Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Start of the silk road

We've now made our way across the beginning of the silk road from Xian through to Lanzhou, Jiayuguan and now in Dunhuang.

Lanzhou was a let down in terms of the pollution, Chengdu was worse! We visited the end of the great wall in Jiayuguan and couldn't climb all the way to the tower because we're wimps ... so much for me being a mountain goat!

The trip here to Dunhuang from Jiayuguan was supposed to be 5-7 hours by bus. Instead, it turned out to be 10 grueling hours of monotonous desert landscape and stopping many times along the way to pick up hitchers. The bus also had to take a detour to bypass the police checkpoint since they had more passengers than seats. :D

Dunhuang so far has been wonderful though. Nice little oasis town in the middle of the desert where we can relax for a few days and checkout the caves and dunes.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Where is all the rice?

So, I thought we'd be eating rice day in, day out in this country. This is where rice originated from, isn't it? I thought it was THE staple. To my dismay, we've only really had rice maybe 25% of the time. Noodles seem to be the big thing here. They have them in all shapes and sizes, hot and cold, spicy and not. Not sure if this is a western China thing but I'm hoping we get more of the steamed white stuff in the east.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The beginning to the end

We've gotten our fill of the big cities and are now ready to head back out to less developed areas. We're slowly making our way to Xinjiang province, where the infamous silk road lies. Luckily, the beginning of the silk road starts here in Xian so we can pretend we were the brave explorers and trades people of the past making our way out west to see what lies out there.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Muslim Quarters

While roaming the streets of Xian, we came upon the Muslim Quarters which was pretty cool. Lots of local snacks everwhere and many interesting sights.

There was a huge lineup for these so we thought we'd try it out. Fresh from the pan, they were hot! I was trying to cool them down. They were quite yummy ... sweet on the inside!

This is one of the famous dishes here in the muslim quarters. It's mutton in a thick broth with pieces of bread broken up. Can't say we would have it again but it was good to try once.

This man is preparing a very popular snack here. It has the consistency of sticky rice but is cold and sweet. Interesting.

Huge flames coming out of whatever it was they were making in these pots and pans!

Mmmm..... just like Tibet, lots of lovely butcher shops everywhere. These ones specialized in internal organs though! Anyone want a huge chunk of liver?

Mighty Warriors

The whole purpose of coming to Xian was to see the infamous Terra Cotta Warriors. By far, this has been the most touristy thing we've done. It was a little nutty there, tour group after tour group. We were trying to stay ahead of these tour groups but weren't always so lucky.

It was an okay excursion but nothing to rave about. It's kinda like the Great Wall - if you're in China, you have to see it. I liked this particular warrior though ... poor guy.

Tang Dynasty

We decided to splurge a little here in Xian and enjoyed a night in the theatre. It was a show filled with traditional Tang Dynasty music and dancing. To our surprise, it was set up much like the Lido and Moulin Rouge. We skipped the dinner portion but the show was spectacular. We both enjoyed it very much... unfortunately, we didn't think we would have been able to bring a camera in so didn't bother bringing one. Our loss, there were people recording the entire show! We should have remembered what country we were in. :D

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Food in Sichuan!

We've now had a couple of requests for some food shots as, we admit, we've been lacking in that area. Sometimes, what we eat just isn't all that exciting. :)

Now, we're in a province of legendary spicy food so what better place than to do a blog on food! Suprinsingly though, a lot of the food here isn't very spicey. We expected EVERYTHING to be red hot! Some have sent flames out of our ears, others are ho hum. We're still in search for rabbit head but it seems to be quite difficult to find. Until then, here are samples of our cuisine in the last few days.


Good thing I had my Zantac ...

Almost like a pita!

Need to cool off ...

Sichan Hot pot!

Bought at a grocery store for 2 yuan and it was yummy!

The best kung pao chicken ever!

The spiciest mapo tofu ever!

After eating those two dishes, I saw the biggest rat ever run by! Good thing we already ate!

Garlic scallops in an alley.

Black and white and cute all over

We saw the cutest fuzziest creatures the other day ... the mascot of China, the Giant Pandas! They are soooo funny and so amazingly lazy. We got there fairly early and caught their feeding time. They placed their bamboo strategically so that they would entertain the crowds while munching away. They're absolutely delightful.

We also saw the Red Pandas but they really just aren't as cute. I'm not sure why both the Red and the Giant pandas have been clumped into one group as they look so completely different. Red pandas definitely look more like racoons but someone we met took a photo with them and said they were super cute.


