Fine China 1: 7 days near Tibet

Day 358 – Thursday, April 17th 2014

So, according to or original plan, round about now we should have loaded Ivor back in a container, to be shoved onto a vessel bound for Vladivostock in Russia. Thankfully, our internet searches for other travellers, and a good guiding experience with Uncle Lun, meant we could avoid that particular sufferance and, all going well, will make our journey all the way back to Europe from India overland.

Used munitions for ornaments, something Laos has in abundance - these were at the guesthouse just before the border

Used munitions for ornaments, something Laos has in abundance – these were at the guesthouse just before the border

The recently assembled ‘team China’ made their way through the Laos border without crossing any palms with silver, and were free to head to the China border control.

Our last glimpse of South East Asia

Our last glimpse of South East Asia

The Chinese border can be a challenge, with a few horror stories bouncing around the Overland travel forums of people being refused entry for any number of whimsical reasons dreamt up by overzealous officials – the most severe of which being the poor couple turned back at the Kyrgyzstan border for being on a tandem bicycle, and the rubber stamp wielder claiming that, according to his rule book, cycles could be made to carry no more than one person.

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No such problems for us though, we had two things on our side – 1) it was Buddhist New Year, and since the Yunnan province observes these traditions and holidays the border was understaffed, and 2) Lun, our guide, has been in this business a while, and knows how to hurry things along. Immigration took a little while before they would administer our passports with stamps, but customs merely checked off on their paperwork that there were indeed three cars.

The vehicle checks that took nearly a whole day to get the group through on our previous entry to China, took less than five minutes per car, and we were handed our temporary Chinese registration plates and driving licences in no time.

roadside decorations

roadside decorations

We got on the road in the early afternoon, and got as far as Jing Hong – a day saved on the schedule already. In town we got fixed up with local SIM cards, and a wad of Yuan, and we were set up for the trip, a successful day all told.

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Day 359 – Friday, April 18th 2014

A lot of km to cover today, with only one touristic stop – the ‘elephant shaped banyan tree’ as the Chinese Lonely planet puts it. ‘Woeful decaying stump of disappointment’ is perhaps a more accurate phrase. A local informed us that the tree pretty much died a few years back, and although a second smaller tree is still just about alive, it is kept that way through intravenous glucose, and does not make for a grand attraction.

The rest of the drive to Lincang was sufficiently uneventful that we could enjoy the scenery, and the smooth tarmac that was refreshing for both drivers and vehicles after the punishment of the Cambodian and Laotian highways.

We had dinner as a group, and though the mutton dish turned out to be a collection of arteries and bones strung together with fatty skin, there were a few other orders that were more successful. We hit the supermarket on the way back to the hotel (where we would sleep in the parking lot), and though we picked up a fair few supplies we still found the shops to be lacking in diary – the whole bunch of us westerners were now craving cheese – and not the type that comes processed into burger sized squares or, worse still, white triangles of paste with a guffawing bovine on the front.

Day 360 – Saturday, April 19th 2014

Our route to Dali would follow the Mekong as we journeyed towards the Himalayas, we’d grown quite attached to that river as we’d traced its’ course all of the way up from Cambodia.

We arrived in the mid afternoon, and while the others snuck in some sightseeing at the three pagodas on the edge of town, we stayed behind to check on the aroma of diesel that was beginning to fill our living quarters.

The source was a jerry can with a lid not closed firmly. Not too much of a disaster, but still some unloading and cleaning to do to make sure it didn’t dissolve any of the sealant that lines the edges of our living area.

We met with Steven and Caroline for some average, overpriced, Chinese food – particularly in towns that are used tourists, it really does pay to have Lun with us for dinner. It was good to catch up with them though, and we learned that we’d not missed too much at the pagodas that could be seen the next morning for free from outside the gates.

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A typical dali resto, you pick the ingredients and they concoct something for you.

A typical Dali resto, you pick the ingredients and they concoct something for you.

