Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Tibet pictures .....

Tibet is such a photogenic place, with so many interesting, unusual and special sights to see, that I thought I would put an entry of just photos. Enjoy.
Colourful architecutre at the Drepung monastery.

Ty, Jennifer and Sangpo enjoying the traditional Tibetan stove at Rongbuk monastery (Mt. Everest).

Rongbuk Monastery Hotel, 8km from Everest Base Camp.

Mount Everest (or Mount Qomolangma - traditional name)

Herding the goats home for the night. I followed this herd whilst being chased by a stray dog!

Heading home after a hard day's work - typical Tibetan transport.

Another form of transport in Tibet, pony and cart. This woman was thrilled to see her picture on my camera. These boys in Shegar were very keen to practice their English.
Selling yak butter at the Tashilhunpo monastery. The pilgrims offer it to the gods in each chapel.
Typical Tibetan house.
'Jump off the cliff'?? Not a 'Chinglish' error, but a real sign. The Buddhists believe if you jump off this particular cliff, you will go straight to heaven. Hmmmm, I didn't try it.

Artificial lake with prayer flags.

Tibetan woman and baby at the Kharola Glacier.
Yamdrok Lake.

Celebrating Christmas with new found friends (Ty, Jennifer and Fabian) with Tibetan style cheese cake.

The long road to Mount Everest .....

Early on Boxing Day morning, we set off on our road trip to Mount Everest Base Camp. It took us 3 days of driving, with plenty of stops along the way, looking at monasteries and the beautiful Tibetan scenery.
An artificial lake on the way to Everest.

The first stunning sights we saw were a series of lakes with the most amazing turquoise colours. The first lake was Yamdrok lake and the others were all artificially created lakes. The Yamdrok lake has special significance to the Tibetan people, so it is extremely unfortunate that the Chinese have built a hydro power plant, using the water of the Yamdrok and the other nearby lakes. The Chinese presence is widely felt in Tibet and ensures an uncomfortable period of time whenever it is mentioned.

The first glimpse of Everest and her neighbouring 8000m plus peaks.

Along the way, we also stopped at several monasteries, each different in their own unique way. The Pelkor Chode monastery in Gyantse was the most authentic experience so far in our trip. There were no tourists and we were lucky enough to be able to see the monks go about their afternoon prayers (even if it did feel like we were intruding a little). The Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse was another different experience. The monastery was like a medieval walled village, filled with tiny cobbled alley ways. While here, we followed the pilgrims as they walked the kora and enjoyed exploring the little alley ways.

Yes, I was actually there! Prayer flags at Base Camp.

We spent a night in a small village, Shegar, to help us acclimitise before we set off for the big one, Everest Base Camp! The road to Everest was a long, bumpy 100 km of dirt road but we were all so excited that we didn't seem to notice it. We stopped along the way to appreciate the sights - the first glimpse of Mount Everest nearly had me in tears, I was so thrilled to be there.

The happy travellers - Anna, Sangpo, Jennifer, Ty, the driver (we all forgot his name, it means Saturday in Tibetan though!). Note the 'spindrift' coming off the mountain (not cloud). Spindrift is snow blown off the mountain because of the wind - must be pretty windy up there!

We got dropped off at the base camp and spent about half an hour just taking it all in. It is hard to write about it was like just being there. For so long, I have wanted to see Mount Everest, so being there was just so special. The photos really don't do it justice. To think that we were already 5000m above sea level and this majestical mountain was another nearly 4000 m above us , was a little difficult to comprehend. We walked the 8km back to the Rongbuk monastery where we were staying, and my goodness was it a long walk. Despite the herbal medication and the nurofen, I felt like I had been hit by a train. After a rest back at the monastery, I felt well enough to sit outside and enjoy the sunset over Everest. Toilet stops that night were also amazing experiences - I have never seen so many bright, bright stars (no, not even in Wuxi!). Waking up the next morning was extremely special too - we looked outside our hotel room and could watch the sun rise over the mountain, absolutely amazing.

Sunset over Everest, a very special moment.

We began the journey back to Lhasa, all of us having experienced something very special. The dirt road felt a lot bumpier on the way back! The last few days have just been spent driving and looking forward to a hot shower and clean toilets! Clean, warm and hygenic hotels are yet to find their way to Tibet, so we had some interesting accommodation experiences along the way. We have experienced the filthiest of filthy pit toilets with bouncing floors (not what you look forward to in the middle of the night!), no heaters (our record was a night of -4 degrees .... in the room!), rooms with no electricity, hotels with no sinks and the most disappointing of all, a hotel room with an ensuite and a bath ..... but no hot water! Am now back in civilisation and looking forward to NYE with Gunnar back in Wuxi tomorrow night. I hope that everyone is well and enjoying summer!

