A Travellerspoint blog



sunny 10 °C

We are deep within a sequence of rooms, each of them quietly screaming its antiquity at us through the pitted wooden columns and age-blackened tapestries lining the walls and ceilings. Our eyes are smarting from the soot which impregnates the air and our heads spin from the rich cocktail of incense and butter smells. The only light is provided by burning wicks embedded in huge bowls of yak butter and oil, which are topped up by every other pilgrim from sandwich baggies or vacuum flasks (respectively). We pass through a huge assembly hall, its walls crowded with figures of reverence of every level of holiness; Buddhas, bodhisattvas, abbots, lamas, gods and demons all compete for our attention. Then through a sequence of smaller and smaller chapels, each one thronged with pilgrims passing through, making small donations, praying for benefactions and topping up the butter lamps. Buddha stares down at us with infinite compassion while Yellow Hat abbots see right through us with their inscrutable mysticism. We look at each other, wide-eyed and feeling almost claustrophobic with the intensity of it all.

We are in Tibet.

Many parts of Lhasa that we have walked through today feel like nothing except more of China. But here, deep in the bowels of this monastery, is unmistakably Tibetan, unmistakably different. We are aeons away from the hordes of happy-snapping group tours which infest all of mainland China. We could be 400 years ago for all I can tell. We pass through quickly, swept through by the silent lines of soot-smeared pilgrims, struck dumb, awestruck, humbled. Almost moved to tears.

Tibet is a bit of a trip. It's mystical, isolated and you need to wade through a mountain of paperwork and hassle to get here. But once you arrive it's everything you've dreamed of, and just as amazingly exotic as you could have hoped for. Our days have been split between scenes of staggering natural beauty and astonishing cultural treasures. And the faith of the people! We have seen dozens of pilgrims doing two-year long pilgrimages, where each step of the journey is covered by lying prostrate on the ground. Lie down, prostrate, get up, advance 6ft, lie down, prostrate, get up, etc. For thousands of kilometres, across all manner of terrain and no matter the time of year, these people will put in a hard 10-12 hours a day prostrating, sleeping in wagons along the way. It's gobsmacking.

This is the Tibetan culture, the people and the religion are indivisible. And this is what the Chinese government wants to reduce to nothing more than a prayer wheel for tourists, generating the blessing of hard currency. It's heartbreaking to see. The region is being flooded with investment to try to turn it into a machine for creating more money; all at the cost of suppressing the Tibetan culture and inciting a mass immigration of Han Chinese, drawn by the economic opportunities while not understanding (or not knowing, or just not being told) what this is doing to the country. Most of the tour guides that the Chinese tours have are Chinese, and just spout the party propaganda line about the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet. Lhasa in particular is covered with Chinese monuments which all require 24-hour armed guard to ensure they are not defaced or destroyed. And so many soldiers! It feels like a town under occupation.

Anyway, rant over (for now).

Putting aside the issue of touristing through somewhere that is essentially an occupied state, the week has been magical. We took the highest train in the world to get here, an amazing 40-hour, 3000-km journey up, up, and away onto the high Tibetan plateau. They have to pump oxygen into the rooms as you go through the highest pass (a snip at 5180 metres above sea level!). Once in Lhasa we had a few days seeing the major sites in-town, which were either quite uninteresting (for the more Chinese-controlled sites) or fascinating (for the places which the Tibetans still worship in). All of the temples and stupas (round white Buddhist monuments) are shown respect by the Tibetans by performing one (or three, seven, thirteen, or various other holy numbers up to one hundred and eight) perambulations or koras. The largest temple in Lhasa, the Jokhang, has a permanent swirl of pilgrims, mendicants and tourists surrounding it which was absolutely spellbounding for people-watching. Tibet covers such a huge area that there are so many different types of people kicking around: ruddy-faced, Mongolian looking men from the North with fierce moustaches; women with their hair plaited with electric coloured yakhair rugs and 108 lucky braids; wild-eyed nomads wearing huge quilted lambskin jackets in a fetching off-the-shoulder fashion; burgundy-clad monks and nuns both with shaved heads (kind of difficult to tell apart at first blush!); and the modern youth of Tibet, looking as casually metropolitan as young people from any country on the planet.

We visited the Sera Monastery and saw its famous debating monks: once a day all the monks gather in the courtyard in a blaze of burgundy cloth and ask each other questions on the fine points of Buddhist scripture. Those who don't have the right answers (or are just a little slow off the mark) are quickly ridiculed with loud claps of the aggressors hands - right in the face - and eventually having the head rubbed in humiliation with prayer beads! Surprisingly aggressive for men of God...

