Lhasa, Tibet, China  ལྷ་ས།

It took two days to get from Xi’an to Lhasa (with a one-night stop in Xining, Qinghai) by train. China’s rail network is one of the largest in the world, and its 10-year-old extension to Lhasa (Chinese: Lasa 拉薩) is an incredible feat of engineering, climbing the Tibetan Plateau from an elevation of 2300m in Xining, past 4000m somewhere along the line, and about 3500m in Lhasa — so quickly that every single person on the train not already acclimatised to high altitudes suffers from altitude sickness. And that train is full, full, full: vacationers trying to beat the summer heat elsewhere within China, student backpackers, Tibetans returning home or just visiting…

Aside from being breathless and suffering from a mild headache, arriving in Lhasa looks like arriving pretty much anywhere else in China. Hop on a public bus, pass through large shopping areas and glitzy screens, and–

Oh wait. Are we in China? Of course we’re in China. Flags flags flags flags flags. Hmm. I don’t recall ever seeing this many Chinese flags in any city before.
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 Xi’an, Shaanxi, China 西安

Xi’an is one of the most significant cities in China, having been its often-renamed capital during some of China’s most significant dynasties. It’s so full of cultural and historical significance, with plenty of attractions showcasing it, that one of my hosts says “You could pick up a rock and it would probably be considered a cultural artifact.” At one point during the Tang dynasty sometime around 750, Xi’an (then Chang’an 長安) was the largest city in the world, and now it’s a sprawling 10000 square kilometre megalopolis of 8 million people, with its ancient city wall still intact and forming the core of the city’s downtown.

And yet, within two hours of getting off the high-speed train from Shenzhen, I found myself in an alley next to a large hotel just outside the city wall, handing out condoms to grateful cross-dressing prostitutes. Talk about an introduction to the city.
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