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A Trip of Firsts (In Business Class) - China, Tibet, and the Olympics

A Trip of Firsts (In Business Class) - China, Tibet, and the Olympics

Old May 31, 09, 6:08 pm
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A Trip of Firsts (In Business Class) - China, Tibet, and the Olympics

The following is a trip report written over the course of the past year for what was for me a most exciting trip filled with many firsts – my first trip to China, my first visit to Tibet, my first total solar eclipse, and my first time at the Olympics. The trip report started out quite up-to-date, with me updating it each evening at the conclusion of the day’s activities. Unfortunately and predictably, I couldn’t keep updating it nightly, and upon my return to the US, I was immersed in work and didn’t get back to the trip report for far too long.

Major credit for this trip even happening goes to my friend, and work colleague Wesley, who had the original idea to go to the Olympics and to include some sightseeing before or after. He handled most of the trip planning, and I handled airline tickets and some post-China sightseeing. Surprisingly, we had little difficulty in getting the award tickets – and we changed our dates and routings a few times. US Airways was generally very helpful and especially lenient on the routing (as you’ll see in our trip report).

What follows is my overly-verbose recollection of the two week trip with names changed to protect the innocent. You have my apologies in advance for the length (some 39 pages and 25,000 words):

Last edited by vysean; May 31, 09 at 7:34 pm
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Old May 31, 09, 6:09 pm
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Day 0/1 – Tuesday/Wednesday – Pre-Flight/In-Flight/Arrival in Hong Kong

As apparently is always the case for me, I was trying to keep things interesting by waiting until the last minute. Mind you, I had begun packing the night before, and at least had clothes washed and ready to go. The house was also nice and clean – a first for me when departing on a longer trip. We left work later than we had hoped – due in part to last minute wrapping-up of issues both personal and professional. We left work around 4:15pm for an 8pm flight. I stopped at Costco on the way home to pickup a last-minute memory card and some photos I’d had printed earlier in the day. From there, it took me 20 minutes at home to finish packing, quickly clean the bathrooms, and throw everything into Wesley’s car.

We drove to Phoenix making great time and arrived at the airport with a little over two hours to spare. We checked our bags and then tried to figure out what to do about dinner. Ultimately we decided to wait until Vegas. We stopped off in the US Airways club for a few minutes before heading over to our gate. The flight was already fully-boarded (and a few minutes to go before scheduled pushback) so we were soon in the air and on the way to Vegas.

View of the Las Vegas Strip:


There were no problems on the flights to Vegas or Toronto that we knew of, except for a rather poor selection of restaurants open late in Las Vegas and of course no on-board catering for the LAS-YYZ flight. Toronto was fun – I got myself a Tim Horton's doughnut and enjoyed a shower in the Air Canada lounge (staff there were quite friendly).

One of the shower rooms in the Toronto Air Canada MLL:


And the sink:


And the lounge itself - open and airy like the terminal, but at least while we were there devoid of much food:


After that I got some HKD and CNY for Hong Kong and China since Wells Fargo made every effort to mess up our trip closer to home. Just before boarding we saw the Brazilian Olympic team and a small part of the Mexican delegation. After this we boarded the flight. I was seated in 1K but offered to switch seats once it became obvious that a family of four or five (with a nanny to boot) was spread all around me. They thanked me and I was happy as I had a better window view to take pictures from.

Our Hong Kong-Bound Aircraft:


The Nice AC ExecutiveFirst Seat:


The food on board was good to very good (except for the pre-arrival meal), service good, the seat nice (similar to Air New Zealand/Virgin Atlantic but not the same). Since it was a 16+ hour flight I was able to watch several movies – 21 (interesting), Flawless (really well done), Son of Rambow (very funny actually – I didn’t know what this was at first), some Japanese movie (enjoyable but I didn’t follow most of it), and a Simpsons episode. They had a tv show called "Pingu" about Penguins, and since my brother is infatuated with the creatures, I dutifully took a picture and endured watching part of it.

Lunch:


Dessert:


Pingu and Air Canada IFE:


For a majority of the flight, the views were simply astounding. I’d never flown so far north and I was captivated by the stunning scenery outside the window. I probably annoyed many of the passengers with my constant opening of the window shade, but I think they missed out on a far better version of in-flight entertainment than the TV provided. I took many pictures and noted that we flew at least to 75 degrees north latitude (probably higher – I only briefly turned on my handheld GPS unit).

View After Lunch:


And a Little Later:


Mid-Flight Snack:


Just Incredible Views:


Detail of Ice:


I felt obligated to add a spoon to my spoon collection, so Air Canada is minus a spoon – sadly they don’t appear to have teaspoons, so they’ll probably get the spoon back this fall when I fly them again since I don’t need to collect regular spoons. As I had written above, the food was good - I had a filet for lunch, some pasta/chicken as a snack, some petit fours, mixed nuts, and finally some pasta (not so great) as a pre-arrival lunch. Upon arrival (1 hour early – nice!) we were met by a person with our names on a sign (odd, I didn’t know they offered arrivals service and we weren’t transferring). We were then warned that our bags hadn't made the flight – ahh, so it wasn’t a luxury car service into town that they were providing after all. It took a while to file baggage claims and we were told they don’t provide any kind of overnight amenity kits for lost bags. Our one hour early arrival was easily eaten up by dealing with this and attempting to book our Xi’An – Lhasa flight, and our trip was off to an auspicious start.

Petit Fours:


Pre-Arrival Meal (bleh!):

Last edited by vysean; May 31, 09 at 6:58 pm
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Old May 31, 09, 6:09 pm
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Day 2 – Thursday - Hong Kong

Once we got our flight from Xi'An to Lhasa sorted out, we hopped the train into town, went to the hotel, got checked-in (after some negotiation I was able to get us upgraded to the same two-king suite I had back in February - very nice).

The Harbour-View Suite at the Conrad - Entry:


The Harbour-View Suite at the Conrad - Sitting Area:


The Harbour-View Suite at the Conrad - Beds:


The Harbour-View Suite at the Conrad - Sink:


The Harbour-View Suite at the Conrad - Shower/Tub:


We went out to my (now) favorite Sichuan restaurant and Wesley was equally impressed. Unfortunately, I dropped some on my shorts (which are my only pair of pants at this time), and despite cleaning them with water and then soap and water, there's still a small stain.

A Tasty Dinner at the Red Pepper Restaurant:



After that, we went in search of the teashop I'd been to before so I could stock up - unfortunately we didn't bring the guidebook and I thought it was at a different subway stop, so we never found it.

We did stumble through all kinds of markets - with all kinds of things I'd never dream of eating. Fish were flopping around all over the place, crabs were clinging desperately to metal implements, and other random seafood was happily (or not so) milling about unaware of its ultimate fate.

After that we went back to the hotel, gathered our camera gear, and went up to the Peak Tram to catch a ride to the top. It was the most popular time of day, so we had to wait probably 20 minutes for tickets, and another 10 to get on a tram to the top. At the top, we went in search of a good vantage point for photos. Having been there earlier this year, I knew what a mess the outdoor viewing deck could be, so we didn’t pay extra for it, opting instead to take our chances with everyone else. The photos came out well I think, and the weather largely cooperated, though it did rain on us a bit.

View of Hong Kong and Kowloon from The Peak:


After that, we decided to walk down instead of taking the tram as it would have cost more money. The walk was long and steep but fun, and we ended up basically where we started, though with no thanks to the signage. A few minutes later we were back at the hotel, and appreciative of the in-room air conditioning (which strangely didn’t apply to the common areas and elevators).

We were both tired but a little hungry, so we ran up to the lounge, used the free Internet, had some desserts, and went to sleep (we had to be up at 6am the following morning). Service in the lounge was lacking – surprisingly so for a Conrad, and they never provided any in-room amenities (tea, chocolates, fruit, etc.)

Last edited by vysean; May 31, 09 at 7:17 pm
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Old May 31, 09, 6:10 pm
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Day 3 – Friday – Hong Kong/Xi’An

At 6 we woke up, got ready to go, and bailed out of the hotel. We checked in for our flight in-town just before the cutoff and then hopped on the express train to the airport. Upon arrival, we completed all of the formalities of the flight, got to the gate, and found that they were already boarding, so we had no opportunity to avail ourselves of grape Fanta or the copious amounts of free Kit Kat bars available at the United Airlines club in Hong Kong. I guess I’ll save that for next time.

The flight to Beijing was uneventful - lightly loaded, Wesley and I each had a row to ourselves. Why Air China wouldn’t release F-class seats for awards on this flight is beyond me – there wasn’t a single person sitting up there. Service was okay - not friendly but efficient, and breakfast was served - surprisingly okay and filling.

Air China Breakfast:


Lots of Clouds in the Sky:


We arrived more or less on-time (but at a remote stand – ugh!) and then went through immigration and customs. The airport (Terminal 3 specifically) is very impressive - it is now the largest enclosed building in the world if my facts are correct and it looks quite nice. Tons of Olympic helper people were there getting ready for the expected influx of foreign athletes and visitors. We found the Air China lounge and went in, but not before clearing security. The Chinese airport security staff confiscated my and Wesley's shampoo, claiming it was not allowed (despite me having used the same tiny container for over 60 flights in the last 10 months in 10 countries). They simply wouldn't allow it. The security lady was also very suspicious of my still-wrapped Scope mouthwash, wondering what it was used for. I used hand gestures, but she insisted on smelling it. Even then she wasn’t completely satisfied, but I wasn’t about to have two items confiscated.

