Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Journey to the Celestial Empire, pt 4

Thursday, May 12 -- Norden Camp to Shanghai

   We awakened on another frosty morning in Tibet and prepared to hit the road for Lanzhou. Unlike our trip here, we would not be stopping to see the sights along the way. Instead, we would be taking the most direct route, and it would still be a haul of about four and a half hours.

Sue warms up before our final breakfast in Tibet.

It was almost like the sheep didn't want us to leave. 

Not too far out of Xiahe, we re-entered the modern Chinese highway system,
complete with bilingual signs in Chinese and Tibetan.

   We left the camp at 7am and made only one stop along the way to use the facilities, but it was still a close call at the airport. Fortunately, we found out flight to Shanghai had been delayed by the late departure of a Beijing-bound flight at our gate. One Chinese woman who had missed that flight was giving the gate personnel an earful when we got there. In a way it was gratifying to see that Chinese can be just as upset as Americans when they arrive late and then blame someone else for it. 
   Our flight was a half-hour late but otherwise uneventful. Most of us took the time to get some extra shuteye or catch up on our reading. We got to Hongqiao International in late afternoon and the trusty EXO staff was waiting with our minibus to our destination for the next three nights, the Jing An Shangri-La. Nobody else in our group had stayed there yet, so Sue and I enjoyed filling them in on the hotel's amenities. 
   Our check-in process went just as smoothly as the first time. After a rest and freshening up, we changed clothes and headed up to the Horizon Club Lounge on the 55th floor for the Travel Leaders welcoming reception. A fine time was had by all, and Sue was able to catch up with her good friends and colleagues, Denise Hanson Petricka from Eau Claire, Wis., and Laurie Glomstad Passard from Grand Rapids, Minn., who had spent the previous few days touring Beijing and Xian. Following the reception, dinner was served in the Summer Palace dining room on the 3rd floor. 

From the 55th floor, Laurie took this photo of the sunset over western Shanghai the night of the reception.

Enjoying dinner in the Summer Palace: Bob Decker, Laurie and Denise. 

   With our wake-up call in Tibet and the flight, it didn't take long for our eyes to start drooping. Sue joined Denise and Laurie for a nightcap in the 1515 West bar, but I turned in. The next morning would be a leisurely one for yours truly, as Sue and the rest of the Travel Leaders group attended their International Summit conference. In the afternoon, we would see more of Shanghai. 

Friday, May 13 -- Shanghai

   Sue and her fellow Travel Leaders colleagues attended the Summit conference in the morning. I'd risen early for a swim and then went for a walk around the hotel neighborhood, hoping I'd find another shop selling knives like we'd seen on the way to Tibet. Dave Hershberger and I both regretted not buying a knife there, but although I'm sure they had knife dealers in Shanghai---the city has 25 million people, after all---I couldn't find one, and the concierge said the nearest dealers were about an hour away. By now I was fairly confident in my ability to get around Shanghai, but not that confident. 
   In the afternoon we joined up with Laurie, Denise and a larger group for lunch at the Lost Heaven restaurant and a walk down the Bund, followed by a t'ai chi ch'uan lesson in a nearby park. Sue and I have trained in martial arts for several years and were familiar with this Chinese art thanks to Master Steven Aldus, who teaches at the Share the Martial Arts camp we attend every August, hosted by our good friend Lloyd Brown, a karate sensei in our area. The class we would experience here in Shanghai was taught by a pair of masters, a man and a woman, and was very introductory. Even so, everyone else in our group, none of whom had any previous martial arts experience besides what they'd seen on TV, could see how difficult it actually is to perform these moves, in spite of how easy they appear. 

Lunch at the Lost Heaven was, well, heavenly...

...but it was almost a shame we had to disassemble these presentations to eat the food.

The Bund was busy again on this Friday as we took our stroll. 

Unlike the visit Sue and I had the previous week, we weren't able to go inside the hotels, like the Fairmont Peace.

   There were other tours available, and the Lees chose to join up with the popular guided bicycle ride through some of Shanghai's side streets. 

