Friends and family kept saying “have a great holiday” our response was “its looking more like an adventure than a holiday” and so it was. We were becoming comfortable with the typical mid-winter escape for 10 days, which, don’t get me wrong, is always wonderful, but we needed to change it up somewhat.
Both Kim and I are hovering around that 50ish age mark so the longer we postponed a more adventurous trip the harder it would become, as we found out in Tibet age and lack of fitness does have its benefits at altitude.
Our, or my dream was to travel the length of the Silk Road. We don’t have the money or the time to do the whole thing so I got this crazy plan in my head to do it in three stages. The first was beginning in Beijing then travelling south-west into Tibet.
The level of documentation and checks was something we prepared for. In Tibet especially you needed to have your passport close to you at all times as checkpoints are as frequent as the overhead road and street cameras. Coming from New Zealand where we have a low level of surveillance the contrast is quite noticeable.
Beijing was surprisingly pleasant, stories and images of the city’s notorious pollution was how I imagined it to be. While a massive city with the associated smog I was asking where is all the traffic? Everyone is underground was the answer, the expansion of the underground has been swift even by Chinese standards. All the side traffic, scooters and light utilities were all electric.
The Forbidden City and Tiananmen square are a direct contrast to the soviet style architecture, evident in the governmental buildings that surround them and the massive wide streets that flank the Forbidden City itself.
We were fortunate to stay in a small historical themed hotel right in the heart of Beijing’s “hutongs”.
Old traditional dwellings surrounded by tight streets and littered by night markets. We loved this area whether it was the wonderful Peking duck rolls, a must in Beijing or just to watch all the people in their fancy gym shoes walking by. The Chinese love their branded western shoes and every street seems to have a Nike or Adidas outlet.
We were advised to wear long trousers and shoes. It was a “while in Rome” thing. Pretty soon we realised why, the squat toilets – shorts and jandals don’t quite work. Some of the toilets were photo worthy especially in Tibet. With a common signage in the men’s being “please take one more step forward for humanity” amusing.
We moved northwest on the bullet trains through the industrial parks, quarries and endless clusters of apartment towers. Whenever these sights would start to fade in the distance more clusters would appear out of the haze, all while travelling along in relative comfort at 280-300kmh.
Once you get past the infrastructure surrounding the bullet train system, the large modern stations and the preciseness of departure one thing dawned on me. Many passengers carry only day packs, the system has opened up the country to many. People will and can travel 500-800kms in a day and back to visit family, friends or to just shop. Air travel can be energy sapping, whereas train travel such as this is a pleasure.
Our timing wasn’t the best as we arrived in Pingyao, an untouched walled town in the heart of the Shanxi province on the start of the May day holidays. The crowds dulled our experience somewhat, walking like penguins, arms pushed tightly into your sides, small shuffles with the push of the people from behind.
You would find a side street to get out of the current for respite only to have to re-enter again. Pingyao was a gem which is popular with Chinese tourists. Pausing briefly to take a photograph a dozen people would take the space and separate myself from Kim and our guide by 20m such was the flow of people in a confined space.
On to the fast train once more to Xian. Described as one of the worlds cultural centres. We only had one full day here but will go back to explore some more as it did make an impression on us. Our guide John said: “Tomorrow you will see half the people of China at the Terracotta Warriors as it is the May Day holidays.” He wasn’t kidding, just another experience.
Then we travelled still on the fast track north west through the endless farm plots being readied for spring planting. The clusters of apartment blocks eventually gave way as we climbed into a drier, bleaker and more eroded landscape on our way to Xining.
Xining was the end of the fast train network from there we acclimatised at 2300m for a couple of days before catching the Qinghai-Tibet train. The journey on the worlds highest railway was truly an experience. We boarded the 21-hour trip in the evening so as to wake and have the entire day to take in the breath-taking scenery.
We woke in the morning to a snow-covered surround, amongst the endless empty trucks heading back to China on the adjacent road. We could see mobs of wild donkeys, yaks, antelope and Marmot. The train has oxygen ports in each cabin which was nice for a burst once and a while, but the whole point of the trip was to acclimatise.
The vast landscapes were a sight to see, climbing subtly to stations at 4800m, a giveaway was the sterile landscapes where the glaciers dropped right down on to the valley floors. The highest point is Tanggula pass at 5072m.
As we descended the last 400-500kms to Lhasa the construction appeared, the scale is astonishing, a dual lane carriage way, part of the Belt and Road project was being constructed simultaneously along the entire corridor. In fact, much of Tibet and China could be described as one big construction site.
Just off the train at Lhasa, Tibet’s capital which sits at an elevation of 3600m you know straight away something is different. The sun feels hotter, your head starts to tighten and walking strains your legs. At the top of a flight of stairs the front of your legs would be burning and you would find yourself gasping for breath, gradual stepped acclimatisation was worth it. The younger and fitter the harder the acclimatisation we were told.
Lhasa’s skyline is dominated by the Potala Palace, the home of the Dali Lama, Buddhism is the foundation of the Tibet’s culture which is focused on kindness, compassion and empathy. We found ourselves throughout Tibet “walking the Kora”. A Buddhist ceremonial circuit, always clockwise around a monastery, the continuous chain of happy people walking would magically draw you in.
From Lhasa we travelled Southwest towards and over a 4989m meter pass to look down on Yamdrok Lake. A beautiful deep blue lake with the contrasting barren landscape framed by the deep blue sky only seen at altitude.
The mountains, glaciers, lakes and deserts all seem vast. The passes you drive up over 4500m are many with a few over the 5000m in elevation. This part of the trip was all about getting to Everest Base Camp (EBC) and back to Lhasa as quickly as possible. Still climbing through Shigatse and then overnighting in New Tingri, which I described as a one-horse town without out the horse.
EBC sits at 5150m. It was one full day to EBC and back to New Tingri. We managed to get a good look at Everest early on before the cloud came in. The experience was memorable. The roads are audacious, if that’s the mountain we need to go over, then that’s what we will do – Chinese construction once again at its best.
A new park and ride service with electric buses had just opened. This made EBC peaceful and relaxing until the cloud descended and the temperature dropped to minus 10 below.
We didn’t get right to the climbing base camp as this is only for permitted climbers and the tourist viewing area has been pulled back to the Rongbuk Monastery as the Chinese are doing a lot of tidying up.
Although I have never been to the Nepalese side of Everest, I would highly recommend the Tibetan side, its higher in elevation, you can drive right to the bus depot and the crowds are non-existent. Everest was a bucket list tick for me and it didn’t disappoint at all. If I was 20 years younger, we would have camped in the tents at base camp overnight.
We didn’t muck around over the next few days, returning to Lhasa then flying to Shanghai for 2 nights before returning home.
We loved China. The people were inquisitive and confident about their global role and while interested in outside affairs, their world is China. Teenagers who all learn English were keen to communicate, asking questions like, “Where are you from?” and secondly, “How old are you?”
Followed with a selfie – my wife’s blond curly hair was definitely an attraction. Multi-generational families intently fussed after well-behaved children and grandchildren. As always, knowing just a few simple words helps, along with a simple smile and a laugh which transcends the language barriers.
Tibet was our highlight, once you get past the strict controls of movement and the documentation it was the people again who impressed, their faith and fortitude in the face of their rapidly changing society is admirable.
Peter McDonald and Kim Spencer-McDonald are sheep farmers from Dipton, New Zealand.
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