Archive for August, 2009

In Taipei airport

August 28, 2009

In 5 minutes my flight from Taipei to Frankfurt will start boarding, and I will  wing back over the country I have not left for over 13 months, and head home. 

Interesting fact: reading Edgar Snow’s interview with Mao in the 30’s, he says “when we’re in charge, we’ll regain what is rightfully part of China, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, and give freedom to our former colonies, such as Korea, Vietnam, and Formosa (Taiwan).” 

Guess Mr Chiang KS made him change his mind. 

OK I’m running for the plane!


Back from webless lands

August 24, 2009

Well I made it to Xinjiang, and back again! I even managed to hack into my blog and see that several people have left comments (yay, thanks :-)!) which I’ll reply to as soon as I get out of the mainland, since the proxy won’t let me post anything. This post again is being mailed to my mum so she can upload it.

I’ve only got a few minutes now, as I just got off a train from Urumqi and am about to leap onto another train to Yinchuan. I’m sitting in a smoky internet cafe right next door to Lanzhou station. The last post actually needs correcting a bit. By the time it was posted, I was already in Xinjiang, and had no intention of going to Urumqi. It’s almost three weeks since I had internet access.

When we got to Xining we found it impossible to get train tickets to Xinjiang (they wouldn’t sell to foreigners) and bought tickets to Lanzhou instead hoping to go from there. But at the last minute we met a guy who told us that would be a hopeless errand, and our best bet was to get a bus through northern Qinghai and enter Xinjiang on a mountain pass near the southern silk road. It took about 30 hours through an area known as the ‘Chinese Siberia’ since it is full of nuclear sites and labour camps. Every Han Chinese we met had been moved there/strongly encouraged to go there by the government, as part of their drive to resettle/develop/control the west.

At the border it felt like the end of the world. The road was under construction and we had to drive next to it, it was rocky desert with no plants or water, and the only industry seemed to be …. asbestos mining! We had to share a sweaty, ridiculously cramped car (three on the passenger seat, five on the back seat, four in the boot) driving for hours through lifeless rocky mountains before we descended into Xinjiang. Which was like another world. Full of melons and sweetcorn and Uyghur people in colourful scarves who took life slowly and didn’t stare at us foreigeners, since we looked pretty similar anyway. We discovered that the internet had been dismantled in the whole province, as well as international phone calls, and it would not be accessible again until late October (safely after the Chinese 60th anniversary of the Communist party taking charge). At this point my phone must have still had some signal from Qinghai, beause my mum phoned and managed to get through. I warned her we were in a communications blackspot, and asked if she could post something to that effect on my blog.

Then we set off west skirting the Taklamakan desert, along the southern silk road. When I have some more time there is so so much more I want to post about. Not only about Xinjiang, which was totally fascinating, but also about Tibet. Especially the conversations I had with people while we were in Tibetan regions. While I was in the area I was very careful with what I posted about, and I will not write in detail until I am back in Europe. It is also worth mentioning that all the names and identifying details of anyone I mention in this blog have been changed, except for me and friends who have said it is ok that I use their real names.

Right I’d better run. I’m heading to Yinchuan, which is where I used to live, and I’m desperately excited to be seeing again some good old friends 😀 Journey’s almost over.

Watch this space …

August 11, 2009

I’m now headed off into Xinjiang region, aiming for Urumqi and Kashgar, and may not be in touch for a few days. I have heard that there is no Internet connection at the moment, and it is difficult to phone out.

Thank you for reading my blog, and for your comments, which I really appreciate.

I’ll post again soon.


The end of Tibet

August 8, 2009

We’re leaving Tibet this afternoon. Now the plague is cleared, we’re leaping on the overnight bus to Xining. From there, we will hopefully travel due west. To Xinjiang. (You might have heard of this place in the news recently…)

So I thought I’d pop in some odds and ends I’ve failed to include elsewhere in my posts, just to wrap up. One was the Tibetan disco in Ganzi – brilliant fun! Men with 70’s hair and women in christmas tree tat mouthed along to power balads from the plains, and when the audience approved they raced up to the stage and threw white silk scarves around their necks. Mostly it was two drunk fat Han chinese throwing the scarves, and also jumping up on stage to join in the fun with sweaty shirts and awkward dance moves.

