Monday, August 13, 2007

How Many Ways Can the Chinese Miss-Spell Restaurant?

Kathmandu, Nepal - Just one more tiny post before I leave China behind. It wasn't until Kashgar that I started my quest to answer the question... How many ways can the Chinese miss-spell the word restaurant?

After a month and a half... here is my answer:

1. Resturan, 2. Ris Ti Ran, 3. Restuarait, 4. Staurant, 5. Restavrent, 6. Restaurent, 7. Restauraht, 8. Restraunt, 9. Restauyant, 10. Resturent, and finally my favorite and the answer to our question...11. Resavrnctja

Check them out in the slideshow:

How Many Ways Can the Chinese Miss-Spell Restaurant

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal - Yup, still in Kathmandu. But Karl is here and we are waiting for our Indian visa. It's taking a little longer than we expected and it's quite an elaborate process from which they extract a few extra dollars from US citizens for the privilege. The visa process involves going to the embassy early in the morning, waiting in line, filling out a telex form to verify that you are a citizen of said country, paying the telex fee, waiting again in line early in the morning 3 business days later, filling out the visa form, leaving your passport and $54 for a 6 month tourist visa and finally, waiting again in line later that day between 4-5pm to pick up your passport with a newly minted Indian visa. So after all this we have had to postpone the start of our Annapurna Circuit trek for 2 days. For me this means I will have spent 2 weeks in Kathmandu. Though there are definitely worst cities to be stuck in for 2 weeks, it is the longest I have stayed in one place for the last 5.5 months and I am itching to start the trek.

Anyways, during these 2 weeks, I have had a chance to see many of the sites in Kathmandu and its surrounding valley. I did not have terribly memorable experiences, yet, or exciting adventures but I did enjoy the scenery, people, sounds and most of the time, smells. Just some initial impressions....

The Nepali people and culture at least here in Kathmandu seem to be influenced by India more than any other country, imho. They women wear salwar kameezs, they are predominately Hindu, just about every restaurant has Indian food on their menu even if they are called La Dolce Vita and a lot of the imported products are from India. Things might change as we head to the Annapurna area and Pokhara. I've read that the folks there are originally from the high plains of Tibet.

There are a lot of tourists here in Kathmandu. Doesn't help that we are staying in Thamel, the backpackers' area of the city. It's nice in a way...the variety of food and restaurants are great. We've met a lot of other fellow backpackers. But it's really busy, crowded, noisy and touristy. But did I already write, I am ready for some trekking.

Here, however, are some of my favorite pics with some explanation:

School girls on the way to school.

Colorfully dressed locals in Durbar Square, Kathmandu.

Kathmandu Valley from the Monkey Temple

Local woman in Bhakatapur taking a nap amongst pottery.

A temple of Newari-style in Bhakatapur.

Kids just hanging out in Bhakatapur.

School girls on the way home from school.

There are definitely a lot of good photos...check out the album below:

07-12-2007 Kathmandu

The Friendship Highway - Lhasa to Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal - The road leading from Lhasa to Kathmandu has been dubbed "The Friendship Highway". I'm not sure who coined the phrase or when it was given to the road, but the name did intrigue me and kept me thinking as I made the 6 day journey.

As a modern version of the ancient trade routes linking Tibet (now China) with Nepal, the Friendship Highway could represent the partnership between two nations profiting from the mutual benefits of trade. Less than 3 years after the 14th Dali Lama fled Tibet, Nepal and China had signed an agreement (late 1961) to build an all-weather highway linking Kathmandu with Tibet. However, by the time the road opened in 1967, Nepal closed the border to trade due to severe restrictions imposed by Beijing. At that time the road's sole purpose was militaristic. The highway provided a direct link to two major Chinese army bases placed within 100 kilometers of Kathmandu. Hardly a sign of friendship.

As a major improvement to the infrastructure of rural Tibet, it could represent a Chinese desire to create a lasting friendship to this remote "autonomous region" and its generous protector. But, we all know that's pretty much a load of crap. China invaded Tibet in 1951 and has governed Tibet since 1959. The Tibetans are still not too happy about this.

We all know and have heard the cry to "Free Tibet". As one travels in Tibet the discussion about the plight of the poor Tibetans comes up a lot. It's one of those topics most aging hippies, new agers, and liberal wanderers really warm up to. Ok... I like Enya and I carry a crystal in my backpack to protect my karma, but... I've also been involved with aid & relief work and I'm not convinced a free Tibet is the best thing for these people. There I've said it (as I'm pelted from all sides with organically grown tomatoes). Some here argue that the exiled Tibetans, with their western ways, can reinvigorate the country and make it even better than the Chinese. I can't see that happening. However, I can imagine another floundering poor country, totally reliant on foreign aid.

