Why Was the Jiayuguan Pass So Important?
Jiayuguan Pass used to be the starting point of the ancient Great Wall built during the rule of the Ming Dynasty (1368– 1644). It was the most important military defensive project in north western China because it guarded the narrowest point of the western section of the Hexi Corridor in a narrow corridor of otherwise impassible mountains. This was the vital defensive frontier fortress that had sealed China off from invaders since the Han Dynasty (BC 202—220). After the Jiayuguan Pass was constructed, the army of the Ming Dynasty used it to protect inner China from the invasion of nomadic groups. At the same time, the Jiayuguan Pass also played a key waypoint on the ancient Silk Road. Foreign travelers and traders came from Europe, Middle Asia, and entered into China from this gateway. While the commodities of China were also exported to Central Asia and Europe from this pass. Along with the foreign trade, a cultural exchange of religion, art and custom also flourished. It was this trade of ideas that has not only forever changed the western world but also China itself.
The History of Jiayuguan Pass
During the early period after the Ming Dynasty was established, barbarian armies of the Yuan Empire and Turpan constantly invaded the Hexi Corridor area. The Chinese general Feng Sheng was consequently ordered to construct a defensive pass to protect China from invasion from both the Yuan and Turpan peoples. He chose the Jiayu Mountains as the final staging ground for his defensive strategy because, as time has shown, this pass has been extremely hard to penetrate but comparatively easy to defend. The construction started in the year 1372, and the many troops completed the first stage of the work quickly. The first stage of the Jiayuguan Pass consisted of several ramparts surrounded by some barracks. The subsequent construction took 168 years to complete and finally became the western starting point of the Great Wall of Ming Dynasty.
Even though the walls and towers have been partially damaged by centuries of war and weather, the Jiayuguan Pass is still one of the most intact surviving ancient military buildings in China. Several restorations have been undertaken to protect the original design of its fort, towers and walls. But travelers can still see much of its original construction.
Layout of Jiayuguan Fort
Jiayuguan Pass is an immense military complex which covers more than 33,529 square meters and consists of an inner city, an outer city and an outer moat.
The inner city has the shape of a trapezoid with an imposing wall that is 11 meters high and 640 meters long. It was used as the third barrier in a series of walls and towers against incoming enemies. Two defensive gates, Rou Yuan Men and Guang Hua Men, were built in the western and eastern sides of the city. Towers for guards and commanders were built on the walls as lookouts into the vast desert beyond the city. The central area of the inner city housed the office of the commander and a Guanyu Memorial Temple. There are even bridleways for carrying horses up to to the city wall.
The outer city was the second barrier enemies would encounter. Unlike the inner wall which was built from loess, the outer city was made of exceptionally strong bricks and this section of the wall was connected directly to the long stretches of Great Wall that scattered out from the outer city. A striking plaque was inserted on the wall above the gate.
Moat and Battlefield
A deep moat encircles the Jiayuguan Fort outside the outer city. Just 50 meters in front of this moat is a battlefield where 1000’s of men died in combat defending (or invading) China’s northwestern border.
Things to do at the Jiayuguan Fort
1.) Learn about history in the Great Wall Museum
Before entering the fortress, take a short visit to the Great Wall Museum to learn some interesting facts about both the Jiayuguan Fort and the Great Wall. The museum contains some excellent historic photos and relics of this area.
2.) Camel rides
Just in front of the back gate, you can find many locals offering chances to ride a camel or to just take photos with the camels. Don’t be afraid of the camels, they are very docile. Should you decide to go for a ride, a local camel guide will accompany you.
If you want to take a look at the Jiayuguan Pass from the Gobi desert you can try the exciting four-wheel drive ATV’s. These four wheelers offer a chance to get away from the crowds and see the desert in a purer form.
Nearby Places to Visit
The entrance ticket for Jiayuguan Pass costs 120 RMB/person, and this price also includes the admission fees for visiting the Overhanging Great Wall and the First Mound of the Great Wall. But these 3 locations are not very close to each other. So make sure you leave extra time to get out to these destinations as well.
Overhanging Great Wall (Xuanbi Great Wall)
The Overhanging Great Wall, also known as the Xuanbi Great Wall. It is 8 kilometers away from the Jiayuguan Pass Fort and 14 kilometers from the city. In ancient times, it was a part of the Jiayuguan Pass, and was connected with the fort. More than 460 years later, most sections of the walls have disappeared. The remaining section is 750 meters long, rising up 150 meters and hanging on a cliff face. Unlike the sections of Great Wall near Beijing, these sections were constructed with loess because of the lack of water in this area. Hiking up the Great Wall here takes only about a half an hour.
The First Mound of the Great Wall
The First Mound of the Great Wall is also known as The First Strategic Post of the Great Wall on Tripadvisor.com. Jiayuguan Pass is the western starting point of the Great Wall and the First Mound is considered the westernmost point of the pass. It is a mound of yellow loess which is believed to be the only remaining ruins of a former watchtower of the ancient Great Wall. Most of the other wall sections connected to the tower have disappeared and been covered by blowing desert sand so it is significant that this one last monument still stands as a testimony to this particular section of the Great Wall. To visit the First Mound of Great Wall, you have to transfer 7.5 kilometers from the Jiayuguan Pass Fort.
With a 1.5 hour drive from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, this is a very accessible day trip from Lanzhou. You could also do this trip as a larger itinerary that continues onto Labrang monastery or Hezuo and Langmusi as well which are in southern Gansu Province.
The Bingling Caves were a work in progress for more than a millennium. The first grotto was begun around 420 AD at the end of the Western Qin kingdom. Work continued and more grottoes were added during the Wei, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The style of each grotto can easily be connected to the typical artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, such as the Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.
Sadly, over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion, and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the caves and the artistic treasures within. Altogether there are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, and 82 clay sculptures that remain. The relief sculpture and caves filled with buddhas and frescoes line the northern side of the canyon for about 200 meters along the reservoir. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery. These caves culminate at a large natural cavern where wooden walkways precariously wind up the rock face to hidden cliff-side caves as if visiting an ancient civilizaiton. It is here at the top of these steps that you can view the giant Maitreya or Future Buddha that stands more than 27 meters, or almost 100 feet tall.This 100 foot tall Buddha is the main attraction to visit Bingling Temple and is certainly worth the trip from Lazhou. As you loop around past the Maitreya cave, you might consider hiking 2.5km further up the impressive canyon to a small remote Tibetan monastery. If you do this extra hike, be aware than there may also be 4Wheel drive ATV’s There might also be 4WDs running the route.
The sculptures, carvings, and frescoes that remain are outstanding examples of Buddhist artwork and draw visitors from around the world. The site is extremely remote and can only be reached during summer and fall by boat via the Liujiaxia Reservoir. Boats leave from near the Liujiaxia Dam in Liujiaxia City (Yongjing County’s county seat), and sometimes also from other docks on the reservoir. The rest of the year, the site is inaccessible, as there are very few roads in the area because of the rocky landscape.
You can hire a covered speedboat (which seats 9 people in total) for 700 RMB per boat for the one-hour drive across the Liujiaxia Resevoir. Boats do not run unless the boat is full of the required 9 people, so you may have to wait for other guests or you may have to pay the difference to cover the empty seats. In the peak seasons from May to October it should be no problem to find other willing Chinese tourists who will want to share the boat with you. In low season, though, you may have to wait 30 minutes or more for your boat to fill up.
From Liujiaxia you can also hire a private car for around 300 RMB to take you to the other side of the reservoir, although most people opt for the boat since this gives a very nice view of the cliffs from the expansive reservoir. Out of Liújiāxiá, the road ascends the rugged hills of southern Gansu and winds above the reservoir. While the drive is quite scenic, if you are prone to motion sickness this is not the option for you as the drive is about 1.5 hours and twists and turns through terraced fields. The final descent to the turquoise reservoir, with its craggy canyon backdrop, is well worth the trip.
You can also opt to stay overnight in Liújiāxiá if you want the overnight experience. Most people do Bingling Si as a full day trip, but the Dorsett Hotel at the north end of town is a good option with huge rooms overlooking the Yellow River.
Most people hire a private car from Lanzhou, but if you are feeling more adventurous (and have some extra free time) you can take one of the frequent buses from Lanzhou’s west bus station that cost 20 RMB and take 2.5 hours to get to the Liújiāxiá bus station. From there, you will need to take a 10-minute taxi ( to the boat ticket office at the dam (大坝; dàbà). Try to catch the earliest buses possible from Lánzhōu (these start at 7am) to avoid missing the bus on the way back to Lanzhou. The last returning bus to Lánzhōu leaves Liujiaxia at 6.30pm at night.
In 2006, the Chinese Tourist Administration listed Yadan National Park as a class 4A level scenic area and then it also became a base for scientific research, education, and geological study. Many Chinese war movies have been filmed here because of its remote location and unique desert formations. Here the the vast expanses of Gobi Desert meet with stunning red rock scenery in a haunting and breathtaking landscape that feels more like something from Mars than it does something from Earth.
The park takes its name from it’s geological formations with the scientific name “Yardang”. This is a Chinese transliteration of that word and thus the Chinese characters, “Yadan”. Stretching 25km from north to south, the Yadan National Geological Park offers various landforms that take on distinct shapes, many of which mimic animals when viewed at the right angle. Some of these particular shapes include a Stone Bird, a Sphinx, a Golden Lion, and a Peacock. And if you use your imagination, you can even picture some famous structures like the Potala Palace in Tibet, the Heaven Temple in Beijing, and other famous pagodas and temples.
Because of the remoteness of the park, the cell phone signal here is very poor and the government actually requires that tourists join a park bus tour in order to make sure visitors do not get lost in this vast park.
There are four main stops in the park and the public park tour bus will take you to each one. As you stop at these points of interest, make sure you pay attention to the tourists in your group and do not stray too far as you will have fixed time at each stop before your designated tour bus continues on to the next stop.
Here are the four main stops on the public bus tour. The last tour departs form the park entrance at 5:20pm so make sure you get to the park entrance at least by 4:00pm just to give yourself enough time to enjoy the tour.
1.) The Golden Lion
When the tour bus stops at the first place, you might be tempted to think you have just landed on Mars because of the barren red rocks. The most remarkable formation here is the Golden Lion which is a product of Yadan’s long history of erosion. Through the force of water, winds, and geologic collapse, the rocks here have been eroded and then have decayed and fragmented gradually into smaller pieces. Overtime the erosion peeled away the looser and softer portions of rock until the outline of a Lion’s head can be seen in the rock
2.) The Sphinx
The Sphinx is the second attraction you will stop at in the park. Seeing it from a distance, this long, flat formation resembles a crouching lion with a face of a human being. This formation, like the Golden Lion before it, is a long, flat wall that has been carved out by weather and time. The Sphinx is composed of sandy and argillaceous debris and it is this loose rock which has been chipped away over time to give it is peculiar Egyptian-like shape. Ironically, as a geologic structure it is a bit of a transitional form between the first stop at the Golden Lion and the third stop at the taller, column-like Peacock.
3.) The Peacock,
This rounded columnar yardang formation is the third stop on the tour and is probably the most elaborate of all the formations. The shape, as you might guess, looks like a peacock strutting its stuff as it is proudly fanning its tail open to attract a mate.
4.) The Armada
This is the last attraction on the tour. The structure here is comprised of several layers of striated rock that truly looks like a fleet of ships floating in the boundless desert. This is a very impressive structure and really carries a certain regal nature, just like the command of a real fleet of ships.
If you happen to be hiring a car or a van, it is worth a side trip from Yadan National Park to see some of the old watch towers of the western most Great Wall. Here are some of the highlights you might want to stop at on the way back to Dunhuang:
Han Great Wall Relics
The Han Great Wall was built as a defense against the invasion of Xiongnu during the West Han Dynasty. Unlike it’s eastern cousin in Beijing, this section of the Great Wall was built using much different materials than the wide stone sections you may have seen in Mutianyu or Badaling. Due to the harshness of the environment and the lack of building materials available in the desert, the Han Great Wall was made from branches, reeds, sandy gravel and other local materials instead of masonry. There was a beacon tower exactly every 5 km to convey news and military information along the entire length of the ancient Great Wall. Today, this grand formation has been highly eroded and has lost much of its once exquisite detail after several millennia of exposure to the elements. But, with a little imagination, you might be able to picture what is was like back in the days of great Emperors.
Yumen Pass was a primitive military post and part of a string of beacon towers that extended to the garrison town of Loulan in Xinjiang. Jade was imported from the Central Plains of modern day Xinjiang through this pass, so it was named Yumen Pass which means the “Jade Gate Pass”. Although it is not much to look at these days, in ancient times, Yumen Pass must have been a spectacular site filled with the noise and opulence of journeys of 1000’s of wealthy envoys and camel caravans. Yumen Pass is today a lonely square castle standing in the sandy rocks of the Gobi Desert. If you climb up to the tower for a view you will see a long line of scattered mashes, twisting ravines, and sections of the winding Great Wall dotted with tall and straight poplar trees.
Getting to Yadan National Park- For Independent Travelers
Most tourists hire a private car or van to take them on a day trip to Yadan National Park. But if you are looking to save money, it is possible to catch a public bus from Dunhuang as well. From the eastern gate of the main Shazhou Night Market in Dunhuang, you can take a long-distance bus to Yadan National Geologic Park. Two buses run each day and these buses are likely to stop operation in the winter and the low season. So if you are traveling between November and April you may need to hire a car to take you to Yadan National Park.
Tips for Visiting Yadan National Geologic Park
- If you don’t mind spending a little extra money it is recommended to hire a jeep or 4WD vehicle. Renting a jeep with a driver will allow your group to be able to get deeper inside the park and to explore more natural formations.
- The best time of year to visit is during th peak season of Yadan National Geological Park which ranges from May to October. Starting your trip in the early morning will allow you to have cooler weather and relatively quieter environment. Although the sunsets can be very beautiful in the desert, you will also find there may be more people in the late afternoon in the park.
- The daylight around noon can be very intense in Yadan National Park and there are very few shady spots to get out of the heat. So be sure to bring a good sun hat or umbrella and lots of sunscreen and cover your skin with clothing that has an SPF rating. In case of sandstorms in the park, you may want to bring some sort of scarf or face mask.
According to legend, in 366 AD a monk named Yuezun had a vision of a thousand radiant Buddhas on the cliff face. This powerful vision inspired him to begin excavating the caves. From the 4th to the 14th century, hundreds of caves were then hand carved out of the rock cliff face containing scriptures, statues, and vibrant Buddhist paintings.Today almost 500 caves remain and there are more than a thousand painted and sculpted Buddhas within the caves which contain the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.
Excavated into a mile of cliff face outside Dunhuang, an oasis town at the edge of the Gobi Desert, the site’s Chinese name Mogao Ku means “peerless caves.” Indeed, these caves are “peerless” and are one of the largest and best preserved artifacts in all of Asia. The decorated caves’ walls and ceilings, have a total area of 500,000 square feet and are covered by elaborate paintings depicting stories of the Buddha, Buddhist sutras, portraits of cave donors, ornamental designs, and scenes of social and commercial life. The caves also contain more than 2,000 brightly colored clay sculptures of the Buddha and other important Buddhist scholars, the largest sculpture being over 100 feet tall.
The settlement of Dunhuang was one of the first places where Buddhism entered China, through a steady stream of meditation, monks, and merchants who moved north and east from India along the Silk Road. As a major stop on the Silk Road, Dunhuang was a crossroads of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and even Christian thought. Although this is an area of specifically Buddhist worship, the art and objects found at Mogao reflect the meeting of cultures along the Silk Road, the collection of trade routes that for centuries linked China, Central Asia, and Europe. Discovered at the site were Confucian, Daoist, and Christian texts, and documents in multiple languages including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Old Turkish. Even Hebrew manuscripts were found there.
After the 15th Century, the caves lay forgotten and were buried by the sand of the Gobi Desert for many centuries until they were rediscovered by a monk. In the 1890s a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself guardian of the caves. In 1900 he discovered a cache of manuscripts, long hidden in a small sealed up cave, coming upon one of the great collections of documents in history. Despite their great age, the sculptures and wall paintings in the Dunhuang caves remain remarkably well preserved, thanks in part to the dry desert climate and their remote location.
