The most enchanting concept regarding travel is the idea that absolutely anything can happen. And the most wonderful thing about that is that you will never cease to be surprised by what ensues. I think that’s why so many of us travel and also the reason why so many of us don’t. One of my favorite quotes of all time was told to me by one of my least favorite teachers of all time during my Semester at Sea three years ago. He quoted John A. Shedd who said “A ship in harbor is safe — but that’s not what ships are built for.” This describes my travel style perfectly.
I believe in the word yes. It’s fairly universal and if the English version fails you then a head nod, thumbs up, or smile should get the message across. When you say no you don’t take chances. You are stuck in a safe harbor. But when you say yes all sorts of interesting things happen. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not telling you to go to Thailand and say yes when someone asks you to smuggle drugs to Sweden for them. That’s just stupid. Say yes, but don’t be an ass-hat about it.
When you say yes in ‘reasonable’ situations there are all sorts of things that can go wrong, but the stuff that goes wrong is the stuff of great adventures. Sometimes those adventures are risky and I suppose deadly, but you get over that and then you become addicted to the possibilities of what happens when you take a leap of faith and say okay to whatever comes your way.
When you are riding on the back of a motorcycle in Ho Chi Minh City and the fifteen year old Vietnamese boy who is driving makes a wrong turn down a busy one way street, you realize that you are staring death in the face. In this case, death happens to look like the largest truck you’ve ever seen about to hit you head on at full speed, but as it blares it’s horn at you, you realize your body has not become silly putty that some poor soul would have to peel of the pavement.
You are alive without a scratch to show for the terror that happened seconds ago. You release your iron grip from the boy’s sides and in that moment your life changes. After that everything is less scary. After that, saying yes becomes much easier and you find yourself saying yes to getting a massage at a sketchy Vietnamese parlor. And then you can find it funny when it turns out to be a brothel which would explain the bad attitude, extra large terry cloth shorts, and why your gay friend asked in a panicked voice from the next room how to say “I’m gay” in Vietnamese.
Saying yes to things you don’t fully understand can be dangerous, painful, beautiful, and most of all funny. No matter how terrible the experience you will always either learn something new, gain a new lease on life, have a hilarious story, lose your dignity (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, trust me), or all of the above. These next few blog entries will be about just that. Stay tuned.
I’ve been in Laos for a day back from Tibet by way of China, and as I flip through my pictures from Mt. Everest I still can’t believe I was there! I can’t say that it’s been my lifelong dream to go to Mt. Everest because it only occurred to me a few months ago that I could and should go to Tibet — and that if I was going to be in Tibet I couldn’t miss visiting such an infamous mountain. Once I thought of it, I just had to see the massive giant that has lured so many climbers, taken so many lives, and inspired so many people.
It’s cheaper and reportedly easier to visit Mt. Everest from its Nepali side, but I don’t like to do things the easy way. The roads in the National Protection Area of Mt. Qomolangma (Mt. Everest’s real name) were reported to be terrible. I was expecting the worst and happily found the roads to be in better condition than many of the Nepali roads I’d been on two months ago. It also helped that Tibetan drivers are also a bit better. Because of the ease and popularity of visiting the gargantuous mountain from the Nepali side, there aren’t many tourists who venture to Mt. Qomolangma from the Tibetan side, which made me even happier with my choice of route.
We spent one night in Shigatse before making the long trip to Everest. We arrived at 5pm, which left our guide Samdup one hour to get our permits because the Everest permit office closed at 6pm. He returned from the office with our permits in hand, but apparently we were quite lucky to have them. It was a holiday, Buddha’s day of birth and death to be exact, so the office had closed very early that day. Fortunately, someone who worked in the office arrived at the same time as Samdup and he luckily convinced him to give us the permits.
Instead of feeling nervous and then relieved as Samdup relayed the story to us, I was overcome by the feeling and thought that there was not a chance in the world that I would not have gotten my permit. Somewhere during the course of my recent journeys I’ve acquired a bizarre sense of confidence and optimism. I knew that I would get to base camp and I knew that it would be stunning when I arrived. There was not a single doubt in my mind that it wouldn’t happen.
