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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The New Kindle Fire!

It was only a matter of time.

Kindle announced today their new Kindle Fire, Amazon’s answer to the iPad. I can’t tell you how excited I am! I’ve only just seen the announcement, & have not actually held one in my hands, but I can see that this new device is going to be awesome.

Of course, the best thing is that it has the same touch technology that an iPad or iPhone has. It runs on Google’s Android software, making Android-compatible apps & games available for download on the Kindle Fire. Also, it’s smaller & cheaper than the iPad. Its 7” display makes it much lighter & more portable than the iPad, & at $199 it’s so much more affordable.

Still, reading on a backlit screen is not ideal. One of the reasons I love my Kindle is because I can read on it for hours without getting tired. Kindle thought of that, though, & along with the Kindle Fire, they also have announced the new Kindle Touch, which has touch-screen technology combined with the very readable e-ink, but it’s available only in black & white.

Although the Kindle Touch is available with 3G technology, the Kindle Fire does not have it yet. So you can use it to play games, watch movies & listen to music, but you can’t browse the web without a wi-fi connection. It also doesn’t come with a camera or a microphone, so you can’t call anyone or take any photos.

Even though it’s not the iPad’s equal – yet – I’m really excited to see this new alternative. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great start. I can’t wait to see the second and third generations of the Kindle Fire. Oh! The possibilities!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Potala Palace

One of the first things we did in Lhasa was to see the famous Potala Palace up close & in person. I had pictured it being on a remote mountain top, difficult enough to reach so that pilgrims could feel they had accomplished something by getting there. Instead, it was smack dab in the center of town - the focus of attention as we rode down the main thoroughfare.

We climbed the stairs to the entrance & took a look out over the city. Across the street from the palace was a large concrete plaza with an obelisk stabbed into the middle of it. We later got a closer look at the monument & learned that it commemorates the founding of the People's Republic of China.

There were hundreds of pilgrims circling the palace, spinning their portable prayer wheels & chanting, some prostrating every few feet, looking as if they hadn't bathed since they started their journey to Lhasa from the countryside. Outside the palace there was a long line of fixed prayer wheels that the pilgrims spun as they passed.

The palace was decorated with colorful images of Tibetan gods, most of them fantastically monster-like. We were not permitted to take photos inside, but we were able to take some pictures of the painted walls just outside the entrance.

Inside it was dark & musty. Everything was brightly painted with a coating of smoke from the butter urns burning at various intervals inside the palace. Each pilgrim added a little bit of butter to each urn as an offering, ensuring the flame would continue to burn. Our guide told us that the fuel the pilgrims were using was actually vegetable-based since most people can't afford to give real yak butter.

Each pilgrim placed money in small bills in front of the butter urns, on the altars or between the slats separating them from the golden statues - in every nook & cranny available - bowing in prayer as they did so. The place was littered with money that would be used to make repairs to the palace, buy more Buddha statues & feed the monks living there.

Among the stashes of bills & coins, we saw hair clips, strings of beads & other every-day baubles - even grains of barley. Our guide explained that those who don't have money to offer the gods choose to offer what they do have, sacrificing what they can to ensure good fortune in the future.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Altitude Sickness

The first day in Tibet, our guide instructed us to take it easy - no sightseeing or walking around too much. We needed to rest & acclimate to being at 12,000 feet. We took his advice & settled for a nice quiet dinner & a welcome Lhasa beer.

We were bushed from traveling, so we decided to call it an early night. Crawled into bed, lights out, deep contented sigh...

Turn to the right. Try the left. Uf! On my back, on my stomach. Back to the right side. Not sleeping. Close my eyes really tight. Think of Tibetan sheep jumping over Tibetan fences. Nothing. Not one wink the whole night.

The next day our guide asked us if we slept well. No, we moaned. Did you have beer? Yes, we muttered. You shouldn't have beer, he chided. Good to know. The next night we avoided the beer & were able to sleep much better.

It was the third day that really affected me, though. We had been out in the sun for two days, without a thick atmosphere or layer of pollution to protect us from the sun's rays. By the end of the day, I felt weak, lightheaded & a little nauseous. I spent the afternoon in bed with a slight fever, & that evening I skipped dinner altogether.

It took a few more days after that before I felt normal again. By the end of the week, I didn't notice the altitude at all. I started to wonder if going back down would have an affect on us, since we were now used to being so high up. But it turns out that altitude sickness only works one way. Thank goodness.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tibetan Food

I had no idea what Tibetan food would be like, but I figured it might not be very vegetarian friendly - not much grows at 12,000 feet. I imagined that yak meat & yak butter tea & potatoes might be the only things to eat there. Just in case, I brought a stash of granola bars with me from Shanghai so that I'd be able to suppliment whatever we found in the restaurants.

There were indeed lots of yak-based dishes on the Tibetan menu, but I was delighted to find a long list of Indian-style vegetable offerings as well. There were curries & naan & samosas a-plenty, all of which I happily gobbled up & washed down with a nice cold Lhasa beer.

Monday, September 19, 2011

First views of Tibet

It was a seven-hour trip from Shanghai to Lhasa, with a stopover in Xian. Both legs of the flight were delayed, which wasn't much of a surprise. Reasons range from the weather to air traffic control, but flights are reliably late in China - a good thing to know if you're rushing to catch a plane.

Flying into Lhasa was an incredible sight. The Tibetan capital lies 12,000 feet above sea level. I expected to see snow on the mountains & lush vegetation below. Instead I saw a beautiful landscape of rocky peaks & trickling river beds with lots of little villages populating the river valleys.

As the plane approached the airport, I got a closer look at the matrix of streams braided across the landscape. I thought of Alaska - could that be glacier melt? I wondered where all the glaciers were.

I stepped off the plane into a bright sunny afternoon. It was much warmer than I expected - I didn't need my light jacket at all.

Outside the airport a throng of tour guides held up signs, each with a different name printed on it. I found the sign with my name & nodded to the man holding it. I spoke to him in Chinese at first. He seemed taken aback, but quickly recovered.

Once we had our bags safely packed into the back of the all-terrain vehicle that would be our transportation for the week, our guide welcomed us to Tibet with traditional white silk scarfs.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Back in Shanghai

I'm back in Shanghai after an amazing trip to Tibet & Xian.

Tibet was incredibly beautiful - blue skies, rocky mountains, hairy yaks, sheep & goats everywhere, monks in dark flowing red robes & funny yellow hats, pilgrims spinning prayer wheels as they circled holy sites, & yummy curries & naan.

Xian was interesting from a historical perspective - the terra cotta warriors were fascinating - & the top of the old city wall made for a nice evening bike ride.

I'll be spending the next few days sorting through photos, so be watching for more details of the trip soon!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Going to Tibet

I leave for Lhasa on Saturday.

That's something I never thought I'd have the opportunity to say. Like, who ever goes to Tibet, right? TIBET, for cripes sake!

I had to get a special visa to go since Tibet is officially an autonomous region of China, but it was a fairly painless process - the tour company took care of all the paperwork - so I'm all set.

I can't wait to see yaks & prayer flags & monks & mountains & stars & pagodas & throngs of tourists!