Trip to the Roof of the World

by Lynn Salmon

Fall, 2002

After 5 weeks work on an air pollution study in the Pearl River Delta, John joined me and we embarked upon our second unscripted itinerary in China. It had been more than ten years since our Trip Along the Silk Road and we found the time has brought enormous changes to China. The country has moved ahead in leaps and bounds striving to modernize. There's not yet a KFC and Starbuck's on every corner, but I fear that day may be soon be here. On this trip we found it much easier to travel independently. The ease, though welcome, took away some of the exciting "every meal is an adventure" feeling we had on our last trip.

We begin in Hong Kong on the night of the Harvest Moon Festival. John is collected at the airport and whisked to a party at my HKUST colleague's home in the New Territories. I meet him there amidst the pandemonium of a house with 3 two-year-old triplets (Jefferson, Hamilton, and Franklin) and 8 dogs. I learn that the chickens had recently gone missing. We make "eyeglasses" out of glow-sticks, eat moon cakes and watch a giant spider weaving a web.

The next day, we visit the Big Buddha on Lantau Island. Bus - train - train - bus. The last bus takes an hour and labors up and down the very steep slopes of Lantau Island. The bronze Buddha is only a few years old, 15m tall, and the head weighs 5 tons. Many Buddha's are credited as the largest in some respect. This one's claim to fame is that it is the largest outdoor bronze Buddha. We lunch at the excellent vegetarian restaurant at the monastery.

Shenzhen [September 24, 2002]

Before I left for China in mid-August, we had discussed possible itineraries for this trip. Maybe we'd go to Shanghai and nearby Suzhou, or possibly a cruise through the Three Gorges before the final flooding. It's summer time and hot in the south of China. The possibility of going to Tibet never comes up so we both pack only light summer weight clothing.

We're still undecided about where we want to go, but we have only 3 weeks so we decide we better get started going somewhere and take the train into Shenzhen. We find a dingy, but cheap hotel not too far from the train station. There's a lot of business at the massage parlor on the 10th floor. We drop the bags and immediately head out to buy a plane ticket to Chengdu. We're not sure we're communicating clearly. There's a detailed map on the wall on which the ticket agent point out our destination. However, the legend is in Chinese so we can't tell if it's correct. We return to our hotel, find a guide book with the Chinese characters for Chengdu and then return to complete the plane ticket purchase. Next stop, central China.

Chengdu, located in Sichuan province, is a common jumping off point for travelers heading to Tibet, but that is not yet our plan. We intend to use Chengdu as a base from which to visit nearby world heritage sites like the Leshan Buddha and Dujiangyan Irrigation System. While working the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time in polluted urban locales and there's great appeal in heading to more remote western areas.

We find great food in Shenzhen. This had been true during the two weeks I had previously spent working in the city. Otherwise, the city consists of mostly empty high-rise buildings with new construction as far as the eye can see. It's a mecca for Hong Kong shoppers on the weekends but we do little shopping. The weather is mainly gray with drizzle.

Chengdu [September 25, 2002]

Leaving the airport, we hit upon a bargain priced "cab" ride into town. The two women operating the taxi service are likely airport employees making a few extra bucks on the side with their car. They are offering rates about half what we think the going rate for a legitimate cab should be. We decide to chance it and accept the ride. The big excitement was entering the freeway the wrong way up an exit, presumably to avoid a toll, but we survive the drive and arrive at the Sichuan Hotel in one piece. The women ask for payment about a block before we arrive so that the doorman at the hotel won't see money exchanged and they can claim they are just dropping off some friends.

The major landmark in Chengdu is a large statue of Mao in the central square. We are less than a week away from the October 1 National Day so decorations are well underway. October 1 marks the anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and it marks the beginning of a week long holiday period in China. We've been told to expect everything to be closed, which prompts us to think that maybe we'd rather spend that week in Tibet. We have a few days leading up to the holiday and can still check out the nearby sites.

