Part One. Ground Jay Country

The impenetrable shroud of mystery will never be lifted over this land of miracles and magic,
an empty-minded tourist will never desecrate the shining snows of Tibet, the Gate of Enlightenment.
Elena Blavatskaya. Wizards and Mystics of Tibet

June 25, 1993. Finally!!! I'll get what I've always dreamt of! I'm here! After all these years of traveling around the Soviet Union, with recent trips to civilized Europe and boring Middle East, I'll see some real biodiversity and have some real adventures! I'm sitting in a caravansarai at the shores of lake Sairam Nuur, 1,300 m above the sea level, and I'm using chopsticks to finish a huge plate of lagman with mutton, which I ordered for 3Y (US$0.3). After spending a day in a bus I am so hungry that learning to use chopsticks doesn't take long.

I'd just had to endure a three-day railway trip from Moscow to Almaty, laying on a bunk with a graffiti in front of me: "Remember, soldier! You are guarding peace and comfort of the guy who is sleeping with your girlfriend!" I had to cross the Chinese border during a dust storm, and only the Datzybao saved me from having to bribe border guards on both sides (I had no visa to China). But I'm finally here, and I've already learned two Chinese characters, the most important ones: nan (man) and nu (woman), they are written on toilets. Well, it's time to get back on the bus: the Junggar Plain waits ahead.

June 26. Urumqi is a modern Chinese-populated city surrounded by 15th century rural landscape. The hotel price is the same as in Almaty ($3), but here a whore is not included. One dollar a day is enough for food if you avoid expensive places. A nearby lake called Tian Chi by is very beautiful.

June 27. I took a so-called wooden bus to Kashi (Kashghar). The trip takes three days and two nights. The main problem is limited leg space. We crossed the Valley of Demons, said to be the most windy place on Earth, the Turfan Depression, and the easternmost part of Tian Shan. The desert is an open-air museum of badland landscapes. South from the mountains it is so dry that there is almost no vegetation. Only on the tops of some alluvial fans there are tiny bushes, and I spotted a lone Persian gazelle in one of such places. A corner in a caravansarai is $0.5 per night.

June 28. Today is was really boring. From 5 am to 11 pm we were driving through the same landscape: low yellow hills to the right, and Lombard poplar-bordered fields to the left. The bus was packed tight, my seat was in the last row, and my knees were hurting really bad because they were pressed hard against the seat in front of me. Some passengers had to give up and get off the bus because of heat. The only reward was buying a colossal water melon for $0.3.

June 29. It's getting better. One more day of riding between Tian Shan to the north and Tarim Depression to the south. But now, the mountains are beautiful: a mile-high cliff made up of red, yellow, blue, and green rock. I wonder if the red layers contain dinosaur bones, as in Mongolian deserts. By nightfall, I finally made my way to the front seat, and could watch jerboas and nightjars on the road. After midnight, another dust storm began, but soon turned into a rainstorm, with rain droplets so muddy you couldn't see through them. We arrived to Kashi after midnight.

June 30. I took a bus up the Karakoram Highway. The view of Pamir from the plain below is splendid: bright red foothills, then low yellow mountains, high black mountains, and above them the icy wall of Kongur (7719 m). I watched the peak as we drove through red, yellow, and black canyons, then we crossed the small Chinese part of Pamir Plateau, and I got off the bus at Lake Karakol.

It is one of the most beautiful places in Asia. The lake is small, but the background is formed by Kongur and Muztagata (7545). A local Kyrgyz family operates a tourist hostel in three yurtas (tents). My knowledge of some Kyrgyz words earns me free bed and breakfast. I even made $2 by selling a bag of old Soviet coins to the owner's wife. There are some Russian words in the local version of Kyrgys: chainik (kettle), vintovka (rifle), mashina (car). Nice place to rest from a long journey, meditating on a lakeshore through sunset.

July 01. I climbed Kongur to the snow line. One of pulsating glaciers was in a surge phase. It was dark blue, and filled the air with thunder-like sounds. Its movement was so fast that you could see it, more or less at a speed of minute hand of a wristwatch. There were lots of small birds on the slopes, but no large mammals. According to the hostel owner, wild sheep, wolves, and bears are extinct in Chinese part of Pamir, while ibex and snow leopards are vanishingly rare. The only place with fauna relatively intact is the area just across the border in Pakistan, but I can't go there, because I don't have Pakistani visa.

