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?

Four Visas, Three Countries

We will be visiting three countries–Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet.  So why do we need FOUR visas?  Fair warning–this post will likely only interest those that are taking a similar trip, or are planning to visit India.

For the three of you that are still reading, here goes.

We fly into and out of Delhi, so since we have at least one overnight stay in India, we need a visa.  A visa that costs (depending on the service used) anywhere from $135 to $173, per person.  A visa that requires you to complete an on-line application that is challenging to decipher.  But there IS a positive aspect.  The visa is good for 10 years.  So, should we decide to spend more than an overnight in India, it will be best to do so before 2026.

If you are anything like me, you are probably wondering how to score the $135 charge.  Well, Cox and Kings is India’s approved visa grantor, so you get the best price if you opt to go direct to them.

Our travel company, OAT, sent out a package with very helpful, clear instructions.  Good thing, because there are lots of hoops you need to jump through for that India online application.

OAT recommends PVS, a visa processing company located in DC, probably because you can send your passport to one service and they take care of visas for both India and Nepal, which is not the case with Cox and Kings.  PVS is convenient, yes, but as with everything, you pay for that convenience.  If we had used PVS, we would have paid a total of $566 for both visas, including mailing charges.

Instead, our total cost was $362, a savings of $204.  How did I pull that off?  In addition to using Cox and Kings, I dealt directly with the Nepali Embassy.

I happened to be traveling to NYC to meet a friend for lunch and a show, so I figured, what the heck, I’ll just go in a little earlier and stop by the embassy.  Located at 216 East 49th St, it is only open between 9:30 and 1:30 during the week.   Right between these two restaurants,
IMG_2241
you’ll find this sign on the side of the building:
IMG_2240 (1)You have to press the button on the side of the wall to get buzzed in.  I walked up to their tiny office on the 4th floor, but there IS an elevator.  The visas cost $40 per person versus $90 for PVS, so that represented half of our $200 in savings.

One thing that is important to know if you decide to go–they ONLY take money orders.  No cash, no personal check, no credit or debit cards.  Of course, I had everything that they didn’t take, but all was not lost because there is a place that sells money orders on the next block.  I have no idea what a money order costs, because my bank had a branch on the same block, so my money order was free.   If I had been smart, I would have found this website  before I left home.  It EXPLAINS the money order requirement and tells you what is needed to submit by express mail or courier–good news for those of you that have no intention of traveling to NYC.

It took 30 minutes for processing to be completed.  Passports and visas clutched in one hand, my other raised to hail a taxi, I was off for the Cox and King office 23 blocks away.

I thought I might be able to drop off my package (to be mailed to my home when processing was completed) and still be on time for lunch.  I was delusional.  It was a total waste of time and cab fare.  The smart thing would have been just to express mail the damn thing in the first place and be done with it.  Which is what I ultimately did.  Less than 2 weeks later, our passports arrived.

Two down, two to go.

Bhutan and Tibet both require that you send them a color copy of the first two pages of your passport in advance of trip. (OAT , bless them, is handling this part).  The actual visas are provided when you arrive, but only if you have 2 color passport type photos (2 for each country, 4 in total),  ANOTHER copy of our passport pages (for Tibet) and approximately $70 for Bhutan and $190 for Tibet, per person, in cash.  Cash means pristine bills–no wrinkles, tears or marks.  OAT recommends we bring more, because these fees are subject to change without notice.  See why we use a travel company when we venture to more non-traditional locales?  Knowing me, I  would have missed one or more of the requirements.

So, what did I learn from this adventure?  If you have enough time to submit directly to the embassy and Cox and Kings by express mail (or Fedex or UPS–whatever) you can save a bundle.  You just need to send for one, wait for the passports to be returned, then send to the other.   If, however, money is no object (that’s definitely not ME), and you prize convenience, or are short on time, then a service, like PVS is the way to go.

Next post will be about something other than this future trip.  I promise!

 

Celebrating the Big Four Oh

No, not my 40th birthday.  That happened a LONG time ago, and quite honestly, I have no recollection of how we marked that milestone.

THIS big event is our 40th wedding anniversary, and yes, that photo is indeed 40 years old.  This year, our anniversary happens to be on Memorial Day, same as the day we eloped.  Of course, true to form, our way of celebrating doesn’t coincide with the actual DATE, but that’s just the way we roll.

We have never been big party people, partly because so many of those near and dear to us are geographically scattered.  Years ago, we stopped giving gifts, instead opting to collect memories rather than objects.  Okay, so that’s the build-up.  You ready for the “reveal”?

To mark our 4 decades together, we decided to travel to Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). Yes, I know Nepal had a devastating earthquake last May, with a full complement of aftershocks.  For a country that depends on the tourist trade, we decided a way to support the Nepali was to visit their country, then share what we see and experience.  We hope blog and Facebook posts might encourage others to do likewise.  Or at least prepare those that come after us for what lies ahead.

I recognize that given the infrastructure of these three countries, I probably won’t be posting while traveling.  That will have to wait till our return, but in the meantime, I’ll share what we have learned during the preparation stage, and believe me, there is a lot to learn.

I have been checking out air options, collecting visas, figuring out what to pack that will get us through a month away, with temperatures ranging from a high of over 100 in Chitwan National Park to lows of 19 in Lhasa, and everything in between, while also staying within the prescribed weight limits.  I’ve also been busy reading everything I can get my hands on about the three countries.

So, fair warning.  If you aren’t interested in that little corner of the world, subsequent posts are going to be bone crushingly boring to you.

For those that are considering traveling with OAT, this is my way to pay it forward.  I have benefitted greatly from the kind people who have taken the time to post information on the OAT forum, and want to do likewise.

More to follow!