30 December 2007

Going, going, gone!

I woke up this morning feeling absolutely reinvigorated. Ah, vigor, it is truly the spice of life! With my new found vigor, I decided to eat my first meal in days at the Everest Steak House. Hearing a familiar, almost magical, sound coming from behind the host's counter, I was delighted to see two world championship matches in a row, one which pit an also reinvigorated Chris Jericho against heavyweight champion and ruffian Randy Orton; the other was a "triple-threat" match featuring Edge (plus two clones?!) and Batista attempting to make the Undertaker (!) look good. Even I have the occasional weakness for such entertainments, and nostalgia, when so long deprived.

I got my trailhead bus ticket changed for tomorrow morning at 6:30 am. This time, I am absolutely, definitely, officially, positively, really going! "See you" in about three weeks! Happy New Year!

A Moment of Silence

For Benazir Bhutto. A great loss.

29 December 2007

Still not watching what I eat?

I don't know whether it was the glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice or the "special" peanut butter, banana, and fried onion sandwich, but something I consumed yesterday returned for a regurgitative revenge last night. So weakened, I couldn't make my bus, and I've decided to put it off an additional day, as well, to be sure I'm alright. This is very frustrating, since every day of delay brings a greater chance of snow and freezing temperatures. But despite my recent streak of bad luck, I am determined to prevail and hike in the Himalayas--definitely within the next two days!

28 December 2007

World Peace Pagoda

I have time for one more post.

Since the boozy white revelers are already transforming lakeside Pokhara into a cheap, tropical cheap thrill extravaganza for New Year's, I have decided to throw caution to the wolves and embark guideless on my Annapurna trek tomorrow. I ought to be back in around 20 days, but I can't say for sure. No doubt, all of you, my friends, have subscribed to my blog in your RSS readers, which you check religiously.

Today, I walked up to the World Peace Pagoda overlooking the city. The views were quite nice, though a bit obscured by fog. Above Pokhara, the most famous of the dozens of white mountains that are visible is Machupuchere, or something like that. It looks like a giant, snow-dusted pyramid. It's also sacred and therefore has never been climbed. I will not be the first to violate this taboo. The pagoda was built by, guess who, the Japanese under the auspices of a monk of the Nichirenju (sp?) sect of Buddhism who died in 1985 at the age of 101. One of his last students, a nice British lady, noticed my prone body collapsed in the shadows of the nearby temple, and asked if I wanted a bed. We got to chatting, and she ended up telling me I could stay at the pagoda if I liked, as long as I didn't mind waking up at 4:30 am for prayers. I'm pretty sure I would mind that, but her offer has piqued my interest, so I will be seriously considering it (free accommodation, Buddhist experience, fantastic views, gardening--why not?).

And that's the news from Lake Phewa, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are all above-average.

27 December 2007


Did I happen to mention, amidst all the vitriol I poured on Thamel, that Nepal is a jaw-droppingly stunning/beautiful/utsukushii country with incredibly polite/charming/only-sometimes-a-bit-too-unctuous people? The bumpy bus ride down (only 900 meters!) to Pokhara reminded me. And it's so warm here (sorry, my cold-climate dwelling readers)! Well, I decided to pass up the chance to see the International Elephant Race in Royal Chitwan National Park--maybe not Royal anymore since the monarchy was dissolved on Monday? I might say it sounded like animal cruelty (not to mention, potentially, much more boring than it sounds), but the real reason I skipped was to get here, Nepal's second "city", and a convenient jumping-off point for my next epic trek: 20 days on the Annapurna Circuit, one of the most beautiful treks ("hikes" in American) in the world. You can Google "Annapurna" for more hard info, but the route basically circumnavigates (walking around stuff again!) a bunch of lovely, 8000+ meters peaks, with names like Annapurna I, Annapurna II, III, etc. There is one tricky part, a 5700 meter pass currently under snow, so I may reluctantly hire a guide, because I still, even after all this time, do not want to slip over a cliff edge and die. The views from the city itself are supposed to be stunning, as well, especially from the Japanese-built World Peace Pagoda, but I just got here and haven't seen any of this yet, so I will have to report on that later. It looks like they are gearing up here for 5 days of New Year's celebrations, too, so between that and the trek, I may not make it onto the Internet again to report anything.. for weeks! But bear with me, gentle readers, I will be back again, by hook or by crook, I will.

25 December 2007

Kathmandu.. or KathmanDON'T??

Merry Christmas. It's funny to me how that is no longer a politically incorrect thing to say once you leave America and go to a developing country where nobody gives a s**t about being PC and everybody just wants to have a good time, continuously. I met an Israeli girl, and even *she* was celebrating. This morning, she went to exchange gifts with a British couple (who asked me the night before if we have "Christmas crackers" in America.. I thought he was talking about the food we leave for Santa.. nope).

I've decided to officially embrace Tibetan Buddhism as my new faith--not because I have had innumerable spiritual experiences that have guided me onto a new path toward self-understanding. No. It's because Tibetan Buddhists are supposed to walk around stuff. Over and over. Since I do that anyway, I might as well earn merit for it. Finally, a religion that suits my (slightly?) obsessive-compulsive, circumambulating personality.

