I've been incredibly bad at keeping this up to date lately and have not posted any photos for ages. The reason at least partly for this was trying to find internet cafes that a) can support this website, b) will allow you to put discs in and c) you can actually see the computer monitor through the thick fog of cigarette smoke that seems to be a feature of internet cafe's in China.
Therefore, to recap... After leaving Lhasa we took a trip up to Namtso Lake, which according to the signs is the highest saltwater lake in the world and at 4718m, you can certainly feel the altitude as you take a stroll whilst puffing and panting.
It really was stunning though as the water is brilliant turquoise and looks very dramatic against the barren Tibetan plains and hills surrounding it. However, it was absolutely freezing and as the snow and icy winds blew in I began to curse having to camp. The altitude affects the time it takes to cook and so it took about three hours to make any meals up there. In the meantime we all huddled in the truck trying to keep warm and putting off going to the toilet! The snow came down so heavy that the fabric of the tents was covered and it became stiff and difficult to unzip. Our guide Riki, who is a very good guitar player tried to keep everyones spirits up with playing any requests. However, you could not put off the inevitable of having to go to sleep in the tents where any droplet of water you carried in with you just froze in the tent. Unsurprisingly it was hard to sleep when you were shivering uncontrollably, despite wearing seven layers of clothing.
The locals all thought that we were very strange and would come up and stand staring at you. They were all dressed in very traditional Tibetan clothing with long coats and wide long sleeves and with some of the men wearing cowboy hats and riding motorbikes. All of them put one arm inside their clothing and so initially I thought they were amputees, however it just seemed to be a way of trying to keep warm. The women all carried either babies on their backs or enormous containers of water and one of the oldest laughed at the men in the group unloading our rucksacks and went over to lift one as if it were as light as a feather!
They were extremely uninhibited in their curiosity and would peer at you as soon as you had unzipped your tent. This made it a bit of a shock first thing in the morning. Also, they would stand so close behind you that you could feel their bodies and would have to motion to get some personal space. Considering we in the middle of a huge plain you felt like you were stuck on a Monday morning rush hour tube. They all thought this was hilarious, as was waving them to go away if you were going to the toilet or asking the particularly strong old woman not to shove you up onto the truck by putting her hands on your bottom as you stepped up. When she did it to me she sent me flying into the air and laughed raucously!
The day we left was still really cold and a huge snowstorm came in. Therefore, the leaders decided not to make us camp to all our relief. However, it was in the middle of nowhere between high mountain passes and with only the occasional little cluster of houses. They managed to find somewhere with two restaurants who offered dorm style accommodation for truck drivers and we stayed there the night. The beds were hilarious as they were made for up to six people to sleep in and we all had to lie in rows. However, the most important thing was that it was warm and we all huddled into the kitchen area next to the wood burner and ate noodle soup whilst watching kung fu programmes on TV.
Much of the scenery was very stark and barren and only occasionally broken up with seeing wild donkeys, yaks, deer and then the odd train passing along the solitary train track there. However, we descended from the high altitude and the mountains in the distance and we arrived in proper China to a fairly unexcting town called Golmud. Nevertheless being warm for the first time in a few days was entertainment enough for me!
There were a few long travel days on the truck and one of the group members decided to try and make it a bit more interesting by getting us all to make up a playlist on his Ipod which we then played on the loudspeakers. We all had to choose at least one cheesy tune and I have to say my Barry Manilow Copacobana went down a treat! Some of peoples' choices did not go down so well and one of the group members said 'that's it, I can't bear it' when Rage Against the Machine was played. I'm sure the group would be happy to know that their music had prompted such an outburst!
Our truck 'Archie' was proving a bit of a disaster and began experiencing lots of problems which the leaders had to try and fix at the roadside by taking the whole engine to pieces and then rebuilding it. At one point they were even trying to drive with a piece of string attached to the windscreen wipers and manually pulling it!
