Tibet: Gonggar to Kathmandu, Nepal

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

We woke up early for our 10:00AM flight, and met the group out front at 8:00AM.  We walked across the driveway to the airport and waited to clear our various security checks.  Jon and I thought we would be charged for overweight backpacks greater than 20kg, but mine was 19.5kg and Jon’s was 22.5kg.  Of course, we left some things at the Hotel Harati in Kathmandu before we left, so we still have some lightening up to do before we leave for China.

The flight was pretty uneventful.  We passed by Mt. Everest again, but we were on the wrong side of the plane to see it.  We arrived in Kathmandu at 11:30, but with the time change it was really 8:45AM.  So we were hungry for lunch but of course it was breakfast time.

We checked into the Hotel Harati, waited for Laura and Mark to finish FAFFING, and then went to lunch and to do some shopping.  We took them to the company with which we’d arranged to go white water rafting, and they signed up as well.  Then we went to the Northfield Cafe for lunch and scrumptious Smoothies.  We laughed because Mark kept crowding Laura’s “table space” which resulted in her blowing on his arm until he moved away.  This finally escalated to him counting the number of squares on the tablecloth to determine if he was using his allotted space or not.  These two are such a riot, and keep us constantly entertained.  It feels like we’ve been friends with them forever!

The Last Dinner

At 6:30, we met the group in the hotel lobby for our last supper together.  Kath took us to a restaurant called “Typical Nepali Restaurant” where we sat in a little room upstairs which they had reserved for us.  It was very cute, the windows were open, and incense was burning on the windowsill.  The waiters passed out these little clay bowls about the size of the palm of my hand which they filled with “Nepali Wine”.  Jon thought it smelled like tequila, but it tasted more like whiskey and burned a path straight to our stomachs.  Jon had enough after one sip, but I found that it grew on me after I finished my shot so I had his as well.  Many of the group had a few other shots in addition to ordering Lhasa Beers so we were a very merry party.  We gave our gifts to Kath and toasted her (and ourselves) and enjoyed our dinners.

The Group in our little room for dinner.  

The room was so small that I had to hang out the window just to snap this photo!

When dinner was over, the waiters came up with a lute and one of the young boys danced for us while the waiters sang.  It was very cute!  Laura – who fell in love with the little clay shot/pots – began stacking them all on the table.  It was clear that we were all exhausted, but no one wanted to leave because this was the last time we’d be together.  Finally, we had to get up and go because Lhasa had an evening flight to catch and we all wanted to see her off, so together we walked back to the hotel.

After saying our good-byes to Lhasa, we went to Kath’s room and hung out for an hour or so.  But, since we were still on Tibet time, we were very tired.  I turned in around 11:00 (which is 2:30AM Tibet time) and crashed.

Tibet: Shigatse to Gonggar

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

Kath arranged for us to spend most of today in Shigatse, and for us to leave this afternoon for the 5 hour drive to Gongkar – near the Lhasa Airport.  So Jon and I had breakfast and then went to the Shigatse Market to find some souvenirs and Christmas Gifts.

We wanted to get some Tibetan scarves that are made out of a strong, striped material which many Tibetans wear as aprons, shawls, scarves, etc.  But the vendor was quoting a ridiculous amount of money for the scarves and laughed at us when we gave him a lower price.  We were surprised at the low quality of the scarves, as the ends were frayed and they didn’t look like it would last for very long.  So we refused to pay what he was asking.  He must have been sincere in his price, though, because he didn’t come running after us to negotiate.

Om Mani Padme Om

I decided a few days ago that I wanted a traditional silver Tibetan bracelet with the Tibetan characters “Om Mani Padme Om” on it.  This means “Hail the Jewel of the Lotus Flower”, meaning Buddha.  I’ve seen the bracelets everywhere and they’re very pretty – intricately designed with either turquoise or coral in them.  So we went further into the market to look.  At the first jewelry booth we went to, the woman cheerfully hijacked me:  she grabbed by the arm and wouldn’t let go, and insisted on showing me absolutely everything on her table.  After a few laughing sales tactics, we finally negotiated a price for a lovely bracelet and she insisted that I take an elastic bracelet of plastic orange skulls.  Yes, it’s as ugly as it sounds, but she said that it was Tibetan-made and I figured I could give it away later on.  The “Om Bracelet” is really great, though.  It even has etchings on the inside of the bracelet!

We ran into Kath in the market, and she pulled a huge copper pot that she’d bought out of her bag.  We saw the monks at the monastery yesterday carrying these pots into the prayer session filled with tea and they were very lovely.  But as much as we’d like to buy absolutely everything in this market, we have to draw the line somewhere!

We went back to the room to pack up our stuff and to check out of the hotel.  Then we went to lunch at a Tibetan Restaurant and then to a final trip to the Internet Cafe.  The funny thing about this Internet Cafe is – because it’s one of the biggest and fastest connections in town – most of the 50 computers are filled with teenage boys playing various on-line video games.  So we had to wait a little while for a terminal to open up.

The Final Bus Ride

At 2:00, we boarded the bus for our final bus ride.  Tonight, we’ll arrive at Gongkar, which is right next to the airport.  Poor Lisa has caught the virus that Jon and I had in Lhasa, and cannot keep food down.  As we’ve done with everyone else, the “sick person” gets the seat in front closest to the door and the least bumpy of the bus.  It seems that – out of this trip – at least 1/2 of the group was sick at one time or another in the last two weeks.  Whether it was the virus, altitude sickness, food issues, or what John the Aussie refers to as “the collywobbles” which I think falls into the latter category.  But almost everyone has had stomach issues of some sort on this trip.

