Saturday, May 3, 2014

Chengdu-Tibet-Nepal April 2014

Tibet-14-Leshan :::::::buddha.jpg
Tibet14-Jo @ Base Camp.jpg
Tibet14-Jo @ Potala Palace.jpg
Tibet14-Lhasa park scene.jpg
Tibet14-Two Wheeler parking Chengdu.jpg
Tibet14-Mantra Prayer Festival.jpg
Tibet14-Monks debating.jpg

I traveled with Peregrine, an Australian tour company,  before - to Vietnam and to Burma - so I knew it would be interesting with comfortable accommodations. It's above my usual. I had wanted to return to Tibet and see what changes had occurred in  twelve years.  And we were to spend most of the two weeks in Tibet.  Several days in China and, as it turned out, several days in Kathmandu.

Chengdu is a modern city, full of worker bees and high rises, existent or in the making. No laundry hanging from the terrace windows as in the past.   Cars, push bikes, two and three wheelers mostly electrically powered, autos and trucks crowded the streets and sidewalks,  leaving little space for the pedestrian. Buses full up.  Designer stores dotted the downtown area. From all appearances, it was a prosperous city. 

We - eight of us - were scheduled to visit the Panda Research Center one day and the Leshan Buddha the next.  A large area has been assigned for the pandas with staff photographing and recording their behavior.  It is very well organized for the visitor, who can observe but not touch. The young pandas were a delight to watch as they wrestled with each other, aiming for ascendency.  The older guys just slept and ate.   According to staff, few if any pandas are left in the wild.

It was a long ride to see the Giant Buddha, carved into  a cliff face at the river's edge.  Some 71 meters high - likely the biggest Buddha  in the world.  Choice was walk up and around or to  take a boat and view the carving in better perspective:  we did the latter.  On subsequent consideration, most of us felt we would rather  skip the Buddha and have an extra day in Tibet.

We flew from  Chengdu to Lhasa.  I had been aware of the  high altitude when I was there before, but it affected me even more this time despite taking meds.  I huffed and puffed the entire eight  day stay.  Bummer!  Though I did manage Potala Palace and the other monasteries and temples. 

As before, Lhasa impressed me as being two communities:  the Chinese with their finished and unfinished high rises along the city's perimeter, and the Old Town with the colorful  and vital Tibetan population. Buildings, even private homes,  all flaunted the Chinese flag.  To get into Barkhor area, Security checked you and your backpacks, a new arrangement for me.  Per our guide, this was to insure flammables were not brought in as a monk had  set himself afire on the square.  Once inside, the area was crowded with  locals, most in national dress. 

Not only did we spent time at the Jokhang Temple but participated in the Mantra Prayer Festival, a gathering of oldsters muttering mantras aloud.  We did miss the Summer Palace, which I had visited before, though did get to the Sera Monastery.  Often there were few monks  about, those tending to the artifacts: much less than I recall from before. But we did watch  a fair sized group  go through their debating exercises. 

All in all, we were in and out of over half a dozen religious establishments, in and out of Lhasa.  At one point, it seemed similar to viewing   European cathedrals -  if you've seen one, you've seen them all.   Only one monastery, at Shigatse,  seemed to be a teaching facility  with some young acolytes about.  Religious treasure - Buddhas and pictures of past Lamas - none of the present Dalai Lama - had been rescued from the Cultural Revolution. (Note: leaving Tibet, the Chinese searched us for contraband eg: Dalai Lama material!

Even in a private farmer's home, there was the ubiquitous Chinese flag flying plus a picture of Mao.  I had heard stories of families hiding  Dalai  Lama's likeness  in back of Mao's photo, but didn't see this.  When last here, I had climbed up  to a nun's cave back of one of monasteries:  along with her kitten, she had a picture of the Dalai  Lama stashed away.

Spent two nights in a hotel unlisted in my old LP, in a town - Shegar -  also unlisted in my old LP. Was on a map, however.  Colder than hell!  Drove out to Tourist base camp and then, bussed to actual base camp. first used by the 1924 British expedition. Cold and windy!   We went through some half dozen checkpoints enroute. The Chinese keep close track of who is where. (It is the Nepal Base Camp that generates the publicity. On the north side of Everest,  sixteen Sherpas were killed in an avalanche while I was in Tibet, leading to the cancellation of the 2014 climbing season.)

Tibetans don't have much freedom to move about.   They must have job offer and permit.  Tibetans can go onto the college and get MDs and PhDs but to work, must cooperate  with the regime.  While the "real" government is that in exile, it is unlikely it can successfully stage any coup.  To me, it appeared that the Chinese dragon had firmly sat down on the Tibetans.  The freedom that they may have, is  likely due to the success in bringing in tourist trade, not only Western but Chinese.  In a sense, the Tibetans are similar to the Pandas under close observation by their Chinese masters.

Our last Tibetan city was Zhangmu, a trading town, a work in progress built along a mountainside.  Trucks from India, China and Nepal crawled along the narrow city streets.  From there, our next stop was the border where we left China's orderly scuntiny to  walk into the more chaotic freedom that was Nepal.   Another guide, another bus and we continued down to Kathmandu.

Kathmandu impressed me as a large building site, a city in making., at least out where we stayed.  Before I had been either in the bustling hotel-restaurant area of Thamel or out by the airport   near Pushupatinath.  This time it was the northern area, which impressed me as a large building site.  Nice hotel, but a difficult area to navigate on foot.  I was there a day more than desired, as I had screwed up my return flight, but did manage to get out - a problem what with the Everest climbing cancellation.

Similarities between the three areas:  Face masks, most likely due to the smog.  Two and three wheeler traffic.  Minimum of smoking.  Picked up trash,  excepting some  rural areas of Tibet. Relatively good asphalted roads most of the time with lots of camelback curves.  Cell phones.  Friendliness of locals. Blockage of Facebook  in China & Tibet. 

Guides:  All three were excellent though I rate the Tibetan guide as outstanding.  He was familiar with the history, has a delightful sense of humor and managed to walk a tight rope in commenting on current Tibetan-Chinese history.

Food:  Mostly, we ate as a group, in small local restaurants.  It ws a combination of Chinese, Tibetan and/or Indian food.  More atmospheric than epicurean. 

Accommodations:  From semi-luxurious to semi-basic.  In Lhasa, we were at the Yak Hotel, a backpackers special but with some updated rooms.  Great  place in the midst of the old town.
Elsewhere, very comfortable rooms but one place sans heat and another, sans hot water.  The last Tibetan hotel I stayed at was replete with construction material - a work in progress.  Both the Chengdu and Kathmandu hotels were at the top end of the scale. 

Costs:  The tour, with discount, cost $3240 plus two extra days.  But the air transport, that's another story:  Originally,  round trip cost:  $1593 with insurance.  As I miscalculated the length of the tour, had a reschedule the return flight - could not manage a change iin existing  arrangemens as flights out of Kathmandu were full up (cancellation of Everest climbing season) so had to start from scratch with a one way flight, two days later than planned:  $1794.  And was lucky to get that!  Add-on:  $150 to upgrade to Business class Kathmandu-Abu Dhabi and $75 to switch to an earlier flight JFK-SFO.  (There is nothing like trying to rearrange fights on a hotel computer under time constraints!.  Fortunately my niece had my  back!)

Conclusion:  Even with the air transport mess-up, it was a worthwhile trip, even allowing for the cold and breathlessness.  As a Free Tibet contributor, I don't see that happening -  China has her paws too firmly entrenched in Tibet.  It was well worth taking a look at the here and now. 


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