Updated by Linda McMillan
Saturday, April 29,
Today we used the morning to purchase some last-minute gifts for friends, checked out of the Himalayan Hotel, and had lunch again at the little climbing motif restaurant nearby. It took about a hour to drive to the airport, quite a distance out of town. On the way, we passed Army convoys decorated for the holiday weekend and headed into the central part of Lhasa. Once we arrived at the airport, we had one last financial hurdle to overcome before leaving Tibet--negotiate what Air China would charge us for overweight baggage on this domestic flight (their domestic flights weight limits are much lower than international flights limits). In this type of negotiation we had been brilliantly helped by Tahir when we first flew from Beijing to Lhasa in early April. Tahir's expert representation won a complete exemption of extra baggage charges. But this time we faced stiffer resistance from the Air China staff at the Lhasa airport. After over an hour of negotiation, and just before we would have missed our flight, we agreed to pay about half the charges first demanded from us. We paid the charge and raced to catch our flights, last ones on board. Our Tibetan interpreter was exhausted from the negotiations, and seemed thrilled to see us board the plane and leave Lhasa.
The flight again stopped over in Chengdu for about 40 minutes before continuing to Beijing. Once we arrived there we were all exhausted. We we happy to find that a very intelligent and charming young tour guide, Grace Zheng, was there to meet us at the Beijing airport and get us to our hotel downtown. The Marriott hotel had a good location and comfortable rooms. It felt so good to be in a clean, comfortable room and take a very hot bath to relax before bedtime. Tomorrow Pete and I will join talented Grace for a day of tourism in and around Beijing.
Sunday, April 30,
Today Grace Zheng gave Pete and me a full day of tourism sights in and around Beijing. We started at the Badaling section of The Great Wall. Luckily, the smog of Beijing did not obscure the skies there, and we had fun walking up and down a section of the wall that climbs a ridge top. Many Chinese people along the way stopped us and asked that we take their pictures with their cameras, which were mostly the old-style "Instamatic" type of film cameras. Afterwards we visited the Ming Tombs, which like the Wall is a World Heritage Site. We were incredibly impressed with the extent and complexity of the Ming Tombs site. Grace proved to be extremely knowledgeable about the sights and able to explain even the smallest details of them easily. We learned a lot from her. On the way back to Beijing we saw how silk is made from raw cocoons, attended a tea-tasting session, and saw the area of Beijing where the 2008 Olympics will be held. The modernistic style of the Olympic Stadium, currently under construction, makes it look like a giant bird's nest of curved steel. It should be beautiful when it's completed.
Monday, May 1, 2006
Today George expertly guided Pete and me on the Beijing subway system to visit The Forbidden City World Heritage Site in downtown Beijing. The place was filled with hordes of Chinese folks enjoying the holiday, but everyone seemed in a happy holiday mood. Some of the temple staff and interpretation folks were dressed in sumptuous old-style royal garb. Cheap take-away souvenir headdresses with glittery dangles and feathers were hot items for the little girls in the crowd. To create more lasting mementos there were also photo-taking areas where one could don a variety of lavish royal costumes to have your portrait taken by a commercial photographer, like this poised little girl on the yellow "throne".
The three of us toured the huge site together most of the way, but at one point George suddenly took off boldly down a small alley and we lost sight of him. After failing to find George again, the challenge that Pete and I then faced was figuring out how to leave this site. We did not notice where the approved exit point was, and none of the Chinese guards at the site allowed us to leave through the entrance point--they enforced an absolutely strict one-way system. We milled around cluelessly for some time before we found a guard who understood English and mercifully showed us the inobvious way out to the surrounding streets. Free at last!
Once free of the Forbidden City maze, Pete flagged down a muscular and enterprising bicycle rickshaw guy who pedaled us past all the stalled traffic on the streets and delivered us smoothly to Tiananmen Square in less than 10 minutes. However, upon delivery we were told that the 3 yuan total price he had quoted before we boarded had now changed to 3 yuan per minute. Gotcha! Pete rolled his eyes and dug further into his wallet while I offered a fair but much lower price for his services. With the huge, foot-sore crowds pouring out of The Forbidden City today, the rickshaw guy will enjoy a very profitable day, even if he does not get to gouge the weary Americans.
Tiananmen Square was teeming with people, kites, happy spirits, and festive decorations. As we strolled across the Square, I suddenly noticed that Pete (a very tall, blond, handsome, friendly guy with a big Colorado smile) had become a smash hit with the Chinese crowd there--men, women, and especially teens. Many asked me to take their pictures with him using their cameras. Pete also noticed that the Chinese folks gathered around and seemed mesmerized as they watched me buy one of the cheap, small plastic Chinese flags that many people carried around that day. I guess the two of us just did not fit the stereotype of what they expected of Americans. They could not guess the reason--as mountaineers we are natural iconoclasts, so tend to evade stereotyping. It was an interesting and uplifting day to temper our disappointment of leaving Cho Oyu without any summit bids.
Tom stayed at the hotel all day resting and repacking our equipment for the flight home. We all met that night for a delicious Chinese dinner and drinks at the hotel before turning in early for our busy day tomorrow.
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
As some kind of perverse last challenge to us, we learned today before we left for the airport that our expedition facilitator had not paid for our last night at the hotel. Some kind of dates and timing mix-up. We also were told that although when we checked into the hotel we were assured twice that our rooms included free Internet connection and mini-bar soft drinks, when we checked out we were told that this was not true. We were forced to pay for the Internet charges we were led to believe were free. And actually we had no mini-bar costs to pay upon checkout, as in the first 15 minutes of our stay, the hotel had sent a maid with an empty pillowcase to quickly remove all the contents of the mini-bar coolers in our rooms. The only thing left in the coolers were empty ice trays. I guess that's why that "perk" was "free". Is denying a few soft drinks promised to the customer how Marriott controls its profit margins in China?
The old adage about China proved to be very true in our experience--things are not always as they seem to be! Perils and staggering logistical problems can lurk in unlikely places. Even getting agreements in writing does not seem to inoculate against huge gaps between what is expected and what is delivered.
Fortunately, during our expedition we also encountered some extraordinary people who far exceeded our expectations of them. They helped us in amazing, priceless ways. To honor them we have created a special page on our site to thank them personally for their invaluable assistance to our expedition. They are our Expedition Heroes...
Wednesday, May 3,
Our flight back to San Francisco was almost half empty, George, Tom, Pete and I luxuriated in sprawling across whole rows of seats to sleep comfortably on the way back across the Pacific. When we cleared customs at the San Francisco International Terminal, Pete headed directly off to his flight back to Colorado Springs, while George, Tom and I waited to catch the bus back to where we live north of San Francisco.
It felt great to be back in beautiful, friendly California.
Now we are devoting time to assembling our photos, building out this website, filling in the Journal, and making plans for some future publications and climbing goals.
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Our Friendship Beyond Borders team has many, many stories to tell...stay tuned!