Sunday, 26 June 2011

Off out

Off to climb a big hill. No posts until I return in 3 weeks (mid-July).

A couchsurfing minibreak in Almaty

Reading the small print of visa regulations is a particular pastime of mine and I had found out that it was possible to travel to Almaty in Kazakhstan on a Kygryz tourist visa, thereby negating the need and expense of getting a Kazakh visa. However, when we asked Mike, the Honorary British Consul, about this he wasn't aware of the rule. The border is only about 20 mins away from Bishkek so we thought we would give it a try not actually expecting it to work. The Kyrgyz stamped us out and we waited nervously at Kazakh immigration expecting to have to do a lot of explaining but it was no problem at all and we were allowed straight through.

Not actually expecting to get to Almaty, we hadn't done too much research on what there was to do. We did, however, know that accommodation was expensive so had arranged to couchsurf with John. Couchsurfing is a fantastic organisation which enables travellers to get in contact with people to host them. Back in Sheffield we had hosted couchsurfers, although not many as Sheffield doesn't seem to be big on the tourist hit list in the UK - can't understand why. Not only are there obvious financial benefits (you surf for free although we like to take a gift or cook one night) but it is a great way to meet local people. When travelling it seems easy to meet every other nationality in the hostels and hotels where backpackers stay apart from any local people. Couchsurfing with John in Almaty we had landed on our feet again as it turned out that he worked at the University as a lecturer in Journalism having worked as a journalist throughout Central Asia. This gave James a chance to ask him and his colleagues about freedom of the press in the region which was useful for his Churchill Fellowship research.

Just 4 hours away from Bishkek, Almaty was a bigger and smarter version, the oil wealth obvious. We encountered our first traffic jam in months and initially found it too busy, but within a morning we had soon slipped back into city life and enjoyed a proper coffee and even indulged in some gratuitous spending in the shops. As Almaty was actually a city before the Soviet era, unlike Bishkek, it has some nice older buildings although the Soviet architecture dominates. In 1998 Almaty ceased to be the Kazakh capital when this status was moved to Astana. However, it remains the capital of apples as it is said that the fruit originated in the Almaty region. It was a pleasant stay and for a short while we didn't felt like backpackers but it was back to a traveller's life in Bishkek dominated by visa battles and navigating the piles of washing up at the Bishkek Guesthouse.

Zenkov Cathedral in Panfilov Prak


Second World War monument - very Soviet

Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan

Back in Bishkek we thought it would be good to get out into the hills and stretch our legs so we decided to join the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan on a walk. We were not sure what to expect. To stereotype walking clubs in UK they are full of old men with red socks up to their knees. Not the Trekking Union of Kyrgyzstan. It was mostly women, local ethnic Russians and we were practically the oldest people. Dress ranged from a pink velvet tracksuit to head to toe military gear. One woman had come straight from a night club.

The mountains are tantalisingly close in Bishkek, the range can be seen along the whole southern horizon. However we were heading to a less known canyon called Tuyuk and we set out for the 2 hour drive in a minibus. It felt a little like a Venture Scouts trip. Everyone was friendly and didn't seem to mind us coming along. The inevitable breakdown happened when the bus wouldn't start after a police check but we continued our journey after bump starting it.

The walk was pleasant, following the valley to a waterfall. One huge downpour sent a few less prepared people back to the bus soaked and shivering. The waterfall was pretty but no Niagara. Overall it was a fun day and I'd definitely go on another walk with them especially if I was alone in Bishkek.

