Marek Zmroczek-Sterenberg

Joined January 2016
  • Day78

    Dunhuang and Jiayuguan

    May 15, 2016 in China

    The quirks of the Chinese train system meant that our next stop on the Gansu silk road was at the far western end of the province, further from Lanzhou than our next destination, Jiayuguan. We arrived in Dunhuang after a lengthy sleeper train journey and got picked up from the station by our hostel, which had, like many in China, been bought by non English speakers who were still riding on the previous owners' good reviews from foreigners. The drive to the hostel in the oasis town was beautiful, with views of stunning sand dunes Luckily, a friendly Taiwanese cyclist was there to translate. Once we'd settled into the hostel and had our first showers in too many days, we caught a minibus to the Mogao Caves, the most famous Buddhist artwork in all of China. Entering the state of the art visitors centre, we saw a surprisingly informative film telling the story of the caves' development from small shrines for silk road travellers into elaborately decorated private halls of worship for leading families in the area. We then saw another film, which was a 360 degree view of some of the most significant of the caves, which provided more insight into the changing symbolism of the cave art during different dynasties. After watching both films, we caught a bus from the visitors centre to the cave site. We queued outside the caves, which externally are not particularly impressive as the exterior decoration were mostly destroyed by an earthquake in the early 20th century. We, along with a pair of French tourists, were assigned an English speaking tour guide and we began our tour. We visited around 7 caves, all ornately decorated and often filled with sculptures but sadly not photographable due to their fragility. Highlights included a very early Zhou dynasty cave which fascinatingly combined Chinese and Indian Buddhist art, with Buddha's disciples and angels appearing as males, unlike later more Chinese art that depicted them as largely female while at the center of the cave lay an Indian style stupa. Later Chinese caves also had more prominent sculptures of the 'Happy Buddha' - the fat gold man found in Chinese restaurants, apparently a manifestation of future Buddha rarely found in Indian Buddhist art. We also visited a Tang dynasty cave, which contained a giant reclining Buddha, surrounded by exquisitely carved arhats (guardians), with the cave walls depicting Chinese visions of paradise. While the caves open to the public rotate to ensure the art is not too damaged by light and oxidation, tour groups always visit the small library cave, where in 1901 Aurel Stein bought thousands of priceless manuscripts from the caves' caretaker for a pittance, much to Chinese chagrin even to this day, with many of the manuscripts now held at the British library and other foreign institutions. The tour finished with the Grand Buddha (the only section of the caves that was for public, not private use), in some ways more magnificent than the one in Leshan as the colours had faded alot less, as it was partially covered. Once we'd thanked our very informative tour guide, we caught the bus back to Dunhuang, via the caves' gift shop, had a fairly average meal and then headed to bed.

    Waking up late as usual, we rushed to buy our train ticket for that evening to Jiayuguan at the local train ticket booking office, before catching a local bus to the Singing Sand Dunes. Unwilling to pay an entry fee for what was a totally natural landscape, we attempted to sneak into the dunes, however as we wandered past the camel stables and further and further from the entrance, we began to realise that the dunes were better defended than the US - Mexican border, with miles of high fencing, peppered with frequent motion sensing security cameras which yelled at you if you came close. Defeated, we returned to the entrance and enquired about the ticket price and whether we could get a student discount. Unfortunately we couldn't, and the obscene £15 entry fee was beyond our budget, especially considering we only had time for a few hours there. Admitting defeat we returned to the town centre, where we enjoyed surprisingly tasty local speciality Donkey with Yellow Noodles. We then got a taxi to the train station, arriving with plenty of time for once, for our 5 hour journey to Jiayuguan. The journey was to prove entertaining, with high school kids from a coal mining town near Jiayuguan, along with other curious travellers, quickly surrounded us, asking questions about our lives, with the high school kids translating for the other passengers. Highlights of the journey included; a friendly older man who was fascinated by our passports and foreign coins spontaneously offering me his daughter's hand in marriage; a lovely middle aged guy from Qinghai (a neighbouring, very remote and mountainous, province) who gave us loads of tasty cured yak meat while imploring us to visit his homeland and Theo defeating all the high school students in an arm wrestle. All the attention and photos did grow wearing after a while, so we were relieved when our train arrived in quiet Jiayuguan at around 11pm. We had booked into a cheap business style hotel as there is no hostel in Jiayuguan and luckily our female taxi driver (common in Western China, hardly ever seen elsewhere) knew where it was, so we were quickly rushed along the town's Pyongyang style wide boulevards to a comfy bed with luxuries such as free tea and shampoo.

    Things did not feel so luxurious the next morning when we woke up to a power cut, which sadly also put the showers out of action. We then spent much of the morning trying to find the train ticket booking office, walking along roads lined with shops with generators whirring outside - obviously power cuts are common in this steel producing centre. Eventually, we gave up and coughed up for a taxi to the train station. Train tickets to Urumqi for that evening in hand, we travelled through the identikit Soviet style apartment block suburbs, painted the blue of the local steel company to the Jiayuguan Fort, a large citadel that marked the end of the Great Wall. The Fort had an amazing setting, looking out over endless mountainous desert, although the black fog of incredibly dense heavy industry near the town meant it was best to keep looking in one direction. We strolled along the ramparts admiring the Fort's grand gates, which people exiled from China had been kicked out of in centuries past. After soaking up the frontier vibe of the fort, we stopped by its museum which had some interesting exhibits on the history of the Great Wall. We finished our sightseeing by hiring a taxi driver to take us to the Overhanging Wall, which, though slightly tackily restored, afforded amazing, evocative views over vast desert planes, as well as a Chinese military base swarming with tanks and mobile artillery. Savouring our last steps on the wall, we headed down slowly to our taxi which returned us to town where we enjoyed a tasty meal of Lanzhou fried noodle, before catching our sleeper train beyond the realms of traditional Chinese civilisation, to Urumqi in Xinjiang....
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  • Day74

