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A Dragon Guarding the Forbidden City in Beijing

Hong Kong

May 31, 2011
Arrival, Victoria Peak, & the Outlaying Islands

After landing late, it took about two and a half hours to get out of the airport and to my hotel on Hong Kong Island; I immediately went to bed.

June 1, 2011

I woke up and joined a colleague for breakfast; he's from Hong Kong and was excited to get me trying the local cuisine; soon after starting, I was not so excited to be trying the local cuisine. The first dish was a revolting dumpling, and after consuming it I inquired on it's content: shark fin and pork; not a good combination. Next was the sticky rice and pork, plus a number of other seafood-based dishes. Since seafood is not my taste, I choked down as much as I could, then headed off to Victoria Peak with my colleague.

The views from the peak are quite impressive, especially considering I got in late last night and this was my first view of the city's skyline. As you look towards Victoria Harbour you can see the skyline and Kowloon, however in the other direction you see little more than mountains, trees, and a small fishing village in the distance... that is once you look past the shopping mall beneath you.

My colleague had some business to take care of so I was on my own for the afternoon, beginning with an island he recommended, Cheung Chau, which is about an hour from Hong Kong Island by ferry. The island is within sight of Hong Kong Island, but is a world away. There are no cars here and the place boasts little more than mountains, fishing villages, and a rather large harbor filled with fishing boats. The streets are filled with bikers and street cleaners, but only a couple motorized vehicles, such as mopeds and golf carts. The island is peaceful and dotted with temples and lonely sand beaches. It made a great place to relax for an afternoon, a world away from the chaos of Hong Kong Island's busy business district.

For dinner I went to my hotel restaurant, but after sitting down I was informed that there was no menu, they only served a buffet (although when you arrive there is a menu sitting there to greet you). I was tired and hungry so decided to stay, but it seemed like everything was either seafood or contained duck liver... even the custard desserts were topped with chopped duck liver. I found it difficult to eat, but stumbled upon a pork chop and salad... I knew the threat of salad washed in the local water, but I had few options and the dirty salad was the best among those options. As I was leaving dinner, I got on the elevator to my room only to see a giant poster advertising the hotel restaurant's nightly "Duck Liver Seafood Buffet." I wished I had gotten on this elevator earlier so I knew to avoid the place. It will be a lesson for tomorrow's dinner I guess.

June 2, 2011
Kowloon & the Temple Street Night Market

I again ventured down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, but was more cautious this time. Fortunately, the food was a combination of Chinese and Western and I found many suitable options, particularly the fried noodles and fried rice, both of which were simple, but good.

Due to a work mix-up, I again had the entire day free to do as I pleased. I began by wandering around the city aimlessly. The city is very diverse, especially on Hong Kong Island; there are people from every part of the world, in particular Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Middle Easterners, and Europeans and it was not uncommon to see any number of these people in any single city block. Perhaps due to this diversity there are a number of confusions among the people. While the cars drive on the left (due to being under British rule for so many years) the people don't know which side of the sidewalk to walk on. Some walk on the right, some on the left, and escalators are just as confusing, with some forcing you to move left and others forcing you to move right. Even in the convention center, the escalators on one floor force a person to go up on the left side and the next floor will force a person to go up on the right side. After trying to figure out the system, which I failed to do, I escaped the heat for a couple hours before heading off to Kowloon.

In the afternoon I went to Kowloon, where I again wandered aimlessly, finding a nice park, some British-influenced architecture, Nathan Street, and finally Temple Street Night Market. Temple Street Night Market is an odd combination of local necessities, sex shops, and tourist souvenirs. While the local necessities are mostly reserved for shops just off the Temple Street, the sex shops (for sex toys and prostitute houses) are slightly hidden away from sight, behind the main shops, but still quite obvious it you have a keen eye. My focus however was on the tourist souvenirs; while I typically hate shopping and rarely buy souvenirs, I found a painting I liked so kicked my bargaining skills into full gear. I got them down quite a bit until I purchased it for about $3 US. I also ran into my flight attendant here and we talked for a bit before I headed off to find some food that didn't smell like grease or seafood... a greater challenge than one would expect.

I found a shopping mall (one of many) that had a food court with a wide selection of Asian food: Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Sichuan, Hainan, Taiwan, etc. I found a beef place with great fried rice. It was served on a ironcast bowl that came straight out of the oven; it was piping hot and the food was thrown on raw (other than the rice of course). I sauteed the raw beef, corn, and sauce in the pan until it was cooked through and mixed thoroughly; it was incredibly good, despite coming from a food court in what is considered one of the culinary capitals of the world.

June 3, 2011
Meeting & Work

My meeting started today at the Convention Center. The opening ceremony consisted of two guys dressed in a dragon costume running around the room as another person pounded a drum. As the dragon came up to me I was told to pet it as they took my picture. The meeting was typical, during free time I went down to the first floor to see the pictures of the hand over of power from Britian to China (which took place in this building) and stepped outside to see the Golden Bauhinia, a gift from the Chinese government to Hong Kong.

