Category Archives: China

A View to a Chill

As I went outside to take a quick walk around the ger for about the 10th time that night, I glanced at the thermometer. -30C. Cold. Cold enough to freeze the vodka we were drinking, if we hadn’t already drained all of it. Plus a few liters of beer apiece.

It was near 3 AM and the four of us had been playing some kind of modified Chinese Poker since the sun had gone down. Our quartet consisted of myself, Brian, Joe, and Dan. Joe was from England and had a thick accent. He was taking some time out from school to do a bit of traveling. He’d come through the places we’d yet to visit and was headed to China, following our trail. Dan was an American who’d come, by way of Shanghai and Beijing, from Japan. He’d been teaching there for a couple of years. He was going to ride the Trans-Siberian to St. Petersburg as we were.

The UB Guesthouse had arranged a trip for us to go to one of Mongolia’s national parks where we’d stay the night. We rode out in a Land Rover, a capable vehicle that we knew well from our previous trip to EBC. The area had recently received a covering of snow, a rarity for the desert climate. We arrived just before lunch, which was prepared for us and brought to our ger. The meal was rice, meat, potatoes, onions, carrots, and tea. It was good, but there wasn’t much of it.

With the light meal in our stomachs and the cold clean air in our lungs, we set out to walk around. There was a hill behind us and a small village a bit further to the west. We headed towards the village, but detoured to climb around behind and up the hill. The hike up was fairly gradual but we had to walk through layers of unmelted snow from the several months of winter before our arrival. Some of our steps took us across bare rock which had managed to heat up enough to stay clear. In the cool of the day, some of these gave off streaks of steam as the moisture quickly evaporated into the dry air.

At the top of the small hill, there was a cave created by the seeming random placement of huge boulders. I’m not sure what left these here in this position: erosion of softer rock, glacial motion, ocean currents? Any of these seemed likely in this cold, barren place. Climbing inside the small space, we were able to cool down a bit after our hike. We scrambled across the top of the rocks and through the snow covered and lightly wooded hill. We had some incredible views from that vantage, both of the village and of our ger and support tent. We saw one of our hosts down working with the horses, so we decided to head down and see what was going on.

Through the very limited vocabulary we had in common, we discerned that we had a choice between a two hour horseback ride around the valley or a four hour trek to an abandoned monastery. We decided that the four hour trip would be a better payoff than just wandering around on our beasts of burden. Fortunately, our horses knew better.

I use the term “horse” loosely. These were probably Mongolian Horses, a breed similar to the only wild horse left on the planet. At roughly 4ft tall, they are only a bit taller than the oft lampooned Shetland Pony. The animals we rode astride probably weighed around 500-600 lbs. In comparison, the Clydesdale typically weighs between 1,500 and 2,000 lbs and stands around 6 feet tall at the back. Joe, who had made the trip a couple of days before, told us that the animals were only fed if they were going to be ridden that day. It was apparent, as our horses looked rather thin and weak.

The animals were very slow and seemed to feel they were being paid by the hour, rather than for results. Often veering off course, our guide prodded them back to the trail. After an hour or so of meandering across the terrain, it became clear that we wouldn’t make the monastery and back by sundown. As it was, our fingers, faces, and toes were getting a bit chilly any time we faced away from the setting sun. As we went on, the horses began to wander more often and seemingly in coordination with one another. We all decided that it would be best to turn back when the horses would go no further along the path but would only walk at hard angles to it.

When the guide gave the signal to turn around, the horses sprang to life and broke into as near a gallop as the little animals could go with such huge loads on their backs. We made record time back to our little area of the world across some quite picturesque scenery. We were literally riding into the sunset as we returned home. I, being the largest and heaviest of our crew, brought up the rear, as the ride back took a long trek uphill before racing down quickly. We all rejoiced as we dismounted and headed back to the safety of our protective shelter.

Our legs and seats were relative spots of comfort compared with our toes and noses. The trip had begun when the mercury reached just above the freezing point of water. At its end, it was well below and dropping quickly as the sun became a memory. The blanketed wooden structure was warmed by the cast iron stove, bellowing smoke from the wood in its belly. This, as we learned, was to be the fifth member of our crew for the evening — and the one we all cared the most about.

As our guide became our waiter, we became warm and full. Another of our hosts, a boy of perhaps twenty, came in carrying a load of wood for fuel. It was obvious that he was the one who we had heard chopping the lumber, as he was sweating despite the low temperature and his lack of a shirt. None of us could remember seeing him in our campsite earlier, but Joe had remembered from his last trip that he was from another house a couple of hundred meters away and was paid to chop wood for visitors. This is the second time we realized how far our relative pittance had reached in this desolate land.

As I reentered the ger after my short trip to the restroom, the warmth hit me. We had just put the last of the wood on the fire that was to last us until morning. The temperature was over 30C, a swing of at least 60C in the couple of seconds it took to step inside. With the supply of wood exhausted, the temperature would quickly drop to nearly freezing. We all decided it would be best if we went to bed.

We returned to the UB Guesthouse the next morning, slightly bleary-eyed from the late night and the consumption of libations. It was an experience to be treasured and one that would not have been diminished had we stayed a few more days. But the sound of the railroad car bustling across those steel rails gets into you and you just have to keep on riding. On to Russia.


