Monday, June 26, 2006

Wrapping Up

The Tibetan Cowboy

Notice: The cowboy is alive and well. Don't be fooled by the big belt-buckle wearing, giant pick-up truck driving posers with the "Save the Cowboy" bumper-stickers. Though cowboy-don may be little more than the saddest of cliches in the US, rest assured that cowboys do in fact live on. He's just relocated, to a place that offers the one thing necessary for real cowboys: Tibet, and it's vast open spaces (the one thing).

Now, technically he should be called a "yakboy," since it's yaks he herds from his steed, but I won't split hairs. And those steeds tend to be small; they tend to look more like ponies than horses. But that isn't the point. And, actually, I think oftentimes the herding is done without those horses at all-- but that's inconsequential as well. Oh, and I've never been to Tibet. But I know what I'm talking about.

The morning after I wrote the last entry I traveled further west in the province of Sichuan to Tagong, the first truly Tibetan town I visited in China. At an altitude of 3800m, the people who lived there are ethnic Tibetans, and as such they speak the Tibetan language (and not necessarily much Chinese), eat Tibetan food, wear Tibetan clothes, live in Tibetan houses (or tents), etc. They practice sky burials instead of burying their dead underground (more later). They are Tibetans, and my point is simply that Tibetans are distinct from the Chinese (or Han Chinese, if you like). But Tagong is not merely Tibetan-- it's the Wild East, living on years and years after the Wild West was fenced-in, tamed and covered in tract-housing. And the Tibetans of this region are not just anyone-- they are cowboys.

Some are nomads, who live in these awesome big, black tents. Others live in stone houses reminiscent of medieval European castles, if on a very small scale . . . but enough about Tibetan cowboys. I don't suppose it would be worth the time to describe further, especially since I'm not entirely sure I can back up all I've said above . . . I only brought it up in the first place because I was trying to avoid another "Since I last wrote . . . " beginning.

Anyhow, Tagong was really great. A small town with a lot of character set amidst huge and beautiful grassy, rolling hills.

Backdoor Man

From Tagong I continued westward to a much larger, Chinese-ified (consistently agreed to be a bad thing amongst all the Westerners I know of, though if you're into the total absence of character and charm you might be the exception) town called Litang, elevation 4100 m. From there I intended to move further west to the town at the border with the Tibetan Autonomous Region-- that is, the area the Chinese government has labeled "Tibet," though the Dalai Lama (amongst others) feels that the designated Tibet ought to include all Tibetan areas, such as western Sichuan (I have the feeling all this isn't very clear but I'm going to keep writing-- my apologies . . .). Due to some particular (though mundane) circumstances I won't bother describing and a perhaps questionable decision, I headed south instead of west (still trying to get to Tibet), thus beginning a couple weeks worth of "backdoor" action that I wasn't entirely sure I wanted in the first place.

The Lonely Planet likes the term "backdoor." By deciding to go southward, I began what the Lonely Planet calls the "backdoor" route between the Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, at the end of which I would immediately begin to try to sneak into Tibet via yet another "backdoor." Had I made it to Lhasa I might possibly even have traveled the "backdoor" from Qinghai province to northern Sichuan, at which point (if I'd had lots more time) I could have headed back up north via the "backdoor" route to Gansu. So, in truth I'm not half the "backdoor" man (boy? guy? doesn't have the ring, but how awkward is it for me to refer to myself as "man"?!?) I might have been. Which is okay.

The Sichuan-Yunnan backdoor involved two long days in buses on dirt roads. The night in the middle was spent at a town called Xiangcheng that has also fallen prey to Chinese-ification. It did, however, have a beautiful Lamasery (Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, since their monks are Lamas). Next to the existing temple they were in the process of building a second one-- almost entirely by hand alone! The only machine I saw on premises was a single chainsaw. Otherwise it was all hands; while I was there they (the construction crew) were lifting beams (teams of 30 men pulling on ropes) to the third story and slotting them into their places. A little ways off from the construction site proper I spent a while sitting with the men carving other beams. Tibetan temples are characterized by lots and lots of color as well as intricate carvings on columns and beams, so it was really cool to see this being done. They taught me some Tibetan while they worked (which I failed to retain).

Xiangcheng and the immediately surrounding region is also home to a distinct form of Tibetan architecture, with moderately trapezoidal houses (narrowing towards the top). And while the town has by and large been swallowed by Chinese Characteristics, on the outskirts the houses are all still in the regional style. One of them has been converted to a guesthouse, and this was where I stayed, which was neat. Not only was the house cool but the people were really nice and he dorm I slept in there, painted in the typical Tibetan fashion, was hands down the most colorful room in which I have ever spent a night.

After a cloudy but still sometimes spectacular journey I arrived the next night in a much larger town called Zhongdian, in Yunnan province. Despite the vast majority of it also being a nondescript, disheartening gray and white tiled Chinese city, they have attempted to rename it Shang-ri-la (officially--meaning they spell it this way when using their Roman script system and this isn't me being clever-- pronounced in Chinese something like "Shang-a-li-la"). It's no Shang-ri-la, though it is home to an "old town" that hasn't yet been entirely commercialized (a different process than being Chinese-ified, but nevermind this). Still, no snow covered peaks around or anything that seemed to me to merit the new name.

I spent a somewhat unfortunate full day in Zhongdian to visit the huge lamasery nearby, said to be the third most important in Tibetan Buddhism (though I wonder if it might not be the third most important of a particular sect of the extremely complicated and surprisingly fractious religion). I didn't enjoy my visit as much as I had in Xiangcheng, though it was interesting to see so many young monks at once. What was interesting about it is that they didn't behave much differently than you would expect any group of teenage boys to act: punching each other, grabbing at each other's robes, wrestling, spraying fire extinguishers at one another (I actually saw this), and making fun of the foreigners, myself included. As for some of their slightly older counterparts, well, I was told that it's something of a "thing" for certain female backpackers to try to sleep with monks. Most the monks seem to have cell phones, and it's not uncommon to see a monk smoking. That said, I should also mention I encountered a few older monks who seemed to be genuinely gentle souls, including one who invited me to sit down next to him while he was chanting inside one of the many temples. I accepted his offer, and the half hour or maybe more I spent sitting there was definitely the highlight of my visit to this particular lamasery, though I did upon leaving feel that it was expected that I make a contribution to the pile of loose bills on the small table in front of him.

All this seems a bit askew from the rather idealized notions that seems to pervade the Western image of Tibetan Buddhism. I'm guessing this idealization stems largely from the charisma of the Dalai Lama combined with the martyrdom of the Tibetan people at the hands of the Chinese, but no matter where it comes from. The funny thing about Tibetan Buddhism in light of this perception in the West is that, to the (pretentious) casual observer (me), it seems to be especially divergent from what I'll call the Western secular understanding of "pure" Buddhism (since we in the secular West seem to presume to understand the true message of all religions . . . or is it just me?). Meaning there's loads worship of god-like figures and various other aspects seemingly unhelpful towards the end of "extinguishing" the ego, so to speak. I tried to restrain myself from jumping to conclusions-- as it's not as though I've heard someone explain it or gave it much of a chance-- but my constant compulsion to judge everything instantly mostly got the best of me.

By this time I was beginning to grasp that June was not the best time to be in the mountains (part of the greater Himalaya) of southwestern China, as the rainy season was setting in. I knew this beforehand, but didn't worry about it because in the tropics "rainy season" oftentimes means an hour or two of torrential rain each day and otherwise decent weather. Well, not so where I was-- I didn't see any sun during the whole of my backdoor escapades. Everyday overcast, with the gaps between occasional heavy showers filled by on and off drizzling. It was icky.

Plans and Landslides

From Zhongdian I headed out on the Yunnan-Tibet backdoor, which took me to Deqin, the last major (that is, Chinese-ified) town in Yunnan before Tibet. The area is supposedly beautiful but I cannot confirm or deny thanks to the ubiquitous cloud cover. I spent a full day trying to get out of there and into Tibet-- which was a complicated (within in the spectrum of my life lately, anyhow) thing to try to do. You see, Tibet is officially closed to foreigners without a permit. The funny thing about permits to Tibet is that they are expensive, but don't actually exist. Meaning, you pay a whole bunch extra for your "permit" when you (as a foreigner) buy a plane ticket to Lhasa, but you never actually receive anything at all.

[Most of you will probably want to skip or skim the next four paragraphs.]

I didn't like the officially sanctioned ways to get to Tibet for three main reasons: First, it required flying to Lhasa (actually there is one overland route approved for foreigners who pay for their "permit", but I knew I didn't have time for it besides not liking the permit business), which means missing everything in between. Well, it just so happened that everything in between interested me more than pretty much everywhere else in Tibet, as thanks to the above mentioned restrictions relatively few Westerners have been there (which totally changes how the people of a place interact with those Westerners who do visit). And it's supposed to be just stunning landscape, etc. In my original planning (or should I say dreaming?) Lhasa itself seemed to me a good end-point, but despite various sights I wasn't overly interested in it itself, as by all accounts it has been the victim of a rather concerted, merciless (yep, you guessed it!) Chinese-ification. So yeah, I wanted to go overland for its own sake.

Second, I didn't want to pay for it. Not only did I not want to spend the money for not-spending-money's sake (at the ATM yesterday I finally overdrew my bank account (by $22), thanks to the purchase of plane tickets a few days ago (parents: not an emergency, I have enough cash to get home)), but also I didn't like the principle. The Chinese charge for entrance to EVERYWHERE. You want to go visit a nice park? 10 Yuan. A pretty lake in the mountains? 60 Yuan. It's extremely irritating, and especially with the natural sites there's never any question whether the money is doing any good. The money that the Chinese put into natural sites is for things like paved paths and handrails (in this way not so different from the US NPS, actually . . . ) as opposed to trash clean-up or restoring damaged areas or something, but anyhow one usually gets the sense the money's just lining the pockets of the local Party member. Regardless, I quite liked the prospect of NOT paying this one fee. (Just to be clear-- about the money thing above, I haven't actually cut it that close-- I have a few hundred dollars of traveler's cheques left over, in addition to spending on some gift type purchases over the last few days.)

Third, I liked the broader principle/romance of it. That is, I liked the principle of not doing it as the Chinese would have me do with regards to entering Tibet since it shouldn't be theirs in the first place. And since they've been real bastards since taking over as well. And I liked the romance of sneaking into Tibet because there's a long romantic history of doing just that (I'm thinking mostly of Heinrich Harrer and Seven Years in Tibet). The second of these was especially alluring to me in that they might do away with restricting foreign travel in Tibet in the near future, meaning it will no longer be possible to sneak into Tibet (nevermind that this undermines my "broader principle" thing described earlier in the paragraph).

