Our Trip to China and Tibet

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by Jean and Joe Ehman

Our Elderhostel trip to Asia was organized with the cooperation of the Chinese American Educational Exchange. We were a group of 32, singles and married couples from all parts of the U.S. The format was a series of lectures at Universities followed by visits to areas relative to our studies. The focus for study was the cultures, religions, traditions and political aspects of the Chinese people. We were sent a reading list to prepare us for the trip. Not a necessary requirement but helpful in understanding the diversity of China and Tibet. We were advised about weather, health considerations, altitude and our accommodations, which proved to be hotels from "no star" to four star.The food, we were also advised, would be American breakfasts and Chinese lunches and dinners. The breakfasts were good with exception of one . Beer and wine was served at lunch and dinner. Each meal had rice, two or three soups, and a variety of steamed vegetables and sauces. Some meals had as many as 25 different dishes. All served on a revolving tray in the middle of the table. Desserts were almost always watermelon. Very little sweets or rich food. Both of us lost weight while on the trip, partly attributed to the healthy diet. Because of the dry climate, plenty of drinking water was a paramount ingredient and Elderhostel provided an adequate supply at all locations and on buses Our stay consisted of 2 weeks in China and one week in Tibet, mostly the Lhasa area. Enough said. Now on to the trip.

We knew we were on the right track when we met a traveler in the LA terminal going into the same elevator we had targeted for the international departure gates. She had the same distinctive blue and white Elderhostel luggage tags . Later, she turned out to be one of our more entertaining travel companions from San Francisco. Our trip was at last beginning after months of planning and preparing ourselves for the unusual environment . Fifteen hours after boarding we arrived in Hong Kong for a brief stopover before our flight for Beijing. Total travel time from Shepherdstown was 35 hours but we were soon to find that it was worth it. We were met at the Beijing airport by our guide Tony, whose Chinese name is Zhang Hong Yan.

Our arrival by bus from the airport at the Hua Du Hotel was somewhat delayed due to a piece of lost luggage left in Hong Kong. You guessed it, it was ours. After a hasty check -in we had enough time to visit the Forbidden City where the Emperor of China had lived. We wandered across the courtyard where the royal family and quests played tennis as shown in the film "The Little Emperor." This plaza preceded bridges flanked with marble ornate balustrades and continued up the steps to the palace with its terra-cotta tile roof above colorful ceramic tile fascias and eaves. Designs on these tiles depicted snakes, flowers and other symbolic features. Some were also painted in gold leaf. The expanse of the whole complex covered about 100 acres. In front of the most prominent building were huge seated gold painted lions. Another entrance was flanked by gold painted low urns. Probably to burn torches during night celebrations. We weren't allowed to view the whole interior. But mention should be made of a gold painted throne about 5 steps above the floor of a huge ceremonial hall. Steps leading up to the throne platform were flanked by ornate red and gold balustrades. Mid-way were placed cloisonné urns with handles for lifting. The overall appearance was a lively much decorated stage-like structure with much red and gold.

On our return to our hotel, we enjoyed a delightful Chinese dinner one of many to follow during this trip and fell into bed exhausted from our flight and visit to the Forbidden City.. . The next morning we woke early to board a bus for the airport and our flight to Kunming where we were to spend four days of sight seeing and attending lectures. At six o'clock we were aboard the bus with our box breakfasts. Leaving this city was not necessarily a disappointment as it was lacking in beauty and showed much evidence of poverty in spite of the construction in progress of hotels and office buildings. The scene resembled a movie set depicting the contrast of tiny clay brick houses with red tile roofs turned up at the edges Chinese style and high block buildings of no particular style but looking very western. As we were boarding the bus, beggars were waiting for any handouts. It was irresistible to pass by without sharing some our breakfasts. Here was where we saw for the first time bicycles being used in trade and commerce. The streets were busy with farmers on bicycles pulling wagons loaded with produce, whole slaughtered pigs, and baked goods. All heading for the market. Some were so difficult to pull that a helper also on a bicycle would ride beside the load and push.