Kathmandu is krazy. There are *SO* many people, and they all seem to be going somewhere all the time. This city is so old, the streets are really narrow--medieval narrow--and clogged with cars, livestock, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, beggars, playing children, garbage, and probably gods. The air is a bit filthy, too, and my cough has not gotten better. I've taken to wearing a face mask, in Japanese style, to ward off the particulates. Another reason KTM is krazy is the time zone, 5:45 ahead of GTM (or something like that). In comparison, India is 5:30 ahead. The reason, according to my LP, is that Nepal wants to assert that it is definitely a different country. Since I've heard Nepalis are more laid-back than Indians, my own theory is that they added the extra 15 minutes for the same reason we sometimes set our watches ahead a few minutes so we don't miss our appointments.

Last night was Christmas in Thamel. Have I described Thamel yet? It's awful. Convenient, but awful. I want to blow it off, in one big chunk, the face of the Earth. I pity the hippies, though. I imagine they were genuinely trying to escape an oppressive culture 50 years ago. Nowadays, Western culture is pretty permissive, so there's nothing really to escape. But people still want to wear the ugly clothes, dreadlock their hair (really will never get that), not shower, do drugs, and at least adopt some of the stylings of their overdosing, NEET forebears, if not their philosophy and spirit of rebellion (as far as I can tell, the only things young people the world over really care about are money, image, and success). That has nothing to do with Christmas here, but I didn't want to miss a hippie-bashing opportunity. I must have a traditional streak in me somewhere, because Christmas to me is still a family holiday, not an excuse to go out and party just because you happen to be away from home.. but I suppose any excuse to party is an excuse for the local bars to offer dinner and drink specials and encourage the stupid foreigners to indulge in whatever perversities they enjoy at home, despite this being an extremely conservative country (I saw a white guy walking around in a monk's robes with a white chick under each arm... I wanted to destroy them all, but that was the day before I converted to Buddhism). I am not completely innocent from partaking in Thamel's delights, though, because I did have a gin and tonic last night, I do enjoy browsing the scores of used book shops, and it's nice to have a wider selection of restaurants, after a month, than Chinese or Sichuan Chinese (btw, Tibetan food is boring). There are more white people here than I've seen since Cuzco. I have a question: why do tourists go places and then complain that they're touristy?

I hate to inform the poll-interested that I will probably *not* be collecting folktales in Nepal. The reason, other than the exorbitant fees ($300 just for the application--more than Harvard!), is that the guy who runs the volunteer organization is a self-righteous blowhard. I know my own.

Friends! I've written yet another cynical post and on this holy day, as well! Jesus would not be pleased with my lack of Christmas spirit! Well, I must end by assuring you that I love and miss you all--even I am sentimental on the traditional holidays--and that my heart is always partly with you on this long and difficult journey. In fact, it is all that sustains and comforts me, and I look forward to reuniting with each and every one of you whatever day of the year it happens to be.

If anyone wants to see Radiohead in Milan, mid-June next year, I bought four tickets. Meet me there!

Corrections: Miyuko is actually named Miyouko and Abdul from Hotan is really named Ablimit. Foreign names are tough, you know?

23 December 2007

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (cont'd)


(sorry, I was pretty excited by that one)

More to say about Kathmandu and Nepal and how beautiful and delicious and wonderful everything is in future posts. I ought to be off now for another 50 cent fancy Italian coffee.



22 December 2007


I'm back! and finally beyond the confines of the Great Firewall of China.

But not without incident.

Leaving Lhasa some days ago, my mostly Japanese group and I traversed the Tibetan plateau first to the village of Gyantse (oh what picturesque poverty! cows in the streets! joy!) and then to Shigatse, Tibet's other "city" and home to the Panchen Lama--did you even know that the Dalai Lama had a rival? and that China uses him as a tool to create intra-Tibetan factional strife, like in some (bad? good?) professional wrestling angle? During this journey, one of our number--young Hiroshi--developed a fever, and didn't move much the entire day. So we brought him to the "people's hospital" in Shigatse, where not only the patients are allowed to smoke, but the doctors smoke, too. I stepped out for awhile to guard the car, and when I returned, two other group members also had confirmed fevers, one of them seriously high. Miraculously, when I checked myself, I actually turned out to be normal. An hour of IV fluiding later, and we were ensconced for the night in our heated (!) hotel. Given the ailments going around, we decided to extend our trip by an extra day, as afforded by our contract and, inevitably due to Murphy's Law, refused by our driver (*after* we had spent the day there, naturally). This guy turned out to be rather petulant, becoming angry and frustrated whenever we asked him to do anything or even tell us what the hell he was doing, even though I kept giving him oranges and cans of Chinese Red Bull as peace offerings. The best time was when he left us stranded at a gas station in the middle of nowhere without telling us he was going to fix a tire. So, for those Free Tibet loyalists out there, I hate to break it to you, but Tibetans, too, can be a--holes. At least we got to see the Tashilumpo (sp.) monastery (where my thangka was made!), almost overflowing with ecstatic, elbow-poking pilgrims. I walked the kora around the monastery, too, which went up into the hills, affording wonderful views of the old town and surrounding mountains. There were some beautiful Buddha images painted colorfully onto the rocks up there, too, and tons of mani carvings. A few people were even doing prostration around this steep, rocky, dusty dirt track. And I thought *I* was cool!