The State of Chinese Private Practice Dentistry

While I was in Beijing, I wanted to get my tooth looked at. If you have been reading my blog regularly, you’ll remember that I chipped it in Lhasa. I asked Elyse if she knew of anyplace good. She gave me their name, but said that they were closed for the New Year and wouldn’t open until Monday — 2 days before we were hoping to leave. Monday we were going to visit the Great Wall — a trip that usually takes around 8 hours because of the horrible transportation to the part we wanted to see, so I was going to have to go to the dentist on Tuesday.

On Sunday night, the epoxy that the doctor in Lhasa had applied came out when I was eating at Pizza Hut. So I was broken for a couple of days, but I was good about brushing and rinsing so that nothing got stuck in the hole (picture). On Tuesday, I tracked down King’s Dental and caught a cab up there.

I knew immediately that I was out of my league, as this was the nicest dentist’s office I’d ever seen. The pleasant receptionist greeted me and informed me that the next day was the earliest I could have work done. I explained that I’d be headed to Mongolia and asked if there was any way it could be earlier. She said that I could get a cleaning done that day, but that wouldn’t have solved my problem. I asked to speak to a dentist to get their opinion and she motioned for me to have a seat in the waiting area, which looked more like a restaurant. She brought me some kind of rasberry flavored tea which was quite good.

In a few minutes, I was greeted by a young woman who spoke very good English. I explained my problem and showed her the affected tooth. She said that it would probably be OK until I got back from my trip if I were only going to be away from Beijing for a few days. So I had to explain that I wasn’t coming back and it’d be over a month before I’d be able to see a real dentist again. She agreed that something should be done and that she’d see if she could find someone to take care of it. Shortly she returned and said that it was alright, I could have work done. I was relieved.

The fee to see the dentist was 200 Yuan (~$25). I went back and sat in the nicest dentistry chair that I’ve ever seen, surrounded by some of the most modern technology that there is to be had. In the waiting area, I’d read a writeup about the dentist’s office that said they were trying to bring Beijing dentistry into the 21st century. They succeeded. The dentist poked and prodded and poked some more. She explained that I’d need to have it drilled out and filled in again properly. They had two options, one is a plastic like the one that I’d gotten in Lhasa, but probably better, the other option was to have them make a replica of the part I’d lost from ceramic right there on the spot. The ceramic option was 2500Y, the plastic 600Y. I figured that I might need more work on the tooth when I got back to the US, so I opted for the cheaper patch.

She began drilling with very clean and precise instruments, something that the dentist in Lhasa did not have to work with. After about 20 minutes, she was done and began the process of applying and setting the epoxy. During the entire procedure she took photographs for the records. After the epoxy had set up, she began shaping it and did an excellent job (picture). It feels nearly identical to my other tooth. She explained that I shouldn’t eat or drink anything too hot for about a week to allow the epoxy to completely set. I agreed, paid, and left.

On the whole of it, 800 RMB (just over $100) isn’t bad, considering the quality of care the I received. I’d gladly go to King’s Dental if it were in the US. In fact, if I were staying a few more days in Beijing, I would have gotten a cleaning and possibly even ceramic veneers put on. The prices were very reasonable, and the quality excellent.

I Heart Beijing — Final Days

It’s been quite a while since I wrote the original pieces on Beijing, so my memory has faded a good bit. But I’ll hit the highlights and try to give you a general feel of the city.

I went to my first clown-themed party while I was in Beijing. Some of Elyse‘s friends were throwing a party for their other friend and she invited me to tag along. I didn’t have any clowny gear, so instead I just puffed up my hair as best I could and put some lipstick on my nose. I didn’t look much like a clown, but it worked well enough. That crowd wasn’t too picky about the outfit, they just wanted to have fun.

The party is hosted at a bar so there is a lot of room. Some of this is taken up by contests and booths set up, in keeping with the carnival like atmosphere. There is an “Adult Kissing Booth” for taking some pictures of the guest of honor with his friends in compromising positions. There are also some setups for the games we’ll be playing, like “Pin the Penis on the Donkey,” “Sexual Position Balloon Pop,” and “Lipstick Kissing Contest” where you cover each others’ bodies with lipstick kisses. We are all in teams of 3-4 for this, which really helped me get to know people quickly. We all fought hard and gave it our best effort, but our team didn’t win. On some controversial calls, we came in second.

The party ended and Elyse and I went off to get some food with one of her friends. We ate at a place named for a Scandinavian Table Tennis champion, if I recall correctly. The food was pretty good. Then we headed off to this cool bar in the penthouse of a hotel down the street. It reminded me of a Western style bar and felt very trendy and European. Lots of funky colors, just a bit retro, and top notch drinks. We spent an hour or so there, and I met some really interesting people: journalists, actors, etc. All expats living in Beijing.


The trip to the Great Wall was pretty nutty. Brian and I had heard all sorts of things about fake wall ruins close to or inside the city that tourists would get shuttled to, so we stuck to just what the LP said. We decided to go to one of the least traveled spots (Simatai) which turned out to be very complicated and hard to figure out. Getting there and back involved buses, minibuses, taxis, and walking. In the end we spent about 6 hours getting there and away and only about 3-4 hours on the wall. But it was certainly worth it.

