RADventure: Short and Sweet Romance with China (May, 2017)


Why Travel .....
It whirls you around, turns you upside down and stands everything you took for granted on its head.   
We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. 
We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world.  
We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. 
And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again ....  and fall in love once more.
....... PICO IYER (Why we Travel)  

Ever since our daughter (Ahana) setup base at California, she had been prodding us to come and spend time with her at San Jose, CA. The thought of 14 - 16 hours transcontinental flights are a nightmare and thus a big barrier for such a trip. While I can happily drive for 12 - 14 hours, the thought of being stuck to an oxygen starved, unwieldy chair, staring at a 6"x 6" screen called 'entertainment', with some insipid food thrown in, is nothing but torture. When Ahana's nudges became more serious and frequent, I realized, we had to do something about it. Thus, began my research to discover the best way getting into US. 

Peeping thru my reading glasses for hours together, pouring over numerous travel blogs, I concluded ...... a stopover at China in our pursuit of the west would be exciting and fulfilling. 

China's iconic landmark .... (approx 80,000 foot-falls a day)
China's culture, history, the landscape and diversity, all contribute to a land full of character. It has over five thousand years of documented history. Their sense of family value, work ethics and social value have similarities with India. Home to the world’s largest population, it’s a matter of great intrigue as to how China has transformed itself in the last two decades. From historical, to modern wonders, to its beautiful natural landscapes, it’s a land of awe and great mystery.

Thus evolved a trip to China covering Kunming,  Qinghai Lake, Xining, Lhasa and Beijing over a 14 day period.  Being passionate about nature, the destinations chosen gave ample opportunity to explore the natural wonders. Having decided on the basic itinerary, I chose to work with Bruce Tang at 'Travel China Tibet' (www.travelchinatibet.com ) to handle our entire tour within China This I realized was far more efficient than trying to do everything ourselves. Bruce did a fantastic job of creating a personalized and private tour and thereafter managing the program. I quote his name here, because I believe there is a lot to learn from his responsiveness, sense of responsibility and he indeed played a great part in making the trip so memorable.  

I must confess, what I have written in my travelogue, is a very brief romance with China. There is definitely much more to it than what is narrated in the text below. Readers are welcome to share their opinion, thoughts and their own experience. 

Kunming (15 May)
There is a daily flight from Kolkata (CCU) to Kunming (KMG). A 3 hour flight, which was the best point of entry for us. We arrived into Kunming 3 hours late, in the wee hours of the morning, due to late arrival of the in-coming aircraft. My initial impression before landing at Kunming was that of a sleepy little town like may be Guwahati (in Assam). Totally proven wrong! Kunming airport is perhaps as big as any of the biggest airport in India. This city was very modern and huge.

At Kunming airport we were received by Ms Vivian (representing TCT) educated in Thailand and US, she was a superb guide and a competent host. 

ViVian (left) ... our host at Kunming seen here with Runa (on the right)

We decided to leave for the Stone Forest situated 126 kilometers southeast of Kunming, in Yunan provice. A region of typical vast limestone formation, the Stone Forest covers an area of more than three hundred square kilometers. Stone Forest was some 270 million years before a shallow sea.
The Stone Forest in Shilin Yi Autonomous County, Yunnan Province
Uplift of this region occurred subsequent to deposition and exposure to wind and running water shaped these limestone ridges. These formations extend as far as the eye can see, looking like a vast forest of stone, hence the name "the Stone Forest".

These formations, caused by the erosion of limestone, are over 270 million years old
The Shalin stone forest is the birthplace of Ashima , a beautiful girl of the Yi people
Extensive deposits of sandstone overlain by limestone accumulated in this basin during the Permian period of geologic time.

'Guests from afar please stay on' - Lyrics Fan Yu, Music Mai Deing (1953) performed by Yi people

The drive to Shalin Stone Forest and back to Kunming city was smooth and comfortable. We got a glimpse of the growing and expanding metropolis and the fantastic highways that connect remote parts of the region.
With local 'Yi' folk

My next interest at Kunming was the ‘Flower and Bird market’. Famous for its year-round mild climate, Kunming is often called Spring City. The Flowers and Birds Market in Jingxing Street is the city's biggest, most attractive shopping market. At the market, you can see shops selling flowers, birds, puppy’s, miniature turtles and fish. 

