Yak-e-ti-Yak

For tourists, and especially the Chinese, there’s an institution in Lhasa called the Mad Yak Restaurant – a kind of watch-while-you-dine museum of Tibetan culture. Along with a Tibetan buffet one gets to see traditional Tibetan folk dances and costumes. Certainly interesting, but also saddening that this is the only forum in which many of these items can still be found.

Tibetan cuisine is a peculiar mix of Indian, Chinese and a dose of yak meat. Yak meat in itself has a rather strong taste. Not bad, but also not something I would necessarily have to eat every day of my life. My favorite yak meat dish was a kind of steamed dumpling called momo filled with a nicely spiced ball of yak hash.

Yak-butter tea is another matter: Similar to the smell of yak-butter lamps, it tastes rather horrendously. I suppose, once in your lifetime you have to try it, but then you’re probably done with it. The old socks and the warm butter milk are again on full display. And one thing: cold yak-butter tea is a whole lot worse than warm yak-butter tea. So, if you ever have to drink it out of politeness – hurry! Yak yogurt is also something I’d stay away from. It seems there’s no way to subdue that rather rancid taste of yak-milk … Poor beasts. From afar they actually look rather cute and it seems their wool and skin is a staple in traditional Tibetan clothes-making.

Their traditional beer, called chang is a whole lot better. A fermented barley beer it has a somewhat sweet & sourish taste, but rather refreshing. Also, Lhasa beer, originally brewed by the Germans but now in collaboration with Carlsberg is quite drinkable. Light, and not very strong in taste, but still a whole lot better than an American Budweiser …

The other meat used in Tibetan cuisine is mutton. I had a very delicious curry soup with mutton and vegetables along with fried rice mixed with red raisins and sprinkles of yak meat.

As in Chinese cuisine, deserts is not an essential part of a Tibetan meal. However, they have delicious locally grown water melons. The weather in the Lhasa valley is a lot less harsh than one would think, given it’s altitude and the fact that the perennially snowy Mount Everest is just around the corner. In summer, high temperatures can reach 25 degrees celsius (high 70’s in Fahrenheit). Lows are around 10 degrees celsius (50F). In winter apparently, on sunny days, it still gets close to that.

Lhasa – Yak-e-ti-Yak

Their traditional costumes are very colorful and surprisingly elaborate for a people that started out predominantly as nomads. However, Lhasa has been an important city for the Tibetan people for centuries, so that some of these clothes probably were developed by settled people.

An Old People in New Clothes

One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Tibet was seeing the clash of old versus new in what Tibetans wore and what houses they lived in. In a Tibetan family it seems that grandmothers and sometimes also mothers are still wearing traditional clothing, while daughters wear western style clothing. The men’s traditional costumes seem less conspicuous, and young men, too wear clothes you would see anywhere else.

In Lhasa, and in some of the larger other villages I’ve seen, there tends to be an old (& Tibetan) section and a new (& Chinese) part of town, which usually holds larger commercial shops and the manufacturing plants. As part of their policy of tightening their control on Tibet, the central Chinese government has been relocating many Han – Chinese into the area, often by paying bonuses or giving incentives such as free housing or education to outpopulate the Tibetan population with their own. Of the Tibetan section in Lhasa, every year a few blocks disappear to be replaced by specimens of this oh-so wonderful modern Chinese architecture: grey, square and plain ugly.

Obviously, in urban areas such as Lhasa, the Han – invasion is easier to spot than in smaller rural villages. Still, it seems that Tibetan culture is deliberately put under siege and may soon go away. So, if you want to see living Tibetan culture for yourself – go now while it’s still there. As the older generations pass away, so will a lot of this culture.

Lhasa – Old Versus New

Buddha, Inc.

