In November of 2002, I embarked on a long business trip to Asia to conduct software training classes for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The ticket agent at LAX had trouble sorting out my two reservations, three separate tickets, and all the upgrades to business class. The length of my itinerary and numerous connections on the route from New York to Rome, Paris, Bombay, New Delhi, Kathmandu and back again made it even more of a struggle for her! But eventually, flights were upgraded (a perk of being a “Million Miler” with Delta), tickets re-issued, and boarding passes printed. Then I boarded a Delta Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New York JFK airport. I made the connection in New York with only a few minutes to spare. The 7 ½ hour flight to Rome was very pleasant. Dinner began with a small plate of steamed rock lobster, grilled shrimp, and crisp steamed asparagus, followed by a delicious fresh green salad topped with roasted red pepper vinaigrette dressing. For the main dish I chose the pan-seared halibut in a Thai green curry sauce, served with stir fried Asian vegetables – absolutely incredible! After the fruit and cheese course, along with a glass of Port, I retired for a few hours of sleep, somewhere over the North Atlantic.
The next day I had a meeting at the FAO headquarters in Rome to discuss future training plans for their GIS staff. Later that afternoon, I boarded an Air France flight to Paris, where I connected with the Delta Airlines flight to Bombay. Seated across the aisle from me on the flight to Bombay was an Indian man with his young five-year old daughter. She was very cute and a favorite of the flight attendants, who doted on her all during the 8-hour flight. As we flew over Turkey and Iran, a very tasty dinner of lamb kabob and chicken tandoori was served, before arriving in Bombay at 1:00 am. And to my great surprise and relief, there had been significant improvements made in the Immigration and Customs procedure. The airport had even installed a “Disney line” to eliminate the “chaos” of the past. Remarkably, I was through the formalities in a matter of minutes, compared with the hours I had endured in the past! That night I stayed at the luxurious 5-star Leela Kempinski Hotel near the airport. As I was walking out of the terminal, I spotted an advertisement that read “Sahara Airlines – Emotionally Yours”.
The next morning, I returned to the airport and boarded a Jet Airways flight to New Delhi. And despite the short duration of the flight, we were served a delicious lunch of Hyderabad fish curry, Shinkampur Kebab, Gobi Mussalum, and onion Pulao, along with a small salad, bowl of soup, Indian breads, fresh fruit plate, chocolate cake, and tea! (incredible for a 55-minute flight) As we approached New Delhi, I could see the dark, heavy air pollution hanging over the city. We arrived at the domestic terminal (1A), so when I asked the Jet Airways staff how to get to the international terminal, they simply said “go outside and turn left”. That took me to the international terminal 1B, but my flight to Kathmandu was scheduled to depart from international terminal 2! So, when I asked how to get to terminal 2, I was told that I needed to take a taxi! Immediately a young guy grabbed my bags, loaded them into an old white Indian made car, and we piled into the back seat. Leaving terminal 1B, the engine sputtered and rattled terribly as we sped through the crowded streets. The old car bounced along with the rest of the chaotic New Delhi traffic, dodging hectic scenes of bicycles, push carts, scooters, tuk tuks, and huge diesel smoking trucks and buses – not to mention the holy cows wandering aimlessly amidst all the traffic! (it was uniquely “India”)
Amid this chaos I noticed three things about the old car. (1) The steering wheel was mounted at a 45-degree angle to the driver. (2) The needle on the gas gauge was below empty, but then again, none of the gauges appeared to be working! (3) The turn signals were operated by a small switch on the dashboard, although I never saw it being used! Despite these “deficiencies” the driver seemed to handle the dilapidated old beast pretty well in the heavy traffic. (ie. I arrived at terminal 2 in one piece!) There was a full 4 hours to wait before the scheduled departure of the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu at 7:15pm. But my heart sank when I checked the display board of arrivals and departures and saw the flight was “delayed” until 1:45am! And, of course, there was no one from the airline to be seen. But since I was already booked on the Druk Air flight from Kathmandu to Paro the next day, which originated in New Delhi, I decided to look into the possibility of staying overnight in New Delhi and taking the Druk Air flight instead in the morning. But, of course, there was no one around from Druk Air to confirm the change, and nobody knew when they might return to their office. It became a very frustrating situation; however, I was able to find a small restaurant and bar in the huge waiting hall. So at least I was able to enjoy a cold Taj Mahal beer, while a cheap B-movie played on an old TV in the corner. It was a bad Hindi takeoff on a combination of “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”, and “Night of the Living Dead”! About an hour later I heard an announcement about the arrival of the Druk Air flight from Paro, Bhutan. I rushed down to the arrivals area in an attempt to find someone from the airline, but all in vain. Just by chance, as I reluctantly headed back up to the departures lounge, I found a nice guy in the Druk Air office. He patiently listened to my story and then said, “it should be no problem to switch flights”. Upon hearing this, I quickly decided to stay overnight in New Delhi. Before leaving the airport, I left a note at the office of Royal Nepal Airlines, informing them of my change in travel plans. Then I proceeded to find a taxi to the nearby Radisson Airport Hotel. As I exited the departures area, a young man approached and asked if I needed a taxi, so I said yes. Just then a grizzled old man popped out of the shadows and demanded 500 rupees for the short 10-minute journey. I countered with 250 rupees, but he insisted on 500. When I said “No, I’ll wait for the hotel shuttle van”, he offered 400 rupees – we struck a deal at 300 rupees! Suddenly, two more young men jumped out of the car and quickly threw my bags into the boot (trunk), as I was “herded into the back seat, holding my garment bag in my lap. Meanwhile, the old man sat beside me and the three young guys squeezed themselves into the narrow front seat. The short drive was very hectic in the heavy rush hour traffic, weaving in and out between trucks and buses belching huge volumes of foul-smelling black diesel smoke! At last, after many directions shouted by the old man, we arrived at the hotel. And as I suspected, the old man claimed that neither he nor his sons had any change for my one and only 500 rupee bank note! So, as I surrendered my lonely bank note, I admonished him for his sly “trickery”!