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Father Christmas and the Michelin Man in Lhasa .....

Yes, it's true, Father Christmas was roaming the streets of Lhasa distributing sweets to everyone! The Michelin Man has also arrived, in the form of myself. I finally got the down jacket out today and with all my layers, I really do resemble the Michelin Man!
Father Christmas on the streets of Lhasa! (Sangpo, our guide, is on the left)
After a delicious breakfast of rice noodle soup with egg, we headed off on a crowded local bus for the Drepung Monestery that once housed the Dalai Lamas before the Potala Palace was built. The Buddhism history is so confusing, there are so many different historical figures to learn about, all with different symbolisms. This visit has only made me even more curious about learning more.
Beautiful scenery at the Drepung Monastery.

One of my favourite things about the monasteries is the architecture. I love the contrast of the white washed walls of the buildings with the mountains and the sky. The doors and windows of many of the buildings are particularly attractive, with their bright colours and intricate painted patterns and carvings. Yellow is a sacred colour in Tibet - only monasteries can use this colour.

Anna, the Michelin Man, at the Drepung Monastery

In the afternoon, we visited the Sera Monastery, home of the debating monks. Unfortunately, they were not having a debate today, so I will just have to come back for another visit! They debate deep philosophical issues such as the existence of 'I', a concept in which Buddhism does not believe.

Happy Tibetan woman with her prayer wheel.

The altitude really seems to zap your energy, so this afternoon I treated myself to a few hours sitting in a local restaurant, drinking hot lemon tea and eating cheese cake (I would have preferred some Christmas pudding!) next to their stove which is fuelled by yak dung.

Blue skies and colourful buildings at Sera Monastery.
Tonight, we are having a dinner together to celebrate Christmas - think I'll be trying the yak burger! After that, I am going to have a massage at the 'Braille without Borders' centre, where all the masseurs are blind. Tomorrow morning, we head off early for Yamdrok lake and then Gyantse.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The epic train journey and the first few days in Lhasa

The journey finally began on Sunday night as I boarded the train for Tibet - 44 hours of nothing to do except read, sleep and enjoy the view! The first day proved to be just that, however the second morning I woke up with some symptoms of altitude sickness, a pounding headache and dizziness - no I hadn't been drinking! Luckily it disappeared when we got off the train on Tuesday night. The scenery on the train was spectacular - brown, deserted hills in China and then snow capped mountains with frozen streams once we hit Tibet. The train travelled along the highest route a train has ever been - 5072 metres above sea level.
Tibetan nomads paying their respects at the Jokhang Temple
After hunting for several hotels to stay at we finally decided upon one, only to pack our bags and leave first thing this morning. The women's bathroom was non-existent, you had to give an hours notice if you wanted a shower and the room was unbelieveably noisy! So, we are now residing at the Yak hotel at $4 a night, with clean bathrooms and 24 hour hot water! We spent our evening (it doesn't get dark until about 7pm even in winter) being swept up in the pilgram circuit around the Barkhor, where the Jokhang Temple is.
Sweet milk tea to warm us up on a cold Tibetan morning. Winter definitely is the time to be here as it is the time when all the nomads come in from the country to pay their respects at the most important Buddhist structures in Tibet. The Tibetan nomads are fascinating looking people - so weathered and wearing traditional clothes, they always have a smile on their face. Knowing the commercialised and materialistic societies that many countries contain now, it is humbling to witness these people who travel so far for something that they so strongly believe in. It is a special feeling to be part of their pilgrimage around these sacred places.
Hanging out with the monks at Jokhang Temple
This morning we visited the Potala Palace, once home to the Dalai Lamas. The walk up was very steep and with the altitude (3550 metres), it made me feel extremely unfit - a lot of huffing and puffing! We then went to the Jokhang Temple, where the smell of yak butter candles is quite powerful. Here, there were queues of nomads lined up to pay their respects to the various Buddhas inside.
Potala Palace in the background.
We have tried some fairly interesting Tibetan food here. The books warned us of bland, tasteless food, but it is actually pretty good! So far we have sampled yak and potato curry, momos (dumplings filled with yak meat), bopis (tortillas made from barley flour and filled with chicken and vegetables), tsampa (sweet barley flour dough) and yak butter tea (a once only experience I think!).
View from the train
It is strange not being home for Christmas, especially when I have just heard that there was a lot of food left over and Christmas pudding ready to eat! It was lovely to speak to everyone though, skype is a wonderful invention! I hope that everyone back at home is enjoying a wonderful Christmas with their families. Love from Tibet.
Another 'fairly average' view from the train!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

More Christmas celebrations....and predictable Chinese flights...

