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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Chinese New Year Noise

The Shanghai city government suspended 36 road-works projects for a week over Chinese New Year in order to "create a quiet and peaceful environment for locals during the holiday". As firecrackers explode and fireworks roar throughout the nights of the holiday, it doesn't seem as though the "locals" are interested in creating a quiet and peaceful environment for themselves!


Saturday, February 02, 2008

Staggering numbers

The mind reels with the massive numbers that characterize any statistic published in China. With one of the worst winter weather seasons on record, the Shanghai Daily has printed numbers to boggle the mind. Here's a sampling:

  • Between January 25 and Thursday, a total of 5.8 million passengers were stranded throughout the railway system.
  • Killer storms have battered 19 provinces over the last three weeks, forced 1.76 million people to relocate and knocked down 223,000 houses.
  • Around 1.07 million militia and army reservists were participating in the fight against the extreme weather. The PLA [People's Liberation Army] currently has 2.3 million troops.
  • The worst snowstorms in five decades have killed 60 people and caused a direct economic loss of 53.8 billion yuan (US$7.48 billion) as of 6pm yesterday [31 January 2008].
  • By 6pm yesterday [31 January 2008], a total of 2,859 trains were delayed and 397 trains were canceled, trapping more than 5.8 million travelers.
  • A record 178.6 million people are expected to ride the rails in coming weeks.
If you can't quite comprehend these numbers, let's put them another way. Over the Chinese New Year holiday, the equivalent of the entire population of Brazil, or more than half the population of the US will take the trains.

As of July 2003, the total size of the US armed services was 1.4 million. The PLA is nearly twice that size.

So when we read that 306,000 troops were sent out to deal with the snow situation in the south of China, we can only be thankful that China has the labor resources and strong leadership to deal with these staggering numbers.

Half the Sky

Mao proclaimed that "women hold up half the sky", setting the stage for women to serve in all critical functions in Communist China. Nearly half of a century later, we can find evidence that women continue to hold up half the sky or more in the homes, yet are not breaking through the smog to their half of the sky in much of business and politics.

As the first plenary session of the 13th Shanghai People's Congress closed two days ago, the newly elected Shanghai city government stood for photos flanking the reelected mayor, Han Zheng. His vice-mayors include 7 men and 1 woman, Zhao Wen.

Zhao Wen has impressive qualifications. Quoting the 1 February 2008 Shanghai Daily,
She has worked in the financial education and research area at higher education institutes for years. She has worked as assistant president and dean of the Accounting Department at Tongji University. Zhao has also worked as vice governor at the city's suburban Nanhui District. She has been vice secretary-general at Shanghai People's Congress Standing Committee and vice director of the SPC's Economics and Finance Department, overseeing budget affairs.
With these credentials, we might suspect then that she's been given a substantial role in the city government. Instead, we find that her charter is sports, tourism (though not the World Expo 2010), intellectual property rights protection, family planning, literature and history.

I'm sure she wouldn't use the words "tokenism", yet it sure looks to me like a lot less than half the sky is being held up here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Tibet: Lhasa Experiences

Finally, we wrap up the trip with bits and pieces of our wonderful stay in Lhasa. First, the hotel - we had deluxe rooms at the Yak Hotel. Wonderfully situated, right outside of the Barkhor area, it was convenient to shopping, sightseeing and food. Tibetan Expeditions has their office in the complex, adjacent to the Dunya Restaurant. While food was not included in our itinerary, we were pleased to receive breakfasts at the Dunya, one dinner show (see below) and one dinner at the restaurant. The food was so good, the coffee excellent, the patio/bar area perfect for that happy hour drink, that we ate nowhere else (apart from the dinner show).

Hours could be spent shopping in the Barkhor area. Seeing everything from cut-rate Chinese plastic to overpriced Tibetan antiques. We opted for shopping at the Dropenling Handicraft Development Center, where all profits are returned to the artisan communities. A few Tibetan rugs and associated masks later, we headed off to the Thangka stores. Our favorite was Mani Thangka Arts, across from the Pentoc Hotel.

