Arriving back in Kunming from the village projects in GuangXi area, we hastily made our way to the PSB office with the expectation of having to play the stupid foreigner card. Fortunately, they didn’t seem to care that we’d legged it and gave us the visa extension without any hassle. Last week we had ordered some spare parts from Paddocks and Rimmer Bros in the Uk who had kindly offered us a discount because we’re such nice guys and because we were actually stupid enough to try to drive through Tibet but the parts hadn’t arrived yet so we made plans for another departure from Kunming.
On Wednesday we flew into Chengdu which was only an hour from Kunming by plane or 16 hours by train and the flight was only 100 yuan (7 quid) more. Doesn’t make sense to me either. Are Chinese trains the slowest in the world? Answers on a postcard please.
In Chengdu we checked into a youth hostel where we shared a dorm with two girls (one irish, one dutch). Travelling isn’t all bad. In the evening we went to see a Sichuan cultural show which turned out to be pretty good. There was thankfully not a lot of Chinese opera but there was a virtuoso Erhu performance, shadow puppetry and balancing acts. The highlight of the show though was the display of the ancient art of face changing or “bianlian”. Costumed performers change masks in a split second with a wave of their hand or a flourish of their cloak. A professional can change 10 masks in 20 seconds. This was the best part of the show with performers coming right up to the audience, shaking their hands and changing masks at the same time.
The next day we went to the Chengdu Panda Beeding Centre. These disgustingly cute creatures are facing extinction for a variety of reasons, namely: they are too lazy to breed most of the time; they are badly designed anatomically i.e. the male member is too short to be very effective; they are solitary creatures who live a long distance from each other so it can be difficult for them to actually come across a mate and they only eat 15 of the 200 types of bamboo. Oh, and humans killed most of them and continue to destroy their natural habitat.
The best bit about the Panda centre was the Red Pandas. These little guys look like racoons and are much more energetic than the so-called Giant Panda (I suggest whoever named the Giant Panda looks up giant in the dictionary - I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say “not very big”). So that was it for Chengdu. A bit of culture, a few rare animals… time to sling hook. So that’s when we made the mistake. Yep. We booked a Yangzte cruise.
It sounded great. Cruise down the Yangzte - See the 3 gorges before they get submerged. See the biggest dam in the world. See the vast number of shoes floating along beside you. Unfortunately, what they didn’t tell you was that you’d be one of only a handful of non-Chinese on a boat of over 200 people. That you’d have to share a cabin with a loudly snoring fecker who actually snores continually - regardless of what position he is in. That it was nearly impossible to get the canteen to give you any food and that nobody spoke any english.
Still, we made the best of it. Friday night we boarded the boat at 8pm. Seeing that our cabin was to be shared with two pensioners, we made our way to the top deck to enjoy the view only to be told that we had to buy a 3 quid pass to get onto the top deck. How rum is that? Watching the river bank cities go by over a few beers with the other europeans was pretty good but by 11pm we were knackered and went to the cabin. That’s when the snoring began.
I’ve just had to delete a whole paragraph due to the unsavoury language it contained so suffice to say, it wasn’t a good night’s sleep and neither were the next two.
At 6am on Saturday morning we stopped at the City of Ghosts. This old town is home to many Mahayana Buddhist temples, with statues depicting the demons and horrors that await you in hell should you not be nice to your mother. The imagery was pretty cartoonish but the exterior architechure was impressive and the mist floating up from the river in the early dawn light did indeed produce a spooky effect. The rest of the day was spent eating pot-noodles, drinking beer and playing cards while the shoes drifted by. The scenery wasn’t very impressive yet as we hadn’t reached the gorges area.
By noon on Sunday we had reached the famous 3 gorges and after passing the first we were moved onto smaller boats that would better navigate the shallow waters of the 3 small gorges which were on an offshoot of the Yangzte river. The scenery here was stunning though the gorge walls were not as high as those of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Unfortuanately, it was difficult to enjoy the scenery in peace because loud speakers blared out a continual stream of female tour guide gibberish at ear splitting volume. At one point it stopped for five minutes, just long enough to build up your hopes that it was over. But no.
