Early each morning, monks file out from the wats that line Luang Prabang’s loose grid of streets. Clasping their alms bowls, they walk, solemn and barefoot, along streets fringed with shaggy toddy palms, and past candy-coloured colonial villas and gilded temples.
Temperatures climb throughout the day, and most people retreat to the shade to sip cooling drinks and doze before venturing out again at dusk, when a vibrant night market sets up on Sisavangvong Road. Here, stallholders sell souvenirs and shake out bright silk scarves under bluish fluorescent lights as the sun sinks behind far bank of the Mekong.
As you leave Luang Prabang and set out on the road to the Chinese border, the drive punctuated by roadside villages thronging with children, any change seems faint. Three hundred kilometres away, Luang Namtha is clearly cut from the same languid, tropical cloth. Even just across the Chinese border in Xishuangbanna, people believe the same form of Buddhism, practice the same rituals, share the same traditional dress and enjoy very similar spicy-sour flavours in their food.
From Xishuangbanna, where the route of our journey Lands of Silk and Snow briefly reunites with the Mekong, the road climbs up out of the steamy basin where elephants and peacocks once strutted through the jungle, and onto the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. As you ascend, the air temperature drops and dries, and the vegetation changes; rubber trees and banana plantations fall away to be replaced by temperate forest and – as we approach Kunming, “the City of Eternal Spring” – fields of flowers.
North of Kunming, the pace of change picks up as you continue to climb up, past Dali and Lijiang to Shangri-La, the threshold of Tibet. From here to Lhasa our route takes us from the dramatic valleys that mark the Tibetan Plateau’s eastern fringe, crossing the Mekong again – and the Yangtze and the Salween – climbing over snow-dusted passes and swooping down through thickly forested valleys before spilling out into the broad Kyi-Chu valley on the final approach to Lhasa.
It is only by travelling overland that you can see how one land merges into the next; how the continuity of the tropics suddenly disappears as one ascends the 1500 metres between Jinghong and Kunming; how the long parallel valleys that run through northwestern Yunnan have given rise to dozens of ethnic groups and amazing biodiversity; and how Tibetan culture has overcome quite awesome geographical challenges in order to spread from Yunnan to the edge of Central Asia.
And yet while there’s change, there are also elements that bind the entire route together. From Laos to Lhasa the main religion is Buddhism – albeit of different schools. Everywhere between Dali and Luang Prabang was once part of a single kingdom in the eighth century. And the waters of the Mekong gather our journey together at several points, like a purse-string, as we travel from South-East Asia, where its waters flow, brown and stately, up to the heights of Tibet where the young river tumbles wildly out of the hills.
Pity the poor traveller who flies over all this! In our busy times of direct flights and high-speed trains, it truly is a luxury to experience a long-distance overland journey, and to see a portion of the earth’s surface up close and personal, and to meet people along your route, at every turn learning that for all that separates us, there is as much that binds us together.