A little later, after the others had headed back to their hotel, we were heard to be uttering that fateful sentence “let’s just stop for ONE beer”. We would have made it too, it was so damn expensive but….

…. it was not long before a polite Chinese guy (with ‘English name’ Simon) came over and introduced himself to us. His cousin had dared him to come over and talk to the foreigners, and the next stage of the dare was apparently to ask us back to their table for a drink.

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Our new friends, and sponsors for the evening

We didn’t know this at the time, but were happy to have helped Simon win. Glasses were chinked, and from that moment on were never left empty – we were not allowed to pay for anything for the rest of the night, they even ordered food for us. After the first bar, we joined them to another which had a pool table. The evening got away from us, and before we knew it we were in a late night eatery getting some BBQ’d meat on a stick in an attempt to ward off the next day’s thick head.

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Day 361 – Sunday, April 20th 2014

Needless to say our journey to Lijiang got underway a little later than planned – and although we got up some two hours after the others had already left, we didn’t help ourselves by wandering into town to get a tasty lunch and to pick up some real butter and cheese that we had spotted for sale in a bakery.

No matter though, the drive was easy, and only took 3 hours or so. It didn’t look like we’d missed anything either, as we strolled around the Unesco Heritage site that is the old town, we found it to have  a kind of ‘Disney does China’ vibe to it – all luminescent lighting and blaring music – there was even a glitter ball and smoke machine for flip’s sake. Even without being jaded through last night’s fun, it would be difficult to get excited about this overpriced honey pot site.

Actually, it looks quite nice in a photo

Actually, it looks quite nice in a photo

Day 362 –Monday, April 21st 2014

A walk around the old town showed that it almost redeemed itself in the daytime, the quaint streets were no longer lined with painfully loud bars competing for business with yet another ‘traditional cultural show’, and were transformed into a quiet, picturesque, and in some cases beautiful Chinese scene.

We made our way to the market, a place where locals buy their food, and were pleasantly surprised at the reasonable prices – it would have been easy for the traders to take advantage of us, and it’s to their credit that they didn’t.

That night we cooked up some of the fresh food from the market and caught up with the others for a beer, but it was a relatively early night in the end – and Coen wasn’t feeling too good.

Day 363 – Tuesday, April 22nd 2014

Up early for the drive to Tiger Leaping gorge, where we would be stopping the night. The Chinese might be inventive when it comes to Legends and stories, but are not always so when it comes to naming places – the number of peaks named ‘snow mountain’ is testament to that, so you do not win a prize for guessing  what a certain stripy mammal is supposed to have done to give the gorge it’s name.

Getting there in plenty of time, we took a hike up the edge of the gorge in the early afternoon. The wind had been steadily picking up, and as we rounded one exposed area we were almost forced to a crawl to avoid being blown over – it was definitely time to head back to the shack. V had spent most of the time on the walk scoping out the route for potential downhill biking, so it was clear what we would be doing the next morning.

We arrived back to the guesthouse in time to meet the others to take a walk down the steep sides of the valley, to see the very rock from which no tiger has ever leapt (in out humble opinion).

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* reenactment, no tigers were harmed in this stunt

It was a dodgy path, and we had paid a good few Yuan for the privilege of using it. On a few occasions the locals teased yet more Yuan form our pockets as the toll for going just a bit further along the route, and then just a little more for the bridge to the actual rock, and then a few more to get to ‘the other’ genuine tiger leaping rock… you get the picture. There were many signs claiming that the local families had created these routes, and it was their only source of income and blah, blah, blah…. The routes were crap, dangerous, and expensive. Let’s leave it at that.

On the plus side of this exploitation of a legend, there was one route returning up the valleys edge that had been installed with excitement in mind – the piece de resistance being a 30 meter ladder extending almost vertically up a cliff edge. It felt dodgy getting blown about by the wind and, despite the ladder being solid enough and relatively free from rust, we were still grateful to reach the top of it.