After a few hours on the smaller boats we were again transferred onto even smaller boats which only held 25 people so were could navigate the 3 mini gorges. This was bizarre. The boat captain talked continually and sang folk songs as we passed people installed on the cliffs playing pipes and you could get a cheesy photo of yourself wearing a hat and holding a long pole. The Chinese loved it. The Europeans were… bemused. Then it was back on the bigger boat, followed by the cruise boat again for another rum night’s sleep. In the morning we would reach the great dam.
Monday. Return to the PSB. De ja vu. The visas aren’t ready yet. Surprise? Another day in Kunming is difficult to contemplate so we buy more DVDs and have some ears for dinner. If you don’t think they are ears you tell me what they are. They look like ears, they taste like ears and they smell like ears. Even Chinese people we asked later on didn’t know what the feck these things were. Faced with the prospect of lingering in Kunming for the next few days waiting for visas that may or not appear we decided to leg it. We had been told not to leave the city but we figured if we weren’t leaving the country then no one was likely to ask us for a passport or visa. So we got in touch with the ActionAid people who had some projects going on in the GuangXi province and booked a sleeper train for Tuesday night from Kunming to Nanning. Sleeper trains weren’t new to us as we had spent 4 solid days on one when doing the Trans-Siberian in 2004 but the Chinese ones have even more irritating music and have 6 beds to a cabin (which doesn’t have doors).
We arrived in Nanning on Wednesday morning after 13 hours on the train. It wasn’t bad though. The beds were softer than the Kunming youth hostel. In Nanning we met up with Li Ql (pronounce Lee Chee) – the HIV and AIDS Project Coordinator for the province and spent the rest of the week visiting various projects near the Vietnam border (see separate post).
Getting up at the crack of dawn (well, 7am) we got kitted up and ready for the onslaught. We began the trek at 8am amid spots of rain interspersed with blistering sunshine. The first 3 hours were pretty heavy going – uphill all the way. We met some Dutch people coming the other way and bravely told them we were going to do it in a day. Their response – “are you serious?”. Undaunted we carried on. The scenery is spectacular. The photos won’t really show just how massive the peaks are but it makes you dizzy trying to stretch your head back far enough to see the top. Another 2 hours on and we were getting a bit tired so we stopped for a bite to eat at the Half Way House. Luckily though, despite the name, it was closer to the end than the beginning. Shortly after, with a fresh effort we attempted to storm to the end. After a few minutes though the path got a bit hairy. Clinging to the edge of the rockface on a narrow path halfway up a cliff-face with a sheer drop into the gorge is not my idea of fun. Especially when there’s a raging waterfall dropping straight onto said path. There was nought for it but to set our teeth and brave the torrent. I very nearly soiled my armour I have to admit but faced with the alternative of turning back and having Rich ridicule me for the rest of the trip was enough to convince me.
A further 3 hours and we were in Sean’s Guest House in the legendary Walnut Grove area having done most of the trek in 8 hours. Lonely Planet? Clearly written for Americans. We tucked into some beers with a bunch of Irish and Americans (who had incidentally taken two days) and had a great night until sleep time when we had to listen to a domestic row between two drunk Americans. If there was anything to convince me of the sheer wrongness of American life it was that conversation. Still, we had whupped the Tiger Leaping Gorge and were ready for fresh challenge.
The next day was spent traveling. We got a minibus to the historic city of Lijang which has been given a major facelift and is pretty touristy. In a good way though. I could have spent longer here. We visited the Black Dragon Garden where there is a school dedicated to preserving the ancient script of the Dongba tribe. It’s a pictorial text, in a similar vein to Egyptian. After a few hours pottering about in the company of an Aussie and a Swede that we had met on the bus we decided to get another bus to Dali. We had heard that we might be able to get our visas extended there.
Wednesday we headed to the PSB (Public Security Bureau) but they told us there was no chance of extending our visa, either here or in Kunming. This was discouraging but we decided to chance our arm and go to Kunming anyway. After the 5 hour bus trip we booked into the youth hostel where the rock hard beds made the nights seem very long indeed. For 30 Yaun (2 quid) though you couldn’t complain. Yes, I have noticed that I did just complain but by saying that you couldn’t it makes up for it.
