China crossing : Xinjiang - Tibet - Yunnan
The night was freezing (-10 ° C) and we had trouble warming ourselves in our Totoy, whose frosted windows, allow us only to distinguish the buildings of the Kyrgyz customs post (Torugart). We are the 29 september 2015, near the lake Chatyr-Kul at 3500 meters above sea level and tonight we will sleep in China, if the Kyrgyz customs let us go out of the country. Indeed, we should have come out two days before, but the Chinese border being closed for several days, so we are late and apparently fines are not easy to negotiate in this sensitive customs post at China's door (up to $ 500 per person per day of delay). We therefore anticipated negotiating with a senior officer in Naryn, which luckily knew the rangers with whom we organized ecovolunteers expeditions this summer. But when we arrived at the customs, the officer makes us wait and refuses to stamp the passport, despite the instructions of his superiors. We are now alone with him and understand that he wants a backsheesh to stamp. We do not take the risk to refuse, and slip him a note, he stamps without a word and we join the group before entering China.
Indeed, for this crossing of China, we formed a group of travelers, to reduce costs. In this journey of 36 days from Xinjiang to Laos, we will be constantly accompanied by a guide who will travel in the vehicles of the group. Unfortunately we have no opportunity to prospect in China and Tibet to find associations for the protection of fauna and flora. This step is a transition for us in our ecovolunteer project.
We pass the first Chinese border post very quickly. We then cover 100 km before reaching the final customs post where our passports are stamped. When we arrive in the city before Kashgar, we are surprised by the density of the population and we pass hundreds of school children on their scooter. The towns and villages are clean and everything seems very well organized. Our first camp on a hotel car park begins with an appetizer that allows us to make the team members’ acquaintance : Lucile and Michel with their Fiat Ducato with whom we had spent many pleasant evenings in Kyrgyzstan; Pierrette and Denis with their Land Rover 130, Charlotte and Xavier with their Renault Master 4x4, Lucie and Raymond, Swiss doyens with their Toyota Rav4, Iolanda and Sergi, the Catalan with their Mercedes and finally the Polish Anna, Lukasz, Damian and Maciej with their motorcycle.
The next morning, we go in the outskirts of Kashgar to get our chinese driving license and our Chinese plate. This is a great center of technical inspection where we spend the morning in the line. Local people let us go in priority as they sometimes have to stay up to a week on site to finalize the proceedings of the annual technical inspection of their vehicle. They are very surprised to discover the facilities of our different cars. Finally, we get the plates and driving licenses at 10pm in the parking of the hotel.
Kashgar is famous for its old town and bazaars, where there are all consumer goods, artisans working with wood and metal, and traditional medicine stalls offering all kinds of dried animals (snakes, lizards, crocodiles, starfish, hedgehogs, various horns ...). In this region, Uighur who are Muslims try to keep their identity but the "Chinese steamroller" is on and the old quarters give way to buildings that remove inexorably the soul of this ancient city on the silk road.
We head for Yecheng on a road in very good condition in this desert area where a permanent fog, that seems to be sand in suspension, allows us only to imagine what can be the immensity of the Takla Makan Desert. The landscape changes and we then discover cotton plantations, cornfields and carrots and admire the multicolored carpet of chillies drying in front of the houses. The city does not really present big interest and a small nocturnal visit with Denis and Pierrette on a large deserted boulevard, where the brand-new buildings are empty, give us the impression of being in a ghost town waiting people. The only activity of the neighborhood where we pass is a succession of small shops with pink lights where prostitutes wait for customers.
We leave the city with our Tibetan permits and notice the last camels in these arid landscapes before passing our first pass at 3300m. Himalayan vultures turn over our heads, no doubt, we arrive on their territory where the high lands and snowy peaks seem to reach the stars.
