Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Day Ten: Lhasa to Beijing

No rain this morning! We had breakfast in the hotel and at around 8:30 headed out toward the Nechung Monastery, the one that J2 missed when he was sick that I went to on my own, for a visit. Rather than take a cab, though, we opted to take a bus, which ended up taking us on a bit of a roundabout tour of back-streets Lhasa and then dropped us off at the bottom of the road that leads up to Nechung and Drepung monasteries. We started to walk uphill toward the monastery, but I forgot that when I went there the last time, the driver pointedly did not turn at the sign for the Nechung monastery, continuing further uphill on the road instead. Since I forgot this, we ended up making a BIG detour around a little neighborhood, and wound up at the back of the monastery after a rather longer-than-necessary uphill climb. J2 was not pleased. But he liked the monastery a lot, even though, because the monks were chanting away when we got there, he was unable to take photos of the interior. We found a few places that I had not visited during my earlier visit, so it was also interesting for me to revisit the place.

When we were done with the monastery, we were lucky to find a cab right outside that took us back to our hotel. Like all cabs in Lhasa, this one refused to use his meter, charging instead a flat Y20 for our ride (though he was able to give us a fapiao). We grabbed the incense burner from last night, which the seller had wrapped up extremely well, we thought, to take to the post office to ship to Beijing. The main PO was near the Potala Palace, so we had to carry the thing about 5 blocks or so, and once there we were at loss as to which desk we needed to go to. Finally someone helped us out, telling us we had to go to another desk to buy the boxes, tape, a canvas bag and the form (!) to mail our package. Once we bought these things, we took them to a desk where there was a master wrapper, who took a look at our item, sized it up, and started wrapping away. He did an amazing job (though just how amazing we won't know for sure until the package reaches Beijing) and charged us Y6 for the service. The shipping cost ended up being just over Y100, well worth it, in our eyes.

From the PO we hopped a pedicab to go to the Muslim quarter to get lunch and swing by the place where we ordered a custom made thangka to pick up my receipt. The pedicab driver charged us Y30, but it was a pretty long way, and he was very nice about it, and, for a Chinese guy, not bad looking, though he needed a shower badly (especially after he dropped us off). We picked a lunch spot at random on the street leading to the mosque, since J2 wanted to have another order of the Xinjiang banmian that he liked a lot in Gyantse. This place did not have Xinjiang banmian, but they had 'regular' banmian, so we ordered that. When it finally came, we were initially confused, since there were no noodles, but they followed shortly thereafter, and they were delicious! The meat and veg topping was nicely spicy and the noodles were clearly freshly handmade. All this for only Y6 a person, too. I got my receipt, and we stopped by one more time at Dropenling to see about the possibility of mail-ordering another carpet if we find that the one we bought last week would work on our kang in the living room. We found another carpet, rectangular rather than square, that may even work better, so we took its measurements and will see whether we'll just order that instead.

We ambled our way back to the hotel, stopping to have our dzi beads restrung so that mine would not hang quite so low. The jewelery shop that we chose decreed that the people who sold us our dzi did a bad stringing job, so for Y5 he offered to do it right (at least he confirmed that the dzi themselves were good). While waiting for him to finish doing J2's dzi, I found some nice pendants that I thought would make nice gifts, and bought them so that the poor guy didn't waste so much time on us just for Y10. We made another stop at the incense store to buy some juniper-scented incense (the constant smell of burning juniper branches has really got under our skins, and we wanted to take that smell home with us) and then returned to the hotel, checked out, and waited for Tenzin and Mr Zhang to arrive.

Mr Zhang arrived about an hour earlier than our slated 2:30 departure time, but he went to lunch or something since we could not find him when Tenzin got there not long thereafter. But at 2:00 he showed up and so we headed out, arriving at the airport by 3:30. After check in we went looking around the shops, hoping at last to find a decent picture book of Tibet, or Lhasa, or the Potala, or something, but turned up empty handed, though we did buy some more incense (Y54 for 120 sticks of "69-flavor" incense) and we finally found a prayer wheel and a dorje that we liked, at far lower prices than we found in town.

Our flight took off from Lhasa a bit late, but not by too much, and we landed in Chengdu for our layover a bit behind schedule, though the flight attendants said they hoped to turn the flight around in 30 minutes instead of the scheduled hour. Unfortunately, things started off badly when they parked the plane way out in the field and had no buses to take us to the terminal. When we finally got to the terminal we learned that no flights had taken off for Beijing since 3pm that afternoon (it was now past 8pm) so the first class lounge was filled with passengers from the other Beijing-bound flights. We killed time having a very expensive bowl of noodles and perusing the shops, but the absence of any information about when our flight might take off was pretty infuriating. At 11pm, after three hours had passed, the staff at the lounge told me that they would decide after we had waited for four hours whether to put us up in a hotel. Then at 12, when four hours had passed, they said that they were still debating. Then at 1:30 things started to get animated over at the gate, with the other passengers starting to demand that someone come and deal with us. At 3am the first class passengers were told that we would go to a hotel, and, as the only Chinese-speaking foreigner, I was made the involuntary liaison between our group and the airline, with my phone being the one that the airline would call when they decided when our flight (which by now had been cancelled) would finally take off. The hotel was a two-star job next to the airport, with hard-as-rocks beds and squat toilets, but at least we could lie down. But at 4am I started getting SMS messages with the updated info on our flight, with the news that we had to leave the hotel by 7:30 to get to the flight, which would take off just past 9. I tried to phone the three rooms that the other foreigners were in, but could not get the phone system to cooperate, so figured I'd just wake up early and deal with it then; no need to disturb their sleep.

At 6:30 I made the calls to the other rooms and by 7:15 we were on our way back to the airport, where chaos reigned. Even the first-class security line was backed up, for reasons I could not comprehend, and once we got to the departure area there was no information on where we should be. Turns out that we should have been given some other piece of paper that they failed to give us, but I persuaded the lounge staff (many of whom were the same ones we first met at 8pm the previous evening) to handle it for us, and before too long we were told to start boarding. Naturally, we had to take a bus to the plane, and it seemed that the driver had no idea where the plane was located, since he and a helper kept making calls to the dispatcher and were seen to be pointing at various planes arrayed on the tarmac wondering if that's the plane for us. After about 15 minutes of this they found our jet and we scrambled aboard . Unfortunately, this plane had a problem with the entertainment system, so we would not be able to finish the movies we were half-way through watching when our fateful layover in Chengdu began. Once we landed, at around 12, it was then quite some time before they found a place for us to park, eventually settling on a spot far away from the terminal, which meant another long bus ride. Then we faced the turmoil of the luggage carousels, where countless delayed flights had backed up the delivery of the bags. Eventually we realized that they had sent our bags to a different carousel than the one they had announced, and by 1:15 we were finally out of the airport on our way home.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Day Nine: Namtso to Lhasa

All night long it rained and rained and rained. Also, the temperature in our room was around 8 degrees Celsius, though we had enough blankets to keep us comfortable in bed. At one point in the middle of the night, I heard dogs barking and tried to turn on my phone to see the time, but it was so cold that I could not get it to turn on. Finally, after falling back asleep, I woke again and saw that it was getting light out, and was able to find my watch, which read 7am. I had managed to sleep through a night that I had originally thought would seem endless.

