Friday, April 30, 2010


A little overdue...

Beijing was always going to struggle backing up from Tibet, and perhaps a few years ago prior to the 2008 Olympics, it may have held its own. But to us, Beijing seemed like a city that had been sanitised. Everything appeared spick and span - clean streets, manicured flowerbeds, and plenty of trees to combat the smog. Hutong (traditional alleyways) had been demolished to make way for shopping malls, and all tourist attractions in sight had been given the typical Chinese face lift.That was sad, because after visiting Shanghai in 2008, we loved the jumble of modern day China with old China.

Also, because Tibet had been difficult to organise, we also found ourselves with 10 days in Beijing before we flew out - the longest amount of time we had had in a single place, and we wondered how we would spend it.

It turned out that it wasn't as bad as we thought. There is a lot to do in Beijing, with the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, all iconic Chinese tourist attractions. We ticked off a couple of those (The Great Wall and Forbidden City) but spent the majority of our time relaxing, drinking coffee, and shopping - all the benefits of a more western Chinese city.
The Forbidden City was a typical Chinese tourist attraction that had been done up to perfection, and was crowded with Chinese tourists wearing their little red tour hats. It was the place where the Emperors lived and planned their conquests, and was only opened up to the public a few decades ago. It's absolutely HUGE with some amazing architecture, but we were keen to get away from the crowds (in China, I know!...) so we headed over to Huahai Lake for a bit of a stroll which was great.

Still over the crowds, we took a tour to a 'secret' part of the Great Wall that hadn't been restored. This thing was in a pretty bad way, which you would expect after so many years. It was great to see it with no other tourists, but it was hard to imagine what it might have been like, and our Chinese guide spoke no english which didn't lend to a steady flow of info. She was also 75 years old, which was cute at first, but when she had to stop to catch her breath every 10 minutes it became kind of frustrating, mainly because it was so damn cold.

We flew out on the 29th and had a good flight to London. It was strange arriving and seeing so many white people, being able to hear their conversations and ask them directions. There were two storey houses with front and back yards, parks (with people sitting on the grass!) and nobody selling food on the side of the road. It will take some time to adjust I'm sure!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mt Qomolangma (Everest)

As a Kiwi, visting Mt Qomolangma (Mt Everest) was pretty special, and up there with one of the highlights of my life. After an epic day of driving over 100 km on dirt roads through scenery that seemed to get better and better as we went on, that rattly Hiace finally got us there around 8.30 pm. We caught a glimpse of Mt Everest - the tip was partially obscured by cloud which was hard to get disappointed at because it was still such a magical sight with the sun setting and most of the mountain still in view (that Tibet is still on Beijing time despite being thousands of kilometres away makes it light until around 10 pm). 

We stayed in the tent camp with some of Penpa's friends and once we had everything unpacked and had changed into numerous layers of thermals, we tucked into the Tibetan staple - Yak Butter Tea to warm ourselves up. I didn't mind it, the others weren't as sold on it as I was. The owners of the tent were so good to us, constantly refilling our tea cups (both Yak Butter and the more standard varieties) and were keen to see photos of NZ and where we'd been so far. We were told that the mountain would be fully visible the next morning at sunrise so we planned a not-too-early 7 am start. 

That night I went out to the long drop and happened to look up at the sky. The cloud had disappeared, it was as still as, and the sky was lit up by stars like I never have seen before. Amazing.

It was hard to get up the next morning, I couldn't tell you what temperature it would have been, but most of our water bottles had ice in them. We got up and threw on our jackets, gloves, and hats and started the 2 hour walk up to the 'real' base camp. As we were promised, there the bastard was (can I call it that?), fully visible with the sun beginning to light it up. It was incredible. The altitude made the walk quite tough, and we made it up to base camp a bit short on breath. 

I had always thought it was pretty amazing what Sir Ed did all those years ago, but actually being there, feeling how thin and cold the air was and seeing how big it actually is (huge understatement, but it really is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE!), hammered it home exactly what he'd achieved.

We walked back to the tents finding it pretty hard not to look over our shoulders, downed some breakfast and sat in the tent warming up. We said goodbye to our hosts and snuck just one more look before jumping in the Hiace for another 4 hours of dirt road back to Shigatse.  

