PG50. Some material in this post may not be suitable for parents.

A van took me up 600m on top of Sarangkot Mountain. I got a harness that is clipped into my pilot’s harness, I run a few steps down the hill, the parachute inflates and we are up in the air above Nepal’s Pokhara valley. We were circling for a while to find the thermals rising up from the valley, and they carry us up a kilometer above the valley. The views of the mountain ridges, the valley, and the lake are fantastic. Unfortunately it’s still hazy; on a clear day the Annapurna range of the Himalayas is visible from here. The flight is quite smooth, with only a little buffeting above the mountain ridges. My pilot is a paraglider acrobat but I decline his offers to show me how to drop 30m per second. After half an hour, we stop circling the thermals, and gently float down to the lake, and land in some fields where the van waits. Totally exhilarating!

Walked around the dam into the hills. There are no signs, so I work like a wild west trapper – broken twigs, a paletr shade of brown leaves, scratches on stones – and of course the trail of plastic bottles, soda cans, candy wrappers, and chips bags also helps. I always know after 50m that I lost the garbage trail. Got rowed back across the lake by two children, who, like everyone else here, speak English.

Also walked to Old Pokhara, where real people live and nobody sells souvenirs and trekking tours. It’s fairly dirty, especially in between, where people hammer on radiators, lay in oil puddles under buses, cut trucks into small piecesand recycle tires are way past recycling. If there was such a thing as subsustence engineering that’s what they would be doing. It’s a long, hot, and polluted march. The old downtown itself is fairly nice, a no-frills neighborhood with a little market, and the Seti river which is very narrow but flows so fast that it has cut a 50-meter deep gorge through the town. You hear it but it’s difficult to see deep down.

Spent a little time on the monastery-and-temple circuit, but it’s quite unremarkable.

Not much to report today – the bus ride to Pokhara takes seven hours. The bus is supposed to be the best they have but it’s wheezing up the mountains at 25 km/h. But it’s clean and everyone has a seat, unlike on Nepalese local buses, which pack as much people, bags, and animals as they can fit inside and on the roof. Trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, animals, and people carrying impossible loads (picture) share the narrow road. We passed eight army checkpoints because of some Maoist rebel activity, but everything is quiet at the moment so there is no delay. (As I type this, a small group of demonstrators carrying red hammer-and-sickle flags shouting paroles walk past the Internet cafe.)

Pokhara is touristy, as usual meaning many souvenir shops and trekking agencies but not a lot of actual tourists. An amusing number of teenagers do their very best to look like their hippy parents back in the sixties. Pokhara is supposed to be like Thamel but it’s far too relaxed for that, and much more spacious. And warmer. Unfortunately it has become hazy again so I can’t see the mountains; Pokhara is located at the Phewa lake in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas. Maybe tomorrow.

PS. Now it’s dark and I can see the mountains, at least where the forest fires burn.

There’s more than Kathmandu in the valley. Swayambhunath, a.k.a. the monkey temple, sits on top of a hill with a very long stairway leading up to it. Visitors get waylaid by souvenir vendors every 20 steps or so. The main stupa totally looks like a huge birthday cream cake with a candle in the middle. And the usual prayer drums, statues locked away in little shrines, and butter lamps. The temple is clean because they literally throw all garbage over the walls, where lots of monkeys sort through it.

Speaking of garbage – on the way to the monkey temple I crossed Kathmandu’s Vishnumati River, which is so dirty that there is more garbage than water on the surface. I am beginning to like Kathmandu’s chaotic, loud, and crowded Thamel downtown, at least they are taking care of it.

#2 temple of the day is Boudha on the other side of Kathmandu. This one is the mother of all cream cakes (pictured), on top of three huge terraces. It’s surrounded by a circular ring of buildings, most of them souvenir shops of course but there are few visitors. Their style, if not the ornamentation, feels almost mediterranean and is very pleasant to walk. This is a Tibetan community, and it very much feels like Tibet except that you can say “Dharamsala” [the Indian exile of the Dalai Lama] without risking to get arrested.

Back in Kathmandu, I checked out Freak Street, but it’s a tired shadow of its ’60s fame. All the action, piercing and tattoo shops, forlorn-looking rasta youths, and hasheesh hawkers are now in Thamel.

Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is a temple complex centered on the old royal palace, now a museum. Dozens of pagoda temples with tiered roofs and stepped terraces, some low and some nearly as tall as the pagoda on top. Plus a shining white neoclassical palace in the middle that looks quite out of place there. The pagodas are made from wood, mostly cracked and without paint. The carving is incredibly detailed and really deserves repair. Cows, dogs, and pigeons wander freely; have to watch out not to step on a sleeping dog. It’s quite hot.

Cars, motorcycles, and rickshaws go through this Unesco World Heritage, honking all the time to get the tourists out of their way. I saw an open army truck, four soldiers standing in front and eight in the back, and lots of handcuffed people in between.

This is a fantastic place if only they had shielded the place from the encroaching city and its traffic better. And spent more effort on restoration. The whole of Kathmandu I saw has many little temples, old houses with the same fantastic intricate wood carving, and beautiful old plazas – but it’s all neglected, decrepit, and not too clean, especially outside downtown. The Rata park is positively filthy. Like in China, people drop their garbage where they stand, but unlike China the armies of sweepers are absent.