James at Tuyuk

The waterfall

Boy crossing river

Trekking Union Team

Breakdown #12

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Song-Kul Horse Trek

By the end of this trek the total number of things James had lost would consist of 2 hats, 2 books, numerous pairs of pants (exact number unknown), toilet paper at critical moments, the investigation was still ongoing to his involvement in the loss of my headtorch and one………………………. horse.
Kyrgyz rural life is based around horses, so to fully experience it we would have to hire mounts and ride into the mountains. We headed to the fantastically organised Community Based Tourism (СBT) Association for advice on a suitable trek. Our requirements were a 5 day trek, no camping or self-catering if at all possible, quiet ponies, spectacular scenery, a knowledgeable guide and the chance to see local rural life. They recommended a jailoo (settlements that spring up during the summer at the best pastures) hopping trip around Song-Kul lake in the Tien Shan Mountains staying with families in their yurts.
Two days later everything was organised and we caught the bus to our starting point of Kochkor to stay with Mrs Guljat the night before starting. Our homestay was the cleanest place we had stayed in to date with the cleanest toilet this side of Tulufan VIP lounge. James spent the evening revising Russian verbs of motion.
The following morning we met our guide and set out in a taxi to where our horses were located. The car showed promise to begin with but 10 miles in it spluttered to a halt. Some handy work under the bonnet later and we made it another 200 m before rolling to a halt again. Six breakdowns later (and a total of 10 so far in Kyrgyzstan) and the problem was finally located to the fuel pipe. After much swearing, which James wouldn’t translate instead saying, “and that’s an expletive and so is that….”, we eventually got going again and made it to Kyzart Pass.

Breakdown #6

Breakdown #7

Breakdown #10

At the pass we were introduced to our trusty steeds for our trip. The two ponies had totally unpronounceable Kyrgyz names to we called them Jeffery and Steve. Jeff was a 4 year old bright bay whilst Steve was an iron grey 10 year old stallion. We managed to clamber aboard and with our guide in the lead headed into the green hills. We rode past caravans surrounded by flocks of sheep and herds of horses and cows and continued up and over a 3500 m pass and then down the other side.
The hills were flush with spring grass which softened their curves like the skin of a peach. We were in sight of our first night's homestay when there was a rumble of thunder and it began to rain. Within minutes it was hailing and then the heavens let rip with hazelnut sized hail stones and thunder and lightning crashing overhead. Steve and Jeffery swung their backs into the wind and refused to move. Fortunately we were near a cluster of farm buildings with a little lean-to barn. Our guide evicted the cows and we took shelter until the worst of the storm had passed.
That evening we snacked on a traditional spread of cream, jam and bread washed down will gallons of tea, before dinner of the rice dish plov. This meal routine would be repeated throughout our trek but varied with fried fish fresh from the lake and sometimes with the fermented mares’ milk. Breakfast usually consisted of semolina or a rice pudding. The diet was so heavily based around dairy products that anyone who disliked milk or had a dairy allergy would struggle. This posed a bit of a problem for James who has an extreme aversion to milk therefore meaning double portions for me and near starvation for him. After dinner James revised verbs of motion and then we bedded down all together on the floor of the yurt, as is tradition.

The following day we rode over a second 3000 m pass and got our first glimpse of Song-Kul framed by snowy peaks. The spring flowers were in full bloom, yellow buttercups, blue forget-me-nots, purple violets and white edelweiss covered the ground making it look as idyllic as it sounds. These were the summer pastures for the Kyrgyz and their herds and yurts were still being built as families relocated for the summer. 

Over the next couple of days we circumnavigated the lake stopping for lunch or staying in yurts. The air was so clear that we could often make out our destination which would then take 5 or 6 hours to ride to, never seemingly getting closer to the dismay of our aching cheeks. We watched the storms roll in across the lake. Sometimes they would hit us sometimes not. One morning our guide gave a 7 year old boy a lift to his herd of horses. The boy made polite conversation with James and asked the name of his horse. ‘Jeffery’, James replied, ‘Jeffery’ the boy repeated. A few minutes went by and then the boy said, ‘I’m sorry what is your horse called again?’ Our guide, who had a great sense of humour, was chuckling to himself.

We stopped for lunch on the penultimate day at a yurt at the side of the lake. A drunk staggered over to us and tried to introduce himself. He grabbed James’s hand and decided that they should get to know each other better through the medium of wrestling. James eventually managed to extract himself, rather dishevelled.

On the final night we stayed with a wonderful family in their homely yurt. Granny, Mum and their 6 children (4 girls and 2 boys) were fantastic hosts. A riot nearly broke out when they worked out how to use James’s itouch. Before long, dozens of sticky fingers were pressing every icon simultaneously. Of particular amusement was the imitation police siren with flashing blue lights which disturbed James’s revision of verbs of motion.

