Translated by: Greta Kojsza
Writing a subjective essay is a really subjective issue. It’s going to be the 8th one. Kazakhstan is missing (we might go back one day and complement it), because we’ve just passed through and saw such a small part of it. So there would be no point in writing a subjective story on that country. Each of our subjective stories and opinions are influenced by our very own experiences. That’s why a country shows its completely different faces to each foreigner. Same with China. Some people had neutral opinion, but some had mainly negative ones. So asking ‘How was Burkina Faso?’ has no raison d’ệtre at all. You might ask someone who only met really nice people and none of his stuff was stolen on the bus station, he travelled with a lot of money (let’s be honest, money makes traveling much comfortable and easier) and suppose that he didn’t have to wait a lot at the border. But it’s exactly the reason why we’ve started writing these subjectives. Our aim is to show the picture of a country that we’ve seen. There’s nothing good or wrong about it, it’s simply a very subjective opinion based on our personal experiences and impressions. After spending 3 months in this country, we have enough information, but China is a huge country, so we divided it into two parts. Let’s begin!
The contrast between the Kazak and the Chinese side of the borderline is enormous. In Kazakhstan the frontier was a dusty little village, whilst in China, after riding on a pointlessly long and winding road, tower cranes and the noise of pneumatic drills welcome the foreigners. Entering to the Xinjiang Uighurautonomous region, a totally modern and newly built city, Khorgas was our first shock in China. We got the feeling of being in a video game due to the brand new, perfectly glassy streets with painted signs on them, which were not even dried yet. Tower blocks with offices and apartments, sparkling shopping centers and parks that are geometrically perfectly constructed. Not to mention the locals who take pictures of foreigners with a huge smile on their faces. We were just standing there, taking in the view filled with pure happiness and amusement. Eni burst into tears while I was hugging her. We’re in China! Well it’s going to be exciting!
China is a giant country with 56 ethnicity. Travelling from one territory to another is like getting into a new country. That’s the reason for the diversity of people (in each aspect). During the three months we spent there, we’ve got to meet a lot of people, like Uighurs, Tibetans, Dais, Huis, Chinese and of course ethnicities we couldn’t identify, so in our view, they were traditional Chinese people. Obviously there’s no such a country where everybody’s nice and kind, but if it exists, let us know. We met annoying or sometimes rude people, who tried to totally ignore us. We did try our best not to be concerned about them, because in spite of the negative situations, we had much more positive experiences. Therefore, we came to the conclusion, that the Chinese are friendly, helpful and interested people (at least in those places we’ve been to). It might be because of the small number of tourists, but we never had the feeling of being seen as the ‘wealthy Western-European tourist’. China in general is a poor country indeed, but I will talk about it later. Most of the people are very polite who approach you and smile at you, then might ask you something, but never ever paddle on your personal stuffs, hugs you and takes a selfie with you immediately. Gesticulation and hand-shakes are not common, (strange, but I’ve just realized, that I haven’t shaken hands with anybody for months, or even if I did, they were foreigners too) they bend or nod. I have to mention some of their weird and disgusting habits. If somebody smiles at you, doesn’t mean that you said something funny, but the person who you’re talking to is embarrassed. They spit in public, blow their noses (without a tissue) and fart while they’re talking to you. Even women! It’s quite conflicting and surprising, when you’re walking on the street, hear someone getting ready for a gross split, you turn around and see a pretty woman toddling in heels. For us, China was the country of contrasts. People can be polite and impolite at the same time. Asians are ill-mannered in general, compared to Europeans (apart from the exceptions).
Language and communication
Chinese is tend to be one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It’s not the grammar that makes it so difficult, but the tone of its words and sounds. There are 4 different tones in Chinese: descending, ascending, high and descending-ascending tones. So it usually occurs, that one word has at least 5 different meanings, depending on the tone. My favourite example is (and the raison for good laughs among the Chinese, as we couldn’t pronounce it at all) the following: "Māmā qí mǎ. Mǎ màn, māmā mà mǎ." It means Mom is riding a horse, horse be slow, Mom scold horse. I intentionally translated it in this way, in order to point out how simple its grammar is, so be careful with bringing on somebody’s mother. It might lead to an unexpected snuff. If you make, even just a very small mistake in your tone, they will have no idea what the hell do you want to say. We heard stories in Kyrgyzstan, but we experienced these situations ourselves too. Let me share, a really memorable one. We needed a board with a Qinghai sign on it for hitchhiking, so we asked someone from a group of 6 people to write it on the board. We said ‘Csingháj’, ‘Shingháj’, Csöngháj’, but none of it was understandable. We were making a fool out of ourselves for minutes, when one of the guys said ‘Ah Csingháj?’ . You can imagine our faces… We couldn’t hear anything different in his way of pronunciation, but perhaps, he wouldn’t understand either why we’re writing the word ‘folyó’ (river) with ‘ly’ and ‘tej’ (milk) with ‘j’, though they sound the same. By the way, do you have any idea why is it so? Let’s get back to China. After a while, we gave up pronouncing the words, we simply pointed at them (the English word is written in Chinese and in pinyin too) in our dictionary. The person we asked pronounced it for us, then we tried to groan out something similar. In spite of these difficulties, we learnt some useful expressions and words, which we could use with a 99% success. Communicating with Tibetans or Uighurs was even trickier, as a lot of them can’t read at all, or even if they do, they were exactly just as confused with the Chinese characters as we were. In our view, Chinese is beautiful, melodic and smooth. Here’s a link to our favorite Chinese song. Eni seriously took a liking to start studying Chinese.
Okay, let’s be honest. We couldn’t read a lot of signs and writing them down was completely impossible. The little man with its television kind of head, was the sign of men’s toilet. This sign was more than enough to remember, because it evidently showed the direction of women’s toilet too. We memorized two other useful signs too, which were the signs of small and big portion. How to find your way, when the names of villages are not written in Latin characters? Well we managed to solve this problem too by showing our map to locals who pronounced them. So we wrote down the names phonetically (in Hungarian pronunciation for instance: ‘Boduncsuán’). In this way, we got familiar with the names of the cities and knew how to pronounce them. So we were able to identify the cities or villages on road signs. We memorized some specific characters (the names of the cities were not long at all, usually consist of 2 or 3 characters) as well which we were searching for on other road signs and boards.
What’s important to know about China is that dump of purchasing cars and obtaining driving licenses only started in the second half of the 90’s, so in case of China, we can’t talk about a driving style with old traditions. Actually, it can’t even be called a style or morality. Everybody drives the way they want. In our opinion they drive without any kinds of rules. I write ‘in our opinion’ because: 1. They don’t care about what we think. 2. Everybody drives in that way there, so driving in the normal European way would be suicide. So anybody who plans driving a car in the People’s Republic of China, get prepared for the extraordinary circumstances and a totally different point of view. There are no evidences. Stop sign, ahead only, the usage of flashing directional signs in the good direction, right-hand rule or bending to the left in a larger sweep are only the jigs of the Western-Europeans. It’s just an advice that they totally ignore. Mainly everybody, so we didn’t see any accidents. A Hungarian driving instructional or examiner would get a heart-attack after 20 seconds for sure. Of course the other way around, a Chinese driver would never be able to pass the Hungarian traffic examination. Not even for the 7th try. We saw learner drivers traversing a coequal crossroads, looking ahead without slowing down or looking around. They used the horn instead. Learner driver started to pass in a blind corner, finally the instructional (who allowed the learner driver start the pass) took over control on the vehicle, as an oncoming car appeared. The horn replaces ears and eyes no matter what. Everybody toots, instead of using the flashing directional signs or looking into the rearview mirror. And this kind of crazy driving style is true for each member of the traffic. Motorbikes are just as dangerous as cars. There’s only one rule. I wish I could call it the law of physics: the bigger and stronger vehicle has the priority. Everybody knows his own place in the hierarchy, we managed to find out ours immediately. Well I’m not saying that I didn’t swear several times, I’m human too, but after a while, I had to realize that I just have to let it go. It simply doesn’t worth it. Furthermore, they don’t even get it, why we are so pissed off.
The quality of the roads is extraordinary even in the least developed areas too, such as the Tibetan Plateau. I can recall only a few exceptions (for instance in Yunnan on road G123), but their renovation have already started. You can find assigned cycle and scooter paths in cities, though not in smaller or a bit underdeveloped cities.
