Monday, May 10, 2010

Lhasa Days Four and Five - Escape from the Valley of the Yak

It was time to go home and while it was bright enough at 6AM, it wasn’t particularly clear – I couldn’t see the one peak that was visible from my hotel room window between the buildings. I didn’t think much of it and so I had a decent traveler’s breakfast (yogurt, cereal, juice and watermelon) checked out and met Tse Tan and Mr. Sung for that last ride to the airport.

Out in the road it was surprisingly dark for this time of day – the winds we’d encountered on the drive down the mountain had apparently kicked up the dust from the river bed. The big mountains were mostly obscured and the closer peaks could be seen but not very clearly. Most of the time weather like this wouldn’t cause concern but in this part of the world planes often don’t fly when they think it might be cloudy. So I settled back in my seat, kept an eye open for buses approaching on my right and tried to take in the last bit of Tibet I would see on this trip.

On the way to the high country I had seen a lot of mysterious graffiti on the rocks along the road – little white ladders, perhaps 3 feet high and a foot wide. Today I asked Tse Tan about them and he told me that each year on the 22nd of September, Sakyamuni comes back to earth to visit the faithful. These ladders represent the people’s way of traveling up to see him during the rest of the year. The ladders reminded me a lot of the Kiva version back home, an article imbued with some of the same symbolism, climbing up and down to and from the underworld as a part of the Pueblo Indian rituals. Funny how such a simple device can mean something so similar and deep and powerful to two cultures half a world apart. No doubt there are others with similar beliefs.

When we came out of the tunnel the visibility was even worse – not “we can’t fly a plane with radar” worse but quite a bit cloudier. Tse Tan remarked that there was a lot of dust in the air. We kept on going but I began to have that nagging feeling that I was in for a special day. I took a quick picture of the strangest gas station I’d ever seen – a regular size with the world’s largest cover over the pumps. Why they felt the need to build something so gargantuan and elaborate– 2 giant pyramids surrounded by a parapet – was beyond me. We arrived at the airport and I said goodbye to my team, tipping them both a couple of hundred kuai. I’d debated whether this was appropriate and finally decided that it was – sometimes a little extra buys you some help down the road.

I checked in and passed security and went to the sole information board which showed a 2 hour delay for my flight. Doing the math I knew that meant my Chengdu connection was blown but since there were flights from there to Beijing on the hour, I didn’t care. There are worse things than being stranded for a night in the capital city. I settled in for the wait, people watching and seeing lots of familiar faces from the various tour buses I’d seen over the past few days. At the far end of the waiting room a western woman was stretched out in what appeared to be a fur rug wrapped in a futon ticking cover. My first thought was how bizarre to see an adult sleeping in such a thing in the middle of an airport, I mean she couldn’t have been there for more than an hour. My second thought was who carries something like that on an international trip? The place was filled with all sorts of interesting people, western and Chinese along with lots of regional minorities. I watched a woman undo her four foot long braid, redo it and tie some equally long strips of fabric – red, blue, yellow, green on the end. She then took the entire snake and wrapped it twice around her head, tucking in the lose end to keep it in place.

The hours crept by and the announcements started to come, “We are very sorry to announce that flight XXX will not arrive on time due to the terrible weather at our airport.” I really didn’t understand that assessment, I could see the line of trees on the far side of the runway and there was a bit of sun glint on the light poles. A couple of hours into my wait I went looking for something to drink and discovered that there was only one restaurant and all it had was tea or coffee. After placing my order and having a cheerful English lesson with the girls at the counter explaining that the number 38 is not pronounced “twenty eight” I took my tea and sat back down. More announcements and no flights coming in.

Around two in the afternoon I went to the information desk and began asking questions. I fell in with a couple of guys from Spain who were in the same predicament. You see, my travel permit was now expired and in any event I didn’t have it since Tse Tan had confiscated it. After an hour of trying to get some information the announcement came – all flights were cancelled and that was when all hell broke loose. Every person in the airport rushed the counter and started screaming and yelling. The agents didn’t try to command any order, they simply yelled back. I was torn between the idea of yelling myself or waiting until the furor died down. I took the middle path and waited until the worst of it was down to a manageable level and waded in, trying to get someone to listen to the fact that I no longer had a travel permit and had nowhere to go. They plainly didn’t care. I argued some more and then had a brainstorm – I rang up Tse Tan and handed the phone to the agent. When she gave it back I had the answer – a replacement flight would leave tomorrow, for tonight it was either the airport hotel or a trip back to Lhasa. I chose the latter and Tse Tan agreed to re-book me at my hotel and then explained how to take the airport bus back to town. I had a small debate about staying at the closer hotel as the Spanish guys were doing, but I know from experience what these hotels are like. There is a reason they cost $6 a night. I left the airport, found the bus and a woman there told me something about 1PM and to make sure something about 11AM. My interpretation was that the plane would leave at 1 and that I’d better be back by 11. Tse Tan later more or less agreed with this assessment, and I say more or less because it seemed he had no idea. He told me to catch the 10AM bus back the next day.

The bus ride was my first in Asia and uneventful. I had a few small conversations with the people around me and even got the joke when we pulled into the Lhasa station 90 minutes later and someone said that we’d arrived in Chengdu. I left the station looking for a taxi but had a hard time shaking the truly annoying Pedi-cab drivers that had been bugging me all weekend long. I told them that they were too slow and that I wanted a taxi and they took great offense at this. The first cab that stopped had no idea where the hotel was and so refused to take me. The second let me in and then got mad at me when I asked why he didn’t turn on the street that took us there. He explained that it was one-way during rush hour and that I’d be better off leaving the driving to him. We got there and I checked into the very same room I’d left, 8 hours prior. The front desk listened to my plans and agreed to arrange a cab back at 8:45; one airport bus ride was enough. After dinner and a couple of long phone calls to re-arrange my flights I went to bed. The same bed.

