A Travellerspoint blog

October 2007

The train to Tibet

Gliding along the rooftop of the world...

sunny 50 °F

As a family, we had probably anticipated this one day experience more than any else in China. We had read so much about the new train; from its political impact on Tibet, to the beautiful country side; from the quality of the food, to the quality of the bathrooms. We had read about the Beijing to Tibet train in the New Yorker, The LA Times, the San Luis Tribune, and other sources. Believe me when I say no reading can prepare you. We were advised to skip the first segment of the trip from Beijing to Xining, being warned that the route was lined with industrial towns and that same blue grey air we met in Xining. We did.

We anxiously waited in the Xining train station, in the special area for sleeping compartment travelers. We waited with Chinese Government officials, a group of German tourists, an interesting guy from New Zealand and his wife. Our humongous and identical OGIO bags, were a source of good laughs and spirited conversations and we chatted with folks and made friends. After about an hour, they let us out of the room just before the train lumbered into the station. We were to be in Car 11. We had help from our driver and our guide getting the bags into the aisle of the car – now it was time to figure out how to get them all into the sleeping compartment along with the four of us. The train left the station after a very brief stop, and after much maneuvering we were able to fit all of our bags into our cabin and leave enough room for us to lie down. It was kind of amazing we got it all to fit. Even some of the German tourists had to store their bags in open areas. The cabin was a soft sleeper, which featured 2 bunk beds, framing a picture window, which sat atop a tiny table. It was perfect for our family of four. The beds were actually comfortable – much better than the Xining hotel. We went to sleep and slept pretty well, rocking to the rhythm of the train.

When we awoke, we had just rolled out of the city of Golmud, another industrial town on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. As we progressed onward and upward, the plains of the plateau seemed to roll past the horizon, giving way to distant mountains that we knew would eventually fill our picture window as it was aptly named. We strolled into the dining car for a sit down breakfast that was strictly Chinese, and quite edible. We made our way back to our sleeper, rearranging luggage for a day of hanging out, playing games, reading, writing and gawking at the scenery. The scenery was amazing. We saw 20,000 foot mountains, actually chugged our way through a 16,600 ft pass. We saw wild fox, eagles, wild donkeys, wild Yaks, and as the sunset, we saw a nomad bringing in his yak, as he danced a traditional dance (we later learned) following them in. What an incredible site on which to spend our last daylight. We reached Lhasa at around 9:30 and could see the Potala Palace off in the distance. The Lhasa train station is brand new and fabulous. The scale is tremendous and almost nonsensical, given the few people there. Guess they’re expecting big things here. On to Lhasa.

Posted by Blakei 03:23 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (3)


Guess we’re not in Kansas anymore…

sunny 50 °F

As foreign as Beijing seemed, there was something familiar about it. Perhaps it was the Hyatt hotel we were staying in, or maybe it was all the English speakers, or possibly all the outdoor advertisements featuring American athletes or film stars, or probably because it shares so much with other mega-cities like New York, LA, or Paris; It always seems to have purpose or directed energy. Our two hour flight to Xining landed at 8:30 and the airport terminal was dark. Literally, the lights were off. That’s not totally true. There were lights, but the lights you might expect in a hallway during a power failure where the exit sign glows. Not the lights of an airport. Our bags met the carousel promptly and we were met by a driver and a local Xining expert whose name was “Lucky” who we all pronounced as Naki or Nochi for the next few days (whoops). We drove an hour to town and it was dark most of the way. We checked into the hotel with some lively discussion with the front desk about the concept of adjoining rooms that I won’t go into, and we settled-in for a night’s sleep in a beautiful room, that featured four spectacular beds of linen covered cement. The whole truth is that sleep followed a visit from an engineer who opened the doors between our rooms, apparently a very complex operation, as well as a visit from the hotel’s general manager who brought water and beer to the room, after a room service call, requesting that I pay in cash right there in the spot. I did. The beer was warm….. and most excellent.

