The Daily Lama
Sorry it's been a while since our last update .... we have been busy chasing yaks and stuff!
We were expecting the desert to end at Dunhuang, but were surprised that it continued, flat and featureless for another couple of days. Our first destination was Jiayuguan - which can arguably be described as the beginning of China - as it marks the western end of the great wall. Our journey was completed on a new expressway which was not yet quite completed (this is a recurring theme with road travel in western China). At various times the bus was on the left or right hand carriageways, at one point we were on the wrong side and had to complete a 3 point turn, at another we bribed our way onto a closed section with cigarettes to avoid a long dirt track diversion. When we eventually arrived we found Jiayuguan to be a cold and bleak town with very dubious air quality thanks to the local steelworks being sited just up wind. Still the restored Ming Dynasty fort at the end of the wall was pretty spectacular, and we also climbed a restored lookout section for some brilliant views over the Gobi Desert and the surrounding hills and villages
We were now on the main route of the Silk Road (that's the original one - not the fake one in Macclesfield!), the towns and villages are located a convenient days camel trek apart. The next stopping point for us was Zhangye - a town which delayed Marco Polo for a year. We moved through with a little more speed, spending just the one night - time enough to have a look at the temples and pagodas, and to watch a guy flying the longest kite we have ever seen. The reason for our haste was the approaching cold weather, and our desire to get into the Tibetan regions at some point of the trip - as recommended by one of the Dutch people we met earlier in Tien Chi. We therefore decided to swap our destinations, and head first to Chengdu instead of Xi'an - a good choice as it turned out.
Turning south from our original route we caught the early bus to Xining - capital of Qinghai province - a spectacular 8 hours of mountain scenery away. Qinghai is mostly comprised of Tibetan regions which were absorbed into China in the 1920's, and which therefore don't suffer from the travel restrictions and suppression afforded to the more well know 'Autonomous Region of Tibet'. The Tibetan culture has fared much better in these parts - and is indeed reviving.
We were hoping Xining would provide us with a base to organise ourselves before heading into the highlands, but it turned out to be another drab, polluted Chinese city more concerned with demolishing and rebuilding itself than providing it's citizens with anything like a reasonable standard of living. We did eventually manage to buy a new disk for the camera, (up to 800 photo's already!), but failed miserably to find a working laundry or a supply of teabags!
We set off regardless for the remote hill town of Tongren (Regong in Tibetan), which didn't appear in either of our guidebooks, but looked to be a good 'non-tourist' introduction to the area. We weren't disappointed as we discovered a remarkable Lamaist Monastery and an excellent art gallery. Firstly we climbed over a pass dotted with the villages of the Hui Moslem population (a significant - and peaceful - minority all over northern China), and then suddenly turned into a river valley and we were in Tibet. There is no line drawn on any map, but it was clear we were in a new country. Colourful prayer flags fluttered on houses, across roads and on the tops of mountains. Stupas - some decorated with Buddhist designs dotted the countryside, temples with golden roofs appeared in the villages, the cows turned into yaks, and - the biggest giveaway of all - the peoples features and language changed. We quite liked listening to Tibetan - we only learned a few words but it has a very 'interesting' rhythm.
Unfortunately Anne was suffering a little bit with the altitude at this point (we think we were just over 3000 metres) and had to miss the gallery. The monastery (the first of many) was fantastic to look at with it's rows of prayer wheels, ornate temples and gateways, not to mention the hundreds of red robed monks. There was little to no English spoken in the town, and as Anne was feeling a little under the weather we decided to head straight on to Xiahe, where there was a larger and more important monastery, and which had a basic tourist infrastructure (ie English menus, some western food and more comfortable hotels). If anything, Labrang Monastery was better and more photogenic than the one at Regong. It was helped in that we paid for a tour of some of the temples, and were given our own English speaking monk for a couple of hours. He answered many of our questions, and although some of the Buddhist philosophy went slightly over our heads, we came out understanding a lot more about what was going on than when we went in. We also got to see the beginning of the daily prayers, where all the monks sit out side the prayer hall chanting for half an hour or so accompanied by drums, horns and conch shells - quite a sight. Xiahe itself (well at least the part near the monastery) was also a nice place to stay, with plenty of Tibetan Restaurants and souvenir shops.
The next stop on the road south was what our guide book described as the 'pleasant' town of Hezuo. We arrived to find that the town was in the process of moving 1 km or so further south. We had encountered this phenomenon on our last visit to China but this was the first time we have actually witnessed it happening. The new town centre was more or less complete, but the old one - where the bus station and hotels were still situated, was in a state of complete disrepair. The roads were just piles of rubble, the power and water had been turned off (restored temporarily later in the evening), and everything was covered in a thick layer of dust. Nice. The only memorable thing about Hezuo (apart from the delicious noodles at the Moslem restaurant next to our hotel) was the 'sound operated' light switch in our bathroom. When they eventually got it to work we found that the only way to keep the light on was to clap loudly every 60 seconds or so - not much fun when you are in the shower!
