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Litang: pinnacle of the Sichuan Tibet highway

Due to the sensitive nature of the material in this blog I have waited until after our departure from China to publish this post. Thanks for waiting…

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There’s only one thing wild enough for the road from Kangding to Litang: Jim Morrison, The Doors. I spun the control ring on my iPod hoping that the shitty piece of technology wouldn’t crack up in the high altitude. So far it was holding up better than my head.

Next to me, Richie was bolt upright in his chair, avoiding eye contact with the gaping chasm a meter from where the rear wheel of our bus was spinning. Somewhere on the mountain roads between here and Kangding he’d perfected the art of cracking sunflower seeds, spitting the shells onto the floor and munching the crisp kernel: crack-spit-chew-swallow-reach-crack-spit-chew-swallow-reach… So far, it was proving an effective mode of distraction. I shuffled my feet amid a sea of discarded shells, trying to restore the circulation of blood to my lower body.

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As we rounded the corner of a hairpin-bend tighter than the ‘Z’ of Harry’ Potter’s lightning-bolt scar the control ring of the iPod spun and the track I was looking for appeared in the viewfinder. Click. Select… this one’s for you Dad:

Poor Otis dead and gone
Left me here to sing his song
Pretty little girl with the red dress on
Poor Otis dead and gone.

I’ve got the running blues back to LA.
I’ve got to find the dock on the bay
Maybe find it back in LA…

Mercifully the kilogram of seeds held-out all the way to Litang. The gear in the back of the bus fared considerably worse than the bags on our laps. Clouds of dust rose comically from my backpack as I beat it mercilessly before an audience of riot police. The cops gazed curiously from where they sat, taking in the last of the afternoon rays and the two silly foreigners who had their camera pointed their way. We knew they’d be about, but not in these numbers. We wondered whether it was the result of a recent crackdown in Tibet, or merely life as we know it in China-occupied Kham. It was enough to make me wanna cry.

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As we did the rounds looking for a cheep hotel room there was no way of denying the omnipresence of Chinese cops and military in Litang. Policeman were posted on every street corner, bracing automatic weapons against their hips and chests. Police cars did endless laps of the streets, spouting propaganda from roof-mounted megaphones. We looked on, bewildered, as officials confiscated a local youth’s ID card.

Images of the Dalai Lama were conspicuously not present. A few people went so far as to whisper his name to us, but no more. A young man who spoke a little English was kind enough to show us to a suitable guest house but when we asked him to stay and drink tea with us, he mysteriously melted away into the darkening streets. What’s going on here?

During our second day in Litang, still giddy and breathless with symptoms of acute mountain sickness, we set out on foot in the direction of the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery. Midway there we were drawn by the sound of cries to the door of the soup kitchen where we were taking lunch. Outside a contingent of armed military marched past in formation: stern, intent, unyielding. We glanced backwards and forwards at the faces around us, looking for a sign of how to respond to the performance. Beatific smiles, passive nods and cries of ‘Tashi delek’ were all we observed in the way of retaliation. Unlike us, locals seemed unfazed by the military posturing and seemed more intent on greeting friends and doing the weekly shopping than making a scene. They did not pause long enough to dignify the spectacle.

Life at the monastery appeared considerably more peaceful than on the main street. Novice monks picked on smaller novice monks; the sound of childish games resounding through the otherwise empty courtyard. In the shade of a portico a group of five women were taking tea.  They invited us to drink with them, sitting cross-legged on the floor. After draining our cups a second time, they pressed us to take more biscuits, bread, noodles, tea. Guessing at what we meant, each of the women in turn held up the numbers of fingers corresponding to the number of children to whom she had given birth. My age and childlessness made them giggle. We bid them goodbye and thanked them for their welcome.

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After visiting the monastery we spent most of our time in Litang observing life at the Chorten Karpo, a busy stupa on the west side of town. Away from the watchful eyes of the Chinese government, the chorten grounds was the most relaxed and  convivial place in town to sit and be. After doing a circuit of prayer wheels we lowered ourselves onto a stack of logs within earshot of a group of picnicking locals, offering segments of mandarin and apples to their children, and admiring the graceful way their fingers flexed and gripped the perpetually turing hand-held prayer wheels.

