We woke up early on Tuesday, October 18, 2011, enjoyed our last breakfast in Xian and checked out. On our way to the airport, Frank spoke some about his background and gave us more information about life in China.
Frank’s family was well off. His grandfather had a good position working for a foreign company. In 1949 when the Communists took over the government, his family, as well as others, had to give up whatever they privately owned. Frank’s parents just got under the wire of the one child per family policy and had 2 children, Frank and his brother. Frank’s brother is a pilot, and his wife is a script supervisor for the national television station. She reviews everything that is written to make sure it follows the Party line. Frank’s brother and sister-in-law are members of the Communist Party. Only 5% of the population belongs to the Party. Frank is not a member.
The one child policy is not in force in the rural areas, but in the urban areas it still is. Sometimes if a family has a girl, they just abandon her in the hospital. There have been other negative consequences of the policy, one being that there is now a ratio of 120 males to 100 females in China. Also, it’s often a burden for 1 child and his spouse to care for 4 elderly parents. Almost immediately when we were in Shanghai, I noticed that when I saw families, the child was almost always a boy. I did see some little girls, but many more boys. It gave me a sad feeling and just seemed unnatural.
Frank and his family live in Beijing. Later when we were in Beijing, he pointed out his parents’ apartment to us. Frank recently bought a condo. It’s for 69 years. If he decides to sell it in 4 years, for example, the new owner would get the 65 years left of the ownership of the condo. Very often people are still told where they can live and when to move.
High school and college are not free in China. Unless children are very smart, they do not bother with college. Entrance exams are very difficult. They’re held every July. Frank was studying for the exam during the time of the Tiananmen Square riot in 1989. He remembers walking with his mother to a store and seeing some of what was going on. Frank went to college and studied tourism management. He’s been working as a tour guide for 16 years.
The Chinese pay income taxes of 5% to 45%. There is no sales tax except when buying a condo.
In 1981, the first privately owned business opened. It was started by a woman who eventually became a millionaire. The business has since passed on to her children. Ownership of restaurants, hotels, and small factories is allowed but not telephone companies or other such major businesses.
There are 60 different television channels in China. But after 7pm for 1/2 an hour, only the public TV station is aired with a propaganda program which acclaims how much better off the Chinese are compared to the rest of the world. Mao is still revered, and there are monuments to him all over China.
When we were applying for a visa to China, we were told by our tour company and other sources that we should not indicate on the application that we were going to Tibet. My conscience bothered me a little for lying, but I felt a little better when I saw that there wasn’t enough room on the application form to put all the places we were going to visit. So I rationalized my discomfort away. Whether or not visiting Tibet is even possible can be decided right up until the last minute. Because of the political unrest, underlying and sometimes overt, you never know what can happen. For instance, last July visitors were banned because it was the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Permission for entrance is obtained by the tour company. So we were lucky! Barring some unforeseen accident, it looked like we were going to Tibet.
Another potential problem is Tibet’s very high altitude. The plateau has an average height of 15,400 ft. The elevation in Lhasa, our destination is more than 12,000 feet. Tibet is surrounded by the tallest mountain ranges of the world, the Himalayas in the South and the Kunlun range in the North. Frank told us he gets affected by the high altitude, and doesn’t go often on tours that include Tibet.
Our flight to Lhasa was uneventful. Lunch was provided during the flight. We flew over the Himalayas, and Tony was snapping away with his camera. We weren’t going to be able to see Mt. Everest, but it was still an amazing sight.
After we got off the airplane, I noticed that one of our cell phones was missing. I was carrying both in my handbag along with our passports, travel itinerary, and most of our money. That’s why you may notice in most of the pictures, I carry that handbag very close to my body. I went back to a stewardess and told her I probably dropped the phone and showed her my boarding pass which showed my seat number. She came back with a book. Realizing she didn’t understand me, I showed her the other phone. She soon came back with my phone. I was very happy. Meanwhile I noticed my heart was beating very fast. Was I stressed, or was it the altitude? So I slowly walked to the baggage claim area, and I soon felt better.
After retrieving our bags, we walked to our waiting bus. I couldn’t help but notice the surrounding beauty. The sky was clear, and the air felt good. It was the afternoon, and the temperature was just right. And I felt fine. All of China has only one time zone, and so we were told it was going to get dark late in Tibet. Not till 10pm, but that didn’t happen. We met Danny, our local guide. The ride from the airport to Lhasa takes one hour so that gave Danny time to tell us about our itinerary and some background information on Tibet. First he welcomed us with the traditional white silk-like scarves which we put around our necks. We saw many of those scarves in the next few days, especially in the temples.
