On September 29 I embarked on my great Tibet adventure! I had about 9 days off for the Chinese National Day holiday. Last year, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the government declared that National Day would be a one-week vacation for all of China. During this week, the Chinese swamp all of the tourist destinations and so I thought maybe Tibet would be a safe bet (no pun intended!). Little did I know!
Hey, Norton...Grab Your Bowling Bag!
The night before I left, one of the principals at my school invited me out to dinner. The staff at my school was quite worried about me going off to Tibet, which is in the farthest reaches of western China. Most of them acted like I had said I was going to be climbing Mt. Everest, not just visiting a city. Originally they had said they wanted to bring me bowling. Even though I had not done any packing yet, I was happy to give bowling, Chinese style, a try. But first we ended up at another banquet! They explained that this might be the last good meal I could expect until my return because they were sure that the food in Tibet is no good or even non-existent. There were many toasts to my continued good health and wishes for a safe journey. After many courses and leisurely discussions, I assumed that the bowling was off and we would all go home. It was Thursday evening and already near to 9 PM. Wrong! After getting up, we headed for the bowling center.
Now you might think bowling in China would be different from bowling in America. But you would be wrong. Actually, after entering the bowling center, I found myself transported to the United States. All of the machines and lanes and furniture have been transported to China from America. Even the electronic displays are all in English. It was great. I did pretty well, but Principals Shis husband was really knocking back the pins. In the best American style, he would shout and throw his hands up in the air when he got a strike or spare! Pretty soon we had a large group of about 15 and we all had a great time.
Soon, it was after 11 PM and I was ready to go home to get ready for my trip. But first we were all invited to eat pizza in the new pizza parlor downstairs by a member of the Social Education Committee. I dont know what this committee does as nobody was able to explain their function beyond the fact that they have something to do with raising money for the schools. I really was nott hungry but felt I had to be polite, so of course I said yes. We ended up eating pizza and spaghetti. Since it is kind of difficult to eat pizza with chopsticks, all of the Chinese asked me for directions on how to use the knife and fork that was a funny scene. At the end of the night, I learned that the Social Education Committee owns the McDonalds, the bowling center and the new pizza parlor!
I didn't get home until 1 AM and
I had get up at 6 to pack to leave by 7:45 the next morning! I left on the bus on Friday
morning from Yangzhou. They let me off from teaching my two classes so I could leave
early! The direct bus to the Nanjing airport left from a hotel close to my apartment. It
took me 10 minutes to walk there and it was good that I got there so early since it
completely filled up by a few minutes after 8. We still had to wait for the 8:30 departure
time even though there was no more room on the bus! It took two and a half hours to the
airport. Since I got there so early I noticed that there was an earlier flight leaving in
30 minutes. I was able to change my ticket and get to Chengdu earlier. Just imagine me
trying to change my airplane ticket when nobody spoke Chinese. But I managed it and was
soon on my way. The Nanjing airport is super modern and would put most American airports
to shame. But despite the outward appearance of order, air travel in China is somewhat
different from the United States. You get a boarding pass with an assigned seat and
check-in your luggage just like at home. That is where the similarities end. When it is
time to board the airplane, do you think that they call the rows to board in an orderly
fashion? Not on your life. Despite the fact that everyone has a seat, there is a mad rush
to get on to the plane. A huge pushing and shoving match ensues and those who are the most
aggressive and strongest win! Some of the little Chinese women have decades of experience
in dealing with pushing their way through lines and the rest of us were no competition for
them! On the way back from Chengdu to Nanjing there was a group of old women who looked
like they came from a village. They were all about 4˝ feet tall. They were on a tour and
held on to each others jackets tightly as they stormed their way through the crowd.
Nobody could stand in their way and live to tell the tale!
Chengdu, hot food and tea gardens
It took about 3 hours to fly
from Nanjing. Upon arriving in Chengdu, I noticed that the airport was quite old compared
with the Nanjing Airport. But don't worry, they are building a brand new terminal next
door. Some of the VIPs were met on the tarmac next to the plane so that they didn't have
to board the bus from the plane with us peons! They were driven to the baggage area to
collect their bags, where one of the underlings had to retrieve the luggage. Despite being
a socialist country, where all are supposed to be equal, you quickly learn that some are
more equal than others. Outside of the airport there were hundreds and hundreds of people
waiting for arrivals. You couldn't even see the street because they were so tightly
packed. I don't know whom they were waiting for but National Day is an important holiday
for relatives or students to return to their birthplace.
