CHINA – July 2019
Paul and I are going on a month long 5,000km overland expedition through China, Tibet and Nepal. The Journey starts at Xi’an in east China and heads west out across the central plains. At Golmud we turn south and work our way across the vast Tibetan plateau to Lhasa. We then continue on through the Himalayan passes into Nepal and finish in Kathmandu. The journal is separated into the three separate posts of China, Tibet and Nepal.
China – We spend about 12 days in China traveling from Xi’an to Golmud and the Tanggula Pass (5231m) which marks the start of Tibet. China is one of the largest and the most populated countries in the world and is teeming with beautifully-chaotic modern cities juxtaposed with thousands of years of history, heritage and stunning scenery.
Xi’an – We arrive in Xi’an early. Once the imperial centre and start of the ancient Silk Road it has a rich history and one of its most treasured sites is the Terracotta Warriors. After re-calibrating our devices and ourselves we explore some of the historic sites in this modern metropolis of 13m people.
The next day we meet the crew Jemima and Jason, the local guide Sophia, the Dragoman Truck ‘Archie 2’ and the other travellers. It’s a truck load of young and old, girls and boys, couples and singles, experienced and novices but all adventurers at heart.
Then we visit the famous Terracotta Warriors. I’m jealous of such a beautiful collection of statues and the wonderful Made-in-China souvenirs even though there is not a snow jar in sight. Crowded but seamlessly organised, back at the Truck a head count reveals none have been lost which Jemima sees as a good omen for the first day of a group of independently minded adults. It’s hot and sticky work and we are looking forward to a group meal and a few cold ones…
Pingliang – We start our journey with a 6 hour drive east to Pingliang the gateway to the Kongtong Mountains, a spectacular set of hills covered in temples. First Paul and I hit the local supermarket for a few supplies and a local SIM. On the road, Dave who has spent the last 80 days on the truck travelling the Silk Road from Istanbul gives us a few tips about life on the road. We are certainly popular – truck drivers pull alongside to gaze in, while kids peer out of car windows and wave at the westerners in the orange truck. Late in the evening we pull into Pingliang, we have a couple of birthdays today so it’s another night of celebrations!
Kongtong Mountains – Despite a wet evening is a beautiful day to explore the magnificent mountains and the numerous temples. One of the most sacred sites in Taoism, temples and stone caves are set amongst steep mountains and dense forests. The forested hills are scattered with temples honouring Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. At over 2,000 metres it is serious mountain goat country featuring the famous 400 steps of ‘The Stairway to Heaven’ – a challenge in itself. There are no other westerners and only a handful of locals enjoying this peaceful and serene place. After a full day of hiking the bus is quiet on our way back to the accommodation.
Lanzhou – We start out early down a long straight highway, amazing tunnels and little traffic for the busy city of Lanzhou. We change truck seats daily so new conversations with new people, including a neurologist, a retired aerospace engineer, a truck driver, an English pub owner and a geologist hmmm…
We are there by early afternoon. Changing money is a cross between a bureaucratic nightmare and a major social engagement – lots of forms followed by introductions to each staff member…sorry but now it’s too late for the Silk Road Museum, but there is a beer hall around the corner let me show you…LOL…then a little rest up before an amazing dinner at the colourful night market just around the other corner.
Xiahe – We zoom along the highway for a morning drive to Xiahe, a Tibetan enclave that sits on the edge of the lower Tibetan Plateau. It’s a smallish town surrounded by lush hills, and a beautiful setting for the Labrang Monastery that comes complete with saffron-robed monks, fluttering prayer flags and spectacular scenery. We spend a couple of days in a guest house, exploring this quaint town and acclimatising to the 3,000m altitude.
Labrang Monastery – At dawn I watch the Monks at the nearby stupa and prayer wheels that surround the Monastery. Then we spend the morning touring the Monastery which is a major library, printing house, learning centre and pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Late in the afternoon we meet Tenzin, a Canadian with an amazing accidental life story at her Art Education Centre for indigenous Tibetan children.
