Monday, 29 October 2007

Kathmandu part Two

We settled back into our old hotel in Kathmandu and then moved the next morning because despite our booking and returning patronage, they still saw fit only to keep the bad room for us. A trip round the corner though and we were settled into our new digs with joy of joys, a TV with English language channels. This was the first time in nearly three months we could watch uncensored news from the real world, following our previous captivity to China's CCTV (irony?) network.

We had a busy few days ahead of us, taking in all the sights we had missed on our first visit to the city. First up was the Monkey Temple. Sitting atop a hill at one end of the town, the small but lofty complex contains a couple of monasteries, several stupas, countless prayer wheels, Pilgrims and monkeys. The monkeys are quite sedate compared to some we have previously met on the trip, owing in part perhaps to the recent cull on a bunch that had been deemed out of hand. We took a walk to the hill from our corner of town, calculating that 30 minutes or so should have been substantial time to get round the back of the hill and tackle the steps and souvenir sellers. About an hour into our perambulations we wondered how a reasonably high hill could hide itself so successfully in an otherwise flat town. A wander across a bridge to look back revealed we had already brushed the foot of it once before and soon enough we were standing at the ticket office waiting for the girl to get change so we could pay and enter - a considerable problem when the ATM's denominations are big and the prices of most things are not.

We took a wander to an older district of the city too called Durbar Square. Actually the square is just a part of the district but it is a common location as most towns in Nepal have a Durbar Square. These are usually fairly open spaces with various old style buildings and stupas or towers which are often ascendable for a fee. Durbar Square in Kathmandu was starting to warm up with local colour as the first days of the Dashain festival were approaching. This Hindu festival lasts for 15 days but peaks in the middle when everyone returns home for a couple of days and sacrifices a goat for the occasion. We started to notice more and more goats in town and suspected they were not long for the world.

Quite by chance we found a lovely little garden tucked away behind a wall and a ticket office which was once the estate of a chap who made his fortune in a card game with the king. His estate though had lain forgotten about and had become jungle and ruin until it was rediscovered and re-landscaped again to become quite the retreat complete with wi-fi and coming soon, restaurants and bars.

It was now time to step out of Kathmandu again, but only for a couple of hours while we visited the nearby town of Bhaktapur, a well preserved insight into how Nepalese towns used to look. There is no modern architecture and the roads are closed to traffic here giving a sense of stepping back in time. Some of the narrow alleys felt very medieval as people leaned out of boxed windows and threw pails of manky water out onto the ground. The walls bulged and loomed over, threatening to collapse at any time, a few taking the precaution of having wooden poles jutted into place to hold them up. We had a nice day travelling back in time and then when the rain came we popped into a taxi and went home again.

It was now almost time to leave Kathmandu but there was one more corner of the town left which we wanted to see first. Bodnath is home to most of Nepal's Tibetan immigrants and the town is awash with prayer flags and robed monks. The monasteries are bright and well kept and there is even the odd picture of the Dalai Lama smiling from within his picture frame. Bodnath is also home to one of the world's biggest Stupas (big conical shrine thing). It takes a full 5 minutes to walk around the stupa and it is similar in height to maybe a 10 story building. Another of the common sights here, much more so than anywhere else was large German tour groups who had a habit of booking up all the tables in the restaurants before we got there. Many people come here to study Tibetan Buddhism and there are lots of courses run here by the various monasteries.

It wasn't a deliberate strategy, but this being a Buddhist enclave, we later decided that it was probably a good place to be to avoid the goat sacrificing and fire cracker excitement going on in the Hindu corners of town. We also stumbled upon the Hyatt-Regency while we were there, and after a moment of consideration we decided we were due a treat and promptly settled in for a night of luxury. So proceeded a reminiscent scene of us entering by the back door, which was nearer our last hotel, and pushing past the lunch time buffet table with all our bags and attachments as we smiled politely at the open mouths and stares that followed us across the cavernous restaurant. Actually, in truth that didn't really happen. No-one seemed to notice us or blink twice at our bags. We were doing posh, but not Ritz-Carlton posh. We made the most of our two hours of free drinks and nibbles though, splashed in the pool and sauna a bit and before you could say "Where's our butler?" our time was up and we had to check out. All was now done and seen in Kathmandu and we were ready to set off to the second biggest town, via a very small one on the way. It would be an early start though so one more night was necessary back in Thamel, beside the snake charmers, before we were on the bus and out of town.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Off To The Jungle For Big Game Hunting

Chitwan National Park, about 120Kms south of Kathmandu is a reserve, home to rhinos, tigers, elephants, monitor lizards, crocodiles, leopards and many other slightly less exiting creatures. For the price of a single day's budget in China, we had paid for the two of us to have a three day trip to the park. The price included accommodation, all food, all transport, a trip to the elephant breeding center, a jungle trek, canoe trip, elephant safari, cultural performance, traditional village tour and park entry fees - not bad!

The bus journey was a fairly effortless 6 hour ordeal though our promised free pick up from our hotel turned out to be a man standing waiting to lead us on foot across town to the bus station. Our hotel was a little basic but nice enough and the five of us soon settled into the routine of being ordered here and there by the hotel staff who were keeping us on schedule for the hectic series of events.

It felt like the off season, with all the hotels being almost completely empty and a lot of construction work going on around the small town. There were about 8 to 10 staff members in our hotel who did everything from the jungle guiding through to serving in the restaurant, cooking the food, driving the jeep and building the extension out back.

Night 1 and we visited the breeding center and saw the elephants chomping down on their elephant snacks while the baby elephants looked on in jealousy (they were too young for Dumbo junk food). Next we were shipped down to the cultural exhibition hall to see a series of tribal dances with sticks which was all very entertaining. The performers consisted of about a dozen male dancers who reenacted tribal boogies for our entertainment. The best bit though was the one dance that actually had a part for the women. Rather than share their earning with a couple of girls for the sake of one dance, the two newest members got bedecked in skirts and lipstick and pushed out onto the stage. The audience politely pretended not to notice.

It was up early the next morning and out to go rhino hunting. Our weapons for the hunt were cameras to shoot them with and elephants to find them with. We had two elephants and we sat in baskets on their backs for three and a half hours while we explored savanna, rivers, forest and grassland in search of what is not known to be an easy to hide animal, given it's size. Our hunt was unsuccessful but we had a great time sitting atop an elephant, our legs dangling while it waded through the water and marsh. It is quite the odd sensation at first as sitting just behind it's shoulders, you lurch back and forth and side to side. Despite their size, they are incredibly gentle and there isn't so much as a hint of their approach from their completely silent footsteps.

Lunch followed and then it was out into the jungle this time to go tiger hunting. First we had a boat ride down the river to reach the heart of the jungle. The boat, a dug-out canoe, was not very stable as we were carried down stream and the five of us sat in a singular terrorised row as we pondered what would happen if we toppled into the crocodile infested water. We might have been less concerned if our guide had not shown us a crocodile lying smiling at us in the water as we got into the canoe. We made it safely to the jungle and then, as an echo of the monsoon opened above our heads we entered the undergrowth looking for our prey. Due to the sudden down pour, our guide stopped his safety speech early and we didn't actually find out what we were supposed to do if we did find a tiger, and if it rather considered that we were the prey. Our only defense was our guide's stick since all weapons are banned from the reserve. As it was we needn't have worried as the closest we came was a fresh paw print and a couple of trees with big claw scratches in them, marking favourite scratching posts. By then end of the day we were knackered and an early night saw us up early again the next morning for our traditional village tour.

We were then due to have returned to Kathmandu but decided to stay for an extra day and pay 75 pence each to go and wash the elephants down at the river. We decided that with the size of the elephants, and their stomping and rolling and splashing in the water that the crocodiles would keep a wide berth and they seemed to do just that, or at least if they didn't, they didn't seem hungry. The biggest danger seemed to be having an elephant roll over on top of you or getting washed away in what was an incredibly strong current, not that the elephants seemed to notice. We had a lot of fun down at the water and got to ride the elephants bareback and get lifted up onto their backs by their trunks. Nic and I were a little disappointed because we thought the emphasis of the whole thing would be on us giving the elephants a good time and a bit of a scrub but it rather seemed the opposite. Still, we decided that if they weren't down splashing around with us as scooshing us from their trunks, they would have more likely been standing out in the very hot sun somewhere and they still seemed to be having a good time too so we decided our money was still in the elephant's favour. The afternoon was spent with a few beers and more splashing about, this time in the swimming pool of a near by, slightly posher hotel.

