Thursday, August 28, 2014

Traveling with Family: Tibet, Taishan, and Hong Kong

Bouldering at Mt. Everest

August 7th, the busiest day of my summer, I met my family at the East Gate of Sichuan University. Having come directly from EcoCamp early that morning and talking to the PC China 20s about some business during the day, I was pretty tired. The exhaustion of a month of traveling and working was catching up with me quickly. But you can't have your family fly to the opposite side of the world to see you sleep. That night I arranged for my family to have a home cooked meal at my Chengdu host family's house. As custom demands in Sichuan, every dish was loaded with chili, meat, indistinct animal entrails and appendages, beers all around the table, a bottle of 20 year old rice wine, CCTV,  and a heavy language barrier specific to Chengdu. Funny thing. . . my mom speaks Chinese. Honestly, I had no clue that she spoke (at a level near proficient) until we sat down at the table. 

Rare Golden Peak of Mt. Everest

For not speaking Chinese in nearly 30 years, I have to say, not bad. To put a cap on our day, we decided that we had to rush to Chengdu East Train Station to buy bullet train tickets to Chongqing for the morning, in our inebriation and fatigue (except my mom, she is a teetotaler). After we got to the hostel, my family passed out from jet lag and the Chengdu heat and humidity, but I still had to go out and see off some great friends and volunteers. 

Stoopin' Ladies In My Chinese Family's Ancestral Village, Guangdong Province

We left our hostel at 5am in the morning, after a train and long bus, we arrived in Wanzhou just before dusk. We immediately went to have dinner with my colleagues. The food was meaty and spicy like Chongqing promises. My family experienced the first instance of a conversation topic that would pervade all other conversations with Chinese people: "You (Jack) look like a Chinese, you (Eddie, my middle brother) look like a Chinese but you are very big and strong, and you (Ian, my youngest brother) do not look like a Chinese at all, you look like a foreigner. And, you their mother. You are very amazing for raising three sons." 

Putting On Rock Shoes at Chung Hom Kok, Hong Kong

In the next couple days I took my family to meet a couple of my local friends and ate the local specialty foods. On the third day, I got the bright idea go hiking before lunch. We were to hike Peace Mountain. What usually takes an hour up and 30mins. down took four hours both ways. As it turns out, trees and thorn bushes have a way of completely inundating trails during the summer in tropical climates. After emerging from the mountain covered in cuts, bites, sweat, and foliage we were over an hour late for lunch. Sometimes traveling with me is tasking.

Bouldering at Ha Fa Shan, Hong Kong

The Big Buddha in Lantau, Hong Kong

My family seeing where I work and live was only a small part our our trip. When I was very young I remember my dad saying that his dream trip was to go mountain biking in Tibet. To get lost in the mountains and camp (like when he circumambulated the coast of Ireland one summer). If it were not for government restrictions, we would have done this trip his way, but a paid tour would have to suffice for now. 

Bouldering at Shek O Beach, Hong Kong

After traveling in Tibet for a little over a week, we were to fly to Guangdong Province and visit our Chinese family's ancestral villages in Taishan County. Next we were to meet some friends in Hong Kong and then Eddie would go back to Grinnell for football camp and Ian to start a new semester at Sarah Lawrence. 

Bouldering at Tai Tau Chau, Hong Kong

1. Nine Days in Tibet With My Family:

At Potala Palace

Our guided tour in Tibet was excellent. But, I think it would have been much less if it were not for our tour guide. He knew all his history, was punctual, brought us to great places, and was fine with letting us break schedule when we felt like it. More importantly he was passionate about being Tibetan, he was witty and opinionated. His disregard for political correctness made what could have been a safari like tour of scenery and the things living in it, lively, or human. I cannot discuss our conversations or those of the Tibetan people I spoke with because of my position in the PC, but I'll let you know that the Tibet we read about, the Tibet we imagine in our heads will not exist in twenty years. This is very real. We started our tour by flying to the capital, Lhasa. 

A Pilgrim at Potala

A classic Tibetan pilgrimage is unlike that of Christianity or Islam. From the far reaches of the Tibetan west to the cowboys of the eastern mountains, the pilgrims stand, say an incantation as they bow, and then prostrate their body, get back up, and repeat until they reach Lhasa. Quite literally, I heard them comparing the motions to that of an inchworm, small and humble. Pilgrims bring money in small bills and yak's butter (for candles in the temples) as tribute.

