Well, I’m back from my Wild Frontiers’ Himalayan Journey from Lhasa to Kashgar, aka 3+ weeks travelling by jeep across the high plains of Tibet and then descending into Xinjiang. Flying into and out of China via Beijing added 2 days to each end of the trip.
I was hoping to see the Himalaya again from a different angle by way of Lhasa, Everest Base Camp (North) and the Mt Kailash kora before winding up with a return visit to Kashgar…. but for over half of the trip the views were marred somewhat by the monsoon cloud and rain. That said, the itinerary was great, and the weather did improve as we travelled westwards, and we were taken care of marvellously by Carol, our ever-resourceful WF leader and the Tibetan team from Windhorse Adventures led by the mightily impressive Tashi.
The weather and the road works meant there were some changes to the advertised itinerary, and this is what we ended up doing…..
Thursday 29 July 2010: London – ….
Overnight flight from London to Beijing on CA938. The flight was fine, although the inflight entertainment options were – not surprisingly – heavily skewed towards a Chinese audience.
Landed Beijing just after lunch and were met at the airport and transferred to the Tailong Plaza Hotel by WF’s local agent. The hotel was eerily empty but in a great location, especially in view of our limited time in hot and humid Beijing.
Nicole and I navigated our way to the nearby pedestrian shopping street which brought us to the south side of Tiananmen Square which we mooched around, before deciding on a local restaurant in one of the side streets off “QianMen Commercial Walking street” for dinner. Then back to the hotel to resolve the confusion over the next day’s very early transfer to the airport for our onward flight to Lhasa. Then bed.
Up at 4am to our CA4112 flight from Beijing to Lhasa for the ‘official’ start of the trip. Fantastic views as we flew over mountains, glaciers and lakes. The approach to Lhasa’s airport (100 km from the city) is ‘exciting’, with the Airbus Industrie A330 looping along adjoining valleys to make its gradual descent, and the final approach is over the Kyi Chu river itself.
After a light lunch, preorganised by Carol, the group spent (as instructed) a leisurely afternoon enjoying the peace and tranquility of the Kyichu Hotel and its garden, getting to know one another and starting to acclimatise to Lhasa’s altitude (3,600m / 11,800ft).
The obligatory ‘start-of-trip meeting took place before dinner, and covered off most queries about the somewhat sketchy itinerary, and Carol’s rationalisation-and-improvements. After a delicious dinner at the Kyichu Hotel restaurant – veggie thali for me – off to bed, and my first night’s sleep in Tibet.
Our first full day in Lhasa, and the start of the trip proper. After breakfast we were minibussed (to minimise AMS) two blocks along Beijing Donglu to Potala Square, crossing to the park and lakes opposite the Potala Palace by means of a very Chinese underpass system. Under blue skies, we got our memorable first sight of the Potala reflected in the lake, and plenty of photo opportunities. Walking through the park to Potala Square, with its Tibet ‘liberation’ statue, we were decidedly given a Chinese view of the iconic Potala Palace. Once through security and the timed ticket entrance, we had a whistle stop hour’s tour of the White and Red Palaces of the Potala, complete with magnificent views from the rooftops, a mind boggling introduction to Tibetan Buddhism and plenty of incense. It was hard work – physically and mentally!
After a morning at the Potala, Tashi took us to a local noodle soup restaurant a short walk from the hotel, passing back street shops selling prayer flags and solar ovens boiling kettles of water. Then it was off again, this time to the Norbulingka – the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, complete with flowers, gardens and lakes… and our first drops of rain.
Back at base I used the free time to explore Lhasa east of the Kyichu Hotel, fortuitously finding myself in New Barkhor Square. Dinner at the Snowland Restaurant comprised veggie momos and chili potatoes. Yum.
UNESCO World Heritage Site: Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa (ie the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple Monastery and the Norbulingka area)
Day 2 in Lhasa featured a tour of the Jokhang with views out over Barkhor Square and pilgrims on the kora, some free time to explore the Barkhor for ourselves, then after another typical Tibetan lunch at the aptly named “Jokhang Temple Square Tibetan Style Restaurant”, it was off to Canggu Nunnery (aka Ani Sangkhung Nunnery) before rendezvousing with our minibus and driving to spend an hour or so exploring Sera Monastery and watching the monks debate – I could easily have spent longer there.
Deposited back at the Kyichu Hotel we had a couple of hours free time, which I spent blending two of the Lonely Planet’s walking tours to capture some more highlights: back to the Barkhor and the muslim quarter, hot footing it along Jiangsu Donglu to get back to the park opposite the Potala, and climbing to the white chorten to the south west of the palace, for more marvellous views of the Potala and the chorten that now acts as a traffic island on Beijing Donglu… Then back to the hotel for dinner, then packing/preparing for the start of our jeep expedition – destination, all points West!
Day 6 of the trip saw us leave Lhasa, destination Shigatse via Gyantse.
A lot of driving, but on tarmaced roads and with plenty of scenery to keep us occupied. And we got to meet our jeeps and lovely, lovely drivers: Minga, Tsering, Tashi and Tenchoe.
Refuelled, we pushed on towards Gyantse, stopping off at the Karo La pass (4,960m) to admire the snow topped mountains and glaciers, and a little further at the Nojin-Kangtsang glacier, currently on a full scale retreat from the road back up towards Nojin Gangzang peak (7,191m).
Arriving in Gyantse mid afternoon we climbed up to Gyantse Dzong from whence we got great views of the Gyantse Kumbum (but no time to visit), the town and surrounding green fields.
