China Diary:
South to Tibet and the Tropics

[North to the Ancient Capitals] [West on the Silk Road] [South to Tibet and the Tropics]

July 26: Chengdu – After a month of buses and trains, I fly to Chengdu, the only place foreigners can get permission to fly into Tibet. (I appreciate the smoke-free environment on the airplane.) I was here with Debbie during Spring Festival, and while I miss her not being with me now it is nice returning somewhere you are familiar with. Many Westerners come through this gateway to Tibet, and I dorm in a backpacker’s haven (five bucks per night, breakfast included). Usual routine: laundry, Internet, souvenir shopping. Different: Western food and book my Tibet trip. Later that evening I run into my new roommates (English teachers in Manchuria) over late dinner and brew, and too late I meet a travel agent with the only discounted trip to Tibet.

July 27: Stopover – I rent a bicycle in the morning and take my load of souvenirs in search of the post office. Luckily, this is the first day I have had in four weeks of traveling with nothing I must do because it takes me several hours to find the post office. I often stop along the way to add more items to my load. After lunch, I cruise the town and try to drink as much water as possible to prepare for my flight to Tibet. I oblige one of the locals who asks to pose with me for a photo. Against advice, I down my hot Sichuan dinner with a beer.

July 28: Tibetan (Xizang) Autonomous Region – We Western tourists, eager to see Shangri-La and be on the rooftop of the world, meet in the hotel lobby at five a.m. and load up three buses. On the airplane, I sit next to Doug, a law student from California traveling with his brother Scott, a physical education teacher in California. They visited their brother in Shanghai and are now touring China. Behind us sits Holly from Montana who taught English in Nanjing. We land in rainy Lhasa ("The Holy Place" or the "Land of Gods"), at 12,000 feet site of one of the world’s highest and holiest cities and former home of the Dalai Lama ("Ocean of Wisdom"), the much revered god-king. A group of us go to lunch (I get the yak burger) then shop around the Barkhor (pilgrim circuit encircling the Jokhang Temple). I sleep for a few hours in hopes of acclimating, then eat light dinner and catch the tail end of a Tibetan song and dance show. It is now pouring out, so a few of us hunker down in a bar and try the local drinks.

July 29: Lhasa – In the morning I head for the Potala Palace, once the center of Tibetan government and winter residence of the Dalai Lama. This huge complex on a hill has thousands of rooms, shrines, and statues and is topped off with golden roofs. It also has tombs of past Dalai Lamas. Next, I go to the Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of the city and most sacred and active of Tibet’s temples. It too has splendid roofs. I eat late lunch at an Indian restaurant, then chat with and photo the locals. The gang goes to dinner, and Scott, Doug, Holly, and I discuss our trekking plans.

July 30: Around Lhasa – We take a tour bus to Deprung, probably once the largest monastery in the world. It was also home to Dalai Lamas until the Potala was built. I meet one of the monks, who takes me on tour. Others in my group join me and he takes us all to his quarters for yak butter tea and a photo op. After lunch, the trekking foursome sets out to confirm plans with a local tour operator. Things progress smoothly until he informs us of a huge miscalculation, so we bolt for another operator who must now try to get our travel permits late Friday afternoon. We optimistically go ahead and get our photos for the Nepal visa. After dinner, some go see "Dead Poets Society" (very appropriate message for China!) at another hotel, then we are off to a disco.

July 31: Lhasa II – The trekking foursome heads for Norbu Lingka ("Jeweled Garden"), the summer palace for successive Dalai Lamas including the New Summer Palace built in 1956 by the fourteenth Dalai Lama who had to flee from it in 1959. After lunch, I buy a U.S.-made (I think?) day pack. Then I check my e-mail to find bad news about my son, followed by difficulty in using my frequent flyer mileage to return home. I grab street food for dinner on my way to see the movie "The Last of the Mohicans" with the trekking foursome, followed by entertainment at a disco.

August 1: Around Lhasa II – In the afternoon, Scott, Holly, and I rent bicycles and head to the Sera Monastery stopping for a Hami melon on the way. We later meet Doug and bike along the Lhasa River and back to the city. In the evening, we are surprised to witness a fist fight (we are not surprised no one in the crowd tries to break it up). We then go see the movie "The Fugitive." Walking back, we witness a bike-taxi accident (again, no one in the large crowd helps). Later, I go drinking with some locals.

