Saturday, October 23, 2004

China in Tibet: A Sad Chapter of Human History

China is killing Tibet.

Tibet has a long circuitous history, but its most harrowing chapter is recent. On October 7, 1950, under the direction of Chairman Mao Zedong, 30,000 experienced communist Chinese troops attacked Tibet under the guise of “Liberation.” The Tibetan Army - 4,000 poorly equipped, poorly trained troops - had little hope of defending a country the size of Western Europe. This Chinese “Liberation,” and the ensuing social madness known as the Cultural Revolution, led to the death of 1.2 million Tibetans, the destruction of 6,254 Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, 100,000 Tibetans in Chinese labor camps, and the flight of Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to India. The Tibetan Buddhist way of life was outlawed, monks and nuns were persecuted, and the compassionate Buddhist mantra of “Om Mani Padme Hum” (translation: Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus) was replaced by the phrase “Long Live Chairman Mao.” In 30 years, Tibet became a land of desolation and destruction.

The destruction continues to this day. Instead of artillery and bombs, China’s current weapon of choice is immigration. China has encouraged hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to immigrate to Tibet, through various incentives, tax breaks, and a relaxation of the fabled one-child policy. What started as a slow trickle has turned into a torrent, and the Tibetan culture is disappearing fast. It is cultural genocide.

Evidence of this is everywhere. Chinese military patrol the holy pilgrimage circuits. Closed circuit cameras monitor the monks at monasteries. The most important holy Buddhist sites are now fronted by expansive Chinese squares (modeled after Tiannemen), and large Chinese compounds front the streets in all Tibetan cities. In Lhasa, the original Tibetan area of town has been reduced to a small sector, flanked on all sides by sprawling Chinese strip malls.

It is only a matter of time until Tibetan culture disappears entirely, swallowed by the red giant that is communist China.

Check out the China-Tibet Photo Gallery for a few examples.

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Friday, October 22, 2004

Ganden Monastery

The Gelugpa sect of Buddhism is traditionally one of the most important in Tibet. The Gelugpa gave rise to the Dalai Lama, and has been the spiritual beacon of Tibetan Buddhism since the early 1400s. The original Gelugpa monastery is located at Ganden, 40 kilometers northeast of Lhasa, on a high alpine peak at 14,760 feet.

Because of its spiritual and political influence, the Ganden Monastery suffered greatly at the hands of China’s Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. China strafed Ganden with artillery fire and heavy bombs in 1959, and again in 1966. Nevertheless, Ganden has persevered as an important Buddhist center in Tibet, and reconstruction continues to this day.

We visited Ganden with our new Dutch friends Edith and Maarten. As the sun came up over the spectacular Kyi-chu Valley, we walked the holy kora with groups of praying pilgrims. As the chants of monks drifted up the mountainside from the great assembly hall, we walked passed the holy sky burial platforms, and beneath the ever-present prayer flags. Although Ganden has suffered greatly, we found a Buddhist culture that is still thriving despite China’s efforts to destroy it.

Enjoy the Ganden Monastery Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Ganden Kora video.

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Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Forbidden City

For centuries, foreigners dreamt of a magical place called Shangri-La. Rumors of the holy mountain kingdom of Tibet, with its mystical city-in-the-clouds, Lhasa, lured explorers far and wide. Yet, as the devout Tibetans felt the world at their doorstep, they locked the doors and threw away the keys. Although a handful of visitors made it to Lhasa during the past two centuries, the Forbidden City remained heavily veiled until Tibet was opened to foreigners in 1986.

Walking down the streets of Lhasa is an unforgettable experience. Pilgrims hustle around the holy koras (devotional pilgrimage circuits), spinning their ever-moving prayer wheels, and occasionally prostrating (repeatedly standing, kneeling, and then lying face down on the ground, with eyes closed, praying to Buddha). Men haggle over huge hind-quarters of raw yak meat stacked high on the sidewalk. Monks gather in groups, chanting Buddhist mantras. Nomads from the high plateau gaze at the Potala in awe, the fur on their hats waving in the wind. Vendors hawk everything from Tibetan prayer flags to jewel-encased yak skulls to fake North Face Jackets. The mind can’t possibly absorb it all.

To make matters worse, sounds and smells assault the senses. Wafting incense mixes with the smell of beggars, yak-oil cooking, raw sewage, and the ever-present yak-butter lamps. The peaceful chanting of prayer is routinely drowned out by blaring low-fidelity Chinese music, the constant honking of car horns, the ringing of pedicab bells, and the yelling of street vendors in both Tibetan and Mandarin.

