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It’s a small world after all and some thoughts on China. I’m in Beijing at the moment and on my way to Irkutsk. I have decided to skip Mongolia because ironically I have heard such good things about it on my travels so far that it would ill become me not give it the month it deserves! Thus ever onward!

I completely forgot to mention this in my other post but I saw a most peculiar and welcome apparition in an obscure village in Tibet. On the way to Everest Base Camp we stopped off in this little one horse town to refuel in the restaurant and I walk in, turn to my left and see N., a contractor from my old workplace! How bizarre! And yes we had to take a photo to prove it had happened at all. She was on her way to Mt Kailash for the kora and it was great to see her and share some memories! The world is getting smaller…

The other memory was my last one of Tibet. We descended the plateau to the border town (one of the most appallingly designed towns in the world, unfitting as the major land border between China and effectively India). In any case, when we passed through the customs we were thoroughly searched on the way out by young border guards rifling through our copies of the Lonely Planet to see if the Dalai Lama had put anything naughty in there, also going through the photos on some cameras to see if we’d taken piccies of naughty monks or militaries doing what militaries shouldn’t be caught doing. Bit desperate really and not really a ‘thanks for all the memories and come back soon’ moment.

Thoughts on China. China is a complex country with a complex problem: there are too many Chinese. Simply expressed but what does this mean? It may mean that some think a Communist system is the best that China can hope for in the foreseeable future – anything else would end in famine and civil unrest. Most Chinese seem happy and indeed proud of the economic progress that has been made in such a short time. There are many that remember the pain and suffering of the Cultural Revolution. In my old politics lecturer’s words – the Chinese government is ‘reform mongering’ on a slow and steady basis, that is to say allowing the populace incrementally more liberties to release the pressure valve of increasing demands over time as the country becomes wealthier.

Chinese people are very community conscious – the parks are full of people practicing Tai Chi, learning ball room dancing, mass choirs, weird martial arts, hacky sacking, chatting, drinking tea, playing board games and generally utilising the parks to the max – much greater appreciation of ‘the park’ than in NZ in many ways. Anyway, the state institutions in the form of the security apparatus, Communist Party and other arms of Government are too ingrained and widespread for their to be any effective alternatives in the middle future. Every day the newspaper runs articles about naughty officials being executed and investigated for bribery and/or negligence. Always a scapegoat will be found in China lest the public go unappeased….

Shanghai. Is money. A shiny new city currently being scrubbed and rebuilt to an inch of its life in anticipation of the World Expo being held next year. They are spending more on it that the Olympics in Beijing (~US$45 billion) building new subway lines, refurbishing the old colonial buildings, new boardwalk along the Bund and just general big state spending. Lots of well spoken Chinese trying to scam you into having Y1000 cups of tea with them and accompany them along to an art gallery to purchase cheap, derivative and uninspiring Chinese art. Shanghai Museum is one of the best in China and really covers everything you will see in terms of bronzes, calligraphy, ceramics, furniture, jade and paintings. Other than that, it is a commercial city, bland and, typically, demolishing all that is old to replace it with new stuff – the Expo is on next year starting May 1 and no doubt it will be spectacular. If you have the opportunity, it might be worth a nudge.

Beijing. Capital city of China and its center of gravity in many ways. Its so stuffed full of things to see that’s it pretty overwhelming! Flat as a pancake, boulevards incredibly wide and bikes and electric scooters everywhere (petrol ones are pretty much banned) with great wide bike lanes everywhere. I stayed nearby Tian’anmen Square which was awesome. The Chinese do things on a large scale in Beijing. The main road past the Forbidden City is about 16 lanes wide, the buildings just enormous (but squat) and the public transport is fantastic – a legacy of the Olympic Games.

Visited the Great Wall, a ‘secret’ place away from the crowded, shiny new restored places. Our group were the only ones climbing the wall as far as we could see, really beautiful and such an impressive engineering achievement, built on the bones of millions of worthless peasants.

The Forbidden City. Wow. Massive and fascinating. Spent the best part of a day here and was blown away. Its got lots of nooks and crannies you can chill out in, large displays of stuff (you know, ornate useless things that royal families tend to collect) and lots of tourists.

798. This is the contemporary art district in Beijing. Wickedly cool (‘post-industrial chic’ apparently) with dozens of art galleries and cafes and cool shops selling stuff that is actually cool. As an art buff myself, I am devoting a full day to it on Saturday for their annual art fair. 798 is highly recommended if you like art.

Train. Damn trains. Missed my train to Russia after drinking all night and sleeping in. I am now booked on the Trans Manchurian, a clunker that will take 63 hours to reach Irkutsk. Stocking up on Dostoevsky and biscuits.

