Posts Tagged With: tibet

China an overview

 

Well the time has finally come to leave China and move on to the next leg of our little adventure. I guess it is time to take stock of what we have done, where we have been and run through the highlights and lowlights of the time spent in China. We are actually not entirely finished as we will be back in Hong Kong in October and may pop into Macao for a day or two depending upon how the other plans go.

Overall our time in China has been fantastic and I would highly recommend this as a tourist destination for any of you. There are some myths about needing mandarin to travel in China which are quite frankly totally wrong. After a cumulative 7 months full time here we would be lucky to know 20-30 words and have been completely off the beaten path where no English is spoken. The Chinese people are really helpful and a couple of bits of technology gets you through most binds (see Jill’s travel tips section).

So in summary we spent –

205 – Days in China
50 – Cities slept in (more visited or day tripped)
25 – Provinces visited (of 32)
China Map

We have been discussing our best and worst bits and came up with very little on the negative side with the overall impression being ridiculously positive. The other thing we tried to do was to develop a must see itinerary for those seeking to travel here. China however is like Australia and the distances and travel times make seeing everything impossible unless you have unlimited time (there are still things that we missed out on and want to see).

The other thing that stumped us was that some of the must sees (Terracotta Warriors and 3 Gorges Cruise etc.) were some of the least impressive things that we have been to…but how can you really come here and not see them…so despite being so-so I guess they remain must sees. They were ok and it is nice to say that we have been but there is so much better to see in China and if time were limited (which it almost always will be) there are much better places to go.

The other thing was that Jill and I liked different things. She has turned into a mountain goat while here, relishing the stair climbs (that are everywhere)…while I have gone the other way cursing stairs at every opportunity. Obviously there are some things that were awesome for both of us. The Great Wall of China is an absolute must and the best spot is the Mutianyu section (about 60kms outside of Beijing). The other thing that must be done is getting into some of the provinces. Each minority of China is quite different and these differences should be experienced. So here it is…

Traditional Must Sees

The Great Wall of China
Forbidden City
Tiananmen Square
The summer palace
Gate of heavenly peace
Mao’s Tomb
Shanghai
Walled cities
Hanging Monastery
The terracotta Warriors
3 gorges dam
Tibet ?

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Most of these are easy to achieve from Beijing with limited travel times and this could be done in a two week stint if you push a little bit. The warriors is a quick pop across to Xian where the Muslim quarter is a must. Xian is a walled city but Jill’s suggestions are that Pingyao and Datong are better examples and from Datong you can also see the hanging monastery and Yúngāng Caves..head down and out through Shanghai and all of this within the two week journey.

Tibet is a whole other issue. There seems to be a global interest in Tibet given the Dalai Lama scenario but having been there we would never return. The Everest leg was nice and something we will no doubt brag about down the track but way too difficult to be worth the 2 hour photo shoot that we got. Especially given that a lot of the time it is clouded over and you don’t get a nice view (we were blessed with perfect weather). The food was terrible but the road between Lhasa and Shigatse was the highlight but it is a tough schlepp and should not be taken lightly.

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Lesser known gems

These are the things that do not immediately come to mind when you think of China but having been there and experienced them they are VERY high on both of our lists. We would do almost all of these before the last 3 on the earlier list…but they are less famous.

Guilin to Yangshou river rafting
Jiuzhaigou – Jiuzhai national park with blue lakes and waterfalls everywhere
Harbin – ice festival
Kunming – Stone forest
Kashgar – livestock market
Chengdu – panda breeding centre + giant Buddha at Leshan

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This list of places will probably not make an initial itinerary however were really nice spots to either kick back or enjoy a lesser paced time getting to know the real China or seeing sights in a less hectic manner. Nice if you have heaps of time but sadly will be missed by most.

