Nepal and Tibet July 2005
Monday, July 4.
About 24 hours have passed from the time we left Voorschoten until we landed in Kathmandu airport. Considering its duration and our couch class, the trip was not too bad. After the London connection we took sleeping pills. It worked like a charm with me, especially that I also found three empty seats together and was able to lie down. I got four hours of sleep, and so did Philip, in his sitting position. The sleeping pill was so effective that we both had a difficult time during the 2-3 hour layover in Abu Dhabi.
Our eyes were closing and heads were heavy. I went to sleep almost immediately after taking off, and napped on and off most of this 4 hour trip. Philip lost track of his black sweater, no doubt due to this grogginess.
Arrival in a third world country always greets me with a specific odor. It is pungent, intense, humid, and earthy. It bespeaks of dense living, inadequate sanitation, and ripe fruit. It is no different this time. The sense of familiarity puts me at ease.
The hotel van awaits us and, after paying the man who coordinates our rendezvous with the van, which could have been easily accomplished without his intervention, we arrive in the International Guest House within maybe 20 minutes. At the large gate security men greet us. The hotel is a splendidly composed building: large, open, shady and tranquil, with an enclosed garden and various places to sit and relax. Intricately carved dark wood frames doors and windows and entry ways, and runs along wall spaces. I recognize the same handiwork and materials as the piece hanging on the wall of Bill Fisher’s office. This must be a Nepali specialty.
The manager offers us the “deluxe” room, which is indeed spacious and comfortable, with a clean bathroom and a bathtub. This room, with full breakfast, costs us $20 per day! Air conditioning would make it perfect.
We have a light meal at the hotel (very tasty Indian food) and despite tiredness we take a walk in the neighborhood. From what we can see on the unlit street we are in a poor neighborhood. The road surface is terrible, with more dirt than pavement, and there are no sidewalks. It has been raining earlier (this is a monsoon season) and our feet quickly become muddy.
We fall asleep as soon as our heads touch the pillows.
Tuesday, July 5.
Today we walk through the city. Philip is searching for memories from 1985, the last time he was in Kathmandu, while I mentally compare Kathmandu with Bangkok. The noise and traffic are horrendous but not unexpected. All modes of mobility coexist in the same space: pedestrians, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, and cars. The motorcycles are noisy and polluting. I do not see any trucks, and wonder how merchandise gets delivered to stores. Perhaps at night? From time to time we pass carriers of heavy loads on their backs, supported by wide cloth bands around their foreheads. These are poor-looking men and women with tremendously heavy packs, usually much larger then themselves (and probably heavier as well). Nobody gives them a second look, and they themselves are forced to look only down, so that the weight of their burdens gets distributed over their backs and shoulders. Drivers are madmen but somehow we do not see any collisions.
Women are lovely in this city. All dressed in colorful saris, with endless variety of colors and patterns, shapely, straight backed, and well groomed. Older women are a bit fleshy around the waist, but otherwise all women have fine figures and graceful movements. They are mostly my size, which makes me instantly comfortable here. I remember our visit to Portugal, where I was similarly made instantly comfortable by the size of the population. The same quality of small size does not make the men of Katmandu more attractive: to our western eyes, and especially after spending time with Dutch giants, they seem a bit too short and too skinny, just like the men I met in Thailand and India. In general, people on the streets look crispy and well groomed, which is notable because of the heat and dust of their surroundings.
We spend a long time on a guided tour of Durbar Square. This area belongs to hustlers, street vendors and hawkers who collectively harass us at every step, especially because it seems that we are one of the very few tourists around. A few holy men loiter around, dressed in perfect costumes of hermits or monks dedicated to the ascetic life of prayer. They offer a beatific smile and a pose for a picture. A young man (also loitering around), with whom I strike a casual conversation, tells me that these are “commercial holy men”, making a living by posing for pictures with tourists. I find the term “commercial holy men” very funny.
This is not a tourist season here. September to November is, because the air is clear then, the Himalayas can be seen from a distance, and the monsoons season is over. Additional factors diminishing tourisms include the massacre of the Nepal royal family a few years ago, the recent dissolution of the parliament by the monarch, and the continuing ambushes and disruptions caused by few in numbers but very active Maoists. The daily newspapers report every day some incidences, though these seem to be mild, without mortality. Our travel agent Lok, clearly a monarchist, decisively believes that the international press exaggerates the political unrest in Nepal, thus wounding the tourist industry.
We hire a guide to show us around the square, partly because of his polite insistence and partly to protect ourselves from the harassment of others. Described in guidebooks as a place of splendor, Durbar square is in reality shabby though interesting. Our guide (one of many hustlers living off tourists) gives us a fine tour of the many temples assembled at the square and its proximity. I learn something about the Hindu customs and beliefs. We even get a short glimpse through a window of Kumari, a very pretty girl of maybe 8 who is believed to carry in her the spirit of Goddess Shiva. This girl serves that function from age four, when she is ‘discovered’ and identified through a series of tests, until her first menstruation around the age of 14. When term ‘term’ of reincarnation is over the girl goes back to regular life, including getting married, and the search for the next temporary reincarnation begins anew.
Philip gets involved in negotiations over the price of a small travel chest set, nicely carved of wood. The man’s starting price is outrageous, and Philip soon dismisses him. But it is easier said than done. Foe a long time the man follows us, proposing ever decreasing prices. His “rock bottom” price is about one tenth of the original, which only undermines his initial credibility, and so we do not want to deal with him at all. Eventually, he disappears. But not the chess set. Later, as we return to the Durbar square area there is another merchant offering an identical looking chess set. Notably, he starts the negotiations form the level left off by the first merchant, and this time we buy, at what seems to us an acceptable price. What we find out through this transaction that we are closely watched and that the local street grapevine is quite effective in creating all the incentives for us to part with the money. Amusing.
After the tour of Durbar square we walk through the commercial center around what Philip remembers from 20 years ago as ‘diagonal’ street. We also begin to survey the shopping scene. The prices are low but as usual I have no feeling for what is a fair price for goods. For me it always presents a dilemma. On the one hand I hate the idea of being overcharged but on the other hand I want to give these unprosperous people some opportunity to make a living during these lean time of depressed tourism. We walk a lot today, in the heat, dust and noise of the city. There is a festival of some sort on the edge of “Queen’s Pond”, and we watch the performers and the spontaneous dancing by some members of the large crowd.
In the late afternoon we visit the Buddhist Swayambunath (Monkey) Temple on the top of an incredibly high and steep hill. All of a sudden it is quiet. But not serene. In fact, this is a very busy place, populated by a wide variety of people: monks, visibly impoverished and filthy groups of women with children, temple workers, pilgrims, urban visitors, and a sprinkling of western tourists. Except for the latter, everybody seems to be on some mission. Some perform ritual ceremonies, others walk somewhere, looking purposefully, and some clean the metal components of the structure and decoration of the temple. The prayer wheels are turning and we hear bells. Monks are sitting on the front steps of various buildings and chat. Dangerous looking shaggy dogs hang around. And of course, there are these monkeys everywhere. Trained to expect food from the visitors, they are not friendly but rather have the air of entitlement. The large male we encounter attacks anyone who comes too close to him.
In the center of the compound, in a large hall open to the outside, a large feast is taking place. Around fifty people sit cross-legged in a large circle, with plates in front of them. Several men and women go around refilling their plates with rice, peas, something looking like curry, and hard boiled eggs. People are eating heartily. Despite an explanation given to us in very rudimentary English by a temple employee, we do not understand what is going on. But it is fun to watch these goings on.
Dinner at the hotel.
Wednesday, July 6.
Our plan for today is to visit two major temples: a Hindu Temple of Pasupathinath and a Buddhist Temple of Bodnath.
It is a hot day. I regret not having brought lighter clothes. I packed for Tibet, not for Kathmandu. My only skirt is the heavy black silk, and far too warm for this weather. We get to the Pasupathinath Temple by taxi. Philip negotiates the fares, being the tougher of the two of us in the business of bargaining. The Temple is a very large compound of maybe 20 buildings situated on two banks of a river. There must be a drought here because the river is very low. Although this is a monsoon season, the steps leading to the water on both banks are exposed all the way to the lowest step. In some places the water covers only half of the width of the waterbed. The water is brown and soupy.
The most remarkable event for us is witnessing a ritual burning of the dead. It takes place on one of the seven tall concrete platforms protruding into the river. Originally, there were four platforms, each for one the four casts, but additional platforms were added since the government banned the cast system. When we arrive two funeral pyres are already burning on the neighboring platforms to the one where the funeral preparations are taking place. The smoke is thick and stinging. Many people hold cloths to their mouths and noses. We observe the process from the beginning to end. Philip films the ritual, which takes about half an hour and culminates with setting the pyre ablaze. The fire then takes another hour or so to consume the body. A crowd of onlookers stands a few meters away from the pyre, watching intently. I spot one other tourist.
The striking thing about this ritual is the extent to which the family handles the body. They rub it with some materials, lift its head to put a pillow underneath, the key mourner (very likely the daughter of the old dead woman) strokes the long gray hair of the deceased. It all seems so intimate. Later, the guide we hire (difficult to get away from those) shows us the rest of the story of dying. One of the neighboring buildings houses a hospice. Several times a day someone dies there. In an ‘ideal’ situation, a doctor is able to identify the exact moment of approaching death. Two minutes before that moment, a person is stripped of their clothing, wrapped in a yellow sheet, and put on a sloping cement platform the size of a narrow bed, one end of which is submerged in the river. The feet of the dying person are placed under the water for purification. As soon as the death is pronounced, the body is tied to two bamboo poles and carried the short distance of perhaps a hundred meters to one of the seven pyre platforms. During the couple of hours of our visit at the temple we witnessed six deaths in various stages of burial, from the placement on the dying on the platform for washing feet, to scattering the ashes from the funeral pyre into the river, which marks the beginning of the reincarnation in the Hindu cycle.
We wander around the temple compound, looking at families who mark the first anniversary of their relatives’ deaths with a sort of picnic feast, strolling through a nursing home for poor and indigent, which Mother Teresa has established, noting the abundance of phallic symbol in the numerous statutes, the multitude of monkeys, and the general disorder and disregard for cleanliness that surrounds us.
