June 12 – Jiuzhaigou National Park, Sichuan Province – Dave

Today we visited Jiuzhaigou – a national park comparable to, say, California’s Yosemite.  Given our experiences of Chinese tourist sites, we arrived asking ourselves (1) How have they covered the mountains and filled the rivers with concrete? (2) Will the guides’ amplification systems rupture our eardrums? and (3) How many retail opportunities can one fit into such a vast area?  Our expectations were lowered still further when we passed this work of art en route to the tour bus departure point…

Panda, panda, panda...

…and by Chinese queuing behavior…

A Chinese bus queue

BUT it turned out that, despite the vast daily throughput of tourists, the experience is well managed and relatively sympathetic to the environment.

It’s approximately 40 KM up the valley and the views are breathtaking…

On the way back we joined those of our fellow visitors who’d opted to walk part of the way down wooden walkways… 

…to get a closer view of the blue lake…

…and the stunning waterfalls… 

…where this young couple tried to make it look like the most natural thing in the world for them to be hanging out in the forest in a wedding dress and tuxedo.

Back at the foot of the valley there were indeed extensive retail opportunities, but they were well disguised (and interestingly signed)…

We debated the meaning of this sign and concluded it probably had nothing to do with the young couple we had just seen in the forest.

All-in-all it’s a beautiful place and they’re doing a good job of keeping it that way.  Worth a visit.

All the best,

Dave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, June 10 – Xiahe to Ruoergai – Dave

Today overflowed with wonderful moments.

We walked from our government hotel up the main street of Xiahe towards the  Labrang monastery – the largest Tibetan monastery outside of Tibet proper.  As Simon mentioned in yesterday’s blog, the people here are mostly ethnic Tibetans and look more like natives of the Andes than Han Chinese and their long-sleeved, off-the-shoulder coats and their scarves , often worn with only a small slit for the eyes, are unlike anything I’ve seen anywhere.

As you can see, the women are very emancipated here…

The monastery itself is huge and is home to 1,400 monks of the yellow-hat Buddhist order.

They are everywhere in town…wandering the streets, eating in the restaurants, even grappling with their vow of poverty…

As we approached the monastery we came upon an impressively long wall of prayer wheels being spun by pious locals and pilgrims.

And when we turned the corner we realized that what we had seen was only a small fraction of an infinitely long array of similar wheels along the monastery walls.

To walk the length of these walls and spin every wheel while muttering prayers demands huge commitment and energy, but many older men and women were doing exactly that.  Some pious pilgrims even prostrated themselves before every wheel in turn and prayed.  They clutched small wooden boards to protect their hands and wore tilers’ kneepads.

The monastery itself comprises extensive living quarters, temples dedicated to gods and leading lamas and various colleges, such as philosophy and medicine.  Our young guide – who delivered fluent but almost incomprehensible English in a strange chant – took us to temple after temple and described the good deeds of the various lamas of their order and the miraculous attributes of their gods.

Most magically, he took us into a vast, smoky room where hundreds of red-cloaked monks sat cross-legged in long rows on the floor praying quietly and into an adjoining chamber where a small group of monks beat out a slow rhythm on drums, accompanied by clashes of cymbals.  The only thing that broke the spell was the foul, all-pervasive smell of candles made from rancid yak butter.

Finally we left and headed back down the main street towards out hotel, but not before we made various purchases – including this fine local coat for John.

The afternoon’s ride through the mountains was every bit as wonderful as yesterday’s ride and finally we emerged from a long tunnel to find ourselves in spectacular, infinite grassland with the mountains behind us.  The principal challenge now was to avoid all the yaks that wandered onto the road – doubtless wanting to ask how much our bikes cost. 

Paul had booked us into a hotel in the middle of the steppes and, despite its unpromising exterior, it turned out to be rather wonderful with cosy, alpine, wood-paneled rooms.  We ate at the adjoining Tibetan restaurant where a couple of the local dishes – in particular the yak stew – were surprisingly good (so much for my vegan diet for now) and where the waitresses disappeared after one course and re-appeared in local costume to sing us a Tibetan song and present us with scarves.

After dinner they led us into another room where we were joined by the local lads and they all sang some more.  We reciprocated with the only song we all know – a Twickenham-style rendering of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’, which led them to break into Tibetan dancing, joined by our twinkle-toed reps, Simon and John.  All very spontaneous and huge fun.

Another fine day on the Silk Road.

All the best,

Dave

 

 

Friday, June 8, Zhange to Xining – Dave

Mr. Sun, Vice Chairman of Beijing tourism rode on the back of Nick’s bike this morning.   It was a favor to our guide, Paul, because Mr. Sun is an important facilitator of  Paul’s business.  It had seemed like a small favor when we agreed to it, as Mr. Sun had been an amiable dinner guest last night and had impressed us with his fluent English and French and his gregarious nature (although his conversation would have been even more riveting had it occasionally featured a subject other than himself).  However, we hadn’t expected his vehicle to join our little convoy, manned by his driver and his photographer ‘Mr Joe’, who was there take as many photos of Mr. Sun as possible – ideally in dashing, heroic poses.

Note in the photo below (1) Mr Sun making an very important phone call and (2) Mr Joe’s camera which caused SImon a nasty case of lens envy.

