What have we learned, now?

 Seriously, look at these guys work. A hundred feet of air between the bridge deck and the water, and they're basically playing hokey-pokey while carrying untold weight.

Seriously, look at these guys work. A hundred feet of air between the bridge deck and the water, and they're basically playing hokey-pokey while carrying untold weight.

Three months into my semi-permanent vacation, I’m making this monthly check-in a variation on the theme: these are things I knew already, but in the last month I’ve noticed them more sharply than before.

  • My strengths:  tenacity, endurance.
  • My weaknesses:  staying on the correct trail, wayfinding generally.
  • I love, love, love my family and friends and their easy, generous, spirited enthusiasm for my oddball, unusual goals. Life is less lonely when you’ve got a tribe cheering you on, and I’ve had that and more throughout this trip. Thank you for the steady stream of encouragement from home, it’s been invaluable.
  • Porters  are badasses.  Seriously, these guys are so strong. They carry unimaginably heavy loads over difficult trails and across narrow bridges, uncomplaining and often smiling. I’m amazed every time they make the effort to unleash a joyful, “Namaste!” Were I they, my utterance would be closer to, “Get the hell out of my way….”
  • Dal bhat is the best! Rice, curried vegetables and lentil soup, served on a tray with a crispy bit of papadam, this is the ideal nutrition for long days of hiking, and generous seconds make it the best deal on the guesthouse menu. 24-hour dal bhat power.
  • Everywhere in Nepal I’ve observed the easy kindness of strangers, and it makes smile and feel glad to be alive in the world. Sharing water with thirsty people on the trail, congratulating people on reaching the top of a climb, making space for everyone around the fire. There is an interest in communal well-being and kindness that softens the severe environment we’re trekking through.

“Bupsa?” Whoopsa… (Type 2 Fun)

 Khari Kola river valley. Somewhere around here is a town. Now I just need to find it....

Khari Kola river valley. Somewhere around here is a town. Now I just need to find it....

“You go ahead,” I told Andy as we prepared to leave our lunch stop in Jubing, a full plate of dal bhat lulling me into a post-meal sleepy pace. “I’m going to take this slow.” The walk from Jubing to Bupsa, our destination for the night, should be about three hours, uphill at first (the worst, right after eating) then downhill then uphill again. On the way we’d walk through the village of Khari Kola and across the river before meeting the final ascent to the settlement of Bupsa on top of the hill.

I left in high spirits, knowing that Bupsa would be the last overnight before we met the human highway of trekkers arriving at Lukla and joining us on the trail to Everest. I was enjoying the sun, the view of the river that cuts a deep gorge through this region, and the realization that the mountains were definitely more dramatic here.

The trail rose then evened out as it traced around the side of a mountain and then opened into a view of a hardscrabble farmland. I thought I might be able to see Andy up ahead here – the turn in the trail afforded a long view of a lot of terrain. But Andy is a seriously fast hiker and I couldn’t spot him up ahead. I did encounter a woman and her child sitting on a narrow, rocky section of trail. “Namaste,” I said in a big friendly voice, and she returned the greeting with a skeptical gaze. Odd, not the usual response. “Khari Kola?” I asked, gesturing in the direction I was already heading. She looked at me a bit longer and pointed back from whence I had come. She might be referring to the long river by that name, I thought, whereas I was looking for the town. I tried again, this time referring to the day’s ultimate destination: “Bupsa?” I asked, still gesturing ahead on the trail. “Bupsa,” she nodded slowly, and I took this as affirmation that I was heading in the right direction.

That’s the thing about confirmation bias. You rarely can recognize you’re committing it.

What I did not know at that moment was that sometime earlier in the afternoon I had accidentally left the main trekking trail and veered onto a side trail traveled by locals only. The route I should be on was heading due east on a well-worn trail of easy footing through one town to another. The route I was on traced a thin line northwest, down the slope of a river valley, through terraced farms and steep woods – a line that became thinner and more suspect the longer I walked it.

 This is not a real bridge. Upper right are the brick pilings of the former bridge. Upper left is where you can imagine a trail, if you've already convinced yourself that it exists.

