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.


Saturday, 28 July 2007

The Northern Silk Road to Xian - Dunhuang & The Hexi Corridor

Both the Buddhist caves and the sand dunes of Turpan (see previous posting) served to whet our appetites for what was to come in Dunhuang, another oasis town this time where the Southern and Northern Silk Roads merge into a single a route towards Xian.

The Mogao caves were once a complex of over 1000 Buddhist caves, literally hidden away in the desert outside Dunhuang until an itinerant monk happened upon them around the turn of last century. He subsequently devoted the rest of his life to restoring and protecting them and they remain an incredible sight today.

At first the caves were used as retreats by a few monks, but in time their proximity to the Silk Road resulted in a huge increase both in the number of caves and the level of ambition of artwork within them. The caves became a display of devotion and were generously endowed by westbound merchants who hoped to secure their safe return and eastbound merchants who had made it back to the safety of China. At their height in the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th centuries) the caves were a thriving community of 140 monks and nuns, along with numerous local sculptors, painters and calligraphers.

The caves are awe inspiring. Upon entering the first, all that is visible is a huge fold of cloth sculpted into the rock. As the eyes become accustomed to the gloom, they are drawn to the two enormous feet (the big toenails are the length of my forearm) on either side. At this point they slowly are drawn upwards to take in the enormity of the 35 metre high seated Buddha.

We saw just a tiny selection of the caves, but enough to appreciate the quality of the art and to notice the foreign influences - as well as goods - that travelled down the Silk Road: Indian faces and Buddhism shared the same narratives as local people, customs and Taoist ideas. Despite being extremely busy, the Mogao caves were nonetheless a highlight of the entire Silk Road.

The only way to follow such a morning was to opt for a complete contrast. We hired bikes and rode towards the massive (300m high) sand dunes that literally bump up against the outskirts of Dunhuang. As with Tian Chi, we were somewhat surprised to be welcomed by a hefty entrance fee, which presumably funded the camel festival-cum-theme park and wooden steps that had been built up one of the dunes.

We turned our backs on it all and set out to find our own, quiet dune, when suddenly a microlight circled over head. Immediately I knew I had to try it and it conjured up images of the English Patient for Helen; we knew we could not pass up the opportunity. We swallowed our pride, paid our dues and enjoyed a brief, but exhilarating and spectacular flight over the dunes.

The dunes from the microlight

Once back on the ground, we left the camels where they were and trudged up a huge - and almost too hot to walk on - dune, well away from the crowds.

The Hexi Corridor

We were to find last of the desert in a town called Jiaguyuan. Its significance lay in its fortress which - thanks to the Great Wall - guarded the pass into the Chinese Empire through which all travellers had to pass: the Hexi Corridor. For the caravans it offered either the first or the last security and civilisation for months.

Even today, its location is striking. Both the Wall and the Fort have recently been restored and cut an imposing shape in the wilderness. We cycled out from the town to where the wilderness begins. From a turret on the wall at the top of the hill, we looked out to the West: the Hexi corridor is hemmed in by snow capped mountains to the south and the desert to the North. To savour the moment, we walked a short distance into the Gobi desert and sat for while, looking back on the Great Wall of China.

Ahead of us to the east lay the part of China that was driving the economic growth that constantly dominates the headlines. Here the news makes fascinating viewing: every year on year trend reported is a massive increase. The media must contribute to the optimism and energy that you can sense in China, although of course it is closely monitored by the state. Nevertheless, I was surprised at how openly (but not non critically of course) the discussion is around the biggest some of the biggest challenges that China faces. These include the undervaluation of the yuan and the sustainability of the unusually high level of savings - changes in either of which could seriously undermine Chinese stability.

The environmental cost of the Chinese miracle is also visible here for the first time. Well documented in our media, I had initially been encouraged by the widespread use of recycling bins upon arrival in Kashgar. But as we rode back from the Wall towards the town, it was impossible not to notice the countless factory chimneys on the outskirts of the town, spewing black smoke into the bright blue sky. The wind carried the smell to the back of our throats and the smoke hung in the air, hinting at the smog to come in the more urbanised east; the contrast with the wilderness could not be more striking.

Our final stopover before Xian was an unexpected surprise. The small town of Zangye somehow had more atmosphere than anywhere Helen and I had found so far. It was neither a tourist town like Dunhuang nor a sprawling concrete mess like Urumqi: it was simply a pleasant place to pass the time. It had a delightful pedestrianised street where people seemed to be taking time out from the hectic pace of China; a welcome change from the highly functional norm for Chinese towns. We duly joined in with the merriment and tried a local dish called Big Plate Chicken, comprising a whole chopped chicken cooked in a tasty hot sauce. Some pieces were rather less appetising than others...!