Another long drive brought us to the very Chinese town of Shigatse where we ate and slept well.
We spent the morning of Wednesday 04 August in Shigatse, touring the Tashilhunpo monastery founded in 1447, returning to lunch at the reliable Songtsen Tibetan Restaurant, conveniently close to the monastery entrance.
There was a bit of time spent faffing for cash, pills and potions, and stocking up at the Sifang Supermarket with food to see us through the culinary disaster zone of Everest Base Camp and the Rongbuk monastery, before we finally said our farewells to Shigatse and started the long afternoon’s drive along China National Highway 318 (G318) which runs from Shanghai to Tibet, although today’s drive only featured the Shigatse to New Tingri section!
Lonely Planet’s “Kilometre markers along the Friendship Highway” (p198-199 of my copy aka the 7th edition) proved invaluable in working out where we were.
We drove through some impressive landscapes, with Gaye enlightening me on rock formations and other geological features, and gradually gained height, leaving farmland behind.
We had a leg stretch stop at the G318’s 5000 km (from Shanghai) marker monument, and crossed two passes decked out in prayer flags: Tropu La (4,500 m) where even the electricity pylon had been incorporated into the display, and another, colder leg stretch at the Gyatso La (Lakpa La / 加措拉山口) pass up at 5,250 m / 17,225 ft, which also offered our first views of snowy mountain peaks – albeit under louring grey skies.
In between the two, just after Lhazê / Lhatse, we took the turning left and started heading for the Qomolangma National Park, and 100 km or so further on we reached the checkpoint/village of Shegar / Xêgar, aka New Tingri where we stayed for the night in the appropriately named Qomolangma Hotel Tingri – we’re off for Everest Base Camp tomorrow! A basic hotel, but the food was plentiful, and they even had two PCs with (very slow) internet access.
After breakfast at the hotel we departed Shegar / Xêgar / New Tingri, and after a few kilometres on the Friendship Highway we turned onto the gravel road that leads to Everest Base Camp (North).
We zig zagged our way ever higher, under a heavy layer of cloud which deprived us of any mountain views, even at the the Pang-la (5050m) / Mt Qomolangma View Point (and tourist souvenir stalls). That said, we did get to see many amazing rock formations and colours en route, as we wound our way through valleys and villages.
We stopped off at Tashi Dzom for an early lunch at the Cho Mo Lang Ma Ben Ba Guest-House Restaurant, and a while further on at another check point stop, we saw a parade of horse and carts, jogging and jingling their way towards us, crammed full of people – it looked like a celebration of some kind, rather than just a trip to market.
There were a few tantalising glimpses of blue sky and snowy peaks as we passed Rongbuk monastery, Carol and Tashi having decided that we’d be better off staying in the tent camp, a little further up the valley and only 2km from Everest Base Camp. Given Michael Palin’s description of the nights he spent at Rongbuk monastery, no one was complaining!
Tent accommodation obtained and toilets tested, we took the minibus (!) up to Everest Base Camp (5,150 metres) where the cloud had come down and it started to rain. EBC itself is denoted by a Chinese checkpoint, a small hill adorned with prayer flags, and China Mobile phone masts. Overall a rather disappointing experience!
Most of us opted to take the minibus back, and we settled into our two tents to relax, drink tea and warm up around the yak / sheep dung stoves… which is where my cold came on – slowly but surely, leaving me weak and light headed. I should have mentioned it to Tashi and Carol, but I thought it would pass and was more worried about how I’d keep warm overnight seeing as we’d not yet met up with our kit crew and so most of us didn’t have a sleeping bag and would be reliant on the tents’ quilts (which turned out to be super thermal and we all got too hot!).
After (mainly non alcoholic) pre dinner drinks and nibbles in the ‘couples’ tent, we dined on veg fried rice… definitely not top of my list of culinary experiences, but it filled a hole, and it’s not as though the tent camp has an easy job getting supplies.
Then bed and fingers crossed that the skies would clear tomorrow to give us that longed for close up of Mt Qomolangma….
After a relatively good night’s sleep at the Tingri Friendship Hotel, we woke to more low cloud and a greasy chapati breakfast.
Leaving the others to walk back up to EBC still hopeful of a Qomolangma sighting, Fran and I decided to cut our losses and to walk down towards Rongbuk Monastery.
Our stroll took us alongside the rocky glacier route of the Rongbuk River valley, dotted with yaks. At the sacred water well, we picked up Tashi, a local Tibetan man who chatted to us as we walked on towards the monastery. About 10 minutes in, he became very insistent we stop and look back…. thereby ensuring we did get a sighting of Mount Everest, peaking out of the lower cloud base. Tu-de-chay Tashi!
At Rongbuk Monastery we pottered around the monastery kora, still getting the occasional sighting of Mount Everest / Qomolangma, and then returned to the tent camp, helping a lady carry her three thermoses of water for the final stretch.
I’d been a bit woozy all morning, and spent most of the exciting off road return drive to the Friendship Highway sleeping in the front seat. Too tired to keep my eyes open to take in the amazing scenery, the river crossings, and towing another jeep out of a bog.
At (Old) Tingri we rejoined the tarmac, and checked in to the Snow Leopard Guesthouse where we had a late lunch and a lazy afternoon to wash, repack and stroll the length of town which stretches along the main highway.
As the light faded, the cloud lifted and we were treated to a very atmospheric view of snow capped Himalayan peaks, including (somewhere!) the elusive Mt Everest
After noodle soup for supper, we made the most of the evening’s hot water and hit our beds for a comfier night’s sleep.