This is not a real bridge. Upper right are the brick pilings of the former bridge. Upper left is where you can imagine a trail, if you've already convinced yourself that it exists.

At the river crossing, I knew something was weird. Long, swinging suspension bridges were familiar, but this bridge was merely several bamboo poles lashed together and set across the rocks. To my right were the rotting remnants of actual suspension bridge and my brain rationalized it this way: earthquake damage took out the bridge, this is the temporary replacement. I stewed about how to get across Huck Finn’s raft without falling in, and on the other side I scrambled up the steep, muddy embankment looking for the trail. I found it, sort of, and as I walked through the dense brush on the narrowing trail, the doubts crept in.

I stopped on a flat stretch, looked at my topo map and assumed wrongly for the second time that afternoon that I knew where I was: there are two trekking trails that enter Bupsa I somehow had gotten onto the one that I wasn’t planning to take. It would be a bit longer of a walk, I thought, but I would get there if I just kept going. It was nearly 3 p.m. and I decided to give myself one more hour of walking. If nothing had materialized by 4 p.m., I would still have plenty of daylight to retrace my steps – all the way back to Jubing if necessary.

Hours later I would be shocked, somewhat horrified, to realize that in fact I had not been on either of those trekking routes. I had gone so completely off trail that I was now switchbacking up the backside of a mountain on a local trail rarely used at all, but that never sees the soles of trekkers’ boots. After a half-hour of climbing through forest underbrush, a view to a terraced farm opened up and I was ecstatic. I left the trail and walked through the tiny plowed fields till I found a person I could ask for help. I pulled out the Lonely Planet book and hacked away at the phrases in the back, “Help, I’m lost!” The woman working the field gave me a quizzical smile and a namaste, but clearly my attempt at speaking Nepali stunk.

“Bupsa?” I asked. “Bupsa," she answered, pointing straight up the mountain behind her, gesturing to a trail that I couldn’t discern.

“Bupsa?” I asked again, as if that would elicit confirming details. “Bupsa, Bupsa,” she urged pointing uphill.

With hesitation, I started walking in the direction she pointed, stopping every few feet to turn and ask. “Bupsa…?” and she kept waving me on, “Bupsa, Bupsa!”

A bit later, two teenage boys were running down the trail toward me. Score! Teenagers! (At this point in the trip I am convinced that all Nepalese teenagers speak at least some English to compensate for my total lack of Nepali.)

“Do you speak English?” I asked hopefully.

“Yes!”

“This way to Bupsa?” I ask, pointing uphill.

“Bupsa, yes.”

“How far to Bupsa?”

He stumbles a bit here. “Is it one hour?” I ask, cringing that he might say yes.

“No,” he chuckles, gesturing with his hands to indicate a smaller amount of time.

“Is it five minutes?”

“No, no, no,” he laughs, “more."

Okay, this is okay. I was going in the right direction, uphill, and I was somewhere between five minutes and one hour from Bupsa.

My relief and confidence growing, I repeated this conversation with every human being I could, and reminded myself to laugh by asking a few farm animals for directions, too. I was tracking through people's fields, yards and quiet trails that are normally unmolested by tourists, and yet everyone was as helpful as they could possibly be. The trail forked and curved and I was constantly doubling back to the same people to ask yet again, “Bupsa?” And they smiled encouragingly, pointing up the path. Always up, up, up.

  At one point, I was confident enough in my proximity to Bupsa that I paused to take this picture. These baby goats stumbled and couldn’t yet bleat properly, they were so young!

At one point, I was confident enough in my proximity to Bupsa that I paused to take this picture. These baby goats stumbled and couldn’t yet bleat properly, they were so young!

Around four o’clock, the cold and damp fog were crowding in but at least the houses and farms were more closely spaced. I approached the dooryard of a small farmhouse and asked a teenage girl, “Is this the way to Bupsa?” And she cheerfully answered, “This is Bupsa!”

Uh no… This couldn’t be Bupsa! Bupsa is supposed to be a dense cluster of trekking lodges offering warm meals, sometimes warm showers and freezing cold beds. But I was standing on a steep hillside surrounded only by Nepalese homesteads, lived in by Nepalese people, with no evidence of a trekker in sight.

