Tag Archives: China

Lhasa, at last


The conclusion to my 3-part story of traveling from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet via high-speed rail:

The instant-comfort-with-other-foreigners phenomenon happens again in the dining car, where my husband and I meet another American woman. She is 73 years old and traveling alone. She’s no less energetic or excited about the world as the young Harvard graduate we’d met earlier. After she explores Tibet, she’s headed to the highest point in India. She definitely does not buy an oxygen tube, feeling perfectly fine at 15,000 feet. Instead, she chats with us about her love of travel. We discover that we have both reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

As we get closer to Lhasa, a few of the cars’ bathroom floors are completely covered in sewage. Time. To. Get. Off.

Claustrophobia and intense restlessness set in. My husband spends hours on end in the dining car. Normally gregarious with strangers, he has reached his social limit and doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. We sit across the table from one another and stare out the window at the Tibetan Plateau.

Like us, the Chinese wait-staff appear as if they do not want to talk to another soul. Visibly weary at journey’s end, they stand and stare at one another behind the beer cooler. The looks on their faces say don’t ask us for another single thing.

For everyone, it’s a relief to pull into Lhasa.

The doors open and cold, thin, squeaky-clean air breezes in. We breathe a clean breath for what seems like the first time in weeks. Lhasa, at last.

The Lhasa train station stretches the size of football field in one big platform covered by a high ceiling — way too large for this one single train arrival per day. There are no schedule boards, and no one waits inside at the station for anyone.  Is this against the Chinese government rules, perhaps? People-less, the giant station nearly swallows us whole.

Just outside, the Himalayas loom in all directions; the sun sets behind those to the West. Out here, families greet one another in the Great Outdoors.

Lhasa is still an outpost city. There are no high-rises here. Yak herders, walking for hundreds of miles, have pitched their tents just beyond the train station parking lot. They will sell a few yaks and then go home.  We make our way into town under pink and purple skies enveloping the Himalaya.

LHASA, A CITY DIVIDED

To get to the Tibetan sector of Lhasa from the train station, you have to drive through the Chinese section first. It is a saccharine place, with neat rows of new shops with floor -to-ceiling glass fronts and Chinese shop girls wearing tight jeans milling around the mannequins that also wear the same tight jeans. The Chinese government has offered incentives for Chinese settling here, and it shows in how many storefronts use only Chinese lettering. Even in Tibetan sector of Lhasa, where we are staying, grocery stores are Chinese-owned chains.

My husband and I venture out for a walk the first morning, and cross from the TIbetan sector into the Chinese.

Sidewalks at nine in the morning on the Chinese Side are full of waving arms. Human arms waving in big circles, and human hips, bending from side to side. These mostly-female employees wear identical store-uniform skirts and aprons in pastel green or pink. They face their storefront, their backs to the cacophony of the streetscape unfolding behind them: the passing of Tibetan donkey carts packed full of vegetables with their clanking chimes, or motorcycles zipping by, or the women in traditional dress walking past silently, with equally quiet babies strapped to their backs. Patriotic music blares out into the street. When the mandated exercise session is over, the music stops and the employees go inside, like nothing ever happened.

The Tibetans walk and drive and pedal past all of this as if invisible in a territory no longer their own.

On the Tibetan Side, though, Lhasa’s sounds and smells would overwhelm me. Hearing the scraping of hand-mitts on stone of prostrating pilgrims inside and around the Johkang Temple gave me a new appreciation for Buddhist devotion. Inside the temple, the chanting was low and intoxicating, and yak-butter candles lighting every dark corner made the experience nearly surreal.

But then, intrusion. At the Potala Palace (the former home of the Dali Lama, now exiled in India), video cameras and recording equipment and Chinese soldiers in every quadrant of the eerily empty palace angered me. Our Tibetan guide warned us not to talk of the occupation or Chinese politics in public. There were recording devices placed all over. We could talk about it inside the car, though, once we were out of Lhasa and heading out into the villages.

Despite Chinese occupation and the physical absence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan way of life is enduring and being passed on to the young. A trip to the hillside Sera Monastery, about six miles outside Lhasa, where laughing young monks debate every afternoon, gave me hope. These monks reveled little fear as they practiced their beliefs. And, after visiting Sera Monastery, as we hiked down the hillside to catch our bus back to Lhasa, a young man, maybe 20 years old, happily ran toward us. He saw us looking at our guidebook, and asked in English if there were any pictures inside of the Dalai Lama. Tibetans desperately want to see their exiled leader, but the Chinese ban any images of him. We flip and flip through our guidebook but there is no picture to rip out and give the young man. He looks over our shoulder, hoping to see his holy leader, and to take him home. His faith is steadfast, not impeded in the slightest by the Chinese occupation.

