Sunday, 11 October 2015

Lhasa ~ Yamdrok Lake, Tibet

Tibet has long been on my wish-list. There is a sense of mysteriousness about the place; the restricted tourism, inaccessibility, altitude, previous political instability and rigorous religious practice. Added to that, foreigners have apply to various permits and be accompanies by a tour guide throughout their stay. Good thing I’m a HK citizen then - Chinese permit cards allows absolute freedom in the autonomous region, well, as much freedom as the Chinese government grants.

From the plane, the view of the Himalayas snowy peaks piercing through the thin layer of cotton-like clouds, followed by the endless stretch of undulating mountains; it was breath-taking.

The original plan was:
Arrive and acclimatise -> Potala Palace, Jokhang Temple, Bakhor Street -> Sera Temple, Drepung Temple, Norbulingka Palace -> NyingChi (Bayi) for 2 days -> Nametso Lake -> Leave

Screw that.

First thing we found out, NyingChi needs 3 days. Then when we tried to buy our tickets for Potala Palace, we found out there is a reservation system. One needs to pre-book tickets and get a allocated slot the day before visit. More importantly, the altitude sickness or symptoms can be an absolute bummer. 

While the altitude had no effect on me, Bro suffered mild symptoms of headaches and dizziness, which rendered him helplessly dysfunctional. We wandered around the old city area on the first day, but didn’t take much in except for how developed Lhasa is. It was far from what we imagined. There were chain brands, shopping centres, neon lights advertising all kinds of cuisines and, on a positive side, a reliable, developed bus system.

We strolled around the Potala park at the foot of the palace, and followed the religious locals in turning the praying wheels in a clockwise manner surrounding the palace. Back in the days where there was very low literacy rate, the turning of the wheel symbolises the reading of prayers. For the larger wheels, the scribbles represent the face of a god, and therefore we had to take care to turn only at the base of the drum.

For dinner we went to a rooftop restaurant called 老渔饭局 (Lau Yu Supperclub), recommended by a bookshop keeper. The food was more Sichuan-focused with a couple of Tibet dishes, quite mediocre but we were granted a killer view of Potala Palace as night began to fall. 

On Day 2, after discovering we couldn’t visit Potala Palace on the same day, we booked our tickets for the following day and hopped on a day tour to Yamdrok Lake. Note, you could only reserve Potala for the following day, with valid identity documents or your guide. It is worth noting that you only need your identity card for reservation, and you pay the entrance fee of 200 yuan (100 yuan between Oct-Feb) on the day of visit. In the case of no-show, the registered persons are black-listed for 7 days. Obviously no one wants to be on a Chinese black-list.

The plan re-shuffle also means we had to forgo Namtso Lake, which was a massive disappointment as it was one of our key sights. But between Potala Palace and Namtso Lake, we were told the former is a must-see. Perhaps the 10-hr drive up 5000m to see a lake wasn’t such a great idea when Bro wasn’t in his best form. An alternative was to visit Rikaze for 2 days to leave us with a day to Namtso. But we heard that is mostly a shopping tour with few picturesque scenes.

Yamdrok lake was merely a 2.5hr drive from Lhasa. Hoisted at 4440m above sea level, it’s one of the three sacred lakes of Tibet. While we were supposed to be heading to a lower altitude to relieve Bro’s altitude reaction, I forgot to check the altitude of the lake, not to mention the even high ascend over the mountains before reaching the lake… He made it though.

The lake had a beautiful turquoise blue despite the grey skies. The lake probably would look even more impressive on a bright blur day, but the haziness added ambience. There are various locals with their decorated yaks that charge for photos with them.

At the lake, beware of a lady that charges you 5yuan for snapping a photo of the name of the lake inscribed in stone that I’m damn sure she didn’t put up. We ignored her.

We tried something called Mo cuisine for dinner, from Chengdu. We were given 2 metal bowls to pick our meat and veg from the fridge, then the kitchen cook it all in one huge pot for us. Pretty good.

We were booked for 3:40pm to visit Potala Palace on the next day. The ticket grants us admission to the Snow City, which is the area at the foot of the palace, 2 hours before our allocated time. We wandered around the old city of Bakhor streets in the morning as we watched dedicated Tibetans pray around the Jokhang Temple. Some circumambulate the temple clockwise spinning their praying wheel and mumbling prayers; some ran the full kora (praying ritual) repeatedly in front of the temple; a few made their way around the temple while performing the full kora.

