A Travellerspoint blog


Tibetan Tea Tips

The sweet and the sour

sunny 50 °F

Tibetans love their ‘butter tea’ and believe it helps with altitude sickness. The unfortunate problem with it is the flavor! It’s one of those acquired tastes / love it or hate it foods. His Holliness the XIV Dalai Lama even admits to not liking butter tea. To make butter tea you take hot tea and blend it with salted yak butter and wha-la, frothy salty butter tea! Thankfully, they seem to only drink it for breakfast and then turn to ‘sweat tea’ for the rest of the day, unless at altitude where they drink it ALL day long to help prevent altitude sickness. Tibetan sweet tea is sweetened milk tea and you order it by what looks like a 2 liter thermos. Since there aren’t any pubs to hang out at in Tibet, the tea houses are packed with people from morning ‘till night. Although there is food available, most of the time people will just have a huge thermos on the table and sip out of their little shot glass sized tea glasses. Although most tea houses are dark and cold inside, we found them quite comfortable, with their low rug lined benches and their local/family atmosphere.

We attempted to talk politics over tea, but quickly realized that it’s an unacceptable conversation to be having. One Tibetan told us that he was paranoid about undercover police and increasing arrests. It was a strange feeling for us to be spending big bucks on our trip, toting around taking photos when Tibetans are not even allowed to own a passport. Our guide had a deep sadness in his eye when he responded to our travel plans with a comment about how he has never, and will never be able to leave Tibet. We later watched a documentary called “Undercover in Tibet” in which we learned about a Tibetan named Tash Despa who went undercover into Tibet a few years ago to document what it’s really like in Tibet for Tibetans. When we watched this documentary we thought to ourselves; if we hadn’t visited Tibet ourselves we probably wouldn’t believe it… but spending the time to watch this documentary opened our eyes to why the Tibetans reacted to us the way they did. If you do watch it, we’d like to note that the military presence is very real, and that the makeshift police tents that you will see in the documentary have since been solidified into fortified houses in the middle of the streets and squares:

Although prayer flags are symbolic of Buddhism and thus a reminder of Tibet, the Chinese government has made it illegal to raise the Tibetan flag. In fact, it is a serious and punishable offence to be caught with a picture of the Dali Lama, or the Tibetan flag. Thankfully we made it out of China and can now safely wave whatever flag we want:

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:31 Archived in China Comments (0)

Zhangmu, Tibet

Everest to Zhangu border and border crossing

sunny 45 °F

We headed out for a walk this morning to enjoy the mountain one last time… the sky was still clear for an amazing sunrise.

After tipping out some tea for our Homies we packed up and headed out. From EBC (5250m) we headed down the mountain through New Tingri on our way to the Zhangmuzhen/Kodari (China/Nepal) border (2300m). The newly opened shortcut was still a bit of a rough road and just as were thinking about how we were in the middle of nowhere, we came upon stuck tourist jeep. After piling rocks under there wheel and giving the jeep a good push we were off and watching the jeep drivers racing each other for no apparent reason other than there really wasn’t much of a clear road.

The border towns are divided by a really pretty river and waterfall which made for a great view, but that is about all. The next morning, we headed to the border where our guide Tashi showed us how to jump queue Asian style and scored us a spot right in front of the line. We are not sure if this was just his great service, or his desire to get on the road for his long drive back to Lhasa. The border crossing was a little nerve racking when a Chinese guard unpacked everything from Robin’s backpack and went through all her clothes asking her questions about where she had been! We eventually made it through without any issue and walked across a beautiful bridge into Nepal.

The Nepal side of the border scores our ‘most confusing border crossing’ award because there are no signs or anything about how to immigrate… all of a sudden we were simply walking through town. If we weren’t so cautious about getting an entry stamp we would have walked right past the place where we were supposed to pay for our tourist visa and stamp. We met up with the girls whose jeep got stuck yesterday and shared a jeep taxi (one that carried 7 passengers!) from the border to Kathmandu.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

Everest Base Camp, Tibet

Sleeping with the stars

sunny 38 °F

Tashi prepped us in the morning with “if you’re lucky you’ll see the mountain today, you can only see it from this pass a few times a year.” We crossed our fingers in anticipation as we went over the final pass and low and behold there it was!! “Lucky, lucky, lucky” were Tashi’s words as the infamous mountain Tibetains call Qomolangma came into view.

