Sunday 12 to Monday 13 July 2009, Tongren, Qinghai
Definitely the wrong time to get to Lhasa. The students are on holiday and the Chinese Mafia have bought up all the tickets. We thought we had tickets for the 10th but when the agency went to pick them up, the tickets had gone. And this was for hard seats not even hard sleeper! At least we were all finally together. Joan arrived on Tuesday and Rob and Rachael on Thursday. The agency tried every day for the next few days but could not get tickets until Monday which was too late for the other 3. We gave it until lunchtime on Sunday, just in case, and when no tickets materialised we headed out anyway. I was more than ready to go after almost 3 weeks in Xining.
The road went through fantastic red, orange, grey and black mountains. Along a river of course. It made for fantastic scenery. I wished I was in a car so I could stop. The photos still would not have been good though as it was raining and misty.
Rob and Rachael were on a very tight schedule and left on Monday. Joan and I stayed an extra night to see Wutun monastery, famous for its Thankas painted by both monks and lay people. We caught a minibus to the monastery expecting to see the monks at work. No such luck. Visitors are no longer allowed in that area it seems and the monastery itself was similar to all the others. They did have a shop and one monk working on a Thanka. There was a river nearby and we walked down and had lunch in a shady grove.
After lunch we headed towards the road but were hailed by a local lad, Tashi. He invited us in to his home to show us the Thanka he was busy painting with his brother. It was a huge Thanka and by the time they have finished it will have taken them 2 years to complete. The work is very fine. Each square inch has hundreds of brush strokes with a very small brush - no broad strokes here. His father had just bought 2 700 year old Thankas from a monastery in town. The Abbot is raising money for repairs by selling old works. They were in excellent condition for their age.
We then walked back into town, about 6 kilometers. It was a pleasant walk, although rather hot.
Tuesday 14 to Wednesday 15 July 2009, Xiahe, Gansu (elevation 2920m)
We were not worried about getting to Xiahe because we had booked the tickets yesterday. That is until we arrived at the bus station and discovered they were for Xining! It was now too late for the 1 bus each day to Xiahe. Our choices were to stay another day or hire a car to take us through. Neither of us wanted to stay so we went for the second option, making very sure the driver knew where we wanted to go. Once again we drove through red coloured hills and green grasslands with an overcast sky. And of course nomads with shearing in full swing. The sheep were very patient, just lying there while they were sheared. This time we could ask the driver to stop so we could take photos.
Xiahe has one of the 6 important Buddhist monasteries, Labrang founded in 1709. It has 6 colleges covering Philosophy (esoteric Bhuddism), Theology, Medicine, Law, Astrology (including the calendar) and Sanskrit. It is a huge maze of temples and living quarters. Monks could be seen working, chanting and walking around. We had to go on a tour to enter the temples. Our guide was a monk with good English. He has been a monk for 20 years and must have started when he was 10 or 15. Monks study their chosen field for over 20 years! The medical students become doctors ministering to the sick in Tibetan communities. This time we actually saw butter sculptures. The detail is amazing. The sculptures are made by the monks for New Year. They are then kept for a year before being destroyed and replaced by new ones. And there was a printing house. Basically the same as Dege but with monks doing the work. There seems to be several colours used in the clothing. I assume it represents the different schools.
There is a special atmosphere that drew me in and made me feel very peaceful. We were there when the monks prayed before lunch. They slowly gathered outside the main Hall. The first few sat on the steps and started chanting. Others joined them. Still others sat a little way away and started a different chant which was a pity as it became noise instead of beautiful chanting. Eventually the older monks came in their thick cloaks - in the heat! Finally the conch was blown and the monks started trooping in to the hall followed by two senior monks with bright bands hanging down their backs. Everyone had a "yellow" hat and most had Tibetan style shoes which they took off. The shoes were very similar so I hope they all remembered where they left them.
The kora path around the monastery is quite long with pilgrims completing it several times in succession. Certainly one way to keep fit.
Thursday 16 to Friday 17 July, Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan
Once again we hired a car. This time with 2 Danish girls, Tanja and Ea. It takes 3 or 4 days (depending on who you talk to) to travel by bus from Xiahe to Juizhaigou because there is no direct bus. You have to go to Langmusi, Zoige, Songpan then Juizhaigou. Each is about half a day and you arrive in town too late to catch a connecting bus. The solution is to do the trip in one day by car. It is a long day, 11 hours, but with Joan's time constraints it was the best solution. The driver decided against the highway as this is longer and went via the scenic route through narrow river valleys and over a high pass in the Juizhaigou Mountains. The scenery was magnificent except for the land slides covering half the road at times. Until we came to a complete blockage! There was no way even a 4x4 could go over except with a very good driver, maybe. We had to turn back. 3 hours back to the highway! The driver suggested we phone God. I guess someone did because only a few kilometers back we came to a farm road that went on the other side of the river. Eventually the main road came down to the river to meet us so we did not waste a lot of time.
The park has many lakes with coloured water. Lakes are found under 2,000 m to over 3,000 m. Suzheng Lakes consists of 19 pools cascading down a slope. Trees grow in fertile pockets of calcium in the waterways creating the lakes. And of course there is a waterfall. Originally farmers lived in the park and used the river to turn their grinding wheels. Now they no longer cultivate the soil but work for the park. The mountains are covered with a mixed coniferous and broad leafed forest consisting of spruces, firs, birches, maples and oaks. They would make a lovely show in autumn. Tiger Lake had small fish, Long Lake is the highest and Colorful Lake the most spectacular. I did not see as much as I would have liked because it was raining (ruffling the surface of the water) and I had a bad cold. I went back early to rest while Joan continued to explore.
Saturday 18 to Saturday 25 July 2009, Chengdu, Sichuan
The bus journey was tiring because we had to stop all the time for road works,once for over 40 minutes. We stopped for toilet and snack breaks as well. The driver has his favourite lunch spot but when we arrived few people ate there as it was already 3:00pm and everyone had bought instant noodles for lunch hours ago. The road works are partly due to the earthquake just over a year ago but also to road improvements. We must have gone near the epicentre. Many people are still living in temporary accommodation made of iron, plastic and cardboard or tent. However there are also many new buildings and lots of construction. There were 5 million made homeless by the earthquake - a lot of people to build houses for. It will take a lot longer than a year to complete. You could see the remains of bridges and the old road across the river which along with houses was almost completely buried in landslides. The devastation is obvious as is the effort put in so far and the amount of work still to be done.
The weather in Chengdu is atrocious. It is hot, humid, misty and rainy. The pollution is so bad you can't see further than a few blocks. The first thing I did was buy a pair of shorts with pockets as long trousers are too hot and gave me a heat rash. The next few days were spent tending my cold, reading books, watching all 3 "Mummy" movies, writing up the website and deciding how to go to Hong Kong before my visa expires.
I did "do" some tourist sites.
The Panda Reserve has been rebuilt after the earthqauke. It is now in a suburb of Chengdu and not at Wolong which is still devastated. They look very cuddly and are basically inactive due to the lack of nutrition in bamboo leaves. Rather like Koalas in Australia and their eucalyptus leaves. The young ones are active though with trees to climb and swings to play on. Their antics got some laughs from the horde of tourists. One fellow climbed a tree only to fall down almost 2 meters and without any noticeable effect. He/she did not climb up again though. I watched a video which included first time mother. The mother did not know what to do with the squalling infant and swatted her baby poor thing. The keepers took it away for hand rearing. Apparently they do much better with the second one and rear it on their own. For such large creatures the babies are as small as mice and not fully developed. The setting is lovely. Lots of trees in the large pens, so the Pandas have plenty of space. The bamboo is placed in an area near the fence once a day for visitors to view. The Pandas disappear further into the pen after they have eaten. The red pandas are more active and smaller.
Yes the Buddha statues in Leshan is a BIG Buddha. It is the largest Buddha in the world since the ones in Afghanistan were demolished. He is 71m high, his ears are 7m long and his big toe 8.5m long. And he needs his toe nails trimmed. There are 2020 knots on his head and water channels to prevent weather damage. In 713 CE a monk named Haitong started the project to calm the turbulence in the river confluence of the Dadu, Ming and Qingyi rivers which claimed many lives. The rubble from the carving went into the river and changed the configuration of the river bed thus calming the waters. Naturally Buddha received the credit. The crowds are large with a queue to go down the steps beside the Buddha. Of course there is a small stall to provide drinks and ice cream for those waiting! There are many other attractions in the scenic area. Gardens, a tower, temples, tomb caves, a fishing village specializing in restaurants and souvenirs and a cave where Haitong is supposed to have lived while carving the Buddha.