The river I'd waded in the morning was running very high in the evening, because of icemelt, and it took me nine attempts to cross it back to the hostel.

July 02. Locals have very good maps of the area. They show Russian border guard posts and the best trails to get around them. But it's a few days' hike to Murgab, the first (and almost only) village on the other side, so few people ever go there. Mostly they look for ibex and wild sheep.

I climbed Muztagata about half way from the road to the summit, and could see the Tajikistan-owned part of Pamir, which I was well familiar with. Generations of Russian explorers have watched Muztagata from there, never being able to get close. Then I got a ride on an old truck back to the edge of the plateau, and spent the night in an old tomb, full of mites.

July 03. The hike down Gezdar'a River is very beautiful, but there's almost no wildlife in the canyon. This is the driest part of Pamir Mountains. I walked from 4,200 to 1,500 m elevation, and saw only a few small birds, and many Pieris diota butterflies. When my heels refused to carry me downslope any more, I got a lift from a crew of local journalists, and gave them an interview en route to Kashi. But I was sure they'd never print it, except may be in the form of anti-government leaflets. They gave me a bag of very good apricots.

July 04. Bus from Kashi to Yecheng, across the Takla Makan Desert. It is the driest of all Central Asian deserts; ground jays and tiny lizards seem to be the only inhabitants in some places. Yecheng looks completely frozen in time. It's probably the last town in the Moslem world where mosques don't use microphones to broadcast the calls for prayer.

Yecheng is the starting point for the West Tibetan Road. The tricky thing about it is that the second high pass is only open for two days out of ten. When I got there, it was seven days until the next opening date. I got a ride to the pass in question with a road construction crew. I thought Russia had bad roads, but this one was beyond any competition. I spent all day trying to avoid heavy fuel cans, jumping around me in the trunk. We climbed the first pass (3,500 m), and spent the night in a Tajik village at the bottom of a deep shadowy gorge. These mountains at the junction of Karakoram, Kun Lun, Pamir, and Hindu Kush are the only place in China with Caucasian population (these people are not really Tajiks, but migrants from Western Pamir, and their language is close to Shugnan dialect). As soon as I got off the truck, the entire village gathered around me. Normally, trucks and cars with foreign tourists pass this village without stopping, so I was probably the first European-looking person they'd ever seen, except for themselves (although some Uigurs look more European than Oriental, too).

July 05. At the closed pass (5,400 m), a huge crowd of women and teenagers was working like crazy, trying to widen the narrow dirt road which crossed frost-cracked rocks and moraine fields. From there I had to walk. It's good my backpack weighed less than ten kilograms. There was some grass and few a birds on the Northern slope, but nothing beyond the summit. Inner Kun Lun is the most remote and least known part of Central Asia. Most mountain ridges here are six to seven thousand meters (20,000 to 23,000') high, and they let little moisture inside the deep river valleys (valley bottoms are below 4,000 m). Rivers are muddy and shallow, but once in a few years, the monsoon breaks through the mountains, and the floods wash away the road built by suicidal work effort. I hiked all the way down from the pass, and spent the remaining hours of the night under a large boulder near Mazar (Tomb). This tiny village on Yarkent River is the only permanent settlement in the area.

July 06. In Mazar, you can hire a horse ($0.5 per day) for a trip downstream, towards the main ridge of Karakoram (kara korum, black talus field). I rode for about 40 kilometers, and then had to turn back, as one of the streams was too deep to cross. But I did get a distant view of Chogri (8,611 m), known in the West as K2. It looked like a beautiful double-edged sword of blue ice penetrating the cloud layers.

July 07. Hiking upstream from Mazar. The road goes across hundreds of alluvial fans, halfway between the river and steep rocky mountain slopes. Every 20 or so kilometers there's a house of road workers. By hiking 60-65 km per day I can get to them in time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The mountains are beautiful, but there's no wildlife, except in the small willow bushes lining the river. In these bushes you can find some songbirds, hares and painted lady butterflies. Each of the worker's houses is guarded by a pair of huge ravens (they seem to be almost twice the size of European ones). Hiking gets difficult in the afternoon, because numerous streams that cross the road fill up with runoff from the small glaciers along the ridgecrests. I had to spend the night at one of these streams and crossed it in the morning, when it was almost invisible.