Young puppies, birds and kittens .... all on sale!

Culturally Chinese consider Turtles and other animals as a lucky charm 

Items made of Yak horns and other parts
Vast collection of plants and flowers in this Spring city

The Flowers and Birds Market is a popular trading place for antiques, curios, coins, jade articles, jewelry, ink stones, porcelains, potteries, stone carvings, marble products, the vast variety of smoking pipes were really interesting. It is a treasure trove for souvenirs, and also to understand the traditional Chinese culture. Just outside the Flower and Bird market was a small park, where elderly people had collected along with their exotic Bird pets. They met played games like chess and had their birds singing from its cage. Pretty unique.

We strolled around the streets of Kunming, its vast gardens, parks, modern down-town and above all really enjoyed the local cuisine. Vivian was a great sport and she took every care to make sure. 

Elderly folks dancing to music at the Green Lake

We spent only a day in Kunming and moved onward in our quest of the mountains, lakes and .... the birds.

Xining – Qinghai Lake – Xining (16 – 19May)
We arrived into Xinning on 16 May around 1 pm. Our plan was to drive off to Qinghai lake at a distance of 150-175 Km. This time we were hosted by Mr Dawei, our friend, philosopher and guide for the next 4 days. Yet another extremely humble and knowledgeable gentleman, very well versed in his trade. Fully committed to make sure we enjoyed every bit of our stay and always taking care of the nitty-gritty in the tough terrain. Mr Dawei had been to India, and therefore the bondage was even more close and special with him.  
Mr Daewei ... our host at Xining/Qinghai Lake .. and my birding partner

Qinghai lake, or the Blue Sea Lake, is an endorheic basin, the largest saltwater lake in China. It is known to be a holy place for Tibetans Buddhists and a great birding destination too. This large saltwater lake measures 4,635 square kilometers in area. Major attractions around it is Bird Island where many species of birds come to nest or rest during their transcontinental migrations. 

The landscape turned overcast on our drive to Qinghai Lake

.... and then it snowed ...
Qinghai Lake is unique because of the spectacular high-mountain surrounding it (Tanggula Mountain and Kunlun Mountain range) and the cultural mix of Tibetan, Mongolian, and Muslim people. Our first pit stop on Qinghai Lake was about 150 kilometers from Xining and at an altitude 3,205 meters above sea level.  This part of the lake was earlier a Naval Testing range. It was an ideal setup for us to acclimatize for the later high-altitude journey into Tibet.

The drive to Qinghai on Beijing - Lhasa National Highway through tunnels and more tunnels

Qinghai Lake is mid-way point on the Beijing – Lhasa Expressway (approx. 4000 Km). The lake is located at the crossroads of several bird migration routes across Asia. Many avian species use Qinghai as an intermediate stop during migration.

Qinghai Lake - Erlangjian Scenic Spot - our first halt

 This holy lake is circumambulated by pilgrims, mainly Tibetan Buddhists, every Horse Year of the 12-year cycle. It takes about 18 days on horseback, and 23 days walking to complete the circuit, that gives an idea of the lake circumference. An annual professional bicycle race is also held every year sanctioned by the International Cycling Union around the lake in addition to an annual Tulip festival.

Quinghai lak is surrounded by Tanggula Mountain and Kunlun Mountain range

Qinghai Lake (earlier a naval torpedo firing range) - Erlangjian Scenic Spot

The vast mountain range surrounding Qinghai lake

Qinghai Lake - Erlangjian Scenic spot - landmark

We spent 3 nights and 4 days at Qinghai Lake, the weather was sunny and superb (High:16C and low:-1C). 

Holy Flags line the highway to Qinghai Lake

The first night we stayed at the south-east section - Erlangjian Scenic area of the lake and the other two nights near Bird Island (Niaodao) on south-west section of the lake. 

The team at Qinghai Lake Hotel - Erlangjian Scenic Spot ... every happy to welcome Indu guests

Brown Headed Sea Gull at Qinghai Lake
Yaks' Crossing river

Snowcapped mountains surrounding the clear blue water along with vast grasslands make Qinghai a dreamland from the fairy tales. In one of the episodes during my birding exploration, a young local cowboy came with his bike and offered me a ride into the swampy marshland. That was an excellent gesture. He  even invited us to his home and offered lunch.