The Sanxingdui Museum contain artefacts from the Kingdom of Shu (from 2200 BCE to 1100 BCE i.e. the late Neolithic period) considered the cradle of civilisation in the upper Yangtse River. The population of the city had ties with the east coast settlements of the same period, almost 3,000 kilometres away. The city died around 1100 BCE. Finds indicate that the capital moved 40k south to Chengdu. The artefacts come from 2 burial pits indicating a rich religious culture.
The people had an extensive bronze culture. The bronze contains various mixtures of copper with tin and/or lead. Clay moulds, several pours and casting on were all used. Complicated techniques such as pre-casting, rivet-casting and embedded casting were employed. There are bronze cowrie shells, perhaps the first metal currency as well as masks and other ornaments. The bronze masks have big eyes and ears to see and hear everything. The Cancong, ancestors of the Shu, had protruding eyes - ancestor worshipperhaps.
They used gold (85% gold with silver) to cover wooden objects. The artefacts are large and some are similar to those in the near east indicating ties with other parts of Asia. They used lots of Jade which is hard and therefore difficult to work,. It was cut with rotary blades or saws. The jade was then shaped using sawing, grinding, drilling, polishing and incising. Whetstones were also used.
Elephant tusks were found which could be either local or imported. Lacquer ware was made and sold over a large area. All in all an advanced culture 4,000 years ago.
Sunday 26 July 2009, overnight train
The train had no air conditioning, I guess there is a first time for everything. It was hot and steamy!!!! Everyone quietly melted into small puddles even though the windows were open (when it wasn't raining) and the fans were going. There was little chatter among the passengers, perhaps they were all too enervated by the sticky heat. I felt very grubby by the end of the journey.
Monday 27 July 2009, Guilin, Guangxi
I arrived at night after 26 hours in that train. Had a lovely shower, a meal and went to bed. It rained all night and was still raining next day. Wonderful!
Tuesday 28 to Wednesday 29 July 2009, PingAn, Guangxi
I decided the weather could not be any worse at PingAn went there anyway on the assumption it would be a nicer place to sit around at. At least it was not raining at PingAn when I arrived. My bag was taken up in a basket on the a woman's back. She turned out to be the mother of 3 daughters who ran the hotel. They lived with the father, grandmother, grandfather and great uncle. The hotel was quite expensive but they had an annexe (where the family lived) with dorm beds. I managed to get lost walking around village as there are only pedestrian paths going around houses built into the hillside. Luckily I met the mother who showed me the way back. Naturally I did not know the name of the hotel. The village was full of Dutch and Belgium people with only a smattering of other westerners. Different - usually there are a majority of French travellers.
Apparently the hills are only 800m above sea level, not high at all, but high enough when carrying a load. It cleared a bit the next morning so I walked around to both viewpoints. The view points have great names, '9 dragons and 5 tigers' (No. 1 view) and '7 stars accompanying moon' (2nd viewpoint). The view was magnificent. In the afternoon the clouds came back and it rained. Because I had to walk through the family living area to get in and out they invited me to join them for dinner. I was surprised at how little there was on the table compared to portions in restaurants. It was more then enough though for the 9 of us. The Grandparents and Great Uncle ate very little though. The meal was a mixture of pork, beef, fish. noodles, rice, aubergine, potato and another root vegetable. Very tasty.
I went for another walk next morning and once again it cleared after a while. and again the views were fantastic. I looked through a book of photos and most of them had clouds, guess misty weather is the norm here.
Naturally there are hawkers with the usual souvenirs, dresses for rent, photographers to take the photo, locals dressed up to pose with you, ice-cream and drinks. Some of the women have very long thick hair, to the knees. They will let it down for a price.
I decided to return to Guilin so I would have a place to hang out on Friday without traipsing around with luggage. I carried my own luggage down by using the straps to make a back pack and placing the small backpack on my front. I looked like a real backpacker! I was glad the trip was short though.
Thursday 30 July 2009, Guilin, Guangxi
Not much to report. No rain is the most important (non) event.
Friday 31 July 2009, overnight train
There was air-conditioning thank heavens. The train left late so everyone settled down to sleep straight away without the usual loud conversations.
Saturday 1 to Tuesday 4 August 2009, Guangzhou, Guangdong - Canton to some people
The train arrived early so I did not have breakfast on the train. I didn't see anyone coming around either although I am sure I saw a Pantry Car. Anyway this meant that I needed breakfast after I booked in. I am staying on Shamian Island, the old Foreign Quarter of Canton. It was acquired by the British and French in 1859 after the second Opium War. Originally a sandbank it is now completely developed - no hint of sand anymore except at low tide. The walk to breakfast / early lunch was a pleasure. I had to pass through streets of medicine sellers and pet shops. Chinese medicine consists of the usual dried roots, fungus, flowers (rose, carnation, chrysanthemum among others), ginger, bark and mushroom. I was surprised to see dried seahorse, snake, starfish and lizard (good for sore throats). Pets ranged through cats, dogs, a variety of birds including Mynars, lizards, mice, hamsters, rabbits, squirrels, tortoises and a variety of fish. A snooze completed the day.
The Orchid Garden was not very interesting because only a few orchards are flowering. Even so it was a quiet stroll in the midst of the city. I followed this up with the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King. The Mausoleum houses the tomb of Zhan Mo, the 2nd Nanyue King. The kingdom lasted 93 years from 208 to 111 BCE, not very long. Not unexpected really as it was declared by Zhuo Tuo when he was sent to the area by the Qin to quell an uprising. His descendants did not rule well and the Han (who had replaced the Qin in the meantime) took the territory back. The Museum has been built near the actual tomb which was found when developers were building a shopping mall. It had not been disturbed so archaeologists have all the contents to examine. You can go through the tomb itself. The exhibits all come from the tomb and they show a very rich man who had 4 concubines and many slaves, 11 of whom died with him. They also show a sophisticated society. The body was covered in jade tiles to prevent it from decomposing. Unfortunately this method of preservation does not work. I guess the 'scientists' of the day did not exhume bodies to check their assumption.
Yueshiu Park is close by. It is a large area where people go to meander around, picnic, sing, play musical instruments and have fun. I spent some time wandering around and resting when I felt like a puddle of water. It is HOT and HUMID here. There are statues and memorials (i.e. to Sun Yat Sen). The most interesting is the one to the 5 immortals whom, legend has it, came down from the sky on 5 Rams and turned the barren land into the fertile land you see today. Late in the afternoon I sat and listened to people singing and watched others playing cards.
Kaiping is about 2 hours southwest of Guangzhou and home to diaolou. These are only found in this area and are basically fortress like dwellings. They were built by returning Chinese of concrete in the early 20th century as protection against floods and bandits. They did not work against the Japanese invaders though. They are designed around various European architectural styles. It was a fantastic outing. Mainly because of a taxi bike owner. He saw me walking along the road from the bus stop and wanting a fare stopped. We bargained about the price of a ride which did come down a bit and off we went. Except the price kept changing. What with my lack of Chinese, his lack of English, and his happy-go-lucky attitude this became hilarious. Once we arrived at one of the concentrations of diaolou he just rode through the gate like a naughty little boy. He had 'explained before hand that he would do this for a small price but I would not pay an entrance fee. I accepted the offer. We then went around looking at the towers but not entering any and climbing stairs - not a big loss in the heat. He did ask if I could go up even so. He was obviously well known in the village and joked with everyone including the officials. They all must have known of his little bit of free enterprise. Even though there is an entrance fee the village is still a working village with rice planting in progress. Here they throw the rice into the ground like a spear avoiding back-breaking labour - very clever.
Wednesday 5 to Friday 7 August 2009, Hong Kong
Hong Kong is many things. A cosmopolitan city with people of every race living side by side, a city of shops and restaurants, of modern high-rise buildings and the occasional village house, a territory with many small towns all with tall apartment blocks, a place to walk through forests, a place to swim to name a few. I saw or did all of these.