And of course, we saw some of the most unbelievable landscapes on the planet. Some of the blue colours of the lakes we saw I still can't quite believe are real; we also waded through high passes swimming in brightly coloured prayer flags, gazed upon the mighty Himalayas (although we didn't get a great view of Everest as it was crowned with cloud and we were riddled with altitude sickness so we couldn't really hang around), and saw people eking a living out of the permafrosted fields. They call it the Roof of the World, and for once, the Chinese hyperbole is warranted.

Looking back parts still seem like a dream. We wish we could have spent more time in this spellbinding border kingdom; especially once we started talking to the locals about the long history and exchange of ideas and people between Manchu, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Kashmir, and Bhutan. We can't wait to come back and see the far eastern parts that abut Sichuan. And do the Annapurna trek. And go to Bhutan, and Sikkim. And, and, and.....

Posted by pendleton 06:14 Archived in China Comments (0)

'A City You Never Wanna Leave Once You Come'

overcast 18 °C

At first blush, Chengdu was disappointingly modern. I'm not quite sure what we were expecting for this so-called gateway to Tibet and the high regions, but on arrival all we could see was a sea of burning red neon, lofty metal-and-glass towers, shopping malls... so far so Beijing. We went to bed feeling a bit cheated.

The next day we wandered over to one of the local monastery areas. We walked down a dual carriageway choked with cars, trucks, lorries, people, bikes, e-bikes (electronic powered pedal bikes) and trikes, turned under a beautifully ornate arch, and suddenly... we were somewhere else. Somewhere old, and peaceful. The buildings were mostly fairly new built, but in a more traditional style with curly pointed corner bits (what the hell are these called - gables?); large bonsai trees line the side of the road along with paper lanterns; even the street furniture looks ornate, and the road has a embossed dragon motif running down the middle. People are sitting around leisurely drinking tea and chatting. Silent quartets of women are furiously clacking mahjong tiles down. Old men bicycle past at unbelievably slow speeds.

We are entranced by this quarter, and are happy to wander around for two hours or more, just soaking up the atmosphere, fiddling with the tourist wares on display from the handful of stalls. We have a cup of tea and play a few hands of rummy (gin, just for a change - unfortunately you need 4 people for mahjong). I try to barter a book of Chairman Mao's sayings down to a sensible level, drawing a crowd of fascinated locals as I do so.

So... Chengdu is a grower. In all, we were here for ten days, which was part lassitude and part design. We climbed a holy mountain (well actually we got the cable car up and then walked down. One bit, anyway); saw the world's biggest Buddha (thanks to the Taliban destroying the ones in Afghanistan recently); visited a site which, according to the archaeologists, is more important than the Terracotta Army (but which, according to the Pendletons, is a lot less interesting).. and we ate.


Oh boy did we eat. Not only is Sichuan (the province of which Chengdu is the capital) famed for it's spicy food, cooked with lots of chilli and laced with hua jiao the “hot-and-numbing” flower pepper, but they are obsessed with street food.

Street food is essentially any food sold on the street by a vendor with a cart or small stall, as opposed to a sit-down restaurant. You do need an eye for hygiene (and a locally acclimatized stomach probably helps) but to be honest we have been troughing this stuff down without any problems – as long as you follow the locals to their eating places you are unlikely to have any issues. The only problem you are likely to have is figuring out what you are eating at some of the places – is it going to be sweet or savoury, i wonder? We found one of the touristy areas which had a whole street full of vendors which we were very excited to see all had English translations for their food. However most of the time the flowery Chinese descriptions for dishes (example: “Old Mother Chen's Pock-Marked Bean Curd”) get debased into more literal form (example: “a bunch of meat”, “Spiciness Noodles Bowl Of”, “Vegetable Gruel”) or even the plain surreal (example: “The Chicken of Bobo”, “Three Big Bombs” and, memorably “Distrinbule Tneeson”).

We have gorged ourselves on (our favourite) various bits of veg, tofu, meat and seafood on sticks

pig's ear pancake and lung soup

lots of weird gloopy sweet stuff with powdered sugary stuff

and loads of ridiculously chilli-heavy dishes

It really is a glutton's paradise.

The last episode of note concerns ear-cleaning. Ear-cleaning, Chinese style, involves a man with a long thin metal spike with a coil at the end rooting this around inside your inner ear canal, pulling out all sort of nasty congealed wax (at least for me anyway – Angi as a girl proved her construction of sugar, spice and all things nice). That's the easy bit. He then takes a sort of exploded cotton ball on a stick and roots this around for a while, making weird muffling sounds in your ear. Then lastly for the piece de resistance he strikes a tuning fork on your chair and holds it to the metal spike (which is still embedded in your ear) until you feel like a giant ruler being plucked on a desk. Boinggggggggg!

Posted by pendleton 21:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

Big Bear-Cat

semi-overcast 22 °C

We are standing in a small, dingy tunnel-like passage. All around us are cells with sliding cage doors, from inside of which come some appalling smells, grunts and whistles. The floor is awash with murky liquids. In front of us a Chinese man is shooting a rapid string of Mandarin at us and gesturing with a broom and mop.

