Kyoto: the mystery world of Shinto and Geishas.

 

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Of course, we didn’t uncover the mysteries of a geisha, nor could we even be entirely sure we saw a real one, but we certainly visited Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan which is considered the birthplace of the geisha culture.  The peace of Kyoto, famed for its ancient temples, traditional Roykan  Inns and centuries-old craftmanship, offered a welcome reprieve from the futuristic and hedonistic world of Tokyo.

Although our Airbnb accommodation in Kyoto did not pretend to be a ‘traditional Roykan Inn  complete with own “onsen” facilities’, we stayed in an old-style Japanese house just outside the centre of town.  Built at least a couple of centuries ago in an era when people were much shorter, even M and I had to fold ourselves double to make it through the front door.  Our room was located through a set of sliding doors, just off the main corridor.  As in many Asian countries, shoes were not allowed in in-door areas and slippers were provided at the entrance of our sparsely furnished room: a low table with cushions for sitting, a rack for hanging some garments, a chest of drawers and Japanese style bedding…  There was no need for a bed as the tatami matted floor was both pleasing to the eye and pliable to the touch which made sleeping on the soft ‘futon’ quite comfortable.  I am not sure whether we felt we missed out on the ‘onsen’ experience…  somehow, shared bathing in the buff is best enjoyed with the right company, so we happily made do with a normal, shared bathroom at the other end of the house.

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With only two full days in Kyoto, we had to prioritise and choose which tourist attractions to visit.  Taxis in Japan are on the expensive side, so we opted to  make ample use of public transport and Google Maps to navigate the town.  Suffice it to say that even with the help of Google Maps, it was a time consuming exercise and maybe with hindsight we could have covered more if we had been less stingy.  On the other hand…. with so many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the vicinity, almost three months on from my Japanese trip, it has all become a blur of red painted posts festooned with red lanterns and guarded by an army of dogs, foxes and lions..

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Japan has two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism.   Whereas Shinto is regarded as the indigenous religion of the Japanese people and is as old as Japan itself, Buddhism reached the island much later.  It was imported in the sixth century as a gift from the friendly nation of the Korean kingdom of Kudara.   After some initial difficulties and conflicts, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted fairly harmoniously in Japan and most Japanese consider themselves either Buddhist or Shinto or even both.  In any case, religion is not that important in Japanese daily life and most people only visit temples or shrines to mark special occasions and festivals.

Shinto was, and still remains, a mystery to me.  I was made aware of its very existence and initiated in its vague rules and customs by the Swedish bartender of an Irish Pub, ‘The Man in the Moon’,  in Kyoto.  Escaping from the stifling heat, I needed a drink and when ‘Witte Hoegaarden’ was promoted by an Irish Pub, I could not resist.  As I was the one and only customer that afternoon, the ex-sailor who made Kyoto his home, was only too pleased to fill me in on the details of his adopted new religion.

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Without a founding figure, nor any dogmatic guidelines, Shinto is an ‘optimistic faith’ believing that people are intrinsically good and evil is the work of ‘evil spirits’.  Most traditions and rituals therefore focus on warding off the evil spirits through purification, prayers and offerings to the ‘kami’, or Shinto gods.  Kami are sacred spirits embodied by elements important to life: wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility and when people die, they are revered by their relatives as ‘ancestral kami’.    Shinto Kami are mostly shifty beings, flitting from one place to another,  and devotees who need their attention are often seen pulling the bells hanging in front of the shrines to alert the Kami and request their presence so prayers can be heard.   Not all shrines need bells, though.  Some shrines have been built in the midst of a forest, or on a mountain top where kami have taken up permanent residence and are always at hand…    However, one thing all shrines have in common are huge torii, vermillion painted entrance gates that mark the transition from the profane into the sacred.

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Of all the shrines in Kyoto, the most famous and interesting one is the Fushimi Inari Pilgrimage Circuit, the backdrop for some scenes in the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.  Thousands of torii, donated by wealthy individuals and companies,  straddle hiking trails leading into the wooded forest of Mount Inari, which at just 233m above sea level is not exactly a challenge… although it involves a fair amount of steps.  The leafy tree canopies provide plenty of welcome shade and halfway up the mountain, at the Yotsutsuji Intersection, any hiking effort is rewarded with views across the city.  Not many visitors venture past this point, so the last stretch to the top is less crowded with more opportunities for photographs of the many dog or fox statues guarding a multitude of smaller shrines.

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Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are mysterious places, especially to the uninitiated, and whereas some of the rituals and traditions can be easily understood, others are definitely baffling.  At the main entrance of most Shinto shrines, a stone washbasin is available for purification, and devotees rinse their hands and mouth before approaching the deity.  Sometimes people gather around large incense burners and waft the purifying smoke over the heads.  Inside the grounds, small stalls attract visitors who buy a talisman to bring good luck or keep evil away.  Lucky charms, protective amulets and wooden plaques magically help students pass exams or sick people recover from illness.  And if fortune telling pieces of paper suggest a stretch of bad luck, the paper is tied to special racks where the flutter of the wind and time can disperse its spell.  But the ritual that perplexed us the most was watching devotees crawling through a hole in one such rack…   Had fate dealt them a particularly bad hand and was this best way to dispel the inevitable???  We did not ask…

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Not only does Kyoto boast a lot of shrines and temples, it is also one of the best places to get a glimpse of the mysterious geisha.  And ‘geishas’ we did see.  Plenty of them, only they probably were not real ones, but just tourists who dressed the part for their brief stay in town and wanted to have the pictures to prove it.  At every shrine and on every street corner, we bumped into ‘geishas’, dressed in colourful kimonos fastened with an obi (a large waistband), cameras or phones poised for selfies.  But rather than teetering around in okobos, the impossibly high platform footwear normally worn by maiko or apprentice geisha, they strutted around in normal flip-flops and certainly did not have the usual geisha make-up on.

