Yaks!

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Yaks are pretty much the coolest animal of all time. Sure, they may just be big woolly cows with sweet horns, but they’re a way of life for everyone in rural Tibet. The nomadic yak herders live in tent encampments in the windy Tibetan planes, surrounded by their herd, and yaks are the source of their clothing, their food and their livelihood. You can tell that they take great pride in their herds. I especially love the way the Tibetans doll their yaks up with colorful cloth and cowbells.

Here are some photos I took of yaks around Namtso Lake, Tibet. When I was taking these pictures, I kinda accidentally herded the yaks away from the shore of the lake and right through the middle of town. Whoops! You can see it in the last few pics.

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Imposter Monks

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Today my friend Tee and I were walking along the shore of Namtso Lake here in Tibet, and we were approached by these two young “monks.” They were boys, around 12 or 13 years old, adorned in red Tibetan Buddhist robes, but there was something off and un-monklike about them. Maybe it was the fact that their robes were dirty and unkempt, that they had regular clothes on underneath, or that they were running around like undisciplined schoolboys. Or maybe it was that they started BEGGING US FOR MONEY (rather than “blessing” us) as soon as we approached, and when we turned them down, the little rascals grabbed on to our legs and held tight so that we couldn’t walk any further (I guess until we paid them some “ransom” to free ourselves). Not very typical monks, eh?

Something should have tipped me off right from the start. Wait, let’s take a closer look at that photo…

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My iPod has altitude sickness…

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I didn’t know that iPods could get altitude sickness, but my iPod has been pretty sick ever since I arrived in Tibet. I’ve got a fifth generation 60GB Video iPod, and whenever I get above about 3,500 meters in elevation (a little over 10,000) feet, it wonks out. Its poor hard drive starts making those repetitive clicking sounds, a noise that I’ve learned to fear, because it is the harbinger of a failed hard disk. Soon after, the menu is replaced with the “sad iPod face” you see above. And I immediately shut it off to keep from damaging my precious ‘pod.

Turns out hard drive based iPods are expected to fail if operated at high altitudes (Apple sets the cap at 10,000 feet in the manual). In a hard drive, the read/write heads do not contact the recording surface. They float above the surface on a small cushion of air, produced by the spinning platters. If the air is too thin to create this cushion, the heads will contact the surface, possibly damaging it. (The reason your iPod still works in an airplane is because the cabin is pressurized so that it feels more like sea level than 30,000 feet.)

My iPod has a hard time functioning in Lhasa (elevation 3500 meters), taking longer than normal to load songs. If I go even a few meters higher, it conks out entirely, and the dreaded clicking noise begins. I’ve decided that I’m going to leave my iPod off until I arrive at lower ground. I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of this trip with no music!

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First night in Lhasa

There are few places in the world that I’ve had a more romantic view of than the “rooftop of the world,” Tibet.

Tibet! It’s the home of the Dalai Lama, rainbows of prayer flags, yak’s milk tea, and the devoutest Buddhist monks. It’s one of those magical, lost-in-time places where tradition trumps all, a place impervious to both western cultural imperialism, and the culture-crushing Chinese government.

Or so it’s supposed to be.

After a forty-five hour train ride through stunning ice-capped mountains, I arrived in Lhasa, expecting to be greeted by rosy-cheeked women in colorful bonnets selling doughy buns dipped in honey, spry monks singing hymns, and wooly yaks wandering through cobblestone streets.

Instead, I found myself in a modern city, complete with animated cross-walk signs.

The streets are paved with asphalt and are uncommonly clean for China, and the herds of yaks I imagined seem to have been replaced by taxi cabs. Traditional Tibetans, like the proud and happy people I saw in DanBa just a few days ago, are few and far between. Instead what I saw were Tibetan hipsters.

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The Americanization of Chinese Food

I thought I knew Chinese food. Then I came to China.

“Chinese” restaurants in America are a pretty poor representation of the real thing. Panda Express and all those Chinese buffets are about as American as Burger King. Some of our favorite “Chinese” foods are western inventions as well. But really, what did you expect?

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Fortune Cookies

If you went to a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. and you weren’t served a fortune cookie at the end of your meal, you’d throw a fit. In China, nobody’s even heard of them. Oreos are way more common.

