The Awakening Dragon

High on his list of places to visit, Steve James decided to explore China by joining an 11-week overland adventure that would take him from Kathmandu to Bangkok

Crossing the Nepalese/Tibeten border on a Sunday doesn’t offer the best introduction to China. Our open-sided Mercedes truck, carrying 20 people and two English drivers, was impounded on the way in. Why? Because it was a Sunday, and on Sundays the computers don’t get turned on!

We could enter, but our truck couldn’t, and consequently our initiation into the ‘People’s Republic’ was taken on foot. Thankfully, things got better. Days later I was climbing out of Everest Base Camp to an isolated spot with an uninterrupted view of the world’s highest peak, watching the clouds billow across the icy north face and the sunshine sparkle off the summit. Perhaps a contender for 1,000 Things to do Before you Die.

Camping in the tents of Everest Base Camp was the culmination of acclimatization, extreme off-roading and finally horse riding and carting up the last 8km (cheating I know, but four us did walk down the next day). We viewed Everest under various weather conditions: sunrise, full-moon, sunset, violent storms and various degrees of dramatic cloud cover. I shall forever have these moving and unexplainable feelings of elation at being on the ‘Rooftop of the World’, as Tibet is often labeled- and rightly so.

Leaving Everest behind, our truck negotiated  us through several days of mountain passes, surrounded by 8,000m glistening peaks and range upon range of hazy blue ridges. After manouvering 130 steep, consecutive hairpin bends, we reach one of the numerous passes exceeding 5,000m. The 360° views incorporated  a staggering variety of weather systems, simultaneously on show in all directions, with jet-black snow storms one side of a mountain, deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds the other. A distant rainbow arced over a streaky patch of rain high in the sky, splattering large droplets that explode onto a dust bowl, all moving and changing while the sun beat relentlessly down on the scorched arid earth, the irrigated bright green fertile valley floors or the endless flat plains that reach out until abruptly blocked by yet another range of craggy snow capped mountains.

Stopping in the provincial capital of Lhasa, we were lucky enough to score tickets for the iconic Potala Palace (although a spot of bribery on the part of our local guide may have had something to with this). Soaring above the city, the former winter home of the now exiled Dalai Lama dominates the surrounding skyline. Open for only a  few hours a day, it’s worth the hassle involved to get tickets. However it’s the Jokhang Temple that really captivated our traveller curiosity. Prostrating pilgrims flock to the Tibet’s most sacred Buddhist temple and as we leave the city, we pass devout Buddhist advocates dragging themselves over the mountain pass with miles to go before they were to reach their destination –- now that is piety to the extreme.

Between oxygen-starved high passes, we dropped to around 4,000m where our breath was still taken away by the altitude and even more so by the sheer beauty of the surrounding wilderness. Some of the roads through down to earth Tibetan villages are virtually non-existent, where weatherworn labouring peasants, brightly clad smiling women and maroon draped monks with prayer wheels stop and stare. As we made our way from Lhasa, diversions to Ganden Monastery and Sera Monastery were rewarded with spectacular views and the absorbing sight of debating monks. Arrive at the right time of day (around mid-afternoon) and you’ll be witness to customarily gentle monks arguing and discussing, dramatically gesticulating and shouting in the afternoon heat.

Rough camping under the stars all the way to Lanzhou, our arrival at what is reputedly the world’s most polluted city suddenly felt a million miles away from ancient and sparsely populated Tibet; here was modern industrial China. Everywhere infrastructure, development and investment is sprouting and multiplying at an unbelievable scale. Hundreds of Dickensian factories belching out volumes of smoke nestle in beautiful green valleys, tucked between scenic mountains and hills, next to fast flowing mountain streams and meandering sluggish brown rivers. Now this is the China I’d expected and explains all the ‘Made in China’ stamps we’re so accustomed to seeing on every second item in our western lives.

When the Chinese decide to do something, they do it fast, they do it big and they do it properly. As we reached Xi’an, another modern place where the ancient city walls only hint at the 2,000 year history, and check-in to the clean and modern Shaanzi Weyuan Hotel, we saw for the first time the effects of mass industrialization on the people of China. Kite-flying, tai chi and MacDonald’s are all signs of the new found freedom and wealth as the nouveaux rich Chinese mix with the western tourists that are flocking to the latest country added to travellers’ ‘must-see’ list.