Outside the temple compound the heat blazes. My portable thermometer shows around 37 degrees. As there are no apparent places to lunch, we stop at one of the local eateries of the most basic type. Without taking any risks with our health we order a piece of their bread, which is a pretzel-shaped piece of fried dough with a faintly sweet flavor and pleasant texture, two mangos and three of those miniature bananas that are sold everywhere. This is a mango season in Nepal. This royal fruit is sold on every street corner. We pay 20 Rps for two splendid large specimen, and I am sure that we overpaid, but have no idea by how much. Later I happen to read in the newspaper Himalayan that the average retail price of mangoes is 20-25 Rps per kilo. That means that the two mangoes should have cost about one-third of what we paid for them. Never mind, this is a perfect lunch.
Now come part two of the daily itinerary: we walk toward the famous Buddhist Temple Podnath. According to the guide book and the map it should be a 20 minute walk. It turns into an hour long death march in a terrible heat and dust. Very few people are out at this hottest time of the day. We pass both miserable shacks and fine villas. Since the villas all look new, or are under construction, we conclude that we must be in a newly emerging popular suburb for the well heeled Kathmandu dwellers.
One of the problems of sightseeing temples is that there are no public toilets anywhere. I wonder what the locals do about it but I cannot go all day on a single bladder. At some point I approach a woman standing in the doorway of a modest dwelling and ask for a toilet. Apparently, either the word toilet is well understood or my looks give me away, but she immediately leads me to the toilet in the apartment. I thank her but do not offer money, which would be, I believe, crude.
Entering the Temple compound we find ourselves in a very different world from the street outside and from the Hindu temple. It is immaculately clean; no animals run around, no beggars, no picnics, and no mess. On the other hand, the commerce thrives here. One side of a sort of promenade that encircles the round, white domed temple is completely filled with shops and occasional cafes. One look at the merchandise tells us that the shopkeepers are catering to former hippies and various seekers of spirituality through meditation, vegetarianism, and so on. The first thing I do is purchase an crinkled Indian cotton skirt to replace the black silk oven I have been wearing until now. I change right there in the shop. The light as air new skirt with silver thread makes me feel wonderful, not only because of the comfort it brings but also because it transports us back into the sixties. Philip is amused that I went native and hippie.
We drink tea in a lively little New Orleans café and chat with the owner who is a Nepali and a world nomad. Traveled everywhere, has seen everything, and I wonder how he makes a living. Certainly not through this café! He also tells us about the original New Orleans Café which is located in the Thamel section of Kathmandu, very close to our hotel. He promises a fine music and good food.
The Temple is really not accessible to me emotionally, spiritually or aesthetically. What I enjoy at this place is the serenity.
We dine at the Café New Orleans. It is a splendid place. Partly indoors and partly outdoors, decorated with plants, wood, interesting photographs and artifacts, and quite removed from its Kathmandu surroundings. This café is the product of the hippie culture that thrived in Kathmandu between the 60s and 80s. Most patrons are westerners and the Nepali waiters (all fluent in English) are as serene and friendly as a hippie commune. The food is very good but the best thing about this place is live music. There is a drummer and a flutist who play the most romantic music that I cannot place but hear in it Indian, blues, and (according to the waiter) also Nepali sounds. Later, a fabulous guitarist joins them, to be followed by a base electric guitarist who is no other but our host from the other café this afternoon. He offers us a pair of drinks on the house. We stay in New Orleans Café a long time.
A perfect day.
Thursday, July 7
Today we take a trip to Dulikhal, a small city situated in the far southeast corner of the Kathmandu valley. A bicycle rickshaw takes us to the main bus station. The system is as follows: as soon as we arrive at the station (which is a dusty outdoor parking yard) a young man appears from nowhere, calling out the name of some town, which we at first do not get immediately but which turns out to be Dulikhal. Recognizing that we are a bit lost, he asks us directly where we are going. Hearing the name, the young man quickly ushers us to one of the buses, which happens to be leaving the station. It is so easy! The trip on the shaky bus takes a little more than 1.5 hours. We see the usual sights of disordered human dwellings, commerce and light industry that surround all the large cities that I have visited over the years. After more than an hour drive we finally enter the country side, marked by rice paddies. Rice plants have a very bright green color, the shade we see in Massachusetts for about one week in May. It is very refreshing.
So we are here, in Dulikhal. As I look around I am immediately reminded of the Cuban city of Remedios. Not because of its looks, which are quite different, but because of its atmosphere of stillness and absence of rush. Hardly any cars are visible anywhere, and children play freely on the streets. The games they play take us back to our earliest youth. Women are doing domestic chores, such as washing, beating rungs, preparing meals, and sitting in groups talking. Nothing much seems to be happening here.
Looking at the bright red brick buildings, with the characteristics dark wood carved window frames and doors, I become aware of the abundance of these red bricks, both here and in Kathmandu. Also the abundance of pottery made of the same material. It is very nice. Obviously has something to do with the type of earth in this region.
I do not want to get too sentimental about this place, and I note the poverty, the primitive metal and woodworking shops, which probably make minimum living standards for the workers. Who knows if there is a health clinic or a dentist within the residents’ reach. On the other hand, the atmosphere of the absence of rush and complete freedom for the children is palpable. Two high school students in the usual immaculate uniforms approach us to chat. Their English is quite good and, like all the Nepale with whom we have spoken during the past three days, remarkably unaccented. We talk about their education and ambitions, and give them solicited advice on how to apply to American universities. A third young man, their friend, joins us briefly, and announces that he got a fine scholarship to a university in India. After he moves on, our companions tell us that their friend comes from an extremely poor family of goat farmer and that throughout the school years he got up at 4 AM, milked the cows, delivered the milk to town for sale, and then went home to get ready for school. Of course, the story makes everybody feel good.
The walk through this town tires me out because of the immense heat. So when we arrive at the small Hindu Temple in the woods I feel a great relief. I wash my feet under the stream of water and sit down to relax and contemplate. Alas, no contemplation for me either here or anywhere else in Nepal. No sooner do we start walking or sit down somewhere, young men (it is always young men) approach us to chat. There is no escape because they are really so polite and friendly that it is impossible to turn them away. Within minutes, my conversation with one such young man of about 20 turns into a group affair as other young men join. He tells me about the temple and the holy man who lives in it (Philip is engaged with the holy man as we speak), and about his older bother who is a guide for trekkers. He tells me of an English couple named Pieter and Harriet who come every year to his near by village to teach English to local children, and about his training to become a porter for trekkers.
Time goes by quickly in this magic place in the woods. We meet an Englishman who lives nearby and writes an autobiography, and briefly chat with this strange and solitary man. After giving some money to the Baba (the holy man) we walk back to the bus. Finding the right bus is a repeat of this morning procedure. The trip takes almost two hours, and we arrive in Kathmandu very tired. After a short refreshment in the hotel, we have dinner at New Orleans café. I am very tired at the end of the day, vowing to take a day of rest tomorrow.
Friday, July 8
After the torrential rains at night the air is much cleaner and the day cooler than yesterday. Today I rest: read, write, take a two hour walk through the touristy and pulsating Thamel, window-shop. I am in a mango heaven: after finally figuring out how to shop for it I feed all day on this marvelous fruit. Philip takes a half a day trip to Patan, the old center and the location of the old royal palace. He comes back energized but also tired. At night we take a slow stroll through Thamel and have a drink on a roof terrace of some café. For me the magic of Thamel is already fading: I have seen all the shops and merchandise, and the crowd has become tiresome. Additionally, this is Friday night, apparently a big night for dancing and loud music of the local youth. The sounds coming out of the numerous clubs and discos are suddenly a burden. We are ready to move on.
Saturday, July 9
After an early start, our trip to Lhasa is uneventful. The security measures are the highest I have ever experienced. We go through several security checks both on the Nepali and Chinese sides, they check manually more than once if we carry weapons, and the Chinese even put us through an X-ray-like machine, which turns out to be checking our body temperature, in case we harbor some mysterious fevers.
Choedak, our Tibetan travel agents, waits for us at the airport, accompanied by his brother in law. We drive along Bramaputra river to the city, which is located almost 100 Km from the airport. It feels hot, and I worry that once again that we underestimated the warm weather at this time of the year.
We are immediately struck by the sharp light of the sun. It is brighter than I experienced anywhere else that I remember. It is difficult to be without sun glasses here. As we enter the city, I note that people on the streets wear hats and carry umbrellas.
Mandala Hotel, where we stay for the modest amount of $20 per night (local rates; for tourists the rates are somewhat higher), is located at the very heart of Lhasa, on the perimeter of Bankhor Plaza, which the guidebooks consider to be the city’s focal point. Right across the street from us is Jokhang Temple, which according to Alexandra David-Neel as well as the contemporary guidebooks is the most holy of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. The hotel is not so great but the location more than compensates for the dysfunctional appliances and plumbing, and not-too-clean carpets.
Stands of merchandise surround the temple compound like a circular ribbon. Side-to-side, an uninterrupted colorful bazaar. Looking out of our third story window we see an endless river of humanity moving on this circular promenade. People move clockwise, as is the Buddhist custom. These are local religious people, pilgrims, traders, monks, tourists (a minority) and others. Some are holding religious objects in their hands. Women wear mostly traditional Tibetan dresses: long dark skirts with patterned rectangular aprons (the latter for married women), long sleeved blouses and wrap-around vests ala Dianne von Furstenberg. All are very slender and straight. So are the men.
Some people sit on the steps of the temple, in groups, looking like pilgrims from far away places. I can tell Chinese people from Tibetan, the latter having sharper cheek bones and narrower, more slanted eyes (like other Central Asians I have seen before, such as Uigrus, Uzbeks and Kazaks). Some have quite dark skins.
We feel the effects of the high altitude of Lhasa (3650 m). Getting up the two flights of stairs to our room requires a lot of effort. But the worst is yet to come. For now, we eat something in the hotel restaurant and take a stroll through the city in search of an ATM machine. Not seeing one, we ask a rickshaw driver to take us to one (after my little pantomime to explain what we are looking for, clearly successfully). The city we see is just another smallish contemporary Chinese city: wide promenades, well paved and clean, non-descript apartment blocks, three to four stories high, well stocked shop windows. We see many electric bicycles and scooters, in addition to the usual cars, buses and regular two-wheelers. The main streets have separate lanes for bicycles and rickshaws. The polluting technologies of the type I have seen in Beijing six years ago have either never made it here or got cleaned up. The air is relatively pure.
As we have been warned in advance, the Lhasa from the pre-1960 photographs is irretrievably gone, except for the small area behind the Jokhang Temple. But I must say that I have no regrets. After the noise, dust, chaos, pollution and traffic of Katmandu, I appreciate some order, cleanliness and purer air. Never mind the history and tradition, at least in this case. I can breathe here, and am not exhausted by street noise.
