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Published: September 12th 2007
After numerous long trips on the roads of southern Africa, I had become hooked on the idea of overland travel: "the journey ... in its truest and grandest and messiest sense, as a continuous line upon the surface of the earth that connects two distant places", to quote an article I read recently. If a 2,000 km round trip on, admittedly, excellent roads in Namibia and Botswana was something I now willingly took in my stride, what would it be like to do a Serious Trip overland?
When I found that Exodus' Beijing to Kathmandu trip would dovetail perfectly with my Mongolian adventure, I was enchanted. Not only could I find out what it might be like to tackle this kind of distance, but, in doing so, I would be crossing Tibet, a place whose very name conjures a sense of unreachable, impossible remoteness; a land for so long locked in its mountains and, until surprisingly recently, only
visited in the imagination of the West. China, to my mind, would be a "necessary evil", a place through which I had to travel to achieve my aims, but not a country in which I had been particularly interested and with a people whom I had found to be unwelcoming - even cold, shuttered - on my previous visits. Nepal, as scheduled for this trip, was equally low on my list of priorities: we would only go to Kathmandu, a city I had visited back in 1994; I was keen to go back to the country but to visit other parts and to trek. However, I was in for a number of extremely agreeable surprises... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
One classic reservation about overland trips is the idea of being with the same people for so long, in this case for nearly five weeks. But we were all - expedition leaders and punters alike - in for a huge surprise: we liked each other! From the outset, this group of eleven got on like the proverbial house on fire, and proved it early on with a riotous night out at a bizarre night club in Xi'an. Us
punters were all travelling individually and we, together with the guides, ranged in age from 19 to 42 years (SUCH a contrast to my co-trravellers around Mongolia!), and comprised nine Brits, a Yank (a Rhode Islander, in fact: not sure I've ever met one of them before!) and a Chinese girl (our extraordinarily competent, vivacious and amusing local guide, Tingting). Unsurprisingly, in light of the length of the trip, our number included one student who was coming to the end of his gap year and two teachers, one of whom taught philosophy and religious education. This proved to be Seriously Useful, as we struggled to get to grips with different strains of Buddhism that appeared to be variously influenced by other prevailing religions and older beliefs - and this was even without considering Buddhism's official sects. Mind you, the discussion of Taoism and Buddhism, including "everything is nothing, and nothing is everything", left me mentally gasping for air - it wasn't even nine o'clock in the morning!! But, to give Tricia her due, she did attract the most remarkable events in and around monasteries: a nun near Kongtong Shan temporarily adopted her and led her through the evening's ceremonies, before
giving her an ornate neckpiece; a monk in Tongren invited her to help herself to one of the fabulous old moulded and green fired roof tiles which were lying around in the wake of recent restoration; one of the monks at Tashilungpo started pulling up his robes to show off his thigh (!) and then asked her for English lessons; and a monk at the Jokhang engaged her in debate about the finer points of Buddism! Of the rest of us, leaders and guide to one side, the museum curator from Exeter was probably the next most useful, although we tended to discuss simply comparisons between the UK and China in terms of restoration, preservation and presentation of ancient artefacts. The ex-technology lawyer was no help whatsoever!
To allow us to find our own Beijing, Xi'an, Lhasa, etc. (and to mitigate the possible frustrations of travelling together), we were encouraged to explore each place by ourselves, without any sort of timetable or list of things to do/see. Nick and David, the two expedition leaders, would point us in the right direction for certain sights and useful facilities each time we arrived in a new town but, with very limited
exceptions (the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors and Lhasa's Potala Palace), we were on our own. This worked extremely well and we really appreciated the freedom. Most of us did the odd thing on our own, but we would meet up, accidentally or intentionally, with one or more of our companions to explore further. There was usually at least one meal together in each city, although I think that was more because we liked hanging out together than because the Exodus guys felt any compunction to check up on us!