Scenic Break

The drive was lovely, and at one point we pulled over for a bathroom break at what Susan called, “The Best Pee Spot EVER”.  The view was beautiful, mountains everywhere, and there was a river running nearby.  The cool thing was that – in the river – local Tibetans had built some water wheels that were hard at work doing something.  Jon and some other people went down to investigate what the water wheels were doing.  It turns out that the water turned the wheels which were attached to a large log with a smaller cedar log on the end of it.  As the wheel turned, the cedar log was ground against the side of the wall and shavings were created.  The men used these shavings for incense which they sold to the monasteries.

The men had built walls and dams to re-route the water from the river around their water wheels and we all sat there and watched the scenery for a while.

There were two adorable little boys who followed us around everywhere but never said a word to us.  They never let go of each others’ hands and watched Mark very closely because he had a big camera.  I gave the older boy my newly-acquired orange plastic skull bracelet and he was so excited!

We reluctantly climbed back into the bus and went on our merry way.  We arrived in Gongkar at 7:30-ish and checked into a hotel appropriately named “Airport Hotel”.  This is appropriate because the airport terminal is literally a stone’s throw away from the hotel.  But this is hardly a busy airport so we needn’t worry about fly-overs during the night.

Group Dinner Issues

We met for dinner at 8:15 and walked about 10 minutes into “town” which really was a strip of stores/restaurants.  All the proprietors were trying to get us into their own restaurant, and we checked out a few places to see what they had.  However, most of the menus were in Chinese and those that had English menus were quoting exorbitant prices.  So what was going to be a quick dinner outing turned into a “Group Trauma”, with the entire group of us shuffling from one place to another saying, “I dunno, should we eat here?  What do you think?  I dunno…”.  Time was running on, people were getting hungry, and tempers were a bit shorter than usual.  We went through about 8 different restaurants until Kath found a proprietor that she liked and a menu should could translate for us (she speaks Mandarin pretty well).  So we had 10 dishes to choose from, and we sat down and had a “proper” Chinese meal where we all shared dishes.  Everyone was happy once the beers were served and the food started to come out.  Considering the traumatic start, dinner was very good and a lot of fun too.

Tibet: Shigatse

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

Special guest appearance by Jon:  Nobody’s sick today and I have decided to write today’s journal anyway.  Where to begin?  Well, it was kind of a slow day…

After yesterday’s long bus ride to Shigatse, almost everyone was in favor of meeting at 9:30am and sleeping in a bit.  And maybe even taking another shower in the morning, just because we could–after three days without showers, you really want to take advantage of such luxuries when you have them!

It had rained for most of the night but the rain let up in time for breakfast and Mother Nature teased us a bit by making us think that it wouldn’t rain again.  About half way to Tashilhunpo Monastery it began to rain again (it is still monsoon season!), catching one or two of the group off-guard and causing them to get a bit wet.

Tashilhunpo Monastery

Tashilhunpo Monastery is quite large, and is also the traditional home of the Panchen Lama.  The eleventh, and current, Panchen Lama lives exclusively in China and is traditionally the leader of the Monastery.  So the obvious question is probably:  If he is the leader of the Monastery, why does he live in China and not at the Monastery?  Well, in May 1995 the Dalai Lama identified a six-year old boy as the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama who had died a few years earlier.  Within a month the young boy was forcibly relocated to a government compound in Beijing and the Chinese government, crying foul (because they wanted the reincarnation to be more open to Chinese rule) ordered the senior lamas of the Tashilhunpo Monastery to come up with a second, Chinese approved choice.  The abbot of the monastery was later arrested for ‘revealing state secrets’ after consulting the Dalai Lama over the selection and the monastery was closed to tourists for a few months.  Eventually the senior lamas of the Monastery selected the son of Communist Party members who was approved by Beijing (wow, there’s a surprise!).  It would seem that by controlling Tibet’s #2 spiritual leader, China hopes to eventually be able to influence the identification of the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama after his death.  It is also noteworthy to point out that the current (14th) Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, believes that as long as China occupies Tibet there will be no reincarnation of himself.  Meanwhile, the 11th Panchen Lama that was arrested at the age of six is still under house arrest!  Ah, the wonders of Communism…

Political commentary aside, and it’s very difficult not to be interested in the politics of the Chinese ‘liberation’ of Tibet – Tibet was self-ruled until China liberated Tibet in 1957, thus liberating the Tibetans to be ruled by the Chinese – the Monastery was very nice.  In addition to several living quarters and a large dining area/prayer area, there were 5 stupas in total within the Monastery’s fortress-like walls some of which contain the remains of former Panchen Lamas and some of which are chapels.

Naughty Monks

I should also point out that there are a considerable number of stray dogs wandering around the Monastery.  The Buddhists regard these dogs as holy creatures and are affectionately referred to as the reincarnations of naughty monks!  So I suppose that the fact that the dogs have found their way back to a Monastery is sort of their way of atoning for their mischievous acts in a previous life.  The monks of the Monastery treat the dogs very well and I even saw a couple of monks slipping a few dogs some food and playing with them.

