Minaret, with a RMB50 entrance fee and whopping RMB300 to climb up the minaret tower - sadly, at this price, it was hard to include this nonetheless important site on our itinerary! Returning to China now, it is increasingly clear how the tourist industry has developed with inflation on tourist prices sky-rocketing while everyday costs have remained almost unchanged in 10 years. Probably not too noticeable to the Chinese tourist (who now make the foreign tourist a miniscule slice of the pie) visiting one place for a weekend or a week, but to backpackers spending several months travelling the country, the cost of entrance tickets is probably only second to transport (yes, not cheap either!) as our largest expense...

We had one night in Turpan, which we used to catch up on some well-needed sleep and recover from the heat! Strangely, we woke up in the morning to a wet and rainy morning...an extremely rare event here (we were told it rains three times per year) and certainly was nice to have a morning coffee with the air cooled off somewhat!!

Kashgar

In our last post, we saw a challenging China train trip experience. Well, this was a challenging China bus trip experience! I refer to it as the "Bus Ride from Hell"...and not what I expected to be doing while ringing in my 29th birthday. It all started on the 6th of August in the late morning, and the plan was to arrive midday on the 7th to enjoy an afternoon and an evening in Kashgar celebrating the start of the last year of my twenties.

Note to self: when travelling by bus in China, don't make any other plans until you get to your destination and have NO expectations!

It started out nice and easy on a sleeper bus for the overnight stretch across the Taklamakan Desert (probably the most inhospitable place on earth), and we chatted with an Australian guy lying next to me. I had the middle seat with the TV 5 inches from my face, and it was a big box which also limited my ability to bend my legs. Due to the this unfortunate seat on the bus I was forced to watch endless Xinjiang music videos. Very hard to describe, so best for you to watch the video below to understand the torture I went through in this seat. The night came, and we were pulled over many times for the police checks. Sometime around 3 AM I finally started to fall asleep after our last stop to drop people off and pick more people up. Oh but at 4:00am I was awoken to policemen standing over me with extremely thick wool jackets and very large guns strapped over their bodies telling me to get off the bus. With a heavy moan we grabbed our passports and walked over to the checkpoint where we were forced to fill in the registration form due to their illiteracy or lack of knowledge of what a passport is. When I reached the date line at the bottom of the page next to my signature, I quickly realized then and there that it was my birthday. Not quite what I had in mind, but it did make me forget about the guns and the puffy jackets...it wasn't even cold outside. I slept well after that and woke up in the morning to realize I slept so well because our 3 drivers decided after the last checkpoint that they no longer wanted to rotate driving anymore and decided to pull over on the side of the road and sleep for 3 hours. This was delay reason number 2. Delay number 1 was all of the police checkpoints. We were told in Turpan that we would arrive in Kashgar the next day around 11:00 or 12:00pm, so I was getting excited. The desert was even getting a little more interesting as for thousands of miles there were straw barriers made by hand in a checkered pattern along both sides of the road to keep the wind from blowing the sand onto the road. Each piece of straw placed in the sand by hand! We pulled into the bus station around 12:30pm (just as the lady who sold us the tickets told us). We were then told that we had to change buses. Change buses? We were there, right? it had already been over 24 hours on the bus! We found out we were in Hotan, and checked the lonely planet, which sometimes does come in handy) and found out that we were 7 hours away from Kashgar. 7 hours in China on a bus usually means well more than 7 hours. Due to the first 2 delays, we missed our connecting bus and had to wait until 2:30 to catch the next bus to Kashgar...hence delay number 3. Up until now, the last 24 hours of the journey was the easy part. The next bus ride turned into 11 hours of smoking with windows closed, police checks every 20 minutes, people throwing up all around us, people asking to stop in between the 20 minute police checks for diarrhea stops (including Andrew once...poor guy), and more stops so the bus drivers could say hi to their buddies at the kiosks on the side of the road selling red bull. That was delay numbers 4, 5, and 6. we didn't have a sleeper bus any more, and the bus drivers made a make shift seat with a plank of wood in the front jammed into our seat so they could pick up MORE people and squeeze them into the aisle. So 36 hours later with extremely sore backs and knees and possible lung cancer, we arrived in Kashgar around 1am on the morning of the 8th of August exhausted and in no mood to sing.

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There is a lot of propaganda in Xinjiang, and the message of this one is: less children, happier life.
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I guess our bus ride could have been worse. We could have been on this donkey cart for 36 hours. Not sure how long they were traveling, but with all of our police checkpoints that really delayed us, they actually kept up with us for hours if you can believe it!
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Kashgar is a fantastic place. One of my favorite places in China. I could roam the dark alleys of the Old City for days. There is always something interesting happening somewhere in the Old City. And the warm fresh bread everywhere....mmm.