At the airport, I had read that there was a bus to the city. I asked someone and they pointed to a bus which was filling up quickly. On the bus, I didn't even know how much to pay or where to get off, or even if I was on the right bus. Luckily, I met a woman professor of Economics who is a native of Chengdu and had returned to visit her elderly parents. Her name was Ling Ling!!! Just like the giant panda who used to be in the Washington Zoo. I thought this was a good omen because Chengdu is famous as the largest city close to the Giant Panda habitats and is home to a Panda Research Center. She spoke good English having spent time in Canada and, recently, six months in the UK. But soon I learned that she did not remember anything about the city or even have any idea about directions. Luckily, she asked someone and they told us where to get off. They told her to take a bus to her house but she was afraid of getting lost and took a taxi. I was able to walk to a hotel my guidebook recommended. The elderly Chinese couple who helped us walked with me and made sure that I turned the right way, even though they spoke no English!
After checking in, I decided to try to find out about a trip to Lhasa in Tibet. Tibet, called Xizang by the Chinese, is a special province of China. Because of some disturbances in the past (caused by the Tibetan people not really liking having the Chinese controlling them), you must join a tour in order to visit Tibet. Some hearty souls do manage to hitch to Tibet but that is only for the die-hard travelers because you often have to hike around police checkpoints and risk being sent back. It also takes a week to drive to Lhasa from Chengdu and flying only takes two hours. I quickly learned that the going rate is 2000 Yuan or about $250. This includes a tour with three nights in Lhasa thrown in and airport transfers. The three nights were in a dormitory which I later learned costs $3 per night for a shared room with outside (as in across the courtyard!) shower and toilet. The tour also included a one-way ticket to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet! I asked why there is no round trip option and the travel agent explained that most travelers dont want to return to China, instead opting to head out overland to Nepal, a 7-day journey by Land Rover. I purchased a return ticket for an additional Yuan 1200 bringing the total for my tour to about $400. You really do not have an option since the travel agents arrange all of the permits with the PSB, the Chinese Public Safety Bureau, otherwise known as the police. This cannot be done independently. I asked how long I could stay in Tibet and she said as long as I wanted to! So actually, they arrange a group travel permit, which you never see, and then you are on your own after arriving in Tibet. Maybe you could stay there forever! Some of the people I met had been there for some weeks and some looked like they had been there forever.
Chengdu is a large metropolis of nearly 4 million and closer to 9 if you count all the surrounding areas. Having read in my guide book that some of the areas close to the river in front of the hotel might be dangerous at night I later learned that all of the old houses which used to be there had been demolished and replaced by a beautiful riverside park I decided I had better confirm my information with the travel agent. I asked her; Is it dangerous to walk around Chengdu at night??? She replied, Yes, there is an English Corner across the river tonight! I thought to myself, Okay I guess I will go to the English Corner!
I decided to get something to eat. I ordered some pork noodles in the hotel restaurant. I had forgotten that Chengdu and Sichuan are famous for spicy food. But not for long! As soon as I started eating, I realized that this was one hot bowl of noodles, and I dont mean temperature. Your whole mouth starts to vibrate as you eat and the only relief is a large bottle of beer or water. Unfortunately, I had the misfortune of splashing a drop in my eye, despite my eyeglasses. It was just a little drop but it felt like I was back in the teargas chamber in Army basic training boy did it burn. Just as I was ready to wash my eye out with the beer, it started getting better and I was able to finish the noodles!
After that I headed for the English Corner. The English Corner is a peculiar Chinese sort of happening. I had read about them but had never participated in one. What happens is that foreigners, that would be me, arrive only to be surrounded by Chinese eager to speak and hear English. I thought, maybe it will be hard to find, but as soon as I crossed the river, there was a huge group of Chinese of all ages, maybe hundreds of them. In a few minutes, I was surrounded by a group of about 40 Chinese, with me being the center of attention. Not a good place to go if you are claustrophobic! There were university students, retired people, high school students, government workers and people from all walks of life. They all had a common interest in English. I was bombarded by all kinds of questions. We had some interesting discussions. Eventually the discussion hit upon the subject of coyotes. I explained that they are wild dogs native to America. One man said, I think that is also a term used for the people who smuggle Mexicans into the United States. I was shocked that a Chinese person living in Chengdu would know this and asked him how he learned about this. He answered that he likes to read Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia! Another man kept asking me all sorts of questions and whenever I would answer he would write some notes on his hand with his pen. After the evening, he looked like the Illustrated Man with English tattoos all over his arms! I stayed at the English Corner until midnight and then headed for a local disco.