The population of Tibet is about 3 million, with 2 million nomads/farmers. The economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture. The primary crop is barley. One of the by-products of barley is home made beer. We were encouraged to try it but not until we were acclimated to the high altitude. In the beginning of our time in Tibet, we were told it was important to drink a lot of water. The barley beer is only 3% alcohol. Even children drink it. The school children bring the beer to school. They don’t drink much water – mostly tea and home made barley beer.
The yak is the official animal of Tibet. Yaks are better than horses for riding in the mountains because of their shorter legs. In the summer, they go up the mountains and come back down in the winter. It’s hard to feed the yaks because there is not much grass “down below” in the winter. The nomads raise other kinds of livestock besides yaks. Sheep, cattle, goats, camels, donkeys and horses. Since there aren’t many trees in Tibet, yak dung is used as fuel for fires, even in their houses. The farmers also make yak butter tea. It’s very oily and salty. Yaks are also eaten. High blood pressure has become a big problem in Tibet because of so much salt, butter and meat in their diet.
As we were riding along, we saw many people working the fields manually. We saw yaks too. And of course, the scenery of the countryside with the mountains in the background is outstanding. Yes, we were actually in Tibet.
Lhasa is the traditional capital of Tibet, and the capital of the present day Tibet Autonomous Region, TAR, as it is now called. The metropolitan area consisting of 7 counties has a population of 480,000. Lhasa proper has 180,000.
We drove through the city. We saw the old and the new parts. But the huge red and white Potala Palace stands out prominently among everything else.
We also noticed that most of the signs were written in Chinese and Tibetan, and sometimes English too. The Chinese pictographs were written much larger than the Tibetan words. The Tibetan language is a subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. The written Tibetan language is a script based on the writing system of ancient Sanskrit, the ancient language of India, and the words are written right to left. Chinese pictographs were traditionally written up and down the page, but in modern times, the Western style of writing left to right has become more popular. Tibetan has an alphabet whereas Chinese does not, just pictographs, or ideograms. It seemed apparent that a political message was being sent by the signs. After more than 50 years of Chinese occupation, very few Chinese speak Tibetan whereas it’s mandatory to teach Chinese to the Tibetans in school. Children are taught both languages, and sometimes English too, in school. Whether the younger children should learn the basics in Chinese or Tibetan has been a controversial issue and has been done both ways, sometimes depending on the particular school.
We arrived at our very nice hotel, the Lhasa Xin Ding Grand Hotel. We sat down in the lobby for a while and were served tea and cookies while Frank was checking us in. I felt okay, especially after using the facilities.
We eventually went to our rooms. Lo and behold, we had an oxygen tank and humidifier right in our room. I guess the altitude could be a problem for real.
From our window, we could see a building that apparently housed the help from our hotel. From time to time when we were in our room, we’d look out and see men and women relaxing. We also saw women washing their hair in an outdoor sink.
We had a little time to rest before dinner. We got situated in our room and freshened up for the next event. We all met in the lobby and back on the bus we were. Danny came along and led us to the restaurant located in the center of town. After we left the bus, we had to walk a bit until we reached the restaurant. The restaurant was a typical one as we were told by Danny. We went upstairs to a large room where we sat at long tables and were served various dishes. We even had yak! It tasted like beef. We didn’t select our food. A variety of dishes was served in large dishes for every 4 people to share. We noticed that there were no serving spoons in these dishes. Also, napkins in this restaurant, as we kept noticing in most, were small and scarce. And I guess I haven’t as yet mentioned, chopsticks were usually provided as the primary utensils. I’m not a hygiene fanatic, but I couldn’t help but be reminded that I’d have to be careful not only about what but about how I was eating. As always, people on the trip, including Tony, were starting to get colds, etc. But in spite of it all, I enjoyed my dinner. We noticed that the style of cooking was somewhat different. Besides the yak, it was a little spicier.
After dinner, we took the walk in the dark night back to where the bus was parked. It had gotten cooler. I had been feeling fine thinking I was not going to have an adverse reaction to the altitude. But once I lay down in bed, I started to get a headache. It wasn’t too bad. I drank more water. I didn’t sleep well, but I slept enough. Tony also had a headache which he never gets.