July 2001



Robyn and I left Guangzhou (GZ) about two weeks ago, spending our first weekend with a big group of friends in Yangshou, which is an overnight train ride from GZ. Yanghshou is famous for it's karst peaks, and we did some running during the day and socializing at night. A perfect way to ease into a trip.

We elected to forgo the 48 hour train ride from Yangshou to Chengdu (capital of the Western province of Sichuan and gateway to Tibet) and instead had the most terrifying plane ride of my life. Since we started living in China, I have become afraid of flying, no doubt it part because China's air safety record is often characterized as 'dismal'. Ten minutes after takeoff, our twin engine jet de-accelerated sharply, perhaps due to a loss of power in one engine, we'll never know - inforamtion sharing is not common in China. We then circled back to land at the airport we had just left. As we eased toward the runway lots of noise was coming from the lower lefthand side of the plane. I almost peed my pants when we aborted the landing attempt while only 200m off the runway. Perhaps there were problems with the landing gear -- we'll never know! We then circled the airport several times while watching the fire engine and other vehicles come out on the air strip. Everyone on the plane was very serious, except for the Chinese guy in front of Robyn who had his seat back and slept through the whole thing. Eventually we were able to land. After a few hours of 'maintenance' and no explanation, we took off again without incident.

From Chengdu we took an all day bus up into the mountains where we did a 3 day 'horse trek'. We went in a group of about ten backpackers and one 'guide' for each of us. The guides took care of our horses, set up tents, cooked and got us thick Tibetan coats when we were cold. We felt a bit spoiled! The weather was perfect and the scenery was fantastic, we rode around various lakes, waterfalls and springs. The nights were full of stars, big camp fires, loud singing (mostly the guides) and lots of beer and 'baiju', the local rice fire liquor.

Back in Chengdu, we felt obliged to visit the world's biggest Buddha at Leshan, which is 1300 years old. I almost skipped this one, but felt inspired to visit it, since hearing the semi-recent news of the destruction of the 2nd tallest one in Afghanistan. Anyways, it was, of course, big.

In Lhasa, we spent a few days seeing the main tourist venues such as the Potola and the Jokhang. While the Potola is the traditional center of Tibetan government, the Jokhang is the biggest religious temple in Lhasa and features crowds of pilgrims prostrating themselves at the gates and making religious circuits (koras) around the temple, while monks do lots of chanting inside. Very trippy scene. The 80th anniversary of the Chinese Communist party has just past and the 50th anniversary of the 'Liberation of Tibet' is in 5 days, so security is very tight, manifested by frequent police checkpoints, lots of soldiers and a huge grandstand smack in front of the Potola to celebrate 'liberation'.

We left Lhasa to visit the major monastery of Ganden, a two hours bus ride from Lhasa and 15,000 feet up. The monastery was mostly bombed out by the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution and still has many burnt out buildings around the edges, although the main buildings in the middle have been rebuilt. We were the only tourists to stay the night. As we were brushing our teeth and getting ready to sleep, we heard a continuous loud commotion from across the monastery, complete with banging and yelling. Hoping no-one was being stoned to death, we decided to investigate. We discovered a large courtyard lit by a single bulb with a hundred monks debating in clusters of 3 or 4. One monk in each group stood over his partners and exclaimed points of theological debate in Tibetan while rocking back and forth and clapping loudly at the end of each point. The silhouttes of all the monks against the star-lit background of the Tibetan plateau was quite surreal. At first we thought we might not be welcome, but before we knew it a monk was ushering us into the courtyard and inviting us to sit with their debating group. The two seated monks were quickly distracted from the wildly clapping monk as they became engrossed in a game of "see who can turn on the head-light" (the on-off switch is hard to find). This game was soon followed by thumb wrestling (I won, Robyn lost!) and variations of patty-cake, patty-cake... In any case it seems a festive way to debate and Robyn and I intend to try it.

We left Ganden intent on a 4 day hike. We had a beautiful hike on our first day but got so rained out our second day (I thought we were going to get carried away in the storm) that we had our yak and yak driver bring us back to Ganden, from which we returned to Lhasa. Yaks rock! They also make for excellent Chilli con Carne.

Robyn and I pass our down time playing cards and reading. The card games (Gin Rummy) last for a country (Robyn's currently in the lead at 1760 vs. 1710 pts). If I lose this one, I'm sure I can take Nepal. On books, so far I've knocked out 'Big Trouble' by Dave Berry, 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' (..I love you little rabbit..oh yes I love you, do you love me? oh yes little rabbit I love you? but have you loved others? Only you my little rabbit, I love you...)and Irving's 'Hotel New Hampshire'. If Everest is cloud locked I may end up reading the fine print in my passport, since we're out of books.

Lhasa Party Cell

Some of the Guangzhou HHH by the river in Yangshou.
On our horse-trek near Songpan.
Two baby panda's face off in playful confrontation.
The Potola.
Ganden Monestary at 14,700 feet.
Debating monks. The Monk on the right is expounding to the two on the ground. Some more monks can be seen in the dark background.

Created: August 18, 2001
Maintainer: Keir Paesel