Follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Roof of the World – Part 3

When you hear “Seven Years in Tibet” what comes to mind?  The movie starring Brad Pitt?

Well, I never saw the movie but I HAVE read the book  by Heinrich Harrer, and I must say, it was pretty phenomenal.   Harrar escaped from a British POW camp in India during World War II.  Interestingly enough, POWs back then were able to keep their money and  supplies, so when he escaped, he had a rucksack, some provisions, and enough money to trade with Tibetans as he made his way through the Himalayas to Lhasa.

The Tibetans were gracious hosts, providing Harrer and his traveling companion,  Peter Aufschnaiter (another escaped POW) with shelter and, when they ran out of money, gifts of food.  Harrer and Aufschnaiter were able to repay this kindness by generously sharing their scientific and engineering knowledge with a country that at that time was closed off to the rest of the world.  In addition to helping with flood control, translating foreign news, providing agricultural advice, they also introduced  the Tibetans to a new sport,”walking on knives”, what we call ice skating.    Eventually, Harrer met the young Dalai Lama, becoming a trusted friend and tutor of the isolated adolescent.  Harrer not only oversaw the construction of a movie theater in the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, he also created the films that were shown there, using a 50’s era movie camera to photograph Tibetan festivals.

After Charlie Carroll discovered Seven Years in Tibet in his elementary school library, he became fascinated with this remote Himalayan kingdom.  It was a bit like me and the Wizard of Oz, except HE could actually visit HIS magical kingdom.  And he did, in 2009.  The end product of his journey is the wonderful narrative Peaks on the Horizon.  Two parallel stories alternate chapters, chronicling Charlie’s travels, and that of a young Tibetan refugee he met just before leaving the country.

Seven Years in Tibet and Peaks on the Horizon are great introductions to Tibetan religion, history and culture.  Although I quickly skimmed through  Demystifying Tibet by Lee Feigon and Conversations with the Dalai Lama by Thomas Laird, I found them more difficult to get through and not as entertaining.  I’ll admit it.  I’m a sucker for the personal narrative.

So, if you have been following along The Yellow Brick Road to Asia, you know that now is the time for ten very random, fun facts uncovered through reading about Tibet:

