China, northern

Here are all the posts for China, northern, the first part of the Himalaya trip. See the travelogues for the other region and countries: Tibet, Nepal, and India.

China, northern Photos

Here are some of my favorite photos from my trip to northern China. Click any photo to see the slideshow.

arrived Beijing to start the Himalaya trip

We made it to Beijing. This computer setup is different. Everything is in Chinese except Internet Explorer which is in Spanish!!!
The flight was very long, about 11 hours. We left Monday morning at our house at about 5 a.m., a fifteen dollar cab ride to the airport (including tip). We arrived at our hotel about 5 p.m. Tuesday afternoon, a fifteen dollar cab ride from the airport (no tip–apparently they don’t believe in tipping here). This was the first flight I’ve been on where they not only announced the time when we landed, but also the day. The flight was delayed an hour, but otherwise uneventful.
Beijing is about 50 degrees latitude, roughly the same as New York City. It’s cool, about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Some trees are starting to bloom. People are friendly. The hotel is clean and nice, the Harmony Hotel.


Beijing is getting ready for the Olympics. Construction and renovation are everywhere. Unfortunately that means the Memorial for Mao is closed as well as the China Museum. Everything is very clean; the people are friendly and patient. The only irritation are the aggresive drivers: be careful walking in the streets.

Goodbye, Beijing

I left Beijing by night train to Xi’an, about a twelve hour ride. I liked Beijing a lot. I saw lots of tourist attractions including:
-Great Wall (twice)
-Forbidden City (twice)
-Tianamen Square
-Temple of Heaven
-Drum and Bell Towers
-Jingshan Park
-Summer Palace
-Lama Temple
-Beijing Opera
-Hutons or old neighborhoods
-Mao’s underground tunnel system (protection against Soviets)
I also ate Peking duck, very good. Also, a rabbit hot pot. The food and service everywhere was good. I would go back and recommend it.

Friday the 20th Update

We are in Xi’an. Tonight we go by night (sleeper??) train to Xiahe. From there we take a six hour bus ride to Labrang. At that point we will be on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau; the people speak a dialect of Tibetan. We will visit a monastery, apparently the most important one outside of Lhasa. The altitude will be about 3500 meters or about 10,000 feet (like Loveland Pass, Colorado).
We saw the Terracota warriors yesterday; amazing what they did 2,000 years ago.

No Internet access until Lhasa on the 27th

I am leaving Xi’an for the countryside and won’t have Internet access for at least a week.
Note, I post with great difficulty. Internet Explorer is in Chinese characters. I am using photos from my point and shoot camera because it can create very small file sizes that are easier to upload. Actually, most of these photos are taken by Dawn. My real photos will have to wait until I return.
I usually cannot access my own website. It is only based on feedback (thank you) that I know it’s still there. I will keep a journal and bring you up to date as I can….


The post office is China Post. The sign above the post office reads:
Ontime mail is Golden.

4 star

4 starThe Chinese apparently like feedback. When we got our passports checked in immigration to China, the agent was working below a huge sign that exorts him to enforce every law and reminds him he serves the passenger. There is an electronic push button with four choices: very satisfied, satisfied, unsatisfied and very unsatisfied. I pushed very satisfied.
At the bank, the teller had the same system. She also had electronic stars. She was a one-star teller but her neighbor had three stars. I pushed very satisfied and she beamed.
There are many public toilets throughout Beijing. Some are very dirty. Others are “Four Star.” They are clean, well-serviced and pleasant. Employees in white lab coats service them.


EnglishAs English-speaking foreigners, we seem somewhat in demand. Our first day, we met two students wile we were walking on the Avenue of Eternal Peace (Dongchanglan Jie), the street that divides the city into north and south. They wanted to practice their English. We had a pleasant time walking together to the Forbidden City and Tinanmen Square. When we said good-bye, I opened my knapsack and pulled out my notepad. A crowd of about a dozen people stopped to watch. I wrote down their names, Kara and Maggie and shook their hands. They were quite suprised about the handshake; it was her first time shaking hands.
Yesterday, a gentleman asked me to pose for a photo. He asked me to put my arm around his girlfriend while the Red Guard marched behind us. Since then, I’ve been asked to pose several times. Chinese have only been able to travel for about five years. They visit from the provinces and take my photo home to show their friends that they met a foreigner.
Later in the day, we met another couple that invited us to tea, so they could practice their English. We had a reservation for the Beijing Opera and declined. Our guide says it is a frequent scam. They take me to a cafe and when it is time to pay the bill, I receive some outrageous charge. I would be unable to report it to the police and would be forced to pay.

