The Silk Road, China

Thursday, 30 August 2007

The End

And so my trip now draws to an end. After two months of travelling across China and a detour into Tibet, I find myself at the end of this extraordinary journey. To the highlights of the previous 3 months in the Middle East and Central Asia, I can now add: lunch with Pakistani Finance minister at the Shandur pass; the remains of the Silk Road in an incredible desert setting at Turpan; an unforgettable day looking round the incredible Buddhist caves of Dunhuang followed by a microlight flight over the sand dunes; gazing up at Everest Base Camp; gazing down from the Shug la pass on a trek between two of Tibet's most significant monasteries and finally, the Great Wall of China.

It has been an unforgettable trip. There have been so many good times that I can genuinely say that I could divide most of the trip into two week sections and call them once in a lifetime experiences in their own right. It is partly this fact that has convinced me just how much can actually be achieved in a two week holiday. Combine this with the fact that nearly every country in the world is extremely affordable compared to Britain and I am determined to continue to exploring the more far flung corners of the world, even if a six month sabbatical is not possible every year. My 'to travel' list is growing daily ...

If I had to single out a handful of highlights, they would be as follows.

1. Wandering in total silence through the ancient ruins of Palmyra in Syria
2. Exploring beautiful Esfahan and uncovering the intriguing Iranian culture by talking to the friendly and inquisitive people
3. A walk on a high altitude pasture past a shepherd and his yaks, in the yellow glow of dusk at lake Bulunkul in Tajikistan
4. Sitting on a moraine above Nanga Parbat base camp looking up
5. Soaking up the sun and the crystal clear views of Everest on our final morning, after two days of almost continuous rain
6. Being quite taken by surprise by the sudden, dramatic views down into the clouds from the 5200m Shug la pass on the second day of my trek in Tibet.

(I couldn't get it down to five)

And of course there were some less good times. Those that remain particularly vivid in my mind are:

1. An 8 hour drive across the worst road ever imaginable in the Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, after a night of drinking vodka - Russian style - with our guide Oleg
2. Adjusting to the most depressing town on the Silk Road; Nukus in Uzbekistan
3. Having no choice but to stay in a disgusting hotel in Osh in Kyrgyzstan, another serious contender for the above trophy
4. The attritional battles with our drivers for control over the jeeps we had paid for in Tajikistan and Tibet
5. The torturous 12 hours around Tingri in Tibet, during which time we came to realise that we would not reach base camp on that occasion
6. On a number of occasions politely asking for help from Chinese strangers and being completely ignored, as if invisible


Further to the last point above - which infuriated me more than every other low point on the trip put together - it has been fascinating to visit China at such as turning point in its history, despite its many frustrations for a traveller. As expected at the outset, visiting China was often an interesting experience (as opposed to a simply enjoyable one) - but interesting it certainly was.

The first thing that struck me was how far from united so much of China is. The Tibetan 'problem' is well known, but as soon as we set foot into North West China we quickly realised that there was a similar Uighar and Mongolian problem. While insignificant compared to total Chinese population, these provinces make up perhaps half of China's landmass, while the total number of Uighars is one and half times that of the population of Great Britain.

Islam stretches deep into today's China, but only tiny minorities exist east of the Great Wall in cities in the ancient Empire proper, like Xian and Beijing. Sadly, China appears to have used the war on terror as a pretext to persecute political dissenters, particularly Muslims. Further east, there were signs of a once powerful Buddhist influence, but the real legacy from the past is the highly pragmatic Confuscian bureaucracy that propped up the Empire for so long, in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

This legacy remains all too visible today: at the borders, in the banks, train stations and in the hotels. Before long you are drowning in pieces of paper, issued in triplicate and each carefully stamped two or three times. The 'long arm' of Beijing is also very much evidence; it expects the citizens of Xinjiang to set their watches in line with the capital even though this means that in the west, the sun does not set until midnight in high summer.