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The famous Kashgar Market

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These dolls are very frightening...
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The Kashgar Livestock Market

I was up for a little adventure today and decided it was time to ride on a donkey pulled cart, so I asked a family on the side of the road if we could hitch a ride back to town with them. The dad really enjoyed showing me that his son didn't have any thumbs, which was a little strange and even though my dress was soaked in sheep slobber by the end of the ride, it was worth it! You don't get to ride on a donkey cart next to 2 sheep purchased at the livestock market with a Uigher family every day!
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Tashkurgan and Karakul (Black) Lake

Our side trip to Tashkurgan and Karakul Lake (both still in China), but very close to Afganastan and Pakistan. It wasn't a particularily long trip, but we saw a lot on the way there.
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Andrew was feeling particularly brave today and let this man shave his face with a knife in the middle of an animal and veggie market. Very brave...although he did put neosporin (disinfectant ointment) on his face afterwards...haha
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They call this mountain sandy mountain. it took our breath away when we came around the corner. The colors are so soft and the swirling of different tones was amazing. And even more amazing was the reflection in the lake.
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Lunch: you guessed it...mutton soup
I kept asking for more veggies as the mutton wasn't too appetizing, and our driver thought I was crazy because he said veggies are for poor people!
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Tashkurgan: Although we were very close to Kyrgystan, this was actually still in China. But most of the people who live here are Kyrgyz people. We spent some time at an old fort aptly named the "stone fort"...there were little pebble rocks everywhere and we are not sure where they came from. we also glanced at the Old mud villages...very dirty and dusty indeed.
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This is the only place probably in China that picks up poop with a shovel to keep the grass clean, and I bet you can guess who runs it...a Singaporean!
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On our way to Karakul lake, we asked our driver if we could stop and take a photo of the mountain next to us, and he said very casually in Chinese, "ok, how about we stop up ahead where the camels are." It couldn't have been more perfect!
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Karakul Lake: Looking back on the entire trip in China, this is still one of my favorite and most memorable places in China. The air is clean, the people are incredibly friendly, and the scenery is jaw dropping. Karakul means "black lake", and during the course of our 2 hour horseback ride around the lake, the color of the lake went from black, to the color of the sky and mountains as it was so calm the reflection was like a mirror, to a light blue, to a bright blue, to a greenish aqua, to a brilliant turquoise color. All the while we were surrounded by snowy mountains and it was hot and sunny.
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This might be one of the better toilet views in China
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To make it clear for you, the sign says, "The protection drinks upper stream to please and doesn't swim in pollute upper stream." Don't swim in the water would have been sufficient I think.
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Our guides didn't have enough horses for them to ride on, so when I wanted to run my guide jumped on the horse behind me and we took off in a run. It was very fun, and the experience was great because we spent most of the 2 hours talking in Chinese about his family's life in this place (he was one of the few people in Xinjiang that spoke fairly good Chinese). He told me about how they go into Kashgar to sell their sheep, how much they get for them, how much they get for the wool, living in the yurt in the summer by the lake and in the village in the winter where they have good schools, etc. All very interesting.
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The motorbike may be faster, but we are definitely cooler!!
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However, any time a car or a motorbike drove by us on the road, my horse went ballistic, so we had to take a detour, and due to that, we stopped at my guide's family's yurt where we were later invited to have lunch there, and I thankfully got this shot...
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We had lunch in the family's yurt, which was one of the more "local" experiences we have had on our trip. The wife made suoman, a chopped noodle dish in front of us. She fetched water from the lake next to the yurt, squatted the entire time bent over the large cutting board on the ground and made the noodles from scratch with flour and water, chopped all of the veggies, the husband collected dried dung for the heating the stove and she boiled the water and cooked the noodles in a pressure cooker (which nearly exploded and drenched our shoes in starchy water). At the same time she was trying to comfort her fussy baby boy.
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Back in Kashgar:
We had a great side trip, but we love Kashgar so much that it was nice being back. we relaxed at our Old City Youth Hostel (first pic below), ate lots of fresh bread straight out of the kiln, hung out at a famous old tea house where I clearly didn't belong as it was a boys thing to have bagels dipped in tea at the tea house on the balcony overlooking the main street in the Old City, and again wandered the little alleys of the Old City.
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The youngest girl in this photo was loving me, and the older girl was not interested at all which made for a very cute picture. I noticed a trend in China (and Mongolia), particularly in Xinjiang where the young girls up until around age 9 or 10 all have short hair.
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Urumqi
Urumqi is where the big riots were in July this year, so we were a little bit skeptical. It turned out to be fine. No one was protesting, people were friendly, and we had a very pleasant two days there (although like Kashgar, the army was everywhere including all of the markets (where apparently the riots happened). It is a big modern city, mostly Han Chinese live there and they are pushing the Uighers out which is very sad, but we still liked the city itself very much. the night market was particularly interesting. They served lots of kebabs so we made sure to get our fill of them before we left Xinjiang. we found out a few weeks after we left that while we were there people were getting stabbed with needles. Good thing it is a big city!
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This is very ironic. The government is promoting harmony...the minorities and the Han Chinese. They have these posters all over the city and I love the happy photo of the army people holding hands with the minority groups. Meanwhile they are trying to intimidate the locals and trying to show who is in charge because the city is covered with army and army trucks driving around just waiting for a Uigher to make one wrong move. The army is trained to kill and we even heard a story about a boy who threw a rock at them as they drove by and was shot to death. Even beyond the occassional violence, reconciliation will not be easy here - of course there are two sides to the story and both Uighers and Han feel that they are the only victims in this conflict.
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Note to self: If you want people in China to read what you have to say, don't post anything sensitive or "banned"