As you wander the shopping streets, take note of the piles of yak cheese, and bedecked, swirling prayer wheels. When you are ready for a break, the coffee shop inside the Pentoc Hotel bills itself as having the best coffee in town. They could be right about that - just avoid the crowds of chain-smoking tourists.

Off we head to the dinner show at the Shangri-la restaurant. After the range of food we'd had on his trip, the food and yak butter tea were no longer too exciting. But it is always fun to see a bit of the music and dance culture of a region. Blessings were brought onto Sherry and Judy by the (scruffy) dancing yak...neither seems thrilled.

After enjoying the chili powders Cynthia bought in Dali on the Yunnan trip, I was determined to acquire chili from Tibet. Here we are in the market, negotiating on enough chili to last two families a year or more!
Finally, a few spots of local color. The touch of China displayed by the police officer clipping toenails while on duty in Barkhor Square. The juxtaposition of old and new with monks in front of the Budweiser tent which houses the police guards at Barkhor Square.

Sunday to Sunday, we had a great trip to Tibet. Well organized and orchestrated by our hosts at Tibetan Expeditions and Shigatse Travel. Made colorful and vibrant by our warm-hearted guide, Gaden, and our cheerful driver. And filled with the sounds, smells and sights of Tibet.

Link back to the beginning of the October 2007 Tibet trip at: Planning for Tibet, Arriving in Tibet and Off to Tsetang, Tibet Day 2: Tsetang Tibet Day 2: Journey to Samye, Tibet Day 3: Road to Gyantse - Yamdrok-Tso Lake and Tibet Day 3: Continuing on the Road to Gyantse, Day 4: Gyantse - Pelkor Choede and Kumbum Chorten, Tibet Day 4: Shigatse and Tashilhunpo, Tibet Day 5: Enroute to Final Stop - Lhasa and Tibet: Lhasa - Jokhang, Barkhor, Potala and Sera

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Tibet: Lhasa - Jokhang, Barkhor, Potala and Sera

Lhasa is the holy city of Tibet. Prior to the Chinese coming into Tibet, it was the home of the Dalai Lamas. Central to the spiritual faith of the Tibetan Buddhist is the Jokhang Temple. Construction started in 647 AD. It commemorates the marriage of the Tang princess Wencheng to King Songtsen Gampo.

Two days a week, admission is free. It is on this day that the palace is flooded with pilgrims from across Tibet. Queued for hours, they push and jostle through the incense fills chambers of the Palace. While not for the claustrophobic soul, this is the time to truly experience the worship and faith of the Tibetan people. Outside the palace, pilgrims prostrate themselves on mats. Perhaps more enlightening is to see the faith on display from the pilgrims who prostrate themselves every step of the kora - the pilgrimage circuit of the Barkhor, a clockwise circuit around the Temple. With leather aprons, wooden blocks on their hands, and possibly pads on their knees, the prostrating pilgrims pray, clap their hands, and fall forward, sliding yards around the circuit.

Despite the free admission, there is plenty of money flying around. Whether in a small temple like those we visited in Tsetang, or in these large palaces, worshipers and pilgrims exchange larger notes for stacks of 1 jiao notes (0.1 yuan approximately worth US$0.013). The jiao notes are made in offering to the various buddha, lamas, gods, and guardians. At the largest temples, you'll come upon monks counting and sorting piles and piles of notes. It looks like a lot of money, yet when you look at maintaining 14th century buildings with all of the statues, paying for all of the utilities, and clothing and feeding the monks and support staff, it remains a hard life.

Lining the circuit are shops, stalls, and teahouses. The pilgrims include monks from various sects, Khambas who braid their hair with red yarn, and Golok women with incredible ornate braids.

Potala Palace was once the seat of the government of Tibet, and continues (despite the presence of cameras and microphones) to represent the hope of self-government. It was the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas.

The palace was built in the 7th century and extended in the 17th century to its present size. At 13 stories high (with no elevators), the stairs of the palace represent a test of acclimatization to the altitude. We were happy enough to face it at the end, rather than the beginning of our trip.

