Archive for November, 2009

living clockwise

November 30, 2009
When you’ve been raised in the tradition of the stiff British upper lip, public displays of devotion can make you a little uncomfortable. For starters, people in the West aren’t devoted to much these days – iPhones; Grey’s Anatomy; raw food – and any deeper devotion is usually very privately held. So being swept along by a throng of pilgrims on our first morning in Lhasa, many with callouses on their foreheads from hundreds of kilometres of prostration, was a humbling and spellbinding introduction to real and living devotion, Tibetan style.

In debating the question of whether to visit Tibet, one of our fears was that we would witness a culture being watered down by military intimidation, Han Chinese immigration and tourism. But, perhaps as a symbol of resistance, Tibetan culture and Buddhism are worn as a badge of honour. Having said that, Lhasa is a virtually segregated city and security in the Tibetan quarter makes you wonder if Obama might be visiting – night time road closures; boys with guns on every rooftop and somewhat farcical foot patrols. But Tibetans are a tough mob – it takes a special breed to eke out centuries of existence in a frozen and vertiginous equivalent of the Nullabor plain.

 

 

 

 

Monasteries and temples are the order of the day in Tibet and despite visiting dozens, we never tired of them. Not at all museum-like, wafts of juniper incense and yak butter and the chanting of pilgrims making their fluid kora were a feast for the senses. Our diminutive guide, Chongla, liked to keep us on our toes with pop quizzes on the various images. Given how often we muddled up our Sakyamuni Buddhas with our Tantric masters, we were glad she didn’t employ the methods of reprimand used by monks in their debates, which involves an enthusiastic “whack!” delivered an inch from the face when you blunder the answer to an esoteric question. We eventually concluded that the more we learnt about Tibetan Buddhism, the more it completely mystified us, although I suspect that trying to explain the mechanics of the Holy Trinity to a Tibetan might have a similar effect.

 

A foreboding, silent monolith in a sea of Mandarin neon, Potala Palace is unrivalled in its dominance of the Lhasa skyline. Our first glimpse of the Dalai Lama’s winter residence and the seat of Tibetan government came on the late night ride from the brand new, gigantic train station on the outskirts of town, which rises out of nowhere like the Death Star. All at once, we felt excited, privileged, saddened and weighed down by the living out of a long-held dream. When visiting a few days later, we expected the building to be empty but were surprised to see that much of the interior survived the iconoclastic rampage of Mao’s Red Guards. That said, only a handful of the 1,000-odd rooms are open to visitors. Most definitely off-limits are those which might be construed as having a political element, such as the stupa housing the remains of the 13th Dalai Lama, the current Dalai Lama’s predecessor and no friend of China.

Earlier the same day we visited Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s traditional summer residence and where the current Dalai Lama spent much of his youth. Less visited than the other sites of Lhasa, we had plenty of time to wander the grounds and ponder what was left. One of the more fascinating and odd exhibits was a room full of horse-drawn carts gifted to the Dalai Lama by various heads of state and royalty on his coronation in 1950, a reminder that there was no motorised transport in Tibet at the time. Also on display was a small tricycle, which a monk explained had been the Dalai Lama’s 7th birthday gift from his English tutor. The living quarters were constructed in 1956 and in contrast to Potala, which is truly fit for a living deity, they are very modest – although there is a western toilet and a bathtub, which is a luxury in Tibet even in 2009.

I don’t think any of us will forget the sight of the empty throne in the main reception hall, robes folded and patiently awaiting their owner’s return. Hidden in an inaccessible corner of the room is the only picture of His Holiness tolerated in Tibet – a mural depicting a very young man, yet to acquire his trademark spectacles. Chongla was understandably reluctant to discuss politics – Lhasa is reputedly crawling with informers – but as we sat in silence in the courtyard outside, she casually remarked that although the buildings are full of beautiful things, they feel empty.

 

 

 

 

After four days in Lhasa, we began our journey that would see us deposited at the Nepali border. As if all the spectacular cultural sites weren’t enough, the Tibetan countryside also threw up some of the most jaw-dropping scenery of our travels. Every day it seemed we would cross another 5000m pass, marvel at yet another technicolour lake or glimpse an “8000-er” in the distance. Our penultimate night in Tibet was to be spent at Everest Base Camp, the details of which we hadn’t given much thought to – that is until our hungover driver started inventing reasons not to go. No chance, Tenzing! So after arriving in the dark and being shown to our dismal and overpriced digs, we glanced up and there she was: Mt Everest, or Chomolongma (Saint Mother) as the Tibetans know her, faintly lit up by a crescent moon and towering right above us. This magnificent sight was some consolation for having to pee in the carpark during the night, as the toilets were a special type of wrongness to be avoided at all costs.