Arising early I could see that the weather was more promising – there was a patch of blue overhead and it appeared that a clear sun was rising over the mountains. Another traveler’s breakfast and check-out and I was on my way. The cabbie liked being able to speak a little Chinese with me and even offered me a cigarette. We drove that airport road one more time under clear blue skies, but when we were halfway through the tunnel my heart began to drop – it obviously wasn’t as clear on the airport side. Pulling out the far side it was better than yesterday but not as nice as tomorrow. Still hazy but at least I could see the peaks. We went on and he dropped me off, collected his fare and said goodbye. The girl at the check-in counter didn’t want to see me; she wrote “1PM Security” on my ticket and sent me on my way. I asked if it was okay to head inside and said “yes” so I did. Once through I went to the desk and asked the agents what the story was. Apparently they were in a bad mood because they got mad at me very quickly. Especially when I kept asking the same thing over and over again “What am I supposed to do?” One kept repeating “1PM” and the other “Downstairs” which made no sense. Did this mean we were all to gather at that time? They finally got so mad they just stopped talking to me until I went away.

Flights were coming and going now, including the regularly scheduled version of the one I was supposed to be on. I tried that ploy but was rebuffed and went back to waiting. Eventually the shift changed at the service desk and I went back. Different girl, different attitude. She explained that I should make sure that I was inside, through security by 1PM and since I obviously already was, I could wait there until the announcement. Eventually the flight showed up on the arrival chalk board and the departure monitor – interesting system, once manual and one electronic – arrival was 2PM and departure at 2:40. Finally, I had some information.

The Spanish guys showed up and I sat with them for a bit, giving them tips about things to see in Shanghai and listening to their stories about China. They were on a self-arranged 30 day tour, hitting all the high spots. The one with decent English told me that the airport hotel was “1/2 star” and I was glad I’d made the choice I’d made.

I knew now that there was still a whisker of a chance of making my connection in Chengdu but that hope only lasted as it looked like our departure time was fast disappearing. We finally pulled away from the gate at 3PM, meaning that I would have to scramble at my next stop. As the plane climbed away from the airport it was obvious why the place had been closed the day before – if you can’t see these mountains and the tricky route out, you’re likely to end up flying into one of them. I wasn’t glad about the delay, but this one probably could be filed under “better safe than sorry.”

On the way in I’d rued the fact that I didn’t have a window seat, the view of the Himalayas was breathtaking. Today I had one and I felt truly privileged to be seeing the world below. Craggy snow capped peaks and deep, black valleys. Occasionally I’d see a tiny town with buildings with blue roofs along a plunging river. We crossed a huge dirty gray glacier plowing its way down hill. As a whole the emotion of seeing that entire wilderness left me beyond words. I sat and took pictures and mused about the fact that I’d seen these mountains, Mt. Fuji, the Sierras and the Rockies in only one month’s time.

As we approached Chengdu the snow began to disappear from the mountains save one last 24,000’ peak off in the distance. We were now in the land of the four rivers, “Sichuan” as it’s known in a direct translation. I was working the math and looking at my list of flights and it looked like I had a decent chance at the 7PM departure which would put me in Beijing at 9:30, too late to head to Dalian but at least only an hour away. Of course adding to my excitement we landed on some extremely remote section of the tarmac and took a ridiculously long bus ride in to the terminal past all the empty, unused jet ways. I made my way back upstairs to the ticket counter and after being told to head to the Late Arrivals desk I had my options - I could go standby at 6 or get a seat at 7; I chose the latter feeling that the standby rush would kill me while buying me nothing. The agent told me to come back at 5:30 for a boarding pass and I went outside to reserve a hotel room with my iPhone.

I walked up to the counter promptly and got in line behind some fidgeting teenage girls. The agent handed them passes and they ran off. He handed me mine and checking the concourse I started walking towards the security check figuring I could take a leisurely stroll to the last gate. Looking a second time at the ticket I realized he had booked me on the 6PM flight and it was now 5:35. I cleared security, sprinted to the gate and was the last guy on the plane. Of course there was no room for my bag and the flight attendant was too flustered to re-arrange the shopping bags full of cigarette cartons that had been stowed overhead by my traveling companions. Another attendant, a calm and polite young man offered to take my bag and I sat down into my middle seat. Not ideal, but better than nothing.

This flight was simple and I was on the ground on time and I even had my bag back in hand before we reached the gate. I had the misfortune once again of getting a cabbie who didn’t know where my hotel was, not even after I told him and he read the card six or seven times. But we got there eventually and I had a nice relaxing evening sitting in the lounge conversing with Federico the manager in training from Costa Rica with whom I have become quite friendly over the course of my many stays there this year. The next day I was up and out on time and back in Dalian where Jiang and his wife Guo Dan insisted on taking me out for Peking Duck lunch. After all my trials I really wanted to just go home buy I agreed and we had a nice feast of all the parts of our feathered friend. Tongues, webs, stir fried hearts, the best of the breast and since I was the honored guest, I got half of the head. I passed on the eyeball.

I think this trip summed up a lot of what this assignment has meant to me as a person. Before China I hated the uncertainty of travel and avoided it at all costs. Now I wade in with the Chinese, screaming and yelling with the best of them. I walked on the ground at 18,000’ and I stood at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, leaving with a feeling of being connected to something good. I ate things I shouldn’t have and saw things I was meant to see. Overall it was a wonderful experience and I’m grateful to have become the kind of person who could take the good and bad in stride and come out of it with an ear to ear smile on my face. Now on to the next one.


















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