Honeymoon in Hanoi
When I told my parents we’d be going to Vietnam for our honeymoon they weren’t thrilled. Growing up in the 60s, Vietnam represented war and napalm to them. My uncle, who did two tours in Vietnam as an Army Ranger LRRP, was more optimistic with “It’ll be nice without the Viet Cong.” He gave me an ivory peace sign on a necklace he carved there in 1969, and told me that if it kept him safe during two years of jungle patrols, it would keep me safe on vacation.
Vietnam is a place like no other, and I know it’s a cliché to say so. But after visiting over fifty countries, none permeated me so completely. In most countries you can forget you’re away from home, perhaps find a park or café that isn’t so exotic. But you can’t escape Vietnam while in Vietnam. The smells, the air, the sounds, the food, the frenzy, the exhaust, the heat, it saturates you to the core. It is awesome in the very sense of the word. Vietnam overwhelms the senses so much that you’ll find yourself paralyzed on a Saigon street corner, unable to speak or make a decision as if lobotomized. And you remain in Vietnam a week after leaving – it sticks with you.
We arrived in Hanoi on a bumpy propeller plane out of Luangprabang in Laos. We could have bussed it, but due to the mountains and mudslides and night bandits, it would have taken 24 hours to travel what we covered in ninety minutes by air. Lao Air had already crashed a few times that year, so the chance of our plane crashing was relatively low.
We arranged to be picked up at the airport, and a shiny black Ford Expedition had our name on it. A young American couple from our flight tagged along. Our driver, wearing dark sunglasses, barely spoke and played loud techno music during the ride. As we neared the city center the music’s tempo increased as the urban pace outside our vehicle also increased, as if the city controlled the music. Few cities have as much flowing congestion as Hanoi. Endless people, tuk-tuks, mopeds, cars, trucks, and bicycles move in an organized chaos that does not exist on our continent.
We had dinner with the couple from our flight, and I vowed never to do such a thing again – socializing with strangers requires one to be perfectly agreeable, and it is the most tiresome thing in the world. That night I snuck out of our room in search of toilet paper. It was pitch-black in the hotel hallway, and I walked into something and flipped over, hitting the floor with a crash. Two men in pajamas appeared with flashlights. They were night guards and had brought in and parked their mopeds in the hallway, completely blocking it. I limped back to our room, annoyed, my arm bleeding. In the room my uncle’s ivory necklace sat on a table. I put it on and did not take it off until I returned home a month later.
Hanoi is hot, and people are mostly active in the early morning or evening. During the day you nap or lounge about in the shade in a stupor, drained of electrolytes. You can try to fight the heat with cold drinks and ice cream, but you will not win. Hot, urban air in tropical Asia is merciless and the New Englander is not designed for it. Part of a visit to Vietnam is the sweating, and it continues into the night.
A visit to the markets of Vietnam is a must, and it provides cover from the sun. It’s a good way to see locals going about their daily business, as well as sampling foods unknown at home. We drank Sprites next to a dog butcher, who was busily arranging his medium sized canines over hot coals. Their snouts were locked in a crispy, angry snarl, and their white teeth contrasted sharply with their golden brown and glazed hides. I did not like the fact that they smelled good. At home the meat I eat is seemingly unrelated to the animal it came from. In Asia, pigs squeal as their throats are cut next to rows of pork chops, chicken heads roll onto the ground where stray cats fight over them, and eels are cut in half live for customers. I don’t know how many Vietnamese PETA members there are, but I do know my wife became a vegetarian that day in Hanoi as the smoke from cooking dogs blew over our sweaty bodies. She’s force fed me tofu ever since.
The streets were packed with women working and carrying heavy loads of rice and vegetables slung over their shoulders in big wicker baskets. Most wore the traditional broad-rimmed hats and loose long pants with sandals that are excellent attire for the heat and sun. A few lent their hats and cargo to my wife as we passed.
I talked to a few men selling various items, even old American dog tags and helmets. An older man, through translation, said he once was a Viet Cong guerilla. He wanted me to pose with him in a picture and then gave me his address in Hanoi so I could send it to him later. After they made a toast with whiskey. The ex-Viet Cong hugged me tightly before I walked off, something no one else did to me in Vietnam. Regrettably, I lost his address while making a mad dash across a busy street. I was struck by how much the world can change in forty years. I wondered if he had possibly shot at my uncle (or vice versa) while he wore the very same necklace in 1969 as I wore now – unlikely, but not impossible.
At night Hanoi becomes a different place. It remains warm, and humid, but it is no longer oppressive. The city becomes frantic with energy. I will never forget wandering through the night markets, mesmerized by the atmosphere. Mobs of people emerge from their daytime hide-outs and swarm the streets. Sidewalks become congested with merchants selling everything imaginable, and the smell of cooking and spices fills the air. The lights from cars and neon signs and cafes add to the motion of the place in an almost disorienting manner. Flames leap three feet from the grills as fish are thrown on. Every seat at every table is taken. Mopeds somehow manage to buzz through the crowd carrying fresh fish and chickens; the only people who get in the way are travelers like us. The locals flow through and around each other like fish, never quite touching. Choosing a place to eat is not easy, as there are so many options and the competition is fierce, but eventually you will find yourself pulled to a table by someone with a menu in hand. The food is cooked in front of you as family members scream commands back and forth to each other. Within minutes of ordering, food is before you, steaming hot. I had a spicy shrimp dish with superb noodles, and was completely drenched in sweat by my last bite.
