Tibet: A Whole New World

Tibet.  It’s full of newness, oldness, changingness and strangeness.  The one-hour drive from Lhasa airport to the centre of the city of Lhasa feels like something out of The Hills Have Eyes.  It’s very barren, very hilly and very brown.  We saw the occasional yak or construction work team, but little else.  So arriving in shiny, neon-y Lhasa after that feels like you’ve just arrived in Las Vegas.

I won’t write much about Tibet other than to say that I enjoyed Lhasa, but if I were to go back to Tibet I would skip it and go to some of the other Tibetan towns.  I’d be happy to talk in person about this varied and rapidly changing city, but it’s quite a sensitive subject for many reasons.  Mostly because I’d like to go back some day.  So I’m just posting a few pictures here of our visit, and I’ll leave it at that for now.





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Unbelievable scenery.

Tibet – Bound

It’s a lot of work to get to Tibet.  Visas, money, paperwork, photographs, travel documents – all of these things are required with a lot of advance notice.  Not to mention the most expensive 45-minute flight I’ve ever purchased.

Once you get there, it’s queues and inspections and queues and waiting and more paperwork. Hopefully your guide is waiting for you when you try to leave the airport or you may have an even longer wait.


But I’d do it all again just for the flight.  Flying from Kathmandu to Lhasa has to be one of the most gorgeous flights in the world.  I swear I felt the plane tilt as everyone ran over to the left side of the plane to see Mt. Everest as we sailed by.  It’s a spectacular sight.  On the other side of the plane, views were just as unbelievable, with gorgeous turquoise lakes surrounded by rolling brown hills everywhere.





It’s too short of a flight to actually be able to take it all in, but thankfully we had return tickets and another chance to see it all over again.

Pokhara: Lakeside Retreat

Pokhara We were delighted to have a couple of completely unscheduled days in Pokhara after our rigorous trekking.  The only thing I really wanted to do here came from a small paragraph in Lonely Planet which mentioned that Pokhara is the only place in the world you can go parahawking.  Not paragliding, parahawking.  Parahawking is a strange combination of falconry and paragliding where you let a falcon direct you into the wind to find the best currents for paragliding.  Then as you’re floating down, you feed the falcon to reward it for all of its hard work.  Unfortunately for us, the falconer was on holidays in the UK the whole time we were there.  Reason #1 I want to return to Pokhara.

Even without falcons, Pokhara is a well-known spot for paragliding as the mountains surrounding the small lake town are ideal for jumping off and swirling around in the currents that rise up from the lake below.  I went paragliding ten years ago in Switzerland and loved it, so we scheduled jumps for the following day. 


We were lucky it wasn’t raining, but we did get a lot of clouds and fog, so my photographs were not as great as I had hoped.  Paragliding, if you’ve never tried it, is amazing.  There’s nothing like running as if you’re about to free fall down a mountain and then realizing you’re still running but there’s nothing under your feet.  You sit back as the parachute behind you, now full, yanks you backwards and up into the wind for incredible views and occasionally a few stomach-turning drops.

Here’s a secret about Pokhara which none of our guide books mentioned: it has some great local music.  We hired a couple of kids (named Kiss and Jelly) with a boat to paddle us around the lake for an afternoon.  They played music for us by local band Razor, which was great.  Later, we made the mistake of going to some cultural dinner show one night.  It was difficult to pick the dancer who least wanted to be there, it was quite painful.  We left and found a live band doing hilarious 90s covers including Mr. Big!  Pokhara’s not an incredibly late-night town, but if you look around there are some fun spots.

Rock: Pokhara style

The smartest move we made in Pokhara was to purchase upgraded bus tickets back to Kathmandu.  Our bus trips had been so slow and miserable that we decided an air-conditioned coach was worth the relatively astronomical $20.  We lucked out and only ended up with about 8 people on the enormous and comfortable bus.  The ride back was fast, the bus didn’t seem like it was going to break down at any minute, and we even stopped for a buffet lunch which was included in our fare.  I know, it makes me sound like I’m lazy, but after my last few car rides in Kathmandu, I felt it was a solid investment in my safety.

Travelling with Technology

I deserve to be an amazing packer with all the travel I have done for work and for fun.  But I’m actually a terrible packer.  What gives?

Travelling with technology can make a trip so much better and easier, but gadget-lovers like me often find it hard to distinguish between “It would be nice to have this with me” and “I would be stupid to not bring this.”

I have taken trips with three or four laptops, external hard drives, spare wireless keyboards and mice, loads of phones, and even an Xbox 360 plus games/rockband/controllers/etc.  It can be stressful to travel with so much gear, to say the least.

However when I’m not travelling for work, I have different things to worry about.  On my recent trip to Nepal and Tibet, I pared it down to the following:

    •   * Samsung NC-10 netbook (for blogging, Skype, Kindle app, backing up photos, photo-editing, writing & e-mail)
      * Logitech headset & mic (for Skype & conference calls – I know it’s holidays but I still had a few things to take care of) 
      * Zune 120 mp3 player (for music, audiobooks, games & podcasts – I had a lot of plane & bus time)
      * Two Windows Mobile 6.1 phones (for wifi, SMS & phone calls — I had two SIM cards I had to travel with, and swapping SIMs all the time is a pain)
      * Sony NEX-5 camera with an extra lens & external flash
      * chargers/converters for everything

That might sound like a lot, but all of it fit in my handy day pack, and it was great.  And before anyone replies with “why didn’t you just bring an iphone/android/macbook/wii/vacuum/whatever”, I didn’t want to buy any more stuff for this trip except for the camera (which I love & highly recommend!).  So I went with what I had.

Too Many Laptops

It was a tough call between the iPad and the netbook, but the keyboard and the built-in SD card-reader (along with the lack of paranoia) made the netbook a better choice, so I left the iPad at home with a delighted babysitter.

My next trip is home to Missouri for Thanksgiving later this month, so I’ll see if I can consolidate a bit more.  Recommendations welcome!

En Route to Pokhara

The descent to Birethanti village was much more laid-back and leisurely than the rest of our days on the trails.  There were still stone steps occasionally, but much of it looked like this:

Road to Birethanti

After arriving at the end of our trek in Birethanti village, we took a short break for lunch and then Nawan, our guide, went to negotiate a taxi to Pokhara.

The taxi from Birethanti to Pokhara was easily the most terrifying car ride of my life.  I’ve been in some scary drives.  Taxis in Mumbai and Kathmandu.  Overnight buses in the pitch-black Andean highways.  Half-broken motorcycles in the Amazon.  Late-night solo road trips between Seattle and St. Louis fueled mostly by Dr. Pepper and cigarillos.  And I have some fantastic memories of my Spanish mom hanging halfway out of the car to scream, “LOCOS!” at suicidal passing motorcycles in Alicante.  But this taxi ride easily takes the cake.

The mountain passes are blind, hairpin curves wide enough for only one vehicle.  They’re covered with potholes, massive mud puddles and villagers bringing grasses and produce out of the hills to sell.  Drivers careen around corners, honking their horns and praying no one is there as they cruise around the bend.  When another vehicle comes into view, drivers basically play chicken with each other as they speed up to make it through any potholes or avoid pedestrians before slamming on their brakes to see who can do a better job of squeezing around the other.  As we were on the outside of the road with no barrier, it was even more ridiculous as a foul step would send us flipping down the mountain side.  We arrived in Pokhara after a harrowing 45 minutes and finally I could breathe again.

We said farewell to Nawan and Thankur, our guide and porter, and settled in to the relaxed and agenda-less atmosphere of Pokhara.

Martha, Nawan and Thankur