China part 3: Amdo Tibet: 21st-31st August

During our stay in Jiayaguan, we’d contacted a few travel agents about visiting the Tibetan Autonomous Region. We knew this would involve permits and joining an organised tour, as it is not permitted for foreigners to visit this region otherwise. Unfortunately, this proved to be too expensive and time-consuming for us to arrange, so we changed our plans to visit Amdo Tibet instead. This region is part of the Chinese provinces of Qinghai and Gansu, but the Tibetan culture is still dominant.

The train journey from Jiayaguan was beautiful, climbing up to 3500m at one point, traversing high altitude grasslands that mark the Eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The landscape was dotted with yurts along the gently sloping mountains that fringed the open plains. Each time we emerged from a tunnel we would both gasp at the stunning views along the grassy valleys.

We alighted in Xining, a City at 2400m that is commonly used by tourists as a jumping-off point to visit the Tibetan Autonomous Region, staying here for a few days to acclimatise before climbing to higher altitudes. The large city has the biggest public transport hub we’ve ever seen. The huge train station opens onto a large concrete square filled with trees and seating areas, and on either side is the local bus station and coach station. Hundreds of people mill around whilst waiting for their intercity transport, and police patrol in electric cars and on segways. We jumped in a taxi and headed for our hostel: a very strange setup on the top floors of a residential building. It was the first we’d been to in China with a non-smoking common room, which was a great relief, and made it enjoyable to play some pool on another terrible table.

We went out for dinner and had a thoroughly depressing experience. We found a restaurant serving hotpot: dishes of stock and oil that are placed in the centre of the table on an induction hob that you use to cook items placed around the table on small plates. We had a VERY LONG interaction with the waitress using our vegan cards, google translate and another translation app on her phone, before we were satisfied they could give us a vegan meal. We should probably have suspected something when she directed us to the salad bar-style serving area that had various sauces and accompaniments. After tasting one sauce we’d dished up, we suspected there might be meat in it, and after some very directed questioning she confirmed it was ground beef. Our main dish arrived, exciting-looking troughs containing four sauces: mushroom, tomato, spicy oil and “sauerkraut” 1. We had various tofu and vegetable small plates dotted around, and a delightful small clay bottle of peach wine. After dunking most of our veg into the cooking dishes, we started tasting a few items, at which point we worried that the spicy oil may have meat fat in. Cue another elongated and frustrating discussion with the waitress, who eventually confirmed, with the help of another waitress, that yes, there was beef fat in there, and all the dishes were cooked in butter. We paid for the peach wine and the small dish of fried sweet potato that we’d eaten and left hungry.

On our first full day we decided to go looking for a rainbow slide we’d seen online, to give us something to do while we acclimatised to the altitude. The helpful woman at our hostel was surprised and asked how we knew about it. She directed us to a town outside the city which we could get to by bus. We went to the bus station and asked a passing woman where we could buy tickets and she pointed us to the coach station. We crossed the huge square and went into the coach station, through the security scanners and up to the tourist information desk. Who told us we needed to go to the bus station. Argh! Crossing back over the huge square again, we decided to follow the signs to the underground level which had “toilets, supermarket, restaurant, car parking”, to find a loo and some supplies for the journey. We descended some stairs which immediately became eerie and dark, and ended abruptly at a wall, with the only exits into the car park. We walked through the car park, dodging cars and entered a long, poorly lit corridor with glass-fronted shops on one side. After using the toilet and stocking up on water and instant noodles we followed the signs to the bus station, walking along the corridor which got darker and more sparsely inhabited the further we went. It was creepy and baffling! We ascended an escalator to emerge in a random point in the bus station, where our only option was to ask every passenger and driver that we passed until we were directed onto the right bus, which thankfully left a few minutes later. The driver was so entertained to have us on his local bus that he asked for a photo!