The massive army of terracotta warriors found to the west of the city is Xi’an’s biggest draw. The 2,000 year old tomb of the tyrannical Emperor Qinshihuang, uncovered by a peasant farmer in 1974, is defended by thousands of life sized, individually produced terracotta soldiers and horses, complete with robes, chain-mail and weaponry. Despite being overrun by tourists of both western and eastern ethnicity, it is an impressive sight, and all created to preside over the afterlife  of a single self-important man. The 100-plus year old farmer and accidental pioneer of the site is often around to meet and greet tourists. His grumpy nature wasn’t a great endorsement for Chinese tourism, but perhaps we simply caught him on an off day!

Abandoning the truck in X’ian, we caught a sleeper train a quarter of the way across this huge country to Beijing. Lights out at ten, we settled down in comfy three-tier bunks and spent the night on a train that British Rail could learn a few things from – even the toilets were a luxury compared to the holes in the floor that we’d become used to since entering China. Six days   in Beijing was spent ticking off every guidebook’s ‘Don’t Miss’ sights, from Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace to the Beijing Opera and the Chinese Circus. But there is no doubt that an early start and four hour journey to Simatai offered us China’s greatest highlight.

There are sections of the Great Wall closer to the Chinese capital than Simatai, but this would have involved wrestling with more tourists for a lot  less reward. Despite seeing countless images of the wall, the brick structure wasn’t what I expected; at parts five horses riding abreast of each other can fit atop of it. The wall stretches for 6,352km across China’s mountains and plains, and we walked a mere 10km of what is undeniably the world’s most impressive megastructure. A murky humid mist hung atmospherically around our trek as we mounted the huge steps which drew us up and down, continuously presenting brief glimpses of the cliff hugging, valley lining fortification on its way west over the crumpled landscape to the Gobi Desert. The final ascent isn’t easy with a 70º incline, but after snubbing the kind help offered by a cable car we smugly arrived at the top, albeit being covered in dirt and sweat.

Heading back south, our arrival in  the city of ChengDu was a little disappointing. With a name meaning ‘perfect metropolis’ we had high expectations, but there’s not a lot to see as the 2,300 year history has more-or-less disappeared under layers of Cultural Revolutionary modernization. However, a morning spent clucking over China’s renowned animal representative at the local panda research station made our stop here worthwhile. Even when camping, it was near impossible that we were going to happen across a panda  in the wild, so seeing the breeding ground’s newborn pandas in incubators, playful youngsters and lazy oldies chomping on bamboo shoots all hiding in air-conditioned pens had to be done.

Of course, we couldn’t leave the Sichuan provincial capital without sampling its hazardously hot hotpot, so seeking out an eatery with a persuasive number of locals tucking in was a priority. A fondue-style furnace filled with bubbling chilli, spices and oil was placed in the centre of our table, along with a strange variety of skewered fare for us to dip into the oil, plus a liberal amount of local Chinese beer to douse our flaming mouths. Virtually all menus across the country are in Chinese so facing the odd unfamiliar dish is an inevitable part of many mealtimes.

“I’ve got crabs,” admitted a fellow passenger rather honestly at one point, as he passed around a packet of spicy whole miniature dried crabs,- just one example of many Chinese delicacies. Diced and spiced yak tongue, pickled pig-brain, lamb stomach-lining hotpot, boiled sea-cucumber and braised pig trotter are some of the more unusual. But while none of these gut-retching concoctions were to my taste, I could list dozens of dishes that are beautifully delicious – the Beijing duck for starters.

When bush camping we took it in turns to visit a local market to buy ingredients, before cooking in the open and eating around the campfire somewhere off the beaten track. As soon as we set up camp, locals would materialize out of nowhere to inquisitively surround us. Occasionally though, after leaving behind the cities and grinding up dry riverbeds, we’d reach a moonscape, surrounded by craggy red volcanic outcrops where there was a surreal silence and crystal clear crisp air. After goat stew or something similar, washed down with a few beers, we’d watch the sunset. And, as the campfire died most of the gang retired into their little blue dome tents, but the more adventurous among us settled down in nothing more than a sleeping bag laid out on the ground. I’d usually gaze up to the ultra-bright, star-studded planetarium to watch satellites and shooting stars for as long as I could keep my eyes open.