Tuesday, 24 July 2007

The Northern Silk Road to Xian - Tian Chi & Turpan

Within a week of Helen (my sister) arriving, I had experience a number of firsts for the trip so far: gin & tonic; rose wine (Chinese, not recommended); red wine (better, but nothing to write home about) and a night in a four star hotel. As someone who appreciates travelling in style (as well as being happy to rough it I should add), Helen is the perfect travel companion to begin the transition from Central Asian simplicity to East Chinese modernity.

The quality and variety of food continues to improve as we head east, and while it remains possible to to pick up a bowl of noodles for a dollar or so, the gap with more expensive restaurants is widening.
Street markets are now the exception rather than the norm, with shops now replacing them on the high streets - increasingly with price tags and familiar western brands.

But first, so that we could compress the entire transition into two weeks, we spent Helen's first day in China heading for the Kazakh border in order to spend a night in a yurt. The wonderful thing about Xinjiang is that it has absorbed so much of Central Asia. Billo and I found a taste of Tajikistan in Tashkurgan (en route to Pakistan) and Helen and I were to find a taste of Kazazhstan in the north of the province with the Kazakh shepherds who live around Tian Chi - the 'Heavenly Lake' - set among steep, tree lined hills with snow capped mountains in the distance at an altitude of 2000m.

The Kazazh yurts

Idyllic as it may look, this was indeed roughing it: our beds the floor of the yurt and there were no such luxuries as electricity or running water. For food we were offered plov (rice fried in ripe mutton fat, mixed with pieces of ripe mutton) and noodle soup - the Central Asian staple diet. These proved less appealing for Helen when it transpired that the 'vegetarian' version of plov is involves simply picking the mutton out!

It would also be misleading to describe Tian Chi as a little corner of Kazakstan. Parts of it were most certainly Chinese. And, we are rapidly coming to discover, (to quote from the film Borat) "the cultural differences are vaaaaast." It seems that the Chinese tourists' idea of appreciation of one of the most stunning mountain lakes I have ever seen is exorbitant entrance fees, a circus of shops and loud music blaring from speakers, tour boats (complete with air horns despite there being just three of them) and visiting a two year old 'temple' with no apparent raison d'etre other than revenue generation.

I would like to briefly explain what I mean by 'exorbitant' entrance fees. At 100 Yuan (13.5 dollars, excluding transfer from the car park and entrance to the temple which increases the price by a further 50%) this is completely out of kilter with other prices in China. Indexing this to the cost of a cheap meal in China, this is like charging 100 pounds to go around Kew Gardens. The price appears to be the same for locals, making tourism totally unaffordable for the vast majority of Chinese people. Nevertheless, the site is packed, showing just how important China's 'mass affluent' population already are.

Once you are in, it is carnage. The noise is unbearable and a scrum of people jostle for position, posing for a snapshot which invariably involves a V sign, a flexed arm muscle or both arms raised towards the sky. Around the lake is a catalogue of overkill: a two lane tarmac road stretches much too far around it, while concrete 'toadstools' (to sit on) and giant 'leaves' (to shelter under) adorn the largely unnecessary concrete stepped walkway.

Fortunately, we have discovered that the horror is inversely proportional to the distance in metres (in particular vertical metres) from the entrance at which everyone is dropped off by their vehicles. Our yurts, at the far end of the lake, were situated in total tranquility with just a handful of other foreign tourists besides ourselves.

Tian Chi - peace at last

The following day we walked around the other side of the lake and sat, quite alone, at the top of hill overlooking the lake as the eagles circled around us, ridingthe thermals. The lake can indeed live up to its name, but very much in spite of the best efforts of the tourist industry.


Next we travelled to Turpan, an oasis town on the Northern Silk Road (I had cut north from the Southern Silk Road in order to meet Helen) which - at 80m below sea level is the hottest place in China. However, in the same way as I have seen in Iran and Pakistan, an extensive irrigation system has transformed the surrounding area in a green land of plenty, famed for its Delicious grapes and sweet water melon.

Sitting under the vines that have even been extended to the main pedestrian street in Turpan eating fruit proved to be an extremely pleasant way to pass the time in the sweltering 40 degree heat. We once ventured out on bikes to explore the town, but we driven back into the shade within a couple of hours.