Unfortunately, no one else was up yet, and there being no washing facilities, there was nothing to do but to get dressed and wait for something akin to breakfast to be served. I read for a little bit, shivering all along (I'm reading Michael Palin's Himalaya travelogue, appropriately enough). Finally, around 8, we saw signs of life and were able to get a pot of tea and some food heading our way. By 9 we were ready to roll out of there.

When we passed that same 5200m pass that was too rainy to stop for photos at yesterday, instead of rain we found that it was snowing, so I just had to stop to take a photo of a snowy July 29. But we soon descended again below the snow line, though the rain continued unabated.

Our first and only stop on the way to Lhasa was the Tsurphu Monastery, home of the Karmapa (Black Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism. As mentioned earlier, he's the one who fled to India in 1999, and as a result his home monastery--Tsurphu--came into a bit of disrepair. At the very least, the road to the monastery from the main highway is in extreme disrepair, since the 20km stretch took us a full hour to cross, bumping and bouncing the whole way. At least when we finally got there the monastery turned out to be pretty attractive, and there was absolultely no one else there. Tenzin got several of the monks to show us around, though unfortunately he failed to translate about 90% of their conversation into English for us, so I actually found myself getting bored and kind of angry about being ignored like this. In fact, on the road to the monastery, J2 asked me whether I had specifically asked to see this monastery, to which I responded that I had never heard of it until I saw it on our itinerary; my supposition is that Tenzin wanted to visit it, since he said he had last been there two years ago.

When finally we had seen all there was to see at the monastery, I thought we'd head for the final stretch into Lhasa, but instead we stopped in to have lunch at a little place attached to the monastery, where they played a video of the Karmapa leading an enormous prayer session somewhere in India. The droning of the chant was a bit mesmerizing, but the smell of the yak dung stove kept us awake (actually, to be fair, burning yak dung has no particular aroma that we could discern). The food was marginal at best, but it was served relatively quickly and was even faster to eat, so before long we were on our way.

Once we bounced our way back to the main road, it turned out to be only another 45 minutes to our hotel, where we gratefully removed our excess layers and washed up before heading out. We had to pick up the thangkas we had bought earlier, and had a few other things to look for, including an incense burner. Finally we found just what we were looking for, though at a rather larger size than we had figured on; we'll probably ship it back to Beijing. We had dinner at Makye Ame, the Lhasa branch of a Tibetan restaurant we have eaten at in Beijing several times, housed in a building that was supposedly used by the lascivious 6th Dalai Lama for his assignations and wild parties. Our dinner was tame in comparison. On the way back to the hotel we did some more small-scale gift shopping, which, since it was a rainy day here, apparently (though by now the sun had come out), made the vendors particularly eager to sell us something. I got a great hat to replace the crappy one I bought earlier in the trip, and some other little made-in-Tibet items, trying to spread the purchases among several vendors.

Day Eight: Damxung to Namtso

As has been our wont on this trip, we left Damxung in a rainstorm for the 90 minute drive to Namtso Lake, the second largest in China (after Kokonor in Qinghai Province) and among the highest in the world, at 4700m. As we drove, we passed a 5200m pass, where Tenzin offered us the chance to stop and take photos, though with the rain, and the mist, and the fog, it seemed hardly worth the bother, and besides, we'd be passing here on our way out the next morning anyway. So we plodded along, arriving at the lake before 10:30. The place where we were to stay the night was near the Tashi Dor Monastery, in a community of Tibetan tents that appears when the weather becomes bearable, sometime in the spring. Tenzin told us that the tents where we were to stay were leaking, so instead we were going to stay in a sort of lodge, also designed in the tent style, where the rooms were arrayed around a very large--and manifestly unheated--central sitting area. We put our stuff in our room and sat for a while, shivering, in the sitting area, before deciding that this was ridiculous, so we returned to our room and put on as many layers of clothing as we could. I wound up wearing three shirts, two pairs of pants, a rain jacket and a warm coat, and was still not exactly warm. However, dolled up like this, we figured we might as well head out for a walk to the lake and see what all the hoopla was about.

From the lodge to the shore of the lake was a relatively short walk, though the path was blocked in some spots by other tents, set up by entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of the tourists who come to visit. Some were restaurants, others sold food and drinks, others sold yak yogurt (about which, more later) and still others that were more like kiosks, were set up to sell souvenirs (more on that later, too). Also, the path was blocked by several low fences, which if you were not careful you could easily trip over. The fences were there to keep the yaks and horses that the tourists could ride from straying, presumably, but were low enough that we could climb over them, and we did.

The lake was nearly completely shrouded in mist, but it still was very picturesque, and we had the faintest glimmer of an indication that the weather might break before too long. We made a quick visit to the Tashi Dor monastery, which is set into an outcropping of rock, and to the Couple Rock, that supposedly looks like a pair of hands being brought together in the Buddhist greeting, where there was an incense stupa nearby and a woman selling juniper branches to use as an offering. For Y2, I bought a branch and asked the Buddha to bring along the sun.

By now it was 11:45 or so, so we figured we might as well have lunch. We figured we should avoid Chinese food here, since pretty much everyone was Tibetan, but the Tibetan menus were very very sparse, and we soon came to the realization that all the places had the exact same menu. Finally we found a place that had what we really wanted--a stove that heated the place up nicely--so we stopped in there. The only other customers were a pair of French girls, but no sooner did we sit down than a group of Tibetans came in with prayer flags for the proprietor to inscribe for them. We could not tell if the visitors could not write, or if the restaurateur had particularly good penmanship, but this process lasted a good 20 minutes before the French girls pointed out to us the chef, and we were thus able to order some food. I decided I had to try the yak butter tea, which is so reviled in most guidebooks. In fact, I came to the conclusion that if you approach it as tea it is truly God-awful, but if you approach it as soup, it's OK. But one thing's for sure--don't let it get cold! There's nothing worse than cold yak butter tea.

