Part 1: Xining to Lhasa May 29 – May 3
North of the Himalayas and east of the Karakorum/Pamirs is the vast Tibetan Plateau, the largest and highest plateau in the world, also known as the “Roof of the World”. The plateau has an average elevation of 4,000m above sea level and covers an area of 2.5 million square kilometers, or about one-fifth of China’s land mass. In the north, the plateau is hemmed in by the Kunlun Mountains, which extends eastward from the intersection of the Pamirs, Karakorum and Tian Shan. Qinghai (720,000km²) and Xizang西藏(Tibet) (1,228,400km²) are located in this plateau.
Though I have been to Qinghai once and Xizang thrice, there is still so much to see owing to its vast landmass, topography, history, people and culture. During a casual conversation last year with Brenda, a scholar on Tibetan culture and my travel mate to Xizang in 2011, we decided to take a circuit trip from Lhasa拉薩to Ngari 阿里地區from June 4 to 18. I invited three friends, namely Kylie (a travel mate), Kai (a HKU classmate) and SK (a former colleague) and Winnie (SK’s wife) to join so that we could take two 4x4s.
As I am keen to see other places off-the-main-path, I decide to take two short trips before and after the main trip. On the first one, Kai, Kylie and I would follow the Qinghai-Xizang Highway 青藏线 hiring a 4×4 from May 30 to June 2 (In 2011, Brenda and I travelled from Xining to Lhasa by railway). For the second trip, I want to visit the Yarlung-Zangbo River and Medog Nature Reserve墨脱自然保护区and would be joined by Kylie and Brenda. We would depart for Guangzhou from Lintse 林芝on June 26.
May 29 Monday: Hong Kong – Shenzhen – Xining 西寧
Our direct flight from Shenzhen to Xining would depart at 12:25pm. We met up at the Cross-border Bus Terminal in Kowloon at 7:45am and arrived at the Shenzhen Airport around 10am. Not bad but still tiring as all of us only had a few hours’ sleep.
I have not been to the Shenzhen Airport since 2011. Expanded with sleek and modern design and managed by the Hong Kong Airport Authority, it looks fairly impressive! We had a decent and cheap bite at McDonald before boarding. We arrived in Xining shortly after 5:30pm.
Xiningseems to have changed a lot since 2011. I am amazed to see dozens of high-rise developments along the highway. But most of the buildings are empty and some are half-finished. Poor planning? Over-supply? We paid RMB110 for a short taxi ride to a hotel on July 1 Road. The room rate with discount was RMB260 for a double room.
I found an agent in Xining and have been in touch with it through Wechat. Mr Cheung met us at the hotel to collect RMB9500 for the 4-day driving trip to Lhasa. The locals recommended us to Mojiajie for dinner. We had a pleasant stroll through a night market and bought some yogurt drink from a paddler for RMB2.5 – it’s the cheapest and best yogurt I had in Qinghai. We were hungry and had a simple meal with rice, noodles and stir-fried vegetables for about RMB100.
4-day Journey from Xining to Lhasa by Road: May 30 Tuesday – June 2 Friday
Day 1 Tuesday: Xining – Heimahe黑馬河(about 350km)
Mr Tao, our driver from Gansu for the next four days met us the hotel lobby at 8am. As it’s Kai’s first time in Xining, I suggested Tao took us to the Great Mosque that I visited last time. We were early and had the mosque by ourselves before arrival of a large tourist group that was met by a priest. We followed the guided tour for ten minutes to learn something about its history and architecture which is a blend of Chinese and Arabic styles. First built in the Song Dynasty, it has been rebuilt and expanded over the centuries and can now accommodate some 200,000 followers during some important religious occasions.
We had a busy sight-seeing day. First, we drove to the Kumbum Monastery 塔尔寺, a sacred pilgrimage site second in importance to Lhasa. Tsongkhapa 宗喀巴, founder of the Gelugpa Order 格鲁派of Tibetan Buddhism is said to be born under the ‘Tree of Great Merit’ here in 1357. A small temple was built with a stupa on the site of his birthplace with a larger monastery built by the 3rd Dalai Lama and completed in 1583. A four-storied golden tilted temple has been built around the small temple/stupa. The ‘Golden Tree’ is the holiest place in Kumbum and this temple is revered in Tibet and Mongolia. There are four colleges 四大学院, namely the Debate College (Shadupling Dratsang), Tantric College (Sangngag Dechenling), a new Tantric College (Ngagpa Dratsang) and Kalachakra College (Dukhor Dratsang).
This’s my second visit and I enjoy my visit just the same. As I am over 60, I pay half price for this temple i.e. RMB40. Memories came back and I spent more time looking at the statutes and the stupa hall. I note several buildings including one built with donation from Hong Kong’s Li Kai Shing, have been completed since my last visit.
