A Travellerspoint blog

Sakya & Mt Everest

Mt Everest - the world's highest mountain and one of the World's 7 Natural Wonders.

Sunday 20th September - Travel from Shigatse to Samye.

Today's drive was a relatively short three hours on a sealed road. More farmers all out harvesting.
We checked into the Sakya Hotel, the only one in town licenced to host aliens. Yes. China is still so xenophobic that we aren't tourists or visitors, we're aliens and often get second rate treatment because of it. More on that at Everest.
I was surprised to find a China Daily newspaper, China's English language paper, in reception. Shame it was only 3 weeks old.
After being warned that this hotel had no hot water and maybe no power, I was pleasantly surprised to find both.
We all met for lunch in the hotel restaurant. The shared table for the group was filthy and our requests for it to be wiped were answered with a dirty cloth. After getting a raw-on-the-inside tandoori chicken maryland, it was no surprise it went straight through me. I've not actually been sick on this trip, which has been a blessing, because some of the places we've eaten at have done their best to make us sick.

Sakya. If Samye was a two cow town, Sakya at 4280m ASL is a dusty two tractor town consisting of about three streets. When the wind blows, which is often, it whips up a dust storm. I went for a quick walk to explore Sakya and that's all it was, a quick walk. There's not much to see here, save a few fly-covered sheep carcasses hanging under an umbrella for sale on the street corner, tractors with trailers chugging past, and people relieving themselves in the street. I visit some unusual places in my wanderings and this is one of the ones that you feel like you'll be happy not to come back to. Getting stuck here would be a fate worse than death.
We met up at 3pm to visit the monastery. This one's superlative is that it has the largest library in Tibet. It didn't open until 3:30 after lunch, so we walked a full lap of the large wall that surrounds the monastery. There isn't much to see, even from a height. A group of school children played soccer on a dusty pitch but I'm not sure whether their lack of enthusiasm was not wanting to fall over in the dust, or the fact that we're now at nearly 4300m above sea level. Back at the entrance, we waited and waited until someone came and took our entrance tickets. Then we waited and waited. Apparently the monk with the key had gone walkabouts and no one knew where he was. No! They wouldn't give us a refund. Eventually he showed up and we walked through another monastery. They are all beginning to look and smell the same. Some Buddah statues showered with banknotes, yak butter candles, other random deities and hangers-on for their bit of the worship action. I noticed some giant timber columns in the monastery. Made from large trees by any measure, I enquired where they came from because there are no trees of ANY size anywhere near here. Was there once a forest here that's long since been cut down? The answer? The sandalwood trees brought from Nepal and China by tigers and elephants. I never knew tigers were so useful.
Unexpectedly, I did find internet in this town, but when it lost power, and my typing until then, it showed up why plugging 20 computers and peripherals into one circuit is a recipe for overload.
Dinner tonight was at a cosy little upstairs restaurant across from the hotel. Good Taste Farmers restaurant served good vegie noodles. At this altitude I was happy for a plain meal and no beer. A few of us played cards before returning to the hotel.
I went onto the rooftop and took some great photos of the monastery and a sky full of stars. There's not much light pollution in such a small town, though I did have to time my exposures around dust clouds that would obscure my subject like smoke.

Monday - Let's go to Everest.
It seemed like all the dogs in town spent the night barking. They'd egg each other on and it all blended into a chorus of different barks. Maybe carcophany of noise is a better phrase than chorus.
Sitting in the restaurant for breakfast the table still had last nights scraps on the table. We folded back the cloth and were served what was an 'interesting' breakfast. It seems like food in Tibet is either really good, or really bad. The bread is sometimes SO FRESH but today I think it was brough from Lhasa by yak. Looking out the window with a view of the street, I watched a man open up his shop, walk a few metres up the street and urinate against the wall in full view of everyone. Not having toilets in the houses is one thing, but then not using the communal toilets is another. Admittedly I didn't inspect them and maybe the street is a more pleasant option. I guess when your towns are litterally piles of rubbish everywhere, what's a bit of urine smell and turds lying around. Tibet hasn't lived up to the romantic notions I had.
Today was a 7.5 hour drive in the Landcruisers. I had my book - Michael Palin Himalaya - but didn't read it. The scenery was ever-changing and around every bend in the road was a mountain of a different colour or shape or both. We went over two mountain passes over 5200m and at each was a thin layer of snow and the obligatory prayer flags that adorn every high point in Tibet. Tibetan Buddists believe that as the wind blows, the prayers written on them are sent to heaven so the closer the better.
Multiple checkpoints and passport control points later, we arrived at the Everest tent city at around 4pm and what a sight! Up the valley, in full view with not a cloud on her was Mt Everest, or Qomolangma as the Tibetans call her. One of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World what they all have in common is their breathtaking effect when you first lay eyes on them. (Everest is the 5th of the 7 that I've seen. Only 2 to go.) Just to stand there and gaze at such beauty leaves you speechless. There's nothing to say. It's incredible that such beauty can hold such danger and risk of death to those that choose to attempt to climb Mt Everest. There have been two times on this trip I've had tears in my eyes. This was one of them. It's a special place to be. (The other time was at the blind school in Lhasa to see what they are achieving and their spirit amongst adversity. See my Lhasa blog for that one.)
Recent snowfall had covered the mountain to a much lower level than the last time our guide was here and of the 4 times she's been here, she said this is the clearest. YAY!
We had planned to hike to the 'basecamp' tomorrow morning, but took the chance this afternoon with it so clear. 4 of the group and the guide were not so 'intrepid' and took the bus, whilst 7 of us walked. The road switchbacked, so we began taking obvious shortcut paths, meeting up with the road each time, until all of a sudden we were on a windswept flag strewn viewpoint with a magic view of Everest. We'd not seen the road for awhile but we could now see it, and the Chinese military checkpoint and official viewpoint far below us. It was at 5200m ASL and we were 200m higher so I now have a new PB for highest point reached of 5400m ASL, surpassing my mountain pass in Pakistan by 250m. Photos of a clear mountain followed. The wind came straight off Everest and her glaciers and even here it was freezing. Waving to our buddies and the guide far below, we didn't see the soldier until he was nearby. Soldier? I've warned you that China is xenophobic and this is just one example. Aliens like us, are only allowed to go to the 'official viewpoint' and to do that even, you must pass multiple passport checks and do it under the close watch of armed soldiers and only for one hour. Chinese are allowed to wander but we're not. Can you imagine visiting the Grand Canyon but being stopped short of the edge and best view by an armed soldier who tells you that only Americans can get closer view. That's China for you and whilst the locals don't know any better, or aren't able to voice their frustrations, we're all getting bit sick of being controlled.
The soldier was waving for the 7 of us to follow him down a steep slope of loose rocks. On seeing this, the last thing Amanda heard me say was "Bullshit!" and I absconded in the opposite direction, intending to return the way I'd come up. Ian did too, though I didn't see him on the walk back and spent the whole hike expecting to be intercepted by soldiers sent to catch me. Alone, I spotted wildlife including a grouse-like bird, some deer-like animals and some yaks, of course. Meanwhile, Amanda and the others and our guide, whom they held responsible for our illegal behaviour, were detained in the military post while Mr Jobsworth decided to wait and see what his boss wanted to do with them. An hour later, they were free to go back by bus. They weren't to be trusted walking. I made it back to camp and all was forgiven. Our guide hadn't been told us NOT to leave the road when hiking, something I'm sure she won't forget next time.

Tonight we're sleeping at 5000m ASL in big tents with a yak dung fire in the middle. Our half sleeps six in comfort and the kitchen and sleeping quarters belonging to the host family make up the other half.
I had vegetable noodle soup containing just one vegetable, lots of noodles and a flavourless stock. It was warming though, as was the jasmine tea we drank.
Still clear after dinner, I rugged up and went outside armed with a tripod and camera. Stars galore.
With the yak poo fire still burning, I went to sleep in a warm, but smokey tent. I awoke a few hours later with it clear and cold. Glad to have thermals to put on, I returned to bed and slept well with only a mild headache.

Tuesday - Waking up at 5000m.
It was as cold as expected and frost covered most things outside. I was up before dawn and got some magic photos of the first rays of golden sunlight striking the summit of the still-clear Everest before lower parts progressively lit up. no sooner had it happened than the fog came up the valley and over us on its way toward Everest. A reward for the early bird.
Chinese rip-off. The tent owner has a Chinese made Japanese rip-off motorbike called not a Yamaha, but a YNMWHA.
My omelette in flatbread rolled as a wrap and taken with tea was a perfect breakfast.
Our hosts were very hospitable and it wasn't camping as I know it.

We left in the Landcruisers at 10am and didn't go far down the track before turning left over a small bridge and headed off in a different direction. This was a beautiful 4WD track through rolling hills and wide plains. Today's drive was the kind of drive I'd love to do in my Landie. Not too technical, unlike Pakistan's crazy mountain tracks, but somewhere just magic to be.
China tells the world they've created a massive nature reserve around Everest, but we saw hunters, nomads, domestic animals, cultivated crops and clusters of houses, so one can assume again that there's a difference between their propaganda and the reality. Most countries do none of the above in their National Parks.
It's harvest up here on the Tibetan plateau and everyone helps. In the field, men load the bundled straw onto carts behind a horse whilst women thresh and winnow grain by hand. Others make up yak dung and straw patties and whack them to the house walls until needed for fuel during the long cold winter. There is no wood up here.
We stopped in Tingri for lunch. This is a one street town and after short walk post lunch, we'd seen it all. The one redeeming feature is the panoramic view of a string of Himalayan high peaks.

