There we stood in front of Mohan Land Port, not really knowing what to expect. Border police made it clear that they wont process us without our guide. Our agency in Chengdu had sent his name - Losang - and his mobile number just a few days before, that’s all we knew. We handed that information over to the border police and soon thereafter Losang showed up and started discussions with the officials. With very few exceptions none of them spoke English so for most of the time we had no idea what was going on. Forms were handed over, we signed and finger-printed one and the other document and soon it was time for the customs inspection of our Rouletout. Once again we got a little tense as this meant Mutlu might become an issue. All wrong - it turned out that the officer in charge loved dogs and after a few pictures with Mutlu we were cleared for entry. Berna was relegated to the back-seat for the next 3 months, Losang took the front seat and after just 2.5 hours we headed to Mengla for the car inspection and to obtain the Chinese driving license and number plates (for more info on self-driving in China please click here). Yunnan - the pristine province of China inhabited by 25 of the 56 ethnicities of modern China - was waiting for us with its outstanding landscape, delicious food and friendly and laid-back people.
Soon we left the perfectly maintained road infrastructure and followed small roads close to the Laotian and Vietnamese border through the mountainous landscape full of banana, tea and caoutchouc plantations only to be stopped by the occasional military check-point (drug and human trafficking is still a hot topic in this triangle) or a primitive food stall cooking for us whatever was on display in their small fridge. When we stopped for the night we were of course an attraction; dozens of selfies were taken, questions asked in Chinese and lots of smiles were exchanged. For the first of so many times we regretted our inability to speak any Mandarin. Soon thereafter we reached the world-famous rice terraces near Laohuzui, built by the Hani minority over the last 2500 years to make this steep mountainous area arable. For the first time we also encountered the very popular scheme of privatising public land in China. For a country where you can not even privately own an apartment for longer than 70 years we found it rather surprising that private investors can just build a terrace or a parking at a nice viewpoint, seal off the area and ask for entrance fees of 150RMB (about € 20.-) or more.
Fuelled by the millions of mostly Chinese tourists this scheme is taking over many beautiful spots in China making them only accessible for the admittedly huge and ever growing class of the wealthy. Our next stop was Kunming, or better a small climbing spot nearby that we had heard of from Peter Mortimer, an expat living and bolting around Kunming (check our Climbing Pages for more info on climbing spots). It wasthe end of the rainy season so we cut our climbing stay in Kunming and Fumin short to one week and moved further north. Visiting the beautiful historic towns of Dali and Lijiang was another eye-opener on modern Chinese society. During daytime the cities are full of stylish Chinese tourists strolling through the small and lovingly maintained alleys full of food-stores and souvenir shops, taking pictures (of us ;-)) with the latest golden smartphone or high-end SLR camera. At night the towns convert into one big nightlife district.
Bar next to bar with loud music, karaoke and streams of alcohol and streets overcrowded by Chinese youth. Definitely an experience you should have made but after two nights it was enough for us and we decided to head to Shigu, a new climbing spot not far from the famous first bent of the Jinsha river - one of the arms of the Yangtse. Lucky again we directly ran into Zhou Lei, the local climber and developer who runs a small guesthouse in the breathtaking setting of Da Mai Di village. We parked just outside of the guest house and stayed for a good week, climbing and enjoying the delicious food while Mutlu was after the local girl dog. Of course we were also anxiously waiting for news on our Tibet permissions and the status of famous road G318 (linking Shanghai with Lhasa and Katmandu) which was blocked by landslides since several months and thus would make our travel to Tibet a few thousand kilometres longer and less exciting. Losang was in constant contact with friends in Lhasa and shortly before we left Shigu they confirmed that the road was opened for small trucks. With this good news in mind and the guidebook offered by Zhou Lei in hand we headed to our next climbing destination, Liming.
Liming is famous for its red sandstone cliffs, very much like in Utah but in a very green and forresty environment. It is about to become a mecca of trad and crack-climbers from all over the world checking in in the “far-away-inn” (the climbers guest house) in this very small but pittoresque Chinese village in an absolutely breathtaking setting. We have to admit that we struggled with the crags and placement of our gear as it is a very different style of climbing and we simply ran out of time to really get used to it - so Liming remains on our bucket list. We also enjoyed some long hikes on the mountains and encountered another Chinese speciality or better torture method: stairs. For whatever reason Chinese love to build staircases up on the mountains which for example makes the 700m hike up to turtle mountain a real pain even though you are compensated by an awesome view from the top. Leaving Liming behind we followed the Jinsha river north on small roads and stopped in Shangri-La (meaning “heaven on earth”), a formerly Tibetan town now being part of Yunnan province and home of the famous Songzanlin monastery.
