Category Archives: China

The Changing Face of Fujian’s Tulous

Several weeks ago I travelled to Fujian Province on a school trip with our Year 6 and 7 students. This was a trip organised by The Hutong, a company that specialises in organising educational trips throughout China, who happen to be exceptionally good at what they do.

I have to say, despite being a self-proclaimed geography and history buff, I didn’t know much about Fujian Province. Located in south-east China, close to Taiwan, it happens to be where much of the Chinese overseas diaspora originate from. It’s a historically outward looking place, in a historically inward looking country.

Xiamen is probably the best known city in Fujian, a bustling port city of lord knows how many million people. Known as the gateway to Fujian, it was where we started our trip.

It is home to Gulangyu, an island situated just off the main Xiamen Island, which, we were told, was apparently the wealthiest square mile on earth a little over one hundred years ago. The entire island is a maze of former consulates and grand colonial era buildings from a bygone age. Today however, it’s been turned into a modern-day Chinese tourist attraction. It was pleasant enough, but like everything in modern China, it just wasn’t that inspiring. I think the crowds had something to do with it!

After a day of activities in Xiamen we headed out into the countryside, this was where things got interesting. The setting was beautifully serene, and we would be staying in traditional houses, called tulous. These huge buildings are hundreds of years old and nestled deep in the mountains of Fujian.

Some of these remarkable structures have been immaculately preserved and are now protected historical buildings, others have already crumbled, some (but increasingly less) are still inhabited by local families, as they have been for centuries.

Traditionally, up to one hundred families would live in a tulou (often referred to in English as roundhouses). Historically, people came here primarily to seek safety and shelter from the turmoil of more densely populated areas elsewhere in China. With their high, sturdy walls, and lack of windows on the lower-levels, they were easy to defend, and became relative safe havens from bandits.

As China has changed over the last three decades, many local people have abandoned the tulous for more modern and convenient apartments in the cities. But not everybody.

As we explored these areas it became apparent the traditional way of life is slowly dying out. But it hasn’t yet died out. There were moments during our trip, in villages we visited, where we felt we had walked into a different era.

For one of their projects, our students were tasked with interviewing local people, and given a project akin to Humans of New York, called Humans of the Tulou, set by our inspiring trip leader, Bruce. They were tasked with speaking to some local people, and asking them in essence, about their life. The overwhelming majority of people we spoke to were aged over 85 years old, and had some extraordinary stories to tell.

There was one lady, aged 90, who we interviewed, who was now the last person living in her tulou. When she moved in 72 years ago, to marry her husband, there were over seventy families here. Now it was just her. Everybody else had either moved out or died out, whilst her tulou crumbled around her. She had never left the local area, and assumed that we (four caucasian male school teachers) were from Xiamen, the closest major city. It was an utterly astounding moment, one I am unlikely to ever forget.

 

Many of the local people we spoke to seemed thrilled to have such an interest taken in them. In many ways, they reminded me of my beloved Nana, of the same generation and age, but of an entirely different world. They loved telling their life story to the children, and answering their questions, just like my Nana did to me.

Walking through the villages, we saw many of the older buildings were daubed in graffiti. This is a hangover and legacy of China’s turbulent recent history. The graffiti turned out to be Communist slogans and propaganda, dating from the Cultural Revolution, we were told. This particular slogan reads “Hooray for Chairman Mao”. Hooray indeed.

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Perhaps strangest of all, were the portraits of Chairman Mao painted onto the walls outside people’s houses, which continue to be lived in. This was also a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, during which residents would have images of Mao drawn onto their houses as part of their efforts to keep the Red Guards out.

China’s recent history is a tragic combination of the baffling, bizarre and barbaric. The more I hear and read about the Cultural Revolution, the more I shake my head in a mixture of disbelief and utter revulsion. Below is my (failed) attempt at doing a Mao salute (it turns out there isn’t one really and it ended up more Superman / Black Panther than Mao).

China can be a cold place at times, as a foreigner you can be looked upon with suspicion, treated with contempt, and not always made to feel particularly welcome.

Local people here spoke the Minnan dialect, a separate language from Mandarin. The warmth in which we were received by the Minnan people throughout the trip was unique to many of us. for we had never been made to feel so welcome in China before.

I particularly like the picture below of a lovely elderly couple who invited us into their house for tea one morning. If you look closely, you will notice the portrait of Chairman Mao in the background, with the poster of the big red Ferrari next to it on the wall. Oh China…

fujianmaoferrarifamily

Rural Fujian was a stunning place, and it was a wonderful privilege to meet the people we met, in the twilight years of their simple, yet remarkable lives, during a period of such unprecedented and monumental change, and to see their way of life, as it was and continues to be, before it’s lost to the modern world forever.

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Riding the back roads of Yangshuo

This is Yangshuo.

Nice, right?

The pictures above (not mine) were taken of the surrounding countryside, and not Yangshuo city itself, clearly. Like all Chinese cities, the city was particularly uninspiring. Arriving there after twelve hours of travel, we found it to be very busy, bigger than we (naively) imagined, and generally unpleasant. It is however, blessed with a great Indian restaurant – check out the Ganga Impression Indian Restaurant if you go.

