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Tibet - Part 2

Lake Manasarovar

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We arrived at Lake Manasarovar in the evening of the 18th of September. Lake Manasarovar, at an elevation of 4’590 meters, is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It is a holy place in 4 major religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bön) and is closely related to the nearby Mount Kailash, with Lake Manasarovar representing female and Mount Kailash representing male. We started our 4 day trek around the lake the next morning.

The first day was actually the best of the trek, as it provided great views of the mountain Gurla Mandhata in the south of the lake. At an elevation of 7’694 meters, this was the highest mountain both of us have seen so far. The trek followed the shore of the lake for the first half, but then moved away from it as we approached the town Hor, where we would spend the first night. Despite being almost entirely flat, the first day’s route exhausted us quite a bit, as we walked 29km at this altitude, after hardly moving for 3 days.


The second day started with a bit of a shock, as our guide announced that today’s route would be 30km instead of the 22km listed in the tour itinerary. There was an option of taking the car for half of the way, which Marta took, while Sam just about managed to walk the entire way. On this day, we could already see our next destination, Mount Kailash, in the distance.


Fortunately, the last two days were easier, day 3 was 22km and the last day only about 10km of walking. After the third day we stayed at a monastery on a cliff which offered nice views across the lake. However, the weather worsened during the 4-day-trek and it got more and more cloudy. On the last day there was even a little bit of rain.


Overall, we were not so happy with this trek. It might have a lot to offer for those who do it for religious reasons, but for people interested in nice hikes and good views, there is little to enjoy. The trek is naturally very flat and follows dirt roads for most of the way, we were passed by cars 4 to 5 times an hour. The views are interesting for a day, but you see the same lake and the same 2 mountains for the entire 4 days. Also, due to the high altitude and Tibet’s location in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, the landscape is dry and devoid of any vegetation. The one good thing about the 4 days was the valuable high altitude preparation we received.

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Tibet - Part 1

Lhasa and road to the west of Tibet

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Unfortunately, it is not possible to travel freely in the Tibet Autonomous Region, so we had to join an organized tour for this part of our journey. After arriving in Lhasa, we were welcomed by our tour guide Dundup at the train station and brought to our hotel. Our tour group consisted of 2 Italians, 2 Canadians, 2 Israeli, 7 Russians and us. Together, we were going to travel to the far west of Tibet to do 2 koras (Buddhist pilgrimages), one around Lake Manasarovar and one around Mount Kailash. But first, we spent two days in Lhasa to see the most important temples of the Tibetan capital.


On the first day we visited the Drepung and the Sera monastery, two of the most active monasteries in Lhasa. The most interesting sight for us was the debating monks at the Sera monastery. Every day from 3 to 4pm, the monks meet in a courtyard of the monastery to practice their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and other topics. They build pairs and one monk sits down while the other stands and fires question after question on the sitting monk who has to answer as quickly as possible. The whole scene is very entertaining, loud and lively. Another interesting sight in the monasteries are the yak butter lamps. Apparently, it is common for believers to bring yak butter as a donation to the monastery and they use it to burn candles. This fills the monasteries with the unique scent of melted butter.


On the second day we went to visit the Potala Palace, the official seat of the Dalai Lama and thereby the former independent Tibetan government. The visit to this palace is very strictly regulated by the Chinese government and there is a lot of police and military around. While the palace is very impressive and beautiful, there is also an air of sadness around it, like looking at a nicely decorated gravestone. Around the palace there is a lot of Chinese propaganda, while inside you cannot find any pictures of the current Dalai Lama, since his image is banned in China. We also learned from our guide, that while China considers Tibet to be a part of China, Tibetans cannot get a Chinese passport and are therefore prohibited from travelling abroad. Later that day, we also visited the Jokhang temple in the middle of the city, which was built in the 7th century and is thereby the oldest temple in Lhasa.


After the two days of sightseeing in Lhasa, we embarked on our journey to the west of Tibet, which consisted of 3 days mostly spent inside the car. Along the way, we drove over several passes higher than 5000 meters above the sea, visited some more temples (of which we got a bit tired at that point), saw many interesting landscapes and got our first views of the Himalayas in the distance.


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From Xining to Lhasa

The worlds highest railway line

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Since Marta was getting tired of sleeping on trains, we decided to take the first flight on our trip to go from Shanghai to Xining. The reason we decided to stay 2 nights in Xining is that it is considered a great place to acclimatize to the altitude before taking the train to Lhasa. Xining is not a typical tourists destination but we found our stay there to be extremely enjoyable. The people in Xining were the friendliest that we came across in China. English is only very rarely spoken in this city, but everywhere people tried their best to help us. Sometimes by walking with us to show us the way or by sitting down with us and figuring out what to order from the Chinese menu. The hotel we stayed in was also the place that did the most to honor our honeymoon. When we came back from a city walk, we found that they had changed our bed sheets and covers from white to red and left a bottle of wine, a bouquet of flowers and a handwritten card from the hotel manager for us.


As far as sightseeing is concerned, Xining can naturally not compete with Beijing and Shanghai, but our focus was more on relaxing before the tight schedule we will have in Tibet. We went to see a temple in the north of the city though, which is built into a cliff and from where we had a great view of the city.


On an evening stroll, we came through the central square of Xining which was very lively. Different groups have set up speakers and were dancing together to different types of music, while many spectators where standing around. It was great to see that young and old people, men and women, where coming together to dance. The dances where all solo-dances though with very unusual choreographies for us. As Xining does not get many foreign tourists, we were also an attraction on the square and one family even asked Marta if she could hold their baby for a photo.