Day 364 – Wednesday, April 23rd 2014

The gusty wind had been rocking the back of Ivor around during the night, and far from the lullaby effect that it has in an infant, we’d slept really quite badly. We still got up to go cycling, but a little later than planned – we got a few push up – ride down laps in, and then it was time to hit the road again.

We needed a little help finding the hotel where the others would be residing in Shangri-La, we’d driven past it a few times already before Stephen came out onto the street to guide us in to the parking lot – which we squeezed into with only a few inches to spare.

The main thing to see is a monastery just outside of town. Unfortunately this one was a little uninspiring – having been built on the remains of the original that had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. As we mentioned on our southerly pass through China, the recent embrace of Buddhism by the people, encouraged by the government is easy for a cynic to pick holes in – and here we were again left with the feeling that the monastery had all of the right ingredients, but that it somehow lacked the sincerity or substance that had been present in other religious sites – in Thailand for example, or even just over the border in Nepal – maybe it just takes time.

Shangri-La, having won a competition to inherit the fictional name as ‘town most likely to have been inspiration for Lost Horizon’, by James Hilton, has recently suffered from a serious fire. Having been constructed in the traditional manner, all from wood, there was very little that could be done to stop the blaze from taking out almost the entire old town. That night we walked down, saw the devastation, and stopped in for dinner at one of the remaining restaurants.

All that was left was the monastery on top of the hill and the world's largest prayer wheel (needing a min of 6 people to turn it)

All that was left was the monastery on top of the hill and the world’s largest prayer wheel (needing a min of 6 people to turn it)

Day 365 – Thursday, April 24th 2014

We were given an impromptu day off from travelling, since Marejke and Caroline fell fowl of the same bug that Coen had been fighting off for the last couple of days.

It meant we were free to do those exciting day to day activities that get put off when you’re rushing your way through Asia – such as laundry, trips to the supermarket, and getting someone to cut some new glass for the wing mirror that got smashed by an auto-rickshaw back in India – Our temporary replacement had lasted nearly 6 months, and now changed position every time we went down a bumpy road, or above 60kph.

While tackling some of our Laundry backlog, Kim received a lesson in scrubbing from some of the ladies at the hotel, who would not rest until our clothes were sparkling. Unfortunately, Kim’s Chinese was not up explaining “these are our clothes for working on the truck, they will never be properly clean again”.

Vaughan gave himself a trim later on, and got it almost all finished and sheared evenly when, just as he was touching up the top, the plastic guard came off the clippers. With a bald badger stripe down the centre of his head, the only option was to crop the rest off down to the same length. Just as we were about to head into the cold of the mountains – at least he would fit in with all the monks.

Day 366 – Friday, April 25th 2014

A big day on the roads today – a lot of kilometres to cover, and some high mountain passes to negotiate as well. The other guys were feeling up to it, so off we went. We took a break early on in the day since the land cruiser of Coen and Marejke was misbehaving a little, and needed the fuel filters replacing before it would step back into line.

Ivor was behaving well despite climbing higher above sea level than he’d ever been before. The final pass of the day was a whopping 4150 meters up. He was definitely pumping out a bit more black smoke than normal, but you couldn’t really blame him given the oxygen levels.

We descended for 25km as the road twisted and turned its way down towards Xiang Cheng, where we would stop for the night. Having made good time, we would be able to pay a visit to the monastery before dinner – this was a much more wholesome affair than the one at Shangri-La. Lun spoke to one of the Monks (or Lamas as they are known in the region), and he showed us around the place – explaining things to Lun, who did his best at providing a translation service for us. Some areas of the monastery were still under construction, and as we arrived a lot of the workers were just finishing up for the day. Lun explained that it has been constructed by locals giving up their time for free, since the project started 25 years ago. The Monks pushed some wooden boards aside so that they could tour us around the latest addition, a prayer hall containing a truly enormous seated Buddha image.

