The Roof Of The World

This trip has been salvaged from the wreckage of the long-planned "Long March" trip, in which I would join fellow nutters in retracing the route of Mao's 4000 mile retreat to the remote caves of Yenan in northwestern China. Unfortunately, the tour was canceled because no one else signed up. I already had my air tickets, so I cobbled together an alternate itinerary.

The jumping-off point is Hong Kong, which I haven't visited in four years. Each time it becomes less unique as it and other Chinese cities converge (which is exactly the way Beijing wants it).

The big news here is Disney. Disneyland Hong Kong opens in three days, and it's all Disney, all the time. Needless to say, I have no interest.

The trip proper begins with a flight to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province. Home to half of China's fifty-four ethnic minorities, Yunnan is a popular exotic vacation destination for Chinese tourists.

Kunming is a "moderate" size city of 4.5 million. Whatever innate charms is has are concealed by belching smokestacks and traffic gridlock.

We are first taken to the Western Hills, which afford a panoramic view over the city  if you could see anything. On the way we pass the Burma Road, hurriedly built during WWI to supply the Nationalist Army. It was only used for nine months until Burma fell to the Japs, after which the Flying Tigers took up the task. Some of the veterans are in Kunming being feted. There are plans to rebuild and reopen the road.

Our hotel, the Golden Dragon, is bustling. It is host to the 4th International Conference on Electromagnetic Fields and Biological Effects. And I forgot my tin-foil hat!

In the morning we fly to Lijiang, an area unknown to the West until penetrated in the 1930's by aviators. It's the home to the Naxi people, who have a shamanistic religion and a unique alphabet of 1300 pictographs.

The first stop in Black Dragon Pool Park, a classical Chinese park. Ming era stone lions guard the entrance, having been fished from the pond where they were thrown during the Cultural Revolution. The park is pretty, but its appeal is diminished by the rainy weather.

Then we are off to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, a large alpine nature reserve with a scenic white-capped mountain background -- or so the sample pictures indicate; it is so overcast and hazy that we can't see a thing. Admission to the reserve (included in our tour cost) is an astounding 120 yuan (that's $15, but equivalent in purchasing power to $120)  no discount for Chinese tourists, of which there are zillions. The thing to do is ride a cable car up the mountain, rent a silly costume, and have your picture taken in front of the mountains.

At lunch we are brought about fifteen dishes and a giant bucket of rice (for 2 people). That sets the theme of this trip: enormous quantities of mostly-inedible food.

At the Guadong Hotel  formerly the Yunnan Aviation Sightseeing Hotel -- we are upgraded to a suite. This place has a gym with an attitude: the exercise equipment is interspersed with overstuffed lounge chairs, sofas, coffee tables and abundant ashtrays.

The main attraction is Lijiang Ancient Town, a World Heritage Site and MSVTT (Major Shopping Village for Tourist Tat). Prior to 1994 it was just the old, filthy, rundown, poor city center. Now that the residents have been evicted and the buildings prettified, it is crawling with tourists buying vast quantities of schlock souvenirs. The ethnic minorities dress in native costumes and provide photos ops. We are repeatedly told how they love to sing and dance. (Ah, but do they like watermelon?)

The next morning we drive to Qiaotou, a/k/a Tiger Leaping Gorge Town, on the upper Yangste river. The gorge is one of the deepest in the world and a popular trekking destination. The program is generally to hike up and down and up and down, admiring the views along the way. We are doing the girlyman version: two-thirds by car.

A long, steep path leads down to Tiger Leaping Stone, where the river rages through the narrowest portion. Lazy and rich tourists spare themselves the effort and are carried in sedan chairs. Lots of souvenirs for sale. My favorite: a yak horn carved into a Sioux indian chief.

Along the way, little kids in colorful costumes sing out, "I want to go to school but I have no money. Please take my picture."

On day one we hike up, across, and down for a bout six hours to reach Chateau Woody, a/k/a Woody's Motel and Diner, a basic backpacker guesthouse that has expanded to to accommodate the more upscale trekker. Relatively speaking, it's an oasis of comfort. The menu includes Naxi sandwiches and Yak Meat Pizza, and, for breakfast, chocolate pancakes.

The next day we continue our truncated trek by driving to a village and hiking down to the river. The scenery is excellent but, as with yesterday, hazy conditions make for poor photography. On the riverbank is a guy fishing. It might take him a week to catch one, but if he does he get perhaps $10 by selling it to a tourist restaurant.