Bridget gets ready to saddle up, this time on a bike in Shanghai rather than a horse in Tibet. (WL)
Bonnie made sure to get a bike with a large basket, in case there would be shopping. (WL)
The bikers got off the beaten path pretty quickly. (WL)
And the paths got narrower. (WL)

Roger Block, in the blue, was along for the ride, too. Roger was our host for the Summit. (WL)
The bike tour stopped to tour the home of a typical Shanghai urban family, including their poodles. (WL)




After the home visit, the riders mounted up for the trek back to the Shangri-La. (WL)

   Back to the hotel for a light dinner and change, we rushed to our evening entertainment, a performance of the Shanghai ERA acrobatic troupe. To be honest, some of us were getting a little tired and wouldn't have minded staying at the hotel for the evening, but everyone decided to go and in the end, were glad they did. It was a spectacular show featuring the best of Chinese acrobatics. Never again will I wonder how the Chinese can be so successful in Olympic gymnastics; Chinese athletes have dominated the sport in the last two Olympic Games and are expected to do the same this summer in Rio. Here's a video clip I shot of two different exhibitions: Shanghai ERA Acrobatics.
   As much as we enjoyed the show, we were ready to hit the hay, anticipating our final full day in China, when we would visit the famed Tongli Water Village.

Saturday, May 14 -- Tongli Ancient Town

   Located about 50 miles from Shanghai, the Tongli Ancient Town, also known as the Water Village. was our destination for our last full day in China. Built during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the village sits next to the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, next to Taihu Lake. It has earned the nickname of "Venice of the Orient" for its canals. Covering about 80 acres and home to about 2,000 residents, the village has been preserved to a great extent and has been open to the public for 30 years. 
   Our group, now numbering about 100 people, boarded a pair of ultra-modern, German-built tour buses for the jaunt, which took about two hours, much of it devoted to getting out of the city. (Had we taken the bullet train, the ride would've been a half-hour long.) Once we got into the countryside we got a good look at Chinese farms. Unlike American farms, those in China are smaller and much less mechanized, but still efficient: although only 15 percent of land in China is arable, its farmers produce about 20 percent of all the world's food. They have enough to feed their own people, no small task in a land of over a billion mouths to feed, and export a lot of food, in keeping with China's standing as the world's foremost trading partner. 
   About 300 million farmers work the land in China, but the average size of a farm is very small, about 1.6 acres. By comparison, the average American farm is about 440 acres. Rice is their most important crop, comprising about 25% of the country's agricultural output, but they also grow a lot of wheat, corn and just about everything else, including citrus. They are the world's top producer of cotton, and they are heavily into livestock as well, although not necessarily dairy cattle. More than 90% of all Chinese are lactose-intolerant. During our entire visit, I never once saw milk served at a restaurant, nor was it offered, not even at the sumptuous breakfast buffets at our hotels in Shanghai and Lanzhou.

Chinese farms don't have a lot of machinery, but they do have a lot of people. (lilianpitaro photo)

      We arrived at Tongli in late morning and were on our own for the rest of our visit. Like the real Venice, in Italy, Tongli has the canals, and lots of shops, some of them selling the usual kitschy tourist items, but others offering high-quality goods. One thing most of our group wanted to do was actually ride in the gondolas. 

Our guide for the day explains the history of Tongli.

The gondolas, very similar to those we saw in Venice, awaited us in Tongli.

We toured a nobleman's dwelling. This is the entrance hall, where the noble and his wife greeted guests. 

The house's private garden and pond was well-stocked.

At one of the many shops, the vendor shows off his wares. We purchased some artwork like the scrolls
he's pointing to, only much more elaborate, from an artist's shop for about $16 US. Similar work
back home would've been at least ten times that cost. This shop, like a few others we saw,
also sold knives, although not nearly of the quality we saw before, so Dave H and I passed.

At one point our guide wanted to show us the narrowest street
in the village. We could believe it. 

Some shops, selling women's and children's clothing,
utilized models to draw customers.

The gondola ride was very pleasant. Each gondola was crewed by a woman gondolier, and unlike their
Venetian counterparts, none of them sang a note. 

The water was low enough that we could successfully negotiate many of the city's 55 bridges.