[Added pictures to the previous three posts. Check out the Himalaya picture two posts down.]

Zhangmu is built up a hill on both sides that is so steep that the houses seems stacked. In my hotel, what’s first floor in front is fourth floor in the back. I had to leave early because the border station is only open in the morning. After the first checkpoint, we walked down a road with many switchbacks (one of which is closed so we had to climb down the side of the mountain for a while) to reach the immigration building, where my guide checked me through the formalities. Then I said goodbye and crossed the Friendship Bridge high over the small river that marks the border. I step over the red line in the middle guarded by motionless soldiers, and I am in Nepal.

The small Nepalese village on the other end of the bridge is small and primitive, but the officers are friendly and relaxed, immigration only takes a few minutes. I set my watch back 2 hours and 15 minutes. They run pickup trucks to Kathmandu from here, so I share one with three Chinese visitors for 600 Nepalese Rupees (Rs); 1 Rs is a little less than 1 euro cent. It takes five very scenic hours through the mountains to reach Kathmandu because the road here is no better shape than the Chinese version. Can’t be done without a 4WD.

In past blog entries I have complained about China’s faceless and sterile cities. Kathmandu isn’t like that at all. It’s a noisy chaotic maelstrom and we pass through suburbs that look a little like a third-world slum, complete with smoking garbage dump fields with scavenging animals. Downtown is ok, but still very crowded and cars are squeezing through impossibly tight alleys, honking at everything that moves. Kathmandu is so alive with chaos that Beijing feels like a mausoleum in comparison. It’s also very warm, and 4000 meters lower than yesterday so I hardly have to breathe at all. Same odd feeling I had when reaching Lhasa, only in reverse. Now I understand why bicycle athletes train in Peru.

I am staying at the Tibet Peace Guesthouse at the edge of the Thamel downtown region. It offers what seems impossible here – it’s quiet, it has a fairly spacious garden with flowers and little tables to relax (and which my room overlooks), and I hear birds sing. I did walk around Thamel for a while. Once some guy came up to me and whispered, “hasheesh?” Ah, Kathmandu…

A travel day. Tola pass at 4200 meters, Gatso pass at 5200 meters, and later another at 5100 meters. Passes are marked with spiderwebs of prayer flags strung over the street, from poles, or even power masts. The sun is hot but the wind is very cold. None of the blue-black skies again. The mountains are all bare of vegetation, but shine in red, brown, black, and yellow hues. People plough fields with horses, but I don’t see any plants. My guide and I have lunch in a Tibetan restaurant as usual, but my driver is Chinese and eats only Chinese food, and only at Chinese restaurants, even though he has been living in Tibet for five years. So he eats alone every time. In the Tibetan restaurant, a sheep’s dried leg sits on the counter with tufts of hair at the hoof still on it, but most of the meat is gone. Beef jerkey Tibet style. They also rent rooms but the bathroom smells like the sheep died there, so we continue.

We were supposed to overnight in Tingri, but at 17:00 my guide’s agency in Lhasa notices a mistake in my travel permits – the departure date is wrong, I have to leave the country tomorrow! And they are *very* strict about that. So we pack up and leave for the border town of Zhangmu. Tingri is no loss, there is nothing to see there, and I couldn’t get the Mt. Everest permit anyway, but we’ll spend a lot of time in the car.

At Old Tingri, the smooth blacktop road ends and we must use a dirt road for the next 132 km. Occasionally the road is closed and we must go off-road; I have no idea how the driver finds his way. One day, the road will be open and paved all the way, they are working on that, I have seen several people with shovels! The driver loves to go over bumps at speed, and once we hit a big rock. He decided that we can continue after an inspection. The views of the ice-capped Himalaya range in the evening sun is fantastic, I keep asking to stop the car. There are several police checkpoints.

Soon it’s totally dark and the ride gets interesting. Once we were faced with three huge yaks in the middle of the road after turning a corner, but stopped in time. There are also unlit dogs, horses, and sheep from time to time. Asphalt returns for a short time, but there are rocks that have fallen from the mountain everywhere, so we must go slowly. One boulder more than a meter across had smashed through the retaining wall, scattering debris all over the road and coming to rest in the middle of our lane. Just before Zhangmu, we reach a narrow, dangerous, unpaved, and very rutted section of the road. There is lots of traffic going the other way because the road is open only from 20:00 to 1:00, mostly trucks. People with torches run around, we need to inch our way backwards and forwards into tiny turnouts without falling off the mountain to let the trucks pass. My guide says this usually takes 2-3 hours at this point but we managed to pass after less than an hour. My driver really knows his job and doesn’t mind a smoking clutch. We arrive in Zhangmu at 23:30.

They call this the Friendship Highway. Can’t be much of a friendship.

It’s a short drive to Shigatse, famous for its large monastery founded by the first Dalai Lama, and seat of the Panchen Lama. The complex is huge – much of it is old whitewashed quarters for the 600 monks. Three large white stupas are a memorial to the people killed during Mao’s cultural revolution; people circle it clockwise (always clockwise…), turn the prayer drums, and keep count with little piles of pebbles.

