A Travellerspoint blog

July 2017

The 'Roof of the World'

Tibet is a land of stunning mountains and Monasteries, with smiling and friendly locals.

overcast 22 °C

Like everywhere in China, Lhasa has undergone dramatic growth in the last ten years. The time when you could once see the Dalai Lama's famous Potala Palace from anywhere in town has gone, yet there are patches where it still retains its ancient charm. In the centre of the old city is an important Buddhist Temple, to which Buddhists from across the country make a pilgrimage. They circle the Temple daily in great numbers, dressed in traditional garb and muttering the Sutras (Buddhist teachings). Many walk only three steps, prostrate themselves, then rise and walk three more steps - in all weathers. Oddly, this painfully slow and physically demanding mode of progress is not just for the temple, but strong believers will do this for their entire journey, no matter the length. Given that it may be many hundreds of miles, it takes not only several months, but also lives.

Tibet is where one gets to see a shadow side of China. Taxis, restaurants and monasteries are fitted with cameras and listening devices, and there are Chinese soldiers, police-checks, SWAT teams and watchers everywhere. We are constantly having our passports and permits checked (six times today), and many have told us how lucky we are to have got in -- there are few western tourists here.

Complete freedom is a well-dressed facade in mainland China, but there is not even a pretence here. Driving times are measured by a police checkpoint or cameras; if you leave your destination and arrive before the prescribed time you are fined. Any house on a tourist route must fly a Chinese flag, and there are propaganda posters of the great leaders of China decorating overpasses and walls. There is even a lush stage production that focuses on the role of a Chinese Princess who became a concubine of the Tibetan King. Chinese tour groups and Tibetan children are taught how the Tibetans lived in poverty and slavery, and were freed by the Chinese. We get a strong sense that the Chinese intend to rewrite history and dominate the Tibetan culture. As if to illustrate the way things are portrayed, were approached by a group of young Chinese women who expressed their surprise at seeing 'foreigners' here. Tony quickly responded, "oh, are you Tibetan then?". They immediately said "No, Chinese", to which he replied "So you are foreigners too?". They were confounded, we were amused.

There is substantial Indian influence here, with an overlap in the food, decoration and utensils. The gold earrings the locals wear are sometimes so heavy, that they have to tie a support for them around their ears! Our Hotel last night was the stuff of nightmares - the overly complicated and brightly coloured decoration on every bloomin' surface was like a bad trip. Our driver's gear stick is charmingly decorated with a frilly multi-coloured crocheted number with matching hand break piece.

The driving here is some of the worst we have seen, and all on mountain roads. Drivers seem to have no fear of death (damn reincarnation...) and casually passes on double yellow lines or seriously blind corners. It appears that one must pass anything in front no matter how dangerous, so the road is a high-stakes game of metallic leap-frog, with buses and trucks jumping in on the action. All is merrily set to the tune of tooting car horns and raucous truck blasts. Our driver, like so many, doesn't seem to know how to use the gears and we grind our teeth as we hear the car struggle up-hill in fourth, horn cheerfully blaring as he attempts to pass a bus on a blind corner without changing down.

Saw the amazing Mt Everest yesterday morning. We drove for an hour to catch sunrise, and were rewarded with a timely break in the clouds. So lucky!! The Himalaya were formed when India broke from Gondwana and careened into Tibet. The bump pushed what was then sea-bed, to the top of the world. The rocks have been under such pressure in places that the striations laid down by an ancient sea are now twisted and knotted like the burls on an old tree. The locals sell fossilised nautilus that they still find at 6000m!

Note regarding China's infrastructure growth: In the last couple of years, they have built 200,000 new bridges, and 1 million tunnels. They are now the most connected country in the world, surpassing the USA in roadage. More is planned as a means to keep up China's extraordinarily high rate of growth.

Not the T-shirt of the day, but a translation from entry to a Tibetan National Park (typos directly copied):

honorable guests
In order to visit your safety, please don' t listen to the staff outside the Strangers into the scenic area,beware of cheated
where by virtue of documents for the tickets, in person use the free of charge .
visitors to the scenic area one vote,the ticket is valid on the day.Sold tickets, no refund
please line up to buy tickets, to maintain the order of scenic spots

Posted by 2kiwisontour 06:59 Archived in China Tagged tibet lhasa potala_palace mt_everest Comments (0)