Another was some attitudes of Han Chinese towards the area in which they live. Most of the Han who are not military or police seem to be working in restaurants, shops, and taxis. Why did they come? The money’s good. “I used to work in Guangdong, but the business is slowing. My friend told me to come here.” “I’ve got a relative moved here five years ago, she said the business was good, so I came with my son.” “You can make so much money in western Sichuan! Look at the fruit, its fantastic, in Chengdu it costs 4 yuan a jin (half a kilo), here I can charge 7, the money is great!” “I came two months ago, there’s not a lot of taxis so I get good custom.”

What do these new immigrants think of the place they’ve moved to? “It’s alright, but it’s dangerous.” “The land is quite nice, but I wouldn’t go out alone”. “It’s too cold in winter. The Tibetans don’t like us.” “You should’t go to the countryside, and you must say in at night. Then the streets are not safe.” Why is it not safe? “The Tibetans. They are dangerous. They don’t like us.” “Some of the Tibetans from the countryside have funny ideas. They cause trouble. Just like the trouble in Xinjiang. It’s no good.” One restaurant owner put us to eat in the special room. “This is only for visitors. We don’t let Tibetans eat in here. These are the nice cups and the nice chopsticks. The Tibetans can’t use them. They’re very good quality.”

That’s not to say all the comments we met were hostile, money-orientated, or feeling threatened. One guy quite liked Buddhist temples, a woman rather enjoyed the scenery. But in general the only Chinese people I met here with really positive attitudes to the land and its people were educated tourists and backpackers. Tibetans, on the other hand, did not express such forthright views on the new immigrants. Perhaps they talked more about the Tibetan language. “It is beautiful and important, but very difficult to read.” “I don’t speak Tibetan properly.” “I hate speaking Chinese, I only do when I have to.”

While I was sitting outside our hostel in the evening, a 10-year-old girl skateboarded back and forth in front, monologuing at me. “I will be eleven next month. I am Tibetan but I don’t speak Tibetan. I understand but I don’t speak. I am too embarassed because it is not good. My mum always speaks Chinese with me, she says it is the common language, we must learn it. At school my grades for written Tibetan are very good. I want to learn English but I can’t speak English. Tibetan is almost the same as English. That’s why all the foreigners speak Tibetan. We think it is strange when they come to us and say “tashe delek” and speak Tibetan. Some speak Tibetan but not Chinese. Yes Tibetan is just like English. It sounds very beautiful. I want to learn English. My teacher said…” she flipped off the edge of the pavement, picked up her skateboard, and wandered off into the darkness.

And now I’m leaving Tibet, for a part of China which to me is a patch of darkness, where I’ve never been before.

Recharging … and interrogation(!)

August 6, 2009

Yushu meant internet, hot shower, phone credit, good food and long sleep. We were planning to head straight towards Xining, and I contacted my friend there to ask about places to stay. Turns out she was trying to get to Yushu. And the road was blocked. Due to plague.

Plague! There was plague between us and the railway line. Fortunately by the next day the road was open again and we managed to get tickets. We also transferred to a brand new youth hostel opened by one of my friend’s friends, which though expensive is really nice. The boss and his friends were super friendly, and we also met a French lady on a tour with two drivers, who works on a volunteer project in Nepal. They won’t get a lot of foreign business unless they get into Lonely Planet guidebook though, I imagine.

Yushu from the sunny hillsides is much more beautiul than the dark, cloudy, polluted, rather gross place it seemed when we first arrived. The hills are green and rather rounded, sloping up to plains and plains full of grasslands. We had passed loads of nomads with their tents and yaks on the way here, and I could imagine them all up there. Must be so cold in winter though, with just furs and yak-dung fires for company. The town is full of beggars. Many more than I have seen before, especially old women, children and monks. Here we experienced a rather less harmonious attitude to intercultural exchange than we got from Ge. “Hui people (Muslims) hate Tibetans. They will use for our vegetables water they have washed their feet in. We hate them back. The only people we hate more than them is the Han. This place is full of them. Wish they would get out.” “When I was a child if I spoke Chinese my mum would beat me.”

When I told them about what Ge said there was a snort. “A shame about these huofo (living Buddhas), given such a lavish upbringing with money donated by the people. Driving around in fancy cars while other people are desperately poor and can’t get a proper education.” It’s true, there had been a bit of the mafioso feel about the monks, however they also seemed like kind, genuine and sincere people.

