The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Friday, March 26, 2010

From Babushkas to Baba Ganoush

After receiving a heroes welcome by travelers and hostel owners in Irkutsk and waving goodbye to our fellow ice warriors it was time to board the Trans-Siberian and chug our way to Europe. Four days (86 hours) sitting on a train is as long as it sounds, not helped by the monotony of the landscape – 5185 km of flat white plains sprinkled with birch trees. But as we passed through the nothingness and blizzards of Siberia we weren't completely void of entertainment. Babushka (Granny) Victoria was our cabin mate for the entire journey. A small owl like lady with a sprinkling of gold teeth that managed to boss us around non stop, despite a complete language barrier; 'don't lay your head at that end of the bed', 'you must put your bed away now', 'get me some tea', 'wash my mugs', 'take your shoes off' and 'put more warm clothes on'. Tiring at times, by the end we were quite fond of our adopted Babushka, especially since we showed her the map of our trip and she beamed her gold teeth and gave us an enthusiastic double thumbs up. Other Russians came and went from the cabin, a glamorous lady, a stocky mountain man type and a young guy from the far East who had already been married 3 times and seemed determined to get us drunk. Each left with what we suspected was an earful of wisdom from Victoria after some heated discussions and occassional 'yes Babushka, no Babushka'.

Stepping off the train in Moscow was an exciting moment as we re-entered Europe after 14 months away. Unfortunately the crossing of the Ural's didn't yet bring balmier weather. Only after 2 days of wandering around in -8 degrees did we start to realize why the streets of Moscow are suspiciously empty. Rush hour seemed to be the only time people were forced to go outside, but even then bundles of furs, huge collars and high heels darted between heated underpasses, bars and gaudy metro stations faster than the animals they're wearing. But this eerie lack of people could not detract from the gold domed historical splendour of the city. The highlight, by a long way, was the exhibit of the Tsars' treasure in the Kremlin. Where else in the world can you see 1,000 year old battle helmets alongside priceless sleighs for princess' that were designed to be pulled by dwarves? The opulence of Russia's past did not fail to entertain.

If there's one conclusion we took from our Trans-Siberian experience it was that Russia is vast, more vast and full of nothingness than you can really comprehend. The saying 'you cannot understand Russia, you can just believe in her' suddenly made perfect sense as we questioned how on earth those in the far East of the country could feel at all related to those in the West. But somehow they do. A mutual love of vodka, cold meats, kebabs and a constant battle with the elements seems to unite these people more than most nations in Europe. The fact that Russian's are so fiercely Russian is an extremely attractive quality. They are not trying to be America, or China, or Europe, but do their own thing in a refreshingly no bullshit way.

After a quick 2 days in Moscow we rode the 26 hour train to the Ukraine. Snow gradually melted, the landscape turned brown and everything looked a bit more depressing. From the train, the Ukraine looked like a country that has battled hard for independence and then not quite known what to do with it. On pulling into the graffiti ridden, run down and grey suburbs of the black sea resort Odessa, I was slightly concerned about where on earth I had made my little sis come to visit us. But Odessa is not like the Ukraine we witnessed from our train. The mafia run this place and consequently its wealthy and glamorous, but with plenty of seedy roughness around the edges. From watching Madam Butterfly at the beautifully ornate Opera House to the sexy cave girl dancing with seals at the dolphinarium to stocky women with beards chopping up carcasses at the huge food market, Odessa was an ecelctic joy.

Yet however good the Ukrainian's are at cold beers, meats and mafia fueled luxury living, they quickly proved to be completely useless when it comes to a ferry service. We planned to hop down to Istanbul across the Black Sea on the regular ferry service that boasted all your meals as well as discotheque and cabaret lounge. Instead, 12 hours of sitting on the dock was followed by 48 hours of going at a miserable 4 knots meaning Luce missed 2 flights and we got into Istanbul seasick, cold and a bit miserable. But that's all behind us now and its time to look onwards and upwards. Nick's Dad and Hils met us off the boat and the last 2 days have been filled with feasting and buying bike parts in bazaars, in a city we will definitely one day return to. All in all its been perfect preparation for the 2,300 mile bike ride ahead. Tomorrow we will set off on our loaded tandem across the Golden Horn and cycle across Europe through at least 9 countries. It's a long awaited moment. Carlos is fully loaded and every mile covered is one closer to home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Colder, harder and more brutal

The moment of stepping on the train in Beijing was momentous. It was the moment where we recrossed our path from September last year and started making progress towards Hyde Park again. There would be no more weaving back and forth round the deserts and mountains of Asia. It was time to head home.