Xi'an and The Terracotta Warriors

Survival in 42 C at the second most visited site in China

sunny 42 °C

We have begun to think that the USA and China have a great deal in common: they both think that they invented everything (to be fair, the Chinese kind of did); they both have populations that put their individual wants before anyone else; they both interfere with other countries where they really shouldn't; they both think they are the best thing since sliced steamed-bun; their people are both puddle-deep when it comes to their focus on having 'stuff' - designer clothes, luxury cars, fancy holidays etc, as success is about what you own; and they both have a serious penchant for peanuts. Further, they both have truly shit taste when it comes to interior decorating. For the USA we can just use Trump as an example, yet the average American also likes to fill their home with oversized, square furniture and baskets of dried flowers. In China, Christmas decorations appear to be popular year-round, and we have seen marvellous life-sized white porcelain half-horses (front half) with lamps on their heads, the lampshade perched at a jaunty angle. Not even an Italian immigrant with a plastic covering on the lounge suite can top that!

We are currently enjoying Xi'an, an ancient city on the banks of the Yellow River. This is the site that historians say was the cradle of Eastern Civilisation, just as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) was to the West. The Silk Road started here and ran through the 'Stans to the West over 2000 years ago. You can detect the influence of Arabic culture in the shape of pottery and the clothing, or maybe the influence originated in China? This is the site of the Terracotta Warriors, and they are utterly and truly spectacular. They were discovered by a farmer, who during a drought in the 1970's, decided to dig a well. Three metres down he came across what he thought was a real human head.

The warriors were built by an Emperor during the Tang Dynasty, approx 200 BC. Each of the 6000+ pieces was modelled on a real, individual soldier, so no two are alike. If you are so inclined, you can have a life-size warrior made in your image, and shipped to a country of your desire. Christmas solved! They were originally painted in realistic colours, but have faded since being on display. It is likely that the currently excavated area is less than 1/4 of the site, as the Emperor himself is entombed in the middle, about 1.2 km away, however they are not going to excavate any further until they know how to properly preserve them. It took 700,000 people 40 years to complete, yet just one marauding new dynasty to enter the site and smash almost everything to tiny pieces. There were Taliban-type morons here too and well before anyone else that I can think of. Yet another thing the Chinese invented. Archaeologists have a full time job putting all the King's men back together again.

I am pleased to report that the carpets in our hotel, although groadier than anything we have at home, are much improved. The breakfast buffet is also quite edible, and we are careful to follow the instruction to "Cherish the food away from the waste". It is however pretty damn hot here, forecast to be 42C tomorrow. It is slightly off-putting to see soft dumplings of Chinese men remove their shirts in the restaurant. (Speaking of dumpling men, Tony and I are always amused when someone offers to help with our bags, as they struggle with the weight - mine is 14kg and Tony's is 17.5!).

There are cool markets here in the Muslim Quarter with really good street food and heaps of knock-off tourist rubbish to take home. Curiously, one of the common items is a glass Eiffel Tower filled with sweets!? We've attached a few photos of the stalls, but nothing can capture the tooting of moped horns, the shouting of the vendors, the pungency of strange spices or the rushing sound of superhot fire as the woks are lifted to flip their contents. The crowds are a strange mix of tattooed, scantily-clad locals, goggle-eyed tourists, head to toe covered Muslims and ancient fu man chu types on bicycles. We are unable to identify almost half of the produce for sale. We have been in Xi'an for three days, and spent hours every day in this endlessly changing mayhem. Wonderful!

43C as we leave for Tibet. Serious security at the airport - everyone wants to see our entry papers as apparently they are quite hard to get (entering from China). Next stop, the Roof of the World!

T-shirt(s) of the day: Happy Fairywhale; Sharkasm Bites, C'est Ma Vie and Prosche

Posted by 2kiwisontour 02:01 Archived in China Tagged xi'an terracotta_warriors Comments (0)

Sichuan Provincial

We head to the hills; to the ancient Tibetian border area

sunny 32 °C

The airport, where we await our delayed flight, is heaving with several officials broadcasting messages using megaphones, an overhead speaker system blaring and families shouting across each other in strong, flat, nasal Mandarin. It is a crazily loud space and a stark contrast to the quite city-centre parks, where LED signs inform of the decibel ratings to ensure peace.

