Archive for January, 2009

Kathmandu International Christian Congregation

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Jan 25
As of today, I am officially a youth worker in KICC, Kathmandu’s interdenominational church for expats. The Pastor went on a two month sabbatical last Sunday, and I am living in his house. It is a rather big house, at least for one person. There’s a hall, a big kitchen and living room on the ground floor, my bedroom, a terrace and the pastor and wife’s private quarters on the first floor, and two roof top terraces on the second floor. I have solar heated water, so hot showers are available in the afternoon. The battery backup for electricity is broken, so my daily schedule depends largely on the load shedding schedule. According to the church board members, the house has internet, but I have of yet not found out how to connect. I suspect the router is in the pastor’s locked off study. Some board members have said they’ll email the pastor to find out if there’s a way for me to get online at home and one of the other Norwegians in the congregation has offered to try and fix the electricity backup.

On Tuesday, I met with three of the board members for a job interview, and they seemed impressed. I apparently have quite a lot more education and experience in youth work than they expected. On Wednesday I moved into the pastor’s house, on Thursday I had breakfast with a Norwegian family, before familiarizing myself a little witht the area, getting a visa extension, and doing some necessary shopping. Friday I spent proof reading a field report for the couchsurfer I stayed with last week, in return for which he gave me a ticket for a “mountain flight”, which is a very popular way of seeing the Himalayas from a different angle; from a small airplane! Yesterday I went with some other Norwegians here to do some fabric shopping (I got a good price on linen for two pairs of trousers for warmer weather, which I’ll take to a local tailor)and an English language movie at a café. (Vicky Christina Barcelona, a quintessencial Woody Allen) After the movie, we went to a restaurant, and then over for tea at another Norwegian expat’s flat late in the evening. After church this morning I met some friends of my sister Anne Malene, from the school that’s sent her to Brazil (en hilsen fra Hald-studentene til deg, Anne Malene!) and then I spoke to some of the teenagers about organizing a brainstorm on what they think will be  a good idea for the first step in furthering the youth work, and then there was a pot luck lunch with the church board, where I told them about myself, and what I think I can do to further the youth work in the congregation. The result was that I got the final go ahead, and money back for the 60 day visa extension I bought on Thursday.

I’m quickly getting used to bottling water from the electric filter and refilling the rooftop watertank with the electric pump for a few minutes when there is power, soaking all fruit and vegetables I’m planning to eat raw in iodine-water, wearing a mask to filter away most of the dust when I’m out walking (or from today, bicycling, as I’m now borrowing a mountainbike from the Dutch bursar on the church board) and all the other little peculiarities of Kathmandu life. There are some things, however, that I’m not sure I’ll get used to. Yesterday, as I was standing on the street waiting for the people I was going to see the movie with, a goat was slaughtered right there on the pavement across the street. It was tethered to the little shack that serves as the local meat market, and had it’s head chopped off in one mighty blow with a Khukri, the famous large, curved knife of the Gurkha warriors. Then it was held down by two people, and the blood coming out of the neck was gathered in a bucket. I was picked up before I got to witness the rest of the process, but judging from the carcass that was lying on a sheet next to it, the next parts of the process would be burning off the fur, and cutting off the hoofs. (feet? trotters?)

Incidentally, I walk past the headquarters of the Gurkhas whenever I’m going to the nearest supermarket… The Gurkha warriors are a fierce special force, handpicked from a throng of applicants that go through what are some of the world’s most extreme and rigorous tests. The soldiers are Nepali, but they are part of the British armed forces(!) Popular legend says that the best applicants will finish a footrace even if they break a leg on the way, because a Gurkha is not supposed to be hampered by such minor inconveniences.