The vine trellises of Turpan

But we did spend an interesting day visiting two towns nearby Turpan. The first was Jioahe, a 2000 year old former garrison town, perched on top of a steep sided plateau that had been created by a fork in the river. Amazingly intact considering its age, it is possible to walk around what were clearly once streets and see the exact layout of the town.

The ancient desert city of Jiaohe

The second town, Tuyoq, bore an incredible resemblance to Jiaohe but remains inhabited by a devout Muslim population who seem determined to maintain their traditional way of life. The town contains a temple which is believed to be a religious site mentioned in the Koran and is therefore a site of pilgrimage.


Beyond the village, we chanced upon some caves set into the cliffs containing Buddhist wall paintings. We had the place to ourselves (apart from their elderly minder who enthusiastically opened them up for us), making them very atmospheric in the solitude. Sadly, the faces of every Buddha had been systemically destroyed by the Red Guards of Mao's Cultural Revolution of the late sixties, in which he instructed China's youths to destroy all evidence of 'bourgeois thought,' which included cultural heritage.

That evening we sat on the sand dunes just outside Turpan (it was a relief to find desert 'proper' after the flatness of the Taklakaman) and watched the sunset before sleeping out under the stars outside our Uighar guesthouse. The contrast from the freezing cold evening at Tian Chi could not have been more marked.

JM & HM (co written on the train)

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Kashgar & The Southern Silk Road


Kashgar's location has always been significant: it is the Silk Road hub that connects China with Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan via two high altitude mountain passes, both of which I have been lucky enough to experience in the last few weeks (and one of them twice!)

I had expected Kashgar to bring to a close the Central Asian chapter of this trip and had even braced myself for the more testing aspects of Chinese culture that I had read about, such as the staring and the real difficulty being understood even if attempting Mandarin.

All of these concerns proved misplaced - at least for now. Kashgar, like most of Xinjiang province, is far more Central Asian than it is Chinese. The local Uighar people look different from the Han Chinese, speak their own language, are Muslim and have the same customs and food tastes as their Central Asian neighbours - as one person put it quite simply: "I am not Chinese."

The Uighar people in fact have a history of resisting Chinese which extends to the present day, despite the mass migration of Han Chinese into the province which has done something to diminish the Uighar's domination of the population figures in Xinjiang. Within a few minutes of meeting them, a number of people have expressed their dislike for the Chinese (i.e. Han Chinese) - citing reasons as diverse as cultural differences or discrimination in areas such as finding work.

So Kashgar is a muddle of contradictions: a gigantic statue of Chairman Mao (hailing a taxi?!?) is a short walk away from the Id Kah Mosque. Amusingly, the Xinjiang museum attempts to smooth over the cracks in the region's history with an upbeat historical narrative of how regional culture has all contributed to the greatness and unity of the motherland...

Kashgar is most famous for its Sunday market - a magnet which brings thousands of Central Asians together every week to buy or sell just about anything imaginable. Billo and I managed to experience it en route to Pakistan.

Our visit to the animal market got off to a bizarre start with the tourists (and there were rather more than we were used to) beating the locals to it and somewhat outnumbering them. Within an hour or so, however, the market was in full swing with cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses and the odd camel changing hands at a furious pace. The sheep were even given the salon treatment to ensure they fetched the best possible price.

The rest of the market was so sprawling it felt more like an area of
town than a market as such, comprising indoor bazaars and a mass of street markets. The real buzz was invariably the latter, where we watched people scrutinizing everything from water melons to the sales pitch of some obscure Chinese medicine. The variety of ethnic groups at the market, each betrayed by their wonderful local hats was wonderful. We spent as much time looking for people as we did for things to buy.

An unexpected highlight of Kashgar was meeting two like minded Londoners - literally as we were waiting at the traffic lights on our rented bikes. Fred & Cederic (from Switzerland) completely humbled us and our little trip by having cycled from Tehran to Kashgar. We enjoyed a couple of great evenings swapping stories and helping them celebrate the end of their trip (it made us think of the bad weather we had experienced at the Torugart pass in a completely different light) with some good food and several very good Chinese beers. Their trip may even have inspired us to seek out some adventure of our own on the Karakorum Highway...

The Southern Silk Road - a road less travelled

The Chinese traders had a tough deal. Heading west from Xian, they had to leave the protection of the Great Wall and contend with the Taklakaman desert in Northwest China - just over a quarter of million square kilometres of some of the most inhospitable nothingness on earth.

