Archive for August, 2009

30th Aug 2009

World’s highest railroad

We are about to head off to the train station to get on the world’s highest rail line. We will arrive in Tibet on Tuesday, spend a few days on a very guided tour and then head for the border of Nepal. More soon and hopefully some great photos.

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25th Aug 2009

Horse-trekking in Songpan

Upon our arrival in Songpan, we were immediately struck with the dramatic contrast between it and most other Chinese cities. The city has a much higher population of both Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Chinese. The town felt like a bizarre blend of Carson City and a Chinese village. It was small and divided by a dramatic city wall that stretched out and over a high hill to the west of the town. Surrounded by mountains, the city sits in a valley and the road is equally filled with pedi-cabs, large trucks with loud horns and horses and sheep. It also, up to that point, contained the friendliest people we’d met in all of China.

Our bus was met outside of the trekking agency, by one of the trekking guides. Knowing that the bus from Chengdu would have most of their clients, he jumped on and told us that this was where we needed to get off. The trekking agency was located directly in front of a lodge, which was owned by the trekking agency and next to a massage parlor and a cafe (Emma’s Kitchen), which was owned by a wonderful English-speaking lady, Emma and her brother David. Randomly, we had met their other brother in Chengdu the night before we took the bus to Songpan.

Our first night in Songpan, we were taken to another “hotel” to sleep since the horse-trekking lodge was full. Our hotel was in the bus station. It kind of felt like we’d been locked in accidentally at night, but it was quiet and had more bathrooms than the regular lodge, so we weren’t too unlucky.

The horse-trekking began the following morning. We met our group, which included Tony and me, three English girls on break from university (Joanna, Ayaka and Sara) and Kevin. Our three guides were an odd mix, though great fun and really nice and helpful. The oldest guide was clearly the boss, the quietest was in charge of the cooking and the loudest was clearly in love with the mountains and seemed quite depressed when we returned to Songpan three days later.

The trekking was great. We saw some amazing sights of the mountains. It was wonderful to get into the fairly untouched countryside and away from the car-horns and “civilization” of the cities. The food was amazing, as was the pain we felt after riding horses (or a mule in my case) for three days.

Songpan and Chengdu

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23rd Aug 2009

Forgoing caution for a car horn: The road to Songpan

We’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Chengdu, while we are trying to arrange travel to and through Tibet. The nice thing is that the hostel here is quite comfortable and full of fellow travelers with lots of tips on cool places to go and see. There are loads of trip possibilities around Sichuan and the owners of the hostel are more than happy to arrange pretty affordable trips for us. So, after hearing over and over how beautiful Songpan, in northern Sichuan, was, we decided to go for it. We’d heard from a group that the bus ride was pretty awful, but totally worth it as the horse trekking in the mountains was a great experience.

So, we left last Monday at 5:30 in the morning to get on a (supposedly) eight hour bus ride to Songpan. We’d booked our trip quite a few days in advance, which meant that we had the lucky privilege of sitting in the front seats behind the driver. This gave us the ability to see every time the driver pulled into oncoming traffic to overtake another driver, to be deafened by the ridiculously loud horn that he used basically every time he saw any living or non-living thing on the road, and to watch him clean his ear with a toothpick. I think I was the only one who had the joy of watching that, but it did explain why the horn didn’t seem to bother him.

The trip took ten hours rather than eight (the return journey was twelve). The extended time was due mainly to massive damage on the road caused by the earthquake that happened last May. Nearly every 100 meters, one lane of the road would be so damaged that the traffic was brought down to one lane. Given the general tendency of Chinese drivers to ignore the concept of yielding, there were quite frequently standoffs. Where two drivers would drive towards each other in one lane and wait for the other one to move. Also, whenever there was a backup of cars, caused by an area in the road with only one lane, smaller cars would try to get to the front of the backup, quite effectively blocking any possibility of the oncoming traffic getting through once the stand off ended.

Despite all that, the ride was fascinating. Besides the damage to the roads, the earthquake had caused major damage to nearly every village, town and city we passed. I know that this may seem obvious after all the news coverage last year, but it was quite startling to see it in person. There were thousands of temporary housing buildings and tents throughout the valley. Cement mixers littered the sides of the roads. In some of the towns, you could basically see everybody working to rebuild the damaged buildings. In most cases, there were some very impressive new homes already built and it seemed that there was always a brand new school finished. Rockslides were also quite common, adding to the hair-raising nature of the drive.

In the end, we obviously did make it to Songpan. And as everyone promised the ride (up and back) was totally worth the experience of horse trekking and visiting Songpan. Plus, we at least didn’t have a longer drive. We heard tales of a six hour bus journey from another area in Sichuan to Chengdu turning into a 30 hour “drive”.

Photos and more on Songpan are coming soon.

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16th Aug 2009

Trekking on horseback

We’re off again. This time we are headed to Songpan, which is north of Chengdu. We’ll be taking a very long bus ride to Songpan and then beginning a three day horse trek into the mountains. Hopefully, we’ll get some good weather and photos. More soon.

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13th Aug 2009

Photo update

Facebook is still blocked in China and so uploading new photos there is just a bit tedious. Here are some of the more recent photos from Chengdu (pandas!) and Leshan and Emei Shan, which I wrote about below.

We are in Chengdu for the weekend and then heading to a town called Songpan, where we will be starting a three-day horse trek to the top of a mountain. We got our visas and now have until September 10th in China, but are still working on getting into Tibet. Keep your fingers crossed.

Travels in China

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12th Aug 2009


Here are photos from the beginning of the trip through Qingdao. I will have to add more later as the internet connection is a bit slow.

These are also on facebook, so if you’ve seen the photos on there you might have seen all of these, but there are a few new ones.

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12th Aug 2009


We have just returned to Chengdu after four days in Leshan and Emei, south of Chengdu. Leshan is the home of the Grand Buddha, supposedly the world’s largest. Emei is the home of Emei Shan, unofficially the world’s highest paved mountain. I didn’t read that anywhere, I just hope that no one else has decided to pave an entire mountain face with stairs, because it’s painful.

We spent two days climbing EmeiShan. The first day, we climbed about 20km of stairs and finally stopped at the Chu Temple to stay the night. The second day we climbed about 12km more upstairs and then took the bus down from the top. After two days climbing stairs, Tony knees were not going to allow him to do anymore and the thought of climbing back down 30km of stairs was unappealing to both of us. Thankfully, along with paving the entire route up with a staircase, the Chinese tourism department has also paved a road all the way to the top. So it made it easy for us to get back down. If not a little hair-raising.

We worked out our visa extensions in Leshan and so now have one more month in China. We’ve also decided that we won’t be climbing anymore mountains until Nepal, where we hear they are not covered with stairs. Fingers crossed.

Photos coming soon.

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03rd Aug 2009


We are now in Chengdu, which is located in Sichuan province. This is the land of the pandas and, from what we saw from the train windows, a land of beautiful landscapes. We are here for a couple days to hopefully arrange further travel plans, extend our visas and arrange tickets and travel permits into Lhasa. We shall see. Hopefully, I’ll even get to take a cooking class.

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