We awoke to 20th story windows, displaying a town shrouded in blue-gray, quietly masking skeletons of buildings that looked like they started with bang and ran out of money… This is the town where we will meet the Beijing to Tibet train that will take us to Lhasa, but while we’re here, we thought we’d check out the surroundings. We were whisked away after breakfast. We drove through the city of more than a million, and were astonished by the difference between Beijing and this town. This urban center is rural. The contrast was palpable. Tall buildings meet tractors that double as hoes. Audi A4s drive along side three wheel work contraptions, over-flowing with Barley 10 feet high. We drove for a few hours, and saw the contrast disappear with every kilometer. We drove through farm lands and bustling tiny towns made of brick and mud. The altitude was now close to 11,000 ft. We stopped briefly at a remote Tibetan Buddhist Temple at Sun Moon Mountain, for some mugging and photos with locals, (sitting on Yaks and the like), and then moved on to Quinghai Lake, (China’s largest saltwater lake), where it snowed, hailed and rained, while shepherds marshaled sheep and cows across the plains like it was 75 degrees in Los Angeles. We met locals on horseback. We ate in a restaurant where you could see your breath. We marveled at the desolation of this place, and the “on water hotel” used in the summer (August – but no swimming) by folks venturing from the big city. The air was thin and made us all dizzy for a few moments, or was it the out of body experience of just being here. This isn’t Kansas anymore, is it?

Tu is better than two...
The next day in Xining we visited our first Buddhist Monastery outside of town about 20 kilometers. It was pretty wild. Photo snapping tourists, old monks with the latest cell phones, and folks that have made a pilgrimage to praise Buddha intermingle in a Yak-butter-candle haze. Pilgrims that have sold everything they had to get closer to Buddha and god, sit on streets begging for money or candy or food, so they can get back home or finish their pilgrimage. We ate at a local noodle shop, and ventured to a minority village. There are 55 minorities in China; Mongols, Manchruians, etc.. We visited the “Tu” minority – whose core economic focus is making barely wine – which we drank upon arriving and leaving. I kept asking where the second minority group was, because we were to see Tu minorities and I had only seen one. Carol pointed out that it wasn’t “two” minorities it was the “Tu” minority. I was so dense that I didn’t get it and belly laughed when I did. Was it the Barely Wine? I dunno…..hiccup.

Before we hit the train to Tibet hat evening, we skateboarded in a beautiful and huge park in downtown Xining, which once again attracted a large crowd, and this time… other skaters…! The boys exchanged tricks and hand shakes. It was cultural exchange at it’s best. The most common phrase uttered by the Xining local skaters, was “Shit!” as they muffed a trick. English is alive and well in Xining! The Xining people were awesome and did try and converse a bunch. But English doesn’t always make sense, like the back of the many buses in Xining… yet it’s vastly better than our nonexistent Chinese… The people of Xining were some of the nicest we’ve met on the trip.

Posted by Blakei 19:24 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Our last days in Beijing

Rapid-fire cultural interchange... well not really...


Our last days in Beijing were a smorgasbord of family activities, drinking in some of the culture of Beijing and introducing some of our own culture to Beijing. We did so much over the last few days, it’s just too much to cover in any detail, so here’s the run through; Shopping at Panjiyuan Market, (a bizarre for local arts and crafts), shopping the Silk Market, (a multi story venue for great bargains on commercial goods), seeing the flags raised at Dawn over Tiananmen Square, (was really fun getting the kids up for this), enjoying Peking Duck dinner, seeing a humorous (and ear piercing) performance of the Beijing Opera, Bicycling around Beijing, and doing a fair amount of skating. We also got to visit Rebecca’s, home and meet her mom, which was great unexpected treat. The past 9 days gave us a relatively balanced view of Beijing for a nine day visit.

The Skating Spectacle
We were told by our guide that the “catherdral” is where we should skate, so we visited the catherdral and skated it up a couple of days. A nice spot for both wedding photos and skating it seems – and the two can coexist. It was quite funny to see the boys be embraced by the Beijingers as “stars” of the skate world. They don’t see many western skaters, and so cameras would come out and folks would take pictures with the boys and some even handed baby’s over to the boys to get their picture taken. The boys got a bit tired of this, just wanting to skate.

