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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 ….

How to Look at the Pictures in More Detail

Just in case you didn’t figure: To see the pictures in full size, rather than those little thumbnails, double click on the picture you want to look at and it will load in its original size. Each image is about 50 – 100kB, so it should load relatively fast. If you need a high-res picture of any of these, let me know. The originals are about 2Mb each.

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


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
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