There's more to yak-butter tea in Lhasa. Who knew? It was a welcome surprise to have choices such as Tibetan sweet black tea or lemon honey tea. Drinking tea with the locals is a true pleasure. Skip the bad coffee at the breakfast buffet and seek out Sapa Teahouse in Lhasa for your caffeine hit.
June in China sees the onset of real summer weather in China. It is also one of the wettest months of the year for all of China. The temps start to tick upward and the humidity will bring out the forehead sweat. It's still cooler and less humid than July or August, but you'll need to have your hankie handy to dab at the brow.
On a more pleasant note, June 1 is Children's Day and throughout China you'll see hundreds of kids crowding the parks and playgrounds. There are dozens of activities for kids in China, but you may want to avoid them on June 1 - kids will be out in crowds!
Enjoy China in June!
Photo: A few of those cute kids out and about in Shanghai. © Sara Naumann, all rights reserved.
The blue sky of Shanghai has nothing on Lhasa's. Perhaps it's the filter of air pollution that shrouds Shanghai? More probably it's the humidity, the human density, the lack of white puffy clouds. Not to be cynical - but re-entry into such an urban landscape is difficult after over a week in beautiful, amazing Tibet.
I had the pleasure of going to Lhasa and beyond with Tibet Vista (tibettravel.org) on their 8-Day Everest Base Camp tour. It was nothing short of amazing.
Read more: Travel Vista's 8-Day Tibet EBC Tour
Photo - a typical sky during our stay in Tibet. Photo by Sara Naumann - 2014. All rights reserved.
This weekend marks the 2014 Dragon Boat Holiday. Folks get Monday, June 2 off work and school to give us a three-day holiday.
The legend behind the Dragon Boat festival tells of a beloved official drowning himself when he heard his side lost an important battle. His people were so upset that they threw food to the fish so that they wouldn't touch his body and raced to recover his body in long, narrow boats (like today's dragon boats). So today, folks make and eat zongzi to symbolize the food the people threw to the fish.
You can buy zongzi at any time of the year but they're traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival. Filled with sticky rice and either pork and vegetables or red beans, they're glutinous, mushy and delicious. These days, you can even buy fancy zongzi. I heard today of one selling for 1299rmb. I wonder what it is filled with.
While there are small celebrations here on the mainland, it seems like the biggest ceremony is put on how to make the zongzi look tidy. But Hong Kong is a great place to take part in Dragon Boat Festival activities. Read more about the festival in Hong Kong from Hong Kong Guide, Rory Boland.
Photo - dragon boat boxes of zongzi at a local supermarket in Shanghai. Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.
We arrived late in the afternoon with only just enough time for a short visit without our guide as he had to run to make our permits to go to Everest Base Camp. So the ten of us entered the monastery compound ourselves, making our own way up the white-washed stone alleys to the main temple.
Mesmerized after viewing the enormous 25-meter-tall Maitreya (future Buddha) statue, I thought perhaps I'd seen the highlight. The compound is a maze of alleys and temples and as we walked down one long hallway lit only by single lightbulbs hanging from the wooden ceiling, we were passed by a monk wearing his yellow hat and robe on hurrying on his way somewhere. We followed him, meeting up with the rest of our group and as we assembled outside the main assembly hall, so did slowly, about 40 other, mostly young looking monks.
Tourists from all over descended on the small terrace outside the hall in a frenzy of photo-taking as the monks took off their red boots and began chanting. A few minutes later, they went inside the assembly hall to say their prayers. I followed the tourists inside as we circumambulated the hall, the monks chanting.
Our visit to Tashilhunpo granted us a view of monks in action, something we hadn't yet witnessed except at Sera Monastery in Lhasa where we caught the monk debates. But hearing the chants and seeing the monks in their yellow garb felt like a gift.