In between times, we were on The Truck. This was a converted Mercedes articulated lorry and proved to be surprisingly luxurious (helped enormously by the fact that we were only eight in number; whereas The Truck could officially take 20 or so). The transparent plastic sides could be rolled up when the weather - and temperature - permitted, though we soon sorted ourselves into those that would sit at the back in order to get the best view, chill notwithstanding (that's what blankets, thermals, puffer jackets and, when it got very nippy, even sleeping bags are for!), and those who preferred the greater warmth and convenience of the front
section. Occasionally, we got a ride in the front of The Truck, but this involved tying your legs in knots to sit between the driver and co-driver seats, so there was a downside to the improved view (and, of course, Nick and David's wit and repartee - I have to say that in case they read this!).
Below each seat was a set of lockers and, as we were so few in number, we had two lockers each, described originally as "one for Clothes, and one for Stuff", into which we simply emptied our packs and our shopping bags, as the souvenirs mounted up. Around, in, under, over... and, in fact, anywhere possible and even in places that didn't immediately spring to mind, there was storage for Everything Else: food, drink, cool boxes, eating and cooking equipment, tents, sleeping bags, bedrolls, tables, stools, a pull-out stove, a surprisingly extensive library, a 300l water tank, additional gas canisters, sand mats, tools to fix anything and everything.... and that's only the things that I found in four weeks on board and which I can remember four weeks on!
In pairs, we had to play our part in keeping the show
on the road. This was where being low in numbers could have had serious disadvantages, but Nick was kind to us when he put together the list of tasks he wanted us to do. We then discussed it amongst ourselves and figured out who would do what. In addition to cooking/preparing dinner and the next day's breakfast and lunch, helping with cooking and cleaning inside of The Truck which each pair had to do in turn, we had certain tasks relating to packing The Truck, dealing with rubbish and sorting out the drinks. Altruistically and completely out of character (?), I volunteered to "do the bar", roping in our one accountant as my partner in crime - or, rather, honesty. We had to ensure that the "bar" (one of the cool boxes) remained stocked with beer and soft drinks, police the "honour" system whereby everyone noted what they'd taken from the bar, and deal with the money: collecting initial contributions (which, in fact, we never exceeded) and then calculating who was owed what at the end of the trip, on the basis of agreed charges for drinks consumed. For the record, I'd like to say that Helen did a stunning
job with the money and sums side of things. Even without her Excel spreadsheet, she did the necessary, notwithstanding the small technical hitch that the initial contributions and drinks charges had been in Yuan, and that, as we were, by that stage, in Kathmandu, the monies owing had to be converted to Nepalese rupees. I'd have still been in the hotel with my abacus... or at least my mobile phone's defective calculator!
Cooking was an interesting challenge, particularly as we got higher which means that the boiling point of water decreases and cooking time consequently increases. Each cooking team - sometimes with the duo who were scheduled to be that evening's helpers and therefore the next day's cooks - would be pointed towards the nearest supermarket or outdoor market for supplies. Tingting was not always free to accompany us, which made for some interesting guessing games when it came to looking at food labelling and some fun negotiations over price. But there is nothing like shopping in a locals' market in a foreign country to introduce you to the real country, the real people. No tourist crap here: this is where ordinary people come for their supplies and we
were often the subject of much curiosity as we tried to negotiate our own provisions. Occasionally we didn't recognise particular fruit or vegetables, sometimes we couldn't find what we were looking for, so improvisation was key. Tricia and I did a great Boeuf Bourguignonne, except that there was yak not beouf, some dubious Chinese red rather than burgundy, not a shallot in sight, and a distinctly improvised collection of herbs. But it worked, our elderly but beautiful chunks of yak marinading in wine from lunchtime onwards and then shoved onto the stove in a pressure cooker as soon as we made camp. But, to illustrate the effect of altitude on boiling vegetables, it took as long to cook the potatoes - even when we'd chopped them up very small - as it did to get the yak to some degree of chewability! Cooking on the open fire was also a nice option, although, obviously, weather-dependent. Fortunately, it only seemed to rain when the fire was only intended for warmth, allowing us to cook, variously, roasted vegetables, baked potatoes, kebabs and, under Nick's instruction, a leg of lamb. One evening, we even had dessert: bananas grilled with chocolate - very decadent!
