You Want Smoke? Kathmandu, Nepal

Today was a rest day.  We needed it for sure.  It seems like every day has been a huge adventure including hours in a car on rough (to put it mildly) roads filled with dust and pollution.  Because we did very little, I thought I would catch you up on Kathmandu in general and some overall impression from the trip thus far.

First, infrastructure.  Like India, there isn’t much here in Kathmandu.  We are at a great hotel but there is only power about 85% of the time and the Internet is glacial speed at best.  At least they have it.  The act of uploading photos has usually taken overnight for each day’s worth.  Painful, but were making it (spoiled Americans, I know).

Second, food.  This has been a highlight.  While we are in a very touristy area and things are relatively expensive, the food has been great.  After days of yak meat on the road, the first thing we did was hit a great Italian place and have a huge pizza (one each).  This place was good by US standards, not just because we were starved.  In fact, we went back the 2nd day just to make sure (pasta this time).  Tonight we had a big chicken curry on the roof of another great restaurant where we even caught a glimpse of the sunset.  Breakfast at the hotel even includes made-to-order eggs and pancakes if you want them, along with fruit (which we barely recognized after Tibet).

Third, traffic and the street vibe.  This place is crazy.  Near our hotel the streets are tiny, but cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and people somehow squeeze through them.  There is a great shopping/eating street near our hotel and it is filled with people trying to sell things.  The most popular items on offer: tours, taxis, and marijuana.  Every two minutes someone is asking “You want smoke?” or “You smoking?” or any variation you can think up.  This is clearly a dream place if you love the Grateful Dead, Bob Marley or Phish.  At night it seems to get quite hopping with live bands and clubs, but Ty and I haven’t been up past about 10pm on the most of the trip.  I guess we are getting old.

Fourth, the weather.  This is the rainy season and we had heard bad things.  Not so.  While it has rained every day, it usually does it late at night or only for about 30 minutes.  Frankly, our weather has been great for almost the whole trip (picture me knocking on wood right now).

Lastly, philanthropy.  It is everywhere and that is both good and bad.  We met a great couple at our hotel the first night who run what seems like a great organization.  They, partnered with another NGO, rescue Nepali girls that have been abducted and forced to join Indian circuses (because they look exotic).  Once rescued, they bring them back and re-integrate them by teaching them artistic tile skills (and helping them sell the finished product).  Some of their work is on display at the hotel and it is excellent.  Here’s the downside, and we heard it from them and Room to Read….  Charity is so prevalent here in Nepal that is has become a trade of its own.  People are literally capitalizing on people’s good will for profit and they are doing it in droves.  Fake charities everywhere or good ones being embezzled from, etc.  It sounds like an epidemic and a really hard one to combat, because everyone that comes here wants to help. 

That’s it for now.  Tomorrow is a big day of sight seeing around the Kathmandu valley.  I’m sure we’ll be templed out again.  Oh, I threw some more photos up as well (see the photos section).

New Photos Have Been Posted

Just a quick note that I have updated photo albums from our trip posted in the albums section of the site (see section on the right or click the photos link above.  Here is what I added:

  • The Lhasa, Tibet section is complete
  • The Friendship Highway photos are all there now (this is the six-day trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal and includes Mt. Everest from the Tibet side)
  • Yesterday we visited a school in Nepal donated by some friends and I in 2004 through Room to Read and those photos are also posted

Look for more posts later today at some point – I am two days behind but hope to get some quality time on it today.

Dhading, Nepal – Room to Read School Visit

I have been waiting years for this.  I lived in Asia for 4.5 years and not only did I somehow miss visiting Nepal during that time, even worse was not seeing the school several friends and I donated in 2004 (completed in 2005) through Room to Read.  This school and Room to Read overall were not only a game-changers for me in terms of philanthropy, but it eventually led to me meeting my fiancé Sonya in Sri Lanka!  Still, I had somehow never been to see the school and a big reason for this whole trip was for me to finally check that box.