Dali – walled city
Dandong – North Korean border
Shanhaiguan – wall meets ocean + first mountain pass
Mountains – Wutaishan, Mianshan, Taishan,
Xiahe – monastery (more Tibetan than Tibet)
Anshun – biggest waterfall in China
Hohhot – Inner Mongolia
Hangzhou – west lake
Shangri-la – mini Tibet

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After this there were a bunch of cities that we stayed in that we found to be totally charming and full of the local Chinese culture and lifestyle but not necessarily likely to get a tourist visit. We would go back to them as we had a really good time eating, drinking and mingling with the locals. Places like Xining where we relaxed after the Tibet ordeal, or Yinchuan where they had 20 quai massages and free street theatre, or Guangzhou where we lazed eating super cheap food in a street that turned into restaurantville after dark.

Myths

You need to speak Chinese – rubbish…almost every Chinese person you meet will try and help you as much as they can. If you have a smile and a nice attitude you will never go wrong. A translator app on your phone and a dictionary style app like Pleco will get you through every drama.
Don’t eat the street food – rubbish…this is the tastiest, cheapest and best food to eat in China. It is clean, and turned over so frequently that most of the time it will be made in front of you. There is tourist food with snakes, bugs and scorpions etc but these are mostly for show and photographs. The every day stuff is fine.
China is dangerous – rubbish…be aware of your surroundings, as you always should be in any country, and you will feel and be safer than you would on any Australian street.

The bad bits

The absolute epitome of all things that are wrong with China exist and are openly displayed by one group especially…The Dama. This is not to say that these traits are not widely available but the Chinese Aunties (or Dama) are the group that has embraced or inherited all that is wrong with China. They are by no means the cause of it…but when looking at the offensive behaviour that exists in China…7 out of 10 times you will see it displayed by one of these aunties.

By night they are happy middle aged women dancing in the parks and public spaces (pissing off the locals with the loud music but amusing the tourists). But during the day they are the phlegm spelunking, bodily fluid hacking, phone yelling, street blocking, child pissing, line ignoring, elbow throwing, crowd pushing group that is oblivious to and ignorant of all those around them.

In a newspaper rant the Chinese papers tried to explain the attitude claiming that … Growing up during the Chinese revolution these Dama worked hard and didn’t enjoy good life when they were young; they only tried their best to save money. Now their children have grown up. With retirement pensions, they have more free time and money to spend on their own life. This explains some of it but not all.

The older generation has some of the worst Chinese traits, the younger generation has reasonably few of them…but the Dama…the Chinese baby boomer equivalents are shockers. And they are mostly women…probably because the men had chain smoked themselves into an early grave. The middle group that is the Dama is atrocious and the worst China has to see and offer.

But the future is bright. The current generation is influenced by the poor examples set and is revolting against this. They are more polite, more aware that other people exist, and less likely to hock bodily fluids around the streets. There is still a long way to go…yelling still takes place and the ignorance of those around them remains high. Smoking will be the next hurdle to be fought as it is impossible to go anywhere without being swamped by cigarette smoke (despite no smoking signs everywhere). No meal can be eaten without half the restaurant firing up after their food.

A Snapshot

Once again we will finish on a selection of thumbnails of our favourite moments…needless to say after 7 months there are too many to try and put on our little post. If anybody is thinking of a trip here we would be happy to provide any advice or share any insights we may have that may help your planning.

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Last minute thoughts

China has recently introduced 72 hour Visa free cities…20 of them in total. This presents the perfect opportunity for stopover tasters as you head to other destinations. Guilin is one of these and was my favourite spot…72 hrs would be enough time to fly in, poke around, crash, take the raft to Yangshou, poke around, crash then return to Guilin for the flight out. This was debatably our best day and certainly one of our best days in China.

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And the adventure continues…

 

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Mount Everest or Qomolangma in the local lingo

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Despite its popularity and the advanced transportation and communication networks Mount Everest is still a bugger to get to. Our journey started with a 24 hr train ride from Xining (it would have been 44 hours if we had tried it from Beijing) to Lhasa. A couple of days to acclimatise to the altitude then a monster 13 hr drive to Shigatse. A quick nap and a feed and another 11 hr drive to base camp…the last 75kms on a bone jarring dirt track. Dawn photo session followed by breakfast and another trip up the mountain at 9 am with a 10:05am departure back for the 10.5 hr drive back to Shigatse. A shower, meal, nap and we were headed back on a 7hr drive to Lhasa for a night, before our 23 hr return train journey to Xining.

