Posts Tagged ‘China’

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.

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? 😛

Beijing, meeting of west and far east

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Tian'anmen

I arrived in Beijing on Friday. I am staying here with my Norwegian friend Thorbjørn, who works for FunCom here in Beijing, but I arrived a couple of days before I had planned, so I spent two nights at the Happy Dragon Hostel in the centre of Beijing. I got off the train, walked out of the train station, and went to the Hostel with some other travellers who had arranged to be picked up by the hostel. I shared a  room with Michael from Ireland, and on Friday we went to Tian’anmen square together. On Saturday we explored the Forbidden city together, and on Sunday we went on a trip with other travellers from the hostel to Great Walla part of the Great Wall that they call “The Secret Wall” because it has not been rebuilt, organized and touristified! It was absolutely stunningly beautiful, and on the entire 3 hour hike, we saw only 1 other person, far off on a hillside! On that trip was also Siri from Bryne, near Stavanger where I’ve lived the  past 10 years… She’s studying International Relations in Australia, currently on exchange to China, visiting Beijing for the weekend.

Temple of Heaven ParkI spent parts of yesterday doing laundry, and then went to the Temple of Heaven park. It was quite awesome, with locals playing hackeysack, practicing their instruments, singing, playing cards or checkers, flying kites, or just strollling in the park. It got dark while we were there (me and Peter from Chicago), and when we were leaving we saw some weird lights in the sky that we had to explore. They turned out to be kites, with coloured lights along the string, and on the kites themselves!

Today I’ve contacted travel agencies and hostels in Tibet, because you need an organized tour to get a Tibetan Travel Permit. Tomorrow I’m meeting Peter again, and we’re going to the Summer Palace. I still don’t know where I’ll be spending Christmas, but chances are it will be in Xi’an, the city where the famous terracotta warriors are located.

On request, I’ll recount my first cultural blunder. Technically, it was when I accidentally bumped into a Mongolian guy’s feet under the table, and failed to immediately stand up and shake his hands to show I meant no harm, but that wasn’t really serious…
On my last night in Ulan Bator, I was invited to dinner with my host, the Satanist-Neo-Nazi, and his friends, and that was where my first SERIOUS blunder was made. My host was the only one there who spoke any English worth mentioning, and he was off in the bathroom. I was discussing the ridiculously small and worthless bills in Mongolia, the smallest of which is 1 tugrug, wort 1/167 of a Norwegian Krone… We seemed to agree that it wasn’t worth anything, but it was hard to understand each other. To illustrate the uselessness of a bill that won’t even buy you a tiny piece of candy, and was more useful as toiletpaper or kindling, I set fire to it, and doused it in the ash tray. I should of course have known better, even though it costs more to print the bill than it is actually worth… Conversation stopped short, the Mongolians looked shocked and angry, and luckily my host came back. He looked a bit confused, and when he saw the other Mongolians pointing to the half burnt bill in the ash tray, he got a really strict look on his face. It turns out that all Mongolian money has pictures of heroes of the people, and together with the fact that it also has the Mongolian national symbol on it, burning a Mongolian bill can be compared to burning a flag in another country! I made profuse and sincere excuses for about five minutes, while my host kept expounding how insulting what I had done was to him and his friends, and that even though everybody agreed that it wasn’t worth anything, it was still a symbol of Mongolian national pride. Luckily I was forgiven, and we could keep enjoying ourselves. Lesson learnt: Think twice before using fire as part of a body language conversation…