After the monastery we were rather hungry and headed to a Tibetan restaurant with our British friends Mark & Laura, and were later joined by our group leader, Kath.  Lunch took forever to get served, but this seems to be par for the course in Tibet so we are getting used to it, but it can be a point of frustration when the restaurant is otherwise empty but it still takes an hour to get a simple lunch of Chow Mein noodles, fried rice, and maybe some chips (french fries).

Monasteried Out 

After lunch the group was going to head out to Shalu Monastery, which is 19km from Shigatse, but Heidi and I decided that we would rather get on the internet for the first time in about a week – we are a bit ‘monasteried out’.  It turns out that the road to the Monastery was washed out by the monsoon rains and the road that they had to take was actually more of a river.  The drive took about 1.5 to 2 hours each way but the group really enjoyed the people in the small town surrounding the Monastery and spent more time with them than they did at the Monastery.

Meanwhile, after the internet Heidi and I headed back to the hotel room and caught up on some much needed sleep, and woke up just in time to meet the group for dinner.  Dinner was at the Tibetan restaurant where we had eaten lunch, which was fine by us as we already knew what food we liked (and also considered safe!) and didn’t have to think about what to order.  In addition to a significant lack of appetite attributable to the altitude, we have decided to order the safest dishes on the menu, which tends to mean no meat and only vegetable dishes.  We don’t want to get sick again!  We are already thinking that this same game plan may need to be adopted while in mainland China.

Tibet: Shigatse

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

There is no way we can get to Gyantse today – even four-wheel drive vehicles are having trouble getting through the mountains.  It’s not worth the risk, and we would rather spend two days in Shigatse instead of one.  So we piled in the truck to head back the way we came yesterday.  I should mention that we haven’t showered in 3 days.  This is no surprise to us – Kath is very good at managing our expectations.  But we’re excited to get to Tibet’s second largest city because we know there will be running water!

Kamba-la Pass

Again we drove along the holy lake Yamdrok-Tso and climbed the mountain to get to Kamba-la Pass at 4794 meters.  There aren’t many trees in this part of Tibet, so the views from the road are of rolling hills, mountains, and VERTICAL DROPS down from the road we’re on.  You really haven’t driven until you’ve had to drive on these windy cliff-side roads up to 4700 meters.  The roads are completely gravel and rock, very bumpy, and of course have no side rails.  And when another vehicle comes from the opposite direction, HANG ON!  But wow – the views were so incredible we quickly forgot any safety concerns.

The Group at Kamba-la Pass

From L to R: Kath, Lhasa, Mark, Laura, Sid, Heidi, Ken, John, Alex, Gabrielle, Lisa, Susan and Jon

Jon had bought some prayer cards in Lhasa a few days ago, which are hundreds of little pieces of rice paper with Tibetan prayers and drawings on them.  They’re about 4 square inches and are made to be disposed of.  So we took this opportunity to observe tradition and we threw them up in the air and watched them floating in the wind. They were four different colors: white, blue, yellow, and pink, and it was lovely to see our little mantras carried away by the breeze.  Interestingly enough, it doesn’t offend our Catholic upbringing at all to do this – we need all the help we can get!

Himalayan Scenery

The drive today was quite long – about 7 hours.  I finished my book Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer on the drive yesterday.  So I entertained myself by alternating between reading a book we had on the bus called Buddha: A Beginner’s Guide and watching the stunning scenery.  (Note to my UVA classmates: remember the book we had to painfully read before our First Year?  Siddhartha? Well, that was the story of Buddha.  I wonder how I forgot that.  Probably blocked it out.)

Anyway, the Himalayas are so beautiful!  Everywhere you look there’s another photo opportunity waiting to happen, and we often stopped the bus to get photos and stretch our legs.

On many of the smaller mountaintops, religious Tibetans have strung prayer flags of various colors and mantras from one peak to the other.  Most of us have wondered, “I wonder how they get the other end on the other peak?” but we aren’t really concerned with it.  It’s lovely to look and is a constant reminder of the peoples’ faith in their religion.  There are also prayer flags on trees, on stupas, and also on trees on the roofs of houses.  I don’t know how the trees grow on the roofs, but it’s still pretty to see.

Tibetan Sky Burial

At one point, we passed a very holy mountain for Tibetan sky burials.  On the top of the ridge we could see many prayer flags and stupas.  A sky burial is an ancient Tibetan tradition in which they dispose of the bodies of the dead.  In Buddhism, the body has no significance since your “soul” moves onto another life.  So when a body dies, the tradition is to cut the body up into pieces and to leave it on a mountaintop for the vultures and animals to feed on.  It sounds a bit barbaric, but it actually serves a secondary purpose: to provide for the animals’ well-being is good karma.  After all, one of the vultures could have been your Dad in a previous life.  (No offense, Dad)  And good karma follows you into your next life.  Anyway, the Chinese government HATES this tradition, as do modern Tibetans.  But it still happens and is considered very holy.


We got to Shigatse at around 6:30.  Shigatse is at 3900 meters and is the second largest town in Tibet.  It is also the seat of the Panchen Lama, who is traditionally based in Tashilhunpo Monastery. (The current Panchen Lama is quite a controversial subject now, because the Chinese government has named its own Panchen Lama rather than honoring the ancient Buddhist traditions of selection.)

We checked into our hotel – which I don’t know the name of – and SURPRISE!!!  PRIVATE BATHROOMS!  We were expecting to be in a guest house with shared baths, but this hotel is western-style.  Such a nice treat after not having showered in 3 days.