Buddhist Lama Temple

Buddhist TempleFive halls and three gates along a north-south axis. Among many large Buddha statues is one certified by the Guiness Book of Records. It is 75 feet tall and carved from a single piece of sandalwood.


We went to see the acrobats at the Beijing Workers Club. The troupe is the Sichuan Grand Circus. A very diverse set of acrobatic feats were performed by male, female and male and female teams. However, the mysterious ‘Change Face’ stole the show. I don’t have a clue how her face abuptly changes masks.

The Great Wall

The Chinese word for “great” in Great Wall focuses on “long.” It is very long, thousands of miles. Until you see it, you really can’t imagine how long it is. We climbed to a watch tower at Badaling; it’s a Chinese stairmaster.


About 7 yuan (after exchange fees) equals 1 U.S. dollar.
100 taxi from airport to downtown
25 usual admission fee
18-380 performance of acrobats, KungFu or Beijing opera for individuals at tourist price
5 soft drink
60-100 dinner for two with tea
160 lunch for two at tourist restaurant above ceramics factory
70 2 coffees at Starbucks
1 one minute of Internet at hotel
5 one hour of Internet up the corner on the second floor where no one speaks English and the signs are all in Chines
3 subway fare
400 all day tour with guide and driver excludding lunch, tolls, admission and tips
3,000 one week in deluxe hotel room

Leaving Xi’an

I’m on the train. It just now is leaving the station. We are in a hard sleeper. It does not mean the beds are hard, although the mattresses are somewhat thin. The bunks go three high and two wide, meaning six people in a compartment. The soft sleepers hold four people. I can seee two of my comrades wrting in their journals.
We are leaving Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors and 12 million people. It was the first capital of China when Emperor “Chin” united China for the first time from 29 fiefdoms. It was Emperor Qui Shi Huangdu (259-210B.C.) that built the warriors and the Great Wall. He also standardized written Chinese calligraphics. Xi’an served as the imperial seat for 12 dynasties over 2,000 years.
Today Xi’an is abuzz with construction of large buildings. Five Starbucks are being opened. Western fashion jeans and T-shirts with silly English phrases are in abundance.
A wall around the city protects the inner city, the Forbidden City. The wall has a flat surface on the top that is easily wide enough for six horse riders. We spent a pleasant time walking around and stopped for a rest and a soft drink. A family was also sitting there. They were quite curious about us and we began to talk. Well, I should not say talk. But we did attempt to communicate. The man and his son were quite determined and asked us questions. We pulled out a Mandarin phrase book and started to work on phrases. We would prounounce the phonetic version and then show them the book for them to repeat the words in Chinese.
It was tedious for both sides. But we established that they were from somewhere else, a place with an unpronouncable name. They were indeed grandma, son, father. We were writing postcards showing the warriors. The family also visited the warriors. We explained that two of the postcards were for birthday greetings. I sang “Happy Birthday” and they knew the song and sang it in Chinese. We looked up the words for Happy Birthday which really turns out to be Birthday Happy. Then we had him write the Chinese characters for birthday happy on the post cards. In the end we gave them our extra postcards and said good-bye.
Then the lights came on at an enormous stage on top of the wall. It was the dress rehearsal for some forum of friendship between Xi’an and Hong Kong. The chorous had 200 people, the orchestra 100. Then about 80 little girls dressed in yellow silk dresses did a dance and recited from books. Another 200 people were waiting to perform. The sound was awesome.
We went to dinner in the Muslim quarter. Xi’an is at the eastern end of the historical Silk Road. Traders from Muslim countries came and settled in Xi’an and are now known as Hui. We had three large kettles boiling away on propane tanks. We selected skewers with vegetables, tofu and a specialty bread. One side of the kettle was tasty; the other was spicy. The kettle sits down in the table with a propane burner at your feet. The beef comes in skewers, lamb on a bone and the fish on a metal plate. We also had a thin bread, nan, with various herbs. The spicy side was very spicy. A piece of lettuce or bok choy that is dripping with boiling sauce is difficult to eat when it is skewered on a stick. It’s almost impossible to cut lamb with chop sticks. Some of the mushrooms were unusual: one had slender mid-sections stretching about 8 inches. On one end was a bulb; on the other something that looked like a flower. It was white. It had an unusual taste, not bad.
The two noodle shops we tried were very tasty with good servie. It’s after 11 now on the train; they wuill turn off the lights soon. They awake us at 7 a.m. We will be in Xiahe. From there we take a six hour ride by bus to Labrang. The monastery there is regarded by Buddhists as the most important outside of Tibet proper (it’s on the Tibetan Plain). Good night.

