Posts Tagged With: Asia

How to plan a trip to Tibet

Planning a trip to Tibet isn’t easy. Firstly, it’s extremely remote and difficult to get to. Secondly, the Chinese authorities seem to want to make it as hard as possible for foreign tourists to visit. This is presumably because the foreign tourists might discover for themselves just how “peaceful” China’s “liberation” of Tibet has been. Therefore, it’s unsurprising that planning our trip to Tibet took far longer and gave me far more headaches than any of my previous trips. With that in mind, I’ve put together this planning guide for anyone who is thinking of going to Tibet.

Step 1: Find a reputable Tour Agency

Independent travel to Tibet is impossible. You need a permit to enter the region and a guide with you, to allow you to get into all the main tourist sites. You might be able to visit the shops in Lhasa by yourself but that’s about it. Therefore, the first step is to find a travel agency. There are Chinese run agencies and Tibetan run agencies. Decide which you would rather give your money to. We wanted a Tibetan agency and were put in touch with Snow Lion Tours, by Lobsang from the excellent Land of Snows website.

Step 2: Decide where you want to go and who with

If you are a solo traveller, the best thing to do would be to join a group. This does obviously mean that you don’t have 100% control over your dates. Due to our holiday times, Janey and I could only go in December, which is the quietest time of the year for foreign tourists. Consequently, joining a group was never likely. It would have been possible for the two of us to form our own group but it would also have been prohibitively expensive. It was after I discovered this that I started my sales pitch to my old colleague Tyrone. He was looking for somewhere adventurous to go in his December holiday period and was instantly captivated by the idea. Successfully persuading him and Virginia made the whole trip financially feasible, as well as provided us with excellent company.

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Step 3: Book your flights in and out of China

After making your booking with the tour agency, you need to get a Tibet travel permit to allow you to get into the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Before getting this though, you need to have your Chinese visa. To get a Chinese visa, you first need to book your flights in and out of China. You could also choose to book your flights / train tickets in and out of Lhasa at this stage. I decided to wait until my visa had been officially approved though.

Step 4: Apply for your Chinese visa

There are many different types of visa for China. At the time of our visit, we needed a single entry L class visa. Carefully check which one you need before you start your application. On the form you’ll be asked to state your itinerary in China. DO NOT SAY THAT YOU’RE GOING TO TIBET. This is a trick that the Chinese authorities play. If you put Tibet on your itinerary, they’ll say that you need a Tibetan permit and decline your visa. Paradoxically, you need a visa to get a Tibetan permit. Therefore, you need to “invent” an itinerary. Do study a map of China and make sure your route is convincing though! For example, our itinerary was BEIJING – CHENGDU – CHONGQING – SHANGHAI – XI’AN.

China Map

We really were flying into Beijing and out of Xi’an so this was pretty realistic. You’ll also need to have your first night of accommodation booked and to provide proof of this. Hypothetically, you could just book something and cancel it at a later date. You just need it for the visa application. To get the visa, you usually need to go to the Chinese embassy and return to pick up your passport a couple of days later. If you don’t live in a city where an embassy is located, you could do what we did and get a local travel agency to sort it out. We used an agency called SAS Travel in Penang. They obviously charged a mark-up but they had the passports back with us within a week.

Step 5: Get your Tibet travel permit

Once you have your visas, send scanned copies of them to your agency, who can then start the application for the Tibet travel permit. This is usually done a month before your intended travel date and takes a couple of weeks to process. Once they have been issued, the agency will post them to your hotel in the city that you’re staying in before your flight to Lhasa. In our case this was Chengdu.

Step 6: Start your journey!

Once you’ve done all of the above, you’re ready to go! Be prepared for one or two little hiccups on the way though. When I arrived at Beijing airport my passport seemed to trigger some sort of alarm. There was a lot of calling supervisors over and making phone calls but eventually they realised that everything was legitimate (apart from the fake itinerary, which I could reasonably claim to have changed) and let me through. At Chengdu airport, we just had to show our permits and we were allowed through to begin our journey to Lhasa.

Now that I’ve gone through the process of organising a semi-independent trip to Tibet, I’m going to try to answer some FAQs about travelling in the Land of Snows


1) Should I or shouldn’t I go to Tibet?

There are obviously powerful arguments against going to Tibet. The Tibetans are an oppressed people and by going there you risk legitimising the Chinese occupation. However, Free Tibet and the Dalai Lama himself, both actively encourage people to to go to Tibet to see it for themselves and make their own minds up. Having been there, I obviously share the latter viewpoint.

2) What is the best time of year to visit?

 It depends. If you want the warmest weather, then go in the summer months between May to September. Bear in mind though that this is the time when “domestic” Chinese tourists flood into Tibet in droves and many of them are not particularly respectful towards Tibetan culture. If you can handle the cold, then December is a great time to visit as the skies are crystal clear and thousands of Tibetan pilgrims descend upon Lhasa, which makes for a great spectacle.

3) What is the best way to get there?

You can fly to Lhasa from a number of cities in China, including Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming and Shanghai. Alternatively, Tibet is now even more firmly linked to China by the railway line which runs from Xining to Lhasa. You can connect to this train line from other cities all round China. Bank on at least 24 hours on the train. If you want to have both experiences, you could do as we did and fly in, then take the train out or vice-versa.20151226_112528

4) Which languages are spoken in Tibet?

Tibetan and Mandarin and that’s about it. You will find extremely little English spoken, even in Lhasa. This is another reason why having a tour guide is a great idea.

5) How much do things cost in Tibet?

Food is inexpensive and, presuming breakfast is included in your tour cost, you can get by on around 50-100 Yuan per day. Entrance to temples usually costs between 50-100 Yuan. The most expensive entry fee we paid was 180 Yuan to the Qomolangma (Everest) National Park. Haggling is accepted but vendors bargain hard and aggressively.

6)Will I get the chance to meet real Tibetan people?

The Chinese rule Tibet with an iron fist but this is one thing that they are more or less powerless to prevent. If you book with a Tibetan travel agency, you’ll stay in Tibetan run hotels and eat in local restaurants, meeting local people in the process. Conversation will obviously be pretty limited but it will still be rewarding.

7) What’s Tibetan food like?