It is easy to get from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, a matter of catching a train, walking through the border and catching the metro, first buying an 'Octopus' card. This card can be used for all public transport and in 7/11 shops. It is basically a cash card. I did see one innovation. A man used his watch as a card to buy goodies at the 7/11! I assume the watch has a chip in it. Hong Kong is expensive so I chose the cheapest option available in the LP. A small hostel in a town in the New Territories. To get to the town was easy. Following the LP directions I headed up the hill using the stairs. On and on and on carrying my luggage. Eventually I saw another human being and asked the way. Further up, this time with help which I sorely needed. Eventually we arrived at the top and I headed across the hill on my own. And could not find the hostel! I found a sign saying it was back the way I had come instead - up lots of stairs!!! So I sat down on a step under my umbrella (did I mention it was raining?) and contemplated my options. Along came a westerner who knew where the hostel was. He went off to check if they had a bed and found the hostel locked up. I had just spent almost 2 hours climbing up and down stairs in the rain with my luggage. This news was not good so I decided to head for the next cheapest option on Lantau Island. By the time I arrived at the bottom of the cable car it was getting on for 6:00pm so I rang them. They did not answer the phone. Since they were also up lots of stairs I did not want to go unless there was definitely a bed. I was very tired of stairs by this time! The last option was Kowloon and pay the price. Luckily I met a couple who had the latest LP and discovered there were dorm beds on the 13th floor in Mirador Mansions in Kowloon. I rang them and they had beds free. Off I went feeling quite energised. The dorm is actually the corridor to the laundry room and has the PCs in it as well as hard beds, freezing air conditioning and no blankets. Not the best of places but cheap. The first night everyone in the dorm froze. I moved away from the aircon and made a cave of pillows. In the morning we asked that they not turn the aircon on again. The staff had the controls and left it off during the day! It was much more pleasant with a sheet and fans.
Next day I went on a tour of Hong Kong Island. It was raining and misty so I started with a bus journey to Stanley and a walk through the market. This definitely for tourist and I did buy a very cheap pair of shorts, ear-rings and a new top. On to Aberdeen past some lovely sea-shore scenery, to see the working ships, few of which are junks. Naturally there are very expensive leisure yachts as well. Lastly to Victoria Peak, up be tram, down by bus. By this time the rain had stopped and you could see something of Hong Kong and Kowloon.
The last day was spent on Lamma Island walking through the trees and shrubs. There are 3 methods of transport on the island, foot, small tractor for work and bicycles. The paths are just wide enough to take a tractor and a person standing to the side. Hong Kong Island is only a short distance away across the water. The beaches had shark nets and lifeguards. I met Annja from South Africa and we had a long chat over herbal tea about our travel experiences. She is a science teacher in England and was over on holidays.
This was enough for me. I had not yet decided where to head next - so went back to Guaqngzhou with my next 3 months visa.
Saturday 9 to Friday 14 August 2009, Guangzhou, Guangdong - Canton to some people
Back to the same hostel which was much nicer than in Hong Kong and the same price. Gaby, from Israel, was sharing the same dorm. We teamed up and decided to catch the ferry across the river and stroll through the streets there. Naturally we got lost and could not find the ferry. What fun! We wandered through a fish market where every type of sea creature is sold. There were actually very few standard fish i.e. the type with fins. Most were shell fish of every type you can imagine, along with eels, sea snakes and turtles. Frogs were also available. Eventually we did find the ferry and went across the river (for .5 Yuan!). This was not half so interesting though.
A pleasant half day was spent walking around White Cloud Hills going up in the cable car and walking slowly down. Legends about the hill are many. The one I liked best is about Emperor Yingzheng of the Qin Dynasty (221 to 207 BCE). He was told by a Feng Shui expert that the ridge between Balyun Mountain and Yuexiu Mountain was inauspicious, a dragon vein for the entire country, and in the future an extraordinary person would be born. The Emperor was fearful of this person to be and ordered the ridge removed. It duly was and the area became known as the saddle. Ah the power of Emperors!
My 'dim sum' breakfast was a wonderful experience. Dim Sum is a specialty in Guangzhou and is basically wrapped food. The restaurant I went to (TaoTaoJin) is up market. Everyone is given a pot of tea when they sit down. The pot is small and the chosen tea is put in the pot, hot water poured over the leaves, a cup of tea poured out and used to wash the spoon, chopsticks and cup. This tea is then thrown into a waste basin and a new cup poured. You then chose the dim sum you wish to eat. There was quite a range of choices. I had small prawn cups and rice steamed in a banana leaf (not sticky rice which usually comes this way). It was fun to watch the other diners and drink endless cups of tea.
My time was spent mainly on arranging the next part of the trip. after deciding where I wanted to go I had to buy the ticket. One day was spent trying to buy a train ticket. The queue was exceptionally long and when I finally could be served I discovered I had 2 choices, stand for 9 hours during the day or sleep on the train and arrive at 3:00 am. Neither suited so I decided to look at buses. I went to the nearby long distance bus station but they did not service Yongding. It was too late to do any more that day. I asked reception which bus station to go to. They did not know, nor did they know how to find out! Another day I went to another long distance bus station. This time they were able to tell me which bus station to go to. Way in the south, far from a metro station and difficult to get to. Off I went only to discover that the bus left at 7:30am to a nearby town and cost the same as a sleeper. What to do? In the end I decided to go by sleeper train and snooze at Yongding station until I could book into a hotel. Back to the metro to the correct long distance train station, there are two. This whole affair took 5 hours! But at least I had the ticket.
I also had to sort out income tax, hopefully for the last time this year, and organise a new carnet for the car. It will be sent to Shanghai where I will pick it up. The Blue Mountain Y H has promised to keep it for me.
Saturday 15 August 2009, overnight train
Not much to say
Sunday 16 August 2009, Hukeng Folk-Culture Custom Village, Fujian
The train duly arrived at 2:30am, on time unfortunately. I bedded down in the ticket office on the wonderfully cool cement floor for almost 2 hours. The ticket office opened for a short while and I purchased the onward ticket leaving at 4:50am on Tuesday and standing only! Then gathered my bags and headed for the bus station hoping to catch a bus at about 6:00am. I was approached by an agent whose family owned a Tulou which they had turned into a hotel. The price was similar to the tulou I was headed for so I agreed to go with. There were 2 Australians as well, Katerina and Peter. It took almost an hour to arrive at the Tulou. Unfortunately the dawn was not spectacular. I was hoping it would put on a real show to celebrate my being awake at such an ungodly hour. Pity.
Several generations of the family also live in the tulou which is on the tourist circuit. The tulou has all the mod-cons, electricity, running water, wifi, TV, hot showers, flush toilets. The showers are communal and the toilets are outside the tulou walls but they are spic and span. It is 129 years old and has been lived in for 6 generations. That makes the average for having children 21, quite young. The 3 of us went straight to sleep and woke up several hours later. Breakfast was included, noodles with meat and a fried egg. Naturally the tulou provided other services such as a driver and car to see tulou in other villages. With 3 of us it was a reasonable deal.
A tulou is made of rammed earth or mud bricks made from earth, water and glutinous rice reinforced with bamboo strips and wood chips. The design is according to Feng Shui principals and is usually a circle of earthen wall with rooms on the inside made of wood. All the rooms lead off a veranda so you always have to go outside to go to another room. The windows have wooden bars and originally no glass! Now some have glass, others mosquito netting and all have curtains. There is always an ancestral hall and at least one well in the centre. The kitchen for each family is on the ground floor. Cooking is often done outside the kitchen, although the smoke on the outside walls indicate that it is done inside in winter. Toilets are built outside the house. It must be very cold to move about in in winter! The tulou were built for protection and to house entire clans of the Hakka tribe in one building. Many families have moved into more modern buildings so now the Tulou have been opened for tourism.
Our tour took in Tianluokeng, Xiaban and Gaobai Villages. There are many variations in each tulou, some are oblong. square, oval and of course round. Some are maintained well, others not. A tulou at Tianluokeng village was built in the mid 1300s CE. However it was destroyed during the war (1930) and rebuilt. The others all date from the mid 1900s. The buildings belong to various Huang Clan members. The members of the Wenchang Luo were busy building a colourful paper building display, presumably for a ceremony involving the ancestors.
Yuchang Tulou in Xiaban Village is the oldest tulou still standing. It was originally built between 308 and 338 CE by 5 clans. The Lui clan gradually took over as they increased in numbers. With 270 rooms there were a lot of people. We tasted the local Oolong tea here. I bought some to drink on train journeys.
I did not go into the tulou at Gaobai - too many already! The largest, Chengqi Lou has 4 circles and over 400 rooms. Over 1,000 people lived here at one stage. I did manage to peak in. It is claustrophobic the rings are so close together. Glad I didn't have to live there. Before leaving we were taken up a hill to look over the village by a young woman I had been chatting with while waiting for the others. Interesting view and we would never have found this on our own.
All in all it was an interesting day. For dinner we shared mountain vegetables and fried small fish. Delicious.
Next morning we saw Hukeng, the village where we were staying in Fuyu Lou. The tulou here are all owned by the Lin clan. The best is Zhencheng Lou. It was built in 1912 and has two concentric circles. The inside area is divided into courtyards by cement brick walls so each family has some privacy even though there are arches in the walls. Like Chengqi Lou it had its own school. Then for me off to Yongding to find a hotel for most of the night.
Monday 17 August 2009, Yongding, Fujian
When I arrived I took a motor rickshaw to the train station to orientate myself (it was actually just down the street) then asked the driver to find me a hotel. The first 2 were expensive and by now the driver knew my price range and found me a hotel near the bus station but still within walking distance of the train station. Yongding centre is not that big.
