Monday, August 15, 2011

Himalaya Part III, Nepal

    Our driver in Tibet let us out at the China/ Nepal border where we would have to walk through immigration and then find a ride to Kathmandu. We got out of China and started walking. There is a bridge you have to pass before you can officially enter Nepal. We had been walking for a while and finally ran into some drivers. We soon realized that we had completely missed the Nepal immigration office and had to walk back a bit to officially enter the country. We paid our visa fees (which physically went straight into the pocket of the border agent), and were on our way.
   We found a guy to drive us and after much debate about the price, we were off in a very rocky 4x4 SUV. We drove for a while and ran straight into dead traffic. But it wasn’t for a wreck or anything of that sort. The whole side of the mountain has slid down and mud and boulders were blocking the route.
   We sat in the traffic jam for several hours as different groups tried to clear the road. We walked around and explored, walked up to the mess, helped move some rocks out of the way, etc. It wasn’t looking hopeful. We were all getting frustrated and had just about decided to start walking and find another ride on the other side, but the road finally cleared up. We eventually got through the mess after about another hour of traffic and were back on the road. We stopped at a gas station to get some food. There was an 8 foot tall marijuana plant growing in the ditch by the gas station. Seriously, it was way taller than me.

    We made our way to Kathmandu and found a decent hotel in a quieter part of town. We had plans to stay a night or two and then fly to Pokhara, a nice mountain town farther west in Nepal. We arrived in Pokhara, exhausted from the journey. We found a lovely hotel room with three beds and crashed hard. We spent almost a week in Pokhara enjoying the beautiful mountains and slow lifestyle. A torrential downpour of rain came one night, which caused flash flooding like I have never seen before. We were walking in water almost up to our knees to get dinner that night.  I often tell people I wouldn’t have been wetter if I had jumped in a pool.
   Pokhara is where we would part ways with Brett, his time in Macau had come to an end. He would go on to hike then Annapurna circuit for two weeks and we would go back to Macau. It was hard to even imagine going back to work after an adventure like this. But by this point, all three of us had limited time left. I would be leaving in November, and Ben not too long after me.
   Ben and I arrived at the airport to catch our flight back to Kathmandu. It was cancelled due to bad weather, and we ended up on a 9 hour taxi ride back to Kathmandu. I’m pretty glad it happened, because the drive was beautiful, despite the drivers constant warnings to be careful when we stepped out of the car as we were driving through Maoist country. The Maoists are a rebel political group that control a large part of Nepal. They are often a violent group and aren’t above killing and kidnapping, and while we made a safe journey, we were on the edges of our seats.
   We arrived in Kathmandu with some time to kill. We saw the city a bit more and then finally headed to the airport. (on the way, our taxi driver got a flat tire, it seemed like the gods didn’t want us back in Macau either) The end to a fantastic adventure. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Himalaya Part II, Tibet.

     If I could recommend one place in the world, if you were going to stay in your house forever and were only going to take one trip your whole life, to just one place, it should be Tibet. And you better go quick, it’s fading faster and farther away every day. The strong hand of Beijing is pressing deeper into the Tibetan Province, pursuing an unfortunately brilliant kind of “ethnic cleansing” on the Tibetan lifestyle, not with force or with violence, but with simply being there. The Chinese move there, open restaurants, start businesses, and become part of the society, and slowly but surely, being to destroy the Tibetan lifestyle by turning it into the rest of China. Kind of like how we are steadily turning the world into the United States with McDonalds and Coca Cola. Slowly, surely, the identity disappears until there’s nothing else to protect; until there’s no Tibet left to “Free.” And with Tibetan Buddhists refraining from any sort of violence, protecting a once flourishing identity becomes harder and harder. If someone is breaking into your house, it’s a lot easier to pull out your shotgun than trying to reason with him or her and explain why they are doing the wrong thing. Yet that in itself, is what had made Tibet such a fantastic place. A struggle against an oppressive regimen, the political and religious leader of the region in exile for the last 55 years, his face illegal to display or possess… what chance do you really have? How do you stop something like this?
     Our trip to Tibet sparked in me a strong interest in the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the Dalai Lama’s teachings and writings. I’ve read several of his, as well as other influential Buddhists’ books since my trip and have found amazing life advice to live by. I probably wont ever convert to Buddhism, but the lessons learned from such teachings can benefit any life. I have made a lot of strong progress towards becoming a better, more fulfilled person. And I honestly do think it started in Tibet.
     Anyone attempting to describe Tibet with words will fail. And I’m sure others do a much better job than I could ever hope to explain. It’s more like another planet than a foreign country. I was awe-struck from the second we landed in Lhasa, until well after we crossed the border into Nepal. I’ve never felt more spiritual, closer with the earth, more in love with my life, or closer to the people around me than I did for these several days. An overwhelming sense of excitement and peace came over me, and it still comes back whenever I look back at my photos, or talk to my travel companions about the experience.
     There’s no point in me trying to explain where to eat, where to stay, what to do. When you get there, you’ll know exactly the path you need to take. Let the mountains take you far far away. Let the chants fill your heart with mystery. Let it overwhelm your soul. It’s a hard trip, but it’s worth every cent and every second. Far more than I could ever explain.
Potala Palace by night. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Himalaya Part 1: Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La China.