Another three hours on the road (but just 100k for the day) we were 8k from Everest Base Camp (EBC) at Rongbuk, the highest monastery in the world (5000m). After lunch at Rongbuk we packed a day pack with snacks and clothes thinking we would be able to hike around but were a bit dismayed to learn that we wouldn’t be able to walk around. Having passed at least 3 other police and military checkpoints today, we were surprised to be restricted to such a small observation area (5250m). None the less we enjoyed the place to ourselves.

Fortunately we were able to explore a bit further down from the EBC check point. We climbed around the nearby nunnery and walked along the river between Rongbuk and EBC. The sky was clear throughout the day and after an awesome sun set against the mountain we walked to the Yak Tent Camp. To our surprise there were Tibetans playing pool (billiards) even up here! Tibetans love playing pool and every town we passed through, no matter how run down or poor seemed to muster up enough to have at least one outside pool table. After watching for a bit we headed into our “Peace Hotel.”

We were a little nervous about sleeping in a tent, as it was freezing outside and we had all of our clothing on! However, when we stepped into the tent we were pleasantly greeted by a yak-poo furnace burning strong! We played a Tibetan dice game that moved shells and coins around the table and required you to yell as loud as you can for the number you wanted and then slam the dice container as hard as you could onto the leather platform, so we fit right in  Thanks to Sam’s recommendation, that night we went for a walk outside to look at the stars. The sky was still perfectly clear and the sky was unbelievable, cheesy as it sounds we even managed to see a shooting star.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 07:48 Archived in China Comments (2)

New Tingri, Tibet

Overland from Shigatse to New Tingri

sunny 51 °F

We drove 240k over two passes Tso-La pass (4500m) and Gyatso-La pass (5252m). Luckily the altitude wasn’t an issue so we could hike around the top of each pass and enjoy the stunning views.

We took what was going to be a small detour to Sakya Monastery but ran into some construction and ended up trailblazing through some irrigation channels only getting stuck once (we were happy we had a 4-wheel drive land cruiser) The grounds at the monastery were open and sunny with a bit of ice still lingering in the shadows. The rooms were quiet, cold, dark and full of ancient scriptures. It makes you realize how simple a monk’s life is, and how many sacrifices they make.

We arrived that evening in New Tingri (4500m), a very small town along the main road, with very little in the way of entertainment other than heckling back and forth with the kids peddling ‘fossils’ on the dusty street. This place was windy, dusty and the people were reminiscent of a Mad Max movie, with their motorbikes decked out with streamers and their faces wrapped in flowing rags. We taught some Tibetans how to play a card game we call “Rich Man, Poor Man” that night… Tibetans are very good at cards, and they get really emotional when they play. Our cards took quite the beating that night as they bent and threw the cards down with great enthusiasm…. but it was so worth it! We retired to a long dark hallway with no lights (our first two nights on the road were 6 stars compared to this place). To give you an idea of how primitive this town was, here is a picture of the bathrooms at this hotel (this is the ENTIRE bathroom, no shower, no sink):

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

Shigatse, Tibet

Overland from Gyangze to Shigatse

sunny 56 °F

We had a short 90k morning drive into Shigatse (3836m), and spent some time exploring above the circumambulation path around the Tashilhunpo Monastery. This gave us a nice bird’s eye view of the monastery and a spot we scoped out to visit the next morning for the sunrise on the Shigaste Dzong.

