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The Middle KingdomMao, Confucius, Jackie Chan. Splinglolls, the Tiananmen massacre, ching-chang-chong (which you guessed it - does not make any sense): You don't need to be a Sinologist, to attest to my lack of China knowledge.Given that entering the Peoples Republic was a drive into unknown territory, the last frontier to exoticism, so to say.My ignorance towards China, cultivated for quite some time, was finally rewarded with excited expectation.
CHINA (updated 08/2011)RouteKodari/Nepal - Zhangmu - Lhasa - Bayi - Deqen (Dechen) - Shangri La (Zhongdian) - Lijiang - Dali - Pu'er - Simao - Menglun - Mengla - Mohan - Boten/LaosEntering via Kodari/Zhangmu crossing (from Nepal)On the Nepalese side, access to the crossing is often blocked by landslides or accessible to 4WD only (mostly from Barabise to Kodari). In Kodari, the border town, there are restaurants, a bank, accommodation and a big, packed truck parking (mud). The checkpoint opens at 8 a.m. Nepal time. The borderline on the Friendship bridge may only be crossed once all papers have been handed out on the Chinese side and the mandatory guide is present. In the Chinese border town of Zhangmu there are shops, restaurants, mobile phone shops, a petrol station, internationals ATMs and one bank (Nepalese Rupees not accepted). Easy to exchange money on the street, but at a bad rate. Maps and guide books which show pictures of the Dalai Lama or do not show Tibet or Taiwan as integral parts of China will be destroyed.During the first 75 kilometres you will reach an altitude of more that 5,000 masl(risk of accute mountain sickness).Exiting via Mohan/Boten crossing (to Laos)Correct and hassle-free handling. Time needed including getting car insurance for Laos: two hours. You will need to show your China visa exit stamp to enter Laos (China does not insist on stamping you out). On the Chinese side there are petrol stations, ATMs, street money changers, shops, restaurants. On the Lao side there are restaurants and a petrol station a few kilometres down the road.RoadsDrive on the right (exception: Hong Kong SAR), quite disciplined. In Tibet and Yunan general road conditions are good, partly very good. Route G214 is very bad on a stretch of 160 km up to Markham (piste across several 5,000 masl mountain passes, roadworks all the way, partly one lane only), in dry weather there is, however, no need for 4WD. Further on a stretch of 100 km is under construction between Deqen/Dechen and Shangri-La (Zhongdian), currently very bad conditions here (partly one lane only, steep climbs, uneven, landslides, falling rocks). In winter (October through May) you want to account for snow. The bad stretches are currently under construction, so in two years you'll probably be enjoying an immaculate layer of tarmac here.Motorways and main highways are toll roads. The maximum load of bridge on our route is stated as 10 tons, however, we had no problems even with a 19 ton truck. For vehicles higher than 3.75 m it might get tight at some overhanging rocks. Sometimes there are radar speed checks (fixed devices, laser gun units). Photo cameras take pictures of every vehicle at every main junction and before and after every town.FuelDiesel and petrol are always available, mostly summer and winter diesel are on offer (labelled '0#' or '-20#') as is petrol with 90 octane (price: ca. 0.75 EUR), 93 octane (price: ca. 0.80 EUR) or 97 octane (price: ca. 0.85 EUR). The petrol station network sometimes isn't very dense. Cash only.CampingEspecially along route G318 in eastern Tibet it can sometimes be quite impossible to find suitable camp spots (no level ground, narrow mountain roads, landslides, falling rocks, no parking areas). Avoid close proximity to military or police installations. Apart from that: no problem.MiscellaneousChina is not prepared for foreign individual travellers with their own vehicles.Chinese bureaucracy is inefficient, local government employees are often overstretched and unable to make decisions. Customs and immigration procedures mean a lot of hassle and need to be paid for. You need Chinese car papers, Chinese driver's license (visibility/eye check and short briefing, make sure you're given the correct class of license), Chinese license plates, Chinese MOT, Chinese car insurance, lots of customs documents, a special permit for Tibet as well as special permits for the border regions of Tibet as well as an official Tibetan/Chinese guide accompanying you during your travels within China.For stays longer than 15 days a new car tax is imposed, the amount due depends on the car's value. It gets especially complicated when your journey takes you through Tibet. Border procedures in Zhangmu (Nepal/Tibet border) took five days. In many areas in China there is no Rule of Law.There is no way around an organising agency. It takes them at least two months to get all the papers needed. If you're interested I can pass on my agency/guide contacts to you (just send me an email).There is CCTV, face recognition and movement sensors at every corner.Logging in to open wifi networks rarely works. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked, as is access to Google sometimes. Internet traffic is monitored.Many ATMs accept credit cards, some even ec/Maestro cards.Tibet & altitude issuesYou must drive in a convoy. Checkpoints. Apart from physical stress high altitude also means less engine power and a high risk of technical malfunctions (laptop, heating, fridge, brake booster). Vacuum packages, isolated windows and closed tanks (toilet) may burst, so you might want to equalize the pressure every once a while. Diesel engines may emit black exhaust.At 4,000 masl above sea level water boils at around 85°C (as does coolant at normal operating temperature if not under pressure). Bring a pressure cooker if you intend to cook.Check your governments travel and safety information before going.
