Monday, February 22, 2010

Flight BR1701

Airline: Eva Air (Taiwan)
Origin: Shanghai,PRC (00:20, that's 20 minutes after midnight)
Destination: Taipei, Taiwan (02:10)
Airplane: Airbus A330-200
A330-200 Seating Capacity: 293 (business class and economy)
Cockpit Crew: 2
Eva Air air-hostess staff: 10
meal: included

Number of passengers on board: Three
Number of passengers scheduled to be on board: Two (the third had missed his earlier flight due to fog over Shanghai)
Amount of money Eva Air lost on this flight: I don't even want to begin to guess
CO2 emissions a single passenger is generally responsible for producing on a Shanghai-Taipei flight: 0.1 tons (source:
Per person estimated offset amount based on the load of BR1701: £83 (well, I thought it'd be more, I suppose it is a fairly short flight)

So, yeah, I've never been one of only three passengers on a flight, not even when flying some ramschackle prop plane around Nepal, and certainly not a brand new Airbus with seating capacity of almost 300. On the bright side, we got 3.3 stewardesses per passenger, and 2/3 of a pilot each...

Our best guess was that Eva must've added some extra flights for the Chinese New Year period, but had apparently mis-calculated the demand rather badly... but, fortunately for me, didn't see fit to cancel the flights, as pretty much every American-based carrier would've done in this case. They did refuse to give me frequent flyer credit for my cheap 'Y class' ticket, so there's a victory for the shareholders, I suppose...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

China knows Scale

I took the train from Lhasa, high up in the Tibetan plateau, on the Western reaches of China to Xi'an, an ancient capital sort of in the middle of the country. This took 36 hours - it's a big country. 4th biggest in the world, larger than the continental US (but that's why we bought Alaska...). So, the land-based transportation really is on a large scale here. Having arrived in Xi'an, I found the scale hadn't really been reduced very much.

The most famous attraction in Xi'an is, of course, the ancient army of terracotta warriors (and horses, as the Chinese name informs you... but nobody cares about the horses!):

A little over 2,000 yeas ago, emperor Qin Shi Huang wanted to have an army around in the next life, so he had one buried with him. A terracotta general pictured here

The actual statues I had somehow found a bit underwhelming - I'm not sure what exactly I'd been expecting, but the warriors get built up so much that actually finding them to be perfectly regular and life-size was a bit of a letdown. I think I had expected some sort of gigantic dragon warrior things... or something like that. This is also first and foremost an archaeological site, so you generally can't just walk up to a warrior for a photo op. So, the warriors might not be all that intricately designed, what they do certainly have though is scale - China has always known how to build things on an impressive scale!

A group of soldiers

You want more soldiers?

How about a few hundred more? This is Pit 1 (of three), it houses over 6,000 warriors (and, yes, horses), and they are still digging for more. The other two pits are a bit smaller - Pit 3 is the command center with only 72 statues, while Pit 2 is estimated to contain over 1,300, but it remains mostly un-excavated still.

The whole thing is the size of a fairly large airplane hangar

The whole thing, by the way, was, of course, a burial sight, so it was, naturally, buried, and lost... for centuries. Until 1974, when a local farmer stumbled onto a piece of Pit 1 while digging a well.

Other emperors of the time weren't to be outdone, and we also visited the Tomb of Emperor Jigdi. This guy really chose to forgo artistic decoration of his next-life servants, and squarely focused on the numbers:

There are thousands of warriors, similar to these, that had been buried here, along with cattle, servants, carts, decorations, etc.

Back in Xi'an, the scale shone through some of the ancient city's most famous landmarks:

The city walls, built in the 13th century are still intact and stretch for 14km around the heart of the city

The city's most notable attraction (other than the warriors) is the Big Goose Pagoda, which, not so surprisingly, isn't all that interesting in its design, but is quite massive

Nothing to do with scale here - just a nice view of a rack of candles outside the Big Goose Pagoda

The Bell Tower, framed by some early spring blossoms

My favorite bit of the city was actually the giant and frenetic Muslim market (Xi'an was the ancient terminus of the Silk Road, and consequently still has a sizable Muslim population. Along with a large mosque, which looks absolutely nothing like any mosque I had ever seen, but a lot like a Chinese Temple... hmmm...), the best part of which was the amazing street food being prepared on open flames at every street corner

A food stall at the market

And, of course, Chinese New Year was still in full swing. If you haven't been paying attention to the website (and why haven't you, really!? -, this was my comment on my second morning in Xi'an

Chinese New Year officially becoming old @9:03 this morning when I woke up to more firecrackers outside... and ensuing car alarms

