The Beaten Path Guide to Provençal Villages

Photo set on Flickr

Long before Florida became a magnet for retiree there was Provence, where two millennia ago Julius Caesar set up three colonies for the veterans of his legions. Since then this southern region of France has welcomed popes, artists, retired Brits (thanks to Peter Mayle) and increasingly, Chinese tourists. And why not? With its reliably sunny weather (when the Mistral isn’t blowing), hearty cuisine, an abundant supply of wine, and a slow-paced lifestyle, it is easy to dream about having a good life in Provence.

Which is somewhat ironic when this love for the Provençal way of life has completely transformed the region. A huge influx of tourist and retirement money has pushed up the property prices in this once poor region. If you time your visit during the lavender season, chances are you will be sharing everything, from the road to dining options to accommodation with tens of thousands of others. The quaint villages foreigners couldn’t help but fall head over heels for? They have mostly been turned into vacation or retirement homes, where the prices are so outrageous even bankers and brokers are relocating to areas with less sunshine such as the Lot Valley.

You can easily spend a week in the area, but if you are like us and have neither the time nor desire to rent a villa and do the retiree routine of visiting a market at a different village everyday, here are the must-see villages on a tight schedule. Trust me, after a few villages most of them start to become indistinguishable from each other – you should prioritize on visiting the cream of the crop. Yes, the four I picked are well known and touristy and are on everybody’s itinerary, but they are listed as one of “The most beautiful villages of France” for a reason. Likewise, avoid these places like plague if you want to venture off the beaten path.

With apologies to Apt, Bonnieux, Lacoste, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Ménerbes, Sault, St Remy and Uzès, let’s begin:

Les Baux-de-Provence

Located majestically atop a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles between Avignon and Arles, Les Baux was God’s gift to humanity to be a military stronghold. But even the mightiest fortress was not indestructible, and the village was sacked on the order of the French king Louis XI in 1483. Les Baux enjoyed a second boom when a red mineral was discovered nearby; it was named bauxite by the geologist Pierre Berthier after the former stronghold.

Today the village relies entirely on tourism. Once home to 4,000 people, only 0.5% still remain. Tourism is the only thing that keeps Les Baux from falling into complete desertion. Les Baux’s dramatic setting justifiably makes it one of the most popular destinations in Provence, but don’t come expecting anything more than a beautiful facade. An hour is sufficient enough to cover the entire village including the chateau. Allow another half hour for Carrières de Lumières, a popular light and sound show of classic paintings inside an abandoned quarry (€ 10.5), which we passed up on because we would rather be outdoor.

The best way to enjoy Les Baux is from a distance where you can marvel the village in its entirety. My recommended spot to take a panorama shot of Les Baux is at an overlook a few minutes’ drive north from the Carrières de Lumières on the D27.

Roussillon

Many gorgeous villages deserve your time around Avignon, but the mountainous region of Luberon in the middle of Provence is where you should be if you want to get the most out of your limited travel time. Specifically, head to the “Golden Triangle” in between the three mountain ranges Little Luberon, Big Luberon and Oriental Luberon where some of the prettiest villages in the region are located.

Roussillon’s claim to fame is the large deposits of red ochre pigments found in the clay around the village. Ochre was mined extensively to be used in the textile industry from the 18th century until the 1930s, and the practice is now banned to preserve the village. Today tourism has replaced mining as the main source of income.

Roussillon can easily occupy an entire morning, especially if you arrive on a market day on Thursdays. Perhaps because of its colorful surroundings, Roussillon has attracted a large community of artists and painters, filling the village with galleries instead of run-of-the-mill souvenir shops.

The main parking lot is the easiest place to take a panorama shot of Roussillon.

Gordes

Slightly north of Roussillon is Gordes, located at the top of the Golden Triangle and a 10-minute drive from the Sénanque Abbey. Settled since Roman times, most of the current buildings were rebuilt after World War II when much of the village was destroyed following a brief period of resistance against German occupation. Like other villages in the area Gordes mostly relies on tourism nowadays. As one of the larger villages in the region, it is easy to get away from the crowd while wandering along its winding streets.

