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Tibet: Getting there is half the fun


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last summer, we fulfilled a long-held ambition to travel to Tibet. In our case, it was third time lucky. We had come close to booking a trip there in 2011, but decided it was too extreme for our first overseas cycle tour. The following year, our plans were thwarted by David Cameron's handshake with the Dalai Lama, which didn't go down well in Beijing's corridors of power. Travel restrictions were imposed making it all but impossible for British nationals to enter Tibet. The rules were officially relaxed in April 2013, and four months later we were on a plane to Lhasa.

Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Even before setting foot on Tibetan soil, it had lived up to its reputation as a difficult place for travellers. The Chinese government may have eased the visa restrictions, but entry requirements for foreigners can change on a whim and tight controls are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Over the years, many intrepid travellers have tried to bend or break the rules to enter Tibet. Most fail, but those who succeed usually have a good story to tell afterwards. As this blog will hopefully demonstrate, you can even spin a decent yarn if you follow the official procedures.

Our Tibetan tour was the first leg of a month-long trip to China, the second leg being a cycle tour in Yunnan province. With 10 days set aside, we had time enough to venture beyond Lhasa to other parts of Tibet. (The photographs that accompany the blog are from in and around Lhasa). This would seem entirely natural to you and me, but Chinese bureaucrats are sensitive to strange folk wandering around their far-flung provinces and impose a whole series of tiresome rules and conditions.

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

Firstly, we would need to secure the services of a licensed guide, who would accompany us every step of the way. The guide would also help to arrange our travel documents with the Tibet Tourism Bureau. The Bureau issue a Tibet Permit to all travellers and an Alien Permit to those travelling beyond Lhasa. (Being labelled an alien in Tibet makes UKIP's immigration policy look broad-minded.) On top of this, we were responsible for obtaining our Chinese visas.

The visa application system involved a certain degree of subterfuge, because we had been advised not to mention Tibet on the visa form. So for the purposes of obtaining the visa we devised an alternative itinerary, listing every night's accommodation, which sounded wonderful but was complete fantasy. Rumours vary as to how thoroughly this would be checked. Some people even go as far as booking the first few hotels only to cancel them once they receive their visas, but we decided to chance our luck, and it worked.

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

With guide, visas and permits all arranged, the final hurdle was getting in. Tibet's land borders, both domestic and international, are typically closed to foreigners, so most people circumvent this problem by flying in. With the exception of a seasonal service from Nepal, there are no international flights to Tibet, so flying from anywhere outside China involves a transfer at a Chinese airport and a domestic flight. We chose Chongqing, not for its beauty as a stopover destination, but because it's a relatively central hub with good value international flights and good connections to both Tibet and Yunnan.
Chongqing, with a population of 30 million, has been christened the biggest city you've never heard of. Its heavy industry and coal-fired power plants also make it one of the most polluted cities in the world. When the writer Simon Winchester reached Chongqing on his journey up the Yangtze, he described the air as "usually like that of Leeds or Dundee in Victorian times, with a sharp smell of half-burned coal gas, rust, scorched tin and dirt." In other words, not somewhere you would wish to spend any longer than necessary. With that in mind, we arranged our onward travel to Tibet the same day our international flight arrived, a decision which almost came back to haunt us.

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

The system seems to rely on foreigners spending at least one night somewhere else in China before entering Tibet. This allows the necessary permits, which must be produced at the point of entry, to be forwarded to your Chinese hotel ready for you to collect on arrival. Furthermore, if you are flying into Tibet, you need to present the original permit at check-in – a copy will not suffice. After a series of protracted email exchanges in broken English with various Tibetan tour agencies, we found one that assured us they could take the highly unusual step of arranging for a courier to deliver the permits into our hands at Chongqing airport's domestic terminal, in the six-hour window between flights. Our entire holiday hinged on us trusting that this one individual, who we had never dealt with before, would present him- or herself at the right place and the right time with the right documents. What could possibly go wrong?

The prearranged time of 11 o'clock came and went. My palms were going sweaty, and I had visions of our Tibetan dream slowly evaporating, to be replaced by a Chongqing nightmare. I made eye contact with a woman as she entered the building. She approached me directly and we exchanged greetings. I couldn't tell you what she looked like or what she was wearing, because I was completely focussed on the big envelope tucked under her arm. Our permits had arrived! Wide-eyed and trembling, I snatched them uncontrollably from her hands and cried "Myyy preccciiiouussss!" in a creepy, lustful voice. Or something like that.