Trekking in Panchase

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

So. For the first time on my journey, I have backtracked, and am now back at the hotel rooftop in Kathmandu. My plan was, as you probably know, to be in Royal Chitwan National Park just about now, and head for the border on the 23rd, when my visa runs out. I am back in Kathmandu now, though, because I have a job interview here tomorrow. Kathmandu International Christian Congregation has offered me a two month job as a youth worker. The pastor is out of town for a couple of months, so if I accept, I’ll be living in his appartment. They will also pay for my visa, and give me 20 000 Nepali Rupees (1767 NOK) per month towards insurance and food. My travel insurance costs around 900 NOK per month, and if I eat cheaply the remaining 800 should almost cover food, so I’ll come out losing very little travel time.

Yesterday and the day before, I went trekking in the mountains. I took a bus up to the trailhead, about 1500 meters above sea level, and we then hiked about 11 kilometers up to ca 2300, and back down to 2200, where we stayed the night in a tiny village named Bhanjyang (or something similar.) Up there we got a beautiful sunset, lighting up the mountains in the Himalayan Annapurna range, after a rather hazy day. Yesterday I got up before sunrise, and got some more fantastic views of the majestic giants, coloured bright red by the rising sun. As the sun warmed up the valley, the fog from Fewa Lake down by Pokhara, together with mist from the trees and thatch roofs on the hills, rose up past the mountains, and we got a much clearer descent. Much of the path going there was “paved” in big slabs of stone, making for smooth walking on the few flat stretches, and some mean stairs on the steep hillsides. Much of the paving is paid for by communal guest houses where tourists leave their money, but it is not mainly put there for the tourists’ sake, but for the locals. In the monsoon season, the torrential rains wash away the path where there are no big rocks holding it together, and it becomes almost impassable. This is a big problem for the locals, who have to walk at least half an hour from their homes to find firewood every day, and then haul their heavy loads back. There are plenty of trees, but to avoid deforestation, it is not legal to use healty trees for firewood. I asked why they don’t do like the Tibetans, and gather up dung for the fires, since there are holy cows walking around and dropping it everywhere, but the thought was clearly too disgusting to contemplate… 😉

The trek was a welcome break from the noisy cities I’ve been to, with clean, warm air and the sounds and smells of hight altitude tropical forests surrounding us. My guide Harry, (“Jerry and Harry will have chicken curry, don’t worry” was his first words when we introduced each other) had however brought his Nokia N95 with over 500 western and hindi songs, and a battery powered loudspeaker, so it wasn’t quiet ALL the time… When coming back down, the rocks were wet from the night’s light drizzle, and the steps were treacherously slippery. On the most precarious parts, where the path just hung on for dear life to the green mountainside going straight up on our right and straight down directly to our left, I admit to making doubly and triply sure I had good footing before shifting my weight to that foot… I would’ve loved to take a longer trek, but my legs are glad they’re not moving much today. The ascent was hard on my thighs, but the descent was ten times as rough on my poor knees and calves. I was very happy to find that there was a clear mountain stream at the bottom, where I could cool down my aching feet and legs!

Today I allowed myself the luxury of taking the tourist bus back to Kathmandu, instead of the local bus. The main differences were that the seats were just far enough apart that I could fit my legs between them, there was no stereo blaring Bollywood love songs at 110% volume, we didn’t transport any goats, chickens or other livestock and the trip took about 8 hours instead of 9, as we didn’t stop at every one-horse-town on the way to drop off or try and squeeze in a few more passengers. The price difference, you ask? Up from 300 to 400 Rupees (from 26,50 to 35,40 NOK)

Steak and beer under the stars

Friday, January 16th, 2009

Jan 15

Yesterday I went to Kathmandu, and visited the Swayambhunath temple with Sujan, who’s been with me for three days. He’s studying computer science in Kathmandu, but has a few days off, and is visiting with his uncle, Milan. We got a wonderful view of all of Kathmandu, at least as far as the cloud of fog, dust and smog allowed.  At Milan’s office I got online long enough to upload my last couple of posts, and then we went home to Bhaktapur for the festival feast. The food was phenomenal, with fried chicken, spicy potatoes, something that tasted exactly like grandma’s Norwegian donuts, but were looped into the frying oil so the circles (they call it circle bread) were about 15cm across. There were little balls of sweet seeds, balls of candied, puffed rice, and different kinds of yams. All family members in the valley seemed to be there, and we had a great time.

Before we headed off that morning, however, I got a view into Nepali culture that I hadn’t expected. Milan’s wife had invited some friends over, and the occasion was the first meeting between a prospective bride and groom! I was introduced to both parties, in separate rooms. First there was the girl, and with her were the boy’s parents. In the other room was the eligible bachelor, and the girl’s guardian. They were interviewing the candidates. Milan told me that the next step, after we left, would be the introduction of the candidates. Milan’s wife, as the part who knew both of them, would introduce them by name, what they were doing (the girl was a student, the boy a high level police officer) and so forth. Then the girl and boy would first talk about their families, to find out wether they were related. If they were, marriage would obviously be out of the question. Next, they’d spend some time just chatting informally, and then the meeting would be over. The boy and girl would then decide whether they were interested. If they weren’t, it would’ve just been a nice and exciting occasion, and they’d be introduced to other people later. If they were still interested, the boy would invite the girl and her parents to his parents’ home, and they’d set a date for the wedding!

This morning I got up, had my morning daal bhaat (lentil soup and rice) and Milan followed me to the bus station in Kathmandu. All the time I’ve stayed with him, he’s not allowed me to pay for my own bus fare, or chip in on the food budget, and now he bargained for the bus ticket for me. The driver seemed a bit disappointed when I came from a shop nearby, and turned out to be the one who was paying the locals’ price on the bus… 😉 Approx 28 NOK for a seven hour, 206 km bus ride…

I arrived in Pokhara a few hours ago, and I’ve just had a wonderful steak dinner. It was a bit more expensive than I’ve been eating lately, but I decided it was worth it, and it was… 😀 I’m sitting in a restaurant on a balcony one floor above the street, and the slight chill in the air, like a Norwegian summer’s night, is dispelled by the fire in the outdoor fireplace (read: a half barrel with a chimney) right behind me. When I ordered the grilled steak, the waiter asked me whether I wanted my steak well done, medium or rare. I replied truthfully that if it was safe, I’d have it rare. The waiter hesitated, looking almost a bit hurt, then proceeded to confirm that I wanted my steak medium… 🙂

I had a phone call a couple of hours ago, from one of the Norwegians I met in church on Sunday. She might have a job for me… The job is, as far as I understand, with youth in Kathmandu International Christian Congregation. They don’t have any youth work as it stands today, but they want to start a social scene for Christian youth. She said they’d be having a meeting tonight, and if I was not completely uninterested, she’d discuss the opportunity with the other chair members. It would be voluntary work, but with board and lodging included. I said it’s not out of the question, but I need a few days to decide. I also said that if it becomes a reality, the time I’d have available woulde be up to three-four months. I ask those of you who pray, to pray with me on the matter, and help me find out whether this is God’s will, or just a crazy idea!

Tomorrow I’m planning to look around Pokhara and relax after a tiresome bus journey today, and then I’ll head up into the mountains the next day. I’d like to have taken a longer trek, but this is what my visa allows me. (or so I keep telling myself, to avoid the fact that I’ve  grown lazy) When I come back, I’ll stay one more night before heading to Chitwan, and a tropic climate.

Temples, cremations and festivals

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

As I am writing this, I still haven’t had the opportunity to  upload my last post, so I guess both will be posted simultaneously.

On Saturday I googled churches in Kathmandu, and I got several hits. I chose KICC, Kathmandu International Christian Congregation, and found out where they have their Sunday service. After breakfast on Sunday, I checked out of my hotel room, and took a taxi to the church. It was a very friendly crowd, and lots of people came up to me, asked if I had been in town long, and whether it was my first time there. In the beginning of the service, people who were there for the first time were asked to stand up, and the microphone was passed around so everyone could introduce themselves!

The songs sung during the service were all English hymns that I didn’t know, but it was very nice. Nepal has a serious problem with electricity, and power comes and goes on a set schedule, a “load shedding schedule” in order to keep the grid from breaking down. The “children’s talk” was early on in the  service, and the guy leading the service was talking about how God has no “load shedding schedule”, his power is working everywhere, all the time! 🙂 After the children’s talk, the children left, and went to Sunday school, and the pastor gave a sermon where he was talking about the situation in Gaza, and how to react to the Isreali attacks. His conclusion was that the history of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament shows that the Jews have a special position with God, but they are still held accountable for their acts, and that this is how he  figured we should look at the current situation.

After the service, some Norwegians came up to me, and it turned out I had found the place where the people from both the Norwegian Tibet Mission and Normisjon use to come on Sundays! I got to film some of them, and got a greeting from one of the Norwegian teenagers there to the teenagers in the congregation of Vardeneset back home. I was invited to join some of the younger people there for lunch at a café, and afterwards I went home with a couple of the Norwegians. I got to borrow a Nepali sim card from them, and the Lonely Planet guides to Nepal and to India! I then called up my CouchSurfing host Milan, who lives in Bhaktapur, 15 km from Kathmandu, and I went to meet him. The 15 kilometers here take about an hour by bus, because of traffic and horrible road quality. I have lived with his family for the last couple of nights.

                               His nephew Sujan showed me around Bhaktapur yesterday, and we went to a couple of temples in Kathmandu today. The hindu temple area of Pashupatinath was quite special, as there were pyres along the river there, where they were cremating people. before the cremations, they took the corpse to the river and washed the feet, poured some of the water down the throat of the corpse, and then covered it in an orange shroud, flower petals and some red powder. After the pyre was burned down, they flushed the ashes into the river, where street kids were rummaging through it to search for coins. A little downstream, people were washing their hair, themselves, and their clothes! There were holy cows walking around the temple grounds, and lots and lots of monkeys were playing and chasing each other on the streets, walls and rooftops. If anyone took out any food, the monkeys would follow them around until the food was gone, hoping for some scraps. There were people selling fruit, that was given out in small, black plastic bags, and the monkeys would also follow any black plastic bag around, knowing it might contain a snack coming their way!

                               The second temple we went to was Bodhnath, which is a Tibetan buddhist temple, the only one in the world where Tibetan buddhism is practiced freely, without oppression. The biggest change was that there were pictures of the CURRENT Dalai Lama in the shrines, and it was free of the throngs of military that dominated the monasteries and temples in Tibet… It also has the worlds largest stupa (chörten in Tibetan). There I could pass on some of the things I learned in Tibet to my “guide”, Sujan! 🙂 The chörten is surrounded by prayer wheels, like everywhere in Tibet, all of them inscribed with the holy words “om mani padme hom.” For the first time, I saw white, western buddhists walking around in the red monks’ robes, or prostrating themselves in front of the chörten alongside the Tibetans!

Tomorrow will be a small festival, and Milan has invited me to stay and experience it. It is the first day of a new Nepali month (lunar calendar) and it apparently marks mid winter. It involves a bath, supposed to be taken in cold water, because in a legend, a monkey fell from a tree into the water, had a bath, and came a long way towards enlightenment as a result (or so I gather.) None of the people here will be taking a bath, however, because it is too cold, and Milan and his family has no running hot water. The water they do have is pumped from a well into a tank on the roof, whenever there happens to be electricity for the pump… It will, however, involve a feast with lots of special traditional Nepali food!

Tomorrow I should also book a place to trek from in Pokhara, and go to Kathmandu and give back the books and sim card. From Kathmandu, I’ve gathered that I should go west to Pokhara, for a two or three day hike in the mountains, and then head south to Royal Chitwan National park, where it is much warmer, and I can ride elephants on safari around the park, and see Bengal tigers, rhinos, monkeys, fresh water dolphins, crocodiles and Gharials. (The latter is described as a prehistoric slender beast of an animal, with a long snout full of bad teeth, living on a diet of river fish) From Chitwan I go to the border, and head into India, before my visa runs out on the 23rd. I’m considering taking a round trip of India before I head east, and if so my first stop there might be Agra, but I haven’t quite made up my mind yet.

Kathmandu – a charming overload of the senses

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

                               January 10

I am sitting on the roof of my hotel, it’s 5:45 pm, the sun has just gone down, and the temperature dropped rapidly. It’s still a lot warmer than the temperatures I’ve had so far on my trip; I have gotten quite far south, but am at rather high elevation.

Yesterday morning we got up and went directly to the border. There we were joined by Marc, the Frenchman from the other day. The crossing went smoothly, and we could see considerable relief on Marc’s face as we’d gotten safely out of Tibet and China, and into Nepal. He is a journalist, and he’s been working on a project to document China’s oppression of Tibet. He was carrying a bag full of camera equipment, and a laptop full of hundreds of pictures of soldiers, police and official buildings in Tibet, and was hence REALLY lucky that the soldier at the x-ray machine looked away from the monitor just as his bags were going through…

The trip from the border to Kathmandu was only about 100 kilometers, but it took five hours… The road was at best only just worthy to call a road, as it snaked along the steep valley out of Himalaya, and at it’s worst the land cruiser was literally climbing over stretches where the road had been reclaimed by the hillside, and all that was left was the rocky landslide, flattened by countless passing motorcycles, cars, lorries and buses with people hanging out of the windows and clinging on to the roofs. As we descended, the temperatures rose and the faces of the people changed from the Tibetan to the subcontinental Nepali, which are darker and more resemble the Indians. Almost everybody speaks English here, and all signs are written in both Nepali and English.

Kathmandu is an absolutely gorgeous city. Walking around down town, I am continuously reminded of the old, narrow alleyways of Rome, and the climate also resembles that of the great old capitol of that ancient empire. The smells are rather different, however. There is an everchanging odour of incense, garbage, food, cow dung, pine trees, and a zillion others that I haven’t the faintest idea how to describe. Walking along the narrow streets, or over the crowded plazas is a continuous assault on the ears. Streets that in every other place I’ve been to would be pedestrian, at least at the busy hours of the day, have cars, bicycles, motorbikes and rickshaws eeking up and down all the time, honking, ringing, whistling and shouting constantly, to make people move out of the way. Last night, and all of today, I’ve just been walking aimlessly around, taking in the city through sight, smell, hearing and especially taste. I really liked the food in Russia, but the food here in Kathmandu has equalled, and sometimes surpassed that cuisine from the northern end of this massive continent.

Tomorrow I am going to stay with a CouchSurfer 15 kilometers from the city centre. He has warned me that his home is not of western standards, most particularly he has no running hot water, but I am accustomed to such minor inconveniences by now, and I’m not letting it stand in the way of getting to know a Nepali family in their own home! My hotel room for tonight is about 1,5 by 2,5 meters, I have a cot to sleep on, a nightstand, a garbage can, and a candle. Electricity comes and goes on a set, but regularly changing schedule, so that every part of the city has electricity 8 hours a day. I’m not sure whether this is because there is not enough energy to power the whole city at the same time, or because the new maoist government is using it to somehow control the inhabitants, but it is just something people here have gotten used to.

Creature comforts

Friday, January 9th, 2009

I’m amazed. I don’t know what’s the most important factor, but I feel SOO good right now. It might be the fact that I’ve just had a nice hot shower. It might be that I’m in bed without thermal underwear, a hat and a scarf. It might be because I’m not at an altitude where walking up a flight of stairs makes me struggle for breath. It might be for any number of reasons, but I feel great! 🙂
DSC00721.jpgThe last three days I’ve travelled quite far, on a very scenic route. I’ve been to altitudes as high as 5220 meters above sea level and I’ve slept at altitudes over 4000 meters. I’ve realized that the colour symbolism of Tibetan art isn’t as weird as it seemed as first. Blue stands for the sky: Obvious. Red is for fire: Also normal. Orange is for earth: Actually true, most of the time! Green is for water: Astoundingly, almost always so! All art in Tibet uses these three, plus white, which seems to be the colour of the gods, and black which is the colour of the demons.

DSC00649.jpgI left Lhasa on Tuesday, early in the morning, with Gabrielle and Christopher from the US. We took the roundabout route to Shigatse / Rigaze / Xigaze, via Yamdrok Lake. The lake is more than 4000 meters above sea level, and the most brilliantly azure green imaginable. It’s one of the holy lakes of Tibet, it has holy Lama Ducks (feathers the same orange as the Lamas’ robes) floating around on it, and there’s holy fish living there… We stopped in Gyatse, and took in the old temple there. It had been badly burnt and damaged in the cultural revolution, and the monks were not allowed to restore it, but they were at least allowed to use it. There were old prayer books that were burnt at the edges, the paintings on the walls were nearly invisible due to their burnt state, but still it had a feeling of authenticity that the well kept and restored temples in Lhasa didn’t. In Shigatse we stayed in a hotel with two stars on the official Chinese rating. I can’t imagine what one star is like, because there was no running hot water, no heating (so somewhere around -15 degrees in the room, I guess), no toilet paper, no soap, the floor was filthy, and the bedsheets weren’t clean. We asked for clean sheets, and the attendant came with new sheets, neatly folded, that looked even dirtier than the ones already on the beds, but at least didn’t smell like sweat and yak butter.

Yesterday, we started by walking around the main monastery of Shigatse for a couple of hours. It was a great place, that seemed a lot older than the ones in Lhasa, but in a better state of repair than the one in Gyatse. Another good thing was that there were no Chinese military presence inside the monastery. In Shigatse we also got our Travel permits, which allows us to travel outside of the two big cities of Lhasa and Shigatse. At this point they told me that my Chinese visa was NOT valid until Jan 10, but Jan 9! (December has 31 days, I had a 30 day visa, I entered on Dec 11, hence I assumed it was valid till Jan 10. Not so, apparently) This meant that we must leave Tibet a day earlier than planned, even though we’ve already paid for the last day. We still got the permits we needed and got going. We were going to stay at Rongpu Monastery, 7 kilometers from Mount Qomolangma (Everest) Base Camp that night, but that’s at very high altitude, and therefore very cold, so our driver was sure the car wouldn’t start again if we stayed the night there, so instead we stayed over at a hotel in a small town right outside of Qomolangma National Park, called Shegar. The prices were that of a hotel, but this was more like a guest house than hotel. There was no running water, hot or cold, no heat, the toilet was a hole in the floor onto a big pile underneath, the room was probably around -20 degrees, and absolutely filthy. I liked it a lot better than the one in Shegatse, however, as it was quite quaint and rustic, and had a heated common room where the locals came to drink tea and gamble at Mah Jong! We got our Mount Qomolangma National Park Permits, which were 180 NOK per person, plus 400 for the car.

DSC00706.jpgThis morning we left while it was still dark, and went through two military checkpoints before we got to enter the National park. One checked our passports and travel permits, and the other checked our National park permits. We saw the sun rise over the Himalayas from the Pang La pass, 5110 meters above sea level, from which we could see four of Tibet’s five mountains over 8000 meters! We had our breakfast noodles in a village on the other side of the pass, and then went through yet another military checkpoint before we started the climb to Rongpu. At Rongpu we met a frozen river that crossed the road. There was so much ice that it was impossible to get any closer to Base Camp, so we had to turn around, a measly seven kilometers from the first Base Camp. (There are three, at increasingly higher altitude, with exponentially increasing entry fees. To climb the actual mountain costs, according to Gabrielle and Chris, 50 000 American Dollars from the Nepal side, and is definately no cheaper from the Tibetan side…) We still had a marvellous view of the world’s highest peak, and left there only slightly disappointed. After the 97 kilometers of bumpy, dusty gravel road, with hundreds of switchbacks to climb the marvellous passes, back through two of the three checkpoints, the first part of which we had a monk hitch hiker with us, and the second part a soldier from one of the checkpoints, we met a French guy which we were told were to travel with us to the border. He had paid for a land cruiser for himself all the way to the border and we had paid for ours, so he called the agent and said that he’d agree to it if he got half his money back, and we said we’d agree to it if he split the cost of our car for the last leg of the journey. He ended up not going with us, but he was leaving Tibet on the same day as us, so we might meet him again at the border tomorrow…
When we got to the town of Dingri / Tingri, we wanted to stay the night there, to get the last leg of the journey to the Nepalese border in daylight. Then we were suddenly told that people leaving the country on the last day of their visa (which, for some reason is Jan 9 for me) have to leave before 10 am… Which meant, we had to go on to Zangmu, the Tibetan border town. DSC00727.jpgWe had a gorgeous ride, through a valley scattered about with ruins of old Tibetan fortresses and monasteries, walled by mountains in the most amazing shades of bright red, through brown, orange and yellow, to soot black. We crossed two passes over 5000 meters, before ascending into the valley where the town of Zangmu is clinging to the hillside next to the Nepalese border, only a couple of thousand meters above sea level. It was dark when we went down the valley to get here, which was a pity, because it was the steepest, scariest zig zag road carved into the almost vertical sides of the Himalayan mountains, and it would’ve probably made for some great pictures in daylight. In the light of the almost full moon, however, it got a quite eerie feeling, which was also really cool! It’s now past 1:30 am, and I’m getting up at 8:30, so I’m going to try to get some sleep.

(Posted from Kathmandu, Nepal)

Rooftop of the world

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009

From the trainIn China it seems that most things are described as “The [X] of [Y]”,  so you don’t really have to be a genius to understand how Tibet came to be called “The rooftop of the world.” We’re 3700 meters above sea level, and the train that got me here went along the highest altitude railroad in the world, at 5072 meters at the highest point. It didn’t really seem that high, though, as we were rolling along on a vast plateau, with much higher mountains on both sides.

I spent New Year’s Eve on the train, and it was rather uneventful. It was just another Wednesday night in China, seeing as new year here isn’t until January 26. The lights in my carriage went out at 9:30, and the restaurant car closed at 10… Anyway, I wish all of you a wonderful 2009!

When I arrived in Lhasa, I was picked up by my tour operator Lee Jack and my driver(!), and presented with a traditional white scarf for good luck. When we arrived at the hostel, I was warned that in order to avoid altitude sickness, I shouldn’t shower in the first 24 hours, nor smoke, drink alcohol, eat meat, fat or spicy food, get winded for any reason, and in general just relax as much as possible. High altitude sickness, or Acute Mountain Sickness as they call it, presents with headaches, fatigue, sleeplessness, nausea, or if you will: The Worst Hangover Ever. If symptoms are ignored it may be fatal, so I decided to be safe rather than sorry…

The first night here, I just wandered (slowly) into the quaint Tibetan back alleys, found a food market, and the muslim quarter. I ate a vegetarian supper in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where the cook/serving woman looked terror stricken at the prospect of having to communicate with a Foreigner… 🙂 The food was amazing, though, when I finally managed to communicate that I couldn’t eat meat, fat and spice, as it was my first night on the plateau. The dormitory where I stay in the hostel has 12 beds (6 bunk beds) but is only occupied by me, a Chinese guy, and four Chinese girls. It set me back the staggering sum of 15 NOK per night…

I had the best night’s sleep in over a week (the Chinese medicine did the trick for my stomach!) and the next morning I went out to a place called Jokhang, where I had breakfast in a traditional Tibetan restaurant. I had yak dumplings, fried barley flour (Tsampa) and salty tea with yak butter… The place was pretty full, so I shared a table with a family of Tibetan pilgrims who, as a matter of course, shared what they ordered with me, and I shared my food with them!

I got into the Jokhang Temple in the busiest period of the day, when lots and lots of pilgrims were paying their dues to the buddhas in the temple, so I was basically standing in a long line, going through all the little chapels in the temple.

Jokhang TempleActually, the way I found the temple in the first place, was when I came out from a small side street, onto a wider pedestrian where everybody were moving the same direction… Most were dressed in traditional style, with amazing hairdoes, involving braided hair, sometimes intertwined with colourful threads. That went for both men and women, although some of the men were wearing ornate swords at their sides! Quite a few were prostrating themselves, laying all the way down on their stomach, forehead to the ground, every three steps! When I reached the front of the temple, there was a roped-off area, where dozens of people were laying down, getting up and laying back down over and over again!

Smearing buddha in butterWhen I’d done the whole circuit of the temple with the crowd of pilgrims, I went up to the roof, which was pretty awesome! The temple was built 1300 years ago, and although it has been partly destroyed and rebuilt several times over the past millennium, it still had that ancient feel of strong spirituality. From the roof it was clearly visible that the whole thing was built much like a maze, I assume in order to let light down into the lower interior rooms of the structure. I wandered aimlessly around on the roof, and stumbled upon a guy making (or maybe repairing) buddha statues, and in another place a couple of carpenters apparently preparing beams and posts that would replace crumbling ones around the massive structure. I also wound up on a stretch of roof that had a distinct off-limits feel to it, seeing as I was the only one there, and there were the occasional monk washing his cape, making tea and generally going about their business.

Potala PalaceIn the evening, 24 hours after my own arrival, the couple I’ll be travelling with in Tibet in order to share the cost of the obligatory car, driver and guide, arrived. Gabrielle and Christoffer are in their mid forties, and have been (in their own words) semi-nomadic for the past 16 years. In spring and fall they work as teachers back home in the US, to make money for further travelling! Today we went toghether to Potala palace, which is the most famous structure in Tibet. It is pretty easy to locate, it is the one that “touches the sky!” The massive red and white building is (according to a plaque at the entrance) 115,703 😉 meters high, and was the seat of the 6th to the 13th Dalai Lama, from the 17th century till 1959, when the current (14th) Dalai Lama had to flee from the Chinese liberators/invaders. Most people here put on a wide grin when they find out I’m Norwegian, and say something along  the lines of “Oslo! Dalai Lama! Nobel Peace Price!”

Military presenceIt is pretty obvious that Tibet is occupied territory. At every street corner there are four Chinese military guards, two with riot shields, and two with what I suspect are tear gas launchers. They also patrol all large open spaces in fours, sit on rooftops with their launchers, march around in large groups, or hang around the temples in their “civilian” dark blue no-brand track suits. Today I was stopped by one of the latter, had to show him all the pictures on my camera, and delete any pic that had any sign of military presence in it! Because the button that scrolls through pictures on my camera sometimes takes two or event three pictures at a time I managed to keep one; a picture of guards on a rooftop next to the Jokhang Temple… If the government finds this, they’ll probably ban gjerulf.com from all net users in China, and possibly deport me if they find out where I am…

The Chinese name themselves the liberators of the Tibetan people, which to some extent is true, as Tibet was a feudal serfdom before the Chinese arrived, and most people lived basically as slaves, in extremely poor conditions. Whether exchanging one oppressive regime with another one can be considered liberation is a different story. The undebatable truth is that Tibet is a much richer and more developed country today than it was before the Chinese arrived. Another truth is that the Chinese culture is on the verge of overwhelming the local Tibetan culture, which would be a great loss. In the future people might have to go to museums to see the pilgrims, full of grime and with bloody foreheads from hundreds of kilometers of prostrating every three steps, see the colourful clothes and headdresses, the men with the swords and all the things that make Lhasa unforgettable…

I don’t know how internet access will be the coming week, travelling through the inner parts of Tibet, so my next entry might be posted from Kathmandu, Nepal. I’m considering going to the Nepalese embassy tomorrow to get my visa, since it’s supposed to be cheaper here than on the border. I am looking forward to visiting Mount Everest Base Camp, which looks to be accessible even though it’s bloody freezing up there. Can’t get as bad as Mongolia, though. Or can it? Will those be my famous last words? 😛