The Sichuan Hotel is very nice except for the overly firm beds, a staple we found throughout China. It has a quirky illustrated sign in the elevator which reads:

TO bring you a more comfort home
To create a green dream of the world
The green hotel hand in hand with the bright future
There's a great duck restaurant across the street from the hotel, and we have a couple of meals there during our stay. The weather here is also gray and drizzly.

Da Fo [September 26, 2002]

We took a bus from Chengdu to Leshan (about 2 hours). The bus drove by Da Fo and stopped outside the Buddha-replica park down the street. A woman on the bus makes a clear announcement about where we are, at least clear to the Mandarin speaking passengers on the bus. They may be on a tour, and we might be the only passengers on the bus not part of the group. We had expected to be let off in the town of Leshan, but we instead appear to be outside of town near our chosen destination of the Big Buddha (Da Fo). Everyone else on the bus gets off and goes inside. So do we. This leads to some confusion as we search for the Big Buddha. The park has numerous Buddhas, some of them quite large, even one called Da Fo because it's the biggest Buddha in the Buddha replica park. We finally figure out we're not in the right place and leave.

We next try to take a cab back to the real Da Fo park entrance. The cab driver clearly nods and seems to understand what we want, but he then whizzes right past the entrance and insists on dropping us at the boat dock. While it is possible to take a boat for a view from the water, it wasn't what we wanted to do. However, it wasn't that far away so we walked back to the entrance to Da Fo.

Leshan Grand Buddha (Da Fo) is the largest Buddha in the world. The building project was begun in 713, engineered by a monk called Haitong. The statue has undergone a large amount of weathering over the years, and has had many "face lifts" and repairs added, including a water drainage system hidden on the inside. Nevertheless, there is still a great deal of erosion, and officials are worried about possible collapse.

It's possible to walk from top to bottom (and back up again) along a staircase carved in the wall overlooking the Buddha. A popular activity near the head is for people to have their photo taken "touching" the nose or sticking their finger in the ear of the Buddha, supposedly for good luck. We pass Crouching Tiger Cave and Hidden Dragon Pond on the way up. "Nice to live", "Safety First", and "No Cross Railing" signs abound.

It's a nice park. Lots of padlocks with prayer flags locked to the chains. There's a museum with pictures and descriptions of other big Buddhas. This is allegedly the biggest, and it is a big one. It looks like its been repaired several times in the 20th century, 1930's, 60's, 80's, and presumably there have been many more repairs going back to 713.

There's a huge crowd visiting today, and we walk down to the feet among them. Then we walk back up the other side like so many ants. We're getting hungry and there's no food to be found in the park so we head out. We start to head to the bus station when an old woman insists we get on a parked bus heading to Chengdu. The bus waits until the last two seats are filled by other passengers and then gets underway. We not sure, but it seems that this is a tour bus making some extra cash filling the last few seats with paying riders going to the same destination.

We take a different route back to Chengdu and briefly wonder if we'll end up there or somewhere else in Asia prompting us to check our compass and maps. We get a lot of helpful advice from the other passengers about where we might be going and what local buses might be best once we get there. A healthy debate rages in Mandarin. I can understand enough to recognize that numbers are flying back and forth, bus routes, street names, times, distances, lots of possible numbers. Eventually someone tries to translate the consensus into English for us and we nod and hope for the best. The bus drops us at a different bus station than the one we left town from, but we use our GPS to verify that we are in the correct city and catch a taxi back to our hotel.

Back in Chengdu [September 27-28, 2002]

Lhasa fever overtakes us, and we spend the next morning checking out details for a possible trip to Tibet. At Sam's Guesthouse we learn that we can arrange a one way plane ticket and the necessary permits to get us into Lhasa for 1800 Yuan (approx. $225). Sam will have to check available dates for us.

