After the Olympics

As a follow-up to our trip to China, our colleague, the Geography Professor, was quoted in yesterdays' New York Times. The coverage of the Olympics in the Times has been plentiful and sometimes not that positive.

Geography Professor stayed on in Beijing after the trip to do some research and visit with family and take in some sporting events. She also spoke with the Times reporter, Jim Yardley, occasionally.

Search for "Vassar College," and you'll find her quote.


Thoughts on the Trip

Latitude 41°41'24.00"N, Longitude 73°53'54.88"W

Back on East Coast US time and not too jet-lagged.
My blog was cut off while I was in Tibet, China. I used a Wikipedia link to the Dalai Lama; that’s when the trouble began. I couldn’t get to some of my Flickr photos that referred to the Potala Palace. Same thing happened with YouTube. My video of the Jokhang Temple was viewed over 400 times and I never linked it out. I hit the sensitive word filter and couldn’t get around it until I reached the Narita airport and a six-hour layover.
If you’ve read this blog, you know it’s totally benign. I have been on a pleasurable vacation, enjoying the scenery and stories about places I’ve never been. I may never get back to these fine places again. I thought I’d try my hand at a digital diary and share some of the locations I’ve seen. I know that there are plenty of people out there who would love to go and experience Tibet and other parts of China, as I have been lucky enough to do. I also know that the web is a resource for providing that information to anyone who cares to google. There aren’t many of us who got to get into Tibet on a tourist Visa after the March ’08 events.

I do not have an opinion about the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism or Tibet. A two week visit to China does not an expert make. I was in Tibet for all of five days. I am not a scholar on the subjects. I can tell you what I saw. In Lhasa I saw a lot of new housing, clean streets, very few extremely poor people, and a lot of hustle and bustle as buses and taxis whirled by. I saw a wonderful vocational school for blind children. I met children who were learning English in rural Tibet. It looked like progress. As a westerner, that newness resonated with me. However, I’ve heard, too, and what seems rather clear is that all that newness comes with a cost. New businesses and housing are paid for by someone, an apparent outsider. One new friend I made on this trip said that if someone gave you 2 million dollars to improve your house, but then told you how to live, what to say, how to decorate, that new money wouldn’t feel so great.
I heard another story about monks. A man told me that his brother wanted to be a monk but the brother’s application wasn’t approved by the central government. A sure way of reducing the number of monks is to curtail the stream of young men who enter the monastery. In the past, a family would give one son to the monastery in part to guarantee a safe, protected life for that child. The number of Tibetan monks has steadily declined in recent years.

While we were in Lhasa there was a strong military presence. They would drive around in riot gear in the backs of trucks. Was it just a month away from the Olympics? Yes. Was it just a few months after the March uprising? Yes. However, again, it’s not a site a westerner is used to seeing.

I read the English-language China Daily while in China, and saw that the door remains open for talks with the Dalai Lama and Beijing. Beijing would like the Dalai Lama to come back as the Tibetan spiritual leader, nothing more.

I think there are people that live in China who are on top of the story who have mixed feelings about Tibet. Some see progress and enormous success or potential for success while others see the usurpation of Tibetan culture. Ten different people, ten different opinions.

It’s a complicated story. Read what you can. Talk to others who might have an informed opinion and, if you can, go to Tibet and see for yourself.

I know one thing. I am forever grateful for having the privilege of visiting Lhasa and Shigatse. The Tibetan landscape, sky and people are all so beautiful. I felt welcome there and would gladly go again.


Leaving Early from Beijng

I stayed up all night to get myself onto US time. I watched The Producers. No comment.

I took a cab to Terminal 3 to get on a Japan Airlines early flight. This whole Tibet/Chengdu/Beijing trip was such a great adventure.

Once I get back on US turf, I’ll talk about the shutdown of the blog. While I was killing six hours in the Narita Japan airport, I was able to get back to it and restore it.

We were in Beijing in 1996. Since then, the city has gone threw a transformation. It is really a beautiful, inviting city. It's pretty easy to get a around, thanks to all the cab drivers. There must have been a million trees planted and the buildings seem to be all fresh and new-looking. The highways are completed. It really is a city ready for its close-up with the Olympics. I hope Beijing and China get many more tourists during and after the 8/8/08 games.


Back to Beijing

We flew back to Beijing. I am glad to leave Xining. As our new tour guide might say, enough said.

Our flight was really early. That will make two really early days for me as my flight back to the US is very early on the 13th. We are staying at the Beijing International Hotel again.

We had a great meal for lunch and dinner (as usual!) one at a huge eating complex and the other at a very nice restaurant. The diet will follow!

We got another massage. This time it was a foot massage. It’s really too bad that we don’t have something like an affordable massage in the US. If we can have a nail salon on every corner, can’t there perhaps be a market for reputable massage operations? The place we went to tonight was another massage chain. Very clean and on the up-and-up. It was packed with people working as masseuses and clients.