      Three weeks is really an incredible amount of time to be away for. It’s enough time to change your perspective entirely. I went from being miserable with my job to barely even thinking about it. Make sure you’re able to take time off from your life. You’re worth it, it will make you a better person, and it will put your priorities and life into a whole new perspective.
      It turned out to be a fantastic idea to slowly step up to Tibet. Macau is at sea level, so the slow progression, finally topping out at Everest Base Camp was crucial for our health and sanity. Little did I know how strongly high altitude could affect the body and the mind. We flew to Kunming and took an overnight bus to Dali. The sleepers were built for people in the 5’5” range. Ben did fine, but Brett and myself suffered all night. There’s nowhere to go, nowhere to get up and walk around, once you’re in the bed, you’re staying in the bed. The bathroom?? Luckily the window opened. I think we were on that bus for about 14 hours.
      We walked around the city, a quaint little town with interesting shops and restaurants. Old ladies were walking around with huge grocery bags of freshly picked marijuana for sale. We went to the beautiful Three Pagoda’s monument. I have no idea why this isn’t a UNESCO world heritage site. This is where I saw my first naturally growing marijuana plant growing up from the sidewalk, and nobody seemed to notice or care.
     There was a courtyard hotel at the top of the mountain that we had heard about. We ended up taking a chair lift up the mountain and finding the inn. It ended up being beautiful and we stayed for a few nights. Each night, the owners hosted a family style dinner for the tenants. Everything was home cooked, sourced from the local city, and amazingly fragrant and delicious. Dali ended up being a wonderful experience.
    And on we continued to Lijiang on another bus trip. We arrived in the city just outside of Old Town, the area we were staying in. From what we could understand with our extremely broken conversation with the cab driver, our hotel should be just around the corner. Two and a half hours later, we were still aimlessly wandering the cobblestone walkways, bags on our backs, incredibly lost and frustrated beyond belief. How anyone could every learn there way around that labyrinth, I will never understand. Every turn opened up 20 new options of where to go, and everywhere looked exactly the same as where we had been before. This mess, coupled with an incredible lack of signage led to three American kids stranded and hopeless. I honestly can’t remember if we ever found our rooms or if we just gave up and picked somewhere else. 
      We booked a day trip to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which houses the famous Yangtze River. We took a bus a few hours and got out at the top. The hike to the meeting point seemed like the only way to go. The first hour was a nightmare of what seemed like a path that would never stop going up, and up and up. At one point, we walked up on a herd of mountain goats that were completely blocking the path and didn’t look happy to see us. After much debate, screaming, and paying them a small fortune, we continued on our way. It really was a stunning hike and I’m glad we opted for it, but as the sun started to set, we got pretty concerned about making it back for the bus. We ended up running for the last half hour, attempting not to fall and slide down the mountain. We barely made it back to the bus in time. Whoever said that hike is easy to do in the allotted time needs a reality check. Lijiang was a mess, but still enjoyable. And on we went to Shangri-La.

            Shangri-La stopped me dead in my tracks. At the time, I thought it might as well be Tibet. I fell in love right away. A great feeling overcame me, a strong desire to understand or be part of the culture. We went to the town square where people were gathered, singing and celebrating their Buddhist traditions. We climbed a hill to the biggest prayer wheel in the world, a magnificent piece of art. Shangri-la is where I’ll be if I ever need to run away and start a new life. You’ll find me writing or taking pictures at the town square. I knew that we had an amazing journey left ahead of us.  And then we flew (first class) to Lhasa, Tibet.

Tiger Leaping Gorge