A small ferry approaches from the opposite shore. Aboard are four fellow Big-Noses (that's what the Chinese call us, not "round-eyes"). They are Dutch. One girl speaks Chinese, but evidently not well enough because they got their directions wrong and got lost. They spent the night on a farmer's floor. We give them a lift back to Woody's. Our guide is concerned because the farmer had offered them a meal; there is a leper colony on the other side of the river, and he had heard that one can catch leprosy from eating food touched by a leper. His anxiety is allayed when the girl assures him that their host was not a leper. He is surprised to learn that leprosy is treatable and that, in the west, we no longer exile the afflicted.

Our guide, an ethnic Tibetan married to a Chinese, may not be up on modern epidemiology, but is attuned to our wishes and capabilities. On the third day in the gorge I am a bit peeked, so we drive to the cheaters' start, hike for a few hours, then meet up with the car.

We drive to Haba village for the night. Out arrival is a week too soon  they are putting the finishing touches of modern, en-suite rooms. We stay in the crummy rooms, but at least there are hot showers (solar-heating) and electricity (generator). There are power lines to Haba but the entire village was disconnected years ago for unpaid bills.

We pop into the village school (built with donated money). Lessons are over for the day but the kids are still there, mops and brooms in hand, cleaning up the classrooms.

In the morning we continue northwards. A stop at Shudu Lake, a source of considerable regional pride but unexceptional to our eyes. The Chinese are so starved for nature that they will travel long distances and pay huge sums to get to a small lake where they can rent a Tibetan costumes and have their pictures taken. More interesting are the Baixuitai terraces, a natural formation of hillside pools formed by minerals.

We reach Zhongdian. This was part of Tibet until 1950 when the borders were "adjusted." A former frontier town, it now a Disneyfied version of Tibet  lots of modern building in Tibetan style, but much cleaner. You can now "visit" Tibet without actually having to go there. In 2001, in an effort to attract westerners, Zhongidan County was renamed "Shangri-La" (after the James Hilton novel) by the Tourism Bureau.

The town is fairly high up (2 miles). Small bottles of oxygen are widely sold. In our hotel room is an oxygen dispenser with instructions in Chinglish: "If you need breath oxygen with oxygen machine. At frist go to front desk buy healthy card for it and please be attention." More Chinglish on the card in the bathroom urging reuse of the towels: "Advocacy environmental protection and dicreasing wash pollution."

Just outside of town is Songzalin Monastery, the largest Tibet monastery in Yunnan. It looks nice from outside but the inside is dark, smoky, and reeks of rancid yak. The walls are covered with murals, including one depicting the tortures of the damned  most of the souls suffering hellfire have white, western facial features.

By now we are getting familiar with the guide and driver. They are living large. They stay at the same hotels and by now have joined our table for meals. Having heard only commie propaganda, they are greatly surprised when I tell them the Dalai Lama does not seek secession from China, only internal autonomy. They also had not heard that the purported Eleventh Panchen Lama, whose task will be to find the next Dalai Lama, is an imposter, a commie stooge installed by the Chinese. (The real Panchen Lama was kidnapped by the Chinese and his whereabouts unknown.)

The oldest house in Zhongdian is 400 years old, dating from the Ming Dynasty. It has stayed in the same family, and the old guy is happy to receive visitors. The house was seized during the Cultural Revolution, and slogans and cartoons from that era carved and painted on the walls have been preserved. The owner spent 21 years in prison, but feels no shame because Deng Xiaoping and many others suffered similarly.

Outside the center are a number of new houses built in Tibetan style. We select one at random and pop in. The style is two-story: family upstairs, animals below. Dried yak meat hangs from the rafters. The house features very elaborate wood carving, but no plumbing.

It is possible to fly from Zhongdian on to Lhasa (one can also take the bus  5 days and nights), but our route takes us back to Kunming. At Shangri-La Airport there is only scheduled departure, so the flight status monitors show music videos instead.

Outside of Kunming is the Stone Forest, natural limestone karsts in a park-like setting. The rock formations extend over a large area, but this portion has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1930s. As usual, the locals dress up for the tourists and the tourists play dress-up too.

Back at the Golden Dragon we are consigned to the Big-Nose ghetto for dinner. There are knives and forks at the place settings not chopsticks. I am getting good at them  just watch me eat cornflakes in the morning using chopsticks!

On our last morning in Yunnan there is time a for a stroll about the city. The plazas and parks are full of tai chi exercisers. Kiosks offer green tea flavor ice cream. Weird pets are for sale in the market. Moonshine is still under 20¢/bottle. All over the city ancient buildings are being razed and new, fake-old buildings going up.

