Wuhan to Tibet

Trip Start Mar 06, 2005
Trip End ??? ??, 2006

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Monday, April 18, 2005

April 18th - 25th
Due to the shortage of train tickets we had an enforced stay in Wuhan. We found a good hotel down near the docks, settled in and then decided to explore. The weather was in the eighties and it was the weekend so the streets were packed with people. Strangely this part of Wuhan had a 'seaside' feel to it with many local families strolling around eating icecreams which helped to created a holiday atmosphere.

Having walked around the shopping area for a while we decided to head for the river bank to sit with a drink and 'people watch'. We walked up a large flight of steps and down through what we thought was a small arcade of shops, but to our surprise it led to a 'seaside promenade' which stretched as far as we could see along the bank of the river it was complete with mini beach, candyfloss stalls, and electric carts shaped like cartoon characters offering rides. There were masses of people selling kites, the sky was thick with them. Fluorescent flying pigs, long tailed dragons and huge butterflies, all of which had a dad attached at one end with trouser legs rolled up and children in tow.... how surreal!...Skegness in the middle of China!

In the evening we visited a riverside cafe for a meal and played our favourite game of 'restaurant roulette'(RR). If the staff speak no English and the menu is in Chinese you have two options, 1)point to a dish on another table you like the look of, OR 2)play 'restaurant roulette'...you get the waitress to choose something for you...so far this has worked out fine and we have had some great food! But on this occasion we 'shot ourselves'...they brought us either braised eel or snake, possibly both, as some bits had bone in and others didn't, both were submerged in a blisteringly hot sauce. However we did try some, and it was dreadful! So we opted to stuff ourselves with the accompanying rice and veg (we continue to play RR..more later).

We enjoyed our brief stay in Wuhan but it is not a 'destination' more a transport hub as there is little to see in what is a typicaly busy commercial and industrial city.

The train journey to Chengdu from Wuhan is 17 1/2 hours and having seen the 'soft seat' accomodation on previous trains we thought it would be comfortable enough as a 'one off' journey, and prefferable to staying in Wuhan until sleeper tickets became available, in another 2 days.

So began THE TRAIN RIDE FROM HELL! It had been a very hot day and the humidity continued to rise as the day wore on, by the time that we boarded our train at 5:30pm we were soaked with sweat having fought our way along the packed platform loaded down with rucksacs and food and drink for the journey. We entred our carriage at what turned out to be the wrong end, some fifty or more seats away from where we needed to be. Under normal circumstances this would'nt have been a problem but the carriage was SOLID with people and their luggage. It took us 40 minutes to reach our seats!

It is impossible to exaggerate the number of people that were in that carrige. All the normal seats were full to overflowing so people were sat on the backs of seats, the aisle was crammed full of people standing up, (you can buy 'standing' tickets) others were sat in the toilets, washroom and the gaps between carriages. Any remaining space was filled by luggage, just like a giant three dimentional puzzle! Some enterprising Chinese were selling little plastic stools for people to sit on. Just when we thought it couldnt get any worse the food trolley arrived and everyone had to move to let it down the aisle. People had to sit on others laps and hang from the luggage racks, the scene resembled a massive game of 'twister'....unbelievable! This state of affairs lasted for the first 8 1/2 hours of the journey (we sat in the feotal position with our feet on our rucksacs)until a few people got off at the first stop. Even with all the windows open the air in the carriage was stale and sticky it felt as if we had been smeared with jam and locked in an overcrowded sauna!
As the journey progressed more people got off than got on, so we had a 'normal' amount of room but it was impossible to get any sleep. Because of the amount of leg room in the seat
I found it more comfortable to stand up periodically for an hour or so through the night in the smoking area between carriages. It was here that I was approached by two young Chinese men who wanted to practice their English (I assumed). After the usual opening pleasantries and comments about how tall I was, they said, "you are very handsome" and "did I think Chinese men were good looking?".....basically they were trying to 'chat me up! I diplomatically explained that my wife was sat in the next carriage but this didn't deter them "you must be very strong" they continued, asking if they could touch the hairs on my arms (most chinese are not hairsute). After 1/2 an hour of similar 'complements' interspersed with chatter between them in Chinese (about me) people around started to stare at the three of us. Obviously I dont know what they said about me but it certainly turned heads. They eventually moved on...in search of an easier date? On returning to my seat I told Jane about my 'encounter' and she laughed so much she couldn't breath! The people sat with us must have thought she was having a seizure.