We had a nice last night with Valerie and Nicolas who we had now spent about two and a half weeks with. They had not spent much of their trip before this point with many other people, and neither had we. Our jeep buddying for the trip out of Tibet could not have been a better choice as we found that couple to couple, we had quite the number of similarities between us and interests. The following morning we parted ways as we got on different buses and as Nic and I returned to Kathmandu we wondered how we had managed such a perfect match.

Thanks Guys.

Anyone who wants to brush up on their French-Swiss can check out their far superior blog at:

Tuesday, 9 October 2007


The four of us settled into Kathmandu, changing accommodation on the second night because, with a fresh pair of eyes and filled bellies, we were able to find even better accommodation. It was already becoming apparent to us that Nepal was going to be a much much much cheaper stay than China. Our hotel room was one of the nicest rooms we have had on our trip, with a fantastic restaurant on the ground floor that uses as many home grown vegetables as possible and it was costing us about ₤3.30 per night.

On the bus heading in the previous night, everyone was joking about the western delights that awaited us in our Shangri-La, Kathmandu; pizza huts, cineplexes, clean toilets, hot showers and other unimaginable wonders that had been a forgotten dream for the last fortnight. We never actually expected to find half of it when we got here but we did. The big western brands don't exist, nor does the cinema (though rumour has it there is one tucked away somewhere) but Kathmandu is a total tourist town, set up to furnish us with all the comforts of home. It is so ridiculously cheap that a simple snack ends up being a feast of abandoned decadence.

There is such a strong Indian influence here, in the food, the appearance of the people, the music and the general chaos that is Thamel district. You would never know that China is only a hundred and fifty kilometres away, not a hint of it. Throughout the centuries the boundaries between Nepal and India have moved backwards and forwards so much that the present cultural mix exists.

Nicolas and I both had the same agenda for the next couple of days - blog. In China it had become increasingly difficult to keep up to date, as you probably noticed, due to various reasons ranging from availability of computers, internet, time and opportunity. Kathmandu however has an abundance of internet cafes. While the boys did the blogs, the girls went shopping and Nikki has almost completely replaced her wardrobe for the cost of a T-shirt back home. The streets in Kathmandu feel jam packed with cars and motorbikes and it's true they are, but this is more because of the restrictive size of the streets than the quantity of cars on the road. There are even long stretches at a time when we can walk side by side before having to make way for a barrage of traffic. Just as well too for the many people we see carrying goods across town, all supporting their burdens on their backs by a single strap crossing their foreheads. The sight of an old lady struggling up a hill with a full size wardrobe hanging off her forehead is quickly surpassed by men carrying fridge freezers and the best so far, spotted only fifteen minutes ago, a three seater couch.

The streets bustle with opportunistic salesman, the little wooden violins coming second top to the number of people who approach you and discreetly whisper 'hash', or 'smoke' in your ear. The shops are awash with hippy tie-die'd outfits and rip-off hiking gear, all of which Nikki avoided, and every restaurant it seems has a roof top terrace, many of which we have not avoided.

We spent a few days soaking up the return of comfortable sleeping and good eating until we accidentally bumped into one of our bus buddies who was looking for friends to join him on a very reasonable trip down to Chitwan National Park. He had done all the research and price checking and the package sounded really quite good so we promptly signed up to join him and two days later we were heading south.

The Carry On to Kathmandu

Our bus to Kathmandu was run by a bunch of cowboys. We had banded together with a group of backpackers knowing that with the power of 10, we were much more likely to negotiate a good price for transport from the border into town.

We had expected to find a few buses and loads of cars eager for our business but when we stepped away from the immigration hut it seemed the two or three buses that were left (and no cars) were going to hold the superior hand in the negotiations.

It was not long before we had one of the buses sorted though. After rigorous checking and cross checking with the driver regarding the deal (we have all been in these situations countless times now) we had all agreed on the price, that the bus was going to leave in no more than 20 minutes, that there would not be anybody sitting on the aisles with chickens and what not, and that our bags would come in the bus and be in our sight all the time and that we would pay half now and half at the end. Deal made and we got on the bus.

No sooner did we all sit down than the driver said he had just spoken to the driver and that the price was too low. 'You said you were the driver', 'no, I'm not the driver, I'm assistant'. Some more arguing and disputing but we settle on the new price, lets just get going. We don't seem to be going anywhere and it's 15 minutes since we were supposed to have gotten on the road. 'the driver says not enough people' we are told. 'We agreed 10 people, we agreed price, we agreed to leave 15 minutes ago'. Boy shuffles off, new man arrives on the scene. 'The bus can not go without more people, we'll lose money with only ten people'. There were five Chinese tourists who were hanging around nearby seemingly stuck for transport so we made a new deal that if we got them on board the bus would then leave straight away. We sent forth our best negotiators and they hopped on board. Still no movement. Another man appears - 'the bags must go on the roof', in unison 'NO', then less in unison, shouting and repetitions of the arrangement. We have now been sitting on the bus for about an hour but we hear that 'the driver is at immigration, he can not get to the bus, you will all have to get off the bus', then 'the bus is broken you will all have to get off the bus', then 'there is a problem get on this other bus'. We remain adamant that we are staying put, for as long as they try and change the deal, they can't get their bus back and we are resolved to sit this one out. The Chinese are starting to buckle though and have sent forth an envoy to find a car for themselves - cheers for the solidarity on that one guys. Then during all the shouting one of the bus guys reckons an authoritative voice will make us get off the bus and jumps on and shouts 'right, I've had enough, everyone get off the bus now, it's not moving, get off the bus'. We all shout back, the Chinese are getting very twitchy, especially without their front man because the bus men are trying to target them individually and get them off the bus and on to a different one. The other bus looked much dodgier, already had chickens and a crowd of people on the roof and at least on our bus we were already an hour and a half into the nonsense that we would have to begin again on the other bus.

We start asking how there can be a driver for the other bus, which we have been promised is empty and just for us and why he can't drive this bus. We ask why the driver of the bus is stuck at immigration since the bus never crossed the border and several other questions when suddenly a voice pipes up, 'Okay, the bus can go now but for 500 rupees each'. That was the moment we were all waiting for, because that was the evidence we needed to insist that it moved now and that they stopped their carrying on and that the driver got on. At this point, a taxi arrives for the Chinese, and also simultaneously another four people who, if we can get them on the bus, will have filled up the remaining empty seats and surely mean they there was nothing else to wait for. If the Chinese got off though and took the taxi which had come up and parked beside the bus we would be back to the same situation. We grabbed these new people and threw them into the seats before they could think about it, with all the pressure of the ten of us, forced the Chinese to stay on the bus, with one last effort, told the bus drivers to get it sorted and get going and finally it seemed to happen, two and a half hours after we had been told we'd leave in twenty minutes.

We started moving and after a further fight regarding us only paying half now and half at our destination (central Kathmandu) things seemed to be going fine. It was slow going, the roads in Nepal are not very good and with the monsoon season only ending 7 or 8 hours ago there were lots of hastily cleared landslides to squeeze between. The scenery was stunning though, driving through gorges that raced up and down either side, kilometers in height with water falls everywhere and such vibrant green vegetation covering every available space. There was no doubting we were in a new country. The trucks are all Indian, with fantastically ornate paint jobs, and a surprising tendency to pay homage to the Union Jack flag. Breakdown triangles are an adornment and they drive on the left side of the road here too, marking a difference to China. We kept finding trucks parked up in unusual spots because the drivers were all stopping to wash in their underpants under the waterfalls. We had lots of children waving at us and smiling, which made a pleasant change from the usually slightly sullen and confused looks of the Chinese children, and we found that the drivers here, although similar in driving standard to the rest of Asia, prefer to slow down for animals on the road rather than speed up towards them. The horns on the vehicles are every bit as loud as elsewhere but amusingly they all honk out tunes when sounded, often resulting in a cacophony of jingles when a slow vehicle holds the rest up.