The last thing I should mention about these plans of mine-- before undue accusations (or praise) of recklessness come my way-- is that I knew what I was potentially getting myself into. I spent some significant time researching this, and found out from several sources that if caught I was looking at a fine of 200-300 RMB ($25-37.50), which is notably less than the permit (which ranges from 400 to 1600 RMB depending on where you get it), and getting sent back out of Tibet from whichever way I entered. I wouldn't have attempted to get into Tibet this way if I had been facing the prospect of Chinese jail or a heavier fine (nevermind that this undermines my "romance" thing described in the previous paragraph). Oh yeah, and lately the police hadn't been enforcing the permits on my intended route, so my chances of being fined and turned around were actually quite low. (More undermining . . . )

Anyhow, as it turned out I never got the chance to try. The road between Deqin and Tibet was closed due to a landslide, courtesy of rainy season and a recent heavy storm. There were neither bus nor truck drivers with whom to make an arrangement for my transport. Not that I necessarily would have been able to do so if the roads were open, especially given my lack of Chinese and Tibetan. After a few days of people in town telling me (my communication-with-limited-language skills are reasonably good at this point in time) the pass would open "tomorrow" ("ming tien"), I came to realize that if there was a Chinese (or Tibetan) equivalent to the Arabic "Inshaaalah" (Rich: sp?), I didn't know what it was. (That is, "tomorrow" meant "eventually" as opposed to the following day.) It was about this time that I actually sat down and realized that if I was going to make it back to the States in June that I was out of time for Tibet. To stay into July would have required a visa extension (which I probably would have had to backtrack to get), borrowing money from my parents, and missing out on what should be an amazing river trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon that my friend Erick has invited me on. I didn't want to do any of those things, and the truth is that, well, I didn't want to stay in Asia any longer. I feel . . . satiated. I'm ready to done being a foreigner; a "farang" (Thai)/ "falang"(Lao)/ "barang" (Khmer)/ "waigouren"/ "laowai"(both Chinese). It's interesting to me, and perhaps telling of a different mindset in Indians from East Asians, that I never became aware of the word for foreigner in Hindi, though perhaps it's telling mostly of my relative naivete earlier in my trip, or maybe just India's linguistic diversity, or both. The bottom line is that I didn't have the desire to extend my travels, even if that would have allowed me to travel to the one true Shang-ri-la itself (whatever that might be).

In the last entry I included a quote at the beginning, from an entry I started to write before I had discovered that my anemia was gone. In it I said that I probably didn't have enough time to do it right anyways. Well, I may have been saying this to make myself feel better at the time, but that doesn't mean it wasn't true. In fact I basically didn't have enough time. If things had gone a little closer to perfectly, and I hadn't made that one rushed decision to do the whole backdoor thing (back in Litang) it might have been possible to get to Lhasa and back overland-- though even then it would have been unfortunately rushed. In truth I was still trying to do what I had originally given myself two months to do, prior to getting malaria and anemia and, well, you know the story. Things would have gone more smoothly (and been less dismally gray) in pre-rainy season early May as well. For the record, however, I'm not sorry about how my time was spent on account of my malaria. Visiting Cambodia was really nice and spending a week in hospitals, while not always fun (it did have its enjoyable moments), was an experience for which I am grateful, given that everything turned out well. It was a week entirely unlike others I have known . . .

Out Throught the In Door

So I turned around . . . with the road to Tibet closed and a lack of willingness to wait there was nothing else I could do. And so, in a sense, I began my trip back home, first stop Zhongdian. From there I decided that, though the prospect didn't entirely thrill me, my best option was to go back out through that old "backdoor" route to Sichuan, just as I had come. All in all it turned out well-- the weather was better and so I saw a lot of things that had been obscured the first time through; I ended up spending the better part of it traveling with some friendly Australians, which was nice; I stayed in one new town along the way, and also discovered that most of Litang was thoroughly Tibetan and beautiful and I'd just missed it in my haste and quick-judgment going the other direction. I noticed elevation signs at passes and so learned that I'd already been as high as 4716 meters (over 15000 ft.) high going the other direction-- easily the highest I've ever been-- and just a little lower at a handful of other passes. Tibet (in the Dalai Lama sense of the label) is a very high place. Oh yeah, and I got to go back to Tagong, which by this time I had realized was probably my favorite place I had visited in China (if in part because it's so thoroughly not Chinese), and somewhere deserving of at least a little more time. I knew it was amazing when passing the other direction, but since it was my first stop in a Tibetan area my feeling was something like, "wow, just think how everything else is going to be . . . "

Above written 6/26; below continuing 6/27.

I had a very nice stay there. A highlight of my visit was spending a night in a monk's house. Having wandered into the hills during the day I found myself at a small monastery where a group of monks and laymen and a few children were sitting out in front. A small boy showed me about the monastery; the men were attending to some kind of business, which turned out to be counting prints of Tibetan Buddhist images that the monastery sells to raise funds. After they finished, the monk who appeared to be running things invited me to eat with him. I ended up spending the afternoon, which was spent mostly sitting about his house, communicating what we could. We did, however, spend some time with his elderly mother, which was really interesting. The older Tibetans have the most amazing, weather-worn faces. In the end, my friendly monk host invited me to sleep at his house, in one of the beds he keeps for visiting monks. I initially declined, but he insisted, and frankly I didn't really want to turn him down. It was a pleasant stay, to be sure, and I appreciated the chance to get a better sense for how Tibetans live. For instance, I got to witness the use of yak dung as fuel in a fire (there aren't any trees around) and eat real, unfancified Tibetan food. Some of this included yak butter tea (yak butter melted in hot water), sampa (some kind of flour-- maybe barley-- kneaded with yak butter and hot water until it makes a kind of dry dough, which is what you eat), green chilis dipped in salt, and some very dense (and very good) bread. An austere (if fatty!) diet, but hearty too. In any case it seemed to make good sense in that environment-- which includes features such as the ground being frozen over half the year.

The environment impacts every aspect of the lives of Tibetans-- it has to in such a high, extreme place. It also affects how they go about dealing with their deceased. The Tibetans practice what are called "sky burials," which involves the body being carried to the top of a designated hill or mountain by a priest of sorts (who performs only this one religious function and apparently is somewhat socially stigmatized in life outside his duties), who then cuts the body up into pieces in a particular way such that vultures are more easily able to consume the body. Friends and loved ones gather on site to watch it take place. Though I don't suppose I would have the stomach to witness one myself, I think this rather atypical (to my knowledge, anyhow) "burial" is pretty neat. It's seen as a final act of generosity to the material world within Tibetan Buddhism (giving one's body to the vultures), and addresses the issue of disposing of carcasses in a place where digging big holes isn't really possible so much of the year (since the ground is frozen). Beyond that, I like the fact that the ritual takes place on hilltops. I walked up to several sky burial sites during my stay in Tagong, and all of them were just beautiful spots.

Finishing up on 6/29, from my dad's place . . .

Heading Home

I spent a few days in Tagong then headed back to the humid sub-tropical lowlands and in particular the hazy, polluted metropolis of Chengdu, the site of my Chinese hospital stay. I was there a day or two, bought a plane ticket home, and continued to Beijing. I was unable to buy a plane ticket less than a week in advance, so I ended up with nearly a week there. Though no doubt Beijing has enough to occupy a week's time, I was so thoroughly tired of sight seeing that most of my time there I was just waiting for the days to pass until my flight. I did see the biggest of the sights, namely the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I found the Forbidden City a little disappointing, but maybe it's just because I didn't know enough about the historical background to make it exciting. It was extremely large . . . I did enjoy seeing Tiananmen Square (also gigantic)-- during my first walk through it I had the last of my "What am I doing here?" moments of the trip. I think this reaction was largely due to the fact that it was the site of the '89 protests and massacre; it's just so hard to imagine anyone protesting in China (for obvious reasons).

Perhaps the highlight of my time in Beijing was my visit to the Great Wall. I was able to go to an unrestored, almost unvisited section of the wall, and it was just really great-- something that turned out as good as or better than imagined. There wasn't anyone there besides the nine of us from our hostel and an old fellow who didn't speak any English who led us about (our guide, if you like). And you really could just see the wall stretching on over one mountain/hill (surprisingly steep!) after another. It was impressive, even if the forces behind its creation-- maniacal xenophobia and a whole lot of what I understand to have been slave labor or borderline-slave labor-- were less than entirely noble. I hadn't known previously that the thing didn't really even work all that well: apparently Genghis Khan got himself and his forces past it by bribing the sentries at some spot, supposedly saying, "The strength of a wall depends on the courage of those who defend it." One thing I thought interesting about my visit to the wall was that, with three Israelis and two Americans including myself, over half of our group hailed from places currently somewhere in the process of building our own walls to keep out neighboring foreigners (in all three cases perceived to be racially/ethnically "other", to my understanding).

Other than that I spent a good deal of time reading in parks. That and eating. While Chinese food as a whole still doesn't hold a candle to Indian cuisine in my book, there is some great stuff and I recognized that I would come to miss a lot of it and therefore indulged in frequent meals.

The final sight (of sorts) I visited in Asia proved also to be the strangest: Mao's preserved corpse. Basically, they've (who "they" is I don't know exactly) kept Mao's body in formaldehyde since he died 30 years ago (anniversary coming up in September!), and for a few hours each day he's on display in this large, ugly building in the middle of Tienanmen Square. Visitors wait in line to pass through the building, walking (stopping not allowed) past the body from a few meters' distance. The Chinese come in droves, many leaving bouquets of roses at the entrance. It's perhaps just the most absurd example of the generally absurd Mao idolation that goes in China. How a man who implemented horrific policies such as the "Cultural Revolution" and the "Great Leap Forward" that were responsible for the suffering and deaths of so, so many Chinese managed to make himself into the ultimate national hero is beyond me. Regardless, I didn't find myself thinking somber thoughts inside-- the whole thing seemed like the world's most overdone self-satire.

Anyhow, though it was anything but "before I knew it," eventually the time to fly home came about. The flight went up past Siberia and down the whole of the the west coast of North America, finishing with a run down the length of California. My seat was dead in the middle of the plane, but I was able to spend a lot time staring out the windows by the bathrooms, staring down at the passing ice caps and coastline and, finally, those golden brown hills that represent "home" to me as much as anything.

Afterward: (written 7/12)

Thanks so much for reading this journal of mine these past months-- it means a lot to me. Especially since I've tended to be anything but brief!

I'm in Manhattan Beach now and plan to be mostly around for the next month. I spent last week on a river trip in Idaho, which made for a nice transition back; my gosh LA has been such culture shock. Adjusting slowly, for better or worse . . .

I can't wait to see those of you in the area, and many of the rest of you in the fall!!