Our time in the restau-tent was not wasted, though, since by the time we emerged the sun was out!! So we rushed back to the lodge, grabbed our cameras, and headed out to take advantage of this good luck. (Of course I know it was not luck, it was the Y2 juniper branches that I sacrificed to Lord Buddha.) Sure enough, the view on the lake was stupendous, with cloud-draped 7000m snow-capped mountains circling it, and the deepest blue sky with wisps of cloud over it. Right near the monastery we noticed a trail that you could follow to go up the rock that the monastery was built into for panoramic views all around the lake. The view was truly breathtaking. (Literally so, in fact, since J2 stopped taking his altitude pills a few days before, thinking they were causing his stomach problems, and he had a bit of trouble ascending the hills.) After finally making it to the summit, a good 300m climb, I'd guess, where we found the tackiest of Chinese-made pagodas there to ruin the view, we noticed a bunch of rain storms heading back our way, so we descended in order not to be caught in the rain.

On the way back to the lodge we made our first stop at the compound's lavatory facilities. Let's just say that whoever thought that a pair of 4-person latrines would be sufficient for all the people who visit this place, and that it would not be necessary to install walls between the stalls, should be taken away and shot summarily. And the less said about the aroma, the better.

It was still to early to just lounge about, so we put away our camera gear and decided to check out the kiosks to do some shopping. J2 decided he wanted a dzi bead, and since every single person with a kiosk had them to sell, we were offered a very wide range of them. The first person whose dzi we liked asked for Y3,500 for it, which we deemed completely out of our range. But the prices were negotiable, of course, so when we saw another one that he liked, we started the bargaining process. Rather than go into the backs and forths of the negotiation, I'll just let you know that our final price was Y100. And after we bought that one for J2, someone came up and offered his (which had also previously been in the thousands) for the same Y100. So now we're pretty sure that Y100 was even too much, but we like them (and I bought that second one for myself).

Back at our lodge we stay in the lounge area, drinking tea, practicing my Tibetan alphabet (which drew a lot of attention from the workers of the lodge), and ordered a pot of yak yogurt. I liked it a lot--it was firm like Greek yogurt, but much tangier, and they serve it with sugar on the side so you can sweeten it to taste. J2 did not care for it at all. Eventually it became time for dinner, and again we faced the problem of finding a place that would be relatively sure to offer something decent. We found a place with a nice hot stove on which they were cooking a soup of yak meat and daikon radish with little squares of noodle. I also asked for an order of tsampa, the Tibetan staple dish, which is ground roasted barley mixed with a bit of yak butter, some yak butter tea and some sugar which the diner then kneads into a ball to eat. The taste was surprisingly good, though I would probably not want to eat it everyday. The meal was simple, but OK, and we were joined by a Belgian/Shanghai couple whom we'd met at the lodge earlier, so we had a nice chat with them. We returned to the lodge around 9:30 in the beginnings of a rainstorm that only got stronger as the evening progressed, and there being no electricity in our lodge, the only thing to do was to go to sleep.

Day Seven: Shigatse to Damxung

This morning we left our hotel, under clouds and drizzle once more, for what promised to be a long drive to the town of Damxung, which would be our leaping-off point for Lake Namtso the next day. We left at 9, and immediately hit a snag--the bridge out of town was under construction and thus was reduced to only one lane, and for some reason they were letting all the traffic into town without letting any traffic out. We sat motionless for 15 minutes or so before we finally got across, and then we were on a nice asphalted highway heading east. Before long, however, and seemingly at an unmarked location, we turned off the nice road and onto one of Tibet's many rutted dirt tracks. We proceeded along this road for a very long time--until around 11:45--covering only 90km, before we got to the high point of the drive, the 5200m high Kambala Pass, where we stopped for photos. (I should mention that it is worth our lives to get Mr Zhang, the driver, to stop for a photo.) There are some interesting similarities between the Tibetan and Peruvian way of commemorating heights like this, since both have the habit of stacking rocks at these locations, though only the Tibetans also string prayer flags around. As a result of this, there were very photogenic shots of the colorful flags and the stacked rocks against the snow-capped peaks around us and the azure sky with big bits of white cloud (the weather improved a bit on the road).

From the Kambala Pass it was another 2 1/2 hours to our next stop, the town of Yangpachen, where we had the option of trying the hot springs (we passed, since they were housed in a very squalid looking building that looked like it had not been cleaned in decades) before we stopped for lunch. At least this place did not rip us off like happened in the town on the way to Gyantse, and the meal was pretty good, though the waitress failed to hear me name the second dish I wanted so in the end I only had rice and a cold dish of cucumbers with garlic (J2 was not eating, since once again his stomach was bothering him).

From Yangpachen it was another 90 minutes to Damxung, where we are staying at the Jinzhu Hotel, right on the main (and from what we can tell, only) street in town. But Damxung seems a bit nicer than Gyantse, and we even enjoyed a little stroll down the road, where everyone we passed said "hello" to us, and where we appear to be literally the only foreigners in town.

It seems like this is a good point to note something interesting we have observed here; throughout our drive from Lhasa we have seen loads of shops, restaurants and other little businesses along the way, and almost all of them are run by migrants from other parts of China, particularly Hui (Muslim) migrants from Gansu and Qinghai provinces, and Han from Sichuan and Chongqing. There seem to be very few Tibetan-owned businesses, which makes me wonder what was in these towns before the migrants arrived? Now that the central government has announced a plan to increase tourism to Tibet from the current 1 million per year to 10 million per year by 2010 (if I have my numbers and dates right) it seems that that will mean much greater migration from the Chinese heartland into Tibet, which I am not sure the Tibetans will appreciate very much. But also interestingly, I have come to the conclusion that Tibet in 2007 is much like China was in 1987, with poor quality accommodations, iffy food, rough roads, dusty streets and all the other things that make Tibet rather interesting to visit. I wonder what it'll look like in 10 years.

Anyway, we had dinner of tasty noodles at a place run by Muslims from Qinghai down the street from the hotel and prepared to spend another quiet night in the hotel waiting for the big ascent to the lake tomorrow morning.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Day Six: Gyantse to Shigatse

It was drizzling again when we woke up this morning, so we faced the prospect of visiting Pelkor Chode Monastery in the rain. Luckily, by the time we actually left the hotel the rain had let up a bit and we were able to walk around and stay pretty much dry. This temple is quite lovely, though we are starting to hit temple fatigue, and frankly the inside of one temple is pretty much like the inside of another. However, from the outside this is a beautiful temple, and very photogenic. The best part of the monastery, however, is the Kumbum, a five-story mandala-shaped tower that you can climb (for Y10 if you bring a camera) and see the numerous chapels and niches on each level containing frescoes and statues of various Buddhist deities. We really enjoyed the ones on the first two levels, but by the third level they started becoming a bit undistinguishable, so we just poked our heads in and would only stop if we found something remarkable.

