What a day it turned out to be, no-one at the border to meet us? 1 Hour negotiating with Chinese border guards telling them we had the right permits and paperwork. (our guide had not turned up) We were not able to understand nor able to read which permit was for what. The Guards gave up after 1 hour and we could proceed to checkpoint number 2 (next border post)
Lucky our guide was there and after 10 minutes we could proceed to border post number 3 around 2 hour’s drive away. In Bishkek we stocked up with meat, fresh fruit and vegetables etc. However, after our car was checked thoroughly at border post one and two we were told that at border post number three quarantine also wanted to have a look in our truck and all meat, dairy and fresh vegetable products had to be handed in! YOU ARE KIDDING ME, we have just spent 2 weeks budget to cover the remote areas of Western China and Tibet as the agent told us food would be scarce! We will hide it! The guide said no you can`t we said yes, we will as our hidden compartments will never be found. Check point number 3 became another search by customs, however 2 hours later we could leave for
Kashgar. Two more Police check points and we arrived I Kashgar late that evening. Next day we had to drive back 45 km to do our vehicle check, this time our guide and a fixer came with us. After the vehicle check it was time to get my Chinese Driver’s license. No need for me to be present? And one hour later our fixer came back with our new number plates and my Chinese license. Another day gone.
KASHGAR & WESTERN TIBET
At last we were ready to explore China. It did not take long to realize that I am not the only one who obtained my license like this as the driving in China is a matter of EVERYTHING GOES and having a large truck makes a difference. A lesson we learned while in China last year. Kashgar was an important town on the famous Silk Road and today it still plays an important part in trade between China, Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, we missed the Sunday Market but at 500USD per day for the privilege of driving through China I wanted to spend this money wisely and waiting for a market was not on the agenda, however we are told it is colour full and the live animal market is a must?
Having seen lots of live animal markets in the last 4 years travelling we left town after filling up with fuel. It was only a week ago that the town had terrible riots with one police officer and 28 suspected terrorists killed. This year several deadly clashes have occurred in Xinjiang amid continued tensions between ethnic Han and the large Uygur population in the western autonomous region. A violent attack on April 15 in Maralbexi county, which is also under Kashgar rule, left 15 people dead, according to official data. Another 27 were killed in clashes in Shanshan County in Turpan prefecture in June. Next stop Yecheng. During this drive we learned that our guide had a very poor GPS system on his I phone so we decided to show him our hidden GPS and our hidden Panasonic Toughbook with complete China maps on it. After he just had been telling us that in China they can`t get GPS locations he was surprised we could.
He did freak out and we had to hide this equipment at every police or army check point. Yecheng was also an important stop on the Silk Road and for us it was the start of the Highway 219 towards the far south west of Tibet. But not before (YOU GUESSED IT) another police check and registration. This one took 7 hours: reason we were told the registration office was closed from 1 to 4PM. After we turned up at 4PM we were told it was closed the whole day!! After the usual negotiating and arguing an officer arrived at 5.30PM to put his stamp on the paperwork. Yecheng has a Uigher majority that is even visible in the town centre despite an increasing Chinese population.
That night we asked permission to camp on land belonging to the local nomads and had our first experience with the local population. It was a night we will never forget. In all yesterday’s driving was a little boring but from now on it was completely different as we started to climb the Tibetan Plateau. Small villages are now few and far between but when we arrived in Mazar, we arrived at the same time as the Chinese Army just returning from duty near the Pakistan Border. Mazar is a mix of wood and card box houses and restaurants most that cater for the Chinese soldiers in the area.
I will not describe the toilets to you but just be assured you have never seen anything like it (nor smelled it before) Having said all the above we had a good time with the soldiers; they even allowed us to take photos of them and the Chinese version of the Hummer and I even tried on the army clothing. (This was to the absolute disgrace of our tour guide. He now becomes the “spy” as he had no knowledge of the area at all). We started to climb further and the next town of any significance was Dahongliutan.
This is located near Xinjiang’s border with the Tibet Autonomous Region. The Tibet Autonomous Region is located on the Tibetan Plateau, the highest region on earth. In northern Tibet elevations reach an average of over 4,572 metres (15,000ft). Mount Everest is located on Tibet’s border with Nepal. The population of Tibet is approx. 2 million people and is the least densely populated area of the People Republic of China.