We walk back to the hotel. The walk turns out to be longer than our bodies can handle. By the time we come to the hotel I have a headache. The headache quickly escalates to a full blown altitude sickness: my head is pounding, I am short of breath, feel nauseated, my intestines feel unstable, the tips of my fingers and toes tingle, and I can barely muster enough energy to move my hands. It is an awful feeling. Philip seems to be spared. Hour after hour I rest on the bed in a semi-sitting position, listening to the street noises. At some point, a heavy sleep overtakes me.
Sunday, July 10
Amazing: I wake up feeling fine! Tired perhaps and with tingling fingertips but the headache and nausea are gone. I am so grateful to my body for its resiliency. Philip, on the other hand, is not so well. I breakfast alone, hoping that sleep will work miracles with him as it did with me. It helps. After a couple of hours Philip is well enough to join me on the roof terrace of the hotel (which is splendid) and to have breakfast.
Slowly, gingerly, not trusting our bodies, we head for the Jokhang Temple across the street. This place cannot be easily described. It has to be seen and felt. We are carried on the wave of people through the courtyards and chapels of the Temple, surrounded by innumerable statues and paintings of Buddha, other deities, lamas of long ago. Gold, jeweled colored paint and intricate wood carving saturate our visual senses. The smoke from butter-fueled lamps and scents saturate our sense of smell. But more than anything, this place is about people. Pious, devoted, deeply religious people. They prostrate themselves on the floor, gently touch the deities with their fingers and foreheads, they pour melted butter into the lamp reservoirs, they put money into every crevice. Hardly anybody pays attention to us or other tourists. The yellow dressed monks resolutely direct this human traffic and keep order. The monks look fresh, well fed, healthy, and in high spirits. Theirs seems to be a good life.
Today is an especially important day for some religious reason, so the place is very crowded. A group of pilgrims celebrates together by dancing and singing. I notice that one woman, a tiny middle aged figure with a powerful voice, usually intones, then others follow. These people show so much joy. It is contagious. How lucky we are to be able to witness it all!
The temple closes at 1:30. Outside it is hot. We stroll long enough to find an umbrella stand. I purchase a pale blue dainty looking umbrella in the local style to protect me from this fierce sun.
For lunch we stop at a modest local establishment, which obviously has not seen westerners. There is a general merriment and consternation as we cannot communicate. After some hand waiving and with the help of Philip’s little dictionary I end up with a dish of rice, potatoes, very rich broth and some pieces of boiled yak meat. This must be the most basic dish because other people eat it too. Although not a culinary piece of art, it is tasty. I eat only some of it, concerned about all the fat and the unknown quality of the meat. Philip tastes from my plate but otherwise does not feel well enough to eat. We both have cups of their sweet and milk-flavored tea.
It is around 3 o’clock by the time we get back to the hotel. We are exhausted. I take a short nap and spend some time at the computer, while Philip sleeps for a long time.
Monday, July 11
Today we visit Sera Monastery. It is a campus of sorts, consisting of small colleges, each with its own courtyard, chapel, and living quarters. This monastery dates to the 15th century and apparently its monks had a history of political engagement, to the point of plotting an overthrow of the central government.
The most memorable experience from this visit is our witnessing of a midday prayer. The entire community of monks gathers in the large Assembly Hall. The monks sit cross legged on long benches, which run parallel to each other in perhaps 20 or 30 rows. Soft pads cover the benches. Large tanghkas hang over our heads. The back wall has the usual statues, big and small, and every piece of wall space is covered with paintings. Along one of the side walls there are wooden benches and small tables for visitors. Lay people sit there, helping themselves to what looks like steamed rice cakes and butter tea from large thermos bottles. I have no courage to touch that food.
Between the smell of the burning butter in innumerable lamps, scents, and low lights, the atmosphere is unworldly and somewhat subdued. Suddenly, without visible signs that something is about to begin, the chanting begins. Low pitched, rhythmic, Buddhist chanting. After a few minutes a strikingly deep and powerful voice of an old toothless lama assumes the leading role of the chant. Sitting on an elevated platform, he is magnificent. Other monks follow, but not in unison. Some are chanting their own things, following the heavy books on their laps, others seem to be in their own world. Most daven in the process, Jewish style. This combination of an immersion in one’s own prayer, the connection to the Book, the davening, and the general laxness about collective discipline while taking seriously one’s own, are deeply reminiscent of a Jewish ritual on high holidays. Perhaps this explains the warm affinity I feel to this crew of devout and yet unruly men. I sit on one of benches reserved for monks (after my neighbor gestures that it is OK), close my eyes, and let myself be transported to the land of daydreaming.
It takes us around two hours to stroll through the numerous courts and chapels of the monastery. We basically weave through the daily life of the monks. This monastery seems neglected: garbage carelessly strewn whichever way, weeds growing everywhere, walls crumbling here and there. I wonder if this is part of the philosophy of life among these men or something else.
It is afternoon and we are hungry. No decent-looking places to eat nearby, so we take a chance with a dirty looking outdoor cafeteria. As soon as we order one serving of momo (Chinese ravioli) I get misgivings about eating it. In the end I eat only two of them. I will later discover that I should not have eaten any. By evening my intestines are in bad shape.
In the afternoon I go back to the hotel while Philip lines up to buy tickets for tomorrow for the Potala palace. Later, we shop for a new suitcase (find a very nice one for a modest price) and take a closer look at the neighborhood. The street connecting Barkhor Plaza with Lhasa’s main thruway seems to be the favorite hangout of western tourists. Over time it will become probably the equivalent of Freak Street in Kathmandu. The restaurants have English language menus, and one in which we have dinner has only western patrons. There are several trekking shops, a bicycle rental shop, and an internet café. And, of course, the tiresome beggars.
Tuesday, July 12
Today we visit the famous Potala Palace.
Climbing the Potala is a challenge. We go slowly, take breaks, hide from the sun as much as we can. Potala is enormous and unwieldy. I am not surprised that the more recent Dalai Lamas preferred to live in Norbulingka rather than here. It is a labyrinth in three dimensions: width, height and length. Endless rooms, halls and passages are filled to capacity with paintings, ancient manuscripts, statutes and tanghkas. Although the design of the building allows for a lot of light to enter into some rooms, even those feel dark. And the accumulation of centuries of burning butter makes the atmosphere oppressive. In addition, there are no personal accouterments of any of the Dalai Lamas who lived here. Nothing. Potala must be seen, but only once.
We come across Western tourists, but the majority of the visitors are Chinese tourists. In one of the rooms on the top level a middle agenda Chinese woman communicates to me in gestures that she has a headache, no doubt from the altitude. I indicate that I understand her predicament. In fact, after a large group of tourists leaves the room I lie down on one of the cushioned benches and take a brief but very refreshing nap. All my life I wished to be able to nap during the day. In Lhasa I finally got my wish fulfilled.
Later in the afternoon, after napping in the hotel (again), we shop: a new backpack, an umbrella to replace the first one, which got lost, and a fleece jacket for Philip. Commerce thrives here, prices are low. Earlier in the day, on the way to the Potala Palace we came across a dealership selling electric scooters. Philip tries out one cool-looking model, which sells for an absurdly low price of less than $400. I am reminded of Khrushchev’s threat to the West long ago that they, the Soviets, will burry us. Well, it will be the Chinese who will burry us. How can anyone compete with these prices? And we see it everywhere: in my new suitcase, in Philip’s new fleece jacket, in my new backpack. No contest.
At night I wake up a few times and listen to a distant singing of the pilgrims. The same cadences every time: not happy, not sad, rhythmic, longing. In the nighttime silence the distant singing is otherworldly.
Wednesday, July 13
Today we visit the other of the two famous monasteries in Lhasa: Drepung. It is a longer cab ride than to other destinations we have visited. While we drive along the wide open main artery through Lhasa, with its separate lanes for bicycles and rickshaws, well regulated traffic and little pollution, I appreciate the benefits of modernity. It is true that most of Lhasa has no “character” or “charm” we attribute to old cities with history and organic growth. But when I look at the old photographs of Lhasa I see unpaved filthy streets, shacks, and to beauty. Perhaps character, but no beauty. Thinking about what Lhasa would be like today if it was left along to grow organically and true to its “character”, I envision the worst of Kathmandu: narrow, unpaved alleys, dirt, noise, dust, and air pollution. So if I had to choose one of these two cities to live in permanently, and if there was no third alternative, I would cast my vote for the faceless modernity of Lhasa over the character and charm of Kathmandu. I know that I sound outright subversive to many western travelers, and Philip gave me a look accordingly, but I stand my ground.
Drepung is a contemporary of Sera, established in the early 15th century. It is wedged into a side of a mountain with a spectacular view of the valley below. Right away, we like it much more than Sera. Its campus is more compact and its layout is more cohesively tied to two main assembly halls, each on a different level. As a result, I feel very close to the mountaintop which supports the monastery. Even the air seems purer here. In comparison, Sera now seems like a hodgepodge of small campuses without a center of gravity or some aesthetic vision. Another difference between the two is that Drepung is immaculately clean and well maintained. It even has trash baskets. We pass a perfectly symmetrically built huge woodpile that will probably provide heat for more than one winter. The surfaces of buildings are freshly painted and the walkways and stairways are in good shape. So much for my associating squalor of Sera with the monks’ philosophy of life. It seems that it is all about good management and good housekeeping.
As in Sera, we blend easily into the life of the monks. Nobody seems in the least disturbed by our comings and goings, and we have another splendid opportunity to be here during the midday chanting in the main Assembly Hall. A similar event as two days ago at Sera Monastery. This time, however, we focus on the monks. They are a lively bunch, talking to each other below the singing of the group chant, swapping liturgical materials, scanning the scene around them. They are also quite young, from prepubescent boys to mid twenties. Within the reigning atmosphere of solemnity and serenity I also feel a high energy of youth and curiosity.
A monk asks Philip for 20 yuans for the privilege of taking photographs.
I envision that in a decade or so, when tourism increases in these parts, they will put restrictions on how many people can enter these monasteries and where they can go within them. The Tashilumpo Temple in Shigatse, which we shall discover towards the end of the Tibetan trek, has in fact already instituted such restrictions. We are lucky to be here ahead of this curve.