A long day in the jeeps today, driving from Tingri to Saga via a picnic lunch at Peiku Tso (Pekhu Lake).
The day started well, with magic views under blue skies of those elusive Himalayan peaks – Lhotse (8,516 m), Makalu (8,485 m), Cho Oyu (8,201 m) and Everest (8,848 m), and those same blue skies stayed with us as we drove along the G318 aka China National Highway 318 aka the Friendship Highway – now beautifully tarmacked – all the way to the turn off for Saga and Mt Kailash. The early drive through lush green farmland between ruined dzongs and Tibetan villages (testimony to the late 18th century invasion of this part of Tibet by Nepali troops) offered a myriad of photo opportunities – but it was too early on in the trip for me to have the nerve to ask our jeep driver to pause to allow a quick snap.
Turning off the G318 and saying farewell to the Friendship Highway we got our first taste of true Tibetan unsurfaced roads, dodging between the huge lorries and crossing swollen rivers – very exciting! Travelling along the border with Nepal offered sightings of the north side of the Lantang range and the vast glaciers that drain into the super scenic Peiku Tso (itself 4,591 m above sea level). The lake is receding year on year and with an increasing mosquito count, it’s no longer a tempting place to camp for the night.
After our picnic lunch in the less than scenic guest house compound-cum-vehicle repair shop, we had another stop to admire the lake from a higher view point, where Minga dug us up a liquorice root to taste. Shortly after we turned away from the lake and started climbing up into a river gorge, which necessitated some serious ‘fording’ tactics from Minga, Tsering, Tashi and Tenchoe. Brilliant!
In Saga we had time to visit the shops – and were warned that this would be our last chance for some time…. Fran and I returning to the jeeps with a wide brimmed straw hat each to replace the hats that had ‘disappeared’ at Tashi Dzom, and biscuits. My straw boater was soon ousted by a particularly fine 30 yuan white knitted stetson – believe it or not, cowboy hats are the rage in Tibet. Fully equipped, we drove on to the municipal camp site on the outskirts of town, where we met our camp crew for the first time. Our blue tents stood smartly in a lovely grassy meadow, with our yellow dining tent and the traditional Tibetan cook tent close by. Best of all, there were spicy/salty fried nibbles to greet us…. The bad news was that we’d only have a few hours to enjoy the location as the roadworks meant that the road to Paryang was only open from 8pm to 8am (ie when the road crews couldn’t work), and our revised plan was to strike camp at 12.30am and to drive through the night…..
Sunday 08 August started with our 12.30am wake up call for our 1am departure… destination Paryang by way of New Dzongba. The night passed in an uncomfortable blur of Tibetan/Chinese pop on the in-jeep DVD player (great tech!!) as our brilliant drivers negotiated the road works along this stretch of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway (aka China National Highway 219 (G219)). I recall traversing raging torrents, slow ascents and descents of the new road’s steep embankments, occasional sections of floodlit roadworks and a few pauses while the team worked out which was the best way forward (or back). We had a pre dawn stop for Minga, Tsering, Tashi, Tenchoe to grab a snooze, before they drove on into the brand new Chinese settlement at New Dzongba where c.8am we had breakfast with a very surprised Tibetan lady’s restaurant. No one really had a taste for congee but the dumplings went down better.
As the skies grew lighter, we drove on past beautiful mountain range vistas, catching our first sight of the Yarlung Tsangpo (destined in due course to become the Brahmaputra River) before eventually reaching Paryang around 2pm, where we’d had an extended wait as Minga, Tsering, Tashi, Tenchoe and the local experts gathered round to fix Tsering’s jeep’s battery – very Top Gear! – before driving another 30 km or so to our campsite. We’d done an awful lot of driving (well, ‘being driven’) in the past 36 hours.
At the campsite, Fran and I put into practice our recently acquired camping expertise (learned yesterday) in helping to put up the tents. With everyone unpacked, we had the afternoon free to relax, wash and wander… under the wide open blue skies of this part of the Tibetan plateau. But first it was time for a lunch with a view of the mountains; we decided to dine al fresco with each of us setting up our dining room folding chair in our preferred location, and then tucking into what was to become a familiar picnic lunch featuring bread (a Saga steamed bun in this case), with chicken (not for me), a boiled egg, some biscuits, a mini bar of chocolate and a most tasty natural yoghurt drink.
Keen to stretch our legs after a long night/morning in the jeeps, Fran, Carol and I went for a stroll skirting the stream and looping round a local farm house. Olga and Peter ventured further afield, heading off towards the mountains, where they got a sighting of local wild horses and the elusive kiang (wild asses).
A delicious dinner in the dining tent and early to bed.
A frustrating day – my main memories of which are being in a staged “Blonde westerner has her passport checked” photo taken by a charming Chinese checkpoint officer for their regional military newspaper (which was at the relatively ‘good’ end of the scale), eating lunch at a desolate mountain pass – Mayun La (5216 m) and being halted a few kilometres short of Lake Manasarovar for four hours by a pointlessly pedantic checkpoint guard.
Tibetan nomads believe that the Gung Gyo-tso, which we followed as it flowed from the Mayun La to Lake Manasarovar, is poisoned. It proved an equally unlucky watercourse for us.
