A Travellerspoint blog

November 2009

Kathmandu

sunny 15 °C

Well it would have been nice to stay, being alternately pampered and adrenalinised, in the resort, but we decided we had to move on after a few days so, onwards to Kathmandu it was.

Kathmandu must be one of the most concentrated traveller motherlodes in the world. Thamel, the traveller ghetto, is a weary jumble of stupid traveller clothes shops, trekking supplies, crappy souvenirs, wi-fi cafes and whispering hashish dealers. Pretty horrendous to be honest, but at least you can get a good breakfast (french press and banana pancakes = happy boy!), check email and get sorted for leaving Thamel as soon as possible.

We spent a couple of days wandering around the old parts of town, which are much more interesting. Kathmandu is an old (verging on medieval) place, and it's evident that the new city has just been built in layers over the old ones. Every street corner contains a wee shrine or a small temple, with gods daubed in red kumkum powder and garlanded with burnt orange marigolds. Additionally many of the buildings have beautiful Newari wood carvings decorating doors, windows, and balconies – really stunning craftmanship, now sadly mistreated and left to fend for itself in a lot of decaying buildings.

Slightly out of town we visited the Hindu cremation ghats at Pashupatinath. The bodies are shrouded in fabric and then dashed with red powder; then the mouth is filled with camphor and lit. It takes about 2-3 hours for the body to burn up, and then the ashes are swept into the holy (if jet black and noisome) river. Very powerful to see, especially from quite close range as the people seem quite unconcerned to have tourists there - most of the mourning has already been done and female family members don't usually attend the ceremony.

We also saw a living goddess! The Newari people select several prepubescent girls from a particular caste of goldsmiths and silversmiths, apply a battery of tests, and the girl who passes all the tests is proclaimed the Kumari Devi & venerated as a goddess. She and her family gets put up in a fancy house by Durbar Square (Kathmandu's World Heritage if car-choked square) and given a generous stipend until such time as her menarche, when she becomes a mortal again. Her only duties seem to be to get ooh-ed and aah-ed over by tourists every 10 minutes and leave the house for the occasional parade – it does seem a bit of a limited life for a goddess, to be honest.

Otherwise, we checked out the Tibetan quarter (nice to see Tibetans being left to their own devices without Chinese rule), went to the sadly neglected National Botanical Gardens, and chartered an ex-Gurkha with Parkinson's as our driver for the day (no, really). Well, he claimed it wasn't really Parkinson's, and he did drive pretty well, but it was a bit of a disturbing head twitch anyway.

And... that's Nepal, folks!

Posted by pendleton 06:39 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Crossed

One of the many strange things about travelling is the sudden change of circumstances and climate that happen to the traveller. Yesterday we woke up with a slight shudder in a bunkhouse in a high, desolate, zero-horse village in a valley on the roof of the world, watching dawn break (at half past eight in the morning!) and denouncing a very tall mountain for hiding its true size. We breakfasted on poorly translated pancakes and fried foods which turned out to be soup, in a room thick with the smoke of a hundred Tibetan men’s card games, heated only by the warmth of dried yak dung.

Today, we woke up with the light inside a very comfortable canvas safari tent, situated halfway down a steep river gorge in a lush subtropical semiwilderness. Breakfast was eggs made to order & coffee from a snow white porcelain cup. I am typing this from a hammock strung under dappled shade, with the roar of cicadas and a cold banana lassi my only company.

We left Tibet yesterday, completing our thousand-kilometre Land Cruiser sojourn over the Himalayas, seeing (from afar) some of the highest mountains in the world. The previous night we had overnighted just below the Everest Base Camp at over 5200 metres; unfortunately we were so racked by altitude sickness we barely slept a wink and had to retreat to a lower altitude immediately the next morning, missing out on the walk from First Base to Second Base (no, really). We saw some ‘traditional’ (read=poor verging on squalid) Tibetan villages and then zoomed to the border on the smooth new Chinese roads. The last pass we crossed, at 5100 metres, gave us impeccable views of Xixibangma and the accompanying range, and then we started down, down, down. We sped through the high, flat, ancient river beds, down into the parched permafrosted scrub zone, down along the start of the cathedral river canyons, down through the alpine zones of green conifers and fresh, thick air. So much green, everywhere we look! We drank it all in.