 

On the suggestion of our recalcitrant driver, we were ready to go before dawn the next morning – only to wait around for him in the cold and the dark for 40 minutes until he graced us with his presence and drove us the short way to the viewpoint. Reliably informed by a fellow tourist that it was -10C, we stamped our feet as the first rays lit up the mountainside… and we felt very, very small. The prayer flags we carried up there and unfurled will hopefully fly in our Perth backyard one day.* When we could stand the cold no longer, we retreated to the car and about three hours later, began to feel our fingers and toes again.

The tale our journey through wonderful Tibet would not be complete without mention of Ryan & Jo, who foolishly agreed to be our travelling partners so many months ago. Wonderfully good-humoured and with a remarkable capacity for yak and potato consumption, we’re very glad they weren’t too put off by Linds’ incongruous references to Spinal Tap amidst the Plain of Jars.

*Uh, slight problem dudes – you have to acquire a house first?!

tropical beer notes #16 – 22: china & tibet omnibus edition

November 26, 2009

 

Yeah, yeah. I know we’re not in the tropics anymore, but we’ll be back there soon. Don’t fret.

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Snow Beer 3.3%   China

Ever heard of Guangzhou, Dongguan or Shenzhen? Put these cities together and you’ve got something like 30 million people.

Meet Snow Beer. I’d never heard of it but it’s the biggest selling beer in the world. Chinese peeps and the odd grubby Australian get though 61 million hectolitres a year. I’d never even heard of a hectolitre before now.

Actually, Snow is kind of like a modern Chinese city: soulless, banal, very modern. Although I’m not picking up any hints of Orwellian vision.  God, I talk some rubbish on this thing. Anyhow – note that Snow overtook Bud Lite about a year ago. Not really a great loss for humanity there.

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Dali Beer 3-point-something-%   China

I can’t remember what strength it is, but all Chinese beer is what Australians deem ‘mid-strength’ anyway.

Comes with about four different labels, but it all tastes like crap (haven’t you missed that Dodd eloquence?).

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Tsingtao Beer 3.1%   China

The most well known, thanks to being the least crap beer in China.

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Stout Lodge   4.5%   China

Where is Stout Lodge? I want to stay there.

Lots of chocolate in this one. It bills itself as German, but any beer lout worth his hops would know that Bavarians don’t even make stout. Not that this sort of detail is a barrier to the marketing execs of China. The inane but hilarious dribble on the label is probably the best thing about it:

“German stout uses only the best ingredients and the ingredients are subject to the strictest screening processes. German stout is brewed with teadi-tionnal methods which has established its elite status in stout. Its deep chocolate color, smooth foam and light chocolate flavor di-stincts from others nevertheless, the good old German heritage remains. Ger-man stout is the best enjoyment you can have ta anytime stout.”

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Guinness Foreign Extra   5%   China via Malaysia

GFE’s providence is so confusing. This one is made in Malaysia but is not for sale in that country; it’s produced solely for export to China. Essentially a not-quite-as-good version of the one I tried all those months ago on the Malay Peninsula.

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Kingway Beer can’t-remember-%   China

Ah, my old friend Kingway. It’s not much to recommend but it did send me on a trip down memory lane. In the late nineties, the now sadly defunct John Coppins bottle shop* sold cartons of this stuff for a crazy cheap $20. Around the corner, Tommy Bell and I were doing some horrific labouring for his uncle, Blinky Bell – shocking Dockers supporter and Len Buckridge wannabe. After a hard day of scrubbing pavers with acid, Tom and I would retire to Tom’s squalid abode, the infamous and thankfully long gone “Moon Unit“, in Cottesloe. There we would sate our first-year-uni-student thirst and workshop marketing slogans, full of the wit that only freshers can summon:

“Kingway – good for Chairman Mao! Good for you!”
(actually, I’ve taken to remembering that one as “Good for Chairman Mao! Had better be good for you!”)

“Kingway – brewed from the freshest Yangtze Dam waters!”

…and probably the most worthy of reminiscence:

“Kingway – choice of a repressed generation!” (Get it? Like Pepsi? OK maybe only Tom gets it, or got it when he was 18)

Of course, all must be chanted with a mock Chinese accent that many in the community would consider highly offensive.

 

*taken over by the do-ers of Satan’s bidding, Vintage Cellars

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Lhasa Beer 4.3%   Tibet

The “beer from the roof of the world.” Soapy and fizzy. It’s not that great, but drinking the stuff in Lhasa is. It became a near compulsory component of our meals.