Getting four German cars to roll through the country - that seems to keep all Chinese authorities busy.I spend five days with my fellow convoy travellers before the final boom barrier goes up. Until then we are allowed to try the first splinglolls, but as Jackie Chan seems to be at Confucius' office, we also get to hear a lot of bureaucratic ching-chang-chong.
Without a convoy the China transit would be almost unaffordable. However, it also means just about the opposite of freedom to travel: A mandatory guide keeps an eye on the tight schedule and the exact route to be taken, but as of today with Myanmar (still) being closed to foreign individual travellers, if you want to go overland to South East Asia, you have to cross China.
The roughly three weeks in China sometimes feel a bit like a rally. Covering more than three thousand kilometres, we cross several mountain passes higher than 5,000 metres above sea level, through simply gigantic mountain scenery. Dusty tracks, twenty wheels, oily bodies, four hell-raising drivers and their machines...Alright, alright, two lady co-pilots were on board as well. As if that weren't treat enough, for the last kilometres before the Laos border we just fly along an excellent motorway.The beauty of nature just passes by outside the windscreen way too often - it remains incomparable nevertheless. Unfortunately our contact with locals is mostly limited to lunch and dinner times or occasional small talk. Apart from a bus driver who comes after me with his sword, Tibetans as well as the Chinese seem polite and friendly.
TibetBeijing regards Tibet as an integral part of China, whereas the Tibetans feel that they are being occupied by the Chinese. In 1951 they were granted religious freedom and political autonomy both promises proved to be empty. During the so-called Cultural Revolution religious and cultural institutions were demolished and the status of the Dalai Lama got trampled on.Until this day the Chinese government reacts to non-violent Tibetan resistance (for example demonstrations and self-immolations) with intimidation, violence and suppression. Every Tibetan seems generally suspicious to security forces.
Many monasteries now exist only as a building, the few remaining monks monitored around the clock. With their shaved heads and orange robes the clergy often serve only as coloured dots on tourists snaps.
Like a colossus, Potala Palace towers above the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. A never-ending queue of mostly Chinese tourists slowly pushes its way through what was once the seat of the Dalai Lama. Beijing cashes in on a culture it actively eradicates at the same time.
While Chinese influence does lead to infrastructural development in Tibet, it is mainly the Chinese who profit from it. The Tibetan cattle breeder can't make any use of hydroelectric power plants, highspeed data cables or new highways. For the Chinese economy, however, this development opens up new markets.Traditional Tibetan two storey brick houses make way for simple Chinese blocks which already dominate the picture in many towns and villages.
When it comes to landscape Tibet is hard to top. The roof of the world, as it is called, consists mostly of wide, sparse steppe, about 4,500 metres above sea level and bordered by the worlds highest peaks to the south. It is this gigantic barrier - the Himalayas - which causes all humidity being carried by monsoon winds from as far as the Indian Ocean to rain down on its southern edges. As a result, Tibet is very dry, its sky deep blue and its air very thin. Coming from Nepal the road winds its way upwards - in no time you reach an altitude of more that 5,000 metres. From the subtropical summer of lush green Himalayan valleys to the snow line within a moonscape scenery it is only 75 kilometres.After the big climb for a few days we virtually fly along the best highways we've seen for a long time. Further east were gradually descending again. Mountains and valleys reach incredible dimensions in this area, so even just driving across one mountain pass sometimes proves to be an ambitious goal. Despite the strong engines our vehicles slowly crawl up the hills like ants. We pass almost 150 hairpins a day and feel very, very small amidst such monumental natural grandeur.