Local Cowboy who offered me a ride on his bike to show birding location in Qinghai lake

We circumnavigated Qinghai Lake, a 5 hour drive, on car, and arrived into Xining on 19th May to catch the mountain train to Lhasa.

XINING – LHASA Train Journey (19 – 20 May 2017)
We boarded the Z265 train at Xining Railway station on June 19, 2017 at 19.30 hrs. The travel time Xining – Lhasa is about 21 hours. This journey is a lifetime experience across sheer natural beauty and engineering excellence.

The Qinghai–Tibet railway or Qingzang railway , is a high-elevation railway that connects Xining, Qinghai Province to Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region of China. The length of the railway is 1,956 km (1,215 mi).

Z265 Xining - Lhasa Train .... boarding at Xining Station

This railway connects the Tibet Autonomous Region to other provinces within China.

Few landmarks of this journey- 

i)             The line includes the Tanggula Pass, which, at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) above sea level, is the world's highest point on a railway. Tanggula railway station at 5,068 m (16,627 feet) is the world's highest railway station.

ii)           The 1,338 m (4,390 ft) Fenghuoshan tunnel is the highest rail tunnel in the world at 4,905 m (16,093 ft) above sea level.

iii)         The 4,010 m (13,160 ft) New Guanjiao Tunnel is the longest tunnel and the culminating point 3,700 metres (12,100 ft) between Xining and Golmud and 3,345 m (10,974 ft).

iv)         Yangbajing tunnel is the longest tunnel between Golmud and Lhasa. More than 960 km (600 mi), over 80% of the Golmud–Lhasa section, is at an elevation of more than 4,000 m (13,123 ft).

v)           There are 675 bridges, totalling 159.88 km (99.34 mi); about 550 km (340 mi) of track is laid on permafrost.

vi)         The journey passes through Kekexii Wildlife Preserve, a 45000 sq km natural reserve which is home to 230 wildlife species. 

The journey thru permafrost, rain, snow and blizzards mark the day
Beijing - Lhasa National Highway runs parallel to the train track
 The Qingzang Railway and China National Highway 109 run along the eastern boundary of the reserve.
Winding road and trucks are a constant companion along the route

This railway faces many technical challenges. About half of the second section was built on barely permanent permafrost. In summer, the uppermost layer thaws, and the ground becomes muddy and soft. The main engineering challenge, aside from oxygen shortages, is the weakness of the permafrost. The engineers dealt with this problem in the areas of weakest permafrost by building elevated tracks with pile-driven foundations sunk deep into the ground. Portions of the track are also passively cooled with ammonia-based heat exchangers. 

The passenger carriages used on Lhasa trains are specially built and have an oxygen supply for each passenger.  The railway passes the Kunlun Mountains, an earthquake zone. Dozens of earthquake monitors have been installed along the railway.

The railway passess through Kekexli Wildlife Preserve.  Hoh Xil or Kekexili, (Mongolian for "Blue Ridge", also Aqênganggyai for "Lord of Ten Thousand Mountains"), is an isolated region in the northwestern part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China. It is China's least populated area. Kekexili nature reserve located in the northsestern part of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is a high grassland area that sits at 4700 m (15,416ft) above sea level. Kekexili is the largest nature reserve in China covering 45,000 square kilometers. Its main protection targets are the unique wild plants and animals in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and their living environments.

White-lipped deer  at Kekexlii Wildlife preserve
Tibetan Antelope

Tibetan Wild Fox
Despite the harsh climate, Hoh Xil is home to more than 230 species of wild animals, 20 of which are under Chinese government protection, including the wild yak, wild donkey, white-lip deer, brown bear and the endangered Tibetan antelope or chiru. The Tibetan antelope was hunted to the point of near extinction in the 1990's. 
Kekexili is a special place unlike any other on earth it is remote and barren. Belonging to the traditional Tibetan province of Kham, it is China's least and the world's third-least populated area.  It is surrounded by high, snow-capped mountain peaks and is home to few people. Most of the people who do live there are nomads living in black yak-hair tents. 

An Duo station at 4700 metres (Tanggula is the highest railway station in the world)
 Tibetan mountain range
Cnona Lake (Na Qu)

Almost the entire journey we were glued to the window, gazing at the amazing unfolding sight. Capturing the wildlife from a fast moving train is quite a challenging task. Have put across few of the photographs that depicts the unique terrain, climate and nature scenery.  