The train groaned and grumbled North through steep valleys lined with frozen rivers before emerging onto endless white Mongolian steppes dotted with solitary gers and fur clad herdsmen. From there we finally crossed into Russia and turned West towards Lake Baikal. We knew it was getting colder outside because after Ulan Batuur whenever we flushed the loo out onto the tracks below a frozen cloud of steam erupted through the pan. Luckily, the cabins were as warm as the hospitality of our Russian companions who welcomed us in for smoked fish in their compartment as we saw the first glimpses of the lake. Sergei looked intensely at me and said simply, 'What do you think of beer?'. Unsure about the depth of response this question required I simply nodded, at which his face erupted into a huge grin and he brought over 2 large bottles that were dispensed into jam jars, coffee mugs and medicine measuring cups to toast our travels and imminent marathon.

Getting off the train in Irkutsk to meet up with Tim, Eoin and Grainne the breath was knocked out of us. The thermometer read -15 degrees centigrade and the cold stole the heat from toes, ears, noses and fingers with terrifying speed. Not only did the frozen air take our breaths away but so did the fact we appeared to have stepped into a James Bond film – full length fur coats, fur hats, long slick hair, big make up and 6 inch stilletho heels seemed to be the norm for every woman on the streets of Irkutsk.After being surrounded by small Asian people for 6 months seeing tall white people everywhere was a shock to the system. It took a good 12 hours to stop thinking we must know these people or they must be able to speak English, just because they had the same faces as our own. We boarded the minibus to Listvyanka on the shore of Lake Baikal with high spirits, but a suitable undertone of nerves. The ice marathon was in 2 days time.

But signs were good when we arrived at the lakeside resort. We were shown into a traditional Siberian wooden cottage with newly stoked wood burner, ancient Soviet kitchen and bedlinen, frozen (broken) toilet and it's own banya complete with sticks to beat yourself with as you sweated away. You realise that when the weather is this cold, you need to do heat well. We could have sat around in our pants it was so warm and Alexandrey's mother regularly bustled in with more wood to ensure we were toasty.

The day before the race we briefly ventured onto the ice to try out our gear. Layer upon layer of clothing to cover as much skin as possible. Thermals, fleeces, windproof jackets, neckwarmers, balaclavas, hats, multiple socks. Luckily the Yaktrax shoe grippers seemed to work a treat and we jogged across the sheet ice feeling pretty confident. Seeing the people hacking triangles out of the metre thick ice to go diving simply confirmed this was a place for lunatics. It also didn't take long to realise what an epic undertaking this was. Crystal clear sheet ice spanning into the distance as far as the eye can see until it meets a frosty blue horizon is one of the most breathtaking sights of the trip.

The briefing the night before was the chance to meet other competitors and was everything we could have hoped for. The event was managed by Alexei; a mustachioed Russian who had the perfect balance of folklore, impatience, wry smile and respect. He would say things like 'Baikal living animal, we can never know what will happen' and explained how 'many earthquakes every day' and so 'often some cracks. Just use common sense rule'. The mostly rather serious German competitors alternately huffed and puffed at the lack of fixed info, with Alexei unmoved. On discussion of the weather he explained they consulted 5 very technical weather stations, but also, 'some special people in village who come out of house, look at sky and birds and make good understanding'. -15 degrees and clear skies were to be the order of the day. Alarmingly though he did mention that there would be around a foot of snow on the far side of the lake where we started.

