The Ganden Monastery Pilgrim Bus

From our Diary: September 2007

Pilgrims at Ganden Monastery Tibet

The Ganden Monastery Bus

Even in 2007, when Tibet was somewhat more open than now to foreigners travelling without organized tours,  it was still difficult to travel on public transport outside Lhasa. One exception was the Ganden Monastery bus. It left from the west side of Barkhor Square at 6.00 in the morning and returned in the early afternoon.

Pligrim Bus

The night before our excursion, the taxi driver had rung at 11.00 pm to say that he had been offered a more lucrative trip to the Everest Base Camp and the Nepalese Border and he wouldn’t be taking us to the Ganden Monastery in the morning as previously arranged. “It’s the pilgrim bus then.” Margie and I decided, and set our alarm for 5.00 am.

Ganden-temple overview

Going to Ganden

Approaching the bus in the pitch black we could make out the shape of a large group of people standing silently in front of its closed doors. The only other sign of life at this time in the morning were the mysterious, hazy figures of pilgrims on the Barkhor Circuit, mumbling prayers and twirling their prayer wheels, the personification of piety.

View over The Barkhor Lhasa

However, once we got to the bus which was about to open its door, all signs of piety and spirituality went out of the window and Continue reading “The Ganden Monastery Pilgrim Bus”

Travelling the Yangtse River, 1990-1991 (From our Diary)


Between December 1990 and January 1991, Adam and I travelled the Yangztse River from Shanghai to Chongqing; a journey that took us 9 days then. At that time, tourism along the Yangtse was in its infancy and we, as poor backpackers, couldn’t have afforded a cruise ship anyway. So we travelled on Chinese passenger boats that made very few concessions to either comfort or tourists. There were no sightseeing stops or side excursions; we even managed to miss one Gorge altogether, as the boat went through it at night.

Suzhou Creek 1990

In those days, foreign visitors were charged much higher prices for transport, hotels, sights, etc., than Chinese people and had to pay in Foreign Exchange Certificates (a special currency only for foreigners or foreign transactions), rather than Renminbi (the People’s money), which is why many backpackers resorted to black- marketeers. To get his hands on a couple of discounted, Chinese-price tickets for the first leg of the journey, Adam had to follow a Chinese man into the toilets of the Seaman’s Club at the Pujiang Hotel (known as Astor House Hotel after recent makeovers) in an action reminiscent of an old spy movie.

Nanjing Lu 1990

It was winter and the weather was cold and wet; the river often shrouded in impenetrable mist. Continue reading “Travelling the Yangtse River, 1990-1991 (From our Diary)”

Getting to Yunlong 云龙 (From our Diary 12/8/2010)

Location:Yunlong 云龙

China, Yunnan province, 150 Kilometres Northwest of Dali.

Every journey we made by bus in Yunnan 云南 this summer was plagued by problems.
This is the account from our dairy which describes the ride we took on the 12th of August 2010, from Xiaguan (Dali City) to Yunlong.

“… We have no trouble getting a taxi this early in the morning, thank God, so we arrive at the bus station nice and early. There, we make the mistake of asking how long it will take and they tell us 5 hours, instead of the 3½ we were expecting…… more road works apparently….. We’ll just have to resign ourselves.

The first 40kms or so we proceed smoothly, straight down the Dali大理– Baoshan保山 express way (an engineering marvel, hewn out of the rock face of towering mountains),and we start wondering whether the people in the bus station have made a mistake, or whether we’ve simply misheard the times…. But no, as soon as we turn off the motorway the road basically vanishes. From now on we’ll be driving through thick red mud, along a rough track that is at times completely flooded by water running down the mountainsides. The whole area is just one great building site where we constantly have to dodge bulldozers, caterpillars and other heavy machinery, swerve around piles of construction materials, avoid the little shacks put up for the workers, and so on.


We have hardly started on this non-road when we come to an abrupt standstill because there has been a landslide and Continue reading “Getting to Yunlong 云龙 (From our Diary 12/8/2010)”

HuangShan黄山 (2001) Redone Text & Photos

Visiting Yellow Mountain ( Huangshan 黄山)
August 30 2001

The Slow train to Hefei was indeed slow. We left had Chengdu on the 28th of August some 47 hours earlier.