As more and more archeologists investigated the cave over 50,000 ancient documents were found there. The Library Cave (Cave 17), which was unsealed by Wang Yuanlu, contained nearly 50,000 ancient manuscripts, silk banners and paintings, fine silk embroideries and other rare textiles dating from before the early 1000s, when this cave and all its contents were concealed for reasons still unknown. Shortly after this discovery, many of the objects from the cave were acquired at the site by explorers and archaeologists from the West and Japan.The materials found in the Library Cave offer a vivid picture of life in medieval China. Accounting ledgers, contracts, medical texts, dictionaries, and even descriptions of music, dance, and games were among the finds.
Many of the objects found in the Library Cave can actually be viewed online now. Museums and libraries across Europe and Asia with objects from the Library Cave in their collections have digitized them and made them searchable for free via the International Dunhuang Project, based at the British Library.
The Buddha himself meditated in caves before achieving Enlightenment, and sacred cave sites are found throughout the Buddhist world, including in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. India is home to some 1,200 cave-temple sites, China 250. The Mogao site at Dunhuang is the largest of these.
Top 10 things that a foreigner should know when visiting Tibet
1.) Pointing your feet
Never point your feet towards a monk or a Buddha ( or even a picture of any holy Buddha). If you are sleeping in a Tibetan home, make sure you identify any sacred paintings, statues, or pictures of monks and avoid pointing your feet in their direction. If you happen to sleep in a room full of Buddhist idols, sleep with your head towards the idols and with your feet away from them. Feet are considered a dirty or unholy part of the body and it is disrespectful to point the bottoms of your feet at people – even if it is not on purpose. If you are invited into a Tibetan tent or home, sit cross-legged and try not to point your feet at anyone in the room or at any pictures that hold a religious significance.
Also- Do not point your feet towards someone’s head or walk over people when sitting down. It is better to walk around them (or for that matter food, tea, or anything else on the ground) because walking OVER someone or something is extremely disrespectful. In addition, remember that anything associated with your feet (socks, shoes, slippers) needs to be kept low and on the ground. Please do not hang your wet socks from a stove after a day of trekking and always keep your shoes on the ground.
2.) Avoid touching heads
Never touch a stranger’s head or hat. Just as the feet are considered dirty, the head is considered a holy part of the human body. So if you see a cute Tibetan kid, please avoid rubbing their head. It is especially important to show respect to those older than you and make sure you bow before them and try to lower your posture so that you are not looming over their head.
3.) Watch your behind!
Every part of the Tibetan home has its own history and tradition. For instance, the stove is considered to have its own special spirits that rule over the hearth and the fire. In light of this belief, never put your bottom on a table or stove. These are not places to sit. As with most cultures, the behind is considered an unholy part of the body and you do not want to place it on objects that have sacred significance. When you sit, do not sit with your butt pointed at someone.
4.) Public Displays of Affection
Tibetans are very shy about talking about anything sexual or romantic in public. In fact, even in these modern times of the internet, Tibetan girls usually do not walk next to or near Tibetan boys. Genders tend to stay separated and do not appear exclusively in public together. Knowing that Tibetans are very modest and sensitive about public displays of affection, if you are a couple traveling in Tibet, please refrain from kissing or hugging romantically in public. This is especially true while in a Tibetan village or in a monastery or in front of relatives or parents. Of course, parents can kiss and hug kids and that is socially acceptable.
5.) Treat the waters kindly
Never pee in a local water source or wash dishes or clothes directly in a river or in a lake because someone will need to drink that water downstream. Tibetans also believe in water spirits called “naga” and they are particularly sensitive about treating the water well so as not to offend these beings.
6.) Always face people of high ranks
It is Tibetan custom that when you are saying goodbye or leaving the room with a highly ranked lama that as you walk out of the room, you remain in eye contact with that person and do not turn your back on them. When you walk out of the room, back out of the room and do not turn your back to the the lama or teacher. You must back out the room with your front continually facing the lama. Never put your back towards an older person or a high monk as this is considered to be a social faux pas and a sign of disrespect.
7.) Please be modest
Consider that many Tibetan men – and especially monks- have never met or seen a western women. Also consider the fact that most monks have taken a vow of celibacy and purity in their devotion to Buddha. Therefore, women and men both need to wear long pants in monastery. Women should not wear tops with spaghetti straps or revealing clothing like mini skirts or tights. In general, dress respectively and modestly in Tibetan areas as this is the local custom.
8.) Respect life
Never kill any animals in holy lakes or mountains. This includes bugs and mosquitoes. Tibetans consider all life sacred and it is a great sin in Tibetan culture to take even the smallest life. After all, based on the teachings of reincarnation, Tibetans believe that any given animal could actually be the reincarnation of your great grandmother who has already passed away.
9.)Point with an open hand
Do not point with one finger towards a person or a Thangka painting. This is considered rude. Instead use your whole hand (with all your fingers outstretched in an open palm) to point. Many Tibetan nomads point with their lips so if you are asking for directions and you see them point somewhere with their lips that is the direction they want you to go.
10.) Eat only out of individual bowls
Tibetan chefs do not taste food out of the large pot they are using to cook for a group. Do not eat from the communal pot because if you do sot you may share diseases. Unless you are clearly invited to do so, do not use your chopsticks to reach into a communal pot. Instead focus on eating the food that is served to you in your own individual bowl or plate.
Hopefully these little tips will help you have an excellent experience with your Tibetan hosts!
This is the core of our team building curriculum. Participants work through a series of problem-solving tasks designed to develop teamwork, decision-making, and creative problem-solving. The challenge may be a physical one, like working together to set up a tent, persevering to hike a mountain, or getting their whole group through a rope “spider web” without touching the web. The challenges also have a mental challenge, like figuring out how to move a bucket filled with tennis balls with limited tools and numerous restrictions. The lessons promote individual self-esteem and leadership skills through supportive, positive encouragement
Don’t just go and take a photo to impress your friends on Wechat or Instagram.
We want you to come back from our trips with more than just pretty pictures. Elevated Trips wants our participants to be changed on the inside with broader minds, that are educated and enlightened. We don’t settle for riding a bus in a group tour and stopping at the touristy, commercialize sites.
Our tours and treks are culturally immersive and full of wonder and life and even delightful spontaneous moments that can’t be squarely placed in a brochure. By immersing yourself in culture you begin to admire it in a new way that you can not as a mere spectator.
We get off the beaten path where few foreigners have ever roamed.
If you want to the see the world through the window of an air conditioned tour bus, Elevated trips is not for you. If you want to experience life through the eyes of a Tibetan living on the roof of the world, we will take you there in a way no one else can. Elevated trips. . . live it, don’t just see it.
How do I schedule a team building event?
Elevated Trips offers several options for team building.
We offer a one day team building training where we leave for the mountains in the morning and then return by dinner time. We also offer a complete team building weekend package where we sleep 2 nights in a mountain lodge and have time for relaxation and a retreat from the big city.
Please see our website for more details:
We would love to tailor make your itinerary to suit your company needs.
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To see the video on Tencent see here:
活动内容：Niko是一个希腊词语，意思是“征服”或“胜利利”。同品牌“耐克”这个词是同一词根。我们提供的Niko 6⽇野外体验式学习课程，将带领学员们经历个⼈的觉醒，以及成功的团队协作。在这个课程中，学员将置身于野外，通过参与课程中的 各项活动及挑战，突破个人局限，生命成长，学到受用⼀⽣的技能；并能将这 些技能运用到学习和工作中的团队协作和领导团队中去。6日营包括团队建设活 动，服从，服务，领导力发展。所有的活动都围绕性格塑造，增强⾃信展开。
10 Most Legendary (And Infamous) Travelers In History
Fridtjof Nansen was the first man to cross Greenland’s ice cap. He also sailed farther north in the Arctic Ocean than any man before him. That’s pretty awesome. He and a colleague even endured nine winter months in a hut made of stones and walrus hides, surviving solely off polar bears and walruses. Nansen explored the great white north and had an asteroid named after him.
Here’s a guy who had no idea where he was when he landed so assumed he was in India, enslaved a population (for which he admitted to feelings of remorse later in life), and brought a host of terrible diseases to an entire hemisphere (he got syphilis from the native people, in return). Colombus showed Europeans there was a new world out there and ushered in a new age of European exploration.
Ibn Battuta was a great Muslim explorer who traveled more than 120,000 kilometers through regions that, today, comprise 44 countries — from Italy to Indonesia, Timbuktu to Shanghai. He was mugged, attacked by pirates, held hostage, and once hid in a swamp. His travel writings provide a rare perspective on the 14th-century medieval empire of Mali (from which not many records survive).
Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk, intrepid traveler, and translator who documented the interaction between China and India in the early Tang Dynasty. He became famous for his 17-year overland journey to India, on which he was often ambushed by bandits, nearly died of thirst, and survived an avalanche.
Lewis and Clark
These two guys lead an expedition of 50 men to chart the northwestern region of the United States after the Louisiana Purchase and establish trade with the local populations. They set out in 1804 and didn’t return until 1806. They rode off into the unknown, were helped by the famous Sacagawea, and were the first Americans to set eyes on the Columbia River. They faced disease, hostile natives, and extreme weather conditions. They were true adventurers and scientists.
The manliest of manly travelers, Hemingway traveled extensively. His journeys inspired many of his greatest stories. He was a fisherman, hunter, soldier, and ardent drinker who lived in Paris, Cuba, and Spain. He was the most interesting man in the world before it was cool to be the most interesting man in the world.
This legendary Venetian set out with his father and uncle to explore Asia when he was just 17 years old. They came back 24 years later after traveling over 15,000 miles. He’s inspired generations of travelers with tales that provide fascinating insight into Kublei Khan’s empire, the Far East, the silk road, and China.
Antarctica’s most famous explorer (though Roald Amundsen was the first to reach it in 1911), Ernest Shackleton is synonymous with Antarctic exploration. He traversed the continent many times and is most famous for the 1914 voyage that trapped his ship Endurance in ice for 10 months. Eventually, she was crushed and destroyed, and the crew was forced to abandon ship. After camping on the ice for five months, Shackleton made two open boat journeys, one of which—a treacherous 800-mile ocean crossing to South Georgia Island—is now considered among the greatest voyages in history. Trekking across the mountains of South Georgia, Shackleton reached the island’s remote whaling station, organized a rescue team, and saved all the men he had left behind. That’s badass.
The first man to set foot on the moon. That pretty much means he wins. He was a modern adventurer who traveled to the moon (no easy feat) and took one giant leap for mankind. Neil Armstrong is living proof that when we put our mind to it, there’s no place we can’t explore.
In 1930, Freya Stark – who had also learned Persian – set out for Persia. The goal of her trip was to visit the Valleys of the Assassins, at the time still unexplored by Europeans, and carry out geographical and archeological studies. The Assassins were fanatical followers of a sect belonging to Shiite Islam, who used religious reasons to justify killing their enemies. They were said to enjoy hashish, which is reflected in the name “hashshashun,” or hashish-smoker. French crusaders derived the word “assassin” from the word “Hashshashun”, which came to mean “murderer” in Romance languages. The reign of the Assassins began in the 11th century and ended in the 13th century after the Mongol conquest.
On the back of a mule, equipped with a camp bed and a mosquito net, and accompanied by a local guide, Freya Stark rode to the valleys near Alamut (= ruins of a mountain fortress castle near the Alamut River), which had not yet been recorded on her map. Malaria, a weak heart, dengue fever, and dysentery plagued her, but she continued her trip and her studies. Back in Baghdad, she received much recognition from the colonial circles; overnight she had gained a reputation as an explorer and scholar to be taken seriously.
And here are some inspiring quotes to take you further in your travels:
“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta
“We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.” -Anaïs Nin“You can shake the sand from your shoes, but it will never leave your soul.”
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Malatang (simplified Chinese: 麻辣烫; traditional Chinese: 麻辣燙; pinyin: málàtàng; literally: “spicy numbing hot [soup]”), is a common type of Chinese street food that is especially popular in Beijing but can be found all over China. It originated in Sichuan Province, but the regional varieties differ mainly from the Sichuanese version in that the Sichuanese version is more similar to what in northern China would be described as hot pot.
Malatang is named after its key ingredient, mala sauce, which is flavored with a combination of Sichuan pepper (which represents the “ma” or the numbing flavor) and dried chili pepper (which represents the “la” or the spicy sauce) . The word málà is composed of the Chinese characters for “numbing” (麻) and “spicy (hot)” (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.
Malatang is said to originate from the Yangtze River near Sichuan. In ancient times, boating was a big industry and many people made a living by towing boats. Working under the damp and foggy weather made boat trackers feel very sick. And when they were hungry, they cooked herbs in a pot and put Sichuan pepper and ginger into the soup to eliminate dampness. Malatang was created, then vendors discovered the business opportunity, and spread it throughout China. And now it is becoming an international food sensation.
Unlike hot pot, which is made to order and shared only by diners at a private table, malatang originates from street food cooked in a communal pot. Diners can quickly pick their raw veggies and noodles and meats, and either eat on the spot or take away. In addition to largely being considered a street food in China, there have been many excellent chain restaurants that have sprung up in the last 10 years and these restaurants offer a great variety of sauces and ingredients (as you can see in the video above).
All skewers normally cost the same. In Beijing as of June 2012 they cost one RMB each (or about 1/6 of a US dollar). Customers keep the used wooden sticks by their plates, and when a customer finishes eating, the price to pay is determined by counting the number of empty sticks.
In the mid-2010s malatang shops became popular in North China, especially Beijing. In these shops the ingredients are usually displayed on shelves, and customers put their desired ingredients into a bowl, like choosing food from a buffet. Behind the counter the selected ingredients are cooked in a spicy delicious savory broth, usually at very high temperature for 3–4 minutes. Before serving, malatang is typically further seasoned with lots of garlic, black pepper, Sichuan pepper, chili pepper, sesame paste, and crushed peanuts (and these condiments can also be prepared in a separate side dish that makes for very enjoyable dipping ). The price is calculated based on the weight of the self-selected ingredients (just as you would weigh a frozen yoghurt and pay based on weight at the counter). In Beijing, one person’s bowl might weigh half a kilogram usually costs between 15-20 RMB as of November 2015. And most malatang bowls outside of Beijing also cost around 15 RMB, making this a very affordable and interesting option for lunch or dinner. And- if you are feel like sharing, you and 1-2 other friends can lump all your ingredients in one huge communal bowl and can eat the same soup out of one pot. That is what all the besties and couples in China do, anyway 🙂
Here is the stuff you usually get to pick from in this “Choose Your Own Adventure” soup:
- bean curd
- beef (chunks)
- fish balls
- other mixed greens (including cilantro, cabbage, and onions)
- lotus root
- all sorts of mushrooms
- fresh and instant noodles
- pork liver
- pork lung
- fresh seaweed
- potato slices
- quail eggs
- Chinese yam
- sheep intestines
- numerous types of dried and frozen tofu (chunks, squares, balls, etc.)
- various flat and long noodles made from potato and rice powder
- nian gao rice cakes
So there you go! I hope you get out into some local markets and try this amazing culinary delight!
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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 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):
|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.
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.
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:
Lanzhou is the capital city of Gansu Province in northwest China at an elevation of 1518 m (4980 ft). The Yellow River runs through the city and it is definitely worth an afternoon of your time to rent bicycles and cruise along the river for 2-4 hours. The city is the transportation and telecommunication center of the region and is the largest city in western China. Covering an area of 1631.6 square kilometers (629.96 square miles), it was once a key area of trade on the ancient Silk Road. Today, it is a hub for tourists as they begin their adventures out into the Silk Road, with the Maiji Caves to the east, the Bingling Temple Grottoes to the west, Labrang Monastery to the south and the ancient cave paintings of the Dunhuang Mogao Caves to the north.
With mountains to the south and north of the city and the Yellow River flowing from the east to the west, Lanzhou is a beautiful modern city with both the modern ammenities of a large city and the charm of southern cities. The downtown comprises five districts: Chengguan, Qilihe, Xigu, Honggu and Anning. Among them, Chengguan District, situated in the eastern part of the city, is the center of politics, economy, culture and transportation. Anning District, in the northwest of the city, is the economic development zone as well as the area where most colleges are located.
As a transportation hub, Lanzhou connects western and central China. Flights are frequent from many large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. With three train stations, it is the termination of the Longhai Railway (Lanzhou – Lianyungang Railway), an important east-west rail route in China. Bullet trains to Urumqi also originate from this city.
