Finding Nemo

Thursday, June 30, 2011

How long would it take to see the whole world?

I have often pondered this question, especially when I come across other travelers who have seen and done wonderful things that I will probably never have time or money to do.  Its one of the curses of a long trip--no matter how long you are away, you always meet someone who is going for longer or to more exotic places.  And you are left wistfully shaking your head.

So ... let's just imagine as John Lennon would say.  Imagine you won the lottery, or inherited a million dollars.  Imagine you just got rid of everything and decided to see the WHOLE world.  How long would it take?  How much money?

Well, there are between 193 and 250 countries in the world (its complicated), but the UN recognizes 192, and then there are a few more that aren't recognized but from a traveler's perspective should be (take Antarctica).  So let's round it to 200.  From my experience, just to see the highlights of a country takes a month.  And it doesn't matter if its big or small, every country seems to take at least a month just to get past the initial cultural barriers, to let it soak in and get a decent feeling of the place.  So that means it would take 200 months to just see the initial highlights of our little planet.  Divide by 12 months and you get about 16.5 years.

That's right.  If you started traveling at age 21, fresh out of University, you wouldn't be home until you were 38 years old.  The little blue ball that we see fly below us from out our plane window doesn't seem so small after all, does it?  It is the little dirty secret that every RTW (Round the World) traveler has discovered.  They say they are going "round the world," but soon find that they have barely made a dent in the huge vastness that is the Earth.

So the answer is, for most people and even hardcore travelers and travel writers, that its simply impossible to "see the world."  It can't be done, not really, not if you want to have any semblance of a place called home or a chance at a family or have a job.  But, it doesn't mean that you can't enjoy every second of your traveling.  In fact, I have come to the conclusion that it makes my trip more enjoyable knowing these things.  Knowing that the world is too big to ever see it all gives me hope that perhaps all the secret little jewels out there will go unspoiled for just a little longer.  It makes me cherish each place I come across and not worry about all the other places that I will not, because its simply impossible anyway.  As the old aphorism goes, "Worry about the things you can control, and forget about the rest."  The knowledge that I cannot see everything releases me from the burden of feeling rushed, that I have to go everywhere, do everything!  No, I do not.  Because I cannot.  And this frees me to relax, and enjoy the road, and not worry about all those other wonderful places I probably will not get to.  I will just enjoy where I am, at this moment.


Just for fun, let's imagine how much it would cost.  Now, I know plenty of flea-ridden university students who happily travel on their gap years for about US$20,000 or less (I met a guy who was doing it for US$10,000).  But I don't prefer this kind of travel.  You are constantly eating ramen, you are worried each night about your budget, and you definitely can't do that occasional splurge which mentally sometimes is required.  (Its hard to describe how nice it is to splash for a real hotel room once in awhile after weeks of chinese toilets and showers in flip-flops.)  Also, you can't up and decide to do a scuba dive or a $2000 safari tour.  Skipping things like that really makes the trip less meaningful and fulfilling.  So I have found that it really costs between US$30,000 - $40,000 to do a decent budget backpacker trip for a year.  Then you don't have to worry about cash too much as long as you stay in cheap hostels, bargain hard, and avoid packaged tours.  This means you have to work harder because you have to plan everything yourself, and you might not get the exact travel dates you want, but you also pay half the cost or less of what you would pay if you pre-booked from home.

So, let's take US$35,000 for fun and multiply by the required 16.5 years.  Now factoring in inflation at 3% a year, it means you need closer to US$45,000 on average for that timeframe.  So if you put US$750,000 in your bank account, you would be set!  Isn't that pretty startling?  You don't need to be a millionaire to travel the world forever, you just need to own a house in the Bay Area or Hermosa Beach (and have it mostly paid off, haha)!

I guess what this little exercise has taught me is that if you really really wanted it, you could save all your nickels, have a nice job, a family, and retire a bit early with just enough saved up.  Maybe at age 40 or 45 when your mid-life crisis is starting to peak and that Harley in the garage just isn't doing it for you anymore.  When the kids are off to college, you could sell the house and then travel the entire world until you are 65.  Anyone could do it.  Even me.  Even this guy, who's been traveling since 1988, or this guy, who has turned himself into a 1-man National Geographic, or this completely ordinary couple, who's blog says it all.

Quit your job.  Buy a ticket.

(Then please blog about it all so I know what I've been missing!)

Water Buffalo Jump Rope

Tube cadets ready for battle
We looked like we were about to enter a circus tent.  There were 11 of us packed into a narrow back alley of Yangshuo, each armed with a inner tube nearly as big again as ourselves.  We bumbled and bounced down the narrow corridor until we emerged into a throng of Chinese tourists clustered by the river taking pictures.  After getting over their initial shock, the Chinese Borg, as one, refocused their long lenses on our clown troop.
We bungled our way through and soon found ourselves on the fast moving bank of the Li.  The recent flood-waters had receded but there were still mops of bamboo and trash cruising by.  Large tourists boats churned up and down, dark logs swam by like crocodiles under the murky water.  Were we really going to do this?

Monkey Jane, our loud and awesome hostess, commanded us to go.  Maybe its from surfing but I tend to jump and worry later.  So I leapt.  And off I cruised faster than I imagined, the group slowly waddling in like drunken penguins behind in the distance.  The strong current quickly strung us out like a string of beans and the flow took us right under a snarling white-water wave under a toothy cliff.  Abort!!  I flapped my arms, but inevitably, one-by-one the current pushed each of us next to the cliff only to spit us out next to big churning tourist boats.  Another frantic push, and finally we popped into the placid water nearby.  Our little armada was reunited and relieved.