For most of our Himalayan Journey we’d find ourselves weaving through roadworks, and, when there was no scope for skirting around the bunting barriers, waiting frustratingly for closed sections to open (as happened here). This epitomised the consequences of the Chinese approach to tarmacking Tibet’s main east-west road (Xinjiang-Tibet Highway aka China National Highway 219) which was to do all of it, all at the same time, in disconnected sections, with not a care in the world for people needing to use the road as a means of travel. What made it all the more infuriating was that here the queue of halted traffic actually came face to face, bumper to bumper at that bunting!!
After two hours, our charming checkpoint guard relented enough to allow us to cross on foot, permitting a stroll up to the prayer flags to get a view of sacred Lake Manasarovar. This only made things worse as we could see that there were no road works in progress, and we’d wasted a whole, valuable afternoon.
It was dusk when we eventually arrived at our campsite on the shores of Lake Manasarovar. A beautiful location, nestled at the foot of at Chui monastery, with scope for lake side strolls with stunning mountain vistas. It would have been an idyllic place to have whiled away an afternoon, which made us all even more pissed off with the checkpoint guard. Still, after mucking in to get the tents up and sleeping mats and bags distributed, we were treated to a fabulous rainbow, and a glimpse of the peak of Mt Kailash. Feeling more blessed, it was time for another fine meal – complete with an hors d’oeuvre of chips and Tommy K – and off to bed.
(Google map of Chui monastery – our campsite was just to the south of the guest house blocks)
A much better day! Awake early, I had a pre breakfast stroll along the lakeside, enjoying the peace and tranquility. After breakfast, Carol lead us up to Chiu monastery, where we all spent a happy hour exploring the Gompa inside and out. From the upper area, complete with chortens, mani stones, prayer wheels and prayer flags, we had views out over Lake Manasarovar and up towards Darchen and Mount Kailash. Just a pity it was cloudy.
A short (tarmacked) drive later we drew into the courtyard of the Ta Er Qin Poverty Alleviation Hotel Guesthouse, which was to be our base in Darchen for the duration of our stay to do the Mount Kailash kora. After lunch provided by our cooks in one of the hotel’s spare, sparse, dining rooms we had a few hours to explore town (it’s larger than we’d expected from the LP’s description), where we stocked up on prayer flags in anticipation of the kora and our afternoon excursion to the prayer flag pole at Tarboche. Taking the quicker option to drive to Tarboche in the jeeps gave us plenty of time to circumnambulate the prayer flags, and to walk a little way up towards the sky burial site (which with hindsight I’m not sure I should have done – but at the time I was thinking of the view rather than where I was going).
Back at base we packed, pottered and dined. The afternoon’s blue skies gave way to cold, grey skies and thence into a thunder storm… not a good omen for our kora!
Day 1 of our Mt Kailash kora, and most of us opted to walk the first section, from Darchen to Tarboche, just beyond which, at the foot of Chuku monastery, we rendezvoused with the rest of the group, and our yaks which were carrying our main packs. It’s the main starting point for the trek these days, with most groups driving there from Darchen. There’s some big construction work going on on the other side of the valley, which does not bode well.
We’d been able to leave stuff in the jeeps back at the guest house, so our main packs only had what we needed for the four day trek. Carol and Tashi had decided to allow us one more day than the itinerary, and it proved a wise decision. More practiced pilgrims manage to complete the kora in one day, but most allow three, whether on foot or on pony (which seemed a popular option with many of the Hindu pilgrim groups. For large stretches of the first day we were walking amidst pony packs.
The route took us up the wide, stony river valley of the Lha-chu, which grew gradually narrower and the mountain sides steeper as we climbed. Lots of water running off the mountains. For most of the day the low grey cloud kept Mt Kailash (and other peaks) hidden from view, aside from one magical moment as we passed below the west face, and the clouds lifted to reveal a snow topped peak.
After lunching in a sheltered spot, we continued on to our overnight camp at Dira-puk monastery – by the time we got there it has started to sleet. Thankfully, our tents were up and we could gather in the dining tent for tea and biscuits. Time for Fran and I to take a quick side trip up to see Mt Kailash’s shiny black face….. albeit with a scattering of snow.
Leaving our campsite c8.30am, we jostled with ponies and people to cross the basic bridge over the Drölma chu, and then started our slow ascent up the valley. We soon crossed into the cloud layer, which made for cold rest stops. Tashi set a slow and steady pace – reminding me of the lessons I’d learned on the Annapurna Circuit: a slow and steady pace makes for a relatively straight forward ascent, even if you feel you could go much faster.
By the time we reached the Shiva-tsal (5,330 m), where pilgrims leave items of clothing to mark their symbolic death, we’d all spread out and Tashi was happy to let some of us keep our own pace rather and to go on ahead. We did all get to see Richard successfully wriggle under the Bardo Trang, attesting his sinfree state.
After a long slog up from the Bardo Trang plateau, we finally made the top of the Drölma La pass (my highest point yet, at 5,630 m), Fran, Sue, Ian and I arriving there within a few minutes of one another. A great place for our picnic lunch – the cloud lifted a little to reveal razor sharp peaks, and glacier green lakes at the foot of the Drölma Do, watching other pilgrims pass, and adding our prayer flags to the collection.
Refreshed, we continued on shortly after Olga appeared, marking the arrival of the rest of the group, including Tashi who advised against lingering too long at this altitude.
The route down was a clear and easy path – the guide books suggest the need for poles, but to be honest I’ve done more difficult descents and given the conditions I had no need for poles here.