Don't worry, we haven't been banged up for being overly smug marrieds - it's mucking out time at the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Centre! We have 'volunteered' (in the sense of paying a large amount of money) to help out at the panda centre for a couple of days. This involves a fair degree of menial task work, but more importantly, a lot of chances to be around pandas! Things we've done so far include:

Take used panda bamboo out of cage & replace
Clean up panda poo-poo
Feed panda bamboo
Weigh panda poo-poo (very important)
Cut up panda apple & panda cake
Wash pandas
Observe panda behaviour
Mop panda floor
Panda massage (!)

You'll notice that most items on this list are actually fairly mundane tasks with 'panda' inserted in them somewhere. This actually transforms them from mundane to UNBELIEVABLY exciting! The pandas themselves are bloody hilarious (especially the younger ones) & totally compelling to watch; they are greedy, lazy clowns who are always pushing each other around, climbing over each other in search of food, making nonstop pratfalls out of trees, etc. We also got to massage one of the giant pandas, and I held a red panda! (sort of like a big ginger cat crossed with a raccoon, but much cuter). But most of the time we just spent watching the pandas clown around.

Excellent fun and well worth it. Dozens of panda photos await the intrepid viewer in our gallery, i'll just show a couple here.


Posted by pendleton 08:58 Archived in China Comments (3)

Peking, Man

sunny 19 °C

OK, OK, so we were wrong. Very wrong. About as wrong as we've been on this trip, really.

Our working theory (developed from a bar stool in Hong Kong) was that HK would be a good primer for Beijing and hence China. Similar language, culture, food, etc, right?


Hong Kong is pocket sized – the metro will take you from end to end in about 40 minutes. Beijing is huge, vast, colossal, imposing. The map you are handed as a tourist is on such a small scale it verges on useless; a bit like being given a map of London & the Home Counties on arrival in Heathrow. You can (trust me on this) walk for hours just between two tiny looking consecutive feeder roads.

Hong Kong is actually quite comfortable and familiar – the expat influence is very strong, and obviously it was a colony for 150 years or so. China is different. It's loudly, overpoweringly alien. Whereas in HK street signs were generally in Cantonese and English together, here in Beijing everything is just written in Mandarin script, with, maybe for one building in a hundred, the Pinyin anglicised translation. Nobody, and I mean nobody that you come across in the street speaks English – or even understands Pinyin! It's very starkly A Different Place and quite scary at first. The one blessing is that the subway is as superb as Hong Kong's, and likewise has English-language maps.

Oh well.

We lucked out in that we had booked an incredibly helpful guesthouse (Templeside Garden Hostel), in the old barrios to the west of town centre, who were happy to do or help us do almost anything – from arranging tours of the big sights to writing down “Please can I have half an order of Peking duck” on a Post-It in the correct way so that we could walk around until we found a restaurant we liked the look of and then brandish it at them. (For reference if you ever need to draw every staff member in a Chinese restaurant to a single place, have them start a huge discussion and then piss themselves laughing at you, this is one of the most efficient ways we have found. It works even better if you order a tiny little medicine bottle of the local firewater and start knocking out toasts to each other and everyone else present, but I digress)


In the end we gave ourselves five nights here before booking our flights out to Chengdu – we could have stayed longer but it could easily have turned into a month just here and we wanted to move on. We managed to tick most of the major tourist boxes (the spectacular Great Wall, Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square, a surprisingly disappointing kung fu show) and even managed, on a breakneck last-minute taxi tour, to see the beautiful stadia that they erected in honour of our marriage last August. Well, it would have been rude not to pay them a visit.


And we got stuck into the food, of course! Highlights here included a proper Mongolian barbeque (thin cuts of raw meat flash-cooked in a tasty bubbling broth by our own hand); making dumplings with our hotel staff; a bagful of soft, just-cooked stuffed buns that we devoured like migrants on the side of a busy highway, but which cost us only 2 yuan (20 pence) for eight buns (more than enough for a snack lunch for two people); and an enjoyable evening spent perusing the locals chow at the Wangfujing Snack Street market. We had very tasty couple of plates of fried beef and spicy noodles, and then I truly got my weird food mojo on, devouring (in short order) a fried scorpion, fried wormy bug thing and then a fried starfish. The scorpion was quite tasty but the other things got progressively worse, until the starfish which was like eating asphalt. We followed it up with a stick of toffeed baked crabapples, tart and fizzy in your mouth like sherbet.


Disappointingly, i'm still unable to post the video(s) of me eating the scorpion and the other, well, garbage. You'll have to take my word for how funny Angi's screaming is.

p.s. we didn't manage to see the Peking Man. Sorry for the crap joke.

Posted by pendleton 04:35 Archived in China Comments (0)

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