21 February 2007

Notes For Beijing To Lhasa Train Travelers & Tibet Travel Advise

• Entering Tibet
o My travel agency – CITS. My agent – Peggy Yu (yuyh@scits.com). She speaks perfect English.
o It is next to impossible anymore to enter Tibet as an independent traveler. Most travel books will tell you it’s possible through Chengdu, but that has not been my experience. You can join a tour in Chengdu, which does make it possible, but somewhat stressful.
o You must be part of a tour group (large or private) to get Tibet entrance approval, especially if you plan to take the train from Beijing or Shanghai to Lhasa. It costs 50 kuai (about $7) and MUST be arranged by an approved travel agent. I recommend CITS, China’s “official” travel agency. They are also able to book train tickets departing from multiple locations, as you are restricted at the train station to only tickets departing from that location. Rarely can you buy a return ticket. Also, tickets usually only go on sale three to ten days before departure and they sell out fast. CITS is able to buy tickets before this three to ten day window, which is another bonus.
o Basically, contact a travel agent, give them your preferred dates of travel and a photocopy of your passport and visa and let them take care of everything. Trust me, I spent two weeks speaking with about a dozen different people on how I could organize this trip by myself (I am a very independent traveler) and had no luck.

• For The Train Don’t Forget…
o A Towel – They are not supplied to you, though all linens are.
o Tissues – There are very few in the toilet.
• There are three classes of travel – Soft sleeper, Hard sleeper, and Soft Seat.
o Soft Sleeper is four people sharing one cabin, TVs in every bunk, linens provided, power outlets and room-to-room climate control. There are three sinks (with hot water) in every car, as well as two toilets – one squatter and one western. This option costs 1262 kuai, roughly $161 US.
o Hard Sleeper is six people sharing one cabin (stacked three high with no room to sit up on the second and third bunks). Again, linens are provided but no TVs and no room-to-room climate control. The sink and toilet facilities are the same, but no hot water.
o Soft Seat is comparable to economy class seating on an airplane. People are six to a row, three on each side of the aisle. No lines. No TVs. No climate control. No laying down. People standing in the aisle (they purchased a standing ticket). The sink and toilet facilities are the same, but no hot water and they’re shared by three times as many people.
o All sleepers and seats are equipped with oxygen outlets for when the train begins its accent to 15000 feet.

• In Tibet…
o Make sure to stay in “Old Tibet.” Almost everything happens in this very small part of town. It is home to Jokhang Temple & The Barkhor Market, not to mention countless outdoors shops and backpacker restaurants.
• Accommodation Recommendations:
• Going Cheap – Pentoc Guesthouse
• A Real Hotel – ShangBaLa Hotel or the Yak Hotel.
• Internet Is Readily Available. Try The Yak Hotel For Great Conditions and Dirt Cheap Prices (5 Yuan, or about 60 cents US an hour).
• As far as eating is concerned, there are a number of cheap restaurants that serve Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, & Western cuisine all in the same place. If you buy a package deal, do not include lunch and dinner. Save that money and eat on your own. We included our meals and ended up not using half of them because they were all in our hotel. Where’s the fun in that?
• Restaurant Recommendations:
o New Mandala Restaurant – They serve pretty much anything and everything your heart might desire. Try their Chicken Tikka with Butter Naan.
o Dunya – French cuisine (only open in the spring and summer).
o Tashi #1 – The best Yak burger in town.
o Dicos – Tibetan McDonald’s. Don’t eat a meal here, but at least take a peek. Interesting cultural studies piece.
• Why know detailed location info on these places? As I said, the downtown hotspot area (just go to the Barkhor Market and you’re right in the middle of it) is no more than five blocks long and literally one block wide. You’ll see these places, I promise.

• Note For Winter Travelers – Tibet is really geared for April to October travel. A number of sites and restaurants are closed November to March, particularly around Tibetan New Year. There is a benefit, of course. You get to celebrate with the people in the streets. The fireworks and mayhem were easily one of the ten most incredible events I’ve ever experienced, period.

20 February 2007

Free Tibet, And Then Some

Only three days here and I’m really starting to see why Richard Gere and Sandra Bernhard are so committed to the Tibet issue (and why Brad Pitt would have spent seven years here). While Lhasa is fascinating and there are no words to describe the country’s (yes, I called it a country) beauty, the more I learn the angrier I seem to become. Actually, I think it’s more disappointment than anything. I came to China and fell in love with the people, the culture and the energy, but what China has done to Tibet is despicable and unforgivable. Every place, sign and street has a story that somehow involves oppression.

It started when we first arrived and I noticed that the store signs were trilingual – Tibetan, Chinese and English. Impressive, yes, but on closer inspection I noticed that the Tibetan (the native language of about 95% of Lhasa’s population) was written in extremely tiny characters along the top of the sign. The Chinese characters were ENORMOUS and the English was slightly smaller than the Chinese. “Oh, it is law that all store signs must have Chinese characters in the center and they must be at least twice as large as the Tibetan,” Diki told me. Super. Then it was the street signs. When China “liberated” (that’s what the Chinese and all their historic records call the fifty-year period when Chinese soldiers entered Tibet and ransacked every Buddhist structure except the Potola Palace. We might call it “conquered” or “brutally destroyed” but hey, “liberated” works too) Tibet in 1959 they renamed every street in Lhasa to something very “revolutionary” like “Beijing Avenue” and “Mao Lane.” The signs have characters and pinyin then in microscopic letters, Tibetan. Of course, most Tibetans can’t read Chinese and continue to refer to the streets by their original name. Awesome, Mao. Awesome.

Then came our tour of the Drepung Monastery. Before the Cultural Revolution it housed 7000 monks and was the largest Buddhist monastery in the world. Now, thanks to government-imposed restrictions, only 500 monks are allowed to live at Drepung. A majority of the complex remains in ruins, with PLA soldiers wandering through to make sure things are “in order.”

We found the same was true at the Sera Monastery, which, at 1300 years old, is the oldest Buddhist monastery in Lhasa. Before the Cultural Revolution it housed 5000 monks. The Chinese government now limits residency to 400. They continue to carry out their daily debates over Buddha’s scriptures, only now PLA soldiers are in attendance. There was one saving grace here, however. High atop the hill sits a Buddhist nunnery, home to 27 nuns. The Chinese army found it too difficult to hike the mountain (so totally Chinese), so they just let it be. Great determination guys!