    Lanzhou & Xiahe

    May 11, 2016 in China

    We arrived mid morning in Lanzhou, capital of elongated Gansu province, a key artery of the Silk Road. We could tell we'd returned to off the beaten track China - there wasn't another westerner in sight. We negotiated a taxi ride to the bus station, a frustrating 1 hour drive along dusty gridlocked streets, with a friendly taxi driver who bought us a breakfast of the Chinese staple we labelled grease sticks - they are essentially long, salty doughnuts with a palpable oily taste. Continuing our marathon stretch on public transport, we caught the bus to Linxia, a 3 hour journey that took us through an area known as the Muslim Mecca for its high population of Hui Muslims. Travelling the bustling roads filled with people in Islamic dress in the blazing sunshine, the only clue that we were in China and not the Middle East were the ubiquitous Chinese characters on signs. Reaching Linxia, we began the last leg of our journey, hopping on a coach towards Xiahe, a town on the edge of the historic Tibetan province of Amdo. The journey took us up winding mountain roads, notable for the vistas of villages with both mosques and Buddhist stupas set against snowcapped peaks. Eventually, we reached Xiahe and walked down the long main street, the architecture becoming increasingly Tibetan as we made our way towards our hostel, run by Tibetan monks from Sichuan. We settled in to our basic but cosy dorm, and then as twilight approached went for our first of many walks around the Labrang Monastery, the town's most famous highlight. Much of the monastery had been rebuilt following destruction in the cultural revolution, but it still remained the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sight in Amdo. Running along the outer wall of the monastery complex was a line of ornate golden prayer wheels which was being circumnavigated by streams of bedraggled elderly pilgrims, keen to spin every wheel. Activity at the monastery was dying down for the evening, but the stroll gave us a glimpse of the grand, very Tibetan monastery buildings and the friendliness of the mostly young monks. With night falling, we headed out for dinner where we had to wait nearly an hour for food to materialise, but when it did we had sour Yak Butter Tea, crispy fried Momo (Tibetan dumplings) and Tibetan festival food, which was similar to creamy Gnocchi. Weary after our long day of travelling, we returned to the hostel and hit the hay.

    We woke up early the next morning in order to catch the 10am English tour of the monastery, needed to enter most of the buildings. Unfortunately, no English guide was available so we had to make do with a Chinese one, so we missed out on a lot of the information about the monastery and the individual halls we visited. Nevertheless, the halls of the monastery were incredibly atmospheric, with the guide opening doors that allowed mystical statues of Buddha and his disciples, as well as incredibly detailed religious art, to emerge from the gloom of the yak butter candle lit temples. Adding to the sense of mysticism were the ever present smell of Yak Butter and the constant march of the Buddhist pilgrims round and round the locked temples, frequently prostrating themselves flat on the ground before continuing their never ending circles. The tour also featured some intriguing and very pungent Buddhist sculptures made of Yak Butter, the only things we were allowed to photograph. The tour ended in the monastery's main hall, large enough to fit it's 1800 monks, where we happened upon a large group of monks chanting in prayer, making an alien atonal sound that further evoked Eastern exoticism. Following the tour, we returned to the hostel for a delicious lunch of yak fried rice, before catching a minibus to the Sangke grasslands, 15km out of Xiahe. We stepped off the bus into a bleakly beautiful valley containing a one road town populated by hardy Tibetans protected from the cold by cowboy hats and decorated balaclavas, giving the village a distinctly Wild West feel. With weather alternating between sleet and bright sunshine, we made our way past out of user tourist yurt camps and into the grasslands, which were vast and fairly barren due to the time of year. Aiming to climb a ridge for a better view of the incredible snow capped mountains that surrounded us, we walked for nearly half an hour across the grasslands, filled with sheep and criss crossed by the occasional fence, eventually arriving at the ridge which had looked very close by due to the incredibly flat grasslands. Ascending the ridge, we steered clear of some fenced off, wild looking horses that had come over to scrutinise us, reaching the top which gave us panoramic views of the grasslands and the mountains that enveloped them. After soaking up the jaw dropping view, and musing that perhaps it was living in landscapes like these that imbued the Tibetans with such fervent Buddhist spirituality, we returned to town for one last wander round the hallowed monastery. We reached the end of the circular pilgrim route around the monastery, giving the prayer wheels a spin as we went, before leaving the tireless pilgrims to continue their endless cycle of circling and prayer. The long day had given us an appetite, which we satisfied at the hostel with our final Tibetan meal, with highlights including Tsampa (Tibetan barley cakes) and more delicious Momo. We sorted out some of our Azeri eVisa application, then settled down for our last night in Tibet.

    The next morning we woke up early for the direct bus back to Lanzhou. On arrival, we had an afternoon to kill before our sleeper train to Dunhuang. We decided to visit the Gansu provincial museum. On the ground floor we enjoyed an exhibition about the Tea Horse Road, a spur of the Silk Road that connected China and India which had run through Tibetan Sichuan, Dali and Lijiang, so provided a lot of reminders of the earlier parts of our trip. On the second floor, we were excited to visit the museum's highlight Silk Road exhibition, however much to our dissapointment it was closed for refurbishment. Nonetheless, the rest of the museum provided passing interest in the form of an interesting exhibition of the province's Buddhist art which piqued our interest in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang and a laughably poor propaganda exhibition on the history of 'Red Gansu'. Once we'd explored the museum, we headed to the night market for an early dinner, where me and Freddie had the interesting experience of eating tasty cold noodles smothered in sesame sauce out of a plastic bag. From the odd looks we got from locals it seemed like we were supposed to empty the bags into bowls, but none were offered or seemingly available throughout the market. I also enjoyed some delicious spicy squid skewers, ubiquitous throughout China, and a delicious cake stuffed with an incredible sweet peanut filling. Savouring the Hui food had left us short on time, so we rushed to the station and caught our night train, where we fell asleep to the train chuntering along the ancient silk road.
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  • Day64

    Pingyao & Xian

    May 1, 2016 in China

    Following a relaxed sleeper train journey from Beijing, we arrived in Pingyao and were picked up by our hostel from the train station. At the hostel, we indulged with an Americano (coffee is more expensive in China than in the UK). Feeling energised, we ventured out in to the Old Town, managing to blag a student ticket to the town's attractions, saving us a tenner. We decided to gain some perspective over the town by going for a walk along its 800 year old city walls, the oldest unrestored section of city wall in China. Walking along the solid stone walls with a view over the a ancient wooden rooftops of the old town was evocative of an ancient China that often seemed lost in the big modern cities, as were the deep grooves from horses and carts left in the cobblestones under the majestic West Gate. Strolling along West Street, we stumbled across the Ringshengchang Bank, China's first consumer bank, which was housed in a magnificent stone courtyard with rooms crammed with opulent Ming furniture and exhibits about the old Chinese banking system, which was centered on Pingyao and brought it considerable prosperity. The Ringshengchang Bank had branches all across China and Asia, as far away as Moscow. We also visited the museum of the armed escort services, which developed to guard the banks' money on the road and featured interesting displays about martial arts, along with some fearsome looking weapons. Towards the end of West Street lay the town's Catholic Church, a decrepit 19th century building that seemed to be a shadow of its former self. Just down the road from it were the town's Confucian and Taoist temples. The Confucian Temple, while featuring a few effigies of Confucius, was largely designed as the examination Hall for the Imperial Examinations, further clouding our opinion of whether Confucianism is an actual religion or not. Opposite was the far more vibrant and popular Taoist temple, which featured ornate wooden architecture, housing quirky shrines such as a courtyard divided between Heaven and Hell with the Hell side decorated with horrific depictions of what life would be like for sinners. It also had a grand hall dedicated to the God of wealth and stuffed with gold statuery, appropriate for a financial centre which still had a 19th century saloon called the International Bankers Club. Exhausted from a day marching along the cobbles while soaking up the almost medieval atmosphere, we returned to our hostel, situated in a historic courtyard complete with old fashioned dorms held up by red wooden columns. Hungry, we left the old town for dinner, ending up at a canteen style soup place where the locals, who obviously didn't get many foreign visitors, were very excited to see us.