We continue our trip after a stop at a military checkpoint indicating that we are approaching Tibet. The blue sheeps graze calmly on the edge of the road, not at all frightened by our convoy on the way to a pass at 4969 meters, near the Mount K2 (8611m). The passage of this pass, allows everyone to see how their vehicle behaves at such altitude. Finally, our fear is confirmed, the Ducato of Lucile and Michel has a problem, but they still arrive at low speed until the pass. Obviously, the EGR valve problem that « pollutes » their journey from Pamir Highway is not solved. Other vehicles pass without difficulty, only the drivers and passengers begin to feel the first effects of altitude (headache, dry throat ...). We arrive at night in the tiny village of Mazar, we have an aperitif and spend a nice evening in the Land of Pierrette and Denis for their wedding anniversary.
The following days are a series of roads in good condition, Tibetan scenery is magnificent and wildlife meets our objectives: goitered gazelle, oryx, wild asses, bar-headed geese, shelduck, cranes, Himalayan vultures, bearded vultures ... We follow the Himalayas with dozens of passes flirting with the 5000m, the highest being precisely 5378m. The weather is dry and the temperatures are pleasant during the day to our great surprise. Military checkpoints are very numerous, but we never have any problem because our Tibetan guide is very effective. Some steps between two checkpoint must be performed within a predetermined time, and it is strongly not recommended to arrive early or else we may get a fine. We also cross a military zone to a distance of about 80km near Pakistan where it is forbidden to stop and take pictures. Since our entry into Xinjiang and Tibet, we feel that the area is sensitive, we regularly see riot vehicles in cities, impressive military convoys (up to 60 vehicles in single file) and all service stations protected by huge harrows and security guards or military. It is forbidden to carry jerry cans filled with fuel in vehicles.
When we arrived at Mount Kailash, which rises to 6714m, we learn spitefully we have to pay 60 euros for both of us to enter the sacred place. Since our visit to Tibet in 2006, we find that the Chinese have transformed all the natural places, sacred places and monasteries in tourist areas where prices are exorbitant. They have destroyed the monasteries for years, and now they are rebuilding them to attract more Chinese tourists. We decide all the same to make a walk (16km round trip to 4900m altitude) where we meet the pilgrims and monks at the foot of the sacred mount. Indeed, it is in this place that gather every year thousands of Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bon-Po who come to prey by doing at least once the tour of Mount Kailash (52km) to be closer to nirvana. We also discover an esplanade where human bones are strewn over the ground in the middle of trash of all kinds. This is actually an open-air cemetery where Tibetans burn the bodies under the watchful eye of vultures in the Himalayas.
We continue our journey towards Mount Everest and discover with astonishment the sand dunes as they were laid in the midst of these immense valleys perched at 4700m near the Annapurna (Nepal). The sun is disappearing behind the mountains and we get to see the north face in the shape of "A" of Mount Everest at 8848m.
We have already had the opportunity in 2006 to get to the base camp of Everest and spend the night. But the situation has changed, for now the road is fully paved and a toll is in place (~ € 82 for a car and 2 people). We try to avoid this step and go only in the neighboring villages. Our goal is simple, to approach the Tibetan and try to get invited into a house to better understand their lifestyle. We manage to use the plow pulled by two yaks but quickly, villagers ask us money, we refuse, it starts badly ... We decide to park in the middle of a village and cook in the back of Totoy. The people are rare, and the few that we see greet us from afar, but none approach us. We digress a bit further inland and arrive in a village partly destroyed by the earthquake last spring. We prepare the coffee that we offer women sitting on the sidewalk, but they refuse to drink it. They invite us to sit with them to try to exchange a few words, or rather a few gestures. Children are joining us, the photo shoot begins. A young woman moves next to us and an older woman search in her hair to kill lice. I take off my hat to show her that I have no risk of catching any and everyone laughed heartily. An old woman asks us money so that we take the photo, discomfort sets in and we decide to take the road to the hot springs. Arrived, urine smell is unbearable and we go still in the grounds of a kind of hotel to see the baths. The show is very surprising, women are naked and wash welcoming us as men keep a swimsuit relaxing in this dirty water. We are not at ease and do not have the courage to dive into this bath. Finally, we do not know what to think of this day: is that the language barrier the problem, is that Tibetans are afraid to exchange with foreigners, or is it that their culture does not welcome visitors as we have seen in other Asian countries?