Of course, the heartache doesn’t stop there. Next we toured the Summer Palace, where the Dali Lama spent the warmer months before being exiled to India in 1959. This sign appeared at the entrance:

Again with the whole liberation thing, as if the Dali Lama was just such an ass and wouldn’t share the park grounds with devout Buddhists. I’m still unsure as to what they mean by “restored.” Apparently that refers to allowing Budweiser to set up an enormous bar just feet from where the Dali Lama – the head of the Buddhist faith and believed to be a reincarnation of God himself – used to lay his head.

Or maybe they’re referring to the zoo, which promised this:

Instead, we got this:

The zoo was six cement cages for the brown bears and deer, a monkey pit full of soda cans and beer bottles (that the monkeys were drinking), a really pissed off lion, and a clinically depressed tiger, not to mention this black bear who was just begging us to let him out:

I must have missed the Ferris wheel and rollercoaster, as well as the happy animals. Nice job “liberating” and “restoring.”

Then today we left the city to visit one of Tibet’s three holy lakes, all at an elevation of over 15000 feet. The drive was spectacular and the views were full of unmatched beauty. The lake itself was sadly covered in snow, masking its green and blue iridescent brilliance but even still, it took my breath away. Once again, the Chinese found a way to taint this. Diki informed us that the Chinese government built a dam in the lake, draining it out day by day. In ten years it may be completely gone. She also told us about her Chinese tourist guests, who insist on washing their feet in the holy water. “I explain it is holy water and that this is not allowed, but they just tell me that it is China and they can do what they want, then they don’t stop.”

This new train route seems to be at the heart of the problem. “It’s cheap for the Chinese and the government gives them money to move here. Since it opened crime in the city has doubled and more and more Chinese tourists have come. I don’t really like it.” This, of course, left me feeling rather guilty, as I supported this new endeavor, though at least my aunt and I are touring responsibly.

On the way back we stopped in a small village, wandered around and shared some western treats with the adorable children. In fact, when we pulled out some Oreo’s they FORMED A LINE to make sure everybody got one. That act alone should be enough evidence to indicate that Tibetans are definitely not Chinese, never have been and never will be. We also learned from Diki that every house must, by law, fly the Chinese flag or risk being fined. The Tibetan flag is banned, as are pictures of the 14th Dali Lama, “but I still have one in secret,” Diki told us. The Chinese government has been gracious enough to build schools, but they require that students learn in Chinese, which nobody can read or speak, making it impossible for many to get an education. It’s like this constant effort to oppress an entire ethnic group. China, if you don’t like them THAT MUCH, then why don’t you just let them go? Instead of trying to rub them out and dampen their spirits (because I can assure you that will never happen) just give them their country and religion and be done with it.

The final straw came upon our return to Lhasa. We stopped once more in front of the Potola Palace so I could get a few more pictures. This time, we were let out on the “Central City Square” side. This square was obviously built by the Chinese and was reinforced with granite slabs so they could roll tanks across it. At the far end stands the “Monument to the Glorious Liberation of the People of Tibet and its Return to The People’s Republic of China.” It sits directly in front of the Potola Palace. “Yeah, nothing is supposed to be built in front of the Palace because it is disrespectful to Buddha and the Dali Lama (by the way, the 14th Dali Lama’s selection to become the 15th Dali Lama miraculously disappeared in 1995, along with his family. Luckily, the Chinese government quickly chose an alternate without consent from number fourteen). I think the Chinese knew this when they build this thing,” Diki told us. I’m sure they knew, and I’m sure they did it on purpose. It’s just appalling what they have done to these people and this land, and the reaction from the international community has been abysmal. Of course, that’s no surprise. The US still has yet to acknowledge Taiwan as an independent nation, despite it being one of the only full-fledged democracies in the region. How could we? We don’t want to anger China and potentially harm Wal-Mart’s third quarter profit margins! After all, it’s just a little island nation and a few oppressed Tibetans in some remote part of the world, right?

Despite everything, their spirit never wanes. Robin and I were lucky enough to be here for Tibetan New Year (which they have only been allowed to celebrate for the past eight years) and let me tell you, you ain’t seen a party til’ you seen a Tibetan New Year Party. It looked and sounded like we were in the middle of a war zone, there were so many fires and explosions. After a skyrocket zoomed between our heads we decided inside might be a little bit safer. I had only one thought on my mind: get somewhere high. Elevator to the top floor (funny story. We’ve been here three days now and had no idea there was an elevator until this afternoon. When we arrived the bellhop carried our bags up the stairs, which made us think there wasn’t an elevator, leaving us huffing and puffing four and five times a day. Oops). Anyway, now we were on the top floor and the view was incredible. Still, all I could think was: get somewhere higher.

I wandered down a side hallway, around a corner, behind the bar and up some secret stairs, eventually ending up in a “VIP Room” (according to the sign on the door) that had a 270-degree view of the city. The show was brilliant. Fireworks in every direction as far as the eye could see. Blues, yellows, greens, reds, oranges and purples filled the night sky for a solid two hours, a perfect representation of the spirit of these people.

Their kindness and commitment is inspiring. Their hope is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Despite all the suffering, oppression and chaso, they remain hopeful for a brighter future. Diki is a perfect example of this. “We have faith that the Dali Lama will return soon and Tibet can be itself once again. He will come. I know he will come.” I certainly hope he does. I can’t even imagine the type of fireworks extravaganza that would follow, but I’d love to be here to see it.

19 February 2007

The Modern Monk

Nearly two days into our time here in Tibet and already I’ve been sucked into the country’s (yes, I’m referring to it as a country) charm and graciousness. We arrived at our hotel around 9:30PM only to find that we were literally one of two parties currently staying here! A man offered to carry our bags up the stairs to our third-floor room. Robin agreed but I insisted on lugging my enormous backpack. Bad life choice! Six steps up and I was completely out of breath. My heart was racing and I was literally keeled over, gasping for air. I dumped my pack there and continued (or at least tried to continue) on without it. I had to take two more breaks between the first and third floor. It’s just incredible what this altitude (12000 feet) does to your body. I waited in the room while the man brought our three bags up. Still no sign of Robin. I left her at about stair seven and I’m guessing at she is now passed out somewhere en route. Ten minutes later she trickles in. I am already collapsed on my bed, wondering why I thought this was a good idea in the first place. We rest for an hour before even attempting to unpack and get ready for bed.