Sue, Denise and Laurie, who have now attended to the past four International Summits together.
Chinese love their dogs, although they aren't as common as we have in America.
Beijing and Shanghai each have ordinances limiting families to one dog. Those they
are allowed to have, though, are often artificially colorful.
   Here are a couple videos I shot during our visit. The first was from our gondola: Tongli gondola ride. And the second from a show that was on stage in the town square: Tongli Stage Show. We'd gathered there after the ride as we were preparing to depart the village. 
   Our time in Tongli had been well-spent, but as we headed back to Shanghai we were also thinking of our final event of the trip. This evening would be the traditional International Summit gala.
   This was the event where the women would be dressed to the nines and us guys would be challenged to match them. Of course that was impossible, so we just did our best. We boarded our buses again for a short jaunt down to the Bund and Kathleen's Waitan Restaurant, which offered as its main attraction a spectacular view of Shanghai's nighttime skyline. All of these photos are courtesy of Walt Lee. 

   The group was in good spirits during the cocktail hour, and the dinner that followed was the last of our series of great meals in China. 

   Walt was kind enough to offer individual couples a chance to pose for a once-in-a-lifetime picture with the Shanghai skyline behind. Here are the ones featuring the members of our Tibet group. Dave Hershberger completed the series with a shot of Walt, Bonnie and Bridget.

Ann Waters and Dave Falkner.

Leslie Flood and Dave Hershberger.

Sue and yours truly. 

Last, but certainly not least, Walt, Bridget and Bonnie Lee.

      And of course the Tibet gang had to have one last group photo. 

   By the time the festivities were done, we were all feeling pretty good, and not just from the libations we'd consumed during the evening. It had been one last magical day in a magical place. Some summit attendees would be staying on for another several days to take tours, many of them on a cruise of the Yangtze River, but we would be heading for home. A long day of travel lay ahead, but as we hit the hay in the Jing An Shangri-La that night, it was with a feeling that a good time had indeed been had by all.

Sunday, May 15 -- From Shanghai to home.

   Sometimes the best part about a trip is the day you go home. It's been a long trip, you're anxious to see family and pets again, to get back into a regular routine, even if it means going back to work. But there's always a feeling of sadness, too. You will be saying goodbye to new friends that you might not get to see for awhile, and in our case, we would be saying goodbye to a country that we might not visit again. 
   We were checked out of the hotel and transported to the airport with the usual efficiency and courtesy we'd come to expect in China. The trip to Pudong International, on a Sunday morning this time, went more quickly than our original trip from Pudong to the hotel had gone, with much less traffic to contend with. It didn't take too long before we were in the air again, beginning the long 13-hour flight back to Detroit. The only plus was that we would be going back in time, in a very real sense, regaining the hours on the clock we'd lost on the outbound trip ten days before. 
   Our arrival in Detroit was right on time, and it was still midday Sunday, although our internal clocks argued for midnight. After a short layover we were back in the air for our last hop to Minneapolis, and from there was our usual drive home. By the time we were back under our own roof, it was around dinnertime. After dropping off Sue and unloading our luggage, I was back on the road for the hour-long drive up to the Hayward area to get our dog, Sophie, from the kennel, something we'd originally planned to do the next day. But we missed her terribly and I decided not to wait another 12 hours. I had just enough energy to make the round trip safely. She was very glad to see me and ecstatic when she got home. We were glad, too, and pretty tired as well. 
It wasn't long before Sophie was back on watch, keeping an eye out for critters.
   Many people would ask me in the following days about how the trip went, how was China, how were the people? My answers (the short versions): very well, very big and exotic, and very nice. There was much to be impressed with by China. The people are hard-working, they are fit and healthy, and they appear to be well-organized. The society we engaged with appeared orderly and secure. Yes, they have obvious challenges with regard to their environment, and it remains to be seen how long they can sustain their impressive, rapid economic growth. Given more time and more appropriate venues, we might have talked a little more about politics, but that wasn't really why we were there. We went to see the country, experience the culture, meet the people, and that we did. The contrasts were vivid, going from a city of 25 million people to a camp in Tibet with 9. You can't get much more of a contrast than that. 
   All in all, it was a great trip, certainly one of the best we'd ever been on. Will we go back to China? Of course we didn't get to scale the Great Wall or view the amazing Terracotta Warriors of Xian, as Denise and Laurie did, along with many others who attended the Summit. So there will be ample reason to go back to China. Until then, our memories of this trip will have to do, and they will be ample and rich. 
   What of the future of China, and its relations with the United States? Sixty-six years ago, Chinese and American soldiers were shooting at each other in the mountains of Korea. Since then there has been an uneasy peace between us, and certainly now an economic and military rivalry is underway. If this visit proved anything for me, it is that we do not want China as our enemy. It would be much better for all of us, and for the world, for our two peoples to be friends. Or, as the Chinese say,