Mao’s Underground Tunnel

One day while we were walking around the neighboorhoods in Bejing, a man in camoflague pants said, “Mao’s Underground Tunnel.” We had just gotten rid of a rickshaw driver wnating to give us a ride and a man selling fake Rolex watches, so it took a moment to sink in. The entrance looked like any other building on the street. We paid our admission and our personal guide introduced himself. We descended several flights of stairs to a dirt tunnel. A display containing a soldier’s uniform was dimly lit. Our guide requested we not take photos because this was military property. We proceeded to follow a maze of tunnels. They were about eight feet tall and eight feet wide. There was a lot of moisture. In places there were boards and mats to get over the puddles. A single electrical cord ran the length of the ceiling with a small voltage bulb every 100 feet or so.
Occasionally our guide would point out barricaded doors and say where they led to. One went to the Summer Palace. We were somewhere southeast of Tinaamen Square; that’s a forty minute cab ride. Our guide explained tht Mao ordered the tunnels built during the time of conflict with the U.S.S.R. The tunnels were designed to hold 300,000 people. Our guide said they had never been used and conceded that because of the dampness, many people would have gotten sick and probably died in the tunnels.
At the end of our tour, we entered a large underground command center. Now it is a silk factory. They showed us two types of silk worms and had us test the strength of raw silk. We joined a team of ladies stretching silk on a 4×6 foot frame. And, yes, they had silk products for sale. We bought chop sticks in silk envelopes.
We entered the daylight and looked behind us. No sign of a tunnel. The huotongs or neighborhoods are a maze of streets, alleys and dead ends. These were reportedly designed for urban guerilla warfare.

Chinese Breakfast Buffet, Lanzhou

After our train ride we went to a breakfast buffet. Cost, 10 yuan. It included tea. Foods: dumplings of meat and vegetable, pasta, hard-boiled eggs, a variety of breads and pastries, pickled vegetables (mushrooms, beets and other unknown), fish pate (?), soups of chicken egg drop and rice mush and a variety of other unknown items. The pickled beets(?) were long , slender, purple and very crunchy. There was some kind of pickled white root in a spicy hot slimy red sauce that I did not like.

Chinese Vitality

The history of China is encapsulated in Xi’an. Emperors from as early as 259 B.C. built cities here. No less than 12 imperial dynasties followed. Each successive emperor built upon his forefathers. But typically, not as an addition. They tore down the old and built the new.
This tradition continues in modern China. Under Mao TseTung, the official buildings in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing were all torn down to create Tian Amen Square. Additionally the city wall was demolished to open the city up. Everywhere in Beijing today, the old neighborhoods, the Huotongs, are being demolished and replaced with tightly packed, efficient high rise apartment buildings. Reportedly, the residents miss their old homes for a while but appreciate indoor plumbing.
On the Tibertan plateau, nomads traditionally have a winter home and a summer home. The summer homes are in the mountains. The nomads move their yak herds to higher pastures in Spring and live in the Black Tent ( a tent built from the skin of the dark colored yak). The government is replacing the winter homes. They have built brick row homes into kind of a village and want the nomads to live their. They have communal toilets.
In the valley of the Banbe River that flows into Chengdu, the government is totally overhauling the entire valley. Everywhere mining and construction heavy equipment machinery line the banks and bluffs of the gorge. In certain areas, the entire mountainside on both sides of the river are being covered with rocks and rip rap. Huge cranes are digging gravel out of the river to create a deep center course. Further downstream, no less that a half-dozen locks and hydroelectric stations are under construction.
Reportedly 100 hydroelectric dams are now under consturction. The largest is the Three Gorges Dam which displace 1.1 million people. The reservoir is 60% full and will take eight years to fill. The people that built the Great Wall are now totally rebuilding their country.