Hefei station was modern but had a sleazy feel to it at night. We immediately got hassled by a guy about taxis and hotels. Adam decided to enquire about tickets first – the hassle guy followed – I was watching him / and Adam’s money belt like a hawk. Next thing you know, Adam has bought 2 hard – sleeper tickets on a night train to Tunxi – now renamed Huangshan City: our third consecutive night on a train without a proper wash or a change of clothes! A record.

A friendly young man who studies in Chengdu helps us find our waiting room: there are several beggars and peasants who really stare at us and make comments. This is the first time it has happened on this trip.

We seem to have the only 2 free berths on this packed train which is going all the way to Xiamen. They are uppers unfortunately, Continue reading “HuangShan黄山 (2001) Redone Text & Photos”

Detian Waterfall 德天瀑布 (From our Diary 10/9/2006)

Detian Waterfall

Detian Waterfall Detian Pubu 德添瀑布

First with an expression of horror, then a polite nod of the head, and finally a beaming smile was how the young lady in the travel agency attended us when we asked about taking the Chinese tour to the Detian Waterfall.

Nanning Botanical Garden

The Horror: Enter two foreigners in a Chinese travel agency, asking about joining a Chinese tour. “I don’t speak English, do they speak Chinese? What am I going to do?”, was written all over the poor girl’s face, as we sat down in front of her.

Vietnam & China Border at Detian Waterfall

The Polite Nod: “I think the foreigner is speaking something that resembles Chinese and I think I can just about make out what he is saying”.

The Beaming Smile: “The foreigners want to join a tour to the Detian waterfall tomorrow and wish to pay now!”

Local at Detian Waterfall Detian Pubu

“We don’t usually take foreigners on our tours, due to the language barriers”, the young lady said apologetically.  I replied that we didn’t normally take tours either, but we were short of time and needed to be able to visit the falls in one day and return to Nanning the same day. Language, I said, wouldn’t be a problem. “Miss Chen will meet you in the lobby at 7.00 am tomorrow”, she answered.

Detian Waterfall Detian Pubu

The Detian Waterfalls, situated in China’s Southern Guangxi Province (Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), are among of the most spectacular in China, if not Asia. Their location alone, a remote area populated by diverse ethnic minorities, interspersed by winding rivers, karst peaks and Continue reading “Detian Waterfall 德天瀑布 (From our Diary 10/9/2006)”

From Our Diary 2006: Hua Shan Rock Paintings / 花山岩画 & 左江风景区

Hua Shan Rock Paintings

Rock Painting Hua Shan

The Zhuang are China’s largest ethnic minority with about 15 million of them living in Guangxi province alone. In fact, the Zhuang are so numerous in Guangxi that the province is officially known as the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The provincial capital Nanning, or ‘the Green City’, as it tries to promote itself, is a good place to base yourself for forays into the Zhuang heartlands. Already on ‘’ we have articles on three prominent Zhuang areas in Guangxi: Yangmei village, Detian waterfall, and the ‘Dragon’s Backbone’ Rice Terraces or ‘Longji Titian’ at Ping’an.

In appearance, the Zhuang are almost indistinguishable from the Han Chinese, though some Zhuang sub-groups, such as the black Zhuang, continue to wear their distinctive ethnic clothing. The Zhuang do, however, have their own language, which has been transcribed in a curious Romanised script.

Zuo Jiang (Zuo River)

The rock paintings at Hua Shan are not only situated in the Zhuang heartlands, but they also mark the cradle of their civilization, as they are reputed to be at least 2000 years old. Thus, these paintings and other nearby archaeological sites provide evidence that the origins of the Zhuang can be traced back to Continue reading “From Our Diary 2006: Hua Shan Rock Paintings / 花山岩画 & 左江风景区”

Longxi Si 龙西寺 & Nangchen曩謙

Longxi Si & Nangchen

Deliberations of an oxygen-deprived traveller.

After 4 nights of me coughing, wheezing, gasping for air and not having slept a wink, we took the decision not to stay the night in Nangchen, but to just take a day trip in that direction instead.  The fact that I was hooked up to a rusty oxygen tank at the time, in a friendly, but far from salubrious, local Tibetan clinic in Yushu, had something to do with it as well. My altitude sickness was a weird phenomenon: while I was all right during the day, I spent most of my night’s sleepless, and at times hallucinating and babbling gibberish.

On the road to Nangchen.