Leaving behing the highly-populated, and heavily polluted regions of China, we meandered south west towards Laos, taking a shortcut through the dominating mountain range into a deep and beautifully remote valley. By dusk, we had found an impossible looking track leading down to an attractive campsite next to the massive brown torrent of a Yangtze River tributary.    Just after pitching our tents in the sand the most violent and sudden storm blew most of our tents up the valley, with us all chasing after them! Completely drenched by the deluge that followed, we successfully retrieved our tents and were rewarded with a night of fork and sheet lightning that drifted up the valley and rolled around the surrounding mountains in a dramatic son et lumiere display.

Next morning it was quite a challenge to get the truck off the beach, involving reconstructing the track leading back to the road. We continued in the same direction, choosing not to notice the only English sign we’d seen for days – ‘Aliens Prohibited’. After a few hours drive we were met by police sirens and officials wearing dark suits and carrying walkie-talkies. It was no surprise that what followed was a lot of serious negotiating, backed up by unnecessary photographs, videos and form filling, before finally we were escorted back to the ‘Aliens Prohibited’ sign to backtrack our detour.

As we crawled up another remote, beautiful and dramatic valley, over a pass and along pitifully atrocious roads into yet another hugely deep valley cutting through the edge of the Himalayas, I realize that this is the only way to unearth rural China. Passing through villages and communities, as ever it is the local people that are the real bonus. Gaggles of giggling girls climb aboard our truck for a lift to the next market town. Children scream, wave and chase after us. Adults double take, staring in disbelief and greet us with “Ni hao”.

Once we’d made it through the suburban sprawl, Lijiang gave us a taste of traditional China; horseshoe bridges adorned the canals, red lanterns hung from pagodas and the local Naxi women strolled around in deep blue robes. Some of us follow hot on the   trail of Michael Palin on a two-day,  16km lung-busting hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, five hours northwest of Lijiang. Dodging under waterfalls high above the river, the cliff-clinging path is hard work, but the views through the gorge are beautiful. Staying at the Halfway Lodge, I happened across Michael’s entry in the comments book and added my own short footnote underneath, substantiating his enthusiastic praise of this amazing trek. Along the way we cooled down in lakes and tubed down torrents, and typically ended the adventure in a mad rush to catch the last ferry to reach our waiting mini-bus on time.

China and the Chinese are fast catching on to the potential of the booming tourism trade, and who can blame them? There’s a whole world of travellers with money, hungry to infiltrate this formerly shrouded destination. Restored for the tourists, cobbled, walled and wooden Dali is almost too obviously Chinese, but four of us hired BMXs to speed through the narrow alleyways and escape into the surrounding paddy fields. Heading downhill to the nearby Erhai Hu (Ear-Shaped Lake) we crossed by ferry and, after disregarding a local entrepreneurial ‘conman’s’ attempt to charge us to alight, spent the day following the shoreline and lunching alongside cormorant fisherman savouring their own catch of the day.

Edging closer to joining the Mekong as it skipped across the border to Laos, we spent a final day getting lost in the Stone Forest outside Kunming.The sparsely vegetated landscape is filled with limestone formations that have weathered into extraordinary pinnacles, caves and chasms over many miles. The entrance map was of course in Chinese, so we found ourselves going round in circles, heading down naturally formed staircases and squeezing through holes in what was nothing short of an unintelligible maze. A fitting finale to our seven-week passage through China, before emerging from the other end through rolling hills of jungles into lovely Laos, where apart from the immediate landscape, everything was dramatically different.

China is fascinating, although don’t go there looking for the ancient and traditional way of life that has been under a veil for so long. Unchanged for thousands of years, this appears to be finally gone forever. The Cultural Revolution took care of that and now there are a billion people that have tasted western style life and materialism who are up for as much as they can grab, by any means and they are in a real hurry. China has the west’s approval with the 2008 Olympics and are well on the way to becoming the world’s industrial powerhouse. Go and see,    you and your money will be more    than welcomed, and the sites and experiences are great – all typically larger than life or beautifully unique.  But it’s changing fast – the sleeping dragon is beginning to stir.


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