Category Archives: Travel in China

Six Months in Beijing: Sightseeing Highlights and Recommendations


After living in Beijing for the past six months, we’ve not only had lots of opportunities to see and experience everyday life here in China, but we’ve also hit a lot of the tourist hot-spots. With all there is to see in a city with a population of 20+ million and a wealth of historical sites, I’ve put together a list with photos of our favorite places/must see spots. Since some of these places are obvious, I’d put them in the “usual suspects” category. Others are top recommendations, but may not be included in a several day itinerary of a visit to the capital. I’m also adding a few places that I wouldn’t recommend visiting, unless you have a lot of time, or a really specific interest.

1. Tiananmen Square: with all of the modern history in this massive square in the very heart of the city, it’s a good first stop. At the famous Tiananmen Gate with Chairman Mao’s face looking out across the square, you’ll also get your first sense of where Chinese tourists go (and there are a lot of them!). Traveling to Tiananmen Square is a essential visit for Chinese coming from all over the country, where you can see the Great Hall of the People on one side of the square and the National Museum of China on the other. Mao’s mausoleum is in the center of the square, where you can visit Mao’s preserved body (I tried to check it out one day with Isabel and Sophia, but the crowds and heat were so overwhelming that we changed our plans), something that is emotionally moving for many Chinese. I also considered getting up very early for the daily sunrise flag-raising ceremony (nationalism in China and the U.S. are quite similar!), but could never quite find the motivation to go (with three young kids, sleep is at a premium!).

2.  While in the Tiananmen area, visiting the Forbidden City is another usual suspect must-see. Getting a sense of what life might have been like for the Chinese emperor and his consorts, wives, and eunuchs (no non-castrated men were allowed to sleep in the walled city) in this yellow-roofed massive complex of halls, houses, and gardens really shouldn’t be missed.

3. Visiting at least one Chinese park is at the top of my list. There are so many to choose from (Beihai, Jingshan, the Summer Palace, the Old Summer Palace [Yuanmingyuan], Ritan, Ditan, the Temple of Heaven, the Beijing Botanical Gardens, Purple Bamboo, etc.) and walking around amidst the cultivated beauty, while watching any of the many group activities that Chinese people regularly take part in, is an essential component of any visit (see my previous posts: Parks in China: Breathing Life into Sprawling Cities and What Makes Them Uniquely Chinese and The Lotus Festival in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park). If you’re in the Forbidden City area, visiting Jingshan Park and climbing the highest hill in Beijing, on a clear day, will give you a 360 view of the city and a chance to look directly into the Forbidden City from above.

4. The Great Wall: of course you’ve got to see it. If you can skip the highly touristy Badaling area and head to at least Mutianyu, I’d recommend it (you can take a cable car up, walk along the wall for awhile, and then toboggan down on a cement track: surprisingly fun and safe with kids!). I really wanted to visit the Jinshanling section of the wall too, as the photos I’ve seen are spectacular, but we ran out of time.

5. Sanlitun Village and Yashow Market in Sanlitun: we came to love the Sanlitun area, with its combination of very high-end retail shops and more middle class stores and restaurants. It’s a great place to see the “new China” in all its consumerist glory, as well as to walk around in a beautiful outdoor mall space (there’s a mall beneath the area as well) with changing art installations and store/brand promotions. Right next to Sanlitun Village is the six-story Yashow Market with floor after floor of knock-offs. This is the other side of China’s consumer (and production) culture and is the perfect balance to the fancy real name-brand shopping just steps away. While a lot of tourists may prefer the Silk Market (we bought the silk for my wedding dress and all of our bridesmaids’ and groomsmaids’ dresses there back in 2002), with limited time, I’d recommend just hitting Sanlitun. Similarly, a lot of tourists visit the snazzy Wangfujing shopping area, but I’d recommend Sanlitun Village over Wangfujing.

6. Take at least one taxi ride around the Central Business District (CBD) area (and other areas of the city too) to see the architecture of recent dreams. Especially cool is the CCTV building, the various SOHO buildings throughout the city, the Global Trade Center towers, etc.