July 08. The weather changed suddenly, and it started raining. I climbed a 4,700 m pass, and found myself in a snowstorm. Tiny Primula flowers were buried in snow, but their aroma filled the air. Here I flushed a herd of Ladakh wild sheep, very large with sickle-shaped horns. On the other side of the pass the wind was carrying cherry-size hail, and it broke the glass of my watch. Suddenly there was movement ahead, and a large male snow leopard rose slowly from its lair in the snow. He looked almost transparent in the blizzard, and was so beautiful that I forgot about cold, wind, and hail, just froze and watched him. I didn't expect much from my tiny camera, so I tried to remember it all as well as I could: the mountains, the smell of primulas, the blue snow and the leopard. I whistled, and he gave me one last look over the shoulder before disappearing. Near his lair I found a recently killed wild ram, and cut off a piece of meat for myself. I hope the leopard didn't mind. I had no food except for a huge chocolate bar, but it had partly melted in Takla Makan desert, so I had to chew on my backpack to retrieve what was left of it.

I ran down across the switchbacks to an empty hut in the valley below. Here the weather was better, and I saw some redstarts, colorful as butterflies. There was some coal in the hut, so I cooked the meat and ate it. (Xinjiang coal can burn as easily as dry wood, but longer). A pair of little owls lived in the hut. At lower altitudes, they mostly hunt insects, but here they fed their chicks with Alticola voles, the only rodents I saw in these mountains. In cold rain I made it to the next workers' house, and spent the night there, hugging a heater.

July 09-10. Two more days of hiking. Rains all the time. Hundreds of trucks on the road, but they all go in the opposite direction. The pass will be open soon. Tibetan trucks are decorated with masks, white birds (amulets for speed), and swastikas. Contrary to what we all have heard, locals paint swastikas rotating in both directions. One truck stopped suddenly, and a Swedish tourist got out to greet me. We only had time to exchange a few words, but we felt like Livingstone and Stanley.

In this area road workers were Chinese, not Uigur, but the menu was almost the same. They were so glad to see me! There's little entertainment in Kun Lun, except for satellite TV. They had telephones, so I was always expected, and greeted with tea and rice. As I walked along many kilometers of rough road, I felt lucky that I won't have to ride there in some trunk.

There were only two villages in this area: Xahidulla and Dahunlutuan. Each consisted of three houses: Chinese cafe, Uigur cafe, and meteorological station. The meteorologists told me that the rains were the worst in many years. Village dumps were inhabited by Tibetan mastiffs, and they were very aggressive, so a stick was a good thing to have.

July 11. In 747 AD, Gao San-Ji, a Chinese general, led an army of 10,000 people, part of them cavalry, through these valleys. He went from Kashi to Pamir, crossed Hindu Kush over Darkot Pass (4,572 m), seized Dardistan and Ladakh, and returned to Kashi along what is now West Tibetan Road. The climate might have been very different at that time, because finding food for that many people and horses in this country seems totally impossible. May be some Russian geologists are right in their bold hypothesis that Pamir and Kun Lun have risen more than a thousand meters in the last 2,000 years.

I crossed the World's highest automobile pass (5,700 m), with large snow fields and some blue sheep at the summit. The next part of the road goes through Aksai Chin Plateau, part of Chang Tang, the highest, coldest and driest region of Tibet. I'm not far from Pamir, but nights are noticeably warmer here. In Pamir, it would be impossible to spend a night at 5,400 m without a tent and a down sleeping bag. Here, I slept in a road culvert and felt very comfortable. Stars were so bright they almost felt warm.

July 12. Finally, the first cars arrived from the pass. First the SUVs of local capitalists drove by, then some trucks loaded with peaches and water melons showed up, and immediately gave me a lift. Gradually some green grass appeared, and the animals, too. The most beautiful were chiru, the Tibetan relatives of saiga antelopes. Wild asses, known locally as chiang, crossed the road in large herds - sometimes it was difficult to drive through the dust. Pairs of giant ravens watched from utility poles, waiting for watermelon pieces. There were lots of lakes, all of different color. You could tell there was a lake ahead long before seeing one: huge flocks of gulls soared above, hunting for caddisfies. Thousands of terns, shelducks, and cormorants also nested on some lakes.

The road is long and sometimes boring, so drivers often fall asleep. You see wrecked trucks every half an hour or so. If you get a ride in the cabin, you have to keep an eye on the driver, and give him a kick now and then. If you are in the trunk, you must be ready to jump out at any moment.

