Beijing

There is a strange feeling of homecoming when flying into Beijing. These are my people, my memories. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to spend time here as planned.

There was a hailstorm in southern China so our flight from Lhasa was delayed – the airline put us in a random hotel, in an interesting area of town but it was free, had WIFI, TV and pretty good food.

I actually almost missed my flight because I was held up in immigration for having a group visa with missing group members. I barely made the flight!

Day 12 – Lhasa, Tibet and the Potala Palace

This is what I’ve been waiting for!

We start early to get to Deji Zhonglu to join hundreds of Tibetan pilgrims heading to the Potala. The trail leads us past some interesting sights, like Tibetans rubbing their backs against a series of polished rocks (holy stones).

Situated atop a high hill with a commanding view of Lhasa, the Potala Palace is the most important structure in Tibet. (OK I made that up, but it’s important). The Dalai Lama lived here until escaping into exile in 1959.

It has 2 sections, the white palace and red palace. It is very crowded inside due to it only being open to the public on select weekend days.

We spent about 3 hours inside where no pictures are allowed, which is a shame, because this was the most ornate monastery we’ve seen.

 

 

Day 11 – Lhasa, Tibet

Monasteries, Temples and Old Towns, Oh MY!

(this should be the name of this trip)

Drepung Monastery – this was once the world’s largest monasteries with about 7,000 resident monks. It was the home of Dalai Lamas until the 5th century when the Potala Palace was built.

Nechung Monastery – the State Oracle lived here until 1959. The Dalai Lama would consult the Nechung Oracle before making any important decision.

Jorkhang Temple – thick with the smell of butter lamps and burning incense (as my mom would say, enough to drop a moose).

Walked around old section of Lhasa (fairly undisturbed by Chinese influence). Lots of small, family run shops.

Day 10 – LHASA

We take a 50 minute flight over snow capped mountains, including Mt Everest and several other 8,000 foot mountains.

From the airport we drive 1 hour into Lhasa but first stop at Drolma Lakhang, a small but significant monastery.

We check into the hotel and rest to acclimatize to the altitude. Margaret and I have found that drinking lots of water is the only cure/preemptive measure for altitude sickness. Found this out in Bolivia at about 12,000 feet :)

 

Day 9 – We’re still in Nepal…

Panoramic views of snow capped Himalayan mountains! (in theory) It is too smoggy to see anything…

More hiking! This time to check out another Temple. (Lots of themes here)

We drive to a small village, Telkot, to start our hike. The trail is fairly flat and 2 hours later we arrive. We hiked through terraced farmlands, villages.

Changu Narayan Temple was unfortunately damaged by the most recent earthquake.

Thankfully, our driver meets us here and we do not have to walk back.

We are back in Bhaktapur for more of the Nepali New Year celebration.

Kathmandu, Nepal

We flew from Paro on a 45 minute flight. The right side of the plane had a great view of the Himalayas including Mt Everest. I was on the left side of the plane and saw nothing.

We did visa on arrival, which I have never done before but it was easy. 

We dove right into sightseeing, starting with Swatyambhunath Stupa, a 2,000 year old Buddhist shrine on a hill overlooking the city. We had no view due to the smog.

We also visited Durbar Square, the heart of the old city. Unfortunately, the earthquake last year took out most of the Royal Palace and surrounding temples. One of the only standing structures is the home of the Kumari. From what I understand, the Kumari is the living reincarnation of a Hindu goddess. She is chosen as a young girl from the community (each large community has one) and is kept in the temple with caretakers (not her family) until she has her period or she has to go to the hospital (or outside world for some other reason). Then, she is done and a new Kumari is chosen. She is brought out once a year in her chariot for a festival.

We went to a Nepali restaurant for dinner and had momos (dumplings), curried vegetables, rice, chickpeas and chicken. 

Nepal borders China and India but is much more like India – the majority of people are Hindu, the food has lots of curry and the people look more similar to Indians. Also, they have free movement between Nepal and India, so many people come and go between the 2 countries. The border towns with China have been closed since last year’s earthquake (yet to be rebuilt), which tells you how little they value the exchange with China. 