Of course they skirted around its edges it rather than battle with the sand dunes in the middle, hence the Northern Silk Road via Turpan and the Southern Silk road via Lop Nor and Khotan. The two roads were reunited at Kashgar, whereupon the Chinese caravans would head up into the Pamirs to exchange their wares (which would either head south into Afghanistan and India) via the Kunjerab pass (see the Karakorum Highway posting) or north to Tashkent and Samarkand (see the Pamir Highway posting). Meanwhile the Chinese merchants retraced their steps 3,000 back to Xian, once again braving the deserts and marauding bandits as they went.

Of the two routes, the Southern is the older and historically more significant - many of the famous travellers (including Marco Polo) took it. In its remoteness lay its attraction to the caravan trains - even the bandits thought twice before attempting it. Today it still lacks any major cities and is certainly the road less travelled. Armed with a Mandarin phrasebook in a Uighar speaking province I was to experience the vast emptiness of the Taklakaman desert first hand and find virtually no one who spoke English for the best part of a week.

Even the desert was not what I had expected. Instead of the evocative sand dunes at the heart of the Taklakaman, the landscape was a simply vast formless desert stretching out to the horizon. In the course of a week of bus journeys, just a few dunes (often stitched together with carefully planted grasses to prevent them from shifting onto the roads) and the odd (two humped) camel was all that interrupted the flatness between the Silk Road oasis towns that remain today.

Instead of searing heat and glaring sunshine, the desert was both windy and cloudy, meaning that the sky muddled together with the horizon in a dusty haze. My first stop was the dusty town of Khotan, famed for its carpets, silk and jade production.

I arrived expected a tour of the carpet and silk factories and hoping to buy a carpet. Quickly my expectations adjusted to the difficulties of traveling where it is hard to communicate and there is absolutely no tourist infrastructure: one factory was closed (the second attempt was more fruitful) and in the other one my 'tour' involved me poking my head into various buildings to see what was going on. The speed with which the women worked (while keeping up an impressive level of banter) was as incredible to me as my inability to tie one knot was hilarious to them.

Women at work at the carpet factory in Khotan

I couldn't leave without seeing the silk production process, and when I finally made into the silk factory, it was was worth the effort. From the silk cocoon, one of which I was able to take away with me, I saw the silk threads being wound onto individual spindles by machines and then eventually being cross-weaved into wide sheets of silk. It was fascinating to watch and the process from start to finish is so incredible that is hardly surprising that many people in the west used to think that silk grew on trees.

Beyond these 'sights' there was little to do other than wander around the few oasis towns and surrounding countryside where the bus stopped and I would spend the night. Each town had a street market that was alive with a Central Asian buzz and the irrigated outskirts were made up of lanes of flat roofed mud houses, each with livestock outside and wheat or maize smallholdings nearby.

The country lanes just outside Ruoqiang

Even in these small towns (which must be rural backwaters compared to the cities that are driving China's economic growth) the charge for modernisation was hard not to notice; sparkling new constructions adorned the few 'downtown' streets, even though the tarmac gave way to sand just a few hundred metres away. The pace of change is clearly rapid; my impressions and experiences were quite different from the descriptions I found in the various books I have with me; yet both were published within the last five years. It is clear that even the remotest parts of China are rapidly being hauled into the twenty first century. Travelling overland right through China will be a fascinating experience; moving east is like travelling through time.


Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Chitral - the Kalasha valleys and lunch with the Finance Minister

After Billo had left Gilgit for his marathon week of traveling / partying (involving a 16 hour bus journey to Islamabad, a flight to London, a flight to Glasgow, Greg and Morag's wedding, another flight to Spain and another wedding!!!) I decided to head into North West Frontier province, which borders with Afghanistan.

NWFP is a mixed bag. Peshawar, Chitral and the Swat valley are perfectly safe for travellers. The Tribal Areas (about a quarter of the province), on the other hand are not: they are run according to local traditions, and - while overseen by a government intermediary - Pakistani laws do not apply and the government has no authority. Consequently, they are closed to foreigners (and non local Pakistanis) except for a few roads like the Khyber pass for which you require an armed escort.

Not so for Chitral, fortunately; the only thing that betrays the fact that you are in NWFP is the need to register with the police literally 10 times en route from Gilgit and again upon arrival. Chitral's attraction is its isolation until very recently; by road it can only be accessed via one of two 3000m+ passes, both of which are impassable in winter. Like many of the other places we have visited on this trip, the spotlight of the 'Great Game' also shone on Chitral about 100 years ago, when Britain saw it as a possible bridgehead for a potential Russian invasion of India.