I thought it would probably be closed but was I ever wrong. In Yangzhou, the discos clear out at about midnight and everyone goes out to eat or goes home. In Chengdu, the discos go all night! When I got there at 12:30 AM, the place was packed. The place was so crowded that people were dancing on the tables to the loud pounding techno and Euro-pop tunes. It was like a party scene from an Austin Powers movie. I met some young Chinese professional people from Shanghai. We talked, as well as we could over the music, and I stayed with them until 4 AM when I decided it was time to head for my hotel.
Later that morning, after getting some sleep, I decided to explore Chengdu. Chengdu is a beautiful city, located in western Sichuan Province, which is in the west of China. Sichuan, which means four rivers, is the most populous and one of the largest Chinese provinces. It has over 100 million inhabitants and is the size of France. In its western reaches there are high mountains, reaching up to 25,000 feet. This is the beginning of the Tibetan plateau. It is very rich in natural resources and agriculture and I could see many farmers fields as I flew into Chengdu.
Before leaving my hotel, I watched some games that the hotel staff was playing in honor of National Day. They had a tug of war between different groups of staff members such as the maids vs. the guards. They also had to answer questions, which were strung up across the courtyard on banners. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
I rented a bicycle, the first in a chain of possibly the worst bikes in China, which I had the misfortune to ride in Chengdu. I rode to the central square where a tall statue of Chairman Mao waves to all visitors. This is one of the few such statues left in China and has become a landmark of sorts. You can tell people a place is 1 km west of the Mao statue or I will meet you at Chairman Mao! After this I rode my bike to the Wenshu Monastery. This is the largest Buddhist Monastery in Chengdu and is full of people praying and burning incense. But by far the most interesting part of the temple is the tea garden. Chengdu is famous for its tea gardens. During the Cultural Revolution, most of the tea gardens were shut down because they were viewed as places where anti-socialist thought might find root. There is nothing socialist about these tea gardens now. In a Chengdu tea garden, you go not just to drink tea, but also to relax. People read newspapers, knit, play cards or just talk. Sometimes they even fall asleep. I bought a china cup of tea with lid and saucer for 2 Yuan (24 cents), some sunflower seeds and sat down. If you want to splurge, you can get the expensive tea for 3 Yuan (36 cents). You get your dry tea in a small ceramic cup and men walk around filling your cup with water. One cup will last the entire day and I ended up staying for 3 hours. I met some Chinese people and they taught me how to play cards and so I played with them until the garden closed at 6 PM. They also have a great vegetarian restaurant in the Monastery, which is open for lunch. They make all sorts of foods which are called pork this and chicken that but which actually contain no meat. They taste great and I tried some of them when I came back to Chengdu after Tibet.
After the tea garden I went to an Internet café near the university. There are hundreds of Internet cafes in Chengdu and it costs about Yuan 3 (36 cents) per hour to use the Internet. In addition to using the Internet, you get to second-hand smoke about 3 packs of cigarettes, as most Chinese young men are chain-smokers and there is no such thing as a no-smoking area in China, except maybe the cancer ward but I doubt even that would be smoke free. After checking my email, I went back to the hotel to get ready for my 5 AM departure to Tibet.
At the airport the next morning, I started having second thoughts about Tibet. Even at 6 AM, the place was absolutely packed with people. It turns out that there are three flights to Tibet each day. Are they spread out not on your life they are at 6:45, 6:50 and 7 AM! So consequently there are not just 300 people pushing and shoving, but closer to 1000, not to mention flights to other destinations. It is the same on the other end when you leave Tibet. All three flights are next to each other, close to 9 AM. Returning right after they arrive from Chengdu! I started to see what they mean about the nightmare of traveling anywhere in China on National Day. I met one man who had visited a famous place last year only to be confronted by wall-to-wall crowds. In China, with more than 1 billion people, when it gets crowded, it really gets crowded! And it is not fun to be in a crowd of Chinese trying to go somewhere.