Next morning all feeling pretty good and with the promised beautiful clear day. We all downed a shot of frozen vodka and then 5 hovercrafts took us over the ice to the far side of the lake. We soon began to realise quite how big the lake is. 646km long, 1647m deep and it holds one fifth of worlds fresh unfrozen water (more than the five Great Lakes combined). The hovercrafts set off on sheet ice on the finish side, but gradually patches of windswept snow built up. Everyone gradually went quieter and quieter as we had been thumping along for over half an hour and had not even reached halfway yet. By the time we got to other side I hopped out to have a final pee and sunk more than a foot deep into the snow. I stumbled, sinking deep into the snow over to Hol only to see that she was casually stood on top of the unbroken crust. Bugger. Back in the hovercrafts to keep warm we wait for 30 minutes before being cajoled out of warm jackets and heated cocoons for 40 or so people line up. Alexei stood up and rapidly explained that 'Caterpillar was meant to crush snow track for running. It broke.... GO!'. A brilliant strategy to stop people complaining, and soon a line of people is strung out ahead. Incredibly, some runners managed to go sprinting off, but I was left slipping and sliding in the thick snow and suddenly it dawned on me quite what we had got in for.

I had a nice race plan to try and get to half way (21km) feeling within myself and then press on the for the second half and see what happens. However, the thick snow put a halt to any hope of that as my legs ached, my lungs struggled for breath and it took what felt like an age even for the first 5km marker to come around. Quickly, I went from thinking of putting in a good time to just finishing the race. Eoin was in the distance seeming to skip over the snow with elven abandon, and I also waved Tim off ahead as I knew I had to get some kind of pace I could last at. Suddenly, my head was filled with questions of ruining my knees for the ride home, worrying about how Hol would cope behind me, whether I should just do the half marathon. The impossibility of getting any kind of rhythm had caused any confidence to evaporate in a puff of frozen breath and the last 4 weeks of no training seemed foolhardy. I set my sight on the next food stop at 14km and slipped and stomped onwards as the competitors spread out around me.

By the time I had got to 14km and the second feed station I had settled on just completing the race and so stopped for longer for some strong black tea, energy gel and dried fruit. Feeling a bit merrier after that I aimed for half way which came around all too slowly. Luckily the snow begun to thin and patches of ice began to make the going easier. Jogging painfully into the half way point, the women in the hovercraft looked alarmed and another competitor started taking photos of me. My face felt pretty slow to move and like it was made of honey that had been left in the fridge. I looked in the hovercraft mirror and saw it was covered in ice. My nose had a large stalagmite of snot hanging from it and my right eye was pretty much frozen closed. She made me painfully wipe it off with a hanky and I plodded on. A few km later though both my quads seized up over the course of ten painful steps. Crouching exhausted and alone on the ice in the middle of Baikal was a memorable moment. Nobody else in sight, the ice stretching off in all directions. I looked down through a metre of crystal clear ice riven with cracks and there is just an incredible deep, deep blue below. As if to salute the moment, the ice suddenly makes a huge booming, splintering groan beneath me. Alexei had explained that cracks can appear at any time. I wasn't about to hang around to test him.

I got up and started stomping/power walking and trying to swing my arms to keep blood in them. With knees unable to handle more than around 75m of running without seizing up, there was little I could but stomp on. With 14km to go Hol whizzed up in a hovercraft with a beaming face having finished the half marathon. It made me feel so much better to know she had done it and was safe and warm and, judging by her face, very happy. What a legend. How many people would come out here and do this kind of thing with their other half I pondered as she zoomed off again to the finish? I'm a lucky man.