A few hours in the afternoon is sufficient. The best spot to take a panorama is at an outlook on D15 approaching the village from the west. Prepare some food in advance and have a picnic at this spot to take in the view instead of paying for overpriced meals in the village.

Lourmarin


Of the dozen villages I have visited, Lourmarin is by far my favorite (or it could be Uzès, but we were in too much of a rush to do it justice). It manages to combine remarkable beauty with a sense of approachability that’s absent in many of its counterparts.

Located at the foot of the Luberon Massif at the southern edge of the Golden Triangle, Lourmarin was settled a millennium ago even without the defensive bonus of being on a hilltop. Without the dramatic setting of sitting on the edge of a slope, Lourmarin won’t immediately grab your attention like when first arriving Roussillon or Gordes. How Lourmarin differentiates is by radiating a homey feeling that you can’t help but fall in love with. That might be one of the reasons Peter Mayle decided to call Lourmarin home for awhile before selling his estate for a whopping €6 million and moved 10 km northeast to an even smaller village called Vaugines.

Even if you don’t share my feelings about Lourmarin, a tangible advantage of staying in this village is the fact it is not a hilltop village, meaning even if you are arriving late at night you don’t have to navigate the mountain roads in the dark. Evening scroll is also easier on flat ground.

Lourmarin’s setting doesn’t offer a panorama shot. The best location to photograph the entire village is a grass field a block south of the Chateau de Lourmarin on D943.

The Lavender Route

Photo set on Flickr

Lavender is big business in Southern France. From the Drôme River to the north all the way to Grasse near the Mediterranean, large swath of land is dedicated to growing the source of everyone’s favorite essential oil. Before the purple flowers are ground into oil, for several short weeks from late June to early August these lavender fields also serve as one of France’s biggest tourist draw.

You can easily spend days to cover the area, but visitors like myself who have limited time should stick to the route between Sénanque Abbey and Valensole. The itinerary works best if you are based in one of the villages in Luberon or Aix-en-Provence, although if you don’t mind a longer drive you can begin from Avignon. Lourmarin was my choice and the route took around four hours to cover.

Sénanque Abbey
Lourmarin – Sénanque Abbey 35 km (50 min)

Sénanque Abbey

Not sure if you even like lavender? Begin the day at the most iconic lavender patch at Sénanque Abbey and decide for yourself. If you can’t have enough of the purple flower, continue along the route, or escape to the nearby Gordes if you don’t see what’s the fuss is all about. The best thing about the lavender route is you can detour to other points of interest after any stop.

Try to arrive early before the tour buses. We actually visited Sénanque Abbey in late afternoon on another day while doing our Luberon hilltop village whirlwind tour; the struggle just to find a parking spot reminded me of Sunday at a Costco. So do what we didn’t and make this your first stop of day.

After you have taken the mandatory postcard photos, should you shell out the €7.5 to see the interior of the 12th century Cistercian monastery? I felt a certain sense of spirituality and seriousness prevailing in the air when I visited, perhaps because the monastery is still very much in use. But for this route I would recommend skipping it – the tour is in French and takes an hour. Do it only when you are visiting on another day like us.

Sault
Sénanque Abbey – Sault 40 km (50 min)

Sault Wednesday market

If you are into market, try to do this route on a Wednesday when Sault, the supposed “Lavender Capital”, holds its weekly market. Not a big deal if you miss it – check out this list to find those that fit your itinerary. The bigger ones are those in Aix-en-Provence, Apt and L’ Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Don’t fret about the market – lavender is the reason you are here. Driving north along D943 it is easy to see how Sault got its moniker. The purple flowers are in full bloom for tens of kilometers until a hill abruptly rises up from the plateau with a pretty village sitting at the top.