  1. At 13,000 feet above sea level, Tibet’s nickname, “The Roof of the World” is fitting.  It is the highest inhabited area in the WORLD.  Yikes.  I’ve packed a supply of Diamox to make sure I don’t have a problem with the altitude.  
  2. The first major character in its recorded history is Songtsen Gampo, who conquered and united a multitude of tribes to create the nation of Tibet.  Sources claim he became king at the age of 13.  I guess during the the seventh century, they dealt with adolescent angst by sending the boys off to pillage, plunder and start a new nation.  Before he died in 649, he managed to acquire one wife from China, one from Nepal and four from among the local girls.  There are two versions of the Chinese bride story.  Songtsen Gampo  ordered the king of China to send him one of his daughters and when his “request” was refused,  he attacked and pillaged.  Version two describes Songtsen Gampo as a lovesick warrior who became a vassal of the Chinese emperor to obtain his lovely wife.  See if you can figure out which explanation belongs to which nation.
  3. But it wasn’t ALL fun and games.  Songtsen Gampo is also credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet (and to Bhutan).  He built the first Buddhist temple in Tibet, the Jokhang, to house the statue of the Buddha his Chinese wife, Wencheng,  brought from China as part of her dowery.  One account mentioned that the Nepali wife also brought a Buddha with her, but the Chinese one appears to be more sacred and more famous.  it will be interesting to see what we are told when we are in Lhasa.
  4. There was a gap of almost a century until the next important emperor came on the scene.  Trisong Detsen (755-797) conquered the areas along the Silk Road.  But he too was more than just a warrior.  He also  built Tibet’s first monastery at Samye and invited Padmasambhava (Remember him from the Nepal post?  Also known as Guru Rimpoche, he emerged from a Lotus in a lake) to come to Tibet to help spread the word about Buddhism.
    Unfortunately, Trisong Detsen met an untimely end.  Rumor has it that he was 
    poisoned by his wife, who may also have disposed of her son in a similar manner a mere two years after he was crowned.   Talk about dysfunctional families.  Even Dr. Phil would have had trouble fixing THEIR problems.  
  5. The next notable character appears in 838.  Lang Darma joined with members of the Bon religion to strangle his brother, the current king.  He tried to reinstitute Bon, the local religion, by suppressing Buddhism.  Here’s the interesting part. Lang Darma was thought to be a devil, complete with horns on his head.  After forcing girls to comb his hair, he used his horns to kill them, then ate them.  Lhalung Palgyi Dorje, a monk, came to the rescue, killing Lang Darma by shooting an arrow through his heart.   
  6. Remember Ghengis Khan and the Mongol Hoards?  I sure do.  I have a strong visual of him and his buddies, galloping across the steppes, flags flying in front, long hair streaming behind.  So, what has that got to do with Tibet, you ask?  Well, bet you didn’t know that the term “Dalai Lama” came from the Mongols.  I certainly didn’t.  Altan Khan, who ruled Mongolia in the 1500’s (yes, we’re skipping WAY ahead!) invited Sonam Gyatso, the abbott of Tibet’s largest monastery, to his country to spread Buddhism throughout Mongolia.  Dalai Lama is the Mongol translation of Sonam Gyatso’s name, which in English means “Great Ocean”.  Tibetans, however, refer to their their spiritual leader as “Kundun”, which means “the presence of Buddha”, but since I’m not Tibetan,  I’m going to stick with Dalai Lama.
  7. Tibetans believe they are descendants of Chenrizi (also spelled Chenrezi, Chenresig and Chenrezig, depending on the source), who took the form of a monkey to seduce a demon.  The demon gave birth to six “long haired children” complete with tails (the first Tibetans) that disappeared when they grew to adulthood.   The Tibetan creation story explains human behavior by uniting the pure (Chenrizi is the Buddha of compassion) with the animalistic (the demon/ogress).  And all we westerners get is a talking snake and an apple.  I like their story better!  It even has evolution going for it.
  8. The current Dalai Lama is believed to be the fourteenth reincarnation of Chenrizi.  The THIRD Dalai Lama was the first granted the title by Altan Khan.  That Dalai Lama decided to declare his two deceased predecessors as the first and second Dalai Lamas.  After the third Dalai Lama’s  death,  Altan Khan’s grandson (surprise, surprise)  was declared to be next reincarnate — the fourth Dalai Lama.  He didn’t last long–he was dead before he was 28.
  9. The NEXT Dalai Lama was a powerhouse. The “Great Fifth” started construction of the Potala, Tibet’s iconic building.  He died before the building was completed, but his death was kept a secret for 10 years to ensure that construction would continue.  This huge complex is 13 stories high and contains color coded administrative (red) and religious (white) sections, which include the winter quarters for the Dalai Lama,  prison cells, torture chambers and stupas where prior Dalai Lamas are entombed.
  10. Yaks are as important to the Tibetans as Buffalo were to the Native Americans.  Yak butter is the main ingredient in yak tea, which is consumed by everyone, many times every day.  Yak butter is also used for the candles that are burned throughout all three Himalayan countries.  Yak dung is burned for fuel and is also used as an ink substitute.  The burnt yak dung becomes soot, which was used as ink for books during Heinrich Harrer’s seven years.  By the time Charlie Carroll visited a few years ago, Yaks had become endangered.  What is common now is a cross between a yak and a cow, called a dzo.  

How’s that for random facts?

There is so very much more to say about Tibet, but as with the posts on Bhutan and Nepal, I need to save something for when we are there, don’t I?

Follow The Yellow Brick Road- Part Two

You ready to climb aboard the bookmobile express for a trip to Nepal?

