High Passes to Lhasa

I had to pinch myself, we were actually driving past the Potala Palace! We were all bouncing up and down in our seats with excitement. We have wanted to come here for so long and so many times it looked like we would never make it to Tibet and now we were actually here, we couldn't quite believe it. Our journey hadn't been plain sailing: our much hoped for route to Tibet has been closed since the earthquake 2 years ago; our planned drive through Myanmar to China was closed due to internal conflict and we had all the stress of separating while Steve went by himself through Pakistan. It was then "just" a 2500km through the Taklimakan Desert before we got to Golmud, the last Chinese town, before we hit the mountains. Overlanding isn't meant to be easy. But it was totally worth it! Lhasa was absolutely amazing, everything we had hoped for. Even after Golmud, it was a long 3 days drive to Lhasa. Leaving town we could see the peaks shimmering away in the distance across the desert plains, "Not long now till we are in the mountains" we told ourselves. Unfortunately that turned out not to be true, a weigh bridge at a police post at the foot of the incline was causing a 15km tailback of trucks. We had been told that this route was filled with huge lorries taking Chinese goods into Tibet but hadn't expected to spend a whole day and a half queueing behind them to start our journey. It was going to be especially painful for Steve as he had picked up a stomach bug. The road was good straight tar but mostly up on a bank with steep sides down to the sand. The few cars there were were trying to make their way cross country on sandy tracks were often getting stuck, when we eventually found a track down we followed them. Skirting back onto the road when the tracks ran out and then flitting to the other side when the sand got too thick. The lorry drivers kindly made space out of nowhere, when they saw we were not a goods truck. Eventually at the end, while they got weighed, we were pulled over at another office while the police checked and stamped our special Tibetan Autonomous Region permits. This pattern went on all day, with regular police checks and permit stamping. The volume of trucks on the road was breathtaking with many kilometre long queues whenever there was any sort of hold up. Bizarrely for a road up into the mountains there were no hairpin bends, just a steady incline up. Driving ourselves across Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) has taken a Himalayan mountain of paperwork and our progress was very much monitored. The distances involved also meant we were on a strict schedule. Whereas we would have usually stopped way before nightfall, our permit said we must spend the night in the small town of Taggulazhen. After 14 hours of driving, we got stuck behind a queue due to another nasty accident (the delays mean the drivers push themselves and often fall asleep at the wheel). Our guide called ahead to the police chief and asked if we could sleep in the truck as it was late to find a hotel and then eat. He agreed but only if we passed through town and stopped outside its limits, I guess then we wouldn't be his problem. Finally just before 11 we found a lay-by, made fried egg sandwiches and fell into bed. . We might have been dog tired but there was no way we could sleep, we had ascended to 4625m. We had taken this route into Tibet because compared with the other far western route it was less steep but it's a hell of an ascent. From our time in the Andes we knew we were all good at altitude and we had slept quite high in Golmud but we were all feeling the affects. Lying down doesn't help, in fact it makes it worse, rapid breathing with our heart racing and our heads aching. When we eventually drifted into a light sleep but Steve and I kept on waking up to check on the girls. Lucy vomited at 2am making us even more worried. However we tried not to freak out, Alisha did the same in the Andes then wolfed down a huge breakfast a few hours later and skipped around the truck, while we staggered around after a sleepless night worrying. . The next morning no one was feeling fabulous but we were all ok and ready for another long day of driving. The scenery almost made up for our aching heads, snow topped peaks surrounded us as we drove steadily higher through barren wide valleys. Wild yaks, blue sheep and Tibetan antelope shared the spare grasslands with small herds of domesticated yaks. Hardly anyone lives in this part of Tibet just a few hardy nomads. Like the day before we were mostly parallel with the highest rail track in the world, an amazing piece of engineering with much of the track laid across permafrost and a huge amount of tunnels and bridges. Tanggula Pass at 5230m was the highest point of the day. At 6pm we were almost at Nagqu, where we were to spend the night. The local police phoned and told the guide we must be at their office before they closed at 6.30, the only problem was there was a big queue at the police checkpoint outside town. Few foreigners come by road this way, so the police seemed very worried about filling in the paperwork correctly. The guide was great speeding up the usual laborious process by telling them their bosses were waiting for us in