Archive for August, 2010


Monday, August 30th, 2010

Today is my second full day in Lhasa.

And I love it here. It is a really nice city. Spacious. Friendly. Not too much crazy traffic. Not polluted. Clean. Lots of flowers. Lovely people. It’s awesome.

I’ve done a stack of sightseeing. That’s what I’m here for. I am the only person in my tour group. So I have my guide, Tsedan and the driver, Sonam all to myself. Tsedan is lovely, her English is very good. She does keep referring to the back of things (or behind things) as the backside. Which is quite funny. They do that in Sri Lanka too. It’s just odd when you see a statue of a Buddha and then “look at the backside you can see a statue of a king”. 🙂

I’ve seen the Potala Palace, the Tibet museum, the Jokang Temple, a nunnery (that was funny, many of the nuns there thought I was a nun, the hair really doth make the man it seems), the Norbulinka Palace (great gardens and a solar kettle and a fire hydrant with a hat on it and a lion in the zoo (I didn’t see the lion but I heard it)), the Sera Monastery (with the debating monks – that was really cool).

And I’ve had some time to do some wandering on my own which is nice. I’ve figured out the point of digital cameras. When the hotel has a map of the city on the wall (but none you can actually take with you), you take a photo of it and can then refer to your camera throughout the day if need be.

I found a western cafe that does hot chocolate and internet (where I am sitting right now).

The interesting thing is that now I am on a tour group and with a guide, I am going to western restaurants for lunch (the sort of place that has a menu in English and has Chinese, Tibetan, Nepali food and pizza, pasta, sandwiches), and this means I’m paying western tourist prices for things. For example, net here costs me 16RMB an hour. In Lanzhou it was 4. Lunch yesterday (rice, tofu with peppers, can of sprite) was 45RMB. A similar thing in Lanzhou would have been about 15. The exchange rate is about 10RMB=1GBP at the moment. So while things here are expensive by my recent standards, they’re not too bad. I can certainly afford them, they are within my budget. And coming here and spending money is part of the point of my trip. So I don’t resent it. And the hot chocolate here (20RMB) is really, very nice. 🙂 I’ll go back to slumming it when I get to Nepal or India. 🙂

I’m at 3600m here. And I haven’t been affected too much by the altitude. I find I can’t skip up stairs like I normally do, and I get quite out of breath if I try to walk at normal Kath speed, but if I walk at normal normal person speed then I don’t feel it at all. My guide was saying today that I walk much faster than most of her other clients (I had been saying that I’d had to walk slowly.)

So I’ve seen lots of sights, lots of artwork, lots of religious sites, lots of sites of cultural heritage. It’s been fantastic to see them and to learn about them. It has made me think a lot about my own attitudes to religion and art and temples and monuments. But this post is quite long enough as is, so I won’t bore you with that stuff here.

Tomorrow morning we leave Lhasa and head overland. I should be at Everest Base Camp on Saturday and should be in Kathmandu on the 6th of September.

I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s drive and to seeing a lot more of the country, plus gaining some elevation (Lhasa is only 3600m, tomorrow I go over a pass that is 5000m).

But I will miss Lhasa.

Lanzhou to Lhasa

Monday, August 30th, 2010

As you know, I got a train ticket in Lanzhou for the train from Lanzhou to Lhasa. This was tricky. But when I showed them my Tibet Travel Permit it turned out to be remarkably easy. Though there were no sleepers left so I had to have a seat.

Which wasn’t too bad.

The train left Lanzhou 3 hours late. It wasn’t too full. I found my seat. I napped a bit. Night fell, they dimmed the lights slightly and at about 10pm stopped pumping the Chinese pop music through the train. 🙂 I dozed a bit.

We stopped first thing in the morning and lots of people got off the train. So I had three seats to myself which was much more comfortable. So much for the train booking up in advance!

The scenery was fabulous!! But given my last few trips had been through Kazakhstan and north-western China, a field with a puddle in the middle of it would have counted as exciting!

But there were mountains and glaciers and lakes and yaks and snow-capped peaks and frost/snow. And the Chinese pop music began to be positively desired given it was such a nice break from the Chinese opera. To be fair, I don’t particularly like any other form of opera, so it’s unlikely I’d be a fan of Chinese opera.