But beyond the Confuscian ideals upon which the Communist state has drawn so heavily, there seems to little else that remains from the past. To me, the pace of change and the sense of both individualism and capitalism is the most powerful I have ever encountered. The latter is acutely ironic for a country that still claims to be Communist. Change is clearly happening at a startling rate, but the Chinese people are forgoing political liberty in return for improved living standards. The question, of course, is whether the Party can continue to muddle along by delivering growth through piecemeal reform, or whether wholesale reform will be required (which may in turn undermine the Party). Whatever the outcome, the challenges facing China today are nothing less than daunting.

Returning home

And so, now back to life in London. It would not be true to say that I am relishing the prospect of 9am on Monday morning, but after 5 months living out of a backpack, it feels like as good a time as any. The sense of saturation that many people speak of is not something I have felt acutely, but I do at least now understand the concept. I have had a unique opportunity to step back from my life and reflect upon it, which has been invaluable. But now, the greatest draw of returning home is to see friends and family. It has been a while ...



I had less than a week left. And having seen results of the relentless pace of change in other major Chinese cities such as Xian and Lanzhou, I was by no means champing at the bit to leave Tibet: I expected Beijing to be a vast, sprawling city , enveloped in smog where the sun never quite manages to shine.

I was delighted to be proved wrong. The sun shone and I found Beijing to be a wonderful city; I thoroughly enjoyed my final days in China, easing myself back into the creature comforts (primarily food, drink and shopping) that await me in London. In addition, my friend James decided that as I had walked with him at the beginning and at the end of his epic journey to Jerusalem, that - having also been there at the beginning in Damascus - he would fly out to mark the end of my (somewhat less impressive) trip.

If China is the world's spiritual home of concrete, Beijing has a lot to live up to. Its centrepiece, Tian'anmen Square (the world's largest) rises to the challenge, with no question of greenery; red flags provide the only relief from the grayness. Beijing's roads are also quite extraordinary: every major route through the city is literally the size of the M25. And this vast capacity still does not prevent total gridlock. At the time of my visit the government are experimenting with ways to solve the traffic problem: one solution be trialled is to take 50% of cars off the road (determined by numberplate) at any one time. Only in China...

Tian'anmen Square

But other than these concrete indulgences, Beijing struck me as a clean, vibrant city with many beautiful parks and tourist attractions to visit. I spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the Temple of Heaven to the south of the city centre, as well as wandering up north from the Forbidden City through Jingshan and Behai park with James.

The Forbidden city itself is impressive, although much of it appeared to be in the process of renovation for Beijing 2008 (as was Chairman Mao's mausoleum... and Everest Base Camp it seems...) We walked through courtyard after courtyard and after several hours we had still barely scratched the surface.

Outside of the city lies, of course, The Great Wall. Unlike most other 'must see' tourist sights in China, which tend to be ruined by this very fact, The Wall easily exceeded my expectations. Before James arrived, I walked about 10km along the Wall from Jinshaling to Simitar, both of which lie further away from Beijing and the huge tourist crowds. It was a beautiful day, the views in Mongolia were stunning and at times I was quite alone as I walked. (Most of the time, however, I was 'helped' along the way by people muttering "hello water" once every five minutes or so! )

The wall is magnificent, even if it was complete folly. Despite the official Chinese version of history, it never prevented an invasion and was virtually a bottomless pit into which Imperial China poured resources - both people and money. Nevertheless, walking along it as it snakes up and down through the hilly countryside was a wonderful experience, even it did made me empathise for those who had once hauled the stones up there to build it.

Back in Beijing, the choice of food, coffee, alcohol and shopping was eye popping. Ironically, people seem to gaze longingly into the western priced super brand stores such as Gucci, before heading around the corner to The Silk Market, where it is possibly to find the same brands, ripped off and sold at knock down prices. (Although knock down the prices you must, as the first starting price is often not far off London prices - it's a long way down from 450 to 15 yuan for a pair for Calvin Kleins...)

The pre Olympic buzz in Beijing is also extraordinary. Everything is being renovated, the (state controlled) television runs stories daily as if it were a month away, and there is a tangible sense of excitement in the city. Even the taxi drivers are learning English.

