5,000 km overland: Beijing to Kathmandu - part two

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September 12th 2007
Published: September 12th 2007
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We attracted a lot of attention wherever we went... thanks to The Truck. Work stopped, heads turned and eyes stared wherever we went. We became used to smiling, waving and calling hello's (which we'd mastered in each of the three main local languages, mainly thanks to Matt's diligence) to all and sundry. One of the biggest thrills was when a blank-faced stare suddenly cracked into a smile or an all-out grin in response to us and our smiles and waves. At best, an entire team of people working on the road would down tools, laughing and waving at us. You really can get a very long way in befriending - or at least, thawing - locals with knowing only "hello" and "thank you" in their language, and I think this is what I had missed on my last visits to China. Admittedly, those visits were not in the most congenial of circumstances: one jetlagged, hectic and anaesthetised business trip in 2000, and a week in 1992 which had been my first "really foreign" trip - Alice-in-Wonderland had nothing on me when it came to my bemusement at my surroundings. As a result, I now found myself enjoying my encounters with the people around me, not regarding them as an ordeal. Of course, people varied enormously. After a few days in Xiahe and ethnic Tibet where the grins had been ear-to-ear when we passed, we found ourselves driving through Chinese Muslim territory again, and the people there seemed more reluctant to engage with us - this in contrast not only to the Tibetans, but also to people we'd met before Xiahe.

All credit to Nick and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the route and the possibilities it offers: we "did" some tourist sights which we couldn't really avoid, but also got well off the beaten track in the roads we took and the places we visited. Xiahe, for example, isn't on many people's agenda. It's a delightful Tibetan town in a mountainous area near the Gansu/Qinghai border with a huge Buddhist monastery complex, the Labrang Monastery, together with a Tibetan quarter, cheek-by-jowl with a Chinese Muslim area. Nick doesn't include Xiahe on the return trip as the punters will have, by then, had a sizeable dose of Tibet, but, for us, it was a great introduction to things Tibetan, from the monks and religious customs, to the clothes and the food. We also spent a night in Gyantse, a town in southern Tibet which most people visit - if at all - as a day trip from Tibet's second town, Shigatse. But staying overnight meant that we had more time to explore the stunningly-located Dzong, the fort that nearly had the British stumped during the 1903 Younghusband invasion; the Gompa complex, including at least a few of the multitude of shrines that are housed within the Kumbum, the vast stupa which dominates that side of the town; and the Tibetan quarter which was a charming step back in time with its horse- and yak-drawn carts, traditionally clothed people and dirt streets.

Nick also had a great ability to find quaint hotels, superb camping sites and even lunch spots. For the most part, we were staying in hotels. Clearly the choice of hotel has some constraints, the most notable of which is parking for The Truck. The delicacy with which both men could handle The Truck was incredible. We were seriously impressed when we first met The Truck, snugly sitting in one corner of our central Xi'an hotel's car park, having made its way through the winding hutongs to the back of the hotel. On our return from the Terracotta Warriors, we had an illustration of quite how delicate these manoeuvrings have to be. The hutongs were just wide enough to allow two-way traffic, even when both vehicles were the size of ours, but any small thing could render them unnavigable... such as an ill-parked moped, for example. Failing to negotiate his way around it, Nick jumped down from the cab to move it onto the pavement... at which point, World War III nearly broke out. As if they were just inside their front door waiting for this very event - as they may well have been - a shrieking siren and her taciturn male side-kick raced outside, the former berating Nick en route. In no time, a crowd a couple of dozen strong had materialised around the conflict: this beat playing mah-jong down the street! In Xiahe, hundreds of individual movements must have been required to get The Truck through the gateway, round the various in- and out-dents of the buildings surrounding the courtyard to get it parked. Nick's opening comment when he pulled down the steps to let us out of the back - "You won't be surprised to know that the truck's not moving for the next couple of days" - was greeted with appreciative laughter.

But, parking constraints apart, the choice of hotels was driven by the desire to get us off the beaten track and into the essence of the place we were visiting: a used-by-Chinese (most of the staff didn't know a word of English) hotel near the colourful hutongs of northern Beijing; a hotel within the old city walls, on the edge of the Muslim quarter in Xi'an and within walking distance of many of the city's sights; and a hotel in the Tibetan quarter of Lhasa (yes, shocking though it is, you actually have to look for the Tibetan quarter in Tibet's own capital city...), with rooms overlooking a central courtyard in classically Tibetan style.