We eventually found the park with the slide, with the help of a young woman on the bus and a short taxi ride up the valley. The taxi passed by small holiday huts along the river and we began to have the feeling we were entering some kind of Chinese Butlins. The taxi dropped us off at the entrance to a park, where a crane was parked at the front hoisting up a large colourful structure, the main entrance blocked off with tape. We paid our entrance fee and walked in through a makeshift entrance around the side, and then emerged onto the main path, which was stunningly roofed with flowers, chinese lanterns, parasols and flags. There were dozens of staff all around, working on the flower beds, laying paving, and fiddling with wires to the myriad light displays. They were delighted to see us and all waved, calling “hello” and “nǐ hǎo”. We were a bit baffled to see so many ground staff working during the day, in the school summer holidays. It wasn’t until we came across a big landslip that we made the connection with something the woman from earlier had told us: that there had been heavy rains in the area recently. All over the park there were paths washed away and cordoned off areas. The staff were working hard to restore the park to its former state. The rainbow slide was out of action due to water damage. Standing at the top and looking at the view down, we also realised it was a different slide to the one we’d seen online! Bizarrely, a few days later as we left Xining by bus, we saw another one set into a hillside on the other side of the city. We guess they’re a regional thing.

Despite some areas being closed off, we enjoyed spending a few hours in the very strange park set into the hillside. Heart motifs abounded, along with huge sculptures made of plastic flowers. A giant set of letters spelling LOVE stood on one hill (*vom* – Maeve). Huge plastic hoops and pipes made swings and seesaws that looked like they lit up at night. We’d have loved to stay and see it in the dark but had to catch the last bus back to Xining. We were also both struggling a bit with the altitude; we’d walked very slowly around the park with frequent stops, so it felt like time to head to lower ground.

We left and wandered through the holiday park, where the true extent of the flood damage became apparent. Closer to the river, the holiday huts were devastated, whole walkways had been washed away, the side of a concrete building had disappeared. Houses and restaurants on the other side of the river were still standing, but showed evidence of water damage. All along the banks people worked with machinery and hand tools. It put into perspective the initial disappointment we’d felt at coming all this way to go on the slide and not being able to, when we could see how many livelihoods had been affected. We were also even more touched at how friendly everyone was: every person we passed stopped their work to smile and wave hello at us at we walked by.

We tried to order a taxi but there were none available, so despite not having had lunch and both struggling with the altitude, we prepared ourselves for the 8km walk down the valley. We made it about 1km before realising our stupidity. We spent approximately 1 minute flagging cars before someone stopped and gave us a lift to the town, even dropping us at the right bus stop to get back to Xining. He was also so excited that he took a selfie with us: a fair price for the lift!

The main tourist attraction in Xining is Kumbum Monastery, another 1hr-ish journey by local bus. It was tourist hell. The temples were absolutely beautiful, but the noise of tour groups and microphoned guides was overwhelming. The path through the complex was heavily managed and it was impossible to walk against the flow of traffic. We found a small amount of respite as we climbed further up the hill to the back of the monastery; there seemed to be an invisible line on the hill that the tour groups didn’t pass. We lingered in the temples at the top which were far more peaceful. All around the complex Tibetan pilgrims prostrated outside the temples, as there was no room inside with all the tour groups passing through.

On the way out we walked down a smaller access road rather than the busy tourist entrance. Along both sides were tiny shops with people working away at building and crafting items for the temple and monks who lived there: thankas (paintings), robes, gold-plated statues, metalworkers making vajras and bells, and many other adornments. It felt a bit like walking down Diagon Alley (or, “that road from Harry Potter” as Maeve put it).

We left Xining the following day by local bus, enjoying a more intimate journey across the landscape, through tiny Tibetan villages and towns. Every hillside was adorned with a temple or stupa, and prayer flags rustled in the wind all around. We passed through expansive grasslands dotted with yurts and tents, where Tibetans herded yak and long horned sheep. At one point the clouds descended and visibility dropped to almost nothing: that didn’t stop the driver from hurtling round the steep mountain bends though!

Our next stop was Xiahe, another monastery town, that has seen significant investment and development in recent years by the Chinese government. On the Chinese side of the monastery were new roads with wide pavements, frequent drop kerbs and gleaming storefronts. The Tibetan side had rough concrete roads, no pavements and open sewers. The stalls on the Tibetan side sold mostly offerings for pilgrims: seeds and rice, incense and flowers, whereas the shops on the Chinese side were full of souvenirs for tourists.