7. Go to a Chinese acrobat show. We’d been to a couple of shows in the past, but the one we saw last week at the Chaoyang Theatre was absolutely amazing! It ended with a steel ball and eight motorcycle riders driving around inside (and upside down) simultaneously. As a bonus: we were a bit slow getting out of the theater and had a chance to meet the performers!

8. Capital Museum: As Manu’s recent post attests (The Capital Museum in Beijing), the Capital Museum is a gorgeous space with fantastic, focused exhibits. Skip the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square and head over to the Capital Museum. Now that the new design of architect Jean Nouvel has been chosen for what looks to be a fantastic looking new National Art Museum of China in the Olympic Park area, in a few years it might be a different story…

9. Nanluoguxiang, or NLGX, is one of the coolest streets in Beijing. Somewhat similar to Thamel in Kathmandu, but not just catering to foreigners, this lively area near the Drum Tower (worth a visit, but we never made it since we’d already visited the Drum Tower in Xi’an) is part of the traditional remaining hutong (alley) neighborhoods. There are funky boutiques, charming bars and coffee shops, and lots of enticing snack stands on this great street.

If you’ve got specific interests, I’d also recommend:

1. 798 Art District: In this former electronics factory complex built by the East Germans, there are now streets of galleries and cafes. A couple of the galleries are impressive, but don’t expect to be impressed across the board. It’s a fun place to spend a few hours, or a day, wandering around, hanging out in cafes and doing a little shopping for unique gifts.

2. Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist Temple Complex: If you have any connection to Tibetan Buddhism, Yonghegong is an obvious place to visit. Beginning in the 18th century, the complex maintained a connection between China’s emperors and monks from Tibet and Mongolia.

3.Peking University: Though you have to have a residency permit to enter the campus of China’s top university, if you can visit it, it’s worth walking around the beautiful grounds (there’s a stunning lake).

4. Olympic Sports Complex: Seeing the iconic 2008 Summer Olympics Bird’s Nest and Water Cube in person does give you a sense of the scale of the endeavors to build these structures, but unless you have a specific reason to visit the area, or a lot of time, I’d skip it. We walked around the fairly treeless concrete grounds in the hot sun, but the sense of national pride many Chinese undoubtedly feel did not arise in us.

5. The Beijing Zoo: While the grounds of the zoo are very beautiful, once you leave the chaos of the main animal buildings, including the overrated panda exhibit, the experience itself can be missed. While it’s not the worse zoo I’ve ever been to in terms of the space for the animals, it’s also not very impressive.

There are a few things we didn’t do that will be on our agenda for our next visit:

  1. The Fahaisi Temple in the Western Hills with Ming Dynasty murals that you have to view with a flashlight.
  2. The White Cloud Taoist Temple. Sadly, we didn’t visit even one Taoist temple while we were here.
  3. The Fragrant Hills Park in the Western Hills. This is supposed to be especially beautiful in the fall when all the leaves are red and gold.
  4. A modern dance show at the “Egg” (National Grand Theater).
  5. Visit the Olympic Forest Park. This huge space doesn’t have the cultivated landscaping of most of Beijing’s parks and some day I’d like to see it.

Things we didn’t do that we’ll probably never do:

  1. Watch a Peking Opera. The piecing voices just don’t appeal to us. We saw a bit of a Hong Kong opera and that was enough.
  2. Visit the aquarium. The aquarium is within the zoo complex and you have to buy a separate ticket. Although it’s got a good reputation, having taken the kids to the fantastic Monterey Aquarium and the Vancouver Aquarium, it doesn’t strike me as something we must do in Beijing. Also, I wouldn’t recommend the joint Chinese-New Zealand “Blue Zoo” venture, unless you want to feed goldfish with a bottle and watch mermaids (real live ladies in bikinis and tails!) swimming with the fish.
  3. Visit the Natural History Museum and/or the Planetarium. I could never gear myself up to visit what I’ve heard are very crowded museums.

