overland-underwater.com - A charity drive from the UK to New Zealand
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Final Statistics: Alex & Maz Total distance: 93,550km
Furthest Point: Rotorua, NZ Now settled in Sydney, Australia
Final Statistics: Martin Total distance: 79,698km
Furthest Point: Hobart, Australia Now settled in Bristol, UK

The Roof of the World: A red flag stands where God once sat...

Written by Max Smith. Uploaded 19 April 2006.

Tibet (China), Country 17, Diary entry 28th Feb-7th Mar 2006, Total distance in China: 7563 KM

During our journey across Tibet, the expedition team crossed 90deg east, approximately halfway east towards our target of New Zealand.!

Tibet, A name that conjures so many images and evokes so much feeling from so many; yet far fewer grace its lands. Shangri-la, “the land of snows” Tibet is a country locked away in its mountain fortress of the Himalayas. The real tragedy is, although accessible to the intrepid traveller, the once magical Buddhist kingdom that excited imaginations, has now been tainted forever. As in 1950 China “liberated” Tibet by force, their freeing of Tibet, cost over 1.2million lives, along with the almost complete destruction of any and every building of cultural or religious importance. Its new political name is the Tibetan autonomous region. It’s over twice the size of France, with most lying at an altitude of over 15,000ft (4,615m), with minimal natural resources…. But a huge tactical and strategic importance to its keeper.

Tibetan Mountain Village

Traditional Tibetan Home
I had often day dreamed of being a young Indiana Jones exploring the uncharted plateau …My chiselled rugged looks, I was just never so good with the whip. On previous adventures, I have met people that had some how managed to enter the forbidden land, and always I made the effort and time to listen intently to their stories. They always spoke in a whisper, as if passing a secret, and spoke of landscapes from the moon and people from another world. By this point I usually realised they had eaten far too many of those special mushrooms or they had never been there at all. Either way, my imagination filled in the gaps and a desire to visit Tibet was born. If I’m honest, it’s not so much the altitude or even the religious monuments that excite me, but rather the fact that I’m going to trek around a world feared country. Ruled by a secretive oppressive control, who restricts and watches your every movement and has over 350,000 ready-armed troops within 10 miles of you. Danger, high chance of being arrested, remote wilderness, inhospitable climate… all ingredients for any adventure.

Frozen rivers of the high plain

It’s 6am in Kathmandu, a time of day rarely seen by the team. We packed the iron monsters with what I thought were all the essentials - water and a bag of fresh oranges. Alex then wandered up with his emergency rolls of Oreo cookies. Martin with a cookie jar type smile on his face had also been shopping and had come back with a bag of goodies. As he went past he said “they’re just for the road”. I thought to myself, you’ve only got 40,000km to go, what are you going to do with the ones you have left over…He then continued the normal squirreling process of stashing the goodies throughout the truck.

Ready to go we realised we had to make room for Bruce Lee (Mark our Chinese Guide). There wasn’t enough room for his bag, never mind the chunky Chinese chap that came with it. My vote went for the biggles goggles and strapping him to the roof… but we decided it would not make the best impression or our entry any smoother.

Storm clouds over the plain As we wound up an unpaved, potholed sand track we saw it, the Friendship Bridge, which marks the border between Nepal and Tibet. It’s clear just how little trade and travel pass through this single border, by the shocking condition of the road. This, along with the fact that in the registration journal the last westerners to cross was six months previous. We sat in the middle of the bridge, half in Nepal and half in China. What a contrast, to my left Nepal, a load of casually dressed guys drinking tea, surrounded by hundreds of locals, bustling around. To my right, a huge concrete archway guilded with huge golden mandarin characters, and a flag pole donning the red flag. In the gateway stood two thirteen-year-old soldiers wearing the unforgettable green uniform of the Chinese army. This was simply the first checkpoint. Mark said there would be a bigger one 30 minutes up the road. This is where the red tape began. Firstly an hour of a guy who clearly missed his calling in the top gun movie, rummaging through Martins food boxes, an act that enrages him still. We signed our names countless times and were asked by the border control lady to take our temperature. Visions of being taken to a back room, where lay the spear like thermometer, and being asked to drop the old trousers sparked through my mind. But alas that was only wishful thinking. Instead a laser was pointed at our forehead.