After a quick lunch in a local restaurant nearby, we drove to the Lhatse Pass (about 3812m) where there is a temple with a sacred pond. The weather was freezing cold with sleet. I made a mistake and did not put on enough warm clothes. I climbed a flight of staircase to reach the main hall where a young Tibetan was praying by himself. Atmospheric! I did not walk up further to reach its peak about 4188m.
The third stop was the Sun and the Moon Mountain 日月山, a famous landmark in Qinghai. In 641 A.D. Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty 唐太宗 arranged Princess Wencheng 文成公主 to marry Tubo king 吐蕃王Songtsan Gampo 松赞干布. In 2011, there was no ticket booth. This time, I had to pay RMB40 for a half price ticket. The weather had improved with clear blue sky.
The fourth stop was the Qinghai Lake 青海湖, the largest lake in China with an area of 4,489 km². We paid RMB 55 (half price) to enter the scenic area of Erlangjian 二郎剑 and another RMB20 for a ride on the electric car to a pier area not far away. Last time, we got on board another bus which took us to another area to watch birds. But there is practically nothing to see. The tiny museum has been closed for a year. One has to pay extra for a boat ride to visit a topedo centre or islets in the middle of the lake. The service of the shuttle bus was poor: the driver dropped us off far away from the entrance. We were angry and vowed to complain to the tourism authority. We had dinner (hotpot) in a small town Heimahe before going to a hotel by the lake (RMB220 for a double). Tao said this would be a good spot for watching sunrise.
Day 2 Wednesday: Heimahe – Golmud格尔木 (about 500km)
In order to watch sunrise, Kylie set the alarm at 5:30am. We put on warm clothes only to find it raining outside. What a pity! We set off at 7:30am in the rain. Miserable and cold!
After driving for almost two hours, we arrived at the Qarhan Salt Lake 格尔木盐湖with an area of 5,856 km². The lake stretches 160km from east to west and 20-40km from south to north. The salt crystals form beautifully carved transparent salt clusters which glitter like jade. According to some experts, the salt reserve here can last 1,000 years.
We paid RMB35 for an elderly ticket and RMB5 for an one-way ride on an electric car to the main plaza (700m) where there are several colossal salt sculptures on display. From here, visitors can follow a boardwalk for over a kilometre across the salt lake. As it was raining and grey, we did not see the lake at its best. According to the promotional materials, one can view on a clear day a hazy mirage on the plateau!
We walked with our umbrellas for almost two hours. I felt cold as I only had a fleece but no rain pants and coat. I have visited the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, a world famous salt lake. I must say I find scenery in Salar de Uyuni more natural and impressive with few visitors. There are too many man-made sculptures and ugly and tasteless structures, noisy Mainland visitors walking around with plastic bags wrapping around their shoes.
We had lunch before driving some 70km to Golmud, the third largest city in Qinghai with a population of over 200,000. The city has thrived on natural gas, chemical and mining industries.
We stayed in a decent hotel catering for the Mainland tourists and paid RMB140 for a room and had a simple dinner in the local restaurant. I did not go to bed till 11pm and could hardly sleep: my coughing was getting from bad to worst possibly owing to the bad cold I had caught from the last two days.
Day 3 Thursday: Golmud – Amdo 安多(about 700km)
We had to get up at 4:30am and checked out at 5am. But Kai had not set his alarm and was not ready till 5:20am. I was in a bad shape and had a light headache. My watery and soar eyes could hardly open. A sign of deep trouble!
Tao had forewarned us about serious traffic jam today. He was right and we were stuck in a queue for an hour and a half before we could leave Golmud. The queue with countless lorries and long-vehicles was running into severall kilometres. While waiting, I closed my eyes which were soar. I had a slight headache too. My spirit was lifted when watching sun rise from the car.
After Golmud, we soon arrived at the Kunlun Shankou (the pass) of the Kunlun Mountains 昆崙山. One of the longest mountain ranges in Asia, it extends more than 3,000km forming the northern edge of the Xizang Plateau south of the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor and continues east south of the Wei River to end at the North China Plateau. The ranges have some 2000 peaks over 6000m and the highest peak is Kongur at 7,649m. The scenery with snow-cladded peaks, glaciers and fold mountains are serene and beautiful.
Next we arrived at Kekexili 可可西里, China’s least and the world’s third-least populated area covering an area of some 83,000km²located in the northwestern part of the Qinghai-Xizang Plateau. With an average elevation of 4,800m above sea level, it stretches in the east-west direction between Tanggula and Kunlun mountain ranges. It is home to more than 230 species of wild animals including wild yak, wild donkey, brown bear and the endangered Tibetan antelope. I soon spotted a group of nine antelopes from the roadside. We stopped and took photos of this beautiful animal for some ten minutes.
Soon, Kai and I saw another group of animals in a distance. I guess they are wild donkeys? Kylie was upset for missing a photo opportunity but it was too late to ask Tao to turn back. I also saw a number of colourful birds in ponds along the road.