The competitive pressure on China seems to be enormous. I watched unbelievingly as a crucial swimming event was reporting on CCTV9, the amusingly named Chinese English news channel. The headline was "China Goldless" and the report proceeded to work its way through every event naming and shaming the individuals who had failed to achieve even a bronze medal. There was no mention of any other country at event level, although at the end the reporter mumbled something about Australia taking home more medals than anyone else. China is on show next year and I cannot imagine the lengths that the country is going to to bring home its best ever haul of medals.

The days seemed to flash past and suddenly it was time to return home. But while Beijing is a fun city, it can never quite compete with London in certain respects. One major consolation of returning home will be the first decent steak and a properly served Gin and Tonic in six months. London's Calling?

Just before jumping into the taxi to the airport


Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Walking in the clouds

Before leaving Tibet I was determined to experience some of the its wilderness: Tibet makes up around a tenth of China's land mass but less than 0.5% of its population. The average altitude on the Tibetan plateau is 4500m, and it is the source of the drinking water for c40% of the world's population. In other words, it's very high and very wet.

So, after Tom and Debs had left for London, I made enquiries to see if I could join up with others looking to go on a major trek. I had set my sights on a 80km walk between two major monasteries outside of Lhasa - Ganden and Samye monasteries. It is a tough, 4-5 day trek, taking in two passes over 5000m.

Through the noticeboards at the various hostels and travel agencies, I was lucky enough to find a lovely Ukranian couple, Igor and Polena, who wanted to do the same thing at the same time. I had been wondering about doing the trek without any help, but the prospect of carrying all my sleeping and cooking gear, plus 5 days worth of food at this altitude, meant I was quickly won round to having a cook and some yaks to carry our gear.

We left immediately and headed for a Ganden monastery, itself at 4500m. A politically significant monastery, it felt almost eery wandering around what is now a shell of a thing: it once housed 2000 monks (before the number was restricted to 100) and many of the buildings were reduced to rubble by the Red Guards in the 1960s.

Nothing could diminish the views of the valley below, however, as we walked around the kora (pilgrim circuit), just behind a smiling old lady in traditional clothes (complete with the same style sunhat that all Tibetan women of her age wear) and her her two young (grand?) children, clad in jeans. Smoke from burning juniper piles filled our noses as we went, and the woman ahead of us patiently stopped at each shrine and stroked every stone of significance along the way.

We descended from the monastery, picked up our animals and walked up the valley to our first camp site. We were able to enjoy the stunning views back down the valley for a short time before - as happened every night between 6 and 7 o'clock - the heavens opened and it rained, more or less incessantly, until around 8 o'clock the following morning.

Sheltering from the rain!

The climb to the first 5200m pass was long and pretty tough. Luckily for me, my longer than expected exposure to base camp and its environs (see separate posting!) held me in good stead and I was completely spared from altitude sickness. However, walking at this altitude feels like 50 years have been added to your age; a tight chest is something you have to put up with.

Prayer flags greeted us at the top of the pass, but the best was to come on the other side. The sky had cleared and the vast, green valleys opened up below us. As we descended, we found ourselves walking in the clouds. The wind would propel the cloud along the valley floor, into the steep mountains, at which point it would soar vertically upwards. It was unlike anything I have ever seen and utterly captivating to watch.

The view from Chugla Pass

The following day we enjoyed a rather more straightforward climb to another pass of similar height. What followed was a steep descent alongside a stream which rapidly turned into a raging torrent, with incredibly lush, green hills all around us. We passed herders' camps, complete with the massive fierce dogs, thankfully on leashes, for which Tibet is infamous. (To date I have seen nothing but cuddly, but rather irritating, chiwawas in Lhasa... a little disappointing if you've invested hundreds of pounds in a series of rabies jabs).