A few years ago, when Borders broke my heart by going belly up, I softened the blow just a tad by randomly grabbing books from the travel section, one of which was Snake Lake by Jeff Greenwald.  At that time, I had no idea the book was about Nepal. Not only that, but the thought of visiting Nepal never crossed my mind.  I didn’t even have the vaguest idea of where it was. As I mentioned in the last post, elementary school KILLED any interest in geography.  Good thing I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning!

Snake Lake is about Nepal’s political turmoil, starting with the student riots in 1979, thru India’s 1989 trade embargo, ending with the April 6, 2000 protest at Ratna Park.  It’s about more than just politics, though.  This very personal account has it all— romance, loss, and a spiritual journey that allows you to view Buddhism through Greenwald’s American eyes.

Two Australian writers, Amy Wilsee and Mark Whittaker, were fascinated by the 2001 murders and suicide of Nepal’s royal family.  Their quest for the back story leading to that gory night is documented in Life and Death in Kathmandu.  What I found most compelling, however, wasn’t the main event,  but two of their interviews:  one with a former Kumari (a living goddess- more on that later) and the other with a Maoist guerilla.  Initially, the Maoists were a group of committed idealists, focused on stopping the corruption and violence inflicted on villagers by the power structure.  Over time, as more joined the movement, the Maoists devolved into an unruly mob that inflicted as much violence and terror as they had initially fought against.

Although Jeff Rasley’s book  Bringing Progress to Paradise raises some interesting questions about the ethics of culture change and the impact first world intrusion into third world has on these remote villages, I don’t recommend the book.  Much of it chronicled his trek to the remote village of Basa and quite honestly, I thought he was a bit of a jerk to the friends that made the trek with him.

Little Princes by Conor Grennan, is a better choice if you want to learn how good intentions can sometimes lead to undesirable consequences.   After graduating from college, Conor decided to volunteer in an orphanage outside of Kathmandu.   Over time, he was surprised to discover that the children actually weren’t orphans at all.  

During the political turmoil, the Maoists had been entering the villages, abducting children and forcing them to fight.  When approached by a man who offered to bring their child to safety, families scraped together money, selling what little they had.  Unfortunately, the man who promised to care for their children was a trafficker who either sold them to be servants, or forced them to beg on the streets of Kathmandu.  The children were told that their families had all been killed.   Little Princes describes Conor’s efforts to return the children to their remote villages so they could be reunited with their families.  The book also made it clear that well-meaning tourists can inadvertently contribute to the problem by giving money and clothing to the child beggars.  Many times the children are forced to turn everything over to a trafficker, so the tourists are unwittingly contributing to child trafficking, making it profitable for the trafficker to continue.  Little Princes was a thought-provoking book that gets to the heart of the issue that many travelers to third world countries face–how to help without creating unintended negative consequences.  

So, what did I learn from my Nepali reading?  Well, I’ll share 10 of my discoveries now, again, not in any particular order–just random facts that caught my attention.  There’s much more, but  like my Bhutan post, I will save the rest for when we are on site.