    The next morning, after a bit of a lie in in preparation for the hard seat overnight journey we had planned for the evening, we went and hired electric bikes (unfortunately there were only enough for 2 between us) and made our way out to the Shuanglin Temple, an ancient Buddhist temple in the countryside featuring thousand year old sculptures of Buddha and his disciples, exquisitely carved and still retaining much of their colour. Adding to the ambience were the art students sculpting impressive copies of the artwork out of clay. Once we'd had our fill of the sculptures, we zipped around the countryside on the electric bikes for a bit before heading back to town before the batteries ran out. In town, we did a few loops of the city wall before returning the bikes and making our way to the train station for our long and uncomfortable journey to Xian.

    Getting off the train bleary eyed from a fairly sleepless night we caught the bus to our hostel, bumping into a friendly Danish guy Philip along the way. The hostel was pleasant and actually had a few western travellers, which had been few and far between on our trip. Short on time in Xian, we hopped on the bus to the Terracotta Warriors, a journey that proved surprisingly complicated considering the Warriors were touted as the eighth wonder of the world. On arrival at the burial site, we paid the extortionate £15 entry before watching a comically 80s style mini documentary about the Warriors, which nonetheless provided some good background on the Qin Emperor buried with the Warriors who was the first to unify China and is the reason we call the country China in the West. We then proceeded into Pit 3, the smallest of the more than two thousand year old burial chambers discovered so far. In some ways, it was fairly underwhelming, with few complete Warriors and predominantly just dusty excavations. Pit 2 was similar, but larger and with a few Warriors taken out and put on display, which did help you appreciate the amazing detail of these ancient Warriors - every single one has individual facial features. We moved on to Pit 1, which was considerably more impressive with hundreds of Warriors and their horses laid out in a massive aircraft hangar. The sheer number of the Warriors was pretty awesome, as was the fact that they had survived so intact for so long. Once we'd admired the massed Terracotta army, discovered by chance by some peasants digging a well in 1974, we returned to Xian. Back at the hostel, in what was a ridiculous coincidence, we bumped into three guys we'd also bumped into in Kunming, all of whom were friends with David's sister at Bristol Uni and one of whom was the older brother of a girl in our year at Fortismere. After heading to the raucous night market for dinner where we enjoyed delicious cold sesame paste noodles and a slightly odd bowl of spicy giblets, we went out for the evening with the guys from England, which ended up being quite entertaining.

    The next morning, knowing we had yet another sleeper train to catch that evening, we decided to take it easy. We admired the more restored city walls and the historic Drum and Bell towers from afar - they were very expensive to get into before walking towards the Muslim Quarter, a neighbourhood that had been inhabited by Hui Muslims, descendants of Silk Road traders and their Chinese wives, for hundreds of years. The Hui are famous for their food and we really indulged, enjoying an enormous lunch of Bangbang Noodles (spelt using the most complicated Chinese character made up of over 100 strokes) and then Roujiamo (Chinese Hamburger) followed by out of this world persimmon cakes stuffed with a sweet sesame sauce. Our hunger satiated, we wandered out of the slightly touristy food area towards the bird market, where we saw plenty of beautiful songbirds for sale. Nearby, we stumbled upon a junk shop which had some interesting historic niknaks, including an attractive bottle of Mao Tai Baiju from the year Mao died that Freddie bought as a souvenir. After some more souvenir shopping in the quarter's fairly touristy bazaar, we visited the Grand Mosque, a beautiful building combining Chinese and Islamic architecture, with a pagoda for a minaret and ornate carvings in Arabic. We soaked up the relaxed atmosphere in the 8th Century Mosque's Chinese style rock strewn grounds before gorging ourselves on more Hui food in preparation for our sleeper train to Lanzhou.....
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  • Day52

    Beijing

    April 19, 2016 in China

    After an uncomfortable hard seat night train journey, punctuated only briefly by sleep, we arrived into Beijing railway station on a sunny Friday morning. Once we'd made it out of the hour
    horrendously crowded station (it was a national holiday weekend), we got the metro to our hostel, located in an area made up of historic hutongs - atmospheric alleyways from the turn of the 20th century, filled with little shops and cafes, with little traffic. We settled into our hostel, then went for a stroll around our local hutong, visiting the bustling shopping street of Nanluogoxiang, getting lost in the bucolic alleyways and admiring beautiful ivy covered courtyards, often historic artists homes. Eventually, we meandered our way to the Bell and Drum towers, ornate constructions which until the 1920s were the main way of telling the time in Beijing, with drums and bells marking each of the 6 periods of the traditional Chinese day. We decided to scale the Bell tower as it had views of the more impressive Drum tower, and after a short climb up some steps, were rewarded with sweeping views of Beijing's hutongs and across to the Forbidden city. Tired from our train journey, we descended the tower and made our way to the Beihai Lake, which we chilled by in the afternoon sunshine for an hour beside locals fishing, before returning to the hostel for a siesta. Rested, we headed out for dinner, ending up in a local favourite, where we enjoyed amazing fried dumplings, made of a pastry more wheaty than the more rice based cuisine of south China, as well as crunchy fried aubergine and juicy deep fried pork balls. Re energised by our delicious meal, we decided to make a night of it, heading to a bar area near the University, which turned out to be disappointing as it was super overcrowded, probably due to the national holiday. On the taxi ride home from the club, David unfortunately lost his phone, with the search for it somewhat limiting his time in Beijing.