Hopefully our blog isn't blacklisted in China...

Posted by HT 31.10.2009 02:50 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

China Part 4 - The Desert

Gansu Province

sunny 35 °C

Gansu

Andrew had shared stories with me about the challenges of hard seat train rides in China, but as our first 2 and a half months had been quite comfortable and relaxing, nothing we had seen so far could have prepared me for this journey we took from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia to Lanzhou. While I knew it had to happen at some point, I was not looking forward to it. Upon arriving at Hohhot (after the 24hr train ride from Ulaan Bataar), we were told that our next 19 hour train ride had sold out of sleeper berths for two days, but decided to bite the bullet and take the hard seats as we couldn't afford to wait that long...the trip may have been bearable had tickets been sold on the basis of one seat per passenger - however, in addition to the 900 or so tickets with allocated seats, about the same number of standing tickets were sold, and this number seemed to increase at every stop with many more people cramming into the carriages now resembling sardine cans at bursting point. Those unfortunate people without seats were fighting with each other over any vacant seats (this includes half a butt cheek's space on the edge of yours that you might have left invitingly open for someone to squeeze into)...our nightmare deepened when we discovered that in the whole train, our window seemed to be the only one that was jammed tightly shut - not great with so many people in a confined space, half of whom are inevitably chain smokers...! During the 19 hour train ride, I went to the bathroom only once. Not because I didn't have to go, but after my first attempt of waiting over an hour (it took me 10 minutes to just walk through one train car), I decided not to drink anymore and to hold it as long as I could until we reached our destination. As you will see in the video, there were people sitting in the sinks outside of the bathroom, sleeping on top of each other on the floor, everyone was smoking, yelling, and sweating profusely (naturally with that many people crammed in). The lights stayed on all night, people were playing loud techno Chinese music on their mobile phones (oh, and did I mention smoking already?). We were fortunate that the majority of people cleared out of the train around 2:30 am, so we were able to half lay down on the hard seat for a few hours. As hard as it was, I kept thinking...thank god I am not standing in that chaos. As bad as it was (and very funny at times watching the locals-especially this guy with huge glasses that kept popping up over the seat to look at me), it remains the most memorable transportation journey on our trip. We arrived in Lanzhou in the early hours of the morning, before then awaking like zombies to views of mountains in the desert and caves inhabited by locals. Wait, was that a dream...no it was real! In this part of the world, some people still live in caves.

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Jiayuguan
The last month has seen us following the Great Wall west, and it has been interesting seeing the changes in construction techniques along the way. Naturally, as the west is mainly desert, the Great Wall out here is mud based as opposed to the grey bricks that most people have seen in Beijing and history says that as they moved east, they learned new techinques for building the wall and had access to more technological advances making the Wall more sophisticated as it was being built. This fort in Jiayuguan guarded the Silk Road and was very important in protecting this famous trade route. This fort is also one of earliest and the furthest western points of the Great Wall. As with most places in China these days, it was pretty touristy. With tourism, comes money. It cost an arm and a leg to get in, but there were quite a few activities inside such as camel riding, a dance show of armed guards, and shooting bow and arrows from the top of the fort which kept us busy for most of the day. We also spent a few hours riding tandem bike around the fort and visited an excellent museum. It was a nice stop on our way to the sand dunes of Dunhuang as we continued our "Journey to the West".