On we floated ... Chinese tourists on fake bamboo boats were dressed up in their fresh dresses and nice clothes.  They stared in amazement at our bravery, or stupidity, and then laughed when we called out for pijou.  And since it was 100 degrees out and about 99% humidity, they may have been a bit jealous as well.  The water was cold and the only respite from the constant layer of sweat one tended to wear for clothes around here.

Later on one of the boys found a cliff.  We grabbed onto the limestone and managed to pull in our rubber boats.  The cliff was sheer and high and promising, but there was no telling what lay below in the dark current.  Matt jumped first, tentatively, feet first.  He popped up and yelled "Its great!"  Soon we were doing dives and flips and then came backflips, each time struggling back upstream and clambering up the sharp rocks.  But then we noticed the rest of our fleet had nearly disappeared down the river, they were only little ants bobbing in the distance.

Yeah Lisa and your waterproof camera!
Eventually we came to an island which inexplicably had a small herd of water buffalo lazing around.  Due to the state of pijou the boys were in, they were inspired to try and ride one of the big cows.  Alex was a brazen Jewish guy (which meant he'd just gotten out of the military), and walked right up to a big one.  We watched from afar and realized that he didn't notice it was protecting its calf.

"No matter how this ends, its going to be great," I commented.  I pictured Alex running around madly being chased by the cow, stumbling over the rocks.  Instead he stared at it, then walked closer and closer.  Unbelievably, he began to pet its nose.  He was BeastMaster.  I walked closer as well, but then the girl turned and started pawing and huffing again at me, it was about to charge.  OK, fine, I don't speak Buffalo.

Alex and I pondered the best way to jump on.  I told him he should run from behind and leap, legs wide, like the movies.  But after the realization that this animal probably weighed as much as a car and had horns as long as our arms, we dropped the riding plans--it was a huge blow to the squad.  But just as soon a new plan was hatched.  Matt grabbed the free end of a long rope, of which the other end was tied to the nose of another large horned beast.  Matt began to swing it like a huge jump-rope, and the boys jumped in immediately and began skipping!  The beast wasn't too fazed, he just swung his head every once in a while to avoid the rope getting caught in his horns.  One of the girls knew a jump-rope song, and soon it was a party.

Water buffalo jump-rope had been born; a new sport had been introduced to a town already chock-full of fun adventure.
New Olympic Sport!!

Blood of the Snake

Sid the Snake, nice chap really
"Is that it?!" I asked nervously.

The old lady nodded and reached carelessly into a large hemp sack.  Out came a writhing, coiling, 4-foot serpent.  Oh shit.  What the hell had I gotten myself into this time?

Earlier that day, sitting around nursing hang-overs, I was ordering my breakfast from Monkey Jane's.  I love looking at Chinese menus, often the translations into Ching-lish are so funny they require a picture.  But this time, I was truly surprised.  Below the noodles was a separate red box that read:

This must be a joke.  I asked the bartender/waitress/only employee.  She nodded her head.
"Oh yes, no problem.  You want have snake blood?"

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep.  Perhaps it was the fact that I hadn't done anything too crazy in awhile.  Whatever it was, I nodded my head and said sure.

"No way dude!!!  We are witnesses, now you have to do it!" said another backpacker watching this transaction.  Two other girls from the States were there and nodded.

"Yep, we saw you order!  You can't back out now."

Whatever, dinner was like, so far from now.  I had to go back to bed and sleep anyway.

A short nap later and I found myself upstairs, surrounded by a small disbelieving crowd, with an old lady handing me a snake to touch.  My palms started sweating.  I grabbed the snake and it instantly reached its head up at me.... but instead of biting it coiled its head around my arm and then went up and around my neck.  I relaxed, and realized the snake just wanted a better hang-out to watch all the action.  Poor snake, it didn't realize that it would soon be the action.

After we were done playing, the lady grabbed the snake and walked over to a glass cup in a plastic bowl.  Before I could even get out my camera, she took out a pair of small shears and put them over the snake's neck.  She held the tail up high with one hand, and with the other applied pressure to the shears.  The snake suddenly went tense, and started wriggling as hard as it could.  But the old lady was strong, she held onto the snake fiercely and finished the job with one quick stroke.  I heard that metallic sound scissors make when they close, and then plop, the snake's head fell to the bowel.  At that moment, I felt bad for the little guy.

The body continued to writhe a bit as the lady moved the bleeding neck over the glass.  The blood squirted out, congealing into the cup.  A surprising amount began to fill up the glass as the snake's heart, still beating, continued to pump.

Finally, she handed me the glass.  I grabbed it with a mix of horror and fascination.  What if the blood had parasites?  What if, by doing this act, snakes would decide to gang up on me and take revenge in my sleep?  What if it tasted like V8 juice (that would be awesome)?  At this point the crowd was chanting, "Drink, drink, drink!"  I had no choice.  I swallowed, but there was way too much.  I had to swallow again.

Man vs Food: China Edition

Blood has little initial taste.  It is the aftertaste that, quite literally, sticks to your throat.  The blood was already congealing as it went down, coating itself on my tongue and throat and esophagus.  The familiar taste of iron and salt was mixed with something else, something darker and, well, I can only describe it as ... snake-ier.  It was like tasting the blood from a busted lip or broken nose, but it also wasn't.  It had a repitilian taste I suppose, if you can imagine what that would be like.

But apparently I hadn't fully finished the glass, and the crowd noticed.  At the bottom was a dark red residue, almost turning solid.  "Drink, drink, drink!"  Dammit.  I had to finish the dregs.  This time it really stuck to my throat.

