A Travellerspoint blog

This blog is published chronologically. Go straight to the most recent post.

Xiahe the town that’s said to be ‘more Tibetan than Tibet’

overcast 24 °C

We woke at 6:45am just as the sun was rising over the mountains, not a bad way to start the day.

The drunken feeling and shortness of breath has gone. Sarah had no real symptoms at all. The only thing that’s bothering us both, and the whole group for that matter, is the hunger. As your body races to produce more oxygen carrying red blood cells your metabolism speeds up massively; an hour after a meal, we’re all starving hungry again. As a precaution I had two breakfasts.

At 10:00am we headed down to the Labrang Monastery, a huge complex where 3,500 Buddhist monks live worship and study.
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Our guide, Sonan, a young English-speaking monk, led us through the maze of buildings. The first temple we came to was the medicine-teaching temple, where monks would study for 15 years before being qualified to administer herbal medicines to the local monks and villagers. As Sonan explained the teaching practices I thought about Sarah’s medical training and how different it was from that of the Labrang monks; two completely different methods of trying to reach the same goal – healing people.

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Sonan left and we wondered around the monastery grounds. We came across a courtyard full of monks and decided to sit and watch for a while. The monks were sat on huge steps leading up to the temple. At the back stood monks in full ceremonial dress; huge capes, under which they had layers of animal skin. But it was their headgear that was the most impressive; yellow/gold hats with a tall central plume.

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Monks on the roof sounded seashell horns to announce the beginning of the ceremony. All the other monks removed their shoes and lead the way inside. Then the pilgrims, who had travelled from the surrounding area, bowed to the floor in honour then followed them into the building. It was an amazing sight to see, we just sat and watched. I’d challenge anyone witnessing this not to feel spiritual.
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The hunger kicked in again and by 11:45am we were ready for lunch. We went to the roof top restaurant next to our hotel and by 12:30 one by one, the whole group had joined us. We feasted on Yak meat dumplings and rice, and didn’t leave the restaurant until 1:30pm.

We’d satisfied the hunger, for now anyway, so now to satisfy another altitude side effect, exhaustion. The clouds dropped and the rain came in, we had a great idea, an afternoon nap.

4:00pm. Hunger.

Sarah joined Nicola and Colleen in a yoga session run by Allie; I went out in the rain on the hunt for food.

Posted by asprey 04:40 Archived in China Comments (0)

Walking with the Tibetan Nomads

sunny 27 °C

I love that fact that we’ve learned to only get up early when there’s cool stuff to do. By 7:00am we were stood at the east wall of the monastery looking down the 800 metres of prayer wheels, each being systematically turned by hundreds of pilgrims, all in traditional Tibetan dress.
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This morning we were walking the pilgrim’s trail; it was what the pilgrims travelled here for, to travel the 3km perimeter of the monastery walls. Some walk, some run, some crawl, some even ‘worship’ their way round; taking two steps, getting to there knees, sliding their hands forward, laying face down on the ground, then standing before taking two steps and starting the who process again . . . for 3Km!! It takes them all day and they do it everyday whilst in town.
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We walked the circuit in silence just taking in the sights as the pilgrims passed us mumbling their prayers. I felt honoured to be there, to be sharing that moment with those deeply religious people, to be part of the pilgrimage that had been on going for over 300 years.

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After our spiritual start to our day we went for breakfast. We got the restaurant owner out of bed; he took our order, and then walked out of the front door, returning 15 minutes later with a bag of bread, eggs and potatoes. “Is this a restaurant or some dude’s house?”

Me, Sarah, Simon and Nicola went for a stroll in the hills above Xiahe. After walking for an hour we strayed off the path and up a steep incline. As I was climbing on all-fours up a 60 degree slope using fence wire to drag myself upwards, whilst dry-coughing my lungs up [another symptom of altitude], I wondered where the ‘stroll’ came into it. We finally reached the top of the killer hill, I dragged the dry-coughing Sarah to her feet, and we both stood and took in the view for the first time.
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“Wow” – yes, I actually said it out loud. It was amazing. We followed goat tracks worn into the hillside to climb further eventually reaching the Tibetan prayer flags, which were built on the highest point of each hill.
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The legs were killing and it felt like we were breathing soup, but it was worth it. We all just sat and took it in.

Posted by asprey 04:42 Archived in China Comments (0)

Nomadic Horse Festival

sunny 25 °C

Another early start, and another cool reason. For just one day every year all the nomads for the surrounding areas come together for one giant horse race and horse festival in the southern grasslands, a 90-minute drive from Xiahe. It couldn’t be missed. Kristina was having a few gearbox issues so we arranged for the hostel owner to take us in his mini bus.

