May 31, 2006

The Friendship Highway

I've arrived safely in Gyantse, a town that is famous for its Kumbum (a six-level, domed set of chapels). The ride was incredible and it took two days to get here, with a stop off in the middle of nowhere. We have been driving on the Friendship Highway, which is more of a muddy, dirt road that weaves its way through the mountains and over some precarious passes. We have been making full use of the 4x4 feature of our Land Cruiser, since we forded a couple of rivers today. Our driver is amazing. He really knows his vehicle.

Today's ride took us from 4500m up over a pass at 5050m that was below a stunning 7100m glacier. The driver stopped at around 4850m and we hiked up to 5004m, which is officially the highest I have ever been on foot. My lungs were bursting, my heart was racing, but it was worth it. A few days ago I couldn't even walk 100m at 3600m, but my body is now fully acclimatized to the altitude.

The people here in Gyantse are wonderful. On seeing me, people will grin happily and yell out "hul-lo! hullo!" Small children have followed me for 100m, inspecting me with wide-eyes. Old ladies continue to stick out their tongues at me. No one has asked me for money. I found spicy Sichuan food. Life is good.

May 30, 2006

Nangatse, Start of Overland Trip

I have found the middle of nowhere. As I write this, two young Tibetan girls are peering curiously over my shoulder, whispering to each other about me. Every time I turn around they smile and giggle, avertaing their shocked eyes from my hairy arms.

Earlier, as I walked down the deserted street, in the shadow of a 7000m glacier, the quiet was broken with a cascade of moos. "Jusche, Jusche!" the old ladies cried as they hearded dozens of cows to the lake. One old lady stopped, in shock, to stare at me, forgetting her cows. She poked me gently with her walking stick, let out a satisfied exclamation, and stuck her tongue out at me as she went back to the herd.

The locals are very friendly, all taking the time to yell out "Hullo! Hullo!" and smile at me. Very few tourists stop at this place, which is a huddle of squat buildings on the shores of Yamdrok-tso lake (which is at 4500m). Accomodations are basic. The government run hotel wanted a steep $4 for a smelly bed in a filthy room. The toilet was nothing more than a strip cut out of a concrete slab. They refused to negotiate, even if the hotel was deserted. So, i crossed the street and walked into the Snowland hotel, a pristine, cheerful place with colorful bedding, clean hardwood floors, and satellite TV. All for $3 after bargaining. Alas, there is no running water, but the shared squat toilet is clean and they have thoughtfully provided a bucket of cold water and a thermos.

The drive was uneventful - the clouds were out so our views were obscured. We had a quick, cold stop at the top of the 4950m pass where chinese tourists were busy taking pictures of Yaks. The descent to the valley was quick and the views across the lake unforgettable.

Tonight, we went to a chinese restaurant decorated with posters of the Swiss Alps. I ordered "Beef with Vegetables and Sauce" after a long discussion in which I explained that I was allergic to eggs and pork (I even showed them a piece of paper a waiter in Philly had written out, much to their amusement). Imagine my surprise when an entire chopped chicken (including head, beak, and feet) was presented to me with a flourish. The argument involved me pointing to the menu and moo-ing, and then gesturing no while I clucked. The Tibetans got into the act, insisting that what I was pointing at was "cluck, cluck." Tibetan chicken clucking is quite different from ours. In the end, I went into the kitchen and pointed at a number of vegetables and chilis and got myself a nice stir-fry. I felt bad for the cost of the chicken, so I paid the nominal amount they asked for.

May 29, 2006

The roof of the world

Lhasa really is at the top of the world. Today we went even higher - up to Ganden Monastery which precariously clutches the top of a 4500m mountain. This is the highest I have ever been (prior to this, it was at 3842m, when I skied down from L'aiguille de midi in Chamonix, France). Ganden was mostly destroyed in the cultural revolution of 1959, and is still undergoing constant restoration. Yet, the setting is unbelievable - we had a perfect vantagepoint with views over snow-capped peaks and a lush green valley.

There were very few tourists at Ganden, which is 40km from Lhasa. The peace and quiet only added to the atmosphere. At 1pm, as we walked into the Great Assembly Hall, a crash of Gongs signaled afternoon prayers. We were almost bowled over by monks running into the hall, scrambling to get to their seats. At 1:10pm, the chanting started.

Tomorrow I start my Great Overland Adventure. Over 5 days, I will travel from Lhasa to Kathmandu, stopping in the holy cities of Gyantse and Shigatse and finally spending the night in Tingri, which is about 35km from Everest Base Camp. This trip, in a Land Cruiser 4x4 with a German couple, will start at 3600m (Lhasa), climb up to 4500m (Gyantse, via the scorpion shaped lake of Yangdrok Tso), and peak at 5200m at one of the passes before Tingri. I don't know what kind of internet access I will have enroute, so tune in on saturday, when I should arrive in Kathmandu.

