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!

 

The Road to Shigatse – Finally Out of the City!!!

Today was our first day outside of a city.  We’ve been in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Lhasa.  We left Lhasa this morning in our Land Cruiser and headed Southwest toward Nepal for 5+ hours.  The driving is just like that of any developing country which is both nerve racking and exhilarating.  It seems there are hundreds of other Land Cruisers on the road just like ours, but one such one didn’t fare so well.  The photo on the right is luckily not us, but a single vehicle accident we passed just outside of Lhasa.  Our vehicle and driver seem well equipped for the journey, although we are missing one thing: seat belts.  Us Yanks don’t do too well without our belts, but we are already getting used to it.  Ty keeps grabbing for his every time we get in the car which is fun to watch.

So what did we see?  Traffic for the first hour, until we passed the turn off to the airport, followed by some small sand dunes, then some bigger mountains, and then a very steep, windy and yak-filled (and beautiful) climb from 3700 meters to 4900 meters.  It only took about 40 minutes for this.  At around 4700 meters there was an enormous lake and many small farm villages, which was amazing.  The next pass was the highlight of the day, measuring over 5100 meters and filled with stunning glaciers (the picture of me is from there).  The rest was filled with small villages, temples, and wide-open scenery in the raw.  This is what I had been waiting for.

We amazingly have internet access here in Shigatse, and might tomorrow, but after than we will be absent for a few days (sleeping in tents).  With luck, we will drop another post tomorrow from the road. 

Best to everyone…  

Day 2 in Lhasa – The Great Monk Debate

Another wonderful day in Lhasa that started our with our standard omelet with yak butter on toast and tea.  Ty finally got a run in, although it was a short one given the altitude.  Dikey picked us up at the hotel at 9:30 for our first attraction of the day: Dreprug Monastery/Gaden Palace.  I thought the previous day’s palaces would be hard to beat but now I’m not so sure.  Gaden Palace is tucked way up on a hillside overlooking Lhasa and it is a magical place.  Not only beautiful, but a crazy winding maze of corridors and stairs, each with their own take on this amazing view.  I’m not connected right now or I would add a link to some photos of it (we never saw it from a distance, only from close up and within) so do a quick search to see how amazing it is.

One of the most spectacular sights was actually on the hill across from the monastery.  Thousands of Tibetan prayer flags strung across the hill from side to side.  Dickey said it was most likely a place where one of the Lamas would go to pray so every year they will put these up there.  The photo isn’t great, but hope it conveys the scale of it.

Next up was back to the hotel and then out for lunch (a local place recommended by Dickey).  This one was extra local, including no English-speaking staff and no English menu.  There were some pictures but they were very small, which let to conversation with Ty the likes of “Are those beans of celery? I can’t tell” and “I think those are French fries – let’s get them just in case.”  It turned out great (they were beans, by the way) and we once again felt like rock stars as adults stared and kids waved and even came up to our table to try a quick “hello.”

In the afternoon, we went to the Sera Palace where we witnessed my first Monk Debate.  This is a process where the monks gather in the debating courtyard, pair up, and one of them drills the other with questions.  It is a pleasantly noisy affair as the signal that the interviewer wants to ask a question or when the interviewee gets one wrong is a loud clap of the hands by the former.  with 20-30 pairs of monks going at it in a small courtyard, you can imagine how lively it became, 

Last up was the summer palace, which was finished just a few years before the Chinese took over Tibet so it is relatively new (1950s).  It was beautiful as well and full of history.  The most interesting part for me was the photo of the 14th Dali Lama (the current one in exile in India) because it is technically illegal for anyone in Tibet to possess a photo of him or mention him.  Somehow this one photo tucked in the corner of one of the rooms is ok.  Our guide didn’t know why, or couldn’t talk about it anyway.  By then I was having some serious allergy problems and Ty and I agreed that we were “templed out” so back to the hotel we went.

I feel a bit miserable (hopefully allergies and not the onset of something else) and given that we start out journey overland to Nepal tomorrow crossing passes over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) by car, this is not time to feel less than 100%.  Off to sleep for me…

Not sure if we will have Internet access over the coming days so posts may be sporadic at best.