But at long last, I stepped into the beautiful pink marble lobby of the 5-star Radisson Hotel – a world away from the stress and frustrations of the airport. The hotel front desk must have known that somehow, maybe by the expression on my face, and proceeded to upgrade me to a business class suite at no extra charge.
After checking in, I went up to the Concierge Level lounge for the complimentary Happy Hour and enjoyed a cold Black Label beer, after which I headed downstairs to the “NYC Café” for dinner. Upon entering the restaurant, I discovered all the servers were dressed in sombreros and colorful blankets to celebrate “Mexican Buffet Night”! To be entirely honest, they all looked like “bandidos” from Poncho Villa’s army! But they were exceptionally courteous and friendly as they offered me a selection of imported Mexican beers. Later in the evening, another “bandido” came around with a large bottle of Tequila and shot glasses in a bandolier slung over his shoulder. Despite the valiant effort by the hotel to turn the room into Mexico, I was not up for eating Mexican food in India. So, I ordered my favorite dish of delicious Chicken Tikka Masala, rice, and fresh baked naan, along with a cold bottle of Kingfisher beer. After dinner, I retired to my room, set the alarm for 5 am, and nodded off to sleep. Earlier, I had watched a fascinating, but disturbing National Geographic film about a young Pakistani woman who was blinded and disfigured by her husband after she had become pregnant as the result of a vicious gang rape! Eventually she was able to make her way to America where she was treated by a Pakistani doctor in Washington, DC. He literally “rebuilt” her face! The story of her recovery was amazing and inspiring, but she was much more fortunate than many women in Pakistan who have been killed by their husbands, or even their fathers, that were “justified” as “honor killings”!
The next morning, I was up early at 6 am to meet the Druk Air station manager and confirm a seat on the direct flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu. As I entered the airport, I glanced at the display board showing the times of the departing flights. I must admit, it was not a total surprise when I saw the “new” departure time for the Royal Nepal Airlines flight to Kathmandu at 6 am! Just then, a very nice man from Druk Air met me and confirmed that I could buy a ticket from New Delhi to Paro since I already had a confirmed reservation on the “sold out” segment of the flight from Kathmandu to Paro. But when he asked me how I would pay for the ticket, and I answered, “by credit card”, a frown appeared on his face! I was then informed that only Bhutanese Baht or Indian Rupees would be accepted. At that point, he guided me to the Thomas Cook Agency office, where he advised me to get a cash advance of 18,000 rupees on my American Express credit card to pay for the ticket. I did so in short order, received my ticket, and proceeded through Immigration. As the Indian immigration officer looked at my old passport photo, he “chuckled” at the picture of my long hair and beard. (I had cut my long hair and beard two years before)
Having passed through the Immigration formalities, I headed to the wonderful peace and quiet of the Sheraton Maurya First Class lounge for a cup of coffee and an assortment of delicious Indian pastries. Afterwards, going through the security checkpoint, my baggage and I were thoroughly searched. As I arrived at the departure gate, passengers were boarding other flights to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Finally, we boarded an old Indian bus that took us to a small ATR-72 aircraft parked at the far end of the runway. Luckily, I had an aisle seat in economy class on what would be a completely full flight on the next segment. (Unfortunately, business class had been sold out for several weeks) The 1 ½ hour flight to Kathmandu was very pleasant, and we were served a nice breakfast by the beautiful, young flight attendants in traditional Bhutanese dress. Upon landing in Kathmandu, only a few people departed the plane, but a large crowd began boarding the flight. A very nervous Nepali man took the middle seat next to me, and he had incredibly large, active elbows. As I looked around, the plane was jammed with people trying to carry on everything from heavy backpacks to large black plastic bags stuffed to overflowing! My host and colleague from UNEP-ICIMOD also boarded the flight, to join me for the first GIS user conference scheduled in Bhutan. As we departed Kathmandu, the plane climbed steadily up to 29,000 feet, and the captain began pointing out the highest and most important peaks of the massive Himalaya Mountain Range, including Lhotse, Annapurna, and of course, Mt Everest. The mountains were shining brilliantly, clad in fresh fallen snow and jutting high above the clouds! It was a view that was only possible on the flight from Kathmandu to Paro, since the route parallels the southern boundary of the Himalaya Range – truly a spectacular vista!
About 45 minutes later, we began our descent toward the airport in Paro, slowly weaving our way down through the steep, narrow valleys. The closer we got to the airport, the mountains began to close in on us, until at one point, I could look out both sides of the plane and clearly see the trees and rocks clinging to the steep slopes less than 100 yards away! I could only imagine what it would be like to land in bad weather. But this day we were blessed with beautiful, clear blue skies. As we deplaned, we were met by our Bhutanese government host, Mr. Drungkar, and our bags were quickly loaded in the waiting Landcruiser for the trip to the capitol city of Thimphu. The journey took us south and then east on the one and only road to the city, following two major rivers. After a half hour or so, we stopped for tea at the “Pegyel Hotel and Guesthouse” beside the “Do Chhu River”. As we sipped our tea, we enjoyed lovely views of the surrounding mountains, as well as the trees along the riverbank, their leaves having turned a beautiful bright golden color. The hotel was built in the unique traditional architectural style of Bhutan, with intricately carved wooden details around the windows and doors.
The two-hour drive to Thimphu was on a rough, narrow twisting road with only one paved lane. The maximum posted speed limit was 25 mph, and everyone used the one paved lane, regardless of direction, swerving off to the unpaved side of the road at the last minute to avoid oncoming traffic! Everyone seemed to know the rule, but when the vehicle swerved toward the outside edge of a curve where the steep slope dropped down to the river over 300 feet below, it was pretty scary, even at 25 mph!
During the journey, I noticed almost everyone we passed was dressed in traditional Bhutanese style, which created a feeling of being in a very old culture. Finally, we arrived in Thimphu and were taken to the Jambayang Resort – a small hotel high up on the mountain slope across the river from the city. I was shown to a small apartment with a balcony overlooking the river and the city of Thimphu, surrounded by mountains covered in thick, deep green forest. That afternoon, I sat on the balcony in the warm rays of the sun, enjoying a cold Black Label beer from India.