Our first full day really set the tone for our entire visit. Because we are so far west and China insists that the entire country be on Beijing time, the sun didn’t rise until nearly 9am. I soon learned that this “Beijing control” thing really dominates life here in Tibet. We started with a delicious hotel breakfast, where we met the other two people staying in the hotel, a German man and Hungarian woman. She was full of life and he was completely taken by her. “We have been 37 years married,” he tells us, grinning ear to ear. It must feel incredible to still have that much love after a third of a century.

Diki, our tour guide, was right on time and we were off to the Potola Palace in our 4x4 all terrain monstrosity. I was assuming it would be a long ride, but about three minutes later we were there. No words or pictures can really describe the emotional impact of this incredible structure. It sits high atop the largest hill in Lhasa valley set against a sprawling, snow-topped mountain range and crystal blue sky (the bluest sky I have ever seen). In a word, it is otherworldy. Heavenly. You can’t help but sing “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah” in a mysterious voice.

The hike up probably makes my top ten list of the most physically taxing experiences I have ever had. Imagine climbing thirty flights of stairs. Exhausting, right? Now imagine climbing those same thirty flights of stairs with one-sixth the amount of oxygen. Welcome to Lhasa. It tooks us nearly ninety minutes to get to the top. Even our guide was huffing and puffing! “You are doing very good,” she told us. “The westerners are usually ok. They no need oxygen and they no die. But the Chinese, they have real problems, because the air in China is so bad so their lungs are already dead and sometimes they die.” Yikes!

“The Potola Palace is the only place saved during Cultural Revolution,” she tells us. “Oh, please don’t ask me any political questions when we are inside, she asks. “They are listening.” Besides the lack of free speech, there were no pictures allowed inside the Palace. I don’t want to ramble for hours about how incredible it was inside, but I will say that it is not what you’d expect. No large halls. No massive “Palace Spaces.” Instead, over 1000 small temples, monk’s dormitories, and tombs. The 5th to the 13th Dali Lama’s are buried here, and each of their “stupas” is covered in anywhere from 1000 to 7000 pounds of gold! That’s three and a half tons of gold, not to mention the countless diamonds used as “flair.” This was particularly true of the 5th Dali Lama’s stupa (No photos were allowed inside, by the way). I don’t know if you know this, but he’s a pretty big deal. He actually united all of Tibet for the first time in history back in the blah blah blah century (I can’t remember), which meant he got a really, really big stupa.

This whole remembering thing has become a really big problem the past few days. I think Diki is really getting irritated with me because I keep forgetting what all the different Buddhas stand for. There are just so many! You’ve got Past, Present & Future, Longevity, Happiness, Prosperity, Green Ida, White Ida, Men, Women, Harvest, things that begin with the letter L. “If you remember, I told you this morning,” she says. Sorry Diki, I don’t remember. I only have the first nine Dali Lamas and about a dozen Buddhas committed to memory.

It’s now 1PM. Robin and I are about ready to pass out. The Diamox is certainly keeping us from getting altitude sickness. Instead we’re just insatiably drowsy and our fingers, toes (and now ears) are constantly tingling. After a very China moment to get lunch organized (it involved two receptionists, a waitress, the hotel chef and the manager) we ate (all by ourselves) in the hotel restaurant then passed out in our room (after hiking the death-threat stairs again).

The afternoon was spent walking the circuit around Jokhang Temple (thought to be the center of Lhasa, Buddhism and therefore the world) where we witnessed pilgrims by the hundreds prostrating all around the structure. “They will do this from 10am to 8pm for three days,” Diki tells us. Now that’s spiritual commitment, and probably the best way to describe Tibetans. They are a deeply religious, deeply spiritual people and this passion fuels a culture of love, caring and kindness unlike any place I have ever seen. Despite all they’ve been through with oppressive China (I’ll get to that tomorrow, it’s going to take a while) they remain warm-hearted and optimistic thanks in large part to their faith.

Every person we pass smiles at us and waves. Even in Barkhor Market, where we wandered in the late afternoon, it was an entirely different feel than in China. The sellers weren’t pushy, and they were profoundly honest. “That’s not real silver,” one woman told me. “You don’t want that. It won’t last.” Bargaining just felt wrong. They’d give a price, I’d say half, they’d say ok, I’d be confused. One time the woman gave me an even better price than what I had offered. “You have a good aura,” she told me. “Your spirit is kind and giving. Buddha is with you. I must offer something for that.” It was nice to know that my being was strong, but I just felt bad.

More than anything this place feels like it is trapped between yesterday and tomorrow. There are no McDonald’s or Starbucks in Lhasa, which couldn’t make me happier. There are only three phones downtown that can make international calls. A large portion of women and men still wear traditional dress. The tallest building in Old Town has four floors. It’s my hotel. At the same time the downtown disco bumps the latest Britney Spears tracks. Budweiser beer reigns supreme. Coke is everywhere. Internet Cafes are a dime a dozen. Monks wear Nike Shox and have cell phones. It’s selective globalization, but it works. Because of their remote location the Tibetan people have been able to decide what comes in and what doesn’t. Now, however, with the new Tibet railway and China’s new push to “Hanize” (China-ize) Tibet, it looks like even that small freedom may be stripped away.

17 February 2007

Come On Ride That Train, That Choo-choo Train

12:53PM, Day One – We’ve moved out of lush green and into rolling brown hills. It looks a lot like eastern California and southern Nevada. Off to lunch.

4:56PM, Day One – After a surprisingly delicious (and incredibly overpriced) lunch in the dining car, we decided to escape with a movie. Our first choice, A Night At The Museum, only lasted 30 minutes and might have been the worst movie I have ever seen (after Wild Wild West, of course). Our second, Trust The Man, was fantastic. The scenery outside is still baron desert, and Robin is wondering where everyone buys their groceries. The western toilet has been locked (and broken) since this morning. The train ran out of paper towels last night, about an hour after we left. I haven’t seen our bunkmates in six hours. They’re still playing music, only now it’s terrible orchestra music. No cabin fever yet. Still enjoying the downtime, as well as the rhythmic sounds of the train car.