Our non stop bus only made about three or four long stops on the way to the city, not including the quick stops to pick up passengers to sit in the aisle and on the roof. The last stop was about 30 Km's out of Kathmandu where we picked up the very guy we had been negotiating with, 5 hours and a hundred kilometers back at the border. 'Okay you pay the rest now'. We corrected him and he resigned himself to sit with the driver. Five minutes later, the bus stalls and doesn't seem to want to start again, odd considering there had been no hint of a problem earlier. We don't buy it and we let them know. With what must have either been magic dust or good fortune, the bus seemed to be working again and about an hour later we arrived in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. We paid the rest of the money, shouted a bit at each other and then headed on our way en mass to tour the available hotels, dropping off one by one as we each found what we wanted.

Valerie, Nicolas and ourselves were still together at this point and it seemed sensible to sit two people down with the bags while the other two continued looking. Being nothing short of gentlemen, Nicholas and I sat down with a couple of beers and sent the girls forth to find suitable digs, which they did, but not before we had time to order a second beer. By the end of the escapade we had discovered another difference with Nepal - their beer is stronger.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Out of Tibet

We should have been off to a good start because our tour driver was going to meet us out side the restaurant we intended to have breakfast at once we had all eaten. Unfortunately the restaurant was not as eager to have an early start as we were and instead we spent the first half hour of the morning sitting on the steps. All was well in the end though and off we set. We reached what would remain our highest altitude until Everest within hours when we drove up to a car park on a hillside at 5200 meters. This was so we could look down at a lake which was all very pretty and all but I'm not quite sure was worth the 3 hour climb, to then come straight back down again. This was also the last time we would see the dreaded tour bus fleet as from this point on we were in 4X4 territory. For those tourists who didn't find the lake quite enough to photograph, there were plenty of nomads with Yaks and Mastiff dogs bedecked in fancy regalia.

The roads on the first few days were reasonable and we had an easy time of the trip to start. Nicolas had a GPS unit, which kept us constantly updated to our altitude, direction and speed (our driver was unexpectedly slow and considered) and even showed us our position on a wee map too. This easy driving seemed to affect our driver who could hardly keep his eyes open. We thought maybe he had had a late night, it being his last in Lhasa for a week but it would make little difference the following days. This was the only day though that he had to stop the car, buy a bottle of water and pour it on his head.

We spent our first night in a town called Gyantse. The main sights to see here were the hordes of wild dogs running the street and the army troop who marched passed our hotel window in the morning. The promoted sights of the town included a fort which the British ransacked in 1903, which we visited, and a big monastery surrounded by a wall which we looked across at from the fort. Then it was back on the road for day two's journey. This was a nice short one and it only took us an hour and a half to reach the town of Shigatse.

Shigatse is home to the Tashilunpo Monastary, at one time residence of the Panchen Lama (kind of second to the Dalai Lama) and we popped in to say hello. We also popped out accidentally when we followed someone through a wee gate in the wall and found ourselves back on the outside and locked out. Surrounding all the temples and monasteries in Tibet are prayer wheels. These are big brass drums on vertical poles which pilgrims spin as they walk passed. Usually, there are dozens, hundreds or maybe even more if the building's circumference is big enough to host them all. We started the pilgrim path, clockwise around the monastery to try and find another way back in but an hour and a half later we were back round to the front door with two pairs of used tickets and friendly looking faces hoping we'd get back in. We did and we got a good look around the monastery.

Our next town was Shigar where we asked our driver to drive us around to find better accommodation. We spent about an hour trying to find a nicer place or negotiate better room rates before accepting that our now unhappy driver maybe knew where to take us to after all. We returned to the first hotel and took the last room they had, the four of us sharing a room with two single beds, a cold shower and horror of horrors, an Eastern style squat toilet with a pretty bad smell. Valerie negotiated a killer price though which went some way to make up for it. An average meal in the two-bit-town restaurant and then we all settled down to play cards by candlelight in the power cut.

The accommodation only got worse the following day too. We had reached Everest base camp and not wanting to find ourselves stuck for accommodation again booked in at what we thought was the best looking place, since all that came next up the road was the camp site. What we didn't know was that these tents were big massive things with a stove in them and big duvets and beds. All in all though, we didn't make such a bad choice because these tents doubled up as restaurants during the day and everyone just sat themselves between your bags, also there was no privacy in terms of rooms. So we had a room, again between the four of us, but joy of joy a bed each. It was inevitable that the toilet we had previously found so disagreeable would now seem like quite the luxury as the toilet facilities here were two holes in the ground in an outhouse. The smell was bad enough and so was the risk of falling through the rotten floor but what was worst of all was the constant updraft that brought with it more than just the gentle fragrance of what was slowly decomposing below. Despite all this it still wasn't so bad really.

We got there around lunch time so after a spot of food were ready to go exploring Everest. We didn't actually get right up to it sadly, but only most of the way. Oddly, there's another passport control at this point and it's not for people trekking out of the country, just another instance of the government keeping tabs on our movement. We got as close to Everest as we could before a man turned us back, but by climbing up one of the hills to the side, we got a good view over to see a glacier. It was at this time we reached our highest altitude of the trip, 5300 meters. The top of Everest was covered in clouds so we didn't actually see the peak close up but on our drive down to base camp, when we could see the mountain and all its neighbours not far off on the horizon, the clouds cleared for us to get a good view and a couple of pictures - more than the people we were speaking to who spent three days at base camp and got nothing. The landscape all around us as we walked was barren permafrost, rocky and sharp and scarred and with a deep red tinge to everything, it seemed very Martian.

The following day was our last in the Jeep and it was a long hard push to the border. We were making good progress until we got stopped at a town by the police. The road ahead was closed. This was unexpected news for the jeep drivers and our wait meant that all the Jeeps doing the journey that day bunched up into a convoy as we waited for the road to open. A couple of hours later and the gate was lifted and we were on our way. The road had been closed because the road is only just getting built. Our jeep, along with the thirty or so other cars slipped and clung to the boggy and treacherous track, driving through waterfalls and all sorts. Our driver had fully woken up now and was quite in his element, showing all the characteristics I had expected from the start, overtaking on blind bends and accelerating towards vehicles in front who were clearly in a stationary position. He was having a great time, I was having a less great time as we slipped and squeezed with landsliding boulders on one side and a kilometer high drop on the other.

Once the immediate peril of the situation had settled down, it became good fun and we eventually made it down to the border town of Zhangmu. The weather had been steadily deteriorating during the day until by the time we arrived at the town it was a monsoon. We would soon learn from the Nepalese that this was the last day of their monsoon season and we arrived in Nepal on the first day of the dry season. It is incredibly how sharp a cut off it has. However, we weren't in Nepal yet. Once again, the four of us had a room with two single beds, and for the privilege, got to pay prices that made Beijing seem like a bargain. The following morning, the rain had all stopped and we queued to leave the country. We reflected how lucky we had been to have Valerie and Nicolas as our Jeep buddies as we had a great time in and out of the car with them and in situations that could so easily have been a nightmare had we not all got along. The four of us were going to keep company for a bit longer yet too, at least until we got to Kathmandu.

No-one creates queues quite like the Chinese administration. Having had two months of them, we still had one more to endure yet and it was a belter. For about three hours we waited in a large bunch of people trying to get closer and closer to the immigration desk. In our travels we have crossed plenty of borders now and never have we found one quite so slow and difficult, without explanation. Eventually we were through though, then into a minivan to get shuttled the 9 Km's to the Nepalese border. On our way, we went through a bustling town full of people and traders and no end of traffic congestion but we have no idea what country the town belonged to. We then got through the Nepalese immigration with no hassle, and set out in a group of 10 to find a bus to Kathmandu. We succeeded with effort, and after refusing to get off the bus and refusing to pay any more money, calling a dozen different con men liars and saying 'we were happy to wait until the following morning if that's what it took, after all the seats are comfy' - the bus finally left for Kathmandu.