We also discovered our new favorite Chinese food chain in Xining, called Little Sheep Hot Pot. This chain specializes in hot pot with very good quality lamb as the main ingredient and it was so good that we ate there twice. The staff was so delighted to see us for a second time that they brought us lots of free food to add to our hot pot and oolong ice tea.


We boarded the train to Lhasa in the evening of our third day in Xining. This train is famous for being the highest railway line in the world, climbing as high as 5072 meters above the sea. We took the train in the evening so that we would spend the lowest part of the 20-hour-journey sleeping and would be awake to see the high-altitude-landscape. Since this train is extremely popular, we could only get beds in a 6-bed-compartment but we nevertheless slept quite well. Because of the extreme altitude, only special trains run on this line that have an oxygen outlet for each passenger and a doctor on duty. Moreover, the oxygen content in the air is raised from 21% to 25% to prevent altitude sickness. Despite a minor headache we luckily did not have any problems.


Most of the journey was spent over 4000 meters and a lot of the landscape was covered in snow. We also saw many yaks along the way and even some Tibetan antelopes. Shortly before 6pm, we arrived in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, at an altitude of 3650 meters.


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The largest city in China

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The first two things we noticed when getting off the train in Shanghai, was that it was already totally dark at 6:30pm and that it was very humid, compared to the dry weather we had in Beijing. Our hotel was perfectly located right next to the People’s Square and we were upgraded to a room on the 58th floor, overlooking the city.


Whereas in Beijing the biggest attractions are the historical and cultural sights, Shanghai is all about skyscrapers and the skyline. It is the largest city in China and its financial center, despite its relatively young age of only 180 years. In fact, where today the most famous skyline of the city is located, 20 years ago there was absolutely nothing. Probably nowhere else you can feel the economic growth and prosperity in China more than here.


One might expect to see a lot of Western faces in this city and while there might really be a lot of them in absolute numbers, they are so massively outnumbered by the Chinese locals and the Chinese tourists, that one might easily believe to be the only non-Chinese around. On the morning after our arrival to Shanghai, we joined a walking tour around the center of the city. Our host explained to our group of 30 Westerners that we shall not be offended if we spark curiosity among the Chinese. 90% of Chinese never left their country, therefore seeing a Westerner is a major attraction for them. So it happened that many Chinese took photos of our group or made selfies with us in the background.


The most interesting part of our walking tour was the marriage market, where local parents try to find a partner for their son or daughter. They post the most important information, like height, age or how much they want their partner to earn on a piece of paper that they put on top of an umbrella. As our host explained, there is an immense pressure on young Chinese to marry, as it is considered an integral part of being successful in life. There is apparently a Chinese word for unmarried people of 30 years or older, that roughly translates to “left-over”.


On our second day in Shanghai we went to visit the Shanghai tower, at 632 meters the second-highest building in the world. In the tower we went to the world’s highest observation deck, brought by the world’s fastest elevator, travelling up to 18 meters per second. The scale of this city is impressive and it is fascinating to look at it both by day and by night.


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The Chinese capital

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Our train crossed the line of the Great Wall around 6:30 in the morning. Too early for us to get up after the late night border procedures, but we would see it more closely at a later point anyway. When we woke up hours later, the train was following a river through a scenic valley, with the views frequently interrupted by small tunnels. Soon after, increasingly large cities went past us until we arrived in the Chinese capital. Beijing marked the end of the Trans-Mongolian railway line, which we have followed all the way from Moscow for a total of 7620 km.


Our hotel has prepared a handy direction card for us in Chinese, so we could show it to a taxi driver. Surprisingly however, it was impossible to get a taxi at the railway station. As it turned out, taxis in Beijing are quite rare and if you look like a Westerner, they won’t stop for you as dealing with people who do not speak Chinese would be too much of a burden. After 30 minutes of trying to get a taxi, we gave up and took the subway instead which was much easier. Our hotel was located in a hutong, a traditional Chinese narrow alleyway, and was beautifully decorated in the traditional Chinese style with red lit lampions. We spent the afternoon relaxing from the long journey.


The first 2 full days in Beijing, we spent exploring the sights of the city. We visited the Forbidden City, the Lama Temple, the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace. Overall, we felt like we could easily spend a week in and around Beijing without getting bored. Our favorite sights were the Lama Temple, a beautiful Buddhist temple, and the Summer Palace, a huge park around a lake with many interesting buildings to explore. A bit disappointing was the Forbidden City, probably the most famous tourist attraction in Beijing. Besides being swarmed with tourists, the city filled with its temple-like buildings surprised with its monotony. All the temples there basically look the same and once you’ve seen one, exploring the other hundred seems a bit pointless, unless one is super-interested in the history of Chinese emperors and which emperor used which building for which purpose. We also wanted to see Tiananmen square, but the People Square of Beijing was closed for people to visit and heavily guarded by military.


After Mongolia, dining in Beijing was a great joy for us. There were many different branches of Chinese cuisine to explore, Cantonese, Yunnan and Sichuan, and almost everywhere we ate, the food was excellent.


On our third full day, we went to see the Great Wall, obviously a must see when in Beijing. To get a more original and unspoilt experience we chose to travel a bit farther to the less-visited and partially unrestored section of the wall called Jin Shan Ling. There we could hike for 3½ hours along the wall and enjoy the fantastic views of the wall, climbing over mountain after mountain into the distance. The hike was quite strenuous, as some parts were extremely steep.


On the last day we spent the morning relaxing and Sam got a new haircut. At 2pm we took the bullet train to Shanghai, to our knowledge the fastest train in the world, moving at up to 350 km/h.


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