Sault

Here you can gain a better appreciation for the cultivation of lavender in Provence. The scale is massive. So massive it makes its counterparts in Hokkaido and Seqium seem like child’s play. This is not a gimmick to attract tourist; for centuries these plants are planted on the same plot of land and have supported the livelihood of generations of growers.

Baron
Sault – Banon 35 km (30 min)

Lavender field along D950

Prepare to stop often heading east to Banon. Just when you think you are growing tired of the purple stuff, this scenic stretch of D950 throws a different look at you. Sénanque Abbey has the momentous background and Sault the bird’s-eye view, but it is here along this nondescript country road where you can find rows of neatly planted lavender that resemble a L’Occitane advertisement poster.

Banon

Famous for its namesake unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese, Banon is an ideal place to break up the long drive to Valensole for a temporary diversion from lavender.

Valensole
Banon – Valensole 55 km (1 hr)

Valensole

You might be wondering, “I have already seen miles upon miles of lavender, what’s the point of driving all this way for the same thing?”

All those stuff written above – they are just appetizers – none of them can hold a candle to Valensole. Despite Sault’s claim, it is at Valensole where the highest concentration of lavender farms are located in Provence. Every direction you look are fields of lavender that stretch to the horizon. My only tip is not to waste any time on the town itself – it is one of the less attractive hilltop villages in the area.

If you have only a few hours, ignore all the previous stops and come straight to Valensole. You won’t regret it.

 

Five Days, Five Themes in Provence

June 30 – July 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

A mere three weeks after our herculean trip to Tibet, I found myself flying again, this time to Paris for a conference. With a few days of free time afterward and my wife joining me from Hong Kong, we decided to head south to Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Count us lucky – our arrival coincided with the region’s lavender season, which runs from late June to early August.

Trying to see as much of Provence and Côte d’Azur as possible in a mere five days – we knew going in it was a foolish proposition. But between lavender fields, Roman ruins, hilltop villages and seaside resorts, there were too many interesting draws that demanded our time. We tried to allocate a theme for each day, which again underlines the great variety of sights this popular region offers.

Here comes the question: If there are so many worthwhile sights competing for your limited amount of time, which are must-sees and which are not? I will share my findings in these following posts.

Day 1 
Avignon 

Everyone will pass by Avignon in one way or another. Should you actually spend any time there?

Day 2
Arles, Nîmes and Orange

Arena of Nîmes

Provence has a wealth of Roman ruins. Obviously Pont du Gard is a must-see. How about the slightly lesser known ones in Arles, Nîmes and Orange? Are those worth the time, especially when you have seen the ones in Italy?

Day 3
Lavender Fields

Valensole

These famous lavender routes span hundreds of kilometers. How to cover it in one day so you won’t suffer from a lavender overdose?

Day 4
Hilltop Villages

Bonnieux

With dozens of villages in the area, I am not going to pretend I know enough to properly rate them. What I can do is share where are the best spots to photograph the ones I had been to.

Day 5
French Riveria 

Le Rocher, Monte Carlo

If you don’t own a yacht and don’t plan to gamble, is a day trip to Monaco for you?

Versailles vs Fontainebleau

If you can only see one chateau as a day trip from Paris, should you visit Versailles or Fontainebleau?

On the face of it the above question seems pointless – almost everyone would choose Versailles, only the most famous chateau of all and the prototype that spawns dozens of imitators across Europe. Yet if you google “Versailles vs Fontainebleau” you will find a surprising amount of support for shunning Versailles in favor of its lesser known counterpart. So which one really deserves your time?

Below is a showdown between the two chateaus across four categories: History, grandeur, crowd and accessibility.

History

The Throne Room, Château de Fontainebleau

Although Versailles has come to symbolize the classic French Renaissance chateau, it actually arrived relatively late to the palace-building frenzy in France. Think of it this way, the chateau that was Louis IV’s inspiration for Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, was built in 1661, seven years before the completion of the first phase of Versailles. And that’s more than a century after the construction of many of the famous chateaus in the Loire Valley such as Chambord and Chenonceau. Fontainebleau was also completed during this period.

