Driving from Urumqi, Xinjiang to Lhasa, Tibet
Friday 2nd June 2006: Day 1
Set off at 9ish from the office, 3 cars 12 people including 4 drivers, destination for day 1 Dunhuang in Guansu province ??km away. We had barely got a 100km out of Urumqi when one of our party Dr Wang from Yinning city CDC was called back to Yinning so their car had to turn around and take him back to the airport adding an extra 2 hours for them onto the day. The rest of us continued on: past the windmills and through Turpan and then into new country for Kim and I heading towards Shizan. This is all the Gobi desert so unrelenting desert sands and sparsely sprinkled oasis with grapes and vegetables, melons and apricot. Its also the main route out of Xinjiang to the east so lots of trucks going both ways. Around lunch time (2ish for us) we stopped at Shizan for ban mien (noodles with meat and veges) and bing pijou (cold beer) but the beer only for the non drivers.
Then off again on the main highway to Hami. On the left side of the road we followed the Tianshan mountains that stretch all the way from Yinning in the north west near the Kazakstan border to Hami which borders with Gansu the next province. On the right it’s the Gobi, flat, yellow desert. Along the highway, just to keep you from being bored some enterprising highway designer official has placed at intervals larger than life white cement animals. At first depicting local animals; camels, sheep, cows, donkeys but then obviously ran out of options so then we go world theme with giraffes, elephants and yes kangaroos. The road is also under a lot of repair with all the small bridges which now cross over dry river beds being under reconstruction post snow melt and so each has a side track where our drivers had fun pretending to be rally drivers racing past trucks and each other… a bit hairy but ok. We finally made it to Hami about 5pm and waited for the Yinning city people by the side of the road for about an hour and a half and then went and had da pan ji (big plate chicken) for dinner before heading off again into the night, still some way to go. The best bit was though that we could see stars, millions of them and turned out we were driving through a place called the valley of the stars, so beautiful. Eventually made it to Dunhuang at 2.30am and fell into bed to sleep till 8 the next morning.
Saturday June 3rd: Day 2
Up at 8am and down for breakfast with the gang, bleary eyed but eager to head off into the next spot. Dunhuang is famous for the most well preserved and extensive Magao Grottos or Thousand Buddha caves along the old silk route of China. Nestled into the eastern foothills of the Mingsha Mountains they began construction around 366AD in the Qin (Chin) dynasty. There are 753 existing caves containing 45,000sq.m of murals and 2,400 painted sculptures. The rock formation is coarse sandstone from which the caves and sculptures have been carved from and then rendered over with clay before being painted. The whole are is surrounded by desert the dryness then preserving the inner cave areas.
The caves are truly amazing, huge Buddhas over 16 meters high, beautiful murals from a range of dynasties and styles, its hard to describe the wonder of it all!! Unfortunately the drivers had only given us 2 hours so we had to take the quick tour and then headed off again THE WRONG WAY! After a while they asked someone (there were not many people on the road) and we turned around and headed back into Dunhuang. By which time all the drivers were hungry (they like their food our drivers) and so we stopped again in town for dumpling hotpot. Pretty delicious and this restaurant is certified as having the only truly traditional dumpling hotpot in China, at least I think that was the gist of a rather long conversation!! Anyway after that we set off on the right road with a fair way to get to that day: Golmud or in Chinese “Gormu”, the first high point at 3,800mt. Today I drove with Driver Wang the rally driver who always likes to stay in front of everyone else and who is really funny. We took off first along the final reach of the Gobi which by now had turned into huge dunes with the mountains beckoning us ahead. Suddenly a huge deep river bed sometimes filled with water other times none came winding past and then we began to climb. We passed yue lortor (wild camels) browsing on the roadside looking very scruffy as they shed their winter coats and a yue ren (wild man) walking up the mountain colleting plastic on the way.
There are a lot of tramps or wild people about, mainly men but some women also, we would call them really feral in Oz, usually very dirty, long wild dreadlocks, many layers of tattered clothing and I guess many have mental illness, its amazing how they do survive. A lot do collect plastic bottles which they get money for recycling but it was odd to see one way out in the middle of nowhere with his sack on his back. We stopped and put out all our empty plastic water bottles for him. It was quite interesting as I had just been chastising one of the team for throwing a plastic bottle out the car window and she then said “see someone will pick it up”. I still have a problem though with the total lack of environmental awareness among people here especially about rubbish!!
So on we climbed up rugged mountain sides covered in dry scree and little else, some small stunted plants but amazing formations of rock till we came over the first pass at around 4,300mt. then down again into a long flat landscape dotted with lakes but still dry, sandy and flat. The whole area appears uninhabited although there are modern ruins of attempts to populate. Small clusters of buildings now abandoned and empty their roofs removed and walls knocked out.