In Xining

Latitude 36°36'59.58"N, Longitude 101°47'30.97"E

We’re in Xining. The hotel is less than impressive. I tried to write it up on TripAdvisor and it wasn’t listed. I find that odd because it seems to be a long-established hotel. I won’t name it here because I don’t think that would be very nice.

We went to a mosque today. There weren’t many people there and those that were there (except for us) were all men. We were a curiosity I believe.

Latitude 36°29'23.17"N, Longitude 101°34'5.90"E

We went to the Ta’er Monastery (also called Kumbum). This is a Buddhist monastery. A Tibetan Buddhist monastery. We have just spent DAYS in Tibet visiting Buddhist monasteries. As I’ve said, I don’t mind the volume of monasteries we’ve seen, but this one had a tourist quality to it. There were people there praying and doing something like 100,000 bows, even some children, but there was a different feeling to this monastery. Also, there was a gauntlet of vendors leading the way to the entrance of the Ta’er, many of whom were selling pelts of dogs, wolves, and cats. We could not take pictures in Ta’er but there was some surreptitious shooting and filming going on. One of the first sites we saw was a traditional and familiar courtyard, but along the balcony area were stuffed yak, deer, antelope, and bear. It was creepy and not like anything we’ve ever seen in Tibet.

A short little lunch-time video.


Leaving Tibet on an Overnight Train

We got on the train bound for Xining in the Qinghai Province at 11:20am, July 9. We will get into Xining, which is out of Tibet, by 11 or 12 noon tomorrow. A 24 hour train ride. The Lhasa train station is beautiful.

It was sad to say so long to our Young Tour Guide. He was terrific, so knowledgeable and nice. He seemed to know everything and could answer any question. And he didn’t seem like he was making it up!

The train ride is fun and comfortable. We are in a soft sleeper (four people) and we are all just kind of wandering in and out of people’s cabins, visiting. The scenery is great. We’ve seen wild donkeys, loads of yaks, and what we thought were antelopes but turned out to be gazelles. The geology is beautiful. We are going slow enough that the pictures are coming out pretty good, I think.

One group of four had some collective spatial challenges as they tried to squeeze all of their luggage into the small spaces available in the soft sleeper. Here’s Anthropology Professor making it work for them and all of the interest this scene created.

The highest elevation on the train trip (not standing on the ground) was when we were on the train. We were at 5,240 m high (17,190 feet). There was a platform outside that stated this information as we whizzed by, I think it will someday be a tourist stop on the rail. An informative LCD display kept us up to date with all sort of useful information like how cold it was outside and velocity. Our ears popped in the middle of the night, and our water bottles caved in, as we descended into a moderate altitude.

The train was really fun. Here are some photos from the train.


Tashilumpo Monastery and the Drive Back to Lhasa

Latitude 29°16'4.69"N, Longitude 88°52'13.23"E

We went to another monastery this morning, the Tashilumpo Monastery, where there are the fifth through tenth Panchen Lamas entombed. There were a lot of pilgrims and a lot of older monks chanting. It was again fascinating. We have seen so many monasteries that they are tending to merge into one big monastic experience. I feel, though, that I will probably never be here again, it is so exotic to anything I’ve seen before, that I cannot tire from the yak butter candles and incense and chanting monk, the future Buddha, present Buddha and the past Buddha.

Latitude 29°19'9.78"N, Longitude 89° 2'46.27"E

Lunch we had at the hotel and then left the Shigatse Hotel. We then drove to the Braille without Borders Vocational School for the Blind, on our way out of town. What an experience. The children greeted us with a rousing rendition of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and a Tibetan song. Then we were shown some of the jobs that they are teaching the young people how to do, like weaving, knitting and cheese-making. It was a very moving experience.

We then headed back to Lhasa. It did not take us all day. Turns out there is a straight route, a less scenic route, to get to and from Lhasa and Shigatse. It still took a long time, it was still scenic in my mind, but I was ready to get off the bus.

We arrived into Lhasa just in time for dinner where we had a traditional Tibetan meal, which means yak, mutton, yak butter tea, yak yogurt, and the most alarming item, a sheep head, filled with the eyes, brains, and whatever else is in a head. I did not try the head. But the fried yak meat was great. The yak butter tea was not great.

Latitude 29°39'35.20"N, Longitude 91° 5'19.71"E

Another night in the Tibet Hotel before we take off in a train for Xining.


Long, Scenic Drive to Shigatse, Tibet

We piled into the bus at about 8:30am for the long drive to Shigatse, Tibet. The drive is about 300km and we are taking the scenic route. Young Tour Guide told us that about 60 percent of Tibetans are farmers, 20 percent are living in urban centers, and 20 percent are nomads. Tibetans don’t usually eat fish. They are too small and can feed only one person. Tibetans prefer larger animals, like yak and goats, because they can feed more people. Also with water burials, the fish might eat the dead bodies, which is unappealing to anyone, including Tibetans.