The toilets (I know you’re all really interested in hearing about the toilets), weren’t too bad. A squat toilet. It did flush. It wasn’t too nasty. Except that the bin for toilet paper was overflowing and the floor was littered with cigarette butts. But a definite improvement on Kazakh train toilets.

There was hot water available on tap. Awesome! Cupasoup! 🙂 I had biscuits and processed cheese (I’m becoming such a fan of processed cheese – it’s a bit disturbing) and cherry tomatoes.

There was a guy with a trolley who sold meals at appropriate times and a restaurant car (from which I bought water).

And 26 hours after leaving Lanzhou we arrived in Lhasa (20 mins early).

And Lhasa is a great city. But more about that later. 🙂

Travelling Light

Monday, August 30th, 2010

I’ve been asked how it has been travelling light. As you know I didn’t really bring much stuff with me. My bag is only 40 litres.

But I’ve decided next time, I want to do it with an even smaller bag.

The clothes situation has been fine (2 shirts, 2 tshirts, 2 pairs trousers, 3 sets underwear, fleece, raincoat, waterproof trousers). I haven’t used the waterproof trousers yet, but as I get further south and it gets much wetter, I’m sure I will.

I have loads of zip loc bags and they have been an absolute life-saver. I love them. And they’re small and light so I don’t mind carrying them either. Fortunately, they’re also easy enough to buy (Moscow and Lanzhou). In the essential category also comes antibacterial handwash, tissues and wet wipes. I did discard the toilet paper I’d brought because I can use tissues and they’re easier to pack, carry and replenish.

I have an issue with other stuff: printouts of bookings, tickets, reservations, information etc, notebook, pen, my palm (for reading), my phone, logic book, phrase book, camera, chargers, head torch, spare batteries etc. I’m not sure how much of this I could consolidate. Perhaps a smart phone is the way to go and just get rid of everything else.

I have several just-in-case things. String, spare batteries, first aid kit, malaria tablets (ok, I will need these in a week or two), etc. I haven’t used any of these but am not that keen on getting rid of them.

The main thing problem I have with weight and space is food. I could probably fit everything I need (except food) into a 20 or 25 litre bag which would be easier on trains and buses. But I still need water and snacks and for some train trips, meals.

I could stop carrying food and just buy it as I go. Which so far would probably have been ok. But I’m not keen on getting stuck somewhere with no drinking water and no food. So I think I’m happy enough to carry it.

The thing with my bag is that it’s too big to carry onto a coach, so I have to decant coach-essentials into my day bag and then put the half empty rucksack in the hold. But maybe that’s ok.

My bag isn’t too heavy. I don’t really want to carry it all day every day. But it’s not too bad. I certainly don’t feel that I have too little. There isn’t anything that I don’t have that I feel I want/need.

I’m Not Famous

Monday, August 30th, 2010

There aren’t many days that go by without me thinking how nice it is that I’m not famous.

If I ever have the misfortune of becoming famous, then this is what I wish for when I die.

Please, under no circumstances whatsoever, allow my body to be embalmed and stuck in a glass case for people to walk past.

I don’t care who I am or how important I become or how much people want it. Please don’t do it.

Also, monuments, stupas, statues, etc, are not something that’ll make me happy. Please don’t ask the faithful to donate money (so that they can accrue merit) in order to put up some fancy thing in my honour. It’s just not something that will make me happy.

Please just dispose of my body in the most environmentally friendly way possible at the time of my death. If my memory lives on then it will live on without the aid of monuments, if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. That’s the way of the world.

Fortunately, all of this is rather moot. And a long way off. I’m planning on living till I’m 125 (I upped this from 120 when I did the maths and realised that 125 gets me to 2100).

And most importantly, I’m not planning on becoming famous.
In fact, I’m planning on not becoming famous!


Monday, August 30th, 2010

Warning: the following post contains an unmitigated rant. You’ve been warned!

I know some of my nearest and dearest have been known to indulge in the odd cigarette. And I know that my libertarian principles make it hard for me to support a smoking ban.

But boy, do I think a smoking ban is a good idea! I’m sorry to all you smokers out there (actually, I’m not that sorry), but it is (in my opinion) an utterly disgusting habit that leads to other disgusting habits (littering, spitting, etc).