Leaving the monastery, we started to drive toward our next overnight stop, Shigatse, Tibet's second city. On the way we made a stop at the Shalu Monastery, a very old and unusual monastery, in that it was built with a Chinese style roof. Also, it contained some priceless wall paintings done by Nepali masters 1000 years ago, and some beautiful carvings. Considering that we had to take another potholed dirt road off the main highway to get here, we were not expecting much, and were thus very pleasantly surprised.

We got to Shigatse and checked in to the Manasarovar Hotel in time for lunch, which we had at a small Chongqing place around the corner from the hotel. Then at 3pm we left for our last tour of the day, to Shigatse's claim to fame, the Tashilhunpo Monastery, home to the Panchen Lamas, second in importance only to the Dalai Lamas. The monastery is pretty big, with lovely architecture, lots of monks, and gold everywhere, but it was also full of tourists, more so than any place we have visited so far, which made seeing the chapels very difficult. But the grounds were great, and as I said before, we have reached the point where we can hardly discern the inside of one monastery from another, so we were happy to leave the chapels to the throngs of Chinese tourists. However, we had another tourist tagging along with us for this visit, since her guide was trying to get her a permit to travel to Mt Everest. This woman turned out to be a 23-year old English woman whom "Buddhism found" 6 years ago in Capbodia. She was far more Tibetan than the Tibetans, praying constantly and turning every prayer wheel we passed. She even had the "third eye" painted between her eyes (which I thought was a Hindu thing--maybe she had it tattooed earlier, when Hinduism had found her).

When we returned to the hotel I went for a massage to try to ease some back pain that I had been suffering all day after moving wrong while getting out of bed in the morning. It was a fine enough massage, though the masseuse clearly was hoping I'd go for the 'little something extra' she was offering and that I claimed complete ignoarance as to what she had in mind.

Tibet Side Notes: Tibetiquette

The longer we stay in Tibet, the more we are struck by the differences between the Tibetans and the Han Chinese. Among the first differences we noted was that the Tibetans don't seem to have picked up the Chinese habit of spitting loudly and everywhere. They also don't seem to pick their noses publicly, or speak loudly. However, they do have one habit that we have not observed among the Chinese--they are able and willing to urinate just about anywhere. It seemed in Lhasa that we were always smelling urine as we wakled the streets, and as we drove the highways between the towns we would often seen people standing right by the side of the road peeing up a storm, with no effort to shield themselves from view. Even the women would line up in a little group (though a bit off to the side and not right in the street) and hitch of their voluminous skirts to relieve themselves. Apparently, guidebooks prepared for Tibetan pilgrims planning to visit the monasteries of Tibet include information about where it is possible to urinate and even fart without causing offense to the spirits of the monasteries and temples (and presumably, to the other pilgrims, too).

Day Five: Lhasa to Gyantse

We left Lhasa at 8am as planned for a big day of driving ahead of us. Our first stop would be at Yamdruk Lake, a scorpion-shaped lake 4900m or so up, but from there the usual road to Gyantse was under construction, so instead we'd have to backtrack from the lake back to the turn off from the main road, and continue from there instead. What we did not realize was that, from the turn off to the lake was a good hour's drive, up a very serpentine mountain road, and that it would be another going back down. But the lake was nice, though we did not see its famous turquoise waters, owing to the very cloudy and drizzly weather. We did see the ridiculous numbers of people trying to sell us crap up there, and a very stubborn lot they were--one guy even tried to get me to pay him for having taken a photo of a sign (that was clearly not his), though naturally I refused.

From the lake, as we headed back down the mountain road, we were amazed to see four cyclists pedalling up the road. Naturally, they were foreigners, so of course they were crazy.

We stopped for lunch at a small town that is clearly set up solely for the purpose of taking advantage of the Lhasa-Gyantse-Shigatse traffic. The prices were extortionate, the cuisine abysmal, and the service glacial. And to use what they charmingly consider to be a toilet they charge a ridiculous Y0.50. Not my kind of town.

We could have continued on the main Friendship Highway all the way to Shigatse, and then turned southeast to Gyantse, but Tenzin had heard of a shortcut so we took that instead. The shortcut was a very bumpy dirt road that did pass through some lovely scenery (and the drizzle and cloud had broken, so we had some nice blue sky in parts), including some mountains used as sky burial sights (where Tibetans leave their dead to be consumed by eagles and the like) and some tiny villages (where enterprising kids act like they're using shovels to fill the potholes, then beg for money from the passing cars--we think they're actually digging the potholes in the first place). But eventually we were back on level ground and we arrived in Gyantse around 4:30pm.

The best thing I can say about Gyantse as a town is that it has not much of a traffic problem. Other than that, it's pretty much nothing special--only a couple of streets, on which vagrant dogs roam, and dust everywhere. It's clearly a pretty poor place, despite having two of Tibet's most important architectural sights--the Gyantse Dzong (fort) and the Gyantse Monastery.

The fort was famously occupied by the British in 1904 during an attempt to wrest Tibet out of the Russian's orbit as part of the Great Game between those two empires, and is a stiff 20-minute climb to the top, from where we were promised great views of the monastery. Since the fort was not part of tomorrow's plan, we decided to attack it once we put our stuff away. Indeed, the climb is pretty tough, and not aided by the town's altitude of 3950m. At first it follows a normal enough stone pathway, but that soon gives way to a rough dirt track that had sort of footholds dug into it, and then a l-o-n-g staircase, that led up to our first real level place since the beginning of the climb, and then three rickety metal ladders to the top. Throughout the climb we had nice views of the surrounding fields, but not once could we see the monastery--it's as though they designed the fort in such a way that you only got the best view from the very top. But the view was indeed lovely, though we could also see from there that a thunderstorm was approaching, so we quickly descended back to the ground (which took a lot less time than the ascent).