Day 2 – We attempted to take an Everest view flight. We woke up early and went to the domestic terminal, quite the experience in itself. They apparently always have a first ‘test’ flight (but has passengers) that departs to see what the conditions are like. Then, other flights will depart. We were booked on the third flight of the morning, after getting bumped from the second which we actually a good thing. First flight departed, second flight boarded and sat on the Tarmac and we sat in the terminal. The weather was not good (too cloudy) so the first flight was diverted, the second flight had to come back to the gate and the third flight never boarded and we were able to get out of there quickly – or semi quickly. There was no marked exit, so we went through security backwards while people were trying to go through for their flights. 

We visited Patan, one of the 3 medieval cities in the Kathmandu Valley. We also visited a more traditional farming community of Bungamati. Both have been very badly damaged in the earthquake.

This section is under construction–

Boudhanath Stupa 

Thangka Paintings

Nagarkot

Bhaktapur

Nepali New Year – April 12

A note on earthquakes:

There was a tremor (4.5) on Saturday. People here are very superstitious about earthquakes now as we are coming up on the anniversary of last year’s on April 25. Much of the country is destroyed. Nothing has been rebuilt and they are still in the process of cleaning up – lots of bricks everywhere, partial buildings, etc. There are still people living in aid tent camps. It is sad and makes it hard to sightsee, as most of the sights have been badly damaged and have photos of what used to be there or plans of what will be there. Some sites are UNESCO, others are being supported by NGOs or foreign aid, and some by the Nepalese government. It will take at least 10+ years to rebuild monuments, more for housing and towns. 

Other observations:

Crowded/Traffic/Disorganized

Polluted

Multi cultural 

Paro, Bhutan

We have spent 2 days in Paro, the largest city and also home to the airport.

We drove 4 hours from Punakha, back through windy mountain roads, across Dochula pass and back. 

Before departing Punakha, we visited Chimi Lakhang Temple, aka the fertility temple. We had to walk though paddy fields and a small village to get there. At the temple itself, there were young monks practicing their instruments. The temple is frequently visited by couples who are having a hard time convincing. It is said that within 9 months of visiting they are able to get pregnant. 

We visited Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, an ancient fortress. Currently there is restoration work being done and we were not able to go inside. Next, we stopped at Kyiche Temple, which is one of the 108 temples that King Songsten Gampo of Tibet miraculously built overnight (or so the legend goes..) in the 7th century. It is one of 2 of these types of temples in Bhutan and the original structure is still standing.

On Saturday, we woke up early and started off to Takstang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest). The monastery is precariously perched on the edge of a 4,000 ft cliff, we hiked about 3,000 ft in elevation to reach the monastery. It took about 2.5 hours up (we were the first visitors to arrive!) and about 1 hour down. We stopped about halfway down at a cafe for tea and view. The monastery was worth the hike! It is built into the side of the mountain in many caves and is an active monastery with monks and plenty of dogs.

In the afternoon, we visited a family farm to take a traditional hot stone bath. Bhutanese use hot stones as a method of curing cuts, joint pain, arthritis and other minor ailments. It was very relaxing – we were in rough wood baths with a separate stone section that was divided by a wall so those outside could put stones in the bath without seeing you.  They heated the stones on a fire outside. 

Today, we will visit the Sunday Market, then we are off to Kathmandu. 

Punakha, Bhutan

Following breakfast, we began a scenic drive to Punakha, the former winter capital. The road is VERY windy, unpaved in parts with ongoing construction, dogs/cattle/people in the road, massive drops with minimal barriers and they drive on the left. It was about a 3 hour drive with a stop at Dochula Pass (10,200 feet). Unfortunately, it was already foggy when we got there, but on a clear day it’s a great view of the Himalayas. There are also 108 stupas (Buddhist shrines too small to go into), many prayer flags and a temple. After going up to the pass, we started our windy journey down to Wangdue valley – sub tropical lowlands of the country. 

