Friday, 13 July 2012
Day 108 – Banana plantations, the Tropic of Cancer, the Tibetan Plateau and the Gobi Desert (China)
Unfortunately we haven’t had much opportunity to blog since arriving in China two weeks ago. We knew we had a tight itinerary because of the change in route taking us to Kazakhstan instead of through Tibet to Nepal, but we hadn’t quite realised just how tired it would make us. We’re averaging seven hours of driving per day, after thirteen days, with a couple of ten hour days in there. We’ve also been camping all except three nights, which obviously means no internet access.
During this time though we have managed to cover about 5,000km and almost 20 degrees of latitude, witnessing an incredible amount of changes in landscape, architecture, climate and culture in such a short space of time.
Entering China from Laos we noticed the landscape change immediately from rice fields and jutting cliff faces, to banana, tea and tobacco plantations spread over rolling hills and gentle valleys. Driving through the Yunnan Province on our first couple of days we saw some of the most exceptional scenery that any of us have ever seen before.
Then we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, glad to finally be out of the tropics after three very sweaty months. At this point we were up in some mountains which if it was winter, would be covered in snow. At this time of year however, it is summer and it’s still pretty warm. Much to our delight though, we started experiencing chilly evenings and had quite a lot of rain. It’s been a while since we’ve been in rain that makes you colder instead of hotter and stickier. As annoying as it is to have everything in the car drenched and muddy, and have to do a stop at a service station every morning to pack up properly under some shelter, it is very refreshing to have a change in climate after the tropics.
After a few days of chilliness and a bit of moderate warmth in the afternoons, we came back down off the mountains to Chengdu. Chengdu is a city in the valley, with a population of 11 million, and in summer it gets very hot. So with all our rugged up-ness from the morning and most of the afternoon, we arrived on the outskirts of the city to realise it was pretty warm now. By the time we made our way through traffic, stuffed around looking for accommodation, realised we couldn’t find any and drove to a camping spot, it was getting pretty stinky.
The main thing to do in Chengdu is visit the Panda Research Base, so with the limited time that we have because of our very tight schedule (this is so frustrating – completely defeating the purpose of driving! But unfortunately we have no option for China) we camped in the car park overnight, and spent a couple of hours there in the morning. It definitely wasn’t long enough, but it was very enlightening. We discovered through observation of habitat, activities, diet, mating rituals and appearance that Denner is actually descended from pandas.
That same day we saw one of the things that makes this route change slightly more bearable. The Terracotta Warriors. This site is pretty phenomenal. There are a couple of pits where the pieces have been excavated, but the main one that is set up for us to look at is incredible. Positioned as if they are ready for war, there are thousands of life sized terracotta warriors, each one individually modelled on the image of a specific warrior of the time, the detail extending all the way to their unique hairstyles and footwear.
From there we headed back up into the mountains, feeling the temperature dropping again. Rising to an altitude of 4,000m, we found ourselves in the Tibetan Plateau which makes Yunnan look like my back garden. We couldn’t help but continuing to stop and look at yaks running across the hillside, being herded by locals in traditional dress, tents covered in paintings and symbols dotted across the valleys. Mountains topped with snow and surrounded by clouds were up in the distance, while the sun shimmered on fields of bright yellow flowers in the valleys. Actually I can’t even consider doing this area justice with words. Up there it was cold, but the sun was bright and warm.
When we came down out of this area, we drove towards the Jiayuguan Great Wall Pass and quickly found ourselves in some pretty arid land. Unlike the desert in Australia though, this one is continuous rock formations and small hills and valleys, the road winding between them. The interesting thing though is that the Chinese are working very hard on turning it into arable land, so although it’s desert, there are artificially planted trees in places, and groups of workers tending to crops. Right there in the middle of the desert.
The second thing that made us slightly more content with our route change, was that we’d be able to visit the Great Wall of China. The part we got to see is completely rebuilt and only 100m long, but the great thing was that we were the only tourists there at the time.
And then we drove out into the heart of the Gobi Desert, where it is just yellow sand, cracked ground, dry rocks and rolling dunes for as far as the eye can see. We visited the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang, where due to an unfortunate misunderstanding we ended up in a Chinese tour group. So we don’t really know anything about them, but they’re really old and really colourful and very culturally significant.
And this is where we are now, revving ourselves up for another ten hour drive through the desert today.
The very interesting thing about driving North West at such a rate is that our evenings are getting longer and longer. Driving North they should be anyway, as it’s Northern Hemisphere summer, but the most ridiculous thing is the fact that although China should encompass three time zones, they have chosen to have only one. When we cross into Kazakhstan, we will lose two hours.