That night we went for the normal cheap eats with Lun (“some meat, some vegetables, some rice” became a kind of catch phase), but this time we’d brought a bottle of ‘Great Wall’ Chinese wine to the table since we had something to celebrate: We’d been on the road for a whole year! Hard to believe, but it was the 25th of April that we’d left Toulouse in a mad dash to catch some flights from Istanbul only two and a half days later. To aid the celebrations Stephen picked up another bottle from the shop next door – the best available was still less than 2 dollars worth, and it really showed in the tasting – but in this case, it was the thought that really counted.

We stayed out, and took a beer at the only bar in town, the kind of place where the locals chew beer cans open with their teeth (yes, that really happened). We were treated to a karaoke show, where the audience show support of their favoured acts by placing scarves around their necks while they are singing.

Day 367 – Saturday, April 26th 2014

Another big driving today, we’d break Ivor’s altitude record yet again, and by quite some margin. The climbs were steady and not too steep, but the road conditions were bad meaning the engine had to work a little harder than normal. On the first big ascent of the day, we stopped for a ‘nature break’ at around 4200 meters, and because the coolant had stopped flowing through the engine block it started to boil, and Ivor started taking a leak too, from the overflow pipe – even though the temperature gauge had not risen above 75 deg C while we’d been on the move. We got him started again straight away, and continued to drive very cautiously with our fingers crossed that he’d not lost too much fluid. It didn’t help that a strong wind was coming from behind, and not passing through the radiator just behind Ivor’s front grill.

By plodding our way along and selecting ever lower gears we crawled our way up to the 4708 meter summit, and proceeded across the plateau that never dipped below 4000m. There were a couple more passes, reaching 4500 and 4600, but the inclines were more gradual, and we’d gotten a bit more used to controlling Ivor’s temperature with gear selection and how fast we revved the engine, so they were less stressful than the first one.

Litang claims to be the world’s highest city at around 4050 above the sea line, but there are a couple of others with a far more genuine claim, and a height advantage of around 800 meters. Spurious claims aside, it is still pretty high, and certainly enough to make you breathe hard if you forget where you are for a moment and walk up a flight of stairs too quickly.

The ‘Western Restaurant’ listed in the Lonely Planet turned out to be a bit of a joke, but the yak meat / fried potato concoction was quite a passable meal, and the owner was enough of a character the it made up for any short comings in the dishes.

Day 368 – Sunday, April 27th 2014

Well whaddya know – another day of mountain passes. After a reluctant, smoky start we were pleased to find none of the climbs to be as severe as the day before, so we were able to enjoy the scenery a little more – and we were given the perfect opportunity to do just that as we got stuck in a long line up due to a convoy of military trucks up ahead that must have been a few km long.

The final descent had an alpine feel to it, lined as it was by conifers. It was good to be back below the tree line. The last section of road followed the valley floor to Tagong, and we passed many hundreds of rocks and cliffs that had been painted with Buddhist symbols and emblems – a very impressive sight.

We parked up for the night in the village square, while the others took a guesthouse just down the road. There was a different guest house that boasted a restaurant with a genuine western menu, complete with genuine western co-owner, so we could be sure the food would be genuinely genuine. The others were still recovering a little from their respective ‘travellers upsets’, so were grateful for to comfort food of home. And for us?  Well Chinese food, though fantastic, can get a little samey when your there for a month at a time, so we were happy for the change too.

While we were chilling and internetting the evening away a young guy from a Chinese TV channel (amusingly called CCTV) came in asking about the cars, and where we’d come from, and a bit about us. He had the kind of sleazy lack of sincerity that was enough to overshadow any excitement that we may have had for appearing on Chinese telly – he made a date with us (without fully waiting for us to say we would do it) for the following morning to do an interview with ‘Team Ivor’ down by the truck.