The final two hours were more stomping and stumbling with parts of my body gradually going numb. Without being able to run and the sun beginning to dip, my body temperature dropped and hands, nose, ears all began to lose feeling once and for all. You could see hotel at the finish from around 2 hours out, but slowly it inched closer. Despite thinking I would not be tired having not been able to run the whole thing, when I crossed the line I suddenly collapsed completely frozen and broken. My face wouldn't function and my speech was slurred. Hol helped me inside, whipped off my gloves and I sat comatose on the floor of the hotel lobby. Trying to force water down I started throwing up and realised that maybe I had put in enough to be content with the effort. Painfully I kept throwing up for the next 3 hours, unable to keep anything down.The main shame was not being able to take advantage of the free meat stew and I also missed getting to see Hol collect her medal. Along with Grainne, she came 3rd in the half marathon!!!!!!!! What a result.
Her knee had been almost unwalkable on for the last few days but running through soft snow must have done it some good and it decided to fix itself from the start line. This was such a relief that Hol pretty much smiled the whole 2 hours 59 minutes of her race. Eoin had come 4th with top foreign finisher in 4hr10m, Ginger had come in at 4h50m and I had struggled in in 16th place at 5h14m. Humbled, broken and vomiting it felt like we had all done something pretty special and that Siberia and Lake Baikal are things to respect.

The rest of our time in Listvyanka was spent wandering the town's street eateries and loving Siberia. The fresh smoked omul fish with cold beers, giant shashlik kebabs and multiple bottles of Baikal vodka all got taken down with a hunger worthy of our recent exploits. We even squeezed in some skiing for an afternoon on perfectly snowy and empty slopes overlooking the lake. The atmosphere in the town was all the better as it was a national holiday. The Russians at play have a great set up. Wrapped head to toe in warm furs, hats and jackets they filled their time having giant outdoor picnics, towing each other round the icy lake in their cars, drinking, ice skating, doing doughnuts in their hovercrafts and generally enjoying the finer things in life. There have been so many brilliant moments of surreal Russian life. Just snapshots of exactly what you imagine the country should be like.

Popping out for a pee from our little cottage I spied a large bosomed man silently smoking a cigarette outside the banya in a small towel. -30 degrees in the dark Siberian night? No bother. Then you spot someone spiralling their lada in loops on the lake as the sun goes down next to a women walking onto the frozen lake in immaculate furs and knee length high heel boots. The glamour, white faces and cold have all been shocks in equal measure. The stories of Russians being dour, inhospitable and grumpy has yet to be proven. So far people have been incredible. Interested, smiling, welcoming. Moscow may prove to be different, but then London isn't exactly the friendliest place for a tourist who speaks no English. 2 months or so until we are planning to roll back into London. The pace has upped now we're tearing across Russia, but I think it is somewhere we are going to come back to. Roll on Europe...

If you are interested in what we wore on our feet then check out Yaktrax. These things strap onto the soles of your shoes and meant we could skip around on ice and snow without falling flat on our faces. The Russians who won it seemed to have some advanced sliding technique, but for normals these were like wearing running spikes on ice. Genius...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Living the expat dream in Shanghai

Getting a call from an old mate Shawry saying he was working in Shanghai for 6 months couldn't have been better timed. We were in the thick of the no-heating Nepali winter with filthy clothes, chilblains and were low on money. Our visit to see Chris for a week became a beacon of warmth and hospitality between a frozen Tibet and an even more frozen Russia.

After spending 50 hours with our noses pressed into the ceiling of a train from Lhasa, we were always going to be a little spun out on arrival. However, we were still totally unprepared for what awaited us. We jumped in a taxi as it took us toward Chris' flat. Our instructions were to 'Just ignore the useless security guard on the gate' and then 'walk past reception like you own the place'. Usually this would be relatively easy, but arriving in an immaculate tower block with a suited concierge sat behind a sparkling marble edifice Hol and I would have stuck out less if we were naked. However, smiling optimistically we made it past and let ourselves into a beautiful flat. Hot shower, temperature control, a giant TV. A different world.