Our trusty yaks

The more we descended, the more stable the weather seemed to become. By the time we reached Samye monastery, the sky was blue and the sun shone brightly. Mercifully, we evaded the police and their permit bureaucracy (we didn't have one as the office was closed for days and we needed to get going) and explored Tibet's first every monastery, where Buddhism challenged the incumbent Bon establishment and where The Great Debate saw to it that Tibetan Buddhism took a more Indian, as opposed to a Chinese (Zen) path. The atmosphere in the assembly hall, full of monks chanting from their prayer sheets was magical; we had to tear ourselves in order to catch the ferry over the river and head back to Lhasa.

Samye monastery


Impressions of Tibet

Stunning to look at...

En route to Everest and on a separate foray to Lake Namtso (north of Lhasa), we had the opportunity to explore some of Tibet in our Landcruiser. The landscape, although at times desolate (the sight of a tree is a rare thing), is extraordinarily picturesque; my burn rate of rolls of film increased dramatically.

Phunstoling monastery

We took a detour off the 'Friendship Highway' (the overland route connecting Tibet and Nepal) and visited a quiet monastery, well off the beaten track. Tucked away at the end of deserted valley and at the foot of a giant sand dune, Phunstoling monastery was quite a different experience from the busier monasteries we had seen so far.

The monks greeted us warmly and led us around the complex, opening up the chapels for us to see as we went. After this, we climbed to the ruins left by the Cultural Revolution and took in the magnificent views over the valley.

When we descended back to the monastery, we found the monks scattered across the courtyard, chanting prayers as they sat in the shade underneath the trees.

Qomokanga mountain

The following day we decided to take on a day trek and see how high we could climb. Despite the ominous clouds and some rain, we pushed on up the valley through a hamlet and stopped below the glacial wall where the snowline began. At perhaps 5400m, this was the highest we had been so far. All possible in a few hours walk from the road...

A herders' camp below Qomokanga

Lake Namtso

Lake Namsto, the world's highest salt water lake at c5000m, deserves its reputation as a Tibetan 'must see.' We spent two nights in what can only be described as extremely basic accomodation, but were able to enjoy a full day of sunbathing in perhaps the fiercest sun I have ever experienced. But despite the sun, the ambient temperature was simply perfect; the cool mountain air made it very comfortable to sit and relax. The only issue was later discovering the odd gap in my sunscreen...

The bright blue of lake Namtso is set against a backdrop of green pastures and snow capped mountains in the distance. Despite being well visited, the vast majority of the huge lake remains deserted and completely unspoilt; it was a perfect place to unwind after the trials and tribulations of trying to get to Everest Base Camp (see separate posting).

Yaks grazing near lake Namsto

... but culturally suffocated

But for all Tibet's beauty, it is hard - even as a passing visitor - not to feel uncomfortable. The scars of the Chinese 'liberation' are all too plain to see, but the really heartbreaking thing is that two generations of state controlled press and education appears to have reduced Tibetan resistance to pragmatic acceptance.

I was initially incredulous at the China's apparent desire to once again tolerate Buddhism in Tibet (after all, there is perhaps no better draw on the tourist dollar in all of China) while at the same time clamping down on the Dalai Lama, banning all images of him as recently as 1996. It struck me as rather like tolerating Christianity but persecuting Christ.

But the apparently contradictory position is because of the indivisible nature of religious and political power in Tibet. One of the strikings thing about many of the monasteries in Tibet is how huge and imposing they are - the Potala Palace being the best example; they seem designed to give an impression of military might as well as religious significance. Indeed, a (very) brief glance at Tibetan history seems to reveal exactly the same kind of political power struggles that existed in more secular states.

So the Chinese crushed the political influence that lay in the monasteries. Every monastery now has a quota of monks; numbers in the greatest ones have collapsed from one or two thousand to the same number of hundreds. Once again, the symbolic Potala has been hardest hit; it lies empty like a vast museum, save a handful of Chinese appointed monks. (I was not able to see it because it is now nearly impossible to get hold of a ticket, thanks to the hoards of Chinese tourists who pour in to see Tibet. Presumably they are in total ignorance of what their government has done to it, along with other Tibetan monasteries.)