Kunming is in the Yunnan Province south and west of Beijing. After 3 hours flying time we arrived at the Green Lake Hotel, a 3 star one, by the way. Our luggage finally caught with us here. After a nice lunch, we boarded a bus again for a short ride to the Yunnan University for our first lecture. This one was about some of the 55 minorities or ethnic people of China their customs and costumes. It was the first of fascinating lectures given by the faculty at the University. When we arrived at the campus, we were struck by the similarity of students there as we see on U.S. campuses. A group was shooting baskets another playing soccer and the ubiquitous bicycles were everywhere. It is a college that attracts students from all over the world. We noticed western Europeans, Americans, and Nordics. The second day of our lecture at the University was about the religions of China, a very complex subject, the sects with various ethnic disciplines is not a simple concept The discussions covered Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity in different forms, Islam and folk religions. Some of these were not religions but more of a philosophy for life. The lectures helped us to understand the social and political mores of that part of the world. On our way back to our hotel we took a trip up into the Western Hills.The ride up the steep hills was a hair raising experience as our cowboy driver negotiated hair-pin turns expertly but without regard for the oncoming traffic. We were able to enjoy, when we weren't holding our breath, the area with its bamboo interspersed with long needle evergreens. Kunming, as in Beijing, is building everywhere. Kunming, however, is a much prettier city with its parks and green spaces and its beautiful women for which the city is known. Because it was May 1st, a Communist holiday, the place was quite crowded with families on an outing taking the trail up the mountain and stopping to buy souvenirs or offering prayers at the many shrines along the path. Each shrine, carved into the hillside, had a statue of a god, colorful paintings on the cave-like walls and incense . At the top of the mountain one could view Kunming on the wide Jinsha River and circles of fishing nets floating on the water. On our way back from the mountain, we noticed at a building site a man whose job it was to straighten the steel rods used for support when pouring concrete. The use of materials from other dismantled buildings is very evident here. This is not for environmental reasons but due to lack of new materials. In the evening we were entertained at the hotel at a welcoming dinner with much food, dancers and music - all Chinese. At this point of our trip we are beginning to realize the strangeness and vastness of Asian culture. The music seems to wander and rather than a pleasant soothing or melodious experience, it grates and the instruments screech. The dancers beautiful in gorgeous white gowns stand and undulate their bodies, wave their arms and turn gracefully to the music as we eat our rice, steamed vegetables, fish-head soup and watermelon. If it weren't for our English speaking companions our isolation from the Western world would be complete.

Another course we took at the Yunnan University was "Women in China" . It was at this lecture that we discussed the one child policy in China. In rural areas, the families can have two or three children depending on the farmer's need to work his land. In the cities, the one child policy is mandatory. However, they are the populace that is usually more educated. In rural areas there is much illiteracy. Women in cities have become more independent and educated. The concern among those that are educated is that over the years the uneducated will out number the educated, not desirable for a country struggling to catch up with the 21st century. We did question our professor who told us she had one nine year old daughter. She was careful to not reveal her feelings about the one child policy. It was a strange sensation to realize that freedom of speech was not enjoyed here in this University of highly educated faculty, some with sophisticated travel experience world-wide.