The fortune cookie is practically the symbol of Asian dining in the west, and for good reason. Turns out they were invented in California in the twentieth century. All those “ancient Chinese proverbs” and the Chinese mysticism that goes with it is about as American as apple pie.

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When it rains in China…

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…it pours.

I love the ponchos that everyone in China has, especially these special bike ponchos. The moment it starts raining, the streets become a sea of plastic reds, blues, pinks and purples. The pedestrians, of course, whip out their umbrellas (which appear instantaneously, out of nowhere). There are even bicyclists that ride bikes with umbrellas, but they’re just silly…

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Pandas! And some thoughts on natural selection…

I just got back from the Giant Panda Research Center in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China…and holy crap, pandas are cute! The video above shows a few of them munching on bamboo early this morning. But having spent the morning learning about the panda bear, I’ve come to the conclusion that pandas are an anomaly of evolution and probably would have gone extinct with or without human involvement.

Sure, I love pandas…they’re adorable, incredibly entertaining to watch, and they’re the poster animal for the World Wildlife Fund and all those other animal protection agencies. They’re also one of the worst-adapted animals on the planet. I’m pretty sure natural selection would have done away with them within a few thousand generations regardless of whether humans stepped in or not. Now it’s people that are keeping pandas alive, against the forces of nature. Outside of captivity, pandas — as a species — simply can’t survive.

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Chinese Fashionista Boot Camp

The Chinese sure love order and discipline.

I was walking down the street in Xi’an this afternoon, when I heard the distinct call-and-reply of a drill sergeant and his troops, only it was all in Chinese, and the voices were a whole lot daintier than anything you’d hear coming out of the Army. A few more steps revealed the source of the yelling: the drill sergeant was a scrawny Chinese hipster, with tight black jeans and impressively dolled-up, teased and highlighted hair, yelling to rows of cute teenage girls, wearing in shoes with little bows, and standing at “attention” as best as a girl with rainbow barrettes and perms could muster.

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The drill sergeant would yell out commands, and the girls would yell back in a chorus of high, girly voices, and then do coordinated hand movements…pretending to comb hair, lather shampoo or blow-dry invisible locks. This was Chinese Fashionista Boot Camp, and these girls were, apparently, learning how to be hair dressers. Why they needed to stand at attention and recite commands about dying hair, or show how to “take a little bit more off the sides” with synchronized imaginary scissors, is completely beyond me.

But then again, this is China.

(Sorry for the crappy quality of the photo – I didn’t want to be too obvious that I was snapping a picture! There’s a second one below.)

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Xi’an’s Art District

This afternoon, I was wandering around Xi’an when I came across a lovely little art market, wedged into the alleys just inside the South City Wall. It’s one of those things I really should have discovered sooner, having spent the last three days walking all over the blocks just surrounding the market, but somehow I overlooked it until now.

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Unlike all the “art exhibitions” I saw in Beijing and Shanghai, this place was bustling with actual artists, doing their craft – not just cheap, mass-produced watercolors of bamboo, horses and “the four seasons.” There were plenty of painters and calligraphy artists, as well as stamp-makers, jewelry-makers, brush-makers, fan-makers, and guys making hundreds of egg-shaped musical instruments, each one with a unique carving on the side.

Here are some of the pictures I took while I wandered around. I wish I could have bought a painting or two, but lugging art around in my pack for the next four months would be the definition of a pain in the ass. So photos it is!
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Crazy Eyebrows

I came to a startling realization today. Peering into the bathroom mirror this afternoon, as I lathered and washed my hands, carefully expecting my appearance as one does when staring at themselves in the bathroom mirror, I noticed a small tuft of inordinantly long eyebrow hairs, sticking out at an odd-angle from my otherwise well-groomed and attractive eyebrows.

Normally, this wouldn’t have struck me as anything to worry about. I would have just pushed the rogue hairs back into line, dried my hands on my pants and gone on with my day. Hairs sometimes get out of place, no big deal.

But today was different. I had spent this morning wandering the crowded, winding alleyways of Xi’an, China’s Muslim District, one of those lost-in-time sorts of places where I imagine the people haven’t changed for 1000 years. The streets here are filled to the brim with proud old men, with stringy neck beards and white skull caps, hobbling down the cobblestone alleys, peeking their heads into the neighborhood shops, noisily greeting each other on street corners and congregating around the communal chess game in the square. And each and every one of them has his own matching set of crazy old man eyebrows.

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