A few years ago, the whole world was horrified on the breakage test of Chinese cars. For today, Chinese carmakers picked themselves together too. We can list several Chinese brands and some of them are quite beautiful, while others are the cheap replica of Western vehicles, though both of them gained a large share on the national market. Just imagine that the Chinese population is higher than the population of Europe and the USA altogether. Such a huge market! We also have to note that, only one-sixth of its population has obtained a driving license. Though much more drivers can be found in the traffic without any kind of driving certificate.
Nobody cares about safety rules. Seat belts, helmets and the allowed number of passengers on a vehicle is totally off the point not only in China, but in Asia in general.
Their logistics is unbeatable. We couldn’t decide on the winner of trucking among the Asian countries yet, but China is the absolute number one. The expression ‘It doesn’t fit.’ doesn’t exist. It does fit, you only need ropes or ratchet straps and everything is in its right place immediately. Rules are ignored of course. Trucks are so packed up, that nothing can be seen in the rearview mirrors. A truck is capable of carrying 21 automobiles in this way, with 2 rows of cars on the top of it.
We can easily bump into cities in China, which wasn’t there the day before. Alright, they’re not developing so fast yet, but cities, towns and villages grow rapidly, where the population of villages (whom houses are going to be flooded by the swelled river) is resettled or new habitants (nomads are trying to be settled into the provinces of Qinghai and Sichuan) are settled. So called ghost towns can be seen too, where the resettlement of the population didn’t happen somehow. We haven’t been to real big cities in the Tibetan Plateau. Yushu was the biggest one with its 120,000 habitants. Smaller towns with a few thousands of people are much more common, with the yurts of nomads in its surroundings.
China is diverse, which is true for its cities living conditions. The less developed areas lack canalization, tap water and side-walks. Garbage, abandoned animals and dust everywhere. People go to stool on streets. On the other hand, in cities street cleaners work continually and take care of the tidiness of precisely constructed parks. Solar cell public lighting are essentials. Cultural shock! Have you ever heard of public toilets in a smaller town? Well, if you’ve ever had the opportunity to use one, you know exactly what I’m talking about, if not, then you can read about it now. Entering to the room you’re wondering about the boxes which are separated with waist-high walls and you’ll soon notice the long gap in the middle. You’d better have no illusions in connection with doors, water or toilet paper. They don’t exist there. Only scents and opportunities to get to know your neighbor, while you’re busy with your business. In developed cities public toilets are free of charge, clean and can be found everywhere. We should pay more attention to the construction and renovation of public toilets in Hungary compared to these cities in China.
The gardens of houses are often disorganized, full of garbage and they don’t really care about the fact that they’re living on the top of a dunghill. Though you can take care of the tidiness of your own property independent of your budget.
The lifestyle of nomads is kind of the same as it was hundreds of years ago. They keep yaks, live in yurts and forbear the bitter circumstances. They’ve got water from rivers and brooks, generate electricity from solar cells. Most of the families has one motorbike or rarely a car, so they go shopping to cities or sell goods.
In the second part, you can read about everyday life, cuisine, nature and a little bit of politics.
Translated by: Pál Capewell
We’ve never been to a marsh park. Even the name doesn’t ring promising, what could one expect? It became a trend that if we sleep in a big town, we spend the mornings taking care of things. Another city tour, grocery shopping or just packing slower than usual, taking our sweet time. Around 40km from the city, we began to look for a place to stay before the darkness fell upon us. Like any other time, this time wasn’t a walk in the park either. The road? Two lanes, relatively busy traffic, agricultural lands left and right and our biggest sworn enemy: fences. Scratching our heads, Balazs and I were clueless as to what now, until we spotted a “Wetland Park” sign. So, having no other alternatives at that point, we decided to give it a go. To our surprise, the view was breathtakingly beautiful.
There are two large lakes to the South of Kunming - we chose to ride on the S102 route, so we biked along DianChi Lake. It turned out by research later on that there are a number of wetland parks in that region, all gaining their water from DianChi Lake. It’s mostly asphalt roads nearby, but upon leaving those, one can find wooden paths and bridges as well. The spot was really just perfect from numerous perspectives, so we quickly decided to set up our tent in the parking lot.
The next day we made steady progress, arriving in the city of Yuxi by early evening. Dinner time was fast approaching and, due to the nature of the region, we ended up settling down in a park again. This was a city version, we quietly pushed our bikes in and made ourselves comfortable on a bench that had roof over it. Tried to not get noticed, we cooked our rice right then and there like the most normal thing in the world. All the while keeping an eye out, but luckily for us we realized there is no guard or authority personnel even as the evening turned darker. After the usual Chinese evening dance finished, we got to enjoy the performance of a not-so-talented but all the more enthusiastic KTV singer, over ninety minutes. Then it turned quiet all the sudden and we did our best to make ourselves comfortable in the shades of the bench. Going to sleep while on a constant look-out wasn’t the most relaxing rest, though. Is someone going to notice us? How about our stuff, bikes, are they safe? And then, that night, happened the unprecedented, the one we feared the most: we awoke with glaring lights in our faces, pouring from flashlights. Two men approached, investigating us, our modest belongings, and the bikes. (All that without my contact lenses, not seeing anything was just the cherry on my sundae.) As it turned out, the park WAS under surveillance and the two army-like authority figures kicked us out of the park. So we gathered the mats, the sleeping bags, and set off for the Yuxi night with half-closed eyes in the middle of the night. We made it to a suburban playground and passed out within minutes. This time though we made sure to wake up on time to avoid attracting too much attention.
The weather turned hotter and more humid over the next days, and Balazs and I were making our way towards the border. Our path turned enticing with bountiful forests with smaller mountain ranges and quaint little villages. It was quite interesting to see how deciduous trees, evergreen trees and bamboo get along so well in the same area. Large lands were dedicated to agriculture, and mounds were decorated with smaller terraces where locals grew different vegetables. Mostly banana, mandarin and corn plantations were spreading along but we even saw coffee plantations as well! Most places had thick condensation, fog in the morning which only subdued by ten or eleven and then the temperature turned as high as thirty degrees. The air was dense, clothes glued on our skin and our skin became annoyingly sticky. The road, ascending rather high, was made of asphalt but was frequently under red mud and dust. By the end of the day, Balazs and I were filthy dirty but our sole solution was the wet-wipes in our bags.
One day, as luck would have it, we crossed paths with the couple we chatted for a few minutes in our Kunming hostel. Geneva a violinist, and John a trumpeter, are from York and are traveling from England to Indonesia. They left England over a year ago, and their destination is Surabaya, where they will start work as teachers in a music school.
The four of us spent one night at an old village house what we named “Thief HQ”, where we ran to seek refuge from pouring rain. That day was John’s 40th birthday, and for that occasion, we surprised him with a small cake. Then came music, out came the violin, the trumpet and Balazs’ ukulele. This ad hoc band gave quite an unprecedented performance, and they even sang “In a Jail’s Window”, spiced up with some jazz.
Our British friends were even more short of time than we were and traveled on despite the heavy rain. The two of us only continued onwards the next afternoon, towards XiShangBan. The weather was still gloomy, and yes, there were still days when we got soaking wet. Never ending rice fields spanned wherever we looked. The natural wonders broke off every now and then to give room for villages, but those consisted of 3-4-5 houses tops. Their room starts just a little over a meter away from the dusty road. Their facade is polluted by piles of trash on top of which chickens and roosters busy themselves. Bored, skinny dogs are kept on short leashes. (Why do they even keep them?) These properties begin and end with one one pile of trash. If we were lucky, they were set on fire and we covered nose and mouth till we pushed on. Awful sewage smell lingers between many trash piles in little villages. That smell can’t be ignored and no tricks were good enough to mask it all. Some houses even keep pigs, which spice the aforementioned stink.
Balazs and I spent endless days on these curvy roads, sometimes ascending, sometimes rolling downwards. After a while the road that was occupied by farmers grew into a respectable motorway, with banana plantations on the sides. We arrived to the Pu’er region.