In Shigatse, tourism revolves around the huge monastery. Once again, we are annoyed to discover the price of admission to 12 € per person. We enter without paying. The places are beautiful and we can see Asia's largest Buddha inside a temple. By cons, we are shocked to see the monks sitting in front of entire basins of tickets, counting how much they have, calculator in hand. It was in this city that the Chinese have decided to rebuild the Potala in 2007, a clear sign that religion can sometimes pay big.
We are now very close to the capital Lhasa where we arrive late in the day after taking a very new highway that leads to the city center.
Lhasa has lost its authenticity and the Chinese have all transformed into a modern city. From our side, we still have in mind the images of Lhasa 10 years before and the report is alarming. Entire streets and neighborhoods were razed, police stations and checkpoints cover the historic center. The souvenir shops have replaced the stalls of craftsmen. And the price of admission to the Potala is a rip-off: € 50 per person. Tibetans worship have taken a folk dimension. The Potala Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is now treated as a single museum. The vast majority of shops are owned by Chinese people, who represent 70% of the population of Lhasa. What remains of Tibet?
Tonight's party, we start with our guide Darghye, Xavier, Maciej and Damian in a big show. These are Tibetan songs and dances where the custom is to fill the table with beers and of course if possible to drink them. Chinese who are sitting next to our table, do not hesitate to come and toast to take pictures with us. It has also become a habit for us to be taken in pictures by Chinese people, on the side of the road, at the top of the passes, or in the villages. Chinese love us and we feel like celebrities harassed by their fans. The atmosphere is festive when suddenly, the show stops and spectators invade the dance floor. A large majority of Tibetan go dancing together (with hairstyles to the "Dragon Ball Z") under the eyes of guards ready to intervene in case of problem. But the risks are low because Tibetans are very shy and applied to coordinate their dance steps which look a bit like the country. Céline jumps around on the dance floor, forgetting we are at about 3700m and she is slowing down very quickly. The evening is well advanced and we decide to pursue it in a trendy night club where techno plunges us into a more familiar world for European as we are. The noise is unbearable for Celine and me and we take refuge in a quieter room at the entrance of the night-club. We are witnessing a show of trendy young Chinese, who obviously have a higher purchasing power than ours. We're not really in our element and finally, we find others who met chinese girls who wish to invite us to eat, it is 4am. We go in a taxi and arrive in a small restaurant where they serve us their specialty: black chicken. We laugh discovering that even the head bathed in broth placed in the middle of the table. The Chinese are hysterical, they cry out, one kick her boyfriend, another order rice alcohol, shouting louder than her friends, the scene is unbelievable. The food is so spicy that we eat mostly the rice. We look each others wondering what’s going on, we also wonder how will end this meal, while the Chinese continue to shout and laugh. Then one of them gives the equivalent of 90 € and we understand that we will leave this hubbub. We go with them to their taxi and enjoy a few moments of silence before getting all of us into another taxi where the driver cries out for that we come out. We insist, we are all alcoholic, but it seems he's going to cry. It's hard to stop laughing and eventually find another taxi driver who find it rather funny and agrees to take us back to the car park of the hotel where we camp. We discovered that evening another side of Lhasa which proves that the city is changing. Tibetan and Chinese cultures are different, the financial incomes coming from the tourists (mostly Chinese) may allow them to reach an agreement on many points.
We leave Lhasa to the discovery of eastern Tibet, where the desert and barren landscape gives way to coniferous forests. We now have with us a second guide, the government has strengthened the « safety » measures and our guides tell us that we have to sleep in hotel rooms. Until now, we just had to register in hotels and referred to the police, but we could always sleep in our vehicle. The group is determined to ignore this rule (30 € per room per night is out of the budget). Finally Darghye our guide negotiate and we always sleep in our vehicle until the end of our stay.