( sān rén yì tiáo xīn, huáng tǔ biàn chéng jīn)

If people are of one heart, even the yellow earth can become gold. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Journey to the Celestial Empire, part 3

Tuesday, May 10 -- Xiahe, Gansu Province

   Our first night at Norden Camp was memorable. The coal stove in our tent needed some tending overnight, and Sue was able to effectively translate the skills she displays with our wood-burner at home to keep us warm and toasty. That was a good thing, because the overnight low had to be at freezing or just below, considering the frost on the ground the next morning. I rose at dawn, made a dash to the Finnish bathroom and then bundled up for the trek across the camp to the showers.

   This is what the morning looked like after I finished the shower: First morning in Tibet.

   Breakfast was served in the cabin that also housed the camp's bar. Food was prepared in the kitchen, a nearby building, and brought over for serving buffet-style. A coal stove provided toasty warmth and also cooked the soup. I didn't ask what the soup was, but it was hearty and very good.

Our first breakfast in Tibet was one to remember.

Soup's on, and it was very good.

As we were getting to leave for the day's outing, there was time for a photo by the camp's stream.

   Our excursion today would take us back to the town of Xiahe, which we had gone through on the way to the camp the previous day, to visit the Labrang Monastery.
   Home to the largest number of monks outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the monastery is by the Daxia River, a tributary of the Yellow. Opened in 1709, the monastery at its peak housed some 4,000 monks, but the upheavals of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-76) caused it to be shut down. It reopened in 1980, but the government limits the number of monks to about 1,500. It contains 18 halls and six institutes of higher learning, plus a unique printing house.

Visitors to the monastery must purchase tickets in the modern reception hall.

The intricacy of the reception hall's artwork gave us a preview of coming attractions. (WL)

The monastery's buildings blend Tibetan and Indian architecture.

Hundreds of prayer wheels surround the monastery. If laid end to end , they would stretch for more than a mile and a half. Buddhists walk by these wheels and spin them clockwise. It is a physical manifestation of "turning the wheel of dharma," which is the way the Buddha taught. We saw many people with smaller hand-held wheels. (WL)

You can see the intricate artwork on display. This quality of work
was present throughout all the monastery buildings. (WL)

We were allowed inside several buildings but not allowed to photograph the interiors. The monks
explained that each of the monastery's six colleges has its own building. The course of study for five of
the colleges is 15 years; for the college of philosophy, it is 25. (WL)

   One building where we were allowed to take interior photos was the butter sculpture room. This will be hard to believe, but each of these photos show sculptures made out of actual yak butter. It takes a team of four monks about 30 days to make one.


   It was nearing 11:30, and our guide, a local fellow named Yan, said we could see the monks being summoned to prayer. We entered a large courtyard which fronted the monastery's main prayer hall, which we had toured earlier. A couple dozen monks were already sitting on the steps, chanting, and more arrived steadily. A number of other residents, mostly women, were seated toward the back of the courtyard where we were. This scene reminded me of what is seen in the movies.

The monks were wearing the unique headgear from the College of Philosophy. (WL)

We had a great vantage point for the call to prayer. (WL)

   Here's a video of the monks chanting, coupled with the closing, when two monks on the roof blew horns to summon their brothers inside: Labrang monks.

Many of the observers, mostly women, also participated from the periphery.

After the monks were called inside, leaving their boots on the steps, the civilians were allowed to join them.
After leaving the courtyard we were shown the monastery's print shop, called the Barkhang. The monks have produced their own texts for centuries, and the method they use today hasn't changed much in that time. The texts are called sutra, which comes from a Sanskrit word meaning "string" or "thread." In Buddhism, they are considered canonical scriptures, often dealing directly with the teachings of Buddha. The Labrang Monastery has about 60,000 sutras. You can see the monks making them here: Making sutra.

