Thursday, December 13, 2007

Journey to the West

Thus begins my entries on my trip to Tibet. Our first full day has ended, but first I ought to do a little recap on our epic journey here.

Step 1: Acquire Permit. Foreigners aren't allowed to visit Tibet without a special permit which can only be given out by a tour guide, since foreigners can only enter the region on a guided tour. There are loopholes, however. Our friend Marcos hooked us up with this woman who would get us the permit, but didn't expect us to call her once we got to Tibet for our tour. China is all about the guanxi. We were texted an account number to deposit money into and about a week after that sketchy episode an envelope arrived in my room with a flimsy piece of paper certifying us to go (postscript: no one looked at it).

Step 2: Epic train journey. The train from Beijing to Lhasa is high tech. They constantly pump oxygen through the cars. It's fairly new. It allows you to see a great deal of China. It's very cheap. It helps you to gradually adjust to the altitude. It's also 47.5 hours long.

The ride was actually no where near that painful, though. We chatted, read, played cards, played chess, made pengyous to play chess with, slept a lot, ate a ton of fruit and weird tofu. It was not the horrid experience of my imagination - although it probably helped that the train was half empty and we had a 6 person bunk to ourselves.

We did see a great deal of China. We took a big of a zigzagy route: BJ-Xi'an-Lanzhou and finally down through Chengdu. Once we hit the Tibet Plateau it really was a constant stream of postcards through our window. I can now say that I've been on the highest train in the world from which I saw the highest freshwater lake in the world (plus a couple thousand yaks and a mountain or two).

A cozy night on a heated bed later (oh how I adore kangs) we launched into our first Tibetan day. We're quite far west - so sunrise was at 8ish (silly communism). Our jetlagged (can I say that? trainlagged?) selves woke up at 7, but we just read until it was time for the city to wake up around 8:30 - 9.

We decided that today ought to be a day for wandering and becoming accustomed to the city layout. Our hotel was just a block or so north of the Barkhor, so that's where we headed. The Barkhor is a circumambulation route around the Johkang temple that is constantly packed with pilgrims. Even in the depth of winter the route was filled to the max; some walking, some chanting, some spinning prayer wheels and some prostrating. The whole experience (and all of Tibet, really) smells of incense and yak butter.

It's obvious that you must traverse the Barkhor clockwise, because to do otherwise is worse than canoeing upstream on a level 5. These people really are quite a force. We walked until we hit the large plaza in front of the Johkang where we decided to stop for a brunch of tsay momos, butter tsamba and masala. We ate bundled on a rooftop overlooking the plaza and contemplating the mix of devotion and commercialism that lines the Barkhor. If those who prostrate here all the way from their hometowns don't achieve some sort of enlightenment/heaven/whatever alternative, then there really is no God. Surely the one I believe in would respect this devotion.

After brunch we took to wandering some more. We passed in and out of shops and ought woolen insoles - necessary - eventually completing the Barkhor and moving towards the Linkhor (a bigger circumambulation that encompasses the Barkhor and all of Lhasa old town).

While looking for a post office we suddenly found ourselves stumbling upon the Potala palace. I had expected the Potala palace to be impressive, surely, but I hadn't expected the sheer magnitude of it's reality. I had thought that it would be something like the Forbidden City - impressive in it's own right, but jaded by the many spectacular photos I'd already seen. But reall, the Potala Palace has excceed all of my expectations and I just could not look away from it's awesome splendor.

We didn't go into the Potala today (tomorrow) but we did wander the grounds for a bit. We watched an incredibly, horrifically biased Chinese made movie on the history of the palace (that history - by the way - stopped in 1958). We also wandered the Zhou village at it's base which included an incredibly disturbing prison museum that held actual human skins.

Leaving the Potala we wandered the square across the way and befriended some pilgrims over spicy potatoes. We wound up at a yogurt shop where we sat and chatted with the fuquyuan over chang for a long while about Tibetan pronunciation.

Later in our wanderings along the Linkhor we walked through the park behind the Potala. It's a beautiful park, and the focal point is a man made lake (the earth dug out was used to build the Potala) with a temple in the middle (which, no worries, we circumambulated).