In the afternoon we went to the Panda Breeding Research Center about 10 km out of town. Traffic was intense. At one point, the driver pulled a swift yank-in-the-rear-view-mirror maneuver seconds before it could be sheared off. It took a long time to cover a short distance in this much traffic. Finally at the panda facility, we were lucky to see some active pandas eating bamboo and apples. The place's pride and joy is a panda named Pride sponsored by the Chengdu Cigarette Factory. He has an endearing blurb near his enclosure:

Panda Pride: I was born in 1996 and adopted by Chengdu Cigarette Factory. My nickname is PRIDE. Since I am the most highlighted giant panda here, I have been meeting countless all coloured people and shot by their flash cameras millions of times. You can seek such famous photographers as former British Prime Minister and Australian Governor-General form my albums. Acting as environment protection envoy in TV is my part-time job. I deeply believe, you and me both love the green earth where we can grow and breed forever, and without any extinction. My dear guest, what I'd like to present to you is myself.

There were a few other giant pandas as well as a red panda that looked like a raccoon, and several new born babies in incubators. As an added bonus we were the first to find the geocache: Berry Virtual Cache.

On the next day we intend to go to Dujiangyan. Lonely Planet says the bus leaves from the Ximen bus station, so we take a taxi there. Alas, the only sign of a bus station is an empty lot that looks about the right size for a bus depot. We have a great deal of trouble understanding the help we're getting from some workmen. Perhaps the new bus station is 5 blocks away? Or perhaps it's reached on the #5 bus? Or perhaps it closes at 5pm? We decide to walk a few blocks and see. We don't find the bus, but we do do find the mother-load of hardware stores. Materials for plumbing, VAC or electrical repairs in quantities suitable for provisioning a modern high-rise office tower are for sale in stall after stall along the street. Not having any construction work planned, we head back to Sam's to inquire about our Tibet trip. We're "on" for Monday.

Next up, the Taoist temple at Wenhua park. The phrase ``if you can see it, it's not there'' may not do justice to Taoist philosophy but it certainly captures our understanding of things after reading the English language signage and consulting LP for a refresher course in comparative religion. There's plenty of incense and candles, mostly Chinese tourists, and a bunch of locals playing Mah Jong. Chengdu is a hectic, noisy, dirty metropolis, but the Wenhua park was a welcome oasis of calm.

We intended to get dinner at the main Chunxi Lu shopping center near our hotel, but strolling through the shopping center area we couldn't find any restaurants other than fast food places. Off on a side street we found an expensive looking restaurant and decided to try it. It had a menu in Chinese only, but the manager helped us order the house special, Guo Ba Ron Pian, pork (we think) on rice crispy noodles, a vegetable, You Mai Cai/Tsai? and some very tender beef. Our teacups were never allowed to fall more than one sip below full. The bill came to only 113Y with something like a 20% discount for no apparent reason.

Dujiangyan [September 29, 2002]

Armed with a slip of paper on which Sam (of the Guest House) had written the correct address, we took a taxi to the correct bus station. While trying to match the characters on the display with the characters in our guide book for Dujiangyan, two students who spoke English came to help us. Turns out they were going to Dujiangyan for the day, so we tagged along with them making for an excellent trip. Our new friends were studying to be travel agents and were going to Dujiangyan for an assignment.

The bus took less than an hour and then we took a taxi to the only World Heritage ditch -- a still-functioning, 2000 year old engineering marvel. Some time around 256 BC they figured out how to channel the river to separate silt from fresh water. The basic system is still in operation today.

Dujiangyan has three major parts:

  • The Fishmouth Pier (yuzui)
  • Feishayan Weir (feishayan)
  • Mouth of the Precious Jar (baoping kou)

The river is split into two parts as it enters the Fishmouth pier, a long and narrow dike built in the shape of a fish mouth in order to receive the least water resistance. The Feishayan weir drains the flood water and takes away sediment deposits. Workers using only hand tools cut a trunk canal, called the Mouth of the Precious Jar through a towering mountain in order to feed an extensive system of canals on the plains, thereby turning the Chengdu plains into one of the most fertile in China. During the flood season, 40 percent of river's flow goes through the Mouth of the Precious jar to irrigate the Chengdu plain, but 80 percent of the silt is carried away in the outer river.

The Anlan bridge crosses the river near the upstream end of Fishmouth Pier. It is suspended by woven bamboo cables (now reinforced with steel). It was formerly called the Fuqi Bridge (Husband and Wife Bridge) because it was built by a devoted couple and it is held together by locks that symbolize the pair's never-ending devotion.