Tuesday 18 August 2009, Fuzhou, Fujian
It was a quiet walk to the train station and the train arrived on time as expected. I was not sure of the protocol if you were standing so I sat on my bags in the aisle. Soon I was invited to use a vacant seat. Perfect. Actually I don't think anyone had designated seats. People were constantly getting on and off and there were always spare seats. Any one standing was doing so out of choice - to have a rest from sitting. All in all a pleasant experience. Tales from other travellers indicate this is not always so. By the time I arrived and found a hotel it was too late to do anything about onward travel.
Next morning I went to find CTS (China Travel Services) but the building they had been in is being renovated and they were no longer there. I did find a travel agent who runs tours to Taimu Shan over the weekend. I did not want to wait so long though. They told me where I could catch a bus to Qinyu, the nearby town. It goes at 10:30 and 16:30. It was already too late for 10:30 so I bought a ticket for 16:30 knowing I would arrive after dark. Things have been going so smoothly I decided they would continue to do so and wasn't worried.
Wednesday 19 to Thursday 20 August 2009, Qinyu, Fujian
Once again I took a motor rickshaw from where the bus dropped me off to a hotel - all of 8 buildings away! Now really that is lazy! A lovely hotel where one of the daughters could speak some English, probably the only English speaker in town. She showed me where the bus station was the next day and put me on the bus to Taimu Mountain. After breakfast naturally. Breakfast was great. Noodles with prawns and small shellfish, not surprising as Qinyu is by the sea.
Taimu Shan was everything I expected. It has large rocks piled on top of each other similar to Chinese mountain paintings. The only thing missing was the mist to give that special atmosphere. Usually I don't want mist and I get it. Now when I want it the skies are clear. There are also 'caves' or more correctly narrow splits in the rocks which you can go through. Fat people not allowed. One was so narrow the cowboy hat on the man in front did not fit through! These caves and rocks have fanciful names like "Gleam of Sky" for the narrow cave. They are being named all the time. My favourite is a modern name, "Screen Stone", it even has a remote and a stock report showing. There are also temples dotted around and in one cave there was tea for sale - after drinking several minute cups to taste it naturally. As usual it is the people who add to the pleasure of a place. The tour groups stayed together and all the individual tourists formed a loose group, laughing when going through the caves and helping each other find the way. Even though there are signs everywhere in English and Chinese, they only point to the next attraction or the parking lot, so if you don't know all the interim attractions you can't get to the one you want. E.g. I had expected to see 9 Carp Peak but never managed to get there. One of the people I walked with was a typical Chinese female tourist. She had a satin dress, stockings, very high heels, matching hat and umbrella - very elegant and only possible because the paths are paved. She insisted that I share her umbrella because the sun was so hot. I was grateful for it, having left my umbrella at Yongding train station. Most people had sopping wet tops from perspiration. And I thought it might be cold on the mountain!
One of the less used paths goes through a house! I was sure we were on the wrong path but one of my companions checked with the owner of the house before we actually went through. Goodness me! Another little visited place is an operational Tao temple. The nuns, monks and some of the congregation were peeling bamboo to get at the delicate shoots. I sat to rest and cool off while watching them and doing my bit to help - much slower than they worked. Raw bamboo shoots taste quite good. When I took the photo of the nun cutting the shoots I was told I was a naughty girl. She liked the photo though.
FYI: The shapes are formed by spheroid weathering of fractures, mostly water, to form bullions from the miarolite rock. At least that is what the signs say.
Friday 21 to Sunday 23 August 2009, Wuyuan, Jiangxi
The bus from Qinyu to Wenzhou left early and arrived in time to catch the bus to Wuyuan albeit with a long taxi ride between bus stations. I found a hotel easily. While walking towards the hotel in the LP I was asked if I was looking for a bed. It was the same price and a lovely room. Once again everything goes smoothly.
The reason to come here is to see Huizhou houses. I duly went to the first village only to discover the entrance fee was 9 times what I expected (Y185 not Y20). In fact I did not have enough cash on me to pay. The price includes entrance into many surrounding villages, a raft trip along the river and other attractions most of which I would not be seeing anyway. It is also valid for 5 days to allow you to get your money's worth. In the end I wandered around the alleys outside and sat by the river for a while. All very peaceful. The trip in the local bus was ?bucolic? If that is the right word for it. You had better not be in a hurry. The bus only leaves when full. It actually drove out of the bus station around and back in to pick up more passengers. Along the way the driver stopped to fill up with diesel and later to have the steering fixed. On the return journey he stopped again for about 20 minutes for some unknown reason. By coincidence it was the same bus. Then he drove down a side road to a small village to drop granny and grandson at their front door. Great service for her. I noticed the conductor did not accept payment for the fare from her either. Must be a relation.
Breakfast was taken at the local market. Stalls are set up from about 6:00am to noon selling all types of breakfast - noodles, jiaozi (steamed dumplings), baozi (stuffed steamed buns), various types of filled fried dough and noodle dough rolled flat, covered with a spicy mixture, cut up and put in a clear soup. I had jiaozi in a soup with tiny shrimps the length of my little finger nail. Tasteless really but I guess added protein.
Buying the bus ticket to Tunxi was a breeze.
Monday 24 to Wednesday 26 August 2009, Tunxi, Anhui
I am getting blasť about pretty scenery. The journey to Tunxi took about 2 hours. It is across a mountain on the other side, not far as the crow flies, through a narrow river gorge. China has a lot of similar scenery. In some countries it would have the WOW! factor but I have seen it so often I am no longer impressed.
Tunxi is a nice town (only 1.5 million people, small for China). It is another town with Huizhou architecture, built by the Hui people. There is an old section of town which I walked through during the afternoon. Included is a private home which has been opened to the public, Wancuilou Museum, literally 10,000 Treasure Museum. The owner Mr He has been collecting Huizhou antiques for 15 odd years. He built the house to use many of the lintels and archways and display the furniture. The antiques are mainly from the Ming and Qing dynasties - 1500 on. There are some Bhuddist statues dating from BCE though. I was given a tour during which I met Mr He, his son and Zheng, Mr He's daughter-in-law. The son and daughter-in-law both speak excellent English and we had a nice chat. Zheng then continued the tour with me. Naturally she was much better than the previous guide because her English is so good and she gave many more details which I like. Each house had a circular table which can be split in half on the ground floor. If the table is split and placed apart, the owner is not home and visitors do not enter. If the table is presented as a round table, the owner is at home. This implies the front door was left open most of the time. Women were not supposed to meet with strange men so a woman's couch was developed. It has an armrest at only one end. She could lie behind a screen and peak around to look and hear what was going on.
Huizhou architecture is really about the inside of the house. The outside is usually plain although some houses have wood or stone carvings. The inside has many more wood, stone and brick carvings. There were some beautiful examples in the museum. One lintel is in the form of the Chinese character for business. Object-dart is also set out to symbolize particular meanings such as "All your life (a clock) be peaceful (a vase) and quiet (a mirror)". The other feature is to have many wall hangings or carvings with various Chinese sayings and philosophies. Mr He is a noted calligrapher and written some himself. One incorporates the names of his mother and father in a poem. This is quite an art and younger people no longer have the skill to do this.
I also went to one of the villages, Hongcun. I chose this based on the recommendations in the Thorn Tree Forum. On the way the bus passed another village, Xidi, and it looked similar. Hongcun was started in about 1300 CE and is supposed to have been built in the shape of a buffalo but for the life of me I just cannot see it. Two trees represent the horns and a hill the head, they are not even near each other. The four legs (bridges) come out of the chest. The waterways designed to provide fresh water to the households are the intestines. Some-one has a lot of imagination. It was pleasant to walk around the village and into some of the houses to look at the wood, stone and brick carvings. The Green Garden has been turned into a hotel although the family still lives there. It has a tower which catches the cool breeze, a lovely place to sit in the heat of summer.
Back at the hostel Marta and Fabio arrived and I had some good English speaking company for dinner. I was really missing this.
Thursday 27 to Sunday 30 August 2009, Hangzhou, Zhejiang
The main attraction is West Lake which has been eulogized since the 12th century. I spent a day walking around the Lake. It has all the attractions of other large parks in abundance. A musical fountain, people dancing for pleasure and singing for money, boat trips, bicycles for hire, photos in costumes, souvenirs, coffee bars, restaurants, snack shops, bridges, statues, pagodas, shade trees and gardens. I watched one mother hold her child to go to the toilet. She cleaned the mess and threw the paper etc into the bushes. Another mother had a different idea. First some newspaper was put on the ground, the child held over it and in front an open umbrella for privacy. Much better.