Owing to its location on the Silk Road, local cuisine maintains characteristics with an Islamic influence. Locally sourced grass fed beef and lamb are common to most dishes. In fact, Lanzhou Beef Noodles or 兰州牛肉面 are famous all across China and most bowls are dirt cheap and very hearty at around 10-12 RMB. In addition, there are many local snacks that we recommend for those looking to try something new such as Niangpi, Hui Dou Zi (Gray Bean) and Fried Noodles. Although many restaurants serve Islamic food, various cuisines such as hot pot and western food are also offered for travelers. With KFC, Starbucks, Burger King, and a host of western restaurants, you will have no problem finding something you will like to eat.
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.
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.
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.
The Tibetan name Zö/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.
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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.
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.
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.
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!
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
- 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
- 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!)
- 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
The purpose of this blog is to provide complete updates on trekking itinerary, detailed maps, and info on where to stay and what to expect from this 3 day high altitude trek in western Tibet as of our May 2018 Mount Kailash Trek.
But before you read the blog, revel in the mountain splendor as you watch this video:
Mount Kailash is located 1,400 km almost directly west of Lhasa city (just about 20-30km directly north of the western India/Nepal border) in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. So this 3 day trek is, inevitably, part of a much longer 15-17 day journey that includes 3 days of acclimatization in Lhasa and lots of car time (expect being in the car for 4 days at 6-8 hours per day before you even reach the base of Mount Kailash). So there is lots of driving through beautiful, stark high altitude environments before you attempt trekking (and sleeping at) at 5,000 meters. This provides for plenty of great photo opps of alpine lakes and glaciers and allows sufficient time for acclimatization before you trek across the high pass of Mount Kailash, Dolma La at 5,636 meters.
A typical full itinerary might look like this:
Lhasa–> Shigatse –> Lhatse–> Saga –> Mount Kailash –> Manasarovar Lake –> Guge Kingdom–> Manasarovar Lake –> Saga –>Everest Base Camp –> Lhasa
Here is a brief overview of the entire trip to give you a better idea of the bigger picture of the trip I took in May 2018 (although you could certainly cut out Guge Kingdom and shave 2 days off your total trip):
Day 1: Arrival in Lhasa, Elevation: 3600 meters
Day 2: Lhasa guided tour, See the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple
Day 3: Lhasa guided tour, Sera Monastery debates
Day 4: Driving Day // Lhasa-Yamdrok Lake-Karo la Glacier-Gyantse-Shigatse, Distance: 354kms, Elevation:3840m
Day 5: Driving Day // Shigatse to Latse Distance 150kms Elevation:4200m
Day 6: Driving Day // Latse —Saga, Distance: 340Kms, Elevation: 4500m
Day 7: Driving Day // Saga To Manasarovar Lake 520kms, Elevation:5000m
Day 8-10: Kailash Trek Distance: 54kms, Max Elevation:5639m
Day 11: Darchen—Guge Distance: 254kms, Elevation: 3699m
Day 12: Driving Day //Guge—Manasarovar lake Distance: 290kms Elevation: 4597m
Day 13: Driving Day //Lake Manasarovar-Saga Distance:897kms Elevation:4500m
Day 14: Driving Day //Saga— Mount Everest Base camp Distance: 493Kms Elevation:5200m
Day 15: Driving Day //Everest Base Camp to Shigatse Distance: 350kms Elevation: 3840m
Day 16: Driving Day //Shigatse—Lhasa Distance: 260kms Elevation: 3600m
Day 17: Departure from Lhasa
Mount Kailash, 3 Day Trek Itinerary
But for the purposes of this blog, we are just going to focus on the 3 main days of the Mount Kailash trek itself.
General Information and Packing List
Every Kailash Trek begins and ends in Darchen town. While this town only has a population of around 500 local Tibetans, I was expecting only a yak hair tent with dirt floors and no running water. So the hot shower in Darchen with reasonably comfortable 3-star hotel accommodations was a big surprise and upgrade from what I was expecting.
Darchen is also called as “Tarchen” or “Taqin” in chinese pinyin. It was formerly an important sheep and yak trading post for Tibetan nomads and their herds. Until 1994, there were just 4 or 5 permanent buildings here in this town. In 1995, a medical center was founded by Swiss partners which has become a training center for doctors. After nearly 20 years of development, it now contains about 12 small restaurants (Sichuan and Tibetan food), several hotels with heat and hot water and internet, a Karaoke bar, and a Public Security Bureau for registering foreigners. In addition to that, there are a number of simple convenience stores where you can buy Snickers, water, and Instant noodles. There is not much to see here, but you can leave unneeded luggage in your hotel or in your travel agency’s car or van.
Darchen is also the place to make last minute plans for your trip including organizing pack animals (yaks or horses) from local nomads. Although you will not need to carry any tents, sleeping bags, or breakfast, lunch, dinner you will need to carry winter clothes, snacks, and water. Your day pack for the Kailash trek will probably weigh 15-20 pounds. That does not seem like a lot at first but at 5,630 meters you will be extremely fatigued and that extra 20 pounds could be excruciating for you. While a 20 pound backpack at sea level seems easy-peasy, I promise you are going to struggle over the high Dolma La pass (no matter what shape you are in) and that you would be happier to hire a yak or a human porter for the 3 days of the trek. In our group of 6 participants, the Tibetan guide along with two other members of our group ended up carrying the bags for the other 3 members of our group who were struggling. We were happy to assist our fellow travelers, but I have to say that it definitely made an already difficult trek a little less enjoyable because we were carrying two backpacks (our personal backpack on the back and another person’s on the front). Please save others and the guide in your group the added strain of having to carry your backpack up or down the high pass and just go ahead and hire a porter or a yak from the beginning. It can actually be quite difficult to arrange a yak or porter in the middle of the trek because of the remote location. So if you are going to do this (and you should) you should take care of this the night before you leave Darchen town.
Because of the altitude, I highly recommend really minimizing your gear as much as possible and considering hiring a yak or two or a porter for your group.
You can find a detailed packing list for Kailash here.
For your reference, for our 3 day trek from May 5-7, 2018, day temperatures at 10:30am at the beginning of the trek under a brilliant sun were 6 to 8 Celsius. As we set out from Darchen the weather was a little chilly with a slight breeze. As we hiked we definitely took off our layers under the bright, high altitude sun and just a single long sleeve shirt and/or a fleece was plenty warm as long as we kept moving along the trail.
This is generally the pattern in the spring and fall trekking season with relatively warm and springy conditions in the day and everything outright freezing cold once the sun goes down. We found that we got either light rain or snow every afternoon sometime between 2pm to 5pm so make sure you leave early and give yourself the better part of the morning to hike because once the afternoon comes there is a greater likelihood of meeting inclement weather.
Generally the best months to hike Kailash are May, September, and October. Before May 1 or after October 31 you are likely to encounter a good deal of snow and some of the teahouses may be closed at that time. The summer months are also okay to hike, but expect a lot of Indian tourists coming from low altitudes to hike this sacred pilgrimage and the views are also not guaranteed to be as clear to see the mountains during the summer rains.
There is a dirt road that parallels the kora for the first 20 km on day one and the last 10 km on day three of the trek. If something were to go wrong you could use this road for an emergency to get out but medical care is very simple in Darchen – there is is only a small clinic here. If you do decide to turn around or need a sudden evacuation you can expect to pay a premium to travel this gravel road back to Darchen town; fees to ride in a truck along this road can range from 500 to 2000 RMB just to get a lift up or down the trail for a few kilometers.
The closest medium-sized hospital from Darchen would be in Shigatse- this is 670km from Kailash.So advanced medical care is at least 14 hours away. So as you are on Kailash be mindful of the altitude and take things slow.
Maps for Trekking
Here are two maps that will give you the idea of the general waypoints on the trail. Note that each Tibetan guide provides slightly different measurements for the trail based on their own calculations, so there may be some small differences between the two maps, but the general idea remains the same:
Trek Day 1
Note: Below are given the times we, as a group of 6 moderately fit hikers, achieved. We had three people with us who had never hiked before in their lives and 2 of them lived in Holland at five meters below sea level. So, I’d be willing to bet that these times were on the fairly average side for most groups and, though your own times might be a few minutes off of ours depending our your pace, you will find this to be a fairly accurate estimation for your own departure and arrival times on the trail.
The first day of the trek will take us 20 kilometers from Darchen town around Mt. Kailash to Dira Puk Monastery (aka Drirapuk Gompa). The total elevation gain over these 20 km is 433 meters, so the trail is relatively flat for most of the day. But hiking this first day is still a lot of work as you are walking a long distance at altitude.
Today you will follow this ancient pilgrimage route with Tibetan Buddhist and Indian Hindu pilgrims. You will stay in a small guesthouse near the Dira Puk monastery. The elevation of Dira Puk Monastery is 5080 meters.
7:30am-Depart Darchen Hotel at 4,647 meters
8:00am- Start Walking from Darchen town
From the first set of prayer flags, then the next 1-2 km of trail gradually drops down and lose 100 vertical meters.
10:00am- Arrive at first view of Kailash,with prayer flags
Many of these Tibetan pilgrims do this 52 km kora in one day, leaving at 4am and returning to Darchen town at 8:00pm
Here at this first rest point, you will see pilgrims prostrating around the holy mountain. Young pilgrims will carry the clothes and goods for the elderly to a certain point and then go back and prostrate the trail themselves again. In this way they are actually doing the entire pilgrimage circuit 3 times.
For a young, healthy Tibetan, prostrating every 2 steps takes about 16 days to get around the whole mountain kora (this is a minimum for younger ones- older folks take longer.) Although there are about 8 simple teahouses on the trek that provide food and lodging, there are not enough Guesthouses for 16 days of total travel since the usual trek takes 2 nights/ 3 days. So pilgrims who are prostrating the entire trek often just sleep on the ground in warm blankets and sheep fur lined robes along the trail.
11:00am – Arrive at Serdshong Check Point (this is 7km from Darchen town). The government may check your official Tibet permits here.From this point walk another 2.6km to the first teahouse.
12:15pm- Arrive at first teahouse by bridge at 4,747 meters in altitude.
This is about the halfway point to the teahouse where we will sleep this first night.To the teahouse bridge is 9.6km from Darchen town, and it is another 11km to our sleeping destination at Dira Puk Monastery through the Lha-Chu valley.
At this first teahouse, the food offerings are very scarce. You can buy a bowl of instant noodles for 10 RMB, refill your bottle with hot water for 8 RMB, or a coke or a soft drink for 6 RMB. As you get further from civilization into the trek, these prices will go up slightly at each successive teahouse.
1:00pm- Depart first teahouse after lunch
From the first teahouse walk 6.8 km to second teahouse
From the second teahouse walk 4.2 km to the third teahouse at Dira Puk Monastery.
This is a 2 hour walk. As you approach a large bridge with prayer flags on it, you will need to ask your guide where your guesthouse is in relation to this bridge. This bridge leads to the actual Dira Puk Monastery which you can see in the distance. This is the old sight for simple guesthouses (and some groups still stay here). Our particular accommodation was in in a corrugated tin building with an all dirt floor that lay on the main trail right under the shadow of Kailash (so we stayed straight on the trail and did NOT cross left to the Dira Puk Monastery). As with most things in western China, there was construction here and this area was developing rapidly, even for being so remote. When we were there at the teahouse we saw several workers building a large 2-story concrete guesthouse which dwarfed the corrugated tin shacks and canvas tents where we were staying in size.
4:30pm – Arrive third teahouse at 5,080 meters where we will be sleeping the first night.
Note on sleeping:
Sleeping at 5,080 meters is almost as high as sleeping at Mount Everest base camp on the Tibet side. Even though your body will feel very tired, this will probably not be a great night of sleep for you because sleeping at altitude in such sheltered but primitive conditions will likely not yield a full 8 hours of rest. The simple guesthouse does provide plenty of blankets and cooked us a simple meal of hot rice and boiled egg and tomatoes.
Overall the walk on the first day is 20km and involves about 6-7 total hours of walking time (not including lunch and rest time)
Along the way there are 2 tents (teahouses) with hot water and instant noodles and these are nice places to stop to rest, refill, and get out of the bright sun and blowing winds.
Trek Day 2
The second day of our trek around Kailash will take us up and over the Dolma La Pass, the highest pass on the circuit at 5,636 meters. Although this is certainly the hardest day of the 3 day trek, excellent mountain and glacier views will follow you for most of the day. From the Dolma La Pass, you will descend to Zutul Puk Monastery (aka Dzutrulpuk Gompa on the second map), elevation 4,820 meters. The total trekking distance this day is 22 kilometers
This day you will walk 22 km total – up and down the high pass.
7:00am- Wake up at 5,080 meters in Teahouse near Dira Puk Monastery. Eat a simple breakfast of Tsampa or noodles in the teahouse.
You are going to want to have an early start because it is a long day and the snow and the wind comes in often in the afternoon, while the mornings generally have a better chance of giving clearer weather that is more comfortable for trekking.
7:30am – Depart teahouse
The road continues to be flattish with a slight incline for the first 4km of your day.
10:00am- Arrive at the last tea house before the Dolma La pass.
This is about half way to the pass. Make sure you get lots of rest and plenty of snacks here because the next 4km up to the pass is going to be the most challenging section of your whole trek, not only because you will be at the highest altitude of the whole trek but also because the last 1 hour of the trek up to the pass is the steepest trail you will encounter on the trek.
This is last place for water and snacks for another 13 km, so make sure you fill up your water bottles with hot water. You are going to need a lot of water to fight those high altitude headaches on the pass!
10:15am- Depart for high pass
The trail from the last teahouse before the pass starts out as fairly flat. Then you make a right turn at a gully and you start to go up dramatically.
About 30 minutes before the actual pass, there is a false summit of prayer flags as you go under a bunch of flags and ascend to the ridge line. I made a big push for the top thinking I only had 1 minute left to the actual pass and actually ended up wasting a lot of energy because I was still another 30 minutes from the real Dolma La Pass.
Do not make the mistake I made! When you get to this first cluster of prayer flags (that are like a little colorful cave you have to walk through and duck under) know that you are roughly at the halfway point between the sharp turn up the gully and the top of the pass.
The Dolma La pass had about 1 meter of snow on the top but there was no need for crampons, Yak Trax, or boots. The snow here was consistently between 30-100 cm thick but was all trampled down by the 1000’s of pilgrims who had all walked the same path in the previous weeks. I did not posthole even once in the hard packed snow up at the top of the pass.
12:30pm- Arrive Dolma La High Pass at 5,636 meters/ 18,500 feet. Spend a few minutes celebrating and taking pictures but do not stay too long up here! Your body will definitely be wanting to descend as quickly as possible as every step down will give you that much more available oxygen!
The first hour of the descent from the pass is a relatively steep.
The descent is often on slippery snow and you will need to watch out for pilgrims prostrating face first down the hill. I had to step around a few pilgrims as they prostrated down the hill and it made for tricky footing on the narrow, icy trail.
You will probably want trekking poles as this is steeper than the ascent to the pass and some of the melting ice can be slippery.
2:00pm- Cross Ice river
After one hour of navigating slippery switchbacks, you finally level out more on a usual evenly- graded trail. However you have one more small obstacle before you are scott free. At the bottom of the switchbacks you have to cross an frozen river (or lake?) The body of water is frozen with several meters of ice and so it will certainly hold your weight as you walk across it’s 50 meter long ice sheet. But do be cautious here with your footing as walking on solid ice can certainly result in a pretty big fall on your butt or your side. With a backpack this ice crossing is a little unwieldy but doable if you take it slow.
From here on out, most of the trail is smooth sailing and you can make good time as you descend to a lower, more comfortable altitude.
3:00pm- Arrive at first Teahouse after the Dolma La Pass
We had a late lunch here at 5,236 meters (17,130 feet). It was a nice place to wind down from the intensity of the snow and the altitude up on the pass and I laid down here for a few minutes. As I closed my eyes I could feel the swirl of light from the bright snow stimulating my eyes behind my closed eyelids. I was very thankful I had good polarized sunglasses because I could only imagine how overstimulated my eyes would have been in the 360 degrees of bright snow without the eye protection.