History is not merely a matter of length, of course. It is what actually happened within the compound that counts. Versailles has Louis IV – Louis VI, the French Revolution, and the Treaty of Versailles. While Fontainebleau doesn’t have a history-altering moment like the Treaty of Versailles, it did serve as the royal residence of a much wider range of monarchs from Francis I to Napoleon III. The Sun King himself, forever linked to Versailles, had spent more time at Fontainebleau than any other monarch. The meteoric rise and abrupt fall of Napoleon were also intertwined with Fontainebleau; the Little Corporal met with Pope Pius VII at the chateau to prepare for his coronation and a decade later abdicated his throne at the very same place.

Edge: Fontainebleau by a hair

Versailles’ peak is more impressive, but Fontainebleau has a century of head start and some very important moments of its own.

Grandeur

Château de Versailles

Versailles wins this one in a landslide. Now, compares to most other chateaus Fontainebleau is excessively opulent, but Versailles is no ordinary palace. You know what’s really expensive in 17th century France? Mirror. So guess what item did Louis XIV use extensively to decorate his showcase gallery? Mirror, naturally. 357 of them. That’s like finding a room filled with slabs of crystal in today’s equivalent. You like huge garden? Versailles’ is larger than 1,140 soccer fields. Want some marble? Grand Trianon and its pink marble is the place for you.

Edge: Versailles in a landslide

Fontainebleau might be fit for kings and a pope, but Versailles was built for the self-anointed Sun King and his unmatched ego.

Crowd

Château de Fontainebleau

Look at the photo above. That was taken on a Sunday afternoon late June and Fontainebleau was completely empty. On the very same day I promise Versailles would be packed with people. During two previous visits to Versailles on weekdays I had to line up for more than an hour just to get through the security checkpoint. Be sure to buy a museum pass in Paris before you go to Versailles, or else another long queue to purchase ticket will be waiting for you.

Edge: Fontainebleau in an avalanche 

Here’s probably the most stated reason why Fontainebleau is the preferable day trip destination. The crowd at Versailles is some of the worst I have seen anywhere. Try to arrive early and wish for the best.

Accessibility

Both are straightforward to get to.

For Versailles take the RER C5 line to Versailles Rive Gauche station, which is a five-minute walk away from the palace. From Invalides the ride takes about 40 mins. The round trip ticket costs €5.60.

To reach Fontainebleau, take a 40-minute train ride from Gare de Lyon on the east side of Paris. The palace is a ten-minute bus ride away. The €16.80 round trip train ticket already includes the fare for the bus ride.

Edge: Versailles

Although the travel time is about the same, you can leave for Versailles from central Paris while Gare de Lyon is a bit away from the main tourist areas.

My Take

Turns out this showdown between the two chateaus is closer than expected. In fact, the Fontainebleau backers have a solid case. To me, the question boils down to this: Are you willing to see a 70% version of Versailles with none of the crowd?

For most, it would be hard to justify traveling all this distance and missing out on the cream of the crop. I too visited Versailles twice before I finally made it to Fontainebleau. The benchmark set by the former proved impossible to meet even I did enjoy having the latter all to myself. My advice to best enjoy these two is to first visit Fontainebleau, then to Versailles as early as possible on another day. If time only permits visiting one, go with the conventional wisdom and see Versailles. Despite the crowd it is still the most awe-inspiring chateau in Europe.

Three Overlooked Sections of Louvre

 

June 28, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Like all great museums, nobody can cover the Louvre in one go. In fact, with some 35,000 pieces of art and artifacts from prehistory to modern time on display, very few souls in this world can claim to have seen them all. Most visitors only make a beeline to the first floor of the Denon wing to see the Mona Lisa and other Renaissance masterpieces, onward to the nearby Greek exhibition where the Winged Victory of Samothrace is located then call it a day. That’s totally understandable – not only is the Louvre packed with treasures, it is also the world’s most visited museum with more than 9.7 million visitors in 2012. Sorting through both the massive amount of exhibits and people requires a great deal of stamina.