Geology Professor gave an overview of the mountain building events (i.e., India colliding into the Eurasian continent) that caused the high elevation and varied rock terrain that we will be driving through and that we’ve been seeing already. On the drive we saw loads of evidence for rapid uplift. These mountains are moving up so fast you can practically watch it in action.

Political Science Professor gave a talk about water resources and water being the new oil.

I took video at a couple of places along the drive, when we would stop. Take a look.

Latitude 29°11'39.86"N, Longitude 90°37'2.15"E

Latitude 28.899048, Longitude 90.163417 (highest point on trip while standing 4,960.2 meters (16,270 feet))

One thing that was not video-taped was when we stopped to eat lunch. We were right next to a lake, a holy lake. We had an uninteresting box lunch prepared by the hotel. As soon as we sat down, an old woman and a young boy showed up. They lived in the nearby village. We all gathered some food from our boxes and gave it to them. They hung around the whole time while we ate and some of us took our time and wandered down to the lake side. A sheep herder wandered by with his flock. Some of the group held a baby sheep. Still the old woman and boy hung out. Then this other boy rode up on his bike. He was from the same village. “Hello.” “How are you doing?” He clearly wanted to test out his English. So I asked him how old has was, but he didn’t know what I meant, even when I pantomimed. Some Chinese speakers in the group came up and asked him his grade, “Sixth.” How old are you? “13.” When did he start learning English? “3rd grade.” He goes to school 30km away and must live there. All of this was in Chinese. We asked what he wanted to do when he grew up. “Do something useful for the world.” Priceless. It’s mind boggling to think about the fact we are in this remote area of Tibet and a poor boy from a sheep herding / farming village is learning Chinese, Tibetan, and English, as well as, Math and Social Studies and has bigger dreams.

Latitude 28°55'28.05"N, Longitude 89°35'42.82"E

We stopped at the Kumbum Monastery (Baiju Temple), which was a very active monastery in that there were many monks around doing different jobs. It was also a walled monastery, which is something we haven’t seen. And there were lots of dogs lying in the shade. At the Kumbum Monastery we were allowed to take pictures inside. So far we have not been able to take pictures inside monasteries or temples. So I took video of the monks chanting. Take a look, it’s at the end. Well, I also got some GPS readings and while I was sitting in the shade making sure the software worked, one monk walked up to me and looked over my shoulder as I was fiddling with the tablet. There wasn’t anything interesting to look at, though, because all I’m doing is collecting waypoints and then at night bring them into Google Earth to figure out where we’ve been. I can’t explain that to him. In the meantime, another monk came up to find out what was going on. So I showed them the video of my day and they really liked it up until the part about them. The video got to the monks chanting and they indicated that they see that every day. So then I showed the monks the first video I made for this trip, the one of me leaving Poughkeepsie on Metro North, and they liked that. Though I didn’t video this interaction, they told us how long they have been in the monastery (since age ten) and how old they are (one was 22 and the other 26), and that whatever they learn, they learn on their own, they don’t have a school. This was one of the best experiences I’ve had yet.

Latitude 29°15'48.74"N, Longitude 88°52'58.61"E

We got to Shigatse and checked into the Shigatse Hotel. This hotel’s lobby is beautiful, very Tibetan and colorful. The desk people and the restaurant people spoke pretty good English. The room was okay, but no in-room internet access; I’ve gotten used to unlimited access to the internet. I’ll write about this hotel for TripAdvisor.

We’ve Skyped the kids every day. I should do a whole blog entry on the wonders Skype (2.1 cents a minute!) and for that matter the marvels of the Web 2.0 world. Although this blog should be indicative of what one can do with the web these days. But you haven’t gotten to know that not only have a blogged, and uploaded photos to Panoramio and Flickr and video to YouTube, but I’ve Skyped with the kids.

It was a five star day.

Here are my placemarks for today in Google Earth.


Sera Monastery and Norbulingka in Lhasa

Latitude 29.698125, Longitude 91.133502

We drove to the Sera Monastery in Lhasa. The Older Tour Guide said that 40 years ago there were 4,000 monasteries in Tibet, now there are half that. When I go to these sacred places I can’t imagine how someone could dismantle/destroy/remove such beauty. When we were at the Sera Monastery, we saw many young children and babies with black smudges on their noses. This was the mark of a special blessing from the horse-headed Buddha that a monk gives to the child. There were so many families lined up to get this blessing for their child; usually they had just one child.

The smell of smoke or something from the combination of the yak butter candles and the incense makes me sneeze. I don’t want to miss any of this but I sneeze a lot and get a strange sensation in my chest.

Lunch and then nap, of which I needed. I’ve been tired today.