Bupsa….

I mimicked laying my head down to sleep and asked again, “Bupsa? Teahouse?” and she looked at me quizzically but gestured up the hill a ways farther.

Nearing 4:30 p.m., I reach an area where kids were playing soccer on a dirt field, and a family was building a house. The woman sees me trudging uphill and hails me over with an interested smile. “Bupsa? Teahouse?” I ask her, feeling my determined optimism starting to fail. “Yes, yes,” she smiles and walks me over to her husband. This man sent from heaven speaks perfect English, stops the hammering he’s doing on the house and talks to me about where I’m trying to go.

I explain I’ve been lost and I’m supposed to meet a friend in Bupsa at a trekking lodge. He tells me to keep walking uphill and I’ll get to Bupsagumbda. This worries me because I remember seeing a village on the map called Gumbadebanda, east of Bupsa. I shake my head no, thinking, I don’t want to go farther east, I want to go directly to the village.

But this kind, patient man thankfully did not give up. “No, you walk to Bupsagumbda. You know what gumbda is?”

At this point I realize I misheard him; he was asking do I know what gompa is. 'Gompa' is monastery – I should walk uphill to the monastery, and that’s where the center of Bupsa is.

Bupsa gompa!! I took off with renewed energy.

The whole time I’d been marching myself down unused backcountry trails, I’d also been dragging the worry with me of how the hell I’d meet up with Andy. We had expected to reconnect around Khari Kola, and he must be wondering where I was. My only thought was to get to Bupsa, get on WiFi at a trekking lodge and try to message him. He could be waiting at Khari Kola, he could have headed back to Jubing to look for me, or hopefully he decided to push ahead to the place where we agreed to end the day: Bupsa.

Now that that I was definitely minutes away from the end of my long, wrong-way walk, I was fully focused on figuring the odds of how we’d meet up. Even if he did make it to Bupsa, which of the half-dozen lodges might he be in? Perhaps he’s all the way back in Jubing, in which case we’ll lose a day while I hang out in Bupsa tomorrow waiting for him to catch up.

“Patti!” I hear through the muffled cloud of my competing thoughts. “Patti!!!”

I turn around and 50 feet below me on the trail is Andy. Andy!

How the hell…?

A few hours earlier, near the point where I unwittingly left the main trail for parts unknown, Andy had paused to wonder if I would recognized the turn I was supposed to take. An expert navigator, he later described to me that keeping on the correct trail essentially required making a 180-degree hairpin turn that was easy to miss. A little ways after that, having not seen me, he decided to turn back and go down the wrong trail to find me. But by that time, I had gotten so far down the trail that he wasn’t able to quite catch me; he actually figured that I hadn’t yet gotten to the trail. Or possibly that I twisted an ankle and went back to Jubing. He knew that he wasn't on the right trail anymore, but decided to push ahead.

  There was no part of me that believed Andy and I would be sitting in Bupsa in the same lodge, beers in hand, by 5 p.m. But hot damn!

There was no part of me that believed Andy and I would be sitting in Bupsa in the same lodge, beers in hand, by 5 p.m. But hot damn!

Either way, we were both shocked to learn that I was ahead of him on the same trail that we both managed to get totally lost on. The difference was that Andy knew where he was lost, and I had no idea.

Minutes later we flopped into the outdoor chairs of a lodge -- relieved, surprised, dumbfounded at the turn of events. We spread out the topo map and recreated how the afternoon went wrong. “Did you go across this bamboo bridge?” I asked him, showing him the photo evidence on my phone. “Oh yeah, I took a photo of that, too.” Comparing the timestamps, we realized we were just 10 minutes apart. And we both had gotten the same confusing early directions from the same baffled woman.

Khari Kola? Back the way you came.

Bupsa? That way, uphill.

 

 

 

Seven Days In Tibet

 A view toward the Himalayas peeks through multitudes of prayer flags.

A view toward the Himalayas peeks through multitudes of prayer flags.