Not clear about this bit of bureaucracy but it would not be the last bit of lunacy we were to see that day. Over the first hurdle we went, and onto the next. Again an over elaborate archway, attempting to show the superior status of China, in a very poor taste way. From the building walked numerous people wearing numerous ill-fitting official uniforms. It looked like a lorry load of kids ‘action man play sets’ had been confiscated and then redistributed. As usual everybody buffed up, trying to look official rather than nosy. It was Alex and Maz’s turn this time, they started to rip out all their kit, opening this box, tearing that one… Alex was beginning to loose it… you could have been mistaken thinking he suffered from turrets. So there I sat, waiting for Towns to be taken away in cuffs. Instead we were held there for hours while the head of the station came back from scratching his arse. While waiting in the customs room, Alex decided he had enough and was bored of standing so grabbed the chiefs chair from behind the desk; where upon it fell apart like a comedy chair, into about 20 bits. No fixing that one we all said under our breath as we all hurried out of the room in fits of laughter.

Prayer wheels at 5300m We left the cow town border station, crawling up the cliff-hugging track, climbing in altitude for hours. The scenery transformed from arid to desolate. Yellow sand gave way to red rock and the temperature plummeted. The cruisers began to really suffer, smoking with almost total power loss. Where once we raced, we were now crawling. In a matter of hours we had gone from 3000ft (900m) to over 17,000ft (5200m) and altitude sickness was a real issue. Many a traveller has perished through inadequate preparation to this hidden killer. So in my classic style I was going to see just how far I could push myself before it took me. We stopped on top of the pass at 17,000ft (5200m), Tibetan prayer flags ragging in the wind and snow capped mountains looming in the backdrop. Awesome, this was the Tibet we’d all dreamt of. The team started to feel the affects of such a fast accent, so we left heading to Lhatse, our camp spot for the night. In normal circumstances night driving is a real chore, but this time it was a pleasure. With not a cloud in the sky, no ground ambient light and being so high, gave the stage for the greatest star show on the planet. Truly a once in a life time site.

After a –20 degree nights camping, we crushed down the frozen tents. Martin had the short straw of driving 450 km over rough roads to the next town to simply get local currency. Our guide had forgotten that we entered the country on the Tibetan New Year and every bank was closed for 6 days! So, in a country where cards don’t exist and they don’t accept the dollar, we were a little stuck. I must admit, I didn’t envy Martin, 10 hours driving for no reason is enough to spoil anybody’s day. The rest of us spent the day in a local’s living room trying to keep warm from the freezing temperatures outside. This was done thanks to the resident yaks and goats. With no plant life surviving on the high plain, Tibetans make effective use of all dung and droppings; a combustible fuel source. In truth it worked bloody well. Just don’t get to close as it has a tendency to pop and spit when burnt. So get burning that poo…. it’s a national past time in Tibet. Tibetan flag

The locals that day were the first real Tibetans we had had close contact with, and it was interesting to see how they lived their lives. A huge amount of respect must be held for these nomadic people who, through hardship and determination manage to sustain life in such conditions. But in these parts the real champion of champions is the yak. A small, walking carpet looking type cow, with a very timid nature. They single handily provide meat, milk, butter, cheese, clothes, fuel and entertainment for the locals. Never really went into what ‘entertainment’ really meant, more because I was fearful of the answer.

Locals Having a social beer The Tibetan people have a very unique look and temperament. They are not Chinese or Indian in appearance, but instead look like a mix Mongolian and Eskimo. Their features are distinct, with large round faces and permanent rosy cheeks. The women have large builds, probably down to the cold and the type of heavy farming that’s needed. With every women having the seemingly mandatory baby with them. It was clear I wasn’t going to meet miss right here. Residing myself to that fact, I continued to try and communicate in my now fluent Tibetan.

Sun rise on the Tibetan plain The night came around 7:30pm, as if the sun had been switched off, bringing a wind so cold, it would freeze the blood in your veins. It was becoming a bit of a race, how quickly you could get changed and jump into your sleeping bag before you froze. Once in your bag, you then tried to go to sleep, which is never easy here. Wearing hats and gloves to fight the cold and the lack of oxygen in the air made normal breathing impossible. But this night was different, it was with the knowledge that the next morning I was to start my accent of Mount Qouolangma; Mount Everest to us. A trek that had captured my imagination and sparked my curiosity for years.