Our next obstacle occurred at the army checkpoint where we had to present our permits and passports to enter the area. One of Samdup’s documents — permit, tour guide license or something else important — had expired, which meant he couldn’t go any further. Muni, one of the other three people in my tour group, had a Lonely Planet China which warned that foreigners can’t go past that point without a guide. This caused some worrying among us as we waited for the verdict, but my confidence or absurd optimism kicked in and I knew we would be able to go through. Like I said before, I was going to make it Everest Base Camp and it was going to be beautiful when I arrived. After much talking the soldiers let our driver take us into the area, leaving Samdup to find his way back to the closest town.
We had originally planned to stop at Rongbu Monastery before settling in at the Everest tent camp, but because it was so late in the day we decided to skip it and pop in for a visit on our way back the next morning. After many hours of driving we finally arrived at the tent camp. We put our bags in a tent, quickly added more clothing layers, and set off for the original base camp. The current tent camp is three kilometers below the original base camp because there were problems with human waste disposal that forced them to move the camp to a lower elevation. Other than some Chinese soldiers, nobody stays at the original Tibetan E.B.C. these days.
The other three members of my tour group –Muni, Marco, Ed — and I were joined by a Swede named Henrick whose guide decided not to hike to base camp to see the sunset with us. We were told that the three kilometer walk would only take 30 minutes, and that they would let us in upon arrival even though our guide wasn’t with us. Both of these statements were wrong.
Henrick and I took the lead and after many shortcuts we reached E.B.C. an hour and fifteen minutes later. There was a red gate like you find at the entrance to a parking structure next to an army tent where we figured we had to show our permits, passports and visas. I was starting to get sick of handing over all of my documents at this point. It was just becoming silly. I can’t believe that the Chinese government actually thinks there’s a chance that I snuck into China without a visa, made it into Tibet and had the nerve to go confidently traveling around and crossing checkpoints without the proper travel documents. But I digress.
Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that Muni was carrying all of the permits until we reached the soldiers guarding the entrance. I asked the soldiers if we could come inside their tent since my hands were frozen, it was windy and I didn’t know how far the rest of our group was behind us. Surprisingly they agreed and as I explained that we needed to wait for my friends he made it very clear that if our guide was not with them then we wouldn’t be able to stay at the base camp to watch the sunset. We were already at base camp, 15 meters away from the sign that says “base camp”, but we weren’t allowed to go any further based on the fact that there wasn’t a guide to watch over us! It’s not like we were going to steal the mountain for god’s sake!
Since I had nothing to lose, I pleaded with the guard while making up lies about our poor sick guide who stayed at the tents. After a while, he excitedly told us his great idea: He would kick us out of the tent and allow us to wait outside for 10 minutes after which we would have to leave. He kept proudly repeating that this was his idea. I couldn’t figure out why he thought it was so genius since it didn’t actually help us, until the fifth time I made him explain it, which is when he added that his general was in the next tent watching TV with the door open and everyone would be in big trouble if he saw us wandering around without a guide. So Henrick and I exited the tent, where we found the others arriving. We told them we couldn’t go in and that we would have to come back for sunrise with Henrick’s guide to hopefully get in.
When we got back, Henrick had altitude sickness and went to bed. And I started seeing things. The altitude was affecting us more than I thought it would. Every time I moved something, I could see a trail behind it. When I woke up I was still feeling this side effect, but by the time I got to base camp I was fine. I had no idea that that would be my reaction to the altitude. After all, we were only 500 meters higher than the elevation I had no problem trekking at in Nepal.
When we arrived at the military tent in the morning, Henrick’s guide Nyima took care of everything and we successfully ventured past the red gate. We took a few hundred pictures, and after 20 minutes the one cloud that was obscuring our nearly perfect view of the mountain disappeared and it was beautiful! It was exactly what I knew it would be like. This time of year you have to be very lucky to get a view like that, but for some reason there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that Everest would show herself to me. The sunset had been crystal clear as well, so why wouldn’t the sunrise be as beautiful, if not more so? According to the locals though, many people make the same trip as us only to have the mountain view completely obstructed by clouds.