6:39PM, Day One – I awoke from a late evening doze just in time to watch the sun set over the hills in the distance. With it goes our first of two full days on the Beijing-Lhasa express train. From what we can tell there are a total of seven foreigners aboard the train – Robin, myself, and the five French people (one of whom is sleeping in our cabin. I’m doing my best to get into this Peter Hessler book but struggling to feel captivated. Wondering why someone doesn’t want to turn this blog into a tell-all tale of China struggle to escape its past with the hope of conquering its future. Maybe the problem is that they have yet to fully embrace their past, both feudal and Communist. The nature that surrounds us is still brown, dark and depressing. It makes me think of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Robin has said more than once that it reminds her of her trip to the USSR in the early 70s.

7:53PM, Day One – Just got back from dinner in the dining car. Robin is peeing again, for the seventh time today. Apparently our altitude medication – Diamox – is supposed to induce the urge quite frequently. I’ve only peed once today. What’s wrong with me? Eggs and Tomatoes for dinner. Delicious! Robin opted for a peanut butter sandwich. Also scrumptious! The French people have been in the dining car all day. Literally since 9am. They’ve passed most of the time playing Tile Rummy, a favorite of my British grandmother. They’ve also been drinking wine non-stop since noon. They’re currently on their sixth bottle amongst five people. About a dozen beer cans are also littering their two tables. I wonder if anyone has explained the increased effects of alcohol when traveling to high altitudes. Maybe they’re Parisian, in which case nothing phases them. I also realized that I’ve walked approximately 200 yards today in total. Because the train is separated into very distinct sections (soft sleeper, hard sleeper and soft seat) we can only traverse a three-car distance.

8:43PM, Day One - We are now rather adjusted to train life, and routines are already emerging. Every two hours or so the French guy comes in, says “hello,” rustles around in his bag, holds some papers in the air, gives us a half smile (which we return) then leaves again. Our Chinese counterpart is far more interesting. His visits are more infrequent and when he leaves, he disappears. We literally cannot find him. When he pops in he waves and shakes and smiles and nods with a certain intensity that I can’t quite explain. Then he hoists himself into his top bunk without using the foot steps and takes a twenty-minute nap. Afterward he climbs (or rather falls) back down, waves and shakes and smiles and nods, then disappears once more. The music in the hallway continues to blast throughout the train. It seems to be about a six-hour loop, which means I’ve heard Jewel’s “Foolish Games” three times now.

10:03PM, Day One – Train official opens our room door and counts us then disappears without saying a word.

11:23PM, Day One – Robin returns from the bathroom, letting me know that once again the western toilet was locked and had to be opened by special request. This has been the case all day. The women then locks the western toilet after Robin leaves. Confusion.

11:58PM, Day One – A different train official opens our room door and counts us once more, then disappears again without saying a word. Apparently it’s really important to keep track of us.

12:07AM, Day Two – Going to bed. Robin & the French guy have been out for a good half hour. The Tibetan above me is still reading his newspaper.

9:06AM, Day Two – Robin woke me up at 8:45AM, just in time to watch the sun rise over the distant mountains. Overnight our landscape changed dramatically. No more brown desert. All I can see now is endless, soft white hills stretching all the way to the horizon. No breaks. No life. This place is completely baron. I can’t even make out any roads. Just snow. I’m having a little shortness of breath, which makes me think we’re elevating. Off for the usual train sink face washing song and dance number.

12:11PM, Day Two – I’ve just spent the past two hours trying to fix my computer. After a solid hour and a half of writing, nothing would save to the hard drive. Then it told me there wasn’t enough memory and completely froze, forcing me to restart, only to lose all the work I had done since last night. Once again, I hate Apple. I have a lemon and there isn’t a chance in hell that I will accept anything less than a complete replacement once I get back to the US. The scenery transitions back and forth between snow and dirt, with a panoramic hillside acting as a permanent frame off in the distance. Our roommates are nowhere to be seen, which has left us with a nearly private compartment for most of the journey. The train attendant also finally opened the western toilet and left it open. We remain confused as to why they keep locking it! It’s nearly 12:30PM now, which means movie time. Oh how quickly routines form!

3:01PM, Day Two – Just woke up from my post-nap movie. I think we’re starting to travel up. My ears keep popping. Also had our first look at Yak. They’re big and hairy. Delicious! I do plan on eating a Yak burger. The halls are empty. Absolutely no people. For whatever reason it seems that most everyone has resigned themselves to sleeping the day away. Music still blasting in the halls though! Time for some cards.

5:20PM, Day Two – We’re up to our noses in Yaks. Yaks, yaks, everywhere! I’m starting to feel some side effects from the Diamox. My fingers and toes are tingling, which feels rather strange. We just passed 15,000 feet and will make a 3,000 foot descent into Lhasa. For the most part, Robin and I are feeling fine, though Robin said her heart is racing a little bit. The toilets and trash cans have officially been abandoned by the train’s staff. The western toilet has been locked for ten hours and apparently the concept of flushing is just too much for most people, which has left the squatter in complete disarray. Water and bodily fluids slushing everywhere. No toilet paper. Our trashcan is chocker-block full. Haven’t seen the French guy in hours either. My bunkmate has been sitting in the hall ALL DAY, minus his brief afternoon nap. Oh, we also made a stop at this rather large train station located IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. All the foreigners got off to take pictures. It was our first time outside in more than a day and a half. A few people actually disembarked here. We’re now moving into hour 44 and all is well. I would be totally fine with another six days of this. No cell phones ringing, no email to check, no people speaking English…heaven on earth for someone like me, though I guess Tibet is often referred to as the closest thing to heaven…on earth.

5:30PM, Day Two – I just realized I have been wearing the same clothes for 44 hours. This includes my socks and underwear. Little motivation to change my clothes. The French guy has also been wearing the same thing but he’s French, so it is to be expected. Oh my god, am I becoming French? I also haven’t shaved. I don’t even have the slightest desire to change my clothes…or shave. This is definitely not my finest moment.

7:15PM, Day Two – We’re now less than two hours away. Despite the late hour, it’s still light outside. This is due in large part to the fact that the entire country is on the same time (Beijing time obviously, since Beijing is at the center of the universe) which means it gets dark on the east coast at 5:15PM while the western half of the country can stay light as late at 9PM. You can sense the anticipation onboard. The Frenchies have been packing for the past six hours in between drinking bottles of French wine that they actually brought with them. This in spite of the multiple warnings against drinking alcohol at our elevation. Neither Robin nor myself have felt the need to pump in extra oxygen, which is lucky, because no one came around with the equipment. My butt hurts. These beds are great for sleeping but terrible for sitting. Looking forward to a hot shower.