The flight to Tibet was spectacular. Soon after leaving Chengdu, the first snow-capped peaks of the Himalayan chain started to appear. Tibet is the highest place on Earth with an average elevation of 5,000 meters or 16,000 feet. This is higher than most mountains in North America. It is often called the Roof of the World. It has two ranges running parallel to each other in the north and south. Many of the peaks in these ranges reach 8,000 meters and include the highest mountains on Earth such as Mt. Everest. Qomolangma is the Chinese name for Everest, and it is 8848 meters high, located on the southern border with Nepal. The really amazing thing about Tibet is that it does not seem like a plateau. I always thought it would be rather flat with these great mountains leaping up to the sky. Actually, the landscape is the most rugged I have ever seen. There are no flat places at all, except next to rivers and in the valleys. This is the only place the people can live and farm. The Tibetan Plateau is the source of most of the major rivers of South and East Asia. A tributary of the Brahmaputra, one of Asias greatest rivers forms the flat valley where Lhasa is located.
The first thing you notice when you step off the airplane is the brilliant sunshine and clear dark blue skies. In China, there is so much air pollution that it is difficult to see blue skies. Even when the sky is visible, the air has a thick blue haze, which makes it hard to see any distance. In Tibet, the air is so clean and clear that you cant believe it. The second thing you notice is that this air is so thin that it is hard to do anything physical. Lhasa is located in a valley at 3,700 meters elevation (12,000 feet). Because of the thin air, altitude sickness is a real danger. You can get altitude sickness when you go from a low elevation to a high elevation too quickly without giving your body time to adapt. Symptoms include headaches, difficulty breathing, nausea and loss of appetite. Severe cases can lead to death and you must return to a lower elevation if you continue to experience these symptoms. There was one husky Israeli man in our group who got so sick that he had to go to the hospital for oxygen and eventually left for Kathmandu without seeing anything of Tibet! Luckily, I only had a slight headache during my time in Tibet and that might have been from my late night at the disco in Chengdu!
It was a 100 km (60 mile) trip along the river valley floor to get to Lhasa. The only reason that a city of 115,000 can exist in the middle of Tibet is that the Brahmaputra River has made a very wide valley in this place. Lhasa is the largest city in Tibet and is the spiritual capital of the province or as the Chinese like to call it, the "Special Administrative Area." It has been the home of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, for many centuries. The Dalai Lama, who is the leader of the largest Buddhist sect in Tibet, the Yellow Hats, is always determined by the previous Dalai Lama and is thought to be a one of a chain of reincarnations. The present Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet in 1959 and now lives in northern India. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
After the two-hour bus ride we finally arrived in the city and had our first glimpse of the Potala Palace, the home of the Dalai Lamas and the resting place of eight former Dalai Lamas. It is built on a hill and reaches 980 feet above the flat valley floor. It dominates the skyline in Lhasa and is visible from nearly everywhere in the city. The whole complex is 13 stories high, about 400 m (1300 ft) across and 350 m (1150 ft) deep, and contains about 1000 rooms, which are put together like a puzzle, having been built and added to over many years. There are two original rooms from the 7th century but most of the building was built between 1645 and 1682. Since it has been damaged during battles in recent time, it has been extensively rebuilt. There are two parts: the Red Palace, which holds shrines and the 8 tombs and the White Palace, which has living quarters and administrative offices for the present Dalai Lama. The Potala has been turned into a museum by the Chinese government and the monks are on the Chinese government payroll, like priests working as museum guards.