Somewhere between 2000 and 3000 metres we reached the China(Tibet)/Nepal border, the ‘Friendship Bridge’ over the canyon. We jostled with Nepalis hunched double under bundles of clothes and blankets more than a metre a side wide, changed our money, and seemingly changed the continent we were in, let alone the country. The Chinese side was anally ordered; armed military hurried us along when we stopped for 30 seconds to read the saccharine propaganda regarding the ‘Friendship Bridge’.

“Can we just read this?”

Shakes head, waves assault rifle.

“OK....”

We crossed over into subcontinental chaos; the sing-song rounded vowels if not yet the breathy consonants of the Indian languages; potato and pea pakora and bright orange sugary jilebi for snacking, not dumplings and buns; wee children with huge, dark eyes accented all around with kohl; squalor and good smells; buses with musical horns; the delightful version of the Queen’s English that only survives in this part of the world, lost forever in England. Together we jump over the red line demarcating China from Nepal; we turn around to take a photo from the Nepali side but are immediately surrounded by five aggressive Chinese plainclothes policemen. OK, OK, we'll delete the photos...

I am excited and somewhat apprehensive, while Mrs P is bubbling almost to the point of hopping from foot to foot, 25 kilos of baggage notwithstanding. We pass quickly through the old-fashioned politeness of the visa office (America, take note – it’s quite nice if people feel they are wanted in your country) into the anarchy of the bus station, manage to procure the prime seats (next to the door) on a bus leaving for Barabise in a little over an hour, get some snack food, and wait. Over the next hour, the bus fills up. And fills up. And, just when I thought it was impossible, fills up some more. In the end every seat is more than taken (except for the half dozen earmarked as cargo and literally full to the roof with thick bundles of clothing and cheap Lhasa beer), every armrest is sat on, every square inch of standing room is accounted for. Latecomers, mainly energetic youths able to clamber up and down with ease) are directed to the roof, while the conductor hangs precariously to the open doorway, flattening his body against the press of humanity bulging out the door whenever we squeeze past another bus, or a cliff face. I don’t really envy this young man his job; not only does he have to maintain control (and secure payment from) over every contradictory person in or on this bus, but less than a metre behind and below him the road ends and the canyons drops down to boiling blue icemelt a hundred metres below. Within ten minutes of the bus leaving, we have each acquired a small Nepali child on our laps; they spend most of the ride happily asleep and drooling while we have a small moment of cardiac arrest when the mothers are both ordered off the bus during one of the periodic inspections, unconcernedly walking out of our sight and leaving us with their leaky progeny. A weatherbeaten Nepali roadworker quizzes us for a long, surprisingly unfrustrating (for him) time about where we are headed to, and offers me a roasted corn husk when he is satisfied.

Somehow the young conductor tells us when it’s time for us to get off; with a few more stubbed toes and gentle shoves we extract our bags from a dense pile crowned with more children. We walk cautiously across a gently waving chain link bridge, and we have arrived, in this seeming paradise. We are in a sort of ‘adventure resort’, meaning a place which offers a large range of adventurous activities along with a beautifully relaxing place to recharge between them. The resort spills down the canyon side across from the main road, a smorgasbord of small lawn and garden areas, shady benches to sit and ponder, and beautifully appointed safari tents for sleeping.

Over a few days we have tried several adrenaline-filled activities; from canyoning (abseiling down a running waterfall – excellent fun!), to white-water rafting over quite fierce rapids, to (scariest of all) taking a ride on top of a Nepali public bus as it weaves its way along a steep river canyon. We thought about it long and hard but rejected the idea of doing the bungy though. That's just daft.

Posted by pendleton 06:28 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Lhasa

sunny 10 °C

We are deep within a sequence of rooms, each of them quietly screaming its antiquity at us through the pitted wooden columns and age-blackened tapestries lining the walls and ceilings. Our eyes are smarting from the soot which impregnates the air and our heads spin from the rich cocktail of incense and butter smells. The only light is provided by burning wicks embedded in huge bowls of yak butter and oil, which are topped up by every other pilgrim from sandwich baggies or vacuum flasks (respectively). We pass through a huge assembly hall, its walls crowded with figures of reverence of every level of holiness; Buddhas, bodhisattvas, abbots, lamas, gods and demons all compete for our attention. Then through a sequence of smaller and smaller chapels, each one thronged with pilgrims passing through, making small donations, praying for benefactions and topping up the butter lamps. Buddha stares down at us with infinite compassion while Yellow Hat abbots see right through us with their inscrutable mysticism. We look at each other, wide-eyed and feeling almost claustrophobic with the intensity of it all.

We are in Tibet.