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

We brandished the permits at check in, and were waved through to departures. At security, there was a problem. Uniformed officials gathered, frowning. We showed the permits again, and the officials immediately relaxed and ushered us through. After repeating this ritual several more times - there is definitely no way of boarding a plane without the Tibet Permit - we finally made it onto the aircraft, much to our relief.

The Chongqing to Lhasa leg takes just under three hours. Somewhere below us was the middle of nowhere. Thick cloud cover obscured most of the views, but occasionally we were granted glimpses of towering peaks, awesome glaciers and long valleys that disappeared into the distance. These were the Hengduan Mountains of western China, which eventually gave way to the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. The final descent into Lhasa airport was memorable, the plane sweeping low into the wide Yarlung Tsangpo valley, turning sharply over a pinnacled ridge and aiming for the runway, dwarfed by the mighty river alongside.

It had been a day of drama, and now our Tibetan adventure could finally begin!

The Hengduan Mountains from the air

The Hengduan Mountains from the air


The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:01 Archived in China Tagged planes tibet visas Comments (0)

A fitting finale to a tour of the Jinsha Jiang

On the road in Yunnan

sunny 30 °C

After nine days of cycling with Painted Roads from Shangri-La to Dali, the legs weren't quite finished. We had completed 720km on our bicycles, winding through the valleys and gorges of the Jinsha Jiang (Yangtze to you and I) and thought that perhaps our legs and our livers had had enough. But it only took a day's rest and revival, including sustenance from Cafe 88, a few light Dali's and a squint at Google Maps to realise how wrong we were. And so it was on a grey drizzly morning, strangely reminiscent of The Peak, that our panniers were packed with Chinese Army biscuits, bread and cheese, spare innertubes and a change of clothes, and we were off down the main road out of Dali old town. After a send-off breakfast at Cafe 88, we had said goodbye to our friends David and Echo, and crucially the Painted Roads back up bus....we were now on our own.

Our destination was Lijiang: the missing link in our Yunnan tour. Our plan was to reach Lijiang, unscathed, in three days. Our route would wind its way north, crossing the Yangtze river a further two times (we had previously crossed the river after Tiger Leaping Gorge near Shigu). After 80km our first night would be in the sprawling town of Binchuan, followed by a further 90km to Chenghai Lake the following day, finishing up with a rather challenging 120km stretch to Lijiang, including a 30km, 1600m climb.

It was an inauspicious start. A drizzly cycle lane took us along the main highway out of Dali. The occasional veg van had been skillfully parked for maximum inconvenience and the puddles were making mincemeat of my freshly and expensively laundered cycling gear. As we made our way down the road, I wondered if all recces of Painted Roads tours at some point started out like this? After 10km, Chris made the executive decision to turn off. A more scenic route was required. A swift left turn led us down a wide avenue towards Erhai Lake and straight into the howls, yelps, and barks of 100s of puppies: we had happened upon the Sunday Dali Dog Market. Fortunately this wasn't the sort of market to be found in Vietnam. These perfectly groomed puppies weren't for the pot, but came in all shapes and sizes: old English Sheep Dogs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Labradors. These lucky creatures, as we routinely observed, were destined for the Chinese household; that's to say, on guard in the front yard, snoozing outside the odd hotel, and, depending on size, decorating the odd handbag. This was to be an entertaining diversion from what turned out to be a pretty hideous exit from the 'arse-end' of Dali. The one scenic spot of the day was to be found outside the main Cement Works to the south east of the city, the scale of which was in proportion to the rate of construction in (destruction of?) China i.e. massive. Our arrival was predicated on the in-hailing of dust, diesel fumes, dirt and God-knows-what-else from a heavily truck-laden road which we thought would be a handy short cut around the Airport...No amount of altitude training can prepare the lungs for this kind of enslaught.

