A Grueling Journey From Lhasa To Katmandu

Trip Start Sep 01, 2004
Trip End Apr 25, 2005

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Sunday, December 12, 2004

Hi From Nepal,

Well, we survived, but barely! There is a reason that you don't see people our age on the overland route from Lhasa to Katmandu. You have to be tough and young. We are just old, and think we're tough. I know that some of you out there have been along this path before, so we will be curious about your experiences. You might say it isn't worth it, but there were special moments with the Tibetans, and views beyond the imagination or beyond any pictures that we had ever seen. We are still recovering, so the jury is still out. This leg was Don's dream sequence, but I too have discovered a land where reality takes another dimension.

I have decided that dream travel shouldn't include freezing your ass off 24 hours a day, flea pit rooms with chamber pots, no heat, no bathroom, or hot water, foods that are unrecognizable and the person serving it hasn't had a bath since August (a new twist on dressing in layers), and she serves yak butter tea. Or trips where everyone including us smells like a yak. At least it didn't mention these in the 3 color, 10 page glossy brochure that the Chinese Government gave us at the FIT travel office. Ha Ha

It is common in the spring, summer, and fall, to hire a Land Cruiser with a driver to take you across the Himalyas from Lhasa to the Nepal. The winter season is not so common, and there weren't many other cars on the road. Don left no stone unturned when hiring a car, and checked out our Tibetan driver, who spoke English pretty well and seemed nice, and the car, which was old, but looked OK, before agreeing to the price which was 4000$RMB ($500). Unfortunately he forgot to check to see if the heater worked. Did you know that when you scrape ice off the inside of the windows it makes snow in the car?

We bought the typical 6 day route which passed through Gyantse, Shigase, Shegar, Everest Base Camp, and finally the border town of Zhangmu. From there you hire a car to take you to the border crossing and then another car to take you to Katmandu.

We met two students from New York who had been studying Chinese in Shanghai and were doing a little site seeing before heading back to America. They shared our car for the first 2 days then headed back to Lhasa by bus.

After leaving Lhasa and passing through many small villages and indistinguishable scenery, we arrived in Gyantse, a small village. After getting settled we took off to tour the Pelkor Chode Monastary and to explore the small town. It is a big complex of 15 monasteries and is one of the most interesting. There are three different orders of Tibetan Buddism that has been housed there since the 15th century, and would be considered multi denominational, Gelugpa, Sakyapa, and Buton. Apparently this was pretty rare and we find it all very complicated.

Americans tend to clean and restore everything, but the Temples look as though they are stopped in time and contain the history of every person who ever passed through on the walls and the floors. The Chinese Government takes all of the proceeds from the entry tickets, so the only money that the Monks have to invest in restoration is through donations. Unfortunately most of them are pretty run down.

Don and I had just finished looking at the last temple and were waiting for our travel partners to finish, when I got to have one of those special Tibetan moments. A large group of people in traditional Tibetan dress were sitting on the ground in front of the temple visiting and Don asked if he could take their picture. Most of them said no, but one woman stood up and with a lot of arm waving, was trying to explain to Don that he could take her picture if she could have one. As usual, Don had a hard time explaining that he couldn't get the picture out of the digital camera and give it to her. They all think that tourists have polaroids, and don't understand digital at all but usually like looking at themselves on the LCD.

After debating with Don, she came over to me and started humming and dancing (now I know she was half lit)a traditional looking Tibetian dance. I could almost follow her dance steps so I started dancing with her and got everyone laughing and clapping. By now the entire group, me included, were all pretty wound up, dancing and humming, so they invited me to drink Champa (home made barley beer) with them. We toasted and locked arms and chugged and laughed. They kept filling my glass and I was getting half lit, so I finally had to say goodbye. She held both of my elbows and kissed both cheeks. It was so awesome.

The next small town of Gyantse was bigger and had a Monastary and fort, but more interesting was the mile of meat. Because of the cold, dry air they are able to basically freeze dry the carcasses of goat, sheep, and yak. People came for miles to purchase their meat for the winter and would strap it to their backs, ponies, donkeys, or tractors. It was here that I decided to become a vegetarian, during the Tibet portion of this journey.

You may be all thinking that we must be loosing a lot of weight. Not....so what is up with that? There should be some benefit of starving.

By the fourth day we were getting into what Don wanted to see, and that was views of Mt Everest and the Himalayas. Traveling across the Himalayas in December, besides being unbelievably cold, means incredible cloudless views. Our driver said that we were lucky and it wasn't as windy as usual. Thank God, because my toes would have fallen off it was any colder!

That night was miserable even though we had bought some knock off down sleeping bags. They give you blankets that weigh at least 15lbs each but I was paranoid about putting them to close to my head...you see a lot of people sitting around "grooming". The next day we were scheduled to go to Everest Base Camp, then back to the same guest house again. The chances of the road being passable were slim and none. Of course the Chinese officials will sell you an expensive permit whether the road is open or not. The first question to our driver the next morning was, "Can we make it to the border today?" Even Don was on board for that ride. The whole day was filled with amazing sites of Mount Everest, and the other glacial peaks beyond the barren mountain range, and at least Don got what he came for.

The Tibetan border town of Zhangmu sits on a steep terraced hillside with one main narrow road passing through. It is an incredibly dysfunctional hub for shipments of goods, on huge trucks, coming to and from China and Nepal. All of the trucks from one country were parked everywhere, blocking traffic, and the products were being off-loaded by hand and transferred to the trucks from the other country. There were empty trucks just sitting around waiting for more trucks to come.

We arrived there around 14:00 and instead of staying the night there (ugh!), decided to get to Katmandu, warmth and a shower. Our driver got us through town and helped us negotiate a ride. You can't ride with that driver until you get across the boarder...so we had to hop in a truck with our bags thrown in the back, when we got to the traffic jam they call a border, we transferred our bags to the jeep, then walked the quarter mile through the hoard of cars, trucks and people to the border, exited China, and then walked another quarter mile to get our Nepal visa just to find out we needed our spare visa pictures, which Don had left in his day pack. Back to the jeep, back to immigration, and then wait for our jeep to get through the blocked traffic, all the while worried we would never see our bags again. I guess we didn't need to worry because he couldn't have driven anywhere with our bags anyway.

Five hours later after one of those scarry third world country rides on a steep curvy road we landed in Katmandu and found us a really nice hotel! We enjoyed the scenery of the beautiful terraced hillsides, water falls, and river even though we were trying not to throw up the whole way.

I hope that our next few travel logs are really boring for you to read, cause I need a rest!

Merry Christmas! Love and Cheer,
Don and Jo
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