Later in the evening, we were invited to a large, formal dinner in the hotel, hosted by the Secretary of the National Planning Commission. Indian beer and local whiskey flowed freely all night long, during which I was introduced to “Red Panda Beer”, the one and only beer produced in Bhutan. It turned out to be a very nice Weissbier that was developed by a Swiss sponsored aid project over 20 years ago. Apparently, the project had originally been funded to develop a cheese making industry in Bhutan. But it wasn’t long before the yeast made its way into fermenting beer! During the dinner, I happened to notice that the Secretary was wearing long white underwear beneath his traditional robe, known as a “Gho”. The white underwear showed below the robe and above his tall socks – but it didn’t seem to matter to him, or anyone else for that matter! It was a lovely evening, with lots of toasts by everyone seated at the long table.
Just before I retired to my room for the night, I placed the small, one and only electric heater, on the marble floor inside the bathroom, so as to have a halfway warm place to take a shower in the morning. During the night I could hear dogs barking in the distance down in the city below, and I remembered my Bhutan guidebook had warned that large gangs of stray dogs roamed the streets of Thimphu at night, barking incessantly. (Thank goodness for my earplugs) I awoke early the next morning to see clear blue skies and felt a sharp chill in the air. But to my dismay, I found the electrical extension cord had a bad connection and the heater had failed some time during the night. The result was a “stone cold” bathroom! After breakfast, our Bhutanese government host drove us up to “Donchu La Summit Viewpoint”, at an elevation of 3070 meters (10,200 feet) for a spectacular view of the snow -covered peaks of the Himalaya Range on the border with Tibet. Many of the highest peaks were well over 7500 meters (24,000 feet).
Following many photos, we proceeded down a very narrow, rough, twisting road, surrounded on both sides by steep heavily forested mountains. Slowly we descended almost 7,000 feet to the small village of Punakha, and suddenly found ourselves amid an expanse of deep green rice terraces. Here we visited two very old, historic Buddhist monasteries, which are known as “Dzongs”. The first monastery was “Punakha Dzong”, or “Palace of Great Happiness”. It was a beautiful structure over 400 feet long and six stories high, with a large gold dome, built in the year 1676. Like many of the Dzongs, it had also served as a fortress against invasions from Tibet. The second monastery was “Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag”, a very impressive stone fortress atop a high ridge between two major rivers. It was founded in 1638 by an ancient warlord by the name of Shabdrung. The entire interior of the structure was decorated in beautifully carved wood and stone, painted in brilliant colors of the rainbow.
As we walked around the monastery, many young monks came running up to greet us, and a few were eager to practice their English upon us. Leaving the monastery, I gave away all my pens to them, save for one to write in my journal. Meanwhile, we passed a huge gathering of local people waiting to receive the blessings from Bhutan’s holiest monk.
That evening, we all checked into “Hotel Y.T.” in the tiny village of Lobesa, about 20 miles south of Punakha. As the sun set over the mountains to the west, we had dinner, seated on a large wooden deck overlooking the valley below. Later, the one and only TV in the hotel was showing the English language evening news from the Bhutan National Broadcasting Service. Over the next half hour, we listened to some very important news, such as:
- Locations and dates for census reporting
- Locations and dates for school exams
- Current weather conditions and forecasts for virtually every town and village in Bhutan
The next morning brought heavy clouds for our drive back to Thimphu. It was a long trip over steep, narrow, rough roads, and I became convinced there were no smooth, level roads anywhere in the country. No wonder the national speed limit was 25 mph! Unfortunately, the heavy clouds precluded any views of the high Himalayan peaks.
After a couple of hours, we made a stop for tea at a police checkpoint, just below Donchu La Pass. As we sat enjoying our tea and a break from the rough road, a large Indian Army convoy passed through the checkpoint, on their way to re-supply the road maintenance stations that India provides as a service to Bhutan. (In my view, it was quite obvious that the road upon which we had been travelling had not seen any maintenance for many years!) the remainder of our return trip to Thimphu was through lush, thick pine forest that covered the steep mountain slopes like an enormous green carpet, sometimes rising thousands of feet above us.
Finally, back in the city, Sushil, my UNEP-ICIMOD host, and I spent the warm, sunny afternoon walking around downtown Thimphu. The city had no traffic lights, nor where there any in the entire country. However, there were two policemen directing the small number of cars on the street, from their “posts” in the center of a main intersection.
After a lovely lunch at “Plum’s Café”, we began the trek back up the hill to Jambayang Hotel and Resort. Along the way, we stopped to watch an archery competition. Soon we found out why archery was the national sport of Bhutan, as spectators often stood less than a foot away from the target in order to get the best view! The archers launched their long arrows more than 100 yards away from the target and very rarely missed – luckily for the spectators! Further on, we passed several signs posted along the side of the street – “Public urination and defecation prohibited”. Thankfully, there was no evidence of any “illegal” activity! We arrived back at the hotel just in time to join the rest of our group for dinner.
The next day we left the hotel and met up with our local Bhutanese host named Kinley, for a drive north up the deep valley above a Thimphu that also took us through a small Tibetan refugee village. The narrow road clung to the steep mountain sides that were carpeted with a beautiful, thick forest of tall pine trees. At the end of the road we came to an ancient monastery, literally “hanging” on the sheer rock face directly above us. Nearby was a small stone bridge covered with hundreds of colorful prayer flags.
And a short distance away, several large Indian families were picnicking on the grass beside the small stream, their huge stereo systems blaring out the latest Hindi pop music! As it happened, the old stone bridge was the entrance to the national park.