We were sorry to be leaving the following day but packed up our stuff ready to go. However there was no sign of Milan and our horses. Milan eventually returned with Steve and his own horse but there was no sign of Jeffery. When the 5 year old boy in the yurt heard about the missing horse he saddled his donkey immediately and with his 3 year old sister set out to join the search. James was rather concerned that two under 6s and a donkey had been recruited into the search but their big sister soon called them back for breakfast. Jeffery hadn’t shown any signs of being a trouble maker in fact he had shown very few signs of anything, plodding and munching his way through each day. However, despite 4 hours of searching Jeffery could not be found. This meant that James had to walk over the final pass back to the village of Kyzart. The consequence of arriving so late was that we had another night at Mrs Guljat in Kochkor, which was actually a bonus.

Green pastures

James riding Jeffery with Milan our guide

Rolling hills

Me and Steve


Steve's ears

Lunch stop

The team

Yurt stay - only another 4 hours!

Jeffery looking like butter wouldn't melt

Big skies

Our hosts

Song-Kul under 6s search and rescue service

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Cities are often referred to as green but Bishkek exceeds this by far. Looking out over the city from our 7th floor apartment all that can be seen is trees. Bishkek is a city in a forest. With the trees come other delights such as always hearing the birds singing and shade from the daily increasing heat. Another surprise was that Bishkek didn't feel very Asian. It feels more like being in Eastern Europe and looked a lot wealthier than we'd expected. It doesn't really have any pre-Soviet buildings because it wasn't really a place before the Russians came. The people of Bishkek are a mixture of ethnic Russians, Kygryz and Uzbeks, and for the first time since we had started traveling it wasn't immediately obvious that we were in fact tourists. There are, however, criminal undertones to the city. An large number of 4 by 4s with blacked out windows cruise through town.

We'd come straight from Osh to Bishkek so that James could start his Winston Churchill Fellowship research. The car had broken down 4 times (once in an unlit tunnel) during the drive and we'd nearly had a head on collision. This had stretched the journey out from 10 to 15 hours. Whilst recovering and exploring Bishkek, James recognised someone. It was the Honorary British Consul (Bishkek doesn't have a British Embassy),  Mike, who acts as a point of contact. James also happened to know that Mike recently got a MBE for his work in evacuating Brits, and as it turned out several other nationalities, from Osh during the troubles last year, for which he congratulated him. We got chatting, one thing lead to another and we left with an invite to the Queen's Birthday celebrations at the Hyatt the following week.

Breakdown #2

Breakdown #3

Breakdown #4

There was just one problem with being invited to the Queen's Birthday - we didn't have anything to wear for such an occasion. We needed to do a little clothes shopping but it had to be cheap - really cheap. Heading to the main market in town we searched for something suitable. We had nearly finished and were just looking for a belt so James's new trousers wouldn't fall down when a policeman demanded to see our passports. We produced photocopies (a recommended tactic so that passports can't be taken away and never seen again). However, we didn't have copies of our visas. We were escorted to a police booth in the centre of the market where a farcical 20 min charade ensued as they angled for a bribe. I got cross with them, James got angry with me for getting cross with them, and eventually they realised that we really were not worth the effort and we were released.

To be perfectly honest the Queen's Birthday would have almost certainly passed me by but with the thought of free food and drinks I was perfectly happy to become a staunch royalist for the evening. At the poshest hotel in town we were greeted by various hosts and offered arrival drinks. The British Ambassdor to Kazakhstan (the closest Embassy to Bishkek) gave a short speech in Russian in which he managed to mix up the words for Embassy and Government, instead saying 'we are very much look forward to establishing a new government in Bishkek', cue much hilarity. The canapés were good and the Pimms even better. I attacked the desserts as James was networking franticly. Every British ex-pat in Bishkek had been invited. This ranged from consulate and NGO staff to Brits living in Kyrgyzstan with Kyrgyz partners and who were taking the opportunity to find out about the likelihood of a visa anytime soon. It was a great evening and we escaped before it got too out of hand and James undid all the good work he'd done.

There are not only Brits in Bishkek, one of the biggest contingent of foreigners is Americans. There are two types of Americans. Those that work on the huge American air base just out of town, flying thousands of soldiers in and out of Afghanistan, and the second type are the Peace Corps guys. The two types are quite easy to distinguish. We joined some rather drunk Peace Corps guys one evening smoking a hookah and chatting about there experiences in Kyrgyzstan. They were nearly all there because they hadn't specified a country of preference on their application and readily admitted that they had to look up where they were being sent. One guy had never been on a train before, another’s parents joined us briefly - the mother had never been out of the USA before. They were all passionate about Kyrgyzstan and their Kyrgyz language was impressive.