July 13. Soviet maps show no cities in Ngari (Western Tibet). Western maps show many cities, all with long names. The truth is, there's only one big city called Ali, surrounded by hundreds of miles of uninhabited plateaus. Indus, here a small dirty river, flows through the city.

All tourists arriving in Ali are greeted by Mr. Li, an officer of "international police". I don't know what his real name is. His job is to make sure that they all proceed Northeast or West, but not South, towards Kailas Mountain. If they insist on going South, they have to hire a jeep with a driver. I could easily get through Mr. Li by either walking out of the city at dawn, or using my Datzybao (I am the first ever Russian in Ali, so he is not sure if I should be considered a Westerner). But the weather is getting worse, so I decide to go Norhteast, to the drier parts of Tibet. Mr. Li is so happy that he gives me a free dinner.

I bought five cans of food for the journey to Lhasa. The cans had no pictures on them, so opening them many days later was a real fun. Then, I got a ride to a military base further North, and spent a night there, to avoid the expensive hotel in Ali.

July 14. A long hike to Yan Hu (Salt Lake). The country looks like the grasslands of Central Kazakhstan. It's too flat for chiru antelopes, but there are lots of Tibetan gazelles. From the lake, salt trucks go to all parts of Tibet, so hitchhiking is good. It's so nice to lie on large bags of salt, covering yourself with burlap during showers. Feels like being on a yacht in the middle of an ocean, watching waves of bright-yellow grass and brown pebbles roll by, with marmots and hares instead of dolphins. At night, hamsters, Tibetan lemmings, foxes, and sometimes Pallas' cats cross the road.

I opened the first can of food, and discovered it was pineapple juice.

July 15. This area was originally populated by the Mongols, but the Tibetans took over in the early 20th century. They are the poorest of Central Asian nomads, and use miserable tents instead of comfortable yurtas. I feel better sleeping in road culverts or caves.

In a relatively large (more than a hundred houses) village called Gyortze I saw a spectacular hailstorm. It broke all windows, and left a layer of hailstones the size of a small apricot along a 500-m wide area of the grasslands. As soon as it was over, everybody ran out of the village to collect dead birds and hares. For the first time since my encounter with the snow leopard I had some fresh meat. Local people are very hospitable, but they usually have nothing to offer, except for tsamba (wet barley flour) and tea with yak butter. Getting a kettle of water to boil takes half an hour of pumping air into a smoking pile of sheep dung. I opened the second can of food. Rice with mushrooms.

July 16-17. Hiking Southeast across Aling Gangri mountains. It is raining frequently, but the nights are surprisingly warm. As soon as you get a mile or so away from the road, you start seeing wildlife: chiru antelopes, gazelles, wild asses, Tibetan sandgrouses, sometimes also wild yaks and brown bears. (In the eight years since the trip, the situation reportedly got much worse, and large mammals disappeared from many areas of the Plateau - V.D.) Most animals allow close approach, especially hares. I literally stepped on one of them. Birds feed their chicks in my shadow. Most of them nest in pika burrows here. Tiny ground jays and various snow-finches are the most common birds in the grasslands. Only large falcons, wolves and wild sheep are less tame. And there are tiny Phrynocephalus lizards in some places, only active for two-three hours a day.

While climbing a mountain peak a few miles from the road, I found a hot spring at about 6,000 m above sea level. Below was a tiny patch of grass surrounded by snow fields, and there I saw some Oeneis budda butterflies. It's probably the highest breeding site of butterflies in the World.

I opened one more can. Meat!!!

July 18. In such a trip every item is a small friend, and losing it can be a big trouble. I lost a pencil and a hat. I still had a spare pencil, but without the hat my nose got sunburned real bad, and I got a mild case of snow blindness.

From Qoqen village, I hiked up to the pass across Gandisyshan Range. I got so used to hiking at high altitudes, that managed to walk 60 km uphill and not get tired at all. This time I spent the night near a lake with a huge colony of bar-headed geese. They were so noisy that I hardly could sleep. I saw a very bright green fireball. It crossed the sky with a thunder-like sound, and blew up before hitting the ground. Just before dawn a blizzard began, and soon the snow was knee-deep. I finished the next can of food (mushrooms), so my backpack was light again.