We had a long drive this afternoon and with dusty dry plains all around, it really feels like a plateau now. We passed many temple ruins with nothing much left save a few mud walls. According to the Tibetans, China sacked and destroyed over 6000 monasteries in Tibet in their efforts to destroy Tibetan culture. These efforts continue today, just much less overtly. If they want to get up to anything, they just close off areas of Tibet whilst they do. This is the case now, with our itinerary altered before even beginning because of 'closed areas'.
Today was my favourite driving day and we crossed not one, but two mountain passes over 5000m, one of which had a panoramic view that stretched across the horizon and included 4 of the world's 14 8000m peaks. Awesome!
Driving on, we suddenly entered a lush green canyon and proceded to follow the precipitous road along along the sides of it. Dodgy engineering, rockfalls, waterfalls and intermittent safety barriers made for and interesting white knuckle ride of switchbacks and blind corners. This is the crazy road through Zangmu Gorge to, you guessed it, Zangmu, the Tibetan town on the Nepalese border.
If we thought the road was crazy, the town had even more surprises. Details in my next blog.

Posted by TheWandera 03:02 Archived in China Comments (0)

Samye, Gyantse & Shigatse

Time to explore some more of Tibet

Wed 16th September - Travel to Samye

I said that we were heading to Gyantse next, but actually we are going on a side trip to Samye.
Don't you hate it when you 'discover' something good, just as you're leaving a place? I told you about the pototo chips from a neaby vendor, but this morning we got around to trying the 'pizza' from a vendor across the road. We'd heard it was good, and wished we'd bought it earlier. Breakfast this morning was his bread which was a crispy flat bread with seasonings, kinda like a pizza but no cheese. So fresh and tasty.
Outside reception, waiting to carry us to the border of Tibet/Nepal were 4 well travelled 80 series Toyota Landcruisers, just like I own at home only these were petrol.
First stop - petrol. What the? They were there an hour early, wouldn't you fuel up first? Passengers had to get out of the car before it entered the station. When I asked "Why?", I was told it was because passengers might smoke or use their mobile phone. What! Like DRIVERS in China don't!
Finally on our way, we followed the sealed road back towards the airport and through the 2km tunnel that took 60km off the original trip to the airport. On exiting the tunnel we turned left onto a rough and dusty gravel road with the Yarlung Tsangpho River. The Yarlung Valley is wide, with the wide river breaking into deltas and snaking it's way through the middle. Big sand dunes scalloped across the landscape made it feel like a desert at times.
Four hours, with stops,after leaving Lhasa, we were in Samye and ready for lunch. We checked into the Samye Monastery Hotel, the only place to stay in this two cow town. The reception was flash, but we all know appearances can be misleading. Built only a couple of years ago, no one put showers in. Communal toilets that worked on our floor, but not on others, and no showers, not even a cold one. Top and tail from a bowl in our room was the only way to remove the dust from the journey.
We met for lunch in the monastery restaurant. As I walked in I saw a mouse run from the restaurant into the kitchen. That should have been a warning enough and there were so many flies in the restaurant, I dared not look in the kitchen. The restaurant sold beer. My kinda monastery! It was shelf temperature, but we're higher than Lhasa now, so even off the shelf is cool, just not COLD.
This afternoon we toured Samye Monastery. Founded in the 8th century it's the oldest in Tibet. It's 3 temples on top of each other, each one is Chinese Buddist, Tibetan Buddist and Nepalese Buddist respectively. Entering a small door beside the lowest monastery we entered a dark passageway. Lining the walls were 1000 year old paintings. It was eerie and tomblike and without a torch, completely dark. The paintings are on 3 sides and you pop out back at the altar on the other side.
I was given a bit of holy yak butter shortbread to try. Rank! Even water did not rid my mouth of the taste. I will stick to the Scottish style in future. With the smell of yak butter from the candles strong in the air, I was happy for daylight and some fresh air.
With the afternoon free, Amanda and I did a Kora, clockwise circuit, of the temple and four chortens, Tibetan prayer towers.
We wandered the two streets of Samye and encountered cattle, sheep and pigs wandering the street, but careful where you wander - someone forgot to replace the broken lids on the manholes. That, and the turds left by wandering livestock mean you need to watch where you tread.
Men here decorate their motorbikes elaborately, including having a fake rose sticking up from the front mudguard.
How's this for a way to get free energy. People here use a silver scoop about a 1m by .5m with a kettle sitting on steel wire above it. The dome concentrates the energy of the sun onto the kettle and it boils, not quickly, but for free and zero carbon footprint.
I tried a barley wine. Finding it in the supermarked, I thought I'd give it a go. Comes in a can, just 3% alcohol. YUCK! I consider aroma to be a good indicator and I like to smell a wine or beer before I drink it. It should smell like you want to drink it. This did not. The taste was no better. Oh! Well! You win some and lose some, but you've got to try things.

My suspicions about lunch were confirmed and it went right through me. Thank goodness we ate somewhere else for dinner because I was hungry. It was probably the only other place in town, but everyone enjoyed their food, a pleasant change from last night in Lhasa, when no one did.
Walking back was a challenge. Amanda and I hadn't brought our torches and there were no street lights. I knew from our afternoon walk that manholes and manure lay in wait for the careless. We made it back to our room and grabbed our torches, cameras and tripods as I wanted to photograph the temple entrance at night and make the most of a star-filled sky. We got some nice photos and called it a night.

Thursday - Samye to Gyantse - long travel day.

For breakfast we popped back to the same restaurant as last night. The banana pancake and banana lassi came out as apple and apple. "Yes! We have no bananas." Nice of them to tell us.
Our 8 hours travel today began by returning on the same dusty bumpy road we'd taken yesterday all the way back to and through the 2km tunnel. On exiting, instead of turning right to Lhasa, we turned left towards Shigatse. The trip yesterday was effectively a side trip and now we were back on track. (For the quality of accommodation, I don't know why they don't make it a day trip and return to Lhasa and a shower to wash away the dust.)
A new sealed road was a blessing, though it wasn't long before we hit more switchbacks and hairpin bends than anyone cared to count. Our game of cards was suspended as we climbed and climbed and climbed. Over 1000m gain in altitude and we were at the Kamba Pass at over 4700m ASL. The river we'd just come from looked SO far away at the bottom of the valley below. Dropping over the other side, the precipitous drops and bends continued until we were met with the BLUEST lake I've ever seen. I've avoided superlatives of my own on this trip, but I have to say that it was the most amazing blue lake I have ever seen anywhere. Our guide said even she'd not seen it such a vivid blue. Even the photos won't do it justice, because you will wrongly assume that I have Photoshopped them.
We stopped in a nameless town for lunch and the buffet seemed okay. By dinner I would know that it wasn't all good.
As farmers cut hay by hand with sycles on riverside farmland, snow capped mountains and glaciers soared above us to over 7000m. With such tiny terraced blocks, there's no fear of combine harvesters making harvesters redundant here.
We stopped beneath the Kharola Glacier for a photo or two, but it was all a bit touristy with vendors galore, hassling hawkers and costumed people trying to jump in front of your camera for a photo.
I arrived in Gyantse (3980m) late in the afternoon, tired from a day on the road, but elated by the scenery I'd witnessed. The hotel here had a hot shower and even though it was a trickle, I wasn't complaining.
Dust-free and wearing clean clothes, and leaving Amanda to have a nap, I went wandering around Gyantse with my camera, as I do. I found the markets, but they were indoors in a giant shed and not a patch on the lively markets in Lhasa. I walked towards the old fort (Gyantse Dzong), which soars above anything else in town and makes a good reference point. This is the old Tibetan part of town, rather than the new drab Chinese part. This town is where rural meet urban. Horses and traps share the road with Landcruisers, tractors and tricycles. Many of the shops seemed to be selling farm equipment and one even sold yokes, harnesses and bells for all your equine transport needs.
I explored a few back streets and walked as far as the entrance to the monastery before heading back to meet everyone for dinner.
What a rubbish tip this town is. Walking with an empty drink can, I didn't want to throw it on the street, despite the fact that everyone here treats everywhere as a rubbish tip, I don't want to leave a place worse than I found it. Try finding a rubbish bin in Tibet. The streets are disgusting. Sure, some sweeper lady cleans it up each morning before you wake, but is that the solution. From that point on each day, the street is their bin. I watched people sweep rubbish out of their shop across the foot path and onto the street.

Drinks at dinner tonight was a classic case of misunderstanding. The restaurant was busy, which is always a good sign. Rather than wait for table service, I went to the bar to grab 4 beers for those that wanted them. I pointed to Tibet Beer on the shelf and then to the fridge, as if to indicate "Cold please". The barman pointed to the fridge and nodded. I went back to the table and told everyone, "They have COLD beer. YAY!", at which point several more people went and ordered one. Dinner arrived and was enjoyed by all, but still no beers. On enquiring, it turned out that they had only been put in the fridge when I ordered them and he'd understood my request to be, "Can you put them in the fridge?" not, "Are they in the fridge." Tibet Beer claims to be "Beer from the top of the World". Most of us agreed that it's the most flavoursome beer we've had yet, but with Chinese beer so weak and watery, it's not saying much.
After dinner and a game or two of cards, Amanda and I repeated the walk I'd done alone earlier. Most of the shops were shut for the evening, but I did get a lovely shot of the hilltop fort just after dusk.