In the evening we had Tibetan food – some amazing vegetable cakes and curried potatoes – then sat around in the youth hostel drinking beer and chatting with lots of locals, including my friend’s Tibetan boyfriend. Finally a chance to ask all the questions we were curious about. The peeing thing – how does it work? Monks are not allowed to wear underwear, it’s against the religious rules! What about atheist Tibetans, are there many – can Tibetan culture, which is so bound together by Buddhism, survive secularisation? Unsure, the younger generation are already straddling communist atheism and Tibetan Buddhism. There is a dislocation between the cosmopolitan life of cities and the nomadic life of the country. One of our new friends was born on a mountain top and his mother swaddled him up and kept walking. He now speaks perfect English and has a great job in the big city.

Another question that had been bothering us was unequal gender numbers. With so many monks, was there a problem of women unable to find husbands? They laughed. Well there are also nuns. But it’s true that there can be problems. Traditionally it’s not uncommon for women to have several husbands, but the other way round is unusual (though not unheard of). And what about language? Why is it that Tibetans seem to speak better, clearer, and more easily understood English than Han Chinese? That’s because Tibetan is closer to western languages. It also has a strong Sanskrit influence, which ties it in some ways to the ancient indo-european languages. But perhaps the main reason is that having to learn Chinese at a young age for school, Tibetans are already used to being multilingual and picking up new languages. It is just not such a big deal for them. However their chance to go abroad and use it is small. None of the folk we met this evening had a passport, though some had applied many times.

And there was more singing and laughing and singing and being told to hush, before an excellent sleep in a bed that was more than twice as comfortable as the place we stayed last night, though also twice as expensive. Batteries recharged. Interrogation of the locals temporarily on hold.

A road full of prayers

August 4, 2009

It was a funny convoy that drove out of Manigango that drizzling late afternoon. A huge police jeep with flashing red and blue lights and a smartly uniformed driver with hair combed like a Hong Kong movie star. A swish black car with two orange-red robed monks, three foreign girls, and a 20-pack of red bull.

It had taken ages to set off, with visits to Sun’s fantastically cosy house where we were served tea by his sister and enjoyed decorations of a massive Mao poster with bowing goats and yaks on each side. We also stopped at the house where their car broke down two days before and they’d been hosted by the almost destitute family – now they brought them an armful of vegetables and food to repay their kindness. Once we finally hit the open road (read mud track with ocasional potholes) the two brothers – the policeman and the living Buddha – kept chasing ahead of each other in their cars, playing crazy loud music of Ge’s own CD with the windows open.

After about an hour we arrived at their monastery. It was set in an enclosed valley, which looked almost deliberately designed like an oyster shell swallowing it secretly out of sight. The town around the entrance was poor and 100% Tibetan, including the two police stations. When we drove into the valley, we could see the monastery glinting up on a hill to our left, surrounded by a bees-hive of monks homes. Ge seemed to be a local celebrity because everyone seemed to know him and want to chat, wave, or give him their phone number.

Snow took us to see his living quarters. It was a bit reminiscent of a boys’ bording school. He shared a reasonably comfortable-looking room with a smiling, balding young monk with missing front teeth. The room was decorated with Buddhist prints and stacked with Tibetan books. There were two pictures of the DL, including one of him shaking hands with the head of the monastery. This seemed to be regarded as totally normal. The policeman didn’t bat an eyelid.

It took ages to finally leave the monastery, which was actually a Tibetan scriptural school with several different colleges. Ge had graduated from every level here before leaving – he now lives in eastern China and only comes back for occasional visits. At last we left Snow behind with his friends, forgot stuff and had to came back, Ge said hello to lots of people, passed workers sweating away moulding concrete for a new pagoda, forgot stuff again, waved to more people, went to the shop, more talking, and finally drove onwards for Yushu. Again the progress was slow. Ge’s brother was exhausted from having spent all day driving, and they kept stopping to get out of the car and take photographs. The policeman was obviously a keen photographer with several bulky-lensed manual cameras, and they would squat down to photograph close ups of flowers along the roadside, and distant hazy mountains. It was a surreal to see the two of them almost side-by-side, in their representative and very differently emotion-invoking uniforms, photographing flowers in eastern Tibet/northern Sichuan province. It was blatantly clear we would never make it to Yushu before night fall.