Fortunately for us, our guide Tashi was raised in Shigaste and he invited us out with a few buddies of his (including one monk) at a teahouse for some grub. They were hard core coca cola drinkers (their substitute for beer) but we were feeling pretty acclimatized to the altitude and decided it was time to celebrate with a beer. The lady of the house said they had either Lhasa beer or barely beer and so we opted for the unknown barely beer. The beer came in a plastic bucket with floating grains of barely and some unintentionally smeared butter on the rim. Tea houses are dark, cold and don’t advertise that they are ‘restaurants’ so the locals were definitely getting a kick out of the fact that there were white folks taking shots of barely beer. The custom is for someone else to fill your mini glass with beer and then you take three deliberate progressive swigs until its empty; then pass the glass. Our bucket was refilled from what looked like an old canola oil jug at least three times, and the owner refused to accept any payment.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:42 Archived in China Comments (0)

Gyangze, Tibet

Overland from Lhasa to Gyangze

sunny 57 °F

After four days of acclimating in Lhasa, it was time for our real adventure into the highlands of Tibet. Equipped only with our guide, our driver, a land cruiser, and Kevin’s full bag of snacks, we hit the road. We drove to the top of Kamba-La pass (4794m) and stopped for a view of Yamdrok Lake. It was breezy up there so Robin suited up in traditional Tibetan wear and warmed up with a lovely Yak named Anko.

We continued on over Karo-La pass (5010m) and then to Kharola Glacier. In total our first day’s drive was about 270k into Gyangze (3950m) but it only takes 1k of driving through a Tibetan community for us to notice a few things. First we noticed all the many colorful prayer flags waving about, either strung between rooftops or waving off of a bundle of sticks coming straight out of the rooftop. Each color represents something sacred:
Blue = sky
White = clouds
Green = water
Yellow = land
Red = fire
Our first thought was green=water? wtf? but then standing on top of the pass looking out at the scenery we noticed all the elements represented in the landscape with the dry yellowish clay rocks covering the hills and the reflection on the water making the lake appear slightly green. Here is an example scene, can you find all 5 elements in the picture?

The other thing we noticed fairly quickly was the enormous collection of yak-pies (aka dung) stacked up at each house. The farmers collect the horse and yak-pies then splat them against their walls to dry in the sun. After the poo dries, they stack each one up like bricks and create massive pyramids or walls. They do this because there are no trees in the high altitude for wood so instead they burn the dried yak-pies to fuel their stoves and keep the house warm in the winter.

We visited Pelkhor Chode Monestery in Gyangze and walked through Tibet’s largest stupa. This stupa has many floors filled with singleton rooms that you could access from the balcony of each floor, and in each room there is a larger than life sized Buddha statue with all the walls decorated and painted with a story about that specific Buddha. We didn’t even attempt to visit each room because there are over 10,000 Buddha figures in this one stupa.

That night we stayed in Gyangze and eventually learned a Tibetan card game called 51… trying to learn the rules without a proper English speaker made for an interesting game of cards in which the objective of the game kept changing. We got the blood flowing early the next morning when we narrowly escaped a pack of wild dogs. We were walking around the Gyangze Dzong (Fort) and managed to get inside a fenced area that must have been really nice in its hay day, but has now turned to a ghost town over run by litter and dogs. Yelling and throwing sticks we held them off as we hoped the fence back to civilization. We then cautiously ventured off the road and up the back of the Fort’s hill for an awesome sunrise view of the city.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 00:43 Archived in China Comments (1)

Lhasa, Tibet

The long awaited journey

sunny 65 °F

After months of planning and permit uncertainty we were actually on the train to Lhasa! Although controversial in Tibet, the railway connects Beijing and Shanghai to the highest train station in the world at Lhasa (above 3,500m) via the highest railway pass in the world (over 5,000m) and in the process passes by the highest lake in the world (Lake Nam Co above 4,700m). The graph of the trip looks sorta like this:

The journey passes through unbelievable terrain including Tibetan villages with their unique square like architecture with their longhaired Yaks grazing in the plains all towered by picturesque mountain ranges. As we were sitting by the window we noticed that there were two little red hearts pinned to our curtains. There were no other curtains with these markers and no other white folks on the train so we started asking the other cabin members and determined that they were ‘foreigner’ markers. Who knows why we had to be marked but we thought we’d have some fun with ‘em and wore them around for a while.