We met Arun (from Room to Read Nepal) at the RTR offices in Kathmandu and immediately drove for about 1.5 hours South toward Dhading.  Eventually we pulled to the side of the road, grabbed our cameras and headed for the hills (literally).  First step was crossing an amazing suspension bridge and then about 45 minutes of hiking in mud and rice fields up some steep hills to the school (glad we wore the boots).  It was blisteringly hot and humid.  I was a sweaty, muddy mess when I arrived but that was easily forgotten when I saw the reception.

Keep in mind that the school is closed right now because of the monsoon season, so theoretically there shouldn’t have been anyone around.  What we saw however, was about 50 students (in uniform) and about 50 parents, teachers, and community officials all lined up to greet us.  I have seen this before when visiting other RTR projects, but you can imagine the difference when a) it is your project, and b) you aren’t traveling with a big group that usually includes John Wood (RTR founder) and others donors.  They did this just for us.

I could write for hours about the experience, but in order to save you the pain I will summarize below and let the photos do the talking (they are all posted in the photos section of the site):

  • The school has five classrooms and a library.  They want to expand to six so that Kindergarten and 1st grade don’t have to share a room.
  • 140 students are enrolled here and it has been in operation since 2005.  We even met a graduate who has gone on to another school (high school or Jr. High equivalent)
  • The students put enough flowers around our necks that I could barely move, and that was only part of them (the rest wouldn’t fit).  They also filled our hands with flowers and other offerings of thanks along with the customary red markings on our foreheads (which eventually were running down our faces with the sweat).  It was overwhelming. 
  • We sat for about 30 minutes while the community leaders spoke to us, giving thanks for everything that has been done and telling us how important the school had been to their villages.
  • We toured the school where they showed us each room with great pride and repeated how much better this was than the previous building, which had pretty much collapsed.
  • Most of these students walk for miles through mud (often with no shoes) to get here every day, and they LOVE school.  This is such a contrast to America and other developed countries where school is often a chore for kids.
  • The children were very shy at first, but there’s nothing like a camera and especially video to get kids interested.  By the time we left they were crawling all over both of us and having a great time. 
  •       We took hundreds of photos and 70 videos – the highlights are posted in the photos section

Thanks to Dominic Carr, Donna Hindson, Oliver Roll, Claude Brown, and Annie Bacon who were the other donors, and to Room to Read (Stephanie and Arun in particular).  More importantly, I want to call out my parents who provided me the education that made it possible to help these people with theirs.  Amazing.  Thank you.

Country #42 – Welcome to the Jungle (Nepal!)

Ah, the last day of the Friendship Highway.  It was billed as a “cross the Friendship Bridge in Nepal, then a couple of hours drive into Kathmandu.”  I should have know better.  As with previous entries, here’s what really happened:

After a decent breakfast in our sub-par hotel, we loaded up the Land Cruiser one last time and headed for the Nepal border which was just a few kilometers away.  The border opens around 9:30 or 10am so we stood there waiting outside for about 40 minutes and then proceeded in.  Unlike most borders I have crossed in my life, all of the restrictions on this one were around “getting out” vs. “getting in,” meaning that the Chinese were extremely strict about letting you leave Tibet, including detailed searches of our bags and multiple checks of our documentation.  The most interesting part was what they were searching for.  At most borders it would be drugs or other contraband, but in this case it was messaging – they spent the most time during the search on our books, trying to figure out if they contained pro-Tibet or other illegal messaging that we might be trying to take into Nepal. 

Once we finished the checks, we said goodbye to Dickey (our Tibetan guide) and found our Nepali guide (Mongal) waiting.  Nepalese are not allowed into Tibet and Tibetans aren’t really allowed to go anywhere except China, which was the reason for the switch.  Mongal then escorted us by foot across the friendship bridge into Nepal where another Land Cruiser was waiting with yet another driver.  First bit of information we got was “it rained a lot last night so there were some land slides – we might have some delays.”  Sure enough, within 5 minutes of driving we ran into a huge mudslide that covered the entire road.  No word on when a bulldozer would arrive to start fixing it – either way it would be a couple of hours minimum, so we returned up the hill to find lunch in the village.

