Snapshot Sunday: Off to Portugal

[ptcPhoto filename=”PortugalPlane.jpg” title=”TAP” caption=”Boarding the plane to Portugal – Newark Airport, USA” position=”center”]

Leg Two has officially begun. We’re missing the Broncos game, but it’s really exciting to leave for another year of travel!

Click here to view a larger, detailed image.

The Faces of Litang

Just when we were starting to doubt we’d ever fall in love with China, the landscape started to change. The area near the Tibetan Autonomous Region, with its Buddhism, huge mountains, and a cold, arid climate, is a world away from the cities back east. Some will tell you that the towns bordering the TAR have more authentic Tibetan culture than Tibet itself, both because of Tibet’s growing tourism and also because the Chinese government has moved a lot of Han Chinese people to Tibet in an effort to integrate the population.

The TAR was out of our reach due to visa and time restrictions. But Eric had read an article online about traveling to Chengdu overland on the Tibet-Sichuan Highway via towns high on the Tibetan Plateau, and he convinced me it would be a good time. He was wrong. Ever wondered what a chew toy feels like when it’s being launched to-and-fro in the jaws of a rabid chihuahua? That’s pretty much what the roads were like after we left Baishutai.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HighwayView.jpg” title=”Highway view” caption=”Our view for days on end. (This patch of road was quite nice).” position=”center”]

So the highway itself was no fun. Honestly, sometimes the roads were so riddled with washboards that we felt like we were being repeatedly punched in the stomach. But here’s the thing: If it weren’t so torturous a location the area might be overrun with tourists like so much of the China we saw. This is probably as far off the beaten path as we’ve been on the whole trip, and it was totally worth it.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HighwayCurve.jpg” title=”Highway curve” caption=”The road to Litang is very high in elevation. There are no guard rails.” position=”center”]

Two days into our trip to Chengdu we stopped in Litang, perched 13,000 feet high on the Tibetan Plateau. Fun fact: Chinese people really don’t like using heaters. If you’re lucky, the temperature inside shops, restaurants and hotels is the same as it is outside. But I swear sometimes it’s even colder indoors. Up here people wear a lot of yak fur and drink a lot of butter tea (literally melted butter and salt in a cup) to stay warm. Thankfully most hotels provide heated blankets. Which basically means that you never want to get out of bed, but that would be a waste after traveling so far.

[ptcPhoto filename=”HighwayYak.jpg” title=”Yak” caption=”Yak grazing along the highway outside of Litang.” position=”center”]

Litang is a really interesting city. It’s a major center of Tibetan culture and home to the Ganden Thubchen Choekhorling Monastery, founded by the third Dalai Lama. The city also tends to be a hotbed of political unrest and protests against the Chinese government, meaning that there’s a noticeable police presence there.

[ptcPhoto filename=”LitangPolice.jpg” title=”Police” caption=”Two Dalai Lamas were born in Litang. Photos of them are technically illegal.” position=”center”]

The best part of our visit was undoubtedly the people watching. And they’re incredibly nice, curious people who usually don’t mind striking a pose if you ask politely. They really helped me overcome my fear of asking permission to take photos.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang4.jpg” title=”Monk” caption=”A young monk from the local monastery.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang9.jpg” title=”Little girl” caption=”Smiling for the camera.” position=”center”]

You may have noticed by now that we take a lot of pictures of other people’s children. But it’s only because they’re so inquisitive, expressive, and generally more open to having their photos taken. I promise we aren’t trying to be creepers.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang2.jpg” title=”OPC” caption=”I interrupted his breakfast.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang10.jpg” title=”Children” caption=”The only English phrases most kids seem to know are ‘Hello’ and ‘I love you!'” position=”center”]

Remember how we visited Shangri-La? If there really is such a place as Shangri-La in China, this is it. Don’t tell anyone though – if the secret gets out the place will be ruined.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang7.jpg” title=”Temple wheel” caption=”A smile and a spin.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang3.jpg” title=”Prayer wheels” caption=”Many people here go about their daily lives just as they’ve done for centuries.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang1.jpg” title=”Nomads” caption=”Tibetan nomads come into town for supplies and trade.” position=”center”]

One random thing: It’s possible to witness sky burials here. This method of burial (which is really just placing bodies out on the grasslands to be eaten by vultures) isn’t uncommon in areas like this that are frozen and above tree line. We didn’t go see this since something about touring death scenes seems wrong. Pretty fascinating stuff though. (Please note that this link and any Google results will show graphic images.)

