Sunday, May 27, 2007

Day 11 - There Are No Words

Today we drove 3 hours southwest of Lhasa, into the mountains to picnic at Yamdrok Lake, one of the three holiest lakes in Tibet. On the way there we stopped in the mountains and ascended a small peak to reach a height of 5000 m, or 16,400 feet. This is the equivalent altitude of Everest Base Camp. The drive was perilous, the view spectacular, the climb easy on the legs but hard on the lungs, and the lunch by the lake refreshing. Words simply do no justice to the day I've had. Take a look.

I will sleep well tonight. You do the same.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Day 10 - Capital of the Roof of the World

Lhasa has been Tibet's Capital since the 7th century. Today we visited some of its oldest and most splendid sites. Our first hour this morning was spent visiting with the Director of a Tibetan hospital, who gave us an introduction to Tibetan medicine. I will post a separate entry on this later. From here we spent the rest of the morning at the Potala Palace, the empty seat of the Dalai Lama that sits atop the highest hill in Lhasa. It is thirteen stories high and has over 1000 rooms. We climbed the many, many stairs to the top, very, very slowly. I cannot even begin to explain how incredibly beautiful the inside of the Palace is. Pictures were not allowed, so I can only tell you that the visit was quite moving, though unnerving to see so many Chinese soldiers posted throughout. Here are some pictures of the trip up and then back down.

Here's a picture of our group, minus one, in the plaza across from the Palace.
After lunch we spent the rest of the afternoon at Sera Monastery. Founded in 1419, it still trains about 900 monks today. Every day between 3 and 5 pm the monks gather in the courtyard for debate. They clap their hands, gesture wildly and argue. They appeared to be having a great deal of fun debating the meanings of the scriptures. They were quite animated and fascinating to watch.

That's all for now. We had a fantastic day and saw some amazing sites. Tomorrow we drive three hours southwest, in the direction of Everest, to visit a holy lake. It is located in the mountains at an elevation just over 16,000 feet. It should be beautiful. See you tomorrow.

Day 9 - Flag Raising in Tian'an Men and Travel to Lhasa

Our day yesterday largely consisted of domestic travel, but it began very early (4:15 am!) with a cab ride to Tian'an Men Square where four of us went to watch the flag raising ceremony. We had been told that the evening flag lowering ceremony was very crowded, so we imagined that we would have a much better view in the morning. Boy, were we wrong. First, I should tell you that we were the ONLY non-Chinese people in the Square. We estimated that there were between one- and two-thousand people there for the ceremony. It lasted only a few minutes once the soldiers marched out of the gate of the Forbidden City. The national anthem was blared through a loudspeaker while the flag went up. Once the ceremony was over, we walked back to the hotel. We arrived at 5:30 am, with plenty of time to pack and prepare for a 7 am departure.

We were booked on a domestic flight to Lhasa that first stopped in Chengdu. I'll readily admit that I am not the world's best flier. I have been sandwiched in the middle four in the back of the plane for just about every flight we have been on. What was unnerving about these flights was that the television screens flipped down to show actual video footage of takeoff and landing. Since I was feeling all the turbulence and bumps along the way, I really didn't want to see what was happening. Here are the views from our plane as it left Chengdu for Lhasa. Since I was stuck in the middle, one of my colleagues seated next to a window took them for me. Thanks, Nezih!

We have all been very nervous about this portion of our trip. We have been overwhelmed with information and horror stories about high altitude sickness. Nearly everyone began taking Diamox or some generic form of this diuretic a few days before we left. This was really problematic in Beijing. Our first day on the drug was the day we went to the Great Wall. We were becoming dehydrated and required to drink lots of water, yet bathrooms were few and far between. Remember how bad I told you Beijing traffic was? The trip back from the Wall took 2 hours longer that we anticipated, so most of us were not having a lot of fun by the time we arrived. However, we decided to suffer through these bouts if it meant the symptoms of high altitude sickness would be lessened.

Since no one in the group has ever been this high, we had no idea when the symptoms might kick in. Would it be the minute we walked out of the airport? An hour later? The next day? No one knew. Our guide told us it would take 3 or 4 hours and that we should just spend the afternoon resting before our welcome dinner.