Nevertheless, even though the monasteries bear the scars of Chinese occuption, visiting them remains a very moving experience, perhaps because Tibetan customs are so far removed from our own. Where else is it possible to imagine a pilgrim prostrating themselves on the ground, at every step they take?

But under the surface, it is hard not to detect a prevailing pragmatism which is eroding the very essence of Tibetan culture. The odds are - and always have been - so stacked against Tibet that the people have no choice but to accept the situation and get on with their lives. The number of Han Chinese now probably matches the number of Tibetans in Lhasa, while China's total population of course dwarfs the Tibetan total, at around 5 million. Despite the extraordinary numbers of Han Chinese in Lhasa, The Chinese government continues to deny there is an immigration 'programme' and is not in the habit of releasing population statistics that might contradict this position.

Strict control of education and media means that both Chinese and Tibetan youngsters have grown up with a version of events that I shudder to imagine. As early as 10 years after the invasion this was beginning to take effect; I was stunned to read that some young Tibetans also participated in the Cultural Revolution (although the vast majority of the damage was caused by Chinese Red Guards roaming the country).

Nor should the degree of intimidation be underestimated. Again, it is hard to guage this as a visitor, but everyone we spoke to was extremely muted about the situation. Of course, they cannot trust every passing tourist, but the other reason must be the severity of the punishment meted out to political 'troublemakers' - special prison camps have been used in the past, and - in the absence of a release of the vast numbers of people held in them, one has to assume they are still in use.

For me, the most striking summary of the entire situation was a young Tibetan we met. Aged 21, he was educated in Dharamsala (effectively a mini Tibet since the Dalai Llama moved there in 1959) and consequently an independent spirit. While in India he had 'Free Tibet' tatooed on his arms and made the mistake of falling into the hands of the Chinese border police because his paperwork was not in order. A policeman whom he knew previously warned him to deal with his tatoos, and so he burnt them off with a cigarette butt before anyone else saw them. The scars looked horrendous.

He told us sadly how few (at least young) people in Tibet think like he does anymore. A tiny proportion of Tibetans are able to leave the country for their education, the rest learn the Communist Party's version of events at school. Our conversations with other Tibetans, even when in a safe environment, seemed to endorse this. The situation was described to us as "difficult:" many young people went to school with Chinese people and made Chinese friends, meanwhile all future prospects lie in co-existence with the Chinese.

It is impossible to blame the Tibetan people for adopting a pragmatic approach; they have no other choice. It is also impossible to deny that Chinese rule has brought many economic benefits; the government has invested over $1.5bn in transport infrastructure in the last few years. I have even found the devastation of Tibetan culture by the Chinese more understandable (but still unforgivable and tragic) in light of what China did to itself during the Cultural Revolution.

But is hard visit Tibet today without a twinge of sadness. The country has always been at odds with the rest of the world: while Buddhism waned elsewhere, it grew stronger in Tibet; while other nations carefully separated church and state, Tibet fused them together under the Dalai Lama as late as the 17th Century. For right or for wrong, Tibet appears to have been always fiercely uncomprising, and this is no longer the case. Their culture can only now be described as increasingly commercialised and they have been obliged to accept the Chinese way; pragmatic acceptance of better living standards over and above coherent political and religious ideology. The tragedy is that while the Chinese people have chosen this way (albeit implicitly), the Tibetans have had absolutely no choice but to accept it.


Monday, 20 August 2007


Chinese whispers

All we wanted to do was see the north face of Everest from the Tibetan base camp. How hard could it be?

Agonisingly difficult, apparently. As well as our difficult-to-obtain-but-completely-ineffectual permit to enter Tibet (no one checked for it subsequently), we needed an "alien" permit to visit the Everest region, a guide and a ticket to the Everest region.

Throwing money at the Chinese bureaucracy

I am now in a position to say that this rivals the bureaucracy (and frustration) of Turkmenistan... and as we were to find out, unlike Turkmenistan, it did not even guarantee results. We arrived at the checkpoint at the turn off to Everest Base Camp and were told in typical Chinese style that EBC was closed. No reason, no explanation and certainly no apology.

