From Zhongdian to Lhasa

Trip Start Sep 18, 2004
Trip End Jun 05, 2005

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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Written by Nelly

We made it to Lhasa!
We arrived Lhasa yesterday after eight days of being on the road. Jesse is healthy and well. However, for the first time in my life I'm suffering from traveller's stomach problems. I was very relieved when we saw the beautiful and grand Potala palace shimmering on the hill as we were approaching Lhasa. I knew that I might be able to find a the first clean toilet in days.

The Landcruiser and our Driver
We shared a Landcruiser with Mr. C from Canada and Ms. J from Japan. (We haven't been using people's names in our logs.) We are so lucky that they were pleasant companions. Our Landcruiser was a 1994 model. In China, they call this particular Landcruiser model either "King of the Desert" or "Prince of the Desert". Our driver was a Tibetan man who spoke Mandarian Chinese (under the Chinese education system, they learn both Tibetan and Mandarian). He is very experienced with the route we were taking, he had done it over ten times just this year. He is also very nice, along the way, we would teach him English and he teaches us some Tibetan and taught Jesse some Chinese.

The only problem we had with the car was that the battery was dying. In fact, it was totally dead by the third day of the trip. So the driver had to do a roll start to jump start the car. Every morning, either us, some of the hotel staff, or even strangers would push the car to get it started. The driver had to be very careful where he parked the car, preferably on a hill so it's easier to push.

Scenery Along the Way
The scenery along the way was amazing. We passed rolling hills, one snow capped mountain after another, gorges with turquoise rivers, terraces fields, small Tibetan villages, and secluded monasteries. We drive over two passes that were just over 5000 meters high. It was strange to be somewhere higher than Mt. Rainier without having to hike. I think the photos will do better job than me describing the scenery.

The road was sometimes paved and sometimes dirt road, full of switch backs. Tibetan villagers would wave at us along the road, kids would salute or wave at our car (the driver said the school taught the kids to salute). All sorts of animals, yaks, pigs, cows, goats, donkeys and horses, roamed on the road, and the driver had to honk to get them off the road.

Along the way, we would also see pilgrims making their way to Lhasa. They do so by prostrating themselves on the road, standing up, putting their feet where their hands were, and prostrating themselves on the road again. Our driver told us that most of them came all the way from Sichuan in this manner. That's at least 1700 km if not more. There was usually a group of 2-4 people making the pilgrimage. One would a pull cart with supplies. They take turns pulling the cart with all their stuff on it, and the rest will do their prostrating. They had hand pads and some of them had a leather apron to cover the front of their body. However, their foreheads are not protected and there are scabs on their forehead from all the prostration. They always seem happy to see us and wave at us.

Other vehicles on the road
There were not many vehicles on the road. What we typically see, besides other 4x4s, are small white mini vans transporting people, tractors transporting people, and open top cargo trucks transporting people and goods. Almost everyone drives in the middle of the road. When you want to pass someone you just keep on honking until the vehicle moves to the right.

Hot Spring Ettiquette
The second day of our trip we stayed at a town with hot springs. We didn't know what to expect in terms of the hot spring. The town is right next to the Mekong river, so the scenery is quite nice. There are couple ways to enjoy the hot spring, you can either be in a private concrete bathroom where the hotel has diverted the hot spring water into the room and it's like taking a bath but with hot spring water. Another hotel had a huge outdoor hot spring swimming pool (it was at least Olympic size if not bigger.) (Yes you wear your swim suit). We opted for the swimming pool. We paid 10 RMB a person, and went to this outdoor pool at night. It was quite a nice experience. It was cold outside but we were all nice and cozy in the pool enjoying the stars in the night sky. It was Jesse's first experience with a hot spring and he seemed to enjoyed it. We drank our terrible bottle of Chinese liquor which tasted like rotten bananas while soaking up whatever medicinal effect the hot spring offered.

The second morning, Mr. C and Ms. J decided to go to the hot spring pool again to enjoy what might be their last bath before Lhasa. They were enjoying it until some other locals joined them and decided to spit in the pool...

Memorable Markham
The most memorable town along the way for us was probably Markham. Markham is at the crossroads of the Sichuan-Tibet highway and Sichuan-Yunnan highway. We stopped by Markham on the third day for lunch. The town was a dusty town with a frontier feel to it (then again all the Tibetan towns along the way had that rustic frontier feel). It seemed like quite a few Tibetan nomads from all parts of Tibet were hanging out there. Needless to say, Mr. C and Jesse attracted quite a bit of attention.

