Tag: Buddhism

Taking the Train in China: What You Can Expect

 

How to Take the Train in China

Here are the basic steps you will need to follow for a successful journey

Step 1: Arrive at the railway station at least 1.5 hours before your train departs

Step 2: Pass through the security check and ticket check at the station’s entrance

Step 3: Find the right waiting room and wait for boarding

Step 4: Check in at the right boarding gate

Step 5: Go to the train platform for boarding

Step 5: Settle in, and store your the luggage and sit down (or lie down) to enjoy your trip

Step 6: Upon arrival, get off and exit to your destination.

 

Now let’s look into the details of this process…

 

7 Things to Know Before Riding A Train in China

You may have heard that train travel in China can be a delightful adventure and this is absolutely true. My family recently took the train from Xining to Chengdu and we thoroughly enjoyed the journey in our private soft sleeper rooms.  Our kids (ages 4 and 6) really loved the experience of being in their own bunk bed and looking out the window while the beautiful, lush Sichuan countryside passed by.  The whole 14 hour drive was quite magical for them.

The train in China is really a memorable experience – for adults and children alike. There are many times in our lives when we just have between 12-50 hours to relax, read a book, and watch beautiful dream-like landscapes through a train window.

But there are a few things you need to know before you depart on your journey to make it a success (and not a stressful undertaking).

Read on for things you should know before taking a train in China, like how to get to/through the railway station, how passengers are searched at security checkpoints, what drinks/food can be purchased on the train, and what the toilets are like. When you travel, it is the details that will make the difference in your journey and knowledge is power 🙂

1.) How to Read Your Train Ticket 

Station Information

Go to the Right Departure Station

Check the departure station carefully. Most cities in China have more than one railway station and they are often far away from each other (usually 30-90 minutes away on different sides of the city). It is recommended that you find out how to get to your station in sufficient time before your departure. And make sure you are going to the right station.  If you are arranging a taxi or preparing to board a subway or bus to your train station, make sure you check with your hotel staff first or travel agency just to make sure you know exactly which station to get to and how to get there.

train ticket
A train ticket from Guilin Railway Station to the Liuzhou Railway Station 
(NOTE:  This is train #D8265 / Train Car #: 3 / And Seat #: 6A/ This train departs at 9:50am on April 8, 2016)

If you accidentally go to the wrong station, you will find that the electronic boards do NOT show your train’s schedule at all (this is your first hint you may have gone to the wrong station). By the time you realize your mistake, you likely will not have enough time to transfer to to the correct station and you therefore will probably miss your train as it will take more than hour to transfer to the right departure station.

If you miss your train, you can make an alteration at the ticket window in the correct departure station for the next train on the same day. The alteration is free of charge, and you will get a refund for the difference if the next train’s ticket is less expensive, or you will be asked for an additional payment if the next train’s ticket costs more.

Don’t Get Off at the Wrong Station

It is also important to correctly read the information for the arrival station. For example, the southbound train from Beijing will first reach Guilin North Railway Station (桂林北站) and then Guilin Railway Station (桂林站). So make sure you know which station you are getting off at.

Getting off the train at the wrong destination can cause you to pay a penalty fare if you continue the journey too far, or require a trip across the city if you get off too early. If you have scheduled a pick up at your destination this may also cause a great deal of confusion with your party as they may be waiting and looking for you for hours at a station you are not at.

Pay attention to the announcements on the train as they will tell you which station you have arrived at. If you take an overnight train, a member of staff will wake you up to exchange your sleeper card for your original paper train ticket about half an hour before arriving at your destination.

Here is a tip once you have reached your destination:

Look at the arrival time for your train and set your alarm for 1 hour before that time.  Sometimes trains arrive a few minutes early or late for their scheduled arrival times so make sure you account for this.  Once the train stops you may only  have one or two minutes to exit (especially if your train is continuing onto another destination).  So make sure you are all packed and you have all your charging cords, electronic devices, and all your luggage all packed and ready to go.

Get a visual idea of how to read China train tickets.

2.) Luggage Allowance — Pack Smartly

a porter at guilin railway station

Sometimes the excitement and anticipation of travel is half the fun, so make sure that you leave plenty of time to pack for your travel and get all those last minute items. Separate your belongings into large luggage and small carry-on items. Important things, such as travel documents, tickets, money, and valuable items should be kept on you at all times. Having a fanny pack, day pack, or purse is handy. The outside of train stations are notorious for pickpockets so keep your things close to you and always be mindful of your luggage and do not leave items unattended. Remember to put your tickets and passport away safely after the ticket checkpoints. If you lose these – your vacation will suddenly not be so fun.

Packing light is important. You can find all kinds of tips about packing light on the internet and everyone has their own style of packing. If you are not able to lift your luggage above your head, the train stewards can assist you in this task. Often times, luggage can either be placed under your hard or soft sleeper bed or in a public overhead compartment (which has no lock or door). Therefore, it is important to have your luggage zipped up or closed securely using a combination lock.

When taking an overnight train, you should consider taking flip-flops, bathroom supplies (toilet paper and a toothbrush), and perhaps earplugs and an eye mask. Take a book or an iPod to help pass the time.

Carry-On Luggage Regulations

  • Ordinary passengers: 20 kg (44 pounds)
  • Children with a half-price ticket (1.2m–1.5m) or no ticket (under 1.2 m): 10 kg (22 pounds)
  • The total length of each item cannot exceed 160 cm, unless it is rod-shaped.

The above limitation is not applicable to wheelchairs, which can be taken on to the train for free.

The limitations for luggage are not as strict as they are for airplanes.

Senior travelers or passengers with excessive luggage can hire a porter at the station entrance — they are easily spotted as they wear sleeveless red jackets and red hats. The price is approximately 10 to 15 yuan. They will help to load the luggage onto the train. Beware of people that offer to help you carry your luggage who do not wear the official train uniform. These people will rip you off to carry your luggage only for a few minutes and they should be avoided.

3.) Arrive At the Station 2 Hours Before Your Train Departs

Arriving at a train station generally follows the same rules and processes that you would follow if you were to arrive at an airport.  If you are not a fan of taking risks, it is always better to arrive early at the railway station (especially if you have to pick up your tickets at the station). Nobody likes waiting around, but we suggest that you arrive 2 hours  before your train’s departure time.

Here are a few reasons to leave yourself a little extra time:

Leave Extra Time to Get to the Station —In Case of Traffic, Getting Lost, and Crowds

Some railway stations can be as vast as an airport and are situated a long way from the city center. It’s a good idea to leave your hotel or last activity in plenty of time in case of traffic, queues, crowds, or in the event of getting lost. Give yourself enough time to enjoy a relaxing journey. Usually 2 hours is enough, but the time can be reduced if going to a very small, local train station.

There Are Many Things to Do Before Boarding— Long Distances and Lines

guilin train station
A crowded train station

The distances between the ticket office, security check, waiting room, and station platform can be quite long, and it is sometimes necessary to walk from one side of the station to the other.

Remember that you are not doing this alone; there will be hundreds of people doing the same thing, meaning that you might be standing in waiting lines for a long time (especially around holidays and times of high-season travel such as Chinese New Year, October Holiday, and May Holiday). From the moment you arrive at the train station, you will likely need to be queuing in crowded lines (And remember- Chinese people do not always form or respect an orderly single-file line. So you may have to be a little aggressive to maintain your spot in line).

At the station entrance you will need to pick up your ticket at the “ShouPiaoChu” or 售票处. This is often separate from the train station entrance itself and they may not allow you into the station until you have been to the nearby ticket pick up office to get your ticket.  Here at the ticket pick up gate, you will have to stand in line (maybe a half an hour or more, unless you’ve used a ticket delivery service or got your tickets delivered in advance to your hotel), then pass through a ticket and ID check followed by a security check.  After this you will need to locate and walk to your train’s specific waiting area, then, after a 10-15 minute walk through a busy station, will need to wait again in line at the waiting room ticket gate.

xian north railway station
Explore the train station if you get to the station early.

Things to Do If You Get There Too Early

No time needs to be wasted, even if you get there early. For first-timers, early arrival at the railway station gives you a good chance to explore the station and observe the locals. You can purchase some food or drinks at the shops so that you won’t go hungry during the journey. If you are traveling with kids, an early arrival gives you some time to calm them down and prepare for a good trip.

Bear in mind that the station will stop the check-in facility 5 minutes before the train departs. So don’t lose yourself in the stores at the train station. You are recommended to get to the waiting room at least 30 minutes before the train departs (especially if you want to find a seat amidst 100’s of other passengers waiting for the same destination).

4.) Security Checks

Prepare Your Passport and Ticket

security check

All passengers and luggage are required to pass through a security check at the station entrance. Please prepare your train ticket and passport (or Mainland Travel Permit). You need to line up for the security check, just like at an airport. After the security check keep your passport and train ticket on your person, and don’t lock them in your suitcase, because you are going to need them for another ticket check or two when you board the train.

There may already be a long line at the entrance so, as we have already mentioned, you are recommended to arrive at the train station early.

5.) Boarding Smoothly

Getting to the Right Waiting Room, Gate, Platform, Car, and Seat

Find the Right Waiting Room Using the LED Screens

beijing west railway station
An LED screen at Beijing West Railway Station

After the security check, you need to find the right waiting room. A train station may have many waiting rooms for different trains. And usually the information on the screen is in Chinese only, although some screens display both English and Chinese.

Look up at the large LED screens for your train number, and see which waiting room is allocated to your train number. Your train number is a letter with numbers displayed on the top middle part of your train ticket, such as G655 or D3201. A large LED screen shows different trains’ departure schedules in rotation, so you might have to wait for the screen to change once or twice to see your train information.

Usually the waiting room information shows the floor and room number, such as”2楼1候”,meaning ‘2nd floor 1st waiting room’. You could ask someone near you for help to get to the right waiting room, by pointing at your ticket then the LED screen, then saying, “Wǒqùnǎr?”(我去哪儿/wo choo narr/ ‘I go where?’), or read the Chinese yourself.

Get to the Right Gate

check in gate
An LED screen of check-in gates

A waiting room may not only have one platform gate (like in an airport). There may be several gates going to different platforms to board different trains, so don’t line up at the wrong gate.There are generally rows of seats either side of a gate’s lining up aisle.

LED screens for each gate in each waiting room show different trains’ numbers, departure times, and platform information. If you know Chinese, you can listen to the broadcasts for boarding information.

Get to the Right Platform

Once you get to the right gate, generally, you can check-in with your train ticket 15 minutes before departure. Before you walk along the long corridors to the platform, look up at the LED screen for the last time and find your platform number. Look for your platform number showing which stairway to walk down to get to your platform.

Getting to Your Seat/Bunk

seat number
Seat number sign on a bullet train

Check your train ticket for your car number (listed as: 车 on your ticket) as you descend to the platform. There will be staff at each train car door. You could show your ticket to a member of staff. He/she will check that you are boarding the right train car. The character 车 denotes your car number.

Once on the right car, find your bunk number (shown by 铺 on your ticket: 上 for top, 中for middle, 下 for bottom), or seat number (shown by 座 or “seat” on your ticket), usually displayed on the luggage racks around head height.

Chinese “Cheat Sheet” for Getting Help

You could carry a card (or an image on your device) listing useful sentences written in Chinese to find your waiting area, platform, coach, and seat, and show these sentences to any staff member or passer-by, along with your ticket(s):

Chinese English
我搭这趟火车, 请问我的候车室在哪里? I am taking this train; would you please tell me where the waiting hall is?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我在哪个站台上车? I am taking this train; would you please tell me which platform I should go to?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我在哪个车厢? I am taking this train; would you please tell me which coaches I should board?
我搭这趟火车, 请问我的座位是哪个? I am taking this train; would you please tell me where my seat is?

6.) Know What’s on the Train

Food, Water, and Toilets

Different trains offer different services and facilities. High-speed trains are modern and comfortable, while normal speed trains may not be so convenient for foreign travelers.

G, D, and C: High Speed Trains — Modern Facilities for a Convenient Journey

When taking high-speed trains, lettered G, D, or C, you can enjoy a more comfortable train journey.

Seating: High-speed trains are fully air-conditioned. The seats are adjustable, just like seats on a plane, for you to sit comfortably. What’s more, there is a 220V AC socket under each seat for your devices.

Food: High-speed trains offer different types of set meals (including Muslim food).You can go to the restaurant car to have a meal, where they offer made-to-order meals at 20 to 50 yuan per dish. Or you can buy a set meal from the attendant’s trolley. You can also go to the canteen bar to buy some snacks and drinks.

Water: Free boiled/cold water is available between the coaches.

Toilets: Chinese/Western-style toilets and handicapped restrooms are available between the coaches. However, the toilets have usually run out of toilet paper or don’t provide toilet paper in the first place.

LED screen: Every coach with an LED screen indicates the speed of the train.

Luggage racks: There are luggage racks over the seats at either side of a coach. You can take a 24-inch suitcase on board and place it on a luggage rack. There are some shelves between the coaches for large baggage. Shelves for large suitcases, suitable for a 70cm (28-inch) suitcase.