They tell you to take it easy on your first days in Lhasa. Everyone says the altitude will get to you and that you should try to move slowly and breath deeply. You're not even supposed to take a shower on your first evening - though I never did get a good explanation of why that is. Don't smoke, don't drink alcohol and rest. But how can you rest when you've got the blue skies and the Potala Palace beckoning you to do anything but rest?
That said, my body doesn't let me do much. There's no need for alcohol because when you land at nearly 4,000 meters, the effect is much the same. It's been just about 24 hours since we touched down we're all a little wobbly on our feet and have halo-headaches not very different from the morning after a night of good fun.
I've had moments of giddiness today and moments where I thought I would break down and cry - a euphoric feeling that I can't quite decide comes from the altitude or the overwhelming feeling of being somewhere very, very special. The sense of devotion is profound.
This morning our first stop was the Jokhang Temple, one of the most holy places in Tibetan Buddhism. Outside while we snapped photos, hundreds of pilgrims made full-body prostrations facing the temple. While at first sight, it seems otherworldly, in fact, it is a form of physical devotion that is actually quite understandable. We asked permission from our guide and he taught us how to make the prostration.
Hands together, first you put them to your head, then your forehead, then your chin and finally your heart. Then, kneel on the ground and with your hands on the ground, slide your whole body forward until your forehead is on the ground. Get up, repeat. This exercise performed on my first morning in the bright sunlight with many others, made me on a very superficial level feel that I am more than a mere visitor, that I was somehow taking part in life here.
In reality, of course, I am a mere tourist, coming into to this beautiful place for a tiny moment in time just to see bits and pieces. But doing the prostrations almost brought me to tears, possibly brought on by less oxygen and more exercise, but perhaps, I like to think, encouraged by touching briefly, a community of devotion.
There's another long weekend coming up at the end of the month, the Dragon Boat Festival. The long weekend takes place this year from May 31 through June 2. It'll be time to steam the zongzi and watch the races. If you're looking for a nice place to enjoy the long weekend in China with your family, consider Wuyishan. It's a great location to enjoy the outside with kids and you actually don't have to do much: just bring some water shoes and fishing nets and watch the kids play.
More about Wuyishan for Families with Kids
Photo: caves to explore with the kids in Wuyishan. Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.
I'm in the midst of arranging a tour to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) for next month with nine other women. We're all residents of China; we're all seasoned travelers. There's a "rule" that you have to go to Tibet with a travel agency but I had always thought that I'd do all the bookings myself; I didn't really want to be organized by someone else. I wanted to dictate the itinerary.
Well, let me just say that I am being schooled in the art of Tibet Travel. Very fortunately, I have been invited to visit the region with TibetTravel.org. The operator contacted me months ago to ask me if I'd like to review their services. We've been talking since then but working on a daily basis to get everything organized for the last four weeks. And it's a much bigger task than I had imagined.
First, foreigners can't even look at flight itineraries to Lhasa. If you try to search on the CTrip English site, you won't even see available flights. If you can read Chinese, you can at least see the options but can't book individually. In March I called China Eastern Airlines, one of two airlines servicing the Shanghai-Lhasa route, and was told perfunctorily that all the flights in May were completely sold out. Panicked, I called TibetTravel.org and they assured me that they could book the flights. (Booking train tickets is slightly easier for foreigners but these are only sold ten days in advance of the date of travel.)
Foreigners traveling to Tibet are required to get a special visa called the Tibet Travel Permit (TTP). An individual can't obtain this without the help of an agency. Foreigners residing in China are required to submit extra paperwork to obtain the TTP - something I had no idea about until we started the process - while visitors on a tourist visa don't.
Our paperwork has now been submitted and we've been assured the permits will come through. The agent has booked our flights and our itinerary is all arranged. And while I bill myself a DIY traveler, I'm very grateful for the vigilance and assistance that TibetTravel.org has given us so far. I've exchanged a massive amount of emails and messages per day trying to get the tour for the ten of us organized and they've been absolutely brilliant so far. With the travel bureaucracy that is in place through the Chinese government, traveling to the TAR is simply not something an individual can do without a lot of assistance. So finding a good agency is extremely important.