Lhasa is sadly very much like it is described in Wikitravel – flooded by the Chinese Military. There are always two points of view on how history has come to pass. In this case there is the Chinese run Tibetan History Museum we visited in Lhasa where the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” is boldly proclaimed and then there is the BBC documentary series on China we watched as well as the blockbuster called “7 years in Tibet” which both show a not-so-peaceful conquering of Tibet. We decided to spend half of our time with Ganlan in a newly established Chinese part of town called Jia Malinka where we enjoyed some of Ganlan’s home cooked Chinese food and talked about what it is like to be Chinese living in Lhasa. We then we moved into the Tibetan quarter for a contrasting experience where we had some homemade Tibetan food at Mima’s house including sambat, dried yak cheese, butter tea and some barley beer transported from his village in an old oil 2L bottle. Conversations on politics were extremely hush-hush even in the comfort of his home.

Our Tibetan guide Tashi gave us a breakdown of how to find locally owned businesses. We were then off and exploring sweet tea houses, slurping dumpling soup, and dominating momos one by one… the Tibetan tea houses welcomed us in but we were definitely not their normal customers and it was an experience all together trying to order. Luckily ‘momo’ was easy to pronounce and we are now comfortable using other patrons’ food as a menu selection.

Instead of basing our touring around visiting all of the monasteries in Lhasa, we continued with our “unorthodox yet effective” lifestyle and cycled around the city. We still rode around to see some of the major tourist sites, stopped to walk the clockwise circumambulation path at Sera Monastery and trekked the mountain high above the Pabongkha Monastery. To say the weather was good would be a complete understatement, it was AWESOME and had us excited for what we hoped would be clear days at Everest base camp.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 00:45 Archived in China Comments (2)

One Egg Two Egg Three Egg More Egg

Deep thoughts by Kevin

One thing we couldn’t help but notice while traveling through China was the sheer volume of eggs they sell and consume here. The markets have a huge diversity of eggs from big duck eggs down to quail sized eggs. They have the common white and brown ones with every shade in-between, but also have the odd colored green ones and even pink ones they call ‘century eggs.’ There are clean polished ones, muddy ones and ones that still have poo and feathers stuck on the shell. Some people sell them by weight, others sell by the count. They are piled up high like tin cans and in the piles there are whole ones, cracked ones and even smashed ones. In the stores they have stacks and stacks of bulk eggs next to cartons that range from 2-4-6-8 eggs up to flats or multi-flats, but even more interesting are the single shrink wrapped eggs. These singletons are cooked and sitting in a dark sauce still wearing their smashed shell. There are lots of other styles of ‘cooked’ eggs with the strangest of them all being the preserved ‘pi dan’ that when buried under clay turns the yolk and the white into a translucent black jello. Dr. Seuss could have a field day writing a story about eggs here.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 00:42 Archived in China Comments (0)

Xining, China

Our gateway to Tibet

sunny 65 °F

Xining is about 24 hours away from Lhasa by train and is the last major city before entering Tibet via railway. We met a nice college kid on the bus who totally helped us get off the bus at the right time and then found an awesome hostel in an apartment building with a quiet wifi living room and a great view of the city where we could work on finalizing our Tibet Permits.

Lhasa used to be open for tourists to meet up and plan trips across the Himalayas, however with the increased conflict between monks and the Chinese military, all foreign tourists are now required to obtain a permit before even purchasing a train ticket into Tibet. Tourists are also are now required to purchase a package through a guide service since only the guide can apply for the permit. Needless to say, this is quite a complicated process.