An hour into our journey we shared the small potholed road with hundreds of nomads on horseback or motorbikes [all Honda 125s – every single one of them] it was clear that this wasn’t some touristy show that the locals put on. This was the nomads getting together and showing off their horse skills as they had done for hundreds of years.

The sight that met us at the festival was astounding, thousands of nomads in traditional Tibetan dress, on horseback, and most impressively, not a westerner in sight.
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The ground thundered from the thousands of hooves as we walked with then from the start line to the finish line. It just felt a massive honour to be there. We were told that some of the nomads had possibly never seen a white person and it certainly seemed the case. All eyes were on us, (which sort of makes it difficult to sneak off for a pee, Sarah tried but ended up flashing a monk)

We stood at the finish line and watched the racing, which was over quiet quickly. There was just one race between about 200 racers; all aged about 10-12 years old. It was the ceremony that went on for ages and was the most impressive. The first 5 over the line were wrapped in gold cloth and paraded around as everyone whooped and screamed. It was just mind blowing to realise what a rare sight we were witnessing.

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We hung around and tried to chat with some of the locals. The only problem being the 7 words we now knew in Chinese were useless because most of the nomads only spoke Tibetan. Even so “you are tall” and “you are blonde” seam easy for anyone, of any nationality, to sign language to me.
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On the way home we had to stop for an ‘emergency toilet break’, which involved me dropping my keks and performing the most private of acts at the side of the road in front of the whole group and two Tibetan families. Not my proudest moment.

I’d had an ear ache all day that seamed to be getting worse so we played ‘guess the antibiotic’ at the pharmacist, its not easy when everything is written in Chinese and you’re the most allergic person on the planet.

The rest of the day was spent on the road heading for Lanzhou. Kristina’s emergency repair held up for the whole journey and we arrived in town at 7:00pm. Everyone dropped their bags off and raced out of the hotel heading for the night markets. My earache had gotten much worse so we had a KFC and an early night.

Posted by asprey 04:44 Archived in China Comments (0)

Dave aka Chipmunk

sunny 10 °C

“Jesus Christ!! What’s wrong with your head?”
“What?” I asked, still half asleep with one eye open.
Sarah sounded genuinely panicked, “I’ll get Mylse, you need a doctor!”
I dragged myself out of bed and looked in the mirror, I fully opened my eyes and was shocked to see a full moon staring back at me, but with my features. My head had swelled up to a perfect sphere. “Shit!” I said through my chubby little mouth.

Within an hour we were at the hospital. Mylse somehow bribed and pushed his way into the hospital system and within 10 minutes of entering we were on the 19th floor in front of an ear, nose and throat specialist. “He say you have lymph node infection,” translated Mylse, “he’ll give you medicine.”

I was still truly shocked with the shape of my head.

I spent the rest of the day feeling like death, laying on the back seat of the truck.

By 7:30pm we were losing daylight so had to find a place to camp. Noel found a great spot, open land just across the river from a small village with mountain as a backdrop.
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The only problem was my health, again. I felt really bad that I laid on the bus while Sarah set up our tent and help the others with the camp kitchen. I tried to eat but couldn’t so went to bed.

The temperature dropped pretty quickly and it must have been approaching freezing. Neither of us managed much sleep and I had to agree when Sarah said, “this must be the coldest I’ve ever been.”

Posted by asprey 04:46 Archived in China Comments (0)

Deterioration

sunny 20 °C

My first thought was I couldn’t remember a time a felt this ill. Maybe when I had glandular fever when I was 15. It was pretty bad. Head pounding, lightheaded, nausea, face throbbing. I tried to throw up but couldn’t. I ignored breakfast and collapsed on the truck.
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Again, my thoughts were for Sarah, who had to pack the camp away on her own, but I couldn’t move. I knew she didn’t mind the hard work; she was just worried about me. She sat with me as often as she could between jobs.

Another nine hours in the back of the truck staring at the ceiling.

Another bush camp; this time in the desert basin.
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Again it was a spectacular spot and I was so upset that we couldn’t just enjoy it together. We did manage to sit for a few minutes to watch the sun go down and the full moon rise of the mountains. I couldn’t spend another night in a freezing tent so we slept on the back seat of the truck.

Posted by asprey 04:49 Archived in China Comments (0)

Dave aka Shrek and the masterplan

sunny 24 °C

I woke up to Sarah giving me a little kiss on my big numb face. It was bigger than ever, although I did feel slightly better and even managed some breakfast. I was still blow away with the beauty of the place we’d camped. The sun was rising and cast amazing shadows over the mountains to the north.

