No longer the highest road in the world, but 1 of the most remote. Until a few years ago closed to all foreigners and most Chinese – the Tibet Highway. 1650km to Yunnan. There the signs of a giant transformation: the famous old towns along the Tea-Horse-Trail being transformed into a kind of Disney World for Chinese mass tourism. Maybe not exactly any westerner’s taste.
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Nyingchi, 28th September
It’s still the same highway we already followed west of Lhasa. The 1 finally reaching Shanghai provided anybody is enough patient to drive all of the remaining 4500km.
To start with we take the road to Ganden. A must-have-seen monastery some 50km outside town.
The monastery is famous for its beautiful setting on top of a hill. Unfortunately it got nearly completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Thus all buildings are new; some temples still under reconstruction.
And that’s it with visits to Tibetan monasteries. From now on we’ll enter East Tibet: it’s all about landscape – high mountains, deep valleys, numerous mountain passes with thousands of switchbacks and rather bad roads.
After Ganden we continue on a brand-new highway. On the few km already finished which once will connect Lhasa and Chengdu. After 30km the dream comes to an end. The Chinese government definitely doesn’t abandon the planned highway. We’re simply a few years too early.
So we continue along a huge construction site. By now, most of the road is potholed or gravel with big holes filled with mud’n’water. This combined with enormous traffic for the construction: dozers, trucks with stone, sand, cement – just name it. They’re all present.
And of course a road construction site in China doesn’t extend on simply 5 or 10km as in Europe. To finish quickly the guys construct on more than 200km. Dozens of bridges at the same time, hundreds of graders levelling the subgrade, half of China’s workforce occupied by some work along the future road, etc.
And us in the middle of it with a few 1000 Chinese tourists trying to drive eastwards or in the other direction. Speed reduces to 30, maybe 50km/h. For some short distances the old road remains intact. What a relief, even if it’s just for 5 or 10 km. For today’s planned 400km to Nyingchi we’ll definitely need until evening.
Some 100km before reaching Nyingchi we get back on the new highway. But there seems to be another danger: no more terrible vehicles for road construction. By now it rather seems there are bears populating the highway – and u’re even not allowed to hoot.
Bomi, 29th September
Day 2: another 380km are planned; to the village of Ranwuzen. Grey weather; some rain all day.
Well, it’s more an army base than a brave citizen’s home. No wonder just a few km from the fiercely disputed Arunachal Pradesh border with India. Whatever – politics.
The road follows the holy mountain of the Bon. All full of prayer flags.
A few km after Nyingchi starts the ascent to a pass of 4700m. Not a very high 1, but famous for its unstable geological conditions; especially during rainy weather. We’re slightly astonished not to see any oncoming vehicles – nevertheless, quite happy to have an empty road.
A few km later a queue: a few 100 cars waiting in the middle of the road, some rather reminding us of a camping holiday in rainy weather.
We just hear that the road is blocked. Finally we walk some 2km – quite a massive landslide blocking the road. A few hours later some heavy equipment arrives – could not be in place earlier because waiting cars completely blocked the road. And 5h later the wonder happens: we move on. By now 2pm and still 350 km to drive on a rather bumpy road.
We drive up to the pass. The construction site continues, it takes quite some time to drive these few km.
On the top we’re promised that we’re now out of the road construction sites – except for a very few places. Happy to have escaped these bumpy’n’muddy gravel roads we’re ready to drive as quickly as possible to Ranwuzen. Definitely the road improves on the way down to the valley.
We arrive at the village of Lulang. 100s of cars waiting to drive up to the pass. It seems they didn’t open the road in the opposite direction, yet. Just a few days before the Chinese New Year and thus everybody’s holidays starting and already 1000s of tourists are on the road to visit Lhasa.
We follow the picturesque Parlung Zangbo Gorge, cross the river on a brand new suspension bridge.
By now it’s after 5pm and still more than 200km left. And rain starts again; it’s getting foggy. Finally also the road gets worse again. We start an intense preparation of our guide to analyse if we may slightly shorten our trip today. We calculate that we could not reach Ranwuzen before 10pm. As we’re still in Tibet, Thubten cannot take a decision. He calls the police, explains in all details the delay due to the landslide and the construction work on the road. He reminds them of the incredible danger of driving at night along a river in foggy weather with all these yaks, mutton, bears and cyclists on the road.
Finally we get the permission to stay in Bomi, just around 50km away. But we have to stay in the only hotel certified to accommodate foreigners.
Definitely, it has just been the right time to receive this delectable message. The road converts again into a continuous construction site. Now for the whole 50km up to Bomi. And as bad as never before. We need more than 2h to reach the town. Finally, today we just made 230km.
By 9pm we check in our certified hotel and recover with a couple of beers and a fat Chinese dinner.
We decide tomorrow we’ll get back to our approved itinerary. Thus to get up early and to drive all the 430km to Zogang.
Zogang, 30th September
Then we’re back on the road. Weather is fine; according to our guide the road will either be good, reasonable, not so good or bad. So we’re slightly optimistic to be able to cover the 430km.
