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Accounts of my travels and travel related issues

Not So Lost In Translation

A final thought on my first encounter with the Japanese on their home turf:

They are a very friendly, if formal people. The first Japanese I met was my taxi driver, who not only wore white gloves and a three-piece suit in 100 (35C) degree weather, but also, despite a language barrier was extremely concerned with providing the very best service to me. Not only did he absolutely refuse to get any help from me in handling my 33kg (70lbs – the bag was about the size and body weight of my driver) bag, but also upon arrival at the hotel, he didn’t let go of my trunk until he had dragged it all the way into the middle of the hotel lobby – and then refused to get a tip! On his way out, he kept bowing to me until he was out of sight…. Now imagine that in New York City ….

Bowing is in general a vital part of formal interactions between Japanese. When someone purchases something in a store, it is not unusual for the sales person to follow the customer out into the street, handing the bag to the customer and then following-up with a series of 90 degree bows. The angle of the bow seems very important: The deeper the bow, the deeper the respect that’s being demonstrated.

It’s easy to feel frumpy in Japan, even knowing that you’re a tourist in casual clothes. No self-respecting Japanese would leave the house with one hair out of place or any bow or button for that matter. They dress enormously stylish, but not flashy – except for the teenagers it seems where anything goes apparently …

Also, technological gadget live squarely at the center of Japanese life. I wrote earlier about their high-tech toilets, and I haven’t even covered all the options. Also their trains are a technological work of art. Comfortable and smooth to ride in, complete with a friendly smiling conductor who bows in light of the privilege of looking at your ticket. Also, at every street corner they have these drink vending machines, where you can get anything from an iced caffe latte to iced green tea or soda. So, you’re never than a few steps away from rehydrating … not a bad move in their hot and humid summer weather.

In general, Japanese seemed very reserved to me, but upon my rather miserable attempts of speaking to them in Japanese, they usually thawed, probably moved by my ineptitude, and proved quite friendly and talkative and more than willing to help with any question I might have. So, I spent a few subway rides in very interesting conversation.

I’d love to come back and spend more time and get to know this people more closely. Hopefully then with a better result in my attempts at speaking Japanese ….

Train Ride to a Garden Party

These Japanese high-speed trains are great. They’re pricey to use, but very comfortable and fast … and quiet. Not like the French TGVs (mean tongues whisper TGV stands for Tres Grand Vibration (=very big vibration) instead of Train Grand Vitesse (=high speed train) ..) … I took one of these trains to get from Tokyo to Kyoto to see some of the fabled Japanese Imperial gardens. Here’s pictures from the ride and the gardens:

Train Ride Tokyo – Kyoto – Tokyo

Kyoto is a strange mix of old and new. Most people live in modern housing similar to western style buildings. But every now and then there’s an old building squeezed in somewhere or an old temple around a corner where you didn’t expect to find one. I never saw a Geisha (only two old ladies in a kimono) but otherwise I found the place very fascinating. Also, the hotel I stayed in has my nominee of most comfortable hotel bed in the world … or then maybe I was just exhausted after running around the city all day and then getting rained at, … and I mean absolutely, positively drenched. It’s been an oppressive heat all day, hot and extremely humid to the point that the heat burned on your skin, so I wasn’t surprised to see a thunderstorm draw in. But I was walking down the street one minute and found myself literally diving for cover the next as the deluge came on without any warning. I jumped into a city bus that had just happened to stop right next to me. The bus could have been the one to hades for all I cared, but I decided now was as good a time for a bus ride as any. A local business man I met later on in the subway told me that these deluges are very common this time of year.

I’ve paid a visit to the Kyoto Imperial garden, which is stunningly beautiful. I couldn’t get into the palace, since you need a formal permission to enter the palace. But I managed to get one for the following day for the so-called Sento Palace, where retired emperors lived and today’s imperial family still stays occasionally. Here are some of these pictures. We weren’t allowed to enter the main building, but the garden was more than worth coming for. During the tour, we had a guide who spoke into this weird machine, probably to be heard louder. He kept talking a long time, but I couldn’t understand a word he said. He only spoke Japanese.

Kyoto – around town
Kyoto – Sento Palace

Also, I found another palace nearby, called Nijo Palace. I think I now understand where Frank Lloyd Wright found the inspiration for the design of a house that was the model for the home of my grandparents … A highly fascinating place, built during the shogun period, where most of the outside and inside walls are sliding doors. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures outside but here are some pictures from another spectacular garden.