Latitude 29°39'14.20"N, Longitude 91° 5'31.17"E

Norbulingka Summer Palace is the summer palace for the Dalai Lama. It looks like it was built in the 1950s as some of the furnishings looked of that era. Oddly, there was a very western-style bathroom (for display purposes only) that included a bathtub and sit-on-top toilet. Seems the dalai lamas didn’t want the squatting-type toilets. Go figure.

Latitude 29°39'11.13"N, Longitude 91° 5'47.90"E

We had very little time at the Museum. I didn’t take pictures and I didn’t learn too much while there. There was plenty of English signage but I didn’t take the time, nor have the time, to read them.

Here's where we went today in Google Earth.

Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Altitude Sickness

I woke up in the middle of the night feeling light-headed and woozy, a little like I was drunk and hung over at the same time. But I had no reason to be either. I think it was either the altitude or the medication to take care of the altitude. I worried that I wasn’t going to do well in the morning.

The morning wake-up call came and I felt fine. Others haven’t fared so well. Mostly they are those who took the Chinese remedy. Vomiting. Bad headaches. Light-headedness. Nausea.

Latitude 29°39'28.26"N, Longitude 91° 7'3.52"E

Our first destination was the Potala Palace. This lovely structure sits high on a hill on the east side of Lhasa. When we got there, we saw hundreds of pilgrims walking around the Palace clockwise. When they got to the front of the Palace, they would prostrate themselves and bow and pray. It was an amazing site.

The Potala Palace was/is the winter home of the Dalai Lama but because he is in exile, there is no Dalai Lama at the Palace.

For the most part, I will let the photographs do the talking. I hope to someday have the time to write captions (when I’m not on vacation!) Oh, and you can’t take pictures inside any of the temples and rooms. I didn’t take notes of all the interesting things the Young Tour Guide and the Old Tour Guide said about the Potala Palace. As we approached the Palace, as we walked up, while we were in the various temples and rooms, they both had very interesting things to say about the history and the relevance of the Palace to Tibetan Buddhism. What I will say is that climbing the stairs and seeing the walls, the colors, the view, smelling the smell of the incense and burning candles was a truly spiritual experience.

We had a great lunch at Weidaochang Hot Pot Restaurant was great. I love hot pot. The boiling broth in the middle of the table, the meat and vegetables plopped into the water, the waiting, the gorging. I ate way too much. Again. If you go to Lhasa, go there. No. 75 North Deji Road, Lhasa City (0891-6818383)

Latitude 29°39'10.89"N, Longitude 91° 7'52.32"E

Next we went to Jokhang Temple. This temple was more active than the Potala Palace in that there were monks around. They were part of the environment. The colors in the temple were so vibrant. I can’t say anything more here that the Lonely Planet Guide couldn’t tell you. It is really nice, though, to have a local person to be your guide. Here are some photographs of the Jokhang Temple.

Latitude 29°39'10.11"N, Longitude 91° 7'47.57"E

Right next to the Temple is Barkhor Square, an old Tibet style bazaar. There is plenty of bartering, plenty of that fun English repeated over and over to ‘entice’ you over to look at the goods. We got some great things and had fun. I put some photos of Barkhor in this set.

Latitude 29°39'13.04"N, Longitude 91° 7'55.04"E

Dinner was at Ashimedok Restaurant but not before doing more shopping at Rhythm of Tibet, an upscale version of the wares of the street vendor offerings on Barkhor, and below the restaurant. This store had some really beautiful items. We bought some manadala thangkas and a rug made of yak wool. They will ship the rug to us.

The food at Ashimedok Restaurant was buffet-style. It was fair. But what was great was the entertainment. There was music and Tibetan dancers performing for most of our meal. It was very fun. The dancing was a cross between Indian and Chinese and the music used drumming, cymbals and a stringed instrument. Go there, too, No. 2 Eastern Barkhor Street, Lhasa. (0086-891-632408)

On the altitude front, we lost one guy who could not make today’s trip and another looked very peaked but trooped on. We all keep checking in with each other to see how we feel. I feel odd when I go into the sacred rooms where there is burning incense, it bothers either my lungs or my heart, I’m not sure. I feel very dried out all the time.

Today was a very full day. I’m exhausted.

Here's where we were today in Google Earth.


First Day in Tibet

With great excitement we gathered at 5am for the early flight to Lhasa, Tibet. I can’t believe we’re actually getting to go. I have taken acetazolemide for altitude sickness, about half of us have, and the other half thought they’d brave it out and then once in China decided to get some Chinese herbs for altitude sickness. We’re thinking the Western medicine won this round.

Latitude 29°17'39.32"N, Longitude 90°54'37.72"E

We arrived in Lhasa Airport which is really in Gonggar about 60km outside of Lhasa. It’s easy to see why they placed the airport there when you look at it in Google Earth; the airport is in a fairly wide river valley. It is pretty straight and the planes have plenty of room for take-offs and landings. There are no large flat areas to put an airport in Lhasa. I was told that the bus trip used to be about four hours (over 100km) but they ‘found a short cut.’ What they did was blast a straight tunnel right through the mountain. That’ll do the trick.