The tone was set for our time here by Shawry's welcome note on the floor. There were maps with places to eat on, spare clothes, spare phone, washing machine instructions, guide books, some local booze, some pocket money, food in the fridge and more. Within half an hour the washing machine was dealing with 12 weeks of ingrained filth, we were clean and fresh and ready for food. Stepping out into the city blew us away. Towering glass skyscrapers, Rolex, Gucci, Burberry shops, glistening malls with spotless restaurants. A sparkling Ferrari burbled past worth the annual income of 1,200 Nepalis! We had boarded the train in Lhasa with people literally crawling in the dirt in the hope of some salvation and release from the bleak lives they have been cursed with, and here people are being encouraged by chiseled Western models on every billboard to spend £5,000 on watches. All the memories of our last 5 months clashed in total culture shock confusion with where we were now. We huffed and puffed at the cost of a salad in a cafe frequented by trendy businessman, but then ate it and were waxing lyrical about the taste, the freshness and colour of our first salad in months. The people around us wolfed down their regular snack lunch without thinking and looked askance at us wondering where the hell we had surfaced from. However, I still maintain that I can't remember enjoying a salad more than the Wagas roasted vegetable creation that day. I hope never to become blasé about work lunches again.

The week was spent in a blur. Shawry would head off to work and Hol and I would rise off the sofa to explore the city. First priority was finding a running machine which we finally managed to avoid paying £60 for and shook out 2 weeks of sitting on trains and minibuses. Very necessary, even if it did involve dealing with enthusiastic gym managers selling memberships. Alex shook my hand 15 times and repeatedly said 'You craaaaziest man ever come to my gym. Nobody do two hour on running machine. Nobody. You crazy, craaazeee man. Ha ha. 6 month membership you and lady...' From here we explored the narrow streets of the French concession, the cloud topped towers of Pudong and a raft of local backstreet canteens. Our life was split between cheap wanderings in the day and luxury at night when Shawry returned from work.

One of the fascinating things about the time in Shanghai was learning about the ex-pat life. We went out a couple of times with friends who were working for various multi-nationals based there. There was one night in particular where we got the feel of what it was like. A Paulaner German themed bar in a smart district of the city was churning out pints for £7.50 to a crowd of mostly white men and a sprinkling of wealthy Asians while a Filipino 3 piece band belted out heavily accented Tina Turner hits. Chatting to the guys, there were common themes of finding the working culture very difficult at times, but the money and the lifestyle being good. They don't miss home, to the extent that they challenged us repeatedly about why we want to go back, and they spend a lot of time and money living it up in the ex-pat bubble. The appeal is clear in the beautiful restaurants and high pay, but the division between 'us and them' would be hard to deal with full time.
One guy there in his 30s had his newly married Chinese wife with him, but we didn't realise as she was sat on a different table with a few of her Chinese friends and didn't mix. Also, in the office most white people will be earning around 10 times as much as the local Chinese they manage. Add to this the culture of saving face, and the message that comes back repeatedly is that working life is lacking dynamism and the ability to get anything done as employees are terrified of doing anything wrong and so do nothing. In the bar there were middle aged men leering over young Chinese women who smile politely and go along with it. Shanghai has a historical reputation for it's loose morals and the foreign influence. It seems that under the tailored suits this still lives on in a newer form...

With the true Shanghai experience in mind, Shawry one night suggested we go to a massage parlour. Having heard about the GPs (Gentleman's Paradise) my heart lurched a bit. It was a three way invitation with Hol as well, but I had to check. Shawry reassured me that this would be far from anything seedy though. Having never had a massage other from butch rowing physios, the chance for a foot massage was welcome. When we arrived in the smartly lit spa we were shown into a room with three huge armchairs, a flat screen TV on the wall and cups of chrysanthemum tea. We whipped into pyjama bottoms, threw on a DVD of Sherlock Holmes from the pirate movie emporium next door and sat back. For the next 90 minutes we had necks, backs, legs and feet pummeled, rubbed, picked, oiled and finally cupped as the masseurs softly chatted and we watched the film. For less than the price of the cinema tickets that were our original plan, it was a phenomenal experience, if a little alarmingly luxurious. What happens in the G.P.s I am glad to say still remains a mystery.