Overall, our stay in Beijing has been fantastic and I’m really sorry to have to say good-bye, for now, to this lively city. I hope it’s not too long before we return again.



What’s in a Lotus: The Lotus Festival in Beijing’s Purple Bamboo Park


In Tibetan Buddhism, lotuses feature prominently. For example, one of the oldest and most important early masters (8th c.) is Padmasambhava/Pema Jungnye, which means “Born from a Lotus,” as he is said to have been reborn in the heart of a lotus after having been burned to death on a funeral pyre. Buddhas, Bodhisattavas, and great masters are often depicted sitting on lotus seats and young consorts are described as being like a perfect, eight-petaled lotus. Lotuses regularly appear in Tibetan paintings (thangka) and sculpture and decoratively on furniture. You can even buy plug-in lotus lights for your home shrine. Because lotuses grown from the mud in water into beautiful flowers, lotuses also represent the mind of enlightenment coming forth from the confusion of ignorance.

Despite feeling pretty familiar with lotuses in this context, until this last month, I had never really fully appreciated them. Thankfully, our neighborhood park, Purple Bamboo Park, is currently holding a lotus festival. I can’t seem to stay away and have already taken four boat rides through a large section of the lake that is almost completely filled with blooming lotuses (a water field!). The slow moving boats hold around 15 passengers and a single rower navigates through the narrow passage of water left open. The boat meanders past blooming pink and white blooms pushing up from large green leaves. Sometimes you can even see a family of ducks or coupling dragonflies in the cavernous area shaded by leaves and blossoms.

One day as I was entering the park, I noticed a man selling what looked like a type of green fruit (I thought it might be similar to a sweetsop). The next day I decided to buy one, but found that they were being sold in tied-together bundles of three. Still having no clue what they were, I asked Sophia’s Chinese teacher, Qing Qing, and found out that they were lotus stalks with fresh lotus seeds. The seeds require effort to eat, as she showed me how first you have to remove each seed from the pod, peel off two different layers, and remove the bitter green interior before you eat it. While the texture reminds me of a nut, similar to a raw almond, it actually doesn’t have a lot of flavor.

Like many foods in China, the lotus seed has warming or cooling properties, but it depends on which part of the seed you eat.  Qing Qing told me that the bitter green stem inside the seed is the only cooling component of the lotus and it can be dried and made into a tea. When the raw lotus seed is eaten alone, it has warming properties that can help with nervousness and sleep problems. The dried seed (the green interior is removed from the top before it’s dried) can be made into a sweet drink by combining the seeds, crushed dried white wood ear mushrooms, and rock sugar with hot water and leaving overnight. Drinking it helps nourish yin and reinforces body fluid.

After I learned where the seeds came from, I went back to the park and suddenly became aware of the seed pod and began noticing that as the petals of the flower opened more broadly, it became visible in the center. As the leaves fall off, the seed pod is left standing amidst the other blooms.

Now I seem to be seeing the seed pods everywhere. For example, last Friday I took Sophia and Isabel to Beijing’s 798 Art District, a former electronics factory complex built by the East Germans that has been re-purposed into a large area filled with galleries and cafes, and we went to a couple of galleries. The first one we stumbled upon featured copper work. If I hadn’t recently encountered the lotus seed pods, I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to a whole room of copper lotus stalks and seed pods in various states of growth and decay.

The one part of the lotus I’ve been familiar with for awhile, but have never cooked with yet myself, is the root. To me, crunchy, sliced lotus root with its white meat and beautiful pattern of holes, is the best food to cook in a hotpot. I love how it soaks up the flavor of the broth and tastes better and stays crunchier than a potato.  I’ve also had it in stir fries and in a soup with pork ribs, where it’s a great addition.

lotus root

Lotus Root photo borrowed from:

Thanks to our proximity to Purple Bamboo Park, I’ve come to appreciate the depth of the China’s relationship with the plant.  Not only is there a great appreciation of the beauty of the flowers (as there is for Tibetans), but little of the plant is actually “wasted,” as medicinal (and food) uses have been found for the lotus’s roots and seeds in both fresh and dried forms (the petals, leaves, and stems are also used in other Asian contexts).  To me this epitomizes the rich depth of Chinese cuisine and medicine and its millennia-old relationship with plants (and animals) to uncover a myriad of uses and tastes.