Two Tibetan tour guides met us at the airport. The Young Tour Guide gave us an overview of some interesting facts about the Plateau, like all major rivers in Asia originate in Tibet. There’s no birth control in the countryside and families have four and five children, but in the cites families are smaller, like 2 children each. There are no grave yards to be seen, there are Sky Burials, which can be expensive, so there are Water Burials for the poor. There are Earth Burials for criminals, and there are Spirit Burials for the sub-Lamas and monks.

We were told to not take pictures of the military or ‘we would have a problem.’

The geology is incredible. Though Lhasa is over 3600 meters above sea level, the surrounding mountains jut up quite high and form a jagged rim around the valley. There are no trees on these mountains and this is indicative of rapid uplift and lack of a wet enough environment to produce soil. The lack of soil is a big reason why the Tibetans do the Sky Burials, there’s no ground to bury people in. Actually, the mountains remind me of those in Nevada and Utah, with just scrubby, low brush and easy to read geology.

Once we got into Lhasa, we had a nice lunch at a hotel. The food was very mild compared to the Sichuan fare I was used to, but it tasted really good. I was prepared for the worst because our guides made the Tibetan food out to be so horrible you had to go out and buy extra snacks just to stay alive. I don’t know if we will have a food shortage problem.

Latitude 29.659802, Longitude 91.088817, Altitude 3,627 meters (11,900 feet)

Arrived at the Tibet Hotel. It’s not too beautiful on the outside, but inside, in our room, it is just dandy. Very clean and comfortable and the view is amazing. Plus the Lhasa air is so fresh and clean. As usual, I’ll write about the experience on Tripadvisor rather than here.

Against the wishes of the tour operator, we took a little nap. He thought it would be best if we just stayed awake to acclimate to the higher altitude but many of us were really tired and sleep was all we could do. Plus we have a big day tomrrow. But after that short nap, we took a walk to see what was in the neighborhood. We found an interesting array of street vendors, all selling what looked like the exact same things in about hundred spots on carts and on blankets laid out on the sidewalk. All had the same approach to lure us over using a few English phrases. But we bought some cool stuff, took some pictures of the beautiful children and had fun.


Drove Back to Chengdu

We drove back to Chengdu and stayed in my favorite simple hotel, the Tianfu Sunshine Hotel. Had the rest of the day to ourselves so we shopped for snacks (in case we couldn't get any in Tibet or on the train) and had another amazing Thai massage. We have a wake up call for 5am to catch an early flight to Tibet. Don't know if we'll get internet service like we've had thus far.


Going to Emeishan

Gathered at 8:30am to take a bus ride up to Emeishan (Mount Emei). A very queasy-making windy road up the mountain. We made it to a cable car spot and took it to ‘close’ to the top of the mountain. There was then another stroll up the mountain where we saw ‘wild’ macaques monkeys hanging out in the trees. They were like our squirrels at Vassar, cute but not too trustworthy. It was pretty amazing to see monkeys, though.

Latitude 29.522793, Longitude 103.335935, Altitude 3,046 meters (9,993 feet)

We reached the top of Emeishan where there is very tall golden Buddha with four faces. We were told that it was built in 2006. I assumed that the materials to build it where helicoptered to the mountain, but was told by Geography Professor that there are only 16 helicopters in China (a big problem for the earthquake relief efforts) and that the materials were carried up the mountain. The temple was rebuilt because of a fire and I think they decided to build the giant statue, too. The funding for the project came from foreign Buddhists, mostly from southeast Asia, according to Geography Professor. Note the picture of the guys carrying what seem to be boxes of soda up the mountain.

At the highest part of the mountain there is a lookout and it feels like you’re standing at the edge of the world, you’re above the clouds and the cliffs are vertical.

On the drive down, Geology Professor gave an impromptu talk on the geology along the roadway. It was strikingly noticeable that the rock formations here in this narrow, winding valley, were very similar to the formations in the Grand Canyon or in the Connecticut Rift Valley. There were red beds on the bottom that we could see and stratigraphically above that where some limestone rocks, indicative of a basin that filled in with a shallow sea (as the basin widened). Interestingly, at the top of Emeishan there were columnar jointed basalt rocks dated at the Upper Permian (250M to 260M yo), also a strong indication of the past geological environment…a rift valley.

Total change in elevation from Hong Zhu Shan Hotel to the top of the mountain is about 2,500 meters (over 8,000 feet).

On the way back to the hotel, the temperature really increased. We were going to do a little more walking but it was way too hot. We stopped at Temple that I do not know the name of (I was very hot and pretty tired and didn't even get a lat/long) which was also beautiful. There was wonderful chanting going on and locals coming to pray. Whether it’s a gospel choir, the Kol Nidre, the boys singing Evensong at Westminster Abbey, spiritual music does what it is designed to do, moves the soul.