We were staying in one of the cheapest places in town, the Bishkek Guesthouse. The day to day running of the place had been entrusted to an 18 year old called Kioom. He was a nice lad with a bad World of Warfare addiction. He was helpful but it was a like living with a teenager due to his teenage standards of hygiene around the flat. Occasionally James suggested that he tidied up. Early one evening a huge thunder storm broke. Peering out our 7th floor window it looked as if we were in a car wash. The thunder was deafening and water poured though the window frames. But it became home whilst we were in town and we grew to like coming back to somewhere so familiar.


24 hour cake - this is my kinda town

Ala-Too Square in Bishkek

City in a forest

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

You will not be punished.......this time

Despite having a lovely weekend in Kashgar it was hard to fully relax knowing that we had overstayed our visa and were now in China illegally. After investigating the options it appeared that a relay of shared taxis across the border and beyond looked like the cheapest way to get from Kashgar to Osh in Kyrgyzstan. There was a bus twice a week but this was expensive and we didn't want to fork out for a ticket only to be turned back at the border. We teamed up with Tom an Israeli. He was a man of few words. We explained our visa predicament - his response 'we will fight them'. Well actually Tom I'm not sure if that will work. Best leave the negotiations to us.

There are two border crossings into Kyrgyzstan from China, the Irkeshtam Pass to Osh and the Tourgat Pass to Bishkek. We were travelling via the Irkeshtam pass as it did not need a special permit and pre-organised transport which was expensive and took time which we did not have. For those needing information on getting to the border by shared taxi this is how we did it:

We went to the taxi rank at the bus station in Kashgar and got a taxi to Ulugqat for 30 Yuan each.
In Ulugqat we were dropped in the centre of town. Walk back towards the main road and about halfway on the left is a taxi rank tucked away behind some buildings. Here take a shared taxi to Irkeshtam for 35 Yuan each.

When we arrived at the border it was closed for a 3 hour lunch break. We knew this in advance - the problem was we were not sure which time they were working on. Officially the whole of China is in one time zone. However in Xinjiang, being so far west, it often works two hours behind. To confuse matters further the clock on the immigration building was showing neither of these times. So although we knew that the border opened again at 4pm we had no idea which 4pm so we had an indeterminate wait of 1, 2 or 3 hours.

Waiting for the border to open

The border turned out to be working on Beijing time and we had a 2 hour wait. At precisely 4pm Beijing time a dozen soldiers marched out of the military compound and paraded in front of us - with riot shields. They were followed, with an equal degree of military order, by a dozen officials with briefcases. This seemed a little over the top for the sum total of 5 Westerners and one Kazakh woman who had were waiting patiently to cross the border and looked on bemused. The soldiers were dismissed to their posts and we were politely asked into the building.

Inside the official immediately identified the problem with our visas to which we presented the note a Chinese traveller had written for us explaining our visa/border closed predicament. A supervisor was summoned. Tom looked ready to fight. We looked on imploringly. The official looked at our passports, the note and the dog eared bit of paper which was our Tibetan Permit and said, 'ok, we will not punish you........this time.'

We could barely contain our elation and tried not to jump up and down. Another 4 checks later and we were at the final passport stamping desk were there was a 'rate your experience' gadget. Happy face for good, not fussed face for mediocre and sad face for bad. We rated our experience as a big happy face which pleased the official behind the desk.

The next hurdle of our border experience was crossing the 7 km of no mans land. Here the Chinese officials waved down trucks for us and ordered the drivers to take us to Kyrgyz immigration. Numerous passport checks later we were met by a smiling Kyrgyz who said 'welcome to Kyrgyzstan' and waved us to a shack, which was passport control, for a cursory glance over our passports and visas. We next had to go through health control where someone asked us how our health was. Giving the response 'good' was enough to be waved through. Against all the odds we'd made it to Central Asia overland. However, the taxi drivers at the border were a little more hard nosed than the Kyrgyz border officials. Tough negotiations ensued in Russian. With a flurry James finished with, 'well if that is your price then we will just have to walk.' At this point the men’s faces turned to concern, 'it is a long way', one said, 'and it isn't safe at night', another. It was over 200 km to Osh and we had barely been able to walk the 100 m to the taxi rank with all our bags but it seemed to help our cause and the price dropped a little more. Negotiations had come to a standstill and efforts to try to edge the price down further were going nowhere until James said 'how about $110 …and 10 Chinese Yuan, it is everything we have'. James isn't known for his mathematical skills and what he actually meant to offer was 100 Yuan (about $15). However after much discussion the 10 Yuan (about $1.50) appeared to sway it and we got our ride.