The long climb up and the altitude meant that we were all feeling tired, and as we descended again the group spread out, with Carol, Olga, Peter and I bringing up the rear – making the most of the photo opportunities: the Gauri Kund (5,608 m) or Lake of Compassion, the beautiful alpine flowers, eagles (?) soaring amidst the craggy peaks and a new river valley – that of the Lham-chu.
On reaching the banks of the Lham-chu, we had a reviving smoky tea at the tea house tent and then pushed on over the hardest terrain of the day – big boulders, some grass covered, some bare, left by a long gone glacier. The normal route is an easy river side path – but at this time of year the river was running so high that the path was well under water.
The campsite was a welcome site, arriving there c 6.30pm and relaxing with tea and biscuits, and later dinner and bed. A big sense of accomplishment, and an easier day’s walking tomorrow.
An easier day today, with everyone in refreshed after a good night’s sleep and a lie in. A relaxed 10 am departure gave me time for photos of beautiful swathes of the pink flowers on the opposite bank of the Lham-chu, and a chirpy bouncy red breasted bird. Most trekkers aim to complete today’s portion as part of day 2 – but to be honest I doubt any of us could have done that without getting to the jelly legs stage. The boulder fields continued, interspersed with patches of bog and mud, but eventually the going got easier and we got a sense of perspective when we encountered two Tibetan prostrating pilgrims on their kora.
We lunched at the new (large) tent camp in the meadow where the Tobchan-chu joins the Lham-chu (now known as the Dzong-chu), and then strolled along to Zutul-puk Monastery. Although the monastery looks old, it’s one of the many that had to be rebuilt after the cultural revolution. That notwithstanding it was a lovely small place to soak up Tibetan Buddhism, and put me in mind of the dzong we’d visited in Bhutan.
Our river bank camp was a short distance further on, but it took us ages to get there as we were all distracted by super cute marmots. Unfortunately the rain set in shortly after we arrived, c3pm, and so most of the afternoon was spent drinking tea and chatting in the dining tent and snoozing in my tent – it was one of those times that I wished I had a good book to read! Antisocial, I know….
Another easy “day”, taking only 3 hours to complete the kora all the way back into Darchen, arriving back at the Ta Er Qin Poverty Alleviation Hotel Guesthouse c12.30. For much of the way we passed by Hindu pilgrims on horseback – I can’t believe that they crossed the Drölma La pass on horseback (or more accurately, that they made the descent on horseback without pony or rider coming a cropper), and I don’t recall having seen any Indian pilgrims since the pass, either individually or in their very large groups.
The first half of the route followed the Dzong-chu which gouged a white water route through canyons of red/green/gold rock. As the river valley opened out onto the main plain we had views of Lake Manasarovar, and at the scenic cafe there, there were vast numbers of jeeps, waiting to collect their pilgrim groups. Even though Minga, Tsering, Tashi and Tenchoe were there too, we all decided to continue on all the way into Darchen on foot – an easy walk along the dirt track and with view out over the plain.
(Note: Google maps has fabulously detailed, up to date, satellite views of this area, albeit calling Darchen “Bagaxiang” on the map. Here are links to satellite views of Darchen, Tarboche, the ‘start point’ beneath Chuku monastery, the day 1 tea tents, Dira-puk monastery and our day 1 campsite on the other side of the river, day 2’s bottle neck bridge river crossing, the stony first diagonal traverse, the Drölma La and the Gauri Kund, the day 2 tea tents on the banks of the Lham-chu, day 2’s campsite, day 3’s picnic lunch spot, Zutul-puk Monastery, day 3’s campsite, day 4’s tricky river crossing, the canyon being carved out of the red/green/gold rock by the Dzong-chu, the cafe at the group jeep pick up point, and the road back into Darchen. And zooming in on this Google map should show you the whole of the Mount Kailash kora)
After a quick shop stop to stock up on moisturiser and beer, we were reunited properly with Minga, Tsering, Tashi, Tenchoe and our jeeps, and swiftly departed Darchen destined for a relaxing afternoon at Tirthapuri Hot Springs. We had a quick roadside picnic en route, and reached the springs a few hours later – zipping along tarmacked roads to Moincer and then bumping over rougher route to the springs.
Our camp was being set up on the banks of the Sutlej river – flowing high, fast and muddy – but the skies were clear and we had a relaxing time sorting out kit, soaking up the sun, washing bits and pieces and generally pottering around, and then walking over to the bath houses to indulge in a wallow in a wooden tub, filled with naturally heated waters from the springs – a very well spent 50¥.
Peter and Olga provided celebratory pre dinner drinks and nibbles – G&T, rum and coke, whiskey, Lhasa beer… a boozy evening celebrating our completion of all 53 km of the Mt Kailash kora including the ascent of the 5,630 m high Drölma La pass, and a wondrous cleaning soak courtesy of the Tirthapuri Hot Springs.
The geothermal activity at Tirthapuri marked it as a sacred site, and before leaving we walked up to visit the Guru Rinpoche monastery, the Rangjung chortens, the Demon’s Arrow mani wall, the circular mani wall and the karma-testing hole. Then it was back into the jeeps, and on to rejoin the G219 at Moincer. We then zoomed along to Ba’er / Songsha where we turned off for Zanda…. starting with the hairiest river crossing of the whole trip – even Minga,our most experience driver, wasn’t his usual gung ho, confident self!
The next 122 km provided a roller coaster ride, zig zagging high above the Indus river plain to get great views back over the snow capped peaks of the Kailas mountain range. We then drove on through the high upland plains, with their technicolour rock and sparse grass cover, before dropping down to breath taking views of Zanda, home to the erosion pinnacles of the upper Sutlej River valley and the ancient kingdom of Guge.