Now it's time to think about packing!
Photo by Lincoln Schroth & Megan Inman. All rights reserved.
I was very excited to go away to Wuyishan not just to see a new place and get away with friends, I also love my Chinese Tea. And as any reader of my blog and site know, I often try to seek out tea-related travel. Tea is just one of those quintessential things that can't be teased out of Chinese culture - it's intrinsic. And while that's lost on travelers who spend all their time in big cities, get out to rural China and it becomes quite apparent just how much tea means to folks.
Looking forward to my trip to Wuyishan, I wanted to see the famous Da Hong Pao tea bushes that supposedly date back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). I wanted to drink the famous oolong teas that come from Wuyishan, especially my favorite, Rou Gui. I wanted to walk among the tea plants and fondle their leaves. I wanted to buy a lot of tea.
I didn't get to do everything on my list but we did manage to see some tea bushes and drink a lot of tea. As we walked on our first day to Tian You Peak to do a hike, we passed a lovely little garden off to the side. My friend pointed out that it used to be the honored tea garden of the first emperor of the Yuan Dynasty. "Kublai Khan?" I asked. The very same, I was told. Well, I didn't reckon on walking by Mr. Khan's very own tea bushes and this was quite exciting indeed. I didn't have much time to play amongst the bushes as the rest of the group, including my kids, was moving along to the trail head.
Another highlight was the tea drinking we did. At the peak of an afternoon hike up to an old temple, we were invited into the temple keeper's room to have tea. He had a little gongfu cha set and it seemed like maybe he didn't get many visitors. He served us red tea collected from wild bushes around the temple and we savored it inside his little room while the kids played outside.
Equally enjoyable was our visit to the tea manufacturers of Jiu Ye or "Nine Leaves" (九叶). Here we got to sample extensively from their tea collection including oolongs such as Rou Gui, Tieluohan and Shui Xian. Our hostess tried to explain a lot of the differences between the varieties and words like "rock tea", Da Hong Pao blends and "Qing Cha" were thrown around but my Mandarin is not quite good enough to understand all the meanings. This is an area I'm going to have to research further.
In the end I didn't get to see the ancient Da Hong Pao bushes, nor did I end up with time to shop for any tea. We filled the rest of our time up with amazing hikes through the gorgeous scenery in Wuyishan, a fun raft-ride down the Jiuqu River and lots of meals of local specialties.
Photos: above - Kublai Khan's tea garden, middle - temple keeper pours red tea, bottom - oolong teas from Jiu Ye. All photos by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.
We were in Wuyishan, Fujian Province, for the three-day Qing Ming holiday at the beginning of the month and I'm only now recovered. It was one of the busiest three days of "vacation" I've had in a while. Typically when I'm on the road with the kids I choose one activity, two at most and we always end up back at the hotel for a rest and play.
This time we were traveling with a few families, all with kids, and we just kept busy and going. The kids loved it - even when we adults were taking our time over a large meal, the kids busied themselves playing in the restaurant or the parking lot! But eating aside, we did plenty: hiking, walking, rafting, seeing waterfalls and monkeys, playing in the river and watching the Impression Da Hong Pao show.
I had my doubts: after a full day of touring, I thought if we all sit down to an 8pm show, the kids will be asleep in minutes. But one doesn't fall asleep in a Zhang Yimou show. The kids and adults were mesmerized.
Da Hong Pao is the most famous tea variety coming out of Wuyishan so the whole show celebrates the area's tea and tea culture. Even though I couldn't understand every word, I certainly got the meaning and at the end, even a sip of Da Hong Pao.
Quicklink: Impression Da Hong Pao
Photos: from the show Impression Da Hong Pao, performed nightly in Wuyishan. Photos by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.