A fluffy friend: not destined for the pot

A fluffy friend: not destined for the pot

A scenic stop at the Cement Works

A scenic stop at the Cement Works

Happily, after crossing a small pass, the cycling was easy going, and eased our legs into what was a greater physical challenge on the bikes with the extra gear we were carrying. The town of Binchuan turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and gave us a very real, bustling insight into China. We eventually managed to locate a hotel, and a fantastic street restaurant for dinner which served us dumplings, eggs and tomato, fried beans and cold beer. Our air-conditioned room (a first for the trip) was located opposite a busy street market selling the unlikely combination of fresh fruit and veg, and underwear. We stuck to the fruit.

The fruit section, Binchuan Market

The fruit section, Binchuan Market

Day Two saw us undulate out of Binchuan on the 220 towards our first crossing of the Yangtze since Tiger Leaping Gorge. As it happened, we weren't too sure exactly what we were crossing at the time...we were cycling on a newly constructed bridge for a newly constructed road which skirted a recently flooded valley for yet another hydro-electric scheme. As we cycled along the water, it was apparent that the valley was still in the process of flooding, and the houses were still taking the shape of the new town on the far side of the water. It was probably the Yangtze.

Probably crossing the Yangtze

Probably crossing the Yangtze

Our second day in the saddle was turning into an increasingly impressive ride, on a non-too-busy road which ended in us turning off to cycle up the left-hand side of Chenghai Lake. The lake, which is famous for being one of the few places in the world where Spirulina can be grown, was glimmering beautifully in the evening light. A large sign which read "Chenghai Lake Village Holiday Resort: 14km" promised a welcoming end to a scenic day. Instructions from David and Joss 'It's the tallest building in town, you can't miss it" proved worthy, and while the hotel was clearly being refurbished on the ground floor, the lakeside restaurant ensured sufficient distance was put between us and the drilling and sawdust, and ran a reliable line in cold beer.

Brooding skies over Chenghai Lake

Brooding skies over Chenghai Lake

Evening light on Chenghai Lake

Evening light on Chenghai Lake

Rain on the far side of the lake delivers

Rain on the far side of the lake delivers

Cold beer: a must after a hot day on the bike

Cold beer: a must after a hot day on the bike

It turned out that my celebrity status had also reached these parts from Lhasa as my beer was unceremoniously interrupted once more for another photograph with some Chinese tourists. Sadly my Mandarin wasn't up to the task of pointing out that blonde hair and blue eyes can be easily obtained over the counter these days.

Day Three: the big one. With 120kms including a 30km / 1,600m climb we thought it wise to get on the bikes early. At not quite the crack of 8am we donned our helmets and set off down the lake on empty stomachs in search of breakfast. We were soon rewarded in the local market at the end of the lake with some noodle soup and steamed bread; but not before consuming all of our early start in photo stops. The morning light was exceptional, the views stunning. A stiff climb out of the bowl of the lake brought us to a fabulous downhill, interrupted only by some chilli plantations and some serious landscape gardening. An enormous tree being manoevered onto a truck which straddled the road stopped us neatly in our tracks. Fortunately we quickly realised we could scoot underneath the branches and past the developing queue of cars and tractors, without waiting for Christmas. We were subsequently passed by the very same tree, hurtling up the switchbacks at around 30km/h on the major climb out of the Yangtze Valley while we had stopped to inhale some Army biscuits. The ride continued in glorious fashion, undulating through rice paddies until we entered a narrow and spectacular gorge which eventually lead us to our third crossing of the Yangtze River.

Back on the road in beautiful light

Back on the road in beautiful light

Locals at the morning market

Locals at the morning market

Morning sunshine on Chenghai Lake

Morning sunshine on Chenghai Lake

A dramatic gorge leads us down to the Yangtze River

A dramatic gorge leads us down to the Yangtze River

At 1pm we stopped our bikes before the bridge and contemplated the view: the blue waters of the Yangtze merging with its brown tributary; the mouth watering line up of Pepsi, Fanta and mineral water at a roadside stall; and a towering wall of switchbacks marking the start of a very long afternoon. We delayed the inevitable for a few more minutes. Our 30km of up would be in the heat of the day starting at around 1,300m, and finishing at 2,700m. The data from our cycle computers at the end of the day showed us averaging about 11km/h on the climb, but we had to stop every 10kms to scrape off the salt, reapply sunscreen, take photos, drink and refuel.