After this we returned to the hotel for a quick rest/internet break and got into quite the conversation with our proprietress. She's a very worldly woman. Originally from Taiwan, she came to Tibet 2 years ago because she wanted to be closer to her faith. Throughout her life she's travelled to tons of foreign countries. The woman was a wealth of knowledge and had two unexpected political viewpoints: a free Tibet and a reunited Taiwan/China.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

24 Hours In BJ

So begins my last 24 hours in Beijing. I've started the countdown of the lasts: Today I did my last load of laundry here, I took my last Chinese test, rode line 13 for the last time, tomorrow I'll take my last shower in the dorm, buy my last bubble tea, ride my bike for the last time... the list goes on.

It's bittersweet. I'm leaving a lot of friends, opportunities, fun. But on the flip side I'm going back to a lot of friends, opportunities, fun. It's that weird homesick/friendsick feeling that is reminiscent of camp - because who knows which home or friends I'm missing anymore?

I'm lucky enough to have a week long cushion in the middle of this experience - I'm headed to Tibet tomorrow night. I'll be taking the fancy oxygen train from Beijing to Lhasa, an epic 47.5 hour journey. I'm going to see a lot of China, meet a lot of pengyous, and play a lot of chess. In Lhasa I don't really have much of a plan - can't really, because we don't know what roads are open. We'll clearly do the Lhasa thing, and then there are some sacred lakes we want to see. We'll definitely get out of the city for a bit, and I'd like to visit one of the 5 sacred mountains, perhaps Everest if we can swing it. If you're thinking of me, drop me a line, maybe I'll make friends with a monk who has internet.

So that's pretty much where my life is right now, and why no one will hear from me for about a week. I'll come back for a whirlwind BJ visit on the 22nd, and fly home the 23rd. Thanks to the date line, my 14 hour flight takes off at 5 and lands at 5:40. Trippy, but I'll be home for Christmas.

I miss you all and I'll be home soon to see as many people as I can. Let's start making plans? For now I'll be turning up the volume and - as shuffle has just informed me - having Ozomatli and Crosby Stills and Nash cheer me on through the packing process.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Da Xue Qiu!

First Beijing Snowfall!

[[the view from my room]]

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Finally Getting Around to Doing the Beijing Thing

This morning, after nearly four months in Beijing, I made my requisite visit to the Forbidden City. It was a bit of a quick and dirty version - all in one morning - but I think I got in everything that I wanted to. At first the City was a bit anticlimactic, as much of it is undergoing remodeling for the upcoming Olympics. It's just like when I was in Athens, and all my pictures of temples came with lovely scaffolding. Quite a few of my pictures of the main halls in the Forbidden City, what you think of when you think of it, are covered in tarp and metal. Really quite beautiful.
However, the halls off to the sides were not only devoid of scaffolding, but also of orange-hatted Chinese tourist groups, so they were definitely worth a visit. The two most interesting side halls I visited were the Hall of Mental Cultivation and the Hall of Water. The Hall of Mental Cultivation contains sacred calligraphy works that date back thousands of years. It used to contain 3, as the name implies, but one of the emperors tried to flee with his favorite, and was caught. The confiscated piece is in the Nanjing museum. I found the Hall of Water after being directed down a random alley by a friendly guard. It was really cool. The hall was built on top of the site of the Palace of Prolonging Happiness, but it was never finished, so now there is this erie building that hovers shell like over a hole in which you can see the foundations that were to make up the cellar. The Palace of Prolonging Happiness burned down in the mid 1800s, so when they went to replace it, it only seemed to make sense to build a Hall of Water instead. (This is the same that the roof tiles of the forbidden city are all yellow, except for the library. Yellow is the color of the royal family, but black is the color of water, and hopefully will protect the books from burning down.)
Definitely the most worthy place (in my opinion) to visit in the Forbidden City is the Hall of Clocks. It's an extra 10 kuai to get in, but it's wicked cool. I made friends inside with one of the volunteer workers, a retired mechanical engineer with a passion for clocks who spends his Wednesdays showing people around the Hall of Clocks. He's been working on learning English so he can volunteer with the Olympic Committee next year, so we had a lively language exchange for a while, and he taught me a lot about those awesome clocks that I never would have learned from the plaques alone. It's amazing what those clocks can do - one runs simply on water, and another one can even write calligraphy!
During the course of my wanderings I met some artists and headed over to their studio South of Tiananmen to hang out for a bit. They were really cool, and now I have a bunch of awesome art.
It was a pretty exhausting morning, and I still have so much to do today. It's pretty overwhelming. But I have so little time left, and so much to squeeze in, it's just crazy. I finish my program a week from tomorrow, and leave for Tibet a few hours later. There is so so so much Beijing, and so little time.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pashaning in the Yulin + Wanna Eat That Spider?