    The next morning we overslept, and so weren't on our way to the Forbidden City until around lunchtime. After standing in a queue for a security check to get into Tiannammen Square for half an hour and passing through the iconic Heavenly Gate with the giant
    portrait of Mao we were annoyed to discover that the Forbidden City had received its maximum 8000 visitors, so was closed for the day. Adding to the tedium, we were forced to walk a ridiculously long way round to leave the area due to the massive security around Tiannammen Square. Keen to make the most of our afternoon, we hopped on the metro to the Temple of Heaven, a park that was essentially a giant altar used by the Chinese emperors for religious ceremonies. On entering the park, we encountered a group of elderly people singing old communist songs accompanied by an accordion, which felt pretty special. We visited smaller beautifully decorated pavilions dedicated to animal sacrifice, before reaching the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, an iconic building featuring ornate imperial insignia supported only by wooden pillars (no nails or cement) and during the opium wars the British army headquarters in the city. Moving on, we visited the complementary vault of Heaven, containing tablets bequeathed by imperial ancestors, used in the solstice ceremonies that took place on the adjacent, huge round altar. We wandered the park as the afternoon drew to a close, before heading back to the hostel where we had a simple meal and then went out, to an alternative club filled with expats where an American DJ dressed as a woman was playing, making for a bizarre but fairly entertaining evening.

    On Sunday morning, we decided to escape the heat of the city to visit the Imperial Summer Palace, famous for its destruction by European troops during the opium wars. Following a long metro ride, we arrived at the Summer Palace, which was as expected very crowded (later we learned it had 500,000 visitors that day). First, we visited little Suzhou, a charming reconstruction of the canal town built to entertain the emperors. Then we made our way further into the palace grounds, climbing up a giant faux Tibetan Buddhist temple, reflecting the religious beliefs of the emperors. Coming down from the temple, we walked among blossoming trees towards the giant azure lake that marked the center of the summer palace. Strolling along the lakeside Long Corridor, we stopped off at various sites, including the breathtaking hilltop temple of wisdom that afforded great lake views, the three storey, intricately decorated stage from which actors entertained the Qing emperors and the glistening marble boat on which the palace's main patron in later years, Empress Dowager Cixi, relaxed. Overall, the palace felt majestic and decadent, and it is easy to see why Chinese revolutionaries weren't too impressed by Cixi's decision to spend the entire Navy budget reconstructing it in the late 19th century. We returned to town via the famous Sichuan restaurant Zhang Mama, where we shared an amazing meal of succulent chicken in peanut sauce, uber spicy Sichuan pepper pork and dry spicy beef noodles in a sesame sauce, as well as many other scrumptious dishes.

    We woke up early on Monday, excited for our big daytrip out of Beijing to the Great Wall. We had chosen to go to Jiankou, an unrestored section of wall that connected to the reconstructed section at Mutianyu, so we would get a flavour of both the ruined wall and the slightly inauthentic reconstruction. We got the bus to the outer suburb of Huariou, where we extremely fortuitously managed to catch the 11am bus to Jiankou, the only bus of the day, just as it was leaving. After getting off at the entrance to the Jiankou Scenic Area, by a big sign saying this section of the wall is closed to the public, armed with the very vague instructions in our guidebook, we went in search of the trail to the wall. 45 minutes of frustrating searching followed, before some locals pointed us in the right direction, up a steep trail marked by red ribbons winding through a pretty pine forest. Eventually the Great Wall rose up in front of us. We clambered over the ramparts, feeling like mongol invaders, and started our walk along the crumbling wild wall. The views from the top were stunning, with the wall stretching as far as the eye could see, while pine forested hills and verdant plains competed for attention on either side. The wild wall featured some incredibly steep sections, so we enjoyed a quick stop for a late picnic lunch at the highest watchtower before making our way down the steepest section of wall towards the restored section. The restored section, while still steep, was much easier to walk on and therefore was a bit more touristy, but as it was late in the day the numbers were not too intrusive. After more incredibly atmospheric strolling along the wall, which made it clear to us why it is considered by some to be a wonder of the world, we descended from the wall as the sun began its slow retreat behind the hills and caught the bus back to Beijing. To complete our stereotypical day of Beijing tourism, we splashed out on dinner at the Jinzun Peking Duck restaurant, where we enjoyed delicious duck that was fattier and less crispy, but far more succulent and delicious than Peking Duck I've had in the UK.

    All too quickly our last day in Beijing arrived. We booked our sleeper train to Pingyao and then retreaded our steps towards the Forbidden City, hopeful that on this occasion we would be early enough to get in. We were in luck, so made the journey through the main gate to the complex, traditionally only walked through by the emperor himself. Arriving in the first of 3 main squares, we were taken aback by the scale of the complex. We wandered through the main halls of the palace, decorated with imperial splendor and with a real feel of historical significance. We moved on to the 3 smaller halls, where the emperor's wife would generally reside, which were equally as sumptuously decorated, before branching off to some side courtyards filled with lesser halls displaying the ornaments of the Qing Dynasty, including fine furniture and a random assortment of gifts from Western ambassadors. Once we'd explored these courtyards, we continued to the end of the complex, with the magnificent North gate defended by two golden lion's surrounded by the tranquil imperial gardens. Wandering back through the complex, taking in the Imperial ambience, we snapped back to the 21st century going through the 2 seperate checkpoints to get into Tiannammen Square. The square is the largest in the world, but feels very sterile due to the security and total absence of anywhere to sit. We strolled the square for a few minutes, admiring Mao's mausoleum, closed in the afternoon, from afar, and then walked to Dashilar, Beijing's traditional shopping area, in search of souvenirs. We didn't have much luck, as the market turned out to mainly sell overpriced tat, but it made for a pleasant pre dinner walk. Following the extravagance of the previous night, we went to Yaoji Chaogan, a very authentic traditional Beijing canteen, visited by Joe Biden last year, where we feasted on the house speciality Pig Liver Soup, as well as traditional Beijing soybean paste noodles, garlic topped deep fried crackers, horseradish-y tofu paste and crispy sweet potato pancakes. Very satisfied, we caught our sleeper train to Pingyao...
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  • Day47

    Hangzhou, Suzhou & Nanjing

    April 14, 2016 in China

    After a zippy high speed train journey, we arrived in Hangzhou, known as one of China's most beautiful cities, in the early evening. We caught the metro to our hostel and then quickly headed out for dinner near the town's famous West Lake. We ended up having a lovely local meal, with the highlight being a whole duck, cold but cured with delicious salt and spices, before heading back to the hostel and eventually to sleep.