We take a regular bus back. There is no choice because at this distant location and few western tourists in attendance, no taxis come to Drepung. The bus system is very efficient in Lhasa (we took a city bus before). The vehicles are about half the size of American and European buses, run frequently, and stop on demand. A small elderly man sitting across an isle from me has a face of a thousand wrinkles, a large silver earring and a colorful scarf. He has a boy of two or three with him. Such an enormous affection flows between the two! At some point they exchange a long kiss on the mouth. The monk sitting next to the man looks at the boy with engagement, offers him a stick of chewing gum, and pretty soon takes him on his lap. I notice the affection for children everywhere here. The other day, as we took lunch in the local Tibetan eatery, two men with little sons were there. The tenderness with which these men treated their children was phenomenal. I also see it in the streets, as mothers talk to or hold their children. So far, I have not encountered an impatient or raised voice.
We have lunch at the opulent Lhasa Hotel (formerly Holiday Inn), just to check it out, but my intestines are in trouble and I do not enjoy it too much.
This is our last night in Lhasa before the trip to Numtso Lake. We shall depart at 8 AM with a guide named Na Wang. Our sweet Tibetian travel agent Choedak visits us in the hotel in the evening and introduces Nawang the driver, who does not speak English. I would prefer going with Choedak but we have no choice. Anyway, time will show how it goes. Philip has to negotiate a delicate piece of unfinished business with Choedak, namely our return to Katmandu. Since the Tibetans cannot cross the border to Nepal, they have to leave us there at the border. The “no-mans-land” alone is 8 Km, followed by several hours of driving back to the city. We discovered a few days ago that Choedak made no arrangements for getting us to Kathmandu. They we planning to drop us off at the border, with the luggage, and say goodbye. We, of course, insist that the price of the trip included their getting us back to Kathmandu. Philip negotiates the situation tactfully an expertly. I observe Choedack’s reactions, trying to figure out what he thinks and how he deals with conflict. His voice is always soft and soothing, I would even say seductive in its serenity, and he gives a little giggle when things get difficult. We shall see what the results of Philip’s negotiations will be.
We take our last night’s dinner on the roof terrace, this fabulous though terribly neglected place in the Mandala Hotel. It is a mild night, the light in the surrounding mountains changes with every passing minute, and the sounds from the street below are by now so very familiar. We are ready to move up north.
Thursday, July 14
Driving in Land Cruiser to Numtso Lake. The roads are good. For a stretch of time we drive along a railroad under construction. At some point we pass a convoy of military trucks delivering petroleum to Lhasa. There must be a hundred of them. All in all it looks like Tibet is being economically connected to the rest of China, at least in its infrastructure and energy.
We are surrounded by barren mountains, the only reminder of the altitude because otherwise these mountains have mild shapes. The valley is green. Herds of yaks and sheep abound. By early evening we arrive at our camp on the edge of the lake. Spacious tents in which we shall spend the night are richly and colorfully decorated, inside and out. The beds are comfortable and clean, though all is Spartan. A little man sitting by the toilets collects money every time we use it. As far as I can tell, he never leaves his post.
We take a walk along the large lake, which is quite picturesque, with mountains all around. It is a slow go. After rising around 1100 meters in a span of a few hours we feel tired. Too tired to explore the intriguing caves on the side of the mountains. Local people are playing in the water, others pass us on horseback. Long Buddhist prayer ribbons stream down the side of the nearest mountain.
We look for a place to deposit the “eye”, which Nadia and Jan from Voorschoten gave us. It is a small flat volcanic rock with a white eye painted on it. The rock came from either Sicily or Namibia (we cannot agree which), and is part of a project of a friend of Nadia and Jan. We come across a large boulder which in one place does not quite touch the ground, creating a mini cave, perhaps 3 inches high. We put enough gravel and stones inside this little cave to provide a back wall for our rock to lean on while still being close enough to the opening. This is a perfect location. The “eye” is in a vertical position, surveying the spectacular view of the lake and the mountains.
We also collect a nice pinkish rock to bring back. This rock will acquire its own eye and will be deposited at some other distant land.
The dinner is served in one of the tents. I cannot eat, partly because the food looks uninviting and partly because my intestines are still unstable. Philip also barely eats. We mostly rely on the bread, bananas and apple jam which we brought from Lhasa. We go to bed early, feeling utterly exhausted. This altitude business is taking its toll. Having adventures is tough.
I sleep like a rock. After several hours Philip’s tossing and turning wakes me up. He is quite sick from the altitude change. His heart palpitates, his face feels hot. I am really worried this time that he might need serious medical attention. We resort to the emergency drug supplies I brought from the US: two medications for acute altitude sickness and for pulmonary edema, and antibiotic for possible food poisoning. I sit with Philip until he seems to be breathing more regularly and fall again into a drug-like sleep. A western wind howls outside, shaking the tent’s wall on my side of the bed. The night is quite cold.
Friday, July 15, 2005
Amazing: Philip wakes up feeling fine. We will not have to return to Lhasa after all. I am grateful to Western pharmaceuticals.
Today we drive quite a lot. Reting Monastery is our destination. The roads are rocky and meant for yaks rather than motorized vehicles. The suspension of our Japanese SUV is mediocre.
The landscape is mild. The shape of the mountains is not much different from yesterday but the colors are: they are green. We pass swift mountain rivers, flocks of sheep and yaks. It is reminiscent of some other landscapes of have seen in my life. Perhaps Pieniny Mountains in Poland and its Dunajec River? I am not sure.
After about five hours of driving we arrive at this modest monastery perched on a side of a mountain. In the past this was a large thriving community of several thousand monks but was almost completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, then left for dead. Dead it is not, but life in it seems very lethargic. About 60 monks live here. All that is left of the physical infrastructure is the main assembly hall/chapel, some half demolished low buildings (I assume these to be the living quarters of the monks) and a central area for human habitation around a small courtyard. This latter consists of a one story building containing a kitchen and the eating hall, and another one containing small guest rooms. Numerous dogs liter around. At some point I see one dog sleeping in front of each of the guestrooms. They are all scraggy, docile and malnourished.
Our room is as spare as one could expect: a cement cell with two beds and a wooden chest. Nothing else. It is neither clean nor dirty. The view is beautiful, all the way down the mountain to the village and river below. The toilet facilities, located right outside the main courtyard, are revolting: two boards with a hole in between, with barely any enclosure. The small mountain of feces below it is not even entirely enclosed. The stench is ever present several meters away.
Nawang shows us around the monastery compound and its vicinity, talking about its glorious past. He wants to take us to the meditation cell high up on the mountainside but we cannot face the climb. Apparently the reincarnation of the previous lama – a boy of ten or so — lives somewhere within the walls of the monastery, but is hardly to be seen by the outsiders. We witness the work on the reconstruction of the main Assembly Hall. The methods are so primitive as to amaze: a man is cutting and polishing by hand a single stud of wood!
This is really a lovely spot. We are about 700 meters lower than yesterday, and I feel very much alive. Probably better than any time since we have arrived in Tibet. I finally feel acclimated. Philip still has a way to go, after the last night’s episode. The evergreen trees which surround the monastery have a specific very nice aroma. Branches of it dry in small heaps, to be used for incense. Far behind the monastery we find a small sacrificial place of worship: a large flat rock littered with yak horns and skull bones. Some of these have writings on them. Apparently, the peasants sacrifice two yaks each year to “speed up” their reincarnation, donate the meat to the monastery, and place the heads in these special places. This explanation further confirms my earlier observation that the peasants and nomads of Tibet, while officially Buddhists, are in their heart of hearts pagans. How else can we explain killing of animals for religious purposes within the Buddhist context that holds all life sacred?
We take a walk down the hill to the village on the riverbank. Some people, some structures, nothing of note.
At dinner time we join our guide and the driver, and several monks, in the dining hall. This place also serves as a local inn. This time we see a young couple with a small child enjoying a beer. They came on a motorcycle from the village below.
There is no food here. No meat, to vegetable, no eggs. The guide and the driver are having tsampa with yak butter tea. I finally taste the famous tea, and find it as bad as expected. Nauseatingly rich and very salty. The tsampa is equally uninviting. Nawang works it within his palm into a ball of dough-like substance, puts it in a bowl, covers it with butter tea. The driver has a different approach: he works it within the bowl into small clumps, then pours butter tea on it. I do not remember how and when they actually consume their food. I must have turned away from that finale.
One of the monks who seems to be in charge of guests prepares for me fried rice. It is truly disgusting. Some sort of soupy substance, most likely half of it butter. Philip is slowly munching on the bread from Lhasa, which is fine in his case, as his stomach is not in the best of shapes. But I have recovered from my digestive problems and am hungry. Fortunately, Nawang notices on one of the back shelves a few packages of instant noodles. That saves me from having another day of dry-bread-with-apple-jam diet. I must say that this is one of the best instant noodle soups I have ever eaten.
There is a sense of stillness here. The monks go about their tasks slowly, unhurriedly, seemingly without a purpose. One of the young monks, a teenager, listens to a tape of hard rock music on a tape player. Over and over again he plays the same music. Another young monk plays with an old phone, which does not seem to work. He goes through the same motions for hours. As the evening progresses, more people come to the hall and the conversation flows in the background. Philip and I play chess. Some people watch but mostly we are left alone. This is just an evening at the monastery. Philip gives generously to an old beggar.
In the end, we have a mixed feeling about the poverty of this place. Why don’t they do something that will earn them money or produce more food?
Saturday, July 16
Today we drive a lot. We take breakfast in a tiny establishment in a village along the way. I watch the pretty and graceful woman roll the dough and make noodles. The noodle soup is delicious.
We drive a long distance on the primitive roads along mountain rivers. The same landscape as before, bespeaks of the vastness of this country. At some point we pass a group of pilgrims heading for Lhasa or some other holy temple: men and women carrying large loads. These people walk for months, sometimes as many as five, sleeping in caves, under rocks, wherever they can get shelter. They beg when they run out of food and money. A scene straight from Alexandra David-Neel’s book.
Occasionally we pass small villages, stupas, men on horses, women working the fields. Silence, except for the sound of the river.
Around noon we arrive at Melok where Philip’s friend Janecke, through her foundation in the Netherlands, has established a vocational school. The story of this project is quite interesting. Our Lhasa guide Choedak, who comes from this area, is the brain and engine behind it. He uses his contacts with westerners to advance a small personal agenda for local development. He comes up with ideas that capture the visitors’ imagination, like supporting the school system, and spots individuals who both seek personal inspiration through helping these people and who have enough initiative and know-how to actually get it done.