Hit and miss. In Lhasa we had some great meals, particularly hearty stews and curries. Once you get out of Lhasa though, the standard drops drastically. Most meals are incredibly carb heavy with hardly any meat or vegetables on the plate. You’ll also get incredibly sick of eating noodle soup every day. And I really love noodle soup!20151226_143158

8) Is Yak butter milk tea as bad as it sounds?

Most definitely. If anything, it’s even worse than it sounds. However, if you’re lucky enough to get invited into a Tibetan house or monastery you won’t be able to refuse it! The trick is to smile politely and drink in tiny little sips as your cup will be constantly refilled otherwise.

TRAVEL TIPS

For more detailed information about everything to do with Tibet, go to www.landofsnows.com

 

 

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Tibet Days 7-9: Finishing the journey

Day 7

We weren’t at all sad to leave New Tingri, despite another mouthwatering dry chapati and fried egg combo. We got back on the road and our first port of call for the day was Sakya Monastery, which is between New Tingri and Shigatse. I was definitely getting a bit templed out by this point but Sakya offered something a bit different to what we had seen before. In the courtyard outside the monastery, a bunch of locals were parading some seriously mean looking effigies up and down, in preparation for an event that would apparently take place a couple of days later. This was accompanied by the sound of some young monks blowing long, deep horn type instruments. We must have watched them for about half an hour, temporarily forgetting the cold to take in a surreal but memorable experience.

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That afternoon we drove back to Shigatse and a hotel that actually had running water and one of the most welcome showers I’ve ever had. It felt like returning from the wild, which was essentially what we were doing. That night, we were able to get a decent meal and have a belated celebration of the New Year.

Day 8

We had an extremely early start to our final full day in Tibet, as there were still a few things to see and a lot of miles to travel before we got back to Lhasa. First of all, we went to a carpet factory in Shigatse, where we were able to interact with some local Tibetan people and see the results of their labours. Janey and I still had a couple of weeks left on the road at this point though so there was no way that we were buying a carpet to lug around with us though. The factory was an interesting place to visit. However, I do have to question why, in a country as poor as Tibet, 44% of the profits of the factory go to the monastery, and only 28% go to the workers.

After leaving the factory, we had a very long drive back to Lhasa, along the Northern Friendship Highway. This is a misnomer if ever there was one, as it’s not a very friendly road at all. Damdul got into a ridiculous game of tit-for-tat overtaking with a massive bus, that went on for at least half an hour. He then made up for it though by, with very little ceremony or announcement, turning off the main highway and driving into a small village. It turned out that he was taking us to his family house, where we met his wife, grandparents and children. The family seemed delighted to have us there as they insisted on pouring us copious amounts of butter tea, and even posed for a family photo for Tyrone. He later printed this and sent it to them, via Snow Lion Tours. I like to think that it still takes pride of place in their simple but beautiful home.

Later that day, we arrived back in Lhasa and went souvenir shopping round the Barkor. This was one of the least enjoyable experiences of the whole trip. The vendors set ludicrous prices and bargained very aggressively. I appreciate that a lot of these vendors are very poor but by being a bit more courteous and not thinking that all Westerners have bottomless pits of money, they’d have probably made a lot more sales.  Not too long later though, we went to an incredibly hospitable family restaurant where I ate the best meal that I had all trip, which completely overshadowed the unfriendly vendors. That’s the thing with Tibet. It wasn’t always the easiest place to travel but in the end, something always proved that it was worth all the effort.

Day 9

I woke up on Day 9, our final day in Tibet, with no headache. My body had finally got accustomed to the altitude! I had to laugh at this. That morning, we said our goodbyes to Tyrone and Virginia and went our separate ways. They sensibly headed to Lhasa airport, where they boarded a plane to Chengdu and then travelled on to Bangkok. Janey and I had made the decision that, rather than flying, we were going to take the 33 hour train journey from Lhasa to Xi’an. When we were planning it, this seemed like it could be one of the highlights of our seven week trip. In hindsight, what on earth were we thinking?! The best adjective I can use to describe that journey is “character-building.” A day and a half later, with character sufficiently built, we stepped off the train and headed into the city at the end of the Silk Road. Our Tibetan odyssey was at an end.

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Tibet Day 6: Everest Base Camp

The story of our trip to Everest Base Camp really has to begin with where we stayed the night before. There was no running water and no heating. The temperature inside the room was around ten degrees below zero. When we awoke from what little slumbers we had managed, we were “treated” to a truly dreadful breakfast of two dry chapatis sandwiching a fried egg which looked like it had been through a nuclear explosion. The amusing thing was though, this was almost certainly the best hotel in town.

The cold and lack of sleep meant that I wasn’t feeling in the best of shape at the start of what was supposed to be the most auspicious day of the trip. We got into the van and started climbing up the most incredible mountain road. I’m not a fan of the Chinese government’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet but this road is a truly incredible feat of engineering. The switchbacks were insane. When we reached the top of the pass, we were presented with the magnificent sight of Everest, along with four other 8000 metre peaks. All of them are megalithic in their own right but Everest towered over the rest of them. I was struck by how windy it was at only 5000 metres. I looked at the spindrift coming off the top of the great peak and imagined just how brutal it would be at the top. It was about this moment that I made a solemn resolution to never attempt to climb it.

After a couple of hours of driving through some incredibly beautiful scenery we arrived at Rongbuk Monastery. At an altitude of 5200 metres, this is the highest monastery anywhere in the world. We’d been travelling all morning and it was seriously cold so I asked Kalsang where we could eat some lunch. Sheepishly Kalsang said “actually there isn’t anything to eat.” I was incredulous. Pure hanger started flowing through me. What on earth did he mean, there wasn’t anything to eat?!  Possibly out of self-preservation, Kalsang then played a blinder. He managed to wangle us an invite to go and eat with the monks. This was a truly surreal experience. We were in the highest monastery in the world, sitting by a roaring fire, whilst saffron clad monks sat round chanting mantras. To make it even more bizarre, we were served butter tea (this was the only time that I found it palatable) and spicy pot noodles. That unusual combination would come back and haunt me later but it was still an utterly unforgettable experience.