By now the weather had really warmed up and as we came to a city called Lanzhou it was sweltering. Lanzhou has the unfortunate reputation as being the most polluted city in the world. Indeed the drive in to it fills you with dread as you see and smell the rows of factories pumping out sulphurous smelling fumes. However, when you arrived in the centre it did not seem that bad and was just a big Chinese city with lots of high rise tower blocks and was the first really modern city I had seen in a while with lots of neon lights everywhere. It is also the place where Monkey was made, although I saw no sign of either him, Pigsy or Chipitaka!
The pace of life here was much faster than we had experienced in a while and this was reflected in the speed of the taxi drivers driving which we all flinched at whilst whizzing through tiny gaps narrowly missing buses and pedestrians.
There was a huge park there full of monuments, pagodas, temples and also some dodgem cars that of course we had to go on. I had forgotten how much it jangles your teeth when you slam into each other. I don't think you care about that when you're a kid. I hit one of my friends Katie and knocked her glasses off her face into an Austin Powers style pose.
We also came across some local people playing traditional Chinese instruments that looked like minature cellos or guitars. They all gave us a round of applause when we approached them and we felt a bit of a let down not to be able to give them any kind of a performance back. They made up for in enthusiasm what they may have lacked in technical expertise and we duly applauded them after their song. However, the songs seem to go on for a really long time and we ended up getting stuck there feeling too polite to leave. One of the girls I am travelling with is a kiwi Chinese girl but does not speak Mandarin. Nevertheless the locals would persist in trying to talk to her and carry on as if expecting her latent Mandarin gene to kick in if they just kept trying.
In the park was also a chairlift up to the highest point where you could look over the whole of the city and try and work out where your hotel was in between the old temples and new tower blocks.
The nightlife in Lanzhau was quite interesting and we went to a dark little basement club that had a compere with a microphone looking for contestants for a dice game where you paid 10 Yuan to throw 3 dice and whoever got the highest score could win a crate of beer. Nearly all of us went up and ended up winning more beer than we could possibly drink. However, what we had not realised was that when the game ended it became a strip club with an extremely bored looking stripper and some extremely over zealous Chinese men who lifted their vests up over their bellies and took to trying to dance with her!
We then travelled to a really nice little Tibetan town in China called Xiahe. It is famous for its' monastary and indeed it was enormous and very elaborate. One of the things to do there was to walk around the walls doing the pilgrims circumnavigation and spinning the hundreds of prayer wheels lining the walls. The wheels were big painted wooden cylinders and some were quite stiff. After doing a few most of our arms were aching, unlike the 4" tall stoic ninety year old women who stomped past us on their pilgrimage sending both us and the prayer wheels spinning.
Inside the monastary were a number of temples with the usual prayer wheels, smelly yak butter lamps, paintings and monks chanting, beating drums or playing the strange looking long horns that are similar to a didgeridoo. There were also some great little shops selling Tibetan arts and crafts.
We then drove to the town of Yongjing, next to the Yellow River (which is in fact extremely brown) where my room mate Andrea had her birthday. I had organised to get her a birthday cake but due to lack of time and what was available I could only get her a very strange looking one with little figures of snowmen in sombreros on the top. I have no idea why anyone would make such a cake but it tasted ok and she seemed to like it!
We went to a nightclub in Yongjing and it was another strange Chinese experience. You had to walk up dark steps to about the fourth floor of a tower block and then come out into a room full of middle aged Chinese women doing ballroom dancing together dressed in long gowns! However, the next room was full of young Chinese men who clearly want to be in boybands and have perfected dance routines that included throwing open your shirt in grand gestures whilst gyrating to hard core techno music. The dance floor was heavily sprung and if someone jumped near you it actually propelled you up of it like a trampoline. We had a fun night dancing in there and it was quite a late one.
The next day we went to the Bingling Caves which involved taking a boat ride up the Yellow River. The brown waters changed into clear turqoise in the smaller tributaries and the scenery was very pretty with cliff faces leading up from the gorge that we wound our way through. Unfortunately the driver who had seemed very promising initially with his Dukes of Hazard style side jump into a tiny windown, was actually afflicted with a serious twitch and was unable to just look straight but swung his head from side to side and winced whilst pointing his fingers and shuffling around. This meant that what should have been an extremely calm and relaxing ride in a speedboat turned into something a bit more nervewracking as we drove towards the cliffs whilst he was facing the opposite direction and only turned at the last minute before hitting it and then having to ride over high waves of the speedboat in fronts slipstream. It took a lot of self restraint for me not to grab the wheel, but on the return journey I made sure I was sitting next to him just in case!