Day 369 – Monday, April 28th 2014

Ivor was up to no good this morning, the brat was playing ‘hide the brake fluid’ – the daily health checks had showed a drop in the reservoir. This was enough to scare us a little, but to save our poor readers from getting too wound up, we’ll shatter the suspense and tell you the cause now rather than waiting a good few days to figure it out, like we did: The new shoes we had fitted in Laos had not been perfectly matched to the profile of the drums, and as yet had not worked very hard – the mountain stages had worn the peaks off the shoes, and so the brake cylinders extended a little further out than they had done previously. Kinda obvious on reflection, but over the next few days we would be checking everywhere else for leaks before reaching that conclusion.

And what of the TV crew? Well we didn’t really like them, so we made our excuses and set off on the road instead of seeking our fame on CCTV.

We made our way to Danba, where there was ‘the most beautiful village in China’ to see in one area, and some ancient watch towers / storage towers lining a hill side in another. Though we can’t promise that the beauty judges were not biased, or in fact that the judging ever even happened, we can say this; the village was quite nice. A ramshackle collection of wooden buildings spread liberally across a hillside without too much in the way of satellite dishes and power lines to spoil the view.

The towers, well, they were impressively old, but they did really just look like a load of brick chimneys. Alas we were not enthusiastic enough tourists to give the attention to their back ground that it probably deserves.

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Actually, slightly more interesting than the watchtowers to us, was laying bets on which of these tractors would win a race up the winding road on the opposite side of the valley

We carried on to Xiaojin and, after a bit of asking around, found hotels that suited the other guys, and some parking big enough to accommodate all our vehicles. Taking a break from some meat, some rice, some vegetables, we instead opted for some meat some noodles, some vegetables. And very tasty it was too.

Day 370 – Tuesday, April 29th 2014

With quite the distance to cover to get to Chengdu today, we were up and on the road by 8. A good job too, since the road had a few surprises in store for us. Leaving town, we were just ahead of the others, and sent a text message back warning that heavy rains overnight had brought down debris onto the road.

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We were aware just how high our final pass before leaving the Himalayas would be, and as we travelled along we found ourselves steadily climbing, and finding that last night’s rain had come down as snow higher up. As the going got slower, and we could see a trail of stuck cars up ahead, we put a set of snow chains on the rear wheels – The road tyres that we’d had fitted in Thailand would not be getting much purchase in the white stuff otherwise.

A good job we did really, to get past many of the stricken cars, and to avoid oncoming vehicles it was often necessary to dive off the two ‘tramlines’, and into the deeper snow.

Going was really slow, with many trucks blocking the road at points, but we did eventually start descending again after the 4500 meter(ish) pass. Thinking the worst was behind us, we stopped for a leisurely lunch.

Not long after, it was clear that the road that followed along the valley floor had suffered badly in the 2008 earthquake that had devastated the region. In the road’s place was 120km of dirt track and rocks, and even though some short sections or tarmac remained, it still took a good few hours to reach the main Chengdu highway. Some of the tunnels were still in use, but were particularly nasty since they lacked any lighting or a consistent road surface, and it was obvious that sections of the ceiling had tumbled down previously.

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Not a nice view through the windscreen

The Land Cruiser crew were in the process of ticking off any Unesco site that they could visit, as a kind of personal challenge – and not far from the highway was some kind of earthworks that were used back in the day to direct a water supply towards Chengdu. We were not so keen on handing over yet more money for a tourist attraction, so instead walked around the old town that was just outside the entrance. It’s not clear how genuinely old the town was, but if we didn’t find out, then we couldn’t be disappointed – it looked nice either way.

We got to town late, but that may have been a blessing, since we’d missed the worst of the rush hour traffic – And China’s 4th largest city certainly had potential to hold us up if it put its mind to it.

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2 thoughts on “Fine China 1: 7 days near Tibet

  1. Wonderful photos. You have a good eye for a spectacular shot
    So many adventures. Nothing can phase you now.
    We love the blog.

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