   We were allowed into the "library," where the sutras are stored. Like the butter room, it
is climate-controlled and very well-organized.



   We left the monastery grounds and walked toward downtown Xiahe to the Norden Cafe, operated by the same outfit that runs the camp and a factory that produces yak-hair products such as blankets and hats. We were ready for a break and were treated to yakburgers, very tasty, and French fries. The cafe also had WiFi, so most of us took advantage of our first taste of the 21st century in nearly 24 hours to send some emails back home. 
   China bars access to Facebook, Twitter and all things Google, using what is euphemistically called the "Great Firewall." But being the internet-savvy travelers that we are, we had figured a way around that. I could send emails through Outlook, and so had arranged for our son Jim back home to post my photos and descriptions daily on my social media sites. 

The main drag of downtown Xiahe. 

At the Norden Cafe, the food was good and we had service with a smile. 
   We had one more thing to do at the monastery, and that involved a climb up to the top level of the Gongtang Chorten, a building known as a stupa, which is a special building on a Buddhist monastery. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are eight kinds of stupa, each referring to major events in the life of the Buddha. Up till now we hadn't really felt the altitude, but we sure did as we climbed the staircases. The view was worth it, though.

   We left the monastery grounds for the final time and climbed a hill across the road so that we could get another view of the entire campus. It was also a good place to rest. Just to the right of center in the foreground is the Gongtang Chorten, which rises 100 feet above the ground. 


   Our guide, Yan, is from Xiahe and wanted to show us some of his town, so we hiked back across the road and strolled through the streets, buying some water from a shop. Bottled water is everywhere in China, and a decent-sized bottle could be had for the equivalent of about 30 cents US. 

The kids, as always, were happy to see us. 

This pig, though, couldn't have cared less. (WL)

   Most of us had visited countries in the so-called Third World, and parts of China are still there. The contrast between ultramodern Shanghai and relatively-primitive Xiahe was apparent. But it is helpful when traveling in these places to remember that there are some parts of the U.S. that might very well fall into the same category. The important thing, really, is the people, and so far we had found the Chinese people to be friendly and welcoming.
   We loaded up in our van for the trip back to camp, having spent a very enlightening day in a fascinating place. At camp, we freshened up and gathered for another memorable dinner, this one served in a dining tent. This is the authentic Chinese "hotpot" method, where pots of boiling water are brought to each table and each diner cooks his own meats and vegetables right there. It's a very healthy meal, as no cooking oils are used and all the ingredients are free of preservatives.

Sue reacts to the arrival of the hotpot at our table. (WL)

Bonnie negotiates some noodles. (WL)

   It was getting late when dinner concluded and tomorrow would be another big day. Some of our group would be hitting the road again, to visit Norden's factory where the yak products were produced. The rest of us, including me and Sue, would be indulging our inner Indiana Jones, as we would be mounting horses and heading up into the foothills of the Himalayas. We could hardly wait.

Wednesday, May 11 -- Norden Camp

   This was the day I had been waiting for. I've been a horseback riding aficionado for many years, and although I don't have my own horse or ride as much as I'd like, I'd been able to ride in many states of the American West, not to mention in our own state of Wisconsin, and in the Canadian Rockies. Most of these riding adventures were with Sue. Now, we would get to ride in China.
   The camp contracted with some nearby nomads to provide us with horses and guides for the day. There would be five of us: myself and Sue, Dave Hershberger, and Walt Lee and his daughter Bridget. The remaining four members of our group were taking a day-long trip to tour Norden's factory. The weather was perfect as our guides arrived with the horses.
   Tibet's nomad culture goes back centuries. These hardy people live off the land, grazing their sheep and cattle, living lives that are about as simple as a 21st-century person could have. In the last couple decades their lifestyle has been threatened as the Chinese government seeks to move them off the grasslands into towns and villages. The government cites environmental concerns from the over-grazing of the grasslands that form the watersheds of three massive river systems: the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong. Many environmentalists dispute the government's view.