The Air China lounge was spartan - not much in the way of food or drink, but at least a welcome place to sit. We enjoyed apple chips (good), peanuts (okay), and some odd honey dates (never tried these myself), plus Coke and Fanta made with real sugar – it’s almost an acceptable tradeoff for the ridiculous humidity found throughout Asia.

Air China Business Class Lounge:


We spotted a Haagen-Dazs ice cream store so I availed myself of a scoop of tasty green tea ice cream that I've only found here in Asia. In the airport we spotted a delegation of the New Zealand Olympic team. Not long thereafter we boarded our flight to Xi'An, which was short and uneventful as well.

We arrived in Xi’An on-time, found our way to the ground transportation area, purchased a map of the area and had the information booth lady write the name of our hotel down in Mandarin. We walked outside and stood out like a sore thumb. We looked to see where the taxis were queuing when someone approached us, asked if we needed a taxi and told us to follow him. We were a bit dubious, but seeing no official taxi stand began to follow. A second later we spotted the taxi stand and made a beeline for it – to the protestations of the driver that had ensnared us just a moment before. The driver at the “official stand” could understand “meter”, so we were in business. We headed out and made good time for the first half of the journey. Driving in China is simply insane – for the entire route we were on, there were two or three lanes, but there were cars in at least five different “lanes”. At any rate, after a few near-death experiences, we safely arrived at our hotel, the Sheraton Xi'An.

We checked-in, dropped the bags in the room, and tried to decide when and where we would photograph the total solar eclipse that would be occurring in a few hours’ time.

Standard Room at the Sheraton Xi'An - Sitting Area:


Standard Room at the Sheraton Xi'An - Beds:


Standard Room at the Sheraton Xi'An - Sink/Toilet:


Standard Room at the Sheraton Xi'An - Bath:


We waited until 6:30pm before finally deciding to get a taxi and head north – this left us less than an hour before totality. The hotel staff explained to the taxi driver what we wanted to do, and he told them it would be okay, so off we went. We drove for a long time, but around 7pm (20 minutes before totality), the driver was getting exasperated and was trying to tell us something, but we couldn’t understand him. Finally he called someone who spoke English and handed the phone to me. She said that we didn’t have enough time to get to the park that we wanted to go to. I said “okay”, having no idea where the park was in relation to where we were. The driver immediately pulled over at the nearest curb and we were left to photograph from that point.

The 2008 Total Solar Eclipse - Pre-Eclipse:


I took a few shots and then setup my tripod. There were a few Chinese standing around looking at the eclipse and taking photos with their mobile phone cameras. As I started taking pictures and reviewing them more people would gather around my camera. As the eclipse progressed, people were taking pictures of my camera’s preview screen because you could actually clearly see the eclipse without burning your eyes. As it hit totality, the mob around us was quite impressive – some 30 to 40 people and a couple of young school kids who spoke the only English we heard – “hi”. We said “hi” back and they smiled and talked excitedly amongst themselves.

About that time a policeman pulled up and told our taxi driver that he couldn’t park there. He didn’t know what to do, so he motioned to Wesley who attempted to suggest to him that he simply drive around the block. The driver was having none of it and so Wesley got in the car too, but no sooner than they started to pull out did the policeman drive off, so the driver put the car in reverse, pulled back into the spot he was in before, and craftily popped the hood of the car and pretended that he was trying to figure out why it wouldn’t start.

By this time, the eclipse was nearing totality, and it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to take pictures without blocking the mob’s view of the camera, so I reluctantly sat back and enjoyed the view – of the eclipse and the mob taking pictures of my pictures…

The 2008 Total Solar Eclipse - A Crowd Gathers:


The 2008 Total Solar Eclipse - Kind of Dark Out There:


The 2008 Total Solar Eclipse - What We Saw:


As the eclipse left totality, we started to pack up. I didn’t want to offend the mob but did want to pack up and get back to the hotel, so I waited until everyone had taken pictures and then pulled the camera off the tripod, smiling and apologizing the whole time. We packed up and I said “bye bye” which the school kids understood and responded to with big smiles.

We drove back to the hotel and we got the bill for the taxi – for a total of one hour (1/2 hour driving, ½ hour waiting), our bill was only 35 CNY (about $5.50). Wesley and I had agreed to tip him for waiting and outwitting the policeman, so I gave him 100 CNY – he gave me change which I gave back to him – he seemed confused and/or embarrassed, but we wanted him to have it. After some discussion with the hotel staff, we convinced him to take it and thanked him again.

About ten minutes later, I realized I’d left my wallet in the back seat of his car. Suffice it to say, it was an exciting and frustrating wait, but about an hour after realizing I’d forgotten it, the driver pulled back into the hotel with my wallet in-hand. Not a thing was missing, and I gave him another 100 CNY, which he again attempted to refuse.

By this time it was after 9pm, and we were hungry. We went a few buildings down to a restaurant recommended to us by the concierge, but it was closed. We decided it was too late and we were too tired for any more of an adventure, so we went back to the hotel and to the Chinese restaurant there – it looked like it had closed, but they seated us anyway.

The food was pretty good but odd – Wesley ordered shrimp which were still in the shell (I guess this is abnormal, but I wouldn’t know since I don’t eat seafood), and I ordered chicken that came with what looked like tomatoes, but upon tasting, were some kind of super-evil pepper which was both extremely salty and quite sour. It was fairly cheap, considering it was in an international hotel chain – my food total was only 45 CNY (about $7) for a main dish, a side of rice, some assorted extras, and dessert. The beer I had cost the same as all of my food combined (it was a big tasty beer though).

Dinner at the Sheraton Xi'An - Evil Peppers:

Last edited by vysean; May 31, 09 at 7:33 pm
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Old May 31, 09, 6:10 pm
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Day 4 – Saturday - Xi’An

We awoke early to our first and only full day in Xi’An. We were to meet our driver, guide, and car at 8:30am. We set out from the hotel for the east gate of the wall of Xi’An. From the parking lot, we ascended the stairs to the top of the wall where we had good views of the surrounding area. After a few minutes walking around we were directed inside a building where we were given a brief explanation of fung shui. Our scam sensors were going off at this point as we were directed up some stairs to a small room where there were tons of little carved lions for sale. After another brief presentation we were offered the ability to improve all manner of things in life by purchasing one or more of these carved trinkets. So I should now live a long and happy life, be safe, and sleep well. [2/24/09 Update – none of these has happened, so fung shui at your own risk].

City Wall - Xi'An:


City Wall - Xi'An:


After leaving the building, Wesley decided to purchase a tasty beverage. He has been in search of Apple-Kiwi Fanta ever since he visited the World of Coke Museum. While they didn’t have Apple-Kiwi Fanta (and I don’t think anyone does), they did sell Green Apple Fanta, which was almost as good (and darn tasty in my book). Temporarily satisfied and with no immediate safety concerns thanks to our new trinkets, we set out for our next stop – another tourist trap where the guide could earn a commission off of us.

A Very Tasty Beverage - Green Apple Fanta


Terra Cotta BS – I don’t know it’s actual name, so I’ll refer to it as “Terra Cotta BS”. At this lovely abode, you could ostensibly learn how the real terra cotta warriors were made several hundred years ago and, of course, have an opportunity to purchase your very own authentic replica made from the exact same clay and fired in exactly the same way as the originals. We ended up buying a few of these too before we were finally allowed to leave for our final destination – the Terra Cotta Warrior Museum.

Making Miniature Terra Cotta Warriors:


Little Terra Cotta Warrior Statues Neatly Lined Up:


The Terra Cotta Warrior Museum was quite impressive – once we actually got inside. It’s a fairly long walk, and from the parking lot to the entrance gate, you are accosted by many people trying to sell you all manner of things that you probably don’t need. Our guide filled us in on the history, Wesley tried to get her to discuss politics and other things, and I was happy to snap away photos. While in one of the buildings, we were taking pictures when someone came up and started talking to us in English. It turns out he was a graduate student from Hawaii who was studying Chinese in Beijing. He had been in Xi’An since February and was returning the Beijing the next day. He showed us some of his eclipse photos, and I showed him mine. He gave us his phone number and told us to call him when we get to Beijing in a few days. Perhaps we’ll meet him for lunch or see if he wants to head out to the Great Wall with us.

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum - Statues:


Terra Cotta Warrior Museum - Statues:


Terra Cotta Warrior Museum - Statues:


When we finished up at the Museum it was already after 2pm, and we were hungry. We had only one stop left after this at the Hot Springs which were conveniently on the way back to the hotel. Since we were hungry, the guide suggested we stop at a restaurant. When she said she knew “a great one”, I knew it was another tourist trap. Luckily I was not disappointed. Lunch at the Tourist Trap was very unimpressive – the first table we were offered was disheveled and the glasses were dirty. We chose another which was only slightly better. We ordered some food and it came out a while later. For some reason in all of my meals I’ve found it very difficult to get tea refills as often as I’d like – I don’t know if I drink more or if the service is bad or what, but I’m always looking for more tea and not getting it. After lunch (which was okay and fairly cheap) we left for the Hot Springs.

The Hot Springs were as advertised – although far more built-up than I had expected. I found it interesting to compare them to the hot springs in Bath, England. Both had been around for a very long time (though these had about 1,000 years on those in Bath), and both were quite consistent. The water from the hot springs of Xi’An was nicer, in my opinion, because it had no overbearing sulfur smell as the water from Bath did. That said, the Roman bathhouse complex of Bath was really quite impressive – probably more so than Xi’An, though the latter was by no means simple.