I heard one man say that the Tibetans invented travel. Now that there are cars all over Tibet and since the Chinese government has start to develop better transportation infrastructure, pilgrimages have become easier for the old. But some still walk because they hold to tradition or simply, "Tibetans were built to walk," as said by our guide. 

Monks debate on a deep level with language beyond the level of an ordinary Tibetans', at Sera Monastery. From all the Tibetans I spoke with, I got an impression that there is a common mentality or understanding that they do not understand anything about the world or life. That they are nothing. The monks are like their parents, they guide them though life. 

The story goes that before 700AD the Tibetans were a bunch of barbarians chopping each others limbs off, robbing, and doing unspeakable things, just as the rest of the world was doing. Then Buddhism came from India. The king adopted Buddhism and the people were pacified. The way it was explained to me is that Buddha saved the Tibetans from themselves. When you look around Tibet the history of violence still exists. There are still thousand year old abandoned forts perched in the hills in the valleys with the contours of siege. 

 If you were wondering where you can buy Spongebob Strawberry Butter, go to Lhasa

-En Route to Everest
 A Dog and Mountains. *Rawr*

A couple of the big hits on our itinerary includ Shigatse, Tibet's second biggest city and Everest Base Camp One. It would take two days of driving to get from Lhasa to Everest. All the little pit stops on the way to and from Lhasa are worth a trip in themselves. 

Eddie, Ian, and Dog 

This pass is called the 'Gateway to the Himalayas.' It was the highest point of our trip coming in at around 5800m, I think.

 Ian at a pass. At each pass there is a little group of Tibetans who live there year round. They live in tents with their families. Interesting fact: many women that live in these tents have two or more husbands. Usually one or two of the husbands stays around to man the fort but the others go off to work. In recent times the onset of romantic love has thrown these marital traditions into oblivion

 Ecologically, the Tibetan Plateau is a fascinating place. Depending on the placement of the mountains, some valleys will be fertile like the one pictured above, while the neighboring valleys are dry, rocky, and barren

During pit stops some go to the bathroom while some do Taichi 

In case you don't know, everybody in my family is a super nerd. In this picture I think my mom is lecturing our British travel mate on drainage in mountains

Yak Yak Yak

 When we stopped there was a Yak mating display going on in this herd. Me trying to integrate on a rock. The driver and our tour guide thought this was the funniest thing 


 Ian at Yamdrok Lake. Yak

During our picnic at Yamdrok Lake I went for a hike. On this trip I learned that I do surprisingly well in high altitudes, considering I've spent all my life at 0. I kinda just jogged up there. I think the elevation is around 5400m. 

 Glacier and Stone House. What you don't see in this picture is all of the Chinese tourists and the tourates trying to see you cheap vaneered goods 

 Yes. That is a fort in the lake 

 Fort of Gyantse

 Eddie and I walked out to this field outside of a barley mill to find this cow. Moments later an old Tibetan farmer approached us and tried to run our pockets. I didn't know whether to laugh or just give him some money.

 The fact is that there is an overwhelming presence of Chinese military police in Tibet. There are check points every hour or so, especially on the "Friendship Highway," linking to Nepal. It is illegal to take photos of the check points for unclear reasons, so here is a picture of what it looks like when you turn around and take a picture. Not a bad place to get stopped by police 

 This mound is what preconstruction looks like in Tibet. We were told that if one wants to build a house or building, the family must build this little mound and then bring two monks to bless it 

After two days of driving, finally we arrived at Everest

-Bouldering at Mt. Everest
 The bouldering at Everest is phenomenal. The holds and the quality of the rock is some of the best I have experienced in China to date. All of these boulders are with in 2 minutes walking distance from the shantytown of tents below Everest Base Camp One. All of the problems I put up are V1 at least 

Eddie and Sky

 There is potential for much more difficult problems. There is a 20ft. highball in this field (I don't have a picture of it). There is another boulder field just above the tent area with many more boulders, which you can see from the tent area 

Here is a small part of the boulder field. You can see the tents from here. There are a lot of military police in the area. I heard that they probably won't care if you boulder as long as you are in this field. Venturing outside of this area might bring you some trouble though. Security is pretty tight for Americans in Tibet, so if you are American you should probably talk to your guide before you boulder 

