This is my last post for two days, unless they happen to have an internet cafe aboard the high altitude train we will take tomorrow on our way to Xian. The journey lasts for 36 hours. À bientôt, j’espère.
Our guide thought we were nuts, but we asked to be driven around the city of Lhasa, and to be taken to a “normal” shopping area (as opposed to the tourist ones we had been guided to earlier). We went to a park, a dog selling area (our guide seemed keen on it), and a market selling all manner of stuff that tourists would not normally buy or see.
…has to be The Tibet Summit Fine Arts Cafe. It is a great little coffee and sweets shop that has good (and inexpensive) internet access and the friendliest staff anywhere in Tibet. The three women behind the counter are helpful and playful with the patrons, giving the place a very welcome feel.
I am really confused, disturbed and conflicted by much of what I have seen here. There are several reasons for this. In no particular order:
1. Our guide, like the one we had in Bhutan, is very difficult to understand when she tries to explain a long mythological point about Tibetan Buddhism. This is not entirely her fault, as these stories do not lend themselves easily to a 5 minute expose.
2. Along with the above, I wish I had better informed myself about Tibetan Buddhism before coming on this trip. It is mysterious to me and very far from my previous experience of Buddhism and the beautiful simplicity of the practice that has always appealed to me. The Tibetan (and Bhutanese, which came from Tibet) religion is filled with all sorts of things that seem antithetical to Buddhist principles as I have previously understood them. The multitude of gods and goddesses, demi-gods and demons, as well as the massive hierarchy in society are bewildering to me. I can find great cultural interest in the imagery of this form of Buddhism, but not much spiritual connection to it or its highly ritualized practice. (same old story with me, regardless of the religion in question.)
3. Coming to Tibet as a tourist is highly restricted. As in Bhutan, you need to sign up with a tour, and you won’t necessarily get to see the things you would like to. The trip to Potala Palace was somewhat of a disappointment, as they didn’t allow any pics inside and rushed us through in less than an hour. The building itself is amazing, but of course the ghost of the (current) Dalai Lama haunts the hell out of the place.
4. Speaking of the Dalai Lama, well, one CAN’T speak of him at all. Any time we try to ask any questions, we are told, “not allowed to talk about”. Any questions we try to ask about him (or more importantly how his followers relate to him) are rebuffed.
5. There is an unreal quality to a lot of the “worshipers” . Seeing the way certain monk-dressed people act, or the way others dramatically prostrate themselves whenever a tourist is around, once gets the feeling that this is all for our benefit and that the government pays people to pretend to be devout Tibetan Buddhists.
6. Most of the city of Lhasa is surprisingly new and clean. It has massive amounts of new buildings and finding the “old” city is somewhat difficult. It is also very touristy.
7. Trying to find info on Tibet from a cybercafe here, it was interesting to note that although I could pull up a Google result set, many of those links failed to work. The censorship here, although not unexpected, still turns my stomach.
8. The official Chinese version of events here is that they came in to “liberate” Tibet. Never mind the countless deaths, imprisonments, monastery destructions, dislocations, and prohibited speech. (I wonder how long until this blog is censored. Perhaps I will fly under the radar.)
9. There is a palpable sense of dislike of the Chinese here. More than one Tibetan we have talked to (although there are certain subjects they can’t discuss) have spoken ill of the Chinese in a general manner. They feel themselves to be very culturally distinct. In some ways it is sad to see this kind of nativism, but given the suppression of the past one can understand the aversion.
10. The only English language station on the TV of the hotel is CCTV 9. It is laughable English language propaganda, mostly “news”, that tells of the glorious perfection of China in the world. It is sort of like the Fox news of China, but without any alternatives.
FWIW, here are some of the photos:
We arrived in Lhasa and I immediately started to feel groggy with a slight headache and nausea. Altitude sickness is apparently a real thing. After resting for a few hours and having dinner, I am feeling much better. We go to visit the city tomorrow, and it all seems a little over planned. Like Bhutan, the only way to visit Tibet is with a guide, but I am hoping we can ditch them a little bit to explore a few things on our own. Maybe I will ask annoying political questions about the Chinese takeover of Tibet to get them in the mood.