Friday - Gyantse to Shigatse

We grabbed some fresh buns from baker across the road and filled them with bananas to make a tasty breakfast before meeting everyone at 8:30. We walked to the fort (Gyantse Dzong) and then climbed up the steep steps to the top, arriving before it opened at 9:00. We were the only ones there and had the place to ourselves. With lots of dark rooms and passages to nowhere I was glad I'd brought my torch. 360 views from the top made me feel like a bird. You could see the whole wide flat valley from here. Disappointing to see that the river in the middle of the valley had been lined with concrete on both sides to stop it flooding the valley, yet for thousands of years it has done that and brought the valley the fertility that makes them farm it. Now instead of slowing as the floodwaters spread out, the waters rush past, taking with them the nutrients and just 'wasting' them in the ocean.
Back down to ground level, 3980 metres ASL, we walked to the Baiju Temple built in 1418. on entering the temple you are greeted by a big painting of a cock. I'm not sure why they like roosters so much. Apart from black stained walls from fires, it survived the Cultural Revolution - that decade of China's history under Mao that would be better called the Cultural Destruction. Kill or imprison anyone educated, burn and destroy your temples and any other cultural heritage and what do you have? A county that has has to reeducate itself from scratch and rebuild anything of worth. Most of the monasteries we've visited, although FOUNDED in date X have been rebuilt since the Cultural Revolution. Baiju Temple is the exception.
Today I was in a stupa. No! Not an alcoholic one, The Kumbum Stupa in Gyantse. Built in 1427 and nine stories high, it is the largest in Tibet. It's full of Buddahs and I had photographed enough, so had some fun doing some slow explosure shots and zooming the lens whilst I did it. I got some silly shots.
Amanda, Janet and I walked back along a street I'd seen from the fort. It zig-zagged through the old Tibetan part of town. WOW! What a street! Most houses had a cow or sheep tied up by the front door and cow dung mixed with straw was stacked neatly on walls ready to be used as fuel over winter. No vehicles, this cobbled street was a step back in time. Full of manure, rather than litter, it was only one street back from the main street I'd walked by last night it's funny how you can be so close, yet so far away. One street and yet so different.
We'd unanimously agreed to meet for lunch at the same restaurant as last night. Everyone enjoyed their meals and wanted to try something they'd seen others have. Last night I'd had a great Nepalese vegie curry and now I tried the yak burger with yak cheese that everyone had raved about last night and they tried the vegie curry. Everyone happy again.
It was a short drive of just over an hour on a sealed road to Shigatse.
For the first time, I had the front seat of the Landcruiser. How weird it was to not have a seatbelt. I know. Seatbelt in motor vehicles is Public Safety 101, but in China, not only are they not complusory, they are often absent, meaning you can't even wear it if you want to. I did say that China has further to go in catching up with the rest of the developed world than their progaganda media machine would have you believe. How about starting with seatbelts...and drink driving.
The drive was peaceful. We followed the wide valley, so no crazy mountains to cross. It's the end of summer in Tibet which is also the rainy season. The countryside is filled with Autumnal colours on the trees as farmers fill the fields harvesting their wheat and hay, ready for the dry season. Other groups of workers shape mud bricks with the still damp clay, so they too can dry out over winter, ready to make walls and houses before the rains return in the summer.
At 3900 m and home to 80 000 people, Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet.
having not left Gyantse until after lunch, we arrived mid arvo and after a quick time out in our rooms, we met at 5pm for an 'orientation' of Shigatse. Usually these are good, but this time Ling took us down the street passed the internet cafe, post office and then finally to the laundry to drop off washing. That was it. Time to explore Shigatse on our own. Guess we aren't intrepid for nothing.
We popped into the internet to see who'd sent us a hello email and no sooner had we logged on than they lost power and we all lost our unsent emails. Internet cafes in China are a smokey affair, with everyone provided with an ashtray and most people using it. I've leart to sit near a window for some fresh air, but this one has no windows.

Taking the hint to get out and wander, Amanda and I walked the Kora, pilgrim walk, around the Tashilhumpo Monastery. Unlike the temple in Lhasa, this one is on the side of a hill, so to walk the Kora is a hike. You walk a full circuit clockwise, keeping the temple and numerous prayer wheels to your right. The sun set whilst we were walking and it was a great hike with a nice view of Shigatse, but I feel sorry for the local Buddists who do it twice a day, spinning countless prayer wheels as they go. Some of the people we saw were quite old and decrepid.
We finally found a restaurant, but everything on the menu was, "Yak with ..." or "... with yak." Neither of us felt like much dinner, so we decided to share 'vegetable fried rice' and 'potato cheaps'. Unfortunately the rice came loaded with what looked like, and was, yak meat. The 'cheaps' chips? were shredded potato with dried chillies and Sichuan peppers. Amanda picked them out and enjoyed the potato and I ate the unplanned yak fried rice.

Saturday - A day in Shigatse.

I climbed a 4000m peak before breakfast. When in the Himalaya.....
I'd left a note in reception offering an early hike for anyone wanting to join me and 3 did. It took us 40 minutes to negotiate the maze of old Tibetan house to reach the mountain. I can't call it a trail head because there wasn't one.
Heading up without a path, it got steeper and steeper, until the other 3 piked out. I could see the top and wanted to reach it, so continued on...and now there was one. There was no path and the 'new' rocks of the Himalaya crumbled underfoot. It got so steep that at times I was rock climbing. Not too bad until your hand hold gives way and your heart jumps into your throat before you regain your balance and look again at the long drop below. Sometimes the best feeling comes after pushing your limits and knowing that you have to concentrate because failure to do so could have dire consequences. Too often we take the 'easy road', never challenging ourselves and seeing what we're capable of. I did make it, or I wouldn't be writing to you now, and the view from the top was worth the effort. You could see across the whole wide valley. As smoke settled over the waking city, I pondered that if Shigatse were the size of a Chinese city, it too would have problems with smog. Until then, I'm enjoying the blue sky. Scrambling back down, I came back to the top of the Kora hike I'd done last night and from there it was an easy walk back, or at least it should have been. I'd seen people brown-eyeing me and thought they were being rude. Turns out they were relieving themselves in public. That's right! People here use the street, alleys or anywhere actually, to have a leak or even a dump - no paper used. Walking around Shigatse is like a minefield. It's crap. I've renamed this place Shitgatse.
I made it back just in time to join the group for a tour of the Tashilhumpo Monastery. ABM mostly. Biggest this, oldest that, and highest something or other. These Buddah statues had piles of money below them. Not sure if they get more, or the monks take longer to remove it. It seems that Buddism is not immune to vanity. Each lama raids the coffers and milks the poor to make a giant Buddah, for which THEY will be remembered for having built it.
What was most interesting here is that today is an 'auspicious occassion'. The prayer leading monk is being replaced and they throw a party to celebrate. It began with a few hundred monks wearing carpet on their heads assembling in the monastic square. This afternoon will be music and dancing.
Lunch today was Tibetan Yak Curry. It came presented on a partitioned stainless steel platter and looked more at home in a prison.
In the afternoon, we joined the town crowds and watched the monks dancing carefully and choreographed to the sound of bad monastic 'music'. Slow and tuneless, it's no wonder the dancemoves were like a stick insect. It did make for some good photos and the crowd provided some great 'people photos'.
Tonight I had a great dinner and so did the others who went to the same place, another Tashi. After dinner 6 of us stayed and played cards until late.

Sunday - Leaving Shitgatse.
I awoke to a thunderstorm and rain at 1am.
When I went for a walk in the morning there was only blue skies to see and the streets were fresher.
Three truckloads of soldiers clad in riot gear unloaded in the rear of our hotel and headed straight out to patrol. At a nearby intersection a column of trucks rolled past, with the smiling faces of soldiers poking out of the rear canvas flaps. I'd not seen and overt military presence here until now, but it seems like China is not taking any chances of anyone spoiling the 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China celebrations.
Now its time to drive to Sakya. Heading higher and in two days I will be at Everest Base Camp.

Malcolm's rant.
What's with hotel room cleaners that throw out your stuff?
Things on your desk that you want, like a water bottle - gone. Plastic bag on your backpack - gone. If I want to throw it out I will put it in the bin. Spend less time going through my stuff and more time giving the room a proper clean. I shouldn't wipe the bathroom vanity and end up with a brown flannel.

Posted by TheWandera 02:44 Archived in China Comments (0)

Lhasa, Tibet

"City in the Sky"

Tibet is a place I have wanted to visit for as long as I can remember. Today, all going well, I would finally get there.

Friday 11th September - Onwards and upwards, literally, to Lhasa, Tibet.

Before leaving for Tibet, our guide gave us a stern talking to about not mentioning politics to anyone, or not only would we be in trouble, so would she and the whole trip would be cancelled. China makes it so hard to enter Tibet that we're not about to blow our chance. We've made up the code word 'Sichuan pepper' for 'political situation'.