The greatest disappointment of the trip was when we arrived at the entrance to the Everest Base Camp area only to discover that our agency had *not* supplied our driver with the necessary permit to get in. Everest (in Tibetan, Chomolangma, "Mother Goddess of the Universe"--whoa) in all its 8850 meter glory loomed magnificently before us, but we couldn't travel the last five miles to the base camp itself (5520 meters). Undaunted, we begged the Tibetan guard (another a--hole) to let us through anyway. He kept saying "no" and then finally demanded 100 yuan (~$13) *per person* to lower his little ribbon. All smiles and kindness, I agreed, and went to round up the others. Then, the Chinese police came up, and the Tibetan was unable to proceed with his extortion. These guys were friendly enough and responded favorably to our near-tears pleading. Miyuko-san, the Japanese woman in the group, was particularly effective at begging for mercy (lots of bowing). But it took awhile... first they said no, we couldn't go, then yes and took down our passport details, then no, then yes, but not in our vehicle. It was all very frustrating. The head Chinese said he would go with us, but then he discovered that one of our tires was leaking, and didn't want to risk being stranded at the wolf-infested base camp (ok). This wouldn't normally be a problem, because the Land Cruisers all carry spare tires, but I guess they only use secondhand spares in China, because another tire, yet again, had already blown out and been replaced with the spare on the very bumpy, three hour trip to the checkpoint. I asked if we could go in the police car and even offered to pay for the "petrol" consumed on the way. But not even corruption can fix a leaking tire, and we had no choice but to return to Tingri, the SLT where we spent the night before heading to the border. Please, for a moment, imagine yourselves in our shoes: we had all traveled quite far and at great expense to see Mt. Everest, possibly a once in a lifetime opportunity given the hardships involved in getting there. And we were prevented from realizing our goal by bureaucratic bullshit and incompetence. I wanted to f--king kill these people, especially the by now totally obnoxious driver. I decided not to give him anymore oranges and told him so (he doesn't understand English).

The next day, we were off to Zhangmou, the Chinese border town, before lunch, all of us trying to forget the pains of the previous day, most of us (but still not me!) still suffering from fevers or varying degrees of altitude sickness (first symptom: denying that you have it). None of the tires popped this time. Instead, an entire wheel broke off as we were careening down a dirt road at 100 km/hr. Luckily, another Land Cruiser stopped to help with repairs (but I found one of the bolts!), or we might have been stranded in the parched cold of the high Tibetan plateau. Repairs finished, on we went toward Zhangmou, the road going from bad to worse to not too bad to Jesus Christ this is an international highway? I realized then how difficult it actually is to get into China. Third largest country in the world or whatever it is, it's main population centers are isolated by vast wastelands, towering mountains (mountains upon mountains), and impenetrable jungles. There aren't too many land access points, and few of them are easy or open. Zhangmou itself is fascinating: it clings to the side of a mountain, flowing along the zig-zagging Friendship Highway down to the border post. When you enter it, the climate becomes suddenly subcontinental. Everything is green, the air is warm, and the pink glow of innumerable "massage" parlors add a touch of romance to the night.

We had hoped to escape China that afternoon, but the mechanical failure held us up too long, so we slept in Zhangmou. The next morning, we plunged into Nepal, greeted right at the border by a traditional Nepali traffic jam. En route to Kathmandu, I think we were stopped a few times by Maoists, because the driver gave money to these ununiformed guys who held ropes across the road and dispensed receipts from Communist-sounding organizations like the "Nepal Students Union". Finally, we arrived in the third world urban chaos of Kathmandu. The driver dumped us off in Thamel, the backpacker heaven/hell of Asia (second only to Khao San Road in Bangkok), and, like flies on yak s--t, we were immediately preyed upon by my favorite type of people: touts. And me without a Nepal Lonely Planet! (quickly remedied--really hard to go without in such situations: mapless, clueless, easy targets). The group I was with were in no mood to pay more than about $1.25 for a hotel room, a price I also found attractive. But, like all things, you get what you pay for, and this morning I upgraded to a nicer $2.50 hotel with hot shower. You see, I hadn't showered for days (too cold or nonexistent in Tibet), and I have only had a handful of decent showers since, say, the beginning of August. I was sad to leave the cheap place, because it was run by a Tibetan lady who kept laughing at everything I said. "Can I hang my laundry here?" "Yes! Ha ha ha!" "Is there hot water for a shower?" "Of course not! Ha ha ha!". I thought this was a riot.

Since I seem to have developed a persistent couch, I have to wait for it to go away before I can start my epic trek. Which means, I'll be spending Christmas in Kathmandu. No problem: everything here is so cheap, I thought at first I was back in Bolivia. But it's even cheaper than Bolivia! I had an enormous breakfast this morning with a cappuccino, Nepali tea (mmmm), and extra dessert, and it only cost like $4. And in Kathmandu, unlike in China, you can get any kind of food you want: American, French, Indian, Japanese, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Persian, Middle Eastern, etc. and it's all pretty good and dirt cheap. And, and...

EVERYONE SPEAKS ENGLISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

17 December 2007

One more communicado

I have to write one more post before I forget the details of this evening's "gotaitouchi" experience. Let me explain. The Tibetans circumambulate stuff because they think it will help them accrue merit toward rebirth in a better life. I am not a believing Buddhist to this extent, but I nevertheless wanted to experience something that they experience--just to see what this sort of self-mortification is like (what recovering Catholic doesn't secretly enjoy self-mortification?). And as it is, if I don't worship gods, I certainly worship concepts, and Tibetan Buddhist seems oriented, in its less animistic varieties, toward worshipping concepts. One needn't ask favors of statues. You can simply imagine the part of your own personality that is represented by whichever Buddha or Bodhisattva or other deity you are presently contemplating. In so imagining, you let go somewhat of your own ego, identifying instead with, say, an embodiment of a general principle or virtue. I keep bringing up Avalokitesvara. You can pray to Avalokitesvara and ask for mercy (or simply phone up his Earthly manifestation, the Dalai Lama), or, more interesting to me, you can imagine yourself *as* Avalokitesvara, or other people or all people--all beings in the universe--as themselves embodiments of compassion, all this in the effort to be, simply, a more compassionate person. Avalokitesvara refuses to enter Nirvana, after all, until everyone else has first. I can relate to this sort of thing, I can even worship it, or meditate on it or even prostrate myself before it--a humbling act for the sake of a quality I wish I possessed more of and that I wish were more prevalent in this world.