Thursday we headed to the PSB in the company of an amusingly named Quick Wang (I don’t joke) to try to convince them to give us a visa. Wang was a representative of the travel company we had used to get into Tibet and since we still had that visa we needed to extend it or leave China to come back on a new visa. The thought of heading to Macau or Hong Kong was appealing but it would be a lot cheaper to get the extension. As usual, they couldn’t decide so told us to wait until tomorrow. In the mean time we went to the pub. In the morning we were back in the PSB. They eventually decided to give us the visa but we would have to wait until Monday to get it. We amused ourselves by buying a shedload of DVD’s (they’re between 30 and 60p here) and playing snooker. In the evening we went in search of a club called Snake on a taxi drivers recommendation. After about a half hour of walking we came across a place called Cobra. This was bound to be it. The taxi driver had promised beer and girls and sure enough there was, because it was a dancing girls club. We took a seat amoung the almost exclusively male audience and ordered an expensive beer. Gotta give it to them – they know how to put on a show. There was a never ending stream of pretty girls doing a wide variety of cabaret style routines, all in the most tasteful manner, I assure you. We were enjoying the show up until the point where the girls disappeared and the ubiquitous karaoke singer came on. He had a good voice, I’ll give him that, but the exuberance the audience showed for him was astounding. Free drinks were showered on the lad until he could barely stand up and every line he belted out was met with wild cheers from the crowd. This is “The Job” in China.
Still, after 3 songs we’d had enough and slung hook to find somewhere else. Down the road was the Boss pub. This is the ticket we thought. Unfortunately it was more of the same. It’s difficult to find a normal pub in China. The manager of the place was cool though and especially enjoyed the Chinese swear words we’d found in the phrase book. Another restless night was spent in the hostel due to a snoring fecker in the dorm. There’s always one isn’t there?
Saturday and we’re at the Land Rover garage awaiting the delivery of ours. And it duly arrives at 1pm. All is not well though. They have obviously hit a low bridge on the way because the bikes are obliterated, the mushroom vents are busted and the roof box is cracked. I had to laugh at the state of the bikes though – never seen anything like it in my life. And so the argument began. The truck driver tried to tell us that the bikes had fallen off the rack due to the bumpy road and it was our fault for not tying them on properly. A shameless blaggart this chappie. I wasn’t having it. They could have just told us the truth – i.e. that they crashed into a bridge. We would have accepted it and agreed a reduced price. But to come in unashamed with these lies was too much. After 3 hours of listening to the crap I told them they we getting 65% of the price we had agreed in Lhasa and that was it. Eventually they accepted. It was still a big amount of money because the driver had had us over a barrel when we were in Lhasa because we needed to get out quick. So not only had he taken advantage of our predicament before, he had crashed the Landy into a bridge and then had the balls to come and try to blag the full price. Some people have no dignity. So it seems Tibet managed to strike at us even when we weren’t there. In the end though, it’s sad that some people can’t just be honest and take responsibility for their actions.
Landy wise, the garage had no spare parts (they only do new models) and couldn’t get any so we have to order them from England. Sunday wrapped up the week nicely as I had a bout of food poisoning which necessitated many trips to the bogs. Got to read quite a bit of Shaw though so not all that rum and we had Monday to look forward to getting a visa extension so we could leave Kunming.
Monday we spent mostly at the garage. While the mechanics were messing about with the carbs we made some alterations to the inside and fixed the busted wing mirror. The alternator was replaced (complete with a Heath Robinson type bracket mounting as my old boss would say) as ours was slowly failing. It still gave out power but at a vastly reduced rate. We worked on the Eberspacher heater and determined that the pump which gives it fuel from the tank wasn’t working. In the evening we explored Lhasa – what there is of it. We were back on the bikes which made a tour quick but even without them you could explore the Tibetan bit of Lhaza on foot within an hour or two. There are a couple of blocks of Tibetan style architecture where the locals ply their trades, the Jokhang Temple and the Potala Palace. That’s it. The Tibetan part of town is remarkably small and surrounded by the large architecture of a modern Chinese city. Muttering Tibetans walk around various circuits of the town spinning prayer wheels and clutching beads in an attempt to acquire merit.