We apologize that there’s no picture in our guidebook and mean it more than we can say.

He thanks us for looking, smiles and walks away. On our way out of Lhasa the next day in our Land Rover, the train-bridge over the Lhasa River reminds me of our long journey from Beijing. If my presence here changes anything, I won’t fully know it unless I return. For now, all I can know for sure is that the only change I wish for Tibet is a peaceful end to the Chinese occupation. I’ll support the worldwide effort as best I can by bringing awareness to the issues. It’s all I can do — at least now — in the hope of preserving such a rich and wonderful culture. For now, though, I’ll take in — and lock into my memory — the wide openness of the Tibetan Plateau unfolding before me in every direction.

4 Comments

Filed under Eco-travel, Travel

Of Trains and Toilets and Tibet


The continuation of last week’s story about my travels into Tibet on the Beijing-to-Lhasa train:

Given the still-sensitive nature of the Chinese occupation, my husband and I knew before we left the U.S. that we would have to adhere to strict Chinese rules to move about Tibet once we got there. Rather than get stuck in travel-permit hell, we decided to join a Canadian travel outfit for a small-group adventure tour, who would arrange the permits and drivers for us. We’d be with the group for about two weeks.

After the train ride, government-mandated Tibetan drivers would take us deeper into Tibet, then overland to Kathmandu.  First, though, once off the train, our itinerary called for acclimation time to the high altitude (and high level of yak-based meals) in Lhasa before the Land Rover portion of our trip.  The eight days of the trip would be slow going, with bumpy, dusty roads and overnight stops in the Tibetan towns of Gyantse, Shigatse and Sakya — before a cold sleep at the Rombuk Monastery Guest House at the foot of Mt. Everest. Rombuk is the highest-altitude monastery in the world.

Without thinking too hard about it, I grab the toothpaste tube in the toilet, wash off the tube and my hands. I do this as thoroughly as I can, seriously considering how I might use boiling water to sterilize the tube some more.

Back in our sleeping compartment, my husband is appalled when I tell him how I rescued the toothpaste. So are the others in our group. I’m not sure if he’s more surprised about my thrifty desire to save a $2 tube of toothpaste, or my willingness to retrieve anything at all out of a Chinese squat-toilet. In many ways, I’m looking in the mirror at my “travel-self” for the first time, and it feels like everyone else is looking too, pointing out the flaws. Just like outsiders seem to be doing with China and its flawed politics and flawed dog food and flawed kids’ toys.

But on this train at least, it seems the Chinese want nothing more than to protect us. There are no outdoor viewing decks on the train, and no windows that open. Instead, double-sealed and glazed doors and windows protect us from the cold, wind and from strong ultraviolet rays at the high altitude.  We’re also protected from sinking into the permafrost. Strange stone square grids made with hand-placed rocks line the train tracks, part of an intricate system of raised rock beds underneath. The Chinese have used these, along with clever uses of pipes and near-frozen concrete pylons, to create a cool bed of air underneath the rails. It’s a fairly simple way to ensure that the permafrost never has a chance to get warm enough to thaw.

You wouldn’t know a rugged geological uprising is happening right under us, as the Indian and Eurasian plates crash together to create the heave of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s quiet here, and save for a few small towns, the most common sign of human life is the nomadic herders and their tents. And the yaks, scattered in groups of ten, fifty, a hundred, look small here. The few Tibetan antelope we see spy the train and flee. For hours, we see nothing but distant Himalayan peaks.

My husband stares out the window, running the compact video camera, his eyes moist behind its lens. I’m intrigued by what lies outside too, but touched to a greater degree by his emotional reaction to seeing the Himalaya for the first time.

YEARNING FOR THE OUTDOORS, EXPLORING WHAT LIES WITHIN

Like him, I wish I were outside in the emptiness. My semi-solution to get away from people is to take frequent long walks through the other train cars (where there are yet more people), then back again. On a train it’s the closest thing to going for a stroll. I like to keep moving, up and down the length of train, through the seating classes, glimpsing the shades of economic and cultural difference that they represent.

