Sunday, August 31, 2014

Eating through the Motherland in One Day

(Note Tibet and Nepal trek still to come!)

Guangzhou, my hometown

When I found out I had a 16 hour layover in Guangzhou (aka Canton) en route from Nepal to LAX, I thought, great! I'm going to town to eat! Now when people ask where my family is from in China, I usually give a generic "Village near Canton" because we are Cantonese. But when asked,  I realize that this response wouldn't fly here in actual Canton. Oops.

Ok, so after a 5:30 am arrival, there was much confusion at customs (of course), and I had to wait while they checked and double checked to see if I can be let in the country. Finally I am told that since my layover was more than 9 hrs, they'll give me a hotel room and I can get the free 1 day transit visa. Score. I check to make sure the hotel is metro accessible since I don't plan on spending my only day in Guangzhou in a hotel room. They assure me yes.  When I get to the hotel, I shower and want to leave. But I realize it's in the middle of nowhere suburbia! I didn't want to pay the $15 or whatever it was for a cab to the metro so after crossing many highways I finally find a public bus to the metro. Schlepping my small backpack with me I'm ready to eat!

So, I had no guide book for this city and only saved a few screen shots of neighborhoods and restaurants. I thought no worries, I'll have data on my phone at last. Except I forgot that Google or any standard search engine for that matter is blocked in China. So with no map, no direction, and no Chinese speaking ability, I failed for the first hour to navigate. But finally, determined I found bakeries and a local food neighborhood.

Noodle goodness for 7 yuan ($1)

I just went to the most popular stand with the locals and pointed to what they were eating. It didn't fail. By far the best thing I had here.

Meandering the side streets at lunch watching the locals. I think it was the fabric quarters.
More meandering. A rather calm city by China standards.

I managed to find a government hosted travelsite for Guangzhou which led me to...

Shopping district
With done extra time and yuan to spare, I gave a go at shopping. I scored at uniqlo of all places. Also bought a size large dress, because that's my size in Asia.

One day well spent in passing. I got tons of delicious baked goods (almond cookies, custard on-tots, Chinese rice crispies, sweet beef jerkey) two good meal, boba and dragonfruit smoothie. Overall, a great city to people watch and experience. Not touristy at all.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Rooftop of the World

Yaks Be here!

The first thing I booked on this trip was my tour in Tibet. Foreigners are not allowed to travel on their own, so I reluctantly looked up tour groups. I ended up going with Budget Tibet Tours. I was a little weary at first since it was cheap, but it seemed to offer the most freedom which I like. It turned out fantastic!

I did the 8 day Lhasa to Nepal Border Overland Tour. My research looked like it was brutal to go from Nepal almost straight to Mt. Everest Base Camp due to the rapid altitude increase, so going the opposite direction was perfect.

Lhasa (Day 1-3)

We actually got a lot of freedom to roam around Lhasa which we were surprised at. It turns out there were only 2 people on my tour. I was rooming with Sofia, an MD from Colombia studying acupuncture in China. We hit it off right away. Such a relief and so much fun!

Johkang Temple

Drak Yerp Hermitage: Temple embedded in the mountains
While we were at this temple, we heard an ominous rumbling followed by our tour guide shouting "Run!" Now that is never a good sign. So run we did, only to see rocks tumbling down on the path where we were.

Monk at work.
It's rare to get a picture of a monk inside a temple.

Potala Palace! The Dalai Lama's winter residence.
Inside Potala Palace
Tibetans walking the circuit and waiting for a sacred temple
Many Tibetans pilgrimage far to Lhasa to the temples. There were many people walking with their prayer wheels in the circuit around the old part of town in Bakhor.

Yak: In case you wanted to know what type of meat is for sale here.

Daily Monk Debate at Sera Monastery
There was a lot of clapping, but it didn't seem like too much debating. Very different than my expectations of an academic debate. It was a bit too orderly and questions/answer style. But who really knows what is going on?

Deliciously cheap street food!
Day 4: Lhasa to Gyanste (7 hr drive)

After some good time in Lhasa, we hit the road to explore Tibet. We made some stops for gorgeous scenery.

Sofia (my tour buddy) and me at Yamdrok Lake
When we were in town together, more than one person thought I was her interpreter. Little did they know that Sofia knows way more Chinese than I do.

30 km/hr Zone
With increased tourism, the driving has gotten out of control and accidents abound. To fix the problem, there are zones where they time stamp you entering and time stamp you exiting. You can't pass through in less than a certain amount of time (to prevent speeding). So, conveniently, everyone just takes a lunch break in the middle of these zones and lo and behold, we aren't going too fast!