Cool deal at the airport: my lounge card gets us into a not especially nice lounge, but when our flight is called they fetch us, escort us through a private security check, then drive us in a car across the ramp to the waiting plane. (The masses arrive by shuttle bus.) It's great to be in a classless society!

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, is the largest city in western China (10 million). In late September it's hot (88°), sticky, and the air is pea-soup with pollution. What must is be like in July and August? The guidebook calls the city "manageable" and "pleasant." It couldn't be more wrong on both counts. The traffic and congestion made this place a candidate for a remake of Blade Runner.

The big city merits a 5 star hotel. My charm and the lack of a non-smoking room gets us upgraded to a junior suite. Pretty nice. For the first time in a week we get to choose our food at dinner. Instead of ten or twelve dishes of which I will only eat two or three, I get a plate full of what I want.

We meet the tour agency representative to pick up our all-important Tibet permit. He says I look like an actor in a movie he just saw. He can't remember the name, but it had a cop in it. I wish I knew.

In the morning we visit the Panda Breeding and Research Center. Sichuan is panda country, and this place has the most success in handling them in captivity. Unlike the wild, where pandas are rare and elusive, this place offers many good photo ops.

There are two kinds of pandas: the Giant Panda lives in the disappearing Sichuan forests and subsist solely on one kind of bamboo; Red Pandas live in the Himalayan foothills and are more common.

We have to switch hotels for the second night. The new one features rooms in ultra-modern design, including a picture window between the bedroom and bath. Very funky. The room is registered to only my name; at 9 PM the phone rings and a female voice asks if I would like a massage. The hotel restaurant displays dishes with giant grubs and centipedes, but it's false advertising: they are not part of the breakfast buffet.

Since it's a big city, Chengdu has the usual assortment of temples and the like. Good think I'm not a Buddhist, because with these admission fees I would go broke trying to worship here.

Rather than take a bus or a taxi (recorded greeting: "Hello, passenger. Welcome to take my taxi"), we hire a luxury car and driver to take us to Leshan, where the largest seated Buddha in the world is carved into a cliff on the riverbank. It's very popular with Chinese tourists, meaning we have plenty of company. We see the statue from the water and from the land. Unfortunately, the sun is behind it and makes for poor photography.

Back at the Crowne Plaza for the third night. This time my irresistable personality merits a free upgrade to a full suite. VERY nice. Too bad we have an early morning departure.

Tourism into Tibet is very tightly controlled. It's no problem to get a visa for China, but to go to Tibet you have to have a special permit. Permits are given only to groups; our "group" consists of two. (There are travel agents which specialize in assembling phony groups for purposes of gaining entry.) You need the permit to buy an airplane ticket, to check-in at the airport, and again at passport control. Tourist-class hotels won't let you check-in without it.

On disembarking I stop coughing and instead start gasping. Lhasa is at 12,000 ft. It is the same latitude as Jacksonville, but at 90° longitude. Because of all China is on Beijing time, sunrise is at 8 AM and sunset at 8 PM. The airport is in a valley outside Lhasa  the surrounding mountains practically touch the runway and terminal.

Our guide (Tibetan) and driver (Chinese) are waiting for us in a new Toyota Land Cruiser equipped with auxiliary fuel tank and altimeter. At the insistence of the Chinese overlords the houses on the drive to the city all sport red Chinese national flags, so when the new mandarins visit they can see a loyal populace. The houses are all in good repair and richly decorated, but it's all a Potemkin village  except for the airport road the houses don't look like this and people do not fly Chinese flags.

We check into the Lhasa Hotel, which proudly denotes that it is the former Holiday Inn, the only 4 star hotel in Tibet. I would rate it barely 2.5 stars; it looks like fifteen years have passed since its last renovation. It's where all the foreign tour groups stay. Across the marquee hangs a large banner: "Hearty Welcome to the Royal Nepal Government Delegation to the 2nd Meeting of China Tibet Joint Coordinating Committee on Tourism." The parking lot is crowded with Toyota Hi-Luxes (the Taliban staff car) on a caravan from "Thailand to the Roof of the World."

Tibet is vast but sparsely populated land -- it comprises 25% of the Chinese land area but has only 2 million people. Only 20% of the population is urban. Due to rapid immigration, the cities are becoming majority Chinese while the countryside remains Tibetan. Lhasa has 200,000, which would rate only as a medium-size town in China. Apart from the cultural landmarks, it has become mostly a Chinese city with a Tibetan quarter.