August 2: Lost in Lhasa – Just when we think we have arranged our trek, it falls through once more. After several more failures and frustrations, we think we finally find a tour operator which will do as it promises. Encouraged once more, we get our Nepal visas. At night, Doug and I go drinking with some locals.

August 3: Leaving Lhasa – We finally pile into the Land Cruiser around 10:30 a.m., popping a Beatles tape into the deck as we head west. We climb the 15,700 foot Kampa La Pass with its stunning view of Yamdrok Tso (Lake). (We are towed out at one point along the way.) We eat lunch at Nakartse, then press on for several hours over a bumpy dirt road to Gyantse where we meet our guide and have dinner of sorts under the Dzong (Old Fort). Two hours later, we make it to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city. That evening, we four hit the karaoke.

August 4: Shigatse – After breakfast, we tour the Tashilumpo Monastery, traditional home of the Panchen Lama ("Great Precious Teacher") who is second to the Dalai Lama. Scott feels ill so he goes back to rest, while we buy some fruit and wander the markets. The driver and guide get the necessary travel permit while we get Scott. Off again by 4:30 p.m., we pass through a small hailstorm. We arrive at Lhatse for dinner, after which I go to a bar where I run into our driver and guide.

August 5: Rongbuk Monastery – We leave at ten a.m., climb the 17,000 foot Lhakpa La Pass, and are finally in the Himalayas. We eat a late lunch in Shekar then make the checkpoint at New Tingri. Just past three p.m., we turn into the Qomolangma (Mt. Everest, or Chomolungma in Tibetan) Nature Preserve. Trying to stop at the 17,000 foot Pang La Pass for a view of the 29,000 foot Mt. Everest, our brakes fail so our Road Ranger ranges off the road. We make it to the world’s highest monastery by nightfall and are offered dinner options of eggs and rice or pancakes.

August 6: Mt. Everest Base Camp – We leave at ten a.m., taking the five-mile dirt road to Base Camp at 16,900 feet. We take a couple of hours to walk in and around the area. It is off climbing season so few others are around. We must walk over, around, and through running waters from the melting snows. Hiking up the lower mountains takes you to glacier pools reflecting the mighty mountain, now so close you can almost touch it. Everyone is awestruck and solemn, resting in the thin mountain air. We leave around noon, stop for lunch, and make Old Tingri by nine p.m.

August 7: Leaving the Mainland – We drive off before seven a.m., climb the 16,568 foot Lalung La Pass with its view of 26,290 foot Shishapangma, then rapidly descend. We have a blowout just shy of the border town of Zhangmu, but make it by one p.m. We wait while border guards check our documents, cross the Chinese border an hour later, and taxi the muddy five miles to the Nepal border. I will spend the next three days in Kathmandu.

August 10: Entering China – After three days in Nepal, I return to China to visit Asia’s last two European colonies. I take the morning flight to Hong Kong in the midst of an offshore typhoon. The island itself was ceded to Britain in perpetuity in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking as the price for losing the Opium War. The 1860 Treaty of Peking added the Kowloon peninsula. The "Unequal Treaty" which Queen Victoria’s government imposed on the Qing Dynasty in 1898 granted Britain a 99-year lease on the so-called New Territories. These parcels prospered as turmoil on the mainland frightened money away. In fact, many of Hong Kong’s tycoons left Shanghai in 1949. All parcels were returned in 1997 as a Special Administrative Region to retain its free-wheeling capitalism. This once barren rock is now one of the world’s densest concentrations of people and shops as well as the most expensive real estate. Blending east and west, this is also one of China’s most cosmopolitan areas. I am struck by the many Asians and Westerners here. As a huge international city and one of the wealthiest in Asia, Hong Kong could become a model for future Chinese development. I stay on the Kowloon side and check into a hotel on neon-lit Nathan Road. Time to shave, shower, sample some Cantonese cooking, and see Hong Kong at night. I wander to Temple Street night market for dinner, where I chat with Allan, an Irishman working for GE who is just beginning his China vacation.

August 11: Hong Kong – I take the ferry to Hong Kong Island where I catch the shuttle bus to the Victoria Peak tram. It is hard to see through the clouds and rain. I have a late lunch of dim sum and tea on top. On my way back I pick up my airplane tickets. After a nap, it is time for Cantonese dinner and some more exploration of the neon-lit pavement.

