Have you ever looked at how many (or rather, how few) geocaches there are in China? When we were building a Pocket Query for our Around the World trip with National Geographic, the count was just over 300 hides in the third (or fourth*) largest country in the world. And since we were spending less than 24 hours (including sleeping time) in China, we figured the odds were not very high that we’d be able to add China to our world geocaching map. But we were pleasantly surprised when we took a closer look at Chengdu. There’s one geocache in this city of 11 million people: GC201F, a grandfathered virtual set up in 2001 and with just over 70 finds logged over the past ten years. Even better, the cache appeared to be at the Giant Panda Research and Breeding Center, the only optional destination during our brief stay in China. Of course we immediately selected the afternoon optional tour!
During our approach to the airport, we noticed a terrible haze over the city. Descending the staircase to board a bus to the terminal building, we could almost taste the pollutants in the air. As soon as we cleared customs and immigration at the Chengdu International Airport, we boarded a bus for the panda research station. The pace of destruction / reconstruction in China is mind-blowing. If something’s in the way of a big project (there are three ring roads at Chengdu), it appears they simply move the residents out, bulldoze whatever’s there and start over again. Tall apartment complexes for the 11+ million citizens of Chengdu bordered both sides of the highway.
Once we reached the panda research station, a long telephoto lens was required to capture good photos of the young pandas outside. But our new “pancake” lens did a better job once Youngest GeoK went into the nursery to hold a baby panda . We enjoyed browsing the gift shops, which had everything from panda ear muffs to key chains, t-shirts to pencils. The most important thing we came away with was the photo required to log the long-standing virtual cache. Now China will appear on our geocaching map!! After our disappointment in Cambodia, our success here was all the more sweet.
From Chengdu, we flew to Lhasa, Tibet for two nights. Approaching Lhasa International Airport, we were astonished to see no snow at all on the surrounding mountains. (In fact, on the bus ride from the airport to Lhasa (a 65 km drive), our guide confirmed we were in the Tibetan Gobi Desert.) Stepping off the plane to walk through the airport we immediately felt the effects of the high altitude (the airport is at 3500 m) – slight dizziness, wobbly legs, rapid breathing. We were pleased to climb aboard our bus for the scenic, hour-long drive to the small city of Lhasa.
The Lhasa River is beautiful, with Peking and yellow ducks bobbing on the current and faded prayer flags lining the river banks. The flags will be changed soon, in anticipation of the Tibetan New Year on March 5. Our stop at the SOS Children’s Village was a real eye-opener. In this village, single women foster up to a dozen children at a time, most of them orphans or cast-off by their families.
After a bit of downtime at the hotel (greatly enhanced by access to free wi-fi), we boarded buses to visit the Jhokang Temple, one of the oldest buildings in Tibet. There is a very strong Chinese army presence on this main square. But the marching soldiers soon faded into the background as our attention focussed on the thousands of Tibetan pilgrims walking around the temple (always clockwise and always an odd number of times) and prostrating themselves in front of the main entrance. The entire square was lined with vendors, selling everything from shoes, to hats and belts, to jeans, to traditional Tibetan clothing – everything but the gloves we wanted, to replace the little grey fleece pair we seem to have forgotten on the airplane this morning.
The colours of the temple were bright and energizing. The air was thick with incense and the steep stairs coated in “yak butter”. Our guide, Jigme, took special care of Youngest GeoKid, who has attracted much attention here. Our guide explained that many of the rural Tibetans currently on pilgrimage to Lhasa will never have seen Caucasians before, and certainly not one as small as Youngest GeoKid. Many people have wanted to touch his hand or his cheek and their faces just light up when he smiles at them.
Yesterday, we were finally able to sleep in a bit, before boarding buses to Potala Palace. Oldest GeoKid wasn’t feeling very well, and after climbing the first set of stairs he had to turn back to the main entrance for a ride back to the hotel. Mild altitude sickness affected him all day.
Meanwhile, the rest of us slowly made our way up 342 stairs to the red palace (Youngest GeoKid counted). We stayed for about an hour, visiting chapels and tombs dedicated to every Dalai Lama beginning with the fifth, excepting for the seventh (whereabouts unknown).
Last night we joined the other members of our tour for a 15-course Chinese feast in the ballroom at the St. Regis Lhasa Resort. There was simply too much food, for the second night in a row, and it has been a recurring concern of ours on this trip…what happens to all the leftovers?
* China’s size ranking depends on which source you use. Some sources list the USA third (after Russia and Canada) and some list it fourth.