Finally we arrived back in Chengdu... totally knackered, sticky and desperate for the comforts of our hostel. We spent the remainder of the day booking flights to Tibet and generally recovering from our ordeal.

The flight to Lhasa lasts 1 hour and 20 mins and takes you over 1,300 KM of spectacular mountain scenery covering western Sichuan and ultimately to the heights of the Tibetan Plateau. From the plane window we could see small valley communities based around patches of green in an otherwise brown / beige landscape amidst snow capped mountains. A great way to arrive in Lhasa, a place I have always longed to visit.

Lhasa airport is an ultra modern smoked glass and steel building rather incongruously plonked in the 'middle of nowhere'(Gongkhar in reality) which is 93 KM from Lhasa itself. It takes two hours on the airport bus (35RMB) to reach the centre of the city. Due more to the terrain and other 'traffic' rather than the distance. On leaving the airport we had to re-adjust our sense of scale to accommodate the grandeur of the mountains towering over the huge valley that was spread out before us, with only small farm buildings to give any sense of perspective.

The route we took traced a 'J' shape along the valley crossing over the river Kyichu en route. At first the road hugs the valley floor where it meets the steeply rising mountains that create it, with the river running along the opposite side of the road. As our route twisted and turned we passed pilgrims making their way to Lahsa, by continually prostrating themselves on the ground, dressed in leather aprons with wadding tied to their knees and small wooden disks clasped in their hands to protect them from the terrain along which they continually 'slide'.

The traditional houses we passed were square in shape, single storey and built of mud and stone with a walled 'back yard' containing fuel for the fire (dried cakes of Yak dung) and a variety of livestock. All had tiny windows with painted shutters that were trimmed with cloth 'frills' and carved wooden surrounds. As we passed by we could see Yaks being herded on the lower slopes of the mountains. Further towards Lhasa we were amazed to see 'Coracle' type boats being used on the river these were made of animal skin stretched over a lattice work of thin branches... like a giant woven basket.

The road itself was choked with traffic, mainly lorries carrying rock, stone or general construction materials and the occasional donkey cart. All along the route much construction was underway not least the major new rail line which will eventually link China directly with Tibet. The most surprising building site was what appeared to be a group of 'holiday chalets' which resembled bright white toilet blocks with large tinted windows set in a walled area planted with hundreds of trees and a manmade lake! The last thing you'd expect to see in Tibet especially considering the Tibetan plateau stands at an average altitude of 4,500 metres!

The surrounding mountain sides are scarred with small quarries were the stone for all this construction is taken from, and these were accompanied by numerous Budhist shrines that were placed in the most inaccessible locations festooned with prayer flags and brightly coloured painted icons.

The drive in to Lhasa was a strange mix of the traditional and the very modern, not what we had expected. On arriving in Lhasa we headed for our chosen hostel the Banakshol (a good choice...large clean rooms with comfy beds, freindly staff and a hot shower). It was about now that I started to feel unwell. The symptoms began with a slight dizzy feeling and nausea accompanied by the onset of a violently pounding headache,(akin to the worst hangover you've ever had!) Jane on the other hand was totally unaffected and said she felt fine! We dumped our bags and despite my symptoms we decided to explore more of the city.

Lhasa itself is just like any other provincial Chinese city in appearance, it has about 200,000 inhabitants and the Chinese actually outnumber the tibetans 2 to 1. There is the usual mix of shops and restaurants offering everything from walking gear to Yak burgers (which are very tasty!). We made our way to the Barkhor area which is a maze of cobbled backstreets lined with small shops and stalls where a mixture of tourist trinkets and more mundane goods like saddles, stirrups and Chinese army surplus kit are sold. We also wandered in to the Tromzikhang indoor market, the whole area had an overwhelming smell (literally) of Yak Butter which was stacked up in vast quantities and is used by the Tibetans for everything from making tea to fuelling lamps.

We eventually found ourselves stood in a large paved square resembling a pedestrianised shopping precinct complete with a Dico's fast food restaurant (a chinese version of Mc Donalds!).
On the squares western edge stands the Johkang the most venerated Bhuddist site in Tibet, and the destination of the pilgrims we saw on the drive in. The frontage is rather unprepossessing, a solid looking white walled building with stout windows framed by black borders the only hint at it's importance are the three Golden figures on its roof and the large wooden doors studded with metal bosses at its main entrance. In front stand two large incense burners filling the surrounding area with juniper smoke. We briefly ventured into a small courtyard near the main entrance were we caught some young monks throwing small glass marbles at each other(at a feirce pace)and attempting to catch them in their mouths! They obviously thought it was great fun, but it looked bloody painful to me.