Enough of justification, here's what I did. I bought a Tibetan style coat, "wool" on the inside, and down to the ankles in length. The salesman wanted 350 yuan, but I convinced him that 100 yuan was a much better price (still too high, I think, especially when it was to be used--doubtless the salesman would have been unsympathetic--for a holy purpose). I also bought cheap gloves and a cheap hat. So I was well-protected against the dirt, spit, and all else that one finds on the ground. The Japanese participants somehow found empty rice sacks for 2 yuan each and cut holes in them for their head and arms. Much more economical, but I looked way cooler. We left as a group for the Jokhang Temple a little apprehensive. We did a few practice prostrations in front with the dozens of others doing the same. And then we were off. And what a wonderful experience! It was like swimming in a river of happiness. Sure, I was face to face, as we seldom are, with all the cast off debris and detritus of human urbanity. Sure, thousands of people thronged past, in some cases leaving the smallest space open for me. But there was something just so relaxing about it. The Tibetans were all smiles (and quite pleasantly surprised), the monks, too, all thumbs up ("very good!"). Several times, I was besieged by cheerful old ladies who helped adjust my coat. Tourists (white ones, too, I heard!) snapped photos of my companions and I continuously--a healthy role-reversal, I think. "Vivienne" even recorded a brief movie with her camera. Soon, you will be able to see me live-action prostrate on (but not yet *to*) Facebook. I was somehow able to ignore most of the distractions circulating around me, though, and concentrate on my ritual. The whole time, I chanted the prayer (mantra?) recorded in previous posts: Om Mani Padme Hum. I pronounced it the Tibetan way, of course. I also tried to visualize myself, then the people swarming around me, then everyone in the universe as Avalokitesvara--and that's a heck of a lot of arms. The circuit took about two hours and its toll on my knees (zeugma?? zeugma??), less time than I expected. When I completed it, I did feel satisfaction, but it also felt good to have shared this experience with other people. I was dirty at the end of it, true, but also somehow more clean. I cannot really say much more than that right now.

16 December 2007

Traversing the Friendship Highway

Tomorrow morning I depart with my mostly Japanese cohorts on our 4-5 day expedition to the Nepalese border. Hashing out the details amongst ourselves, with the travel agent, and then amongst ourselves again took a predictably Japanese amount of time and is still somewhat in process (they prefer a set schedule determined in advance, I prefer to wing it). I bought a traditional Tibetan "thangka" painting, a nice gold one of Chenresig (the Tibetan version of, naturally, the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara, Om Mani, etc.), had it sewn into a traditional silk hanging device, and mailed it home at the traditional Chinese post office--they boxed it for me and everything (please be expecting this and other boxes in 3-6 months, Dad). Last night, I attempted to throw a party at the hostel bar for my new Japanese friends. I had bought the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retro double feature, "Grindhouse", in Xi'an, but I hadn't had a chance to watch them. After I ordered ten pizzas for less than $30, we ordered beers and settled in and, bootleg DVD karma on queue, there were no Japanese subtitles and the voice track didn't work.
So instead, we watched the bar owner's pirated copy of "The Simpsons" movie (in English!), which was fine, because I hadn't seen that, either. Sort of lame, though.

My idea of doing the ritual prostration circuit around the Jokhang Temple will become reality this evening. I asked a few Japanese at my hostel if they'd care to join last week. At first, they hemmed and hawed because they aren't sincere Buddhists. But I convinced at least one of them of the irrelevancy of this, he apparently told others, a Chinese girl found out about our plan, and now six of us are going tonight. The Japanese word for "prostration" is "gotaitouchi" which means "laying down five parts of the body." After I finish writing this post, I have to go buy some cheap clothes to protect myself from the spit puddles. While I may earn a modicum of merit from this act, I've read that many pilgrims do kora circuits three times, a few 108 (!) times, since this is an auspicious number in Tibetan Buddhism. The even tougher Tibetans go out west to prostrate around Mt. Kailash, which takes three days just to *walk* around and has passes above 6000 meters. And if you're really, *really* devout, you can prostrate sideways, so that each time you stand up, you're only taking one small step forward instead of a whole body length. Insane..?

Our route to Nepal goes via the lovely turquoiseness of Yamdrok Lake, the old Tibetan towns/cities of Gyantse and Shigatse (home of No.2 in Tibet Panchen Lama), the Mt. Everest Base Camp (5200 meters and reputedly has much better views than from the Nepalese side), and other small towns with notable must-see temples. We ought to cross unceremoniously, and with no turning back (illegal!), into Nepal, and arrive at Kathmandu (wish I still had that T-shirt, but it didn't survive), on Saturday or Sunday. I may be incommunicado until then. Dhal Bhat three times a day for a month... here I come!