Fortunately, we didn’t stay in the city, but on the outskirts next to the river in a lovely little place called the Yangshuo Village Retreat.

Taxi’s are rare and expensive here, as are private drivers and even motorbikes, so as we were staying a little bit out, we decided to pay £3 a day each to hire mountain bikes from our hotel.

Having travelled a fair amount around China, we have realised that pretty much anywhere that features on a tourist map, or that is listed as a “must-see” here, is for us, a no go zone. We can’t bear the crowds, the extortionate entrance fees and the universally tacky commercialisation found at these places.

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The beauty of Yangshuo for us at least, was not about ticking off the different designated scenic spots and experiences that the local government have decided are appropriate for domestic tour groups, but about getting away from the mayhem of the beaten path, and being able to enjoy the serene tranquility of the jaw dropping surrounding countryside.

So that is exactly what we did. We cycled everywhere, days of cycling for hours on end, stopping only for fried rice, coca-cola and sometimes chocolate oreos in little rural villages and towns, set against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen on our travels in Asia.

Once we were away from the designated tourist spots (which we did cycle through once or twice, and they did look naff), we were by ourselves for hours at a time. There were no cars, there was no pollution, there were no crowds of people, there weren’t even any other cyclists for the vast majority of the days.

The thing we loved about Yangshuo (apart from the amazing Indian restaurant) was how easy it was to escape the crowds, and get away from it all. We ended up having an absolutely lovely time, just going at our own pace, on our own terms.

Particularly striking, was that for hundreds of millions of Chinese today, their country has changed beyond recognition in the last thirty years. However, for hundreds of millions of others, particularly the older generations, living in these small little villages, not that much has changed. Levels of development were akin to many towns and villages we have seen elsewhere in Burma, Cambodia or the Philippines, which are widely considered much, much poorer than China today.

It was kind of surprising, because although you hear all about the vast gap between rich and poor, and there continues to be of course, a huge wealth divide in the major cities, it isn’t until you get out into the sticks, that you can begin to grasp the full extent of it.

Over the last two years I have seen wealth and opulence on a scale in China that is unimaginable to the British middle classes. But here in the countryside around Yangshuo, despite the newly built expressway nearby, or the bullet train that now stops at Guilin, or the fancy hotels in and around the city, life doesn’t appear to have changed all that much.  For all its wealth and swagger, China remains a very poor country in many places.

Also of interest, were the sheer number of abandoned construction projects we saw in every single town and village we went though. On the bullet train back to Nanjing we even went through a city that was half-built and appeared abandoned, who is paying for all of this I wonder?

Somebody, somewhere, is out of pocket.

Is this a sign of things to come? Is the money running out?

Don’t ask me!

Pollution Update – When will it end?!

This morning we woke up to this. It looks even worse than two days ago. The pollution index for our area currently stands at 386 at the time of writing (still well over hazardous) and we aren’t expecting any change for another couple of days at least.

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As you can see from the photographs, visibility was reduced to barely a few metres (it has since improved this afternoon). We couldn’t even see the outline of the tower block across the road.

The Huffington Post described the pollution levels currently seen here “as some of the highest pollution levels EVER recorded”.

Meanwhile, I’m now coughing up green stuff. I chose not to play football this afternoon. I thought about going to the gym to do some weights instead (cardio is out of the question), but decided that also wouldn’t be particularly smart. I feel as though I’m slowly becoming a prisoner in my own home. Admittedly, I’m doing so out of my own free will, but what’s the alternative?

This isn’t just one freak day we are talking about, this has been going on for days now, and has been getting progressively worse for weeks.

There are still lots of people out and about, commuting, working, living – going about their daily life, but I wonder – what effect is this all going to have on their health, life expectancy, even their fertility, in years to come.

How many of them have an understanding of the effects all this could be be having on their health?

I’m no expert, but I’ve been doing some reading on the short-term effects; and far more worryingly, the long-term effects here.

Modern China has become an environmental catastrophe, created in part by hungry consumers in developed nations desire for cheaply manufactured goods, and a government with no concern for the environment or the health of its populace, which has embraced an “economic growth at all costs” philosophy for the last thirty years. There’s no end-game in sight to this, and I can’t for the life of me see how it’s going to get better before it gets worse.

I’ve found a great website with lots of information about air pollution in general, in and around London. I then compared the figures and information provided to that in Nanjing.

http://www.londonair.org.uk/LondonAir/Default.aspx

Below is a graphic I found which showed the mean distribution of PM2.5 pollutants in London, over the course of a year (2010). Almost the entire city is below twenty. In Nanjing, I can’t remember the last time I saw the measurements below two hundred.

londonannualairpollution

Firstly, thank you for democracy, freedom of information and transparency in providing us with this map, and allowing us a sense of perspective.

Secondly, there are apparently big concerns about air pollution in the UK. If I had never lived in China, I would be concerned by this article. Now I’m currently in China, I’m pretty much thinking…

I’m a British citizen… get me the hell out of here!