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‘Your best bet for seeing the real thing,’ another tourist advised us, ‘is to go to the Gion district, around six or eight in the evening.  That’s when the geishas leave their okiyo (houses) to go to work.’  It sounded like good advice, so we checked our map and set off.  The place was crowded.  Not with geishas, but with tourists all eager to spot one.  And everyone was ready to observe the strict ‘don’t-touch-the geisha’ rule.  After all geishas have their jobs to do and are not a tourist attraction.  At the front of one of the houses, an older woman – most likely the kami-san or mother of the geisha house  – stood quietly surveying what was happening outside.

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Eventually, our patience paid off and a single geisha, dressed for work and lips pursed almost disapprovingly, strode across the street, meekly followed by her assistant maiko.  It is possible we encountered other ‘real’ geishas around that time, but without the tell-tale make-up it was impossible to be sure.

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And these ones, taking photographs of each other mid-day??  They may have been real geishas, fully made up and just indulging in a bit of me-time…  They certainly looked too much the part to be tourists in the act of dressing up.  We did not stop to ask, but were grateful to be able to take our own shots of what may have been two real geishas…

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Nightfall cast a mysterious spell over the geisha districts, both Gion and Pontocho.   Hushed lights warmed the brown hues of the wooden panelling along the traditional geisha houses, often punctuated by white and red lanterns.  Restaurants and bars were busy inside, where the A.C. kept everyone cool.  Outside the tourists melted away, leaving the area peaceful and quiet.  Geishas had reached their destinations and entertained their paying guests in the obliqueness of dimly lit rooms, barely noticeable through obscured windows.

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Our closest encounter with a geisha was in a restaurant, Issen  Yoshoku (Kyoto), the one with just a single dish on the menu executed to perfection and its notoriety as the restaurant featuring the boy with his trousers down…  And if that was not enough to entice customers in, there were plenty of geisha mannequins to keep us company, and a plethora of interesting plaques on the wall to keep us amused…

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Another country, another mountain to climb: Mount Fuji.

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Was I interested in climbing Mount Fuji, my friend M. asked.  When have I ever  turned down such an invitation: travel, hiking, reaching the pinnacle of a mountain?   Not exactly sure of the precise location of Mount Fuji, it certainly sounded exciting enough, so I accepted without hesitation.

Japan had not been one of the ‘must-see’ destinations on my travel itinerary, but my original brief of three years ago – collecting as many stamps in my passport as possible within the next five years – gave me plenty of room for indulging in sudden whims.  Plus, as the Japan trip would follow close on the heels of my Tibetan adventure, the 3776 m altitude of Mount Fuji would be a mere trifle.  My body  would already be very well adjusted to the lack of oxygen at higher altitude moving from the heights of the Tibetan Plateau to the summit of Mount Fuji in a matter of a few days…

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With my return flight from Lhasa to Shanghai booked for early Friday evening, I reckoned I had allowed ample time to catch my flight to Tokyo on Saturday morning…  Unfortunately, whereas the punctuality of trains in China is a feat to be admired, the same does not apply to air travel.  Flight delays are a common, daily occurrence…  and it was no surprise our plane took off late from Lhasa so we missed our connecting flight in Xi’an.  At least our flight was not cancelled; we were lucky.  In the end, I made it back to Shanghai in the small hours and arrived at M.’s  doorstep around 2.30 am.  Just enough time for a quick chat, repack my bags for the next trip, and a very short nap before setting off for the airport again for our 9.00 am flight to Tokyo…

Tokyo did not impress: yet another metropolitan city full of skyscrapers and dazzling lights with just more sushi on offer than other similar places around the world.  At night the brazen neon glare shielded a possibly star-studded sky; it was hard to know with so much light pollution.  Japanese technological brilliance opened a window on a future world flashed with colour and make-belief and heated toilet seats…   The humble toilet was definitely in a league of its own here, with gadgets and devices that pamper, sprinkle and spritz, make flushing noises on demand or provide soothing background music turning something rather uneventful into a totally different experience…  What a contrast to Tibet and Lhasa where we considered ourselves fortunate to be visitors before too much progress and modernisation will inevitably erode its traditions and unique character …. and its ablution facilities with a view to die for.

Nevertheless, Tokyo was clean, contemporary and easy to navigate.  Its metro and train systems were overwhelming at first glance with a spider web of colours crisscrossing the underground map  – not unlike London’s metro system, just on a much grander scale. The vast, enormous stations took some getting used to, but people in Tokyo are friendly and hospitable and English is widely spoken, so there was always help within reach.