I have ipod envy. Although it took me a couple of years to finally use one, ZMama was kind enough to lend me hers. And now I'm staring at Shazz's snazzy new ipod Video with its color screen and huge hard drive. I hope Apple comes out with a new bigger, better version in August, when I return.

May 28, 2006

Lhasa's Sacred Buddhas and Smiling Pilgrims

3600m high is really hard on the body, especially after arriving from 1300m. Just walking down the steet or up a hill is an exertion. The mind is a lot slower. Just this morning, I followed Shazz down the stairs and watched him struggle to open a sliding glass door. What he hadn't noticed was that it was actually half open. So I let him fumble away for a few moments, then slipped past him to the other side. I looked back at him staring at me in slack-jawed amazement. "I thought you did a magic trick!" he later exclaimed. Luckily, the human body is an amazing thing and it's much easier to do stuff today than it was yesterday since our body is acclimatizing.

Lhasa is an incredible place. Our flight was spectacular, as it took us right past Everest and then brought us sharply down into the valley. Surrounded by "small" himalayan foothills (which are only 4600m high, almost as high as Mont Blanc, Europe's highest point), it is a small charming town. It is teeming with smiling Buddhist pilgrims who have travelled from remote provinces for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to do the kora around Lhasa's many sacred monastaries. They are dressed festively, either laughing with their families, or deep in concentration as they spin their prayer wheels and mumble mantas. They are curious, too. Many don't hesitate to stare openly at me, while others have grinned as they pointed to my Big Nose ("you are very lucky!" my guide explained this morning), or touched my hairy arms. Older peasants will happily stick their tongues out as us in response to our smiles, as a sign of respect.

We have spent our time exploring a number of monastaries. Our first introduction to Lhasa was outside the Jokhang, one of Tibet's most sacred monastaries. While we couldn't go inside, we joined the hundreds of pilgrims as they walked through the narrow streets lined with souvenir stalls.

The Potala was the Dalai Lama's Royal Palace, and is a huge structure filled with dark, drafty chapels that are littered with figures of the various buddhas and protectors. Pilgrims shuffle by, offering prayers, money, and yak butter to the dieties, while silent monks finger their prayer beads. We then went to Drepung Monastary, which is halfway up a mountain. At one point, it housed over 10,000 monks. The views over the valley were incredible, and the chapels were beautiful and serene. My favorite room was the massive assembly hall, in which the monks had hung ancient, colorful tapestries from the ceiling and had lined with 4m high Buddha statues. Our final stop was the Sera Monastary, where we were treated to the Monks' afternoon prayers. Over 60 monks sat in a small assembly room and hummed memorized mantras. Bells punctuated each prayer. It was wonderful.

Tomorrow we're off to a monastary that's at 4500m and is about 40km outside Lhasa. Should be fun. I'm also trying to organize my trip back overland to Kathmandu, which is proving to be more challenging than I expected (due to the fact that there are fewer tourists here than normal).

The food leaves a lot to be desired. Yak meat is tough and stringy. The noodles are bland and oily. We have yet to try Yak Butter Tea, which we have been told tastes like rotting moldy socks. Mmmm.

May 26, 2006

Hmmm. Tandoori.

Great day today. Hung out in the main square, watching people go by. Enjoyed watching Shazz entertain the local street urchins. Got my haircut at the hostel, much to the entertainment of the local girls. Ate some delicious tandoori.

Going off to Tibet tomorrow. Flying into Lhasa. I'm told they have many Yaks and even more Himalaya mountains. Not so sure about internet access.

Over and Out.

May 25, 2006

No Boondogglery

Today we escaped Kathmandu's pollution by putting our lives in the hands of a madman. Our young taxi driver was in a hurry to get back to sitting around aimlessly waiting for a fare. So, he weaved through traffic, playing chicken with cows, motorcyles, and, of most concern to me, large on-coming trucks. Luckily, we made it in one piece to the pedestrian town of Bakhtapur, and spent the day savouring the silence. No honking, no obnoxious diesel motors, no swearing in a language I cannot understand. Just temples, temples, and more temples. And, we got a deal, since it was 90% off if you were Indian! Shazz did the talking and thoroughly confused the suspicious ticketman with his Gujarati. I nodded away and added in a thick Indian accent "No, chap, there is no boondogglery here."

