Over the plains of heaven

Over the plains of heaven

I was living in Hong Kong at the time. Or rather I’d just been transfered to Sydney but managed to get a two month break in order to do an epic journey from Chengdu, skirting the Tibetan plateau north, west across the border with Mongolia and Russia and then south to Kashgar and across the Karakoram mountains into Pakistan. It was April 1993.

Almost 30 years later, I’ve dug up my old diary and scanned the photos and this is the story of that trip.

2nd April 1993, Guangzhou. Got woken up at 5.30am by the masses rising for breakfast in the ferry restaurant. The only place I could find to sleep was in a corridor so I wasn’t best pleased. Staggered out of the ferry for a bowl of noodles. Made it to the airport and despite an almighty scrap at check in managed to get on my flight to Chengdu. I had got the overnight ferry from Hong Kong to Guangzhou and flew to Chengdu because I guess it was cheaper. It certainly wasn’t easier by the sound of it and not the most auspicious of starts.

In Chengdu I checked into the Traffic Hotel and got a triple room with bath for 32 Yuan. In those days foreigners had to exchange dollars for FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates) and use these to pay for hotels but everywhere else I had to use the normal currency, Yuan. The exchange rate was supposed to be 1:1. In those days 100 Yuan = $17.3, so the hotel cost a whopping $5.50, adjusted for inflation that is $10 in 2020. I see on booking.com that rooms are currently priced from $15 but the place looks much brighter that what I remember.

The following day I went for a wander. Went to Renmin Park (now People’s Park) watched a 50’s style funfare, a tiny rollercoaster and had a tasty chicken and dumplings soup for 1.50Y (26c). Got back to the room to find a Swiss girl there! Many chinese hotels had rooms with three or more beds which they sold separately – sort of mini dorms. We went to the river to have a meal which included “Ants climbing trees” supposedly a local speciality. We met some foreign students from the local university.

Sichuan Science and Technology Museum
Renmin Park
Renmin Park
Renmin Park

Monday 5th April. Up at 5.45am Went to the bus station and got the bus to Songpan. First stretch cold and damp. Followed a raging torrent of a river lined with smoke belching factories. Fell asleep and woke up for a lunch stop. Very tasty dumplings, potatoes and meat. Air was much dryer we had obviously gained quite a bit in altitude. As we continued, the road got much worse. It had disappeared in places obviously the result of landslides. The weather also deteriorated to sleet. Arrived in Songpan at 7pm.

Checked into an unnamed hotel. Very bare room. No showers. Cleaning facilities were a row of taps outside and the toilets were horrendous. Went out for something to eat. Not sure what it was but it was OK. The owner was a friendly chap who used his Berlitz English-Chinese dictionary to almost communicate. He also brought out his local firewater which did the trick. Back at the hotel I needed the extra blankets as it was freezing. No one spoke any English but I found out there was a bus going north at 8am tomorrow so I decided to push on.

Songpan Hilton

Tuesday 6th April. Got to the bus station for a bus that didn’t appear. I eventually worked out the bus was on the 8th not 8am! And the bus only left if the weather wasn’t too bad and the road was clear. Apparently it was quite dangerous. Anyway, I was stuck here for another couple of days. Town wasn’t actually too bad, a market of sorts started up and a few Tibetan cowboys rode up the main street on their ponies. The sleet soon sent me back to the hotel and I went to bed at 6pm!

The following day the weather improved. I went to the bus station and managed to buy a ticket for the bus the following day. I even found out the time and cost without resorting to fingers or pointing to chinese characters in my book. I even managed to get a special travel permit which appearently I needed for Zoige. As the weather was good I walked out of town, across the river and saw some farmers tilling their fields with yaks. Met with quite a few “hellos” from across the narrow valley. I also saw a bus coming from the north. Hopefully that means the road is open for tomorrow. And met two foreigners. American students.


I haven’t mentioned the people. They are a motley crew. Quite a few older muslim men with scull caps. Tibetan women with green or red head-dresses with yellow balls on the outside. They don’t want their photos taken. The Tibetan men wear coboy hats and thick black coats, oddly often with one arm in a sleeve and one arm out. They have dark weatherbeaten faces. they seem quite friendly. There are quite a few generic Chinese. Some local tourists and some minority women with blue scarves on their heads and blue waistcoats.

main road Songpan

Thursday 8th April. Got on the bus which left not long after 8am. The road kept rising and snow on either side. Then it flattened out onto a broad treeless plain. Plenty of yaks on the ground and hawks circling above. We didn’t pass any habitation until arriving in Zoige in the early afternoon. Quite frankly Zoige was a bit of a pit consisting of low-rise concrete blocks.