The Bingling Caves are set in cliff faces and have over a hundred sculptures and statues made over hundreds of years next to a Buddhist temple. They include a huge seated Buddha carved into the rock side and a sleeping Buddha now housed in a flower filled garden temple.
The next couple of days were long drive days where we just tried to whizz through various new Chinese cities and make use of the motorways to get to Xian. Unfortunately our long days became even longer due to the leaders getting lost and us hitting some terrible roadworks. Everywhere you look in China there are roadworks and building works with bridges and flyovers all the in process of being built. They don't seem that worried about keeping their environment looking all that attractive and focus more on functionality. Many areas just look like huge concrete jungles.
The drive days were also unpleasant as we hit a lot of rain. It is their rainy season now and the areas we were driving through have experienced a lot of flooding which has even led to deaths from flash floods and landslides. Our old truck was unable to cope with such weather and sprung leaks all over the place. On one day some of the people sat with umbrellas up but turned inside out to enable them to stay dry and catch the water before emptying it outside. It also meant that some of our rucksacks became damp and I don't think I will ever be able to get rid of the damp smell in it which makes my clothes smell too even now!
We were really relieved to finally arrive in Xian as it was the end of this section of the trip and the end of the road for a number of the people. I was sad that many of the people who were leaving were the people I had been friendliest with. However, it was nice to be in a great hotel in a nice city for a few days to relax a bit.
There are lots of interesting places to see in Xian and on our first night we went to the old Islamic Quarter to see the street markets with all their food, clothing and souvenir stalls. It had also been raining in Xian and as luck would have it at the precise moment I passed below one market stall the wind blew the tarpaulin and dumped what felt like a bath full of freezing water on my head. I was absolutely drenched to the bone and in shock looking around thinking someone had done it. My sympathetic friends fell over laughing and enjoyed taking some pictures of me in my drenched state. It also gave amusement to a local girl who said 'haha whoosh!' ....very funny!
The next day whilst looking up warily at every tarpauline I went to one of the highlights of any trip to China by going to see the Terracotta Warriors. I can honestly say that they did not disappoint and standing in the huge hall looking down over rows upon rows of the lifesize figures and horses was truly stunning. It is incredible to think that anyone would have undertaken such a project of 8000 statues and that they are as old as they are.
As you looked longer at them you began to notice that they all have different facial features of the various ethnic groups and many had different hairstyles and uniform based on their rank. Apparently the king who built this army had wanted to represent his own army who could then protect him in the afterlife and built it all in secret. Therefore his artists would study each soldiers face and sketch them before building a terracotta warrior based on the sketch. He had not wanted anyone to know what he was doing, so if any of the soldiers realised what was happening he had them killed. He also kindly killed the architects, craftsmen, his wives and concubines afterwards too. Nice guy!
You could tell that some of the warriors had been restored to look almost perfectly new and I think this is a quirk of China who seem to do this to all their buildings, unlike the more 'sympathetic' restoration in Europe. However, it was still very impressive and the various halls showed some of their best figures. One hall has not even been excavated yet as they are waiting for technological improvements before they open it up.
Whilst in Xian I also visited some of the other sights which included going to see and cycle around the old city walls. The centre of Xian is in fact an old walled city and this is still really well preserved. You have to climb up steps to it and can either walk, cycle or even use a little golf buggy for the three hour walk around it. Along the way you see the view across the city and get to look at the various pagodas that adorn the wall.
There was also a really good museum there which showcased various paintings and ceramics from the ages. It was surprising to realise how advanced they had been eg. playing chess whilst we were still hitting each other over the head with clubs and living in caves!
I also went to see some more pagodas and gardens, did a bit of shopping and enjoyed treating myself to nice cakes and coffee at Starbucks and good meals. Our hotel even did a full English, which I had not realised how much I missed. We went out to celebrate the end of the trip and had our first Peking Duck and then it was time to meet the new members joining the group and say goodbye to the people leaving.