Our Chengdu panda spotting game finished at the airport. I won, just.
Before we even left Chengdu airport, I had another first - serving a meal on the tarmac whilst the flight is delayed. It was also the first time I've tried congee, a rice porrige popular with Chinese for breakfast. With the provided sachet of pickled vegetables added, it was palatable, just.
Leaving an hour late, the almost empty plane gave all of us a window seat. As we crossed over the Tibetan Plateau, smog gave way to a sea of clouds below us. Excitement rippled through the group an we played musical chairs as the windows on both sides of the plane offered breathtaking views. You don't need gaps in the clouds when the mountains poke above them. In the distance, snow covered Mount Gongga Shan stood supreme at 7556m. As gaps in the clouds became more frequent, we could see little villages, the only sign of people in this massive landscape of mountain peaks that is the Himalaya.
Below me, a wide river wound like a ribbon across a flat valley between the mountains as we came into land.
YAY! I'm finally in Tibet! I know I'm going to have wonderful time here.
We hadn't got far into our 90 minute drive from the airport to Lhasa when we were stopped at a checkpoint and had to all hand over our passports. I get the feeling that with the 'Sichuan pepper" the way it is, getting the permits to come here was the easy part and being here is not going to be straighforward.
Our hotel is located in the middle of a busy market street only one car wide. The street is a riot of colour and a carcophany of noise. Umbrellas of red, green, blue and yellow adorn vendors down both sides of the narrow stree like the beach on a summers day and the harsh sun under a blue sky add to the comparison. This is not a 'tourist' street and the items for sale are for locals at local prices. It didn't take long to discover a vendor next door selling freshly cooked kettle style chips for less than 20 cents a bag and you sprinkle on your own seasonings and give it a shake. Adds a new dimension to the phrase, "Cheap as chips."
Hungry, we all went out to a restaurant around the corner. My first meal in Tibet was a crispy and tasty Yak Pie which I washed down with a tart yak yoghurt banana lassi. I would discover shortly that if you love yak, you'll love Tibet. Michelle make such moaning noises eating her yak meatballs that I think she had a gastrogasm. (Don't bother looking that one up. It's a Malcolm neologism. Look that word up instead.) Amanda had vegetarian momos. Momos are Tibetan dumplings.

At over 3500m ASL, even climbing the stairs in the hotel leaves you short of breath. Having got up early this morning for the flight, and being careful not to overexert until I get acclimatised to the altitude, I took an afternoon nap before meeting the group at 5 for an orientation walk of Lhasa.
Ling took us just a couple of streets away to the streets surrounding the Jokang Temple. Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels walk laps of the temple and being popular with tourists gawking at the devotees, these streets ARE lined with tourist stalls. Grey storm clouds were brewing, but the sun was low in the sky and not blocked by cloud. Warm golden light bathed the temple and surrounding buildings and I couldn't help but take lots of photos making the most of the magical light splashed onto lovely old Tibetan buildings. Depending which way I took the photos, some backgrounds are grey clouds, whilst others have blue sky and white fluffy clouds.

I went onto the rooftop of the hotel to take some sunset photos. At 5 stories high, this is one of the larger buildings and it's a good view of the flat city.
Lhasa itself is flat, built on the valley floor, but on all sides you are surrounded by mountains. At 3595m ASL, it is pipped only by 65m by La Paz in Bolivia as the world's highest capital city. There are some similarities and differences between the cities. The women look so similar in appearance and dress it's uncanny. Bowler hats, long black hair tied into a single plait and similar clothing had me doing a double take. Looking directly at their face, they're different, but otherwise Tibetan and Bolivian women have a lot in common. Both cities are surrounded by mountains, but in La Paz they're closer and higher. La Paz is steep all over and the city encroaches on the surrounding mountains because it has to. Here in Lhasa there's much more feeling of space and the city itself is dead flat. The surrounding mountains are distant.
From the roof of the hotel we have a good view of the only high thing in Lhasa, the Potala Palace. World famous icon of Lhasa, it was built 1300 years ago on the only hill in town. It is to the west of us, which meant the sunset view was no good for photos as it was in shadow.
We're here for 5 days and have lots of free time, including doing our own thing for meals. 5 of us went to a Tibetan restaurant for dinner. Tashi 1 is known for it's house specialty of bobis, pronounced boobies. I've never met a boobie I didn't like and these Tibetan bobis were no exception. You get served 3 flat breads (bobis) like a soft tortilla and add the filling you've chosen, in my case yak, and wrap it up like a burrito and eat it. Yak yogurt banana lassi and a tart yak yoghurt cheese cake finished off a lovely dinner.
Back at the hotel I went up to the roof and took some photos of Potala Palace under floodlight before heading to bed.
The hotel here is interesting. They sweep the carpet, rather than vacuum it. The water is solar, but you have to run the shower for 15 minutes and even then it's barely hot. No wonder when everyone is running your stored hot water to waste. Crazy system. The ceiling of the shower is covered in blood spots. Is this really the Bates Motel? When you use the loo, you can hear it trickling into the shower drain. Might explain the smell on arrival. Must make sure to always flush. As usual in Tibet, you place used toilet paper in a bin, not the loo. Seems the plumbing can handle grogans, but not dunny paper.

First impressions of Lhasa would have to be the military presence. This is no token show. Soldiers patrol everywhere, walking single file in groups of 7. At most street corners there are gun-toting soldiers stationed within tape of the type they put around a crime scene, as snipers on rooftops survey from on high. All this takes place under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras anywhere you care to look. I feel like they probably even know when I fart, which will be keeping someone in a full-time job as it's something I get at altitude. This is the third time I've spend time over 3500m (Peru/Bolivia 2004, Pakistan 2007) and I trumpet like a trooper.

Saturday - Take it easy day to help acclimatise to the altitude.

I woke before sunrise, so took my camera and tripod to the hotel roof for some night shots and maybe some golden light on the palace. Lhasa isn't that photogenic across the city, but the sunrise was colourful. Unfortunately, despite being up there patiently for an hour and a half, a cloud blocked the sun reaching the palace as golden light danced off surrounding mountains, just not where I wanted it to be.
Even our breakfast today came to us via yak. Yak yoghurt with muesli. It's very tart, even more so than goats milk/cheese.
We had a Tibetan lesson this morning, but rather than focus on a few useful words like hello, good-bye, yes, no, please and thankyou, we went through a long and useless list of words we'll never use in the two weeks we're here.
I went for a walk the full length of 'our' street and what a selection of vendors. Vibrant swathes of fabric and colourful piles of Nike ripoff shoes contrasted with the pungent rancid smell of yak butter stores that you can smell before you see the bright yellow of the butter blocks. Just as well that incense smoke regularly wafts up the street. At the far end I found butchers with yak, of course, just hanging up unrefrigerated. Air-dried mountain beef anyone?
Amanda and I had a lunch of Thukpa, Tibetan noodle soup. I had yak and Amanda had vegies. Both were good.

This afternoon we caught taxis to Sera Monastery. Seems they drive to cheat death here too.
The entrance to the monastery gave me my first look at Tibetan prayer wheels. Gold cylinders with prayers written on them. Vertically mounted, pilgrims walk past spinning them and each revolution sends that prayer off once. (All over the streets of Lhasa you will see people carrying a personal version of this with a prayer written inside and they walk around all day spinning their personal prayer wheel.)
Sera Monastery is famous for the debating monks each afternoon, but first we had a tour of the temple. Large and dimly lit by the light of yak butter candles, it had a sooty smell and what was once colourful fabric and paint was now grimy. There were many different Buddahs for people to pray to and each one accepted money to make your prayer have more chance of success. There were piles of money in front of each of them. You could have helped yourself, but you don't have to believe to know that would be BAD karma. Whether it's the Catholic church accepting money for masses to get people out of pergatory, Christians being expected to tithe, or this blatand throwing money at idols, one thing religions all over the world have got sorted is how to take people's money. Amazing that whatever all-powerful deity you believe in, they are always strapped for cash.
Escaping the monastery into the fresh air, we went next door to a courtyard full of monks. Under the dappled shade of poplar trees, everywhere you looked they were debating with each other. So many in fact you could say it was a mass debate. Paired off, one monk would be seated and the other stood and asked the questions. As they answered, the asking monk would emphatically slap his hands to indicate a right or wrong answer.
We tokk the chance and caught a bus back to our hotel. I say 'took the chance' because we are allowed to catch taxis and pedal rickshaws, but not a bus unless we have our Tibetan guide with us. They don't make it easy.

Later in the afternoon, Amanda and I took our cameras and explored the back streets and alleyways of Barkhor, the old Tibetan part of Lhasa surrounding the Jokhand Temple. I found a spot where the light was good and pilgrims walked laps of the temple and standing off to the side out of the way, I used a long lens to take some awesome portraits. Such a variety of people. Young and old, men and women, colourfully dressed and not, I got it all.
We had a sunset dinner tonight at an Indian restaurant overlooking the town square in front of the Jokhang Temple. China only has one time zone and we are in the far west, so the sun doesn't set until about 8pm.
I tried a Lhasa Beer that claimed to be "Beer from the roof of the world". I'm not sure which roof it came from, but it did taste of rainwater.

Sunday - Two temples today.