Many parts of Lhasa that we have walked through today feel like nothing except more of China. But here, deep in the bowels of this monastery, is unmistakably Tibetan, unmistakably different. We are aeons away from the hordes of happy-snapping group tours which infest all of mainland China. We could be 400 years ago for all I can tell. We pass through quickly, swept through by the silent lines of soot-smeared pilgrims, struck dumb, awestruck, humbled. Almost moved to tears.

Tibet is a bit of a trip. It's mystical, isolated and you need to wade through a mountain of paperwork and hassle to get here. But once you arrive it's everything you've dreamed of, and just as amazingly exotic as you could have hoped for. Our days have been split between scenes of staggering natural beauty and astonishing cultural treasures. And the faith of the people! We have seen dozens of pilgrims doing two-year long pilgrimages, where each step of the journey is covered by lying prostrate on the ground. Lie down, prostrate, get up, advance 6ft, lie down, prostrate, get up, etc. For thousands of kilometres, across all manner of terrain and no matter the time of year, these people will put in a hard 10-12 hours a day prostrating, sleeping in wagons along the way. It's gobsmacking.

This is the Tibetan culture, the people and the religion are indivisible. And this is what the Chinese government wants to reduce to nothing more than a prayer wheel for tourists, generating the blessing of hard currency. It's heartbreaking to see. The region is being flooded with investment to try to turn it into a machine for creating more money; all at the cost of suppressing the Tibetan culture and inciting a mass immigration of Han Chinese, drawn by the economic opportunities while not understanding (or not knowing, or just not being told) what this is doing to the country. Most of the tour guides that the Chinese tours have are Chinese, and just spout the party propaganda line about the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet. Lhasa in particular is covered with Chinese monuments which all require 24-hour armed guard to ensure they are not defaced or destroyed. And so many soldiers! It feels like a town under occupation.

Anyway, rant over (for now).

Putting aside the issue of touristing through somewhere that is essentially an occupied state, the week has been magical. We took the highest train in the world to get here, an amazing 40-hour, 3000-km journey up, up, and away onto the high Tibetan plateau. They have to pump oxygen into the rooms as you go through the highest pass (a snip at 5180 metres above sea level!). Once in Lhasa we had a few days seeing the major sites in-town, which were either quite uninteresting (for the more Chinese-controlled sites) or fascinating (for the places which the Tibetans still worship in). All of the temples and stupas (round white Buddhist monuments) are shown respect by the Tibetans by performing one (or three, seven, thirteen, or various other holy numbers up to one hundred and eight) perambulations or koras. The largest temple in Lhasa, the Jokhang, has a permanent swirl of pilgrims, mendicants and tourists surrounding it which was absolutely spellbounding for people-watching. Tibet covers such a huge area that there are so many different types of people kicking around: ruddy-faced, Mongolian looking men from the North with fierce moustaches; women with their hair plaited with electric coloured yakhair rugs and 108 lucky braids; wild-eyed nomads wearing huge quilted lambskin jackets in a fetching off-the-shoulder fashion; burgundy-clad monks and nuns both with shaved heads (kind of difficult to tell apart at first blush!); and the modern youth of Tibet, looking as casually metropolitan as young people from any country on the planet.

We visited the Sera Monastery and saw its famous debating monks: once a day all the monks gather in the courtyard in a blaze of burgundy cloth and ask each other questions on the fine points of Buddhist scripture. Those who don't have the right answers (or are just a little slow off the mark) are quickly ridiculed with loud claps of the aggressors hands - right in the face - and eventually having the head rubbed in humiliation with prayer beads! Surprisingly aggressive for men of God...

And of course, we saw some of the most unbelievable landscapes on the planet. Some of the blue colours of the lakes we saw I still can't quite believe are real; we also waded through high passes swimming in brightly coloured prayer flags, gazed upon the mighty Himalayas (although we didn't get a great view of Everest as it was crowned with cloud and we were riddled with altitude sickness so we couldn't really hang around), and saw people eking a living out of the permafrosted fields. They call it the Roof of the World, and for once, the Chinese hyperbole is warranted.

Looking back parts still seem like a dream. We wish we could have spent more time in this spellbinding border kingdom; especially once we started talking to the locals about the long history and exchange of ideas and people between Manchu, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Kashmir, and Bhutan. We can't wait to come back and see the far eastern parts that abut Sichuan. And do the Annapurna trek. And go to Bhutan, and Sikkim. And, and, and.....

Posted by pendleton 06:14 Archived in China Comments (0)

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