Posts Tagged ‘Tibet’

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? 😛

Christmas Eve in Xian

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

                               On Christmas Eve, I went to the site of the Terracotta Army. It’s located an hour outside the city centre, and on the bus there I met two more travellers, from Paris and Chicago, and we spent the day together. The sheer size of the site and number of statues was mindboggling! We watched a little movie in a 360 degree cinema, that showed some of the historical context of the soldiers, and then we went to each of the archeaological dig sites, smallest to biggest. Pictures to come when I get a slightly more stable internet connection. (UPDATE: Pictures uploaded to the gallery)

                               When I came back to Xian, the bus I got on to get from the bus station to my hostel was extremely overcrowded, and I figured this was because people were headed home. Oh, how wrong I was… The closer I got to the city centre (my hostel is right on the main square) the more people were on the squares and sidewalks, and by the time I reached the Bell Tower Square, people were spilling onto the streets, hampering  traffic, making it even worse than usual! When I got off, I had to elbow my way past people selling all kinds of food, little heart shaped balloons, carnival masks, blinking devil horns and tiaras, santa claus hats, little puppies, souvenirs and every sort of street vendor crap ever invented!

I was walking around for a while, just taking it all in, and it struck me that Chinese Christmas is in fact a sort of mix of carnival (the Rio or Venice kind), halloween, new year, Valentine’s day, and lastly Christmas… It’s a festival when everybody and their cousin hits the streets, to enjoy, or to make some money. I eventually ended up at a Christmas party that I was invited to by some Chinese people I met at a restaurant the day before. It was in a youth hostel by the south gate in the city walls, and there was a live band butchering all kinds of songs. (it was fantastic; it takes a special kind of talent for a drummer to never EVER find the right beat, he was always at least half a beat off!) I played cards with some Americans holidaymakers, who normally work as English teachers in South Korea, and then the performances started. First some of the staff at the hostel sang a song, and performed a modern dance (“we are not professional dancers, but we are required to do this, so please excuse us”), and then the guests were coaxed to do the same… There was an on-stage-drinking-contest, and later a raffle. All the guests were provided with complimentary santa hats and colourful carnival masks, and the heat was cranked up so high I eventually had to leave before I succumbed to heat stroke…

dscn0422.jpgI dined my way back to the hostel, sampling all kinds of food-on-a-stick and met a guy from Hong Kong at one of the stands, which had even brought in loads of tiny chairs and tables for the customers to “sit” on. (I write “sit”, because it felt more like squatting, seeing as the chair was like 15cm high, and the table about twice that..) This guy was in Xian to meet his girlfriend who was to arrive the next day. Around 1 am he got a call from her, saying she’d arrived early, so before he went to stay with his girlfriend, he gave me the key to his hotel room, which he didn’t need. Thus it happened that I paid 30 yuan (ca 31 NOK) for a dorm bed in a hostel, and instead spent the night in a 330 yuan hotel room… 😉

I asked this guy what was up with the Chinese Christmas celebrations, and he explained that Christmas had become a big celebration the past few years, but seeing as they had no cultural history of the holidays, they just took all the things they liked from different western celebrations, and mixed it into one big festival!

Today, Christmas Day, I paid the deposit on my Tibet journey, so on January 1 at 06:45 I am starting the train journey to Lhasa! The train meets up with a train from Chengdu on the way, and on that other train will be the couple I’ll be travelling in Tibet with. We are due to arrive in Lhasa in the late afternoon on January 2.

Merry Christmas to all of you! Hope you’re all having a ball!

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…