Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kathmandu Valley

We've had a great time hopping around the Kathmandu Valley over the past few days on day trips to Bhaktapur, Bodhnath, Pashupatinath, and Patan. Bhaktapur is the smallest of the three major towns in the Kathmandu Valley and seems like it hasn't changed in a long time. The narrow, cobblestone streets are too small for cars so the town is very quiet and children wander around on the streets - it was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu.

The town is probably best known for its traditional Newari architecture in Durbar Square area but I thought the Kathmandu Durbar Square was more impressive - later I would learn that Patan's Durbar Square trumped both of them. We enjoyed walking around the back streets and stumbling upon some craftsmen still using traditional methods - potters throwing clay, knitters letting their yarn dry, etc.

Nayatapola Temple just south of Durbar Sq is notable as one of the highest and holiest temples in all of Nepal! The Nepalese believe spiritual purity increases with each higher floor - so the fifth story of this building is very holy!

Our stop at Bodhnath could have been very quick and probably would have if we didn't get terribly lost. Fortunately we ran into an American expat living in Nepal named Josh, it was interesting to hear his perspective on the area after having been around for a while. The area is home to a very holy Tibetan Buddhist stupa and is filled with many refugees from the Cultural Revolution.

The culture was vibrant and unfettered - monasteries were overflowing with monks whereas in Tibet most monasteries were only one tenth the size they had been in the 1950s! The contrast between the two places couldn't be more distinct. Video: Monks chanting at Bodhnath Stupa.

From Bodhnath, we took a stroll along the holy Bagtmati river to Pashupatinath, Nepal's most important Hindu temple. The monument to Shiva, the destroyer and creator of the Hindyu pantheon, attracts wandering Hindu holy men, or sadhus, from all over India.

We witnessed a ritual funeral on the river banks - a family burned their patriarch on a pyre alongside the river. I was so disturbed by this sight that we left shortly thereafter. Fortunately we were able to check out some of the temples before hand - the stone temples were oddly reminiscent of Myan ruins.

Today we checked out Patan, the second largest city (next to Kathmandu) in the valley. Our departure for Bandipur tomorrow and some routine chores meant we only had a few hours to get through the whole city - fortunately the two main sites, Durbar Square and the Patan Museum were right next to each other!

Durbar square was roughly the same size as Kathmandu's but there were a greater number of more interesting temples in that space. The museum contained a number of well restored Buddha statues and an interesting exhibit on the statue making process but the real gem was an photo exhibit of the area circa 1900. Photo: Durbar Sq

Below: The touristy Thamel area of Kathmandu near our guest house

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


We left Zhangmu, Tibet on the morning of the 23rd, headed for Kathmandu, Nepal - oddly it was more difficult to get out of Tibet (China) than it was to enter Nepal. Since China is all on once time zone, we expected to lose a lot of time as we crossed the border, but the 2 hour 15 minute time change caught us by surprise. As we continued down the river valley that we'd been following from the day before, the basic plant life we'd been seeing turned into downright tropical plants - coffee, banana and palm trees! The villages also changed quite a bit - most of the houses were more fit to handle oppressive summers than freezing winters - there were holes in some walls and almost no chimneys. As we continued down, the villages looked more like Carribbean, third world towns, with terraced fields and populated with Indian people than the Tibetan villages we'd seen the day before - apparently the mountains were quite a cultural (as well as physical) barrier. Shortly after the literal low point of the day, as we began climbing back up to Kathmandu, we caught another glimpse of the Himalayas. I'm not sure if there's anywhere else in the world where you can bask in a subtropical climate while staring up at some of the largest mountains in the world. The juxtaposition of terraced rice fields and snowcapped mountain peaks plays with your mind a bit but is spectacular none the less. When we arrived in the Thamel area of Kathmandu, where we have been staying for the past few days, we were stunned by the number of occidentals here - walking around here, you do not feel like you're in the middle of Nepal - every bar has a live cover band playing American classic rock. The town itself is somewhat like a combination of a carnival, the movie "Fear and Loathing" and a hippie fantasyland. Nepalese walking around on the street try to sell you tiger balm - when you turn them down, the same guy successively offers buddha sculptures, then chess sets, then small musical instruments, then hashish, then rafting trips, then trekking trips - its quite bizarre.