Over and out . . .

Monday, June 05, 2006

Cambodia and the return to China

An excerpt from a blog entry I attempted to write a few days ago: "Tibet is no longer in the plans. It's disappointing, but okay. I'm not sure I had enough time to do it well anymore, and I'm looking forward to what I will be doing instead. " Would you have believed me? I was lying! But I'm getting ahead of myself. Picking up where I left off . . .

Hospital Discharge . . .

As my time wound down in Bangkok Hospital I was unsure what I was going to do when I got out: return home, maybe travel southwards towards Australia, return to China? As I believe I mentioned previously, the doctors told me I was clear to go anywhere I pleased, so long as it wasn't at a high altitude. Like Tibet, for instance. In my last conversation with the doctor there, however (a day or two after I wrote the blog), I happened to ask a question that proved fateful for the course of my travelling: how long I could expect it to be before I would be able to travel to altitude again. After the requisite "It depends on the person," he said that it could be as little as a matter of weeks. Also on this last consultation they told me I was scheduled for a follow-up appointment two weeks later, in case I was still in the area.

I was discharged on a Friday, and my dad was booked to leave on a Monday, so we went up to Chiang Mai to pass the weekend until his flight home. We had a good time, visiting the highest point in Thailand-- about 8000 feet, so even anemia-boy (my anemic alter ego) was able to handle it-- and some other sights nearby on our first day, and stayed more local on the second day, seeing pretty much all of Chiang Mai's wats (Buddhist temples) in the morning and trying to stay dry through the rainy afternoon.

As the weekend passed, some idea of what I wanted to do with myself began to sift out of the depths of my consciousness, or sub-consciousness, or whatever/wherever may be the source of such convictions. I came to see that I didn't feel ready to return home-- a week in the hospital didn't seem a fitting end to things; it was as though I had unfinished business. With Australia, as I looked into it I came to see that, due to cost, it wasn't really an option for me. By the time we returned to Bangkok Monday, I had settled on a plan: travel to Cambodia and hang out there until that appointment in Bangkok came around, hoping that by then I would no longer be anemic. In all the glory of all my hoped-for oxygen carrying capability, I would return to China (courtesy of travel insurance and something called "resumption of travel") and once more try to head to Tibet.

Cambodia **this section (divided into three parts) is long and has no bearing on other sections or what I'm up to now; in other words it can easily be skipped entirely


Monday we returned to Bangkok and my dad caught his flight home. Tuesday morning I set off for Siem Reap, Cambodia and the famous temples of Angkor Wat. The next four days were a frenzy of visiting temples; that and taking obscene quantities of pictures very much like those taken by each one of the 999,999 other tourists who go there each year (though some opt to videotape everything instead). Angkor Wat itself, said to be "the world's largest religious building", is impressive. People also like to call it "Man's Greatest Temple to his Gods," and though it would seem from what I've read that it was built more out of love of self than any higher being, it illustrates that impressiveness. It really is huge: it takes ages-- and a lot of going up use-your-hands steep stairs-- to get from the entrance to the center of the thing. As is the case with all the Angkorian temples, there's loads of fine stone carving throughout, some of it pretty well preserved. Despite all of this, however, I felt a little disappointed by Angkor Wat itself. A case of too high expectations perhaps, though for what it's worth I didn't feel the same way about the Taj Mahal.

The rest of the temples in the area (and there are dozens) I generally enjoyed very much. The ones I enjoyed the most were those least eagerly "restored." Cambodia is nothing if not tropical, and so following the abandonment of the temples many centuries ago they were overtaken by the surrounding jungle. Trees with the most massive roots I can conceive of grow out of the temple walls . . . I really don't know how to describe it. A meek attempt: the power of the trees is so vividly apparent; there is this incredible dynamism in the roots, with all their growth and former positions suggested in their current state . . . Anyways, just look at the picture. It comes closer to doing it justice than my words can. [It turns out I can't put up pictures on this computer, but I intend to do so at some point.]

As April and May are the hottest months in Cambodia, it was beyond humid and fairly sweltering oftentimes, and so I spent the better part of each day in the state of sweaty-mess. This sweat combined with my scrambling about jungley ruins made it such that I finished each day a very dirty person. Cold showers, already pleasant in hot season tropics, never felt so good. Or necessary. The upside to being in Cambodia in May is that it is low tourist season. And by the middle of the month, when I arrived, the monsoon is gradually setting on, so most days had some cloud cover and a brief spell of torrential rain. Besides making it cooler than it would have been otherwise, I loved seeing such violent storms move in for twenty minute then disappear, like some kind of fun-size hurricane. There's something really beautiful about it.

The Floating Village

After four days, I had seen quite enough ancient temples to hold me over a very long time (not itching for more yet . . . ). I spent a day doing very little, which felt good. Slept in, sat about talking to other people in the guesthouse, embarrassed myself playing pool (no, really), etc. The next day was maybe my best in Cambodia: I went with three others from the guesthouse out to a floating village on Lake Tonle Sap, one of Cambodia's defining geographic features. Much of it's importance has to do with the tremendous quantities of fish caught from the lake each year, and much of that fishing is done by the people who inhabit the floating villages spread about the edges of the lake. There's a famous, touristy one nearby, but a woman at the guesthouse was there to research the floating villages and so in the know about how to get to another, rarely visited floating village.

[What follows in this next paragraph is probably all too technical to make for interesting reading, but I describe it because this village was way up there as one of the very most interesting things I have seen in the past seven months.]

Each year during wet season the Tonle Sap expands something like 100 fold in volume and then recedes again as the dry season sets on, the product of some strange dynamics that, in the interest of length, I won't go into here (which is good anyhow because I'm not sure I really understand). Naturally this means that seasonally the location of the shores of the lake vary a great deal--think in terms of miles rather than yards or feet. What, then, is a fishing village to do? Build your village on the wet season shore and you have poor access to the lake in the dry season; build on the dry season shore and you have poor access to land (necessary if you wish to sell your catch) in the wet season. The solution is the floating village. Each has two parts: a permanent part, set high on stilts perhaps midway between the two shores, and the so-called floating part. In the wet season the floating part sits alongside the permanent part. When the dry season comes somehow--I have no idea how it works-- the floating bit is moved the several kilometers to a point a few hundred meters inside the dry season shore-- and set on stilts (lower than in the permanent section, maybe to buy time as the lake rises initially in the early wet season, but this is a guess), again I don't know how. The able bodied people occupy the floating village in the dry season, while the permanent village is occupied by mostly children, their mothers (we saw some women in the floating part work same as the men) and the elderly. I don't know how much people go back and forth-- it wouldn't take much time at all to bike between them. Come wet season the floating part is moved again and reunited with the permanent part. I would never have dreamed such a thing existed.


I finished my time in Cambodia with a brief and uneventful stay in Battambang, Cambodia's second largest city. A distant second to Phnom Phen, the capital, it is really a medium-sized town. I'll mention two things from my time here. The first was a visit to the local "killing fields." This requires some background, though I suppose many of you are familiar with all this, especially those of you a generation or two ahead of myself. However, I wasn't much, so I'll explain a bit here: Cambodia's modern history goes far beyond tragedy. Starting in the mid-seventies, the Khmer Rouge took power for five years, during which time they undertook a campaign to "change society" that makes China's cultural revolution seem mild and tolerant (according to the little bit I've read; I'll confess I wasn't there). They did things like brake apart families in the interest of creating a "collective" or some such notion, and then killed people who resisted or didn't seem entirely pleased about what was happening or were suspected of as much. After about five years of this the Vietnamese (that government the US had some quarrels with in the sixties) decided to overthrow the Khmer Rogue and did so, but in doing so they also kicked off almost twenty years of bloody civil war that included much of the country being covered in landmines intended to kill civilians. The logic was that the more people were killed the more demoralized people would be and the more demoralized the population was the weaker the government in power would be . . . and so they put countless mines in places like rice fields. This continues to haunt Cambodia. There are a disproportionate number of people missing legs. I was in places where it is said that to leave the path is to risk losing limbs if not life. To expand and improve highways (and Cambodia easily has the worst highways I've seen, which is saying something after time spent in India) requires that every bit of road first be swept for landmines. They make shirts for tourists that say "Danger! Landmines." I don't think they're very funny, though my guess is the Cambodians might (almost every night I watched movies or parts of movies with the people who own/work at the guesthouse where I stayed, and they all thought bloody violence was hysterical). In yet another example of Cold War insanity, the US government managed to get involved in this mess, providing funding to the opposition-- that is, the remnants of the exiled (fanatical Maoist Communist) Khmer Rogue-- that was planting those landmines. The British taught them how to place landmines.

I'm sorry, I said more than I intended. All of this had very little obvious direct connection to my experience, and yet there were constant reminders. And one can't help but think about all that has happened there when visiting, especially when talking with people who you know lived that nightmare. I feel like there's so much worthwhile stuff I've left out!! Like how amazingly nice the people are, and that comes through even when they're being really aggressive trying to sell things around Angkor, or how the country is terribly, terribly poor and kind of paralyzed by rampant corruption. And I forgot to mention that most the temples at Angkor were Hindu, and that the cultural roots trace back to India more than China due to trading, or that the people tend to look more like what you might think of as "Pacific Islander" [note: since writing I said something along these lines to an Australian couple, who told me this comparison was off, and they would know better than I] or "South American Indian" rather than "East Asian" (unlike the Thai or Lao or, as I understand, Vietnamese people that surround them).

Anyhow, the one memorial to past atrocities that I went to were the "killing fields" near to Battambang. It was actually a cave, with the entrance at the base of a cliff maybe 30 feet high. The Khmer Rouge killed some people in the cave, pushed others off the cliff. I don't know how many were killed, but at some point since all the bones and skulls that could be found, and that weren't claimed by families for burial, were collected and placed in a wire mesh kind of container just outside the cave, as a memorial. There are the remains of a lot of people in that container. It was disturbing, upsetting, and moving, while at the same time being the sort of thing that is very difficult to process truly .

The second thing I wanted to mention with regards to Battambang was that as I headed to the border with Thailand on my way back to Bangkok, I began speaking with a man whose English was unusually good for Cambodia. It turned out he lives in Long Beach, which he told me is home to the largest Cambodian community in the US. I had no idea! He's getting his masters in journalism at Cal State Long Beach, after which he'll be the Cambodian correspondent for Radio America, if I remember correctly, and I believe some other media sources as well. He was a really, really kind man, and offered to show me around the Cambodian bit of Long Beach once we're both back in the area. His father was killed by the Khmer Rogue when he was a child. His daughters are American citizens (and I think he and his wife may be too, though I'm not sure of this). He brought his mother out to Long Beach but she wanted to go back to Cambodia, saying that it was too cold.

