Archive for February, 2007

Back to Work

28 February 07

I’ve been back in Linyi for two days now. Back to work. Back to reality.

I’m experiencing some blog laziness. Hopefully, something interesting will happen that I need to tell you about, otherwise, I will try to post some wrap up thoughts on Tibet in the coming days.

Into the Desert

24 February 07

Imagine desert mountains, a valley full of sand dunes and a turquoise ribbon running right down the middle. The water is incredibly clear and sparkles in the sun. Small, red colored, brushy trees line the river banks and yaks and sheep graze on the few bits of grass around. The wind stirs up the sand and carries it in the air. Everything is dry and brown. It is starkly beautiful.

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Yesterday we joined a small group of travelers and journeyed to the Yarlung Valley – a 3 hour trip down some pretty rough roads. We had a great time chatting with the other travelers – a group of former English teachers traveling through Tibet, Nepal & India, and a couple from Hong Kong & Taiwan. We rented a van and a driver to take us around.

This trip gave us an insight into more rural areas of Tibet. I have to say I was a bit surprised by the sand dunes and dryness of everything. Again, every place we went we observed the devotion of the pilgrims, offering money and yak butter inside the temples and fervently expressing their devotion to Buddha. We passed so many small villages and one mid-sized city. I’ve gotten a good impression of typical Tibetan houses. They are one or two story, at least 3 rooms, made of mud brick with small windows high up on the walls. Some have bigger windows covered in heavy cloth to keep the house warm. Most have a courtyard. Bright colors such as blue, red, white and yellow are favored for painting the window sills.

Our first stop was a small temple, part of a complex of 16 tombs of Tibetan kings. (6th to 9th century) While walking the kora circuit and observing the scenery, we met a woman from the local village. She followed us around with her small son strapped to her back. She held out her hand and offered me a small rock. I knew she was going to want money, but I felt touched just the same. The rock was nothing special, just something she had picked up off the ground, but it seemed to me she wanted to offer something in exchange for a bit of money. In Lhasa, you will see many pilgrims sitting on the kora circuit, singing, chanting or just looking for a bit of money. Donations are commonly given to these pilgrims – about 1 jiao or about 1.2 cents. Children and other beggars also ask for money. A common thing to hear is “hello! money!” It is advisable to carry around a stack of jiaos to give to the pilgrims, as offerings or donations at the monasteries, and if you desire, for the beggars. You can even make change out of the donation plates if you want!

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Inside the temple atop the tomb

The next stop was at a small temple perched high on a hill. It is called Yumbu Lhakang and is quite charming in its location and size. To get up the hill, we rode ponies and camels, although the walk is not difficult. The temple was built in the 2nd century BC. There are a few entrepreneurs there selling polaroid shots of tourists and pilgrims in front of the temple. To our surprise, the DH was asked to pose with several of the men (pilgrims, we think). We just assumed they would try to sell us the photos, but no, they wanted to be photographed with the big hairy foreigner! 😉

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The DH among the prayer flags behind the temple

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Spinning the prayer wheels

Our final stop, and the most difficult to reach, was Samye Monastery. Samye was the first monastery built in Tibet, in the 8th century. Its design is based on a mandala design, representing the universe. It combines Tibetan, Hindu & Han Chinese design elements.

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Tomorrow morning we will leave Tibet and fly to Shanghai.

We Tackle the Potala

22 February 07

The Potala Palace is absolutely magical. It sits high on a hill overlooking the city and it is difficult to imagine how it could have been constructed. It is really impressive, until you start the climb. Holy cow. I nearly died. Thank god we had spent at least a day acclimatizing. You cannot believe how many stairs there are! As we approached the entrance, we were surrounded by hundreds of Chinese soldiers. I am not sure if they were there for training, sightseeing or indoctrination, but I have to admit it is a bit strange to enter the Potala, former home of the Dalai Lama, with the PLA at my side.

Potala Palace 2

Potala Palace Entry

Above: A majestic view. Below: Notice the PLA soldiers entering the Potala.

Everyone says that there is not much to see inside, and I guess that is true. There are a few spectacular tombs of former Dalai Lamas, covered in gold and semi-precious stones and lots of beautiful and detailed wall paintings.