Now granted, it does depend on how you do it, but chain smoking through lunch (cigarette in one hand, chopsticks in the other, bite, puff, bite, puff) isn’t exactly pleasant for those around. Also, puff, hack, spit (especially on to the floor of the train) really isn’t nice. Lighting your cigarette just as the doors of the elevator close is not a good thing either. Covering the floor of the train toilet with ash and cigarette butts doesn’t make them nicer to use, neither does filling the sink with butts. Someone said of the Muscovites during the smog crisis that they could quit smoking and just breathe through a straw. And boy, was breathing in Moscow unpleasant.

I’m in Lhasa now and there appear to be far fewer smokers here than there were in Moscow, Almaty, Urumqi or Lanzhou. Perhaps, at 3700m they have a finer appreciation of the joys of unadulterated oxygen.

As do I.


Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I’m spending several days in Lanzhou. Which is kinda nice because it gives me a chance to do some blog posts, and some shopping and some resting and some relaxing.

And some sightseeing.

I spent yesterday doing what Kath’s like best. I grabbed my map. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to end up and I started wandering. I walked along the Yellow River. Which was smelly in places but really very nice in the others. It was moving really fast and the water fowl were having a ball scooting down the river at top speed. 🙂

I saw the waterwheel park. Cool. They have loads of giant wooden waterwheels that collect water from the Yellow River and then funnel it along various wooden troughs to spin other wooden water wheels.

I saw the Mother River statue on the banks of the river. And the Zhongshan bridge. And I saw mosques and parks and shops and noodle bars and people with tiny little dogs, and crazy traffic, and kids with wierd two-wheeled skateboards (like a normal skateboard but only one wheel on each end and a pivot in the middle of them). And I sat in several parks and finished reading Emma and read more of Descartes’ Meditations. (And got sunburnt.)

I’ve decided against going to Bingling caves where there are 1000 (or 10000 depending on which language you speak) statues of Buddha. The reason why I’m not going is because it’s not really as close to Lanzhou as I had thought it might be (130km). And it seems it’s quite difficult to get to. I’ve got to get a bus for two hours to a lake, then I get a boat from the lake for another hour to so. Then I get to see the caves. Then I get to do it all in reverse. I don’t particularly feel up to trying to do all that navigating on my own. And I’m not Buddhist and not that interested in caves, or statues.

So I might put it on the list of things to do when I come back to China. Which I certainly hope to do, especially given I didn’t get to Beijing this time.

Chinese Food

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I’m in China. I’ve been eating Chinese food. Yay!

This is both more difficult and easier than I expected.

In the UK and Australia finding a Chinese restaurant is easy. The Chinese-looking building is probably a Chinese restaurant. In China, the Chinese-looking building is probably a building.

But all is not lost, there are lots and lots of little noodle bars all through Lanzhou. The only difficulty is deciding which one to go for. There are also restaurants (I tried one of those, expensive and crap), and today I found a little cafe-type place that does dumplings – nice one!

Getting vegetarian food is reasonably easy. Though the crap restaurant did have ham in it’s fried rice, damnit. I go into one of these little noodle bar places. I point to “I’m a vegetarian” in my phrase book. They nod. I point to “boiled rice” and “vegetables”, they usually then say no and point to something else on the menu. I say ok and wait for lunch. The bowls of noodles are enourmous. As was today’s plate of vegetable dumplings. And really tasty. And really cheap. Less than a pound usually. Yesterday’s noodles were incredible, they had mushrooms (I think) and seaweed and corriander and tiny eggs (quail?). So I’m eating one big meal a day and then snacking on crispbread, processed cheese, cherry tomatoes and fruit in the evening.

It’s a very happy world. 🙂

Train Ticket

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I have my train ticket onward from Lanzhou!

It was difficult: two trips to the train station, several phone calls from me and from the kind person on reception at my hotel.

But I got it in the end. And it was much cheaper than I thought. Probably because I have a hard seat rather than a sleeper. But as long as I’m on the train, I don’t care if I have to stand for the 28.5 hours!!! Which I don’t. I hope.

Anyway, hen’s tooth now safely tucked into my money belt next to my passport. Photocopies of it in my bag (one to take home with me to frame).

On Friday at 4:30 I’ll leave Lanzhou.



Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I couldn’t do this without the help and support of all my family and friends. Thank you.