We've been pleasantly surprised by the number of teahouses here in Chengdu. We've tried a couple, the first being the afternoon in people's park (see Ian's blog). What a great way to spend an afternoon.

Our hostel in Chengdu is on an unpaved alleyway and we were a little weary at first but it has turned out to be truly charming. In the afternoons and especially the evenings, it gets packed with people. There are a few tea houses on this alleyway and they put tables and chairs right out onto the alley. It reminds me a little of mamak in Malaysia. They have lots of satay like snacks ... just the spicey version and lots of tea or beer of course. There are people out to chat, sing, watch travel slideshows or spend the night away playing drinking games. What a great and relaxed atmosphere hidden within this crawling cosmopolitan city.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Golden arches

After 2 months I finally had a huge craving for western food and what better way to resolve this than to feast at the golden arches. :) I had the regular hamburg combo and Ian had his Big Mac. Suprisingly, it tasted exactly like in TO! Insanely expensive though ... my combo was 10 Y and Ian's was 15 Y. Not sure how people here afford to eat there often!

I must say it's nice to be in a big modern city after the last little while ... and warm too! You get a little bit of the comforts of home ... like reliable electricity and good plumbing. :) We even saw a Haagen Daz store today and Swarovski ... ahhhh.. nice.

Friday, May 12, 2006

6 accidents in 6 days

Before we went on this overland, we realized there was some risk involved with going. We knew some of the roads weren't going to be great and we were going to be going over some high passes. We were putting a lot of faith in our driver and his land cruiser. We accepted these risks as you just can't come to Tibet and not do an overland. That was the best way to see Tibet ... not to mention going to EBC!

Soon enough, this risk became a reality. We had a real close call just a couple hours into our trip as we were heading to Yamdrok Lake. To get there, we had to climb this mountain to get to a 5000m pass. As we were turning a blind corner fairly high up, our driver, for whatever reason, was on the oncoming lane making the turn. All of a sudden this mack truck appears right in front of us coming down the mountain. Our driver had to swerve quickly to the outside lane in order to avoid a collision. It was too close for comfort but I'm happy to say he smartened up quite a bit afterwards and actually turned out to be quite a good driver.

Unfortunately, a few others weren't quite as lucky as we were. On the second day of our overland as we were going through a smaller mountain pass, we came upon an accident. Similar situtation, a land cruiser and a mack truck collided on a blind turn.

Luckily everyone was ok and both cars stayed on the road instead of ending up on the river bed about 150m below. This accident caused quite the jam though as noone could get through. Everyone was out and about surveying the scene.

We weren't sure what was going to happen as we weren't close to any cities and we weren't sure how long before the cops got there. One land cruiser tried to go around the truck which was insane because it was on the edge of the road. He couldn't make it though. All of a sudden we see these guys tearing up the concrete barriers to make room! I couldn't believe they were doing that. Why couldn't they just move the cruiser and the truck over a little and everyone can get by? We heard different things like the truck couldn't start or they had to wait till the cops got there. So here they are, tearing up 3 concrete barriers.

I'm thinking, there is no way I'm getting in our cruiser if it decides to go by the truck on the edge of this road. I'll wait until he's gone through and then get in. After about an hour, they successfully demolished the safety barriers (swell) and started the truck! What the hell. Why did they just spend an hour demolishing the barriers when they could have just moved the damn truck. Still don't understand to this day. But they moved the truck to the edge of the road instead and pushed the cruiser off to the side.

We were off! You would think everyone would have learned from this experience but nope, all the cruisers go speeding off down the mountain because we were all running late now *sigh*.

The couple days to follow, we saw 3 different cruisers on the back of trucks because they got into accidents. The worse was on the last day when we saw a cruiser on its side with smashed windows and all. There were cops and a group of people off to the side and we saw foreigners on the ground. Not a good sign. I hope they were okay. It was a straight stretch of road too so it was strange how this cruiser flipped. We're thinking the driver was an idiot and tried to pass and swerved in too fast.

Shortly afterwards, we were again on a low mountain pass and saw an 18 wheeler down in the river bed about 100m below. That was nuts. The truck was smashed. I'm not sure if the driver survived or not but I would guess not.