Kyoto – Nijo Palace

Porcelaine Infernos

Not much time to talk, but here are some photos from my trip to Tokyo. I went to Ueno Park in the north of Tokyo, to check out some of the city’s museums. On the map, they showed a lake so I went looking for it, hoping for a little cooling off in the steamy 32 degrees celsius (ca. 95F) heat. Ran back & forth and couldn’t see no lake until I realized, I stood right next to it…. It was hidden underneath a carpet of what are either huge water lilies or lotus flowers.


Found a zoo nearby and wandered in when I got nearly eaten by an alligator, if it hadn’t been for that big thick glass pane between us. I was taking a picture, when he jumped. Unfortunately the photo didn’t come out. Now that would have been an ending … The panda bear obviously wasn’t in the mood to be gawked at, so I never got to see his face … but his backside is lovely.

Speaking of backsides: In my hotel room they had one of these Toto contraptions, the Japanese high tech toilets that come with seat heaters and a whole lot else. Some of them apparently caught fire earlier this year. Call it a porcelaine inferno, if you like. Nobody seems to have gotten hurt, though.

Money Money Money

When travelling to China make sure to hang onto any receipt you get from money exchange at a bank. You’ll need them to reconvert your left-over yuan to a western currency at the airport.

My flight from Beijing to Tokyo was around 9 am. So, I showed up at the airport around 6:30 to deal with check-in and security. Banks usually only open around 8:30 in China, half an hour after my plane started boarding procedures. Fortunately in the departure hall I found a small Bank of China teller that did open at 7am. However, someone in line before me couldn’t re-convert his yuan, because he didn’t have the original receipts from when he bought then. Apparently, to prevent money from leaving the country, you can only reconvert as much yuan into western currency that you have proof for having bought during your stay (the receipts have your passport number, so you can’t borrow your friend’s).

Now I’ve switched from yuan to yen. Even Japan is still a very cash driven country, but exchange procedures seem more straight-forward. I’m here at my little boutique hotel right on the Ginza, Tokyo’s combination of Park Avenue and Greenwich Village. I certainly won’t starve around here. Within a five block radius around my hotel there are probably 150 restaurant and noodleshops and even a few general stores that sell food items. My Japanese isn’t a whole lot better in shape than my Chinese. So, fortunately, most restaurants have pictures of their menues, and those that don’t tend to be very pricey anyway. Meal prices in Tokyo are about comparable with New York, while Beijing was a whole lot cheaper (probably 1/3 to 1/2 of NYC prices, depending on where you went).

Can’t wait to do some sight seeing tomorrow … and not having to confront suddenly changing traffic regulations …

Bye Bye Beijing

Back in Beijing from Lhasa I had two days to explore the city. There’s plenty to look at even if a large part of the city consists of rather uninspiring soviet-style residential buildings. However, I came down with a head cold on my way back from Lhasa and the first day was essentially a loss. So, on the second day, firmly determined that I couldn’t come to Beijing and not see the Great Wall, I ventured out to pay it a visit.

According to my guide book, there was a bus that left from near my hotel that would take me out there. However, at the bus station, everything was shut off and someone gave me a long explanation in Chinese as to what was going on, but of course I didn’t understand a single word. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted another western girl, who seemed to be in the same situation, so I approached her and asked if she wanted to share a taxi out to the Great Wall, which she did. She turned out to be a Canadian who had been living in Japan. And even though her Chinese was about as bad as mine, she proved to be a tremendous negotiator. She convinced the cabbie to take us out to the wall (about 2 h drive each way), wait for us and drive us back in for about US$40 total.

After driving for a while, the cabbie suddenly turned his car around after he had talked to a policeman. It turned out that the road to Ba-da-ling, the site of the Great Wall we had come to see, was closed for some reason. The cabbie tried to explain, but you know … his English had about the level of our Chinese. So, we circled around for a bit, trying to find an alternate route until it became evident that ALL the roads to the Great Wall were closed, hence the closed bus station obviously … Also, there was a lot of police standing around. Who knows what happened …

So, we opted to see the nearby Ming toumbs that could be visited. If you have already visited the Forbidden City, the Ming toumbs don’t offer much new architectually, since both sites were build during the same period, but the site is nicely located in a forested area. So, a nice retreat from the city, but not necessarily worth the journey by itself. Most tours pass by the Ming toumbs on their way to the Great Wall, which I suppose makes sense.