After lunch, we were given the choice to walk from the monastery to base camp but were told it would take around four hours. None of us were feeling fit enough for this so instead we elected to go halfway down the road and walk from there. Finally, this was an opportunity to walk in the Himalaya. I started slowly and got very short of breath. This was easily the highest I’d ever been in my life and it felt like it. Janey, on the other hand, was powering ahead. She’d had an obsession with Everest since the age of seven and was definitely putting mind over matter. The walk took just under two hours. The highlight of it was walking across a completely frozen river, with Everest rearing up in front of us. Just after that, we climbed up a hill to a completely deserted base camp. Clearly, there weren’t many people mad enough to be there on 31st December. Our timing was impeccable because two minutes after we got back into the van, shaking with cold, the clouds moved in and the top of the mountain was hidden from us. We had been incredibly lucky to have had clear views for so long.

Unsurprisingly the rest of the day was a bit of an anti-climax. I felt pretty dreadful on the way back down the winding mountain roads (the aforementioned butter tea and spicy noodles combo may have had something to do with that) and all four of us were far too knackered to see midnight and ring in the new year. However, I can still say, without any doubt, that it was definitely the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had.

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Tibet Days 4-5: The Road to Everest

Day 4

We didn’t have the best start to our fourth day in Tibet. Firstly, our driver Damdul showed up an hour late and hadn’t even filled up the van. Next, I had to pick up mine and Janey’s train tickets (for our onward journey from Lhasa to Xi’an) from Lhasa station. This was a truly horrendous experience. Witnessing the way the Chinese officials treated Kalsang left me in no doubt about which country we were really in. Therefore, I wasn’t feeling too positive by the time we finally left the city. Thankfully, the bewitching lunar landscape quickly improved my mood. After a short time the road started climbing and winding it’s way around mountain passes. Janey and Tyrone were both bemoaning the roadside barriers for getting in the way of their photos. Virginia and I, on the other hand, were very thankful that the barriers were there, especially as Damdul wasn’t exactly the most cautious driver in the world. Finally, we reached the top of the Gamba Pass, at the giddy height of 4998 metres.  The only thing more breathtaking than the altitude was the view of Yamdrok Lake and the snow-cappped mountains behind it.

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Surprisingly none of us suffered from altitude sickness at the top. Drifting off to sleep for a while was a big mistake though. I woke with a truly skull-cracking headache. It felt like my brain was expanding and pushing against the sides of my skill, which of course it was. I used a combination of drugs, breathing techniques and large quantities of chocolate to try to combat it. I was still feeling rubbish though by the time we reached the top of the Karola Pass, at an even higher altitude of 5020 metres. We saw a very negative side of Tibet there. As soon as the van stopped, vendors ran up to and started banging on the windows and waving prayer flags in our faces, in an attempt to get us to buy. I did feel sorry for them but there was no way I was purchasing anything under that sort of pressure. The good news was that in terms of altitude, this was the high point of the day. As we descended the pass, I finally started to feel human again.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the coolest places we visited in all of Tibet. The town of Gyantse was once a Silk Road trading post and you could feel the history there. The highlight was an incredible fortress on top of a hill that caused Virginia to remark “it’s like the opening credits from Game of Thrones.” At the Kumbum Stupa, we could climb to the top, look at views of the city walls and imagine the hardy silk road travellers several centuries ago.

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Night was falling as we embarked on the final leg of our journey for the day; a two hour drive to Shigatse; Tibet’s second city. We went to a Chinese restaurant with no English menu and completely put our trust in Damdul, who played a blinder. The result was a truly delicious meal.  For this reason, I decided to partially forgive him for using his phone whilst driving one-handed down the mountain passes.

Day 5

Day 5 began with the now obligatory skull-splitter. An excellent breakfast of corned beef, eggs and chips, coupled with several ibuprofen made me able to face the day. Our first stop was the Teshilungpo Monastery, former home to the Panchen Lama. It was mostly destroyed by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution (a misnomer if ever there was one) but has since been partially rebuilt. It was an impressive building but it didn’t have anything that particularly distinguished it in the way that Drepung and Sera did in Lhasa.

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After lunch, we drove up the first high pass of the day, Tsola at a mere 4800 metres. At the top, prayer flags fluttered violently in the strong winds. We bought some paper prayer flags of our own and threw them to the wind. I’m not sure what spritual affect this had but it was quite a lot of fun. The next high pass, Gyatsda, was the highest so far, at 5200 metres. Thankfully, my body was finally starting to get accustomed to the altitude but it was the cold that got us up here. To use a meteorological term, it was cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. We didn’t hang around for too long.

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On our way down from Gyatsda, we were treated to our first views of the sub-Himalayas. I had been waiting for a very long time for this moment and it didn’t disappoint. We had been driving for a few minutes after this when Virginia spotted some tall looking mountains and asked what they were. Kalsang casually declared “that tall pointy one is Everest.” Cue all four of us absolutely losing the plot. We hadn’t expected to see it until the next day. Kalsang knew all along and had kept quiet about it. He’d make a great poker player. Later, when we were taking photos at the viewpoint we asked him if he’d ever been on Everest. Just as nonchalantly as before, he told us that a few years ago he was a porter and had climbed to 7500 metres. On numerous occasions. With 30kg on his back and no bottled oxygen. It’s not hyperbolic to say he’s the toughest man I’ve ever met. Sadly, as he was a porter, rather than a Sherpa, he’d never been given permission to have a crack at the summit. It seemed desperately unjust. That night we checked into our hotel in New Tingri, which was so basic that we might as well have been camping in the -13 degree temperatures. It didn’t matter a bit. The next day we were going to Base Camp.

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Tibet Days 1-3: Lhasa

Day 1

Boxing Day 2015. My alarm clock rang at 3:30am. I was not feeling optimistic. It seemed like too many things had been conspiring against us since our arrival in China a few days before. We met our friends Tyrone and Virginia at Chengdu airport. Some months earlier, I had pitched the idea of coming to Tibet with us. They hadn’t needed much persuasion. I was now seriously worried that we weren’t going to get in though. What if the permit wasn’t right? What if the guy at immigration just took a disliking to us? Nervously we approached the desk and handed over the permit. A quick glance from the guard and we were waved through with absolutely no problems. We boarded the plane and all four of us broke out into peals of exultant laughter. We’d all secretly been nursing the same unspoken dread. I’d even gone as far as looking into the feasibility of going to Mongolia instead. The whole airport experience had been impossibly easy though. To add to my good mood, the views from the plane were some of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, or probably will ever see in my life.