June 4, 2011

More meetings today; not much to add to that.

June 5, 2011

My last day of meetings, again spent most of the day indoors, just getting excited about my trip to mainland China and trying to figure out these sandal boots many of the locals are wearing; they're incredibly hideous.

June 6, 2011
Dragon Boat Festival & Hong Kong Disneyland

I'm done with meetings, so decided to spend the day at the Dragon Boat Festival on Lantau Island before catching an evening flight to Beijing. The Dragon Boat Festival I went to (there are many) was in Tai O, which I was told is one of the more traditional festivals and is more about the ceremonies than the actual races. Tai O is a small fishing village on the western side of Lantau Island and many of the houses are perched on sticks over the river. The village is small and seemingly peaceful, but not on this day. Today the streets were packed, flags flew over head and buses to the village were running every 5-10 minutes.

The festival in Tai O begins with each of the four fishing associations rowing to one of the four local temples to gather the deity statues, which they then take to the race sight in order to pacify the waters. As the dragon boats do this, there is a parade of boats behind them burning paper and throwing it into the water, dropping rice dumplings into the water, and photographing every event through telephoto lenses.

The festival is a celebration to Qu Yuan, a national hero who drowned himself in protest of the government over 2,000 years ago. As the locals attempted to save their hero, they threw rice dumplings into the water so the fish wouldn't eat Qu's body and they beat drums to scare away the fish. At the end, they failed to save Qu, but a festival was created in his honor and today (in Tai O at least) these traditions continue as the rowers row in rhythm to the drums.

More than the festival and the eventual race, the crowd provided a great site and entertainment as kids played in the streets and rowers prepared for the race, which gave the winning team little more than pride, but also bragging rights for the entire next year.

After the dragon boat races I headed to Hong Kong Disneyland to get my brother a shirt, but still had plenty of time before my flight so stopped in the park for a couple hours. The park is similar to Disneyland, but smaller and more kid-focused. There were few rides catered to anyone over the age of about 10 and this proved to be the crowd as well; teenagers and young adults (without kids) were scarce. Fortunately, this also meant that Space Mountain was practically a walk-on all day.

To read more about my trip to Hong Kong Disneyland, visit From Screen to Theme's Thursday Treasures. After Disney, I headed out to catch my evening flight to Beijing.


June 7, 2011
Tiananmen Square, Mao's Mausoleum, Forbidden City, & Temple of Heaven

I got in real late last night, well this morning actually; at about 1:00am and got to the hotel at about 2:30 after standing in the taxi line for a good 30-45 minutes. This morning I did little other than wake up and try to get my bearings straight, which I did with the help of the front desk staff.

I caught a public bus about 2 stops to the subway station, where I headed into downtown Beijing. The subway is very easy to use and quite efficient, although even at about 10:00am the crowds are large. I got off at Tiananmen East for my first stop: Mao's Mausoleum. After dropping my camera off across the street in the lockers I got in line and slowly went through security checkpoint after security checkpoint to see the man who created Communist China. The rules here were strict and they were turning away anyone with water, shorts, and even sandals.

The scene inside was disturbing, but expected. The locals paying their respects acted in an almost religious manner, while the guards demanded complete silence and ushered each of us in and out rather quickly. We were fairly far from Mao himself, perhaps 10-15 feet away, but even from that distance he looked slightly waxy and fake. After leaving the building, most people still remained silent, but I felt little emotion, so collected my camera and continued my day of sightseeing.

I returned to Tiananmen Square after getting my camera and moved from south to north, photographing the incredible gates, beginning with Front Gate and ending with the Gate of Heavenly Peace, in the process being filmed by literally thousands of cameras, which are mounted on every light post on Tiananmen Square.

I passed under the Gate of Heavenly Peace into the first of a couple courtyards leading to the Forbidden City. I shooed away a couple dozen hawkers, bought my ticket to the Forbidden City (or the Palace Museum) and headed in. The city is a maze of elaborately decorated gates and buildings. As you enter, it's easy to follow all the tourists from one gate to the next in a process leading straight through the middle until reaching the Imperial Garden at the city's northern end. I also followed this path, since most of the highlights are on this north-south axis, but after reaching the garden I got off the beaten track and found some corners of the Forbidden City quite lonely and forgotten.

Throughout the complex there are a number of small exhibits, however few are well kept; most are difficult to see through the poor glass and layers of dust on each article being viewed. None-the-less, these side alleys and hidden rooms give one the sense of the size and enormity of the complex. Despite this, the highlight was still the Imperial Garden and the incredible temple standing on the rock mountain in the garden. Unlike the rest of the city, the garden seemed much more natural and at peace, being one of the few places that offered any sort of green space within the city walls.

