Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Tibet / Xīzàng

From a legal standpoint, Tibet has to this day not lost its statehood. It is an independent state under illegal occupation.
- Michael van Walt, lawyer and visiting professor at Institute for Advanced Study

Tibet has maintained a unique culture, written and spoken language, religion and political system for centuries.

In 1912, the 13th Dalai Lama - Tibet's political and spiritual leader - issued a proclamation reaffirming Tibet’s independence: "We are a small, religious, and independent nation." The country had its own national flag, currency, stamps, passports and army; signed international treaties, and maintained diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.

In 1950, the newly established Communist regime in China invaded Tibet, which was rich in natural resources and had a strategically important border with India. Tibet today is under China’s occupation.

The Chinese government justifies its occupation by claiming that Tibet has been part of China for around 800 years. Its claim is not supported by the facts.

--- Taken from FreeTibet.org

Tibet, the land of snows. The name conjurers up both the mysterious and the forbidden. The Himalayas, Dalai Lama, Monks and Monetarists, Yaks, Prayer Flags, Lhasa, Mount Everest, Potala Palace and of course Chinese Invasion and takeover.

The National Holiday of China is October 1 to 5 so with a little creative schedule shifting I managed an to string together a few extra days. I will head into the mysterious autonomous region of Tibet from October 1 to 9. Tibet was an independent travelers dream however there were violent protests in March of 2008  and that changed everything. Today, foreigners can not travel the region on their own and they must be a part of an organize tour. So an organized tour it is.

I decided on an 8 day tour with Explore Tibet mainly because of the timing. It gave me a day at the end to take the 32 hour train from Tibet back to Xian in what should be interesting to say the least. Hopefully the views will be as advertised. I have a flight with Sichuan Airlines from Xian to Lhasa on the morning of the 1st and with a short stopover in Xiahe (Tibet) I will will land in Lhasa at noon.

Llasa is at 3650 meters above sea level altitude is an issue for all travelers. My personal experience has me right on the edge of where I start to feel lack of oxygen, around 3200 meters. I started taking Hong Jiag Tian which is a non prescription alternative to Diamox. Ultimately I will need a few days to adjust to the altitude and this tour is designed with that in mind. The first 3 days are slow activities in and around Lhasa.

Day 1 - Arrival
Day 2 - Lhasa 3600m: Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple and Bakkhor Street
Day 3 - Lhasa 3600m: Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery
Day 4 - Lhasa 3600m to Gyantse 3900m to Shingatse 3900m: Yamdrok Lake, Mt. Nyechen Glacier, Pelkhor Monastery
Day 5 - Shingatse 3900m to Everest Base Camp 5200m: Rongbuk Monastery and Everest Base Camp
Day 6 - Rongbuk 5000m, to Shegar/Shingatse : Rongbuk Monastery and the Himalayas
Day 7 - Shingatse to Lhasa: Tashi Monastery, Incense Factory, Brahmaputra River
Day 8 - Train back to Xian

I do need a special travel permit which is being mailed to me. Without it I can not get on the plane. There is plenty of free time at each location. On these types of tours you are given a buddy to share a room with. I declined. I paid the extra $75 to have my own room each night.

Finally, Tibet is a politically sensitive area. There are things you DO NOT say or do, even in jest. Yelling Free Tibet! will get your ass put in jail pretty quickly. Talking politics is bad enough but you absolutely do not talk religion and take the words Dali Lama out of your vocabulary. He is considered a terrorist and enemy of the state. As with anywhere that is politically sensitive use your head and just don't be an asshole.

Tibet and Mount Everest. A place of mystery and history, mountains and monks, high altitude and low political tolerance. Sounds like a perfect place to me.

Qingling Zoological Park

I struggle with going to the zoo. The inhumane situation of the animals is right there for me to see in all it's disgusting glory. Yet I buy my ticket and as I progress through the place I get angrier with every step. I hate the zoo and never feel good afterwards and still I find myself going. This time I used the excuse that "I was invited by my work colleagues and did not want to offend them."