Lunch was at a small hot springs along the river, where people (mostly truckers) pay to take showers and grab a bite.  It was dirty, but it worked.  The best part was talking with our new guide as he was a great guy and a wealth of knowledge.  The most interesting part was a clear container behind the counter that looked like something you would hold orange juice in at a hotel buffet (with a spout at the bottom).  Inside of it (we even went behind the counter to look closely), was a nasty selection of small lizards, snakes, and other things I couldn’t begin to describe, all fermenting into an alcoholic beverage that Mongal described as “scary.”  We would not be sampling this to confirm. 

Eventually, we made it back to the mud slide a couple of hours later and the bulldozer had just arrived, busily clearing dirt and rocks while perched on a small cliff above the river.  30 minutes later the road was clear and we were the first to cross.  We passed about five more of these slide areas shortly thereafter, but they had all been cleared.  The driving was again quite treacherous. 

The next major delay was even more exciting, and slightly nerve-racking.  Through conversations with other drivers, the word came through that in an upcoming village the night before, some police had beaten some kids (after suspecting them of trying to put nails in the road) and the village had decided to strike by closing the road with piles of rocks.  We were told they village people and police were “negotiating” and that the road would clear eventually.  After an hour of waiting in the blistering heat, they removed the rocks and we were on our way again.  Mongal told us this was completely normal – happens all the time.  Things are never boring on the “Friendship” Highway.

If you remove yourself from all of the mud slides and conflict, the valley and road are gorgeous.  Like the Tibet side, there are waterfalls everywhere and small villages dot the extremely green hillsides.  The river we were following had small suspension bridges (one even had a small resort run by New Zealanders offering bungee jumping from the bridge) every few miles and every free piece of land is covered with rice fields, corn, and soybeans in small shelves all the way up the hills.  Beautiful.

The lower we got in the valley, the more traffic we encountered, the hotter it got, and the population density started increasing.  There was also a large section where the dirt was extremely red with clay which was great mixed with all of the green of the jungle.  Eventually we entered suburbs of Kathmandu and things turned quite disgusting.  Dust and pollution everywhere.  Chaos.  Kathmandu is a very poorly managed (even for a developing country) city.  The roads and traffic are horrible.  All told, our “short drive” into Kathmandu from the border lasted nine hours.  Yes, nine.

We arrived at the Hotel Courtyard exhausted and hungry.  The last thing we wanted was another crappy guest house and we were pleasantly surprised for sure.  It is run by a great couple from Seattle (lived in Green Lake).  He was born in Nepal but spent most of his life in India and Seattle and she is American.  The hotel is the former home of his family (it is huge) and they have gone out of their way to make it a small oasis in an otherwise dirty and chaotic city.  So far, we highly recommend it. 

We finished the night by joining the owners of the hotel and a few other guests at his uncle’s restaurant down the street, which was a beautiful place with great food.  Unfortunately it started with a shot of something you could only describe as moonshine.  At least it probably killed any of the bacteria we had floating around from the first two weeks of the trip.  Sleep came easy shortly thereafter…    

Oh, and you can now see all of the photos so far!  http://roberthylton.spaces.live.com/photos

Hunting for Cough Drops in Zhangmu

 

Ah, our first full day in the border town of Zhangmu, Tibet.  Just 3km from the Nepalese border.  I wrote a bit about it yesterday, but let me give you some other impressions after 24 hours here:

  • The town (see photo) is just one long winding 1.5 lane road that has about 10-15 hairpin turns on it going down an incredibly steep hill (our hotel, of course, is at the bottom so everything we want to do involves a climb).  It is a small, but bustling little place.
  • It is tropical, and it happens to be the rainy season.  This means there is water flowing everywhere, even when it isn’t raining.  A small river going down the street, huge flows of water going under people’s houses, drainage gutters flowing like rivers, and waterfalls everywhere you look (even in between buildings.
  • There is a crazy amount of trade going on here.  On the walk into town yesterday, we saw maybe 500 or so large trucks filled with cargo.  Again, small town.  Every free spot on or off the road, including outside of town in both directions, has a truck parked on it.  It appears they are all parked in some stage of Tibetan/Chinese or Nepali customs inspections or permit gathering.  Either way, it overwhelms this little place.
  • There are stray dogs (or most seem like strays) almost everywhere, but we have found a true star amongst the bunch.  From the window of our hotel we can hear a dog barking.  He is now my pick for the 2009 world dog barking championships (if there is such a thing).  We have been here 24 hours and he has barked at full volume for at least 20 of those hours and that is not an exaggeration.  This is serious barking.  Loud, and at least 2-3 times per second.  Color me impressed.
  • Other than trade, or as a compliment to it, Zhangmu seems to be the place to trade currency as well.  At least 30 times so far we have been asked “you want exchange money?” by random people on the street.