We rough-camped for about eight nights. The first campsite was on the far side of the reservoir from Kongtong Shan, the holy mountain between Pingliang and Lanzhou. One edge of the campsite was formed by the top of a wall built behind the cable car that takes visitors up the mountain, but meant that we had a spectacular uninterrupted view of the mountain and the sun setting behind it. To break us into camping gently, Nick and David cooked that evening and set the standard high with a feast that included barbecued prawns! Other campsites were sited, variously, in the hills near Tongren, on the edge of a Muslim village near Bingling Si, beside a nearly-dry river in the stark mountains on the way to Golmud, near a nomadic Tibetan camp on the Plateau, and next to a Chinese farmer's smallholding on the Namtso Lake plain (no other habitation in sight). But the joint top prize for Best Campsite Of The Trip must go, first, to the campsite in full view of the snow-capped Kunlunshan, the first mountain range as you ascend onto the Tibetan Plateau, and, secondly, to the campsite below Ganden Monastery, a stunning mountain-side monastery a couple of hours to the east of Lhasa, which you approach only up the most improbably hairpin-bend-y road.

The Kunlunshan campsite was so mesmerising we had to blow the whistle for supper half a dozen times for three of the guys who were off exploring, cameras glued to their eyes (no, they weren't playing hooky: they actually weren't on cook duty that evening!). The light cast by the setting sun looked magical on the snow of the mountains, and the appearance of the full moon could have been filmed by Hollywood. But we were reminded of civilisation periodically by the sight of the Beijing-Lhasa train winding away from us, a silent glow-worm in the distance. Camping here was, however, not without its hiccups. We had to choose tent sites carefully in view of the number of marmot holes around, and then take extra care when wandering around after the sun had gone down (thank goodness for the full moon that night), and it was here that we encountered our first frost: pretty on the leaves and grasses, but inconvenient in the added weight of unmelted frost to the bulk of even a lightweight tent. It took a little more effort to strike camp that morning... and we were camping at altitude for the first time, feeling it to varying degrees, and having to move slower than usual.

The Gandan Monastery site was just as memorable. Instead of snow-capped mountains, we had the mountain-side monastery as the subject-matter for the sunset photos, the patchy cloud in the sky making interesting patterns with the light. In the distance, far across the valley perhaps 1,000m below us, we could see black cloud and rainstorms moving in.... but they waited until we had finished eating before coming in our direction. At this point, a further advantage of being few in number emerged: we could all move into The Truck, drinks in hand, games of cards or diaries to the ready, and spend the rest of the evening comfortably there. In fact, as it was our last rough camp night and we were now fully acclimatised to the altitude, we stayed up much later than usual, sorry that this part of our journey would soon be over.

We did do some of the standard sights, as you'll have guessed from the photographs. I'd been to the Great Wall during my 1992 trip to Beijing, but I was delighted to find out that we were going to be visiting a different part of the Wall, and also having the chance to walk along it - if that's the right term, given the huge amount of up-and-down involved, including gazillions of steps in very varying degrees of repair! We started at Jinshanling and walked 30 watchtowers' worth (5-6 km) to Simatai where we met up again for some lunch... and had the unique experience of being in a restaurant in China when it ran out of rice: incredible, but true!

The Terracotta Warriors exhibition proved to be one of those rare sights where the hype simply cannot prepare you for what you find there. We had four hours here, including a tour, and I found that I wanted to walk round each of the pits a third time while the others went off to find some lunch, just to try and get to grips with the immensity of it all. The statistics are staggering, and the scale of the reconstruction effort is mind-blowing. Shortly after the Warriors were completed and Emperor Qin buried with his vast forces, the tomb was raided and the Terracotta army smashed. What you see nowadays is the result of the most incredible 3-D jigsaw, not helped by the fact that the pieces are all the same colour and much of each soldier, horse, charioteer, etc. is identical. Each trench has been set out so as to appear to be coming to life slowly: the first dozen or more rows of soldiers, etc., are complete; behind them, there are part-figures; and behind those, the site has been only partially excavated to allow us to see the morass of broken pieces that the archaeologists first encountered. At the back of the hall for pit one, you can see the reconstruction effort in full flow, as it were. The scale of what is here is staggering; the scale of what has not yet even been uncovered, is incomprehensible.