Not that what the Chinese government did or are doing is right. They killed thousands of Tibetans in their "Great Leap Forward" (1.2 million according to the Tibetans, other independent estimates extrapolated from census figures put it at closer to 400,000... still no small peanuts). (S - For that matter the Chinese government killed around 30 million of their own during that campaign.) In 2006 they opened a new railway line linking Beijing with Lhasa making it that much easier for the Chinese to migrate to Xizang. (Chinese name for Tibet, broken down literally means west storage. By the way, The English name of Tibet is derived from the Arabic word "Tabbat" which came via Persia from the Turkic word "Töbäd" meaning "the heights". Thank you Wiki.) I'm guessing that the Chinese that have chosen to re-settle in Tibet are pretty keen to make friends. However, it seems most mainland Chinese see Tibet as a kind of cultural Disneyland. Chinese tourists come in droves to buy cowboy hats and snap photos of these strange barbarians (not much different from the foreign tourists really...except for the cowboy hats). about the foreign tourists? Or "foreign friends" as we are sometimes called. Well, that too is a bit of a farce. For one thing travelers are charged extraordinary amounts for the right to enter Tibet in the form of the Tibet Tourist Permit (or TTP) which is above and beyond the cost of a Chinese visa... and varies depending on where and when you purchase it...and may or may not actually be valid for anything depending on that mood of the Chinese government on any particular day. And...that only gets you into Lhasa. If you actually want to leave the city you must obtain an additional TTP permit for onward travel...and you must be part of group...and the Chinese government may or may not agree with your itinerary even after the permit is issued. Confused? We were. You get the feeling that the Chinese government just wants to grab these "friends" by the ankles and shake them until their pockets are empty.

Ok... I'm seriously rambling. Sorry. Back to the road.

In any Lhasa I chose to ignore most of my thoughts about friendship and worked to meet some new friends of my own, in which to share one of these required tours along the Friendship Highway. Through email and over a few beers I met Katja from Germany, Shinji from Japan, Masahiro also from Japan, and Hoon from South Korea. We managed to find a Land Cruiser, a driver, and a guide through a Tibetan-owned and operated company that we trusted. We were to take the standard tour from Lhasa to the Chinese border via the stops of Yamdrok-Tso Lake, Gyantse, Shingatse, Everest Base Camp and Old Tingri. On August 3rd we paid our man, Tashi and hit the road.

Loading up the Land Cruiser in Lhasa

Most of what we saw has been well documented in the slide show. Therefore, I won't bore you with the details here. However, I will bore you with a few details of what we didn't see. Yamdrok-Tso Lake was on our schedule (and TTP permit), but when we got to the turn, the road was blocked by armed Chinese soldiers marching back and forth. Rumor had it that a Tibetan guy (possibly the son of a prominent official) had been waving a Tibetan flag near the lake. "Very serious", our guide told us. Later, we heard that a woman had been stabbed there, but by that time we didn't know what to believe. In any case we missed the lake.

Pelkhor Chode Monastery, Gyantse

It seems that we almost didn't make it to Everest Base Camp either. Two days after the Yamdrok-Tso road closure, the Chinese Government closed the road to EBC. Luckily (or not) we had already made it up there. On that particular day we were busy trying to get our Land Cruiser dug out out of the mud and were looking for replacement bearings for the left hub in order to make it back to the main road. For this closure the rumors were even better. First we heard that there was a special envoy of soldiers, police, or government officials traveling up the road to celebrate the 1 year mark prior to the Beijing Olympics. One problem. The correct date for the 1 year mark was July 26th, though we did see lots of police on the road. (None of which helped us with our broken their credit the police did make each of us write a statement at the beginning of the road declaring that we understood that they would not take responsibility for our safety. I wrote "ditto" and drew an arrow to the previous statement.)

Car Troubles on the EBC Road

The second rumor involved excessive snow melt. The road was supposed to be wiped out by the rushing waters of melting snow caps. Now true we did stick our truck up to the axles in mud for close to two hours, but that was because the 4WD broke as our driver tried to floor it across a creek on a jeep track short cut to Old Tingri. The main EBC road was a mess due to construction, but completely passable.

The third rumor was the best. We were asked if we had seen a naked girl wrapped in a Tibetan flag streak across Everest Base Camp. I had to admit that I didn't see anything...and that that would be something I would probably would have noticed.

My First View of Mt. Everest. I found the naming of Mt. Everest quite interesting. In the west the peak was originally called "Peak XV" until Radhanath Sikdar, an Indian mathematician and surveyor declared it to be the world's tallest in 1852. In 1865 with both Tibet and Nepal closed to foreigners Andrew Waugh, the British surveyor-general of India, was unable to determine a local name for the peak. He then pushed to have the peak named after his predecessor Colonel George Everest (actually pronounced, EAVE-rest). The Tibetan name for the mountain is Chomolungma or Qomolangma (Zhūmùlǎngmǎ Fēng in Chinese Pinyan) meaning "Mother of the Universe" or "Goddess Mother of the Snows." In the early 60's the Nepali Government realized that they did not have a local name for the mountain and in eventually ended up calling it, Sagarmatha, meaning "Head of the Sky."