  1. Nepalis believe the goddess Taleju takes up residence in a young girl (who then becomes known as a Kumari ), until the girl reaches puberty.  At that time, the goddess moves on to inhabit the body of another pre-pubescent girl.  What happens to the dethroned goddess, the young child, who had been taken from her family, placed in a palace, her feet not allowed to touch the ground, carried through the streets during festivals, decked out in red, with a third eye painted on her forehead?  Why she becomes mortal again, returns to her family and is expected to live a normal life, happily (?) ever after.
  2. What are the job specifications to become a goddess, you might ask?  Well, for starters, this 2 or 3 year old girl needs to have: a neck like a conch shell, a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer, a chest like a lion, a voice soft and clear as a duck’s…there’s more, but you get the idea.
  3. While in the Kathmandu area, we will be staying at the Gokarna Forest Resort.  Gokarna Forest used to be the hunting reserve for the Nepali royal family.  Not only that, but at the entrance to the Resort, there is a 200 year old pipal tree, where, in the very sappy movie, Little Buddha, under that very tree, Keanu Reeves was tempted by the demon Mara.
  4. Yes, I did indeed borrow the Little Buddha DVD from the library, and sat through the whole thing, including Keneau Reeves portrayal of Buddha, complete with his pre-enlightenment long, stringy hair.  What can I say?   It was a cold gray day.  I had nothing better to do.  The sad part?  I didn’t learn about the pipal tree until AFTER I had seen the movie, and trust me, I wasn’t going to go back to look for it.
  5. Swayanbhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in Nepal.  As you might guess, wild monkeys have inhabited the temple complex for many years.  And why not?  The food offerings that the pilgrims leave are mighty attractive.  Unfortunately,the temple was damaged by the 2015 earthquake, so I don’t know whether we will have the opportunity to visit it when we are in Kathmandu.
  6. Speaking of offerings at Swayvanbhunath  pilgrims always leave a portion for Hariti, the world’s grandmother and protector of children. Legend has it that Hariti originally was an ogress who lived during Buddha’s time.  To feed her 500 children,  she kidnapped other people’s children and turned them into dinner.  Buddha decided to teach her what it felt like to lose a child, so he kidnapped her youngest.  (With 500 kids, I wonder how she realized one was missing–but maybe that’s just me?) After Hariti learned her lesson about compassion, Buddha returned the child, then helped Hariti with her food problem by sharing with her the offerings from  his followers, the start of the practice that continues to this day.  
  7. Another Buddhist legend tells the story of the birth of Padmasambhava, who was also known also known as Guru Rinpoche.  Padmasambhava means “lotus born” because he emerged fully formed from a red lotus blossom that appeared in the center of a lake. The Lotus is the symbol of enlightenment.  Preview of coming attractions:  You will hear about Padmasambhava again when we get to Bhutan.
  8. The oldest Hindu Temple, Pashupatinath, fortunately was not damaged by the earthquake, so if we visit it, I’ll be sure to look for the magnificent sculpture of Nandi, the bull that Shiva rides.  Hindus come to this temple when they are ready to die, believing that dying on this sacred site guarantees that they will be reborn as a human.  Cremations take place on banks of the Bagmati River, which flows by the temple.
  9. The royal family’s palace is now open to the public.  It is a rather dismal abode, with lots of animal heads hanging from the walls.  (Most likely the animals they killed in their royal preserve at Gokarna Forest, which would seem to be a violation of Hindu–and Buddhist beliefs.)  Anyway, the palace sounds like a major disappointment–sorta like Graceland, not at all what you would imagine– which may be why it didn’t make it into our itinerary.
  10. Chez Caroline’s, a restaurant that was mentioned in one of the books I read (I can’t for the life of me remember which one), still exists.  According to the internet, the restaurant is in a “historic Rana Palace”.  I sure hope it isn’t the one with all the stuffed dead animals!  Who knows, maybe on one of “dinner on own” evenings, we’ll venture there.  If we do, I’ll be sure to report back.

Well, I warned you these were random facts that caught my fancy.

Our last and final stop along the yellow brick road will be Tibet.  Hope you come along!

Follow The Yellow Brick Road, Part One

I’ve been traveling all my life.  I can’t remember whether my first trip was to Neverland or to Oz, but I DO know that I returned to both places countless times.

For many, many years all my travel took place solely between my ears.  Although school did its best to smother any interest in geography by forcing us to memorize products, capitals, and other bone crushingly boring trivia, I never lost my enthusiasm for the exotic places I discovered through our local library.  Books were my magic carpet, whisking me to wondrous places a small town girl like me never dreamed she’d ever be able to actually visit.

Maybe that’s why today, before I set foot in another country, I try to read as much as I can about its culture, religion, politics, history and yes, even geography.  I want to experience in it my head first.  It sounds crazy, even to me,  but a place seems more REAL if I have read about it.