After the toumb visit we drove back to Beijing again, original mission unaccomplished. I left for Tokyo very early the following morning, and my Canadian co-conspirator took the Transmongolian train from Beijing to Moscow via Ulan Bator around the same time my plane took off. Quod erat demonstrandum, you CAN go to Beijing and not see the Great Wall ….

Oh China, Air China

Lhasa – Chengdu – Beijing

I’ll never forget the Air China stewardess who once in the early ’90s answered my question about why there were no seat belts in their planes with a broad smile and a very charming “Very simple madam. We crash, you die.” Well, 12 years later Air China does have seat belts. So, either there’s less crashing or less dying to be desired …

In any case, I flew with Air China from Lhasa to Beijing with an intermediary stop in Chengdu, where ever that is. Apparently, due to the altitude (kerosin physically expands with less pressure), an airplane cannot take on enough fuel in Lhasa to make it all the way to Beijing, not even an Airbus A340-300. All in all, once in the air, Air China is as good as most airlines I’ve flown with. Their stewardesses are nice and competent, the food’s ok, there’s plenty of room in economy to sit and their Jasmin tea is positively delicious. It’s on the ground where things get messy.

First of all, for domestic flights you can only check in one hour before take off, but boarding starts about 40 minutes before the scheduled departure. So, you have to wait until the airline is ready for checking, then do a mad rush to the check-in line, since 400 other people are waiting for the same flight, grab your stuff and rush through the security line, get in line immediately for boarding and hope you get on board before everybody ahead of you has filled up all the overhead compartments with their belongings.

Also, the pit stop in Chengdu turned out to be a little strange. First, after we arrived, the crew made the announcement that everybody had to go off, and that those continuing to Beijing would get another boarding card. Then as we waited to deplane, another announcement came that only those getting off at Chengdu should deplane while those going on to Beijing should stay onboard. Mind you, all these announcements were in Chinese only, leaving us westerners a little stranded … Then, as everybody had packed their belongings back in and sat down, a third announcement came, that now everybody to Beijing should indeed deplane, and quickly. So, everybody rushed out the door and into the buses (apparently in Asia arriving planes don’t make it to a gate), and soon the buses moved off. However, after circling around the airfield for a bit, the buses stopped near a gate somewhere and stood there, sans air-conditioning mind you, and it was 33 degrees Celsius (ca 90F) outside, for about 15 minutes without budging or showing any sign of letting us off.

Then, finally, the doors opened and everybody was rushed out and up a flight of stairs, with the result that there was a major congestion at the bottom of the stairs, since everybody wanted to get out of the heat and into the air conditioned terminal. But, we didn’t go to the terminal but straight into the plane that was waiting at the gate we were walking up to … After being ushered back to our assigned seats, the plane took off again.

In fact, both in Lhasa and in Gengdu the plane started moving as soon as everybody was on board, seated or not. By the time we came barreling down the runway everybody had finally settled back in …

Speaking of airlines, from Zurich I flew to Beijing via Dubai with Emirates Airlines. I had heard rave reviews of their service so I was curious to see for myself how they were. And they were nice, once I made it past the rather grumpy Swiss ground staffer who was manning the check-in desk when I came. She got rather annoyed that my bag was 4kg’s overweight. After all, in my booking it read I had only 20kgs for baggage. Trouble was, nobody told me that and usually for overseas flights you get two bags for up to 50 lbs each. She wanted to charge me $320 for these four kgs since I couldn’t take them into my hand luggage, either.

Fortunately, the woman at the ticketing office, where I was sent to pay my dues was a little more cooperative and convinced her boss, that they should change my ticket to one that came with two bags rather than 20kgs luggage allowance. After all, I had an around-the-world ticket where they usually do have the two bag allowance. So, if you fly overseas, better to check on these things. $320 is a lot of money for a measly 4kgs.

Once on board, the service was indeed very good, even the food. From Dubai to Beijing I was even upgraded to business class, which was very welcome. After all, the entire trip from Zurich to Beijing, including the layover in Dubai took 28 hours …

On excess baggage charges, Air China was a lot more lenient. They charged me $50 for 12kgs overweight. I had bought that flight separately from my other ticket, so I really only got the 20kgs baggage allowance usually available for domestic flights within China.