town. Eventually we made it to the police station just a few minutes late, Although quite a large town, with a big population of recently arrived Chinese, and many hotels the police told us we were only allowed to stay at one hotel in town but we could sleep in the parking lot in the truck. At the Chinese owned hotel we had to register again, the hotel insisting we must take a basic room for $80, it was so frustrating that we were only allowed to stay in one place. Steve and the guide used their persuasive powers for over an hour until the hotel agreed that we could park round the back next to the bins for $16. The hotel then informed us that we might be woken up in the middle of the night by the local (as in a few blocks) police, so they could check our passports. You can imagine Steve's response to that! The guide must have translated it well enough, as we were left alone. . It has been more than 60 years since China invaded Tibet. The facts are well documented about how the country and its people have faired since then. Tibet's much loved spiritual and political leader, the Dalai Lama and many of his people, have lived in exile in India for nearly 50 years. Having spent quite a lot of time in Dharmsala in the past, I have quite strong opinions on this. Tibet is very much a tightly controlled state. Han Chinese have been encouraged to migrate to Tibet, with the aim of diluting the local Tibetan culture and population. This has been so successful that more than 50% of Lhasa's population is now said to be non-Tibetan. There is a massive building boom in the whole country, hence the huge numbers of trucks. To be fair to the Chinese it isn't just for recent immigrants they are also building lots of new houses for Tibetans. Many nomads have been persuaded to move into permanent houses, a complete change of lifestyle for them. . We felt our approach to Lhasa had been arduous but it is nothing compared with Tibetan pilgrims. We saw our first few 500km from the city, if walking through the elements wasn't hard enough they also do a full body prostration every third step. They walk and prostate for many months before they reach the holy city but still have enough energy for a smile and wave. Our hotel was a perfect location just on the edge of Barkhor, the traditional Tibetan part of town, it was very smart with a big parking area. Our enthusiasm wained on the night that a couple of rats fell through the bathroom ceiling and woke us up at 6am running around the room. Poor Steve had been unwell all night and was just drifting back to sleep. I know we are supposed to be hardened travellers but there was a lot of screaming when they tried to climb up onto the beds, I knew there was a reason we prefer to sleep in the truck. . Being in the old part of Lhasa was everything we had hoped for. We walked the Barkhor kora, the pilgrimage circuit around Jokhang monastery, the holiest of temples many times during our stay. We mingled with the pilgrims and locals circulating with their spinning prayer wheels and prayer beads muttering mantras. The Tibetans are such amazingly spiritual people that Buddhism seems to permeate every part of their lives. The people were all welcoming smiles as we walked the circuit with them, they were particularly delighted to see the girls, especially Lucy. We often had a small crowd walking with us, exclaiming in Tibetan at how cute they were. The girls got lots of granny-loving, as old ladies couldn't stop themselves from giving them an affectionate squeeze. The girls were very good, smiling and saying "Tashi Delek" to everyone they met. As well as being a holy area, it is also a busy shopping area for Tibetans, it was a fascinating mix. Lhasa seems to have a booming economy and I was surprised at how prosperous the areas we saw were. Tibetan Buddhism is far more complicated than the type we have become familiar with in the rest of Asia as it was heavily influenced by the existing local Bon religion. It has a whole pantheon of Protector Deities, Bodhisattvas; Buddhas and historical figures often in different manifestations. Although not usually ones for guided tours, since we had to have a guide it was really good to have him explain the different parts. We were free to wander around town without him but had to be with him for some of the major sites. At all times of the day Jokhang temple has believers prostrating outside, many for hour after hour. Yak butter lamps burned smokily inside shedding flickering light on the golden statues behind them. Around the main prayer hall were many different chapels dedicated to different deities, every corner had a different statue or sacred mural each more spectacular that the last. It was hard to take it all in, the heady smell of the burning yak butter and the constant murmuring of mantras from the pilgrims made it seem almost otherworldly. Exiting blinking into the bright sunshine we climbed up onto the flat roof to marvel and try and reflect on what we had seen. Looking over Barkhor Square below and Potala Palace in the distance, we had to pinch ourselves again. Entering the doorway, I wasn't expecting to get a squirt of water right in the face. Looking around to see which kid had got me with a water pistol, I realised it came from a smiling monk with