The monastery has the longest prayer wheel Kora of its kind: 3.5km around the outskirts of the complex. As we walked it we passed many pilgrims prostrating their way around: facing towards a temple, prostrating to the ground, standing, taking a single sidestep and prostrating again. These devout pilgrims were wearing sackcloths as aprons and had rubble gloves on to protect themselves from the rough stone or rubble ground. We were mindful as we walked that we were not there as pilgrims: we walked the Kora with respect, visiting every prayer wheel, but also tried not to get in the way of those for whom this was a deeply religious experience. At the far side of the monastery the path passed between its outer wall and the mountain, we were among dozens walking at that time, it’s hard to imagine how many thousands of pilgrims have walked along that path in the 300 years the monastery has been there. At certain points some people would stop to touch the wall, or place their forehead against it: in these areas the stone was worn away, or the render had dissolved to show smooth exposed brick below. Although the monastery was heaving with tourists – the recent investment was clearly geared towards this with a huge carpark and Chinese tourist information centre – we appeared to be the only tourists walking the Kora.

We also did the official English tour of the monastery, led by one of the monks who encouraged us to consider some key tenets of Buddhism and engaged in lively debate in broken English with some of the Portuguese tourists in our group. It was noteworthy that although we were part of a large tour group, and there were many other groups, the process of showing us around was managed in such a way as to allow the Tibetan pilgrims enough access to the temples to enable them to pray, including having access to many areas of the temples which we were herded past. It felt far more respectful than at the more developed monasteries we’ve visited, but it appears that the authorities are trying to encourage more tourism which has the danger of eroding this protection.

It was apparent as soon as we arrived at Xiahe, around 2900m, that Jay was suffering with the altitude again as he had in Leh: waking up during the night gasping for air and with a constant headache. Rather than risk having to urgently leave again, this time he resorted to taking Diamox, and we took it very easy for the first day or so. On our second full day, we went for a gentle walk up the side of the valley, through some pine forests that felt familiar and yet totally alien. We both startled at some movement and looked up to see the biggest brown mountain hare either of us has ever seen: bounding between the aged trunks to get away, but taking long enough for us to savour the sighting (but not to get a camera out, of course!). There was lots of evidence of boar and we also saw huge cows on the neighbouring hillside. We broke through the tree line to crest one of the smaller ridges, clambering up through the moss and alpine plants, disturbing hundreds of tiny spiders, crickets and grasshoppers. From up there we could see the full extent of the town: dominated by the enormous monastery in the centre, with the two completely distinct residential and commercial areas on either side. It was also the first point on our walk where we were far enough away from the road to no longer be able to hear Jingle Bells: both in India and China we have occasionally heard fleeting refrains from popular christmas songs, in an easy listening style piped from a passing vehicle. This time we were ‘treated’ to the tune all the way up the hill (and of course both had it stuck in our heads for the rest of the day). Truly bizarre.

It was in Xiahe that Maeve decided to shave her head! (though not as short as Jay’s, we don’t want matching hair!). Despite having an excellent cut before we left the UK, there’s only so long short hair can grow out before it starts to look dodgy. We’d decided the easiest thing would just be to buy a pair of clippers so we could keep on top of both of ours.

Next stop was Langmusi, another five hours on a bus across beautiful Tibetan plains, with an increase in altitude to 3350m. We’d opted for a hostel on the outskirts of town with beautiful views of the sandstone cliffs and granite mountains, so that we’d have a nice view if we didn’t have the energy to do any exploring. Every night, at the very moment the sun set, the peaceful silence was broken by the packs of wild dogs who started barking at each other and didn’t stop all night; it was very reminiscent of Leh. The temperature was a bit of a shock, when the sun was shining it was very temperate, but at night or when the cloud descended it was freezing: we slept in our unheated dorm room with woolly hats on!

The town has two monasteries and is on the border between Gansu and Sichuan, with one monastery on each side of the border. One has taken advantage of the Chinese government tourism investments, with wide stone walkways and information boards, lots of major ongoing building works, and shiny new temples. The other feels much more traditional: it wasn’t obvious where to go around the site to find the temples to visit, and we regularly ended up on dirt paths winding behind unmarked buildings. At one point we stumbled across monks chanting outside a temple and sat for a while: listening to the voices emanating from the echoing walls of the ancient temple as we stared out across the sunlit valley, smoke from dung fires rising from small dwellings and yak butter smoke from offering fires, there could not have been a more fitting and appropriate sound.

One afternoon, after a lazy morning cuddling an alternately sleeping and playful ginger kitten in a cafe, we made the pilgrimage up to a nearby sky burial site. Langmusi is one of only a handful of places where the Chinese government still allow this method of body disposal, which is an ancient Tibetan tradition previously widely practiced across the plateau. In Tibetan Buddhism, once someone has died they are immediately reincarnated, so their body, which is just a vessel, is not longer them. In a sky burial, the corpse is taken to a high place away from the village where a ceremony is held. The body is then dismembered by axe and knife, and the pieces are left for birds of prey and other scavengers to feed from. Thus the flesh is not wasted and is gifted to the living who can consume it.