Delaying tactics

Delaying tactics

It was an absolutely spectacular climb: one of the toughest, but most scenic of the tour. The road took us along the edge of a precipitous valley and up onto an intermediate plateau. As we gained height, we passed villages hidden from view in the sky, we then rounded a large bend into a second valley, more Alpine in feel. Down in the valley floor appeared to be another section of the Yangtze River, with a dam at one end. The road wound its way up through Eucalyptus trees sprouting from the red earth, vegetation we had encountered previously on the approach to Shaxi. We then entered one last gorge, the final approach to Kilometre 22, the "top" of the pass.

The start of the 30km climb up from the Yangtze

The start of the 30km climb up from the Yangtze

A snack stop with a view

A snack stop with a view

Precipitous hills along the Yangtze River Valley

Precipitous hills along the Yangtze River Valley

A safety feature provides a good photographic standpoint

A safety feature provides a good photographic standpoint

Reaching the "top" of pass #1

Reaching the "top" of pass #1

Kilometre 22 turned out to be the top of pass number 1. The road then lead out onto a green and mountainous plateau at 2,600m. Freewheeling down the "other side" at this stage did not appear to be a plausible option for forward movement. After several kilometres, a minor undulation of 2-3km loomed ahead, and finally brought us to the top of the hill. We only had a further 16km to cycle to reach Lijiang, but they were 16 beautiful and "free" kilometres: the reward for four hours of climbing, two army biscuits, two litres of Pepsi, two Fantas, several litres of water, and innumerable photo stops. It had been an epic day already, but it wasn't to be complete without a minor detour around Lijiang's newly constructed outer ring road courtesy of IPhone battery failure at the crucial moment. Some slightly desperate but successful deciphering of our Yunnan map, and correlation with Chinese signage by Chris brought us to Lijiang Old Town. A final test of character took us through the evening maze of alleyways to find Mama Naxi's guesthouse at the heart of the Old Town.

Our first glimpse of Lijiang

Our first glimpse of Lijiang

Trying to locate the map on Lijiang's outer ring road

Trying to locate the map on Lijiang's outer ring road

Lijiang rooftops

Lijiang rooftops

It was a beautiful place to finish, and a perfect end to a fabulous tour. Mama Naxi's guesthouse welcomed us from our hot and sticky selves with a cold and sticky bun each and some deep fried beans. We'd found our way to a guest house where friendship was dealt out in a peaceful setting, with the most comfortable bed I had slept on in a month, a hot shower and a heafty portion of free food. Apart from a cold beer, what more could two hungry cyclists wish for?

As a footnote to this, we celebrated having survived our adventure by grockling Lijiang's shops, and sinking a few glasses of red, and two towers of pasta. We later stopped for a few beers at The Forgotten Corner where live music had enticed a few discerning souls into a cozy bar where the drink, sunflower seeds and atmosphere flowed. Lijiang had offered us the perfect balance of old streets and western comforts required to recover from a tough few days on the bike. The following day we took the bus back to Dali and were welcomed back by David and Echo in traditional Walker style, with a fabulous meal, a beer or three, a Paojio or two, which resulted in a rather splendid but squiffy night out: none of us could pursue a forward direction in a straight line afterwards!

What a fitting toast to a tour of the undulations of Yunnan and the meanders of the Jinsha Jiang.

The Forgotten Corner

The Forgotten Corner

Lijiang Old Town at night

Lijiang Old Town at night

Posted by jparsons 09:05 Archived in China Tagged landscapes china cycling Comments (0)

In pursuit of the perfect Potala Palace picture


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Lhasa takes your breath away, quite literally as we discovered when we stepped off the plane at 3,700m. Canisters of oxygen were provided in our airport transfer car and next to the minibar in the hotel room, but being experienced in the acclimatization business we refused to succumb to their temptations. After 24 hours of suffering we were ready for Lhasa, and Lhasa was ready for us.

The Potala Palace also takes your breath away: not only for its scale (1,000 rooms, 113m high and 2m thick walls), but also for its dramatic setting and dizzying construction which make it quite unlike any other building in the world. Even seeing it for what felt like the hundredth time, our eyes were still drawn magnetically to it; such is its captivating power. Capturing this emotional response in a photograph is impossible, of course, but that didn’t stop us from trying. And so we embarked on a quest for the perfect Potala picture.