In the main hall is a 26 meter gold Buddha, dimly lit by many butter lamps tended by monks. On the side several old monks sit and chant scripture. Tibet at its best, the effect is hypnotizing. In the next hall they get down to business: there are long benches where a dozen monks sit cross-legged, large scripture books open in front of them. You can make a donation, and the head monk will read your name, donation, and preferred scripture section aloud, and the monks begin to chant that section. They have many very young monks, but they do all the work around the temple while the old monks just sit there and chant. Reminds me of work at home. Another hall houses a huge shrine with a drum on top containing the bodies of past Panchen Lamas. The monastery is beautiful, serene, and a place of active worship. It has impressed me a lot more than the Potala in Lhasa, which is far more imposing but really just a big, dark, and dead museum.

Can’t post pictures with this computer, will follow later.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking in the old town at the foot of a steep hill with the governor’s palace on top, and circled the monastery on a path just outside its walls, with thousands of prayer drums spun by old women walking with me.

Tibet, roof of the world – I always thought that was hyperbole. But after our car left Lhasa and climbed out of the Tibetan Plateau to over 5000 meters, passing through valleys with the Himalayan mountains on all sides, I can see how apt the expression is. The horizon is incredibly clear and the sky there is a perfect blue. Looking up and away from the sun, the blue color of the sky turns so dark that it’s almost closer to black. There are a few small but brilliantly white clouds, and they seem very close. I half expected the space station to swoosh by.

There are lots of beautiful vistas along the way, and little lopsided shrines with prayer flags strung on long lines, and people with yaks trying to get some money from tourists. There is not a lot of snow where we drive but glaciers shine brightly at a distance.

Gyantse is a small town at a mere 4000 meters. It has a mild case of Chinese architecture pest – the roads are too wide and the buildings are mostly new and, yes, sometimes covered with those nasty white bathroom tiles, but few buildings have more than two floors and it all looks like a sleepy village. The main attraction is the Baiju monastery, built up a hil crested by a wall. Many halls and shrine rooms filled with Buddhas and statues; not unlike the Potala but on a much less grand scale. And photography is allowed, after paying a fee (one per room!), so I catch up a bit.

There is also a conical building that looks like a large stupa, and I swear this thing is far bigger inside than outside. It’s supposed to contain 100,000 Buddha images and that number can’t be far off. Six floors, maybe a hundred rooms with Buddha statues from 1.5 to 6 meters tall, and no wal space wasted. There is also a beautiful view to the steep hill crowned by the governor’s palace, but it’s being renovated so I skip it.

The Potala Palace is certainly the most famous building in Tibet. Ten of the fourteen Dalai Lamas ruled over religion and the country from here. It’s supposed to have 999 rooms but it felt more like 999 stairs in the thin air. Many rooms are quite small, including the personal apartment of the Dalai Lama; there are also large throne rooms, and several long and high galleries with Buddhas, other statues, and the tombs of several Dalai Lamas. The 5th Dalai Lama has the largest; he unified politics and religion under his rule by calling in his pal, the Mongol emperor, to do the dirty work.

All walls, columns, and the roof are brightly painted or hung with brightly colored silks, in the five colors that symbolize the elements – red for fire, green for water, blue for the sky, white for clouds, and yellow for the earth. There are many small tapestries hung from the ceiling that look like necktie shop displays. Despite the bright colors, the rooms look solemn and a little gloomy; all light comes from a few lightbulbs, and the ubiquitous Yak butter lamps. Professional lighting would work wonders on the Potala, but professional lighting is unknown in China. Only the top throne room in the Red Palace on top gets bright light from windows. In front of the throne is a huge pile of donated money; I estimate about half a cubic meter. We only get to see a small number of rooms; many others are empty or are used for storage. Nobody rules from the Potala anymore.

My guide is great – he explains the things that really matter, while the English signs and the Chinese tour guides are rattling off facts like how many square meters a room has, how many ounces of gold were used on a Buddha, and how much the things are worth. The Chinese guides even mix up statues and even temples. This annoys my guide greatly, he is Tibetan and prays at several shrines.

Ended the day at the Summer Palace, a much smaller palace in walking distance with airy bright rooms, set in a nice park. It’s for the Dalai Lama only, there are only a few buildings. The decoration is similar to the Potala, but simpler and less overwhelming.

Lhasa has a forgettable Chinese new town, and a Tibetan old town called Barkhor that is centered on the Jokhang monastery. The first thing you see is people prostrating themselves at the entrance, flat on the ground. The main room inside is dark and gloomy, with a biog golden Buddha in the center. People move clockwise around it and visit the many little shrine rooms adjoining the hall. Large stone bowls are filled with liquid Yak butter used as candles; pilgrims constantly refill the bowls from their brightly colored plastic thermos cans.

Had lunch at an old Tibetan restaurant: Yak butter tea, Yak meat dumplings, potatos filled with minced Yak meat, and sliced Yak meat. Yak Yak Yak. Great, except it turns out I don’t like Yak butter, let them burn it.

There is an inner alley ring around Jokhang that is for tourists, mostly Chinese and pilgrims. The #1 article is prayer wheels, lots of people here who keep spinning them. I exhausted the souvenir circuit, checking every stall and every shop in an unsuccessful search for a specific article. I got hundreds of “hello lookee” calls for my trouble. I am fairly certain I missed nothing because tourists don’t stray and don’t explore. Just five meters away from the circuit the prayer wheels and other souvenir junk disappear instantly and sensible things like shoes and flashlights are sold. (Just had a power outage.)

