Monday, November 30, 2015

Eco Farm

Finally. I'm not even attempting to organize these photos. I wrote this 2 1/2 months ago.

Our first stop in Nepal was a farm in the south, right near Chittwan National Park. We found this opportunity through workaway, a website that sets volunteers up with hosts around the world. In a lot of places this means you can sleep and eat for free in exchange for your work, but it countries like Nepal it's common to charge a small fee. So we pay $5 a day for food. We intended to come straight here from the airport, but there is only a tourist bus in the morning so we stayed in Kathmandu. And since Jordan was still struggling with her stomach, we stayed an extra night to get to a pharmacy and try to get something moving before we left a big city. While she was waiting for it to work, I was able to do a walking tour of the area between Thamel and Durbur Square. I was just going to use my Lonely Planet kindle guidebook, but an art student from Nepal started talking to me and showing me around. It kind of had scam written all over it, but he assured me he didn't want money. Plus he showed me everything in the guidebook and we got some chai. Then he asked me to buy some food for the festival coming up. I couldn't say no... even though I knew it was a scam. I just told him I only had a certain amount of money so he put a lot of stuff back. Oh well, everyone there needs it more than me with the earthquake a few months ago and the current fuel crisis. Plus, I had a lot of fun.

Part of the farm - I slept in that round building a couple nights
swimming in the river - we could see India!

Watering the newly planted seed babies

Jungle walk

We got our tickets for the tourist bus the next morning from our hostel so they could keep a bit of commission. So bright and early in the morning we walked to a street where there were tons of busses lined up. We found ours and got some tea and fruit for breakfast. Finally it was time to go on the mostly empty bus. We drove to the outskirts of the city and then stopped. And didn't go. I realized we probably didn't have fuel, so I went outside. Turns out, 1/3 of the busses had fuel already so we should have gone without a ticket and asked. Oh well! The driver had to wait in line for a number that would allow him to get gas. While we were waiting for 2 hours, we talked to the other two Americans on our bus who were a father and son duo. We also met Richard, an American who had been living in Brazil but now spends his time mostly in Turkey and Pokhara, Nepal as a paragliding guide. He told us the company he works for so we're looking forward to trying it! We finally got going again and drove about 5 hours to a town called Narayanghat. The directions then just said get on a local bus for Meghauli and ask for Eco Farm. We just kept asking people till we found it. After about an hour we saw a sign for the Eco Farm and got off. We were led by Bishnu, the man who runs this place, to the volunteer area where the other 5 volunteers were drinking tea. They told us they were supposed to be working so we got started right away! We planted some beans and garlic and then it was time for dinner. The days here are pretty relaxing.
Taking the buffalo cart to go pick up cement and a solar cooker
Some of us get up at 5:30 to go for a long walk down the road. One day, we were on the edge of the national park and we saw a rhino! Just chewing grass and looking back at us. Then we relax and drink lemongrass tea before we work from 8-10am. Mostly we've been digging new gardens and clearing our grass and weeds. We're trying to make it look nice for the festival coming up. Then we eat lunch, which is usually dal bhaat. Rice, lentils and veggies. Yum. I don't think I'll ever get tired of it. After we eat, we can rest or wash clothes or go to the local school, which Jordan and I did our first day. They were missing teachers so we taught! She was the science teacher, and I did English, math and science for 1st, 6th and 3rd graders. There's also the town nearby with some shops. Around 2-3, we drink more tea and then work again from 3-5. We've been doing a lot of watering in the evening when it's getting less hot and it's actually pretty fun. Better than digging and picking grass. We have a little time after work to shower and relax, and then we eat more dal bhaat. I'm pretty much always in bed by 8pm.

Getting ready for Tihar
We spent 2 weeks and had a great time getting to know the village, the locals and the other volunteers. We got to celebrate Tihar, a big festival that includes different blessing day for different animals, Diwali, the festival of lights when the goddess of wealth Lakshmi is invited into everyone's home, and brother/sister day, where you get a fancy tika (mark on your forehead) and sisters receive money and brothers receive sweets. The whole village was covered in lights and the kids go around singing and dancing to collect money. It was cool to be in a place where we were part of the festival, but we were ready to be done listening to the festival songs blasting at full volume 24/7!

Riding on the roof on the way to Pokhara

Monday, November 23, 2015

Explore Tibet

driving up all the switchbacks on the way to EBC
TIBET It's a long one. Hang in there.

We made it to the train station and after they checked our permits, we walked outside and saw a sign with Jordan's name on it.One of the trip advisors, Kelsing hand come to pick us up. We drove to the Heritage Hotel where we were greeted with tea in old Lhasa right by the mosque. Yup. We were pretty much told to just rest and both of us were feeling sick, but eventually we couldn't take it anymore and walked around. We met a few other people doing the same trip (there were 2 groups of 8 and one group of 3) and even though they told us not to, we got street food from the Muslim market. It was delicious. 