This is where we met our coolest host as well. Balazs and I were just in the middle of looking for a place to stay. We came across an old, shabby looking house, where we spotted this guy at the side of a banana plantation. Upon asking whether we can stay, he began a long explanation, going on about Lord knows what. We learned over the weeks that whenever you tell a Chinese person you don’t understand what they are saying, they begin talking with even more vigor and speed. While he was busy rambling, we got bored and decided to look for another place. But a guy didn’t give up. Did he want us to go with him? Well, having nothing to lose and still having an hour till sundown, we agreed. He smiled - the first smile since we met him. The old man led us to a village we couldn’t see from the road, took us in and gave us a separate room. Like before, Balazs and I became the newest attraction for neighbors and villagers, checking out our bikes and us two of course. The locals were kind, smiling, curious, and seemed overall happy. After we put down our cargo, our friend pushed us toward the bathroom. Lord oh lord did that shower feel magical! Then came the dinner and some local rice wine. We so did NOT expect such a treat! Our host treated us for rice, bacon, tofu, egg and some sauer vegetables.
Biz Jin Tian, our kind host, is 80 years of age, muscular, good looking, fit and always had a smile for us. The neighbor gals (all over 60, by the way) came over for the evening and a sensational game night began. It was a priceless experience to sit beside them and see their (loving) arguments, card throwing, and frequent laughter, making them fall off their seats. In the morning, kind Biz Jin Tian packed us from the sauer veggies we enjoyed so much the night before. He even gave us sugar, pu’er tea in large portions. In return we gave him the coffee we had left, as he said he loves it so.
Two days later we slept in XiShuangBan already, where music proved yet again how it can bring people together.
We checked out a Buddhist temple which was very different than the ones we saw thus far. The style, decoration and rules were all different. Shoes must be taken off, for example, before entering. On the other hand, picture-taking was allowed. (On the Tibetan Plateau it was the exact opposite.)
Breathtaking Buddhist temples decorate this region.
Time was tight, less than a week was left till visa expiry. We had to depart after our short rest. Oh how many times have we said that three months is not enough for even half of China! Balazs and I chose a wild, adventurous path going forward. About 150 km left till the border, spiced with quite a lot of hiking. Fully aware that it’s not going to be a walk in the park, we departed - only to turn back 3km in.
XiShuangBan lays in a valley, and the less picturesque path was a curvy road by the foot of the mountain. We ascended, then by dusk we were heading towards South. Unfortunately though, that road was a highway where agricultural vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles are prohibited. Looking at the locals speeding along on their bikes, we followed their example, and with much respect, decided to ignore the sign. Off we went.
Balazs and I biked a respectable amount then even found a decent place to sleep, in a ran-down, out of service restaurant.
This path was superb. Like a baby’s bum so smooth, with wide passes and tunnels. Compared to our first choice, this road posed almost no difficulty as to ascending. Quite a few police officers were on the road, but nobody said a thing, instead they just smiled and waved. There was a moment where we got scared a bit though. The traffic was redirected through a gas station where the army was doing security checks. It went rather smooth: the soldiers smiled and asked in perfect English where we came from and what is that large, bulky item on Balazs’ back. (This ukulele again!) The soldiers checked our passports and wished us a pleasant journey. Phew, this was close!
We arrived to the town of Mengla with the idea of checking our e-mails, as we had to know if we have a place to stay upon arrival in Luang Namtha. Sadly, despite a week having passed, there was no response from our chosen Warmshowers guy. But how did we get internet? Actually, from a furniture store, the first store in town. The owner even offered tea, and as we spent quite the time, his wife invited us for dinner! Moments like these are always a tad emotional... Over time, we got rid of our shyness and accepted the invitation gladly.
Balazs and I spent the night not far from the store, in a somewhat protected corner. The next morning, in the very spot, was some kind of architectural hand over. Wow, lucky we cleared out so early! Our quota for the day was 50km, and we completed that safe and sound, arriving into Mohan.
We learned new life lessons again. Like all over the world, prices are spiked around the borders. This affected us when we had to buy lunch. Prices were twice the normal Chinese prices, but after endless searches, our hunger forced us into a hole in a wall family restaurant. And low and behold, a group of around eight people just stood up to leave, having left plenty of food on their plates. There was no time to ponder, Balazs stepped over to the approaching waitress and asked if we could eat the leftovers. She froze at the idea, basically. Then, after the initial shock, she smiled and assisted to move over the leftovers. (Note: in China, groups order at least 5, 6 dishes to share, place it in the middle of the table and everyone takes bit by bit into their own small bowl. It’s customary to over order, as it is a sign of status. “I can afford to purchase more than needed, even if there is leftover”.) By the time our miantiao arrived, Balazs and I cleared off all the leftovers.
Later on we got internet in the neighboring game room, and buddied up with the owner’s brother, Ma Jia Hao. The three of us spent the whole evening together basically, talking about China, the Chinese language (which I grew quite fond of overtime), and an average youngster’s chances in the country. Around nine in the evening the chef from next door brought over two large portions of noodle-soup. How hospitable and considerate!
Our last night in China was in an all open little building made of bamboo, right across from the game hall. Then, the next day we comfortably rolled over to the Mohan-Boten border, crossing into another new country.
Translated by: Pál Capewell
As we rolled out of a tunnel on route G213, we entered Yunnan Province without realizing it. The mountain ranges behind us grew greener and more alive. Balazs and I were really interested in exploring this province as well. China has 56 minorities (!!!) altogether, 28 of which are in Yunnan. More than half of the inhabitants of this province are not Chinese (or Han, as Chinese refer to themselves). One can find Buddhist Dai, Muslim Hue, Naxi and Mosu inhabitants. (People who are not familiar or knowledgable in the minorities can’t see much, or any at all differences among these different people.) The most significant difference we could observe between the Chinese, Tibetan or Uyghur people was that people here had darker skin, wider noses, and started to look more “South-East Asian”. Besides Chinese, people in Yunnan speak languages that belong to the Tibetan-Burmese language family. But what is Yunnan like? Where did we wander about and what did we find?
Let’s see one by one.
We rode for days from Yunnan’s northern corner on an under construction road, in a rather off-road style. Our route did not go along the popular biking trail of Jumping Tiger Valley and Dali (for which we do apologize!). We spent our nights in parking lots and playgrounds when we arrived in smaller towns and villages. Guide books do not exaggerate: the rich flora is accompanied by unparalleled fauna. By that I mean fluorescent and non-fluorescent spiders, insects, night butterflies flicker and wander around in all shapes, sizes and all different colors. As beautiful and natural it all may be, it made settling down rather challenging and erased all chances of setting up a tent. So we had to find a place with some sort of roof over us, which caused further problems. It was difficult to find a good spot in a narrow valley, filled with hanging this, that and lustrous trees everywhere. Fortunately for us, we were somehow always heading toward the right direction.
In the border of the “small” town Sijuan, next to ZhaoTong, we decided to hop on a bus as countless hours of hitchhiking were fruitless and we were afraid of running out of time visa wise. In order to get to the station though, we had to bike through Sijuan. A dusty spot, somewhat surrounded by fences, posed as the regional bus hub. Using our pocket dictionaries, we enquired about the fares like it was the most normal thing in the world. What can we say, it was quite expensive and out of our budget but Balazs and I decided to swing for it, having had no other feasible options. Luckily the bikes were transported for free, which was quite the relief. Being short of time, afraid of completely missing out on stuff because our visa runs out, we bought the tickets. Next task was to look for some accommodation as the Kunming bus was only due to depart the next morning. Well, when I mean accommodation I really just mean a reasonable spot where we can cozy up and pull through the next morning. It ended up to be a hospital’s garden area, where we convinced the guard to let us sleep overnight. Fantastic!