At every entry to the old town, at all major intersections inside, and in all large squares are posts with five or more policemen, an euphemism for Chinese army. I was warned that they must under no circumstances be photographed.

On the train to Lhasa, I had to sign a plateau travel health declaration. Among other things, I had to certify that I am not a “highly dangerous pregnant woman” and that I don’t get “the heats are above 100 times per minute”. I can see how that would be very exhausting. The Chinglish is getting better all the time.

I kind of expected dramatic high mountain scenery of the kind I visited in Kashmir, but the scenery is mostly flat plateaus with mountains not so very much higher on the sides. Snow starts to appear at an altitude of 3000 meters. The train is modern and smooth, and I sleep well. I got the equivalent of a first-class compartment (they call that soft sleeper), expensive but worth it. Each bunk has its own TV; I watched Harry Potter in Chinese. Each bunk also has an oxygen socket, they hand out “nasal oxygen cannulas”. The next morning I woke up at an altitude of 4700 meters, and when it reaches the highest pass at 5072 meters there is an announcement. It’s the highest train pass in the world. The train is not pressurized; the train toilets have open windows (which is a blessing on a 45-hour train ride).

I had never been much above 3000 meters. I don’t get altitude sickness, but I got out of breath quickly, and had to breathe deeper and faster than normal. But not the way one does on a hard bicycle ride, where your lungs hurt – it’s just like normal breathing, only more of it. Strange. I am too macho to use the nasal oxygen cannula (but there really isn’t any need).

The train restaurant’s idea of twice-cooked pork is a big quivering mass of pork belly fat without any discernible meat. The vegetables were good though. Close to the Tibetan border, my cookies exploded. (Go ahead, read that sentence again, it may be a while before you come across one like that again.) They are shrinkwrapped and the air trapped inside expanded at the high altitude until the plastic ruptured. I have a pre-explosion picture where the formerly tightly packaged cookie roll looks like a blimp. Ok, it was more a pop than an explosion.

I was picked up at the Lhasa train station by my guide for the next week. He is Tibetan, quite young, and very friendly. I’ll have to be careful to avoid mentioning touchy political issues to him… I am staying at the Kailash hotel, an uninspired modern but comfortable affair whose main distinction is its bizarre English brochure that ends with the words “Wish that you prick the West Germany bridle”.

Mopping up some remaining temples and parks in Beijing. The Temple of Heaven is the most famous temple in the world, says the Chinese guide. If you didn’t know that, kindly consider yourself informed now. It’s very pretty and harmonious. For the ancient Chinese, the earth is square and heaven is round, so there are many round temples here, with blue glazed tiered roofs, built on white terraces. The emperor held ceremonies here requesting a good harvest, and they sacrificed animals. I stood on the Supreme Ultimate Stone in the middle of it, I suppose all the other stones in the world are either less supreme or less ultimate, or both.

My Tibet expedition is all set. I have my permits and will pick up the train ticket later. Tonight I’ll be on my way to Lhasa, riding the train for 48 hours over passes in the Himalayas more than 5000 meters high. Tibet travel is tightly regulated, more so than in recent years: all my stops had to be approved, and I’ll have a guide at all times. I’ll spend two nights on the train, three nights in Lhasa, and one each in Gyatse, Shigatse, Tigeri, and Zhambir (sp?) on an overland jeep trip to Kathmandu in Nepal. I had to join a tour group, it can’t be done any other way. I am the only member of my group. For money they’ll sell anything.

Not sure what the Internet situation is in Tibet, I’ll try to blog if I can. Otherwise see you all in Kathmandu!

The Emperor didn’t want to be holed up in his little Fobidden City all the time, so he also had a summer palace north of Beijing on the shore of a fairly big lake that he had dug. The layout and architecture is pretty similar to the Forbidden City, minus the big reception halls, but a lot smaller. On the other hand it’s scenically built up Longevity Hill, which they created with the earth excavated to create the lake. No expenses spared. The three-story theater is basically a copy from the Forbidden City.

Much of it was destroyed by the Western allied powers in 1860 and rebuilt for Empress Cixi’s birthday parties. Cixi was faced with an unsolvable problem – repelling Western invaders with far superior weaponry – but she had a knack for not solving them in singularly inept ways, like squandering the treasury on her lifestyle. The money for the summer palace was supposed to be used to create a navy; she had a huge ugly marble boat built instead. When she died, she named a hapless three-year old boy, Pu Yi, as her successor, but the game was up three years later and more than two millennia of Chinese emperors came to an end.

The palace is in a quite pleasant park. There are lots of tour groups here, even though it’s a Thursday and I am still surfing the edge of the low season. Fortunately tour groups never stray far and clog a few major sights while leaving everything else blissfully empty.

Also went to the old Bell and Drum Towers, the center of Beijing in Mongol times. Lots of old hutongs (narrow lanes) around them. There is lots of repair and construction work done there – it looks as if China had decided that Chinese culture and historic quarters are valuable after after all and worth preserving, not only the buildings but also the style of the neighborhood (Dirk, your cue). Shadows of Pingyao. (But only shadows.) The quarter could do with fewer pizza restaurants though.

