Friday, August 17, 2018

Nepal - Our First Week in Kathmandu

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Our flight out of Lhasa, Tibet was interesting.  It was a full hour's drive out of the city, through many tunnels and across many rivers before reaching the international airport.  We remarked over and over again as to why it was so far away when there appeared to be plenty of land closer to the capitol.

Our immigration exit process was effortless and we found ourselves waiting at the gate in no time.  We met a couple of southern Missouri, Jerry and Ecky, who make our travel history pale in comparison.  To date they have been to 113 countries.  We enjoyed our chat and eventually boarded our Sichuan Airlines flight to Kathmandu.  After flying over the Himalayas, and minutes from landing in Kathmandu, our pilot announced that weather has turned treacherous and that we were turning back to Lhasa.  Ninety minutes later we were back on the ground in Tibet to refuel and await a break in the weather.  On board a group of Spanish tourists got out an accordion and a flute and we enjoyed an impromptu concert.  And hour later we were back in the air.  This time the clouds had parted and we enjoyed an amazing view of Mt. Everest.
Landing was perfect and we were met on the tarmac with a landing stair and transfer bus.  One in the terminal the process was a bit involved but in no way complicated.
The terminals keep going off line...there were several power surges and two outages.  We were able to use both Chinese and Australian currency to purchase our 90 day visas.
The lines were short and the immirgation officers were about as pleasant as one could imagine.  The whole process was quick and efficient and we found ourselves at baggage claim and out on the curb for a taxi within an hour of landing. 
The airport now has a pre-paid taxi desk and that makes life SOOOOOO much nicer.  There was no horde of hungry taxi and transfer drivers clamoring for our business.  A currency exchange and SIM card desk right at the arrival gate made that part of our standard arrival plan even easier.   The taxi driver spoke perfect English and knew exactly where to take us.  Within 30 minutes we were in front of our apartment building on a small alleyway just off of the main street through the Thamel District and right in the middle of ' tourist town."  Our landlord met us within a few minutes and introduced us to our apartment.  We needed to stay in a different unit for our first night due to a scheduling snafu and the next day we were checked in to what would be our home for the next month.  Our bedroom unit is on the top floor with a private sun terrace and is perfect.  Away from the busy street is is quiet, super clean, and has all of the comforts of home...stellar Wifi and a cable TV system with Cinemax, HBO, STARS, sports channels, CNN, BBC, and many English language channels.






Our first few days in KTM were devoted to getting our India visa in order.  We are the last of our group to get it together and we are racing to the finish line with Carol Ross who just this week submitted her application.  The India Embassy is a 10 minute walk from our place and we found it with little trouble only to find it closed due to an Indian holiday.  Next door we found a private service office who agreed to do all of the legwork for us for an additional $30 USD.  We certainly didn't turn down that offer.  So our visas should be ready on the 27th for pickup.  Since our process began four days ago and we have not received a call, we can only surmise that all is going according to plan.

We found supplies at a small convenience store that carried some necessities, wandered the streets for fresh veggies and fruit, and found a frozen meat market (don't think we will be buying anything fresh) a bit further down the alleyway.  Our first few meals were all about comfort food and trying to establish some roots.
Pasta with Water Buffalo and Tomato Sauce.  Sorta like home.
Homemade chapati.  Never done this before and they were AMAZING.  Again sorta not like home. 
 Banana Walnut pancakes.  Getting closer.
Chicken enchiladas, rice and beans...homemade corn tortillas...just like HOME.
We met up with our local tour agency for the BIG TRIP and confirmed our group plans for September.  Amrit from Great Nepal Treks and Tours is a professional through and through and the nicest fellow you would want to meet.  He confirmed all of our group plans, laid out some ideas for when Ken and Denise arrive and offered us a free half-day tour to a neighboring village.  So nice.  Here is their company information.  Take a moment to consider them for your next visit to KTM.

http://www.greatnepaltreks.com/


We spent the rest of our first week wandering the streets, taking photos, and getting our bearings.  Next week we will extend our boundaries a bit and see a bit more.  We have a full month and are in the center of the city...so there are many choices.  Here is a small video our our first long walk in the city.  The smells, colors, sounds, and images are vivid. The people are kind, polite, and curious. The vendors and shop keepers are what you would expect. The food is AMAZING. The prices are ridiculously low. There is garbage everywhere. There is still a lot of visible damage from the big quake. It is warm and getting hotter daily as we near the end of the monsoon season. The humidity is overwhelming at times. It is a way of life. The way local people say "thank you" is both charming and heart-warming. The little ones are adorable. We LOVE this place!!!!!






