Seven Days in Tibet

I’ve been home for a little more than a week.  It took almost that long to get back to normal after seven days in Tibet.

I expected to love Tibet.  I WANTED to love Tibet.  Sadly, very sadly, I didn’t.

Have I turned into an “ugly American”, critical of a country when it isn’t like home?  I certainly hope not.

It is entirely possible that I was spoiled by the fantastic guides and the wonderful experiences we had in Bhutan and Nepal, and expected more of the same.  Or maybe it was because for the first three days in Lhasa, I was fighting a cold and the Tibetan’s version of Montezuma’s revenge, adjusting to the altitude and possibly reacting to  the Diamox I’d taken for altitude sickness.  Whatever it was, I was not feeling great.  I missed two afternoons of sightseeing in Lhasa so  I could sleep my way to feeling better.

Although I had read up on Tibet and had checked the Overseas Adventure Forum before booking the trip, there were still a few surprises.  After much soul searching, I’ve uncovered what might have influenced my feelings about Tibet, AND am offering some tips so that future travelers might make their experience more enjoyable.

The China Factor
Knowing that China had taken over Tibet was not the same as experiencing the impact of that takeover.  This is the closest I’ve ever come to being in a police state.  Those two white objects on the dashboard are cameras–one pointed inward so the police could monitor what was going on in our van whenever they wanted.

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Dashboard cameras

And yes, that IS a military convoy, in front of us, hauling big guns.  Although you can’t see it in the photo, in every truck,  two soldiers were pointing their weapons out the back.   I was very grateful the road wasn’t bumpy!

Although the hotel in Lhasa offered free wifi, we quickly discovered that google, yahoo, safari, the New York Times, and many email accounts were blocked by the Chinese government.

Being under constant surveillance has to have an impact on the psyche of the population, and I believe it did.  Unlike Bhutan and Nepal, the people in Tibet didn’t seem as interested in interacting with tourists.  Or maybe they were afraid.

Tip:  If it is important to stay in contact with family back home, set up a hotmail account.  For some reason, that email service wasn’t blocked.  Also, texting works.  My iPhone allowed me to send free “imessages”!

Altitude and Air
The air is very dry because of the altitude and very smoky from cigarettes and incense.  Everyone smokes everywhere–in the hotels, restaurants, on the street.  It was like being trapped in a Mad Men episode, but with different costumes.  You can request a non-smoking hotel room, but there is no guarantee that you will get anything other than a smoking room sprayed with air freshener.  P1150738
If the cigarette smoke doesn’t get you, then the incense and Yak butter candles in the temples will.

At times, inside the temples and monasteries, I found it challenging to breathe.

 

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And if you think stepping outside to breathe in fresh air would help,  think again.  These little chimneys for burning incense are everywhere!

 

IMG_2582Tip: The 5th floor of the Xin Ding Hotel is the only nonsmoking floor.  The other hotels don’t have that option, but 4 of the 7 nights are spent in the Xin Ding, so it is worth it to request a room on the 5th floor.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get a wonderful view of the Potala from your room.

The hotel makes sure you can buy whatever you need without leaving the comfort of your room: toothpaste, manicure tools, condoms, mysterious things in plastic bags with Chinese writing on the front…

Long Drives in a Small Van over a Barren Landscape
Fortunately, no one in the group was very large.  At 5’8″, I was the tallest.  If my 6’3″ husband had been with us,  the  8 hour drives from and to Lhasa would have been quite uncomfortable for him.

2 rows of three seats. Not a lot of leg room for tall people!

2 rows of three seats. Not a lot of leg room for tall people!

But the size of the van wasn’t the problem.  No, the challenge was the lack of bathroom facilities along the way.  Not only that, but we quickly discovered that squat toilets were the only option.  The good news?  You never had to ask for directions.  All you had to do was follow your nose.  Another plus?  Many of them had no stalls or partitions, so you could make new friends while emptying your bladder.   Let me tell you, it was much more pleasant to look at my neighbor’s backside than to look down at what had taken place before I arrived.

It didn’t take long for me to decide that a bush, a rock or a tree was far preferable to the few roadside bathroom facilities.   Did I mention that I was drinking more water than usual because of my cold, the dry air and the altitude medication?   Those were LOOONG drives!

Tip: Tiger Balm or Vicks  applied under your nose blocks out all other smells.  Unfortunately, I had neither with me.  Women need to practice their squats before embarking on this trip!

The landscape on the drive to Gyantse was rather stark.

Yes, we did indeed drive on that winding mountain road.

Yes, we did indeed drive on that winding mountain road.

P1150711Our guide had to stop at multiple police check points along the way to show our passports and to complete paperwork, and to have our speed monitored.   I didn’t think that was a bad thing, given the narrow winding mountain roads, but Marilynn disagreed.  When our driver and guide took a cigarette break, leaving the keys in the van, she offered to take over and get us to the hotel in record time!

 

Here are the notable sights during our 8 hour drive to Gyantse.