15 December 2007

Behold! The jewel in the lotus!

When I first arrived in Lhasa, it was evening. I had just gotten off the train from Lanzhou, a more than 30 hour journey. Does this sound like a long time to be on a train? Well, it's one of the shortest routes. From Beijing, it takes about two days, and some die-hards (Japanese) come by hard seat. Luckily, the shared taxi driver who wanted 30 yuan (I paid 10) to take me to the city center also rounded up a Chinese woman who speaks perfect English (with a New Zealand accent). I have been relying on "Vivienne" for the last week as a translator and companion. I feel like this is cheating, but she doesn't speak Tibetan, so there are still challenges.

On our ride to the Tibetan side of town, I caught my first glimpse of the Potala Palace. I was reminded of a similar experience in Athens, when I first saw--beteared--the Acropolis. So white, from such a commanding height. I visited it the next day, I and Vivienne and hundreds of pilgrims and few other tourists. Every temple I would later visit would have such an atmosphere. Maybe the Acropolis looms large in the imagination of the sentimental Classicist, but it is a dead place, a ruin. The temples of Tibet, though embattled, are alive, and you there are immersed in a stream of life with a continuity of centuries: the whitewashed, gold-accented buildings; the combined odors of incense, yak butter, and pilgrim sweat; the chants and prostrations of Tibetan nomads from all over the plateau, speaking their innumerable dialects, adorned in innumerable styles of hair and dress; and the crimson monks, freely bestowing benedictions on all and even on me. It's pilgrim season in Tibet, so even though it's (not that) cold, it's fascinating. So fascinating! In all the ways you expect fascinating, hidden mountain kingdoms to be, though they tend so often these days to be engulfed by the gaping jaws of bourgeois tourism. I have never been to a place so permeated by sincere religious feeling--except Jerusalem. But Jerusalem is a wicked place, tense with competing exclusivities. In Tibet, all are embraced (despite the odd internecine slaughtering) in the exhortations of infinite compassion.

Too many days have passed full of too many details, too many odd and interesting encounters, already fleeing from my overwhelmed mind, for me to recount them in full. At Samye monastery, designed to be a map of the Buddhist universe, and which I just returned from illegally visiting, a monk in the Longevity Buddha chapel poured fragrant water into my palm to drink. At Sera, another monk prayed over me while balancing a stick from my forehead to the heart of a Buddha image. And at Drepung, some teenager monks who were fooling around sat with me for funny photos. And all the while, I am handing out the common currency of pilgrims (notes worth 1/10 of a yuan), intermittently drinking liters of yak butter and sweet milk tea, sometimes in caves with surprised Tibetans, sometimes at the behest of a lonely monk in a less-frequented mountain temple.

But Jokhang Temple... tucked away in the Tibetan 'hood east of the Potala, the holiest temple in Tibet. By no means imposing, though lovely, it is a magnet of fervent religiosity such as I have seldom (never?) seen. A circuit, called a kora, circles it. To either side, the inevitable stalls and shops. But in its midst, hundreds (thousands?) of pilgrims--a river of colorful, dirty pilgrims--circulating irresistibly clockwise. Most pray, some spin prayer wheels, a few make the rounds laboriously by prostration (I have considered trying this). Inside the temple, I had an experience.

Most temples I visit, and have visited in China, certainly, seem no more than glorified souvenir shops. Tourist groups herd through, look around, and leave. Some burn incense, but they hardly seem the notable structures of a vibrant, current culture. Not so Jokhang. Again, I was the only white face in the crowd of humming, worshipping Tibetans. At the rear of this, the holiest temple in Tibet, is its holiest precinct, containing the nation's holiest Buddha image--a golden Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha of ancient India and Eastern Philosophy 101. Normally guarded by a steel mesh, on this day the monks drew it aside, allowing the devout to just touch the sacred statue, circumambulate it, and pass out again, blessed with prayer scarves by a monk within. This sort of scene is typically intimidating, because, you think to yourself, "what should I do?" Participate, or is that disrespectful? Or merely look on, reflecting with idiotic sentimentality on how beautiful this people is? And there was such a crowd, waiting turns, shoving their way in, foregoing the niceties of queueing. And I let myself be shoved in, too. As I entered, one monk was undressing the golden image. He removed layer after layer of rich, silk garments, to the astonishment of all, finally exposing its golden, naked radiance. Passing around the back of the image, giant protector deities looming above me, I passed a monk handing out white prayer scarves on the other side. I was shy and kept moving, but Vivienne muttered that she'd like to receive one of those scarves. Apparently, the monk understood English, because he turned to us both, blessed us both, and I kept that scarf around my neck, not knowing what else to do, the remainder of the day. When I stepped out of the chapel, a small child in his mother's arms spontaneously reached out to me his little hand. I grabbed it, his mother smiled, and I almost cried... certainly had to get out of there. I am not a religious person, but I am a deeply feeling one, and it's difficult not to be persuaded by such moments, even if you are currently reading Hobbes' "Leviathan". What struck me the most, is that I was allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the holiest temple of this religion and even touch my forehead to the leg of its most revered, ancient icon. Would I be permitted, much less invited by beckoning smiles, to do the same at Rome? Jerusalem? Salt Lake City? Mecca?

