Something’s not quite right. As I slowly awaken from my slumber and notice the day’s first light peeking through our window, the only thing I hear are birds chirping. Even though we’re staying in a guesthouse…there’s no shouting, no slamming of doors, no heavy footsteps and, much to my surprise, no early morning throat clearing.All of these have been omnipresent during most of our hostel stays over the last 8 weeks, and now that they’re missing I find it utterly odd. But then I remember….
We’re in Laos now!
At approximately 4pm yesterday afternoon, we left one of the most fascinating, intriguing and totally perplexing countries Chris and I have ever visited. We exited China after two of the most memorable travel months we’ve ever had, and we miss the place already.
I don’t miss my morning hostel alarms mind you (much to your surprise, I’m sure!), I don’t miss the smoggy city riding and most of all I don’t miss the time restrictions we had during the first month of our traverse, when we raced like crazy to reach Shangrila just so we could extend our visa. But what I do miss is the amazing food, the friendly and helpful locals and, more than anything else, the abundant and varied wilderness. Now that’s something we never expected to find! Much to our surprise, we discovered that China is, in fact, a bushcamping haven bar none.
Whenever you hear of people visiting China, the only things they ever seem to mention are the masses of people, the strange food, the humongous skyscrapers, the Great Wall and equally big pandas. Natural attractions always seem to be overlooked, if barely mentioned, which is why they really did take us by surprise. To be completely honest, I never really thought China had much of them to boast about, yet as it turns out, they are the one thing I shall boast about most.
If you want to read all about the Great Wall, Giant Pandas and terracotta soldiers, I suggest you buy a China guide book. If you want to know why we now consider China one of the most amazing overlanding destinations on the planet, however, then do read on…
China: where Mother Nature hides her most precious jewels
During the first week of our traverse, we crossed the mighty Takla Makan Desert, the world’s second largest ‘shifting sand dune’ desert. It was insanely barren and flat as a door knob, bar a few random collection of sand dunes which were ideal to camp behind. This mammoth sandy world covers a mind-boggling area of over 372,000 square kilometres!
Man has been trying to fight this sneaky desert for centuries now. Parts of the Ancient Silk Road were built purposely to skirt it and even in more recent times, highways, villages and farms are periodically swallowed up by the stealth movement of sand.The dunes are indeed mobile…by early morning they were always attempting to shift right into our tent!
The Takla Makan, by the way, is the furthest point on earth from the sea, which also makes it incredibly arid and windy, due to it lying on the rain shadows of the great Himalayan Mountain Range. The dryness of the place has proven to be a fabulous preserver of goodies. The Taklan has unearthed several ancient artefacts in recent years, including superbly preserved mummies believed to be over 4,000 years old.
After the desert came the awe inspiring Tibetan Plateau (otherwise known as the Himalayan Plateau) another one of Mother Nature’s awe inspiring creations. The world’s largest and highest mountain plateau covers an area of two and a half MILLION square kilometres, which equates to about five times the size of France! Being that this area is so large and high, it is often referred to as ‘the Roof of the World’. Although, if memory serves me right, I also read the same thing about the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. Oh well, I’ve ridden through both now, so it’s safe to say I conquered the roof of the world on two wheels…somewhere and at some stage.
The average elevation up here is just over 4500m, which in Laura-speak, translates to an almost 2-week long case of the nipple freeze. Of all our crossings, I deem to be the hardest yet also the most fascinating. Although the Chinese government has gone to much effort to dilute the Tibetan culture, there is not much it can really do at this altitude. Relocating Han Chinese to outnumber Tibetans may work in big cities, but they have yet to come up with a genial way to lure city dwellers to live this close to the sky. Nothing grows up here, farming is minimal and only the toughest of well equipped mountain dwellers could ever make a go of it. We may not have been able to cross the official border into the Tibetan Province, but if this is not Tibet…then I don’t know what is.
C’mon! We saw a Tibetan Mastiff outside a Tibetan temple!
I rest my case.
The Tibetans are a colourful and truly resilient bunch. They adorn each hill and mountain top with endless strings of prayer flags and themselves in the most eclectic mix of clothing attire I’ve ever seen. During our fortnight crossing we came across countless temples and settlements, all of them distinctly Buddhist.
The landscape was utterly surreal and the immense mountain ranges which majestically frame the plateau made us feel so incredibly small. Tiny. Insignificant.
As we slowly descended from the vertiginous heights of the Himalayas, we finally met with the fertile basin of the three most famous rivers in this region: the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween. The lusciousness of the valley was a welcome reprieve from the harshness of the plateau.
It is here that we were left spellbound by a place I had barely even heard of before: the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Regarded as one of the deepest and most spectacular gorges on the planet, (not to mention most impressively named!), Tiger Leaping Gorge is an absolute feast for all the senses. We were lucky enough to enjoy a blissful break in the bad weather spell (it was rain season after all), scored a superlative hotel room for $10 and indulged in a few fantastic hiking days.
As we took a rest at the bottom of the gorge on the first day, I felt an unrelenting desire to pay homage to Mother Nature’s omnipresent power. Considering I am neither religious nor too spiritual, it says quite a lot about the overwhelming force of this
This hiker’s paradise just blew me A.W.A.Y.
By now you’re probably having the same thought we had, after we had spent weeks lost in this natural wonderland: where on earth are the 1.3 BILLION people who live here?
Fact: 90% of China’s population live in only one third of the country…leaving the great majority of it blissfully un-crowded. Whenever you read that bush camping in China is impossible because land is either taken up by people or military posts…feel free to roll your eyes. It’s total rubbish. Sure, there may be a LOT of people in this country, and there may also be an incredible amount of military owned fields, but the amount of ‘bush’, which if free and ideal to camp on, is mind-boggling!
This photo epitomizes ‘our’ China: a land of beautiful wilderness and, now and then, a village or two.
Due to the fact that we actually did want to meet some Chinese during our trip, we decided to break up our escapade into nature with visits to the most venerated and ancient towns of Yunnan Province. Both Shuhe and Shaxi date back over eight centuries, when they were important refilling points along the famed Ancient Tea and Horse Road of southern China. Both were picturesque, restful and completely charming.
Being the nature lovers that we are, however, it wasn’t long until we felt the itch to retreat back into the wilderness. This time, on our slow ride south towards the Laotian border, we rode alongside splendid rice terraces and jungles and forests. Although we had not yet crossed the border…we could literally smell, feel and even touch the tropical (and a little bit sweaty) warmth of South East Asia.
These are the scenes which accompanied us during our last days in China.
As we attempt to check out of China at the Laotian border, I am unfortunately reminded as to why this country has not yet hit foreign tourism superstardom. Out of nowhere comes a request for a 3000RMB (US$500) ‘exit charge’. The country may indeed be a traveller’s dream destination…were it not for its bureaucratic hurdles one must overcome in order to get in. And apparently out, as well.
Nevertheless, after a considerable and rather amusing stand-off, we did manage to get through. We left China with the optimistic thought that from here, it will only get easier for foreign overlanders to cross Asia with their own vehicle. After all, we seem to be the first to have traversed the country independently and without a guide. And if we could manage that considerable feat…then so can everyone else.
The rewards are here for the taking.