The road from Yushu to Nangchen is truly spectacular, crossing several high passes (4,500 metres) and running next to gushing rivers, including at one point crossing the Mekong River. Vast grasslands extend on either side of the road, with grazing herds of yaks, Continue reading “Longxi Si 龙西寺 & Nangchen曩謙”

A Tale of two Towns: Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉

Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉

Pingle and Songji are two traditional ancient towns in the South West of China. The first, Pingle, is a couple of hours away from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, while the second, Songji, is a mere two hours from the metropolis Chongqing. The architecture in both towns is similar: the houses have black slate roofs and white walls supported by dark wooden beams; the streets are narrow and cobble- stoned. Moreover, both towns share a riverside location: while Pingle is built along both banks of a river, the streets of. Songji run downhill towards the Yangtze. As for village life, drinking tea and playing board games are still the favourite pastimes of the locals. However, after that the similarities stop. Pingle has become a hugely popular tourist destination for Chengdu residents and domestic tourists visiting Sichuan. As a result, it is full of souvenir shops, its streets lined with teahouses, inns and restaurants. Songji on the other hand is a slightly melancholy, time- forgotten town without a single souvenir shop, just one hotel and a few local restaurants and traditional teahouses. We visited both this summer and here are our impressions, taken from the Diary:


… First impressions aren’t good. The toilets at the otherwise modern bus station that necessity has forced us to use are high up on the ‘Worst in China’ list: they are piled high in shit, there’s no water and the stench impregnates the station and beyond. Outside a steady drizzle is falling.  The next realisation is that Pingle is far from being a hidden gem; in fact, Continue reading “A Tale of two Towns: Pingle 平乐 Versus Songji 松溉”

Xining西宁 to Yushu玉树 on the Sleeper Bus (Qinghai Province)

As I observed the scene from the upper berth on the overnight sleeper from Xining to Yushu, memories of China’s famous scenic mountain Huangshan flooded back. The upper-tier beds seemed to be floating in a sea of clouds, just like the famous rocks and gnarled pines of Huangshan and, as happens on that mountain, occasionally everything was swallowed up by an enveloping mist. Except that the clouds and the mist on our bus were no manifestation of the bracing and refreshing mountain air, but rather a thick curtain of acrid cigarette smoke, rising up from our fellow passengers on the beds below.
Initially, Margie and I were quite relieved when we saw our bus at Xining bus station: at first sight it looked pretty new and clean; even the bedding was quite passable. Our upper berths right at the front of the bus seemed comfortable enough and, even more importantly, there were no-smoking signs everywhere. Encouraged by these favorable impressions, we began to look forward to the trip. Of course, we should have known better.

While in the more developed eastern parts of China non-smoking rules on public transport are usually enforced quite strictly, previous experience had taught us that the situation in the remote areas of western China could be very different. The Chinese have a fabulous saying that sums up how rules are enforced, or not, the further you are from Beijing: “Heaven is high and the Emperor is far away” (tian gao huang di yuan天高皇帝远). And indeed, the emperor seemed a long way away as the two drivers boarded the bus, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, Continue reading “Xining西宁 to Yushu玉树 on the Sleeper Bus (Qinghai Province)”

“No flip flops or Crocs please!”

There are moments in China when it can be convenient not to speak or understand Chinese and instead pretend that you are a dumb tourist. Our visit to the wonderful Gansu Provincial Museum was one of those moments. It took nearly 40 minutes crawling through Lanzhou’s choking traffic in a taxi to get to the Museum; we picked up our free tickets and approached the entrance. A young guard came up to us before we could get to the security check and asked in Chinese if we could “jiang hanyu” (speak Chinese), being polite I replied “huì” (we can). He then pointed at our feet and said “bu keyi chuan tuoxie” (you can’t wear flip flops). I looked at him in disbelief and protested, but to no avail. Margie enquired about her Crocs and “ye bu keyi” (also not) was his answer. We continued to argue, but met with the same reply; apparently the “guiding” (the rules) stipulated that plastic footwear wasn’t allowed…!

Eventually, after a stand- off in which we were getting nowhere, the guard suggested we go to a nearby street market and buy some cheap shoes. After debating whether to return through the traffic to the hotel, or give up on the museum altogether, we decided to follow his advice. Continue reading ““No flip flops or Crocs please!””