Bakhtapur is a great town. Apart from lacking traffic, it also has the highest temple in the Kathmandu Valley! We wandered the cobblestoned streets (which Shazz insisted needed an overhaul in order to improve the drainage system) and observed the locals drying out pottery, wheat stalks (for sweeps), and the grains of wheat. Of course, there was also a fair share of locals sitting around, doing nothing except staring off into the distance.

After walking around all day, we decided to really get out into the countryside and visit the hilltop temple of Chandu Naryan. This involved a tricky negotiation with a tout, who finally caved in and muttered under his breath "Indians!" Given the choice between a speedy old Datsun and a lumbering minibus, I chose the minibus since was obviously slower and would offer the driver less temptation to play chicken with oncoming buses. The temple was ok (it featured a 1500 yr old kneeling statue of Ganesh), but the views over the valley's rice paddies were incredible. As we drove through little villages, we yelled out "Namaste" to children, who responded with toothy grins and frantic, cheerful waves.

Tonight, we returned to the "More Rice, One Price" place, but Shazz did not indulge in Extra Mutton.

May 24, 2006

Sacred Tortoises and Rapping Guides

"You have friend in Nepal?" the young tout whispered in my ear.
"Of course I do! I have many friends! HE'S my friend!" I exclaimed, pointing at Shazz.
"Ah, but you need guide?" the tout retorted.
"Nope. HE'S my guide, too!" I said, again pointing at Shazz.
"And his dance instructor, he paid me 300 rupees" added Shazz, as he did a vague Bangra dance. This brought the tout's curious friend over to watch.
"Yes, he knows Bangra, and he can rap, too!" I exclaimed as I launched into a funky backbeat. The two young touts looked on in bewildered amazement as Shazz then rattled off a couple of spontaneous rhymes to my beats.

We were sitting on the second floor of an intricate outdoor temple in Patan's Dharbar Square. The concentration of beautiful architecture and monuments was such that one had to sit to contemplate the views. In an attempt to one-up their neighbor to the north (Kathmandu), the residents of Patan had erected a royal palace, a bunch of statues of elephants, lions, and dieties, and at least 10 temples, all within a square that was about the length of a football field. It was somewhat overwhelming to the first-time viewer, but the Nepalese treated it casually as people lounged around on the temples, chatting, laughing, smoking, or loitering.

We spent a few hours exploring Patan's sites. We walked through a hindu temple where lambs and goats casually passed away their day beside what we believed was part of a wedding ceremony. Men and women were dressed in their best saris and suits, sitting around a burning ghat, smiling and laughing. The bride and groom were nowhere to be seen though. We then visited The Golden Temple, a small buddhist temple that is guarded by sacred tortoises. We spotted one of them, but he didn't bother to acknowledge our presence. I guess the sacredness had gone to his head. All in all, we spent most of our time in Dharbar Square, people watching.

Tonight we went to a local bar to listen to cover bands. We were treated to some of the worst singers Nepal has to offer. Howver, it seems that Shazz found inspiration, since he has vowed to start a band (that I christened Electric Mariachi) on his return to Istanbul. He wants to be the lead singer. I have five rupees that say he doesn't follow through on this promise.

The pollution here is killing me, so tomorrow we are going to get out of the city and visit a traditional Nepalese town at the edge of the Kathmandu valley.

Tomorrow, I will attempt to upload some pictures, but the connection is quite slow, so it may not work.

May 23, 2006

Holy Men, Dancing Girls, and Religious Sites

"Naked Dancing Girls? Naked Dancing Girls?" The restaurants and bars had all closed at 10pm (with the exception of a few persistent ones), but apparently the rickshaw drivers all knew of another establishment where no one knew your name. We didn't take any of these drivers up on their generous offers but did have quite a laugh at their persistence.

Apart from the pollution, Kathmandu is a great city. Due to recent political tensions, it is pretty much empty of tourists, but the locals (with the exception of the touts, drug dealers, and rickshaw drivers) still pay us no attention. The narrow streets are a constant noisy chaos of honking motorbikes, small cars, roaming cows, and impeccably dressed Nepalese. Tiny children will run by, chasing tires, while bicyclists will constantly tempt fate by weaving between pedestrians and cars. Yet, this city is much calmer, quieter, and relaxed than many of the other developing capitals of the world. The touts will leave you alone after asking you twice (usually in a ridiculous "Allo mate" Australian accent), the marijuana peddlers will skulk back to their corner after a quick shake of the head, and the rickshaw drivers will go back to their afternoon naps if you don't express interest in an hour-long site-seeing tour.

The weather has been fairly predictable. Wake up to a cloudy sky. The clouds clear to a hot mid-day. Around 2pm the clouds return and it will then rain for about an hour.