Tuesday we returned to the garage to find that the starter motor had burned out. They had got the engine running though so there was the possibility of leaving soon using the old pushing and stopping on hills method. We took the opportunity to visit the Jokhang temple. This temple is one of the most revered by Tibetan Buddhists and lies in the centre of the city surrounded by Barkhor square. Unfortunately, it is also surrounded by the most amazing array of tat stalls that I have ever had cause to witness. While marveling at these, we came across a man muttering to himself, walking 1 step, lying down, crawling forward an inch, standing back up, walking 1 step etc. Some people will do anything to try to acquire merit. It was going to take him a long time to get to the entrance. For us though, it was quicker and after paying the 5 quid fee we were in. The place was deserted except for the odd other tourist and the monk who had his own tat stall on the roof next to the tea house. The vivid colours and intricate wood carvings and paintings on the outside of the temple were interesting. However, in the main hall, the holiest place, were an array of statues and images of various multi-armed gods, goddesses and buddhas. Surrounding these was a series of very small chapels which contained more of the same. The huge number of different gods, manifestations, reincarnations and Bodhisattvas left us bewildered and with a strong suspicion that most of this was just made up.
Underwhelmed, we headed out to try some local delicacies. Yak meat is excellent but the sheep’s lung that Richard had was in a word – minging. Momo’s (little dough balls with meat and veg inside) are excellent too but it seems to take an age to make them. Can’t understand why because they are afterall just little dough balls with meat and veg inside.
The next day we visited the Potala Palace as the mechanics were still messing around with the engine. It seems nothing gets done quickly here. The Potala Palace is the iconic image of Tibet that features on every postcard. The former home of the Dalai Lama, this opulent palace was constructed between 1645 and 1694 and contains many treasures. Amoung the innumerable images of various supernatural being are the tombs of eight former Dalai Lamas. These massive structures are covered with hundreds of kilograms of gold and studded with countless precious stones - a sharp contrast to the fortunes of the devout Tibetans who prostrate themselves outside its walls. The building is an impressive structure – a huge, impregnable fortress filled with gold and jewels. It’s amazing its still there. However, when faced with the conditions that most Tibetans live in, enduring the harsh environment of the plateau, its opulence offends more than it delights.
Thursday we were keen to get moving as our permits were due to run out on the 7th. The garage claimed they had sorted the engine problem so we agreed to try to make it out of Tibet into China by push starting. Unfortunately, after a short distance of driving it was clear that the problem was not sorted at all. The engine stalled every few minutes and it was only the fact that we didn’t have a starter motor that got it started again. It sounded terrible and the performance was awful. We returned to break the good news.
Fridays investigations revealed that only 4 cylinders were working properly although strangely they were on both sides of the engine. It couldn’t be a carb problem so it had to be an ignition problem. The insertion of a high energy ignitor into the distributor got all 8 cylinders running again for which there was much rejoicing. Also, it was the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival so the mechanics stuffed mooncakes into us and took us out for a slap up meal in the town. Quality. Beer flowed to shouts of Gambe! (down in one) and the food was mountainous. We were looking forward to getting going again in the morning.
Saturday. Tibet strikes again. It was back to 4 cylinders. The theory was that the part they used wasn’t great quality so must have burned out. They tried a Toyota part but to no avail. It seems we had no option but to put the Landy on a truck to China and fly out. So on Sunday we got a flight to Zhongdian, just outside of Tibet. The plan was to travel down to Tiger Leaping Gorge and other sights in the Yunnan province and meet up with the Landy in Kunming in 6 days. Also, we needed to get visa extensions as ours were due to run out on the 13th.
The flight over the Tibetan Himalayan mountain range was spectacular and getting a bus to Qiaotou proved no problem. In the morning we were going to attempt to walk the Tiger Leaping Gorge in one day – a feat that Lonely Planet described as maniacal.
