Monday, September 29, 2014


Youthful and energetic, our guide in Lhasa climbs to 19,000 feet regularly, without oxygen. His usual clients are European and American trekkers often going to Everest Base Camp; he had a break in his schedule which he filled in with us. He's the handsome guy on the left. Our driver, on the right, was exceptionally devout and had his prayer beads going at all possible times. He refrained while driving, however I noticed his lips moving constantly while at the law against praying while driving.

Guide on the left; driver on the right
We saw monasteries in Lhasa; 4 of the major sights. My lasting impression of these structures is the number of stairs we had to climb. In the thin air, hauling myself uphill was difficult and I lagged behind and even skipped a couple of things due to excessive gasping. The monasteries have gorgeous locations with breath-taking views. Most of them are very colorful and have prayer flags fluttering all over.

Monks abound and they almost all had some kind of tiffin box, lunch bag and a Nestle tea thermos. If they weren't eating, they seemed to be counting money. The devotees give offerings in the form of money and yak butter candles. In every separate room inside the buildings, we had to pay a photography fee; taking photos throughout meant an outlay of around $25 - $30 for each camera in each monastery. The monks are not slouches in the business of finance.
Monks with lunches and thermos bottles
In several places we were lucky enough to hear chants..these are quite moving and beautiful to hear. You sort of drift off into the sound after a while. We sat for half an hour or so at Drepung Monastery watching a philosophical debate. We didn't know what was going on but our guide explained afterwards that a question had been posed and all the young monks attempted to answer it. The older monks used gestures indicating if the answers were right or wrong. As a sample question, he suggested they might ask, "Which came first - the chicken or the egg?"
Dogs are everywhere in Buddhist countries. They don't euthanize strays; they breed and run around freely everywhere. They weren't as plentiful in Tibet as they were in Bhutan where they have become a serious problem.  This little guy was a real beauty with his gorgeous coat and beautiful eyes.
These people below are pilgrims from the Himalayas. The women wear the large breast plates/belt to protect themselves and their critical organs from the bitter cold wind. Notice my shirt buttoning sequence which nobody told me about (Debra says she did and I ignored her or smiled and nodded which means I didn't hear) and I only noticed at the end of the day and several hundred pictures later. As usual, I look like some kind of half wit.
This is the toilet (the square behind Zuzu) at Drepung with one of the greatest views in the whole monastery. You can see for miles. And Zuzu wore white to clamber around this place. The guide asked us to stop taking photos in this direction because there are police keeping an eye on the place.
As the grounds are under construction, these are the kinds of pathways we were walking on.

And this was the view from the restaurant - the better restaurant of the two. They do need a bit of help with their foodservice operation. As we sat eating, 14 dogs congregated around us, several of them breaking into snarling fights. The food was ghastly - I worried even about the small amount of rice we consumed just to be polite. 
And this was the restaurant..doesn't look so bad in the photo. It was bad.

People around Lhasa have prayer wheels turning slowly in one hand and the beads are working in the other.
In Jokhang square.
Debra below turning the big wheels. In some buildings there were monster wheels which it took several people to turn. You build up karma by turning and praying. Senior citizens hang out near these wheels and spend a good deal of time circling the temples, turning the wheels and praying for everyone as is done in Mahayana Buddhism.
We had gorgeous weather and most days the clouds over the mountains were spectacular.
Zuzu shopping for a yak skull. Unfortunately/fortunately you can't bring them back into the States otherwise we might have been hauling one of these around for weeks.

A striking looking Japanese tourist. I liked the reflection of Debra in his glasses.

Late August, early September is a great time to visit Lhasa if you're lucky with the weather. There were few western tourists and a lot of Tibetan pilgrims. In a turn-the-tables switch, we found ourselves often included in people's photos. Many had fancy iPhones and would show us our pictures after they took them. We spent about 15 minutes posing with various members of this family. 

At the Portola Palace, I couldn't handle the 1000 stairs up and waited for the other three under a tree in the shade. It took the group a couple of hours to go up and back so I had plenty of time to cool my heels and people watch. Kids came over and tested their English on me; several elderly women joined me and a couple of Mom's with babies on their backs. I talked to monks, fellow tourists and tour guides. The experience reminded me of the need to always allow a little time in the travel schedule to just sit around and take in the scene. I tend to over-schedule us and swear I'm going to stop doing that. 

When we spotted this yak from the car, Zuzu cried out, "Stop the car! Debra - get a picture of that yak. Run after it if necessary!" It caught her fancy. Fortunately for Debra, the yak shifted around but stood fairly still and she got her shot. Shortly after, we stopped at a restaurant and had our choice of yak many ways: boiled, steamed, sizzling, sauteed, deep fried or in a momo to name a few. Useful creatures, yaks...kind of remind me of Al Capp's shmoos, not in appearance but in their utility*.