It’s much like a city: the rich live in the periphery (the first and last cars), the poor in the middle. It reminds me of wealthy suburbs surrounding the struggling inner cities of so many world metropolises. But the poor on the train are not so poor by local standards. Buying a ticket on this train isn’t possible for most of the Tibetan population – the ones we see herding yaks, or in the yurt camps, and so many others we never see. The poorest are on the outside looking in. Do they know where the train stops and starts? Did anyone tell them it was going to slice through the openness of their land?

I wonder how the herders and their families must feel looking at us behind our windows, zooming by on the rails. Can they see our table stacked with chips and apples and tea and warm Chinese beer? Can they see our $1,200 high-definition video recorders, our $1,000 digital SLR cameras?

Perhaps this new train somehow intensifies their knowledge of their “poorness.” Or was that already done decades ago after the Chinese invasion? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The nomadic yak-herding families remain, at least for now. It’s their home, train or no train running through it.

Some of my fellow foreigners (which include urban Chinese) never seem to emerge from first class, hiding inside four-berth sleeper cabins with sliding doors that close them off from everyone. The next class down, which we have booked, is made up of foreigners and wealthier Chinese. These six-berth sleeper cabins have no doors.

In second class, the train’s “inner-city,” passengers creatively attempt to sleep on the floor underneath or between seats, or on the cold hard metal floor between cars.  The price to be able to lie down on a bed – even stacked three high in an 8 foot by 5 foot space — is high enough (about $100 for the entire route) that most locals cannot afford it.

On this journey, there is only one foreigner who sits here, a young woman who keeps to herself and looks utterly miserable. After the first day, I don’t see her anymore.

PEACEFUL, IN LOOKS ONLY?

On this train, the Tibetan and Chinese passengers sit mashed together in uncomfortable-looking seats placed way too close together. Like the uncomfortable relationship between China and Tibet, it looks peaceful on the surface. People tolerate one another despite invasions of space. Legs and arms stick out in the center aisle. Sometimes spilled and mashed food blocks the way and makes the passageways between cars slippery. After a while it starts to look and smell like vomit.

I walk quickly through and slide on slippery goo. I catch myself by flailing my arms and bolting back upright. The worst part of my train walks, though, is the leering men, whose eyes lock on my chest anytime I pass through.

The train stops during one of my long walks. I’m on my way “home,” just three cars away from our cramped sleeper berth, and the familiar faces inside. By now I’ve thrown the toothpaste tube away under severe peer pressure from my husband and our temporary roommates.  Their teasing is good-natured, and I’m discovering that I’m fond enough of them to know that 10-hour days bumping along in Land Rovers with these people will turn out all right. Plus, someone will loan me their toothpaste.

But as the train stops, so does my long walk home. All the doors seal shut, locking everyone where they are. This is the Chinese solution to keeping people in their places during embarkation and disembarkation: seal everyone off from one another, so one sneaks on the train without a ticket, or sits in the wrong class.

The stop is only a minute or two, but the lockdown lasts nearly 20 minutes. There is no spare seat for me in this compartment, so I’m stuck standing on the metal floor in front of the toilet door.

At first, it feels like the whole car is staring at me, the lone foreigner. A tall man stands four inches away, waiting to use the bathroom. Before long he begins to leer. I try to keep my head pointed away from him. His eyes slowly survey my neck and chest, but there is no where for me to go. Soon he has his cell phone out, and oh my, he’s is taking a picture of me with it.

Is he sending my picture to his entire address book? I will never know, because I do not speak Chinese and I choose not to make a scene. No one in the car says anything. With nowhere to sit, nothing to read, and no window for scenery, the minutes drag. After about twenty minutes, a stern-looking train employee walks by. I motion to the locked door, and he opens it with a key.

With a loud ka-push, the seal breaks.

I’m the first one through the door. I walk fast. I’m relieved to get back to my compartment. I feel bad for feeling this way, but I can’t help it. Like it is in so many places, the privileged are semi-comfortable passing through, but we can’t stay. We can’t sit down and get comfortable. We look different. The rules for men and women are different. And cultural differences, while it’s easy to say they don’t matter, do.

Even the Chinese-Americans on the train can feel the strong cultural division, and it seems a few of them don’t feel they fit in all that well either. A few compartments away from ours, I meet a bright-eyed young woman, a recent Harvard graduate. She explains that she is traveling with her Chinese-born parents, who like to come back to China to visit family; this summer she decided to come along. She confides that she’s tired of speaking Chinese, and oh wow is it so great to have some English-speakers here. She’s got a job lined up at Google in San Francisco.

