Archive for June, 2010

Tibet photos uploaded!

I’ve uploaded most of my tibet photos.. they’re here.

Yes, the sky really is that blue at altitude :)

I’m heading off to travel with nomads until July 3… see you when I get back!

Mongolia mini-adventure

I arrived in Ulaanbaatar a few days ago. I’m heading out for a 6 day nomadic adventure on the 28th, so in the meantime I went to Terej National Park with a few people from my guesthouse.

We stayed with a family of herders in a small camp with 2 ger, one for us and one for them. Ger are Mongolian yurts covered in felt.. for those of you who go to Burning Man, Ashram Galactica put one up in their front yard every year. After lunch, we were supposed to go for a horse ride but it was too hot so all of us plus the young kids from the family piled into the bed of their truck and headed down to the river. We stopped several times on the way.. the two older boys in the family were herding the family’s horses to the river, and the head of the family kept stopping to check up on them and yell directions.

The river was cool and refreshing, shallow but with strong currents. I got in a waterfight with the kids. We all ended up soaked so I think everyone won.

After dinner, it was much cooler so we took the horses out for a twilight / moonlight ride. It was great! I’d never ridden a horse before and it was easier than I expected. I think it helped that I was on a fairly small horse that rarely went faster than a trot. Mongolian horses are generally pretty small; I don’t think they breed them the way Europeans have been for centuries.

The park itself is really touristed.. lots of large ger camps and even a golf course. But it was worth a short visit to get out of UB. The city itself doesn’t have much to do, and it’s a pretty rundown place. Fun UB quirk though: the garbage trucks (truck?) play a tune of the type heard from ice cream trucks in the rest of the world!

Photos are here.

(I visited Terej National Park on June 25-26.)


June 15, 13:00: 80km from Kathmandu, 760m

This morning we continued our ride down, down, down to the China/Nepal border. There we waited for it to open at 10AM and wheeled our bikes through the building. It’s difficult for vehicles to cross the border, but luckily (and this is probably the only time I’ll ever say this) bicycles are not considered vehicles by Chinese customs. Our Chinese-registered "jeep" and truck could not cross, so the tour company hired porters to take all our gear across and load it onto a Nepal-registered bus.

Nepal is hot and humid and reminds me of India. Nepalese people are slightly less friendly than Tibetans in general but there’s a lot less of a language barrier so it evens out.

June 15, 18:30: Dhulikel, 30km from Kathmandu, 1800m

After lunch we had to climb back up to Dhulikel, our last climb. The scenery was great, and such a change from Tibet! It’s basically Sapa writ large: terraces (though mostly growing corn, not rice) up the side of hills, and winding roads through them. The roads mostly carry Indian-made trucks and buses, all handpainted and "horn OK please." The truck horns are interesting too.. not the warble of Vietnam or the monotone of the rest of the world, but usually they play a short tune!

We’re now in a very nice resort with a view of the Himalayas. One small adventure this evening was getting Nepalese Rupees.. the nearest ATM was in a town 3km away! So one of the resort staff drove me on the back of his motorcycle to get money, and I got a small preview of tomorrow’s route.

June 16, 12:00: Kathmandu!

Made it! This morning we rode down into the traffic jam that is the Kathmandu valley and onto our hotel. Not a terribly exciting ride but a necessary one, and now we’re done!

…and the rest…

I spent 2 more days in Kathmandu before flying back to China, one of which was spent visiting Child Haven International, which deserves its own post.

I washed the bike with a pressure washer in the hotel parking lot and rode it to the nearby Thamel area, which is the backpacker district. I sold it for about half its new price to a rental shop. Lhasa-Kathmandu cyclists seem to be the main supply chain for these stores. When I walked by the next day, my bike was hanging in front of the others.. it’s a couple of years newer and shinier than any of their other bikes. I hope it has fun!

I toured the area around Thamel, which is a maze of twisty passages, all stinky. The main means of garbage disposal in Nepal seems to be: put it in a bag and drop it out your front door. Eventually, the city might send around a crew to pick it up, but in the meantime there’s rotting garbage everywhere. If you can get over the smells, there are lots of neat little shops building and selling things (harmoniums anyone?) and shrines, both Tibetan Buddhist and Hindu. Around dusk, people buy candles and light up some of the shrines, and the shops and markets go on selling.

