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.