July 19. The snow evaporated by noon. I was having a cup of tea with a family of shepherds when a truck showed up, with three Australian tourists in the trunk. After a few minutes' bargain the price of a ride got down from 100 to 50Y. We drove through a small geyser field, and down to Brahmaputra Valley. At sunset we stopped at a small monastery converted into a hotel. I borrowed Lonely Planet's Tibet from the Australians, and read it during the night. It was one of the most amazing things I saw in this entire journey. I'd never seen a good guidebook before.

July 20. Tsang (Southern Tibet) is a country of deep valleys, green grass, barley fields, willow-lined irrigation channels, adobe houses, adobe utility poles (sic!), ancient watchtowers on rocky outcrops, and diverse wildlife. I saw two black-necked cranes today. I got off the truck at one of the junctions, and after five hours of hiking reached Sa'gya Monastery, the center of Sakyapa sect. It was strikingly beautiful, and, after many days of traveling across the plateaus of nomadic Tibet, I felt like I'd suddenly stepped into one of Tolkien's books. I spent the evening exploring its endless passages, with splendid tapestries, colorful frescoes, and wonderful treasuries. I happened to be the first Russian to visit it, so I got an audience with the senior lama. He reminded me of a well-known Classic Chinese etching called Five merry old gods. At night I couldn't sleep, so magical was the view from my window: moonlit roofs, candlelit windows of other cells, and the sound of small bells in the wind.

July 21. With a group of monks I got on a truck to Xigaze. I'd never had so good-spirited and cheerful companions before. They could speak some English, but most of time we had to communicate by drawing pictures, so during the trip we created a large comic book. On long climbs the engine often overheated, and we had to add some chang (sweet Tibetan beer) in the radiator.

Xigaze was a nice city, with splendid Labrang Monastery on a hill overlooking it. It was the only place in Tibet where I saw some Tibetans in Chinese restaurants, and vise versa. The only Russian citizens to ever see Xigaze were Gamboev and Tsybikov, two Buryats who visited it in 1910. My arrival created quite a commotion. I was shown the treasury, a Budda statue 26 meters tall, made of pure gold, and other wonders. Then I tried to hitchhike to Gyangze, but had no luck, and camped in a potato field outside the city.

July 22. The third day of non-stop rain. While I was traveling, a disaster happened: the exchange rate for US dollar fell 50%. Suddenly, I only have half the money I've had before.

Gyangze has a beautiful monastery and an ancient fort. From there I tried to hitchhike to the Sikkim border, to see the Himalayan forests and to try crossing into Bhutan illegally. I got to a small village near Chomolari Peak (7,134 m), and got stuck. After a few hours of hiking, the rain got so bad that I had to find a cave high above the road, and wait there. Not a single car passed for the rest of the day. I opened my last can of food. Apple juice.

Interestingly, although I was only a few dozen miles from the forests of Bhutan, almost all birds in that area were the same as in the Alps of Europe. I only saw one Southern species that day, a shrike.

July 23. In the morning I looked out of my cave and saw a small lynx. Later some Tibetan snowcocks showed up, and a Himalayan bear walked across a distant slope. On the other side of the river there was a tiny village two kilometers to the North. Suddenly one of its three houses fell into the river from the cliff, then another. In the afternoon a couple of trucks showed up, and evacuated all people. A few hours later the entire river bank with the last house was washed away. I spent the rest of the day waiting for a car to pass by, or for the rain to stop, or for the exchange rate to go up.

Late at night a Jeep with two Hong Kong tourists and one Chinese officer came from the South. They told me that the road to Sikkim was closed because of flooding, and took me back to Gyangze, where the water was knee-deep in the streets. They also allowed me to sleep in their car in front of the hotel, and promised to take to Lhasa next morning.

July 24. The main road to Lhasa was also closed, so we took a less-traveled one. The officer confiscated two shovels and a pick from some road workers, and we had to use this equipment every few kilometers to fix the road.

After another high pass, where an icefall descended almost to the road shoulder, we noticed that there were stone huts in the villages and wooden utility poles instead of adobe huts and poles. We'd just crossed into Yu, the Central Tibet. We stopped at a huge lake called Jarinam Co (pronounced Tzo). It was a labyrinth of fjord-like bays dotted with floating grebe nests. The officer had some dynamite charges, so we got a pair of large Schizothorax fish (known as snowtrout in India, and as marinka in Central Asia) for lunch.