Thanksgiving Weekend Day III

The next morning I was woken up at 5 (which is really 4 Yunnan time) by the Zhang’s menagerie of animals, specifically their evil rooster that just struts around the yard like he’s hot shit all day and doesn’t make a peep unless it’s dark outside and a time for sleeping. Not that I’m bitter, or anything. But I did sleep really well in our attic hidey-hole ‘till then. When we woke and went downstairs, we found the women in the kitchen preparing breakfast, while the men (Xuedan’s father, brother, and several other relatives and/or village members) preparing to go out to the fields to farm. They were planting beans. Since the village is very communal, they were all getting ready to work the same field. I’m not entirely positive, but I’m pretty sure that no one has private land, except for their homes, in Xiangming, and even the homes are practically public land, the way people come and go. Xuedan’s father was in the front of the house cutting large bamboo strips lengthwise to become trellises for the beans to climb. The rest of the men headed down to the field. Since we, once again, were not allowed to help in the kitchen, we asked the guys if we could help in the fields. They at first refused, and wouldn’t even let us go down and watch. But after some insisting, and after befriending a man introduced to us as Xuedan’s grandfather (who clearly wasn’t her zhende grandfather, and whom we from then on referred to as hao pengyou), they decided they could teach us how to plant the beans and let us help. Our desire to farm, however, continued to baffle them to the extreme. They’re probably still not over it. We were each equipped with a poking stick and were told to poke holes about a fingers depth and place 3 dried black beans into the hole. Then you use the blunt end of the poking stick to sift dirt over the top of the hole, but not pack it down. Each line of bean field was covered with a strip of saran wrap type plastic that we poked through. I was told this plastic was to keep the land warm enough (although I can’t imagine this is a severe issue, as in November the average temperature was in the 70s).
After planting for a bit, Xuedan and her mother called us up to the kitchen for breakfast where we had leftovers from the night before as well as homemade zhou from tea and rice, and discussed our pending rainforest hike. Xuedan asked if we wanted to shower first, but we (wisely in retrospect) chose to abstain ‘till after the hike. So Xuedan gathered her pengyous, and we gathered some granola bars and water (they took none and looked at us weird) and set out. We blindly followed 20 year old men with machetes for a bit before one of them pointed out the small mountain we were to climb. It was beautiful. I’ll post a picture.
We set out on a little marked dirt trail that winded through the back of the village and out through some tea fields before plunging full force into the forest. It sounded like the rainforest café soundtrack, but it was real life, and I kept expecting to see a monkey leaping out at me, but was consistently disappointed. Oh well, I guess there’s no wild monkeys in that part of Yunnan.
We hiked past waterfalls and along side of some treacherous cliffs. At one point we began commenting on all these crazy spiders along the trail. They were huge, and black with neon yellow spots. They were also everywhere. The second our friends realized we were interested, they let out an “oh!” and simply grabbed one down, deftly wrapping up its legs with its own web. It was crazy, within seconds this spider was sitting helpless between Xuedan’s fingers when she offered it to me as a xiaochi – snack. I just stared in shock and managed a few zhendemas. They kept insisting that it was delicious, and that I could either eat it now or take it home and fry it up. I ended up declining, and so did my friends. Xuedan and her friends weren’t hungry either, so before I could say anything, Xuedan just flippantly tossed the spider over her shoulder and into the bushes. It was so sad: that spider, I suppose, will just wait to die there since it’s all tied up so tightly in it’s own web – oh the irony!
After going up and up for a while we hit a riverbed that we followed for quite some time. After a bit of walking one of our new friends decided they needed a smoke break and a snack, so we stopped and rested on some rocks while he went, selected what seemed to be a random lilly pad and yanked it out by the root. He then went and cleaned it off in the river, stripped it down with his machete, and offered it to us to eat. Xuedan busted out with some spicy/salty dipping stuff that we had used for peppers at breakfast. These roots were delicious! They were super sour, which was offset by the dipping stuff, but then had a sweet aftertaste. It was quite the rollercoaster for the tastebuds, and I’m really hoping I can figure out an English name for them sometime.
We continued following the river for a while, but pretty soon the banks severely narrowed and it became a pretty extreme game of hopping from slippery rock to slippery rock. Eventually we had to give in and accept the fact that we were going to have squishy socks. While the squishy sock phenomenon is for the most part uncomfortable, the coolness was quite welcome during the extreme morning heat combined with our intense hike.
Our next smoke break (I’m convinced that every man in China is a chain smoker – great combo with the pollution) we stopped at the village’s bamboo collection site. It was just a little hut where a farmer could live for a day or two while harvesting bamboo. It also served as a bamboo storage site.
After a bit more rock hopping/wading we emerged in some dried up rice paddies. The rice had already been harvested, and it was the start of the dry season, so we were able to just walk straight across the fields. It was here that we walked up to what appeared to be a solid wall of woods climbing a steep hill and were told that the Buddhist place was just through there. We were also told that we couldn’t touch about half of the plants because they were either poisonous or dangerously spiny. Fab combo. This did look impenetrable, but we were told “Meiwenti” and to roll our pants down. They asked us to wait while two of the boys went in with machetes and hacked a path through for us. We had been using those machetes throughout our hike, but this was just extreme. Really, if it weren’t for them, we would never have been physically able to reach the Buddhist site.
A few minutes later the boys yelled for us to come up, so everyone else began the scramble up the hill, which involved grabbing onto tree branches and vines and hauling yourself up. It was only a few meters, but it made Simatai look like child’s play. At the top we came out into a small clearing with a miniature grotto. There was one small grotto with a Buddha in it, quite high up, and a carving of a local god at eye level. I later learned that the local god has the ability to enter the earth and reemerge wherever he feels fit, just seconds later. Pretty sweet power. Above the clearing were some crazy stalagmites (or tites? whichever one grows down from a ceiling). We learned that the vegetation around this area was so extremely thick because it’s only visited (usually) once a year, by children who are bringing offerings for good luck for the year. Here we also pulled out our granola bars to share. The nature valleys went over HUGE with our new friends, so I’ve made a mental note to mail them some when I get home. Maple syrup is not a flavor that exists in Asia.
Continuing on our way, we stopped to say hello to some people working in one of the fields neighboring the rice paddies and pick some wild tangerines and some other fruit that’s a relative of the pomegranate, but I have no idea what it actually is. I didn’t really like the pomegranate thing, but the tangerines were AMAZING. Highly recommended.
After this we kept hiking and eventually reached the summit of our climb. The view was spectacular. In this picture you can see the village of Xiangming nestled in the valley below. Rather than go back through the rainforest, we took the direct, but steep, path down this slope. I only tripped once, but I fell on the tangerine I had been saving for later and completely juiced myself. Along the way we passed tons of these little huts; some even had farmers hanging out in them that we stopped to chat with.