But other aspects of the New Year were a little more endearing:

The North Tower all lit up with Christmas, uhmm, Chinese New Year's, lights

Decorations around the city

Some sort of an impromptu dance and comedy recital in the streets

Probably not professional, but well prepared and rehearsed, judging by the costumes and the general sense of choreography

The biggest problem with the New Year, however, wasn't the firecrackers. It was the fact that everybody goes to travel over the two week holiday - be it visit family, or go sight-seeing, everybody goes, and all the transport is full. I had by now decided that I was ready to leave China behind and booked a ticket out of Shanghai to Taiwan, so this left the small matter of getting to Shanghai... The trains were booked out for seven days in advance, I didn't want to try getting involved with black market train tickets, so I ended up on a bus, as China chose to remind me about scale a little more:

It's a nice enough-looking bus, reminds me of the super-comfy Argentinian/Chilean buses... but that was a mirage

Even though I had already traveled 36 hours pretty much directly due East by train from Lhasa, Shanghai, and the Easternmost border of China was another 18 hour bus ride away. And while the bus looked like one of the nice South American buses, inside the economies of Chinese scale dictated that we squeeze in as many passengers as possible, meaning not just seats designed for relatively short Chinese people, but seats to make even relatively short Chinese people uncomfortable... I did get my few hours of sleep on the bus, in spite of the appalling lack of leg room, but I'm not feeling all that anxious to take any further bus rides in this country at the moment!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Everest... aborted!

Now, truly independent travel in Tibet isn't really possible. You need a special permit just to enter the place, you must be with a guide in order to enter any monasteries or temples, tourists aren't allowed to use public transport, and if you want to venture outside of Lhasa, you need a permit stating your actual itinerary (and, of course, a guide). So, your basic Communist China bureaucracy at work - not sure to what end, as they are not actually preventing tourists from seeing Tibet, just making it difficult enough to drive down the numbers (and revenues), but I'm sure there's a grand plan to all of this somewhere.

I arrived in Lhasa with a permit allowing me to spend exactly four days in Tibet, specifically in Lhasa - this obviously wouldn't do, so I immediately set off in search of other tourists, with whom I would band together to get out of the capital and see more of this vast, fascinating country. All this to the great chagrin of my tour agency, who, I suspect, could get into trouble if I had overstayed my permit. And I had no intention of leaving, so I suppose they had reason to worry. What makes things complicated is that it's cold here in Tibet in February, so there's not a lot of tourists - were this equally frigid Nepal, there'd still be plenty of people, but this is Chinese Tibet... But never fear, by day 4, we had a group of 5 of us booked and ready to take a 4-day drive to Everest. Proper permits and everything! You can stop your worrying, Norbu!

Larry (our driver), Vanessa, Tim, Manuel, myself, and Emma on the way to Everest. Manuel is from Argentina (the 4th South American I'd met in Tibet!), the other three were students from Melbourne, Australia.

Everest is a fairly standard itinerary around here - you leave Lhasa on Day 1, taking a scenic drive to Shigatse, spend a night there, then up to Everest itself for days two and three, and return to Lhasa on day 4. Day 1 was bathed in brilliant sunshine highlighting the lakes and mountains that were passing us by:

Yumdrok Lake and some snow-capped mountains in the background

Cresting a 5,000+ meter pass near the Kharola Glacier. Prayer flags largely a theme in Tibet - absolutely everywhere!

Old meets new - prayer flags adorning a modern high voltage tower

In the evening we arrived in Shigatse, got a quick glimpse of the city, and settled for a perfectly nice dinner at a restaurant where noone spoke English. Side note: all meals in Tibet, outside of Lhasa, consist of noodles and yak meat. Sometimes, you get a menu, other times, you go into the kitchen and point, but the result is always the same. And it is delicious, mind you, but after four days I was looking for a bit of variety back in Lhasa. Lhasa features such exotic varieties as chicken, spaghetti, and Indian food... The conversation over dinner briefly touched on the subject of abortion, which we quickly skirted around, but the subject returned rather unfortunately the following morning, when we were informed by our tour agency's manager that the trip to Everest was going to have to be aborted! Apparently, another two hundred kilometers West, the weather was quite different - the passes were snowed in, there was no visibility anyway, and the police had closed down the roads. We met three Dutch girls, whose car had attempted the trip a day earlier, before the roads had been closed down, and they seemed rather shaken by the experience on the icy roads - they also didn't actually get to see the mountain. The weather was predicted to remain for over a week, so we reluctantly had to admit that we wouldn't be seeing Everest this time...