My final stop for the day was the Temple of Heaven, however getting there proved to be a challenge. It is very rare to find anyone in Beijing that speaks English and even at the subway station I couldn't find a single person despite asking the person at the help desk, which had a sign in English that read something to the sorts of "Need Help, Ask Here." I took an educated guess, but had no map with subway stations on it so got off one stop too soon. I showed a local the name of the Temple of Heaven in Chinese and he directed me to the temple, which was only a few blocks away.

The Temple of Heaven is a Confucian temple that is perfectly round. It stands on a square base (the symbol of heaven is the circle and the symbol of earth is the square), does not contain a single nail, and is so perfectly shaped that it echoes if you speak along the walls or if you stand directly in the middle of the temple and whisper. It is an architectural wonder and the detail work is amazing, however also appealing was the park surrounding the temple itself. This park seems to be a magnet for locals and dozens of people were out playing cards and gambling anyplace they could find enough seats to gather. The scene was active and lively, however the day and the heat had taken all the liveliness out of me so after only an hour or two I headed back to the hotel for the night.

Back at the hotel I met up with Cindy and we headed out to eat at a dumpling place, which offered a substantial improvement from the food in Hong Kong. We had almond and walnut chicken with a spicy twist, pork and green onion dumplings, and beef dumplings with tomatoes and cilantro; all of which was delicious.

June 8, 2011
Forbidden City & the Great Wall of China

Since Cindy got in late yesterday (due to a flight delay of about 20 hours) we decided to take a tour today so she could see both the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China.

Our bus was running late in the morning, so we were informed that we should take a taxi to another hotel because the bus couldn't make it to our hotel due to traffic. We did only to find out that at the next hotel our bus was waiting on a few people who had decided to stop at Starbucks for their morning coffee. We paid for our trip, then waited on the bus in front of Starbucks. As we waited, our driver and the local guard in front of the Starbucks got in a fight and stood in the street blocking traffic as they yelled at each other at the top of their lungs. It was interesting and our English-speaking guide passed it off as a view into the life of locals in Beijing. Soon enough we got the rest of our party and were off to the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City tour was typical and contained much of the same information I had read yesterday, but the tour seemed to brush over my favorites parts of the city and only breezed through the Imperial Garden as the focus was on history and naming Emperors that none of us had ever heard of. The most striking thing was that the skies were crystal clear since it had poured last night and that caused the smog to disappear (at least temporarily).

After the Forbidden City, we headed to a Silk Factory, which only encouraged me to never buy silk, then off to a Jade shop for lunch and more sales being pushed at us. Lunch was very good though; we had a number of plates to chose from including vinegar pork, sweet and sour chicken, beef with onions and green peppers, something like buffalo chicken, roasted peanuts, and the standard rice. Everything I tried was very good and my chopstick skills are vastly improving.

As we were waiting for our bus to depart we watched the Turks in our tour group excessively buy all sorts of junk, including one girl who bought 4 pairs of knock-off glasses, but had no idea if she had gotten a good deal on them when asked.

We made it to the Great Wall of China and had about two hours there. Mao had climbed this same section of the Great Wall (Badaling) and stated that "He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man." Although he wasn't specific on which part of the Great Wall one must climb to be a man, he said it on this section of the Great Wall and it seems every Chinese tourist to the Great Wall must climb to the same exact tower from which he made this statement. Upon learning this, and the fact that 95% of the tourists to the Badaling Great Wall (also the most visited section of the Great Wall) go straight to the "Mao watchtower" (on the right side), we went left and had the wall nearly to ourselves; the views were spectacular and the crowds were minimal.

Back in Beijing we headed off to dinner, got lost, then stumbled upon a place with great smelling beef and chicken kebabs. We found ourselves at a table with a local who spoke a bit of English and he helped us order fried rice and "beef on a stick," an influence from the Mongols and Muslims in western China. The beef was very fatty and too spicy for us, however the fried rice was among the best I've ever had and for only 10 yuan ($1.60) it was well worth the money.

Unfortunately, our time is limited so tomorrow morning we're off to Lhasa, Tibet.

Lhasa, Tibet

June 9, 2011
Arrival, Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple & Barkhor Street

After a lot of confusion and a mess at the airport in Beijing we finally made it to Lhasa, Tibet; there seemed to be a hold up due to the fact that we were going to Tibet. Flights to Tibet have a different security line and we had to have our Tibet visa to get our airline tickets, then needed to show our visa again at security and again at the gate getting on the plane. It seems the Chinese government has little interest in letting foreigners into Tibet.

Our flight stopped over in Chengdu before continuing on to Lhasa, which stands at about 13,000 feet, making life a little more difficult considering the lack of oxygen at that altitude.

We arrived with no problems, met our guide at the airport and headed into Lhasa, which is well over 30 miles away, taking about an hour to get to our hotel. Along the path into town we stopped at a stone carved Buddha and passed by about a dozen Chinese military compounds, which seemed to take up about as much of the city as the Tibetan part of Lhasa.