Like many things in Tibet, access to the palace is heavily controlled. Having a guide arrange for passes is the best option. Gaden was hopeful that the palace would not be too busy on the day of our arrival and we could get in early (and have more time to visit). But then waiting is the name of the game in Tibet. During high season, visits are limited to one hour, so getting in early is good if possible.

Tim can't resist the "modeling" that goes on with the attractive asian young women. Somehow the rest of us couldn't reach the same standard of pose, despite our best attempts.

Sera monastery is a must-do in the afternoons. The monastery was founded in 1419. Once housing over 5000 monks, the monastery is now home to 600. Visit in the afternoon and witness the unique style of training and education. Questions are put to the learner with an open hand. Answers pondered and given. Discussion ensues. Wrong answers get another kind of clap. Correct answers a different hand signal. The courtyard filled with listeners, questioners and watchers reverberates with clapping, learning and discussion. In listening closely to one pair, Gaden's comment was "it is hard!" With no texts on hands, what a great way to learn for both student and teacher.

Filled to the brim with monasteries, temples and palaces, we skipped Drepung, leaving that for our next Tibetan Expedition.

Link back to the beginning of the October 2007 Tibet trip at:
Planning for Tibet, Arriving in Tibet and Off to Tsetang, Tibet Day 2: Tsetang Tibet Day 2: Journey to Samye,
Tibet Day 3: Road to Gyantse - Yamdrok-Tso Lake and Tibet Day 3: Continuing on the Road to Gyantse, Day 4: Gyantse - Pelkor Choede and Kumbum Chorten, Tibet Day 4: Shigatse and Tashilhunpo, and Tibet Day 5: Enroute to Final Stop - Lhasa

Link forward to Tibet: Lhasa Experiences

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Day 5: Enroute to our Final Stop - Lhasa

Traveling back through the countryside to our last and final stop Lhasa ...

We finally caught this picture showing the normal fuel storage. Cow/yak pies are stuck to the walls of the home or surrounding fences to dry and to be available for use for cooking and heating.

Travel times are controlled throughout Tibet, not by patrol cars, radar guns or speed cameras. Rather they are controlled by a permitting system. As you leave one area, the guide races out of the car to pick up a pass from the guards. Back in the car, there is much inspection of the pass, discussion with the driver, calculations, glances at the clock and ultimately a plan. The concept that this prevents speeding is through awry by the line-up of cars parked by the roadside a few kilometers from the next checkpoint. Here we wait - perhaps our longest wait of 20 minutes - for the exact time to leave. Be early and the driver receives a ticket for 100 RMB, a substantial hit to the daily wage for these guides and drivers.

With few major roads in Tibet, combined with travel times, you do spend a bit of time in the van. And occasionally visiting the same roadside restaurant. Here we are back in our same booth at the restaurant en route from Samye to Gyantse, complete with flies and a less-than-pleasant bathroom.

Nietang Buddha, 25 miles southwest of Lhasa city, is the biggest stone statue engraved on a cliff in Tibet. Notice Douglas standing just in front of Buddha's hand. Located at the north foot of Nietang Mountain. The Buddha statue is one of Sakyamuni sitting under a bodhi tree to capture evils. The statue is about 26 feet width and 32 feet. Always trying to gain merit, Douglas tries to toss a traditional white silk scarf onto the Buddha engraving.

And, finally our last stop, Lhasa where we are met by the golden yak statues and our first view of the Potala Palace.

Link back to the beginning of the October 2007 Tibet trip at: Planning for Tibet, Arriving in Tibet and Off to Tsetang, Tibet Day 2: Tsetang Tibet Day 2: Journey to Samye, Tibet Day 3: Road to Gyantse - Yamdrok-Tso Lake and Tibet Day 3: Continuing on the Road to Gyantse, Day 4: Gyantse - Pelkor Choede and Kumbum Chorten and Tibet Day 4: Shigatse and Tashilhunpo

Link forward to Tibet Day 6: Lhasa - Jokhang, Barkhor, Potala and Sera

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