Getting there was quite an ordeal. On the way there, heavy rain in the preceding days had quite literally obliterated the road; it was not even possible to see where it had once been. I had no choice but to leave my jeep on one side, roll up my trousers and wade through the freezing thigh deep water. After walking a few kilometres on the other side, I was lucky enough to hitch ride in another jeep all the way to Chitral. In total: two full days to travel perhaps 400 kilometres.

Ominously for the return journey, it poured with rain when I arrived in Chitral. This made what is a not particularly picturesque administrative centre even less inspiring. I quickly made plans to explore the Kalasha valleys.

The Kalasha valleys

The Kalasha people are a proudly non Muslim tribe. Their worshipping ceremonies differ by having dance as an important component and their women wear a head dress of brightly coloured beads which is perhaps more reminiscent of African tribes than anything I have seen in this part of the world.

The people farm wheat and millet and live in dark, multi storey mud houses which are set into the hillside. Women have a quite a different status to Muslim women in Pakistan: they are allowed to leave their husbands at will in order to live with another man (although they are not allowed to take their children with them.) As a visitor, the contrast is marked: the women approach you and greet you with a warm hand shake and "Schpata!"; most Muslim women in Pakistan on the other hand - even if accompanied by men - never initiate conversation nor should you do so as a strange male.

The Kalasha also have a bizarre belief that chickens will bring the demise of their people. Consequently, no Kalasha person keeps chickens, although eating chicken or eggs seems to be acceptable!

I planned to walk up Bumboret valley - the most picturesque of the three - to stay the night in a Kalasha guesthouse. The following day I wanted to trek up to two 3000m passes and drop into the top end of another Kalasha valley where I would spend another night before returning to Chitral. This was relatively ambitious - I would be climbing the passes in one day instead of the recommended two - but very doable if I started early and had a guide. Getting lost with Afghanistan only 4km away and the in midst of the Hindu Kush would not be ideal.

I enquired at my guest house and was presented with a kind local man who spoke no English. I was comfortable with this so long as he was clear on where I wanted to go before we left. All we needed to do was climb and end up in the Rumbur valley - how hard could it be?

Very hard in fact. Things didn't look good when my man didn't seem to know the way out of the village. A man called down to me in English, "use your eyes - you know better than him!" This did not inspire great confidence in him. He kept trying to descend and I kept insisting we at least traversed the hill to find the route to the pass, if not climb. He caved in far too easily for my liking, but seemed to know where he was going after asking a number of loggers along the way.

The climb up to the first pass was long, extremely steep and rather sweaty, but it was cool at the top with a cloud sitting amongst the craggy peaks. The views down into the valley were magnificent.

But it was the descent that was to prove so much harder. After a few false starts down the mountainside (retreating back up the hill because it was too steep), in my frustration (I was the one carrying a rucksack up and down!) I suggested we descend slowly anyway. Once again, my 'guide' was lacking in any better ideas.

Unfortunately, the mountain got steeper rather than shallower as we descended. It was actually quite dangerous and I narrowly escaped serious injury twice. On one occasion, the mountain was simply too steep and I began to slide down the scree towards a steep gully... my guide finally came in useful by helping me me off the face out of harms way. On the other, I had to climb across a rock face (not ideal with a rucksack) in order to avoid a large cliff. In the end, the most effective way down the steep, slippery slopes proved to be half running, half swinging - Tarzan style - from handful to handful of fortuitously placed thick green plants...

The descent

It was an enormous relief to reach the bottom!

Towards China

If the journey to Chitral had been testing, the trip back to the Karakorum Highway was another story. I walked out of the village and hitched back to Chitral, only to find further complications with the road. There is distinct catch 22 in these mountains: if it rains the roads are washed out, but if it is hot (it had been for two days) the melting snow also washes the road out! There were no buses back to Gilgit.

I took a minibus as far as I could go, before hitching a ride on a jeep, perched on top of some wheat sacks. I have discovered that this is infinitely preferable to the cramped and sweaty interior: the sun is relaxing, the air cooling and the views simply stunning.

The journey to a the half way village called Mastuj took twice as long as it should have: we picked our way along hair-raising tracks around landslides which seem to have hit the road every few hundred metres and waited an hour or so for a tractor that literally had to be pushed around the hairpin bends of one hill.