The young teacher greets us warmly. We sip tea and talk about the school. They teach three types of skills: carpentry, decorative folkloristic painting, and sawing. The students arrive at age 18 for a three year program. The aim is to produce for the local market in furniture (mostly for institutional use), school uniforms, decorative materials for temples and public buildings, and so on. The school is in its first year of existence, with 14 residential students, a cook, and one teacher. The long term plan is to have the best two-three graduating students become future teachers as the student population grows, and to become self sustaining (or at least partially so) through the sale of the products.
The hosts show us some finished products. I find them quite simple and of low quality. Perhaps this is exactly the right match for the local market, which is of course rather impoverished, but still I cannot escape the feeling that these people have low aspirations for themselves. Perhaps I am being patronizing, and perhaps this is all one can expect from the first year students. But on the other hand, I had this level of skill in sawing already in elementary school, and certainly did not require years of study to develop it.
We discuss the idea of teaching these students computer skills but nobody has much to say about that. I am sure that the Dutch foundations would have no trouble getting donations of 2-3 year old computers from businesses and offices, and electricity is available here. But then, what will these young people do with their computer skills?
In the end, I am rather confused about the goods and bads of this kind of international aid, as well as its long-term sustainability. Let us face it, we are not qualified to form an opinion about the appropriateness of what happens here. We just do not know enough. Perhaps Choedak knows best.
After the vocational school we take a short drive to an elementary school nearby, which is also supported by the Dutch Foundation. In this case, this is a supplementary funding, to increase the number of teachers from one to two (for 60 children) as well as to increase their qualifications. Since this is Saturday the place is deserted, and we are shown around by the school care taker. It is a dark and starkly Spartan place. Again, I cannot answer the recurrent question of why poverty must be so bleak looking. I can envision the students from the vocational school, and teachers, devoting a week to painting the walls of the classrooms, fixing the broken furniture and window panes, cleaning the yard, planting some flowers. I suppose I do not understand poverty, but still, I remember Mama telling me that the single room in which she grew up with her seven siblings and widowed mother was always spotlessly clean. There must be different types of poverty, and the one we observe today seems to have some sense of resignation in it.
The most interesting item in the elementary is a student-run greenhouse. It is clearly productive and successful. And inexpensive, since sunlight and water are plentiful here. So, again, the question arises why the monks in the Reting monastery or the local farmers do not build themselves greenhouses. I have no answer.
After having a modest lunch back at the vocational school we take the road towards Tedrum, famous for its natural hot springs. We arrive at the guesthouse, built around the springs, in the early evening. The sight of the village situated in the deep gorge and on the hillsides around it is spectacular. The guesthouse is located at the very bottom of the gorge, and we walk the last short stretch because the driver does not want to take the car down, in fear that it will never make it back up.
The closer we get to the guest house and the village the less spectacular the sight is. Close up the guest house is neglected and dirty. It is built in a motel style, with each room having a separate entrance directly from the outside. There must be 20-30 rooms in total in this two two-story building. In the center of the motel compound there are three sheltered pools and changing areas for bathers: one of men, one of women, and one mixed, only for feet soaking. These waters are believed to be especially good for joint diseases and for overall well-being.
The room we get is rather awful. It is not clean and the beds are not even as good as in the monastery of the previous day. In place of a light switch two naked wires stick out of the wall. We turn the light on by hooking the ends of wires together. A quick look at the toilet facilities throws me in a momentary despair: not only do I find the usual plain holes in the floor but in addition used sanitary napkins are strewn all over the place. Philip explains to me that only a few decades ago the sanitary standards in Paris public facilities were no better, and that the sanitary hygiene is a very recent concept in the Western civilization. Recent or not, I want them.
I make a mental note that I would like to read the history of toilet facilities. I seem to remember that someone actually wrote a book on this subject. Must check at Amazon.com.
There is little for us to do but to take a bath. I put all my clothes in a wooden cubicle by the pool and slowly descend the slippery moldy stone steps. The pool is wonderful. The temperature is perfect, hot but not too much so, in places bubbling up from the bottom, running swiftly. The perfection and, according to Nawang constancy, of the temperature puzzles us both. Since the water in the pool is a mix of a fast moving cold mountain stream and the hot emanations from underground, somewhere right under our feet, the temperature should change according to how large the water intake is from the stream. That would make it dependent on the season, snow falls in the mountains, and so on. So how is the temperature so just right and constant?
Women and teenage girls surround me, many of whom wash their very long and luxurious hair. I am immersed up to my neck. Gorgeous! There are no foreign tourists here tonight, just the Tibetans. Two girls from Lhasa engage me in a conversation, proud of their rudimentary knowledge of English. I tell them a bit about me, which they instantly translate for their mother and other women in the pool. After every translated sentence there is a short discussion among the women. It is really wonderful to be part of this female gathering. The women are particularly impressed with my young looks for my age (what do they know! I also am not good at guessing their age) and the advanced age of my parents. They clearly approve of my having two grown sons, and visibly sympathize with me when told that neither is married. I am having fun, naked, refreshed, in a company of women and small talk. On my way out the girls interpreters ask me not to forget them. How can I forget them?
The dinner we get at the dining hall upstairs is uneatable. We pick on the rice, taste the gristly yak meat and green peppers, sip the so-called tea, which is in reality just hot salty water, and amuse ourselves with a game of chess. To dispel the feeling of disappointment over our non-existing amenities we take another bath before going to bed. This time I encounter young Buddhist nuns in the water. Their hair is short, cropped close to skin and all about them –the faces and the bodies – is soft and round.
Sunday, July 17
It rains all night long, and continues, with breaks, in the morning. We start the day with another rejuvenating bath, then climb the hills surrounding the guesthouse. Nawang takes us to a nunnery, then shows us the village, finally stopping at a tent of what he believes to be nomads abut turns out to be nuns.
Given the weather and the lack of material comforts of this place we decide to return to Lhasa today rather then spend another day here.
The drive is relaxing. The landscape is similar to what we have seen all along but increasingly luscious. We stop for lunch in a small pleasant Chinese restaurant. This is the best meal we have had during the entire journey. Our guide does not allow us to pay our way. Clearly this is his way of compensating for the culinary deprivations we have experienced during this trip.
Back in Lhasa around 6 PM we check into our new hotel which Philip had discovered and booked a few days earlier. The poor quality of Mandala Hotel wore us down after several days, despite its perfect location, and before leaving Lhasa we want to luxuriate a bit before the next trip into the country. Dhood Gu Hotel is splendid. I cannot get enough of the bathroom and other amenities. Our room is painted from top to bottom in the local colorful frescos, including the furniture. The ownership of this place is Nepali, and so is the cook and most of the staff. We enjoy a slow dinner with excellent service.
The king size bed is splendid.
Monday, July 18
We spend an entire day in Lhasa without sightseeing. Window shopping, strolling, writing the travel journal, organizing pictures. We buy some gifts for friends and neighbors. After having a terrible dream last night I am all shaken up emotionally, and walk around in a dream.
We check our e-mail at the neighborhood internet café. Philip gets the last free computer while I wait. A man in front of me is clearly an academic. He is working on a manuscript (on line!). I read over his shoulder something about indigenous knowledge, which identifies the man as an anthropologist. Why doesn’t just take a vacation from his work? Another man takes long breaks between single sentences in his long personal letter to a woman. I sneak peaks behind their backs.
At 2 Pm Nawang meets us in the hotel lobby, and we all go to the electric bicycle-and-scooter dealership we discovered several days ago. Through Nawang’s translation we learn about the government incentives for electric vehicle, their economics, and about the market for these vehicles.
It is a slow day. In the evening we share a dinner with the Sherman family from Newton, whom we met last night in the Hotel restaurant. The father David teaches accounting at Northeastern, the mother Linda is an attorney with the prestigious Hale and Dorr firm in Boston, and the lovely daughter Caroline is a student at Columbia, and currently on a study period of Chinese language in Beijing. I especially like David, who is a mentch. Linda is more reserved and tougher. The conversation is easy. We cover all sorts of subjects, from politics to professional matters, to my history of emigration, to American Jewish experience, to our interpretation of Tibet. This is really a very nice evening. We plan to meet in Newton.
Monday, July 19
In the morning we shop at the local bazaar. With Philip’s genus for bargaining we acquire a beautiful tanghka and his coveted copper horn. This is all I want to bring from Tibet, not counting some small items here and there.
We then go to Norbulinga, the summer palace of the last Dalai Lama. It is a lovely place, in a pleasant park. Full of light and color and the signs of life, such as old radios and modern plumbing from the 40s. No wonder the Dali Lama avoided the Potala as much as possible in favor of Norbulinga.
At lunch on a familiar terrace of a nearby place I identify the professor of anthropology from the internet Café. He has two companions – a gregarious woman and a quiet man – and a pronounced British accent.
In the afternoon Philip takes a tour of the Tibet Museum while I write in the hotel.
We have dinner on a terrace of the restaurant Dunya, the upscale local hangout for Western tourists. Once we get over our reservations about tourist hotspots we truly enjoy the splendid meal and the atmosphere. Chat with barman about tourism and learn about the visible increase in the number of Chinese tourists. Nawang later confirms it, and bitterly comments on the competition the Tibetians feel from Chinese tour guides.
We are ready to say goodbye to Lhasa. Our business here is finished.
Tuesday, July 20
Our destination today is Gyantse (or Yangtse). The drive takes us across a high mountain pass of Khamba La (4,800 m) with a spectacular view of Lake Yamdrok. This is the second highest lake in Tibet, and one among three holy lakes. Holy means that Tibetians do not fish in it but the Chinese do. The road descends until we reach Nagarze, a small frontier town that reminds me of old western movies sets. The main street is about all there is, and its both ends can be seen simultaneously as they come up to the mountains’ edge. We have a light lunch in a restaurant that clearly caters to all the tours between Lhasa and Shigatse. Some of the faces at the neighboring tables imprint themselves in my memory: a Dutch family with two small boys looking malnourished, and a group of four Chinese girls who photograph each other.
The drive continues, again uphill until we reach the mountain pass of Karo La (5010 m). For the first time we see the types of mountains I would expect at the feet of the Hymalayas: sharp, imposing, with glaciers covering their sides. We both respond to the altitude by becoming a little light headed. The road continues down again, and we enter a sort of a desert. The landscape reminds me of Arizona, but higher. Except for occasional oases of agriculture, clearly achieved through irrigation, there are few signs of life here.