A zoo, ecological park, sanctuary, or whatever term is being used are a business. They take wild animals, put them on display and charge you money to look at them. They tell you that the animals are happy (whatever the fuck that means), well cared for, safe and in some instances it can be expressed that the animals are on a watch list and the species is being protected. We shrug.

The Qingling Zoological Park is one of these attempted wildlife refuge. The location was quite nice as it was out of town and nestled up against the Qing Ling Mountain range giving it a quiet and remote feel. The entrance was welcoming, wide open and clean as I have come to expect from China where visitors paying money are being expected. This park is famous for it's "Safari by Bus" which I figures would be similar to African Lion Safari near Hamilton, Ontario. Umm nope! I did not bring my camera today and my phone was low on battery so the pictures are courtesy of my friend Candy Bao.

Ok, a bit of a backtrack. We boarded a bus with extra large windows that would take us through the safari park. The security to drive through was no less than Jurassic Park. A series of electrified automated gates that open and closed allowing the bus in and preventing any escapes. The animals were way to bored and uninterested in escaping but safety first.

There were various species of antelope, wildebeest, giraffe and other herbivores doing their thing in a vast expanse but they were mostly laying down. No mass migrations were going to occur here. Through another series of gates we entered areas with African lions, very impressive Siberian Tigers including, Asian Tigers, black bears and other top level carnivores. I have to admit it was impressive to see them.

After the bus ride we could walk the park freely. We watched an enclosure of monkeys for half an hour. It was funny to watch monkeys do what monkeys happily do when they are not caged up begging for food. I will give them props for this exhibit. We wanted to the mid size carnivore exhibit which boasts jaguar and other mid size cats, fox,  wild dogs and the like. This was a "zoo" at it's most disgusting. Inside concrete cages littered with feces and only a glass viewing to the outside world were exactly what were advertised. Spectacular black panthers, spotted cats and wild dogs each alone in a cell. Some were laying in corners, others were pacing back and forth and all were in some state of distress. Shit, the final pen housed Korean Hunting dogs but these were some someones pets (as the sign said). A zoo at it's worst, or so I thought.

Then I came to the elephant enclosure. Huge Asia elephants in tiny cages separated from each other. Baby elephants being beaten for making to much noise, probably screaming for their mothers. The hippos were in fetid black water that had a distinct garbage smell. The only panda, for which the zoo says they are famous for, was laying on a concrete floor surrounded by viewing glass. It was dirty and unimpressive. A prisoner in its own country.

The rest of the place was the same. Birds and small animals jammed into small crowed cages. The wild bird lake boasts flamingos, cranes and storks. Yes they were there but oddly none of them were flying. Wings cut?

Anyways the experience was exactly what I thought it would be. There were brilliant animals that I could admire and yes the monkeys made me laugh but I could not get past their situation. Nope, I do not like zoos and every time I go I promise myself it is the last time. I think curiosity always gets the best of me hoping that the next zoo will be better. Stupid curiosity.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Dunhuang Day 1

I was right about the train to Dunhuang. It could have been a part of any Indiana Jones movie. Old, slow, hard seats, smoking passengers and yes the hole directly onto the tracks. It is everything you would expect from a regional train in China's north west. It was great! Once we left Jiayuguan we were immediately surrounded by factories that went on for hours. The monsters were spewing the pollution that drifted south east into they eyes, nose and throats of the good people of Xi'an. About half way they suddenly stopped and a massive wind farm appeared. A crazy contradiction to be sure but China is making progress towards cleaning up their environment but for now it is glorious coal to choke my lungs.

Dunhuang. New, modern and clean. The airport was immaculate, the roads are wide, paved and lacking what can be considered any form of Chinese traffic. Once you reach town the desert sits there like a huge guardian. I immediately felt connected to this town, I have no idea why. I suspect this is the town Jiayuguan is trying to be. Historically Dunhuang was one of the most important Chinese stops on the Silk Road. The Gateway into China as well as entrance to the Western routes to India and the Middle East.