Mastuj was the end of the line for now. The water across the road ahead was apparently too deep to cross either on foot or by vehicle - at least until a new causeway had been built. Luckily for me I met another likeminded English guy called Jamie who was in the same predicament: he had left the Kalasha valleys the same morning and also needed to get to the border in order to meet up with someone. We kept either other sane (and played a lot of chess) while watching an entire day drift by with no news on the road. However, we were looked after very well by Khalid, the young guy who ran our guesthouse, and shown around the beautiful orchards and gardens of the village.

The following day our luck changed. We were waiting at the roadside to hitch a lift and a convoy of smart 4WDs pulled up. We eyed them covetously. Within a few minutes we had been introduced to the Finance Minister of Pakistan, his grandfather (a Field Marshall) and offered a ride in the security Landcruiser at the back of the convoy (complete with AK47 on board). He was on holiday with his family and heading over the Shandur pass towards Gilgit.

The 3,800m Shandur pass is famous for two reasons. First, when the British took Gilgit in 1892 and encountered local hostility into trouble a relief force hauled cannon over the pass through waist deep snow to save the day. Second, it is home to the world's highest Polo field and the annual contest between Chitral and Gilgit - something which appeared in Michael Palin's recent Himilaya documentary.

Frustratingly, the polo tournament was due to start just four days after we passed through. Nevertheless, we were able to stop and soak up atmosphere of preparation and the stunning scenery and were generously offered a picnic lunch with the Finance Minister's entourage.

Our luck continued when the party stopped at a hotel for the night and we were able to continue onwards with one of the many local police escort cars that was heading in our direction! In all, it took three and half days to make it back the 400km to Hunza, but it was an experience I would happily repeat.


Tuesday, 26 June 2007

End of part 1

Three months ago, Billo and I sat drinking a beer overlooking the Mediterranean in Beirut. Yesterday we sat drinking fermented grapes (it would be wrong to call it wine) overlooking Nanga Parbat - one of the world's highest mountains.

It has been an epic journey: We have travelled by land as far away from the sea as it is possible to go. We have visited ten countries for the first time (eleven if you include our brief illicit visit to Afghanistan) and met all the Stans except Kazakhstan. And that wasn't for the lack of trying: Billo even bought a visa but we simply did not have the time.

In three months, there is no doubt that we have packed it in. We have visited the oldest city in the world, the largest bazaar and surely made a dent in UNESCO's list of World Heritage sites. We have seen a bewildering array of mosques, minarets and blue tiled domes. Our journey has taken us across sweltering deserts, up high altitude snowy passes and across some of the most hair-raising roads on earth. On foot, We have trekked in the Pamirs, the Karakorum and the Himalaya, taking in a 5000m peak and the base camp of one of the world's few 8000m+ peaks.
We have stayed in a 19th Century traditional Uzbek house, a Kyrgyz yurt, a Tajik mud hut, a cave, a tent, a number of Soviet monstrosities and on two occasions - unexpectedly - in hotels that seemed to be making money charging by the hour...

We have travelled mainly by bus and car, although jumped at the chance to use the Russian railways when we could. We have seen petrol vary in price from nearly a dollar to around one cent per litre. We have grown accustomed to buying a seat in a taxi and waiting it out until the car is full. We have had our eyes opened to the meaning of "full" - 6 people in a Lada Niva and 40 in a minibus being the most memorable examples.

We have never been able to spend more than 20 dollars on a meal for two (and only this much on a handful of occasions) and once had a delicious cooked lunch with tea and bread for $1.50. Alcohol has varied wildly in price and in quality: we paid over 15 dollars for a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of fermented grape juice in Pakistan and yet found some outstanding draught lager for 30 cents a pint in parts of Central Asia. We also tried fermented mare's milk in Kyrgyzstan; not something we needed to try again.

The trip has fallen into three parts. The first in the ancient civilisations of the Levant and Iran, which ooze culture and in whose history the Silk Road was a significant, but by no means dominant part. Here I was blown away by Palmyra and Esfahan in particular.

The second part was the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, where the Silk Road made radically shaped the culture of what were previously entirely nomadic peoples. Here I found Samarkand the most impressive.

And finally, our journey took us into the mountains of Tajikistan, Kyrgistan and Pakistan where the Silk Road has made very little impact at all; no more impact, in fact, than the Russians or British empires managed to in their heyday. Here the experience was completely different: I have been astonished at what we have seen in Bulunkal in Tajikistan, at lake Song Kul in Kyrgyzstan and, by the fact that the Karakorum highway is ever open and finally by the sheer unparalleled beauty of Passu and Karimabad in Northern Pakistan. We arrived loving the mountains and having seen a few in our time, but the convergence of some of the biggest mountain ranges in the world has exceeded our wildest expectations.