In Lhasa, I went to see several beautiful Buddhist monestaries. Mostly built in the 1400’s and expanded since then, they are temples of extraordinary beauty and serenity, seeping with gravity and a seemingly never ending past. Over the centuries, Tibet has developed its own brand of Buddhism, Gelugpa, founded on the thinking of a man called Tsongkhapa. Disciples of his founded the monasteries of Drepung and Sera that I went to see.

Here are a few photos of Drepung:

Lhasa – Drepung Monastery

What struck me most, was the money making machine put in place in the monasteries. I’m perfectly fine with paying an entry fee as a visitor and also to pay a fee for the privilege of taking some pictures, where it is appropriate. However, in the Drepung monastery in most rooms there was a separate fee to pay to take photos in that room. More importantly however, it’s the locals who do most of the paying. While they don’t pay entry fees to the monasteries of gompas, they drop wads of bills in front of all the different statues of Buddah or one of the Dalai Lamas to curry favors with the Gods, and many of these local pilgrims don’t look as if they could afford to give away much of anything. I saw monks literally stuff 50 gallon garbage bags with the bills that were dropped during a morning session.

More in keeping with my understanding of giving sacrifice to the gods were the butter lamps, big jars filled with yak butter and cords to keep the flames burning, in which pilgrims would add some yak butter from a bag they brought or pour liquid yak butter from a thermos can they had. The smell of burning yak butter is not too pleasant – think a mixture of old socks and warm butter milk. Fortunately, in most rooms of the monasteries monks were burning juniper to put the spirits at ease, a stronger smoky smell that usually covered up the smell from the yak butter.

Still, a very inspiring experience was sitting in on a study session of the monks with their teacher at Sera monastery, also founded in the 1400’s. It was a session where student monks were questioned on their knowledge of Buddhist scripture and also the teacher recounted a part of a book in rather dramatic fashion, with the senior monks looking on.

Lhasa – Sera Monastery

The most intriguing contraption was a system the monks had developed to boil water, exploiting the fact that the sun at an altitude of 15,000 ft (3,000 m) is indeed very strong. It uses two solar reflectors that focus the sunlight onto a kettle set on a stand in the center of the shield, using the energy from the reflected sunlight to heat the kettle. Ingenious, economical and environmentally friendly:

Solar water cooker

Later in the day I visited Norbulingka Park, where the Dalai Lamas used to live before the current one had to flee Tibet for India. Apparently, Wednesday Aug 15 was a holiday for Tibetans, bringing out people into parks and monasteries, having picnics and other outdoor celebrations despite the rainy weather. In general, I found Tibetans to be very water proof. I hardly saw anyone using an umbrella …

Lhasa – Norbulingka Park

Star Alliance

When booking a hotel room in China, there are two things you should keep in mind:

Hotel beds in fully Chinese-owned hotels are as hard as a rock.
If that bothers you, here’s different approaches I’ve tested out over the past few days that can help:

– ask the front desk for extra blankets that you can lay on top of the mattress to soften it
– get a camping mattress from a sporting goods store (or bring your own from home) and lay that on top of your mattress
– fold all the blankets or comforters you can get the hotel to give you to build a softer mattress and use a sleeping bag to cover yourself.
– if all else fails, sleep on the floor.

Not pretty, but it works.

When booking a room in a fully Chinese-owned hotel, deduct two stars from their rating to determine what you get by western standards.

In Lhasa, I stayed in what was supposed to be a three star hotel. Not only, was the interior old and grimey, but the rooms were about as charming as a Motel 6. Apparently, joint-venture hotels with the major foreign hotel chains come closer to what you’re used to getting for a certain star rating.

There’s nothing wrong with things being different in different places, but it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into to gage whether the price you’re charged is worth it or not.

