Thursday, December 24, 2009

Images!

so here are a few images starting with Bhutan. I'll have more to post at a later date, but for now here are some to get you hungry.






This one is an archery match in Bhutan, the national sport. When they hit the target (150m away) they do a little dance







The little dance

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This one is the Tiger's Nest Monastery. A 2.5 hour hike up a mountain, and totally worth it.















There are lots of Wangs in Bhutan, they are meant to protect the houses so they are everywhere, hanging from the walls and painted all over the place!






Monks studying at the monastery of the Tibetan Madman

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tibet

Friendship highway. Censorship begins. Cold nights. Where's my Facebook. 

After a couple of relaxig days in Kathmandu we were set to meet our tour to Tibet. Early morning bus meet up and with the 25 people in tow we were on our way. The tour guide up to the border was a friendly chap with a fairly solid grasp of English so his instructions to the very multinational audience was well received. The overall group was made up of Brits Germans Swiss Americans Dutch Irish Italians Aussies spaniards mexicans and some Finns, so it was a great mix of people and outlooks etc.
The bus would take us to the border where we would be split up into groups of 4 and put into jeeps. The drive up was uneventful and the fun really started when we hit the border. The guide had told us not to bring and pictures of monks the Dali lama or flags of Tibet. Of course our lonely planet Tibet had monks all over it so we proceeded to put stickers from a local skate shop all over the ones we found and we hoped for the best. We got to the border via the "Friendship Highway" a project by the Chinese to ease the eventual encroachment into Nepal from all looks of it, but for now it was meant to allow for the free flow of goods and people between the two neghbors. The road itself was fine if over crowded and a messy tangle of traffic. Once we got to the actual immigration checkpoint the mood quickly changed and all the smiles were wiped off the peoples faces, welcome to a police state. Nicky was he first to go through the 3 search points and as they flipped through every page of our papers, pictures and books they carefully scruinized the guidebook and decided that it was far too informative and thought provoking to be allowed in lest people think for themselves or receive opinions not approved by the committee. So the guide took our book and when we asked him to find out what was wrong with the book so that we could warn the other people in the group he looked at us as if we were crazy. You expect me to question his authority?  You must be insane. This fearful attitude towards any sort of authority would be an unfortunately recurring theme throughout our visit. We piled into our cars and we were paired up with a pair of Brits Jenni and Joe, they would end up being our jeep buddies for the remainder of the trip. The next stop was a whole 9 km from the border and we were told that it would take about 2 hours to get there!  I thought they were mistaken but once we hit the road I realized I was the fool. The part of the highway was still under construction so it was only one way for a good portion of the time. There was no rhyme or reason as to who went when and since we weren't allowed to ask any questions it will always remain a mystery.  There were about 6 cars in our convey and we were in the first 3-4 which ended up being a good thing because the cars behind us ended up getting stopped at a police checkpoint for about 5 hours!  And let me tell u it was cold, it got down to about freezing at night so being stuck in a car without and blankets, food or explanation must have been incredibly frustrating to say the least. Back at the guest house...it had gotten dark on the drive up and when we finally pulled into the courtyard of the guesthouse we found out how cold it had gotten. It had dropped to about freezing and I was still in warm weather gear so we ran into the house and were directed to our rooms. 4 to a room here so we would share with the Brits we were with. The beds were soft and big enough but the rooms were just as cold as outside!  As we found out that night none of the rooms in Tibet would have heating or any type of insulation so the rooms would often be as cold if not colder than outside since no sun would reach them during the day either. Well the rooms wouldn't be able to dampen the experience that much since the natural beauty of Tibet is absolutely stunning. The roof of the world indeed during our drives we'd end up crossing multiple high passes and the altitude proved to be too much for some of the travelers as they would become nauseous and disoriented. They had to be given O2 and taken to lower alt quickly lest they get worse. So they missed the 5250m pass that we crossed that gave us our first glimpse of Everest. Even from a great distance you could notice it hulking out of the earth and dwarfing all the other mountains around it. You instantly understand why these mountains are viewed as dieties and how Everest is queen of all. I'm absolutely in awe of anyone that would dare climb that beast although to hear the Tibetans tell it most tourists that do it owe it all the the Sherpas that really do all the hard work. Fair enough but it's still pretty ballsy. 
As for how we dealt with the altitude I think we did pretty well. Nicky was taking some pills for it and I figured that since I'd been in Colorado for all those years without any issues I would be ok. Besides my people were mountain people, Quito is way up there!  I was doing fine until I decided to have an Everest beer, son of a bitch that gave me an awful headache all night. Lesson learned. 
Back to the trip. The chinese influence in Tibet is so incredibly overt that it's hard to find any genuine Tibet left. The signs are all in both Chinese and Tibetan with the Chinese text at least twice the size and the Chinese govt is making a concerted effort to breed the Tibetans out. They are moving (by force?) huge numbers of Han Chinese into the area in order to ensure that it looks more like the rest of mainland. It's actually quite heartbreaking when you consider the fact that it is a gradual form of genocide and the world sits and watches. Again the fear and paranoia was evident. We were told not to mention the Dali Lama in conversation to locals, they would either not talk to us about it or would be too willing meaning that they were govt informants. Even at the temples we weren't to engage the monks in these sorts of discussions since all of the monks that were now in the monestary were somehow vetted by the Chinese govt. Even the Penchant Lama that was on display in photos in all of the temples was a phony. He (a boy of only 17) has been selected by the govt. The actual one that the Dali lama picked was never revealed for fear of reprisals.
So the tone was set for Tibet to be observed with some allowances for the lack of genuine Tibet which was slowly and sadly being suffocated. Quick note. Apparently there are random packs of dogs that have been known to attack people at night. I only mention this because the street dogs in Tibet are beautiful. Tibetan mastifs. Big beautiful healthy dogs that lie in the sun by day and bark all goddamn night long, anyway I just wanted to mention it before I forgot
Shygatse, Gyatse, Lhasa these were the cities that we visited during our week in Tibet and they were filled with picturesque ancient temples whose walls were stained with centuries worth of yak butter candles and imbued with the smell of Juniper insence, let me tell u something friends after a few days of repeated exposure to both these I just couldn't handle it! The walls of so many of these ancient templeshad been blackened by generations from these candles and as this was our first exposure to Budhist temples of this age and scale we didn't realize that it was a scenario specific to Tibet. Since the Chinese gvt has either demolished and then rebuilt many of the temples it shows what esteem they hold the culture and traditions of the native Tibetans. Now we wouldn't have realized that this wasn't the norm had we not seen the temples in Bhutan, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.
so overall Tibet is an amazingly beautiful country that isn't really itself, it has been stifled and suppressed by the Chinese and it may never have a chance to actually regain it's independance, if only they had some oil