On Day 1, we were following the same route as another car heading for Everest. In fact, I had met the people in that car earlier, and they were the back-up plan, if the Australians hadn't turned up. As we later learned, that other car chose to just spend a day sight-seeing in Shigatse - there's apparently an important monastery here, where the early Dalai Lamas had resided. Tibetan monasteries are all more or less the same though, so staying in Shigatse seemed unacceptably boring to us (besides, that other car just wasn't that cool), so we instead got our guide and driver on board to visit Nam Tso lake - supposedly the highest salt water lake in the world, at an altitude of 4351 meters (not to be confused with Bolivia's Lake Titikaka - the highest navigatable lake in the world - with enough qualifiers, you too can be the best at something!). The guidebooks spoke very highly of it, and even though it'd be frozen over in February, it still promised a spectacular site. And it was only a day's worth of driving away.

The frozen alpine lake did not disappoint.

Nam Tso, flanked by some 7,000+ meter peaks. Plenty of prayer flags all around too

A pair of oversize rocks guarding the approach to the lake. Prayer flags at the ready

An outline of the edge of the frozen lake from a hill nearby

Getting close to the lake, we found some spectacular ice formations

Emma, striking a pose on the ice

During the summer months tourist season, you can stay right at the lake. Now, all the guesthouses were closed, so we headed back to the nearby town of Damxung for the night, passing more tall snow-capped peaks on the way

So, the lake worked out to be an excellent backup plan to Everest. No signs of the inclement weather showed up here, and apparently, our permits that stated Everest as our destination were good enough for Nam Tso as well. All attractions in Tibet, including Nam Tso and Everest come with an entrance fee, which I wouldn't feel all that bad about if the money didn't go straight back to Beijing... to return in the form of infrastructure improvements, I suppose, which the Tibetans would likely prefer to do without, if it meant independence... But that's a side note. Back on the lake, the only real problem at this time of year is the bitter cold, exacerbated by the never-abating winds - it is early February at 4,300 meters above sea level after all.

So, that's me, fully bundled up, yet still a bit chilly at the lake. We would eventually find a nice sunny spot, shielded from the wind, which was a perfect spot for our picnic lunch

After all that cold and wind, we were all too excited to stop by the Yangpachen Hot Springs on the way back to Lhasa on Day 4.

And on the evening of the 12th, we were back in Lhasa, just in time to watch the New Year's fireworks commence. More on those in the previous post - a little follow-up from this morning: today is the actual New Year's Day, both Chinese and Tibetan. It is a little similar to Christmas back home - most shops and restaurants are closed. Today was my designated souvenir shopping day, and I did manage to get what I wanted (somebody is always selling things to tourists in places like this), but the variety was decidedly more limited today than before. Lunch ended up in a Muslim restaurant (still featuring noodles and yak meat, of course) - I've been a bit surprised to learn that there's a sizable Muslim community here in Lhasa. For dinner, the owners of our hostel have apparently found a Chinese restaurant that's open - just like Christmas back home. Also like Christmas, the people go to church, en masse. Except in this case, everyone comes to Lhasa to visit the Johkang Temple. This is a very large place, and the line to enter wrapped all the way around! I'd have to guess it would take at least three hours to enter the place - nobody seemed to mind. New Year is also apparently the time for new clothes in Tibet, so everyone on the streets was sporting their brand new Sunday best. Conveniently enough, the New Year actually was on a Sunday this time around, so welcome to the Year of the Tiger!

An addendum: I can't believe these fascinating Tibetan people stole my fucking jacket! No, I can't help but keep being reminded of Cyrus' post about his granola bars getting stolen in Kazakhstan. And yes, it would've been much less likely to be stolen if I didn't have most of my attentions squarely focused on the very cute Tibetan girl I'd made friends with earlier that evening. And it wasn't even a nice jacket, considering that Buster had bought it back in Kathmandu and given to me in New Zealand, with both of us rather astonished that famed Nepalese quality had lasted quite that long... It is sort of appropriate that the jacket should make its way back to the Himalayas to perhaps remain there, I suppose, but that thought fails to make me feel any better (or warmer). Especially considering that instead of the money someone had apparently hoped I'd keep in my jacket, I had my gloves, hat, and ear-muffs in there. And I get the feeling I'll still very much miss those even after I pick up another cheap jacket of questionable quality at the next available opportunity... Well, I still like you, Tibetans - we didn't have to pay for any of our drinks that night on the bright side - but you are trying my patience!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tibet 101

An introduction to life on the high plateau.