At the beginning the roads is not really good. The construction site continues; thus another 2h for the 1st 40km.
Nevertheless, some beautiful views on the mountains.
Then the road definitely improves. Either it’s newly constructed or it’s the old 1 which is still pretty ok.
So we’re able to speed up: 50km/h instead of 30. We further follow the Purlang Zangbo River in its deep valley surrounded by the snow covered mountains of the Chinese Himalaya.
After 130km, 4h, we reach Lake Ranwu and the village of Ranwuzhen. The place we initially wanted to reach yesterday. Many Chinese tourists along the seashore – no idea why; the lake doesn’t look particularly interesting.
On to Baxoi.
The admin. center of this lost part of Tibet. Suddenly Thubten, our guide, explains us that we need to register with the police in town. Unfortunately, they just went for lunch break. Knowing a little about Chinese Authorities’ habits we install ourselves for a longer time in a dusty street of the town. 2h later the guys are back and Thubten gets his stamp on 1 of his papers. No idea if it’s the stamp he got on the paper on the left – maybe it was a different 1. Whatever, we’re slightly frustrated for not being informed earlier by the guide about this issue. The whole morning we have been in a rush because we want to arrive in Zogang before night.
Around 3pm we’re back on the road. Still some 200km to drive. Still we follow the river.
After some time the confluence with a much bigger, loamy river in a rocky gorge. After Bramaputra we arrive at the 2nd big river: the Salween. For the 1st time since we have left Xinxiang 3 weeks ago we’re below 1000m. We follow the river until late afternoon. Then the surprise: The road turns – and we have another mountain pass to drive: Zar Gama La. Again some 4618m high. As we’re at a quite low altitude it’s clear it will take some time all the way up. So no more chance to arrive in Zogang before night.
Definitely it’s a long’n’winding road. Countless hairpins, but also marvellous views.
It’s early evening and still some 100km to drive. Monika starts explaining to everybody that she will never drive thru China again and anyway in future she will never drive any longer distance than 50km. Ignoring all that we pass some nice villages, drive slower as it gets darker and finally arrive in Zogang at 9pm. To start with a visit to the police to register. The guide has some discussions because they don’t want any foreigners staying in this hospitable town. Then just in time for a couple of beers and some deep-fried animals.
Deqen, 1st October
Shortly after Zogang the 1st pass. Nearly 5000m, up to the snow. Then a steep descent with many hairpins to the Mekong Valley.
After crossing the upper Mekong River, called Lancang, another mountain chain. The 2nd pass. Now going high up in a very steep valley. On 4700m we reach the top, …
… then down to the upper Mekong river again.
For some km we follow the valley. Then another mountain pass: Number 3 leading back to the Mekong Valley. This area is quite populated. Used for agric. production. Small villages with beautiful houses.
Then on the top 1 of the most famous views of east Tibet.
On the way down we follow again the upper Mekong River, …
Already from far already the Meili Xueshan mountain range is visible, …
… later on the whole range with the Mingyong Glacier.
At 8pm we finally arrive in Deqen.
Shangri-La, 2nd October
Day 5: the last 1 on our way to Yunnan’s great old towns. Just some 200km left to reach the town of Shangri-La. A last pass to climb, not very high, just a little over 4000m. On the way a last glance of the Mountains – sharing with many Chinese tourists. On top a view resembling to the Alps.
… to reach after 3h Shangri-La with its nearby lake. Here we’re on the Tea Horse Trail. Never heard about it? Here’s the opportunity to wiki it.
Shangri-La, initially called Zhongdian has very little to do with its famous counterpart descript in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. Probably its current name is rather linked to a tourist manager in desperate need to attract people to fill up some lousy hotels. Whatever. The town had a very atmospheric old town. Until 2014. Then a fire destroyed it all. No problem in China. Rather an opportunity to make the place even more awesome and attractive. As most tourists are Chinese. Especially for them they increased considerably its attraction. For us it may sometimes look slightly strange. Nevertheless here it is the newly build old town of Zhongdian, now called Shangrila.
Before we can visit this exiting world we have to say goodbye to Thubten, our guide. As we’re definitely leaving Tibet we have to change guides. The new 1, also called Thubten, quickly introduces himself, has some problems to find accommodation for us and finally shows us a really raunchy hotel before he tells us that we’ll meet tomorrow. And away he is – great guy.
There’s also an old temple on a hill with the world’s tallest prayer wheel.
Nevertheless, the rest of it is all optimized to Chinese taste. Newly constructed, highly decorated houses with shops selling everything Chinese tourists dream of. Disney World could learn of it. Even investors in the Alps looking for the kitschiest chalet ever built would find a model.
In the late afternoon traditional folk dances on the main square. Some local women in their local dresses. And of course all the Chinese tourists learning it for the next selfie session in 1 of Shanghai’s clubs.
Lijiang, 5th October
It’s just about 200km to Lijiang – the most famous of Yunnan’s old towns and therefore a World Heritage Site.