The road to Amirillo Everest lies on the border between Nepal & Tibet, like a king on a throne of white diamonds. Its distinctive simple pyramid shape belies the destructive nature beneath. It towers 28,756ft (8848m) into crystal blue sky. It’s clear by the constant sub zero temps and beating winds that winter was here in force, but this year, unlike any other, there had been no snowfall to recover the peaks, no blizzards to block the trails. This single natural anomaly was to give a unique insight into the world of the high kings. Our destination; north face base camp Everest, a place few have graced before.

The high Pass to Everest

Words of this world, could never truly describe to rugged beauty of this arena, so I shall not attempt to and add insult by my own. They say that some scenes you see in your life become printed on your soul, this will surely be one of them. I only hope that my pictures can do a little justice to what my eyes have seen. Around each corner and over every hill a new sight awaited us. In the sunlight, the dry earth shone a deep red, giving the idea you were walking on Mars. The soil was a collection of rock and sand held together by cold and pressure. Huge rock striations were clear to see where forces had bent and moulded giant sheets of even the strongest rock like kneading layers of dough. Then we reached the first high pass, there it was, sitting silently in the distance. Everest, the peak of peaks. A sight to inspire the hardest of hearts and bring passion in the coldest of minds. Even mine.

The monster getting closer The closer I got to Everest the greater amount of respect I bore for those earlier intrepid explorers, like, Scott, Hilary and Livingstone. What sort of men must these creatures have been to risk life and limb in such a pursuit. It’s a fine line between obsession and lunacy, I can only assume that these men flirted both sides of the line. In between the huge peaks, you would find local herders, tending what little they could grow and grazing their beloved yaks. What could possess a person born of this world, to choose to live in such conditions in a climate that simply screams ‘man stay away’. The answer must lie in religious devotion and blissful social ignorance. As always, the people had smiles on their faces and cheer in their voices, which is more than most in our world back home, so who is right and who is wrong? The answer escapes me. But it’s clear that at some point in a persons life, you must ask yourself the question, am I living my life the way I should.

The air was becoming thin, very thin, at this altitude every step took effort… I made jokes to keep the spirits up, but I knew within that it was hard. It felt like I was holding kryptonite, with all my super powers seeping away. I was becoming mortal. There it was, the Cairn and prayer flags marking the base camp, 17,225ft (5300m) and bitterly cold. So, there I found myself standing in front of the mountain that has taken so many lives. So whilst adding my own holy water to the dusty ground I said my inner prayer – this basically consisted of me hoping to finish as soon as possible, so that nothing delicate froze.

Everest - Highest Mountain in The world- 8860m I found myself sitting there mesmerised by Everest. The peak was still a further 3.5km higher looming into the sky. Unknowingly in this tranquil theatre, I slipped into my own thoughts, reflecting on those people who are a part of my life, and those who have touched my thoughts. In this bliss, I could look at recent events and understand better the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’. In that moment I knew how lucky I have been and how great those people are around me, who put up with my antics. So those of you reading this, thank you. But I’m afraid it won’t change. Pray flags

The decent was as stunning as imagined, and gave yet another reminder as to why so many risk so much to challenge these eternal titans. I now sort of understand why some might see Tibet as such a Holy Land, as the faithful could easily believe only god could live here. Everest Base Camp

The next challenge was to start the long trip to Lhasa, through Shagaze. It was a mission of a journey due to the non-existence of road and the fact that Tinfish’s suspension bush had disintegrated earlier that day just as we crossed the final high pass to Everest! Towns is not a stupid as he looks, in fact he couldn’t possibly be, but when it comes to bush mechanics, he’s the man. With a roll of tape, webbing, a lot of profanity and Mt Everest as a fitting backdrop, he made a bush type repair. It had to last 400km, and it did. When we arrived at the hotel, the first port of call was the shower, it had been a week since I had seen water that was not frozen. A liberating experience, and freedom for many of the creatures that had been living with me that last week.

 What a place to break down! Lhasa, the city in the clouds. This city is revered in legend for as much its secrecy and isolation to the outside world, as its religious stature among Buddhists. I have no doubt that in ages past, local Tibetans would have travelled thousands of miles to see the grand buildings of the old town, the bustling markets and the spectacular Potala palace. Which must have seemed like another planet from the barren plain of the plateau.