One of the promises of our time in Shanghai was a night on the town. We hadn't been out properly since July in Colorado and Hol and I were both nervous and excited. We started the evening with some G&Ts before borrowing a whole set of Shawry's clothes and moving over the road to an 'eat and drink as much as you like' Teppanyaki restaurant. For £20 we had round after round of delicious sushi, fresh grilled king prawns, dumplings, lamb chops, noodles, fresh roasted fish, not to mention a round or ten of sakes and beers. It was interesting to note that all the clientèle were white, despite it seeming like a local place. Old habits... From here Shawry whipped out a stack of post it notes which was our itinerary for the evening. Next stop was a place called 'New Heights' which overlooks the financial district of Pudong and we sat sipping drinks the best table in the house, then it was onto another of Shanghai's trendiest bars called Glamour. At this stage the sakes seemed to be kicking in as we were asked if we would like to be moved to another table away from the free cupcakes. Then finally it was on to a club where we happily fell into old ways of drunken revelry, dubious gyrations and silliness.

Having spent the night being taken round and royally treated by Shawry we began to be even more confused by Shanghai. The city is home to wonderful tree lined neighbourhoods with beautiful old buildings, phenomenal bars and restaurants and things are done with a style that is totally alien to the rest of China. The old impact of trading concessions with European nations a hundred years ago had their effect, but the recent developments seem to have escaped the full force of Chinese urban planning. It doesn't seem to make sense. Are the bars run by Europeans who explain that saving 20% on décor by having faux wood plastic seats will make everything look shit and nobody will come? Does Shanghai have some aura that stops Beijing from interfering with it? On returning to the capital and it's 12 lane central streets, crap buildings and historical reconstructions that look like a discount Disney land, your heart sinks. How can one place get it so right, and one so wrong. Maybe it is just a matter of time before Shangahi succumbs. Expo 2010 is just round the corner and the old promenade along the Bund is being torn up. What will replace it i can only guess at. I fear fake concrete Chinese style bridges, toy trains, semi broken lamps. I have to admit that I struggle to stomach China in many ways. The argument that they have lifted thousands of people out of poverty is undeniable, but I have never seen a country so devoid of grace, beauty and sensitivity. The flashes of ancient brilliance are buried by the new government. It was summed up on our final night in Beijing when we were in a bustling nice restaurant having some Peking Duck. Around us people were ordering as much as they could and leaving half of it. The man on the table next to us turned in his seat and hocked up a huge chunk of phlegm and just spat it on the restaurant floor at our feet. The surge to show new wealth and development comes at the cost of simple grace.

Our time in Shanghai was spectacular. Shawry raised the bar when it comes to hospitality and leaving to get back on the road was as hard as ever. We can only hope we can one day return the favour when he arrives in a smelly unemployed mess in London sometime. Next stop Mongolia and Russia...

Since our blog was blocked in China we have posted this from Russia. 50 hours of chilly Gobi, icy Mongolia and bitter Siberian forest brought us to the destination for the big ice marathon on Lake Baikal. The date for the ice marathon has passed, but you will have to wait for Hol and I to have a moment to type up our impressions so far of Russia and give you the run down...

High Altitude Mind Muddling

February marked the arrival of Charlie and Caths for 2 weeks of hardy adventuring over the Himalayas and also the time for us to say goodbye to Nepal. After being settled for 4 months we were ready to point ourselves homewards. But before we left Kathmandu we managed to squeeze in a Bollywood wedding feast with the VSN gang, a trek to watch the sun come up over the Langtang mountains and more Dal Bhat than one should eat in a year. The combination resulted in a week of pure joy and the shits. A suitable departure from a land that provided us with great highs and a few rather tedious lows.

We once asked an American women who had lived in Tibet for 6 years for her impressions. She paused, then sighed and said, 'If you are not confused about Tibet then you are not looking hard enough'. After keeping eyes very wide open for two guided trips across the Tibetan plateau we think its safe to say she's hit the nail on the head.

'We're off', Nick announces as we heave our worlds onto our backs and head across the Friendship Bridge back into China. This time, I said to myself, I am going to make a big effort to like China. I spoke too soon. Ten minutes later we were told by an officious PRC army man to wait 3 hours at the gates of immigration. We weren't allowed to go through without our guide. Our guide was missing. We collapsed resigned in a hungover heap on the fag and spit soaked floor to observe everything that swirled around us. Most entertaining was the gaggle of women in front of us who were shifting nervously, keeping one eye on the border officials and the other on their snotty nosed children. Before long we realised they were busy smuggling crates of fake Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky. The tiny women each strapped twelve one litre bottles around their waists before covering themselves in saris and waddling and clinking back into Nepal. All they got was a friendly pat on the back as they swayed past the Nepali border police.