August 12: Entering Macau – I check out of the hotel (where I leave most of my luggage), grab lunch, and hop onto the hydrofoil for the forty mile trip from Hong Kong across the mouth of the Pearl River. Forty-five minutes later I disembark onto the oldest European settlement in the Orient. East-West trade was carried out for more than a thousand years along the silk road until the explosion in European explorations shifted power to whomever controlled the sea ports. Portugal got Macau in 1557 as a reward for clearing out the pirates, giving it a monopoly on trade since Chinese were forbidden from sailing overseas and foreigners were forbidden from entering Chinese ports. Its fortunes began to wane as the Dutch grew as a trading power, so much so that the Chinese refused Portugal’s offer to return it in 1974. When this giant gambling casino and Chinese playground known as "Little Las Vegas" is returned to China on midnight, December 19, 1999, Europe will no longer control any Asian lands. Macau means "The City of God," from a-ma-gau (the Bay of A-Ma, who was the goddess of sailors), hence the Chinese name Aomen. It seems to have more churches and casinos than the rest of China combined, and it resembles a Mediterranean sea town complete with inexpensive wines. Unfortunately, one of my Tibetan "souvenirs" is giardia which is curable with medication that must not be mixed with alcohol. I easily find my hotel below Guia Hill, the oldest lighthouse on the China coast. I go to the new upscale docks area for dinner outdoors, then head for the ostentatious Lisboa Casino where I am robbed by one-armed bandits.

August 13: Touring Macau – I find the universal tourist landmark, McDonald’s, then spend the afternoon checking out antique furniture. Next, I head up the ruins of St. Paul’s church which exiled Japanese Christians and local stonemasons carved. The college the church established in 1594 was the first Western-style university in the East. It was a military barracks at the time a fire destroyed it in 1835, leaving the surviving façade as the symbol of Macau. Next to it is the Monte Fort which dominates the city. I then wander historic downtown, walking the Largo de Senado pedestrian square and cross to the Leal Senado, home of the Senate chamber. North Macau is connected to the mainland by a strip of land about two football fields wide. There is a bridge to the southern island of Taipa, and from there a causeway to the further island of Coloane where I go to a Portuguese restaurant for dinner. On the way back to my hotel I stop at a local pub.

August 14: Back to Hong Kong – I’m on the hydrofoil before noon, then head back to my Hong Kong hotel to get the next-to-last room and my luggage. I do last-minute shopping in the afternoon, and by evening I go to the electronics market. At night I take the subway to Hong Kong Island for dinner. I stumble into a joint touting Western food, but when served remember this was once a British colony. I have a few drinks in the pubs populating the neighborhood where the fictional Suzie Wong lived.

August 15: Hong Kong Island Tour – The weather finally clears but it remains steamy, and I go on an organized tour circling Hong Kong Island. The first stop is Victoria Peak, but this time I see the view on a clear day. Next is the fishing inlet of Aberdeen, the first village in Hong Kong and a popular movie set. The sampan ride in the harbor weaves in-between the moored boats. Being on a Chinese tour, we include the obligatory jewelry factory enabling the tour guide to supplement his income with the commission. We then pass Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay, the most popular beaches around. Our last stop is Stanley Market, a former fishing village on the southernmost tip of the island. I get back for a late dinner, and wandering the streets turn onto a movie being shot and inadvertently walk through the scene. Maybe I’ll be seen in Hong Kong after I leave?

August 16: Leaving China – I am up at five a.m. to make my flight the morning after my visa expired for the mainland. On the way to the airport I pass stacks of containers along the docks. In many ways modern Hong Kong offered not only a transition home and an antidote to the developing mainland, but also an instructive comparison and glimpse into China’s future. Nearly everyone speaks English so I haven’t heard ting budong ("I don’t understand") once, unless they said it in Cantonese and I didn’t understand! Nor is there much spitting, public nose picking, or other lapses in personal hygiene; incessant horn blowing or crazy drivers; sharp elbows, cigarette smoke, and littering. And when there is I simply assume the cause is visitors from the mainland. On the other hand, I miss those ubiquitous hot thermoses and unlimited free tea, practicing my Mandarin, and those everyday low prices. I’m ambivalent about the absence of public attention to me, and all those expensive cars replacing the masses of rusty bicycles. Most important, it reminds me of how much I value my year in China and that I will miss it dearly.

[North to the Ancient Capitals] [West on the Silk Road] [South to Tibet and the Tropics]


Copyright © 1999 Paul Miesing. All rights reserved. Please do not use without permission unless in the People’s Republic of China which does not enforce intellectual property rights. Revised on January 17, 2001.