After drowning it with as much pijou as I could, I watched as the lady took the body and disappeared.  Huh?!  I thought there was something about eating a beating heart, but I guess not.  I felt a little cheated, but about 30 minutes later, up arrived a snake feast.  A huge steaming plate of snake meat was mixed with onions and peppers and ginseng and tasted delicious.  On the right sat a huge bowl of snake soup, made from the bones.
Snake Stir Fry, Snake-bone Soup
And yes, it tasted like chicken.


Yangshuo: Karst-opolis
A zillion years ago, the Earth decided to have a full on party in Guilin in Southern China.  It raised up a million limestone karsts, then invited Dali to come and melt them into a billion bizarrely contorted shapes.  The result is closer to Pandora than this planet.  As I arrived into the region by train, they first appeared off in the misty distance.  On and on they went, endlessly, I had no idea that there could be so many.  I put the camera away and just watched the movie play in the window.

View from Moon Hill
The strangest thing about them is that the surrounding landscape is completely flat, and yet these hills sprout up straight out of the ground like freakish alien mushrooms.  Some sport immense sheer rock cliffs that drop directly into the ground like they were planted by a rogue giant.  Most are around 200m high, covered in green trees with soft rounded tops.  You feel a bit like a smurf wandering through your mushroom village.  But others are contorted and twisted like a child's Play-dough.  The tops might funnel upwards over 500m into a narrow peak that flops lazily over to the side, or sport cut-out see-through moon-holes, or perhaps twist into whimsical cloud-like shapes.

 Rollin' down the riv-ah

Misty Li
In fact, a fun game in Guilin and Yangshuo is to imagine what shapes the hills look like.  As you cruise down the Li River on your fake bamboo raft (strangely resembling PCB tubing), you come across Reed Flute Rock, Seven Star Peak, Mountain of Splendid Hues, and 9 Dragon Hill.  The cliffs hulk closely around the river and rise straight out of the water, at times blocking the sun.  Sometimes a view of endless misty peaks appears faraway in the distance.

The insides are even more fun
But the fun doesn't stop rafting down the river, wandering the hills or climbing the mountains.  Inside many are huge limestone caves filled with underground rivers and viewing chambers.  Armies of stalagmites (broken by careless Chinese tourists) march along the floors and waterfalls tinkle down the paths.  The best part by far are the mud pools.  The Chinese have enlarged and deepened these natural wonders to the point where you can slide right in and float around!  This is followed by a dunk in the freezing river to clean off, then a soak in the heated pools.  It is truly an underground spa.

There is world-class rock-climbing, mopeds to cruise around on, endless hiking trails.  Of all the wonders of Yangshuo, my favorite day was when we grabbed some inner tubes and just plunked ourselves down in the middle of the Li River, in front of a bunch of startled Chinese.  But that is another story.

Underground mud party

A Quiet Valley

Giant dancing mushrooms wave
Above the ponds of rice.
Golden orb, begin to set
Sky ablaze good night

Like kingly flowing robes
Purples drape along the hills
Vivid greens upon blue eyes
Soul be full, mind be still

The river ambling on and on
Where it goes it does not know.
Only that one day it must
Rejoin the source of all that flows

The Infinite, the Deep
The Waters of the Sea
From where all life began
And to where I wish to be

Peaks swirling in the mirror
Giggle on your heads.
Peasants sweat amongst your fields
Tonight, they'll earn your bread.

This is the simple life
A strange and magic view
Far away from the madness
Of my city by the Blue.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Brief Moment

Nikki serenading the crew at Tiger Leaping Gorge
"I can definitely play fiddle!" Nikki announced.  Nikki was soft-spoken, so for her to perk up and make a bold statement like that left no room for argument.  She was a interesting girl, just finishing up her MD at University of Chicago yet also a real-singer songwriter (her website) and apparently also a closet fiddle fiend.

JP, aka Rasta-Mullet, raised his eyebrows.  "Really?!  Listen, see that Swedish girl over there?  She was going to play fiddle tonight, but she's gotten shy.  She doesn't think she play along to my bluegrass stuff."

Nikki and JP, blazing some bluegrass
"Bluegrass is what I do.  Let me ask her."  Nikki got up and walked over to the Swedish girl.  JP clapped his hands.  "This is gonna be good."  I wholeheartedly agreed.  A few minutes later, Nikki was onstage, Swedish fiddle in hand.  Alex and I sat up front, not knowing what to expect.

JP picked up his guitar and started banging away at that old standard Rocky Top, mixing in his ninja harmonica skills.  Nikki sat and listened for a bit.  Uh oh, maybe she couldn't back it up.  She played a tentative note.  Then another.  Then she plunged in.  The fiddle burst forth in song, the bow expertly gliding across, her fingers dancing on the strings.  JP's eyes opened wide.  Alex and I smiled at each other.

She was legit!

They played a little longer, JP solo'ed, and then yelled "Let's hear the fiddle!"  That's all it took.  Nikki sat upright and plowed into the violin, her fingers and bow began to blur from the speed, notes spilling off like a waterfall.  The crowd "yee-hawed" and hooted along, we started clapping and banging on the tables.  Nikki even begain harmonizing on the vocals... it was as if they had played together forever.  When two musicians meet who have reached a certain level of skill, a certain magic happens.  They assess each other as they play, and when the realization hits that they are playing with a true equal, a level of comfort and familiarity oozes into the music and the room that sweeps up the whole audience.  We could all feel it as it happened.  They played more tunes, more solos, the crowd sang and stomped and clapped along.  The songs were irresistable, even the hesitant Chinese couldn't help themselves and eventually joined in.