My stop here did not start all the wonderful. I took a cab to the hostel I had booked on Booking.com which has become my go to site. As with any site I take user reviews with a grain of salt. People will complain about the most mundane things when staying at a hotel/hostel that charges you $15 a night. I for consistency in the comments good or bad. The Dunhuang Nongfu Hostel looked fine but I did not take the time to ready any reviews. When the taxi dropped me off  the driver had a look of "dude what are you doing here". When I entered the lady running the place looked a bit shocked telling me foreigners could not stay at her hostel, she was not qualified. When I asked about my reservation she said she had it but I must stay inside her house and sleep in her daughters room. The police could show up and there would be trouble. Fucking China!

I told her NO, that was unacceptable and I was going to book another hotel. She started getting a bit mouthy about me paying so I did what anyone would do, I told her I would go to the police and tell them she had foreigners staying here. She quickly smiled and gave me the Wifi code. I found a room at the Super 8 in the heart of the night market for about the same price so off I went. Walking to the hotel I stopped at a random middle eastern restaurant which are common in the part of China thanks to the Silk Road. I filled up on lamb, beef and peppers and cold beer for 45 rbm.

The primary reason I came to Dunhuang was the Crecent Moon Oasis and Echoing Sands Dune parks. An easy 5 km walk but I took the Number 3 bus, which cost 1 rmb, knowing I would walk the 5km back to town. The bus is downtown and easy to find as this is not a large town.

Quite near the entrance to the park the bus stopped at a place called "sleepless town".  I had to see what this was all about. It turned out to be an touristy type place with restaurants and hotels with an old rustic style theme. Great, lets eat again. I filled up on noodles and green beans plus I drank the absolute best cold apricot juice I have ever tasted. By this time the sun was fading and so was I. It was a long day with the train ride, the hostel debacle and now a good meal, plus my eye was bothering me. The Crescent Moon Oasis has been here 2000 years and like the Great Wall in Jiayuguan it was not going anywhere. I headed back to town and wandered the night market. So much food, so many smells, so much activity and noise. Sensory overload to be sure.

Dunhuang Day 2

Today the Whispers Sand National park. I have a descent sense of direction by remembering landmarks and when possible I take pics on my phone in case I get turned around. I also take a business card from my hotel if I get completely lost which has happened in the past. I had the route to the park in my head from the bus ride yesterday. It was a sunny warm day, I load up on water and off I went. As is always the case I got side tracked.

The Dunhuang Leiyin Monastery covers 180 acres and is 1700 years old. It is hidden amount a dense grown of trees and shrubs with only a bland entrance that anyone could easily walk past. Personally I can not tell the difference between a Temple and a Monastery but the statues at the Monastery are much cooler. I know nothing about Buddhism as I have said and one of these days I will learn what some of this symbolism means but for now I just enjoyed walking around. As with all other similar sites it was quiet and peaceful as I suspect it is suppose to be.

The dunes were just up the road and it was time. I walked past Sleepytown which was on my right so cold apricot juice with lunch was on the menu post sand dunes. The dunes were ever present on the walk and crept closer with each step. Entrance to the park was 120 rmb and your pass was good for 3 days. Oddly you needed to be photographed using facial recognition when you leave in order to validate the 3 day pass. I honestly thing China uses technology for the sake of "using technology". When I returned the second day I just told them I had my photo taken and they let me in without issue. Nothing was checked or verified. Technology for the use of technology. What a waste of time and energy really.

There were two main hikes and as recent as 3 years ago "sand ladders" were laid over the sand to help climbers and they really worked. I stepped off at one time to try without and it was brutal climbing without them. It was not difficult, maybe a 15 minute climb on the smallest hike. You can then walk the crest line to the top of the second hike which was a gentle slope.  Looking toward the Oasis or towards the desert each provided fantastic views. You could just sit and take it all in, wander about the ridge line or if you were ambitious you could climb down the opposite site and hike other dunes. That appealed to me however the possibility of getting turned around and lost was very real and it cold happen very quickly. I took the sit and enjoy the view approach.

When traveling on your own it is easy enough to find someone to take your picture. Today I met a girl who was helpful. We took pictures of each other in and around the dunes. As I was leaving she was climbing so we smiled and said good-bye.  I needed apricot juice.