"A Shmoo laid eggs and bottles of Grade A milk in an instant, and would gladly die and change itself into a sizzling steak if its owner merely looked at it hungrily. Its skin was fine leather, its eyes made perfect buttons and even its whiskers made excellent toothpicks. Shmoos multiplied much faster than rabbits, so owning a pair of Shmoos meant that any family was self-sufficient. 

*From the website:

Yak Products
Meat: The most economically important product from the Yak is its juicy, flavorful, and healthy meat. The flavor can be compared to sweet beef flavor with no gaminess and no greasy after taste. While being 95% fat-free, its delicate, delicious flavor comes from its unique distribution of fatty acid percentages. Yaks are extremely low in palmitic acid that is bad for our health (30% less than beef as a percentage of fats and 120% less than beef as a percentage of meat.) Yak meat is also much lower in calories, saturated fats, cholesterol, and triglycerides. Simultaneously, Yak meat is much higher in stearic and oleic acids that are good for us (35% higher than beef as a percentage of fats.) Yak meat is also higher in protein and solids (less water) than beef. All these "Faks™" combine to suggest that Yak meat may be the healthiest meat you can eat, certainly better than beef, or even buffalo, elk, or skinless chicken. Yak is even lower in fat than salmon. All this is accomplished on a grass/forage diet alone, with no grain, hormone, steroid, or antibiotic feed supplements. Furthermore, Half-Yak meat chemistries and flavor are almost identical to pure Yak meat. For your own homegrown meat supply, there is no choice that is healthier and tastier than your own Yak or Yak-cross meat.
Wool and Hair Production is an added bonus for this wonderful species. Whether you card and knit with your own wool, or simply choose to sell your wool, you will appreciate this wool that is comparable to angora or cashmere in its superiority and feel. Yak wool is said to be worth $16 per ounce carded and cleaned or $4 per ounce uncarded. Yaks will average one pound of wool per year that must be combed out each spring if you choose to harvest this product. Yak guard hairs are almost identical in texture to human hair and are used for wig production.
Milk: In China, Yak x Holstein or Yak x Hereford cross cows are milked for their very rich milk which is used primarily for production of butter and cheese. The export demand for these products is greater than supply. In this country there is no Yak-cross milk or milk by-product market developed as yet. This could become a future production opportunity for American breeders.
Yak Leather, Hides, Skulls and Tails: Yak leather can go to normal leather processing. Other specialty markets are currently being developed for this wooly, longhaired hide, as well as processed skulls and tails.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The World's Highest Train

China Air aloft over Xining area
We flew from Chengdu to Xining, deciding that 24 hours on the train would probably be enough for us. As we looked out the plane window at deep canyons below, I recalled the diaries of solo Canadian cyclists I've been reading; blogs of women who set out on rides through these areas on their own, most with little or no knowledge of Chinese. Brave and adventurous people.
White satin sandals - what our fashionista wore to Lhasa
Xining market
The world's highest train is a record holder for height but it certainly didn't set any records for us for 
service. We boarded the train in Xining with the assistance of a guide who had picked us up at the airport and taken us for a quick lunch, visit to the mosque and a market tour before getting us to the train. There's a fairly long walk from the drop-off point to the train - if you can't manage your luggage easily, plan on hiring a porter and good luck with the language. Nobody speaks English but we were fine with Richard's Chinese. Our guide hired the porter for us and he got us into the right compartment and hoisted our luggage up onto our beds. The bed is the only place you get for luggage so you share your sleeper with your bag. Richard slept with the old bag again.

Preparing to sleep with the old bag again.
Sitting on the flip down seat
Because Debra insisted that we each buy one compartment (sleeps 4) for each couple, we had enough room to squeak by. If we'd purchased single tickets and shared a compartment I don't know what we'd have done. Four people shared the compartment next to us - two Australian girls with two Chinese strangers. The girls were hanging out in the hallway on the pulldown seats for most of the trip. It would have been a nightmare to share such close quarters with strangers.

Selfie in the compartment...see the size?
The toilets were marginal...the western toilet had a broken seat and was pretty foul by the time we reached Lhasa. The squat toilet, well, it was endurable if you had to use it. Most of them get terrible pretty can't seem to hit the hole and there's more.....but not for now. Richard was able to shave at the public sink and mirror. At first, attending to your ablutions (teeth brushing, shaving, face washing) out in the open is a bit daunting. After a few hours of nodding acquaintance with your fellow passengers, it's not so bad.

This photo flatters this common sink area which was plugged up for most of the trip.