 

Another ‘Beautiful’ Day in Nanjing

So, China’s air pollution problems are well documented. As residents here, we convince ourselves that we won’t die of lung cancer by the time we are thirty because the extreme pollution occurs up in the north-east of China, in the area’s around Beijing – China’s industrial heartland. Whilst the air quality in Nanjing is still terrible by European or North American standards, at least to the best of my knowledge it’s never been positively toxic, to the point where going outside for ten minutes will be tantamount to smoking 60 cigarettes, or quite possibly, worse (I made that figure up, I have no idea how many cigarettes it’s the equivalent to smoking… but to give some sort of perspective).

Well, it looks like “beautiful, historic” Nanjing – supposedly one of the nicer, cleaner cities in China is fast catching up with the rest of the country. Yesterday, the AQI for Nanjing (Air Quality Index) hit 498. The scale only goes up to 500. Also worth pointing out, that’s the official government figure, which is notorious for playing down the levels of pollution.

Having said that, this still isn’t terrible by Chinese standards, where the measurements have gone off the scale spectacularly in both Beijing and Harbin this year, hitting 1,000, or thereabouts, reducing visibility to a few metres or less, grinding both cities of 10 million+ residents to a standstill. But it’s still pretty horrific.

aqi criteriananjing aqi

I opened my window this morning to take some pictures of the pollution, and could smell the toxins (whatever they may be) in the air. It was the same yesterday. It will probably be the same tomorrow.

Even the Nanjing Government has acted, closing all schools in the city as an emergency measure. Consequently, we are able to enjoy a “Pollution Day” today in Nanjing, unfortunately not quite as fun as a “Snow Day”, for we probably shouldn’t venture outside. But still, schools are closing, primary school children are apparently now getting lung cancer (in Nanjing) and the average life expectancy has already been reduced by at least 5.5. years in large parts of China, due to the heinous pollution.

China, I think you may have a problem. A big one.

I don’t quite know what effects this toxic air is going to have on my body in years to come. None of them I expect will be good. We never imagined it could be this bad when we arrived here sixteen months ago. Now, the more we know, the worse it gets, the more concerned we become.

Scary thing is; at least we have some idea about the air pollution. The government refuses to reveal the extent of soil and water contamination. Probably for the best, after all – what we don’t know, can’t hurt us, right? Well, that is until we get cancer and die prematurely. Pretty grim hey?

I used to moan about the grey skies and rain in Britain, but at least I knew it wasn’t slowly killing me. Oh how I long for home!

Anyhow, this is what the airpocalypse looked like from our apartment windows this morning. It doesn’t look all too different from Beijing and Harbin. Arggghhhhhhhh!!!!!!

nanjingpollutedvclearday SONY DSC SONY DSC nanjingpollutiondayvclearday2 nanjingpollutiondayvclearday3

Larung Gar, Sertar – Discovering Another World

From the beginning of our trip, we had a dream of visiting the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute. It was a place we had only ever read one article about, here. The pictures had blown us away so much, we felt like we just had to go there. The only problem was, we’d never met anybody who had been there, had ever even heard of it, or if foreigners were even permitted to visit.

In the name of adventure, we decided not to let this deter us. Whilst in Langmusi, we had a lucky break. We met a Tibetan tour guide who told us it should be possible to get there, by bus, but it would take us quite a long time and he couldn’t tell us exactly which towns we needed to go through, but he was sure we would be able to get there. We managed to get hold of a map (which we had obtained from our Australian friend, Wayne) and we figured we had enough time to give it a go before we had to return to Nanjing.

Our journey proved arduous, time-consuming and uncomfortable. It took us two days, two long-distance buses and a final nine-hour ride squashed horribly into the back of a shared mini-van, told to lie down and hide from police road-blocks and checks (I’m not sure it was actually necessary to ‘smuggle me in’) on the most treacherous, spectacular and at times, frightening roads I have ever been on. The road was so bumpy, and the views so limited by the filthy windows, I was unable to capture them on our camera.

For the first time in almost a year in China, we truly felt like we were stepping back in time. Everywhere we have been in this vast country, the roads have always been new and paved, and the Chinese economic boom inescapable. Not in far northern Sichuan province.

The scenery was stupendous, I felt like we were in native America, surrounded by densely forested mountain-sides, serving as a dramatic backdrop to the picturesque stone Tibetan villages which lined the wildest and fiercest river I had ever seen. We navigated the road next to it for hours, often with no barrier to prevent us slipping into the raging currents. The mountainsides had caved into the valley every hundred metres or so, the frequency of the landslips was stunning, but alarming – I had never seen so many. Fallen rocks, mud and branches blocked the road, as we drove around them. There were points where even the road had caved into the river. There were moments we both had knots in our stomach and shrieked in terror, as a convoy of trucks would come hurtling towards us around a blind bend, almost forcing us off the edge, but perhaps strangely, I felt exhilarated.

tibetan village north sichuan smuggled into sertar

This was travel, this was adventure, this was exciting.

A few hours into the journey we stopped in a tiny little hamlet for the toilet, and to re-stock our supply of snacks and water. By now, it was nightfall and the stars illuminated the surroundings beautifully. I had never seen so many stars at night, we both got out the mini-van and gasped, “Wow”. You can’t see the stars in Nanjing. Amelia went for a pee in some bushes, before she bailed spectacularly on a rock walking back and somehow didn’t break her ankle, much to my relief, and later (after I realised she wasn’t seriously hurt), amusement.