It’s a long drive and we stopped for another half an hour when approaching the town of Tuotuohe 沱沱河. Tao said that the Yangtse River, China’s longest river begins some 300km upstream from here. By now, I was desperate for a toilet stop and could no longer wait. As soon as Tao could let me off, I rushed to the nearest gas station. But there was no toilet. The construction workers told me to walk back 100m. I was lucky to find a restaurant owner who kindly let me use his toilet which is clean. He did not take any money from us. Kai therefore bought two steamed hot buns from him as a gesture of appreciation. Outside the restaurant, I vomited throwing up the noodle soup and dumplings I had for lunch. I felt better and the headache was almost gone!
We pushed on towards Tanggula Pass 唐古拉山at 5,072m above sea level, the highest point on the Qinghai-Xizang Railway and Highway. We wasted another half an hour at the queue approaching the pass. The weather turned bad and it began to snow. By the time we arrived at the pass around 7pm, I did not bother to get out of the car to take a photo.
At first Tao told us the 80km-journey to Ando would take 2 – 3 hours. But we did not arrive in Ando till almost 11pm owing to heavy traffic on the winding narrow road and foul weather. We had heavy rain, lighting and sleet. But for a brief moment, the sky cleared up and we could get a glimpse of sunset after 8pm. On the way to Amdo located around 4800m above sea level, I reviewed the situation and proposed to Kai and Kylie to take a 5-hour train to Lhasa instead of spending another 12 to 15 hours on the road. They agreed.
Most of the hotels were full. We ended up paying RMB480 for a double room in the Sanjieyuan Hotel. Not value-for-money at all! I saw a 24-hour clinic and intended to have my condition checked. But it was closed. Tao said he could take me to the local hospital. As I felt better by now, I went straight to our room to rest while my friends and Tao went out to look for the train station. They had an adventure: it was dark with muddy road and no road sign. Kylie did not come come till after midnight. I still coughed badly but did manage to have some sleep. But I felt bad as I must have disturbed Kylie from her sleep.
Day 4 Friday: Amdo– Lhasa 拉薩 by Train
I was fully awake around 8am but felt feeble. Kylie kindly made me a mint drink and a sweet potato soup, She also brought back two boiled eggs and steamed buns from the restaurant. I tried to swallow food which was only thrown up in no time. Though I had an empty stomach, I was feeling better.
The train was scheduled to leave Ando at 11:09am. Tao took us to the station around 10:30am. But the train from Guangzhou was delayed till almost 12:30pm. (Coincidently, it was the same train Kai originally planned to take to Lhasa!)
The train was very full. Luckily Kai who happened to be standing close to the train ttendant’s office was able to get three tickets in a hard-sleeping carriage. We paid RMB160-167 for a bed depending on the location of the bed. As we had a bed on the bottom berth, we had a comfortable seat for the next hours. We met a young man from Chongxinq working in Lhasa and two younger travellers from the Mainland in our cabin. We enjoyed the ride as the scenery with snow-cladded mountain ranges, villages and fields was pleasant. Definitely the ride is much better than the one I had in 2011 largely because of the comfortable cabin I had this time.
We arrived in Lhasa (3650m) about 5:45pm. This time, we had to register outside the train station. We intended to take a taxi to the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in the city centre. The taxi drivers demanded RMB30 pp or RMB 100 a vehicle. A grip-off!
We crossed the road and found a driver who was willing to take us for RMB50. Brenda met us up at the hotel lobby. She who was still recovering from altitude sickness, looked tired and pale. We had a good rate of RMB550 for a double room and all had a good night’s sleep after a strenuous 2000-km journey across the plateau. Though I still had a bad cough, I was able to relax and slept better for the first time since leaving Hong Kong.
June 3 Saturday: Lhasa
I have visited most of the main attractions in Lhasa during my three previous visits. I had no plan to rush around this time. I got up for a late breakfast at 9pm. At 10am, the group of six met up with Mr Cheung, the General Manager of the travel agent which arranged our trip and our two Tibetan drivers. I told Mr Cheung about my health concerns and bad cough. He called a doctor to come over to check us up. I was glad that my blood pressure was normal (100/70 and a pulse around 80). He charged me RMB200 for three days’ medication which served to prevent accumulation of fluid in the lungs. As he had done nothing about the cough, I continued to cough badly at night.
Kylie and Kai who had never been to Xizang, spent the afternoon visiting Jokhang 大昭寺in the city centre. Brenda and I walked to Barkhor Square 八角街and had lunch in the Lhasa Cafe, a popular local eatery for tourists and Tibetans. We also visited two travel agents with a view to finding a 4×4 driver for our excurion from June 20 to 26. We discovered the daily rate would be ranging from RMB1200 to RMB1500. We noted their offer and would decide later.
The weather changed when we came out of the restaurant: it was raining and the temperature dropped below 10ºC. We hurried back to the hotel as I had no umbrella and did not want to catch a cold. In the evening, we had a buffet dinner in the hotel and went to bed early.