We had had two months in China, if you include Tibet, and had had a great time. We saw some fantastic sights, met some very nice people and came away with a very refreshing opinion of the Chinese people (at least as individuals). We were less impressed by the regime though and as we spent more time in Tibet so we soured all the more against it. The final hassle to leave the country was a fitting reminder of what we were escaping from and we were quite happy to be leaving now for pastures new. We also felt more optimistic for the future of Tibet than we did before seeing it. It wasn't that we could see any light at the end of the tunnel for them as such, it wasn't that we saw all their abducted family members being returned or apologies for the tens of thousands of Tibetans that have died under the administration (apparently the International Commission of Jurists has declared China's actions in Tibet as Genocide), but we did see a distinct character within the Tibetan people. No one spoke openly to us about their feelings regarding the Chinese, in truth we avoided the subject ourselves, and there were no protests in the streets or slogans painted on the walls. But what we saw were lots of Tibetan people, still living by their Tibetan values, in a way that was distinctly different from the Chinese. This was especially true in the country, where not a single Chinese immigrant was to be found. The only sign that we were still in China once we got out to the west was the checkpoints scattered between the prayer-flag strewn hills . The Tibetans may not have their freedom, but they still very much have their distinct and individual identity.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Into Tibet

It seemed that all our efforts to gain the permit for Tibet had been unnecessary, including the hefty price as we never got checked for them before boarding the plane. Still, better to play it safe - we might need them yet for all we knew.

We had landed outside Lhasa, the capital city which is one of the highest cities in the world, standing at an altitude of 3650 meters. Because of this altitude, the air is much thinner and it is very easy to exhaust yourself here with very little exertion. Altitude sickness is something you have to be careful of which can take the form of headaches and nausea. The advice given to new arrivals is do nothing for the first couple of days and just acclimatise.

We got a shuttle bus into town and walked with as little exertion as possible as we searched for our hostel. Having not found it where we thought it should be, we stopped for a spot of lunch and, as is traditional here, tried a cup of yak butter tea. If the name doesn't put you off it, the reputation usually does but I rather liked it, though Nic agrees with the general consensus among the masses. Lunch over, we found our hostel and settled in.

The next two days were simply spent walking leisurely around town. On one of our walkabouts, a monk hit me with his walking stick because I didn't give him any money but we are quite sure he wasn't a real monk, rather someone dressed up just to get money. He even had the cheek to come back up a second time five minutes later. The town is full of monks, as you'd expect and pilgrims and devotees who prostrate themselves in front of all the holy buildings in town. We also learned very quickly that you only ever walk in a clockwise direction around anything but most especially of all inside and around monasteries and temples. Although learning this very quickly, it took us a lot longer to actually remember to do it.

The first holy building we went into was the Jokhang Temple which is considered the holiest building in all of Tibet and sits bang in the centre of the old town. We timed this a bit wrong and entered while literally thousands of pilgrims were trying to make their way around it. Inside this temple, like all the others, are glass cabinets lining the rooms, each with a different deity in it. There's thousands of deities, most of the them grotesque demons. The pilgrims all carry large clutches of money (the smallest denomination though) and a flask of melted yak butter. They push and force the money into any little crack possible either in the building or as a direct offering to a particular deity, and then pour some of the butter into candles which are burning in every little chapel in the monastery. The whole interior is gloomy, the walls painted a deep maroon colour and covered in very detailed murals in green, gold, yellow and blue. The air hangs heavy with the scent of the yak butter candles which coats everything with a thick layer of dark grease. There are lots of monks who look after the monastery, tending to the candles, sweeping up all the money with brooms, and at certain intervals chanting and beating drums. Once you're inside all the stimulus starts to affect you and when you leave you are most definitely operating at a slower pace than you were when you entered. Once we had seen all there was to see inside, we took a walk out onto the roof for a good look back down below. This experience would prove fairly consistent with all of the monasteries and temples we visited in Tibet.

The Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lama before fleeing into exile was also a must see while we were there though the administration makes it as difficult as possible for the idle tourist to see it. We had to queue early in the morning on the day before we wanted to see it to get a ticket. This ticket then had a time on it that we were to came back at. We also needed our passports to get these tickets though goodness knows why. After our morning queue we headed out to see the Summer Palace, the Norbilinka, which is where the Dalai Lama stayed during the summer months. The summer Palace was much less like the palace of a head of state and more like a grand country retreat for a very well off, but normal person. It was a very bright and cosy place and the gardens outside the front were particularly pretty, though the gardeners seem to have forgotten about the back gardens. The tour took us through a selection of rooms including his bedroom and bathroom and reception rooms. It was noticeable absence that there was absolutely no mention of the Dalai Lama himself, and certainly no photo of him - his image is banned in Tibet.

Although China will disagree, Tibet still feels like an occupied country and China still acts like an oppressive occupier. No other city in China has felt quite as different as Lhasa does and this is obviously because of the Tibetan people. It is a positive sight that Tibetans in Lhasa are not an invisible minority, drowned in the sea of Chinese immigrants. Walking along the street, the Tibetans still feel like they have the upper hand in numbers. In a bid to stamp their authority, the Chinese government has put a massive concrete square opposite the Potala Palace, where there used to be a lake, and have installed a giant obelisk with the Chinese crest in gold at the top of it. And why not? They deserve some credit for 'liberating' the Tibetans from the oppressive regime of the Dalai Lama, as they refer to it, don't they? One thing they haven't liberated the Tibetans from though is the men's habit of urinating wherever they are outside if the urge comes. They are only as discrete as turning away from onlookers. Scurrying off to find a back corner somewhere is quite a waste of time by their standards. On an up note though, the whole naked baby bum thing is decreasing here but we've put that down to the Tibetan influence, not the colder temperatures.

Although only just settled in to Tibet, we already had to divert our attention to how we intended to leave for Nepal. There is a very well trodden, or rather driven, 4X4 route that leads up and across the Himalayas, passing Mount Everest base camp on the way. This was what we wanted to do but because of the prohibitive cost of hiring a car, driver and compulsory guide (read - minder) for the five day trip, we needed to find some other people to share the car with. Thankfully, nearly every single backpacker in Lhasa has the same agenda and the same need to find a Jeep Buddy. We had made only the loosest enquiries and in one tour shop left a message in their note book that everyone writes in, in case someone might contact us, interested in sharing. We really intended to start looking with earnest a day or two later. As it happened though, a Swiss couple had read this hours after we'd written in it, and by a chance gap in the email blackout we found an email from them. By the end of the second day we were all set and ready to go find a jeep together. But first, Nic and I had tickets to get into the Potala.

The Potala Palace is absolutely massive. It's one of those buildings that doesn't look all that big in pictures, but as you keep looking at it, and seeing it day after day you start to realise it is simply huge. Its built on top of a hill, and its exterior walls extend done the hillside helping give this impression of enormity. The tour would not take us to see how much space was actually behind these walls or if they were perhaps only one room back, but instead remained in the top couple of levels - where the Dalai Lamas lived and where the temples all are. Like the other places we visited, the building is tended to by monks but the Chinese authorities have declared that these particular monks are not allowed to wear robes. They had also decided that people must tour the palace in an anti-clockwise direction, counter to Buddhist ideals but they seem to have relented on that and the tour now starts in room forty something and finishes in room one. The monks have also managed to get some overalls worked up for themselves with a similar fabric to the robes, and just a hint towards them too in the cut of the cloth.

As usual, the majority of the visitors are Chinese tourists. I thought this was a positive sign, perhaps these people would return to 'China-proper' with their eyes opened a little wider. But when they all stood in the Dalai Lama's personal room of contemplation and all took photos out the window at the big Chinese obelisk across the way, I suspected the point had been missed. The Potala was good, and had some particularly impressive gold tucked away in it's rooms. The most impressive of all was a Giant gold stupa, housing the body of the 5th Dalai Lama, the leader who unified Tibetan politics and religion and became the first Dalai Lama to be the head of state. This Stupa, is made with 3720 Kg's of gold and thousands of precious gems and diamonds. Almost as valuable as the piles of money being thrown in front of it. Usually, at each stupa, is a monk who will bless a special item if you give it to him and he then holds it against the stupa for a minute so that the appropriate deity can also bless the artifact. Queues of pilgrims had their special possessions blessed by everything and anyone that was available, but what was quietly amusing was that it was often things like their hat or a carrier bag - the items in the bags presumably benefiting from a 'ten for the blessing of one' kind of promotion. Again, there was not a single mention of the present Dalai Lama, only his predecessors.