These days, the Forbidden City is forbidden only to smokers. The big sights that everyone knows come first – three huge halls, separated by gates, and the gigantic yards with the elaborate stairs leading up to them. After that it gets down to business; lots of smaller halls, the bigger ones with thrones for the emperor, the smaller ones for princes, concubines, and government functions. They all have flowery names like “pavilion of mental cultivation”. The smaller buildings are in the back of the Forbidden City, and look a little like the Pingyao youth hostel, except bigger, more elaborate, and less well maintained. They show huge collections of jade, silver filigree, bronze, gold, precious stones, and ceramics. They also have a pretty bizarre clock collection; one can paint Chinese characters with a brush.

In regular intervals there are loudspeaker announcements in Chinese, introduced by a chime that every time makes me expect something like “flight 444 is now boarding at the Gate of Supreme Harmony”.

I spent seven hours in the Forbidden City, it’s just endless. The audio guide makes it interesting, it’s quite good except when it gets confused and plays the wrong message and I don’t know what it’s talking about. There are a lot of guards in military uniforms; two of them patrol the outer wall with walkie-talkies set on full volume, noisily squeaking instructions punctuated by short beeps. Sounds like two Apollo capsules slowly orbiting the city. I don’t know how they manage to look so prim in these stuffy uniforms, it’s another hot and sunny day.

Outside the Forbidden City is a pleasant park, admission charged, with many old trees, ponds, and lots of flowers and blooming trees. Lots of Chinese photographers with gigantic cameras take pictures of tulips.

I had dinner at the Wangfujing snack street. Lots of food stalls there that sell everything on sticks; you point at some and they fry them: chicken, pork, tofu, tentacles, sausages, starfish, seahorses, live scorpions, toads, and thumb-size grubs. I am not kidding. Apart from the tentacles, nobody I saw bought the more exotic options. I loved the sweet ones with what I thought were strawberries, but were some other tangy fruit with large hard seeds.

The Chinese Great Wall is not like a road. Roads follow convenient low paths like rivers. The Great Wall, on the other hand, unfailingly picks the most impractical and difficult points of the terrain imaginable – the highest and steepest ridges and peaks no matter how they curve. I wouldn’t want to have to carry even one stone up there, but they built 8000 kilometers of it in 1368 to 1567, of which 2000 kilometers remain today.

Most tourists visit the wall at Badaling close to Beijing, but that’s a crowded zoo crawling with tourists and souvenir vendors. I joined a group that went to Jinshanling, three hours by bus north of Beijing. We hiked ten kilometers on top of the wall to Simatai. There are very few people here, and the group quickly disperses until I rarely see another visitor. There are at least a few people selling warm water, Coca Cola, and beer (it’s a hot sunny day again and the Chinese neglected to properly plan the wall with power outlets).

“Hiking” doesn’t properly capture the situation though – since the wall is constantly climbing some hill, so are we. There is never a flat section, always stairs that are often extremely steep and in poor repair. Away from the endpoints, it’s sometimes just rubble; even the crenellations are missing in some places. There are guard towers in regular intervals; a few are in ruins. It’s quite exhausting but the views are fantastic. How they could ever hope to move an army up there to the right spot to defend the wall, without satellite reconnaissance and back roads, is a mystery to me. The wall was not very effective repelling invaders, but if nothing else it makes a terrific Unesco World Heritage site.

At Simatai we need to cross a river on an Indiana Jones suspension bridge, complete with wooden planks with gaps high above the river. There are no natives shooting arrows at us and hacking away at the cables though. Past the bridge, there is a dammed reservoir fed by the river with mountains on both sides. I could have walked down to a little village where the bus waits, but I hear some people in mid-air over the lake scream and whoop, so I investigate and opt for a cable ride across the lake.

You get a belt harness, basically three loops of rope around your legs and waist, which is hooked into a steel cable that runs across the lake. You sit down on a ledge high up the mountain on one side, looking down the precipice below with cables descending steeply, wondering if this was a good idea after all. Then you kick off and rapidly shoot down the cable across the lake with the mountain panorama all around you. It’s totally exhilarating, and over much too quickly!

Embarked on a five-hour odyssey to get my onward travel booked. If all goes well, I’ll be on a train to Lhasa on Friday. Tibet requires two special permits, which take five days to process. All aspects of the tour must be submitted and approved by the authorities. I am greatly looking forward to Tibet.

I decide that my first Beijing experience will be authentic Peking Duck. Everybody offers that here but I choose the upscale Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, and order half a duck with all the options. Shortly after a chef rolls up a workbench to my table and deftly carves the duck into bite-size pieces, with the best part of the skin on a separate plate. A waitress demonstrates the proper procedure: take a thin pancake, arrange some duck dipped in a dark mu-shu sauce, vegetables, skin, and roasted garlic on it, and fold it to a small pocket. It’s absolutely delicious. The meat is tender, the skin is crisp yet glossy with grease, but it somehow doesn’t taste greasy at all. Wonderful. You haven’t eaten Peking Duck if you didn’t eat it in Beijing. Of course it was fantastically expensive – 15 euro!