As we closed in on our hotel our Tibetan guide, Dorje, informed us that the Chinese government was no longer issuing visas to Tibet. June posed many problems for the Chinese government in Tibet, such as the fact that the month is a holy month for the Tibetans and it was the anniversary of the "opening of Tibet" or as much of the world calls it, "the Chinese takeover of Tibet." In fear of protests, we were one of the last groups into Tibet and Dorje said he heard that no one would receive a visa for two months, if not longer, so we were very fortunately to even get this far.

When we were left at our hotel, Dorje warned us to take it easy and do nothing for the night or we'd regret it tomorrow. We took the advice to heart and, after discovering that the hotel restaurant was closed, ate granola bars in our room, drank plenty of water, watched a propaganda movie about Mao (in Chinese), then went to bed early.

June 10, 2011

Our tour today began with the most iconic monument in Tibet: Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's Winter Palace. The building is incredible from every perspective and viewpoint, making it truly breathtaking, particularly given the altitude.

We took our time in the palace's gardens and exterior, taking plenty of pictures of the 13-story building standing on one of the city's largest hills. On our way up the many stairs we heard singing and stomping, which Dorje explained was the traditional way of making Tibetan buildings. The people worked in two teams, divided into men and women, each group taking a turn singing as they stomped to the beat. The roofs and walls of parts of this, along with many buildings in Tibet are made of clay and stones; the people stomp the stones into the clay, beginning with large stones, then continuing on to finer and finer stones until the surface is smooth and solid. At this point the surface is covered with yak butter and the sun bakes it to form a surface that lasts for nearly 100 years. This labor-intensive process is the reason, Dorje explained, that there is a strict one hour time limit in the Potala Palace. The building is not strong enough to withstand thousands of tourists each day spending hours in there, so each day the building is limited to only 2,500 guests and each may only spend 1 hour in the building itself, although staying in the gardens for the rest of the day is not a problem.

As we reached the top, near the entrance, the Chinese tourists (which were about 99% of all tourists here) decided that us exotic white people were worthy of their pictures and soon there was a line of Chinese tourists waiting to get their pictures taken with us... I hope that wasn't my 10 minutes of fame, I didn't even understand what they were saying.

Once in the Potala Palace itself the tour was a combination of history and culture. The white buildings in the palace were the Dalai Lama's personal residence and government buildings, while the red buildings were the religious buildings. As both religious and political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama ruled over both of these realms from the palace. Unfortunately, most of the white palace has been altered to destroy both the memories of the Dalai Lama as well as the independent political aspirations of Tibet. Due to this, most of the tour took place in the Red Palace, which contained numerous religious relics prized by the Tibetans, who are primarily "yellow hat Buddhists." We made it out in just about an hour, took a few more pictures, then headed off to lunch.

Lunch consisted of yak momos and a pizza. Momos are much like Chinese dumplings, but these had yak meat inside along with a couple spices, including green onions. They were served with a sauce, much like an Indian curry and it was surprisingly good. The pizza, our fail-safe back-up option in case the momos were uneatable, was also good. The menu here truly symbolizes Tibet and its outside influences; there was a number of Indian, Nepalese, and Chinese dishes on the menu, as well as the tourist-focused western cuisine. Throughout our tour this morning Dorje has mentioned the close ties Tibet has to India and Nepal due to similar religious beliefs and clearly those similarities have influenced the food in Tibet.

After lunch we headed to Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Street. The temple is the holiest in all of Tibet, however taking pictures of it prove difficult due to all the Chinese police officers and military posts in the area. It is illegal to take pictures of police, soldiers, or any military stand or post of any sort in Tibet; a big contrast to the Forbidden City where they had military parades seemingly just for the tourists' amusement. If a riot broke out in this area there were literally thousands of soldiers within a mile of the temple to shut it down immediately. To me it seems like overkill considering the peaceful nature of the Tibetans.

After passing all these guard stands and having our guide detained briefly by police to explain who he was, who he worked for, who he was guiding, and proving that we were in Tibet legally, we made it to Jokhang Temple. The temple is impressive architecturally, but its true meaning comes in its significance to the religion. It contains the holiest statue in yellow hat Buddhism and is a pilgrimage spot for thousands of Tibetans, who travel miles to get here.

After the temple, we circled Barkhor Street clockwise with many of the pilgrims. Despite the street's religious significance, it is almost entirely a shopping street with vendors lining both sides of the street. Having little interest in shopping, we quickly bypassed most of the shops, only ducking into a few to catch the air conditioning. Once our time here had come to an end, we met back up with Dorje, who took us to our hotel for the night.

For dinner, we headed across the street where we tried fried rice, noodles, and a beef dish. Again, the external influence on Tibet came into view in these dishes. The fried rice contained a hint of cumin and tumeric, two spices common in Indian curries, while the noodles had a Thai twist. Only the beef dish seemed unique to me, but it clearly had some Chinese influence, containing beef, tomatoes, and green onions in a sauce that had just a hint of spiciness. The lowlight of the meal was also the most culturally significant, yak butter tea. It's made of yak butter, tea leaves, water, and salt; one sip was enough for me.