I sat in the passenger seat –  which was a good opportunity to chat to Ge, who is a very interesting guy. He spoke passionately about Tibetan culture and religion, while his perfect Mandarin and ease with Han people showed him as someone comfortably adapted to the political situation. He complained about monks and peasants causing trouble and giving Tibetans a bad name, and said the main difference between Tibetans and Han Chinese was simply religion. He talked approvingly of the usefulness of the Chinese language and the possibilities offered by the spreading higher education, but complained at the way riots and trouble caused by individuals might be dealt with.

His overall summary seemed to be that a living Buddha should focus on his religion, and that politics was a dangerous distraction. Certain figures outside of China (for he was a proud Chinese citizen) might be spiritually lofty, but did not understand the current situation. Oh and by the way we may not make it to Yushu tonight, we’ll have to stay in Shiqu. Where he would have to leave us, because he had business tomorrow. But he refused to accept money and sorted us a place to stay where we’d get woken for the bus the next morning. I was sorry to say goodbye.

The next morning we were woken at 6.30 by a hammering on the door and had to leap into our clothes and appear blearily into the freezing dawn. A little minibus was parked outside, with a capped driver, bossy-looking old man, a monk, and two extremely bedraggled looking Tibetan nomad ladies. We all piled in, Miriam and I squeezed next to each our own smelly lady. I don’t mean to be rude but it was clear they hadn’t bathed or washed their hair in a very, very, very long time. One felt car sick, both were constantly hacking and  coughing and producing slimespit, bumping up and down. It took over half an hour to finally leave, and then only forty minutes into the journey we stopped …

… outside a monastery. Everyone got out. “We are going to pray, there is a living Buddha here”. They all rushed off to do a kora around the outside – that means circling it clockwise while pushing the prayer wheels. The car was locked so we went in search of a toilet. There was none, only a dead dog in the road, which someone had stubbed a cigarette out on. After asking several people we discovered this town has no public toilets. The monks just sort of position themselves and pee downwards, laymen pee against a wall, and women just nestle down between their skirts on the mud patch outside the monastery. Do they not wear underwear? I decided to save the question for later. Eventually we had to pee in an alley, standing watch in turn, and then wait for ages and ages in the freezing cold eating vacuum packed bread.

Finally the driver came back, shrugging his shoulders when we asked about the old ladies. It must have been almost an hour later when we finally hit the road again… only to stop at the next hilltop so that prayer pages could be thrown out. When we arrived in Yushu we were cold, exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower. Our fellow passengers did not seem to share this desire.

Beggaring games

August 3, 2009

This morning we were supposed to drive to Yushu with the living buddhas Ge and Snow. But the shiny Japanese car still looked very much front-wheelless when we got up. And continued to look so for the next 6 hours. The monks drove back and forth in a borrowed car on pointless errands to try tools which didn’t work, and eventually we realised that they were waiting for Ge’s brother to arrive all the way from Qinghai province. I had a bad headache so I sat outside in the “square” to catch some fresh air and watch Manigango’s central attraction.

Manigango’s central attraction is a sort of game between two teams. One team is the 8 or so old ladies who hang around outside the hotel, begging. They are all wrinkled and dirty with layers and layers of old Tibetan clothes and plaited, matted hair. They have missing teeth, runny eyes, grubby hands, gnarled bones, and they sit around the square all day, sometimes accompanied by their grandchildren. The other team is the Chinese tourists, who arrive in swanky 4-wheel-drives, kitted out  in expensive hiking gear and cowboy hats as though they’re about to set off into the wilderness for a month.

The game works like this. Swanky car pulls up outside hotel and Chinese tourists get out. Old women leap to their feet, and head straight for the car, grinning. Their speed varies a lot, with the more sprightly making it in seconds, the most arthritic catching up several minutes later. Each holds in her hand a stack of filthy low-value renminbi notes, and they nod their arms up down like one-eyed bandits, crowding around the tourists. Chinese tourists shrink back in revulsion, then make a dash for the hotel, perhaps chucking a 5-mao note in their wake. Old women crowd after them, with a chorus of “thank you thank you thank you”. This roughly translates as “give me more money now you miserly young sod”. Finally they give up and return to base, stroking any winnings and grinning toothpartly.