On the way the opportunity to visit the Tiger Leaping Gorge of Yangtze River, big river number 3. The deepest gorge in the world. It’s not easy to get there. As it’s still Chinese New Year holiday some other people had the same idea. Thus a huge traffic jam. With a lot of patience we finally arrive at the view point everybody wants to reach.
Together with a few 1000 tourists we walk down to the rapids.
There again everything is optimized for nice pictures. The red painted concrete tigers, the different platforms; we even have the impression they formed Yangtze River to fit into a digital camera.
Later we dive a little further along the gorge. No more cars, we’re all alone. Maybe the road is too narrow for New-Year-Holiday-tourist-cars.
Late afternoon we arrive in Lijiang. We’re on the way to the accommodation our new guide proposed. Since we have approached the outskirts of the town he’s busy with a city map and an app on his cellphone. Nevertheless, we have the impression he wants to make an extended sightseeing tour before arriving at the hotel. We drive straight, to the left, to the right, a few times left, right or strait again – just according to his instructions. Lijiang’s old town we circumnavigate twice.
Finally we learn that the hotel is not at the place it should be. Maybe somebody moved it overnight? He asks us to stop. Of course in the middle of the road. We create a considerable traffic jam while our guide tries to ask somebody. After a short while we see him in an intense discussion with a couple of policemen. It looks like they’re speaking about Prado’s behaviour in the middle of the road. No problem. Then time for another round around the old town.
Later we’re back at the place with all those policemen. Our guide proposes to ask again. He gets out of the car, disappears. Some 10’ later he’s back. Bad news. We cannot drive to the hotel – at least at its present location. Maybe he could find another 1. Prado still in the middle of the road gets slightly impatient. We tell our dear guide, that we do not absolutely appreciate the way he tries to find us a hotel – and it might be a good idea to contact our travel agent in nearby Dali to clarify. He takes his bag and off he is.
And now we’re illegal in China. Without a watchdog, driving a car. To avoid further socializing with the police we dive on to find a hotel. Quickly we find 1. Not the cheapest, but the nearest. We phone the travel agent – he promises to send a replacement by tomorrow noon. Should you ever meet the guy – just avoid him. He does definitely not know anything.
The next morning a visit to the old town. Somehow and after some search we find a few traditional, old houses in cobblestone streets. Probably they’re the alibi for the town to be a World Heritage Site.
In many other streets restoration of old houses was done to Chinese perfection resulting in houses you would expect in Orlando’s Disney World. Therefore many streets rather resemble to backdrops for giant shopping malls for everything Chinese tourists will hate once they’re back home. Interestingly, we even found a probably quite famous artist – at least you get the impression if you consider the guys he already has portrayed.
Fortunately we discovered a huge hall with hundreds of food stalls. A paradise for those selecting interesting local specialities. And what a selection. Most interestingly those protein rich bites they offer in all variations.
Early afternoon, as promised by our travel agency, the new guide arrives. Sumon. What a difference to the guy we had lost yesterday. To proof his knowledge we visit the towns in the vicinity of Lijiang:
Shule and Baisha. The 1st one a very short visit. As the town did not receive enough tourists, a development company simply built the ultimate perfect Chinese old town. Even compared to Shangri-La they could considerably raise the kitsch factor. Full of visitors buying souvenirs.
Then to Baisha. Very small old town; probably too tiny to be improved for local taste. Therefore it remains quite authentic.
Dali, 6th October
Dali just some 100km from Lijiang on a newly built highway. On the way we have our steep learning curve: By now Chinese road signs have an English translation. And we have to correct our interpretations of the signs: no snoring if you sleep during driving means in reality that you should not sleep when you snore while you’re driving – if we remember well. Don’t empty your bottle of wine on your steering wheel (even if it’s a bad 1) means in reality that the guys don’t want you to drive during the time you’re drunken.
Even their building for the traditional Chinese opera survived.
At the parking suddenly we meet the 1st ‘n’only overlanders we’ve ever seen in China. 2 Dutch guys also driving from Kyrgyzstan. We consider that the ultimate proof that we’re not the only crazy 1s in the world.
Then we drive on to Dali. We arrive in the afternoon, just in time for a visit to an old town completely transformed into Disney World for Chinese tourists. Formerly having been a hangout for western backpackers extremely few of this area remained untouched. Only some clear signs of it’s importance for the Flower Power movement remain – even if slightly adapted to a new environment.
Dali’s old town mainly consists of a long main road and some side streets. During the Chinese New Year of course all completely overcrowded with tourists making selfies or taking pics of their beloved 1s.
Tired of taking photos? – no problem. The whole old town is a huge shopping mall with great opportunities to buy souvenirs.
Nevertheless, some old buildings still remain a little outside the tourist mainstream. Imagining they were not converted into souvenir shops you may still have an idea how Dali looked like some 15 years ago.
Well, so far Disney World. Fortunately we discover another great food stall for dinner and some beautiful Karaoke bars to observe – not to sing.
So far our adventures from this exiting part of the world.
More about different things and a new country in our next post.