Went to an AMAZING restaurant called Krishnarpan last night in the Dwarika Hotel in Kathmandu. We had a Nepali “sit down” (read: low tables) meal that was the best food of the whole trip. We had personalized menus prepared for our six course meal. (We could have chosen a 9, 12, 15, or 22 course meal, believe it or not.) The entire experience was perfect, from the decor of the restaurant and hotel to the wine, to the course selections. If you are ever in Kathmandu and want to splurge a little (our meal came to about 30 usd per person) I highly recommend this place. (Hat tip to my friend Jai who recommended the place to me.)
I am at the airport now, awaiting our plane to Llasa, Tibet. Not sure what internet access will be like in Tibet and China, so this might be my last post for awhile. (right.) Stay tuned.
Believe it or not, the centerpiece of our day involved visiting not one, not two, but three Durbar Squares in various places. We hired a driver to haul us around for the day and since it was raining for a good part of it, we were happy not to be walking. We started out with a visit to a small medieval town just outside of Kathmandu called Bhaktapur. Although it was raining heavily, it was an amazing little town of winding streets and still more beautiful architecture. After that we headed to Patan, a city just south of Kathmandu proper (and really a part or suburb of Kathmandu) where we took in our 2nd Durbar Square and surroundings. Patan is somewhat older than the part we are staying in and I thought the buildings and feel of the place were incredible. I can definitely see myself coming back to Nepal to explore further. Last (and definitely least), we took in the most famous of the Durbar Squares in Kathmandu. It was still incredible, but didn’t live up to the other two IMHO. Following are the pics, you be the judge.
This city is incredible. Reminds me of Old Delhi, Venice and a few other places all mixed up, although it is very much its own thing. It seems much more vibrant than Old Delhi, much less a frozen museum than Venice. This variety and quality of commerce on the street is staggering. The architecture is a fantastic mix of old and new(er), much of it crumbling in a very romantic way. The city also has a kind of miniature scale about everything that I find very appealing. I’ve just been walking and walking (and eating).
Note: I am going to try the new embedding feature of google slideshows…let me know what you think. If it doesn’t work, you can link directly to the album here
In order to get something up, I have quickly uploaded somewhat lower res photos of Bhutan. Click on each of the photos below to go to that album.
Note: There are many issues. I need to rotate a bunch of them, I need to edit out some of them, I need to label them, and I need to add higher res versions of some of them. Hopefully in the next few days…
A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. And I have some 340,000 plus words awaiting you, but unfortunately Bhutan is not a country with high speed (or anything near high speed) internet access. I write this post from a page that took 5 minutes to load.
So in the absence of images, allow me to share a few random notes about Bhutan with you:
1. The Dzongs that we have seen here are spectacular. The modern architecture is of a very limited and enforced design type.
2. The only way anyone (except Indians) can visit Bhutan is on a package tour, and they currently average about 15 thousand per year.
3. In discussions with our tour guide we have learned that most construction labor is imported from India.
4. We have also learned that they don’t particularly seem to like Indians (or other foreigners, for that matter) as staying or getting anything like citizenship is an impossibility if you are not born of Bhutanese parents. If you are born in the country and only one of your parents is Bhutanese, you don’t even get full citizenship rights like voting and holding office.
5. An inordinate amount of drinking must go on here, for almost every shop is also a bar as in “Grocery cum Bar”, “Restaurant cum Bar”, “Hardware Store cum Bar” etc. (There will be a documentary photo collection to follow soon.)
6. The entire country seems to be under construction, with most projects scheduled to be completed by 2008, the year of the coronation of the next king. These projects include, among other things, a national highway, parliament building, botanical gardens, and much more.
7. Our guide informed us that being Buddhists, the people of Bhutan don’t approve of killing. He then informed us that most Bhutanese are meat eaters, and that they import their meat from India, leaving the killing (and one supposes the bad karma) to their southern neighbors.