K and T Number Trains: Normal Speed Trains — Not as Comfortable

Normal speed trains are not as convenient and comfortable as high-speed trains. If you have to take such trains, you are recommended to buy tickets for soft seats or hard/soft sleepers. If you choose to book the hard seats for your party, you should be prepared to sit next to a lot of Chinese men playing cards, making loud jokes, and smoking cigarettes all around you for long hours. The hard seats are slightly cheaper than the hard or soft sleeper beds but offer little in the way of privacy or cleanliness.

Seating: Hard seats are not adjustable. There are no power outlets. Normal speed trains, apart from the oldest number-only ones, are fully air-conditioned.

Food: Some trains don’t have a restaurant car, but most T and K trains do, and there is often a staff member who walks through the coaches selling somewhat overpriced simple small items, snacks, and drinks from a food trolley.

Our suggestion is to purchase some simple food and drinks before boarding, such as a takeout from KFC or McDonald’s.

Water: There is free boiled/cold water is available between each coach car. Make sure that the water is labeled as “drinkable” because all the other faucets on the train provide water that is NOT suitable for drinking.  There are sometimes hot water kettles available in the soft sleeper cabins where you can store your boiled water in case you want to prepare some instant noodles or Starbucks VIA coffee.

Toilets: Most trains only have Chinese-style squat toilets, which are usually quite wet and dirty. Some soft sleepers / deluxe soft sleepers have Western-style toilets which are a little cleaner. In either case, keep your bathroom expectations pretty low and bring lots of hand sanitizer and wet wipes.  Never enter a bathroom without shoes as the floors can be quite wet and messy.

Luggage racks: After you board the train, you can place your baggage on the luggage rack above the seats. If you are on a sleeper carriage, you can place your baggage on the opposite side of the berths, under the lower berth, or under the small desk in your compartment.

5 Places to Buy Food for Your Train Trip in China

Chinese people always buy snacks for short-distance trips and food for long-distance train trips. Generally, the food prices at the train station and on the train are higher than those in the outside restaurants or stores. If possible, you should take your own food or snacks. I have some friends that always prepare a nice bottle of wine and some imported cheese and crackers for their journey and think this is a great practice.  With a little preparation, the train ride can be a fun little traveling picnic!

There are five places you can buy snacks or food in and around the train:

  • Shops or fast-food chain restaurants around your hotel or city center, such as Subway, KFC and McDonald’s. You can buy the food in advance then go to the train station to board your train. You have more options if you prepare the food in advance.
  • Small shops at the train station. There are lots of shops at the station. You will find fruit, bread, milk, and eggs in the shops and these are something similar to what we would consider American “gas station food”.  You can pay for these items using Chinese yuan cash OR Wechat or Alipay
  • The platform at the train station. When the train stops at a station, you can get off the train to buy some food. There are vendors selling local dishes or more simple food. You will find food like boiled corn cobs and tea-flavored boiled eggs. But make sure you only take a few minutes as you do not want the train to leave without you!
  • There is a dining car on long-distance trains that is open to all passengers and this area sells snacks, beer, and soft drinks. There is a canteen bar on high-speed trains. Try to go there as early or as late as possible because it will be very crowded at meal times. The dining car offers prepared and heated packed meals and the prices range from 15 to 45 yuan.
  • Railway attendants take trolleys through the cars frequently and you will hear them yelling by your cabin. There are packed meals at meal times and each one is about 25 yuan. The Chinese meal includes rice, meat, and vegetables. You can buy instant noodles too (which almost all the Chinese eat). There is free boiled water on each car. At other times, the attendants also sell drinks, snacks, packed fruit, and some toys for kids.

7.) Travel Safely

Train travel in China is a fairly safe and standardized process, especially when compared to traveling in India or Nepal.  Yet good advice never hurts.

When you are traveling with young children, keep them close by your side and keep an eye on them. Don’t allow kids to run up and down the train coach/platform, or lose them in the station. Beware of pinching fingers in the (automatic) doors. Hold onto the hand knobs and rails while walking inside the coach. The bathroom floor can be slippery (and sometimes a little nasty), so be careful in there.

Don’t leave your valuable belongings unattended. There is a power socket under the seat (on high-speed trains) or on the small table (on non-high-speed overnight trains), which can be used to recharge your devices. Never leave your valuables unattended. When taking an overnight train, keep your carry-on items close to your body. Your passport and ticket should always be kept with you.

 

Travel in China With Us

If you are planning to take a train during your China trip, please see our recommended tours below for inspiration. You can enjoy hassle free travel with Elevated Trips. All you have to do is arrive in the train or plane station and we take care of everything else.

If you have more questions on train travel, do not hesitate to contact us here.

 

Visiting the Pandas of Chengdu

 

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, literally “black and white cat-foot”) has a very cute name in  Chinese: 大熊猫; pinyin: dà xióng māo.  This literally means “Big bear cat”.  The giant panda is also known more commonly as the panda bear or simply panda, and is a bear native to south central China, particularly the lush bamboo forests of Sichuan Province.

It is easily recognized by the large, distinctive black patches around its eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. The name “giant panda” is sometimes used to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the giant panda’s diet is over 99% bamboo. Giant pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents, or carrion. In captivity, they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food.

Here are 10 facts from WWF, the World Wildlife Foundation (whose logo is actually a giant panda) about these cuddly animals:

 

10. The first panda came to the United States in 1936—a cub to a zoo in Chicago. It took another 50 years before the States would see another.

9. A newborn panda cub is 1/900th the size of its mother and is comparable to the length of a stick of butter.

8. A panda’s paw has six digits—five fingers and an opposable pseudo-thumb (actually an enlarged wrist bone) it uses merely to hold bamboo while eating.

7. Of all the members of the bear family, only sloth bears have longer tails than pandas.

6. Pandas rely on spatial memory, not visual memory.

5. Female pandas ovulate once a year and are fertile for only two or three days.

4. The giant panda’s genome was sequenced in 2009, according to the journal Nature.

3. The WWF logo was inspired by Chi-Chi, a giant panda brought to the London Zoo in 1961, when WWF was being created. Says Sir Peter Scott, one of those founders and the man who sketched the first logo: “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, is endangered and one loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities. We also wanted an animal that had an impact in black and white to save money on printing costs.”

2. Historically speaking, pandas are one of the few animals whose parts have not been used in traditional Chinese medicine.

1. Approximately 99 percent of a panda’s diet—bamboo leaves and shoots—is void of much nutritional value. Its carnivore-adapted digestive system cannot digest cellulose well, thus it lives a low-energy, sedentary lifestyle but persists in eating some 60 species of bamboo. Pandas must eat upwards of 30 pounds of bamboo daily just to stay full.

 

Here are details on tickets and entry
Entrance tickets= 55 RMB/ adult
Kids under 120cm are free
Also the cost to ride the park’s golf cart shuttle is  an extra 10 RMB/ seat. The Panda Base is quite big and you will find yourself walking 5-10 km in a course of 3 hours to fully explore the entire site.  If you are traveling with young kids, have a disability, or are just short on time you might want to think about taking the shuttle as it will save you about 1 hour of walking.
Be aware that you are only allowed on 2 trips total for the shuttle (one out from the gate and one directly back to the entrance gate).
Generally, you buy the shuttle tickets right after the entrance to the park and the park shuttle takes you to the furthest point in the park.  From there you can get off and make your way slowly by foot back down to the entrance as you explore the various Panda exhibits.  At any point when you are ready to exit, you can jump back on the shuttle and it will take you directly back to the main entrance. Do not get back on the shuttle until you are ready to exit as the shuttle does not transport you from one exhibit to the next.
Park Hours:
9-6pm (Summer)
9-5pm (Winter)
(Check these hours)
There is a Bank of China ATM hidden to the right of the entrance. The park gate Accepts Wechat and Alipay and Chinese Yuan (or RMB).

Everest Base Camp, Tibet Side

Everest was first climbed by Tenzin Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in May 1953. Tenzin was a Nepalese Sherpa and the Hillary was a beekeeper from New Zealand, but the entire expedition was largely British run and organized.

As the Brits were the first to survey Everest, fly over Everest in an airplane, and for, many years to scout out its base, it was a matter of national pride for the British to “beat” the Swiss and the Russians to be the first westerners to summit the mountain.

Those responsible for planning and funding the successful 1953 British Everest Expedition were in no doubt that national pride was at stake. The British had enjoyed almost exclusive access to Everest through Tibet, granted (and sometimes strategically withheld) for the expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s. It came as something of a shock when the Nepali government decided to offer the Swiss not one, but two attempts on the mountain in 1952 – this made it absolutely clear to the Himalayan Committee (a joint committee of the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club) that the stakes had been raised. An attempt in 1953 might be the last chance for a British team to be the first to the top, with French, Russian and American climbers also hoping for a shot at the mountain. 

Organizers and mountaineers argued that economic benefits would come from this sort of national success. In 1952 the Himalayan Committee sent a training expedition to nearby mountain Cho Oyu, to try out team members and equipment. This team sent back a report stating very clearly the monetary value of a successful climb of Everest:

The difference between a successful British attempt on Everest and a Continental or Russian ascent should be worth several millions to the British government as a very considerable and badly needed fillip to national prestige. This should be convertible to cash.

Earlier, the Himalayan Committee had tried to get British climbers onto the Swiss expedition – joint prestige was better than no prestige! – but the scheme fell apart. When the plans for 1953 were drawn up the Himalayan Committee refused permission for American and European climbers to join the team, on the grounds that it should be thoroughly British in composition (or, at least, British and Commonwealth). With many organizations busy with rearmament after World War II, and some rationing still in place, the argument about ‘national prestige’ and a thoroughly ‘British’ expedition was used to get hold of crucial respiratory technology and foodstuffs.

Despite the rhetoric, a fair part of the expedition was not British at all. Aside from the obvious point about climbers from New Zealand, the entire expedition would have been impossible without the support and experience of hundreds of porters and dozens of high altitude Sherpas. Less obvious, perhaps, is the amount of foreign technology and ‘know how’ used. 

Several members of the expedition, including the physiologist Griff Pugh, went to Switzerland to talk to scientists and mountaineers about Everest. Much of the specialist equipment couldn’t be sourced in Britain, and instead Alpine nations – Switzerland, Germany, France – supplied gloves, snow shovels, tents, and so on. Military barometric chamber and aviation experiments by American mountaineering scientist Charles Houston were important to Griff Pugh’s careful techno-medical preparation. Even the food and oxygen left on the mountainside by the Swiss team were factored into the plan for the British expedition.

This sort of internationalism doesn’t always work out. The first specifically International Everest expedition, in 1971, found that Austrian crampons wouldn’t fit on German boots, and more importantly that the American oxygen masks would not fit the Sherpas. (The Americans had two styles of mask, the ‘Caucasian’, and the ‘Oriental’ which was based on Vietnamese physiognomy and was completely inappropriate for the Sherpas).

1953 was still, in lots of meaningful ways, a British success: nearly all the team members and organizers and funders were British, as was the majority of the food and equipment, and definitely the final, conclusive research by Griff Pugh. But the know-how was international. When it comes to funding science (including scientific expeditions), this can lead to dilemmas. How do we claim prestige in this mixed-up international space? How do we measure the success of national funding when ideas in one country may lead to technologies or successful expeditions or new ideas in another country? Can an invention or discovery be called ‘British’ if 80% of the science behind it was conducted elsewhere, or if half the components were made overseas? Or is it enough for the person who takes the final step – in science or on a mountain – to have a British passport?

Shigatse and Tashilunpo Monastery

With a population of 80,000 people and at an elevation of 3,840 meters, Shigatse is the 2nd largest town in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  As the seat of the Panchen Lama and the former capital of Tibet, Shigatse is a must visit stop on the road from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp.

You can spend a whole morning walking the Tashilunpo Monastery in Shigatse and then doing the pilgrimage kora around the monastery. If you have the time, spend 2 nights in this town and get refreshed before you head out into the wild highlands of Mount Everest Base Camp.

 

The drive from Lhasa to Shigatse (via Yamdrok Lake and Gyantse) is a total of 355 km.  It is best to break this drive up into two days, spending the first driving day (260km) from Lhasa to Yamdrok Lake to the Karo La Glacier to Gyantse.  And then the second day driving 90km from Gyantse to Shigatse.

 

Gyantse and Pelkor Chode Monastery

Gyantse is a small town with a population of 15,000 people that is 260 km west of Lhasa, Tibet.

The town was a main area of trade between Tibet and India, especially in wood and wool.  Gyantse is also famous for producing the best handmade carpets in Tibet.

The main attraction here is the Gyantse Kumbum Stupa, which was built in 1427 and is the tallest Stupa in Tibet at 32 meters in height.

The Kumbum Stupa is also part of the larger

Pelkor Chode Monastery complex, which was first constructed in 1418 AD.

The red-walled Pelkor Chöde was once a compound of 15 monasteries that brought together three different orders of Tibetan Buddhism – a rare instance of multidenominational tolerance. Nine of the monasteries were Gelugpa, three were Sakyapa and three belonged to the obscure Büton suborder.

What is it like to sleep in a Tibetan nomad tent?