To get your mileage credit for Air China flights on your Star Alliance account don’t talk to the ticketing office when you book the flight. They cannot enter non-Air China numbers into their system. However, once you get to the airport and do the check-in, they can enter those frequent flyer numbers from United and Lufthansa. God knows why. One would think an airline would use the same computer system for booking and check-in ….

Making a Break for the Hills

After two days of monasteries I rebelled against my government minder’s program and convinced him that on my last day in Tibet I simply had to get out of the city to look at some scenery. First, he wasn’t really interested but then understood that I meant business and wasn’t going to submit myself to another tour of yet another bleeding temple… I was on strike and he better believe it. Of course, as you saw, the temples are indeed extraordinarily beautiful and magical, but there’s only so much temple gazing you can do in a certain amount of time. It reminded me a little of these Scottish castles we had to go look at as kids, when my family spent its summers in the Grampian mountains in a little stonewall cottage outside a place called Blairgowrie. They’re great but after a while they start to all look alike.

So, off we went along Lhasa River Valley to Lake Yamdrok-Tso, one of Tibet’s holy lakes, about 125 km (ca. 85 miles) south of Lhasa. Once outside the outskirts of town, the roads become very narrow and I was glad I wasn’t the one who had to do the driving. There’s actually quite a lot of traffic on these roads, but besides running an obstacle course of sheep, cows, people and rocks that fall onto the road from the hillside after each rain, driving these paths also becomes a game of serial chicken on a winding road: The paved surface is hardly wide enough for two cars, but of course most of the locals drive these tractor-like vehicles that crawl along rather slowly. So, any self-respecting driver needs to pass on the inside, loudly honking their horn and feverishly hoping that the driver who’s doing the same pass coming the other way, makes it back into their lane before they hit him. Again, these roads reminded me a lot of the ‘highways’ that used to cross rural Scotland: narrow single file roads with the occasional passing beth and every time you came up a hill and turned a corner, there were a bunch of sheep sleeping on the road just where you couldn’t see them, warming up on the tarmac. Or then my bus ride from New Dehli to Agra about 11 years ago, where I sat for six hours at the back of a rather unclimatized bus, hoping that the driver wouldn’t either commit suicide, run over a kid that had to cross the road just as we came along or bump into a cow that decided to take a nap on the only roadway through town …¬†Earlier on my trip through India I had spent three hours sitting in a plane on the tarmac at Madrass airport. A cow had died on the runway just as we were approaching for take-off. So, of course, the poor animal had to be buried before the runway could be used again, with full funeral proceedings.

Already in Beijing I realized that traffic regulations in China basically follow one principal rule: I’m stronger than you so you better get out of my way. The more you’re convinced of that, the longer and louder you honk your horn and hope your opponent gets the message…

Still, the escape from Lhasa was well worth it, even though the weather again wasn’t what it could be. Lake Yamdok-Tso, coming up right after you wind yourself up to a mountain pass of 14,250 ft (4,750m), is very beautiful, as is the little bit of flora that can be found growing on the hillsides. We even passed some bikers on the way up. They were trampling, not walking …. Nut jobs!

Anyhoo, here’s the view. Supposedly, you can see the Himalayan Range from the lake, but with the clouds we had: no dice.

Lhasa – Lake Yamdrok-tso

From the lake we drove back to the Lhasa airport, back into the Lhasa river valley and somewhat south of Lhasa. As a final farewell from Tibet, I did get to see Mount Everest: Once my plane took off from Lhasa airport and worked its way up through and above the clouds, there it was, floating on a sea of white cotton, shining brightly in the sunlight, majestically looking down on the rest of the world.

Mount Everest
Mount Everest

Telephone Blues

You only realize how used you’ve gotten to the ways of 21st Century communication when you’re suddenly deprived of them. Upon arrival in Lhasa my PDA didn’t work and couldn’t read email, there was no Internet in the hotel and the hotel phone could only make calls within the city. … even after talking to the front desk, there was no way I could have made a phone call even within China from my room, let alone to a foreign country. And the people at the front desk also didn’t know where I could go to make a long-distance call, or didn’t want to tell me.