But for those who have the energy and time, here are three sections of the Louvre that demand a look as much as, if not more than, the Mona Lisa, which is actually not all that interesting.

Ancient Egypt

The Seated Scribe from Saqqara

When you think of the Louvre, you think of the palace, the glass pyramid, its classical sculptures and Renaissance paintings. But do you know it also has the world’s fifth largest collection Ancient Egyptian artifacts?

Located on the lower ground floor of the Denon wing and three floors of Sully, the Louvre’s collection is divided into two routes. The Thematic Circuit presents artifacts that project the daily routine of living along the Nile in Ancient Egypt, including themes like fishing, agriculture, hunting, religion and death.

Want to see how the pharaohs lived? Follow the Pharoah Circuit, chronologically laid out from the Ancient Empire and its stone figures, via the painted figures of the Middle Empire, to the New Empire, with its animal-headed statues of gods and goddesses, hieroglyphic tablets and papyrus scrolls.

The Egyptian collection requires around two hours to cover. Those in a pinch should at least try to see the Seated Scribe, a 4th Dynasty painted limestone sculpture found in Saqqara (Sully, 1st floor) and the Dendera zodiac, a bas-relief from the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris the god of afterlife, in the Temple of Hathor in Dendera (Sully, ground floor).

Napoléon III Apartments

Napoléon III Apartments

We have all heard of Napoleon, but besides history junkie who knows anything about his nephew Napoleon III? Turned out he had quite a life himself. Initially elected by a popular vote to become the first president of the French Second Republic, he took the throne and named himself emperor when he was banned to run for a second term by the constitution. Just like his uncle, he was forced into exile when he was captured by Otto Von Bismarck following the disastrous Franco-Prussian War.

Although not everyone has heard of his name, Napoleon III’s legacy looms large over every visitor to Paris. When you are admiring at the exceptional layout and appearance of the French capital’s historic center, you are in fact looking at the innovative renovation program commissioned by the emperor and directed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

For a more intimate look of the emperor’s life, head to his former apartments at the Louvre on the first floor of the Richelieu wing. Although these apartments, functioned as guest rooms for visiting heads of state, were never Napoleon III’s residence as he lived in the nearby Tuileries Palace, you can see his taste towards the flamboyant similar to Louis IV. These rooms are covered in red cloth and gold paint and light up by giant chandeliers.

If you do not have time for Versailles, the Napoléon III Apartments are as good a replica as any in Paris.

Dutch Painting

Dutch Paintings Gallery

A underrated aspect of the Louvre is its diversity. The Egyptian Museum might have the largest Ancient Egyptian collection of artifacts, Uffizi with the most Renaissance paintings and the most celebrated collection of Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre counters by having a bit of everything.

When you feel the crowd is getting under your skin, head to the second floor of Richelieu. Barely anyone comes here, where you can have a moment of silence and leisurely take in paintings by Bosch, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Vermeer.

Why Don’t I Like Paris

Bastille Sunday Market

June 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Work had brought me to Paris, a city I don’t particular care for as a traveling destination. Without divulging into a thousand-word rant, here are five reasons why:

  1. Extremely crowded. Paris ranked third on the most visited cities list in 2014. Even though London welcomed the most visitors, if you avoid Buckingham Palace and Oxford Circus the crowd is generally manageable. Whereas since the historic center of Paris is so compact, escaping the flood of people is much more difficult.
  2. Super expensive. According to Tripadvisor, Paris is the second most expensive city to visit (London is again first).
  3. Many Parisians, including tourist information center employees, still hold tremendous amount of pride in not offering any service in English.
  4. Food offers poor value. I tried to follow websites like Paris by Mouth and Chowhound to find meals that cost around €15 per person, but none managed to impress us (except for Le Grenier à Pain des Abbesses’ croissant). Even London, traditionally a culinary backwater, has surpassed the supposed gastronomical capital of the world, at least in the non-Michelin star category. Point to note: Bastille Sunday Market can’t hold a candle to London’s Maltby St. Market, let alone the much more heralded Borough.
  5. Surprisingly tiring to get around. Although the capital is served by one of the most robust subway systems in the world, switching subway lines almost always require a long trek and climbing multiple flights of stairs.