Would you believe me if I told you I had intentions to keep this short? This time I'm telling the truth, I believe. Initially I described all of my time in Cambodia in a few sentences saying I went, I saw temples, and enjoyed my time there. But then I started saying a bit more and then . . . I found myself wanting to explain everything. It seems I have trouble with moderation in writing about what I've done (thus my inability to maintain a diary). At long last, moving on . . .

My Fourth and Fifth Visits to Bangkok

Okay, so it's a bit ridiculous to say I've been to Bangkok five times. But I really have spent a LOT more time there than I intended. It's not a bad place, but it seems to have a way of drawing me in and keeping me there, like a black hole with good satay and bad traffic. Recall that the initial reason for my stay in Southeast Asia and thus Cambodia was to get well enough to hopefully go to Tibet. I was returning to Bangkok for the appointment that would determine whether Tibet was an option for me. It wasn't. The measure they focused on this time was my hematocrite count: it was 26 when I left the hospital, 32 at the check-up, and according to the doctor needed to be 39 before I would be safe to travel to the kinds of altitude found in Tibet. The doctor said the medicine that was treating the malaria (which I had finished only days before) suppressed red blood cell production. Anyhow, Tibet was out. But I decided beforehand that there was enough interesting stuff to see in China that I would return regardless, and if I couldn't go to Tibet visit (via a several days boat journey) the Three Gorges and the worlds largest dam-- just completed-- that now sits at the end of them and will start flooding the gorges shortly, as well as Shanghai, Beijing, and maybe one or two other places. So that became my plan, and I managed to get myself somewhat excited about it.

However, I wasn't able get that plan underway as quickly as had hoped because I overlooked the fact that it was a Friday and so I would have to wait to get a visa until Monday (the appt. didn't finish in time for me to get to the embassy in time). So I went up to a pleasant town a few hours outside Bangkok (I can't remember the name at the moment but it's home to the "Bridge Over the River Kwai" for those of you who have seen the film) for a night and a day. I spent the day I had exploring the area on a rented motorbike. I tried to get lost in the morning so that I could spend the afternoon getting found again-- so it was quite a disappointment when about midday, just as I was preparing to make my way back, I found myself on the far side of that famous bridge. Meaning that somehow, after going for at least two hours and never doubling back or seeing the same road twice, I was basically back where I had started. Upon reflection I realized that, quite unintentionally, I hadn't made a right turn all morning.

Sunday night I was back in Bangkok (my fifth "visit"), and Monday I got that visa. That evening I went to find a plane ticket back to Chengdu for Tuesday. What I found was that the only ticket on Tuesday was at 3am. As in (much) later that night. Weary of Bangkok as I was, I bought the ticket and after a night with very little sleeping found myself back in China.

China, Part II

I'm going to borrow from an email I wrote to cover the next part. Hopefully the original recipient won't bear any grudges! Okay:

spent a few days there [in Chengdu] doing very little, though i did visit the panda research center (like a panda zoo as far as the visitor is concerned) and eat hotpot (originally a sichuanese thing), which are two 'to do' things in chengdu. i found myself sulking about, however, because everybody in chengdu is on their way to tibet, and so i became sad about the fact that i couldn't go to tibet.

It was in the midst of this stay in Chengdu that I tried to write the blog from which I took the bit with which I started this blog. I was lying, perhaps wanting to put on a good face but at least as much trying to convince myself that I was excited about what I was planning to do. But huge mountains I couldn't go to lay in every direction but east, where I was headed. By this time I was realizing that I would never have wanted to do the Three Gorges trip if it weren't for the fact that they're about to be gone. Which, if you think, about it, isn't really a good reason to see something. Nearly everyone dislikes the trip as a whole, even if they say the gorges are nice and the dam incomprehensibly large. On top of this Chengdu itself is a depressing city-- entirely lacking in character and so polluted that the sky is permanently gray and the sun always faint and orange.

last night i caught an overnight train to chongqing, where i now find myself, apparently china's largest city. at the very least very large. it's also the starting point for the three gorges 'cruise', which i was supposed to begin tonight at 8. my plan for today was to pay a brief visit to fuling (rivertown), which is relatively close. however, by the time my train arrived this morning i couldn't deny any longer that i was feeling really poor. more specifically, i felt the way i had between fevers during the period i had malaria-- it was really a dark few hours for me. i went to the hospital and got my blood checked.

During which time I was thinking, "I can't believe I'm back in a dingy Chinese hospital, feeling like crap." Initially they wanted to make me an inpatient, but by now I know better than to let such things happen. I was expecting to be told that I needed to be hospitalized again, and envisioning running off with my results and booking a flight to return Bangkok yet another time. Back to the email:

it turned out that what i had was a cold (according to them, based on four different aspects of my blood test), so they fed me some antibiotics through an iv (in my all too substantial experience this seems to be the preferred method to administer antibiotics in china) for two hours and proscribed me some chinese medicine. more importantly however-- and the first thing i looked at when i got my hands on the results-- was that the blood test showed my red blood cell count to be normal!! just to make sure i ran the results by the doctor who treated me in bangkok (via phone), and she said i wasn't at any special risk with high altitude given these most recent results.

Crazy, huh!?!

so my current plan is to get myself out of this boat trip and start making my way back westward into the mountains! i'm not getting my hopes too high just yet, because i don't yet feel great and so i can't be sure, but the prospect of actually getting up to tibet is quite exciting.

I started feeling better that afternoon. I managed to get a partial refund on that boat trip (not so much money, really), and that night caught an overnight train back to Chengdu, just as I had come from Chengdu the night before. For once in my life, I acted with complete conviction-- no hesitation or self-doubt. I got back the money I could, got a taxi to the train station, and was on my way. In the morning I got on a bus to the town of Kangding, kind of the beginning of the Tibetan world, in terms of culture and (at 2500 m) topography, if not lines on a map (some borrowing from other emails going on here . . . ), where I now write from.

[Next paragraph very much non-essential.]

Yesterday I made a kind of acclimatization trip up to a nearby lake at 3800m (I'll let you convert if you care) with a really nice Israeli couple from a Kibbutz who I met on the bus here. Last night I had dinner with a total of six Israelis, which was a really interesting and good experience, because all of them seemed like nice, interesting, thoughtful people -- which stands in contrast to most of the Israelis who I have met travelling thus far. It isn't just me that thinks this-- they even spent a while talking about this type of Israelis that have given Israelis a very bad reputation in much of Asia, especially India and Thailand. It was also interesting when they talked about politics-- I wouldn't have thought it possible to meet Israelis (only some of them) so far to the left in terms of Zionism and Palestine.

I got stuck here an extra day because once again I lacked sufficient awareness of the day of the week. Yesterday was a Sunday and I didn't get to the bank to withdraw money before it closed. All westward buses leave by 7am, so I just had to wait it out an extra day, as I don't know that I'll see another bank capable of foreign exchange for a couple weeks. The good news is that this gave me time to write this blog-- I've certainly taken advantage of all this free time I have, haven't I!?! One last question for you: would you believe me if I said they've been playing the same terrible R & B song on repeat for over two hours in this internet cafe where I'm writing from? They have!! I wouldn't have thought this possible either-- I guess it's true what they say that travelling opens your mind!

Anyhow, I'm feeling well, planning to keep going west into Tibet, maybe as far as Lhasa. Wish me luck . . .


Friday, May 12, 2006

Fever (and Xijiang)


It's been a while since I last wrote . . . Anyhow, things have taken an unexpected (and involuntary) turn recently, and I now find myself back in Bangkok. My plans had been to remain in China through the end of June, with the intention of spending most of that time in and around Tibet. At the moment I'm not entirely sure where I'll be the next month or two; maybe home. As I said, there was something of an unexpected (and involuntary) change of plans.

Ashley, Sarah (Ashley's good friend from high school), and myself spent a pleasant almost-three weeks in a Miao village called Xijiang. The Miao are a minority people of southern China also found in the northern bits of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, though as I understand it they tend to be called the Hmong in those places. There are also noteworthy populations in Minnasota, Wisconsin, and the Central Valley of California, who emigrated as refugees in the aftermath of the Secret War in Laos. We were in Xijiang to teach basic English to some of the adults who run tourist-related businesses (hotels, local crafts shops) in town, as foreign tourism has been increasing in recent years. The people, especially our students, tended to be quite nice, and the setting was beautiful-- set in low mountains with terraced rice paddies carved out just about as far as one could see from the village. One my favorite parts of our stay there was that we were there during the rice planting season, such that over the weeks of our stay we were able to see the rice paddies converted from muddy, mucky brown pools to the early stages of the bright green fields that characterize rice fields in season.

I enjoyed the teaching, mostly because it gave us the chance to get to know a few people (mostly women) in town, and after dealing with 3-11 year olds when teaching in the Paharia village in India, adults made for extremely attentive students. By the end it started to feel a bit as though our students were coming more so as to not make us feel badly than because they were really interested, which was touching, though it made us wonder a bit how much our presence/efforts were of much benefit to anyone. Regardless, the main thing in my mind is that we got a chance to learn a thing or two about the people in Xijiang by spending a more extended period of time in their village.

One concrete way we know that our presence was felt was in stirring up the bizarre paranoia of the Chinese government, who apparently worked themselves into some kind of mild frenzy convinced that the three of us were from an 'international organization' and that we were trying to spread democracy or Western ideas or some such thing. The police never confronted us directly (though apparently they sat in on a class or two, without our realizing); we heard about all this second or third hand. The grand culmination of this came after our departure from town with their confiscating the one computer with internet access in Xijiang, on which we tended to spend a little time each day. The owner of the computer was a woman who ran a hostel on the main street in town who also happened to be one of our students. A motherly kind of figure, she was really sweet to us throughout, and it was really terrible to hear that her computer had been taken away because we had been using it. All because we came to teach a few women who sell silver jewelry and/or run guest houses how to say phrases such as 'I am fine, thanks' and words like 'bracelet'!! I haven't heard yet whether it got returned to her, though when I found out about the incident it sounded like it would.

The picture at left is from the good-bye feast some of our students treated us to our last night in Xijiang. One of the really great things about the Miao (at least in this region) is the way the women present themselves: shirts made from a velvety material that are black with a band of floral decoration (seen here) or single bright color, lots of beautiful silver jewelry, and hair worn up in buns, usually decorated with a flower in front and a comb made from wood or water buffalo horns (or plastic, for a more casual look) stuck into the bun in the back.

I'll now try to follow up on the teaser that I started with about changes in plans, but lacking distance from all of this it's hard for me to separate what's worth including and what isn't. So forgive me if I'm over-technical or, alternatively, provide too little information for the explanation to make any sense. That said, I've written this with those who I think would like to know some of the particulars in mind; most of you will probably want to do some substantial skimming.

