Backpacker's Tale Competition

Each month we give away a free game to the person who e-mails us the most unusual, funny or exotic travelling tale.

Please send your story to and include a photograph from your trip.

 

This months winner: Mark Gascoigne (London, UK)

The Hitchhikers guide to Western Tibet: The Road to Shangri-La

The Hitchhikers guide to Western Tibet: The Road to Shangri-La

Whilst in Kashgar, we hatched a crazy plan to hitch to Lhasa, through remote Western Tibet via Mt Kaliash, stopping off on the way to see the ancient Gouge Kingdom at Tholing (one of the most probable location for the mythical Shangri-La).

It was easy enough to get from Kashgar to Yecheng, the place where Xinjiang-Tibet highway starts (a great name for a road that's mainly a dirt track). From Yechang we intended to hitch to Ali, the Western gateway to Tibet. There's no public transport, it's very remote (no proper villages for 1000km apart from a few truck stops and army bases), the road is officially closed to foreigners as it crosses an area in dispute between China and India and it is said to be the highest road in the world (3 passes well over 5200m+)... but we thought we’d give it a go.

We had been in Yechang for 5 minutes when we were offered a lift in a land cruiser by a local Mr. Fix-It with dodgy orange jacket and Hitler haircut. It would leave in 2 hours at 7pm the same day and we would be in Ali in 2 days time. Great, we thought...

We finally left at 11.30pm, only to have a spotlight shined in our face and be turned back at the first police check point where they confiscated our driver's driving licence!

It took another day and a half for Jin’ll Fix-It to arrange another land cruiser – in which we were joined by 2 trendy young Chinese music journalists from Beijing (travelling with the latest video camera, digital camera, mobile phone and laptop!), a Korean girl, a Uyghur man from Urumchi and 3 Chinese soldiers (a bit of a squeeze).

In short: instead of 48 hours, our trip took 5 days, our jeep got stuck in deep mud twice and broke down 6 times (the last time for good), the Chinese army passengers nearly beat up our poor Uyghur driver who couldn't do much and didn't speak much Chinese (we both had to interfere to calm them down). We spent 2 nights in Chinese army bases and 2 nights sleeping out in the Jeep, high on the Tibetan Plateau, freezing our butts off well above 5000m. It’s so empty and quiet that you can see and hear the 2 trucks the might chance along the road that night, ages before they reach you and you start to get a bit worried when they don’t stop at all to help.

After abandoning the Land cruiser we finally reached Ali by hitching a lift in an old shaky Beijing jeep (whose doors kept opening at each bump!) with 3 friendly locals feeding us apples and biscuits and the driver racing like Michael Schumacher. I guess there’s not a lot to hit!

A tough start, yes, but what a spectacular road taking us from the grey rocky Takla Makan desert to the high Tibetan plateau driving past beautiful snowy peaks, turquoise lakes and amazing brown, purple, yellow hills!

In Ali we were tracked down by the PSB (Police Security Bureau) who first made us pay a fine for not having a permit (25 pounds) and then made us buy the permit (5 pounds) whilst testing us on the delicate political situation. (PSB: Do you know the Dalai Lama? US: Hmm...yes, he's in India, isn't he? PSB: He's the enemy of the Chinese people and wants to make war with China!!! US: Oh???)...

Our next challenge was to get out of Ali (an ugly booming Chinese settlement with more open sewers and prostitutes than anywhere else in the country) and we got really worried when we met 3 young American Christian missionaries (in a Buddhist country!) who had been trying to leave for a week with no luck at all!

After 1 and a half day of fruitless hitching we stopped an army convoy (we seemed to attract those!) and jumped on the back of the last empty truck driven by 3 friendly soldiers heading for Tholing, in the heart of the ancient Gouge Kingdom (Shangri-La). Five hours later we stopped for lunch, but the Captain of the convoy had however heard about our presence and ordered us out of the truck to leave us literally in the middle of nowhere, (we had passed no settlement since we had left Ali). We started pleading with a smiley soldier who was translating: "We’ve got nothing to eat" (we had bagfuls of Chinese instant noodles)…. "We've got nowhere to sleep"' (we had a tent)... "If you leave us here we're going to DIE!... at least take us back to Ali". "Vely solly, vely solly" the Chinese soldier kept saying and grinning at the same time. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so in a last attempt, we pointed out that "if you leave us to die here our government will be very angry with China and make trouble"– Yeah right! It must have worked, as the Captain immediately ordered a truck to drive us back to where they picked us up in Ali!

After only 5 km on the way back, our drivers stopped suddenly and asked for USD 200 to drive us to Tholing, our original destination! After an hour of drawing numbers in the dirt we managed to bargain the price down to USD 100 and we were off again!

As darkness set in, we drove through a dry river bed of a beautiful sandy canyon with strange rock formations and lots of caves. Suddenly we noticed that our driver was freewheeling downhill! Oh no! Oh yes: we were running out of petrol. "It's not far, just around the corner" we were told…. After pushing the truck up small inclines and coasting down the other side for half an hour, we eventually worked out through phrase book questioning that Tholing was still 40km away!!...and they expected the truck to be pushed that far!!!

As it was now pitch dark and we were again far away from all civilisation and traffic was non-existent, we decided to pitch our tent and spend the night there and then, waiting for another vehicle to come to our rescue. At 3am, another truck turned up, gave us petrol, we packed our tents and finally made it to Tholing, where the only accommodation on offer was, you guessed it, the Chinese army guesthouse.

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