Tiananmen square is huge, but not as large and as forbidding as I expected. I guess we all associate tanks with the name, but there is a lot of green, with tourists strolling and taking pictures, and a fat obelisk in the center. It’s sunny and quite hot, and a van sells drinks at low supermarket prices, is that supposed to be capitalism? In order to get onto the square, you have to pass a police checkpoint and have your bag inspected. A few soldiers guard the square, but it’s all very civilized and friendly.

In the late afternoon a wind comes up, it gets cooler, and the sun disappears into a yellow haze. It’s a mild sand storm, very fine sand gets into my eyes and my ice cream. I hear that these sand storms can become quite serious in summer. So I take a tuk-tuk back. I have seen very few cyclists, cars have taken over Beijing. Right of way is determined by mass – bigger is better. Even old ladies at zebra crossings are mercilessly cut off. Like last night, the driver is confused by the hutongs (narrow old lanes) around the hostel; about a third of the old hutongs have escaped modernization and road widening. They are not ancient like in Pingyao, but much nicer to stroll in than the big roads packed with traffic.

Spent the morning and early afternoon walking around Pingyao, since this is probably my last chance to enjoy a beautiful old town in China and its cuisine.

Taiyuan is a few hours north of Pingyao by bus. It’s an unremarkable modern town, but much enlivened by plants an little parks. Ailing trees line its main boulevards. I sat in a green square for a few hours waiting for my train, watching children skate.

The high-speed train to Beijing is more functional than elegant, but it’s modern, new and spotless, and quiet, like European intercities. It goes 160 km/h most of the time, 200 for some sections, and reached a top speed of 250. I was in Beijing after only three hours, but by then it was way too late to do any sightseeing.

Enjoying the signs here. Near rests the lodging, the foot cures the massage, Lei Lutei’s residence is built 180 years from now, Mr. Qu gets married if every tourist is interesting in this, in order to be fit of requirement of the plenty tourist, tell you tong xing gong escort service mind glass…

It’s warm and sunny, so I walked about town for eight hours straight, including halfway around the top of the city wall. Pingyao’s old town is *big*. They have many little museums and sights – temples, residences, banks, and government offices, many dating back to the 16th century. They all follow the same pattern: an entrance building facing the street with a number of courtyards behind it. The first and final buildings are usually larger, and sometimes have two floors. Everything is built with gray brick and wooden pillars and flaring shingled roofs with dragon ornaments, and latticed windows with paper instead of glass. Bedrooms (even in banks and offices) have large heated brick beds, and there is always a little shrine somewhere. But after a while you get the idea, and the places sort of blur together.

The bus from Yuncheng to Pingyao dropped me off right on the six-lane freeway. The driver pointed at the nearest exit and off he went. Apparently this is common practice, some people with motorcycles are waiting a short walk later. One leads me through a barbed wire fence, and he takes me downtown, first across the fields and then through the modern part of the city.

I am staying in the Yamen Youth Hostel. I seem to have better luck with hostels than hotels, and this one is great – it’s in a 400-year old governer’s residence, in the original rooms furnished in the old style with a gigantic bed that fills a third of a large room. I bet the governer didn’t have a bathroom though. It’s in Pingyao’s old town, where vehicles can’t go.

Pingyao was rich during Ming times in the 16th century, but it’s been poor for the better part of the century. Too poor to tear down all those beautiful low Ming-era buildings lining all its streets and replacing them with ugly concrete boxes with white bathroom tiles on the outside, and too poor to replace the imposing city wall that keeps the concrete outside with tour bus parking lots. Most of the old town is in good repair, and it really feels like an authentic Ming town and not dolled up for tourists. Of course it can’t possibly be five hundred years old and still look so good, but they did an excellent job. There aren’t even a lot of souvenir shops. Once again, I am paying for the absence of tour groups with gray skies.

I bought the city admission ticket and visited a 14th-century government complex (quite spartan rooms), a more elaborate Taoist temple complex for all sorts of gods including a kitchen god, and a Confucian temple complex. After that I felt kind of templed out and went to the hotel to write it all up.

PS. The hostel hat a “dumpling party” that night, and I learned how to make Wan Tan like dumplings. It’s all in the way you hold your hands when folding the dumpling.

Yuncheng is a modern city but decidedly not shiny an unkempt. Many buildings downtown are totally hidden behind billboards. I stay in the LP-recommended hotel, but it’s dank and not too clean, and very noisy at night. Yuncheng does have some lively side streets with markets, good street food here. It seems that no Westeners go to this city, people keep staring at me…

The reason to see Yuncheng is a very large Taoist temple dedicated to Guan Yu. Lots of Ming-era (16th century) pagodas and a long series of elaborate but decaying gate buildings, in a park with blooming trees and little ponds. The final gate consists of two cavernous floors, but there isn’t much of a view. There are very few visitors, just a group of Chinese tourists who wanted their picture taken with me. They also have a shooting range with palm-sized paper targets and two huge naval guns with bores bigger than the targets.

The main attraction in Xi’an are the terracotta warriors. Qin Shi Huang, the first Chinese emperor who unified the whole of China under his rule two thousand years ago, appears to have had tastes that ran into the extravagant, so he had a huge mausoleum built for himself (yet unexcavated), plus an army of 7000 terracotta warriors. Maybe a lot more, 7000 have been found so far. They were all highly detailed, with faces believed to match those of people they represented, and armed, although very little made of wood survived.