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


We arrived in Shigatse late after a long days driving through some incredible scenery that took us via Yamdrok Lake and Gyantse. Yamdrok Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Tibet, and is an awesome turquoise blue colour. It was our first taste of real altitude (and cold too), as we went over Kamba-La Pass at 4794 m. Needless to say the lake looked spectacular hundred of metres below us. We piled back in the trusty Toyota Hiace to get out of the bone chilling cold, and headed to Gyantse.

Gyantse is a traditional Tibetan town and home of the Pelkor Chode Monastery and its famous Kumbum Chorten. The Kumbum Chorten is a stupa which is a protector against anything bad (inside a temple or monastery a stupa can also be a tomb). This one is special because it is the largest in Tibet and is 9 levels high with 108 rooms (sacred Tibetan number) and has 10,000 images. It was amazing. The Monastery itself was one of my favourites so far as it was in use, and in pretty original condition.

We made it to Shigatse to a cold shower (less than ideal in Tibet) so passed on that idea and had an early night ready for another long journey to Mt Everest the next day. 


Lhasa is possibly the most amazing place I've ever visited. Its been quite expensive to come to Tibet, and after we debated it heavily, I'm so glad we decided to do it. Already it is the trip highlight for me. South East Asia was fun, China has been an interesting and challenging country to travel in, but Tibet has been a mind blowing experience, from its scenery, to its culture, to its people.

We started our first day in Lhasa with a tour of the Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple with our guide Pempa, and our tour buddies (from Amsterdam nonetheless) Evelylne and Erwin, who we are so fortunate to be travelling with as they are great people. Whilst travelling in Tibet you must have a guide with you at all times. While this sounded stifling when we first heard it, it turns out that we have our free time, and that having a guide as great as Pempa is, really helps you to understand a lot more about Tibetan culture than we may have if we'd just come on our own (which is illegal anyway..).

I cannot tell you what is like to stand in front of a building as imposing as the Potala Palace, home of the former Tibetan Government and countless Dalai Lama's. The Palace is divided into the Red and White Palaces - white for Government and red for religion. Nothing I have ever seen can compare to the ornateness and holiness of the Palace. Walking through it with Tibetan pilgrims (some who have crawled to Lhasa from Eastern Tibet) was an experience I will remember for a long time. Seeing the meeting rooms, reading rooms, meditation rooms, bedrooms, thrones, and tombs (one containing over 3000 kg of gold!) of the Dalai Lama's (dating back to around the year 1200) was an incredible experience. The insight into Buddhism from Pembo made the experience all the more interesting. It is such a complex religion which is rather magnetic and really shows in how the Tibetan people deal with everyday life - so accepting, so humble and so kind - despite the pressures they are under.

In the afternoon we visited the Jokhang Temple (established by one of Tibets most revered Kings and learnt more about Buddhism and Tibetan history. In the following days we visited the Norbulingka Palace (the summer Palace of the Dalai Lama's and the Sera Monastry - one of the three pillars of Tibetan Buddhism. The highlight here was witnessing the Monks debate Buddhist teaching as part of their study in the courtyard - their passion and humour was infectious.

We left for Shigatse early the next day en route to Everest Base Camp. Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and is more Tibetan than Lhasa, which has been infiltrated with Chinese after the construction of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. 

Qinghai-Tibet Railway

The trip to Lhasa took us 45 hours on the recently completed Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The railway, completed in 2006, is the highest in the world. The railway is really a political statement that asserts Beijing's dominance over Tibet and is quite controversial for this and also the amount of Chinese it has bought to the region. The railway itself is an engineering feat. It spans roughly 2000 km and is built mostly on permafrost, that can melt and turn the ground to mud. To counter this the Chinese engineers built elevated tracks with deep foundations and pipes beneath the rails to keep the railbed frozen by the cool air. At points along the track metal sunshades reflect the harsh plateau sun, and the track is also passively cooled using ammonia heat exchangers (nice little bit of science there...). The track tops out at 5072 m, and for this reason oxygen masks are included in the cabins incase you pass out! Luckily we didn't require them!