And then there was Mount Fuji, of course, the ultimate goal of the trip.  Located about 100 km south-west of Tokyo, on clear days, its iconic shape is often visible in the distance, and in the winter the snow capped peak of the still active volcano forms a magnificent backdrop to the city.  Luckily for us, Mount Fuji last erupted about 300 years ago, and there were certainly no rumblings that might have interfered with our plans…

Tokyo is hot in July, with temperatures soaring well above 30 degrees Celsius.  I had packed accordingly: shorts, strappy tops, floaty dresses and sandals plus indeed a few essentials needed for the climb to the summit of Mount Fuji such as hiking poles, a pair of leggings that I could wear underneath my shorts, an additional thermal layer that I could hide under my fleece…   I had reluctantly accepted M’s offer of a pair of warm gloves and a woolly hat, but refused the padded ski jacket. I felt totally prepared for Mount Fuji and did not want to cram my backpack with unnecessary clobber.  I like to travel light…

I was not in the slightest bit perturbed  when our ‘Mount Fuji Tour’ coach stopped at a hire shop to give everyone the opportunity to stock up on extra clothes to stave off the cold.   ‘Wimps,’ I thought, surely it would not be that bad to live through near zero temperatures for just a couple of hours, or even less.  I had braved the Peruvian Andes near the snow line, I had barely shivered on Poon Hill in the Annapurna Range and had felt quite comfortable in a pair of long trousers and long sleeved t-shirt at 5000m on the Tibetan Plateau…

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After a quick lunch and stocking up on much needed water, chocolatey high energy snacks and other hikers paraphernalia we set off.  Our trek started at the Fifth Station, already at an altitude of 2300 m, and would take roughly six hours…  Six hours???  It did not seem that far…but our two guides were adamant we would reach Ninth Station around 7.00 pm and spend the night there after dinner..

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Not only did the guides make sure we followed the correct path, they also set the pace…  We walked slowly, painstakingly slowly to allow our bodies to gradually adapt to the increasing altitude and avoid anyone falling victim to altitude sickness.  But even if we had been in more of a rush, the sheer number of people on the often narrow track made it impossible to speed up.  We plodded along relentlessly on paths strewn with basalt pebbles, worn smooth over time and reminders of the last eruption of the active volcano we were treading on.  We clambered on all fours over huge rocks, hoisting and pulling ourselves up on ropes at the side.

All the while the temperature kept dropping as huge misty clouds started to envelop us.  Daylight was fading and in shady corners on the mountain, pockets of frosty snow stubbornly  clung to life.  The warmth of my fleece was suddenly very comforting and I definitely felt relieved after having the chance to put on my leggings to cover my bare legs…  Had I maybe been just a tad too optimistic about how cold it might get at the top?

At exactly 7:00 pm, we arrived at our lodgings, a small hostel at the Ninth Station located at 3,580m above sea level and a mere 200m below the summit.  After a quick dinner, we took to our Japanese style dorms: thin mattresses on the floor with an arrangement of duvets to wrap around us, sleeping about 7 in a row…  Washing facilities were a ‘short walk through the fresh air’ away and, admittedly, I was immensely grateful for the heated toilet seats that had seemed such an unnecessary extravagance in the heat of Tokyo.  And, the lodge had a small supply of warm clothes to rent which I gratefully took advantage of; somehow the cold near the top of Mount Fuji felt very bitter and temperatures would definitely dip nearer sunrise.

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After having barely any time to sleep or rest, we started our final climb at 2.00 am: an endless string of bobbing headlamps trailing towards the peak.  There was a real chill in the air and not even the effort of the last push to the top had anyone breaking out in a sweat, regardless of the many layers we were wearing.  At the summit,  tea houses were already in full swing, selling warming drinks and soups to keep us going in anticipation of the appearance of the sun.   We scattered across the top, everyone vying for a little space at the front to catch the best view and take the best photographs of the sun’s dawn reflection in the lake.  We stood only meters away from Mount Fuji’s caldera, the crater left at the top of the volcano after its last violent eruption and we posed next to the sign at Mount Fuji’s summit before retracing our steps downwards, first to the lodge for a well deserved breakfast and then onward, back to Fifth Station where the coach would pick us up.

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If the ascent had been long and arduous because of the altitude, the descent was tricky because of the loose volcanic rock and debris which made the path slippery and treacherous.   Definitely a case of gracefully sliding along and using both walking sticks to avoid too many falls…  We made it in just under four hours, legs wobbling like a jelly…

Would I recommend climbing Mount Fuji??  It rather depends…  If you are looking for photographic thrills, there are much better views of Mount Fuji from the surrounding areas, plus the snow cap in wintertime adds more drama.  However, if you, like me, have a box to tick, then you just grit your teeth and put up with the monotony of staring at red volcanic rock for as long as it takes you to haul yourself up the mountain and back down again…

So where to next??  Base Camp Everest?  Mount Kinnabalu??  We’ll see…  I have another twelve months to decide…

The awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet

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Our ride eventually arrived at 10 a.m., an hour late.   As our previous driver had been involved in a little collision on the way to our hotel and was delayed by police enquiries, a new vehicle and driver had to be found..