Sangke Grasslands – The next day we take a tour to look out over the massive Sangke grasslands that undulate into the horizon of the lower Tibetan Plateau. We drop into small villages, hike up beautiful gorges and visit sacred caves, then visit a Monastery for black hat Buddhists (who spin prayer wheels backwards). Then it’s back to Xiahe where we complete our day at a local cafe with spectacular egg and bacon sandwiches, exquisite yak burgers, a pretty decent espresso and of course cold beer. Go Buddhism…
Regional Cities – Chinese regional cities are big, modern and clean with great highway connections, city streets are wide but pedestrian friendly with verges and median strips well planted and maintained. The traffic gets a bit busy at peak periods but is well mannered and major intersections have pedestrian overpasses. Other westerners are rare as is English but everyone is friendly and curious.
Mornings – getting things moving in the mornings has been interesting but a routine is being established with plenty of humour in the mix. Breakfast is communal, the locals are noisy, fast and messy eaters. We carefully select our food from the buffet, an optimistic Australian constantly brings out the vegemite but we haven’t seen a toaster since Xi’an. Then people and bags to the truck with a constant banter about bag size and weight, then it’s into the truck for a head count, a quick briefing and off we go…
Time Zones – China only has one time zone so as we move west the sun stays up late and parties and then has a good sleep the next morning.
Bingling Si Buddha Caves – An early drive for the caves and then a couple of boats up the Yellow River to spend a few hours exploring the Buddhist grotto site with a 27m-tall statue of Buddha and cliffs with hundreds of small caves and statues. Then to the delight of local vendors we buy lunch and relax on the river bank.
Liujiaxia – Then it’s onto Liujiaxia for an overnight stay. But first we go shopping for supplies for the next 2 days of wild camping… It’s hilarious chaos as a truck load of adult westerners descend on an eastern supermarket and make ad hoc meal decisions based on illegible packaging. Well, that looks enough for 2 days…let’s go!
The Lower Tibetan Plateau – We spend a few of days overlanding with a couple of night’s wild camping as we go the backway to Golmud across the lower Tibetan Plateau. The food decisions made in the eastern supermarket turned out surprisingly good and we are well-fed. At about 3,000m with passes up to 4,500m, the roads are good but empty, the population is sparse and towns are rare. Initially we drive through high grassland but by the second day it turns into a starkly beautiful desert, which follows us all the way to Golmud.
Wild Camping – Wild camping can be a hallmark of these types of journeys especially in remote areas. However it is no longer allowed in several areas of China, so we have taken to the rural backroads to find camping opportunities.
On the first evening after a long drive we turn down a rough dirt track, round a couple of hills, cross a creek and surprise a couple of local Yak herders. Sophia, our Chinese guide wanders off to exchange pleasantries and returns with a smile, it all seems ok. The herders seem amused by our visit and soon all the mums, dads and kids in the small community turn out to watch the westerners in the big red truck set up camp. They take photos and selfies, wave and smile broadly, stand by our fire, bring us yak milk and offer us Yak dung to burn…delightful.
By morning a restless night and ice on the tents has taken the fun out of it for some, but a warming sun, hot coffee and scrambled eggs soon restores the faith. We break camp, load up, wave goodbye to our yak herders and head off down the road.
The next day another long drive and late afternoon we are still some way from Golmud and looking for a camp site, down a small road that turns to gravel quickly, past the Goji berry farm we find a spot close to the river. A couple of curious locals drop in to take some photos and tell us about the mosquitoes… ‘Burn dried yak dung’ they say….hmmm, there is plenty around and yep it seems to work. It’s also our driver Jason’s birthday and he gets a traditional Tibetan birthday cake and a bottle of JB scotch whiskey. We celebrate around the camp fire and all agree that Jemima will drive the last leg to Golmud in the morning.
Golmud – The morning after two nights of wild camping we break camp at a more leisurely pace and drive through the desert plains. We are excited to reach Golmud a few hours later, we all want a hot shower, and because this is the end of our western journey through China and we now turn south towards Tibet, albeit at much higher altitudes. Golmud sits high up on the Tibetan Plateau with stunning views of vast mountains surrounding open grasslands with a couple of scattered settlements and an occasional yak-herder.
Goodbye China – Thank you for your fabulous infrastructure, wonderful highways and clean cities, diversity of geography and your curious and friendly people.