Since I was a poor foreigner who clearly didn’t understand the rules of this team, I was sort of taken pity on and adopted by both sides. Chinese tourists gave me vinegary medicine for my headache and wanted photographs taken with me. Tibetan ladies tried to feed me a dodgy-looking  powder which included “aspirin, caffeine, msg” and several other ingredients I didn’t understand. I rejected the offer but they were wolfing it down. They were also very worried that I was wearing shorts, and kept trying to massage my legs and rub my hands, though I insisted I wasn’t cold.

Occasionally they were fed by the hotel-owners, an old Tibetan man with a face full of boils and his young son and his girlfriend from Qinghai province. They also got them to do some odd jobs such as cutting cabbage, which they did very ineffectively. I really, really hope they washed that cabbage properly afterwards.

Other attractions of the square included young monk children on rickety scaffolding painting a shop next door, feral dogs rolling in the mud, police men with yellow Tibetan scarves playing ma jiang, and some pilgrims on their way from Lhasa.

I talked for quite a while to one of the old ladies who spoke good Mandarin. She had been to Beijing once, but now her husband was dead and she had no children no property and no skills. A friend of her husband’s gave her a place to sleep in Manigango, and she spent her days in the square collecting money from tourists and sharing her wicked sense of humour. She was very bright and very very funny. Even the Chinese tourists who at first tied themselves in knots to avoid her scabby skin and black mouth would be in fits of giggles after one of her “xiaohua” about how stupid Sichuan people are. Whenever a monk walked past all the old women pulled off their hats to reveal scratty pigtails or unevenly cut 1cm bristles, and once a Chinese lady stood nearby without removing her hat. The old lady shouted, “She didn’t remove her hat for the lama, in the afterlife she will turn into a YAK!” and she held her fingers to her head like horns, giggling with wicked delight.

The old ladies had, as well as the 7-year-old girl who never spoke,  pennants of living Buddhas kept under their thick outer layers. And all of them had one of the DL. They kept trying to persuade me to go to Lhasa and I had to explain that it’s very hard to get a visa. The Mandarin-speaker whispered “That’s because you’re a foreigner. Foreigners all like him. That’s why they don’t want you lot going to Tibet.”

Then she gave an exaggerated look over each shoulder, made a very loud hushing noise which showered me with spit, and hobbled off towards an unfortunate tourist who had just stepped out of the hotel. It seems the beggars’ life here could be fun at times, but I dread to think what it’s like with minus 30 degress during the 9-month winter.

And finally the game was over. At about 4 that afternoon, Ge’s brother had shown up in a police car – because yes, he is in fact a policeman – and their car was fixed. We all piled into the incredbly posh interior with padded seats and good luck charms, and I waved goodbye (and gave a small amount of cash) to my newfound friends. And as we drove off northwards, we were left thinking it was now so late that there was no way we could make it to Yushu today after all.

The monks of Manigango

August 2, 2009

At 7am we caught the very bumpy public bus back over the pass towards Kangding. And when it stopped at Manigango for lunch, we were the only three not to get back on.

Manigango is one of those one-street towns from out of a western, and seemed much poorer than anywhere else we had stayed. The “central square” was a muddy patch of cross-parked cars and shaky beggars. As we ate our fried rice opposite, at least eight different old ladies came in asking for money, one of them dragging a small girl of about seven. The public toilet was guarded by another three weather-wrinkled women, one of who had red-yellow eyes and expert reactions for spotting and extracting money. We decided to leave immediately.

Except there was no public bus heading in our direction that day, and to hire a minibus would be prohibitively expensive. After hanging around the “hotel” in the “square” for a while bargaining, we struck lucky. A young local guy said his friends were going to Yushu (the biggest city in southeast Qinghai province and our next destination) the next morning, and would take us for 150 yuan each. Given the drive takes at least eight hours, that’s not a bad deal. And since the main attraction near Manigango is a lake 13km away, he and his pals would take us there this afternoon.

Sun’s pals turned out to be two very smartly dressed monks with a slick and shiny broken-down Japanese car. They were stuck in Manigango until the car was fixed, and when the spare wheel arrived tomorrow they would be driving us to Yushu. In fact, we later discovered that they were not just monks but “living Buddhas” and one of them was of a very high rank, having been personally discovered by three top Buddhist leaders before he was even born.