Prayer flags looked very different from the ones we saw in Bhutan.

Prayer flags looked very different from the ones we saw in Bhutan.

One of the two passes.

One of the two passes.

Farmers, plowing with their yaks

Farmers, plowing with their yaks

Tip: My iPod was my salvation;  our guide and driver talked to each other in Tibetan for much of the way, so I was grateful I could plug in and listen to music instead.

Our Guide
Tibet has many wonderful myths and legends;  I was looking forward to hearing our  guide elaborate and offer the local version of the stories I’d read.  Unfortunately, he either was not allowed to relate them to us, or perhaps during the 50+ years since China invaded, the legends stopped being passed along.  He certainly couldn’t access Wikipedia to supplement his knowledge!

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Mt Kalish?  I don’t think so.

For example, our guide told us this unspectacular pile of rocks is Mt. Kalish.  According to Google, Mt. Kalish is located in a very remote part of Tibet, and is visually spectacular. That “mountain” was neither.  But Tibetans do circumambulate its perimeter, and it has been the locale for “sky burials”.  (A few days after someone dies, the body is cut up, brought to the mountain top and left for the vultures to consume,  thereby completing the circle of life.)

I had hoped to learn more about the Goddess that was transformed into Yamtrok Lake, but once again, our guide wasn’t able to elaborate, so here’s what I learned from my reading.  After arguing with her husband, a goddess decided to leave him forever by turning herself into a lake.  Boats are not allowed on Yamtrok because  the vessel would slice her skin.  I also learned that Tibetans believe if the Lake ever goes dry, all Tibetans will perish.

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Yamtrok Lake

After returning home, I turned to Google, where  I discovered that senior monks go to Yamtrok Lake after the Dalai Lama’s death.  They throw sacred objects into the lake, then watch for a reflection that will tell them where to find the next (reincarnated) Dalai Lama.

Tip: Learn everything you can about the culture and myths before coming to Tibet.  The information the guide imparts could be very limited.

 

Food
You don’t travel to Tibet for the food.  There is a reason Tibetan restaurants aren’t popping up in major cities, still, we had hoped for great Chinese food.  Two of our group were born in Hong Kong, spoke and read fluent Mandarin.  They were not fans of the cuisine.

Be prepared for very basic meals, with no snacks in between.  There isn’t much fruit, however I discovered that you CAN buy bananas.

Tip:  I had brought granola bars, but shared them with the other travelers during our long rides in Bhutan and Nepal.  By the time we reached Tibet, my stash was gone.  Big mistake.  It’s a good idea to bring packaged snacks.

The Locals
For me, interacting with the locals, especially children, is always a high point of my trips.  Unlike in Bhutan and Nepal, opportunities to interact were limited.

While in Shigatse, I spent our two  free afternoons wandering through the city.   I was taking photos of the street when I was accosted by an old man with a walking stick in one hand and a prayer wheel in the other.

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I was afraid that stick was going to be used as a weapon against me!

 

He was yelling at me, and for a moment I was afraid he was going to hit me.  He apparently thought I had photographed him–although the truth was I didn’t even notice him.  I was more interested in the goods on the sidewalk.  End result?  There are no photos of Tibetan people.

But I didn’t let that one unfortunate incident keep me from trying to interact with the locals.

Did you see him in the above photo?  Neither did I!

Did you see him in the above photo? Neither did I!

I had learned to say “Tra-shi-de-lay”, which is close enough to the Tibetan greeting to occasionally get a smile.

During my second afternoon purchasing bananas, I noticed a Tibetan trying to take a picture of me with her cell phone, so I posed for her.  Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a young man attempting to get into the photo, so I turned, threw my arms around his neck and put my cheek next to him.  And the crowd went wild!  Not only that, but I  got my bananas for half of what I had paid the day before.  Sorry, no photos of that exchange because I had left MY camera back in the room.  I didn’t want to take a chance of being smote with a stick!

Tip: Learn a couple of Tibetan words, smile and see if you can make a connection.

That’s all for today.  Next post will be more upbeat, I promise.  There will be photos of what made the trip special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saving Nepal’s Best for Last

After our stay at the comfortable, but basic, Seti River Camp, it was a complete shock to our senses when we arrived at the Kasara Chitwan Resort.  We were experiencing luxury overload!

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The reception area

I was expecting a room, not a stand alone suite.  When I opened my door, I entered this private courtyard.  The photo doesn’t do it justice, but I was too focused on enjoying my surroundings to put much energy into a photo shoot.

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Air conditioned bedroom on the left, bathroom with open air shower on the right, and a beautiful courtyard in between.  Those are little ponds on either side of the boardwalk, complete with resident frogs.

After getting settled, we headed out to hunt for  black rhinos.  Success!   We saw several.  My favorite is this shot, because he seemed a bit bored by us gawkers.

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So what the heck are YOU looking at?

