China. The oldest continuous civilisation in the world, and one of the fastest growing and developing countries in the world; a population of over 1 billion, yet wide open spaces abound if you know where to look; China is a land of contrasts and is a fascinating part of our journey from London to Australia. This said it has always had its challenges; permits and big drives are the major two.
We enter China over the Tourgart Pass, closed for years to foreign tourists, it’s only with special permits and the assistance of a local agent that we are able to enter this way. As borders go it is one of the longest as it is 80km from where you leave stunning Kyrgyzstan till the third and final check point and immigration post to officially enter China. Once through it is a short drive to Kashgar a fascinating introduction into China and the local Uighur people. While it still maintains a vaguely Central Asian feel, it is very definitely a Chinese city. After the relatively similar cuisines of the Central Asian countries, the appearance of Chinese food on the menu was a very welcome change! We had four nights in Kashgar which gave everyone time explore this great city as well as time to catch up on their washing and emails, and also meant that the crew had time to sort out the paperwork for the truck (China certainly does love paperwork!) and also sit a “driving test” which consisted of reading a comic book covering various aspects of road safety (although we did have a little difficulty working out what was meant by the ambulance that was going around a corner too fast and spilling rolls of carpet out of the back…)
Kashgar is also home to one of the greatest markets in Central Asia which has been operating for thousands of years, a great place to visit on Sundays, the main market day. As you wander the aisles (it is all very organised now, quite different from the market we had visited in Ashgabat) it really does seem that there is nothing you couldn’t buy. From tools to tomatoes, clothes to fridges, knives and noodles, the variety of goods available is incredible, and the best way to experience it is to get lost in the market wandering from stall to stall, chatting to the stallholders, and maybe even buying a thing or two.
Our next destination in China was Turpan, a three day drive away along the northern Silk Road. It was during this drive that we experienced the first of the roadworks that were to be a feature of our time in China. We estimate that we have seen more than 2,500km of roadworks – not so great for us this year as it caused major delays but for the coming years the roads will be amazing and our drive times will greatly reduced not to mention silky smooth!
This was also where we encountered Mr Green Fence who has put up amazing fences next to all the new roads making it all but impossible to head off to many of the stunning bushcamps we have found over the years. But as always we made a plan and after a couple of tries found two stunning bushcamps along the way en route to Turpan.
Turpan is located in the second lowest depression on earth (after the Dead Sea), reaching 154m below sea level just outside the city itself, and is also the hottest place in China with temperatures reaching as high as 45 degrees in the height of summer. Turpan is also our base from where we visit the Jaiohe Ruins. The town of Jaiohe was home to over 6,500 citizens during the Han dynasty (around 200 AD) and thanks to the dry desert heat it is one of the world’s best preserved ancient cities. We braved the heat in the late afternoon to wander the streets of the town. As we continued further into the ruins the buildings were increasingly well preserved, with the highlight being the monastery and stupa at the end of the town.
After the heat of Turpan it was time to continue our journey east, and we spent two days driving to Dunhuang. The size of China is not to be underestimated, and there are some long drive days involved! Dunhuang is a lovely city and one of the highlights of our time in China was a visit to the Mogao Caves, one of the most impressive sights we have seen. Unfortunately cameras are not allowed inside, and words cannot do justice to the incredible sculptures, carvings, frescoes and decoration inside the caves.
From Dunhuang we headed for Tibet but with a slight twist; due to a military exercise our planned route to take us to Golmud and then on to amazing Lhasa was closed which forced us to change our route as we had to drive a 1,000km detour to get around the military exercise – not ideal when you consider the big distance we travel anyway in China but any overland journey covering as many miles as we do has to expect some complications and Tibet is always an area where we expect these with high roads, mountain passes prone to landslides and other road complications, but it is all part of the adventure!
For the first part of the drive we were on boring motorway which made the miles flash by but there was not much to be seen. Just after lunch this started to change as we turned of the highway and headed for the hills on a narrow road with spectacular views of mountains and lakes with stunning yellow fields of rapeseed flowers making it a photographer’s paradise. Sadly due to the change being sprung on us last minute we did not have the time to explore as we went through this section as we had not allowed the extra days in the schedule and everybody was very keen to get to the iconic city of Lhasa.
