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From the densely populated coastal area to the isolated Tibetan highlands

date of entry 31/03/2011
mileage 740,748

capital Peking

area 9.571.302 km²

population 1.366.040.000

GDP 8.250 Bill. US-Dollar

official language Putonghua

Getting permission for Otto to travel to China was time-consuming and costly. There is no provision for foreign vehicles to travel freely through the country. Therefore, during Otto’s three-month stay in the country in 2011, he always had to be accompanied by a car with two minders. After the death of his wife, Gunther Holtorf travelled through China with his son Martin. They spent a lot of time in the north-western provinces, where there is a great deal of political unrest, and in the Himalayas and Tibet. Otto was one of the first foreign vehicles to reach Everest base camp. It was not Gunther Holtorf’s first visit to the Middle Kingdom. He had already toured the country with his brother in 1982 and now had the chance to see for himself the breathtaking changes that had taken place in the interim.
  • …and on the mountain tops.
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  • This is how we normally see the country’s most famous sight: the Great Wall of China near the capital Beijing crowded with tourists.
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  • But if you are travelling in your own car, you can visit the quieter locations. The minders wanted to let Otto into a closed-off area for this photo, but they couldn’t find the keys for the padlock. Gunther Holtorf got out his tools and quickly broke the chain.
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  • After the death of his wife the previous year, Gunther Holtorf travelled through China with his adopted son Martin. Here the two of them are passing the picture of Mao in Tiananmen Square (the Square of Heavenly Peace).
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  • Of course, the main tourist highlights also featured on Otto’s route. This photo shows the terracotta army of Emperor Qin near Xian. The more than 7000 life-size clay figures are grave goods from the monumental mausoleum of the emperor who died around 200 years before the birth of Christ.
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  • Shanghai: the new district of Pudong with the Oriental Pearl Tower on the other side of the Huangpu River by day…
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  • …and by night.
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  • The legendary Bund waterfront area on the other bank of the river retains all its old colonial splendour. Only the snorting bull, the symbol of rising share prices, is a more recent addition.
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  • Typical roads in Chinese cities look more like this.
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  • The Holtorfs moved on quickly to more remote regions where people traditionally still live from fishing…
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  • …and farming. And without any high-tech equipment. Shaggy oxen pulling a plough.
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  • Goods are transported on home-made carts drawn by ponies.
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  • Particularly in mountain regions the soil is often so dry and the vegetation so sparse that these areas can only be used for grazing sheep.
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  • The farmers plant rice by hand. The fields are flooded using ancient and sophisticated canal systems.
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  • Despite the hilly landscape, large cultivated areas have grown up over time, but they are not suitable for machinery. The majority of Chinese people still live from farming.
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  • As a result, in many regions they live in humble houses made from mud.
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  • China has introduced large-scale reforestation programmes to combat the advance of the deserts, with mixed success. Grids designed to prevent the sand moving look helpless against the might of the huge dunes.
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  • All over the country, there are large numbers of temples built into rock walls and cliffs.
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  • The tourist guides often wear brightly coloured and imaginative costumes.
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  • In real life, women from the north of China are less colourfully dressed.
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  • Their clothes are made from thick, warm materials, because the winds on the high plateaus of Xinjiang and Tibet can be bitterly cold.
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  • A large number of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, live in the north-west of China in particular. This butcher at a market in Kashgar, a town in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, is an Uighur.
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  • Many Uighur men have beards…
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  • …which grow longer and longer as they get older.
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  • In the autonomous region of Xinjiang, far away from the capital of the communist empire, attending the mosque is an important part of everyday life.
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  • In the large cities, like the capital Ürümqi, impressive new mosques have been built.
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  • But religious buildings also dominate the settlements in the mountainous hinterland. From a distance, their towers look almost like those of Christian churches.
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  • In Kashgar the Holtorfs visited a huge cattle market.
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  • Among the Uighurs, livestock farming has traditionally been very important.
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  • A lot of haggling went on over the prices.
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  • And then the farmers sat down together to eat at one of the surrounding food stalls.
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  • From Xinjiang, Otto headed out into the mountains, sometimes on breathtaking hairpin roads that have been built on the slopes using bulldozers, as is the case here. An adventurous journey in icy conditions.
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  • Not all the roads are as well surfaced as the legendary Karakorum highway, which in this picture is passing Lake Karakol.
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  • Everywhere the landscapes are spectacular, in the valleys…
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Tibet, which is often described as the "roof of the world", made a big impression on Gunther Holtorf. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, in 2011 Gunther and Martin Holtorf were finally permitted to travel through the Tibetan highlands, characterised by Buddhist sites and the Himalayan massif.
  • …there are lots of these coloured scarves. The climb from base camp on the Chinese side is much more demanding than on the Nepalese side.
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  • In the Tibetian Plateau, at Shelkar (New Tingri), a new unpaved road branches off and winds up in uncounted serpentines to the base camp of the Mount Everest at 5200 metres. The junction is located at the China National Highway 318, which leads from Beijing to the border to Nepal, passing the only 5000 kilometre milestone in the world.
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  • Gunther and Martin Holtorf benefited from the efforts made by the Chinese central government to open the highlands up to traffic. A intensive road building programme has been underway and railways and airports are also being constructed, sometimes at a height of more than 5000 metres.
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  • This has resulted in some spectacular routes in the narrow valleys…
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  • …with dramatic tunnels.
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  • The milestone shows the distance to the Chinese capital Beijing. This is the longest road with continuous distance markers in the world.
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  • Snow-covered mountains are a constant backdrop in Tibet.
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  • Small woods that offer shelter for travellers are only found at the lower levels.
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  • The Holtorfs often stopped on the bare uplands, which were home only to a few monasteries, like this one at Nam-Tso-See...
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  • …where snow fell on Otto overnight. The temperature was minus ten and Gunther and Martin were very cold.
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  • While a flock of sheep struggled to scrape away the snow to find food in the morning…
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  • …Gunther chose to have his breakfast in the car. Despite his warm jacket, he looked thoroughly chilled. But at least the tea was hot.
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  • Buildings are often constructed on slopes in Tibet, like a stage set. The predominant colours are white and red, as here in the Ganden monastery.
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  • At the Sakya monastery, monks enjoyed the warmth of the sun.
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  • Prayer wheels are often built into the walls of the monasteries. The purpose of turning the wheels and reading the prayers printed on them is to combine physical and spiritual activity.
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  • Tibet’s most famous building is the Potala palace in the former Tibetan capital Lhasa. Here the Dalai Lama ruled for centuries. The building’s roots date back to the year 637.
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  • Gunther and Martin Holtorf with Otto in front of the palace, which, at a height of 130 metres, towers over Lhasa. The palace was completed in 1694.
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  • Anyone who travels in Tibet will frequently pass places where the faithful have left ceremonial scarves, known as khatas, to demonstrate that they are pure of heart.
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  • In special locations, heaps of khatas in different colours build up, each of which has a particular significance.
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  • Even on the route to Mount Everest, at 8848 metres the world’s highest mountain,…
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  • Video 1: China – today
  • Video 2: Tibet – spirituality against a breathtaking backdrop