I then went into a villagers small shop to buy some water, to find the shop-owner and his daughter’s jaws drop, as I casually walked in and asked for a bottle of water (which I can actually do, in Chinese…). I feel like I know how David Beckham must feel, every time he walks into a small shop somewhere. I don’t think the shopkeeper and his daughter had seen a white man before, definitely not in their little shop.

Around about 11pm, we finally arrived to Larung Gar. Again we gasped, what a place this looked. But we had no idea where to stay, or where to go. Fortunately, as was the story throughout the duration of our trip across western China, the people never ceased to amazed us with their warmth and kindness in making sure we were okay and found somewhere to stay. We got a dorm room for 40 RMB a night (£4).

When we woke up the next day it was cold. Our backs ached from the battering they had received on the road here. We were at 4,100 metres above sea-level and you could feel it. We had acclimatized to the altitude by now, and didn’t have too many problems. Although we were taking stairs much slower than usual…

We met some Taiwanese backpackers who had come here to find and listen to their Lama, and to also see what this place was all about. It seemed we were the only people who weren’t here for religious reasons.

The place was abuzz with life, everybody was a monk or nun, and there were 40,000 of them living here. Apparently it is the biggest Buddhist Institute in the world. I’m not going to claim otherwise.

larung-gar-panoramic

Self-made bungalows were compactly built into the valley-side, one on top of the other. The mountainsides were awash with these small red houses, more prayer flags than I care to remember, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the lush green, rolling mountainsides.

larung-gar-houses

Everybody was welcoming, so many people shouted out hello and smiled at us, it was refreshing to the cold and unwelcoming stares we received in Xinjiang. Nobody tried to rip us off or cheat us, nobody tried to sell us anything. There were almost no beggars, no foreigner pricing, no entrance fee. Everything was at cost-price, this was a place of worship and education, and not a place for profit or greed (a rare thing in modern China). There were no Chinese tour buses, although there were a small number of independent Chinese travellers. There are very few places like this in China, in fact, I think you’d be extremely hard pushed to find anywhere like it, well, anywhere.

If there is paradise in China (although it’s actually Tibetan)…

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This is a place that doesn’t feature on maps, guidebooks or tour company itineraries. This is a place that has been almost always closed to foreigners, and only now is word of its existence getting out. It amazes me to think that a place such as Larung Gar could remain so relatively unknown in 2013, but I struggle to see how a place of such outstanding magnificence can continue to remain so anonymous. I toyed with the idea of not writing about Larung Gar, for every blog post and article written about it online, word will spread and its secret will get out.

But then I figured, I’m writing in English and this blog is blocked in China. A few hardy foreign travellers who may have read this article and made such an effort to get there are not going to ruin its majesty. I urge those willing and able to make the journey to go, before Chinese tour groups start arriving by the bus load, and Tibetan culture and Buddhism is further destroyed by the relentless Hanification of Tibet, and its outlying areas in Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan.

Experience Tibet and go to these places before it’s too late, and spread the word of its plight. We unfortunately can’t, for doing so could put us in danger whilst we are still in China – but I know, Amelia knows, WE know the truth. We’ve heard and seen the truth.

Facilities and infrastructure may be basic, but Larung Gar for us, is one of the wonders of the modern world.

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Practical Information

We arrived in Sertar from Langmusi. We first took an early morning bus from Langmusi to Zoige (2 hours).

We spent a day and night in Zoige before catching a bus from Zoige to Ma’erkang (7 hours).

When we arrived to Maerkang, the public buses were sold out for the next two days. We took a shared mini-van to Sertar for 300 RMB per person (anything from 7-9 hours, dependent on road conditions). In total it took us two days.

There are two hotels in Larung Gar. One is expensive and booked up beforehand, the other is cheaper. The cheaper one is just up the road opposite the main temple. It can be difficult for a man and a woman to share a room together. They may have made an exception for us, I’m not sure.

There are only shared public toilets, which are long-drops. Don’t expect 5* luxury.

We spent two days and nights in Larung Gar, our last night in nearby Sertar (25 minutes away). There are minibuses leaving all the time shuttling people between Larung Gar and Sertar (the closest town).

We had no issues with guards at the entrance, or checking our passports. Our mini-van didn’t stop at the police check-points on the journey there. We walked around freely as foreigners, both in Sertar and Larung Gar, and had no problems with police or locals.

Getting out of Sertar, there are definitely buses to Ganzi and Kangding. You can take a shared mini-van to Chengdu, but I don’t recommend it!

The journey to Kangding took 14 hours, although usually it should be 13.

From Kangding, it’s 7 hours to Chengdu.

Make sure you allow yourself time to acclimatize to the altitude. At 4,100 metres above sea-level, Larung Gar is 500 metres higher than Lhasa. You will feel it.

We travelled at the beginning of August 2013.