We arrived at the airport at 3:30 pm after approximately 6 hours of travel. One very strange thing about China is that even though it covers latitudes that include several time zones in other countries, China occupies only one time zone. This means that morning in Beijing is the same time as morning in Lhasa, even though the sun may not have come up yet in Lhasa.

Once we collected our luggage, we stepped out into Tibet and saw the first truly blue sky. Here is the view from the airport.
The trip from the airport to Lhasa took approximately one hour. Along the way our guide gave us a bit of history and talked to us about our itinerary. Here is what the view from the bus looked like. We were simply amazed at how dry and rocky this place is. We crossed the Lhasa river several times, only to find that in most places there was very little water. During the rainy season in July and August the river will fill its banks again and in some places, may flood.
We arrived at the hotel just before 5 pm and were greeted by a lovely group of young people.
After this we checked in and all went up for short naps before dinner. We were all very tired and feeling a bit loopy. Dinner was amazing, and like all our meals here, there was way too much food. What we did get here that we haven't had so far was mutton and lots of yak.

We all went to bed early in order to prepare for a long day of sightseeing. One member of our group was feeling really lousy, but the rest of us seemed to be surviving with only minor headaches and some light-headedness. We'll be taking it slowly in the next few days and see how we do.

P.S. - A Note for Grace
Thanks so much for visiting and following my trip. I am blogging because I was inspired by your writing about your trip to Hong Kong. Please know that you and Robert are in my thoughts and prayers. I hope all is going well with the trial.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Day 8 continued - Summer Palace

Once again I missed an evening of blogging. We were all feeling a bit giddy last night and needed some rest to adjust to the altitude. First, let me start by describing our last full day in Beijing.

I realize that I began my last entry talking about the activities in the park around the Temple of Heaven, but never really talked about the complex itself. The Emperor would spend one month hear to pray for a good harvest and abundant rains. We only visited a small portion, including the area around the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Here is a picture of it.
Our afternoon was spent at the Summer Palace, the imperial retreat from the heat of the Forbidden City. It was nearly 86 degrees in Beijing, but walking through the grounds, we found it quite comfortable with many shaded areas a breeze coming from the lake. Here are two pictures I first want to share. The first shows the Palace Temple as it actually appeared through the camera and with the naked eye. The second photo was enhanced.

This is just one way to show you how bad the pollution is in Beijing. Here are a few more pictures of the Summer Palace complex.

Finally, on our last drive back to the hotel, we passed the Olympic complex. Here is a picture of the famous "Bird's Nest" stadium under construction.

My entry ends here as it is Saturday morning and I must prepare to head out. Obviously, we did arrive safely in Lhasa. We are currently at 3,650 m, or just above 12,000 feet. I promise to write this evening about our trip in and the day today.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Day 8 - More of Beijing

Today we had a rather interesting introduction to the new and old Beijing. Our day began at the Temple of Heaven, one of the largest temple complexes in China. The large park that surrounds the complex was filled with people of retirement age engaged in a variety of activities. Some of these are pictured below.
 Practicing Tai Chi

Playing Tai Chi Ball


Playing Chinese Chess

Making Music

Exercising with Streamers

From here we spent the morning touring a home for the aged (a model home) and an agricultural facility that prepares seedlings for farmers, as well as carries out work on developing livestock breeds. Then we lunched at a restaurant that had an hourly stage show on cutting and slicing noodles.

Our afternoon was spent at the Summer Palace. I will write more about this imperial retreat tomorrow. I must finish packing and get to bed early. We will head out very early tomorrow (4:15 am) to see the flag raising ceremony in Tian'an Men Square. Then our day will be spent traveling to Lhasa, but we cannot go there directly, so we must first fly to Chengdu. We all will have some adjustment issues in Lhasa, so it may be a day or two before you hear from me again. Good night all! Onward to Tibet!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Day 7 - A Day of Meetings

Well, I finally missed a night of blogging. I was simply too tired to write when I got back to the room last night. I am not alone when I say we are all exhausted at this point. Yesterday was a particularly long day, though a good one.