This teahouse is pretty simple and only offers instant noodles and soda. While that was not exactly checking the list for all my hunger cravings, it made for a refreshing stop.
From this teahouse the trail becomes a dirt road that a car could drive on and all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other and make good time to as you hike another flat 10km slightly downhill to your sleeping destination.
6:30pm- Arrive at Zutul Puk Monastery
Get settled and sleep at Zutul Puk Monastery. This guesthouse offers a nice stone block guesthouse with cozy rooms. Our rooms did not have any heating but putting 6 people into a small room was more than enough (that combined with the ample thick blankets available) to keep us cozy throughout the night.
The guesthouse has a simple stone building with squat toilets outside and offers a little restaurant where you can eat simple bread and home made Tibetan fried noodles, french fries, and Tsampa.
Trek day 3
The third and final day of our trek will cover 10 kilometers from Zutul Puk Monastery back to the town of Darchen. After the trek, we will return for one final night along the shores of scenic Lake Manasarovar.
From Zutul Puk Monastery to Darchen the road is all down hill and flat but is long
8:30am- Breakfast – Tsampa and Tortillas with Egg at teahouse
9:00am- Depart / walk down on a dirt road
1:00pm- Arrive Darchen/ eat lunch in Darchen
2:30pm- Drive to Lake Manasarovar / 30 km
4:00pm- Arrive Lake Manasarovar / Check Into Guesthouse on Lake (has beds and blankets but no shower/ toilet is a simple concrete squatty)
Lake Manasarovar lies at 4,590 m (15,060 ft) above sea level, a relatively high elevation for a large freshwater lake on the mostly saline lake-studded Tibetan Plateau.
Lake Manasarovar is relatively round in shape with the circumference of 88 km (54.7 mi). Its depth reaches a maximum depth of 90 m (300 ft) and its surface area is 320 km2 (123.6 sq mi). Lake Manasarovar is considered one of the 4 greatest and holiest lakes in Tibet. It is said just a single dip in the lake’s frigid waters can wipe away a lifetime of sins. It is connected to its “evil twin”, the nearby black waters of Lake Rakshastal, by the natural Ganga Chhu channel. Lake Manasarovar is near the source of the Sutlej, which is the easternmost large tributary of the Sindhu. Nearby are the sources of the Brahmaputra River, the Indus River, and the Ghaghara, an important tributary of the Ganges.
Like Mount Kailash, Lake Manasarovar offers a holy pilgrimage and this kora is 110km in length around the the lake’s shore.
You will see pilgrims prostrating around the lake against the brutal winds and fierce colds of the high altitude lake. Many of the Tibetan pilgrims, despite their naturally silky black hair, look as if their faces and hair are all totally white from weeks spent prostrating in the dirt and salty sands around the lake.
This is one of the most inhospitable places in the world yet somehow there is a lively population of shorebirds and migratory ducks that live off the insects that bury in the shore’s muddy banks.
Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to try to jump into the lake’s water for a swim. I was expecting to dive into the waters to wash off several days of dirt and stench from hiking but I found that the lake shore was very shallow and muddy. With only a water depth of around 6 inches (15cm) for the first 100 meter of shoreline, there was no choice but to plop in the mud and roll around the mucky waters. As I was traipsing around the mud I totally submerged both of my Crocs in the mud and almost lost them forever to the sucking, sinking abyss. I rooted through the icy mud for a minute and recovered my shoes but I decided it was time to get out of the soupy pool of muck on the shores of Lake Manasarovar.
After about 2 chilly, muddy minutes in the lake, I dashed onto the shore where I had stashed my clothes away from the blowing winds and as I trotted over to get some clothes on I was hit by an intense sand storm. The sand pounded right into my face and sent a terrible chill through my body. Shivering and with my heart pounding from the bitter cold, I put my clothes on and desperately ran the 200 meters back to my guesthouse to get warm and dry.
After this little excursion, I opted to go 200 meters up the road to a natural hot spring bath house. The hotspring had been piped and captured in a concrete building that offered 10 private wooden tubs with the hot spring water, so it was not exactly a totally natural outdoor experience. There were also no towels or soap provided- just a tiled room and a wooden tub full of hot water. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to wash off and get clean and this certainly made for the perfect end to days on a dusty trail and a wild Kailash trek.
7:00pm- The guesthouse on the shore ofLake Manasarovar offers a simple Tibetan restaurant and we had dinner here.
After dinner I walked along the lake shore and got some great pictures of a brilliant sunset over Lake Manasarovar. When it turned darked, I turned in for sleep in the simple concrete rooms at the guesthouse (with no running water or heat or electricity). The guesthouse was cold and there was no electricity or heat in our room but most of the clients wore 3-4 thick blankets to keep warm.
I was definitely ready to descend to a lower altitude!
“Why do the elderly in China have to look after grandchildren all day and do housework? We should be free to live our own lives,” Qi told Pear Video.
By 2050, it’s predicted that a quarter of China’s population will be 65 or older. This statistic was at 9.7% in 2013, according to the data company Statista. As of January 1, 2016, all Chinese couples are allowed to have two children and the 35 year old one-child policy was dropped. The predicted decline in the number of people of working age is thought to have persuaded the Communist Party to drop the one-child policy in 2016.
Longer life expectancies, economic reform, and a low birth rate mean China is now facing an ageing population crisis. As China is faced with an increasing elderly population, many wonder what China will do to cope with and care for this quickly growing population segment. “Filial piety”, a concept taught by Confucius showing the value of respect towards parents, elders and ancestors, is an important value in Chinese society and culture. This is so ingrained in Chinese thought that most elderly in China live with their children in their old age.
But one women, Ms. Qi, is redefining how society thinks and feels about its older population. Ms. Qi is showing the world that getting old doesn’t mean the end of fun or a high quality of life.
This 73-year-old retired teacher in China is breaking the stereotypes that are about what old people usually do after they retire. Instead of embracing a traditional easy retirement, Ms. Qi has chosen a life of adventure as she backpacks around the world and has won millions of fans on Chinese social media.
Ms. Qi says in her Pear Video interview that she has been traveling all her life, visiting countries in Europe, North America and Asia.
Pear Video followed her as she embarked on her latest trip to Quanzhou in China’s southwest Fujian Province. She stays in a dormitory in the video, and says she saves money by travelling with students and sharing journey costs. This 3 minute video has gone viral and, consequently, has ignited much online debate about the traditional idea that China’s elderly should move in with their children and spend the rest of their lives taking care of grandchildren.
Ms. Qi says that meeting young people is one of the most important things about her travels and then commented, “I talk with them and they have lots of fresh things to say”.
Her mother is still alive, and Ms. Qi says she video-calls her 92-year-old grandmother every day to let her know how she is. Qi also often posts pictures on social media for her children and grandchildren.
“I have a public account,” she says about her blog, “And I’ve had it for about 5 months. I write everything: my memories, my inspirations – a diary of memories for my children and grandchildren.” For Qi, this is a way to capture her memories and preserve them for future generations.
In China, old people are expected to depend on the younger generation for their care and upkeep. Ms Qi has shown a very different way of living than her peers. Because of her unconventional life and her intrepid adventures, her video has been seen by millions of people. She has become an inspirational and positive person to talk about and has made many start to reconsider their own conventions and ideals! Online bloggers and the younger generation are seeing Ms Qi as a new role model for old age.
“I hope I can be like her when I’m old,” says one of her devoted followers.
Another follower said it like this: “There are not enough people like this: today’s elderly seem to think that they can’t be the same as when they were young.”
No matter how you say it, this Grandma has got some get up and go and we are cheering for her in her awesome travels!
Sichuan cuisine is a style of Chinese cuisine originating from Sichuan Province in Southwest China. If you are a newbie to this kind of food, Sichuan dishes will surprise you with their bold flavor and spiciness, mainly from the large use of garlic and chili peppers, as well as the minty and slightly numbing flavor of the famous Sichuan pepper. Our advice is to be bold and give it a try.
In this article we will offer some insight on the most popular and delicious Sichuan snacks!
Liangfen ( 凉粉 )
Liangfen is a common but quite popular Sichuan snack which is served cold. In fact, the name Liangfen simply means “cold noodles”. It is generally a white, almost translucent, thick starch jelly, made from mung bean starch, but it also can be made from pea or potato starch.
The starch is boiled with water resulting in a viscous paste that is spread on a pan in the form of a sheet and then cut into thick strips. The liangfen strips are then served cold in a bowl with sesame paste, soy sauce and chili oil, seasoned with pieces of carrot, chopped green onion, fresh coriander and crushed garlic. This snack although served cold will warm up your body due to its spiciness and rich flavor. It is really an amazing combination of hot and cold in one dish.
Suan La Fen ( 酸辣粉 )
Suan La Fen, aka “Hot and sour sweet potato noodles”, is a well known Sichuan street snack. The main ingredient behind this snack is the thick sweet potato noodles which are much chewier than common flour-based noodles or the instant noodles you may have eaten in college. These noodles are served in a warm stock of either pork bone or chicken bone and is seasoned with tones of pre-fried garlic in chili oil, vinegar, sesame oil, light soy sauce and the Chinese five spices powder. The topping varies from red braised beef, minced pork sauce, or red braised large intestines combined with chopped green onion, fried peanuts and pickled mustard. You can find this snack in almost every city in China, so just give it a go.
La Tiao ( 辣条)
La Tiao is one of the most popular snacks in China and it got its international fame in 2016 when this snack was haphazardly featured in a BBC documentary about Chinese New Year celebrations. Apparently the 2 commentators were eating this snack during the filming of the documentary and the audience picked up on this little detail in a big way! Now it is becoming an international sensation! This snack consists of tofu skins fried in a mixture of water, soy sauce, fresh ginger, sugar, salt, Sichuan pepper, chili powder, myrcia and Chinese fennel species. The end result is similar to potato chips but much richer in taste and pretty spicy. Although very delicious, this snack is rich in gluten, so if you’re gluten sensitive you might want to stay away from this one.
Niu Rou Gan ( 牛肉干 )
This is a very traditional snack that is commonly given as a gift amongst Chinese people. If you are wondering what souvenir to bring your father or uncle – look no further! Niu Rou Gan explained in simple words is a spicy dry beef jerky, however there is more to it. This is so much more than just Jack Links jerky! The beef meat undergoes a three step process: boiling, stir-frying, and drying. During the first two steps the meat will be treated with diverse spices like Sichuan pepper, bay leaves, anise, cinnamon, fennel seeds, cardamom, sesame seeds, chili and many more. Therefore, when slowly chewing on this snack you can slowly taste the full spectrum of flavors derived from the spices. This one is especially good if you can manage to find it made from yak meat! The yak meat is a little richer than cow in taste and usually is 100% grass fed straight from the high open plains of the Tibetan Plateau!
The world knows this as a steamed bun, but China knows this as Baozi. This snack- often eaten as a breakfast staple by most local Chinese- is a simple but delicious bread-like bun, filled with meat or vegetables and then steamed, usually in a wooden wicker basket. The meat baozi is usually filled with a mixture of ground pork and sliced pork belly, as the extra fat ensures that the filling remains mouthwatering and juicy. The vegetarian baozi on the other hand is filled with various combinations of mixed savoy cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and rice all seasoned with soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, salt and sugar. In the end, every one has their own favorite baozi, as there is a wide selection of it.
Personally, I could eat carrot and potato baozi all day long!
The elephant has been a major part of Thai society and a symbol of national pride for many centuries. The Thai elephant (Thai: ช้างไทย, chang ) is the official national animal of Thailand and has been used as the gift of kings and a staple of the ancient Thai army in fighting wars with invading tribes. The elephant found in Thailand is the Indian Elephant (Elephas maximus indicus), a subspecies of the Asian Elephant. In the early-1900s there were an estimated 100,000 domesticated or captive elephants in Thailand. By mid-2007 there were an estimated 3,456 domesticated elephants left in Thailand and roughly a thousand wild elephants. It became an endangered species in 1986.
There are two species of elephant: African (much larger with bigger ears) and Asian. Asian elephants are divided into four sub-species, Sri Lankan, Indian, Sumatran and Bornean.Thai elephants are classified as Indian elephants. However, Thai elephants have slight differences from other elephants of that sub-species. They are smaller, have shorter front legs, and a thicker body than their Indian counterparts. Thai elephants also have beautiful pinkish spots behind their ears.
Elephants are exclusive herbivores, consuming ripe bananas, leaves, bamboo, tree bark, and other fruits. Eating takes up 18 hours of an elephant’s day because they poop 40 minutes after eating and so they need an immense amount of food to satisfy their extreme size and constant appetite. They eat 100-200 kilograms of food per day. A cow (female) will eat 5.6 percent of her body weight per day. A bull (male) will eat 4.8 percent. Thus a 3,000 kilogram cow will consume 168 kg per day, a 4,000 kg bull 192 kg per day. As elephants can digest only 40 percent of their daily intake, the result is about 50–60 kg of excrement per Elephant per day. As elephants will not eat or sleep in unclean surroundings fouled by dung, their instinct is to roam to a new area.
With elephants being such an important part of Thai society and such a unique part of the ecosystem in general, it is important how we treat them as their numbers decrease and their native habitat rapidly disappears amidst fast-paced urbanization and development.
One of the most popular ways that foreign tourists have engaged these giants in the past 20 years has been to ride on the backs of elephants. This, of course, has offered an amazing chance for humans to get up close and personal with these intriguing and beautiful animals.
This activity has become particularly controversial in the last few years with many new brochures advertising “No Elephant Riding”. As a public outcry has emerged against Elephant mistreatment, elephant farms and sanctuaries have responded by offering more ethical experiences which involve Elephant bathing, feeding, and walking beside (rather than riding on top of) elephants. These efforts show a positive move in tourism to try to live beside nature rather than “dominating” it or “using” it for one’s own material pleasure.
I want to address two areas of concern regarding elephant abuse.
1.) Ethical Elephant Training and Care
The first area is how Elephant trainers have been treating and training their elephants. Like anything that is commercialized and sold to the public, there are very reputable and ethical Elephant camps which treat their elephants with love and respect, and there are certainly a fair share of tourism experiences that put profit ahead of the elephant’s well being. As soon as the elephant camps make money their number one goal, putting quick profits ahead of the health and needs of the elephants, these animals quickly become caged and abused and neglected. Elephant trainers may abuse their elephants in the same way a sideshow traveling circus might force their animals into submission with mean and abusive tactics and shelters that are inadequate for these normally wild animals.
No doubt, it is these places which have given Elephant tourism a bad name in the last few years. In response to the abuse of elephants, many rehabilitation camps and sanctuaries have arisen to take care of abused and neglected elephants. These rehabilitation camps are a good start to engaging ethical experiences which allow access to elephants in a sustainable and compassionate manner for the tourist.
The variety of positive and negative experiences makes it important for the tourist in Thailand to be selective and educated about which elephant camps they choose. Do your homework before you go and do not just hire some guy on the street or from the airport. Plan your elephant experience with intentionality and thought.
Here I want to address one particular issue, which is the equipment elephant trainers use.
An elephant guide is a tool that is used to teach, guide and direct an elephant. In the past, some people have called this an ankus or a bullhook. These names are outdated and do not provide an adequate explanation for the proper use of the tool. “Ankus” is a term used to describe the elephant handling tool used in many Asian countries, which is much sharper, longer, harsher, and more warlike than most modern day guide tools . The term bullhook was coined over 100 years ago by circus men who called all elephants, regardless of sex, bulls. Both the ankus and the bullhook have been associated with elephant abuse in the past and, in fact, the bullhook is now illegal in California for use in elephant training.
Elephant management has evolved a lot since then, and its tools and their uses have evolved as well. The elephant guide consists of a blunt hook mounted on one end of a plastic or wooden shaft (usually about 1 foot or a forearm’s length). The ends on the hook are tapered to a point so that the elephant can feel the pressure of the guide through their thick skin, but blunt enough so that the hook does not scratch or penetrate the skin. The design of the guide allows the elephant to be directed with either a pushing or pulling motion. The elephant guide adds a physical and visual cue to a verbal request. To train an elephant to raise its foot using an elephant guide, the keeper places the guide behind the foot. The keeper then touches the back of the foot with the guide and using only slight pressure, uses the guide to prompt the elephant to lift its foot. When the foot reaches the desired level, the elephant is praised and given a treat. Once the behavior is fully trained, the guide is no longer necessary as a visual/physical cue, as the elephant responds to the verbal request alone.