A picture is worth a thousand words.  So we have put together this video so you can see what it is like to live like a Tibetan nomad in the grasslands:

 

 

Xining

 

西宁 Xīníng (Standard Tibetan: ཟི་ལིང་། Ziling) is the capital of Qinghai province in western China  and the largest city on the Tibetan Plateau.  As of the 2010 Chinese census, Xining had 2,208,708 inhabitants and, as such, is a modern city that offers plenty of fast food restaurants and shopping including H&M, Sephora, UniQlo, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Burger King restaurants (not to mention a fair share of knock off brands that imitate these same restaurants).

The city was a commercial hub along the Northern Silk Road’s Hexi Corridor for over 2000 years, and was a stronghold of the Han, Sui, Tang, and Song dynasties’ resistance against nomadic attacks from the west. Although long a part of Gansu province, Xining was added to Qinghai in 1928. Xining holds sites of religious significance to Muslims and Buddhists, including the Dongguan Mosque and the Kumbum Monastery (aka Ta’er Monastery 塔尔寺 ). The city lies in the Huangshui River valley and is surrounded by 3,500 meter mountain ridges on both the north and the south.  Owing to its high altitude, Xining has a cold semi-arid climate. It is connected by rail to Lhasa, Tibet and connected by high-speed rail to Lanzhou, Gansu and Ürümqi, Xinjiang. The Xining XNN Caojiapu airport does not directly serve international destinations but this airport can easily be reached, often in 2 hours, from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Xian, Lhasa, and most other Chinese cities.

The climate in Xining is characterized as having an arid climate with little rain and has plenty of sunshine; it is dry and windy in spring, and has a short summer season and a long and cold winter. While the winters are generally below freezing for 4-5  months, the dry climate in the rain shadow of the Himalayas yields little snow and, on any given day in winter, most travelers experience cold air and brilliant blue skies.  Xining is known around China as the “Summer Capital” or 夏都 because it makes a great place to escape the sultry summer heat of Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Hong Kong, and other southern cities with high humidity and heat. As the gateway into Tibet, Xining has a continental climate with highland features.  The average annual temperature is about 6 degree Celsius year round. In the coldest months (January and February) the temperature may drop to -15 degree Celsius, and in the summer it is always less than 20 degrees Celsius.

A popular route through Xining is fly to Xining XNN from Chengdu CTU airport and then take the train to Lhasa (the highest railroad in the world) for the stunning landscapes and to aid in the acclimatization to altitude. Because few people have ever heard of Qinghai Province most people use Xining as a gateway city to get into Lhasa and spend little time in and around Xining city itself.  This means that there are still many astounding, wild places in and around Xining and most of these places have never been seen by western or Chinese tourists. There are, in fact, several 5,000 and 6,000 meter mountains in Qinghai Province that have never even been climbed or named.  This makes Xining  a perfect destination for people looking for authentic Tibetan culture without all the hassle of Tibet Travel Permits and the bureaucracy of Lhasa, Tibet.

To acclimate to any adventure into the Tibetan Plateau, we recommend spending a night in Xining, at 2,300m above sea level,  and this will help partially in your acclimatization process. To truly do your health and wellbeing a favor, it is best to spend 3-5 days in Qinghai’s capital and surroundings so that you are ready to tackle Lhasa’s 3,600m of elevation with greater ease.

While Xining is a typical medium-sized Chinese city with cement high rises and dime-a-dozen convenience stores that all sell the same products, it also offers a whole lot more character than your average all-Han Chinese city.  After over 8 years of travel on the Tibetan Plateau, I have three suggestions for day tours from Xining that will not only take your breath away but will give you the time and space to help you acclimatize properly before you head into the high regions of Tibet.

Here are some of the top 3 day trips you can take from Xining (these can make for a great day trip if you are in a hurry but you can easily spend at least 3-5 days in all  of these magnificent areas) :

1. Zhangye Danxia Landforms

Located just a 45 drive from Zhangye town, one of the most impressive landscapes you will ever see is that of the Zhangye Danxia Landforms (elevations range from 1,500 – 2,500m), one of China’s many UNESCO sites. Usually a 6 six hour drive in a private car, I recommend taking the 2 hour high speed  train from Xining 西宁 to Zhangye West station 张掖西 and spend a day in the area. The Danxia Landforms, also known as the Rainbow Mountains or 七彩山 , is a mountain range layered with almost all the colors of the rainbow (or at least distinct shades of reds, yellows, purples, greys, and oranges). The magnificent patterns in the hills were formed from the land’s red sandstone bedrock and the passing of time with erosion and uplift. Danxia is perfect for photography enthusiasts and lovers of hiking. Take the afternoon to soak in the scenery and admire this UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Just a 20 minute drive from the Zhangye Danxia National Park is the lesser visited (but equally as beautiful) BingGou National Park.

 

 

2. Rebkong

The small monastic town of Rebkong (Tongren 同仁 in Chinese) sits  2.5 hours from Xining at 2,500m above sea level and is a great option for a one to three day trip outside of Xining. Rebkong  is home to some of the most famous thangka paintings in Tibet and its artwork is highly valued not only on the Tibetan Plateau but by Buddhist practitioners around the world. After a stroll through Rebkong’s two most famous temple complexes, Rebkong Longwu Monastery and Wutun Monastery,  you can watch 17-year old teenagers painstakingly produce some of Tibets’ most colorful and detailed paintings.

 

3. Qinghai Lake

Qinghai Lake (3,200m), China’s largest inland lake, is one the first landscapes you will spot from the train to Lhasa, but to truly experience it, take a day trip or multi-day trip from Xining. The lake is famous for its sweeping natural scenery, abundant birdlife and nearby grasslands that are home to traveling nomadic Tibetan tribes and roaming yaks. You can go biking (though take it slow at the high altitude) or have a champagne picnic by the lake’s shores as you watch the waves lap against the beach shore. Qinghai Lake is 150km (80 miles) from Xining and about a 2.5hr drive. But please be aware:  in the summer months (June, July, August) this is a MADHOUSE of Chines tourism and if you go in these months you are sure to see 1,000’s of Chinese tourists descending upon the lake every day and you are likely to spend a few more hours sitting in traffic than normal because of the immense amount of visitors this spot receives.  I personally recommend if you are going to visit Qinghai Lake – do it in the winter.  There is no one else around for miles, the hotels are much more affordable, and the slowly crashing chunks of frozen ice, circling the lake for over 300km, hold an enchanting beauty in the eerie quiet of the winter.

 

Hezuo

The Tibetan name /Hzö  གཙོས། is pronounced Dzoi in Standard Tibetan and pronounced Hdzoi/Hdzu in the local dialect.  Zö is the traditional name for a Tibetan Ibex and you can see statues of this animal throughout the town.

Today the city has been named Hezuo or 合作

Hezuo is the capital city of Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southern Gansu Province. Standing at the junction area of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, it is the hub of nomadic activity of the central plains region and the Amdo Tibetan region. And it is also the center of commerce between historical Tibetan and Chinese trading.

Located at the northeast edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Hezuo is 276 kilometers south of Lanzhou. The city contains many large hotels and every sort of restaurant you could hope to find in a middle-sized Chinese city. There is no railway running from Lanzhou to Hezuo, however, regular buses are available every day from Lanzhou every 35 minutes from 05:50 to 16:04. It takes about 4 to 5 hours by bus to get to Hezuo and the ticket fee ranges from 37.5 RMB to 49.5 RMB depending on the departure time. 

Hezuo’s main attraction is the 9-story Milarepa Temple. It is said that there are only two temples of this kind in the whole Tibetan area, and the one in Hezuo is the only one which has nine floors and is dedicated to a primary founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Milarepa. Milarepa is one of the few saints who is thought to have attained enlightenment in one lifetime.  He is often pictured as very thin and bony (as he was meditating and fasting in a cave for most of his latter years) and with his hand to his mouth as he would often sing his lessons and teachings to his disciples so they could better remember his ideas.

The Milarepa Temple is about 40 meters high and was originally built in the Qing dynasty. There are perennial resident monks and lamas studying here and if you have the time, spend an afternoon watching them perform their ritual duties, including burning juniper and lighting incense.  There is also a very nice pilgrimage around the entire monastery that can take around 30-45 minutes to complete if you are up for a leisurely stroll with Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims. Once you have finished this walk, you can also meander over to Folk Street and Century Square which are a short walk from the monastery complex.

It’s worth a rickety climb up the steep wooden steps of the nine floors not only for the artifacts but also for the decent view of the city from the top. A nice monk who oversees the grounds may invite you into his office for tsampa and tea if you speak a bit of Chinese or Tibetan and have a little free time.

Lijiang

The Old Town of Lijiang is located on the Lijiang plain at an elevation of 2,400 meters in southwest Yunnan Province, China. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains are to the northwest and this incredibly scenic and snowy range is easily viewed as you take a leisurely stroll through time in the old quarters of Lijiang.  These mountains are the source of much snowmelt that supplies the rivers and springs which water the plain and supply the nearby Heilong Pool (Black Dragon Pond) and the classic canals that wind through the old town of Lijiang .

The Old Town of Lijiang contains 3 main areas and you could easily spend 1-2 days getting lost amidst the cobblestone streets and antique coppersmiths that give this area its characteristic charm. These 3 areas include: Dayan Old Town (including the Black Dragon Pond), Baisha Old Town, and Shuhe Old Town. Dayan Old Town was established in the Ming dynasty as a commercial center and includes the Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office; the Yizi pavilion and the Guabi Tower. Numerous two-storied timber-framed houses combine elements of Han and Zang dynasty architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards, tiled roofs,  and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are built in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements – pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.

Baisha Old Town, though, was established earlier than the Dayan Old Town sector.  Baisha was built during the Song and Yuan dynasties and is located 8km north of the Dayan Old Town. Houses here are arranged on a north-south axis around a central, terraced square. The religious complex includes halls and pavilions containing over 40 paintings dating from the early 13th century, which depict subjects relating to Buddhism, Taoism and the life of the Naxi people, incorporating cultural elements of the Bai people. Together with the Shuhe housing cluster located 4km north-west of Dayan Old Town, these quaint mountain settlements reflect the blend of local cultures, folk customs and traditions over several centuries. You can even see the local tile work depicted on the courtyard floors of the homes representing bats, cats, and other animals thought to scare away local spirits. The local Naxi people still walk barefoot over these intricate tile floorscapes, feeling every ridge and crest of the hand laid tilework in what they call “a free foot massage”.

The colorful village space, the delightful sounds of the water, the outstanding folk art and calligraphy and the old style of the local architecture all make for a very pleasant environment that will leave you with a deep feeling of peace in this gem hidden among the mountains.

 

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping Gorge, set to the backdrop of the majestic Jade Dragon and Haba Snow Mountains of China, is one of the deepest gorges in the world.  The Jingsha (aka Yangzte) River flows through its beautiful 16km length, nestled between towering cliffs that have an incredible 3,900 meters in vertical drop from the top of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to the surging river below.  At its narrowest point near the mouth of the river, a large rock sits midway across the water.  According to a local legend, a hunter was chasing a tiger down through the gorge and the tiger jumped across this chasm to this rock to escape the hunter’s arrows.

Generally the trek takes a total of 7-8 hours of actual hiking time and most hikers get comfortably through Tiger Leaping Gorge in 1 nights / 2 days, but if you wanted to take your time and really relax you could take 2 nights/ 3 days. Here is a great blog post on the more relaxed 2 night/ 3 day itinerary. Note that all guesthouses have full service bedding and restaurants.  So all you really need for this hike are some snacks, water bottles, rain gear, a fleece, a change of clothes, and a medium to large daypack (probably in the realm of 20-35 Liters). The hike is pretty exposed so you may want to bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as well.  While there are significant vertical drops down to the river I, in no way, see the hike as being dangerous as long as the conditions are dry.  In fact, there are few other places in the world where you can have a leisurely walk and see such incredible vertical relief

The following itinerary was accomplished by a group of 40 middle school students (and believe me these guys travel pretty slow).  So, I imagine if these middle school students can do this itinerary, you can too.

The entrance of the gorge is the small city of Qiaotou, located at 1,900 meters above sea level. The upper hiking trail (which is the one you want to take) will bring you up to 2,650 meters high (at the end of the 28 bends) before going down to Tina’s Guesthouse at 2100 meters high, which is the end of the trail.

 

Tiger Leaping Gorge Suggested Itinerary

Day 1

Depart Lijiang around 8am in the morning. Drive 2.5 hour from Lijiang to Tiger Leaping Gorge (QiaoTou is the name of the small village where you enter the Tiger Leaping Gorge park and pay the 65 RMB park fee)

Pay entrance ticket

Drive 10 minutes up the road past the ticket gate

Start hiking up to Naxi Family Guesthouse

1.5 hours up to Naxi Family Guesthouse on a concrete road (don’t worry – after this the path becomes natural dirt or stone)

Lunch at Naxi Family Guesthouse

Afternoon- hike up the infamous “28 Bends”.  Most of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek is relatively flat as you are walking along a path cut sideways across the vertical rock face.  However, this particular section is the exception.  It is not terribly long but you can expect to gain most of your elevation on the whole hike on this section.  There is a small store about half-way up the bends if you need water or snacks.   

Walk 2.5 hours From Naxi Guesthouse to the top of 28 bends at 2,650 meters

Then 2.5 hours down to Teahorse Guesthouse, eat dinner and sleep at Teahorse Guesthouse

Day 2

8:30am – Depart Teahorse Guesthouse

Walk 2 hours

10:30am- Break and snack at the Halfway House, great views looking down one of the steepest parts of the gorge

11:30am- Depart Halfway House as you make your final descent down the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. 