Lhasa sits at 11,800 feet, in a high valley surrounded by towering mountains. The crown of Lhasa is the immense ochre and whitewashed Potala Palace soaring high over the center of the city. Over 400 years old, the Potala is traditionally the home to the spiritual leader of all Tibetan Buddhists, the Dalai Lama. Since the Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet, the Potala sits dormant, a sobering museum-relic and constant reminder of the high altitude country’s troubled times.

In contrast, the spiritual heart of the city, the Jokhang, hums with activity just a few blocks away. The Jokhang is the most revered and active of Tibet’s temples. It is encased by the Barkhor, Tibet’s most famous holy pilgrimage circuit. The Barkhor is a constant river of motion, as thousands of pilgrims flow clockwise around the cobbled circuit at all hours of the day. While the masses swirl around the Barkhor, the front of the Jokhang turns into a massive sea of worship, with pilgrims prostrating for hours on end. Chants mix with incense and the smell of burning yak butter, before drifting away in the high mountain air.

Lhasa may not the magical place it was once reputed to be. Tibet’s troubles are well known, and our impression of the current situation deserves its own post in the future. However, Lhasa is still one of the most amazing places we have ever been. The Tibetan people and culture are so remarkable, and the mystique and history of Tibet is so amazing, that we feel very fortunate to see Tibet with our own eyes before it is completely assimilated into Chinese culture.

Enjoy the Lhasa, Tibet Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the video of prostrating pilgrims.

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Saturday, October 16, 2004

Change is in the Air

Although we are only a few weeks into our trip, we are already deviating from the plan. According to our itinerary, we should be in Nepal. However, Nepal suddenly finds itself on the brink of civil war. For the past decade, Maoist insurgents have been rebelling against the government. It has been quite safe for tourists, however, as both sides need tourism $$ to survive. In the last 10 years, over 9,000 Nepalese have died, but not a single tourist. The Maoists have periodically exhibited some annoying habits, however, such as extorting tourists for money, closing down all travel within the country for days on end (known as “bandhs”), and blowing up buildings (strangely, the Maoists have made a practice of entering the chosen building beforehand and announcing the impending explosion…“So, could you please gather your things and leave as soon as possible?”). There has been a U.S. State Department travel warning for years because of this conflict. However, many folks we know have safely visited Nepal, and everyone has consistently said tourists are safe. That is, until quite recently.

In mid-September (just a few weeks after we bought our non-refundable plane tickets) the conflict suddenly escalated, and both the U.S. Embassy and the Peace Corps pulled all personnel from Nepal. In addition, reasonable countries such as Canada and Australia have now for the first time ever also made urgent travel warnings. There has recently been, for the first time, anti-American rhetoric from the Maoists, in part because the Bush administration just gave millions of dollars to the Nepalese government to fight the Maoists, and in part because of the recent deaths of nine Nepalese in Iraq (all Iraq-related problems are attributed to America’s meddling). Although there are still tourists going to Nepal (we have met many), we have decided that the risks for us are too great to spend the 3-4 weeks we planned there. This is quite sad for us, as it was going to be one of the highlights of the trip.

So we are turning lemons into lemonade as they say, and, after an enormous amount of bureaucratic red tape, financial burden, visas, permits, hoops, and the like, we have ultimately (and unbelievably) arrived in Tibet! We started by traveling deeper into China to reach Chengdu, one of essentially only two gateway cities to Tibet. From there, we flew into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.

After seeing the many sights Lhasa has to offer, our current plan is to hire a Land Cruiser, driver, and guide, and drive over the border to Nepal next week, taking the slow scenic route (approximately 7-8 days) over the Friendship Highway, long considered one of the great journeys of the world. The route will take us though the heart of the highest mountains on the planet, through wonderful small villages, and past historic monasteries. As a side trip we plan to make it to the Tibetan Everest Base Camp (17,056' - on the north side of the mountain). It will be spectacular.

We need to go to Kathmandu to pick up our existing plane tickets to India. This new plan will minimize our time in Nepal (90% of the Friendship Highway is in Tibet), yet allow us to resume our itinerary. We deeply regret that we will miss most of Nepal and not get to complete the trek we had initially planned, but thus far Tibet has been everything we had hoped and more.

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Thursday, October 14, 2004

When Pandas Ruled The World

China is known for many things, but none are more endearing than the Giant Panda. Chengdu is home to the Chinese National Panda Breeding Center. With only 1,000 Giant Pandas left in the wild, centers like this one represent the future hopes of this species. With 600 stunningly beautiful acres, and dozens of wonderful Pandas (including adults, cubs, and red pandas), the Panda center in Chengdu is one of China’s national treasures.