We sometimes varied the breakfast staples of cereal, yoghurt and bread with one or other of fruit salad (though I have yet to work out why we elected to do this the morning of one of our earliest starts and at 4,700m with ice thick on the tents: I thought my fingers were going drop off and flavour the fruit!), eggy bread and porridge. Lunch tended to be more routine - cheese, tomato and/or tuna sandwiches - but we occasionally found ourselves near more formal eateries at this time during our on-the-road days, so could indulge in noodles or some such.
Restaurant food varied enormously in price but tended to be pretty good whether we were paying tens of Yuan or only a few (the exchange rate was approximately fifteen to the pound, 7.4 to the US dollar. In Beijing, I found myself enjoying Chinese food for the first time since university days. It's the spicier taste of the food there which appealed to me, rather than the MSG-dominated Cantonese food that dominates the UK Chinese food market. If the group went out en masse when we would order to share, we would usually end up with far too
much food but it allowed us to try all sorts of things that we might not otherwise be brave enough to do so. I'd never been certain where, as a vegetarian, I "should" stand when it comes to frog, but, not being exactly a law-abiding veggie at the best of times, I sampled bullfrog in Beijing. For the record, it was a bit bland. I also tried yak - well, having been involved in cooking it, I thought I should try it - but I missed the occasion when the others found scorpions for sale in a street stall, to my huge regret. Last year, mopane worms; this year, scorpions? It was not to be... well, not on this trip, anyway.
Unlike most of the others, I also enjoyed Tibetan food. This is a cuisine that, like Mongolian, really doesn't anticipate vegetarianism, but I discovered early on that the meat'n'noodles soup could be made without meat (I didn't inquire about the nature of the stock!) and took to ordering veggie noodles whenever other options were not forthcoming. I thought that I was going to be frustrated in my attempt to try the Tibetan specialty, momos (dumplings), as these seemed
invariably to come "meat" flavoured. I tried the meat version once, but it was like eating Scottish mutton pie: unmittigatingly meaty in flavour and not therefore very appealing, at least to me. However, the delightful Dunya bar in Lhasa came up with cheese momos which were delicious, and I later found vegetable ones although getting a helping of a dozen on my plate was a little daunting! Some of the others were a little floored by the contrast between "real" Tibetan food (very bland, or unexpectedly over-sweetened dishes) and "spiced up for the tourists" Tibetan food which could be lethal in its severity.
Drink did not really vary, except in the label on the bottle. We quickly concluded that Chinese wine - at least the varieties that we found - was only good for cooking, but the beer did tend to be pretty palatable, whether branded TSINGTAO, YELLOW RIVER, HUANG, LHASA, EVEREST or GORKHA, even if it was initially a little off-putting in appearing in vast 600-660ml bottles. (However, when I first got home and grabbed a beer out of the fridge, I had to look twice at the bottle, it seemed so small after what had become customary!)
But, of course, I mustn't omit to mention the yak butter tea... Nick had warned us that we would not be allowed to leave Tibet without trying it... so, as most of us had wimped so far by that stage, he ordered a round of this curious confection at lunchtime on our antepenultimate day in Tibet. Fortunately, it was a weak one (sometimes the butter is in such generous portions that it forms a thick layer on top of the drink), so Tricia's injunction "think Stilton cheese" when first raising the cup to face (and, unavoidably, nose) was not as necessary as it might have been. The key is not to expect anything that remotely resembles a Western idea of tea, but, rather, something savoury. With that mentality, I could accept this slightly cheesy, salty drink as a kind of soup-substitute. But I wasn't minded to drink it more often than I had to!
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