When compared to railways in India, everything about the Chinese railway is outstanding. The only aspect that stood out in train Z265 was the toilets. We have'nt experienced their bullet trains, where I think the toilets will be on par with western world. Having said, this train journey will remain etched in our minds for a long time. 

Lhasa -Tibet (20 – 24 May, 2017)
On 20 May 2017, at 1700 hrs, we arrived into Lhasa the capital of Tibet. 

Lhasa Station
Archaeological data suggests archaic humans may have passed through Tibet at the time India was first inhabited, half a million years ago. The history, terrain, tales and the train journey has been a great influence in planning this visit to Lhasa (Tibet). Lhasa- the Land of Gods, dates back to the 7th Century.  Lhasa is the second most populous city on the Tibetan Plateau after Xining and, at an altitude of 3,490 metres (11,450 ft), Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world. The city has been the religious and administrative capital of Tibet since the mid-17th century and the presumably the headquarter of Tibetan Buddhists. Interestingly, Tibetans have an affinity to India. Many of the Buddhist priests at Tibet are of Indian origin. While regular flights operate between Kathmandu and Lhasa, the silk route to India, still remains quite popular among the priests and nomads. Lhasa has many culturally significant Tibetan Buddhist sites such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka Palaces in addition to countless monastery dotting the mountains. 

Lhasa's landmark - Patola Palace

Jokhang Temple - Lhasa perhaps the most important religious shrine

Lhasa lies at the centre of the Tibetan Plateau with the surrounding mountains rising to 18,000 ft. The air here contains 68 percent of the oxygen compared to sea level. The Lhasa River, also Kyi River or Kyi Chu, a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo River (Brahmaputra River), runs through the southern part of the city. This river, known to local Tibetans as the "merry blue waves", flows through the snow-covered peaks and gullies of the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains extending 315 km, and emptying into the Yarlung Zangbo River (Brahmaputra River), forms an area of great scenic beauty.

Faith and Feeling ..... Lhasa-1

Faith and Feeling ..... Lhasa-2
Faith and Feeling ..... Lhasa-3

One of the best gourmet experience of the trip was a lunch at the famous Lhasa Kitchen, also known as Lasa ChuFang. It is a famous place and hot for its lip-smacking, sumptuous food. Located opposite the Jokhang Temple and at the center of Bahkor Street, at Lhasa Kitchen, we got to taste some authentic Rogan Josh in a tibetan kitchen at a distant place. It was delicious to say the least. 

Apart from the historic, monumental and gastronomic experience of Lhasa, we planned to spend a day each at Shugsep Nunnery (14,760 feet) and Yamdrok Lake (14,500 feet) viewing the birds and the beauty.

Shugsep, on the slopes of Mount Gangri-Thokkar, is a site associated with the great master Longchenpa. It was founded by the great female master Lochen Zangpo. Around 200 tibetan budhist nuns reside at the Nunnery. You can hike up the hill, to the Gangri-Tokkar shrine. The views of the Kyichu Valley are fantastic from here and if the weather is clear you’ll get views of snow-capped 7191m Nojin Kangtsang and other Himalayan peaks to the south. From the ridge-line, you can continue northwest to a small hill (5160m) that offers epic views northwards as far as Lhasa.
Donkey convoy carrying supplies to Shugsep Nunnery
The winding road to Shugsep Nursery (4500 metres)

I was lucky to connect with David Holler (a German student, who having fallen in love with Tibet has settled down at Lhasa). David is an ardent birder, and has done extensive birding in Tibet (www.tibetbirds.com). 
With David Holler at the footsteps of Shugsep Nursery

David agreed to spend a day with me birding at Shugsep, and through David got to know more about Tibetan culture and the place little better. We climbed up to the Nunnery partly on foot and partly on our SUV, sighting and exploring the birds of the region and sharing our experiences.
Our SUV on our way to Shugsep Nunnery
While there are many exciting places of adventure around Lhasa, we chose to visit Yamdrok Lake (also known as Yamdrok Yumtso). Yamdrok, is a freshwater lake in Tibet. It is over 72 km (45 mi) long. The lake is surrounded by many snow-capped mountains and is fed by numerous small streams. According to local mythology, Yamdok Yumtso lake is the transformation of a goddess and considered very holy. In the Tibetan culture, they do not eat fish, nor do they bathe in holy lakes. And that is perhaps one of the key reasons why the lakes are pristine and clean.
Mr Dopjor our host at Lhasa trying to befriend a Tibetan Mastiff ... majestic dog
To arrive at Yamdrok Lake, you go past Kambala Pass (4990 Mtrs) on the Lhasa – Shugatse highway. 