June 11, 2011
Drepung Monastery & Sera Monastery

There's a horrible syndrome occurring in many young Chinese males some foreigners call "Little Emperor Syndrome." Due to the one child policy, many Chinese children are growing up completely, utterly spoiled and are taught that they are the most important thing in the world. I've seen this a number of times in a number of instances since arriving in China, most particularly in people doing as they please whether or not you are in their way. This morning on the way to breakfast however was the worst I've seen thus far. Waiting for the elevator (we had already pushed the down button), two Chinese men, about in their 30s, arrived to also go down. They budged in front of us so were inches from the elevator door, when it had opened they immediately got on and pressed the door closed button, forcing the door to close on us. There was no apology, just a scornful look they gave us since we had delayed their trip downstairs.

This "Little Emperor Syndrome" is rampant throughout China, but is magnified here in Tibet. Most of the Chinese people in Tibet either live here to drown out the local Tibetan population or are tourists and these tourists have money or influence. Although I can't account for every Chinese tourist in Tibet, my guess is that many of these people have money and were spoiled rotten growing up, learning that no one is more important than they are and today they truly believe this, treating others like nuances who exist only to cater to their needs. While we found people like this in Beijing as well, it was not as common or magnified as it is in Tibet and being here for only a couple days can easily make a person a complete racist, especially when you compare these little emperors' behavior to the local Tibetans'.

Enough of that, after breakfast Dorje arrived at the hotel to begin our tour early today. We had a lot to see and not a lot of time so began at Drepung Monastery, which formerly housed between 7,000 and 10,000 monks before the cultural revolution. The monastery is huge, but primarily empty today. We got lucky in that today was a holy day so the monks do mid-day chanting; this is ordinarily only reserved for mornings and evenings. We also met a couple of Dorje's friends, which are many, including seemingly ever monk in both Potala Palace and here. This monastery was seemingly deserted compared to the sights we saw yesterday and Dorje said that it was because the Chinese tour groups don't generally go to Drepung Monastery.

While at the monastery, Dorje explained death rituals in Tibet. People here have their bodies placed in a "tombstupe," are buried/ cremated, placed in the river, or are fed to vultures. The most common death ritual, which Dorje said about 99% of Tibetans receive, is to have their bodies placed outside in sacred areas for the vultures to eat. At first the muscles are removed and the vultures eat the skin and organs, then once there is nothing left but bones, the meat is given to them (this is done because otherwise the vultures would only eat the meat and leave the skin and organs). Only lamas, like the Dalai Lama are placed in tombstupes, which are large ornate boxes, much like a coffin, but significantly more detailed. Infants who die are placed in the river, which is why Tibetans don't eat fish. Finally, those people who are sick, receive medicine, but never heal are buried or cremated. This is done so the vultures don't ingest the medicine the person took.

On that appetizing note, our next stop was lunch in Lhasa itself, but today's meal wasn't as good as the last two we had. We each had the yak sizzle on the recommendation of Dorje, and not having led us astray yet, we ordered it, but it wasn't quite everything I thought it would be. The two highlights from lunch were the dessert, chocolate cake, and watching the people outside. Many Tibetans make a pilgrimage around "Old Lhasa City" and this restaurant was on the path around the city, meaning pilgrims were constantly passing by our window seats. The people were dressed in all different manners, depending on where they were from in Tibet, some had long braided hair, some carried daggers, and many others appeared like cowboys, with classic hats, similar, but not identical to those found in the American west.

After lunch we headed to the other perceived highlight, Sera Monastery, which was no disappointment. This monastery was also very impressive, but the highlight was clearly the monk debates in the courtyard. Monks of all levels would get into groups as small as two and as large as five or six to quiz each other. The monks are paired by knowledge level and switch positions every day or two. The teachers standing, the students sitting, some of the teachers were very animated and would ornately confirm a correct answer by clapping his hands, or symbolizing an incorrect answer by slapping the top of his hand into his other hand (both hands palm up). Although I didn't understand a word of what they said, the scene was energetic and lively.

Our final tour stop of the day was Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama's former summer palace. This palace was nice, but is truly all about the grounds, which are large and were created for picnicking during the warm summer months, which the Tibetans love. In addition to the grounds however, the Dalai Lama's palace was fascinating because it was from here that the Dalai Lama fled to India and is even today decorated much as it was when he left.

After being dropped off at our hotel and resting for a couple hours, we caught a taxi into town to grab a bite to eat near Jokhang Temple. We had yak fried rice and more cake, for me chocolate and for Cindy lemon. The cake was definitely the highlight.

June 12, 2011
Tibetan Family Visit & Departure

We awoke early to catch our flight to Xi'an, but on the way stopped at a Tibetan family's house in a village between Lhasa and the airport. This was fantastic because it gave us an opportunity to see daily life in Tibet from living circumstances to decorations.

