“Hello.” When traveling, this word can quickly become a sound you dread.
Having spent the last two years living in Hong Kong, we have travelled around South East Asia quite a bit. In countries with a developed tourist industry “Hello” can often turn from a greeting into the bane of every traveller. Usually it goes like this:
“Hello, where you from?” “Hello, I’m from England” “Ah, London.. Football.. David Beckham!” <Sigh> “Yes.”
Next comes the inevitable: “you come into my shop”… “you want to buy [insert touristy crap item here]”… “You want guide? I English speak, good guide” Then you get followed by the guy for the next 100 yards trying to part you from your money.
But here in Tibet, everyone seems so friendly. While walking around people of all ages say “Hello” as we pass, we give a “Hello” back, and are rewarded by huge smiles and genuine feelings of friendliness. Nobody tries to drag us into their shop, sell us something or scam us.
We get a lot of inquisitive stares, westerners are a novelty here, especially in the winter. Our guide explained that during the winter months a lot of the nomadic Tibetans and cattle herders, who spend the summers out in the mountains working, don’t have so much to do, so they come to Lhasa to visit the temples and walk Kora (clockwise walk around temples or shrines while praying or reciting mantras). As most tourists come in the summer, the nomadic people rarely see westerners. We have become celebrities.
Zak, Rachel and I are in the middle of a crowd of jostling nomads from Eastern Tibet. Smooshed in on all sides, slowly shuffling forward. Babies strapped to backs with strips of cloth. Women with yak-fur lined jackets, long black hair braided with colourful strings and headdresses of turquoise, coral, yak bone. Men mumbling mantras, with thermoses of liquid yak butter to top-up the butter lamps in the temples.
We’ve climbed the 250+ steps up to Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, and now we’re trying to visit the inner temples. Our guide attempts to lead us forward, but none of us can move except in a slow shuffle.
Even when we’re inside the Palace, there are still more stairways to navigate. Steep stairways that look over a hundred years old … not that you can see the steps, you just follow the person in front of you, slowly climbing up or down the steps. We stand a good 6” or more taller than everyone else (Zak much more!) so while climbing up we also have to watch our heads on the low ceilings and doorways.
The guide tells us that in the summer, there are more tourists. But we’re visiting in winter, and we’re the only Westerners. The Tibetans surrounding us are pilgrims from Eastern Tibet. Most of these people are nomads, spending the summers with their animals (yaks, goats), but in the winter they make religious pilgrimages to the major Tibetan Buddhist sites. There are hundreds of them. And three of us.
I wake up in hotel bed in Xining, after sleeping off the 38 hours of traveling we have done from Hong Kong. What do I have to look forward to today? A party? Seeing family? Hanging with friends? Nope, another 22 hours on a train. But this will be no ordinary train journey…
Amanda and I make our way to the hotel’s breakfast lounge. We meet our friend Rachel, who has flown in from HK to join us on this next leg of our journey. We catch up over coffee and eggs, discussing our previous train trip and the journey ahead. We contemplate the tiny cabins, the many meals of pot-noodles and the strange feeling when traveling with so many people, yet not understanding or communicating with anyone… even so, I am really excited to be getting on this next train.
Amanda surprises me with various birthday cards that had arrived at our apartment in HK. I manage to connect on the internet and read a number of Birthday emails (thank you all), but unfortunately Facebook and China don’t play well together, so I will have to catch up with that later. We finish breakfast, ‘borrow’ the bread from the breadbasket and some fruit from the buffet (after all, man cannot survive on pot noodle alone) and prepare to head to the station.
Why so much excitement over another long train trip? Well, today, on my Birthday, we will be taking the highest train in the world, to Tibet!
This post is the second part of the Shenzen to Xining 33 hour train journey. You can read Part 1 here.
Last night we had instant noodles for dinner and a single-serving bottle of wine. We played gin rummy on our laps until it was almost lights out. At 10pm the train attendants went through the car telling everyone in the corridor to get into their bunks, and shortly afterwards turned out the lights on the train.