But dont tell the Tibetans who flock there that it is just a museum. I was lucky enough to visit the Potala on a Monday. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the Tibetan people can get into the palace for 1 yuan (12 cents). It costs the tourists, Chinese and Western alike, yuan 40 ($5). On these days the museum becomes a huge shrine where the faithful, some of whom have journeyed for five days over steep, mountain passes, can come to pay their respects to the former Dalai Lamas and to their missing leader. It was amazing to visit on a Monday, because my guide, who comes from Lhasa, was able to tell me where all of the people were from just by looking at their hairstyles and clothing. And there were thousands of Tibetans there. They were busy visiting as many of the rooms and tombs as possible. The air was heavy with the smell of yak butter. Tibetan Buddhists believe it is important to add a bit of butter to each lamp they pass and so they carry yellow plastic bags of butter with them as they visit the rooms. The butter in the bags comes from Nepal and is cheap and for sale everywhere in Lhasa. Many pilgrims will carry homemade butter from their houses, packed in an old plastic vegetable oil bottle. Because everyone is digging out solidified butter or pouring liquid butter from thermos bottles, all of the floors and walls have a thick coat of the heavy grease. Sometimes you find yourself gripping a handrail only to discover it is slippery with fat. The Potala reminded me of a sort of rabbit warren. It would be easy to get lost as you navigate the steep stairs which are more like ladders than stairs.
The tombs are very rich and have lots of gold and jewels. The three-story tomb of the 5th Dalai Lama is made of 3700 kg of gold thats 7000 pounds or 3.5 tons! If you want to take a picture you have to pay the absurd price of $10 per room and add on another $100 per room if you want to take video shots! Guess who didnt take any pictures inside!
After checking into my luxury accommodations at the Snowlands Hotel shared dormitory for three at yuan 25 ($3) per night but included in our tour package, I had a walk around. There were many interesting travelers staying in Lhasa. Many of them were trying to set up a trip overland to the Nepali border. To do this trip you have to rent a Land Rover with guide/driver for about $1000. This sounds like a lot but if you can get 5 people to share and considering you get the chance to visit many out of the way monasteries and the Everest base camp, $200 is not much for a 7-day trip! One of the people I met was a Spanish woman who just got the urge to come to Tibet and arrived with hardly a yuan to her name. She said she thought Tibet held some mystical secrets for her and she needed to learn them. By the time I met her, she was frantically trying to get anyone and everyone to help her email her sister in Spain for help. She told me that in Chengdu, she had gotten a Chinese student to type an email for her (she didnt know how to use the internet herself), and he had to write the email in Spanish! She was planning to stay in Tibet for two weeks and at last report some money did come for her! I also met a nice former investment banker named Dave from New York who was also on a journey of self-discovery, but he did have money! We hooked up and explored some of Lhasas treasures together. I also made friends with a young Portuguese man named Felipe who had been studying architecture in China. He came to Lhasa dressed in slacks and a leather jacket looking like he was going to a Lisbon disco on a Friday night. This was in sharp contrast to some of the visitors who looked like they were ready for an Everest assault as they walked around Lhasa in their expedition clothing.
The next day, our tour visited the Potala. It turns out that the admissions were not included but transportation and the Tibetan guide were. At the palace most of the people on my tour headed off in their own directions. I stayed with the guide and it turned out to be a great experience. I was one of only 5, down from the original 15, who stayed with her. She had a lot to say about the Buddhist religion and the significance of many of the things we saw. She also told me a lot about life in Tibet, inside and outside of Lhasa. I will never forget wandering the maze that is the Potala, climbing steep stairs, more like ladders than stairs, and bumping shoulders with so many faithful Buddhists. It was amazing.
In the afternoon, we visited the Sera monastery. This is still an active monastery with about 550 monks in residence. It was badly damaged during the Cultural Revolution and is famous for the scholarly debates that the monks engage in. It is nestled against a steep mountain to the north of the city of Lhasa and you get a great view of the Potala from it. By the time we made our way to the Norbu Lingka, the summer palace of the Dalai Lamas, our tour group consisted of just Dave and me! We had a great private tour of two of the buildings. Inside one is the story of Tibetan Buddhism told in colorful pictures, including a picture of Mao meeting the Dalai Lama. The building where the present Dalai Lama was living in 1959 has a clock stopped at 9 AM to show when he left Tibet. Presumably it will start up again if he ever returns.
That night I had an interesting experience. I asked in my hotel if there were any Tibetan nightclubs or discos. I told them I was interested in one that is frequented by Tibetans and not westerners. I was directed to a place not far from the Potala Palace. It was a 15-minute walk from my hotel. At first it looked like a restaurant but someone pointed upstairs and I headed towards the music. I entered a dark, large room filled with Tibetans, many of whom were in traditional dress. There were young and old people sitting around in groups. I found a place near one of the doors and before long a group of middle-aged Tibetans invited me to sit with them. They proceeded to give me some drinks but could not speak one word of English. I just smiled and enjoyed the floorshow, which had one singer after another singing Tibetan traditional and popular songs. Many of them were in traditional dress and it was very interesting to say the least. On the overhead television monitors you could see The Carpenters and The Eagles singing, but without sound! Another surreal moment in China.