This family was middle class on Tibetan standards, living near farms and raising a few chickens and cows in their courtyard to provide eggs and milk. Here there were four generations: a great grandmother and grandmother living with their daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. During the days the grandmothers took care of their grandkids as the two parents worked.

We were offered yak butter tea and when I asked our guide if it would be rude to turn it down I was instead offered barley beer, which I accepted and drank at the early hour of 9:00am. It was much better than the yak butter tea though, so I'm happy with my decision even though, neither drinking beer at 9am, nor drinking at altitude are good ideas.

We were given free reign of their house (other than their storage room) and moved around to see their living spaces, temple (which most families have in their homes), and bedrooms. The most ironic part of this house was the living room, in which there was a Minnie Mouse stuffed animal just feet away from a poster of Mao, who is often seen in Tibetan homes for a number of reasons.

The people here are torn on views towards the Chinese government, but for the most part they wish for independence. Dorje avoided political conversations and we didn't encourage him to discuss a subject that could not benefit him and his career in any way.

Many Tibetans place pictures of Mao in their homes to avoid governmental aggression, however others truly believe in the changes that he and the Chinese government have introduced in Tibet. The Chinese government has introduced the railway, better roads, expanded education, better healthcare, and improved communication in Tibet. Unfortunately, these changes have been introduced at the expense of the destruction of Tibetan culture... and with this improved infrastructure comes more and more immigrating ethnic Chinese, drowning out the local population in Tibet. The Chinese see the improvements they've introduced (healthcare, infrastructure, and communication) as the most important aspects of life, whereas the Tibetans view their religion and culture as the most important factors in their lives and this is exactly what the Chinese government seeks to destroy.

The Tibetan people seem so different from the Chinese, although they'll be the first to tell you that the two have always been historic friends. In Tibet the contrast between these two groups is magnified more than elsewhere; the difference between the enormous and multiple military bases with the peaceful and religious Tibetans. It appears, to a visitor, to be a one-sided war, in which a peaceful people who failed to fight for religious reasons were destroyed and brutally suppressed by an aggressor; an aggressor who fears these peaceful people so much that they have to dedicate a huge percentage of their military resources to the region.

The situation here feels like a family (China) so concerned with an ant hill (Tibet) they found in their backyard that they spend much of their time stomping the ant hill and spraying it with pesticides as the ants continue living through the hardships, never complaining, only surviving and hoping one day the aggressor will let them live in peace. The ants, no true threat to the people, don't know why they are the victims of prosecution, but accept the beatings as they know they have no true chance in a fight, which is something they wouldn't partake in anyway since that's not a part of their mental, cultural, and religious make-up. Today the beatings continue, but the ants continue to thrive.

Goodbye Tibet. Off to Xi'an.


June 12, 2011
Teracotta Warriors & the Muslim Quarter

We got in from Lhasa today without any problems. After a bus into town and a short walk to our hotel, we went out to explore the city; beginning with dinner. This part of China is known as the noodles epicenter so we sought out a noodle place. After first discovering that the noodle place that we were looking for no longer existed, we found a small place that served noodles with broth, a few spices, bean sprouts, and hot sauce for about 5 yuan a bowl. I finally got to use my Chinese when I asked for "no spicy" and soon we had a pretty good and extremely filling meal for less than a dollar.

After dinner, we headed to the Muslim Quarter for wandering. Although the streets only seem fit for pedestrians, cars and mopeds seemed too eager to drive through the area as the streets were filled with street vendors making and serving roasted nuts, dates, and most popularly, meat on a stick, particularly squid.

The area was loud and active as it attracted both locals and foreigners alike. The scene alone was worth the trip, but while we were there we bought some roasted almonds, which later proved to be fantastic and long-lasting.

Our ride home was on a negotiated fare from a auto rickshaw. He wasn't what I would call a "good driver," but he got us home and gave us a cultural experience consisting of swerves and oncoming traffic stopping within feet of our vehicle.

June 13, 2011

We got up early, skipped the 170 yuan breakfast at the hotel and took a taxi to the bus station to catch a bus to the Army of Terracotta Warriors. The trip was uneventful despite promises from our hotel that the public buses were not safe (they were selling tours to the site) and we arrived to the Terracotta Warriors about an hour after leaving downtown Xi'an.

As recommended by our guidebook, we started with Pit 3, the smallest of the three discovered. It was, well, unimpressive. Much of it had been excavated, but few of the Terracotta Warriors had actually be completed; most stood headless in the pit below our observation platform.

Next came Pit 2, a little bigger with some great Terracotta Warriors in display cases at ground level. This pit was not as far along in the excavation process and there were piles of arms, legs, and torsos of the Terracotta Warriors in the pits as very few of the warriors had been completed. This felt and looked more like an archeological dig site in process instead of an actual museum or world wonder.