Pilgrims follow a traditional clockwise route around the Barkhor to the entrance of the Johkang where they can be seen at certain times of the day repeatedly prostrating themselves on the ground along the length of the front wall. The clacking of their wooden hand protectors as they 'hit' the ground creates a continual background noise.
Milling around in the square is a mixture of tourists (Chinese and western) decked out in goretex and hiking boots and a selection of locals in more traditional dress. The current fashion accssessory for the women seems to be large wedding style hats complete with flowers formed from 'white netting', in stark contrast to their heavy long grey dresses covered by neat calf length aprons. Many carried small 'rattle' like prayer wheels which they continually spun as they walked.
The older men wear heavy wrap-around jackets tied with colouful belts and their hat of choice is the felt Trilby, thousands of which are on sale from stalls in the Barkhor. The Tibetans reminded us of the Mongolians we had seen in Ulan Bator with knarled weatherbeaten faces and all those we encountered where very freindly and always flashed a broad smile on meeting us.
By this time we had been walking around for 3 or 4 hours and my symptoms had become gradually worse to the point where I had to sit down to rest every 1/2 mile or so on the walk back to our hostel. We had anticipated the need to acclimatise and had planned for two or three days just mooching around before properly exploring Lhasa and some of the more remote Monasteries in the surrounding area. However, I hadn't expected to feel so ill, in sharp contrast to Jane who seemed to be unaffected by the altitude.

Jane commented that at nearly six feet five inches tall I should be used to 'Altitude' but as the evening wore on I started to feel dreadful and just climbing the stairs to our second floor room left me feeling dizzy, sick and breathless! I had a sleepless first night and Jane actually became quite worried about my condition (pounding headache and blue lips!) "give it a couple of days and you'll be OK", said Jane. So I did...but after 2 days in bed with little sleep, and virtually nothing to eat I felt even worse! So we made the decision to book some flights back to Chengdu ASAP.
Our original plan was to spend 9 days in and around Lhasa then fly south to the small mountain village of Zhongdian (Deqin) and trek through 'Tiger Leaping Gorge' making our way to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan province in SW China) via Lijiang and Dali. But in my condition we couldn't risk it (and I couln't physically have done it) so we reluctantly decided to return to Chengdu and then catch a train directly to Kunming.

Jane returned to our hostel having managed to get flight tickets to Chengdu for the following day, and guess what....Later in the day I started to feel much better (Sods Law!), so I decided to make one last effort (even if it killed me) to see some more of Lhasa before we retreated. That evening we visited the Johkang again but this time ventured inside joining a hundred or so 'worshipers'. First walking clockwise around the outer corridors spinning hundreds of prayer wheels as we passed and then into the main 'cathederal' (Tshughaklang). Incredible...what an atmosphere! The monks decked in red and ochre robes sat cross legged in a central enclosure chanting their mantras underneath a massive statue of the Buddah. Several smaller shrines (that managed to survive the cultural revolution) were arranged around the surrounding passageway all had worshipers making personal offerings their heads bowed in reverence. The air was thick with incense and at every turn more statues could be seen draped with colouful brocade, jewels and surrounded by Yak Butter lamps.

We may have been forced to leave Tibet early but at least I had witnessed this wonderful monastic atmosphere and heard Buddhist chanting in its homeland! This helped to sweeten the bitter disappointment I felt at having to miss many of the Tibetan highlights I had long wanted to experience.

On the Day we left I felt..OK...but still unwell. The best I could manage was a short walk from the bus station to look at the Potala Palace a massive and imposing building (13 storeys and over 1,000 rooms) perched on top of Marpo Li (red mountain) near the main entrance to Lhasa. It's whitewashed walls gleaming in the bright sunlight another enduring mental picture to take away with me.

We boarded our plane and within minutes of being airborne I felt...normal, no more pounding headaches...the relief was indescribable.

Hopefully when we reach Nepal (gradually this time we're not flying in) I will get to experience more of the Himalayas without the altitude sickness (fingers crossed).

Next stop Kunming.....be in touch soon, Meandher.
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