After awhile, one of the Tibetan women, whom I could tell was married by the apron she wore, grabbed my arm and indicated that she wanted to dance with me. I tried to indicate that I wanted to rest but she would hear nothing of my excuses. She literally dragged me onto the dance floor. Despite the fact that I like to go to discos, I do not really like to dance very much. But in this case, I had no choice. Now, the Tibetan people are very strong and that especially goes for the women. Dont ever try to lead a Tibetan woman because it wont work. She gripped my arm in her vise-like hand and away we went. It was a real experience. After I escaped, I met some young Tibetans and after they got to know me they spent the evening telling me what their opinions are about the political situation in Tibet. This topic will have to wait for a later date! Later in the evening, after the traditional songs ended, everyone got up and started dancing to disco music. It was a strange to see all of these people in traditional dress dancing to a pounding disco beat!
The next day was the last day of our tour. By this time, it was just Dave and I and our guide, so we had a great time touring the Jokhang Temple. This temple is right around the corner from the Snowlands Hotel and located at one end of a great plaza in the old part of the city. It is the holiest shrine in Lhasa and is 1300 years old. In front of the Jokhang, hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims prostrate themselves over and over as an act of submission to Buddha. After this they enter the temple where they walk in a clockwise fashion around a corridor, which goes around the whole inside of the building. After they are finished inside, there is a circuit, which goes clockwise around the outside of the Jokhang. It is called the Barkhor and takes about 15 minutes to complete. I asked my guide how many times they walk and she said as many as they want. Each afternoon there are thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from all over Tibet who walk this circuit. Interestingly, there are hundreds of merchants who spread out their wares alongside the pilgrims and then they can shop as they pray! Dave showed me a restaurant where you can sit on the roof and watch the pilgrims as you enjoy the sun and sip tea a very good idea in the extra dry mountain air. How about the hard-to-find food in Lhasa that I had heard so much about? There are literally dozens of restaurants specializing in feeding tourists and it is easy to find American and European food and menus everywhere! It is actually easier to eat in Lhasa than Yangzhou because in Yangzhou all of the menus are in those darned Chinese characters!
Later that afternoon, I found an Internet café and this gave me a chance to check my email. I was somewhat shocked to find that I had to pay 20 yuan/hour ($2.50) compared with Chengdu which costs 3 yuan. I asked the Tibetan girl who ran the place why it was so expensive. She replied; Lhasa is a very high city and therefore the prices are very high also! This is a good example of how the Tibetans like to joke. They are so friendly and outgoing. Always inviting others to share what they have. I showed the girl my web site and told her about life in Yangzhou and later she gave me a discount on my Internet charges!
I returned to the Potala Palace that afternoon to see what it was like without all of the pilgrims. It was interesting to actually be able to spend some time in the rooms, but it was rather lonely without all of the Tibetans praying and adding yak butter to the candles. I walked the circuit around the outside of the Potala and since it is so big, it took about 1 hour. I was able to spend some time on the roof of the Potala and you can have wonderful views across the valley to the surrounding mountains. Of course, when the Palace is empty you can get a good chance to observe the Chinese tourists who are the Asian version of the ugly Americans.
By this time Dave had hooked up with a Canadian named Sharmain and an American named Brian who are living in Hong Kong and they were planning their Land Cruiser trip to Nepal. They invited me to join them and Sharmain said to just call my school and tell them I would be late coming back. I was tempted but had to refuse! You can read about Daves experience going overland to Nepal by clicking here. The next morning we jumped on a pilgrim bus to Ganden Monastery. The ride out was an experience an old rickety bus filled with Tibetan pilgrims and cordura-clad tourists. A group of sinister looking Tibetans got on wearing heavy leather jackets with some sort of insignia on the back. Maybe they were the Buddhas Angels of Lhasa I dont know.