Within the People’s Republic of China, Tibet is identified with the Autonomous Region. The Tibet Autonomous Region is the second-largest province-level division of China by area, spanning over 1,200,000 square kilometres (460,000 square miles).
However, we are not so sure how autonomous Tibet really is, we believe it is very much controlled by the Chinese government. The Chinese army is around everywhere, complete with armoured personnel carriers complete with loaded heavy machine guns and tanks. Quite clearly, they have no intention of allowing anything to get out of control. Roadblocks, passport checks and license check are a real pain. With an average of only 2 people per square kilometer the Tibet Autonomous Region has the lowest population density among any of the Chinese provinces. The Tibetan population is around 3 million.
The ethnic Tibetans, comprising 92.8% of the population, mainly adhere to Tibetan Buddhism. The remaining are Muslim, Christian and small tribal groups. Tibetans are very concerned about their area being flooded by Chinese immigrants, to alter Tibet’s demographic makeup. It is only 30 years since a western tourist could visit Tibet. This time we passed Duma on the foot of Tanggula Mountain.
The main activity here is Yak farming. However, coal- iron, chromium, iron, copper, zinc, antimony, molybdenum, gold dust, rock gold, borax, platinum, silver, rock crystal, jade, mica, salt, oil, are found here. Sofar highway 219 has been very good with lots of perfect tarmac. But as everywhere else you must be constantly aware, as good roads have many large and deep potholes without any warning. As we were driving towards Lake Manasarovar we saw a great mass of black rock soaring over 7000 meters high. This was Mt Kailash which according to our guide (spy) was the holiest mountain in the world. But also, the least visited. He told us it was a sacred site of 3 religions and billions of people. (Buddhism-Jainism and Hinduism)
Next on the list was Lake Manasarovar, one of the clearest lakes without any pollution in the world. Hindus think it is a personification of purity, and he who drinks water from the lake is believed to be cleansed of all his sins committed over even a hundred lifetimes. Lake Manasarovar is branded as the crystal holy lake with a few monasteries on its shores. The most notable one is the ancient Chiu Gompa Monastery, which has been built right onto a steep hill. As we arrived in this area via an off-road track we missed the toll gate. However, it did not take long before we were spotted and were asking to pay to visit the lake? We did not want to pay for visiting the lake hence we were sent back, not before having enjoyed the spectacular views of Lake Manasarovar.
Tibet lies between the core areas of the ancient civilizations of China and of India. Extensive mountain ranges to the east of the Tibetan Plateau mark the border with China, and the towering Himalayas of Nepal and India form a barrier between Tibet and India. Tibet is nicknamed “the roof of the world” or “the land of snows”. After we left Lake Manasavour we followed Highway 219, first stop Zhongba the largest county in Tibet. Zhongba has a population of 18,000 and covers 43,594 square kilometres. It suffered an Earthquake of 6.8 on the Richter scale on 30 August 2008. Although it left a 10km crack in a north-south direction no one was reported as injured.
Next came Saga yet another town full of Army who patrol the whole length of the Tibet-Nepalese border. Saga lies at an altitude of 4640 meters. Saga is also an important stop-off point for pilgrims and tourists on the way to visiting Mount Kailash. Next was Shigatse the second largest city in Tibet. At last we have come down below 4000 meters. The city is located at an altitude of 3,840 meters. It was here that we saw the first western tourist. Most are here for the huge Tashilhunpo Monastery, founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, the First Dalai Lama. Shigatse is a prosperous Buddhism city and it is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama. Tashihunpo Monastery built in 1447 is the most attractive building. It lies in the northwest of the city. The shining golden roofs and bright red walls contribute to the holy and magnificent atmosphere and its stately form can be seen from even tens of kilometres away. This monastery houses the world’s largest copper Buddha figure which is decorated with numerous luxurious jewels. Next was the Palkhor Monastery in Gyantse, the best-preserved landowner’s manor in Tibet. The furnishings and decorations in this manor illustrate the luxurious lifestyle of the nobility. Dzong Fortress on the famous cliff can be seen from the Palkhor monastery located in the centre of Gyangtse. It is about 125 meters (410 feet) high and has an altitude of 4,020 meters. Tibetan history is focused on the history of Buddhism. This is partly due to the role this religion has played in the development of Tibetan, Mongol, and Manchu cultures, and partly because almost all native historians of the country were Buddhist monks. The destruction of most of Tibet’s more than 6,000 monasteries occurred between 1959 and 1961. During the mid-1960s, the monastic estates were broken up and secular education introduced. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards inflicted a campaign of organized vandalism against cultural sites in the entire Peoples Republic of China, including Tibet’s Buddhist heritage. According to at least one Chinese source, only a handful of the religiously or culturally most important monasteries remained without major damage, and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed, tortured or imprisoned. Following the Lhasa uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in 1959, the government of India accepted the Tibetan refugees. India designated land for the refugees in the mountainous region of Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile are now based.