My walk included climbing up the hill in the Yellow Dragon Cave Park. It is quite a stiff climb. And what do you find at the very top? People playing cards.
The weather cooled. This means no-one was melting into puddles but shorts and sleeveless tops were still appropriate. The haze (pollution?) continued though.
Next time I walked to another section of the Lake and visited the Silk Museum. This was fascinating. The exhibition covered the history of silk, the various techniques employed, the different weaves and the cultural mores surrounding silk. Silk production started in China in about 3,000 BCE! At that time they cut the cocoon in half, ate the grub and unwound the silk. The weave was a very simple one called tabby. The Chinese have found a piece of silk cloth from 3,000 BCE. The design detail on some of the tie dyed cloth is very small. It must have taken hours to prepare. I am continually amazed at the relative sophistication of early Chinese culture.
The last day I visited Wuzhen, a water town. Water towns sprang up along the Grand Canal to facilitate trade and the transport of goods. The towns have many canals and houses are built along these, as in Venice. The town was set up for tourists with many, many shops selling the usual tourist tat plus silk clothing. I did not buy any as I do not know enough about silk to be sure that is what I am buying. In any case the colours did not suit me. There are many 'museums' as well, entrance included in the main ticket. The three best were the Bed Museum with all the old beds some almost like portable rooms with vestibules and very ornate decoration. The Gongsheng Grains Workshop which makes rice wine. I tried some. It tastes a bit like whiskey and is very potent. A small thimble full had me feeling slightly tipsy for about half an hour. Last the Huiyuan Pawn House. The counter is 2 meters high so the customers are way below the pawn brokers, who stand on steps, very definitely showing the differing status of the people. It does have a Dickensian feel to it.
Monday 31 August to Sunday 6 September 2009, Shanghai
I was not feeling very well so relaxed for a day then spent most of the next day sending my deposit to Bill for the trip to Tibet and buying the train ticket to Xining. Why did it take so long? Well to transfer cash from 1 province to another requires an identity document. Why? It is after all Chinese money being put into a Chinese Bank. Anyway I do not carry my passport when walking around cities. It is safer back at the hostel. Of course going back and forward takes time. Then it takes time to get to the main railway station, find the ticket office, queue to buy the ticket and then suss out where the entrance is and the easiest way to get there without lugging my baggage up and down steps. Yes I know the entrance should be obvious. You have not been to Shanghai where the ticket office is in a different place to the train station and the entrance is in a pedestrianied street. No big queues of taxis and touts.
Then it was off to the Bund. What a disappointment. The street on the water front is being reconstructed to allow an underground road and a surface road. Presumably it will then handle double the volume of traffic. So what can you see? The tops of the new buildings on the Pudong side above the barrier fencing. The old buildings on the Bund side can be seen from directly underneath, not the best vantage point.
By then I was really not feeling well and took to bed for 2 days. Plus checked e-mail occasionally to keep tabs on the progress of the Tibet trip. Will I go or not? There are 4 of us now, Myself, Claudia (German born, Australian citizen), Luuk and Karin (Holland) but the issues of permits and tickets have not gone away. All 3 had answered my add in Thorn Tree. SO the add was very definitely worthwhile.
I finally improved with the help of some Chinese medicine and took a look at the Bund from the Pudong side. Much better. The different shapes and styles are amazing. Holes in buildings are also quite popular.
I also went to the Shanghai Museum which is well laid out as per usual with Chinese Museums. However I have seen many similar exhibits so skipped most of it. The coin exhibit was fascinating though. China had paper money 600 years before Europe. Cowry shells were used very early on. Man made coins started out around 1,000 BCE, large and plough shaped. Eventually they standardised on round with a square hole and much smaller. The use of coins waxed and waned depending on the stability of the country. Each War Lord minted their own versions of various qualities. Eventually standardisation in quality came in and the coins lost their square hole.
Outside the Museum I met 3 nice young Chinese girls and we went to the Royal Tea House. I had never been to a tea house before and it was very interesting. We were given a talk on tea etiquette and the origin of the Chinese characters for tea - all in Chinese but the girls translated for me. The hostess made the first tea with a lot of ceremony which was dropped for the subsequent teas. In all we tasted 6 teas. One was made from 12 different dried fruits and was more like a cool drink. One was Pu'Er tea. This is a very famous expensive tea that is said to improve with age. It comes in blocks and the required portion has to be dug out. Interesting flavour, you could taste the age. Not something I would want to drink every day. I like my standard green tea.
The day ended with an acrobatic show. The acts were all based on various forms of balancing with movements showing the flexibility of the performers - plates on sticks, a girl on 7 chairs, 8 on 1 bicycle. A young girl (8 or 10 years old I surmise) balancing on one hand on a pole and moving her body into many different postures. She could do things that I can only dream about. Another couple used 2 lengths of silk to hang from and again move very gracefully through the air. They would merely wind the silk once or twice around a wrist or the waist and it did not slip. The last act had 5 motor bikes in a wire sphere. Fantastic to watch.
On my last day Mandy, who shares my dorm, took me for a dumpling lunch as to have dumplings before a trip is a Chinese custom. I hope it does bring good luck for the trip to Tibet.
Walking along the pedestrian street is a good way to people watch. Hawkers are not allowed but there are many. They can pack up and disappear in seconds when police come near. I did see one caught near the railway station. I did not stand and watch for very long, but he was told to sit down on a chair lower than the chief and given a good talking to and perhaps his goods confiscated. He and his capturers were quite friendly with each other but the seriousness did come through. Perhaps they know each other well from such encounters. I also saw caterpillar fungus (yartse gompa, cordyceps sinensis) for sale. All beautifully packaged for the end consumer. The last time I saw this was in Sichuan being cleaned of dirt. What a difference!
Monday 7 September 2009, overnight train
It was time to go to Xining. Claudia had changed her ticket to Australia and now had a time limit. We had planned to leave on 9th September but there is always the issue of train tickets and now we wanted to leave on the 8th!! Karin and Luuk also had a time limit as they wanted to go to Nepal and India before returning home. I caught the train not knowing if the trip would actually come off. But, what the hell, I could only go and see if we all turned up and had train tickets.
The journey itself was very pleasant. Only the bottom bunks were filled - 2 people per bed area. Lovely and quiet with plenty of room.
Tuesday morning I received an SMS from Luuk saying that we had tickets for Tuesday evening! YES!!! It is on. Fantastic.
Tuesday 8 September 2009, overnight train to Lhasa,Tibet
I dashed off the train at Xining and headed straight for the Lete, a quick shower and final payment. Then we were off to Lhasa! I had promised to dance in the aisle on the train and I did. I was just so happy.
The train has an oxygen supply over each bed and more in the aisles for those who needed it. During the night one of the aisle supplies was opened to give a general boost to the oxygen content in the carriage. There were constant messages over the loud speaker on the construction of the railway line and the sights along the way, in Chinese, Tibetan and English. The messages tended to be sentimental but on the whole were quite informative. The Swiss and other European experts had said it could not be done. The Chinese did it anyway, rather like the 3 Gorges Dam. The main problems are the perma-frost, wetlands and swamps. The government wanted minimal disturbance to the environment and rare species on the plateau. At the same time the perma-frost had to be kept frozen. It melts to some extent in summer and this would cause damage to the line. The problem of the wetlands and swamps was overcome with land bridges, plus other bridges so as not to disrupt the migration habits of the wild animals. The perma-frost is kept cold with pipes set vertically in the ground. There are temperature control units at the bottom and helium inside. I do not understand the technology but it seems to be working. The line was started at An'Duo in the middle and built towards both Lhasa and Xining at the same time. The track laying equipment was trucked in.
All waste is collected and disposed of centrally - not allowed to go on to the tracks as elsewhere in China. This includes the sensitive desert area in the west of China - anew rubbish tip.
There is a lot of ground water on the plateau. Left over from when Tibet was under the ocean. Also agriculture takes place in small fields surrounded by high walls, presumably to create a micro climate.
Wednesday 9 to Sunday 13 September 2009, Lhasa (elevation 3670m)
We arrived late in the evening expecting a guide and driver to meet us. He wasn't there! In the end we hired 2 taxis to take us to the hotel and discovered we did not have a reservation until the following night. News of our day early departure had not been passed on. There were beds though and after some mou mou (dumplings) we tumbled into bed, exhausted.
We had discussions on the train about AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and I discovered the tablets I had been given months ago in Sichuan were also preventative. I decided to take them as I had come from sea level to over 3,000m in 3 days. Not as bad as flying but quite fast. Claudia and Luuk decided to join me but Karin felt she was fine. AMS is totally random and can strike even those who have been at high elevations previously. After climbing Mt Everest Hillary had to stop high altitude climbing because of AMS (or so it is said). As it turned out Karin did get very ill and took stronger tablets for the rest of the journey. Claudia also had a bad day later on even though she was taking the weaker tablets. I definitely believe prevention is better than a cure. I am glad I took the tablets. We also bought Oxygen in small cylinders just in case, though I only used it once.