Upon arrival at the airport, we were met by Kalsang, our guide from Snow Lion Tours, who would be with us for the duration of our time in Tibet. The good news also kept on coming. My bag, which had gone missing in Beijing three days earlier, had finally been located and was due to be put on the next flight from Chengdu to Lhasa. When we reached the old part of the city, it was like stepping into a different world. The sky was dazzlingly blue and the air worryingly thin. We walked through a market, where hard faced men sat hacking at dried yak carcasses with machetes, to our hotel. The door was covered by a thick Himalayan rug, which we walked through to the most amazing hotel lobby. There was a roaring turf fire in the middle of the room and bunches of pilgrims and saffron clad monks sat around eating momos and drinking butter milk tea. It was everything that I had imagined Tibet to be and more. Later that afternoon, I had a mad dash across town to find my backpack, which had bizarrely been delivered to the Potala Palace bus station rather than our hotel. It made me think of the first time I went travelling when I was nineteen. A bunch of lads from my local pub asked me “Why don’t you just go to Benidorm?!” Times like this are why. I was exhausted and suffering from altitude sickness but utterly exhilarated by the adventure.

Day 2

I woke with my head feeling like it was splitting in half. It had been several years since I had slept at this kind of altitude and my body clearly didn’t like it. At 10:00, we gingerly left the hotel and headed for the Potala Palace, Tibet’s most iconic building. Even though I’d seen it on TV and in books many times before, nothing prepares you for actually seeing it up close for the first time. The building seems to just rise up out of the rocks. Janey had been yearning to see this for 25 years and was predictably ecstatic. After the obligatory photos outside, we started the walk up the steep path to the entrance. Kalsang explained the colour system on the building to us. White symbolises purity and the Land of Snows, yellow is the Sun’s rays spreading Buddhism throughout the world and red means energy.

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Inside, I liked looking at the room where the youthful Dalai Lama had entertained visiting foreign dignitaries, and particularly enjoyed Kalsang’s stories about the sixth Dalai Lama. As well as being a spiritual leader, apparently he was also a legendary drinker and womaniser. Who says those two things can’t go hand in hand?! The Palace is certainly interesting on the inside, but like many such places, in my opinion the true highlight are the views of it.

After a delicious lunch of yak curry and flatbreads, we made our way towards the Jokhang Temple, centre of the famous Barkhor pilgrim circuit. Tyrone aptly remarked “It’s like a scene from National Geographic.” Kalsang explained that whilst for foreign tourists the highlights of Tibet are Everest and the Potala Palace, for Tibetan pilgrims the Jokhang Temple is the most important place of all. The said pilgrims spend all day circumambulating the temple to cleanse themselves of their sins. Some of the really zealous ones prostrate themselves on the floor, recite an incantation, and then get up again and repeat the process, all the way around the circuit. Apparently, they do this up to 500 times. It must be like doing 500 burpees, the worst fitness class exercise of all. I decided that my soul was sufficiently pure for the day and headed back to the hotel for some yak stew and momos. I even treated myself to a solitary Lhasa Beer. It’s not going to win any brewing awards but it’s certainly the most obscure beer I’ve ever had.

Day 3

Day 3 started with me feeling even worse than the previous morning. I’d only had one beer. I couldn’t be that much of a lightweight could I?! Our first stop of the day was the Drepung (Pile of Rice) Monastery, which for me was the highlight of Lhasa. The 40 minute drive out of the city afforded us amazing views of the soaring mountains. I found out at this point that these weren’t actually the proper Himalayas and quickly chose to ignore it. I’d been waiting years to see the Himalaya and was not letting something as small as my own ignorance ruin that. There wasn’t much to see at the Monastery (other than a little annex for elderly monks, nuns and cute puppies where they were using old satellite dishes to create solar power) but it’s the location of Drepung that makes it so spectacular.

After posing for dozens of photos with inquisitive locals, we headed to Sera (Storm Monastery). It isn’t as enviably located as Drepung but it’s still incredibly beautiful. The highlight at Sera was watching an abbot deliver some sort of lecture to a group of seated monks, who then broke out into a low guttural chant that lasted for about twenty minutes.

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Thousands of miles away in the Tropical Spice Gardens in Penang, there’s an iron sculpture that you put your ear up to and “listen to the sound of the Earth.” This is exactly what the monks sounded like. It was an unforgettable experience. Amusingly though, during the chant some of the younger monks obviously got a bit bored and started throwing stones at each other. When they processed out one of the young reprobates gave me a complicit wink. That evening, I felt sufficiently strengthened to actually walk the Barkhor and double the number of Lhasa beers consumed. The next day we would leave Lhasa and our adventure would truly begin.

TRAVEL TIPS

  • We booked our tour with Snow Lion Tours. They are a Tibetan owned company. Wangden, the manager, speaks excellent English and was a pleasure to deal with, throughout the entire long and complicated booking process. http://snowliontours.com/

 

  • It’s unlikely that you’d be able to book your own accommodation in Lhasa but even if you don’t end up at the same hotel as us, I’d recommend going there for some home cooked authentic Tibetan cuisine. It’s called Rama Kharpo hotel and it’s located in the middle of the old town, not too far from the Barkhor circuit.
Categories: Days 1-3: Lhasa, Tibet | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Spending Christmas with the Pandas in Chengdu

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by choice when researching a trip to China. There are sprawling megacities, soaring mountains, arid deserts and ancient ruins. Where does one start? Clearly, we were always going to Beijing and Hong Kong. Janey spent ten years working as an archaeologist so a visit to Xi’an to see the fabled Terracotta Warriors was also essential. Other than these three places, my attention kept getting drawn to Sichuan province. Why Sichuan? Well, the scenery looked stunning for a start. It was also reputedly home to one of the best, and spiciest, regional cuisines in China. Most of all though, it was about pandas. Sichuan is the best place in China to see one of my very favourite animals. Going to China and not seeing them would have been unthinkable, like not drinking beer in Germany or missing Macchu Pacchu in Peru. We had to go to Sichuan.