I guess if such a naturally beautiful place is to stay pristine then it will need to be out of the way. If you could get there by hopping a flight and taking a short cab ride it would cheapen the experience…we earned our views and photos.

We were blessed with stunningly blue skies and clear weather throughout all of our time in Tibet. As you drive through endless tracts of desert and dry riverbed you begin to realise how desolate Tibet actually is. There are some stunning sights but they are a long way apart. I had an image in my mind of what Tibet, Everest and base camp would be like and I was completely wrong on all three counts. The place is full of natural beauty but in a barren kind of way. The soil is poor and the temperatures are cold so the vegetation is sparse and the landscape is dotted with hardy animals like yaks and goats.

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About 140 kilometres from the mountain along the torturous drive you catch your first real glimpse of Everest…and all the pain melts away. The great weather meant that our first viewing was the postcard shot. Our photo was of the peak with the wind blowing the snow wistfully from the top. A 10 minute stop for photos, oohs, aahs and wows…then back in the van for more torturous bumps.

There are little if any facilities along the road and those that exist are feral. Nine people were jammed into a van for essentially 5 days solid driving with zero privacy…to see a mountain and the odd temple and monastery along the way. As you do the obscenely long and uncomfortable drive you are told to drink copious quantities of water to offset the effects of altitude sickness. We all did what we were told and still all got altitude sickness to one degree or the other. Bumpy roads, full bladders, no facilities…we got to know each other pretty well.

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Altitude sickness is a phenomenon that affects everybody but in different ways and to different degrees. Some of the others in the group were put on drips, given oxygen and took anti-altitude medication. Jill and I had none of any of this…we did both get the headaches and shortness of breath, we both skipped the nausea and vomiting and I got the added joy of sleeplessness. I basically had no sleep between leaving and returning to Lhasa (about 78 hours all up) then Jill forced another 9 hours on me as we had to go shopping and topping up our mobile phone credit. After 87 hours of being awake I caught about 4 hours sleep then headed for our 23 hr train ride back to Xining.

We finally arrived at Everest base camp at 10pm tired grumpy and exhausted. We did have a few choice photo opportunities along the way. But it was dark when we got in so we got into our accommodation, got fed and crashed. The accommodation was an indigenous tent on the side of the mountain. It had a wood stove in the centre, carpets on the dirt and a bench doubling as beds around the outside. The seven of us bunked down for a freezing night of communal camping while the driver and guide headed off to another tent.

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When I said it was a wood stove in the centre of the tent…this was accurate…but… It was not wood that was being burnt. The fuel of choice in Tibet is Yak dung paddies and sheep and goat pellets. So in addition we had a rural aroma permeating the tent. The facilities were about 100 meters away and were totally rank and there was a very real threat that you could fall into a pit of raw sewage. Because of the threat of falling through the wooden floor in the tin shed onto the pit of raw sewage, those that had gone before had gone on the floorboards rather than braving the hole. So most of us chose torchlight and the rocky riverbed…behind whatever stone that might give you some semblance of cover. Clearly we were not the first with such an idea and the area was littered with human and animal excrement. So we added our fair share and moved on…I have a detailed version of this for my nephew Fleebs but have been banned from publishing it.

After a fitful nights sleep for most and no sleep for me…the sun rose and most of us headed to the other end of base camp for sunrise shots of Everest. Standing at over 5200 meters watching the early morning sun reflect off the highest point on the planet seemed to make all the pain of the preceding few days melt away. Back for brekkie then hop a bus to take you another 6-8 Kms closer for an hour of photos and our odyssey was over…except for the return journey.

