Category Archives: People

Foto Friday: Tibetan Grandfather and Grandson

Somewhere in Tibet
June 2010

Tibetan grandfather and grandson

We had taken a stop at a tsampa (barley flour) mill when we met this Tibetan grandfather and grandson waiting by the side of the road for someone to stop and bring them to their destination. A few vehicles passed by and none ever stopped to give them a ride. I can’t recall where they were going to exactly but they were headed in the same direction as we were. My friend asked our guide (it’s mandatory for foreigners to hire a guide and a bus/van when travelling in Tibet) whether they could join us on the bus, but our guide said no, explaining that tourist vehicles were not allowed to pick up locals. When we left, the Tibetan grandfather and grandson were still standing there waiting for a kind soul to pick them up. I wonder whether they ever managed to hitch a ride.

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Every photograph we take contains a story, but we often do not spend enough time sharing that story with others. Hence, Foto Friday was born to give some recognition to these forgotten photographs and the memories they hold. Taken over many trips (2004-present) using my crappy cameras and whatever minimal photography skills I have, these photographs serve to give you a little insight into my travels. And if you haven’t realised by now, they’ll be out on Fridays.

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The Mosuo People of Lugu Lake

Leaving Lijang Gu Cheng (Lijiang Old Town) and a 7-hour bumpy bus ride after, we arrived in Lugu Hu (Lugu Lake). Lugu Lake was not like what everyone had raved about. Translucent blue waters and clear cloudless skies? Neither of these was present. What we were treated to instead were dark waters, which only reflected the state of the skies – gloomy, grey and cloudy. We stayed for two days (not by choice, rather because we could not get a seat on the next day’s bus) walking around doing nothing much.  We had wanted to cycle around the lake, but changed our minds when we found out that not only was the lake’s circumference 53 kilometres, the route was an undulating tarred road we had to share with vehicles that passed through the area. That said, the two days spent at Lugu Lake were no less fulfilling and enjoyable for a couple of reasons – the company and the mini history lesson I received.

Lugu Lake is located in the North West region of Yunnan Province. The villages surrounding the lake are home to various ethnic minorities, including the Mosuo people (some 20,000 of them stay in this area). Now, one of the most fascinating aspects about the Mosuo people is that they are probably the only (or at least one of the very few) matriarchal societies that still exist in the entire world.

A bit of a history and culture lesson:

The Matriarchal Society

In Mosuo society, children are under the custody of their mothers, take their mothers’ surnames, and live in their mother’s household. One woman, the “grandmother”, though not necessarily the oldest of her generation, but the strongest, will become the head of the household. In short, the women in the family run the show.

We went to a local's house. This lady introduced herself as "the future head of the household"

So what then do the men do? To quote what a Mosuo man, whom we met who told us stories on the Mosuo culture, said:

“In the Mosuo culture, it is the women’s world, but it’s the men’s paradise.”

Men have no say in the household, but they do have to go out and work, though I’m not too sure what work they have to do. They do not have to manage their children, although they are very much part of their children’s lives. They have no say in their own household, neither do they have a say in their “wives” household. They have no part in the kitchen or in managing finances. Isn’t this then, as the local said, “men’s paradise”?

A Mosuo village

A typical Mosuo house

The Interior of a Mosuo Household

A Mosuo feast

The Walking Marriage

Another interesting fact is that the Mosuo society does not subscribe to a system of marriage that we’re used to – man and woman marry; woman moves into man’s household; man are the head of the household. Instead, the Mosuo man and Mosuo women do not marry and believe in a “walking marriage”.

Picture this: A Mosuo woman at coming-of-age (13 years old) gets her own room. She meets a suitor and if he’s interested, he will go to her room at night, and hang his hat outside the door to indicate that someone is in her room. He must then leave by the morning. This happens every night during their courtship. The day the man is no longer interested in the woman, he will not show up. The day the woman is no longer interested in the man, she closes the door and does not allow him to enter. As simple as that. Hence the term “walking marriage” was borne from the action of the man walking to his partner’s room every night and leaving in the morning.

This may sound like the optimum setting for promiscuity, but in actual fact, apparently some 90% or so Mosuo people stay faithful to their partners once their relationship has been stabilised.