Shrine near cemetery at the hot springs:


Colorful view at the hot springs:


After we wrapped up at the Hot Springs we headed back to the hotel. We learned during our drive back that red lights are only suggestions, as multiple cars turned left on red lights and did all manner of illegal-in-the-US things. We also learned that the prices for junk food from the street vendors are marked up for foreigners (duh!) – our guide paid only 3 CNY for ice cream while we paid 5 CNY for the same. About 40 minutes after we left the Hot Springs we were back at the front door of the hotel – we bid goodbye to the driver and guide and went inside to drop our stuff.

After a brief rest it was time to head out to buy essentials – for Wesley a SIM card for his phone and new clothes for me as our bags had still not yet arrived. We set out down the street to buy the SIM card, but after twenty minutes of very limited communication back-and-forth it was clear that we wouldn’t be able to get it to work. NB: It appears that the company we were trying to buy from only works in Shaanxi Province, so perhaps that’s a good thing. Next we set out to buy clothes for me, since I had no more clean clothes and we weren’t sure when (or if) our bags would catch up to us. We entered a department store that didn’t seem to conform to any clear pattern – there were different shops selling the same or similar things all over the place, and the second floor was all groceries. At any rate, after a few minutes we finally found all of the things I wanted, but couldn’t figure out how to pay for them. We followed these blue arrow signs which seemed to go in a circle, and I finally found a cashier but she ignored me. So we went downstairs to the grocery portion of the store (where the blue signs ultimately led) and found a checkout line. Once it was my turn it became obvious that no one else was attempting to purchase clothing, so apparently we screwed that up. The cashier was able to scan everything except for a polo shirt I had hoped to purchase, so I was shirtless after all.

After that experience we decided to go and get dinner at the restaurant that had been recommended to us by the hotel concierge. We got there and were offered a table and a menu. The wait staff spoke exceedingly limited English, and the waitress kept asking if we liked something as she would point to different items, but it always sounded like she was asking, “Do you like eggs?”. Don’t get me wrong – I do like eggs on occasion, but surely every dish here isn’t egg-based? We finally ordered a few different things, but I was getting uncomfortable – she suggested what looked like pot stickers and she said they had hamburger in them. When they arrived I asked the waiter what they were and he said “pork testicle”. So to this day I don’t know if we were eating “pot stickers” or “pork testicle”, but I certainly hope it was the former. The soup was supposed to be some kind of mushroom soup but we’re dubious as to whether they were truly mushrooms or rather some form of sea-faring life form. I asked repeatedly if the soup contained “mushrooms” or “fungus”, and was told each time that it did not. Wesley ordered a whole chicken which was the only thing that came out as expected and tasted as expected.

Last edited by vysean; May 31, 09 at 8:03 pm
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Old May 31, 09, 6:11 pm
  #6  
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Day 5 – Sunday - Lhasa

We left our hotel in Xi’An earlier in the morning for the taxi ride to the airport. The driver spoke no English but we were able to communicate where necessary. He was as crazy as the rest of the drivers there, at one point crossing into the opposite lane of traffic where we stopped for a train – we were both certain he was going to try and run the tracks, but luckily for us there was an angry Chinese man staring our driver down who forced him not to cross.

Staring down death - our driver doesn't want to wait:


After this we encountered another oddity of driving in China – the “I missed my exit and rather than drive on to the next one will simply flip a U-turn and drive the wrong way down the highway” guy. We thought this was truly impressive in an idiotic way so I felt compelled to take the guy’s picture as we drove past.

Guy flipping u-turn on highway:


We arrived at the airport shortly thereafter and a representative of our hotel met us there to assist us in picking up our now 5-day-delayed luggage.

My Bag - Reunited at last:


We picked up our bags with a minimum of fuss – we didn’t have to complete customs formalities despite not having claimed anything in the bags before. Check-in for our flight to Lhasa proved to be frustrating – we were limited to strictly one carry-on bag, not including a backpack, computer bag, etc. Since I was carrying multiple thousands of dollars of camera gear, plus other assorted electronics and a laptop, I had no interest in checking any of it – especially since we had only just recovered our bags 20 minutes earlier.

After failed negotiations, I crammed everything important into my backpack, checked two bags, and we were on our way – after having our Tibetan travel permits checked, of course. We went through security where our permits were checked again and then we were at the gate. We waited an hour for the boarding to commence and during that time I purchased a package of Chairman Mao playing cards.

The flight was uneventful – a very basic lunch on a brand new Airbus A319. The entire flight was in cloud cover, so we didn’t see much until the last 30 minutes before we landed. The landscape is gorgeous – it is very difficult to adequately describe – huge mountains, sweeping valleys, clouds that flirt below the mountaintops, and a ground noticeably absent of substantial development. We landed without incident, got our bags, and proceeded outside to find our driver and guide. Up until this point we were still thinking that it could all be a scam and we might have thrown away our money. This was temporarily confirmed when there was no one waiting for us at baggage claim. We walked outside and started heading for the throngs of people waiting in the parking lot looking for our driver and guide. They were waiting just across the parking area and in a few minutes we were off to Lhasa, quite relived to know we hadn’t donated $2,000 to an enterprising Chinese hacker.

On our way to Lhasa we stopped at a large rock carving of Buddha. It was impressive and it was interesting to learn how it is maintained (twice a year families donate their time and money to give it a fresh coat of paint). After that we drove the last thirty minutes or so to Lhasa and to our hotel. We bid farewell to our driver and guide for the day and relaxed for a few minutes before setting out to explore Lhasa and get some lunch/dinner. We took a taxi since we didn’t know the distance (it turned out not to be far), but he didn’t drop us off where we wanted – he tried to explain but we didn’t understand. We got out and began walking to where we thought we needed to be. We found the street we needed in short order and walked along to a restaurant that was highly recommended. Unfortunately, it turned out that my Lonely Planet guide was somewhat inaccurate – they did not have an English menu so we decided to find the backup restaurant recommended in our guide. It turned out that it was closed entirely, so the guide was proving to be somewhat worthless.

As we were walking down the street, we were greeted by two younger Tibetan girls who spoke English. They mentioned they were studying English in school and wanted to practice by speaking with us. As a somewhat seasoned international traveler, I was immediately on alert as I’ve read of similar scams in China and Turkey where girls come up and mention they want to practice their English, and a few hours later you find yourself out lots of money. At any rate, we indulged them for a few minutes as we walked to the restaurant. We were constantly waiting to see if someone made a wallet grab or if they invited us somewhere. When we arrived at the restaurant, we invited them in but they declined. We wished them well and went inside.

The restaurant we went back to was one Wesley had spied earlier – it had an obvious English menu so in we went. We ordered a massive amount of food – both because we were hungry and because we wanted to try different things. I ordered “chang”, a local beer served out of a vat – it’s quite sweet and I’m not sure what to equate it to. Wesley ordered Lhasa beer – an obvious local brew that tastes much like Budweiser. We started out with Nepali chicken fried rice – good but somewhat bland. Next was some thugpa soup – noodles, some kind of vegetable, and yak meat. By this time I had drunk most of the beer and was feeling a little off. Our next round of food came out – chicken sizzle and some momos – in this case peppers stuffed with yak sausage. The last item to arrive was another huge thing of soup – with tomatoes and yak meat. I wasn’t feeling too great and was stuffed, so Wesley was left to finish up as much as he could. We paid and left, but not before enjoying the signing and sheepish smile of the Tibetan waitress who caught us watching as she sang in a corner of the restaurant.

We started back to the main street we had walked on before. We found the main road and walked back towards our hotel. On our way we crossed paths with many Chinese and Tibetan people, and I found that almost always I could get the Tibetans to smile at me. We passed by the bicycle taxis and their drivers who were playing games on the sidewalk waiting for any evening fares. We turned down the street to our hotel and passed by many Tibetans. I smiled at all of them and most smiled back – as we passed by one group, my smile resulted in an offer of potatoes. We politely declined because we were both stuffed, but I felt bad for doing so. We turned down the last corner to our hotel and passed by a woman and her young daughter. The daughter smiled and waved at us and said “hello”, so we did the same and that made her very happy. As we walked past holes in the fence we would look in and she’d be looking back and smiling. This continued for several hundred feet, culminating in her running out from behind the fence and onto the sidewalk to watch us. I would occasionally turn around and smile and wave which made her very happy. Her mother came out from behind the fence and smiled and waved to us. We were both incredibly tired by this point – it was after 9pm and we’d been out and about since 8am, so we promptly fell asleep. I think this was an excellent introduction to Tibet – interesting food, amazing sights, friendly, “real” people, and the artificial oddity of chain hotels in one of the world’s most remote destinations.

I was struck today at how friendly the Tibetans were – some are still suspicious or at least protective, but most are incredibly friendly and they have the warmest smiles you’ll ever see. They seem to be very inquisitive about foreigners – especially non-Asians with different hair and skin colors. They are constantly looking at us because there are so few foreigners here. During our long walk around town, we only encountered eight other obvious non-Asians – six were the German-speaking tourists we saw in the airport back in Xi’An, and two were walking by themselves and appeared to be backpackers. The Tibetan children are the funniest, because they use what little English they know and are elated to have us respond back. I look forward to many more positive interactions.

Last edited by vysean; May 31, 09 at 8:07 pm
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Old May 31, 09, 6:11 pm
  #7  
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Day 6 – Monday – Lhasa

I didn’t get a very good night’s sleep the previous night – I gather the local “chang” plus the altitude didn’t work so well. Anyway I awoke early enough, took a shower and went downstairs to get some breakfast. We suspected we were one of only a handful of guests of the hotel and if the guests at breakfast were any indication, we were correct. There were only three other tables with people the entire time we were there – an older western couple, a younger Asian person, and a group of Asian people who arrived later. Breakfast was good enough – certainly for the price (free).