I got up early today and this time I did get the sunrise photo of the Potala Palace from the roof of our hotel. Unlike yesterday, the golden light did bathe the palace, albeit briefly.
We all met in reception at 10am today after breakfast. We are going to the Jokhang Temple this morning and to the Potala Palace (temple) this afternoon.
We're well located at the Oh Dan Hotel and the temple is just a short walk.
Outside the Jokhang Temple, pilgrims kowtowed, which involves chanting and clapping your hands over your head and then prostrating yourself. Most wore clogs on their hands and many used knee pads. The ones out front today did it in one spot, but if you follow the pilgims walk around the temple you will find them doing it facing the temple and then taking one step to the left and doing it again. Makes for a long lap.
Inside the temple we were greeted with the same dark yak butter smelling temple as yesterday. There were a dozen different Buddahs and grotesque other idols, and our guide insisted on giving us the full rundown on each with a voice that could only be heard by those closest to her. Uninspired, I escaped to the roof with my camera. NOW I'm inspired. Lovely light landed on golden figures of animals. In the distance I could see Potala Palace. Very photogenic up here.

We met up again at 1pm for our afternoon visit to the Potala Palace. What a rigmorole! Bus there was the easy part. You have an allocated time only, ours was 2pm and then you only have one hour. Two different passport checks and then a full bag scan to make sure you aren't bringing in any water - dangerous stuff. Then, without water on a hot day under a blazing sun you have to climb innumerable steps to reach the top, where overpriced water is waiting. Scamming people is one thing, but putting their health at risk to do it was not appreciated. The views of Lhasa from the top are expansive as this is the only high point in town. You aren't allowed to take photos inside, so you buy their postcards? The Potala Palace is made up of various temples to different Buddahs (diiferent Buddahs, same yak butter smell) and thrones of the Dali Lamas. The tomb for the 5th Dali Lama is topped with 3554 KG of gold, apparently. Originally built 1300 years ago, it is truely amazing piece of building.
It was a hot afternoon, so Amanda and I caught a cycle rickshaw back to the hotel and paid the guy twice the agreed price. Glad it wasn't me out there working at this altitude.

We bought some biscuits from a little shop. One was a Danish butter style, but the other started as a ginger snap and then the distinctive taste of Sichuan pepper kicked in. Sichuan pepper biscuits.

Today I got a haircut. Our street here has everything, including a hairdresser. She clipped away, as I looked in the mirror at the poster of 80's tragic hair dos on the wall behind her. Finishing with a dry shave on the back of the neck with a cut throat razor, I figured the shave cream version probably cost more than the $2 I paid.

I'd seen the sunrise over the Potala Palace but wanted sunset, from a different side. With lots of free time here in Lhasa I've been able to do photography that's more than just taking what you can when you are there. I've been able to go back to places of interest at the right time of day for the light I want. In time for sunset, Amanda and I caught a rickshaw to the Potala Palace. We walked a full lap with golden light flooding the palace walls and making the golden prayer wheels even more golden.
Rickshaw back for dinner at the Snowland Hotel. I was here at lunch for yak stew, but had seen a plate go past called Yak Sizzler and wanted to try that. If you like yak, you'll LOVE Tibet. My yak was delicious, but the local beer, Chang, not so. Lemon tartness at the first sip turns to a burnt taste at the back of your mouth. It's like bad home brew and just as cloudy.

Monday - Momo making, markets and more.

We're now missing Brett, who at 25 is the youngest in the group. He's been sick for days and this morning he went to hospital with what turned out to be pulmonary odema, and maybe more. They're stabilising him before getting him to a lower altitude. He's a tough Army guy and just kept on keeping on when he should have taken it easy. our guide Ling will have a busy day I'm sure.

The hotel kitchen closed for breakfast at 10:30 and at 10:40 we had a momo making lesson. Momos are Tibetan dumplings and the chef had a batch of vegetable filling, yak meat filling and some dough to wrap it in. We then spent the next hour making a multitude of momos in a variety of shapes, many of them non-traditional. They were then steamed and served at about noon, making it a perfect brunch for me. I was glad I hadn't eaten breakfast, so I had more room for the tasty momos. We still had plenty left and had fun in taking them out to the street and sharing them with smiling locals.

We met up again at 2pm and walked through even more random streets lined with vendors to reach the school for Braile without Borders. BwB is an organisation that empowers blind people with tuition and work skills so they can contribute to their family and community. Tibet has a high rate of blindness, due in part to poor health care. Many 'simple' things go untreated with dire consequences. Sad too that the Tibetans believe blindness to be a result of bad karma and marginalise blind people, though with education, I'm told this is improving. It was touching to be shown around the tiny school of 44 students and see what they're up to. They have no heating, so I imagine it gets bloody cold in winter up here in the mountains.

With the rest of the afternoon free, Amanda and I explored the markets we'd walked through on the way there and then wandered some more and found different streets. The variety of vendors and vibrancy of the colours made for some interesting photos and yes, I got a case of digital diahorrea and took too many photos. EVERYTHING was begging to be photographed.

Dinner tonight was a buffet with a Tibetan cultural show included. I took the chance to try something other than yak meat. New things for me included: gnocchi with yak butter, tasted as rancid as it smelt; sheep's lungs, so tender and tasty I went back for seconds; and yak butter tea, tasted like butter and water. I think they should cal it yuck butter. There are a couple of yak butter shops that you smell before you see them, selling it from giant unrefigerated yellow blocks. After dinner there was a show by three men that included singing, guitars and a big drum hit with a stick that looked like a sickle with a blob on the end of it. The finale was a pantomime yak that used two of the men and the other man 'teased' it like a mad bull. The yak then 'charged' around the room and Amanda was the first to be attacked. I have a video of it that I will link in on my return. It was a fun evening.
We kicked on to the roof top bar of the Yak Hotel, but whilst the views were great, the atmosphere was not and someone said, "We're going to another place." To which I said, "Where?" "Another Place" was the reply. Sure enough, just around the corner in a dark little lane was Another Place, a funky little bar in which we scored a little room for the group of us. Those who shared the bottle of red wine called Dynasty, said it was more like Die Nasty, but the rest of us were happy with our beers and Bacardi Breezers. Another Place is the kind of cool bar you usually only find when you live in a place.

Tuesday - Free day.

There were no planned activities today, so everyone did their own thing, which turned out to be shopping for most people.
Fuelling up for a day of bargaining and haggling, Amanda and I began with breakfast at Tashi 1. We'd eaten here on our first night when we had the bobis. Omelette, followed by yak yoghurt muesli with apples, banana and pineapple drizzled with honey was a breakfast to remember.
Shopping took care of the next few hours and I'm sure my nieces and nephews will be pleased with Uncle Malcolm. Can you believe that I bought a pair of genuine Gucci sunglasses for $5.
Walking around the pilgrim circuit - kora - of the Jokhang Temple continues to amaze with what you find and see. Just people watching is interesting.
It's right near where we were, so we had a late light lunch back at Tashi 1. A yak burger for me and vegetable momos for Amanda and a quick game of Euchre for both of us and we continued wandering. I bought a double CD of Tibetan music. Can't wait to hear it. Hope I like it. Yesterday I'd seen a man in a random alley fixing a backpack. My daypack needed stitching but the repair people I'd showed it to in China all said "Too hard." This guy had a big thick needle and was sewing leather so I knew he meant business. My backpack is now fixed, on the spot. While I was there, Amanda was making friends with a couple of local ladies, showing them her photos and then taking one of them and showing it to them on the back of the camera. Digital is great for that. Walking back I spotted one of the soldiers stationed on a street corner, wiggling to the music from a nearby vendor. As I walked toward him I made eye contact and did a little jiggle too. He smiled and it made me realise that, despite their uniform and what they represent, they're still people. He's a young man, but I have no idea of his background. Maybe this was his only chance at a decent life?

Brett has now been medivaced to Chengdu Hospital so he can recover without altitude. ......and then there were 11.
We have a fantastic group and as the hyperactive youngster of the group, he will be missed.

We all went out for dinner tonight to a rooftop restaurant overlooking the pilgrim's walk around Jokhang Temple. As the sun set, the golden shapes of the top of the temple that I described to you two days ago, lit up beautifully. The view from here was as good as the food was bad. I'm kinda glad my yak tongue with mushrooms never arrived as those that did were diabolical. I'll spare you the details. We've had an unbroken run of great meals, so I'm not complaining.
Someone suggested cheesecake at Tashi 1. Those that hadn't tried it had heard from those of us who had how good it was, and so it was that I found myself at the same restaurant for the third time in a day. Ling described her yak yoghurt cheesecake as the best one of her life. Quite a claim.

Well readers, that's Lhasa for me. Tomorrow we head of by four wheel drive to Gyantse. No showers or much else but we're told the views are spectacular. From now on it's up and up and deeper into the Himalayas, gaining altitude until we reach Everest Base Camp at over 5000m ASL in 6 days time.
I'll keep you up to date as I can, but until then I'll leave you with the following thoughts.


With so many people here wearing surgical masks, I was curious as to why. Swine flu, dusty environment, hiding your identity from the CCTV cameras, or as our guide suggested, avoiding sun on their faces so their cheeks don't go pink. With many not covering their cheeks, I eliminated that one. With some roads out of here being closed, I now know. It is because of what the Chinese call Pig Sick. That's right. Despite it's isolation, swine flu has reached Lhasa and the locals are taking no chances. With low nutrition and poor health amongst the Tibetans, I can't say I blame them.

