Perils of Polly: China and Tibet, one step at a time

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2010

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also wrote a series of "Peril" columns in 1998 about her Australian adventures. Although she is now a teacher at Soldotna Middle School, the perils continue as she just returned from an around-the-world journey that started in Russia and ended in Tibet.

Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
Photo Courtesy Polly Crawford
The Potala Palace rises behind Polly and Sue in Lhasa, Tibet.

China: Land of steps, smog, and lots and lots of people, especially lots of Chinese tourists. It must have something to do with Buddhism -- that everything that's worth seeing is at the top of a bunch of steep steps. I no longer had a horse supporting me. I had to walk -- and climb -- with my own two legs. It was going to prove to be an experience of endurance, especially when we got to Tibet. In reality, Beijing was nothing compared to Tibet.

When we arrived in our hotel room in Beijing at 6 a.m., Sue had to wash all her clothes and string them all over the room. Finally she went to bed and we slept until 11 a.m. After engorging on Kentucky Fried Chicken, we went walking, and walking, and walking. But we really didn't get anywhere. We arrived at the Forbidden City right at closing time, and Tiananmen Square was OK to step on and say I'd been there and try to picture how the Communist tanks had come careening onto it killing students, but then what? The Temple of Heaven was closed, too. We walked through hutongs and the night market and saw anything and everything possible alive and for sale on a stick: silk worms, scorpions, geckos, seastars, sea urchins, dog, sheep penis. If you buy, they fry, you eat. We didn't. We went to Hagan-Daaz for Sue's yearned-for hot fudge sundaes.

We collapsed at our hotel, and read in Lonely Planet: try to avoid the Great Wall on the weekend when there are throngs of Chinese tourists. Tomorrow was Saturday, our only day to go. We would leave our hotel room at 7 a.m. anyway.

The Beijing subway was different than Moscow: fewer escalators, more steps, more people, more talking, more sweat, fewer seats. We finally arrived where we were supposed to find the bus to Badaling, the closest part of the Great Wall to Beijing -- a 45 minutes bus ride. Easy, right? Finding the bus took a frustrating 20 minutes, then a half-hour line to board the bus, fighting off Chinese tourists who like to cut in line, and then a two-hour traffic jam during which the bus crawled to the Great Wall.

Then what? Tickets for this and that, but which to buy, and which is which? Language! We bought a round trip on the sliding car, but didn't know it, and didn't know what a sliding car was! Returned it, got another anyway. But we needed an entrance ticket, we thought. Extreme confusion whirled about us amidst throngs of Chinese all out to serve themselves first. Courtesy is not in their vocabulary.

We took the "sliding car" up to the Great Wall itself, thankfully, then began the arduous task of hiking on the wall. I didn't last long. More of a "been there done that" attitude. It was impressive, but knowing how many people died to build it didn't thrill me. I much more appreciated the Peking duck meal we had that night, and, once again, wandering around the hutongs and night markets.

Next day -- summer palace and guess what? More steps. My artificial hips were starting to get an attitude. We were able to take the subway all the way to the Summer Palace, and it was a fascinating place with a huge lake, and we were actually thankful for the smog that cut back the sun's harsh rays. It was definitely hot!

That night a rude taxi driver took us to the Beijing train station and guess what? More steps, only this time I was wearing my 25-pound backpack. I actually stumbled and fell up the steps -- exhaustion sweeping me off my feet! I pulled myself back up from everyone else's feet, embarrassed, and trudged with the rest of the sardines to the station.

We figured out how to get on the train, stood in another line, and finally collapsed into our berth with a couple from Austria. Only two relaxing days to Tibet.

We ate in the dining car the next day, and chomped a few items we had brought. Getting off and buying things at stops was not really an option like the TransSiberian. We passed lots of countryside displaying rapeseed and new road construction and bridges without any cars.

At 6 a.m. the second morning, I woke up, dizzy. I sat up and headed toward the bathroom. After a few steps I had to put down my head as a wave of nausea swept through me. We must be at the 15,000 foot Tibetan plateau. Every five steps, I doubled over to keep down the nausea. Back in the berth, I noticed an oxygen valve was blowing. I put my nose to it and sucked in deeply. The nausea started to disappear. Sue woke up, along with the couple from Austria, and no one felt all that great. We all had the oxygen valves, but only mine was working. With a little jiggling, we had them all working and began breathing deeply.

We admired the white-capped mountains, and Sue and I began to get hungry. We headed to the dining car, only to discover they had run out of food. Oh well. We were only four hours from Lhasa. Back to Sue's KitKat stash.

Lhasa was impressive. At 12,000 feet, it was nestled in mountains higher than itself, with the Potala Palace a breath-taking project beginning from the 7th century -- looking just like its portrayal in "Seven Years in Tibet." But what I saw was steps. Lots and lots of steps, now at 12,000 feet. I didn't know how my body could take it.

We were met on time, and taken to the Lhasa Youth Hostel, where we found a working elevator and I thanked God for my luck. Even though we had no water that night in our room, at least I didn't have to walk four flights up with my pack. Plus we had a nighttime view of the Potala Palace.

The next day was supposed to be an altitude acclimatization day, in which we would climb Potala Palace. I dreaded it. I could hardly walk five steps without panting for breath. I warned our young Tibetan guide, and she promised we would go slowly. Sue was feeling the effects, too, though not as severely, as she had normal human hips.

But I did it. I walked to the Potala Palace, climbed all the steps and ladders and walked the mazes of many rooms, and even had the energy to take pictures. I just took my time. It was an amazing piece of architecture and history. It was definitely worth it.

I dragged myself back to the hostel and was greeted with water running in our room. Small things can create such great happiness. Now, on to higher altitudes, including Mount Everest, in the "roof of the world."

Watch for another installment of Polly's adventure on the Clarion Recreation page.

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