I must add that my dorm room is just about 100% Japanese, and their personalities run the gamut of that subtle country. I'm getting lots of Japanese practice and haggling advice, too: Miyuko-san somehow managed to get a 200 yuan coat for 40. "I always win!" she said triumphantly. Naturally, nobody has a Tibet permit. I have already been invited out for a night of Japanese fun--avoiding that by doing this--and the group seems to agree that I am a "yasashii hito (desu ne!)". Given their charm and reliability, I figured they would be perfect Land Cruiser companions, should any of them be going that way. I quickly assembled a group of five, called a meeting (they love that) to discuss the details, and it looks like we'll be on our way to the Maoist-ridden kingdom in the next few days.

I imagine you all, my friends, as manifestations of Kannon, Avalokitesvara, Bodhisattva of infinite compassion--whose thousand-armed, myriad-headed form witnesses the lamentations of the world--in my thoughts (however confused) and in my prayers (however conflicted and however infrequent).

Om Mani Padme Hum! Behold! The jewel in the lotus!

Om Mani Padme Hum

Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum Om Mani Padme Hum

13 December 2007

Latitude for Lhasa lassitude, please

Post coming soon. There's been too much going on, all of which I will explain anon.

I had dinner in a Sichuan restaurant last night, and I realized that I've never gotten a fortune cookie here. Where's my fortune cookie, China?! How am I supposed to know my lucky numbers?!?!?!?!??!

11 December 2007

10 December 2007


Tibet is wonderful.

07 December 2007

Keep your fingers crossed

Friends, I have to apologize for the rather atrabilious tone of my recent posts. But you can understand how, heaped atop the melancholia of long term, independent travel, sudden illnesses compounded with minor frustrations and irksome disappointments can deflect the momentum of an otherwise positive experience into the shady pits of despair. Now, that is all past, because I have miraculously obtained a train ticket to Lhasa, Tibet. Oh, it wasn't easy, friends, but I have it now, in, as my 10th grade biology teacher would say, my hot little phalanges.

The story so far...

Despite being told in Kashgar that the road from Hotan to Charklik is terrible and the road beyond to Golmud impassible, I barrelled ahead anyway, convinced of my redoubtable, unflappable mettle. This much you know. Five hours further journey from my aborted attempt to cross into Western Tibet brought me to the oasis city of Hotan, once a mighty Silk Road kingdom and now the last outpost of urbanity before the wastes of the Taklamakan and Qinghai plateau. Look at a map of China. It's the most populous country on Earth, right? See that big, blank spot in the middle, where no people live? I was going to travel through there! Discouraged by people (Uighurs, even!) who bristled at the thought of such a journey in winter, by Lonely Planet descriptions of 17-hour bus journeys over horrendous, often washed-out roads, and by the possibility of having to pay exorbitant sums to make the trip, or to have to wait days in ignorance, or to reach Charklik only to have to turn back--all this put me off the venture. "What for?" I mused to myself, searching for the justification only I would ever care about. And that's the extended version of why I bought that 24-hour cross-desert bus ticket...


I happened to run into Abdul (or something.. real name forthcoming), and he changed everything. Interesting guy. Uighur, he studied English in Pakistan and Canada. I was sent to him by the Hotan CITS (Chinese International Travel Service), the organization with offices everywhere in China that's supposed to help foreigners get around. Naturally, nobody spoke English, the international language, but they were able to figure out what I wanted through rudiments and gestures and asked Abdul, a curator at the gorgeous new Hotan museum (they have mummies! Indo-European mummies!) to arrange a tour of local attractions. These consist of numerous ancient cities, which I uncharacteristically skipped (too expensive to get there and, according to Abdul, there's absolutely nothing to see), and working silk and carpet factories. We had a nice chat en route to the carpet factory, where local workers earn about $100/month (!) laboriously weaving lovely carpets by hand. I explained to Abdul that in America, I make about $1400/month as a graduate student, and I myself am woefully poor there, though I played down the woe part. At the silk factory, a dearth of tourists in winter meant a dearth of workers demonstrating how the famous Atlas silk is made. It was neat to learn about, anyway, since I never knew before that the cocoons of silk worms, having fed on the cuttings of mulberry trees, are thrown into a vat and boiled before the precious silk thread is worked out of them and then spun into the finest clothes in the world. And this was the secret so closely guarded by China for so long, the secret that created the Silk Road to begin with, allowing Europe to drain its meager wealth to buy fancy dresses useless against the cold--until the Italians figured out how to do it. I bought a hat for $8.

But I digress.. the reason my chance meeting with Abdul was so fortuitous was that he informed me of how cheap flights are from Hotan back to Urumqi. My travel guide suggests they aren't cheap at all. So, "how cheap?" I inquired. Well, if you buy them a few days in advance, sometimes as low as 600-800 yuan. Hmm, I thought, that's still rather more expensive than my 335 yuan bus ticket. But the yuan is 7.5 to the dollar, and it's really not *that* much more expensive, meal stops and such factored in. He made a call to a travel agent, and miraculously, there were tickets available for 530 yuan for a flight that afternoon! Not wanting to spend another night in my SLH, an entire day on the cross-desert bus, or several days in the eastern Xinjiang wilds, I told Abdul to take me to the travel agent and step on it. Now, I realize internal flights are cheating when you're traveling as I am, but I was really in dire straits, friends, and close to mental collapse. So please, just don't tell anyone, ok?