Dunhuang Day3

Today I had planned a camel ride, to visit the oasis and of course to climb the dunes a second time.
I was taking a picture of the Oasis and I saw a big smile in front of me, it was the girl from yesterday. I found out her name was Yin Cheng and we decided to hang out together. Funny thing was she was a travel agent and she lived in Xi'an.  Her English was decent enough but Google Translate became our best friend that afternoon. Oddly enough she word the same funky hat that my friend Lucy had when we were traveling in Mexico.

We wandered around the Oasis and the park. She had a nice Nikon camera and was also learning he art of photography. She had no intention of climbing the dunes but when I told her about the views, showed her my pictures from the previous day and told her she had to follow me because we were now going to climb them she reluctantly agreed.

What was the first thing that happened when we reached the summit and were relaxing. A huge wind storm, which the area is famous for..."singing sands",  come out of nowhere and blew here cool hat over the side and down the dune. "do not chase it, I do not care. It is only a hat". Cool girl. We sat talking and I discovered she was a Buddhist and knew nothing of the monastery. Off we went. First I wanted to ride a camel but returning to the camel loading zone as they called it the place went from peaceful to absolute chaos. What was a few groups heading out turned into a steady stream of camel riders stretching into the distance. Nope!

The return trip took on a whole new meaning as she was describing the meaning and purpose of each statue and the reason for the symbolism. She looked at me as said only "tourists" take pictures inside temples.  With my camera already in my back pack I did not have the heart to show her my photos from the previous day however the though did cross my mind "I wonder what an angry Buddhist looks like"

Yin Cheng had a late plane to catch so we walked back to town. She was staying near the river front which I knew nothing about. As is the case in China it was all about lights and water.

Dunhuang surprised me. I expected a dust bowl of a town focused on one main tourist attraction. What I found was a modern city that was busy enough to be interesting but had a wonderful slow pace to it. The streets and sidewalks were wide and not crowded and the food was a mix of Middle Eastern and Chinese so delicious on all accounts. Wandering around you get the feel that this was an Oasis town on the old Silk Road. Knowing that Xi'an some 1200 km away was the final destination of so many traders gave me a bit of historical perspective.

From Dunhuang the primary goal for Chinese traders was the Middle East and India and modern day Iran with Tehran and major stop before moving along to Europe. I wonder if I can get a letter of invitation to visit Iran?

Costs Perspective 
The question I am asked most often is "how can you afford to travel so much?". Well first I am working so there is that and my costs are minimal. A bit of perspective about traveling in "emerging" or non "Western" countries.

In Canada a "vacation" is more times than not a one week winters break to an all inclusive in the Caribbean or Mexico. The costs vary but most people want 5 star and on the beach which can run $1500 to $2000 per person. These are generalities and I have not energy to start looking up these costs. Trips to Montreal, New York, Toronto, Vegas or any point in between usual include expensive hotel rooms and meal plus activities. This also becomes the benchmark from which "travel costs" are based.

My 6 days in Jiayuguan and Dunhung including 2 flights, a 5 hour train ride, 6 nights accommodation, tourist attractions, food, alcohol, taxis and buses set me back just over $500 Canadian. My hotel rooms are clean and safe, although this time I did stay in a capsule for a couple of nights.

My point is this. How much per month do you spend on Car Insurance and Petrol, plus a car payment if you have it? How many Timmies do you consume every week. Are you complaining about the high costs of food while eating in yet another restaurant. You see where I am going. You spend you money on your car, I spend my money on flights.  I know too many people making well over $100,000 a year, and have for a while, who constantly complain about being broke while driving in their new car because they were bored with their 5 year old car regardless that it was finally paid off. Car payments become the crutch with which you can justify your presumed poverty.

These are your life choices. It is not about how I can afford to travel, its about how can you not afford to travel. What's your excuse I would love to hear it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Hanging Great Wall

After spending the morning in and around the Jiayu Pass I was amped for my next stop, the Hanging Great Wall. These two outposts of the Great Wall protected a valley entrance into China from the North, home of the Mongols. I sure as sh** would not want to be the dude standing there watching any Khan coming my way.