I was so impressed with the place that I dug my toilet hole twice as deep as usual so I didn’t spoil the setting for the next people that have a chance of enjoying it.

By lunchtime we were in Golmud and I was starting to feel much better. Golmud is a mining town, famous only for its location; the last town before entering the Tibetan Autonomous Zone (the real Tibet).

Another trip to hospital confirmed my fears, “you can not travel to altitude for at least a few days.” – we were supposed to be heading to 4,700m tomorrow.

Sarah and I had a meeting with Noel and Mylse and came up with a plan. We’d get the Quinghai Express to Lhasa and meet the group there in three days time. Lhasa is 3,500m so we’d skip most of the really high stuff. Even so the train has oxygen pumped into it so the altitude shouldn’t affect us on route. Our insurance company agreed to pay for the tickets and coincidentally they only had the best and most expensive ‘soft sleeper day bed’ seats left, so we had to book them.

Posted by asprey 04:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

We say goodbye to the group

sunny 25 °C

Other than swollen glands in my neck, I pretty much had my face back.

We said our goodbyes to the group and spent the whole day in the room chilling out.

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The next three nights of the trip were bush camping at high altitude, so although we were both disappointed to be leaving the group for a while we were both a little relieved as well. Damp tents, sub-zero conditions and very little oxygen were definitely not what the doctor ordered.

Posted by asprey 04:52 Archived in China Comments (0)

Travelling the Rooftop of the World

0 °C

We weren’t sure if we were going to get our wake-up call. It’s not easy trying to mime and draw “Can I have a 4.30am wake up call”, to someone who’s never heard of pictionary. But at 4.30am on the dot our phone rang.

We flagged a taxi nervous about this next bit. The rules on entering Tibet are very strict. You must be in a tour group, have a registered guide with you at all times, and have a valid permit. We had no tour group, no tour guide and a dodgy photocopy of a group permit (but the group were a days drive ahead of us). We were basing our validity on a note from a doctor and a note from our tour guide. We felt like we were back at school with a note from out mum but instead of trying to get out of physical education we were trying to get into a politically sensitive country policed by the Chinese army.

At the station we presented our piece of hand written notes and dodgy photocopies to the security guard. I had a load of 50 yuan notes as a backup just in case we needed to pay an “unofficial tax” to get through. It wasn’t necessary. After some frowning and re-reading she waved us through. Our 5.48am train pulled out at 10.25am. We could have had another 5 hours in bed.

The 5ft2 stationmaster wasn’t happy with our photocopied permits and it took some of our best negotiating skills to get through (pointing at the doctors note whilst nodding and smiling the most ridiculous grins). I may have also said “come on you miserable little nobody, No-one cares about you so just let us through” I figured the words didn’t matter as long as the tones sounded convincing.

Sarah cottoned on and said, “Come on look at the size of his face (with a friendly smile). For some reason that did the trick and the guard raised two fingers to say platform 2. I stuck two fingers up at him and he nodded. I guess he didn’t get what I was saying.

We spent the first four hours with our faces pressed against the windows. As we first passed glacial flood planes then snow-capped mountains.
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I now see why so many people regard this as one of the greatest railway journeys in the world.
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You truly are travelling on the rooftop of the world. At 14.30pm we saw the glorious sight of Kristina (our truck) chugging along the Tibetan plateau as the road ran alongside the track.

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We arrived at 23.45pm where no one checked our paperwork. We’d had to pay another guide to meet us (as you can’t travel anywhere without one) and transferred to our hotel in Lhasa.

Posted by asprey 02:56 Archived in China Comments (0)

Delerious in Tibet

0 °C

I wake. At least I think I’m awake. I’m soaked in sweat from the crazy nightmares I was having. I’m still scared but can’t remember what they were about. I feel confused. I’m in a hotel room although not one I can remember checking into. Sarah is asleep next to me. Thank god we’re both safe. Why am I so scared?? I find the bathroom and vomit into the sink. My head is pounding. I look up into the mirror. I look bad. My eyes look different, deep, darker…….brown, I don’t have brown eyes do I? I pull back to get a better look, they’re not my eyes. The eyes are framed somehow. It’s a cars interior mirror. I’m in the back seat of a car. How did I get here?? It’s the driver’s eyes I can see. My panic subsides a little when I see the back of Sarah’s head in the passenger seat. She has straight hair. I don’t understand. She turns to talk; she has a fringe and Chinese eyes. It’s not Sarah……panic.