Quite a few grubby looking Tibetans about – apparently they wash once a year and I could believe it. Mind you I wasn’t much better – after my Songpan experience I hadn’t taken my clothes off for three days! Apparently 90% of the people here are Golok Tibetans. I joined up with an English couple from the bus and we found some pool tables laid out by the side of the road. Locals very friendly and interested in us. It was even colder here than Songpan – apparently it’s at an altitude of 3600m. At least there is heating in the hotel until 11pm.

The following day I was up at 6am, freezing and pitch dark, by the time I got to the bus station at 7 it was light and I saw a lot of familiar faces from yesterday’s bus journey. This time the road was very dusty, descending from the mountains. The scenery was beautiful, rolling plains with herds of yaks and snow capped peaks in the background. For the first part of the journey I sat next to a young monk who had a walkman and was reading his sutras and chanting. Towards the end of the journey (8.5 hrs – I was getting tired of endless rough bus journeys with cardboard thin seats) we saw some interesting Tibetan villages built into the hillsides.

up for the early bus

Arrived in Hezuo about 3.30pm. Very dusty and spread out town, no one about. I checked into the Government Hostel (14Y each in a 3-bed room). Had a tasty meal in a muslim noodle restaurant. Seemed to be lamb amongst other things. I got back to the hotel to see a character I recognised from earlier in the day. He was a secret Policeman who had been following me and checking up on my whereabouts. In the hotel there was a tiny amount of heat in the radiators but hot water! not enough for a shower but I washed my hair and was able to change my clothes. I looked at myself in a mirror – not a pretty sight. Earlier I had found that my toothpaste was frozen.

The following morning I managed to have a lie in and had hot milk, eggs and porridge for breakfast. Caught the bus at 11.30 for the relatively short (4 hour) trip to Xiahe.

My diary says I stayed at the Xiahe Binguan (Binguan just means hotel, I can’t find it on google now so I don’t know where it is) – a good place but way out of town, the owner said it had been the summer palace for the living Buddha. The walls were all intricately painted and carved. I booked into a three bed dorm only just bigger than the three beds (11Y). Then off to town. an absolutely fascinating place, full of trinket shops selling knives, bracelets, perfume bottles and all sorts of things to the pilgrims. there were also shops selling Chinese herbal products (including dried ground tiger penises) and animal skins. A number of little restaurants had boards in English, obviously there were a few foreign tourists about and I bumped into some. At the hotel I had a hot shower – AAAHHHHH!! The first hot shower since Chengdu. Absolute heaven. The bedspread was not thick but lovely and warm and I slept well.


The next day I went to see the highlight of town: The Labrang Monastery What a place! Fascinating. Especially the great hall with the smell of yak butter candles and where the monks were chanting in front of giant Buddhas. While I was wandering, I got the shock of my life to hear booming horns. There were two monks on the roof of the monastery on enormous Swiss horns.

Labrang Monastery

Just outside there was a large square ringed with prayer wheels. I joined the pilgrims. I’m not sure what I was praying for. Maybe more hot showers.


After the monastery I went back into town for a mooch. I sat down on some steps and wrote some postcards in the sun. As always a crowd had gathered to watch what I was doing. I noticed that I had something in common with all the kids gathered around, a runny nose. Constant sniffing seems to be a way of life here for the kids. I’ve also got chapped lips and will no doubt be sunburned tonight.

Following day got up at 5.30am. Still dark and the tricycle didn’t show as promised so I had to walk to the station. Got there with 2 minutes to spare. An uneventful 8.5 hours later arrived in Lanzhou.

Took a minibus from the station and booked in at Lanzhou Fandian Hotel. Was looking forward to spending a bit more and having my own bath. However, a dorm room (3 beds) was 20Y and next price up was 150Y there was no contest. Very disappointing that the foreigners’ room was hidden away in the west wing and the toilets were smelly and showers apparently downstairs. At least the room was warm. From here I was headed west, Tibetan plateau to the south and the Gobi desert to the north. To Jiuquan. I walked down to the train station expecting failure and found it. A tout offered me a ticket on a slow train – leaving at 7.40pm, arriving midnight the following day. 28 hours as opposed to the 18 stated in my Lonely Planet. The ticket window woman typically offered me just a hard seat. I really couldn’t be bothered with the hassle. I’ll try again later.

I left the station and walked down to the markets. Very interesting indeed but felt at a low ebb – probably mid-travel syndrome – too much travel and not enough time to enjoy places. Perked up a bit as I walked. This market had the most diverse food stalls I had encountered. Had some sort of sausage sandwich. Walking back to the hotel I found another market and a Tianjin dumpling restaurant. I couldn’t resist the delicious dumplings washed down with a couple of beers. After the Tibetan plateau I noticed that a lot of people here have European features and also a lot of muslims.

Tomorrow I’ll have another go at the train station.

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