Ganden Monastery is located about 1˝ hours outside of Lhasa. We spent half of this time climbing a narrow dirt switchback road to the top of a high mountain. Ganden is one of the most important monasteries in Tibet and was founded in 1409 by Tsong Khapa, the founder of the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect. The present Dalai Lama is the 14th leader of the Gelugpa. The monastery is perched high on a cliff and it is such a dramatic setting. The monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution as the Red Guards parked their artillery below the monastery and blew it to bits. Most of it has been rebuilt since then.
I walked up to the top of a high hill to get a view and it was stupendous. You could see the monastery below and the river in the valley far below. It was so hard to walk up this small hill because of the thin air. I was only able to take about 20 steps before my heart was pounding and my lungs were gasping for air. Each time, I would have to wait a couple of minutes before continuing. A young Tibetan boy walked quickly up the hill and gave us some prayer flags to hang while he burned some offerings. He also gave us prayer cards to fling into the air. After this he ran off down the hill, happy that his chore was done!
The monastery was very interesting, especially because the monk who was on guard-duty was sleeping, thus enabling me to get some great inside pictures! Some middle-aged Germans almost ruined it for me when a couple of them loudly asked their guide, IS HE SUPPOSED TO BE TAKING PICTURES???? After their guide assured them that it was no problem because the monk was sleeping, they whipped out their cameras too! I ate lunch in the restaurant and it looked like something out of a medieval village. Everything was filthy and there were dogs walking in and out of the open door.
On the bus ride back to Lhasa the Buddhas Angels turned out to be nice guys. They sort of sang and chanted the whole way back. At one point the bus stopped in a tiny village and everyone jumped down and walked towards the end of a dirt road. We decided to follow them and it turns out they were going to visit a small temple at the rear of the village. After a 15-minute temple break, we were back on the road. Back in Lhasa, I headed to the roof of the Jokhang to watch the sunset over Lhasa. That night I had trouble sleeping. One of the reasons was the altitude and the heavy comforter; it must have weighed 10 pounds, on my bed. It was damp and like a giant wet tea bag smothering me. The other was the way in which Lhasa taxis look for passengers. They are not satisfied to merely cruise the streets; they have to honk their horns constantly, just in case someone might be waiting for them somewhere! This goes on all night!
The next morning, I got up at 5 AM to catch the bus to the airport. At the airport, it was another mob scene with all three Airbus airplanes, the size of 747s, landing and loading within minutes. The cabin of the airplane was interesting because the entire inside was an open space, just like a huge bus. The crew served drinks and a full meal in about 20 minutes. As we flew back to China, we had some wonderful aerial views of Lhasa, Ganden and many snow-capped mountains and glaciers.
Back in Chengdu, it was strange to not see the blue sky anymore. It turns out that Chengdu is famous for overcast, muggy weather. It is said that the dogs in Chengdu will start barking when the sun comes out because it is such an infrequent event! But it was good to be able to breathe again and I was glad to be back in Chengdu. I spent another afternoon at the Wenshu Monastery tea garden, enjoying a bottomless cup of tea and reading a good book. One of the things you can do in a Chengdu tea garden is have your ears cleaned. A man comes around. He announces his service by hitting a huge tuning fork against his leg. If you hire him, for about 10 yuan ($1.20) he will clean your ears for about 15 minutes with a series of long bamboo picks. He uses the tuning fork to vibrate one of the sticks as it sticks out of your ear. It gives your eardrum a sort of massage. Im not sure I like the idea of someone sticking sharp bamboo sticks into my eardrum, but the customers seemed very satisfied.
Since my encounter with the
spicy soup was already fading from my memory, I decided to try a Chengdu
the Huo Guo or Hot Pot. Is it ever appropriately named. You sit at a table,
which has a circular hole cut in the center. They place
a large bowl, separated into two sections in the hole, and turn on the burner underneath.
One half is filled with the hottest, oily chili mixture you ever tasted. The other half is
filled with some sort of chicken based soup. The idea is that you choose foods to cook in
the boiling mixtures from the menu. After I cooked the first piece of meat in the hot side
and started chewing it, I was okay for a minute. Then after I swallowed it, a terrible
burning sensation started in my throat and I thought I was going to die! I drank two large
glasses of water. I got it down and kept going, alternating between using the hot and cool
broths to cook all sorts of food. There were green bamboo slivers, fresh river fish, beef
slices, a sort of bacon, bamboo fungus and other assorted veggies. It was great. And all
the time you are bathing in the steam from the boiling mixtures. I really enjoyed it. But
maybe next time I will stay away from the spicy side! Even my friend, a Chengdu native,
was having a hard time eating it!