I wrote the initials of everyone in my family on a set of prayer flags and hung them on a hill in front of Everest for good luck (writing full names was too difficult with the pen I had). Then Henrick and I built a little rock pile like the Tibetans do for good luck.
I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect trip to see Mt. Everest, but lucky for me it got even better on our way out when we decided to stop and visit the Rongbu Monastery.
On Buddha’s birthday the monks at certain monasteries in Tibet wear masks and dance for the public to watch. The tradition goes back hundreds of years when a Tibetan king needed to raise money to build a bridge, so he danced around in a mask and costume. I’m not sure if this is exactly the story, but it’s what I understood from Nyima.
The celebration was supposed to happen the day we arrived at Everest, but the Rongbu Monastery celebrates and dances on the last day of the 15-day Saga Dawa holiday, which happened to be the day we visited the monastery. So at the highest monastery in the world we arrived five minutes before this beautiful, once-a-year dance began without us planning it. Like I said before, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip to Mt. Everest.
I can hardly believe that this was a part of my life. Luckily, I have plenty of pictures to keep reminding me that it wasn’t all a dream.
I first read about the Beijing-Lhasa train — officially the Qinghai Tibet Train — about five months ago, and have dreamed about it since.
On Saturday May 30th I anxiously waited for day to become night so I could finally go to the station and catch the 9:30pm train to Lhasa. I left for the station much too early according to everyone I had dinner with, but I couldn’t stand the wait any longer. I didn’t want to chance it that I’d run out of time if I hit traffic or the taxi driver miraculously got lost.
Once I arrived at the train terminal I felt the excitement really start to kick in. I was so close to starting my 48-hour train ride to Lhasa!!
The instant boarding began I became engulfed in a sea of running and pushing Chinese people, making me wonder if there would be other foreigners aboard. I didn’t quite understand why everyone ran because there were assigned seats. I saw no reason to rush, especially as I was weighed down by my backpack and bags of goodies: apples, mangosteens, dragonfruit, bread, peanut butter, jelly, toilet paper, and water.
Walking through the train the next morning uncovered the reason why everyone ran: they wanted to be the first in their train-cars so they could put their luggage in the storage areas before they filled up. The last to get seated got stuck with their luggage under their feet or on their laps.
I was lucky to be in a soft-sleeper car with cabins that sleep four people and have front doors. The cabins in the hard-sleeper cars sleep six people and don’t have doors. And the cheapest cars have just chairs. I can’t imagine sitting for 48 hours straight with luggage on my lap. Some people get around this by laying beds of newspapers on the spaces between train cars. Only two people fit in these nooks, so you have to be either very lucky or quick to get a spot.
My first impression of my cabin was that it was way too small for four people and their luggage, but then we found the overhead storage bins which solved the space problem. The two lower beds were occupied by two Germans, Georg and Chris, with whom I chatted with for the entire ride. Among other things, I learned important German phrases like “Kiss my ass” and “The machine is broken”, which became indispensable later when things started getting a bit rough. The fourth bed — eye level with me — was taken by a Chinese man who, after 20 hours, we realized was a policeman. He was rather odd, sleeping in his tidy whities, and staring at us and in particular at me.
The train spent the first part of Day One mostly driving through cities, and the second part driving through countryside and farms. For most of the day our car was quite warmer than the others, reaching about 80 deg F. We complained to a train officer, who promptly suggested that I go to a different car, an infuriating idea because there wasn’t anywhere to sit in the other cars.
This was right along the general service on the train. Everyone was genuinely pained if they had to deal with you. God forbid one of the 20 train employees sitting around chatting actually had to do any work. The trash-pickup service was timely, though, as was the bathroom cleanup for the first day. This said, I don’t recommend using the squatter toilets at any time because the floors are perpetually covered in a centimeter of urine. That being said, I also don’t recommend wearing pants that drag on the floor.