We went to dinner in the Tibetan quarter of town (which is very small) and had dinner at a lovely Tibetan restaurant.  Kath, our guide, is very big on avoiding the Chinese establishments and supporting the Tibetan-run places.  This is great, because the Tibetan feel of this country is becoming less and less every year.

The Art of FAFFING

After dinner, I went back and SHOWERED!!!  Jon went to the Internet Cafe so I had plenty of time to soak under the hot, hot water and “faff” (as Mark and Laura call it).  Faffing, it seems, involves moving around aimlessly and doing things that really aren’t necessary to survival but are pleasant to the faffer.  Faffing, for me, involves all sorts of silly bathroom things, and also re-arranging the backpack.  I had a lovely time, and also got to update some of the travel journals which have suffered over the past week.  Jon strolled in at 11:30 from the Internet Cafe, after I had all sorts of visions of him lost in Shigaste.  But he was fine and faffed a bit himself before we turned in for the night.

Tibet: Nangartse

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

This morning, we were up very early for our long drive to Nangartse, where we will stay for the night as a stopping point on the way to Gyantse.  We all grabbed a quick breakfast and climbed onto the back of the truck to ride the 9km to the river, where will will catch the ferry.  It rained all night last night so many roads are flooded and the river has clearly over-run its banks.  This morning was very overcast and cold, and our hands froze as we held onto the bars of the truck.  And we had to hang on tight because it was a bumpy, muddy ride.

There were a number of monks and nuns on the truck with us.  I was standing between two of them, one of whom was very interested in my watch.  The other kept spitting out the side of the truck and Aussie-John (the Doctor) commented that he’s never had anyone spit underneath his arm quite so much.

We all boarded the ferry/wooden boat for the cold and windy ride upriver.  The scenery was just as stunning as it was two days earlier, albeit a bit mistier and wetter.

We were happy to see our bus again, and to find all our backpacks intact (we had brought only day-packs and sleeping bags to Samye).  So we climbed on and settled in for the long drive to Nangartse.

Yumbu Lhakang

I had just started to doze off when we pulled up to Yumbu Lhakang, said to be the oldest building in Tibet.  Some say that the structure is 2000 years old, but it’s more likely that it was built in the 7th century.  At any rate, the area of Yarlung Valley where the building is located is viewed as the beginning place of the Tibetan people.  Legend has it that is was built for King Nyetri Tsenpo who descended from the heavens to be received by the Tibetan people.

But all we thought when we saw the building/fortress was, “Oh No!  Another hill!”.  Our thighs are feeling the effects of yesterday’s Himalayan Trek.  But we climbed it the hill and walked through the different shrines (getting really sick of Yak butter smells!)

Yumbu Lhakang

There was a small group of people from Holland who caught the truck and ferry from Samye with us this morning.  It looks like we’re on a bit of the same tour schedule as they are because they drove up as we were getting out of the bus.  We have decided to call them the “Flying Dutchmen”, although they probably deserve a bit more respect: they hiked over the Himalayas for 4 days to get to Samye Monastery.  Not an easy thing to do!

Kamba-la Pass

After a few hours of driving, we drove up to Kamba-la Pass which is at 4794 meters.  The view is incredible!  It looks over Yamdrok-Tso, which is a fabulous deep turquoise color.  For Tibetans, this is one of the four holy lakes of Tibet and the home of wrathful deities.  For us, it was a wonderful picture moment surrounded by begging children and touts selling “Yak Pictures” for 5 Yuan.  The yaks were big and smelly and left Yak dung all over the place.  As we got ready to leave, it began to hail like crazy!  If I were a Buddhist,  I would probably think this was a sign from one of the deities.

Jon and Me at Kamba-la Pass

The drive down from the pass was just as incredible as the drive up it.  Stunning views and very deep drops to the bottom of the valley.  By the time we got to the bottom next to the lake, it was sunny again!  But we could look up at the mountains and see where fresh snow had fallen.

Change In Plans

Our driver has found out that the roads to Gyantse (where we will drive to tomorrow, and the entire reason for our trip today) are washed out and un-passable.  So it looks like we’ll stay in Nangartse as planned, but we’ll have to turn around and go back the way we came tomorrow.  Instead of one night in Gyantse and one night in Shigatse, we’ll spend two nights in Shigatse.  No big deal, but it’s a bummer because there is NOTHING to see or do in Nangartse.  The only reason the town exists is as a stopping point on the way to Gyantse.  Which, of course, we can’t get to.  But we did see some beautiful scenery!

Nangartse Guest House

Nangartse is a very small town just off the lake.  There are only a few places to stay and only a few places to eat.  The hotel/guest house has – what Kath calls – “The Grossest Toilets EVER!”, and I’m not likely to disagree with her anytime soon.  But the good news is that she has a contact here in the town who put a bit of pressure on the guest house to wash out the toilets.  So, while they are The Grossest Toilets Ever, I can see that they would be absolutely unbearable if they hadn’t been cleaned.  It’s a nice treat, though, because we thought we’d be staying in dormitories but Jon and I have our own room.  There are no showers here but we weren’t expecting any.  They do have large thermoses of hot water, so we cleaned ourselves in the basins in the room and dumped the used water into The Grossest Toilets Ever.

Lhasa’s Birthday

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

Chim-puk Hermitage

We woke up and caught another standing-holding-for-dear-life truck to the Chim-puk Hermitage, which is an hour-long drive from Samye Monastery.  We rode with a few other tourists and some Buddhist nuns that were also climbing to the monastery.  The roads were incredibly, incredibly bad and more than once we felt like we could tip over.  But the gorgeous scenery was enough to distract us from looking at the road.  Kath says that the roads are un-drivable in rainy season and tour groups must hike for two hours to get to the Hermitage path.