By the time we got to the travel agent, the 530 yuan tickets had sold out, but 650 yuan ones were still available. I relented to that, naturally, and a new plan formed in my demented brain. I would fly to Urumqi and immediately take a train first to Lanzhou and then to Lhasa, assuming berths were available on both trains on such short notice (almost never) and assuming I could buy a ticket to Lhasa without a permit (increasingly possible). To be safe, I emailed my Urumqi friend Tracy and begged her to buy the train tickets for me (since a Chinese will not be refused entry to Tibet). As it turned out, she had another friend get them, and he was only able to get a spot for a Monday departure. Monday! You saw me swear on this blog, and that was why. Stubbornly, undeterred, I went to the train station myself the next morning and demanded in the strongest possible terms the ticket lady sell me a ticket to Lhasa. I insist, you see, that the usual nature of things not apply to me. Of course, she didn't speak English, but did manage to scrounge up an expensive soft sleeper for me to Lanzhou, once the world's most polluted city, whence I could then buy a ticket to Lhasa, if available, highly unlikely. Well. I took it and ran back to my hostel to get my pack, sailed back again to the train station, called Tracy to apologize for not staying to visit her again and for wasting her time getting a train ticket I now wouldn't need, boarded the train, and shared a compartment for 24 hours with a young couple and their relentlessly hyperactive little boy, who was funny and cute, but who I also wanted to kill (after hour 12; up until then, I only wanted to maim). I offered him oranges and his father offered me some small, green peppers. Sensing trouble, I accepted one and just bit off the tip. When I picked my head up off the floor, I graciously declined further offers, with the exception of the beers he bought and then opened against a footrest.

All night on the train to Lanzhou, I prayed and prostrated to the travel gods, begging them to look kindly on me and grant me passage to Tibet. There may be no greater request to make of them, and I knew if they granted my request, I would owe them big time. Clearly, my obsecrations did not fall on deaf ears. When I nervously entered the ticket hall in Lanzhou, I feared the worst: "Where's your Tibet Travel Permit" or "There's nothing available until next Friday, soft sleeper only, 1000 yuan". Instead, she circled "hard sleeper, middle berth" on my little note (even though I can't speak Pudonghua, I can write Chinese characters, so I write notes with them to buy train tickets), departing 15:21 today. Amazing! Not only a ticket, not only today, not only without a permit, but a middle berth hard sleeper, gold standard of backpacker travel in China! People sit on the bottom berth, you see, and the top berth is too close to the ceiling and the loudspeakers. I remain in suspense, however, because I might still be stopped before boarding the train or thrown off en route when I am discovered permitless. I've read that nearly everyone makes it to Lhasa without incident, however, so I am hopeful, and when I get there, I will be even more thrilled that I PULLED IT OFF, which gives me more joy than could visits to a thousand ancient cities or a million mountain valleys. Pray for me anyway, my friends. Pray to the travel gods or whatever other gods you hold in esteem. Tomorrow evening, after another interminable journey--30 hours on, reaching 5000 meters+, the highest railway in the world--I hope to write here again, from Tibet, of my success.

06 December 2007



05 December 2007

Cheap Joke

I forgot to mention the name of my accomodation in Kashgar: The Seman Hotel.

Even today, the Silk Road is just too tough for some people...

I am fickle, people. Even after months of deliberating, I have no compunction about shoveling all my carefully crafted plans--plans that have even become fetishized dreams--out the window! Today, I decided I am an idiot to think 5 days on horrible buses on horrible roads is a good idea just to say I followed the route of the Southern Silk Road to Golmud, the hard way. In winter no less! No! I'm not doing it! I would if I had time to stop in each town for a few days and explore, which is proper. But I want to get to Tibet. And though I kind of like the eerie, skeletally forested desert oases out here in the A.E.O.N., I don't like them *that* much that I want to just sail through them for days, possibly get delayed by snowstorms and avalanches, and even more possibly be unable to cross the Qinghai plateau (near a lovely asbestos factory and, I am not kidding, a gulag) without hiring a $1000 private 4x4 vehicle or some such other absurd series of "adventures".

Please forgive me.

Instead, I am going to take a 24 hour bus ride *across* the horrid Taklamakan Desert (remember? enter and never leave--yay!) back to Urumqi, drink pomegranate wine with my new Chinese friend Yan/Tracy, and then take a 2 day train to Lhasa with a ticket also purchased by friend Tracy, thus, theoretically, getting me around that nasty Tibet permit ($200/10 days?!) all foreigners are supposed to acquire before daring to venture to the forbidden land and which I shamelessly, even proudly, do here officially and before all of you in the name of freedom and the license to dream and explore and go and do whither and whatsoever you like here now forever and everywhere


I went to a doctor in Kashgar, and she told me I don't have tendonitis, so obviously I was erring on the side of hypochondria once again. I don't believe her, though, because my father raised me to be a skeptic, and I believe no one. She smeared some weird-smelling red liquid on my foot, wrapped it up in a bandage, and told me it'll either be better in a few days or will never be better. Thanks to my Uzbek friend Guleya for translating without laughing at me too much! I now know how to say "diarrhea" in Uighur (which gets a place of honor in my vocabulary next to Mayan for "eye booger" and Japanese for "rabies").