After some tweaking and a lot of patience, I finally got my PDA to make phone calls again and send text messages, although emails never worked. For Internet access, on one of the occasions I had escaped my government minders, I found this state-run Internet cafe around the corner from my hotel, whose computers were far from truly operational. More often than not, the browser couldn’t connect to the pages I was looking for, especially yahoo had its problems, none of the computers had a word processing program (although I did fine one in the end with a basic text editor) and most of them simply froze ever so often. Access was cheap though: 3 yuan per hour (ca. $0.39). But there was no way I was allowed to connect my own laptop to their Internet system: NO SE PUEDE was the very determined answer I got out of the otherwise rather uninspired girl that was manning the front desk.

It seems, young male Tibetans don’t have much to do on a Thursday afternoon. Most of the computers were taken by young locals, playing video games with each other, smoking like chimneys and ever so often yell out a scream if they got caught in their game.

My government appointed guides had taken me to the typical tourist restaurants: lousy service and mediocre food at astronomical prices. One evening I snuck out of my hotel and found my way down the street without my supervision and dove into a little restaurant I had walked by a couple of times before. My meal was simple (a pot of soup with a few noodles, some vegetables and beef) but delicious and cheap. A family sat at the only other table, obviously celebrating an occasion, judging by the amount of food they had ordered. As I ate my soup, their young, maybe three year old girl, came up to me and started talking in what I believe was Tibetan. I smiled back and tried to converse with my few words of Mandarin, but it was obvious neither understood the other. After a while, her older sister, maybe fifteen, came up to me and asked “Sprechen Sie deutsch?” Amazed, I answered yes, and asked her how come she spoke the language. It turned out she grew up in a small Swiss village named Rikon, located 15 miles outside the city I was born in, and one of the largest Tibetan communities in Europe. I had grown up seeing buddhist monks and other Tibetans wandering the streets of my hometown, and now, thousands of miles away, I met one of them. It truly is a small world …

Ah, well. I’m back in Beijing now, with my very personal Internet connection, right from the comfort of my bed … CNN’s and BBC’s websites are still not accessible, and neither is my blog, although I can obviously post on in through my google account, but otherwise things communication-wise are back to normal.


Living On A Prayer

An at first rather surprising sight, it soon becomes a staple: People in traditional Tibetan dress clothes throwing themselves onto the sidewalk, getting back up again, taking one or two steps forward only to cast themselves back down onto the ground. These are pilgrims working their way to a temple or monastery, their fervor in direct proportion to the amount of trouble or need they see themselves in. Every morning, in the wee hours of dawn an entire procession of pilgrims is on their way crawling to the Jokhang Temple at the center of Lhasa.

Lhasa – Jokhang Temple

Then one notices the many locals walking about with prayer mills, lowly mumbling to themselves, circling the Jokhang Temple or Potala palace, the monastery on top of the sacred mountain in the center of Lhasa where many of the Dalai Lamas are buried. Buddhism is very central in the lives of Tibetans and especially the older generations. All over the city they can be seen with their prayer mills and their peculiar forward motion.

Getting up to Potala Palace is a piece of work, too. Over 1,000 steps up the hill, and no elevator of course. At this altitude, this can make you catch your breath quite a bit. It’s worth the effort though. The palace inside is very beautiful – as to be expected from the most holy place of Tibetan buddhism. Taking photos inside the palace was not allowed, but not because it’s such a sacred place, but it is controlled by the Chinese government, and they want the tourists to buy the book …

The palace has over 1,000 rooms, the earliest ones built as early as 700 AD. It also hosts the very elaborate toombs of several Dalai Lamas. Today, the Chinese Army occupies parts of the palace, officially to protect it, but rather making sure that today’s leading monks don’t preach what the central government doesn’t want to hear.

It’s very difficult to get a ticket for this palace, since, naturally, every tourist in town wants to go and see it. Tickets are strictly rationed and travel agency employees are often the only ones who have the nerve to stand in line several days in order to secure their quota, which can easily evaporate if a local official thinks he needs the tickets instead.

Also, if you do get a ticket, and I got so lucky thanks to my travel agent (and worth the trouble of putting up with a government minder most places I went), you are strictly limited to one hour within the walls of the palace. And bring your passport and travel permit if you’re getting a ticket and when entering the palace. This is the only place I got ever checked for either document. Still, all the hassle was worth it as the view from the hill onto Lhasa is absolutely spectacular.

Lhasa – Potala Palace
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