So, what about the cough drops.  Well, my allergies combined with a dry high-altitude cough (which is fairly normal) may have become a cold, and I spent much of last night coughing (and listening to world-class dog barking).  This morning, I needed to do something about it asap.  I have vitamins, I have water, etc. but nothing to stop a cough, so Ty and I went on separate trips (before and after breakfast) trying to find a pack of lozenges.  Finally, we found an open pharmacy and tried through charades to explain the need.  He offered plenty of pills, but eventually we spotted some throat lozenges on the shelf.  Always interesting to enter the world of pharmaceuticals in a foreign place, but when in Zhanmu….

Lunch was pizza, which was ok but at least it wasn’t another serving of yak meat (which is good, but that is all we have had for days).  We watched Bollywood dance videos one a small screen while we ate.  The afternoon, as you may have noticed from the posts below, was spent in a internet cafe.

Back on the Grid!!

After days of being disconnected, we are finally back in something that resembles civilization – although we are making it quick because electricity is as hard to find as Internet access.  We have been writing daily, so please check out the last 5-6 posts because they are some of the most interesting and we have uploaded them all at once.  Enjoy!

Oh, and tomorrow we head into Nepal where communication should be easier (and we will no longer be in a car – yeah!).  I will try to put more photos in the albums section when we get better access, but for now I have added some more photos of Lhasa.  Check them out here: Lhasa, Tibet – Photos.

Long Way ‘Round – The Lost Tibet Episodes

Let’s start in the middle of the night for this one.  Here’s the scene:  Four of us (guide, driver, Ty, myself) sleeping in a big tent.  The kind that stays put for a whole season, with a stove in the middle and a makeshift door.  Oh, and the best part is that they use small solar panels and car batteries to power everything (they will even charge your cell phone), but I digress.  We have been going to sleep around 9pm every night so we are usually up very early.  Last night, I woke around 4:30am with a slight need to use the restroom (translation: get out of the tent).  I went through the tedious process of quietly taking off the 7 blankets (it is COLD here at night), putting my hiking boots, coat, etc. on, and getting to the door without knocking anything over and waking everyone up.  Problem: door won’t open.  I didn’t realize they had a way of actually sealing this place.  Solution: go back to bed and hold it.

About 2 hours later I noticed the driver get up and try the same thing.  He failed once and then got a cigarette lighter and somehow figured it out.  I followed.  It had rained all night, but was now clear overhead with a full moon.  Unfortunately, Mt. Everest was still covered in clouds.

About 7:30am, I see Ty get up and go to the door (he was feeling better).  He immediately comes back and tells me to get out there because the mountain is out again!  Twice in two days!!  This time in the morning, so a completely different look because of the light.  In the rock field near our tent camp was filled with tripods as people were already taking photos.  It was amazing and again, very rare this time of year.

Eventually we had breakfast and hit the road.  We decided to skip Old Tingri (where we were supposed to stay the night) and instead headed all the way to Zhangmu, the border town with Nepal.  This sounded good because a) we had lunch in Old Tingri on the way and it was a dump to put it mildly, b) Zhangmu is only 2300 meters so we would finally get some oxygen, and c) we were told Zhangmu was quite nice and that we would be in a hotel vs. a guest house.  All good.

Now here’s what really happened…  We left on a rough dirt road at around 5200 meters and stayed above that level and on even worse roads for hours.  I had somehow forgotten th  at this whole time we were on one side of the Himalaya and we needed to get to the other.  This is clearly the road less traveled.  We had lunch in Old Tingri (ugh, but at least they had French fries – we are done with the Yak meat for awhile), and then drove for 4-5 more hours on a combination of perfectly paved new roads and horrible detours through the desert before dropping into a gorgeous valley above the Nepal border.