Dalian: A Trip to One of China’s Most “Livable Cities”


Last weekend we took an overnight train to Dalian to visit our former boss at SIT Study Abroad, Linda, and her husband, Stephen. With a population of over 3.5 million, the city is located in northeastern Liaoning Province (one of the three provinces that formerly comprised Manchuria), at the convergence of the Bohai and Yellow Seas, and is merely the 27th largest mainland city in China.

In a country steeped in many thousands year old history, the crazy thing about Dalian is that it’s only a bit over a hundred years old. A former fishing village, the Russians gained control of the area in 1899 and held it for a few years until the Japanese wielded control of it for the next forty years, during which time it developed into an important port city (now it’s the northernmost port in China that never freezes).  Since its return to China, it’s continued to grow and, with its wide avenues and low pollution, in recent years has been named among China’s most “livable cities” (for the record, Beijing has never made that list!). If it weren’t for the protests (in China!) against a petrochemical plant that put it on the map two years ago, it’s probable that a lot of people outside of China wouldn’t even be familiar with the city of Dalian at all.

As a new city in China, sightseeing options are more limited than places with a great depth of history, but we managed to do some pretty cool things while catching up with Linda and Stephen and attempting to keep the kids entertained. We visited four parks, tried Dongbei cuisine (the “East-North” food of the Manchus), rode amusement rides on the Coney Island-style boardwalk, took a taxi ride along the coast, visited an active Chinese Buddhist temple-cum-flea market, checked out the fantastic market where Linda and Stephen get their extremely fresh seafood and veggies, saw architectural fantasies manifested in many different forms, etc.

One of my favorite aspects of our visit was hearing about Linda’s six recent trips to North Korea. It was fascinating to hear about life inside this country shrouded in secrecy. Her work for the American Friends Service Committee has helped to improve farm techniques within North Korea, giving the population expanded opportunities to produce its own food.

Dalian is actually very close to North Korea (you can see it, Sarah Palin style, across the Yalu River from nearby Dandong) and both Russia and Korea (more likely the southern variety) influence the city. Seeing Russian tourists (often looking a bit on the rough and ready side) with many restaurants and tourist attractions catering to them reminded us that we weren’t in Beijing. A mecca for the prized sea cucumber (there are about ten high-end shops in Linda and Stephen’s neighborhood selling the expensive delicacy), we were often similarly reminded that we were close to the sea. Thanks to our great hosts, we had an insider’s perspective on the city, definitely the best way to visit a new place, I think!


A Trip to Hong Kong: Freer Press, (Almost) Germless, and Lots of Fun


After almost four months of living in Beijing, we took a break from the tight controls of China’s Central Government and headed for a long weekend to Hong Kong, a “special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.” Since Hong Kong was returned to China from the United Kingdom in 1997, the Central Government has wisely made changes slowly. As a result, we noticed right after we landed at the airport that it felt like a free and open society.

While in mainland China, if you want to access Facebook, Youtube, the NY Times, WordPress, etc., you’ll get a message such as: “Oops! Google Chrome could not connect to” Only by using a VPN, which allows your computer to operate from a server outside of China, can you access these sites (this is why my Facebook postings always have me located in Charlottesville, even when I’m clearly in China!). (It should be noted that VPN’s really slow down internet service and ours is already particularly slow without the VPN!) In contrast, Hong Kong offers free WiFi service in the airport and on all buses and trains and you can check any of these sites. When we first arrived, I found myself gaping as I walked past a woman checking her Facebook account in the MTR (subway/rail) station. I suddenly felt so fortunate to have easy access, if only for a few days, to virtually whatever I wanted to check on the internet. It made me wonder what it might feel like for a mainland Chinese person to go to the U.S. or another democratic country for the first time.