In a postscript – I decided randomly to go running at 1am around Beijing, we (yes there was another mad marathon runner who wanted some training…) ran alongside the moat of the City, a beautiful experience and something I recommend – the streets are just so smog-laden during the day that its hard to see more than 300m if its bad.

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Leaving Nepal now, destination Shanghai – financial engine for the East! 10 days in Kathmandu was too long, wish I’d been able to go on a trek. Insh’Allah!

Sera and Drepung. The Drepung Monastery was once the largest religious monastery in the world with over 10,000 monks in residence. Now it seems sadly quiet with only around 300 and China strictly vets who else may apply for entry. The place is close to Lhasa and houses some nice relics as well as CCTV cameras, even in the chapels. The toilets are rooted firmly in the Middle Ages, simple holes in the ground falling a story and where the monks use it for manure.

The Sera Monastery is famed for its debating monks. It consists of a fascinating hand slapping and gesturing whenever a point is made to the seated recipient and is loud, boisterous and fun. They debate such philosophical questions such as INSERT. Juxtaposed with this charming picture is the zoo of photographing tourists surrounding the novices. The scene made me think of Schrodinger’s Cat or how merely observing a phenomenon changes. Fulfilling Beijing’s wish that every religious institutions is reduced to a tourist destination where Disney actors play in a model monastery.

Namsto Lake. This holy lake is north of Lhasa and on the way we stopped at a local fair/horse and yak riding festival. No horses but I did see quoits being played for prizes, got shot at by a Tibetan boy with a BB gun and saw a riotous display of clothing worn by various Tibetan minorities. Namsto at 4700m altitude is enormous, actually the second largest lake in China and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a holy lake for Buddhists and there are many prayer flags and scarves draped around some sacred rocks. Pilgrims wander along the lake past photogenic yaks and on the opposite shore a chain of hills underlie the tallest mountain in the region at 7117m. The lake disappears at one end into the horizon and the atmosphere is calm and contemplative. No swimming unfortunately – my dipping of toes was sternly told off. Not so cold through, Lake Tarawera-esque.

Everest Base Camp. Spectacular. A long drive to get here through rugged, arid country dotted with oases of We stayed in the ‘Mont Blanc’ a yak tent hotel with our beds arrayed around a yak dung powered stove, togged up against the cold. The tent city is nestled between the arid valley walls, once the path of a large glacier, and now channeling a small steam gently moseying down from Mount Qomolangma – the local name for Everest. Hot damn! The sight was inspiring and beautiful and to me a personal highlight of my trip so far. I’ll let you into a secret – at this altitude colour appear more vivid, crisper, brighter and somehow  … just more colourful. The pinky orange glow of the sun setting like a scarf around Everest, the blue, blue, blue and white of the cloudy sky, the innumerable shades of brown, burnt russet – remnants of ancient rocks slowly crumbling into the valleys. The drive to Nepal was awesome – amazing how the landscape changes so much. The road was pretty dodgy and the potholes bounding us all over the places with sheer precipices on one side and imminent landslides threatening constantly.

Nepal. Poor, unfortunate and corrupt but with a wealth of resources, chiefly in its abundant water for generating hydro power. Subsequently of course, it’s a pawn in the regional great game between China and India both desirous of possessing it as a client state. Nepal of course happy to stay as a buffer and play them off against each other. Hilarious (but deadly serious) headline in the latest Nepali English-language newspaper – Nepali PM promises Chinese Politburo visitor to crack down on anti-China activities in Nepal e.g. Tibetan activists. Lots to see – Kathmandu is old and has a fascinating history in its own right.

Durbar Square chock-a-block with  Buddhist and Hindu temples, naff souvenir shops and erotic carvings. We were there for Indra Jatra, a Hindu festival, worshipping Lord Indra, the god of rain and the king of heaven. Went to the main event where the PM and all the ambassadors were and a few thousand Nepalis all going spare to snatch a sight of the Kumari – a living goddess who gets carted around for an hour in a golden chariot thing hauled by dozens of people. Oh and she is only 4 years old and only stays priestess until she reaches puberty and then she’s booted out with her family from the palace she lives in.

Former Royal Palace in Kathmandu. For those of you unfamiliar with Nepali politics – the king is dead, long live republicanism! The former king’s palace in central Kathmandu is now a museum. The previous king being somewhat unpopular. The lawn is uncut, the ground unkempt and the building itself slowly moldering away under a Government keen to expunge royal from all participation in today’s chaotic modern Nepal and establish its post-monarchist credentials. Fashionably dated décor and a razed dining outhouse where the royal family were massacred in 2001 thronged with school kids completing their assignments by noting where Prince X and King Y’s bodies where found. Opulent and sad – the family photos of the King and Queen were still at their bedside, the collected works of H.G. Wells and George Orwell in the library (yay!), group photos with Tito,  Ceauşescu and the President of the Maldives line the corridors. All in a good political student’s day!