I've been reading about Mao and the cultural revolution (1960's), and cannot get my head around these people and how they suffered under a nut-job of a tyrant who declared that stamp collecting, flowers, dancing, singing, sport, writing, poetry, (except his own) nice clothes and having long hair (to name a few), were bourgeois, and so to be drummed out through violence. He stated that lawns were capitalist and so all grass must be removed. Thousands were forced (as punishment) to literally pluck grass from parks and lawns across the country. During a famine of his making (he took the farmers from the fields to make steel - over 30,000,000 people starved to death) he decided that sparrows were eating the seeds and must be annihilated. Citizens were ordered to make loud noise near trees so that the sparrows would not land, and would die of exhaustion! How, did a country like this go from being dominated by peasant farmers, through that terrible time and into this modern, educated, wealthy society? I look at India and my (probably Western) view of the poverty, the antiquated thinking, and the injustice that seems rife there, and am utterly struck by the contrast. China is so shockingly sophisticated.

In spite of a thick free-thinking veneer, there is still obvious control here. All books, films, websites etc are vetted by the government, and although you are given control to set the air conditioning temperature in your hotel room, it does not budge from 24C. Access to media is much better than expected, but by no means open. The Seven O'Clock News is a study in propaganda, where terrible things happen in other parts of the world, but all is good and right in China. The people say that if they live a good life, they will go to the Seven O'clock News when they die! The government has just released the growth statistics for the past quarter, and as expected, things are just getting better. Yet those we speak to say that they are noticing a downturn. House prices are rocketing in spite of the huge numbers of uninhabited 'ghost cities', the cost of living is rising and development is slowing. I can see why the world economy is nervous - these guys do things in such a big way that they set the agenda.

It was during the terrible famine under Mao that the people ate everything that swam, walked or flew (sadly, including children which were dried and sold as 'rabbit'). Some of the eating habits remain - some curious selections for our dinner last night: Blood and Guts Soup, Pork Face with Mushrooms, or Pickled Rabbit's Head (ew, they have the pointiest, boniest little toothy skulls with bits of marinated flesh sticking to the cheeks). We went for the safety of Kung Pao Chicken (a hugely famous dish from this area), which is considered pretty light-weight on the heat scale. Attached photo shows the remaining pile of chilli we were unable to finish.

We've spent the last couple of days in the stunning mountainous area of Sichuan Province. In spite of being almost in the centre of China, this is the ancient border of Tibet (Tang Dynasty, 8th C). The influence is unmistakeable -- a different language, different food and architecture, and there are Tibetan prayer flags everywhere. The people refer to themselves as Tibetan and the Chinese as Chinese! (They also actually look Tibetan). It is happiness to be back in Yak country (I am utterly smitten with them, and they are very tasty too!). We have walked through the stunning National Parks that are extraordinarily beautiful. They say it is a place for all seasons, and it is undeniable when you see images of the stunning 'on fire' Autumn colours, the icy white of snow and frozen waterfalls in Winter, and the soft pinks and whites of wild Rhododendron, Azalea and Roses (they come from this area) in Spring. Our photos cannot do justice to the grandeur of the mountains, the rich turquoise clarity of the water, or the forests which are dominated by the dusky blue of fur trees, interspersed with lacy green silver birch and aspen, and the graceful drape of the clustered white flowers of butterfly bushes. There used to be panda here too, but when they opened the park to the public, the 40,000 visitors per day proved too much for them.

The park crowds are a beast in of themselves. There were only 24,000 people on the day we visited, yet the queue jumping, the pushing to get on and off buses (note to self: be sure to push on before letting others off), and those walking several abreast on narrow pathways was enough to drive us mad. Everyone uses umbrellas to keep their skin as white as possible, and most of them are at Tony's eye height. The obliviousness to others is quite striking. Driving in these mountainous areas is also a bit of a challenge. Rear view and side mirrors are not used (often blocked off with curtains) and drivers rely on other cars to toot at them if they are getting in the way. The horn is also used to tell pedestrians to get off the road, as an indicator, and to show that the vehicle will not be giving way at that sign!

En-route now to Xian and the Terracotta Warriors. Our 11.00am flight left at 10.45am, and T is amusing himself reading adverts about Soy Sauce flavoured Liquor...

