Great Firewall of China

In China we ran into something we knew nothing about, informally known as the Great Firewall of China.  We tried to access this blog from our laptop, but we couldn’t connect. Internet searches were slow.  Wikipedia has a good article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Firewall_of_China.  With help, we were able to post to the blog from China using email, but we couldn’t view or edit what was posted.  Blog access from Hong Kong worked.

Bloggers visiting China should prepare by setting up email posting in advance.  We had read articles about companies cooperating with the Chinese government to limit information, but running into the Firewall made these limits more real.

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Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces

The Longsheng rice terraces are located on the mountainside near Guilin. Rice grows in water, so each terrace needs to be carefully constructed to wind around the mountain at a constant elevation and without leaking water. The first photo shows the terraces. The rice was harvested earlier in October, after Golden Week. Some terraces are still flooded, and others have sweet potato. The river valley is far below; the drive up from the river valley takes an hour. Note the horse in the lower left-hand corner.

We ate in the Pingan village, populated by the Zhuang ethnic minority. A specialty is sweet rice cooked in a timber bamboo container. The photo shows the sweet rice and a sizzling platter of beef and vegetables.

Tibet, a Land of Contrasts

We found Tibet to be a land of contrasts, both in terms of how it is changing and how our views changed during our visit.

Our Tibetan guide told us about lamas, teachers, historic buildings, and religious writings, as well as the culture. Tibetans are warm and greet each other. Tibetan adults go up to Tibetan infants to smile, touch their cheeks, and get a smile back. Tibetans pray for other people and not for themselves. There is a wide variety of prayers and implementations like prayer wheels that are spun by hand or water from the hillside. Tibet has a small population, and there are many pilgrims.

There is increased immigration of Han people from the rest of China. We drove by new government buildings for ministries to mine the mineral wealth of Tibet. Tibet has more than 100 minerals and is perhaps one of the few sources of rare earth elements required for low-power lighting and hybrid auto engines. The English-speaking positions at our hotel were staffed by people with Han family names. Some of the serving/cooking staff were Tibetans — service oriented and always smiling.

Attached is a photo of the staircase leading to the Palace. It was built as a fort to protect the Dalai Lama and house the administration.

Stairs at Potala Palace
Stairs at Potala Palace

Our feelings about staying in Tibet completely changed during our stay. During our first night in Lhasa, we talked about leaving Tibet early due to altitude sickness. In the end, we worked through this and had a great last day at Potala Palace.

The other photo shows our departure from the Lhasa airport. Our guide gave us white scarves that Tibetans use to convey goodwill and compassion. By the end of our stay, we were touched by the culture of Tibet and had mixed feelings about leaving, in contrast with our initial thoughts of leaving early.

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Part of our criteria for prioritizing places to visit is the quality of the experience and the rate of change that might impact the experience. Tibet rates high with us for both factors. We second the advice we received — visit Tibet.

We have a much better appreciation for the Tibetan culture. The rate of construction in China is amazing. Parts of China have entered the 21 century, and the challenge is how fast the rest of China can catch up. Therefore, we see starker contrast in Tibet than the rest of China

A Great Day at the Potala Palace

We visited the Potala Palace today, and everything went well. The picture shows the Potala Palace from outside the outer wall, on a path used by pilgrims to walk around the Palace clockwise to gain karma. Potala Palace is breath-taking. We lucked out with the sunny skies. Yesterday was overcast, and the weather forecast was more of the same.

We hiked to the top of the Palace, an elevation gain of 130 meters. We took it easy and did not get out of breathe. We saw the major rooms: assembly room, receiving room, and tombs of most of the Dalai Lamas. Seeing Drepung Monastery first helped lay the foundation of Tibetan Buddhism.

Some tips for people traveling to Tibet. We planned only the hotel. We lucked out with the Tibetan guide. The rest was adapting to the situation as it unfolded.

  • After experiencing altitude sickness, we changed our itinerary to visit Potala Palace on our last day in Lhasa, to gain time to acclimate and get a morning start time. I doubt we would have made it earlier. A 130-meter elevation gain from 12,000 feet is non-trivial.
  • Every day in Lhasa we made time for naps.
  • We skipped dinner every night, due to loss of appetite.
  • The Sheraton Four Points Hotel is clean, well-run, and within walking distance of the Barkhor Circuit and Jokhang Temple.
  • Get a Tibetan guide. Our Tibetan guide knows and explains Tibetan Buddhism and customs. So much of the Tibetan culture revolves around their religion, that you’d miss a lot with a Chinese guide. Our guide worked with us as we modified the itinerary to rest and acclimatize.
  • Finally, take diamox. It’s a diuretic, which has issues when you’re out of your hotel room all day, especially given Chinese toilets. But anything to get an edge of altitude sickness is worthwhile. You can’t do much with a bad headache. We learned the hard way.

Hitting the Wall in Lhasa

We hit the wall in Lhasa — headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, and nausea. This is probably a combination of altitude sickness and not getting enough sleep. We’ve been jet-lagged, waking up in the middle of the night, and we woke up at 4:00 am twice for early morning flights to Xian and Lhasa. We skipped dinner our two nights in Lhasa.

But the primary issue is altitude sickness. We talked with another Bay Area couple on a tour of Tibet and Bhutan. They put us in touch with a member of their group who is a physician. He came to our table at breakfast and assured us that our symptoms are just altitude sickness, and not acute mountain sickness. He suggested diamox, which helps people acclimatize, and he gave us a bottle from another member of their tour. I took it immediately. We took it easy yesterday, making room for naps in the afternoon and before dinner, and we got 8 hours sleep last night. First time we slept through the night. We feel much better this morning. If we ever visit a high-altitude place again, we’ll be better prepared next time.
The picture shows Potala Palace from the roof of Jokhang Temple. We visit Potala Palace today and the sun is shining . Our guide is a Tibetan who grew up in Lhasa. He is very knowledgeable about Tibet and Buddhism. We have seen a variety of Tibetans and pilgrims.

Welcome to Beijing!

We finished shopping at Silk Alley in Beijing an hour before a Beijing duck dinner at 7:30. We planned to take a taxi to dinner. It might take 10 minutes to get a taxi on a Sunday night. We don’t speak Mandarin, but the restaurant name and address were handwritten on a paper.

We window shopped until we found a subway station. We tried to get a taxi for 10 minutes, without success, so we kept walking. A cab with an older driver stopped. The driver couldn’t read the address and gestured the direction to the restaurant. It was 7:00 — 30 minutes to dinner.

We stopped at a brightly-lit shop to look at our map. A young man from the shop asked us a question. He got a young man in a white dress shirt who spoke some English. He said he’d help us. He walked us to an intersection. Other groups got taxis, and another group walked away. We thanked the young man twice and said we’d catch a taxi ourselves. Each time he said to hold on.

After 15 minutes we moved a block to a second subway station. A taxi stopped. The young man talked to the driver and showed the driver our map. The driver would take us. We talked the young man and palmed him a bill. He refused it. We pushed it to him again. He refused it again, smiled, and said “Welcome to Beijing!”

After a 10-minute ride, we arrived at the restaurant and joined our tour group. It was 7:30, and they had just sat down. Amid the crowds and constant sales pressure, we are warmed by a young man’s kindness to strangers and our welcome to Beijing.