I have seen many blogs across the internet that take a photo of an elephant trainer holding this 1-foot long tool with its curved hook and they say something like, “How can you hurt the elephants with this cruel device?”
I admire their compassion for animals and their voice on the internet. There certainly are trainers who may misuse this tool in anger or abuse or misinformation and, to these trainers, the cry for justice and better practice is sound. But I asked Thom at Thom’s Elephant Camp about this device and her answer made sense to me. Whether or not you believe in spanking, as a parent you learn part of your relationship with your child is discipline and correction. A small boy left without correction would easily put himself in danger or might break things or harm others. The same is true for an elephant, except that this is a 3,000 kg animal who could easily kill a human with one move or squeeze of its trunk or one misstep of its foot. In such a precarious working environment, certainly love and relationship are the foundation of effective communication but there is a place for correction for the safety of all those involved. If the mahouts did not yield this tool, those in and around elephants (including visiting tourists) could easily be trampled. Used lovingly and wisely, I do not think it is unreasonable to use an elephant guide as a tool to navigate around the elephant’s body and to aid in training. After all, if you consider the extreme size of an elephant and the toughness of its skin, using a tool that is about as big as a paint roller is actually quite minimalistic in terms of discipline.
Many elephant experiences are offered in the Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai area as Northern Thailand offers mountains and jungles that are still fit for elephant habitats and a little more protected from the rapid urbanization of Bangkok and the beaches of Pattaya, Phuket, and While I was traveling through Pai, Northern Thailand there are a number of elephant camps available there for the many backpackers to choose from.
After some research on the internet, our group chose to go with Thom’s Elephant Camp.
First of all, let me say if you do a little research yourself on TripAdvisor you may instantly come across some negative reviews of Thom’s Elephant Camp. I read reviews that the elephants were cooped up and chained, including baby elephants who were being mistreated.
Let me refute these reviews by saying that Thom of Thom’s Elephant Camp is a 4th generation Mahout (professional elephant trainer) who he has the deepest care and veneration for her elephants. When asked if she had children, Thom laughed gently and told me, “These are my children.” After I spent the afternoon with Thom, I knew she was not just giving me a pat answer; Elephant Care was the central truth and the very axis of rotation of her life. Thom has established her Elephant Camp in Pai over 20 years ago and todays has 3 very healthy and happy girl elephants who are all 25, 35, and 54 years old respectively (elephants often live to 70 years old in captivity). Among her 3 “children” none of these elephants were attached to a chain and they all slept in the wild jungle at night and often freely roamed around a massive, uninhabited Jungle. And there were no baby elephants.
I believe the negative reviews were written by a well meaning but confused tourist who mistook the unsigned copycat (and much newer) Camp across the street for Thom’s Elephant Camp. This Camp, just 20 feet away from Thom’s, does, in fact, chain their elephants and does allow tourists to ride on a metal cage on the back of their Asian Elephants, parading for a few minutes down the local paved street in a very unnatural environment. So it would be easy to mistake the two establishments and confuse Thom’s for another less ethical business.
The other possibility is that Thom’s reputation is being incorrectly attacked by jealous businesses who stand to gain a share of Thom’s well established market. Competing businesses have been known to write falsely negative reviews on TripAdvisor (and other travel review sites) to discourage business in their competion. With the increase in web-based reviews, there is better access to decentralized knowledge on the web for better researched travel and this information has greatly empowered the discerning traveler with far better choices. However, the popularity and dependence on web-based reviews has also opened the door for unethical and dirty practices, equivalent to presidential election smear campaigns, in corners of the tourist market. While this is not a certainty regarding the negatively biased reviews of Thom’s, I will say it is not terribly difficultly to create a fake email address and TripAdvisor account to say nasty things against rival businesses. Thom herself had her own very good reasons to suspect such malicious activity and I told her it was a shame that likeminded businesses could not collaborate to better a community rather than greedily competing as if there was not enough to go around for everyone.
Wherever the negative reviews come from, it is evident they are hurting Thom’s business.
Once the first elephant Camp in Pai, Thom has lost a good deal of her once-thriving business because a handful of errant reviews.
As an unpaid plug for those looking for an elephant experience in Thailand and as an advocate for all ethical community-based tourism, I could not more highly recommend Thom, both as a person and as an experienced trainer.
Thom spent all afternoon with us explaining elephant habitats, life span, and gestation while we walked beside the 54 year old elephant in an open jungle and watched her tear down entire banana trees to get the juicy pulp out the fiber of the large tree. After washing the elephant in the river and feeding her bananas, Thom took us to a local hot spring and sat with us as we cooled off with a drink with a cool breeze under an umbrella.
We stayed the night in a very affordable bungalow on Thom’s property. The next morning Thom took time out of her busy schedule in managing the elephant Camp to eat breakfast with us and teach us more in her sweet, informal, hospitable way about life as an elephant trainer.
Although Thom does allow for riding on top of an elephant with only a blanket, our group never once got on top of the elephant.
2.) Riding Elephants
This brings us our second area of concern: specifically whether or not humans should ride elephants as a tourist experience.
Let me address this question with some pure math.
An average full grown female elephant might weigh about 3000 kg or 6,614 pounds.
If an average female human, around 30 years old, is about 68kg or 150 pounds is riding an elephant then that elephant is carrying about 2% of its weight on its back.
Comparatively, this might be the equivalent of that same 68 kg (150 pound) female carrying a very small, totally compressible 1.5kg (3 pound) backpack on her back with a bottle of water and a rain jacket.
That amount of weight seems pretty manageable to carry for most females.
In fact, most female travelers easily carry a purse or a backpack that weighs much more than that bare bones simple backpack and they do it happily and comfortably all day long.
So the issue of riding an elephant is certainly not an issue of weight.
The human can ride an elephant as easily as a sparrow would ride on the human’s shoulder.
The problem comes when you put an uncomfortable, rigid metal cage on the elephants’s back and make it walk around in repetitive, endless circles day after day while carrying that same 68 kg human. Suddenly the comparably small weight creates physical friction, abrasion, and irritation, not to say anything of the emotional stress from living as a prisoner under cruel human rule.
So, really, it is not just riding the elephant that presents the difficulty but how you do it.
It is about the mentality of the trainer and the tourist.
Are we treating the elephant with the dignity it deserves as an intelligent, feeling being or are we using it for an Instagram selfie snapshot for our own “fame”?
At Thom’s even those who ride the elephant bareback (without a wire frame seat) are seeking a connection and a mutual relationship with the elephant rather than a singular moment or a picture. This idea of relationship with the elephant being central to the entire process is Thom’s heart in keeping her elephants and I hope that whatever elephant experience you find yourself at in Thailand represents this same positive ideal.
Nestled amid the daunting Himalayas and the Kunlun mountain ranges, Tibet is known for offering some spellbinding views of nature. However, traversing through such high altitudes becomes a difficult task with the lack of oxygen and the trekker can suffer from conditions like dizziness, vomiting, or sleeplessness. While some visitors are able to deal easily and quickly with these altitudes others may find themselves feeling quite sick.
When the traveler moves up to a high altitude quickly, flying or driving directly from sea level, altitude sickness may be a common occurrence. The result in such cases is clear and the climber’s condition quickly gets worse. So, before planning a tour to Tibet, it is necessary that you inform yourself well about altitude sickness and how you can best take care of your body.
Altitudes and Acute Mountain Sickness
Here are the scales of Altitude:
8,000 – 12,000 feet (High) [2,438 – 3,658 meters]
12,000 – 18,000 feet (Very High) [3,658 – 5,487 meters]
18,000 feet and above (Extremely High) [5,500+ meters]
I find most of our visitors can go up to 8000 feet easily without experiencing any problems with altitude. With the decreased availability in oxygen, the rate of breathing becomes higher as the body is trying to breathe faster to take in more oxygen. However, at 8,000 feet oxygen levels in the blood remain the same as when doing household chores at sea level so we don’t have too much to worry about generally at such altitudes unless there is a severe pre-existing medical condition.
While every body adjusts to altitude differently, the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) generally start to show above the altitude of 10,000 feet. So it is best to try to take 2-3 days adjusting to the altitude around 10,000 feet before ascending higher.
AMS becomes severe as the elevation becomes higher. Try to avoid going to such high altitudes directly from sea level. The traveler’s condition can get worse when they sleep, since the body’s respiration decreases during sleep.
If you can acclimatize properly that is great but if not- move back down. There are preventive AMS medicines which can be taken but make sure you consul a doctor first as there might be side effects or allergic reactions to these.
You can also take test for Ataxia (a lack of coordination due to decreased brain function). Ask the potentially affected person to walk in a straight line, placing his toe to his heel and so on. If that person fails that simple test, start moving down immediately because this is a pretty good sign that AMS has advanced into a moderate or severe condition.
What Causes Altitude Illnesses
The concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% and the barometric pressure averages 760 mmHg. As altitude increases, the concentration remains the same but the number of oxygen molecules per breath is reduced. At 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) the barometric pressure is only 483 mmHg, so there are roughly 40% fewer oxygen molecules available per breath. In order to properly oxygenate the body, your breathing rate (even while at rest) has to increase. This extra ventilation increases the oxygen content in the blood, but not to normal sea level concentrations. Since the amount of oxygen required for activity is the same, the body must adjust to having less oxygen. In addition, for reasons not entirely understood, high altitude and lower air pressure causes fluid to leak from the capillaries which can cause fluid build-up in both the lungs and the brain. Continuing to higher altitudes without proper acclimatization can lead to potentially serious, even life-threatening illnesses.
The major cause of altitude illnesses is going too high too fast. Given time, your body can adapt to the decrease in oxygen molecules at a specific altitude. This process is known as acclimatization and generally takes 1-3 days at that altitude. For example, if you hike to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), and spend several days at that altitude, your body acclimatizes to 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). If you climb to 12,000 feet (3,658 meters), your body has to acclimatize once again. A number of changes take place in the body to allow it to operate with decreased oxygen.
- The depth of respiration increases.
- Pressure in pulmonary arteries is increased, “forcing” blood into portions of the lung which are normally not used during sea level breathing.
- The body produces more red blood cells to carry oxygen
- The body produces more of a particular enzyme that facilitates
- The release of oxygen from hemoglobin to the body tissues.
10 Guidelines for Better Acclimatization
Following are some tips for better acclimatization:
1.) Slowly gain altitude
If you go above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), only increase your altitude by 1,000 feet (305 meters) per day and for every 3,000 feet (915 meters) of elevation gained, take a rest day.
2.) Keep your body properly hydrated
Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss, so you need to drink lots of fluids to remain properly hydrated (at least 3-4 quarts per day). Urine output should be copious and clear. Keep on drinking enough Oral Rehydration Salts, water, and other beverages like juice, soup, and milk. In the place of plain water, drink garlic flavored water. You can keep pieces of garlic in your water bottle and this will help regulate the oxygen levels back to normal. Too much black tea and coffee is a no-no because these things dehydrate you.
Also avoid over hydration.
Do not force yourself or anyone else to drink water if they are not feeling thirsty. This might lead to vomiting or even worse.
3.) Avoid sleeping at high altitudes
The respiration rate in one’s body declines when a person sleeps. Thus, it is recommended spend a full day at high altitudes and then descend to lower altitudes in the evening hours. The mantra for mountaineers is “Climb high and sleep low”. It is very important to make sure you are sleeping as low as possible even if you were up high in the day.
4.) Do not over exert yourself
It is advisable that you should avoid unnecessary exertion. Do not indulge in any excessive mental or physical activity as it may lead to heavy breathing and even headaches and nausea. Even simple tasks like walking slowly can be exhausting with the lack of available oxygen so limit your activity and make sure you are getting lots of rest. If you happen to be hiking, walk at a slow, consistent pace. I have seen lots of young guys try to impress their macho friends and end up throwing up because they pushed a little too hard and it caught up with them.
5.) Avoid alcohol and drugs
When traveling at altitude it is best to hold off on the consumption of alcohol, anti-depressant drugs, tobacco, and smoking.
Also avoid anti-depressant medications such as sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and barbiturates. Consumption of these substances can lead to respiratory problems during sleeping, thus worsening your condition at altitude.
Remember: Save the celebration beer for your return journey after you have already ascended and descended and when you are back below 10,000 feet!
6.) Keep your body warm
Always keep your body warm by wearing layers with synthetic, down, or wool fibers. Make it a point that your clothes are always dry by changing your socks and undergarments daily (especially before bed). It is best to wear wicking fibers like polyester long underwear to keep the fabric next to your skin warm and dry. When at high altitudes the best way to stay warm is to stay dry so the freezing temperature does not suck heat from your body with moisture. Also make sure you pee before you go to bed as the excess water in your body requires unneeded heat and energy to keep it warm.
7.) Consume enough carbohydrates
When you are at high altitudes, it is best that you eat a diet that is high in carbohydrates. Our body absorbs 70% of its calories from carbohydrates. Also, consume simple foods that are not likely to upset your stomach.
8.) Avoid sleeping in the day time
It is best if you completely avoid sleeping in day time. If you do feel sleepy, you can indulge yourself in a little nap but if you do so, try to sleep in upright position. This helps keep the blood in your head (and prevents headaches) and aids in better respiration.
Lay your back against the wall or the back of the bed and try to sleep in that position. Another option is just in trying to keep your head at a higher level than the rest of your body. Where possible try to use a pillow or a fleece to prop your head above your shoulders.
9.) Pack preventive medicine for AMS
As you plan a tour to Tibet, it is advisable that you should consult your doctor about suitable AMS preventive medicines for yourself and those accompanying you. Also be sure to ask your doctor about any potential side effects or any other likely allergies. Most high altitude medicine like Diamox increases your oxygen absorption in your blood and needs to be taken at least a few days before traveling to altitude.
10.) If possible, pack a small Oxygen cylinder
If it is possible, you can pack a small Oxygen cylinder to take care of the symptoms of AMS. Using oxygen will surely help but it is advisable that before using the kit, consult your doctor about the amount of oxygen that has to be inhaled during the trip (ie: the flow rate and the percent of oxygen used in the bottle). In the case of an emergency, regularly and slowly breathing bottled oxygen can help a lot in alleviating high altitude sickness.
And, of course, the best remedy to altitude sickness is always to descend to a lower altitude as fast as possible. Even a change of 100o feet in altitude can make a big difference in how you are feeling.
Symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness)
The following is a list of symptoms and possible cures for the different levels of AMS:
Symptoms: Headache, faintness, tiredness, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, vomiting, troubled sleep, and a feeling of sickness
Possible cure: Medication and/or descend
Symptoms: Reduced coordination (ataxia), Severe headache (not relieved by medicine), other mild level symptoms with increased effect
Possible cure: Advanced Medication and/or Immediate Descent around 305-610 m
Symptoms: Inability to walk, declining mental status, and fluid build-up in the lungs
Possible cure: Emergency Evacuation, Oxygen, Gamow Bag (a portable Hyperbaric chamber) Immediate Descent around 610-1,220 m
Danba used to be an important stop on the Tea and Horse Caravan that traded Chinese tea for Tibetan salt and horses. One look at the surrounding terrain and it is not hard to imagine that it must have been a grueling journey to get here with 200 pound backpacks full of tea leaves over the treacherous mountain passes. Even today, to reach Danba you have to travel through almost 100 km of nearly continuous interlinked tunnels that penetrate through the steep cliffs that protect the area. As you pass through these concrete tunnels, remember the coulies who had no shoes on their feet and had to walk the very craggy mountains that you now are driving under.
Danba county varies greatly in altitude, from peaks that are as high as 5,820 meters to river valleys as low as 1,700 meters. The Big Jinchuan and Small Jinchuan Rivers meet here, marking the beginning of the Dadu River.
The county’s landscape varies a great deal and can change quickly in vertical relief, from the high-altitude snow-capped mountains to the low altitude grasslands and valleys.
Danba is the hometown of Jiarong Tibetans, a small subgroup of Tibetans who are known for residing in the lowest part of the entire Tibetan Plateau. Because of the relatively low altitude (at 1,893 meters/ 6,211 feet) this is a very isolated and fertile valley. While many other Tibetans often struggle to eek out a living by herding yaks on the unforgiving, windswept grasslands and alpine tundra at 4,000 meters, the Jiarong Tibetans have the benefit of some of the richest (and warmest) cropland available in all of western China. It is not uncommon to see piles of corn or basketfuls of Sichuan peppercorn adorning the large 4 story stone houses that Danba is so famous for.