We were just a random bunch of strangers, thrown together into this room for a brief moment, here in a remote backwater of southern China.  Nikki and JP brought every person in the room, Chinese, Swiss, English, Irish, American, Canadians and more, together as one with their passion for playing.  None of our friends back home would ever be able share this experience.  Not really.  It was just for us.

Stompin' N Clappin'

Tomorrow, Nikki and Alex would go their separate ways, JP would stay here, I would move on alone.  But tonight, we were best friends sharing in the universal joy of music.

For a brief moment.

Black Belt Beard-O's

Lovely Dali, a Hippy Oasis
I look across the table full of home-made bead necklaces at the man drinking his Dali, the local cheap lager.  He had on that Justin Timberlake fedora hat trend that had peaked two years ago.  But here in this backwater in Yunnan province, perhaps he was ahead of the curve.  He had on the required bead bracelets and baggy hemp pants, but what really struck me was the face.  Hanging below his nose was something I can only describe as on old-growth virgin forest.  As the foam from the beer soaked into the pizza-stained brown spongy mass, I realized that perhaps I should strike out the virgin part.

I looked around at the other tables here at Bad Monkey bar, in the hippie oasis of Dali.  The common understanding is that hippies as a self-sustaining species died out the moment Ronald Reagan got elected President.  Yet, the truth is that instead they have determinedly survived, clumping together in little remote colonies in places like India, Nepal, Thailand, and southern China.  Its difficult to find a tribe unspoiled by the outside world these days, but if you look hard enough you can find them in their natural element, beards a-flying, body odor a-smellin.  Be warned, they will up-root and resettle to an even more remote backwater the moment too many new hippies arrive and make the place uncool dude.  When nuclear armageddon occurs, it will be cockroaches and hippies that survive.

Upon nearing the establishment, Chinese faces are dramatically and suddenly replaced with western ones.  The beads and beards per capita rise exponentially, until you literally start to spontaneously sprout hairy rasta vines on your own chin.  Wafts of body odor, petchulli, incense, and marijuana formed that old familiar scent I recognized from college.

JP, rocking the rasta mullet
The array of hairstyles was so awesome it looked like a competition to see how many brain-cells could be removed with a comb.  A man walked up sporting something I'd only thought was a rumor: it was the extremely rare rasta-mullet.  The front was all business, and the back was all Bob Marley.  He was white of course.

Rasta-mullet announced he was playing tonight.  I asked him what kind of reggae he liked.  He replied he hated reggae, and was going to play punk-bluegrass in French.  I nodded knowingly.

In the month I'd been in China, I was constantly stared at and photographed like a chimp in a zoo, and a lot of it was due to my hairy chin.  Chinese would walk by and shout "Hairy monkey!" at me in Chinese.  Every time I turned around in a touristy area, another chinese man had his long-lens shoved into my grill snapping a picture.  "Cheese-a!"  Thanks buddy!  Much like the celebrity life is at first novel and fun, the life of a hairy westerner in China is a trip.  Unlike Britney, however, I soon got tired of the constant paparazzi grabbing my arms and snapping pictures of the escaped white monkey.

But here in Dali, I realized I was just a green belt beard-o.  True, there were a few rookie white-belt beard-o's with their first spring-time buds sprouting under their noses.  I scoffed at them.  But there were also serious double black-belt ninja beard-o's.  Old-Growth Forest was the male silverback of Bad Monkey.  All the lesser beard-o's looked away nervously as he strode through the place, his huge ZZ-top masterpiece swaying gallantly, proudly, as he cruised.  His mustache was so thick and wiry it could be used to sharpen a knife.

I had found my guru.

Chinese Bar Night

Alex eating "Fried baby vulture on a stick"
Alex, Josh, and I were trying to find a seat in the dimly lit, raucous Chinese bar in Lijiang, Yunnan province.  We passed a table of older drunk Chinese businessmen, their table was full of Budweiser bottles and heaping plates of food.  They motioned for us to join them.  Now, a small Bud in this bar cost US$10, a fortune.  No self-respecting backpacker in Yunnan would pay more than US$1.50 for a beer, so getting a drink in this place was turning out to be tough.

Alex, who had just spent a week with a troop of wealthy Chinese students on holiday, knew exactly what to do.  Against my natural instincts, he motioned for us to sit with the old Chinese men.  They weren't even eating the food, it was mostly a display of wealth to attract women (and apparently hairy Western backpackers).  But they were definitely drinking the beers.  And they had money to spend... none of us paid a kuai the entire night!

Free food and drink, all night
On stage, Chinese girls and buff Chinese guys did dance routines, mimicking the colorful minority cultures and dress.  The music was so loud it was impossible to talk, but that proved to be a blessing since none of the businessmen spoke English anyway.  In fact, it was so loud that instead of clapping at the end of a dance number, the Chinese picked up large blocks of wood and banged away at the tables.  The resulting roar was deafening.  After a few free buds I got into the act and got my own block of wood.

And that's when the "strange" happened...
The evening wasn't just dance numbers... at one point a Thai (I'm guessing) lady-boy got onstage and picked  a random drunk man out of the audience and put him in a chair.  He/she serenaded him, eventually settling on his lap and unbuttoning his shirt.  And that is when things started to get weird.

The drunk businessman got a little too excited, and picked up the ladyboy and started carrying "her" around.  The crowd went wild.  The man tried to dance with "her" and made an attempt to plant a kiss.  The place got so loud I almost went deaf, everyone was banging away at their wood blocks and shouting and whistling.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Was the man so drunk he really thought he was with a girl?  At the moment he started pawing at her clothes, the security team stepped up and whisked the man off the stage.  The ladyboy made a comment which I presume was "And he didn't even feel that I was more excited than him", but whatever it was it was funny enough to send the crowd into hysterics.