The scene feels a bit weird, as if the train and the instant camaraderie of talking with another American temporarily cancel out where we are in time and space: racing across the Tibetan Plateau, closing in on on its holiest of cities, Lhasa.

THIS STORY WILL CONCLUDE NEXT WEEK…

1 Comment

Filed under Eco-travel, Travel

Finding China, beneath the yellow fog


Part One (of two) from travels in China

Most of the world is aware that in Beijing, the fog is not the cool, lilting, low-lying cloud we wish it were — you know, the kind mysteriously enveloping bonsai trees and waterfalls in all those old Chinese landscape scroll-paintings. In Beijing, the fog lives in tandem with honking car horns and hot, sticky humidity that drips off your forehead.  Only at night does it feel ethereal, and only if you lie to yourself that it drifted in off the Yellow Sea.

Beijing’s ever-present fog is pure pollution – tons of toxic particles hanging suspended in the city’s air from cars and trucks and factories.

Pure pollution. It’s an oxymoron fitting for modern-day China, a country already full of ironies. Long-steeped in what was once pure — ancient tradition, spare living, Confucian morals and healthy diets – it’s no secret that China, in some places, is polluted on the outside, and sometimes on the inside, too.

China’s bear-hug of capitalism has been strong and fast, and no number of no-drive days in the cities (an obvious public relations scheme by the government) will make any noticeable difference.

But dissecting the multiple forces at work that have made Beijing China’s version of Los Angeles is another story for another time and place and destination.

This story is about little Jinshanling, and how the smog and all that it represents is starting to poison her.

Jinshanling is tucked in the shadow of the Great Wall of China, more than 150 miles away from Beijing. The tiny village, with fewer than 200 people, is a pocket of civilization older than most civilized places in the world.

My husband and I are here as newlyweds on week two of our honeymoon, hoping to see a slice of old China. We wanted to really see the Great Wall, to find a section where we could take in the grandeur without a lot of people around. The big question: how do you do that in the most populous country in the world?

Answer: Google it. Even Jinshanling can be found on a Google search.

What I found, really, was a local tour company that for a few hundred dollars would provide a Chinese guide, two nights’ stay in Jinshanling, one night of camping inside one of the Great Wall’s abandoned watchtowers, and an eight-mile hike on quiet, sometimes crumbling sections of the Great Wall to the village of Simatai.

The company wanted full payment by wire transfer to China before we left the United States. My husband smelled a scam, but I pressed on.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

I pause and say nothing. Instead, I turn my head to the side and smile.

I would let him answer this one himself.

“We show up and no one comes for us at our hotel in Beijing and our money is gone.”

I agree, yes, that could happen.

We wire the finds.

And so here we are, in a van, less than 18 hours after touching down in China, winding through the country roads on the way to Jinshanling. Three hours drive from the city, and the pollution-fog lingers among the corn stalks and hovers over the fruit trees. It sticks to the hillsides like an ugly cloud of cigarette smoke obscures the walls of a pub. It makes my skin feel like the floor of a fast-food restaurant.

This far from Beijing, I naively thought it would be gone by now.

Guiding us is Beijing lcoal Hai Li,, an ever-smiling 30-year-old, and our non-English speaking driver. Also with us is a 40-something couple from Australia, the only other people on the tour. (I suppose most people do not prefer to blindly wire money to China like we do. Their loss.)

We hadn’t expected all this to go so smoothly.  But neither did we expect Old China to be so effortlessly enveloped in New Beijing’s sticky dirt. Of course we knew long before we bought our plane tickets how rapidly China, especially its cities, is developing. The dizzying pace of all the construction makes me wonder how one of the world’s healthiest populations is going to deal with all the crap in the air and water and soil.

* * *

For three hours, during our long smoggy drive, Hai Li sat quietly in the front seat of the van.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she would offer up what seemed like government-mandated propaganda.

“The government says more freeways will bring more progress to all of China,” she says as we speed along the eight-lane thoroughfare out of the city, built in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But once in Jinshanling, she transforms into a deft guide. But Hai Li’s tone softens once we are in Jinshanling, where she makes quick work of convincing two soldiers posted at the town gate to let us all inside – even though it’s just about to get dark and all the tourist shops are closed.

We’ll be sleeping on the Great Wall tonight. But first, I walk down the center of the only street in town, the main one, and I instantly love Jinshanling. I feel lucky to have found her, still quiet and uncrowded in the 21st Century. I hope she stays that way a little while longer.

3 Comments

Filed under Travel