There was no bus but there is a nice little setup to get you there. Outside the Jiayu Pass park sit the ever present taxi's knowing you need to get to the wall. The deal was great, $50 rmb for the 5km drive (something I could have easily walked but not on this day). The ride included a pickup later to bring you back to the bus stop near the Pass. My driver was friendly and funny. He gave me his number and told me to take my time, to enjoy myself. Call him any time and he will come and get me. I had absolutely no reason to think he was lying.

I had the special ticket so I walked up to the entrance, the ticket was scanned, I was searched and in I went. Normal cost was $120 rmb so ASK FOR THE SPECIAL TICKET. Almost immediately you could see a tower atop the hill directly in front of you. A few more paces and the line of the wall appeared. The Great Wall of China was directly in front of me, whoohooo!! There was a really well done tribute to the Ancient Silk Road with colorful camels and characters symbolically heading East. The pride of the Ancient Silk Road is engraved in Chinese history and culture. A mild Canadian comparison has to be the Great Fur Trade of the 17th and 18th Century. No, not a direct historical comparison but the importance to the history and emergence of Canada as an independent nation. The Hudson Bay Company still exists, barely, as a retail operation, The Bay.

This is not the "Great Wall" that so many people climb near Beijing. The remoteness and time of year meant one important thing, a limited number of people. At the start of the actual wall itself and guide was talking to 2 young German travelers. She was explaining the history of the area so I stopped, smiled and listened. She was immediately inclusive and when the Germans were on their way we talked for about 20 minutes and I gleaned quite a bit from her. She took my photos and stressed for me to "Many people run up the wall to the top, take their pictures and come back down. Take your time and think of History". This was my type of guide.

How can I describe the moment? You chose: exhilarating, exciting, mystifying, satisfying, humbling, any one will do. The climb to the rampart was steep and took about 30 minutes. Once you reach the summit the views over the valley explained the logic of the location. You could see for as far as they could see in any direction. The most important, as it was explained to me, was it could see down the directly down the valley between the two black rock hill ranges which was the only way to attack the fort from the North. I still would not want to see the Mongols coming down the valley.

There were fantastic hiking trails beyond the wall so off I went. As a good Canadian lad the first thing to spring to mind was to build an Inuksuk. Yes, it's a Canadian thing. I though showing it in front of the blurred out Great Wall rampart was a nice shot. To most it's a pile rocks but to any Canadian reading this they "get it". We all have our peccadilloes. The trails were mostly well worn and easy to navigate but they did have quite a bit of scree and loose footings that you had to be careful with, especially if you went off roading which was something I obviously was going to do.

But, my excitement was tempered as I bent over to tighten my laces and come up quickly I suddenly was tripping like it was 1978. Light headed and a bit of the spins I sat down and it did not take a genius to suddenly realize I in all my excitement of the day I did not drink any water, none. What a rookie mistake.. Yes there was 2 warming litres in my pack along with potato chips for salt, cookies for sugar and beef jerky for fuel. Now was a good time for lunch you dumbass. I did enjoy the lightheaded moment and the memory flashbacks :)

I spent a few hours wandering the mountains and trails taking it all in. The walk down was easy enough and took about 20 minutes. I passed through another dedication to the Silk Road, beautifully carved statues and monuments. I called the number the cab driver gave me, told him I was ready and went to the entrance to wait. A worker with decent English was sitting in the shade drinking a beer and called me over. . He was happy to practice his English and when I rattled off a bit of Chinese the others around laughed and applauded and like magic I had a beer in my hand. We talked about everything and nothing as you do here sometimes. My driver arrived 10 minutes later so I drained the beer, said my good byes. The taxi dropped me off at the bus stop and I waited for the number 1 bus back to the city. A bit of reflection time.

I need to be up early for the train to Dunhuang. I really do not know what to expect with Dunhuang but in my mind I see a small dusty town edged on the Gobi Desert. What I do know is the train is an old and slow so its time for a bit of Old School travel tomorrow.  I suspect the toilet is a hole directly onto the tracks.

Not all was glorious in the Middle Kingdom. Yesterday my right eye was feeling a bit off. Today it had evolved watery itchy mess. It was a bit scary looking however behind my glasses it was well hidden so I would not be scaring any children on this day. I had it looked at back in Xi'an and it was quickly determined to be conjunctivitis. Four days of medical drops and all was right again.