When the altimeter hit 3,000 meters on the second evening, my Germans cabinmates and I shared some Budweisers and watched a lightning storm in the distance before going to bed. I was slowly waking up the next morning when I felt a slight tug on my blankets. I looked down to see Chris pointing out the window to gorgeous snow-capped hills. I flew out of the cabin, pulled back the left hallway’s curtains, and there they were: huge snowy mountains!! I was ecstatic!
And then back to Chinese reality. The first clogged toilet happened mid-morning on Day Two, which wasn’t much of a surprise after seeing the kitchen staff pour buckets of food remains down there. It started getting really bad a few hours later when they disabled the flush buttons on all toilets. We didn’t have any stations where to unload the waste, which probably was the reason for the problems. This quickly became very inconvenient because you are supposed to drink plenty of water after the train reaches an altitude of 5,000 meters to prevent altitude sickness and dehydration. But with the toilets nearly overflowing you don’t have much of an incentive to stay hydrated…
When the toilets were just about to overflow I began wandering the train hoping to find a decent bathroom. The train officers have emergency flush buttons, but didn’t use them until it looked like they might otherwise need to do some nasty clean-up. So I hoped that by walking the train I could either find a toilet that had been recently emergency-flushed or ask an officer to use his almighty flushing powers to help me out. I just couldn’t bear the idea of urine and puke from at least 15 other people splattering back at me or sloshing onto my shoes while I peed.
When I finally asked an officer about the bathroom problem, he grumpily instructed me to use it anyway. Like I said before, the service was certainly unpleasant — making my newly learned German phrases very handy.
So I started day-dreaming a public announcement that went something like this:
Thank you for traveling aboard the China-Tibet Train.
If you need anything please DO NOT ask us because frankly we don’t give a damn. We have decided that the dining car and the car with all the foreigners will not get air conditioning for the first half of the trip. If this makes your trip uncomfortable don’t bother telling us because we won’t fix the problem.
You will notice that at the front of your cabin there are volume, light, temperature, and service buttons. Only the light button will work for you. If you need something, do not press the service button. Your best bet in this situation is to take out the net that you should have brought with you and try trapping a train officer. If you forgot your net then you are out of luck.
As you know, we will be traveling to an elevation of 5,072 meters. To assist your acclimatization we will pump oxygen through the air conditioning systems, that is, if the air conditioning is working. You will also notice that each seat is equipped with a plug for an oxygen mask so you can have your own personal oxygen supply if need be. Should you require this source of oxygen, we regret to inform you that we don’t care and we don’t plan on passing out oxygen masks so go f*** yourselves if you want one. If you get really desperate, try sucking the oxygen straight out of the hole where you would otherwise plug in your mask.
During the last leg of our trip you will no longer have access to bathrooms that aren’t covered in urine, feces, and vomit. If this is a problem for you, we suggest you stop drinking all liquids immediately.
Thank you for choosing the Beijing-Lhasa Train. Please come back soon, but don’t misunderstand and think that we want you to travel with us again because we like you, we really just want your money.
Despite the Chinese-style travel amenities, I’m delighted I did it. The views were stunning and coming into Lhasa by plane wouldn’t have been nearly as thrilling!
I’ve spent the past week in Beijing, and tonight I leave for Tibet.
I’m taking the train to Lhasa which, I have been dreaming about for the past five months. It’s the highest train in the world, reaching an elevation of 16,640 feet (5,072 meters). It takes 48 hours if you start in Beijing. Because it reaches such high elevations, oxygen is pumped into the train cars and each seat has its own oxygen supply. Check it out at chinatibettrain.com.
In Tibet I’ll go to Everest Base Camp along with many other wonderful places over a 10-day period.
Unfortunately, I’m starting this leg of the journey with a bit of a head cold, but hopefully by the time I get off the train on June 1st I’ll be better and ready to explore Tibet!
That’s all for now!
P.S. I’ve learned so far that my Thai nickname DeeDee means good good in Thai, older sister in Nepali and younger brother in Chinese!
P.P.S. Simon, Catherine and Daphne: Many thanks for your wonderful hospitality!