And so began the Chinese whispers. A number of explanations surfaced, and some of them blossomed in the information vacuum left by the authorities. These ranged from the mundane (the condition of the road), to the intriguing (something to do with the 1 year "we are ready" event for the Beijing 2008 Olympics), to the paranoid (the location of the massive Chinese standing army in Tibet). By the end of the day I had reported to the BBC bureau in Beijing that the Chinese army were amassing troops in the region (true), that there was trouble at the Nepali border (true), that it was eventually closed (true) and wondered out loud whether this might mean a 'situation' was developing (not true so far...!).

Perhaps Tom, Debs and I have all spent too long working in professional services, but by a day or two into our little trip, we had identified a bewildering number of 'stakeholders' all of whom had a different perspective on us achieving our simple objective of getting to Everest.

They included: our driver (as distinct from the owner of the jeep and the manager of the jeep); our guide; the travel agency (through whom we had booked the trip); the 'Group Leader' (who it transpired was the government bigwig who had closed the mountain on behalf of the Chinese government); and the Everest region ticket sellers (who worked on behalf of the Chinese government, and rather than being a helpful source of information, sold tickets regardless of whether the lucky purchasers would be allowed access to base camp).

This quality of information (low) combined with this number of stakeholders (high) resulted in a situation which would have been hilarious had not Tom and Debs flown half way around the world to see Everest.

It all came to a head as we sat huddled around a phone in a small room in Tingri at the end of an abortive first day. We were there in order to attempt to buy another set of 1000 yuan (75 pounds) tickets so that we could try again the following day. Predictably, the ticket holders were delighted at the prospect of taking the money off our hands, but could offer no guarantee that they would actually be of any use.

At this point, we discovered something about the Tibetan way. We knew that many Tibetans (and Chinese) like to avoid confrontation at any cost, but we discovered that in the case of our driver and guide, this extended to a complete refusal to address the harsh reality of the situation and instead to invent numerous obstacles (as if the Chinese government wasn't enough), all the while refusing to actually state that our situation was hopeless. The driver kicked the ball into play by declaring that the alternative road to base camp was so dangerous that that owner of the Landcruiser required that we should accept liability for any damage to the jeep.

Looking down at our contract that plainly stated (in English... therein lay the problem) this was not the case, we begged to differ and decided to call Tenzin at the travel agency through whom we had booked the trip. But by now Tenzin had decided that the situation at EBC was 'political' and therefore anyone who even asked how it might be overcome was on the verge of dancing naked at base camp waving a Free Tibet banner (his words, not mine). Tom consequently received an earful down the phone for 10 minutes and we were disowned by the travel agency if we so much as attempted to go any closer to Everest.

At this point anther phone was thrust at Debs, without so much a word as who it might be. A man told her that, while the road was perilously dangerous, everyone realised how much we wanted to go to base camp and so we would try the following morning. Delighted that someone was finally talking our language (literally and metaphorically) - and that this was in fact the 'manager' of the jeep - we began to to discuss throwing caution to the wind and risking the road (and liability) despite what the Tenzin had said.

Shortly afterwards, we were somewhat surprised to learn that everyone else's understanding of the above conversation was that we would not be able to attempt the alternative route. As we sank into total confusion, our guide attempted to clarify things by reminding us for the fifth time that buying tickets for the following day might be a waste of money, because they did not guarantee entry beyond the checkpoint.

Finally, the driver intervened and in an instant earned his wages for the entire trip. While we had spent the best part of an hour trying to decide how to proceed, he pointed out that the sky outside had cleared and Everest was visible in the distance... This farcical situation had meant we were missing the very reason we were there.

Everest in the distance (c60km) from Tingri

We went outside and enjoyed the view and agreed that we were not going to resolve the situation. That night at supper, our driver declared that he was more than happy to attempt the drive to base camp if only he had a "partner driver." We thanked him, said we would be delighted to pay for a third helper and left him at 10pm, drinking and playing cards, knowing full well that said 'partner driver' would not materialise by 8am the following morning...

