BootsnAll Travel Network

Ever Closer to Tibet

After writing the last blog entry, I left the Internet cafe to head back to the hotel. While enroute, I was distracted by what looked like an orchestra setting up to play in a paved square by the river. I decided to hang around to see what was going to happen. The show started about a half an hour later and opened with a group of children dancing flamenco and salsa on the stage. Other acts followed involving various singers and dancers performing to Chinese music (with the exception of a couple waltzing to “May I Have This Dance”). I could tell the show was put on by local groups as they often made mistakes which led to laughter and corrections. If this wasn’t enough entertainment, another group soon set up very near them and began a saxaphone and trombone ensemble with a huge crowd of townspeople singing along with them. Next to them about 50 people began line dancing to their own music. A fourth group began doing exercises next to the dancing group. All this took place in a space of about 100 meters or so. I felt as if I were at a multi-ringed circus as I kept running back and forth between all the groups watching. The noise level was tremendous as they were all competing to be heard.

On Tuesday, I caught a bus to Chengdu after being taken by a taxi driver to a totally different bus station from the one that I told him to take me to. It worked out okay as they had buses to Chengdu as well. After arriving in Chengdu, I checked into Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse. I had been told that I might be able to get train tickets and permits for Lhasa here. Officially, you have to be part of a package tour to get into Lhasa, but many places will issue you permits without the tour. Sleeper tickets are hard to get as the train is very popular. Most tourists who show up last minute have to get tickets bought on the black market. This usually involves calling people with contacts in the local mafia who buy huge bulks of tickets. Guesthouses or some travel agencies will usually do this for you. You have to pay more for these tickets as many people get a cut of the money. Even though there were some black market tickets available, I didn’t get them yet as I was waiting for Ivone, whom I was to meet up with the next day. Ivone and I will be traveling through Tibet together to Nepal. To get to Kathmandu from Lhasa, 4WD vehicles have to be rented. As you pay for the vehicle and not per person, the more people you get in a vehicle the cheaper it is. I had put a post on bootsnall looking for people to travel with me to Kathmandu. Ivone answered it. She is of Indonesian origin and works in the US as a software engineer. She is in the middle of a long trip as well. We plan to find more people to come with us once we get to Lhasa.

On Wednesday, I went to the Chengdu Panda Research Center. As the name implies, the center is full of pandas. They range from adult pandas to baby pandas still living in incubators. Pandas are very picky and are very hard to breed in captivity. Also by some genetic quirk, they also usually have twins. In the wild, a panda mother is only able to care for one so the other dies. In the center, the staff usually care for the weaker cub. There is some debate as to whether a panda is actually a bear or part of the racoon family. The center also had some small red pandas which definitely look like racoons. I got lots of good pictures of pandas lounging around eating bamboo. For a large donation, one can hold a baby panda (I didn’t). As most tours do, the trip ended in the gift shop. The gift shop was full of stuffed pandas and panda memorabilia. The most “interesting” to me were the items made from panda poo. Pandas eat a lot of bamboo but very little of it is actually consumed in their bodies. The rest gets “deposited” outside of the panda as large lumps of partially digested bamboo. It appears to be good for artwork. There were panda poo fans and statues. As I have one neice and another on the way, I decided to see if I could find a panda poo barbie and a panda poo barbie dream house as a nice gift, but I came away empty handed. I didn’t even find a panda poo tea set for myself.

I spent the evening waiting around the guesthouse for Ivone whose flight was delayed. Due to the delay, I first met Ivone’s friend Jenny. Ivone had met Jenny during a previous trip to Chengdu three years ago. They had decided to meet up at the hostel. When Ivone finally arrived, I briefly had a chance to say hi before she and Jenny went to catch up.

On Thursday, Ivone and I set about trying to figure out how to get to Lhasa. All the sleeper tickets available on the black market were sold out. Even though we could get hard seat tickets, we really didn’t want to sit in the hard seat section for 48 hours. I contacted a travel agent in Xining that I had corresponded with in Australia about tickets. He said that he might be able to get them on the Xining black market (again through his contact who has contacts in the black market.) We decided to book train tickets (sleeper car) to Xining and try our luck there. One has to go through Xining to get to Lhasa by train anyway so at the very least we could do half the trip with a sleeper car. After we bought train tickets to Xining, we were informed that sleeper tickets had become available to Lhasa. We decided to stick with what we had as we both wanted to see Xining anyway. That night Ivone, Jenny, and I ate at a teahouse. I learned a bit more about Jenny. She has a college degree and works for an investment company. She told me that she makes about 1500 yuan (200 US$) a month which is considered a decent salary in this part of China.

Waking up the next morning, Ivone and I made our way to the train station and boarded the train at noon for the 26 hour trip to Xining. We traveled soft sleeper so we would be sharing a room with two other people. Once in our room, we met Julia and her three? year old daughter Baba (I am not sure how it is really spelled but this is how it sounded to me). Julia is a Chinese lady who lives in Xining. We spent the next 26 hours visiting, sleeping, reading, eating, etc. Julia was nice enough to come to the dining car with us to help us find some dishes as she had a good grasp of English. Our first meal on the train consisted of rice, kongpow chicken, and pork and bellpepper dish. Baba was initially shy especially around me (I towered over her) but soon warmed up. When I came back to the berth to get some napkins to eat with, she kept pulling me into the room and wouldn’t let go so I could go eat again. This was in contrast to our initial meeting when Baba quite seriously set about informing me of what was hers in the room and that I shouldn’t touch it. Baba soon discovered a little boy slightly older than her next door. They played together the rest of the trip. We went to sleep that night with rice fields passing by outside the window. Upon awakening, we discovered that the scenery had changed to arid mountains and we had gained about 5000 ft (per my watch altimeter) in altitude. The train arrived in Xining around 14:30. We said goodbye to Julia and caught a cab to the hostel.