As we take various stops along the way we encounter busloads of Chinese tourists, among them I recognize the group of four girls with photographic equipment from the lunch stop. We wonder aloud what will happen when Chinese middle class discovers Italy, Greece, Paris. This will be the end of these places as we know them.
We arrive in Gyantse in the afternoon. Today is a an annual country fair here. We have already missed the morning horse races but the giant bazaar is in full swing. Thousands of people do what is usual at bazaars: eat at the numerous cafes, picnic, examine the merchandise, gawk, gamble at simple game stands, loiter. We join in this pleasant do-nothing afternoon, watching the incredibly colorful scene. At some point we meet our guide and driver having a beer at one of the refreshment stands. We join them for a while. Over the days we have become more open with Nawang, revealing pieces of each other personal lives. Nawang comes from the Tingre area which will reach in a couple of days. He grew up in a small village in one of these desolate mountain passes, with a view of the Himalayas. Expected to follow the local custom of sharing a wife with three brothers he rebelled and immigrated to India for several years, where he learned English. Finding the climate unbearable he than moved with relatives in Nepal, and eventually returned home, married, settled in Lhasa. In today’s China he is politically he is tainted and unable to get a permit to work with foreign tourists. His work with us is actually illegal.
We move on for a walk through the city. This is the first Tibetian city we visit. Until now we were either in villages or in Lhasa, which is a somewhat artificial creation of the Chinese egalitarian efficiency in architecture. The buildings are generally two-story high and decorated with the familiar colorful painted fringes. The shabbiness of all the infrastructure, the low quality workmanship and material, and dirt and rubbish are striking. The cement of entry steps crumbles, even in relatively new-looking buildings, the electrical wiring is a jungle, everything is essentially disintegrating and fraying. We follow a line of sidewalk tiling designed for blind people (with the special ribbing). This trail in no time leads us to a large pit of mud and water: part of some road repair or disrepair. Imagine a blind person seeking safety in this sidewalk!
Dinner at the hotel. Very informal. The four Chinese girls show up with all their photographic equipment. We say hello, chat. The Dutch family with two boys shows up as well. Philip chats with them. They have been traveling for 3 months already with these two boys: 3 and 5 years old. The father is an obnoxious disciplinarian, clueless about motivating children, and the mother lets him run the show. We feel sorry for the boys, engulfed by the tense family dynamic, forced into small hotel rooms, bad Tibetian food and confining restaurant behavior. No place to run, to be free, to escape the parents, to interact with other children. No wonder they look sickly. The parents plan to continue this trip for another five months. We are horrified by their selfishness. Anyway, impossible to believe that they will last that long. What drives these people anyway to this lifestyle?
After dinner we take a walk around town. The main street is lively. Groups of peasants who came to the city for the fair sit around in small groups and clearly enjoy the evening. Some break out in songs and laughter. Teenage girls walk up and peer into our faces with curiosity and absent any sense of privacy. Women relieve themselves in full view of passersby, under their long skirts.
Somewhere around 9 o’clock we realize that something is going on in this city. It looks like a parade in the making. A group of peasants in identical colorful costumes gathers in a formation on the street, clearly ready to march and to dance. A few military cars appear, a sure sign of some upcoming social gathering. We walk towards the rotary which marks the town center and realize that similar formations of dancers, wearing different colors, gather along the other three streets that converge at this point. Within the next hour or so, these formations swell in size and numbers: in all there must be more than half a dozen color-coded groups of dancers, accompanied by musicians, ready to move and restlessly containing their exuberance. From time to time they spontaneously start dancing and singing to the sweet sound of a flute. The crowd of onlookers gathers, including all the Western and Chinese tourists currently visiting the city. This is really exciting. We meet our guide and the driver, who explain to us that this is one day a year when a great outdoor festival of folk dancing takes place. How lucky we are to be here!
Finally, after a long wait and restless swelling of the street crowds the groups of dancers move towards the rotary, and from there towards the large open public space. A very large fire is burning, green lights illuminate the castle high on the hill above us, the streets are brightly illuminated. We cannot see what is really going on in the center of the park because the crowds are too large and there is no elevated stage for the dancers. But it does not matter. We have already seen them dancing, and it is more interesting to watch the crowds. Just as we slowly turn towards our hotel a fireworks display lights the sky. It is quite an evening in the sleepy city of Gyantse.
Thursday, July 22
We wake up to a beautiful bright morning. We spend it sightseeing Pelkor Chode Monastery and Dzong, the castle. After all the other previous monasteries we are not sure whether we can expect anything beyond more of the same: statutes, thangkas, pilgrims, the scents. And yet, we do. The monastery has the most picturesque location we have seen so far. It was built in 1418 by the feudal lord who reigned over the Gyantse valley to serve all the main orders of Tibetan Buddhism. It looks down on the city below from the side of the mountain and is surrounded by a fortification running along the mountain ridge: a sort of mini version of the Chinese Wall. Since the Red Brigades of the cultural revolution did not get around to destroying some of the most important chapels, we can admire the ancient art. On some of the rooms ancient manuscripts – direct translations form Sanskrit — pile up high on the shelves going up from about the waist level to the ceilings. We touch these six century old manuscripts, peek inside them, and nobody bothers us. Some particularly devoted visitors walk on their hands and knees under these manuscripts, to experience their holiness.
The famous multilayer Kumbum Stupa is really a masterpiece. Our guide points out to three different architectural styles of the stupa and the 108 different rooms it contains. Nowang leaves us alone after a while so that we can climb up to the top of the stupa, where we sit on the edge of one of the terraces and contemplate this place. From where we are we can watch the most devoted pilgrims who slowly make their way around the many corridors of the temple compound by prostrating themselves every third step.
After visiting the Pelkor Chode Monastery we go to the castle. The partly destroyed castle is perched on the top of the mountain neighboring that bearing the monastery, but much taller. It really dominates the city below. This 15th century structure is surprisingly unsupervised. In some rooms we can freely touch the tangkas painted on the walls almost 600 years ago. We slowly climb this fortress hill, at our “Tibetan” speed, meaning frequent stops to catch our breath, until we reach the top. The view from the top is really spectacular. From here, we can see the logic of Gyantse. Some neighborhoods are clearly Tibetan, with the characteristic enclosed family compounds and narrow alleys, while others display wide streets and the socialist wide street architecture, which we saw last night during our walk. One of the Tibetan neighborhoods is rather neglected: it is monochromatic and looks like it will soon blow away in the wind. Another Tibetan neighborhood is more prosperous: the houses are trimmed with colorful designs and the one story structures are neat.
We lunch in Gyantse, and then drive towards Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. It takes less than two hours. After checking into the hotel and getting some rest (great hotel, great bathroom), we go out on the town. Shigatse is similar to Lhasa but smaller. Its most interesting object is the famous Tashilhumpo monastery, originally founded in mid 15th century by the First Dali Lama, and since the 17th century the seat of the powerful Panchi Lamas. The title of the first Panchi Lama was bestowed by the Great Fifth Dali Lama on his tutor in the middle of 17th century (the same great Dali Lama who consolidated the political and religious power in Tibet, and built Potala Palace in Lhasa). Since then, the Panchi Lamas have been the essential pillar of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the state, and at times competitors of Dali Lamas.
This modern history of the Monastery mirrors the struggle of the Chinese dominated Tibet. The life of the 10th Panchi Lama, who died about 20 years ago, reflects that struggle: from a collaborator, to a martyr, to a broken man seeking to serve his people.
We take a walk around the monastery, which is a walled city in itself. As we climb up and down the hill we pass endless prayer wheels, beggars, pilgrims. No tourists. A young Tibetan woman joins us in silence and we are a group of three for a while.
Friday, July 23
We spend the morning at the Monastery Tashilumpo. A word goes out among the guides that guide licenses are being checked, so Nawang does not dare to go with us. This is fine: we do not wish to hear lengthy explanations of details. We only want to take in the sights and the atmosphere of this famous monastery. Being at monasteries and chapels is becoming a familiar ritual for us.
It is very crowded with western and Chinese tourist, and the usual faithful. More crowded that other monasteries have visited (a preview of Tibet of the future). This monastery is not only beautiful but also rich. Right before ending the visit we sit down on a small wall in a courtyard for a short rest. After a few minutes we become aware that young monks are gathering all around us, perhaps before entering the Assembly Hall for a midday prayer (momentarily the monastery will close for midday to tourists). They all seem to be in their teens and early twenties. They are horsing around like any other group of youths, talk, let out steam. Philip films while I marvel at this moment of finding ourselves in the midst of the monastery life.
Around noon we start toward Latse, expecting about a four hour drive. It turns out to be about five hours on one of the worst roads one can imagine. We are thrown around the back seat while our Japanese SUV bravely struggles forward, across streams, potholes, nonexistent roads. An American made car would have disintegrated here long ago. The landscape changes only a little. Hour after hour (day after day) the barren mountains, occasionally covered with thin grass, remind us of the vastness of this land. Hard to put our imaginations around it. The only thing that changes is the strip of land along the river that our road follows. Sometimes it is completely barren, sometimes it is covered with meager vegetation or these lovely yellow and blue flowers, occasionally the land is cultivated.
We have a picnic lunch together with our guide and driver on freshly bought bread this morning, peanut butter (a parting gift from the Shermans from Newton), apple jelly, apples. After lunch Philip and I take a short walk on the hill. Within minutes two children from the nearby village join us. The groups quickly grows to eight. Mercifully, these children are not asking for money but are simply curious. They show us how to suck on the tart fruit of the nearby bushes, we count in English with them, we take digital pictures and delight them by show the results. The children are quick, lively, and very dirty. Their ability to repeat English words without accent is uncanny. Oh, if they only had teachers. In these remote regions it is very difficult to provide adequate primary education. The Chinese solution is to have regional residential schools but many peasants reject the idea of sending children under 8 for five days a week to a dormitory life, probably poorly supervise. So the tension continues.
One girl, perhaps ten years old, attaches herself to my side. After a while she allows me to hold her hand from time to time. Another, smaller, boy, with intelligent eyes and quick manner, is also staying close to me but shrinks from any physical contact. So we keep walking, up and down, left and right, and eventually get back to the car. The entire children delegation wave to us, yelling goodbye in English.
By the time we arrive in Latse after 5 PM we are quite tired from this drive. We check into a simple, clean guesthouse, owned and run by a Tibetan family. There is no running water but otherwise it is comfortable. It is a two-story motel-like square structure with a courtyard in the center and a social and eating area on the ground level under the second story balcony connecting the rooms. I spot a small carper factory occupying two rooms on the ground level. Tibetan girls work there while singing.