Monday, August 13, 2018

Tibet - Five Very Interesting Days

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Once at the train station in Chengdu it was a fairly simply process to get our train tickets.  With passports, extra photos, and our Tibet permit in hand I stood in line for about a half hour.  The attendant smiled, took all of my documents and disappeared for over ten minutes.  I'l learned to be patient and hope for the best....smile.  With tickets in hand we passed quickly through security and then up to the waiting room.  It was only then that we realized we had been booked in different cabins on different carriages...LOL...the travel agency that did our arrangements for the Tibet journey must have thought we wouldn't mind.  In the end it worked out fine.  I shared a cabin with a very noisy 3-year old, his mom, a guy who refused to use earphones to watch Chinese dramas, and a fellow from Hong Kong who had OCD and packed and unpacked his bags at least a dozen times.  Bobbie got a cabin with a fellow that did not talk and a mother and daughter who slept their way across the plateau.

The train journey was 3,060 kms long (1920 miles) and took a little over 45 hours in total.  The first 24 hours was spent skirting the Tibetan plateau.  Ir rises abruptly over 12,000 feet all along its western and northern borders.  We traveled north and then west to a point where there is a moderate inclined access to the high country and that is where they built the railway line.  We went to sleep around 9PM as the train gradually made its way up in elevation.  At 1AM I woke suddenly with a splitting headache.  The train was moving along at about 40 mph and I could see that the ground was covered in about two feet of snow.  I got up to use the toilet and almost blacked out.  Once I had gained control, I stumbled down the corridor to the oxygen making station to look at the altimeter.  The gauge read 5, 323 meters or a little over 18,000 feet.  That gave me the reason for the headache.  I got out the map and judged that we were at the summit of the pass.  Going back to the cabin the next four ours were pretty rough and there were several times when I though I might have to find Bobbie and get some O2.  By sunrise we had dropped down to about 14,000 and the altitude sickness leveled off.  Bobbie took the photo below when were were at 15,600 feet.  By this time the train was awake and most everyone had a complaint or two.


In the final five hours we descended into Lhasa at 12,000 ft and had arrived.  It was 9AM and the town was pretty quite.  Our guide did not show up at the train station, we did not have the name of our hotel, and if it was not for another guide from the same company holding a sign we would have had a serious problem.  He contacted his office, they could not find our names on any of the rosters, yet he got us to the hotel he thought might be ours.  Neither hotel had our reservation but somehow, in the Chinese way as we have learned to understand, they figured something out and we were put into a night twin bed room overlooking the main street.

Both still having headaches and not having slept well on the train, we opted to kick back for the balance of the day and each fell into a deep sleep until later afternoon...smile.  We got up, wandered the streets a bit, and had dinner at a nice restaurant overlooking the ancient square.


The next day was our free day and we were allowed to wander the streets of the old part of the city without an escort.  We headed out and enjoyed meeting the local people.  Lhasa is not in anyway as developed as the rest of China.  There are no high rise apartment buildings in the old city...the tallest being four stories and most all are made of centuries old stone blocks and mortar.  There are few street vendor carts...in fact we only saw one or two the whole day, as most have small shops.  This being said the city was still already suffering from the ever growing Chinese tourist market and the ancient charm was starting to vanish.



A temple in one of the alleyways.



The street markets displayed lot of fresh meat...mostly yak and pork.  I did not see a single chicken or part of a chicken for sale anywhere.  There were hundreds of butter vendors selling butter in rounds   These are twice the size of a basketball.  Yak butter is used for cooking and for lighting the temples.  We learned that yak lanterns do not give off smoke and thus provide a very clean light source that does not end up covering the ancient painting in the temples with soot.


The main street of the city.