We had a long journey ahead, all the way from Lhasa to Shigatse (284 km), Tibet’s second largest city and another must-see destination on every Tibet itinerary.  Expecting at least a six hour journey, followed by a visit to another monastery before the fall of darkness, time was tight and opportunities to take pictures of the unfolding scenery scarce.  We traversed through agricultural areas, green patches brightened by the yellow blooms of brassica;  the brown hues of barren mountains towering in the distance.  On occasions, we passed small villages.  Streets were lined with houses not only displaying prayer poles, but also Chinese flags…  Nowhere else in China are Chinese flags so ubiquitous as in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  A display of loyalty to China, or compulsory? A question we never asked our guide; some things are taboo and remain unsaid.  You can never be sure of the eyes…

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Our drive shadowed the course of the Yellow River, named for the colour of the silts that are carried downstream in its flow.  Along its banks, strings of prayer flags flapped in the wind and we briefly made a stop – not at the most scenic part unfortunately – to allow us to take some snaps.  But apart from that, and a short break for lunch, we carried on relentlessly to make sure we reached Shigatse in time before the local police office closed.  As foreign visitors to the town, our presence in the city needed to be officially registered and our permit for Tibet inspected.  Whereas Chinese tourists have free access to Tibet and travel unchecked, foreigners have to obtain prior permission for a visit and their movements are closely monitored.

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As the whole of China adheres to the same time zone, evenings in Tibet remain much lighter for longer compared to the Eastern side of the country.  So although we did not arrive in Shigatse until early evening, we still managed to explore the Tashilhunpo Monastery before the onset of dusk made photography more challenging, or impossible even.  We walked around the ancient buildings, again watching Buddhist locals making kora and wondered about the little heaps of random pebbles piled on the steps, yet another means for worshippers to keep track of the number of times they circled around the stupas.   We were too late to witness the great monk debates or the chance to ask questions about their life; we just watched them wandering down the street towards their homes at the end of the day.

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Our last whole day was reserved for the awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet: majestic snow topped mountain peaks, enormous Alpine lakes and impressive glaciers.  As we steadily climbed from Shigatse towards the Kharola Pass at an elevation of just over 5000m, spectacular scenery unfolded at each bend in the road.  An emerald green lake, streaked and flecked with brown stripes and patches was festooned with endless strings of gently fluttering prayer flags.   Just like many mountains are considered sacred, lakes are equally revered and prayer flags often hem lakes and rivers as well as brighten up the sides of holy mountains.

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Near the top of the mountain pass, we were enthralled by the spectacular Kharola Glacier.  We did not stop at the most touristy site, but our driver slowed down enough for us to get a few shots, before parking the vehicle just around the corner.  Away from the throng of too many tourists, we hiked up closer to the densely packed snow clinging to the cliff, a massive ice tongue covering the top of the Kharola Mountain.  We huffed and puffed our way up, definitely struggling to catch our breath in the thin air.  At moments like this, I am always pleased to see I am not the only one affected and the younger ones amongst the group also needed plenty of rest breaks to cover maybe one hundred meters in total…  Of course, even at the spots with fewer tourists, local Tibetans did not miss the opportunity to supplement their income with posing for photographs and selling Tibetan prayer flags.

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We ended our list of must-see attractions between Shigatse and Lhasa with the famous Yamdrok Lake.  This enormous freshwater lake is one of four particularly sacred lakes in Tibet and everyone, including the Dalai Lama, makes pilgrimages there.  Along the shores, small towers of rocks possibly tally the number of times devotees walked around the lake.  Not a mean feat as each circumambulation on foot (making a full circle) takes around seven days.  Yamdrok Lake derives its name from its perfect turquoise colour and is surrounded by all-year-round snow capped mountains making it a popular location for wedding photography, as well as attracting numerous tourists and Buddhist devotees.  No wonder that on each outcrop and stretch of usable land near the lake, locals are trying to encourage visitors to have their picture taken with a yak or Tibetan mastiff .  Stalls and tables hem the path to the viewing points and it is hard to resist buying at least some small souvenir from the locals.

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So, I did not go to Everest Base Camp…  A pity.  But maybe on another trip back to Tibet or Nepal… who knows…

Looking for the real Lhasa.

Initially, Lhasa disappointed.  It looked like any Chinese city with modern high-rise buildings, the usual array of shops, wide roads.  The train station was huge, clearly built recently to accommodate the influx of eager visitors to Tibet.  This was Lhasa, Chinese style.  Did we just spent two or three days on a train for this?  We arrived at dusk and our transport to the hotel awaited us…  No need to fret when what we all needed most was sleep, in the comfort of a bed with soft pillows.

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Potala Palace, Lhasa

In the morning, we were treated to a taste of the ‘real’ Tibet, or let’s be honest, the Tibet and Lhasa we expected to see: traditional buildings, Buddhist prayer flags, quaint roads full of touristy trinkets, and of course Tibetan people dressed in their customary attire.  We visited the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th (and incumbent) Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The palace is an impressive structure, spanning 400m from East to West and 350m from North to South, and leaning into the ‘Red Hill’.  It contains 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines over 13 stories and with visitors only allowed to stay inside for just one hour, we only covered a fraction of it.  But still enough time to savour the opulence and grandeur of what was once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government.  No photographs allowed inside though…

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Construction of the current palace started in 1645 on the remains of an earlier fortress.  With walls as thick as 5m at the base and foundations strengthened with added copper to withstand earthquakes, the palace rises a full 300m up from the valley floor and towers over the rest of Lhasa.  However, rapid modernisation and urbanisation is slowly swamping the old Lhasa and in order to strike a balance between progress and preservation, the Chinese government has ruled that buildings must not exceed 21m in height in the area surrounding the palace to safeguard its unique atmosphere.