A recent NY Times article discussed mainland Chinese traveling to Hong Kong for access to books about China from more perspectives than just the official one and about dirt on Chinese leaders. Even in the airport, bookstores prominently display such books that would never be available for sale on the mainland. Is all of this free press for real?! While it looks on the surface that it is, a friend who grew up and lives in Hong Kong assured me that the Central Government has been slowly, but methodically, making changes that has disturbed Hong Kong journalists (and, subsequently, many citizens), who are no longer allowed to be critical of the Central Government. Incidentally, we did pass one Falun Gong gathering that criticized the Communist Party, but we only saw a couple of practitioners there and when we returned later we found only the sign remaining.

While we relaxed into the sense of openness, we also had an opportunity to observe the effectiveness of the Hong Kong government’s public health messages and the implementation of various public health procedures. Since the 2003 SARS outbreak and the resultant devastating financial losses, there has been a lot of concern about another epidemic flu outbreak in crowded Hong Kong. During SARS public health procedures were put in place, but after the recent H7N9 concern, there have been great efforts to stem any further development of this version of the bird flu. For example, we stayed with our friends in their 25th floor apartment and were surprised to see plastic covering the elevator buttons. They told us that although such coverings are regularly removed and replaced, in recent months all elevators are required to have this done every two hours! Similarly, in schools and public play areas, as soon as a child puts a toy down, it’s picked up and sanitized. Hand sanitizer is readily available in many public places. Our friends also told us that people with colds and coughs will wear masks in public, woe to those who don’t, as they will be stared at, moved away from, and masks will be donned by those nearby because of them. As an example, our friend, Miguel, teaches at the University of Hong Kong and paired his students off for a classroom exercise. When he visited a particular pair to see how they were doing, he noticed that one student was having a lot of difficulty because he was attempting to not breathe, because the other student had a cough! We also noticed public messages in many places, particularly in the MTR, to “spit into a handkerchief and throw it away, but don’t spit on the ground.” I sure wish people in Beijing got this memo!

The most amusing manifestation of public health and cleanliness concerns that we saw, though, was at Hong Kong Disneyland. Manu and the kids each got a hotdog that came with a small packet that Manu found was a set of transparent plastic gloves! While they only tried them on and posed for a picture, later on I walked by a family of eight who were eating their meal in all seriousness while wearing the gloves.

Our visit to Hong Kong was only four days long, so we cannot claim much depth of understanding of the busy, harbor-driven region beyond the observations that struck us and what we learned from our friends. Still, it was enough to give us a taste of life in Hong Kong with its NYC busyness in some areas and sleepy tropical island feel in others (the region of Hong Kong is made up of 263 islands and a peninsula, with most of the business occurring on Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula). The highlights of our trip included:

1. A day at Clearwater Bay Second Beach in the New Territories region of Kowloon, followed by dinner in the fisherman’s town of Sai Kung, where we saw the most diverse fresh seafood for sale that I’ve ever seen in my life (I’m really not exaggerating!). As we walked around after dinner in the humid tropical heat, we stumbled upon a free Hong Kong opera performance;

2. A walk and tram ride through Central, the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, followed by a ferry across Hong Kong Harbor to Kowloon, where we ended up docking right next to the giant rubber ducky that is a current floating art installation! After walking through the Canton Road luxury shopping district, we spent the later afternoon decadently drinking a bottle of champagne at the Ozone Bar, the highest bar in the world, owned by Ritz-Carlton, which is on the 118th floor of the 100 Building. As you might guess, the views were amazing! (I’ve never been in a bathroom with such a spectacular vista!). We ended our day watching the daily 8 pm laser light show on the harbor;

3. A trip to Lantau Island, on which both the airport and Disneyland are located, where we rode a “crystal” cable car (even the floor is made of glass) to the top of a cloud-entrenched mountain on which is perched a giant Buddha (“Bu-ah,” as Isabel says). We wrapped up the day with dinner with friends at Under Bridge Spicy Crab on Hong Kong Island;

4. An unintended trip to Hong Kong Disneyland. Since we’ve been fortunate to have taken the kids several times to Florida’s Disney World, we thought we’d skip going in HK. However, after finding that it was almost half the price of Disney World and that it’s much smaller and, hence, manageable to do in a day before catching an evening flight back to Beijing (it’s virtually next to the airport), we took the plunge and are glad we did!