a the type of squirty bottle you use in the garden - I had just been blessed with holy water. We were at the small temple of Tsepak Lhakhang, especially auspicious for pregnant ladies and those in ill-health. The monk was blessing people as they walked the circuit around the main prayer hall. Although you weren't allowed to take pictures inside, the water blessing monk wanted to take a photo with Lucy during his break so I snapped one too. We were very excited to get a chance to go inside Potala Palace after seeing it from afar. The 1000 room palace was the former home of the Dalai Lama as well as being the seat of the Tibetan government; it houses countless chapels; as well as the amazing jewelled stupas containing the remains of most of the previous Dalai Lamas. Entering the main gates you feel very small looking up at its imposing ramparts. The building is now mostly a museum, although still occupied by several monks and visited by many pilgrims. It is still an incredibly spiritual place filled with statues and images that inspired much devotion in those around us who were believers; and fascination in everyone else. As images of the current Dalai Lama, who is currently in exile in India, are illegal in China there were no pictures of His Holiness in his chambers but a monk chanted holy scriptures in the corner of his meditation room. Leaving Lhasa we got another guide, we were sad to say goodbye to the one who brought us up to Lhasa. He had been very professional; fabulous at sorting out the myriad of paperwork; fascinating to talk to, he was also very adaptable, sleeping in the cab the night we slept on the side of the road.

Following in Marco Polo’s Footsteps

"Turn right at the armoured personnel carrier and you can't miss the hotel" said Gilly. It was a foretaste of the next week. I had romantic visions of following in Marco Polo's footsteps crossing the vast Talamakan desert when in reality it was a stream of police checks and restrictions. In the thirteenth century Marco Polo set out on an epic journey to explore China. Whilst our trip would be significantly easier it was not without its challenges. One of which was the amount of distance we wanted to cover in our short time there. China is big, very big. We have been driving a lot each day for a week and have only crossed one province, Xinjiang. It's been a lot of desert punctuated by oasis towns as we have followed the route of the old Southern Silk Road. The roads though have been fantastic. A complete contrast to India, good tarmac and little traffic so driving has been easy. . But first I had to get into China and meet up with Gilly, Alisha and Lucy in Kashgar. They had arrived on a stress free flight from Seoul. Me entering with the truck wasn't quite that easy. On this trip so far we have been relatively fortunate with land border crossings. Yes there have been some hassles but the longest time taken to cross such a border before this one was around 4 or 5 hours. Well this one certainly beat that. It took a total of 32 hours to cross. Now to be fair it did take 30 minutes to exit Pakistan and there was three and a half hours of driving involved to negotiate the Khunjerab Pass so only 28 hours (!) was on the Chinese side. . It all started up at the Khunjerab Pass at over 4600m. Here I had to clear through the border police. Little did I know all vehicles for the day had to be cleared before we drove in convoy down to the nearest town 130kms away for immigration and customs. There were only 12 vehicles on the day I went through but it still took five and a half hours to search the vehicles. First we went through a mobile x-ray unit and then the border police performed an individual search. As I watched them go through everything in the truck in front of me including all the tools in his tool box my heart sank. This would be a nightmare if they did this to my truck. It started that way too with mine as they went through my first box, even wanting to open sealed boxes to check it really was a spare oil filter in there. Not been the most patient person I decided to be the slightly difficult foreigner. Whilst they weren't exactly happy with this, and I gently backed down a couple of times, this quickly speeded things up and most of the other cupboards etc were given a cursory glance. . On arriving in Tashkorgan I first met with our guide before immigration and customs. This took another 3 hours as all the documents for everybody were checked. Then the army performed another search before we drove off to customs to drive the vehicles through another x-ray machine before leaving them parked for the night. It was gone midnight when the guide and I reached the hotel. All the restaurants were closed so we only had some bread for dinner. . The next day was a frustrating one at customs. Local customs were waiting for some paperwork from Kashgar so they could release the vehicle. I could never quite understand whether there was a problem with the paperwork in Kashgar, a problem with transferring it over the internet or what but it was a long day hanging around. Eventually at 7pm I was told it was all ok and I would be able to drive the truck out shortly. After a cursory check we left at 8pm. It was too late to drive any further but at least we