I slept on the bottom bunk, which had been used all day as a communal bench. Zak was on the top bunk, so close to the ceiling that he couldn’t sit up!
The big journey from Hong Kong to London began this morning. The first leg of the trip is one of the longest: a 33 hour train journey from Shenzhen (just across the border from Hong Kong) to Xining. And we have been expecting this journey to be the worst of the entire trip, because there were only “hard sleeper” class berths available.
Long-Distance Chinese trains have a few classes of tickets:
Deluxe soft sleeper – 2 person private cabin with locking door and private bathroom – only available on limited trains from major cities
Soft sleeper – 4 person cabin with locking door and shared bathroom
Hard sleeper – 6 person bunk room, no door, shared toilet at end of carriage – apparently this is best value for money and what most middle class Chinese take if they can afford it
Soft seat – a comfy seat, doesn’t lay flat
Hard seat – like it sounds … not comfortable.
Standing – never ever ever get this ticket – apparently people with standing tickets jostle to climb onto luggage racks or sit in the aisles!
Our plan was to take Soft Sleeper for the overnight journeys, and Soft Seats for the shorter daytime trips.
Unfortunately on this first train, only Hard Sleeper was available. The only other option that would work for our time schedule was flying from Hong Kong to Xining – and we weren’t going to do that! So Hard Sleeper it is.
Anyway, we’ve been saying that this would be the absolute worst journey, and it would only get better from here. I was imagining a carriage of 15+ bunk rooms, each with 6 berths, filled with smelly food, noisy people, crying kids, spitting, and not getting a lot of sleep.
We haven’t slept well all week. As you probably know when moving house, no matter how much you do in advance, there are always a million last-minute tasks that need your attention. Zillions of errands and appointments and things to buy and people to say goodbye to. So that’s normal house moving. On top of that we had “leaving the country” tasks, and then we had “plan the biggest trip we’ve ever taken” tasks too.
I guess you can imagine we’ve been busy. And a bit stressed.
24 hours ago, the to-do list felt never-ending. Now, it’s pretty much done.
The movers arrived this morning. 2 hours (and 33 boxes!) later, they left with all of our belongings save one small rolling suitcase each and a daypack. That’s it. For 10 weeks. So like it or not, we’re ready, and this trip is happening.
After the movers left, we did make a special effort to close out our time in Hong Kong. We made an offering at Man Mo Temple.
It’s December 29, 2017. Just over two weeks until we leave on our Hong Kong to London trip.
I feel like I’ve thrown a dozen balls into the air, and now I’m just waiting for them to come back down, hoping I’ll catch (most of) them.
Earlier this year I read a book by Lisa Rankin where she talks about being in “the space between stories” in your life. That phase between phases. When you’re not quite fitting in one or the other. That captures exactly how I feel right now. We’re leaving Hong Kong and the life we’ve made here … heading back to our old life in London, but it’s sure to be different, about to set out on an epic ten week trip … and right now is the pause before it all starts. In limbo.
The space between stories. And I’ve got all the feelings.
Too often we only hear the good things about travel. “Oh that sounds like an amazing trip! You’re so lucky!” — but the reality is always more complex. It’s not just a trip (which will not be all sunshine + roses all the time, for sure.) but we’re also relocating between continents. It’s a massive life upheaval. It’s required a ridiculous amount of planning. And stirred up all the feelings…
Two warm, sunny, gentle months of travel across China, riding horses on the blossoming Mongolian steppe, and finally the Trans-Siberian train, where we’d watch Siberia bloom into life, and frolic along the shores of Lake Baikal before enjoying early summer in Europe. (Not that we’d idealised the trip, mind you…)
But then … Zak’s leaving date was moved up to January.
In October 2017, we went to Myanmar (the country formerly known as Burma). This podcast is an experiment. It’s our attempt to bring you along on our journey as we take the slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan, and then explore some of the 2000+ temples in the area. It’s an audio documentary, like you might hear on NPR or BBC (although produced by us, so go easy on us!) – so you’ll want to get a cup of tea and settle in to join us on this 30 minute adventure.