After visiting and revisiting Amsterdam, London, Rome and Stockholm the past few years, Paris is the only city where I couldn’t find a reason to linger – a world-class city that feels peculiarly hollow. What’s lacking is the element of discovery I have in the other capitals even after multiple visits, whereas in Paris nothing major seems to ever change under its beautiful facade. Actually that’s not entirely correct – a major development is the proliferation of French brands in Asia, from chocolatiers like La Maison du Chocolat and Jean-Paul Hévin to body care retailers such as L’Occitane. Such familiarity only breeds further apathy.

While happening neighborhoods unlike the Latin Quarter or Montmartre might exist in Paris (Le Marais?), my interest for the city is simply not enough to justify spending any time to uncover them. There are too many places in France, one of my favorite traveling destinations, I have yet to explore.

1,000 km to Nam Tso

May 30 – 31, 2014
Photo set on Flickr

Click here for the first part of my road trip from Lhasa to Mt Everest

Day 3 (May 30)

What’s next after Everest?

Everyone is eerily quiet the entire morning; quite understandable, consider none of us had any sleep last night. Not a single word is spoken until 11 am when we arrive in Tingri (定日), a town 60 km northwest of Everest. Here Luoni asks us once again, “Are you sure you want to go to Jilongguo (吉隆溝)? That place is nothing special. You will for sure regret not visiting Nam Tso (納木錯).”

And this brags the question: Where on earth is Jilongguo? I couldn’t find a definite answer even after searching on Baidu (Chinese version of Google) and Mafengwo (Chinese version of Tripadvisor). A few pictures of a generic valley and a blog post about an “undiscovered paradise” and that’s it. In our current internet age where there is more information than you will ever need, this is a rarity.

So why are we ditching Nam Tso, the holy lake that is an integral part of the typical 5-day Everest road trip? Seeing how our two friends have succumbed to high altitude sickness, I am wary of asking them to spend another night at an altitude above 4,000 m. The pale faces of my friends tell me we should go for the 3,800 m-high Jilongguo. Nam Tso, at 4,718 m, might be pushing our luck too far. Besides, there is a tint of exoticism about visiting a place even the internet fails to provide much information on.

Jilongguo: So close yet so far

On the way to Jilongguo

To reach Jilongguo we first have to pass through Shishapangma Nature Reserve (希夏邦馬峰自然保護區), named after the world’s 14th tallest peak and the only eight-thousanders to reside completely within Chinese border. Obviously with an official designation comes admission fee, this time 80 RMB per person. At least some of the money is channeled into a well-maintained two-lane road.

The day has been a little rough thus far. We feel tired, hot, suffocated and starved. Tingri was the logical place to get lunch, but Luoni insisted us to cover ground first and eat later. Two hours later we are still on empty stomachs. Even a visitor like me knows there won’t be any eatery in the nature reserve. Luoni is a terrific driver and a kindred spirit. He is also a little stubborn and not the best communicator in Mandarin. No point to grumble about it at this point – we will just have to continue to subsist on snacks for a while.

Shishapangma
Peiku Tso

The scenery makes for good distraction. We pass by the majestic Shishapangma, numerous snow-capped peaks, several glaciers and the perfectly azure Peiku Tso. We reach Jilong town at 3 pm on high morale; we have covered 330 km already and food seems finally to be within sight.

At the entrance of the Jilong police checkpoint hangs a chalk board with a listing of the distances to various places in Tibet; Jilongguo is only 30 km away. Inside four policemen are playing cards and our presence has caught them off guard. “Where are you heading? Jilongguo? Don’t you know the road is closed off today? It will reopen tomorrow morning at 8.”

