Monday, December 3, 2007

China Odyssey, Day 19 - Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet

Day 19 - Lhasa, Tibet
Monday December 3
Security Snafu, Tibetan Education, and Altitude

We headed out early to the airport. As Kathy was passing through security, a uniformed guard rudely grabbed her by the shoulder and started pulling her away from the security line. The rest of the group was ahead. She was a bit frightened and yelled out to our guide George, who came back to see what was going on. Apparently they did not like the size of her carry-on luggage, and wanted her to check it. Pretty straightforward, unless you don't understand the language.

The flight to Lhasa was uneventful, but breathtakingly beautiful. Rugged mountains extend continuously over the 800 mile route from Chengdu to Lhasa. The distant snowcapped peaks are not the

Endless Rugged Mountains

As a point of information, the snowcapped peaks seen in the distance are not the Himalayas.

Braided Tibetan River

Lhasa is the Tibetan Buddhist's Holy City. The land is flat, brown, surrounded by treeless brown mountains, and braided rivers and lakes are everywhere. On the ride from the airport to the hotel, our local Tibetan guide told us a bit about the country.

Our Tibetan Tour Guide

There are 3 major animals in Tibet- the yak, the luke (sheep) and the cow. There are mandarin ducks everywhere.


Farmers generally live in two-story buildings. The animals live on the first floor while the people live on the second floor. Another interpretation would be that the family lives in the loft above the barn. Tibetans do not eat fish. Prayer flags of 5 colors (red, green, white, blue, yellow) fly everywhere. Unlike the rest of China, religion is the single most important force in the life of native Tibetans.

Tibetan Agriculture

Burial practices vary in Tibet. Depending upon the age and circumstances of the deceased. Tibetans either bury, burn or put bodies of the dead in water.

The Tibetan language is very different from Mandarin Chinese. We have learned 3 words:

>Hello-Tash Delet
>Thank you - Tai ChiChi
>Excellent - Yabba Dabba Doo ( Remember Fred Flintstone?)

We are staying at the Shangbala Hotel. It is decorated in colorful Tibetan decor. There is no heat in the lobby, restaurant or any of the common areas. Huge sleeping bags are hung over the lobby doors to keep the out the cold. There is a heat pump in every room, but it only works if the key card is inserted. Fortunately, we have learned how to circumvent that one!

Hotel Lobby, Showing Thermal Management System

Lhasa is at an altitde of 12,000 ft. Most of our group are suffering various symptoms of altitude sickness, with perhaps a touch of left over cruise crud. Keith and I started taking altitude medication in Chengdu. Upon arrival in Lhasa, nausea and diarrhea affected both of us. We napped after lunch. Kathy is feeling much better. Keith is not. He is chronically a bit short of breath, and the altitude is very hard on him.

Lunch contained several yak dishes, as well as Sichuan Chinese. We thought yak was quite tasty. It is very similar to buffalo, which is like a good lean beef. Yak butter tea is served with all meals. We did not try it today, but maybe tomorrow.

At 5pm Abbie, a professor from a Tibetan University, came to give us a talk on the culture, customs and geography of Tibet.

Kathy thought supper was good. Keith didn't eat. They even served corn, French fries, mushroom soup and fried bread. We also had a new fruit for desert, pear.

After dinner George led a very interesting discussion about railroads, censorship, and his parent's experiences during the cultural revolution. George's mother was the daughter of a landlord. Landlords were special targets of the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. George told us that one day his mother was stopped by the Red Guard and forced to recite Mao's little red book from memory. She could and did recite all 3,000-plus words. Then she was told to recite it backwards. She could not. As a punishment she was forced to stand with her face to the wall and sing a certain revolutionary song 200 times. When she stopped or faltered , she was beaten.

Both of George's parents were sent to the countryside for 9 years of re-education for during the Cultural Revolution, and were not called back to the city until the late 1970's. George, who is 32, and his younger brother were born during his parent's exile.

George also talked about the massive starvation in the early 1960’s, when his grandmother starved to death. According to George, this famine resulted from a dramatic rift between the Chinese and the Russians, who up to that time had been aiding China to modernize. The Communist Chinese government was determined to repay all Russian debits immediately, resulting in severe economic privation and consequent famine for the Chinese people.

The Chinese have just completed a rail link to Lhasa, eliminating a highly dangerous two week truck journey through rugged mountains for Lhasa-bound freight. It remains to be seen how this modern transportation system will change Lhasa, but nothing ever stays the same. Eventually it will be possible to go by train from China to Europe.

(Editorial note – this material is being published mid-April 2008, about a month into the turmoil surrounding the Tibetan riots and subsequent Chinese crack-down. While it is difficult to know the facts, we are feeling for the Tibetan people, who seemed happy and peace loving. It is difficult for us to watch the news coverage. We could recognize some of the scenes, such as the Jonkhang Temple Square.)

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