When we arrived at the lake, it turned out to be beautiful, icy and full of reflections. It was also long and rocky, with most of the large rocks carved with detailed Tibetan scriptures. A group of Chinese tourists made butter tea and ate shao kao (barbecue) while dodging from the mosquitoes, and wanted photos with the monks and detailed conversations about Budhhism. These are my favourite kind of Chinese tourists!

The mozzies were absolutely dreadful, and the local remedy was to rub ice tea all over your face and arms. It worked to some extent, but we also ended up very sticky indeed. Ge (the highest ranking monk) pulled his red robe high up over his head and hat down so only his sunglasses poked out, lying on the rock like a huge overgrown cocoon. Snow (the other monk) wanted lots and lots of photos taken of him posing in front of the glacial background.

They sang some beautiful Tibetan songs, shouted at me when I accidentally trod on the carved scripture on the rock, copied the scripture into my econometrics textbook for me, and had an argument after Snow threw a plastic bottle into the lake. It all felt really surreal. The guys are all around the same age of us, with just the same sense of fun on a day out, but they are holy monks who have given their lives to the Buddhist religion, living in a distant monastery in the Tibetan highlands.

It was growing dark when we back to the hotel, and Ge invited all of us – plus a Malaysian hitchhiker we had picked up – for dinner. This involved enforced singing and drinking huge quantities of Coca Cola. (Just because the monks don’t drink alcohol doesn’t seem to be a reason not to drink lots and lots). Ge sings fantastically well and sang some long, plaintive Tibetan folk songs.

They told us enthusiastically about their hopes to travel abroad, and how they all really want to learn English. Ge has already travelled abroad before with monk-related work, and hopes to study in Swizterland in the future. Sun kept going on about how much he likes foreigners.

It is a bit of a hazard travelling in small places in China that you get forcibly adopted and made best friends by eager locals who want to practice English, take photos with you, and be paraded around as a foreign friend. It can be very difficult to escape politely. But in this case it seemed genuine. The three, especially Ge, had met enough foreigners already for it not to be such a novelty. And we talked until late about interesting and personal things, not just cultural stereotypes. I felt that we were really lucky to have met them.

And the next morning we were to get up early and drive together to Yushu. Or that was the theory.

The rooftop of the world

August 1, 2009

Today we walked to the most beautiful view I have ever seen. Yesterday from the hilltop we had spotted a high mountain pass, and could see peaks poking beyond, so we knew from there we would be able to see Tibet autonomous region. I have desperately wanted to go since sharing a room with Tsering in Norway, but it’s so much trouble with visas. I had toyed with the idea of going to the border which is just 20km from Dege (though actually the region is much closer, it’s just that the road skirts the mountains) but there isn’t much point since everyone we talked to said we’d get turned away. So we walked to the view instead.

After an hour and a half of sweating almost straight uphill, we came to a village we’d spotted from the watchtowers. It turns out it’s called Ge Ge Long, and has about 30 families. We were immediately invited for tea by four local sisters, who live in a house which looks muddy and plain from the outside, but is an absolute treasure trove on the inside. The two rooms are crammed full of posters and metalware and kitsch and photographs of lamas and decorated carpets and comfy sofas and a huge TV constantly showing Tibetan music videos.

One of the girls spoke really good Mandarin, and they gave us homemade yoghurt, which was as slimy as mucus but really delicious, tea, and something called sampan. I had no idea how to eat it, which they found hilarious. You have to sort of mould the brown flour and yak butter together into lumps using your hands and then eat it with sugar. Afterwards they wanted photos with us, which we promised to send them, though unfortunately they didn’t know how to write their address.

200m onwards we met another girl who not only gave us the address of the town, but spoke excellent English since she studies at university in Chengdu. I asked her the same question I’d been trying to ask everyone – how close is the border to the autonomous region. Every time we ask, we are told – Tibet is 3-4 days away (obviously they mean Lhasa). When I asked her where Tibet was, she looked at me strangely, “This IS Tibet, you’re here now”.

I had to explain, in embarrassment, that I meant the government region, and she smiled, as though it had no meaning at all. “Oh that. Climb the pass and you’ll see a river. That’s the border. Tibet autonomous region is on the other side. But you’re in Tibet already.”