Our favorite place in Litang was the Chorten Karpo, a busy stupa on the west side of town. Inside devotees of all ages spin a massive golden and bejeweled prayer wheel. The whole scene – the meditative chanting, the heavy smell of incense, the solidarity of purpose – could be described as spiritual.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang14.jpg” title=”Curious” caption=”He didn’t know what to make of us.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang15.jpg” title=”Blue head wrap” caption=”En route to the temple.” position=”center”]

Between the dusty roads, wandering animals, and barren plateau of a landscape, Litang is already reminiscent of scenes from the Old West. But on top of the city’s facade, people dress in wide-brimmed hats, ponchos, and tall boots that bring the point home: Being here is like walking through a Tibetan Spaghetti Western.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang12.jpg” title=”Old West” caption=”Like a Tibetan cowboy.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang17.jpg” title=”Potholes” caption=”Going for a stroll.” position=”center”]

Some more photos:

[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang13.jpg” title=”Old lady” caption=”Never too old to spin the wheels” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang5.jpg” title=”More OPC” caption=”Peering out from the temple.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang11.jpg” title=”Water” caption=”A team effort.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang16.jpg” title=”More nomads” caption=”More nomads in town.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang8.jpg” title=”Tibetan woman” caption=”This lady is just beautiful. We can’t stop looking at this photo.” position=”center”]
[ptcPhoto filename=”Litang6.jpg” title=”Litang dogs” caption=”Dogs at the monastery.” position=”center”]

If you want to experience a different kind of China (or get a taste of Tibet without the hassle of the TAR), Litang might be a good place to start. Just make sure you dress for the weather!

Back to China: Yunnan Part Two

We felt rejuvenated after our hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge and continued on by mini-bus through Yunnan to the tiny village of Baishuitai. Literally translated, Baishuitai means “White Water Terraces”, and it was these terraces that drew us to this secluded part of China.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Terraces1.jpg” title=”Terraces” caption=”So secluded, in fact, that we were the only people there.” position=”center”]

The idyllic limestone terraces are formed by fresh mountain water that trickles down from Haba Mountain. Deposits from calcium bicarbonate in the water took form over millions of years, giving us the pale stepped landscape you see here.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Terraces2.jpg” title=”Terraces2″ caption=”We loved the wide open spaces.” position=”center”]

Somehow we missed the entrance to the terraces, which turned out to be immediately across the street from our guesthouse. As a result we tramped through a farmer’s field complete with cows, thorn bushes and plenty of patties. Our trespass did save us the entry fee, though. Even if the official pathway to the terraces is crumbling from neglect, the terraces themselves are spectacular and pristine. All in all an enjoyable side trip, although it’s definitely out of the way.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TerraceStairs.jpg” title=”Path to terraces” caption=”Make sure you don’t fall through the boards!” position=”center”]

From Baishuitai we braved one final 8 hour bus trip through some of the most beautiful and unforgiving countryside in China. Sadly, the complete lack of road maintenance prevented us from taking any photographs on this extremely bumpy ride.

Next up was Shangri-La. Described by author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, Shangri-La has become synonymous with an earthly paradise. It conjures images of a Himalayan utopia — an isolated and permanently happy land where people live for hundreds of years.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaStreet.jpg” title=”Shangri-La street” caption=”Is this town from Lost Horizon?” position=”center”]

The town itself is criss-crossed by hilly stone pathways leading to restaurants, stores with Tibetan jewelry and crafts, and the central square where locals and tourists dance every evening. Shangri-La is also home to the world’s largest prayer wheel. We were able to turn it with the help of about two dozen other people.

[ptcPhoto filename=”PrayerWheel1.jpg” title=”World’s largest prayer wheel” caption=”Turning the prayer wheel was one of our more memorable experiences.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaTemple.jpg” title=”Shangri-la Temple” caption=”The temple is nice if you can get up all those stairs at this altitude.” position=”center”]

We splurged one evening on a Tibetan hotpot, which is a hearty meal of yak meat and vegetables. Shangri-La also has a local brewery with very decent beers to wash it all down.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TibetanHotPot.jpg” title=”Hotpot” caption=”There is no shortage of yak in this area of China.” position=”center”]

Unfortunately, the reality is that this Shangri-La was so named for tourism purposes in 2001 and doesn’t quite live up to the paradise that Hilton described. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice place to visit. Western-style restaurants abound (at least in the touristy old town) and it’s quite clean and well maintained. But again, it lacked the authenticity were were searching for.