Feeling adventurous, we entered a local teahouse for a mid-morning break. The teahouses are often clustered by local Tibetans chilling around the low tables covered in colourful rugs. None of them look glamorous as the rooms are dark with lots of flies. I think our entrance startled the Tibetans, but they still welcomed us and helped us with the menu, which was mostly in Tibetan. Originally we wanted to try "butter tea”, but they didn’t have it here. We sat down for a small pot of “sweet tea” (4yuan) and a “beef cake” (2yuan) , which was a savoury fried bread mixed with spring onion and minced beef. We grew to love sweet tea as the milk in the tea was particularly rich and fragrant.

Then we made our way to the Potala Palace square, and found another teahouse that served butter tea (10 yuan). It was vile. Imagine dropping a knob of butter AND lard in your breakfast tea - it had a pungent greasy taste to it. We’ll stick to sweet tea.

The Potala Palace was nothing like what I had imagined. With the Chinese government influence over the region, the old Tibet authorities and generations of Dalai Lama have been portrayed to be corrupted, violent and inhumane. There are exhibitions dedicated to dishonour the authorities, with old photographs that don’t necessary serve as concrete evidence to their accusations. Then there is another exhibition that emphasised on the brotherhood and supportive relationship between China and Tibet throughout history - propaganda-type messages that Tibet is an inseparable part of China. I read everything with a pinch of salt. 

We were allowed entry 30mins before our slot. The visiting route is clearly signposted, with texts to explain which chamber, chapel and tomb. It was completely unique, I have never seen anything like it before. No photography inside the palaces.

That said I left with a trace of disappointment. As the most sacred place for the Tibetan Buddhism, we didn’t see monks worshipping or studying, instead there were two monks ‘guarding' each chamber, looking decidedly fed up, chatting with their fellow guards, collecting donation from visitors with zero interest or gratitude. Each room encouraged donation as notes were scattered around the room, even in corners that can’t be reached by visitors. They are hardly painting a good reputation for their religion. Perhaps that was intentional, depending on who is in the drivers seat.

The descend from the palace to the foot of the hill overlooks Lhasa. And we could see how quickly the Chinese government had developed this city by plonking new buildings absolutely everywhere, turning it into just another Chinese city.

We headed further out from the city centre to try Stone Pot Chicken, which is a traditional Tibetan dish. We were served a huge chicken broth with a whole chicken in a stone pot over a gas stove, with added beef slices, vegetables and pork meatballs. The chicken soup was infused with Chinese medicine and pork knuckles. which added a gelatinous texture to the broth. It was delicious.

NyingChi is our next destination in Tibet, 480km to the west of Lhasa. It’s a much less touristy city known for its scenic landscape. The 9-hour drive starts…


The airport bus from Lhasa to Gonggar airport leaves from MinHangJu on Niangre South Road, which is at the street on the left of Potala Palace, between Beijing East and Middle Road. The buses leave when they have more than 18 people and approximately 2.5 hours before each scheduled flight.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

My first time in China: Xi'an

Growing up I have been told all kinds of disturbing stories about China; kidnappers that make children beg on the streets, unruly authorities that randomly dish out death penalties, extortion to road users by throwing a dead corpse at your vehicle… Admittedly major Chinese cities have moved on and that some of the tales where what Grandma used to blackmail us into good behaviour. I now feel I have outgrown these stories and am ready to explore some of the places that I have put on my list. It’s also one of the many reasons for moving to Asia.

Being a Hong Kong citizen, I take advantage of my 'Chinese-ness' when it’s convenient. My Chinese permit card allows me to roam free in the country. Together with my brother who speaks damn good mandarin - we’re good to go.

We decided to ease ourselves into it by starting at Xi’an. 

The inner city, confined by the old city wall, is small by Chinese standard. Getting to the city from the airport was easy enough. There was an airport shuttle bus that operated from 6am-midnight between the airport and Lung Hai Hotel in the city, where one could connect to the subway or the established bus grid - 25yuan pp; c. 60mins. Alternatively Bus 24 takes you to the North gate of the inner city wall.

The first item on our itinerary was the Terracotta Army museum. Staying near the Bell Tower, we took bus 611 to the railway station, from there we took one of the public buses: No. 603 (7yuan) or No. 914 costs (8yuan - they leave every 4mins and I’m convinced they have better aircon) - 80mins. Just follow the signs for the ticket office - 150yuan.

The ticket map had a small map of the exhibition hall and excavation sites. 

It was as busy as we anticipated with floods of Chinese tourists despite it being a Friday. And yes, Chinese tourists are as every bit exhausting as we expected: the constant shoving, yelling, spitting, smoking and general lack of consideration and respect for personal space - deal with it. 