I had read that there was an involved process in getting entrance tickets, something like going the day before to get an appointment to return the next day to buy tickets, !? In the winter, you just walk up to the front door, pay 100RMB and go on in.

Directly across the street from the palace is a public park. If I am correct in my interpretation, a huge statue in the park memorializes the “peaceful liberation of the Tibetan people by the PRC.” No comment.

Potala Park

After the Potala, we headed back over to the Barkhor area to walk the kora again and do some souvenir shopping. The entire kora route is lined with souvenir stalls and shops. You’ve gotta do some hard bargaining, but there are some good deals to be had.

Shopping in the Barkhor

Back at the hotel, the DH, in his classic style, decided to take advantage of the brilliant sun to soak up some Vitamin D.

Rooftop Sunning

Our First Full Day in Lhasa

22 February 07

The sun doesn’t come up in Lhasa until 8AM. Nothing really seems to get stirring until even later. What this means for me is – sleeping in! I felt exhausted upon our arrival to Lhasa, mostly due to the altitude. We slept in until 10 and then decided to see what the city has to offer. First we stopped by the roof terrace of our hotel, to see if we could still get some breakfast. There was no breakfast, but there was a sort of Tibetan celebration going on. All the hotel workers were there, dancing around a pile of burning incense and cypress branches. As we looked around the city rooftops, we saw that people were doing the same all over the place. Some people were replacing the prayer flags that adorn most every rooftop, fluttering in the wind.

Lhasa Rooftop with incense
The Potala Palace from hotel rooftop. The haze is from
burning incense. Usually it would be brilliantly clear.

Downstairs in the lobby, the receptionist told us it was a “good day” and most shops and restaurants would be closed. Turns out that many restaurants and shops are closed all week for the Tibetan New Year, which falls the same time as the Chinese New Year. Some places are also closed just because it is winter.

Winter in Lhasa. You’d think it would be unbearably cold, right? No, not really. Not if temps between -7 and 10 celsius are unbearable for you. We found the weather to be incredibly comfortable – bright, sunny skies and cool breezes. All you need is the right gear. If you are only going to be in Lhasa, you can get by with jeans, sweaters and a good coat. I’ve worn my Chuck Taylor converse shoes everyday – that’s right, canvas shoes in the Himalayas. Of course, we are not doing any serious hiking.

Our first day we wondered around the old Tibetan neighborhood. It is made up of small, twisting and turning alleyways. You just never know what you will find down an alley. At the heart of the neighborhood is the Johkang Temple, revered by Tibetan Buddhists and the site of pilgrimage for thousands of Tibetans. The pilgrims walk a kora, or a clockwise circuit around the Johkang, through the small winding streets. Some pilgrims walk carrying their spinning prayer wheel, others prostrate themselves over and over again on the ground. Some just walk, chanting quietly to themselves. Eventually, they will enter the Johkang, and if you have the opportunity, I encourage yourself to join in line with them and experience what incredible passion and devotion they have.

Johkang Temple

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Incense & Prayer flags

Once inside, we had to pay 70RMB each, but the pilgrims enter for free. We then got back in line, moving slowly from Buddha statue to statue as the pilgrims pressed their foreheads against the glass in front of the statues, gave money donations, or poured some yak butter into the burning candles. The dim lighting, the strong smell of burning yak butter and the fervor of the pilgrims all combine to completely overwhelm. It was quite emotional.

At the end of the visit, tourists are allowed to climb up to the roof where there are great views of the Potala Palace and the Barkhor Square in front of the Johkang.

Barkhor Square

My parents both grew up in the Southwest US around the Navajo and Ute Indians. All of my life I have seen ropes of turquoise, coral and silver worn by family and friends. I have seen many Navajos on our trips back to visit the area. After observing many of the Tibetans more closely, I firmly believe that the Navajo had to have come from the same stock. There are so many similarities in their appearance, style of dress, jewelry, hair styles and lifestyles.

The rest of our day was spent walking, exploring and appreciating the city. It is so much smaller than I expected, after living in monstrous Chinese cities. It is also very dirty, and I think the dirt, litter, beggars and overall commotion may be a bit much for a new traveller. I love it. I love the pilgrims in their traditional dress, many of them quite old. I love how they smile at me and tell me Tashi Delek. They are genuine and kind and their wrinkles tell of a hard life but a happy heart.