After that I returned to the room, typed up some emails and letters, and got packed for the day. We met our guide and driver in the hotel lobby at 9:30am. From there, our first stop was the same place Wesley and I had taken a taxi to the night before. We walked along the main street to the Jokhang Temple. After some history and basic information from our guide we walked inside the temple and were immediately inundated by a variety of smells – burning incense, yak butter candles, and other unidentified but not unpleasant smells. It was very dark as we walked along, and there were a huge mass of people waiting in line to enter, which we somehow circumvented. The whole experience was quite educational and a bit sad – there were uniformed and secret police all around, and on several occasions our guide looked a little disturbed and we would notice someone hanging a little too close to us. One of the highlights of the visit was seeing a 2,600 year-old gold statue of Buddha.

Soon we were done on the inside and ascended a series of steep steps to the rooftop. From there we had a commanding view of Barkhor Square, the Potala Palace, and the surrounding mountains. We took many pictures and enjoyed the wonderful morning weather – sunny clear skies and a brisk 65 (or so) degrees. From the Jokhang Temple we walked along the myriad of alleyways surrounding it which were filled with shops and stands selling all manner of trinkets. We were periodically asked to buy things, but generally everyone was very friendly and respectful. After completing the circuit back to the temple, we headed off in the direction of a nearby café for a drink and to wait for our Chinese tour organizer. She arrived after a few minutes and we talked about the trip, her company, and related items. We initially had great reservations about booking with her due to oddities we discovered about her company and their website, but after having everything work out so far, we were happy to see her.

After a brief visit at the café, we headed off to our next stop – the Potala Palace – probably the single-most iconic image of Tibet besides the Dalai Lama himself. It was surreal to set foot at the entrance to a building I had seen in several movies – despite watching all of the movies it never occurred to me that I might one day see it in person - I simply never expected to be there. We walked in, went through security screening (yes, even here you must go through a metal detector and have your bag x-rayed), and were in a large courtyard staring up at the immense structure of the palace. Our guide again provided some background on the structure and its significance. With that out of the way, we began ascending the numerous stairs to the top of the White Palace – the former seat of Tibetan government. Once inside we saw a variety of rooms decorated in an array of vibrant colors and with amazing statues and other items. Our tour spanned two hours and there’s no way to adequately describe all that we saw.

One of the most awe-inspiring scenes we encountered was in the main assembly room (I’ll ask our guide for the official name). It was the scene for many significant events in Tibetan history and one that featured prominently in a favorite film of mine – Kundun. To be in the very same room as so many important people and to share space with some important events in the lives of so many was incredible. As it occurred to me how lucky I was, I felt a shiver run through me. We were not permitted to take pictures in this room, but I’m not sure a simple picture could express the feelings I felt at being in such an important place. Shortly thereafter we left the Palace, walking down a very long and winding ramp to the main street. We ran across the main street to a vantage point perhaps 20 feet in the air to take more pictures of the Palace. For whatever reason, we were not charged though there is a clearly posted admission fee and there was a man there at the gate. Once up the stairs we had wonderful views and wonderful weather to boot – the perfect early end to a great day.

Alas, we had one last task – I had to pay the remainder of my tour fee and Wesley still needed a SIM card for his mobile phone. We first stopped at a bank so I could get cash. That done, we drove over to a little magazine store that apparently had SIM cards. After some discussion between our Tibetan guide and the magazine store owner, a SIM card was produced and successfully installed. With that final task completed, we were delivered back to our hotel. I re-arranged all of my bags, Wesley played with his newly-functional Blackberry, and after a while we set back out for lunch/dinner. We walked this time both ways, and on our way ran into the same girl as the day before – this time she had two new friends with her. Our scam sensor was still going off, though we knew she would be friendly. She had ice cream and offered some to us. We declined as we were going to get lunch. She refused to go in with us after being invited, but said she’d wait just down the street.

We ordered less food this time – but still enough to share. Wesley ordered fried yak steak with spicy sauce and rice, and I thinking I was smart ordered chicken sizzle since it was so good at the last restaurant. We also ordered some naan (Indian bread) and some vegetable momos – fried this time. The food came out in short order, with the first set of real silverware I’d yet seen in Asia. My chicken sizzle was a total disappointment – I’d never seen such a creepy-looking chicken breast – it was not really identifiable as such. I ate the noodles and some of the vegetables, and tried to pluck off pieces of chicken with my chopsticks but I had committed to no silverware on the trip wherever possible. Wesley’s fried spicy yak steak was much better – yak basically tastes like cow but a little tougher. The momos and naan were both just fine.

While we were eating, a Tibetan woman and her mother sat at the table next to us. They were periodically stealing glances at us and our food. Not wanting to appear wasteful, I finished the naan bread, most of the momos, and Wesley his yak steak. I couldn’t bear to try and finish the nasty chicken sizzle, so after discovering they had to-go boxes, I carefully boxed the remainder up and disposed of it shortly after leaving the restaurant.

On our way back to the hotel, we ran into the girls again. They were just as friendly as before, and appeared only to be interested in talking with us. I was still waiting for the inevitable scam, but it never came – they simply walked with us back to our hotel. On the way, Wesley got the same ice cream that they had been eating earlier, and we again went in search of Fanta for him – to no avail. We also picked up some kind of grape drink for me and some more ice cream for the girls. Wesley bought some bubble gum and managed to produce a bubble which they thought was funny. We talked for a while when we got to the hotel – they still wanted to talk but we were tired from a long and busy day. We told them we’d be back on Friday (basically three days away) and mentioned that we were going to Shigatse tomorrow – the hometown of Natalie, the girl I had spoken with the most and who appeared to have the best mastery of English. They were disappointed but looked forward to our return Friday. We’re to meet at the same café as today at 6pm on Friday. We may invite them back to the hotel to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics as they’ll begin at 8pm local time Friday. We convinced them to let us take their pictures before we split up and we’ll try to find a way to get them printed and delivered to them on Friday. Sadly, they don’t have access to computers or email, so we cannot simply email them.

We’re now getting everything set for our early morning departure for Shigatse via Gyantse and Namdrok-tso (Namdrok Lake). It promises to be an amazing journey and I certainly hope the weather cooperates as it has so far for us here in Tibet. I’m not sure when we’ll next have reliable Internet access, so this may be the last communication from me until our Friday return to Lhasa.
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Old May 31, 09, 6:12 pm
  #8  
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Day 7 – Tuesday – Lhasa to Gyantse to Shigatse

We departed the hotel promptly at 8:30 to allow for enough time along our intended route. We first tracked south along the route to the airport. Our route soon began to climb to cross our first mountain pass – Karo-la which sits at about 15,500 feet. Our trip towards the top was accompanied by the oddest of musical accompaniments – the driver turned on his MP3 player and was playing “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas carols as we ascended. It was lightly raining as we came to the top of the pass – but before we could do so, we had to show our travel permits to a bored-looking police officer. As soon as we crossed the top of the pass, Namdrok-tso (Namdrok lake) came into view. It is one of the three holy lakes of Tibet and a glorious turquoise blue color when the sky cooperates (it didn’t for us). We stopped to take pictures and were inundated by offers to take pictures of a local yak or some kind of holy dog (which we declined – I now wish I hadn’t). The lake is massive – especially for those of us living in the desert southwest – we drove for more than an hour just along a part of the coastline.

While driving along, we came across a minibus full of Chinese tourists. They were attempting to catch fish from the lake. Our driver pulled alongside to see what they were doing and when he saw them with the fish he became very agitated and yelled at them in (I assume) Mandarin. They didn’t seem interested in dropping the fish, but did offer our driver a few cigarettes to leave them alone (he declined). A short while later we stopped for lunch in a tiny village. The food, though basic, was surprisingly good, and though the weather wasn’t cooperating and it was cold and rainy out, we were happy. I had noodles with egg and tomato, and Wesley had yak fried rice.

The sky started to clear as we came across our last mountain pass before reaching Gyantse. We stopped at a gorgeous small turquoise lake and took some pictures before departing for Gyantse. Gyantse is a small city located about 3 hours southwest of Lhasa. It has historical significance as the city that the British first invaded on their way to Lhasa. The monastery in Gyantse is both very pretty and very impressive – it’s an entire walled-in compound situated on a small mountain. Nearby is Gyantse-Dzom (Gyantse fort). We toured the monastery and as we were leaving entered a small building where a procession of sorts was going on. Our guide informed us that it was a funeral ceremony meant to ensure a safe journey for the deceased’s spirit. We were permitted to watch and listen, and for 10CNY (about $1.50), photograph the event. It was impressive and interesting to experience.

Leaving Gyantse, we drove another hour or so to Shigatse, our final destination for the evening. After a twenty minute wait to get yet another permit, we drove on to the hotel. The hotel was supposedly a three-star tourist hotel, but I have my doubts – it had no hot water, a broken window, and a leaking half-functional air conditioner. There appeared to be no power in the lobby – there were no lights on and the staff were operating by candlelight. The lack of hot water proved to be incredibly frustrating the following morning. We had a choice of cold or freezing, so I chose cold and took quite possibly the shortest shower of my life. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant which initially had no power, but which came on prior to our food coming out. Wesley had a yak burger with fries, and I had chicken fried rice. Both were good, though I don’t think Wesley enjoyed his yak cheese on his yak burger.