My bowels finally stable, I left Kashgar yesterday and traveled to Karghilik, an SLT a few hours away, piqued by my Japanese colleague's story of Tibet hardships. Those hardships sounded more appealing than the ones I had planned (including, as mine did not, for example, holy Mt. Kailash), so to Karghilik I went. The Uighur lady at the front desk of the bus station hotel was quite nasty to me when I appeared, demanding 160 RMB for a room. After I expressed my indignation, she furiously wrote "100" on a piece of paper, clearly disgusted with my penury and impertinence. Though I agree with her in principle--that the poor are a disgusting people--I counteroffer-wrote "70" and smiled a cheery American smile. She blathered and protested at this, but when I reached for my bags, she gave up the fight, threw a room key at me (literally), and went back to dying her mother's (?) hair. Victory! Odd that she didn't try harder, given that there are no other hotels in town (none, at least, that I could find). Before I went up to my room, she asked me if I was Japanese (!). Has it rubbed off that much? The next morning, I made a peace offering to her and the Chinese lady stationed beside her of three stale bagels, which they gladly accepted. Later, when the unhappy Uighur lady was gone, I returned and tried to extract information about a trip to Tibet from the Chinese lady. I hadn't wanted to do this, because the hotel might be too closely connected with the police (this being China and everything being owned by the government), and the road to Ali in Tibet is closed to foreigners. Still, many make the trip, often by hitching rides in trucks, and I thought I might be able to cover the 1100 km at 5000+ m in winter (not counting the next, what, 3000 km to Lhasa?) easily enough--if the Japanese kid could do it on a bike! Sadly, my total lack of Chinese and Uighur language skills yielded no results out on the "street", where I went to, ha ha, inquire on the down low. I resorted to having the Chinese receptionist call my Uighur friend Guleya in Kashgar, who communicated to me that my best bet would be to wait for the next bus--5 days, ticket price $110. Twenty minutes later, I was on my way to Hotan. And here I am, at the heart of yet another ancient, ancient kingdom, surrounded by the pulverized remains of yet others and others. They needn't be conquered by raiding hordes, these desert redoubts--wind and time write their own slow history.

PS - you may not hear from me for a few days as I make my way to Tibet

PPS - I'm not sure what "Kashed out in Kashgar" is supposed to mean

02 December 2007

Kashed out in Kashgar

Actually, I've had a very interesting time in Kashgar, but the lingering effects of bacterial illness compounded with the continuance of my tendonitis (and dancing-induced pain in the right knee) have made it a rather mixed experience. Surrounded as I am by delicious Uighur food, I can eat none of it--no, appetiteless, I am confined to antibiotics luckily brought along--as, likewise to my chagrin, the temperatures plunge below freezing, and I am left unable to walk and in contemplation of having to miss out on Annapurna in Nepal, which I surely oughtn't do with a bad foot, it being a 21+ day venture into sparsely villaged, roadless countryside. On the plus side, I am currently using my new couchsurfing friend Guleya's computer. Guleya, a Uighur-speaking Uzbek whose quite traditional Muslim family is being kind enough to allow me into their lovely, carpeted home, has been a delight and a great help to me. She has served me tea, bowls full of chocolates and dried fruit, plates of enormous Uighur naan bread, and a bowl of pomegranates and apples--and yet I can eat none of it. I think I've had nothing but a bagel-like thing and a few oranges in the last three days. Yesterday, we attended the going-away-from-Kashgar party of another couchsurfer named Cindy, who is an anthropology graduate student studying Uighur language and culture. She was going to host me, at first, but she's not allowed to have guests, and it would have been too hard sneaking me past the dormitory guardian. Instead, I went to her party, where I at least got to enjoy traditional Uighur music--an intangible UNESCO World Heritage don't you know (I didn't know). And that was a saving grace, because there also were heaping plates of paradisaical food placed before me that I couldn't touch. That's right, people, I, Steven J. Syrek...


God pity me. God help me.

Funnily enough, my dormitory room (finally got the toilet fixed) has been host to at least four independent Japanese travelers, naturally a delight, who are also naturally doing things I could never dream of. One guy was a cop and quit for I don't know how long, perhaps two years, to travel and has already been to about 20 countries in 2 weeks or something, sneaking past border posts and whatnot so he could get into, i.e., Tajikistan. Another guy was in the midst of the same, I forget all the envy-inducing details of these hardcore Nihonjin types, and recently left for Urumqi on the same train I took to get here, except he's going by hard seat--hard seat for 23 hours!--whereas I, the sissy, went by hard sleeper. Well, he's only 24, and I've done things like that. I think my hard seat days are over (though a 35 year old French guy staying here does the same, curse them all). There's also a young Japanese woman, but she's very quiet and seems loathe to speak to me in that Japanese loathing-to-speak-to-foreigners way to which my Japanese readers can attest. Oh well. A new arrival is a recent Kyoto University graduate, soon to be Tokyo University grad student (International Development), who, at the age of 23, has just ridden his bike from Dali, through Yunnan and Tibet--the really hard part of Tibet--in winter--to Xinjiang--illegally--all of which is insane. On his way to Kyrgyzstan, I reckon. And you people worry about *me*?? Please, what I do is nothing. I might as well give up, I'm so lacking in the spirit of adventure. But I am not really so down as that. It's only a mood brought on by my restless stomach, refusing to give quarter to my unrested body. It gives me hope in the possibilities of life to hear such people's tales and exploits. People tell me all the time how they couldn't do what I'm doing. And yet, I'm hardly doing anything given what other, more robust, more ambitious, perhaps wealthier people than myself are up to. And it pains me to admit that, given the constraints of space, I've really only told you but half of it. If that.

To quote a description of the Kashgar bazaar, which I think is as much applicable to travel, and experience, and life in general (translated from the Chinese), "Let's join into the crowd and taste the pleasure."