Sunday, 10 February 2013

How it all started.....

In early 2012, I decided to book a long haul vacation.  Now, I believe that most people when considering such a trip, start by deciding which countries they'd like to visit, that certainly seemed to be the expectation at last week's Destinations travel show.  Well, as my parents would say, I never did things the 'normal' way.  Indeed, they'd argue I've always actively rejected 'normal' and tried to do things differently.  Anyway, I started my vacation planning by searching for something challenging and unusual and ended up stumbling upon the highest railway in the world, the Qinghai-Tibet railway.

The Qinghai–Tibet railway (青藏鐵路) is a high-elevation railway that connects Xining in Qinghai Province to Lhasa in the Tibet Autonomous Region.  It is 1,956km in length and passes through both the Tanggula Pass which, at 5,068m (16,627ft) is the world's highest railway station and through the Fenghuoshan tunnel, the highest railway tunnel in the world at 4,905m (16,093ft).  More than 960 km (80%) of the Golmod-Lhasa section, is at an elevation of more than 4,000 m (13,123 ft). There are 675 bridges, totalling 159.88 km (99.34 mi), and about 550 km (340 mi) is laid on permafrost.
Now, as the daughter of a Civil and Structural Engineer (my Dad) and an previous engineering student myself, a trip on this railway seemed to fit the bill.  I eventually booked on an Explore trip called 'Railroad to Lhasa' that began in Beijing, travelling by train across China before heading into Tibet on the Qinghai railway.
As those who've known me for a while will contest, I was rather naiive about this trip.  Firstly, I knew nothing about China or Tibet when I booked and therby had no appreciation of how difficult it would be to obtain the Chinese and Tibetan visas.  In the end my Chinese visa was rejected about 9 times before it was accepted.  Each time it was the presence of Tibet on my itinerary that caused the issues.  I have no idea how it eventually got through but about 3 weeks before my sceheduled departure it was issued and the trip was 'on'.  By this time, if I am honest, my excitement about the trip was at an all time low.  I wanted little or nothing to do with China after all the grief but decided I'd got this far so should continue so boarded the Air China plane to Beijing and set off.
My Air China flight gave me an interesting introduction to China as, literally 5 minutes after takeoff, the two rows of Chinese seated in front of me started a shouting match in front of me, in rapid and increasingly loud Mandarin.  It was only when the offended party got really mad and screamed at the top of her lungs in English 'your feet stink' that I began to understand the cause of the kerfuffle - the woman in the row in front of me had taken off her shoes and was 'infecting' the row in front with toxic fumes.  At this point I had to seriously bite my lip to stop myself giggling.  Eventually, the offending party was persuaded to put her shoes back on and we all progressed in relative peace (the Chinese are never truly silent).
Anyway, I arrived safely in Beijing, transferred to the group meeting point and was introduced to my roommate for the next 3 weeks, Joy.  I couldn't have wished for a better roommate; Joy was as chatty as me and from the get go, we started sharing stories and experiences.  Joy had a kind of inner peace with her life and herself that I have always sought but never really achieved.  The more we spoke, the more I realised that there things I was doing with my life that were merely 'going through the motions'.  I wasn't really living life to the full and many of things I wanted to do I was avoiding because they fell into the 'too hard' bucket or the 'what will people think of me' bucket.  The journey across China progressed, day by day, but the niggles in my head were following me around.  We took alot of long train and bus journeys and I think this gave me valuable thinking time. 
The point at which things started to feel less blurry was Xiahe (Chinese: 夏河Tibetan: བསང་ཆུ་), a county in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (Gansu Province).  It is the seat of the famed Labrang Tibetan Buddhist monastery. 

It's a very rural place.  There is a main street through the town that is roughly half a mile long and apart from that there's not alot there other than Yak.  It was the first place we'd stayed for any real duration and we had alot of free time there which helped.  It was very rainy and cold so alot of time was spent in the bar - always good for thinking :)  We left the town a couple of days later and were driving through the mountains, passing Yak herders and locals on their motorbikes. 

