Wednesday, January 26, 2005

After Emei Shan I returned to Chengdu and then on December 27 winged on to Tibet. From the airport we drove straight to Samye Monastery and stayed there for three days. Lots of pilgrims there from all over Tibet.

One of the stupas at Samye

Also visited the nearby retreat center of Samye Chimpu. This is where the founder of Buddhist in Tibet, Padmasambhava, lived for awhile. Now over 300 people from all over Tibet are doing retreats here, most of them women.

Main Temple at Chimpu, built over the entrance to Padmasambhava’s retreat cave

Pilgrims at Chimpu
The next day I took a bus to Emei Shan, about three hours from Chengdu. Spent the rest of the day visiting the temples a the base of the mountain.

Temple at the base of Emei Shan

Statue of Kuan Yin in one of the temples at the base of the mountain

After a night at the Teddy Bear Hotel (its actual name) I took a bus to Wannian Temple and began the ascent of the mountain from there.

Wannian Temple

From there it was a long slog up about 6000 vertical feet to Shishiangchi Monastery, where I spent the night. Of course at this time of the year I was the only guest.

Shishiangchi Monastery, looking down on the cloud bank

Next day I continued on up to the summit.

One of the ridges of Emei Shan

Stayed Christmas Eve in a guesthouse on the 10.077 foot summit and got up early Christmas morning for the view. Unfortunately there was a complete whiteout and no view. About a dozen Chinese were also on the summit. One offered me a cigarette and I was about to reflexively refuse, but then I thought, “This may be the only Christmas gift I get this year,” so I took it and had a smoke with the Chinese people on the top of Emei Shan. Took the cable bus and bus back down to the base of the mountain and was back in Chengdu by that evening.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

On to Chengdu the next morning, December 20. The plane was jammed and like all domestic Air China flights there was simply not enough leg room for me. I finally got a bulkhead seat after a lot of fuss. I have been in Chengdu probably fifteen or twenty days in the late five years (always in December and January) and the weather has always been exactly the same: just above freezing, very foggy, with a a light on-and-off misting rain. I have never seen a clear day here. Checked into the infamous Traffic Hotel near the bus station. The clerks behind the check in counter are wearing thick down jackets (there’s no heat in the hotel). The same young ladies are in the lobby trying to sell trips to Tibet as last time I was here last December. To the restaurant for a plate of spicy bean curd, a Sichuan specialty. Same waitresses as last time. They remember me.

Then I popped over the Wenshu Monastery for lunch at its famous vegetarian restaurant.

Wenshu Monastery

Had what was the hottest meal I have ever had in my life. It was a kind of soup which seemed to consist entirely of chili peppers. Sichuan food is famously hot but this was way over the top. The way the waiter stood in the corner and keep smirking at me I had to wonder whether he and the cook weren’t playing some kind of practical joke me.

Statue at Wenshu Monastery

Then to the Sichuan Opera for the afternoon. This was held in a low key little theatre holding only two or three hundred on a side street near the train station. For the matinee the theatre was only about half full, almost all retirees whiling awhile an afternoon. All the tea you could drink, served by a woman who came around with a big thermos, was included in the price of the ticket. The oldsters sat around chatting, drinking tea, and eating sunflower seeds, only bothering to watch the opera for the highlights. The opera went on for over three hours, the exact plot being impossible to follow. I just sat back and let the whole thing flow over me. I noticed a lot of people going backstage so I thought I would try too. No one said anything to me. In fact, the actors seems to expect people to come back and take photos . . . Actresses in the opera:

The opera's Good Queen

The Evil Hussy in the opera
Flew down to Beijing Saturday morning, December 18. Called my friend Ms R, who had a day off from work, and proceeded to the huge computer store complex near the campus of the national university. This place is eight floors of full of dozens, maybe hundreds of shops selling all sorts of computers, digital cameras, and other electronic gear. On a Saturday afternoon the place was jammed with thousands of people. Very aggressive sales clerks trying to steer you into their shops. Ms. R. wanted to look at laptops (she does not have one) and wanted my advice; she like Toshibas best. Also looked at lots of Sonys, NECs, HPs, IBMs, etc. Prices I would say are higher than in the States, although much of the computer stuff is made in China or Taiwan. The mysteries of “free trade.” I was also looking for Mac stuff. There was no official Apple Store, but a few shops were selling outdated eBooks, iMacs, and iPods. None of the latest models.