We were having a good time in Lhasa, and ticking off the sights and making further enquiries with tour shops regarding the price and availability of jeeps for the four of us. Nic and I had yet one more visa problem though. When we had got our visas renewed in Leshan, mine had had 30 more days from the date of expiry, whereas Nic's had 30 more days starting from that day. This meant that there was a difference of about 5 days between our two visas. We wanted to find out if we could extend Nic's visa to match mine to give us as much time as possible in Tibet. If we couldn't, we were going to have to cut and run pretty sharp for the border as the days were counting down fast. When we went to Leshan, we chose that office because they are the easiest to get what you want. By contrast, Lhasa is renowned as the worst. The guide books say don't bother. We had to try though so we popped round to the bureau to ask for one more extension, caps in hand, full of smiles and very supportive of the nice shiny obelisk in town. Extraordinarily, we got it. We could now book our jeep.

After a brief fright when it appeared the price had jumped up by 2000RMB, we found an agent who agreed to stick to her old price. First she needed our passports and our Tibet permits so they could get sent away for approval. Here came the moment of vindication that made the whole Tibet permit hassle worthwhile. When she saw it she laughed and said it was totally useless. All we had was a very expensive piece of photocopied paper. Any travelers reading this beware - Leo Hostel. On the plus side, she was absolutely amazed we had managed to get a visa extension for Nikki so all in all it was only half bad.

Everything now arranged, we had a couple of days left to see what else was about, and also to buy some heavier jackets for our expedition up Everest. We found what became our favourite monasteries of them all, Drepung and Nechung, a cycle out of town and then a short walk between the two. Nechung monastery is home to the Nechung oracle. Dorje Drak-den, the principal protector divinity of the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama. He possesses the body of a medium so that the Tibetan government, led by the Dalai Lama can consult him regarding matters in which they seek advice or sometimes healing.

The ceremony which would last for several hours involved the medium having a huge hat of feathers which it would take two monks to lift, placed on his head. He would then enter a trance by a combination of shouting and throwing himself around the room before he would settle down and become ready for consultation. The Dalai Lama consulted the oracle regarding his fleeing to India, and later so did the medium who followed on behind. The temple was really quite small, but with the usual gloomy and incense filled air. At one corner is the little chapel where the remaining dozen or so monks chant and worship Dorje Drak-den. In a cabinet are three statues depicting him - he is one of the grotesque demon types. The air in this room felt even thicker because most of the offerings brought to these statues are bottles of alcohol. There was a very strange sense of presence in this room too so we concluded this was where the sittings took place. We later learned it was the lovely and bright room up stairs that felt a million miles from everywhere else in the temple. The artwork on all the walls inside the temple took a more sinister turn as well, depicting demons tearing human bodies apart and feasting on brains and such like - not what we thought Tibetan Buddhism was about.

We also visited the Drepung Monastery, at one time the biggest monastery in the world. Statistics record that before the Chinese occupation, there were over 10,000 monks in residence in what is effectively a small town. Today there are only about 600 monks wandering the paths and alleys between all the buildings that either house sleeping quarters or temples and chapels. We spent a full afternoon exploring the complex before becoming paranoid that everywhere we went, two policeman seemed to follow, one who looked quite friendly, the other particularly sinister. Was it possible they saw us enter by the road that all the monks were treading rather than the one with the ticket office on it and the tour buses? Not wanting to incur bad Karma we made an equivalent contribution to the biggest Buddha statue hoping the money would go straight to the monastery that way and not near the administration.

We had seen everything we had time for and even bought ourselves a couple of jackets for Everest from one of the countless shops selling very good replicas of all the expensive brands. It was now time to hit the road, or rather the track with Nicolas and Valerie.

Datong and Pingyao and back to Beijing

Our flight was booked to Tibet but first we had a little problem regarding permits. The Chinese government, in a move that only arouses suspicion, doesn't like people going into Tibet unless they pay the government some extra money. Furthermore, if you technically played by the rules, you can only go as part of an organised tour, so that the government knows you will never be on your own and perhaps see or hear something they don't like. If you go by the new fancy train that they just opened last year, it is quite easy to go without a permit because they never check for them, but we would be flying and that was a different story. We found a hostel who was quite happy to arrange us a permit though and we had a week to go see somewhere else and then return, collect the permit and catch our flight. We did our research carefully regarding this because there are countless stories of people getting fake permits and being ripped off but this place seemed to come up trumps by previous travellers reports.

Everything arranged we jumped on a train for the 6 hour ride to the town of Datong. We rode hard seat class which is the cheapest type, and as it happened to be on this train, the only type. It is not quite the same as the soft class carriages we had become accustomed to. The seats aren't so hard really, they've got a bit of padding, but they're not so much seats as high and straight backed benches which sit three people aside, facing into another three people. It is quite difficult to do anything other than sit up and sit straight. Some food came along which, as is always the case on trains here, was much better than it aught to have been and really quite cheap too, though most people brought their pot of instant noodles and just filled them up from the large water boilers at the end of the carriages. The sensibilities and considerations of many travellers, in what we have previously referred to as convict class, can be less than savoury but our luck was in for this particular trip and our neighbours were all quite civil. That said, about half way through the journey four boys got on and took an empty seat and chewed their way through a bag of sunflower seeds, spitting the shells on the ground and smoking away in defiance of the signs. It was unlikely they would have gotten any form of reprimand for this anyway as the train guard would have first had to take the cigarette out of his own mouth to talk to them.

We reached Datong, were pointed in the Direction of the one hotel the tourists get sent to and made arrangements for the following days excursion which would once again be an organised tour. Our hotel was pretty dreadful. There was little hot water, most of the lights didn't work, our free breakfast was not to be found and every time we walked down the corridor I kept seeing scenes from 'Towering Inferno'. Except for the pillows which were filled like a been bag and would end any pillow fight, we had a reasonable sleep. We also enjoyed the view across the square to the train station which was covered in flashing neon lights in an array befitting to a casino in Vegas.

Datong is the town you stay in to see two sights. One is the Hanging Monastery and the other is the Buddha caves. The Hanging Monastery at Mount Hengshan is about 1400 years old and it was still a working temple up until the 20th Century. It clings to the cliff face at a height of 50 metres, though this used to be a height of 100 metres until the introduction of a dam a little up stream. It has about 80 rooms and very rarely for a temple has Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism elements and idols inside.

We were expecting massive crowds when we went to see it because this is the big sight in the area but it was much quieter than we imagined meaning we had time to lean over the terrifyingly low hand rails and ponder our precarious position. As we were leaving it seemed like a whirlwind of tour groups all arrived at once and as we sat, now back at the bottom watching them clambouring all over each other and posing for photos, we realised we had timed it just right. The place had immediately transformed from serene and contemplative to a theme park struggling under the numbers. It's a wonder the thing hasn't fallen off the wall as it could never have been built with so many people in mind. Next came lunch, included in the price, and we were back on the bus, two hours back into Datong and then an hour out the other side to see the Buddha caves.

The Buddha caves are, as you might have expected, caves. There's about 40 of them though once again pre-Olympic preparations seemed to be responsible for the closing and renovating of about half of them. What we saw though ranged from dull through to down-right-Indiana-Jones-like as we wandered into caves that had been scraped out from the soft clay cliffs (not like the good solid ones holding up the monastery) leaving big caverns with giant Buddha statues inside. Some were sitting, some standing and some were having a nap. There were big ones and little ones and even a few in between. That was all quite good too and then we returned to Datong for one more night, passing a mining town which is quite literally a town sized mine, with a town's population of workers who all live in it and all work just at the mine. It was very Dickensian and a reminder where the rich Chinese really get their wealth from.

The next day we caught the bus to the next tourist town which is called Pingyao. Pingyao is a particularly scenic and well preserved ancient town, dating back through the Dynasties. It was at one time the financial centre of China, home to the country's first bank and they reckon, the first bank in the world to use cheques though I have my doubts on that claim. There is reason to suspect that the town remains in such good condition because it has been discreetly replaced in bits and pieces at odd points with new 'old bricks' and the like but it still remains a very attractive town and a real insight into the old china. As is normal, there is a perimeter wall and you can walk around that. We also took a look through the governor's house and a few other buildings of repute. The buildings are all of a specific style. Grey brick and with a courtyard out the back and lots of little out buildings which all form a compound together. Lots of red lanterns (though they're electric now) and cobbled streets too. It was very attractive and a constant aroma of coal fires from the chimneys drifted through the noticeably cooler air. The hostel we stayed in was apparently built for the visiting emperor but he never came in the end to use it.

