Monday, 13 November 2006

Tropical Thailand to the cold Himalayas. Kunming to Chengdu.


I arrived in Thailand a few days after a military coup. The British Foreign Office had posted warnings about the dangers of travelling here. These warnings were a green light for me and I went in search of tanks, martial law and curfews. I was slightly disappointed when I found life to be carrying on as normal but I suppose this was a blessing as I've no idea how dangerous the situation could have been.

The King

In Chiang Mai's cinema I was surprised to have to stand for the King of Thailand's anthem. Like I said before he's a massively respected figure here. It was a treat to watch a movie in English after five months in foreign lands.

I rode a Honda Wave three hours through the mountains to a town called Pai. I nearly came off on a pot-holed bend - scary! I ate unknown tropical fruit and had to hand-pump petrol from a drum in the middle of nowhere. I got a one month visa at the Chinese consulate in Chiang Mai before finding an outdoor swimming pool and chilling before returning to China after an amazing month in Thailand.

Back to China for a third time

Lijiang Roofs
I flew back to Kunming and went straight to Lijiang on the way to the Himalayas. It was a 9hr bus journey from Kunming to this stunning town. It looks like what you imagine China would have looked like 200 years ago. The local people are mainly from an ethnic minority called the Naxi. They have their own customs and traditions which are very distinct from the majority Han Chinese population. 

This creates a kind of human zoo situation which I found a bit weird. The Naxi people have a matriarchal society where the females are the dominant members of the community - feminism at mach 3.

Next was a 25km trek along Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Eastern fringe of the Himalayas.  This trek is dominated by the awesome Jade Dragon Snow Mountain which towers 5600m above the infant Yangtze crashing through the canyons far below. The trek is on the opposite side of the river from this mountain so you're afforded glorious views of the snowy razor peaks and glaciers flowing down the gulleys.

Tiger Leaping Gorge
Luckily the weather was perfect for this two day trek and the scenery was drank up greedily by the few trekkers I met. The highest point on the trail is 2700m. Peering down the 2000m cliffs to the river threading its way through the gorge was awesome. The path was precariously narrow in parts with massive sheer drops. It felt like the huge cliffs on the other side were magnetically charged - trying to lure you off to a watery grave.

I stopped at a Hostel called the Half Way House, I mention this because Michael Palin stopped here when he did the trek for his book Himalaya. He writes about having a dump perched over the edge of a cliff while looking at an incredible view through the glassless bog window!

Next was Shangrila two hours past Tiger Leaping Gorge. I think the name is a tourist board ploy as the town's real name is Zhongdian and it's a dump outside the old town area. The population becomes predominantly Tibetan here as housing and clothing styles change dramatically. The surrounding vistas of white Himalayan peaks are stunning. 

My favourite memory was drinking tea in the old town square and watching the locals perform their nightly dance routine in a large circle around dusk. This ritual is not for the benefit of tourists. They do it for their own social, health, and fun reasons. Great outfits, great choreography and great fun.

Shangrila is still in Yunnan province. I never actually got as far as Tibet itself (Tibet Autonomous Region) as I didn't fancy tackling the paperwork involved in securing a permit. You don't need to go into Tibet to see the culture as it over spills into Yunnan and Sichuan. I was overjoyed to be here as I'd always been enchanted by Tibetan people and their hard mountain lifestyles.

Tibetans in Xiangcheng
I took an ancient minivan into Sichuan Province and the small Tibetan town of Xiangcheng. This trip was only 200km but took 10hrs. It was an amazing journey with huge precipitous drops along a never-ending windy road with stunning scenery. We climbed passes over 4000m (Ben Nevis is 1400m). I saw Tibetan script and those scruffy looking multi-coloured prayer rags that hang in great numbers at sacred sites.

Litang, one of the highest towns in the world
From Xiancheng it was another 200km ride to Litang. Litang sits at an elevation of 4100m (Mt. Blanc is Europe's highest point at 4800m). The town is on a grass plain full of grazing Yaks and surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. The bus left 30mins late but nobody seemed to care as the Tibetans have a very relaxed attitude towards time! Not long after arriving in Litang I noticed I had difficulty breathing - a perturbing sensation. The lack of Oxygen at this altitude is stark and you just can't get enough of it into your lungs - mental.

The people here appear very dirty - the kids look like they haven't seen water in weeks. The men carry massive knives underneath their sheepskin jackets. The women wear beautifully coloured clothes. It's a fascinating place to visit, so remote, you feel you're at the edge of the world. By the way, if you expect Western standard facilities - forget it, there's none here. It's freezing and there's no heating in the guesthouses! It was sub-zero this morning with ice on the inside of windows that wouldn't shut properly. There's nowhere to wash your hands or brush your teeth! After a month in tropical Thailand, the Himalayan climate has come as a shock!

Next was Kangding at a reduced elevation of only 2600m which my lungs welcomed. We passed the 7600m Mount Gongga on the way. This mountain is the world's most eastern peak over 7000m. Kangding is a pleasant town that has a famous Chinese love song written about it. A river rushes through and the population turns predominantly Han Chinese again. I treated myself to a hot spring that stank of rotten eggs.

I spent my 33rd birthday in a crazy Chengdu nightclub. The day after I cut my stupid long hair and had blonde highlights applied - I was still drunk! I didn't see the famous Pandas but I never came for that. Chengdu marked the end of an incredible 1700km journey through the Himalayas. My fleeting glimpse into Tibet will always be a treasured memory.

Tashi Delek (Tibetan for Areet?)


  1. Hi Steve,

    It's dave here from the reflex course at newcastle. I got your email about your blog ages ago and haven't really been checking it but it seems that you've been really disciplined and kept it up to date with some really nice entries. Quite descriptive even poetic in places. I'm really happy for you as I think that you're enjoying yourself.

    I've finished the MSc course now and it was hard work. I did a project on a marine current turbine in the flume tank at newcastle university and it was ace. I got a really good grade and I'm well chuffed. Now I'm studying a PhD in Sheffield on Organic photovoltaics so trying to keep the dream of sustainability alive.

    It was a great to meet you steve and I took a lot from your outlook and our conversations. I hope we'll get a chance to meet up and look at the photos when (maybe if) you get back.

    All the best,


  2. Steve,

    Rachel gave me the site. I'm glad to hear your taking care of yourself and enjoying your travels.

    It was such a pleasure to travel with you this summer - don't be a stranger if you're ever in the bay area.



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