There is a large park area around Dujiangyan with temples and pavilions sprinkled through the forest and gardens. Erwang Temple (two kings temple) was built as a tribute to Li Bing and his son. The oldest tree in China dating back to the Yin Shang dynasty (1700-1100 BC) is also in the park.

We got a bird's-eye-view of the whole system by climbing up the five-story high Qin Yen Lou. Mao, Deng, and Jiang Zemin have all taken in the view from its upper platform.

To Tibet! [September 30, 2002]

One more hour and a half drive through gray rainy weather in Chengdu and we're on our way to Tibet. Officially we're on a tour, but that lasts only till we arrive and check in at the airport. The 2-hour flight to Lhasa is over some pretty mountain scenery and the crowd rushes to the left side of the plane for optimum viewing.

We land in Lhasa, home of the Dalai Lamas, and one of the world's highest cities at 3700m (12000 ft). We feel the high altitude while waiting for our bags to be unloaded. The overwhelming first impression on arriving in Lhasa is ``Who turned on the lights?'' It was overcast in Hong Kong, and Chengdu is perpetually foggy and gloomy, so we really haven't seen the sun in quite some time. The contrast between Chengdu's fog and Lhasa's brilliant blue sky is striking. Sunburn becomes a distinct possibility, even in October.

The ride into town is a leisurely and flat 1.5 hour drive alongside a river. The mountains are around us, but there's no need to climb them yet. The other striking contrast with the "real" China is how picturesque it is. Bus riders from Chengdu airport to downtown rarely snap photos.

At our hotel we are wiped out by climbing 3 flights of stairs and need to rest. There really is less oxygen at 12000 feet. Eventually, we take a walk and catch the sunset at the Jokhang temple. There is a huge crowd circumambulating. We go against the flow briefly before realizing our error and reversing direction (go clockwise, keep the temple on your right). The 1300 year old Jokhang Temple is one of Tibet's holiest shrines and pilgrims come from miles around to circumambulate and prostrate themselves on the devotional circuit that surrounds it.

The light is perfect and adds a mystical charm to what seems a medieval marketplace. There are prayer flags flapping, pilgrims marching, and prayer wheels spinning. We're definitely not in China any more. Lots and lots of stuff is for sale on the circumambulation circuit. The devotees run the gamut from desperately poor to very well-groomed. One very stylish monk-dude in a yellow hat checks out a silver prayer wheel but doesn't buy it. Some Tibetan rock videos look intriguing. We also met two small Tibetan children, ages 7 & 10, who wanted to practice English. Their accents were very good. Probably the best English speakers we have met during the trip. Dinner was yak stew with tsampa, the Tibetan staple.

October 1 - National Day

It's National Day in China but there's no sign of festivities in Tibet. There are fewer people circumnavigating the Jokhang temple today. We found a good spot at a roof top cafe to sip tea and watch people in Barkhor square. Some noticeable effects of altitude remain, a slight headache plus trouble sleeping. The conventional medical advice is to go easy while acclimatising to the altitude, so we aren't planning much sight-seeing today.

We change venue from one roof top cafe to another cafe on a balcony across the square for lunch. It was full of a mix of patrons, some monks, some Chinese tourists, some Korean tourists, and us. After a satisfying yak sizzler we return to the room for a brief rest.

In the afternoon we head out and book a landcruiser for a 6 day Tibet adventure to begin in 3 days. Banks are closed for the holiday so we can't pay, but we leave our passports with the guy behind the desk. We then take a walk to see the outside of the Potala Palace. It's huge, but we will save exploring its 13 storeys for tomorrow.

Dinner was at a place called Dunya which according to the menu means "world" in over 10 languages: Arabic, Hausa, Turkish, Uzbek, Farsi, Pashto, Urdu, Hindi, Nepali, Malay, and Bahasa Indonesian. The Yak cheese and mustard was excellent, as was the lasagna, but the meal took forever to arrive.