This is beautiful mountainous country.  Within 20 minutes, we could see the nunnery, the monastery and the hermitages with prayer flags strewn all over and so were anxious to get there.  There are also sacred caves in the mountains where monks would go to meditate for months at a time.  When we finally got to the point where the truck could go no further, we began the climb and definitely felt the altitude.  We had to stop to breathe every 15-20 minutes, but that was fine because everywhere we looked there were gorgeous views of the valley below.  We got to the nunnery in about 45 minutes where we listened to the nuns chanting before we continued up to the caves and the monastery.

Guru Rimpoche

Guru Rimpoche was an 8th century master who helped to establish Buddhism in Tibet.  It’s said that he cleansed the country of evil spirits.  He is sort of regarded as the second Buddha and is very revered in this country.  The Chim-puk Heritage was a retreat for him for some time, and he apparently came here to meditate and pray for his daughter who was deathly ill.  On parts of the climb, we passed a few shrines that had been erected because – for example – “Guru Rimpoche touched this rock”, or “Guru Rimpoche rested here on the this spot”.

The other hermits and monks that came here to meditate often stayed for many, many months and ate nothing but rocks.  That’s right.  Rocks.  We saw along the way some rocks suspended from bushes by yarn.  We couldn’t quite get an answer as to whether this was a sacred symbol or someone’s dinner, but it was interesting to see!

Finally – we made it!

The climb was incredibly steep, but the locals were easily passing us by.  We continued to stop for breaths as much as we could, but were getting a bit frustrated because the Monastery/Hermitage seemed so close but was taking so long to get to!  At one point on the climb, we passed a dwelling that had a stack of branches for kindling outside of it.  The branches were the perfect height for walking sticks, so I took one and left the owners some Jiao bills in return.  Jon teased me that – just like a New Yorker – everything can be bought for a price.

As we neared the Monastery, Norbu, our guide, showed a small group of us a very holy cave in which a little old monk was meditating.  The caves here are really rock overhangs with walls built around it.  Guru Rimpoche apparently mediated in this particular cave for a bit.

Finally, after 2 hours, we made it to the monastery where we sat on the ledge and ate lunch looking out over the valley below.  Within the little monastery there was a sacred cave where Guru Rimpoche prostrated on a rock over and over again until the rock began to erode in the shapes of his knees.  It’s said that this is where he died.

The group at lunch – what a view!

Around the monastery and dispersed along the mountainside were many little hermitages and buildings in which the monks live.  It’s hard to believe that they live out their lives on the side of this mountain with these stunning views every day.

We could have ascended further to explore more caves, but some very ominous clouds were moving in through the valley and we didn’t want to get caught in the rain.  So we hustled back down the mountain in about 45 minutes, where we stopped by a babbling brook/stream to cool off and wash up a bit.  We have decided that – although this was only a day hike – we will henceforth refer to this as our “Himalayan Trek”.  After chilling by the stream for a half hour, we climbed into the truck to head back to Samye.  Laura – clearly insane because of the altitude – decided to walk back to Samye and waved goodbye to us as we drove away.  The ride back was much the same as the ride out there – tipping and bouncing – but downhill so this time it was faster!

Well Water

Despite the fact that the Guest House has no showers, the girls of the group decided to wash their hair using the well pump in the courtyard.  Jon and I decided that this was a brilliant idea, because we felt quite gritty after our Himalayan Trek.  The water was freezing cold but it was so nice to have a major part of my body clean even if the rest of my body wasn’t!

Laura returned from her little “stroll” in 2 hours and 45 minutes.  Our guide Norbu went with her, and I guess she picked up a bit of Tibetan on the way, and she seemed quite happy with the hike.  She was really excited about the well-water-hair-wash so she and I went down and I helped her wash her hair.

Washing Laura’s Hair in the Well

Lhasa’s Birthday

Today is Lhasa’s birthday, but she unfortunately hasn’t been feeling well.  She didn’t do the entire hike today, and had very little for dinner.  But we wanted to surprise her with a little celebration anyway.  Kath had brought her a brownie/cake from Lhasa before we left, Alex had bought her some gifts, and we had all signed the birthday card.  So the waiter brought a candle to put into the brownie and we sang happy birthday to her.  She was very surprised and quite touched.

Just after we broke out the birthday cake, a HUGE thunderstorm rolled into the valley and we all ran to close the windows in our bedrooms so the rooms wouldn’t get soaked.    We also bemoaned the fact that we could no longer get to the 3rd floor bathrooms but hoped that perhaps the rain would clean out the 2nd floor bathrooms tonight.

As we later prepared for bed, some very stern-looking Chinese army men were making rounds of the compound – knocking on every door.  Laura answered the door but they had already moved onto the next room and weren’t too concerned with us.  So bizarre!

It rained all night long and the walls of our room were soaking wet from the leaky roof, but at least our beds were dry!

Tibet: Samye Monastery

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

Being Sick Sucks

At 8:15, we piled into the bus to begin our trip to Samye Monastery.  I am really weak because of yesterday’s illness, but at least I’m keeping liquids in.  Before we left Lhasa, we stopped by Drepung Monastery to see the beginning celebrations of the Yoghurt Festival.  The monks at the monastery hang a HUGE thanka (a large silk tapestry) on the side of the mountain that is a must-see.