I don’t like tomatoes. My dad constantly makes fun of me for this. I also don’t like salad or avocados. Hard boiled eggs and Mayo are two foods that I actually fear. The smell of canned tuna turns my stomach instantly, and help me God if you put ranch dressing on my plate. The silly thing about this list is that the foods I hate and fear aren’t very exotic or threatening. They are ordinary foods that most people have probably never given much thought to. It’s all rather funny because I can’t seem to stomach eating these perfectly normal foods, yet I purposely sought out a restaurant that serves live octopus here in Korea once I found out about it.
Last night my friends and I went to a makgeolli restaurant in hopes that I would get to try the special octopus dish they serve. Makgeolli is a type of Korean rice alcohol served at specific restaurants in large teapots along with a few dishes of food that they choose for you. The bigger the group, the more exciting the food. We made a point of inquiring about the chance of getting a plate of live octopus and ended up getting three!
The live octopus was cut with scissors above a plate with seaweed, green onions, and tasty oil. The tentacles still wiggle and writhe after being cut, and turned out to be quite difficult to pry off the plate.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t very weird having a moving piece of octopus in my mouth. One piece attached to my tongue briefly, but other than that most of the octopus tentacles stopped moving upon arrival in my mouth. My friends seemed surprised by this. I guess I have a good mouth for eating octopus. You still can’t get me to eat canned tuna, though.
I pride myself on being a good packer. I don’t want to boast, but I think I am pretty darn good at traveling light and packing right. I’m not sure if any of you actually care about what or how I pack, but here are my top-ten travel essentials (minus the obvious things like deodorant, etc.).
Ziploc Bags. I am nothing without my ziploc bags. If you look in my backpack and even my massive duffel bag that I left in Thailand, you will find everything organized into ziploc bags. They ensure that your belongings stay dry, and keep everything organized and easy to find. I keep one bag reserved for dirty clothes so they stay contained, making sure that the rest of my bag doesn’t smell like a piece of used hockey padding.
A dry bag. Those outdoorsy folks know what I’m talking about, but for those of you that don’t, a dry bag is what you would typically use rafting to make sure everything stays dry…it’s pretty self explanatory. They come in all different sizes, but since we’ve already decided that clothes go in ziploc bags, I’d say get a smallish one for your camera, iPod, and wallet. You never know when a little rain or a monsoon is going to catch up with you and it’s always nice to have a reliable dry bag with you.
Quick-dry underwear. This follows the whole wet theme I’ve got going on here. If you get caught in the rain or pushed in a lake, you don’t want to be stuck with wet undies all day, so wear quick-dry ones. I only brought four pairs of underwear with me, three of which are quick-dry, because I can wash them at night and they’ll be dry the next morning. Not only does less underwear save space in your bag, but I like to think of it as a travel badge of honor.
Baby wipes. These are always in my bag. You never know what yucky thing you’ll touch or have spilled on you (today it was yak curd for me). Plus, if you don’t have time to take a shower or don’t want to take a freezing cold shower, then a baby wipe bath is your best bet.
Hand sanitizer. This doesn’t even need an explanation.
Duct tape. What can’t you do with duct tape?! If your shoe is giving you blisters, put some duct tape on your foot and boom! you’re better. Tear your pants? Duct tape them back together! Backpack break? Duct tape it! Screaming baby in the seat behind you? Duct tape it! Just kidding, but you all know the thought has crossed your mind.
Swiss army knife. I was given one of these for my 16th birthday and I think I’ve used it at least once a day since then. You never know when you’ll need to cut, peel, file, or tweeze something. Just remember not to take it through airport security with you.
Headlamp. They may look dorky, but that coal-miner look will leave you feeling like the belle of the ball when you rescue someone who is trying to unlock their hotel door in the dark or when the power goes out at dinner. This is definitely an essential if you are traveling to Nepal. India controls the power in Kathmandu, making electricity reliably unreliable. Don’t bother coming to Nepal if you aren’t bringing a headlamp or at least a flashlight.
Burt’s Bees Wax Lip Balm. I’m addicted. You can leave this out of your bag, but it is more than essential for me. I brought five sticks to Thailand with me just in case I lost one or two or three of them.