We have spent our time wandering the streets, eating, and visiting various temples and religious sites that are scattered around the city. Yesterday, we negotiated cab fare to Pashupatinath, one of the most holy Hindu temples in Nepal. There, an enterprising colorfully dressed Saddu (holy man) greeted Shazz with blessings and gifts... and then a demand for money. Since we are not hindus, we were not allowed inside the temple (which was perched on the edge of a holy river), but from the hill on the opposite river bank, among the stuppas, lingas, and chaityas, we could observe the ceremonies. We had a colony of monkeys, many locals, and a few tourists to keep us company. The peaceful scene was punctuated with the melodic sound of bells, murmured prayers, and the occasional bellow from a cranky Sacred Cow. Incense and the smoke of funeral pyres filled the air.

We then hiked 2km through a small, peaceful town to the Tibetan sacred site of Boudha. We joined Tibetan pilgrims as they strolled clockwise around the massive stuppa, spinning prayer wheels and chanting their mantras. At 3:25pm, the skies opened up, and it poured. Luckily, we managed to jump in a cab at 3:24pm.

Today, we hiked to the Monkey Temple, a massive stuppa up on a hill that overlooks the sprawling haze of Kathmandu. After a steep walk up a long flight of stairs, we were confronted with Tibetan Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels, thumping drums, and crashing cymbals. Tearful old ladies made offerings, as gawking tourists shamelessly took their pictures. The local colony of monkeys, that is usually renouned for entertaining tourists with party tricks such as acrobatics and cheep backalley card tricks, seemed to be sulking. No tricks today, sir. Our walk back to Kathmandu's central square through some quiet streets, took us past old ladies squatting on doorsteps and cooking fried dough, tibetans sorting through massive piles of dusty wool, and carefully tended neighborhood holy stuppas. Since it was early afternoon, we raced the rain and attempted to find a highly acclaimed South Indian restaurant. Our route took us down "Makhan Tole," a pedestrian shopping street on which you could find any manner of goods. We miscalculated by five minutes and the rain came. We did find our restaurant, though.

We have been eating Indian and Nepali food. Despite some bad reviews by other travelers, we have pretty much enjoyed the fare. For breakfast, we had puri and curried potatoes. For lunch, we enjoyed South Indian Dhosas, samosas, and other goodies. Last night, taking a local's advice, we went into a Nepali eatery, where the waiter asked "Rice?" Apparently, they are known for "one price, more rice." So we had the rice. It came with Dhaal, mutton, and pickle. Shazz insisted on having extra Mutton. And it was delicious (and cost $1.25).

As expected, the coffee is horrible. The masala chai, on the other hand, is very good.

The nepalese are generally quite small. I keep hitting my head on low doorframes. They dress extremely well - the men in slacks and ironed collared shirts, and the women (impeccably made-up), in colorful saris or shalwar khamiz. And many of them are very beautiful.

May 21, 2006


I'm in Asia. And I've seen Mt. Everest.

It only took 40 hrs to get to Nepal, but that included an 11hr stopover in Bangkok. Thanks to the considerate people at the NYC subway, I almost didn't make it. Despite having budgeted 2.5 hours to get to the airport (for a trip that should have taken less than an hour), I only got to the check-in line with five minutes to spare, since the friendly subway guys decided to do construction on the airport line. Great.

United, ever the considerate, service-friendly airline, insisted on checking my bag all the way through to Nepal, despite my overnight stopover in Bangkok. As I protested, the unionized BattleAxe behind the counter retorted "look, you can either argue, or you can make your flight. Which will it be? Oh, and by the way, you don't have a seat, so you'll have to try your luck at the gate. Have a nice flight." I made my flight and was lucky, since the woman at the gate decided to give me extra legroom in Economy Plus.

I continuously cursed my buddy JK during the 13hr flight from JFK to Japan, since he will be flying Singapore Airlines to HK and enjoying their superior, friendly service. Meanwhile, I was condemned to receiving ladels of tasteless slop grumpily served by 45yr-old unionized BattleAxes (who mostly reminded me of Marg's sister Selma).

Japan Airport was rather disappointing since I was quarantined in United's section of the airport. No hot Japanese Stewardesses. No electronic gadget stores. And no singing, heated toilets. It seems, however, that United is not constrained by unions on its asian routes, as the service between Toyko and Bangkok was markedly better. The food was slightly better (although it was still American slop), but what really mattered was that the stewardesses were all young, pretty, and smiling.

It was on the flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu that I caught a glimpse of Mt. Everest. I had taken another traveler's advice and sat on the right side of the plane and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the peak piercing the clouds. Fantastic!