The drive though through to Lhasa is stunning with many passes crossed of more than 5,000m, with each of these high points covered in prayer flags and rock cairns built by local travellers and pilgrims en route to Lhasa and the Jokhang Temple, the most holy of all monasteries in Tibet. To see hundreds of pilgrims walking, cycling and in some extreme cases prostrating themselves en route to Lhasa is a moving experience.
Lhasa the capital of Tibet autonomous region and situated at 3,800m above sea level has always been a mystical destination dreamed about by most intrepid travellers. Names like the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Sera and Drepsung monasteries, debating monks and so the list goes on. This amazing city has so much to offer. We based ourselves right in the heart of Lhasa for 4 nights giving everybody loads of time to go off and explore. Pictures below give you a good idea of what it is about, but only by walking the Barkhor Circuit around the Jokhang Temple, exploring the Potala Palace or sitting and watching monks debate at the Sera Monastery can you start to understand and appreciate Lhasa.
After Lhasa it was time to head off for another highlight on our journey which is a visit to Everest Base Camp (known locally as Qomolongma Base Camp). En route we stopped off in Shigatse another funky Tibetan town with more stunning monasteries and the palace of the Panchen Lama. Our intrepid walkers headed off and walked the walls surrounding the temple complex, a holy cora in itself with thousands of prayer wheels and the devoted slowly making their way around.
After an early breakfast of banana pancakes we headed off towards Everest; as it takes a while to get there we spend one night bushcamping in the Everest National Park before starting at the early hour of 4am the next morning to drive to basecamp.
As we left camp in the dark and wound our way up the switchbacks in the dark we had a steady rain (and some snow!) and many people worried that with the weather as it was all we would see was clouds and not the mighty Everest. But mountains are strange things and when after a couple of false sightings by some in the back we finally came round a rocky corner to have the mighty Everest appear in front of us. The expedition’s mountain luck was definitely with us as we all hopped out and gazed up in admiration at the peak which even though we were at 5,000m above sea level still rose up more than 3,700m in front of us.
After a lengthy photo session we drove a bit further up to Rongbruk Monastery the highest monastery in Tibet and possibly in the world. The site of mighty Everest through the flags and roof line of the monastery is great.
It is only a short hop from the monastery to our “hotels” for the night at base camp. These canvas tents with a yak dung burning stove in the middle are run by local people who become your family for the time you are there as they prepare your meals, look after you and even in some cases, tuck you into bed. After some quick negotiations and an inspection of the various hotels we ended up with five people in each tent. As the afternoon slowly progressed more and more of the mountain disappeared behind a wall of cloud, with most of the group choosing to hike up to Everest base camp anyway we all prayed to the mountain gods to give us a clear mountain. And so we waited until about 7 that evening when suddenly our local innkeeper said the mountain was clearing again and did it clear, we even had a near full moon to add to the fantastic sight. The pictures below try to do it some justice but the scale and beauty of it are best appreciated standing and gazing up and the highest point on earth.
From Everest we wandered back down the mountain and headed for the town of Gyantze where possibly we had our worst hotel experience to date. Sure to happen on any trip once or twice, this hotel had since the previous years’ visits managed go totally down the drain, but was decided to tough it out and spend the night. Those who decided to head for the local monastery and hill fort were rewarded with an amazing afternoon seeing a monastery very different in style from what we had seen in Lhasa and Shigatse and a fort which was at one stage occupied by the British.
From Gyantze we headed off on our toughest part of the expedition as we attempted to cross the Tibetan plateau and drive through eastern Tibet. This section has been closed to western tourists since 2008 but thanks to our local agent’s contacts in Tibet and Beijing we had been granted permits and so we set off. Before leaving we had been advised that heavy flooding and associated landslides had damaged the road we planned to drive but that these would be fixed by the time we arrived and with Chinese road building skills this seemed highly possible and so we set off. This sector’s roads are always challenging but take you through stunning Tibetan hamlets and amazing mountain scenery well worth the bumpy ride and tough going.
And then it started to rain just before we started to climb over the Budrangla pass (another 4,900m pass). About half way up we were waved down by a truck coming the other way saying a truck had slid off the muddy road higher up the pass and the road was blocked, not the greatest news but sort of expected in these parts. After discussing it briefly we decided to drive further up the pass and see what the problem was exactly and how we could help to reopen the pass. Having got as far as we could up the pass and reaching the back log of trucks and cars we decided to set up camp for the night and investigate the following morning. So with fantastic views down the valley and curious locals coming to see what we were having for dinner we spent the night and then after a breakfast of bacon and eggs headed to the top of the pass to clear the road.