Highly Dangerous Pregnant Women

Culled from my travel reading

The title of this post comes from a health declaration I had to sign as I was traveling to Tibet in which I had to declare I was fit to spend time at he altitude of the Tibetan Plateau. On the back of the document the government helpfully explained what it saw as reasons that might disqualify one from such a journey. One of the conditions read: highly dangerous pregnant women. Probably they meant, that you if you were far along in your pregnancy or were experiencing complications that you shouldn’t expose yourself to altitudes of 15,000 ft (3,000 m) or up, but the sentence in itself does beg the question: Are women generally considered dangerous or only if they’re pregnant? :-)))

In the Gulf News newspaper that I obtained on my flight from Zurich to Dubai I read an article entitled “Bachelors being evicted from villas” where anyone not living with their family in Dubai (i.e. they could be married with their family living elsewhere and still be counted as bachelors) could only live in an apartment but not in a house and that landlords charged ‘bachelors’ up to double than they would a husband and wife. Apparently, this is due to a housing shortage for families in Dubai, but imagine that happening in New York or Zurich …

Then there was the article from the same newspaper that talks about Lil’Maaz, a Kebab vendor in Paris who got a recording deal with EMI after executives heard his self-produced rap touting the merits of the rather hefty dish … Only in France, I guess :-))

On a more depressing note, I found this ad in a Swiss newspaper:

SVP Ad


It is an ad from the Swiss equivalent of the Neocons, the Swiss People’s Party, that reads “Create Security”. As you can see it insinuates, that by kicking out any “black sheep” (i.e. foreigners that get in trouble with the law), the “white sheep” (i.e. ‘innocent’ Swiss) could rest secure. The text below then points out that that is the only way to return security to Swiss communities (mind you, any US city would dream of Swiss crime rates). The ad has caused a bit of a ruckus but not as much as it would deserve. I do love my confederates, but boy, can they be narrow minded …

A nice antidote to that was a book review I found in the Economist dated Aug 11th. It’s a book called “Rules of the Game” by French author Olivier Roy (English translation out by Columbia University Press). He takes a hard look at issues the French have been having with their Muslim populations and comes to an enlightened conclusion: It’s not Islam, that’s the problem but rather religion in general, or the contemporary forms in which religion is lived and taught. Religion having usually been a private affair in the past, over the past 20 years more and more a movement of (mostly born-again) Christians, Jews, Muslims and others appeared that reject conformity or institutionalized religion. It is this often radicalized interpretation of religion on all sides, Roy argues that creates the tension we see today between Muslims and the West. An uncomfortable concept for sure, but finally someone is approaching the subject of radical religion with common sense.

Murphy’s Law and the Art of Packing a Suitcase

Why is it that the one thing you so urgently need at this very moment is always hidden at the bottom of your bag? It’s certainly been true for my large Patagonia bag, where, with startling regularity, I’ve found myself taking everything out until I found that one elusive item I was hunting after. The bag in itself is great. One of the artists I work with has dragged it around the country for a year on her 150 – date tour though the US onto airplanes, in cars, at musical festivals in the desert and even up a hill and the thing still looks brand new. But there’s an awful lot of space in there where things can disappear into …

I remember seeing a prospectus back in New York that touted “suitcase organizers”, bags you could wrap your shirts, socks etc into to keep them together. Back then, I laughed at the thought of using these things, but maybe I shouldn’t have.

I haven’t figured out a system yet, that hasn’t got me digging madly through my bag every time I need something. So, any suggestions you might have are welcome.

¿Con Permiso?

The business of getting a travel permit for Tibet

There are many stories floating around about restrictions on entering Tibet as a tourist. Here’s what I saw & heard:

One basic rule about travel permits to Tibet is that the regulations can change without notice whenever the Chinese government feels like it. Still, it seems there are ways to get to Tibet, whether you have a permit or not. If you’re considering going to Tibet, it is best to check first on travelers websites to see what the current status is. For example, after a demonstration in April, where some travelers unveiled a “Free Tibet” banner at the Mount Everest base camp, travel for tourist to Tibet was stopped for several weeks unless you had already obtained your permit before the event happened.