We take a walk through this dusty and seemingly decaying town. We examine the usual peeling, crumbling, fraying, cracking in every solid material. Clouds of choking dust rise up with every car passing. People go about their business, unruffled.
In the evening, everybody gathers in the social area on the ground level: the guests, the owners, the guides, even a local English speaking busy body boy who is blind and loves to tell his story. After dinner we play a chess game, then take another walk to check out the local disco.
Saturday, July 24
I have been eyeing the rugs produced here, watching the workers next door shake them out and roll. Colorful, some rather interesting designs. Before taking off I visit the little workroom. Two young women are working here, their fingers moving with a speed of light on the simple machines. If we were not in a hurry to start the journey I would very much like to sit down for a while and watch their technique. As is, I cannot satisfy my burning curiosity regarding how they actually achieve a complicated pattern. On the way out my eye catches a small colorful rug hanging on the side. Instantly I know that I want it. It is not just the colors, which are crazy and unusual. It is also the lack of symmetry that draws me in. Although the central ring is perfectly symmetrical in shape and pattern, most other patterns are not. The left side is different from the right side, and nothing quite repeats itself.
And so, the protracted negotiations begin, with Philip and the motel owner in charge. Everybody else watches intently, in the usual manner treating it as a form of entertainment. Philip does very well, I can see it from the smile on Nawang’s face and the general air of satisfaction: this was a show worth watching. I am happy to own the little rug.
On the way out the owner says goodbye with effusiveness which I attribute to his new respect for Philip-the-bargain-driver. My mother would love it here.
The roads are terrible. Most of the way the road is under construction. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of men and women (the latter often wearing the traditional Tibetan clothes) work here, and although we encounter heavy machinery, most of the work is done manually. In the meantime, we drive through a torturous obstacle course of thick mud, holes, water pools, mountain streams, rocks. We are shaken, thrown, vibrated. The landscape changes: at times it is sedate and familiar. Other times the mountains get sharp and imposing. But most of all this land is as desolate and barren as I have ever seen for such long stretches. We go through the high pass (5200 meters) which gives us, finally, a distant view of the Himalayas.
We take lunch on the banks of the river, again a picnic of peanut butter and bread, under the balmy sky. After four hours of driving we reach New Tingre, fuel the car, and go on for another two hours. Philip buys a fossil from a local boy with an imprint of a shell. The drama on the horizon increases. We are approaching the great mountains.
Arrive in Tingri in mid afternoon. Philip does not feel so good, a combination of a difficult drive and the high altitude of the mountain pass we crossed earlier. I am well and energized by the proximity of the grand finale. The motel where we stay is set apart from the village, right before the entry to it, with an unobstructed view of the Himalayas and of Mt. Everst. Clouds interfere with the view. The motel is comfortable and sports a great modern shower room with hot water. I enjoy a long leisurely shower.
Surprise! The British group of anthropologists from Lhasa, the professor and his two companions, is here as well. I thought that I was the only one remembering their faces but I discover that the professor also recognizes mine. I am not the only people watcher around! Philip reads and enjoys a peaceful moment in the sun while I chat with them. The quiet man in their trio, a German working in the UK, is a highly regarded “Tibetologist” with some high level position connected with the National Museum or something like that. The woman, an Austrian working with the professor, is also a Tibetologist, and the professor turns out to be indeed the professor of anthropology at Cambridge. He turns out to be a friendly fellow, full of humor, and at least in this context (or in this place which is devoid of context) does not put on any academic airs. We chat, then scatter in our own directions.
We take a walk through the village. We get too much attention from the village children, who beg: an obvious sign that this is a popular tourist spot to the Base Camp and to the border. For a short time the clouds open and we recognize his royal highness Mt. Everest. We have waited so long for this sight that there is no mistaking the familiar ridge of the Northern side. This is exciting.
Like all the other guesthouses (or motels, if you will) we have visited on this trip, this one has a large public room for eating and hanging around. This is where we have our dinner. Philip is still not well and we eat very cautiously. We strike a conversation with two English girls who will tomorrow start a three day trek to the Base Camp (Mt. Everest, of course). We are a bit wistful: perhaps we should have included such a trek in our itinerary. Oh, well, there is always another way to organize a trip.
By about 9 o’clock the dining room fills up: western tourists, local guides and drivers, perhaps relatives of the staff (this is a government owned guest house). We all sit on the soft cushions of the benches running against the three walls of the room, covered with the familiar Tibetan rugs, with low painted tables in front of us. The atmosphere is lively, plenty of beer and tea gets consumed, conversation flows, it is warm and cozy. It is windy and cold outside. The British group of from Cambridge join us for a conversation and beer. The woman Hildegard is very talkative, the German-born Tibetologist is silent. It turns out that Hildegard knows Bill Fisher professionally. The senior professor, with a dry sense of humor is outgoing and funny. Philip talks with him and the graduate student. I chat with the woman, get tips on how to spend our list leg of the trip.
Around 10 the Brits withdraw to their rooms, and everybody else is beginning to move as well. Just we are ready to follow, the professor runs back into the dining room announcing excitedly that Mt. Everest is partially visible. Everybody runs out: tourists, locals, guides, the staff. We strain to see what he sees, which is not much, but it is very exciting anyway. A group of random travelers bound by the same mission.
Philip and I have a low point, argue, who knows why. But his not feeling so great has something to do with it, for certain.
Saturday, July 24
Tibet left its most spectacular show for the last day. The drama emerges slowly.
The day starts rather inconspicuously. We sleep late. No rush today, we have only about four hours of driving, and do not want to get to the border crossing too early. It rained heavily last night, like most recent nights, heavy milky sky hangs over the distant mountains. No sign of Mt.Everest or any other peak. We move slowly this morning, hoping that the fog and clouds lift. By 10 AM or so it becomes clear that it will not happen any time soon, so we take off.
Right after we leave the town, we discover the hotel where we should have stayed last night. It is as quiet as our hotel, with the same great view but it has other amenities. It is built on top of natural water springs and offers pools for bathing, with the same perfect temperature as in Tedrum. It is also surrounded by an open plateau, which is so inviting for walking. I can envision a full day in this place, walking, reading, bathing, reflecting. Oh, well, next time.
Outside the village we encounter the ruins of mid-19th century houses that wre destroyed by marauding Nepali who invaded this land all the way to Latsie. Two story high, color-wise indistinguishable from the background, they look like tall and narrow adobe monuments to a different culture and days. We never get a satisfactory explanation from Nawang why the building style has changed so much since there.
After a short drive we arrive at an open area with a good view of the Himalayas and Mt. Everest, one highlighted in our guide books. The mountains are still not very visible from here but since we have plenty of time today we decide to hike here for a while, waiting for the clouds to lift. The guide and driver go to a nearby teahouse while we explore the hillside village. In no time three children, aging from about three to six, join us. There is no escaping children’s company in this country. They start with the usual “Hello’s” and “Money” but stop quickly when we ignore that. From now on, it is a simple curiosity that brings them to us. We walk up, take pictures, take in the open space. At some point I sit down on a small stone wall and take out pieces of chocolate from my back pack, break up a piece for myself and share small pieces with the children. They like it. At this point, they are no longer beggars but instead they are sharing a bit of time, and a hike, with me. The relationship has palpably changed. The little girl shows off her earrings (I show her mine) and with sign language tells me that her mother is pregnant, and that the younger sister, the three year old in the group, will have her ears pierced after the new child is born. Or at least that is what I understand her telling me.
We are back in the car, driving towards the Lalung La Pass (La means pass, and Lalung means double, as this is really two passes in close succession). We relentlessly climb up, reaching the pass at 5050 m. And this is it! The full splendor of the Himalayas, very close, and with ad 360 degree panorama. Never mind the previous viewing points, and never mind the Mount Everest. Seeing these mountains right here takes my breath away. They stand so motionless, so permanent, and, yes, so threatening. Surprisingly, they bring to my mind an ocean in a storm. One is motionless and the other is all movement, but both are permanent and threatening. Clouds move around these mountain, the wind howls, rocks and water run down, we come and go, but these mountains are here for ever. And more than ever before, the vastness of this barren land makes its presence felt. This is what we wanted to come close to on this trip.
We walk around the area, attach the white shawls we got from the hotel in Lhasa to the prayer pole erected here. They join hundreds or perhaps thousand such shawls and prayer flags marking this desolate mountain pass.
It is hard to leave this place, but leave we must. From here on it is almost all the way down. Over the next 50 or so kilometers the road winds down to about 3700 meters. Slowly, vegetation appears around us as well as agriculture, with the familiar yellow oil seed plants and barley fields. Part two of today’s spectacle begins.
We stop in a tiny village for lunch, which consists of the Tibetan noodle soup. The difference between the Chinese and Tibetan noodle soup is only in the shape of the noodles. The former are irregularly shaped flat things while the latter are in the shape of spaghetti. This trip really tests my love of noodles and other pasta products. I have not tired of them yet, which surprises even me. I have not found the limit of my noodle eating.
Finally, we arrive at the famous Milarepa Monastery with the Milarepa’s Cave. This is a place where Milarepa, the most revered holy man and poet, meditated and reached the state of enlightenment. We are the only visitors. The cave is small and cozy, with the usual decorations. The monastery is also small and recently rebuilt, after the Cultural Revolutions’ destruction. Only five monks live here. As all the other monasteries we visited, this one is built on a mountainside. This is a bucolic place, with a few villages in the valley below, rich and well tended fields and a mountain river. We give money to an old beggar and to a boy with severely disfigured face. Our guide also gives them money. I did not see him give money before. But this is the area where he grew up, so I guess he feels a sense of belonging to these people.
Now we enter the final stretch of the trip: the one-and-half hour drive to the border. The road continues down. Over the next 50 or so kilometers we will reach down to about 2000 meter altitude. The guidebooks note the beauty of this stretch of the road, the famous Friendship Highway which was built in the 1960s to connect China with Nepal, but they do not prepare us for the breathtaking beauty that emerges around us. The road is a zig-zag cut into the mountain side of a deep gorge. We follow a swift mountain river at the bottom. As the altitude declines, the vegetation becomes richer. At some point we stop the car and climb the mountainside, towards a waterfall and low clouds. After two weeks of largely barren land we are taken aback by the greenery and flowers. With my rather ignorant and inexperienced eye I can distinguish about a dozen and half different types of flowers. And it is so green here. We have not seen greenness for so long, I suddenly realize.