We woke up fairly early, around 8am, and got our breakfast in the Pub connected to the hostel. It was good and filling. Then we went to the long distance bus station about a mile away. No one spoke English, so we pointed in our book at the Mandarin characters and eventually someone understood what we wanted. We located the bus, bought a ticket outside, and got on board. Only a few minutes after the scheduled departure time, we left.

As we rode out of the city, the bus made a few stops to pick up those who were standing at the side of the road and waving. There didn’t appear to be any regular bus stops, as we sometimes stopped twice in 50 yards to pick up people standing and waving, rather than running towards a spot. Just before we left Beijing, we were ushered off the bus with only a few people, and put onto one with quite a few more.

There were several seats in the middle of the aisle that folded down and we were put on those. Inevitably by the time we were full, people were riding on each others laps and on the floor by the door. It was not until no other bodies could fit into the vehicle that the driver refused to accept payment and let people board. We rode in this cramped position for about three hours and were encouraged to get off the bus in seemingly the middle of nowhere. However, thanks to the Lonely Planet, we’d expected this. A minibus was waiting for wall climbers to save them the 15km trek — for a fee, of course.

The area at the starting point of the hike to the wall looked like it would have been nice in Summer. In Winter, however, it seemed to fade into the background of gray. There was a dam across the small river there so there was a moderately sized lake alongside the switchbacking trail running up the hill to the part of the wall we were going to climb.

We collected some friends as we ascended the trail: two Chinese women who wanted to sell us some books or postcards or something. We told them “wo bu shu yao” (which means “I don’t want it” in a respectful tone), but they continued to follow us. When we reached the wall, they began to tell us things about its history when we stopped to take pictures. They were great climbers, having done this probably several times a day for many years. We ran into very few others climbing the wall, including a group of three Canadians who were traveling at roughly our speed. They were fairly critical of the Chinese women, scolding them for following us and telling us to watch out for ourselves, that we’d be hustled for money at some point. But we’d dealt with our fair share of hustles by then. At one point, one of the Canadians started speaking in Mandarin to the Chinese women and shooed them away. It was probably better for the Chinese women to not waste their time on us, but we didn’t mind them talking to us and it seemed pretty rude.

There were parts of the wall that were too dilapidated to cross or that were under construction, so there were trails heading down the side. Many of the old lookout towers, lived in by guards, were crumbling with little attempt to repair them. It was apparent which stones were old and which had been put in more recently to fill a gap. This is the way the wall had been built and maintained over the centuries since it was originally built. At first it was several separate walls guarding different cities, then it was joined to keep out the Mongols to the North. It didn’t succeed. And now the wall has become a reason to come to China, spurring tourism. This was an irony not lost on us. As a barrier to entry, the Great Wall of China has to be the most spectacular failure in mankind’s history, actually doing the opposite of its intent on a grand scale.

The farthest traversable point for the section of wall we decided to climb was high up on a hill, called Watching Beijing Tower. This spot has a tremendous viewpoint for seeing Inner Mongolia to the North and all the way to Beijing, 120km to the South. However, due to the smoggy conditions, we were only able to see a kilometer or two into the distance. It was still a gorgeous view and we rested for a while there.

We were able to head down much faster than we’d gone up, but it was also more dangerous. Some parts of the wall were nearly vertical for a few dozen yards, so traversing these sections was especially difficult. When we finally made it to the base of the wall and to the concrete trail where we’d begun, our legs felt like jelly. Brian decided that it would be easier to take a zip-line down to the base of the trail, across the dam from where we’d originated. Meanwhile, I decided that I would rather take photographs and videos in case the Chinese engineering didn’t save him.

When we both reached the parking lot, we had a couple of taxis to choose from. So they did what taxi drivers do in that situation, they fought over us. We finally negotiated a price for a ride back to the spot where the bus would pick us up. The cabbie spoke pretty good English, so we were able to speak with him a bit. We ended up making it back with only about 15 minutes to wait before the next transport back to Beijing, so the driver waited with us and we sat in his cab. When the bus finally came, he flagged it down and spoke with the bus driver — something we couldn’t have managed as well. However, the bus was obviously full. The bus driver wanted us to get on board, so he kicked someone back to a further back seat and offered something filthy for us to sit on. The cab driver, however, siezed the opportunity to offer us nearly the same price for transport to a different bus station which had traditional motor coaches instead of requisitioned minibuses. We happily paid and he delivered us with some more conversation.

It was nice to have the chance to spend a half hour or more speaking with a local and we used the time to find out about his life. He was getting ready to head back home when we’d come down the trail and had already called his wife to tell her he’d be on his way home. He lived about a half hour in the other direction, so he’d have some explaining to do when he got home. It apparently wasn’t worth the price of another phone call home. He seemed to be very happy to be doing what he was with his life, which was nice to hear, and his demeanor suggested he was telling the truth. But you can’t always tell when Chinese people say something like that because you don’t know what kind of pressure they’re under to appear happy whether they are or not. This can be both political and social pressure in their culture.