    The next day we woke up late, so had to hurry to the 'Citizen Service Centre' where we needed to set up our smartcard to use the city's Boris bike scheme, the most extensive in the world. Soon we were off, cycling in the direction of West Lake. At our first stop we took in sweeping views of the lake, surrounded by pagodas and containing two islands connected to the mainland by causeways. Further round the lake, we arrived at the first island, where we visited the serene ruins of the first Qing emperor's summer palace, situated in a hillside park overlooking the lake. The park also contained the tomb of a famous Tang dynasty poet who became a recluse on the island, giving us an insight into the lake's literary and artistic influences. Leaving the park, we strolled down the weeping willow lined causeway, before hopping back on our bikes. We leisurely cycled round the lake, eventually reaching the next causeway, which was clogged with people but still incredibly scenic. Our final stop round the lake was in some beautiful gardens, filled with carp ponds and stunning blossoming trees. Tearing ourselves away from the bucolic beauty of the gardens, we cycled round the rest of the lake and back into town. Once we'd had a rest after our day of cycling, we met up with Zhu Ruoxi, a student friend of one of Mum and Dad's colleagues, who very generously treated us to a divine dinner, where we were joined by a couple of her friends. We feasted on melt in your mouth pork belly; sour and spicy prawns; sticky date cakes and best of all succulent Hunan style fish heads. After bidding fairwell to Zhu Ruoxi, we went out, ending up in a club full of super rich Chinese where we were given a table and free bottles of Hennesey cognac, which didn't bode well for getting up early the next morning to go to Suzhou.

    Feeling incredibly grim, we dragged ourselves out of bed on Wednesday morning and after a lengthy journey stuck in traffic, arrived at the bus station, where we got the bus to Suzhou, the Venice of China, famous for its canals and gardens. We arrived at around 2pm and rushed into town, keen to visit the local museum and one of the most highly rated gardens before they closed. First we headed to the Suzhou museum, which contained some fascinating Buddhist artefacts recovered from local pagodas and some beautiful local pottery. But the main highlight was the building itself, designed by IM Pei as a modernist take on a Suzhou garden, complete with indoor water features, ordered geometric designs and a futuristic yet tranquil pond filled central courtyard. After marvelling at the modern architecture, we visited one of its inspirations, the Lion's Grove Garden, built in the 1360s by a Buddhist month. Appropriately, it felt extremely zen, with mesmerising rock formations, carefully manicured plants and ornate wooden pavilions creating a very relaxed atmosphere. After strolling around the garden for an hour or so, punctuated with plenty of breaks overlooking the placid central lake, the garden closed and we wandered down the attractive, albeit clearly reconstructed, canal lined streets in search of dinner. We eventually found a pleasant canal side restaurant where we enjoyed a simple twilight meal, before making our way to the train station for our nighttime high speed train to Nanjing. We arrived late in Nanjing and took the metro at our hostel, which bizarrely had a ludicrously expensive Belgian craft beer bar attached but was conveniently located in the touristy Confucius Temple area, a shopping district on the site of a giant former temple - very Chinese.

    We woke up slightly later than planned (as usual) and, with only a day in Nanjing (China's former capital and site of the WW2 rape of Nanking), hurried to our first sight of the day, the Jiming Temple. The temple was not as impressive as the Tibetan temples we had seen, but still featured some attractive Buddhist architecture and an ornate pagoda, as well as a constant flow of worshippers which added to its authentic feel. Round the back of the temple was one of the city's iconic landmarks, the intact Ming city walls, the longest in the country not to have been significantly rebuilt. Our walk along the wall in the spring sunshine, with the pristine Xuanwu lake on one side and the modern city foregrounded by trees on the other, proved particularly enjoyable, with the stone walls dotted with Ming dynasty cannons evoking a long lost China. After meandering along the wall for around an hour, we climbed down the ramparts to catch the bus up the nearby hill to Sun Yat Sen's mausoleum, passing the Ming Xiaoling Tombs which due to lack of time and money we had to skip. Sun Yat Sen's mausoleum was thronged with visitors, understandable as after Mao he is considered the father of the nation, due to his founding of the Republic of China, although the government's promotion of his legacy is somewhat confusing as he was part of the KMT, the communists' civil war rivals. Perched on a hill, up steep steps designed to evoke the nearby Ming emperor's tomb, the mausoleum loomed above us. Forcing our way through the crowds, with a few photos taken of us along the way, we clambered up the steps to the entrance of the mausoleum, where even the sheer numbers of people couldn't detract from the reverential atmosphere. Entering the tomb, we saw the simple yet striking white statue of Sun Yat Sen, below a beautiful ceiling carved with the rather attractive blue and white Republic of China flag. After walking round the statue in silence we left the mausoleum, to sweeping views of the forested mountain below, which we contemplated for a while before descending the steps and returning to the city center. With some time to kill before dinner, we relaxed in the park housing the ruins of a former Ming palace, along with old people playing cards and practicing their ballroom dancing. We then enjoyed a meal of Bibimbap after our preferred restaurant, a local favourite situated in a luxury shopping mall, had an hour wait for a table and then made our way to the train station for our hard seat night train to Beijing. It proved to be as uncomfortable as it sounds, with most of us only getting a few hours sleep on our 10 hour journey, crammed into clusters of 3 seats opposite each other, with the train totally full due to it being a national holiday weekend...
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  • Day40

    Shanghai

    April 7, 2016 in China

    We arrived on our high speed train from Wuhan into Shanghai at 7ish on Friday night, after frantically phoning around to find a hostel as everywhere seemed to be booked up for the weekend. Luckily we found somewhere, so after buying a very good value 72 hour metro card for around £4.50 we set off for the hostel, which luckily was fairly centrally located. After ordering 96 dumplings between us for dinner, we tried to make a night out of it, buying Baiju (rice wine) and mixing it with Fanta and Sprite as recommended by our hosts in Yangshuo, but we couldn't totally get rid of the horrible taste, and heading to a club recommended online. It was essentially a fancy cocktail bar, so we quickly moved on to another club which was in a cool former air raid shelter, but sadly was fairly empty, so gave up and caught a taxi home.