The guys are noticing some interesting messages in the men’s rooms they encounter. Here are a few I’ve overheard:

“Don’t urinate everywhere.”

“Urinate here.”

“It’s civilized to urinate close.”

“You will breath the fresh air after you have a civilized urination.”

What goes on in those places!!!???!!!


Leshan and Emeishan Area

We started out for a four hours drive to Leshan and Emeishan area. On the bus, with a captive audience some of the professors took the microphone and gave lectures on topics related to their disciplines and things we’d see on the trip. Geography Professor gave a very interesting and personal background of the maternal side of her family. She talked about how the politics of pre-communism played a part in her mother’s family wealth as opposed to the politics of post-communism life.

Religion Professor spoke about the imperial mountain system of the five peaks. They are explained as having specific Bodhisattva (a being that reaches the gate of enlightenment but decides to go back). The Emeishan area that we are in is one of these peaks. Historically, a lot of money from the continuous pilgrimages come to the Bodhisattva sites. Up until the 1920s Buddhist monasteries had a strong affiliation with local government.

Lunch was in Leshan, which is a sweet little town right on the Dadu River. We had more Sichuan food. We had all new dishes. I’ve heard that there are more than 5,000 different Sichuan recipes. I think we are going to try about a tenth of them on this trip.

Latitude 29.546897, Longitude 103.768662

After lunch we took a short boat ride to the Grand Buddha on the Dadu and Min rivers. This Buddha is truly grand. It is a very tall statue (71m or 233ft) carved into a red sandstone very similar to the Navajo (or Aztec) Sandstone found at Zion National Park, Utah.
We hopped back on the bus. We stopped at local village and chatted with the farmers. Political Theorist joked before we got off the bus: “What do you think of the commodification of your culture as a result of global capitalism?” Pause. “Just say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” All joking aside, this was a good stop and apparently completely chosen at random. As observed from our bus windows before arriving, the region grew rice, corn and beans, all in the same field and near each other. There wasn’t monoculture going on, at least that I observed. When asked if they eat the corn, a farmer responded “We eat the rice!” In other words, the corn is for animal feed. We have not had a dish with corn as yet.

Latitude 29.566295, Longitude 103.440857

We checked into Hong Zhu Shan Hotel (Building 5), which was an amazing place. Quite opulent. I will write about it in Tripadvisor.

From the hotel we walked to Baoguo Temple, our first temple. It was so peaceful and beautiful. I love to candles burning and incense burning at the entrance. We also heard some mesmerizing chanting monks. I got a little bit of this on a video. We had a vegetarian meal at the Temple.


Giant Pandas and Ancient Shu Civilization

Had a very delicious, full breakfast at the Tianfu Sunshine Hotel. There was so much food, so much variety, it was a little like a Sunday Brunch but for Chinese people. There was an omelet station, though, for the egg eaters. Had some soup with noodles, some lotus root, some buns. Wow!

Latitude 30.73508, Longitude 104.143503

We headed out in a touring bus to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. On the bus, Earth Science Professor presented an interesting discussion on the significance of the panda’s ‘thumb’ in the discourse on evolution. The setting for the panda center is a very well-laid out and park-like and is a great place for understanding the importance of studying and breeding Giant Pandas. You can even hold a juvenile panda if you want to pay, the money goes to research center.

Latitude 31.005015, Longitude 104.215235

Back in the bus we made our way to the lunch spot which is where we will be after lunch, the Sanxingdui Museum. Geography Professor and Anthropology Professor talked about the different periods of Chinese dynasties as a lead up to the next stop.

The Sanxingdui Museum is an archaeological dig site that now houses a remarkable collection of artifacts from over 4000 years ago from the Shu civilization. The site was discovered in 1986 along a river, where this old civilization made its mark. What is in the museum are findings from excavations of sacrificial burial sites. Unused knives and other implements made of jade, clay pots, and coins were buried with people for use in the afterlife. Only one museum building was open when we went but in it was enough to keep you occupied for a long time. I could not take pictures inside. Also, the Google Earth aerial photographs of the site are very grainy and may be so to deter looters.

And finally, a few of us went out for a very cheap (110 yuan or $16US), two-hour long Thai massage. When we go back to Chengdu in a couple of days, we MUST go there again.


Shopping and Eating in Chengdu

We awoke to a 5:00am wake-up call and then gathered as a group by 5:30am. A tour bus took us to the Beijing airport. I couldn’t get any readings (fixes) from the GPS for most of the day. (See the success story at Starbucks below.) Geography Professor mentioned casually that I could get into trouble for ‘measuring things,’ so I’d like to not draw attention to myself. I’m carrying around a tablet PC with a GPS receiver sticking out one end and attached by a long cord. It looks kind of silly. I look like a dork, but when I have the locations of where I am, I and I think others will be happy for this small sacrifice.