The people we have met and the hospitality we have been shown has been truly humbling. We have never felt unsafe in any of the countries. We have often felt we have countries like Iran and Pakistan to ourselves, as people have stayed away since 2001: a treat for us, perhaps, but sad for the people trying to make a living in tourism.

Finally, we have appreciated the the little things that you notice and pick up when travelling: taking our shoes off before entering a house; eating cross legged on the floor; learning the local way to count bills that have been hopelessly left behind by inflation; removing sesame seeds from their cases with one hand; playing backgammon Uzbek style; urging on a horse Kyrgyz style (Choo!); and in every single country seeing people greet one another by touching their heart and uttering one of the first Arabic phrases we heard in Syria: salam aleykum.

I am now half way to the China sea. The time has gone too quickly and it was sad to bid farewell to Billo and draw a line under our hectic and adventurous final weeks. Thankfully, once I have travelled across the desert I will be joined by my sister Helen and then by friends Tom and Debs in Tibet.

And now, I need to cut my hair for the first time since February.


Monday, 25 June 2007

The Karakorum Highway

The Karakorum Highway (or the KKH as it's called) was a 20 year joint project started by China and Pakistan in the sixties. Running 1,300km through the mountains, it connects Islamabad with Kashgar in north west China via the 4,900m Kunjerab pass.

Before the road there was nothing but Silk Road donkey tracks cut into the rock - sections of which are still visible today. No Central Asian four abreast camel trains (as illustrated in Marco Polo's Travels) made it down this branch of the Silk Road.

Today it is tarmaced and wide enough for two vehicles. Or at least, that's the theory. The Chinese side is so smooth you feel it is rather too easy going, but at the border there is a sharp line where the tarmac ends and you begin a somewhat rougher ride. In fairness, this is partly due to the fact that in China the road climbs gently up onto a plateau - the Pamirs are to the east and the road runs parallel to(and less than 100km) to our route north on the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan.

All this changes abruptly on the Pakistani side of the pass. The road free falls into the gorge, twisting and turning as it descends. The mountains loom so large that they fill the entire window; you have to tilt your head right back to see any blue sky.

The road really has no right to be there. At every turn we pass, yet another 45 degree plus gully hangs over us which serves no other purpose but to spew thousands of tonnes of rock down into the gorge (and onto the road) whenever there is any rain. Rocks as big as houses sit precariously on knife edge ridges waiting for a nudge from above; looking up is like peering into the barrel of a loaded gun.

Needless to say, the KKH project has never ended and will never end. Within an hour of crossing the border we saw why. Heavy rain had sent a deluge of water down the mountain, leaving the KKH under a considerable depth of water.

The Karakorum waterway

Our bus stopped,we donned our packs and clambered up the hillside around the flooded area and rejoined the road further down to find a waiting bus. Happily, the entire contents of Kashgar's Sunday Market which had taken so long to get through Chinese customs had to be unloaded once more and carried over by porters before we could get going again. In all, it took 2 days to travel the 400km from Kashgar to Sost, the official border station in Pakistan.

For the last month we have been in some of the world's biggest mountains. Here you cannot fail to notice the importance of water - with a little help from gravity. Often you can see the grain of the rock is not horizontal, betraying the massive forces at work that create the mountains. But if the plates create them, it is the water that shapes and colours them.

From the peaks the melting snow trickles down, carving geometric crease marks into the mountainside. Like a network of leaf veins, the streams combine and cut deeper and deeper canyons until a there is a roaring river - sometimes a hundred metres or more wide and running at more than 30km/h - at the bottom of a deep gorge, like that through which the KKH passes. The muffled knocking of massive boulders being moved downstream can sometimes be heard over the noise of the water. It is all quite humbling; as I found out later in Chitral, falling in means certain death. All this continues year round, despite the sweltering summer heat and lack of rain due to the massive amount of water stored as snow at altitude.


Once we had cleared customs we found ourselves in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The only part of Pakistan to fight to be part of the country at Partition, the NA now finds itself in limbo due to the Kashmir question. It is not an official province (and therefore has no representatives in the National Assembly) because for Pakistan to grant it such status might imply some sort of finality to the disputed border of Kashmir.