We spent the next few days checking out other parts of Kathmandu - fortunately the rest of the city is not geared so much towards tourists. We visited Durbar Square, Old Town, Swayambhunath, and took a mountain flight. Our walk to Durbar Square took us through some of the more authentic sections of Kathmandu - most of the signs were not in English and the streets were punctuated with small shrines and temples. Some of the houses were notably skinny. Durbar Square is a collection of temples that used to house the king centuries ago (he has since moved across town) and is notable as a UNESCO world heritage site. Most of the temples date from the 17th and 18th centuries but some are significantly older than that. Many of the temples are simple, but some are spectacular structures built up on many layers of giant brick steps with multiple roofs. What is striking about most of the buildings is the quantity of ornate carvings - each roof, window and door is more impressive than the next often with full scenes depicting gods and animals. I've included a photo of "The Peacock Window" from Bhaktapur, just outside town, its supposedly the best example of this type of carving but I'm much more fond of many of the less known (often not even preserved) carvings found along random back streets. My favorite part of Durbar Square was a carving of Bhairab the most terrifying and destructive depiction of Shiva - a Hindu god. Although Bhairab was wearing a belt of skulls and standing on a human, the carving was so overdone that he looked more ferocious, as in the way you might describe an angry puppy, than terrifying.

The Old Town section of Kathmandu is, in many ways, much like an extension of Durbar Square. While there are not as many temples in one space, there are small shrines and temples along the roadside and in city squares with much greater frequency than you see in other parts of town. Its a great place to stroll around and get lost for a few hours - most of the residents don't speak English but all were very friendly and happy to try understanding our bastardized attempts to speak Nepalese.

On our last day visiting sites in town the visit to Swayambhunath and the National Museum turned out to be quite an adventure - not so much because either place was particularily spectacular but because the "easy," fifteen minute walk that Lonely Planet describes between the two sites was not so easy and took us about an hour. By the time we reached the National Museum it was actually closed and we had to visit its lesser neighbor, the Nepalese Military Museum. Aside from a few rifles and uniforms the museum lacks any real artifacts. A few paintings that depicted the valiant Nepalese army in battle looked almost like caricatures - the soldiers had over sized heads and there was a comical amount of blood. Swayambhunath, nearby, is a hybrid Hindu and Buddhist holy area overlooking Kathmandu from a hill on the outskirts of town. The area is more commonly known, however, as Monkey temple because the whole site is - well - covered in monkeys. We saw some great temples and walked around the giant Buddhist chorten (half of a sphere on top of the ground with an antenna coming out the top) - there were some great shrines but not a lot else.

I've neglected to post pictures of the chorten because it looks exactly the same as, but a little smaller than the Bodhnath Stupa we visited today - I will post about that and other day trips around the Kathmandu Valley soon. I apologize if some of my descriptions of the religious sites we've visited have become a bit lackluster - we've seen a lot recently and they begin to blend together. I've been told this phenomenon is called "being templed out."

The day after Monkey Temple, Ellie and I woke up early for our much anticipated flight around the Himalayas. We got to the airport and found out our flight had been delayed - probably for the best too considering all the fog outside. When we finally drove out to the plane, we passed what I believed to be the Nepali Air Force - this consisted of three tiny helicopters and two propeller driven planes. We hopped in the plane and took off - as the plane climbed above Kathmandu, the snowcapped Himalayas rose above the city. The mountains are huge and accentuated by Kathmandu's low elevation - the peaks seem much higher from this side than the Tibetan side. The view from the plane was stunning - the Himalayas are, hands down, the most awesome display of natural beauty that I've ever seen.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Lhasa to Kathmandu Overland

We left Lhasa on the morning of the 18th, headed for Gyantse - shortly after we left, our guide and driver started chanting Buddhist prayers, a theme that would continue for our entire trip. By Noon we started climbing up from the plateau towards Kambla Pass (4,794 meters) - the road was steep, the switchbacks tight, and our driver fast - it dawned on me that perhaps I should also be saying prayers! At the top, we got our first view of the snow capped Himalayas and the beautiful turquoise Yamdrok-Tso Lake below.