As we gazed at the ancient monastery above us, Kinley told us about the traditional religious custom for Bhutanese families. At least one young male child from every family must enter a monastery for a minimum of 3 years of religious study. And during that time, they have no contact with their family. It’s an ancient Buddhist tradition that’s centuries old and continues today. Back in the city, Kinley invited us for lunch at a small café downtown called “The Blue Poppy”. The food was delicious and closely related to North Indian cuisine, reflecting a common heritage in the distant past. Later, Kinley took us to the zoo where we came up close with a small herd of Yaks, animals of great importance to the people and culture of the Himalayan region. Then it was time for traditional Yak butter tea at Kinley’s house, and I can only describe the drink as being very greasy and bordering on rancid – definitely an “acquired” taste! But Kinley’s hospitality was warm and generous. Dinner that evening was at the Druk Kotel downtown, where we happened to meet a one-armed young American guy who was working on a mushroom production project in the mountains east of Thimphu.
The next day, we joined Kinley again to visit with GIS users from around the country before the start of the first annual “Bhutan GIS Users Conference”, hosted by the Ministry of Planning. Later, I was shown to an office where I was told I would be able to access my email, for the first time in almost a week. My first attempt to connect to my email came just before a power failure as I was opening the second message! On my next attempt, the system was so slow in opening any messages that I just gave up! Meanwhile, the one-armed American was still trying unsuccessfully to connect his laptop using the fax line at the hotel front desk. As the day came to an end, the Secretary of the National Planning Commission hosted a fabulous dinner of traditional Bhutanese dishes at the luxury Druk Hotel. The following day, I gave a technical presentation to the staff of the National Land Commission, which was delayed due to the late arrival of the video projector, an essential piece of technology for my presentation. Meanwhile, as I sat patiently awaiting the delivery of the projector, I began to notice that all the government employees were required to wear “formal” traditional dress that included a religious shawl and colorful knee-high socks for men. At last the projector arrived, with many apologies, and my presentation was a great success! Following the close of the session, I returned to the hotel to pack my bags for the return trip to Kathmandu. As I went to check out of the hotel, I was informed the hotel did not accept credit cards or traveler’s checks, so a quick trip to bank was required. (Bhutan really was a “cash only” economy!)
The drive back to Paro was another “hair raising” experience on narrow, one lane mountain roads. Twice, our Bhutanese hosts stopped at small roadside stands to “replenish” their supply of “Paan” (aka “Betel Nut”, a mild stimulant).
As we arrived in Paro, we visited the ancient ruins of “Paro Dzong”, once a large fortress where the last battle took place against the invaders from Tibet. From there we had spectacular views of the world famous “Taksung Monastery”, also known as the “Tiger’s Nest” – perched high on a sheer, precipitous cliff thousands of feet above the valley!
With evening approaching, we returned to the Pegyel Hotel and were invited to join a reception and dinner hosted by a group from the World Trade Commission. Seated around a huge campfire, we were treated to a performance of beautiful, traditional Bhutanese music and dance. After which, some people from the various countries represented in the commission were invited to participate in the evening’s entertainment. Of special note were the Aussie’s doing “Waltzing Matilda” around the campfire.
After dinner, Kinley and Sushil insisted that I join them for a traditional “stone bath”. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I agreed. So, wrapped in a towel from the hotel, I joined them outside in front of a large stone tub that was buried in the ground and filled with water. At the far end of the tub was a small platform where large “red hot” stones from the campfire were placed to heat the water! It was certainly an ancient and original version of the modern “hot tub”. As we soaked in the tub under clear, cold skies filled with millions of stars, traditional Bhutanese music and dancing continued well into the night. Needless to say, I enjoyed a very restful sleep that night – quiet and peaceful.
The following morning, we awoke to find our vehicle covered in a heavy layer of frost. Then it was a short drive to the airport for the flight back to Kathmandu. Upon check-in, I was most fortunate to get the last available window seat on the right side of the aircraft, which would afford me spectacular views of the highest peaks of the Himalayan Range and the Tibetan Plateau beyond. But upon boarding the plane, my excitement and anticipation were quickly dashed when I saw the windows were heavily scratched, most likely from a great many tourist cameras! However, it was a pleasant flight to Kathmandu, and upon arrival, it was determined that it was less expensive for UNEP-ICIMOD to have me stay at the new Hyatt Hotel, rather than the ICIMOD Guest House downtown. So, I soon found myself in a gorgeous 5-star luxury hotel situated on several acres of land on a hill overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. (at $45 per night, it was an incredible bargain – I only wished I could have stayed longer) As I explored the hotel, I discovered several beautiful scale models of famous Nepalese temples and monasteries displayed in the lobby.
Later that afternoon, my hosts took me to the ICIMOD office to have our photos taken for the Tibetan visas, the country that would be our next destination. In the evening, we were invited to a cultural program and dinner in the Hyatt Hotel, sponsored by the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS). During the program, a contest was held to highlight the cultural traditions of each country – the delegation from Japan won first place. It was a lot of fun, both for the contestants and the audience.
The next day began with a delicious Nepalese breakfast and a leisurely morning preparing my “15 minute” presentation to the ACRS Conference. The meeting was held in the beautiful new conference center near the airport, where we had an incredible view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks. The conference began with the obligatory speeches by local government officials, followed by the opening keynote address. Meanwhile, the main entrance door to the ballroom kept “squeaking” loudly as people constantly walked in and out – very distracting! Finally, I leaned over and “quietly” suggested to the session moderator to have the door left open and avoid the disturbing noise. My presentation went very well, and at the conclusion of the session we headed back to the hotel, once again a slow, frustrating drive through narrow streets filled with noxious black clouds of diesel exhaust fumes from hundreds of old trucks and buses! However, along the way I spotted several very interesting local business signs, such as:
- “Glamour Public School”
- “Sleep Well for Years Mattress Company”
- “Royal Peace Restaurant and Bar with Dance”
- “Moral Academy” (with a huge picture of Mickey Mouse pointing the way!)