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The chorten grounds were Litang’s answer to Hyde Park and Fitness First combined. Every individual had his/hers own way of perambulating: chaotically, ducking and weaving between slower pilgrims; or slowly, methodically, with utter absorption and serenity. It was beautiful to see: intact spirituality, and the expression of centuries old tradition, culture and worship.

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Apart from the chorten, the thing that impressed us most about Litang were the Tibetan cowboys.

 “Look at him!” Richie panted in admiration.

   “Bloody cool!” I agreed. These guys were charisma on two wheels, with prayer beads and fur-lined long-sleeved wraparound chubas to boot. The one over there, leaning against the wall, looked like he could peel yak skin with his teeth! The old Khampa cowboys were equally impressive: they swung in from out of town on their bikes; burnt brown, long grey hair and every bit as laid back and fearless as a modern-day Easy Rider. Even more impressively, to Richie and me, was that some of them had very likely defended their homes and monastery against Chinese attack during the invasion of the 1950s – Kham was where some of the most persistent and relentless battles had been fought. Hardy individuals, the closest thing to Lizard King cool I’ve ever seen.

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You’ve got to be a bit hardcore (or stupid) to visit Litang in November. It’s cold! If you’re not careful, you’ll get a dose of sun stroke with your altitude sickness, which is what Richie and I did. Hapless bunglers! After three days ogling Khampa cowboys, silently repudiating the Chinese government, and immersing ourselves in the peace and friendliness of the chorten community, we decided to cut our losses and come down a rung to Daocheng – somewhere below 4000m. It was blatantly clear as the bus crested the top of a prayer flag-strewn peak marking the way out of Litang that that our 3-day visit would not succeed where over 5 decades of Tibetan struggle had failed. Tibet was still not free… but it does exist  and shall do…

until that day…

Free Tibet

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‘back door’ to Yunnan in photographs

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Suopo village stupa

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autumn blaze, Suopo

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Qiāng watchtowers of Suopo

Suopo village dwelling

Suopo village dwelling

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Qiāng watchtowers of Suopo

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As we stepped carefully across the rotted timber planks of the bridge separating Suopo village from the south side of the Dàdù River the strain and hardship of the past few months began to disassemble. There’d been few opportunities lately to feel as free and unburdened as this: no visas; no language barriers; no early starts; no borders; no rucksacks; no interference – not today.

Prayer flags, nimble and translucent as bat’s wings, threatened to take off in the wind. Gazing at them I was reminded of the weeks we’d spent, four years ago, walking between the villages of the Nubra and Indus valleys in Ladakh, and rejoiced at the persistence of communities, the world over, who live and work in harmony with nature. Continue reading

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3 Days in Chengdu

People's Park dancers, Chengdu

People’s Park dancers, Chengdu

After spending 83 hours on a bus to get there, I was prepared to love Chengdu. Gratefully, it wasn’t a hard task. The city was eminently likeable, not least the Tibetan enclave where we found lodgings at the auspiciously named Holly Hostel.

Growing up on a diet of leanly-timed rain-water showers I felt appropriately guilty as I treated myself to an inordinately long judicious scrub in the hostel shower room.

Sleeping was another matter. After an average of three to four broken half-hour sleeps per day, for four consecutive nights, seated above the rear-axle of a dilapidated Xinjiang bus,  I was stymied! My body clearly did not recall how to respond to tender treatment: a bed and clean linen. Horizontality was anathema. My head swam and my legs twitched. There were only two things for it: a walk and a Sichuan hotpot.

Sichuan hotpot, the ultimate food experience

Sichuan hotpot (huŏguō), the ultimate food experience

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proverbial chicken’s foot: a bus ride from Urumqi to Chengdu

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I couldn’t be entirely sure, but to my eyes it appeared that the man across the aisle from me was sliding a glazed chicken’s foot out from  within a food-grade vacuum packed sleeve. The package, which was large and covered in Chinese script, was so thick that it was practically bullet-proof. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the survival rations of a high altitude exploration team.

No sooner had the object been removed than the plastic sleeve was flung unceremoniously onto the floor. Had I not known better I would have said that the object the man was holding was a gimmicky rubber chicken’s foot, the type you find in a show-bag. Rubber this was not. That foot was real, and he was about to let it have it!