Mosuo women (and one Mosuo man) in their traditional outfits in some touristy dance event we attended.

The History

Historically, the Mosuo people became a matriarchal society as a means of survival. To cut the long story short, every person in the Mosuo household, which typically has 10-20 people (sometimes more), has a role. In the event of a union between man and woman in the Mosuo culture, or rather the stabilising of a relationship since the idea of “marriage” does not exist, neither man nor woman will leave the household. This means that each household will not lose a particular role overnight and will remain strong in numbers in the face of adversity. Many centuries later, this culture remains almost the same.

An old Mosuo woman sitting by Lugu Lake

Those are three pigs deboned and preserved for future consumption, a tradition in a Mosuo household

Some local Mosuo kids we met when exploring the area

I had first heard of the Mosuo people in a documentary I had chanced upon on TV some years back and was most intrigued by its culture and the idea of “walking marriage”. Having known of their existence, it was most insightful for me to get a taste of  the Mosuo culture, interact with actual Mosuo people and see their stories come to life.

And here’s one ethnic minority group in China slightly better understood. Now another 54 to go.

Photo credits: Thanks to Seng for some of the photos. Your photographic skills do the place more justice.

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Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival The Way My Family Does

September 22, 2010

In the ever-progressive country of Singapore, where we have advanced so fast in our short 45-year history as an independent nation to become the modern cosmopolitan that we are, and where many of us, especially for those in my generation, speak English as our first language, it is very easy for us to lose parts of our roots and culture.

As a Singaporean Chinese who speaks English 95% of the time, I admit that I am not very fluent in my native tongue, Cantonese. However, I’m glad that my family still tries our best to follow certain customs that my late paternal grandmother, who immigrated to Singapore in the 1930s and passed away two years ago, introduced to us at a young age. For instance, we celebrate Dong Ji (Winter Solstice), a festival where we gather as a family to eat tong yun (glutinous rice balls), a festival that I dare say that most Singaporean Chinese tend to forget about. Did you know that it’s one of the most important Chinese festivals along with Chinese New Year and Mid Autumn Festival? We are traditional in that way.

Which brings me to my point about Mid-Autumn Festival. I shall not delve much into the significance of the festival itself as Wikipedia can probably do a better job, but there is something else I would like to share. I do not know whether this is an actual custom or this is just something that my grandmother came up with:

Last year's pomelo "chicken" lantern

Every year, my grandmother would make a lantern in a shape of a chicken out of pomelo skin. She would then place a tea light inside, and go around every corner of the whole house with the lantern, turning on all the water points (taps, showers etc) where ever they are positioned, while reciting the phrase “路路两头遇贵人”, which translates to something along the lines of: meet benefactors at both ends of the road.

Truth be told, growing up, I never followed my grandmother around the house; only my sister did. And even then, none of us knew what she was saying and the significance of her practice. We later learned it was her way of blessing the family and the household.

The year she passed away, my dad, who is the head of the household, took over the “duties” of carrying the lantern around the house. Admittedly, we do it now, in my opinion, more so in honour of my grandmother. That said, I believe this custom has continued to bring my family together, which is after all part of what this festival is about, and has helped to maintain some semblance of this custom in my family.

My dad bringing the pomelo chicken lantern around the house (I've blurred out his face to maintain his anonymity)

This year, my parents were away in Japan, but my dad’s sister, who’s not married, came to have dinner with my siblings and I, and the four of us repeated this custom of bringing the pomelo chicken lantern around the house.

This year's Pomelo "Chicken" lantern

Some other photos:

Water Caltrops (they resemble bull heads, complete with “horns”) and yam. These are seasonal autumn food and are traditionally laid out as offerings. My family still does that, though merely symbolically:

Water Caltrops and Yam

Some not-so traditional food, a result of globalisation and localisation. I’m not a fan of the traditional mooncakes with the salted egg yolks so no photos of that:

(i) Chocolate+champagne+pandan and (ii) Durian snowskin mooncakes

Besides celebrating with the family, Mid-autumn festival has evolved to become a time for my friends and I to gather and relive some childhood memories of playing with lanterns and sparklers (the sparklers bit isn’t exactly traditional, but fun nonetheless):

Playing with Sparklers

Playing with more sparklers

Lighting the paper lanterns

Lit lanterns

To the Chinese of the world, hope you had a great Mid-autumn festival!