7:27PM – My Tibetan bunkmate just told me my sweatshirt is too small, and he’s sorry about that. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

7:48PM – I just ate my fifth PB&J sandwich in two days. OH MY GOD.

8:02PM – I’m getting antsy, which has left me writing more frequently. We keep passing these train stations in the middle of nowhere. Literally, NOTHING around us and then there’s this big glitzy station. Who’s stopping here?

8:39PM – We just left Lhasa West station, which was absolutely full of chaos. As we pulled in everyone started scrambling. I was wondering if we were supposed to be getting off, but I had been told seven times that we would arrive at 9PM! All of a sudden the train attendant swooped into our room, emptied the trash (about fourteen hours too late), and insisted that we close the curtains because, as he told me in Chinese, “We are in a city. Curtains go closed.” Sense? None! We’re all packed, shoes on. Just waiting to get to the ACTUAL Lhasa central train station. This marks the end of our train journey and oh what a journey it was! More soon…

16 February 2007

Second Floor, Second Floor!

It is now 11:38am on our first full day of train travel from Beijing, China to Lhasa, Tibet. We’ve been on the train fourteen hours and thirty-eight minutes. I’m sitting on my lower bunk right next to the window, the computer resting on our little table. For the last hour or so we’ve been shifting between tunnel travel and gorgeous stepped landscapes. Small streams weave their way through never-ending fields and mountainsides covered in lush green crops. People are scattered throughout, bobbing up and down as they pick whatever it is they’re growing. An older man is herding three or four buffalo along the main stream. It’s serene, calm and a welcome change of scenery after six months in uber-urban Shanghai. The scene inside the train is much different.

They’re blasting Chinese rock music in the hallway right now. The last song was to the tune of Prayer-a-jaques-a (I know that is spelled wrong). The current “off the heezy” number sounds a lot like “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Maybe they’re trying to create a mood? The music is a welcome escape from the comedy (I use that word lightly) radio show – laugh track and all – that had been playing non-stop since 8am. The hallway is full of people “listening” while dozing off with their faces plastered up against the window. Mind you, they all have beds. Oh my god, they have just outdone themselves. The music just changed to a Chinese version of Sean Paul’s 2005 smash hit, “We Be Burnin’.” Awesome.

Robin & I were lucky enough to get the two lower bunks of our four-person cabin, and we're fully stocked with snacks! Each space is equipped with a TV offering six (all-Chinese) channels, a hanger for clothes, an oxygen outlet, toiletries cubby, two down pillows, a down comforter, and a power outlet. Space is tight, but not as tight as the people sleeping six to a room (three beds high) in the next car, or the folks in the rest of the train who are riding in seats six-wide for the entire 48-hour journey. We managed to stuff most of our bags under the bunks, which means there is plenty of room to spread out, play cards, and half-offer some sitting space to our cabin mates. Robin’s top-bunker is a French guy whose four friends are in the cabin next door. I cordially greeted him in French, to which he replied: “Hello. You must be American.” I guess I won’t be practicing my French! My top-bunker is Tibetan and barely made it to the train. In fact, he showed up to the room after we had pulled out of Beijing West Station, dripping with sweat. He then explained that he had actually run all the way to the train from his home, about four miles from the station. He spent the next two hours in the hallway trying to air-dry himself.

Thankfully, we left for the station a good two hours before departure, otherwise we would have probably been in the same boat. After loading our bags we slid into the back seat and told the driver our destination, Bejing West Train Station. He pulled out and began driving east. And driving east. And driving east. Ten minutes in I leaned forward to confirm our destination. He assured me that we were indeed going to the WEST train station. Some more time passes and we turn due south, continuing on this trajectory for another ten minutes before finally turning west. At this point we must have back-tracked a good fifteen miles, but at least we were moving in the right direction! Twenty minutes and fifty kuai later we had arrived at what looked like a train service entrance. I hoisted my gigantic backpack onto my shoulders, Robin double-fisted our two rolling suitcases and we charged into the terminal.

Only, it wasn’t a train terminal. It was an underground waiting area for a slew of train numbers, none of which matched our train number. I pulled it over to ask a police officer. Pan to the sea of non-ethnically Han people staring at us. Not a single foreigner in site. I’m guessing we’re in the wrong place. I show the officer our tickets and explain we are lost. He looks them over, says “ar lou” (second floor) and points down the corridor. We continue on. The end of the corridor arrives and there is no second floor in sight. I ask a second police officer. She looks our tickets over, says “ar lou” (second floor) and points further down to what looks like an underground plaza. We continue on. About 500 yards later we come across as escalator, which looks promising.

We get to the top and once again, there is absolutely no signage at all indicating where we should go. Our train number does not appear on any of the signs. I ask a third police officer. He looks our tickets over, says “ar lou” (second floor) and points to the left. We continue on. Another 1000 yards or so (I’m still wearing my over-stuffed backpack) and we are once again in a place with no signs at all. I ask a fourth police officer. He looks our tickets over, says “ar lou” and point to the right. We continue on, and eventually come across another escalator. It has now been twenty minutes. Our train leaves in about forty.

Ok, Jewel (the real Jewel) just came on the radio. Seriously? What’s next? Tony Bennett?

Anyway, we take the escalator up and now find ourselves in front of the train station. There is an enormous sign here that reads “Entrance” and lists several train numbers. Ours is, of course, not there. Super. To the left of this entrance sign is a smaller poster that reads “Ticket Office.” I’m thinking this is our best chance of success. We weav our way through the crowd of what must have been literally 20,000 people and enter the ticket office. I see another police officer (our fifth) and ask him where we should go. He looks the tickets over, says “ar lou” and points to a mob of people in the middle of the room. Actually, he was pointing to the circular desk inside the mob of people, but I didn’t realize that until I was much, much closer. I left the bags with Robin (who was, like me, having hot flashes at this point) and “went native,” diving into the crowd while waving my ticket in the air. A few elbow-throws later and it was my turn. The small woman grabbed my tickets, looked them over and said “ar lou.”