One certain aspect seems to be that if you want to purchase a ticket for a train or plane headed to Tibet, you will need to obtain a permit for travel to Tibet. You can get a travel agent and buy a package (which tends to get pricey) or try to obtain the permit by yourself in China and then try to get a ticket. However, you can get travel permits for Tibet only within China, not from abroad.

Either way, as a first step, get your tourist visa for China. The embassy at New York currently issues single entry visas for up to 6 months, Hong Kong apparently for 6 – 12 months, London, Laos and most European countries issue visas for 3 months but if you’re trying to get a tourist visa for China in Katmandu, you’ll only get 3 weeks. The length of your visa validity matters for the following reason: Usually, travel permits for Tibet are issued for a few days, but really, once you’re there you can stay in Tibet legally as long as you have a valid visa, no matter what your permit says.

Then, if you’re determined to do it yourself, there are a few ways I’ve heard that people obtained their permits: There is Hostel Leo in Beijing that helps out with getting permits. My compartment mates had tried to obtain a permit from the official office in Beijing that oversees travel to the TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region), but failed to get anywhere. But once they went to Hostel Leo, things seemed to have moved ahead quickly. Other travelers have told stories about being charged exorbitant amounts of money by officials (your permit shouldn’t cost more than 500 yuan, about 50 euros or $60). Others I’ve met have tried to get permits at Xiling or Golmud, and then there’s even the traveler I met who didn’t even have a permit and managed to make it to Lhasa undetected. He bought a train ticket on the black market and got on. I wasn’t checked for my permit when boarding the train. That check seems to happen only when you buy the ticket (I had an agent buy me my ticket and get the permit). Also, there were no permit checks in Lhasa after we got off the train. There are also busses running from Golmud to Lhasa where people have managed to enter Tibet without a permit.

One traveler told me that in some areas, if you’re get caught there are two scenarios: If you’re in the process of leaving Tibet when you get caught, the police usually leaves you alone. Otherwise, you get fined, but the fine also includes the fee for a permit, i.e. the police make you legal as long as you have a valid tourist visa.

For certain areas within Tibet, you’ll need yet another permit, as traffic there is restricted even further than getting to Lhasa. One area is the area around the Mount Everest base camp. Again, these regulations tend to change, so best to talk to fellow travelers you meet in Lhasa to see what the current situation is. Most of these special permits can only be obtained in Lhasa, most easily through a local travel agent.

If you want to deal with getting your permits or try to sneak in probably depends on your sense of adventure. In any case, keep in mind the most important rule about dealing with Chinese authorities: There is no rule that can’t be bent as long as you’re willing to pay for it.


This holds particularly true, if you book your travel through a state-owned travel agency: Usually, one can only travel to Tibet as part of a group. I had wanted to make sure I got a ticket on the train and thus, from abroad, engaged such a state travel agency to book my package to Tibet. I paid a lot of money, but not only did I get all the permits I needed, and ultimately a seat on the train in one of the nicer cabins, they conveniently declared me a group of one, and so I found myself traveling as an individual around Tibet, government minder in tow, fully licensed and all …

Taking The A-Train

Beijing – Xian – Langzou – Xining – Golmud – Nagchu – Lhasa
(departure 9:30pm on 8/12 – arrival 8:00pm on 8/14)

First and foremost: Despite all the stories that you hear about pollution in China (and they’re probably true), rural China can be absolutely and stunningly beautiful. I could see plenty of evidence from the train window of human abuse of nature, ugly architecture and abject poverty, but still, the mountains and valleys outside urbanized areas carried such a beauty I had a hard time sleeping lest I might miss yet another splendid view.

The train trip from Beijing to Lhasa takes about 48 hours, and despite crossing almost 3,000 miles and rising from 142 ft (43.5 meters) above sea level to 15,200 ft (5,068 m) and then descending back to 10,920 ft (3,640 m), we arrived only two minutes late. An impressive performance.