PS: Sorry if some of the photos are blur. I took most of these with my mobile phone.

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Under-travelled in South East Asia

About a week ago, I received a CouchSurfing message from an American guy a fellow Couchsurfer/friend and I had brought around Singapore when he visited sometime last year. What I learnt about him during our previous conversations was that he was a drummer who had, for 2 years, played on cruise ships, and due to his job, had been to a good 170 cities in the world. Yet, he never really fully got to experience each destination as he was often just in each place for less than 24 hours. When we met, he had just disembarked his cruise ship for the last time, and was helding back to Philadelphia, USA to find a regular job.

Now, almost a year later, he was intending to come back to South East Asia to get a more wholesome experience of the area and he asked me for some recommendations. I thought about the places that I have been to, then I realised that I could not give him any good recommendations as I had not travelled extensively enough around the region.

Malaysia: all over Peninsula Malaysia (a “million” times over), East Malaysia (once)
Indonesia: Lombok (once)
Thailand:  Bangkok (many times), Koh Samui, Krabi
Singapore: Home sweet home

Pulau Redang, Terengganu, Peninsula Malaysia

Gunung Rinjani, Lombok, Indonesia

That’s it.

No Cambodia. No Vietnam. No Laos. No Myanmmar. No The Philippines. No Brunei. And I have not even been to a considerable amount of the countries I have actually stepped foot on.

I almost felt embarrassed having to admit to him that I could not give him suggestions based on personal experience as I am pretty “under-travelled” in the region, but still gave him some suggestions based on my own knowledge of “popular destinations” anyway.

It’s definitely time to start exploring this beautiful region a little more.

Now the question is: which country/city/area of South East Asia should I visit next?

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The Great Welsh Showdown: Day 0 – London Baby!

From L to R (Clockwise): Aparna (Backpacking Ninja, India), me, Anthony (Travel Tart, Aust), Aries (HK), Nellie (Wildjunket, Singapore), Yuko (Japan) Lorraine (Visit Britain), Dong Gu (Korea)

So after many weeks of preparation, all of us have finally gathered here at the Umi Hotel in London.

I’m here with 6 travels bloggers from around the Asia Pacific region for Visit Britain’s first ever blogger trip done in the form of a competition. Termed The Great Welsh Showdown, the competition comprises 5 challenges done over the course of 4 days in Wales, where these bloggers stand to win another pair of return tickets to their preferred destination anywhere in Britain. Not bad me thinks. How I wish I could actually be a participant in this and stand a chance to come to Britain, again! That aside…

Come tomorrow morning, we will be making our way to Cardiff to begin our first challenge of The Great Welsh Showdown – Wyt ti’n Siarad Cymraeg? (Do you speak Welsh?). The bloggers will sit in a half-day Welsh Language lesson and I think it’ll be quite interesting to see if any of the bloggers will be able pick up at least a bit of the the language. After all, Welsh is infamously difficult so much so many local Welsh, especially those of the younger generation, can no longer speak their own native tongue.

Bushcraft | photo credit: http://www.walkandtravel.com

Day 2 will see us in Swansea, where the bloggers will fight it out in the wilderness. The bloggers will undergo a basic bushcraft course to learn some useful skills on how to survive in the wilderness such as lighting a fire without matches, or setting up a shelter using branches. The 6 bloggers will be split into groups of 3, where they will compete to see which group best survives in the wilderness.

Jumping off the cliff | photo credit: http://www.angleseyadventures.com

We will move on to Pembrokeshire on the third day, where we will be doing some Coasteering. In other words. Wetsuits. Cliffs. Navigate. Take video (or rather, be videoed). Say last words. Jump.

The last day, which I’m personally super excited about, involves sheep! Loads of sheep! And their poo. Why let perfectly-formed sheep excrement go to waste when you can make paper out of it? Even Gordon Ramsey, who rears sheep to eventually cook them, thinks that their sh*t should not go to waste. And the man, makes them into menus. Check this out:

Yes, we’ll be making Sheep Poo Paper as well. After which, we will go pretend to be farmers and learn how to gather sheep. (Hopefully gather the actual sheep and not their poo.) How cool is that. We’ll be in Snowdonia, a famed national park, for this challenge and being such a nature-freak, I’m really looking forward to the picturesque views.