1:30pm- Arrive Tina’s Guesthouse for lunch.

2:30pm- Depart for Shaxi or Lijiang or Shangrila.

2-3 hour bus drive

5:30pm- Arrive at hotel and settle in.

 

 

 

Win a brand new HYDRO FLASK!

Here is how to enter to win!

Each of the following actions gets you one entry into the contest to win a brand new 32 oz Hydro Flask:

Make sure you use the tag #HydroTibet in all posts so we can follow and track all your entries.

 

1.) Instagram:  Follow us at:  elevated_trips

Then tag two of your friends in the comments of one of our recent posts

2.) Facebook:  Like and Follow our Facebook page @elevatedtrips

3.) Vimeo:  See our newest video at:  bit.ly/zhangyevideo

Then follow our Vimeo account

4.) Twitter:  Follow us on twitter @elevatedtrips

And like one of our posts!

5.) Google + :  Follow us on Google + HERE

6.) Scroll all the way down to the bottom of this blog post and sign up for our newsletter.

7.) Send us an email at:  info@elevatedtrips.com  and tell us a funny joke or a great travel story!

 

 

Contest Rules: Contest is giving away one Hydro Flask 32 oz Double Wall Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Leak Proof Sports Water Bottle, Wide Mouth with BPA Free Flex Cap (in any color of your choice)

*Shipping only available in America and China.

 

 

And if you are curious, here is some information from the Hydro Flask website on what makes their bottles so unique…

Made for the outdoors.

Big enough for a whole day in the backcountry, our 32 oz Wide Mouth bottle is made with professional-grade stainless steel and a wider opening for faster fill. And because it’s designed with TempShield™ double wall vacuum insulation, it keeps your ice water refreshingly ice cold up to 24 hours and hot drinks hot up to 12. Which means you’ll always have the perfect temperature drink.

Product Benefits

  • Ideal size for all-day hydration
  • Fits most backcountry water filters
  • TempShield™ insulation keeps beverages cold up to 24 hours and hot up to 12 hours
  • Durable 18/8 Pro-Grade Stainless Steel construction
  • BPA-Free and Phthalate-Free
  • Compatible with our Hydro FlipTM Lid and Wide Mouth Straw Lid
  • Lifetime Warranty

Can you believe that this guy skiied down the world’s second highest mountain?

K2 is perhaps the most dangerous mountain in the world. One in every four people who makes an attempt to summit it dies, and nobody has ever climbed it in winter. Only 300 or so people have ever even reached the peak of K2, and its relatively northern location on the Pakistan/China border makes it a particularly unpredictable mountain to tame.

With the height of 8611 meters, K2 is the 2nd highest peak in the world after the Mount Everest, which has the height of 8848 meters. K2 is also known as Mount Godwin-Austen or Chhogori and it was referred as “Savage Mountain” by the famous American Climber George Bell. He referred it savage because of its unmatched difficult terrain. When asked about his experience for making an attempt to climb the K2, George Bell noted,  “It’s a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”

In 1956, when it was first measured by a British surveyor, TG Montgomerie, it was given the temporary designation- K2 (for Karakoram 2). The K2 was so remote that no other suitable name could be found!!

Unlike other eight-thousanders, K2 has never been climbed in the winters. The best weather to climb the K2 is from April to October. Among the eight-thousanders, K2 has the 2nd highest fatality rate with one death for every four successful ascents (first being the Annapurna (191 summits and 61 fatalities). The peak climbers say that it is due to the extreme difficulty of ascent.

 

 

And, on July 22, 2018, a man just skied down from the summit for the first time in history. Polish adventurer Andrzej Bargiel first tried to make the historic descent last year in 2017, only to call the expedition off because of falling rocks and the high avalanche danger. This year, with better weather and less unstable snow pack, Andrzej made it all the way from the K2 summit to base camp in 7 hours. The majority of mountaineering accidents occur during descents, and skiing on near 90 degree snow slopes with 2000 meter drops obviously increases that risk dramatically.

Andrzej is not the first person to attempt skiing the savage mountain, though.  Italian alpinist Michele Fait died trying to ski K2 in 2009.  This was just a year before his friend Fredrik Ericsson fell to his death near the K2 summit. In 2001, Hans Kammerlander stopped after just a quarter mile when he witnessed a Korean climber fall to his death. And climber Dave Watson actually made it through the infamous bottleneck section all the way to base camp in 2009, though he didn’t start from the summit.

Bargiel reached the summit around 11:30 a.m. Sunday morning on July 19, and he made it to base camp eight hours later after being forced to wait out cloudy weather a few times.

When Bargiel finished up, he was greeted with hoops and cheers from his Red Bull crew.  Upon his epic descent, he said he was pretty much all done with K2 for the rest of his life. “I feel huge happiness and, to be honest, it was my second attempt, so I’m glad that I won’t be coming here again.”

Islam in Western China

Islam in China has existed through 1,400 years of continuous interaction with Chinese society. Currently, Muslims are a significant ethnic group in China. Hui Muslims are the majority Muslim group in China and he greatest concentration is in Xinjiang, with a significant Uyghur population as well. Lesser but significant populations reside in the regions of Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai Provinces. Various sources estimate different numbers of adherents with some sources indicating that     1-3% of the total population in China are Muslims. Of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic peoples, ten groups are predominantly Sunni Muslim.

The ten Muslim ethnicitiies of China are categorized by their ethnic origin. Six of the ten Muslim ethnicities—the Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars and Tajiks—live predominantly in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in the northwest of China. They all speak Turkic languages, except the Tajiks who speak a Persian-based language. The Huis are found throughout China and especially in Qinghai and Gansu Province. The remaining three Muslim minorities— the Salars, the Boa’an, and the Dongxiang, live in different regions neighboring the Tibetan Plateau and Mongolia.

The Salars are another Turkic speaking Muslim people group in China that live in a region that borders Gansu and Qinghai Provinces. The Salars trace their ancestry back to people who migrated from the Samarkand region during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is said the Salars were fleeing persecution and strapped a Quran to the back of a camel and let the camel guide them to their new homeland in western China.  The camel finally stopped walking at a spring near the current town of Xunhua and that is where the Salar people settled.  The Salar still live in this place and claim to be the inventors of the famous Chinese dish, Mian Pian 面片 (noodle pieces).

The Boa’an live in the southwest of the Gansu province, while the Dongxiang live in the western-edge of Gansu province. Both trace their ancestors back to the Asian troops sent out during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). The Boa’an and Dongxiang languages also originate from the Mongolian language family, even though they are different from each other.

Chinese Muslims have been in China  and have had continuous interaction with Chinese society since just after the death of Muhammed himself. Islam expanded gradually across the maritime and inland silk routes from the 7th to the 10th centuries through war, trade, and diplomatic exchanges. As China opened up to Buddhism and other foreign concepts the Silk Road brought many imports – not only of spices and exotic fruits but of ideas. And these ideas still today have a very far reaching importance on the crossroads of cultures and beliefs that is western China.

Most of us in the west when we think of Islam picture a man in the Middle East wearing a turban.  However, Muslims in Xinjiang include both Central Asians (Uyghur) and those of Chinese ancestry (Hui).  Each has their own unique head wear but it was never a turban. More often the headwear is simple plain white hat or a dark hat embroidered with gold or green thread (somewhat similar in size and appearance to the the Kippa or yamaka worn by Jewish males).

I recently found out that 69% of Muslims in the world today reside in Asia.  China boasts more Muslims (21 million) than Syria (20 million) and a good portion of those can be found in the province of Xinjiang.  That blew me away, especially with my stereotypes about the Middle East. Since living in China, I have learned so many things about that have surprised me about China.  Rather than seeing it as just one culture I have begun to see it more as a great melting pot of so many surprisingly diverse languages and cultures.

Come visit us in western China and discover some of the great hidden treasures as you experience the famously tasty Muslim food and their lively culture.

Kanbula National Park

 

Located about a 3 hour drive from the Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, Kanbula National Park (or as it is called in Chinese “Kanbula National Forest Park”) is a wonderland of soaring red rock cliffs located right on the banks of the emerald green Yellow River.  If you are driving the 2.5 hours south to Tongren 同仁 to see Rebkong Longwu Monastery, this makes an excellent side trip.  In fact, you can see one of our favorite, best selling itineraries that combines Kanbula National Park and Rebkong Longwu Monastery HERE.

The Kanbula area is famous for its unique sandstone Danxia landforms. This scenic area has abundant rainfall and a cool and moist climate and, unlike most barren places in Qinghai Province, there are prolific evergreen forests here; the forest coverage rate is about 28% and its plant resources are extremely rich with some of the best wildflowers in all of Qinghai Province. Some of the tree species represented in Kanbula National Park are the Qinghai spruce, chinese pine, white birch, and various species of azaleas and honeysuckle.  Other species include Ulmus glaucescens, Prunus sibirica, Salix oritepha, and Spiraea alpina.  Kanbula also hosts a number of rare birds (including larks and cuckoos) and fauna like blue sheep, argali.

Buddhism here has a long history and this park is known for its meditation caves situated high above the park where monks and nuns silently retreat for periods of 2 months to 2 years eating only a simple diet with a singular bowl of rice per day.  This is a ritual and discipline that is part of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and is thought to help the practitioner release themselves from the attachments and distractions of the world. The hermitage caves are a short 45 minute hike up wooden steps just above the Aqiong Namzong Temple and are located on a 20 minute ride down a bumpy dirt road that leads off the main paved park road.

Kanbula offers amazing, unmatched views and is certainly one of the off-the-beaten track highlights of Qinghai Province.  However, the price tag of tickets reflects it’s beauty, at 250 RMB/person.  Kanbula can be seen as a day trip from Xining, but it has so much beauty that most of our guests prefer to spend at least one night in the park, sleeping in a local Tibetan village homestay full of roaming donkeys and colorful prayer flags waving high on the wind. On all Elevated Trips adventures transportation to and from the park as well as the entrance tickets to the park are included in the price of the tour.

Zhangye

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. Established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 B.C., the Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China and closed them. Although it’s been nearly 600 years since the Silk Road has been used for international trade, the routes had a lasting impact on commerce, culture and history that resonates even today.

From July 15-17, 2018 we took out an amazing couple from America to explore the Silk Road of Zhangye in Gansu Province of Western China.  These incredible mountains are surrounded by the 6,000 meter peaks and the glaciers of the Qilian Mountains and offer one of the most unique and authentic insights into the amazing history of trade and culture of great empires that once were.

Have you ever wanted to see the Silk Road?

Venture with Elevated Trips to see the incredible Hexi Corridor of the Silk Road and walk through 1,500 years of history as you..

  • Get to sleep in a Mongolian Yurt Camp right at the base of Danxia National Park
  • Sample the local cuisine
  • Explore 33 Buddhist cave grottoes on the side of a Monastery tucked high up on a cliff face

You can see a possible itinerary HERE.

The Potala Palace

Potala Palace

Built in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama on the site of the surviving Buddhist meditation caves first built by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the 7th Century A.D., the Potala Palace is composed of two parts: the central Red Palace at the top, which is used for religious affairs, and the secular White Palace at the bottom, which houses the  former affairs of government and daily life.  This is something like the White House in Washington D.C.  combined with the Vatican in Rome – the seat of historical religious and political power all in one.

The top of the Potala Palace is 119 meters above the courtyard below and the palace itself contains 1,000 rooms-including assembly halls, government offices, and temples- and has over 10,000 altars and 200,000 statues. Amazingly, the whole structure was fastened together without  steel or nails and was fully constructed of wood, stones and mud bricks using perfectly carved interlocking blocks. At one point in history before the Industrial Revolution, this hand built architectural marvel was the tallest building in the known world.  The roofs are covered with gilded bronze tiles that glitter in the sun and can be seen miles away.

In almost every chapel, red robed lamas collect donations and sit on a cushions sipping tea and chanting scriptures. Murals and thangkas are illuminated with flickering wax candles and you will see many pilgrims offering butter in thermos containers as offerings to the holy site. The gold-embossed tombs of former religious rulers contain the mummified bodies inside and these are the central attraction of the 1 hour tour that marches from the bottom to the top of the palace and winds through many dimly lit and sacred rooms .

The Potala is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and most Tibetans will try to visit this holy site at least once in their lives. You can find a link to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Map here.

A seven-year $43.9 million renovation of Potala Palace and Norbulingka Summer Palace was completed in August 2009. The aim of the renovation was to foster tourism and promote Tibetan culture.

In August 2006, the number of people allowed to enter the Potala Palace was increased from 1,500 to 2,300 people per day.  Because there are so many people that go through the palace in one day, tour times are scheduled and are limited to one hour once you are inside the palace gates.  This is enough time, but it does not allow for a lot of time to just “float around” and meditate.  So you can expect to be rushed a little and “herded” through crowds in the palace in order to make your time slot.   Your guide (who is required to bet with you for the tour) will schedule in a specific time to enter the Potala Palace, so your day schedule will generally revolve around whatever time your tickets say that you are allowed in.