After the meal we went back to the room to catch some sleep before our busy day of driving ahead.
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Old May 31, 09, 6:12 pm
  #9  
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Day 8 – Wednesday – Shigatse to Rongbuk Monastery (Everest Base Camp)

We awoke a little later Wednesday morning and set out for Tashilhunpo Monastery, the home of the yellow-hat sect of Buddhism. The yellow-hat sect is perhaps the most powerful and influential sect as the Dalai Lama hails from them. Knowing this, we expected the monastery to be large, but had no idea how immense it was – it truly is a small city unto itself. We toured for almost two hours and could easily have gotten lost. The monks were friendly – we encountered some unloading rice from a truck and they smiled and greeted us. Tashilhunpo Monastery is home to the Panchen Lamas, the second most-powerful lama in Tibetan Buddhism behind the Dalai Lama.

After touring Tashilhunpo, we drove on towards Everest Base Camp, first passing a mountain pass (Tropu-la) and then stopping in a small town named Lhatse for lunch. Lunch was again basic but good (egg fried rice and some Tibetan bread). After lunch we drove the longest portion of our trip from Lhatse to Rongbuk – passing through two amazing mountain passes, including the highest-altitude pass I will ever cross – Gyatso-la at over 17,100 feet.

We knew we would have our documents checked before we could travel to Tibet, and again once en-route between Lhasa and Everest Base Camp. But knowing they would be checked didn’t prepare us for the six or seven checks that we encountered. At some checkpoints we could wait in the car while at others we had to go inside a military or police building and show our passports. Some checkpoints were larger formal buildings while others consisted of a couple of army guys living out of tents along the roadway. The only thing that made the experience somewhat pleasant was when we’d encounter military members eager to try out the few words of English they knew, so occasionally we’d get a “hello”, “thank you”, or other nugget of English. Those that tried to talk to us always smiled broadly.

I believe kids in Tibet are taught two words in English during their schooling – “hello” and “money”. Some of the nomadic kids who live at the mountain passes know slightly more English so they can try and sell you random stuff you don’t need. Throughout our travels from Shigatse to Everest, we encountered these kids who wanted money or to sell things. They were annoying but didn’t persist for too long. On the other hand, we passed through many small villages and hamlets and almost without exception, children working in the fields or walking along the roadway would wave at our passing car and we would wave back. Occasionally while walking around we’d encounter a small kid who would say “hello”. We of course obliged in returning the greeting and they and their parents found it quite amusing, as did we.

Transportation became a focus of our trip when we were bored on the long drives. Transportation in Tibet consists of five major options: walking, riding on a horse or donkey-pulled cart, riding on a tractor, riding in the back of a truck or bus, or riding in a private vehicle. As we ventured further away from the large cities (and there are very few of them), the modes of transportation inevitably shifted to the tractor or the animal-pulled-cart.

As we crossed through the final small hamlet and turned into a valley we had our first sighting of Mount Everest. The sky was nothing impressive – mostly white, but we could clearly see the top of the mountain and most of the rest. Over the next hour as we arrived at Rongbuk Monastery and settled in the sky cleared enough that we could see the entire mountain – from top to bottom – something we were told by our guide he’d never seen before (I think all guides say things like this to make their clients feel better). As it turned out, we were quite lucky because the weather again turned for the worse the next day and stayed that way through the end of the week.
We got our stuff in our room and then went over to the lounge/kitchen/hot area to relax for a few minutes. It was a sensory experience with a strong, smoky smell; humid, warm feeling; and the noise of a burner of some kind keeping the room at a comfortable, if not cozy, temperature. We were provided some hot tea which was delightful given the cold outside and Wesley ordered some noodle soup with egg – I had planned to get food later as I had a headache and wanted to deal with it first. While we were sitting there, a Chinese group came in – the man said “hello” in English and when we responded attempted to converse with us in Mandarin. When it was clear we couldn’t, he stopped and his female companion spoke to us in broken English. He offered us a piece of an energy bar – I wasn’t a big fan and thought it tasted much like dog food, but I finished it so as not to harm Chinese-American relations. I then ran off to our room and returned with some Costco trail mix in a package which I gave to him. After a few more minutes we left the building, but not before Wesley finished his noodle soup, which he pronounced as the best he’d had in all of Tibet.

We had time for a few last-minute photographs before the sky got completely dark, and we took advantage of that before we retired to our “room”. If you ever plan on a trip to Tibet and expect to overnight near Everest, just plan on it being like camping out when you were a kid – as long as you expect nothing more, you won’t be disappointed. Our room consisted of two small beds, a wooden box, a plastic bowl (not sure whether it was a trash can, a hot water container, or a makeshift bathroom), a single electric overhead light that never worked and a single-pane window that was cracked. There was no running water of any kind throughout the property, and we never had any heat or light at night. The “bathroom” was quite basic – simply two holes in the ground, one of which was too full to accept anything more. It smelled as bad as you can imagine – probably worse even. That said, it came as no surprise as we’d researched out accommodations beforehand.
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Old May 31, 09, 6:13 pm
  #10  
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Day 9 – Thursday – Rongbuk Monastery (Everest Base Camp) to Shigatse

I didn’t get a good night’s sleep – between the cold, the board-like mattress, and the headache which only got worse, I was unhappy but awake and ready to go when first light came around. Sometime around midnight another tour group came in, and they had no respect for the fact that others were staying nearby – a man with a booming voice yelled out in Chinese repeatedly and there was much slamming of doors. In the morning, people kept coming into our room, looking around and leaving (the only way to lock the door was from outside the room with a padlock).

We set out early for Everest Base Camp, which was a few kilometers from Rongbuk Monastery Guesthouse. We immediately encountered what we thought was our last checkpoint. After a few minutes, we were on our way for a mere four kilometers, where we had to stop and transfer to a minibus for the last few kilometers’ drive to EBC. We waited on the minibus for a few more tourists and then were off. About ten minutes later we arrived at Everest Base Camp, but we had to endure yet another permit check. After a ten minute wait we were on our way.

I had assumed that Everest Base Camp would be the highest point of our journey (both literally and figuratively) but it turned out not to be the case. Don’t get me wrong – it was certainly impressive, but the mountain was almost completely shrouded in clouds and the weather was just nasty – like a drizzly cold January or February day in the eastern US. And as it turned out, it wasn’t the highest altitude I had been at either – that honor was bestowed on Gyatso-la pass about 150km northeast of EBC. So it didn’t take us long to take our requisite pictures and borrow a rock for posterity before we were ready to leave.

We were soon back at the minibus parking lot and transferred to our Land Cruiser for the 100km drive back to a paved road. My headache was going into overdrive as we bounced along the road but I had to wait another two hours before I could take anything more. I tried to sleep and was in no mood to take pictures – and I think the weather was pretty much feeling the same way as it had no intention of cooperating.

We started up the big mountain pass and our driver was doing his best to get me to leave a gift on the mountain. I managed to make it over the top and down a little before I lost it – between the headache and the wicked twists and turns, I couldn’t help it. Luckily I let him know so he could pull over and since I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours anything more than a granola bar and some tea, it was unimpressive. After a few minutes we were back in business, and soon we arrived at a small town for a permit check. We got back on the paved road after our permits were checked and a discussion with local kids who wanted our pencils (we had none – will remember to bring some next time). We drove another 15km or so before another permit check – this one took 10-15 minutes. The local Tibetans have found an innovative way to deal with checkpoints – they simply walk around them… We’re not quite as lucky, as we don’t want to get our driver or guide in trouble, so we wait and watch the local cows and dogs who couldn’t care less about politics as they hunt around for whatever scraps of food they can find.

After our permits are checked we get back on the road and start up another pass. This one is the boundary for the national park that contains Mt. Everest, called Qomolangma. This is a much nicer pass for those who don’t like mountain driving, and as we crest the top, the sky is clearing from our morning start so we stop for a few pictures. There are nomadic peoples living up here who try to sell random things to anyone who stops. If I had had pens or pencils, I would have handed them out, but I really had no desire to buy anything they were selling, so I abstained despite their constant efforts. We descended the pass and were shortly back in Lhatse. We went to a different restaurant this time, and as I still had a headache and wasn’t feeling 100%, went for a Tibetan “pancake” with honey. For those familiar, it was quite similar in taste to Navajo fry bread. It had a slightly “off” aftertaste (perhaps from whatever they fry it in/with), but was otherwise exactly what I was hoping for. Wesley ordered yet more fried rice (with yak), and asked for some chili sauce to spice things up. I tried a little of the chili sauce – it was quite good and very potent.

We left Lhatse soon afterwards and arrived uneventfully in Shigatse. I was feeling much better by this point and was happy to know we wouldn’t be staying at the same hotel as we had two days earlier – we went to the extreme east end of town and stayed in what appeared to be a very new hotel with few (if any) other guests. It looked very nice from the lobby, and as it turned out, the room was what we would have expected. Clean bathroom, hot water, plenty of toiletries, clean beds and fully functional windows. We were quite happy. We decided to have some laundry done – Wesley went for the full load and I just did enough to get me to Beijing. It wasn’t cheap in my opinion, and we were to be charged a 100% surcharge for “express” service. It was one of the oddest experiences I’d had, but since I don’t have my laundry done at other hotels I don’t know if it’s normal or not – when we handed our laundry to them, they pulled all of the pieces out of the bag, counted them, folded them, and put them back. All of our clothes were on display, including our underwear, and for some reason, it took four staff members to do this – the bellman, two members of the front desk, and a supervisor. After that experience, we went back to the room. It was raining and got stronger as the night went on, so instead of venturing out for dinner, we worked on our stockpile of snacks from the States and soon thereafter went to sleep.
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Old May 31, 09, 6:14 pm
  #11  
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Day 10 – Friday – Shigatse to Lhasa (Opening Ceremony for Olympics)

We awoke the next morning much better off – the beds were comfortable, the electricity worked, it was very comfortable in the room, and most importantly, we had hot water in the morning for showers and flush toilets. We felt like kings. Wesley experienced the breakfast, reporting back that it wasn’t very good and I enjoyed a few extra minutes of sleep at the expense of the (apparently) not-very-good breakfast.