When we got to the other bus station, the driver pointed out the correct bus to us and we were overjoyed to see that it looked like something a High School might have chartered to take a long field trip! We thanked the taxi driver and wished him well on his trip home and in the future. We paid our fare to get on the bus, sat down, and napped most of the way back into the city.


Buying a ticket to embark on the Trans-Mongolian Express was an adventure in itself. The timetables we had were not quite right and the schedules had changed a bit. That’s not a small thing in this case, as it meant we might have to wait as much as a week before heading to Mongolia or take a series of buses to the border where we’d find a fairly regular train into Ulan Bator.

I Heart Beijing — The Bad Side

The one thing that was annoying about our hostel was the fact that it was a little too close to the club and disco district. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have minded being close to the bars, but these were way too loud to be any good. The noise was low enough in our room, but out in the hall it was really bad. Plus, there were lots of little beggar kids down there that pestered us for money any time we came home past dark. Once they realized we weren’t going to give them money, they left us alone, except for the occasional kebab skewer they’d jab us with or rude comment they’d give us. Then there were the young, well dressed guys who’d run up to us and ask if we wanted to go to the “Lady Bar”, which is apparently a whore house.

But the most annoying thing was the group of guys who would walk along with us and say things like “Hey buddy, I’ve got what you want.” “Hey buddy, you want some stuff?” “Hey man, how’s it going? You looking for something?” “Didn’t you say you wanted something? I’ve got it.” There were no fewer than a dozen of these guys prowling around at night. They weren’t intimidating, but the thing that bothered me most is that the only drug solicitors I encountered in China were all black. I try hard to fight against these types of stereotypes, only to this one shoved back in my face. Out of about 20 black people I saw in all of China, over half of them tried to sell me drugs. It’s discouraging.

Another thing that is discouraging is how the city has neglected its cultural sites. While we were in Beijing, we visited a few historical sites and only the Great Wall seemed to have preserved its sense of self. The first of the other two sites was the Forbidden City. This is where the Emperor lived and was a vibrant place. Now, however, it feels dead and soulless. Some of the buildings are undergoing renovations, but the ones that are open are underwhelming. The cobblestone streets are dilapidated. A similar fate has befallen the Summer Palace, a retreat for the Emperor which is now a museum. The paint is all faded and peeling, intricate woodwork has gone unrepaired, and things feel as if nobody cares to keep it up. The Communists have let these vestiges of its history become rundown.

However, the Great Wall does not seem to have suffered from a similar fate. That is perhaps because it isn’t a regal leftover, but it may also be because the thing has been crumbling and being rebuilt for centuries. The part we hiked (Simitai) was far from the city and difficult to get to. Because of this, it was also pretty devoid of tourists and hawkers, which is what we were looking for. It was also one of the steepest parts of the wall. It seemed to be fairly well maintained most of the way, but there were a couple of parts that were broken down. Another part of the wall we could see from ours looked to have been repaired recently and made to be quite a bit easier to walk. I’ll write more about the wall in a later post.

There also quite a few areas of the city called “hutongs” which are neighborhoods built in a more traditional style. The streets are narrow and the buildings are built in a 3 sided square with a wall and a gate facing the street. These are nice little areas and give a feel much different from the modern city. A couple of these areas have been restored, however, many of them have been torn down to make way for more modern buildings.

The Smog in and around the city is also terrible. I’m not sure if this was because of the heavy fog the night we arrived or the fact that it was Spring Festival and maybe the factories were shut down. But whatever the reason, we did have one gorgeous day there. The first day we were there, the skies were exceptionally clear, but after that the smog set in. While it isn’t as bad as Xi’an, it is still far worse than any other city I’ve been in.

I don’t want to give the impression that Beijing is a bad place or that I didn’t like it. Quite the contrary, as the title of this series of posts should tell you. But things should be a lot better for the capital of the country. The problems here that I’ve talked about can nearly all be fixed in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics to which the city will play host. The Chinese government seems to be moving toward it, but it will take a whole lot of work.

I Heart Beijing — First Days

We arrived on the plane from Lhasa to Beijing at around 11pm. It was very foggy. We bought a ticket, stowed our gear underneath, and hopped on the bus line that would take us right by the hostel we’d picked out. The airport was about 30km from the city, so a cab would have been expensive. When we got to the appropriate stop, we hopped off and asked the driver to open the underneath so that we could grab our bags. But he wouldn’t. I guess we’d missed a sign or something, but we weren’t able to get our stuff until we arrived at the final stop, Beijing Train Station. However, this was about 5km from our hostel, so we ended up having to get a cab anyway.

We ended up sharing the cab with a couple of people we’d met from Jersey. Not New Jersey, but the British island that is just off the coast of France. The cab driver offered 40Y to take us. We haggled him down to 30. Then he had to ask if anybody knew where it was. We pointed it out for him on a map, he asked somebody else, and never quite figured it out. We only had to show him the map several more times on the ride.

So we’re driving around in the thick fog at nearly midnight and the taxi driver has less of a clue where to go than we do. We tried calling the phone number listed, but it had been disconnected. He finally ends up finding the stadium that is near the hostel and stops at the wrong end of it. He rolled down his window and asked someone outside if they know where the hostel is. That guy told him something and the driver told us “Me yo,” which we knew meant something like “not here” or “out of stock” depending on who was saying it. From that we took it to mean that the hostel was not there any longer. (The next day I walked around and couldn’t find it where it was supposed to be on the map. I also spoke to someone who made a reservation with them, so they apparently just moved locations but didn’t tell anyone where they went.)

