Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Tibet Adventure 7 - Summer palaces, even more food adventures, a foot massage and our departure.

The final chapter....
A palace at NorbulingKa
Ah, lets go to the Summer palace

The next morning we go to the NorbulingKa.  Which, as the entrance ticket describes it is: "the traditional summer residence of the successive Dalai Lama.  Originally built by the 7th Dalai Lama in the mid-18th century, it was later renovated and enlarged until the beginning of the 20th century.  There are several separate palace complexes inside." We're fortunate to be he the first thing in the morning, so the area is not yet crowded and the cloudy skies make for excellent photography conditions and the palace complexes provide rich material.  The story of the palaces are interesting including the one that the Chinese government built in order to try and appease the Dalai Lama.  He apparently refused to live in it after declaring it too decadent. 

From there we’re off to visit a Museum of Tibetan History.  This plan gets quickly derailed when we arrive at the gates only to find we're denied admission because some visiting government official is visiting the site today.  We quickly reconfigure and decide this is a good opportunity to go visit the bazaar and stores around the bazaar.  I'm once again grateful for Rene and his wife, Debbie, who are experienced in buying in these environments and know where and how to find both good merchandise and pricing.  They greatly help me with a couple of minor jewelry purchases and the acquisition of a new duffle bag (a counterfeit I'm sure, but it's sole mission is to get the booty from this trip home).  At less than $10 for a good size bag, I'm indeed, a happy buyer.  As we navigate the streets of the bazaar, Bob continues to discreetly photograph people while the people continue to find this group of western tourists fascinating.  After our little shopping expedition we catch the penny taxis and head off for dinner.

The "Ice Cream" Dinner

Our hosts have another formal alumni dinner this evening, but we've declined feeling it inappropriate for us to attend yet another alumni function.  Beyond which of course is the fact that we'd much rather find some normal fare to eat.  Rene has again located us a promising choice and the penny taxis drop us there.  

As we enter it's a good looking restaurant with lots of rich mahogany wood furniture, white table clothes and well-dressed staff.   However, as we've so often found with restaurants here, appearances can cover a variety of underlying service issues and this one would prove no different. 

The menu does indeed offer a wide variety of western choices including Haagen Dazs ice cream.  Our hopes rise.  Bob and I order spaghetti and I request extra sauce as I always find restaurants only give you enough for the top 1/2 inch of the noodles.  As the waitress collects all of our orders, she notices us pointing to the Haagen Dazs sign on the table and asks us if we'd like some and we tell her yes, but only after we've completed our meals. 

While we're waiting, Rene gets a call from CT asking where we are as he'd lost track of us in the bazaar and he and our guide would like to join us.  Rene provides them the needed directions and asks if he should go ahead and order for them, which he does after hanging up.   By this point some 20-30 minutes has passed since we'd placed our order, during which some of the soups ordered have arrived.  Which is nice, except of course that we have no silverware.  We point out to the waitress we were going to need some silverware and we watch as she brings us just enough to cover the soups ordered (two settings).  We promptly pointed out that we would need two more sets just for the people already here, not to mention we have two more coming.   She looks befuddled.  She clearly understands English, so this seems a straightforward transaction.  But we know how that goes, don't we? 

It takes two more attempts for her to get the required number of settings to our table.  In parallel to this exercise, a server brings out two orders of ice cream (we'd ordered four).  We promptly send him back with ice cream in hand, explaining we had clearly said this was to be served at the END of the meal.

The first orders out are the steaks for the two people who aren't there yet.  The waitress doesn't take them back and put them under a heat lamp.  When we point this out, she just leaves them setting on the table.  Of course, the rest of us are marveling that the main courses we'd ordered thirty minutes before the steaks aren't there yet, while the ice cream is now being served.  Did we enter a time warp?  Had we lost 60 minutes of time during which our meals were served and we consumed them?  Or, are we simply en-route to another one of those experiences?  The answer comes quickly. 

CT and our guide arrive and promptly dig into their meals.  While the rest of us watch and wait.  In fact we watch them consume their entire meals, while we continue waiting for ours.  Our guide goes back to the kitchen and tries to shake loose our meals.  This brings forth our waitress to assure us they are working on them and to ask if we want our ice cream?  We emphatically state: "NO, we don't want our ice cream until AFTER our meals!!".  While there, she visually notes the empty soup bowls, but does nothing about them.  So Bob gathers them up into a stack and heads back towards the kitchen to deliver them personally (and a not too subtle hint).  That brings forth attendants to relieve him of the stack, but does not get properly interpreted as a rapidly growing frustration with the level of service we're receiving. 