Why Terracota Warriors?

Emperor “Chin” (Qin Shhi Huangdi, 259-210 B.C.) believed, as his counterparts believed, that upon death his soul would go underground and be alive underground. He wanted to take it all with him. The statues are exact replicas of his soldiers. His generals, officers and men would protect him in death as well as in life. Others were less fortunate. To keep the site location secret, all the workers were slain. Additionally, upon his death, his 3,000 concubines were slain and buried with him.

Train to Lhasa

The railway to Lhasa from Beijing was recently opened with considerable fanfare. Many people have an interest in riding it. Tickets are sold by reservation exclusively through Chinese tourism agencies. But tickets are unavailable. Tickets can sometimes be bought at the train station depending upon availability.The government is encouraging Chinese from overpopulated areas to resettle in Lhasa. But the Chinese families are reluctant. They want to visit their families twice a year during the holiday season. The train now gives them an economial way to do that. It is not a tourist train. If it were, prices would go up and seats would not be available to ordinary Chinese.

Honking Bus

The bus driver honks whenever he passes a vehicle, usually before, during and after. He honks to warn the pedestrians standing in the highway lane, leaning on their dirt bikes and conversing. He honks using several different pitches in a vain attempt to hurry yaks, sheep and horses off the road. He honks at the drivers of oncoming buses and trucks to greet them. He honks as though he were playing a video game; he honks at anything that moves.
He seems a happy and contented driver. Maybe he honks because he enjoys driving a bus full of foreigners into the Tibetan Plains and mountainsides.

Grasslands to Chengdu

We had a long and bumby descent from Thankor to Chengdu. We drove for five hours the first day and another seven hours the next. We descended from about 3400 meters to roughly sea level. We followed a gorge of the Ganka River that was full f construction. They were building dams, power plants, roads and bridges. We spent a short night at a hotel in Gou ErGou. They had hot water. The gorge had steep mountain walls. The river and surrounding mountain walls are so tornup, I think it will take at least twenty years for nature to begin to restore the area. I hope they have a plan for restoring the habitat.

Sizchuan hot pot

We spent one night in ChengDu at the ShuFeng Hotel. It was a very nice hotel with a contemporary design and all amenities. We went to dinner to have hot pot. ChengDu means “perfect metropolis” and is the capital of Sichuan Province. It has about 12 million people and is very diverse culturally and economically.
They love hot, spicy food. We went to a busy restaurant specializing in hot pot. We sat next to the window at a table with a large flame thrower in the center. We were the only ones who spoke English; our three waitresses spoke Chinese. They had (kind of) an English menu. Our first choice was what kind of stock: pig’s feet or carp. We ordered about a dozen items. They brought a large cauldron with the carp. In the center was the mild stock and the outside circle was red and spicy. Our three waitresses brought out tray after tray of food. They fired up the flame thrower and brought the stock to a boil.
They started by putting the meat in. The thinly sliced beef was delicious. They taught me an advanced chopstick technique for getting the meat out of the stock. Passerbys outside stopped to watch the waitresses teach us how to cook and eat hot pot. My first reaction was the hot spicy part was not nearly as hot or spicy as I anticipated. Then we moved on to the mushrooms, bok choy, bean sprouts and lots of vegetables.
Maybe because the boiling stock was becoming more concentrated or maybe because the effect of the pepper was cumulative, but I took off my long-sleeve shirt and sweat was beading up on my forehead. I think the stock had a lot of sesame oil in it and it initially tempered the spiciness. The grand finale was sweet potato linguine. The dough was apparently a magnet for spice because my entire mouth and stomach went on fire. The following morning I could still taste the hot pot. I must say I enjoyed it and would definitely have it again.