The travel agent I had to engage to secure one of the much sought after tickets for a bed on this train couldn’t understand why I insisted on taking the train rather than flying up to Lhasa. When it became doubtful whether I would be able to board the train due to a slew of officials booking up the train for their own travel, I ended up in a rather lengthy discussion with a sternly looking Chinese man as to why I really didn’t want to fly, as it would be so much more convenient and, most importantly, faster. But no, for me the process of getting there is a crucial part of any journey and in the case of getting to Tibet it also allowed for a gradual acclimatization to the increased altitude rather than being suddenly dumped at 11,000 feet. Also, I had dreamed of traveling on this train ever since I read a review of its maiden voyage in the New York Times a year earlier.

I often think back to the travel stories I heard from my grandfather, who traveled by boat to China and Japan from Alexandria in Egypt in the 1930’s and 40’s, often gone from home for six months at a time and the people he met in the process. I could relive a little of that on my own train journey as I met interesting people and had the time to learn more about them as we rode along.

I shared my compartment with a nice elderly gentleman from Buenos Aires in Argentina and a group of four young travellers from Valencia in Spain, who had to share two beds in 1st and two seats in 3rd class. So, suddenly the focus shifted from trying to be understood in Chinese (not a very successful venture, I’m afraid) to digging out my Spanish, that I hadn’t really used in ten years, and trying to hang in on conversations about anything from politics to the business of getting a travel permit to Tibet, the art of railway construction and Spanish visual artists. I found a good part of my vocabulary had disapeared at first, but slowly worked its way back into my consciousness. In fact, most of the western travellers on the train turned out to be Spanish speaking. There were also a group of girls from Madrid and two groups from Barcelona. Three British also found their way onto the train, but the rest of the travellers was mostly Chinese workers and tourists.

A big topic of conversation was also the enormous amount of infrastructure building we could see from the train. Highways, bridges, houses, railway tracks, telecommunications towers and much more were being built almost where ever we looked. Given how many people we saw working on each project, the builders were definitively in a hurry. News of a collapsed bridge in southern China recently that killed many people has to be seen in that context: China is aching to expand its overall infrastructure to keep up with its economic growth that is by no means limited to Beijing or Shanghai. On our train ride we came through very large cities that seemed to us to lie in the middle of nowhere, and had names we clearly never heard of such as Langzou or Xiling. They had large manufacturing areas with factories obviously going at full steam judging from the smoke on their chimneys.

Still, it is also evident from what I saw through the window, that inequality in China is still very deep (an article in the Economist that I read on the train equals inequality in China to that seen in Brazil and other Latin American countries). In cities you could see people dressed in high level western fashion, talking on their cellphones and driving nice cars, while most farmers that I saw working in their fields were doing all their labor manually, lived in mud houses and wore very simple clothing.

One beautiful aspect of the manual farming work were the haystacks that litter a big part of the countryside, very similar to those I grew up looking at in Monet’s paintings. Since most of farming in Europe and the US is highly automated these days, I haven’t seen many of these haystacks in real life before.

Here are some pictures from the first day of the train ride (Beijing – Xiling)

Train Beijing – Lhasa Day 1

Day 2 (Xiling – Lhasa)
Early in the morning of day two we stopped in a little town called Golmud. A series of tanker trucks came driving along the platform and men exiting from the trucks dragged long pumping lines to the train. Soon I could hear a whistling noise in our cabin: These tankers brought oxygen for the train that was going to be pumped into the train cars until our arrival in Lhasa. By the time we arrived in Golmud, we were already at an altitude of roughly 9,000 ft (3,000 m) and the breathing started to get a little harder. So, the extra oxygen was certainly welcome especially by the time we reached Tangu-la pass at 15,200 ft (5,068 m), the high-point of the journey.