Ever since the Emei Mountain adventure, my leg has been itchy, full of red spots and irritations. First we thought they were just bites of some sorts, but these burning, ugly spots didn’t disappear and one day I counted 44 on one and 79 on my other leg. The constant itching turned unbearable and we decided to stop by “next door”. In the parking lot I asked a young fellow, with the help of my super dictionary of course, to assist me in finding an English speaking doctor. From then on, he assigned himself to be responsible for me, led us to the first floor of the hospital and got two nurses to help. The nurses got one English speaking and five (!!!) Chinese speaking doctors. Somehow, don’t ask me how, I was surrounded by 9-10 people by the time I took my seat in a doctor’s office. Other patients and relatives came by to see the newest attraction in town - me. The doctor examined my leg, then with a shy smile, admitted his English is really not that good. Further questions, phone calls followed and even a computer appeared. Someone even tried using a speech-recognition app, and others tried online translation. In the midst of all the craziness, the doctor announced I have skin allergy and quickly wrote a prescription. With the prescription came good wishes and we thanked them for their priority treatment. The youngster from the parking lot took us to the pharmacy, picked up and paid for the meds and didn’t even let us pay. Naturally we thanked him left and right for his care and support then he said his goodbyes with a smile and left. Balazs and I returned to the garden, did this and that and Balazs’ ukulele performance attracted a few passersby.
The next morning we packed up and headed for the bus station. Our bus to Kunming took off at 08:30 sharp and due to the knock-out effect of the allergy meds, I slept through the 12 hours ride.
We arrived to Yunnan’s capital around 18:30. We had some arrangements with a Warmshowers user, but they had to cancel last minute (unfortunately this happened a few times). What can one do in this scenario? After overcoming the initial shock and slight anger, you decide to look for the cheapest possible hotel in town. Just like in Chengdu, we opted for a hostel in Kunming too. So far we only had pleasant experiences with Chinese hostels. They are some of the cheapest available here, there is wifi, and you can even wash your clothes at an added charge. (We used hostelworld.com and yhachina.com. The latter offers 5-10RMB discount for YHA card holders, which can be exchanged in all hostels.) Balazs and I only counted a few days for Kunming, which we planned to use for rest, chores (washing, bag cleaning, etc) and city exploration. One attraction of the many in Yunnan’s capital is the 1300 years old Eastern and Western Pagoda. It’s enormous, has 13 storeys and it dates back to sometime in the Tang Dynasty. These gigantic towers offer a unique sight in the middle of the asphalt jungle.
We checked out the hidden passages further from downtown. This is how we came across the bird and flower market, where it’s obvious the merchandise used to be much more plentiful. Here one can find everything from the waterlilies to bamboo collections. If one ventures deeper inside, they can find bunnies, turtles, scorpions, snakes and all sorts of clothes, bags, jewelry, etc. This is the kinda place one goes to awe and explore but where one never buys. The tables were collapsing under the cheap plastic trash.
It would have been nice to get our Laos visa in Kunming. We were not certain whether Hungarians would be granted visa on arrival upon arriving at the Mohan-Boten border. We called the Laos Consulate, only to be told “we are not sure, please come in personally”. Unsatisfied with the answer, I began my own investigation and found the contact of the Hungarian Honorary Consulate of Laos, and sent them an e-mail. I didn’t expect much or anything really after the initial failure, but the Consul has answered within a few hours, reassuring us that Hungarians are granted visa on arrival but have to pay a 30USD fee (+2 USD administration fee).
Great, we thought, and set off for the South of Yunnan.
Translated by: Pál Capewell
Our journey to Chengdu was diverse: we passed under airport runways, bridges and above multiple-lane expressways. Hmm, how could I best describe this vibrant, gigantic city? Sichuan province’s capital’s apartment complexes are growing like mushrooms in the rain, the highways are bustling with buses, cars in and out of the city, and bikes, motorbikes are doing the same just in their own separate lane. Interestingly, all traffic boards are with Chinese characters, Pinyin (Chinese in Latin letters) and English. Next to the roads, flowerbeds and beautifully maintained lawns spawn. One minute to the next, one feels he is already in the heart of the city. Next to the multiple storey modern apartment complexes, large office buildings stand tall, almost as if proud of their height. You can see the colourful neon displays of the shops, banks, restaurants, and waiters, waitresses are luring customers into restaurants through loudspeakers. In smaller alleys, right next to the grand buildings, the scene is quite different though: food stalls, restaurants on wheels are surrounded by little plastic seats and tables for guests; vendors sell a range of fruits from their transformed motorbikes.
The locals were not at all surprised by us, the only staring we got was due to our heavy-packed bikes. To our knowledge, around 10,000 expats live in Chengdu: some for studying, some for work, so our “western faces”did not draw much attention.
It started to look like all our problems will be sorted in Chengdu, and right we were. The long, showerless days were over and we enjoyed taking multiple showers a day finally. Also, at last we managed to get parts to fix our laptop! Unfortunately our lappy wasn’t cut out for the adventures we embarked on, and the hard drive gave up. We also took care of our postal stuff, got out patrol-powered boiler fixed - it is true that whatever can break, WILL break! - and fixed Balazs’rear bag that needed serious attention, due to an accident I must admit I was responsible for. Quite the irony that amidst all this heavy traffic, pushy motorbikes and impatient drivers, the accident we do have is caused by one of us. On our way downtown, I managed to run into him from behind, causing the bar to break at the rear.
Fortunately for us, we found Natooke, a bike shop ran by American expats. I must say, we have not seen such a well-equipped and well-prepared bike shop since our time in Turkey. They fixed Balazs’bag, and the bar I broke at the rear. We also had the fortune of seeing bikes made out of bamboo the first time in our lives - naturally we took them for a test ride right away.
After coming and going here and there and having solved all our problems, we decided to hit the city for fun. We explored China’s largest Taoist place of worship, a temple from the Tang Dynasty (618-907). The Bronze Goat Temple, which is particular in the way it’s roof is assembled, has been restored in the XVIII-XIX centuries. Inside the temple, numerous human-shaped statutes stood in different glass displays. Altars of sacrifice - as expected from Buddhist temples - have been scattered throughout the temple as well. These were packed with fruits, refreshments and other “objects of sacrifice”.
There are two bronze goat statues as well in the temple, which, according to the legends, were brought over from Beijing during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). One of them is especially unique:
it has been put together from body-parts of other animals. The goat has a mouse’s ear, bull’s nose, tiger’s nails, rabbit’s mouth, dragon’s horn, snake’s tail, horse’s face, goat’s beard, monkey’s neck, chicken’s eyes, dog’s belly, and pig’s legs. It is safe to assume that this depicts the Chinese zodiac system. In between the buildings, we strolled next to carefully-maintained flower-beds and shrubs.
Another famous sight of Chengdu is the Panda Research Center. This panda zoo, located at the outskirts of the city, is breathtaking. Throughout the park, bamboo forests and huge flowers of all colours make the surroundings simply fabulous. With the help of clearly visible and easily understandable signs, visitors can find their way to baby and adult pandas both. They say it’s best to go during morning hours so that you get to see the feeding rituals - otherwise these pandas don’t move much and don’t go out of their ways to entertain you. Unfortunately we only got there by the afternoon hours, so we only got to see them lounging around without a worry in the world.
Little panda babies are born during autumn months. They are placed in a separate building to be under intensive care. There is a very particular way of observing the baby pandas, by the way. We could only look from a certain angle, for a certain while and have to move at a certain speed, otherwise the “panda guard”(I’m not kidding you!!), would step in and rush us forward.
Besides the pandas, being among Chinese tourists is an attraction on its own, worthy of a social behavioural study. To see “follow the flag”groups of Chinese tourists in China is a priceless sight and experience. Groups carrying selfie-sticks with smart phones/tablets in the air, cameras with massive, cannon-sized equipments characterised them, flocking in seemingly endless groups. Besides the never-ending picture taking, they were laughing, passionately exchanging views and explanations, pushing each other for better view, and rushing along to stay with their group. I couldn’t help but wonder: if the Italians are Europe’s “loud ones”, Chinese are definitely the loud ones of Asia.
In Chengdu we could finally pack our warm clothes away. We basked in the good weather and sunshine. Not only was the weather heavenly, but get this, we found a store selling Yunnan coffee! For months now we were forced to drink the 3-in-1 instant coffee, so we really missed some quality black coffee in the mornings. But being able to go to rest in a proper bed, with a full belly and having had a shower was a very welcome change as well. We recharged from every possible aspect, and may I say we needed it. After a week of “pampering”we left the city, heading south. Our next stop: Emei Shan, 160km away from Chengdu.
Emei Mountain is the most sacred Buddhist mountain in China. Emei turned into a sacred pilgrimage site after Bodhisattva Puxian and the elephants with six trunks visited. The legend says this is where Buddhism first made its appearance in China and moved eastward. Emei Shan thus attracts tourists and Buddhist pilgrims since the VI. Century.