Flip MinoHD | Photo credit: Cisco

The last challenge can be done at any point of the Wales trip. Cisco kindly sponsored us (rather the bloggers) 7 Flip MinoHDs, and they will be taking a video, humourous in nature, of the trip. The best part? One of their readers will also stand to win 7th Flip cam. So, go leave a comment on the videos when they are up and you may just be the lucky winner. The Flip MinoHD is a pretty neat gadget.

Throughout these 4 days, the bloggers will be blogging on their individual sites while we, the organisers, will be doing some mini-updates on the microsite. And I, personally, will try to blog here. I shall take my leave now. Till Cardiff, goodnight.

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I went to Wales to accompany 6 travel bloggers from around Asia as part of The Great Welsh Showdown, a Visit Britain initiative to introduce the beauty of Wales to the blogosphere.

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Revisiting Wales

Wales

Revisiting Wales. Photo Credit: Visit Britain

It was “summer” of 1995 and my parents, brother and I were seated in a London cab en route to Changi Airport in Singapore. Almost a day later we were in another London cab, this time, actually in London. I was all of 8 years old and this was the farthest city I’d ever been to, and this would remain to be the case till some 13 years later, when I embarked on my University student exchange programme to Jönköping, Sweden. Suffice to say, I was, as the English would say, bloody excited (except at 8, I probably would not have said that) –  after all, it was going to be 12 days in the beautiful UK.

To be honest I cannot remember much about this particular trip to London (I did go back in 2008), though I do remember…

that we stayed with my parents’ friend Monica and her balding English husband, Richard (edit: Just found out he has since passed on. RIP).

and…

how my dad brought me around to look at shops that sold ballet accessories.
… and how my 10-year brother sat as still as a mannequin, minus the mouth-moving part as he was chewing on a single piece of gum, for 3 whole hours as my mother did some major retail therapy in a shop at Covent Garden. (It’s funny on retrospect in guessing why my mother didn’t bring me, and why my dad and brother didn’t go do some “guy stuff” together.)

and also…

how my brother and I apparently unknowingly tuned in to some R-rated channel, while my parents were out watching Evita at West End for the millionth time. Wait actually I don’t remember that, but the brother does.

and…

how we watched Starlight Express and Sunset Boulevard at West End and thought that the former was oh-so-cool because the entire cast performed in rollar-skates. I don’t think I really understood the latter, but hey, I watched the brilliant Elaine Paige in the flesh belting out musical “classics” (now that is), such as “As If We Never Said Goodbye”.

The part of the trip that I still vividly remember and that remains deeply etched in my heart and mind, however, would be the road trip to and around Cymru, or otherwise known to most of mankind as Wales.

The strawberries we bought from a road side stall. How my brother and I lay in the makeshift beds (a.k.a the boot) of our rental SUV. The bread and jam we feasted on at quaint little cafes during the tea breaks we took along the way.

Our first stop in Wales was at a B&B on a farm owned by a elderly couple called Colin and Daphne. We were greeted by Colin, who was simply clad in a thin white cotton tee, and I recall how I thought he was so ridiculous to just be wearing so little, when I was under my 5 layers of clothes. We were the first Singaporean family to ever grace their premises, and they were just as excited to have us as their guests and we were to stay there. They treated us with such great hospitality and kindness and this made the stay especially memorable.

I remember the one-hour tour around their farm.  I remember their 2 little black and white dogs, Hannah and Sam, who were ever so playful and loved to cuddle up to us. I remember the electric blankets that kept us warm those cold, erm, Summer nights. I remember the lovely dinners our host, Daphne, cooked for us to satiate our stomachs.

I just simply loved everything about the B&B and I honestly did not want to leave.