We’d read an account online of how to reach this sacred site, which unlike the rest of the village, has resisted any attempts at tourism. We ascended steep dirt paths, with people on motorbikes sliding their way up or down to visit temples or houses. It was a steep climb that seemed to go on forever to our altitude-affected lungs. Every time we stopped for a break the views of the valley opened up below us: grey overcast sky reflecting the grey of the granite walls that ultimately ring the town. We passed signs that warned in pictures and Chinese of the potential for dog bites from rogue animals out on these fells, and we’d heard in the town about the risks of these dogs that roam the area. To every person we passed we gave the standard Tibetan greeting of “Tashi Daleg”, which seemed to be a bit of a surprise to them, but a welcome one. We read later that despite the thousands of Chinese tourists that visit the region every week in high season, few learn any Tibetan.

Higher still, looking out across the golden roofs of temples that glowed like fire even in the dull grey sky, we met a barrier: a fence that stretched across the path. From the other side, an older Tibetan woman called to us and gestured to us that we could cross. She pointed us in the right direction and we were grateful for permission to visit this most personal and private of sites. Passing another warning sign about dogs, we contoured the hillside and she soon disappeared from view behind us. The sky began to lose it’s hold on the rain that had been threatening all morning and we stopped to put on waterproofs. Aside from the rustle of Goretex and the gentle patter of a soft drizzle, there were no other sounds on the fellside. It was eerie, and we continued climbing with trepidation, curious about the sky burial site, worried that we were trespassing on the local villagers’ sacred places, and fearful of how we would feel about what we might see once we got there.

Suddenly, ahead of us, there were prayer flags set into the hillside. More prayer flags than we’ve ever seen in one place. They stretched over an area at least 100m long and 40m deep, and moved silently in the gentle wind that played over this small, desolate plateau. We were distracted from our reverence by our first sighting of marmots. They seemed vaguely bothered by our presence and lolloped away if we got too close, but not with any real haste. We continued walking toward the prayer flags, assuming that the site was inside their gentle fronds. Jay was playing with his camera, trying to get pictures of the marmots that didn’t include any of the flags or other features of the sacred site, not wanting to take photographs of this vibrant and deeply spiritual place. Meanwhile Maeve was looking at all the pieces of broken glass and plastic that had been trodden into the dirt, becoming part of the very ground. Neither of us noticed we were at the actual sky burial site until we were on top of it. We both stumbled into what we’d assumed was a fire pit, but was something else entirely. The first thing we noticed was a long-handled axe at our feet, then a sharp looking knife in the grass. We both stepped back hurriedly away from the black earth.

In the centre of the bare peaty earth was a huge stone slightly hollowed like a shallow bowl. It was full of a solid white substance that had overflowed and covered the ground around it. It was human fat, looking like so many candles had spilled their wax over the area. Another large stone chopping block sat nearby with an axe beside it. Across the area there were bones: a lot of human bones, and in one place a skeletal hand and wrist, mostly picked clean by the scavengers. A femur lay nearby. Crows hopped around the edge, nervous of coming closer while we were there, and eagles circled in the leaden sky overhead. Leading up the hillside behind the prayer flags were thousands of small stone plaques with Tibetan inscriptions: presumably people’s names.

As the rain eased we climbed the steep hillside, stopping to take pictures of the beautiful flowers that scattered the grasses, readily finding beauty among the macabre surroundings. We communicated only in whispers, our voices almost lost in the wind. Older bones were everywhere, scattered by those that fed on them. A hip joint, a vertebrae. As we reached the top of the hill and could see beyond it, we were awestruck by the vista. Thousands of hills and mountains, rippling in a sea of ravines and ridges, as far as the eye could see, flowing over the horizon. Another axe lay on top of the hill, more knives, more bones.

At the bottom of the hilly top, back at the sky burial site, we decided to sit for a while on a bench. The whole area was deeply spiritual and atmospheric, and as we hadn’t taken any photos, we wanted to make some notes about what it felt like to be there, so as not to forget what was ultimately an exceptionally moving place to be. It thrummed with energy, and it was a privilege to have seen a fraction of this tradition.