Drepung Monastery

There were pilgrims everywhere, and the streets were so packed that our bus couldn’t get through.  So we parked and walked the 15-20 minutes up the road to get to the monastery.  After 10 minutes, I caved.  I was out of breath and exhausted.  So Jon left me at a large rock on a grassy knoll and went on to see the sights.  I sat on the rock for a good half-hour and people-watched, which I enjoyed very much.  We tourists were definitely in the minority, and the Tibetans were obviously very excited about the festival.  Pilgrims smiled at me and said “Tashi Delhi!” as they walked by, and some even said “Hello!” to me.  They were so happy when I said Tashi Delhi or Hello back, but I wonder how much of the amusement was due to my freaky short blond hair.

The pilgrims are so cool to watch.  Most of them are little old ladies with scrunched, wrinkled faces and precious smiles.  But there are also women with the long traditional braids and turquoise hair ornaments.  Some men also had traditional braids, which they wrapped around their head and secured with bright red cloth.  All of them are quick to smile and obviously happy.

At 10:15, it was time for me to make my way back to the bus, where we’d agreed to meet at 10:30.  I ran into the Wonder Twins – Alex and Lhasa – on their way back from the monastery.  They said it was too crowded to even get in to see the thanka.  As we walked back, the roads were packed with people walking in either direction, jostling and pushing, and – at one particular place – there were 2-3 cars trying to get through.  There were donkeys, horses, horns, people… next thing I knew, I was up against a car with the tire rolling over my foot.  OW!

I limped off to the side and stared at the obvious tread marks on my hiking boots.  Preliminary movement proved that nothing was seriously injured, although my toe-ring might have been slightly bent up.  But I wasn’t concerned about my foot.  (Sadly, I’ve had my foot run over at least once before so I know that it’s not terribly damaging).

Jon got a bit of view of the thanka, which you can see faintly in this picture just over the peoples’ heads behind the buildings:

The Ferry to Samye Monastery

We drove for 2 hours back near the airport, where we turned and headed toward the river – Yarlung Tsangpo. The ferry compound had about 6-8 brick and mud buildings of various states of decay and only about 6 Tibetans milling about.  The first “restaurant” (read: hut) didn’t have any veggies so the group couldn’t order lunch.  But the 2nd restaurant did, so everyone put in their orders and the 6 Tibetans ran up and down the road with veggies and noodles.  I had a piece of toast (a major accomplishment).  Jon said that the noodle soup was very good until he found the dead fly on the bottom of it.  Then he was done.

The ferry ride was one of the most fantastic rides I’ve ever done.  The “ferry” was nothing but a long wooden dingy with a motor on the back.  But the views of the Himalayas were gorgeous, and most of us had nothing to say because we were so busy taking pictures.  The ride was a little over an hour long, and we reached the other side 9 km north of Samye Monastery.

The View from the Ferry

The Truck Ride To Samye

We got out and piled into the back of a large truck.  There were no seats, and the roads were hardly roads so were standing and hanging onto the bars of the truck for dear life.  We did stop to pick up some nuns on the way, so this is obviously the preferred mode of travel here.

Samye Monastery Guest House

Samye Monastery is a beautiful old place with large gold rooftops.  The Guest House is right next door with basic, basic, BASIC accommodations.  Basically, we’re staying in the same place as the pilgrims, the toilets are unspeakable, and there is no running water aside from the well in the courtyard.  But we were expecting this so it comes as no surprise to us.  We are rooming with our new favorite Brits – Mark and Laura – which is cool because we get along well with them.  We were warned well in advance to bring sleep sheets because Tibetans really don’t wash sheets every day.  And it’s not that they were filthy, but the room itself wasn’t terribly clean overall.  So we were glad to have brought sleeping bags and sheets.

There are 3 floors to the guest house, and apparently the 3rd floor has the best bathrooms.  Most of the 3rd floor is wide-open and the toilets are a little hut in the corner.  But the views are amazing and – since there’s more air-flow – the toilets are much less odiferous.

Samye Monastery

We took a tour of Samye Monastery, which is about 1200 years old and very pretty.  In one of the rooms, a monk was singing prayers, clanging symbols, and beating a prayer drum.  We sat and watched him for a while.  We walked up to the 2nd and 3rd floors where – we later found out – Laura got a very eerie feeling and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up.  I suppose that – between the various wars and the Chinese Revolution – this place can probably claim a few ghosts.

Samye Monk

Dinner at the Monastery

Dinner was at the monastery restaurant, where I ate a few French Fries and Jon finished off my very spicy veggie fried rice.  We all sat around the table laughing and enjoying Lhasa beers (well, not me) until about 9:30 or 10:00.  Then we turned in.  Tomorrow is Lhasa’s birthday and Alex has organized a pad of paper to which everyone is to write a little birthday wish.  I did one for Jon and me and Laura also wrote one out.  But Mark wanted to do one of his own.  He wrote: “Dear Lhasa, In the brief time I have known you, you seem like a very nice person.  You remind me of a friend of mine who is Japanese.”

That’s it.

It gave us quite a laugh because he didn’t even mention whether he particularly liked this friend of his or not.  So we teased him about it endlessly, and I had the giggles so badly that I couldn’t get to sleep.

