Saturday, May 29, 2010

On the roof of the world (almost)

So after defrosting from our night in the hotel in Shegar (unheated), we set out for Everest (about 4-5 hours off-road in the Land Cruiser). The pics in the slideshow below are all from that day and the following days back to Nepal. I think they look better in Picasa if you click on the slideshow.

The first few pics are from a mountain pass we drove up to first. On a clear day (not sure how many of those there are each year) you can see 4 of Tibet's 8,000 meter peaks (that's over 26,000 feet). On the day we were there, we could kinda, sorta see one through the clouds. So we were not optimistic as we continued on.

But then the clouds broke as we got closer. It's pretty amazing to see it for the first time. From there we continued on up to Rombuk which is the location of another monastery, a kind of tent city where we spent the night and the end of the road for tourist vehicles (altitude is a little over 17,000 feet). From Rombuk, we hiked (taking the shuttle bus did not seem right) up to Everest Base Camp. By the time we got up there, the mountain had completely clouded over (thus the pics of us standing in front of a white screen).

Base Camp was also where I had my run-in with the Chinese Army. All the way up to Everest, you go though a number of checkpoints where your guide (and you have to have one) is required to show your permits at passports. There is a final checkpoint at the entrance to base camp. Well on the way back down, they check your camera to see if you took any "inappropriate" pics. I had taken a pic back down the valley and happened to catch the checkpoint tent and the Chinese flag. Apparently that was verboten as he made me delete it. I told our guide "we're in China right?" They check stuff pretty close when you leave Tibet as well, though we did not have any problems there.

In any event, we headed back down to our tent/hotel (the Mont-Blanc in the pics) and basically hung out. It was not that cold up there, but the wind was howling down the valley. In our tent was another couple from Michigan who we had seen multiple times over the prior days, so we chatted with them until the mountain cleared back up and were able to get some more good pics.

For sleeping that night, they provide you a bunch of comforters that you can sleep on and under on the benches. It was comfortable and warm enough, but the blankets were so heavy it was hard to move. It was us, the couple from Michigan, the hostess lady and a few Tibetan guides. The Tibetan guides rolled in pretty late that night as there was quite a party going on next door. We could barely move due to the altitude and cold and they were partying like they were at the beach or something.

The next morning, we headed off for the border with Nepal. I got smacked with a bit of altitude sickness overnight (headache and slight nausea), so I was happy to head down. Just like the drive up, the drive down was stunning - grasslands and moonlike areas, lots of contrasts. It was also the craziest off-roading I've ever done - lots of getting tossed back and forth, literally crawling over rocks. There's a reason they use the Land Cruisers over there.

Then we spent a lovely day and a half on the border with Nepal. We elected to skip spending the night in New Tingri (it seemed hellish, even by western Tibetan standards), so we had some extra time on the border. The border is really beautiful - a really deep, very green and lush canyon between the two countries... very different than the rest of Tibet.

The border is also where we found out about the general strike and chaos in Nepal and Kathmandu, specifically. Without getting into too much detail, a group of former Maoist rebels that are now a political group were enforcing a general strike to close all stores and keep all cars off of the streets.

Most of the drive from the border to the city was fine, but when we got close to Kathmandu we had to go through a series of checkpoints manned by the Maoists with sticks and cricket bats. Fortunately, they had no beef with Americans or tourists and they know how valuable tourists are to Nepal, so the let us pass. But when we got into Kathmandu, we went through one checkpoint with several hundred people crowding around the car to confirm we were tourists. And that was probably the oddest part - there were no cars on the street in a city that is normally gridlocked with people honking their horns. But there were thousands of people just walking around so that our car had to part them to get down the road. Very eery.

But we made it to our hotel (the very nice Hotel Shanker if you find yourself in Kathmandu) which is set back from a main street and surrounded by a very high wall. Having nothing else to do (we were advised not to leave the hotel) and having already rearranged our flights to leave a day early, we went to the pool to have a drink. While sitting outside, there was a massive protest (several thousand people).

It seemed a very American way to endure the political turmoil taking place outside our walled hotel - sitting by the pool having a drink.

Tibet Part 3... almost to Everest

So after 3 days in Lhasa, the guide, the driver, Jenn and me piled into the Toyota Land Cruiser and headed out. If you want to go find these places on a map, we went to Gyantse, Shigatse and then Shegar.

If you want to see where we were, the easiest way would be to click on the slideshow below and go to the Picasa Album. Jenn thought this was a stupid toy, but I bought a geo-tagger for a camera - basically it records the latitude, longitude and altitude of our pictures. So when you go to Picasa, there should be map to the right side (Photo Locations). Click on that and it will show where each picture was taken.

It does not unfortunately show you the altitude. Generally speaking though, we were between 4,000 and 5,000 meters (12,000 to 15,000 feet) the entire time. Most of the passes we went over were around 5,000 meters.