'We're off', Nick announces for the second time as we meet up with our guide, Lopsang. The first hurdle, immigration, completed with a bit of relief, the second hurdle, icy roads winding above 500ft drops, would be tackled in the morning. In his new ridiculously oversized down jacket, Nick quickly took on the role of Gandalf, leading three slightly rum-fuddled hobbits into the forbidden kingdom. Cue an epic 7 days of mysticism, mountains and being bloody freezing.

The Western obsession with Tibet is not unfounded. On driving across the Tibetan plateau it is hard to believe that 2.7 million people manage to eke out a life on this high altitude desert. Rural Tibet's continuing medieval life only magnifies this. Clusters of traditional mud and wood houses litter waterless, frozen and brutally windswept plains. The crumbled outlines of forts at dramatic vantage points hint at both wars gone by and the sheer civilisation-eradicating power of the mountains. Young men still walk for empty miles lugging goods from one settlement to the next, kept warm by giant furhats and knee high felt boots. A horse and cart delivers the weeks' barley to a toothless, dusty miller. Children stare at you with hollow black eyes, not playfully or curiously, but as if looking at something from another dimension. As Everest looms in the distance and the road sweeps through dilapidated villages, you quickly become transported into another time.

But worlds collide so sharply here that you have to constantly adjust your views. Just as you've got accustomed to the old, up jumps the new. One night we bedded down in icy, shared rooms of a traditional guest house. 120km later we were driving past shopping malls, computer shops, and the concrete and glass fronted hulks lining the 6 lane streets of Shigatse. The small guest house was a magical world of hand painted bright walls and ceilings, traditionally dressed families and communal cooking around a dung fire. We even had a mute monk tucked up round the fire watching us intently. The new hotel in Shigatse was made up of a broken TV, dim lights and chill impersonality. But we had to admit that a warm shower and sit down toilet does beat squatting over the iced up poo gulley the previous night. That morning we huddled up for 2 hours outside the traditional guesthouse waiting for our minibus to start. A small, grubby girl spent the entire time throwing stones around a dusty track for entertainment. In Shigatse Chinese children took it in turns to whizz around the marble paved main square on an electric remote controlled car.

China's 'development' in Tibet is rooted in attracting Han Chinese to set up shop there. Not an easy feat, given that its one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. It is not surprising that money drives Chinese people to move here. Money and a promise of all the services they could ask for in the hinterland. Consequently towns in Tibet are made up of polar halves – the Tibetan old towns and the Chinese new. The Tibetan side is always a collection of traditional buildings, buzzing with human life, people praying, communal eating and children playing. Tibetan people were born there and continue to live there. This is naturally how communities exist and develop though time. On the Chinese side nothing is natural. Poorly built concrete is going up faster than residents are moving in. Towns immediately have a horribly depressing, ghost like feel. Gyantse, 175km from Shigatse, looks ancient and impressive from a distance. A huge fort rises above the town and a gathering of Tibetan houses huddle beneath an impressive monastery. But on arrival we stepped out of the minibus into piles of litter and human waste, which drifted hopelessly around town in the biting wind. A 10 year old boy with a deformed face grabbed Nick's trouser leg repeating relentlessly 'money, money, money'. As you turn to look down the road stray dogs are more populous than humans, a dead one lies in the middle of the pavement and some Tibetan children are using the gutter as a toilet. The Chinese have brought with them running water, toilets and rubbish disposal schemes. Maybe this town got left out, or maybe the Tibetans were never shown how to use them. Either way, the development of small villages into towns had happened too quickly.