Sichuan Map
On December 23rd 2015, we boarded a domestic flight from Beijing to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan province. It was one of the more traumatic flights I’ve experienced. Honestly, I’ve got no idea how the man in front of us could spend an entire three hour flight hawking up phlegm. This is exactly what happened though. As it was an evening departure from Beijing, it was gone midnight by the time we arrived in Chengdu. My rucksack did not arrive with us. After the hassle that I’d had at immigration in Beijing, I was beginning to get suspicious. Were these things happening because we were going to Tibet? We would spend the whole of December 24th in the hostel waiting for word of where the bag was. This meant that we missed out on going to see the Giant Buddha in Leshan. Here’s a picture that I didn’t take of it. It’s fair to say that we’ve had better Christmas Eves.

Leshan Giant Buddha
Christmas morning dawned and my rucksack still hadn’t appeared. However, we were both determined to make the most of the day. This was the main reason for our visit to Chengdu. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (or Chengdu Panda Base for short) was set up in 1987 to help combat the sharp decline in panda numbers in the wild. As the name implies, the base has a very successful breeding programme and can share some of the credit for the fact that panda numbers are now increasing again. As the base is located about an hour outside of the city, we organised transport through the hostel and got driven out there with two German girls. Driving out of the city, I felt my spirits plummet. The pollution was horrendous and the outskirts looked indescribably bleak. How on earth could the poor pandas survive if they had to breath this dirty air?
We pulled up at the centre just before 9:00 and made our way in. At this point, our driver spoke to us for the first time. In halting, broken English he pointed at a number on the map and said “Here. Baby. Pandas.” Janey immediately went into some sort of involuntary convulsions. We walked a little way into the park, rounded a corner and there they were! My previously low mood was cured instantaneously. There were about ten pandas prostrated on a platform, munching on vast quantities of bamboo. We stayed there for well over half an hour, mesmerised by how docile and content they were. No wonder pandas are supposedly sexually reticent, they are obviously too busy eating all the time.

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Next was the main event of the morning; the baby pandas. The highlight was seeing one little panda continually trying to climb up a tree. He didn’t quite have enough strength in his legs and kept sliding back down and landing on his backside, He would then go back and try again and achieve exactly the same result. At this point, I thought Janey would either combust or enrol on a rapid Sichuanese and zoology course in an attempt to get a job as a keeper.

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Later, we encountered the red pandas. These are much less well known than their black and white counterparts. They are also considerably smaller and considerably more aggressive. I particularly enjoyed watching one of them trying to take on a peacock who was trying to steal his food. It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Red pandas presumably know this mantra and live their lives by it.
By late morning the park was getting crowded and it was time to go back to the city. Unfortunately, we then had to spend Christmas Day afternoon shopping for new clothes, as my bag still hadn’t shown up. However, it’s certainly not hyperbole or exaggeration to say that the pandas saved our Christmas that year.

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TRAVEL TIPS
For more information about the Chengdu Panda Base, this is the English version of their website http://www.panda.org.cn/english/

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How I learned to stop worrying and love Beijing

I don’t think I’ve ever gone to a country with as many mixed feelings as when I travelled to China in December 2015. On the one hand, I wanted to walk on the Great Wall, taste authentic Chinese food, and most of all, I wanted to see pandas. Conversely though, I was nervous about the pollution and I’d heard all the tales of people spitting on the street and supposedly having no manners. Furthermore, at the back of my mind, there was always the nagging dread that I wouldn’t be allowed into the country, as we’d arranged to go to Tibet, with a Tibetan tour agency. Therefore, on the day of our flight from Seoul, I was a bag of nerves. We were going to be in China for three weeks. What if all the horror stories were true? I needn’t have worried. Beijing turned out to be a fantastic city.

China doesn’t really do gentle introductions but our first couple of hours in Beijing were pretty full on. The first problem was at the airport. My passport seemed to set off some sort of check and the border guard and his supervisor spent around ten minutes looking at it and making phone calls. I had my Chinese tourist visa so all I could think of was that they’d realised I was going to Tibet and they’d decided not to let me in for that reason. After what seemed like an eternity though, I was eventually allowed in to the People’s Republic of China. We left the airport and got our first view of the dreaded haze. It was even worse than we had expected. Apparently, that week the pollution had been so bad, there had been a red alert, which is almost unprecedented even in Beijing. Next, we got completely and utterly lost, whilst trying to find our hostel. Eventually we did find a hostel, but it was the wrong one. This was when things started to turn for the better though. A guy who was working at the hostel we’d arrived at went completely out of his way to walk over a mile to the correct hostel with us. He even carried one of Janey’s many bags. When we got there, I offered to buy him a beer to say thank you. He wouldn’t hear of it. He had just wanted to help. It was an incredibly kind gesture and it made us think that the negative reputation that the Chinese have in many other Asian countries isn’t entirely accurate.

After buying dust masks, the next day we set out to explore the city. Our first port of call was the wonderfully named Temple of Heaven. This is located at the centre of a large municipal park. Walking through the park, we saw groups of old ladies doing Tai Chi and a bunch of middle aged people playing a game of keepy-uppies with what looked like a large shuttlecock. Some of them were extremely skilful and none of them seemed remotely bothered by the smog, it was just a fact of life in Beijing. The Temple itself was spectacular and certainly worth a visit.

Later, we visited another spectacular site. The Birds Nest Stadium and the Aquatics Cube were the venues for the athletics and swimming events at the 2008 Summer Olympics. We’d timed our visit to be there when it was dark, as at night both buildings are illuminated. The effect is mesmerising. Finally, we finished off our first full day by exploring some hutongs. These are a type of narrow street or alleyway, where you can find some excellent shops, cafes and restaurants. They were extremely cool and you could spend hours wandering around and getting happily lost in them.

Day three was the highlight of our time in Beijing. We booked a trip from the hostel to go to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. Everyone has seen the Great Wall on television, and in books but nothing prepares you for actually being there. There are not enough superlatives in English, Chinese or any other language to describe just how awe-inspiring a sight it is. I’ve been to Macchu Picchu, the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat and the Great Wall was the equal of all of them. We took a cable car to get us up to the wall and then went for a walk. Mutianyu is easily accessible from Beijing but is isn’t the most touristy section of the wall. That “honour” goes to Badaling. Because of this, and the fact that we were there in mid-December, there were surprisingly few other tourists on the wall. Overnight, there had been a light dusting of snow, which made the wall look even more stunning. The only downside was that the smog was still visible, more than 60 kilometres outside the city limits. We walked for around an hour tolerating some steep sections, slippery underfoot conditions and one extremely persistent salesman, until we reached the end of the walkable part of the Mutianyu section. Beyond this, the wall is in a ruined state and it wouldn’t have been safe to have gone any further. Interestingly, at this point a lot of people had tied little red bits of plastic in a tree, presumably as some sort of offering designed to bring good luck. It wasn’t the most environmentally sound offering but it still looked pretty cool. To put the seal on a truly memorable day, when we descended from the wall, we ate one of the best meals we would have in all our time in China.