One evening a few days before we left Xijiang I came down with a fever, but was fine the next day and didn't think much of it. I felt a bit fatigued occasionally over our last days there but seemed to be mostly okay. Once we left Xijiang, I continued west on my own towards the mountains, with the intent of eventually making it into Tibet; Ashley and Sarah were headed to Hong Kong and then India to do a backpacking course with NOLS in the Indian Himalaya (which is where they are now). To cut to the chase (in this one instance), less than a week into my travels westward I couldn't maintain the illusion-- made possible by days of seeming wellness consistently falling between days with some pretty bad fevers-- that I was getting better. I went to see a doctor in the local hospital, he proscribed me with 5 different drugs without examining me after I told him I'd been having some fevers. I was skeptical but decided to do as he said and see what happened. The next morning I happened to run into a pair of English women who I had spent some time with somewhere else about two days before. As both of them happned to be doctors, when I told them about my visit to the local doctor the day before and what he had proscribed, they immediately dismissed it as crap and said they were going to accompany me back to the hospital that afternoon and see to it that I got some blood tests. Thus began the saintly deeds of Rachel and Sunita, the English doctor ladies whose selfless kindness to me I can barely comprehend.

They did indeed return with me that afternoon. They got me my blood tests and then waited with me for what felt like hours for results to come back. As it turned out, my white-blood cell and platelette counts were really low. On account of a weeklong holiday happening at the time, the hospital couldn't conduct further tests and anyhow the place didn't seem to have the best facilities, so we called the nearest US consultate, who recommended that I get to the reasonably large city of Chengdu, which apperently had a pretty good hospital. This worked out well because the English doctors were already planning to head up to Chengdu as a part of their trip. We got in touch with the travel insurance company from which I'd bought a policy before I left the states, they said they would cover my flight. Rachel and Sunita helped through all of this too, doing a fair bit of the talking as I was feeling weak as another fever set in. Within about 36 hours I was in Chengdu and had been admitted into the hospital as an in-patient. The afternoon of my admission I came down with another fever; as I was in a hospital, this time they took my temperature and it turned out it was about 105.

At first they thought I had Typhoid Fever. When I learned of the symptoms of malaria I was fairly convinced that that was what I had (whereas I was pretty sure I didn't have Typhoid given its supposed symptoms), but they hadn't found any signs of malaria in my initial blood tests and so they didn't think that was it. The English doctors had told me that often it takes several tries to positively identify malaria but the Chinese doctors didn't seem to have this possibility on their minds. They started me on antibiotics for my suspected Typhoid, fed to me via an IV hung from the cieling (pictured at right)--which also provided fluids in an attempt to bring my low blood pressure back up. They also diagnosed me with a urinary tract infection that I'm pretty sure I never had. Blame on it the language barrier. . . . In keeping with my earlier pattern, 48 hours after my first post-admission fever I had another. They took some blood again, this time I was finally positively identified with malaria. I started treatment and thankfully responded well-- thus far I haven't had another fever. I had been jaundiced (meaning my skin and eyes looked yellow on account of some issue in my liver) for several days by the time they identified my malaria, and just as this started to fade, anemia (low red blood cell count) set on, and so my skin made an almost seamless transition from a sickly yellow to transluscent white . . . and I got an oxygen mask added to the medical apparatus that made my condition look more serious than it felt. Except for the two fevers, throughout all this I felt almost fine.

My white blood cell and platelette count had stayed low, so the Chinese doctors wanted to do a bone marrow biopse. I didn't want one, the English doctors were ambivalent, my parents didn't like the idea (I had been in touch with them since my admission to the hospital, as I had a phone by my bedside that could recieve calls), and a day or two before the consulate had told me a horror story about this particular hospital badly messing up the surgery of an American citizen only a few weeks before. It is supposed to be a rather painful procedure, that can cause bleeding, which seemed especially concerning given my low platelette count (platelettes help with blood clotting) and low white blood cell count (weakened immune system). This was the most stressful point during my six days in the hospital in Chengdu. The Chinese doctors wanted to give me one badly-- I had a commitee of something like six doctors with clipboards show up to encourage me to go forward with it after I initially declined. Though the one English speaker did all the talking, the effect of six doctors standing around my bed was still intimidating.

I decided to wait until I got to Bangkok, which was a transfer that had been in the works almost from the moment I got into the hospital in Chengdu. The US consulate and insurance company wanted to move me to Bangkok because the care is supposed to be much better and there were some not-insignificant communication issues between myself and the medical staff in Chengdu (English is pretty rare in China and in China the doctors don't tend to keep patients informed anyhow), but I couldn't get cleared to fly initially because they weren't completely certain that what I had wasn't contagious. That was cleared up when they diagnosed me with malaria (which isn't contagious), but then came the anemia, which made it so that the doctors couldn't clear me to fly without medical accompanyment. The visa situation for that medical accompanyment was sufficienctly complex that my transfer to Bangkok kept getting pushed back one day at a time until at last my red blood cell count recovered enough for me to get permission to fly alone.

So finally, yesterday, skin color normal, I was dismissed from Chengdu International Hospital. As they had given me very little time between removing my IV (which for some reason they had kept me on from morning to evening each day despite recovered blood pressure), I ended up running a little late for my flight. This was just the excuse I needed to turn to the driver of the ambulance assigned to drive me to the airport, tap my watch and make a siren noise as I moved my finger in little circles in the air. I didn't expect it to work, but it did: on went sirens and flashing blue lights. And off we went!! That man could drive . . .

Thanks to the speedy transport, I made my flight without trouble. I sat on a plane for a few hours, arrived at the airport in Bangkok to find the driver sent by the insurance company along with my dad, who had arranged transport to Bangkok when my condition had still been looking somewhat serious. We got driven to the hospital here. The insurance company had told me the hospital here was like a resort and I was skeptical, but it's turned out to be true. Allowing for necessary sterility (in that it's a hospital), the place is like a fancy hotel. Anyhow, medically things have been altogether anticlimactic down here in Bangkok. They're just kind of like, "Well, the treatment seems to have gone well. Keep taking that medicine!" I'm still a bit anemic, but other than that I'm all but completely fine. Mostly I've been sitting around the hospital with my dad, keeping up the pattern from the last few days of doing very little. I'll probably become an outpatient tomorrow, and if not then the next day, and be cleared to fly even long distances in the next day or two or three.

Which leads me to my current dilemma of what exactly I want to do with myself. Apparently I'll probably be fine to go about life as normal within the next week. With one exception: on account of my anemia I probably shouldn't go to high altitude, as I would be especially prone to high altitude sickness. But the reason I wanted to keep travelling prior to my sickness was to go to Tibet and the surrounding high-altitude regions where Tibetan people and culture can be found. It sounds like my red blood cells might get back up there if I give it a few weeks, or they might not. Different people regenerate them at different speeds, or at least that's how I understand it. I'm just below 10 on the scale they use, normal is 14-18. So . . . maybe I'll come home. Or maybe from here I'll head south (Malaysia? Australia? I still have some funds thanks to my having spent so much of my time in India . . . ). I'm not sure-- all this needs more thought. In any case I suppose I'll be deciding fairly soon.

This is all a little disappointing-- I was kind of thinking of Tibet as my big finale, building on my traveling thus far. But . . . shit happens. Going home sounds nice enough, if that's what happens. Maybe I'll pick up a little rafting work this spring. Travelling elsewhere sounds okay, too.

One interesting aspect to this experience has been that it has given me a glimpse into the world of medicine. Among other things I now have some idea what it feels like to be a patient, which I never really did before. On top of that I was able to snag a nice pair of Chinese hospital-pajamas.

Till next time!

Monday, April 03, 2006

I'm Censored! -- Laos to Southwest China


I'm now in Guizhou province in the southwest of China with Ashley and her good friend Sarah Norton. Tomorrow we will head to the Miao village Xijiang (not pronounced like you'd expect) to spend a little less than three weeks there. I've been in China five or six days now, and spent about 8 in Laos before that. Briefly:

Laos was a nice place to visit, though I passed through in something of a rush. More or less every other day was spent in transit, though the two of these days my means of transport were a boat were quite enjoyable . . . passed through some beautiful country. I started in Vientiene, the capital-- one of the more relaxed, pleasant capital cities I've seen, as it's not a very large city. Laos only has about 6 million people, so nowhere is very crowded . . . Next stop was Pak Lai, a smallish town that never sees tourists. The ability to to get away from the more trodden path that I developed in India served me well here-- perhaps a little too well since I didn't have any sense of the culture or any knowledge of the language, especially given that very few speak English in Laos. The other problem is that town also turned out to have very little for me to do . . . a hot, dusty town by the river, whereas in the mountains there is always exploring to be done. Luang Prabang, a charming town with its fair share of Europeans there for the town's terrific mix of French and Buddhist architecture, was my next stop. Some places can handle loads of tourists and remain appealing, and this is very much the case here; I could have happily spent several more days there. By this point I was getting far enough north for things to be cooling off a little. After that it was to Nong Kiaow, a nice, quiet town, also riverside (like every place I stayed in Laos, actually). There are a group of caves here where the people from the village lived on and off for about ten years during what is called the Secret War, kind of the Laos arm of the Vietnam War that the US government refused to acknowledge for years. The caves were beautiful, but the history is appalling. I don't have time to go into detail now, but there's no doubt in my mind that for what the US military/CIA did in Laos during that time not to have gone down in history as warcrimes is a grotesque double-standard. From there it was up to a provincial capital called Udom Xai. The town is mostly just a transport hub as far as travelers are usually concerned, and same went for me-- I just ended up with an afternoon to spend until I headed to the Chinese border the next morning. However, I encountered a few monks about my age (in Laos monks are only ever young men-- it's a popular means to get an education) who were studying English. I spent the evening chatting, first at stupa (Buddhist monument) and then at their English class. It was great!

Then it was into China, which I'm enjoying a lot but I'm out of time! Oh yeah, and about being sensored-- I can't open the blog in China. I can open the bit where I write, but if you type, you get an error message. Someone must have told them what a dangerous man I am!!

Okay, Bye!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Killing Time in Bangkok


I write today, as is clear from the title of this entry, from Bangkok, Thailand. I arrived here from Calcutta on this past Sunday the 19th, and I've spent the last few days taking care of odds and end mixed in with a bit of sightseeing while I've waited for my visa to process. This morning I picked up my waiting passport complete with Chinese visa (a beautiful piece of paper if I ever saw one!), and tonight I will take a take a train to the Laos-Thailand border, probably crossing into Laos tomorrow or the next day. As I mentioned last time I'm meeting Ashley and Sarah in Guiyang, China on April 4, and my plan is to spend as much time as possible in Laos on my way there (thus skipping straight away to Laos from Bangkok). I'm told Laos is just fantastic, and people I've talked to here who have been there recently have reported that as of yet it remains largely unchanged by tourism and tourists (such as myself! to an extent anyhow . . . more on other types of tourists in a bit), at least compared to Thailand. So Laos it is, however briefly.

