China

Electric Blankets and Chains – No, This Isn’t Porn

4 Comments 16 November 2007

Tibetan Prayer Flags sending the prayers to the heavens

Tibetan Prayer Flags sending the prayers to the heavens

For all photos of Deqin and the Snow Mountain – click here!

For the 4 days we spent in and around Shangri-la we had the unique opportunity to experience the 4 seasons…one each day. The bad news is that my suitcase wasn’t really outfitted to experience the 4 seasons, and the Chinese concept of heating was an electric blanket – herein lied the problem.
Photos: The Four Seasons in Four Days – click to enlarge
Summer fall Winter Spring

We left the town of Shangri-la and started our 6 hour climb into the mountains towards the Tibetan border and to the town of Deqin (a great scrabble word…a q without a u – take note!) We never did cross into Tibet – however we did get close to the ‘border crossing’ – within picture range. The whole thing was rather confusing to me since Tibet is actually China, I was baffled on why they even had a ‘border crossing’ into Tibet – and to top it off – you needed a special permit (basically you need to pay more money) as a foreign tourist entering Tibet. In my opinion – this was the Chinese government’s way to milk the last little bit out of the tourists – play on their Tibetan sympathies.

Even though we did not get to cross over into Tibet – we did get to experience their culture. The town of Deqin is 80% Tibetan and is bustling with little stores and markets full of hearty locals. In this area of China – the people are hearty – mostly Tibetan hilltribes – therefore the concept of a hard life among the elements and yaks is their norm. However – for me, yaks and life among the elements was quite a leap away from spas and sushi delivery.

boat ripplesWe drove through the pass leisurely stopping along the way for various photos. As we climbed up the bends the road deteriorated into cobblestone, and I popped some Dramamine. All of a sudden I started seeing them – dotting the landscapes with color and movement. This wasn’t some hallucination from the Dramamine, it was prayer flags. Now I knew I had entered another region of China as these were the first prayer flags I had seen. Prayer flags are found mainly in Tibet high in the Himalayas. They are traditionally used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown upward as offerings to their deities and will bring benefits (such as happiness and good health) to all who hang them, as well as their families, loved ones, neighbors, and all people throughout the world including even enemies. The flags build up all year long – until they seem to be practically choking the structure they are hanging on (trees, temples, poles), they become discolored in the sun, start to unravel at the ends in the wind, but they remain there for a year. They are removed annually during the Tibetan New Year. At that time they are burned as a sign of respect.
Photos: Prayer Flags – click to enlarge

Prayer Flags7Prayer Flags 9Prayer Flags 5Prayer Flags10Prayer Flags6Prayer Flags 1Prayer Flags4Prayer Flags2

I found the flags intriguing (as evidenced by all of the photos I took of them!), they were hung like garland – the higher up the better. I entertained ideas of hanging them in my apartment window and stringing them to the light pole on my corner in NY. I wondered how long it would take for someone to tell me to remove them. One of the strange things about the flags is that even though there were thousands of them, I never once saw anyone in the act of hanging them. I started to wonder if they did it under the cover of night or something.

We neared Deqin and the weather became noticeably cooler – probably because we were now at 3,350 Meters (aprox. 11,000 ft). This is where my suitcase started to fail me. We were told by our tour company (Backroads of China) that it may get to 0 degrees Celsius in these areas – so Cyndi and I tried our best to pack our warmest Singapore clothes…my heaviest coat being a rain coat was a little worrisome – but I really didn’t think that it would be that cold! After about 8 hours of driving (and stopping for photos) we finally pulled up to our hotel that had an amazing view of Snow Mountain just in time for sunset.

The hotel was 2 star – nothing fancy and that was fine. However after stepping out of the car with the cold wind hitting me and shredding through my little rain coat with no lining I decided to ask Jonathan if this hotel had hot water and heat. These seem like ‘no-brainer’ questions…all hotels should have hot water and heat especially when the temperature is below freezing. However – I’ve come to learn that you really can’t have expectations about anything when traveling on a budget. Jonathan cheerfully answered “Yes they have hot water and heat! They have electric blankets.”
Hmmmm, I felt like I needed to dig a little deeper…
“Jonathon, is there heat in the room, or is it just electric blankets?”
Jonathon answered, “There are electric blankets.”, tilting his head with a confused look on his face.
“Just electric blankets?” I questioned once more.
“Yes, electric blankets.” he said with a big grin as if this was a posh selling point.
I looked at my sister, put my one and only scarf around me and took the luggage upstairs a little unhappy about the fact that I was such a wuss about freezing to death when apparently the locals thought that this was completely normal.