A ziploc bag containing:
Pepto: Take one before or after suspicious meals.
Immodium: If the Pepto doesn’t work, then this is your next step. One day you’ll thank your lucky stars for having this with you. I had three emergency bathroom runs at the end of one of the days on my last trek, popped two of these bad boys and was set for more trekking.
Ciprofloxacin: This is the serious stuff when it comes to stomach problems abroad. If Pepto and Immodium don’t work, then you might have a bacterial infection and you probably need this.
Alieve: Will cure joint pain, headaches, hangovers, etc. The panacea.
Bandaids: I always seem to be in need of one and you’ll be someone-in-needs’ new best friend when you give them one.
My last travel tip is this: They will have some variation of everything you need where you are going. So pack half as much as you were originally planning. Happy Travels!
Why a person who has had rotten knees since birth would look at a map and decide that they would buy a ticket to Nepal and go trekking is beyond me, but that’s what I did for some reason. It didn’t really occur to me until a few days into my first trek that it was an odd decision. As I slowly descended down some massive granite steps on the side of a very steep hillside, I paused for a moment to analyze the situation. I was bracing myself with my two bamboo hiking sticks, deciding whether it felt like someone was hammering a four inch nail into my knees every time I bent them or whether it was more like my cartilage had been replaced with barbed wire, and I started to question how the hell I ended up there.
I made my mom, our guide, and our porter walk ahead in hopes that if nobody saw my struggle, then maybe it wouldn’t feel as difficult. I felt weak and pissed off at myself. Who the hell did I think I was? I should know better than this. I know my knees and I should therefore know my limits, shouldn’t I??
My knees have always been fickle and I know that, yet there I was, halfway down a massive hill somewhere between two small mountain towns and the only option was to keep going down. I felt so stupid for thinking that I could do a six day trek. Tears were starting to well up in my eyes, which made me even more frustrated with myself. We all should know what we can and can’t handle. But although I may know my limits, I seem to like to push them, I guess because if I don’t then I’ll never know what I’m really capable of, which I suppose is how I ended up on the side of a steep hill in Nepal.
Obviously I survived that trek and believe it or not, I sent myself on a second one!
The first trek I went on was the Naya Pul and Ghorapani loop in the Annapurna region. Unfortunately, it’s getting close to the monsoon season so the views were pretty terrible, but we did get to see a few of the magnificent mountains one evening. I did the trek with my Mom, our guide Tika, and our 15 year old porter, who we nicknamed Ironman because he could carry our massive backpack with no problem at all.
My second trek was in the Langtang Region bordering Tibet, which was absolutely stunning. The monsoon starts later there, so the views weren’t obstructed with clouds and haze. The hike was easier than the previous trek, but because I’d already spent six days torturing my knees the week before, I had a pretty hard time going downhill for two days out of the seven day trek. I also decided that I would buck up and carry my own bag, which my doctor would probably smack me upside the head for doing. Luckily once my knees started to fail me Tika (my wonderful guide) carried my backpack for me.
We had planned for one rest day in the middle of our trek where we would visit the local temple and yak cheese factory, but the Type A side of my personality kicked in again and I found myself climbing up to 4,700 meters for a better view of the mountains and glaciers. I was happy to find that I had no problems acclimating to the altitude, but my knees complained the whole way down.
When we returned to the teahouse after our little hike, we decided to go in search of some tumba (pronounced toomba). Tumba is made by boiling millet, adding a goats hoof, and storing the mixture in a plastic bag under your house for at least fifteen days, the good stuff is stored for about three months. Once you are ready to drink it, you scoop out the millet, scrape of the mold, and put it in a massive cup. To drink it, you pour hot water over the millet and sip up the alcoholic liquid. It’s fantastic for cold weather.