We moved on to another B&B. Well I can’t really call it a B&B as it was a huge-ass mansion. My parents got the humongous master bed room, with its walk-in wardrobes and what-not, while my brother and I were stuck with a tiny double room. There was not much to do in the mansion and I recall walking along it’s long hallways flanked by dozens of rooms. I recall walking around the back garden, which was more of a forest really. I recall being bored in our rooms and how we watched Power Rangers on TV. I recall the giant Great Dane and the tiny chihuahua that the owners had and how hilarious it looked when the two dogs sat side by side.

The mansion was quite forgettable. It did not feel as homely as the little farm B&B felt. But it did not matter. There was this particular charm about Wales and its rustic countryside that was so alluring.

I can’t quite explain how it happened but I fell in love with Wales and I promised myself that I was going to be back someday. I even dreamt of one day buying a piece of land and owning my own farm and B&B. But never did I think that I’d be returning to Wales so soon. It may have already been 15 years, so “soon” may not be the appropriate word to use. Still, Wales was in the “Someday I’ll be back” Plan, but not in the short-term plan, and definitely not in the “I’m Leaving for Wales Tonight” Plan.

So yes, I’m actually heading to Wales this very evening. And while I *secretly* wish that this trip is actually part of a grander Europe or UK trip, I’m going there for work, which really is the next best option, so what’s there to complain about?

I’ll be going there as part of a blogger challenge for Visit Britain with the following bloggers – TheTravelTart (Anthony, Australia), Aries (Hong Kong), Backpacking Ninja (Aparna, India), Yuko (Japan), Dong Gu (Korea) and Nellie (Singapore) . No, I’m not taking part in the challenge, but rather just the “escort”. While I probably won’t have much time to be blogging much over the course of the trip, these 6 bloggers will definitely be blogging, so you can follow their progress here (note: microsite to only go ‘live’ tonight at midnight) and here if you’re interested.

And while I’ve already stated a disclaimer that this trip is indeed work-related, and hence this post may look like pure publicity, it is not; this blog post is written for my love of the delightful Wales, the Wales I’ve loved and longed for for the past 15 years, the Wales I can’t wait to revisit in the week to come.

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I went to Wales to accompany 6 travel bloggers from around Asia as part of The Great Welsh Showdown, a Visit Britain initiative to introduce the beauty of Wales to the blogosphere.

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Of life, beer, and the people we meet.

It’s amazing how much can happen in a single train ride. For starters, I’m not even in Xining (Qinghai province) now, but in Xi’an (Shaanxi province) right now. And in case you were wondering, no, we did not board the wrong train thinking that Xi’an was in fact Xining given the similarities of their names. And no, we also did not miss our stop and ended up somewhere an additional 12-hour train ride away from my original destination.

 

When we first boarded our train, HX and I discovered we weren’t even seated next to each other; we were separated by an aisle. She was sitting next to these two Swiss girls who were also in the same tour group as we were in in Tibet, while I was seated next to an old man heading to Lanzhou. ‘Fate’ had it when the two Swiss girls, deciding that a 48-hour train ride to Beijing was too long to endure while seated, managed to obtain an upgrade to “hard sleeper” class, and so, HX and I shifted in and took over their seats. Seated opposite us were two Tibetian students who were also about our age and another Han Chinese guy. 

Because of that now one empty seat and our ‘prime’ location at the start of the carriage near the train attendants’ office, there were always two train attendants who always took the opportunity to skive and chatted with all of us seated there. Our conversations somehow always revolved around HX’s and my trip to Xining as well as life in Singapore. Everyone kept asking us why we were heading to Xining when there’s not much to do there. The two Tibetian guys, who studied in Xi’an for four years and were heading back for graduation, as well as the Han Chinese guy, who lived near Xi’an, told us that Xi’an was more fun and even the two train attendants agreed. 

Crazy as it seemed at that point, within the first eight hours of our ride, we knew that we had to go to Xi’an. We figured that since our friend, Seng, was only going to meet us in Xining on the 10th, meaning that we would be staying in Xining for at least a good six days, it was more wise for us to head elsewhere first. And, of course, the decision was made easier now that we knew two people who were practically local to Xi’an, and with whom we got along with very well – The Tibetian guys. 

Though they initially spoke to each other in Tibetian and we spoke to each other in English, we hit it off quite quickly in our only common language – Mandarin. 

