Day 2 - Nyingchi, Serkhym-La & Lulang

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After a 25 mins drive north along Provincial Road S306 from the airport, we arrived at a vantage point which overlooks the confluence of Nyang River 尼洋曲 and the Yarlung Tsangpo River 雅鲁藏布江. Easily identified by the pair of stupas which were undergoing restoration work, the vantage point is a popular photography stop among tour groups and is accessed from the road by a short stretch of dirt trail.
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A small weathered plaque at the edge of the lookout marks the vantage point for the confluence of Yarlung Tsangpo River and its longest tributary, Nyang River. The Yarlung Tsangpo River originates from Tamlong Tso in western Tibet (hence its name Tsangpo, which indicates a river flowing through the Tsang region west of Tibet), and would eventually become one of the most iconic waterways in the world as the Brahmaputra and Ganges River.
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The Nyang River and the valley that it carves through in south-eastern Tibet make it one of the most recognisable geographical feature in south-eastern Tibet and support a wide variety of flora and fauna that thrives along its banks. Its relatively steep gradient and high flow rate also makes it a natural candidate to harness hydro-electrical energy. The amount of energy and unpredictable nature also sometimes pose danger to infrastructure downstream, as workers attempt to repair a simple wooden bridge that spans across the river with the aid of the armed forces after a period of particularly heavy rain.
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Looking west towards Bayi town. The Nyang River has a length of 307.5km with a drop of 2,580m from its source deep in the Mila mountain range to its confluence at Nyingchi. Despite the altitude, the Nyingchi region is heavily forested and lush green mountain valleys lay shrouded behind the fog and low clouds in the background.
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The peak tourist season runs from mid-June to mid-September, with April-May and September-October being the shoulder season in Nyingchi. Late May is considered as late spring in this region where the roads had fully thawed from the winter snow and the temperature was a cool 8-17 degrees Celsius on the day of our visit. Spring also heralds the flowering season, and fields of yellow mustard flowers and scattered clusters of purple lavender flowers abound in the Nyang river valley.
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We rejoined the procession of tour coaches after a 15 minute long photo session at the vantage point for the 45 minute long journey to Bayi town.

Nyingchi - Bayi Town 林芝 八一镇

Bayi is the capital of Nyingchi county and stands on the former site of an ancient village known as Drakchi. The town grew in importance in the second half of the 20th century as an important timber and wool trading hub, and virtually all ancient structures had been replaced by rather featureless concrete buildings in this modern settlement. The town sits at an elevation of 2,994m above sea level.

We stopped at a local restaurant 香茗局 for our first meal in Tibet, and were pleasantly surprised with the selection of dishes that were ordered for us. Horror stories had abounded from friends and relatives who had visited Tibet or Bhutan before about the abysmal quality and bland, simple dishes that were commonplace in the region and many of the tour members had resorted to stocking up on a sizeable cache of instant noodles the day before at Chengdu. Fortunately, our fears were largely unfounded as we were greeted with the sight of familiar pork, chicken and vegetable dishes. Neither was the infamous yak butter tea as the sole choice of refreshment with Chinese tea and familiar soft drinks being available as well.

After a satisfying lunch, some of us took interest in a stray dog lounging outside the restaurant. It sported a lion-like mane on top of its scraggy white fur coat which served well to protect it against the unpredictable wind chills that routinely sweep through the town in spring.
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Fairyland Hotel 东悦大酒店

Fairyland Hotel 东悦大酒店 is a 4 star hotel located at the junction of Guangfu Road 广福大道 and Guangzhou Road South 广洲南路 in the heart of Bayi town opposite Shenzhen Plaza. The hotel was opened in 2010 and is one of the handful of hotels in the town that are authorised to accommodate foreign guests.
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Superior twin room with an additional third bed. There is free WiFi available in the hotel lobby as well as in the hotel rooms, which housed in two wings that radiate out from the central foyer. Air-conditioning and a flat screen LCD TV are available in each room.
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Clean toilet with well stocked amenity kits and towels. First time visitors to Tibet are however, advised not to take a bath or shower during the first few days after arriving in Tibet due to the very real risk of catching a cold. Coupled with the large temperature differences and low humidity in the day, this may in turn lead to the onset of altitude sickness. I could certainly testify to the prudence of this piece of advice based on my unpleasant experience towards the end of the trip!
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Upon opening our check-in luggage, we were mildly shocked to find that the box of chocolate coated Orion Pies that we had picked in Chengdu the previous day had crumpled and initially thought that it was an unfortunate casualty of the rough flight earlier in the morning. Instead, the high altitude and resultant air pressure difference had caused each packet to swell dramatically. The cakes had been packaged at near sea level where the air pressure is significantly higher as compared at that at Nyingchi, hence the increase in the volume of air in the packaging that causes the packaging to swell.
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Shenzhen Plaza 深圳广场 is a roundabout situated opposite our hotel and marks the centre of Bayi town. The sacred Biri mountain 比日神山 and the colourful prayer flags on its slopes dominate the background to the east of the town.
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Guangzhou Road South leads south from the roundabout and is lined with restaurants, minimarts and massage parlours. Most of the restaurants along this stretch offer a chance to savour the famed Metok Stone Pot Chicken 墨脱石锅鸡, which is also the region's specialty.
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Serkhym-La Pass 色季拉山口