Lovely Little Langmusi

Arriving in Langmusi from Xiahe felt like a step deeper into Tibet. The town was small, surrounded by towering green hills, grasslands, and prayer flags. You could walk from one end to another in five minutes. There were two large, impressive monasteries, which the rest of the town had been built around. Several guesthouses, restaurants and shops now line the main road, it was apparent the town had a fledgling tourist industry, still in the early stages of development – but Langmusi on first impression felt nice, really nice.

We found a lovely little Tibetan run guesthouse, ran by the loveliest Tibetan family. Our rooms were new, modern and comfortable – and great value at 160 RMB per night. It’s just as well, for in coming days I would later be thanking my lucky stars for our nice, comfortable room, hot shower, and clean, usable western toilet!

Our first afternoon we walked up to one of the monasteries. We climbed the hill, and admired the lovely views below; of the town, surrounding landscape, and the marvellous golden roofs of the monastery.

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We carried on walking up, and soon the town was out of sight. The landscapes were dramatic. I was reminded of home, as the wind shrieked around the lush, rolling green hills and drops of rain fell from above.

In the distance, we could see some kind of shrine on top of one of the hills marking something out. We decided to head towards it. When we got there, we found a lot of prayer flags, but also, to our surprise and initial amusement, bottles of alcohol.

langmussi-landscape

“What was this?”, we wondered.

“Maybe this is where the local Tibetan youths congregate on a Friday night and get lashed.”, I joked.

It didn’t take long for us to actually work out what it was. We quickly realised the alcoholic bottles were dotted around an area of scorched earth, where someone had clearly lit a fire and burned belongings of some sort.

We then looked to our right, and saw numerous axes, saws and an array of other instruments, presumably used for dismemberment, littering the area. Then we saw a skull. A human one.

“Urgh… is this what I think it is?”, I asked Amelia.

“Urgh, gross. I guess it is.”, she replied, weirded out by the sight before her.

It was unpleasant, slightly disturbing and not something we had planned on seeing, having read about it was enough for us – but as we were here, and had stumbled across it by accident, why not have a look around? You know, when in Rome…

So, naturally, that’s what we did – albeit, for not very long. We counted four or five human skulls, too many instruments of dismemberment to remember, and dozens of other bone fragments, and even thigh bones, some that still had flesh on. The smell wasn’t great, so we soon retreated.

In Tibetan culture, they don’t bury their people into the ground when they die, or cremate them. They take their bodies to a local mountain-top, dismember the body into small pieces and leave it there for predatory birds and other wildlife to devour.langmussi-skyburial

We had accidentally stumbled across one of these places, known as a Sky Burial site.

“Now that was interesting”, I said, “But pretty grim”, Amelia added, as we walked back into town, reflecting on what we had just discovered.

We spent our first night with our new friends; Wayne, the coolest 68 year old I have ever met, from Australia, and Valentine, a young French backpacker, putting the world to right whilst eating fairly rubbish, over-priced food at the Black Tent Cafe.

Our second morning in Langmussi, the weather was atrocious; cold, windy and rainy. We had planned to go for a walk, but didn’t fancy it given the weather conditions. After a morning of doing nothing, we decided to go out and brave it, for we were getting restless.

So off out of town we went, walking up a long, deserted mountain road. We wanted to go further, for the scenery was becoming increasingly beautiful, but we had been told to be extremely wary of the local dogs. We’d heard bad stories, and to be quite frank, we felt nervous. The nomads and local people had huge Tibetan Mastiff guard dogs, which were rarely tied up. We’d been warned that they have been known to attack and maul passers-by. In the end, we didn’t walk very far, for we didn’t want to get mauled, or worse, by an overtly aggressive, possibly rabid dog, when the nearest even half-respectable hospital is a fifteen hour drive south in Chengdu. So day two was a disappointment as we made our way back to town…

Day three, supposedly our last day in Langmusi, started off great. Amelia and I, plus Wayne, went for a hike into one of the gorges. I could write an infinite number of superlatives to describe how great it was, and it still wouldn’t do it justice. It was a wonderful walk, and we had a great day, despite spending the first two hours walking around in circles trying to find the correct starting point!

langmussi-hike langmussi-hike1 langmussi-hikescenery langmussi-hikescenery2 langmussi-hiking-3 prayerflags-langmussi

Unfortunately, my run of three years in Asia without getting full-on food poisoning was up. As we walked back into town in late-afternoon, I was beginning to feel pretty rough, and wanted to get back to the hotel. By the time I got back to the hotel, I was so exhuasted and felt so terrible, I had resigned myself to the next 24-48 hours being spent snuggling up to the toilet. Little had I realised, when I abandoned Amelia and Wayne in my rush to get back to the hotel room, that Amelia still had the key.

I was frantic as I tried to explain to the hotel owners through pretty ridiculous body language, hand gestures and (very) broken Chinese that my girlfriend had the key, I was going to throw up / shit myself any second on their lovely, clean, white tiled floor, and that I needed them to open my room with the spare key as a matter of URGENCY.

They seemed to understood that I was ill, didn’t have a key, and needed the toilet urgently – but they just stood there, gathered in concern for the poor, distressed white guy, but doing nothing, they didn’t know what to do. And they didn’t have a spare key either!