Here I am with Ryan “Where’s the chopper?” Pace, one half of Ryan & Indiana Jo, our long-suffering Tibetan travelling partners. Ryan and I decided to celebrate reaching 5020m, the highest point of the journey to Tibet, with a refreshing drink. My Tibetan cabin mates gesticulated wildly at me as I prepared to crack it open – turns out they weren’t encouraging me to quench my thirst but warning that beer explodes on opening at this altitude. Not the best way to make friends and influence people.

panda-monium

November 3, 2009

We figured we ought to visit at least one colossal, polluted Chinese city, so we headed to Chengdu. The fifth most populous city in China, it chewed us up and spat us right back out again. Needing to pay the deposit for our Tibet trip, we entered in to the Kafka-esque nightmare that is Chinese banking. Three branches, five forms and two hours later, I think we made a deposit into our agent’s account. After that, we desperately wanted to flee the city but our efforts even to do that were thwarted. Admittedly, we had seriously underestimated demand for bus tickets to Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve and failed to purchase them in advance. I mean, the place only receives about 1.5 million visitors annually…

At least there were pandas. And a great BBQ (wine! imported beer! things on sticks!), kindly hosted by an expat family who were our hotel neighbours in Lijiang. The dad works for Chevron and lived in Perth for a while in the 80s. To know Perth is to love it (ahem), so we were in like Flynn.

 

 

On pandas: like many native Australian animals, they are completely useless. Such is their uselessness, Google tells me that they are high on the hit-list of a fearsome Facebook group, the “Coalition against Useless Animals.”  They can barely eat enough bamboo to sustain their lazy-ass bodies; they can’t even be bothered to procreate. Now that’s lazy.

And so we headed to Xining because, frankly, it had been far too long since we tortured ourselves with a 24-hour journey. We must be looking scrawny because our fellow passengers rallied to force feed us throughout the entire trip. I love nothing more than seeing a petite, immaculately groomed and urbane Chinese woman chow down on a whole, hard boiled duck egg and a dried sausage squashed inside a flatbread. I like to think she equally enjoyed watching me scoff one down. Well tasty and it sure beat cup noodles.

 

 

Xining is home to the saintly Clark, an English teacher at the local high school, who we met when he rescued us from getting completely lost in Hanoi. Not the prettiest of cities, but super friendly and some great food thanks to the melting pot of Chinese, Tibetan and Muslim cultures (and Clark knowing the best places to go).

 

 

 

With a few days up our sleeve before our Tibet departure, we did a warm-up trip to Tongren and Xiahe, the leading monastery town outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. You know you’re not in Kansas anymore when goat heads are selling like hot cakes in the market. We also had our first taste of Tibetan black tea, which is big, gnarly and smells like tobacco. Kind of like a lot of Tibetans, really.

 

 

yak attack

November 3, 2009

Many months ago, keen observers of our Flickr page may have noticed our deliberations over the best route to India. Given the expense of our original plan to go through Tibet to Nepal, we threw a whole stack of other options open for consideration.* And consider we did. In fact, we agonised over this question daily for several weeks before eventually deciding to stick with our original route. So we never really viewed China as a destination but, rather, a means to an Indian end. And in a way, this kind of characterised what we loved most about China – the amazing journeys, rather than the destinations themselves. Our meanderings through ethnically-Tibetan Western Sichuan were an awesome way to get from Shangri-la to Chengdu, especially given that we weren’t at all sure whether the area might be closed to tourists, as is has been in the past.

In 2001, the Chinese government rebranded the dusty frontier town of Zhongdian as the much-more-mystical-sounding “Shangri-la” in an effort to drum up tourism. On arrival, we agreed this was a little akin to rebranding Port Hedland as “Atlantis”. Nevertheless, it was our introduction to the Tibetan world and it heralded a few firsts: first sighting of a flock of Tibetan monks, buying chocolate at the supermarket; first genuine fear that the weight of our bodies might compromise the structural integrity of our bed; and our first brush with serious altitude, which left us very thankful for the fleeces hurriedly purchased in Lijiang, despite the fact that the only available XXL was in a bright orange hue which makes Linds look like a freakishly oversized carrot.

 

 

 

 

 

The cold weather was all the excuse we needed to up our daily calorie intake, so we religiously ingested a mammoth breakfast at Helen’s each morning, waited upon and entertained by the charming Marco who would not be at all out of place hamming it up on the floor at our beloved Maurizio’s. And we started seeing a lot of yak, both in the fields and on our plates.