We used an early drive-by as a reconnaissance, checking out the light and shade on the Palace walls, imagining the trajectory of the sun and assessing the promising backdrop of mountain peaks. An elevated viewpoint to the south west of the Potala seemed promising, and a quick non-Google search (this is China, remember) revealed this to be King Medicine Hill. We hatched a plan to return early the following morning armed with bagfuls of camera gear.

The following morning was overcast, but undeterred, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to the viewpoint. We were dropped off some distance short – at first I thought we were about to be victims of a scam, but in fact this was as close as our rickshaw could get. Security around the Potala was tight, for this happened to be the first day of the Shoton Festival and a big show was taking place that evening in the square in front of the Palace, featuring live performances and a fireworks display. We paid 2 yuan each to climb the steps to King Medicine Hill and reeled off a few photos of the Potala under brooding skies. We knew the photos were nothing spectacular, but they were 'bankers' and might look quite effective in black and white.

Potala Palace in monochrome

Potala Palace in monochrome

The same website that had given us the name of the viewpoint also mentioned a small temple nearby which afforded another view of the Potala from a slightly different angle, so we headed there next. Events took a turn for the bizarre at this point. The temple kept two tame blue sheep (a wild species normally found at high altitudes in the Himalayas). Here was an animal I had spent many hours tracking across remote mountain slopes in India and Nepal in a vain attempt to photograph, now practically tame enough to eat out of my hand. I knelt down for an eye-level photo (at this point a pet rabbit had taken shelter under the sheep’s body, adding an even more surreal aspect to the scene). The blue sheep faced down my camera lens and charged – I had to take evasive action to avoid a head butt. Round one to the sheep, but it wasn’t finished there. Clearly thinking I was a rival worth seeing off, the sheep made repeated attacks on both me and Jen, and only by grabbing its horns could I stop it. Salvation came in the form of a friendly local, clearly highly amused by proceedings, who managed to distract the sheep with some food, allowing us to dodge into the temple. The photos of the Potala from here, it has to be said, were not really worth the effort.

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Early afternoon saw us back at King Medicine Hill with our fingers on the shutters again, this time with the Potala looking resplendent in the sunshine. We had just finished our guided tour of the Palace: all tourists are allotted a one-hour time slot, such is the popularity of the tour. It’s forbidden to take photos inside the Palace, but there are plenty of interesting angles as you climb the switchback stairs to the main entrance, and we covered them all. Now we had a set of classic Potala images, and we thought that was that.

Potala Palace in the sunshine

Potala Palace in the sunshine


Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

But the quest was not over. Our Tibetan guide Phurpu mentioned how impressive the Potala looked at night, when the whole building is floodlit. Suddenly our mission seemed unfulfilled without that night-time shot. Musing over this problem at a local café later, it struck me that if I could get on to the roof of the hotel, I would have an unrivaled view of the Palace from another angle. I’m not sure guests are supposed to go on the roof, given that it involved crawling through an access hatch at the top of the stairs, but I was proved right. Now all was set!

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Dinner came and went and night began to fall. Over in the Potala Square, the various dignitaries, officials and army officers were assembling for the Shoton Festival show. Just when it seemed our quest would be fulfilled, the weather decided to intervene. Rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning signalled a major storm was about to hit the city. I fired off some shots of the Potala before the rain arrived, beautifully floodlit and looking magnificent. Yes!

Potala Palace illuminated at night

Potala Palace illuminated at night

But my ultimate Potala Palace photo is none of the above. In fact, it’s an image I hadn’t conceived and didn’t even realise I had taken. As the storm raged outside I caught another sound in between the thunderclaps: the fireworks had begun. Wouldn’t it be cool to capture the Palace and the fireworks in the same photo, I thought. With the rain now pelting down (those poor Chinese dignitaries), I found a window at the end of the corridor outside our hotel room which afforded a good enough view of events, braced myself against the window frame and began to reel off some continuous shots of the fireworks exploding, hoping to capture the perfect moment. Well I got it, and then some: it seems God himself decided to partake in the display. It’s not sharp, but it’s a one-off!

Potala Palace lightning strike

Potala Palace lightning strike

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:19 Archived in China Tagged photography tibet lhasa potala Comments (2)

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