 Trucking across no mans land

The journey was jaw-droppingly spectacular, leaving the arid mountains of western China for the lush greenness of Kyrgyzstan. Yurts dotted the hill sides and snowy peaks touched the horizon. Still euphoric at not getting fined we initially didn't notice the pickup truck behaving suspiciously in front off us. We were near Sary Tash, an area known for opium smuggling from Afghanistan. The pickup stopped blocking our way. We asked Tom what he thought, 'we will fight them' he replied. Luckily the pickup moved on and we made it to Osh.

So to summarise our journey by shared taxi

Kashgar to Ulugqat - 30 Yuan each
Ulugqat to Irkeshtam - 35 Yuan each
Irkeshtam to Osh - $110 and 10 Yuan for 3 people

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Sunday animal market

Often when traveling it is easy to build up an over-romanticised mental image of a place or sight. A long anticipated visit is then met with disappointment when the reality is realised. Not so with the fabled Kashgar Sunday animal market. It was everything I had imagined after reading so many accounts. Unlike the city of Kashgar itself the market has remained untouched by Chinese 'improvements'. The market still appeared to be the hub of animal transactions in the region and the centre of Uighur culture.

We pushed our way through rows of fat tailed sheep, watched test rides of horses, saw donkeys, mules, goats and fighting dogs, cows and bulls, farriers shoeing horses and butchers producing some very fresh mutton. A cow broke loose and made her escape. She proved surprising agile, dodging people trying to recapture her. She made it to the exit and disappeared out of sight. Deals were being made by a buyer grasping the hand of the seller; the hand shaking continuing until a price is agreed. The barter could last up to an hour. Donkeys brayed, dogs barked and horses kicked up the dusty ground.

 Horse test riding

Bottoms up - fat tailed sheep

 Little donkey

 Kebabs - yum

The more attractive end of fat tailed sheep

On the Silk Road in Kashgar

You never seem to arrive somewhere in China and think 'gosh this is smaller than I expected'. Kashgar is no exception. First impressions are the that famed Silk Road town has been unsympathetically cloned into a sprawling Chinese city, taking many historical buildings with it. The Chini Bagh hotel and former British Consulate is one of the victims. We had hoped to stay here, having read the fantastic In Xanadu by William Dalrymple, but we were met by a noisy, dusty building site, although it was still open for business. With a little effort however, Kashgar's unique hidden charms reveal themselves. Vast markets to lose yourself in, little mosques, intricately carved wooden buildings in the old town and rammed earth buildings hidden amongst skyscrapers. The food is also great. Everyday in Kashgar feels like a bank holiday as the BBQs are fired up for another day of mutton kebabs, with plov, lagman noodles or steamed dumplings.

We knew the border between China and Kyrgyzstan was closed at the weekend but we thought we'd just pop along to the PSB (visa) office to see if they could help us with the predicament we had found ourselves in. After several hours of waiting for the person on duty to turn up we went through the usual rigmarole of the fact that a Tibetan Permit could not be extended, although we were relieved to see that he did actually know what this bit of A4 paper was. He than said that the border was open. When we looked skeptical he phoned a friend and confirmed that the border would indeed be open the following day. This now left us with even more of a dilemma but after mulling over the options we went with our gut instinct. The border would be closed and he was talking shit. We'd stay in Kashgar to see the Sunday animal market and take our chances with the border on Monday.

BBQs being fired up in Kashgar old town

The Chini Bagh Hotel and former British Consulate, now a building site. We decided to find somewhere else to stay.

Pigeon street - dinner anyone?

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Super noodles and acupuncture needles

A 5am start got us to the train station in time to catch our train. Having done our train journey time / cost calculations we had elected to get the slower (and not as nice) L-type train (instead of a K-type). The L train was not only cheaper but it meant we didn't have to find a night's accommodation before the onward train to Kashgar. The train looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the 1980s but the sheets on the bed were clean and the toilets weren't too bad. A major advantage was that it was half empty. We initially shared our 6 berth compartment with a doctor who practiced traditional Chinese medicine. She was called Wei and spoke a little English, but at Lanzhou she got off and we had the compartment to ourselves. She gave us a single acupuncture needle as a present. Quite what she thought two unqualified westerners would do with it was not entirely clear.