Giant Pandas are extremely difficult to breed successfully in captivity. Assisted reproductive techniques are required to propagate the species (go IVF!). Chengdu is perhaps the largest breeding center in the world and is currently the home of 41 Giant Pandas. For comparison, the U. S. has tried to breed pandas 5 or 6 times, each unsuccessful, and we currently have zero living Giant Pandas. You can see why Giant Pandas are the pride of China.

Enjoy the Panda Photo Gallery.

Enjoy the Panda Videos:
Two Pandas Eating.*
Playful Cub.
More of the Playful Cub.
One Panda Eating.

*Large file could take a while to load.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Some Like It Hot

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan Province in Central China. It is a surprisingly green, sprawling city of more than 11 million people, and one of the few cities in China that seems to be somewhat prosperous economically. However, Chengdu, and indeed the entire Sichuan Province, is really known for one thing – kick-ass spicy food.

We want to experience this ourselves, so we set out from our hotel with vague directions to a traditional Sichuan neighborhood with good restaurants. With a fair amount of dumb luck, we stumble onto a street filled with eating establishments. Every sign is in Mandarin, all of the restaurants look roughly similar, and nobody speaks a word of English, so we pick the most crowded restaurant one the block, and boldly walk on in.

We arrange for a table without too much trouble, and then the fun begins. There is no menu, and there is no English being spoken anywhere near this joint, so we go with the flow. 2 beers are ordered with a combination of pointing and our pathetic broken Mandarin phrases – a good start. Without any further communication, a huge divided cauldron is brought to us, and placed on a propane burner in the center of our table. One side of the cauldron contains a clearish broth, while the other holds a mottled dark red sauce. The burner is ignited, and each side starts to simmer, and then to boil.

With our astute deduction and observation skills, we determine that food items are to be placed into these boiling hot liquids and cooked before our very eyes. Since we are in the land of beaks and claws, it is clear that we should go the vegetable route. So, while other tables ply their Sichuan hot pot with all types of nefarious meat on a stick, we manage to explain to someone that we are vegetarian (not exactly true, but effective in this situation). The hostess then points to a list of items written on her clipboard in Chinese, as if to ask us which vegetables we like. With no idea what the list says, we indicate we will try them all.

Eight plates of fresh cut vegetables are brought to our table, and we are able to successfully recognize only one - cauliflower. No matter. Without hesitation we each pick one, and plunge them into the boiling oil with our chopsticks. Well, my friends, I am here to say that submerging anything in boiling liquid with chopsticks is no picnic. And since we are the only vegetarian idiots in the entire restaurant, the aforementioned astute observation skills are not particularly helpful in determining the propriety of our methods.

Fortunately, we have eight members of the esteemed wait staff surrounding our table, watching us generally make spectacles of ourselves. While seven of these fellows appear to greatly enjoy our predicament, one takes pity and comes to our rescue (much to the dismay of the remaining happy onlookers). We quickly learn that one drops many of the various vegetables into the torrid liquids at one time, and then later scoops them out for dining purposes. After helping us on the cooking front, he also shows us how to add heaps of salt and MSG to the garlic-oil dipping sauce. It is still not clear if this is done to make amends and further entertain the peanut gallery, of if this is actually proper Sichuan dining custom.

While the veggies are cooking, we have a chance to stir the sauces in the much-revered cauldron. The red sauce is clearly going to cause pain, as it is loaded with both chopped and whole chili peppers. The clear broth on the other hand surprises us when it reveals a few vegetables that we had not added, AND an entire fish – head, tail, and skin. Now this is getting interesting.

With the audience still watching, we start scooping out our veggies. The red sauce is wicked-hot, but unbelievably good. The fish broth is (surprisingly?) amazing too, but its best to let the fish lounge at the bottom of the cauldron – too many weird looks from his rolling eye balls could spoil a guy’s appetite. Heck, even the MSG-garlic-oil works well, although the post meal headache is a bitch.

This is a truly amazing meal. The food is out of this world, and the experience unsurpassed. As we happily enjoy Sichuan cuisine, the staring-squad gradually dissipates. Apparently, once we figure out the process, we become much less interesting. A second round of beer is ordered (this is getting easy), and we eat more than two people should. Mouths on fire, bellies full, and flush with the cultural experience (or maybe just from sitting over a piping-hot burner for two hours), we wait contentedly for the check. It arrives with much of the staring-squad in tow, hoping to say good-bye to the crazy Westerners. With fond feelings we wish everyone well, and pay our bill.