CT starts yelling at the restaurant staff across the room, pointing out we've now waiting nearly an hour.  This gets the attention of the other diners as well as the restaurant staff.  They begin racing back and forth across the restaurant, like fish in an aquarium (i.e. lots of activity), but food does not appear (no results).   After another 10 minutes or so, our spaghetti dinners finally arrive.  Being somewhat hungry at that point and having some at the table already done with their meals, Bob and I devour ours in a hurry.  So, now we're ready for our ice cream and we flag down a server to indicate such.  Bob has ordered a scoop of vanilla and chocolate and I have ordered a single scoop.  Given they've tried to serve the ice cream to us two or three times already, we're expecting a quick turnaround here.  Silly us.  Time passes, no ice cream appears.  Once again, we start grilling the staff on where the ice cream might be?  Again, this results in much scurrying of restaurant staff back-and-forth in what Bob terms, quite appropriately, "communal chaos".  CT again takes to the floor, in a high-energy effort (and volume) to obtain our desserts.  Finally, two plates arrive, each with a single scoop.  As mine gets placed in front of me, we point out Bob is supposed to have two scoops.  His plate of ice cream gets passed under his nose and is promptly withdrawn by the waitress.  She is headed back to the kitchen before he can grab it.  So close, yet so far.  More time passes and I'm thinking we deserve an perseverance and humor prize for our handling of this because at some point, probably far earlier than I realized, this became a contest of will.  And we're determined to win.    These people are dealing with pushy Americans and the odds are simply not in their favor.   Rene decides that given my report that the ice cream is good, we should further up the ante and he orders a scoop as well.  In the interest of speed, we offer that they can simply bring the scoop, minus the decorations if that will speed things up.  Which has an interesting result.  Bob's two scoops show up at exactly the same time as Rene's single scoop. Bob's fully decorated, Rene's not.  Yet obviously prepared side by side. The Twilight Zone has nothing over this place.

Let me be sure I have this right.  We're paying you to beat us up??

Our meal finally concluded, our psyches and sides aching from the experience, coupled with bodies aching from the day's travel, CT insists we join him in getting a foot massage.  Having never done one before, I thought what the heck, my feet are tired and that might feel good, so I indicate I'll join the group.  So the five of us remaining head off to a spot CT recommends, a short walk from the restaurant. 

Upon arrival, we're lead to a room with six side-by-side beds, each with a tub at the end.   We each take a slot, removing our shoes/socks and waiting while the Olympics play on the TV in the room.   Soon, in proceed six young Chinese ladies who start pouring hot water in the tubs at our feet and directing us to place our feet in them.  Then to my surprise, the young lady climbs up on the bed and sits behind me, indicating I should lean back towards her.   Well, OK, but my feet are at the other end....  It turns out the phrase "foot massage" is only a description of where they end up.  

We get turned over and over like BBQ on a spit while they work there way up and down our bodies hammering away on us.  When the ladies start climbing across people's backs both with their knees and feet, you can hear the groans (or in CT's case, the snoring.  He obviously finds this very relaxing).  The lady working on me takes my legs and folds them up like she is trying to turn me into her personal Origami project.  My groans border on screams of agony and I wonder if she's taking a bit too much delight in this folding and mutilation experience. 

The lady working on Bob reads his feet and tells him he has a bad stomach, apparently as does Debbie.  The precise implications of this are left ambiguous, but what isn't ambiguous, is when she finds a couple of old injuries on Bob's body from the days of his youth (yes, we're talking OLD injuries here :-), and applies pressure to these points.  This entirely removes whatever thin oxygen he had left in his body at this altitude and leaves him gulping like a guppy.   

As the ladies wrap up the sessions on our bodies, I vow to learn how one spells the word "sadist" in Chinese, so I'll be better prepared to read the signage on establishments we enter in the future.  I consider this an important step in being able to properly calibrate one's expectations with one's experiences.

Leaving Llhasa

It's always hard to leave a place when you've been so captivated by the people, their land, history and culture.  Truly, Tibet has left me breathless in every sense of the word. 

Tibet is a land of contradictions and of competing forces as well as visions for the future.  You'll see fiber optic cable being laid in front of nomadic herders living in tents.  You'll find cell phone signals in valleys ringed by 17k ft tall mountains and where the only people are those passing each other on a roadway that varies from semi-smooth, to axle breaking ruts and pothole encrusted, gravel detours.  A place where history is best left to be interpreted by the listener after asking some probing questions and gathering some facts.

We all realize as we board the bus for the airport, that we came together, in many cases with little more than the knowledge of each other as names in emails or heard in phone conversations.  Yet during the course of a little over a week, we've come to know and respect each other as friends and colleagues, forged around what is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a shared vision of the potential of education and for future colleges/universities in China.  Furthermore, our professional circle has been expanded to include some family members and most certainly, our guide as well as our driver.  Our departure at the airport check-in desk is sincere and heartfelt.

However, Llhasa has one final request of us.

No deposit, no return...

We get our boarding passes and head towards the gate on the second level.   Only the escalator is out of commission.  Over the past week, we've become more accustomed to the thin air, but now both Bob and I are carrying our fully loaded camera bags and duffle bags packed with gifts we've bought or been given, including some very beautiful, but very heavy books.  It's not a light load.  By the time we get to the top of the stairs, we're both heaving for air.  Oh well, we didn't have any oxygen when we got here, and I suppose this makes sure we're not taking any with us.  When we reach the top of the stairs, the rest of the group waves us down to tell us we're actually at a gate on the other side of the airport down on the first level.  After repeated inquiries, they assure us they're not kidding.   So off we go, running, on a complete oxygen deficit, until we arrive at the proper gate and board the plane.

What a beautiful place, what history, what people and culture.  We board the plane bringing to a conclusion an experience of a lifetime.  

If you want to see more pictures from the trip, you'll find them on my FLICKR site