Friday night bought a night of fun and games as the EtonHouse staff settled in at a deserted Australian restaurant to celebrate Christmas. The dinner was a lovely buffet and the Australian red wine went down a treat after a long 11 weeks at school.
Me wearing my long awaited prize (that I didn't even win!) and an off duty Santa. I have promised to wear that stylish beanie/glove set in several photos in Tibet.

Things did get a little silly as the night wore on - there were dart competitions where the darts occasionally missed the board, pool competitions with staff who didn't know how to hold the cue, Rolling Stones impersonations, the 'Bevins' (Tony and I) V the 'Aristocrats' (Pete and Nat) pool game, and some hair styling by a very feminine stylist (Tony) on an unsuspecting model (myself). A lot of fun to finish the year on.

The 'Sexy Beasts' quiz team did okay, however we were a lot more confident in our intellectual abilities than we should have been!
I regretted not packing earlier as I stumbled around with a slight red wine induced headache on Saturday morning. At last I was off though, you can't do any more organising when you are on the plane. Which brings me to an observation of the Chinese whilst flying. The behaviour of the Chinese is very predictable. First, they rush to line up to get onto the plane despite the fact that everyone has a pre-assigned seat. Then they push and shove as they try to store their big gift boxes of dried meats and 100 year old eggs in the overhead locker. They sit down and promptly fall asleep, only wakening to eat several pieces of cake and bread that are usually the snacks. They then fall back asleep and all is calm until mayhem hits again as they all wake up (on cue) just before landing. As soon as the plane hits the ground, seatbelts are off, mobile phones are on and they clamber over one another to get their bags out and wait for 10 minutes with their necks at an unnatural angle under the overhead lockers. The same happens on every flight, very amusing. The Chinese staff enjoy the Christmas party I am now in Chengdu, waiting to board the train for Lhasa tonight. Am so excited about the trip but slightly anxious too. I have wanted to do this trip for so long that I'm a little worried it won't live up to my expectations or that getting altitude sickness will ruin the experience. The train trip is meant to be stunning, it is the world's highest railway with the highest point being just over 5000 metres above sea level. Christmas in Tibet, here I come!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

First annual EtonHouse Christmas party

Wednesday night brought a fun filled night for EtonHouse as we celebrated Christmas as a whole school. Students, parents, teachers, administration staff, cleaners, and drivers were involved in our celebrations. The students sang beautifully and the staff made some attempt to sing in tune - luckily Christine sang well enough to cover up the rest of our out of tune voices!
Year 3 and 4 sing 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer'
The students were very excited to have a visit from Santa Claus (Mr Valentine mysteriously went missing during this time!) and all received a small gift. We all enjoyed an amazing spread of Christmas foods - turkey, ham, potatoes, yum! It was a special feeling to sit back and watch such a large group of people, from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, come together to celebrate. I feel really lucky to be part of this international community.
Teachers relieved that 'Rudolph' is over, sung beautifully with no mistakes!
Today is the last day of school - a half day too! Am looking forward to an afternoon off before our staff Christmas party tonight. Unfortunately the year has ended on a sad note here, one of our Chinese colleagues has finished working at the school and her son, Jack (who is in my class) will leave as well. So, the Kookaburras are down to 8 now.
Even the teachers sang........badly! (notice that I hid at the back?!)

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Christmas in Wuxi .....