Nepal – It likes us.
First thing on Monday morning we were at the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu to get our Chinese visa. We shelled out 70 USD each in order to pick them up that evening and headed back to town to sort things out in anticipation of leaving the next morning for Tibet. However, only hours after we’d applied for the visas we got an email saying that there had been a mistake and that it was in fact Tibetan visas that we needed. This was surprising considering that Tibet has effectively been part of China for 50 years. Also, the visa office only opened on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays so we would have to wait until Wednesday to apply again. The even better news was that you can’t have a Tibetan visa and a Chinese visa at the same time so the Chinese one would have to be cancelled. I love burocracy. The plus side was that we would have more time to explore Kathmandu and to visit the ActionAid office. The rest of the day was spent wandering around, getting our bikes fixed up for pennies and feeding up on steak again. We also booked ourselves onto a flight over Everest for 6:30 in the morning.
The excitement was misplaced though. Having gotten up at 5:30am, gone to the airport, sat in the plane with camera at the ready and excited grins on our faces, we were informed that the weather around Everest was bad and that the fabled mountain probably wouldn’t even be visible if the plane went up. So that was that then. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we would be driving past the north face of Everest when we got to Tibet and could even drive up to the original base camp. On the way back from the airport we took a short detour to Pashupatinath – Nepal’s most important Hindu temple which draws devotees from all over India, including many sadhus (wandering Hindu holy men). Like most Hindu temples, we weren’t allowed inside but there was plenty to see on the outside. The temple is located beside the Bagmati river and it is here that the dead are cremated on large pyres before being thrown into the river. There is also a huge number of unfriendly monkeys roaming around – I counted over 50. They charge around in packs and terrorize each other and innocent bystanders. Seeing Richard getting harassed by a particularly mean-looking specimen is an image that will stay in my mind for a long time. Arf. We also met some scantily clad sadhus. Disappointingly, these holy men pose for photos for money. I suppose they have to eat like everyone else but it doesn’t seem very pious. Especially when they keep trying to increase the price.
After a couple of hours here, we headed back into town to the ActionAid office where we met fundraising manager Archana Sharma (see separate post). Later, we performed another oil change on the Landy then went out for dinner with Phil and Cristine who had arrived from the Chitwan National Park.
Wednesday was tourism day in Nepal so all the sights were open for free and we took good advantage. After a brief look around Darbur square in Kathmandu (it’s not very interesting) we headed to the confusingly named Durbar Square in Patan. Patan is the second largest town in the Kathmandu valley and is now almost joined to Kathmandu by urban sprawl. In the past however, there was much competition been the two in terms of Temples and civil buildings and Patan seems to have won out. We actually managed to find a really good guide in the square and the two hour tour of the Hindu and Buddhist temples was excellent. However, Buddhism in Nepal has been heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and its practice bears little relation to the actual principles of Buddhism. They do let you into the temples though which is nice. We picked up our visas in the evening and went back to the hotel to get ready for an early morning departure to the Tibet border.
Tibet – It hates us.
And early morning it was. We left Kathmandu at 4am Thursday morning and drove 7 hours to the border town of Kodari. The fine views on the way were not reflected in Kodari which to put plainly, is a hell-hole similar to almost every other border town we’ve been through. It seems to be an immutable law of physics that border towns have to be hell-holes. After hours of messing around, the ever-efficient customs officials stamped our papers and we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Tibet where we met our guide Tunden. After several more form stamping exercises, we drove up a steep, muddy track to the Tibetan town of Zhangmu. On the way though, I managed to scrape a truck with the handlebars of Richard’s bike. The truck was unscathed but the handlebars looked as though an amusing attempt at constructing a balloon animal had been performed on them. At Zhangmu, we were informed that our forms weren’t ready and we’d have to wait until tomorrow to get them. Efficiency is always the key with these places. The next morning we eagerly awaited our forms but they weren’t to arrive until 5pm. It was then that the customs officials informed us we’d have to pay 160 USD for parking in the customs house! After an hour of arguing we had it down to 80 but they weren’t going to budge any further and we had no choice but to cough it up and hit the road.