China was genuinely wonderful - I was smitten with all of it, even the moments that might seem unpleasant on the surface. But just a smidgen of a trip through Tibet complicated and soured my feelings about China. Let's start with Lhasa:

The old town of Lhasa where Tibetan culture thrives is deeply atmospheric: women wear traditional dresses, Buddhists in prayer seem to outnumber any other pedestrians or street vendors, narrow stone streets thread between centuries-old Tibetan style buildings, creating alleys and alcoves that you could explore for days. in the enter of old town, you see a steady flow of Buddhist "pilgrims" (our guide called them) practicing the kora: a meditative prayer that's done while walking in a large circle around sacred places.  The kora in Lhasa is a circular pedestrian street that passes several sacred monuments with the main temple at the center. As they walk the kora clockwise, people also chant and often holding small prayer wheels and spinning large fixed prayer wheels as they walk by rows of them. Some people prostrate themselves as they travel the kora - first kneeling, then laying flat in prayer and then rising and stepping forward to repeat the yoga-like flow of movements. A strong, noticeable tide of worshippers walks the kora at almost any time of day.

 Evening: people walking the kora in Lhasa, including two monks and a man kneeling in prostration.

Evening: people walking the kora in Lhasa, including two monks and a man kneeling in prostration.

What does this have to do with China?

Marching in the opposite direction, counter-clockwise, on the kora circuit are Chinese police, SWAT teams and military personnel making their presence known. They are not a constant parade like the pilgrims are, but they are impossible to miss: they usually march in 10-man formations (at least, I never saw a woman among their ranks) and wear Kevlar vests, helmets - some with face masks - and carry semi-automatic rifles and riot shields. Some teams carry fire extinguishers, to prevent or end any protestor's attempt at self-immolation.

Just to enter this circular street through old Lhasa, everyone must pass through a police checkpoint; all bags are x-rayed, but white people were waved through without an ID check.

 Worshippers throw incense into the stupa as they pass by on the kora in Lhasa.

Worshippers throw incense into the stupa as they pass by on the kora in Lhasa.

Adjacent to this old neighborhood, a broad modern boulevard that leads to "Liberation Square" is decorated with Chinese flags. Three massive black police vehicles were parked here at the edge of old town -- one the size of a motorhome, another sort of resembling a tank, all three bristling with communications antennae and uniformed personnel with weapons. One officer carrying a powerful-looking rifle smiled at me and called, "Hello!" in English. Incongruous.

 Liberation Square, Lhasa.

Liberation Square, Lhasa.

Attempt to photograph any police or military presence - or accidentally capture it in a photo - and you'll be pulled aside by a handful of officers and made to go through all your photos, presumably to delete the offending images.

Outside Lhasa, checkpoints were frequent. Our tour spent three long days driving across western Tibet from Lhasa to the Himalayas - nearly the border of Nepal. Along the way we became accustomed to our microbus stopping and our guide telling us to get out our passports.

About Liberation: this is the Chinese government's term of art for its annexation of Tibet in 1950, a situation that Tibet's exiled Dalai Lama described as cultural genocide.

I noticed portraits of Chinese leaders and Chinese flags prominently displayed everywhere I went in Tibet, including in restaurants and the one private home our tour group visited.

(Admittedly, all the areas we visited are frequented by tourists, whose admission to the region is tightly controlled by the Chinese government; we saw what they wanted us to see).

 "Cultural relics protections, everyone's responsibility" reads an ironic sign at Tashi Luhnpo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet. #culturalrevolution

"Cultural relics protections, everyone's responsibility" reads an ironic sign at Tashi Luhnpo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet. #culturalrevolution

Chinese transportation projects and development projects in Tibet are double-edged sword. Arguably, they raise the standard of living but at the expense of traditional customs, culture and religion. Old-stye Tibetan homes are razed to make way for apartment buildings that elderly Tibetans don't want to live in, we were told. The same road and rail projects that might boost the Tibetan economy also speed the cultural disintegration that results from scores of Chinese and others easily moving in to confer and confirm their own cultural stamp on Tibet.

 Living room of a traditional Tibetan family's home, complete with Chinese leaders' portraits.

Living room of a traditional Tibetan family's home, complete with Chinese leaders' portraits.