We chose a restaurant out of the Lonely Planet book for dinner, and there we ran into a Dutch couple whom we'd met two nights before in Lhasa, so we joined them for a lovely evening. The food was pretty good (the owners were from Chengdu) and they make quite a spectacle of their cooking, which they encourage diners to photograph in the kitchen, and indeed the famous bananas in caramel were worth their reputation. But when the bill came--Y186 for J2 and me alone--I was outraged, and argued with them about it for quite some time. The wife argued that the cost of materials was very high, as was the rent, so that was reflected in the prices. I countered that it was hard to believe that it could be three times as expensive here as in Beijing or Chengdu, and that they only moved here since they could gouge tourists. In the end I got us all a 20% discount (not really enough) so we paid Y130 while our Dutch friends paid Y160. Interestingly, we still felt ripped off, while they, who were comparing with Dutch prices, felt like they had had a deal.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tibet Side Notes: Dining in Tibet

As mentioned before, Tibetan cuisine is not destined to win any prizes anytime soon, though it has its moments. Momos, the Tibetan dumpling, can be pretty good, as long as they're not too dry, and the boiled potatoes that you see on the street served in newspaper cones with chili pepper are really tasty. As for the rest of it, it's a bit hit or miss.

But the thing with dining in Tibet is that it is a temporal challenge. Because the service in restaurants is uniformly slow, it is essential that you figure out when you are likely to be hungry, and arrange to be seated and ordering at a restaurant about an hour before then, since it's really going to take you that long to be served. Even cold dishes that are presumably already prepared and only require someone to scoop out a portion into a bowl and bring it to your table can easily take 30 minutes to arrive (as can bringing a bottle of beer).

Last night at dinner we sat at a table next to a very nice Dutch couple at a Nepali restaurant and asked as we started chatting with them if they had ordered. They had, a full 40 minutes earlier, and yet they had nothing in front of them other than something to drink. When finally they received two big orders of papadums, they insisted that we have one, since it would be about 40 minutes before our food arrived. Sure enough, their food arrived, was eaten, and paid for (and they left) before our food was even close to arriving. So, the lesson when it comes to eating in Tibet is--Think Ahead!

Day Four: Around Lhasa

This morning we had to wake up early since I had asked Tenzin (as I have just learned his name should be spelled) to add another stop on our itinerary. In order to do that, we'd have to leave the hotel at 8 instead of 9. But when I woke up at 6:45 I found that J2 had had a very bad night, having apparently eaten something that did not agree with him. That's pretty odd, though, since we've eaten everything family-style, so it was just luck I suppose that it hit him and not me. So he opted to spend the day at the hotel, near the facilities, and left me to hit the road on my own. Though I felt a bit bad doing so, there was not much I could do for him at the hotel, and he said he was already starting to feel better, so off I went.

The first stop of the day was the place that I added to our itinerary, Ganden Monastery, which Lonely Planet said was the one monastery you should visit if you were only going to visit one of the monasteries around Lhasa. Even though we had already visited two of them yesterday, it seemed a shame to miss, especially since the book said that the views were stunning, so off we went. The drive took about 40 minutes or so, with lovely clouds in the azure sky as we drove along the river for much of the way. The monastery, according to LP, is at 4,500 meters, so a good 900 meters higher than Lhasa, and to make that ascent we followed a serpentine mountainous road for about 5km, with the view of the monastery--which is built into a cliff face--getting closer and closer, and more and more beautiful with each twist of the road. Finally we got to the top, or at least as far as the car could take us, and then we hoofed it the rest of the way up. Ganden was one of the most important monasteries in Tibet (as they all appear to be), and there was lots to see here, and very few other tourists to block the view. It was indeed stunning, as were the views of the valley below, but unfortunately the kora (the circumambulation route--I'm not going to explain what a kora is any more, since circumambulation is too hard to type) has been closed for "political reasons" since 2006, so that was off the itinerary.

Our next stop was Drak Yerpa, which originally comprised a lot of caves, but now there are also newer buildings associated with the monastery. There was a festival going on here during our visit, though since it's Tuesday there were not that many visitors. Still, Tenzin was able to stop at one of the chapels in the temple to have a sutra said to his benefactor Buddha to wish for a successful journey with us over the coming days, and I saw a bit more of his religous side. For one thing, there was one chapel in the temple that he would not enter, since he did not want to mix his devotion to Buddha with the protector deity that was enshrined in there (also, women are not allowed in that chapel, which he considered to be sexist).

We returned to Lhasa after this, where I found J2 still in bed, though reporting that he felt much better. Still, he did not want to venture out of the hotel so I headed off again. Tenzin and Mr Zhang (the driver) had the afternoon off, so after a quick meal of some delicious street-side boiled potatoes with chili pepper and a can of Red Bull, I sought a cab who would take me for the next couple of hours to two relatively out of the way monasteries, the Nechung Monastery and the Drolma Lhakang Monastery. Both came highly recommended in the LP book, so I figured I had nothing to lose by going.

Getting a cab to take me to these places, however, and wait for me, and bring me back turned out to be a bit more trouble than I had expected. For one thing, few of the Han Chinese cab drivers know any of the Tibetan names of the places I wanted to visit, and even when I gave them the Chinese names (as told to me by the Tibetan staff at the hotel) they were a bit at sea. Then if they did know where they were, they wanted a king's ransom to take me there. Finally I found a young guy from Gansu province who was a bit more promising, and off we went.

We stopped first at Nechung, which is just outside of Lhasa, a few hundred meters south of Drepung Monastery, where we went yesterday. This monastery is the place where the Dalai Lama would come on New Year's Day to consult with the State Oracle, who was the medium of Dorje Drakden, an aspect of Pehar, the Gelugpa protector of Tibet. The oracle fled with the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, and has been in exile ever since. The oracle would go into a trance for these annual meetings and the place is filled with imagery of human torture, exorcism, and other things from Tibet's pre-Buddhist past. It's a kind of gruesome place (the doors are blood red, for instance, and apparently authentically so) with lots of violent imagery. It was pretty cool.

From Drepung we started driving toward Drolma Lhakhang, which turned out to be pretty far. But the driver was into the whole experience, especially with having a Chinese-speaking foreign passenger, so he seemed to enjoy it (he was also getting a pretty penny for his trouble). When we got to one point that he thought was the place, I disagreed, and suggested we push on a bit just to be sure, and he agreed right away, no argument. Turns out that I was right, and the monastery was not much further up from where he had initially stopped. This turned out really to be a highlight of the trip so far (don't tell J2!). The place was very small, and it's fame is connected with its association with a famed Bengali scholar named Atisha. It was through this connection that the monastery was spared during the Cultural Revolution, since the government of Bangladesh made a direct request to Zhou Enlai not to damage the building (he also apparently prevented the Potala Palace from being damaged). But the thing that made this such a highlight is that it is very little visited, and when I walked in the main gate a group of young monks sitting under a tree called to me (in English) and asked me to take their photograph and then to sit with them. They were tickled that I could speak Chinese, and then started asking me what the English phrases they used on me meant ('excuse me' and 'welcome to China'). They offered me some sunflower seeds and chatted about this and that with me, and then asked me to take some more photos to send to them. It was a really nice thing, and I plan to print out their photos today and send them from here (they wrote the address in Tibetan).

