Where's Tai?

"And I still haven't found what I'm looking for"

Day 59: Shigatse August 20, 2010

Filed under: Travelling — Tai @ 6:18 pm

We headed out today from Lhasa.  Had about 4-5 hours driving.  A couple of stops a long the way.  One is holy lakes. 

Also passed a river where the Tibetan have water burials.  Interesting but gory.  The Tibetans have 4 options when they die.  The richer or more important Tibetans can be cremated or buried.  The poor Tibetans may have a sky burial, where the body is chopped up by the undertaker and then carried to the top of a mountain and left for the birds to eat.  The other options is the water burial.  Where they are chopped up by the river and then fed to the fishes.  That is why Tibetans will not eat fish. 

Then the glaciers.  Finally another monastery in Giangze.  It has a fort, then a monastery with a huge stupa and a medieval type wall.

Ended up in the town of Shiatges.  A fairly forgettable town.


Day 57-58: Lhasa – the mysterious city August 19, 2010

Filed under: Travelling — Tai @ 6:48 pm

I have always wanted to come to Tibet and see the Potala palace (the winter palace of the Dalai Lama). I had seen pictures and I had pictured it in my head. The palace is as I thought, but the city was a city. I imagined dusty streets with worn down houses surrounding the palace. However, it is generally modern. There are 2 parts to the city, the Chinese side and the Tibetan side. It is generally accepted that the Chinese are trying to “colonise out” the Tibetans. There has been a large influx of Chinese to Tibet and they tend to be the bosses of companies. The Tibetian’s the workers. It is sad.

There was some great experiences in Lhasa.
Potala palace: Winter home to the Dalai Lamas, it is the centrepiece of the city. The current exiled dalai lama lived here when he was young. Inside you see the various chapels, study areas and living quarters for the Dalai Lamas. Also a number of the Dalai lamas have there remains in stupas here. Originally the Dalai Lamas had no political power, there was a king and also a dalai lama. It wasn’t until the 5th dalai Lama in the 1600s, that the political and religious powers were given to the Dalai Lamas. The current and 14th Dalai Lama is still loved by the locals however they are unable to express or show this devotion publicly. Also there is a lot of concern over what will happen when the current Dalai Lama dies. Traditionally senior members of the court search Tibet for the reincarnation of the dalai lama. In some cases children were identified and shown different possessions of the dalai lama mixed with other possessions of the other people. The children have picked out “their” possessions because they are the reincarnations of him.

The Chinese have tried to choose a new religious leader for the Tibetans. This is not being accepted by the people. It is unclear whether the current Dalai Lama will decide to reincarnate and if he does, how he will be found. He has said he will not reincarnate in the country which is under control of the Chinese.
As for the palace. It is pretty cool, however you need to book a time to start a quick tour and you have exactly 1 hours to complete it. It is a real rush to see the main parts.

Barkhor square: is one of the holiest kora (clockwise holy walk). People walk around clockwise all day and all night. The very dedicated prostrate themselves around the kora. They stand and pray, then bend and prostrate themselves on the ground, then move one body length forward. The old people wander around with their pray wheels. Through the middle of them all the police and military walk through with some very big guns. They also have positions up high looking down on the square.

Sera monastery: one of the oldest. There are 4 different orders. This is for the yellow hats (gelupha). Most afternoons they have debates between the monks. All the young monks are much more vocal and excitable, while the older monks are much more relaxed and in control. They discuss philosophical issues. You can’t understand a word they say, but is interesting to see.


Day 56: Train: yak yak and more yaks July 10, 2010

Filed under: Travelling — Tai @ 5:53 am


Had wanted to catch the train to Tibet because it is the highest train in the world.  It crossed a pass at over 5000 metres.  Like any train there are all sorts of options of travel.  Soft sleeper is where 4 people are in a cabin, 2 sets of bunks and there is a door on the compartment.  Was feeling cheap that day, so went hard sleeper.  We were the only foreigners in these carriages.  Which is 2 sets of 3bunks stacked to the roof and no door to the compartment.  All the foreigners are generally in the soft sleepers and the “richish” Chinese in the hard sleepers.  The more hardy folk go either hard seat or soft seat.  Which means they have normal seats and need to sleep sitting up.