Around dark, on a very cold, windy evening (the wind was from the north, straight out of Mongolia), we headed for a small Uighur restaurant near the Institute for National Minorities. Ms R will not eat in Chinese restaurants because they serve pork. Here we were met by Ms Rayhuna, an instructor and researcher at the Institute. She is in her late 20s and like Ms R unmarried. Over a huge five course dinner of Uighur specialties (laghman, two other kind of noodles, kebabs, a vegetable dish, yogurt, naan, and five or six pots of tea (neither of the women drink alcohol) we had a far ranging discussion about the Turkish language, historical origins of the Uighurs, George Bush (Ms Rayhuna was convinced the election had been fixed, since it was common knowledge everyone hated Bush), the mysteries of dating in Beijing (lack of eligible man), why none of us were married, and much, much else. It was certainly a pleasure talking to such a vivacious young woman as Ms. Rayhuna. She and Ms. R are from the same city in Xinjiang, and both a long way from home. This huge dinner for three was $6.29 total. Then back to my hotel for a much needed rest (I had slept only two hours the night before). Unlike Ms R, Ms Rayhuna does not like to have her photo taken, hence no photo of Ms Rayhuna.

Ms R

The next morning Ms R (she lives right nearby) and I spent a couple of hours copying music from CDs onto my iPod. She has a big collection of Arabic, Turkish, Uighur, and oddly enough salsa music (she works at the embassy of a Hispanic country). Then down to the big shopping street of Wangfujing. Here there is an official Mac Store, but as usual they were sold out of most stuff. They had recently gotten several dozen iMacs but had sold them all immediately. This is always the case here; everything they get is gone within days. Also, here the iMacs are on average about $400 more than in the States, although again, they are actually made in Taiwan. They did have plenty of iPods, and were selling them like steamed buns. Probably a dozen or more Chinese were standing around looking at them. All over Beijing, I had noticed while driving around the last two days, are big billboards advertising iPods. Tried to stop at the Starbucks in the Mall where the Apple store is but of course every seat was taken on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted to go to the big food court in the basement of the mall but Ms R would not eat there because they serve pork. She said she would seat with me while I ate, but I passed on that. So to the Foreign Languages Bookstore, where we looked at dictionaries and novels. I had hoped to pick up some history books for Ms Rayhuna, but there was nothing interesting.

In the evening we headed back to the huge shopping center near the San Li Tun embassy district. Here I bought more tea and check out tailors (I am down to my last pair of pants, which I had made in Nepal three years ago (it is impossible to buy my size in Asia) Then to dinner at the Thousand and One Arabian Nights Restaurant across the street from the really glitzy Pacific Plaza shopping center.

Ms R at the Thousand and One Nights

This place, ran Ms. R thinks by Palestinians, was full of Mid-Eastern men at tables moaning with food and drink. This place of course does not serve pork. I had not eaten breakfast or lunch and it was now nine o’clock at night so I waded into some excellent humus, vegetable salad, grilled mutton, and naan. Ms R oddly enough had spaghetti. Yogurt and several pots of black tea for desert. The men at several of the tables were smoking huge hookas (water pipes) but I passed on that.

Then there was the floor show: Uighur belly dancers from Xinjiang. Ms R says that Uighur women have pretty much taken over the belly dancing profession in Beijing in all the Arabic and Mid-Eastern restaurants and nightclubs. Like laghman, it is a Uighur specialty.

Uighur Belly Dancer. Notice the Merry Christmas sign – in an Palestinian-run Arab restaurant in Beijing!