The rest of the monastery was also very pretty, though it was very small, so it did not take long to see it all, and so we headed back sooner than I thought. The driver must have thought it was a bit early, too, since he had us stop also at a place along the road where there is a Buddha carved into the rock face of the mountain. Before long we were back in Lhasa.

When I returned I found J2 feeling a bit better, so we packed for tomorrow's departure from Lhasa for Gyantse (and four nights away from the comforts of the Kailash Hotel) and then he even felt well enough to go on a shopping expedition for some gifts and for an incense burner. We found shopping here to be pretty rough sailing, since they name ridiculous prices and then are completely unwilling to negotiate. I think that too many foreigners have come and paid their asking price for those of us in the know to make any headway.

After a bit J2 was feeling a bit off kilter again, so he returned to the room while I continued the wild goose chase for a carved wooden incense burner like in our hotel. In the end I came up empty handed, but was starving, so I stopped at a place to buy J2 some plain bread to eat, and when I learned that the bread maker was from Gansu I asked if there was a good place for Gansu-style pulled noodles. Sure enough, he took me by the hand to a place around the corner, where I proceeded to become the entertainment of the evening. But I learned a bit too, like the fact that there are Tibetan Muslims (who knew?) though they tend not to wear distinctive clothing since it does not go over well with the majority Buddhists. The noodles were very good, though the constant attention and the waitress sitting with me to chat while I ate were both a bit annoying.

Now it's back to tend to the patient and get ready for tomorrow.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Day Three: Lhasa

This morning we woke to find a beautiful blue sky with big puffy white clouds, quite a change from the past two days. After our breakfast we met Denzin at 9am for the drive to the Drepung Monastery, our first stop of the day. This monastery is among the largest in Tibet, and was once home to 7000 monks. Today the number is smaller, though we still saw quite a lot of monks wandering around the grounds. In fact, we have come to the conclusion that an inordinate percentage of Tibet's populations consists of monks, since you can't swing a dead yak anywhere we've been so far without hitting a dozen or more of them. Drepung is beautifully situated on the side of a mountain not too far from Lhasa, and with the clear day and the clouds we were afforded some really lovely scenery. Here, unlike the places we have visited so far, photography is permitted indoors, but only in exchange for between 10 and 20 yuan per room, which seemed a bit steep, so we satisfied ourselves with taking mental images.

Drepung was our only plan for the morning, it turned out, so we asked Denzin to drop us off at the Potala so we could take some photographs from one of the vantage points from which almost all the postcards are shot, that gives a view of the facade along with several stupas. From there, we walked around the kora (the circumambulation route) that surrounds the kora, enjoying the views and the scenes of pilgrims twirling their own prayer wheels while also giving a turn to the stationary prayer wheels that line pretty much the entire route.

With all this walking and climbing under our belts (shoes?) we decided to be a bit oppressive of the local labor pool and hire a pedicab to take us to where we wanted to have lunch, the Gyinki Restaurant overlooking the Barkhor Square, where we had dinner our first night in town. Our driver was a young guy from Chengdu who came here because of the greater earning potential he'd have. Considering that he only made Y10 ($1.30) to pedal us about 2 miles, I'm not sure whether he was right or not.

After lunch, and a bit of a break in the hotel, we were off again with Denzin, this time to see the Norbulingka, or Summer Palace. The Palace is not one of the highlights of Lhasa, according to the guidebooks, and if the number of photos we shoot at a place are any indication (I think it is), then we did not rate it too highly either, since I only shot 15 photos here (J2 managed to leave his camera in the room, so he borrowed my little pocket camera, and even so managed maybe 10 shots). But aspects of the place are interesting, such as the fact that one of its building was built by the current Dalai Lama as recently as 1954. Seems odd that a palace could be built in Tibet then, but I suppose it had not yet been fully 'liberated' by the Chinese.

From Norbulingka we drove on to the Sera Monastery, the second largest in Tibet (5500 monks at one time) and now mostly visited for the debating sessions that take place most afternoons. Sure enough, we pretty much made a bee-line for the debating, stopping only for a few moments in the main temple hall. The debating was fairly interesting, though perhaps not for the reasons that it should have been. It takes place in a little shaded grove of trees, with scores of monks sitting around in small groups, with each group listening to a standing monk making some sort of argument, gesturing dramatically as he does so. While the scene was interesting enough, the more interesting part was that there were scores of tourists watching this, and several got right up in the monks' faces with their big lenses, intruding on what I thought should have been a fairly private moment. But rather than shoo most of the photographers away, most of the monks just put up with it, which means that many of our (taken from a respectful distance) photos include these tourists in among the monks.

That ended our day as far as Denzin was concerned, so he dropped us back off at the hotel. We have noticed that each of our sessions with him rarely lasts more than 2 hours, which strikes us as being a bit skimpy. But tomorrow we plan to put him to the test, since we've added something to our itinerary. Rather than just visit Drak Yerpa as planned, we're also going to go to Ganden Monastery, which includes a stunning kora, apparently. We'll see how it turns out.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Tibet Side Notes: Observations on the Preparation of Yak

Now that we have been in Lhasa for an entire day and a half, we officially qualify as experts on the subjects of the preparation of yak, having now consumed yak as the filling for a dumpling, boiled with whole potatoes and served with chili sauce, stir fried with vegetables, and roasted (ribs) with a topping of cumin, chili and other spices. Let it be known that the yak, while clearly a noble beast, was not really intended for human consumption, being particularly tough and chewy in virtually all its guises (particularly boiled). The only way that we have had yak and found it not to require the sustained use of our molars and the eventual application of copious quantities of dental floss is the roasted version, and then that too can be iffy. We think we have had our fill of yak at this point and may venture off in other culinary directions. Alpaca growers of the world--you should make a bee-line for Tibet!!

Day Two: Lhasa

We woke up this morning to a persistent rain, and this was our day to visit the Potala Palace. Our guide, Tenzin, met us as scheduled at 9, and we drove the 1/2 mile or so to the palace entrance. Turns out that they had not bought us tickets to the palace in advance, and tickets for today were sold out, so Denzin had to pull strings with his friends to get us in. Also turns out that, to control the number of people in the palace at any given time, they time your visit to no more than an hour. Since we entered at 9:34 we had to be out by 10:34, and he would be fined if we were to leave late. That turned out not to be a big problem since there is not a whole lot to see inside, and no photography is allowed (that's what usually slows us down). Still, it was interesting to see the inside, though it's nowhere near as impressive on the inside as on the outside, since it's very dark, and rabbit warren-like with narrow corridors and lots of maze like pathways. One thing that was interesting is that there are lots of tombs of the previous Dalai Lamas inside, each made with more gold than the last (up to 3,000 kg of the stuff, along with turquoise and coral).