The most exciting thing about this train journey was that, for the first time on our trip, we were finally heading West. For the previous 2 months we'd predominately been heading North or East but now we were heading in the direction of the UK, although we did have another 6 months of adventures left.

For a day the train trundled through lush vegetation but the following morning we woke up to arid plains with the snowy Qilang Mountains beyond. The train passed the far western sections of the Great Wall, crumbling sections made of rammed earth, and on, deep into Xinjiang Province and ethnic Uighur country. We were heading to Turpan (or the train station nearest to the city - a place called Tulufan). At the northern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, it is located in a depression 154m below sea level (the second lowest place in the world) and also the hottest place in China. It was hard to believe that in just over 10 days we had gone from crossing the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau, with views to Everest and plains grazed by thousands of yaks, to the lowest point in China where camels roamed through the desert. The distances we had covered were vast. First we had traveled 3360 km from Lhasa to Chengdu (which was in the wrong direction). We'd then had to retrace 1200 km of this journey, continuing a further 1683 km to Tulufan, where we would get the final 1445 km train overnight to Kashgar. The entire journey totaled 7688 km. To put this in perspective this is like going from London to Cairo only to find out that the bit of paperwork which was needed is actually unobtainable and then having to retrace your steps back to Sicily, Italy and then to travel on to Novosibirsk in Western Siberia, all overland and all in a single week. No wonder we were exhausted.

As it is only possible (as far as we could work out) to buy a train ticket from the station of departure we had not bought our onward ticket to Kashgar. We had heard that this train got very busy and we were worried that we'd be unable to get the next train. After a nervous wait whilst the staff had their obligatory 40 min tea break, James managed to buy some tickets. The good news was that we'd managed to get on the next train, the bad was that the only tickets available were the dreaded hard seat!

In the departure lounge we waited for the train. I noticed some attendants looking across at us. After some giggling one approached us and indicated that she wanted to see our ticket. Her brow furrowed on seeing the class in which we were traveling but unperturbed she said "VIP this way". We were shown to a large, empty lounge with comfy leather sofas and the cleanest toilets we'd seen since Heathrow - actually probably cleaner.

The train was packed as we gritted our teeth for the 24 hour hard seat journey to Kashgar. I did a double take, was that a westerner? They definitely had blond hair. No. We were now amongst the Uighurs of Western China, a people whose ethnicity reflected the fact that they inhabited the crossroads of Asia and lived along ancient trading routes such as the Silk Road. The road we had to take was West into Kyrgyzstan but there was one problem - we'd arrived in Kashgar on Friday afternoon with no time to get to the border, with Kyrgyz visas not beginning until Saturday, the border being closed at the weekend and our Chinese visas running out on Saturday - we were in a Catch 22 situation. Err...time for a beer...

Break time on a Chinese train

Tulufan VIP(?!) lounge

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Arranging a Tibet Tour In Kathmandu - The good, the bad and the ugly

So, with the benefit on hindsight, I can reflect on the experience of organising an overland tour from Nepal through Tibet and into China. Hopefully this post will help those trying to do this trip themselves. Two main problems have to be overcome, firstly, the whims of the Chinese regarding border closures and regulations and secondly, the aggressive sales tactics and misinformation given out by the Kathmandu travel agencies. I will tackle these one at a time.

It is important to understand that the border between Nepal and Tibet is often closed. This is a regular occurrence in March but can happen at any time without warning. It is only possible to travel in Tibet as part of a group tour. Group tours come in several forms. The private tour which involves a group of up to four people travelling in a jeep or a budget tour which is a group of 20-30 (22 people in our group) travelling in a coach. The Chinese border can be closed to a certain type of tour – especially budget tours, whilst not to others, so to be more certain of getting into Tibet take a private tour. We had to wait an extra week in Kathmandu for the border to open to budget travellers; it was open during this time to private tours.