    The next morning, nursing hangovers and looking for lunch, we travelled to the French Concession in search of a famous Shanghai restaurant, but sadly it was closed. Fortunately across the street was a Muslim restaurant where I enjoyed some delicious Mongolian beef fried rice, which gave us the boost needed to further explore the French Concession - visiting Tianzifang, a touristy but fun maze of souvenir shops in traditional Shanghai alleys, which you could imagine were in the past filled with opium dens and gangsters. After buying a few souvenirs we hopped on the metro towards Shanghai's iconic riverside, known as the Bund, which was lined with stunning art deco buildings and a huge riverfront promenade. We strolled along the promenade as the sun went down, enjoying views of the Bund itself and of the financial district of Pudong, dotted with skyscrapers (including the world's second tallest), with the bright lights juxtaposed with a giant communist monument to the revolution at the end of the promenade. After soaking up the atmosphere for a while we went in search of dinner, via the 5 star Fairmont Hotel, which was a beautiful art deco building with a 1930s interior which we explored as far as we could. We eventually found Yang's Dumplings, a famous Shanghai chain which specialised in delicious fried dumplings, the best dumplings of many we've had in China. After dinner we returned to the hostel, before heading out to a club recommended to us in Hong Kong known as the mansion. It is notoriously hard to find, so we got a taxi driver to drop us off in the general area and bumped into some fellow partygoers, students in Shanghai who included a Tajik and a Kazakh. We eventually found our way to the club, through a little hatch in a wall and ended up having a great evening of socialising and dancing, leading to us only getting back to the hostel by about 5am.

    Waking up very late and feeling a little worse for wear, we attempted to make the most of our afternoon, heading to the Shanghai Museum, which took us a while to find despite it being shaped like a massive gold Chinese traditional cooking pot. The ground floor of the museum featured the Bronze collection, which had Chinese bronzes dating back 5000 years, with a pot decorated with Yaks a particular highlight. Also on ground level was the sculpture gallery, which had a number of beautiful pieces, including an amazing stone carved with 1000 tiny buddhas and a statue of the Buddhist female icon Guanyin, depicted strikingly similarly to the Virgin Mary. We moved on upstairs to the ceramics gallery, which had some attractive Tang dynasty multicolored pottery figurines of camels and dancing ladies, but was otherwise less impressive than most Chinese porcelain we see in the West. Adjacent was the painting and calligraphy galleries, which featured interesting information on the development of the Chinese script and beautiful paintings, often vertical landscapes, which reminded us of the mist shrouded mountain scenery of Emei Shan. Pressing on, we visited the Jade gallery which was fairly dull, followed by the coin gallery which mostly consisted of hundreds of traditional Chinese coins which were just identikit round coins with square holes, although there were some interesting silk road coins. The final gallery focused on Ethnic Minority Crafts and was particularly interesting, featuring ethnic minority dress from across the country and other artefacts including Uighur knives and creepy Tibetan opera masks. Tired out and overly cultured, we lowered the tone a bit by having dinner at the McDonald's near the hostel before getting an early night.

    Still tired from our weekend exploits, we woke up late on our last day in Shanghai and made our way once more to the French Concession, where we searched for and eventually found the Shanghai Propaganda Art Center, a museum located in an apartment block basement, apparently due to its somewhat sensitive subject matter. The museum turned out to be a treasure trove of amazing original posters. It took us on a chronological journey starting with art nouveau style posters of femme fatale 'Shanghai girls' from the hedonistic Republican period, followed by early 1940s and 50s socialist realist propaganda extolling the virtues of the simplified alphabet an industrialisation, with it often being the same artists behind decadent adverts in the 1930s and communist propaganda in the 1940s. The posters helped tell the story of China under Mao, often criticising the US and supporting North Korea, while purges were reflected by different editions of posters having different politicians removed. While the poster as propaganda declined after Mao, there were still a number extolling the wonders of Chinese technology. What made the museum more amazing was the fact that later Chinese leaders ordered all propaganda posters destroyed, so they are generally very rare. We were so impressed by the museum (and felt we needed something to remember it by as photography was forbidden) that we each bought ourselves a print of a poster a souvenir. After a fun afternoon in the museum, we returned to the hostel to collect our bags before our train journey that evening to Hangzhou....
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  • Day34

    Chengdu & Wuhan

    April 1, 2016 in China

    After an early first night in Chengdu following our long day descending Emei Shan and visiting the Grand Buddha, we woke up and quickly hopped in a Taxi towards the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base. I was initially skeptical about how much I'd enjoy the base, but any doubts vanished when we saw the first of the pandas, lazily sitting and munching on huge piles of bamboo. We spent a few hours looking at all the different Giant Panda enclosures, with the highlight being the adolescent Panda enclosure, where 3 pandas kept us and other tourists captivated by their playfighting and stealing food from each others mouths. The Panda Base seemed to provide a good environment for the pandas, with lots of space, evidenced by the rapidly growing Panda numbers in the park. The park also featured the less impressive Red Pandas, which looked similar to foxes and are also known as firefoxe, but lacked the cuteness factor of the Giant Pandas. After tearing ourselves away from the Pandas, we felt like relaxing so we caught a bus to the People's Park, an attractive green space in the town centre filled with old people dancing and famous for its teahouses. We ended up picking the 19th century He Ming Teahouse, where we enjoyed sipping Oolong and sweet Chrysanthemum tea on a riverside patio, surrounded by locals playing cards, scoffing seeds and getting their ears cleaned with alarming looking instruments. Just before we were about to leave for dinmer we were accosted by a friendly but slightly overbearing Chinese man who used to work for Diageo keen to practise his English, who told us some interesting tidbits about Chengdu and Chinese culture in general. Eventually we were able to escape to dinner, which had to be Sichuan food. I had succulent and very spicy Guizhou chicken, and we all agreed it was one of the best meals of the holiday, however it was somewhat soured as we had to have a row with the restaurant as it turned out the prices on the English menu were lower than the actual ones, so in the end we walked out after only paying the English menu price. After the stress of the restaurant, we decided to go out for the evening, ending up in a club full of foreigners, a shock to the system after a week in which we'd seen about 5.

    Feeling a little worse for wear, we had to get up fairly early for our 9 hour cross country high speed train journey to Wuhan, which took up most of the day. We arrived in Wuhan in the evening, checked into a hostel and headed out for what turned out to be a delicious meal of local cuisine, including delicious salty river fish and a melt in the mouth spicy aubergine dish, before getting some sleep ahead of another day dominated by travel.