What was the damage for this amazing meal and two rounds of beer?

Seven U.S. dollars.

Dining in the Third World does have its advantages.

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Monday, October 11, 2004

Whoa, Yangshuo

The Yangshuo recipe:

- 1 part traditional Chinese fishing village
- 1 part westernized mountain town
- 2 parts stunning Karst topography
- 1 part kitschy resort town
- a liberal dash of hip western music
- two pinches of ancient Chinese customs
- a heaping pile of international tourists

Whip all ingredients into froth, and simmer for years in the Post-Mao communist China pressure cooker.

Yangshuo is trippy. Walk down the streets here, and your senses will head into overdrive. The café on the left is blaring Eminem, while the one across the street grooves to Bing’s Winter Wonderland. Street hawkers sell everything from bicycle tours to bananas, and they find you wherever you go.
Climbing gyms punctuate the scene, and international groups of climbers lounge around drinking Red Bull and Vodka. Cafés tout menus that have everything from banana pancakes to lasagna bolognese to roasted bamboo rat.

Tour groups periodically tramp in unison down the street in matching hats, getting explanations from their guide in the language du jour. Ancient cormorant fishermen walk the streets with their trained birds balanced on sections of bamboo. Guesthouses advertise dirt-cheap rooms in both Chinese and English, and every café has the coldest beer in town.

All of this is set amidst towering limestone pinnacles, and against the backdrop of impoverished rural China. Yangshuo is groovy, hip, educational, funky, sobering, eye opening, and fun. It is one of the strangest places we have ever been, yet we like it. As odd as it is, the recipe works.

Enjoy the Yangshuo Photo Gallery.*

*Warning to animal lovers (and those with weak stomachs): some food item photos are a little grim. View at your own risk!

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Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Journey

"You like boat ride to Yangshuo? River very beautiful."

This was our introduction to "Mike," a very earnest entrepreneur, who wanted to take us from Guilin to Yangshuo by boat. Having just completed 24-hours of travel from Hong Kong to Guilin, including several bus rides and a bus-car fender-bender, the thought of another bus was rather repulsive. Mike had himself some customers.

The group included five British friends from the train, and us. After we paid for the boat trip, Mike ushered us into a restaurant for breakfast while he set off to find - what else - a bus, for the “quick ride” to the dock. Eventually, Mike showed up with a rusting mini-bus, into which we all climbed, thankful to be on our way at last. Mike looked pleased, and we were relaxed, as we looked forward to floating down the river in a few minutes.

After an hour of twisting dirt roads, we reached the boat-less dock. As Mike hurriedly shouted into his mobile phone, we contented ourselves with the stunning views of the Karst topography for which the region is famous. Twenty minutes later, Mike ushered us onto a small, ramshackle boat, complete with a surly, chain-smoking captain. Although we were shaking our heads at Mike’s organization and planning, everyone was ecstatic at the upcoming boat trip down the stunning Li River.

Half an hour later, the boat shut down its smoke-belching engine, and we approached a much bigger craft. Without explanation, Mike told us that we would be switching boats for the rest of the trip. Since the new boat was clearly an upgrade, nobody questioned this, and we clambered aboard. Things were looking up.

Yet, only 40 minutes later, the new boat pulled to a gentle stop on a sloping sand bar next to two traditional Chinese bamboo rafts. Mike explained: “We now take bamboo raft. You no pay extra.” Clearly, this was supposed to be a treat for us. With little choice, we climbed down on to the rafts under the watch of the two Chinese boatmen waiting to pole us down the river.

Although we were a little frustrated with our friend Mike, the bamboo float trip was amazing. We quietly floated down the river between soaring limestone pinnacles, greeting the local fishermen, and snacking on fresh cut local fruit. This was much better than the loud, belching boats we had utilized earlier.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and our rafts soon inexplicably landed near the village of Xingping (pronounced Shingping), many miles north of our destination. When queried about this sudden stop, Mike explained for the first time that we would be taking a bus the rest of the way. Having learned that we would never understand Mike, we looked around at rough dirt road running through rural China, and simply asked where the bus was. “Only 10 minute walk,” came the response.

So walk we did, carrying our full packs, and chatting with Mike about the area (interesting fact: the picture on the Chinese 20 Yuan bill is from Xingping). 25 minutes later, we reached the center of Xingping, and boarded a minibus for what we hoped would be the final leg of our journey. Eventually the bus lurched to life and we drove the final 30 km stretch into Yangshuo.