Finally back at the hotel, Basanta’s friend, the hotel General Manager, invited our group to have drinks in the “Rox Bar”. He led us down a narrow stairwell, whose walls and ceiling were completely covered with “rocks”. It was a beautiful multi-level restaurant and bar where we were served large glasses of cold Indian draft beer, along with tasty snacks of chicken tandoori and spicy potato wedges. While I enjoyed the draft beer, all the Nepalese in our group were drinking local whiskey and soda, the most popular brand being “Mount Everest Whiskey”. After sharing conversations about our various travel experiences, it was dinner time and we were escorted upstairs to the restaurant. It was a gorgeous atmosphere of simple, elegant décor, with lots of lovely dark tropical wood, together with plenty of native rocks. The food was outstanding, but all during the meal, heavy metal music blared in the background from the bar downstairs. (oddly, I seemed to be the only one to notice it!) In stark contrast, there was lovely, ethereal Indian music playing throughout the hotel lobby. Later in the evening, a very large tour group from Japan arrived just as I headed back to my room.
The following morning, as I waited for Basanta and the ICIMOD driver to pick me up, I watched a large Indian wedding party arrive, dressed in their very finest, the ladies sporting tons of gold. Soon the ICIMOD driver arrived and took us to the airport for our flight to Lhasa to attend a meeting with the Tibetan University staff in charge of the GIS department. As we checked in, we noticed that the flight was delayed an hour, but when we got to the departure gate it was back on schedule. Luckily, both of us had been assigned window seats on the left side of the plane – the “right” side to be able to see Mt Everest! The China Southwest Airlines aircraft was a new Boeing 757, so the windows hadn’t been scratched yet! Due to recent threats from Maoist terrorists in Nepal, airport security was on high alert. As we joined the security screening line, a young Chinese girl in front of us had her batteries, matches, razor blades, and Swiss army knife confiscated! Once through the security checkpoint, we had just enough time for a quick cup of coffee at the snack bar before boarding. Soon after takeoff, we had spectacular views of all the highest peaks of the Himalayan Range! (and this time, the window was reasonably free of scratches) There were magnificent views of the entire Himalaya – Hindu Kush Range as our plane turned north, crossed over the summit just east of Mt Everest, and into the enormous, barren Tibetan Plateau. Suddenly the landscape became an endless vista of barren mountains, broken in places by large rivers, all under cold, deep blue skies!
Two hours later, we slowly descended to the airport, situated on a very barren, dry flat plain, almost 100 km (60 miles) from the city of Lhasa by road – but only half that distance as the crow flies! We were met by our Tibetan and Chinese hosts, and as we drove to the city, the highway from the airport was lined with a series of young Chinese soldiers stationed every 2 – 3 kms to honor and salute the new Chinese army commander being posted in Lhasa. Who knows how long they had been waiting, or how long they still had to wait! Once we finally reached the hotel in the center of town, we were invited to lunch – a Yak burger and Lhasa beer. As we sat in the little café, I noticed a sign on the wall – “Place your order for Christmas pudding from Eat Lover Bakery”! Later that evening, we joined our hosts for dinner at the historic “Snowlands Hotel” for a delicious combination of Chinese, Nepalese, and traditional Tibetan dishes. And afterwards, we all took a long walk down the “new” main street – a very gaudy collection of bright neon lights, new restaurants and bars, mixed among old traditional Tibetan shops. It created a rather weird, odd combination that certainly reflected the recent massive influence of the Chinese culture. Returning to the hotel I felt the sting of the cold, thin air (20 degrees F) and high elevation (almost 12,000 feet). Even the electric heater in my hotel room couldn’t raise the temperature above 55 degrees, at its highest setting no less! And as I entered the tiny bathroom, I had to stoop down to see myself in the mirror – a problem for shaving!
The next morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, our Tibetan driver arrived to take us to the world-famous landmark in Tibet, the 1600-year-old “Potala Palace”, official residence of 14 Dalai Lamas. Fortunately, we were driven up a steep, narrow winding road leading to the rear gate, so we didn’t have to climb the steep staircase rising over 100 meters (320 feet) from the other side, which all Tibetan pilgrims must do. There were over 1000 rooms in the palace and 8 of the 14 Dalai Lamas were buried within the palace walls.
As we toured the countless small dark rooms filled with row upon row of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, all neatly stacked on shelves, nomadic Tibetan pilgrims from the remote regions lit up ceremonial candles made from Yak butter. It made the air in the dark rooms very smoky and heavy with a rancid smell – rather unpleasant! Our Tibetan host also told us that hundreds of cats were kept in the palace to control the rats and mice – a practice dating back many generations.
When we reached the rooftop terrace, we had a spectacular view of the incredibly deep blue sky, in sharp contrast to the brilliant white-washed buildings. As we gazed upon the magnificent scene of the landscape spread out before us, the soft, haunting sound of Tibetan monks chanting in the distance reached our ears – a mesmerizing, magical moment!
Later in the afternoon, we visited the “Tibetan Cultural Museum” and saw beautiful displays of traditional Tibetan lifestyle, culture, and art. (our Chinese host made certain that we also heard the “Chinese version” of the liberation of Tibet by the Communist Party) Following the museum visit, we had a traditional Tibetan lunch at the tiny “Lhasa Kitchen House” in the old quarter of the city.
The next day, I gave a technical presentation to the faculty and students at Tibet University, and afterwards there was a formal ceremony to donate Esri GIS software to the university. Then we were led on a tour of the university, including a visit to the GIS lab. Since there was no elevator, we had to climb 4 flights of stairs to reach the lab. Every one of the lab staff were dressed in sparkling white lab coats and white overshoes – a very neat and clean room indeed. However, when I enquired about the location of the toilet, I was informed that the one and only toilet in the building was down on the ground floor. And when I entered the toilet, it was the typical Chinese style “squat” facility – no toilet paper and atrociously dirty (disgusting!). What an amazing contrast between the computer lab and the toilet! On my way back up to the lab, I saw large photos of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison hanging on the walls of the bleak hallway.
As we traveled back to our hotel, I noticed a few traffic lights amidst the chaotic traffic, all with a unique feature. They had digital clocks that counted down the remaining time for both vehicles and pedestrians. But the vast majority of the city operated without any traffic control, yet everyone seemed to manage to move safely, though very slowly.