To see a possible tour itinerary that includes the Potala Palace, Jokhang Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Everest Base Camp check here.

 

Admission Fee

May 1 – Oct. 31: CNY 200
Nov.1 – Apr. 30: CNY 100
Free for children under 1.3m and the elderly above 70 (also free for Tibetans, Mongolians, and Nepalese who practice Tibetan Buddhism)

Ticket Purchase Procedure: Your guide will have to purchase the ticket 1 day in advance before your visit using your original ID card or Passport. Once the ticket is purchased, you will then be given a certificate with your specific visit time to the Potala Palace for the following day’s tour.

 

Tips when visiting the Potala Palace

1. There is no heat inside this ancient building.  So be aware that it can be very cold inside the Potala Palace. It would not be a bad idea to take a coat with you even on the sunny Lhasa summer days.

2. As this is a religious site, it is hard to find an adequate bathroom during your tour. So make sure you try to take care of business before you leave your hotel in Lhasa.  If you do end up finding one of the few bathrooms along the tour, it is said the bathroom at the right side of the White Palace Square is the most beautiful one on earth with an excellent view out onto Lhasa :). Lucky you if you make it here!

3. As we mentioned before, the tour time in the Potala Palace is limited to 1 hour. So don’t dilly dally and make sure you stay close to your guide.  It might be easy to get lost amidst the many steps and the labyrinth of rooms and holy sites if you were separated from your tour guide.

4. Entering the palace is like entering airport security.  You will have to check your bags through a X-Ray machine and lighters and any kind of liquid are forbidden. (You can buy bottles of water inside the palace for about twice as much as they are sold for in Lhasa).

5. The best spot to take pictures of the Potala Palace is Chakpori Hill, across the square from the palace. I highly recommend visiting this place at night because seeing the palace all lit up in the dark is pure magic!

 

Lhasa

As the beautiful capital city of Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), Lhasa is situated in the south central part of the region, on the north bank of the Kyichu River (a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo River) in a valley surrounded by imposing mountains. The altitude of Lhasa is 3,656 meters (11,995 feet) above sea level.

Located at the bottom of a small basin surrounded by the Himalaya Mountains, Lhasa lies in the heart (both physically and spiritually) of the Tibetan Plateau with the surrounding mountains rising to 5,500 m (18,000 ft). The air here only contains 68% of the available oxygen one would find at sea level so be prepared to walk a little slower (and with heavier breath) and to pop a few Ibuprofen for the high altitude headache that you will probably have your first night in Lhasa.  Make sure you drink lots of water and try to stay away from coffee and alcohol your first few nights in Lhasa.  Also get lots of rest and take things slow on arrival here because you want to acclimatize slowly.
Generally the period from March to October is the best time to visit with March, April, October, and November offering clearer skies (and thus better views of Mount Everest) and less Chinese tourists. Since the city is located at such a high altitude most tours to Lhasa and Mount Everest will usually include 3-4 days to acclimatize in the city before departing for wilder, higher places. Generally speaking, the temperatures in the day can be quite comfortable and spring-like under the bright sun and then nights are quite chilly to cold, often below freezing in the spring and fall. You are definitely going to want to bring your thick down puffy jacket, especially if you are planning an excursion from Lhasa to Mount Everest Base Camp at 5,200 meters (17,060 feet).
However, because the high altitude sun is so intensely bright, sunglasses, suntan lotion, and a sun hat are mandatory items if you’re going anywhere outside your hotel 🙂

Demographics

Lhasa has a population of roughly 1 million people, and about half of this population is comprised of Han Chinese while the other half consists of Tibetans (there are also a few Hui Muslims here that make up a small percentage of town and there is an active Mosque in the Tibetan quarter of town). Although the Tibetan quarter is very historic with ancient stone architecture (this is definitely where you want to stay and spend most of your time) Lhasa is quickly developing and the areas outside of the Tibetan district are starting to look more and more like a regular Han Chinese city. The large percentage of tourists that visit this city are mostly Han Chinese and there is a lot of infrastructure that supports this growing population, including massage parlors, outdoor gear shops, karaoke bars, fancy car dealerships, and Sichuan style restaurants. With all the recent development, as long as you have given your bank proper notice, you should have no trouble using your international credit card here at ATM’s in large banks such as ICBC, Bank of China,  or China Construction Bank.

In fact, more than 95 % of tourists to Tibet are Chinese. In 2014 alone, more than 15 million tourists visited Tibet Autonomous Region [TAR], a number up more than 20 percent from the 2013 statistics, according to the local government. In 2014, a record 3.15 million people arrived by air to Lhasa and most of the rest of the tourists came by the world’s highest train,  the famed Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The China Daily reported the numbers of a regional tourism bureau report: “Lhasa alone saw more than 9.25 million tourists and reaped tourism revenue of 11.2 billion yuan ($1.79 billion)”.

 

History of Lhasa

Lhasa was an important holy city even before Buddhism arrived in Tibet in 642 A.D., and until the 1950s half of its residents lived in monasteries.

In the 1940s,  Lhasa would have been best described as a village. Its 600 traditional buildings were dwarfed by the massive monasteries and palaces that were home to 20,000 monks. Between 1950 and 2000, the population of Lhasa increased 17 times to around 200,000 and has increased 5 times since then. The expansion is mainly the result of arrival of large numbers of Han Chinese but has also been affected by a migration of Tibetans from rural areas to Lhasa.

The Potala Palace and the Barkhor Street centered in Lhasa city, north to the Sera Monastery, west to Duilong Deqing county. Viewed from the overlooking the Lhasa city, Post and Telecommunications Building, News Building, Lhasa Hotel, Tibet Hotel and various buildings dotted. Standing on top of the Potala Palace to overlook the Lhasa city, the Lhasa city is full of pieces of new building hidden in the trees, and Barkhor Street surrounding has waving prayer flag. Here densely covered a national style of houses and streets, gathered from all over the Tibetan people, and many of them are still in Tibet traditional clothing. It seems that prayer wheel and prayer beads never leave their hands which clearly show that Buddhism has become a way of life in fact.
Transportation in and out of Lhasa
NOTE: 
All Foreign travelers to Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region have to join a tour group pre-arranged by a registered travel agency.  You can not enter the this area as an idenpendent, free-wheeling tourist and all your travel and hotel bookings must be made in advance by a travel agency accordingly.  Because of this regulation, you will need to receive your Tibet Travel Permit BEFORE you board your plane or train into Lhasa.  Your travel agency will send this to you (sometimes to a Chinese hotel in Beijing or Chengdu where you are staying before your tour)  to enter that region.

Currently there are two options to reach this mysterious high land, either by plane by train. The bus station in Lhasa will not sell tickets to foreigners and bus drivers will not allow foreigners onto buses that go outside of Lhasa. All travel within the TAR for foreigners must be booked in private vehicles.

1. Taking an airplane is the most comfortable, quick method of travel to Lhasa, but this offers less time for you to acclimatize to the altitude of Lhasa.  Lhasa Gongar Airport (LXA) is a one hour drive from downtown Lhasa, or about 62 kms (38.5 miles).  There are over 40 flights to/from major domestic cities that fly in and out of LXA including Beijing, Chamdo, Changsha, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dazhou, Diqing, Fuzhou, Golmud, Guangzhou, Guiyang, Hangzhou, Kangding, Kunming, Lanzhou etc.

 

 

2. Taking the train to Lhasa is a fabulous new option, giving the opportunity to see previously unseen mountain scenery on a train that is built on over 550km of permafrost. With the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway on July 1st, 2006, more and more visitors opt to get a soft sleeper or a hard sleeper bed on the train to experience the lay of the land and the incredible scenery from their train window.

Getting to Lhasa from Beijing by train will be a once in a lifetime experience for you. The Beijing –> Lhasa train (Train # Z21),  takes about 40 hours and 30 minutes, runs for 3,757 km, and crosses 8 total provinces from the plains of northeast China to the worlds’ highest plateau.  Some of the highlights of the scenery along the way include glimpses of the Gobi desert, the 6,244 meter (20,485 ft) high snow-capped Yuzhu Peak, and the lofty Tanggula Mountain. And, of course, there will LOTS of open high-altitude grassland (and maybe even some wildlife roaming about).  All I can say about this journey is for you to make sure you pack lots of snacks.  I have friends who pack wine and cheese every time they ride a train in China and I think they are really onto something by preparing so well for the occasion!

The Complete Packing List for Mount Kailash

Mount Kailash is a high altitude behemoth in western Tibet and provides some of the most stunning trekking in all of Central Asia.  The highest point of the 3 day trek is 5,636 meters.

For this trek you are going to need some serious cold weather gear.  But at the same time, because you will be sleeping in tea houses that provide food, beds, and blankets there are definitely some things you will NOT need to bring.  Here is the packing list I recommend for anyone doing the trek in 3 days.  As always, the less stuff you bring, the more your back and legs will thank you!

 

Packing list for Mount Kailash

Tops

  • 2 x Synthetic or merino long underwear top (one of these is for sleeping)
  • 1 x long sleeve wicking hiking shirt
  • 1 x fleece jacket
  • 1 x Goretex rain jacket
  • 1 x Down puffy jacket for cold nights or when you are not hiking

Bottoms

  • Synthetic or merino long underwear bottoms
  • 1 x pair of waterproof rain or snow pants
  • 1 x pair of fall or winter weight soft shell pants

Feet and head

  • 4 x pair of wool hiking socks (keep one dry pair for sleeping)
  • Boots or trail running shoes with a good tread (I wore a low top Salomon trail runner in the first week of May 2018 and was fine but you will need to check weather and snow reports as some years get up to 5 meters of snow on the Dolma La Pass)
  • Gaiters for snow and mud (especially if you are wearing low top shoes)
  • 1 x synthetic or wool winter hat
  • 1 x sunhat (the sun up at altitude is intense!)

Other

  • 1 x foreign passport
  • 1 x day pack (20-30 liters)  – If it is bigger than 35 liters you are carrying too much stuff!
  • 2 x one liter water bottles (can be refilled with boiled water at the teahouses for a small fee)
  • 1x mid-weight winter gloves
  • 1 x sunglasses (preferably polarized for the bright snow)
  • 1 x chapstick or lip balm
  • 1 x suntan lotion
  • 1 x small bottle of Tylenol
  • Optional:  Diamox – for altitude sickness (consult your physician beforehand)
  • Optional: 1 x small aerosol bottle of oxygen
  • 4 x small packs of tissues (paper is not provided in the rustic “squatty-potties”)
  • 1 x cell phone or camera
  • 1 x charging cord and external battery charger (the tea houses have solar powered electric outlets but the electricity is spotty)
  • 1 x hand sanitizer bottle (there is no running water on the trek)
  • 8 x Snickers or Clif Bars
  • 500 RMB for food (assuming your lodging is already paid for by your tour agent)
  • Optional but recommended:  1 x set of trekking poles (the descent from the high pass can be rather steep and icy)
  • Optional:  a thin sleeping bag liner to add warmth/sanitation to blankets provided by the tea house
  • Optional:  “Hot Hands” – single use heat packs for keeping your hands and feet extra warm

 

Seven Incredible Days in Ladakh!

 

Ladakh ( known as the “Land of High Passes”) is a region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir that currently extends from the Kunlun Mountain range to the Great Himalayas in the south. Ladakh is inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent and is one of the most sparsely populated regions in all of India because of its high altitude and extreme weather.   The culture and history of this ancient land are closely related to that of Tibet. While the Ladakhi language is different from Tibetan, about 60% of the language can be mutually understood by both Tibetans and Ladakhis.

Ladakh is renowned for its remote mountain beauty and historic culture. Ladakh is the highest settlement in India and as such the population of this expansive land is a meager 274,289.  Among this population there is a mixture of many different ethnic groups, predominantly Tibetans, Monpas, Dards and Muslims. In 1979, the Ladakh District was divided into the Leh District (mostly occupied by Tibetan Buddhists) and the Kargil District (mostly occupied by Shi’a Muslims).

Life in Ladakh is mainly characterized by rhythms of spirituality because the native people have been devoutly faithful to its ancestral customs and traditions.  Life here is simple and relatively untouched by the fast pace of technology and development that is so endemic across the rest of India.  In the winter, hot water is hard to come by, and any running water at all (including flushing toilets or running faucets) is even harder to find.  Leh, the capital of Ladakh, just got its first major provider of high speed internet in 2018 and most homes in the region still use wood and dung stoves for heat.  The architecture in Ladakh exhibits strong influences from Tibet and India and many homes and structures are made from a simple construction of rammed earth and sticks.

The culture of Ladakh is mystical and is quite similar to Tibetan culture. The most popular cuisines of Ladakh, mostly of Tibetan origin, are Thukpa (noodle soup), Momo (meat or potato dumplings) and Tsamba (Barley flour porridge) . Religious mask dances play an important part of Ladakh’s cultural life and religious ceremonies. The traditional music of Ladakh includes the folk instruments like the Surna and the Daman (a type of shenai and a drum).

Ladakh is a highly charged spiritual center and I was most excited to unearth its secrets in my 7 days of travel. This was to be the 10th wedding anniversary celebration for my wife and I. We started our marriage thru-hiking 2,650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in 2008. Now, 10 years later, we felt that Ladakh was the perfect place to represent the life we have lived together since that time on the Tibetan Plateau. This was both a shared adventure for our family and a new experience for all of us to enjoy the culture and grandeur of an ancient land.