 

 

October 1 is the National Day holiday in China and this year was a big one, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding the the PRC. As far as we could tell, National Day is not celebrated in any similar fashion to Australia Day, although we did see a group of youths carting a huge bottle of moonshine off to guzzle in the park. We watched some of the huge military parade on TV in the morning, later learning that Beijing was in lockdown for most of the day and that government scientists had chemically altered the weather to ensure that no one rained on their parade. Ha.

A definite highlight was our nightly visit to the square in the old town where locals of all shapes and sizes would turn out in their droves for a bit of Tibetan circle dancing. Apart from being the ultimate in people-watching opportunities, we both found ourselves quite touched by the strong sense of pride and community on display. It’s a special place where skinny jean-clad boys enthusiastically get their groove on alongside their nanas. Linds did a great job humming and shuffling out some steps in the CD store when we wanted to ask about buying the music. Must have been the practice he got pretending to be an elephant when we wanted to go to the elephant park in Lampang.

When the time came for us to leave Shangri-la, we found out the hard way that our alarm clock was running half an hour slow. Chinese buses are prompt, but thankfully not that prompt as the bus had only managed to make it 300m down the road. The ride to Xiangcheng was beautiful although unfortunately, the same could not be said for the town itself. As we followed the guesthouse tout up a dusty road, over a wooden walkway, through a rusty gate, down a gravel path, past a smelly outhouse and through the ground floor/rubbish dump of an unmarked building, we wondered if we were being led into some sort of house of horrors. Instead, we emerged into an Aladdin’s cave of a dorm room with every surface covered in intricate and gilded Tibetan patterns. Beautiful? Yes. Unexpected? Definitely. Waterproof? Uh… no. We were woken around midnight by the sound of dripping water and calls for help from upstairs residents who later had to seek asylum in our room.

 

 

Apart from a bootful of water, our stay in Xiangcheng also yielded a fruitful relationship with some Kiwis, James and Betsy, and Yanks, Dan and Brandon. Drawn together by adversity (being refused tickets by the notoriously unhelpful bus lady at 5am – the woman still works with an abacus, for goodness’ sake), the six of us formed a happy, if slightly delirious, travelling party for the next few days as we rattled around in a series of vans.

 

The first leg to Litang was stunning and we were glad to have the opportunity to pull over at the peak of a 5000m pass to frolic in the snow. Not much of a novelty for the others, but we were like giddy schoolgirls. Nomadic Tibetans surround the area and there was much reciprocal staring between us and some seriously cool-looking people – wild, dreadlocked little urchins; graceful young women with long braids and wide-brimmed hats; burly yak-herds on motorbikes.

Another thing you can’t help but notice in this part of the world is that a lot of Tibetan monasteries are only now just being rebuilt after their destruction in the Cultural Revolution. It’s hard to comprehend the scale of the damage done, not just in Tibetan areas but throughout the country. So ersatz antiquity is big business in China.

 

 

We knew we were in trouble on the road to Kangding when we realised that the person directing traffic through 19km of roadworks was in fact a 5-year old child. His mother did appear to have the job, but he was the one wearing the high-vis vest and playing with the walkie-talkie. We amused ourselves by observing the antics of a manically-driven little blue truck that we dubbed “Zippy”; repeatedly piling in and out of the van; telling other drivers that they were very silly; and trying out a few choice Chinese phrases such as “laowai mafa” (“foreigners are trouble”). Four hours later we finally rolled into Kangding and scored what must have been the last mattress in town, which all six of us shared on the floor with a lone Chinese cyclist. Thankfully, Kris at the wonderful Zhilam Hostel had a little more space for us the next night. We cocooned ourselves there for the next few days, as Kris fed us like an Italian grandmother and we renewed our visas. Huge props Zhilam – absolutely the best budget accommodation of the trip.

 

 

*At one stage, we were going to put all these options out for a popular vote on the blog. On further consideration, we decided against it after realising that our dearest friends would most certainly elect to send us to our deaths along the Karakoram Hwy into Pakistan, just for gags. Or that our mums would rig the vote so that the option of “Other: Come home immediately” enjoyed a landslide victory.

chinglish

November 1, 2009

Take care of children and oldies on the escalator. Ha. Oldies.

Satisfied Race Things Store. The store was closed at the time, so sadly I still have no idea what things a satisfied race might like to buy.

No 4 Branch of Soil Pot Food. Apparently, there are three other restaurants that also sell food cooked in an earthenware pot.

Banana rolled cat gruel. Poor cat! A gruesomely misplaced “c” where there ought to have been an “o”, but still not a very appetising description of banana porridge.