Our driver dropped us off at a seemingly clean restaurant, and he was going somewhere else to eat and look for a battery for the car. Well, the cook was nowhere to be found, so we wandering down the street looking for food. Eventually we found a dumpling shop. While we are eating, besides the typical Tibetan beggars, a group of six or seven able body rough looking Tibetan men started standing behind Mr. C and put their hands on Ms. J's chair. They were chatting in Tibetan, pointing at Mr. C, and started pulling Mr. C's hair on his hand and his arm. They also started fingering his watch. I heard the shop keeper's half hearted reproach to these men in Chinese telling them to go away if they don't want to eat. I'm sure she was saying it in Chinese for my benefit, since she is Tibetan, and the gawkers were Tibetans too.

After leaving the restaurant, we were walking down the street and hoping the driver will show up sometimes soon. Some distraught Tibetan man decided to first run into Mr. R grabbing his elbow, and he ran towards me and grabbed my hand! I had no idea why, everything happened in slow motion. I just remembered trying to moved my hand away from him while he was trying to grope my hand. Our driver just laughed when I told him our experience.

Plus Plus Noodles
The fourth day of our trip, the driver took us to have Naxi "Plus Plus" noodles. It was pork noodles (I had veggies with rice that day) but they only filled your bowl 1/4 full. And the waitress just keeps on bringing you more noodles to add to your bowl. It keeps on going until you are full.

When everyone was full the waitress seemed rather upset. She started telling me in Mandarian that we are being charged 10 RMB a serving, and they better eat up because they are not eating enough their 10 RMB worth!

Monastery Visits
The first few monasteries we visited were quite small. They tend to be in small villages. The village kids were always running to show us the monastery and how to do the kora around the monastery. The kids were always sort of dirty with snot streaming down their face with big big smiles and rosy cheeks. There were also vicious dogs all over the place, so Jesse would always picked up a log while I picked up couple big rocks in my hand. There were usually some pilgrims as well, who always smiled when you greeted them with the Tibetan greeting "Tashi Dele". The pilgrims wore their traditional Tibetan robes and had their hair braided with colored threads or beads. They also carried a prayer wheel spinning it as they walked. They looked weathered as if they had been travelling for quite awhile.

The Lamas were all really kind and showed us the monasteries, at the same time they seemed confused why we were there. Some of them speak a little English since they've been to India. Most of them speak some Mandarian but with heavy accent. The yak butter smell is always very strong inside of the monastery, since they use yak butter to make lanterns, and probably drink yak butter tea all day long.

When we came out of the monasteries, we inevitably found our driver surrounded by kids. He was usually giving away fruits and snacks to the kids. We also immediately got mobbed by the kids, some of them started jumping up and touching Jesse's head.

He's my uncle
The most comical monastery encounter was at one particular out of the way monastery. We saw a pack of dogs gnawing at a cow skeleton as we drove up to the monastery. We got there, and it was a nun that greeted us. She took us upstairs and there was an old lama sitting there in a dim room. We sat down and she started pouring us some yak butter tea. Most of us had tried yak butter tea and really couldn't stomach it. It tastes like drinking liquid salted butter with a yak flavor. Mr. C was the first one and he got a full cup before he could ask for just a little bit. The rest of us were quick enough so we only got a little bit of tea in our cups. So there we were sitting there with our yak butter tea. The nun spoke a little Mandarian but with a thick accent and I had a hard time understanding her. Of course none of us speak any Tibetan. The nun was looking at us, since none of us were drinking the tea, she said drink drink. To be polite, we took little sips, and we knew that we had to finish the tea to be polite and we all felt really terrible for Mr. C who had a full cup. And as soon as he made a dent to his tea with tremendous effort, the nun was quick to refill his cup. So it was full again. Eventually the nun asked me:

"What are you doing here?"
"Um, well...", I asked the rest of the group what we are doing here, and they all looked puzzled and started laughing, Mr. C said, "That's a good question."
"We'd like to look around your monastery if that's OK and not too much trouble?", I said
She conveyed that to the old lama in Tibetan and that seemed to be OK.

We sat there quietly for awhile, trying to make a dent to our tea again. Mr. C asked me to asked the nun if they get many visitors.
"Do you get many visitors?", I asked.
She consulted the lama and after conversing a little bit, she said: "He is my uncle."