We’re so thankful for our friends, Miguel, Gema, and Hugo, who shared their Hong Kong-sized apartment with us and organized full days of fun, kid-oriented sightseeing! We got enough of a taste that we want to come back.


How Our Charming Train Trip to the Roof of the World Ended up Being Thirty-four Hours in Hell, Police Visit to our Cabin Included (Part 2)


Manu and I have been wanting to try out the train to Tibet since it was completed in 2006 with much fanfare. If you read on-line about what the trip will be like, it sounds pretty great: in addition to the incredible scenery, a dining car offers delicious food, the train’s bathrooms are kept clean and re-supplied with toilet paper throughout the trip, there are four working tv’s in each soft sleeper cabin, in high altitude areas oxygen is pumped throughout the train, extra oxygen is available for anyone who needs it, doctors are on-board ready to deal with any altitude issues, etc.

When we first got on the train in Xi’an, things were looking good (we were also riding high on our smooth and pleasant overnight train trip from Beijing to Xi’an). We decided to have an early lunch in the dining car, where the three dishes with rice that we ordered were decent and we were impressed that not many people on what looked to us like a full train were even eating in the dining car (so much for the unrelenting crowds in China!). (Later we realized that most people either brought their own food or were eating bowls of instant noodles heated by the hot water available in dispensers throughout the train.) We did think it was weird that some staff let us know that we couldn’t take pictures of the chef cooking in the on-board kitchen.

Things began to shift for us in mid-afternoon as we returned to the dining car and several of the staff members were lounging around and smoking. We saw the chef cooking again, but this time while smoking a cigarette (maybe this is why the chef didn’t want his photo taken!). Smoking turned out to be the aspect that tainted our trip the most. After finally leaving polluted cities behind us, we were looking forward to clean, albeit thin, air. While we know that smoking is pervasive in China (after all, it’s not our first time here), the extent of it on the train became quite irritating. Cigarette smoke permeated our compartment in the earlier part of the trip, as we made our first two (of four) stops in the cities of Lanzhou (Gansu Province), where Manu lived in 1999-2000, and Xining (Qinghai Province). After each stop it was clear that we were headed away from the populated east and into the hinterlands, where many of the new passengers looked “rough and ready.” The smoking picked up and I started looking forward to when we reached Golmud, our third stop, where signs between each compartment assured us smoking would be banned between Golmud and Lhasa since oxygen would be pumped throughout the train and fire and oxygen can be a lethal combination. By the way, if smoking increased the further we moved west, so, to our delight, did spitting and even snorting.

Early in the morning nineteen hours into our trip when we reached Golmud, my hopes were dashed. Throughout the subsequent day, even as we climbed as high as 5000+ meters/16,400+ feet over the Tang Gu La pass, I’d catch a whiff of smoke and walk through the compartments until I found someone hunched over, smoking, right beneath a sign that said clearly in Tibetan, Chinese, and English that smoking was not allowed between Golmud and Lhasa. For some foolish reason I decided to take this issue personally (to Manu’s amusement) and I tried to stop people from smoking in areas surrounding our car (I know, I know we’re in China, it’s a different culture and so on, but I couldn’t bare our kids having to breath in all of this secondary smoke, especially when smoking in the train was banned for good reason!). Most of the time I was successful in getting the culprit to put out his smoke, but once the guy just moved into the spot between the cars and attempted to blow out into a pseudo-crack. I took on this role of vigilante smoke-stopper, because the staff, who were smoking themselves, could care less about enforcing any rules that would keep us all from spontaneously combusting.  When I walked to the front of the train to the area between the conductor area and the first passenger car, the area smelled like an airport smoking lounge.