At the Nepalese Border, I endured bureaucratic inefficiency as three people filled out the same visa form in triplicate and double checked their work. Good times.

As one of the only backpackers, I was immediately set upon by the horde of touts outside the terminal. "The ATM is that way!" one yelled, tugging me to the left. "You need taxi, only 100 rupees!" another shrieked as he pulled me to the right. "I have a reservation" was enough to get most of the commission-seeking touts away. I towered over all of them, and managed to wade my way through and eventually find a guy from the guesthouse where Shazz was staying. I was given the royal welcome at the Kathmandu Guest House, where Shazz had already established himself as a celebrity and mover and shaker.

Kathmandu is a city that attacks the senses (especially after 40hrs of travel). Vehicle Horns (and the sound of 250cc motors) punctuate the constant Hindi Music, while incense mingles with the scent of burning corn and sewage. Women are dressed in beautiful, ornate colorful saris, and Darbhar Square is full of gorgeous temples. A constant mass of humanity seethes past, carrying fruits, textiles, or crying children while others while away the time on the steps of historic sites, watching. Most people ignored Shazz and I, partly because we had the same skin color as them, but mostly because they didn't necessarily see us as walking wallets. As we walked by storefronts, I was shocked by how few owners yelled out "My friend, have a look!" Compared to other places I've been, this place is downright laid back.

May 18, 2006

Last Minute Travel Plans

It's finally settling in that I'm going to be on the road, living out of a backpack, for the next 10 weeks.

In anticipation of this, I made a list of things I need to do before leaving:

  1. Figure out when my flight leaves
  2. Buy plug adapters since I will need to recharge electrical thingies (camera, ipod)
  3. Buy a guidebook
  4. Book a hotel in Thailand for the first night.
  5. Write down address for rendez-vous with Shazz.
  6. Fix hole in travel pants.

Number 1 was quickly taken care of. Thanks to the good folks at United, I got a friendly email inviting me to check in online for my flight. That was handy, so I followed the link and got the following error: "You cannot check in online for this flight. Please check in at the airport."

This leads me to believe that United's Email Guy really needs to talk to their Online Check-in Guy. No wonder these guys keep going bankrupt.

Anyways, to my shock, I discovered that my flight is NOT a redeye flight. In fact, it leaves at noon, which means that my patented "drink a beer and pass out for 12 hours" move won't work. It's 13 hours to Japan, and unless I stay up all night (which I have done before), I'm going to need something to do on that plane. So, I've added "buy a really thick book" to my list of things to do before I leave.

Speaking of Japan, I'm quite excited about my 4hr stopover there. I've never been there and I anticipate a giddy time checking out interesting (and mostly useless) gadgets, hot japanese stewardesses, and really weird TV shows.

May 17, 2006

Rough Travel Plans

I keep getting the following two questions:

1. Where are you going for the summer?
2. Who are you going with?

Well. I don't have exact plans right now. The basics are that I fly into Bangkok on saturday. Alone. And then I fly out of Hong Kong to San Francisco on August 1st. Alone.

However, along the way, I'll be seeing some good friends. After a good night's sleep in Bangkok, I will leave for Nepal and Tibet, where I will meet up with my best buddy Sunset Shazz. I anticipate plenty of ridiculous moments. We have vague plans to meet up in the middle of Kathmandu a few hours after I land. Luckily, we have a backup plan.

Following my enlightenment in Nepal/Tibet, I plan to go to Burma, Indonesia (where I hope to find my Giant South Indian Friend), and finally Southern China. I also had a skype call with SH a week ago in which we concluded "well, you're going to china and I might do so, too! Ok, let's meet up somewhere." So we have plans.

Finally, at the end of my trip, I have plans to meet up with my good ol' buddy JK in Canton. As he described himself, he'll be that "obviously confused American on the corner." That's the extent of our plans to meet up. If we should manage to meet up, it promises to be a week filled with Dim Sum, Seinfeld references, and a whole lotta cantonese people. Good times!

Let me know if you're around. We can make some fittingly solid plans to grab a beverage somewhere.

May 16, 2006

Random Pics

At my dear father's insistence, I have attached a few pictures from Random trips I took over the past couple of years...

March 2006: Rio:

Italy 2006:

May 2005: Peru (Macchu Pichu and Cusco):

Christmas 2004: Costa Rica. Yes, that's a real volcano that you're looking into:

Packing up

18 boxes and a two block hike to fedex is all that remains between me and freedom. Philadelphia will soon become nothing more than a nostalgic memory.

Next stop: Nepal, via JFK and Bangkok.