This last section of the Friendship Highway is stunning.  After days in a barren wasteland, you suddenly feel like you are in Ireland, except huge mountains on both sides of you and maybe thousands of waterfalls everywhere you look.  There is water everywhere here – both sides of the road, in every direction.  Even the driver used some waterfalls that fell directly on the road to wash his car (felt just like the drive through wash). 

While this all sounds great, there was also a darker side.  This road is very dangerous.  It is all new construction, and safety is something they obviously worry about after the fact.  Maybe 60-70 times we had to drive around huge rocks that had fallen in the middle of the road with enough force to leave small craters.  Some had destroyed the guard rail (where there was one).  The road itself is beautiful as it winds along cliffs above the valley, but it is also a crazy construction zone and flood zone so there are parts where tractors and tents are perched precariously on cliffs, and where large quantities of water flood across the road and below it at the same time. 

They close this road every day at a certain point for hours on end.  Our goal had been to make it to Zhangmu during one of the open windows but we failed.  Suddenly we were stopped along with twenty or so other Land Cruisers and motorcycles and were told we would need to wait 3 hours.  Dickey came to the rescue by informing us that Zhangmu was only 3 kilometers away (actually about 10) and that we could walk.  The driver waited with the car while we grabbed our packs and walked all the way down the valley to the town of Zhangmu.  It rained on us and was humid, but this was welcome relief to the days of desert and high-altitude we had just experienced.  Dickey walked part of the way with us, but eventually grabbed a taxi.  We declined and finished the walk to the hotel.

Ah the Zhangmu Hotel.  We were really looking forward to it, but should have kept our expectations low (although it still might not have met them).  Great lobby, but the room has no air conditioning, a puddle on the bathroom floor, no towels, and no toilet paper (we eventually complained enough to get a better room which solved most of the issues except air conditioning, but I’m still not impressed).  We have to stay here two nights.  Ugh.

 

A Huge Day on the Road, and Mt. Everest!!!

Today was a long day, but will forever be a highlight for me.  First, how we got started…

We left our fairly mediocre hotel in New Tingri, Tibet and headed upward over another beautiful pass of 5200 meters (17,000 ft.) and much to the disappointment of our guide and driver, we could only see clouds in the distance (evidently, this was where we had a good chance of seeing Mt. Everest and several other 8000 meter peaks in the Himalaya).  No such luck.

After this came some of the more adventuresome driving of my life as we tackled serious curves on a paved road with no guard rail (and remember, no seat belts) and then without warning the driver took a sharp left off the side of the road into what appeared to be nothing (down a very steep hill).  We were bouncing around like kids on a bed for about 1 minute before finally asking.  Answer: “short cut.”

The rest of the driving for the day didn’t get much better.  All above 4600 meters (15,000 ft.) and all off-road.  BTW – not to plug the Toyota Land Cruiser, but 80% of all vehicles on the friendship highway are exactly like ours, and 80% of those are white for some reason.  If you are into treacherous driving in the middle of nowhere, you might want to consider one. 

Just as the road had gotten boring and we had been fully shaken and stirred by the bumps, our guide and driver started going nuts.  We looked up from our boredom and music-listening to see it…  Everest!  In the sun!!!  The North Face.  For those of you who don’t know, this is a very rare sight.  Our guide does this trip  once a month and has been doing it for 12 years – she has seen it clearly like we did only 10 times in her life.  Even better is that it stayed clear for the hour or so it took us to get to base camp, where we took about four thousand photos and then walked the mile or so back to the tent city where we would be spending the night.

The bad news in all of this is that Ty started to feel ill in the late afternoon.  Classic high-altitude sickness (the mild form).  Headache, nausea, etc.  He was basically out of commission until the next morning.  Luckily I felt fine and even went for a long walk by myself to just “be” near the mountain.  I’m a real sucker for big mountains and as you know, this is the biggest.  It even showed itself slightly to me a few more times during my walk. 