This was now becoming a nightmarish situation. I was breathing heavily, trying my absolute best to not chunder everywhere and keep it down / in a little longer. “Hurry Amelia”, I thought, but Amelia was no-where to be seen, as she had no idea how ill I felt.

Suddenly, as if god had shone a light on the room next-door to ours, to my delight, I realised nobody had checked into the room next to ours, and the door was open and unlocked. “Can I?”, I asked, as I pointed towards the room, “Yes”, they replied, quite clearly aware that it was either the toilet or the floor that gets it.

And I legged it in, much to my, and probably the hotel owners relief, it was the toilet and bucket that got it, instead of the lovely white tiled floor in the public area. Twenty minutes later, I was able to leave the bathroom and collapse into my own bed.

Amelia later told me, to my amusement, that a Chinese couple checked into the room only minutes later, completely unaware of the destruction that had been wrought upon their bathroom only minutes earlier. We cleaned up of course, but no effort was made by the hotel to sterilise anything before the couple checked-in.

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The next two days were spent in the confines of our hotel room, boredom set-in, and I longed for the developing world comforts of Nanjing again. There was no internet, no English TV channels, nothing.

My days were brightened by Amelia and Wayne, who happened to take this very funny photo one morning whilst walking around the town.

in the man hole 1

For some reason, no manholes in the town were covered. This proved problematic for us, especially at night-time when there were no street-lights, as it was utterly impossible to know where you were walking, it was actually quite scary. On the bright side, at least the locals had difficulties too, even in broad daylight.

langmussi-manholes

After five days in Langmusi, we were ready to leave. Our next stop was Sertar, only we didn’t know how to get there, or how long it would take us.

Livin’ it Large at Labrang

The Labrang Monastery is apparently the largest Tibetan monastery outside of actual Tibet. Situated in a small town called Xiahe, 3,000 metres above sea-level in south-west Gansu Province, this was our first experience of a Tibetan area.

We spent two days and nights in Xiahe. The town is divided into three sections; Han, Hui and Tibetan. We spent our time in the Tibetan area, nearby to the Monastery. The town had a distinct feel to it, noticeably different to anywhere else we had been to in China, or on our trip thus far.

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Things were different here; the way people dressed, the architecture, the monks, the scenery. And then there was the monastery. There were pilgrims who had travelled from afar to walk the kora (a holy walk around the perimeter of the monastery), locals who walked the kora daily, and of course the tourists, like us, who had come to see what it was all about.

Apart from the general majesty of the monastery, which was fantastic by all accounts; two things stick in my mind about Xiahe:

1 – Poverty

Firstly, there were so many more beggars here than elsewhere in China, many with deformed limbs. Tibetans are poor, very very poor. They certainly haven’t had their fair slice of the pie in recent years.

2 – Shit everywhere, literally

Second, over the last year we have grown accustomed to seeing small children peeing and pooing all over the place in China; be it on the subway, at a super-market checkout or into public bins, whatever, babies don’t wear nappies out here. It’s a fact of life.

But we aren’t used to seeing adults squatting and pooping all over the place, quite like they did in Xiahe, around the Labrang Monastery. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. It wasn’t just one incidence either, we saw this more than we care to remember, and people did it shamelessly. One middle-aged lady was quite openly doing her business barely ten metres away from the start of the kora trail, in full view of locals and tourists, and no, she didn’t use any paper. Gross.

The highlight for us though, surely had to be ‘shit street’ as we dubbed it. It’s a bit of a pain to find, but it’s at the end of the outer kora trail (the longer one, where you walk up the mountain), as you are coming down towards town. At first we noticed three young women who giggled as they saw us, and started to walk back down towards town – we questioned what they had been doing up here. Then there was the middle aged man who just stared at us as we walked past, as we tried not to stare back at him, squatting, playing with his phone, and pooping.

And then we looked at the ground. For hundreds of metres, poops littered the entire area. It was as if they had been measured out perfectly, for they all seemed equally spaced. Clearly they were human, and there wasn’t a single trace of toilet paper, anywhere. It would be quite impressive, were it not so damn disgusting.

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One of the worst things about it, most of this ‘shit street’ was actually just a wide channel made from concrete that had been built to channel rain-water off the mountainside, and into the river below, that ran through the town. So the next time it rains, those hundreds, possibly thousands, of little terds that have accumulated over the previous few days, will be washed into the river, and downstream into the rest of China. And this is just one town. Think of all the others, in this nation of 1,300,000,000 people.

And here are some of our, perhaps arguably, more pleasant photographs.

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Cycling, well, attempting to cycle, the Karakoram Highway

The Karakoram Highway was constructed in the 1970’s to open a land trade route between China and Pakistan. It is a marvel of modern engineering, an 1,800 km road that links the western Chinese city of Kashgar, with the Pakistani city of Abbottabad by cutting through the mighty Karakoram Mountains (Western Himalayas).

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Kashgar is a town with few attractions. Five years ago it may have been more interesting, but most of the ‘interesting’ old town has been demolished to make way for the uniform high rises and ‘civilisation’ of Han China. It took a vast amount of effort and time to reach this immensely troubled outpost, and it proved to be a disappointment.