“You ok?” says a voice from my right. I turn. Thank god it’s Sarah. I look again, she’s gone, but the car door is open. “You have to get out we’re here”. The daylight hurts my eyes. Sarah leads me into the large building. I smell bleach and urine, more urine than bleach. I sit in a hard chair for what seems like hours. Someone lifts my head and opens my mouth. I’m in a different room now. I see a white coat in front of me. A spatula compresses my tongue. I fight the urge to vomit but lose. Ouch!! A pain in my arm. I look down. Blood is draining out of me into a vile. Where’s Sarah? Panic again. She returns with the Chinese girl. Who is she? My head hurts. Doors close in front of me, lift doors I think.

Now I’m in another room with lots of people in armchairs and on drips. I’m in an armchair. Ouch! Another needle, this time in the back of my right hand and I feel cool rising up my arm. I blink. As I open my eyes the people in the room have changed. More have arrived. Sarah is holding my hand. I feel safe. The Chinese girl brings me food. Is she a nurse?? Where’s her uniform?? I blink again and the room changes again. A nurse comes in and takes the needle out of my left hand. Didn’t it go in my right?? Now we’re in the street again, the Chinese girl helps me into a car. I thank her in Chinese.

I woke up with the worst hangover although I knew I hadn’t been drinking. Sarah was at the side of me. “Have we been to a hospital?” I asked. “Yes we were there for 6 hours”. I look down. I have puncture marks in the back of both hands. “You had a dangerously high temperature and were dehydrated. You were delirious and the hotel assistant manager had to help me get you to hospital”.
“A young Chinese girl?”
“Yes. She spent the whole day with us. She’s an angel”.
I turned over and felt a pain like I’d been kneed in the groin. The infection had spread south. The huge swelling that had been in my face was now in my “lower glands”. I did not get a good nights sleep.

Posted by asprey 03:03 Archived in China Comments (0)

Mega Ball

0 °C

I woke up and I knew I was awake and I knew who I was. But I felt rough. I stood up and looked down my shorts – the swelling had doubled. We took a de-ja-vu taxi ride knack to hospital. It was a usual Chinese doctors consulting room – there were fifteen people in there all jostling to be seen. After ten minutes we decided it was our turn to be seen so pushed to the desk and put my paperwork in front of the doctor. It seemed to work. Everyone else backed off. Now, not having the benefit of an interpreter, today it was all down to mime. “I’ve had a gland infection which has now resulted in a testicle the size of a cricket ball”. Not waiting to lose my place I dropped my trousers and held the mega spud out like it was a prize. The doctor looked shocked and took a step back; the other fifteen people took a step forward for a better look. Twenty minutes later I was back in the de-ja-vu drip room on another load of antibiotics then back to the hotel to collapse in bed for the rest of the day.

I don’t know if it was the drugs I was on but I got thinking, “Sarah do you think it will be on the local news tonight that eye witnesses have reported that white men have massive balls?”
“ha ha” she laughed. “Probably not a lot else happens and you don’t see many white men around here”
“And do you think it’ll be a headline, or just the ‘and finally’ section?”
“Ha ha don’t flatter yourself, you’re a ‘finally’ at best”.

Posted by asprey 03:03 Archived in China Comments (0)

Facing facts

0 °C

I woke up hungry, which was a great sign. I’d not eaten anything for 3 days. Mega spud had grown.
Our tour group had now caught up with us so after breakfast Mylse (Our Chinese guide) accompanied us back to the hospital. He told us not to bother with A&E and took us to a urology specialist. We walked into the consulting room and joined the round of fifteen people. Mylse has a knack of getting in front and the ushering everyone out of the room. “I wish I’d thought of that yesterday”. There was no electricity in the hospital so the consultant took me to the window for a better look at spud. Then he read the paperwork and my previous treatments. Through Mylse translating he said “the other doctors are idiots, this is very serious, you need to be admitted to hospital for two weeks, but facilities are bad here. I recommend you fly to a better hospital immediately.

It was a shock to find out it was that serious. We were all speechless.
We headed back to the hotel and contacted our insurance company. Sarah said, “I don’t know anyone else that has had to be medically evacuated once, never mind twice!”

Posted by asprey 03:04 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Highlights of Lhasa

I was gradually feeling better in myself but the mega spud was continuing to grow. I spent the day on the phone to the insurance trying to sort out our evacuation to Kathmandu, the nearest town with a decent hospital. Sarah spent the day running around town photocopying and faxing documents to the insurance company. I also insisted that she go off with our group to sight see. At least one of us should see beautiful Lhasa and get some pictures, plus she’d had a rough few days and needed a break.
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The beautiful streets
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Playing with the restaurant owners dogs
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Locals singing and dancing at work

Lhasa is an amazing place!!!
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The temples and monasteries are a start........
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but the Potala palace is something else.
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You could spend days here just hanging with the folks.
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They are all so friendly and beautiful people.
We even got to see the debating monks.
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It took til 22.30pm to get confirmation we’d be on a flight to Kathmandu at 9.40am tomorrow. An medical assistant would meet us and take us straight to a private hospital

Posted by asprey 05:48 Archived in China Comments (0)

Flying over the great Everest.........3 god dam times!!!!

