A journey of discovery and delight by road, river and rail with Silk Road Adventures
In May 2009, I travelled from China to Nepal on a 26 day trip, so full of interest and contrasts that it seemed to last for months rather than days. First, we sampled views, made famous by traditional Chinese paintings, of the Karst landscape in the Guilin region of southern China. This included an enjoyable three hour boat trip on the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo – a great place for touristy shopping. In the morning, we headed for the rice terraces of Long Ji. After about two hours, we left our bus in a car park and climbed a path to stay the night in a Dong style ‘village in the clouds’. This was a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of Guilin and that afternoon we walked to the top of the hill, for stunning views over villages and water filled terraces glittering in the sun. The next three days were spent travelling through the hilly Dong and Miao minority areas of lush green tea plantations and ever present flooded rice terraces. We had time to visit several villages and also spent one night in a traditional Dong drum tower village.
The next phase of the journey started with a day travelling by train and road from Kaili to Yichang on the Yangtze River. I’ve always found it fascinating watching everyday life going on from the comfort of a railway carriage. The different landscapes and contrasts between rural and urban areas were very interesting. That evening we boarded the boat for our Yangtze Three Gorges cruise. The Victoria Star had great accommodation, delicious food and a very helpful and friendly crew who also provided nightly entertainment. In the morning, we had a close up look at the Three Gorges Dam – an amazing feat of engineering – then passed through the five locks of the dam, before going through the first of the three gorges. For the next two days we continued up the scenic river and left the boat for a couple of shore excursions. We reached Chongqing at night and disembarked after breakfast. We visited the Dazu Buddhist rock carvings, took a late afternoon stroll around the central square and had an opportunity to join the locals in their evening dances. Next day we got up close to the pandas at Chongqing zoo and sampled the local Sichuan cuisine. Then came the beginning of the most long-awaited part of the trip for me, as we commenced the highest rail journey in the world.
We boarded the train to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, in the evening and spent that night and all the next day travelling northwards to Lanzhou, then heading west towards Qinghai Lake, which we passed while we were having dinner in the comfortable dining car. Late evening gave us tantalising glimpses of snow covered hills, looming behind sand dunes lining the edge of the lake. The next morning I woke in the grey light of pre dawn, to the soft hiss of oxygen being piped into our compartment. I peeked out the window and could hardly contain my excitement, as I saw the ghostly-looking snow covered hills of the Tibetan Plateau. The colours changed as the sun began to rise and my nose, or my camera, remained pressed against the window for the rest of that day. The line tracked south to reach its highest point of 5072m near the Tibetan border and late afternoon, just before we pulled into Lhasa station, we could see the Potala Palace perched on top of a rocky outcrop overlooking the city. There was no mistaking where we were!
Our comfortable hotel was in the Bakhor Tibetan district, and we were able to get a real feel of the place when we strolled to a local restaurant overlooking Bakhor square and the Jokhang Temple. In the morning we visited the Potala Palace, previous seat of the Dalai Lhama, for about three hours or so. In the thin air at 3650m, the steps of the Potala were not easy going, but with a few ‘camera stops’ were certainly not too hard either. I found it difficult to believe that I was actually there – somewhere I had dreamed of being since I read the book ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ about 49 years ago! We spent three nights in Lhasa, also visiting Deprung and Sera Monasteries and the Jokhang. There was time to stroll around, do a bit of shopping and be totally ‘gob-smacked’ at the co-ordinated music and fountain show in front of a flood-lit Potala – not exactly traditional!
Our last four days in Tibet were spent on the Friendship Highway to the Nepalese border. We crossed over the Yarlung Tsangpo River, which travels to the east of Tibet, then through deep mountainous gorges, until it is forced to change direction and flow back to the west through India as the Brahmaputra. We then headed for Gyantse, going past Yamdrok Lake and the Karo La pass at 4960m. We saw Gyantse Fort perched on a rock above the town, had lunch, and spent some time exploring the Kumbum Monastery (featured in the BBC documentary ‘A Year in Tibet’). We continued on to Shigatse at 3840m where we stayed two nights and visited the Tashilhunpo Monastery, the seat of the traditional Panchen Lhamas.
Our next stop was New Tingri, or Shegar, at 4300m. We travelled via the Langpa La pass at 5220m, catching a glimpse of Mount Everest behind light cloud in the distance. Walking in the village late afternoon, we were treated to a most unusual – to us anyway – display of rainbow-like colours shimmering in the otherwise dark blue sky between two clouds. We had a very early wake up call the next morning, about 4am, in order to get past some road works before the road was closed for the day. It was just beginning to get light when our guide pulled our vehicles over, pointed to the left and said “Everest”. Well, it was another unexpected ‘gob-smacking’ (I can’t think of a better way to describe it) moment! There before us was Everest floating above the mist in the valleys, and as we watched, the sun rose, giving Everest and the misty clouds above it a golden pinky hue. It was really magical – not even the very obvious electrical cables running down a side road could detract from it! Later, I realised that it was on this same date, 29th May, in 1953 that Hillary and Tenzing climbed Everest for the first time. They had also risen at 4 am on that day, but I think we had the easier time after that. We then continued towards the border, crossing the Thong La at 5120m, which was covered in snow and low cloud and freezing cold. The only colour was the array of prayer flags, which are on top of every pass.
Three hours later the scenery was the complete opposite. We were in the warm, tree covered gorge leading down to the ‘Friendship Bridge’ at the border. Our last night in Tibet was spent in Zhangmu, perched on the side of a steep hill, packed with trucks and cars. We were in Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, by late afternoon the next day and spent the last three days of our trip exploring the sights, before flying out to Hong Kong and then home.
I have had quite a few overseas journeys in the last twenty years and think that this one would have to be very close to the top of my favourites list. I seemed to have a permanent smile on my face and even now, whenever I remember it, the smile comes back! Travelling with a small group of like-minded people is most enjoyable and I have now been on four trips with Silk Road Adventures run by Pat and Murray Reedy, to places such as China, Myanmar, Mongolia, Siberia, Iran and now Tibet and Nepal.