We had found some tumba the day before, so we knew we could find it again. It’s pretty difficult stuff to get this time of year because it is too warm outside to make it. We didn’t have anything else to do that day since the temple and yak cheese factory turned out to be closed, so we decided to take the rest of the day off and get drunk. Tika and I went to a tiny little teashop and each ordered our own tumba. The shop owner and her two friends were in the shop gossiping and eating dry flour and salt in between sips of salty Tibetan yak butter tea. After a few hours, it went from just being Tika and I drinking, to at least fifteen other guides, porters, and foreigners drinking tumba and roxy, eating dried then fried yak meat with timor (the most delicious peppercorn on earth), and singing all the songs we could think of. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.
The trekking was fantastic, despite the pain. Now I know that I am in fact capable of walking long distances,as long as I”m going up not down though, which makes all of the pain I experienced worth it. If any of you are planning on coming to Nepal to go trekking I have a few recommendations and guide book corrections.
The guide books are wrong about prices for almost everything. A good wage for a guide is around 15USD a day and for a porter it’s about 12USD per day. You can do treks on your own, but you’ll learn a lot more about culture and see a lot more wildlife if you hire a guide. I expected to do most of the trekking without a guide, but quickly came to realize that almost everyone here hires a guide and does so through a tour company. If you hire a porter, make sure that the company has a limit for how many bags one porter carries. More than two massive backpacks or duffel bags for someone around my size is cruel, so make sure to ask the tour company what their policy is before you book a tour with them. And lastly, if you need a good guide, my guide and new friend Tika is absolutely wonderful. He comes with my highest recommendations. He’s by far one of the most fantastic people I’ve met in the past six months and I feel like he is part of my family now. So please, please, please ask me for his information if you are planning on coming to Nepal.
I’m back in Kathmandu, which is where I’ll be for the next week. I’m booking a ticket today to go to South Korea on the 8th to see my friends Bobby and Will who are teaching English there. Words can’t even describe the high I get from being able to make a decision to jet over to another country a week before I want to leave. I feel so free! There will be at least one more post coming this week, so keep checking the blog. I’d also like to give a big thanks to my dad for publishing and editing my last blog post for me since the internet at my hotel is too slow.
I have a love-hate relationship with buses in foreign countries. They can be infuriating, smelly, crowded, broken, too slow, too fast, and the list goes on. Despite all of the negative aspects, there is something highly entertaining about them, although half the time it’s only entertaining after you’ve recovered from the journey.
After teaching English in Northeastern Thailand for five months, I was starting to get a little stir crazy and decided that the solution was to mix things up a bit by venturing to Nepal. My Mom joined me for the first two weeks of travel which included several interesting bus rides much to her dismay. We didn’t quite see eye to eye on the concept that buses can be wonderful modes of transport. She wanted to go by plane between destinations because of the speed and ease, but in the end I convinced her to give buses a shot.
Our first bus experience in Nepal, from Kathmandu to Pokhara, was supposed to last six hours but turned into a 13-hour journey due to a truck accident which spurred a village strike. After leaving our original tourists-only minivan and hiking to a taxi that offered a reasonable price, we ended up in what turned out to be a Nepali clown car. In a vehicle that fits 15 people sort of comfortably, we squeezed four Frenchmen, one Canadian, two Americans, six Israelis, one Japanese, and 12 Nepalis. That’s 26 for those of you who don’t feel like doing the math. This number slowly increased as we got closer to Pokhara. Four people were on the roof, which looks comfortable because you get to sit/lie on the giant mound of backpacks and could be fun and scenic as long as you don’t mind the dust and holding on for dear life. Good luck to your poor broken body if the taxi or bus gets into an accident though.
Being in tight quarters with a skipping Aqua CD on repeat made this adventure feel like it would never end. The first time you hear Barbie Girl in a foreign country it’s exciting, but by the eighteenth time you are ready to kick the stereo in. By the time the Israeli on the roof started hurling and the taxi driver kept stopping to tighten the bolts on the wheel, I was over it. I only wanted a bed and if I was so lucky some BBC World News before the power went out (a frequent occurrence). I had been gone long enough that even hearing sports news, something that would typically bore me into a catatonic state, made me happy.