We finally made it to Pit 1 to see the enormous site, where most of the completed Terracotta Warriors are held. In a way, even this pit was somewhat disappointing; perhaps 80-90% of it has yet to be uncovered or excavated as the lined soldiers that have been completed stand in lines. More interesting was the back of the building, in which they were putting together the fragmented pieces of the warriors. Visually, this was a disappointment, however trying to comprehend the enormity of the complex, the skill of the craftsmen, and the time and dedication to create such a monument still makes this a world wonder and a monument worthy of international praise.

Our final stop was at the museum; the tour groups rushed downstairs to view the history of China and the archeological history of China exhibits, but the much more interesting exhibit was on the upper floor, which went into more detail regarding the Terracotta Warriors themselves and again offered some warriors up close. This exhibit brought to life the Terracotta Warriors as you could see them face to face and were close enough to truly appreciate the details of each.

After the Terracotta Warriors, we returned to Xi'an where we relaxed for a bit before heading out to the airport. Being so pre-occupied with the exhibit, transportation, and overpriced food at the museum we snacked on almonds all day and they seemed to serve us well.

Off to the airport for Guilin.


June 14, 2011
Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

After a late arrival last night to Guilin, we checked into our youth hostel and went straight to bed. Today we got up early to head to the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, but found ourselves locked in our hostel. There was a note on the door that said if we needed to leave before 7:00am to call them, but we had no phone and there was no phone in the room; I found it rather disturbing that they lock everyone into the building each night, since this is a horrible fire hazard. Fortunately, there is an escape route, jumping the fence, which is exactly what we did.

We caught a taxi to the bus station and got a bus to Longsheng, a trip that encountered no problems after our bus driver stopped to get some noodles. Once in Longsheng, the girl who collects money from passengers proved what we had felt the evening before, that the people here are among the nicest in China. She not only directed us to our connecting bus, but actually walked us over there.

Our bus to Dazhai, a small village among the rice terraces, left within minutes, but after only a few minutes our bus turned into some sort of vegetable market or day care as it filled up with about five children and three or four farmers selling their berries (in addition to multiple other farmers bringing their food to the market). Despite watching a child pee all over her mother and having a bag of dead chickens in front of me, the bus ride began well. Our driver proved to be the passengers' best customers as he bought food from a couple farmers. Plus, we had only waited a couple minutes after arriving in Longsheng before heading out.

After picking up a couple more passengers along the route, including a Swiss guy, our troubles began. First we stopped to have the bus looked at, then we filled up the gas. We also got stopped and were asked to pay 90 yuan a person to enter the town, which is apparently in a national park protection area. Next, our bus shut down and after a couple minutes we had to turn around to get a new bus. The new bus proved useful for about five minutes until it failed to get into gear and we got stuck on a hill for about ten minutes. This gave us time to meet the Swiss guy and share stories, but with a cliff behind us and the bus failing to get into gear, there were also some tense moments. After the bus began working we were again off and soon after arrived in Dazhai to begin our trek.

The village of Dazhai is just beyond the park entrance and seems like a nice little village, but our intentions were to see the terraced rice fields of the Dragon's Backbone so we continued on. The people here are primarily ethnic minorities and they offered us places to stay, food, and to help carry our bags. Although their advances seemed friendly, two of the ladies trying to carry our bags followed us for about a half hour and no matter how stern we were, they didn't seem to give up on what seemed like potential money walking through their village.

The area was beautiful though and as we climbed higher and higher the views became more and more amazing. It was rice planting season and many of the farmers were in the fields planting so we often stopped to grab a snack and enjoy the views. After about an hour we turned around and headed back, taking our time and finishing our trek at about two hours, which happened to be perfect timing. As we exited the park a bus was about to leave straight to Guilin, saving us a stopover in Longsheng; we jumped on and were off to Guilin, before continuing on to Yangshuo.


June 14, 2011
A Few Days to Relax

We arrived to Yangshuo late after spending the day north of Guilin at the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces. Having been in China for a couple weeks now we were craving some western food so stopped at a place that served both Chinese and western food. Although my main course was Chinese (sweet and sour chicken, which was excellent), Yangshuo is known for their banana and Oreo shakes and trying one of those was a nice addition. It is sort of a combination of a smoothie and a milk shake, starting with banana flavor, moving on to Oreo, then finished with the banana again; it was surprisingly good.

We then got a taxi to our hotel, which was in a village west of Yangshuo near the Yulong River. The rest of the night consisted of cleaning up and attempting to not smell from the heat and humidity we faced while hiking all day.

June 15, 2011

Yangshuo is known as a slow moving town, in which to relax, and that's exactly how our day started. We got up, walked around aimlessly without a map, then decided to spend our afternoon on a bamboo raft down the Yulong River. Before heading on our raft trip we grabbed a bite to eat at our hotel: noodles with beef and more chocolate cake, this time freshly baked and topped with chocolate syrup.

The company that organized the bamboo raft ride picked us up and gave us a ride to the river on a motorcycle taxi. It was a small motorcycle for three people, especially considering the many potholes on the half paved road. The bamboo raft was a highlight on the slow moving Yulong River. The scenery was beautiful and the small waterfalls we went over gave us just enough excitement to keep us awake.