One of the highlights of my time in Chengdu was my visit to the Panda Research Base in the north of the city. This is a 200 plus acre facility, only opened to the public in 1995, which is dedicated to studying and preserving the giant panda. Giant pandas are Sichuans most famous animals and are found in the high altitude bamboo forests of the mountains around Chengdu. I spent the morning at the Research Base and was able to spend a lot of time observing juvenile and mature pandas. There is a researcher from Zoo Atlanta who is doing a study of how well the pandas memory works. There are some one-month old baby pandas that you can see in the nursery. They also have some Himalayan or red pandas, which are actually related to the raccoon.
I also took a day trip to a place called Leshan, which is about 150 km (90 miles) south of Chengdu. LeShan is famous as the home of the Dafu, or Giant Buddha. When I say giant, I really mean it. It was carved into a sandstone cliff, next to a wide and dangerous river. It was carved between 713 and 803 and at 71 meters (over 200 feet) in height, and that is sitting down, is the largest in China and maybe the world. The head alone is 14.7 m (45 ft.) high and 10 m (30 ft.) wide. The Buddhas ears are 7 meters (22 ft.) long. This is a sign that the Buddha has achieved a heightened level of awareness. Over 100 hundred people could fit on his feet and you could have a picnic on one of the toenails. It is a protected monument on the World Heritage list. To get a view from the bottom, you climb down the narrow winding stairs carved into the rock face, past niches where statues long worn away by erosion used to reside. At the bottom the sight is impressive looking up at the huge body towering above you, sitting with its hands on its knees. The path to the top is through a series of tunnels dug through the cliff. It is said that a monk built the Dafu as a way to appease the river gods in a place where so many boatmen had lost their lives in the treacherous waters where three rivers come together. It is also said that he gouged out his own eyes to raise funds for the project maybe he wanted to show that he was serious! Interestingly enough, it seems that the rock removed from the rock face and dumped in the river, made the river less treacherous. There is an interesting garden behind the Dafu, which has many giant representations of Buddha from all over Asia. It is sort of a Buddha theme park where the only rides are of a spiritual nature.
Back in Chengdu, I visited some more tea gardens, including the River Viewing Pavilion Park, which has a garden with hundreds of varieties of bamboo. I also spent a lot of time exploring small lanes, all of which were very busy with shops and small restaurants. It is amazing to think that this is a socialist country because everywhere you look there is private enterprise flourishing.
My adventure was over and it was time to get back to Yangzhou. The flight to Nanjing was about 3 hours, including one stop. I didn't want to wait 3 hours for the direct bus to Yangzhou because I had finished my book. So I got on a bus to Nanjing thinking it would be easy to get back to Yangzhou, about 100 km or 60 miles northeast of Nanjing. After getting off the bus and walking for about 30 minutes to find a main street (my map did not have much detail) I finally got a bus to the North Bus Station. When I got into the station, all of the destinations were listed in Chinese characters (no English writing at all!) and so I couldnt find where to go. I went to the ticket seller and asked for the bus to Yangzhou and she said something that made me start thinking I was in the wrong place! A little while later another woman came and told me I had to go to the East Bus Station, wherever that was. They told me to sit down and wait and eventually they put me on a shuttle bus to the East station! When I got there I bought a ticket for Yangzhou...although of course I couldn't read the ticket! They directed me to a bus and I got on and sat in the back. After leaving, we followed a route, which was strange to me, not the one I had taken before. Usually we crossed the Yangtze River on a ferry. This time we used a large bridge. After about 2 hours I was getting worried. I could imagine myself ending up at some place a long way from Yangzhou because the ticket seller had misunderstood me. I was trying to check my map against a name from a sign, but of course everything was in Chinese (those darned characters!). Just as I thought I was really in trouble, we pulled into the Yangzhou bus station and after a ten minute taxi ride I was back in my house! I saved about 1 yuan (12 cents) by taking this alternate route and I arrived back at the same time I would have had I waited for the direct bus. It was an adventure but next time I think maybe I will just wait for the direct bus.
Yangzhou, China October 10, 2000
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