Of course, things worked out wonderfully for Wesley and we weren’t charged an express surcharge (we also didn’t get our clothes for about 14 hours after they were dropped off, and they were damp when returned to us). As it turned out, the hotel in Shigatse’s laundry service was a relative bargain when compared to the prices for laundry service in Lhasa at the Four Points – the rates for most things were 300% more.

We got our bags loaded in the Land Cruiser and departed. On our way out of the hotel compound, the security guard/bellman saluted in a very official manner and we set off. With that we were off on our way back to Lhasa. We stopped for gas and the driver was given a free decorated washcloth as a gift. We stopped shortly thereafter for a speed check – in Tibet they give you a slip of paper with a time on it. You drive along and arrive at a checkpoint, before, exactly at, or after the appointed time. If you arrive before the printed time, you were speeding and have to pay a fine. If you arrive at or after, all is well with the world. This was an ineffective way to prevent speeding, as we would simply drive fast right up until the checkpoint, pull over for a few minutes and wait and then drive to the checkpoint and on to the next where we would repeat this behavior. Judging by the other cars on the sides of the road near these checkpoints, we weren’t the only ones doing this.

We arrived in Lhasa around 3pm. We were hungry and tired of sitting in the car, but we had some more immediate priorities – the purchasing of stamps and postcards, a final visit to the ATM, and last minute gift purchases for friends and family. With that in mind we first stopped at a China Post outlet to buy stamps and postcards. That complete, our next stop was the Bank of China for money and then on to a nearby upscale jewelry store for a gift for Wesley’s girlfriend. That was a lot of fun - almost an hour of milling about in a store with two or three people following my every move and attempting to get me to buy things I didn’t need or want for ten times the price I was willing to pay while Wesley indecisively shuffled around unable to pick something out. After much hemming and hawing, he finally settled on a necklace and was assured he was getting “super best discount”. A few minutes later we were finally able to leave, and so we went back to the Barkhor Square. We saw all manner of things walking through here, including knock-off clothing and accessories, tasty looking fried potatoes (chips to our friends across the Atlantic), and much more.

My first stop was to purchase a few more small purses for 10 Yuan each since they were so cheap and ornate. Next we went in search of prayer beads. We tried negotiating but I thought they were too expensive, so only Wesley bought at this stall. And it was immediately after this that the funniest thing of the whole trip happened – An elderly Tibetan woman walked up to us, put her hand on Wesley’s shoulder and said “hello how are you?” to us. Wesley responded complimenting her on her English, and she smiled. Her smile widened into a huge grin as she reached out, patted Wesley’s protruding stomach, and without another word, turned and walked away. It was too funny, and I regret not thinking to pull out my small camera to take a quick video. The joke for the rest of the trip was that when he tired of working back in the States, he would move to Tibet, strip off his shirt, and sit in front of a temple or monastery with a cup for donations. I’d post a side-profile picture of him, but that would be mean (and invite retribution). So you’ll have to trust me when I say that Wesley might indeed resemble a happy, rotund-bellied Buddha.

Despite that most funny of things, the overall mood was quite different from earlier in the week – there were tons of police and military, most heavily armed with riot gear and AK-47 rifles and/or tear gas. There were armed police or military on the rooftops surrounding the Barkhor Street market. We were told that there was an 8pm curfew this evening (though it was never clear if that was an official thing or whether it was simply known to exist – other nights an official 10pm curfew was apparently in effect). Many of the vendors were packing up their things and leaving, and there seemed a sense of urgency in the air, kind of like that feeling you get as a storm is approaching, so we made our last stop to pickup a few more things. After some haggling, I purchased two prayer beads and a bracelet. After my purchase, the owner motioned me closer and asked where I was from. I said, “America – the United States – Arizona”. He stepped even closer and whispered in my ear, “I like Americans” and smiled broadly. After that he handed Wesley and I each a bracelet and wished us well on our journey. I’m sure it didn’t cost much if anything, but it meant a lot to me. We then tried to leave but the owner of the next stall over grabbed me by the arm and wanted me to look at what he had to sell. He had the same things I had already purchased, and I was low on cash. I tried to politely walk away but he was pleading with me to buy something and he had a very firm grip on my arm. It took nearly five minutes of me trying to break free while repeating “no money”, “no cash”, and “sorry”, before I was finally able to leave. Wesley was of no use – he was highly amused by a little Chinese boy who was marching in front of a group of police officers – and the police appeared to be equally amused. After we left, I was annoyed with the guy for grabbing me the way he did, but at the time I was more concerned that a Chinese military or police person would grab him and take him somewhere.

Having broken free of the literal and figurative reigns of commerce and obligatory souvenir purchases, we had one last stop – to meet up with Natalie and her friends at the nearby café. It was just after 6pm, our appointed meeting time, and when we arrived at the café they were nowhere to be found. We waited a few minutes but they never showed – we later attributed it to the hushed atmosphere and increased police/military presence for the Opening Ceremonies. We were hungry (neither of us had eaten all day) so we went back to the first restaurant we had eaten at in Lhasa – across the street from the Yak hotel. We were seated upstairs and ordered a much smaller amount of food and no beer this time. The food came out after a short wait and was good – not quite as tasty as the first night, but still good. We asked for the bill and paid. As we were getting up to leave, I wanted to say thank you to the waitress, so I said, “shu shu”. She immediately started laughing and turned around apparently embarrassed. Her friend/waitress heard and started laughing too. I sheepishly got up and left – the whole time being watched by the two waitresses. It wasn’t until we got back to the hotel that I learned that “shu shu” means “uncle” and I meant to say “shi shi”, or “thank you”. I have no idea if she thought I wanted to be her uncle or what, but I guess it explains her reaction…

We noticed one other interesting thing on our walk back to the hotel – almost every storefront and apartment had a Chinese flag prominently displayed out front. Earlier in the week we saw few if any, so it was quite a change. Beyond that, we must have counted five large trucks each filled with 12-20 fully-armed military personnel in riot gear. Clearly, it was not a night for wild celebrations in the streets.

After returning to the hotel, we relaxed and turned on the TV so we could watch the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. While this was going on, I got caught up on emails and major issues at work and filled out a bunch of postcards to mail to friends and family. Wesley had wanted to order a pizza but he wussed out and never did it. We were pretty tired anyway.
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Old May 31, 09, 6:14 pm
  #12  
 
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Working my way through the third post, so far excellent report!^
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Old May 31, 09, 6:14 pm
  #13  
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Day 11 – Saturday – Lhasa to Chengdu

I awoke later in the morning (as always) and so missed out on breakfast. I was a little disappointed, as the breakfast here at the Lhasa Four Points was actually a pretty decent offering. I was even more disappointed when Wesley returned to the room and reported back that they had a build-to-order omelet station this morning. Dang! Oh well, I needed the time to repack all of my things anyway – in a few hours we’d be heading to the airport for our flight out of Tibet to Chengdu.

We had a few hours still, so the plan was to head off to Sera Monastery, one of the few large ones that was open to tourists (Ganden, Drepung, Samye, Nechung, and many others were closed still). We arrived a few minutes later and hit a police checkpoint. We weren’t allowed to drive any further so walked the last quarter-mile or so to the entrance. We toured the monastery for an hour, seeing how they made copies of religious texts (still very much a manual process), enjoyed the sights and smells inside some of the monastery buildings and assembly halls, and then stepped inside the kitchen building where they were making food and drink for the monks. After that, we traded smiles with a few monks and faithful Tibetans near a group of prayer wheels, and then headed back to the Land Cruiser. Since we still had some extra time, I asked if we could run back over to Barkhor Square so I could get a few last-minute souvenirs. I was told I could have an hour, which I deemed more than sufficient.

This time, we entered Barkhor Square from the eastern side via the Muslim Quarter. I had only a few things left to get and since I had a fair idea of pricing now it didn’t take very long.

The first stop was to get a Buddha figurine for an employee of mine. The vendor spoke broken English and his first offer was 250 Yuan (about $37). After some discussion I was able to get him to sell it to me for 50 Yuan ($7.35). Of course, no sooner than I was done with him than nearby sellers offered me the same for 40 Yuan. Too late – I only needed one. I asked our guide what he could get the same for and he thought 25-30 Yuan so I was pretty happy with what I paid.

I went back in search of the street vendor from the day before who had given us the bracelets, but I could not find him – I had hoped to give him one of the few small gifts I had brought along for random occasions such as this.