Since we couldn’t find our place, we just found the next closest hostel in the Lonely Planet, a place called the You Yi, and pointed to the phone number. He called and located it and we checked in. It was a bit expensive, but we found out that it was pretty much the going rate for Beijing. The beds and bathrooms were clean, they offered a free breakfast, they had western toilets, and hot showers. It was nearly perfect.

The next day we had breakfast and split up. Brian’s sinuses had a problem with the dry cold air in Tibet, and the relatively warm moist air of Beijing was causing him to have some problems for him. He took a nap while I walked around the city. It was a gorgeous day with no smog in the sky and I had a great time. While I was walking around, a guy on a bike carrying two giant stalks of sugarcane stopped to speak with me and practice his English. It wasn’t great, but we were able to communicate. At the end, he broke off a piece of his sugarcane and gave it to me as a gift.

I went back to the hostel and called a friend of a friend of Meredith’s (my sister) named Elyse, who I’d talked to over email. She is from North Carolina and working for the US Embassy, so she is a handy person to know. She’s also written and produced a play called “I Heart Beijing” which is where I got the title of this post. She said that there was going to be a good DJ playing at a club not too far from our hotel and we agreed to meet up there later that night.

Brian was still napping, so I went back out for a walk to let him get some rest. I also wanted to check out some hostels in different areas to check on prices. After looking around, pretty much every place was charging about what we were paying. A couple of them were in an old hutong district near the city center, and it was nice to walk through that area. Finally, I walked down to the central shopping district and found a bookstore with English language books. I bought a couple and headed for the subway to go back to the hostel.

Brian was awake and using the Internet so I joined him. We met some people from Canada, one of whom was working in Shanghai as an English language editor. We chatted for a while and decided to go out for a bite at The Tree, a Belgian bar and restaurant below the hostel. The food and beer were delicious.

Later that night, we ran into each other again and went out for a drink at a bar around the corner which had 10Y beers — cheap for Beijing. At midnight, Brian and I were going to meet Elyse, but his sinuses were feeling lousy so he went back to the room. I went to the club and finally met up with her after about a half hour and another phone call. Note to self: You should have some idea of what the person you’re meeting looks like.

We hung out and chatted for an hour or so, then left since it was getting late. She said that a friend of hers was having a birthday party in a couple of nights and would check to see if we could come. It was also going to be close to our hotel, so she showed me where it was. Everyone was going to be dressed as clowns. But that’s a story for another time….

The Current State of Chinese Military Dentistry

The other day I got a sweet potato from a street vendor. It was kind of cold and wasn’t too good, but it did give me the chance to visit the Chinese Military Hospital in Lhasa. At some point while eating the spud, I chipped one of my molars. It didn’t hurt, but I realized that I should probably do something about it. The Tibet Lonely Planet recommends the hospital as pretty much the only place to get modern medical treatment. Not so many choices, but at least there was one.

I hopped in a Taxi and, assisted by the correct spelling in Chinese for the hospital provided by the hotel clerk, made my way to what I what I had already resigned myself to being an expensive, painful, and crude treatment. When we got to the gate of the military complex, the driver must have explained that I had asked to come to the hospital, because the guard let us in.

I went into the plain looking building through the open door and was greeted by the dimmest of lighting. I asked the girl behind the glass if she spoke English, but she just shook her head. Luckily, a doctor walked by and asked what the problem was. I informed him that I had chipped a tooth and he explained it to the girl. She took my name and complaint and put it into a computer, then gave me a ticket to go see the dentist and explained that it was on the 3rd floor. I walked up the stairs in the nearly empty building, passing by rooms which looked like they had been neglected for years. When I got to the third floor, I proceeded into the dentistry area, which actually had reclining chairs and lights. This was a good sign. However, the fact that none of the three people in the room spoke English was not a good sign. The multiple stains on the wooden table used as a workbench was not either.

I handed the dentist my ticket and he motioned me over to a chair immediately. You don’t have to read outdated magazines in the waiting room when you are the only patient. I sat down, leaned back, and pointed back in my mouth. The dentist moved the light over my face and peered inside. “Ah,” he said. I think it was the sound of him discovering the problem, not a command for me to say the same. He called for one person to look on and began poking and scraping the afflicted tooth, while calling for another to bring him a tray. After poking and scraping for a while longer, he took the cloth off the top of the new tray and revealed a wide variety of drills and rusty tips. At this point I got a bit antsy.

He warmed up the drill a few times and approached my mouth. I held up my hand to stop him and played charades trying to get him to guess one of the following phrases: “May I have some anesthetic please?” “Hit me over the head with a mallet so I see little birdies.” or “Can we do this wild west style and I’ll drink a pint of whiskey first?” He eventually realized that I was apprehensive and got on the phone to someone. After a few minutes, a new dentist arrived who spoke a little bit of English. We talked a little bit and the new guy poked and scraped. He asked me more than once how long I would be in China, and seemed disappointed that I had only planned on staying another week or so. But this wasn’t small talk, it seems that it was going to take about a month to get the new crown made and put in!