Tibet: Lhasa

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

Yet again, I have caught what Jon had.  The vomiting began around 1:00AM and continued pretty consistently every 30-45 minutes until 6:00AM.  After that, let’s just say that I was really sick and leave out the gory details.  Suffice it to say that even water wasn’t going to stay in.  Jon is feeling better, although he’s not ready to get out of bed.  So we lay in bed all day, wishing we were home or at least had our own bathroom.  Laura and Mark – kind people that they are – brought us water and crackers and continued to check in on us throughout the day.

By 3:00, Jon was feeling sufficiently recovered and went out to the Internet Cafe.  He also went to the Barkhor Kora market to get prayer flags and material for Mom’s quilt.  I was not going anywhere and couldn’t even motivate myself to open my book, Seven Years in Tibet.

At 7:00, he went to the nightly group meeting and reported back to me before leaving for dinner.  The group has finally decided what to do about Sangaye – our adopted Monk with tuberculosis brothers (see August 15).  We will give him the information we collected about the free TB clinic and take up and anonymous collection among the group.  This final idea was prompted by Jon, who was concerned about the rifts the topic was causing among the group.  So all his consulting experience has actually paid off here in Tibet.  A plastic bag was passed around in which people could contribute whatever they felt appropriate.  Thank goodness that’s over!

We leave early tomorrow morning for Samye, and I’m not looking forward to the trip.  But my saving grace is that Jon feels much better today, so I can look forward to a recovery at some point tomorrow as well.

Tibet: Lhasa

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

Jon is very sick.  Dinner last night is not sitting well, and he has made use of the trash can in our room quite a few times.  (Bummer to be ill when the bathroom is down the hall and down a flight of stairs)

The Potala

I met the group and we walked to the Potala – one of Lhasa’s most important Landmarks.  This was the home of the Dalai Lama until he had to flee in 1959.  We climbed the many steps up to the top of the structure, along with many pilgrims for whom this trip is a once-in-a-lifetime event.  There were many smiling faces and prostrating pilgrims and it was worth the climb.

The Stairs Leading up to the Potala

Once we got to the main gate, we again saw my little friend Tse Yang (see Aug 15) who is obviously making a pilgrimage with her Grandmother.  Kath had a Polaroid Camera which produces little picture-stickers and gave a picture to Tse Yang after talking to her.  Kath told us that many Tibetans are making a serious effort to learn English because the Chinese don’t know English.  This way, the Tibetans will have a marketable skill as well as being able to have conversations without the Chinese understanding everything they say.

Anyway, we walked through all the various rooms of the Potala, which are all very dark and musty and smell of Yak Butter.  There are 3 Stupas (tombs) of previous Dalai Lamas here: the 7th, the 9th, and the 13th.  We could barely get in to see them because of the huge amounts of pilgrims in line, but the stupas are huge and covered in gold and various precious and semi-precious stones.  Unfortunately – and like everything here – they are poorly lit so we could barely see their details.  One of them was supposed to have 3000 pearls on it, but it was too dark to see them.

After climbing many, many narrow and dark stairways, we made it to the roof of the Potala which has the rooms for the current Dalai Lama which we of course couldn’t go in.  It seems that – for every Dalai Lama – additional rooms are built on the top of the Potala so it has continued rising.  The roof was packed with Chinese tourists who often pushed us out of the way and stepped through our pictures of pilgrims.  We were getting slightly annoyed, so – in passive retaliation – we posed for a long and involved group picture in front of the scenic part of the roof.  And just to be annoying, we made sure that we took a picture with each camera in the group!

Lunch at Barkhor Cafe

After the Potala, we walked back to the hotel where I checked on my hubby.  He is still not well and cannot keep liquids down.  So I went to meet the group for lunch on the terrace of Barkhor Cafe.  We had a lovely view of the Barkhor Square and the Jokhang.


After lunch, John (the Aussie Doctor), Mark, Laura, and I caught two cycle-rickshaws to the Norbilingka – the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama.  The rickshaw ride took us through much of Lhasa, and John and I agreed that we were quite surprised at the advanced infrastructure of the roads here.  The city is very clean and the roads and sidewalks look brand new!

At the Norbulingka, we walked through the gardens to get to the Summer Palace.  This is the place from which the current Dalai Lama made his escape in 1959 disguised as a Chinese soldier.   We strolled around the rooms of the palace, made Brad Pitt jokes, had a generally good time.  Some people had told us that we would find Norbulingka disappointing after the Potala, because it is very damaged and overgrown with weeds.  I’ll admit that the Palace was certainly not as stunning as it once was, but it was definitely interesting to visit.  The murals were beautiful and the building itself was much more cheery than the darkness of the Potala.

Laura, John, and Mark in the gardens of Norbulingka

Mark and Laura needed to go to the Bank of China to exchange travelers cheques for Yuan, but we couldn’t seem to communicate that to our rickshaw drivers on the way to the Norbulingka.  Luckily – at the door of the Palace – the guard was studying English.  So Laura had to ask a guard to write “Please take me to the Bank of China” on a piece of paper in Tibetan so we could give it to a taxi driver.  But it turns out the drivers are Chinese and can’t read Tibetan anyway, so we resorted to pictures out of the guide book to get us there.

On our way to the taxi stand, there were some little boys begging for Yuan and following us with a lute to get tips.  We tried very hard to avoid them but we just couldn’t make them go away.  One wrapped himself (arms and legs) completely around Laura’s leg and wouldn’t let go.  He was leeched on so tightly that she couldn’t shake him off.  So Mark, John and I had to each grab an appendage and carried him to the sidewalk where we dropped him.  We tried to be stern and mean about it, but we were all laughing too hard.  They still wouldn’t leave us alone, so John pretended he was going to chase one of the little boys to punish him.  For his efforts, he got whacked in the bum with a lute.