Usually distributed along the southern mountain slopes and facing the sun for optimal solar radiation, the whitewashed homes consist of three or four stories, all made of local stone. Each of these large castle-like homes houses an extended family and is surprising in its elaborate architecture. The exterior walls of the top floors are usually painted yellow, black, or dark red and are decorated with the patterns of the heavens and other religious designs. The ground floor is usually used for feeding and bedding livestock, while the upper floors contain the hearth and heart of the home: the kitchen, storeroom, living room, and scripture hall. On the 4 corners of the roof there are 4 white turrets which are used to offer sacrifices to the local deities thought to govern the nearby hills, trees, rivers and fields. Prayer flags hanging around the houses ripple in the wind, adding more charm and color to the already ripe green and yellow fields of the region.
Outside the handcrafted homes, orchards of apples, pears, peaches and pomegranates adorn the outer pastures of the valley. In the hillside fields villagers plant crops such as highland barley, rapeseed, corn, and potatoes and these crops enjoy a much longer growing season that almost any other part of the Tibetan Plateau.
Claimed as the “most beautiful ethnic village in China” by Chinese National Geographic The Danba Valley is actually divided into several small villages. While there are a few luxury hotels in the area, most tourists find themselves cozying up in the stone castle-homes of the friendly Jiarong Tibetans for a delightful homestay experience, sometimes even complete with Yak Butter Tea and an ethnic Jiarong dance. The principal villages that you are likely to encounter as a tourist include: Zhonglu 中路, Jiaju 甲居, and Sopo 梭坡. There are entrance fees in each of these places although many times if you get there after 6:00pm you will find the ticket collectors have gone home for the night. Of the three villages, Sopo 梭坡 has the greatest number of watchtowers although Jiaju and Zhonglu certainly see the greatest numbers of visitors.
Jiaju Tibetan Village and Zhonglu Tibetan Village
Lying in the north of Danba, Jiaju Tibetan Village in Niexia town stands out from all the other villages. It is about 5 miles (8 kilometers) from the county town and occupies an area of 1,200 acres (486 hectares), with more than 140 families residing here. Generally speaking, a house is owned and occupied by one just one extended family. Some houses have a more convenient location right in the center of the village while others are farther away from the village gossip and activity. Stepping into the Tibetan homes, you will find yourself in a world of wonder. The walls, beds, and cabinets are all adorned with delightful patterns such as lotuses, trees, rivers, mountains, and lamas in various bright colors,.
You can spend the whole day wandering around the village and exploring the marvelous interior of local Tibetan homes with beautiful stone and wood work. The entrance fee was 50 RMB as of August 2016, however if you come after 6pm, nobody will be there to charge. There are plenty of houses to sleep in across the village as most villagers are accustomed to housing visitors and showing them local hospitality. Accommodation prices vary from 40 – 100 RMB per night per person, and homestays may include a freshly cooked local dinner.
Aside from Jiaju Tibetan Village, the Tibetan houses in Zhonglu Town and Badi Town are very famous too. The narrow winding road from Jiaju brings you further into the mountains to Zhonglu, less visited than Jiaju, but equally beautiful. The Zhonglu village is surrounded by forest, so if you are looking for a relaxed nature walk you may find this interesting.
Both Jiaju and Zhonglu are are authentic and traditional Tibetan villages where you can still find locals picking Sichuan peppercorns in their hand woven baskets or up in a tree picking the fruit from their pear trees. Jiaju Village is more popular for tourists because it has more houses, while Zhonglu is more secluded and fewer travelers go there.
Suopo Stone Watchtowers (Diaolou)
Suopo has in total 84 watchtowers, the largest concentration in the area, and as such is the best place to see Danba watchtowers. One can view the plethora of towers from across the road or can walk through the village for a closer look. The history of these stone towers dates back to around 2000 years ago. Local Jiarong Tibetans claim that these towers were constructed mainly as a result of battles their ancestors had in defending their local lands and wealth. Although apparently the towers have also been used as spiritual high places to exorcise unwanted demons and spirits from harassing the Danba Valley.
Located 68 km northwest to the town of Danba, Dangling is a gallery of natural alpine lakes, forest, hot springs, grassland and a perfect hiking destination in Sichuan. Thankfully, it is still a relatively undeveloped and untouched place in Tibetan area of northwest Sichuan. Over 24 mountains here hover over 5,000 meters and many of these still remain unclimbed and unexplored even in 2018.
Whether you go for the nature, the culture, or the architecture, a trip to Danba is surely going to be a trip of a life time and is certainly worth 2-3 days of your travel itinerary.
Qutan Monastery used to house between 400-500 monks. But if you visit it today the monastic staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew of exactly 11 monks who are now in charge of lighting butter lamps and caring for the grounds of this large, holy complex.
Driving from Xining, you can take the G6 highway east towards Ping’An and Lanzhou.
After 44km on the G6 you take the exit for Ledu 乐都 and then get off the freeway ramp into the small, relatively obscure town of Ledu. Ledu in the original Tibetan language means “entrance to the valley” and anyone driving from Lanzhou to Xining must pass this tiny town in order to enter the valley that bisects the large mountains to the north and south of the highway.
Once you have crossed the freeway toll exit and paid your highway toll you immediately take the next right onto the main street of Ledu. After a few kilometers traveling east on this main street you will see a road veer slightly to the right and up a hill with a sign pointing to “Qutan Monastery” and “Qutan Ski Resort”
Take this road and it is about another 20 minute drive to the actual monastery.
This road to the monastery is currently a narrowly badly paved road with a good deal of bumps, potholes, and poorly maintained road repair that winds through a few dusty Tibetan villages to about 8,000 feet in altitude where it drives in front of the monastery. However, as I was driving the road on January 5, 2018 I noticed a good deal of construction and it appears that within the next year the government is planning on building a 4 lane elevated highway to this formerly unknown and remote spot to promote tourism among local Chinese.
After crossing a bridge to the monastery you can park directly in front of the outer courtyard. Unless you are Tibetan or Mongolian, you will need to pay the 50 RMB/person entrance ticket fee for the monastery in the small white tin shack on your right as you enter the monastery.
Once you pay your ticket, you can enter the first courtyard with two large and beautiful temples set among a peaceful environment. During the winter I was practically the only person in the whole monastery complex and we had to ask a monk to unlock a few of the temples which had been bolted shut.
Being one of the few people wondering the temples and the old style stupas made this a very thoughtful and quiet winter experience. The back corners of the monastery were very dark and cold and it felt like no one had set foot there in a few hundred years. And it was certainly one of the cleanest monasteries I have ever been to. Every courtyard and temple was immaculately swept and I did not see a single piece of trash or debris anywhere. I guess the advantage of having such a small staff is that there are not as many people to clean up afterwards.
It would be easy to spend about 2-3 hours meandering around the various halls, temples, courtyards, and stupas of the monastery. Of particular interest are the hand painted Thangkas painted on the back wall of the main temple.
These 7th century artifacts are easily 10 meters high and 10 meters wide and I have actually never seen another Thangka wall painting (not painted on a canvas but directly onto the wood frame of the wall) that was either this big or this original. If nothing else, it would be worthwhile to walk through the temples just to see these incredible pieces of preserved history. Other things of interest in the temples include a giant drum with a 1 meter-diameter leather cow skin stretched over an impressive metal frame. I tapped every so lightly on this skin and it belted out a very deep tone, like the tone of an ancient leviathin rising out of the water from beneath. My mind instantly raced to a time when monks pounded on this monstrous drum and the base vibrations must have shaken and stirred the entire surrounding village with reverence and awe.
If you have a day or a half a day in Xining, I can highly recommend this trip to Qutan Monastery. If you have another 1 hour or so to kill you can drive another 8km up the road (sometimes a little icy in the winter) to Qutan’s smaller sister monastery that has the same small amount of monks taking care of the monastery.
This sister monastery only has 2 temple halls and does not offer much in a divergence from the original Qutan Monastery, so don’t get your hopes up too much here. But the monastery does provide a great view into the high mountains of this valley.
This smaller sister monastery also overlooks the Qutan Ski Resort, which is nothing more than a small bunny-hill type plain with a 5% slope grade where novice Chinese learn to ski. While this “resort” would be an insult to any serious skiiers, the slightly inclined slope looks like a fun place to bring the family in the winter for tubing or just sliding around the snow. With an entrance ticket price of 70 RMB per person this pseudo-ski resort doesn’t offer much in the way of real skiing but could be a nice day trip for families looking to fight off the long wintry “cabin fever” from the chilly winters in Xining at 2,300 meters above sea level. In either case, some may find the gaudy, cheaply built ski resort here as an utter contradiction to the peace and stillness found in both the upper and lower Qutan Monastery complex. I am sure, at the very least, it makes the monks in their red-robed reverence very curious and even cautious about how quickly the world around them is changing.
Dawu is a great place to launch a road trip into either the Nyenbo Yurtse mountains (to the south) or the glaciers of the Amnye Machen range just to the west. It is one of the last outposts of civilization and with a fantastic monastery on the edges of town, it would be easy to spend 1-2 days here acclimating and filling up with good, hot food.
It used to take about 10 hours to drive the horribly bumpy dirt road from Dawu to Huashixia 花石峡 to drive past the glaciers of Amnye Machen. But now with a brand new highway, the drive takes about 4 hours through 2 new tunnels that pierce right through the heart of the snowy mountains. The tunnels have taken away some of the rustic beauty of the formerly adventurous drive whereas you used to drive over 4,500 meter mountain passes covered with prayer flags just at the base of the Amnye Machen glacier. But they have also made the drive much more reachable and certainly much safer than the dangerous icy passes used to be. Be warned of Chinese construction: it happens fast and when it does it is not always marked well. In driving from Huashixia and Maduo to Dawu in November 2017, it took me about 1 hour to find the entrance to the highway to Dawu just 15km north of Huashixia among a confusing new construction site of circling “cloverleaf” highway ramps. Also note that as of November 2017 that none of the off ramps between Dawu and Huashixia were open, in particular Xueshan 雪山, which leaves the traveller with few options for lunch stops or gasoline. Make sure you fill up your gas tank as you depart Dawu because you might not be able to get gas for another few hours along this beautiful, high altitude road.
Golog (or Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Chinese: 果洛藏族自治州; Tibetan: མགོ་ལོག་བོད་རིགས་རང་སྐྱོང་ཁུལ་), is an autonomous prefecture occupying the southeastern corner of Qinghai province, in western China. The prefecture has an area of 76,312 km2 (29,464 sq mi) and its seat is located in Maqen County in Dawu.
Golog Prefecture is located in the southeastern part of Qinghai, in the upper basin of the Yellow River. Gyaring Lake and Ngoring Lake on the western edge of the prefecture are considered to be the source of the Yellow River. However, these lakes do receive water from rivers that flow from locations even further west, in Qumarleb County of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.
The lay of the land of the prefecture is largely determined by the Amnye Machen mountain range (maximum elevation 6,282 m), which runs in the general northwest- to-southeast direction across the entire prefecture, and beyond. The existence of the ridge results in one of the great bends of the Yellow River, which first flows for several hundreds of kilometers toward the east and southeast along through the entire Golog Prefecture, along the southern side of the Amnye Machen Range. The Yellow River continues until it reaches the borders of Gansu and Sichuan Province and then turns almost 180 degrees and flows toward the northwest for 200–300 km (120–190 mi) through several prefectures of the northeastern Qinghai, forming a section of the northeastern border of the Golog prefecture.
Several sections of the Sanjiangyuan (Source of the Three Rivers) National Nature Reserve are within the prefecture.
Guoluo Airport Or Golog Airport (Chinese: 果洛机场) is a small airport that has been recently under construction in southeastern Qinghai Province outside of Dawu town. The airport is in the Caozichang (草子厂) on the Dawutan Grassland (大武滩草原). Construction Began on 14 September 2012 with an estimated total investment of 1.24 billion yuan and the airport was expected to start operation in 2015. I personally have not heard of this airport being open as of 2017 but I am sure that when it does its flights will not be terribly cheap but will allow those with a good traveling budget to avoid the 10 hour drive it takes from Xining to Dawu.
The airport will have a 4,000 meter runway (Class 4C), and a 3,000 square meter terminal building. It is projected to handle 150,000 passengers and 375 tons of cargo annually by 2020.
“I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” –Henry David Thoreau
“In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and winds long to play with your hair.” –Kahli Gibran
“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir
“I go to nature every day for inspiration in the day’s work.” –Frank Lloyd Wright
“Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.” –Charles Dickens
“Wilderness is not a luxury but necessity of the human spirit.” –Edward Abbey
“Choose only one master – Nature” –Rembrandt
“The richness I achieve comes from Nature, the source of my inspiration.” –Claude Monet
“The sun does not shine for a few trees and flowers, but for the wide world’s joy.” –Henry Ward Beecher
“We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understandings and our hearts.” –William Hazlett
“Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.” –Walt Whitman
“There is pleasure in the pathless woods. There is rapture on the lonely shore. There is society where none intrudes, by the deep sea and music in its roar. I love not man the less, but Nature more.” –Lord Byron
“I go to Nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put together.” –John Burroughs
“You don’t have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.” –Annie Dillard
“The earth has music for those who listen.” –William Shakespeare
“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.” –Linda Hogan
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” –Albert Einstein
“He is richest who is content with the least, for content is the wealth of nature.” –Socrates
“Come forth into the light things, let nature be your teacher.” –William Wordsworth
“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.” –Robert Louis Stevenson
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach of us more than we can ever learn from books.” –John Lubbock
“Like music and art, love of nature is a common language that can transcend political or social boundaries.” –Jimmy Carter
“Woodland in full color is awesome as a forest fire, in magnitude at least, but a single tree is like a dancing tongue of flame to warm the heart.” –Hal Borland
“Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.” –Wallace Stevens
Here are 10 interesting things for you to think about when planning your trip to Chengdu…
- Visit the home of the Giant Panda.
Chengdu is probably most famous for being the home of one of China’s great treasures, the magnificent giant pandas. This creature’s name in Chinese is XiongMao 熊猫 and that literally means “Bear Cat”. Both Chinese and foreign tourists flock to the panda centers of Chengdu to view these unique creatures in their natural humid bamboo habitat. While pandas are technically considered omnivores, and do occasionally eat small animals and fish, bamboo makes up 99% of their diet. Every day a single panda may gnaw lazily on bamboo for up to 12 hours and may eat as much as 12kg of the plant in that time.
The panda is an internationally recognized icon of China and is strictly protected by the Chinese government. The research being done to ensure pandas continue to flourish in China is led by top researchers in Chengdu. The entire country rejoices when news of a new panda cub’s birth is announced. They are very proud of the creatures and the work being done to protect them. Sadly, these beautiful bears are endangered, and it’s estimated that only around 1,000 giant pandas remain in the wild today. That’s why we need to do all we can to protect them!
For those with an interest in conservation and preservation efforts, the panda research centers offer informative programs and viewing opportunities that allow the public access to the efforts to save the giant panda. Some of the top places to interact with this preservation include: the Panda Breeding and Research Center, the Bifengxia Giant Panda Base, and the Dujiangyan Panda Base.
2. Chengdu offers amazing museums
Chengdu offers many historical and cultural museums for those with an interest in Chinese history and development. Some of the best museums to visit are the:
Sanxingdui Archeological Site and Museum in Guanghan
Go back in time 1000’s of years as you venture 40 km northeast of Chengdu to the the Sanxingdui Archeological Site, offering a trove of artifacts that date back as far back as the Bronze Age. Exhibitions in this museum date as far as 5000 years, with a wide range of relics such as bronze masks, jade articles, and some interesting gold pieces. It is the largest museum in southwest China, with a vast array of precious relics that reflect it’s name as “the origin of the Yangtze River civilization”.
In 1986 two major sacrificial pits were unearthed that stirred academic attention around the world. Archeologists realized that the relics found at these pits and subsequent discoveries were the remains of a previously unknown city and civilization that existed during the Shang Dynasty period (1600–1046 BC).