    I woke up earlier than the others on Friday, keen to see a bit of Wuhan before our lunchtime train to Shanghai. I walked down the pleasant tree lined streets near our hostel, eventually arriving at a street famous for its breakfast dishes, where I purchased delicious hot and dry noodles, which were spicy with a lovely texture and plenty of peanut paste. After a filling breakfast, I visited the town's Taoist temple, which was fascinating with statues of Gods dedicated to wealth and good luck, a weird luxury hotel complex and locals doing Tai Chi. After that, I hurried back to the hostel in order to catch our train to Shanghai...
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  • Day31

    Emei Shan & Leshan

    March 29, 2016 in China

    After an early start in Kangding and a marathon 8h bus journey, mostly following a beautiful river valley, but luckily for our backs aong a motorway we arrived in the late afternoon in Emei, where we had booked a room at the town's only hostel, with a bizarre Teddy Bear theme. Tired after our week of exhausting journeys, we relaxed playing cards in the hostel and planning our hike up Emei Shan - one of Chinese Buddhism's four holy mountains, before heading out to our first dinner in Sichuan proper, which featured incredibly spicy pickled pepper pork and delicious tomato tofu.

    The next morning, we were woken up by the sound of hammering rain, apparently a common occurrence in this part of Sichuan. Undeterred, we put on our waterproof trousers and jackets, left our rucksacks at the hostel and headed to the mountain bus station, where we paid the extortionate mountain entrance fee. As we only had a day and a half to scale the 3200m mountain we cheated a little bit, getting a bus to Leidongping two hours down from the summit. We followed the trail of Chinese tourists to the walking path, along which we soon encountered one of the mountain's packs of very confident monkeys, which were lapping up the attention and more importantly food provided by the visitors to the mountain. After watching the playful monkeys for a while we pressed on up the path, which quickly became quiet and shrouded in mist and light rain as the Chinese tourists turned off towards the cable car. Passing a number of small temples along the way, some touristy and some simple and real-feeling, we eventually reached the golden summit, which was topped by a magnificent gold statue of the mountain's protector goddess that periodically drifted in and out of the mist. After exploring the atmospheric misty summit and having a much needed snake, we began our descent. Once we'd got past the main summit trail, it seemed like we were the only ones on the bamboo lined, sometimes ice covered mountain path. After destroying our calves climbing down what felt like a million steps, passing more ethereal fog shrouded temples along the way, we arrived at the Yuxian Temple (1700m) where we chose to spend the night. Included in the room price was a delicious and hefty vegetarian meal of rice with marinated bak choy and cabbage. After savouring our first vegetarian meal of the trip, we returned to our cosy but austere wooden room, where I fell asleep before 8pm, the earliest I'd done so for at least 10 years.

    We woke up at 9ish the next morning and quickly continued down the mountain, briefly interrupted by a particularly aggressive group of monkeys that attacked Theo and stole food from his bag, as we had a lot planned for the day. The contrast with the previous day was stark, with most of the fog receding leaving sweeping views of the surrounding area and glorious rugged mountain scenery. After descending through lush green bamboo forest we reached the Wannian Bus depot at around lunchtime, from where we got the bus to Emei, collected our luggage and then made our way to Leshan on yet another bus. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we hopped in a taxi to the Giant Buddha itself, where we dropped our rucksacks at a left luggage, before ascending through the Buddha complex past historic fountains and statutes of Buddha's companions, before arriving at the top of the magnificent 70m Buddha, the largest in the world, carved into the cliff edge overlooking a river. After contemplating his head, which was still painted despite being over 1000 years old, we chambered down the stairs behind him past ancient Buddhist rock carvings, before reaching a riverside viewing area where we were able to gaze up at him. To give an idea of his scale, his toenails were bigger than a person. After enjoying the majestic Buddha from below, we left the park area and headed to Chengdu, where we arrived late, exhausted and excited to see pandas the next day..
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  • Day26

    Tibetan Sichuan

    March 24, 2016 in China

    We hopped on the first of many early buses in Shangri-la on the way to Xiangcheng. The bus journey took us over amazing mountain passes above 4000m, along narrow winding dirt roads lined with snow and ice and through increasingly Tibetan villages. After an 8 hour journey made bearable by getting some sleep and the amazing scenery we arrived into a valley lined with beautiful Tibetan style brick houses, where after a police search of the bus and everyone's luggage, ostensibly for drugs but we were later told probably for weapons in a town that had heavily resisted the 1950s Chinese invasion of Tibet, we arrived in Xiangcheng at around 3pm. We quickly found the crumbling hotel where we were to spend the night, then wandered through town up to the fairly low key Tibetan monastery, getting plenty of hellos as well as curious stares from schoolkids and cowboy hat wearing Tibetans along the way, giving us the impression that foreigners were a fairly unusual sight. After a bog standard meal of noodle soup we went to bed, knowing we had another early start (6am) to catch the bus to Litang.

    After an even more dramatic bus journey over passes approaching 5000m, we arrived at chilly Litang, which at 4000m is one of the highest inhabited settlements in the world. The town was one of the most beautiful I've ever visited, surrounded by majestic grey towering mountains and bleak but stunning plains dotted with yaks. After searching for a hostel, we phoned one from the guidebook which turned out to be an excellent choice, charging just £2 a night but welcoming us with delicious Yak Butter Tea and essentially providing us with a free personal chauffeur, useful in the snowy weather. All it was missing was WiFi, because the Internet for the whole town had been cut off by the government for the past month for unclear political reasons, an idea that was reinforced by a heavy police presence and vast convoys of army trucks that trundled through the town. After finishing our Yak Butter tea and seeing our attractive Tibetan style but unheated room, we got a lift to the town's monastery, the most important in the whole of the historic Kham province of Tibet. The monastery felt particularly real and untouristy, filled with monks chanting and going about their daily lives, including plenty of child monks playing in the street all of whom were very friendly. Particularly fascinating was a hall devoted to the current Dalai Lama, bete noir of the government due to his political leadership of Tibet. Descending from the monastery we arrived in the charming old part of town, with dirt tracks with mountain views running between Tibetan homes. In the old town we tried to visit the home of the 7th Dalai Lama, and while the guardian initially seemed reluctant, an old lady who seemingly spent her day circling the house spinning her handheld Buddhist prayer wheel persuaded her to let us in. The creaky wooden house from the 18th century felt truly old and unreconstructed and was filled with simple shrines to previous Dalai Lamas. After strolling back to our hostel through some wintry sunshine we got another lift out into the sublime mountain framed grasslands, where we enjoyed the local hot springs, essentially big baths housed in grungy cubicles, which did feel therapeutic, especially combined with short blasts outside in freezing temperatures admiring mountain vistas. After the hot springs, we returned to town where I ate a delicious potato pancake, before heading back to the fairly icy hostel to sleep in long johns under an electric blanket before yet another early start.