And my favourite:

Characteristics of the Dwarfs Cake. We wanted to buy some, but they’d run out. A shortcake, perhaps? Boom boom.

china: where grey is the new black

November 1, 2009

You only have to be in China for a few minutes to know that it’s a country on the move. With massive (grey) construction and (grey) infrastructure projects going on everywhere, it’s no wonder they chew up Australian iron ore like Smarties.

Our arrival in the PRC received an unexpectedly warm welcome – the friendliest and most helpful immigration officers to date (save for the Malaysian guy who cracked about a million “Lindsay-is-a-woman’s-name” jokes), generous donations of pomegranates and a careful explanation of the bus passenger vote to pay an extra 20Y (AU$3) each and take the tollway, which ploughed through several mountains and shaved 4 hours off the journey to Kunming. At least democracy exists on the bus.

Yet as we were soon to discover, impressive infrastructure comes at a cost much higher than 20Y. The construction of said infrastructure breeds equally impressive traffic jams, which became a bit of a blight on our time in China, and despite the spaghetti mess of flyovers criss-crossing the city, it wasn’t long before we were the victims of a no-rules 4-way intersection with a taxi pigheadly wedged in the middle of two lanes of oncoming trucks.

 

 

Kunming: a comparably petite and wealthy Chinese city, unremarkable in its greyness and endless shopping malls. Yes, consumer culture is alive and well in People’s China, although the forces of supply and demand haven’t yet permeated the budget travel industry, which is still in its infancy. While competition in other Asian nations has driven accommodation standards up and prices down, digs in China are comparably quite expensive. So while the old skool hostel is now extinct in much of Asia, it lives on in China and in the interests of fiscal responsibility, we made the switch to dorm-and-shared-bathroom life. Ah, I love nothing more than being bombarded with hundreds of signs that precisely instruct me on how to do every little task, from getting the local bus to turning the tap on and disposing of toilet paper. At least we got to meet the lovely Liz (our first Chinese buddy!) who kindly guided us on several culinary adventures and who (I think) we impressed with our levels of chilli tolerance.

The old skool hostel is also home to a previously unencountered species of traveller: the domestic Chinese backpacker. Prolific in number, they’re quite useful to have around as bus station touts ignore us entirely in their squabble for the domestic backpacker dollar. Common characteristics include: head-to-toe Goretex kit; monstrous SLR slung around neck; constant sipping from BYO tea flask topped up with free hot water. Stalking them and observing their habits has become a sort of sick hobby.

A brief aside about Chinese toilets: shockers. They leave remote Turkish mosque toilets in their dust. The only positive we can derive from visiting them is that we are being forcibly prepared for India. No doors; just a line of waist-high cubicles set over a channel in the floor which may have water flushed through it occasionally, if you’re lucky. Often replete with pig-sty out the back, to add to the stench and grunting noises coming from within. If your squatting style is best kept private, then you’re in serious trouble.

 

 

 

Oddly enough, in Dali we were offered drugs more frequently than anywhere else we’ve been. Even more oddly, such offers invariably came from sweet-looking grannies in minority dress or ladies with cute babies strapped to their backs. Apart from more adventures, both culinary and vertical, with Liz, the defining feature of our stay in Dali was an ill-fated bike ride. We try not to consult Lonely Planet too religiously, but sometimes I really wonder what on earth they’re on about. Or in a country that is changing as fast as China is, I seriously question the usefulness of a guidebook that is bound to be obsolete by the time it is published. We embarked on “a great bike trip”, proceeding as advised on the less congested secondary road… which abruptly came to an end about 5kms north of town. A section of gravel road under construction lay ahead, which we optimistically rattled along for a while longer, dodging excavators and telling ourselves that the smooth asphalt would return any minute now. It didn’t. But no matter; a short passage through a cute village led us to the main highway which, although more densely trafficked, was paved with the elusive asphalt. Clouds looking a little ominous, we decided to abandon our planned visit to a farther-flung village and head for the shores of the reputedly beautiful Erhai Lake. But that was before we had several uncomfortably close encounters with maniacally-driven vegetable trucks. And before it started to piddle with rain. Are we having fun yet? Of course we can’t blame Lonely Planet for the rain, but we never got to the lake.

 

 

 

We were pretty excited to arrive in Lijiang, partly because of the less-crowded-than-expected old town, which is the stuff of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (albeit studded with souvenir shops selling cowboy hats and all things yak-related) but mostly because of our stay at the Zen Garden Hotel, generously funded by The Gang in honour of a certain birthday. Linds had displayed an extraordinary degree of foresight in booking us in for a longer than usual stay, so that we might take full advantage of the opportunity to lounge about in complimentary slippers and robes, sipping tea and enjoying the strains of a Chinese zither wafting up from the bonsai garden. Very Zen indeed.