Goodbye Oz Bus, Hello China

Well, we have now said our goodbyes to Oz Bus 19 and headed off on our lonesome to China! We left Kathmandu on the 21st August at around 5.45am (along with some other Oz-Busers who were off to do a bungy jump!).

We said goodbye to everyone the night before and were very sad to say adios to Tomas! Norma had also given us both an Oz Bus t-shirt that she’d had specially embroidered, which was really sweet. We’ll be wearing them with pride! We wish them all good luck and hope they enjoy the rest of their trip!

We walked to meet the bus that was taking us to the Tibetan border and met some of the other 44 people that were heading to Tibet that day, all from different countries. We were told that the Tibetan guide would meet us at the border and that he had been appointed to look after all of us!

Our plan for Tibet was to make it to Lhasa so that we could get the Trans-Tibetan train to Beijing where we would begin our China Mainland adventure. The journey to Lhasa will only take about 5 days, then we have a few days to relax before the train leaves. Our first overnight stop in Tibet was in Nyalam – a small town just the other side of the Nepal border, with our second stop being in Lhatse – another smallish town. These were the tricky ones until we reached the cities of Shigatse and Gyantse where we are now. We’ll finally arrive in Lhasa tomorrow!

The road to the border was pretty treacherous but the scenery surrounding it was stunning – we passed huge streams which were flowing straight across the road, along with landslides which caused the bus to tip precariously to one side as it bungled its way over. We had the feeling that we were in for a bumpy ride the whole way and we weren’t wrong!

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As we got closer to the border itself – halfway up a mountain! – we all had to get off the bus and walk for about half an hour. That was NOT an easy walk, the bags felt heavier than ever and it was all uphill. I honestly could have cried! We climbed over a few mudslides on the way up there too!

The Nepalese side of proceedings didnt go too badly – quite quick actually, but the Chinese insisted on checking our passports and visas three times as well as searching all our bags first by hand, and then by machine. Anyone who had brought any guidebooks or photos of Tibet – anything to do with Tibet actually – had to get rid of them before we got to the border, so luckily we weren’t held up by anybody getting into trouble!

We weren’t allowed to take any photos of the Friendship Bridge inbetween the two countries, but I managed to sneak a pic once we’d gotten to our new bus on the other side!

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So finally, we were in China! Here’s a pic of our first glimpse of Tibet…

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The road towards our first stopover was the scariest road I have ever been on in my life! Scary, but mindblowing at the same time with waterfall after waterfall, mountain after mountain. This was probably one of the best parts of the trip so far, better than any rollercoaster and with the most indescribable views ever. The road twisted and turned up to around 3000 metres, then it really got scary as the clouds closed in and the sun disappeared.

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We reached our ‘guesthouse’ in Nyalam quite late but to be honest were glad that the darkness had hidden the true extent of this place from us!

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We had to share a 4-bed room with another couple (v nice spanish couple) which was freezing cold, dirty, had no electric and no showers in the room or in the hotel itself! There was one shared squat toilet between the 46 of us and we all had to brush our teeth outside in the alley with our bottles of water! Dear oh dear oh dear!

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After a not-so warm, snug and comfy night’s sleep we left the next day for Lhatse and in the light, realised that the massive, lush green mountains had been replaced by brown, rocky mountains which reminded us of the barren landscape of Iran! Tibet is certainly turning out to have some of the most varied landscapes we’ve come across! We did get some cool glimpses of the snow-capped Himalayas in the distance too which broke up the scenery nicely.

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Still no sign of the elusive Mount Everest since we left Kathmandu however – the skies were still too cloudy that high up and our chances were looking slim. We had heard from other passengers that it was impossible to see even from the base camp, so to see it at this time of year probably is being a bit optimistic.

We stopped for lunch in a random town (where the restaurant staff flew into a panic after 46 Westerners in two coaches rolled up!) and waited about two hours for a bowl of rice before heading on to Lhatse. The guesthouse in this town was (if at all possible) worse than the first one! It was called the Tibetan Farmers Hotel (Tibet’s first hotel for peasants, if that will give you a clue).

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Here, we shared with the Spanish couple plus another man from Italy. Again, no showers in the whole place and lovely long-drops for toilets! We were even treated to a power cut that night, along with an almighty thunderstorm which added to the luxury atmosphere even more!

I didn’t have a mattress on my bed so made use of a pile of Tibetan rugs that were being stored in our room, along with my trusty sleeping bag and travel pillow.

We had reached an impressive 5090 metres above sea level at this point and the air was very thin. We both have altitude sickness pills with us but I felt really rough all day long – don’t know if it was the altitude, general travel sickness or both!

At this point we were both having mixed feelings about Tibet. The landscape really is out of this world and in a strange way we were sort of enjoying the fact that we had to stay in these god-awful guesthouses (it all adds to the sense of adventure, even if you don’t realise it at the time!). But the fact that we had no other choice but to stay in these places due to their remoteness grated on us a bit. The country seems so poor and the towns are in no better state than some of the places we visited in India. We had heard many things about how friendly the people of Tibet are, but we’ve had mixed experiences of this too – the people in the towns just didn’t seem as friendly as we’d expected them to be and the children, although very cute, were the filthiest children we’d seen, their little faces caked in mud. Again, like in India, many of them were thrust towards us by their parents, hands out asking for money!

In contrast to this the people in rural Tibet were much friendlier and always seem more curious than anything, but we felt sorry for how poor everybody here seems to be!

As our tour goes on we are meeting a wider range of people and our impressions keep changing all the time, but we’d definitely say that the gem of Tibet so far would be its location.