Potala Palace

The Potala Palace was once the center of Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lama. Located on a hill overlooking Lhasa, it contains thousands of rooms. The eastern part, the White Palace, houses the living quarters, while the Red Palace is for religious functions.

We walked the 1.3 km from our hotel to the Potala Palace. Then it was up, up, up, and up some more. There was some confusion about how to get in, and we didn't want to climb up the hill only to find a locked door. A shopkeeper pointed the way, up, and fortunately there was a ticket window at the top of many flights of stairs. We entered in what seemed to be the correct direction, rooms were numbered 1, 2, 3 .... 22 but it was opposite the way the tour groups navigated the place. This meant we had the White Palace essentially to ourselves at the beginning and then ran into a crowd crunch around the midpoint near the roof. The roof provided lots of photo opportunities with excellent views of Lhasa and the surrounding hills.

In the White Palace, all the walls and ceilings are painted, usually a dark red, and there are some really well preserved murals. Yak butter lamps, giant pots of yak butter with wicks floating in them, are in front of most shrines. The Red Palace has lots more shrines and stupas. Several of the Dalai Lamas are buried here. There are monks meditating in a couple of rooms. Several of the rooms have wall sized libraries of ``books'', long rectangular boxes with individual pages printed on either wood or very heavy paper.

It's a huge place, maybe 13 storeys and there's a lot of stuff inside. Many visitors leave monetary donations with notes from many nations. The exhibition room had some remarkably well preserved tapestries from the 17th century. Vivid colors, bright greens, reds, yellows. We finish with the antiquities treasures: tea cups, knives, scrolls, portraits, masks, robes, etc. All in good condition. These kinds of things seem to be missing or in very short supply at all the other Chinese museums and cultural sites we've visited.

Lhasa [October 3, 2002]

We paid a morning visit to Jokhang temple. It was very crowded with lots of worshipers so it felt very oppressive in the chapels. The open flame yak-butter lamps, the floors covered with oil and the centuries-old wood construction made us nervous about fire danger. Jokhang is quite different in style to the Potala. A large central room with many small side rooms that everyone needs to push and shove their way in and out of. The people pushing and shoving are primarily worshipers trying to perform obligatory rituals so we feel slightly in the way.

The highpoint of a Jokhang visit is the roof which has a great view of the square and vistas including the Potala Palace in the distance. We took the picture that's on half the postcards.

We took a bus out to Sera Monastery in the afternoon. Many of the 600 monks in residence have a daily debate at 3:30pm which is quite a spectacle. The setting is a large courtyard with whitewashed walls and several shade trees. The monks ``debate'' in pairs, usually with one sitting and the other standing. From what we can gather, it's more of a quiz than a debate, and an affirmative answer is signified by a lunge and a hand clap, often quite animated. A few dozen tourists are wandering through this with massive amounts of camera gear. None of the monks seem to mind or even pay much attention. Most of them are teenagers, but a few are older and clearly more respected.

Yamdroktso to Gyantse [October 4, 2002]

Day one of our Landcruiser tour. It's not possible to rent a car and self-drive in Tibet. In fact, the car comes with both a driver and a guide. We head out of Lhasa and drive through fields of Monet haystacks and riverbanks lined with beech trees turning a beautiful shade of yellow. We pass by a large Buddha commemorating the visit of a Bangladeshi monk who stopped there to rest in the 11th century. Our guide translates the name of the village as "I'm tired".

We veer off the new Shigatse road to begin the climb up, up, up over the Khambala Pass (4794m) to Yamdroktso lake. The road up becomes steeper and steeper and ever more precarious as we ascend. Eventually we are careening around switchbacks over thousand foot drops. Passing is even more nerve-wracking and of course since we're in a LandCruiser we pass several slower buses and trucks. Fortunately, there is very little traffic coming the other way.

Yamdroktso Lake (N29 11.705 E90 36.940) is a bright turquoise with the snow capped peak of Nojin Kangsan visible in the distance about 60 km away. The views are stunning. Yamdroktso is one of Tibet's largest and holiest lakes with an area of more than 600 square kilometers. It is also one of its most endangered. A hydro power facility is near where our road turned uphill. Water is siphoned from the lake to drive turbines 800 meters below on the valley floor. Some experts have estimated that the lake will be drained in 20 years, but the Chinese deny that there will be any environmental impact.