That was enough for me. I was so glad we were heading back and we're here safe and sound. While on our overland, I was considering the overland to Chengdu instead of flying (which we are now doing). This overland would go through the Sichuan-Tibet highway which is known to be some of the world's highest, most dangerous and most beautiful roads. After seeing 6 accidents in just 6 days on these roads, we were done. We're taking the good ol' airplane outta here on Sunday.

Accomodations & Toilets

Throughout this overland, we've had the pleasure of being blessed with a variety of accomodations and toilets with different sceneries and scents.

A couple of the nights weren't as bad as we were staying at hotels with shared washrooms which we were quite accustomed to by now. Lucky me though, a monk tries to get into the washroom as I was using it! There is one washroom in this hotel that has a door on it and it is 'locked' with a long toothpick. Usually, if the door is closed, it means someone is using it. Guess this monk isn't familiar with this concept because he pushes the door and breaks the toothpick! All the while, he just stands there while I struggle to keep the door closed with one hand. Nice.

More interesting accomodations were found at Rongphu Monestary near EBC. As mentioned before, 8 of us who arrived late and the guesthouse was full. They took us up to the monestary where they showed us this big room with about 4 beds/couches. They kind of looked like day beds, Tibetan style (not necessarily a good thing. too bad I forgot to take a photo). We got to sleep in lovely fragrant beds in the cold with a 40 watt lightbulb we couldn't control. Needless to say, it was a sleepless night as we would wake up gasping for air everytime we fell asleep due to the elevation we were at (almost 5000m). We would be awake in the middle of the night hearing one of the other tourist gasping for air. This one guy even brought a huge oxygen pillow with him! We were quite happy when daylight broke.

The 'washrooms' at this place were the best we've seen so far! The one for the monestary was right out in the open with a wall that goes up about 4 feet high. You go where you can find a spot. Oh yeah, and we're just talking toilets here, showers do not exist. Not that you would want to anyways since it's freezing!

Lucky for us, there is a large Tibetan dog (all known to be quite vicious) guarding the washroom. I tried to go when I first got there but this dog was on top of the wall barking his head off. I put off my need out of the fear of this dog attacking me while I was going (what a story that would have been).

I thought perhaps the washroom for the guesthouse would be better. Jokes on me! You go where you can find a spot in this one too and here, you're not sure where the hole actually is so you've got to be careful where you step! At least I didn't have to worry about the dog here.

Luckily, accomodations at Namtso were actually quite nice! We stayed in yurts with 4 real beds in them. Very cosy.

This place didn't even have washrooms. When we asked, they said you go where you want to. Nice! :D. We did find something resembling a washroom further down but we might as well have gone anywhere.

Freak snow/hail storm at Namtso Lake

Namtso Lake was our last stop and we were looking forward to seeing the infamous sunrise there. We got there in the late afternoon and enjoyed the beauty of the lake very much. This was the highest lake in the world at 4700m. Amazing how a lake can form at such an elevation. As we were sitting by the lake, we noticed these large clouds off into the distance. We thought rain was definitely coming our way and made our way back to our yurt.

Around dinner time, there was thunder and lighting right over us. I was one scared little camper. We heard many somethings coming down on our yurt and opened the door. To our surprise, we saw hail and snow coming down!! It was nuts! It was almost like a whiteout... and how in the world is there lightning and thunder with snow? We didn't think that combination could exist but it did. It did let up a bit at night but we woke up to insane winds at 4am. I thought our tent was going to blow away!! In the morning, we woke up to a nice white landscape. So much for that sunrise we were going to catch :)

I don't think our driver was too impressed either. We had to drive over a 5000 m pass to get back to Lhasa and our land cruiser was a slippin and slidin. He had to stop to put on the 4 wheel drive in order for us to make it. Fun :D

Ads with the kids

While waiting for our driver of the 'unpolluting' bus to show up, one of the tourists we were with stopped a bunch of kids on their way home from school and got them to line up, gave them each a pen and some candy and told them to pose for photos. He'd tell them where to put their hands, etc. Later, he pulled out a mouse pad and got the girl in the middle to hold it. He told us it was for an ad. What a guy! It was amusing to see this guy at work, I had to take some photos. We felt bad for these kids and ended up giving them some chocolate for their patience. I don't think they had a clue of what was going on.

Mt. Qomolongma

I can't believe we were at Everest Base Camp! It was such a surreal feeling. Even now, when I think Everest, it seems like such an unreachable point but we were actually there face to face with Mt. Qomolongma. How cool is that.