Yes, the Christmas spirit has hit Wuxi! Stores, apartments blocks, bars and gyms all over town have dusted off their Christmas decorations (many of which have been hanging there all year!) and gone overboard on the (mostly tacky) decorations.
Gingerbread anyone? 'Ladies Night' at the Sheraton Hotel on Monday night.
The last week of school (yay!) involves several Christmas functions and Christmas carols being heard throughout the halls. It seems quite odd that we allowed to celebrate Christmas at school here in a country where Christmas is traditionally not celebrated, yet at home, it is a big no-no to talk about or celebrate the jolly fat man.
Three of us (the usuals - Amy, Tracy and myself) decided to brave the cold and head into downtown to stuff ourselves full of smoked salmon, lamb stew and mashed potato on Monday night at the Sheraton hotel. This could become a regular night out - Ladies Night, with a half price buffet - a lovely selection of western foods (even if it is with a Chinese twist). The school Christmas party is on tonight and the children are very excited about a visit from Santa Claus. Staff party is on Friday night, my last chance for a Christmas drink before heading off to Tibet where the possibility of AMS (acute mountain sickness) will scare me off having a drink! Hope everyone at home is enjoying a Christmas drink or two.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Sex and the City - Wuxi style ....

After another long week at work (with only 1 week to go till holidays!), it was time for a night of home cooking, bubbles and DVDs at Amy's. After enjoying a beautiful lasagne and bottle of bubbles with strawberries, we quickly moved onto Cosmopolitans and settled in to watch the Sex and the City movie. The movie was quickly forgotten as the Cosmos kept flowing and the girly conversation turned into our own version of Sex and the City, Wuxi style - Wuxi may not be New York, but hey, it was likened to Paris!
Gorgeous girls ready to hit the town!
What a great way to end a week, even if I was unable to leave the couch the next day, I felt very sorry for myself!
The obligatory drunken fashion alterations ...
Gunnar has now gone back to Germany for the Christmas holidays, and although I will miss him, it was lovely to spend a day all by myself today! I have been getting ready for my trip to Tibet, gathering all my warm clothes and hunting down medications for altitude sickness. Can't believe that in just over a week, I will in the Himalayas!
Getting into the Christmas spirit with fairy lights and bubbles
Also went to the supermarkets today (I need to start cooking rather than eating out all the time!) and still haven't gotten used to the fact that everyone wants to look in your trolley to see what a white foreigner will buy! After too much lying around and eating yummy German Christmas breads, I really need to head off to the gym now, and maybe a massage afterwards!

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Wuxi - the Paris of Asia???

Another interesting week has nearly ended - It is hard to believe that it is nearly Christmas holidays already. Today we are farewelling one of our class members - the economic crisis has also hit Wuxi and some of our Korean students have to return home. So, it has been a slightly sad week for the Kookaburras as we say goodbye to Selina.
My Christmas tree in my apartment - the only tree in the store that didn't have neon glowing pine needles!
There is always something happening in Wuxi and last night was no exception. My teaching assistant invited the international teachers to a 'youth salon' opening with the promise of free food and beer. Of course we went! As all Chinese functions are, there was the introduction of the VIPs, several speeches, many photos (Amy and I spent a good 5 minutes posing for the cameras as the token laowais), and glossy books. The way the Wuxi people describe their beloved city is somewhat different to the way the foreigners see it. The book we were given last night described Wuxi as 'a city of ulimate glamour' and likened it to Paris.....um, where are they hiding that part of Wuxi??
Farewelling Selina (in the middle). And then there were nine.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Another weekend in Wuxi .....

No, they are not drugs! Purchases at the 'tea' floor of Hong Mei market.
Enjoying Korean BBQ on Saturday night It was a fairly quiet weekend in Wuxi, after a busy month of weekends with Rob here (who is currently enjoying life in Cesky Krumlov, my favourite spot in Europe, lucky thing!). The weekend began with a very civilised (read - Western!) evening at Uberfood, where we enjoyed numerous glasses of red wine and delicious platters. The bike ride home on a -2 degree night while a little tipsy was not so enjoyable! Saturday was FREEZING, -5 degrees I was told, brrrrr. We ventured out to the Hong Mei markets to buy Christmas decorations but found ourselves exploring (getting lost really!) in the many floors of stores. Each floor is dedicated to a different area, you can buy everything from pots and pans to stationery to clothes to tea. We discovered the 'tea' floor, where we were able to sit and sample many different varieties. After half an hour or so, we walked out laden down with about 5-6 different varieties of green teas and flower teas. We eventually found the Christmras section, where I bought myself a very realistic looking tree and a ridiculous amount of decorations for ridiculously cheap prices. On Saturday night we wandered down to the 'international plaza' (sounds a lot classier than it actually is!) and enjoyed Korean BBQ for dinner. Weekends are so different here for me - at home, most of the weekend is spent outside, walking, playing hockey or at the farm. On Sunday, I didn't leave the apartment until about 5pm - how lazy! And then it was only to go to the gym, get food and have a massage! It's a tough life! Back into another busy week here - Parent Teacher interviews this week. Am having trouble uploading photos here at the moment, so will add some soon - you'll just have to imagine my weekend!