Tingri was as close to Everest as we would get on that occasion. We will never know the reason, but the one year before the Beijing Olympics event is the most likely. The following day, a multiplicity of sources confirmed that both roads remained closed. We had no choice but to head back towards Lhasa.

Take 2

Three days later, just as we were readying to leave Lake Namtso for Lhasa, we found out from Tenzin that EBC was open. A mad flurry of rearranging Tom and Debs' flights followed and we signed up for second trip to base camp.

We drove immediately to Lhasa, swapped vehicles, driver and guide and headed out towards Tingri. Without a hitch, we passed the numerous checkpoints and found ourselves picking our way up the rough (but hardly life threatening as we'd been led to believe) track to base camp.

There we discovered that the weather was an even more formidable opponent than the Chinese government. Spring, not the rainy summer months, is the time to see the mountain - it is then that the expeditions attempt to reach the summit. We arrived in the pouring rain and spent much of our time at base camp huddled in a tent playing cards.

But we were extremely lucky. We enjoyed good views of the mountain both evenings we were there and spectacular views the morning we left. Base camp sits down the valley from Everest, behind a massive terminal moraine which straddles the entire c1km wide valley floor. Beyond the moraine are the white seracs of the glacier and finally the bright white north face of Everest.

What surprised me was how high the snowline was. Due to the time of year, the mountains were brown for another c1000m above base camp, which itself is 5200m above sea level. It was also very hard to believe - from the bottom - that four vertical kilometres remained above us to the summit.

Whenever Everest appeared from behind the clouds, it always seemed impossibly large. But the more time we spent gazing at it, the 'tamer' it seemed. Then we would return the following day and be amazed once again by its size. (What is also certain is that the mountain looks considerably bigger 'in the flesh' than in a photograph...) But despite this, the one thing we all agreed that remained constant was the burning desire to know what it must be like standing at the summit.


Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Lhasa - arrival in Tibet

Having spent a few days alone in Xian after Helen headed home, I was very much looking forward to meeting up with Tom and Debs - friends from University who had decided to join me in Tibet for their summer holiday. We arrived more or less at the same time and spent a relaxing few days in Lhasa acclimatising to the altitude.

Lhasa could not have provided a sharper contrast with the humid, smoggy cities of Gansu and Shaanxi province. The air is clean and crisp - if a little thin at 3600m. A poster in a travel agency proudly named Lhasa the Sunshine City, due to an average of 3,000 hours of sunshine every year. That equates to an extraordinary average of 8+ hours of sunshine every single day. And Tibet is not famed for its mild winters.

Beyond the weather, the Tibetan style buildings lept out in contrast to the entirely functional, concrete monotony of China. Black framed windows set into the white washed walls and red underlining the roofs both created a sense of character that has been entirely lacking so far.

After just a few hours in Tibet, it is hard not to notice some quite different characteristics in the people (as well as a number that are shared with the Chinese). Despite an equally challenging language barrier, the Tibetans' attractive features are constantly adorned with an infectious smile that is hard not to love. As a visitor, you feel far more welcome than elsewhere in China.

Doubtless this is due in part to the fact that Tibet has had more contact with foreigners in recent history. Although Britain established contact with Tibet as early as the the 18th century, it soon after closed its doors to all foreigners for over a hundred years. It was not until the Great Game was played out east across Central Asia right into Tibet, that foreign influence arrived onto the plateau in the early 20th century. Interestingly, before this time and since, of all the non Asian powers, Britain has had a disproportionate influence on Tibet.

Today tourism is clearly a major pillar of the Tibetan economy. Lhasa is a crazy melting pot of religious ritual and naked capitalism that somehow seems to hold together. The best example of this juxtaposition is the Jokhang kora, the pilgrim circuit around Tibet's holiest temple: bazaar style haggling at the stalls lining the street provides the backdrop to countlesss pilgrims who shuffle clockwise around the temple, spinning their prayer wheels and chanting out loud.