The capital city of Tibet. This was the place where we got rid of our guide (spy) and replaced him with a Tibetan guide. Jimmy our new guide was an absolute professional guide, however he did not want to get involved in any political talk. Tibetan history, as it has been recorded, is particularly focused on the history of Buddhism in Tibet.
This is partly due to the pivotal role this religion has played in the development of Tibetan, Mongol, and Manchu cultures, and partly because almost all native historians of the country were Buddhist monks. We realized in the previous weeks our previous guide was unable to communicate with the Tibetan`s. The reason for this the Tibetan dialects are very different from Chinese. Lhasa in Tibet, many people dream about this city. Lhasa is situated at 3650 meters. For us this was low altitude after having spent 15 days between 4300 and 5700 meters.
However, for tourists who fly into Lhasa this comes with some adjusting and some altitude sickness. In the Tibetan language, Lhasa means the Holy Land or the Buddha Land. There are 3 major tourist attractions in Lhasa. Potala Palace remains a world-famous symbol of the enigmatic power of politics and religion in this region. Barkhor Street is a very ancient street circling Jokhang Temple, and the Jokhang Temple. Potala Palace, situated on the Red Hill of central Lhasa is the highest ancient palace in the world, reaching 3,767.19m at the top of the hill. Potala Palace is composed of 2 parts, the Red Palace as the centre and the White Palace as two wings. The Red Palace or Potrang Marpo is the highest part in the centre that is completely devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer. The White Palace or Potrang Karpo once served as the office building of the Tibet local government.
The top one is the living quarters of the Dalai Lama consisting of two parts named the East Chamber of Sunshine and the West Chamber of Sunshine due to the plentiful sunshine. In Barkhor Street, thousands of pilgrims walk this street holding prayer wheels walking clockwise from dawn to dark. Others progressing body length by body length along the street. Many have experienced thousands of miles’ walk to reach this sacred place. The way they express their piety could make you understand the holiness of religion. For us a place full of religious atmosphere and a world of exotic articles. Jokhang Temple, built in the year 647 attracks thousands of Buddhist Pilgrims. Included on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 2000 as part of the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple is in the old part of Lhasa. It is the ultimate pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Pilgrims. The amazing Potala Palace made us wonder how much was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution? The destruction of most of Tibet’s more than 6,000 monasteries occurred between 1959 and 1961. During the mid-1960s, the monastic estates were broken up and secular education introduced. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards inflicted a campaign of organized vandalism against cultural sites in the entire Peoples Republic of China, including Tibet’s Buddhist heritage. Only a handful of the religiously or culturally most important monasteries remained without major damage, and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed, tortured or imprisoned.
Following the Lhasa uprising and the Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet in 1959, the government of India accepted the Tibetan refugees. India designated land for the refugees in the mountainous region of Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile are now based. No doubt in my mind tension is high in Tibet and not everyone is very happy with the many newcomers (Chinese immigrants) into Tibet. Riots flared up again in 2008, and many ethnics were attacked in the riot, their shops vandalized or burned. The Chinese government reacted swiftly, imposing curfews and strictly limiting access to Tibetan areas. While driving in Tibet we wondered why we saw so many houses with Chinese flags. Before we entered Tibet, we have been keeping a close eye on Radio Free Asia as like other overlanders we were worried about border closures. Below I have copied one of the incidents that occurred while we were in Tibet.