To top things off, the hotel did not really have any enclosed areas – it was all open – the doors opened us directly outside, all of the windows were open in the common areas – there was no concept of insulation. When we arrived at the room, the door was wide open and the window in our room was also wide open – letting the brisk mountain air flow in and cool the room. Wonderful if it were 80 degrees…or even 70…but not when it’s 32 and the sun is going down for the day. The room was ice to two Singaporeans (ok I’m an honorary Singaporean…regardless – I had become soft). The thought of a shower was inconceivable – however I did consider running hot water in the tub and simply standing the hot steam of the bathroom for the night. Instead – we bitched to each other a bit, and started to get out every layer of clean (and some dirty) clothing that we had and put it on. I had 4 layers on under my rain jacket, a stocking hat, mittens, scarf, jeans, wool socks and boots…and yet – I was still a chilled.

Cyndi came up with the idea to ‘bake’ our pajamas. Since the only heat we had in the room was our blankets – we took out all of our pajamas and sleep sheets and put them between the electric blankets….safely baking in a warm little oven. I always wanted an Easy Bake oven when I was a little girl – who knew that I would find just as much enjoyment in an electric blanket baking my clothes decades later.
We went down to the common area to have dinner with our group. We all sat bundled up around a table in our winter gear, drinking beer and shivering. Finally they brought us our salvation…no, not tequila…a bucket of coal. Burning coal buckets was the preferred way to heat rooms in this part of China. They placed it under our table and we all loosened up a bit as we felt the warmth at our toes. We continued to drink beer, and play cards until our coals ran out and we were forced back up in our rooms. We all lamented about how cold our rooms were, and laughed about how we had all left our electric blankets on high in the hopes that it would warm the place a bit. Cyndi piped in with “The best thing that could happen to me is Sherry’s bed catching on fire. I would just sit there and warm my hands.” Sisterly love is harsh sometimes.

Photo: Mingyong Glacier
mingyong glacierThe next morning we woke to beautiful blue skies. The sun was out and trying to warm the frozen mountains. Meili Mountain, also called Snow Mountain, is Yunnan’s tallest peak at 22,000 ft. This peak has never yet been conquered…hard to believe in this day and age – but that’s what I was told! Snow Mountain holds an important place in Tibetan culture – it is one of the eight sacred mountains that they worship. Legend says that that Snow Mountain is a god guarding Tibetan Buddhism. Dropping from this tall, ominous peak is the Mingyong Glacier – dropping to from 18,000 ft. to 9,000 ft. You can hike up to a vantage point around 9,000 ft to see the glacier ‘up-close’ – and that was our itinerary today.

fall hikeBruce, Cyndi, Jonathan and I took the 12k walking trail while the rest of our group took horses up the more traveled and smelly horse trail. As we started off on this picture perfect trail surrounded by colorful leaves and streams trickling under bridges and slowly climbed in altitude. Leaves crunched beneath our boots and I was transported into a lovely fall day. I actually started picking up colored leaves along the way to give to my nieces in Singapore since they don’t ever see fall any longer living next to the equator. The climb gradually became steeper and steeper until we were left with tons of steps to climb. Just when you thought you had reached the end, you turned a corner and had another 10 flights to go…rather disheartening, but we pushed on. At the top we were greeted by the huge glacier – so mammoth that your brain couldn’t really comprehend. Unlike in New Zealand – you couldn’t climb on the glacier, so it was difficult for your brain to get a scale. We relaxed up there for quite some time, taking in the views. The bottom of the glacier (where we were) was gray and dirty from rocks and sludge, but the top near the peak was crystal white, like powdered sugar.

That night we were back to the deepfreeze, baking our clothes, breathing in the coal fumes, drinking beer, and playing cards. Strange that it could be so pleasant and autumn like that day and so bitter and cold at night. Yet the next morning held the biggest surprise yet…snow. We woke up early as we all planned to take off early to get the long drive through the mountain passes and back down to Shangri-la completed early. Mother Nature had other plan for us that day. We were stuck…at least for a couple of hours before we could get out on the roads. We sat in the common area of the hotel, at the worst breakfast I’ve ever had was put out before us. Granted – the staff was working with what they had available to them…which I concluded was rice, water, and flour. We slurped up hot water and rice – a rice congee of sorts – but with absolutely no seasoning. Cyndi and I tried dumping a little of our instant coffee packets into the mixture to give it some flavor…not the best idea – it was like lumpy coffee. The bread was flour and water baked…and it tasted like a big glue brick as you would expect. I realized that this is how the locals ate all the time though – they probably would have thought this bland meal was just fine. We instead sat there all thinking what Cyndi finally said “I don’t want to eat like I’m poor anymore!” True – we had certainly witnessed a different culture – one that was hearty, simple, and content. The Tibetan women could carry anything on their back – multiple babies, lumber, corn…and the cold didn’t seem to bother them in the least.

winter drivingFinally we received the ok from our drivers that it was time to leave. We had a 6 to 9 hour drive ahead of us through mountain passes that rose to 15,000 feet, with hairpin turns, terrifying drop offs, a narrow cobblestone road without any curb rails, in the snow. This was the kind of road that you had to beep your horn before rounding a corner to let people know that you were coming – so move over! I honestly would have rather sat there and ate more rice water and glue bread than get in that car. A little known secret about me…I am pretty uneasy of driving in cars – and I’m terrified in these conditions. I have this terrible feeling that it will be a car crash that will end my life one day…and I really didn’t want it to be today. We started off and made a stop in the town of Deqin for supplies and snacks. After we left Dequin we started climbing into the mountain passes and the roads became worse and worse as the surrounding snow was deeper and deeper in the higher elevation.