You must be freaking kidding me! Apparently the road is closed every other day for construction. So between Pan, Luoni and the guy who sold us the tickets to the nature reserve, none of them has the state of mind to inform us that the chance of getting to the valley is literally a coin toss. No, Luoni, you can’t come to me with a “I told you so” rant when the adjective you used should have been “inaccessible” instead of “unremarkable”.

Two abominable choices stand before us. The road to the valley only opens from 8 – 10 in the morning over the next two days. Which means, if we insist on going to the valley, having to spend a spirit-breaking night in Jilong Town, a drab two-street village that looks like the setting of a post-apocalypse movie, then two days later we will need to endure a 18-hr drive back to Lhasa in order to make our flight. Or we can choose to make a beeline for Shigatse right now. Luoni dejectedly estimates our arrival time to be around midnight. The latter choice is more pragmatic – we don’t want to risk missing our plane.

To make haste Luoni instructs us to forfeit our long-awaited meal until we make it back to National Highway 318. One of our friends, a thin gal with an enormous appetite, unleashes all her pent-up hunger rage on Luoni. It is not just the hunger; she has been miserable since leaving Lhasa. The rest of us do our best to comfort the two of them – this is not time to start bickering among ourselves.

All eyes on Luoni

The same mountains, glaciers and lakes that give us thrill not that long ago now serve a more tangible purpose; they clue us on how much distance we have covered. Peiku Tso, Shishapangma, park entrance… gradually we are back to square one. Yes, Tingri, the junction where had we headed northeast seven hours ago would find us chilling out at our hotel in Shigatse already. Alas, we are now 240 km away from Shigatse and facing the unnerving prospect of traveling on the poorly maintained National Highway 318 at night. To minimize our time in the dark, we will continue to postpone dinner and try to cover as much ground in daylight as possible.

Luoni is visibly tired and has been on the record about his reluctance on driving at night. He used to be a construction worker; he had a hand in the building of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. Seven years ago he became a long-distance driver because of the allure of promising money in the tourism sector. It is by no means easy money though – a typical work cycle is five to seven consecutive days of ten-hour driving, one day back home, then follow immediately with another multi-day trip. Places we consider risky like Everest and Nam Tso are basically his second homes. For all this hard work he doesn’t even earn that much. After subtracting one grand of agency fee and two grand of gas, he only gets to pocket half of our tour fee.

His professionalism is admirable. Aside from a few brief rants, he just focuses on the road and not let the fact he has somehow driven an additional eight hours get to him. His demeanor doesn’t waver when he is slapped with a speed ticket; ostensibly the speed limit is 80 km/h but everyone ignores it. To him it is an expected road toll. The only emotion he shows is a smile upon hearing we will pay the ticket on his behalf.

Our friend, who will now be referred as the Dinner Crusader, is not relenting on her crusade for dinner. Each passing town comes an inquiry on why aren’t we stopping for food. Hunger has completely overtaken her consciousness, which is not entirely incomprehensible. Without food, physical safety and respect of others are nothing but abstract concepts. Frankly, when we finally stop for dinner at 8 pm in a nondescript town about 120 km from Shigatse, it is Luoni who is running on fumes and truly needs some food.

The sun has disappeared below the horizon when we resume our journey at 8:40. National Highway 318 is surprisingly busy after dark. This is prime time for truckers to commute to/from Nepal. Casualty is unfortunately common, mostly happens to self-assured drivers who are unfamiliar with the road condition. It is under such condition Luoni’s knowledge of the roads really shines, always knowing the right timing to navigate through the numerous potholes, construction sites and tight turns.

At 12:30 am we finally arrive at our hotel, concluding our day that begins with an incredible high of seeing Everest and follows by a life-draining 15-hour long ride west to Jilong then all the way back east to Shigatse. That’s all in the past now; Everest was incredible, but all I care about at this moment is to take a quick shower then immediately jump into bed.