The train was a worthwhile experience but not on my shortlist of things to do again.  The views are spectacular, from sand dunes, to aqua water, barren plains, fields of yak, arid mountains to snow capped mountains.  However you go stir crazy even being able to walk around.  All the Chinese bring their own food, so it is a 24/7 picnic.  I was on the top bunk, and it was like everest getting up everytime.  Was happy that I went with the 24 hour experience.  I guess it would be fun if you had the entire cabin with friends or family or people who spoke the same language.  Otherwise it always feels awkward.

Did try and hide out in the dining car, but the very unfriendly staff kept on chasing us out.

Interesting thing is the train has extra oxygen pumped into the cabins to help overcome altitude sickness.  Then next to each bed was a special outlet for individuals to attached nose pieces and get extra oxygen.  A decent number of people were using these as we got higher.  I felt the pressure in my head for a day did have shortness of breath but in general there was not problem.  


Back to the terrain.  What is incredible about Tibet is that the majority of it is a plateau which is between 3-4000 metres high.  It is very dry with huge plains and then decent size mountains on top.


Day 55 Xining: – Mini- monks

Filed under: Travelling — Tai @ 5:07 am

The train from  Chengdu to Tibet is 40 hours, and is fairly boring until it gets to Xining.  So to save endless hours in a small space, we flew to Xining and caught the train from there.  Which made it only 24 hours on the train.  Had a day in Xining to kill so we went to Kumbum Monastery.  Very cool experience.  Is about 30kms from town, jumped a taxi and turned up at this monastery.  Nice buildings, lots of monks… you know the story.  However, we came across some chanting at one end of the grounds on a hill.  Decided to get nosey.  Found a school of young monks chanting.  Watched for a couple of hours. 

The chanting was hypnotic, and I nearly went to sleep.  They would chant for about an hour and the teachers would wander around.  Then they would breakout of the room and do some chanting outside, then back in.  These guys were just kids, normal playing and laughing kids with short haircuts and purple clothes.

In China in some places you are a novelty simply by being a foreigner.  Xining, Liz and I were very much an object of fascination.


Day 51-54 Chengdu: Black and white couch potatoes July 8, 2010

Filed under: Travelling — Tai @ 5:06 pm


Pandas have to be the laziest animals I have ever seen.  If they’re not sleeping, then they’re thinking about sleeping. 

Planned to be here for 2 days at the most, but because I need to sort the Tibet visa I was here for 4 days.   This is the famous panda city. Just on the edge of town is the Panda research centre, where you can see them in large enclosures.  They seem pretty tame.  The cubs are great value, but have to say they are the laziest creatures I have ever seen.  They sleep most of the day and when they are awake they just eat.  They find that a chore because they’re so drowsy from sleeping.  Saw one being operated on.  Felt sorry for the big fella.  These fellas should actually be carnivorous but 99% of their diet is bamboo.  There are a couple of hundred in captivity around the world (mostly china) and a couple of thousand in the wild in china.  They are loners and only generally come together for mating and then the male takes off again while the female raises the cub.  hmmm – good or bad???.

In some of the old breeding programmes the pandas lose interest in mating when they are captured.  So some programmes resorted to panda porn (films of other bears mating to get them excited) and viagra.  (So many parallels with the human world). 


Also jumped a bus to Leshan.  A small town with a Taoist monastery.  Very picturesque.  They made one really big Buddha here. You walk down these stairways to the base of the Buddha to pray.  Then there is a monastery with 1000 more Buddhas on the hill. 

Coming back from the walk I came across a Chinese family.  They had a beautiful little girl who must have been the only child, she was a proper little princess and drama queen. 