And so we felt the electricity of excitement wash over us as we landed in the Leh airport as our necks craned furiously this way and that to try to take in all the glory of Leh’s majestic mountains…

 

Day 1

As our plane touched down in Leh IXL airport we were immediately surrounded by gnarly mountains.  The tallest of these mountains just around 30km from town is 6,150 meters / 20,177 feet. I had read that the only way to access Leh in the winter time is by airplane.  It is literally closed off to the rest of the world by road because the high passes are too icy and too high to be crossed safely in the winter.  During the summer months there are many Indian tourists who drive over the pass from Srinagar but in these lonely winters the whole town shuts down and 97% of all hotels and business close their doors.  The entire industry of Leh is focused either on a very short burst of tourism in the mild summers OR a large contingent of Indian military bases who work year round to protect the well guarded border with Pakistan. Looking at these snowy 5000 meter/ 16,400 feet jagged mountains that surround the town I could see why nobody was coming in or going out on the roads. This is a desolate, isolated place.

The flight attendant announced that the air temperature is -7 Celsius outside. While that is certainly in the range of cold, below-freezing weather, I was still surprised.  The travel agency that was hosting us had told us it could get down to -25 Celsius during the day so I was prepared for something quite Siberian (it turns out that it did later actually get that cold on the high passes outside of town). We had to get off the airplane and get onto a bus that drove us to the airport arrivals building.  I stepped outside with no jacket and instantly felt the rush of the mountain wind. We crammed into an old 1980’s jalopy bus and it rattled across the tarmac with several Indian travelers standing up in the aisle. We were almost certainly the only white people in the whole military-style rickety bus. I was surrounded by huge men with whispy mustaches.  These men had a  hardiness- something that speaks of legend and bravery- of life in the Himalayas.

As we walked into the tiny airport in Leh (which literally had one door to get in the airport and only a solitary gate where all the flights board) it at first felt familiar because it was decorated with red paint and the colorful treasure vases and gems of Tibetan Buddhism.  I had seen this type of decor a 1000 times on the other side of the Himalayas in Tibet.  The columns all resembled those of a Tibetan monastery with the eternal knot and other Tibetan religious icons swirling around the pillars.  In fact, it felt more like a small countryside monastery or a home then it did an airport. Except for the singular turning luggage carousel this could have been a well furnished restaurant (except there was no food to purchase here and the whole space was freezing). The tall, steel, restaurant-style space heaters that you see on an outside patio at in upscale Italian bistro- these were scattered around the inside of the airport and passengers wearing all their winter jackets were all bundled around them like campers around a bonfire.  I had never before seen an airport that was so cold that you needed space heaters to keep from freezing as you picked up your luggage from baggage claim.

My wife took the luggage off the carousel amidst the disorganization of everyone trying to get their luggage at once.  Meanwhile, I headed about 50 feet over to the exit hall where there were luggage carts strewn about willy-nilly.  As my hands gripped the metal bar of the cart I was shocked.  This was probably the coldest metal I had ever touched in my life and we were still inside the airport.

My wife and I placed our luggage on the chilly cart and as we did we tuned into the repeating loud speaker announcement that was continually saying that we needed to rest for our first 24 hours because of the severe altitude. We were certainly happy for that advice as we had woke up at 4:00am to catch  our 6:40am flight from New Delhi DEL to Leh IXL.  We wanted nothing more than to hit a comfy bed and curl up for a long winter’s nap.

Rinchen, owner of Atisha Travels, recognized me as I filled out my arrival form (compulsory for all foreigners) and patted me on the shoulder with a warm welcome.  I had not even left the baggage  claim area and somehow my tour organizer was standing next to me.  I guess in a small town of 30,000 people a guy like this knows everyone and can just stroll through security to pick up his guests.  I was also a little taken aback by the fact that he immediately knew my face even though we had never met before.  I guess there were not too many other foreign faces in the crowd so it was an easy process of elimination.

We hopped into the white Toyota Innova van that would be our faithful mountain companion for the next 7 days.  This is apparently the nicest vehicle you can buy in all of Ladakh and is the standard for most private foreign tourist groups.  In America, it would be a mid-end family mini van.  But here among the clunky army trucks and the Indian Tata tractor trailers this is seen as a luxury vehicle. The Toyota Innova is the Mercedes of Ladakh.

Because the town is so small we drove 20 minutes and we had already passed the airport area military bases, downtown Leh, and were now on the opposite side of town.  We arrived at a little alley way with a modest metal signed painted with the words “Shanti Guesthouse”. We walked through an outside stone-walled corridor and were in the lobby of one of the only places that were still open in the winter.  While almost every other hotel and tour operator had packed their bags to vacation on the warm beaches of Goa, Southern India, Nicky and her crew at the Shanti Guesthouse stuck around to brave the brutal winters and host Indian and foreign tourists who were preparing to walk on the frozen Zanskar River.  This is an epic 100km walk over a frozen ice sheet that takes around 10 days to complete.  This trek is known globally as the Chadar Trek and the small amount of tourists permitted to walk this savagely cold river represent most of the groups coming through in the dead of winter in January and February.   This means that Shanti Guesthouse with its 30 rooms was fully booked out every single night while we were there. Much of the only other accommodation available was in local Homestays (which are much more rustic than this official hotel).

We arrived at the Guesthouse at 9am.  It was still early but we all felt totally bushed.  They let us partake of their amazing Indian buffet breakfast and then let us take a mid-morning nap in an unoccupied hotel room while they prepared our room.
Our whole family snuggled under a giant fluffy white duvet and had an amazing sleep.

In the afternoon we drove to the downtown area and had Tibetan momos and Thukpa noodle soup in one of the few restaurants still open in the winter.  Then we took a short drive 10 minutes above town to Shanti Stupa (there is also a series of about 400 steps you can walk up from the bottom of the Guesthouse but we opted for the car ride as we had our kids with us). The Shanti Stupa was a gift from Japan and has an amazing overlook into the nearby mountains. I was eager to photograph the surrounding mountains and this was the perfect place to jump into shooting some of the most incredible panoramas.

We returned to the guesthouse in the mid afternoon and after a nice buffet dinner at the Shanti Guesthouse, our family headed in for an early night. Everything was exhausting.  I felt like I had to take a nap every time I walked up the 12 marble steps to our second floor guest room.  Everything I did at that altitude took the breath out of my lungs and left me gasping for air.  Even bending over to tie my shoes got me out of breath and this simple task took about 5 minutes to complete because I had to take a break a few times. I felt like a 85 year old man who had been smoking his whole life. Yet I had never smoked and was in relatively good shape and I was only 36 years old.

Like many first nights at altitude, I did not sleep well.  That first night in Leh, I was laying in bed for 12 hours but only 7 hours of that time allowed me much sleep. At one point I woke up and was terrifically thirsty for water because of the severe dry climate.  I wanted to listen to an audiobook and drink some water to bide the long uncomfortable night, but it took an hour for me to lean over and grab my headphones and my water bottle because I was in such a daze. I was neither awake nor asleep, my head throbbed and I felt like I was in some form of foggy sleep purgatory. I can only imagine how the mountaineers on Mount Everest feel at the top.  They must be very disoriented and confused in both their waking and fitful sleeping.

The only actual activity we managed this first day was a brief 15 minute car ride up to the Shanti Stupa and a 200 meter stroll around downtown.  Yet that minimal amount of activity had thoroughly worn us out in our first 8 hours at 3,500 meters/ 11,483 feet. Based on this experience, I highly recommend doing nothing in your first 24 hours in Leh.

The lady on the airport intercom was absolutely right!

Day 2

We had a late morning and ate breakfast at 9am.  We met Tenzin, our driver and guide for the week, at 10am and took off to the Leh Palace. Then we drove through the downtown area of Leh and up a winding overlook sitting above Leh.  It was only a 15 minute drive and suddenly we were climbing the steps up into the dark, mud-daubed halls of Ladakh’s iconic Leh Palace.  Ladakh is well known for tall medieval-looking imposing palaces sitting high up on vertical, lofty cliffs.  I was eager to see and photograph these extremely picturesque fortresses hovering above the valleys like untouchable sentinels. But I was surprised to see that such a Palace was just right above the town of Leh.  We were right over the town and the view was incredible!  And, best of all, we had the whole palace to ourselves in the winter low season.

Leh Palace is one of the most important historical monuments of the Ladakh region. Modeled on the Potala Palace of Lhasa in Tibet, this 9-story royal palace was built by King Sengge Namgyal in the 17th century. But later in the 19th century, the royal Ladakhi family abandoned the palace when the Dogra kingdom took control over the Ladakh region. The design and architecture of the palace is similar to the Potala Palace and it resembles the fine Tibetan architectural style with high sloping walls that slope inward at a precise 85 degree angle thrusting upward into the sky like a series of chimneys from a Charles Dickens novel. The dark, relatively unlit interior of the palace is decorated with beautiful motifs and murals and remains rather primitive and rustic.  Walking inside the Palace, it is easy to feel that even for royalty this was a stark and cold place with few creature comforts.

The palace is open to the public and the roof provides fantastic panoramic views of Leh and the surrounding areas. The real highlight of the Leh Palace is winding up through creaky old wooden steps through 9 floors of low ceilings and narrow hallways.  I truly felt like a kid exploring his grandma’s attic for the first time and somehow the passage was leading me not only back in time but to further into the discovery of a mythical Narnian land.  I have to truly say that I enjoyed the exploration of the fairy tale palace as much as my kids as they eagerly climbed the steep steps to the top.

There are several places along the way to stop and take photos on many of the different levels of the Palace, including some medieval open windows where you can actually stand on a barely supported balcony if you dare to step out of the window and onto the ledge.

From the top of the Leh Palace there is an excellent view of the 6,150 meter mountain, Stok Kangri, in the Zanskar mountain range.  There are excellent views across the Indus Valley to the south, with the Ladakh Mountain range rising behind the palace to the north.

After about 1 hour exploring the Leh Palace we drove around the corner to the slightly higher neighboring Namgyal Tsemo Monastery.

Founded in early 15th century, Namgyal Tsemo monastery is renowned for its three-story high solid gold idol of Maitrieya Buddha. Situated on a mountain top behind the Leh palace, the monastery offers similar views as the nearby Leh Palace but from a slightly higher and wider vantage point.

The gompa was founded by King Tashi Namgyal in 1430 AD who was a major follower of Buddhism. As a mark of his respect to Buddhism, the king built the partner monastery above his palace. Situated at the cliff of Namgyal hill, its architecture is impressive.

The view of Leh from the gompa is breathtaking as the view changes with light. For this reason Namgyal Tsemo monastery is a favorite with photographers.

Down the hill side there is the Shankar Gompa which is also associated with Namgyal Tsemo monastery. It is a daily ritual followed by monks to walk from the Shankar Gompa to worship Buddha and light butter lamps at Namgyal Tsemo.

There is actually a mountain path from Leh Palace that runs up into the saddle where Namgyal Tsemo Monastery sits.  This is about a 30-40 minute walk and many either walk up or down between the monastery and the Palace.  If you do take the path rather than driving between the 2 points be warned that you should take steps very slowly and with deep breaths. Overexertion, even on something as simple as a 30 minute hike, can really hit you later on in the day and may make you really feel the first signs of Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.

After seeing Leh Palace we had a terrific Indian lunch back at the the Shanti Guesthouse and had a rest.

In the afternoon we drove 30 minutes to Shey Palace and had a terrific view of the colors of sunset as they danced over the Leh Valley and highlighted the snowy mountain tops.

We drove another 15 minutes  to our guide’s house, right between Tiktsi Monastery and Shey Palace.  This was hands down one of the highlights of our journey as we got to experience true Ladakhi hospitality and participate in making authentic momos.  This was a process that involved rolling the dough out, cutting it in circles, and stuffing the dough with a delicious mixture of pork and special spices and herbs.

Our hosts steamed the momos and we had a delicious dinner!  Of course, the ones we rolled out didn’t look as good as the perfectly pinched folds of their professional dumplings but, nonetheless, they were all very tasty!

It was an incredible night spent laughing and drinking Chai tea by their warm fireplace and I have to say it was really on that night that I so fell in love with the warmth and kindness and good humor of the Ladakhi people.

We left our delightful hosts at 11pm and were back at our guesthouse by 11:30pm for a much better night sleep than we had had the previous night.  Now we were getting better acclimatized and our breathing was a little less troubled than the night before.

Day 3

Every day we ventured a little further from the town of Leh out into the true wild beauty of Ladakh. On this 3rd day we started to feel a little bit more ourselves and generally started feeling better acclimated. From Leh we drove 3 hours to Lamarayu Monastery. Along the way we stopped at Alchi Monastery. This is a very special monastery because it records the history of Tibetan Buddhism BEFORE it moved into the Tibetan Plateau. Most of the monasteries we saw in Ladakh were created when Buddhism moved from India to Tibet and then returned back into India. But this monastery is from the 11th century and predates much of the the movement of the teachings of the Buddha before it moved north across the Himalayas. After a 15 minute walk down a small alley way through a very tiny village, we arrived in the middle of Alchi Monastery. From a position of size this was not much to look at. There must only have been a handful of monks that still take care of this old countryside monastery. While I have been in monasteries in Tibet that hold thousands of monks and you can hear the roar and bellow of chanting and drums and horns, the only sounds that whispered about Alchi Monastery were the tinkling of a few windchimes and the pittering songs of chirping sparrows. This was a peaceful place.