Since we hadn't seen enough Buddhist monasteries in Lhasa, we hit a few more on the way to Everest. It was a bit like Thailand... they all start to run together after a while. But to be frank, there is not much else out there. The scenery is stunning, but barren and desolate. We could not figure out how people live out there. Most of the villages have electricity (so the Chinese could give them TVs and spread propaganda most likely), but people were still relying on wells for water.

But all in all an amazing few days in the car. And since I'm sure people are wondering, the hotels got worse the further we got from Lhasa - beds got harder, water got colder, rooms got colder. The night before Everest, the place was unheated and we at least got the last space heater in the hotel. And we were staying in the "nice" places. Food was generally good (go with the yak over the chicken if you go) and the people were always nice.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tibet...Part Two

So, more of our adventure vacation. Our second day of Lhasa was all about the monasteries. Actually, most of our trip was about monasteries. So much Buddha info and I still couldn't tell you anything! Very confusing that Buddha info.

We went to two monasteries just outside of Lhasa. One of which has a monk's philosophical debate every day from 3:00 to 6:00 which is open for viewing. It was monk sits on the ground while the other one stands above him and asks him questions about Buddhism. They were very energetic.

Until next time.... Jenn.

Tibet...Part One

Okay, so I know the reason that I'm procrastinating getting these photos out....there are so many of them I always get overwhelmed. We took something ridiculous like 950 photos and while I know everyone loves seeing what we've been up to...that many would just put you to sleep.

So, to break it up I think these are going to come to you in stages a bit. This post is about our first few days in Lhasa. Lhasa is the largest city in Tibet and we were there for three days to help us acclimate to the fact that it sits at 11,975 feet. To give you some perspective on how high that is...when we were at the top of Fuji it was only 12,388 feet, so barely higher than the town of Lhasa. Thankfully, while you found yourself huffing and puffing when going up a flight of stairs, we didn't suffer from any other adverse symptoms.

The first day there we got to go to the Potala Palace, which was the main residence of the Dalai Lama before he got run out of the country. It's quite interesting....there are Chinese military men everywhere heavily armed and they patrol the streets non stop. It is basically an occupied country. But the palace was lovely...a bit barren, but sitting on top of the city and full of Buddha images and sacred scriptures. We didn't take that many pictures inside the palace because for most areas they were not allowed. When we got to the palace...our tickets were for the opening, we found out that we only had a one hour pass to see the entire government rules. I got the impression that the rules were altered frequently for no reason whatsoever. Our guide was great though and we saw everything in our limited timing. Apparently we were there on a very auspicious day, so there were a lot of people walking around the palace, which is apparently good luck. So of course that night we walked around it too and it was so lovely.

We also got to see the summer palace of the Dalai Lama, Norbulingka Palace. One of the past Dalai Lamas had what sounded like arthritis and built the palace so that he could go swim, which helped his joints. That was followed up by the Jokhang Temple, which was a bit of crazy. First of all outside the temple there were people everywhere prostrating, which is a series of motions which you basically fall on your face in worship. Then there was a huge line of Tibetans going inside the temple to view the special Buddha images. Being tourists we got to go right in, but had to fight our way through the hordes of people. It was craziness!

I am happy to report that there were some really good restaurants in Lhasa and we even found a great coffee shop!

Okay, so more to come, but here are the pictures of our first day in Lhasa.

Until next time...Jenn

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Crazy Town...

So, John and I just got back from our amazing Golden Week trip. For those of you that are behind this is like the big holiday time in Japan, so John gets some extra days off and all the expats take advantage.

We went on more of an "adventure vacation" if you will on a tour of Tibet, but starting in Nepal. Don't get too excited as this is more of a teaser and is only the first Kathmandu portion of events. We flew from Tokyo to Kathmandu via Hong Kong and Dhaka and got in late, but had the next day to check in with our tour company and see some of the sights. This turned out to be a very good move (the extra day I mean).

We head out the first morning and past the lovely walls of hotel I can only describe the city as pure chaos. Cars everywhere, people everywhere, trash everywhere....honking your horn is a past time and you may indeed find the world champs here in Kathmandu. John and I just had one of those look at each other and know that you are thinking the exact same thing....what in the world have we gotten ourselves into. We agreed that indeed it was one of the craziest places that we'd been to thusfar.

We saw Durbar Square and the Monkey Temple and walked around Thamel Street. It was great! Then we met up with our tour manager who gave us the low down on our Tibet visit. And I quote....well, despite the three star rating, most of the hotels are akin to Guest Houses, so don't have too high of expectations. Also if you need something or have a question even if it seems small or obvious please tell your Tibetan guide...those Tibetans are really different and they don't assume anything....oh and then can be shifty, so watch out for that. Oh and one last thing.....whatever you do, DON'T give anyone a credit card for payment here outside at any of the shops on the street below...shifty I tell you...shifty. AWESOME.

Obviously we have a million more things to share about our Tibet experience, but here's Nepal (round 1 that is). ENJOY!

Until next time...Jenn