It was apparent to me at this point that she really doesn't understand me, and I really don't understand her even though we both thought that we were speaking mandarin. I started laughing. I later realized she said he is my master, not my uncle.
"Are you ill?", she asked me since I was flushed red from trying to stifle my laughter.
To take the opportunity to save Mr. R from drinking rest of his tea, I said
"No I'm OK, but the mister over there is sick and he can't finish his tea, We are very sorry.", said I.

While we were looking around the monastery, the old master went out to our car. He stood there and stared at our car and our driver who was sitting inside without saying anything.

They are fixing the road
On our sixth day of the trip, we hit the worst part of the road. The road was being fixed since there are numerous landslides that wash it out. Calling it a dirt road is an understatement. It was wide enough for only one car, and only a vehicle with high ground clearance can get through. Not to mention the road is still full of switch backs and high drop offs on the side. Occasionally there are streams that the car had to ford.

Along the way, there were road crews fixing the road, as well as their tents (more like tarps with sticks and rocks supporting it) along the side of the road. At one point, we saw a truck upside down in the ditch and the road was blocked. Luckily, we were stuck behind a couple of military vehicles who made sure that the road crew made a detour immediately.

I asked the driver about these road workers. Most of them are Han Chinese, very little Tibetans do road works. The government apparently pay 2 million RMB per km of road.

Kung Pao What?
The restaurant experiences along the trip were been interesting. The driver was always able to find us a Chinese restaurant for lunch. The Chinese establishments tend to be a lot more expensive than Tibetan ones. Half of the time, they had to go look for the cook, since it's the low season. They also don't always have menus, so I would go to the kitchen to see what they have. It's good to see the raw ingredients, since I would then know what to avoid.

One time I tried to order a chicken dish for the group, the waitress and the cook both shook their head vigorously and told me that it would be complicated because they would have to kill a chicken first.

The most memorable experience was when I tried to order "Kung Pao Meat Cubes" from the menu. I asked the waiter what kind of meat: "Lui zi", he said. I didn't quite understand what he said, so he repeated "Lui zi" again. And it dawned on me that he meant DONKEY. Needless to say, we avoided the Kung Pao Donkey. Our driver informed us that Tibetans don't eat donkey, it's the Sichuan Chinese that eat all sorts of meat.

The quality of hotels deteriorated very fast after we left Zhongdian, it didn't get better until we got to Pomi about half way into our journey. Most of the time, they are carpeted but the establishment doesn't seem to have a vacuum cleaner anywhere in sight. 24 hour hot water means a lukewarm shower if you are lucky. The toilet seat is not always attached, if there's any at all. Half the lights will not work, and if you point the things that are not functional, the hotel staff just looks at you with puzzlement, as if thinking "why would you need that light any ways?"

In one hotel, Ms. J and Mr. C got a room with a dirty toilet. They asked the guesthouse staff to clean it up. They showed up not with a brush but with a mop. After they cleaned the toilet with the mop they proceeded to use the same mop to clean the rest of the bathroom floor.

In another hotel, we were showed a room with smashed toilet tank. I pointed out the broken tank to the owner, he looked at me nonchalantly and said surely you can still use it.

The most amusing hotel experience was in Pashuo (our fourth day), the hotel staff can't give us keys because the owner was out of town and took one set of keys in a hurry. We came back from dinner. Ms. J and Mr. C asked the hotel staff to open the door for them. She said just a minute, and for whatever reason she went into the room next to them. We were all puzzled and were just waiting there. Imagine our surprise when she re-emerged from Ms. J and Mr. C's room! She apparently climbed out the window of one room to the tiny balcony and back in the window of their room to open the door for them. In her screwed up logic, she probably though that she could rent out the room next to Ms. J and Mr. C, but she forgot that once she rent out that room, she wouldn't be able to climb the balcony to open the door for Ms. J and Mr. C. It was a good thing they didn't lock their window!

Lonely Planet has a quote concerning toilets in Tibet and it says it better than I can without being crude:
"Chinese toilets might be fairly dismal, but Tibetan toilets make them look like little bowers of heaven".

What's next?
We'll be in Lhasa for at least a week and a half. We're currently relaxing, waiting for my stomach to recover. Then we'll be seeing the sights around Lhasa. After that we're not sure if we'll fly back to Kunming, China right away or go see sites outside of Lhasa.

So far we are really enjoying Lhasa. The air is clean, the food is good, the hotel is great. The only problem we're having is that the thin air makes it tough just walking around town.
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