Nearby, a crow hassled a marmot, sneaking up on it and plucking bits of fur from its tail. Suddenly a shriek erupted from our left and another marmot wasted no time in scarpering. The one that was arguing with the crow sat bolt upright staring past us. The shriek happened again: a bird, an unearthly call, and this last marmot scarpered too. We followed it’s gaze, and silhouetted against the shifting clouds at the top of a ridge 100m away was a large black dog. Perhaps we’d lingered too long and it was a sign to leave. We packed everything very quickly back into our rucksacks and watched warily as the dog started zig-zagging back from the hill-top toward the burial site. We started walking quickly, not running, as we’d been told this makes them give chase. We’d also read about using rocks to throw at them if they’re attacking as a deterrent and had picked up pocket-fulls on the way up. We took them out so the dog could see them, hoping it would persuade it to give us a wide berth. It followed us at a distance for a while, but eventually turned down a different path as we headed toward the main village. We saw it later on a nearby ridge entering a tent and then coming out again. A few minutes later a large fallow deer appeared on the ridge behind it, warily watching its onward journey.

It had been an intense and reverential experience, the first Tibetan tradition that didn’t feel as though it had been subsumed by Chinese tourism and reproduced for mass-consumption. The only other people we’d seen had been a few Tibetans coming down as we made our way up. It was private, atmospheric, and didn’t feel at all gruesome, despite the subject and the presence of death and bones. It left us with a much greater understanding of what Tibetan Buddhist tradition means here, to the people that inhabit the plateau. Of the importance of these rituals and how they tie the local village into the land, the place, the sky and the animals that live here too. It gave the whole place a very different feel to us, and completely different to the carefully managed tourist routes we’ve had to follow before. We were grateful and awed to have been able to visit this incredible place of spirituality.

We finished our day with a visit to the monastery we’d passed on our way up the hill. Everywhere new building work was going on.

The next day we set out – finally – on a proper hike up Namo Gorge. The route leads to Mt. Huagai which we would have loved to climb, but it is nearly 4500m high and we were finally getting realistic about our capabilities at altitude! With only a few days to acclimatise, we opted to stick to the “easy” route along the bottom of the gorge: but we accidentally ended up climbing 600m to a high-altitude saddle!

Maeve woke shortly after dawn to thick freezing fog: there was nothing visible at all beyond the courtyard wall of our hostel. We took our time getting ready – we were only planning to walk for a few hours – and by the time we left the clouds had lifted slightly so we could see the town below. It was still very cold so we piled on all our layers including full waterproofs and woolly hats to protect our bald heads!

We set off round the back of Kirti Gompa on the Sichuan side of the town, passing pilgrims circling the Stupa on a small hill. We passed through the back of the monastery, onto an open grassy area with the river running through it, and a small hut with a water-powered prayer wheel inside. We ducked under some trees to remove some layers: the sun had emerged and the temperature shot up. In the sudden bright light the colours were vivid: the green of the grass, the icy clarity of the water, the grey of the rocks and dazzling sky all shimmered in the rarefied air.

We continued up a rough path, adorned with prayer flags and thronging with Chinese tourists fresh from the tour buses. We came to a small wooden bridge crossing the river, a snow lion sculpture, and arrangement of arrows and prayer flags with a sign saying “Fairy Caves”. In the sheer rockface to our right was an opening at ground level, no more than two feet high, that we crawled through in a squat. Inside a small dank cave opened in front of us, dimly lit by a few candles and with water dripping from the ceiling above. A local woman washed herself in various pools and rivulets, praying in between. A monk came over and walked us through the sacred site: showing us which pools to dip our hands or head in, and directing us to rub our abdomen against a huge round rock shaped like a pregnant belly. It all felt very Pagan!

Back outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, we wove our way through the groups of tourists posing on the bridge to start the hike proper. We passed a few tourist groups on foot, and some being led on horseback from overnight camp sites a short way up the valley. We were approached by a young Chinese couple who asked if they could walk with us: they were both wearing completely unsuitable clothes for a hike, and carried only camera equipment. We said they could join us (because we’re British and don’t know how to say ‘no’), but emphasised that we were going for a long walk and would be moving quickly. The first time we stopped to briefly remove more layers, they said they needed to have a break (we’d been walking with them for about 20 minutes). We agreed to part ways and said we’d look for them on the way back down the valley.