were able to get a celebratory beer and a decent meal. . We were on the road early the next morning as I was keen to meet up with the family in Kashgar. We also had other paperwork to sort out there too. It was a lovely drive down to Kashgar through the mountains. We went over another 4000m pass and passed Lake Karakol. However it was great to arrive in Kashgar and be reunited with everyone. Let's hope we will all complete the rest of the trip together. After all the delays at the border I was concerned how long it would take to get my Chinese driving license, Chinese number plate, insurance and vehicle certification. To my surprise it all went fantastically quickly and smoothly. Neither the truck nor I even needed to visit the Traffic Administration and our new guide telephoned me to say she would have it all with her when we set off the following morning. . We will be returning to Kashgar at the end of our China tour so we didn't spend any time sight seeing. The town looked interesting though with its Uighur people and their Muslim traditions. Lamb sat roasting at the side of the street and men with skull caps were enjoying the long evening playing cards. Mind you the most notable feature were the amount of security and police on the street. All there for the safety of the local population. I had experienced this at the border but was shocked to see it so much in Kashgar, There were police posts on every corner and we even had an armoured personnel carrier parked in front of the hotel. To get into a bank or even some shops you had to show identification and I was told if we needed to buy fuel in town we would have to register at the police station. Driving across the Taklamakan Desert the security continued. There were police stops with document checks and searches at regular intervals and the security situation was the same in every small town. We even had to show identification to enter a small park. All the fuel stations were heavily barricaded and guarded by police with guns. You needed to show identification to get in (fortunately our Chinese guides ID worked) and only the driver was allowed in the fuel station! Arriving in the first town we were told we had to register with the local police first before checking into the hotel. We were having to stay in hotels as wild camping was prohibited and even which hotel we had to stay in was prescribed for us. Our guide did a great job getting us through all the checkpoints (especially with me being my usual, need to obey self) and in making all the arrangements for our accommodation. The police were not too happy that we were staying in Kargalik, not that much seemed to be happening, and even rang our guide to check we had left the following morning. . We headed further along the Silk Road to one of its most important towns Hotan. This had been an important crossroads for trade and this still thrived in the bazaar where we bought some fantastic dates. A lot of the old town had been pulled down and everywhere we went new buildings were going up. It was apparent just how much new building there has been in the last 20 years. Leaving Hotan we headed further into the desert. In front of us were rolling sand dunes. Every so often these would be punctuated with small green oasis towns. In some of these we would stop and spend the night as the driving distances were long. Each day at the end of a long drive we would find time to wander the streets. Whilst there was nothing major to see it was interesting watching daily life and sampling some of the local foods. As we approached Qinghai province we started to drive up away from the desert into some rugged mountains. It didn't seem that we had driven that high but before we had noticed it we were at 3600m. The scenery was stark and beautiful and the drive continued across a large plateau. Eventually after 6 days driving we crossed from Xinjiang province into Qinghai province. We noticed that some of the security started to relax. However we were still in a very restricted area, we were told this route had only been open to foreigners for the last two years and special permissions were still needed. Our first stop in Qinghai was an army town and we needed special permission to stay there for the night and could only stay for one night and we weren't allowed to take any photos. . While out for our evening stroll we were stopped by the police. They could speak any English and of course we could speak any Mandarin and our guide wasn't with us. It was all very friendly but took about 5 minutes as they wanted to know where we were staying that night. When then saw them back at the hotel, checking we had been telling the truth. Ever get the feeling you are been watched! . The next day was another long drive across the plateau and a high altitude desert to Golmud. Golmud is a gateway town to Tibet and I had imagined it as a rather run down transport stop. In reality it was a green, clean, modern city with hardly a policeman in sight. It was here that we were changing guides and picking up our Tibetan guide. We had a pleasant evening stroll in the warm sunlight before tucking into a wonderful Chinese meal.   We had crossed the desert, now we were heading south away from Marco Polo's route for the high plateau of Tibet.