After a lunch of delicious yak stew and beer (brewed at ‘the roof of the world’) in the Tibetan Lhasa Kitchen, our next stop was the Jokhang Temple, considered the ‘spiritual heart of the city’ and the most sacred temple in Tibet.  The history of the temple was rather lost on all of us.  Sated by stories of the Buddha and totally confused by tales about the past, current and future Dalai Lama, we were engrossed in the riches of the building itself and its surroundings.  And the fact that another relic of the past managed to survive the ‘cultural revolution’ of China, albeit that from 1966 to 1979 Tibetans could no longer worship there and for some time the temple housed a pigsty and slaughterhouse, an army barracks and even a hotel… Eventually the temple was renovated and reconsecrated and is again visited by huge numbers of Tibetan worshippers.

The Johkang temple is located in Barkhor Square, a large square dominated by two enormous incense burners and an imposing prayer flag pole, its dome and staff bulging with blue, white, red, green and yellow cloth.  The five colours represent the five elements (sky and space [blue]; air and wind [white]; fire [red]; water [green]; earth [yellow]) which promote health and harmony when they are in balance.  Prayer flags are not only seen in temples, but most houses and buildings in Tibet feature flag staffs on their roofs.  Contrary to what many people think, prayer flags are not prayers to a god, but the wind brushing them is meant to spread goodwill and compassion to all.

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Every day Tibetans, young and old, congregate at the temple to ‘make kora’.  Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  It typically involves worshippers making a circumambulation (revolution; circling) in a clockwise fashion around a sacred site or object.  Such objects fall into different categories and can be either found in the mystique of nature (such as mountains, or lakes) or in man made structures and buildings (such as temples, monasteries, stupas).  Pilgrims to those sites are seeking religious merit, and the more auspicious the site, the more merit they gain.  Most people walk around, carefully keeping a record of the number of circles on their prayer beads or counting malas.  Some carry their own handheld prayer wheel, whilst others spin the big prayer wheels outside monasteries and temples.  It is believed that touching the prayer wheels equals chanting the Buddhist mantra.  In Tibet it is also common for pilgrims to make kora by making a full-body prostration, which takes a lot of time and effort, but gains the prostrator much more merit, especially when it is performed a favourable number of times.  However, it is not just older people who spend their time walking around the temples, it is surprising to see younger people joining in too.  But as our guide explained, it is the only form of exercise available for many and brings people together…

Barkhor Square is the focal point for worship, as well as a hub of commercial activity with a maze of smaller streets radiating from it.  The ground floors of traditional dwellings have been converted into shops plying tourists with mementos of Tibet: from yak paraphernalia, imitation spinning wheels and healing music bowls to tapestries and thangka paintings. Plenty to choose from and something for all budgets.  Coffee shops offer a pleasant respite from shopping and the sun and benches under the trees and in the shade give shelter to those in need of a rest.  Shopping and making kora can indeed be a taxing pastime..

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Near the mosque, just a few streets away from Barkhor Square, we chanced upon a thriving market in caterpillar fungus.  The curious looking organisms – in winter an animal and in summer a plant – are being harvested on the Himalayan high grounds of Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim (in neighbouring India) at elevations between 4300 and 5000 m.  The fungus is used in Tibetan and also Chinese medicine and has been popular for centuries as a traditional cure for ailments ranging from asthma to impotence.  No wonder that as the Chinese middle class has expanded, so has the demand for the fungus.   The fungus can only be found for a few months each year, from May to August, and has become a major source of income for many Tibetans.   As the prices of the fungus have soared, so has the harvesting of them and environmentalists are warning that the harvest could have a damaging long-term impact on the sensitive environment of the Tibetan Plateau.

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Battling Thin Air on the Way to Tibet.

‘Diamox,’ Maryam maintained, ‘I always take Diamox to prevent altitude sickness. ‘

I laughed it off, I have done altitude before…  A few years ago, in Cusco (Machu Picchu trek in Peru) coca leaf tea was the perfect remedy to battle any symptoms: chew it or brew it.  Who would have thought that the leaves of the cocaine plant had useful medicinal properties after all?  In Nepal, hiking up to the top of Poon Hill, I might have been short of breath at the last stretch, but I certainly did not succumb to spells of dizziness as some of the younger people who collapsed on the one and only bench, head between their legs…  Neither did I realise that my hiking in Yunnan (Southwest China) last October was at heights where altitude sickness can seriously affect you…  We all struggled up that first hill, but then it was a steep incline and after about half an hour any breathlessness had dissipated into thin air…  Altitude sickness was clearly something affecting others, not me, so no need to pop pills.  Anyway,  I would have plenty of time to acclimatise on the three day train journey to Lhasa anyway.

I had eyed the destination for some time: Tibet, Lhasa, Everest Base Camp (EBC), the Himalayas, the mystique of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monasteries.  Only, the trip in July did not include EBC, but still better to experience some of Tibet than none at all.  And what the trip lacked in Everest views would be more than made up by a spectacular and scenic two-day train journey across China, promising dazzling vistas and an easier ride into the challenges of less oxygen near the roof of the world.