We visited the stunning Punakha Dzong, most likely the most impressing Dzong architecture in Bhutan – it can be seen on many postcards and travel sites.  This is the location the king and chief abbot spend the winter. It is located on an island, a great place for a fortress. After, we had a picnic lunch overlooking the river in a park. Lunch was red rice, ferns (like green beans), chicken, chilies and cheese (very traditional dish), potatoes and tea.

In the afternoon, we hiked to Namgyal Chorten – you guessed it, a temple!

It was about an hour hike with streams, terrace farming and dogs along the way. We had one dog follow us to the top, she was our guide. This Chorten was built by the queen mother for her son. It contains 48 ‘evil’ deities. They are supposed to draw out the impure thoughts from the future (now) King. Impure meaning jealousy, greed, etc.

Bhutan – General Observations

1. Driving – is crazy – there are no stoplights in this country, however, at the busiset interestion in Thimpu there is a traffic guard directing traffic. Also, they drive on the left, with people, dogs, cows and other assorted animal on the road. All roads are very windy. Somehow it works for them.
2. Dogs – everywhere – people do not have them as pets but will give street dogs food so they hang around. They sleep in the sun all day, bark all night. I can’t really say which breed most of them are – a blank/tan long haired shepherd. Apparently, a western organization came a few years ago and fixed about 50,000 dogs, so hopefully now the population will stabilize or decrease. There are only a couple so far I have considered bringing home with me. 

3. Food- interesting – so far we’ve had buckwheat noodles, pumpkin soup, asparagus (in season here) dumplings with spinach and cheese, potatoes and cheese (I didn’t think there’d be this much cheese…) cabbage, root vegetables like carrots, watermelon (surprising really good here), vanilla ice cream, mango juice (again, surprising and good), eggplant,  red rice

4. People- 99% Buddhist – this is a very gentle society. People are quiet but friendly, will always return smiles. Honest with shop prices and there is virtually no crime. English is their second language and taught in schools so we were able to communicate for the most part.

Thimphu, Bhutan

We began the day by visiting the gigantic statue of Bhuddha Dordenma, possibly the largest seated Buddha statue in the world – the views were amazing.  Pics to come!

Next, we stopped at the National Institute Zoring Chusum which is a school for traditional arts and crafts. It’s a 6 year program which can replace high school or can replace college. We saw students painting, wood carving, sculpting, etc. They were very talented. 

We then drove up the valley to visit the Takin Sanctuary. Takin is the national animal, an antelope which is now endangered. They look like a goat and a cow.We also saw mountain goats and native deer, which when injured are taken to the sanctuary.

Zilukha Nunnery was our next stop where we saw nuns (obviously) and also young monks. The religious sites are already starting to run together.

My favorite stop of the day was at the National Library. There are 2 sections, one for publications in Bhutanese, and one for all other languages. Bhutanese written language was given to Bhutan by Tibet, so they share a written language, however it is spoken differently so the 2 cultures cannot understand each other when speaking. 
Next we stopped at Archery grounds where a competition between 2 rural teams who came to the capital to compete were playing. Archery is the national sport and they get very into it. They also play soccer – if they can find flat enough land to play on and tennis. Back to archery though – the target was about 300 feet from the shooter and members from your same team would stand next to the target and based on your last shots would scream suggestions across the field – half the team was shooting and half by the target. The whole team would shoot (2 shots each) then the opposing team would start. If the board is hit, it’s 2 points and if the bullseye is hit, 3 points. Each time someone scored a point, they did a vicory dance with song.

Bhutan living museum was very helpful to learn about the culture. We started in a traditional welcome house in which guests receive a wheat distilled drink (like rice wine but with wheat) and are then invited into the home. 

We tried on the traditional dress – for men is the gho, a knee length robe tied at the waist and for women is the kira, an ankle length dress with a long sleeved jacket over.  Social class and status determine the texture, color and fabric used for the traditional dress. Bhutanese law requires all citizens to wear the national dress at work and while visiting schools and government offices.

We practiced our archery skills (or lack thereof) on a traditional Bhutanese bamboo bow. We also saw traditional dancers practicing for their next performance while enjoying butter tea with popped rice (I passed on that).

Finally, we went to the Astrological Center where there was a Buddhist ceremony for determining what is to come in the next year. So again, lots of chanting.