I finally retired to the tent to check on Ty and eat some dinner before going to bed, but the real fun was just beginning.  Out tent was run by several Tibetan women (most of the tents seem to be) and a young Tibetan man from a neighboring tent kept paying them a visit.  While I couldn’t understand him other than “America, good” he did say the magic words for me:  “I play guitar for you?”  He left and returned with an amazing 4-string Tibetan instrument and started playing and singing.  I of course, started taking video and photos.  Like a chain reaction, this got all of the women to want their picture taken and ended with 3 of them and the “guitar guy” singing and dancing together.  I got the whole thing on video.  It was amazing, but even better was watching them huddled around the video camera watching themselves and giggling.  I think they had more fun than I did.  I should also mention that this was the first time I bonded with the driver a bit, who you can just tell is a very funny fatherly figure.  Everyone around him is always laughing and he himself has a hearty laugh that makes you chuckle even though you don’t know what he is saying.

Over all, a day for the record books indeed. 

Is the Friendship Highway Actually Friendly?

First, what is the Friendship Highway?  From what we can glean, it is the road from Shigatse (where we stayed last night) and the Nepali border.  According to that definition, this is our first day on it (our second on the road from Lhasa).  Second, how friendly is it?  So far, with a few exceptions, very.  That said, things are about to change…

We awoke this morning in Shigatse to heavy rain which seemed unusual given how good our weather has been so far.  This is the rainy season, but we had seen very little until today.  We stared the morning with a fairly horrible breakfast at the hotel – an extremely diverse buffet gone awry – and then hit the local market in town in search of gifts.  We finally got Dikey to join us and help a little so that was good.  I was in search of a famous Tibetan guitar that hails from Shigatse but failed as nobody at the market knew where you could find one.  Oh well, one less thing to carry.

After that we hit the road, or so we though.   We had been told there were no temples on today’s path but next thing you know we are climbing the steps of yet another.  Don’t get me wrong – they are stunning and the history is amazing, but it does get to be a bit much.  The 4th Dali Lama did this here, the 7th Penchin Lama did this and built that, the 5th-9th Penchin Lamas were buried in this tomb, this is the past Buddha, this the future, this is the present, etc.  It all starts to run together and it might be all of the incense and yak-butter candles that are causing my allergies to flare up (still struggling with that), so we could really use a break.

Finally we hit the road, which started out looking like the previous day, but then changed in some dramatic ways: a) the weather – we finally got some rain on the road, b) we finally saw the effects of mud slides we had read so much about.  There were huge sections of the road washed away and being fixed, the detours around which are interesting in themselves, and c) we went even higher than before.  Our highest pass was over 5200 meters and we only dropped down to 4600 to a tiny village called New Tigri which is where we will sleep (and where I sit writing this post that can’t be sent until our next Internet connection).

Oh, and I forgot to mention lunch.  While very tasty, this was our seediest dining spot yet.  As Ty said after returning from the lack of a toilet, “If we were with a large group, we would have lost half of them today.”  We had the best tea yet, along with some rice, potatoes and yak meat.  The other downside was the fly population.  They had us sitting next to a TV showing Chinese and Tibetan soap operas which evidently flys are really drawn to, by the hundreds.  

To close out the night, Ty and I decided to take a break from the local yak-based cuisine and try a combination of something from a local groceries store (if you could call it that) and something from our own backpacks.  For new items, Ty went for the butter cookies while I opted to go salty with a can of look-a-like Pringles.  I chose poorly.  It turned out that they were tomato flavored.  Yuk.  I stole a couple of Ty’s cookies, ate another granola bar (thanks again Sonya!), and finished it off with a fake Life Saver for desert.  Now that is living!

Tomorrow may be our first chance to see Mt. Everest in the flesh.  It will require great weather which we did not have today, cut we are crossing our fingers!  Also, tomorrow will be our fist night in a tent because as Dickey suggested, “The guest house is too dirty.”  When a tent beats your guest house, I think it’s time for a cleaning crew.  Yikes!

One last note.  As in the previous post, we came upon another accident today.  Didn’t appear to be any injuries, but it was another great reminder to drive safe out here (hope our driver got the same message).  Photo below.

Addition to Yesterday’s Post…

Ooops!  I inadvertently left out a key photo from yesterday’s post (although you will get this many days later because we have clearly fallen off the grid).  The hotel we are in barely has power (lights keep dimming like we are at a night club).  Anyway, here is the photo of the unfortunate Land Cruiser (again, not ours).  Enjoy!