Monthly Archives: April 2011

Scenes from the Tibetan Countryside

Driving south from Lhasa, it is no question that Tibet is devastatingly pretty. It’s also very empty particularly coming from China where everything was crowded together, and there’s a definite frontier feel to the whole place.
Plus, of course, some very lovely scenic spots to check out! Continue reading

Lhazing around Lhasa

Posted from Kathmandu, Nepal- yep, made it to Everest, more later!

Let me make one thing clear: despite being a part of China for over 50 years and having 8 Chinese to every Tibetan and having Chinese writing placed in greater prominence to the Tibetan signs, Lhasa does not feel like a Chinese city at all. Chinese army men on every street corner holding AK-47s and smoke bombs and who knows what else may also have something to do with this disturbing illusion, because this is a common sight in places with no civil unrest right? Continue reading

The Train to Lhasa

The Qingzang Rail line was opened in 2006 by the Chinese government to the tune of approximately US$4 billion dollars. It terminates in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, after well over 2,000 kilometers (~1200 mi) depending on your starting point, and is one of the epic railway journeys in the world.

So one can’t help but give it a go, right? Here’s a play-by-play of the experience:

Day 1: Wednesday, April 13-

2:00pm: We “alight” onto the train to Chongquing from Chengdu where we have to make a connection to start the journey to Lhasa proper. This is done because despite it being a 48 hour rail journey to Lhasa from Chengdu the train tickets sell out very early, too early for tourists who show up planning to go ASAP to Tibet, but the train from Chongquing is 3 hours shorter and tends to have seats until the last minute.
2:05pm: It becomes clear that this connecting train is in fact a bullet train which travels at 200 km/hr (~124 mi/hr). This is greatly exciting.
4:10pm: Arrival in Chongquing. We head to the nearest Dico’s, an entertainingly-named fast food chain in China which has free wifi, to wait for our connection.
7:05pm: We decide to try to go find our train to Lhasa because it is an expensive, hard-to-get ticket to a place you need a special permit, so being on time is prudent.
7:10pm: We learn that Chongquing has two train stations and ours leaves from the southern one. Our train is set to leave at 7:54pm. These two facts are the source of great excitement.
7:11pm: Running to the taxi stand occurs, and the urgency of the situation is conveyed by frantic pointing to the train tickets. The driver understands, and soon makes it clear he is the sort of person who turns taxi driving into an art form. He speeds. He weaves. He uses his horn liberally. We are in the presence of a Master.
7:25pm: The best taxi driver I’ve ever had pulls into Chongquing’s southern train station with a meter fee of 16 yen (~$2.50). We give him 25 yen and laughs in appreciation when we refuse the 5 yen note as he tries to give it back (in China, taxi drivers usually just take the few yen on the round-up as tip).


7:40pm: We make it onto the train to Lhasa. I breathe normally again.
7:54pm: Train leaves on time as scheduled. We are the only two people of four berths in our soft-sleeper (ie highest class) compartment, which causes some excitement.
8:30pm: Patrick out of premature boredom decides to transform the top bunk that I’ve magnanimously agreed to take into a fort for his lower bunk, stripping the sheets and blankets and dubbing it “Panderly Rock.” (We’ve been reading Game of Thrones lately.) I refuse to do it with the other side because there’s a good chance those two other guys will still show up (though it would have been christened Penguinfell if anyone’s curious).
9:02pm: The first of two Chinese guys who will share our compartment show up, with a “what the #%$* are these white people doing?!” look on his face. While he arranges his bags Patrick helps me remake the upper bunk.
11:15pm: Time to go to bed on the first of two nights on the train.

Day 2: Thursday April 14-

7:30am: It’s never fully quiet on a train due to the rails, even with earplugs, and it wakes me up and makes me realize I have to go to the bathroom. I’m a very light sleeper so this is actually the third time this waking up has happened during the night, making me realize sleeping on a train is likely a glimpse into what sleeping habits will be like when I’m a senior citizen.
11:30am: I decide to give this “waking up” thing another try in hopes that this one sticks. Over a Breakfast of Champions of fruit juice, bananas, and cookies I mention to Patrick that train life is sorta like prison in that you sleep a lot because you have nothing better to do (this is proven with how one of our Chinese compartment-mates pretty much slept through all of Day 2).
11:45am: During a stop in an unknown Chinese town I download new reading material onto my Kindle. During my travels I’ve abandoned paper books altogether because when you can download Bossypants by Tina Fey on the train to Tibet you know which medium has won.
4:25pm: We are kicked out of the dining car as they refuse to believe we’re still eating lunch after two hours. Jerks.
4:26pm: I should mention at this point that there are no scenery pictures from this day because the pre-plateau part of the rail journey wasn’t all that interesting, more like an arid hilly region. At this point however the train is slowly chugging up a ton of switchbacks through some mountains, and ta-da! the plateau begins.
7:30pm: I look out and realize it is snowing outside, and moreover that it’s still daylight when the sun set an hour prior in Beijing. This is because the Chinese don’t believe in time zones and run their entire country on one, meaning the sun sets in Tibet two hours later.