The countless temples and monasteries on top of this heavily forested mountaintop were connected by stairs and narrow trails. After a certain height though, travellers must pay a hefty fee if they wish to continue their journey. Many monasteries can be visited by paying a dismissible 8-10 RMB (~1Euro), however. At the bottom of Emei Mountain a tourist paradise awaits the visitors, with countless hotels, restaurants, and guest houses. Some monasteries also offer accommodation for a fraction of the price, without any of the “luxuries”, but yet still offer wifi. Yes, we were as speechless as you might be right now reading this: wifi. In monasteries.
The next day we biked around the foot of the hill, explored the surroundings, checked out Shanjue and Fuhu Temples. It felt rather refreshing to be tracking and climbing a bit after all this biking.
After the serenity of Emei Mountain, we had quite a few challenging days: we visited Leshan and the city of Emei twice. We had to bike back and forth for the train station and the tickets only to be refused boarding for our Kunming train for the tiniest possible issue. We were refused boarding because they found a pocket-knife and two knives deemed by the personnel to be too dangerous on-board. They suggested we send it after ourselves by post…. Naturally we had to buy new tickets, so a whole day’s budget was out the window. Since this wasn’t our only unexpected expenditure this month, we decided against being very picky with accommodation…
That basically meant sleeping in parks, cargo area of little shops, or at times the rain-proof areas of parking lots. There were also times when we slept at playgrounds, enjoying complimentary wifi, surprisingly.
Unfortunately, showerless days followed again. Luckily though breathtakingly beautiful, mountainous areas came next, trying to make up for our sorrows.
After rolling out of a tunnel on route 213, we had a quick stop at a food stall to look at our phones, to see where we were. Then Joe, a young Chinese teacher, stepped over to us and kept nodding enthusiastically: “Yes, yes, you are in Yunnan now!”
Translated by: Pál Capewell
In order for you to get a good feel for what Sichuan is like, let me depict the picture in front of me. We are in LeShan, and like the carved Buddha statue of 71 meters, we are sitting at the riverbank and are staring at the river. Over on the other side, an old musical instrument vendor is playing on his flute. The traditional Chinese melody is disturbed by the constant flow of buses, motorbikes and their never-ending honking. Some fishermen battle for victory (and probably dinner) from the riverbanks, and, further inward, other fishermen sit in their boats waiting for their luck. The 20 storey tall buildings give little room to smaller, older houses. Though historical looking gems, they fit nicely together. Just like China today: the old customs, traditions stay alive in the modern ways of life.
But of course this is not where our exploration of Sichuan began. Leaving QingHai, after a long hike over the hills, Sichuan welcomed us, with the exact same natural perfection QingHai said goodbye with. The three of us joyously rolled down the hill, down into the afternoon, down into a new province of our Chinese exploration. I’m writing “the three of us”because leaving Yushu behind, we bumped into Henk, who departed from Holland in February heading to Singapore. The 27 year old Dutch had enough of event management and decided to explore the world. As for a destination, he decided on the furthest land possible, Singapore, and on his feather-light bike he was making steady progress.
Allow me a little detour regarding the bike. Do you have any idea how many bags we carry? Both of us have four bags on our bikes - two at the front, two at the rear. Eni carries our sleeping bags at the rear, and a backpack. I carry our tents, a larger backpack, and a ukulele. Eni’s bike is approximately 45 kg, mine is around 60. Compared to this, Henk is carrying two bags the size of ours on the front, a waterproof bag of 20-25 litres, a light sleeping bag, and to the front he tied a 1kg tent. His bike couldn’t possibly be more than 13kg. Actually, if we were to start our journey all over again, we’d do many things differently, wouldn’t bring a lot of stuff we carry now and, in all honesty, would bring some stuff we didn’t think of. I guess this is what they call hindsight 20/20.
We spent a few days with Henk, and over these days, the following happened: we slept next to a nomad family’s tent, taught the kids how to frisbee, and we learned how to prepare “tsampa”. Another day, a different nomad family lent us their out-of-use house in the midst of heavy snowfall. We went through the “how to make fire with yak dung in a iron stove so that it stays lit as well”training. I can tell you this much: it’s not as easy as you might believe so, but patrol solves most of the issues. The same evening, enjoying the warmth coming from the oven, we had ourselves a little movie-time, watching The Hobbit. We also ate in a traditional Tibetan restaurant, fixed flat-tires in the rain, had tea with Henk at our tent, and munched crackers while the storm was raging outside.
One day we said goodbye, and on another said hello again. We hitchhiked ourselves into a pick-up truck that already had five passengers - two of which were yaks - and admired a Buddhist pilgrim destination in the mountains. Finally we had to wave goodbye, as Hank’s Chinese visa was expiring soon. Once, we saw him from a distance setting up his tent at a lakeside, where we passed him in “our”truck on the road hundreds of meters above. We couldn’t wait to get down from the Tibetan Plateau: as beautiful and serene it all was, so was the weather getting colder and unwelcoming day by day, letting us know winter arrived.
As we were descending, the colour green showed itself: bushes and trees appeared, the latter of which were preparing for the winter with their yellow leaves. The architecture changed as well: the nomad tents and single-storey houses were replaced by 2-3 storey high, stone and wooden houses. We had the chance once to sleep in a Tibetan house: made out of wood, all painted red with self-drawn Buddhist pictures on the walls, depicting dragons, white lions, elephants, and spiritual “guards”.
Not long after, Sichuan’s more crowded part appeared. Noisy, rowdy, dirty small towns with honking trucks and street-food stalls. Then came the part of our journey, for which many people would say “now THAT’s the China I know”. Gigantic green mountains, whose tops disappear in white clouds, forest covered bases stretching all the way to the rivers. Narrow valleys, where the mighty mountains are crossed by fast-paced rivers snaking downwards. We really enjoyed this part! Soaring downwards, racing with the rivers, the condensation from the mountains damped our faces. It was exactly what we needed.
The narrow two-lane road was occupied by houses on both sides, with their facades right on the road. It was frightening to see little kids just an arm’s reach away from the speedy trucks racing along. A lot of families run car-washing businesses to make ends meet. They hose the water over from the rivers, through cleverly manufactured systems just above the busy road. They wash cars, trucks, but mostly specialise on large trucks carrying cargo. At one of our stops we had the fortune to witness it all in person. It was quite the sight! Even the grandma came over in her waterproof boots to wash the truck, scratch off the cement from the sides. Here I’d like to grab the opportunity to say a few words on women’s position in China. We don’t know much, but frequently saw how women do men’s jobs and tasks. Before female right activists jump at my throat, what I mean is that these women do physically trying tasks that require a male physique: working on construction sights lifting heavy bricks, shovelling, or do work at places which is really not the norm back home in Europe: car repair centers, for example.
Our Chinese visa slowly reached it’s mid-term, so we decided to pick up the pace a little bit and hitchhike. At times, we were slower than snails though, when the smallest possible truck got a flat tire, and there were times I (Balazs) had to drive myself. Right before Chengdu a young driver, Yan, picked us up. Yan, though couldn’t speak a word of English, was very courteous and kind. He drove us for 280km, which took a trying nine hours due to the ever so curvy mountainous roads, and didn’t allow us to pay a dime. Even treated us to a heavenly Sichuan meal on the road at a pitstop. And get this: upon arrival we had a few bites for dinner in a teahouse before going to sleep in our hostel, and when we wished to pay the next day we found out he already settled all our bills in secret. Well yeah, this is what Chinese people are like. Interesting, as we were told quite the contrary (both by expats and Chinese) before departing on our journey. We were told that inviting others, treating others is not a common practice in China and yet there we were, enjoying the opposite. The next day we hit the streets in 25 degrees and humidity, to enjoy the trees with their large, green crowns. Having finally returned to the warm climate, we hit downtown in T-shirts and shorts, a much needed change after all the freezing we’ve gone through. On the road we couldn’t get enough of the sights and kept nudging each other “Check it out! Bamboo!”, or“Look, banana tree!”, or“By God, those are some enormous palm leaves!”What can I say, we are indeed getting closer and closer to the tropics!