Mt. Everest the morning we left EBC

Our last stumbling block was in the small town of Nyalam, two hours from the Nepali border. First we heard that the road was closed due to an over-turned truck (by this time we were getting a little paranoid of rumors). Then as we pulled up to the red and white striped road block we were told that the road was closed due to construction. Luckily the police were planning on opening it at 7:30pm when the crews knocked off work. After killing 5 hours eating, playing pool, surfing the web, and watching yaks wander through a maze of SUVs the road was opened and we took one of the wildest rides I've ever experienced. The construction crews, by the way, did not knock off at 7:30pm. I got the feeling that if they ever stopped working on that road a good portion of it would wash off the cliff in a rush of water, rock and lush jungle mud. The pictures don't do it justice as most of them were taken while we were leaning out of a bouncing Land Cruiser (no IS lens is that good). When I arrived in Kathmandu we heard the road had closed completely, and that they were no longer issuing permits for this particular tour...but of course, that's just an unconfirmed rumor.

The road from Nyalam to Dram

So...the Friendship Highway. If you ask me, I'd say it was a great trip. For all our troubles we did get to see a bit of Tibet. We passed sand dunes and barley fields on the way to Gyantse. We admired the clouds, forts, barley, and a nine-story stupa from atop the Pelkhor Chode Monastery. We ate the smallest bowl of tomato egg soup ever on the roof top of the Jianzang Hotel. We enjoyed butter tea and yak noodle soup outside Tashilhunpo Monastery in Shigatse. We crossed the high Tibetan plateau over three passes greater than 5000 meters. We got to see the highest point on earth, Mt. Everest, at sunset, sunrise, and throughout the day thanks in part to a Japanese charm Masahiro created with toilet paper and a ribbon. We wandered the cliff face town of Zhangmu (or Dram to the Tibetans) precariously placed on top of four wet, jungle-covered switch backs overlooking Nepal. And...we finished up with a 7km walk in no man's land, a bridge of friendship, a border crossing, and a 4 hour taxi ride into Kathmandu. But...what made the trip truly great was the luck of having a crew of first-class car mates. In the end, I guess, I would call them my friends.

Tibetan Sand Dunes, Gyantse from Pelkhor Chode Monastery, Tashilhunpo Monastery, 4600 Meter Pass, 5246 Meter Pass, 5100 Meter Pass, Mt. Everest, Masahiro's Lucky Charm, Hiking to the Nepal Border from Dram, & The Friendship Bridge.

Too Much Time in a Land Cruiser... from left to right Shinji, Hoon, Masahiro & Karl....Katja took the Picture and Tashi our guide is hiding back there somewhere.

It's a big one...but I would recommend checking out the slide show. Just click the link here:

The Friendship Highway, Tibet, China

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lhasa Part II - What Happened Post Suwei

Kathmandu, Nepal - I'm also in Nepal now. We're spending our time here preparing for our next adventure and trying to tell the tale of our last...but that will be another story. I want to back up and do a little post about my last few days in Lhasa sans Suwei. I don't have any stories remotely as interesting as our 3 days in the hospital, but I did take a few pictures that I liked and would love to share.

My main goal after Suwei left was to get my overland trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu booked as quickly as possible. It is high season in Tibet right now and tons of people are looking to do this "tour" (it must be called a tour so that you can get a TTB permit to go beyond Lhasa and Shigatse). The problem was there were too many people wanting to go but a shortage of Land Cruisers, so the price jumped up by 1000 RMB while I was looking. I ended up posting a lot of signs around town and emailing Katja, a German girl who had done the same. Katja set up a breakfast meeting via email and we found 3 other guys - Shinji from Japan, Masahiro also Japanese, and Hoon from South Korea - to join us. That same day we managed to find a car which would carry five people and was cheaper than most of the other vehicles that carried only four people. Long story short we were set for an August 3rd departure and I had two 2 days to explore Lhasa.

Prayer Wheels on the North Side of the Potala Palace.

This is what I did those last two days:
  • Last minute shopping along the Barkhor Circuit for a vase, more yarn, & prayer flags.
  • Wandered the back alleys of Lhasa in search of fleece and long johns. Found the long johns for 40 RMB. The largest fleece I found was an XXXXL and it was a tad too small for me.
  • Got my shoes fixed at a local cobbler.
  • Rode a bicycle 7 km out to the Drepung Monastery, one of the three "pillars of the Tibetan state. Dreprung means "rice heap", and is a good description of the stack of whitewash building littering the hillside. At one point around 1959, almost 7000 monks lived at the monastery. Now there are about 700. We like all the signs saying "please come this way." They seemed to point in every direction.

    Drepung Monastery
  • Rode 7km back to town and stopped for a noodle break while a local repair man fixed my flat tire.
  • Took more pictures of the Potala Palace.
  • Potala Palace
  • Hand washed my laundry when the power at our hotel went out for two days.
  • Took a taxi out to Sera Monastery (another "pillar"). Sera Monastery was founded in 1419 and... here is where it gets interesting... occupies an area of 114,964 sq. meters. I guess I find that interesting primary because it makes me laugh that whoever wrote that fact, found it important enough to include it both on the entry sign and on the entrance ticket.

    Sera Monastery
  • Packed, checked out, and met "Our guys" early Friday morning for the trip to the Nepali border.
But that's another story.

Check out the rest of the photos from Lhasa here:

Lhasa, Tibet, China - Part II