Sunday, December 6, 2009

KKKKKK Kathmandu

Ups and downs. Breathtaking views. Road-side eats. Where the hell are we.

When you last left our travelers they were happily leaving Varanasi, heading towards the Nepali border...
After we arrived at the border of Nepal and India we walked to the immigration checkpiont to sign in. We got all stamped up and made official-like, and now had to make our way to Kathmandu. We'd missed the regular bus since our train was about 3 hours late so we were now faced with the prospect of taking a 10+ hour and reportedly dangerous overnight train to Kath. Not sure if it's dangerous because of the roads at night or for some other nefarious reason, but either way we didn't want to find out. So we found a few other travelers in the same dilemma and decided to hire a jeep to take us the rest of the way. There are no shortages of guys willing to drive us so after some haggling we found a trustworthy fellow with a reliable looking rig to take the 7 of us the 7 hours to Kathmandu. Thrilled at the fact that we weren;t going to have to sit on an overnight bus, subjected to god knows what evils we'd been cautioned of we were in high spirits as we got moving. the drive was really quite splendid, the scenery was as beautiful as any we'd seen thus far. It reminded us of the hilly climbs we'd taken in Uganda on the way to the gorillas, beautiful forests and valleys that kept my nose pressed against the window for the better part of the trip. About 5 hours along we stopped at a small roadside village high in the hills to have a refresher. There were a few ladies and kids running the little cooker and I just couldn't resist the samosas that they had prepared. They were so tasty that I had to have a few more and a cold beer to wash them down. After our thank you's OI snapped a couple of shots of our hosts and they shyly giggled and hooped when I showed them the shots.
On the road for a couple of more hours and as darkness fell the trip became more of a roller-coaster ride, which thrilled me, but not so much for Nicky. We finally crested a hill to see the lights of Kathmandu, our trip was finally coming to an end! As we hit the streets of the city it was about 10 pm and the place was pretty deserted and had a slightly apocalyptic feel to it. Well it ends up that Kathmandu is very different by the light of day, and in fact is an excellent town, Bob Seager has never been more right, that clever bastard.
The contract between India and Nepal was stark and immediate to say the least, a wholly welcome change. The city itself was still pretty chaotic and fairly filthy but the energy was so much more welcoming and navigable that it let us take a deep albeit smoggy breathe and get to some unmolested exploring before heading off on our of Tibet.
We were in the Thamel area of the city which is the touristy section which was fine since we had to get some supplies and grab hold of some familiarity before the mysteries of Tibet took hold.
As we walked down the streets the next morning, the first thing we noticed was the relaxed style and attitudes of the people as they went about their fairly Western-style lives. Gone were the stares at uncovered shoulders saris and men's clothes that looked like they were collected from a thrift store in 1976 were replaced by skinny jeans, t-shirts and hair gel, shit we were back in Williamsburg!!!!! Well not really but it felt much easier for a few days and there was actually "Mexican" food in a few spots that were owned by Westerners,hallelujah!
So all was good on our first visit to Nepal, off to Tibet, more on that later.
Namaste
M&N