We stopped near one of these areas to wait for the others and waited and waited and waited at least an hour and a half and then saw trucks we had passed (which had been moving very slowly) at the bottom of the mountain so somewhat mystified we moved on. This are we had no mobile coverage either, so we could not get in touch with the other two cars to see where they were and then on further we came back in range but still no clearer where they were. Eventually we came to a small town with really gross toilets (there have been lots of gross toilet experiences on the way but I have not gone into them) and waited again. This time we had coverage but could not get through to the others till eventually Kim texted me to say they were going through a lot of road works which we had NOT been through. At first we thought they may have gone the wrong way but apparently there is no other way and then we realized they must have passed us right at the beginning of the day and were already and hour and a half ahead of us!!! By this time it was 6pm and we still had a few hundred km to go to get to Golmud. So of we took with Wang being a rally driver again through 150km or more of road works, rough and dusty. The only settlements on the way was road workers camps and some nomadic camps when we eventually moved out of desert and into the grasslands. Finally we got in to Golmud about 11pm where I collapsed in bed.
Sunday June 4th Day 3: Golmud to Naqu 670km
Up again early and headed out to climb first over the Kunlun mountains at the Kulunshan pass 4,772mt then the highest pass Tanggula at 5,231mt. Today is the hardest day as we are now moving into serious altitude. Those of us taking it have started the Diamox for altitude sickness, the oxygen bottles are now upright and accessible in each car and everyone has their own nasal prong to attach if needed. We are all a little anxious as to how we will go. Kim and I have the panadol ready for the altitude headaches. Again we climb though ragged and bare mountains with snowy peaks to come to the first pass.
It’s cold and raining as we hit it and there are Tibetan prayer flags along side the Chinese marker. We stop briefly for quick pictures before heading on down into a high rolling plain where there are wild gazelle, pied goose and donkey and our first yaks. The sky seems really close and so blue. We are a little breathless but for now feel just a little high and giggly.
Rain squalls are coming intermittently then breaking though into sunny blue skies. Everyone is hungry now though and we are peeing a lot from the Diamox and so as we come into a small shanty roadside town the drivers insist on us eating here. It’s actually the headwaters of the source of the Yangtze so seems auspicious even though its a pretty grotty little place. However the food was fine and it is interesting mix of people; Han, Hui, Tibetan and Shanxi. Here the Chinese staff amuse themselves teaching us swear words so Kim and I now have a good repertoire, which of course are always good to get the gang to have a laugh. So on then to climb to Tanggula Pass. Before heading up Kim and I take panadol prophylacticaly although none of the others want to. Here we seem to be heading right into the heart of the snow mountains and the sky gets closer and closer. Some of the gang are puffing on oxygen intermittently and then we come to the pass. There is again a Tibetan marker with myriads of prayer flags along side the Chinese “liberation” marker and we are truly now into Tibet!!! A little Tibetan boy comes and poses for photos with us and then scuttles off with a big grin on his face when I give him 5 yuan.
So over we go and down again feeling ok but then we have to climb to another smaller pass around 4,600mt and now I am starting to feel horrible, splitting headache and some nausea, others also feeling odd but take panadol and chuff a bit of oxygen and push on. Thank goodness the drivers are ok although each time we stop they do chuff oxygen!! So it’s another 150km or so on to Naqu and its dark now so just try to hang in, we are going slightly down now but plan to spend the night there to acclimatise a bit. Eventually we roll in around 11pm and head straight to bed. I feel pretty bad and have horrible visions of serious cerebral oedema or something but eventually fall asleep.
Monday June 5th Day 4: Naqu to Lhasa 325km
Woke up after a good sleep feeling a lot better but still took panadol. There are goats wandering the streets eating out of the rubbish skips and we are definitely in Tibet. People walking around spinning prayer wheels and dressed in traditional garb, the crossed over dress and the cowboy hat, rolling prayer beads between their fingers. It’s still pretty cold and miserable here and really this town is jen tamada (really fucking) miserable. Down the road for yak and noodle soup, quite delicious and then set off for Lhasa. Along the road we saw pilgrims prostrating their way to Lhasa, it must take them months to get there!! Lots of yaks, and more and more, must be thousands of the beasts and also sheep and goats but yak is big!!!
Small settlements, some camps and some looking more permanent with mud brick flat roofed homes with prayer flags flying from the 4 corners. Outside walls daubed with yak pads (poo) drying for winter fuel and now more and more dogs. Still traveling though treeless snow capped mountains and plains although greener with tundra grasslands but as we descended into Lhasa it became greener and more crops and trees along the roadside. Deeper running rivers and eventually into the outskirts of Lhasa, eventually into the city and there rising above, the Potala palace. We skirted the edge of the old city on our way to our hotel on the edge of the old city, a new Tibetan run hotel, clean and fine (as we have to keep our Chinese staff happy although us foreigners would have preferred to stay in closer to the old city in a more traditional hotel it would have been hard to get the other staff to do it.) So a short rest then off to a welcome dinner with the Tibet team. Very nice but a bit formal although not nearly as full on as in Xinjiang.