We discovered over the course of our trip how generous Tibetians are. Perhaps it is due to their Buddhist nature or their good upbringing, but they never hesistated to share with us everything, sometimes even forcing us to accept the food and drinks they seemed to have plenty of. Air-dried yak meat straight from the bone, gua zi, chicken feet snacks, milk tea, chang wine, Budweiser beer, more Budweiser beer, HuangHe Beer (okay you get it – a hell a lot of beer). Oh and cigarettes too, which we kindly declined.’ 

Eating air-dried Yak meat straight from the bone

Eating air-dried Yak meat straight from the bone

Chang, Yak and Chicken Feet

Chang, Yak and Chicken Feet

These people really knew how to enjoy a good train ride. All they had with them were a luggage full of food and drinks, and perhaps just about one extra set of clothes.  

We spent most of our time hanging out with them at the lunch carriage where we drank and drank a lot. Did I mention we drank a lot? You really don’t want to know that we finished 31 bottles x 330ml of Budweisers during the 36-hour ride. Whoops, I didn’t just reveal that. And that does not even include the box of Huanghe beer they bought at a stop, and their stash of Tibetian chang wine. Interestingly, most of the other beer-drinking people in the lunch carriage were Tibetian, and boy did they drink a lot. 

First day of Budweisers

First day of Budweisers

HuangHe Beer

HuangHe Beer

Second day of Budweisers

Second day of Budweisers

Tiger 'Crystal' Beer. All 24 bottles. At some bar in Xi'an.

Tiger 'Crystal' Beer. All 24 bottles. At some bar in Xi'an.

Pretending to be Yaks

Pretending to be Yaks

  

My alcoholic friends would indeed be very proud. 

I guess when beer only costs 10yuan (about S$2) a bottle, it really isn’t that inaccessible. And, to my defense, the beer here is a lot lighter than what we’re used to back home. 

 Bonding over alcohol and some gua zi like old men playing chess at a HDB void deck, four of us quickly realised how ‘fated’ we were. Had the Swiss girls not have upgraded, we probably would have spent most of our time just speaking to them and not much to the Tibetian guys, especially since they were initially not sitting directly opposite us, and we will probably not be here in Xi’an right now. Also, almost the whole carriage was full of people who were much older than we were, yet we were seated so close to each other. How well we connected with each other, and what fun times we had. 

 Before this starts sounding like some epic love story, it really isn’t, but one about how fast life changes and the people we meet along the way who make life more enjoyable. And I’m really glad I got to meet these two people. 

I was just telling HX today that there were a few times in Tibet when I wished we had stayed in Nepal a couple more days since we had a few days to spare anyways. But I’m glad that we left as planned and travelled through Tibet, and got onto the right train from Lhasa at the right time and met our two new friends – Ciren Qujia and Tudan Yixi (direct translations of their Tibetian names).  

  

Ciren Qujia & Tudan Yixi

Ciren Qujia & Tudan Yixi. Cant seem to flip the image.

Photo of a photo taken at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda fountain show. Pardon its blurness

Photo of a photo taken at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda fountain show. Pardon its blurness

Last photo before we had to say goodbye for good.

Last photo before we had to say goodbye for good.

Back to travelling to Xi’an. So, we smsed the owner of our hostel in Xining to inform him of our delay, extended our ticket to Xi’an, and hoped hard that we would be able to find accomodation in Xi’an. So here I am writing this in my journal from my Xi’an hostel dorm room while HX is already snoring (literally. At least she’s not sleep-talking/laughing. Yet, that is.) 

We’ve been here a day (at the point of writing in my journal. And I digress: HX really did just sleep talk, asking if I heard some echo.) and I’m pretty sure we’ll be at least a little sad to leave Xi’an come Wed. 

But I’m learning to accept that’s how life really is: New destinations. New life stories. New amazing people to meet.

 

More random photos: 

View of the endless plains from the Tibet-Qinghai railway

View of the endless plains from the Tibet-Qinghai railway

  

The tracks

The tracks

Some of the people from the Tibet tour. The only ones remaining just before we alighted.

Some of the people from the Tibet tour. The only ones remaining just before we alighted.

PS: We survived the 36-hour ride pretty well. Our bums are still intact, thankfully! I’m not so sure about our livers though. 

 

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