16.07.2007 - 05.08.2007
After Everest we continued across the Tibetan plateau to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. This is now largely populated by Han Chinese and has been rather brutally modernised. Our travels so far had been through areas that are almost exclusively Tibetan, and only small ramshackle towns, so this was quite a change. It did give us the opportunity to have our first Chinese meal. China was by far the most difficult country for communication so far. Menus are meaningless and they certainly don't speak English. Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, was our next destination. Again, there is now a sizeable Chinese population here, but the Tibetan influence remains strong. The major attraction in Lhasa is the Potala Palace, the seat of the Dalai Lama. The palace sits on top of a steep hill in the centre, with the holiest areas at the top. The Chinese flag in front of the palace makes a strong political statement. We were guided through room after room filled with shrines, manuscripts, art and general treasure. Although it is, of course, empty and unused, the overall effect is stunning. Also, it would be impossible to visit the inner areas if the Dalai Lama was in residence. Only a small number of monks are allowed to maintain the palace; they are obliged to wear caretaker uniforms rather than their traditional red robes. As well as the palace and other temples, the city has a mix of traditional market squares and alleyways, and modern hotels and shopping centres.
The Potala Palace
After Lhasa we made our way through a little travelled area of Tibet towards China proper. We enjoyed several days of spectacular bush-camping on both sides of the border (not a real border, but there is an army checkpoint). The main route south was blocked by landslides (due to unusually heavy rain) so we took a diversion through the mountains. This was the type of narrow, twisting road with sheer drops that we were becoming used to. We made reasonable progress until a large boulder blocked the road. It took about half the day to split off part of the rock and clear the debris. Tiger Leaping Gorge was our next stop. The narrow, deep gorge has a road running along the Yangtze river and a walking trail higher up. The plan was to walk through the gorge and have the truck meet us at the other end. However, the road was blocked by a landslide (apparently common in the rainy season), so we set out to walk half of the 55km and return. The first day it was raining heavily and conditions were extremely difficult, with mud running down the steep track. Also the gorge was completely obscured by mist. The next two days were sunny and we had superb views along the gorge and to the mountains beyond. The guesthouses along the route were excellent, which made the trek much easier.
Descending from the Tibetan Plateau
We passed through two of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of China before leaving the country. Lijiang is the ancient capital of the Naxi kingdom. There were huge crowds of Chinese tourists thronging the town, despite a poll tax on everyone who visits. The city is extremely picturesque, preserving its many waterways and bridges. At night the bars are packed with boisterous Chinese trying to out-do other tour groups. Dali is an old walled city which also attracts many Chinese tourists.
We had a long drive to the border with Laos. After an extremely wet bushcamp, we left early on Friday to reach the border before it closed. Within minutes of driving away, the right front wheel disappeared into the soft edge of the road. The rain had affected it badly and the sand and gravel was up to the top of the tyre. This was the first time our mighty 6x6 had got stuck. So we had a couple of hours of digging and lining the massive rut with stones to escape. Not as bad as it could have been. We still had hopes of reaching the border before 5pm, but had not gone far when we joined the end of a long queue of traffic. A walk to the front revealed that a landslide had claimed a section of the road. It was around six hours before the engineers had done enough work to make it just about passable. With no hope of crossing into Laos, we carried on to Mengla, not far from the border. Just to further prove that this was not our day, we found out the exit permit would not be available until Monday morning. Chinese bureaucracy and the weather had combined to keep us in this provincial city for the weekend. It turned out to be a pleasant enough place to stop for a few days, although the language barrier was still a problem. First thing on Monday we left China.