Our hotel in Zanda was, apparently, the best this army garrison town has to offer, and let’s just say it was lacking in the running water and electricity departments…. but the rooms were clean, the beds relatively comfy, and Sonam set up our dining area in the courtyard at the back of the hotel, and we had free use of the public bathrooms next door! And water and power did return, intermittently, during the evenings/nights.
After lunch we had the afternoon to ourselves, which translated for me as finding an operating internet cafe (a surprise all round) and watching the new platoon of soldiers – male and female – receiving an official welcome to town. Lucky them!
Although pre dinner drinks were establishing themselves as the norm, we gathered early to celebrate Nicole’s birthday with a cake baked that afternoon by Lhundrup in our cook tent. No mean feat!
A fascinating day… featuring a full morning visit to Tsaparang, the citadel capital of the ancient Kingdom of Guge.
Breathtaking all round, and the cultural highlight of the whole trip for me.
A stunning location, beautiful chapels and a real sense of seeing something hidden and saved, an entrance stair carved into the rock, and panoramic views from the summer palace, perched on a peak overlooking the fertile Sutlej river valley and surrounded by a fairy tale landscape of eroded soft sedimentary mud rock.
Back to the Transport Hotel for lunch, and then down to the other end of Zanda’s main street to visit Thöling monastery which dates from the 11th century, and the 21st century Chinese gardens built to belittle the mighty chorten/stupa that over look the Sutlej River. Over fizzy drinks in the tent cafe, we showed postcards of London to local Tibetan families, and were presented with a local guide booklet by the cafe owner in return. My postcard of a London bus may still be on their mantlepiece…..
Pre dinner drinks, dinner, bed.
A long day’s drive, back over the mountains and westwards ho on the G219 to our overnight stop in the schizophrenically named Ali / Shiquanhe / Senge Khabab.
We took the same route back to the G219 – the alternative route over the Lalung La / Laling Gutsa had been blocked by landslides for a while.
The morning’s drive from Zanda up through the eroded adobe landscape was stunning, with Willy Wonka-esque torrents of mud flowing fiercely down to join the Sutlej river / Langchen Tsangpo. As we reached the plateau we were treated to a wonderful, clear view back over the Sutlej valley and of the Indian Himalaya, with Nanda Devi‘s ice cream cone peak against blue sky backdrop. Beautiful.
On the drive over the plateau we saw more kiang/wild asses, and were lucky with the roadworks/tarmac stops. Under lighter skies the spectrum of colours of the earth shone out, and we crossed still green valleys… where Chinese road construction is in full swing. Goodbye Guge.
Back in the valley of the G219 at Ba’er / Songsha, we lunched at a Tibetan teahouse/restaurant and then motored west under big skies. There were scenic stops at various prayer flag spots in the Gar river valley and at a pass when we left behind the mighty Gar, and turned towards the Indus.
Arriving in Ali late afternoon it took couple of attempts to find our hotel – this was the furthest west our Tibetan team had ever travelled. We had a few hours to enjoy the metropolis (shops!) before pre dinner drinks hosted by Peter and Olga in their room at the Shiquanhe Hotel (formerly the Shi Quan He Victualing House), followed dinner at a Chinese restaurant a few doors down from the hotel – delicious.
A day of few settlements, lots of mountains, vast skies.
Another long day’s drive, and the start of the final stage of our expedition, covering more miles on the G219 from Ali / Shiquanhe to our final destination at a remote riverside camp 50 km on from Dormar / Domar.
The Lonely Planet guide to Tibet has one page of info for the entire route from Ali / Shiquanhe to Kashgar – which was to take us the next four full days – and it’s written in the opposite direction from the one we were travelling. This part of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway is little travelled, and passes through the Aksai Chin region which is claimed by both China and India. The only people/traffic we encountered were either Chinese truckers or Chinese military, and the only villages we passed through had Chinese check points and a handful of facilities to service the long distance truckers.
En route we detoured to Rutok, a lovely Tibetan village (not to be confused with the new Chinese town of Rutok Xian a few km further up the road), complete with chorten, dzong and monastery, set amongst green pasturelands, red mountains and the blue of Pangong tso lake, which made up for the petroglyphs we’d missed earlier in the day. Before returning to the main road, we picnicked in view of a flock of fat bottomed sheep and some goats, and new concrete posts, presumably to carry electricity cables.
We had another leg stretch at a monument on the shores of Pangong tso lake, looking across the blue waters to Ladakh before continuing on, hugging the shoreline and clinging to the blasted-into-the-cliff-face road.
A while further on we had an impromptu roadside stop when Minga spotted some black necked cranes in the dried out marshland we were driving through.
After the police checkpoint at Domar, we continued on until we spied our blue and yellow tents set up on a stony plain by the side of a river. Windy and overcast when we arrived, the skies cleared at the end of the day bringing the most amazing light and serenity to the stunning scenery.
Another long day’s drive along long straight roads (still good old G219!), with few settlements, lots of mountains, wide open landscapes and the best wildlife encounters of the trip.
Today’s drive would see us depart Tibet and cross the Aksai Chin, entering Xinjiang and setting up camp, for the last time, at Dahongluitan. Not that we could tell when we crossed any of those all important lines of control.
Persuaded by Carol to break camp early to allow for a stroll along the road, we were all ecstatic when the jeeps did catch us up – it was freezing in the long shadows.