And all this confusion is even before you've stepped into a 1400 year old monastery. We visited five on our tour and not once did I get bored of the sensory overload of these places. Shaven headed monks float through whitewashed, cobbled streets in long maroon gowns. Bannisters and walls are rubbed smooth by the passage of pilgrims for hundreds of years. The sounds of chanting pilgrims, banging drums and the smells of incense fill the air. Queues of people from all over Tibet stand patiently before entering the chapels and temples and lay down gifts to the gods. Giant gold and bronze statues flicker in the soft light from yak butter lamps. Turquoise and coral adorn the belts that keep felt or fur cloaks around old pilgrims' bony bodies. 
All walks of Tibetans travel for miles to pray at these holy places. But it's no ordinary prayer as they prostrate themselves along roads, pavements, public squares and dusty alley ways. Reaching up to the sky and then falling in a wave motion right down to the floor, over and over again, for hours, days, weeks. People who can barely walk shuffle too and from the floor in arthritic pain, while toddlers copy them unaware of what or why they are doing it. By far the most harrowing sites in Tibet are where this ancient religious world collides with the oppression of the Chinese. Hobbling pilgrims get roughly searched by policemen before being allowed to worship their gods. In Lhasa the pilgrims share the holiest prayer circuit in Tibet, The Barhkor, with gun toting PRC army men. Whilst pilgrims drag themselves clockwise around the tiny cobbled streets, their moment of walking with god, 12 army men stomp around anti-clockwise, their comrades watching menacingly from the surrounding rooftops. But worst still, some circuits are entirely built over by the Chinese, leaving pilgrims to risk their lives prostrating across busy traffic intersections. One of the greatest displays of subservience we have witnessed anywhere in the world. If not for the presence of the communist aggressor maybe we would all be horrified by the fact people put themselves through so much for a religion they know so little about.

Tibet's huge monasteries used to be the biggest in the world, housing up to 10,000 monks. In 50 years this number has dwindled to around 500. Understandably, there is not much attraction for monks to study in a land where all the religious leaders have disappeared and so most have fled to join the other 100,000 or so Tibetan exiles in India or Nepal. To give you an idea of the Chinese control of the religion, the 2nd most holy lama behind the Dalai Lama is the Panchen Lama. He is chosen by consulting a holy lake which gives you the direction of the village he is in as well as clues such as the colour of the door, the number of cattle the family own including their markings. However, after the death of the 9th Panchen Lama, Beijing decided they didn't like the new one chosen in Tibet so they found their own who now lives in Beijing. Our guide explained that nobody now knows where the Tibetan lama is. However, having already spent 5 months in jail as a political prisoner he was reluctant to go into too much detail. Some of the elements of China's work here makes you shudder. All houses are given a Chinese flag to fly above their door, if they don't they are put on the list of political troublemakers. At the time of the PRCs 60th Anniversary soldiers outnumbered Tibetans 8 to 1 in Lhasa.You can only learn Tibetan up to 10years old in school, giving the language little hope of survival. The Potala Palace, once political and spiritual heart of Tibet, is now a museum. Whilst politely acknowledging the existence of every Dalai Lama since the 6th Century, it quietly ignores the one that is still living, the one that fled for fear of being kidnapped over 40 years ago. Monks that work at the Potala palace are no longer allowed to be called monks, they are simply workers. Tibetan's have no access to information about their once spiritual leader but still they bow down to his old thrones at the Potala Palace and all the monasteries. A nation of subservient people, be it to the Dalai Lama, invading Mongolians throughout history, greedy Tibetan landlords or the Chinese government. These people have been bowing for as long as they can remember.

We left Tibet with more questions than answers. How much fresh fruit and veg, running water, electricity, roadways, infrastructure and investment does it take to justify crushing an ancient culture? What would Tibetan's do with themselves if they were 'free'? Is the Dalai Lama a massive coward for running away from his nation? What is China so paranoid about?

All this confusion was only heightened by leaving Lhasa to spend 50 hours on a train heading East to the swanky, cosmopolitan, successful city of Shanghai. The same country, the same time zone and the same government but world's apart. But Nick will fill you in with more on living it up with a mate Shawry in Shangers. For now its time to pack – in 12 hours time we'll be boarding a train to Irkutsk in Russia to throw ourselves across a hopefully very frozen Lake Baikal!