Potala Palace - Lhasa

I would have loved to have seen this town untouched and unscathed, where people followed their thoughts and lived there dreams. Where the city was free to be itself. Reality is those days are long gone. Lhasa is now China with a few old buildings. Concrete roads now cover landscape allowing the high rise nightmares to infest the sky. Neon clad shopping malls now purvey the area. China once again showing who’s the new landlord in its very subtle, delicate way. All but a pinch of charm fled this city with its spirit long ago. Local on her long march

What does remain in body only, is the awesome Potala Palace and remnants of the old town. In truth, this only still stands because the Chinese declared they would blow them up and level the city unless, the local populous submitted to Chinese rule. Very fair of them don’t you think. Makes you wonder how many cities, how many monuments and how many cultures have been erased from history because of war. What treasures could exist for all to see today. But man has always made war his business. Example of decoration inside Potala Palace

Potala Palace sits above the rest of Lhasa residing in its own reign. Before the time of skyscrapers, Potala palace was the tallest building in the world. It was once the centre of the Buddhist world, where the Dalai Lama lived and worshiped. It was also the main Tibetan government building for the day to day operational running of the once free Tibet. For now it stands as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists, and a tourist site for the masses. The colours of the building represent its functions. The white area representing as political rooms and quarters. While the upper, purple area was designated for prayer and Buddhist activities.

Yak Butter Prayer Lamp

This building wholly symbolises Tibet’s political system and just how intricately inter wound religion and politics were in past days. It is clear that the populous still hold this building in almost a spiritual light, and commands the utmost respect. As you wander around the small rooms examining the old relics and prayer tombs of Lamas past, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of disbelief and surprise. The rooms were full of gold, silver and jewelled tombs and statues of Buddha’s and Lamas. We counted over 10 tonnes of gold just for the tombs – that’s more than the combined weight of both trucks including Martin’s tuckbox! For a religion that preaches the need to loose your worldly possessions and focus on enlightenment, here I was, in their palace, seeing people brought to there knees in front of a cast gold statue.

The palace was a spectacular sight, with all its gold and history, but that’s all it is to the non Buddhist. It seems so alien to me, to have thoughts so strong about simple objects and places, but this was only the start of how I would see religion drives people to lunacy. Religion, sometimes seems no more than the best way in history invented to control a population. It something we all have to make out own minds up on. Market Stall of strange dried fruits

We headed for old town, and the curiosity market. Once we escaped the Chinese malls we passed into the main square. Each side was laden with stands selling everything from lizards to leprichorns. We grabbed some local food, which in truth was unrecognisable after it had been dunked into the boiling pot of oil and then coated in chilli dust, we assumed and hoped that it was potato. This was also where it hit me just how the ‘Chinese liberation’ had affected the common Tibetan. Here, many a once proud person had lowered themselves to begging for the tourist dollar. It was persistent and planned, children have been trained to cry and mothers to mope. A sad sight indeed. In the square also resides the Jokhang Temple, a pilgrimage sight for many Tibetans. Outside stood many devotees all going through the ritual of standing up, praying, then lying on the floor. The process takes about 30 seconds but they repeat this for all the daylight hours, clocking up thousands of prayers. Yeah… I thought so too - lunacy. Only to then find that these pilgrims had walked thousands of kilometres to get here, taking three steps and then lying down on the floor to pray each time. How, why? For the rest of my time in Tibet, I’d refer to these as the floor sliders. In my mind; a mass of deluded individuals that truly believed this process would make there lives better and closer to god. The irony is that only the very poorest Tibetans took the long march. The Lamas and richer found other ways to show their devotion. Spinning prayer wheels.

It was the end of my time in Lhasa as I headed for main land China, a feeling of despondency sat with me. Was this because Lhasa has truly gone and Chinese rule for 50 years had irrevocably changed it forever or because of seeing religious madness close up? Either way Lhasa has left a very subdued image in my mind.

Young Tibetan girls Herding their Yaks The Drive From Lhasa to Golmud is not one for the fainthearted, with two 5200m passes and 1200km to cover on poor roads; all that basically translates to a soar head, arse and temper. We planned to make a detour to Lake Namtso, the holiest lake in Tibet. I was getting the strong hint that every natural feature in Tibet was holy because there’s so few of them. We arrived on the top of the ridge looking down across the huge expanse. It was open flat plain with an island sea in the centre. We were still over 15,000ft (4600m) so the conditions were harsh and freezing. As we descended we were once again treated to the welcoming sight of the nomadic yak herder. Old tents dotted across the plain pumping out streams of smoke from their poo fuelled fires. As we crossed the plain, the children who were tending the herds would stop us to get a closer look at the outsiders and share some of our dried fruit. It reminded me again how beautiful the untouched Tibet really was, and how tender its people. We shared hand signals, smiles and waves and off we went towards the lake. The Mountains surrounding Namtso Lake

I never found out what was special about this particular lake for it to be held in Tibetan legend, but by the huge amount of prayer flags and silks, it was clear this lake held significance. The lake had frozen completely to form a shining silver pool in the sun, quite a spectacular sight. Wanting to see if it was completely frozen we trekked off across the lake to what seemed to be an island of ice, whipped up by the raging winds. Standing there looking across the huge lake, I once again felt that sense of mortality, like in Everest. A sense of just how remote I was.