Let's skip straight to the good stuff:

The iconic Potala Palace occupying its majestic seat over the city of Lhasa

It's Tibet - everything is surrounded by mountains here

Been there, done that, haven't bought any t-shirts so far

The Palace lit up night... my camera making it slightly blurry

So, that's the Potala Palace - certainly the star attraction as far as Tibetan architecture is concerned. It's actually a somewhat daunting place as you start at 3,800m, and then end up climbing all those stairs to the top, but it's certainly worth the effort! Inside, it's filled with a variety of relics and memorabilia from the Kings and Dalai Lamas who used to occupy the place before the Chinese 'liberation'... But, unfortunately, there's to be no photography inside, so you'll just have to take my word that the golden stuppas and statues inside are awe-inspiring. Side note: paintings can actually be damaged by repeated exposure to flash, yet you can take all the pictures you want in the Louvre, Golden statues, as far as I can tell, are relatively immune to photography, yet the Potala is just one of many places that bans photography. Occasionally, such as in Burma, it has more to do with religious beliefs and traditions, but in Communist-'liberated' Chinese Tibet? <rant over>

The Potala can actually be easily split up into two parts - the White Palace,built in the 7th century, and the Red Palace, added in the 12th century. One of the more amazing facts about the place is that the White Palace was completed in just five(!) years back in the 7th century. Which strikes me as incredibly rapid, considering the immense dimensions and the inhospitable location of the place.

The rest of the Tibet architecture I did not find quite so awe-inspiring. The buildings tend to be squat and feature thick walls to try and protect against the frigid climates. The highlights - judge for yourself:

Much like in neighboring Nepal, there's a lot of stuppas everywhere in Tibet

Tibet is undoubtedly the land of monasteries (even after the Cultural Revolution had apparently reduced the number considerably) - Drepung Monastery pictured here

And the best part is that there's always an amazing mountain backdrop

Every monastery I've visited has been adorned with a pair of these golden tower things. I'm not sure about the religious significance, but they look pretty cool

The Pelkor Chode Monastery in the town of Gyantse featured this gigantic stuppa - the Gyantse Kumbum

The Kumbum houses an astounding number of deities (and rather scary looking deity-protectors). This one is a deity, but doesn't seem to like you very much, judging by the gesture

Ok, so I wasn't really supposed to take any pictures inside, but I just couldn't resist a shot of Buddha flicking us off. It's not like our guide, who was fairly useless generally, was around to enforce things.

So, if the architecture of Tibet (outside of the Potala) was fairly average, the people are anything but - your average Tibetan does not lead an easy life, yet every one of them appears to always be happy (noticeably more so than the vast majority of the mainland Chinese...), perfectly friendly, and just generally immensely fascinating. Well, especially the ones who speak some English - I've made friends with Permitsering, who had been a monk for 10 years, but has since left his monastery and is now learning English and aiming to become a guide - a fascinating fellow, who will certainly make a better guide than the girl who was in charge of us for parts of the trip. Pictures, ready to speak thousands of words:

Pilgrims spinning the endless parade of prayer wheels, while circumnavigating the Potala

Cute kids are here to pay respects too.

Insert [in]appropriate comment about pets resembling their masters here

Everynody is excited to get a picture taken with the crazy foreigners.

Lhasa's Jokhang Temple is actually considered the Holiest Place in Tibet (not the nearby Potala), so hundreds of pilgrims arrive daily to ceremonially (and repeatedly) prostrate themselves in front of it

In fact, we passed a few of these of pilgrims on the road out of Lhasa - people go on multi-month treks to visit the holy sites in Lhasa, and on the way you basically take three steps, then prostrate yourself on the ground: rinse and repeat. For however long it takes to get to where you are going - food is strictly whatever turns up, often as charity, and sleeping is as often as not just there on the road, wrapped up in a blanket, braving the seriously sub-zero temperatures... Amazing - these people take their religion awfully seriously!

And then, of course, there's the New Year. Chinese New Year falls on February 14th this year. The Tibetans also use the lunar calendar, so you might think Tibetan New Year would coincide with Chinese New Year - you'd be wrong, usually, except for this year, when they do coincide. I agree, it's all very confusing. So how do you celebrate a New Year? Why, with fireworks, of course! And if you want to imagine what fireworks in Lhasa look like, you first have to forget everything you know about fireworks back home. That nice, big, well-organized display put on by the city is here too, but in addition everyone on the street becomes an amateur firework operator. For the past two nights I've had a chance to survey the scene from rooftops, and it is simply amazing - there are fireworks going off everywhere you look! Some, simple firecrackers on the street, others, huge displays getting fired off into the air. I understand setting off fireworks is supposed to bring good luck in the coming year, so the more and bigger, the merrier! And this goes on for a good hour! The military, to their credit, doesn't seem too inclined to interfere - there are soldiers with fire blankets and fire extinguishers posted all over, but they seem to just be there in the roles of backup fire fighters, if something goes wrong (or so I'm guessing. The locals, I suspect, would prefer that the soldiers were engulfed in a few of the flames...). Pictures simply can't do the display justice, so I don't have any - this is one of those things you'd just have to experience for yourself!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Leaving Mandalay

