15.08.2009 - 19.08.2009 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!
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...
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!)...
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!