I'm so excited. Having made the decision to take the second six months of this year off, I'm already in planning mode. I've mentioned before that I really enjoy the research stage, finding out as much as I can about a place before hand, and then starting to come up with a plan.
My plans are not what other people call itineraries. No way would I commit to actually booking stuff ahead of time, aside from an airfare that is. My reasoning is, that if I have enough knowledge about a place I can estimate an approximate amount of time I might spend there before moving on, thus working out what might be feasible within the time span of my visit. I kind of end up with this massive amount of information about my destination, from which I can pick and chose.
I travel slow. Sometimes when I read on a travel forum or in someone's blog about a projected itinerary I begin to get a head spin. Seriously! Probably the most annoyingly tedious part of travel for me is the incessant packing and repacking, and so I usually plan to stay at least a couple of nights, often much longer, in most destinations. I also find that it isn't really practical to spend more than 3-4 hours doing sightseeing in a day, and that I like to factor in a heavy dose of aimless wandering, chatting to locals, exploring markets and experimenting with new foods. All of which can take me in any number of directions.
Because I plan for a snail's pace, I sometimes find I am running ahead of schedule. In which case it's nice to be able to pluck a destination out of the research hat and run with it. That's what happened to me in Java in 2010, when I headed off to Madura, a fairly sizeable island just off Surabaya, home to some of the friendliest people I've ever met. Not to mention great food and nice beaches. And no mass tourism whatsoever. Yeah, most of you have never heard of it right?
My two countries of choice for this upcoming trip have many similarities yet are also vastly different. I'm not talking about New Zealand. I'm just going there first for some alpine hedonism but perhaps I could rebrand it as pre-trip training and acclimatisation. Because I'm going high altitude trekking in China!!
Everybody goes to Nepal and India to trek the Himalayas, and one day I'll probably go there too. But China has Tibet, not only the Tibetan Autonomous Region where independent travel is no longer possible, but also the neighbouring provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. Here there are spectacular glaciers, high altitude lakes and pastures, Tibetan monasteries, yak herders, and some of the most biodiverse environments on the planet. Not to mention a rich cultural heritage and the ability to travel relatively unhindered by the government authorities.
Researching a destination like this is so important. Being abreast of the politics means being aware of recent local uprisings and the extreme sensitivity of the Chinese government. Since the March 2008 uprising in Lhasa there have been sporadic protests throughout the Tibetan milieu, causing the government to restrict access to certain areas, even some outside the TAR, during anniversaries of these events. Last year much of north western Sichuan was closed to Westerners for more than a month after a protest at one of the monasteries. And each year in March the government suspends all western permits to visit the TAR whatsoever. I do wonder whether the response by the government is somewhat counterproductive, as few tourists speak the language so our access to knowledge about what was going on on a day to day basis would be extremely limited. Publicising it through restricting access not only legitimises the protest, but puts it on the radar for longer than it might have otherwise been.
Prior to March 2008, access to Tibet wasn't so restrictive, and so there's some excellent books around on trekking the region, including areas outside the TAR. There's also a handful of informative websites advertising numerous trekking options within Sichuan and Yunnan, aside from the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. I'm eternally grateful to whoever left that trip brochure behind in a guesthouse in Berastagi, North Sumatra, because it was in that brochure that I first heard of TLG. It was that dream that got me to Yunnan in late 2008, a visit that made me fall in love with China, and make me want to return to explore further. Well, 2012 is shaping up to be the year!!
At present I'm hoping to spend 2-3 months in China, doing a number of expeditions into the hills. No extreme mountaineering, just trudging along, crossing a few passes above 4000m ASL, camping in alpine meadows, visiting remote monasteries, some glaciers, and generally gorging myself on spectacular mountain scenery. I've found at least five or six possible 2-3 week treks I could do, so I'm accumulating lots of options. I'm also planning to include some tourist sights, I mean a visit to Sichuan is hardly complete without seeing the pandas is it? There's also an all important assignation with the local food specialties, like hot pot. Years of watching Iron Chef means I'm looking forward to trying some hot Sichuan pepper dishes!! And then there's dumplings for breakfast, I'm salivating already....
I'm going to look for company for these treks - besides local guides - amongst friends, along the way, and also out here in the world wide web. I've had mostly fantastic travel companions in the past, and have learnt from the bad ones how to work out whether a prospective travel companion will be compatible. I'm a journey woman, not a destination junkie, and I now know how to tell the difference.
If you are at all interested in doing some China trekking with me, between September and November this year, then drop me a line. All comments are moderated, which means I can delete your contact details prior to comments being published.
As for country number two? Well I mentioned it in a previous post: Myanmar. More on that next.