 Chinese Idea of Bar Fun

At another point, a drunk version of Jackie Chan got onstage and began to show his prowess at chugging beers.  He called out something to the crowd which I realized was some kind of challenge.  The men at my table grabbed me and started forcing me forward.  The next thing I knew, I was shoved onto the stage and blinded by the lights.  The place went from jet engine levels to quiet in a heartbeat.  All the Chinese in the place were either shocked to see a hairy westerner on the stage of a Chinese-only bar, or in disbelief that I dared to challenge Drunken Chan himself.  Drunken Chan gave me a beer and started shouting ... "Wu!! Sih!!  (the crowd joined in at this point) San!! Er!! Yiiiii!!!!  That was the signal... I started to chug my beer and before I took two swallows Drunken Chan had finished, then put the beer over his head to prove his point.  (Note: these were 600ml bottles.)  The crowd went wild again, stomping their wooden blocks in approval of China's mastery over the evil American.  When I finally finished my beer, I put it over my head.
The place went dead silent again.

A cricket chirped.

I meekly left the stage.

Its all in fun.  Really.  I think.
Later, one of the Chinese men wrote something in Chinese on a piece of paper and started dancing outside on the street.  (Chinese dancing mostly involves stumbling back and forth.)  A few young girls saw the sign and started talking excitedly to him.  The next moment they were sitting with us at the table.  I gathered his sign read something like "Free beers for cute young Chinese girls!!!"  At least, that's what I hoped the situation represented, in rural China you never knew.  A few minutes later, the Chinese men danced off down the street, the young Chinese girls jumping on their backs and swinging their beers.

Alex and I were left alone, looking at each other in surprise.

We had just been schooled by the 50-year old Chinese guys.

Staring at Death

The body lay in the road.  The clothes were dirtied and ripped, the head and limbs lay askew in a manner that could mean only one thing.  As the bus slowed to get around the police cars and cones, the passengers all stared as one.  It was impossible not to look, horrified.  Low murmers sounded, for once the Chinese voices were muted.

It was a cold, bizarre sight.  This accident hadn't just occurred, the police had already arrived and laid out cones, the tow truck had winched the rear-ended car.  Yet, inexplicably, the body still lay exposed on the tarmac.  Why hadn't the police covered it?  It was almost as if it was on display.

This man had woken up today, just like me, full of busy plans.  He probably had said goodbye to his family, promising to be back soon.  And now, he was gone.  His body looked as if it had been ejected from whatever vehicle he had been in and tumbled onto the asphalt.  Chinese don't wear seatbelts.

Its difficult to not take a moment to ponder and cherish existence.  My problems are nothing.

Tiger Leaping

I raised my walking stick and pointed it at the mist, and then waved it in a circle.  The mist obeyed my command, and began to rise, crest, and then tumble back upon itself like a crashing wave.  "Go Gandalf!" cried Alex.  Apparently my relative old age, long hair, beard, hat, and walking stick had inspired my fellow backpackers.  I chanted some magic words of power: "Dominim Mist-io Breakdancius!"  A new cloud arose from the gorge, and upon reaching our level began to swirl and dance.  All that was missing was some sweeping symphonic score and I would have been in charge of my own Fantasia.

Dance!  I command you!

We stood upon a precipice that dropped vertically into the clouds below.  At the bottom, occasionally peeping out from the white blankets, roared a youthful Yangzi river, tumbling and thrashing in a brown torrent.  On the opposite bank a sheer gray cliff rose up, jagged and torn from the aeons of rainfall.  It was covered in large swathes of brave green bamboo and pine clinging precariously to the gray and brown granite wall.  Up and up it rose until it disappeared into a white ceiling far overhead.

The Crowded Planet: China claimed that Tiger Leaping Gorge was the deepest canyon in the world.  That would make this the 3rd "Deepest Canyon in the World" I had seen, miraculously tied exactly with the Zangbo Canyon in Tibet and the Kali Gandaki canyon sandwiched between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna I in Nepal.  But for sheer spectacle, nothing compared to this.  Tiger Leaping is so named for the colorful tale of a tiger, that when hunted to the brink of the freakishly deep and narrow gorge, leapt across to safety.  That tiger apparently had more hops than a hundred-foot tall Spud Webb, but it was still fun to imagine.

A spectacular waterfall emerges from the mist above a sheer drop-off
As we hiked along the brink, the view constantly transformed.  A cloud would envelope us completely, and beyond the footpath was nothing but an eerie white wall that beckoned to the Great Beyond.  Then, as it faded, a huge waterfall was revealed tumbling off the cliff, breaking apart into a dozen different streams.  Caves appeared above in the cliffs ripe for exploring, and gnarled little trees hung over the edge that asked to be climbed for a dare.

We had a good crew, for once the Americans outnumbered the English, and it was a pleasure to be strolling along high on the cliff.  Far away from the Zhongguo Flood rumbling along in their tour buses below.  All we could hear was the roar of the brown river and the buzz of cicadas.  All we could see was music.

Last Bus to Hell: All Aboard

I can barely write this... this Yunnan "road" of washed out mud will take 4 or maybe 5 or maybe 8 hours (depends on how many more traffic jams are caused by rabid Chinese trying to pass each other from all possible angles).  We are traveling from Lijiang to Dali ostensibly, though I might decide to get out and hike.  The road is better suited for that.  We are going about ... ouch!  I think the bus just bottomed out... it suddenly slammed to a stop as it scraped over something.  OK, now we are back to up to about 5 mph, and yet somehow we are bumping up and down hard enough to make my ass leave the air occasionally.  (I fixed the typos in this post later.)