We begin our days very early because the traffic in Beijing is not to be believed. I suppose the comparisons are all about economy of scale, but imagine a city the size of the 5 boroughs of NYC with 16-17 million people in them. Now think about what happens when newly wealthy people buy cars of their own, want to drive them, and do not carpool. The number of single occupant vehicles is staggering. This leads not only to massive traffic jams, but also incredible pollution. I noticed that my throat was sore in Taipei, also a very polluted city, but it has gotten worse in Beijing. The day we went to the Wall it rained all day, something folks here were happy for because it helps with the pollution. During the Olympics the government will ban private cars in the city of Beijing in an effort to control the flow of traffic.

Speaking of the Olympics, signs the games are coming are everywhere! The construction her is moving ahead at lightning speed. You cannot enter a new neighborhood of the city without seeing massive cranes and heavy vehicles working on some new building. Here are a few of the signs we see regularly around the city.

We spent the bulk of our day today talking with different people around the city. We began at the Tsinghua University School of Journalism and Communication where we heard about how journalists in China are being prepared to try and move China forward to push for a more open press. Then we enjoyed a presentation by the Vice Chairman of the Gallup Research in China about Chinese consumers between 1994 and 2004. The changes that have come with the new wealth and economic growth in China are very interesting ones. The Chinese are getting richer, even though the gap between urban and rural residents is increasing. The next stop was at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for a briefing from the Department Chief of the political section on the issues that occupy their time. These include human rights and religious freedom, the Six Party Talks (about denuclearizing N. Korea), proliferation of WMDs and the Taiwan question. Our final meeting was with the founder of the Beijing AIDS Institute and an activist (dissident?) here in China. All of these meetings/presentations provided us with a range of perspectives on life in China.

Late in the afternoon we finally headed out for some tourist activities. We went on a pedicab tour of the Hutong district, an area of some 700 year-old narrow streets with quadrangles of homes that represented where common people lived. These homes are around the Forbidden City and were build during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Here is a picture of Jonathan and me preparing for our pedicab ride and an example of a fancy rooftop in the Hutong.

After our short tour, we were left to our own devices for dinner and entertainment. Here is a picture of a few of my colleagues and our tour guide, Sonia, hamming it up for the camera.
It is now nearly 6 am and I must get ready to head out for the day. We leave each morning and do not return until the evening, and today will be no exception. When we return we will need to pack and be ready for an early departure to Lhasa. We are all very excited about this next leg of the trip and admittedly, a little nervous. That's all for now. Have a good one!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Day 6 - The Great Wall and More

Let me begin this entry by stating that I have just returned from a special banquet prepared for us by our hosts. At this dinner we drank Er Guo Tou, a Chinese "wine" that is 48% liquor. Each time we were toasted by the host, we raised our glasses and said "Gan Bei," or bottoms up. I did this 5 times during the course of the evening, so if this entry is a tad bit incoherent, you will know why. (I am not a drinker, so perhaps you can imagine how I'm feeling!)

We began our day at Beijing Normal University with a question and answer session on their International Education program and then had a lecture on the Chinese educational system. This information was not new to me, since I researched the system of public education and presented it to our seminar group when we first began meeting. What struck me during the presentation is that the system in China currently educates the number of students equivalent to the entire population of the US. This is a figure so large that it is nearly incomprehensible. Once the lecture ended we had a very quick tour of the campus before leaving for lunch.

I should tell you that our trip here was planned by the China Association for International Friendly Contact. Our time is highly scheduled and carefully supervised. During several excursions we have been required to visit state- or government-run operations. Today our lunch was in a restaurant at a state-run cloisonne factory and gift shop. We did have the unique opportunity to see some pieces being made. Here are some pictures.

Once we had lunch and explored the store, we headed to the Ba Da Ling section of the Great Wall. This is the most popular section of the Great Wall, since it is only about 44 miles from Beijing. This section was built around 1505 and was restored in the 1950s and 1980s. How was it? Take a look and find out.

The last picture says a lot. It was rainy, gray, slippery, and in places, surprisingly crowded. What we could see was absolutely stunning, and even though we returned to the bus soaked, the walk on the Great Wall was incredible.

Okay, I'm off to bed. I wish I could write more, but the Er Guo Tou has kicked in and I need some rest. More tomorrow!