There's a hot water dispenser which you can use to fill your insulated pitcher - the only amenity provided in the compartment. The surly, and I mean really surly, attendant offered no help to people trying to use the dispenser. I've only seen surliness from service people like this once before in the Ukraine. When we tried to get a bite to eat in the dining car a few minutes before it closed, we were barked at to get out - closed. It was only open for an hour or two in the morning and in the evening. Forewarned we brought sandwiches and snacks from the Shangri-La Hotel which got us through. Passengers were trading food around and sharing if they had too much. 

Each individual compartment is fitted with a sound system and controls which do not work. They blast old propaganda style broadcasts through the speakers for much of the time. Blissfully, I couldn't understand it and it quickly blended in with my ever-present tinnitus and faded out of consciousness. Richard could understand it and he would groan and moan at the mindlessness of it all and try repeatedly to spin the volume and off/ on buttons to no avail. 

The train reaches 16,640 feet in elevation. I'm not sure how much oxygen was being pumped into the compartments. Whatever it was, it wasn't enough. Several people had to use oxygen masks. We were all OK but noticeably low on energy; perhaps the diamox, prescribed by our doctors, helped. The compartments are hardly air tight and there's wide open spaces between the cars. Plenty of opportunity for the 02 to escape.
Station break...

So much for the comfort factor. Now for the good part. The scenery was outstanding and ever-changing. For most of the time, we forgot about our discomfort and gaped out the window at the sheep grazing, yak herds, prayer flags and mountains. It was wonderful. I wish our pictures were better but we were on a high speed train and the windows were dirty. A deadly combination. Maybe you can get an idea from these however....
Photomatix shots...still trying the software. 
Another HDR'ed photo with Photomatix.

A very pretty yak.

Prayer flags over the river.

Lhasa - thousands of empty Chinese apartment buildings. Construction everywhere. 
There was a bit of complicated paperwork involved in getting into Lhasa. The Chinese government stops tourism if there's any problems in the area including road accidents. Just before we arrived a tour bus had crashed killing 44 people. 

August 4th, 2014. A tour bus has plunged into a Tibetan valley after hitting two vehicles, killing 44 people and injuring 11, China's official news agency Xinhua reported.

Lhasa was closed immediately. They recognize that the infrastructure just cannot support the level of tourist interest in the area and in order to maintain safety they will close everything down quickly. Fortunately everything was re-opened when we applied for visas so all was well. When we were traveling (in a van with a great driver) over some of the under-construction roads with dangerous blind curves and construction equipment all over the place, I could see how accidents were just waiting to happen. Stay off those buses around Lhasa!!!
Paperwork for Lhasa
At last, in Lhasa. 24 hours on the train was enough. 
Pulling into Lhasa - ready to disembark.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Teej Festival - Kathmandu

Don't you want to call out to these girls to turn around so you can see their faces? 

By a stroke of luck, we arrived in Kathmandu on the second day of Teej, a Hindu celebration for women. Three of these women were dressed for the occasion. Like all Hindu rituals and celebrations, it's complicated. To sum up, it's three days during which women fast, honor their husbands and families and then break the fast with a big feast.

Almost every Hindu woman in Kathmandu attends the temple on the second day when it was reported that 1 million women stood in line to do their duty. We saw women in line for what seemed like a mile in several directions leading to the Pashupatinath temple. Most were dressed in red and green saris with plenty of glitter and they were heavily jeweled; all the stops come out for this day. I've never seen so many beautiful women and girls in one spot. They'd been fasting for approximately a day when we hit the scene and it was fiercely warm in the sun. The married women fast hoping for everlasting intimacy between couples and for prosperity; the single women fast anticipating a good husband. Everyone was orderly and smiling and seemed happy. Richard quickly observed that if a million men were hungry and waiting in a line in the sun, all hell would break loose. He said, "They'd need fire hoses!" 

It was a photographer's dream but we tried not to be too obtrusive. The women were warm and welcoming. Zuzu quickly got in the middle of it, like she does. 

This was the scene in a small village at the end of the three days with offerings and food gathered together while the women prayed to seven holy saints.The women of the village listened to an elder, a man, reading holy scripture to them, which wrapped up the celebration until the next year. The woman are restored in faith, in their commitment to their marriages and families. Rather than a duty, it looked like everyone had a wonderful time.
Hennaed hands of little girls. The adult women had more professional looking artistry than the kids did, but the playfulness of these caught our eyes.

Later during our time in "Kat" we stumbled on the shops which sell necklaces. The green and yellow ones indicate marriage - "I'm taken!" The shops sold all colors, but the yellow and green predominated. The elderly ladies were taking a break from bead stringing and having a chat.
After the party was over...women waiting for the bus. Everyone had a cell phone just like all over the world. I'm not sure why she was waving her phone at us. Maybe it's the new Iphone 6?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Women and girls in Nepal

Debra's portraits of women and girls in various moods, espied in Nepal. No shortage of great looking people in this country.