The road to Lhasa

Trip Start Aug 25, 2003
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Trip End Jul 23, 2004


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Friday, April 30, 2004

We escaped the big sad of saying goodbye to my parents with an evening viewing of 'Starsky and Hutch' at Hong Kong's ghetto theater; Phil is still quoting lines and laughing to himself about "two dragons". Wasting no more time (or money) in Hong Kong, we caught the early bus to Guangzhou where, first of firsts, we got a same-day hard sleeper ticket to Guilin (they said it couldn't be done...). Landing at 9 am, we fought our way through the various touts to a bus to Yangshou, which is heralded by the Lonely Planet as a "laid back backpacker mecca". It's...something. The area of West Street (short for "Westerner street") is definitely has a target marketing group: souvenir shops selling T-shirts announcing "I may be fat, but I'm rich" in Chinese characters alternate regularly with English language menu cafes advertising $5 enchiladas and "better than Starbucks" mocha cappuccinos. I'm not an elitist; I appreciate being able to order food with relative confidence that it won't contain a hoof, and the large number of tourists means that hotel rooms are reasonably priced (unlike, say, Chengdu...), but after two days, it started to feel like we were in a fishbowl version of China. So, after a day of hiking along the Yulong He for views of the karst scenery, we decided to leave behind the comforts of Yangshou, and hopped the bus to Chengdu.
26 hours later, dropped off in a bus station that didn't even make the outer suburbs on our map, reminiscing about the plentiful English language street signs in Yangshou, we realized we were both getting sick. I had a cough that would make an emphysemic proud, and Phil was "feeling draggy"; since, unlike me, he never complains when he's sick, I realized that this probably meant he was moments away from a coma, so we headed to a hotel recommended by Lonely Planet as fast as we could. Perhaps we need to read between the lines in our guidebook more; hardly a "clean, pleasant place", Sam's Guesthouse is a moldy hovel staffed by incredibly rude people who only deigned to notice our presence when they thought we were going to buy a tour from them. We stayed one night and dragged our coughing, sniffly, fevery selves to another place, Dragon Town Youth Hostel, and slept for two days. In an odd family sympathy-sickness, Phil's family also had the flu the same time as us; coincidence? I don't think so...
When we felt like moving again, we took a bus to Leshan to apply for a visa extension. Since our bike trip doesn't deposit us in Nepal until May 17th, we needed an extra week; this may seem like a fairly routine bit of paperwork for the visa extension office, but the girl running the desk acted like I had asked her to donate both corneas and half of her liver to the Japanese Organ Fund. After a long episode of deep sighing, some displeased muttering in Chinese, and several requests to go to any other extension office in Sichuan but hers, she finally gave us the paperwork, then made us wait another half hour to turn the papers back in while she chatted with her girlfriends in the lobby. Phil reminded me that strangling her would probably delay our much needed extension, even after she told us that we couldn't pick up our passports until the next day, which would require another bus ride back to Leshan. I explained (with extremely forced kiss-ass smile) we were staying in Chengdu; more pancreas-rupturing sighs, accompanied this time by a few petulant foot stamps, but we got the visas that evening.
Our only sight-seeing trip in Chengdu was to see the Panda Breeding Research Center. As the name implies, the pandas are bred (quite an interesting exhibit extolling the virtues of artificial insemination versus the natural way; mostly blamed on the "male panda's unfortunately small penis") and raised in a pretty controlled environment, although they have a fairly large area to roam (vastly different than most Asian zoos, which are best described as ghettos of the captive animal world). We watched four 6 month old cubs playing; it's kind of like slow-motion drunken rugby. The year and a half old pandas were surprisingly rough when they wrestled; there was a lot of sitting on heads and biting of ears, and one drew blood. Still, they are so round and furry and cute, it's like watching animated beanbags roll around. We were only there for a few hours (the pandas eat and then go to sleep during the hot part of the day), but since we were still recovering, we were exhausted. We went to a monastery near our hotel and ate at their vegetarian restaurant. The dishes are fake meat, so we had some "eel" along with our eggplant and tofu. It was insanely spicy, like shotgunning a bottle of tabasco. So much for the reputed "monk food" being no garlic, no chillies, no onions. These must be renegade monks because it was the hottest food we've had since Thailand.
The next morning we were up at 4 am for our flight to Lhasa. It was delayed by a spectacular lightning and thunderstorm, but we have since heard much worse horror stories; one guy from Boston had 5 attempted flights to Lhasa that were turned back to Chengdu because of bad weather in the mountains (the same mountains we'll be biking through; quick prayer to the weather gods), so can't complain about an hour delay. Plus, we got served unidentifiable white mush for breakfast, which was quite a culinary treat to go along with our 2 chunks of pineapple. Apparently, we ordered the "dieter's breakfast" from China Air.
Lhasa is very different from what I expected. It's about 70% Chinese, although there is a constant stream of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims, so there is a significant temporary population of Tibetans. There are several important temples in and around Lhasa, in addition to Potala Palace (the home of the Dalai Lama before he fled to India), so a visit to Lhasa is the same as Mecca for Muslims. We met our guide for the biking trip after a few days of acclimitization (we went from 500 m above sea level in Chengdu to 3700 m in Lhasa; we were both huffing like the Marlboro Man for the first couple of days), and he took us to Drepung Monastery, Sera Monastery, and Jokhang Temple, and explained about Buddhist history, Tibetan history before and after the "liberation" by the Chinese, and about the status of monks living there now. Drepung, for example, had 7700 monks in residence before the Chinese invasion; Chinese government rules restrict that number to 500, and all of these monks have undergone "retraining", which includes a renunciation of the Dalai Lama. It was possible to get an idea of how amazing the monastery must have been with a full contingent of monks; the kitchen has three enormous pots for cooking, and each pot can hold eight yaks! For those of you who are struggling with the math, that is a total of 24 yaks cooking up at the same time. Yaks are like muscly, shag-furry cows, and we've seen them hacked up in the local markets. 24 would be quite a feast.
Jokhang temple is by far my favorite. There were huge numbers of pilgrims winding past the Buddhas statues, chanting while counting prayer beads and spinning gold chortens. The temple is lit by yak butter lamps, and the air is heavy with a mix of incense and the oily yak butter. The most sacred statue is a golden Present Buddha, and pilgrims wait for hours to offer money (or, if they are nomads, barley and yak butter) and receive a blessing. It's the most spiritually alive place I've ever had the chance to experience. We also got to watch and listen to a group of women fixing the temple roof. Our guide told us that Tibetans sing while they work to make the time pass; the song was so beautiful, and was accented by the stamping of their feet as they packed down the new roof.
Potala Palace is amazing architecturally, but the replacement of the thousands of monks (including the Dalai Lama) that used to occupy it by armed Chinese military guys ends up being intensely depressing. We felt the same when visiting Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's Summer Palace. It's so sterile and Chinese-ified that we left feeling sad and angry and disappointed despite the beautiful murals and view of the Dalai Lama's simple but homey personal rooms.
Our sight-seeing requirements fulfilled, we have spent the past two days preparing for our ride to Kathmandu. 17 days and 1100 km across six mountain passes averaging 4900 m. If I survive, I will henceforth be known throughout Michigan as Quadzilla.
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