T-shirt of the day: Off-line is the new cool.
(NB: there is an ongoing T-shirt popularity battle here between Paul Frank and Mickey Mouse. Although we are seriously unsure of why such old fodder is popular, we suspect Paul Frank is winning...As there is no explanation for this, it shall remain a mystery)

Posted by 2kiwisontour 01:53 Archived in China Tagged sichuan huanglong Comments (0)

Yangtze River to Sichuan

China's most important waterway

overcast 33 °C

We are gliding up the Yangtze River on a 'Five Star' three-day cruise. The water is strong and yellow from a heavy sediment load, and mist dominates the morning landscape. The musty smell of mildew pervades every inch of the boat's faded golden glory. The carpet is slightly better than most we have seen (we were told that the hotels are just so busy that it is not possible to clean them!), however one has to stand in the shower to open or close the bathroom door, which then grazes the loo seat, and our 'hi de hi' river guide is driving us mad with phone calls to make sure we heard each of his many announcements over the speaker system that rips through each cabin. He even came in to our cabin and turned it back on just as I had figured out how to turn it off!

We pay Western price for everything, including the tours (we get a significantly higher charge and a different coloured ticket to all the others; so much for blending in...). So much energy is invested into relentlessly ripping off all others that it is actually unpleasant. Somehow it is easier to accept such corruption in places where folks really are struggling, but everyone here has the latest iPhone, air conditioning and there are Porches, Mazaratti, and McLarens galore on the roads (along with an exact replica of a Range Rover Evoque renamed the Land Wing). In protest of our unfair treatment, Tony has rigged a beer cooling system using the air conditioner, so that we don't have to be victim to the price gouging at the bar. "That'll teach the clever little fucks" he announced proudly.

We have been to see the ancient 'hanging coffins' of one of the fifty-five small tribal groups within China. We were careful to follow all instructions and slipped as carefully as we could on the stone steps. It is still a mystery how the coffins were placed high on inaccessible cliffs, down precipitous gorges over 2000 years ago. Also incredibly mystifying, is how they have full cell-phone coverage in such places when, at home, ours cuts out in our living room.

Sailed passed the Longevity Village, located in impossibly high and steep terrain. Access from the river valley is through a natural cave system that extends 8 km into the mountain. There are ~200 residents remaining, with an average age of 86. Scientists have been perplexed how these folks live for so long without any modern conveniences - little things like running water and electricity. Turns out that their diet is very high in selenium, which happens to be the mineral missing from NZ soils. So if you want to stick around for a bit, start downing selenium!

China truly is a swarm of humanity, all of them smoking, sneezing, eating, coughing, and hoicking. The volume at which they interact is mind-numbingly loud - at one stage our guide was standing next to us, speaking to just us two (the only round-eyes on the boat), and had her microphone on full noise! At the train station or park a family or group will sit on the few spare seats around you, and proceed to yell across to each other, often waving their arms across your face to accentuate the flat, nasal sounds of shouted Manderin. Yet these noisy hoards are indeed very clever.

An impressive dam on the Yangtze is made even more impressive with outdoor escalators, cooled by a simple water system, to carry tourists to the top. Temperatures hit 50C here, so the black hand rails would otherwise be too hot to touch. The sheer scale on which they do things is unparalleled. Massive bridges span remote gorges to create road transport links, a complex system of bullet train tracks are being erected to link the cities (which they are also building in astounding numbers and with stunningly bold architecture) and dozens of tunnels are being dug through mountains. In this area the dams raised the water level by over 90 metres and forced the relocation of over 1,000,000 people. History, animal life, and thousands of years of tradition were literally swept away by the waters. Noah got nothing on dese folks!

English is now taught in all schools, so many of the young ones run up to us and try to practise their rudimentary language skills. Occasionally, we strike someone who's English is surprisingly good. Like the other night when Tony changed his mind about ordering rice with our meal and communicated this several time to the waiter in his usual generic Asian accent.... "No ri, no ri, no ri". The waiter finally responded, "Yeah, I got that"! In spite of his charm, we are minor celebrities in many of the places we go. Wherever possible we wander off usual tourist trail, and try to stay and eat in local spots. Correspondingly the staff, management and folks on the street want to have their picture taken with us, which is a tad disconcerting given that we have been on the road for a month now, and are in dire need of a hose down.

Have been to see the pandas -- indescribably cute to see them sleeping in the 'staffie' pose, and visited a massive dig that is unearthing the Chengdu township that was here 3000 years ago. Stunning pottery, gold and jade works, and lots of ivory from ancient elephants that once roamed here.

T- shirt(s) of the day: "Whoops, apocalypse"; 4 year old wearing "I dream of sex" and a cool young dude with images of several hipster beards on a t-shirt that read "Also care about what has the fecundity" (WTF???)
And for Riley: Clothes have no gender

Last note -- they may be hugely innovative and clever, but NZ is still missing from many of the maps!

