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Published: September 12th 2007
I could write a book about the scenery, but I'm going to let the photos speak for themselves, with only a brief word here. Up to Lanzhou, the scenery was dominated by agriculture with every available square inch growing some form of crop in fields carved in steps out of the landscape. Only after Xiahe did we really feel that we were heading into parts, if not unknown, then at least less frequented. The road from Xiahe to Tongren and most of the way to Xining really deserves to be one of Asia's great journeys, as it winds up and across endless fertile steppe, past our first sight of nomadic Tibetans with their tents and livestock, before dropping away through spectacular gorges, across the lake and along a river to what became the freeway to Xining.
Qinghai Hu (otherwise known as Lake Kokonor) was our first serious piece of water, a vast inland sea of saline, redolent with history, according to the Lonely Planet, as being where the Mongolian leader, Altan Khan, conferred
yup, I did it again!
(c) 2007 Nick Fulford
on Sonam Gyatso the title of Dalai Lama in 1576, "dalai" being the Mongolian translation of "gyatso" or ocean. It is also known for its bird life, including the incredible spur-winged geese which have been spotted at 30,000 feet, flying above the Himalayas as part of their annual migration.
The notable lake on our itinerary was the sacred Namtso Lake, one of the world's highest lakes, at 4,700m. The approach from the mountain-lined plains around the nearest town, Damxung, is fabulous, the road winding up a narrow valley with nomads' tents, yaks and sheep near its foot, but the landscape becoming more and more barren up to the stunning summit of the Largeh La pass where we caught our first glimpse of the lake's turquoise waters in the middle of the plains below. Although the car park at Tashi Dor, an impressive set of rock formations jutting out into the lake and dotted with shrines and temples, is chaotic, you quickly escape the noise and persistent touts by walking the kora. There we caught sight of a monk fixing his cave dwelling, pilgrims with prayer wheels in hand, a nun trimming candles in a distant shrine to the sound
of sutras being chanted, a couple of yaks leisurely chewing the cud, and horses grazing. Across the lake, the magnificent 7,088m snow-capped summit of Mount Nyanchen Tanglha dominated the horizon.
Snow-capped mountains had become a regular feature of our surroundings since we first climbed onto the Plateau but no visit to this part of the world would be complete without paying homage to the peak of all peaks, Mount Chomolangma, "Mother Goddess Of The World", to the Tibetans, or, as we know her, Mount Everest. This was one of the few occasions on which we had to abandon The Truck as the road to Everest Base Camp from Tingri is impassable to all except 4-WD jeeps, and the recent rains of the monsoon season had not made the trip any easier. Everest had been coy with us the previous evening, refusing to appear when we were in Tingri, and she continued to play hard-to-get for most of our overnight stay at Base Camp which is set up further down the valley from the mountain giving stunning views... when she permits. On the way up to Base Camp, we stopped at Rongbuk Gompa, the highest monastery in the world, to
see if the final shreds of cloud would move off the mountain's face, but were only granted the briefest of glimpses. It was the same story that afternoon when we variously walked or took ponies-and-traps the final couple of kilometres from Base Camp to the viewpoint, the furthest that non-permit holders are allowed to venture. It was a great walk up, giving us the chance to experience the desolate landscape of the valley around us, and we were rewarded with the sight of marmots boxing and playing around some boulders, and a few scattered blue sheep, a rare sighting. Unfortunately, after a fruitless hour or two gazing at the lower slopes of Everest, the weather caught up with us, having crept up the valley, and we trudged back down the path in the remains of a heavy rain shower, Matt, somewhat bizarrely, having negotiated temporary shelter from the local police while the worst of the storm passed over. However, I became separated from the rest of the group at one point and, distracted by the need to watch my step over the rocks while I was "off piste", as it were, I looked up suddenly and found myself in the
middle of a herd of about 30 blue sheep. They seemed remarkably unperturbed by my appearance, continuing to forage for grazing in this improbable environment. That evening, the regular "Everest checks" outside our huge tented "hotel" finally paid off, and we were granted the impressive sight of Everest's full magnificence, her white snows contrasting with the dark cloud that remained after the storm. The next morning, you wouldn't have known there were any mountains at all, the weather was down so low, so we counted ourselves very lucky.
For the most part, the roads were excellent. The Chinese are putting a lot of time and money into improving the infrastructure around the entire country ahead of the 2008 Olympics... but this is not always well thought-out. The Beijing to Lhasa railway was built so rapidly that it was completed a year ahead of schedule; the train is pressurised to assist with the dramatic changes in altitude over the 48-hour journey, but passengers still have to face emerging at Lhasa more than 3,000m higher than when they started in Beijing... and there have been fatalities with people overexerting themselves too soon. The road across the Plateau was improved at the
same time to allow the transportation of building materials for the railway line. Unfortunately, this means that the rapidly-built road is now disintegrating under the pressure of so many heavy goods vehicles, making one part of the route particularly lively for us in the back of the truck. The worst bit of road, undoubtedly, is the Friendship Highway, as the Chinese have named the road from Tibet to Nepal. This is an extraordinary piece of road at the best of times, mostly single track or narrow single carriageway, hugging the mountainside precariously, high above the rushing river below. It is certainly one of the great road journeys of the world today - though doing it in monsoon season probably isn't the best way to see it; I'd like to SEE some of the scenery next time! - but it is extremely precarious at the moment with extensive road works being carried out. Because of this, we knew that we were only going to be allowed down it at night, so Nick timed the journey accordingly... and his driving was just incredible, crumbling rock, passing yaks, ongoing blasting work and streams flowing over the road notwithstanding. In the back of the
Maitreya statue at Bingling Si
... just your average 27m high statue of the future Buddha!