So, January 31st rolled around - I was on my last day in Burma, still in Mandalay, and not yet out of cash... At 2:40 in the afternoon, I was getting on my flight for Kunming, in China, so in the morning, I borrowed a bicycle from my guesthouse and headed off for nearby Mandalay Hill.

The hill itself wasn't really all that interesting - a few nice temples and a not particularly exciting view over the city. A few pictures:

A nice golden standing Buddha pointing to a prophecized location of the new capital. Right on prophecized schedule, capital was moved to Mandalay

Morning clouds over the hill

Now, this one was interesting - a sign in the center of the city: amusing and not particularly well concealed propaganda all the way. In English only - obviously targeted squarely at the foreigners

The picture might be too small to be legible, so a recap:
People's Desire
* Oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views
* Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
* Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state [subtle...]
* Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy

Now, it is somewhat funny, but mostly just very, very sad for the local people who get to live with this...

Well, on this note, I headed back to my hotel and off to the airport. And what an airport it is - big, brand new, shining with glass, and ... completely deserted.

Airport view from the runway - notice anything missing? The airplanes... None are here.

Really, the airport is the microcosm for the state of Myanmar today - even when the government sinks a bunch of money into doing something right, it still goes wrong because nobody wants to deal with the government. For one thing, the airport is an astounding 25 miles outside of town - that's further away than any of the towns I had visited the day before, so not quite a suburb. When I walked in, I found an entire, dimly lit, hall full of check-in counters. One (and only one!) of the, at least, twelve was occupied by my flight - China Eastern Airlines to Kunming, processing the forty odd passengers very slowly. Then the plane was late and I got to wonder what would happen if my flight got canceled - my finances were down to about $30 and $10 worth of Burmese currency, but the plane arrived, parking a loooong way away from the terminal. Maybe because it was Chinese. Maybe it's just the way we do things. Maybe because it was a jet - there were two other planes at the airport at the time, both propeller driven, neither showing any plans to fly; there couldn't have been any more flights scheduled for another 3-4 hours at least... if at all that day.

Eventually, we did all get onboard and depart though. I comprised the entire Western contingent on board (and got the English-language instructions all to myself). Everyone in Burma, whom I told that I wasn't leaving via Yangon - local and tourist alike - had been astounded. I don't think tourists know that there's an international flight out of Mandalay.

An hour an a half later, communist China greeted me. It's so Communist that the first thing I did upon landing was go to an ATM, a seemingly rather Capitalist symbol... There's also a Walmart a five minute walk down from my hostel. I've been in China for four days now - haven't really done much, I've been focused on getting my trip to Tibet sorted out, and I now have, flying up there early Friday morning. I've also learned how to circumvent China's filters just enough to be able to occasionally post... The other thing that struck me about China was that the time was all wrong. At the end of January, sunset is after 7PM, while sunrise is at almost 8AM. I like this schedule actually (except for the persistent bitter cold in the morning) since I'm more likely to be up late at night than up early in the morning, but it is odd. It's just what you get when you give the country the size of China a single time zone, centered on Beijing, of course. So, Kunming, some 2,000 miles West gets to be a little screwy. In this sense, China is still perfectly Communist!

A few pictures from China:

Yuantong Temple in Kunming. Side note - in three days in Kunming, I didn't see a single cloud.

A deity at the temple - judging my the large number of hands, looking surprisingly Hindu?

night over Kunming

With the Tibet trip all sorted out, it was off to Chengdu Thursday morning, just to fly up to Lhasa, Tibet on Friday. Chengdu brings faster internet connections than Kunming, and the Giant Panda Breeding and Research station:

A panda munching on bamboo

A baby panda studying the crowds

Playing with the surrounding world

And that's it for now - by the time you read this, I ought to be in Tibet, where internet access will likely be even slower...

PS. As for demographics... the tourists you meet in China are also a different sort - there's a few backpackers, but most people are studying/working/teaching English in China, just taking a little time off to see some outlying parts of the country. This rather more purpose-driven sort of travel appears to attract quite a few more Americans than your standard life of a backpacking vagabond.