Lhasa Mosque 1

Muslim Mosque in Chinese style

Heather with fried dumplings

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Yummy street food – whatever you can think of fried, on a stick!

Chengdu to Lhasa III

22 February 07

Towards the end of the second day, we passed through the city of Xining and on towards Golmud. Golmud marks the beginning point of the new railway across the Tibetan plateau.

Near Xining

Near Xining 2

We settled in the dining car for some grub. (and grub it was.) The vista at this point was vast – gently sloping hills, dry grasses. For the first time in China I can see for miles and miles and see only one or two houses. We’ve seen our first yaks. They are very wooly and come in all kinds of colors – black, grey, brown. We also saw lots of sheep, goats and a few deer. In a hay field I spotted a pair of wild pheasants. We were climbing above the tree line and I felt my ears popping. We went to sleep with only nature in all directions – no cities, no houses, no people.

I awoke on day three and was greeted by snow and ice. I jumped up to change out of my pajamas and instantly felt “weird.” I was a bit winded and a little dizzy. What was happening? They say that the affects of high altitude will make you feel tired, nauseated and your head will ache – like a hangover. Turns out we were at 4,666m (13,998ft). That is damn high, no matter I felt strange. We were still climbing, so I just took it easy and relaxed in the dining car. I observed many frozen streams, lakes, snow covered hills and lots of yaks. The icy landscape was stunning.

Ice & Snow on the Tibet Plateau

I can’t imagine how cold it was outside, but the train was cozy and warm. I felt comfortable in a tee shirt and scarf. The sun was also shining brilliantly, at times it was merciless!

Around lunchtime we reached the high mountain pass of Tanggula – over 5000m! (15,000ft) Out the window, we thought we might have seen a small group of antelope. They are supposed to be endangered and some environmentalists believe that the train might disturb their movements. Other opponents of the train say it will bring in more Han Chinese migrants to further dilute the Tibetan population. It has just been revealed that there are valuable mineral deposits around the train line. Hmmm. Could that have been a reason for building the train? On some forums I have read posts from people wondering if it is ethical to take the train. I think would-be travellers should spend more time examining their own lives, in their own countries to ensure they are as ethical as possible before worrying about their presence on the train. One poster on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree said it best – if you want to enter Tibet ethically, walk! and spend time with the Tibetan nomads.

On towards Lhasa, the snow fades away and is replaced by tundra with short, shrubby grass. There are yaks in all directions, along with sheep and goats. The mountain peaks in the distance are majestic and covered in clouds. We begin to see small villages and shepherds. At Naqu, a small village, we slowly pass a train headed from Lhasa to Lanzhou. It is filled with Tibetans. They wave at us and we wave back.

Tibet house

Yaks and more yaks

At 1830, we roll in to Lhasa.

Chengdu to Lhasa II

21 February 07

After struggling through a rather dismal night thanks to Mr. Snore, I awoke to find the train in the Gansu province. Gansu is an isolated province with poor people and a dry, extreme climate. Not a lot of tourists find their way there. I saw tall hills on either side of the train and small villages running along the train track. The homes are built of brick and are done in the traditional courtyard style. They are small and one-story for the most part. Most have been decorated for the new year with red lanterns and bright new red banners around the doors.

Many of the hills have been terraced for growing crops, but they seem to suffer seriously from erosion. Everywhere you look is brown and barren, which contrasts spectacularly with the clear blue sky. It doesn’t seem as though anything has changed here in hundreds of years.

As we progressed towards the city of Lanzhou, the landscape became less and less hospitable. There were no trees, nothing green and even though it is winter, you get the impression it is always this way. Just when I think I have seen the “real China” and have seen what real poverty looks like, I see something new.

Taking photos on a train is pretty difficult, but these might help you to visualize the scenery:

Gansu Province 1

Gansu Province 2

Chengdu to Lhasa I

21 February 07

We’re just concluding our first full day in Lhasa and I am tired, overwhelmed and happy. Lhasa is an intensely interesting place. Before I get to stories of Lhasa, however, I want to tell you about our 48 hour train ride.