After a very long walk in the heat with all our bags out the wrong side of town and then all the way round to the right side, we caught a bus to the next biggest town, to catch another bus back to Beijing. We read this bus would take between 5 and 6 hours. It took 10 and we arrived at our hostel about 1 in the morning. We then had to check in, pop round to the other hostel that had arranged our visas (but we didn't want to stay at), wake someone up that came all the way into work to find us our visas and then try and grab some food from a man on the pavement with a brazier. All done, we had about two and three quarter hours to get some sleep before getting up again really early to catch a taxi to the airport for our flight to Tibet.

BEIJING a big city, a big post

Our Hostel was tucked away in a distant corner of town behind a plethora of roadworks and building work, undoubtedly in preparation for the Olympics. Outside the front of our building was a little road and beyond that a stream which resembled something from a sci-fi movie. Evey 15 metres or so, on both sides of the water, a lantern hung about a meter above the surface. Inside each lantern was a black-light tube, surrounded by an electrified cage. It must have been some sort of anti-mosquito thing because they were forever crackling as another beastie bade farewell to the world. But behind the faint sound of tiny screams was a constant humming sound that made the place feel like the year 2250 or something.

The lanterns, despite their futuristic ambiance, failed in their purpose as every time we returned to our room, we had to brush a mat of mosquitoes off our door, waiting for our blood. Oddly, our door seemed to be the only one they liked which we never got to the bottom of. A combination of the mosquitoes, the sledgehammering on the other side of wall, which was causing the bathroom tiles to fall off, and the distance from the metro led us to move to another hostel that was actually further out yet, but much closer to the metro line. Also, every day we walked to the metro line from our new hostel we passed a little old man, making hot crepes with jam and spring onion stuff inside them. These became our staple breakfast food. The only thing wrong with our new hostel was that every day when the temperature got up, the drains really began to stink and our bathroom would become quite unbearable - don't bother making the obvious comment on this one.

We arrived in Beijing on the Thursday night, and Friday morning headed down to the Indian embassy to sort out our visas for India. By the time we found our way to the correct place though, the line was as long as they had time to process and we were told to come back on Monday, which would give us our Visas on the Thursday. This meant we had a week to enjoy Beijing and to see what it had to offer us. Unsurprisingly, it had quite a lot and we had a good time seeing some of the obvious sights and just hanging about. We popped down to a bar one night in the student district to watch a band billed as 'acoustic punk'. We concluded it was closer to rock and roll with a useless singer. We spent a night down at Hou Hai lake, which is, unsurprisingly, a lake. Around its rim is a band of bars and restaurants and a pedestrianised road which means that it was occasionally possible to walk side by side, between bouts of traffic.

We had a barbecued dinner in the beer garden of a pub one night before popping up to the Jazz cafe where we watched the band give up half way through every song they sang. Meanwhile, people were outside buying little red paper lanterns which they would then set a tea-light candle inside and watch as the heat from the candle lifted the lantern off into the sky, sometimes tumbling back down again or landing in the lake. Sadly no burning fire balls were to be seen suggesting that the designers had actually thought the whole thing through properly - something that cannot be said for the underground network.

The underground trains in Beijing are quite good really, there is plenty of trains that ply the three lines and presumably plenty more waiting to fill the three new lines that have not yet opened for the Olympics. The people are really funny though. For whatever reason, it is of paramount importance to the Beijing'ers to get a seat and this will lead to crazy crushes to get on the train and get that one seat that has just cleared. Two people will both sit down at the same time, squeezing the other person off, other times they will sit on the victor's knee in protest till the weakest person gives up. There is no end of shoving to get down a carriage if someone stands up early, a wise move because if you're not already running on the spot when the doors open to get out, you'll likely get pushed back in and miss your stop. If you do manage to get off the train you next have to negotiate the platform and stairs, where the layout is absurd. Signs lead you up stairs, where at the top there is a turnstile operating in the other direction, and queues of people entering and leaving the station have to cross over each other where, with a little more thought to the direction of the escalators, it could have been avoided. Despite all this madness off and on the trains, there is a general civility towards old people who are often given a seat by a younger person. The same also happens for mothers with toddlers but that is most likely because you never want a Chinese toddler being held anywhere near you.

They don't have nappies here. Not disposable ones, not washable ones, no nappies. The trousers that the children wear are not joined in the middle at the crotch. There is a waistband, and two legs and a great big gap where any articles that would otherwise fill a nappy just plop out on to the ground. It is a perfectly common sight to see a toddler squatting on their hands and knees doing their business before mum turns up with a tissue and lifts it up off the road like someone back home might do for a dog. We've even seen the odd child being held up by mum or auntie, pointing directly away from themselves, legs akimbo, and scooshing like a water pistol across the street. We haven't seen what happens on a train or in a restaurant but it must happen there too. Everywhere you look in China, there are little children running around with their wee back sides hanging out in the fresh air.

We went to see the Forbidden City which is where Emperors lived for millennia and the subjects were never allowed to enter. The complex is huge with hundreds of buildings and courtyards and a very manicured garden at the back. We spent most of a day wandering around under the burning sun and imagining how it might look without all the scaffolding. It would seem that despite the big posters everywhere for the Olympics which read 'We Are Ready', they're not quite there yet after all. In fact they're no where close but no doubt it will all be done and working come the big day. The Olympic slogan which we found to be much more illuminating is the 'One World, One Dream' - no space for personal ideas in that one then. Of course, in a communist mind set, that slogan would seem appropriate, except that in Beijing there is no communist mind set anymore. There is a huge gulf between the rich and poor, and it is only moving in one direction. Traffic lights and regulations don't apply if you get driven around in a black Audi, where your chauffeur can go or park where he likes. We saw a fleet of stretched police limos - with flashing blue lights on the roof, presumably for those emergency situations. It seems that anyone who is important enough can get a set of flashy lights installed behind their grill as time after time black Audi's would go past with a family in the car or just someone popping out to fetch a new jacket, with lights and sirens all going off.

There remains though, a sense of what the old communist thing was supposed to be about - pomp and ceremony. During a speedy stroll across the city, which we foolishly thought would be easier than the crush hour on the metro, we got stopped from walking any further along the pavement. As we stood there, in an ever increasing crowd, looking across to a mirror crowd 100 meters in front of us, five armed soldiers paraded out from a building, across the pavement and up to a flagpole (just one of very very many in Beijing) and proceeded to lower the flag for sunset. Five minutes later, all was down and done and the men and the guns went back indoors with their neatly folded flag and we could all carry on.

There was one other flag lowering that we saw as well and it happened just as I was trying to get a photo of the flag at full mast with everything that was around it. At first I was disappointed at having missed my opportunity but then realised that if I quickly ran round to where they were I might get a couple of nice photos of the soldiers and the flag getting folded and all that stuff. I ran around to where I wanted to be. There were two soldiers hoisting the flag down, a couple more standing ready to help fold it and the sergeant chap supervising the whole ordeal. The sergeant clocked me approaching, so I knew I didn't have a lot of time to get the shot that I wanted. Sure enough he starts to walk over to me, the camera is in the wrong setting. I fiddle with the wheel on the camera he is now passing behind me. The camera's taking a while to find the focus, am I going to have time to get the photo or is he going to stop me first. I get the photo. I can feel him looking over my shoulder though so I decide to take another one, nice and wide, to show my intentions were safe, no need to confiscate anything or throw anyone in jail. He then says something to me though I can't understand it and then he shouts to his men. I am literally sweating buckets here, the photo was most definitely not worth this. Then with a beaming smile, he gestures his hand towards his men who have suddenly stood up double straight and are holding out the flag all perfect for a picture. It was brilliant. I got a few quite good pictures but the best two are the before and after shots when he shouted to his men to stand up straight, where in the first they are all slouching and very disinterested.