Walking around the first afternoon leaves me exhausted. This thin air is tiring! Taxis are not metered; it's a flat 10 yuan ($1.25) to anywhere in the city; the drivers know that weakling tourists are likely to be going only a few blocks.

Dinner is at the Hard Yak Café, where I have an overpriced (but tasty) yak burger.

In the morning we visit the Potala, the seat of the government and palace of the Dalai Lama. Pilgrims circumambulate the walls, turning prayer wheels along the route and spinning their own. Now that overt suppression of religion has subsided, pilgrims come from all over. They only have to pay 1 yuan entry fee; it's 100 yuan for tourists. I give a quick thought to buying prayer wheel and angling for the lower rate, but the admission charge is already included in our tour.

The palace has 1000+ rooms, but only about two dozen are open, mostly chapels. No photos allowed. When we reach the throne room of the 14th Dalai Lama, the current one who fled in 1959, the Tibetans prostrate themselves before his empty chair. The Potala also contains the very ornate tombs of the prior Dalai Lamas  that of the 5th Dalai Lama contains 4 tons of gold and is inlaid with precious stones. There are numerous pictures of the 13th Dalai Lama (he died in 1933), but portraits of the 14th, who lives in exile in India, are absolutely prohibited here and everywhere else in Tibet.

Across the street from the Potala is a large plaza with a monument commemorating Tibet's "peaceful reunification with the motherland" and marking the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Chinese tourists pose for photos in front of the monument; Tibetans steer clear. Guards ensure that the monument is not defaced and that no protests take place.

The other big attraction is Jonkung Temple, which as a sort a principal cathedral for all the branches of Tibetan Buddhism. The inside is dark and smelly. Also slippery, since butter for the lamps is being slopped around by the bucketful. Pilgrims buy butter and spoon dollops of it into various lamps and alters at the countless shrines. (Which explains why at breakfast there are only cheap stamped spoons  people must keep nicking them.) The faithful also leave paper money. The most common (and smallest) note is 1 jiao (just over a penny), which the monks gather up and recycle by making change at the entrance. In addition to heaps of small money, there are foreign and large offerings: banknotes from just about every country, including Mozambique, and more than a few $100 bills.

In the afternoon we take in the new Tibet Museum. You enter on the upper level, where there is the usual array of artifacts. The best stuff is at the end with exhibits supporting the legitimacy of Chinese hegemony. There is a display of gifts sent by Mao to the Dalai Lama. (Gosh, he left without taking them!) One exits through the ground floor, which is simply a giant shopping center unrelated to any museum theme.

On the third day we leave Lhasa. Our first stop is the Drepung Monastery, the largest in Tibet. Then, a four hour drive to Namtso Lake. On the way we see pilgrims on foot journeying to Lhasa. Except they are not exactly on foot  they prostrate themselves, advance a pace, and prostrate themselves again the entire route.

The lake is the highest salt water lake in the world and is sacred (isn't everything. The dry thin air makes for a brilliant blue. Behind the lake is a line of snow-capped peaks. Unfortunately, once we get there is nothing to do, and the "guesthouse" consists of tents. After watching the sunset, it's a boring, very cold night. After sunrise, we return to Lhasa.

The next day we drive to Shigatse, Tibet's second city and home to Tashilunpo Monastery, seat of the Panchen Lama. There and only there will one see a picture of the unloved pretender. The monastery isn't that interesting  it looks extra clean and someone sterile, like it was fixed up for tourists. I don't see any pilgrims. Despite the ruse, the Tibetans know that he ain't the real McCoy. (The pretender is currently "studying" in Beijing.) A worldwide campaign was launched this year to free the real one, who since the age of six has been "the world's youngest political prisoner."

Part of the monastery complex is a museum devoted to the life of the late 10th Panchen Lama. After the Chinese invasion he counseled cooperation, which made him acceptable to the Chinese as a religious leader who submitted rather than fled. Later on he became more defiant and landed in prison, and is considered by the Tibetans as a symbol of resistance. Because of this dual status and as a proxy for the Dalai Lama, his portrait is ubiquitous.

#10 with Chairman Mao
(the fake) #11 with President Hu

The hotel is the last decent one until we get back to Lhasa. The parking is full of Land Cruisers identical to ours. The room has a 1999 Tibet telephone directory; it's about a half inch thick.

The next morning we begin a two day drive to Everest Base Camp. The road starts out fine, but after two hours we join the Friendship Highway which connects Lhasa with Kathmandu in Nepal. It unpaved and in terrible condition. There is rebuilding and construction and detours everywhere which makes things worse.