As the drive continues, the landscape becomes increasingly dramatic. The vegetation changes from shrubs to trees, threes change from evergreens to leafy, more flowering trees and bushes emerge. The gorge becomes deeper. We estimate it to be more than a kilometer high and close to vertical. I have never seen anything quite like it. And so much water here. It comes down the two almost vertical walls in abundance. Sometimes as sheets of water on cliffs, sometimes as streams, sometimes as waterfalls. Often it crosses the narrow road on which we travel. At times I get dizzy looking down the vertical slope of the gorge. The traffic is very light on this road but several times we do pass trucks and other SUVs, and I just close my eyes and hold Philip’s hand. This is really dizzying. I would never venture here in the winter or at night.
The road feels like a narrow piece of fabric that has not been finished: it frays, unravels, diminishes in width. The ravine side of the road frays by loosing its surface while the wall side of the road diminishes by the constant deposits of earth, silt, mud and falling rocks. We see several signs of recent land and rock slides. At some point we pass a hotel that has been built for travelers stuck here because of landslides. There was one only two weeks ago. On the plane to Lhasa we met a large groups of tourists who had lost several days of their tour by unsuccessfully trying to get to Lhasa on land.
This is a dangerous place. Nawang tells us a story of Dutch tourists who several years ago tried to run on foot across the most dangerous stretches of the road, ahead and in-between falling rocks, only to give up and return to Kathmandu. We rename it from Friendship to Suicide Highway. The vegetation continues to change. Now it is all leafy trees, some quite tall.
By early evening we arrive in Zhangmu. This border city is thrown together with corrugated iron for roofs, crumbling concrete for walls and mud for street surfaces, but it is also the most picturesque site from a distance. It is literally a set of terraces cut into the vertical wall of the gorge and connected by a single zig-zagging road. The sound of falling water is ever-present. At each end of the city huge trucks, mostly with Nepali signs, are parked on the road in an endless queue. This city is essentially one huge truck stop that provides all the necessary services to the drivers: eating and sleeping establishments, brothels and places for trading. It is sleazy and dirty, it pulsates and smells. Philip talks about “Chinese dirt” and “Tibetan dirt”, with the first one being more malignant and revolting. Although we cannot quite define it with greater precision, I intuitively agree with him.
We locate very few signs of Tibet here; this is definitely a Chinese town. Kids in the internet café as thoroughly modern. Not a sign of Tibetan dress.
Our hotel is a rather low class establishment, though populated by a respectable clientele of mostly young tourists, and mostly Chinese. We make a note to complain to the travel agent in Lhasa about his choice of a hotel, but we do not want the trouble of protesting now and looking for another accommodation. After all, it is only one night. As I reluctantly use the rudimentary toilet I note the breathtaking view of the gorge from the toilet’s window and the sound of waterfalls. If there was an index of incongruity, calculated as a ratio of the quality of a facility to a quality of the view, this hotel would win the world prize.
We take a walk, have a lousy and overprized meal at the hotel, visit an internet café, and spend a fitful night, trying to sleep through the street noise. We should have asked for a room facing the gorge, not the street. We would be sleeping to the sound of waterfalls.
Monday, July 25
Today we cross the border to Nepal. It is a complicated and rather nerve wrecking experience. First we drive a few hundred meters to the Chinese checkout point. With the Land Cruiser parked along the street, we walk with our luggage, and our two guys, to the passport checking place. A line of western and Chinese tourists moves smoothly, the passport official is cordial and efficient. Once again, we meet the four Chinese tourist girls from Gyantse who exuberantly greet us. Next, we walk over to the customs officials, who shown no interest at all in the content of our luggage. So far, so good.
At this point, a Nepali guide should show up and take charge of us, but none is present. So our Tibetian guide and driver go back to get the SUV, load the luggage and us on board, and we drive the 8 Km no-man’s-land to the famous Friendship Bridge connecting the two countries. The Tibetans are not allowed to cross the bridge, and so it is time to say goodbye here. We tip them and exit the vehicle. Within seconds, a crowd of would-be porters gathers around is, mostly to grab our luggage and carry it across the bridge. It is a pushy and unfriendly crowd that makes me immensely uncomfortable. Since we were instructed in advance not to allow anybody get hold of our luggage I am rather hostile and defensive. But suddenly, our Tibetan guys identify in this suffocating crowd “our” Nepali guide. We shake hands with the young man, say the last goodbye to Nawang and the driver (we never learned his name!), and run after the guide and some boy helper who are fast disappearing with the luggage. We practically run across the Friendship Bridge, not quite knowing what the next step is. Just following the luggage.
On the other side the crowd is dense, I do not quite know why. We go through the passport check in a small one story buildings, and fill out one more time applications for Nepali visas, with pictures attached. This time we do not have to pay the $60 fee, which is a nice surprise, created, I believe, by the word of the savvy Nepali guide. We follow the guide some more along the road crowded with people and vehicles, until he stops and announces that we must wait 1.5 hours for the guide from Kathmandu to pick us up. I sit in a nearby restaurant over a cup of tea and write on the computer, while Philip talks and plays with the hordes of small boys who hang around this chaotic, busy place.
Just about the time that my computer battery runs out the agents (a guide and a driver) from Kathmandu show up with a large sign with our names on it. What a relief! Their vehicle is a van of sorts, old-fashioned, high, narrow, with suspiciously worn tires. As they deposit our luggage in the back compartment we see that they carry a large load of heavy rocks, presumably to serve as hand brakes for the wheels. It is on top of these rocks that our delicate suitcases land. The entire operation does not inspire confidence or a sense of security. But the men are friendly.
This is how our last stretch of the 900 Km trek from Lhasa to Kathmandu begins. It is essentially a continuation of the road and drive of yesterday. For the next several hours we follow the same river. The gorge starts out very deep, but after perhaps two hours becomes less dramatic. We go down, down, down. At some points the road is terrible, with land slides and fraying edges. In contrast to yesterday, the traffic is heavy. At times we pass grossly overloaded local busses, which by some miracle make it up the hill and through the rocks and mud, without getting stuck. We pass trucks and people. At some point we watch a group of people –the passengers and other drivers – help a truck get over a mud hole and fallen rocks. It feels like playing chicken on this road is a form of competitive sport among these drivers.
Kilometer after kilometer, we enter a tropical climate. By the time we stop for lunch of good Nepali dal bat we are in a hot humid country, with only an impossible memory of the Himalayas of yesterday. The change makes us mentally dizzy.
This drive allows me to see Nepal and to place Kathmandu in some visual context. Northern Nepal is all mountains and valleys, deep forests and rice patties. It is luscious and picturesque. Really, very beautiful. If I were to return to Nepal I would spend no more than a couple of days in Katmandu, and go trekking in the country side. I think that it would be a marvelous thing to do.
And so we continue, hour after hour (about five in toto) on this road. Several times we climb up the ridges of mountains and descent into valleys. A couple of times we pass through road blocks and various military checkpoints. The presence of solders in camouflage uniforms and brandishing AK 4 rifles stand as a reminder of the political instability in Nepal. We also see a lot of red earth, undoubtedly the source of the distinctive brick and pottery we noted during our first encounter with Katmandu and its valley. The last hour of the trip, within the Katmandu valley, is the hardest because we are tired and hot and because the lushness and greenness gives way to dust, noise and heavy traffic.
At around four o’clock we finally arrive at the familiar International Guest House. We get a very nice room in the new wing. What a pleasure to get out of the van and unpack in our comfortable and well appointed room!
Downstairs in the dining area the maitre d’ recognizes us and greets us warmly. So does the security guard. This is how the rich live, I note, being recognized by hotel and restaurant staff who make it their business to know their patrons’ tastes and needs.
After a suitable time of bathing, showering and rest, we take a walk through Thamel. Again, we have the experience of being recognized, this time by the shopkeepers and the waiter at Café New Orleans. We have a splendid dinner, overeat without apologies, and enjoy a balmy evening in Katmandu, with all its rich and pungent smells, spicy food, good cooks, and endless merchandise for sell.
Tuesday, July 26
This is a day of shopping, relaxing and enjoying Kathmandu. I am again struck by the infinite colors and patterns of the saris and the pant sets women wear, the grace of women’s movements, and the crispiness of men, who mostly look as though they put on freshly ironed shirts only a moment ago. After China, the dirt of Katmandu looks differently; more like a misalignment between the rate of growth and population density on the one hand, and the availability of city services and money to invest on the other hand. In China, it seemed that dirt was more related to people’s personal habits and tolerance for decay. We see the neglected infrastructure through a different lens: here, it is the lack of money while there it was the ever present shoddy work and low quality materials.
It is hot (37 degrees by noon). We move slowly. We take in the city, bargain with merchants. At noon we return to the hotel for a rest. I write, Philip reads. The hotel garden, walled in with the red bricks and filled with old dark Nepali woodwork, feels more splendid and tranquil than ever. It feels like home in this overheated city.
In the afternoon we go to Patan, the old city of Kathmandu, which relates to Katmandu as Cambridge relates to Boston. It is a splendid place, built around the old Royal Palace and its gardens. It has several graceful temples, some of them Buddhist, and well stocked art shops. Patan is much quieter than Kathmandu and has an air of provincial self contained town. We no longer have interest in shopping, so we focus on the architecture, the old woodwork, some of it going to the 12th century, and the local atmosphere. Late in the afternoon we sit down for an early dinner/late lunch at Café Patan. At this odd hour the place is largely empty. The Maitre’d suggests a table on the roof terrace. As we continue climbing successive levels, it turns out that the restaurant has 5 stories, four of which are progressively smaller terraces, with the top one having a single table. This is where we have our meal. We sit at the level of tree tops and many rooftops. The view of the city and the surrounding mountains is arresting. At this hour Katmandu receives its daily rain. We can see the distant sheets of water, over the city and further, over the mountains, but it does not rain on us. Only a cool breeze touches us. This represents the entire trip, and is just right for the last evening: nothing ever goes wrong, all is well.
Back in the hotel we pack and take showers, and then go out for one last walk through Thamel and for a drink at Café New Orleans. Tomorrow we will be out at 6:30 AM.
Wednesday, July 27
The parting gift from Nepal: as the plane rises and cuts through the clouds we get the most spectacular view of the Himalayas and Annapurna mountains, reaching up way above the clouds. The best postcard picture, just for us.