I got up as soon as the sun came out, since this is what I had waited for ever since I decided to take this trip: We were nearing the Tibetan Plateau and with it beautiful mountainous landscapes. The weather unfortunately wasn’t as splendid as it could be (it’s apparently rainy season in Tibet right now), but the vast trundra-like views were still very impressive. See for yourself:

Train Beijing – Lhasa Day 2

Money On Legs

On my first day to China, I payed the Forbidden City on Tian’men Square in Beijing a visit. Obviously a great tourist destination, it comes with the usual nuisances of such places: Every ten steps someone offers to be my guide – their English usually hardly good enough to make me understand their offer. Then there were also the artists that wanted me to come along with them and look at their exhibition somewhere in a side alley, something every Beijing guide I’ve read specifically warned against doing. Apparently, some people got robbed that way …

After passing that obstacle course successfully, I spent an hour baking in the sun waiting in line to get a ticket to enter the Forbidden City. Again, peddlers seemed strongly attracted to me trying to sell me everything from water to ice cream, sun hats, maps, programs, Kodak films and umbrellas. I did buy a sun hat, since I forgot mine at the hotel and the Beijing sun proved to be surprisingly strong. I even got a rather nasty sunburn in a spot I forgot to apply sunprotection to. So, just because you can’t see the sun in the Beijing sky when you leave your hotel in the morning, don’t think it has gone elsewhere. It’s there and working hard – trust me.

But the effort was absolutely worth it: The Forbidden City is incredibly beautiful and fascinating to everyone with even a faint interest in architecture and art. There are some nice art exhibits inside some of the palaces that show artworks from the time the palaces were lived in by the emperors and their courts. See for yourself:

Beijing Forbidden City

View From The Top

Leg 2: Fjaellbacka (Sweden) – Weggis (Switzerland)

I have rarely taken the time to be a tourist in my home country. I was generally too busy with school, work or trying to get the hell out of here. However, after living abroad for the past ten years, I do begin to see some of the beauty that most foreign visitors seem to be attracted to. I went to visit my friend Joan on her vacation to a lovely little village named Weggis, located right on the shore of Lake Lucerne and together we went up Mount Rigi (by way of Europe’s oldest cogwheel train). Here’s a few impressions of that trip:

Switzerland

Seeing things from above does change your perspective. In people’s minds Lucerne seems to be far away from Zurich, although it’s only about one hour by train. To get to Weggis you can then travel by boat across Lake Lucerne for about another 30 minutes. On a beautiful and clear day, you can see from Mount Rigi almost across the entire country, and even spot Zurich in the very far distance. The emerald color from Lake Lucerne shines even brighter and greener in the summer sun. On our trip it was also a welcome escape from the scorching summer heat, embalming us in a light breeze, and lower humidity. There is plenty of life on this mountain, too. From farmers hearding their cows on the steep slopes, year round and summer houses, mountain bikers, hang gliders and hikers.

On the way down, we passed by some idyllic vistas in the village of Weggis, flowers in full bloom, sheep on the meadows and a gathering thunder storm in the background.

Many famous artists have been drawn to this area. Pianist Rachmaninoff build a lavish residency nearby in Hertenstein, flutist James Galway lives here. In “A Tramp Abroad” Mark Twain wrote a tremendously funny account of his voyage up Mount Rigi to see the spectacular sunrise – only to sleep right through it. And during a lengthy period of the typically very heavy rain fall during a thunderstorm, Mary Shelly is said to have conceived of Mr. Frankenstein.

Thunderstorms in the region tend to be very heavy, the high mountains holding back the clouds until they have rained out and giving lighning strikes plenty of targets to strike. Here a few pictures from storm that gathered the evening Joan and I had planned to have a nice dinner on the lake shore (followed by a dash inside to escape the rain):

Gathering Storm

The storm was followed by two days of torrential rains in the region, causing mud slides, areal flooding, evacuation and traffic disrutions. The same day I hear of a tornado that has rampaged through Brooklyn back in New York, passing not too far from the house of one of my co-workers. Hope, all of you are ok back there.

Mother Nature is not amused ….