We’d been to the symbol of China. On Day four, we had to go the centre of the Chinese Universe; Tiananmen Square. For many Westerners, Tiananmen conjures up uncomfortable images of the massacre of innocent civilians in 1989. Not going there though would be like visiting Paris and not going to the Eiffel Tower though. We had to see it. From the moment we emerged from the subway, the high security presence was evident. We had to go through metal detectors to gain access to the square and then once on the square, there were large numbers of troops, ready to accost any potential troublemakers or dissenters. From one end of the square the smiling face of Chairman Mao looks down onto the people below from Tiananmen gate. I’m glad that we went there to see it, but it wasn’t always a comfortable experience. It was a reminder that after more than fifty years of Communism, China is still an extremely repressive place and there is little sign of that changing in the near future.

From Tiananmen, we went to the Forbidden City. For most tourists, this is one of the highlights of their visit to Beijing but I was disappointed. Perhaps, I was still feeling subdued after the police state feeling of Tiananmen but it didn’t really enthral me at all. Yes, the buildings are spectacular, but it was extremely overcrowded and we were often jostled out of the way by domestic tourists, who didn’t want to wait a few seconds longer to get the photo that they wanted. My mood was lifted back up by walking through some really trendy hutongs to get to the Drum Tower. There, we witnessed a powerful and visceral drumming performance. It was certainly one of the more impressive live music performances that I’ve seen on my travels, although an Indonesian Guns N Roses covers band may run it quite close.

After the Drum Show, we had to go back to the hostel and pack our bags for our internal flight to Chengdu. Just like that, our four days in Beijing were over. I was worried when we went there but I had certainly learned to love it. In fact, the highest compliment that I can pay it is that I preferred it to Tokyo or Seoul (not Hong Kong though, no big city in that region beats Hong Kong) and I’m amazed to say it; I’d love to go back again sometime.

TRAVEL TIPS

We stayed at Beijing Saga International Youth Hostel. I would recommend it very highly. The staff all worked incredibly long hours but were extremely friendly and had great customer service skills. They also spoke impeccable English. Furthermore, there’s a bar which is great for meeting other travellers and it has an English menu, with a mixture of Chinese and Western dishes.  http://www.sagayouthhostelbeijing.cn/

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Five things you should do in Seoul

If you’re planning a visit to Seoul, there a couple of things that you should know before you go.

  • It’s absolutely MASSIVE.646
  • It’s really difficult to navigate your way around. The subway system is extensive but there are very few signposts pointing out the way to the various tourist attractions.

Put these two things together and the result is that you won’t manage to fit in nearly as much as you think you will. Therefore, I’ve selected five things that I think you really should do whilst you’re in Seoul.

5 – Gyeongbokgung Palace

There are several former royal palaces in Seoul but the biggest and grandest is Gyeongbokgung. If you arrive at the right time, you can see the changing of the guard ceremony. Even if you don’t time it right, you can still get pictures with the traditionally dressed guards before wandering around the palace grounds. The view of the palace, with the mountains behind, when you walk through the main gate, is extremely impressive.

How to get there: Gyeongbokgung station is on Subway Line 3.

4 – Insadong

Insadong is (or is trying to be) to Seoul what Gion is to Kyoto or the Hutongs are in Beijing. In a city where antiquity definitely takes a back seat to modernity, Insadong is a place where you can still find pockets of traditional Korean culture. There are lots of quirky little shops and art galleries to explore. The main attraction is the traditional tearooms and restaurants, where you can get authentic Korean food. We paid 12,000 KRW each for Bibimpbap (rice topped with sautéed vegetables), pajeon (a delicious savoury pancake) and all the accompanying side dishes, including the ubiquitous kimchi. The restaurants in Insadong certainly aren’t cheap, but the food is some of the best in Seoul. Be careful about ordering a kimchi and pork broth though. I’d lived in Asia for two and a half years before eating this and I was completely unprepared for the atomic spice hit that I got. I think my lips stopped stinging about eight hours later.

How to get there: Anguk station is also on Subway Line 3. Insadongil (the main street in Insadong) is a two minute walk from the station. It’s also possible to walk from Gyeongbokgung.

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3 – Escape the city for a day

According to Rough Guides “the vast majority of tourists to Korea get no further than Seoul.” Considering the compact size of the country and its excellent rail network, it seems like a lot of tourists are missing an opportunity. With the exception of Jeju Island, pretty much everywhere in South Korea is accessible in a day trip from Seoul. The most popular trip is to the DMZ, which is the no man’s land dividing the two Koreas. Unfortunately for us, our attempts to go there were about as successful as the supreme leader’s diet. We were reliably told by various sources that we could book DMZ tours four days in advance. However, when we arrived in Seoul, we discovered that all the days we wanted were booked up. If you really want to go I’d recommend booking a couple of weeks in advance. Alternative day trips close to Seoul include Bukhansan, reputedly the world’s busiest National Park, and Suwon Fortress. If you can spare a couple of days though, do what we did and go to one of the many ski resorts that are within a couple of hours of Seoul. Alpensia and Yongpyong, where we skied, are due to host the downhill events in the 2018 Winter Olympics. So we were kind of blazing a trail for the pros.

How to get there: There are buses to Yongpyong ski resort every morning from outside Seoul Olympic stadium. We booked our three day ski trip with a company called Sally Tours, whom I’d highly recommend. They also do DMZ tours.