Getting there was a mixture of adventure, fun, and frustration. We had to pay an entrance fee for our land cruiser of 405 yuan and an additional 65 yuan per person. This might seem reasonable if the land cruiser could actually go all the way to EBC but it actually has to stop an hour before we reach EBC so we all can take the so called 'unpolluting' bus from a small town where we had to pay an additional 80 yuan per person to sit in a Dodge cargo van. Yep, unpolluting alright. Here is the first view of Qomolongma.

This van took us to Rongphu Monestary where we were to spend the night at a guesthouse before making the 2 hour trek to EBC the next morning or you could ride a horse cart for 60 yuan. Unfortunately for us, we reached Rongphu a little late the guesthouse was full. More on this accomodation and lovely washroom adventure later. The sight of Mt. Qomolongma from Ronghu was amazing at night. The moon was so bright and the mountain was shining. We stood there in the moonlight and just gazed at the mountain. It was an amazing sight. We couldn't believe we were actually there looking at Everest!!! I wish I had a tripod then because it was just so beautiful.

In the morning, we loaded our bags with snickers bars, chips (pringles style since we heard that regular bags are bad because they may explode due to the altitude!) and peanuts (high energy!). The 2 hour trek up wasn't too bad. It was beautiful as we saw Everest in front of us the entire time.

There were portions where there were switchbacks for the horse carts but we decided to take the short cut instead and headed straight up. That was tiring. It took us a while to catch our breath afterwards (thought we might need our oxygen at that point!). Thought maybe we should have taken one of the few horse carts that had passed us by then.

Just over 2 hours later, EBC comes into view. It was a little odd at first as we were immediately greeted by a row of 'hotels'! All on EBC!! Very odd. After passing these and being constantly invited in for tea at these 'hotels', we see a clearer view of Everest and the base camp where many expedition tents were set up.

Unfortunately for us, we couldn't get close enough to these expedition tents as we would have been charged 200 USD each for crossing the line. Too bad. I really wanted to see what those expeditioners were up to and when they thought they could summit! :D You can see many expedition tents up in the distance.

Here we are enjoying Mt. Qomolongma ... and passing out from the lack of oxygen (Ian more so than me) ;)!

Amazingly diverse landscapes yet dull cities

During our 6 days of overland, we went through such a diverse collection of landscapes I couldn't believe we were in one country, let alone one province! One minute, we'll be going through a sea of brown dirt road and mountains which will then change into extremely rocky terrain. At times, we swear we're on the moon or mars as there is next to no life on this earth. (Some images may be fuzzy ... car shots)

Next, we'll be within sand dunes.

One thing for sure, there is a lack of greenery to be found. The craziest sight was when we're driving along and all of a sudden we're driving in snow!! I was totally shitting my pants then because I was in the front seat and swore our land cruiser was going over one of those cliffs because of the slick roads.

We also managed to see a very cool glacier along the way.

Among all this, crystal clear turquoise lakes will suddenly appear and will be breathtaking. The first is Yamdrok Lake, the second a man made reservoir.

Oh yes, and a mini tornado!

On the contrary though, a couple of the cities we went to were rather dull and lacking of character. Unfortunately, many have been influenced by the influx of Han Chinese. Lucky for us though, we managed to see quite a few true Tibetan villages along our route which was very cool. We also saw many nomadic tents and nomads along the way. The image I had of Tibet was finally fulfilled throughout this overland.

We're back!

We're now back from our 6 day overland!! We're beat but it was one hell of an experience. The sights were absolutely amazing! I've never seen so much in such a short amount of time. I think we've hit the highlight of our entire trip ... too bad it's so early into our travels but I really don't know what could possibly beat this.

During this trip, we hit 2 holy lakes, one of which is apparently the highest in the world at 4700m. We also hit the highest mountain in the world, Mt Qomolongma or Everest. We also went through some of the most diverse terrain I have ever seen. Amazing. More about all this later.

Overall, this is a must do trip if you're ever in Tibet. Sooner than later too as it is becoming more touristy as time goes by. A lot of what we saw is still the original Tibet and we're so lucky to be able to see it now before it changes. Highly recommended!!

Friday, May 05, 2006

Overland to EBC!

We're finally set to go on our overland to Everest Base Camp ... we leave tomorrow!!