Traverse from low right to left 

With cliche, I am calling this problem, "Roof of the World." It is the same boulder in the first picture of this post. It could possibly be V2. It is a sit start

 A word on bouldering at Everest. If you want to boulder here you should bring pads if you want to do anything harder than V1. The ground is very rocky and makes for a crappy landing. The rock is also very cold and when the wind kicks up your hands cramp, so again bring pads because the rock is generally smooth and your hands might be slipping without you realizing it. I wasn't as phased as I thought I would be, but the altitude limits your power 

-With Family and the Rare Golden Peak
 The crowning joy of Everest on the China side is the golden peak at dusk. The way the sun sets over the western mountains allows just enough sunlight to ignite Everest's peak for 15-20 mins. If you can imagine a lot of natural things have to fall perfectly inline for this to occur. Our guide said that you can only see the golden peak about 30 percent of the time  

Only a few nuns live at this monastery below Everest. Since the nuns don't have any money they get really excited when the tour guides come along so they can barrow their cell phones to call home. One of the nuns was trying on my brothers Polo hat, but sadly we forgot to give it to her before we left 

 This hole in the floor leads to an underground temple

 This temple is 1300 years old

 The Golden Peak

 Flowers of Everest. These guys are tough

 I did a little hiking by myself in the morning and found this abandoned stone house

 Two dogs followed my mom on the walk from the tent area to Everest Base Camp One

 Mom and I

 Namgyaal and I

To all the photographers out there. This pool of water is great for reflection photos. I waited there for 20 minutes trying to get a clear picture, alas. Maybe you can get it :)

 Traveling in Tibet is unnerving because you pay an exorbitant amount of money to sit in a car for more than half of your trip while having to constantly be stopped by police. But, all of it is worth it when you see the stars. The pepper trail of the Milky Way rips right to left all the way across the black sky. Every constellation is illuminated. You imagine all the thinkers from across the ages looking up at the exact same structure of the universe. It leads you to think that really, in the grand scheme of things, nothing has changed. The universe will remain as untouched as it was before you were born, as it will be after you are gone.

 2. Taishan, Guangdong Province: Visiting Our Ancestral Villages 

Our next goal was to go back to our roots. First, a little backstory. My mother's parents, who are both ethnically Chinese were born in the US. But both of their families are from neighboring villages in Taishan, Guangdong Province. For all the normal people who don't know anything about Chinese immigration in the US, up until the early 1990's, it is said that something like 30 percent of the Chinese in the US had come from Taishan. Even today, it is not uncommon for me to meet an ABC in the US who has the same roots. Anyways, we went to meet our family. 

Explaining exactly who those three in the back are is very confusing and I'd rather not burden you with the thinking, but they are from my grandfather's side of the family. Also, Guangdong style brunch, you all know it, Dim sum. 

 Packing goodie bags to give to the relatives in the villages

-Visiting My Chinese Grandfather's Village
 Eddie modeling and the house my great grandmother grew up in before she immigrated to the US

 Some of the relatives. My great grandmother's picture is hanging on the wall above center. She lived until she was 102 years old and won the U.S. Mother of the Year award. I think some of her things are in the Smithsonian now. Also, a scholar recently published an academic article on her achievement as being a mechanism of US foreign policy. . . 

As you can see, Ian has inherited the no smiling gene ;)

 It was a trip to see what the family that had stayed behind manifested into. Also, the whole time I was there I felt like I was in a Hong Kong martial arts film. The old buildings set the perfect scene

-Visiting the Moy Family Village
 We don't know the Moys, but their village is right next door to ours. Many HK movies have been filmed here. Yes, it looks like a Hollywood set, but those houses are old and people still live in them 

 I don't think you can see from here, but that aunt has a solid gold grill :)

 We had boiled chicken and warm honey-tea tofu for lunch

-Visiting My Chinese Grandmother's Village
 Even though my grandma's house has been renovated, there still remains some traditional things

 A painting of my great grandfather. He was a merchant. It was painted in the US and taken back to China

