Friday, July 27, 2007

In Lhasa

Hey Folks,

Just arrived in Lhasa, Tibet, China writing from 3600m about 12,000 ft (Denver is 1,609m or 5,280ft). The train ride here was interesting. We have a group of six (me, my parents, uncle and aunt and aunt's relative). We got a 'hard berth' which is 3 bunk beds facing each other in a 'room', perfect for 6 people. However we got 4 tickets in the same car and room (room 13/14 in car 13) and 2 tickets in car 5. So we had to get the two people in our room to exchange. Reminded me of Kim/Minh story of trying to exchange tickets in Vietnam not knowing that the rooms were segregated male/female. At least China doesn't have that rule, :P, and we were successful.

More musings:

* Tourist attractions in Xining,
Qing Hai: China's Great Salt Lake, as pretty as Lake Tahoe....
First Atomic test site: a bit disappointed, a few rusted pieces of equipment, a fake Sputnik like bomb and a bunker. What confused the hell out of me was the bunker was like 30ft away from the fake bomb on a tower... I mean if I was standing on Ground Zero, that bunker wouldn't exist....
Local Ethnic Meal and show: To explain this better, the majority of people in China are ethnically and culturally Han. However China has many minority ethnic groups, at least 80 or more. In this area there are Mongols, Tibetans, two Muslim minorities and one or two more that I don't remember. So our guide took us to one of these guest houses where they serve you a traditional meal and then they do a show for you. Towards the end of the show they always get a few male participants to get on stage. From past experience (and I've been volunteered by unnamed people SEVERAL times, you know who you are!), I know they are going to embarrass the hell out of you and then perform a marriage ceremony or courtship dance with you and a 'bride'. So my uncle got chosen and he got embarrassed and then married with my Aunt in the audience (she and my mom volunteered him...). She teased him all day about it (and I'm I'll hear more about it during this trip...). After marriage, the guy is supposed to stay there for 3 days, so I have picture of my uncle being caught in a tug of war... Also they were joking about exchanging the old wife for the new one...

* During the train ride we got as high as 5000m (16 404 ft), which is like sucking air through a very thin straw. We spent almost all of it above 4000m, about 10 hours between 4500m to 5000m (ie more then 14,000 ft). I got a light headache from the combination of being cooped up in the train, sucking air through a straw and smokers.

* Smokers, which brings me to another thought (or two). The train had a no smoking policy (with designated areas). However people still smoked in the non-smoking areas. What are you thinking??? You can't get enough oxygen already, you got a supplemental oxygen hose and you are STILL smoking?? No one obeys the rules here (my 2nd thought...), the temples have a no picture policy (which I admit I broke... stealthily tho...) but people were standing and obviously posing to have their pictures taken... A few got escorted out by the monks.. Yes, it's a hypocritically gripe, but still...I think the temptation to take a wayward picture would've been less...

* Alcohol and Cigarettes are the glue that keeps the world connected. Won't elaborate more then to say that I witnessed some pretty important (institutional...) commitments and arm twisting being made while the involved parties were all drinking and smoking...

* A lot of stuff in China is new, but the workmanship is just CRAPPY! We stayed at a four star hotel which on the surface can compare to a Marriott. However if you look closer you'll notice that the facades were poorly put together, you can see where the seams and glue are. A simple industrial sander and filling would've fixed most of this. Another example is a beautifully decorated dining room, a bunch of very nice leather chairs around the table AND one cloth covered chair!?!?! All little small things that tell you a lot about everything else...

* Was walking around Xining at night (10ish..) and I stumbled onto a huge square, about 2 football fields in length and width; filled with people. You have kids running around playing hide and seek, people roller blading, young lovers in secluded places under trees (and a few old lovers too...), an area filled with traditional Chinese music and people dancing, another area with moon bounce and a fake climbing wall, another area with a choir, or if you wanted hot and sweaty dancing you could find an area packed with young people dancing to club music... A sight to behold...

* China has 1.2 billion people and they haven't surpassed the US in electricity use, and I think I figured out why. They conserve! Our hotel rooms have this slot for your room key, the second you take it out all the electricity in your room shuts off. So when you leave, you CAN'T leave a light on (which means you can't charge anything while you are out...) but on the other hand it saves tons of electricity. Also these hotels turn most of their lights off at night, so I've walked through some unlit corridors because they want to save electricity. The flip side is Chinese packaging, it's like a matryoshka doll; layers and layers of useless packaging...

* Pilgrims. You thought Catholics were bad with their weekly mass, confession and some devotees walking a step and saying a prayer. Or Muslims with prayers 5 times a day and a Hajj. Tibetan Buddhists have them all beat hands down. Some of these pilgrims will start from where ever they are and prostrate themselves all the way to Lhasa. This is basically kneel down, prostrate, slide body forward until you are laying down, get back up, walk your body length and repeat. According to our guide they average about 3km a day and can take anywhere from 3-5 years to complete their pilgrimage. I have a picture of a guy doing the prostate/lay down thing twice, one for him and one for his wife. 3-5 YEARS!! Makes the Appalachian trail look like a afternoon stroll at 6 months.