“On Sept. 27, thousands of Chinese government officials and workers arrived in Nagchu to force monasteries and families in the area “to raise the Chinese national flag on every house”, an area resident told RFA`s Tibetan Service on Tuesday. Tibetans in some villages refused to comply, and clashed with officials and the police. Since 2008, the Chinese authorities have launched TAR-wide campaigns to force Tibetans to show loyalty to the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party and government, but with no success. A total of 122 Tibetans has also set themselves ablaze in self-immolation protests calling for Tibetan freedom, with another six Tibetans setting fire to themselves in India and Nepal.” For more info Radio Free Asia.
LHASA to NEPAL BORDER
After 3 days Lhasa we left and drove towards the Himalayan Mountains, Mt Everest and the border to Nepal, enroute we visited Sakya Monastery. The locals named the palace ‘Sakya’ which means grey soil. Sakya Monastery is famed as the ‘Second Dunhuang’ due to its colossal collection of numerous Tibetan Buddhist scriptures. According to statistics, about 40,000 volumes of scriptures are housed there. A wooden bookshelf which is about 57 meters (187 feet) long, 11 meters high (36 feet) and one meter wide (three feet) has 464 grids. More than ten thousand scriptures are housed on the shelf. Among them, the most precious is Burde Gyaimalung, which records Tibetan religion, history, philosophy, literature, agriculture and animal husbandry.
It is 1.8 meters (six feet) long, 1.3 meters (four feet) wide and 0.67 meter (two feet) thick and boasts the biggest scriptures in the world. Additionally, it also houses 21 volumes of Buddhist scriptures written on Pattra leaves in Sanskrit. Each consists of one hundred to two hundred pages and four-color illustrations. They are the most precious sutras in the world. The Main Chanting Hall is a must-see it can hold about ten thousand monks chanting sutras together. Mt Everest, in Chinese called Qomolanga, is the world’s highest National Park. The fees to enter are very high and are only affordable for the very rich or the Western traveller (Like the many other attractions in China) CNY 180 per person and we had to pay 600 CNY for our truck. (Around $200 AUD) and for this you get 120 km of rotten corrugations and the same way back. BUT a chance to see the world’s largest mountain close by. (If the weather is good!!) Its altitude is now about 8,844.43 m. At the foot of the world’s highest mountain you find the highest temple in the world, Rongbuk Monastery. (Altitude 5250m)
Located only 25 km from Mt Everest, the Rongbuk Monastery is an interesting place to visit. Nt for the history or architecture of the monastery, but the scenery of Mt. Everest seen from it.
This monastery is the highest inhabited location in the world. Mt Everest is the dominant peak of Himalayas, the area has 4 peaks above 8,000 m and 38 peaks above 7,000 m. Views are spectacular but unfortunately for us after 3 weeks of blue sky when we entered the Himalayan region the weather started to change. Lucky, we had some sunny breaks and were able to see M Everest and surrounding area from our campsite, en route to the mountain and from various other points. The top part of the mountain is covered with snow all the year round. When the glaring sun shines on the mountain, the peak is just like a white pyramid. After having spent the last 9 days around 3800 meters we ventured up to 5200 meters for the last time in Tibet. Our crossing on the Himalayans did not go as planned? It was snowing on top and pouring down rain as we came down the mountain, hence it was all downhill not just in altitude but also in the weather.
Our last stop China`s dump Zhangmu (the international border with Nepal), was a camp spot in the main street just wide enough for two cars to pass. Hence not much sleep that night. Zhangmu is easily described as the dump of China. Overnight we parked in the only street and were kept awake till at least 3 O clock while trucks tried to sneak past us. We were booked in at 11 AM to cross the border from China into Nepal. At 3.30PM all the formalities where done and it was HAND CUFFS OFF.
It was impossible to take photos in the middle of the Friendship Bridge as heavily armed Chinese border guards (with machine guns) made sure you did not. It is no wonder with all this bureaucracy that to ship Chinese goods by boat via Calcutta to China is cheaper than road transport to Tibet. Crossing into Nepal took all of 30 minutes to enter including the import of Truck and Scooter (Carnet), BUT it took around hour to clear all double-parked truck on the Nepali site.