Let me get this clear. I have nothing, absolutely NOTHING, against chicken’s feet. They’re perfectly sensible body parts, and play an essential role at the end of scrawny legs and pert feathery bodies. Nor are they bad eating. I should know. I’ve only fond memories of chomping chicken’s feet in Hanoi. They go particularly well with a bowl of hot congee in the morning. Continue reading

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Almaty to Urumqi in Photos

A matter of mere hours before our Kazakhstan visas expired we crossed the border into China.  The long-anticipated entry was a landmark for us –  281 days of travel overland from England to China; and six separate attempts for the visa.

Journey: Almaty (Kazakhstan) to Urumqi  (Xinjiang, China)

Distance: 1000km

Mode of Transportation: Sleeper Bus

Cost: 8,900 Kazakhstani Tenge ($AUD56)

Duration: 24 hours

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Is that Priscilla Queen of the Desert? No, it’s our sleeper bus.

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vast spaces in high places

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imagine living here

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East is east

Not to touch the earth,
Not to see the sun.
Nothing left to do but
Run, run, run.
Let’s run.
Let’s run.
– ‘Not to Touch the Earth’, Jim Morrison –

The dispersing of students after the PDC brought us to the steady conclusion that it was high time to make tracks. With our new recruit, Sam, we packed bags and gathered our strength. Let’s go! “To the East, to meet the Czar…”

The train tracks ate up the miles. Shades of KLF Chillout Album as ambient sounds, lights and the sporadic music of doors opening and closing rippled through the carriage. Lying prone on the grimy floor of the 2nd class carriage. Smudgy faces through compartment windows, cigarette smoke from the toilet. Night tasting like ash and Sal, or was it Dean Moriarty, whispering in my ear… “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” 

With inertia overcome the road became our only goal. East, ever east.

Train-bus-train-bus-bus. In 31 hours we unravelled the 1,200km from Malin to Istanbul. 2 borders in 12 hours.

4am Istanbul. Nothing to do. Dark. A mist of rain. Find bearings. Coffee. Wait for the train station to open. Train tracks under construction. Change of plan. A bus. Otogar. Ankara. Peak hour traffic. Miss our stop. Run. Sweat, sweat… the Dogŭ Express. Made it! “Let this be a lesson to us,” Richie warns, “you always need longer than you think!”

Our third night since leaving Malin, our first bed: 4-berth carriage aboard the Dogŭ Express. Clean sheets and a pillow. Luxury!

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Season of the harvest

We arrived in Plovdiv’s Yug Bus Station feeling grateful for having escaped the intensity of Istanbul and the foot-swelling all-night bus journey.

Bulgaria – our seventh country in as many months!

As we sat in the bus station chewing greasy breakfast pastry we speculated about the many permutations of fried bread we’ve eaten during our 7 months on the road, and wondered what was ahead in the way of fat and flour.

Thankfully, in Bulgaria, there’s no reason to live off grease, cheese and coffee. Gripped by a late-season glut of tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, grapes, peaches, plums, apples and pears, Bulgaria’s towns and villages were awash with colourful market stalls. To impoverished tastebuds acclimatised to the bland horrors of English supermarket food there was no doubt that this was some of the best food we’d ever eaten. Who knew tomatoes could be this good?

In a region of central Bulgaria known variously as the Valley of the Thracian Kings and the Valley of Roses we were delighted to find that not one household had neglected to fill their backyard with a variety of fruit trees and heirloom vegetables. Walking the streets of Kran was a moveable feast, hands darting between railings and over fences to snatch mouthfuls of red currants, black grapes and marble-sized cherry plums.

“Incredible edible” exclaimed Richie, marvelling at the absence of ‘ornamentals’. Not a single municipal council-planted acer, plane tree or horse chestnut was in sight. Instead, sour cherries, walnuts, plums and sweet chestnuts lined the village streets, flaunting their exceptional ornamental value while at the same time, dropping fruits and nuts into the palms of passersby. Not wanting to be outdone, even the pavements yielded a crop; enough fat succulent purslane to furnish many a late-summer salad. Continue reading

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Balloons over Goreme

Who knows if the moon’s / a balloon, coming out of a keen city / in the sky – filled with pretty people?

– E. E. Cummings

On our last day in Goreme I wake to the sound of balloons exhaling. It’s after dawn. What time exactly, I don’t know. Since leaving my watch in Morocco and the mobile phone in Greece time has become a loose bracelet on a long long arm.

