Tag Archives: Bus

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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