The arrival itself into Bangkok was something of a shock. Or, perhaps not exactly a shock, but rife with novelty. You see, Bangkok is a thoroughly modern city; none of the Indian cities (nor anywhere else, for that matter) come close. Not even a little bit. (Among the big Indian cities I didn't see Chennai, but I'm confident it isn't an exception to this statement). Calcutta felt the most modern to me, as I noted in the entry I wrote there, but . . . so, so not modern the way Bangkok is. But it wasn't just the 'modernity' of Bangkok that caught my attention; it was also Western-ness of the way things look and feel and function (as opposed to India, where oftentimes they don't). [That said I have my doubts about whether it is worth distinguishing at all between 'modernization' and 'Westernization' (and their various derivatives). Anyhow . . .] Some specific aspects of this include of this include, vaguely in the order that I first encountered them here, lanes on the roads, people using those lanes in shiny Japanese cars, people driving without honking the whole time, raised freeways, more than a few clusters of tall office buildings, people exposing their shoulders and knees in public, the absence of power-cuts, etc. (not to mention Starbucks, ABP, and most the rest of the various American franchises (okay so Starbucks isn't a franchise but once again you get my point I'm sure)). Perhaps if I'd come here before I visited elsewhere in Asia it would have felt hectic, bustling, different; I don't know. But when I first arrived I felt as though I had returned to what had been so familiar to me all my life before I left the States last October (and which, to be sure, will be familiar once again soon enough). Over the past few days, as I've grown used to these things, I've become more able to notice differences here from places I've been thus far. From what I can gather it seems to me the chief difference lies in the culture that gets expression mainly within the confines of the home, which I haven't been exposed to at all besides walking through a few residential neighborhoods.

Perhaps the one bit that was truly shocking was the notorious Khao San Rd., the main backpacker drag in town. The big Indian cities each have their own equivalent, but once again none were anything like this. Khao San is positively overflowing with a type of tourist you just don't find in India outside Goa, and not really there either. I'd say the bulk of them, or at least the most visible, appear to be the same sort of people that go to Cancun on spring break (indeed maybe some of them are on spring break), with very much the same intent. [I suppose I don't actually know their intent, but I'd wager several days' budget that it has a lot to do with "getting wasted".] They're the skimpily-clad, bleached-blond, "look how much time I've spent in a gym/lying in the sun," type (and their various derivatives) who are here first and foremost to make other people jealous when they tell them how great and exotic it was and if Satan does in fact have minions then I'm sure that these are them. I'd forgotten that people like this actually exist, and perhaps you can discern that I'm disappointed to have been reminded . . . . I'm staying about 10-15 minutes away in a lovely, quiet neighborhood near the river where kids play in the streets; I wouldn't come anywhere near this place except that this is where internet is found and one of my primary intentions for my time here was to get caught up on all the email I'd neglected over the past month and a half. So, I encounter Khao San on a daily basis, but I won't miss it when I'm gone.

The rest of what I've seen of Bangkok I've mostly enjoyed. Some dislike it for being a sprawling, uncentralized mess of an unplanned city (mess isn't the right word but you know what I mean), but-- perhaps growing up amongst the archetypal sprawling, uncentralized mess of an unplanned city has something to do with it-- it doesn't really bother me. Perhaps my favorite thing about the city is that it's a veritable wonderland of traffic-immune public transport, boasting not one but two modern urban train systems (highly modern subway along with the even-moderner SkyTrain (it is a SkyTrain afterall)) as well as, that's right, two forms of boat transport, not to mention the ultra-cheap and well-done bus system. [So this is the place where any comparison to Los Angeles falls apart.] The boats are the best because besides, well, they're boats!! Bangkok has a nice, wide river with frequent ferries running up and down, and these boats are great, but even cooler are the canal boats that run through this one fairly narrow canal that runs right through the heart of the city. Apparently, Bangkok used to be called the "Venice of the East" as it was, like Venice, a town with canals rather than roads. And while there's still more canals than you find in your average town, my feeling is that it's a shame there aren't as many as there once were, because they're wonderful.

The other thing I really like about Bangkok are the 'wats' (Buddhist temples/monasteries) that you find just about every other block here. Many of the big sights in Bangkok are wats with some particular distinction, and I paid a visit to a few of these, mostly yesterday. I really liked most of what I saw-- I thought the buildings were consistently beautiful, and each one I went to had something distinct and different about it, usually having something to do with the particular Buddha statue inside. I'm having trouble with the downloading of pictures, and I'm pretty much out of time (I am out of time!), but the picture at right is of a wat (Wat Arun) that is quite unlike the others (more of a monument) that I quite liked. But again, this is rather atypical. For what that's worth . . .

Okay, out of time, and said what I've have to say anyhow.

Till next time,


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

From Calcutta

Written mostly between March 8-10, finished up March 17-18.

I write today from Sudder St., the backpacker area of Calcutta. It came as something of a surprise to find Calcutta to be a lovely town, after all the images of Mother Theresa with convalescents and whatnot. That is to say, the parts we've seen (a decent chunk) have been pleasant, though I have no doubt that Calcutta's slums are no less dire than those of Mumbai or Delhi. It's my favorite of the giant cities I've seen in India-- not oppressively polluted (though perhaps we're just passing through at a good time . . . ), easily walkable, lots of street vendors and people moving about. It feels thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan, though there are lots of old, crumbling buildings from the days of British rule (as well as a few well-maintained ones) that give the place a certain charm.

We arrived here this morning (feels like ages ago . . . ), returning from our shorter-than-expected stay with Dakshinayan at a tiny, remote village called Cheo. It was shorter than expected due to a combination of factors, none of which had anything to do with dissatisfaction with our time there; in fact we had a great stay. To explain: going into it, we had only a vague sense of how our time would be spent. We knew we were going to be in a more or less remote tribal village and that a little teaching would be involved, but other than that we really didn't know what to expect. As it turned out, we were placed in a small school at the edge of Cheo, a village of about 150 people of the Paharia tribe, set atop a hill rising out of the surrounding plains. There's a lot that I want to explain all at once . . .

First, the Paharia and tribal groups in India: My mind seems to be wired to assume that the word 'tribal' has racial connotations, as I expected the tribal people we were to meet and (to an extent) live amongst to somehow look different from everyone else in India. Basically, they don't. Those we dealt with tended towards a particular set of physical attributes (dark skin, on the short side in height), but all well within the spectrum seen in the rest of India, if closer in appearance to the people of the south. We learned that in fact the Paharia originated towards the south, ending up further north for reasons I can't quite recall. Anyhow, they were forest dwellers who were eventually pushed into the hills of the region (where we were) by the arrival of another tribal group called the Santalis, and in those hills they have remained to this day. They have a distinct language, apparently more closely related to southern languages than Hindi or other languages spoken by those in the area, which makes sense given their origins. It's estimated that there are roughly 30 to 40 thousand of them, broken into three groups--each in some sense a different caste-- who speak dialects that we were told differ greatly. Apparently we were with the "untouchable" group, though it seems to me that the meaning of this is different than elsewhere in India, as they live entirely independently-- I don't think at any point we saw any people from the other two "castes"-- whereas generally (at least this is my sense of things) the various castes make up the internal social strata of a town or region or what-have-you. Even if they sometimes live in separate villages neighboring each other as was the case in Suppa (which I talked about in the last entry).

So that's some background. Today, Paharia villages-- at least those we saw-- remain quite remote and relatively isolated. For instance, these were the first places I have visited without any electricity whatsoever (except the occasional solar charged appliance). [Of course, traveling by bus as I was in the other more remote areas I visited I only ever ended up in places that had already seen the arrival of substantial change, if oftentimes only in the past few years. Anyhow, my point is just that bus routes don't run to areas this remote.] There were "roads", but these would be considered nasty jeep trails anywhere else. The nearest shop of any kind is a two hour walk away; mostly people buy everything that needs to be bought at the market that takes place once a week at this two hour away town. [In general, walking is a big part of life-- though many of our students were from Cheo, the majority of our students walked some distance to get to school, some as much as an hour each way.] People live in what could be described as huts of varying construction, with sides ranging from solidly built structures with thick walls and ceramic tile roofing, containing several rooms, to those with bamboo sides and a grass roof over a single room.

[Caption: The picture at left is of Estella (in the rainbow shorty-overalls), one of our (favorite!) students, and her older sister in front of their home.]

Our role in all this was at a schoolhouse near to the village called Cheo. This is where we lived as well as taught basic English and math to some of the local Paharia kids, ranging in age from roughly 3 or 4 to perhaps 14 or 15 (vague because the Paharia don't keep track of birthdays or age). There were three classes of ascending ability-- in the first we were teaching letters and numbers one at a time ("This is the letter 'H'!"), in the third we were working on speaking in complete sentences ("This pencil is red"). It was okay, though at times a bit repetitive and uninteresting. The better part of our energy went towards keeping the kids paying attention and from distracting one another. Ashley and I were teaching with Sudha, another young American volunteer currently from Philly who had already been there six weeks when we arrived, and the two Paharia men who run the school year-round year after year, Ramnat and Chandrama. They also live at the school when volunteers are there (most of the year), though they both have families and homes nearby (that, naturally, they visit fairly often). All three were great folks to spend time with.

The school day ran from 9-12 (though we had to wake at six to do chores), divided into six short periods, two of which were generally spent doing physical activity of some kind. So we rotated amongst the classes teaching English and "English math" (since the numbers as well as the alphabet are different in Hindi, which the kids are taught by Ramnat and Chandrama, who also teach English when volunteers aren't around). As I said, school was okay, but not all that interesting and I don't think that either Ashley or I especially enjoyed maintaining order for its own sake.

[Caption: The Cheo girls roaming about in the afternoon.]

What was really wonderful was playing with the kids outside of class, when we could just participate in whatever antics it was they were getting themselves up to. These kids have the most wonderful childhoods-- roaming about wherever, thinking up whatever games suit their fancy, playing lots. It will probably come as no surprise to most of you to hear that in general I envied the simplicity of life in the Paharia villages. Or, I suppose should say, the simplicity that I perceived. In truth I would say we didn't get a very good sense for the lives of the adult Paharia-- they're quite reserved on the whole (though the kids aren't at all) and we never got invited inside a home. But in a way this was great, as the other side of this coin was that they didn't make a big fuss about us. That is, didn't treat us like some kind of celebrities, made us wait our turn like everyone else when we went to wash our clothes at a local spring (which also happens to be an awesome local hangout during the warm season, which was just beginning during our stay). It was a great situation in that on the one hand the Paharia haven't been exposed to the various factors, whatever they may be (advertisements with attractive white models, etc., perhaps) that make so many Indians seem to feel that Westerners are somehow special, attractive, or whatever, while at the same time much of the year there are a few volunteers at the school so that our presence didn't seem to be excessively strange or surprising to them (the local Paharia).