The Jokhang kora

It is refreshing to once again see old buildings alive with people acting out ancient traditions, albeit in jeans and contemporary clothing if they are young. A vast number of pilgrims of all ages lined up outside the Jokhang when we visited, and we were pleased to feel jostled along inside by Tibetans moving around the temples, as opposed to tourists wielding their cameras. Here historical buildings appear to have a value beyond restoration into sterile museum pieces and extraction of the maximum possible revenue from tourism.

Perhaps because as a tourist you are simply a (lucrative) byproduct of what is going on anyway, it is impossible not to feel privileged to be in Tibet. The religious buzz in and around the Jokhang is extremely moving, while from the outside, the massive Potala Palace (the traditional residence of the Dalai Lama) is as imposing as it is impressive.

So first impressions of Lhasa are overwhelmingly positive: it appears to be a thriving city in which Tibetan culture is not only allowed some freedom to express itself, but is showcased to visitors from around the world. The most interesting thing to understand over the next few weeks is to what extent Tibet is really functioning under the surface.


Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Xian - the end of the Silk Road

It began to sink in as we stood on the old city walls of Xian overlooking the Western gate through which the silk caravans would have passed: this was the end of a long road that has guided my route from Damascus.

Xian, the ancient capital of China, is of course much more than a Silk Road town. The influences of the road remain: there is a Muslim quarter and mosque and round bread loaves and kebabs of Central Asia stubbornly refuse to disappear completely from the street stalls. But for the first time since Iran, I find myself out of the once nomadic steppes and deserts and back into a civilisation steeped in history.

Not that it is very visible today. Apart from the restored old city walls and the odd symbolic bell tower, everything is new; Xian has apparently embraced capitalism with an insatiable appetite. Familiar brands dominate the high street, including Starbucks (perhaps the best soya cappuccino I have ever had in my life), McDonalds, KFC and clothing brands too numerous to mention, ranging from Gucci to Etam.

The sun rarely shines in Xian. Instead a heavy, humid haze hangs over the city, meaning it is impossible to see more than a few hundred metres. Despite the bad weather affecting China at moment which must play a role, this is clearly the effect of pollution. Having spent the best part of a week in Xian in high summer, even immediately following rainfall, I never saw the sun break through enough to cast shadows on the ground.

The City Walls of Xian enveloped in smog

Initially creating an aura of mystery, I quickly came to miss the complete lack of contrast in the light; it reminded me of skiing in flat light! Consequently, the time to enjoy it is at night. The city comes alive with its own lights and the people crowd the streets everywhere to such a degree that would have alarmed me had I not experienced Oxford Street.

Nevertheless, it is a fun city to spend a few days and indulge in some shopping. This we did with considerable dedication before heading out to the Terracotta Army, the jewel in Xian's crown of tourist attractions.

Shopping in the Muslim Quarter

The most impressive thing about the Terracotta Army is that any individual could conceive of - and execute - such an idea: to create a 6,000 strong army of warriors to protect his own tomb and his soul in the afterlife. Perhaps this is best example of the (justified) Chinese conviction of their superiority over all other races in ancient history which in turn caused the country's isolation and for her to be so dramatically overtaken by the rest of the world in the last 500 years. Of course, all this looks set to change now...

It is the scale of the army that will remain with me. The crowds around us and the distance we were from the soldiers sadly destroyed any sense of atmosphere and prevented real appreciation of the detail, but scale of the emperor's ambition came through very powerfully. Yet it is the detail makes the whole even more impressive: every soldier has a unique face, each was hand made and hand painted and equipped with weapons of the day. It is for this reason that the Terracotta Army is called the Eigth Wonder of the World.

Xian sadly marks the end of Helen's trip. In two weeks, we have moved from Central Asian Plov to Chinese style quail, from local beer to Starbucks, from a yurt to a four star hotel and from sand to the lush green terraces of Shaanxi province. I think no other two week period of my trip so far has seen such contrasts. I have enjoyed having her along enormously and will miss having someone to laugh at the trials and tribulations that are part and parcel of travelling in China.