This is a day of sightseeing in Kumning. The first stop was the "Stone Forest" which, was once the bottom of the ocean and as it receded tall perpendicular limestone columns, narrow passageways and caves were revealed. It is a popular tourist attraction with the usual collection of vendors and photographers. Following lunch we then proceeded to the Sani Village an old village where the inhabitants are living in the primitive life style of hundreds of years ago. The houses are built of clay brick and straw and only large enough to accommodate sleeping, cooking and eating. We had an opportunity to go inside of one woman's house. She looked as though she could be at least 90 years old but we found she was about 78. As we entered and stooped to go through her front door we were greeted with the odor of urine, a dirt floor and a ladder- like structure to reach the second floor. In a corner was a large wok built into a brick stove. Under the crude stairs were a couple of jugs of alcohol, vegetables on the floor, but a color TV set in the living room. It didn't take long to look at the two rooms while other members of her family sat on their haunches and watched. Upstairs was bare of furniture but there was a small pile of grain and two black kittens in a shallow sifting basket,the mother was on a leash nearby. The rafters of the ceiling below supported this floor which was of poured concrete spread with straw to hold the winter grain and supplies. The focus of this village was a pond that looked stagnant and was overgrown with weeds which peasants were chopping away to make room for fishing.

In preparation for our trip to Dally tomorrow, we learned about the Bay people who live there and are considered the most prosperous of the minorities. In the afternoon we were treated to a demonstration of the instruments and music of China at the Young Arts College. The professor quoted an obvious truth,"Chinese instruments are as many as stars in the sky " Here again the music was wandering and not very pleasant to the Western ear. Curiosity overcame that deficiency as strange instruments were demonstrated. Many looking like banjos, flutes and a harp that was played on the lap like a piano keyboard.

It was in Chunking that we saw barbers shaving and cutting the hair of their customers on the sidewalk and peed-cabs that are bicycles pulling small carriages, around the city.

This is going to be a long day, 12 hours, on a bus traveling on the Burma Road to Dally which is west of Chunking still in the Young Province. This is exciting in that we are viewing the rural areas and villages and their inhabitants along the way. It is a very mountainous area with spectacular views of valleys and mountain peaks. The road is under construction to improve the ancient highway. We pass many trucks headed south out of Burma with loads of teak. We also saw frequent lines of military vehicles headed south. (On our return to the U.S. we read of a suspicion by the West that troops were being moved along the Burma Road for some unknown reason.) The living along this road is commune style with each family working a plot of land terraced on the hillside. Their houses were built similar to the adobe with red clay . Each family must give a certain amount of the crops each year to the government and can use the remainder any way they choose. Water buffalo are used by the more prosperous for plowing and harvesting. Those that have to carry crops in baskets do so by placing a strap across the forehead and hanging the basket on their back They are innovative people, to thrash their grain, it is thrown on the road so trucks and other vehicles will run over it . After the vehicle passes they sweep it up and put it in baskets. This method for thrashing is against the law because of fire and back-up of traffic.

Some of the construction workers'families live in tents or leantos. At the constructions sites along our route,we saw crews of men and women without goggles or hard hats splitting huge rocks to place on top of a tunnel. The people crawling over the arched tunnel roof to place rocks were reminiscent of pictures of ancient Egypt and building of the pyramids with thousands of people hauling great stones up the pyramids.

The city of Dali, population 12,000,still has its North and South entrance gates in the old city wall. It is an area known for its marble, the large lake, Erhai, and the view of the foothills of the Himalayas. Jean took a walk around the city early one morning where she saw senior citizens doing tai chi in a park, another women was walking backwards and some doing a fast walk. Little children were walking to school with backpacks and stopping to get their breakfast from street vendors. Such things as boiled eggs, stuffed cabbage leaves and rice were being cooked there on the sidewalk. People were hauling their wares to market by bicycle and it was here where we saw motors as we have on riding mowers placed in crudely built cabs to haul market wares.The buildings in this old city are built of stone rubble with tile roofs.

We took a ferry boat trip on the lake to a fishing village on an island where fishing families live in stone houses on narrow passage ways. Women were washing clothes on rocks at the edge of the lake beside the fishing boats. These fishing boats are a large double ender with a canvas shelter in the center. They are powered by a small motor in the stern. On our way out to the island, fisherman demonstrated how they use cormorants to catch fish and haul them into the boat to remove the fish from the birds throat. The throat is closed by a tight cord to prevent the bird from swallowing its catch.