Xining is a town of about 2 million set on the edge of the sparsely populated Tibetan plateau. It sits at about 7200 ft (again by watch altimeter) in altitude. The town is quite different than the others that I have visited in China. The architecture is quite similar, but the population is much more ethnically diverse. The population of China is over 90% Han, and this was the group that I had mostly seen up to this point. Xining is full of Tibetan and other minority groups which look quite different from the Han. Also due to the town’s proximity to central Asia, there is a very large Muslim population here. Many men in the town sport beards and wear white skull caps. While the women don’t wear burkas (the head to toe covering for women), many wear what looks like a black lace head wrap.

Ivone and I spent the first evening looking around the town and in the market. We ate at a very interesting restaurant. It was a little hole in the wall place but very good. You start by selecting ingredients to be cooked. The items are set out on skewers. The selection includes seaweed, meats, vegetables, mushrooms, tofu, and more. You then present your choices to the cook who bundles the skewers and drops them into a large pot full of boiling water and spices (on a wood fire stove no less). After it is cooked, the items are removed from the skewers and put on a plate and given to you. We also orderd some noodle dishes as well. Together we spent 17 yuan (about $2.30) for a meal that left me stuffed. On Sunday, we climbed to the top of a peak near the town. We were orginally aiming for a mountainside temple but it was closed due to fire damage. We found instead a set of steps and trails that wound its way up the mountain underneath a now defunct chair lift. The 800 ft or so climb ended in a large flat area which gave panoramic views of the city (diminished by the pollution though). There was also an old building on top. In the building, we discovered an old couple that were either squatters or caretakers. Ivone has a larger Mandarin vocabulary (still very basic though) than I do, and she talked with them somewhat. The conversation revolved around where we were from and something to do with wondering about Ivone’s origin as we both said we were from the US. They apparently were confused as I was so big and she is little and looks Han. She explained that her family is historically Chinese. We offered them some of our bread that we had bought from a Muslim bakery to eat for lunch. The old man didn’t want any but his wife certainly did and took some despite her husband playfully? slapping her hand. We ended the day eating at a hotpot restaurant. We ordered some raw lamb, vegetables, and tofu. We added this to a pot of very spicy soups which were set over a flame on our table. I should point out that I make ordering sound very easy but as usual the ordering took place through lots of commotion and hand signals. I also decided to pick something at random from the menu without knowing what is was. As always seems to be the case when I do this, we ended up with a plate of squid and squid tentacles. (Why is it always tentacles? I always seem to end up with a plate of some weird water life when I do this). The squid was actually cooked quite well and wasn’t fishy.

On Monday, Ivone and I went to see the travel agent. Apparently the black market/man with mafia contacts was on a business trip so we couldn’t get sleeper tickets. We decided to go with the hard seat (only 24 hours and it’s supposed to be nicer than normal as these trains are new). Usually in a hard seat, you aren’t actually guaranteed a seat so you could be standing for hours, but on the Tibet train you are. We will try to upgrade on the train.

Today we went to Ta’er Si which is a large Yellow Hat Buddhist monastery near Xining. It survived the ravages of the 1960’s cultural revolution so it is quite old. The Yellow Hat sect was founded to sort of reform Buddhism with a more monastic focus. On the bus, we met up with a Chinese army captain and his wife. We spent the day touring the monastery with them. Between their limited English, Ivone’s limited Mandarin, and my even more extremely limited Mandarin, we managed to communicate. The monastery is full of small temples dedicated to various themes. The air was scented with the smell of yak butter from which the temple candles are made. There were also very elaborate yak butter sculptures. A new and very large temple was under construction. This gave me the chance to see what a Buddhist temple looks like when it is new as most of them are very old and the colors are faded. I also discovered that the huge Buddha statues (at least the new ones) are actually made up of a thin layer of bronze over a sheetrock core. Many monks and Tibetans were in the various temples praying and performing ceremonies surrounded by large Chinese tour groups. After going back to Xining, we decided to go eat with our new friends. They said they would take us to a very good Chinese restaurant. I told Ivone that I bet it would be Kentucky Fried Chicken. I was wrong but it was still a fast food restaurant that served french fries, chicken fingers, and some sort of chicken curry. It was definitely Asian influenced though as the chicken breading was very different spice-wise from Western fast food places.

Tomorrow Ivone and I will catch our train to Lhasa and finally end up in Tibet. My sinus infection (if that’s what it is) continues. I am currently taking antibiotics to see if that will help. I have been on them for 8 days. Today was probably my best day since August 30 in terms of fatigue and pressure so I am hopeful. I have contacted the US embassy in Kathmandu for a list of English speaking doctors should my symptoms not clear up by then. They aren’t getting any worse and, while they are annoying, they don’t prevent me from doing any activities.


I got a reminder to not be lax in my bag security while in Xining. Ivone and I were walking, and we saw a man following a Chinese lady. At first we thought they were together but soon realized she was being pickpocketed without her knowlege. Upon realizing this, I walked up to the lady who was unaware of the man following behind her digging in her purse. Upon seeing me the man stopped and started giving me evil eyes. I tapped the woman on her shoulder, pointed to her purse, and pointed behind her. The man was gone at this point. As far as I could see he didn’t get anything. I believe the Chinese lady was aware of what I was trying to tell her as she turned around and started walking in the direction that the man had gone.

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One Response to “Ever Closer to Tibet”

  1. Preeti Says:

    so what does yak butter or yak cheese taste like?

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. admin Says:

    Yak cheese takes like mozarella to me.

  4. Posted from China China
  5. Kellie Says:

    Panda poo barbie…you are funny!

  6. Posted from United States United States

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