Our mode of transportation during our “safari” was a platform mounted on the elephant’s back.  It was not the most comfortable ride, for us, or probably for the elephant either, but it was a fun experience.

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We didn’t see any tigers, but the group before us caught sight of one.  After hearing about the elephant’s reaction, I was just as glad that we hadn’t.  There was a whole lot of stomping, bouncing and trumpeting going on!

For me, the best part of our visit was when we were able to interact with the elephants in the water.

The rest of the group had heard all about my nephew Jack, and how much he LOVES elephants, so Jim was gracious enough to take stills with my camera, while Binoy, our wonderful guide, shot video with my iPhone.

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First trick was getting on

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Wait, I thought I was going to be washing–not getting washed!

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Now I have to get down

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Peter, Marilyn and I giving our buddy a nice massage, using smooth stones.

These are such beautiful, intelligent and gentle creatures.  What a privilege to send time with them.

Check out the toenails on her.  Fun fact–elephants sweat through their toenails.

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Mike, can I keep her?

While at Kasara, I kept thinking about these lines from the song “Camelot”.  “The rain will never fall till after sundown; By 8 the morning clouds must disappear”, because that’s exactly how it worked during our two days there.  In fact, we were extremely lucky during our entire trip.  We couldn’t have asked for better weather–slightly overcast when we were trekking, which is much more comfortable than walking under a hot sun.

The resort has a lovely pool, so I was very glad I’d packed my bathing suit.  Again, no photos.  Sometimes you have to put the camera down and just soak in your surroundings (literally).

It also has a great second story bar overlooking the pool.  I decided to skip the ox cart ride  through the village, and partake in a margarita instead.  That’s what my sisters, hermaña preferida, and cousins would have wanted me to do, and I couldn’t let them down.

Time to fly back to Kathmandu, and another lovely hotel, The Gokarna Forest Resort.

During our Nepal trip, we added three travelers, Ann from Indianapolis, was born in Indonesia.  She and her Turkish husband met in veterinary school.  Karl is a retired navy chaplain who served in Iraq.  He and Eugenia were born in Hong Kong, but have lived in San Diego when they are not traveling the world.  Their fluency in Chinese was much appreciated by all of us when we got to Tibet.

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Standing, left to right: Marilynn, Marie, Ann, Eugenia, Karl, Peter, Dick.  Me, practicing my squat, an essential skill for the airport rest rooms.  Jim is missing because he is the photographer.

Here are Marie and Dick, enjoying their first class seats.

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Jim, Peter and Marie will be returning to the USA after our last night together at the Gokarna, while the remaining six of us head off to Tibet.  The farewell dinner is an OAT tradition when the main trip ends, and what a farewell dinner it was!

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Ann, me, Marilyn, Marie and Eugenia

Yes, we needed help getting dressed, and no, we didn’t get to keep the saris.

Some of the men played dress up too.

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Karl, Binoy, Jim

It was the perfect ending for three fantastic weeks together.  Little did we know, but the remaining six of us were going to have a very different experience in Tibet.

 

 

 

 

Rollin’ on the River

Our adventure started even before we reached the Seti River. A truck straddled the road, blocking traffic on both sides. What to do? Well, every bus, car, truck and motorcycle raced to claim any available open spot on the road, along the road, in the private property beside the road, creating gridlock that easily rivaled New York City at Christmas time.

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Binoy, our amazing guide jumped out of our van, using his considerable powers of persuasion to clear a path. He was like Moses, parting the Red Sea, okay–on a somewhat smaller scale, but it was still miraculous. It took a very skilled driver to squeeze through the opening, and ours was up to the challenge.
Did I mention how grateful I am to be on an organized tour?

The Seti River is low this time of year. Bimal, our River guide, told us that after the monsoons it is a much faster, and more exciting ride. Still, he managed to hit every single rapid, manouvering our raft to give us the maximum dousing, which was greatly appreciated on a hot day.

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Anyone that knows me knows that camping is not high on my list of fun things to do. In fact it would not even make it to my top 10,000 Things To Do Before I Die. I require a bed, a toilet with a seat, easy access to running water and protection from bugs. Luckily, the Seti River Camp provided all that, plus slightly cool beer. We even had a fan in our tents which was good because it is hot, hot, HOT in Nepal in May.

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You have to leave the tent to go to the bathroom across the opening.  Good news!  The toilet has a seat, and the bathroom has a shower.

Here are some of the sights from our morning hike.

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Can you spot the woman working in the field?

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Hari, demonstrating the special properties of the bubble plant.

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Bimal getting a “hard apple” from the tree.  All of the women were saying, “That’s okay, you don’t have to climb up there”

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These kids walk miles everyday to get to school.

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Binoy, our guide, asked if we wanted to take a turn guiding the oxen around the field.  We declined.

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What do you want to bet Jim had a vehicle like that in his past?

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This village had a still for making millet wine.

Our last stop in Nepal will be at Chitwan National Forest.  We are moving much faster than my blog, but that is usually the case.