We continued around the lake for many miles, and then over the Karo La pass at 5010m. We stopped at the pass among some Tibetan tents and a few yaks. Huge waterfalls pour off the bottom of the snow capped mountain in the distance. From here, we drive through some fairly gentle, treeless brown rolling meadows and valleys. They go for miles with subtle shades of brown, rust, yellow, light green. We're well above the tree line here. There are no trees and no plants other than scrubby grass and lichens.

On to an overlook above another bright turquoise lake. This one is man-made. The Gyantse dam is right around the corner. We switch back down the back side of the dam and continue on another fairly flat drive through barley fields to Gyantse.

We visit Gyantse monastery just before closing time. Our guide seems to know ALL the Buddhas, lamas, guardians, and other cohorts among the thousands of statues at each monastery we visit. In fact, he spent several years as a monk before he became a guide and memorization of the important figures is part of the training.

Our hands are washed with holy water and we drink a sip to bring us good luck. This is the first stupa we've visited that can be seen inside. We climb to the top, but decline to pay the extra 10Y required to bring our camera with us. Mistake. The views from the top are spectacular.

We visit the library and one of the monks is tidying up. One of the ``books'' in the library has its pages out and it can be handled. It's flexible and not nearly as fragile as I expected. The gold writing is fresh and legible. Is this really 700 years old?

We stayed the night in Gyantse. There are a few other groups with their own landcruisers making similar trips as ours and consequently stopping at the same places. We had dinner with a group we keep bumping into including Mark, an English guy who had been traveling for nearly a year. He had all of his stuff stolen while in Chengdu, but after waiting 17 days for a replacement passport, was on the move again. Zivan, had been on the road for 8 months, and Carey had been working in China and was just setting out on her trip. They, as is common, were planning to cross the border into Nepal after visiting Everest Base Camp.

Gyantse to Shigatse [October 5, 2002]

We began the day by walking up to the Dzong Fort in Gyantse. It was a long way up and John was very tired, though we have mostly adjusted to the increased altitude. It's interesting that the Tibetan children we pass all greet us with "Welcome to China". The fort commands excellent views of the city and the surrounding farmland.

Since Gyantse is at a crossroads linking Lhasa with Shigatse, it has historically played a strategic role for many dynasties, regimes, and religious sects that have occupied it since 967 AD. It was long believed to be impenetrable until the British troops under Younghusband invaded in 1903. An "anti-British" museum in the fort commemorates the slaughter.

Visitors at the fort were few and far between, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. After climbing to the very highest point and seeing the panorama of the entire valley stretched out before us, we stopped for some tea with our guide. We played a popular Tibetan game called Sho similar to backgammon with the help of our guide and the women who work at the fort. We had seen people playing it on the street and in cafes throughout our visit. After some searching, we found and purchased a set of pieces as a souvenir.

The Tibetan Game of Sho for two or three players: each player has 9 coins. A large number (64?) of cowrie shells or stones are placed in the middle of the playing surface. Each players' coins are at the ``start''. The goal is to get all your coins to the end of the ``track'' of stones. The track itself can be extended by moving coins past the end of the existing track (which starts empty). On each roll of the dice, a player chooses either one of his coins from the start area, or a stack of his coins somewhere on the track, and moves them over the number of stones shown on the dice. The final position cannot be occupied by another player's coins unless the number of opponent coins is smaller than the group being moved, in which case the opponents coins are sent back to the ``start''. If the final position is occupied by your own pieces then the two stacks merge to form a larger stack. You get a second roll when you land either on your own or on an opponent's coins. Snake eyes also rolls again. Proper etiquette demands that the dice are rolled in a wooden bowl that is slapped down on a leather pad in the center of the game field. Another player must lift the bowl to reveal the dice. Failure to conform to this rule results in everyone having a good laugh at your expense AND loss of turn. In the pub version of the game it would no-doubt require drinking.