truck, knowing we were in safe hands and, in any event, completely unable to do anything to help, we concentrated on enjoying one of our last drives together. Those of a slightly nervous disposition sat on the left; those of us wanting to enjoy the whole experience provided a not-always welcome commentary from the right, as we peered out through the drizzle and cloud. And some of us decided to "surf" the route, standing in the middle of the truck, towards the back, endeavouring to retain our balance without grabbing hold of any support. Riding a crowded Tube train on my way back from Heathrow was easy by comparison!
Crossing into Nepal was emotional and dramatic: emotional because we were saying goodbye to Tingting who had been such a delightful person to have around, and because we were all too conscious that the border crossing meant we were only days away from the end of the trip; dramatic because of the suddenness of the change in our surroundings. Further up the hill was the armpit that is the border town of Zhangmu, with its offers of "Foot Bottom Massage" and "Medical Back-Bedling" and promising to be "Al Ways At
Your Service For 15 Hours", its shyster-money changers (a rigged calculator deprived two of us of the right number of Nepalese rupees in exchange for our Yuan; another of us was, quite simply, pickpocketed in the melee), and dubiously cleaned hotels. At the bottom of the hill when we emerged from the forested road, even before we'd crossed the Friendship Bridge, the actual border, the people and all around them had transformed. Now the darker Nepalese faces were around us, the women colourful in their salwaar kameez; shop signs were in the flowing script of Nepal rather than the separated characters of China; and shops were open-fronted and homey, rather than the glassed separation of merchant and customer common in modern-day China. I have never known a land border to be so defining in its separation of two peoples, two ways of life.
Our first port of call in Nepal was only a few kilometres down the road - albeit more slightly hair-raising kilometres with the continuation of the Friendship Highway: the Last Resort. This is a curious place to find here, more appropriate to the New Zealand from which its owners originate: an adrenalin junkie's paradise. Yes, I
clocked up my third bungy jump, egging myself on with the thought that I could then say I'd jumped in three continents... though I imagined that most of my friends would look even more askance at me. Unfortunately, time ran out for allowing me to add another wacky activity to my collection, a bridge swing (a bit like a bungy jump but lasts for longer and you swing, rather than bounce up and down), but I watched Jay do one instead. Time enough for that one, I think. (Sorry, Mum, you weren't supposed to read that bit!) Most of the others went white-water rafting the next day, but I contented myself with taking photos. After a all-too-near-death experience on the Zambezi, that is one activity I am keen not to repeat, but they all had a blast and it was fun joining Nick in The Truck as we followed the river, trying to keep ahead of the rafters and anticipate dramatic photo opportunities.
And so our trip slowly came to an end. Kathmandu was a buzz, although I found myself frustratingly only able to recall echoes of my previous trip and determined, when I got home, to re-read my
diary (or, actually, I must confess, Delia's diary: having never finished my own journal from that trip, I'd resorted to photocopying hers!). After spending the first couple of days catching up on the sleep that had not always been in vast supply in the preceding weeks, I postponed my return flight for a few days and caught up on sightseeing, visiting several places that I had not seen in 1994, and finished my Christmas shopping. No, I'm not being scarily organised - well, yes, I am, but there's a reason. I'm not going to be in the UK for Christmas and, in fact, I'm leaving at the end of September for a six-month trip.
I'm tempted to leave it there, and let you wait for the blogs... but perhaps I'll give you a brief outline. After ten days in Scotland seeing a different type of remote countryside in the far north, I am heading to Namibia to work on the desert-dwelling elephant project for five weeks; India for five weeks to explore Mumbai, Goa and, perhaps, Kerala before catching up with friends in Delhi, including a new arrival that is due at the end of October; Australia which will
be my base for the next 3-4 months, including Christmas (and Easter, come to that) with my cousins near Sydney, and some travelling around, including Tasmania which I have never visited before; New Zealand to see an ex-Cheetah Conservation Fund colleague in Auckland and explore the Coromandel Peninsula and the Bay of Islands; Antarctica with my cousin's Australian wife, a fabulous 4-week cruise out of Invercargill in South Island, New Zealand, and back in to Hobart, Tasmania; and then back via the US - LA, New York and Washington, DC. - to catch up with friends and former colleagues there.
After that? Well, I do have an idea for 2009... but I'll keep that one in the bag for now!
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