We drove most of the day about six hours from Tingri to the border town of Zhangmu. On the way we drove over two high passes over 5,000 meters. At the last one, our guide said, Good-bye, Tibet. The wind was blowing hard; we had our hats, gloves and down jackets on. Before us was an array of mountain peaks covered with clouds. There were several automatic prayer wheels, meaning the prayer wheels had been equipped with fins or cups so they rotated by themselves in the wind. The top of the pass was strung with the now familiar prayer flags, cotas and related colorful debris. Beyond the mountains was a valley. The wind and clouds blew up from the valley.
Good-bye, Tibet. We drove into the valley and descended at a rapid pace. The dry rock, sand and stone gave way to vegetation and water. We began to see birds. Farmers had green crops growing on their plots. There was the never ending road construction, but now there was heavy equipment.
We plummeted furter and it began to rain, a slow drizzle. I could feel my sinuses relax as they soaked in the humidity. The road followed a deep gorge. Mist and fog covered verdant, green peaks. Eventually we made it to Zhangmu, a small border town clinging to the side of the cliff.
We stayed at a guesthouse. In the morning, we had breakfast and got in line to go through Chinese customs. Our Jeep drivers took us as far as they could. We hiked the remaining 5 kilometers into Nepal.

One Time Zone

All of China from east to west, from Beijing to Zhangmu is on one time zone. In Tibet, people tend to wake up late and stay up late according to the clock, because it gets light and stays light later. Nepal is 2 hours and 15 minutes later than China. India is 15 minutes later than Nepal.

Good-bye, China

As I leave China, I have mixed feelings. I really liked the country and the people. But the whole experience is tainted by the Tibetan situation. Also, the Tibetan situation provides insight into the political process in China more generally.
Everywhere I went in China, people were friendly and open. They work incredibly hard. Having unleashed capitalism and focused on infrastructure development, the entire country feels something like a country comng out of an economic depression . In some geographic areas, there is a boom town mentality. The food and cultural heritage is diverse, interesting and appealing.
Tibet feels like an occupied country, one that is being dismantled and reconstructed as a Chinese appendage. The old country has been geographically divided up and parts assimilated into other provinces. In Lhasa, the capital, Chinese (Han) outnumber Tibetans 2:1. The Tibetans are very different from the Chinese in appearance, dress, language, food, religion and temperment. On one hand, I think, Well, it’s been 50 years, Tibetans, forget it. Accept the political reality and move on. On the other hand, I think, it’s just not right.

In Lhasa, on May Day, at the Summer Palace, the Tibetans were performing an opera under a canopy. They were dressed in folk clothes and singing folk songs. A very large Chinese policeman, well over six-foot marched around the dancers along the periphery of the audience. He wore a crash helmet, dark sunglasses, a baton stick and boots. I felt intimidated. A small detachment of officers stood in between the stage and rehearsal room.
For long periods of time, I could not access my eMail or website. It worked fine when I first entered China. An acquaintance said he received a “Free Tibet” eMail and his eMail was down for days. When attempting to access her eMail, Dawn received a message saying it was blocked. I am posting this outside China and would not send this post while in China.
When we went through a Police Checkpoint, our party was detained for a couple of hours. I am unsure of the reason, but a Chinese officer scolded our Tibetan driver for most of that time. He waved his forefinger in the driver’s face.
A member of a farming community in Tibet told me half the crops he grows go to the army.
An army of 300,000 resides In Shigatse, a city in Tibet,.
After the “Free Tibet” incident at Everest Base Camp, they moved the Base Camp vendors away from the area and added camps for two detachments of Chinese.
To do business in China, I understand you must partner with the government. Half the profits go to the government. But the government is the local official who is typically a Chinese Communist Party member.
I am just a tourist. I am not a Sinologist. I don’t know how it works. Perhaps I spoke with the wrong people and drew incorrect implicatons. I know I better appreciate U.S. style transparency in government. Despite the economic progress, I am suspicious of the goernment, sad for the Tibetans and concerned for the future of the world. Cellhpones, movies, and Internet are changing the way the Cihinese think, I believe that is unstoppable.

Himalaya Top 10

map Himalaya routeI am somewhere off the coast of Greenland as I write this. Our B-777 left Delhi about midnight; it’s now 11:30 a.m. Delhi time. We have about 2 1/2 hours more flying time to Newark. I arrive in Charleston about 30 hours after leaving Delhi. It was a great trip; the Top Ten are:
EverestEverest Base Camp in Tibet
homestay with Tibetan nomads

pilgrim stempede in Jokhang Temple

Tianamen Square and Beijing

Labrang Yellow Hat Monkschanting monks at Kirti Gompa in Langmusi

Temple of Heaven

Temple of HeavenHistoric building in Beijing. This Altar of Heaven was the location for annual prayer ceremonies for a good harvest.

Beijing, Photos

Here are photos of Beijing including the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square, Temple of Heaven, and the Drum Tower.