That evening was the inevitable, formal Chinese banquet, hosted by the Vice-President of the university. Although the food was pretty much as I expected, (ie. the “obligatory” Sea Cucumbers and Jellyfish soup, in spite of being over a thousand miles from the ocean!), but we were presented with a new dish I hadn’t seen during previous banquets – small roasted birds that had been chopped into pieces, heads and all, with their eyes and beaks “staring” at us from the plate! (not the most appealing dish on the table!)
I was surprised when I was introduced with the title “Guest Professor” and presented with an incredible gift of a gorgeous brass scale model of the Portola Palace mounted on dark tropical wood.
During the banquet, numerous toasts were offered, and each time we all had to shout “Gambai”, chug the entire glass, and turn it upside down on our head to show it was indeed empty – no matter if it was fruit juice, beer, or strong spirits! As it turned out, Basanta had chosen the wrong glass at the beginning of the evening and was stuck with having to drink strong spirits all night – a toast every 5 minutes! Near the conclusion of the evening, the restaurant staff serenaded us with beautiful Tibetan folk songs. It was a lovely way to end the evening.
The next morning, we visited the GIS computer lab again, but this time the room was freezing – there was no heat anywhere in the building. Later, we made our way down to the university students’ canteen for lunch, and along the way I saw a very unusual way of heating water for tea. Outside, a large parabolic shaped sheet of highly polished tin was placed facing the sun, and in the center was a metal tea kettle filled with water. Amazingly, it actually boiled the water, probably due to the thin air and the high elevation.
On another note, I was still having trouble adapting to being on “Beijing” time – 2 ½ hours ahead of what would be the normal “local” time in Lhasa. Following another Chinese banquet that evening at the Tibet Post Hotel, we joined a group from the Tibet Academy of Agricultural and Animal Sciences (TAAAS) for a party at a new Chinese nightclub.
- We were seated at a table reserved for us, complete with a pre-ordered case of Budweiser beer waiting for us
- The beer was served in small “shot” glasses which we were expected to “chug” every time a toast was offered, which was every few minutes!
- Meanwhile, a large pot of boiling pig’s feet was available nearby as a “snack”
- The nightclub was very bright and gaudy in décor, and packed with young Chinese having a great time, laughing constantly
- After an hour or so, we were treated to a lovely show of traditional Tibetan dances and folk songs by local performers dressed in very colorful native costumes from different regions of Tibet
- The sound system was extremely loud and too much for me, but our Chinese hosts thought it was just the right volume
- As we were leaving the nightclub, a crew from the city was busy tearing up the floor at the entrance and pumping out raw sewage from a break in the pipe
So ended our evening out at the nightclub!
The next morning, when I got up at 7:30 am, it was still pitch dark outside as I made my way downstairs for breakfast. But the door to the restaurant was locked, and it was clear that no one was awake. At the same moment, someone was banging on the front door of the hotel, which was also locked. Finally, a half hour later, someone fired up the kitchen stove and fixed us some hot coffee and toast. Later, Basanta and I joined our Tibetan host for a visit to the Yak Research Institute and Breeding Center north of Lhasa. The road followed a large river into a steep gorge where work was going on to construct tunnels and bridges for the planned extension of the railroad from Beijing to Lhasa. The road climbed slowly up to a low, broad pass at 4600 meters (15,000 feet), surrounded by beautiful, snow capped mountains rising to above 24,000 feet.
Meanwhile, under clear, deep blue skies, large herds of Yak, sheep, goats and horses grazed peacefully on the enormous expanse of brown grassland. Most of the streams that we passed were still ice covered, since temperatures were not much above zero, even at mid-day. After a reasonably smooth trip over the unpaved road, we suddenly encountered a 3 km long stretch in horrible condition, with basketball sized boulders forming the pavement! It was insane, but our driver and the Landcruiser handled it quite well. In the meantime, the few vehicles we encountered were mostly large trucks, overland buses (with double decker sleeping compartments) and small two wheeled tractors pulling old wooden carts. Later, we passed several small villages, each one with a busy outdoor market where nomadic herders traded hides of Yak and sheep. Finally, after several hours of driving, we arrived at the Yak Research Institute and Breeding Center, nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. It was definitely a very remote, lonely outpost of the Tibet Agricultural Department. Following our visit and tour of the center, we spotted some huge black vultures of the kind that are used by Tibetan Buddhists to dispose of the bodies of deceased relatives. The Tibetans believe their spirit is released to join the afterlife by the act of the birds eating their flesh, whereas the Chinese prefer cremation.
As we headed back to Lhasa, we made a short stop to visit an area of natural hot springs where a large new “spa” had recently been developed. It happened to be adjacent to a new electrical generating station that was powered by underground steam from the hot springs – the first geothermal power plant in Tibet. Several miles further down the road, we passed many Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims making their journey to the Potala Palace, much like Muslims make their pilgrimage to Mecca. The Tibetan pilgrims must make the trek for hundreds of miles on foot, stopping to kneel and pray every 2 – 3 steps, which can take many weeks or even months to reach Lhasa – that’s a remarkable symbol of belief and devotion!
Later, our driver stopped at one of the village markets to haggle with some nomads for several kgs of Yak meat. Our journey took only a few hours, but making the trip all the way from Lhasa to Chengdu in Sichuan Province would take 3 days. Once we were back in Lhasa, we stopped for a quick lunch at a local noodle shop. Although the place was very spartan, the food was very tasty. However, the toilet was tiny and atrocious – something I had come to expect in China! Later that evening, Basanta and I joined the TAAAS group and a lovely lady from Colorado named Camilla for dinner at the Snowlands Hotel. (seemed like a favorite place for foreigners to meet in Lhasa) She told us she was doing research on the Yak and its importance to the Tibetan economy. During dinner, Camilla entertained us with a short story about a Tibetan woman who had 4 husbands. Husband #1 to work in the fields, number 2 to tend the Yaks, number 3 to do the shopping, and number 4, the young one, to stay home with her! We all had a great laugh at the end – the meaning was clear! After dinner, I walked back to the hotel in the cold night air, passing the small shops as they were closing for the night. During the night, I awoke at 2:30 am and was unable to fall asleep again, perhaps due to the altitude.