We flew out of Beijing to Chengdu on an airline that I do not know. It was a great flight and the Beijing terminal was very modern, not at all like the terminal I flew into in 1996. And it wasn’t the international terminal all set for the Olympics that I flew into the other evening.

Our Tour Guide for the Sichuan Province part of the trip met us at the airport and we boarded a bus. She gave us an introductory talk about what we would be doing in Chengdu. She mentioned that when she was waiting for us at the baggage claim she noticed that many of the Chinese people there remarked at how happy they were to see our (American) group coming in so soon after the May 12 earthquake. They thought of it as a vote of confidence and support. Tour Guide also told this funny story about what she felt when the earthquake occurred (it didn’t hit Chengdu hard at all where we saw no earthquake evidence). She said that when the earthquake happened she thought ‘some naughty boys were playing the firecrackers in the house,’ and she was going to get up in the morning and go and tell them to stop it.

Once in Chengdu we stopped to have lunch. It was delicious and very spicy hot. Apparently, the Sichuan style of cooking is to use a lot of known, local, simple ingredients and make something really yummy and special. That was what we had. A variety of small dishes came out, for each of us to sample, and they were so good. It was a little like having tapas. Another humorous thing that Tour Guide said was that in Sichuan Province, with all the spicy food, the women are thought of as ‘spicy girls.’ I think she thought of herself as a spicy girl, herself.

Fed and happy, we went to the Wide and Narrow Alley shopping area. This is on Jinli Street. As I said I could not get a reading of where we were, but it was a new area opened up for shopping and strolling. Some homes are there in the ‘alleys’ and some of the former homes are made into shops. One notable building is a ‘church’ built by French people in the 1830s but all the windows had Star of Davids and it was an obvious synagogue. It will soon be a restaurant. Since this area is relatively new there was information on the Wide and Narrow Alley on Google Earth. But perhaps when I get more time I’ll investigate this street and its significance.

Then we went to the Dufu Thatched Cottage Museum. This is well-known and in Google Earth. Dufu was a Chinese poet who lived in the 700s. He is comparable to Shakespeare and highly revered. This thatched cottage is a place he wrote only briefly in his life. The grounds were beautiful. It seems as though Dufu’s works are co-opted throughout the ages and he the current party can find communist leanings in his writing from over a thousand years ago. Certainly.

Latitude 30.647627, Longitude 104.047428

Hopefully this is the last of these shopping jaunts, for next we went to another shopping spot on Qintai Road. I just rested at Starbucks and DID get a GPS location. Probably because I could sit still for awhile in order to get a fix on the satellites. (See Google Earth link for the days adventure spots). Anyway, this was another ‘alley’ for shopping. There will be plenty of shopping opportunities along the way, to be sure. Oh, and though this was Starbucks, the coffee was divine. Much more flavorful than the American brew.

Latitude 30.646595, Longitude 104.043257
Then we walked two blocks to get on the bus to drive one block to another eating establishment. None of us were hungry but when you put terrific and beautiful food in front of me, I can’t help myself. I wouldn’t want to be rude. Again, the food was spicy yummy.
Latitude 30.670017, Longitude 104.076658
We checked in to the Tianfu Sunshine Hotel. The hotel seems nicer than our first hotel, which was great. More on the hotel later with my TripAdvisor review.


Meeting Up in Beijing

We gathered at 7pm at the lobby of the Beijing International Hotel (note the curvature which is a little like Noyes House) and then went to a ‘family style’ restaurant. I don’t know the name. It had a lot of tourists in it and the food came out and was placed on a lazy Susan in the middle of the table. It was not outstanding. Our tour operator who has planned everything made sure we had an easy, agreeable meal for our first meal, I think. Here's my review on Tripadvisor.

We will be going to Tibet and that’s a good thing. But we will not go there for another few days. First, tomorrow morning we leave for Chengdu for some touring.

I've been to China once before and then as now I marvel at the interesting ways that the English language comes out in Chinese culture. Here's a lovely example of what I mean:

On an advertisement for the hotel spa that came with my room key under new recommended items...
Whitening and tightening body massage with milk 580 yuan/70 mins
Wonderful experience to make your skin and muscle cells regenerate, to whiten and moist your body, to prevent your body from degradation to keep healthy and gloss.

Photo is by PALLYCH72. Mine aren't ready yet.


Getting to Beijing, China

Day 1 June 26, 2008

LATITUDE LONGITUDE JFK International Airport (40.643532, -73.789168)

I left Poughkeepsie on Metro North at 6:43am to Grand Central Station. I didn’t need to leave this early. I caught the New York Airport bus at 9:10am ($15US). I arrived at Terminal 1 at JFK International Airport by about 10:15am, checked in like a breeze. I wondered aloud to the Japan Airlines staff if I really needed to be three hours early. My flight was not until 1:30pm. He said ‘no,’ and that sometimes all you need is an hour. So, live and learn. The security check-point was much longer, but still within reason in terms of amount of time it took me to get through.