The journey was long, circuitous, frustrating, and difficult. It was also peaceful, dazzling, educational, and unique. Mike wasn’t much of a businessman in the American sense. We had no organization, no disclosure, and little explanation for the method to the madness. Yet, Mike understands one thing – the Journey is as important as the destination. He provided an experience that could never have been duplicated on a slick, organized tour boat. Mike wasn’t perfect, but we are glad we met him.

Enjoy the photos of our journey to Yangshuo.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Hong Kong Phooey

HK has been good to us, but it is time to hit the road. Seeing the gatherings of Amahs (the Cantonese word for maid) on the streets Sunday reinforced the fact that HK is not representative of Asia (Amahs are maids -- mostly Filipino women that work six days a week for rich HK families. Sunday is their day off, and they gather by the thousands in the streets to socialize). High finance and high fashion have their place, but we came to see the real Asia. Stay tuned. We will let you know what we find.

Enjoy the Complete Hong Kong Photo Gallery.

Check out the Video of fireworks over Victoria Harbour.*

*Large file - may take a long time to load.

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Sunday, October 03, 2004


Hong Kong wants to be everything to all people. Modern and quaint. Sleek and charming. Elegant and kitschy. As chaotic as that sounds, it works. You want the latest digital camera? Check. The newest trends in fashion? Check. How about a dried lizard on a stick? Check. The world’s largest Cantonese city has it all.

Sparkling office towers scrape the sky, amidst run down tenements and open-air markets. Creaky old trolleys jockey with German and British sports cars for position, while hoards of giant double-decker buses ply the crowded roads. Modern glass and steel reflect ancient Chinese customs in their sharply angled facades.

The urban landscape is dotted with palm-lined parks, and surrounded by steep peaks dripping with tropical foliage. Butterflies, birds, dragonflies, and turtles bask in the sun, while blocks away, traditional Chinese markets sell exotic insects and animal parts as aphrodisiacs, medicine, and food.

We set out today to explore two vibrant neighborhoods on opposite ends of the spectrum: Central is the high finance and business district, while Shueng Wan is a little bit of old Shanghai. We started in Shueng Wan, and walked through streets lined with herbal and exotic medicine shops, bird nest soup markets, and antique and curio stores. Although Shueng Wan is an old-style Cantonese neighborhood, the fingers of juxtaposition reach here as well, as global chain stores are starting to squeeze out the traditional.

After exploring the open-air markets of Cat Street in Shueng Wan we walked east to the glimmering towers of Central. The opposite of Shueng Wan, Central is all about image. This is the land of consumerism, high fashion, and modern architecture. Yet within the concrete jungle exist several tropical sanctuaries, including the oddly fascinating and surprisingly beautiful Hong Kong Park.

Although not always positive, this juxtaposition may have its place. Although it is unfortunate to have a Starbucks and an Outback Steakhouse across the street from our guesthouse in HK, diversity is always good. The racial, economic, and cultural mix in HK has allowed it to survive, despite centuries of political instability and uncertainty. As a capitalist Lilliputian at the foot of a communist giant, HK has managed to thrive, and it has been a refuge for millions in the process. Diversity and juxtaposition have been an important part of that, and despite the cultural erosion caused by the influx of foreign influences, the union of different stimuli seems to be crucial to the continued success of HK.

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Saturday, October 02, 2004


Hong Kong hums. It’s New York on uppers; LA condensed. This is where East meets West, and everybody is reveling in the vibe.

The streets are a bouillabaisse of Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, with a spice of Euro-flair. The sidewalks barely contain the throng of humanity; the crosswalks are 40-feet wide to accommodate the masses. High fashion, gourmet food, and exclusive shopping mingle with discount mobile phones, Mao trinkets, and Hello Kitty. In HK, night becomes day under the blinding glare of neon and halogen, and the energy is palpable.

We arrived in HK last night after a 13-hour plane flight from Vancouver, and 25 hours door-to-door. It was raining, hot, and muggy, and the streets were literally packed elbow-to-elbow with locals doing their thing. The scene was mind-blowing. We went to sleep.

This morning the feel was different, as though the giant lay sleeping. Groups practiced Tai Chi in the park, street vendors quietly arranged their wares, and birds chirped near the mouth of Causeway Bay. Yet the giant was not dormant for long. Soon, the seven-plus-million residents amped-up, and HK once-again roared to life.

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