We said our goodbyes to our group for the second time and took the one-hour taxi drive to the airport. We passed a convoy of over fifty army trucks, a reminder of how tense things are between Tibetans and the Chinese. We had to knock on the front door of the international airport (there’s only one international flight per day). By 9.40am all ten (Yes ten) passengers had turned up, boarded the 154-seater airbus and were on our way, just a one hour 20 minute flight to Kathmandu. It was pretty spooky on an empty plane. There were ten passengers, four crew, a captain, a co-pilot, and two air marshalls (for security – after all this is a flight from Tibet).
Forty minutes into the flight Sarah and I both scanned the carpet of cloud. We couldn’t keep our eyes off the view out of the windows. Then Sarah shouted to me “there, that’s it isn’t it?”
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I looked where she was pointing and protruding through the clouds was the perfectly triangular shape of Mount Everest.
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Within a few minutes we were right beside it and the cameras came out. It was beautiful, but bittersweet. We wouldn’t get to stand on the mountain as we’d planned to in ten days time.
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Shortly after the seatbelt sign came on and the engines faded slightly. “Ladies and gentlemen we’ll soon be landing in Kathmandu”.
Two minutes later the engines roared again. I looked up from my book, “that isn’t right”. The captain then announced the plane had technical problems and would be returning to Lhasa. We couldn’t believe it “Lucky luck luck strikes again”. We got another look at Everest.
An hour later the captain walked down the plane and asked everyone to gather around. You can do that when there are only ten of you. “There is a military situation in Lhasa and we have been refused permission to land. We have to go to Chengdu”. That’s nearly twice the distance in the wrong direction.
After landing in Chengdu Sarah walked to the front of the plane and started chatting with the captain. A kiwi woman I was chatting to asked what Sarah was doing. We both watched as the captain pulled out his mobile phone and handed it to Sarah. “Oh my god she’s using the captains mobile phone to ring our insurance company in the UK to rearrange the medical agent”.
The kiwi laughed, “I like her style”. We waited in Chengdu for what seemed like an eternity. They couldn’t let us get off the plane as we’d already got stamped out of the country. We took off at 17.15pm. At 19.00pm we flew over Lhasa airport where we’d boarded seven hours earlier. Eight hours after we’d landed in Kathmandu.
Kathmandu airport looked like a cheap 1970 hotel. Our medical agent Bikesh was waiting for us. He took us straight to the hospital. The doctor stood there, my balls in his hand. “You have mumps, the swelling will go in about three days”.
“But the doctor in Lhasa said it was extremely serious”
He laughed, “Now you know not to listen to Chinese doctors”
I had to agree with him.
Bikesh took us to a half-decent hotel for a well-earned sleep.

Posted by asprey 03:20 Archived in China Comments (0)

Recovery time

Three rest days. We moved out of our 2500 rupee a night hotel when the insurance stopped paying and moved into a 500 rupee a night place. To be honest there wasn’t much difference so I couldn’t help but think Bikesh had a deal going on with the insurance footing the bill.

We both thought Kathmandu was a dump. Piles of rubbish in the street attracted dogs, chickens and rats to fight over the best bits.
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Thamel (the backpacker area) had so many signs on top of signs that you couldn’t actively read any of them. We couldn’t take more than three steps without some tout offering trekking trips, or scenic flights, or guesthouses, or rickshaws, or any other crap we didn’t want. Motorbikes racing past in the middle of narrow streets added to the mayhem. It was fast………crazy!!!

Posted by asprey 03:25 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Doctors

We took an hour walk through Durbar Square in Kathmandu
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and on to monkey temple.

It was similar to the other monkey temples we’d seen in Asia (a temple with lots of monkeys) but it was good to get out of the craziness of Thamel.
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Bikesh contacted us from our hotel for my hospital follow-up. “You are the boy with the big balls” the nurse said as we entered the hospital.
“I’m glad I made an impression on you” I replied.
The doctor stood in his favourite spot with my balls in his hand. “All is very well, swelling has almost gone. Two days more rest and you are fixed”.
Bikesh thanked the doctor and the doctor shook his hand. I couldn’t help but laugh. “Bikesh I’d go and wash your hands now because the doctor hasn’t”.

Posted by asprey 03:26 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

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