Wenchuan Earthquake Museum
The 2008 Sichuan earthquake, aka the “Great Wenchuan Earthquake” occurred at 2:28pm on May 12, 2008. Measuring a 8.0 on the Richter Scale, the earthquake’s epicenter was located 80 kilometres (50 mi) west/northwest of Chengdu.
The earthquake was also felt in nearby countries and as far away as both Beijing and Shanghai—1,500 km (930 mi) and 1,700 km (1,060 mi) away respectively—where office buildings swayed with the tremors of the earthquake. Strong aftershocks, some exceeding a 6 on the Richter Scale, continued to hit the area up to several months after the main quake, causing further casualties and damage.
Over 69,000 people lost their lives in the quake, including 68,636 in Sichuan province. 374,176 people were reported injured, with 18,222 listed as missing as of July 2008. The earthquake left about 4.8 million people homeless, though the number could be as high as 11 million. This has been rated the 21st deadliest earthquake of all time.
The Wenchuan Earthquake museum preserves this event and details the relief work after the earthquake and holds a monument to the earthquake victims The museum also models the Wenchuan earthquake site, offering audio, visual, and tactile simulations to help visitors understand the size and feel of the earthquake.
3. Chengdu locals speak a different dialect of Mandarin.
In many parts of China, the local dialect differs from “Putonghua” or standard Mandarin. Provincial dialects are often difficult to understand and differentiate between, even for native speakers. In the Sichuan province this dialect is known as Sichuanese or “Sichuan Hua”.
Notoriously, “Sichuan Hua” tends to blur the stronger “SH” sound into simply the hissing of an “Ssss”. Classically many visitors find it hard to barter about price because the “Shi” of the number ten ends up sounding a whole lot like the “Si” of the number four. But not to worry – most vendors carry calculators so that helps bridge the divide as you negotiate and haggle 🙂
4. The food is some of the best (and spiciest) in China!
Have you ever been to Chinese restaurant in the west and seen a menu listing “Szechuan Beef” or “Szechuan Chicken”? That is an variant spelling of Sichuan and indicates that these dishes have made it all the way around world, albeit a little changed for the western palate. If you ask anyone in China where to find the spiciest food, they will tell you its in Sichuan Province. Chengdu is famous for its spicy hot pot and many other mouth tingling dishes. This is because of the world famous Sichuan peppercorn that is grown in the region. The spice gives a numbing feeling to all the dishes it is used in, which is a great favorite with the Chinese palate. It may take some getting used to at first, but the spicy food of Chengdu is a regional cuisine not to be missed.
5. Sichuan opera is a classical Chinese art form.
Chengdu is an excellent place to witness a performance of a traditional Sichuan Opera. Sichuan Opera is like the precursor for today’s rioting Cirque Du Soleil performances with features including acrobatics, fire spitting, and illusionists. Among some of the greatest illusions are the magical “face changing” acts which are a a celebrated tradition and part of one of the oldest regional opera cultures. This unique performance is practiced almost exclusively in Sichuan and the best masters of the art can be seen in Chengdu.
6.The Leshan Giant Buddha and other marvels
Many of the ancient sites around Chengdu reflect the influence of Buddhism, as well as the agricultural history of the region.
In particular, the Leshan Giant Buddha, or 乐山大佛, is a huge statue which is carved into the stone on the side of Mount Lingyun. The stone sculpture faces Mount Emei, with the rivers flowing below its feet. It is the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world and it is by far the tallest ancient statue in the world. The Giant Buddha is about 71 meters high and 24 meters wide. Just the feet alone have an 8.5 meter wide instep, an area large enough to accommodate 100 people. The big toe itself is large enough to accommodate a dinner table.
The statue depicts a seated Maitreya Buddha with his hands resting on his knees. The Maitreya is thought to be the future Buddha, who will appear to preach the dharma (teachings of Buddha) when the teachings of Gautama Buddha have long been forgotten. The construction began in 713 AD during the Tang Dynasty and was completed in 803 AD.
As the platforms inside the scenic spot are steep and narrow and can get quite congested with tourists, taking a boat on the adjacent river may provide a better way for tourists who are not good at climbing to view the fullness of this huge Buddha. Taking a boat to look up at the Giant Buddha is highly recommended in peak tourist season (July-October).
Several drainage passages are hidden in the Buddha’s hair, collar, chest, and in the holes in the back of his ears and chest, and these prevent the Buddha from serious erosion and weathering under the heavy Sichuan rains. The buddha has been carefully maintained on a regular basis throughout his 1,200-year history, however moss does grow on the statue.But for something this old, it is really remarkably preserved.
If you are looking to better understand Buddhism and historical architecture inside the city limits, you may also want to check out, the Wenshu Monastery, the Wu Hou Temple, the Dufu Thatched Cottage, and the Jinli Old Walking Street.
7. Chengdu is a regional migration magnet.
Chengdu is the second largest city in the western half of China (after Chongqing) and one of the cities in China with the most potential for international investment. Many international and large national companies operate in Chengdu, which draws a large population of young working people both internationally and locally.
The city is vibrant with the spirit and the spice of its economy. Old meets new on its busy streets as some of the oldest tradition and meals can be eaten and observed alongside modern developments and state of the art research. Chengdu provides a unique view into the fascinating leap China has made into being a global power. If you want to see a unique blend of old and new China, Chengdu is one excellent place to start.
8. Chengdu has the biggest building in the world!
The New Century Global Center is about twice the size of both the previous mall record holder in Dubai and the biggest mall in Guangdong called the New South China Mall. It is designed to be a self-contained town.
The center is a mall on steroids and is 18 stories high and a colossal 1.5 million square meters (16 million square feet) in area. Built in 2013, it contains a water park, IMAX theater, and 2 hotels with 1,000 rooms, as well as many, many high end stores.
9. You should visit in the fall
While visiting Chengdu is popular amongst local Chinese tourists from June to August, Chengdu summers can be both hot and crowded. The temperatures in Chengdu often resemble the spice of its food — sweltering hot! Visiting Chengdu from September- November ensures that you avoid the sweltering summers, gloomy winters, and the rainy season from spring to summer. Fall provides cool temperatures and easier transportation for visitors looking to see the most Chengdu has to offer. (Just avoid the October Holiday from October 1-7!)
10. Awesome hiking opportunities
Four Sisters Mountain
Mount SiGuNiang is also known as the Four Sisters Mountain Range. Here there are 4 distinct peaks and the highest of these is Peak 4 (aka YaoMei) at 6,250 meters. You can start the hike at RiLong village which is about 240 km away from downtown Chengdu and this trip takes about 7-8 hours to drive. The most accessible peak of the Four Sisters is Peak 1, known as DaFeng Peak at 5025 meters. DaFeng peak is considered the easiest peak among the peak to summit as it requires no technical experience. Peak 2 (ErFeng Peak) at 5276 meters is a bit more challenging as it involves some basic mountaineering and some technical climbing equipment. Peak 3 and Peak 4 are longer trips and require a higher level of mountaineering. Trips to summit Peak 1 can usually be accomplished in 8 days with 3-4 days of trekking and 2 days of round trip driving.
An 8 hour drive from Chengdu, Kangding is like a sort of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with quick access into the impressive mountains all around it. Just a short 30 minute walk up the hills of Kangding will yield spectacular views of the neighboring alpine peaks. Outdoor activity opportunities abound with particular focus on hiking and mountain biking. And just a short 30 minute drive from Kangding is the trekking trailhead to Minya Konka, or Gonga Shan, Sichuan’s tallest beastly mountain, standing at a staggering 7,556m, and is consequently of huge spiritual importance to Tibetans.
Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU) is located 20km (12 mi) outside of the Chengdu city center and is one of the main air hubs in China, recently ranked 4th in passenger volume. It serves flights to/from most major cities in China, many smaller cities within Sichuan, and some international destinations including Amsterdam, Bangkok, Denpasar, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Kathmandu, Paris, Melbourne, Sydney, Moscow, Osaka, Kuala Lumpur, San Francisco, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, and Tokyo. And there are new international routes being added quite often.
The historic town of Dege makes up one of the five former great kingdoms of the Kham Tibetan area and many describe this town as the “heart of Kham”. Dege sits in a narrow valley at 3100 meters (10,170 ft) surrounded by mountains and the Sèqū River色曲河 that runs through the town. The city is famous for its Tibetan lamasery which hosts an invaluable treasury of wooden printing blocks with Tibetan Buddhist texts. About 70% of all Tibetan scriptures used across the Tibetan Plateau are produced in this very important printing press. A cultural center (more like a high end gift shop) has opened near the Printing Press & Monastery. Nevertheless the surrounding quarters on the valley’s slopes still preserve the old Tibetan traditions including the temple complex that contains a maze of wonderful old style Tibetan buildings made from rammed earth and logs. If you come here for nothing but the old log-cabin style buildings the trip would be absolutely worth it! This is one of the only places in all of Tibet where you can find such unique architecture, mainly because it is one of the only places that actually had any sizable forest.
If driving from the north, from Yushu, Serxu, Ganzi, or from Qinghai Province, Dege can be reached via the incredible, infamous Trola Pass.. The road between Ganzi and Dege is beautifully paved with the exception of the 5050 m high Tro-la Pass which is in disrepair with many potholes. Also be warned that this high road over the Trola Pass can be very dangerous in the snow or ice so check weather conditions before you set out on your trip. Parts of the pass also wind up the mountain and have no shoulder or railing with a drop of several 100 meters below. So this is not a drive for the fainthearted or inexperienced. But the incredible views from Ganzi over the Trola Pass (5050 m elevation) make the grueling day trip over Trola pass worthwhile.
Coming from the south, one can enter Dege from a route from Chengdu to Kangding. Reconstruction work on the Kangding (Dartsedo) to Ganzi highway (G317 / S303) is complete as of 2014 and the road from Kangding to Dege is now well paved. Dege to Kangding is now a one day journey by bus. You can leave Dege on a public bus at 6am and then arrive in Kangding around 8 or 9 pm. If you have your own 4WD car, Chengdu to Dege can also be driven in one long, epic day, but this is a very good way to get altitude sickness with a very quick ascent from Chengdu at 500 meters to Dege at 3,100 meters . It is recommended to stop at least one night in Kangding to acclimatize.
A new airport called Ganzi Gesar Airport(甘孜格萨尔机场) is about 60 km from Garze; 15 km from Manigango village. As of Spring 2016 this airport was almost finished and certainly presents the quickest (albeit not the cheapest) way to get from Chengdu to Ganzi to Dege.
Derge Gonchen monastery
Derge Gonchen monastery was founded in 1446 by Yogis Hang Stong Rgyal Po and the first local king Bo. It doubled as a palace for the kings, but is most famous for being one of the cradles of Tibetan Buddhist study and practice. Unfortunately, there are only a few old buildings remaining and the newer ones aren’t all that attractive in a sense of ancient architecture. Head farther uphill from the Printing Yard along the river following a road lined with Stupas. The entrance to the main temple is in the big red building on the left.
Dege Buddhist Scriptures Printing House
The Dege Buddhist Scriptures Printing House (Tibetan: Derge Parkhang) is independent from the monastery and is the first substantial building you’ll encounter walking south from the town’s center along the river. The Printing House is in a beautiful traditional temple which was restored in 1991. It is constantly circumambulated by townspeople and pilgrims. Here the admission fee is ¥50/person, and normally photography of the sections with the printing blocks is not allowed, though you can take pictures of the printing process. It is always worth asking your guide if it’s allowed to take a particular photograph as the rules change from time to time. The institution was founded in 1729 by Chogyal (dharma king) Denba Tsering. There are more than 140,000 printing blocks, a large collection of national cultural relics and a library comprising 830 books consisting of 10000 volumes. The last surviving copy of an old history of Indian Buddhism is amongst them. Inside you can wander the corridor lined with shelves accommodating the printing blocks and their protruding wooden handles. On the 3rd floor there is the workshop where 6 or 7 pairs of workers ink the blocks and press the paper on them with amazing speed. This is truly a glimpse into the printing techniques of a bygone era. On the next floor, the prints are dried and then assembled into books. In an extra chamber, large format pictures and scripts are printed on cloth. Once you make your way to the top of the printing press the roof offers nice views over the surrounding Tibetan neighborhood and the new town. A tour of the dark temple concludes the visit.
From the Printing House head west into the old quarter and follow a path leading down to the river. Hidden within a maze of traditional houses you will find the Tangtang Gyalpo Lhakhang, a tiny temple. Most any time of day you can find monks inside chanting scripture.
Dege is certainly worth at least 2 nights stay as a semi-halfway point on a long road trip between Xining and Chengdu. This is a great place to take a rest day along your long journey or to explore the printing press and stroll back through time as you wind through alleys full of handmade red wooden log homes.
From July 21-25, 2017 we hosted 6 amazing people from Beijing and Shanghai.
We camped on a mountain at 3,700 meters, climbed up to an ancient Buddhist hermitage for a view of incredible red rock cliffs, and watched Tibetan Buddhist monks debate philosophy.
See it all here:
Discover the secrets to this mysterious mountain in this blog post about trekking routes in the region. In this post we discuss the best seasons to hike this beauty as well as what to expect in a play by play journal of the 6 day trek up to the Riwuche high pass at 4,875 meter (16,000 feet).
Trekking Minya Konka in Spring
On May 11, 2017 I set out with a group of experienced Outdoor Adventure students and staff from a Canadian college for a wilderness expedition to trek Minya Konka, otherwise known as Mount GongGa in Chinese.
For Tibetans, the taller the mountain, the more powerful the deity that lives on it. So, by it’s very size and mass at 7,556 m (24,790 ft), Minya Konka is of huge spiritual importance to Tibetans.
The SummitPost reports that until 2003 the mountain was successfully climbed only eight times. In total 22 climbers have ever reached the summit in known recorded history.
While summiting its peak is off-limits to all but the most experienced of mountaineers, there is a more accessible trail which winds around the west of the mountain, following the sacred pilgrimage kora undertaken by many Tibetans each year and this allows for some very stunning trekking.
At this time of year we also found that there were many local nomad families out picking caterpillar fungus. While each caterpillar fungus is very hard to spot (as little more than just a brown pencil-thin bump in the soil), they can fetch $3- $20 USD per fungus depending on size and quality. And that is the price just at the base of the distribution pyramid. Once these get to high end markets in Shanghai and Beijing, Chinese consumers will pay great sums of money for this traditional Chinese herbal medicine that only grows in the high Tibetan Plateau.
The starting point of the Minya Konka kora is just a short 30 minute drive from Kangding; however, we recommend spending a few days in Kangding town (2,560 meters or 8,400 feet) to acclimatize to the altitude before starting your trek.
The traditional through-trek route takes you past Gongga Shan, along the stunning snow-capped Daxue Shan range of mountains which lie to the east of the trail. It’s possible to start your trek either from the north (Laoyulin near Kangding) and head south (Zimei), or from the south working your way northwards (see below map).
For our trip, we decided to start out at Laoyulin valley nearest Kangding and only go to the high pass at upper Riwuche (listed as “Shang Riwuqie” on the map above) at 4,876 meters or 16,000 feet and then retrace our steps back to the Laoyulin trailhead. We made this decision on the basis of the snow pack at the top of the pass. As we approached the high Riwuche pass, we were about 50 vertical meters from the top and we were already up to our hips in deep snow. The presence of cornices at the pass along with the deep snow discouraged us from going further so we turned back, happy to have gotten an incredible view of the glacier and the 6,000 meter/20,000 foot mountains all around us. However, we did see two Chinese trekkers go over the pass (and apparently complete the entire through trek). Both of these brave individuals had full 40lb backpacking packs on and had a great deal of trouble getting through the thick snow. But after hours of work struggling up the pass and postholing in the deep snow, we saw them disappear over the saddle of the pass and make it through the cornices. However, I would not recommend doing the through trek of Minya Konka in early May. If you were wanting to do the entire through trek from north to south or vice versa you would want to attempt this in the months of July, August, September and this would provide you with green valleys and a clear path across the high pass.
Here is a record of our group’s schedule as we trekked Minya Konka.
Click here for more
Day 1 of the trek
We arose at 6:45am in our cozy hostel so that we could get down to the bus by 7:30am. Due to construction on the road leading to the Laoyulin trailhead, we wanted to get to the trailhead before 8am, when the construction starts and it is difficult to get by the many machines paving the road. We arrived at the trailhead at 3,200 meters/10,498 feet and packed our tents, cooking gear, and our food on 4 small Tibetan ponies. Carrying only our personal belongings and sleeping bags, took off on a small dirt road that wound past a small dam facility. Within 3km, the road gave way to a proper trail and we were making our way through the rain.