After the bamboo raft we ran into two rather disturbing things; a downpour and a man with monkeys dressed up and chained to a stick. First we encountered the monkeys; a man was trying to have us give him money, but I was too revolted to find out what his ploy was; he even had one of his monkeys wearing sunglasses. The downpour, which came a few minutes later, was the better of the two options, plus with the heat reaching well over 90º F the downpour actually felt good as it very quickly cooled us off.

After our mile or two hike back to the hotel through the rain we cleaned up and grabbed dinner, which consisted of beef and peppers. We also met a drummer from California at dinner who has been on the road for nearly four months, beginning in India to learn some native drumming techniques. True to Yangshuo form, we did very little today other than relax, and I think we needed the break.

June 16, 2011

Today we got up somewhat early (in relative terms for Yangshuo) in order to rent bikes and head up to something called Dragon Bridge, which was about a two-hour bike trip. The bike trip was beautiful and we were so focused on the natural beauty of the area that we got lost... numerous times. We eventually made our way to a main road and followed the signs until we got to the little village of Yulong, which we were looking for.

In Yulong we relaxed, took pictures, and tried to eat, but were continuously hawked by people trying to get us to take a bamboo raft ride. We stayed long enough to watch a man do some cormorant fishing, then continued on. Cormorant fishing is when fishermen tie a string around a cormorant bird's neck so it's tight enough that the bird can't swallow a big fish, but big enough so the bird can breathe and can swallow small fish. Fortunately for the fishermen, the birds haven't seemed to catch on yet and always go after the big fish, but when they can't swallow them they return to the fisherman's boat and he removes the fish to later sell in the market. The fisherman we watched had incredible birds and they were each catching a fish every minute or two; he was also very rewarding to his birds and made sure they got fed well for their work.

After moving on we again got lost, stopped to eat our lunch at a small watering hole, and met four young Chinese, who were eager to bike with us. We accepted their invitation and soon enough we were all lost together. We swerved in and out of fields and along built up earthen walls asking farmer after farmer how to get to the main path, which we eventually found. After a couple villages we each went on our own way and soon enough we made our way back to the hotel for a little mid-day relaxation (as it again rained outside).

For dinner we headed into Yangshuo itself, where we avoided hectic traffic, numerous touts, and offers for more bamboo raft and boat rides. Dinner was at a place like seemingly every place in Yangshuo, half western food, half Chinese food, with free WiFi access. As we ate I came to the conclusion that this is as close as it comes to a backpacker resort town: the scenery is beautiful, the attitude is laid back, biking is the main form of transportation, and nearly every restaurant serves both western and local foods. Plus, despite all the tourists, the town is still relatively inexpensive, meaning most travelers here are backpackers, and many of those backpackers tend to stay for weeks or even months. Additionally, with a growing tourism industry, there is high demand for English teachers here so it's easy to find a job.

By the end of the meal I had determined that I have seen more white people here than I have throughout the rest of China. That includes sights like The Terracotta Warriors, The Great Wall of China, and The Forbidden City combined (excluding Hong Kong, although even if Hong Kong was included it would be competitive).

After dinner, we headed back to our hotel, which was about 20 minutes away by bike in order to prepare for our early morning flight the next day to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

June 17, 2011
A Day Overview Before Heading Home

I got back to Hong Kong from Guilin via Shenzhen and now I can confirm that Hong Kong is in no way China (other than legally of course). Hong Kong is on a different currency, a different customs stamp, they have their own passports, they speak English, they drive on opposites sides of the road, and most importantly, their mentality and culture is completely different from mainland China. Although legally they are one and the same, they are two worlds apart.

Upon arrival to my hotel I was again reminded of a horrible, horrible trait the hotel service staffs in Hong Kong have, something I call "suffocatingly attentive service." The bell hops and hotel employees (both at this hotel and my last hotel in Hong Kong, but not elsewhere in China) are so overly attentive it's almost an invasion of one's privacy. As I got off the shuttle bus from the airport I had literally three people waiting to help me, with another line of employees behind them to help the others on the bus. They tried to physically take my backpack off my back to carry it for me and when I refused, one followed me in to ask if I needed anything, almost begging for me to ask for assistance until he walked me all the way to the reception desk.

I experienced the same thing at my last hotel in Hong Kong and even if I didn't have anything for them to carry (although the one time I was carrying nothing but a folder they tried to carry it for me), they would run ahead of me and press the elevator button so I wouldn't have to wait for an elevator. Then as I would get in the elevator, the bellhop would press the "door close" button so I could save those precious fractions of a second. Being very independent, I found all this service brutal and overly imposing, however anyone who feels he should be treated like royalty would love every second of it.

Having seen everything that interested me already, I spent the day with Cindy (it was her first time in the city) re-visiting the highlights, including the park, Temple Street Night Market, the Star Ferry across the harbor, and the fried rice place. We then returned to the hotel for our flights home tomorrow morning.

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