I did a small amount of shopping in Thamel for my upcoming train trip. Thamel itself is full of guesthouses, trekking agencies, and gear sellers. Much of the gear is even genuine, but not all of it. I bought a fake Nalgene bottle.. it didn’t occur to me that anyone would bother counterfeiting a water bottle, but I realized afterwards that that’s what I have :)

Early on the 19th, the tour company drove me out to the airport. Wow, KTM sucks! The terminal dates from the 70s and is rundown and filled with litter. Getting to my flight required several illogical security-theatre processes… the TSA could really learn something from these guys! It’s also the only airport in which I’ve been bitten by mosquitoes while well inside the terminal building. I was glad to be on the relative civilization of an Air China-owned plane.. Air China is OK but not great, kind of like Air Canada but differently mediocre.

The flight to Chengdu stopped in Lhasa. It was nice to see the brown mountains again! I had to go through immigration (but not customs) in Lhasa along with the other KTM-CTU passengers, and an agent traded my boarding pass for a new, handwritten one. After this, we waited in a small area a few gates over from where the aircraft was parked, then reboarded the aircraft via some jetstairs to the rear door while passengers originating in Lhasa boarded via the jetway. Weird!

So that was Nepal. I didn’t have time to form too strong an impression of the place, but it seems pretty messed up. The current problem is that there’s not enough electricity (they don’t run the streetlights, the power randomly goes out for hours at a time, businesses have generators and UPSes) but I think the main problem is one of role models: Nepal wants to be like India, but sadly India is a shithole. And so it goes.

A few photos from Nepal are here.

(I was in Nepal until June 19.)

Tibet 2: Lhasa

When I arrived at my hotel there was a couple unpacking bikes.. I asked if they were doing the same tour as me and they said yes! They had been cycling from Bangkok to Kathmandu via China and learned when they reached China that they could not enter or cycle in Tibet without being part of a group. So they flew from Chengdu to Lhasa and joined the tour.

Lhasa is a city in two parts. There is a large Chinese part, which looks much like any other medium-sized Chinese city. Then there’s the Tibetan part. It’s centered on Johkang Temple, Tibet’s holiest site. Tibetans young and old make pilgrimages from all over to pray at the temple, which takes various forms: walking a circuit around the temple (always counterclockwise), twirling prayer wheels, putting prayer flags on the towers around the temple, and most interestingly: prostrating. To do this, the pilgrim (usually wearing gloves and kneepads) kneels then throws him/herself onto the ground, claps, then stands up. Sometimes this is done in place, or sometimes it’s a slow way of doing the circuit around the temple.

Also surrounding the temple are hundreds of stalls selling all sorts of things, from religious items like prayer wheels and prayer flags to sneakers to kitchenware. This makes sense when you realize that people come from all over to walk the circuit, and many of them can’t buy these things in their small village homes. There are also permanent shops in the Tibetan part. In one alley, there are 4 or 5 shops selling solar panels, SLA batteries, inverters, and so on… and each has a cat! (These are a few of my favourite things.)

So yeah, the Tibetan part of Lhasa is great fun to wander around and people watch. I walked through it whenever possible, even if it was a bit out of my way.

Another thing that I noticed in Lhasa is the huge police and army presence, stationed under shade structures all over and patrolling the streets. There are far more than, say, Belfast during the troubles. Well, the Chinese sure know how to run a police state.

The day after I arrived in Lhasa, the rest of the bike tour group showed up on a flight from Kathmandu. As part of the tour, we saw several other sights in Lhasa. First was Drepung Monastery, which is a huge complex on a hill overlooking the city. The public parts are mostly chapels. Visitors can make offerings at the chapels, either of money (usually 1 jiao notes, worth about 1¢) by holy statues or items, or of yak butter. This is carried in in thermoses and poured into large candles found in several temples.

We visited Norbulingka, which used to be the summer residence of the Dalai Lama. The weirdest part here was that his washroom was part of the tour, and people put money on his toilet! I joined in the fun and left 1 jiao, of course.