The place got sacked soon after he died, so many of the statues are headless and broken, but archaeologists have put most of them back together. Others were left like they were found, to document the damage; and a large number were buried to protect them. They were painted but the paint decays very quickly when exposed to air; all statues on display showed no colors. The warriors are in three “pits”, roofed over; one small officer’s headquarter and two large arrays of 1300 and 6000 soldiers. A walkway runs around the actual pits so one can’t get really close to the army, but it’s still a stunning site. They also have a museum and a 360 degree movie theater that runs an documentary. I have lots of great detail pictures but the one I chose for this post is of the big hall, because what’s most stunning about this site is its monumental size.

I spent the rest of the day in Xi’an. Most of the city is modern and, as usual, uninteresting, but they have a Muslim quarter that has escaped modernization. Lots of atmosphere there, narrow streets, busy craftsmen working on the street, Chinese shops, and lots of carts that sell food. Had great Dim Sum at several carts. The Muslim quarter also has some tourist streets where the tour groups get funneled through to buy souvenirs. It always amazes me how tour groups concentrate on the proscribed route and never stray to the places that are actually interesting and (more or less) authentic, maybe just a few meters away. The contrast between the souvenir streets and the rest is extreme.

Lijiang wakes up at 9:00, and is very peaceful before that. Shops are shuttered, and people squat at the little canals and brush their teeth. Pink rose bushes are everywhere. Tried a “Naxi Pizza” for breakfast, but it was an inedible thick pancake soaked in grease. When I checked out, Mama Naxi gave me a little bag with bananas and joghurt, and hung a little charm around my neck. If you ever make it to Lijiang, you know where to find the only accomodation option that makes sense. Call 0888-5100700, Mama speaks English. 50 Yuan for a dorm bed, 150 Yuan for the best room with its own covered patio (mine).

The China Eastern Air plane departure time at 12:00 to Xi’an came and went. First it was “delayed”, a Chinese word that means “in a few hours, maybe, or cancelled”, then it had a very minor technical fault and an engineer would be flown in, then it was officially cancelled. They put us on another plane to Kunming where we’d transfer at 22:00. In the meantime they put us in a quite decent hotel to rest and for dinner; the staff was always quite helpful. Back at the airport, 22:00 passed, no plane, it’s “delayed”, a Chinese word that means “you are dead”. Sometime after midnight they found a plane for us; we boarded and sat around the runway for a long time because there was a “delay”, a Chinese word that means “gotcha”. Some passengers actually got into a shouting match with airline personnel (unfairly I think). Chinese is very well suited for cursing. (The picture above is hard to see, red text in the last column reads “delayed”, a Chinese word that means “go climb a tree”.)

I arrived at the hotel in Xi’an at 4:30 in the morning, eleven hours late.

Ok, coming from Hong Kong it’s easy to forget that China is not like a modern European country with bad taste in architecture. It’s a country with twice the population of the EU, where oxen plough rice fields and large numbers of people subsist on less than two euro per day. Lijiang airport looks like a Tokyo subway station and Kunming airport is a large but cheaply built shack with a corrugated metal roof that is deafening in a rain shower. You can’t go from zero to Lufthansa in a few years. Maybe the ox that pulls the airplanes back from the gate had a headache. (Just kidding about the ox. I hope.)

Tiger Leaping Gorge is a very deep and long canyon two hours north of Lijiang. Most people there do a two- to four-day trek, but I made it a day trip to the most scenic spot. As I write this, I am sitting on the Daydreaming Rock down at the foaming Yangzi river at the bottom of the gorge. In the middle of the rapid is the Tiger Leaping Stone that gave the gorge its name; legend says that a tiger used it to cross the river. Why it would do that I don’t know, there is a vertical rock wall on the other side; the highest mountains on the sides rise to 3900 meters with 80 degrees rock walls! That’s more than twice the depth of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Yet the sun reaches the bottom at 13:00.

It’s a 340m climb down a rocky path from Tina’s Guesthouse, a popular stop at this point. We got a few people together and hired a guide. The views are fantastic. The climb back up, using another route, was far steeper; an almost uninterrupted series of narrow steps, hugging the edge of an almost vertical rock wall. Ropes are strung on the wall side to hold on to. There is a very long ladder at one point where no path could be built, and another shorter one later, that lead straight up the cliff face. The ladders are made from steel rebar, welded and strung together with wires (so they shake a little) and have steps only every 50cm or so. Quite tiring. It’s less dangerous than it sounds because it was dry.

It seems that the Chinese modernization rampage, here building another Yangzi dam that would flood the gorge, is temporarily on hold. Still, I am very glad that I had the chance to see it before it might get destroyed.

Had lots of rain at night, and a short shower in the morning too. There is a hill that cleanly divides the old and new town of Lijiang, with the very tall Looking At The Past Pavilion pagoda on top. The panorama from its top over both towns and the mountains in the background is fantastic. I took a panorama series of pictures with cloudy skys, and went back down to see the nice wooded park around it. Then the sun came out and I had to run up again and do it all over.

Walked around in Lijiang for a few hours. There are quite a few tourists here (it’s a Sunday), but they are all in a few prominent streets, and just ten meters away I pretty much had the place to myself. It’s easy to get lost in this maze, and there are beautiful views everywhere.