"Ask my anything, but maybe don't lead with politics," our guide Tensing told us, smiling, early on our tour. Guided tours with registered agencies and credentialed guides are currently the only way to visit Tibet. Tensing was a font of information on Tibetan Buddhism and culture, but only on rare occasion referenced Liberation, the Cultural Revolution or the politics of Tibet's lack of sovereignty.

My visit to Tibet was brief and I saw an extremely narrow slice of life and geography, and it was through my Western perspective without benefit of deep knowledge. But I left feeling both concerned for the vitality of Tibetan culture, and also resigned that perhaps the tipping point of Chinese appropriation has already passed.

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[Tibet tour: October 2-9, 2017]

That Time In Beijing When I Threw Up On The Street

There are unfortunate moments in any trip that can threaten the joy, and I've tried to cultivate an ability to look at un-fun situations as a neutral, future observer to make enduring them a little easier. And so on my first night in Beijing, when I found myself doubled over between a rickshaw and a Jetta on a crowded sheet and barfing up cucumber salad, I had three simultaneous thoughts:

1. They probably think the white girl is drunk.

2. Perhaps they think I'm just hocking up a massive loogie and spitting in the street, not uncommon here.

3. This will be very funny to me at some point, maybe as soon as tomorrow.

Allow me to back up, now: That morning I woke up in our sort-of dirty hostel in Tunxi and the sore throat that started the night before had blossomed into a head cold. By the time our bullet train arrived in Beijing that evening, my head was was full of snot and my eyes were tearing from the most painful sore throat I've ever had. A not-insignificant amount of space in my backpack is full of medicine that I lugged with me, so I wasn't too worried about being sick or getting treatment, I was mostly just feeling totally miserable and bummed.

We checked into a hostel, and I was deteriorating fast. Food, then sleep, then reassess. We walked through a pedestrian area that was crowded with sounds and people and smells - a sensory overload that made us understand why people say Shanghai may be the glossy future but Beijing is real China.

We choose a small, crowded noodle shop and wedged into wooden chairs at a wooden table, about 15 feet and several tables from the front door on the busy side street, not realizing yet that the distance and obstacles between me and the street would become important soon enough.

Have you ever had a sore throat that was so painful that it sent spasms of pain down your esophagus when you swallowed? The pain intensifies when you try to blow your nose, which you are now doing constantly, in a way that makes the productivity of your sinuses both impressive and horrifying. We ate a vinegary cucumber salad while waiting for noodles, and that triggered a cough/sneeze/esophogeal mutiny that turned my stomach over. I had just enough time to register, 'Oh shit, this is actually about to happen, isn't it?' I grabbed for the snot-soaked tissues in my pockets and tried to extricate myself from the blocky chairs and tables that penned me in, and rushed for the exit.

I paused momentarily, relieved I was at least outside now, but realized this street didn't offer a lot of options. I was trying to conceal myself anywhere as the salad came tumbling out in loud, heaving retches. I was loosely aware that an old man was watching from the next shop stoop, and that I needed to make sure I didn't get anything inside the rickshaw, and that the Jetta was really shiny and I should probably avoid splattering its fender, too.

I want to state clearly and proudly - this wasn't Delhi belly or Montezuma's revenge or the usual traveler's GI distress. I've eaten street food and fresh produce and brushed my teeth with tap water during this trip and have had zero issues. My head cold made me throw up. Ridiculous.

I got back to the table melted in misery. Andy looked at me with concern edged with interest. "Are you ok?"

"Um, I'm pretty sure, no."

I slept hard that night with the help of drugs, spent much time the next day deliberating if I should check myself into a nice hotel for three days of quarantined sleep and consider Beijing a lost cause. In the end, we switched hostels as planned, I slept for a day solid and put on my rally cap after that. It was definitely an uneven rally, punctuated with soggy Kleenex and growing a cough that wouldn't quit for the next week.

And you know what? None of this took the shine off of China for me. But Beijing will forever remind me of standing on a street with my hands on my knees and a puddle of cucumber on the cobblestones in front of me while thinking, "Huh, so this will be memorable."