The next day we visited the awesome Potala Palace, which towers over Lhasa. This was the main residence of the Dalai Lama, the centre of Tibet’s government, and is still one of the main religious sites. We toured dozens of rooms filled with sacred objects, including the burial sites of several Dalai Lamas.

That afternoon we visited Johkang Temple itself. Inside there are many small temples where you can offer money or yak butter. I had a bunch of jiao notes, so I got in on the fun. I made my offerings to the less popular statues, then got really creative and made offerings to signs, light switches, a pool of water… don’t worry, Tibetans make these kinds of offerings too.

So yeah, that was Lhasa. The hard part is describing how beautiful the place was. Leaving was a little heartbreak, even though I have a lot of Tibet left to see!

Photos from Lhasa are here.

(I arrived in Tibet on May 28 and stayed until June 1.)

Tibet 1: Getting there

Greetings from the roof of the world!

I’m in Lhasa, Tibet. Getting here was a fun but exhausting journey.

I packed up my bike, then Robin and I boarded an afternoon train from Beijing for the 24h journey to Xining. The train ride was fun but long – we provided entertainment for a whole pile of non-English speaking locals. Main sources of entertainment were elephant photos on my laptop, the alphabet song, and my zip-off hiking pants.

From Xining, I rode out to Kumbum Monastery. Another Tibetan monastery, another mysterious CD. This temple is famous for its yak butter sculptures, which are much bigger and more elaborate than I expected.. colourful too, since they dye the butter. Sadly, as in most Tibetan monastaries, photography is not allowed.

It was great to ride for a few hours somewhere less polluted than Beijing. Part of the road was under construction too, so I got to do some mountain biking.

In the evening, I said goodbye to Robin at the train station and boarded a train for the 24h trip to Lhasa. This train was halfway along its journey, having done the 24h trip from Beijing. Unfortunately, I learned that they don’t change the sheets between passengers. Oh well.

The service to Lhasa runs along the world’s highest railway, the Qingtai-Tibet railway. The highest point is 5072m, higher even than Lhasa but not as high as I’m planning on cycling to. Each car has an on board oxygen generator with outlets throughout the car. Most of the time they just hiss out into the surrounding air, but they’ll give you a cannula if you need one (I only saw one person using one.) I didn’t have much trouble, but in the afternoon I felt a bit dizzy so I turned on the outlet by my bed and took a nap.

There were some nice views out the window of the train, but nothing mind blowing. The tracks mostly run through flat plateaus with the mountains far on either side, high above the treeline (but not above the yak line.) I’ve heard the views are much better from the highway we’ll be cycling on…

The neat thing to see out the train window was the track and railbed. There’s a ~1m high yak fence all the way along the track, there are lots of small bridges, and every now and then the train passes through an area with rocks arranged in a diamond pattern in the dirt, plus strange fences. I learned that these somehow keep dust storms from affecting the train.

And, despite this being a showcase train, there’s a good serving of FAIL. Many of the fixtures on a Chinese rail car are not capable of surviving a 48h journey! My car’s toilets stopped flushing and were locked at about 28h from Beijing. All the hot water dispensers were broken by the end of the trip, so to get hot water you had to open a door below the dispenser and get it from a tap on the boiler itself. Half the hallway seats in my car were bent down at an angle too low for sitting. And so on. I’m not terribly sad that this is the last Chinese train I’ll take for a while.

The train arrived on time in Lhasa. I put my bike together outside the station, surrounded by a curious crowd, and slowly rode the 10km to my hotel.

A few photos from/of the train are here.

(I arrived in Lhasa on May 28.)

Weird things about this train…

Train K23, Beijing -> Ulaanbaatar, near the China/Mongolia border

They changed the bogies on all the passenger cars a few hours ago. Now we can run on Russian-gauge track, which is different from the standard gauge used in China.

Each car generates its own power via a generator on one of the bogies, rather than power being supplied by the engine. There are batteries (48V) for when the train isn’t moving.

The water boiler runs on coal. I suspect the heating does too, but it’s not in use at this time of year.

