Tag Archives: Potala Palace

Monks in Luang Prabang

The tak bat, morning alms of Buddhist monks’ morning collection of food in Luang Prabang

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.

Mekong River

The tropical end of the Mekong

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.

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

Sumtseling Monastery, Shangri-La

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.

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

Learning your Scriptures, in Shangri-La

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.


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(Here are Part 2 “Impatient to Run Free” and Part 3 “I know one when I see one” of this trilogy.)

“You’ve got a dream job. You’re always on holiday, aren’t you?” is what we at On the Road hear all the time. I love what I do, but one long holiday it is not. So what is it like when we’re on the road? 

Take one day earlier this summer, June 23, as an example. Pei Fen and I were in Slovenia researching our new European itinerary. We left Ljubljana, the country’s capital, at 8am. Our first stop was at the Postonja Caves, although we just had enough time to make a GPS waypoint – the trip down into the cave was squeezed in later in our trip. Our next stop was an hour’s drive away in Lipica, the stud farm for the famous Lipizzaner horses. From there we drove an hour out of our way for lunch in a restaurant recommended by Slovenian friends.

Spot the Ferrari...

Spot the Ferrari…

After an excellent lunch (more on which later), we had a long drive south and into Croatia for a 3pm appointment with Istria’s regional Director of Tourism. By then the temperature had reached 37°C, although we kept the air-conditioning turned off in our car, relishing the dry heat after weeks of wet weather. After the meeting (held in a darkened room with no air-con and cups of room-temperature water, transforming our relish for the heat into a strong desire for a/c), we revved up Little Red – the colour of our VW Up! was a shade of red that made it look as though it was trying to impersonate a Ferrari – and headed farther south to visit one of our selected hotels for an update on the progress of their renovations and a detailed discussion of the arrangements for our first group of guests.

Even the ice cream was salty...

Even the ice cream was salty…

By this time it was 7pm, but we weren’t finished yet! Pei Fen and I went to find the team hotel we had researched and booked. But after bouncing along a pot-holed dirt road, turning left, right, back, and forward again, we just weren’t able to find it. So, to Plan B! “I know of another place, it’s a bit more expensive, but never mind, let’s call them. I hope they’ve got rooms…” We shamelessly name-dropped the Director of Tourism, finagling their last two rooms, drove there***

Miss Daisy's sister in Istria?

Miss Daisy’s sister in Istria?

, checked in, and headed out again, at 8pm, on another 45min drive to a restaurant I had tried before and wanted Pei Fen to experience: “Believe me, it’s awesome…and totally worth the drive!” In the event, though, the dinner took two-and-a-half-hours, because the chef wanted to showcase her best, and each dish was too salty – even the ice cream. By the time we returned to our hotel it was after midnight, and we had to be up by 5:45am for another, even longer day.

What a day! Does it still sound like a dream job? More like a nightmare perhaps. And yet this day was great because, amidst all the busyness, two experiences made it as special as any I can recall in a long, long time. One was seeing the majestic Lipizzaner horses; the other was the trip to find our lunch restaurant. Stay tuned for the stories of each of these magical experiences.





Miss Daisy in China

Miss Daisy in China…

*** Believe it or not, on the way to our hotel we came across a gleaming yellow Caterham Super 7, exactly like Little Yellow (小黄) which I drove 21,000km across China in 2007.

The Istrian countryside...a small corner of paradise...as Italy used to be...

The Istrian countryside…a small corner of paradise…as Italy used to be…

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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I want to write about Tibet, but I’m struggling with where to start. Should I begin by describing the raw beauty of the Himalayas? Maybe with the profound way that Buddhism permeates the Tibetans’ daily lives? Or perhaps I should start with the rigours that are inevitably involved in a journey on the Tibetan Plateau?

Miss Daisy in Tibet

Miss Daisy in Tibet

This forbidding region draws me to it in many ways, but it boils down to the following; the pursuit of adventure, a love of mountains, the challenge of overcoming adversity, and witnessing the Tibetan people’s devotion.

Above all, to me Tibet stands for adventure. In exchange for moving myself out of my comfort zone, I know that I will come home with unforgettable memories.

The photo shown here is from one of many such adventures, and taken on my 21,000km journey through China in a Caterham Super 7.

It was July 2007 and early rains had swollen a nameless river in eastern Tibet, sending it gushing across the road. Attracted by the odd sight of a yellow sportscar on this remote stretch of road, three passersby rolled up their sleeves and volunteered to help Miss Daisy (the Caterham) and I through the water. When you scream ‘push’ and three kind volunteers heave you through an icy cold river, you won’t forget it!

Beyond the thrill of adventure, there is the magnetic pull of the mountains. I grew up in the Austrian Alps and thought them magnificent – until I went to Tibet, that is. In Austria you reach sky at 2,000 metres above sea level. In Tibet there are cities with airports and golf courses at that altitude. The Tibetan highlands start where the Alps end, more or less. The plateau is, almost literally, quite out of this world.

But while Tibet’s mountains – from Mount Everest on down – lend the landscape an unparalleled drama and beauty, the region’s high altitudes also make plateau life and travel uniquely challenging. Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace may seem an appealing place to visit on your first day in the Tibetan capital, but climbing the staircases to the entrance is best left until the end of your trip when you are properly acclimated.

Mt. Everest at dawn

Mt. Everest at dawn

Pilgrims on the way to Lhasa

Pilgrims on the way to Lhasa

Perhaps the Tibetans’ profound Buddhist faith is related to the challenges of living at such altitudes. Almost every time I find myself in the Tibetan world, sooner or later I encounter people making the arduous pilgrimage to Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. Each pilgrim will prostrate themselves, get up, walk three steps, and prostrate again (in Chinese this is called 磕长头). This slow progress continues, not for a hundred meters, not for one kilometer, but for hundreds – if not thousands – of kilometers.

Weatherbeaten, dirty, exhausted, and yet with their broad smiles hinting at inner bliss, the pilgrims have retained a depth of faith that many of us have long since lost. I’m not a religious man, but I never fail to be moved by others’ devotion. Add to this the outer trappings of Tibetan Buddhist ritual – monks chanting by flickering lamplight, prayer flags snapping from mountain passes and timeless festivals – and this is clearly one of Tibet’s many attrations for me and many others.

Some places offer one of these drawcards, perhaps one destination offers mountain adventure, while another posseses a unique culture, say, but few offer such a beguiling combination as the Tibetan Plateau. It is small wonder that this special place has attracted generations of adventurers and romantics…

What is it that draws you to Tibet?





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If you agree with me about Tibet’s many and varied attractions, you might like to read more about our upcoming Tibetan journeys.

Mountain-lovers will be interested in Roads on the Roof of the World, a fantastic 8-day itinerary that runs from the Tibetan heartland to Mount Everest Base Camp. The 11-day Tibetan Highlands is an epic journey from Kunming to Lhasa overland across the beautiful and rugged eastern foothills of the Himalayas. Both will have departures in spring 2016.

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