Hmm… I’m glad I have checked this off my list. That said it was much less impressive than we thought. 

Back in the city we made our way up to the City Wall, where we rented a bike to see the city from the top - entrance fee 54yuan + 45yuan for bike rental for 2 hours. To be honest we couldn’t see much with the heavy smog, but I’m always happy on a bike. Bro somewhat struggled slightly with the bumpiness though.

We returned the bikes at the South Gate, where we spotted a cluster of old houses. The area is like a scholar region, where there were lots of stalls selling calligraphy, writing brushes and traditional crafts.

Then we made our way back up to the Muslim Street by the Bell Tower for dinner. This street is nuts; like a night market selling all the local delicacies of Xi’an: Lamb skewers, pomegranate juice, fried beancurd, Chinese style kebab… The man said this lamb pao mo is a must-try in Xi’an.

It’s a small bits of pita bread soaked in a rich broth packed with spice and lamb aroma. I was told by a trusted source that this was a must-try dish in Xi’an. I can’t say I enjoyed it, the broth was strong in lamb flavours, thicken by the bread, but probably too pungent and soaked bread really isn’t my kind of thing. The other street stuff was quite good, especially the lamb skewers with cumin and Chinese kebabs.

The following day we got up early to catch the first bus to HuaShan. Being one of the 5 spectacular peaks of China aside, I have an emotional attachment to HuaShan. Those who have read “Kam yung” novels would know a HuaShan is where he sets the scene. I started reading his novels since I was 10, it means a lot for me to see where those fictitious scenes took place.

First bus leaves from the Xi’an railway station at 8am, we were told during high season buses leave as early as 6am. There really is no such thing as first bus, the bus only moves when it’s full. We couldn’t find the one marked No.2. Instead there was a bus that was charging 36yuan one way; 60 for a return. We suspected this wasn’t the ‘official’ bus, but we convinced ourselves the air-con was stronger.

The bus journey took 2.5hrs. It took us to a hotel entrance and ushered us to the lobby where a guy was presenting the routes and options to us. He was talking at 100mph in mando, but bottomline the hotel staff tried to sell us cable car tickets.

In short, the best circuit is to start from the North entrance, up the North peak, trek around all the peaks from the North Peak, then descend via the West route. In short, as a day tripper, it’s close to impossible to do the entire route by trekking. There is a way up right in the middle between the North and West entrance, but this route takes 7-8 hours by walking, I heard people only take this route up if they were staying a night in the mountains. We had about 6 hours in the area. North up; West down it is. This bus company was trying to charge us another 5yuan per head to drive us to the North entrance, which was 2km away. Fuck that - we walked. Damn sure we got there before the bus did.

So HuaShan is a relatively expensive ordeal. Let me break it down for you:
Return Bus fare from Xi’an: 60
Entrance Fee: 180
Bus from Entrance to Mountain trekking point: 20
Cable car to North peak (optional): 80
Alternatively you could walk: 1hr 40mins
Cable car from the West Peak: 140
Bus from Cable car to West Entrance: 40
From what I could see, there wasn't a trekking option from the West.

We were going at Super Sonic speed despite the selfie-stick mobs, the panting and crawling bunch, and the ladies who thought it was okay to wear heels - it ain’t.

Weather up in the mountains is unpredictable, and it was quite a misty day for us. Luckily when we got to the top above the mist and clouds, we got some good shots as we walked around all five peaks. It gets significantly colder at the top c. 10-16 degrees, that said Bro and I were both in tanks tops throughout, people in opposite direction kept asking if we were cold - it gets sweaty after climbing several thousand steps alright…

We made it back to base and caught the bus back to Xi’an around 4:30pm. The return journey took a lot longer thanks to traffic. We opted for a quick dinner of bian bian mian - also a specialty of Xi’an. They made up this word for "bian" - we haven't found it in the dictionary.
The history of bian bian mian came about when Xi’an succumbed to the invasion by the Mongolians way back. Citizens had restricted access to sharp tools, which made cooking challenging. So a lady came up with a type of noodles that could be stretched into flat shapes, and this became a staple.

Bro had a dry version mixed with chopped carrots, celery and mince, drizzled with chilli oil and spice. Mine was served in a washing basin plus a garlic sauce for dipping. Absolutely delicious - all for 19 yuan.

With a full stomach, we caught the airport bus and checked into the airport hotel - ready for the morning flight to our next destination: Lhasa, Tibet.