Our last day in Beijing was quite a whirlwind. We started promptly at 9am with a short subway ride with our group to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen is massive and serves it’s purpose well by being very impressive and overwhelming in size. As Brian mentioned before, we came into Beijing on the tail end of China’s week long holiday. This meant that the Square was still decked out with beautiful greenery, sculptures and even a temporary fountain much within the theme of the 2008 Olympics. The countdown clock was also going for all to see. (I can’t imagine how they are going to finish all the construction by August!) Presiding over the whole scene is a giant painting of Mao. The painting weighs over one ton and is re-done every year by the same artist for the past 30-odd years. His eyes are supposed to follow you no matter what angle you stand – like the Mona Lisa – ever watching. We then entered the Forbidden city where many generations of emperors, their families, concubines (numbered in the thousands!) and advisers resided. The compound is absolutely huge and is currently being renovated (like everything else). Apparently when all is finished the complete tour will take four days! What I found amazing is that everything you see and can touch is original. There are no rules against touching the 300-year old cypress trees in the royal gardens or the brightly colored trim outlining doorways. This is unlike any other place we’ve been too. Usually such things are sealed off in plastic, out of reach or in a museum behind glass.
After a fabulous group lunch in a local restaurant Brian and I set off for the infamous Silk Market. The Silk Market consists of multiple levels of vendors’ stalls selling everything from clothing to pearls to electronics. Luckily we were warned in advance of their attention-grabbing tactics. As you walk down between stalls multiple vendors per stall yell at you, “Sir, you want North Face? Gucci? Miss, I have some Prada, will look very beautiful on you! Good price!” In addition to all this yelling they are stepping out in front of you and even grabbing your arms pulling you in their stalls. The general rule is that your first counter offer should be one one hundreth of theirs, and then they call you a “crazy lady”. We did a little bargaining and it was wonderful and totally insane! I’m glad we experienced it.
That night we boarded the train to Lhasa – two nights and two full days. The quarters were really cramped – 6 bunks to a sleeper about the size of a cubicle. Besides the obvious negatives (squat toilets anyone?), the scenery was spectacular. We would watch China go by for hours at a time. The second morning was especially stunning when we woke to the sites of the Tibetan plateau and the surrounding snow capped mountains. A few times we passed pilgrims on deserted roads prostrating their way to Lhasa. We finally arrived to the new Lhasa train station (not meant so much for us tourists as it is for bringing the Han Chinese in to populate Tibet) around 8pm. Despite being slowly acclimated over two days I walked off the train and nearly fainted. As I sat down with my head between my legs leaning against my backpack with Brian and our tour leader at my side about seven train station guards surrounded me making quite a fuss to make sure I was okay. A little embarrassing but that’s what the high altitude will do. My dizziness passed (although it would come back many times the first night) and we made it onto the bus to the hotel. We were immediately welcomed into Lhasa with the traditional white silk scarves placed around our necks by our Tibetan tour leader. A quick ride to the hotel offered us a glimpse of the Potala Palace at night which is completely lit up each night until midnight. I can’t describe it, you’ll see the pictures. It’s amazing. Unfortunately acclimatization prevented me from joining the group for dinner that night. I can’t tell you how much energy it took to simply take a shower. I got out and meant to sit down just for a little bit (always breathing heavily) and ended up falling asleep for about an hour before Brian returned from dinner with some much needed nourishment. (Rice never tasted so good.) I felt fully refreshed this morning but it is still hard to believe that I have to take a break after one flight of stairs. At home I typically run 5K a day and here walking briskly across the street leaves me completely winded and my heart pounding.
It’s 11pm now and this internet cafe wants to close, so I will close by saying that I am completely in love with Lhasa. This is the part of the trip that I’ve been looking forward to the most and the Tibetans have already exceeded my expectations. They are beautiful, peaceful and genuine. Their bright smiles are infectious and I’ve never met a more sincerely loving people in all my travels. The women wear the most stunning colors wrapped in fur tipped silk and are adorned with the most spectacular strings of turquoise, amber and wood. They even braid the stones into their long shiny black hair. I can scarcely believe that tomorrow brings us to the Potala Palace! More soon!