Our next bus ride was from Pokhara to Chitwan, and although it wasn’t nearly as long as the previous experience, it was equally annoying. The seats on the bus felt as though they were held in place by a few pieces of used chewing gum, making for the bumpiest five hours of my life. I think I can confidently say that I’ve been on better roads in Burma, which says a lot. The roads make you feel every gram of fat on your body jiggle and if you’ve ever wanted to test the quality of your bra, this is the most thorough way to do it.
It didn’t quite matter whether or not you wanted your seat to recline because they all do the moment you lean back in them, leaving very minimal personal space for the person behind you. My mom and I are lucky to have short legs in these situations.
This ride made me reminisce about that Disneyland ride the Matterhorn. The road winds close to cliffs and makes those sharp zig-zaggy moves along the road, only unlike Disneyland, the sharp wheel turns aren’t made to scare you but to make sure you aren’t run off the road by the trucks, buses, and cars that you are playing chicken with.
On our third bus ride, my Mom and I found ourselves with great front-seat views of the road ahead of us. We were aware of every near miss and the fact that the only things preventing us from flying off the road were a few stacks of bricks here and there. I came to the realization that I seem to have an almost unnerving lack of fear in these situations. My mom can’t even look at the oncoming traffic, let alone the cliffs, whereas I can’t even get my pulse to race the slightest bit. I would like to say that it’s some kind of weird adrenaline junkie thing, but I don’t get any kind of rush out of watching us nearly slam head on into a massive truck carrying a huge load of gravel.
I felt nothing throughout what should have been frightening bus rides. Which is interesting because while we were on our canoe trip in the Chitwan National Park I had a mini panic attack as our canoe hovered above a massive crocodile and my mom remained completely relaxed. I think that’s slightly justifiable, though. Our guide was a stoner who was perpetually baked out of his mind. As we got close to the first crocodile in our canoe made out of a single hollowed out log, he nonchalantly told us about his last close-call crocodile attack two days earlier. I don’t know about you, but I sure as hell don’t want the man in charge of my life to be high as a kite and chuckling when a crocodile comes out of the water to rip my arm off. I want Crocodile Dundee, someone with a spear or a gun. At least someone with a safari shirt, not a dirty t-shirt that says “Hello my name is _____. If I’m too drunk to know my way home, please send me to this address:_______.”
While my mom was trying to calm herself down in her front row seat of horror, I would admire and read the phrases on the back of the trucks we passed. Road King. No time for love. See You. Horn Please. Catch me if you can. I thought the trucks in Thailand were pretty, but Nepal really takes the cake. They are brightly decorated inside and out and painted with elaborate designs and scenes. And the horns! The horns are the best in Nepal. The drivers make little songs with their horns. It could be a quick warning single beep or it could be a fun little tune depending on their reason for honking.
As I dozed off, I dreamt of my imaginary life as a Nepali trucker. My truck was neon pink and on the sides there were paintings of birds flying above a Buddha in a field of lotus flowers. The back read Eat My Sneeze Inducing Nepali Dust Suckers! and the front proudly declared Road Queen. I was perched above the steering wheel in my turquoise and lime green sari honking tweedly dee da dee until I was jolted awake by a near head on collision.
At first my mom was annoyed with me for not agreeing to fly between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and although she didn’t fully come around to love bus travel like I do, she at least understood where I was coming from. First of all, I’m cheap. When I’m traveling and I see a large sum of money being spent in a way that I know I could do for ten times cheaper it kills me. An unnecessary flight between Kathmandu and Pokhara was seen in my eyes as several days worth of food. Secondly, there is no better way to actually see a country than by bus.
Slow travel is severely underrated these days. We are always rushing around and in doing so end up missing so much. Why fly over a country when you can drive through it? Every rest stop or break down gives you the chance to peer into the way things operate. Planes are usually uneventful modes of travel, but buses will almost always give you a story to walk away with in the end, even if it means you have to suffer a little in the process.
My mom may not have relished the quirks of bus travel while in Nepal, but she sure does have a lot of fun reminiscing about it now. She swears that it made her less uptight and nervous because now she just accepts that sometimes you have no control over a situation. You just have to sit back and enjoy the view.