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Mount Everest is definitely a bucket list item but one that needs to be seriously considered before embarking. This is a destination that cannot be taken lightly and is a serious investment in time and damage on your body. Our trip was in the Tibetan summer and the weather was perfect…and the trip was still tough. The guide told us stories of others that had had weeks on the mountain and barely got to see it due to the clouds and mist…we were VERY lucky.

While it is a fantastic thing to have done and no doubt in the future we will regale you with stories of the time we slept in a tent at the northern face base camp (EBC for those of us who have been there) of Mount Everest in Tibet… we are both glad it is over and we are headed back to Xining for some well earned rest and a little bit of pampering. We can get one hour massages for less than $8 and both of us are aching and in need of some down time.

Categories: Tibet | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tibet…Lhasa

 

Our foray into Tibet started with a 24 hour train journey from Xining to Lhasa. This is the world’s highest railway, the “Qinghai-Tibet Railway” with some people calling it (falsely) the “rocket to the roof of the world”…this is by no means a rocket train. The train peaks at a whopping 5072 meters above sea level at the Tanggula Station, also known as Dangla, which is unsurprisingly the world`s highest railway station.

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The oxygen here is half of that which is available at sea level and as such oxygen is pumped into the cabins of the trains from the 3500 meter mark. This would ordinarily be a good thing but alas this is offset by hoards of Chinese men standing in the enclosed trains smoking cigarettes next to the no smoking signs. As a former smoker for many years I am fast becoming an anti-smoker due to the manner in which the Chinese blatantly disregard all semblance of consideration.

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The scenery along the journey is spectacular…with wide sprawling plains criss-crossed by streams and dotted with sheep (the non fat bottomed kind) and yaks…all leading to snowy peaks. When the sun rises in the morning you find yourself in a 100% whiteout as the clouds and snow envelop the train. As the train climbs to its highest point the clouds give way to the icicles that slide down your windows and the majesty of the mountains.

The trip to Tibet is very heavily controlled and cannot be done on an individual basis but rather must be done as part of an organised tour. This obviously adds to the expense and places you fairly in the midst of touristville with no options for escape. The first real stop on the tour was the Potala Palace which is the traditional home of the Dalai Lama and has been since the 17th century.

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In 1959 the current Dalai Lama fled to India during the Tibetan uprising. The palace is built at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 ft) and houses the mummified bodies of the previous Dalai Lamas (5-13). According to our guide the monks go in to cut the hair and fingernails on the deceased Dalai Lamas every so often.

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Following the Potala Palace we headed to the centre of town to the Jokhang Temple which is the oldest (7th century) and most important temple in Lhasa. The temple is surrounded at all times of day by people performing a full body prostration kora around the temple. For the heathens amongst you (like me) they stand praying for forgiveness for the sins of the body, the mouth and the heart…and then lie face down on the stones…stand take three steps…and do it again. The guys in Lhasa did three laps of the temple (about a kilometre each lap) but according to the guide people are known to do this between religious sites totalling over 500 kilometres. Many of the ones we saw had callouses on their foreheads.

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The next day we headed off en masse again to the Drepung and Sera Monasteries. The Drepung monastery was the home of the Dalai Lamas prior to the construction of the Potala palace by the 5th Dalai Lama. As such it holds the bodies of 2-4 with the first Dalai Lama really not getting a lot of kudos. These are beautiful sights on either end of the city. We had planned to head to the museum but were advised by the tour guide that there was no history there…just the Chinese story about the peaceful integration of Tibet.

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The monasteries at high altitude are proving to be a fair challenge. The scarcity of oxygen, combined with the stairs you climb to get to them means you are breathing very heavily when you get there. Alas upon arrival you are sucking in gobfulls of incense. Add to this the fumes from the yak butter candles and there is some serious hyperventilating going on. I swear that breathing in the fumes from the yak butter candles upped my cholesterol level by about 5 points.

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On an evening outing we floated past the Potala Palace on our way to the local night market and found that is was lit up in the evenings. So on our return to Lhasa after hitting Mount Everest Base Camp we grabbed the group and headed to the palace for an evening photo shoot.

Categories: Tibet | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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