The road was closed on the other side of the pass so we backtracked and headed the long way to Gyantse. We eventually took a shortcut that involved off-roading through farm land for an hour and a half! Not much grows in their sandy, arid land so the farmers spend their days collecting brush to keep their fires going at night. Another chunk of their day is spent collecting yak dung (also for their fires) and sticking it on walls to dry (see picture) most of the rural Tibetan walls we saw were covered in yak patties! When we arrived in Gyantse, we found a spacious (but unheated) hotel room - it was a very cold evening and the first of many like it to come! Gyantse was a medium sized, two road town with a few stores and restaurants there were more tractors than cars! In the morning we checked out a local monastery thats more famous for the Kumbum Stupa (a tower like shrine) we climbed to the top and saw the town and surrounding farm land then took off for Shigatse.

The drive to Shigatse was quick - when we arrived we checked out the Tashilumpo Monastary - former home to the Panchen Lama and current home to a gigantic Buddha statue (40 ft). We saw a young monk trying desperately to ring a bell! We walked around the market afterwards and after some haggling, picked up some souvenirs and found the local meat market. That evening, we enjoyed some local beers at a traditional Tibetan restaurant!

The next morning we headed out to Shegar, a small town with only one road, a lot of yak, a few children and not a lot else. About 4 hours into our drive we reached the top of Gyatso-La Pass (5,220 meters) and caught our first sight of Mt. Everest (or Mt. Qomo Lang Ma to the Tibetans). The mountain is instantly recognizable and stands out from the others mountains nearby - it is simply breath taking. The experience was short lived though as we descended and Everest quickly faded from our view. When we got to Shegar, we found a cold and dirty room with no plumbing so we decided to spend our time in town. It only took about 20 minutes to check out every store, hotel and restaurant in the whole town, so we walked around looking for someone to talk to. A few children walked by, asking for pencils - we entertained them with pictures of Lhasa, Beijing and home. It was a surprisingly comprehensive conversation, considering neither us or the kids knew more than 10 words in the other's language.

We woke up early the next morning so we could get to Mt Everest Base Camp by noon - that involved about 4 hours of off-roading, two police check points and a lot of cold weather. By the time the sun rose, we were nowhere near towns or paved roads - the sunrise over the Himalayas was beautiful. There was not a lot to base camp other than a post office, a small sign and some prayer flags - during the summer the place is bustling with expedition crews and tourists - we were lucky to have it to ourselves. Contrary to we've read there was no garbage to be seen - although I suspect the Chinese may have cleaned it up in preparation for the Olympic torch's visit on the road to Beijing. On the way back we saw some nomadic sheep and yak herders. These people live in tents year round, tending to their animals which provide their only source of food, fuel and income. Its a rough life.

We spent that night in Old Tingri - which had even less to offer than Shegar. The hydroelectric dam that provides the town with its electricity broke last year and hasn't been fixed yet - the town hasn't had power for more than a year and there are no signs that it will get power any time soon. Our guide, Lukdha, recommended a warm local restaurant so Ellie and I went and stayed there for a few hours, enjoying the warmth from their yak dung stove (it doesn't smell that bad or maybe I've just gotten used to the odor).

The next morning we drove about a mile out of town to pick up Lukdha on the road near his family's home - I'm not sure what I should have expected but I was slightly surprised to see him riding up on a horse. He let Ellie and I ride around on it for a little while before pointing it towards his family's house and smacking it on the butt. As the horse headed back home, we started off towards Zhangmu, our final stop before crossing over into Nepal.

We drove for about four hours up to Thong-La Pass (5,200 meters) our last, and most spectacular, view of the Himalayas before heading into Nepal. From there we descended along a razor thin, unpaved road following a river bed. There were a few moments when Ellie was sure we would not make it. The road was treacherous but the Chinese were working on paving it - trying to squeeze around construction equipment was always an adventure. By the time we reached Zhangmu, we had descended nearly 10,000 feet from Thong-La but were still more than a mile above sea level. The town was built into the side of the valley we'd been following and houses were arranged on switchbacks, so if you walked 100 meters up the road from our hotel you would be directly behind but easily 100ft up from the entrance. The running streams and plant life were a welcome change from the snow and ice of previous days. The town was an interesting mix of Chinese, Tibetan, Nepali, and Indian people all gathered in a surprisingly isolated town that happens to be the hub for exports and imports between China, India, and Nepal. The roads were lined with trucks swapping goods with each other making it very difficult to get anywhere. Fortunately we got a few minutes on the phone to catch up with loved ones on Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Plan for the next few days