It seemed to be a special day because the children were in their best clothes and the local guys sat on a grassy ledge drinking beer. In a temply building sat at least a dozen monks, chanting and playing music on huge long horns. We didn’t want to disturb but peeked in the doorway. They were humming from the same books we saw printed the day before! The music followed us all the way up the valley as we headed onwards towards the pass. It was a long way away, and Sylvia (the English-speaking girl) was unsure if we’d make it and back before dark. But if we did, we were invited for dinner at her place. 

Another hour uphill and as our bodies grew tired our eyes were amazed at the view. As we climbed, the hills on either side unfolded to a whole rooftop world of mountains. So we’ve been in three different areas of Tibetan countryside now – the wild plains of Tagong, the fertile valleys of Ganzi, and now the mountains.

We stopped for a view on a remote cluster of rocks, where we met an old lady with her baby grandchild. They seemed just to be sitting there, enjoying the scenery as people at home take their babies to the park. She wanted us to take a photo of her and the baby and kept saying “Can you give it tomorrow?”, not understanding our explanation that it would take weeks to send the photo as we’d first have to get to Xining and get it printed. She only spoke a few words of Mandarin so finally we phoned Sylvia who translated for her in Tibetan. Then she gave us a huge, beautiful smile. All Tibetans are so beautiful it seems, old people, babies, men, women and children. 

Another few hours uphill, and we were starting to feel the altitude. Legs ached and lungs flapped. As the ground finally flattened out, we reached herdspeople and some yaks, wandering around over 4000m above sea level. And at the pass were flags and a fantastic view, with rows of Tibetan peaks rolling westwards under a clear blue blue blue blue sky.                                                                                                                                                   

But still not enough. There was a high stony hill to the left, and I knew that from there, we’d be able to see 360 degrees. Not only that, but we’d be able to see the river border, and the glaciers and snowy mountains to the east. Miriam agreed to go with me. The walk turned out to be harder than expected, and we wouldn’t have attempted it if it wasn’t excellent weather and safe though steep ground.

Up and up and up. Hands grabbing onto stubbly undergrowth. Lungs like paper bags. We had to stop every 20m to catch our breath, then every 10. Every uphill effort was a tremendous exertion, heart racing and legs jelloid. But after resting for a few minutes, we felt OK to continue. We could see the others all the time, hundreds of metres below. The last stretch was the hardest of all, and I felt like my mind was going a bit high and silly, talking to myself out loud, “You can do it, you can do it.”

 And then I collapsed onto the biggest pile of prayer flags I have seen in my life. It was like lying in a huge, soft, flappy cake. Blue and white and red and yellow and green, and soft and soft and deep and thousands and thousands of metres above the sea level where I belong. Like being transplanted secretly to a glimpse of a borrowed world.

When I looked up, it was truly the most amazing view I have seen in my life. Down to the west, the Jinsha river snaked deep and brown, with green land rising up behind it to hills of brown houses, herds, mountains beyond that, mountains beyond, more mountains, more mountains, and hundreds of miles of Tibet roasting in the thin sharp sun. To the other side were black peaks and a huge chain of icy, forbidding, Lord-of-the-Rings-esque mountains. Dege town was completely obscured, and the round top where we climbed yesterday was far below.

My heart soared and leaped. I wanted to shout and sing but the air was too thin. I lay there feeling unbelievably happy, feeling I’d never been so happy in my entire life. I thought fleetingly about taking a flag as a souvenir of this moment (what a touristy, collectiony thought), but instead unhooked from my rucksack the little bead man which Ruth gave me as a present when I came to China. I attached him to a string at the highest point of the peak, and left him gazing over Tibet, before we headed back down.

We were totally exhausted when we finally made it back to Dege as darkness began to skim the sky. We passed a courtyard of Chinese soldiers practising dancing together – dancing! A police car drove past with a map of China stuck to the back. It had torn in a rather unfortunate place, making it look almost as though someone had tried to rip off a large chunk from the southwest.

We ate a delicious meal in a restaurant run by a lady who had emigrated from Shandong province, and packed our stuff to hit the road again at 7 the next morning. I was very sad to leave behind the town with the most amazing building I have seen in China (the printing press) and the most fantastic view.