The walk up the gorge was beautiful as the tourist path petered out (after leaving the couple resting at the camping site, we didn’t see another person until we returned to that point). In the absence of a clear path we criss-crossed the stream, hopping on small boulders through the clear tumbling water. The steep side of the gorge towered above, bright rock interspersed with small shrubs and caves. Here the river was wide and babbling, frothing over the rocky riverbed. Further up as we approached a fork in the gorge at an area of grassland, the river was only a foot wide but a few feet deep, having cut a channel through the soft mud. It was choked with water plants and grass from its bank, fronds that waved in its currents. It was hot, really hot, in the chasm and eagles soared in groups on the thermals above, skimming the cliff faces, darting between pinnacles. Fragrant shrubs and herbs arrested our progress regularly, and we stopped for snacks near a vulva-shaped cave! It was getting hotter and we were getting higher.

Despite planning a gentle, flat walk, when confronted with a divergence in the valley presenting either a wide, open grassy plain with a gentle incline, or a steep clamber up to a saddle, we opted for the steep climb: we were keen to see out over the hills after being contained within the valley all morning. Turns out false summits are a thing with saddles as well as peaks! We ended up climbing an additional 300m in the baking sun, with the effects of altitude becoming more and more apparent. We were both struggling to catch our breath and having to stop frequently, and Jay was beginning to feel unwell.

Finally we crested the saddle and a stunning view of distant peaks opened up; including Mount Huagai. On a different day, or with more time to acclimatise, we would have happily taken on the extra 400m to the top, but it was too hot, and Jay was suddenly hit with a tight chest pain that made him double over: so he sensibly beat a hasty retreat back down the valley!

The walk back was very pleasant, peppered with marmots but thankfully no predators this time. We’d seen no people since we left the first grassland, which was incredible in a country as populous as China. As we approached the same point we could see a large tour group, and people on horses offering tourist rides. It felt jarring; all their bright colours, cameras and shouting.

Parts of the valley were clearly used for yak herding, and others had spiritual significance; it was apparent to us that Tibetan Buddhism is inseparable from the landscape from which it originated. Given the unforgiving nature of the environment, this makes perfect sense. To finish our walk we stopped at the monastery, listening to the monks chanting and drumming, taking in the incredible spiritual beauty of the whole place. What a spectacular day we’d had.

A final thing to note about Langmusi was the strangeness of the food we had there. Mostly it was all just exceptionally oily. Especially the ‘mashed potato with greens’ that we had one evening, which was so oily it was easy to eat with chopsticks. It was strangely vinegary, containing some kind of pickled green things: like bubble and squeak with the flavour of chip shop chips. Another weirdness was the meal we ate in the Black Tent Cafe (highly recommended in all the guide books). After our big hike up the gorge we were ravenous so ordered the only vegan food they had: ‘vegetarian pasta’ and a ‘vegetable pizza’, without cheese. The pasta was a large plate of spaghetti with a few tablespoons of sauce that tasted like Heinz vegetable soup. The pizza, while tasty, was smothered in ketchup and had on top as one of its vegetables: cucumber. Cooked. Cucumber.

Overall we loved our time in Amdo Tibet, and were particularly sad to leave Langmusi, where we’d finally acclimatised enough to hike, and had touched at least the fringes of Tibetan culture, undiluted and undisturbed. We almost wished we could stay longer to continue to explore the valleys and peaks around the little town, getting to know more people and understand more about how tradition and modernity were sitting together in this complex land. But although we’d finally been able to do a decent hike, Jay still felt pretty awful. So although it would have been lovely to continue, we were both looking forward to moving on and feeling slightly more ‘normal’.

Our last stop in Amdo Tibet was Songpan, where we had to change buses on our way to Chengdu and stay overnight. We spent a pleasant evening there exploring the old town and clambering up to an abandoned hilltop temple. Most excitingly we were able to buy ground coffee from the hostel we stayed at, and even found some dark chocolate in a supermarket: our first in China!

The bus journey to Songpan was genuinely amazing: we hit a high-altitude grassland which was so expansive that the mountains fringing the far side appeared like a gentle wave on the horizon. As we entered through a mountain pass the clouds that had filled the valley behind us were herded through the ravines by the rising sun into the open plain and vanished in the morning heat.

1. Jo L: you’ll be delighted to know that M was all over the gherkin-y dish before we had to walk away from dinner. Picklebacks are definitely a gateway drug to gherkins.

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