Hunza was virtually undiscovered before the KKH was constructed. The road has transformed the region, but it remains incredibly beautiful. We stopped at a small village called Passu, which sat right underneath some jagged, fairytale mountains which I could have spent days simply sitting and looking at.

The Karakorum range offers world class trekking. In a just a few days you can wander through green fields right up to glaciers and the foot of some of the world's highest mountains - including, of course, K2, second only to Everest.

So we decided to spend a day exploring the Passu glacier and the Upper Hunza valley. The former spilled down the mountainside to within site of the KKH: white at the top, grey further down and black with earth and rock at its end, out of which poured icy blue water.

Glaciers may move very slowly, but there is constant movement on the surface: the noise of trickling water is frequently interrupted by the noise of rocks tumbling down the steep surface of the ice as it melts from underneath them.

We crossed the glacier in search of a path that would take us higher to a viewpoint over the valley. Despite our best efforts we could not find it; it later transpired that it had been more or less destroyed by landslides.

Crevasse jumping!

Instead, we headed back down into the valley, where the vivid green grass contrasted beautifully with the rusty mountains and snowy peaks.

We wandered through villages and crossed the river on one of the famous suspension bridges. Initially rather dismissive of these (it's only a bridge, after all!), I found these considerably more hair-raising than expected: steel cables for handrails and under foot, along with a vaguely straight / flat piece of wood stuck between the cables below once every metre or so (the bigger gaps were quite alarming) to step on! Meanwhile, the brown river raced past below...

We then took a bus down the KKH to Karimabad, one of my favourite places on the trip so far. Perched above the stunning Hunza valley, the view takes in not only the pyramid shaped 7,800m Rakaposhi in one direction, but also Karimabad's own 7,400m Ultar.

The view from the balcony of our (10 dollar) room

Hunza people are extremely friendly. By and large they are Ismaeli - a Shia spin off sect whose Harvard educated spiritual leader (Aga Khan) lives in Paris - which means many have a more relaxed interpretation of Islam. We were lucky enough to meet a guide called Elias, who was about our age, extremely laid back and exactly what we were looking for.

Within a few hours we sorted all of our treks and were at the top of the hill for sunset overlooking the Hunza valley with five of his cousins, enjoying a surreptitious fermented grape juice (not to be confused with wine which tastes quite different...). Later that evening we found ourselves dining with the Argentinian ambassador and his wife with whom we had shared some of the pain of the crossing from China. It was a memorable evening in Hunza.

Our trek the following day up to the foot of Ultar took us along the irrigation channels that have transformed Hunza from an arid mountain scape to a lush green valley. It is impossible to exaggerate the extent of the work completed by the Hunza people and their forefathers; from the top of the mountain they risk life and limb to carve channels into the cliffs, in doing so tapping into and distributing the life-giving water to their fields and the village below. To this day the tribes are allocated sections to maintain; anyone who does not help with the work must pay instead.

Nanga Parbat

The following day we jumped on a bus with Elias and headed down the KKH through Gilgit to Nanga Parbat - the world's 9th highest mountain and in the 8000+ club - for a 2 night trek to base camp.

The jeep ride up to the trail head from the road raised the bar once again for hair-raising driving, outdoing the descent from the Kunjerab pass by some margin. The single dirt track was built up on piles of slate onto a rock face that formed the steepest and deepest gorge I have ever seen. The wheel of the jeep was often less than a foot away from the edge, and - had anything gone wrong - the jeep would not have stopped tumbling for 1000m+ vertical metres until it hit the river at the bottom. Nanga Parbat has the greatest vertical drop from peak to mountain base of any mountain in the world (and a 4000m sheer face on the other side...).

Once at the trail head we hiked up for a few hours to Fairy Meadow to spend our first night before heading up to base camp. This was far more comfortable than we had expected, as the mountain is a signficant tourist attraction for Pakistanis; we immediately resolved to rough it the following night and camp up at base camp. But once over the shock of all this luxury, we enjoyed a delicious supper of daal and chappati and kicked back on the day bed with some more wine under the starry sky.

The climb up to base camp, though not particularly demanding, provided what we were looking for. We had the mountain to ourselves and were able to walk right up above base camp to the end of the Great Morraine and sit looking up at the mighty face of the mountain.

Below the Raikal glacier snaked down into the valley with stunning seracs (ice spikes) near the base camp.

Nanga Parbat was the perfect way to end Billo's leg of the trip. We were both sad not to have more time to explore the embarrassment of riches that the KKH has to offer.... not least K2. Another time, perhaps....!