After a short rest in the hotel, we headed out east along the famed National Highway 国道 G318 which link Shanghai with the border crossing of Zhangmu with Nepal. Long regarded as one of the most iconic carriageways in China, the 2 lane highway crosses some of the most dangerous, but scenic stretches of road and mountain passes between Sichuan and Tibet 川藏公路. An hour's ride on our tour coach brought us to the Serkhym-La Pass 色季拉山口 lookout point which stands at an elevation of 4,720m above sea level.
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Due to the wet weather conditions and freezing temperatures at the high altitudes, a thick layer of snow had blanketed the slopes of the pass and it was certainly a treat to see, view and touch snow melt even in late Spring. The Serkhym-La Mountain is part of the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountain Range 念青唐古拉山脉 which stretches across Central and Eastern Tibet and is often referred to the Alps of Tibet due to its rugged and often snow covered glaciated slopes. Indeed, it brought back pleasant memories of admiring a similar vista in Gornegrat, Switzerland two years ago.
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The monument at the lookout point shows the name of the location and the elevation and is thus a popular photography venue with visitors. At the time of our visit, there was a small group of mountain bikers who are part of the growing number of domestic tourists who attempt the challenging bike ride along G318 from Chengdu or Lijiang to Lhasa between the months of April & September each year.
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Colourful strings of Tibetan prayer flags (风马旗) flutter in the stiff breeze at the mountain pass. Many drivers who regularly traverse the treacherous stretch of Highway G318 put up strings of flags to pray for favourable road conditions and safe passage. In an uniquely Tibetan way of efficiency, it is regarded that each flutter of the prayer flag would be equivalent to chanting the verse of the prayer printed on it. Each colour of the flags also has a deep symbolic meaning - red flags represent the sun, white flags represent the river, green flags represent the trees and grass, yellow flags represent fire and blue flags represent the sky.
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Public transport in the remote parts of Tibet comprise mainly of charter and infrequent scheduled trips between major towns using a van, which is also affectionately known as "bread bus (面包车)" in China due to its uncanny resemblance to a loaf of bread. One of such Chinese built vehicles was photographed picking up passengers outside the small tea stop at the mountain pass en route to Bayi from Lulang.
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Our tour group was assigned a King Long XMQ6800 tour coach operated by Xing Yun Transport 兴运客运 for our journey in Tibet. Due to the challenging operating conditions, the buses deployed in Tibet typically have more powerful engines as compared to similar models sold in other parts of mainland China, and cost approximately 15% more to operate due to the increased fuel consumption.
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Lulang 鲁朗

Continuing our journey east along Highway G318, the tour coach descended from the mountain pass into Lulang and barren steppes soon gave way to the familiar sight of verdant fields and lush forests. Lulang means "Dragon's King Gorge 龙王谷" in Tibetan, and is an appropriate name for it is a narrow swath of verdant forests in a valley flanked by tall mountains on both sides.