There have been some times when this has been difficult (see my Bad Day post). But while I was standing on a local bus in Urumqi feeling stressed and mildly terrified and wanting to be somewhere else or at least to have someone else with me, I started thinking about all the people who would have been there if they could. And I am very pleased and honoured to say that the list is quite a long one. Within a few seconds I was smiling again and feeling much more confident that I could overcome whatever the next hurdle would be.

So the love and support and hugs and best wishes from all of you has helped me so much.

I have people in the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands, the UAE, the USA, Canada, Australia and Sri Lanka (I think that’s all of them) who are supporting me and wishing me the very best.

And whether that support is phone calls, emails, blog comments, Facebook messages, Skype chats, text messages, or telepathic good wishes, it is very much appreciated. 🙂

This is not to suggest that I’m having a terrible time and am in desparate need of support and hugs. But I am having a fabulous time in large part because of the support and the hugs.

So very big hugs back to all of you!!



Bad Day

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

I had my first really bad day so far. It wasn’t the day I was ill. That wasn’t nice but it was just me being ill.

This was a bad day.

It was Friday the 20th. My first day in Urumqi. I arrived from Almaty on the sleeper bus in the morning, I found my hostel. I was too early to have access to my bed but I could check my email. Which I did. Bad news. A train ticket that I’d bought in the UK, the one that gets me out of Lanzhou, hadn’t materialised. The company had been unable to get it and had refunded me the money. Which was nice of them, but did leave me in a position where a vital piece of my travel was now missing.

The deal is that train ticket bookings in China open 10 days before the date of travel. So you can’t book any further in advance. I have heard that students can book 40 days in advance which is nice for them, but makes it even harder for the general public. So the agencies take your money and try to book as many train tickets as they can. In my case, the agency I used couldn’t get mine for me so refunded me the money and emailed me. I had to get the train on 27th. So now I’m in China with no train ticket (and it’s a very popular train route), with fewer than 10 days to go, unable to speak Mandarin, and in the wrong city.

I tried calling several Chinese agencies from the youth hostel but they couldn’t help me. They could only get tickets for me if I booked 15 days in advance.

So now I’m starting to get really stressed. In fact, very stressed. I was tired, I hadn’t eaten properly for several days. I was in a country whose language I didn’t speak. I really needed that train ticket and it looked like it wasn’t going to be possible to get. I sat at the computer fighting back tears trying to work out what the best thing to do would be. This was the lowest point.

Sometimes you can buy train tickets from the station, but you can only do that from the city of departure. So to get my ticket outward from Lanzhou, I had to be in Lanzhou. Lanzhou was more than a day away. I didn’t want to be in Lanzhou. I wanted to be in Beijing. But I had to get this ticket, or find a bus, or a plane, or something. So that meant I had to go to Lanzhou.

So to get the train from Urumqi to Lanzhou I had to go to the train agency office which was about 10 mins away by local bus. I did not feel up to facing a public bus system in a city I didn’t know, but I didn’t really have a choice. So, one problem at a time. The hostel guy wrote down where I was getting off the bus and the name of the agency in Chinese for me. And told me which bus, (cross the road, number 104, pay 1Yuan when you get on).

I made it on to the bus. The passengers made sure I got off at the right stop. I found the train ticket office. I went up to the counter and with the help of my phrase book said Lanzhou tomorrow. She said no tickets.

So I turned around and went back to the hostel.

I asked them about buses to Lanzhou. They told me how to get to the bus station. So I crossed the road, found bus 105, paid 1 Yuan. Got off with the help of the driver at the right place. Found the bus station. Found the ticket window. With the help of the phrase book said Lanzhou, tomorrow. She wrote down the time and the price and I nearly kissed her. I had a ticket.

So, bus back to the hostel.

I was going to miss Beijing. I was going to have to get an overnight bus to Lanzhou. I had no outward ticket from Lanzhou. I’d left a tissue in the pocket of my trousers when I’d done my washing.
But I had eaten lunch. I had clean (ish) clothes. I had navigated the public bus system. I had a bus ticket to Lanzhou.

A day of major setbacks and minor victories. By the time I got back to the hostel I was focussing on the minor victories. I had a small picnic dinner in the park sitting quietly, calming down and feeling confident that the next day I’d be moving on to Lanzhou and that was the most that was in my power at that time.