Karola Glacier drive by
China started charging for tourist to stop at many of the natural sights. Sofia and I decided we didn't need to pay exhorbant fees for every sight so we just slowed down and snapped some photos and continued along our merry way.

Prayer flags

Prayer symbols at the entrance to the monastery

Pelcho Monastery in the town of Gyanste
It was interesting to learn more about the Chinese control over Tibet and how things both have and haven't changed in the recent years. The slogan "Free Tibet" now has much more significance to me. The oppression is still blatant. Censorship still powerful. Many Tibetans had to sneak out of Tibet to seek refuge for education in the neighboring countries of Nepal and India. Then, some sneaked back into Tibet in hopes of building a better life.

My tour group of one visa stamped in Tibet!
Day 5: To Shigaste and Tingri (8 hrs driving)
Tashilump Monastery in Shigaste
Casual conversation

Crazy crowding as the main hall was unexpectedly closing at noon.

Main (and only) road in the small town of Tigre
This was our last point before we entered in Mt. Everest region. So far, the hotel accommodations have been great. No internet, but nice beds!

Day 6: To Everest Base Camp (EBC)!

Approaching the highlight of the trip...
Rooftop scenery
Such a beautiful, yet harsh land. I definitely have respect for the natives here and there steadfast faith. It is a spiritual place for many. You really get a sense of the desolate beauty.
Kids walking the road. Used to be fine, but now with crazy drivers, there have been several deaths
Yaks be here!
Everest Base Camp! 5200 meters!
So we didn't hike here, but Sofia and I were wandering the mountain side of an hour when our tour guide came looking for us, shouting our name to the mountains. She picked us up and we were driven to the base. No stellar views today.

Day 7: Waiting for Everest before descending to Zhangmu (8 hrs drive)

After a night at Rongbuk Monastery, we awoke before sunrise to hopefully catch a glimpse of Everest.

From Rongbuk Monastery before sunrise. Where's Everest?

Just as we were leaving, she showed herself in all her glory!

Jeff, Sofia, Our guide and me

Crazy gorgeous drive descending towards Nepal. Amazing how quickly the scenary changes
We also stopped at 2 police posts and our vehicle was searched for any people we might be trying to smuggle out of Tibet. Nope, just us tourists.
Tibet/Nepal Border: Waiting for it to open
Friendship Bridge between China and Nepal that we walked across
So, turns out I'm racially profiled. Go figure. Even though I carry a US passport, the Chinese are suspicious of me. They pulled me aside for questioning at the border in both China and Nepal. They asked where I was from (as they hold my US passport). They also asked if I speak English or Chinese (as I only respond in English). They asked where my parents are from. The usual. Meanwhile, my fellow US citizen traveler who is Caucasian and 6 ft tall goes through with no problem. In fact, they politely ask him if he would like a stamp in his passport. We had the exact same visas and his passport was stamped in and out whereas there is no record of me entering or exiting.

Turns out there was a huge mud slide that blocked a section of the friendship highway, the only road between Tibet and Nepal. This happened at Day 3 of our tour but we decided to continue anyway. We didn't come half way across the world to not see Tibet! So we took a risk.

When we made it to the border, our options of returning to Kathmandu were
1. Helicopter ride to somewhere past the landslide for $200
2. Off road vehicle that may be able to go around landslide
3. Walk (maybe 6 hours?) with our luggage across the landslide.

Go Go Go!
We chose the most viable option #1. Of course when we get there, it is a madhouse. Our reservation was no where to be found. People were waiting for hours. Somehow, we befriended the right person, the manager of one of the majors helicopter companies, Simrik. He lived in the States so we bonded. Much to our surprise, the next helicopter that came in, our new friend was yelling "Go Go Go!" Before we know it, our bags were stashed and we were shoved into the front seat.

View of the landslide from my first helicopter ride, unwillingly

I would've never paid for a helicopter ride, so this ended up being an experience. We saw the massive landslide along with Nepal's lucious green valleys and mountains. We actually had no idea where we were going to land. Turns out we landed in a soccer field in Duhamel, a city about an hour outside of Kathmandu. We negotiated our $200 quoted price, paid in cash (and this is why you ALWAYS should have spare US cash when traveling 3rd world countries) and found a ride back to the city where our tour agency wanted us to pay again. Nope.

All in all, we made it back to Kathmandu pretty efficiently given the situation. No stranded nights at some border town. It was such as relief to be back where we could talk openly again and use that internet and even unblocked at that. Ah, a free world.

Mt Everest,