From the Potala we had a break for lunch, which we took at a place that Tenzin recommended but that turned out to be pretty unsatisfying. Clearly, unlike Peru, this is one high-altitude place that you don't leave with fond memories of the cuisine. After lunch the rain let up and we headed to the Jokhang Temple, the most important in Tibet and the one that we walked around several times on our first day. Inside the temple is very impressive, with loads of prayer rooms and statuary and monks actually praying (today was a festival), though of course, no photography allowed. That was too bad, since there were loads of people from Eastern Tibet there, and they have very interesting headgear and outfits, though we found some of them on the street where they could be snapped with abandon (within reason). There were also loads of people prostrating themselves all around the temple, which was very interesting to see.

We did some shopping around after the temple, with Denzin taking us to two tourist trap places with exorbitant prices but where he has to sign his name to verify that he took us since the owner of the agency that organized our trip is friends with the guy who runs the shops. So we ditched Denzin and started wandering on our own, eventually discovering the thangka studio that we had hoped to visit yesterday only to find it had closed early. There we watched them paint loads of thangkas, including one that was about the most beautiful one we had seen. J2 told me that one our colleagues at work had told him that her husband had ordered a thangka from one of these places, expecting never to see it after having spent all the money on it, but then a few weeks later it showed up on his doorstep. So we asked about doing that, since the one that the guy was painting was already purchased. They showed us one that was similar, but not the same, so they let us order a new one for delivery in Beijing in 3-4 months. We're putting our faith in these people, but they assured us that, as Tibetans, they would not cheat us.

The rain resumed so we did some more wandering around before dropping our stuff off and heading out to do some more mozeying and then grab dinner at some random place.

Day One: Beijing to Lhasa

We arrived in Tibet in style--first class on Air China's non-stop flight from Beijing, and were thus able to rest a bit on board to make up for having to leave our house at 5:30 to make it to the airport on time. As we landed, the crew advised everyone to go slowly to avoid altitude problems, so we practically acted like a slow motion movie, getting our gear, ambling down the jetway, slowly grabbing our bags off the conveyor, etc. Our guide and driver met us as planned at the airport and took us for the hour-long drive to our hotel for the next four nightss in Lhasa, the Kailash Hotel, situated right on Beijing Donglu north of the Barkhor District. The guide also advised us to take it easy today, and thus we had no itinerary lined up, but it was a beautiful day, with lovely clouds in the sky and bits of sun poking through (despite weather.com predicting nothing but rain for the duration of our stay) so we headed out as soon as we put our stuff away to explore.

Our explorations were not helped at all by the woeful maps included in our two guidebooks, neither of which made it clear where we were located (since our hotel is not on them), so we had a 50-50 chance of turning the right direction when we got out our front door to head were we wanted to be. Of course, we chose the wrong way, but this way took us right to the Potala Palace, which just sort of emerged suddenly into view, which just took our breath away (though it might have been the 3600 meter altitude that did that, too). We took our snaps, and then turned back around to go to our initial destination, a small restaurant called Tashi 1 that was reputed to have good Tibetan food (most of it was good, though their momo dumplings were a bit dry).

We wandered around the Jokhang Temple, one of the pilgrimage sites in Lhasa. Many of the important sites have routes around them that people are meant to use to circumambulate the site--the Potala has one, Lhasa has one, and this temple has one. But unlike the Kab'ba in Mecca where all you do is circumambulate, here it's OK to stop along the way and shop, eat, etc, so these routes are quite busy with commerce. We were enthralled with all the people watching you can do here--among the throngs are hundreds of devotees, twirling prayer wheels as they walk, and monks (also with prayer wheels) in deep maroon robes, and pilgrims prostrating themselves as they inch along the pavement. Really amazing to see.

Of course, we also got some shopping in. One of the problems with shopping here is that a lot of the goods are not made in Tibet at all. Some of it is made in Nepal, others in other parts of China, and if you want 'authenticity' you really have to look for it. Luckily, our guidebooks offer help in this regard (though not so much with actually finding the places) so we wandered around a bit in search of some of the more notable places, eventually finding several of them, including a place where we found a beautiful, small, Tibetan throw rug in beautiful shades of reds, yellows, and blues with a wild fringe on all sides. It's all made of natual yak wool and with natural dyes, and made in a village enrichment program so we can feel good about buying it. We also got some Thangkas (religious paintings, usually depicting Buddhist deities, or the wheel of life, etc) and some incense.

Our dinner was at another Tibetan restaurant overlooking the Barkhor area, and since the sun sets so late here (owing to the fact that Tibet, despite being 2500 km west of Beijing, is still on Beijing time, as is all of China) we had some great people watching below us on the square. Unfortuately, the meal was not so great. But when we got back to the hotel we found that our guide had delivered a birthday cake for J2's birthday (which he knew about from having had copies of our passport, presumably). A very nice touch, and made for a good dessert to our dinner. We are still unsure if the icing was made with yak butter....

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Tibet, Here we Come


Well, it seems now like there is nothing standing between us and Tibet other than a 3 1/2 hour flight (and a wake up). Despite several hiccups over the past few weeks (first the travel agency double-charging us for our tour and having a hard time effecting the refund of the overpaid amount, then the train tickets proving problematic, forcing us to switch to the plane, then the Tibet travel offices outside of Lhasa closing, forcing us to keep our fingers crossed that they would manage to express our travel permit in time for our departure from Lhasa to Beijing), we still managed to get everything together. And now we know what a Tibet Travel Permit looks like (and so do you--that's it up top). We depart on Saturday morning at the very early hour of 7:00, but we'll be in first class so with luck the flight will be enjoyable. We'll of course be reporting on the trip in subsequent posts, either from the road, if internet connections cooperate, or when we return to Beijing.

Monday, July 16, 2007

International Travel



I found this earlier and thought it was good enough to share with my public. Sort of sums up nicely global attitudes to international travel (and the fact that I've been to all but one of the places mentioned made it hit home even better).

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Lucky Day

Just noticed that today, July 7, 2007, is 07/07/07, so I suppose we should all be out buying lottery tickets.