We had an opportunity to visit a family in a government run commune outside of Dali. The houses in this commune were all of brick and tile roofs without any deviation, only in size. The family we were visiting were a prosperous one. They had a main house, decorated with colorful tile, cook house, storage house and a bath house built around a garden and enclosed by a wall. The family, a couple with a baby, a brother and sister and an older person, talked with us and were generous with their time showing us around. The income was from farming but we were aware of their obvious prominence in the commune. It seems not everything is equal in a communist society

On our way back to the city center we stopped to visit the three pagodas of Dali. They were tall towers with sixteen or more stacked stations for worship identified by tiered roof edges . None of them looked like they were used for places for worship. No one seemed to know why. However, it is well known that the Chinese government discourages any religion. As in most places of interest we found rows of booths selling souvenirs. Bargaining, we discovered, is a requirement.

While we were in this area,we made a visit to an herbal doctor, Dr. Ho, who is very proud of his world-wide recognition. He had copies of papers, magazines and articles including the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times, on a table about his work in healing with herbs. Some of us lined up for an interview with him and recommendation for healing. His diagnostic talent was often quite accurate. His herbal teas were delicious but as to healing, who knows.

After exploring the Dali area, we were given some instruction about the Naxi people, an ethnic people in Lijiang. This minority is one that is matriarchal, even though the women work the fields all day. Buddishm is their religious belief as is with most of the minorities. The Naxis were nomads and found an attractive plateau on Jade Dragon Mountain, elevation 18,000,nearLijiang . They decided to stay. As we neared Lijiang, we noticed the mountain peaks were covered in snow. Buildings in the old town area of Lijiang date back at least 600 years and the streets are cobbled stone. The Jade River runs through the old town where shops line the path along the river. Every now and then a small wooden bridge crosses over the narrow waterway for people to reach the shops on the other side. Lots of dust and construction again in this city. A water spraying truck moved through the streets playing Christmas Carols, a unique way in non-christian country to alert pedestrians and cyclists. We went up the mountain to visit an old monastery with one 82 year old Lama in residence. He was sent to this monastery by his parents when he was two years old and stayed until he was 42 years old. Later in the evening we were entertained by some musicians who played Naxi-Daoist music. The conductor is 89 years old, 2 musicians were 87 another was 84. The Naxis are realizing that their ancient culture is being lost as newer music,art and the sciences are introduced to the students in school.

Now we are heading back to our hotel to pack for our flight to Kunming. This accommodation was the least attractive so far. It was here that we were served a strange coffee and slices of white bread for breakfast. Our rooms were not very clean and one stairway was blocked due a repair project. The food for our meals was transported by a hand pulled cart from a restaurant to our dining room. Dirty linen and dishes were transported back in the same fashion for washing. It was strange to look out our window and see large kettles of rice traveling down the parking lot to a dining room.



We flew back to Kunming to then take a plane to Chengdu north of Kunming for a day of orientation before flying into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. This was necessary because of the altitude in Tibet and dry air.Chengdu is the largest city in China and boasts a large statue of Mao on the main thoroughfare. Again lots of construction resulting in lots of dust.

We take our flight for Lhasa after an overnight in Chengdu. The mountains surrounding Lhasa are surprisingly bare and brown the hot dry air and bright sun makes us feel like being in a desert.On our long bus ride into the city and our hotel we saw a huge painting on the side of a mountain of a Buddha and on the mountain ridge we could see colorful prayer flags. When we arrived at our hotel, The Holiday Inn, we were greeted by a typical Tibetan welcoming ceremony. People dressed in native costume, the women in bright colored brocade robes and headdresses of the same material fashioned like a helmet with four fur flaps folded back toward head. About a half-dozen yaks skins were being animated by two men with papier-mache yak heads each dancing to the ceremonial music. We were asked to bow our heads so that a white ceremonial scarf could be draped around our necks.