Being the last stop before Tibet, our hostel was full of tourists exchanging stories of seemingly random reasons why their permit application was denied, and hoping to meet up with other travelers to arrange a new tour. We sent in our final paperwork over two weeks ago however we still hadn’t heard any news from our Tibetan guide. We met up with David and Karin in the hostel, but sadly both of them and our new friends Emil and Emilia were also denied permits. The whole hostel of travelers seemed to be in a holding pattern and some were even abandoning ship and flying to India/Nepal, others were waiting it out for over two weeks. Two nights before we were scheduled to get on our train, we received the good news we were hoping for… we got our permits! Luckily, we had decided to take a tour with just the two of us, which minimized the complexity of getting a permit with mixed nationalities. Months of preparation and a whole lot of Chinese Yuan made this possible. Heading to the ATM to pay off our guide, we confused the hell out of the bank trying to get a bill larger than 100 RMB (which we found out later doesn’t exist).

With confirmation that we were actually going to be allowed in, we set off on a last minute shopping spree to stock up on snacks and goodies for our 24-hour train ride, and 9 day adventure through Tibet. Most travelers seem content to just purchase food along the way, however with Kevin’s obsession of always carrying food and being on the ‘eat a bolus every hour grazing plan’ we had to dedicate one of our day packs to lots of dried fruit, fresh Asian pears (apple pear), oranges, biscuits, a bag of lollies (candies), homemade muesli (oats, nuts, raisins, milk powder, coconut flakes, cornflake, sunflower and pumpkin seeds), instant coffee, a zip lock of Yunnan leaf tea, hard boiled eggs (with a little container of S&P), the Chinese version of trail mix, dried ramen noodles (with additional packs of freeze dried peas, carrots, sweet potatoes, and baked firm tofu), a handful of steamed pork and red bean buns, the Muslim Bakery’s version of a cinnamon roll, crackers, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, soft cheese wedges (we don’t remember having eaten laughing cow cheese since elementary school), two take-away boxes of fried chowmein, a can of tuna AND two cans of some sort of sweet bean soup in what looks like a tall boy soda can. Could you imagine what a security officer would be thinking if we were stopped for some reason? Hey, at least if we are detained, or our tour guide’s jeep breaks down, we’ll have enough goodies for a tea party on the side of the road :-)

While in Xi’ning we increased our workout routine in an attempt to help us acclimatize to the high altitude (Xining is at 2,200 meters, Lhasa is just about 3,000m and our highest point on the trip would be above 5,000m). The parks around our hostel had exercise equipment, and we fit right in with the locals….. not! We became quit the spectacle from the locals all starring in amazement. The park was jam packed with a dozen ping pong tables, multiple soccer matches, lots of stretching and massaging legs on what appeared to be short pull-up bars, more people than we’ve ever seen on a 400m track at one time AND a brass horn band (wtf?). We showed up in shorts and tank tops to a brisk 50 degree day while everyone else wearing slacks, coats and what seemed like normal street business attire…. Oppsie! This was not a tourist town and there wasn’t much English to be had, however that didn’t stop us from trading sets of exercises with a not-so-fit, but extremely excited group of men.

The town was more than what we expected. There was a pretty posh shopping street, a bunch of local markets, and lots of good eats. We enjoyed a different Muslim style of dumplings, and a random soup with what we think might have been something’s stomach.

We also frequented a place with 1 RMB kosher cabob skewers and thick noodles…to our amazement, the noodles were made by hand right in front of us (without any sort of machine). The chef simply grabbed a lump of dough, stretched it out a few times, folded them in half a few times, stretched them out again and Wa Lah! It was quite amazing to watch.

We paid a visit to the Dongguan Mosque Friday’s lunchtime prayer. We were not allowed into the Mosque but were told that there are usually about 50,000 Muslims who come to pray, and come they did! The streets were flooded with little white hats as the huge Mosque completely filled up and prayer mats overflowed into the street. Turns out that this part of China has quite the Muslim influence.

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 03:49 Archived in China Comments (1)

Chengdu, China

Mahjong and rice wine

We stayed with Kai and his wife for our first three nights in Chengdu. We had a fun exchange of cooking lessons; they taught us how to make ma po dou fu (spicy tofu dish) and we taught them how to make banana bread. Kai also gave us a very important lesson on how to play Chengdu style mahjong. Betting money on mahjong games is so popular in Chengdu that there are now specific rules that make it harder for cheating (lucky for us it makes the game extremely similar to the rummy card game that we already know how to play!) During the game we had to discard mahjong tiles, so we practiced yelling out the Chinese words for each number so ended up learning how to correctly pronounce 1 thru 9!