The next thing to understand is that to travel in Tibet from Nepal a group Tibetan permit has to be obtained. This is a piece of paper with the names and passport details of the group. Nothing is stamped in your actual passport. All those people on the group permit must enter Tibet together, travel in Tibet together and then exit Tibet together. It is, however, possible to travel in a group but on different group visas and it is also possible to be a group of one. For example out of the 22 people on our tour the majority of people were flying back to Kathmandu on the same flight and hence were all on the same group permit, but there were also at least 5 different other ways people were travelling on from Tibet; flying to Chengdu, getting the train to Beijing and, for us, getting the train to Chengdu, and therefore we were all on different group permits. If travelling onto China the Tibetan permit allows you to travel in China without the need for a Chinese visa, but you will have to travel with everyone else on the group permit and exit China with them. No matter what the agencies in Kathmandu say it is impossible to extend a Tibetan permit or change it for a Chinese visa in China. You have to make sure you leave China by the time the visa expires. If you want to spend more time in China the easiest thing to do is to go to Hong Kong where it is easy to get a Chinese visa. There is no point getting a Chinese visa before a Tibetan tour as all Chinese visas get cancelled when a Tibetan permit is obtained. The normal length of time for a Tibetan permit is 14 days; this time includes the time on the tour (usually 8 days) and therefore only gives 6 days to travel in China. It is possible to get 21 or even 30 day Tibetan permits in Kathmandu for an additional fee but we were told that it wasn’t possible on this occasion. The fine for overstaying your Tibetan permit is 500 Yuan a day (the same as for overstaying a Chinese visa). So to summarise, make sure your travel agency puts you on a group Tibetan Permit with the people you will be entering and exiting China/Tibet with and if you want to travel in China ask for the longer permit. And don’t listen to what they say about it being easy to extend a permit - it is not possible!!

So, next to the travel agencies in Kathmandu. Nearly all travel agencies are middle men who take your money, get you to fill out a form and hand over your passport and then pass it onto an agency which organises the permits and tour. The initial agency then tend to lose interest in you. The prices for a budget tour did not seem to vary much between agencies but I think the service you get does. A budget tour including B&B and permits costs around $360 there will be an additional cost for onward transport out of Tibet. I can only speak regarding the train tickets but the mark up on these is huge – over double. The agencies will tell you that having one is a requirement for obtaining the Tibetan permit. However, we now know that our tickets were only bought by the Lhasa agency once we got to Lhasa. I’d recommend buying the train ticket yourself online to save some money. For example using Again, the Kathmandu agencies will tell you that you can’t do this – but other people had. The travel agencies will also try to charge more for an express Tibetan Permit. The cheapest permit is when the paperwork and passport is submitted 10 days in advance. In reality all Tibetan Permits are obtained the day beforehand. Knowing this may mean that you can negotiate the price of the ‘express’ service. 

Despite the struggles beforehand in Kathmandu and then afterwards in China, when we had to make a dash for the border, the tour itself was very enjoyable. We began the tour in a typical Nepalese bus with a Nepali guide provided by Tibet International. At the border we left this bus behind (thankfully) and carried our luggage through Nepalese immigration, over the Friendship Bridge to Chinese immigration and our next bus. In total the distance from bus to bus is about 1 km and it took us about 4 hours to get through all the checks. It is possible to hire a porter for about 250 rupees to carry bags from one bus to the other (they should carry ID to get across the border themselves). There are also plenty of money changers about to change money. The Chinese searched our bags fairly well (although if you are not first in line and bury things deep enough they won’t find them). They took particular interest in all books. The guide warned us not to bring any books about Tibet across the border, especially the Lonely Planet. However, the Chinese also took a disliking to the Nepal Lonely Planet. This was sent back to Kathmandu with the Nepali guide for the owner to pick up on their return. We met our Tibetan guide at the border and transferred onto a much nicer and very comfortable coach-style bus provided by Tibet Tashi Delek.

Once in Tibet we saw all the usual sights – spectacular views and beautiful monasteries. Our guide was very good and the bus driver was only a maniac on a couple of occasions. We had an additional guide in Lhasa who was very enthusiastic and even took us out to a local nightclub one night. The accommodation we stayed in varied from truly awful improving throughout the tour to bordering on luxurious on the last couple of nights (The Trichang Labrang Hotel). Breakfasts were basic but OK. Another point to note is that the tour gains height very quickly, on the second day you are at 5200m! It is therefore important to know how to act at altitude in order not to get sick and to be prepared. Our guide gave us no advice on this but did have oxygen at hand - and this was needed!