Potala Palace
We both slept terribly due to sickness and altitude, and were glad when morning finally came. We got breakfast at our hotel that included fruit, toast, veggies, potatoes, noodles, some kind of egg, and either little waffles or yak yogurt with fruit. Then it was time to go to the Potala Palace which was first built by the 33rd king Songtsen Gangpo in the 7th century and then later rebuilt in the 17th century by the 5th Dalai Lama. Since then it has housed all the Dalai Lamas until the current one, who would reside there if he weren't exiled. We drove back to the center of town and all ate lunch at a place that had every kind of food, except Jordan whose stomach was hurting. I had momos – little Tibetan dumplings – half with veggies, half with potatoes. The dipping sauce was so much better than the plain vinegar you get in China. I was really excited because I fist had momos at the Tibetan settlement Bylakuppe in India 5 years ago and I loved them! Them we visited Jokhang Temple. We saw pilgrims doing prostrations in front of the temple. The Nepali wife of one of the kings of Tibet built this temple to house her Buddha, and its location exists because the king threw up his ring and it landed in a lake. Then a thousand goats carried dirt on their back to fill it in. It now houses the Buddha of the Chinese wife of the same king, because China's in charge. We also walked around the Bakhor street which goes around the temple and is a market place and one of the three circumnavigations in the city – the first is inside the temple, and the last goes around the whole old city. Our guide, Sonam, gave us directions back to the hotel and they were terrible. In reality, it was a pretty straight shot, but we just found our way to the main road which was way easier. The rest of the afternoon and evening we just rested in our hotel room. I was still feeling bad and Jordan was worse.

Jokhang Temple

After another mostly sleepless night, we ate and got in the van to go to the Drepung Monastery, a litte west of the city. It was the world's largest monastery with over 10,000 monks, and housed the Dalai Lama before the Potala Palace. There were lots of little narrow streets where the monks live that were fun to walk through. Then we drove to the travel agency where we had to pay our remaining balance. We were paying them hundreds of dollars but they made it feel so nice because they brought us tea and a ton of snacks! Close to the next monastery, and there was a vegetarian restaurant J and I ate at. It was pretty good, but pretty much like what we got in China. We shared steamed greens, a tofu dish, rice, and some steamed buns stuffed with cabbage. Then we went up to the Sera Monastery. We got to see the monks debating which was fun. I got to see this in Bylakuppe, but this was much more intimate in a little shaded courtyard. There were still a ton of tourists though.
Drepung Monastery
Sera Monastery
After we drove back to the hotel, we walked around the temple and got some threads that women braid into their hair.
We were finally ready to leave Lhasa. Jordan was still feeling bad with stomach issues, but I was feeling mostly better. We ate and then got on our way towards Shigatse. We stopped by the Brahmaputra River, which we followed for a while, and a homemade incense factory. Sonam told us we were driving straight there, instead of the detour that brought us by some sights, because there was construction going on and they only opened the road from 1-3pm. We drove a bit further and then stopped. It turns out the closed the main road for construction too, and the even longer detour we were going to take over the pass was also closed. Eventually all the drivers and tour guides wen to talk to the traffic police, and I don't know what they said but eventually they all came running back and jumped in the cars to start going. We had to pass the section of the closed road by driving on pretty nonexistent, dirt and sand roads that were very bumpy. We finally made it to our hotel, 3 hours later than expected. Sonam took care of our Everest Base Camp (EBC) permit while we hung out in our super cute rooms, which we didn't take a picture of because we thought we'd be back. Then we headed to the Tashu Lhunpo Monastery. It was built by the first Dalai Lama in 1447 and then became the home of the Panchen Lamas. It houses the stupa (tombs) of 7 previous Panchen Lamas. The current one was chosen by the Chinese government so no one really considers him a real one.
We wandered down the streets and ate at a restaurant and thoroughly confused the waitresses. But I got a huge pot of veggie soup for about $2! We also got Tibetan milk tea, which is just black tea with milk and sugar except the milk came from a yak. I kind of like the yak thing. It's not as strong as goat dairy products but definitely tastes different from cow. We've gotten a lot of questions about our vegetarianism. Mostly we've been a lot less strict here, especially Jordan, who mostly identifies as vegan unless she makes her our animal products she buys from PCC. I'm used to the questions and keep my answers short but Jordan tried to explain. Most people on our trip have been pretty understanding. We always knew China would give us the biggest issues but it really hasn't been much of a problem. As long as we had our little paper that said we don't eat meat we were fine (plus the cookies helped supplement our diet, obviously)!