Initially the plateau remained covered in sparse green grass, with the reds, oranges, golds and purples coming through in surrounding mountains, but as we drove onwards and upwards the terrain turned harsher and snowtopped peaks reappeared as did narrower river valleys, and the technicolour palette disappeared.
Crossing over into the Aksai Chin there were plenty of reminders that, as far as Beijing is concerned, we were in Chinese territory – marker posts, sign boards and a semi-submerged hotel on the shores of the Lungma Tso.
We saw more wild animals than humans – several pairs of Tibetan antelope once we’d crossed the Jieshan Daban pass (5,200 m), had a close encounter with large eagle a little further on. Later in the day as we off roaded a short cut, we passed an outcrop where more birds of prey were nesting – not being a birder, i can’t remember what they were – possibly Lammergeier.
As the afternoon wore on our route took us along long stretches of dead straight road, no tarmac as yet but it won’t stay that way for long; we saw a large army camp unmarked on the map – I’m sure there are more.
Crossing the Khitai Pass (5,150 m) brought us face to face with Xinjiang – with our first sighting of signage in Uyghur. The greens and reds were long gone, and the rest of the day we drove through grey river valleys, and dust.
We camped at kilometre marker 480…. 8 km beyond the army town of Dahongliutan. Setting up camp proved a challenge – not just because of the wind that was blowing katabatic-like down the valley… we were camping amidst a patchwork of shell craters, presumably on the (hopefully disused!) Dahongluitan firing range. You can see the shell holes on Google Maps.
Another very long day’s drive, which would take us from Dahongliutan / KM 480 to Yecheng / Kargilik – a surreal return to a modern metropolitan world, and KM 0 on the G219… yes we’d be covering 480 kilometres in one very long day. Trying to write this up I realise I’ve at least 3 day’s worth of memories… we drove through such varied terrains and made the huge emotional shift from remote ‘Tibet’ to big city Xinjiang.
The morning saw us say kudichay, good bye and safe journey back to Lhasa to our tent and kitchen crew – the first of the farewells that would overlay the next few days with sadness.
Driving the long straight but rocky G219 we had the northern most edge of the Kunlun mountain range on our right, and occasionally crossed the river – presumably the Yarkant He / Yarkand river – whose valley we were travelling in. We saw a bunch of bactrian camels too.
The dusty roads were made worse by convoys of large lorries carrying soldiers, coal and fuel – although we did get one stretch of tarmac as we passed through the large military base/town of Xaidulla (KM 363). 60 km or so later we climbed the Kirgizjangal Daban pass (4,930 m), and 50 km or so later we turned north at Mazar and started climbing the Chiragsaldi Pass (4,960 m) – catching a flat type en route. Plenty of zig zags as we followed the course of the river Tiznap He, but still very dusty until we reached the upper levels, up in the cloud layer, by which time it was a really rather bit scary. I didn’t find the concrete bollards particularly reassuring…
We descended from this crossing of the Kunlun mountains to Kudi, where the officious checkpoint proved a painful experience all round, with nasty Chinese officials who treated our Tibetan drivers like criminals. We definitely weren’t in Tibet anymore, Toto.
As the tarmac reappeared we made good time over the Kudi Pass (3,240 m) at KM 113 and started our “what happened in this year?” countdown to Yecheng / Kargilik.
Hopes of dinner en route were foiled by Ramadan, and so we drove onward through classic Xinjiang scenery – lots of poplar trees in featureless flat desert landscape, the occasional flare from oil/gas rigs excepted.
Taking into account the fact that Xinjiang local time is 2 hours behind Tibet’s “Beijing time”, I think we spent over for 13 hours on the road.
Once in Yecheng / Kargilik we had fun driving on the city roads, Tibetan style (aka rules of the road, what are they?), and had to get the lady from our hotel to come and find us on her moped to guide us in. The Yecheng Electricity Hotel was heaven – clean rooms, hot water (eventually), electricity. Dinner at a Chinese restaurant a few doors down. Beers obligatory!
A relatively relaxed morning in Yecheng / Kargilik, operating on Xinjiang time. Fran and I went for an explore up the road to the local market and shops, returning a bit late for breakfast in the restaurant we’d dined in last night.
Warmer than yesterday, and than we’d been used to, which was nice.
Another long day’s drive, mostly along the G315 from Yecheng / Kargilik to Kashgar, with a detour to avoid high waters and (possibly) out of action bridges. Lots of trees lining the roads, lots of donkey carts taking families to/from market. Late morning we stopped at an open air market, fascinating once we’d got through the wrought iron gates, and a little later had lunch in a cafe somewhere….. with a family making bread on the street below. Hot.
It was strange to be travelling along the same roads I’d been along on my Central Asia Overland tour two years ago. Certain sections were very familiar – the desolate desert stretches in between the oasis towns, Yensigar, home of famous knife makers (and Ali and his family) and its huge resevoir. Sadly Yarkand (Shache/Yarkan) passed by without us being able to find it – if there is one change I would have made to our journey, it would have been to have spent a couple of hours at the mosque and the mausoleums there. Tashi was willing, but no one knew the route.
No photos all day, other than of our hotel rooms at either end. I was out of sorts.
Driving into Kashgar was amazing – so much more traffic and people than we’d been used to, and more urban sprawl that I remember there being in 2008. Still, the centre was the same my memories and we made it safely to the Chini Bagh Hotel, this time staying in the main building – and without any earth tremors. The west side of the old British Consulate was one big building site – clearly business is booming. The architect’s drawings showed a swimming pool and deluxe accommodation. I wonder what it turns out like in reality.