Nov 18 Drive to Gyantse (3950 m) - Sight seeing: Kumbum Stupa and Phalkor Monastery  
Nov 19 Drive to Sigatse - Tashilumpo Monastery and local bazaar and stay in Hotel Shigatse
Nov 20 Drive to Shegar
Nov 21  Drive to Rombuk Monastery (5050 m) via Tsho la (4500 m) - Trek to Everest Base Camp (5200 m)
Nov 22  Drive to Old Tingri (4200 m) 
Nov 23 Drive to Zhangmu and then to Friendship bridge at Nepal/Tibet border and meet Nepali guide and drive to Kathmandu  
We might have internet access in Sigatse, but we will probably be unable to post again until we reach Kathmandu.
There's a lot to say about the Tibetans in Lhasa but unfortunately I do not have the time to do so at length now. In short though they've suffered through political, religious oppression while living in an extremely harsh environment but still smile and happily greet foreigners. There's something very admirable about their irrepressible charm and humor.

Time in Lhasa (and two from the train)

Industrial town out the train window
Tibetan Plateau out the train window
Jokhang Temple from Barkhor Square
Barkhor Square from Jokhang Temple
Ruins from the Cultural Revolution at Deprung Monestary
The front of Deprung Monestary
The city of Lhasa from Potala Palace

Friday, November 16, 2007

Potala Palace, Deprung Monestary, Summer Palace

This morning we visited the Deprung Monetary - a beautiful site up on a hill overlooking Lhasa. We saw many more Buddha statues, prayer rooms and thrones for when the Dalai Lama occasionally visited. What made this monastery interesting were ruins leftover from the cultural revolution. The Chinese have cleaned up or restored most of the religious sites damaged in fighting but a few crumbling walls added an extra element of history to this stop. Outside, a chance encounter with a goat provided an excellent opportunity for a photo shoot!
After Deprung, we drove back into town to visit the famous Potala Palace, the home to the Dalai Lama before his exile to India. (see pictures) The tombs of many previous Dalai Lamas sets the palace apart from many of the other monasteries and temples we've seen so far. The four tombs we saw were covered in gold plate and adorned with diamonds, pearls, turquoise and coral - certainly the greatest display of Buddhist resources we've seen so far! Although I was happy to be there, something seemed wrong about funneling hundreds of tourists each day through such a holy place. Imagine turning the Vatican's most sacred rooms into a tourist attraction... its just not right.
Later in the day we headed to Norbulingka or the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. We saw everything you would expect to see, thrones, meeting rooms, prayer rooms, kitchens, etc. The older palace, originally constructed by the 7th Dalai Lama was largely unremarkable. The newest summer palace, constructed by the 14th (and current) Dalai Lama, was surprisingly modern containing couches and a radio, rather than kneelers and scriptures. I wouldn't call that trip a waste of time but the stop by the holy toilet was a little unnecessary - perhaps its nicer in the summer.


We did not see the goats at Sera temple, we saw them at Deprung Monestary - the rest is correct.

Yesterday: Jokhang, Barkhor, Sera

We visited the Jokhang Temple, Barkhor Market, and Sera Monestary.
The Jokhang temple is a very holy site in Tibet, located right in the center of Old Lhasa just a few blocks from our temporary home, The Yak Hotel. The temple is so highly regarded that people will come from miles away just to pray, prostrating themselves the entire way (Walk three steps, lie down on the ground, say a prayer, get up, repeat). This video shows Tibetans prostrating themselves in place in front of the temple. The most interesting thing we saw inside was a group of female Tibetan farmers who come each month to pray for good harvests. Once inside they drink Chang, an alcohol derived from barley, and sing old hymns - their shrieks were not always harmonious but the ceremony was thrilling to watch. We also saw many buddah statues, including one of the most holy in all of Tibet. Unfortunately the only pictures I have from here are the front and the top, like most temples pictures are forbidden inside.
After leaving Jokhang temple, we got swept up in the crowd of Tibetans and tourists walking clockwise through the Barkhor, a circular marketplace wrapped around the temple. I picked up a Mead Moh, or a small knife traditionally carried by buddhist monks.
After lunch we visited the Sera monestary, just outside the city. (See pictures of monks quizzing each other and the goat!). We saw more buddah statues, prayer rooms, thrones for the Dalai Lama and everything else you would expect to see inside a buddhist temple! Outside we saw the monks debating - older monks sit around discussing scripture with each other while the younger ones quiz each other. Wrong answers result in a loud clap right in front of your face!