After an early breakfast that wasn't really ready when it was supposed to be, we headed out for EBC. It was a pretty long drive, up and over passes (5400m and 5250m, the highest points of our trip) with hairpin switchbacks. But the changing landscapes were amazing. Mountains, rock formations, little villages, monasteries up in the mountains and stupas everywhere. There were cave dwellings in the sides of the cliffs, rivers and streams, and less and less vegetation the higher we got. I was thinking to myself how amazing and blue the sky had been in Tibet, but apparently I thought too soon because the clouds started slowly appearing in the sky. We stopped at a lookout on top of one of the passes where you can see the mountains above 8,000m, but most of them were hidden behind the clouds. If it was clear we'd be able to see Mt. Makalu (8463m), Mt, Lotse (8516m), Mt. Everest (8516m), Mt, Cho Oyu (8201m) and Mt. Shishapama (8020m). Still a truly awesome view. We arrived at Rongbuk Monastery, the highest in the world at 5,200m and saw the cave where a monk whose name I've completely forgotten meditated for 12 years. It was actually quite warm down there! There was a woman praying with a kitten on her lap. They've since built a new monastery just up the road a bit and have a guesthouse where we were planning on staying. Then we continued on to EBC! Some people from the other group walked, which I would have done, but our whole van drove and there wasn't any reason to walk except we had been driving all day. It was cold and we were at a high elevation and it wasn't a spectacular walk or anything. At this point it was pretty cloudy, and we could only see the bottom half of Everest. Still pretty cool. We took some pictures and hung out a bit, and then made our way back to the warm van. One of the couples in our group, Nathan and Kate from Alaska, were up there for a while. As they were coming back down, Jordan said “Man, they were up there so long, I thought they'd get engaged or something”. And they had! It was very exciting. Then our driver, who didn't speak English but had been winking at Jordan through the rearview mirror and saying “okay” to her a lot said he wanted to marry her. So I guess she's moving to Tibet! We got word that there was a snowstorm in the forecast and they were recommending people go back to the closest town, at least a 2 hour drive. Along with the other groups we decided to stay anyway. 

We were in a room with Bonni from Croatia, a flight attendant who lives in Dubai, and Antje from Germany. It was freezing, and all we had was 4 very thin beds and a bunch of blankets that never got washed. We got talking about spiders and somehow all were just cracking up at everything. It warmed us up a bit at least! We went into the common room which was slightly warmer because there was a yak dung stove in the middle of it. We got some overpriced lemon ginger tea and our whole group could not stop laughing. Everyone was looking at us but we were having a great time. We had a really great group and were lucky to all get along so well. We had also made friends with the people in the other group, and they were all really nice. Finally we had to go to bed. Jordan, Bonni and I pushed the beds together and slept sideways on 2 beds so we'd be closer to each other. We put blankets under us and all the blankets on top of us. It was pretty suffocating but it was warm. I don't think any of us slept much. It was hard to breathe, everything hurt, Jordan's stomach got really bad, and eventually I had to pee which I tried to hold as long as I could but eventually had to go outside to the outhouse. I also got a pounding altitude headache. I was pretty thankful for morning. My head was so bad, I took some excedrin but then I felt nauseous and threw up the tea. I felt a lot better afterwards. 

Some people bought breakfast and then we started driving. There had been a little snow so it was slow at first, but soon the roads were clear. Sonam showed us all the beautiful pictures he had taken of Everest when it was actually clear. Oh well, I guess I'll have to go back someday! After hours of driving back to Shigatse, we made it to a different hotel than we had been in before. It was bigger and more modern looking but there was no heat. Finally we switched rooms and were ok. We went to the supermarket and had snacks for dinner. It had been a while. We found an English TV channel about Africa so we watched that for a while and then fell asleep. 

Jordan woke up and her stomach was really bad. She was at the point where we thought she might have a blocked intestine, which can be serious. She tried to talk to a doctor in Lhasa, who didn't actually speak English like they said they did. A woman from the other group, Anita, had been a nurse for forever and helped her too. It was a painful day for her but she stuck it out till Lhasa. On our way back we stopped at Gyantse and saw the monastery and the Kumbum stupa which is the largest in Tibet, and Yamdrok lake, a giant turquoise lake that's shaped like a scorpion. People do pilgrimages around it and it takes over a week to walk around. We also saw the Nyenchen Kangsar Glacier. The angels from the other group, Levi, Lacey and Anita, made it possible for Jordan to stay at the Sheraton with them since there was a doctor there and it'd be more comfortable. She didn't actually see the doctor but Anita gave her some meds and helped her. The rest of us made it back to our hotel at about 6:30pm. We were so ready to be done driving. Since I was alone I got upgraded to a suite too, but it wasn't the Sheraton! It was still fun to be in a giant room, even though I was worrying about Jordan the whole time. It was also Kate's birthday so we had a cake to celebrate and then most of us went to a vegetarian restaurant for out last meal together.