[One loose end I'm conscious of having left in this blog is that from my entry describing my experience in Murudeshwar in which I quite enjoyed getting lots of attention walking about where Westerners don't often go. That experience feels like something from a different lifetime; my reaction at the time seems naive to me now. I hadn't yet been anywhere that wasn't a major tourist destination, but I soon found out that getting off the trodden trail in India is as easy as wandering without particular aim in any city, or taking buses to places without lengthy descriptions in the travel guide. The novelty of celebrity treatment wore off quickly, and the places I have enjoyed walking about most have been those I can do so without drawing much attention or creating a disturbance.]

[I have discovered the bracket.]

In the end our early departure had to with the timing of the Hindu festival Holi such that we wouldn't be able to get a bus back to Calcutta in time to connect with our flights out of India. Logistical stuff . . .

This left us with about a week to spend so we headed up to Sikkim, a tiny state in the eastern Himalaya. It was great! Very different from the rest of India, as the Sikkimese (I don't believe this is technically the correct term, but I heard it used . . . ) are closely related to Tibetans, and are Buddhist (their practice being something very close to Tibetan Buddhism). They are a much . . . well . . . more relaxed and easy going group of people than you could say about Indians in general. We stayed in some beautiful little villages, and saw some giant mountains (at a distance), including Khanchendzonga, which just so happens to be the world's third highest mountain. And we saw lots of gompas (Buddhist monasteries). It was really nice up there.

And now my time in India is through. My visa expires on the 21st of this month, and I've at last booked myself a flight to Bangkok. From there I'll be heading to China over the two weeks via northern Thailand and northern Laos, once I get my Chinese visa in Bangkok. Ashley's headed to Hong Kong, where her friend Sarah Norton will join her. The three of us are going to meet up in Guiyang in the province of Guizhou, and then spend the better part of the next month (that is, April) teaching a little English to adults in the Hmong (a minority group, also found in northern Thailand and northern Laos as it turns out) village of Xijiang (nearby to Guiyang). After that, Ashley and Sarah are headed back to India to do a NOLS course in the Himalaya. As for me, I'm thinking I'd like to try to make it to Tibet, but we'll see how things go. I'm not sure how much trouble I'll have with permits and the like.

Anyhow, it feels strange to be about to leave, makes me realize that my time here is in fact passing. But on the whole I feel ready to move on from India. I'm not yet done with the mountains of India (at least, not if I can help it!), though I may be through on this particular trip. For now I'm looking forward to seeing a little piece of China as well as to pass through a bit of southeast Asia.



Sunday, February 19, 2006

How to Make a Blanket, and a bunch of other stuff

Efforts to blog-write have become disjointed and delayed once more. I'm going to do my best now to wrap things up now quickly. Here's what I wrote a few weeks ago now . . .

Okay, so:

As I mentioned last time, my visit to Bharmour was really nice. I caught a bus early in the morning, eventually switching to a jeep due to supposedly bus-inappropriate road conditions. The whole way the road was gradually climbing, which made sense since Bharmour is over 1200 m higher than Chamba. The ride was fairly spectacular-- a new gimundus snow-capped peak to be seen around every bend.

I arrived mid-day, asked around for a guest house. The people who owned it were surprised to see me, and told me to pick whichever room I liked. I looked through the lot and picked the one with some windows and without an attached bathroom-- I tend to prefer these b/c then the room doesn't end up smelling the bathroom . . . I went out to have a look around, stopping at a sunny cement spot (actually the rooftop of the building set on the low side of the road) with an excellent view to take a look at my surrounds. Bharmour was set right at the snowline (at the time) on one side of a giant valley with beautiful terraced strips of land up and down in its entirety except for the highest bits, which were in fact some of the earlier mentioned snow-capped mountains.

I ended up spending the afternoon chatting with a bunch of guys (from as little as two to as many as eight people at a given time-- several came and went-- but four were there more or less throughout) ranging from my age to about forty who apparently tended to pass free time hanging out at this rooftop I had stumbled upon. They spoke decent English-- better than I would have expected for so remote an area, anyhow-- and so with several of them trying to understand what I was saying at any given time we were able to communicate fairly effectively. We started with typical stuff-- whether I'm married, my asking if they are, occupations, etc.-- but eventually I started to ask them questions about this place, their home, and the valley that surrounded it. How people made living, if they had any work to do in the winter; most were involved in agriculture, and most people just "pass time" in the winter. I asked them a bit about caste, and they answered my questions without seeming to mind, so I asked further. If they were all of the same caste (they weren't), if people of different castes hold different jobs (they don't necessarily, though they once did). Looking out on the valley and the several small villages on either side of it, I began to point and ask, "All same caste or many caste? Which caste?" It seemed that most consisted of just one or occasionally two castes.

As I looked about pointing at different villages, I noticed conciously for the first time a tiny village perched on a little ridge way up on the opposite side of the valley, unmistakably higher than Bharmour. (Circled red in the picture-- you can see the circle better if you view the enlarged image.) I pointed to this one and asked as well-- it was an entirely Brahmin village. I asked if there was a temple up there, wondering why a Brahmin village would exist in such a remote spot. They said there was indeed a small temple on top of the mountain. My enquiry had a tone of more than casual interest-- it took hardly a moment between seeing the village and creating the intention of going there the next day. I asked how often the people from the village came to Bharmour (some did it every day), how long it took them to make the trip (they said one).

I passed the afternoon up there chatting. The moment the sun passed behind the mountains the men began filing back to the street, shaking hands goodbye as they left. And I was on my own. I set off to look at Bharmour's (locally) famous temple complex, with a few temples in the same style as those of Chamba and whole lot of smaller temples-- apparently 84 in all. But it became clear quickly why the men had moved elsewhere-- it got cold there, almost immediately after the sun ceased to shine on the town, though it continued to shine golden afternoon light on the opposite side of the valley.

Anxious to get back to my room and get in my sleeping bag, I began looking for somewhere to eat. The town's main street had been all but deserted. After a bit of walking I found some dhabas (in the north this is the name for little hole-in-the-wall food places) that were still open. I went into one, asked the owner/cook what he had, said I would have some, and then sat there warming my hands under the flame of the freestanding gas stove on which he heated a serving of dal for me. Once finished I stayed true to my plan and spent the rest of the evening in the sleeping bag, which I was pleasantly surprised to discover was sufficient to get me through evening with full circulation to extremeties.

The next day, after a long spell spent awake but unwilling to emerge, I got up and got under way with my plan. I finally left Bharmour midday, starting downhill to the bridge over the river at the bottom of the valley. The walk there was excellent. I hadn't gone far-- it was just as I was approaching one of the larger villages on the same side of the valley-- when I heard what I at first took to be a houseful of bawling children. But as I followed the path through the village I couldn't quite seem to place where this sound was coming from. And then looking behind me, I saw it's source: a procession of perhaps 15-20 women, walking towards me on the path, sobbing hysterically (or at least pretending to do so-- I really couldn't tell). My guess was that this was some kind of funeral ceremony, so in a hope to stay out of their way I picked up my pace. As I passed a house with a bunch of people in and around it, a woman waved me towards her assertively. Thinking gratefully that she was waving me out of the way of the grieving women, I climbed a few of the steps that led up to the house and began trying to talk to her. But I was interupted from this when the procession, rather than passing by the steps, turned up them! I managed to get out of there way, and finally connected the dots necessary to realize that the people were gathered at the house for the purpose of the mourning practice they were undertaking. Though quite interested I didn't stay long, not comfortable with the notion of intruding at such a time. A few young fellows from the house escorted me the next few hundred yards, and I learned from them that an old man from the village had died a few days ago. I believe the sobbing women were his female blood relatives.

The hike up the far side of the valley was beautiful, as I followed a mostly well-maintained, switchbacking trail, passing goats and sheep and cows as I went. Running up the hill over the trail was a set of power lines. Finally, after two hours of steady hiking, I arrived at the bottom of the village, and just continued through towards the top of it on the path of stones. My intention was to turn around immediately so that I would be able to return to Bharmour well before dark. The village had been mostly empty, but when I reached the top there was a man with a friendly face standing outside his house who waved me over to him with a smile. We tried to communicate, but didn't get far due to a lack of English on his part and Hindi on mine. He invited me in for tea, and I accepted gratefully.


He ended up inviting me to spend the night, and I accepted. It was a committing decision, in that I would have had to leave right then to make it back before the bitter cold and eventual dark set in, but I was glad to have the chance to spend some time in this place to which I had been so drawn. The stay was quite pleasant all around. No one knew much English, but a few boys from neighboring homes spoke enough for basic communication. I was a little worried about the frigid night, but they gave me a monstrous comforter that was more than enough. The food they gave me was really wonderful. They really liked it when I took their pictures, something about which I was really glad-- first, because they made for great subjects and Suppa a great setting, but even more because I the photos I took will give me a chance to express my appreciation--however slightly-- by sending them prints either upon return to the States or possibly before if I can find a place that can do it within a time frame that works.

My stay also offered wonderful exposure to mountain village life. I learned about and saw a bunch of interesting stuff; one of the most prevalent was the constant activity towards the end of blanket making. I was able to get pictures of the first three of what I think are the four main steps of the process: (1) Collecting the

wool (I didn't see the shearing process). In the first picture, she's moving wool from the jumbled pile at the edge of the picture to the pile in the basket. (2) Spinning the wool into thread-- I don't know how this worked but it looked really cool! She spun the wheel as she held the thread out with her arm extended. (3) Strengthening the thread by spinni ng two strands together. People were doing this one all the time. It involves spinning that wooden thing hanging from the thread in the picture-- there's definitely a technique to it, and I provided a good bit of amusement when I tried. The young boys especially occupied themselves with this, and it struck me as a great way to occupy the energy of young boys. More productive than Game Boy . . . . And (4) weaving the blanket in the loom. As I said, I didn't get pictures of this fourth step, though I saw several looms-- you can see one in the background of the second picture.