A nomad encampment, just down the road from Norden Camp. (WL)

A Tibetan herds his sheep along the road that passes the camp. (WL)

   We had seen large high-rise apartment complexes on the outskirts of Lanzhou and all throughout Shanghai; many of those in the Lanzhou environs are largely empty of inhabitants, and while we didn't see the same types of buildings in Xiahe, it's not hard to imagine that the government could indeed decide that what's best for these people is not the way of life they've practiced for centuries, but something the bureaucrats in Beijing decide for them. In China, decisions about these things are made at the top, and those on the bottom or in the middle have little or no say, at least by comparison to what we have in America.
   But the three nomads who brought the horses to our camp weren't there to talk about environmentalism or politics, and neither were we. In fact, the nomads comprised three generations: a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter. None of them seemed to know any English, but fortunately Bridget knew some Chinese from an earlier stay in Shanghai. Where we were going, language barriers were not a problem, though.

Grandma leads us down the road from camp... (WL)

...while Granddaughter takes the lead of Walt's horse. (WL)

Sue and I have been on horseback in the States and Canada, but this was a real treat. (WL)

Dave H brought his trusty camera along, too. (WL)

Negotiating a small creek required Sue to dismount while Grandma persuaded her horse to cross. (WL)

The little girl tuckered out quickly, and Bridget was happy to help her out. (WL)
Heading back, she wanted to sit up front. (WL)

Sue's horse occasionally required some extra help from Mom. (WL)

The ladies were all smiles. Us gents, too. (WL)

Bridget got this shot of Walt with the magnificent vista of Tibet behind him.
According to the altimeter app on his phone, we had reached 11,000 feet on the ride. (WL)

It looks desolate, but there was life everywhere. (WL)

   When we returned to the camp, we were treated to a lunch of pizza, garnished with yak sausage. It was very tasty, the perfect way to cap our morning. After that, we retired to our respective abodes for an afternoon of reading and a siesta. Sue availed herself of the camp showers, which featured hot water for her (for my morning shower, it had been cold).

The showers were on the rustic side, but worked well, especially when
the water was hot. (WL)

Bridget spent the afternoon relaxing on the bar's deck with her trusty e-reader, disguised as a real book. (WL)
   Earlier, Bridget had gotten some photos of other residents of the area. These cattle, we were told, were mostly hybrids, bred with yaks and lower-altitude cows, as yaks generally don't come down below 12,000 feet. The male hybrid is known as the dzo, and is infertile. The yak is more closely related, genetically-speaking, to the bison rather than the cow. Their long hair is prized by Tibetans for its warmth when turned into tents, blankets and clothing. We can testify to its warming qualities; despite temps descending below freezing at night, we were never chilly inside the tent, even when the coal stove went out in the middle of the night. By comparison to domesticated cattle that are common in Wisconsin, the yaks and their hybrid cousins grunt rather than moo, and their droppings, used by the Tibetans for fuel, have little or no odor.



   Before dinner we gathered again for what passed for cocktail hour at the camp bar. Chinese beer was a big hit, and I took the opportunity to chat with Andy Notte, the American chef for the camp, asking about his experiences in Bhutan.

By this time, the other members of the group had returned from Norlha Atelier.

   Despite the long drive of a couple hours each way, the members of our group who had visited Norlha Atelier had very much enjoyed the visit. The enterprise employs Tibetans in the manufacture of native products like clothing and hats. You can visit their site here: Norlha Textiles. Here are some shots from their website, showing some of the atelier's products.


   We gathered in another dining tent for our last dinner at the camp, and it was a bittersweet occasion. Another great meal was prepared for us, and the service, as always, was first-rate.


Leslie was very proud of the hat she'd bought at the atelier. Guaranteed to be the only one of its kind
when she got back to Cincinnati. (WL)

   There was one more treat for us this evening: a bonfire. We gathered around after dark and the camp staff serenaded us with Tibetan songs, and we chimed in, but "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Amazing Grace" exhausted our collective repertoire.



   Our experience at Norden Camp was truly special, and it was with real regret that we turned in this evening, with an early wake-up call and long ride to Lanzhou awaiting us in the morning. We were very glad we had come, Finnish bathrooms, cold showers and all.
We could truly say, as they do in Tibet:
              ང་ཚོ་སྐྱིད་པོ་བྱུང་། (nga-tso kyipo chung)
                                           We had a good time!