And what did we look for and find in Leshan? How did we get there and what happened in Chengdu? How did our journey commence afterwards? You will find out from our next blogpost. Stay tuned!
Translated by: Pál Capewell
In our previous post, you read about the unique landscape of the Tibetan Plateau, Tibetan traditional dress styles, and our ever first pass conquered by bike above 4000m. In this post we will share some insights about the locals and their lifestyles - or at least how we understood what we saw.
The Tibetan people of West-QingHai live off of keeping animals, and by that I mean most families keep yaks. This lifestyle is half as remote and nomadic as it sounds: families actually live in army-style blue, white, or black tents equipped with solar panels (funded by the government), both men and women ride motorcycles and they even coordinate the yaks with motorcycles. Around 6 and 7 in the morning, the yaks are released from around the tents. The enormous, fuzzy-haired animals slowly make their way towards the mountains to munch on the scarce grass available. Be that rain, snow, hail, or storm, there they are, munching away. Tough creatures, that’s for sure. Right before dusk, a few men walk or motorbike around them, leading these huge creatures of love back home. We often saw how families unite and take turns herding the animals. Everyone is using slings in leading their own or fellow families‘ yaks. Next to the tents, ropes are secured to the ground and the animals in order to keep them there for night time. Most yaks, especially the older ones, already know their spot, return voluntarily and wait for the rope to be secured around them, then make themselves comfortable.
The locals keep the yaks for their milk, meat and dung. The milk - which tastes sweeter than cow milk - is used for a number of purposes. Mixed with black tea, it can be quite the delicious warm treat; they also use it for making yoghurt and dried quart in most families. Meat is kept in a dried form, as Tibetan families don’t have fridges. You are probably wondering what they use the dung for, huh? It’s for heating purposes, as no bushes or trees survive in this climate. We observed that it is the ladies’ task to handle dung. You wouldn’t believe the hassle one must go through with this procedure! They collect the future heating material from under the animals, then dry it all under the sun. They leave it out for days for it to dry, meanwhile the ladies turn it from one side to another. When deemed dry enough, they scrape it together, put it all in a sack, and it’s ready!
The tents that these nomads live in range in size. We visited a tent of an old couple living on a bare 5-6 sq meters, but also had the fortune of enjoying a cup of tea with a family living under a 30 sq meters tent. Nomadic life meets with modern technology in these tents. In the middle of the tent stands the stove which serves both as a heater and an oven for cooking. The dung filled sacks are always nearby in a corner, so keeping the fire alive isn’t a challenge. There is usually a big ladle with water on the stove. But get this: we saw iPhones in almost every family, and solar power converters! Furnitures are again limited and simple though, we usually sat ourselves on benches or beds as they had no chairs.
There wasn’t much issue regarding the toilets. You just went out, walked a little distance and.... did your thing. It was quite straight-forward during dark, evening hours, but in the morning, under the waking sun, it was rather the inconvenient challenge to find yourself a cozy, private spot. Needless to say the locals didn’t see this as a problem and just did their thing where they pleased, but for us it was a bit more difficult to.... be at ease.
These nomad families marry early in their lives, an average 25 year old male already has two or three children. The kids stay at home and grandparents look after them. These little ones don’t receive much attention so they grow up basically on their own, what a European would call wild. We observed how strange and unseen it was for them to be smiled at or their face caressed - they just didn’t know what it meant or what to do with it. Older kids attend school which is at a “dismissible” 20-30-50km distance from their tents.
The most interesting treat so far, tsampa, was also introduced by the nomads. The ingredients are kept in a beautifully carved wooden box that has three compartments: one for barley-flour, another for crystal sugar, and another for dried quark. The recipe could not be simpler. You take a big mug, pour a little yak butter in, then pour on top a little yak milk/black tea combo. The butter melts, leaving a thick tea-like fluid. You take the barley flour, a little sugar, the quark, then you work it together with two fingers until you get a paste. You roll it into balls, giving a shape of a fist size potato. The taste - surprisingly - is quite pleasant and it fills your tummy fast. We really enjoyed it! Actually we saw these little wooden boxes with the ingredients in households in bigger cities also around the region.
West-QingHai doesn’t have many cities, to say the least. Even cities of respectable sizes are separated by large distances. The streets and passages in smaller towns are extremely dirty and messy, unfortunately, and groups of stray dogs hover over trash piles. Not an uplifting scene. Organized trash removal is unheard of, it is the business of river waters and sewage drainage. We visited a smaller town (Cacagoin) where we saw a public toilet with eight stalls made out of concrete - not one’s first choice but lacking alternatives, we had to use it. Locals are far less bothered by this: they answer nature’s calls next to piles of trash, in the middle of the road, on the patio and so on. (I apologize to those of you who have weaker tummies, but this is part of the adventure too!)
Buildings are nicely decorated, columns and beams are painted of all colors, the bars on shop windows carry Tibetan motifs. Many buildings and large gates also carry religious themed flags.
It is worth to mention their approach to transport as well. Promise you it’s worth it. We can confidently say Turkey and Kirghizistan trained us well, but I must add: they did not train us well enough. The Chinese motorcycle, tricycle, bicycle, whatevercycle array is so shocking it’s hard to believe and accept it’s from, and on, Planet Earth. Walking around the town feels like a computer game where one must jump around whatevercycles, watch out cars and avoid them to stay alive. If they hit you, game over. Most drivers have their own way of comprehending and implementing traffic rules, by their own concept of standard and safety. We lose this driving game as badly as a Chinese driver would in Hungary. Here every driver thinks that they enjoy priority over everyone else, regardless of the scenario and the people involved. Red traffic lights bother them as little as the pedestrian filled crossings (thus not at all), and small left curves into the opposite lanes, quick selfies in the middle of the road, comfy catch-up sessions over the phone (again in the middle of the road) or an express pedicure are all the norm. Usually drivers who follow the least of the rules have the loudest honks, honking away at the people who actually try to follow the rules (that would be us). I’m not going to even try to deny it - we were utterly clueless most of the time.
Near every town stands a Buddhist monastery. They are usually situated 5-10km away from the towns. Most are built at the foot of a hill, in tight valleys, far from the busy roads. Concrete roads lead to the monasteries, with no admission fee. We had the fortune of visiting a little gem of a monastery, near the town of Zhiduo. Those days we enjoyed the warm hospitality of Tashi, but more on that later.
We were led and guided around the temple by Shampa Gyancen, the most senior monk in the monastery. It was built on a smaller village-sized area, and expanded gradually. Monks do not live together, but all have their own houses. Very simple and humble at houses though, I must say. The monastery consisted of numerous buildings. We visited the Guards of Dharma Temple, the four storey high major temple where a 30m tall Buddha statue arose. This gold and diamond decorated statue, which also made its way into the Guinness Records, is in a lotus sitting position. All four floors of this temple are crowded by altars, almost bending under the gifts and sacrifices, and the setting is made even more spiritual by the countless candles and incense sticks. Pictures of reincarnated lamas and monks were lightly visible in the dim lit passages. The walls were decorated by Buddhist motifs. With the guidance from Monk Shampa, we were passing through the buildings strictly in clockwise manner. We were informed that food for the Passed Souls are contained in a large, tortoise shaped containers in every temple and monastery. It had a unique smell, my guess was barley, being burnt in those containers.
Tashi kept translating from Tibetan to English non-stop. He didn’t seem tired the least bit, even when we returned to Monk Shampa’s house and picked his brain on Buddhism, teaching and his everyday life. So who is Tashi?
One cold evening, as fortune would have it, we met Tashi back in Zhidou. The twenty-three year old Tibetan boy got his English degree in a Chinese university. He studied in Texas for two years, then worked in London for a short time at a Chinese agency. Currently he teaches English for the nineteenth reincarnation of the QingHai Lama, a nine year old boy. Tashi has a reliable family background, as his father is a police chief - which is quite an important aspect in this problematic region.