Went back to the guesthouse and had Mama Naxi book a flight to Xi’an for Tuesday. When the ticket arrived, my name was misspelled, and Mama Naxi sorted that out with furious bursts of Chinese. I also booked a bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge for a day trip. It’s normally a two or three day hike, but the weather report said thunderstorms and the trail on the edge of the cliff is steep and slippery in places.

Dinner was great again. It seems that whenever someone mentions an exotic and out-of-the-way place in Asia, half the people at the table has been there, and give recommendations on hotels, train schedules, and sights, and report funny stories. Mama Naxi’s is an information nexus of Lijiang. The picture shows our dinner table.

So which is nicer, Dali or Lijiang? My vote goes to Lijiang. Dali has wider boulevards, beautiful gate pagodas, and the lake. Lijiang is a maze of narrow alleys lines with old and low buildings, many small canals with little bridges all over the place, often lined with ancient dark wooden houses with little plank bridges leading to their doors like in the picture. There are many tourists, but they lose themselves in the many side streets, and the souvenir shops aren’t quite so obtrusive.

And Lijiang has Mama Naxi. Mama Naxi operates a guesthouse and restaurant with elan and irresistible good nature. She serves dinner communal style: a dozen delicious dishes on large tables that are shared by everyone. There are many experienced travellers here, some of whom have been on the road for a year, and we share stories and compare notes on all the places we have been. I am sure that between us we have covered the entire planet. A botanist describes how he travelled through Tibet illegally, hiding under blankets at checkpoints, or being hidden from the police by soldiers. We sit and talk until late at night.

There are inspirational signs all over Lijiang. One reads “Civilized behavior of tourists is another bright scenery rational shopping”.

A short bus ride brings me to Caicun, a village at the large Erhai Lake close to Dali. From the bus stop, I join a trek of over a hundred old women with large straw hats, wicker baskets, and the occasional plastic bowl with fish, through the narrow streets of Caicun, along the lake, to a market square at a pier on the lakeshore. It’s packed with vendors with carts, tables, or just bowls on the ground, selling vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. Chickens are slaughtered, plucked, and sold on the spot.

There is a small temple where people bring bowls of offerings, like fruit and fish, and return with incense that is burned on a pyre in the middle of the square. It’s quite crowded everywhere. Even Chinese tourists are aliens here; I saw only two.

They have tour boats on the lake, but they take all day, so I went back to Dali and rented a bicycle to visit several other nearby villages, and to keep kirikou happy. Some of those villages, and the paths through the fields, don’t seem to get any tourists so children stare and smile at me and call out “hello” all the time.

Also took a chairlift up the mountains behind Dali. It takes 20 minutes to gain some 600 meters, gliding between and above the treetops. People call out to me and take pictures, I guess they don’t see many Europeans here… Loudspeakers mounted on the chairlift towers play official-sounding Chinese announcements.

There is a temple complex at the top, and many hiking paths. The views are great, but some clouds have come in and the valley and the lake are a patchwork of sunlight and shadow. When I return to the chairlift station at 18:05, they had just shut it down. Walking is impossible, there is only a very steep dirt path and it’s only an hour till sundown. So the officials confer and restart the chairlift just for me!

I am having a hard time selecting a picture of the day, so I’ll pick one that captures the mood of Dali, rather than something more exciting.

The bunk beds in “hard sleeper” are comfortable and – surprise – long enough for me. The train arrives in Kunming at 7:00. It’s another boring modern city, although fresher than Huaihua; I take one look at it and decide to move on. Twenty minutes later I am in an express bus to Dali. As apparently happens frequently, the bus doesn’t follow the schedule and terminates in Xiaguan, where hordes of drivers want to drag us into their cabs and tuk-tuks for the remaining distance. I opt for a local bus, together with a British/Australian couple I met on the way. In Dali, we checked into the Tibetan Lodge, which has cute but tiny single rooms.

And it’s sunny with a deep blue sky! Goodbye hazy Hunan, welcome to Yunnan!

Dali is a walled square of mostly pedestrianized streets lined with old wooden houses, against a backdrop of a mountain range that is so high that there is still a little snow on top. Quite beautiful. Lots of shops selling souvenirs, jewellery, clothes, and tours; also lots of restaurants and a few pagodas and guard towers along the city wall (the picture shows one) sprinkled in. Like in Fenghuang, there are no American chains like KFC, McD, or 7Eleven. English is understood here, a little. It’s very pleasant to stroll about town. It’s still off-season so there are few tourists here, this time including a few Westeners.

Hat dinner at the Tibetan Cafe. They have hors d’heaves, fried glory with garlic, and gees (eggs). Not bad but a little uninspired apart from the diction. I like this town and will stay another day before taking off for its more famous cousin, Lijiang.

The day starts with a cold drizzle. Took the bus to Huaihua and walked about town for two hours. It’s typically Chinese, both modern and run down, with heavy traffic and no soul. They had cleared a huge area south of the train station for new construction.

I got on the train to Kunming 30 minutes late. I had a bottom berth (the best one, I can look out the window and stow my bag). Some guy wanted to trade but I pretended not to understand – the language barrier works both ways… Later he starts smoking, spits on the floor, and drops sunflower seeds on the grubby carpet. Then he gives me an orange and some seeds and a minty-tasting dried fruit to chew, and he is my friend. I am easily bribed.