My jaw dropped. Rage began to build inside. I tried to find my words in Chinese but it just wasn’t coming. Whenever you get angry it seems impossible to speak in a foreign language. I am reminded of Desi Arnez as “Ricky” on “I Love Lucy.” Whenever Lucy did something outlandish Ricky would give her a heated, patriarchal talking to, but it would just come out in Spanish. Likewise, I began to spout off in Chinglish, which I didn’t even understand. The woman waved her hand in the air. I assumed she was calling the police over or something to take me away, but instead a lovely woman wearing a very official hat showed up. The lady working behind the counter handed her our tickets and indicated that I should follow her. What happened next is an example of why I continue to be completely and utterly confused by this country. This woman WALKED US ALL THE WAY TO OUR DEPARTURE GATE! On one hand you have five police officers pointing me this way and that, acting totally inconvenienced by my need for assistance and on the other you have this woman personally walking the confused and overwhelmed foreigners all the way to their train.

So now we’re in the waiting lounge and all is well, right? Wrong! We approach the ticket checkpoint, the woman looks at our destination, spouts off at 100 miles an hour in Chinese (I can understand quite well, but at this point I was completely exhausted and doing that thing where you just aren’t paying attention and telling yourself in your head “I’m not listening. I’m not paying attention. Wow, that silver railing is really shiny.” Then she handed me two forms that apparently needed to be filled out before we could board. The only problem was, they were COMPLETELY IN CHINESE. I told the woman I couldn’t read them. She shrugged her shoulders. Enter crisis mode.

I ran back to Robin, explained the situation and began soliciting people in the waiting area for help. “Ni hui shuo Ingu ma?” (Do you speak English?). Again, not a single foreigner in the room. I think my desperation was scaring people, and few even answered my request. Eventually, a man said yes, and kindly talked Robin and I through the entire form, front and back. Relief. Now fifteen minutes until our train is scheduled to depart, we regrouped, loaded up all of our stuff, flashed our Chinese forms (which the woman couldn’t read anyway. In reality, we could have written anything on the forms and she would have let us pass. Note to self for next time) and boarded the train, sweating profusely and breathing heavily. Our tickets were taken and exchanged for a small plastic card that indicates our bed number and must be carried on our person at all times. This card is taken from us before we arrive and our ticket is given back. Why? No idea!

Then passport control came in and reviewed our countless documents, including the flimsy sheet of white paper scribbled with some words in Chinese and stamped with a big red star that serves as our official documentation for entering Tibet. Finally, he asked us for our ID forms (those pesky Chinese-only forms we had frantically filled out in the train station). I handed them over. He laughed to himself, opened his folder and pulled out the same forms, only his were written in English…

15 February 2007

Echo Microphones & Easily Amused “White People”

I finally figured out where this whole Chinese obsession with cranking the echo effect on microphones comes from! We spent the day at the Temple of Heaven and while the buildings, architecture and grounds were majestic and interesting, both Robin and I were taken aback by two astounding “special effects.”

The first was discovered outside the Emperor’s changing room, where he would prepare to make the annual sacrifice to ensure a good harvest. The outer wall was constructed in a perfect circle, it’s sides smoothed down so that there were no jagged edges. It became known as the “Echo Wall” because you can stand at any point along its inner side, speak directly at it, and be heard along the entire thing! This just blew us away. Truth be told, we spent about fifteen minutes at another semi-circled wall that we thought was the echo wall, speaking directly at it, only half-hearing each other, and leaving less than impressed. The we found the ACTUAL structure and spent a half hour having a conversation with one another at regular speaking volume while standing a good 100 yards apart.

The second came on the Altar or Heaven, where the actual animal (and sometimes human) sacrifices were made to God. Once again this gargantuan structure was full of significance. There is one central round stone and from there, the entire altar is constructed in multiples of nine. There are nine stones surrounding this central stone, followed by eighteen stones then twenty-seven stones and so on all the way out to the forty-second ring, which has 378 stones. Odd numbers constitute “yin,” or heaven, and since nine is the highest odd digit it only makes sense to construct this altar with that idea in mind.

The fascinating tidbit is that when a person stands on the middle stone and projects their voice in any direction, it is echoed and magnified nine-fold when returning to that individual’s ears. This occurs because of the downward slope in the stone combined with the shape, distance and angle of the nine balustrades in correlation to the central stone on an equal plane with the sun and moon which signifies that this altar is indeed at the center of the earth (only the ancient Chinese believed that last part). It essentially sounded like you were in a large stadium speaking into a microphone, but it only sounded that way to you, which made me look crazy as I stood there talking to myself.

Of course, the Chinese folks there didn’t actually talk while standing on the stone. They just hopped up, had their picture taken, and wandered off, clearly missing the “kitsch” factor of this fine spot. I encouraged them to talk, yelling “shuo, shuo” (speak speak). A few spouted a word or two, but my efforts were largely unsuccessful. Hey, at least Robin and I enjoyed ourselves!

I almost forgot, we also saw this guy wandering around. He had just jumped into the frozen lake then was running all over in his underwear. The Chinese believe it increases vitality. I believe we refer to it as hypothermia...

From Hutong To Whoa Mama

Day three in Beijing and Robin and I are feeling the impact of spending the better part of two days on our feet. Our toes are now wrapped in protective tape to curb the pain of blisters impinged between the baby toe and the toe next to the baby toe (the awkward one that’s not cute, not useful and always seems to get in the way). Robin has shooting pains down the side of her lower legs. Her left knee hurts. Still, there’s lots to see and we’re only here two more days! We head to the official Hutong tour departure point and in the commotion, get what I now believe was a really bad deal. 180 kuai per person for a three-hour rickshaw journey through the back alleys of Beijing complete with stops at all the major sites, only entrance to the sites is not included. Our driver, Mr. Yu is about 100 years old and I am tempted to tell him to sit in the back and let me pedal around, though I know it would be considered rude on my part and he would most likely take offense to it. As Lianne said, “these guys should be sitting at home with a cat on their knee watching the tellie, eating biscuits and sipping tea.”

Our first stop is a restored 16th century government official’s home. The guide couldn’t be nicer, though the plasma screen TV and cappuccino machine slightly impact the feeling of authenticity. The entrance has seven steps, indicating the official’s rank. I am slowly realizing that unlike in the US, everything in ancient Chinese culture has significance. The number of steps, the color of the pillar, the height of the headdress and the length of the pinky fingernail all mean something.

From here we pedal on through the giant maze of hutong (literally translated as alleyway) on our way to the Drum and Bell Towers. I ask Mr. Yu if we can stop at a more modest home. He obliges and “pulls it over.” We enter into a small courtyard surrounded by five doors. The roofs are made of wood and covered with leaves. There are plastic bottles scattered everywhere. Random building materials (bricks, floorboard, and cement) line the walls. All the doors are closed. Clothes are hanging on numerous lines strung about the area. I see a child peeking out through a window. Mr. Yu explains that five families live off of this small courtyard. I ask him if they have toilets in their homes. He looks at me confused. “The neighborhood toilet it down the road,” he tells me. “So is the tap water.”