Claudia promised good weather as she seems to be lucky there. She did bring it, especially at Mt Everest.
Next day our guide, Tenzen, came having been woken at 7:30am and told we had already arrived. The hotel is in the old quarter right near the mosque, the Barkhor and Jokhang Temple. The Barkhor and Jokhang were our first sightseeing stops. Soldiers are everywhere with guns, riot shields, shin pads, stun guns and batons. They stand in force outside main buildings, on roof tops and even on the top of monasteries. You cannot miss them. They look very closely at the Tibetans who seem to ignore them completely. The Tibetans do move out of the way of the soldiers though when walking the Kora. Until I also learnt not to see them they were quite intimidating. If the Tibetans were 'liberated' as the Chinese claim, why are so many soldiers needed? And why do we HAVE to have an expensive guide and a car with driver because we are not allowed to use public transport. Now the Chinese Government has a real reason for banning this website! On that note the owner of the hotel refused to answer any political questions and our guide refused to discuss the Dalai Lama. Some of the English speaking monks are Chinese spies.
So why did China 'liberate' Tibet against the will of the populace? Tibet has gold, silver, chromium, boron, uranium, oil, gas, half the world's deposits of Lithium, most of the copper in China and according to rumour a large secret supply of diamonds. Also according to rumour they use Tibet as one of their dumping grounds for nuclear waste. If this is not enough I expect the Chinese government would not like a hostile power to use Tibet to set up close range missile sites.
The Kora is a pilgrimage circuit around Jokhang Temple. It is always full of pilgrims walking around in a clockwise direction twirling their prayer wheels and chanting just under their breath. There is a very special atmosphere here and it is pleasure to do the Kora. I ended up doing it several times during my stay in Lhasa.
Jokhang Temple is the spiritual centre of Tibet. It was built between 639 and 647 AD by King Songsten Gampo (considered the founder of the Tibetan Empire) to house a statue bought to Tibet by his Nepalese wife, Princess Bhrikuti. It is built in an east / west orientation some say to face Nepal. The statue of Jowo Sakyamuni was brought from China by his Chinese wife, Princess Wenchen and placed in the temple later for safe keeping. This statue is the most revered Buddha image in Tibet. His marriage to Princess Wenchen of China is one of the reasons China claims Tibet. Of course his other main wife was a Nepalese princess. Does this mean Nepal has the same claim to Tibet? These two wives introduced Buddhism to Tibet where it flourished while dying out in China. Pictures cost so I did not take any. The smell of yak butter permeates the temple and eventually our clothes. Yak butter is used to fuel the candles in the many chapels with pilgrims continually adding a little to each to offer light to Buddha. Outside pilgrims prostrate themselves many times before the Temple as a means of gaining merit and reducing the cycle of rebirths.
Sera Monastery was founded in 1419 by a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Yellow Hat Sect (Gelugpa Sect). The main reason for coming here is to witness the debates in Tibetan of Buddhist philosophical knowledge. This was very interesting to watch. There are groups with one monk standing and one or several sitting down. The monk standing asks questions or makes points. When he has completed his sentence he raises one leg and stamps it down while clapping by sliding his hands together forcefully. This is also a way of raising souls from the lower regions into into the upper regions.
Ganden Monastery (elevation 4240m) is one of the best monasteries I have seen. It was the first Gelugpa Monastery founded by Tsongkhapa himself in 1409 CE. There are many images of him and his 2 disciples throughout the monastery. It was badly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution probably because it is the main temple of the Gelugpa order and the head of the monastery has /had quite a lot of political power.
The main Assembly Hall has Thankas from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) in remarkably good condition. There are also copies of the 108 volumes of the oral teachings of Buddha. 108 is a sacred number to Buddhists. There are 108 beads on the mala (rosary) and often 108 prayer wheels on kora paths. Rumour again - Buddha also had 108 'companions'.
The monastery also sells blessed incense which is made on the premises from local herbs. On the way out we watched a couple anointing a yak with yak butter in preparation for it being offered to the monastery. These yaks are then kept by the monastery until they die of old age. They will not be killed and eaten.
I also learnt more about the chant "Om Mani Padme Hom". Besides being the 6 sacred syllables it also means 'Hail to the jewel in the Lotus' a reference to Buddha. If you take each word separately it means Om (I pay homage) Mani (method) Padme (wisdom) Hom (complete).
And another piece of information. Reincarnation occurs because of 3 evils, hatred, ignorance and desire. Once these are totally eliminated a person is fully enlightened and goes to Nirvana.
Luuk and Tenzen walked the kora while Claudia and I had some lunch. Ganden is 4240m high and the kora goes up higher. Karin did not come as she was ill.
Potala Palace is 117m high and you have to climb many steps to get there. Everyone took it slowly. At least there were plenty of resting places on the way up.
Construction started in 1645 by the 5th Dalai Lama on the site of King Songsten Gampo's royal residence. The Tibetan colours of red (wisdom, colour of Menjushri), white (compassion, colour of Avalokitesvara) and black (energy, colour of Vojurapani) are used extensively. The Palace contains the funerary stupas of the 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th Dalai Lamas; throne rooms, jewel encrusted 3 dimensional mandalas and numerous chapels. It is all very lush with a fortune in jewels on the stupas. Wonder where the 14th Dalai Lama will be buried.
Namtso Lake is the second largest saltwater lake in China after Qinhai Lake but at an elevation of 4730m it is higher than Qinhai Lake. The driver there was mainly through a very wide river valley with lots of agriculture. Harvesting of barley is currently underway so the fields were yellow or brown dotted with farm workers in colourful clothes. Our driver had to keep to a speed limit of about 80kph. This is controlled by a 'pass' with a time stamp from the first checkpoint. The time taken to arrive at each checkpoint there after is checked against this. If the driver arrives even 1 minute early there is a 200RMB fine. A lot for the driver. It definitely reduces speeding. However we were not the only ones to stop out of sight of the checkpoint to wait for the appropriate time to elapse before continuing.
There is a viewpoint just before Namtso Lake where Buddhist prayer flags have been put up. These come in various colours - white for space, blue for the sky, yellow for the earth, green for water and red for fire.
The lake is awesome. Large, blue, turquoise - a wonderful sight. The photos tell some of the tale.
While eating in a restaurant a man talked to us about his frustrations. He was not concerned about being overheard as he believed that the staff could not speak English. He continually said he felt useless. He cannot get the job he wants because he is Tibetan. He cannot obtain a passport until he is past 60 when he would be unable to get a job in another country as he would have no value as an employee. And he wants the Dalai Lama to return.
Driving through the country side I noticed that there were no trees except those that have been planted. Mao decided all trees had to be chopped down and used as fuel and building materials.
Monday 14 September 2009, Gyantse (elevation 3980m)
The road took us past the Yellow River and a water burial sight and then over Kambala Pass (4700m). Yup, we are travelling at heights here in Tibet.
Then we came to Yamdrok Lake with its magnificent colours that change with the movement of the clouds. Yamdrok Lake is shaped like a scorpion hence it's name. It is high up at 4441m but not as high as Namtso Lake. It is every bit as beautiful in its own way.
It has the largest hydro-electric scheme in Tibet. This was opposed by the previous Chinese appointed Panchem Lama and was not built until after his death. The scheme uses a pipe to drain water from the lake. Unfortunately the lake has no water source and will eventually be drained unless a river is diverted. This would change the consistency of the lake and probably ruin it for tourism as effectively as draining it. I am not sure how it would affect the lake's status as a holy lake either.
Next came Kharola Pass (5020m) and the Kharola Glacier (5560m) coming from the Nyanchen Kansan Mountain (7191m). Pedmasambava consecrated Tibet from the top of this mountain in the 8th century. It is also important because it is the source of 3 rivers - the Yangtse, Yamdrock and Rumbok.
Finally we arrived at Gyantse to sleep the night and visit the Pelkor Chode Monastery and its Kumbum (100,000 images). The monastery complex was commissioned in 1418 and once housed 3 orders of Buddhism, Gelugpa, Sakyapa and Buton. There is a lot of smoke damage still on the walls in the halls, from the Cultural Revolution. Many books were also burned. The remains are kept as a reminder but the works have since been replaced. In one chapel we watched pilgrims crawling under a book cabinet to reduce their sin and gain merit. The Kumbum is the largest chorten in Tibet at 35m high. It has many chapels on its 6 floors with murals that date to the 15th century. They were not damaged very much during the Cultural Revolution.