I've struggled to find Chinglish for you here in Tibet. Unlike China, the Tibetans have a much better grasp of English, evidenced by the fact that many people speak it and when it's written on signs it's not all mangled into Chinglish. Don't fear readers, I have many signs from China that I spotted and photographed for you. I will put them all into a Flickr folder on my return and advise the link. What I have been getting lots of photos of is mops. Mops? That will be another Flickr folder and it all started with a walk through the hutongs of Beijing. I took three photos of mops for their artistic merit. They made a good photo.
I chose then to look out for mop shots of merit. Why? When in somewhere as different as China, it's easy to be overwhelmed with it all. Looking for mops has made me notice the details, though anyone who's been hiking with me knows I don't really need help for that. I don't find mop photos outside Prada and Gucci stores and have to walk the back streets where mops, and much more, are on display. I like to explore and wander where others don't and the mop shots are just the cream. The only rules I've set myself is that I don't alter anything. I haven't moved things into position to make a better photo, just capture what's there as best I can and try and make a creative photo for you. It's been fun and has drawn some funny looks from locals when there's Malcolm photographing a mop. I'll make a folder of them on Flickr for you too. You will be amazed at the variety of settings in which I've spotted mops. Today I got a classic with an old dusty bike that looked like it hadn't been riden in years with a bright red mop hanging on it to dry. 101 Mops of China?

Posted by TheWandera 07:17 Archived in China Comments (0)

Mountain monasteries

Let's trek and stay on holy Mount Emei.

Time for our Intrepid trip - Mountains and Monasteries - to live up to it's name.

Sunday - Trip to Leshan and then onto Baoguo Monastery

We were due to meet at 9 in the lobby. Breakfast was supposed to be provided by the hotel until 9 am, but at 8:30 we were faced with 12 empty or almost empty dishes and 3 empty jugs of ?
No amount of gesticulating to staff got any more food brought out. Takes "first in best dressed" to a new level. From what others said, we didn't miss much. This has been my least favourite place to stay.
Amanda scored a banana from a passing fruit vendor, but when I went out to get one, he was gone, as vendors on wheels are known to do.

We had a private bus today to take us first to Leshan. In addition to Ling, our guide for the whole trip, we also have local guide Nathan with us for the next two days.

We've got used to bag scanners all over China for everything from trains to museums, but this bus station made us laugh. The security guy waved the 13 of us through, leaving our backpacks on our back, which was appreciated, but not I'm sure by the monk who they made put his shoulder sachel through the scanner.

Two hours by bus had us to Leshan. We could barely see the buildings on the other side of the river because of the smog, still. We got on a boat to take us out into the river and past the BIG Buddah statue, but before we did so, EVERYONE had to don an international orange life vest. How funny was it to watch as the Chinese tourists showed me several different ways how NOT to put on a life vest. The Buddah statue at Leshan is over 70 metres high and is apparently the biggest stone Buddah in the world. It took 90 years to be carved into the side of a cliff 1300 years ago and with ears 7m high, it was much more impressive than the traffic jam of weekend tourists we could see trying to walk down the cliff face to the base of the statue.

Back on the bus, it was another hour and we were at Baoguo Monastery on the lower slopes of Emei Mountain one of China's four Buddist holy mountains. Built in 1615 and the largest monastery on the mountain, Baoguo was to be our home for the night and we instantly felt relaxed as there was a palpable feeling of peace.
Entering by stepping over a large step to enter through an elaborately decorated doorway, the monastery had incense and candle offering racks with Buddah statues behind that. Follow a few convoluted pathways and through a cloverleaf shaped doorway, up a few more stairs and we were at the upper temple, beside which were our rooms for tonight. This is a really special place to stay.
Sometimes I go camping and rough it, sometimes I stay 5 star - tonight I'm sleeping in a temple.

Random Malcolm observation - I know that Buddists consider all living creatures to be sentient beings and therefore are vegetarians and won't kill anything, so what was with the guy walking around the monastery spraying the plants with insecticide? I respected their rules of no alcohol, meat or killing things, including the BFO cockroach under my bed, so what about aphids?

We all jumped in taxis to head to a nearby village for a late lunch together. Unfortunately our driver took us to the wrong village, fortunately we had Ling in the taxi with us and she could tell him in Mandarin where to go, literally. Unfortunately, the driver got back on the highway and headed up the wrong side of a dual carriageway, fortunately we survived and he took a side road to the correct village. Going the wrong way was a short cut. You probably think I'm joking and things on the road can't be as bad or a silly as I describe. Trust me they are. Today I saw a motorcyclist on hairpin mountain roads, without a helmet like everyone else, talking on their mobile phone. I'm loathe to say, "I've seen it all." because I know there's more to come.

Lunch was great, just like every meal we've had, and likewise, rediculously cheap. Some of the group went off from there for a 'village tour', but Amanda and I caught a cab back to the monastery and just had a relaxing afternoon in a peaceful environment.
Wandering around the monastery with my camera, as The Wandera is wont to do, I got some special photos both before and after dark.

Monday - Time to go to over 3000m high on a mountain.

Today would be a day we start low, go high, come back down and then hike high again. I will explain.
6:30 start with fried egg sandwiches, a banana and jasmine tea for breakfast.
With everyone carrying a 'daypack' with things we need for the next two days, we walked from Baoguo Monastery to the town and caught a local bus up the mountain. Two hours of hairpin bends took us from 550m to over 2000m. Walking up a bunch of steps took us to the cablecar station, and from there we were whisked to the top of the mountain. There were no views on the way up as it's foggy up here in Mt Emei.
WOW! As we walked the last few steps to the summit, we saw something I've not seen since I was in Lijinag - blue sky. Amazing but true! You probably think I'm kidding about China being blanketed in smog, but that is my experience. I've not seen blue sky in weeks, just smog, and I've travelled a few kilometres across the country, not just in cities. What an environmental nightmare. Then where does it blow? It doesn't disappear, it just becomes someone else's problem. Our guide Ling lives in Chengdu and told us that the thing that amazes her about Tibet, where we are going next, is the blue sky. Living in Chengdu, she honestly can't remember when she last saw a blue sky, just smog. What did I tell you about not taking the simple things in life for granted.

On the top of the mountain at 3077 is the Golden Summit, named after a giant gold Buddah statue. It was only built 4 years ago, and I'm sure it's only gold paint, but it's impressive nontheless. As people burnt incense and candles amongst elaborately ornate buildings, the whole thing was very photogenic. Oops. Too many photos again.
At this height we were literally in the clouds and they swirled around us, occassionally obscuring things, but it was mostly clear. Given that FOG is usual for 70% of the time its fair to say we got a 'good day' there.

Cablecar back, then a local bus back down for two hours had us at Wuxiangang Park, a different spot to our start point today. Stopping first for a late lunch, it would be a long hike up many steps to reach our bed tonight at Hongchunping Monastery.
A verdant valley enveloped us as we started off. Lakes passed on our right side as a stream gurgled by our left. Vendors selling everything from Chinese medicinal mushrooms, tourist trinkets and fresh fruit, to boxes of butterflies passed us by as we headed upwards to Qingyin Pavilion. Our guide pointed to a particular butterfly, featured in most of the framed sets for sale and told us it was endangered. With people catching them to pin down and sell, I'm not surprised. I AM surprised that the Buddists don't demand such killing not take place on their holy mountain, or a least that the legions of pilgrims don't buy them and by doing so, take away the demand.
Why doesn't the government lead and make it illegal? When you come to China and see for youself, you realise that there's a gulf between what China tells it's people and the rest of the world and what it is actually doing. An extinct butterfly or two are the least of their worries.

Jampons carrying lazy Chinese jogged by. What is a jampon? It's a chair for one person, suspended by bamboo poles carried by two porters. My wallet could afford it but my conscience could not. If I'm too lazy to walk myslelf, then I don't deserve to be here in these mountains.

We passed a big wall of green, moldy and ancient-looking rock carvings depicting a classic Chinese scene. It appeared to be carved into the cliff wall and I was impressed, that is until the guide told me there's a reason that the sign describing the scened depicted by the 'carving' fails to mention a date for a reason. That reason is that it was only made a couple of years ago and it's just moulded concrete. With the humidity and rain here in the forest, it didn't take long to get moldy and old looking. I really can't get over how much of what you seen in China as 'old' and photogenic, are really just new fake reproductions. Seriously, even the Great Wall that you visit is reconstructed. Thanks both to Mao's Cultural Revolution and also to China's love of knocking down old stuff and building new, there's precious little that's genuinely old.
As it was the whole 'trail' was a manicured path of perfect steps, pavers and a hand rail. Not what most of the world calls a 'hiking trail'. The forest that surrounded us was lush and damp, making me thankful that there was no sign today of the downpour last night. As hundreds and then thousands of steps passed beneath us, the crowds thinned out to nothing. Just us and our guide and the forest. Magic.
We'd been told that the final part of the trek was the "1000 steps", after a few thusand of them, we kept asking, "Was that the thousand steps?" Seems they were just a warm up and just when we needed it least, the 1000 steps were waiting for us. At the top was the Hard Wok Cafe with cold water. We were all soaked and not from rain. It's SO humid up here in the mountain forest. Refreshed, it was another 218 steps to the Hongchunping Monastery.
Yes, they have hot showers and we wasted no time in making use of them and putting on clean dry clothes.
What a view from the loo. It's so far down that you can't help say "Wee." when that's what you're doing. Fall off and you'll probably yell, "Sh#t!".
A wander around the monastery was a must. It is ancient and generous in the use of timber with ornate and colourfully painted carvings in abundance. Our rooms are comfortable and we seem to have the place to ourselves, not even seeing the 15 monks who live here. Magic mountain monastery? Absolutely. What a place to be and not somewhere I would have found travelling independently. A tour benefit.
There's CCTV cameras around the monastery and I suspect they're not put there by the monks. Communist China 'tolerates' religion, but it doesn't trust it and does what it can to make it hard for people who practise it. You want your monastery? Well, we'll monitor your monastery. No Monk-ey business.
For dinner, we walked back down the 218 steps to Betty's Hard Wok Cafe. Dodgy pun, but great food and a spectacular view across the valley deep into the rain forest. Betty is like the matriarch and you feel like you're in her home and she's the grandma fussing over you. Nameless hubby knocks up the nosh from an open air kitchen with a view across the forest that I'd love to work with.