Lhasa is on a plateau of 12,000 feet and has a population of 1,000,000, one third are Chinese. We rode through the city on our way to Tibet University. This University was established in 1951 and the buildings were built in 1985. It has 1300 students and 600 teachers.As we entered the campus and passed student and faculty dormitories, we noticed each entrance had a kettle of hot water heating by the sun shining on a large metal shield

We were introduced to the president and other faculty members and began with an introduction to Tibetan life. By the time we attended our second lecture the next day we knew these people were quite unsophisticated regarding teaching and lecturing. Because we were the second foreign group to visit the campus, we were asked to advise them on their methods. This we willing obliged and suggested using easels with large pads to demonstrate the discussion. We also suggested the use of slides and projectors. Tibetans are used to passing stories and other learning information from generation to generation, thus the awkward and confusing lectures. The lecture room was painted in bright colors and symbolic decoration with tables in front couches so that there is room for the ubiquitous tea pot and cups. Servants strolled among us offering more tea during the lecture.In the library instead of books, the material was on separate sheets packaged with paper and tied with strings. So that on the shelves were many wrapped packages of the same size stacked in piles of 2 or 3. The older documents were in cases with glass doors. New ones were not packaged but had hard covers but with separate pages still tied together. Now we were treated at our meals with more of a Tibetan touch which included yak butter, yak meat and more grain dishes. At many of the dinners a traditional music and dance group entertained us. As we go into the markets and bazaars the Tibetans are in native costumes, young monks with shaven heads and many of the ordinary citizens carrying their prayer wheels. The native costumes are the mid-calf height leather (yak skin) boots with had sewn soft soles, fur lined hats and leather capes . These people were from the rural areas . The city dwellers were inclined toward the western style of dress.

One day in Lhasa we visited the Jokhang Temple which is the focus for a square filled with booths of everything imaginable to buy, produce, clothing, souvenirs, toothbrushes, incense, etc. In the square are people again walking with their prayer wheels, young monks sitting on the curbstone and families doing their marketing. Inside this temple monks were sitting crossed legged on the floor in their yellow robes reciting their prayers or litany. Two monks were at the foot of a statue of a Buddha with long horns stretching at least 10 feet in front of them to be sounded at the appropriate moment. Up on the roof of this temple were two huge gold painted cone-shaped symbols on an open plaza from which one enjoyed a fine view of the busy square. Throughout the temple were the usual stations where prayers were offered and incense burned as an offering to the Buddha. The temple was a classic Asian structure with bright colors and flags and much gold statuary topped by gold painted roofs with finials at the edges and centers.

In the evening, we returned to the University to watch an opera by Tibetan musicians and dancers. It was entertaining and easy to follow because an interpreter explained the story. The music was somewhat uneven but the Tibetans were proud of their talent. The room where the performance was held was in need of paint and windows were broken.Chairs were the folding kind and not too steady. Another reminder of the economic and cultural struggle of these ancient people ripped from their traditions by a harsh conqueror, the communist Chinese.

Other places of interest we visited was a government operated school for boarding students from the kindergarten to the last grade in high school. We visited some of classrooms in low concrete block buildings with bars on the windows. Each classroom had its display of Chairman Mao and other communist leaders. The children took quite an interest in us and were happy and friendly. The kitchen for the school was dark and small with piles of yak dung blocks for fuel and large pots built into ceramic tile stoves. Cleanliness is not a priority in this school. Even though, it was a show-case school but not representative of a school for the majority of the children in the area. Because we witnessed so much poverty and begging in the markets and streets, we were beginning to spectulate about what we weren't allowed to visit.