Monks debating at Sera Monestary

Older monks sit around and debate - younger monks quiz each other if one answers incorrectly, the quizzer claps his hands loudly in front of the other's face

Chasing Goats at Deprung Monestary

After a few shots, the goat was not happy with me

The Potala Palace

Home of the Dalai Lama, like most temples we've come across no pictures allowed inside

Jokhang Temple

Ellie and I on top of Jokhang Temple, home to the holiest buddha statue in Tibet, Potala Palace is visible in the background.

Tibetan village, out the train window

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Train ride from Tibet

The train ride from Beijing to Lhasa takes a little under 47 hours -
we left Beijing around 9:30PM on the 12th and arrived just after
8:00PM on the 14th. Our hard sleeper cabin, which we shared with 4
other people was less than 6' wide and about 7' long - the bunks were
stacked 3 high on each side of the room. After half an hour, just
enough time for Ellie and I to get settled in, the lights went out and
we fell fast asleep. When I woke up the next morning around 7AM we
were stopped in Xi'an, home to the Terra Cotta Warriors and apparently
as much pollution as Beijing. For the rest of the day we passed
through towns, some small and some huge (million plus), and rural farm
land. By the evening we started to get into the foothills of the
Tibetan plateau. The oxygen was on in the train when I woke up the
next morning, which was good because I had trouble breathing while
falling asleep the night before. We spent most of that day around
4,500 meters surrounded by snow, mountains, yaks, wild horses, the
occasional town of 50 or fewer people and what appeared to be
miniature deer. By the time we reached Lhasa, the sun had set and we
couldn't see much. The train itself is truly a feat of engineering,
unfortunately they did not accomplish as much in the way of plumbing,
a few of the toilets overflowed into sleeper and seated cars
(fortunately not ours). Overall the ride was an excellent experience
and one that I was glad to have had but if I ever travel fromorm-data;


Censorship Update

The Chinese have now completely blocked access to the blogger website, which makes posting difficult but not impossible.

In other news, the internet is fast and reliable here so I expect to get a few more blog posts off before heading out towards Kathmandu!

Train ride to Tibet

The train ride from Beijing to Lhasa takes a little under 47 hours -
we<br><div class="gmail_quote">left Beijing around 9:30PM on the 12th
and arrived just after 8:00PM on<br>the 14th. Our hard sleeper cabin,
which we shared with 4 other people<br>was less than 6' wide and about
7' long - the bunks were stacked 3 high<br>on each side of the room.
After half an hour, just enough time for<br>Ellie and I to get settled
in, the lights went out and we fell fast<br>asleep. When I woke up the
next morning around 7AM we were stopped in<br>Xi'an, home to the Terra
Cotta Warriors and apparently as much<br>pollution as Beijing. For the
rest of the day we passed through towns,<br>some small and some huge
(million plus), and rural farm land. By the<br>evening we started to
get into the foothills of the Tibetan plateau.<br>The oxygen was on in
the train when I woke up the next morning, which<br>was good because I
had trouble breathing while falling asleep the night<br>before. We
spent most of that day around 4,500 meters surrounded by<br>snow,
mountains, yaks, wild horses, the occasional town of 50 or
fewer<br>people and what appeared to be miniature deer. By the time we
reached<br>Lhasa, the sun had set and we couldn't see much. The train
itself is<br>truly a feat of engineering, unfortunately they did not
accomplish as<br>much in the way of plumbing. Overall the ride was an
excellent<br>experience and one that I was glad to have had but if I
ever travel<br>from Beijisition: form-data; name="draft"

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Silk Market

Imagine every designer brand, watch, sunglasses, jacket, phone, camera, and piece of clothing you've ever seen in one place and all fake - that is the Silk market in Beijing. Vendors hassle you at every booth you walk past with compliments and attempts to get you into their booth. If you go, don't ever pay more than $15 for anything in there - the vendors will quote you a price of $100 but will settle for less than $5 for pretty much anything.