On our way to Shigatse we stopped by a school, where there were a lot of friendly locals – most of them asked us to take photos of them and then show them the camera and we would have been happy to spend more time out in the countryside!

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Some of the most curious things we came across were during the drives to each town. At each mountain pass there were huge rows of colourful flags and bunting pinned up across the road, with squares of coloured paper strewn all over the road. I’d seen this bunting before and it was always one of the things that came to mind first when I thought of Tibet, but I never knew what they were for! Turns out that they are prayer flags and each colour represents a different element (yellow is earth, red is fire, green is ocean and so on). The flags and little bits of paper on the road all had the same prayer on them and a picture of a ‘wind horse’ – this was for good luck and people pin them up or throw them out of cars at the highest points they can find (hence why you find these spots in the mountains). The higher the winds are, the further the prayers reach, giving them greater good luck.

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It was fascinating and the vivid colours looked great alongside the backdrop of the mountains.

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One pass that we stopped at had the most amazing views of the Himalayas behind us and it was at these stops that we really felt like we were in the Tibet seen in those iconic pictures.

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The views and fresh air were soon replaced by dirt and damp at our hotel in Shigatse, our third stop. Considering that the people running the hotels probably made their living from groups like ours coming through their country, they didn’t seem to care one bit about looking after us! Our room (normal double room this time) stank to high heaven (worse than the long drop toilets we were using at the last place!) and the carpet was filthy. We asked the man on duty to get our floor cleaned to which he replied. “No”. End of story! They just refused to even let us have a broom to do it ourselves and apparently didn’t have a vacuum (despite the fact that the communal carpet had obviously been vacuumed!) so I managed to steal one of their straw brooms and sweep up as much of the filth as I could myself.

One highlight of Shigatse however was the Tashi Lhun Po Monastry on it’s doorstep. We went there with the rest of the group and got to see the monks going about their daily lives.

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The monastry was built in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama (Gedun Drupa) and housed many temples and chapels, one of which was home to the biggest Maitreya Buddha Statue in the World. It was huge and is made of over 1000kg of pure gold. We couldn’t take any pictures inside the temples though so I can’t show you what it looks like!

We learn’t quite a lot about the Buddhist religion and it really was fascinating. A lot of it makes so much sense and like most religions it advocates the same values of wisdom and compassion for others. We discovered that there are over a thousand different types of Buddhas and each one reflects a different ‘value’ or characteristic – for example, compassion, wisdom, power etc. We also discovered that the Dalai Lama is considered to be the reincarnation of the Buddha of ‘compassion’ – makes sense I guess, as he did win the Nobel Peace Prize! The Dalai Lama, we also found out, isn’t the ‘head’ Lama – all the Lama’s are the same, but he is considered King because of all the good work that the 5th Dalai Lama did to build relations with neighbouring countries years and years ago. His efforts and compassion for the people meant that he quickly became considered as their king, and this tradition has followed down the line of all the Dalai Lama’s that came after him.

We also didnt realise that there were different ‘sects’ within Buddhism – this monastry was part of the Yellowhat Sect. There was so much to take in, many of which will take a lot more reading up on for us to really understand it, but at least we got a fascinating introduction!

After the monastry visit, we went to have some dinner in the city – more rice and noodles! – then went to find an internet cafe to catch up on our emails. While we were in there the power went off and we had to leave and try to make our way back to the hotel in the dark! For some reason, the roads were really muddy and wet. It had only rained for about 15 minutes earlier that evening so we couldn’t really understand why, but the mud was literally ankle deep and water was flowing down the road like a river! Turns out that a main water pipe had burst flooding the streets and leaving a right mess!

The mess was still there in the morning, but the Chinese army, along with a band of locals were already out on the streets with shovels, trying to clear it up.

We were now up to day four in our Tibetan adventure and were definately getting a great mixture of experiences! This is the first time that we have felt like ‘real travellers’ – having to use our sleeping bags, not showering, sharing with random strangers, trundling up mountains, brushing our teeth in alleyways etc!

We’re now in Gyantse – around 4000 metres high and the third largest city in Tibet. It didn’t take long at all to get here from Shigatse, about two hours, so we have had most of the day to spend. As soon as we’d checked into the hotel (which was much better than the previous ones) we headed off to nearby Pachu Monastry. This was built in 1418 with the most impressive part of it being the Tashe Multi-door Stupa which is made up of 108 ‘cells’ each containing a Buddha Statue and mural paintings – apparently there are more than 100,000 of these statues and holy images in the Stupa. Again, we couldn’t take any photos from inside, but this is what it looks like on the outside!

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While walking around the monastry we were able to witness the monks at prayer – chanting and praying in their chapels. We often felt like we were intruding however and couldn’t help but think that the monks would prefer it if they didnt have to suffer interruptions from hordes of nosy tourists. Turns out we were sort of right. Our guide told us it is the Tibetan Government who allow tourists to visit the monastries and not the monks themselves. The Government sells tickets and keeps all the money! The only thing that the monks get are the Yuan notes that local visitors shove through the gates of the temples.

This sort of highlighted the impression we were getting of Tibet – the people themselves seem to be very poor. It doesn’t seem right and has made us a bit apprehensive of seeing the rest of China if this is the case in the mainland too!..

Just a few more days until we leave Tibet for Beijing – we’ll be arriving there on the 30th of August and are looking forward to being surrounded by a few more amenities.

Before then, we need to make it to Lhasa – our last stop in Tibet and the region’s capital…

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