Train, where art thou?!

Just as we were leaving for Destination: Hell, I was informed that there was a train that could make the journey.  It left at the same time and took only 2 hours.  I pictured it, quietly sailing along smooth level track, free of traffic, ignorant of crater-sized potholes or car horns, the picturesque landscape filling the large clean windows.  Alex, the person I am traveling with at the moment, says he loves buses.  This is the same guy who ate something resembling a fried vulture last night.  Hard to tell.  But I decided, out of solidarity, to ride the bus.  Maybe there was something great about bus travel I had forgotten.

At this moment while my ass is being pulverized and ears assaulted by a speaker two inches away blaring a Chinese movie, I have the pleasure of having my nose incinerate from the Chinese body odor pouring off the sweaty man next to me.  His breath smells like garlic dipped in a Chinese toilet, and he has been hulking large brown loogies into a bag in his lap about every 5 minutes.

I also found out earlier today that I should be able to travel entirely by train for the next few months.

I swear, at this moment, being of weak mind and poor body, that I intend to do precisely that.

Tibetan Terror Machine

I learned some new driving moves in Tibet.

1) Local Yokel

Locals, busy yokeling
For this move, its best to wait until a poor farmer is driving his Chinese tractor to the field towards you.  Swerve into his lane, flash your headlights a few times, and then lay on the horn as you pretend you are going to smash right into him.  Then swerve as hard as possible at the last possible moment, in order to slam all the yak-smelling tourists in the back seat into a sweaty pile-up.  As you pass within an inch, stare at the farmer, because he shouldn't be on the road with your Expensive Land Cruiser after all, and laugh if he looks like he shat himself, went deaf, and/or is choking on your cloud of dust.

2) Blind Pass-A-Rooski

I have to say, I seen this move plenty of times throughout Asia so I wasn't all that impressed.  But basically, what you do is drive behind a slow moving big rig inching up a mountain.  When a blind curve appears, and only then, swerve into the opposite lane to pass.  Downshift and floor it, and grunt with pleasure as the LandCruiser barely starts going faster than the big rig.  Since your Expensive LandCruiser is Awesome, the decent possibility that someone will tear around the corner and plow right into you only makes you chuckle in amusement.  Smile broadly as the seconds pass and feel the adrenalin rush.  Even if you have cleared the big rig, its best to savor the moment and not go back into your lane until after you have finished the blind curve.  After completing the maneuver, look in the mirror and laugh at the terror sweat on the silly tourists.


3) Double pass-a-rooski

I can't say the Double Pass-A-Rooski is a new move because I did see it once on Java in Indo, but its still pretty badass.  Here's how to pull it off.  First, you have to be 2 cars deep behind a slow big rig, but its even more fun if you are 5 or 6 cars deep.  As the cars in front of you slowly pass the big rig, act really pissed off and irritated.  Turn up your Tibetan disco and chug a bit of Red Bull.  Then, to really get you in the mood, lay on your horn like its stuck on.  Next, suddenly swerve off the the road onto the shoulder.  Its more enjoyable if the shoulder drops precipitously off a thousand foot cliff.  As the LandCruiser tilts at 45 degrees and debates whether it wants to stay upright, gun it.  The high point is when, as you are passing, you stare intensely at the slow big rig driver, who really shouldn't be on the same road with you anyway, and look all the way over to the slower saps passing on the other side.  Then, honk and swerve hard back into the lane in order to force whoever else was passing to slam on their brakes and swerve to avoid your badass moves.

3) The Legendary "Triple pass-a-rooski"

This is a Tibet-only move as far as I know.  I've never seen it before, and in fact, I wouldn't have believed it was possible if I hadn't seen it with my own terror-stricken eyes.    Here's how it works.  Repeat the above scenario, except this time, you wait until someone else is already pulling the Double-pass-a-rooski.  Then, lay on the horn like your life depends on it and gun it into the left lane.  As you come up to the idiot passing in front of you, ride his ass and keep laying on the horn.  When he sees your insane bloodshot Red Bull- and chicken foot-fueled eyes, he will be forced to swerve onto the shoulder on the far side of the road.  Because otherwise you would definitely run his stupid ass over.  Linger for a moment, as you are 4 abreast, and giggle at the poor bus driver coming the opposite way and the fact he is probably wetting himself.  You are such a badass right now its not even funny.  And the best part is a moment later, when the moron you forced into the far ditch swerves wildly to avoid the bus coming straight at him.  Chuckle like a madman, turn up the Tibetan disco very loud and chug more Red Bull to celebrate.

4) Cliff-Jumping

Chamba, aka "Hell-on-wheels", chomping on some chicken feet
This is actually a pretty cool move I wouldn't mind trying back home.  When another lame-o LandCruiser passes you because you have been driving like a blind 3-year old while you text one of your girlfriends, yell goodbye and slam down the gaudy neon orange phone.  Noone passes you, don't they know you are Captain Chaos?!!  Speed up and try to catch the offender.  When that doesn't work, wait until you have to do 30 switchbacks down the face of a mountain.  Without telling anyone, swerve off the road and start barreling straight down the cliff itself.  Speed up when a huge boulder appears.  Ramp off the top and nod knowingly as the tourists slam their heads into the roof and get knocked unconsiousness.  You know its really best for everyone if they aren't awake for what's next.  When you approach a riverbed, laugh hysterically as you gun it down and back up the other side and the LandCruiser makes a horrible scraping sound as the tranmission gets clawed by a boulder.  When the tourists wake up, you should be comfortably back on the road, chowing on a fresh chicken foot, and way ahead of the kook who tried to school you before.