I can't write more now because I have to pack up before one final dinner with Danny and hopefully Gabe and Ali before leaving Beijing. These three have been the greatest hosts imaginable and helped us experience Beijing in a way that we never could have without their help. I cannot thank you enough!

Tonight we leave on the new train for Tibet! We will probably post something right when we get in to Lhasa but posting will probably be spotty at best, if at all until we reach Kathmandu, Nepal (November 23rd).

Adventures in Censorship

My blog is now blocked in China - if you try to access it from a computer here you get nothing. How does that happen? The internet police, a group as large as 30,000 people according to some estimates, have flagged my site. This group sits by computers scouring the internet for objectionable material suchas pornography or incindary comments about the government. They are also the folks who make sure you can't access a few harmless websites like the BBC or Wikipedia (or my blog) from inside China. Fortunately I can still post and will continue to do so as long as the internet police stay away from me.

Peking Duck

Tonight Danny, Ellie and I got Peking Duck for dinner, the one dish you must have while in Beijing. The ducks are roasted over an open flame, presented whole and cut up at the table then served with pancakes and duck sauce. The final meal is a delicious little fajita-like duck roll. We decided to get adventurous and ordered roasted goose head for an appetizer - when the duck came they also served the head, between the two I guess I prefer duck but neither were compelling enough for me to try them again.
Picture: eating goose brain

Downtown Beijing

The view from Gabe and Ali's apartment - in the background you can see the new CCTV (state-run television monopoly) building going up.

The Dirt Market

Last night we visited Vics, a club in Beijing with a few of Danny and Gabe's friends. We had a great time getting to see a different side of the expat scene meeting a few more people.

After a late start, Ellie and I visited the Dirt Market, a large outdoor marketplace where hundred of merchants come to sell mostly antiques, reproductions and a few new trinkets. Merchants were selling china, armor, statues, pearles, silver jewelry and everything inbetween. We picked up a few souvenirs along the way never paying more than half the originally quoted price - haggling is a must!

Summer Palace

Yesterday, Ellie and I visited the Summer Palace. The 2.5 square Kilometer compound on the outer edge of the city was where emperors used to come to escape the summer heat of Beijing. The majority (3/4) of the palace is covered by a lake with a few small islands each featuring a temple or pavilion. The remaining ground features a prominent hill dotted with beautiful courtyards, temples, gardens, and pavilions all have great names: Tower of the Fragrance of the Buddha (pictured), Pavilion of Multi-Layered Greenery, Pavilion of Forgotten Desires and Accompanying Clouds, Hall of Happiness and Longevity. Unfortunately many of the buildings have gone uncared for the same way others we've seen around Beijing have with noticeable chipped paint and exposed wood. Fortunately though that didn't detract from a great day wandering through what is deservedly a UNESCO world heritage site.

Just a note

Try clicking on the pictures below to see the wall in detail!

The Great Wall

Yesterday Ellie and I hiked up easily more than 2500 feet to get to an untouristed section of the great wall - it was easily one of the top 5 experiences of my life. The Jian Kou section that we visited was completely unrestored (crumbling in some parts) but very authentic. If you ever come to Beijing you must visit this section and no other. Apparently the other sections that most people visit have been rebuilt and are more like a Disney attraction, with gift shops, restaurants and a chairlift, than a historical site.

After a long trek to the top, I let out a very satisfying guttural scream. Hiking along this section was like walking right into every middle school history textbook that I've ever had. The wall was beautiful and awesome - it is impossible to take a bad picture up there.The most striking feature of the wall is its size - you can see it stretching on for miles in each direction. The amount of manpower that went into building the wall is just incomprehensible. Apparently those that couldn't handle the rigors of building the wall became part of it - I was very glad to be visiting and not building that wall!