[ptcPhoto filename=”ShangriLaYak.jpg” title=”Shangri-La Yak” caption=”Anyone up for a yak ride?” position=”center”]

Will we ever find a true, untouristed Chinese town?? Stay tuned as next time we head further into the Himalayas in our quest to find authentic China!

Back to China: Yunnan Part One

[ptcPhoto filename=”YunnanProvinceMap.png” title=”Yunnan Province, China” caption=”Yunnan Province, China” position=”right”]

After spending a couple months in Japan and Taiwan, it was with some trepidation that we returned to the Middle Kingdom. So far China hadn’t been our favorite country but we hoped that visiting the Yunnan Province would change our minds. This two-part post will take you on our overland journey from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, up though the Chinese tourist towns of Dali and Lijiang, on a two day hike through one of the largest gorges in the world, and on to the famous town of Shangri-La.

We touched down in Kunming without high expectations since it’s another large Chinese city. We were pleasantly surprised to find that Kunming is a relatively clean city to walk around with nice parks and friendly people.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KunmingGo.jpg” title=”Playing Go in the park” caption=”Playing a game of ‘Go’ in the park” position=”center”]

There aren’t any major tourist attractions there, but Kunming has some great temples if that’s your thing.

[ptcPhoto filename=”YuantongTemple.jpg” title=”Yuantong Temple” caption=”The Buddhist Yuantong Temple does not disappoint.” position=”center”]

Our favorite part was just walking around watching people go about their daily activities.

[ptcPhoto filename=”FacesOfKunming.jpg” title=”Playing music” caption=”A street performer in Kunming.” position=”center”]

You’ll see interesting characters everywhere you look. This man caught our eye as we left the temple.

[ptcPhoto filename=”KunmingMan.jpg” title=”Bearded man in Kunming” caption=”He nodded when we asked permission for a photo, but said nothing more.” position=”center”]

Huge groups of Chinese women dance in public parks for exercise and social time. Some of the choreography is quite good.

From Kunming we headed out to Dali on what would be the first of a great number of Chinese buses we’d be taking. There’s not a lot to say about Dali, nor the nearby town of Lijiang. Both are Chinese tourist ghettos and rather contrived. Every square foot is filled with tourist shops selling virtually the same products catering to the thousands of Chinese tourists filling their streets.

[ptcPhoto filename=”Lijiang1.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”A busy shopping street in Lijiang.” position=”center”]

While pleasant, Dali and Lijiang lacked the authenticity we were looking for so we moved on after a few days. The trek up north was worth it when we arrived to Tiger Leaping Gorge, though. The Yangtze River (Asia’s longest) flows through it, and it’s up there with the largest gorges in the world. Climbing through the gorge takes two days and there are spectacular vistas around every turn. Best of all, the TLG is almost completely untouched by domestic tourism so it’s almost free of crowds and litter.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGView.jpg” title=”TLG” caption=”View of the Tiger Leaping Gorge.” position=”center”]

The trek is relatively easy with exception of the “28 Bends” near the start of the trail. Horses are available for hire if you’d like to relax on the way up.

Keep a keen eye and nose, and you’ll find some alternative options for relaxation.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGPot.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”You can smell it as you approach.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGSam.jpg” title=”Lijiang” caption=”Sam enjoying the view after the toughest part of the hike.” position=”center”]

If you’re making the trek, we highly recommend stopping at the Tea Horse Guesthouse after the Bends. They have decent rooms (with heated blankets!) for about $20 a night.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGLaundry.jpg” title=”Tea Horse Guest House” caption=”Not a bad view from our room.” position=”center”]

At the end of the trek we stopped at Tina’s to heat up some Japanese ramen we had stashed for a special occasion.

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGWindows.jpg” title=”Tina’s guesthouse” caption=”Out the windows of Tina’s Guesthouse.” position=”center”]

[ptcPhoto filename=”TLGCat.jpg” title=”Cat” caption=”Annoying, filthy, but adorable kitten at the Tibet Guesthouse (much better than Tina’s).” position=”center”]

Read on next time as we finish our trip through Yunnan and start gaining elevation in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau!