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Episode 3 - Into Tibet, the Roof of the World

Greg in front of the Potala, Lhasa

Welcome Back!

In the continuing story of Greg and Mark's travels, this is:

Episode 3 - The last days of Kathmandu, and the visit to the forbidden land, Tibet.

If you're feeling impatient, here's a quick table of contents. Otherwise, read on down at your leisure.

Momos

A long time ago now (it seems), before Gerry and Ross even left Kathmandu, we all got involved in the Inaugural International Momo-eating Competition, and we're still a little bewildered by the experience. For the uninitiated, momos are small Tibetan meat pastries, very similar to small, steamed meat dim-sims (click here). They are spicy, and pretty yummy. Amer's household (the owners of the Kathmandu hotel we stayed in) likes to eat momos about once a week. One night, as we were joining them in their weekly momo feast, we asked them what the momo-eating record was. We got various answers, ranging from 50 to 100. Whatever the number was, one thing was clear - the local champ was Amer's heartthrob son, Anil. Mark, with all the bravado of a six-foot-three Aussie at least 30kg heavier than any Nepali, nurturing the memory of a short-lived Australian Weet-bix eating record (33 1/3 in one sitting, with milk), and feeling sure nothing would ever come of it, boasted "No problem!" Two nights later, he found himself in Amer's kitchen, surrounded by (in no particular order): a gaggle of momo-chefs (click here), two T-shirts beautifully embroidered with Inaugural International Momo-eating Competition, Kathmandu, Nepal - WINNER and Inaugural International Momo-eating Competition, Kathmandu, Nepal - RUNNER UP (click here), two judges (Ross and Amer) plus an official momo-counter (Gerry) (click here), and a bookie hawking odds and collecting wagers from the 30-odd spectators (Greg) (click here). Mark was the narrow favourite, and bets were arriving (by phone) from Australia and India. Needless to say, Mark was wondering what he'd let himself in for. The time-limit was three hours, and there was only one rule: No vomiting. They started quickly and confidently (click here). We can't speak for Anil, but Mark was feeling reasonably full after 20. They stayed neck-and-neck for a long time, and paused together for 20-minute break after 50. Both seemed a little seedy (click here). They were noticeably reluctant getting started again, and the remaining momos were going down much more slowly, at the rate of about one every three or four minutes. Mark pulled away to a lead of five or six, and eventually paused again on 75, looking vaguely ill, declaring that he'd only continue if Anil caught up. Many were sceptical that he could continue under any circumstances. Anil threw in the towel on 69, and Mark was declared the winner, to the delight of most of the punters. Ross scooped a separate pool that was betting on how many momos would be eaten by the winner (he guessed 75 exactly), while the pool set up to predict who had the best eating style was abandoned due to cultural disagreements as to what indeed constituted current momo-eating vogue. The presentation ceremony began, with many photos and thankyous to the chefs involved (click here), and an amazing certificate was unveiled that will find a special place on Mark's Wall of Fame (click here). The newly-crowned champion (click here) and runner-up wobbled off to their respective beds, and both wore their T-shirts with pride for the next few days (click here). Petitions have been made to the Sydney Olympic Committee to have Momo-Eating declared as a trial sport for the 2000 Games next year. Confidence of acceptance is high, and invitations have already been issued to the Nepali Team.

The Dads Depart

A couple of days later (December 20th), it was sadly time for the parting of the "Lads and Dads." The Shrestha family, who been so hospitable, turned on a farewell ceremony out of respect for the departure of the esteemed elders. Ross and Gerry sat in a formal reception area of the hotel, where they were treated to good-luck travelling nibblies (hard-boiled eggs and vegetables) (click here), and were anointed on the forehead with the Hindi sign of honour and good luck (click here). A red leaf was placed behind their left ears (click here), and each family member took their turn in paying their respects. After many hugs between fathers and sons, Gerry and Ross were whisked off to Kathmandu Airport in the family 4WD. We went back to their room and had a quiet and vaguely sad afternoon and evening.

So where to next? After hearing stories and descriptions from Gerry about a magical land called Tibet, we decided to make this our next adventure. However, there were two main obstacles to this:

  1. All flights to Lhasa (Tibet's capitol) had ceased in mid-November, due to it being off-season and bitterly cold, limiting our travel options to a 1,000km drive. By all accounts, this is one of the most beautiful roads in the world, but it takes at least three days each way over dirt roads, and isn't the sort of journey you'd want to do twice in a month.
  2. Tourists are only allowed into Tibet in groups of five or more (courtesy of the #&*!@ Chinese government). Usually this would not present a problem, as travel agencies try to put together travellers with the same plans. But of course, being off-season, there were no other travellers to Tibet to be found in Kathmandu.

A solution to this last one was provided by Gerry's Tibetan friend Dupa Lama, who looks after Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu who are fleeing the Chinese oppression, and, luckily for us, also owns a carpet factory in Lhasa. As such he petitioned the Chinese government to allow two "carpet buyers" into Tibet (China) to visit his factory. Business visas, of course, can be issued individually, but not instantly, so we had a couple of days to kill.

Haatiban Resort

We decided to spend the waiting time away from Kathmandu - the pollution (noise, air and street) was getting to us. Another of Gerry's friends, Finso of International Trekking, kindly offered to let us stay at the tourist resort they own on the edge of the Kathmandu Valley, called Haatiban (which we think is German for "Elephant place" - no elephants to be found, though). We accepted his offer, as we are wont to do, rented a couple of mountain bikes, and rode off through Kathmandu's unparalleled smog to a beautiful resort offering spectacular views of the entire Kathmandu Valley (click here). We arrived on Christmas Eve, and stayed three nights, hobnobbing with German and Australian tour groups, and wandering around the hills in search of views, sunshine and perfect meditation spots.

For something to do, we rented a couple of the small Nepalese horses, but returned them an hour later out of pity for the tiny animals (click here). Another afternoon we went off climbing the local hills. Punishing our own legs was far more physically and spiritually rewarding. Greg got a sparkle in his eyes (click here) and set his sights on the local summit, the fabled location of a Buddhist stupa. After a taxing climb he found the stupa (click here), and with one mighty hand, grabbed it and claimed it as his own (click here). He was happy (click here).

Christmas was a non-event (as it tends to be in the Himalayas) for which we were grateful, and we spared a thought for those we love caught up in the frenzy known as Christmas in the West.

We rode back down to our hotel, collected our new Chinese visas (which cost a mere A$100 each), had some business cards printed up and laminated proclaiming that we were the General Manager and Purchasing Officer of a prominent Australian carpet business ("The CarpetWorks"), and set off in a taxi for the Chinese border, five hours drive away.

Crossing The Border

The drive was uneventful (and only A$53), and Nepalese Passport control was painless. We'd heard horror stories about the Chinese border though, ranging from fees for totally unnecessary permits, to outright bribes, and even prison if you're unlucky. Before we could enjoy any of that, though, we had a 10km uphill journey from the Nepali checkpoint at Kodari to the Chinese checkpoint at Zhang Mu that our original taxi wasn't allowed to take us on. We rejected offers from local Chinese taxis to take us up for A$40, and steeled ourselves for a three-hour walk with our packs. After a strenuous 15-minute walk that made our taxi decision seem a little hasty, we came across a landslide being repaired by a bulldozer. Cars and trucks were queued on each side, and the wait looked to be at least two hours. Wondering what our taxi-driver pirate would have done with us here, we walked across the earthworks. We approached the driver of the last truck in the line on the uphill side, and offered him US$10 to take us to the Chinese checkpoint. Having nothing to do for the next two hours, he eagerly accepted, but not before seeing if the dumb tourists would pay $20. They wouldn't, of course, it was a buyer's market. After riding up the road in our ancient Chinese truck, and seeing the length and steepness of the road we would have had to walk up, it was, in retrospect, the best $10 we ever spent.

As we approached the Chinese checkpoint at Zhang Mu, we removed all external signs of obvious wealth and hid our US$800 in our socks. Nervously, we walked up to the uniformed guard and presented our passports. He anticlimactically replied, "closed, you come tomorrow 10 o'clock," and kept our passports. Geographically but not officially in China, we wandered into Zhang Mu, our first Chinese town, and looked around. Unimpressed, we checked into a "hotel," ate, and went to sleep, the odour of human faeces permeating the night air.

The next morning we were officially allowed entry to China, in what must have been a record 15 minutes. No bribes, no leg-irons - we can only assume we frightened them with our sheer size. We spent that day in Zhang Mu, giving our bodies a chance to acclimatise to the altitude that we knew was ahead. Dupa Lama had a Tibetan friend that was driving to Zhang Mu from Lhasa, and was supposedly arriving on the evening of our rest day. We were to use his vehicle to return to Lhasa, which would purportedly save us money. The only problem was, he never showed up. During our day of waiting and acclimatising, we wandered around one of the least appealing towns we'd ever explored (click here). It looked so nice and clean from a distance, but up close it made Nepal look like Switzerland. Early in the afternoon, Greg was killed for making disparaging comments about the local butcher's wife (click here). At 7pm, sick of waiting, we went off into town in search of dinner (Greg wasn't really dead - that was a clever traveller's joke. Stay tuned for more).

That night we spent 70Y (A$14) to not get laid. No jokes! There we were, harmlessly wandering back towards our hotel after dinner, and we noticed this building much like all the others (i.e. grubby), except it had a bright neon sign (in Chinese) out the front. Intrigued, we thought, "what the hell?" and went in. We were confronted with a group of about five foxily dressed Chinese "girls," who seemed delighted that we'd entered their establishment. Enjoying the turn of events, but suspecting we'd entered a brothel, we looked around to try to ascertain exactly what kind of weirdness we'd stumbled upon. To the left there was a corridor with six or seven curtained doorways leading off it. "Brothel," we said to each other, but then we looked inside the first curtain and found a dining room with the remains of someone's meal still decorating the table. "OK, maybe it's a restaurant," was our next conclusion. We felt like a drink, so we found a clean room, sat down and ordered a couple of bottles of beer. The beers arrived, carried by two of our ladyfriends, as well as some peanuts, beef jerky and chewing gum (of all things) that we didn't order. They poured us our beers, then sat down next to us, snuggled up to our shoulders and announced, "we like you!" smiling as hard as they could. "Oh shit," was our third and final conclusion. We stood up to leave (not before finishing our beers, you understand), and dropped 50Y (A$10) on the table, figuring this was about three times the value of the consumed food and beer (bottles of beer are 7Y each). Smiles evaporated, and the matron was summoned. They barred our exit with their tiny bodies and demanded another 50Y. We attempted to communicate that this was ludicrous, that 50Y was already an exorbitant price to pay for a couple of beers and snacks that we didn't eat. They were adamant, and, guessing that the local chief of police was down the hall, we produced another 20Y. This was obviously sufficient, for the smiles returned, as did the "I like you's." As we beat a hasty exit to the street, we noticed that each of our concubines was paid 7Y for their efforts. Ever curious, Greg made the universal hand symbol for jiggy-jiggy and asked how much. 200Y (A$40) came the reply. Our curiosity surrounding exotic Chinese buildings cured forever, we slunk back to our hotel and played gin rummy the rest of the night.

There are not many countries in which a pair of tourists, unaccused of any crime and sleeping peacefully in their hotel beds, can be rudely awakened at midnight by armed policemen bursting into their room. China is clearly a special land, and we awoke to the sound of demands for "passports" by no less than three of these "protectors of the peace." Our passports and visas were apparently fine, but we were deficient in the travel-permit department. We were instructed to present ourselves to the Police Station the next morning at 10, to be issued with this vital (and probably expensive) document. After they were gone and safely out of earshot, we courageously replied, "fuck that!" and went back to sleep, comforted by the now-familiar aroma of human excrement.

Instead of the Police Station, the next morning at 10 we fronted up to the Tibet Hotel, a known rendesvous for travellers looking for drivers and drivers looking for passengers. Almost immediately we found a very pleasant Tibetan by the name of Thupten (pronounced "Tooten"), who suggested a price of 250Y (A$50) per person to travel in his Toyota Landcruiser to Lhasa in two days. We'd been told that 300-400Y was a fair price, and we'd been expecting to pay Dupa Lama's friend 800Y each, so we graciously accepted. In his finest English (which on a generous day you could only call "poor," but nevertheless was better than our combined Tibetan) he told us that we must have a travel permit or we'd never make it past the first checkpoint. So we went off to the Police Station after all, where a travel permit for both of us was only 50Y (A$10). After a brief (well OK - lengthy) delay while we tried to find a photocopier to copy our legitimate invitation from the Chinese Department of Commerce (the carpet thing), we got into Thupten's 4WD with three other Tibetan passengers - an elderly married couple and a chubby, well-to-do trader who talked incessantly in Tibetan for the entire two days - and drove up the dusty road feeling pretty happy, all things considered.

Into Tibet

And so began the most beautiful, and appalling, drive that either of us has ever experienced. We drove up the valley that Zhang Mu is a part of, and reached Nyalam at 12,300ft (3750m). Here the scenery changed, and we entered the high plains of Tibet - "The Roof of the World." Surrounded on all sides by barren, brown hills and distant snow-capped mountains (click here), it was so desolate we felt like we were driving on the moon (click here). We drove up a broad river valley to a pass of 16,300ft (5050m), where we saw that the desolation of the past 20km extended as far as we could see. The dirt road, pitted, corrugated and swept away in places by streams, was occasionally rough to the point of pain, and, along with the stark beauty, was destined to be the one constant factor in our journey to Lhasa. In the distance, Chomolungma (Mt Everest) presided over all.

We stopped for our evening meal in a town called Tingri - a collection of whitewashed buildings lining the straight highway. As we got out of the car and went for a small walk down the road and the freezing wind blew by us (and through us), a couple of tumbleweeds and a banjo playing nearby would have been enough to convince us that we were actually driving though New Mexico - albeit a bloody cold one (click here). In the absence of a thermometer, we guessed the temperature to be around -10C, and less with the substantial wind-chill. Having failed to stave off the cold with five layers of clothing, including our $400 Gore-Tex jackets, we came across three young kids, one of them bare-skinned under his open jacket! They simply smiled and pestered us to take their photograph, which of course we did (click here). This kind of temperature was to be our constant companion during our stay in Tibet. Unlike bitterly cold Western countries (like Canada) where everything - cars, houses, shops - is heated, in Tibet it is rare to find heating anywhere, except perhaps in the fanciest hotels. The hotels we stayed in were far from fancy. Some mornings we would awake in our sleeping-bags to find that water in bowls in our room had iced over. The only time we ever felt warm was at night, thanks to our expensive sleeping-bags and our thermal underwear. And yet, somehow it's supposed to be like that. Our mental images of Tibet were of a cold, inhospitable land. If we'd gone there and found it warm, it wouldn't have been right somehow. We would have had to get our money back.

Later that evening we drove through the infamous New Tingri Checkpoint. Unlike the other checkpoints we had passed through (maybe three that first day) where they merely glanced at our travel permit and ignored our passports altogether, this time they demanded the Landcruiser unloaded and commenced a full search of our bags. To this day we're unsure of what they were looking for (Dalai Lama photographs perhaps?), but the search itself was laughable. Sometimes they were as thorough as a Thai drug squad, looking inside our jar of peanut butter and our film canisters, other times they surprised us with what could only be described as gross negligence - they didn't search three or four compartments of our packs, ignored Mark's daypack on the front seat of the car, and neglected to search our pockets, where we'd cleverly hidden the dreaded contraband, Lonely Planet Tibetan Guidebooks!

That night as we lay in our sleeping-bags, we were feeling decidedly wobbly with the altitude (14,100ft/4300m - easily our highest ever night). Sydney-style normal breathing for a minute or two would leave us out of breath, and our hearts were racing at 90-100bpm. Sleep came slowly, but luckily there were no headaches.

The next day was, if anything, higher, more desolate and bumpier than the last. We crossed a pass of 17,100ft (5220m) - the highest point on the planet that either of us had ever experienced, but not before the Landcruiser became bogged in an icy stream that had crossed our road. At 17,000ft and with a wind-chill of -30C, trying to push a Landcruiser is a tiring and freezing prospect, not to mention totally ineffectual (click here). Unbelievably, a truck happened by five minutes later (we would typically see a vehicle every hour or two), and with a mighty jerk, pulled us clear of the ice (click here). As we crossed the pass five minutes later, we jumped out to take photos (click here and here - yes, that really is the top of a pass), then spent the next hour in the car trying to get warm again. We lunched in Shigatse, Tibet's second largest town, and pressed on for Lhasa at 4pm. After Shigatse the road improved, and we made the final 320km into Lhasa in only four hours. The date was December 31st, 1998.

Upon arrival at our hotel, the Snowlands, we paid and thanked Thupten, and he gave us his phone number in case we needed a return ride. A quick inspection of the noticeboards of the only three inhabited budget hotels in town informed us that there was a New Year's Eve party in a restaurant 10 minutes walk away, so we rocked up looking for something to eat (but not drink - we were still scared of altitude sickness) at about 9pm. We spotted maybe twelve Westerners, and a few locals (Tibetans and Chinese), and sat down for a meal and our first foray into the young backpacker set for this trip. We later learned that these were virtually all the Westerners in Lhasa (with the exception of businessmen, who stay at the Holiday Inn and don't count), and they were all staying across the road from us at the Pentok Guest House. Great people (you don't get many wankers in a place like Lhasa), we were to spend almost every Lhasa evening in their company. Enjoying being able to speak English for a change, we saw 1999 in with beers (altitude be damned), cake and confetti, then left straight away and fell into bed. Happy New Year everyone....

Lhasa

Lhasa is a large, sprawling, dusty town set in the high Tibetan plains (12,000ft/3650m - the height of Namche Bazaar on the other side of the Himalayas). It seems more Chinese than Tibetan, paradoxically run by Chinese yet inhabited by Tibetans. Beggars (most often children) hassle you on the street and accost you in restaurants. The kids' favourite tactic is to actually get in front of you as you walk down the street, turn around, and prevent you from walking with all their five-year-old strength. This is at once comical and pitiful. If they're feeling determined, they'll even wrap themselves around one of your legs - which is great if you need a leg-warmer, but annoying if you're trying to get to the Internet cafe before it closes (yes, they even have the Internet in Lhasa). In mid-winter it's a cold town, so you're never without your thermals. If you only have one pair, and the choice is between freezing and smelling ... well, you figure it out. In the Pentok Guest House they have a fridge in the common room where they keep the beers. It has a thermometer inside, and we weren't too surprised to learn that it was colder in the common room than in the fridge (7C). It's the kind of town where you play off for the bed closest to the warmth of the room's 60W light bulb.

So what is there to do in Lhasa? The first and most obvious answer is to visit the Potala, the most famous landmark in Tibet (click here). A huge palace/monastery dating back to the 17th century, it seems now to be a Mecca for Tibetan pilgrims and a museum for the tourists (click here - look familiar?). If you travel through it on the days that it's open to the pilgrims, you can watch them praying, prostrating themselves, and donating silk scarves, butter for the many candles, and banknotes. There are many impressive rooms, featuring uncountable gold statues, and it seems that the more impressive the room, the more they charge to allow you to take pictures of it. A typical room would cost 90Y (A$18), while an expensive one costs 150Y (A$30). Incredibly, we found a room that cost 450Y (A$90) that was the exception to the rule. Less impressive (to us) then a typical 90Y room, we couldn't imagine paying $90 to add to our collection a photo of 3000-odd small gold Buddha statues on shelves behind chicken-wire. You may, at this point, be wondering about the lack of here's to click on to see photos of Potala rooms. Think about it just a little more...

Other than the Potala, Lhasa is short on tourist destinations. Neither of us is what you'd call a sightseer. Take Paris for example. Go there and you feel you're cheating yourself if you don't take a look at the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triumphe. Yet when you see them, if you're anything like us, you take one look and say, "well, it looks just like it does in the postcards." When we hear from some tourist who's seen 18 countries in 21 days from the comfort of a Contiki coach and then boasts to us that they've "done" Europe, we're seldom as impressed as they want us to be. That's not our style. For us, that's not what travelling is about. If you want to see Paree, stay for a month or two (or a year to be sure), visit the cafes that the locals haunt, shop in patisseries and stay in a Parisian's house, if you can. Learn French and befriend a Frenchman (or woman, even better). Study a little French history. Only then (in our book) can you claim to know the "Paris Experience." We value our experience of a country according to the connections we have with the people there and the little corners that we come to know and love. That's also how we feel about Tibet. We weren't even nearly there for a couple of months, but in the time we had, we tried to know the real Lhasa. If you share our tastes, when you've seen one Tibetan monastery you've seen 'em all. We were much more interested in visiting the Tibetan home of the family of the President of the Australian Tibetan Society, Namgyel Tsering (who is a friend of Mark's), and fulfilling our obligation to visit the carpet factory involved in our visa scam. So visit them we did.

Our visit to Namgyel's family's household was an experience we shan't forget in a hurry. We were collected from our hotel by Namgyel's brother-in-law bearing a bag of sweet buns and cakes to honour our arrival. At their home we were brought before Namgyel's mother, Dhurab Tsering Dolma, the grand matron of the family (the mo-la), at the marvellous age of 83. Her huge toothless grin and her constant demands that our teacups be refilled were two of the wonderful memories we shall cherish of the family's hospitality (click here). Namgyel's niece was summoned from work, as she was the member of the household that spoke the best English (Injiy-kay). We chatted in broken pidgin and ate ourselves to the point of bursting as the afternoon idled by (click here). Eventually we left, and our memory of Lhasa will be that little bit fonder for having visited those lovely people. (Note: for Namgyel and anyone else interested in seeing more photos of our visit, click here)

The carpet factory was not quite as memorable. We wanted to visit the place, not to buy any carpets (of course), nor to satisfy the protocols of our business visa, but to pay our thanks to whoever it was there that helped us get into Tibet in the first place. Sadly, there was noone there except a fellow with no English whom we assumed to be the duty supervisor. He made us tea (naturally) and showed us around his facility, while we made impressed noises and took the inevitable digital photos (click here and here). We left about 30 minutes after we arrived feeling that our mission wasn't quite accomplished, but knowing that news of our visit would be passed on to the appropriate persons.

We have many other wonderful memories of Lhasa, including:

Yes, Lhasa was worth every hassle we endured to get there.

And yet, Gerry was right: Tibet can be quite depressing, especially witnessing the cacophony that is the Chinese domination of the Tibetans. On the surface seems quite amicable, but the real oppression is evidenced by the police presence and their visits, the warnings we got about phone taps, and the verbal censorship of anything to do with Tibetan religion (i.e. the Dalai Lama). A simple example was watching a Chinese policeman pull out a bankroll of several thousand Yuan (more than an average Tibetan would see in a year), and pull off a note to buy a packet of chewing gum from a Tibetan.

We took Thupten (click here) up on his offer to return us to the border, and we negotiated a deal with him that would slow the journey to four days, thus giving us time to see some of the beauty of Tibet, including Everest Base Camp (we never got to see the Nepalese one). A Swiss girl called Silvia (click here) was wanting to travel in the same direction in the same timeframe, and we were glad to have her along. Not only would we get the pleasure of her company, but she could also share in the (not inconsiderable) cost of the journey (3000Y/A$600 altogether). And so, in the dark of a freezing morning, after five days and six nights in Lhasa, we sat shivering in our favourite Landcruiser as it began its bouncing journey back toward the distant and slightly unsavoury destination of Zhang Mu.

Returning to Kathmandu

We had an inauspicious start to our trip. All three of us had contracted colds during the previous day or two, and so we huddled in the car, coughing and spluttering, and quite unable to appreciate the beauty of the alternate return route that we'd specifically requested of Thupten (click here). Upon our arrival in Shigatse that evening, it became evident that Greg's cold had escalated into a violent 'flu, and had combined with a severe altitude headache and conjunctivitis (just for luck). Mark's cold was merely horrible. A rest day was called in Shigatse, and the boys spent the day in bed, fantasising about hot showers, room-service and the Caribbean, the sorriest pair of intrepid adventurers ever to boast, "it will go!"

The next day's assault on Everest Base Camp (yes, Tibet has one too, only they call it Chomolungma Base Camp) was hailed as a cautious success. The four-hour drive was over roads that made our previous travels seem like serene gliding over a German Autobahn. After stopping the Landcruiser for 60 seconds at Rongbuk Monastery - the highest monastery in the world - to take a photo for all of you (click here), we finally got to Base Camp, at a staggering 17,100ft (5200m), but of course there were no mountains to be seen. The clouds had come down, hiding the majesty of the Himalayas, but cleverly leaving the desolate valley in plain view. We got out of the Landcruiser, which left us out of breath, and attempted to find the best vantage point for photographs (click here and here). Temperatures below -20C and 40-knot winds combined to make Base Camp the most inhospitable place either of us had ever seen, and we were forced back into the car after a pathetic ten minutes. During the four-hour drive back to the main road, we tried to determine whether it had all been worth it. It was too close to call.

The next day was the one that was supposed to see us back in Kathmandu. And not a day too soon! We were, after four days on the road and twelve days in Tibet, feeling interminably cold, run-down from our flu, tired and irritable from travelling, bored of the endless brown landscapes, and filthy from having not bathed in six days. Poor Brad Pitt - Seven Years of the place! When we woke that morning to find it snowing outside, our first reaction was "Hooray! Something new!" That proved a little premature when our driver informed us that with the snow, it was unlikely we'd make it over the pass (5050m) and down the valley to the border. Praying to our various gods, and freezing our nuts off, the four of us drove off down the road in the dark at 8am, making good time for the first 4km before we got bogged in a frozen stream that crossed the road. Half an hour later, with frozen and filthy hands and feet, we were free of the icy puddle, whereupon Thupten promptly drove backwards into another one. Luckily, we were out of this one in less than ten minutes. It was then that we noticed the flat tyre....

The day improved (there was only one way it could go). Our high pass produced beautiful but harsh snowswept vistas (click here and here), and the Landcruiser had no problems with the road. As we drove on towards Nepal, keeping one eye on the snow-depth under the wheels, we saw a new Tibet. A clean and brilliant Tibet replaced the brown, rocky panoramas we were used to (click here and here). Eager to further our good luck with the road, we abandoned our plans for lunch at Nyalam and pressed on for Zhang Mu. Trees returned. Our sense of smell returned. The air became perceptibly warmer and easier to breathe. We had never thought it possible, but we were glad to see Zhang Mu! The Chinese border police were only interested in how quickly they could process us and get back to their television, and we found ourselves in Nepal! Home again! Well, almost.

We still had to get back to Kathmandu. Before that, we needed to negotiate the 10km downhill to the Nepalese town of Kodari. We agreed to pay A$5 each to stand on the back of a truck with 20 local traders as it wobbled its way down the hairpins to the bridge, and were just a little cranky to learn that the locals were being charged 50c for the same ride. With 1km to go we encountered another landslide (a different one from before) blocking the road, and after waiting for 15 minutes but foreseeing no movement for a further hour, we got off to walk the remaining distance, ignoring the driver's demands for payment. After a brief lunch in Kodari, the three of us (Sylvia was still with us, remember) rented a taxi back to Kathmandu. As we crossed the bridge at Dalalght, we calculated that in the previous 10 hours, we'd descended 14,800ft (4500m). Harbouring fantasies of hot showers, we pushed on into the twilight.

It was sad to say goodbye to Sylvia at her guest house in Thamel. She is a lovely soul, and wise beyond her 22 years. Her simple, cheery good nature was an added quality and fond memory of the return journey. We reached the palatial Dynasty Hotel just as the weekly Sunday 2-hour Kathmandu blackout was ending, so of course - no hot water. We were informed that the water-furnace had given up for the night, so Greg braved the cold water, unable to stand another day of filth, while Mark said "Ah f--- it, what's one more night?" The meals that room-service brought were plenty hot though, and we watched CNN until we fell asleep.

Next?

Kathmandu, and in particular the Dynasty Hotel, have come to seem like home these last few weeks. And yet, tomorrow we leave, not to return (well, not this trip anyway - we'll definitely be back, and soon). That's sad in a way, but the journey continues.

To where? Well, Cairo first. The Pyramids are beckoning. After that, we'll wander up through Israel into Turkey, then most probably fly straight to London - unless we get a better offer.

Personal Comments

Greg

This sector has had both highs and lows. As I start this personal commentary a cacophony of images erupt in my mind, stimulating all of my senses. What meant the most to me? What was important? I reflect - yes that's it - the places, cities, towns and indescribable landscapes. Or is it the people I've seen, met, or shared food, conversations and heart-felt connections with. No, it's the constant feeling of uncertainty, being immersed in the "culture shock" that is Nepal, China and Tibet. Now I'm remembering - this is the three-ring circus, without a tent, that my kind of travel is. On a daily basis norms of what I knew in my Sydney life - mostly manageable and predictable, are fully challenged. In fact looking back at some of what I and even my friends hold dear, I can see some very petty attitudes we live through. While travelling there are daily things I can no longer take for granted. Like simple body functions, through to foreign exchange calculations, language differences, food choices, bartering and negotiating almost everything and the plight of other humans to name a few. Add to this the hyper-vigilance often required to ensure personal and property safety and it is sometimes just overwhelming. I've had to constantly turn up my tolerance meter and just accept many of the things I would never encounter back home. Provided I keep allowing myself to have these often intense experiences there ultimately comes, an internal assimilation, which is giving me a more expansive view of life on the planet, and of me. From this, I experience a great deal of freedom. This is travel.

What about the three countries visited?

In closing, most of this travel would not be possible but for Gerry Virtue. Like the never-ending support and hospitality given to me by the Shrestha family, whose hotel, office and home I use as if my own. The generosity of Finso, whose trekking company own Haatiban luxury resort where I stayed at no cost looking down on the turmoil and pollution of the Kathmandu valley. A much-needed respite. The Chinese visa that was impossible if not for Dupa Lama - a compassionate Tibetan man who still cares for as many Tibetans as possible both through employment at his carpet factories in two countries and the refugee facility in Nepal. Even the connection I felt with Namgyel's Tibetan family in their home in Lhasa. We were prohibited to stay in a private house due to our threat to the Chinese national security. Despite their phone being tapped and the real possibility of interrogation we visited and conversed with them, through a translator for many hours, while eating a continuous home meal.

So Gerry, thank you for trusting me with the relationships and contacts you have established over 31 years. I did my best to continue your goodwill.

Bye for now, or in Tibetan - Kayliy shu (Stay slowly)

 

Greg...

Mark

A weird paradox: Whenever I go to write something, I find it easy and fun to write about what happened - turn it into some kind of adventure. It almost seems like writing a novel. Strangely though, when it comes to writing how I personally feel about the same experience, I find it quite difficult. I think part of the difficulty stems from the fact that I don't truly believe that people want to hear about my feelings. I get a mental image of the guy who wanders around telling anyone who will listen his opinion on things. Nobody likes those people - certainly not me. The paradoxical part is that whenever I read what someone else has written (even letters written to me personally), I'm less interested in what happened to them than how they were feeling at the time. Can you tell I'm finding it difficult to start this section? If you're like me, and would rather know how people feel, read on...

So how do I feel now, having been to Tibet? To tell the truth, a little beaten up. I'm sure that a lot of that has to do with the flu that Greg and I came down with in Lhasa that I still haven't shaken, but, in my limited experience, Tibet is a harsh place. I look at the villagers in their mud-brick dwellings ("houses" is too strong a word) and often threadbare clothing, getting around in sub-zero weather and biting winds, and it is so far removed from my comfortable lifestyle, so alien to all my hard-earned "truths" about the way a life ought to be led, that part of me rebels and shuts down. When I'm feeling as shitty as I was, I wonder how people can live in Tibet at all, but live there they do. And if it weren't for the Chinese, they might even prosper. As a Western boy, spoiled by constant comfort, I guess I'm ill-equipped to enjoy such an inhospitable land. Its incessant pounding of my physical reserves wore me down a little.

There was striking scenery, beautiful people and interesting culture to be seen everywhere I looked, but my head was stuffed up, my feet wouldn't get warm, and I was shivering under three layers of clothing. I was so self-absorbed that I didn't particularly care about getting out of the car to see another improbable village, another record-breaking pass, another beautiful panorama, another monastery, another beggar, or another example of Chinese contempt for Tibet and Tibetans. I hear that that kind of apathy is common to high-altitude mountaineers, but I didn't expect to see it (even in a mild form) in myself in Tibet. Sure, Tibet is high, but it's not that high.

And yet soon, when the flu passes, and I can no longer remember what it feels like to be so cold or struggle for breath lying in a sleeping-bag, I have no doubt that I'll have particularly fond memories of Tibet. It was, if nothing else, the first "new" country I've been to this trip (meaning that I'd already seen Nepal and trekking on a previous visit). The tough, dauntless, beautiful people, the "staring squads" that gather to watch you tie your shoes, the simple honesty of a life lived through subsistence, the majesty and desolation of the Land with No Trees - these are the treasures that I have mined from the "Roof of the World," and they are mine to keep.

Thanks for listening,

 

Mark.

 

January 12th, 1999.

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