As it turned out, our next destination, Langmusi, was only 3.5 hours away on a very new road, so we needn't have stayed in Hezuo at all. Langmusi is a very picturesque village just over the border in Sichuan province (still in Tibet though) - higher still at 3300 metres above sea level. The village boasts another two monasteries (more photo's of shiny roofs and prayer wheels!!!) one of which has the added 'attraction' of a sky burial site. These are the traditional Tibetan burials where the bodies are left out in special marked out areas of the hillside to be devoured by vultures and other wild beasts. Nowadays this practice is frowned upon by the authorities (not sure why as it strikes me as being very environmentally sound) and there are not many places left where you can still see it. We weren't allowed to wander around the site itself, but we could climb the hill opposite and look out over the incredible scenery.
Langmusi proved to be one of those places that are easier to get to than to leave. Also the weather, previously bright and sunny if a little cold, suddenly turned grey and overcast - and very cold. We were delayed for a day, as there was only one bus heading south and that left at 7.00 am (about an hour before we got up!!). We went for a walk in the hills where we spotted more yaks and got back just in time to witness a heavy hail storm (a lucky escape as weren't really equipped for winter), the hills that weren't obscured by clouds took on a worryingly white aspect. At least the food and company was good in the village - the 'Shanghai Times' cafe being our favourite place on account of it's very warm radiators.
The previous worries about the state of the roads proved to be a reality on the next leg to Zoige - with one section completely closed for resurfacing, the bus had to cut across the grasslands - the passengers had to walk, and the bus was helped over the ditch by a bunch of helpful Golok herdsmen (Anne's 'wild men'). Zoige, at 3500m the highest stop on our route, had a poor write up in both guidebooks but required an overnight stop due to the bus schedules. We couldn't find a good hotel and had to settle for a 'basic' room (although I have to say that it was, somewhat surprisingly, equipped with electric blankets) with 'chute' toilets and no running water. The town turned out to be really nice - another monastery, very friendly locals and excellent food (well - one meal was good, the second somewhat 'suspect'). It would have been nice to stay longer if it wasn't for the weather which was getting gradually worse.
The next morning saw us trudging through the sleet at 6.00am to find the only bus heading south - again. Shortly after leaving the town we climbed onto the Aba Grasslands, and the sleet turned to snow. The further south we went, and further we climbed the more the conditions deteriorated. When the bus broke down (for the first time) we started to get a bit worried, but we had a careful Tibetan driver - which was just as well as this road was also under construction and some of the diversions down what appeared to be vertical cliffs on dirt hairpin tracks in thick snow were quite 'exciting' to say the least. We eventually found the headwaters of the Min River and began our long descent onto the Yangtze plain.
We broke our journey at a small town called Songpan, a walled town with some very nice gates and watchtowers. We were out of Tibet here - still a few Tibetans around but mostly Chinese. There are two National Parks nearby which are supposedly very nice and which we were planning on visiting, but when we spotted the number of Chinese tour buses headed the other way we quickly changed our mind. We subsequently spoke to a Swiss couple who did visit - and shared the 8km trail with about 14,000 others - a lucky escape.
The following day was Anne's birthday - which I was hoping to spend at the Giant Panda Breeding centre in Wolong, but because of the previous delays she had to settle for a 10 hour bus journey instead. Worse, our rate of descent was so fast that she ended up with a very bad migraine type headache - and I had to drink her share of the beer that night!! We made up for it the following day when we visited the aforementioned centre - probably the only place in the world where you can see 50 or 60 Giant Pandas in one place. The Chinese have been very successful in the breeding of these very rare animals and are now beginning to re-introduce captive animals into the wild. It was great fun watching the juveniles cavorting together although you can't help but wonder if they haven't turned up an evolutionary dead end. They are only capable of breeding for 3 days each year and only eat bamboo (or the odd rodent). There are apparently less than 1000 still in the wild and their habitat is constantly being eroded by logging and farming. It was interesting to note that Pandas are a species to themselves and are neither bears, cats nor dogs.
By this time we decided that the mountains were getting much too chilly and so the next day completed our decent to Chengdu. We were going to stop in a place called Dujuagyan which has some interesting canals, but now that we were on the plains the rain and cloud had turned to fog which was thick enough to stop us seeing much. We therefore decided to head straight through to the Sichuanese capital where at least we could mix the fog with a fair dose of pollution!!! (cough cough)