Thus ends a very successful rainforest hike. I saw and learned a lot. It was spectacular. When we returned to Xuedan’s house
her mother made us eat something and take a nap before we could do anything else. After our nap we showered off the rainforest and just chilled with the family for a bit. We did some karaoke in the living room, and taught her brother how to play BS. Then Xuedan offered to show us around her town. It didn’t take long to walk from end to end (5 minutes), but we met a ton of people and played some intense games of badminton with the kids who had just gotten out of school (around 6 – count your blessings, America). Xuedan also taught us how to harvest and eat our own sugarcane and youzi, which grew in some random person’s backyard, but since this is a communal village it was meiwenti that we went in there unannounced and macheted ourselves some sugarcane. Pretty cool stuff.
That night after dinner we went downtown (a 5 second walk) to hang out with our new friends. We sat around Mrs. Zhang’s Shao Kao stand (where she grills a whole range of random items) and chatted. We sat on low stools around a short table made of wood set up on concrete blocks. The boys heard that we thought their motorcycles were cool, so we got rides around town. Basically we just sat around hanging out and eating sunflower seeds for 4 hours while having a good chat.
The next morning our bus left at 8, so we just woke up to the rooster and headed out with little ceremony, although we made the family let us take their picture so we can send it to them later. They have precious few pictures, and those three that they have they clearly treasure, so I think a family picture would be a nice gift. Our bus was uneventful, except for our waiguorenness being commented on every five minutes by the other bus patrons. We made it to Jinghong around noon and found ourselves with the rest of the day to spend before we left for Kunming around 7:30.
Dai food for lunch and market exploration till late fit the bill, as well as a quick stop at the Blind Massage College for a sample, which turned into an hour-long sample. My suspicions are confirmed, however, that I am super ticklish and massages probably are not the best option for me. Cest la vie. One night bus, one plane ride, and one shuttle bus later, and I arrived back at Bei Wai by noon with a whole day to spend recouping and prepping for the next day’s tingxie. A Thanksgiving weekend well spent, and certainly one to be thankful for.