Monks and the Military – Lhasa, Tibet

Our first full day in Lhasa is coming to a close.  We started the day at 7:30am by trying to find someone awake at our hotel (they had told us breakfast would be ready).  Finally we woke them and were soon eating omelets, yak butter on toast, and tea.  Dikey (pronounced Dickee), our guide, picked us up at 8 and we were off to see (and climb) Lhasa’s most visible monument, Potala Palace.  It seems every picture of Lhasa includes this and it is easy to see why.  Perched on top of a hill in the middle of the city, this palace has 1,000 rooms (exactly) and was build by the fifth Dali Lama in the 17th century.  I won’t even try to describe it – the photos will do some justice to the outside and photos are not allowed on the inside (sorry – you’ll just have to visit yourself).

Following this adventure, we did some people watching around the palace (thousands of Tibetans walking to the palace with prayer wheels in hand – beautiful people dressed as they always have, except for a few modern Tibetans with baseball caps on sideways, etc.) and returned to the hotel.  Ty and I then ventured off for lunch and what would become the highlight of the day for sure.  At the suggestion of one of Sonya’s friends (thanks Amina!) we went to a very local noodle and sweet tea house and were met with many stares as foreigners.  Took us a minute to figure out how to order, but finally got some help from a couple of younger Tibetan men who asked us to join them.  They told us they were students studying English as we slurped down some spicy noodles with Yak meat and some sweet tea (similar to tea in India). 

After some fun Q&A with them they invited us to visit their classroom (they were about to return themselves).  We were a bit nervous but it is hard for me to pass up a chance to “go local” and do something most tourists never get a chance to do.  Reluctantly, we followed them through a maze of narrow streets and eventually ended up at their school (relieved to find there was a school and they weren’t luring us into an alley to rob us – actually it is quite safe here).  They were so proud to take us into their classroom as special guests (and we were equally excited).  I mentioned to their instructor that Ty was a teacher and he asked him to get up and give a short lesson (i even got to help a bit).  It was amazing to interact with the students and when we were ready to leave they applauded and wanted pictures with us.  What a great event, especially for Ty (as a teacher, and on his birthday no less).

We were a bit lost at this point so we wandered the streets and markets of Lhasa for a few hours and finally found our hotel in time to meet Dikey again.  Our next stop was the Jokhang Temple, which is the holiest place in Tibet.  Built in the 7th century by the king for his Chinese wife (he also had a Nepalese and a Tibetan wife).  The most amazing things about Jokhang Temple are a) how old it is, b) how important it is to Tibetan Buddhists, and c) how good the view is from the roof!  The weather was just right over Potala Palace and the city of Lhasa that our photos turned out great ( I should have some posted soon but the internet connect is way slow here).

After Jokhang Temple we had dinner and then hung out in the main square.  I was trying to get photos of the people without them noticing (or offending them) so we sat in a corner of the crowded square and had some real fun.  Some of the Tibetans, especially children, are quite taken with foreigners so they will often say “hello” or “how are you?” and then giggle.  This was great fun and then got a bit strange.  To my surprise, a Tibetan monk (see photo to the left) walked right up and started stroking my beard, then giggled heartily, and then stood back and just stared (which is when I took this photo).  Best part is that he also had a beard – what was so special about mine?  Eventually, he just walked away.  About five minutes later, another random guy walked up and did the same thing (see the photo to the right of him in action)! 

We eventually returned to the hotel and hit the very limited Internet station while we try to sync our photos and video back to Seattle (it is taking forever).  At least I was able to arrange some chocolate cake at the hotel for Ty’s birthday.

Sorry for the long post.  Until next time…

Arrival in Lhasa, Tibet – Altitude: 12,000 ft.

This is the part I have been waiting for the most.  If you count it as a separate country (and I do), it is my 41st.  Mountains,, cooler temperatures, a less developed city, fresh air, and rich culture.  As mentioned in previous posts, we ended up taking a flight instead of the train and while this was a disappointment of sorts, the flight was easy, fast and quite beautiful as we entered Tibet.  That said, it was a very long day that started around 4am and included Ty having to climb a fence because there was no security guard to let us out of Jason’s apartment complex – minor injury, should be fine).  We arrived at the Lhasa airport around 11:30 and then spent 1.5 hours getting to the city of Lhasa, including a major traffic jam on a bridge that was under construction.

Impressions?  Way more developed and much larger than I expected.  There are construction projects everywhere and in the newer parts of the city there are wide modern streets and buildings of glass and steel.  Closer to the airport was a bit closer to what I was expecting – clearly Tibetan buildings, very rural, prayer flags everywhere, and stray cows and yaks.  I think we will get a much greater dose of this once we leave Lhasa and start the six-day overland journey to Nepal.