In reality, the two day train journey turned into a three day jaunt, courtesy of ticket touts who bought up all available train tickets to Lhasa in one fell swoop.   In China, train tickets are only released 30 days before the date of travel and by the time I managed to get online to book tickets (10 minutes after release..), there were none left… no hard seats, no hard sleepers, and definitely not the luxurious soft sleepers.   Actually, only two of the other people who were on the same trip had secured a seat: a hard seat for two full days and two full nights…  But instead of offering a refund, our ‘travel agent’ was hopeful that they could sort things out and they would approach their contacts to see if they could get us tickets after all.  Could we just pay them an extra  900 RMB (£90 – £100)…  This money indeed bought us a hard sleeper ticket … from Xining in central China to Lhasa, with absolutely no idea of how to get to the middle of China…  All trains had been sold out, leaving  us just the option of more expensive air travel  or forfeiting all our money…  In the end, reluctant to pay exorbitant flight prices, I kept on looking online and yes, one day a hard sleeper ticket from Shanghai to Xining was available on a different and much slower train, taking two days to reach Xining…  but I had plenty of time, it was the start of the summer holidays.  What was an extra 12 hours on a train…

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‘What’s the food like on these trains?’ I asked Kim, who had just returned from her trip to Tibet, spending a full 24 hours on a train to Lhasa (she flew to central China).  A diet of rice and more rice did not sound appealing, so I took her advice and stocked up on the usual Chinese travel fare:  pot noodles, teabags, lots of unhealthy snacks and some fruit…  Hot water was available for free, so no problem joining the queue on the train to re-hydrate interesting flavoured noodles..  And surely anyone could survive living of such foods for a mere three days.   My bags bulging with ‘culinary delights’, I boarded the train…

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Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised.  Expecting a hard sleeper to be along the lines of the hard top benches of trains in India, I was impressed with the slightly squishy mattress – definitely softer than the bed in my flat – and enough space to almost sit up on my middle bunk.  On the other hand, bathroom facilities were woefully inadequate from a Western point of view: one squat toilet to be shared between about 60 travellers..  Nowhere to wash or shower…  I settled in, hardly noticing the constant hum of Chinese conversations around me and lost myself in a book…  The kind of peace and quiet I had missed for some time; the perfect space for the ultimate me-time.  Outside, the scenery did little to inspire, an endless monotony of distant brown-ish hills…  At exactly 9.30 pm, the whole train was hushed: lights turned off and everyone obediently quietened down.  I slept blissfully…

I arrived in Xining after 32 hours, glad to stretch my legs and have some real food.  More noodles, but at least they were freshly prepared and did not taste of cardboard.  I met up with the rest of the group who had used various modes of transport to get to Xining before boarding the  next train a few hours later…  Another 22 hours would see us safely in Lhasa, Tibet, at an elevation of 3,656 m, where altitude was likely to have an impact on most of us.  We made ourselves comfortable, it was early evening and soon everyone took to their bunks as we listened to the announcements about our journey ahead.  We could expect some discomfort over breakfast as the train would approach the Tibetan Plateau and even more serious altitude difficulties between 11:00 and 12:00 am the next day when the train would cross the Tanggula Pass (5000 m).  Anyone experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness could rest assured, there was a doctor on board..

At 2.00 am I woke up, head throbbing and engulfed in a wave of nausea.  It wasn’t even breakfast yet…  I made it to the bathroom; no queue as everyone was thankfully asleep…   Altitude sickness??  Surely not, I thought, but the headache lingered for a full day and I just about managed to hold down half an orange and one cup of lukewarm  sugary tea in the next 24 hours.  Altitude sickness hits at its worst at night time,  when breathing becomes shallower and the body takes in less oxygen.   Although none of the others admitted to feeling a little off-colour, headache tablets were gratefully consumed and definitely helped to lift subdued spirits.

Mid-morning the cavalry arrived, dispensing oxygen tubes in anticipation of tackling the Tanggula Pass..  The ‘Sky Train’ or Lhasa Express – as the train is called – comes equipped with two sources of oxygen:  one which is used to pump oxygen into the whole train as it approaches the Tibetan plateau and the other comes via personalised little oxygen outlets near each bunk and along the corridors.  Just attach the oxygen tube, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.  I gave it a go, it wasn’t going to do any harm but neither was it the magic wand to quell the symptoms of altitude sickness…

Outside, the landscape had become more fascinating:  snow-capped peaks,  grazing yaks on grassy plains, yellow desolate mountains, construction workers wrapped in furry coats and warm hats.  A barren and inhospitable terrain that proved a challenge during the construction of the railway itself as workers had to contend with low oxygen levels as well as permafrost.  Fencing along the railway offers protection to the local wildlife and tunnels under the railway give them safe passage to cross the line.  Modern China at its best.

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We arrived in Lhasa, glad to get to our hotel for some rest and a good night’s sleep.  I cannot remember when the malaise finally started to disappear, but breakfast – the best breakfast I have seen in any hotel in China – did not look at all appealing…  I managed a little fruit and some yoghurt but passed on the Yak curry and Yak cheese…  I did however have my generous dose of Butter Tea, the Tibetan answer to coca leaf tea… It is not entirely clear how it is supposed to help overcome altitude sickness, or whether Tibetans even use it for that purpose,  but just the thought that it might brighten the mood, stave off the headaches and stimulate some appetite made all of us drink it with great gusto and a big spoonful of added sugar to mask the unexpected salty taste…

Maybe, Maryam was right and to make the most of a short trip to Tibet, Diamox was the answer…  I know for next time.  Everyone in our group was affected to some degree, mainly headaches and nothing too serious.  Would flying into Lhasa have been the better option??  2% of the people that fly directly to Lhasa develop the more serious types of altitude sickness which affect the lungs and brain, and can be deadly if not treated in time… So far, 0% of those who take the train have suffered the same fate..