Our second day was also the day of the Yogurt Festival.  Aptly names as the festival honoring the monks when local bring butter and yogurt to the temples as an offering.  Our guide warned us that there would be a crowd and that we would be walking a bit further to reach the temple than usual.

The crowd was AMAZING.  Thousands of people walking jammed together eight across pushing and shoving their way up the winding path to the monastery above.





We were two hours into the walk, so VERY TIRED of being pushed and shoved and stepped on and finally got sight of our destination.  It would take another hour to reach the monastery itself.

All along the way the kids were squeezing through the crowd fences and playing.  Here are some shots of some of the cute ones in local costumes.




It was truly almost unbearable being pushed along by the shear mass of people behind us.  We all got separated along the way and for the last half of the three hour walk I was alone amidst the masses, many chanting and praying as we stumbled on half step at a time.


The began the steps.




Upon reaching the top the giant painting on the side of the mountain had been covered becuase...oh I forget to mention the rain...LOL.
Tibetan monks in full regalia were sounding trumpets.
Offerings were being made all over the grounds and there was incnese burhin.  It was a mass of chaos, smells, and sounds.


In all of this we lost our guide and it was not until the 14 in the group met up and rejoined that he appeared.  It was then that we leaned we were at the home of the first five kings of Tibet and the first four Dali Lhamas.  The 14th, the current one living in exile in India was the last to occupy the monastery.
Bobbie and I in front of the main meeting hall where teaching is performed.  The monastery has been in existence since 600 AD.




We worked out way down the mountain with much less of a crowd and took care of one of our group would had not survived the hike and altitude, She had to be transported back to the bus and later to the hotel.  Here are a group of old women eating their lunch after coming down from the top.
What should have been about a three hour visit in total ended up taking more than seven hours.  There was not time to stop for a meal if we wanted to see the summer palace of the Dali Lamas.  The palace is in the center of the city and is a huge complex of gardens, pagodas, and residences.


I made friends with a couple of young men.
Our group companion Josette from Boston had recovered and joined us.  We were all being asked for photos.  She was busy.
Thousands of families were visting the site having a rest and a picnic on the grounds.





This was the home of the 14th Dali Lama until being expelled from the country in 1959.











As part of the festival there was an opera taking place and we had time to watch and listen for a few minutes.







Our day ended with a very late lunch/dinner at a famous old city restaurant and a well reserved and early sleep.

Our third day started off with the main highlight of our tour...a visit to Potala Palace, official home to five kings of Tibet, all of the Dali Lamas, and the location of most of their collective tombs.  An image of the Potala is the most common associated with Tibet.  On board the bus our guide issued the timed entry tickets.  Once again Bobbie and I were not on his list.  After some "discussion" he produced from his bag the following photocopy of a US passport.  It wasn't mine but it had my photo.


I was pretty pissed off that the company had photo shopped my picture on to a US passport, thus giving me an illegal form of ID that could easily get me arrested.  The additional information was that the passport number matched the number of a ticket to the palace that they conveniently had...so it was obviously planned...they lied about not having a copy of my passport earlier, obliviously were trying to save some many using an unused ticket from another guest, and seemed not concerned at all that they were breaking a major law.  After some additional conversation I was assured that it wopuld not be checked and all would be well.  I agreed to go to at least the first checkpoint to see how it went.  The entrance guards barely looked, and I passed through all three checkpoints without an issue.  I was still pissed off.

The palace was amazing.  Built in 600 AD with has over 2300 rooms.  We toured 20 of them.













It was a long climb.

Halfway up I met this couple on a pilgrimage.  The agreed to a photo and we had a nice conversation in broken English, Chinese, and sign language.





On top of the white palace portion we enjoyed the views before entering the red palace and the home of the lamas.



The interior rooms, temples, meditation areas, etc.









Only the guys did the palace tour and here we are posing against the white stone wall.

Last stop of the tour was the oldest temple in Tibet and one used by most of the kings and all of the lamas.


















We ended the tour with a group dinner at a local restaurant.  The meal was entirely vegetarian except for one dish and it was quite good.  Back at the hotel we packed up our bags for tomorrows early departure and retired early listening to the celebrating on the street thus ending the weekend festival.