We were taken to a traditional medical hospital in Lasha.As we walked up the stairs to a room where we would hear about the teaching facility there, we noticed dirt on the floors and dingy walls, even excrement in the corner of a landing. The speaker demonstrated the methods of teaching medicine to potential doctors. Colorful charts with brocade shades that were lifted to reveal diagrams about nervous systems, another about bones, another about foods and what they do in the body. A shrine to a Buddist monk was in a corner of the room. Their methods of cures included, blood letting, herbs, massage, and surgery. The building was built in 1916. At the end of this visit we decided we dare not get sick while in Lhasa. However, when I (Jean) had an infection in the sinuses as many of us did due to the dry dust, I went to the medical doctor in the hotel and he gave me 2 medicines to be taken at certain times.I was cured by the next morning and it only cost $11.00 (American). He couldn't speak English and I couldn't speak Chinese so this diagnostic evaluation was done on paper with drawings.

The week we were in Lhasa was also a highly celebrated week in the Buddhist religion. Tibetans regard this as an important holiday that should be celebrated at least once in a lifetime. The traditional way to celebrate is to prostrate oneself and walk 3 steps repeating this until reaching the statue in the temple to pray. This was going on in heavy traffic throughout Lhasa. On the outskirts were tents and temporary shelters for those that had traveled great distances to observe this holiday. Some people had saved over the years so that they could pay homage to the Buddha in Lhasa.

This particular week also was one for a meeting by the government to be held a block away from our hotel. When we hired a cab to return from the market, the cab driver was not allowed to pass the building where the meeting was being held. Soldiers were evident with guns guarding the whole block. The answer to our question as what was going on, the answer was, "Its some kind of meeting." All claimed not to know just what kind. Punishment is harsh in Tibet if one is suspected of discussing political issues with foreigners or is guilty of having a picture of the Dally Lama. Its not difficult to understand why information is not readily supplied.

We wound up our stay in Lhasa with a visit to the Potala Palace regally situated on a hilltop overlooking the city. The view of the palace from the city, one sees its brown center surrounded by gleaming stuccoed wings and stairways or ramps criss-crossing the hillside to reach the palace. We were not allowed to take pictures inside but the crudeness of the building was striking. The Dali Lama had a small bedroom draped with brocades and a small bed . There are 999 rooms in the palace many of them were for study, worship and ceremonies. The summer palace, in Norbulingka Park, is very open and airy and smaller with the usual collection of reception rooms, prayer rooms, and statues of all the previous Dali Lamas, and Buddhas. The current Dali Lama built this palace in 1954-56 especially for his mother to live in. The carpenter gothic architecture brightly painted in red, yellow, orange and blue give this Victorian style an Asian look. There is a temple that was built in the 7th century in the park for the previous Dali Lamas to live in. The whole complex is now a museum.Bright brocades and tapestries are throughout the buildings.

To end our tour of this mysterious, enigmatic and enchanting land we flew back to Beijing to see the Great Wall and Tian'anmen Square and enjoy a Peking duck dinner.

The Great Wall wanders over the lush green mountain-sides and is another popular tourist attraction. The engineering and building of this crenallated wide stone wall is a phenomenon, especially knowing it was built during the 7th century b.c. and is over 4,000 miles long. Low square stone towers were built periodically along the wall to watch for invaders. As we looked across the miles of mountainous country, we could see tourists walking the wall as it meandered through valleys and climbed up to peaks and ridges.

Our visit to Tian'anmen Square impressed us with its huge plaza surrounded by communist buildings and flags. It once was part of the walled city of Peking . The Chinese communists disliked walls and tore this one down but left the North and South gates. At one side of the square was a building dedicated as a memorial to Mao another building was the people's court. It was appropriate to have the famous demonstration we all heard about in 1989 in this square.

Our final night was a celebration with a Peking duck dinner and strong cordials. We had visited other places, i.e., a carpet shop in Lhasa, a cloissone factory in Beijing but space doesn't allow the inclusion of every adventure. However, this experience has brought home to us how fortunate we are to live in the United States.

Jean and Joe Ehman live in Shepherdstown,WV. Jean wrote while Joe did the recall and research.
Neither aspire to filling the vacancy by Michner's death.


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Stu's World
Updated: March 20, 2010