The train was supposed to be relaxing – a place where we could gather strength for Lhasa and watch a little known part of China pass by. We boarded in Chengdu at 1818 and before long, the sun went down and we settled in for the evening. We were in a 4 bed soft sleeper cabin. The bunks are long and wide and fairly comfortable. Although we had hoped the experience would be relaxing, we hadn’t expected our cabinmates to be quite so challenging. Despite the fact that over half the cabins were empty, we ended up in a cabin with a chubby Japanese guy who snored loudly all night and a Chinese mother with a young son who yapped incessantly. Since we had no idea what he was saying, it just sort of sounded like a sing-song “wah-wah-wah-wah.”He was quite the “Little Emperor.”

soft sleeper cabin soft sleeper car hallway

The soft sleeper car has two bathrooms – one western and one squatter style. There are a row of sinks and a hot water dispenser, as well. (Unfortunately,  it was dispensing lukewarm water for much of the trip.) Each bed has an oxygen dispenser, (which comes on when the train reaches the high-altitude pass.) reading light, and a TV with Chinese language channels. There is a dining car on the train serving meals as well as small vendor carts passing through the train on a regular basis.

sink area dining car

4 Days in Tibet…

21 February 07

Doesn’t have the same ring as 7 years, does it?

Us & The Potala

We made it! We arrived! We are on top of the world!

Happy Chinese New Year!

18 February 07

Chengdu 18 February – The Year of the Pig!

The last few days in Chengdu have been rather lazy, but that is what vacation is supposed to be about, right?

We arrived via airplane on Friday morning. Our friend and co-worker, I., a local Sichuanese, picked us up from the airport and took us to a hot pot place (we got the not-so-spicy broth – take a look, what do you think, hot or not?)

Hot or Not

and to an old street that has been done up for tourists. We visited a memorial park and tomb of a famous guy. (Sorry, I’m short on details!)

Jinli Street

We’ve been staying at a sweet little guesthouse called Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse. It is a great place with warm and friendly people and I give it a very high recommendation. Part of the rooms are located in a 100 year old building that was once the home of a German Administrator. The owner, Sim, is from Singapore and his wife is from Japan. With their two small children, (and local Chinese staff), they run and live in the guesthouse and try as hard as possible to make travellers feel at home. One afternoon we spent hours working on some proofreading that we needed to complete for work, and Sim stopped by several times to make sure we were comfortable.

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The DH “working”

The guesthouse has a mix of dorm rooms, twin and double rooms with ensuite bathrooms and even a few family rooms. The price is very economical and there are lots of places to relax. They have a travel agency for tours, train, bus & air tickets, bike rental, laundry, internet (it was free when I was there) and a welcoming atmosphere. There was a mix of European, American and Asian backpackers on our visit. It is located only steps away from the Wenshou Monastery complex which includes several streets that have been done up in an old style. Because we were there during the Spring Festival, the streets were full of food vendors. Street Food!!

Wenshu Street
Wenshu Gate

If you visit Chengdu, Sim’s is the ONLY place to stay.

This evening we are boarding the train for Lhasa. I will be incognito until we arrive, hopefully (you never know if there will be delays) on Tuesday evening.

Unfortunately, our trip has been cut a bit short as the DH must get back to Linyi for important meetings. We will only spend 4 full days in Lhasa. So, for our first trip to Tibet we will only see Lhasa and perhaps a few monasteries close by. We will have to save Everest Base Camp for another trip.

Something that is frustrating about working for a Chinese company is that we only get the Chinese holidays for vacation. Not such a big deal if you are travelling outside of China, but travelling within the country over the Spring Festival is rife with difficulty. Crowded trains, higher prices, crowds, etc. We had a bit of bad luck getting air tickets out of Lhasa to Shanghai. Because we couldn’t plan ahead far enough, we are paying at least 4 times what we could have paid had we known our travel dates weeks ago. Oh well, such is life.

More from Tibet…

A Little Break

15 February 07

Tomorrow is day one of our Chinese New Year vacation. We will be spending the 16th, 17th and 18th in Chengdu, in Southwest China. The 17th is Chinese New Year Eve and the 18th is Chinese New Year Day. The evening of the 18th we will board the train for Lhasa and 47 hours later we will arrive in Tibet! We will be in Tibet for a grand total of 5 days. 😦 Then we will fly to Shanghai for a day or two and then, back to Linyi for work on the 27th.

I will be looking for internet connections throughout the trip to keep the  blog updated.

Happy New Year!