Mud, mud, glorious mud and one articulated truck firmly stuck in the ditch on the side of the road with hundreds of people standing around discussing but not doing to much to help and so the Odyssey crew stepped in and started to coordinate things, not too easy when you don’t speak the language and the locals always seem to take the most illogical way to try and get the truck out. Six hours later and after trying to pull the truck out with other trucks we went to man power with close to 100 people playing tug of war on the end of a long rope. Seems unlikely that that many people could pull 30 tonnes of truck out of the mud, but that is what happened and as soon as we get back into YouTube land where the site is not blocked by local government we will upload the link to watch this amazing tug of war. So the truck is out and the road is open, well not quite as thanks to a unique queuing tradition in this part of the world we had a massive traffic jam and so the Odyssey team had to jump in again. With some diplomatic (and some very undiplomatic) discussions we finally managed to clear the way so that traffic could come down the pass towards us so that we would be able to head up the pass and with the Odyssey team really upsetting the ruling elite in their Land Cruisers as we prevented them from charging up the pass and creating another traffic jam (the new slogan “China – giving Land Cruiser drivers a bad name” should be on most Land Cruisers out here) we finally started slip sliding out way up the pass helping trucks out as they got stuck as we wound our way to the top. Calypso our great truck soldiered through only needing a slight group shove once to get us to the top where we were rewarded with amazing views and more importantly a great sense of achievement. Unfortunately for Dennis he underestimated Calypso, and consequently now owes the entire truck a drink for his lack of faith in her ability to get to the top without getting properly stuck! (We’ll have a couple of G&Ts please!)
As we wandered on through this stunning part of the world word got through that the road had been further damaged by floods and landslides ahead and that we should expect delays. As we have said before this is all part of the adventure, though in past years we have never had floods and landslides to this extent, but Mother Nature is Mother Nature. Arriving in Nyingchi our worst fears were confirmed with the town full of people waiting for the road to open with all sorts of rumours about what had happened to the road going around. With no other option and after a bit of a search we installed ourselves in a hotel and started to wait and on day 3 got the terrible news that a bridge had collapsed and the road would be closed indefinitely which forced us to turn around and head back for Lhasa, not a bad place to head for but also sadly meaning we would have to re route. After looking at many options and taking into account that to detour around the broken bridge would mean close to a 2-week, 3,500km detour and significant backtracking we made the decision to leave Calypso behind and hop over eastern Tibet by plane to Chengdu. From Chengdu we will hire buses and use the occasional train, but we will still do the entire route as planned in South-East Asia, just not with the truck (but as the buses have air-conditioning it is not exactly bad news!). It is always hugely sad when an expedition has to make a plan like this but is part and parcel of an expedition of this nature, but as always the show must go on. So after a final party around the truck in a hotel parking lot in Lhasa and a couple of farewell tears, it was time to part company with Calypso our faithful truck. Nobody believed us when we said that they would become attached to a big blue truck!
And so the group headed off to Chengdu, a big bustling Chinese city with many attractions to keep everyone busy including a Giant Panda sanctuary. Chengdu has a population equivalent to approximately half the population of Australia, and it appears that most of the population also own a car! After the cool of the mountains in Lhasa it was a surprise to get off the plane and find that it was hot and humid. But the weather didn’t put anyone off, and the group headed off to enjoy this busy yet laid back city. For some, the presence of McDonalds was too inviting, and so they missioned off for a Big Mac and a McFlurry, others headed to the People’s Park for a bit of outdoor karaoke (sadly only watching), and a cup of tea. Chengdu has amazing Taoist temples to explore, as well as a genuine reproduction Chinese town within a town, full of fancy restaurants and souvenir shops (and a Starbucks or two!).
Having used planes and automobiles in recent days, it was time to add to the trilogy with a train journey. The trip from Chengdu to Kunming takes over 18 hours and so we had booked sleeper berths, although they are little different from European style sleeper carriages! We have now arrived in Laos, and everyone is looking forward to the next phase of our epic journey.