Internet Cafe

I stopped by the Internet Cafe to send some emails and check the upload situation.  None of the machines have disk drives (courtesy of the Chinese government, I’m sure) so I definitely can’t upload journal entries.  The funniest part of this experience was that all the computers have at least Windows ’98 on them.  Of course, it’s all in Chinese so I have no idea what any of the error messages or informational messages were telling me.

Attempt to Go to Dinner

The group met to go to Mad Yak’s where we went to lunch the other day.  But it must be a popular place to be on Friday nights because it was booked.  So we went a few stores down and tried a place called Crazy Yak’s, but it was the same story.  Since we were in the right part of town, we headed back to Dunya, where we were the first night.  Of course they’re going to let us in.  They’d better.  We smuggled in alcohol for them!

Jon is still not well, although he says he is feeling better.  He requested that I bring him chocolate cake from dinner, but I told him that I would bring him toast instead.  He then said he would only eat the toast if I cut the crusts off for him.  When I brought it to him, he didn’t even want to smell it he felt so yucky.

Tibet: Lhasa

Posted Posted in Asia, Round The World Trip, Tibet

Today was jam packed with interesting things, so prepare yourselves for a looooonng journal!

School for the Blind

If you remember from our plane trip, we brought 2 reams of braile paper into Tibet for a blind school.  Today, we spent the morning visiting the Tibet School for the Blind and hearing Sabriye’s story of how she started it.  This was quite an amazing story!

Sabriye is a 31-year old blind woman (I think from Germany) who studied Central Asian Studies at Bonn University.  Because no blind person had ever studied this before, she had to develop her own methods to help her with her studies.  This included inventing a braille script for the Tibetan language – which she created on her own.  After she graduated, she defied governments and popular opinion and traveled into Central Asia to teach English and Braille to blind children in small villages.  By the way, she did this on horseback.

One thing led to another, and she made her way to Lhasa where the stereotype for blind people is that they are useless and should be put away.  She came here to prove that blind people can be completely independent and, as she says, “We can even read in the dark!”.  Eventually, she raised the funds to start the School for the Blind in 1997.

Since then, it has grown into an amazing organization – all because of the tenacity and intelligence of this incredibly woman.  We were quite spellbound by her, and are convinced that her IQ is off the charts.  The School for the Blind is well known and very respected around Lhasa and we were all ready to whip out our checkbooks by the end of the tour (if we had checkbooks, that is).

Visit their Website

Sabriye has written a book, but it has yet to be published in English.  There’s also been talk of making a movie of her story.

Lunch at Crazy Yak’s (Dunya)

After the Project for the Blind, a few of us went looking for Crazy Yak’s Restaurant but it turns out that it’s now Dunya – where we had dinner the other night and for which we smuggled alcohol.  Because we were hungry we ate there again and enjoyed every bit of it!

Sera Monastery for Debates

Later this afternoon, we headed out to Sera Monastery to see the debates.  The debating was held in a lovely courtyard with lots of trees and lots of monks: at least 100 of them!  Unfortunately, there were also many tour busses of tourists who insisted on walking through the middle of the debating throng and taking ridiculous pictures.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, the debate involves one Buddhist monk who stands and makes his argument, and one monk who sits and listens and refutes.  When the standing monk finishes a major point, he stamps his foot and claps his hands together in a large movement to emphasize his opinion.  The sitting monk will just sit there and listen and quietly counter the argument.

Today’s debates were much more interesting than yesterday’s because it seemed that the monks were truly passionate about what they were saying.  After we had been there an hour and a half or so, some of the standing monks had dug holes in the ground from stamping their feet through the gravel!  There was one particular monk who I sat and watched for a good hour.  I have no idea what he was saying, but he and his debater were having a wonderful time:

Alex, our young Swiss traveler, thinks the monks are very cute and is quite attracted to them.  This makes us all laugh because most of them are (supposedly) celibate.  So we’ve enjoyed teasing her about her “monk lust”.

Climb on the Mountains

We walked behind the monastery with Mark and Laura looking for the loo, but only found a path and some beautiful rocky hills.  On top of the hills was a bunch of prayer flags and some other tourists, so we decided to make the climb.  We regretted it after about 1/2 hour as the rocks were tougher to climb than they looked and the altitude was definitely affecting our oxygen intake.  But we made it to the top successfully and it was worth it for the view!

At one point on the top, Mark dropped his lens cap and had to scramble down the rocks to retrieve it.  The three of us found this quite amusing and gave him a hard time about it.

Dinner at Lhasa Kitchen

Later, we went to dinner at Lhasa Kitchen but the largest table wasn’t big enough for all of us.  So we sat at the “kiddie table” with Mark, Laura, Lisa, Ken, and some bizarre old woman who claimed to be a Tibetologist and had somehow attached herself onto our group.  (We later decided that she was a pathological liar because she really didn’t know anything at all about Tibet except the basic stuff and was weird all around.)  Jon said that he was going to engage her in conversation, but when he looked over to start talking she had her finger half-way up her nose.  So he decided to leave her be.

Regardless, we dad a good time exchanging jokes with Mark, Laura, Lisa, and Ken and being generally childish and silly.