Today, however, time is relevant. The bus to Istanbul departs at 8:15am and we should be there by 8am. I’d like to have a good breakfast, and of course, there’s the tent and sleeping bags to pack away. The empty yard and the pink-around the edges sky tells me it’s 6am, 6:30am at the latest. We’ve enough time to pack things down leisurely and make sure we have enough fresh apricots – picked and washed – to see us through the long journey to ‘the bull’ – ‘is tan’, that is.

In Australia apricots are a luxury. They come in undersized overpriced bags at the supermarket, or in massive sacks at pay and weigh stores, like Mick’s Nuts in Brisbane. I like the brown unsulphured ones. They come from Turkey. 86% of the world’s supply of dried apricots come from Turkey. And guess what? We’re in Turkey… and it’s apricot season.

The 3 kilograms of golf-ball sized orange globes that I laid out to dry in the sun 4 days ago has shrunk to a measly two cups of dried fruit. What they lack in volume they make up for in flavour – intensely aromatic, even perfumed, and stickily sweet. If there’s an upside to 41-degree days it’s the speedy conversion of fruit into confectionary.

The dried apricots last all the way to Istanbul and well into the next day. I claw the orange shreds from gaps in my teeth as we pass the flat expanse of Turkey’s bread basket. A salt lake takes up my attention – and the whole of the horizon – a shimmering mirage in white. It could be Australia or Peru. I think of my brother in law, Daniel, and the bogus gravity defying photographs he and his mate, Tyler, took in Bolivia.

I think of the balloons in the sky over Goreme and how beautiful they looked sailing above the fairy chimneys, rising and sinking in time with the exhalations of the gas bottles. Never mind how contrived and touristic a spectacle it is… tour groups, quad bikes, balloons, beer, tourist cafes, handicraft stores… none of them have managed to effectively dismantle the enchantment of Goreme.

I wonder if the tourists, way up there in the sky, on cloud number 9, were having a good time? Were they weary from the 4 am shuttle bus to the launch site? Angry that the champagne they’d been promised turned out to be fizzy pop? Or that the conversations they were having were drowned out by the blast of combusting fuel… Were they warm enough up there? Were they missing something crucial, something that can only be experienced at ground level.

The details.

Like all good things when you travel – the apricots and the spectacle of the balloons – were free. Cost nothing. The balloon ride, on the other hand, cost 120 euros p/person. Life is sweeter with two feet on the ground and a gob full of reconstituting apricots.

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Discovering Molise…

In spite of its central position in the country, and proximity to Rome, few people who visit Italy have ever heard of Molise. One of the smallest and most sparsely populated provinces in Italy, Molise is home to 400,000 residents, and one third of the country’s endemic species of flora and fauna, including small populations of wolves, bears and chamoix. Its three national parks encompass an area of 3,350sq km, making Molise a green and pleasant place to escape the noise and congestion of Italy’s major cities.

When Richie and I arrived in Italy on the 12th of April we had never heard of ‘Molise’, and when we exited the country on the 30th of June, we’d spent a total of almost half our time there.

This is the story of how we ‘discovered’ Molise…

After seeing the high standard of work Richie was turning out for his Permaculture Diploma, Angiola, our host in Rome, suggested we visit Molise to stay in her family’s villa, explore the countryside, and make some suggestions in the garden. We weren’t sure if we were being invited to have a holiday, or to implement a permaculture design. Either way, the enticement of free accommodation in a restored stone stable was enough to tempt us into the heart of the country – to the very navel of Italy.

In Campobasso, Molise’s capital, we were met off the bus by Angiola and her sister, Maria-pia. Angiola was on her way back to Rome but invited us to stay as long as we wanted, so long as we spent the first few afternoons of our visit helping her sister and brother plant 200  pomodoro (tomato) plants in the garden.

The variety of pomodoro that Maria-pia and Michelangelo favoured was a native of Montagano (the the closest village to where we were staying), and was without doubt “the best tomato in the world.”

Unfortunately for Maria-pia and Michelangelo, not even “the best tomato in the world” will grow to a ripe old age if the conditions for living aren’t right. On arriving on the scene in Faifoli Richie and I were greeted by the sad spectacle of over two hundred pomodoro seedlings wilting with stage fright under a relentless blue sky in a dry barren patch of recently rotovated earth. It was tomato genocide!

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