Tuesday - Long hike back to Baoguo Monastery.
Staying in Hongchunping Monastery was very peaceful, until you are woken by gongs and chanting at 5:30 am. During the night there was a thunderous storm and it poured with rain so I was expecting to have a wet hike today. Turns out it didn't rain again. Can you believe that apart from the hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge that Amanda and I did on our own, the only rain we've had on this whole trip has been at night. It has poured the last two nights but we've had lovely hiking days. Unusual apparently, but I'm appreciative.
Breakfast at the Hard Wok Cafe was a delicious banana, chocolate pancake made with honey from their own beehive.
Beginning our descent, the 1000 steps were just the warm up.
A sign warned us to watch out for the "Terrible monkeys". Tibetan Macaques, these monkeys have been fed by people, so now they expect food from people passing, harassing them and stealing things from them. The solution is simple, but not to the Chinese, DON'T FEED THE MONKEYS!, but that's too easy, in fact they sell you little bags of food to give them, which makes the monkeys lazy for their own food and just compounds the problem.
We didn't see any pandas in the forest, but I did see a cobra that came down the trail and past me. Alerted by those in front, I saw it coming so got my camera out and took a photo as it went past me so I can ID it. Lucky I like snakes.
With such a specacular array of butterflies today in the forest it was like being in a butterfly house there were so many in so many different shapes, colours and sizes, with some as big as a small bird. It turned into a case of butterfly oneupmanship. Just when I would spot a magnificent one, someone else would spot an even better one.
A Collie dog walked past us and I got a few laughs by asking the dog if it was a mango lassi.
Nearly five hours later, we arrived back at Baoguo Monastery to our stored big backpacks and waiting bedrooms.

The rest of the day and evening are free time with no planned activities.
Amanda and I went into town for lunch stopping at the first place that had an English menu, otherwise you have even less idea what you are ordering.
This menu featured lots of pork, just not the kind of pork we're used to. With pig's heart with mashed garlic, terrine of pig's elbow, stir-fried pig's kidney and even 'crispy pigsnut', I settled for 'Salted pig's tongue with peanuts'. I like tongue, but hadn't had pork tongue before. It was good, but I would have trimmed off the gristle and fat that they left on. Amanda's "3 vegetable soup" was actually 3 kinds of mushrooms and was delicious.
Walking back we were treated to a mating display of two irredescant green butterflies just a metre in front of us. If you thought that the random fluttering flying style of a butterfly meant they weren't good fliers, think again. After dancing and fluttering around each other to see if they liked each other and wanted to make caterpillars together, one hovered perfectly still, whilst the other flew vertical circles around it. 20 seconds later they both swirled together, shooting upwards to about 50m high and going their separate ways. Wonderful.
After a relaxing arvo resting after our morning hike a few of us went to Nathan's Cafe, run by the wife of our guide on the mountain Nathan. Not sure why it doesn't bear her name as she does all the cooking. The menu tonight was identical to the one we'd had at lunch elsewhere and it turns out that every restaurant in town has the same menu and prices which is all set by the local authorities.
The front of the menu read, "The price of Pricing Bureau of Mount Emei supervises and checkes the branch to supervise. Complaints phone 12358" Makes it hard to compete. Sometimes China is full-on capitalist and other times the communism side surfaces. I'd had enough tongue for one day, so smoked duck and rabbit dishes were chosen amongst those of us that went out together.

Wed - 09/09/09 Auspicious day in China with 9 a lucky number.
We left our mountain monastery retreat this morning for the 2.5 hour bus ride back to Chengdu.
If you haven't already read it, you can go back to my Chengdu blog and read Part 2 and pick up my trip from there.

Confucius says, "Girl who works in post office, probably called Mai Ling.

Posted by TheWandera 21:19 Archived in China Comments (0)

Chengdu - Parts 1 & 2.

Chengdu is China's panda promoting provence - it's PANDAmonium.

Chendu Part 1

Friday 5th September - Train from Xian to Chengdu

I left you in Xian in the afternoon, as we were about to board our overnight train from Xian to Chengdu.
Everywhere you go, you have to put your bags through a scanner. What makes it funny is that on this occassion, the person watching the screeen wasn't but was in fact texting on their mobile phone. That's not as bad as the scanner watcher in Xian at the Terracotta Warriors who was layed out across two chairs sleeping. I don't know why they bother.

It was scheduled to run from 1:30 pm Friday and arrive in Chengdu at 5:30 am the following morning, which was rather an ungodly hour. We left on time, but from there, things did not go to plan, though this time, I was glad that Chinese trains don't always run on time, making our arrival time such that we were able to check straight into our hotel.

The 12 of us in the group has two cabins of 6, with a triple bunk on each side. Ling, our guide was just next door. Cabins is not quite the right word, as your feet stuck into the passageway and there was no door. We spent the afternoon reading, chatting, playing cards and drinking the cold beers we'd stashed to bring with us instead of the warm ones they sell on board the train. Whenever we looked out the window - smog. Does it ever go away? There's boiling water on tap, so come dinner time, rather than eat the 'slops trolley' that wheeled past, having learnt from our last overnight train journey two days ago, we had the same dinner as the locals on the train, two minute noodles in a foam bowl bought from a supermarket beforehand.
From a different passing trolley, I did have some chilli tofu skewers and they were the first tofu thing I've ever liked. It's not that tofu tastes horrible, it just doesn't taste of anything. It's in the Guinness Book of Records as "The worlds most flavourless food." and I agree. Tofu is actually a culinary parasite. It has no flavour of it's own, so it has to take on flavours from it's hosts.
Using my contortionist skills once again, I squeezed into my top bunk, just. Geez! The Chinese are small. The aircon outlet was just above me and it turned on and off intermittently during the night. As it did so, I alternately pulled my doona over me or shed it. If that, and the hard bed, weren't enought to keep me awake, the train stopped a few times during the night, even going backwards at one stage! My earplugs and eyemask - travel essentials in my book - helped me get an okay nights sleep overall. Our early wake up call never happened and we eventually got into Chengdu at 10am, only 4.5 hours late. Why? There'd been a landslide on the track and we'd had to wait for them to clear it. Better in front of us than just as we passed.
Being an overnight train, it's now Saturday.
There was a waiting bus at the station and before you could say, "Chendu is the capital of Sichuan." we were at our hotel. We were allowed to check straight in, but I know why the rooms were already available. With moldy walls and towels that not only lacked 'towelling' but were full of holes, I'm not surprised they're not fully booked. The room service trolleys and their bags of rubbish and linen were piled up outside our door.
Showered and feeling freshened, we met up and Ling took us out for yet another tasty Chinese lunch and yet again it was only $6 per head.

A walking tour of Chengdu followed. Home to over 11 million people, Chendu is the capital of Sichuan Provence, known for it's spicy food, and pandas. Pandas are everywhere. Not the real ones, they're endangered, I'm talking panda motifs on everything. Billboards, cigarette packets, every taxi has one painted on the bonnet, and then there's the stalls of stuffed pandas, once again, not the real deal. They're fake.

We wandered with Ling through the city, and I picked up a bunch of Chinglish photos to share with you on my return. Ending in a big square, Amanda and I decided to go to Starbucks for a coffee. I know. I don't really like Starbucks, but I haven't had any coffee for ages and at least Starbucks are "predictably average" ( It won't be good, but at least it won't be bad.) or so I thought. When I saw them using UHT milk, I couldn't believe it. What the? At over $5, the coffee cost more that the best coffee in Perth, available from Coffee on Delhi, 30 Delhi St West Perth 7 - 3:30 Mon - Fri. I'm sticking to tea, as having invented the art of tea drinking, that is something the Chinese do well.
Can you believe that I actually brought a selection of teabags with me? I know. That's like taking meat pies to Australia, only teabags fare better in a backpack than meatpies. I've really enjoyed the variety of teas here and with the exception of our hotel rooms, it's always been loose leaf tea.

Walking back through the square the fountains that were previously idle, were now spurting creatively, choreographed to music over loudspeakers. Two pools, each 50m long were dancing their water spouts to the music. We stopped awhile to watch and I suspect at night with lights it might be even better.
The People's Park was the next thing we passed and entered. It was Saturday and Chengduians were out in force. Couples and families were rowing boats on a crowded artificial lake whilst others grouped up with impromtu musicians and singers and did a bit of dancing. Then there were those, like Amanda and I, who just wandered around and lapped it all up. Magic.

Walking back to our hotel, Amanda and I began a game - panda spotting. The score's are fairly level at the moment and cut-off is when we fly to Lhasa.