Shigatse to Shegar [October 6, 2002]

Shigatse is the second largest city in Tibet and famous as the home of the Panchen Lama. All of the Panchen Lamas since the 4th have lived at the Tashilhunpo Monastery. To our untrained eye, it is very similar to the monasteries in Lhasa and Gyantse. The monastery is huge, and very very crowded. There is literally a crush of people in every room. Today may be a religious holiday, or maybe it's just Sunday and people have the day off. From Shigatse we traveled many hours across treeless plains to Latse, where we had lunch. We take a long meandering uphill climb along a river, passing some nomadic yak herders high up on the opposite slope. From the Gyathu La pass we got our first brief glimpse of Mt. Everest in the distance and then drove down to Shegar.

Shegar is definitely a one horse town. A few pool tables line the main street. A small donkey is tied up outside one establishment. Shegar exists mainly as the fee payment point for entry to Qomolangma (Everest) National Nature Preserve Area. The night sky is worth the trip, though. The Milky Way is really a splash of milk and not merely a faint gray smudge. The Orion nebula is clearly visible in our tiny 10x monocular. It really is the darkest, clearest sky we've ever seen. There's not a lot of electric lighting in Shegar, and yesterday was the new moon. There's 15000 feet of atmosphere *below* us, and what's above is cold, clear and dry. Dave Bowman got it right: "My God, it's full of stars".

Everest [October 7, 2002]

We still have a few hours drive to get to Everest base camp. We cross the Pangla Pass, QMPTMB, with a panoramic view of four of the six highest peaks in the world. Breathtaking views of Makalu (8463m), Lhotse (8516m), Cho Oyu (8201m), and Mt. Everest (8848.13m). We pass a ruin that may be 700 years old and looks like a small version of Gaochang. On the way, we pick up an Israeli hitchhiker, Ben, a very likable guy who we drop off at base camp after lunch in one of the tents. He makes interesting conversation about his venture capital days in Israel, start-ups in Silicon Valley, and his French friend who was last seen walking toward Nepal.

We drive all the way to base camp zig zagging up a barren gorge. Everest is visible most of the time. The sky has been crystal clear and blue for the entire day. The road on both sides is really twisty but rarely hangs off the edge of a cliff. This is Everest base camp on the Tibetan side of the mountain. It has little more than a collection of tents and a concrete toilet, but the view today is spectacular.

There are a handful of other tourists on hand. Three mid-westerners doing a quick one-day run to/from Shegar and two Brits on their way to India and the Pushkar camel market in a couple of weeks. Lunch is a bowl of noodle soup. It's possible to overnight in one of the tents at base camp for very little money, but it's getting much colder and we opt to stay within walls at the Rongphu Monastery, the highest temple in the world.

We walked the 8km down to the monastery. Some choose to walk up, but we've been feeling the effects of altitude, and the elevation gain worries us, so we opt for the easier downhill walk. We can't resist placing a geocache on the way. While enjoying the chosen spot, we notice weather approaching. In no time at all, Everest is completely obscured by clouds. Fog and rain are coming our way and we have 6km to cover before shelter. We start moving ``with considerable alacrity'', hoping to outrun the advancing storm.

We beat the rain and arrive at the guest house where a warm cup of tea is waiting. We again meet up with Zivan, Mark, and Carey and a German woman who walked the 30km from the last checkpoint (3 days!). Officially, this type of independent travel is not allowed, but it's a big country and a few travelers slip under the radar.

Dinner is egg-fried rice. There are probably other options, but the kitchen is slightly disorganized and we go with most common order. After dinner we learn how to play "arse hole" which is apparently the card game of choice on the hostel circuit. We go to bed fully clothed under many, many, warm blankets.

Return to Lhasa [October 8-9, 2002]

We're up at 8am for the long drive from Rongphu to Shigatse. It's seems earlier since it is still dark, and no one else at the guest house is awake. We wake up someone to pay for our room. Breakfast was cooked on a yak dung fire at a small place about 30 minutes away.