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This must be my favorite picture taken of a picture of two people posing, as the chinese do in China. Classic.
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Dunhuang
I have realized that with every great place we visit, I say it is my favorite place in China. Even though I now have many favorites, Dunhuang remains at the top of the list. It is a great place to relax for a few days, which is exactly what we did...much needed after the 19 hour train ride from hell. We stayed in a lovely courtyard guesthouse, and slept in a little log cabin, all of which was next to the massive sand dunes outside of town. We have been looking forward to Xinjiang particularily for their amazing kebabs and grilled naan bread, and we were very excited by the wonderful night market where we were able to fill up on lamb kebabs, fresh naan bread and local fresh draft RAW beer. Then we went for midnight foot massages...heaven!!

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Our big exciting adventure in Dunhuang was a 2 day camel trek through the sand dunes. Sitting on a camel is actually a little boring but staring out at the soft curves of the neverending sand dunes were mesmerizing. We reached our campsite around sunset on the first day and climbed up to the top of the highest sand dune in sight. Once we nearly reached the top, we noticed a sand storm coming, and the couple we were with told us a story about being stuck in a sand storm - it didn't sound pleasant - so we made a run for it down the dunes to the campsite. It was all very exciting, but once we reached the bottom, the storm had settled which was a good thing in the end because we still needed to set up our tents, and that definitely would not have been fun doing that in the middle of a sandstorm!

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Our lovely view of the sunrise from the top of the dune overlooking our campsite...
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One of the big touristy things to do in Dunhuang is to see the Oasis in the middle of the sand dunes. After the massive amount of entrance fees we have already paid out on this trip, it was frustrating to find out it costs 120 RMB per person (up from 30 RMB when Andrew was last there) just to look at an oasis and some sand dunes...And once you were inside, you have to pay for cars to drive you to the oasis and of course anything else you might want to do such as sand-boarding...China is no longer a cheap place to travel and the rate of inflation for tourists (ie in ticket prices, transport and accommodation) is massive compared to the cost of everyday goods, food etc many of which have barely changed!

We did however, hear from some other travellers that it was possible to still get into the dunes without paying by walking around the fence (I guess that was what the Chinese have been spending the entrance fees on...in a few years, the fence will probably extend around the whole desert to discourage cheapskates like us!). We only had to watch out for two "angry men" armed with megaphones whose job it was to guard the integrity of the fence...so we headed out and after seeing that the first guard wasn't there, we continued on. Suddenly, we saw the second one, who spoke to us in Chinese telling us to go no further...As we were not doing anything wrong by just walking along a fence, we ignored him (and conveniently forgot how to speak Chinese!), but he was very persistent and indeed, an angry man, who followed us all the way to the end of the fence screaming on his megaphone the entire time.

When we finally reached the end of the fence we were able to start heading into the sand dunes next to the oasis site and saw a group of about 20 other Chinese tourists already half-way up the sand dune doing the same thing! He then left us alone for a bit, but perhaps he just needed new batteries for his megaphone because he was soon back shouting at us and all the Chinese to "Come down now!". We continued up the dune (as did the others), and finally found our peace at the very top to enjoy a beautiful sunset. We didn't realize what the fuss was until we were about two-thirds of the way up the dune and saw the oasis in all of its glory...probably even a better view from there than the people who paid 120 RMB! It was so peaceful and had the temperature not dropped dramatically after the sun went down, I could have stayed there all night.

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The things we do for a photo...!
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We also went to a little movie set town, where they still apparently still film some movies based in some of the dynasty periods and had fun playing with all of the fake stuff.
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Last but not least, we also visited the famous 1000 Buddhist Mogao Caves in Dunhuang too, which were incredible. Since we weren't allowed to take photos inside the caves and couldn't get a good view of them outside, we took this picture inside the museum and also took a video of a replica cave inside the museum so you can get an idea of what it is like there. It was interesting moving from cave to cave looking at the differences over time with the ones built in the later dynasties were more intricate and the paintings very detailed. As you must visit the caves in a tour group, we joined the Chinese language group (which saved us RMB20 each) and meant we heard a lot of comments about the foreign raiders who stole many of China's treasures from these caves...! I wonder if the English groups would have been the same and, although not necessarily a justification for their actions, I do hate to think what would have happened to all of those undoubtedly valuable historical artefacts during the Cultural Revolution if they had been left in China!!
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This cracked me up all night long and the week to follow...
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Posted by HT 10.10.2009 05:04 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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