10:15pm: Bedtime occurs after the obligatory movie on my computer and reading and all that jazz. I play around with the personal oxygen supply a little should I wake up at the Tanggula Pass gasping for breath, which at 5,072m (16,640 feet) is the highest stretch of railway in the world.

Day 3: Friday, April 15

3:00am- I awaken to confusion during which I realize my issue is the train has been stopped in a station for a decent time now, and more importantly that all our Chinese compartment-mates have gone. I migrate to the other now-freed lower bunk.
3:15am- When the train starts again it becomes obvious the lower bunks suck compared to the upper ones- they’re much harder and are more subject to the rocking of the train. I migrate back, understanding why Patrick has such a harder time sleeping on Chinese trains despite being able to sleep anywhere. (The upper bunks are slightly shorter which is why I’ve been taking them.)

8:00am- I awaken to discover the plateau is covered in snow at this high altitude (80% of the Tibet section is above 4,000 meters, ie 13,000 feet). Judging by the picture-taking of the locals, this is unusual for this time of year.
9:00am- I never went back to bed as the scenery is just too captivating, and over time the snow disappears as we head to lower altitudes. We are on the 500km part of the track that was laid on barely permanent permafrost, meaning it melts in the summertime. The complicated engineering was hailed as a marvel until it became clear that it didn’t work in all the sections so some of them now have in-ground refrigeration in the summer.
1:00pm- The first yak is spotted. Well the first yak close enough to take a picture of while the train slows a bit. There have been lots of sheep too.


4:45pm- About 45 hours after we began, the train pulls into Lhasa. Unfortunately my attempts to take a picture of the train engine from closer (they were built by General Electric in Pennsylvania!) were thwarted by a police officer who didn’t want me to get closer. Welcome to Tibet!

So that was the epic rail journey. All in all I classify this one as “something I’m glad I did and recommend but wouldn’t want to do twice” things because, um, Asian squat toilets aren’t terribly hygienic (and when you’re chugging water to combat the altitude you visit more frequently) and while everyone knows the Chinese love to spit it’s harder to ignore when a guy in your compartment is doing it a few feet away from you. But hey, it was all in all just what you’d expect from an epic railway journey on the Roof of the World!

Announcing Seven Days in Tibet

I was going to say a little more about Chengdu where this Mao statue is located, but I have a train to go and catch in a few minutes.

After ~48 hours, that train which is the highest commercial rail service in the world will arrive in Lhasa, Tibet, elevation ~4,000 meters where our government-appointed guide/babysitter will pick us up. Incidentally, you need to sign a disclaimer promising you’re not a political activist before they hand over your Tibet permit.

About a week later we will leave Tibet and cross the border into Nepal, but not before stopping a night at Everest Base Camp. The roof of the world! Words cannot describe my excitement.

Anyway, watch this space, I have a train to catch!

The Chengdu Panda Center

This post is an early name day present to my sister Linda, who taught me more about panda breeding practices than I ever could imagine existed. Hope you have an awesome day! :)

I’ve come to the conclusion that pandas are lucky they’re so darn cute because otherwise they would’ve gone extinct long ago. They’ve been around 8 million years whereby the average is 5 million years for a species, there are less than 2,000 in the wild remaining, they eat bamboo which is a food devoid of nutritional content, and even when they overcome their serious reproduction issues they give birth to something that looks like a premature rat.