Then came trouble after we decided to start documenting the smoking (I felt like one of those citizen journalists, although the stakes of my investigative efforts were on the low end of the spectrum: fighting smokers). First, my dad got a photo of some of the staff smoking in the dining car, which they forced him to delete. Then Manu managed to clandestinely take a video of the dining car, where the staff were smoking and playing cards. Finally, I snapped a couple of photos of a senior staff member working near an empty soup bowl full of butts. He suddenly noticed and said to me in English, “Please delete!” I walked away and he roughly grabbed my arm, but I kept walking. When we arrived at our fourth and final stop, Nagqu, we got a knock on our cabin door and a local policeman, who’d obviously been called ahead and was ready at the stop, was there with the two of the train’s staff members. He asked for our Tibet permit, which was the first time anyone had asked for it until we reached Lhasa, and then the senior staff member went off on me in Chinese, clearly wanting the camera. Manu started talking with him and together they looked at the camera, deleting the offending photos. While the train staff person was clearly angry, the local police officer was smiling and was very conciliatory with us.  Irritated at myself for not having downloaded the photos as soon as I’d returned from the dining car, I fantasized about turning the train staff in to some authorities, or at least writing some disparaging reviews on some travel blogs read by English speakers.

Aside from the smoking, we had a few disappointments: there was no toilet paper from the moment we boarded and the bathrooms, both Western and squat toilets, continually got more disgusting (I will spare you the details, but let’s say that we could see mountains not only from our windows); the four t.v.’s in our essentially first-class compartment (sticking with the soft/hard sleeper and soft/hard seat divisions is a euphemistic hangover of the days of strong efforts for true class equality) never worked; there was no evidence of any doctors aboard the train; the food went downhill and became increasingly more expensive (they started charging 25 RMB [$4] per bottle after Nagqu, while usually it’s about 2 RMB) and after Lanzhou no one sold food on the platform; etc. None of us felt particularly great when we woke up on the morning, as sleeping with four adults and three young kids in a cabin for four doesn’t warrant much of a restful night (how was it that we slept so well between Beijing and Xi’an?). One of the Manu’s biggest challenges was that he couldn’t get any kind of morning coffee fix, because he didn’t have a cup to mix his instant coffee packets, and although there were about a dozen ceramic cups sitting on one of the dining car tables, a staff member wouldn’t let him use one. As the day wore on and Manu developed a high altitude headache combined with a caffeine withdrawal headache, his desperation led him to making the instant coffee in a previously used cardboard soup bowl, which gave him some relief.

Fortunately, none of us developed acute altitude sickness and just a few of us had headaches off and on and, of course, lightheadedness and the prerequisite shortness of breath (see pic of passenger using extra oxygen). In the last few hours Sophia threw up three times and became desperate to get off the train (top quotes from her: “I can’t take it any more”; “I don’t want to go in anything with wheels” [referring to taking a car to our hotel]; and “I’m never taking an overnight train again”). Dylan was fine on the train, but developed a headache and threw up all over the floor near our table while we were eating a very late dinner at Snowland in Lhasa.

Throughout the trip, though, which had many low points, the rugged scenery was stunning. I love the harsh, barren beauty of high altitude tundra. The kids enjoyed looking for yaks (and herders) and the occasional couple of plateau deer and antelope. The sky is so big and the landscape so spartan that it’s hard not to see how meditation and reflections on one’s clear mind, unfettered by thoughts and emotions, is like a cloudless Tibetan sky. While Manu and I have driven all over and camped throughout Tibet, my parents and the kids had never seen the vast Tibetan landscape and would not have, if we’d just flown in and out of Lhasa, so in that sense the trip was worth it.  Would we recommend the trip to others? I’d ask them to think long and hard about what they were willing to endure for the chance to cross Tibet by train. Tibet is never easy (Manu’s and my many journeys overland in and out of Tibet from Nepal and the long months of camping with students in Tibet amidst challenging terrain can attest to this) and part of the experience is what you have to go through to get there.  Although Manu completely disagrees with me, now that I’ve had a chance to rest and recover at the relatively low elevation of Lhasa’s 12,000 feet, I would say, yes, go for it, even with three kids under seven.