We took the abysmal road out of Zhangmu in a steep climb up into the Himalaya mountain range. The scenery was spectacular but the road condition meant speeds of over 20 mph were impossible. The altitude gain resulted in a corresponding temperature drop and we turned on our Eberspacher heater in anticipation of a good warm. It wasn’t to be. The heater refused to work. We resigned ourselves to being cold. After 5 hours of driving we decided to get out, stretch our legs and give the engine a rest. Our guide, whom we’d learned by this time didn’t speak english very well met with some friends in another vehicle and agreed to meet us in the next town. We got back in and started up. Or rather didn’t. Taking a queue from the heater, the engine refused to start and tinkering with the sparks and leads proved fruitless. We sat and hoped our guide would realise we weren’t following and come back. Luckily he did and we got towed to the nearest village. Delightfully, we got our first puncture on the way and our hopes of the tow starting the engine were dashed. It seems Tibet had taken a dislike to us. Helpfully, our guide decided to leave for the night and we took up the task of changing the tyre with some relish. Some locals had turned up to help so we figured it would be a piece It was cold and dark and the soil was soft and the Landy was heavy. In short it wasn’t possible and we decided to give it a fresh try in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
Ah, the misery of that night will forever be ingrained in my memory. Altitude sickness caught us both in its vice-like grip and we woke up repeatedly feeling nauseous, sweaty, cold, dizzy and breathless by turns. The morning proved no better and my head felt like it was being carved in two with a remarkably blunt object. Our jack was proving to be useless in the soft soil so I flagged down a truck and used their 20T jack to change the wheel. At least one thing worked. Afterwards, we flagged down passing 4×4s to get attach our jump leads but after the 4th attempt it was clear that the engine was not going to start. The rest of the day was spent being harassed by local kids (one of the little feckers nicked a padlock of the back doors) and suffering from altitude sickness. Our guide eventually turned up at 4pm and set off to find a truck to take us to Lhasa. Amazingly, he was back by 6pm with a flat-bed truck. That’s right – a flat-bed. With no ramps or winch or nothing. We had to set about this the Tibetan way and the truck was backed up to a small precipice. The Landy was towed up to the top and then pushed off onto the truck. Large chunks of soil fell away as the massive weight of the Landy passed over it. Brown trousers time for all involved but it panned out ok in the end.
And so we were off, travelling to Lhasa over amazingly rough roads in the truck cab and enjoying the scenery of the Himalayas. By this time, we seemed to have acclimatised and were no longer suffering from altitude sickness which was a relief. Apparently it can affect some people for 3 days. The down side of getting towed was that we were yet again to miss a view of Everest as it’s a 3 hour drive off the main road to get to the base camp. It seems Everest hates us aswell.
Bouncing along in the cab was pleasant enough for the first few hours but we didn’t stop for nosh until 11pm and then we were off again. By 3am I was struggling to keep my eyes open and we managed to convince the truckies to let us into the Landy for some kip. We were met with a scene of devastation. Everything not welded to the floor had been thrown around randomly due to the shocking roads and the same was soon to happen to us. Wrapping up in two sleeping bags against the cold and being tossed around like two peas in a tin can, we had to laugh before sheer exhaustion took us and we experienced probably the most ridiculous sleeping conditions ever.
By 3pm on Sunday we had reached Lhasa after a marathon 17 hour driving session by the truckies. We pushed the Landy off in much the same manner that we had pushed it on and got towed a short distance to a mechanics. We met up with the travel agents who had arranged our permits and guide and enjoyed the spectacle of them being remarkably stressed out by our predicament. We weren’t concerned as we had been waiting for this to happen ever since the random engine problems in Pakistan. However, our permits were due to run out on the 7th of October and this would mean possible problems with the authorities. Not much we could do about it though so we checked into a hotel and went to explore Lhasa while awaiting the mechanics verdict.
Will our intrepid heroes ever get out of Tibet alive? Have their evidently evil previous lives proven to be just too much to allow them any luck in this country? Stay tuned for next week’s exciting instalment of “Tibet Hates Our Guts”.