It is much easier to travel from China into Tibet and on to Nepal rather than this way around but if you are in Nepal and don’t have the choice this is still an opportunity not to be missed. I hope that these tips have been helpful and please feel free to write any comments of your own experiences below.

This information was correct on 14th May 2011, 9.11am and 47 seconds!!!!

The Budget Bus

A wild goose chase around China

From Lhasa we arrived in Chengdu on Sunday morning. Chengdu because the travel agents in Kathmandu had said that this was one of three places in China where a Tibetan permit could be extended. We had our doubts. And, even more irritatingly we had had to come in completely the wrong direction to get to Chengdu and were now 4 days of continuous travel away from our intended destination.

At 9am on Monday morning we stood in the Public Security Bureau (PSB) to be told that a visa extension was “not possible”. We only had one option - to leave China before our visa expired. Back at the hostel we worked out the train times and bought the next possible train ticket to Turpan – a junction in  the train line from where we would try to catch an onward train to Kashgar and then a final sprint to the Kyrgyz border from there.


It was a shame that our stay in Chengdu had been cut short as it is a nice city with a pleasant climate. We had visited Chengdu when we first travelled in China 8 years previously. Since then it has completely changed. The hutong (traditional Chinese street) that the hostel was located on no longer had street vendors cooking dumplings and people having their hair cut underneath leafy trees. Instead, Chinese tourists thronged the streets full of boutique shops selling exquisite teas and designer handbags, and exclusive bars and restaurants. The middle class Chinese since our last visit had developed a taste not for eating dogs but for keeping them as pets. Lap dogs were popular but also larger breeds especially Labrador and Retrievers. I tried to befriend a yappy little dog but when it realised I didn't have any food it tried to bite me. When I did coax it into letting me scratch its back it tried to hump my leg.

Luckily away from the now Disney-ifed hutong there were still plenty of little local eateries. Our favourite sold steamed meat dumplings for 10p each during the day (two were plenty for lunch) and then it turned into a stir fry place in the evening, where we could select the ingredients to which the chef would add spices and cook up in front of us – delicious.

Chengdu market - fresh eel and toad for dinner anyone?

We preferred stir fry

A boutque hotel? No youth hostelling in China. The lovely Loft Hostel

Monday, 6 June 2011

The highest train journey

So apart from sharing the highest mountain in the world, Tibet also claims the highest train line in the world. At points the train reaches 5072m - higher than Mt Blanc. It crosses the vastness of the Tibetan plateau to the northern Tibetan border with China and is yet another demonstration of Chinese engineering prowess. The line was completed in 2005 linking Lhasa with the well developed Chinese network. The engineers had to use a range of technologies to overcome ground movement caused by the seasonal shifts in the permafrost. This included building some of the line on concrete stilts. Other unique technologies on the train include oxygen ports in each compartments to attempt to stave off altitude sickness for the unacclimatised!

The train from Lhasa was our ticket to China and a key section of our overland journey back to the UK. But first we had to overcome the airport style security checks to get into the departure lounge. On this check the only victim was an almost empty gas canister, luckily they didn’t notice the four full ones buried deep in one of our bags. Two other people from Team Budget were also on the same train, Nao, the Japanese representative and Anton, the Russian representative. Anton was travelling with his bicycle and aiming to cycle back home. James and I were sharing our hard sleeper (not as bad as it sounds, in fact quite comfortable) compartment with  Nao, who looked like a cartoon character and kept getting mistaken for a Chinese person, and also 3 actual Chinese. One of the Chinese guys on the top bunk sneezed, showering us from above. By day 2 man flu had been passed from one man to another and James was feeling dreadful, but not as dreadful as Anton who was hard seating it to Chengdu (this is as bad as it sounds).

Our train trundled across the Tibetan plateau, through snow storms and past 1000 strong herds of yaks which stretched as far as the eye could see until they were mere black specks. When spending 2 days on a train any sense of time is distorted, gauged only by the trundling sound of the meals on wheels trolley at allotted meal times. This was when tasty hot Chinese meals could be bought for a few yuan. After 44 hrs and having travelled 3360 km we arrived in Chengdu and a bed which wasn’t mobile.

Getting high!

Cabin mates James, me (with eyes closed as usual), Nao and Anton