China

Chinese, not Chinese in Lhasa, Tibet

Underneath the crisp air and crystal blue sky, an oppressive sun casts unforgiving rays that burn my face and shoulders. I cover myself with a light jacket or shawl for relief. The nights are chilly and the daily weather goes from clear and sunny to light rain and stormy at a moment’s notice, so if you’re headed this way, a light water proof jacket and sweater are a good idea. As we enter the center of old Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, Buddhist pilgrims walk in a clockwise circle around its holy epicenter, Jokhang Temple, the first Buddhist temple built in Tibet. This kora must be walked in odd number sequences, as even numbers are unlucky. Those who cannot recite scripture carry prayer wheels with scripture written on them that they twirl to have the prayers recited for them.

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The elderly Tibetan ladies catch my eye, their ebullient faces weathered and red from the fierce Tibetan sun and their clothes brightly colored and stained by the dusty earth. Many elderly spend their golden years devoted to this endless circle.

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The smell of incense fills the air as juniper smolders in large outdoor incense burners, and beside them, religious folk point their hands in prayer as they fall down, face and body flat to the cobbled floor. They complete these prostrations 1000 times in a row as a way cleanse their sins, purify their minds and build good karma for the next life.

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Inside the temple, yak butter candles light centuries old murals of Buddha. Hidden in the corridors are relics entombed in gold from the 7th century and a famed golden statue of Buddha, once kept beyond the grasp of an army employed by a covetous Chinese Princess. On the rooftop, monks sit idly by, selling beads they’ve blessed to pilgrims and wandering tourists. A string of turquoise catches my eye, how much I ask?

“200 yuan,” says the monk, and with a curious look. “Where you from?”

“Janada,” I say in my best Tibetan. The monk smiles and tells me how he is learning English taught by a number of Canadians at a nearby academy. We talk for a moment and by the conversation’s end he tells me that he will sell me the blessed beads for half the price. He gestures to a group of Chinese tourists and sneers.

“For them, full price, for you, half price.”

I’m surprised, but not surprised. In 2012, two monks lit themselves on fire outside the monastery in protest of the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibet. Self-immolations all over Tibet occur almost monthly. Security checkpoints surround the temple banning all lighters, matches and flammable liquids. Tibetans are not allowed to be issued passports and their mobility around the country is limited. They do not like the Chinese and openly tell me as much.

It’s a strange conundrum for me as I am ethnically Chinese. In my home country I’m seen as Chinese and in my mother’s country I’m seen as western. I’ll always be different.

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I spent five days in Lhasa to acclimate to the 3650m elevation. I saw the Potala Palace, home of the Dalai Lama, and his summer palace. I made momos, drank yak butter tea (tastes like clarified butter, gross), watched monks debate Buddhist philosophy at Sera Monastery and ate plenty of yak. Yak is a Tibetan ox that tastes very gamey, similar to goat. It’s a regional staple, but unfortunately yak makes me want to yak, so I had to lay off it for a while. Went on a bargaining binge for quality thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist art), and received a massage from a business run by the blind. Many of the workers there come from an NGO called Braille Without Borders. Their services are much more professional and relaxing than my Beijing experience.

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On our final day we drive 5 hours to Namtso Lake where the sacred waters meet the sky at a height of 4500m. I take it easy, but the thin air gives me a slight headache. A fellow traveler hands me some ibuprofen, which alleviates the pain.

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On to Everest…

Altitude Sickness

The two-day train to the roof top of the world from Beijing to Tibet is the highest railway in the world. It is fraught with dirty Asian toilets and cramped quarters, but if you can be without the comforts of home, the mountain landscapes after the first 24 hours are remarkable. The train passes through Xi’an, Lanzhou, Xining, and across the Qinghai plateau before arriving in Lhasa. Very slowly you can see the scenery change from muddy rivers and red hills to snowy mountains and blanketed plateaus.

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As we ascend 4000 meters above sea level, my body begins to feel swollen and sore as the air pressure changes. Symptoms of altitude sickness include headaches, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue and loss of appetite. I feel the later two. I did not bring Diamox, a prescribed blood thinner to combat altitude sickness, so we’ll see how I fare on the way to Everest. Only two people in my tour group of twelve did not bring Diamox, a Columbian girl, Gina, and I. We’re told that at least one person each trip is seriously affected by the altitude and requires hospitalization. Gina and I are sharing herbal supplements that Tibetans say are effective in combating the altitude. Herbal meds don’t fail us now.

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I brought 3 liters of water, fruit and snacks for the long haul trip, but the dining car offers decent Chinese food for your regular meals. We sleep in a 6-berth sleeper compartment, which is better than the folks who are sitting on passenger chairs through the entire 44-hr journey, so I can’t complain.

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Beijing Street Food

Fetching breakfast in Beijing can be somewhat intimidating when you don’t know the language, but when I saw the hustle and bustle of this street food cafe, I couldn’t resist.

People were munching on congee (Chinese savory porridge), eggs and buns on rough tables in the open air. With a little finger pointing, I managed to order dumplings (a whole steam basket for only 6 yuan/$1!), some sort of soy milk bowl and fried dough. The meal was satisfying, but eating like a Beijinger, priceless!

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There were also some delicious fruit stalls nearby, you have to negotiate with them or else they’ll try to charge you double the going rate. I washed apples and peaches with water from my hotel room and so far so good.

Off to a two-day train ride to Tibet!

Welcome to China

A 13-hr direct Hainan airline flight from Toronto to Beijing offered relative comfort and stunning views over the Arctic.

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When I arrived in China I was happy that customs greeted me with a quick stamp of my passport and no questions asked. I opted to take the subway (“airport express train”) into the city, a wise move considering fellow travelers who got stuck in 4-hr Beijing rush hour traffic and in one case, was locked in a taxi cab until he paid double the price on the meter.

First day was spent exploring the Forbidden City, Tienanmen Square and getting ripped off at the Silk Market thanks to my inferior bargaining skills.
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By day’s end I was followed home by a man for 15 minutes as he catcalled and beckoned me to join him on his motorbike. I think this was more on the unusual side, as most people in Beijing are respectful.

I joined Intrepid Travel’s “Beijing to Delhi” 32-day tour, which is a combination of two of their smaller trips called “Mountains and Monasteries” and “Katmandu to Delhi.” Our first outing was to the Great Wall, the only man-made structure that can be seen from space.
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It’s humbling, walking along this colossal engineering project that claimed hundreds of lives. Aside from the breathtaking scenery, the highlight of the Wall was screaming at the top of my lungs and sliding down a luge chute.

I’m a sucker for massages and after the Wall, my aching body was in need of some TLC. A massage parlor illuminated by a neon red sign beside my hotel looked questionable, but I was desperate. After discovering that I couldn’t speak Chinese, I was offered an English menu that was double in price. I negotiated down a massage and if there were any doubts that this was a place that offered “happy endings,” those were erased when I met my masseuse dressed as a nurse in a mini skirt. What have I gotten myself into? Clearly any reasonable person could tell I wasn’t in the market for erm, a rub and tug. Thankfully I was right …Though I think it was a little inappropriate when the “nurse” sat on my butt and straddled her legs along side my body as she massaged my back. Arousing concern…