On the roadside, we see many Tibetans who are heading towards the capital. They make three steps, then lie down on the ground, clasping their hands above their heads, rise again to go further three steps, and so on. These pilgrims leave their home to the march of several weeks or months to reach the temple of Jorkhang in Lhasa. We are very impressed with their determination, as they will have to pass several passes over 4000m with their little bag in sandals or barefoot. We also come across many cyclists on the road and still appreciate a little more the minimum comfort we have in Totoy. Domestic yaks are part of the landscape since our arrival in Tibet. By cons, we have not had the chance to see wild yaks. They are much more massive, Tibetans say they can be dangerous but they live in remote areas where men don’t go.
Celine wants since the beginning of the trip to drink fresh milk from the yak. But the guide told us that the villagers have few and they do not sell. As the group is separated between two towns, we borrow a trail that leads to a small stone house like a sheepfold. A man and a woman of a certain age live in that little fold with dogs, cats and luckily yaks that we see along the river belong to them. They have very long hair, we then learn that we call them Kambas. We communicate by gesture and they bring us fresh milk, cheese and peanut powder. To avoid any relation with money, we give them flat bread. We always create exchanges to avoid that people associate tourists to banknotes. Sitting on an old tire, we look them washing their hair, and then propose them to take some pictures, but they refuse. We leave delighted with this contact, admittedly limited, but that allowed us to be a little bit more in contact with the Tibetan people, so quiet and distant.
The more we advance towards Shangrila, which is the last big city before entering Tibet to Yunnan, the more the landscape changes, deep gorges where we discover some very winding roads along vertiginous ravines. Raymond paving the road with its RAV4 makes us laugh by telling us that we will cross the Tibetan Switzerland and it is true that the resemblance is striking. We stop in a Catholic church, it is very strange, maybe the vineyards in the area provide a good sacramental wine to the priests ...
At Shangrila, we spend our last hours in Tibet and we see very few Tibetans. The old town is being rebuilt since a fire almost destroyed everything early 2014. We meet our Chinese guide, Mr Wang, with which we will cross Yunnan. Our first step brings us to the famous gorges Leaping Tiger we reach after a long day's drive through the mountains of terrace cultivation. Yunnan is for us synonymous with freedom because we can again bivouac where we want and all this without a guide. So we toast with Lucile, Michel, Pierrette and Denis around a barbecue. We then join the old town of Lijiang, Dali, its lake, its rice fields and three pagodas, but after crossing Tibet, all that seems very bland and we all have a little bit the blues.
A technical stop, where we can check the vehicles, is provided in the great city of Kunming. With Pierrette and Denis, we have the same opinion, we never took the highway so far and we're all motivated to reach Jianshui on the national road avoiding Kunming. The road we take is not very good, we easily drive at 30/40km per hour in average in the heart of a very dense vegetation as we go slowly in a tropical area. On the road, we find very easily bananas but also the fruits of dragon (fuchsia color), a feast for the eyes and palate. We are well organized with Pierrette and Denis and pretty easily find some nice and calm bivouacs at least for the one next to a cemetery in the forest ...
At Jianshui we learn that Lukasz hit a scooter with his motorcycle. There are no injuries, he must find a tire and buy a new rim (or repair the one he has). Part of the group stays one more day in case we need to tow his bike to the border. It is imperative to leave with his vehicle to recover the € 4,000 deposit paid to Chinese customs. Finally, everything is back to normal again, he drives with a veiled rim and not exceeding 40km / h, he will reach Laos.
After this incident, the group is a bit scattered, but on our side, we continue to take small roads, Pierrette and Denis carrying the guide. Mr Wang take care of us and we spend two days very nice with him. The road is a little muddy in places because it rains a lot, but we find no difficulty with Totoy and Land 130. Mr Wang shows us a village in the middle of bamboo, tea and banana plantations where natives don’t know Chinese language. A school has also been built for the younger learning Mandarin. We enjoy a very special tea harvested in the trees and discover with Denis (a retired man from Michelin company) rubber plantations that give off a very special smell. Trees are bled and the white sap (latex), soft and elastic, is laminated before being trucked in factories to be transformed into rubber.
On the morning of November 3rd, 2015, after traveling 6500 km since our entry into China, we perform customs formalities in less than an hour. Customs officers do not even ask us to open our vehicle. We say goodbye to Mr Wang and within minutes we will be in Laos.