* I know I've done this in the past, but still something to get used to again here. Children between the ages of 1 and 3 wear pants here that have an opening from the front to the back of the pants. This is so that if they need to go to the bathroom, their parents simply walk them to the side of the road, nearby tree or grassy area, pick them up, spread their legs and let them rip! Again something I'm sure I've done (or more correctly, been put in the position of doing) a long, long time ago.

* The old vs the new. It's a dichotomy in China. You have brand new state of the art glass high rises right beside brick houses and soulless concrete buildings.

* You know you haven't been climbing enough when a pillar outside your hotel looks VERY tempting and the only thing stopping you is that on closer examination you realize it's a poorly constructed facade that may break under body weight.

That's it for now, going to tour Lhasa today!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

In XiNing

Hey Folks,

It's another round of Jay's inane ramblings. Been in China for about 72 hours, still trying to get used to it. Initially getting off the flight from Dulles in Beijing was a bit of a shock. Between the 12 hour flight, sleep deprivation and all, I was for some reason, surprised to see an airport run by Chinese people. Then I realized, wait, I'm in Beijing. Duh!

A few amusing events/observations (Yes, I'm easily amused...)

* Flight from Dulles was delayed for 1 hour. First someone checked-in but never got onto the plane, so they had to remove their luggage. Then we taxied, made a u-turn and arrived back at the terminal. Turns out our cargo hold was overheating so we needed to get it fixed. During this time I noticed that the English/Chinese explanation was different and this continued throughout the flight; similar but different... The lucky family who 'missed' the flight was able to get on... but because we were late, they missed their connection.

* on the flight, saw an elderly woman carefully wiping down the air vents and reading lights above her seat and then remarking to her husband about needing cleaning. The plane was old, but, not THAT bad. How was she going to deal with China? All the smog, dust, car exhaust, etc...

* Going through customs and immigration was interesting. The 'Wait before yellow line' rarely applied. Cell phones were allowed in the pre-immigration area. There were trash cans around before going through customs. If I wanted to smuggle something, I'd throw it away and get my trash collecting buddies to retrieve for me, but that's just me... The health form had a question of "Have you recently been near poultry or birds" - dead or alive I ask? The customs form had a question about carrying radio receivers or transmitters. I was trying to decide whether to declare my GPS (which I just lost... :(), then I realized that a cell phone sent/received radio signals. I wonder who declared their cell phones...

* We flew over the North Pole and they displayed this on the flight map. The whole flight got up with their cameras to take pictures; so I have pictures of people taking pictures of us over the North Pole.

* Everyone on the flght had the new Harry Potter book. I was expecting that after take-off the WHOLE flight would take out their copy and start reading it noisily, talking to their neighbors about it; like a Disney musical and I would be the ONLY person on the flight without a Harry Potter book- the black sheep.

* Arriving in China I got my first glance of 'Chinglish' by the way of mis-quoted Andy Warhol, the one about not caring what they write about you, just measure it in inches. The quote was printed on a t-shirt with each character being a different size then the one before and after, with no spaces and a random word dropped every now and then. Or "Watch your heed" and "Please do not smoke to take picture".

* Was getting luggage from my flight and the whole carousel was crowded, so I stood back and waited for my bag. This old man saw his and tried to get his bag off the carousel and couldn't get it off. He got dragged along the carousel for a bit, people didn't even help him, in fact one guy just stood there while the old man got dragged into him. I had to finally walk up and grab his bag. Sad, sad, especially in a Confucius society where you are supposed to respect and honor your elders.

* The food here is as awesome as I expected! The service great, about 1 waiter/waitress per table. I arrived in Xining around 11pm and was hungry, so my mom took me down to the hotel restaurant which had just closed. However the manager got the kitchen to re-open up and serve me this enormous bowl of soup noodles for 8 yuan ($1.05 USD). Pretty much every where we went there were more servers then customers, be it a store or restaurant. They weren't kidding when they say labor is cheap here.

* Personal space. I still can't get used to it. Violating your personal space here isn't being so close you can smell their breath, or feel their hairy arms. No, violating personal space here means you are squeezing yourself between two sweaty people to get through. Or if they are interested in seeing whatever spectacle, putting their faces right by yours; so close you can count their eyelashes.

* Lines, simple don't exist here. You can tell from the second you got off the plane, it's a completely foreign concept. I thought people were bad in the states trying to rush onto a plane with assigned seats. Man, if Southwest operated in China, there'd be a riot every time they loaded their planes. People push and shove, old and young. A lot of streets in Xining have no lights. So you simply walk across and pray the cars don't hit you. If you are in a car and need to make a left, just start inching into the intersection until you meet someone who isn't crazy enough to get in front of you and let you pass.

* Money. Money makes the world go around, that statement is absolutely true here. People hound you for money, to either buy something from them, to take a picture with them (locals in local dress), or simple begging. Beggars and vendors range from 4-5 year kids to old ladies holding a fake baby to get your sympathy. On the other end of things, our guide arranged to get us a dish of local fish which was on the endangered list and it was illegal to fish for it...

Anyway, that's my musings so far. Great food, good fun!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

First Trip!

Well, sorta. This is really the first post in preparation for my trip to China. I've decided to start up a blog and write down my thoughts. Which, right now is picturing me standing on a cliff with a large blow horn shouting in the void of cyberspace. "Anyone there???"

Anyway, flight is Saturday July 21st, direct from IAD to PEK.