I bought two bottles of water and exchanged $100US (600 yuan) once I got through the check point. I also bought a small bottle of rum at the duty free ($7US) as a sleep aid. I won’t drink the rum with the Benadryl I brought.

I’ve been advised by an airline pilot friend to start to sleep on China time. China is exactly 12 hours different than we are in New York, so it’s a little hard to think about it being 1:00am at the place that I’m getting ready to go to. Airline Pilot said to ‘drink lots of water; suck it up and buy two bottles after you get through the security check point and then drink it all flight long, even after the flight attendants go to sleep; get up and stretch, not just walk, but do knee bends, and legs stretches, especially the legs; take a sleep aid to sleep when China is sleeping (Tylenol PM or Benadryl).’ I’ll let you know how that goes.

So far, this is very exciting and going smooth, but I’m just at the beginning of the trip and have yet to get out of the country. Next stop is Narita Airport in Tokyo Japan.

On the plane (13 plus hours) I saw a lot of movies. I’ll start with the best: “Vantage Point.” I really liked this thriller; right up my alley. If you don’t know what it’s about, you can look it up, but the premise is that we see an assassination attempt from many different vantage points. This was the highlight for a geospatial technologist: the assassin used a geolocated weapon and a mobile pen-based device to 1) anonymously shoot the designated assassinated person, and 2) detonate a bomb on a suicide bomber.

Do not see: “10,000 BC.” Wow! What a dog of a movie. It was incredibly stupid and very poorly acted. Who wants to see a bunch of guys running around with very little clothing and shaking spears at each other? Don’t answer that. I wanted way more of the mastodons and maybe even some saber tooth tigers.

Ditto: “Fools Golds.” Ugho! This was another lame, poorly acted, dumb movie that was all about cutesy flirtatious talk between two fairly attractive people. They talk in that way that real life people think they talk like and don’t and it just sounds so disgusting.

I saw others but they were films I’d seen before. I played a lot of Tetris. Read an Annie Proulx short story in the New Yorker.

My flight was on Japan Airlines. I highly recommend this carrier. Accept for the fact that there was an obvious hierarchy between the poor-folks in the back of the bus and the fancy folks in First Class, I liked everything about this flight. I got up, walked around, didn’t need a sleep aid, got free alcohol. Did all the stretches that Airline Pilot suggested doing.

By the way, the free alcohol is a good thing because when I got to Narita Airport, they took my duty free rum that I bought at the JFK airport AFTER I went through the security check point. Can someone please explain how that is possible?! I kept my receipt so if I have the energy, I can try to get back my seven smackers, but is it worth it?

LATITUDE LONGITUDE at Tokyo Narita Airport (35.777463, 140.39085)

Still Day 1 – now it’s June 27: Connecting flight to Beijing left a little late so I got into Beijing at about 10:00pm. Took a cab from the airport. I had a piece of paper with the name of the hotel (Beijing International Hotel) with the address both in English and in Chinese. First thing you should do is have confidence that the driver knows where he or she is going and how much it will cost you. My driver got lost. The highways, just like the airport, are new and I think confusing to everyone. I saw a lot of cars stopping on the highway leading out of the airport and going into reverse to make an exit. Seemed pretty dangerous. I didn’t think too much of it until my own driver seemed to miss an exit. He told me at the beginning that it would be $100yuan. He got so lost though that I made me pay $200yuan (about $30US). I hope the drivers figure out how to get around before the Olympics start up!

I made it to my hotel, though, and that’s what matters! Very nice room. More later or on Tripadvisor.

Check out the Google Earth file for a blow by blow of where I’ve been to get to Beijing.


Added the Loki Toolbar to Internet Explorer

I added the Loki toolbar for the trip to China. If you like mapping your every little move, Loki is pretty cool. If you sit at a desk all day, Loki is probably boring.

I will also bring along a tablet PC with a GPS receiver so we'll see how accurate Loki / the GPS are to one another.

Here is where I am today: 41.685476; -73.897733


Tibet is Open

With our visas in hand, a group of us will set out for...Tibet as originally planned. Tibet will be open by the time I and we get there. Keep you posted. The geologists on the trip will put together some discussions of the tectonics of the region and recent earthquake in Sichuan province.

I'm heading out on Thursday morning, taking Metro North down to Grand Central Station, a bus down to JFK airport and then off to Japan and then Beijing, China, for seventeen days.


Planning on Going to Tibet, I Mean China, I Mean Chengdu

Soon a group of us will be headed out to meet up in Beijing. The original plan was to make our way south by train to Tibet, but entry to Tibet is still closed. After the Tibetan uprising, we made alternative plans to go Chengdu, where the recent earthquake occurred. We are not really sure where we will be headed but I will try to add information on this blog as we go.