Was doing the planning for the trip to Tibet and met Liz.  A Irish lass who teamed up with me to form our own official tour group.  To get into Tibet you need to go as a “tour group”.  Which can be 1 or more people.  The agency then gets you a Tibetian visa so you can enter the region. All a bit of a scam, but it is law, so I guess it isn’t a scam, just expensive.  You can only get a 8 day visa to Tibet and they tend to close them off during controversial times – Olympics…  It is very hard to stay longer than 8 days and you need to be very specific on your movements in Tibet.  Checkpoints stop people travelling without guides.  Anyway we got it sorted.  Was about US$ 540 plus train for 780 yuan for 8 day tour with driver and guide.  It was a bit of a mission to sort it all.  Our agent was a bit dodgy and in the end we had to sit her down and double check everything.  They were trying to charge exorbitant commission rates hidden in the pricing.

Liz and I had a couple of good nights out with the local in Chengdu.  The day I went to see the pandas I was not very communicative.    

Is an interesting place, but wouldn’t come back.


Day 49-50 : Xian – “warriors come out to playyy”

Filed under: Travelling — Tai @ 2:18 am

Jumped the plane to Xian home of the Terracotta warriors.  It was interesting, Xian has a huge Muslim population.  In fact china has a large muslim population.  When the Silk road was in full swing there was a lot of trading with the Middle Eastern countries.  Eventually a large muslim population sprung up.  It went underground during Mao’s cultural revolution but is now back and strong.  There was the Muslim quarter right in front of my hotel.  A warren of shops.

Did a day tour out to the Terracotta warriors.  They were found by a farmer digging a well.  He now comes along to sign autographs of books on the warriors.  Saw him there ( I reckon they just wheel any old really old guy to sign autographs to sell more books).  The complex is large so many farmers in the area were put out of business, so the government build them new houses and then allowed then to build a tourist complex (restaurants, shops…) outside the terracotta halls so they could earn money.  Needless to say, they are all very rich now.


The warrior were created to be the afterlife army of Emperor Qin Huang.  He was very worried about his afterlife so spend more than 10 years preparing for his death.  He build an entire city underground as his mausoleum which was never meant to be used except in his afterlife.  It has high levels of mercury running through the soil, so now you can’t even enter it. 

The warriors were sculptured to all be different.  There are commanders, infantry, Calvary, archers.  It is an entire army made of terracotta.   All horses and chariots and real weaponry.  They all face the mausoleum of the emperor waiting for his orders.  There is an outside line of guards facing out around the army to protect them.  There are over 10,000 warriors, but the majority still arent restored.  There are many more underground waiting to be restored piece by piece.  They made moulds of the soldiers and then created the faces for the clay warriors.

They were originally placed in large long trenches with earth and brick walls and wooden roofs to protect them.  They were then nearly forgotten about.  During a change of dynasties, some one tried to burn them all. It burnt the rafters which collapsed and smashed the terracotta warriors.  Hence the restoration work.  They were originally painted different colours, but as they were dug up and exposed to air and light the colour fainted in a matter of days,  That is why they have not excavated the other thousands of warriors.

Definitely a highlight of the trip.


Day 46-48: Shanghai – Expo, art and big buildings

Filed under: Travelling — Tai @ 12:59 am


Another cool city.  Much bigger and more modern than Beijing.  Have about 19 million people.  Got a hotel right down on East Nanjing st which is the busiest shopping street in China.  Also a short walk to The Bund (a promenade along the river that looks out on all the tall buildings on the other side).  In the morning 100s of mostly old people get up and do taichi or other forms of katas some with swords or fan.  It’s also quite popular to do ballroom dancing in the streets.  The oldies certainly keep busy. 

Shanghai is also known for its unusually building-scape.  The Pearl communications tower is the most recognisable.  It also has Shanghai Financial Building, the  second or third biggest building in the world.  492m, behind the Taipei tower.  That’s 200m taller than the Eiffel tower, 50ms taller than the KL towers.  Has some good views and glass floors over Shanghai.