One of the main things to do in and around Kashgar is to take a trip up the highway, either to the scenic Karakul Lake or further on to the small border town of Tashkurgan. Amelia and I were eager to visit both, but the quotes we received from travel agencies in Kashgar for a driver were expensive.

We had read about people getting a lift up the highway, and then cycling back down – that sounded too cool.  So naturally, when we arrived in Kashgar we investigated this further, and were promptly told it was indeed possible to cycle from Tashkurgan to Kashgar. We quickly allayed a few safety concerns (How much traffic is there? Could we get lost? Is it safe for foreigners?) and subsequently decided to hire the cycling and camping gear at a fraction of the cost it would have been for a driver and car both ways.

We both felt pretty nervous the night before, for we had never attempted anything like this. What’s more, we were going to be in one of the most remote corners of China, hundreds of miles from anywhere, with limited language skills and no map. It sounds a bit reckless, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t – but it certainly felt adventurous. We had our mobile phones and a friend who was in the area – who we knew we could trust, and knew what we were doing and planning. I decided against telling my parents for fear of causing them unnecessary worry.

We were told it’s a straight road back to Kashgar, and it was almost impossible to get lost. It should take somewhere between three-four days depending on your fitness levels, and it’s about 300km to Kashgar in total. We stocked up on supplies (lots of chocolate bars and Jaffa Cakes – yes you can actually buy Jaffa Cakes in Xinjiang. AMAZING.) and got a lift up to Tashkurgan the next morning. Tashkurgan is the last town on the Chinese side of the highway before you have to cross the border into Pakistan, needless to say we weren’t keen on taking a trip into Pakistan – so Tashkurgan was as far up as we were going.

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The cycling started well, almost no traffic and we were averaging 10-12 km/ph – a solid pace. The scenery was great, we felt free and adventurous, the weather was glorious.

After a couple of hours, my legs started to ache, each breath became harder, every metre was needing greater effort, “That’s not good”, I thought. The roads and climb were long, but they were gentle. “This should be easier, I’m not that unfit”, I told myself, but the feeling of lethargy soon turned into one of total exhaustion within two hours. I consoled myself, “It’s the altitude, not my fitness”.

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We were climbing from 3,000 to 3,600 metres above sea-level, and we stupidly hadn’t allowed ourselves time to acclimatize to being at altitude, having started our cycle as soon as we were dropped off in Tashkurgan. About six hours, and 40km in, I was done for. I could barely cycle 500 metres without feeling like I was going to collapse. Amelia set up the tent and we had a very restless nights sleep (a symptom of altitude sickness is disrupted sleep). We were awoken by the deafening horns of a convoy of juggernauts, they still beep their horns loudly even in the middle of no-where. Damn you Chinese drivers.

Note – Please see below to admire Amelia’s super stylish Leicester City Football Club shorts. That’s my girl.

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Feeling particularly unrefreshed we packed the tent away, ate a breakfast of Turkish Mars Bars and Jaffa Cakes and set off for day two. We made it probably 800 metres before I had to stop. And that was it. There was no way we could continue. The scenery was stupendous, but the enjoyment had been taken from us by our lack of preparation for the altitude. Pathetic really.

We decided to try and flag down a truck to take us down to Kashgar. Within ten minutes we had flagged down a China Post lorry (only the second vehicle to pass us) and the driver, who amazingly, spoke a little bit of English, agreed to take us to Kashgar for £20. We happily paid, knowing this was far cheaper than the rates we were quoted in Kashgar.

Failure
Failure

Our driver was a nice chap. We had some enlightening conversations, which I will certainly write about in years to come. He stopped at the scenic Karakul Lake for us, and we took a few snaps. The lake was magnificent, but there was nothing really around it. Beforehand, we imagined it might be at least slightly developed for tourism, perhaps a restaurant? But no, there was almost nothing, except for a few nomadic Kyrgyz homes. We were quite thankful we weren’t on our bikes now, as we were originally planning on spending an afternoon and night here. It didn’t look like that would have been much fun!

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The highway from Karakul was pretty much straight down. We found ourselves wishing we had got dropped off there instead of Tashkurgan, and had started from here . It would have been much easier. However, we soon realised the roads were much busier here, with constant convoys of juggernauts and army trucks navigating their way up and down the road as they played their part in the vast exploitation of the mountains’ natural resources. Everywhere you looked, mountainsides had been blown up, were being dug up, or mines were operating and what was clearly once a beautiful mountain range of outstanding natural beauty, had been transformed into yet another industrial, over-exploited eyesore to feed China’s ever-growing appetite for natural resources. It was sad.

The road was often spectacular, but also dangerous. We were caught up in a traffic jam for a couple of hours, apparently a truck had been swept off the edge by a landslide further down. Landslides are a common occurrence around here. It would be interesting to know the life-expectancy of the truckers who drive up and down this road, day in day out.