A Trip to the Roof of the WorldPart 1: Xi’an


To the Roof of the World! Notes from our trip to Tibet, Part 1.

We are going to Tibet, The Roof of the World, The Land of Snows, The Place With Many Capitalized Names! It has been seven years since the last time Pam and I were there together (my last trip was five years ago), and I am sure many things have changed. But so have we. We are older (and wiser?), we now have three wonderful kids, and I am closer to finishing my Ph.D. The main reason we are going to Tibet is, in fact, so I can do some dissertation research. Since my in-laws are also visiting, we decided to make a family trip out of it.

Pam and I have been to Tibet several times before; in fact, Lhasa is the place where we met in the summer of 2001 for the first time (we may have to leave that topic for a different post). I lived in Tibet for two years, Pam spent two summers studying Tibetan in Lhasa, and during the six years we worked for SIT Study Abroad, we took students every semester on some pretty incredible trips across the plateau to learn about Tibetan culture. So going back to Tibet has a special meaning for both of us, and we are particularly excited to show the kids the culture we both fell in love with many years ago, and to which we have dedicated our academic careers.

To try something new, though, and since we are currently living in Beijing, this time we decided to take the famous Beijing-Lhasa train, a 4,064 km (2525 Miles), 40 hour (although, news from the future: it ended up being 44) trip, crossing six provinces, and going from an elevation of 44 meters (144 feet) in Beijing to 3,650 m (11,975 feet) in Lhasa. In between you even go as high as 5,072 m (16,640 feet) when crossing Tangula Pass, making it the world’s highest railroad. In order to make it more sane (we are travelling with three kids after all!), we decided to split the trip into two, with a stop in Xi’an, the ancient Chinese capital.

The first leg of the trip was actually quite pleasant. We were at the train station with time to spare (a rather new experience for us), we had booked a soft sleeper cabin all for ourselves, with 4 comfortable bunk beds), and it was an overnight train, so we were able to enjoy the train ride, while also getting a pretty good night’s rest. Little did we know that this was going to an exception more than the norm (you will have to read part two of this trip in order to know what I am talking about). You can get a sense of our first train ride from the pictures below.

Terracotta Army: “Mommy, why aren’t they moving?”

Xi’an, the ancient Chinese capital, is an incredible city, beautiful and full of historical sites: the city walls, the Drum and Bell Towers, the Muslim quarter. The highlight of our visit was, though, checking out the Terracotta Army, the most famous component of the complex burial complex created by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. Sophia was particularly excited about this visit, since she had just read Day of the Dragon King, the Jack and Annie book where they visit this particular period of time and face the Dragon Emperor, the evil Qin Shi Huang, who was on a rampage burning books (and killing scholars, though that’s not emphasized in the book). I had already visited the site, but it was really amazing doing it this time with the kids. Dylan was also quite impressed, although at one point he commented: “Mommy, why aren’t they moving?” which makes me wish I could see the world through his eyes…

There is also a great PBS documentary about the terracotta warriors that you can watch here.

Tomb of Emperor Jing of the Han Dynasty

Our visit to the tomb of Emperor Jing of the Han Dinasty was a pleasant surprise. It is not as spectacular as the Terracotta Army (nothing is!), but it is definitely worth a visit. For starters it’s not as crowded, which in China is always a plus. But the way the tomb is displayed is also quite unique. You can see the excavated tomb as you walked across glass panels that allow you to have a bird’s eye view of the organization of the tomb and its many different objects (soldiers, vases, animals, chariots, dancers).


Here, I just want to add a few pictures of some of the places we visited in X’ian, like the Great Goose Pagoda (a seventh-century pagoda famous for holding some of the sutras and sacred objects brought to China from India by the famous Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang), and the Drum Tower.

But this was only the first leg of out trip. If you want to know what happened during the second half, you’ll need to read Pam’s post, “How Our Charming Trip to the Roof of the World Ended up Being Thirty-Four Hours in Hell, Police Visit to our Cabin Included.” Stay tuned…