I had hoped to pickup some “local” clothes, but the stars didn’t align, so instead of that I opted to get some stuffed animals to take back for kids. There were three major offerings of stuffed animals – yaks, Tibetan antelope, and holy dogs (not sure what breed). I told the guide what I was looking for and he laughed, then directed me to some Chinese shopping center near where the roadblock for Barkhor Square starts. He took care of negotiating and I was able to purchase a yak and an antelope for 10 Yuan each. John, the guide, happily carried around the little bag with my yak and my antelope until we found our driver who took one look in the bag and then laughed. As a side note – they’re odd little stuffed animals – they appear to be made from real animal skins (rabbit maybe?), and the antelope came home a little worse for the experience – he’s missing an antler, and I’ve not yet found it in my bags. Not sure how many kids would like a one-antlered Tibetan antelope covered in rabbit fur, but I’ve got one…

After our fun shopping experience, it was time to set out for the airport. Actually, Wesley and I didn’t think it was time, but the driver and guide did – we had nearly four hours before the flight was to depart. I gave the driver and guide each a small photo album with photos from around Arizona, some nearby states, and some of my favorite national parks. The photos consisted of plants, animals, and landscapes that I felt best-represented where I live and the places I like to visit in the US. The album was well-received by John, who kept pointing out photos to our driver as we were heading to the airport. (The bald eagle, elk, and bighorn sheep were especially popular). As is usually the case when you’ve got plenty of time, we made it to the airport without a hitch, with about three hours to go before the flight. Security here in Lhasa was intense and slow – first was a permit check and vehicle search to get on the airport property. After this point, it was time to bid farewell to our driver and guide – they helped us get our stuff out of the Land Cruiser and we gave each of them an envelope with 400 Yuan (about $60 each), a postcard with a map of the State of Arizona on the front (including major tourist destinations and cities), and a color picture of the state flag on the back. I asked for one final picture with the two of them and they obliged, and with that we wished them good luck and a safe journey and they did the same to us.

With that we returned to the harsh reality of security and lines – we had to pass by a policeman checking tickets and passports to get in a line to get into the airport. The line wasn’t terribly long but it wasn’t moving at all. No sooner than we had gotten in line did the policeman open up another line at another entrance. The Chinese in front of us were displeased by this and attempted to jump over to the other line, but the policeman required that they not go under the tape-barrier, instead forcing them to back out through four loops in order to enter the other line. We didn’t care – we had three hours before the flight and knew there wasn’t much to do inside the airport. Within ½ hour we were through security. The next hurdle came when trying to check-in. There were quite a few counters manned with personnel, but none had any signage in English. Two had carpets laid down, and I figured I’d play the “dumb foreigner” routine and walk up to one of them. I presented my passport and after yet another security check and snafu due to my razor, we were allowed through. I had checked two bags and secretly hidden one from the check-in lady’s view, as I didn’t want to check a fragile bag and thought their strict one-bag carry-on limit was a bit ridiculous.

We got upstairs where we had to go through security again. A few minutes (and a mandatory close physical search) later we were through, and unsurprisingly, had little available to us in terms of shops or restaurants. We watched the Olympics on TV for two hours while waiting for our delayed Air China flight and were soon on our way to Chengdu – only ½ hour behind schedule. The flight to Chengdu was packed – the fullest flight we ever saw while in China. Except for a few seats in first class, all of the coach seats appeared full, and there were three or four obviously western tourists on the flight with us. I fell asleep a few minutes after takeoff and was awakened when a boxed meal was placed on my tray table. It was a good thing too, because the view out the window was spectacular – reminiscent of flying around the Alps in Europe or the Alaskan Range near Anchorage Alaska.

We arrived in Chengdu more or less on-time and went downstairs to claim our bags. They were among the first off (yay! for priority tags) and we went over to the information desk to inquire about taxi costs to our hotel. Wesley decided to forgo dealing with a taxi and arranged for fixed-price transport from the info desk. We paid 30-40 Yuan extra for this, but we were happy to not have to deal with any negotiating. On our way to the hotel we spied a Pizza Hut, and Wesley and I both commented that that sounded pretty darn good after a week of nothing but Tibetan (and some Chinese) food. Unfortunately, we drove far beyond the Pizza Hut before we found our hotel – the Holiday Inn Express Chengdu, an apparently brand new high-rise in downtown Chengdu.

Check-in took a while, complicated by the staff’s very poor comprehension of English. I know we’re in a foreign country, but when you’re an international hotel chain and you advertise that your staff speaks English, perhaps it’s a good idea to set some minimum criteria for comprehension. At any rate, about ½ hour later we were in our room. A few minutes later a representative of the tour company we had hired for Chengdu showed up to collect the remainder of our fees. I can only imagine what the hotel staff thought when a young and attractive Chinese girl shows up at our room and then escorted us to an ATM, but I’m sure they didn’t think too highly of us. After I got cash from the ATM to pay for the tour, we returned to the hotel. Just across the street, we saw a couple walking a dog (a Siberian Husky). They had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and the man had put down a newspaper. The husky had apparently been trained to do its business standing directly over the top of the paper, which made cleanup a breeze. We thought this was amusing, and we saw it a few other times while in China, so perhaps it’s a common sight over here.

After paying the guide and getting some last-minute details for our tour in the morning, we asked the front desk staff about Pizza Hut. That was a mistake – they had no idea what we were asking. We thanked them and left. I thought it wasn’t that far away and that it sounded very tasty. Wesley thought it was too far and that, while tasty, would be impossible to enjoy because no one would speak English. As it turned out it was only about six blocks away and no sooner than we walked up the steps did the hostess open the door and greet us in English. Yay! We were in business now. We were quickly seated and provided with menus. All I can say is Pizza Hut in Asia (China) is just so much better than back in the States – the menu is comprehensive, the drink and dessert selections amazing, and the food is actually good! 150 Yuan later, we were stuffed and quite satisfied.

We started walking back to the hotel, but right next door spied a McDonalds. Now I’m no big fan of McDonalds, and Wesley has embargoed them for the past several years, but I had to take a look. What I saw there piqued my curiosity – instead of apple pies, they have pineapple, coconut, and sweet taro pie. I tried to order a coconut pie but they were apparently sold out, but in lieu of that they offered a pineapple/sweet taro combo for 6 Yuan (less than a dollar). I went for it. We walked to a nearby convenience store to buy some water and sodas for the evening. Drinks were cheap, and they were cooking the nastiest-smelling meat on a stick there. I was gagging just smelling it, and I have no idea what it was.

We had to wait at a big intersection for the light to turn, and while waiting two Chinese kids approached. They asked for money, and I told them I had none. They seemed friendly enough and were smiling a lot, so when the one kid asked me for food I was happy to give him one of my two pies – the pineapple one in this case. He was quite happy too, and a girl standing next to us watching the whole thing thought it was funny and/or nice. A few minutes later we were back in our hotel room and happy to have air conditioning. After dutifully photographing this strange new foodstuff (in case I died from ingesting it), I ate it and was quite delighted at the taste. It’s hard to properly describe the taste, but it’s something akin to tapioca – but purple.

Wesley sampled a new flavor of Fanta, continuing his worldwide documentation of Fanta. This one was lime. It wasn’t bad, but couldn’t hold a candle to the Green Apple Fanta we had in Xi’An.
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Old May 31, 09, 6:15 pm
  #14  
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Day 12 – Sunday – Chengdu to Leshan and Mt. Emei

We awoke at an unreasonably early hour so that we could meet our guide outside the hotel at 7:30am. I’m not a morning person, and after eight days of constant travel I had no interest in waking up at 6:30am. We left the hotel a few minutes late and were on our way to the Panda Base Camp. It took about 40 minutes to get there and after a few minutes of ticketing formalities we were inside. We followed our guide first to an incubation room where (from big glass windows) you can peer inside and see the baby pandas being nursed until they can be released into the outdoor exhibits. They weren’t moving at all, and it was a good precursor to our encounter with the giant pandas. As it turns out, I have something in common with them – we both share an aversion to early morning activity. That said, I figured that if I should have to get up so early, the least they could do was go for a drink or bathroom run. While one panda did get up, it was only so he could find a more comfortable place to sleep. Another got up and took a quick drink of water, but then crawled right back up into a ball to sleep some more. I think if I get reincarnated, I’d like to come back as a panda.

After this we went off in search of the red pandas, not knowing what to expect. As it turns out, they’re far more active than their larger cousins (at least they were for us). We took many pictures of them and admired their burnt-orange coloring. Soon it was time to leave the Panda Base Camp to make it to our next destination – Leshan and the giant stone Buddha.

Driving to Leshan was anticlimactic. The weather was kind of dreary and overcast, and other than it being exceedingly green, there wasn’t too much to see on the drive. We did stop along the way at what appeared to be a truck stop of sorts. This one had a bunch of items for sale from the TenFu Tea Company. I’m a fan of green tea mochi from Japan, and I found something quite similar here – 3 packs (about 36 total) of mochi-like goodness set me back 40 Yuan (or $5.80). While I was buying the mochi, our guide was stuffing his pockets full of green tea-infused dried tomatoes when the salespeople weren’t looking. He showed us his stash afterwards, and it was pretty impressive – probably 20 of the little packages. I also ordered a boba tea, but it wasn’t nearly as good as those I’ve had in Hong Kong or in the US.

About a half-hour later we arrived in Leshan and parked near the boat dock. We ran across the street to a restaurant for lunch. I was unimpressed after seeing the exterior and expected it to be a dive with food to match. They had no English menu, but our guide translated and we ended up with a small feast of tasty food which was shared amongst us. The only oddity was when the bill came – I guess I expected that we’d all chip in or that it was included in the cost of the tour, but it became obvious that neither the guide nor driver expected to pay. It was the first time I’d been on a tour where that happened.

After lunch we stepped outside, went down some stairs and boarded a boat that would take us past the Big Buddha and back again. We waited a few minutes and were soon crossing the fast-moving river towards to giant stone Buddha. We had great views of it and despite the “blah” weather it was truly impressive – at over 230 feet high it’s the largest stone Buddha in the world and very imposing looking with large stone guards carved on either side.