Our next trip will be to the Himalayan countries of Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.  Here’s a map courtesy of Overseas Adventure Travel, roughly showing where we will be easin’ on down the road. Notice the red line stops at the Seti River?  That’s where the rafting starts, because there ain’t no road to get where we are going, yellow brick or otherwise.

Overseas Adventure Travel Itinerary
Overseas Adventure Travel Itinerary


So about those books I’ve been reading– lets start with Bhutan.

My interest in that country began several years ago when I stumbled across The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner.  It introduced me to Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness.   Also around that time, we’d had the good fortune to meet and travel with Dr. Peter Steele.  In 1967, at a time when it was closed to most of the western world, he and his wife were invited to visit Bhutan by the royal family.  After reading his account of the trip, Two and Two Halves in Bhutan, I became even more interested in visiting that fascinating country.

OAT provides a list of “additional resources” for each country on the tour.  That list was my starting point, supplemented by what I could find on Overdrive, an online resource available through our library and of course, by random internet searches.

What follows is nothing even close to a book report, mainly I am somewhat lazy, but also because you will get better summaries by clicking on the blue words in this post.  The Amazon and Good Reads reviewers will do a much better job filling you in than I would have done.

I had no idea that in addition to Peter Steele, Shirley Maclaine also visited Bhutan in the ’60s.  In her 1970 autobiography, Don’t Fall Off the Mountain,  she explains that she had gone to India to learn to meditate, and while there met the new Prime Minister, Lhendup Dorji.  He had assumed that position after the prior Prime Minister (his brother) was assassinated  by a member of the military.   She accepted Dorji’s invitation to visit Bhutan, but unfortunately there was still political unrest in the country, so her visit was cut short.  Still, she was there long enough to give me a feel for what Bhutan was like during that period.  Plus, she DID make it to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro.  And so will I.

Jamie Zeppa’s book, Beyond the Sky and Earth is a wonderful description of life in Bhutan during the late ’80s.  She spent two years as a teacher, first with elementary students in a remote village, then teaching college students at Sherubtse College near Trashigang. Yeah, I’d never heard of those places either.

Jamie married one of her students,Tshewang Dendup. Why did I feel compelled to tell you his name?  Well there is a reason.  In 2003,  he had a starring role in the lovely Bhutanese movie, Travellers and Magicians.  I got the DVD from my library; it’s a great way to  sneak a peek at the beautiful Bhutanese scenery (and to check out Jamie’s ex- husband, if you are so inclined.)

Lisa Napoli”s book, Radio Shangri-La  is about her volunteer work at Kuzoo FM, Bhutan’s “youth based” radio station.  Established in 2006 as one of the king’s projects, Kuzoo broadcasts in both Dzongkha and English.  Lisa’s several years with NPR made her a valuable resource for this young radio station.

Those 4 books gave me glimpses of Bhutan’s evolution from a closed Himalayan kingdom of the ’60s up to around 2009.  What did I learn from my reading?

Ten Fun Facts About Bhutan (Not in order of importance, or any other kind of order, for that matter)