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Nine hours after hitching a ride somewhere between Tashkurgan and Karakul Lake, we were at last back in Kashgar. Tired, hungry and stinking, we checked into a slightly nicer hotel and got a private room. We were disappointed we had failed, but at least we knew why we had failed. The trip had been a learning curve. Whilst we won’t ever be cycling across remote corners of the earth again, we may in future, think about a cycle trip down the Amalfi Coast, the French Riviera, or even California. Now that sounds more our cup of tea…

Practical information

  • You can hire high quality camping gear and everything else you need (except for bikes) from John at John’s Information Cafe in Kashgar for 30 RMB per day. You will need to pay a hefty deposit, but he seems an honest and decent guy – we had no problems getting it back. He will also provide transport to Karakul or Tashkurgan, although you will need to pay 8-900 RMB.
  • We hired mountain bikes from a bike shop in Kashgar for 50 RMB per bike, per day. Again, no problems. John can give you directions.
  • We recommend you cycle down from Karakul Lake. The scenery isn’t so great between Tashkurgan and Karakul, and it’s 100km further to start from Tashkurgan. Starting from Karakul, the effects of altitude won’t be quite so severe as the road is pretty much straight down from there. If you do start from Tashkurgan, allow yourself at least a night to stay there and acclimatize. Otherwise you will most likely struggle like we did. Tashkurgan does have hotel’s to stay in, and okay local restaurants.
  • Allow yourself 3-4 days in total.
  • It gets cold at night, and the sun is very strong. Wear lots of sun cream and bring warm clothing.
  • Pack lots of food and water, as shops are few and far between.
  • You can take a public bus to Karakul Lake or Tashkurgan. If you go to the Kashgar Bus Terminal, they will tell you the times. I think there is only one or two a day. It is unlikely they will let you take your bike on the bus (we asked, and were told no).

China’s Hidden Gem – The Ili Valley

We didn’t know much about Ili before going there. We’d just heard it was nice and seen some nice pictures on the internet.

We didn’t see a single foreigner here, it’s so far from anywhere, located closer to Kazahkstan than to Xinjiang’s own capital, Urumqi. However, if you have the time, it’s well worth a visit.

Sandwiched between two huge mountain ranges, the Ili Valley is a lush green oasis that stretches for several hundred kilometres between them. Magnificent doesn’t do the place justice (although the entrance fee racket does put a downer on things). We spent two glorious days hiking here, in what is without doubt one of the most beautiful places we have visited in China. Just don’t ask us about the ‘hostel’, urghhhh.

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Our next destination was Kuqa, a seven hour bus journey down the Highway 217 from Narat, through Bayanbalak and the Tian Shan Mountains. An incredible journey – sadly the pictures taken from our moving bus don’t do it justice!

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Practical Information

To get here, you can either take a train to Yining from Urumqi, stay overnight in Yining and then take a bus to Narat (5 hours). Entrance is 175 RMB per person, the eastern side of the park is much nicer and quieter than the west side. where the tour buses go to. If you get on the green buses (NOT the big white tour buses at the entrance) they will take you towards the eastern side. There is plenty of opportunity for some nice hiking around here, but beware of the dogs!

There is a YHA hostel within the park  close to the east entrance. Be prepared to share your room with centipedes, beetles and spiders.

I assume you can also take a bus from Kuqa to Narat, but I’m not sure if foreigners are supposed to be issued tickets. Heading out, we took a bus from Narat to Kuqa, which leaves daily at 12:30 from Narat bus terminal.

A Night at Scenic Sayram

We stayed one night in a Kazhk yurt at Sayram Lake as a stop-off en-route to the Ili Valley.

Our arrival could have gone better. Upon pulling into the entrance of the park the locals discovered there were foreigners in the car, after I had got out and stretched my legs. Now we are used to being hassled when we get to new places, but this soon became a new experience for all of us, one which all of us would rather not have again.

A large group of Kazahks, maybe two dozen quickly surrounded the car. They were desperate for business, we climbed back into the car because they were over-bearing, beyond rude. The Kazakhs then opened our doors, and started trying to climb into the car to get us to go with them. Several of them started arguing, and at one point it looked as though they might trade blows. We were starting to feel very intimidated, for the situation was starting to get a little out of control as more people gathered round. Clearly they don’t see many foreigners around here. Our driver was getting very agitated and concerned, and ended up pushing the people out, slamming the doors, locking them and speeding off to escape.

We drove a couple of hundred metres away, and a local Kazakh man followed on his motorbike. We had a Chinese friend with us who negotiated for us, and the man told us we could stay in his yurt for 50RMB per person. We were short on options, the scenery was stunning and we wanted to get out the car. He assured us we wouldn’t have any more problems, so we agreed to go with him.

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The landscape was great, the yurt very cosy, the toilets – well we hiked up a hill into the woods, and the food wasn’t great, but it was an enjoyable afternoon / evening.

There are two entrance/exits. One is in the middle of nowhere and will try to charge 75RMB entrance per person, the other (the east entrance/exit) is free (The Kazahks had broken the fences down) and has plenty of yurts available.

You can take a bus from the main road (the only road), which will take you to Yining (the closest major town, about three hours away) for 40RMBamelia-horse-sayram-lake kazahk-baby-on-horse-sayram kazahk-yurt sayram-sunrise sayram-yurt