My nervousness was growing as we pulled around a corner and fishtailed about. The driver asked for another one of us to move to the back seat for more weight on the rear wheels….joy. I started thinking that it was a good idea that Cyndi and I were in separate cars…we were going to ride together in the morning, but decided to stay separated in case anything happened. We came around another corner and immediately hit the breaks as there was a big back up of cars in front of us. I was a bit relieved to see other crazy people out here making this drive. My imagination ran wild thinking a car had gone over a cliff ahead of us. The driver, Jonathon and Rebakah exited our car to see what was going on with the stopped cars and Julia and I remained in the car – I was too scared to get out and felt it was better if I stayed in denial. All was ok – a few cars were stuck trying to get up the climb and everyone had to get out and push. The whole convoy of cars started slowly moving again and we fishtailed out of our resting place and started climbing again.

slippery bendJonathon tried to ease our fears with smalltalk telling us the driver had chains in the back of the car and we could use them if we needed to. Rebekah and I looked at each other and said “Why in the **#%! don’t we have them on!!!” This was the beginning to our meltdown in the car and Jonathan trying to communicate our concerns to the driver and the driver communicating back to Jonathan that he knew what he was doing. We of course were two women that were cold, hungry, had to pee, and were scared – a.k.a. bitchy – not what you would want to be trapped in car with! Jonathan and the driver tried to ease our fears by telling us that there were only two slippery bends that we had to be worried about. I’m not really sure that it was a good idea to give us this info – as I think it incited me even more. Now I was worrying about which two bends they were and what he really meant my slippery. At some point I believe “We want the chains on NOW!” was said (and it wasn’t me surprisingly enough!).

cyndi and pashmina We went around another bend and saw yet another line up of cars stopped, everyone out pushing one at a time around the slippery bend with no guard railing. We came to a stop – it was going to be a long wait this time, but Jonathon and the driver got out to start helping the other cars push again. We all stayed in the car this time, but we all had to pee terribly bad! I sat in the back trying to devise a way to pee in somewhat privacy. That would be hard since there were tons of cars – everyone out roaming around – but I had a big pashmina…like a blanket. With the help of the girls – we used the pashmina for cover like an outhouse and peed along the side of the road. We knew we would never make it to Shangri-la (another 5 hours) without a toilet…so we put vanity aside and took care of things. Feeling rather proud of myself for devising such a plan, I stayed out in the snow and walked around a bit and took photos.

road behind usFinally, all of the cars ahead of us were pushed around the bend, and the driver and Jonathon came back and put on our chains…the bitchiness must have finally gotten to them…transcending all language barriers. With the chains – we drove through the slippery bend slowly without much of a problem. We stopped and then the guys got out to push our other car through the bend. The next 1 ½ hours were terrifying – I couldn’t watch as we climbed and descended the passes – I just put my head down and fingered my prayer beads (a new purchase from the monastery). Jonathan knew that we were all terrified – so he started telling us about how the driver is the best in Lijiang and he was the only non-smoker. He went on to tell us that he had a daughter in college and she was at the top of her class. She was even attending med school. I appreciated Jonathon’s attempt at calming us by letting us know that the driver valued his own life and had something to live for….at least that did make us feel better!

Finally – as we started to come down through the last pass, I started to look up at my surroundings outside the window – the snow was lighter, I could see the road again, there was visibility….we were through the worst of it! I looked behind searching for my sister’s car ensuring that I wouldn’t have to raise her kids…and her 4X4 came around the corner…joy!
Photo: Cyndi and I
cyndi and I
We made it into Shangri-la after about 8 hours of driving – relieved and in awe that it was nice and warm and spring like in Shangri-la. That night, we had our last group dinner together toasting the fact that we all made it back here in one piece. The drivers were really excellent, very responsible, and very patient to deal with all of our nerves. My trip through Yunnan was full of adventure – some expected and some unexpected – but that is what makes a trip successful – a little of the unexpected…and of course living through it to tell your story!

Photo: Backroads of China Travel Group
group at glacier

Your Comments

4 Comments so far

  1. Sorry, I don’t think you can use proper nouns in Scrabble.

  2. Sherry says:

    Obviously you’ve blown my cover…I never play Scrabble because I always lose!

  3. Richard says:

    I would rather freeze than sleep under an electric blanket in China. They run at 220V and judging by the shoddy manufacturing and poor safety standards, they could prove to be a shocking experience.


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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