So the day started with a photo shoot on the bikes outside the hotel, surrounded by staff, guests and curious passers-by.  The uniformed ladies from reception draped themselves all over us like supermodels while Mr. Sun, clad in biking gear, struck heroic poses, grinned broadly and waved for the camera.  Mr. Joe snapped hundreds of shots before we tired of it, fired up the bikes and headed for the road.  Mr. Joe snapped a few final shots then hurried to his car to catch the ‘Easy Rider’ action shots of Mr. Sun.

Soon we were out in beautiful countryside –tree-lined roads through meticulously-tended fields with snow-capped mountains ahead.  It was the China I had day-dreamed of for the last few years – so transporting that I barely noticed Mr. Joe’s car racing dangerously close to Nick’s bike to snap shots of Mr. Sun’s heroic pillion ride.

After a few hours we climbed into the mountains, above the treeline and the scenery became harsher, yet even more beautiful.  Picture Glencoe, then magnify every dimension two or threefold.  Snow-capped mountains on each side.  Rushing streams.  Even the yaks (is that the right plural?) reminded me of Highland cattle with their long horns and shaggy coats. The only dwellings in these cold valleys were the yurts and tents of the yak and sheep herders and of the hardy men and women who come up here in search of cordyceps – medicinal fungi.

We stopped for lunch by the road and were hit by a sudden squall – a perfect opportunity for Mr. Joe to capture Mr. Sun in man of action mode as he encouraged us to tighten the guys and catch things blown away by the wind, while still managing to eat his lunch.  Imagine how we felt when he told us he couldn’t ride with us in the afternoon as he had to hurry on ahead to view some other important tourist attraction.  But maybe we’d see him at the hotel in Xining?  We waved goodbye as he sped off through the mountains reviewing Mr. Joe’s photos.

The rain eased and we rode on through the mountains, which became more and more spectacular.  Soon we overtook Mr. Sun and his team at the site of an accident – a coal truck was being lifted back onto the road by a crane after having gone over the edge.  A large crowd was having fun watching the team struggle to figure out how to get the truck upright with the crane.


But when they saw us arrive they decided we were much more interesting and so it was “Where are you from?”  “Your bike – how much does it cost?”  “Where are you going?”  “Your bike – how much does it cost?”  “Why are you doing this?”  “Your bike – how much does it cost?”…

After twenty minutes or so of being questioned about the price of our bikes, we eased through the chaos and pushed on.

In one mountain pass the riding was particularly hairy/exhilarating as the road was unmade, barely wide enough for two vehicles and consisted of a series of tight hairpin  bends with a vertiginous, unprotected drop to one side.  It was more challenging than the Torugart Pass and we were now at an altitude of 4,000 meters, the highest we’ve been so far on the trip – and we could feel it.

No room for error

Here’s a pic Simon took of the hairpins below while he was inches from the edge…

Finally we reached the summit – marked in Tibetan style with colorful prayer flags – and headed down another series of hairpins onto the Steppes – an infinite grassy pain dotted with yak and occasional yurts.  This must have been how the Great Plains of America had once looked?

It was a fantastic ride –technically challenging through stunning scenery.

We worked our way through the crowded modern city of Xining to our hotel – only to find that Mr. Sun had somehow managed to arrived at exactly the same time.  How lucky was that – another photo opportunity!  So into reception we marched with Mr. Sun, to be greeted by three young Tibetans singing a folk song while draping scarves around our necks.  Mr. Joe was beside himself with excitement, scampering everywhere to snap pictures of Mr. Sun being so warmly welcomed by people who clearly adore him.

Another great day.

Best to all, and love to my family.

Dave

Wednesday June 6, Jiaguan, China – Dave

A day for admin and sightseeing.  Paul, our guide, had to untangle a Chinese visa problem we have and that required more passport photos which meant an hour or so of John, Nick and Simon being bullied by pretty girls in yellow Kodak jackets.  The guys didn’t seem to mind…

A quick stop at some government department, then on to see the western end of the Great Wall.  En route we passed a battle tank testing ground and Simon knew he had to get a photo for Harry – so here it is, Harry – but if my emailing this precipitates a late night raid from cops who beat me up and steal my computer, I’m going to be really pissed off…

We arrived at the western end of the great wall to find thousands of tourists, a fence and gate around the wall, acres of concrete, the wall itself rebuilt as if by Disney, a sea of souvenir stalls and dozens of guides bellowing down amplified systems.

So we asked Paul to take us to a part of the wall that hasn’t yet been blighted by touristification.  He seemed to understand and we piled back into our minibus.  Twenty minutes later we arrived at a part of the wall with less tourists, less concrete, fewer amplified guides etc. etc.  and went to take a closer look.  The Wall was impressive – winding its way up a mountain…

…but  alas, it turned out that this wasn’t the original wall either, just a recent reconstruction for tourists; so we baled here too, but not before a lady taxi driver with cool shoes dragged John to one side to have her photo taken with him…

Paul finally got the message and took us to a dusty area where we walked across a couple of dusty fields to reach the old wall and took a photo for the cover of The Grey Silk Riders’ next album, ‘Saddlesore’…

But even here, in the presence of ancient China, modern China isn’t far away…

I think Paul overreacted to our demands for the ‘authentic’, untouristy China, because in the evening he dropped us at a grubby restaurant in a spectacularly seedy area of town.  Halfway through the main course, a bloody great gray rat scuttled across the floor and disappeared under the table next to ours.  The serving girls stared at each other in horror and then at us…had we seen it?  Of course we had and it looked like this…

….but Richard reassured us…”There’s probably not a restaurant in China without a few rats and millions of cockroaches”.  So, satisfied that we had found ‘authentic’ China, we ate on.