On the platform in Erlian: apart from the usual announcements, there was one telling us we were about to leave China and thanking us for travelling with China Railways, and the train pulled out to a Communist-style march.

…and I still have China Mobile cell coverage, so I’m using up as much of my credit as possible by surfing the web :)

China 4: Hong Kong

Robin and I arrived in Hong Kong in the late afternoon, checked into our hostel in Kowloon, and explored the area a bit. We then headed to the waterfront for the Symphony of Lights before bed.

The next day, I applied for my Russian visa then met up with Robin to explore Hong Kong proper. We went up the midlevel escalators, the largest in the world stretching up for blocks. Then we walked down and had Dim Sum (which is mandatory) at Maxim’s Palace in City Hall (which is excellent.) Next we took in a few free sights: a photography exhibition at City Hall, the viewing floor in the Bank of China building, the Planning and Infrastructure Museum (surprisingly interesting), and the aviary at Hong Kong Park.

We then took the Peak Tram up Victoria Peak. Views weren’t great because it was really foggy.. oh well. After that it was getting dark so we walked down again and headed back to Kowloon for food, a visit to a night market, and sleep.

The next morning, we bought train tickets out and then parted ways. Robin wanted to go to an amusement park in Guangzhou, and I wanted to do some hiking in Hong Kong. I picked up my visa on the way to Lantau Island and then a bus to the Lantau Buddha, a huge bronze statue on a mountaintop. Then I hiked around a couple of sections of the Lantau Trail, a 70km trail around the island, before hopping on a bus back to the subway (and then back to Kowloon.)

It was a short visit, but I liked Hong Kong. It was really nice to be visiting somewhere where English is still a primary language. It’s also a lot more civilized than the rest of China: things are more likely to work and washrooms are much more likely to be clean. Finally, it is possible to visit on a budget. Our main expenses were tickets in and out, and I’ve since learned that there’s a cheaper way to get in and out by taking the subway to the border and walking across into Shenzen. There are cheap (but crowded) hostels, there’s cheap food, and lots of the museums are free!

Photos from Hong Kong are here.

(Robin and I visited Hong Kong starting on May 11th. She left on the 13th and I left on the 14th.)

Phase IV: Trans-Siberian

Train K23, Beijing-Ulaanbaatar

The start of a new adventure… I’m spending the next few weeks taking the train to London via Mongolia and Russia.

Nothing much is new so far. This is a Chinese-made train and I’m in "hard sleeper." Any other country would call this 3rd class, but China’s peculiar brand of communism doesn’t like to talk about "class."

The car is older than any other Chinese car I’ve ridden in, which is mostly good.. it dates from an era when things were built to last. The only downside is there’s no aircon and it’s 35°C. Hopefully it will cool off at night.

This train service should be called the "sleepless express." I had to get up at 5:15 this morning to make my departure, and much of tonight will be consumed by "fun" at the border. Oh well, I can sleep during the day.

Most of the other passengers (all tourists in my car) got to Beijing by air and are excited by their first Chinese train. Yay adventure!

Phase IV: Trans-Siberian

Train K23, Beijing-Ulaanbaatar

The start of a new adventure… I’m spending the next few weeks taking the train to London via Mongolia and Russia.

Nothing much is new so far. This is a Chinese-made train and I’m in "hard sleeper." Any other country would call this 3rd class, but China’s peculiar brand of communism doesn’t like to talk about "class."

The car is older than any other Chinese car I’ve ridden in, which is mostly good.. it dates from an era when things were built to last. The only downside is there’s no aircon and it’s 35°C. Hopefully it will cool off at night.

This train service should be called the "sleepless express." I had to get up at 5:15 this morning to make my departure, and much of tonight will be consumed by "fun" at the border. Oh well, I can sleep during the day.

Most of the other passengers (all tourists in my car) got to Beijing by air and are excited by their first Chinese train. Yay adventure!

Last call for postcards!

I just mailed another pile of postcards, written during my Tibet bike trip. I’m going to send one more pile from somewhere in Russia, so here’s your last chance…

If you haven’t been getting postcards and you want to, let me know your address by email ( or by comment here (which is public.)

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