Great Tour of China and Tibet
Tibet newsletter 1 - China and into Tibet
Shigatse and Everest - May 2004
We have driven some 3000 miles from the Great Wall at Beijing to Shigatse, the second capital of Tibet. Our drive has taken us on good road and 4x4 tracks.
We have visited Buddhist shrines, Quin
tombs, driven through steep and spectacular gorges and most notably
visited the Terra Cotta warriors at Xian, lost for 1000 years until
rediscovered in 1974.
We left the desert and entered the foothills
of the Tibetan plateau. The scenery changed quickly from hills and valleys
to mountain. One valley was 100 miles long and by the time we had reached
the end, rising all the time, the adjoining mountains were snow-capped.
We had a 13 hour drive next day from Golmud, up the spectacular pass
into Tibet, all at over 13,000 ft. By now several of our group were
afflicted with altitude sickness.
We continued on to our Battery Operated
hotel, where all power comes from solar panel and lights fade around
9.00pm! The journey was horrendous as the road was closed, and we had
to drive down the river bed, cross several fords and mount a few undriveable
As the sun rose, this mighty mountain became
sharply outlined with it customary plume of cloud. The red light of
day picked out the renowned profile while on either side stood attendant
mountains of immense height and the whole vista was one of the most
memorable of this trip.
Lhasa - We arrived at
Lhasa and visited the Potala Palace, the Dalai Llama's disinherited
ancestral home. The walk up the hill is demanding at the 14,500 ft altitude.
The 1000 rooms are being restored and this great old building is in
2 - Yunnan
We left Lhasa before dawn to beat the scheduled
7 am road closure, and drove up to 12,000 ft. in cloud to the peak of
the surrounding mountains. By first light the clouds were below us and
the land unfolded into a rare verdance unseen for weeks. Long lichens
hung off spring leaves, the temperature rose and we entered a wonderland
Another early start and a horrendous gorge
with a rough, unmade road. We bounced rattled and shook over fords,
bumps, pot-holes, washboard ripples, and big loose rocks. The road clung
to the side of the fast flowing river Mekong, and in some places had
slipped away entirely. After I hour, we had covered 8 kms.
We are still descending through gorges
draining the Tibetan plateau. We are following the Mekong river but
cross and re-cross the Yellow River too.
Tibet/China Newsletter 3 - Guillin
Guillin and Tropical South
We have journeyed through the sparse wastes of the Tibetan plateau in the North, to the rugged ravines of Yunnan province in the West, we have come at last to the verdant tropical South where climate and fertility nestle together, and the Chinese peasants live a simple and rewarding agricultural life.
We left early as usual and passed many Chinese children trekking their way to school. Some of them have to walk a long way to the next village. Little pig-tailed girls lead their short cropped brothers, a sense of concern showing on their young faces. The older children laugh and play on the way and all smile as we pass. Some call out hi-lo and we call back hallo.
On the road we encounter piles of carefully saved compost, dumped at random, ready for spreading on the fields. Everywhere in this area is peppered with small rice paddy fields, all glistening in the morning sun. Some fields are only 15 metres long and all are irregular in shape, giving the countryside a colourful patchwork face.
Great grey water-buffalo raise their shaggy heads and toil slowly up and down through the mud. They love water and wear a benign and peaceful expression, carrying their head back and chin up as if savouring the last of the air before they sink into the water. They pick their legs high, with surprising elegance, as they draw the plough or harrow, and at the end of each short run they turn, without waiting for an order, and slowly toil their way back again.
The plough usually has only one share and the work doesnt appear to be too arduous. The ploughman wears plastic sandals, his trousers rolled up to the knees, and speaks encouraging words to his beast. The soft dialogue can be heard wafting across the silent rice pools. The only other sound is the rhythmic splish-splosh of the buffalos huge hoofs as he treads carefully through the mud.
Chinas trademark bamboo pole is used by everyone, shouldered as it is across the back, and they carry everything from baskets of stones for road building to pans of seed plants, newly harvested vegetables, sweet corn, melons and great bunches of green leaves. The women may also be carrying a toddler on their back as well, and a pair of tiny feet would be seen hanging loose and content as the baby nods off to sleep.
We were driving down a steepening gorge where the slow-flowing river was bordered by an unbroken mantle of greenery. The impenetrable verbiage reached from the waters edge up to the peaks 500 feet above us. Every subtle shade of green spoke of a fertility beyond compare, while the sheer valley walls barred any form of agriculture.
We left the main road and ascended into the steep hills bordering the river valley. Soon the river disappeared from view and only the tumbling tributaries remained. Great blue butterflies, the size of starlings, flopped lazily across the fields while darting dragon flies zoomed purposefully about their business. Broad-leafed banana plants waved faintly in the still air and soft willows rustled as we cruised by.
Soon we passed small hillside villages full of country activities. A flock of duck marched boldly down a main street, with bikes, trikes and carts weaving skilfully around them. Ducks have the right-of-way in China.
The houses were prettily built but unadorned, with hand-made brick or stone to window level, then timber cladding to the roof line. As we went higher up into the forested hills the houses were all timber-built, and whole trunks were used to stand the houses level on the unforgivingly steep ground.
Street vendors sold a multitude of tools, materials, agricultural tack and food, and none had ever seen a Westerner before. We wandered self-consciously in the market place while the Chinese stared in friendly curiosity and unashamed wonder.
I bought a Coolies straw hat at one store, and a lukewarm drink at another. Then I invested in a pretty reed-woven tool basket. The basket is shaped like a curved Saracens scabbard with an elegantly turned end; the rice planters in the paddy fields all have one strung over their back.
We are still climbing and the temperature reaches 97 F, and the movement of air through the open windows of the Land Rover is welcome. Every inch of available space is terraced into paddy fields. These small irregular shapes follow the contour lines in a variety of shallow crescents.
At one high crest we saw the whole valley below us had been terraced, a terrific investment of time and labour long ago. Hundreds of pools glinted in the morning sun and decorated the valley like petals strewn from a spring bloom. It is too steep here for the water buffalo, the heavy beasts would never make it up the slopes. Girl-power is the key to agricultural success, and I saw several smiling girls harnessed to simple wooden ploughs which the men would guide from behind. What a grand statement of village unity!
The sight and sound of the workers in these watery fields has probably changed little in the last 1,000 years and here we felt transported in time to a prehistoric era.
Reality returned when we descended the hillsides again and drove the riverside trail. The road builders hew out swathes of broken hillside and cut a rough road which clings precariously to the valley wall, 20m to 30m above the river bed. There are no embankments here and no safety rails, and cars and trucks regularly slip down the escarpment and into the river. In most cases the wreck is beyond economic recovery and the vehicle will be stripped bare and carted away in pieces.
Winter rains carve big ruts across the track and we weave an ever changing route between loose shale, rock falls, mud-filled ruts and deep potholes. Every half mile there is another hairpin bend, the corner pounded into thick dry dust by repetitive use. The corner and the dust may conceal anything from an impassable landfall to a wrecked, overturned truck. The dust hangs in the still air and invades every part of the car and its occupants, filling our lungs and coating our sunglasses.
Broken roads may be repaired with sharp,
undressed granite rocks the size of footballs, and we drive across the
punitive surface wincing for our poor tyres.
Here we had a grand celebration evening and a few days sightseeing, socialising and enjoying the culture and environment. In a week I was home. In a month the Land Rover was home too - time to start planning the next trip...
© Kit Constable Maxwell ARPS FRGS