So good thing they have folks like the people at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Center and adoring tourists who come over and act like the paparazzi around them, isn’t it? Continue reading

Xi’an Wanderings

One of the most amazing things about travel is just how quickly you adapt to your surroundings so things that would seem unusual at home seem perfectly normal to you. China, for example, has this strange habit of taking a city of 4 million people like Xi’an and making it seem small and manageable to you because it doesn’t have twice as many people and sprawl to cover the size of Belgium. Continue reading

The Terracotta Army of Xi’an

In the early 1970s, a peasant farmer in communist China was digging a well in a village outside Xi’an and unearthed a few pottery fragments. He thanked his luck as the local government gave him 10 yen for the find (at the time the average worker got 50 yen a month), but that was just the beginning. In the most classic case of a life not turning out the way expected I’ve ever heard, the farmer became an international celebrity because he’d unwittingly stumbled across the terracotta army-


(You can still meet the farmer by the way. When not meeting foreign dignitaries he sits around autographing books for tourists.) Continue reading

The Great Wall of China

Before we begin let’s be clear on one thing: the Great Wall was not successful in any way whatsoever. Although the first parts were built over 2,000 years ago in order to keep the Mongols out, the Mongols discovered time and time again that riding around the wall or bribing guards to look the other way was a much more effective way of invading China. In fact the Qing, the last dynasty in China which ended just over a century ago, were actually Mongol overlords who found a disgruntled general in the 17th century to open the gate for them.
So why do we bother with the Great Wall then? I think it’s for the similar reason we like things like the Eiffel Tower- they might serve no real purpose, but they are pretty cool in the “stuff people can build” department-

This would be neat enough if this was all there was, but the fact of the matter is the Wall in its heyday stretched nearly 9,000 kilometers (~5,500 miles) beyond what you see here and had a million people manning it. (To compare, the US-Mexican border is 3,169km or just shy of 2,000 miles. Conclude what you will about whether we should build a giant fence.) And like anything cool and windy, a hike along it is rather irresistible, no?

There’s a big discussion when you find yourself in Beijing about which section of the Great Wall to visit exactly, but we ended up heading for Mutianyu because it’s known for being less crowded and very scenic compared to other sections in exchange for being a 2 hour drive away from the city. It’s also famous for having quite a few watchtowers than the other sections, 22 in 2.5 kilometers (ie 1.5 mi), making for good pictures even if the smog creeping up from Beijing means you don’t have stunning panoramas on your visiting day-

I should mention though that while the distances above don’t sound too much, firstly realize you have to double the length because you have to walk back and secondly realize some sections are seriously steep-
Seriously, I climbed up the above section like it was a ladder because it seemed like the most reasonable thing to do, and this picture doesn’t show you the 400-odd steps before this which were so steep the walls were pitched at 45 degree angles on either side of us! So the hike took us about 3.5 hours sprinkled with liberal photo stops and tower climbing because hey, I don’t exactly come here often!

By the way, as an astronomically inclined person a lot of people like to ask me whether the Great Wall of China is actually visible from space. In short, no, it’s pretty thin and the same color as the terrain so astronauts in low Earth orbit (ie space shuttle or station) have tried to spot it, but more often than not end up “finding” a nearby river. Apparently the claim that it could be seen from space originated in the 19th century because it was assumed if we could see the “canals” on Mars then they could see the Great Wall. Because we knew what space was like in the 1800s, right? Like how there were intelligent Martians building canals?
Anyway, it turns out if you hike at Mutianyu there is one additional benefit the other sections don’t have- the toboggan ride! (Though before I continue, Patrick decided in Beijing that we didn’t stand out enough as the only white people in China and bought the panda hat for 20 yen.  Well we can’t complain we’re being ignored!) See, you know how after a long hike up mountainsides you get tired and start wistfully thinking how great it would be if there was a slide going down the mountain so you wouldn’t have to walk it?  Well this is China where they are more capitalist than Americans in many senses, such as the one where the fact that it’s an internationally historic site doesn’t get in the way of putting in a toboggan ride to charge tourists to use!

Now that I think about it, when you add up how much tourist money the local villages get which would otherwise be in impoverished obscurity maybe the Great Wall is a success after all…

Wandering through History in Beijing


Beijing is a giant, chaotic sprawl of a city allegedly the size of Belgium, and we ended up staying a week here altogether to do and see everything we wanted. And because our hostel was right in the middle of Old Beijing on a hutong (road/alleyway so narrow you can’t drive a car down thm) let’s start with the historic sites, shall we? Continue reading

The Longji Rice Terraces

With almost any country you travel to, it’s impossible to not carry a preconceived notion with you on what that country will be like. Often they’re completely wrong of course- Ireland is not one giant pub, Australians don’t all have pet kangaroos, stuff like that. I figured China would be similar, but then we visited the Longji Rice Terraces two hours from Guilin and I realized this would be different. This is one of the most spectacular scenic places I’ve visited, and the fact that it was pretty similar to what I imagined rural China to be like didn’t hurt either! Continue reading