After 7km of soggy hiking from the start at the trailhead, we passed the first pasture where it is possible to camp at 3,600 meters/11,811 feet (listed as “Dacaoba Camp” on the map above) and opted for a quick and very cold and miserable lunch under the slight protection of a grove of trees just outside the pasture. We had considered camping here, but the rain and the snow caused us to go on to stay warm through movement. By this time it was snowing and we were all very cold any time we stopped on the trail.
After lunch we hiked another 8km in rain and snow and walked along the banks of a surging snowmelt river littered with lots of red rocks and dramatic boulders set against boreal forests and high cliffs. At around 4pm we arrived at the second pasture at 3,900 meters/12,795 feet (listed as “Riwuqie Gou” on the map above). Fortunately, the precipitation let up and we had a chance to warm ourselves by the nice fire our Tibetan guide had made for us. We quickly set up our tents and got warm, dry clothes on and made a warm dinner of curly pasta and sausages . It felt good to get some hot food in us and to sleep in nice 0 degree Celsius down sleeping bags.
Day 2 of the trek
After a breakfast of granola and powdered milk, the sun came out and allowed us an incredible view of one of the nearby 6,000 meter/20,000 foot peaks. We all took scores of wet clothes and hung them up on every rock, crag, and gnarly little thorn bush we could find in a desperate attempt to get the wet contents of our bags bone dry. For the most part, it worked out well and we all had dry clothes for the rest of the trip, especially because the rest of the trip was filled with good weather and sunbeams and blue skies over the mountains.
We had a lazy morning packing up our tents for the first time together and breaking camp. We stayed in Camp 1 long enough that we were able to eat both Breakfast and Lunch there and then departed for a short 3-4km walk up the valley. The trail continued to have a very shallow, gradual grade as it had for the last day’s walk. This was certainly a big advantage with 20lb packs and less available oxygen as we gained elevation. We crossed the river on a sturdy log bridge and made our way past Tibetan nomad tents pitched by entrepreneurial Tibetans looking to cash in on the 3 weeks of opportune caterpillar fungus picking.
Around 3:30pm we arrived at our camp 2 at 4,100 meters by pile of “Labtse” or stones that have been thrown into a pile to appease local mountain and water spirits. This stone pile, although very different in purpose, looked remarkably like a western cairn which serves at a high altitude trail marker. We set up our camp, filtered water, and had a glorious supper of pasta with cabbage and cauliflower, carrots, and red curry. After a relaxed day of hiking, a good debrief and a good dinner, we felt revived from the way the weather had worn us down the day before.
Day 3 of the trek
We ate breakfast and broke our Camp 2 at lower Riwuche valley (listed as “Xia Riwuqie” on the map above). Like every morning, we had to tie the tents and luggage in a special way so that each bag or box could be tied to the side of the wooden saddle on the ponies’ backs. From there we walked another 4km up to the upper Riwuche valley to arrive at Camp 3. More gentle slopes greeted us as we made our way from one valley floor to the next. As a tip to anyone trekking up the valley from north to south as we did, I would suggest for you to stay right of the river until you get to a small wooden log bridge. We happened to cross the river a few 100 meters too early to the left side and it cost us about 30 minutes in travel time as we bushwhacked our way through brush and uncut trail. We were never in danger and the result (getting to the left side of the river) was the same.
Just before crossing into the upper Riwuche valley (listed as “Shang Riwuqie” on the map above) , we ascended a sandy slope that reminded me of sand dunes and once we were over that last hump the entire upper Riwuche valley opened up to us and we were surrounded by monstrous 6,000 meter (20,000 foot) peaks on all sides. The entire trek had been gorgeous, but as we made this last push it became evident that it just kept getting more unreal.
We set up camp quickly and half of our group made a quick push to the edge of the glacier lake while the other half rested and worked on dinner.
It took us about 1.5 hours to get up to the rim of the glacier lake from Camp 3. The first 45 minutes was spent traversing relatively flat terrain and navigating the braiding branches of the river and its snowy banks. Then we ascended steeply up through a rocky gully that forked to the left of the valley and clambered across boulders to the rim of the glacial lake. Surprisingly, there was only small patches of 3-6 inch snow as we crowned over the rim so the hiking was very manageable and at no time did we posthole in the snow. On the rim we were right at 4,572 meters (15,000 feet). We were taller than anything in the 48 United States and, boy, were we feeling it! We all huffed and puffed to get to the top but it was so worth it! This, for me, was the absolute highlight of the trip in seeing the light of the coming sunset piercing through the blue edges of the glacial ice across the lake. The lake itself reminded me of Crater Lake in Oregon in the winter- a high craggy rim that encircled a snowy crater below. But the backdrop was Denali itself in a rugged alpine stark beauty. It was the kind of wonder that we were all seeking on the trip; the kind of grandiose scene that makes a man feel very small against jagged and fierce cliffs that could wipe him from the face of the earth in just one fervent blast of wind. Even the high trail along the ridge of the lake was a knife edge. It was the kind of trail that allows for a foot or two of width in safe passage but everything on either side looked like a long and dangerous drop.
Our turn around time arrived. After a few jumping pictures on the rim, we weaved our way in-between boulders and snowpack. We descended back to camp 3 and wound back down to the mouth of the lake as it poured gently back into the valley and became a rushing river that surged under a icy veneer.
Within 1 hour of departing the rim of the glacial lake, we were back in camp. And we exhausted. Thankfully, a hot dinner awaited us. We ate our fill, cleaned up dinner, and headed for the horizontal position in our sleeping bags. A snow storm was starting to blow up and none of us were too keen to linger too long outside of the tent at 4,300 meters/14,107 feet.
Day 4 of the trek- a day hike from Camp 3
I promised myself as I went to bed the former night that the next day was definitely going to be a rest day for me. I had felt I had really experienced my highlight of the trip in the glacial lake and I was up for rest day at high altitude. I was starting to experience a headache and had developed some diarrhea, so I figured I could use some rest from pushing myself the day before. I told my co-leader that I was happy to stay back in camp that day and just watch the tents, pump water, and cook food.
That was my plan as I exited my tent into 5 inches of thick freshly fallen snow on the morning of May 14. It seemed like a perfect day to listen to the birds flitter and chirp away as the sun melted the snow that covered our tent.
But that plan for rest totally failed. What was proposed for the day was a quick one hour jaunt to a nearby saddle from Camp 3. I figured I could manage such an easy and quick hike from our camp and then be back to have a full and restful afternoon. So I put on my clothes and my gaiters, anticipating a short and non-eventful foray within a stone’s throw of our camp.
But then the fog came in right over the saddle that we were aiming for. And as soon as that fog settled in behind us, the sun, at the same time, came blaring through the clouds and revealed a brilliant blue sky directly above us. We all instantly threw off our fleece layers and merino base layers and within 3 minutes we were all standing in fresh snow in our short sleeves. This changed everything. Now the saddle didn’t seem so inviting and it certainly wasn’t going to provide any new or interesting views in that fog. But the pass – the highest pass of the entire hike- looked clear and sunny and inviting. In those 3 minutes our plans changed. We weren’t going up just 50 or 100 meters. Our group was going for the holy grail – climbing 600 meters to a pass that we were not sure we could make it to. I told myself I was going to turn around half way and come back to camp early. At least that is the way I rationalized taking advantage of the weather.
But by the time we were half way up, the weather was clear and overcast (which was good because the snow was not too bright) and I could see the high pass. It didn’t look so far and the snow was surprisingly manageable. Most importantly, no one else was turning around and going back to camp. So neither was I.
The trek from Camp 3 to the high pass was about 5km each way. After we had hiked about 3km we found a group of Tibetan horses grazing in the scant grass and shrubs that clung to the rocks. These were a group of horses that had been carrying two Chinese trekkers. The horses at this point could not go any further so they dropped the trekkers off to ascend the pass on their own two fee. As we got to within 1km of the pass, the snow started getting gradually deeper. Each step sunk in a little more than the last into the snow. But, fortunately, we had some real bold hikers who were willing to break trail and do the hard work. I just stepped gingerly into their well-laid bootprints and hoped I would not break further down deeper into the snow with my own feet. In most cases, I was able to stay relatively comfortably above the snowpack. Once we were within 300 horizontal meters of the pass, it got noticeably thicker. Suddenly we weren’t just floating on top of the snow effortlessly. But I was sinking into it like I was in a boggy swamp. Some of my steps plunged me right up to my thigh and it took considerable energy to pull myself out of the snow trap I had right-foot lunged into. Right around this time we came upon two Chinese trekkers with full packs and their local Tibetan guide. As we had approached over the last few hours we had been trailing them (and they had been making a trail for us in the snow). But over the last hour or so of ascent to the base of the pass we had noticed they had just completely stopped. We were curious if they were going up. Mostly because we, ourselves, had the same question in own minds, “With the snow so deep, will we make it to the top of the pass?”
Inevitably we quickly gained on the hikers, to find they had full backpacks and were planning to cross the pass and carry on the rest of the way to Zimei village on the other side of the pass. We only had slight day packs with water and snacks and we were struggling to make it through the snow. I can only imagine what was going through the minds and bodies of these two poor Chinese trekkers with full packs. Every step they took sent them belly deep into an abyss of snow to then struggle and shake and flail their way out of a deep hole like an overturned turtle escaping a ditch repeatedly . But they were determined to make it across the pass. In fact, one of the trekkers was so Gung-Ho that he refused to follow his friends hard-earned footprints and instead went all “Lone Ranger” to try to blaze his own trail. In snow that is 1-2 meters deep, I can not possibly comprehend why anyone would waste so much time and energy trying to make their own path when there is 30% less oxygen available than at sea level. It was an amazing example of pride and independence that could have really hurt or endangered this trekker.
I wasn’t the only one worried for these two. Their Tibetan guide gave them directions on which way to cross the snow to navigate the cornices and the narrow pass. Then he turned around and went back, leaving them on their own for the rest of the hike. Apparently he was only hired to guide half the hike and then his plan was to go back down to the valley to help the rest of his family to find more caterpillar fungus. But we watched as the Tibetan guide left his two trekkers to ascend while he descended back down the snow slope. Then we watched him turn around and make his way all the way back to the trekkers just as they were about to cross the pass. They had gone the wrong way and it was putting them in not just deep snow but considerable danger of snow or rock slides. The Tibetan guide looked back and saw this and came back to to help the two Chinese trekkers. When he came back we all breathed a sigh of relief because we were seriously worried for these guys. As we looked up to the pass, we saw the Tibetan guide help them find their way over the pass and we were happy for them that they made it. But we knew that they had a long descent down through a lot of heavy snow. It made us glad that we had decided not to do the full through trek.
In light of the fact that we were in no way obligated to cross the pass, we decided to stop short at a rock pile just 50 vertical meters from the 4,875 meter (16,000 foot) pass. We probably could have made it, but we decided that it was not worth all the time and energy to just return to camp even more tired and worn out.
As it was, we were engulfed in a cloud of never-ending white. And we had hit our turn around time, so we knew it was time to head back to camp. So that is what we did. Just at that moment the sun came out and started to turn the hard snow pack to slosh. And suddenly our journey in the snow became a little bit more arduous in the newly melted softer snow. We plunged and careened down back to the dirt path and rejoiced when were no longer slogging in the slushy goop snow.
Somehow I had managed to do the exact opposite of rest that day. I had been to an elevation that qualified as probably the 3rd highest I had ever been to in my entire life (next to Tibet’s Everest Base Camp at 5,200 meters and another hike that took me equally as high). Once again, I was very tired from a long day at elevation. But I was glad I hadn’t turned around. It felt good to have pushed through. And it felt even better to snuggle up in my tent.
Day 5 of the trek
We packed up camp feeling a sense of accomplishment. We had gotten much higher than we ever thought we would as a group. Now it was time to head home to the stables. We power walked out and did 17km downhill passing Camp 3, Camp 2, and Camp 1. We descended from 4,300 meters to about 3,600 meters and our lungs were happy and bursting with all the excess oxygen. We made a camp in the afternoon and had a blazing fire with all the excess wood in the forest (something that was a rare commodity in the high alpine zones of the last few days). Our knees were tired but we were all in good shape. We camped in an open pasture at 3,600 meters (listed as “Dacaoba Camp” on the map above).
Day 6 of the trek
We ate breakfast and were out of camp by 10:30am. By 12 noon we were at the Laoyulin trailhead again. The bus picked us up and by 1pm we were in Kangding. We grabbed a quick dumpling lunch in town and then headed for a well kept secret that only locals know about: a real hot springs bath house. The hot springs flow naturally from the ground but the local Tibetans have channeled this water into a few different private and public pools. It felt so good to soak in the hot, mineral-rich water and wash 6 days of grime off our bodies and let it steam away. This was the perfect way to end an incredible walk in the wilderness.
I love packing for a trip. It helps me feel ready for what is about to be a highlight of my year. But sometimes it can be so confusing about what to bring and how to bring it.
In this post, I will lay out the ABCs of packing a backpack. Whether you’re packing a duffel bag or a backpack, the ABCs are a simple way to organize your gear and help you look like a pro, because after all, looking good is half the battle.
But before we get into the ABCs, lets start with a few steps.
Step 1: Make a packing list of what you need and check stuff off.
When you come travel with Elevated Trips we will provided you with a quality packing list that details everything you need (and everything you don’t). We have spent our fair share of days at altitude in both towns and mountains and our experience won’t let you down!
Step 2: Lay out all of your gear out. Yes, all of it. Physically inspect that each piece of gear is laid out and corresponds to your packing list. As you pack it, cross it off on your list.
Here is a great video by Sierra Designs on packing tips:
Now let’s get to the ABCs
When packing, think about your stuff and ask yourself these questions:
What will I need today? What don’t I need?
You can make your life easier by placing the items you need in an easy to reach location. Items like a raincoat, water bottle, sunscreen, hat and snacks should live at the top of your pack, or in a separate, convenient pocket. Items like pajamas, dirty clothes and a sleeping bag should be packed at the bottom. You won’t need these items until the evening; plus, you won’t have to dig through your dirty clothes for that raincoat in a downpour.
Balancing a pack is important. Imagine having 30 lbs in your pack. Where would you want that weight? All on one side, at the top or at the bottom? The correct answer is all of the above. The weight of your gear should be distributed so that your pack is an extension of your body. The key is placing heavy items in the middle of the pack, closest to your own back. Imagine the area above your hips and below your shoulder blades; that is where you want your heaviest items. If you have too much weight toward the top, you will be top-heavy, and your shoulders will hurt more.
Keep your gear tight and compressed in your bag. If you have straps, tighten them down. If you have compression sacks, use those to compress other gear inside the bag, whether a sleeping bag or clothes. This will decrease the size of the bag and help it fit into smaller spaces, like overhead luggage compartments or ocean dwelling dinghy’s.
Every space in your pack should be utilized. If you see a small deformity, a little hole of space, fill that hole. Stuff some socks in there, maybe even a shirt or two. This is not the time to fold nicely; stuff it all and make sure all that space is used. Space is limited and we want to be efficient. You can always iron that wrinkly shirt later.
E: EVERYTHING INSIDE
Make sure to pack all your gear inside your pack. That Nalgene strapped to the outside will fall off and that wet towel tied on might not make the trip (especially as you travel through an airport). If you are packing smart, then every piece of gear has a purpose and loosing that piece of gear will create problems. Plus, you will look dialed and professional without gear clanking around on your pack. Once again, looking good is an important theme in this post.
If you are traveling with food and fuel, make sure the fuel is packed below the food. Why? If that fuel leaks and gravity takes it down into some food, that awesome dinner you were looking forward to all day is no good to eat. Or maybe you ate that food and now your body is having a mass exodus. I don’t like either option. (Feel free to substitute items like shampoo and sunscreen for fuel. These items love to leak, especially above your clean pajamas)
G: GREAT JOB
G stands for great job! There are many ways to pack and everyone should develop their own systems. These are some simple tips of ways to organize your gear. Play around. Practice packing. Take many trips. If you’re traveling this summer and packing your gear right now, great job and see you out there!