  1. Bhutan is also known as Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon
  2. Marijuana grows wild in Bhutan, and is fed to the pigs because (surprise, surprise) it increases their appetite.
  3. Ara is the local moonshine; its a clear wine made from rice. ( Now that we’ve gotten the local stimulants out of the way, let’s move on)
  4. All doctors visits and health care is free
  5. Drukpa Kinley, a Tibetan monk who lived in the late 1400’s,  made his way to Bhutan.  He was also known as the Divine Madman who used his “flaming thunderbolt” to bless women and to bestow “enlightenment”.   He was so successful in his endeavors, he became the patron saint of fertility.
  6. Thanks to the Divine Madman, many Bhutanese houses sport paintings and sculptures of phalluses.  Who knows, photos of the artwork may be a coming attraction of this blog.
  7. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th king of Bhutan, voluntarily gave up absolute power in 1998.  (When does THAT ever happen??)  He guided the nation from a hereditary monarchy (which had been established in 1907) to its current status as a parliamentary democracy.
  8. Okay, so now the”People Magazine” type information: The 4th king had 4 wives, all of them sisters.
  9. His son, the 5th king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, was crowned in November of 2008.  That king has only ONE wife, who he met at a picnic when he was 17 and she was 7.  According to legend, he said  ‘When you grow up, if I am not married and if you are not married, I would like you to be my wife, provided we still feel the same.’
  10. Men wear the Gho, and women wear the Kira; these two articles comprise Bhutan’s national dress.  Jamie’s book mentions that all Bhutanese were required to wear the national dress.  This dress code was an issue for the Nepalese immigrants living in the southern part of the country.  I don’t know whether the requirement still exists today, but it will be pretty apparent once we get there whether it does or not.

I actually learned a whole lot more, but I have to save SOMETHING for when we get there, right?

Next stop on our book tour – Nepal.


Two Hours Till Blast Off

Remember that standard issue duffel bag?  The one that all OAT travelers get?  I decided I didn’t want to waste time at baggage areas determining which of the identical bags belonged to me,  so I did a bit of “bag enhancement”.P1060071I know, I know…I probably should have given it some thought BEFORE I went wild with the sharpie markers, but hey, I figured I dramatically decreased the odds that this bag will be stolen.   What self respecting thief would want to be seen dragging this along?  Besides, a smart thief would suspect the bag’s contents would be equally jumbled and lacking in style.

I very thoughtfully had a “go” at Mike’s bag.  A bit less exuberantly, but enough to provide the afore mentioned advantages.

We will be flying almost 8,000 miles.  To put that into perspective, it is the equivalent of 2.5 flights from NJ to California, and it will take about the same length of time–15 hours.

We spend the night in Johannesburg then leave the following morning for Karongwe, a game reserve close to Kruger National Park.  For all the map lovers, here’s a visual.


Three nights later, we return to Johannesburg.  If I’m lucky, I’ll have wildlife photos to post.

Over and out!

Packing for A Month in Africa

OAT’s (Overseas Adventure Travel’s) wonderfully helpful website is loaded with lots of hints from those that have gone before.  Thanks to them, I have a good idea of what to pack, and equally important, what NOT to pack.

I need to be prepared for cold mornings and evenings, high mid-day temperatures,  and a school visit.  Then after the tour ends, Mike and I are on our own in Cape Town for several days.

Suggestions for what to bring for the school visit included uninflated soccer balls and flip-flops plus the usual books, crayons, paper, pens and pencils.  I also like to bring along a few frivolous things, like small stuffed animals.


The camps do our laundry every night, so 3 changes of clothes will do the trick, but I also needed a warm jacket, a hat, gloves, plus shorts and tee shirts and a bathing suit.  Dressing in layers is key.  I also need to plan for our time in Cape Town when we will be without daily laundry service.


I found jumbo zip lock bags at the supermarket and am using them to organize my wardrobe.  But will all this, plus toiletries, fit into the duffel bag?

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to.  One traveler suggested putting the duffel inside a much bigger bag, then packing everything into that one large suitcase.  I tried that, but I easily exceeded the 50 pound weight limit.  THEN I decided to check out South African Air’s luggage rules and was very excited to learn that in addition to my carry on, I can have TWO checked bags!!!  I’m so used to the United Airlines restrictions, it didn’t occur to me that another airline’s checked baggage policy could be more liberal.

Being able to bring that second bag meant another trip to the Dollar Store for toothbrushes, combs and LOTS more school supplies, plus any odds and ends that I thought might be useful.  I packed it all in an old suitcase that I plan to leave in Africa.


So, now my duffel will only contain MY stuff–plus another small duffel that I will use to bring back any purchases I make–good news for sisters, hermana preferida, cousins and other loved ones!