Another interesting element of my stay had to with caste. As I mentioned, Suppa is an all Brahmin village. Besides their all sharing the surname "Sharma" (a name only held by Brahmins, I learned), there was very few indications that they were of any particular caste-- their lives seemed quite comprable to that of everyone else in the villages surrounding Bharmour. I think I came to India at some level of my conciousness imagining Bramins to be bloated aristocrats sitting on thrones (and some of the reading I did affirmed this notion, namely A Fine Balance, which is an excellent book by the way) but certainly what was to been seen in Suppa this was anything but the case. I asked the people about their relationships with the other castes, and what they told me was that low-caste people couldn't enter their homes, and they couldn't accept food in the homes of low-caste people. But from what little I could gather it didn't seem to extend much past these social formalities-- across castes people seem to hold the same jobs, live similar lives, and eat at the same Dhabas. On top of this they made clear that they were all friends with people of all castes. For what it's worth, I don't believe they were sugar coating anything for me, as I have suspected of some when discussing matters in their country (that is, India).

I started back to Bharmour the next morning. Though I was expecting the walk back down to take something in the vicinity of an hour and a half, I realized quickly that it was going to take me a lot longer than that. For whatever reason, there were lots more people around in Suppa in the morning than there had been when I arrived the previous afternoon; the implications of this for me was that I hadn't walked 50 yards when I got invited in for tea. I declined twice, accepted on the third offer--not wanting to be rude-- and chatted to the limited extent that was possible as I drank my tea, doing my best to fend off offers for food all the while. After I'd finished the tea and the snacks they brought despite my best efforts to dissuade them otherwise, I made my way out-- only to repeat the process each time I was spotted by a new set of people. This picture is of one such group, and perhaps the most fun of all-- three generations of women from one family and a couple freinds/neighbors. The girl at far left and the two standing in back are the friends. The woman second from left is the mother of the girl right of her, whose sisters are the two on the right. The babies are the twin daughters of the girl sitting next to her mother. I enjoyed this stay because all of these ladies had lots of personality. For instance, just about the only English known by the mother of the twins (twenty-two years old) was "two for one," in reference to her having given birth to twins. I don't know how she knew this phrase, but the humor of this didn't seem to be lost on her or the others, as they laughed right along with me. They requested that I spend the night there, but I declined (and declined and declined) as I had yet to make it out of the tiny Suppa. I was trying to get back in part out of concern that I would get stranded by snow and also that the owners of the guest house where I had stayed would contact the local authorities about my unexplained disappearance. But beyond this I felt uncomfortable taking advantage of the incredible hospitality of the people of Suppa for another night and was afraid of offending the family with whom I had stayed the night before, who would certainly learn of my continued presence in the village. So though I would have loved to stay (and somewhat regret not doing so), after a while I left and a few invitations later I had moved below Suppa. But the stops didn't end upon reaching the trail-- each person I encountered insisted that I stop and sit down with them a while, whether they were walking in the other direction or standing or sitting at the place where I found them. These usually led to invitations into homes for tea and/or food, but I was able to avert these. The pattern set in Suppa continued as I moved up through the villages below Bharmour on the other side of the valley. Thus the walk took me most the day . . . but what a wonderful way to spend one's day! It is worth bearing in mind that very few I encountered had any grasp of English-- from what I could gather some didn't even know Hindi (which is the second language to these people, learned in school, as has been the case in most places I've visited in northern India).

Over the next day and a half or so I travelled back out through Chamba, past Dalhousie, and down out of the mountains and onto the plains, eventually making it to the city of Amritsar in the neighboring state of Punjab. Home to the famous Golden Temple, this city is, as described in the Lonely Planet, "the beating heart of the Sikh religion". Another misconception I carried right up to my arrival in India was that most Indian people wear turbans. Presumably this conception of mine would have included Hindus, though I don't recall thinking about this explicitly. Anyhow, it turns out turbans are not worn at all by Hindus, but in fact only by the members of the Sikh religion, who account for something like 2% of the population of India (though this is no small number of people). So why do I, and I think a number of other Americans, have an image of Indians as turban wearing? My understanding is that a disproportionately high number of Sikhs have emigrated to the States and other western countries, which I believe is made possilbe due to their above average wealth as a group.

Anyhow, Sikhism is quite an interesting religion. Founded only a few hundred years ago by a man who felt that neither Hinduism nor Islam got it quite right, it borrows quite a bit from each and is yet something very much its own. If I recall correctly there are seven practices that Sikhs are expected to do according to their beliefs, among these never cutting one's hair or shaving. Thus the turban, under which the long hair is tucked away, and the beards of those who wear turbans.

The Golden Temple is the most holy shrine in the Sikh religion, and it was really a wonderful place to visit on every level. Or rather, I should say it was a wonderful place to stay, as one of the great things about it is that they provide accomodation for pilgrims and visitors. Not only that, but they offer a free dormitory set aside especially for foreign visitors. So I stayed here-- just about the only dorm I've stayed in India, and the only one with other people in it. And lots of other people! Really interesting people, doing amazing things, largely due to the fact that Amritsar is the major city closest to the one overland border crossing into Pakistan. So the majority of people there were either going to or coming from Pakistan overland, and people doing such are not your average Western budget tourist. A good proportion of them were making their way across Eurasia end to end-- a Korean girl headed to the world cup in Germany, a Czeck couple going the other way, a French Canadian biking from Japan to Western Europe over the course of several years (with two years, Japan, China, Tibet, Nepal, and the whole of the coast of India (not to mention Sri Lanka) behind him.

I ended up staying there the maximum three nights, in part because I was deciding where to go next and in part because it was a pleasant place to stay. I made the circuambulations (sp)

around the marble walkway surrounding the pool you see in the picture (the "Pool of Nectar") practised by pilgrims a part of each day of my stay there, thus spending some time each day in the complex. The temple itself is really impressive and beautiful, and looked a different times of day. One of the things that made being here so enjoyable is that all parts of the temple are open to all persons, so visitors Sikh and non-Sikh alike are allowed into the temple's inner sanctum, and everywhere else, for that matter. It's quite interesting inside the temple-- there are three priests inside who maintain a continual chant of the Sikh holy scripture with musical accompanyment, and lots of people sitting and singing along or meditating or just watching quietly. There's not a proscribed method of worship in Sikhism, so each person kind of does their own thing. In the picture on the left I'm with a friendly Australian fellow named Dom spending a few months working with a Delhi based NGO and doing weeked trips around north India-- he talked me into buying a shawl with him earlier that day, and so this was the means with which we chose to do the necessary head covering when walking around the temple that night. Lastly, the temple was a great place to stay because they offer free meals to the public in a big hall. Mostly pilgrims eat there, but some local homeless types as well as the occasional foreigner such as myself eat there too. The food was simple-- mostly chapati (flatbread) and dal (lentils)-- but good, and an interesting experience each time.

The other main attraction around Amritsar is the India-Pakistan border itself, which sees a dramtic ceremonial border closing take place each afternoon. It's become quite the attraction,

and so both countries have built grandstands from which their country persons may observe. I paid a visit to see the spectacle. It was interesting, with lots of marching about in costumes and other forms of macho paegentry happening simultaneously on either side. Though I was on the Indian side, it seemed that the crowds were doing the same chants, etc. on both sides. In general the feel was that of a sporting event between rival teams, though more fanatical than we tend to see in the states (maybe like soccer in Europe?). It was strange to watch this all, see everyone revelling in their national pride, knowing that there is genuinely bad blood between these nations that could one day turn ugly (though I believe relations have been okay lately) -- and that both have possesion of "weapons of mass destruction". Nationalism's all fun and games until someone gets nuked . . .

From Amritsar I went to Rishikesh, the self-proclaimed "yoga capital of the world". Situated along the Ganges at the point where it enters the plains from the mountains, it is a genuinely beautiful place. It also happens to be home to dozens upon dozens of ashrams aimed primarily (or so it would seem) at Western visitors and their many patrons. The Lonely Planet says it became famous in the West when the Beatles and their wives paid a visit to Rishikesh, staying in the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Apparently they wrote most of the White Album, as well as some of Abbey Road, during their stay. Though written after their return, "Sexy Sadie" is among the most obviously related to the place, as it is directed not at some woman but in fact Maharishi after they realized that the guy is full of it. (I feel qualified to say that he is full of it as such from having been exposed to his stuff during my several days in Sringeri-- I really think it's such a load of nonsense.) One of the things I enjoyed most during my short stay was listening to the White Album there, with the context of Rishikesh as the place where it was written in mind. I didn't do much else worth mentioning-- just some lounging about with some of the rafting friends I had been with a few weeks before. They were making a several week stay there, picking up some rafting work here and there, doing yoga, etc. I did have some interesting encounters with some long-term visitors: "Oh yeah, man, I'm gonna go play my sitar after I do some yoga . . . "

From Rishikesh I headed back up into the mountains. I took a bus as a far up as I could go, and there found myself at a place only a few miles hike from excellent skiing, so I ended up spending a little less than a week skiing. I hadn't skiied in about four years, but it came back pretty quickly, and so I had a lot of fun being up there alone. I wasn't alone alone-- I hired a guide to take me to the place-- but as my "guide" basically couldn't ski I was the only one skiing. The hiking up was quite a bit of work, but it made me appreciate the descent and anyhow at a lift access resort it's a novelty to find some fresh snow, the only tracks I ever crossed were my own from earlier. The place itself was just a wonderland of rolling, snow covered hills. After making a day trip the first time, I went in for four days, spending three nights in the huts used by cow herdsman and their cattle in the summertime when the rolling hills are covered in grass. One of the more interesting bits of this was that my guide spoke barely any English at all (and I still know almost no Hindi), so communication was at first difficult. But the longer we stayed the more we communicated in a way that we understood each other, to the point that towards the end it was surprising to me when we're unable to communicate some point to one another. Anyhow, this place--Dayara, it's called-- is set to become a developed ski resort shortly, so I'm quite happy to have had the place to myself as such. My time up there was so unlike most days in India-- absolutely quiet, not a person to be seen.

From there it was back to Delhi. I met up with my rafting buddies one last time before their departure to Thailand one day, Dom (the Australian who I had met in Amritsar) the next, and the day after that Ashley arrived. Since then we've visited Agra to pay the requisite visit to the Taj Mahal (it really is that good), and we're now in Varanasi, famous for drawing gagillions of Hindu pilgrims to bathe in and/or cremate their deceased loved ones on this section of the Ganges. In the West no one mentions this place without talking about how dirty the water is. Though I have no doubt it is quite polluted, it doesn't appear nearly as unpleasant as I was led to believe it might. Anyhow, it's hardly worth focusing on too much once here-- there's just so much to see: every kind of Hindu ritual, innumerable temples, an old city with an absolute maze of narrow alleyways. Tonight we travel to Calcutta, and from there we go to volunteer with Dakshinayan. After the 20th I'll be more or less out of touch for the next 3-4 weeks.

So that's what I've been doing . . . bye for now!