Day 4 (May 31)

Onward to Nam Tso

Revised route

On a vote of 3-1 we have decided to go ahead to Nam Tso. Feeling overwhelmed, the Dinner Crusader wants to go back to Lhasa where comfortable accommodation is guaranteed. Seeing she has been alright since taking Diamox at the base camp (our other friend has taken the same drug in Lhasa), the rest of us reject her plan because, really, three days has been more than enough for Lhasa. It doesn’t make any sense to have a spare day and not go to Nam Tso. The lake’s high altitude still makes us a little uneasy – this is after all the reason why we had bypassed Nam Tso at the beginning – but we are starting to develop some confidence in Diamox’s effectiveness.

Another 9-hour drive is ahead of us. Sitting inside a cramped SUV is becoming our day job; a 9-6 routine we endure in order to get somewhere in life. And just like in real life we have to give up something in the process, which in this case is Shigatse’s Tashilhunpo Monastery (扎什倫布寺), the traditional seat of Panchen Lama and one of the most important religious institutions in Tibet.

On the way to Nam Tso, 304 Provincial Road
Kid along 304 Provincial Road

Compares to the yesterday’s imposing alpine scenery, the journey along 304 Provincial Road is subdued. The occasional snow-capped mountain aside, barren meadow that can barely support grazing dominates the landscape. A few kids, unattended and playing dangerously close to the road, catch our attention; we give them some pencils and play with them briefly. They speak no Mandarin and are obviously not receiving any formal education. Their lives are determined the moment they are born to this world, oblivious to the many rights and opportunities we take for granted. It is not easy, on holiday especially, to stare soul-crushing straight in the eyes.

Nam Tso

Zaxi Peninsula, Nam Tso

With a surface area totaling 1,920 sq. km (25x Hong Kong Island), we aren’t exactly going to accomplish much more than taking a glimpse at Nam Tso. Like almost everyone else, we are staying in Zhaxi Peninsula (札西半島), the only place that accommodates overnight visitors in the protected area. The designation of “protected area”, you’ve guessed it, is just an excuse to collect admission fee (120 RMB), as the sight and smell of garbage and burnt coal are just as prevalent as everywhere else across Tibet.

As our leader, I feverishly hope Nam Tso will deliver, seeing we have traveled more than 1,000 km over the past two days and held a mini referendum to get to this point. I can feel the weight off my shoulders when my wife, always dispassionate on all things travel related, declares, “Wow, I didn’t expect Nam Tso to be so beautiful!” Even the skeptical Dinner Crusader nods approvingly.

So what differentiates Nam Tso from numerous other lakes we have encountered along the way? Its color, the darkest navy blue imaginable, imitates not the relative shallow lake with an average depth of 33 m but the deepest of oceans, gives us the illusion of discovering a boundless body of water at the world’s highest plateau.

Star Trails

Star Trail in Nam Tso

11 pm. 3 °C. Mostly clear.

As the rest of the crew are taking shelter from the blistering cold in our makeshift lodging made with corrugated metal sheets (50 RMB pp), I am at the lakeshore again to photograph star trails, a task that’s only possible in these three conditions: clear sky, minimal light pollution, and ideally a lunar phase near the new moon. Check, check, and check. I find myself entirely engulfed in darkness under a 20% covered sky barely illuminated by a waxing crescent Moon. But the best condition can only go so far – the stars are disappointingly dim and the Milky Way is barely noticeable.

The shooting is rather tedious. First there is setting up the camera and lens, then locating the Big Dipper and trying various compositions, and when finally the setup is complete you have to stand guard for at least an hour while your camera shoots continuously at 30s a shot. I have no clue how it will turn out, but there is a first for everything.

My senses are gradually being submerged by the surrounding darkness; my eyes, ears, nose and skin are providing consistent signals of numbing nothingness. Any hobby, once you get hooked, is like falling into a sinkhole; you fall deeper and deeper until you find yourself alone at midnight accompanied by nothing but your ice-cold camera.

This is what being young is all about.