Our last day in Tibet was Halloween. I was on the early bus so we got going right after breakfast. We picked up Jordan and she looked much better, although she wasn't completely better yet. We dropped Catriona and Joe off at the train station, who were only doing the first half of the train ride we had taken. You know, only 24 hours. Then we went to the airport. 4 of us were continuing on to Kathmandu so we said bye to the others and then went to check in. They had delayed our flight for no reason but eventually we made it to our gate, and then on the plane. It was only 1.5 hours but it cost than it did for us to fly from Seattle to Beijing! I didn't have a window seat but I could still see some pretty fantastic views of the Himalaya.

Tibet was an amazing experience. Was it worth it? I don't know. It was definitely touristy, but it has to be so that's what we expected. We had a great group and guide. It was very expensive, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to go again or if it will even be open, so I feel very fortunate to have been able to be privileged enough to go. If you only have a week to go to Tibet, this is pretty much the tour every company does. But if you want to experience more, maybe wait until you're super rich and can plan your own private tour. I have a lot of plans for when I become super rich...

people prostrating outside Jokhang Temple, Lhasa

debating monks

circle of life/death

Many of the peaks over 8,000m. If only you could see them...

Rongbuk Monastery



Everest hiding behind the clouds

Nyenchen Kangsar Glacier

Saturday, November 21, 2015


We came to Chengdu to see the giant pandas and the giant Buddha and because we heard it was a cool city, and we stayed a while to wait for our Tibet trip to start. We had to take two trains to get there, and because I made a mistake with our ticket dates, we ended up in hard seats twice, including overnight. It was not fun. We arrived in Chengdu tired and crabby, but finally managed to find our hostel when Kit, the guy we met in Zhangjiajie, had arrived the day before. A shower and some rest did us a lot of good. We just walked around a bit and went to dinner at a local restaurant. There's a veggie dish most restaurants have with eggplant and green beans (and LOTS of oil) and it's so good. We took another rest day the next day. We were staying right by Chunxi Road, the big shopping area, and walked around while Kit got some more winter clothing since he was heading to Mongolia after China. I also went to Carrefour, the huge supermarket. It was fun to walk around, and they had a lot of foreign food too. 
I tried to go swim laps, but I forgot my ID and they wouldn't let me in without it. It was a nice walk along the river, so it wasn't really a loss. I also got to see everyone doing tai chi, using the exercise parks, and walking and running along the river. 

Luckily Kit speaks and reads Chinese, so we were easily able to navigate the local busses to get to the giant panda research center. We took two busses early in the morning so we could make sure to get there while the pandas were awake and eating. We met another American named Jeff who walked around the park with us. The pandas were so funny when they were eating! They use as little energy as possible since they only eat bamboo and they have to save it all up in case they try to make baby pandas. Which, by the way, were so cute! We saw some who had just been born, and they were still in the little panda nursery. And we saw some bigger ones sleeping outside. They were on a little hill and one of them just kind of flopped down the hill without waking up. You could pay over $300 to take a picture with a baby panda but... we didn't do that. They had red pandas too. They were so cute! 
baby panda!

We took the bus to go visit a temple, and where we got off there was a Walmart! We just had to check it out. We ended up getting Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and they tasted so geed even though they were probably pretty old. Just a taste of home. The Wenshu Temple was in an older are of the city, so it was fun to walk around the streets. We got some noodles and then had tea in the tea garden in the temple. When we got back to the hostel, they were having a dumpling party! We assembled the dumplings and then after they got cooked we ate them. The veggie ones had egg and cabbage in them. We also got coconut "milkshakes" (they were just ice, milk and coconut flavoring) and put Bailey's in them. They were SO good.
The next day, Jordan had a bit of a crisis because her ATM card wasn't working anywhere. Finally, she found one that worked. We got on a bus to go to Leshan, where the giant Buddha is. We had to take a local bus to get to the actual park. There was a big line to go down to see the Buddha, so we walked around a bit before waiting to go down. It was pretty cool. They carved it straight down in the cliff, 71 meters all the way to the water. We didn't have much time to enjoy it, since we were worried we wouldn't make the last bus back to Chengdu. Luckily we did make it. 
Giant Buddha, along the river in Chengdu, dumpling party at the hostel

Kit visited another national park for a couple days, but it was expensive so we decided not to go. We spent the next few days mostly living life, finding our favorite places to walk to and eat, catching up with people at home, and taking a cooking class. We made tofu and eggplant. It was yummy and the lady who taught us was so cute! I walked to Tianfu Square and the People's Park on our last day.
cooking class 

Finally, it was time to catch our 2-day train to Lhasa. We stayed longer in Chengdu than we meant to, but it was a good place to catch up on everything we needed to do. I also got sick there and was hoping resting would help me get better, but I was still sick on the train and in Lhasa.