That timeline royally screwed my plans for Mongolia and Russia, since I’d only have about a week to do both. I began trying to think of other ways around the problem, like not eating for the next few weeks and asked the dentist if there was anything else that could be done. He said that there wasn’t and that the pain would get worse. When I told him that I had no pain now, he looked surprised and called for another tray. He explained to me that if I had no pain, he could use some epoxy to seal up the hole until I got back home. That was a great plan and I immediately and enthusiastically agreed. The epoxy was even made in the US by a western pharmaceutical company!

After applying and shaping the new fake enamel — he did have to use the rusty drill then — I was all set to go. He seemed very pleased with his work, but I was even more so. This was a major problem averted. In the end it cost me only 13 Yuan, or less than $2! But more importantly, it meant that I could continue on the trip. As much as I enjoyed Lhasa, I didn’t want to be there for 6 weeks when there were Russian food and women waiting for me.

update: Here is a photo of my busted tooth.

5 Days to Everest — Days 4 and 5

We woke up at 7:30 and were on the road by 8am. Our initial excitement was quickly tempered by the numbing cold. Our toes were numb and I worried about frostbite. The road was rough, the windows were frosted and we were nearly comatose.

We hadn’t slept very well the night before due to the near freezing conditions in our rooms.
In an attempt to stay healthy in the high altitude with all of the exertion from the day before, we’d all had quite a bit of the very weak tea they served. Tea was the best way to get clean water from the well which provided the hotel with water, since the water had been boiled. However, this caused us to have to get up to relieve ourselves all night long. Since the toilet was on the opposite side of the compound, across 20 meters of about -15C open air, it was quite a chore. Consequently, sometimes staying awake and shivering only a bit with a full bladder was preferable sometimes.

At around 9am, we approached a checkpoint. We all had to get out of the relative comfort of the Land Cruiser and go into the unheated building. The process of looking over our paperwork took us about a half hour, during which we were cold, but were at least moving around and out of the wind. The same wouldn’t be true of our second checkpoint where we stood out in the wind. A couple of us had to use the toilet which necessitated crossing the checkpoint without papers of any kind and going into a ramshackle shack. However, this checkpoint was faster and we were on our way up the mountain quickly.

Around 10 in the morning, our toes warmed up and the windows got clear, but the road got a little more rocky and icy. We didn’t notice these things. We had crested the top of a hill and paused at a scenic overlook. From this vantage point, we could see four of the 8,000 meter peaks in the Himalaya range.

The day was perfect. Though the day before had seen snow and heavy cloud cover, our visit would have neither of those things. From the overlook point, each of the highest peaks was creating its own weather; clouds were bellowing from them, turning them into chimneys at the top of the Earth. China has its smokestacks, regurgitating trash into the sky, making you weep for the shame they don’t feel. Tibet has majestic mountains lifting air to become billowy balloons of white, marring the blue with beauty and bringing a tear to your eye for that reason. The moment left all of us with a prescient sense that China was indeed a whole different world away from this place, not its master.

The ride down into the valley and back up, up, up towards the base camp felt like the stream must feel coming down from its heights — our limbs, words, and minds tumbling over one another without concern for their final destination. It was onward at any consequence. The final checkpoint unmanned, we passed through with momentum growing as we sped uphill.

We reached the end of the road, the Rong Phu monastery across from the newly built Chinese hotel with its satellite dishes and antennae like hairs on a bar of soap. We were the first Land Cruiser, but several others quickly followed. By this time, we were headed off towards the mountain which was calling us in a tune we didn’t hear but felt as a moth feels the draw of the fire. Our driver didn’t have time to give us instruction or deadlines, we simply gravitated towards that landmark.

As we walked along the road and up and over hills as shortcuts, we hardly noticed the vehicle starting from the place past which only emergency vehicles were allowed. In less than an hour we had covered probably a kilometer and a half, by which time the Land Cruiser had caught up with us. Though it was prohibited, there were no officials to challenge us, let alone stop or prohibit us from continuing. Our experienced driver tackled the ice and flowing water skillfully and carefully propelling us toward our destination. We emerged from the winding road on a flat where perhaps thousands of adventurers had come before us to camp and plan before heading beyond where we would go.

We danced and played in the snow and on the ice. We climbed the outhouse and the hills around. We stood in wonder looking up at the mountains around us, the farthest from us, we knew, the highest in the world. We were higher, both in spirit as in body, than most people would ever aspire to be. We drank a toast of Jack Daniels to celebrate.

But Everest was not a place of jubilation for all. This was evidenced by the many gravestones we found on the low hills around. These were monuments for men who headed on past our footprints without retracing them. One stone marked the place of the first descent attempted by snowboard. One was for a husband and wife team who were not underneath their names. There were remains, too, of people who had died in the camp before trying and after successfully ascending the mountain to which we now stood, nearly prostrate reading markers. A humbling reminder that not all days were this beautiful and not all people were this joyous.