Our hotel is very Tibetan and very quaint, with a nice courtyard restaurant where we ate lunch on arrival.  Ty had a chicken curry while I opted for the yak burger with fries.  Both were very tasty.  The rest of the day was focused on one thing… sleep.  When flying into high altitude (we went from about 240ft in Beijing to 12,000ft here in Lhasa) the best recipe for the first day is to do nothing except breathe deeply and relax.  Consider it done.  I got about 3-4 hours and Ty has had more than five already (and still going at 10pm while I write this).

Looks like we will skip dinner – just had a granola bar – thanks Sonya!  :)  Tomorrow starts with a 7:30 breakfast and 8am pickup by our new guide, Dickey (sp?).  She will be with us for the next 9 days so hope we like her…

Hot Pot with Howard and Kathy

Just got back from dinner with Howard and Kathy.  Like all of the meals before it, we had a great time and the food was excellent.  Good enough to share by video, but YouTube is blocked in China so we will try to add it when we get to another destination.

What also made the evening special and humorous was the loot we took home.  Somewhere early in the meal we mentioned how much we liked the popcorn or what they call the “Golden Bean.”  Howard mentioned this to the staff and they said we could take some with us (good news).  What started as a nice gesture turned into mayhem as they started bringing bags (one for each of us) of various foods we had through the meal, including spicy soup mix, shrimp crackers, Golden Bean, dried peas, and even two bags of Life Saver-like mints.  Somehow we became mini-celebrities and by the time we left we were even taking photos with the manager.

Thanks Howard and Kathy for another great evening! 

True story: I was lit on fire after being beaten up by an 80 pound girl last night

After our day of Donkey Tacos, etc. I really expected a tame evening.  We had a nice dinner of Peking Duck with my friend Will and then came back to the house we are staying at.  When Jason returned from his basketball game he really wanted to go for a massage which is always something I am game for.  Ty stayed at the house while we walked over to the local massage place.

To provide some background, this is the same place we went the night we arrived in Beijing.  Jason and his friend opted for a foot massage that night, Ty chose the Chinese massage, and I went for Thai.  What I got was two hours of near torture and some moves that only the most skilled wrestler could possible perform, from a tiny Chinese woman who was about 80 pounds.  I felt great after, but during the process it felt like Yoga by force and included stretching me in ways my body had never even come close to.  I thought at one point I had pulled a hamstring and was maybe close to losing a limb or two.  Again, once we left I felt great.

Cut to last night.  Jason and I go back to this place for what I expect to be a foot massage, but he talks me into getting another Thai massage for two hours.  It always sounds better in your memory than it does in reality, so what the heck.  The foot massage doesn’t last as long so I would have had to wait for him.  As luck would have it, I got the same 80 lb. monster with the strength of 10 men.  Just like the night we arrived, I got a good 2 hour beating from her with even some new moves thrown in, although it was much less painful because I was stretched out from the previous session.  Up next came the real shocker…

Jason had been talking to his masseuse and mine (this all takes place in the same room) in Mandarin and at the end they offered us a bonus service for being repeat customers (no, not that kind of service).  We got to choose between ear candling and something the called “fire tower,” which later I discovered was actually “fire towel.”  We chose the latter, mostly because it is my nature to try the unknown and because who can pass up the chance to be lit on fire after losing a fight with a small Chinese woman? 

The process went something like this:

  • The “fire master” comes into the room, puts some oil or water (not sure) on your back
  • He then lays two towels on your back and covers your head with a cloth
  • The next thing you hear (because you can’t see anything now) is him spraying liquid on the towels on your back (probably lighter fluid from the BBQ) and the sound of him lighting it on fire.  Very interesting sound – the same as you hear in movies when the villain lights a puddle of gasoline, except it is coming from your own back (Jason took the photo above with his phone)
  • After about 5-10 seconds he covers the flame with another towel and you start to feel searing heat on your back.  Like most excruciating treatments in China, it is designed to improve your circulation and overall health.  I let you know if it worked later
  • He repeats this process about 7-8 times before I am released and he moves on to Jason

I’ve had the pleasure of doing many new and scary things, but being lit on fire in China is a new one for me.  That said, it is now in my memory and therefore I remember it quite fondly.  I think I may need therapy soon.