Despite being 45 hours, the journey wasn't bad at all. We arrived at the station and joined the obligatory rush to get on board (even though seats are allocated...). We found our cabin,  and with 4 other people already inside there was barely enough room for our luggage (hence the rush obviously). With a bit of rearrangement we managed to stuff our packs under the beds. The cabin has 6 bunks and the people we were sharing with were all lovely and with a lot of pointing, nodding and smiling we had a great time talking with them on the trip. We spent the days reading, catching up on diaries etc., and then at 10 pm on the dot the lights are out. Toilets are squatters, but the service on the train is excellent and they were cleaning frequently, along with the cabins.

I have never in my life seen scenery as beautiful as we passed across. It was barren, but it had a simple beauty to it. The big blue sky contrasted against the brown coloured tussock. Occasionally you would see a frozen stream or lake, a peak popping up behind the foothills, and as we crossed the plateau and were nearing Tibet, farmers grazing yak, goats, and sheep, and the occasional eagle. It was spectacular - and we passed through almost 40 hours of this non stop, which gives you an idea of how big the area really is. The Tibetan style houses with prayer flags became visible the closer we got to Lhasa, which was also amazing to see.

We got into Lhasa at 4 pm, met our Tibetan guide Pempa, and were dropped at our hotel. It is compulsory to have a tour guide with you while in Tibet, and Pempa seems like a nice enough guy to spend the next week with. He left us for the night and we were free to get our bearings, so we took a walk around the Old Quarter, had dinner and then walked the Barkhor Pilgramage circuit around the Jokhang Temple (the holiest place in Tibet, built circa 600).

Already Tibet is under my skin - it is such a holy place and I feel lucky to be able to come here and check it out. I can't wait for tomorrow when we can ask Pembo the already long list of questions we already have.  

Saturday, April 17, 2010


Hi All,
Just a quick note to let you all know that we are nowhere near the earthquake that happened in Eastern Tibet a few days ago. We hadn't heard much news about it as we can't read the papers here and internet access is hard to come by. We were on our way to Mt Everest when we heard the news from our guide, which sounded pretty bad. Tonight we fly to Beijing, so I will write more bout Tibet which has been simply AMAZING.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


We spent two nights in XI'an waiting for our permits to come through for Tibet. The lonely planent states that Xi'an is a polariser - you either love it or hate it. From what we saw we found it hard to believe that anyone could hate Xi'an, and wished it had worked out that we'd had a few more nights there.

The city is laid out around an ancient city wall (which is up to 18 m thick in places) which makes it an awesome mix of old and new. There are loads of parks and sculptures that make use of public space really well - something that I suppose is rather important in China, yet not seen so often in other cities. We spent heaps of time walking around these areas and the Muslim Quarter which is inside the city wall. I find the Chinese Muslims a really warm people - they always have a big smile for you and want to share their food (which is amazing) and ask you where you're from. 

Most peope visit Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors. These guys are about an hour out of town on what was once farmland and is now a massive tourist complex. The warriors are divided into 3 pits that are hierarchical - soldiers to generals. There are over 6000 in total that guard the tomb of a Qing Emperor. They all have individual faces and decorations, and were found with 40,000 bronze weapons. They were actually found a couple of hundred metres from what is believed to be the Emperors tomb, which begs the question, what else is buried down there?

As with any good story there is a conspiracy theory - that it has all been fabricated to boost the Shaanxi region's economy. It'd be pretty hard to believe this, but given that it is China, that the discoverer was a farmer (go Communism!) and that he miraculously hit the corner of the site while digging a well, and that the Qing Emperor left just enough room between his tomb and the warriors to build several acres of tourist complex including shops, restaurants, and a cinema - I can see how the conspiracy theorists could have a field day! It was a worthwile trip anyway, and quite an amazing site.

We're now back in Chengdu waiting for our train to Lhasa tonight - 45 hours! That makes a grand total of 80 hours on trains in the last 6 days! We're pretty excited though, and in any case, Tibet seems like the kind of place that should be hard to get to...which is how I am trying to rationalise it anyway. More soon...