No one passes the great Chamba.  No one

Goddess Mother of the Earth

Holy @*&!, That's *&#& Everest!!
"Holy shit, that's f-ing Everest!" I yelled.  We had been coming around a bend, and suddenly in front of us I saw the unmistakable black diamond peak.  A few moments later, we straightened out and the whole mountain sat right in front us, in all its glory.

"Holy shit, that's f-ing Everest!" Charles replied.

There's really nothing else to be said.  It didn't seem real.  It was completely unlike the Nepalese experience, so much so that it was hard to believe I was looking at the same mountain I had glimpsed 5 years before.  In Nepal, you first fly into the comically dangerous strip of pavement glued to a mountainside known as Lukla.

Don't try to land at Lukla in the fog

View of Everest from atop Kala Pattar, mostly hidden behind Nupste's west face
Then, a 10-day trek through beautiful green forests, waterfalls, monastaries, past huge white peaks, spending quiet nights in teahouses with the Sherpas, and finally up into the high country where everything is a different shade of gray and white.  At last, one morning, head pounding from the altitude, you climb a small mountain called Kala Pattar to get that postcard shot of Everest.  But even then, its mostly hidden behind the wall of Nuptse.  Rising impossibly high beyond, you only see that famous black pyramid summit in the background.

(For some gorgeous photos and a great blog on EBC from Nepal, click here...)

First glimpse of the Big Boys after days of driving

In Tibet, we had just driven for two days from Lhasa, past 6 or 7 military checkpoints, through endless barren mud-colored mountains.  The last part takes you on a brutal gravel washboard track for 3 more exhausting hours, bumping out your fillings in an old rattling Toyota landcruiser.  We had gotten a nice glimpse of the Himalaya earlier from Pang La pass, hooting and high-fiving at the first look of the Big Boys.  The view from the pass is actually quite dramatic, the peaks from left to right, on a lucky day, are Makalu (8462m) and Chomo Lonzo (7780m), Lhotse (8516m) and Everest (8848m), and off to the right Gyachung Kang (7952m) and Cho Oyu (8201m).  (Click here for some insane photos of this pass, this lucky guy got it on a clear day and had a great camera).

On top o the world (Everest just barely peaking out above my head (a little on the left) if you look hard....)
In other words, 4 of the 8 highest mountains in the world stood here rubbing shoulders, lording down over the rest of the world.  We had arrived on an early June afternoon, and although most of the mega-peaks were covered in cloud, we did get the adrenalin rush of seeing Everest's summit peek out for a minute as the clouds ambled along.

Then it was another long descent, more rattling around, and an interesting "short-cut" as our Hell-on-Wheels driver decided to bypass the road and scream straight down the cliff.  Somehow, we didn't roll off any thousand foot drops or get stuck as we bottomed out in a stream and the landcruiser scraped over the rocks.

And so, after such a tiring (and somewhat life-threatening) journey of the same old same, it was a shock to round a bend and Boom!

Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Woot woot in technicolor
It is difficult to find words to adequately describe how bizarre it is to emerge from Tibet's brown, dusty, lifeless foothills and suddenly stumble onto the entire north face of the largest mountain in the world.  From the north, Everest is not hidden by Nuptse.  It is not hidden by anything.  The entire horizon of brown earth rises until it becomes a vast expanse of snow and ice.  This continues to ascend untold thousands of feet, past a flowing glacier and smaller peaks that form the waist, until the shoulders narrow.  Then, the mountain becomes black as it turns into a sheer vertical cliff that rises more thousands of feet.  Finally, the face funnels into a forbidding tooth: the legendary summit of Peak XV, Everest, Sagarmatha, Qomolangma.  There are many names for the place that has claimed the lives of over 200 climbers.  But my favorite is the Nepalese translation: Goddess Mother of the Earth.

We were bumping along a gravel road at around 4900m, jaws hitting our knees, staring straight up to the 8850m peak.  The gain of nearly 4000m, or 2.5 miles, is just a number.  It doesn't do the view a shred of justice.  There wasn't a single cloud in the piercing blue sky.

 Everest was alone, naked.

I am fairly certain I will never again witness such a spectacle.

Your moment of Zen, courtesy of Tibet

Tibetan Mecca

Long way 'round
<<NOTE: most of my Tibet posts will not be posted until I'm out of China for obvious reasons, stay tuned ... >>

I watched the man chant in a melodic way, hands clasped in prayer.  The sun beat down upon his brown wrinkled face.  He wore tattered gray clothes, threadbare shoes, a small white rag on his head to gather his sweat.  For some reason his forehead looked rubbed raw and covered in dirt.  Tibetans swung their manis as they walked the Jokham pilgrimage route.  The man finished chanting and fell to his knees, and using smoothed blocks of stone tied to his hands, slid forward until his forehead touched the stone floor.  Ahh, secret revealed.  A moment passed, then he gathered himself back up and stood.  A 90 degree turn, 3 strides, a turn back, and the chanting resumed.

Granpilgrims, manis a-swinging
For most people, the pilgramage around the Jokham temple was done in about 20 minutes, many would do the circuit up to 6 or 9 times and call it a day.  But for some, it was done this way, the hard way.  3 steps at a time, chanting, falling to the dusty stone road, then repeating it all again in the hot sun.  The process took 3 full days.

The Lhasa scene reminded me a bit of Thamel, Kathmandu in Nepal.  Souvenir shops hawking prayer beads, cheap swords, demon masks, buddha figurines, and whatever else a tourist could possibly want lined the streets endlessly in both directions.  Except, unlike Kathmandu, the people walking the street weren't just monks or tourists or locals.