It was beautiful scenery but I had my eyes shut and my ears plugged into my iPod listening to Linkin Park.  I remember our guide, Rich, pelting me with something to, in his words, 'wake me up' as he believed it was heinous to miss seeing such beautiful scenery.  Personally, I just wanted time to think.  About 5 minutes later, we arrived at the high point and saw the Ganja Grasslands.  They were spectacular:

It's hard to explain, but the peace and quiet and the beautiful scenary of Tibet seemed to be infiltrating my mind and calm me down.  In the UK my work had been affecting me in a negative way, causing me to be continually on edge and cause health issues, particulalry constant backache.  It was so refreshing to feel a million miles from it, with absolutely no phone signal and nothing more to focus on that getting from A to B.  I could literally feel the tension slipping away, limb by limb.  After a long days drive, we arrived in Xining and jumped on the night train to Lhasa. 
The train to Lhasa was nothing short of spectacular.  A certain commaraderie develops between people when they're enclosed in a confined space together for long periods.  We were divided up between various berths, mixing with various combinations of Chinese and Tibetans.  I was in the middle bunk of my berth and the other sleepers found my acrobatic skills hilarious as I continually swung myself into and out of the bunk.  I quickly discovered that most Chinese and Tibetan women take the expensive lower bunks as their legs aren't long enough to reach the other berths.  We had some very odd men in our berth.  One did random shaking movements every hour, on the hour, almost like he was having a fit, whilst another insisted on sitting in his baggy white Y-fronts - nice!! ;)  To top this, our berth was next to the communal sinks and, if any of you have travelled with Chinese/Tibetans, you'll know how they love to hack frequently to clear their system.  The sound for me, is like nails down a blackboard, but just like squat loos, they're something you have to live with if travelling to this region.
After 24 hours of not alot of sleep, lots of beer and masses of junk food (you name it - nuts, crisps, chocolate, noodles, gummy sweeets) we arrived in Lhasa train station:
This is when the fun really started.  I'm not sure if you've ever been to an occupied country but at the time we visited, the Chinese military presence in Lhasa was very pronounced.  There was no internet access, no access to our mobile phones, listening devices in the bars and restaurants and lots of tanks and police around.  We couldn't stay in our scheduled hotel due to an 'incident' there earlier in the day and were moved to the new Mandala Hotel instead.  Despite all these challenges, our local guide, Denzing (the guy in shades in pic below), was cheerful, optimistic and informative.  He was obliged to accompany us at all times, even shopping, something as an alpha male he didn't exactly enjoy.  Whatever he did, he did with a smile and a cheeky wink, often talking in semi code to get around the restrictions.

Lhasa was a spectacular place and the Potala Palace and Summer Palace, well they speak for themselves:

On our last morning in Lhasa, Joy and I visited the Dickey Orphanage with Rich, our guide.  Rich supports the orphanage from his own wages.  A couple of years ago he won Explore's tour leader of the year award and gave his prize money to the orphanage.  The Dickey Orphanage was setup by a lady who used to sell cigarettes on the roadside.  She realised, late in life, that she wanted to leave a better legacy to the world and sold all her belongings to start the orphanage.  She now runs it with her son and volunteers.  The orphanage is unsupported by the state and so is funded purely through donations.  As a group we'd generated a donation and went to hand it over in person.

We took a cab to Sera Monastery and walked the rest of the way.  We tried asking for directions but people seemed to deny the orphanage's existence.  We eventually found it right on the outskirts of town, tucked away down a dirt track.  After much knocking on the metal gates, we were met by the owner and welcomed inside.  The children were so welcoming and friendly and quickly had us giving them piggy backs and playing games.  Two girls showed me to their dorimitory and beds.  They were so proud of their pink, girly rucksacks and school books.  It was Children's Day, a public holiday, so there was cake and games in the courtyard that day and then Joy and I were gathered amongst them for a picture:

It was the trip to Dickeys that planted the idea in my head about volunteering.  I returned to work in London, 5 days later, and immediately spoke to my boss about my options.  I could apply for 12 weeks unpaid leave but somehow I knew in my heart that I needed the freedom to plot myself a new route and the tie of returning to my job wouldn't deliver that.  I spoke with my family about resigning and travelling / volunteering for a period.  Understandably they were cautious, they wanted to know if it was just a phase and I'd not enjoy travelling alone.  We agreed that I should try a solo trip and then decide so, 9 weeks after Lhasa I returned to China for a solo train adventure.  In the intervening 9 week period I had found myself an accounting volunteer role at the local homeless shelter, The Passage, and was finding immense satisfaction in helping them with their accounts.  I think my friends and family knew the outcome before I went to China the second time.  I came back even more enthusiastic and set about working out my options. 

A friend put me in touch with Accounting for International Development (AfiD) and I applied for a position overseas, as a volunteer accountant.  As the AfiD team would tell you my initial objective was to do a 6 week volunteer placement, see if I like it, and then try a longer placement later.  However, I was quickly contacted about a longer term role at SolarAid in Zambia that had become available.  I took the plunge and quit my job at John Lewis in November.  The day I resigned I read an interesting Chinese proverb, which translated, reads: "Horses never eat the grass behind them".  Essentially, it encourages you to never look back.  So, I guess the rest is history.....I leave for Lusaka, Zambia on Friday.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Good luck with this, and I hope you can keep us posted on how it goes :-)