We expected Beijing to be really quite smoggy but in actual fact it was one of the cleaner Chinese cities we have visited. Children here are growing up with shadows and know what clouds are. On one of the best days, we took a tour out to see the Great Wall. Tours aren't our thing but this one was different. Most parts of the wall where people go are fully recreated modern concrete things built on top of, and for ever obliterating the original wall. The experience is no more authentic than if Disney World had made it itself. Also, the crowds of people are just ridiculous. We have seen parts of the wall where it is just a massive structure of elevated bodies all squeezing past each other, trying to avoid souvenir sellers. These sellers will by all accounts target one couple and walk with them until they leave the wall because they have a greater chance of a sale at the very end by constantly chipping in with little facts and leading the way for those who don't know how to interpret a sign and a straight path. We knew we didn't want to be a part of this but found by accident, a tour that gos to what they call 'The Secret Wall'. What followed was two hours on a minibus, after which we got dropped off at a field with a guide who then lead us for about 30 minutes up through the gorse until we arrived at an old section of wall that no-one else goes to. It was great. It was real. No concrete, no crowds, no noise, no sellers, we had it all to ourselves and walked for a couple of hours along it before coming back down through another field and going to a house for lunch and a beer.

On our way out to the wall in the minibus we encountered a hold up on the expressway. At first we didn't know what it was. Then we saw the outside lane was coned off and full of sand - a big oil spill we thought. If I've manage to get across the disregard for rules of the road, it should come as no surprise that what plenty of people saw behind these cones was a free lane of road allowing them to jump the queue. What those drivers didn't see though, that we did, is that while they sat on that sand trying to push back in, their tyres were literally melting off their wheels. It turned out a tanker had ruptured in a position that I can't understand, except by a collision in some crazy overtaking maneuver. Whatever it was carrying was particularly toxic, melting everything including the traffic cones and a pair of boots that someone had obviously jumped out of pronto when they saw what was happening to them. The front cab of the tanker was half disintegrated as the fluid had all poured down it and the image was quite something to fully take in, it seemed an impossible sight without the aid of computer graphics.

We got our Indian Visas and were ready to leave Beijing. There were two towns we wanted to see before we would have to return to the city from where we would next be flying into Tibet.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The Long Road to Beijing

Next on our Agenda was Beijing but before we could go there we had to sort out a visa problem. We had arrived in China with a two entry visa, each visit for 30 days but we now wanted to start our second 30 days without actually leaving the country. The rumour on the grapevine was that the immigration department in the town of Leshan had the most lenient administration in China and this seemed like the most likely place to get what we wanted. Leshan was only an hour on the bus from Emei-Shan so we spent a day down there trying to sort this out.

We went to the immigration office in the morning, left our passports with them and then headed off to see the fine sights of Leshan. The biggest sight in town is a statue of the Buddha. When I say the big, I mean huge, standing at a height of 71 metres, it was blasted out of the cliff about 1300 years ago when some bloke had the bright idea of using half of the cliff face, in rubble form to stop up the treacherous river below. As a result, the people of Leshan got a much safer river and a giant Buddha called, Dafo, to boot. Dafo doesn't actually have boots of course, but amongst the many statistics that the people love to tell you about him, one is that a family of four can have pic-nic on his big-toe nail.

We got a boat ride out to see him, and shared the boat with a load of Chinese tourists who all paid hand over fist for an 'official photo' in front of him, in which they were forced to hold a very odd pose by the particularly angry photographer. Most of the photos must have shown a slightly strained smile, disguising a perplexed and dissatisfied countenance. We took exactly the same photo ourselves using our own camera, standing right beside the other people, without paying someone who looked less qualified than the subjects to wield a particularly non-pro camera.

We thought we had seen all the statue sights of Leshan until by chance we happened upon the huge statue of a naked woman wrestling a giant crocodile. We could find no reference or explanation for this so took a couple of pictures and then collected our visas, processed as we hoped and now giving us permission to stay in the country.

An overnight back in Chengdu followed before a flight the next day to Beijing where we landed in the little obscure airport off to the side that no one really uses. It is rapidly getting done up for all the Olympic traffic, having been a former military airport and is still covered in military propaganda posters. We were ushered into a tin shed, along with two other plane's worth of people where we all waited crammed together until slowly truck after truck arrived with the bags. There was no carousel though, instead just a tiled desk where the personnel would chuck the bags and people would clamber over each other to get their belongings. It was chaos and the bags came in no particular order. The drivers didn't even quite know where to drive their buggies to resulting in the crowd constantly crushing from one side of the building to the other as the drivers tried different doors. An hour and a few bruises later, we emerged victorious with our bags in our hands, found a bus with a bit of help from a girl who got no end of abuse from the taxi drivers and next found ourselves fighting for a taxi at Tiannamen Square to take us to our hostel. We got a taxi, and after a call on his phone he knew exactly where he was going and we were settled in for our first night in the capital.

Emei Shan

Emei-Shan is a mountain in Sichuan province whose slopes and crags are host to a dozen monasteries and a well trodden path for pilgrims who come from far away to climb to every monastery before going home. Today, most of the pilgrims are Chinese tour groups who arrive by bus and reach the top by a combination of bus and cable car, though apparently when you reach the top, you have already passed the most impressive part and are left with a concrete hotel complex, a car park and giant TV antenna. We headed advice and stayed on the lower levels instead.

We had come to do a bit of trekking in the dense forestry which was full of big insects like the giant stag beetle and stick insects. Any thought of the need for climbing gear was soon dispelled as the entire route which is about three or four days if you do the whole lot at a pace that makes it worthwhile, is paved with steps and a footpath. This didn't really detract from the enjoyment though and we enjoyed the dense forestry as we made our way through it. We had two days of walking to enjoy, staying for a night in a monastery. The paths had plenty of Chinese people on them too, doing a spot of walking to get the more authentic experience, though some were more successful than others as there were plenty who paid for two men to carry them up and down the stairs in a rickshaw like they were emperors. There were plenty of people perched at different points too, with little woks filled with hot fat and a gas burner underneath and an array of different foods on sticks waiting to be deep fried at your request for not a lot of money. The deep fried potato quarters were our favourite, especially after they get rolled in a spicy Sichuan chilli powder. Sichuan food, is all very spicy but it somehow manages to achieve this without obliterating the original flavour of the food. The spiciness is much more tolerable too as a result and I had the rare chance to enjoy lots of spicy food, without turning red like a beetroot and watering at the eyes.

Our meal for the night was prepared by the monastery we stayed at and although very straight forward, was very good, and importantly vegetarian. Dinner done, we had the chance to enjoy the particularly picturesque, though not entirely original landscape of waterfalls, bridges and pagodas which sit just in front of the monastery and during the park opening hours attracts hordes of rickshaws and megaphones. We had prepared ourselves for pretty grim conditions at the monastery as we would be sleeping in the rooms usually occupied by either Pilgrims or visiting monks but to our surprise the room was fairly nice, if a little damp. It even had a TV to make sure than any travelling monk can keep up to date with their favourite series, though perhaps to re-inject some sense of austerity, the remote control had mysteriously vanished. A storm passed by far off which we really hoped was going to come over head to give a great 'monastery in the mountains night' but it stayed where it was and we had a peaceful sleep instead. The oddest thing about the monastery was that after the tourists had all gone, it seemed that so did the monks and that there weren't actually any in residence, except one who banged the drum at ten o'clock as seemed to be the ritual but was never seen at any other time, not even at dinner when it was only the kitchen and house keeping staff who came for food.

The following day we had breakfast on the path, deep fried and skewered, and then took a wrong turn walking straight uphill for about an hour before realising our error. We then made our way down the correct way passed the man obscurely selling gold fish and terrapins and passed the vicious monkeys who found the Chinese groups an equal match at taunting and pestering, though just in case the monkeys got the upper hand, there was a monk hanging around with a big stick.


We were picked up at the station and taken to our pre-booked hostel, where it was no surprise to learn that they couldn't offer us our room yet because at 5.15, the previous people were still in it. We settled down instead to watch a DVD after a successful fight with the TV which was stuck at full volume while we tried to turn it down, probably waking up half the people staying there.