On the way back down the mountain in the Land Cruiser, we drank our oxygen. We’d each brought 2 bottles for the ascent but hadn’t needed them. Sucking on it coming down kept us giddy, whether from physiological or psychological effects, we didn’t know. We didn’t care. We all felt like we’d touched the Gods; modern day Icari with our wax intact. We passed through Shegar, our previous night’s resting place, and felt as if it were at sea level. We continued on back across our route, things seeming to be much less consequential than when we first passed them.

We slept in Shegatse in the Tenzin Hotel. We arrived after dark and checked into our rooms. They were expensive and fancy, but we felt we had earned them. Showers, heaters, television — we were living in luxury compared to the previous three nights. It was nice for the hour we were awake to enjoy it. But it was late and we were tired. We fell asleep quickly and deeply.

After our incredible and long day, we slept in until about 9am. This was the first night of the Tibetan new year and our driver wanted to get back to Lasa and his family as soon as possible. We wanted to get back too because we had heard so many things about the holiday that we didn’t want to miss any part of it.

The drive back was uneventful and we had a chance to reflect on all we’d seen and done in the last few days. It was really incredible to us. Even 24 hours after being in that place, we still enjoyed talking about it to each other as if the others weren’t there. We told the same stories over again that we’d shared the night before on the drive East.

The monuments at EBC marked empty graves, but the spirits of those fallen were present where their bones weren’t. And we’d taken a bit of that fervor with us while still leaving it there intact. It was one of the greatest experiences of any of our lives and one we will all tell many times over, hopefully to spread what we’d caught on that mountain on the far side of the globe.

5 Days to Everest — Day 3

On the third day of our trip, all that was planned was a quick jaunt to Shegar, about 100km from Lotse. However, as we got on the road, it began to snow. That made the roads a little more difficult to get across. We got to the last pass between the two towns and it was snowing harder than ever. However, after a minute of heading down the hill, it stopped. After a few more miles, we noticed some folks over to the side of the road waving us down, so we pulled over.

This was a couple of Swiss guys who were biking from Lhasa to Khatmandu in the dead of winter. Insane. One of them had some kind of a stomach virus and was unable to ride. While we didn’t have room in our car, Kernby volunteered to ride his bike into town, around 25mi away. It took about a half hour to get things transferred and for him to get bundled up, then he and the other Swiss guy started riding down the hill.

We took off after them and quickly passed them with a blast from the horn. We rode for a while more, then came to a small section of road lined with shops. The driver stopped and proclaimed it to be Shegar. However, according to all our accounts, Shegar should have been about 7km off the road. After about a half hour of translating, we discovered that this was considered a part of Shegar and that the staying in the real Shegar (also called New Tingiri) would have cost us too much time the next day when heading to Everest. It was not clear what the rush was to get to the 93km of dirt roads that make up the path to EBC, but the driver was adamant. However, he agreed to take us to the other town after we’d eaten and gotten Kernby back from his bike trip.

When this all happenned, it was still only about 2pm, so we went to get our permits to drive to EBC and our permits to enter it. Then we went to the town of Shegar and headed up towards the monastery there. On the way, we encountered plenty of local kids who knew the words that all poor Tibetans seem to know: “Hello. Money.” Brian played with them for a while, dancing around and chanting the mantra as if it were a game. The kids all laughed and had a good time, but didn’t stop begging. After a while they got tired and didn’t want to follow us up to the monastery, so we climbed the hill that was between it and us.

We found out later that there was a much easier trail, but we had a great time scrambling up the loose dirt and rocks. The monastery was officially closed to tourists for the day we had been told, but the doors were all open and there didn’t seem to be anyone who minded. Shortly after we arrived, we realized that some kind of a ceremony was going on in the main building. We walked over that way, but it ended when we arrived. The many pilgrims inside filed out and smiled at us and bid us “Tashy Dele”. We followed them out of the monastery and down the hill.

We all piled back in the Land Cruiser and headed back to the hotel. This is when we found out that the electric heaters in our room were of no use, since the town didn’t have power after 2pm. The only light was from a lantern and the heat was provided by sheep and yak dung burning in the stove. The combination smelled terrible, so the three of us headed out to wander around in a giant field just outside of town.

We strolled about aimlessly, each taking a different direction. There were giant runoff canyons formed by the melting snow. These were quite fun to explore. While I was coming out of one of these, I noticed a young shepherd boy standing at the rim looking down at me with his herd of goats behind him.

We spoke briefly in the few words we knew in common and the few hand gestures that we could make sense of. His name was “Urtoo” or something that sounded like it. He invited me to take his picture and I obliged him. Later, we were walking through the same gully and I had the opportunity to show him his photo as well as other pictures, such as that of the Potala and Tashilhunpo palaces. I also shared some of my bubblegum with him. Eventually, he had to go back in his direction and I went in mine.

Back at the hostel, Brian and Kernby told me that they’d had a similar experience with some folks who invited them to their home and gave them authentic yak butter tea and tsampa. The Tibetans are a very warm and welcoming people, and this sort of thing is common in their culture.

That night, we all went to bed fairly early since there was nothing to do in the cold and dark. Later on that night, Kernby woke us up to go out and look at the stars. You could see into forever that night, but it was too cold for me to stay out too long. But Kernby grabbed some blankets and went to sleep in the field.