While we were there some of the monks had a ceremony. The path leading to the hall was decorated with red and white powder. The monks were formally dressed and initially there was much clapping. Later they started chanting. Perhaps there was an important person visiting as the town was full of police and army personnel.
Tuesday 15 September 2009, Shigatse (elevation 3840m)
And on again to Shigatse through magnificent country side with workers in the fields and Tsola Pass (4550m) with prayer flags strung across the road. Or was this pass on the next day's journey? No matter. We passed a monument to the 5,000 kilometre mark. That is 5,000K from Shanghai. Must be a left over from the Europeans! Apparently all kilometre markers work from Shanghai.
Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse is the seat of the Panchen Lama. The Panchen Lama is second in importance to the Dalai Lama and is also a reincarnated person. This monastery went relatively unscathed during the Cultural Revolution and is the largest functioning monastic institution in Tibet. It was founded in 1447 by Genden Drupa a disciple of Tsongkhapa. Genden Drupa was retroactively named the 1st Dalai Lama. He and the next 3 Dalai Lamas are enshrined here in separate stupas. There is one stupa for the 5th to 9th Panchen Lamas. The 10th Panchen Lama is also enshrined here and there are many photos of the 9th, 10th and 11th (current PL and another Chinese appointment) Panchen Lamas. The chorten of the 4th Panchen Lama was the only one to escape the Cultural Revolution. It also has the largest sitting Maitreyia Buddha in the world made of gold and copper alloy. Photos cost a lot of money so there are none of the monastery. Youv'e seen plenty by now anyway.
Wednesday 16 September 2009, Baber (Shegar) (elevation 4250m)
Today the road went over Gyatso La Pass (5248m) and the boundary of the Qomolongo (Everest to you) Nature Reserve. Once again there were flags over the road and goggling tourists like us. We met a European guide at the pass. He brought 13l Europeans with him to cycle from Lhasa to Katmandu via Everest. They have 9 staff including the obligatory Tibetan guide and driver and a Nepalese guide with a truck, a van and 2 4x4 wheel drives. Each participant paid USD 6,500 all inclusive for 26 days of hard riding. Different folks, different strokes! We saw them again the next day heading for Mt. Everest.
While they were riding hard we were having a much nicer experience. We arrived at Baber about lunchtime expecting to be in Shegar. Shegar is actually about 4 kilometres down a side road. Even Tenzen thought we were in Shegar! After booking into a hotel and having lunch we decided to go and see the fort (Shegar Dzong) at Shegar, now in ruins. Tenzen made the bus wait for us and we were warned that the last bus left at 5:30pm. Off we went. Tenzen had never actually been to Shegar before so he had to ask a local how to get to the monastery in the fort ruins. We had the idea to do the kora, at least the others did. I would wait and see. The fort is built on a hill with walls climbing straight up to the top. Strange way to build defensive walls. The enemy can be outside the walls and at the top of the hill. Always a good position.
The route to the small monastery (Shegar Chode Monastery) itself is via paths lost in the back of the houses. Difficult unless you know the way. The monastery was built in 1269 and has a painting depicting it at its height. They have longevity sheep here - sheep donated to the monastery which will now die of old age.
We did not walk the kora to the top of the hill, only the kora around the monastery itself. Naturally we missed the bus by a good margin. Now we had to go back to Baber. Eventually we found our ride - for the right price obviously. Other rides were asking too much. Any way if push came to shove we could have asked our driver to come fetch us. It was a marvellous ride back. Unfortunately Claudia was occasionally whipped so we learnt a new word - atso - same meaning as eina or ouch. The horse really worked hard up the small slopes. We were greeted with laughter from the hotel staff. They thought it was great that we took local transport.
Thursday 17 September 2009, Everest Base Camp (elevation 5200m)
Once again over a high pass, Gychu Lha (5206m) down a bit then back to almost the same height. What can I say? We stopped at the top of the pass and waited for the clouds to clear. They did to some extent but it was taking too long and we moved on. Everything at the tent camp is expensive and we had purchased supplies including a picnic lunch which we ate on the way.
As soon as we had settled into our 'hotel' at the Tent Camp the others set off to walk the 4 kilometres to Base Camp. I waited for the bus. You can stay at Rhongphu Monastery or go 8 kilometres on to the Tent Camp. This is two lines of Tibetan tents each sleeping 6 people plus the owner and each with its own name. There is a stove in the middle, plenty of hot water, meals at a fairly reasonable price considering and a communal pit toilet. It is too cold to bath anyway.
The bus dropped me off at the entrance to the Base Camp. Just a control point where you are allowed to climb a small hill for good views of Mt Everest (8850m). To go any further you need a mountaineering permit, this is serious stuff. Actually the views from the tent camp and the monastery were just as good.
Claudia was already there having caught an earlier bus and we waited for Karin, Luuk and Tenzen to arrive. Then onto the hill. The others went up reasonably quickly. I was fine on the flat but Hills!!! Two steps - puff puff pant - two steps - puff puff pant. I eventually made and almost crawled over to Karin who had the oxygen. What a relief! The only time I needed it and I wasn't carrying any. I might have gone up marginally faster if I had had it with me. The hill was festooned with prayer flags as usual and the view fantastic.
Claudia did her bit and the weather was perfect.
What else can I say. We all sat and just looked, not very interesting to write about but I would not have missed it for the world. Then it was back to the camp and supper. Karin and Luuk walked back, the rest of us caught the bus. Unfortunately I missed most of the sunset, spending the time huddled over the stove. In fact I didn't even think to check until our driver came in indicating we should take photos. Claudia and I dashed outside but it was almost over. It must have been spectacular. The little we saw showed a deep orange on the west slopes. I had a very warm cosy sleep with two layers of clothes (socks, pants and tops), wrapped in a blanket, a duvet over that, another duvet doubled over my feet and a duvet making a wall between my feet and the tent walls. There were cushions along my back. Who says its cold up there?
Friday 18 September 2009, Zhangmu (elevation 2250m)
Next morning Claudia decided to walk to Base Camp. Karin and Luuk opted out and I never intended to do so. Instead I watched the sunrise from near the Tent Camp. Not as spectacular as sunset but good all the same, watching the shadows retreat and the snow starting to glisten white on the east slopes.
Rongphu Monastery (4900m) was built in 1902 and can claim to be the highest monastery in the world. The head of the monastery lives in Switzerland hence the Cukcoo Clock.
It is a different road to Zhangmu. Not well used and not paved. Through a valley strewn with small rocks, passed small vilaages and magnificently coloured hills.
Eventually we reached the paved road and went faster until we started going down the winding route to Zhangmu 1,500m below. It was strange to see conifers, green andlots of water. The road is still under construction and one section 7k from Zhangmu is closed during working hours. We were 1.5 hours earlier for the 8:00pm opening. The others passed the time playing a dice game called 'worms' that Luuk had brought with him.
Zhangmu is built down (up?) a mountain side with very narrow streets, many sharp turns and many trucks going to and from Nepal. On the way down we came to a point where there were cars parked on BOTH sides of the road allowing one way traffic only. Our driver immediately parked in an open spot. Seemed wrong to me but it was exactly the right thing to do. Other cars which took the opportunity to pass us ended up having to reverse a long way back up the mountain through the curves, then wait for the uphill traffic to clear before continuing. I don't know how long it took them. We waited for almost an hour, by the clock not perception, before we could move - and we were very only about 3 cars from the start of the congestion. We could go as soon as the cars parked on one side gone. Needless to stay most hotels were fully booked but Luuk and Tenzen finally found a hotel for us.
Saturday 19 September 2009, Shigatse (elevation 3840m)
Luuk and Karin left early in the morning for the border. They were driven there and Tenzen had to accompany them until they went through immigration. Claudia and I slept in and woke at 10:30 just 30 minutes before we were going to be picked up!. Needless to say there were traffic jams and we were only picked up after 12:00. Just at lunch time and the opening of the road to uphill traffic.
It is a long drive to Shigatse, especially when you basically start at lunchtime. As compensation we saw the sunset.
Sunday 20 to Monday 21 September 2009, Lhasa (elevation3670m)
A half day drive and we were back in Lhasa. Time enough for Claudia to do some last minute shopping before she flies home on Monday. I relaxed, walked around the Kora, organized my train ticket to Lhasa, did some essential shopping and generally enjoyed my last day in Tibet. I truly would have liked to have seen more of the country but tours are an expensive business. Maybe when the restrictions are relaxed and I can travel independantly.
Monday 22 September 2009, overnight train to Xining
Once again over the high grasslands. The few children on the train were very good. Unlike going to Lhasa there were empty beds. Apparently the Chinese tourists go by train and fly home.