Dinner tonight? When in Sichuan it's time to get spicy, and what's more spicy than the regional specialty Hot Pot?
A hot pot dinner involves a group sitting around a hot pot, a cauldron of steaming (temperature) hot and chilli (flavour) hot stock. What can be hotter? You then add raw ingredients, fishing them out with a sieve when cooked. Lotus roots, fish, meatballs and mushrooms, it all goes in.
How can you tolerate something so hot? That's where the famous sichuan peppercorns come in. Black peppercorns as we know and use them, aren't hot, just peppery. Chilli is hot, and there was plenty of that in there. Sichuan peppercorns have a numbing effect on your mouth when you chew them. This has an anesthetic effect and you don't feel the chilli, until tomorrow.....but "Johnny Cash syndrome" (Burning Ring of Fire) comes with the food.

How do people in Chendu celebrate on a Saturday night? Finding a suitable nightclub with Ling's help, we discovered that even Tiger Beer, a brand we knew and thought we could trust, has been watered down for the Chinese market. It was Tiger "crystal" in a clear rather than brown bottle and with less alcohol and flavour. Disappointing. Not wanting beer, Janet returned from the bar with a glass of Cointreau - 150ml 'shot' for $10. Another one for Janet, and one for me (not missing out on that deal) and, suitably oiled, we all hit the dancefloor. The DJ spoke to the crowd in Mandarin and I could only make out the last two words, "Electo House" and he let rip with a bunch of good mixing, using old skool bass lines and dropping in a heap of contemporary tracks over the top. Despite this, it seemed like the Chinese like to just stand there and watch as we were the only ones dancing. Spotting an empty podium next to us, I jumped up, and Janet (at 55, the oldest in our group) joined me. The DJ stopped the music, pointed to us and we both got a cheer from the crowd.
I did have to wonder about the featherweight 'bouncers'. Maybe they know kungfu? They stood there wearing bulletproof vests and looking like they couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. Quite unlike the brawny rugby-types with no neck that guard Australian venues. It was an interesting night seeing how other cultures 'party'. Fruit salad anyone?
Danced out, Amanda and I caught a cab back to the hotel. With a 40 cent flagfall, including 2 kilometres, it was never going to cost much.

Tomorrow we go hiking in Mt Emei and staying in monateries. If you go to that blog, and then back to this one you can read my trip in order. Otherwise, keep reading and follow on with the monasteries blog.

Chengdu Part 2

Wed - 09/09/09 Auspicious day in China with 9 a lucky number.

A 2.5 hour bus trip from Baoguo Monastery had us back in the heart of Chengdu and back at the Flower Hotel.
We had a room on a higher floor this time and had none of the problems of our first visit. I said travelling is full of firsts, but having vibrators, his and hers, available for sale in the room is a FIRST. Chocolates, drinks and maybe condoms, but vibrators?
We had the afternoon free and being lunchtime 5 of us headed off in search of dumplings.
Finding a place full of locals with barely any English on the. My half a smoked duck, bowl of chilli dumplings - HOT!, and a can of Sprite cost $4.
Satisfied, Amanda and I headed across the road to an antique market. Unlike the one in Shanghai, this looked like the real deal with only a few fakes amongst the items for sale. There was everything from old military hardware, door knockers and ceramic bowls to an old silver brooch that Amanda bought.
Walking back to our hotel, we bought two Magnum icecreams and two bottles of water for less than you'd buy one bottle of water at home.
We had dinner together tonight and Ling did the ordering for the whole table which was fortunate because she took us to an up-market Chinese place tonight with nothing in English. Actually Ling's always taken us to real Chinese places and left the rare ones with English menus for us when we source our own meals. We told Ling to order a Sichuan dish that was as hot as it should be, not toned down for us. Tasty beef and I though my dumpling lunch was hotter, but the best would wait for me tomorrow......
Being 09/09/09, it is an auspicious day in China because 9 is a special number. We'd bought drinks from the supermarket and met in the restaurant/bar area off the lobby for some drinks together to celebrate.
What began with two separate games of Euchre merged into one game of "Blow cards off the top of a wine bottle" with everyone playing. With a deck of cards placed on top of the bottle, the aim of the game was to not be the one to blow the last card off. You could blow off one or more, just not the last one. The penalty for that was a black dot on your forehead made with a burnt cork.
At the supermarket this arvo, I'd finally found a beer in China with flavour; a stout with chocolatey overtones. More taste than the usual Chinese beers, but still only 3% alcohol, low for a stout. After playing for awhile, we'd run out of drinks. The bar was closed, so I went out shopping for more beers, wondering why the shopkeeper looked at me funny and forgetting there was a black dot in the middle of my forehead.
It was a fun game and very simple, which makes it a good drinking game. At 11pm we got told to be quiet as we were being very loud. Turns out it's not just the Chinese who can be noisy.

Thursday - Panda day.

We had our own bus for the one hour trip to Chengdu Panda Research Centre. It was all a bit slow really and it took us 3 hours to be shown what should have taken one hour. Young Giant Pandas were first. They were cute, but a bit far away. The nursery with baby pandas in humidicribs followed. Then some sub-adults, which gave me my best photos as they paraded on a catwalk in front of us. The wait to see some adults in their airconditioned compound was disappointing. They were behind bars and I wondered what they'd done to be locked away. They live high in the bamboo forest above 2500m and with their thick snowproof fur, it's too warm for them in Chengdu. After a look at Red pands which were not much bigger than a fox, our tour finished with a video explaining the panda breeding regime - "dating, marriage, copulation, procreation". How do pandas get married? Our guide couldn't tell me. Mostly the video was Panda Propaganda, telling you all the wonderful things that the Chengdu Panda Research Centre is doing, but failing to mention that they've never successfully released any into the wild. Extra pandas are instead sold to overseas zoos, or sent on tours to overseas zoos, both of which are for profit and nothing to do with saving pandas. Without saving their habitat, wild pandas have a bleak future.

Back in town and with the afternoon free, the bus dropped a few of us at "Snack Street", which sounded like the perfect place to get some lunch.
It was.
My first snack included pig's ears. Didn't know that when I bought it, I just found bits of minced pig's ears in the meat and rice banana leaf cone, and I know what they're like, having not only eaten them before whilst travelling in Estonia in 2006, I even bought some recently and cooked them up and served them at work. That's when I decided that they're not ever going to be tender and tasty. Sometimes I wish I didn't know so much.
I've not been too crazy with trying new food, partly because I don't have to. I've tried so many things once already, and know a bunch of things I don't like, because I HAVE tried them. I'll pretty much try anything once. Most offal I'm not a fan of, but I do like tongues particularly, which is why I ordered them the day before yesterday.
We were eating on "snack street" so we just bought little things here and there and had lunch of grazing. I did buy a "Bowl of spiciness noodles". Crikey! If a place in Sichuan says spicy, you'd better believe it is! The chilli made my mouth burn, then the Sichuan peppers kicked in and numbed it like an anesthetic giving a tingling sensation. I'll forever know now if I get Sichuan peppers; they're not hot, but they are distinctive. I was supposed to be avoiding chilli today, because with every meal in Sichuan containing copious amounts of chilli, I've had the Jonny Cash syndrome ("Burning Ring of Fire") lately.
I didn't eat my bowl of noodles.
Saying good-bye to the others, Amanda and I explored some nearby gardens and sat and had tea by a pond. One glass of chrysanthemum flowers and one of whole leaf green tea. As we sipped tea, with my lips as the strainer, we played cards and relaxed. I did a double take as incongruously 4 black swans swam past us on the tiny garden pond. The locals were taking photos, I was just thinking "What the?"

We walked all the way back to our hotel along the river along a very narrow park between road and river and at one point, I 'yelled' out in jest to the honking traffic, "Could you please be quiet. This is a park." That's when an out of tune saxophonist started blasting out noise, just 10m in front of us.
Continuing along the riverbank, we passed other musicians, some having lessons and some just practicing. I guess when you live in an apartment, your neighbours insist you learn and practice elsewhere.

Amanda and I had dinner at a restaurant nearby. We ordered 3 vegie dishes between us, including spicy eggplant, a consistent winner. Tonight it was boiled eggplant in the water, like a tasteless soup. The other 2 were delicious, so 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

Our hotel is centrally located and tonight, some of the group, including Amanda and I walked 5 minutes down the road to a tourist show of Sichuan culture. TheannouncerrepeatedeverythinginEnglishbutwithnopausesortonalvariationitwasimpossibletounderstand. See what I mean? The Sichuan opera sounded at times like a strangled chicken, at other times a cat having it's tail pulled and sometimes a combination of both. A stick puppeteer with his puppet held aloft and controlled by just two wires had the crowd in awe, as did a shadow puppeteer who, using only his head and hands projected as a silhouette onto a sheet. The screeching returned with a man who played two screechy instruments and made it worse by adding a silly screechy voice between instruments.
I will post a little video of this and some other 'artists' from the show for you on You Tube, when I am home and allowed to use it. Like Facebook, China won't allow it.
Saving the best to last perhaps, the mask changing routine involved the actors waving a Chinese fan in front of their face and in that short time their mask had changed. You know it's an illusion, but you can't work out how you're being tricked. Harmless way to spend an evening as a tourist rather than a traveller.
My run of nocturnal rain only continued as it just started to rain as we walked back to our hotel and continued into the night.

Thursday September 11 - Onwards and upwards, literally, as we fly to Tibet, as place I have wanted to visit for a long time.
My next blog will be from Lhasa, City in the Sky.

Posted by TheWandera 08:01 Archived in China Comments (0)

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