What surprised me was the art I found there.  Taicing street is a warren small allies full of art galleries, small cafes, boutique shops and photographic galleries.  50 Moshangan is a reformed factory area that is littered with galleries.  The majority is rubbish but there are a few standout artists.

Had a new scam tried on me today.  China is pretty safe, but you do run into small scams.  At least 4-5 times a day I get girls walking up wanting to talk and then take me for tea at a “special tea shop”.  Thought it was my charisma, but no.  BTW, it is actually a tea shop they take you too, but it has astronomical prices.  You also get the fake bag guys walking up to you.  Most of the time I just speak Spanish and they get confused and leave.


However today I was walking through a park and a Chinese couple were trying to take a picture of themselves.  They then asked me to take a picture of them, which all seemed innocent.  So I did, and then it was the way they struck up conversation afterwards seemed too enthusiastic.  Felt funny so eventually made up an excuse and left.  But I moved away and watched them for a while.  They stayed in the same place and they carried on doing the same things only to tourist.  Couldn’t work out their angle (probably a variation of a tea room scam).  It was true, I felt more trusting in the beginning of a young couple, than the individuals that approach you in the street.

Spent a whole day at the Expo.  It was a little disappointing.  I really did not know what an Expo is, other than a world event.  Worked out it was 3 things.  1. A way to stay in the good graces of the host country (specifically China).  So if you wanted to maintain good trade relations with China you needed to show your love by spending shit loads of money on a stand. 2.   Even though it has a theme for the expo (future cities, better cities), realistically the pavilions are promotional pieces for each different country and little else.  So this is like a travel show without all the brochures. 

3. This world expo, was for the Chinese not the world.  Small things like ticketing offices only had signs in Chinese gave the impression that it was not really for foreigners.  I would say well less than 20% of the attendees are foreigners. 

However in saying that I still enjoyed wandering around the massive complex.  Over 4 kilometres long and 1 wide.  Was some amazing architecture.  I liked the Spanish, Moroccan, NZ and Chinese.  However there were huge queues to get into some with an hour or more waiting.  Some countries had prepared videos so that’s what created the big queues.  Others basically had pictorial or artistic representations of their countries.  I liked the Mexicans pavilion because it was more like an art gallery of contemporary Mexican artists. 

There were performances through out the day.  I watched the Tahitian dances, Korean drummers…  The USA stand was like a universal studio type experience.  You walk through 3 different theatres and watch Disney type emotive presentations about better cities. 

Then I went to look at the NZ pavilion.  I liked it.  Built like a Sloped stadium.  In front is a canoe being carved by the boys from Te Puia.  When you enter in there is NZ paraphernalia. A remake of the coat racks at a NZ school… And a walk takes you through different everyday NZ situations.  There are lots of screens along the way which show short films of New Zealand everyday life.  Just snapshots.  Is pretty cool.  When you get to the top, you step out into lots of greenery and native plants.  You wander down and the last piece of flora you see is a huge pohutakawa tree.  Not sure how it was brought over or if it was fake.  Then I saw the group perform – Te Whanau a Apanui.  They were great and really drew the crowds.  They did 30 min sets, ending with getting the Chinese up to do the haka or poi. It kept the crowd engaged.  They were doing this 4 or 5 times a day.  They spotted me in the crowd and got me up to do the haka.  Then I went back stage and spent about 4 hours with them.  It was great to meet whanau so far from home.  They fed me and entertained me.  Had some good intellectual discussions. 


They were here for 3-4 months before being replaced by another group.  It was good for the soul seeing them.

When I exited Shanghai, I took the Maglev fast train to the airport,  Very cool.  Is a train the float on magnets, so very smooth and very fast.  We did 30 kms in less than 8 mins.  They get very upset when the train is 5-10 seconds late.  It got up to 430 km/h.  The cars on the motorway next to the track looked like they were standing still when we started to accelerate.  It was like 3-4 mins of acceleration and another 3-4 minutes braking.