When 7:30 am arrived, I headed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, though it was still pitch dark outside. The staff were quite sleepy, but they managed to prepare a nice Yak cheese omelet and cup of hot coffee. After breakfast, our Chinese host, Nima, picked us up and we headed south to the airport, as a gorgeous sunrise greeted us. The long drive of 100 kms (60 miles) took us under an hour as our driver insisted upon driving down the middle of the road, except when avoiding oncoming traffic, as well as overtaking vehicles on blind curves. It seemed to be the norm for Tibetan drivers, but it was rather scary to be sitting in the back seat! Along the way to the airport we were rewarded with beautiful views of sunlit mountains reflected in the icy waters of the mighty Brahmaputra River that flows into northern India and Bangladesh, often causing major floods during the monsoon season. About 30 miles outside Lhasa we passed an encampment of nomads beside the road, with campfires blazing in the cold morning air. Finally, we reached the airport, with less than 30 minutes before departure of our flight. (I had no idea why Nima thought we should have time to stop along the way for breakfast, but fortunately, Basanta and I insisted upon going directly to the airport) Two days earlier, China Southwestern Airlines had suddenly canceled the last return flight to Kathmandu for the winter. So, we had only two options from which to choose; (1) Drive for 2 – 3 days over the Himalaya Mountains and hope no landslides closed the one and only road to Kathmandu, or (2) fly to Kathmandu by way of Chengdu, Kunming, and Bangkok – we chose option #2!
The process of checking in for the flight to Chengdu was an absolute madhouse of people pushing and shoving in the chaotic lines of passengers. And to make matters worse, our baggage could only be checked as far as Chengdu because we had to connect to a different airline in Chengdu – apparently no process for transferring baggage in China! By this time, Basanta, Nima, and I had to take the last remaining seats, and I ended up with a middle seat – UGH! Luckily, Nima saw my frustration and found a window seat for me before takeoff. As the A-320 gained altitude, we had incredible views of the vast Tibetan Plateau and the high, rugged peaks in western Sichuan Province. Nearing Chengdu, the plane descended through a thick layer of clouds at 8,000 feet, making the mountain peaks resemble “islands” in a fluffy white sea – gorgeous! Landing in Chengdu, we discovered a beautifully designed, very modern new terminal that reminded me very much of the new Kansai airport in Osaka, Japan. However, our plane landed at the very far end of the runway, so it was a long, very crowded bus ride to the terminal building. Once inside the terminal, Basanta, Nima, and I found a small café for coffee as we waited for the Wuhan Airlines check-in counter to open. Getting from the arrivals area to the departure lounge involved wheeling our two fully loaded baggage trolleys up a steep escalator. A large sign posted at the bottom of the escalator read “No Trolleys”, but the airport staff insisted we must take the trolleys up the escalator, because there were no lifts (elevators) available. While we successfully negotiated the escalator, a trolley behind us suddenly slipped, just as it approached the top and dumped all its bags down the escalator – effectively blocking everyone below!
Having checked in for our flight to Kunming, we explored the shops in the terminal. I found a nice DVD video about Tibet, while Basanta came back with a bright orange “Pumpkin Doll” for his daughter that danced to the sound of a silly Hindi song. As we sat in the departure lounge, he insisted upon demonstrating it for us, when suddenly, a young Chinese couple seated behind us turned around. It was obvious that that they were enthralled by the doll and demanded to know where he had bought it. While we didn’t understand exactly what they were saying, it was clear by their sign language and facial expressions. A short time later, they returned with their very own “pumpkin Doll”! Finally, the flight to Kunming on China Northwest Airlines was called for departure. The short one-hour flight was quite pleasant as we watched the inflight entertainment, a series of Polish cartoons about a mole and his friends in the forest. Meanwhile, the landscape below us was one of lush, deep green mountains and lovely terraces of rice fields. Upon arrival in Kunming, Nima led us from the baggage claim area to the Tourist Services Desk, where two cheerful, young Chinese girls proceeded to book us rooms in a new 5-star hotel downtown and arrange for a van to transport us there. They were even able to confirm our airline tickets to Bangkok for the following day. All of this was conducted by Nima in a long series of conversations in Chinese, while Basanta and I sat in the waiting lounge.
It was a long, slow ride in heavy rush hour traffic from the airport to the “Greenland Hotel”. Upon entering the hotel lobby, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by enormous Christmas trees and holiday decorations throughout the lobby! (my thought at that moment was that Christmas in China must be nothing more another economic opportunity, and unfortunately, maybe not that different than places in America) The hotel registration and check-in process was long and tedious, but finally we were given keys to rooms for $39 a night, and that included breakfast! (it was a far cry from the “advertised” rate of $199 a night – perhaps due to Nima’s negotiating skills?) My room was a very nice corner suite on the 12th floor, and although it was supposed to be a “non-smoking” room, there were ash trays and burned out matches everywhere! By this time, I had my doubts there was any place in China that was really non-smoking! Later, I went down to the hotel lobby bar, ordered a cold Tsingtao beer, and wrote in my journal, trying to capture the multitude of experiences, feelings, and senses of the past several days. At the same time, I was surrounded by the Christmas decorations, while a local band named “Happy Trails” played some pretty decent old rock-n-roll tunes. Later in the evening, I met up with Basanta and Nima as they were finalizing arrangements for me to visit the “Stone Forest”, a United Nations world heritage site, the next morning before our afternoon flight to Bangkok. Then we all went in search of a local restaurant for dinner. As we climbed into the taxi, Nima began to chat with the driver about his recommendations of places nearby for dinner. Suddenly, the driver pulled over, next to the “King Royal Palace Restaurant”. It was then that I realized we had driven less than 3 blocks from the hotel. A 2-minute ride for 8 yuan or about $2.00!