It's been crazy trying to plan this thing. We initially went with an agent that knew absolutely nothing about how to plan an overland for foreigners. Parts of Tibet are closed and foreigners require a permit to go to these places. Instead of getting all necessary permits for us, he puts the responsibility on us saying that we might get detained and fined! Great - thanks. I'm glad we're paying you to be so useful.

We switched to another agent who is a lot a more experienced and after a few days of delay, we finally have our permits and leave tomorrow! Here's our plan:

Lhasa - Yamdrok Lake - Gyantse - Shigatse - Shegar - Rongphu Monestary - EBC - Shigatse - Namtso Lake - Lhasa

All that in 5 nights and 6 days! You can get an idea of the locations from Lonely Planet. We check out our jeep tonight ... we'll try to pick from the best of these 10 year old Toyota land cruisers :P.

We probably won't have much internet access along the way but we'll have lots of updates when we're back!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

100% cream baby

Ever since we've been in the northern part of Yunnan province and Tibet we've noticed the mass amounts of yogurt being consumed by everyone. We decided to try it to see what the fuss was about in Zhongdian... and yep, now we're hooked. Their yogurt is soooooo good. We found out that it's because it is made with 100% cream. Yes, that's the way to do it. We met a Singaporean girl who was a marketing rep for Danone in China and she said low fat yogurt just does not sell here, they want the real fattening stuff. I like their way of thinking.

Here in Lhasa, we've seen many yogurt stands on street corners and decided to try some home made stuff. Now, that is GOOD yogurt. You can even add sugar to it if you want ... which we did of course. We can never go back to that low fat stuff we used to have in TO. What were we thinking!?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Rip-off Potala

So, remember how taken I was with the first sight of the Potala Palace? Yeah, well it's still magnificent and all from the outside but paying to go in is just one big rip off!

We thought that we could dedicate one full day to this place as it was huge and it would take us all day to explore all the different nooks in this place. So we showed up nice and early at 9am to buy our ticket for the day and guess what? They rationed the tickets! So we had to get a stub saying that we can get in at 3pm that day! 3pm! That only gives us 2 hours to explore! That can't possibly be enough.. especially with the 100 Y entrance fee we wanted to spend all day there! We contemplated coming back at the end of the day instead to get our 9am stub for the next day. After much talk, we realized that we might not be able to explore the palace on our own and might be shuffled through ... much like Versaille. We decided to just show up at 2:30 to try and get in a little earlier which we did. Alright... 2.5 hours to explore! Jokes on us.

So much was blocked off with ropes, we were literally shuffled from room to room. We were done in pretty much an hour and a half. Great. 100Y for an hour and a half. At least we saw the tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama (14.9 m high!) ... that was quite the sight. We saw a few other tombs and thrones of other Dalai Lama's as well which was kinda cool but overall, it was a bit of a disappointment.

Pilgrimage and the Golden Buddha

Walking the Barkhor Circuit was quite the experience as we were surrounded by many pilgrims doing the circuit around Jokhang Temple. Most were chanting as they twirled their prayer pole while others thumbed through their beads.

There was the odd one or two pilgrims who were doing the pilgrimage towards the temple. We were lucky enough to witness a very cool and touching exchange between two pilgrims as one gave money to the one doing the pilgrimage. Ian's video (see his blog in a couple days) managed to capture the first part of it. Afterwards, they touched forheads and some words were whispered. Ian and I turned to each other and were in awe at the sight.

Many pilgrims ended up in the front of the temple and performed the pilgrimage there ... quite the sight. We later found out what they were all praying towards when we finally went into the temple.

Inside the temple is the Holy Golden Buddha brought in from India by Princess Wenchang (the princess who requested the creation of Jokhang Temple) and this Buddha statue was blessed by Buddha himself! By luck we managed to get into the room with the Buddha by accident and we didn't even realize that that was THE Buddha! Yes we were ignorant. We found out later by tagging along an English tour group :D It was pretty cool to see so many ancient Tibetan treasures.


It's amazing how much poverty we've seen in Tibet in the last few days. Sadly, out of all the places we've been to, this is the one with the most beggers on the street. Although, I must admit that I don't fully understand this place as there are tons of pilgrims who are also asking for money. Sometimes, it's hard to differentiate between a pilgrim and a beggar. We can speculate on the high rate of poverty among the Tibetan community but we'll talk more later. :D

Speaking of beggars, there are a few kids here who have been dressed up and trained well to target tourists for money. One girl tried to block us as she 'danced' around us. We saw another guy with a girl wrapped around his leg!