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2 – Namsam Park and N-Seoul Tower

Namsam Park is an oasis of greenery in the midst of a concrete jungle. The park is pleasant to walk around but the main attraction is the N-Seoul Tower, which gives spectacular views of Seoul’s vast urban sprawl. From Seoul station, it is a ten minute walk to the park entrance. You can then walk up to the top of the hill, where the tower is located. Alternatively, if you’re pregnant, have mobility issues or you’re just plain lazy, there’s a cable car that does the same trip. To walk from the park entrance to the tower, it should take around 45 minutes to an hour. It gets pretty steep in parts so be prepared to get a bit hot and sweaty. Once you get to the top, there’s a plaza area where there are dancers and cultural performances. My favourite was a sword fighting demonstration. There are also a number of shops, including a Teddy Bear Museum, which absolutely delighted Janey. You can then pay 10,000 KRW to go to the top of the tower. This seems steep but the views are definitely worth the admission fee. I also liked the window displays, which showed how far various domestic and world cities are from Seoul. The fact that Pyongyang is closer to Seoul then Busan is seemed to underline the absurdity of the division between the two Koreas. Namsan and the Tower make a great afternoon out and I think it would be particularly appealing to anyone travelling with children.

How to get there: Seoul station is on Subway Lines 4 & 5. Walk out of the main exit and follow the signs for Namsam Park.

1 – Great Taekwondo Demonstration

Taekwondo is Korea’s national sport and one of the world’s most popular martial arts. It is unsurprising therefore, that Kukkiwon, the world taekwondo headquarters is based in Seoul. Every weeknight from 5 – 6 pm, tourists can go and watch a one hour demonstration performance. I love martial arts so I was always going to go. It’s testament to how incredible the show was that Janey, who isn’t really a fan of pugilism, enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. Mixed gender teams of young martial artists demonstrate an incredible repertoire of kicks jumps and throws, showing incredible grace and agility in the process. Interspersed with this, there are a few traditional dance segments, which I think are designed to show how taekwondo forms an intrinsic part of Korean culture. The best part of the performance is when the martial artists break blocks of wood with flying kicks and flips. At the end, audience members are invited up on stage to have a go at breaking one of the wooden blocks. There was no way I was missing that opportunity. I thought I was going to end up flat on my arse but somehow I did it. The kick was true and the wood broke into two pieces. The fact that the wood was almost certainly balsa is entirely irrelevant. At that moment, I felt like Bruce Lee.  It was the perfect ending to a truly memorable experience. Surprisingly, there were only about thirty people in the audience for the demonstration. It might not be one if Seoul’s best known or most popular attractions but, for me, it was definitely the best.

How to get there: Take Subway Line 2 to either Gangnam (yes that Gangnam) or Yeoksam. Kukkiwon is roughly equidistant between the two.

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Ten things to do in Myanmar

Myanmar has an incredible amount to offer to travellers. Ancient cities, unspoilt countryside and some pristine beaches all combine to make it one of Asia’s most exciting destinations. However, it is also a fairly big country with very poor infrastructure. As most visitors only have around 2-3 weeks there, it’s unrealistic to think that you can see all of the country in that time. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Tsipaw, Ngapali Beach and the Mergui Archipelago but it wasn’t possible in my two week timeframe. Based on the experiences that I did have though, I ‘ve put together this list of ten things I think you should do in Myanmar.

10) Yangon Circular Train

The name is a bit of a giveaway for this one. There is a local commuter train that takes a circuitous three hour loop through Yangon’s suburbs and into the surrounding countryside. The attraction is that you see a real picture of daily life in the city, which obviously makes for some brilliant photo opportunities. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole three hour loop, as we did. After a while it starts to get a bit monotonous and it certainly isn’t comfortable. Alternatively, get on the train, travel a few stops and take a few pictures, then get off and take a taxi back to central Yangon.

 

9) Red Mountain Winery

They make wine in Myanmar? Really?! Yes, that was my reaction as well when I first heard about it. It’s true though. Around ten to fifteen years ago, some French and German winemakers set up some vineyards near Inle Lake. Red Mountain, the French owned winery, is just a 40 minute bike ride from Nyaungshwe, on the shores of Inle Lake. What you can do is taste the wine (3000 Kyat will buy you tasters of five of the most popular wines) and enjoy a delicious meal in a stunning setting. We treated ourselves to three courses, a taster set and an extra glass each and it still only come to around 12,000 Kyat each! Don’t expect that much from the wine but it’s perfectly palatable and well worth the ride out of town.

8) Experience a festival

This shouldn’t be too difficult in Myanmar. They seem to happen all the time! The day after we arrived in Yangon it was a full moon festival. In Kalaw, we saw a fire festival. At Inle 3000 monks and nuns were heading to a temple on the lake for an almsgiving ceremony. In Popa, we saw young girls and boys all finely dressed up in preparation for entry into the novitiate. If you do see one of these festivals, you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on. Don’t worry about that though. Just sit back and enjoy the craziness.

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7) Sunset at U Bein Bridge

U Bein is a teak wood bridge that stretches across the Ayerwady River, near the town of Annapura, about 20 kilometres outside of Mandalay. The picture of local people walking across at sunset is one of Myanmar’s most iconic images, right up there with the balloons over Bagan. For 12,000 Kyat you can pay a local boatman to take you out into the middle of the river, from where you can get the best photos. Yes it’s clichéd. Yes it’s crowded, but the classics are the classics for a reason. The photos are amazing.

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6) Innwa

Myanmar seems to have had an incredible number of capital cities in its tumultuous history. The one that served as the capital for the longest though was Innwa, until it was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1839. Today, you can visit the ruins of the city, which are situated on a bend in the Ayerwady River, not too far from Mandalay. It’s actually possible to combine Innwa, U Bein and Sagaing into a single day trip. The ruins are probably small enough to walk around if you can endure the heat. The thing to do in Innwa though is to hire a horse drawn cart to take you around the ruins, for 10,000 Kyat. It takes about an hour and a half in total and you can stop and take as many photos as you like. Be prepared for some extremely persistent salespeople though. One lady actually jumped on her bicycle and followed our cart until we eventually felt so guilty that we had to buy something from her!

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5) Mandalay to Bagan ferry

Travel in Myanmar isn’t easy. It’s still an incredibly poor country and the roads are not in great shape. Overnight trains are supposed to be unspeakably horrific and domestic airlines have rather dubious safety records. So just once, why not treat yourself and travel in a more luxurious way? That’s what we did when we took the ferry from Mandalay to Bagan. It was $42 as opposed to $18 on the bus. I can assure you that it was worth every cent of those extra $24 though. You get two meals and you can order beer, tea or coffee on board. If you like, you can sit up on deck and take in the views. You could snooze the journey away. Or you could do what I did and read pretty much all of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” in the country where it was set. Truly idyllic.