The Tibetan Plateau exceeded our expectations both. We met with and experienced so many new things! After the Muslim countries we visited, on this plateau we were immersed in Buddhism, and all its tastes, faces, and customs. When things were turning too good, we got some heavy rain or snow in our necks, but it couldn’t deter us - be that under a poncho next to the road, locked in tents, or rolling downwards from a mountain on our bikes. Once when we were in the town of Yushu, a police family with a nine year old girl took us in for the night when were inquiring about a good place to sleep. That was quite the surprise, after all the negative stories we heard about Chinese police. We had delicious meals and they even gave us a tour of the city! Wait, that’s not totally accurate. Balazs took us, actually, as the husband lent us his minibus and the mother didn’t drive. On our way from the pilgrim site, the mother requested to pick up a few people, so Balazs felt exactly like the old days back home: he used to be a minibus driver before we embarked on this adventure.
We left Yushu to the nearby Sichuan Provice. Our tiny team expanded for a few days and... but let’s leave that for the next blogpost.
Translated by: Pál Capewell
As we wrote earlier, sadly we had to cancel our plans regarding Tibet. For now, one must go through a travel agency to obtain a permission to enter and spend a pretty penny doing so. If that wasn’t enough, visitors are limited in what they can visit and discover while in Tibet. Point is, we would never have the opportunity to slurp yak-butter tea with the locals in their tents, using the internationally accepted communication form of... smiles. We were suggested a website (thelandofsnowes.com), where one can get plenty of information regarding other Chinese regions resembling the Tibetan lifeforms and cultures.
Actually I meant to give this post the title “Two Weeks in Tibet” (which, in reality, is three weeks but two weeks is closer to reality). Though we didn’t officially enter Tibet, everything was just like Tibet, if not more! What do I mean? Let me explain. The Tibetan Plateau does not stop at the administrational border of Tibet, but spans out to QingHai and Sichuan Provinces. The landscape, plant-life, and animal-life are the same. Animal keeping nomadic families can be found here as well (in bigger numbers than Tibet!), and the majority of the locals are still from the Tibetan ethnicity. They speak the Tibetan language and use it around town (even for street signs), and wear traditional Tibetan clothes.
But let’s start from the very beginning. QingHai Province welcomed us with a very dark, desertlike landscape. Inhabitants and drinkable water were scarce, which made our journey a tad difficult, so we decided to hitchhike a bit as well. We got to know a young Tibetan-Mongolian couple, who were sweet enough to have us over for an evening. Cenga Peren, a Tibetan folklore singer, and his wife Majena, who was pregnant with their first child. We were overjoyed to meet a Tibetan and a Mongolian at the same time, as we could not wait to see faces from these two different regions.
We got down to Golmud, where we were fortunate enough to enjoy hot showers from functioning shower-heads, wifi, and a washing machine. Our gas cooker blew two of its seals which we didn’t expect, and had to fix. We found one, yes one, cooker in the whole town - by that I mean the expedition stores - and even that didn’t work properly so we didn’t buy it. Instead, we bought four gallons of gas, an attachable cooking head and hoped it would last until we got to a bigger town where we can get the necessary replacements. We had to restock on food as well, as the small towns we passed only had instant food, from which we had enough for a lifetime. We bought rice, corn flakes, raisins, prunes, banana flakes, honey, milk powder, and instant coffee (ever since Kirghizistan we couldn’t find normal coffee, we have high hopes for Chengdu though!). For emergencies, we keep chicken thighs in vacuumed packing and noodles at the bottom of our bags. For those of you who have not been to China this may be a shock: in China, you can find almost every single body part of any animal, in a vacuum packing. So chicken thighs and legs, duck neck, pork knuckle, and tongue, all sorts of fish and sea creatures are readily available in most stores. Aside from these, I must say they love packing things one by one. Crackers, sausages by piece, boiled eggs, etc could not be easier to get!
On September 15th, we left Golmud on the Lhasa Highway. The name highway is a bit misleading though, it really was only just a two lane road going to Lhasa, via a few unimportant towns. We began our ascend, together with the road. We spent quite some time at a police check-point, as the cops took their time with us. It was challenging to convince them that despite how it looks, no, we are not trying to sneak into Tibet. (We heard of a biker who was turned back HERE, 1000km away from Lhasa!!!)
We were perfectly aware that we had to cross a 4000m-deep pass on our 730km journey to the city of Yushu, and knew what we were in for. Our journey took us through the Mount Kunlun Geopark, we checked out a Taoist Temple, a saint spring, a triple glacier, and the memorial sight of a 8.1 magnitude earthquake. We planned our progress so that we managed to sleep 600m higher every night till we reached the valley. 3100m, 3700m, 4300m, and then conquering the 4763m deep pass, at 4600m above sea level.
The weather was decent, but Mother Nature managed to bless us with some rain or snow every day. What did surprise us, however, was the unseen military presence along our way. Military vehicles and hummers, radar stations, trucks in a never-ending continuation. Enormous tents that were probably capable of catering for hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers. The famous Lhasa Railway went parallel with our path. We saw trains passing in both directions, but instead of the expected passenger trains, they were military ones carrying equipments. The soldiers at their posts seemed quite chill though, smoking away, smiling and waving at us. Looks like this Tibet topic is still very active today...
The higher we reached, the more severe our lack of oxygen became, attacking us in sudden shocks, forcing us to have unplanned stops. It seemed as if the bikes became heavier and heavier. There were nights when we awoke suddenly to the awful feeling of not being able to breath, followed by fits trying to get enough air into our lungs.
Arriving to the pass was a priceless experience - on one hand we were exhausted from all the work and it even started to snow, on the other hand we were extremely happy and proud for having made it. Not only have we not been this high up before, but we did it this time with bikes! 4763m became our new bike record. Unfortunately our headaches got more and more severe, and it started to turn dark so after a few pictures we continued to ride forward.
The desired destination for that day was Bodunquan, hoping the city will spoil us with a warm shower and a room crowning us for all this hard work. Right before Bodunquan, a snow-storm slowed us down, with such strong cross-winds that we barely saw anything. Luckily for us, it left as fast as it came, and after a turn, we reached Bodunquan. It’s next to impossible to put the sight into words, but I’ll try. Do you remember those good old cowboy movies where the lead hero lived in a dusty little village (of three houses) with nobody in sight, just the wind stirring the sand? Well, it was exactly like that except the sand was dust. To the left of us, there was a car repair shop, and a gas station, to the right a grocery store seeming hole-in-a-wall, a “restaurant”, and a motel/grocery-store/truck-stop. By truck-stop we mean those areas where the trucks can be refueled with water so they don’t get too hot on the steep hills. To be honest this is not what we expected, or at least a bit more life and a decent accommodation. But, it seemed that was our selection for the day. A kind old Tibetan local showed us our choices, and we opted for a 6 bunk room, where, to our fortune, only we slept. The beds were bunk, with very rough exterior and a crepe-thin layer that was titled a “mattress”. Oh and there was an iron stove, and.... yeah, that’s about it. They did crack up the heat for us in the stove though, in all fairness to them.
We were never the picky ones, but in that physical, emotional and mental state, we’d have sacrificed a tad more on the altar of comfort. Power outlets nada, and we even had to request for the light to be turned on in our room, as that also was at the hand of the owner. In favor of those with sensitive stomachs and those reading these lines while enjoying meals, I will not go into great detail as to what served as a “toilet”. Let it be enough that it forced me to go out into the fields very early morning to answer nature’s call. As for water, there was a barrel next to the road outside, with a friendly warning that it’s not drinkable. The patio was covered under dirt, trash and a huge mess. This is the beginning of the time period Eni and I (Balazs) refer to as “going under”.
Instead of tear-dropping over leaving Bodunquan, we quickly turned on road S308, not knowing what to expect. The only information we had was that it goes through the Tibetan Plateau, it is mostly uninhabited (by people) and has an extensive wild-life. The latter became apparent rather soon, as we saw deers, chipmunks, wild donkeys, and yaks wandering around. It was our third day above 4000m, and our headaches reached a severe level, so we had to start taking painkillers. To look at the silver lining, we took turns feeling ill - for me it was the night in Bodunquan, for Eni it was the day after that was very uncomfortable (to use heavy sugarcoating). A lot of people, including us two if I am honest, probably imagine the Tibetan Plateau to be just flat, like an oven pan. Au contraire! It was a slightly hilly, diverse landscape at around 4000m above sea-level. No trees whatsoever, instead scarce grass and yellow-brown moth cover most of the land, upon which animals feed themselves. Tiny lakes and rivers made the view a little more colorful. Due to the hilly nature of the landscape, the road naturally felt like a roller-coaster, going up and down. It was quite challenging to be heading upward at 4500m. We could only do it with regular stops. It felt like someone sucked the energy, power out of our bodies and the air out of our lungs.