I had a long conversation with one of the passengers using her translation software. It is no wonder you get Chinglish. When she realised I travelled alone she asked 'You not fearsome?' Other questions were very confusing. It was fun though.
Tuesday 23 September to Thursday 8 October 2009, Xining (elevation 2255m)
Back to normal heights. In fact the same elevation as Zhangmu.
I spent the first days relaxing and writing up the website. This involved going through literally hundreds of photos from myself, Claudia and Luuk. Still it was lovely to go through them all and refresh my memories.
I had planned to go on to Beijing but was advised to stay well clear during the holidays from 1 to 8 October. 1 October is Nation Day (60th anniversary) and 3 October is the mid-autumn Festival - no more moon cakes. Hence the long holiday period.
The Nation Day Parade in Beijing was shown on a large TV screen in the main square of Xining. The crowd was quite small, maybe because people stayed home to watch. It was also not very vocal and with very few Chinese flags. The people mainly just watched and clapped in a dissolutely fashion for some of the military units. The exception was the Qinghai float, that received decent applause.
The dignitaries were all dressed in dark suits, white shirts and red ties or Mao suits. Very patriotic.
The troops were all picked for their height and marching ability. They were all the same size and perfectly in step - amazing. I did not appreciate the goose-stepping though as it always reminds me of Hitler and vicious dictators. There was a fly-past and a film showing the navy as well as female troops.
The floats made up about half the whole parade which balanced the military might. Some of the floats were surrounded with people dancing or marching - all with something in their hands to hold above their heads creating a mass of colours - red balloons, flowers, flags, and brightly coloured circles. There were floats from each province plus various organisations. The general music was classical European. Although the various choirs and bands sang and played Chinese music as well.
It was all very well rehearsed and orchestrated. Very professional.
We had our photos taken to show that Europeans also watched the celebrations. Then we were asked for an interview. Bill from the travel agency obliged. Saying it was good to see people enjoying their celebration - very diplomatic considering we were still seeing all that military bravado.
That evening a group of us went to see the fireworks. Unfortunately we had been told the wrong time and we missed it! Oh well, it was a bus ride through the lights of the city.
I took a day trip out to Youning Si, a very recently renovated 17th Century Gelegpa monastery founded by 4th Dalai Lama . The scenery surrounding the monastery is lovely. Paul and I did not go into all the temples but rather sat on the hillside taking in the peace and quiet. Later we walked down the hill and found Justin drinking tea with a monk. We joined him for a cup before proceeding back to Chris (Justin's wife) and our taxi. Lunch was fantastic. We had noodles, vegetables and a huge plate of beautifully roasted lamb. I have not had so much meat at once for a long time. It was a good day's outing.
Later Jean arrived at the hostel and we spent time wandering around the museum and People's Park.
Friday 9 October 2009, overnight train
I had a choice, soft sleeper or hard seat. I have done hard seat before, hopefully never again. I was looking forward to a nice quiet sleep - the beds are as hard as hard sleeper, just less people! Instead there was a consistent rattle from the next compartment. At least it quietened down when the tracks became smoother nearer to Beijing.
Saturday 10 to Sunday 18 October 2009, Beijing
Crowds, crowds and more crowds. I wanted to take the bus to the hostel. I watched the crowds pushing and shoving to get on and decided to wait for it to quieten down. Have you ever seem 3 people shoulder to shoulder enter a bus through a single door? And don't forget the luggage held in one hand but trapped behind two people. Bruises all round I would say. I took a taxi, much safer.
Crowds, crowds and more crowds. I thought the holidays were over. No, not at all. Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world, was crowded with sightseers looking at the floats used in the 1 October parade. After a quick look around it was early to bed the first night - on a nice soft mattress and a pleasant temperature.
Beijing, city of rip-offs. Never very much, just enough to make me frustrated, angry and cast a pall over my experience of the city. Example -It is the first time I have been given the wrong change when buying a train ticket. I did get the extra money but it had been deliberate.
Crowds, crowds and more crowds. People taking photos of their family in front of the float from their province. Or trying to, an almost impossible task considering the number of people walking in front of the camera. Soldiers standing at attention, slightly bent forward from the hips, feet splayed. People picnicking on the square. A watery sun glowing through the smog Children laughing. People with minority type hats on.
The Palace Museum (aka The Forbidden Palace), impressive, huge, extensive, massive, full of buildings, halls, temples, yellow roofs, red walls - and people, Chinese tour groups, Westerners, Indians in saris. A black man in short sleeves? It's cold today. Must be American or Russian. Expensive and cheap souvenirs for sale.
The city is the largest and best preserved cluster of buildings, especially wooden buildings, in China. Built between 1406 and 1420. Home to the Emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, 24 in all. It consists of an outer court yard where the emperor held various ceremonies and an inner court yard for routine affairs and the residence. Both courtyards have 3 main halls mirroring each other in design. There are many very large brass pots which used to hold water to use in case of fire. In winter these were covered with quilts and in very cold weather fires were lit underneath to prevent the water from freezing.
Then there are the halls housing exhibits of the jewellery, furnishings and clothes of the Royal Family. This included bronze ware from 1600 BCE. The most precious exhibits are in the Palace of Peace and Longevity, once again mirroring the outer courtyard. This is where the Dowager Empress and concubines lived. Later Emperor Qianlong (mid 18th century) retired here after he abdicated. He along with Empress Dowager Cixi (late 19th century) was responsible for the restoration, expansion and rebuilding of the palace.
Jingshan Park lies to the north of the Forbidden City. Its main attraction is the view from the top of the hill made from earth excavated from moat around the palace. You can see the Beijing skyline and the roofs of the Palace.
I had to taste Peking Duck. The duck was tender and served with small pancakes(?) to roll it and some vegies in with sweet soy sauce. Interesting and tasty but expensive.
The Summer Palace is extensive not as far as buildings are concerned but the grounds and the lake. What a luxurious life the royals led. The first telephone system in China went in here to ensure speedy communications with the palace in times of trouble. As with the Forbidden City Emperor Qianlong was responsible for the construction and maintenance of most of the buildings. Later Dowager Empress Cixi reconstructed many buildings after they were destroyed by Anglo-French forces during the 2nd opium war in 1856-60. She built a 3 story opera house similar to the one in the Forbidden City where 3 operas could be played at once. What a cacophony that must have been.
The WALL. I was a little worried about climbing the wall as Pieter had walked a tough section and could not remember where. I walked from Jinshanling to Simatai and although it was tough it wasn't too bad. I came in last of course but only by seconds as there was a couple about my age in the group. I managed it more or less in the time allotted. It was worth every centimetre. The hills go on forever in all directions, covered in trees and some farming. Magnificent scenery. The wall itself snakes up and down, rarely straight ahead. I am sure there could have been a better route. It wasn't that effective anyway. The Mongols still came through in the 12th century. I am glad I wasn't a soldier on the wall. Mind you I would have been very fit, racing up and down stairs, sometimes almost like climbing a ladder.
I laughed to see a little old Chinese woman helping a young, overweight British woman. The Chinese woman carried two day packs over her shoulders, plus the walking sticks when not in use, plus provided extra support over the tougher sections. Ah well, the British woman was trying and she did make it. And the Chinese woman made some money.
The 3 big things done it was time to look at other possibilities. There is so much to see and do that you could spend a month here easily. I bought an external hard drive in the 'electrical' shopping area; visited Olympic Park; Xiangshan Park (Fragrant Hills) a holiday area for royalty since 1186, unfortunately it is too early for the autumn colours; the National Grand Theatre made of titanium and glass; the Drum Tower centre of the Mongol city, and listened to the drums: the Bell Tower nearby; the new CCTV Head Office which is not yet open and has high walls around it so you cannot yet see the bottom - next time.
And ate! Chinese Koeksusters, sunflower seed bars, chestnuts, hawthorn fruit, red dates, pork kebabs (delicious) and the inevitable Snicker.
Monday 19 to Tuesday 20 October 2009, on the train
Time to move on to Laos. Started with a 2 night train ride.
Wednesday 21 October 2009, Kunming, Yunnan
Back to The Hump Hostel, a good sleep, a wonderful massage and off the next day.
Thursday 22 October 2009, overnight sleeper bus to Oudomxai, Laos
The sleeper bus was the best ever. Long enough beds without a raised end so I could sleep flat. Lovely. I had bought a ticket to the border because no-one at the hostel knew Oudomxai - could have been my pronunciation though. When I realised the bus was going to Vientiane I asked to stay on. So nice not to have to worry about transport. It also made the journey much faster.
|Averages||Rand||Yuan||USD||On to Laos to Kuala Lumpur|
|Cost of transport per kilometer||0.58||0.47||0.07|
|Hotels per night||54.36||43.52||6.38|
|Kilometers traveled||27 714|
|Days in country||168|