Yamdrok lake as seen from Kambala Pass
At Kambala Pass you have a great view over Yamdrok lake. On a clear day you can see the Nojin Kangsang mountain with its peak reaching over 7000 meters behind the lake. From here we went down to the shores of the lake and spent good 5 hours birding. Yamdrok Lake is the largest bird habitat and a paradise for rare wildlife. 

Yamdrok Lake ... and its mesmerizing beauty
The classic overland route on Friendship Highway between Lhasa to Kathmandu (Nepal) is around 1000 km and can be done in 7 days from Lhasa via Kambala Pass, you drive past Yamdrok Lake on Highway G318 and the glacier-draped Karo-la Glacier pass to Shigatse. From Shigatse you can go to Gyantse and onwards to Gangtok. Or through Shigatse, Tingri after driving past Tashilumpu Monastery, Rongbuk Monastery and Everest Base Camp, eventually arrive into Kathmandu. Both the routes into India are currently closed after the devastating earthquake in Nepal. It will be interesting to do this trans-himalaya trip one day.

After 4 days of adventure at Lhasa, we were seen off at the airport by our local guide Mr Dopjor. Mr Dopjor is a man of great experience, having spent over 25 years guiding tourists, handling Everest and Kailash – Mansarover expeditions, and even birding tours. He is truly the man of mountains. 

Brahmaputra Hotel, our abode at Lhasa

From Lhasa, we took a 5 hour flight on Tibetan Airlines to Beijing.

Beijing (24-27 May 2017)  
We arrived into Beijing around 2 pm. We were received at the airport by Miss ViVi. A young, smart, lady full of energy, passion and a quest for knowledge. 

Cheerful ViVi our host at Beijing, with Runa, in front of Chinese legislative building

We spent the next 3 days under the tutelage of Vivi, her enthusiasm new no bound and she had a constant flow of anecdotes on life in China. Apart from the usual visits to Tian'anmen Square, Forbidden city, Summer Palace and the world-famous Great Wall (Mutianyu section which included a cable car ride to the base of the wall),
Few more iconic landmarks of the city and the country

Vivi took us on a quick visit to the Huairou Reservoir (Mutianyu), to see if any interesting waders remained in the lake. I am told many birds visit the reservoir during Oct – March. We did see few Grebes and Mallard in the lake. 

In the northern part of Huairou County some 70 kilometers north-east of Beijing City, Mutianyu, not only houses the Great Wall, more interestingly, Mutianyu is an orchard village. Cherry, strawberry and other fruit plantations with picturesque greenery line both sides of the highway. We also witnessed countless Magpie nests along the way.

Kunming Lake at Summer Palace

One of the longest wooden corridors at the Summer Palace

A marble boat at the Summer Palace

Summer Palace Garden, the Chinese version of a motorised gondola

While returning from the Summer palace, had a close-up view of the Olympic sites--Brid's Nest and Water Cube. 

Yet another iconic landmark of China

Beijing is a busy bustling city where many Chinese come to make their life much like our metro cities in India. Life is often very tough for the young and beginners here. They live in a 100 Sq-ft single room apartment 60 – 70 kms away from downtown, a room which has just a glass pane, no kitchen, no balcony. They start their day at the break of light and return home simply to catchup with sleep. Yet they are highly passionate about what they do, and make you wonder about the human spirit that strives to overcome all challenges and dreams of a better day. 

Dongfang Hotel..... our home at Beijing

People like Mr Bruce, Miss Vivi, Mr Dawei, Mr Dopjor, Ms Vivian, made our romance with China. A country that is charming and mystique as our motherland India.

I hope you enjoyed reading this travelogue as much as I did exploring China and writing about it.

Feel free to share it with others and please do not forget to share your feedback.

Au revoir!