Visiting the ‘roof of the world’ is certainly testing…

 

 

 

Lessons from the Wildebeest Migration: staying safe on the Chinese roads

‘The difference between Chinese locals and the expats,’ my Chinese friend A explained, ‘is that Chinese locals take the bus and expats prefer their e-bikes.’  If only that were true, the roads in Hangzhou would be so much safer for everyone.

Hangzhou roads are wide, spacious with lots of room for cars, e-bikes, bicycles and pedestrians.  Surely the envy of many European cities battling with legacies pre-dating the advent of anything with a motor: narrow streets, cobbled lanes, dinky alleyways. Cities steeped in history, but lacking practicality in the 21st Century.  China has looked at the West and in its modern cities taken on board the sense of the American grid-system: straight roads, straight corners, easy to navigate flyovers.  The main arteries leading into town have generous lanes for cyclists and e-bike riders, often partitioned by chains or some kind of fencing for added safety.  And there are designated pavements for pedestrians…  With such infrastructure in place, you would expect a safe journey across town no matter what mode of travel you choose…

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Being a true expat by now, I did indeed purchase an e-bike on my return to China in March.   Not entirely sure about any permanent damage to my knee nor to my ability to pedal a pushbike, I thought it better to have some motorised backup available!!  I certainly did not fancy being at the mercy of a fickle bus service, standing in the cold, rain or suffocating summer heat or paying for taxis all the time.

After a few weeks of getting my bearings in the new area of town, using buses (which are actually very reliable) and leg power,  I ventured out on my e-bike.  I am not a natural and did not exactly take to riding an e-bike like a duck to water.  Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that when going down a ramp on an e-bike, it is infinitely safer to turn off the engine so you do not simultaneously accelerate and apply the brakes…  Twice I hit a wall!! Luckily, I was walking down a ramp next to the bike and could let go..   I came off unscathed, and the bike???  A few more scratches and scrapes, but no real damage… It still works!!  I now avoid ramps…

I rode the e-bike painfully slowly at first, carefully surveying my opponents on the road.  Whereas near my previous flat on the outskirts of Hangzhou, two e-bikes or bicycles  would have made a crowd, near the centre of town there were loads of them…  all occupied by the Chinese…   And although I had sampled Chinese road-user habits before, the experience paled in comparison to dealing with the hordes of e-bikes, cyclists and pedestrians invading the space designated to them…  To complicate matters further, in the last few months the country has been gripped by a bicycle-sharing epidemic. This may well sound like a great initiative, but in China ‘good’ ideas are copied over and over, ad infinitum…  Since my return to China, pavements have been cluttered with an oversupply of bicycles in all shades and hues, and the roads have been heaving with cyclists lacking confidence and speed.

Not feeling too brave on the e-bike, I used to hang back, linger behind the mob, give way to the impatient and more audacious.  I even thought it wise to wait for traffic lights to turn green…  I soon found out that following the throng, disregarding Western notions of road safety, was the much wiser and sensible way to avoid being hit by fellow road users.  A green light certainly does not guarantee a risk-free passage across a junction!!  Whilst e-bikes and bicycles attempt to go straight, cars turning right force their way through, not waiting for a space and coercing isolated E-bikes and bicycles  to weave and dodge around them.  So it makes sense to jump the lights and use those precious seconds to have a head start and as a mass of metal and bodies get out of harm’s way.  Until you reach the other side where cars, e-bikes and bicycles plough in from the right  without so much as a glance to check whether it is safe to do so, no matter the light is green for me and not for them.  It’s a bit like the wildebeest migration: the most likely to end up as crocodile feed are those who head into the river first, or those who lag behind and are no longer protected by the body of the herd…

Even going straight along the cycle path is fraught with danger, especially from riders in slow motion… You may be fooled into thinking that they are the  vigilant ones looking out for other road users… but more likely than not, their eyes will be glued to their phones and their minds immersed in the digital world of Wechat, their ears filled with heated conversations or the latest hits….  They are the ones I approach with extra caution because they are probably totally oblivious of their surroundings or any other traffic.   Add to this that just at the point where it seems possible to overtake those ones who would even fail to beat a snail in a race, a  lonely cyclist or e-biker comes hurtling from the opposite direction, scattering everyone out of his way…

And of course, let’s not forget the pedestrians meandering at leisure between e-bikes and bicycles…  City and road planners certainly had their interests at heart when designing road lay-outs.  Wide pavements sheltered by leafy  trees and with ample room for pushchairs…  Only, in busy areas around metro stations, shopping malls and parks such strips of free space for pedestrians have been turned into dumping grounds for e-bikes and shared bicycles because the planners overlooked or underestimated the need for parking provision…  And careless ‘shared-bicycle’ users discard their wheels just about anywhere they see fit and leave the police to deal with clearing the avalanche of metal. Neither the bicycle users, nor the rental companies are held to account. On the outskirts of Hangzhou, vast swathes of derelict land have been turned into bicycle graveyards as the companies who own them have no interest in claiming them back: the bicycles have been paid for through the deposits from the users… It is probably cheaper to buy new stock than paying any fines.