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

It was bound to happen eventually ..........

Yes, I have taken the first fall from my bike! It was just what I needed after saying goodbye to Rob and feeling a little emotional. The Chinese quality of products really is appalling .... a 4 month old bike that is already falling apart - the brakes don't work, the tires are always going flat, it is rusting and the bell is slowly dying. But I am okay, just a little rattled and taking much more care on the roads now (at least until the brakes are fixed!). It has been a bit of a flat week, back to normality I guess. I had a bit of a moment last night when I looked in several shops for a new winter coat, only to find that the XL was too small - all the Chinese women are so small and have no boobs. Quite depressing! I am having 2 of the teachers over for dinner tonight and looking forward to cooking for people and enjoying some nice Australian red wine. I'm also looking forward to going shopping on the weekend for a Christmas tree and decorations. Something else to cheer me up is the planning of my upcoming holidays, really looking forward to getting away from it all here and taking in some beautiful Tibetan and Japanese sights!

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Farewelling Rob.....

It's hard to believe that a whole month has gone by with Rob here. We spent his last weekend here in Shanghai, seeing a few sights and enjoying lots of conversation over bottles of wine. It is so great to be able to go to Shanghai and enjoy some amazing restaurants, there are so many to choose from compared to Wuxi!
Goodbye China, Hello Europe!
The weather was absolutely beautiful - crisp, cold days and blue skies. Perfect for wandering around the tree lined streets of the French Concession and sitting in the sun drinking wine! On Sunday, we visited the Shanghai Art Museum, which is housed in a beautiful old English building which used to house the Shanghai Racing Club in the early 1900s. We were able to enter the museum, despite the entry sign declaring 'no psychopaths allowed (if showing minor symptoms, please be accompanied by a guardian)'!! We saw some amazing and some very strange art and managed to purchase some great books for our school library.
Beginning the weekend with a bottle of white and some delicious Thai food Sunday also brought about another new experience for me, one that I was slightly terrified of - getting a bikini wax done in China! And I had every reason to be terrified - as with many Chinese things, it was a very inefficient and painful process but I won't scare you with the details! We caught up with Ash while in Shanghai - enjoyed a long, lazy lunch in the sun at Element Fresh. He is great, working (and playing!) very hard as always. Continuing drinking with red wine on a roof top bar overlooking the Bund - it was cold! After buying up big on gluten free pasta and Australian red wine at the City Supermarket, I was in a panic to get to the train when I discovered that I clearly did not know how to read 24 hour time - I still had 3 hours till my train left! Obviously, another bottle of red wine needed to be consumed while we waited for the train, reminicised about Rob's time in China and planned for his next visit (bring on Tibet 2010!)
Enjoying the sunshine and a healthy smoothie at Element Fresh
After a very tearful goodbye to Rob, I discovered what it really means to be stared at in China - a semi drunk, crying laowai carrying a box of pasta, wine and books onto the train back to Wuxi is bound to attract some attention. Gunnar was there to comfort me when I got back, but unfortunately he has caught the horrible tummy bug that seems to be going around at the moment, so we were both just as sad and depressed as each other! No more Davidson visits till May next year, will just have to get busy planning a white Christmas in Tibet and January skiing in Japan - it's a hard life here!

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Fish and chips at a French restaurant in China?!

With only a few days to go in China, I decided that we needed to feed Rob up before he heads off to Europe where he'll be living on bread and cheese! So, on Wednesday night, we headed into downtown to Provence, a beautiful French restaurant, where they serve delicious steaks and great red wine (yes, better than the Great Wall red!).
Enjoying some steak and Australian red wine at Provence
I was also lucky enough to have Dom, another friend from Melbourne, visiting as well. Dom ordered the set menu which looks amazing and we were surprised to see the main course being fish and chips!! And wrapped in paper! Not quite what you expect at a French restaurant in China. Tonight we will go to the Banana Leaf, the starting point for many a big night out here in Wuxi. Rob and I are off to Shanghai tomorrow morning, for a last weekend of Chinese sightseeing for Rob. I was very happy to hear that Rob is already planning a return trip to China!