Taxis to the Seman Hotel for dinner at the open air John’s / Caravan cafe, coinciding with a large party of Dutch travelling in a motor home convoy (!). A nice walk back, and Fran and I headed out for a DIY explore, over to the Id Kah mosque and the Friday square – lots of families sitting at open air restaurants, with piles of pick your own takeaway food on offer. A really buzzy atmosphere.
Photos and memories from my Central Asia Overland trip
- Flickr photos: Central Asia Overland, September/October 2008
- Flickr photos: Central Asia Overland – 03 October 2008: Hotan – Yecheng / Kargilik – Yarkand
- Flickr photos: Central Asia Overland – 04 October 2008: Yarkand – Yensigar – Kashgar
- Central Asia Overland – Friday night fever, Yarkand style
- Central Asia Overland – Kashgar and the KKH to Lake Karakul
Sunday 22 August 2010: Kashgar (Photos)
A packed day touring Kashgar, with a local (Chinese) guide organised by Carol last night at John’s Cafe. A day of déjà vus, starting with the Abakh Khoja mausoleum, followed by the livestock market, the Sunday market and a carpet shop. Lunch in the old British Consulate building back at the Chini Bagh, then to the Id Kah mosque and a walk through the remains of the old town.
I’d so been hoping to see Kashgar outside Ramadan, but not this time.
The prayer halls at both the Abakh Khoja mausoleum and the the Id Kah mosque were getting conservation treatment, Chinese style (aka replace, repaint, short term glitz but no thought to the long term – past or future), so I didn’t linger.
Walking through the old town, I saw signs of some of the much criticised razing/rebuilding, but there was still much left. We were shown the inside of the traditional Uighur courtyard family house, and returned to the Friday square along a road of restaurants packed with Sunday visitors, interspersed with Uighur shops selling sewing machines, plastic pipes and all manner of other useful stuff.
Dinner was a bit of a chaotic affair – good food (far too much!) at a Uighur restaurant, but marred by our failed attempts to get the whole group sat together – it was our last meal together. Back at the Chini Bagh, we sat in the open air cafe over beers and tea, saying our farewells and our heartfelt thanks to Tashi, Minga, Tsering, Tashi and Tenchoe. Sad.
Photos and memories from my Central Asia Overland trip
- Flickr photos: Central Asia Overland – 04 October 2008: Yarkand – Yensigar – Kashgar
- Flickr photos: Central Asia Overland – 05 October 2008: Kashgar – Sunday Market
- Central Asia Overland – Kashgar and the KKH to Lake Karakul
A day of tears and tiresome travels and tribulations. A suitably Tibetan drive to Kashgar airport, including driving the wrong way down the dual carriage way having missed the turn off, and sad farewells. I shed a few tears as our Tibetan convoy drove out of the airport on the start of their journey back to Lhasa.
Our bookings on the Kashgar-Urumchi flight seemed to have gone missing, but Carol’s persistence ensured we all got on board. We transferred between terminals at Urumchi on foot – not the standard approach I’d guess – during which my well travelled Tibetan stetson flew off my head and tumbled down into the carpark below. Au revoir? I fear not.
Slow check in and long queues through security meant it was touch and go for a while, but a helpful security guard opened a new line for us and ensured we queue jumped quite dramatically.
Landing in Beijing it transpired that our bags hadn’t made it. In fact no one’s had – they’d off loaded passenger luggage in favour of commercial goods. It appeared to be a fairly common occurance, and the lost luggage staff calmly told us to expect it on the next flight, due in around 1am. For those of us staying at an airport hotel, this was an inconvenience – but Fran, Peter and Olga had connecting flights which would mean leaving without their luggage. Amazingly, their bags did eventually catch them up in San Francisco and the south of France respectively. The final hurdle was checking in at the Beijing International Airport Hotel – it still carries its previous name of the Beijing Capital Hotel, and again there was no record of our booking… at least not for a good 10 minutes.
Those who remained split for dinner – I opted for a beer and pizza in the bar. Expensive, but tasty. Carol, Nicole, Jon and Ian did a brilliant job of taking the hotel-airport shuttle back to reclaim our bags in the wee small hours.
Tuesday 24 August 2010: Fly Beijing – London (No photos)
A lazy morning, with not much else to do other than enjoy the hotel facilities – aka feast on my final Chinese hotel breakfast, repack my rucksack and take a good long shower and hair wash – before taking the shuttle bus to the international departure terminal where the speed and ease of check in was the direct opposite of those we’d experience for yesterday’s internal flights.
Easy flight home (movie choice on a par with the flight out) and with Phil waiting for me at LHR. I just had to stock up on gin first…..
P.S. In looking online for maps of the Shiquanhe / Ali to Yecheng / Kargilik, l chanced across this account of Peter Quaife’s solo unsupported ride from Kashgar, Western China to Lhasa, Tibet: Occupied Territories: A ride from Kashgar to Lhasa – 2,999 km (1,863 miles) over 54 days from July 17, 2007 to September 8, 2007 …. which rather puts my Himalayan Journey in the shade…..
P.P.S Farewell Bhutanese raw silk scarf. I lost you somewhere Out There.
My Himalayan Journey from Lhasa to Kashgar spreadsheet has the actual itinerary we followed and places we stayed, together with a chart showing how high we were above sea level at various times/places.
My photos are on Flickr, Lhasa to Kashgar – July/August 2010.