Exemplary Host

For the past two weeks or more, ever since my abandoned trip to Yichang, where I got as far as the airport before deciding I could not bring myself to fly, and then spent the next 24 hours praying to my toilet, my stomach has not quite been feeling right. Though I no longer had any particular 'distress', I still did not feel well, and in fact in some situations was so uncomfortable, such as during my work out sessions with Jing, that I had to stop what I was doing and take it easy.

Finally, after two weeks of this, it finally dawned on me that I work at a hospital and that every time I present to the clinic I improve our numbers, so I was just being silly not letting them have a crack at what the problem might be. After having my blood pressure taken (100/70) and my heart rate (65, I think), and asking what the problem was, the nurse then had me wait while she told prepared the vital signs report for the doctor. When I saw the doctor, he asked me again for my history, did a little exam, and pronounced the verdict--giardiasis! For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing it yourself, giardiasis (also known as Beaver Fever, since hikers often get it from drinking water from pools created by beaver dams in the US) is the result of ingesting little parasites called giardia lamblia, which is easily done from drinking water, eating fresh vegetables, etc. I got put on a course of antibiotics and already feel much better.

So apparently, my skills as a host are so well known, that even microscopic organisms know about it.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Chinese Airline Mystery Solved

In all the time I have been flying in China, one thing has always irked me--in the on-board bathrooms they put facial tissue in the slot reserved for paper towels. If you have ever tried to dry your hands with a Kleenex, you know that the result is not particularly pretty, and you wind up with little blobs of moist tissue and not significantly dryer hands.

Well, on yesterday's flight back from Shanghai to Beijing, after having "dried" my hands with such paper, I finally asked a flight attendant what the deal was. As she handed me a proper paper towel to dry my hands with (ah, the joys of being in business class!) she explained that when they put paper towels in there, an inordinate number of Chinese passengers attempt to flush them down the toilet, causing blockages. Aha! Now I finally have an answer not only to that question, but also to the question of why so often on flights from US to China the bathrooms become dysfunctional part way across the ocean. I had thought that the length of the journey caused the systems to fill up too early, but apparently it's wads of towels in the pipes that's doing it.

Someone be sure to tell Leonard Nimoy not to bother adding this to the list of his unsolved mysteries.

The Joys of Chinese Air Travel

On Monday evening, I was scheduled to fly with my boss, her husband, and our marketing director from Beijing to Shanghai. The four of us are fairly regular traveling companions, having traveled to Harbin together back in January, and we all get along really well. This turned out to be a very good thing, since we wound up having a lot more together-time than we had bargained for.

We were scheduled to take a flight at 8:40pm from Beijing’s sole airport to Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport, which is much closer to our hospital—and to where we would be staying—than Shanghai’s newer airport in Pudong. We left work at 7:30 to get to the airport, which should have been adequate time, since we were booked in first class seats, provided the traffic was not too bad. Unfortunately, the traffic was pretty bad, so we did not arrive at the terminal until 8:00pm, which still should have been enough time, provided the first class check in office was still open. In fact, when we got to the airport, after having fretted about being late, the boss had the opportunity to teach the driver the English phrase “time to spare”, since it seemed he had achieved a miracle and got us to the airport on time.

Unfortunately, the first class check in desk was closed, so we went to the regular check in desk where we were told that they could not check in first class passengers, rather we had to walk around to the far end of the check in desk to the elite passenger desk. Unfortunately, no one was servicing the first class desk, and at the business class desk nearby we found that there was a sizable line, so with time running out we tried to convince the desk clerk to just give us our boarding passes so we could go (we were not planning to check bags), but she would have none of it. When finally she had finished what she was doing, there was less than 30 minutes to go before our flight, so the check in process had moved to another desk that is responsible for late check in. When we got there, even they could no longer check us in, so we were going to miss our flight.

At this point, we went to the Air China ticket desk to see about changing our flights. There are frequent flights between Beijing and Shanghai, but the next one after ours going to the same airport would not leave until 10:55pm, which was just too late, so we opted for the 9:20pm flight to Pudong, even though that meant we’d have at least a 45-minute drive from the airport to our hotel (not to mention that the hospital driver would have to drive way out of his way to meet us). Unfortunately, the ticket seller told us that there were only three first-class tickets on the plane, so one of us would have to ‘rough it’ in business class. However, she would not be able to refund the fare difference—we’d have to do it when we return to Beijing, and she was not sure how that would go. Since getting on the plane was more important than the fare, we just grabbed our tickets and went to the gate.

Once on board the flight we found that there were actually three empty seats in first class, so we tried to get the flight attendants to let the boss’ husband join us (he sat in business since she and I had work to do together and the marketing guy has a broken leg). They pondered this for a while, looked at the ticket that the clerk had given us noting the change in class, and finally said that they would only be able to move him if we did not apply for the refund of the fare difference. I told him that the clerk doubted we’d successful at trying it, but she had noted on the ticket something to the effect that refunding the difference was the passenger’s responsibility. With that notation, they felt that their hands were tied, so I suggested—thinking out of the box—that they cross it out. They liked that idea, but it was not quite enough—they also wanted me to sign next to the crossed out note. I agreed to that, and once I signed they brought John to an empty first class seat (though he did not seem the least bit grateful for the effort we went to on his behalf).

Our flight landed a bit late, at 11:30pm, and as is very common when flying between Beijing and Shanghai, the plane parked only about half way to the terminal, requiring us to walk down to the tarmac and then take buses to the terminal (and it seemed like the ride to the terminal lasted as long as the flight itself). Then we had to wait for John’s bag, which he opted to check because he had brought cuticle scissors along (for a two-night stay??), so it was past midnight by the time we got in our car for the ride to the hotel and 1:00am by the time we checked in. And of course, we had a relatively early wake up call the next morning.

But we made it without having any tempers flare or nerves rattled, and in the end it was even something of a bonding experience. But next time we’ll plan to leave for the airport with more time to spare.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Waste of Time

As reported earlier, the people who organize the HSK test of Chinese as a foreign language thoughtfully decided to offer a re-do of the aural comprehension test as a result of all the troubles that afflicted the test on June 24. So I reported as instructed this past Sunday at 10am at the same test site, along with three other test-takers (none of whom had taken the test with me the previous time, so not sure where they came from, though all had US passports--interesting). Unfortunately, though this time at least the tape itself appeared not to be defective, they used the same tape player and we used the same bare room, so the same problems with echoing, distortion and poor acoustics befell us once again. The only silver lining was that some of the questions were reused from the previous test, so for those at least I knew what to be listening for, so perhaps I got one or two more questions right than the last time. But overall, it was a colossal waste of time.