We drove and drove, eventually getting to Latse around 1:30pm. At one point, we take a ``short cut'' reminiscent of the 2003 Hummer ad in which the soap box racer cuts diagonally across the switchbacked race course. This is followed by waiting in a long line of trucks for a bridge repair to be completed. And then by a drive on a narrow road high up on the edge of a chasm with a raging torrent below that reminds us of the KKH in Pakistan.

At one point our driver slams on the brakes and jumps out of the car. We assume something is wrong, but in fact, he noticed something in the road. A sling, similar to the one used by David against Goliath. Herders use them to get the attention of wandering animals a few hundred yards distant. He shows us how to use it, getting a satisfying supersonic ``crack'' and launching stones out into space and down, down, down to the valley floor below. We have much less success, but fortunately no one is injured by errant missiles.

We picked up an official at one of the checkpoints. Turns out his mother is ill in Shigatse so we give him a lift. We again stay at the Hotel Manasarovar in Shigatse. We have done very little in Shigatse other than eat at the hotel's excellent Nepali restaurant, but it's one of the most comfortable hotels we've had on the entire trip.

The next day, we picked up a couple of nuns that were coincidentally hitching a ride to our guide's home village of Renbong. As a result, we got an unscheduled trip to the ``real Tibet'' and a special visit to the monastery where our guide spent 12 years as a monk. Our guide had an emotional reunion with his teacher of many years. They caught up on old times while we sat in the kitchen area and had yak butter tea which the monks made fresh with the ``traditional'' Tibetan blender. This tea was actually good, fortunate because we kept getting gestures to drink followed by refills. After the visit, our guide took us to lunch in town where he seemed to know everyone. It was like being at lunch in Beverly Hills with The Player.

The final leg of the journey took about 3 hours, 132 km along a tree-lined river. The weather has turned on us and it is rainy and damp back in Lhasa. We chose a different hotel overlooking the Barkhor square and have a view of the pilgrims circumambulating Jokhang temple from our room.

Final Day in Tibet [October 10, 2002]

We're in luck, we can get a Lhasa - Chengdu followed by a Chengdu - Shenzhen flight out tomorrow. The purchase process would have been difficult without help from a Chinese speaking westerner. Fill out a slip of paper with desired destination and date, give it to a woman at one counter, get a receipt, go to the cashier, pay money, get another kind of receipt, return to the first woman, get tickets.

From there on we took it easy, returning to our favorite roof top restaurant for lunch. It's now much cooler in Lhasa. Last week it was t-shirt weather, now we're cold with three layers. We wind up with more pilgrim watching from our window, dinner, and some shopping and we're done with Tibet.

Shenzhen and home [October 12-13, 2002]

Flights go smoothly, and we decide to spend our last two nights in Shenzhen rather than Hong Kong. There's some great food on a street near our hotel and they seem to understand my Mandarin much better here among the Cantonese speakers in the south than they did in Chengdu.

Shenzhen has a set of amusement parks connected by the Happy Line monorail. Previously, Lynn had visited Window on the World, which has miniatures of "all" the world's attractions outside of China. This time, we visit Splendid China, which has "all" of China in miniature. It appealed to us since we've been to many of the real places. The models are very nicely done and arranged well. It was nearly deserted on a Saturday. It was amusing to see gardeners mowing the grasslands in Inner Mongolia.

We went to the China Folk Cultural Villages at 7pm. The open till 10pm signage is a bit misleading. All the folk villages close up around 7pm and the only things open after dark are the stage shows, which turned out to be included in the price of admission and fairly entertaining. We walked around the park a bit in the dark before joining the costume show in progress. The second show was more lively, sort of a Las Vegas revue with a Chinese flair and a cast of 150 or more performers.

On our last day, we got up and out early to get to the train station when it opened at 6:30am. There was a throng of taxis awaiting the crowds of Sunday Hong Kong shoppers arriving on the first train of the day. We're very glad that we're going in the opposite direction. Thirty minutes later we're in Kowloon Tong MTR station. We take the subway to the airport, and have our first Dim Sum at the HK airport. Then the long plane ride home.

The End

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Lynn Salmon <>{
Last updated: August 16, 2015