A movie and breakfast later and we were settled in our room preparing to launch ourselves into Chengdu. The town is a favourite backpacker stop because this is where people come to see the Pandas and also makes an ideal city to head onto Tibet from. We wouldn't be going to Tibet from here but the Pandas were very much on the agenda. By about day 4 we managed to get our act together and took the bus followed by taxi necessary to reach the centre.

The Panda Breeding and Research Centre is set up to increase Panda numbers rather than give the creatures a reserve to see out there days in. There is quite a lot of human contact between the staff and the Pandas and their compounds, although big, are still compounds rather than fully wild forest. It's a good set up though, and the Pandas have big pens to play in, probably close to about 1/2Km square each, not only that, their houses which they retreat into during the heat has the same air conditioning units as most of our hotels.

We arrived early because Pandas aren't the most active animals and by 10 am they tend to settle down for a snooze until late afternoon. Annoyingly though the Chinese tour groups had the same plan. We have come to the opinion that the Chinese, as individual people, and like most of the world excluding Vietnam, are all lovely and helpful. We like them very much and feel quite guilty for bracing ourselves against them before we arrived. As tour groups though, they are possibly the worst in the world. Groups of between 10 and 30 people will be led along by a guide with a megaphone, often standing beside another guide with a megaphone and competing for the most volume. The people in the group act like a badly behaved school group, shouting and shoving and causing no end of disruption by their incessant photo taking. Despite signs saying keep quiet, they would shout and yell at the first sign of a Panda, meaning that was mostly also the last sight of the Panda. Despite them, we managed to see quite a lot of the Pandas including the brand new babies in incubators behind a glass screen. As we watched the pint sized fur balls more groups arrived behind us and we soon made our exit as they banged on the windows and with much hilarity all shoosh'd each other at the top of the lungs when prompted by the panda cub guard and then continued to make as much noise as before.

We had seen everything we came to see and got a few pictures too so we headed out and found a taxi to take us to the bus station so we could get a bus back to the hostel. As we sat in the taxi, something funny was happening with the meter. It had cost us 14RMB on the outward trip but only five minutes in, when I expected us still to have been within the 3 RMB flag fall, the meter already said 9 RMB, with at least another 10 minutes to go. I sat and watched it closely, struggling with the bright sun shining on the LEDs but it seemed to be that the meter was going up very quickly and not at all at regular intervals. Then I noticed that every time the cost went up, the driver seemed to be itching his leg, and unless I was very much mistaken there was a clicking sound too. AT 25 RMB I knew I had him, and his eagerness to keep clicking the button and put up the total was so excessive that there is no way he could have expected not to get busted. I decided to remain quiet though and let him take us where we were headed rather than have an argument and get turfed out on the motorway. We reached our corner of town but we kept him rolling round the streets with the plan that we would innocently ask him to pull over close to a policeman if we saw one and then suggest that he probably didn't want to charge us for the ride. Typical though, this was the one time we couldn't find a policeman and we had got ourselves down a dead end, but still close enough to where we were headed. The man proudly pointed to the meter asking for 54 RMB at which point I reveled I knew his game, threw a couple of notes in his face and slammed the door on exit. He didn't seem interested in getting the other 34 RMB his meter said he was due and we got on the bus, concluding that this was the first con we had knowingly had attempted on us in China.

We spent the rest of our time in Chengdu soaking up the city scene but not actually doing anything in particular, we had a birthday dinner for me in a fairly posh restaurant which actually sold decent wine, unusual for China but we put that down to the fairly large expat community in Chengdu. The town was in a bit of upheaval because they are getting a new underground train network installed, resulting in the roads being all dug up and no end of diversions which meant we missed our stop at least once and had to get a taxi to find our way home, this time with our eyes very closely on the meter.

We went for a stroll in the park one evening and were treated to a cacophony of noise and activity as it seemed every old person in the city was in some part of the park either singing karaoke through a generator powered set up a pub would be proud of, or ballroom dancing or playing away together in little bands with traditional instruments while someone warbled out the classic hits close by. They were all competing for space and quiet, with the Karaoke being the worst for setting up right next to each other and cranking the volume louder and louder to be heard over each other. The irony is that it only seemed to be the high pitched shrieking women who would have a shot, the people who need a microphone and speaker the least of anyone. That said, there was one exception, a young guy who paid his money and cried through sad love song after break-up song, by the end making nothing more than a racket like a dying animal as he howled and bawled through the speaker. We watched in astonishment as, with his 3 songs finished, he got up off the ground in a perfectly composed state and popped off to buy a bottle of water before returning and waiting to see if anyone would pay him to have a shot on what turned out to be his own gear.

Chengdu astonished us once more too when a cash machine deciding it didn't want to offer me my money displayed the message "Incompatible Card, Ha Ha Ha!". It was time to leave town.

The Train to Chengdu and the Toilet of Doom

We settled into the two top bunks in our 4 bed berth and lay back in our beds reading our books and playing Nintendos while the two guys on the bottom beds invited all their mates in and had a bit of party, guzzling sunflower seeds and chortling in Chinese. Come tea-time we left the six or so of them to their shindig and headed to the buffet car for a bit of food lottery, pointing to the random Chinese characters on the menu and hoping for the best. Once again we came up trumps, further ensuring a food disaster to hit us in spectacular fashion later if the Karmic laws catch up with us.

An hour and a half later and we returned with a bottle of warm beer to settle in for the night and hoping maybe the party had ended. It hadn't and further more we weren't going to be allowed to avoid it anymore as they all insisted we sit down beside them and have a good old social time together. Out came the phrase book and for the next hour or so we stumbled through niceties with next to nothing of each other's language until one by one, everybody seemed to get bored with the effort and slinked away with their mobile phones never to return. It was all fun enough, especially when we discovered they were officers in the PLA and we quickly changed our job description to Students. We then all settled down for the night and had a good sleep until I woke up about midnight needing the toilet, with the train stopped at a station. An adventure seemed inevitable.

The trains in China are much better than Vietnam so this time no acrobatics were required to climb over sleeping people in the aisle but when I reached the toilet I found a rather distressed fat American waiting outside the locked cubicles, in a state close to bursting. It turned out that the guards had locked the toilets shut because we were stopped in the station and so that no-one would leave an unpleasant spectacle for people on the platform after the train moved off. We had been stationary now for about half an hour and it didn't seem likely that we would be moving for at least as long again yet.

Outside, a couple-dozen guards were now standing on the platform spread along each carriage smoking and making sure no-one got on or off the train while the odd other guard would periodically come wandering through the carriages to make sure nothing suspicious was happening inside.

It seemed likely that there was soon going to be an unpleasant spectacle of our own inside the train if a solution was not quickly found for my new friend, who was only ten minutes or so further into his personal crisis than I would soon be too. By chance, and in keeping with all good action movies, I happened to have a Kirby hair grip in my pocket and prepared to put it to good use trying the lock from the outside. As I struggled, we heard a guard coming down the train and we quickly stopped, pretending to be looking interestingly out of the windows, post cigarette. The guard passed and we resumed but it was to no avail. I then crept back to our berth and rummaged through my bag trying not to wake the PLA and returned with my multi-tool. With a quick flick of the wrist the door released. It only seemed right to let the fat American go first while I once again assumed the idle looking out of the window position while another guard approached. The guard banged and slammed the doors as he passed between the locked carriages and after another five minutes or so I assumed the American must have left during all the banging. Sure enough when I looked at the door it was unlocked so I opened to enter. The Fat American was not finished, he wasn't even close and what was worse, he was doing exactly what they had tried to avoid by locking the doors. I quickly closed the door, did everything I could to prevent the memory from sealing in my brain and waited a further ten minutes until a very embarrassed but still just as fat man made a sharp exit leaving me to face the disaster zone.

When I had first unlocked that door it still had the sterilized notice over the toilet seat, meaning it had remained locked for the whole journey and he was the first to use it but by the time I entered, it looked as bad as if it hadn't been cleaned for a week. I couldn't use the cubicle on the other side of the train because that was the platform side and the guards would have seen me and I didn't want to have to unlock carriage doors and use the next carriage because that just seemed like a bit too much to get caught doing. I braced myself for the worse and got through it, returned to bed and lay in shock until we arrived at the station around 5 o'clock in the morning and got harassed off the train by the cleaner who couldn't understand why we weren't pushing with all our might to fight through the crowd and get off before our turn.