 The 'Old Building,' as they call it. It functioned as a community center over 100 years ago. There are kitchens, multiple levels, chambers, and a stage on the inside
We had these devil shrimp lookin' things for dinner
3. Hong Kong
To experience a less rural side of Asia, we went to Hong Kong. Other than the Chinese people, HK is nothing like China. Much of the food is foreign, the people are foreign, the idea of civil society is different. HK is an impressive international metropolis. My family only stayed in HK for two days and then they would head back to the US. I stayed for an additional four days. We had a great time. The days were spent doing touristy things, while the nights were spent seeing different rooftop bars 

 At a small fishing village. My mom's former employee, Adam, an English guy, has lived in HK for five years now. He was an excellent guide and I stayed with him for the remainder of my trip

 The Big Buddha

 The weather gods honestly smile upon me. I have had nothing but unbelievable weather this whole summer

The government is building a bridge from HK to Macau. I wouldn't be surprised if it was one of the longest bridges in the world 

-Waterfall Hiking in Lantau Island
 After my family left I met up with Nina, who I met on my trip to Western Sichuan this summer with the other PCVs. We went with Adam's hiking crew to Lantau Island to hike up a waterfall/river. I didn't know how intense the hike would be until we got there. For the whole hike you were either jumping from rock to rock, walking though knee level water, or wading/swimming up the river

 -Hiking and Bouldering at Chung Hom Kok
 The next day Nina and I planned on hiking part of the HK's famous, Dragon's Back Trail to Shek O Beach to go bouldering. We missed a turn and wound up at near Chung Hom Kok Park. There is developed bouldering at a secluded beach, but getting to that beach involved walking around a little mountain. We decided to hike the shorter coastline route to get there. But we didn't know how dangerous that hike is. We encountered a pack of large and angry dogs and a lot of very steep rock faces that if we had fallen meant a rough 20ft. fall directly into the bay. To all the climbers, even if the guide says you can, I strongly discourage taking the coastline route. 

 Cheng Hom Kok Beach. There is another section for bouldering that wraps around to the left. The boulders here are rough and very slopy. If you are like me and horrible at slopers and vertical edges, I don't know if this is the place for you. In my opinion, I think almost every problem in the guidebook was underrated. The problems here are more difficult than the ratings. Regardless, look how beautiful this place is. Plus, you can imagine yourself setting the first problem on "Mothership," if you can guess which boulder

 Even though I couldn't really do anything here, I still tried

 We stuck to traverses 

More failed attempts haha

 Again, I've gotten so lucky this summer. I think this is Repulse Bay, HK Island

 One of Adam's cats. Both were put on diets when I got there

-Bouldering at Ha Fa Shan

 I should have taken a rest day, but I only had so much time so I went to find the boulders at the top of Ha Fa Shan in the New Territories. As you can see the New Territories are fairly rural. They are much more peaceful than Kowloon or HK Island. The people here are much more like rural Chinese, they smile at you because you are there. 

 Exhausted and dripping sweat in the humidity and sun I sat at the top of Ha Fa Shan for a while. I was pretty drained and couldn't do much bouldering, but the view and breeze was worth the hike

 I tried a few problems, but my core was giving out. So I just sat and thought about what a good camping spot this would be

The bouldering guide does not make this clear so here is a picture of the path you need to take to get to the top. The guide says to take the first right after the bridge. That right leads you to a pack of guard dogs. This is the next right
 Also, to clarify, that little indentation on the right is the trail that leads to the top of Ha Fa Shan.  

-Bouldering at Shek O
Shek O is gorgeous. It is a small beach village on the south eastern end of HK Island. If you go to HK you must check it out. No.9 bus from the MTR will take you directly there. Even though I was still exhausted, I mustered enough strength to send around 15 problems, one of which was a V4, a new difficulty level for me. I pretty much just sat at this beach all day and worked on bouldering problems. It was the perfect way to end my summer 

 Bad taping

I had an amazing summer. From start to finish. Working and traveling. I think I was only in my apartment for three days over the period of two months. I recognize how special it was and I hope I can continue to have similar summers in the future. 

 To all the volunteers, thanks for hanging out with me. I had a great time and it wouldn't have been the same without you. We'll make this year as great as the last. To my family, also an amazing time, even though there were some rough points en route with the altitude and all haha. We accomplished a lot of things that needed to be done. Good luck at school Eddie and Ian. Miss you guys already. Adam, thanks for housing me. Nina, thanks for hanging out with me everyday. Exploring HK was awesome!

If you have gotten this far, thanks for reading! Apply to the Peace Corps!!!