After viewing the Buddha we drove off in search of yet another SIM card for Wesley’s phone (the one purchased in Tibet only worked in Tibet, as it turned out). I was feeling more and more satisfied with my very-expensive but very-working global SIM card from United Mobile. It took us a while to get to Mt. Emei and we arrived too late to get to the top, so our guide had to make some very last-minute arrangements and we ended up at a hotel at the base of the mountain – ostensibly a four-star hotel but I would think it closer to 2.5-3 stars. We checked in, dropped our bags in the room, and then did nothing but watch TV for two hours. We arranged to meet our driver and guide for dinner at 7pm, giving us enough time to return to our room for the 8pm US vs. China Men’s Basketball game.

We went to a restaurant at the hotel and got a nice private room directly across the hall from a large and very loud Chinese corporate party/dinner. We again made use of our guide’s translation skills and ordered another miniature feast. I enjoyed a very different kind of Kung Pao chicken – this time with miniature peppers that, although not at all spicy, had the slightly unnerving ability to numb your tongue and mouth for a period of time. I was dumb and assumed they were peppercorns at first, popping a bunch of them into my mouth and daring my fellow diners to follow. The guide looked at me like I was an idiot, my friend flatly refused, and a few minutes later I understood why – if you’ve seen Star Wars Episode I where JarJar gets his tongue stuck between the speed-racer engines then you know what it was like for me. The food was quite tasty but we had to finish quickly in order to get back to the room for the game.

As we left the restaurant, two very drunk Chinese businessmen from the adjacent party greeted us with presumably the only English they knew, shook my hand, and then laughed heartily and finished their beers and cigarettes before following us outside. Wesley joked that we had made new friends and I was concerned that they were a little too drunk but we made a quick turn and they didn’t follow, so I was happy. While Wesley returned to the room to get the game on TV, I ran to a nearby convenience store to buy some drinks. They had our now-favorite drink, Fanta Green Apple Soda, so I bought a few as well as some water.

The game had already started by the time I returned and was enjoyable to watch. Wesley fell asleep before it ended, but the US team had their act pretty well together and beat the Chinese by some 30 points. By this time it was well past time to go to sleep, so I was soon out like a light and not long thereafter back up for our trip up the mountain.
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Old May 31, 09, 6:15 pm
  #15  
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Day 13 – Monday – Mt. Emei to Chengdu and Shanghai

The shower in the room looked very dirty, and as I had slept in and we were running late I opted to skip it. I should have used the bathroom though, because while the peppers numbed my mouth the night before, they were doing far worse things to my insides in the morning. As we boarded the bus that would take us to the top of the mountain, it occurred to me that I was an idiot and wouldn’t have a shot at a western-style toilet for at least another 10 hours. The bus to the top was somewhere in-between a large mini bus and a full-size tour bus but of course had nothing in the way of facilities.

We were the first to board and were soon joined by a large tour group of Chinese led by a loud young woman. She passed around bags to everyone on the bus but us and we weren’t sure why they got them or why we didn’t. It only took ten minutes to realize why – as the driver took this large bus around hairpin curves on the mountain at full speed, it only took about three turns before the first person made use of their baggy. Thus inaugurated our trip on the “Vomit Express”. Suffice it to say, by the time we reached the top, I think more than half of the bags had been used (though we were blissfully unaffected). After the bus dropped us off, we began what became a very long walk up lots of steps to reach the cable car that would take us to very near the summit.

The cable car was Swiss-made and could accommodate some 100 people. I believe we easily met that quota. It was a quick ride to the terminus and an impressive view. From there we had yet more steps to ascend, but the views made the effort more than worthwhile. The weather here was overcast as it was most every day during our tour throughout China, but the 360 degree views of the “sea of clouds” was most impressive. There were tons of tourists, but they appeared to all be Chinese. We enjoyed the views and walked around for a few minutes before heading back to catch the cable car down. Somewhere along the line I lost the lens-cap to my camera which was annoying.

Upon exiting the even-fuller cable car at the bottom, we began the long trek down the trail of tears/steps with every jolt causing my pepper-filled insides to become more and more angry at me. Once we reached the bottom I was filled with joy at the prospect of sitting on the “Vomit Express” for the ride to the bottom, but our tour guide had an even better idea – he suggested we get off the bus halfway from the bottom and walk the rest of the way. Wesley thought this was a good idea and my intestine was screaming “NO NO NO” the whole time but unfortunately it didn’t prevail and we got off the bus halfway down. Before we departed the bus, however, Wesley and I had the pleasure of seeing a little girl sitting in front of me devour a tomato and an egg and then a few minutes later unceremoniously deposit them on the floor of the bus in the immediate vicinity of my feet. It seems the tour guide leading this group of Chinese tourists didn’t understand that the bus served the dual-purposes of transportation and amusement park ride and had neglected to hand out souvenir “vomit express” bags.

So it seemed getting off the bus and walking down was possibly better than getting puked on by a little kid, though my insides didn’t necessarily. We boarded another, smaller, cable car to take us a little ways up the mountain again. Once we exited this car we saw a bunch of donkeys and horses to our right happily grazing on grass next to a monastery. We began walking down a series of steps and came upon a bunch of stalls selling all manner of things - from food to dried medicinal items to turtles (which could no doubt be turned into either of the other items). We then turned towards the monastery that our guide wanted to show us – but he neglected to tell us beforehand that it was a steep walk up some 200 steps.

We enjoyed a brief tour of the monastery, learned that the turtles for sale below were to be purchased and delivered to a pond within the monastery, and credit would then be given to the karmic-bank for saving the life of the turtle. It was conveniently overlooked that someone would then go back to the pond later, harvest the turtles, and take them down the hill to re-sell to another tourist looking for some good karma. I guess it’s kind of a sustainable approach to karmic development…

We started down the hill, and kept going, and going, and going. It was a very long journey down innumerable (but far more than 1,000) steps. Along the way we would be offered things to buy by children and adults – with the offerings ranging from handmade fiber fans and small boxes (neat looking but perishable) to fruits, vegetables, bamboo hiking sticks, and more. We had no use for any of it and no more space, so we politely declined. We encountered two Americans (or Canadians) going the opposite direction and briefly said “hello”. Soon we were at a crossroads – a large Pagoda-like structure sitting between the confluence of two streams. Despite the large number of people, it was a beautiful place.

We started down another path and enjoyed the view as the combined streams formed a smaller river of greenish-blue water. We crossed a rickety bridge and found ourselves in a somewhat more developed area with fewer steps and a wider path. A few minutes later we came across stalls selling all manner of trinkets and souvenirs. I purchased a few silk fans after negotiating the seller down to 10 Yuan per and Wesley decided to do the same. Not long after we arrived at the terminus of the pathway and boarded a tour bus to take us the last few miles down to the bus terminal and our waiting van. Luckily no one lost their lunch on this bus.

We returned to the large town just before Mt. Emei for a later lunch, stopping at one of the multitude of small restaurants fronting the main street. Wesley and I spied a lady selling drinks across the street and felt compelled to pay her a visit first. I enjoyed a delicious green apple Fanta as did Wesley. Temporarily refreshed, we went back to the restaurant. I was still feeling off and planned on ordering nothing, but after prodding from the guide settled on some potstickers. Our driver had already eaten so he sat at another table happy to smoke the remainder of his lunch. Our guide ordered some other dishes and they soon began arriving. Despite my earlier commitment to not eat anything, I decided to give in and I’m glad I did – the food was quite tasty.

After lunch we all took naps (hopefully except the driver) for the remaining two hour drive to the Chengdu airport. With the windows rolled down and the weather clearing out a little, it was a nice drive along the highway and we arrived at the airport with about two hours until our flight was scheduled to depart.

We wished our guide and driver well, Wesley tipped one or both of them a little (I paid him back later), and we went inside to check-in. Air China had a first-class check-in line, so we used it. We inquired about upgrading to first and were told to check with ticketing. After twenty minutes of failed back-and-forth, it was apparent Air China in Chengdu had no idea how to process a paid upgrade issued on another carrier’s stock, so we abandoned the idea and contented ourselves with the thought of sitting in (gasp!) coach for a two hour flight. We were given access to a contract lounge in Chengdu which, while unimpressive, was better than waiting at the gate – we were the only two in the lounge the entire time.

It wasn’t long before the flight was called, so after checking some emails, getting the name and address of the hotel we would be staying at in Shanghai, and stocking up one whatever candy was easily pocketable, we proceeded to the gate where our flight was already boarding. I asked about changing seats and was told that the back several rows were all empty and I could have my pick. As promised, once on board several rows at the back were empty, so I picked one and sat down. Before pushback we were offered newspapers, pillows, and blankets. I took a newspaper. The flight was uneventful except for a good-smelling but nasty-looking hotdog and other unidentifiable food items. We landed in Shanghai on-time and soon had our bags and were in the taxi queue.

We told the taxi driver where we wanted to go and happily he seemed to understand. We either smelled very bad or he had a hot date because we travelled as close to the speed of light as one can in a Chinese taxi – often exceeding 140km per hour. He would go for long stretches and then slow down just in time for a speed camera, speeding up as soon as the danger had passed. In thirty minutes we arrived at our hotel – the Hilton Shanghai. After checking in, we dropped our bags in the room, turned down the aircon, and then went back downstairs in search of a nearby restaurant that might still be open.

The concierge directed us to a nearby 24-hour dim sum place. The food was just okay and the service was bad – the place looked like a Steak-and-Shake for those familiar, but serving decidedly different food instead. We didn’t eat everything we ordered – partially because we were tired of waiting and simply wanted to sleep, and partially because one of the items received a nickname from Wesley that too closely resembled what it looked like. We left dissatisfied but too tired to care and stopped off at a convenience store on the way to the hotel to pickup drinks and the most expensive M&Ms I encountered on this trip. We promptly went to sleep.
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