    Bleary eyed after 3 days with inadequate sleep, we got a final lift from our hostel chauffeur to the town bus station, where we caught the bus to Kangding, the largest city in the region. Yet again we traversed amazing mountain passes, glimpsing the 7500m Gongga Shan, before a steep descent to the city of Kangding, which was picturesquely stretched along a steep river valley. Arriving at our hostel after finally getting up a very steep hill felt like a bit of a return to civilisation as it had western toilets and hot showers, and had facilities such as laundry which we seriously needed. After doing some washing, we walked along the side of the valley to visit the town's two temples, where we saw some attractive Buddhist art and an impressive hillside stretch of prayer wheels. Hungry after a long day travelling, we went back into town and ate at a Tibetan restaurant, enjoying a delicious 'Yak Burger' which was actually a yak stew topped with bread, along with some Yak Momo. The next day, we had a much needed lie in and spent the early afternoon doing admin like buying bus tickets, before attempting to visit the local Tibetan museum, which unfortunately was closed unexpectedly. We returned to the hostel and decided to climb Julian Shan behind it. The hostel teamed us up with a friendly German hippie who enjoyed picking up litter - a mammoth task in China. After getting a bit lost and clambering over terraces of what seemed like mini Christmas trees, we finally got on the proper path up the side of the valley through a forest, reaching the grasslands which had magnificent mountain views and were filled with grazing yaks. After enjoying a bottle of £1 Chengdu red wine that tasted like grape juice, we descended from the grasslands, bidding farewell to our German friend and going to unwind at the hostel after a tough hike. Me and Theo indulged in some French fries, before heading out for a dinner of some standard Muslim food, after we failed to find a Tibetan place recommended in the guide. We then attempted to enjoy the local nightlife as it was Saturday night, but the options were somewhat lacking so we gave up and went to bed before our final mammoth bus journey for a while - to Emei Shan.....
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  • Day22

    Tiger Leaping Gorge & Shangri-la

    March 20, 2016 in China

    After 2 days in touristy Lijiang we hopped on the first of many early bus journeys, on this occasion for the 2 hour trip to Qiaotou, the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. After leaving our rucksacks at Janes' Guesthouse, we began the trek. After walking for a few kilometres up a road, we got to the start of the High Trail of the gorge and the first of our magnificent views of the gorge, carved by the Yellow River and named for the mythical Tiger that leapt across the rapids. The trail quickly became incredibly steep, more suited to the yaks dotting the hillside, with the hard slog only interrupted by the occasional old lady who sold anything from water to snickers to ganja. We got over the first major hill and reached the first village, which was slightly blighted by the sight and sound of a giant dam building project nearby. We pressed on, eventually reaching the 28 bends which the guidebook had labelled the most challenging part of the trek. The steep winding bends were unrelenting, but the view at the top - the highest point in the gorge, was amazing. After contemplating the stunning mountain scenery, while enjoying the solitude - we only encountered 5 other walkers during our whole trip to the gorge - we made our way down further into the gorge, where we stopped at the Halfway Hostel in Bending for the night. After eating a delicious Naxi vegetable sandwich, we did a bit of stargazing on the roof terrace, surely one of the only places in China not blighted by light pollution before heading to sleep, knowing we had a trek to the bottom of the gorge ahead of us in the morning.

    We got up fairly early and carried on walking, until after a fairly tricky descent we reached Tina's Guesthouse, the hostel closest to the bottom of the gorge, from where we took about an hour to reach the Tiger Leaping Stone. After admiring the rapids for a while, we chambered up the sides of the gorge, with the help of a couple of rickety and vertigo inducing ladders, ready to catch our bus from Tina's to Shangri-la. I was exhausted by this point so slept for most of the 3 hour bus journey, but the landscape was clearly becoming more arid and mountainous and the police presence more palpable as we headed into the historic Kham province of Tibet. We arrived into town in the early evening, with it noticeably colder here at 3200m than in the gorge, purchased our bus ticket to Xiangcheng for the day after next and then got a taxi to our hostel. On our arrival, we were surprised to learn that the police had imposed an 11pm curfew on foreigners, apparently due to a number of assaults. Trying to make the most of our curtailed evening, we headed into the refreshingly quiet wooden old town, which had largely been destroyed by a fire in 2014. We quickly arrived at the town square, where locals in Tibetan dress and cowboy hats were doing mass public dancing to Tibetan folk songs. After watching for a while, we went on a search for a restaurant, and were quickly asked by an intriguing Tibetan family who we had heard speaking English among themselves if we needed any help, so we asked for a restaurant recommendation. They directed us down a dark alley, at the end of which was a street largely under construction except for one second floor restaurant. We were warmly welcomed by the owner Dashi up into the cosy wood panelled dining area where he made us feel at home warming up the stove and chatting, telling us the curfew was an attempt to portray Tibetans as rough and dissuade independent tourism in the region and suggesting a cycle route for the next day. He and his wife then cooked us an amazing dinner, including a pasta dish made of barley flour, yak cheese and honey and a huge pile of Yak Momo (Tibetan dumplings). After a hundreds of cups of tea, we strolled back to the hostel, tired from the incredible amount of exercise we'd done in the gorge.

    We woke up late and headed to the nearest bike rental place, where we paid £2 each for bike that turned out to be pretty sketchy - Theo was stuck in 1st gear all day. We cycled out of town uphill, which was fairly tricky due to the altitude and then emerged onto an arid plateau dominated by a dried up lake which was barren aside from the occasional grazing yak. We cycled around the pristine but almost deserted lake road, stopping to climb a hill covered in prayer flags. We had no map so were unsure whether to attempt a loop of the whole lake or head back. In the end we went for the loop, a decision rewarded by our eventual arrival at a bit of the lake that hadn't dried up, which was inhabited by beautiful swallows and cranes. We were fairly exhausted by this point and still had to cycle up the hilly motorway into town. David and Theo were too exhausted, but to avoid spending too long among the trucks on the main road me and Freddie decided to take a dirt track down from the motorway towards the gleaming Songzanpilan tMonastery. We couldn't get many good photos of the monastery as it is bad luck to photograph Buddhas and the light wasn't great as it was already around 6pm, but it was extremely beautiful, particularly one hall which contained an especially serene looking giant silver Buddha. Having covered nearly 50km by this point, we were grateful that the ride back into town was mostly downhill, but it was made a bit more difficult by Freddie having a puncture. We eventually made it back into town and were glad to be able to return to Dashi's for some more delicious Tibetan food and interesting conversation, before heading back to the hostel for an early night in preparation for our super early bus ride to Tibet...
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