With only two weeks available we decided on a trip to China and Tibet to check out some of the main tourist hotspots. Options were limited from the main Tour Companies but Di found there were a number of local Chinese Tour companies offering custom made trips for as many people as you like. With few constraints, Di put together a very interesting itinerary with stops in Beijing, Lhasa, Chengdu, X'ian and Shanghai.
Beijing, 5-8 May
Our guide picked us up from the airport and deposited us at our hotel late Saturday afternoon after two missed connecting flights from GuangZhou. Next morning our first stop was Tiananmen Square. This huge 800m x 500m expanse already has thousands on people in it and its was only just after 9am.
Some of the gardens on the boundary of the square were spectacular with colourful sculptured bushes and trimmed surrounds. Then across the road to the entrance to the Forbidden City. This huge complex of nearly 1000 buildings was over-powering and it was difficult to comprehend the size and
The Summer Palace with its huge man made lake was a welcome contrast to the monumental building complex of the Forbidden City. The fabulous gardens and temples proved to be a popular attraction to both locals and tourists. To complete the day's activities we passed on the Ceremonial Tea and spent more time checking our the Olympic site. The stadiums are situated on both sides of a 5km long boulevard which was most impressive.
The huge floodlights disappearinginto the distance heightened the sense of scale. With only one day of rain so far in 2012 we found Beijing hot and dusty and welcomed tiring to the hotel after a memorable day.grandeur of the buildings open to the public.The attention to detail was mind boggling with our guide explaining that on the corner roof decorations the number of beasts indicates the importance of the duties performed within the building. The Hall of Supreme Harmony had the highest rank with 9 and lesser buildings a correspondingly fewer. The detailing on the roof tiles and pottery would be prohibitive to produce at today's high labour costs but with unlimited wealth and man power it wasn't an issue in the 1400s.
Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. This was even more impressive in the flesh and we marveled at the effort required to construct it on the steeply sided mountain tops. An afternoon visit to Ming Changling Tombs couldn't compete with the wall and we returned to Beijing disappointed we didn't instead spend all day wandering along the wall.An 8:30am departure provided us with an example of peak hour traffic in Beijing. Not as bad as I imagined but very interesting seeing all the bicycles, scooters and cars negotiating right turns at intersections. A two hour car trip took us to the
Tibet - 9-12 May
One of the reasons for this trip was to experience the highest train journey in the world, the 3753km, 43 hour train trip from Beijing to Lhasa that reaches 5072m in elevation. Getting into Tibet isn't a simple matter of booking a ticket, first you need a Chinese Visa and then your can apply for you Travel Permit. It was only 10 days before we departed that we received notification that the border was now open after the seemingly mandatory April closing and our permit was approved. Some friends visiting a week later didn't manage to get in when the border was abruptly closed once again.
On our train there was only one "soft sleeper" carriage, the rest were "hard sleeper" or then cattle class. We ended up with the hard sleeper, thankfully, of the three tiers we had the top and bottom so had somewhere reasonable comfortable to sit. That said, the views were even better than the Sky documentary we had watched of this trip months before :-) and 1024 more than made up for any discomfort.
Traveling by slow train gives you a much better perception of the country than flying and this trip was no different. The contrasts were huge from one hour to the next, million plus high rise cities, ramshackle farm hamlets, massive wind farms, huge horticulture and irrigation projects, hundreds of kilometers of high speed train elevated tracks/pillions and farmers bent over tilling the fields. There was little evidence of tractors in the fields, man power is still king!!
As the train started climbing into the mountains towards the Tibetan plateau the tilled fields were replaced by tussocked plains with the odd tent shelter and herds of yak and sheep. Somewhat like an empty high country NZ farm without any infrastructure. The warm, atmospheric controlled environment in the train was a stark contrast to the frozen rivers and snow covered ground outside. A few of occupants of our carriage started feeling the effects of the attitude (+5000m) even with the carriages being pressurised and made use of the supplementary oxygen feeds in each bunk space.
Unfortunately we didn't get to stop at the highest railway station in the world (5060m), it was too cold. As we descended towards Lhasa we started passing more frequent small settlements with large herds of yak (1000+) and sheep grazing on the surrounding grasslands. This epic train trip really more than meet our very high expectations and is highly recommended. Lhasa rail station is a huge, modern concrete structure that looks like it could sustain a direct 100 megaton detonation. With a heavy military present in Tibet we were warned not to take any photographs of the armed forces so paid care to ignore them as much as possible. However it had been hard to ignore seeing two hundred plus convoys of army trucks during our train journey.
To be continued......