Mornings were generally nice, but dark clouds appeared during the afternoons which were much faster than us. These dark clouds produced snow-storms, hails, so strong we had to get off our bikes as we couldn’t keep them on the road. It was very dangerous. At times like these, we just sat by the road under our poncho, freezing, waiting for it all to be over. I’ll be honest with you: wasn’t the time of our lives. Every evening we slept in tents and the evenings became colder and colder, going under zero celsius on a regular basis. Most mornings we came out to see our leftover water frozen.
It was during these trying days that we reached our first Tibetan village. Allow me to write a few lines about them.
Their faces, especially the males, remind us of the indigenous peoples’ of America. Their skin dark brown and black, and their eyes and hair both black. Men are around 170cm tall, women even shorter. Most of them dress themselves in Tibetan traditional outfits. Men wear knee-length coats with sleeves so long they reach the ground (no idea why). They frequently use one of the sleeves as a wrap around their waist, secured by a wide belt. They either wear hats or head-covers that remind me of the time Tom (from Tom & Jerry) secured a headband on and hid in a cild bassinet - the only difference I see is that Tibetans have more colorful versions with better patterns. Ladies also wear long coats, but their coats go all the way till the ground. They also have the super long sleeves of which they only use one and either tie the other one around their waist, or let it just hang there. They keep their hair woven, even the elderly, with a long ribbon that covers their head. These ribbons are colorful, decorated with large beads and jewelry. They adore rings, necklaces, earrings, which most of the time have an orange stone or bead in the middle. Kids’ pants are quite entertaining, as they have a hole at their backside, enabling them to “answer nature’s call anytime, anywhere”. They squat and push! Oh and do they love colorful decorations of all sorts! They put stickers and decorations on their motorbikes, trucks making them look like a Christmas tree.
How did they welcome us? How did we find the slightly mystical, unheard of, and perhaps slightly over-idealized ethnicity? What is tsampa and what is it like? How was our first encounter with nomads? Read our next post to find out!
Translated by: Pál Capewell
When we crossed the border from Kazakhstan, China literally hit us right in the face. Looking back, we saw nothing but a very bumpy road in the poorest condition and a Kazakh flatland. No city or village in sight. Over the border though, this all changed and we were heading forward gaping at what was ahead. China welcomed us with ten, twenty storey high apartment buildings, mirror-flat, multiple lane highways, food stalls, restaurants and shops everywhere, with people noisily commuting all over the place. A lot of them stopped and stared at us, got out their touch-screen phones to snap pictures of us. After almost three months in the different “...istan” countries, it was all a big shock.
The first couple of days we were really excited that we got this far. Helpful, curious locals were smiling at, and assisting us everywhere we turned. They were checking out our bikes, staring at our faces, taking it all in - many of them with not-so-furtive giggles. Oftentimes, innocent activities such as buying vegetables turned into a temporary attraction for them, when asking for directions, ten or fifteen people gathered around to observe, “being part of it all”. When we got out our maps, even more “experts” arrived, getting louder and louder, trying to show us the right way. Needless to say, however loud they were, we didn’t understand a word from what they were saying. This is when our Chinese pocket dictionary showed its presence, but that was again of little use with Uyghur locals... Interestingly enough though, many words sounded very similar to their Turkish equivalents, or even to Uzbek, and Kirghiz words. (Of course when the suspicion grew that they are related, with looked it up right away, and low and behold! They are indeed of the same language family!) Balazs and I turned very happy, as beside “Salem, aleykom!” and “Rahmet”, we could also count and remember a few useful expressions. We thought that should be enough to get us through.
Besides the Uyghur minority, a lot of Kazakh, Uzbek, and - of course - Chinese people live there too. The local delicacies are diverse as well, naturally. A lot of the locals eat “naan” for breakfast (a flat bread) with salty, milky tea; others enjoy boiled hot water with raw eggs inside (I am going to be honest with you, I couldn’t manage the latter one). One morning we had the fortune of dining in an Uyghur restaurant, where we had tea and beef broth, pancake filled with green spices and cooked bums filled with meat. This was a bit a thicker than the tea dipped “naan” we often encountered. For dinner and lunch, locals mostly eat sheep dominated meals with vegetables and/or pasta. We often saw “samsa” and “saslik” vendors as well on the streets (mostly in Uzbek neighborhoods), next to which, often Chinese noodle places offered pasta.
Riding from Khorgas border to Yili town was like going through a huge agriculture settlement. On both sides of the road, locals were growing corn and different wheat types. These lands were carefully fenced off, which made looking for accommodation rather challenging at night. We read in blogs and heard from bikers that XinJiang Province has enormous police presence, so we didn’t want to be in their faces about hitting up a tent in the middle of it all. Naturally, next to bigger towns, we’d preferred to stay in paid accommodation, but we had to face issues all the time. Why? Because in China there are two different kinds of hotels and guest houses: the one where only Chinese people can stay, and the other, where they have the license for being suitable enough to cater for expats. As you might have guessed, hotels approved for foreigners are way pricier than what we counted on. We tried to bargain, but to no avail. Yet somehow, someone always showed up to help. This is how we ended up sleeping on makeshift beds at farms, in an out-of-service room of a restaurant, and a Uyghur-Uzbek family’s home.
Without exception, all of our hosts treated us well and fed us generously, sometimes too generously, making us self-conscious. We often wondered whether dirty, worn-out expats would get the same treatment back home?
From the town of Yili, we rode to Korla through Nalatin. On our way, we became prisoners of our tents twice, as severe rainstorm prevented us from going forward. We crossed a 3270m high pass, there were times we were awaken by yuk groans, often walked past groups of herding dogs, had our meals under plastic covers, and at night, we slid into our sleeping bags, shivering.
Originally, we were supposed to turn north from route G218, so we could drop by Urumqi, but life, and a few friendly tips overwrote our plans. Route G216, heading to the Uyghur capital, is in poor quality and numerous wolves are circling nearby according to local police. We discussed pros and cons, then decided to head south instead.
In a tiny village in the mountains, we bought rain ponchos, and had a chance to rest a bit in a guest house. Somewhat recharged, we continued our journey towards Korla.
As we passed Tian San’s ranges, we felt the weather warming up a bit. Gloves, thermo undergarments and knee warmers went back into the backpack. Drunk on sunshine, we were driving joyously when a huge, dark van pulled up next to us. I didn’t dare to look. Four men were inside, looking us up and down, then reached out and gave us a plastic bag with naan (remember the local delicacy I wrote about earlier?). Then they pulled over in front of us. The men got out, smiled, and kept observing us. As luck would have it, the driver is a Korla local, and invited us to stay at his place upon arrival. We didn’t need to be asked twice, happily agreed and promised to check in with him once we arrived.
We would have never thought what was about to ensue. After 50km biking and 30 minutes waiting, Arken arrived to pick us up and took us downtown. Unbelievable two days followed, since Arken didn’t only have a smashing van, but also seemed to be quite wealthy. We spent the following days in a downtown hotel, were treated for all meals, entertainment and Arken even took us to a bike store where he didn’t even let us pay for the refurbishments.
We are quite certain his schedule was super tight, and yet, he managed to fit us in his schedule and take us around town. Only once did we end up “participating” in a weird (well, for us that is) business meeting. Other than that, we could not express our gratitude enough to Arken and his family.
Leaving Korla behind, we started preparing for QingHai mentally. We knew it’d be quite different from XinJiang. Because of our 90 days visa, though saying this it sounds more than enough, we decided to hitchhike a bit to save time. We wanted to see as much as possible from this enormous country! Besides, these parts are desert-like, windy, and unwelcoming with significant temperature changes, so we don’t miss much by hopping in a car and speeding through it all. Water barely, people only live at every 100 or 130km, no trees or shrubs, just sand and stone where the eye can see. Not that we are proud of it, but we did set a new record: only “cat-bath” for seven days...
Once we managed to get a reasonable deal with a scheduled bus service’s driver, and second we got on board a hoist-transporting truck.
Ever so slowly we were making our way towards the province’s border, but the end of the deserts was far far ahead.