The scenery is the journey: mountains, rivers, plains, villages, ruins, and monasteries. The air is clear and the skies a brilliant blue.

We traverse a couple of high passes. We get out for photographs, while the driver and guide celebrate the altitude with a cigarette break. There are an amazing number of bicyclists also making the journey. After a long day we stop at a guesthouse and endure by far the worst accommodations on the entire trip.

The next day we continue on, entering Everest National Park. (As it is near the Nepal border, another permit has to be obtained.) After a while we are compelled to transfer from our vehicle to a large Dodge RAM van for the penultimate leg. (There is no reason we can't drive other than the authorities have spotted a money-making opportunity under the guise of reducing vehicular congestion.) They should issue helmets for the van ride, which takes almost an hour. We arrive at Rongbuk Monastery, the world's highest, with view of the North Face of Everest.

It's still another couple of miles to the Base Camp. There is a road, but tourists have choice of walking or hiring a horse cart. I opt for the latter, which is the best $7 I spend. Two problems: it's COLD: and, at 17,000 ft., it's TOUGH going. Some people walk, but they tend to be ultra-fit, young Scandinavians.

At the base camp a mystery is solved. I always thought that Everest Base Camp was in Nepal and that you had to hike for days to get there. It is, and you do. But there are two base camps: one in Nepal and one in China. (Everest forms part of the border.) The Nepalese want to keep the Sherpas employed as porters; the Chinese instead built a road to theirs.

Because the North Face is much more difficult, it attracts comparatively few climbers; it is climbing season, but there are only a couple of expedition camps at the base.

For the rest of us there a fifty foot hill with flags on top. Don't laugh  that's the hardest small hill I've ever climbed. I pose for a picture. (The Tibetan name for Everest is Qomolangha.)

Time to start the long road back. That day we make it as far as the crossroads town of Lhatse, where we bypass the "Much Taste In Hotel" for the more upscale Lhatse Hotel. The the lobby and the rooms are fine; the problem is that bathrooms are nailed shut. The hotel's water supply has been cut off. Facilities are available across the parking lot. And it's not like we are deliberately slumming it  no hotel in Lhatse has running water.

Day four on the road brings us to Gyangste, the largest town in Tibet (Lhasa and Shigatse are the only two cities), which features a monastery, a ruined fort, and a hotel with plumbing. It may be the largest town, but they herd cattle down main street.

On the last day of the road trip we return to Lhasa via the old, scenic highway. It's National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic. It's a major holiday throughout China, but ignored here; people here don't feel they have anything to celebrate. In Lhasa the story is the same. As we approach the city we pass a long column of troop transports heading back to Chengdu, having been called out in the event of civil unrest but unneeded as the day unfolded without incident.

The next day we fly to Beijing and its polluted but rich air. I have only one day here, and only one item on my agenda: to see Mao. The first time I went he was closed on New Year's. The second time his mausoleum was closed because of celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Peoples Republic. Third time's a charm?

Boy, have things changed! We are staying at the Marriott, which is almost lost in a sea of high rises and shopping malls. It's but a 15 minute walk to Tien An Men Square, where a significant portion of China's 1.3 billion people have decided to join me. Tourists are in the capital for the holiday, and many are carrying small flags. It is amusing to watch them try to step back to take pictures of each other in front of buildings and monuments only to have other people walk in front while dozens of others try to do the exact same thing.

Mao is closed on Mondays. That makes me 0 for 3.

The big focus is on the upcoming Olympics. In preparation, many of the tourist attractions are closed and under renovation. The Museum of the Revolution has been permanently closed, and will reopen in 2008 as the Museum of China. In the meantime, there are a few special exhibitions. One is on the 15th century admiral Cheng Ho who sailed great fleets throughout southeast Asia and as far as Africa. As we are informed, he "flaunted the might of Chinese nation and promoted friendship between China and peoples of Asia and Africa." (Although he was a eunuch, he somehow managed in leave descendants in all those places.) Another features selected archeological finds since 1950 (the good stuff was taken to Taiwan in 1949 by Chang Kai-shek): "People will find themselves overflowed with pride when they walk around the Exhibition Hall and feel the aethestical rhyme from the precious relics." For the highbrows, there are wax figures of famous personages.

Afterwards, I walk to the Temple of Heaven, which I have also not seen. It's also closed for renovation.

That's it. Time to go. A very pleasant front-of-the-plane experience the whole way.

Trip date: September 2005