It seems that in the haste of turning Chinese cities into ‘modern’ metropolises, its citizens have been left behind and attitudes have not kept pace.   Maybe it is a lot easier to change  the infrastructure of a city than the ingrained habits of a population…  China certainly has traffic rules and regulations, but they are invariably ignored by the majority of the Chinese and the traffic police seem powerless to do anything about it.

I still use my e-bike, in emergencies only.  I rather ride a bicycle, at least I can manage the brakes and I get exercise to boot!!  But I feel neither confident nor safe on the roads here and watch every other Chinese road user like a hawk, always expecting the unexpected and hands ready  for an emergency stop…

If only my friend had been right that the Chinese prefer the buses and e-bikes are the reserve of the expat community…

 

 

 

Gouqi, the not-so-abandoned island.

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‘Where are you??’ friends  eagerly enquired after I posted pictures of Gouqi on my Wechat* Moments (see below).  Pristine beaches, the sky and sea dressed in shades of blue to rival the Mediterranean.  Surely this was not China, or anywhere near Shanghai where murky brown waters permanently surround the coast, often smothered by the persistence of the grey haze of polluted air.  The closest beach to Hangzhou is in Ningbo, one hour South by bullet train, but reports from those who’ve seen it are far from glowing: turbid waters; grimy, dirty beaches – not exactly the kind of place to while away a lazy afternoon..

(*For those not in China and therefore unfamiliar with Wechat …  it is the Chinese version of WhatsApp, only a little more versatile and much easier to use than Facebook in China.  No need for a VPN to let friends and family know your whereabouts….)

 

I was on a trip to an ‘abandoned island’, or so the blurb on Travelers Society’s website led me to believe, somewhere to the east of Shanghai.  We were heading for the Shengsi Islands, a scenic area, consisting of hundreds of islands outlying the Hangzhou Bay and boasting multiple quality beaches, rocks, and cliffs.

It was definitely an island, only to be reached after a four hour boat trip from Shanghai’s port,  but abandoned was best taken with a pinch of salt.  As we were making the most of one of China’s few extended ‘holidays’ at the beginning of May (a three-day weekend courtesy of Labour Day on 1st May), long lines of Chinese tourists besieged the ticket booths… We were not the only ones visiting this gem.

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Far from abandoned, Gouqi island clearly was very much alive with people whose livelihood depended on the sea.  Endless lengths of fishing nets trailed along the narrow coastal road, its verges  littered with skeletons of perished fishing boats and other discarded paraphernalia.  Whilst thoughtless drivers careered around sharp bends, women and men – too old to be out on the sea – braved the unrelenting sun to mend the nets, ready to be set out into the sea at night for the morning’s haul.  Suspended from polystyrene buoys, the nets crisscrossed large squares in the coastal waters and, come early morning, smaller fishing boats took to the sea to pull in the catch.

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On Gouqi, seafood is the staple diet and the giant mussel a speciality.  Whilst fresh fish is eaten in abundance, the rest is dried in the sun on huge racks along the quayside.  Even the local snacks are fish-based: anyone for battered and deep-fried fish backbones???  I tried them – well, only one – after a shopkeeper insisted on handing some to us.  Too crunchy for my liking and not sure about the nutritional value, I discreetly let them slide into a dustbin, out of sight.

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We did eventually find the ‘abandoned’ part of the trip on the neighbouring island Shengshan: Houtouwan, a small fishing village nestled in the lap of the rugged hills with the sea at its feet.  Only established in the 1950s, but hemmed in on all sides and with no room for expansion, the village soon outgrew its inhabitants as the fishing industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s.  The now wealthier villagers left in droves and the village was eventually relocated in 2002 to a more desirable and accessible area, leaving the original village to the forces of nature.  The village history at the entrance of the ‘tourist attraction’ did not chronicle how it became a magnet for visitors, but as vines and ivy invaded the deserted, crumbling stone walls and steps, and creepers weaved through doors and windows, the village became like a ghost town, eerie and spooky, coming alive with the change of the seasons and the whims of the weather.  We were there in the midst of spring, on a warm, sunny morning, the greenery not yet fully showing its lushest.

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And of course, no island and beach visit would be complete without spending some time enjoying the sun, the sand and the water…  I dipped in a toe.. but left the swimming to a few braver souls as I certainly did not fancy the goosebumps that would follow complete immersion.  Instead I joined in with beach volleyball, mainly watching the ball go by rather than being any use on the court, although surprisingly some of my serves ended up going over the net!!!  As our night time beach party was gatecrashed by the locals and other Chinese tourists, we beat our retreat and spent the rest of the evening playing 15 man (and woman..) UNO at the hotel…

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These two obviously did not belong to our party…  Only Chinese women go incognito when the sun is out…

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In the early evening we hiked up to the highest peak of the island, near an ancient Buddhist temple, to watch the sun cast its dying, warming glow over the cliffs and the sea.

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And in the early morning, we  rose before the break of dawn.  Wrapped up warmly for the chill, we made our way to the other end of the island to take some spectacular shots of the sun soaring above the East China Sea…  It’s amazing what cameras can do!!

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