5 Days to Everest — Day 2

The second morning of our trip, we went to the Tashilhunpo palace. This is the home to the Panchen Lama line of monks, though the current Panchen Lama was taken prisoner by the Chinese as soon as the Dalai Lama announced his divinity in 1995. I can’t get many details behind the Great Firewall of China, but I think that he was about 5 years old at the time. However, the Chinese have appointed a Lama to take charge of the palace so that everything runs smoothly for them.

The palace opened at 10am for tourists and we filed in and began walking around. Brian and I took the most clockwise route we could, circling the monastery just inside the walls. However, this did not provide us with much to see, so we began following the crowds a bit more. Inside of the many chapels, things were much the same as in other monasteries, with various representations of different holy
people and things under which were placed stacks of bills. Inside one of the chapels was a kind of souvineer shop, but more authentic than in most tourist attractions, since the monks actually make the items in the same room. Both of us bought something, as much to support the monks as to get the tangiable items.

We met back at the hotel and got on the road at about noon. We made a pit stop at Sakya monastery on the way. It was much smaller, only one chapel, but seemed to have as many beggars. We paid the entrance fee, walked around, and then headed out again, off to Lhatse.

We arrived near dusk and went to eat at a small restaurant. Then we went and checked into our hotel. They wanted 40 Yuan per person, but we got them down to 25. The place was empty and there was another hotel across the street, so that helped. This hotel was the most interesting so far. It had no heat nor hot water, but it did have
wash basins in the room. The toilet was outside and was just a hole in the ground that led down to the ground. This made using the toilet on the second floor (where we were staying) much more adventurous than the first, since there was a constant breeze blowing up.

We went downstairs to the small restaurant/bar to talk over the next day’s travels and get things sorted out. After we had accomplished that, Kernby taught us a card game that is played in many variants throughout Asia. I’m not sure what it’s called and I won’t waste the space to tell the rules, but it is a bit like a cross between Hearts and Poker. We played that for a few more hours and then headed off to

5 Days to Everest — Day 1

We had our stuff packed up and in the Land Rover by 9am, ready to go. We drove out of Lhasa, headed for our first location, Yamdrok Tso. This lake is one of Tibet’s three holiest. It has no river which feeds it, nor does one flow from it. Tibet’s largest freshwater lake has been refreshed only by rains and has been drained only by evaporation for millions of years.

However, recently the Chinese have created a hydroelectric plant underneath the lake that drains the lake of its water to produce power for Lhasa. The water level is slowly dropping below the natural level since the project was finished.

While the engineers have promised to replenish the water from a nearby river, this process has not yet begun. However, the water from this river has much different properties and may be toxic to the wide variety of life which lives there, including some species found only here. Not only that, but it is widely speculated that this procedure will actually end up in a net loss of energy and will only serve to destroy one of the Tibetans’ holiest sites.

People also question the need for the power generation capabilities, since Lhasa does not currently exceed its capacity. The reasoning goes that Lhasa is growing quickly, and demand will soon outstrip its current ability to power the city. However, the growth is due largely to Chinese migration to the Tibetan capital, not due to a wide scale change in the Tibetans’ traditional herding and nomadic lifestyle.

The lake was a beautiful place, even despite the lack of greenery and the fact that the lake was nearly completely frozen over. Nearby, there is a glacier, moving ever so slowly down a mountain slope. Hawkers have set up nearby selling worthless junk and attempting to charge a fee for taking pictures. They have also brought dogs and yaks to a scenic overlook of the lake, attempting to charge pictures for shots with the animals. They shove them into the pictures then demand payment. They forced Kamson to pay 30 Yuan by surrounding and not allowing him to get back into the car. It probably would have cost more but we got out and pushed them all away from the car. They might have struggled more had another Land Cruiser not rolled up as we were trying to get away.

That afternoon, we stopped in a town called Gyantse. Famous for its monastery and its carpet manufacturing, it is the 4th largest city in Tibet. Inside the monastery, there is a structure called the Kumbum (meaning 1,000 images) filled with murals and chapels. However, we arrived too late in the day due to the poor roads going on the way to Yamdruk Tso.

The carpet factory we went into was an interesting place, with several buildings full of women in various phases of preparing wool and creating the carpets. We talked to them for a bit in the few short sentences and phrases of English they knew and the gestures we could work out in common. Kamson bought a carpet and we packed it into the car and headed off to Shigatse.

When we arrived in Shigatse, we checked into the hotel of the driver’s choice. Kernby, Brian, and I weren’t involved in the decision making process, Kamson and Sonam worked it out between themselves in Mandarin before we’d arrived in the city. We set our stuff down in the 4 person room and got ready to go to dinner. But first we took a brief tour of the city. With only a few streets and a handful of traffic lights, it didn’t take long.

We went to a restaurant that the Lonely Planet recommended, but it seemed a bit dingy for Western consumption. We tried another place and it was much nicer. We had a good meal and noticed that the other two tour groups who had been trailing us all day long had wandered into the same place. They were also at the same hotel, on their drivers’ recommendations. These were probably the most Western-catering places in the city.

When we got back to the hotel, we were tired and went to bed immediately. We were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. The next day we were to see the Tashilhunpo monastery, one of the holiest in Tibet.