Cycling Beijing
We marveled throughout Beijing how taxis, cars, buses, pedestrians, and the millions of cyclists peacefully coexist. Our driver, John was so smooth, that is was like watching an old school long boarder slowly carving a wave, while simultaneously maneuvering around heaps of agro short boarders that continuously drop in on him. We couldn’t understand how this all works. We saw pedestrians calmly standing on the double yellow line while buses passed in both directions leaving a scant few inches on both sides. We couldn’t figure it out…. until we cycled. As it turns out, everyone is so harmoniously aware of everyone else, regardless of vehicle type or lack thereof, that it’s less like the long-boarder in a gaggle of thrusters, and it’s much more like multiple schools of fish swimming harmoniously in a congested stream, never bumpinig into each other, but always knowing the other school is there. We had so much fun cycling around, you felt alive and part of it all, and it all finally made sense. We swam through the city with other cyclists, buses, taxis, cars and pedestrians and never felt like prey. I can’t even say that about riding in our little city – where I have nearly been run down by unaware college students. Truly amazing – the streets of Beijing.

Posted by Blakei 06:35 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

The Great Wall Mutiyanyu

Built by hand – some of ‘em still in the wall!

70 °F

1015blog8_com.jpgThere are a couple of places outside of Beijing where the Great Wall of China has been restored for the purpose of tourism. One is the Badalang section which is the most heavily toured and the second is Mutiyanyu. We chose the latter. Everything you’ve heard about the wall is true. It really is kind of unbelievable that this thing was ever built. As you stand in one of the guard towers and look out over this 20 foot tall wall snaking it’s way for miles across steep mountain sides and mountain tops, you think it just isn’t possible that this was ever done by men, let alone by men who had tools from the 13th century. Ancient rumors abound that a not-so-small bit of the mortar holding the massive bricks together is composed of the good countrymen that built it, believe it or not. Perhaps even more unbelievable is that the emperors who commanded the wall be built, thought that this mass would keep marauding hordes out. We know how that turned out. Well, we took in the sites – restored wall, unrestored wall, and the fun touristy things that have been built there to get you up to the wall and back. (a chair lift to get you there and “luge” to rush you down). We let the kids take their skateboards and let them skate the wall. Our tour guide Rebecca thought “Hey, why not?” The boys did it and actually found sections where they could skate the stairs. Here are ra few pics to record out wall outing...
We went to the Kempinsky compound near Badalang that overlooks the wall and is used for Corporate outings and the like for lunch, in f act, Landrover was having an event there. I wouldn’t include it in this entry, but they had a wall made out of peacock feathers in our little private dining room that was astounding, and the food was some of the best we had as well. We drove a looooong way this day and decided we are going to chill on the driving long distance from Beijing from here on out.

The boys have their own blog now and to get their unique POV on the wall and other observations, try http://twobrotherstravel.travellerspoint.com

Posted by Blakei 19:28 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

The Temple of Heaven

A Beijing community comes to gather

sunny 70 °F

We did homework in the morning, then skated near the hotel at a great little spot for a while, before being kicked out by a security guard. We took the new Beijing subway line number 5 that has been open only three weeks. The entrance was only about 800 yards from the hotel. It was amazingly clean (I guess it should have been after only three weeks) and it took us down to the Temple of Heaven which was as beautiful as the summer palace.
The Temple of heaven is where the Emperors would go to pray for a great harvest among other things. The coolest thing about the Temple of Heaven wasn’t the beauty of the grounds or the architecture. The most wonderful thing was all the locals that were playing checkers, singing in choirs, singing karaoke, crocheting, playing Chinese hacky sack or for that matter, just hanging out with their family or neighbors. The grounds form a park where locals gather to celebrate life. We got a glimpse of “Sunday at the Temple” where folks just hang with their friends. One man was crooning Chinese Opera through a crackling old portable stereo, a choir of older Chinese men and women were belting out folk songs, toddlers waddled quickly with doting parents on the ready for the next tumble. It was fantastic.
We finished the day at the Panjiayuan flea market for a few hours, where antiques are sold, and where Carol picked up a couple of very unique old world (or just plain strange) artifacts from years gone by. We will go back to this place on this trip.

Posted by Blakei 18:28 Archived in China Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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