Posted by 2kiwisontour 05:14 Archived in China Tagged panda sichuan chengdu yangtze_river Comments (0)

Huangshan (Yellow Mtn) to Shanghai

Through the granite mountains and back to the cosmopolitan intrigue of Shanghai

overcast 31 °C

We are sitting on a bullet train cranking along at 305km per hour. They have apparently been slowed down as there was an accident a while ago, but they are aiming to get them back up to 450km in the near future. This is absolutely the way to travel -- much like a flight, only with no seat belts, the ability to stroll around and purchase food or drink, and scenery - albeit slightly blurry. The loos remain a full, but unfulfilling experience, especially four hours in. And there doesn't appear to be any let up on the smog, even this far from Beijing. How many kids grow up thinking that the sky is a dirty grey and visibility measured in metres?

Tony continues to win over the locals with his grace and good humour: in a tchuchkee (sp?) store the other day he loudly declared "you dlop, you blake, you paaay" (eyes squeezed into slits, chin thrust forward, long emphasis on the aaay). The shop assistant, well within hearing distance, crisply enquired, "Can I help you?" in perfect English. Way to go!

Our little page of Chinese translations is proving useless. There are so many phrases that just aren't covered, such as, "Inside voice you spoilt, fat little shit" or "Mate, you're dreaming!" Language be damned, Tony communicates readily with the locals by shouting "Boo shr" (no) at the constant hustlers, or grabbing at the motorbikes that plough through the pedestrians (made even more dangerous as they are electric and so almost silent) when the peds have the green walking man. It appears crossings are also for pushbikes and motorcycles, as well as and taxis, cars and buses and trucks.

We ate on the street last night, and were challenged to choose between the grey piles of some poor creatures finely sliced intestine, or the still struggling scorpions skewered onto sticks like toffee apples. The locals attempted to scam the pakeha as usual; items were twice the local price, even though the price was written in red above the shop, they pretended you knocked their food to the ground and declare you must pay, if you argue back, they resort to "no English, no English" etc....Fun, sorta.

The Yellow Mountains are the inspiration for many of the mountainous Chinese ink drawings you see, and they are beautifully replicated. The delicately layered trees and awe inspiring steepness are no exaggeration. Twisted trees grow from perilous positions, perched on naked granite mountains, with absolutely no soil in which to root themselves. It is a striking scene, truly a well deserved World Unesco site that gave our ageing knees a stunning workout. We drove up to the mountain gondola on a shuttle bus as is required. Tony's seat would not stay upright each time the bus accelerated, mine would not recline from its rigid exclamation mark of a position. From our respective horizontal or vertical positions, we watched as the feathery bamboo forests unfolded stunning scenery through the greasy marks of myriad previous hair stains that smeared across the window. Queuing for the gondola, signs congratulated us on our children growing taller?! WTF?

We were fortunate enough to stay in a hotel on the mountain -- apparently quite a luxury. Staying overnight enables you to watch the light change --as light is wont to do on mountain sides-- for both the dusk and the dawn. Very pretty as painted clouds roll in on cue, doing fab impersonations of the ink drawings. Yet personally, the outstanding feature of our hotel experience was without doubt, the carpet. I have never seen a carpet more in need of a clean in my life. What (we think) was once a pale lemon number, is now a poo coloured smear of mottled grey and brown, punctuated with liquid spills and cigarette burns.

Now in Shanghai and the food remains entertaining. On offer, such delights as Glutinous Rice Jujubes with Wolfberries, Braised Stong Frog and Stir Fried Fern with Harm. Menus warn that images are 'for reference only', and that the dishes would 'prevail in kind'. Cheers for the heads up. Our waiter used the translator on his phone to take our somewhat lengthy order this evening, only to come running back from the kitchen to have his phone tell us that we had ordered Bullfrog!

We spent the morning wandering around a local park (beautifully designed and built by the French during their time here). It is a meeting place for the locals, where every day folks spend time dancing, singing, playing instruments, practising caligraphy or juggling. They genuinely 'enjoy the life' as we are told. It is true that although they are loud and have a very different sense of personal space, the Chinese are very social and spend a great deal of their time in large mixed age groups, often in fits of laughter. It is quite lovely.

T-shirt of the day: 'In our darkest hour, do not fear. God is nar.'
Runner up: 'Hoops and Christ', tragically worn by a young American chap.

Posted by 2kiwisontour 06:17 Archived in China Tagged shanghai water_village huangshan zhouzhuang yellow_mountains pudong-bank Comments (0)

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