Back on our trolley and we’re zigzagging around pedestrians, bikers, and other rickshaws. Everything is grey. We’re in a sea of grey. A red door here and there breaks the bleak monotony. This is China. Upon arriving at the Bell and Drum Tower we are met by a perky twenty-something who races us around like we’re in some sort of contest. Robin and I (as well as our tour guide) struggle with the 75 steep stairs in the Bell Tower, though the incredible panoramic view makes it worthwhile. “The bell was struck 18 times to indicate a hou, and there were 18 hous in a day, which made up 12 haious, now known as months.” At this point I’m totally lost. Just read the sign attached. The Drum Tower is next. 69 steps. Even our perky guide is panting. We just catch the 3-minute drum exhibition, performed by a group of totally depressed-looking people. They walked in, banged some drums, and walked out. No smiles. No happy.

Now it’s back to Mr. Yu, who I think was missing us. Another hour through the hutongs and a few more stops before we’re back where we started. We tip Mr. Yu big-time, wave goodbye, and disembark, leaving him in this life while we return to ours. It was like we had spent the last four hours trapped in the past, sometime between 1949 and 1974. The whole “Oppressive Communism” thing all became a little clearer though sadly, that doesn’t mean anyone was able to escape – even now.

After a brief lunch at McDonald’s (I don’t want to talk about it) we were in a cab heading to the spectacular Summer Palace in the northwest part of the city. Our driver was literally obsessed with the NBA, which left me spending the whole thirty-minute ride pretending to know something about basketball. Every conversation came back to Yao Ming. “I love the NBA,” he told me. “American basketball is so wonderful. You know, Yao Ming is the best basketball player in the Universe. Yao Ming is Chinese.”

We enter on the lake side and are immediately drawn to the extensive section in my book on Cixi, who is our unofficial Beijing mascot. Mao was pretty cool, but this Cixi broad is off the hook. She’s got the whole pillaging, killing, backstabbing, corruption thing down AND she’s a girl. How sweet is that? Sadly, the incredible landscape is somewhat ruined by the lack of water in the lake. It’s the dry season, which means the paddleboats are sitting in a pile of mud. Even still, this place is powerful.

The main buildings are set on a hill that splits the palace in half. The southern section is meant to resemble Hangzhou and it’s famed West Lake, while the northern half was modeled after Suzhou, China’s Venice canal town. Once again, everything has significance, from the number of stone tablets in the floor to the height of each building. We walk down the forever long and appropriately named “Long Corridor” on our way to the Marble Boat, a thirty-foot yacht made entirely of marble. It was obviously commissioned by Cixi. It turns out she spent the last twenty years of her life ruling China from the Summer Palace, which she renovated and upgraded using funds that were diverted from the Navy, resulting in a major naval defeat to the Japanese in the 1880’s. She had over 10,000 eunuchs at her disposal and lived an expectedly lavish lifestyle.

This place was a far cry from the Hutong we had toured that morning. It was grandiose, excessive and equally overwhelming, though in a very different way. It seems that China’s past has been marked by extremes. Extreme wealth and power for the emperor in feudal times. Extreme poverty for the masses in Communist times. For a country that is obsessed with balancing the yin and yang, there is little such moderation to be found, even now. The Chinese tourists don’t even really seem to understand what it is exactly that they’re looking at, much less appreciate its significance. It makes me question whether they are really learning at all from their own past, and if those monumental mistakes can be mended in a fashion that will lead to sustainable development and a central role in global politics. I wonder if the extremes will simply be replaced by another extreme – one of consumption and self-fulfillment. After so many years of being poor and destitute, it’s no surprise that people want to be like Cixi and have more things. Of course, what will their significance be? There’s no more “seven steps means this” and “the color red means that.” Then again, maybe the shear fact that they can now afford all of these things is significant enough. Only time will tell. For now, I’m just going to keep on reading all I can about ma’ gurl’ Cixi. Who knows? Maybe she was one of the world’s first feminists. Now that would be pretty significant!

Oh, I forgot to mention...We also went to the night market, where they sell bugs on a stick. Yum!

12 February 2007

Off To Tibet!

Just popped into an internet cafe quickly on my way to the train station. Leaving for Tibet in about 2 hours. The ride itself is 48 hours, followed by four days in one of the most remote places on earth! I'm not sure if I'll be able to update while there, but I wil definitely try!

The past two days were spent at the Summer Palace, Touring the Hutongs, The Temple of Heaven & The Night Market. Unfortunately I can't upload pictures or that full post from this computer, but I will as soon as possible!

I'll just leave you with one quick, rather hilarious anecdote. At the end of the Qing dynasty a concubine by the name of Cixi rose up the ranks to become Empress Dowager, effectively running (and pillaging) the country for a good forty years. Everything we've seen, read or heard about her here paints her in a very negative light. Nowhere is she just acknowledged as a very powerful, strong, intelligent woman. Instead, she's a homewrecker whore who just wanted to destroy everything and didn't understand her "place" in society.

As a joke Robin and I have been referring to her as "that bitch!" The poster reads, "Cixi didn't like this palace so she burned it to the ground and had a bigger one built."

"That bitch," we'd say. "Cixi would tell the Emperor what do, completely unladylike." Again, "What a bitch." Then we were at the Summer Palace and learned that she was also illiterate. Robin turned to me and said, "Oh, so she was a dumb bitch!"

Off to Tibet! More soon!

11 February 2007

A Day At The Great Wall (More Like Fantastic, Amazing, Inspiring, Super Great) Wall

Running late for our Great Wall extravaganza, Robin and I stuffed down a few pieces of toast and some scrambled eggs while our tour guide Amy waited patiently in the hotel lobby. Still chewing, she began to explain the day to us. “I’m so sorry, but we must take the taxi to the gas station to meet our driver. He is filling up with petrol. I will pay the cab. I’m so sorry.”