As we approached the front door, several young ladies in native Yunnan dress greeted us and began jabbering, all at the same time, on our way upstairs to the dinning area. As I looked around, it became obvious there were several different restaurants, each one competing for our business! After several rounds of discussion between Nima and the young ladies, it was decided that we would have our dinner in the seafood restaurant. Then suddenly, a whole crew of servers descended upon us, showed us to a table, and began preparing it for our dinner. As one of the servers, a young Chinese girl with a bright pink, punk hair style proceeded to take our order, Nima expressed some surprise and shock at the high prices, probably, because as our host, he would be paying for the dinner. As Nima continued to carry on the long conversation with the server, focused on the menu choices, Basanta and I began to wonder just how many dishes we would be getting, as well as what “exotic” items might be included? As it turned out, dinner started with a small glass of local herb flavored aperitif, followed by Szechuan tofu, “Moa’s Special Lamb Ribs”, shredded chicken with bamboo shoots, and a steaming bowl of local fish stew – all of which were delicious! Throughout dinner, we toasted many rounds of the local beer named “KK”. All in all, it was a wonderful dinner, especially with the restaurant staff “fluttering” around us, filling our glasses, changing our plates, and bringing even more food!
After dinner, we walked back to the hotel and I retreated to my room to prepare for the trip to the “Stone Forest” in the mountains northeast of Kunming in the morning. As we walked back to the hotel that evening, I spotted a menu board outside one of the many tiny cafes on the street. In big bold letters it proudly announced it was serving a special dish – “Hot Pot with Smelly Fish Tofu”! I was sure it must have appealed to someone, but not me! (later the next day, I found out that Basanta and Nima had spent the night at a nearby pub until 2 am!) The next morning, after breakfast, without Basanta and Nima, I joined my taxi driver/guide for the trip to the Stone Forest, some 100 kms (60 miles) northeast of the city. For the first 20 minutes we were stuck in the midst of heavy traffic on the new “ring road”, which abruptly turned into several miles of incredibly rough unpaved road under construction. Our route took us up into mountains cloaked in thick forest, lovely terraced rice fields, and bright red brick farm buildings. The strong contrast between the bright red of the brick and deep green of the fields was beautiful. As we descended a steep, narrow rocky canyon where two railroads had been chiseled out of the sheer cliffs above us, there were a couple of places where the highway crossed over itself in a series of spectacular tunnels and bridges – very impressive engineering! Amid the new highway construction, intended to replace the old narrow two-lane road on which we were traveling, my taxi driver constantly zipped in and out between the heavy trucks slowly laboring up the steep grade – narrowly avoiding “head on” collisions with the oncoming traffic! At one point, while descending a steep hill, we were suddenly halted by a police van blaring out some kind of announcement over the loudspeaker. As we got closer, we saw a small truck had side-swiped a beautiful new black limousine elaborately decorated for a wedding! (so, someone would be late for the ceremony) As we continued the journey to the Stone Forest, I became aware of two things about the taxi – (1) on the dashboard was an air freshener in the shape of a flying saucer, and every time the taxi made a turn, it spun around, and (2) I realized we had been listening to the same Kenny G song ever since we left the hotel. This continued for the entire trip, and when we finally reached our destination, I wasn’t sure if I could ever listen to Kenny G again! Among my other observations, I began to notice that all the work in the fields of rice and produce was being done by hand! The only tractors I saw were those pulling small wooden carts and wagons on the highway – it was truly the epitome of a classic “peasant” scene.
Arriving at the Stone Forest, a national park, I discovered one of the most unique geological features in the world – a large-scale karst landform that dominated the Yunnan Plateau. It was formed over 250 million years ago as the plateau was slowly eroded by constant wind and water, sculpting the thick layer of soft limestone into various shapes resembling “trees” in a forest. The stone peaks (trees) had smooth lines, stood upright, and had a color of steel grey. Some of the highest ones reached heights over 40 meters (130 feet).
Walking among the massive stone “trees” was amazing and a bit disorienting at times. I encountered many local visitors, but only a couple of foreign tourists. I spent over an hour wandering around the “forest” and never saw the same scene twice – it was constantly changing at every turn. At the entrance to the national park was a lovely lake, and many young families were having a great time picnicking and enjoying the gorgeous weather.
All too soon, it was time for me to join my taxi driver for the return journey to Kunming. And the trip back to the city was just as “exciting” (aka scary!)
That afternoon, I joined Basanta and Nima for the trip back to the airport for our flight to Bangkok. Although I wasn’t able to use my credit card to upgrade to business class on the Thai International Airways flight to Bangkok, I was able to do the upgrade with cash from a nearby ATM, using my credit card. Once on board, the service in business class was wonderful and worth the price of the upgrade. Soon after departure, a superb lunch of deep-fried Red Snapper in “Three Taste Sauce” was served – outstanding! The landscape of Yunnan Province and northern Laos was one of beautiful, deep green forests and mountains wrapped in thick mist. As we flew over northern Thailand, we could see huge thunderstorms raging to the west and lots of water standing in the rice fields. On our approach to “Don Mueang International Airport” in Bangkok, I could see a golf course had been developed in between the runways! (golf carts had to wait for planes to pass before crossing over the runway to the next hole!) Landing in Bangkok, we were immediately overwhelmed by the 98 degree, very humid weather, even though it was early December. Basanta had already arranged rooms for us at the 5-star “Rama Garden Hotel” near the airport. And because we would be connecting with another Thai Airways flight the next morning, he was able to book a rate of $45.00 per night, which included dinner and breakfast! The hotel had a lovely German beer garden, where they served Texas style BBQ beside the pool. As we enjoyed our cold glasses of German beer, American country music played in the background. A half hour later, our relaxation by the pool was abruptly interrupted by a short, but intense thunderstorm – quite common in Bangkok.
That evening, I joined Basanta, Nima, and Camille for a “farewell” dinner, since they would be departing for Kathmandu in the morning, whereas I would be heading to Bombay, and eventually home to Los Angeles via Paris and Atlanta. As we sat around the dinner table, we shared our experiences of the past three weeks. And for me, I was nearing the end of an incredible journey of 24 days and 27,000 miles!
On a final note, while sitting in the Oberoi Hotel First Class lounge at Bombay airport on my return home, I was “privileged” to see many of the contestants who would be competing in the “Miss World Contest”! It was a moment far removed from the cold, dreary hotel room in Tibet a few days before.