The frozen Holy lake of Namtso We stepped back onto the track, heading for main land China, and I said my farewells to Tibet, the forgotten Kingdom. We arrived in the concrete Jungle of Golmund, a particularly dull and dank place. The only order we all agreed was the instant need for food and thorough washing down of local beer. This was found in the form of a tented market stall in the town square where upon which a crazed local girl with a machete, hacked through a lambs carcass and continued to skewer it, ready for are kerbab’s. After what seemed like three hundred kebabs and over 2 litres of beer we staggered out, grinning from ear to ear. It was then decided that we should frequent a local nightclub to test out our heightened dancing skills. We strolled in past the army of staff, into a completely empty dance hall. Nice.... So we sat down polished off more beers and waited for the dancers. All I can say is that, three 6 feet guys jumping up and down, surrounded by hundreds 4 feet Chinese ravers, causes quite a stir. Not a pretty site for anybody’s imagination, especially knowing that Alex was wearing three pairs of trousers, two pairs of socks and four jumpers. Perfect late night dance wear. Ice Skating Yaks

A lot has been said in past years about the plight of Tibet, with many to this day having strong opinions on the matter. The only offering I can make, is what I have seen, and what I have felt. Once Tibet must have be a glorious place, displaying great beauty, but after countless invasions and liberation’s the essence of Tibet has been slowly eroded. It’s a shame the world watched all those years ago, when it could have helped. China has done a thorough job of stamping its mark and covering visions of independence, with aid and finance. So, in many ways little lasts of the mystical Tibet, with only a few old buildings and nomadic yak herders to remind you. Development and advancement are heading for Tibet rapidly with new roads and rail. More Tibetans are forgetting farming and turning to catering for the growing Chinese tourist market. The only real truth is that Tibet will for the foreseeable future be part of China, a giant waking up. Tibet’s tactical and strategic importance will always make it a sought after location for any country’s secret nuclear missile arsenal.

Tibetan yak herder Tibetan floorslider
The food, ummm…to say its different from ‘Chinese food’ in the UK, is an understatement. On the whole the food has been good, mainly because of Mark the Chinese guide, who stops the locals stiffing us and feeding us deer penis as a laugh. Everything here has chilli as the main ingredient and then consists of what meat is available. For breakfasts we have stuck to dim sum, a steamed stodgy bread ball containing meat or vegetables which is then soaked in soya sauce. It also acts as a great system blocker - a hint they need to add to the bible (Girl Guides hand book) Lunch is normally noodle based, where upon a bowl of chilli water is donned with plain noodles and dressed with the meat of choice. The evenings can vary from varied plates to your own fondue, but all contain over adequate amounts of chilli’s. I classed myself as a chilli champion, but here I’m an amateur, so I shall have to settle with my Tabasco medal. Martin has his Macdonald’s radar on constantly, it’s like a sixth sense. If there’s fast food he will find it, which makes a nice respite from the continual chilli crunching. Its true what they say, Chinese do eat everything, in fact the only thing they seems to leave alone is all the fillets and tender meat, don’t figure. But how can I possibly try to understand the mind of a nation who eats rat, duck heads, pig’s tails, snake skin and worse.

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Comment from Mark
i've been planning a similar trip for the past few months and i'm so envious of you. i won't be going for 18 months but i want to go now!

Best of luck
19 Apr 2006 @ 17:08:43

Comment from deirdre
heya martin! how are ya, dee here from chambery, wow i remember us all siting in Charleys pub and u telling us of ur plans for this trip, and now u have traveled throu 26or so countries, that is amazing and for charity!fair play to u guys, it takes ball to do that, id say u are having the most amazing experience ever.

gud luck and Enjoy urself , im headin to OZ in sept, maybe c uthere!!

23 Apr 2006 @ 17:21:09