In Brahmaputra Valley the weather was slightly better. We cleared some small landslides and got into Yarlong Valley, to see the oldest monasteries in Tibet (Yarboling, built in the 7th century, and Mindoling). Then we drove to Lhasa Airport, where we dropped off the tourists. They gave me a large pack of sausage, which I shared with the officer.

July 25-26. I rented a bicycle and spent two days exploring Lhasa, visiting neighboring monasteries, and watching the Potala from various viewpoints. My Datzybao allowed me to get inside for free, and to see some parts of the palace normally closed for tourists. It's probably the second most beautiful building in the World (I think the Dome in Cologne is the best, but I've never been to India). I also had a banquet at the city post office, to celebrate the first ever telegram from Tibet to Russia. (I sent it to my mother. In order to save money we'd developed a special code, so my telegrams were always cheap: "OK V").

There are some sacred mountains around Lhasa - good places to see wildlife, including rare musk deer.

July 27. The exchange rate finally returned to normal. I joined a tourist group going to Tsurfu Monastery for an audience with Budda Karmapa. He looked 10 or 12, and seemed to be a very nice guy. (Many years later, my first impression proved to be correct: he made the headlines by hiking across the Himalayas to India, really pissing off the Chinese regime - V.D.).

I talked some of the tourists into sharing the cost of short side trips to Nam Co, the World's highest large lake, and to a Bon monastery in Yangbachen (Bon had been the main religion in Tibet before Buddhism).

Road culverts in this area are made of concrete, not of steel pipes, and are much more comfortable to sleep in than in the Western Tibet.

July 28. Hitchhiking on the main (Northern) road from Lhasa is difficult, because the drivers are not allowed to take foreigners. I have to ambush heavy trucks on long steep climbs and jump into their trunks from behind. Chasing a truck uphill at 4,500 m above sea level is not a pleasant sport, besides, sometimes the driver sees you, stops and tells you to get out. But, unlike other Tibetan roads, there's a lot of traffic on this one.

The rains turned the Plateau into a green meadow, but there's almost no wildlife along this road, except for eagles, buzzards and ravens feeding on garbage. Just North from Tang La pass (5,160 m) there's a small lake. A tiny creek that flows from it is the great Yangtze River. The road follows it for a while, and once I saw a large wild yak on the other side of the river. The World's highest city called Wenchuan (at 4,990 m) is also near this pass. [Later it's been reportedly renamed Shangri La to attract tourists - V.D.]

Before leaving Tibet the road crosses the Kun Lun Mountains, At this pass (4,710 m) our truck broke down. I got a ride with an Indian tourist who was riding a motorcycle to Italy. We descended 3,000 m through a canyon with thousands of small caves full of old bird nests and small Eptesicus bats. By midnight we were in Golmud, a large city with street signs in Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian. Old Mongolian script looks like a collection of hawkmoth caterpillars.

July 29. Crossing the Qaidam Depression. It's supposed to be an absolute desert, but it's raining here! The wind is very strong, so its either sandstorm or dust storm all the time, depending on soil composition. Sometimes even a salt storm, if there's a dry lake nearby. One last mountain pass, and I'm in Dunhuang in Gansu province.

July 30. After a day of exploring the famous caves I got a lift back to the city from a group of Mongols with a spare camel. This is the only place where a racing breed of Bactrian camels exists, and they are really fast: we covered 26 km across the "singing" sand dunes in less than three hours.

July 31. The truck driver who was driving me to Quinghai Lake was accompanied with his 4 year-old son, and both were smoking one cigarette after another. The Chinese customs are very interesting. This society is as sophisticated as any European one, but their ideas of what constitutes good manners or good hygiene are different from any other culture I've seen. For example, it's considered very important to wash your hands before a meal. So during bus stops in the desert you often see all fifty or so passengers washing their hands in the same bowl of water.

Lots of Chinese study English, but the pronunciation is difficult for them, and it's always better to write than to speak. The ones with the most fluent English are usually the boys who change foreign currency in the streets, while the ones with the worst English are school teachers.

In the early 20th century, Przhevalsky described Amdo (the plateau surrounding Quinghai Lake) as being heavily forested. I didn't see any trees there, just grasslands. But there were lots of birds at the lake, and some Przhevalski's gazelles.

A few hours later I found myself in the subtropical climate of Xining, a city populated with many different ethnic groups. Most were Muslims, so there were lots of mosques, some of them very beautiful. It was so nice to have some fresh vegetables (they were too expensive for me in Tibet). And it was very warm here, although still raining.

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