What Alchi Monastery lacks in size in makes up for in history and character. The woodwork from the stupas and the few small temples (each little bigger than a quaint wooded cottage) bears definite fingerprints of Indian architecture. The wood is dark and stained with years under the bright sun and the the lattice work on the windows is definitely different from the carvings on any other Tibetan Buddhist monastery I have ever seen. Even the main stupa in the monastery courtyard had features that were markedly different from those on the Tibetan Plateau. This stupa has a cave built inside of it where you can walk in under the holy relics inside. Essentially there is a small 2 meter high stupa within the greater 7 meter tall stupa and you can walk in under the smaller (and assumedly holier) stupa. There is a small set of prayer wheels around the monastery and we took the quick 10 minute kora around the compact complex. On the far side of the kora we passed a single pilgrim walking around the monastery clockwise. I stopped as the pilgrim passed and climbed a fenced wall to get a peek into the nearby the flows of the legendary Zanskar River. From there I saw a perfect turquoise blue river that was flowing under a massive vertical cliff face. This view alone made Alchi Monastery so worth it. Altogether we spent about 35 minutes around the monastery. You can pretty much take the whole thing in about 20 minutes because of its size.

We departed Alchi and drove another 1.5 hours on our way to Lamarayu Monastery. Along the way we drove by the confluence of the Zanskar River and the Indus Rivers. It was stunning to see where the glacial ice meets at the convergence these two rivers. Seeing these two rivers pour into one was like watching two brilliant turquoise snakes intermingling and mating and shedding their skins and scales as they merged into one larger churning snake basking against the sunlit backdrop of dramatic reddish mountains with not a scrap of vegetation on them.

20 minutes before we got to the monastery we stopped at a landscape that is literally called the “Moonland”. This is an all yellow and brown landscape that has mountains and hills that arise out of the ground like a network of burgeoning bubbles. There must be 1000’s of tiny humps and ridges (at least they looked tiny to us from far away) and they all sit within a 1 mile area on top of each other like some alien super colony of termites. I am not exactly sure what the surface of the moon really looks like, but I can only imagine that the first astronauts there must have experienced something close to this in the eerie sense of barren unfamiliarity as they stepped out of their moon rover for the first time.

After a few pictures of the Moonland, we dropped down to 9,500 feet to Lamarayu Monastery. This was, ironically, the lowest altitude we were at in our entire stay in Ladakh. Lamarayu Monastery is one of many picturesque monasteries that sits perfectly perched high atop a steep hill. In fact, the location of the monastery doesn’t just make for a great picture, it truly evokes wonder that long before cranes and backhoes and CAD there were men in the 12th century who climbed these great mountains and built 7 story structures in the highest and most impossible spaces. Just the act of building the monastery seemed like an act of spirtual discipline and determination. The distance we drove from Leh became immediately worthwhile. We spent an hour just walking around this impressive structure and taking 100’s of pictures from every angle as we gazed down across the valley and into the jagged peaks that protect and encircle the monastery like menacing guards. There was something very sacred here and I walked slowly around the high, steep walls of the monastery over the rubble and scattered stones of staircases that had crumbled and fallen over 10 centuries of weather and erosion.

While my wife entered a few temples to look at the ornate Thangka paintings, I walked the perimeter of the monastery like a curious child digging a tunnel through the underbelly of a sand castle. Then we both ascended to the roof of the monastery for more incredible views along a line of lonely flapping prayer flags. It was 360 degrees of jaw dropping beauty up there and I really could have stayed on that roof laying in the sun like a lazy cat all day long.

Like Alchi Monastery (and just about every where we went) there was a still reverence here. But this monastery – even more so than the other hill top structures – seemed to also carry a commanding, kingly authority. There was something quite grandiose about this monastery in its geography and in its ancient foreboding walls. This was like a mighty castle looking down on all its subjects in the valley below, confidently certain of its regal position.

Feeling the high from a great scenic drive and the inspiring walk around Lamarayu Monastery, we drove back in the direction of Leh town and pulled off the road to stay in homestay just 45 minutes from the hallowed corridors of Lamarayu. We got into the homestay just as the sun was setting and we could feel as soon as it did that the air significantly dropped in temperature from cool and sunny to dark and icy.

Fortunately there was an incredible wood fire in the stove burning in the homestay and we were very cozy inside. There we ate yet another filling and scrumptious dinner of homemade Indian food.

While there was no hot water (and no heat in our small room) we all had 2 thick blankets on us and were quite cozy and warm in the corner bed room of the homestay.

Day 4

Today we drove from the homestay location to the famous Chadar Trek. We spent much of our time on the road. About 2 hours of this time was actually spent on paved road and then we spent another 5 hours in the back of a Japanese Gypsy SUV bumping our heads against the unpadded roof as we navigated a very narrow and dusty road that winded along the steep canyons that hung 600 meters over the Zanskar River.

Probably the most unnerving thing about the road were the places where backhoes were doing construction amidst piles of boulders to help clear and widen the road from treacherous, unpredictable rock fall. It was at these time that, due to the presence of construction on an already tight road, we were no more than a hand’s width away from the unprotected edge on a road that was not much wider than our own car’s frame. The drop below into the river was at least 300 meters and we would have all died instantly if any rock fall or sudden driving malfunctions were to push us over the edge. I trusted our car and our driver and I just tried not to think about that possibility too much as I knew that our guide had driven this bumpy mountain pass many times with many different groups.

The Zanskar River was made particularly famous by the BBC documentary called “Human Planet”. One of the series in the documentary highlighted a Ladakhi girl who had to cross 100 km of the river to get from her father and mother’s humble dirt-walled home to her small boarding school so she could start her semester with her classmates. The journey across the ice looks particularly daunting and several times she walks with her father across crackling, dangerously thin ice so she can make it to her studies. The particular climax of the whole episode is where most of the ice on the river has melted and there remains only a narrow, life threatening sliver of ice as the single passage along the bottom of the steep canyon walls. Every conceivable path is blocked for this little girl except a thin sheet of ice that is clinging to the side of the river bank; all the rest of the river is surging with the terrible current of fast-flowing, hypothermia-inducing melt water. There is only a small margin of ice less than half a meter wide for the girl and her father to belly crawl under an overhang so she can make it to school. The young girl bravely and faithfully follows her father’s experienced movements through the narrow ice passage and she squirms to an area that is more stable and well protected. Ultimately, the girl heroically makes it to her school for the year without any incidents. But the whole affair leaves the viewer with a sense of awe that so many sacrifices and challenges are undertaken just to make the commute to elementary school.

Since this famous scene in BBC’s “Human Planet”, thrill-seeking curious trekkers have found their way to the north of India to see and discover the river for themselves.

For these reasons, the Chadar Trek (which means “Ice Trek” in Ladakhi) is like no other trek in the Himalayas. Like the girl’s journey in the film, this trek involves walking on a frozen sheet of glass that is ever shifting and creaking above the current of the waters underneath it. Dramatic mountains rise on both sides of the river adding to both the beauty and the danger. While the trek does not gain much altitude because you walk along the icy surface of flat river, it almost feels like an expedition to the North Pole where the temperatures drop down to -35 degrees Celcius at night. The food rations are transported on improvised wooden sledges by local Ladakhi porters and the trekkers find their lodging in such wild and strange places as caves along the rivers’ edge and by beaches littered with sharp ice wedges and snow crevasses.

The trek allows you to get to know the Zankari culture up close through the lense of locals and their hospitality. One of the highlights of the trek is the magnificent Nerak Waterfall that is frozen completely from top to bottom. The best (and only) time to do this trek is from mid-January to mid-February. That is when the Zanskar river freezes and the ice is thick enough to walk across – at least for most of the trek. There are a few sections where the trekkers actually have to traverse the canyon walls like mountain goats on the crags in order to avoid thin or non-existent ice and the rowdy whitewater currents of the below surging river.

I had seen the “Human Planet” documentary and, like many watchers, I was immediately taken by this alluring, bewitching icy serpent. I had even been planning to take my family on the full 10 day trek up and down the Zanskar River and had determined that I would pay a local Ladakhi porter to pull a sled with my kids on it so they did not have to walk across the slippery ice. When I presented this plan to my wife she was not so keen. Having talked to locals, we realized that trek was realistically safe enough for our children, especially under the watchful and experienced eye of local Ladakhis who knew exactly where to step for the best passage on the ice sheet. But I think the real sticking point for our children would have been the blistering cold. It is one thing to walk on a river as an adult in -25 Celcius because we’d be producing some body heat in our movement. But for kids to sit on an ice sledge in that kind of weather and then to spend the night in an uninsulated tent on the ice felt a little imposing for us.

My wife, though, is pretty adventurous so she did compromise with me to at least go out and see the Zanskar River close up. So we opted to make a day trip out of it so at least we could have fun sliding about on the ice without having to commit to 10 days of relentless cold.

As soon as we got out of the car and skidded across the ice, my wife looked at me with a big smile and said, “I wished we had done all 10 days with the kids!” Once we were out there we could see that whole trek was well organized and well equipped. There were fancy cook tents that provided hot meals every night for the trekkers and private bathroom tents and meeting tents that housed each and every expedition. Every day, the government of Ladakh allows exactly 100 trekkers to be out on the ice. These trekkers are usually divided between 5-10 different expeditions, most of which are comprised of Indian travelers who want to walk on the ice. After being on the ice and hanging out by one of the main base camps for a few hours, it was easy to tell that most of these native Indians were wealthy suburban tourists who were looking to get out the busyness of Delhi or Mumbai to have an adventure. These were regular people – doctors, accountants, taxi drivers- and seeing those regular people out doing something extraordinary really made me feel like our family could have probably done the whole trek. My wife and I both agreed that with the right ultra thick and warm sleeping bags (which can be rented from the Chadar Trek expeditions), we could have managed the trek with our kids.

But, in the end, we were totally fine that we did not do the whole trek. After all, it gave us something to come back for. The day we spent out slipping and sliding on Zanskar River was precious. Our kids had a blast throwing huge chunks of ice into parts of the exposed river. And we even got to borrow a little miniature sleigh to pull them along the ice. They loved every minute of it and it was really quite sunny and warm out on the ice under the afternoon sun.

After playing on the ice, we drove back to Leh and got into the Shanti Guesthouse for a nice night in the heat of the hotel’s working radiator. And boy did a hot shower feel good that night!

Day 5

Despite the perceived (but probably not actual) danger of the Chadar Trek, there was something that was haunting me far more than walking on shifting ice. I had heard about the highest motorable road in the world. And I had even watched a few YouTube videos as cars drove carefully over the packed snow and ice on tires covered with chains and with nothing on the edge of the road to protect them from sliding off into a Himalayan abyss. And it all sounded pretty gnarly to me.

The Khardung La is a dirt-road pass that crosses over an elevation of 5,600 meter / 18,300 feet. After driving over some pretty narrow mountain roads myself in Tibet, it wasn’t the steep drop off that really concerned me. It was that I was bringing my family to an elevation higher than any we had been to before. My wife and I had climbed to over 17,000 feet around Lhasa before we had kids, and living on the Tibetan Plateau our kids had even been to 14,000 feet a few times with us on family backpacking trips. In all these conditions we had all done very well in regards to health and acclimatization. But 18,300 feet was a whole new level. This was starting to get up near the top of North America’s tallest mountain, Mount Denali. This was the stuff of epic mountaineers and crampons and oxygen tanks.

But through a lot of research and planning and after many talks with our experienced tour agency, we decided that it was possible. Our kids were, after all, no more likely to get Acute Mountain Sickness than any other adult. We just were not sure if they did start to feel nauseous up there how they would react. But we did know this: we had spent plenty of time acclimating in and around Leh, we had emergency oxygen in the car if we did run into any disconcerning situations, and the best cure for any altitude related sickness is to descend quickly to a lower altitude. Since we were driving up from 11,500 feet to 18,300 feet in a matter of about 2 hours we knew we could descend pretty quickly in our car along the road.

So with those contingencies in hand, we set out to drive over the world’s tallest motorable road with our two children. As we drove up, I kept glancing at the back seat looking for headaches or other signs of discomfort. Other than our son feeling a little sleepy, we got up to the high pass without any incident. And, of course, we snapped a few selfies on the top and we did not spend much time up there in that rarified air because we wanted to descend quickly. All in all, I was very proud of my family for doing so well and we all felt very good considering the winding roads and the high altitude. All my fears about the big high pass were put to rest.

And then came the really fun part. As we descended from the Khardung La into the Nubra Valley, we could see large stretches of sand before us. There was, too, a river that braided in and out between the piles of sand as it wove into the foot the hovering mountains. As we crept down in altitude, the whole valley opened up into a flood plain full of blowing dust. This was the famous Nubra Valley, famous for the indigenous fuzzy two-humped Bactrian camels that lived there. These camels were some of the only animals in the world who could survive in both the extreme cold and lack of water. There were obviously quite specialized to make it at 10,500 feet in one of the driest, toughest places in the world.