A brief 10 minute drive brought us to our first destination in Lulang - Lulang Forest 鲁郎林海.
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Located at an altitude of 3,700m, Lulang forest comprise of large unbroken tracts of forests nestled in the valley and surrounding mountain slopes. Due to its geographical location and climate, the snow line in Tibet is approximately 6,200m in late spring which is very much higher as compared to Europe.
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Apart from trees, rhododendrons and other flowering shrubs also dot the viewing area but were unfortunately not in bloom at the time of our visit. The peak period to view the flowers in full bloom is in the middle of the peak tourist season in July. Thus, we would have to contend with the expansive view of the valley with the fog and partially obscured mountain ranges in the background.
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A short flight of steps lead down to a viewing platform perched at the edge of a cliff for a closer view of the landscape. Bolstered by the view that much of the tour group was relatively unaffected walking around getting photos at the mountain pass earlier, we decided that it should not be much of an issue to take a short walk at an altitude that is 1,000m lower than where we had been barely 30 mins ago.
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Towering ancient cypress trees and other coniferous trees dwarf us as we headed along the path. In an ancient form of worship practised by Tibetans and in some form had carried on in the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that every living being have a spirit. Thus, it is often a common sight to see the braches of trees being draped in white or yellow 'hada 哈达' as a form of respect and worship. The 'hada' is a silk scarf that is often used in the region to present as a welcome gift to guests, or draped as a form of respect in temples and to individuals.
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The snow capped peaks of the Nyenchen Tanglha mountain range were barely visible through occasional gaps in the dense afternoon fog.
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The eastern most section of the Himalayas could also be seen from Lulang Forest on a clear day with the massive 7,782m tall Namcha Barwa peak 南迦巴瓦峰 anchoring the end of the range. Unfortunately, the poor visibility thwarted our chances of admiring the peak during our brief visit.
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The late afternoon fog started to roll into the valley scarcely after we had arrived at the viewing platform to take in the views. However, the fog did make for a picturesque scene as it weaved through the rows of trees and lent an atmosphere of serenity.
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It was not too long after that we had to face the unpleasant task of ascending back up the flight of steps that we had earlier breezed down. Perhaps it was the unearthly hour that we had been awake for the flight, or naïve overestimation of our fitness levels that most of the tour group had significant difficulty picking our way up to the top. With its densely forested landscape that provide a higher than average concentration of atmospheric oxygen, Nyingchi was meant for us to acclimatise to the thin atmosphere of Tibet but it had certainly been breathlessly breathtaking thus far!
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Such was the volatile weather conditions that the visibility had deteriorated to the point where the entire valley was encased in thick fog in the twenty minutes that we were there. Mindful of the weather conditions, we hopped back onto our coach for a further 15 minute ride downhill to our next place of interest in the county.
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While en route, the clouds lifted and the fog momentarily parted to allow us a fleeting glance of the jagged Namcha Barwa peak 南迦巴瓦峰from our coach. The treacherous weather conditions and terrain had foiled many attempts at conquering her peak and had only been successfully reached once in 1992 by a joint Chinese & Japanese expedition. It is the 28th highest peak in the world.
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Complementing the views at the Serkhym-La mountain pass which we had visited earlier, the Lulang valley 鲁郎田圆风光 is appropriately nicknamed as the "Switzerland of Tibet". Small traditional villages and hamlets are scattered across the lush valley floor with a meandering stream snaking across the land.
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The view was framed by coniferous pine trees that covered the gentle mountain slopes and topped by snow capped mountain peaks in the background. There was a certain degree of similarity with the dramatic Jungfraujoch valley in Interlaken, or the charm of the Bernina region, yet there was the unique feel of remoteness and serenity here.
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Devoid of heavy industries and sited high above the pollution that clog the rest of China, Tibet lays claim to having one of the best air quality in China. The soothing cool temperatures on a lazy afternoon had certainly lulled this dog into a peaceful sleep at the viewing deck and completely oblivious to the excited chatter of visitors!
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Yutong tour coach ferrying another tour group with an uncommonly seen pink based in-house promotional livery. Yutong is one of the 4 major bus manufacturers in China.
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Lulang is approximately 80km east of Bayi town and our coach took on water at a service point before the 1.5hr drive back to the town. Due to the steep slopes during the descent, water is essential for the cooling of the brakes and is an unavoidable inconvenience when driving in mountainous Tibet. The sun sets at 8pm and provided some wonderful contrasts as the last rays emerged under the dense layer of fog.
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Our dinner was at Xian Xiang Mei 鲜香美餐厅 steamboat restaurant located along Guangzhou South Road near our hotel. The region's famed Metok Stone Pot Chicken 墨脱石锅鸡 was the main highlight of the meal, and consisted of a locally bred whole chicken being stewed in a pot hewn from the mountains in the remote Metok 墨脱 region for 2 hours together with herbs. The unassuming grey stone pot contains an assortment of minerals, and the handcrafted pot also boasts excellent heat retention. Locally bred chicken 藏香鸡 is used in this dish for its unique meat texture as it was bred in a cold and high altitude environment that increases the protein content in the meat. Lastly, mineral water from the mountains is used instead of tap water. This was complemented by plates of mushrooms and noodles that was cooked in the pot like a traditional steamboat.
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Meanwhile, our Tibetan tour guide, Jimmy, had also come round to show us the additional Alien's Travel Permit 外国人旅行证 which is required on top of the Tibetan Entry Permit 入藏函 for foreigners to tour the Nyingchi region. This is because the region is considered as a remote and sensitive area due to its proximity to the border and access is restricted to only certain nationalities. The Alien's Travel Permit is issued by the local PSB in Bayi town.
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As expected, most of us were tickled by the literal translation of the word 外国人 as 'Alien' and was passed around for everyone in the tour group to take souvenir photos of it. The reverse side of the permit is handwritten with the details of the tour group and the expected itinerary.
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Next Post: Day 3 - Draksum-Tso & Kongpo Gyamda on G318 to Lhasa

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