The city of Chengdu exists in part due to a 2,000 year old irrigation project that divided the Minjiang River into two and then multiple rivers that in turn irrigated the farm lands that fueled the growth of Chengdu city. With Robin’s interest in water, we decided that we should visit the World Cultural Heritage site in Dujiangyan. Two buses, a metro tube, a high speed train ride and one more bus later we arrived … but it was well worth it. The river was so beautiful and the gardens and temples surrounding the UNESCO World Heritage Site have been well kept. If you do end up visiting this place, we’d recommend staying for a few nights and walking up into the mountains; there are endless trails and temples to explore.

While planning our Tibet tour we met a few couples over email that we considered traveling with. In the end, our schedules didn’t allow for it but to our surprise we bumped into one of those couples at a ‘dumpling making’ party we attended. As luck would have it, David and Karin were super fun drinking and traveling buddies! We celebrated our meeting with 500mls of Chinese rice wine and several beers that we were awarded for ‘Most Creative” and “Most Beautiful” dumpling creations.

Chengdu is home of the Xi Ong Mao Ji Di Panda Research Base. We made it there bright and early one morning to watch the giant pandas munch away at their morning bamboo feeding and learned that they don’t actually eat the leaves (they eat the stalk)! We watched as the big pandas piled on each other and were amazed at how skillful they were to first peal the bamboo with their back teeth in three quick strokes and then bite off the ‘tasty’ inner shoot. The park is huge, with many different panda enclosures (we were told about 60 pandas). In the kiddy corner we watched some panda cubs attempt to climb down a tree. The awkward attempts to go down face forward gathered quite the crowd and received a well-deserved applause when the panda eventually made it down safely.

In the afternoon, we walked around Jinli lu (snack street), which is a newly renovated ancient street known for the many different snack vendors that line the alleyways. We enjoyed some unusual Chinese snacks (pineapple rice being the favorite) and found a teahouse to watch a Sichuan Opera performance. This style of opera is known for the face changing “bianlian” which turns out to be pretty funny and enjoyable because of the actor’s interaction with the crowd.

We also enjoyed some home cooking while staying with Derek and his wife “Monkey” for a few days. Derek’s family has a simple motto; “drinking is encouraged.” Since there are endless choices of rice wine in the store, we were very excited and curious to try what Derek termed “the good stuff.” We quickly realized that with our amateur taste buds, the 150rmb bottle was about as nasty as the 15rmb bottle, but well worth the taste testing. Derek is a freelance web designer (living near the High-tech zone in south Chengdu) and his wife is an architect who loved to bake, so we the four of us had a lot in common.

We borrowed Derek’s bikes and rode our way around the city. We only got a few blocks before stopping at Encounter (an outdoor clothing store that appeared to be China’s version of REI) so we stocked up on some warm Quechua clothes for Tibet and stored them in the store’s lockers while we headed out for our bike ride We must have doubled the amount of clothing we were carrying by buying a Quechua fleece set (top and bottom), some heavy wool socks, a wool base layer, and a blow up pillow. We headed north east from the High-Tech zone and found a greenway bike path along the river that snaked through Sichuan University and River View Bamboo Park. The pic below juxtaposes the old and modern style of buildings (with construction cranes that are everywhere in China).

While exploring the city we couldn’t help but notice little baby bottoms peaking at us through the enormous slit in their pants. We met an English girl who was working in China and she explained how most toddlers in China do not use diapers and instead just have the children squat when needed (this was an unusual site to see along the busy streets). This is such an interesting way for potty training kids and we have to admit that seeing how many people there are in China, the fact that most people don’t use diapers is probably a major benefit the environment and great fun for tourists like us :)

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 09:11 Archived in China Comments (1)

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