As a Tibetan, Losang took great care in giving us a first introduction to Tibetan Buddhism and explained us the many details of this huge monastery and the many different Buddhas on display. Just in time our Tibet permissions arrived by courier and we headed north again - excited to soon enter the next province on our journey through China.
Tibet - peacefully liberated just 64 years ago is still difficult to visit. Even more so since some “pre-olympical” riots in 2008. Eastern Tibet is almost completely off the (foreign) touristic map and we felt ourselves privileged to have obtained the permissions to drive up G318, one of the most popular routes in China leading over many mountain passes with more than 4000m and along the eastern
Himalayas through a very varying landscape. Lucky that the route just opened again a few days before we wanted to pass we slowly headed towards the Tibetan province border climbing for the first time above 4000m with our Rouletout and enjoying the views on one of China’s most beautiful mountains: Meili snow mountain with 6740m. Also here we encountered the scheme of privatisation of public land but luckily Losang managed to arrange for us a perfect night-stop on a small construction site where workers slept in simple tents, enjoying the best view on Meili in the rising sun. A little further north we hit the Tibet entry checkpoint in Yanjing. It took a few hours to verify all our permissions and before we really understood it we were invited by one of Losang’s relatives for lunch. We were served local wine (yes, there is wine in Tibet! French missionaries built a church in the neighbourhood and taught the locals to make wine. The church is out of service by now but the wine is still there), butter tea and a local special form of noodle soup: you receive a small bowl of soup and fresh noodles are added to it in small portions whenever you are finished.
You might add pork belly and chilly but the challenge is to keep up with the endless supply of fresh noodles. Some local restaurants actually offer “free food” to the one who can finish more than 100 servings! We had less than that and continued our road, climbed again to 4200m to spend the night in Markam. As in most towns in Tibet Losang had to register us with the local police and we spent the first night above 3700m. The next day carried us for the first time above 5000m but road works slowed us down so that we spent the night in Pomda, the crossing between G317 and G318. G317 (leading to Nagqu) is completely off-limits for foreigners so that from now on we headed west towards Lhasa on G318. At 4200m the nights were already cool and we got the unfortunate confirmation of our fears that our diesel heating is not woking anymore at this altitude - thank you Webasto! Our road led us through the deep and violent canyons of Nak Chu (the “angry river”), across numerous mountain passes, down into the valley of the Parlung Tsampo and along the shores of Rawok Tso, a beautiful mountain lake with impressive ice mountains in the background, to the town of Bomi.
We decided to start really early for our next leg. It was the stretch of G318 that actually was blocked by landslides until a few days before and the road promised to be really bad and narrow. It was also the time around National Day, a period when many Chinese take a week or two off and travel their country. Tibet is a popular destination and many Chinese take their new SUV’s - mostly Porsche Cayenne, Audi Q8 or the latest big Japanese SUV - or their fancy bicycles out on a ride on G318 and we wanted to make it before the crowd. The landslides and the rivers took most of the road and many of the bridges on a stretch of almost 30km. A provisory and very exposed road was dug into the steep mountainsides connected by temporary military bridges. The road wasn’t as much a challenge as the uncoordinated traffic on the single-lane sections which resulted in long queues and very narrow passings. Enough time for us to observe the on-going construction work for the new road, work that is mostly performed by the Peoples Liberation Army when it becomes challenging as here in this remote and rough terrain where a new road with half a dozen suspension bridges and countless tunnels was being built within months.
The road carried us further west, multiple times we climbed above 4000m and once more above 5000m, ate Shigo (a delicious soup with a whole chicken boiled at the table), had Yak meat soup, and stopped in Bayi - initially a Chinese military town built in the 1950’s but now due to its location also very popular with Tibetans. In Bayi we also (for the first time) had to change a flat tire, or we should better say: we assisted some locals that did the work faster than we could watch and again all that without accepting anything more than a thank you and some cigarettes.A brand new high speed road made the last stretch to Lhasa along the Tsangpo (which becomes the Brahmaputra in India) an easy drive and once past the last checkpoint we found our way into holy city and our parking for the next few days in the narrow courtyard of the Yak hotel in the center of the old town. Well adapted to the elevation of Lhasa we were ready to enjoy the impressive sights of Lhasa and the Tibetan highlands, but more on that in the next blog post.