Once at the bottom of the valley, we visited Diskit Monastery and the statue of India’s largest future buddha. This statue had to be at least 30 meters tall and it sat on a golden throne that overlooked the entire expansive desert valley. From the future buddha statue we drove through long stretches of highway into the real heart of the Nubra Valley right smack into the rolling sand dunes. At around 5 meters high, these dunes were certainly not anything near the size of the dunes you might see in the Sahara Desert. But there was a very certain texture on them that made them enchanting. The wind blew the sand into an intricate pattern of miniature waves and ridges that almost made the dunes look like they were covered with crochet work.

After jumping into the dunes and rolling down them like we were lost raiders fleeing desperately in the desertscape of planet Jakku in Star Wars, we headed to a remote desert camp. After about an hour drive we arrived at this camp and had a wonderful soak in their hot springs tubs. The water was so hot (being directly piped from the ground) that we had to wait two hours for it to cool off before we could even get in it. But our whole family eventually had a wonderful bath and that was a great way to wash all the sand off our bodies from jumping about the sand dunes.

With an incredibly relaxing hot springs bath we were all very relaxed and clean! That night we slept awesome!

Day 6

Day 6 was our last full day in Ladakh and we definitely took advantage of every daylight hour.
We woke up in our VIP hit Springs Camp and had a warm cup of Chai and jumped in the van.
The sun was just cresting the snowy peaks and the soft morning light played on the new morning snow.

We drove back to the small town where we had lunch the day before and ate a simple breakfast of eggs and Indian bread.

Knowing that we were going to be a long way from civilization on our drive out to Pangong Lake, I wanted to stock up on Snacks and drinks for the 8 hour car ride ahead of us. I stopped in a very small convenience store in a town of about six single-room concrete-block buildings (which altogether had probable total population of around 15 locals) set out in the middle of the Nubra Valley desert. Half of the buildings in town were buried under 3 meters of rubble and trash because of a recent flood that had surged through the floodplain of this desert valley. Desert landscapes are not used to receiving large amounts of precipitation or snow melt and this basin had fully been washed out and submerged in a recent deluge. The town was already very forlorn and rustic looking and having the few buildings in it being destroyed by a flash flood made it even more lonely. To add to the desperate feeling, there was a pack of 10-15 starving wild dogs who roamed the 50 meter-long strip in town looking for food scraps. They were all quite scraggly and were constantly biting and arguing about the pecking order of the group. Just the day before, our guide Tenzin was attempting to feed these wily dogs and had gotten bit pretty severely on his left hand. The dog bite bled on his finger and we were unable to find any Tetanus or rabies shots in the nearby town of Diskit. So a caution to travelers: do not feed the wild stray dogs and be careful to keep your fingers and your food close to your body. Some dogs may be aggressive enough to try to take food from your table or from your hands so have your radar up and do not leave your food unattended.

I was curious what the small dark convenience store had in the way of supplies. I was really just hoping for a few bottles of water and some Snickers. The convenience store had a strange assortment of goods from chips to laundry detergent to pots and pans and plastic flowers. I knew I was in the middle of nowhere when the only bottle of water that was for sale in the whole dimly lit store was an already used half-filled bottle. They obviously had no water for sale. I bought a few juice drink packages of sickly sweet mango syrup juice and hoped that would be enough to stave off thirst and headaches as we drove over another 5,400 meter/ 17,716 foot pass back to Leh. For snacks there were no Snickers. But they had some dried lentil beans which turned out to be quite tasty.

So another warning: When traveling to Nubra Valley and Pangong Lake, I recommend bringing 2-3 days of water in your car because bottled water can be hard to find. As it was, there was no place for us to get clean water for around 24 hours so we had to live off the few almost empty bottles we already had in the car and those sweet box drinks. We turned out to be okay but we were definitely cutting it pretty close in regards to hydration at altitude.

It was another 4 hours drive to Pangong Lake across the vast seas of rolling high desert. There were moments when the winds had completely covered the single track road with drifting sand and we had to drive over newly formed and ever shifting sand dunes in an attempt to find the other side of the road where the pavement continued several 100 meters out. And there were times the road just totally ended without warning and we found ourselves skirting disheveled fields of rocks with no clear path. Apparently in the summer lots of temporary tents pop up offering souvenirs and snacks in this area of Nubra Valley. But in the winter season this was a truly wild, forgotten place. We did not see another single car or a person for hours. One time I saw a lonely Ladakhi nomad walking by himself on the road and I found myself wandering wherever this man could have come from or where he was walking to. There seemed like no point of reference for his journey as we hadn’t seen a town or anything resembling a house for an hour.

We arrived at Pangong Lake around 2pm. There was no one else out on the whole lake except us. The only two people we could see from a distance were two local Ladakhis wearing ice skates and hockey gear who were hitting an ice hockey puck around on the frozen lake. It was strange to see signs of western development and recreation out there in the wilderness. But what I did not know at that moment was that the crowds were already preparing to gather around the shores of the frozen lake for a world record breaking Guinness Book of World Records event. Just the next day was to be the competition for world’s highest ice hockey game. Unfortunately we missed this game by a day since we had to fly out but apparently most of India’s Olympic hockey team is drawn from the ranks of local Ladakhis who love love and cherish the sport!

Pangong Tso (Tibetan: སྤང་གོང་མཚོ) is Tibetan for “high grassland lake” (“Tso” is the Tibetan word for “Lake). This an endorheic lake in the Himalayas situated at a height of about 4,350 m (14,270 ft). It is 134 km (83 mi) long and extends from India into China. Approximately 60% of the length of the lake lies in China and 40% of the lake is in India. The lake is 5 km (3.1 mi) wide at its broadest point. All together it covers 604 km2. During winter the lake freezes completely, despite being saline in nature. It is not a part of the Indus River basin area and is geographically a separate land locked river basin.

The brackish water of Pangong Lake has a very small amount of hardy micro-vegetation. Reportedly, there are no fish or any other aquatic life in the lake, except for a few small saltwater-tolerant crustaceans. The lake is in the process of being identified as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. As such it will be the first trans-boundary wetland in South Asia under this convention.

In the summer the waters of the lake are a brilliant blue and this is said by many to be India’s prettiest lake. However, the lake in winter lacks the bright colors of summer and gray ice stretches across the shores and the rim of the lake is spotted with brown vegetation and is chilled by piercing winds that rush across the flat surface. But there is still a rugged beauty here in the silence of winter.

In winter the Indian army drives their trucks across the lake to reach remote outposts that protect this disputed border.

We drove from Pangong Lake back to Leh without stopping too much. On the way back to Leh, we crossed India’s second highest motorable road at 5,400 meters / 17,716 feet. As we descended the high pass back into the Leh Valley the sun was setting right in front of us on the ridges and peaks that stand over Leh. It was a perfect view of dancing pinks and oranges that eventually faded into misty purples and then the ink black night sky.

This was our last night in Ladakh.

Day 7

We got up early in the morning to fly out of IXL Leh airport. As I mentioned before this is a very small airport. Because it is so small I figured there would not be much time spent in getting from one place to another and I thought we could get through security in 1 hour. Thankfully our guide told us we really needed a full 2 hours to make it the 50 meters from the entrance to the flight departures gate.

I was, at first, a little skeptical of this warning, but the whole place is actually very chaotic and it literally took us the full two hours from our drop off at the airport to the time we were at the airplane gate.

Be aware that in India (or at least in Leh) there are several extra steps in flying out that we do not have in America.

The following list shows exactly why we took 2 hours to make our way through a building that was no bigger than a hometown grocery store.

1.) Getting in the door

There is exactly 1 door to get in the airport from the freezing cold weather outside.
Everyone was standing in the freezing cold at 6:30am in the dark parking lot in a confused gaggle (remember that Indians do not celebrate the concept of an orderly “queue”, so you may need to push your way to the front).
There were so many army soldiers all crowded about the doorway all ready to leave their military posts to go home and see their family. Fortunately, a kind airport attendant let us in the front of this mob of people because we had kids with us. Then once we were through the door we had to go through the presecurity check outside of check in to enter into the airport.
Here they examine your bag and after it goes through a X-Ray machine they tag it.
Strangely, at this presecurity check they ask for your flight ticket – which is unusual because you do not even get your ticket until you go into the airport and check your bags at the desk of your airline. So I was a bit taken aback by this but I was able to pull up my itinerary on my email on my phone.
So make sure you have a paper or electronic copy of your flight reservation handy as they will ask for this.

After your luggage goes through the X-Ray machine they throw your luggage into a jumbled pile of 100’s of bags.
Note to travelers: There is no order and all the bags get completely buried here so make sure when you sort through the pile to find all your luggage so that you do not forget small bags like laptop cases, purses, or backpacks which could get easily misplaced in the mess.

2.) Check bags and get tickets

This is what you would expect to be the most normal, standardized process in the whole airport. You walk up to your airline counter and you hand them your passports. The airline attendant taps a few things on her computer and she prints out your boarding passes and voila! – you are free to fly!

But the Leh airport was not quite that simple. As we were standing in line all sorts of people started to cut in line in front of us. This included a ton of army people.

When we finally got up to the counter they took all of our 5 large bags and put them on the conveyor belt weigh station at one time. Apparently Air India weighs the total of your bags rather than each bag individually so they want to weigh them at the same time.
Therefore we had 5 suitcases tottering on that small scale next to the check in counter for all 4 of us. As the rules were explained to us, you get 25 kg per person on Air India (that could be divided between 20 bags or 1 bag- it does not matter to them ).

It took the flight desk about 20 minutes to find our ticket in their system and during that time the power went out in the airport and my poor son was left in the bathroom with no light to see.

Eventually the Air India Staff was able to locate our reservation and we did actually get tickets. In the meantime our whole family bought a few cups of Chai and hoped that somehow they had not goofed our online reservation.

3.) Go through security

One of our hand bags/carry on items did not have a bag tag from the presecurity checks. So when I went to go through security the official there made me turn around and go all the way back to the front door to get a baggage tag. What I did not understand was that these bag tags were all the same generic tags that had the company logo. Every tag was identical and had no individual bar code or cereal number to identify this as a special bag or even your own personal bag. But for some reason they would not let me through without this useless piece of paper dangling from my bag. I suspect this is arbitrary proof that my bags had been through the outside X-ray pre-security screen and they accidentally missed tagging my bag in the chaos. Which, of course, is arbitrary proof that the whole process could do with a little streamlining.

So I dragged my tired son back across the airport and we tagged his little child suitcase and then we were allowed to go through security. At this point my wife and daughter had already gone through the second security screen and were waiting on the other side for us with a Indian pastry filled with microwave-warmed chicken.

4.) Examine your baggage

After you have put your carry on bags through a second redundant X-Ray machine you have to physically go outside in the freezing cold by the airplanes and see where all the checked bags are coming out. Again, the checked bags are lying in a pile and, for some reason, you must positively identify that, yes, your bags have in fact travelled the small length of the carousel and are sitting next the airport bus that will take you to your plane.
I suspect this is because the airport is so disorganized and chaotic that they have lost bags somewhere around this point and need people to make sure that nothing got lost on the hidden conveyer belt from check in to the time you get on the plane.
(Or this might be an added layer of security).

5.) Get in line for your flight

There is only one departures gate in the whole airport. Right next to this gate there is a sign that says “To Gates” and points left. So it would appear that you are to follow the ambiguous arrow to your gate. But actually the sign just points you to walk into a wall and there is really nowhere to go. For some reason this sign is basically placed directly over the one single gate. In fact, if you are standing at the sign close enough to see it’s words, you are already in line to board your plane and therefore have no reason to follow the sign. By this one gate there is no flight info listed on a screen to tell you which flight is boarding.

There were 100 army soldiers in civilian clothes waiting in line, so I just figured we could joined in that line. So like a sheep following the flock, I just got in line. Because there was no flight board or announcement I accidentally got in the wrong line. But eventually we figured out that this was the flight boarding before ours. I guess this is the problem with only having one gate. You might be in the right place, but you never know which flight you are actually in line for.

That first line was boarding a flight to Delhi. We got in the next line at the same gate which flied out to Chandigarh.

6.) Load on a crowded bus and boarded the plane

Just like the bus on our arrival this was an old jalopy that had standing room only. But the people of India are so hospitable that they gave our family some of the last remaining seats so our kids did not have to stand on the moving bus.

In summary, the Leh airport takes a long time to get through. If you are flying in or out of Leh expect that there will be about 2-3 extra steps in the check in process and a lot of people (mostly military) milling around the airport.
So leave yourself lots of time and expect mid amounts of disorder.

But once you are in the airplane what you can expect is the most terrific views of the Himalayas below you (and a lot of turbulence in the first 20 minutes of your flight). Ladakh offers many highlights and opportunities to see the raw breadth of the immensity of Himalayas. It is fitting that as you fly out from this mountain mecca that you pass over the very mountains that have given Ladakh its remote and untouched character.

As I watched the mountains pass away into the clouds I knew I would come be back to this land of mountains, monasteries, and mysteries.
One time was really just not enough!

Thanks for reading our story and hope it helps you along your own travels to Ladakh!
Keep coming back for more travel and trekking tips!