Seeing the Potala Palace for the first time - and, indeed, on each subsequent occasion - was extraordinarily moving. It is not - and does not feel as if it were ever - the Dalai Lama's "home", although this may be attributable to the choice of rooms that we are allowed, by the Chinese, to see. By contrast, his rooms in Takten Migur Potrang, his summer residence at the Norbulingka, are cosy and redolent of his spirit, from the 1950s furniture to the radio. From what I saw, the Potala Palace seems to have been far more formal, with unbelievably ornate formal rooms, shrines and stupas containing the remains of past Dalai Lamas. I was encouraged to see pilgrims in the Palace, prostrating themselves in front of their chosen shrine, topping up yak butter candles with liquid butter poured from thermos flasks, placing Yuan notes in hoped-to-be auspicious places, or simply bowing their heads. Yet I understand that the Buddhism which Tibetans are allowed to practise in Tibet is carefully orchestrated and extremely limited, the eyes of the outside world clearly very much in mind. I can't comment. I was simply relieved to see these simple practices continued now; a far cry from the decimation of the monasteries during the Cultural Revolution - the "Catastrophe" as I saw it described on an information board on Kongtong Shan, the one time that I have ever seen this ghastly chain of events mentioned formally by the Chinese.

As you might imagine, we saw one or two monasteries... or maybe it was a few more. Monastery-fatigue was a real possibility, but I managed to avoid it: each monastery was sufficiently different that the sight of yet another Buddha, bodhisattva, protective deity or other semi-godly hanger-on (I lost the plot on Buddhism in all its various manifestations, or, rather, I never quite "got" the plot!) didn't put me off. And, besides, there was always something different going on. We'd heard about debating monks, with their distinctive over arm movement to slap one hand against the other to emphasise a particular point, but it looked as if we were going be unlucky in seeing the spectacle for ourselves. Nick had done his best for us at Ganden Monastery, asking everyone he met whether any debating was going to happen that day (miming the over arm gesture to convey his meaning) and, if so, when, but wasn't told the same answer twice. Eventually, the monks convened for debating late in the evening and most of us, more focussed on the earthly matter of dinner, missed it. However, we struck lucky a few days later at Shigatse's Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Lama. Completely by accident, we managed to be visiting the monastery at the very time that the monks were gathered in one of the courtyards, many engaged, one-on-one, in debating what I believe were esoteric points of Buddhist thought... but which looked more like they were arguing over the plot in "Eastenders": they seemed to be having so much fun! Other monks - maybe they had reached a conclusion in their own debates - were gathered round spectating, or simply "shooting the breeze". There was a noisy, cheerful atmosphere, and the monks, unusually, didn't mind us wandering around between them wielding our cameras. In fact, one monk seemed positively to relish being the focus of my camera's lens, playing to the audience in his over dramatised gestures.

Another feature of most monasteries and religious areas is the kora, the walk around the outside of a monastery complex, temple or religious site. Apart from being a welcome excuse to get some exercise, it was a privilege to be able to walk with the pilgrims, lost in your own thoughts and the spirit of the occasion. Pilgrims would often have a small prayer wheel which they would spin in one hand, leaving the other hand free to turn the huge cylindrical prayer wheels that lined the path. Some pilgrims would have gloved that hand, perhaps as protection against calluses or possible infection. Others prostrated themselves either at certain parts of the kora or, the most devout, around the entire circuit. We saw women prostrating outside the Jokhang Temple, well-prepared with body-length mats or rugs, hands and knees protected by padding and knees tied lightly together (presumably to perfect the prostrating action). We saw men and monks prostrating around the Tsekor, the kora around the Potala Palace, with their hands and knees protected by wooden pads; the more enthusiastic would hurl themselves forward, achieving quite some distance in the ensuing slide along the path. Some, including small boys, were clearly doing this for money: perhaps you can delegate this devotional activity, but still get your brownie points? I wondered about the lengths to which prostrating pilgrims would go. It seemed to be a potentially dangerous activity in a busy city. However, when I walked the Lingkor, the outer pilgrim circuit of Lhasa, some of which now follows very Chinese-looking main roads before dipping down a side alley, I was relieved to see that a prostrating pilgrim at least allowed himself to get up and walk across the road at junctions before returning to his devotions. We even saw a couple of pilgrims prostrating their way across the Plateau; after all, Lhasa is a holy city for Buddhists and it is not usual for people to make a pilgrimage there. I read that one pilgrim undertaking this journey used to prostrate himself about 7 km each day; when he'd finished, he would get up and walk back that distance to collect his belongings, return to that day's finishing point and then rest before starting the whole exercise all over again the next day.

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