Yesterday, when we were at the Forbidden City a man named Dick (older men are usually named Dick or Peter) started yapping away about his trips to the Great Wall. I “buyaoed” (don’t want) him away, but he was persistent. Then he mentioned Mutianyu, which no tour guides ever mention. This was the access point from which I wanted to see the Wall. We stopped and I listened. His price and package seemed too good to be true. 400 kuai (about $50) for all-day car service including driver and English tour guide. Unreal. I took his card and thought on it all afternoon. On one hand, he could be totally legitimate with very competitive prices. On the other hand, he could drive us out into the middle of Inner Mongolia, steal our stuff and leave us in our underwear in the middle of the Grasslands. Robin seemed fairly comfortable with the idea so I gave him a ring and booked our vehicle.

Cut back to Saturday morning, with a Chinese woman I don’t know telling me we’re going to take a taxi to the gas station to meet our driver. I’m watching her hail taxis to see if she goes to a specific one with someone who seems familiar to her. Maybe this is part of the plan, I think. Yes, I was paranoid but I had Robin to take care of as well. She has two children. I have three plants. The taxi seemed random enough so we got in. Five minutes later it dropped us off on a random street three blocks from the train station. No gas in sight. I’m getting nervous again. Some time passes and a blue 1995 Plymouth Voyager minivan pulls up. Amy opens the back door and we hop in. The door closes behind Robin. I tell her to check to make sure it can be opened from the inside. Again, I realize this could seem a bit paranoid but I’ve been mugged twice and the Inner Mongolia no pants thing really just doesn’t sound all that appealing. Remember, I’ve got plants. The door works and there is no sign of a gun, semi-automatic rifle or large knife. I begin to calm down.

A good twenty minutes of driving and we’re on what looks a lot like the New Jersey Turnpike. I swear, if you replaced the Chinese characters with the Roman alphabet we could have been somewhere between exit seven and eight. Unlike Shanghai, Beijing is a sprawling suburbia; a city that has grown out, not up. Amy turns around and says to us, “Welcome to your all-day tour of the Great Wall. Please let me introduce our team to you. My name is Amy. I will be your guide. This is Mr. Gao. Or you can call him Michael. He will be your driver. This is our team. Any questions?” How official and adorable is that? Let me introduce our “team?” Seriously? I am now completely at ease. I’ve been introduced to the “team” of two people by a smiley twenty-something wearing white boots with charms in the shape of strawberries dangling from the laces.

An hour later we’re at our first stop: a government-certified Jade Factory. This is usually what happens on tours and I am now slightly irritated. I don’t want to buy Jade from your friend Peter. I want to see the Great Wall! “We don’t want to go,” I tell Amy. “Take us to the Great Wall.” She looks at me stunned. “But this is the first stop.” At this point Robin chimes in. “Well if it’s part of the tour, then ok.” I’m thinking she’s blowing our cover and now we really look like mondo tourists. An hour later we walk out with $200 worth of authentic Jade goods. The factory tour was about thirty seconds long: “This is where they clean the Jade. This is where they carve the jade. This is where they polish the Jade. Jade is very special. This is our showroom. Please take your time and shop for some beautiful Jade gifts.” We obviously needed several Jade whatchamacallits and four or five Jade whositmajiggers. Robin is a total American tourist, and I get sucked back into the madness. Isn’t buying things fun?!?!

Back on the road with an hour to go. We’re driving through some back roads between an apple farm and a pear farm on rather bumpy roads. I’m wondering why we would need to be sharing a road with chickens on the way to the Great Wall, hoping we’re not taking a pit stop at an authentic Chinese dairy farm or something.

We’re now winding up Mutianyu pass and we catch our first glimpse of the wall. It’s magnificent and even from this distance, enormous. Michael parks the van and Amy walks us to the ticket counter, making sure we get the proper ticket.

I take a pit-stop at the “Older Man,” Robin and I promise to control our “Pubic Sanitation” (there isn’t even space for an ‘L’) and we board the less-than-safe ski lift, charging our way up to the Wall. The higher we rise the more surreal it all feels. Here I am in China riding a ski lift up the side of a mountain to scale the Great Wall. Goosebumps. Smile. Overwhelming excitement!

We spent the next three hours trekking across roughly three miles of partially restored wall, scaling over 5000 steps, climbing nearly 3000 feet upward before plunging back down into distant valleys. At times we were on our hands and knees crawling up enormous slabs of granite at angles close to sixty degrees. The hills continued on in every direction for miles. The sky could not have been bluer. No clouds at all. We saw no more than seventy other people the entire time we were hiking. It was calm and peaceful. Quiet. We stopped often to gaze in wonder and disbelief at this incredible structure. The wall continued in both directions as far as the eye could see, crawling up mountains and winding down into deep ravines. No breaks. No holes.

No words (or pictures for that matter) can really capture the immensity and scope of my day. I was experiencing a structure that took more than 2000 years to build, claimed the lives of more than one million men (20% of China’s population at the time), is one of only three man-made structures that can be seen from outer space and stretches for more than 4300 miles across northern China (further than the distance from Los Angeles to Washington DC). It was incredible. To be honest, even as I sit here typing it doesn’t feel real. It’s like, what did you do this weekend John? “Oh, I did some laundry and went to dinner with some friends. You?” Oh, I actually hiked the Great Wall of China.

Just as quickly as we rode into the heavens our cable car grounded us back on earth, and oh what a rude welcome it was. The moment we exited the cable car station the hawkers started. “You want Great Wall T-shirt? You want tablecloth? You want chopsticks? Come on Lady (directed at Robin, thank you very much)! What you want?” Once again, China’s two halves were clashing with one another. On one hand you have this powerful influential overwhelming history. On the other you have a constant reminder of what fifty years of oppressive Communist regime does to people. Do these hawkers know exactly what they’re selling? Do they know what this wall means? What it stands for? Do they even have the time or energy to care? After all, they’ve got to eat dinner, which means they’ve got to sell at least one more moving-arm Mao watch.

I snap back into reality and notice Robin is about to pay 280 kuai for some chopsticks. I jump in and yell at the woman for taking advantage of her, debating the items quality. We are able to secure the set for 100 kuai. I was pushing for 80, but Robin was feeling generous. I bought the obligatory (and really cool) “I Climbed The Great Wall” T-shirt in two colors. $2 each. I’m fine with that.

I gave Amy a call and just like that we were back in our van, leaving the power and glory of old China behind us as we returned to the future in downtown Beijing. For those few hours at least, we escaped to an earlier time. A simpler time. Serenity lost but inspiration found, along with some overpriced chopsticks.