Om mani padme hum
The vast majority were poor Tibetans rolling in from all directions, nomads from the high snow-covered plains, farmers from the valleys, some even traveling all the way from Sichuan or India.  They were here because this was one of the Tibetan Buddhist Meccas, a center of their universe.  (The other is Mt Kailash.)  There was a pilgrimage route around the Potala, the Jokhang, and a bigger circuit around Lhasa itself.  I looked at their faces, most were lined and sunburnt and old.  My guide told me that the younger Tibetans had to stay home and work, this kind of pilgrimage was an expensive once-in-a-lifetime trip that often was delayed until one realized they'd better go or else.

One image stayed in my mind.  Many of the Tibetans looked tired from their journey, it was not an easy trip for a beaten-down farm granny.  But as we left the Potala palace, we happened upon one old lady who was making the rounds, shuffling slowly but surely.  She asked for money, and my conditioned reflex of saying No short-circuited my brain.  I waved her off.  But unlike every other begger or tout that asks for money, she gave me the nicest smile I could imagine and just continued her walk.  I realized in a beat that giving alms to a pilgrim is far different than giving money to a beggar.  She would use it for her journey, to buy water or food or transportation home.  As she shuffled away, turning the prayer wheels and twirling her mani, I wanted to run back up and give her something.

Thank you for the smile
Instead, I took a picture and walked away.  What kind of jaded traveler have I become?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Golden Gods

Stolen from "Don't get Shanghai'ed", a great blog
I peered at the tomb rising above me, vanishing into the dark.  It was 15m high (50'!), and covered in 8000 pounds of solid gold.  Over 18,000 diamonds, huge pearls, turquoise, jade, agate, and other precious stones were embedded upon the face.  For a monk, this guy did it up right.  In life, he was known as Lozang Gyatso, the 5th Dalai Lama, an absolute religious sovereign.  In many ways, he was the greatest of the line.  Under his command the magnificent Potala Palace was constructed, which rises 300m above the Zangbo plain.  And here we were, inside the Red Palace at the very top, nose-to-nose with something so priceless that it was bizarre I could reach out and touch it.

The Potala Palace is one of those places that pictures and postcards simply cannot capture.  Like a mountain, its enormity can only be truly appreciated when one stands at its foot and gazes up at the maroon and white face.  As one ascends the long staircase past the lower ranking monk quarters, the immense thickness of the walls becomes more apparent.  And it hit me, this was not just a palace.  This was a fortress.

Under the fortress
Its design reminded me of Mehrangarh in India, an impenetrable castle designed to force attackers up a narrow path, where they could be easly picked off or burned in boiling oil poured from the higher reaches.

Finally we reached the Red Palace.  I didn't know what to expect really, but I didn't have high hopes.  I'd been to too many other castles and tombs around the world, and they almost always disappoint.  The riches have been stolen by thieves or museums, and the insides usually feel faded, lifeless, and gutted.  So when we stumbled into the first greeting hall, my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Red Palace
The inside was a rainbow of spectacles.  From the roof hung ornate tasseled tapestries, along the back sat rows of huge golden gods with thousands of arms, eyes, and heads, demons with fiery hair, fangs scowling at us from the corner, and every inch of wall was covered in colorful golden murals showing the lives of the Buddha and all the previous lamas.  The ceiling beams were painted in indigo and yellow dye created from lapiz and mustard.  The smell of incense filled the air, shadows danced around cast by candles from a large golden yak butter cauldron.  Offerings of money, milk, butter, and silk scarves littered the floor.  The entire room was so busy and beautiful that it was difficult to focus on any one thing.   But that was just the backdrop.  A massive throne, and there is no other word for it, squatted ponderously in the middle of the chamber.  The cushioned bench was elevated 6 feet off the floor, and every inch of this seat of power was covered in gold and precious stones.  And on the seat, forlornly collecting dust, sat the mantle of the Dalai Lama.  An eerie and sad sight in this room of wonders.

Walking through the rooms, the place oozed more atmosphere than Indiana Jones in a lost jungle temple.  Everything about the Potala feels authentic, the old wooden beams, the stone floors worn from the uncountable steps of the monks, the natural dyes used in the paint, the black yak hair knitted into huge sun screens, the colorful old textiles hanging from the ceilings, the huge gilded gods and demons, a bit dingy from the years of incense, peering out from each corner.

It is almost too much to take in ... and in fact it is.  Chinese wisdom has proclaimed that each tourist gets exactly 60 minutes to race through the entire length.  So, in each fascinating hall and bedroom and tomb, we frantically tried to soak in the scene before being herded off to the next room.

The unlucky 13th died in 1933
One room in particular I will not forget.  And that is the receiving hall of the 13th Dalai Lama, the last of his kind.  The 14th Dalai Lama, the rock star celebrity now living comfortably in Dharamsala, India, didn't actually spend too much time in the Potala apparently.  He preferred the peaceful grassy gardens of the Summer Palace in western Lhasa.  And so it is the throne room of the 13th that one sees the somber end to the glory of the Potala.  The throne itself is covered in enough gold to outfit at least 5 Jay-Z Bentleys, and the diamonds and pearls could have made a necklace for an elephant.

I sat there and wondered about what his life had been like.  A divine king, living in such isolation from the rest of the earth that it probably seemed Tibet was the world.

And then, I thought of the huge Chinese flag planted squarely on the roof just a few feet above.
The Chinese flag must be planted

<<NOTE: My posts about the situation in Tibet have been removed from the blog.  If you are interested in reading about the real story of this tragic country, send me an email and I will be happy to send you the posts...>>