4) Bagan

I wrote about Bagan in more detail here so this is the concise version. There are hundreds of temples and pagodas spread out over a massive plain. They are all pretty impressive in their own right but throw in the spectacular sunrises and the balloon rides (presuming you’re as rich as a Russian oligarch) and you can see what makes Bagan so special.

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3) Inle Lake

Bagan’s main rival for the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar is Inle Lake. Located in Shan State, Inle can justifiably claim to be one of the most beautiful and unique places in South East Asia. The way the locals live their lives on the lake is fascinating. From the standing rowers, to the floating gardens and the stilt houses, the views are constantly captivating. It’s also a great place to just go and relax for a few days. I spent my birthday there. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

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2) Kalaw trekking

What could be even better than Inle Lake? Trekking there from Kalaw of course. For me, this was the highlight of my time in Myanmar. The countryside is incredibly picturesque, the trek isn’t too challenging and you get to witness a way of life that is seemingly the same as it has always been. I’ve done quite a few treks in South East Asia. This was my favourite one. Read more about it here.

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1) Shwedagon Pagoda

If any one place could be called the cultural and spiritual centre of Myanmar, it’s Shwedagon. This enormous golden pagoda is located in the heart of Yangon and attracts pilgrims and visitors from all over the country. The best time to visit is late afternoon for two reasons. Firstly, you have to go barefooted. If you do this in the middle of the day, you will burn your feet pretty badly. Secondly, at dusk (around 6:20 on the day we went there) the lights are switched on and the pagoda appears to change colour. The effect is absolutely spectacular. It’s one of the most impressive religious buildings I’ve ever been to.

 

 

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Bagan

It was 5:30 am, pitch black and freezing cold. We were on a small country road in Myanmar and the lights had just failed on Janey’s rented E-Bike. This wasn’t the start we were hoping for from our trip to Bagan.

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Bagan is Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. Hundreds of temples and pagodas are scattered across a vast plain in the south-west of the Mandalay region. When Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled around South East Asia in 1975 (the trip that spawned the first Lonely Planet book) they declared Bagan to be their highlight of the entire region. For years though it was neglected due to Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation and a devastating earthquake the year after the Wheeler’s visit. Now though the secret is well and truly out. Hordes of tourists are flocking into Myanmar and Bagan is the top destination on most of their lists.

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The most popular thing to do in Bagan is watch the sun rise over the plains, thus illuminating the temples and the hot air balloons that fly over them at dawn. This was how Janey and I found ourselves in our little spot of bother. It was our first full day in Bagan and we’d set the alarm for the ungodly hour of 4:45, to ensure that we’d find a good spot to watch the sunrise. As the temples are spread out over a very large area, you need some transport to get around. Unlike Siem Reap, there are no tuk-tuk drivers waiting around for a fare at 5am. You have to go it alone. Consequently, the most popular type of transport are E-Bikes; noiseless environmentally friendly electric scooters that work on dirt tracks as well as the main roads. Surprisingly for someone who has travelled so much, I’ve never actually ridden a motorbike. There was a misadventure involving a quadbike and a wall in Ecuador, which I’ve always maintained was down to the bike locking up, but may have involved the tiniest bit of driver error but that’s all. Therefore, it was with more than a little trepidation that I got on the bike and tested it out. It was then that I made my first major error of the day. I asked the guy if he had any helmets. The look he gave me was half horrified, half pitying. “What is this halfwit thinking?” he presumably muttered to himself in Burmese. “This is Asia, we don’t do helmets here.” I was crushed. He must have taken me for some sort of Asia freshie, not the gnarled veteran of many Asian campaigns that I like to think I am.

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Nervously, we edged the bikes out onto the road, trying not to think of what my mother would say if she could see me riding without a helmet. In the middle of the night. In a country with notoriously bad roads. Everything went reasonably well at first; we got confident enough to push the speed up to a dizzying 30 kph. Then things started to unravel. We couldn’t find the temple we were looking for and then Janey’s bike light failed. As so often happens in situations like this though, a guardian angel appeared. His name was Lin Lin and he was just cruising around on his motorbike at 5am. We explained our predicament to him and instead of guiding us to the place that we had intended to go to, he took us to a much smaller pyramid. We had it all to ourselves and arrived in time to witness a truly mesmerising sunrise. Afterwards, it turned out that Lin Lin wasn’t just an altruist. He did have some paintings to sell. They were of such good quality though and he had been so kind that we bought two of them. They now hang proudly in the living room of our flat. Thanks Lin Lin!

Over the next three days, we took the E-Bikes all over Bagan and saw as many temples as possible. So now, there’s some advice I’d like to impart to anyone who is thinking of visiting Bagan. Firstly, don’t go chasing particular temples. Bagan isn’t very well signposted and if you do this you’ll just end up getting frustrated as you’ll spend a long time trying to find what you’re looking for. You may even end up with the E-Bikes stuck in thick sand as you’ve gone off track to “find a shortcut.” It’s far better just to ride around and stop whenever you see something that you like, which will be frequently. Secondly, it’s asking a lot of yourself to see sunrise and sunset in one day. Try to spread it out so you see one of each on different days. However, if your time is limited and you really have to choose, go for sunrise. The colours are better and the balloons over the temples are wonderfully photogenic.

Earlier, I said that Bagan was Myanmar’s answer to Angkor Wat. So, how does it compare to South East Asia’s most visited tourist attraction? Thee honest response is it’s great but it isn’t as good as Angkor. Part of this is due to the fact that it seems less authentic. A lot of the temples were crudely rebuilt after the earthquake, meaning that it doesn’t have the same feeling of antiquity. Furthermore, as more and more tourists flood into Myanmar, the local authorities will need to start signposting things better and providing maps that are actually accurate! However, taken on its own merits, Bagan is a highly photogenic and pretty unique place. It’s certainly worthy of its top billing in Myanmar. I’d highly recommend it.

TRAVEL TIPS

You have to pay $20 US to enter the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Once you’ve bought this, you’re free to travel around as much or as little as you like.

Categories: Asia, Bagan, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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