YunanGeographically this province in the very south of China feels much more calm and developed than its less tame neighbour Tibet. Its climate is rather mild, its agriculture obviously more rewarding. The villages often resemble one another: A straight, wide main street, one central market, simple concrete blocks. All in all this part of Chinese heartland like that also seems much less exotic than expected.
Lijiang and DaliIn Shangri-La we say goodbye to our Tibetan guide and a Chinese man and his buddy join our crew. We visit the towns of Lijiang and Dali. With roughly one million people each they are hardly more than provincial capitals by Chinese standards. With pagodas and wooden houses dating from the tenth century their old towns are touristic highlights of the region.
Even though China calls itself a socialist peoples republic, one can barely sense it while roaming the country. It rather looks like the ruling Communist Party is aiming for a kind of sweet and sour capitalism. The state makes huge investments in production, infrastructure and educational institutions. It seems as if, in an exchange for that, the people are more or less willing to accept limited basic freedoms.
At its southernmost tip we leave China at a huge border terminal. Behind a big golden stupa we are welcomed by the checkpoint barracks of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic.
Mao Zedong (Dali/Yunan)
The first miles, ... (Zhangmu/Tibet)
then to pick up the driver's license (Shigatse/Tibet), ...
...then to MOT. (Shigatse/Tibet).
It's tea, not a fish tank. (Shigatse/Tibet)
Our convoy: four cars, six people, two guides (Dali/Yunan)
with guide Lobsang, Bart, Stefan, Petra, guide Wang Lun and Uwe. Missing is Rowan. (Lhasa/Tibet)
Authoritarian state at work: Cameras at every junction take shots of everyone. Always. (Dali/China)
Altitude record: 5,267 masl / 17,280 ft (Lhakpa Pass, near Lhaze/Tibet)
Rolling stones. (near Deqen/Tibet)
Highway in eastern Tibet (near Markham/Tibet)
Traffic jam at more than 5,000 masl. (near Markham/Tibet)
Suspension bridge (near Daoban/Tibet)
Petra and Stefan in their 6x6-MAN - a luxury travel tank (near Markham/Tibet)
Ganden Monastery (near Lhasa/Tibet)
Maybe seven years in Tibet. Together. (Lhasa/Tibet)
Tibet's most important Buddhist centre: Jokhang Temple (Lhasa/Tibet)
Tashilunpo Monastery (Shigatse/Tibet)
Great Assembly at Ganden Monastery (near Lhasa/Tibet)
Potala Palace (Lhasa/Tibet)
Jokhang Temple (Lhasa/Tibet)
Military everywhere (Lhasa/Tibet)
Bust of Tsongkapa at Ganden Monastery (near Lhasa/Tibet)
Typical Tibetan townscape - nowadays a rare sight (Gyangzê/Tibet)
The smoke of many wood stoves in the morning (near Lhaze/Tibet)
Morning on Friendship Highway (near Lhaze/Tibet)
Suspension bridge 2.0 (near Deqen/Yunan)
Oops. (near Markham/Tibet)
Mountain village (near Lhasa/Tibet)
Bubbly boiling coolant(near Shigatse/Tibet)
Mandatory break: Erosion seems to be unheard of with China's road constructors. And then the mountain just comes back. (near Benzilan/Yunan)
Thank god no safety barriers block the grand view. (Tiger Leaping Gorge/Yunan)
Pagoda island in Erhai lake (near Dali/Yunan)
Tobacco harvest (near Lincang/Yunan)
Fisher woman at Erhai lake (near Dali/Yunan)
Tourist hotspot: Lijiang's old town (Lijiang/Yunan)
Traditional houses (Lijiang/Yunan)
Skyline of Dali (Yunan) with Lake Erhai in the background
There's room for one more. (Dali/Yunan)
Counterfeits, mysteries, ugly stuff: Shopping in China is different. (Mengla/Yunan)
Today China is so crowded that if a bag of rice falls over, some guy will immediately make himself comfortable on it. (Mengla/Yunan)
Empty bottle at 1,000 masl, tap closed at 5,000 masl. (Mengla/Yunan)
Cultivated landscape: Rubber and rice farming (near Mohan/Yunan)
Many roads are ideal for pigs, not so much for trucks. (Benzilan/Yunan)
A big thanks to Rachelle Clarke for proofreading this translation!