Mere dollars will keep you eating and drinking for hours, until you finally realize its 1AM. You notice that the crowds have barely shrunk, but you, a foreigner, must burrow into your air conditioned room in defeat until the next day. I fell asleep holding my uncle’s peace sign necklace, wondering what it all meant.
Kyrgyzstan & Kazakhstan
Ashir was my college roommate at Suffolk University in Boston. When he said he was from Kyrgyzstan I had no idea where the country was. It had only been a few years since the Soviet Union had collapsed, filling my globe with fifteen new nations, some of which were exceedingly difficult to spell and pronounce. In 1998, as he was leaving for home after his graduation, I promised him I’d visit, but it wasn’t until the summer of 2012 when we finally reunited in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek. We’d grown a few gray hairs, gotten fatter, experienced marriage and kids, but within minutes we were joking and laughing like no time had passed since our bunk bed days.
With a cool breeze and warm sun on my face, I was amazed as I looked out at Issyk-Kul, a huge inland sea tucked into the Tien Shan Mountains, rivaled in height only by the Himalayas. The opposite shore was 40 miles away and should have been hidden beyond the horizon, but a wall of jagged mountains, all capped with snow, stretch in every direction. The sight was alien, and initially I mistook the scene for a brewing storm promising thunder and heavy rain. Despite its alpine environment, Issyk-Kul never freezes even on the coldest winter days. Deep below its blue surface geothermal energy is released, so its temperature is always comfortable for swimming. Having no outlet to the oceans, it’s also salty.
As waves jostled the sand and gravel beach, local women sold corn cobs and fried dough filled with hot mashed potatoes to sunbathers. It was a scene and environment I did not expect to see in a tiny landlocked nation, the open seas of Europe and Asia several thousands miles away.
Bishkek is a pleasant place. It has the worn, shabby appearance common in most former Soviet nations, but its tree-filled parks, bright cafes, and soft-spoken people make up for its drab architecture. The sound of running water is always near, as an irrigation system was designed for the city’s countless trees. Foot-wide channels filled with gushing water run along most streets, bringing water to the trees, but also having a cooling effect on the city, which has lower summer temperatures than the nearby countryside. The stone statue of Lenin was moved to a less pronounced location after the fall of communism, and in its place is Manas, the Kyrygz national hero, riding atop a huge muscular horse, sword in hand.
Just outside Bishkek was Ashir’s grandmother’s home, where he spent his childhood leading sheep across grassy foothills that stood below massive, stony peaks. He had told me about the place many times during our time as roommates years before, but the reality of it rivaled my imagination. From within a valley, far off, across a whitewater river, storming down the foothills of enormous mountains was a sight I’d never seen – a herd of horses, without saddles or reins, a cloud of dust behind them. There was at least a dozen of them, most rust colored with black manes, but a few with tan coats mingled within the group's core. The sight epitomized freedom. Wherever they willed to go they went, nothing to restrain them. The animals moved about in silence, their hoof falls and neighing shushed away by the steady mountain breezes.
Three hours away from Bishkek in Kazakhstan is the city of Almaty, “the father of the apple.” Geneticists have discovered that all the apple species of the world originated in southern Kazakhstan from one indigenous variety. The landscape between Bishkek and Almaty resembles Kansas, an endless ocean of grass and dried shrubs. Entering Almaty, a city of several million, I realized that the idiot Borat has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. Oil has made the nation rich, and this is immediately and strikingly apparent as one is greeted by Almaty’s ultra-modern highways and glass skyscrapers. The city's new subway is cleaner than a laboratory, glitzy malls are packed with iPod-holding teens, and its streets are lined with attractive people wearing Gucci, Dolce, and the like. Mercedes and Bentleys roll through wide intersections, their drivers and wealthy passengers hidden behind tinted windows. Almaty could easily be mistaken with Paris or Moscow.
After a weekend in Almaty, I told Ashir that I wanted to go home, and he agreed. And I realized that at that moment, “home” was the same place to us. Home was Bishkek. Home was Kyrgyzstan. Ashir's family and friends, comprised of both ethnic Kyrgyz and Russians, immediately welcomed me into their homes and made me feel at ease, as though I belonged with them. The more I travel, I’m coming to learn that distant places with strange names aren’t so foreign after all.
A Road Like No Other
The road from Mt. Everest in Tibet to Nepal was six hours by 4x4 vehicle. In one 60-mile stretch, we descended almost 10,000 feet from the barren tundra-like Tibetan plateau to humid, dripping rainforest in two hours. The journey provided a lesson on how dramatically elevation affects animal and plant life. More so, the road allowed us to see the boundary between life and death in inches.
To their credit, the Chinese managed to cut a road through the highest mountains on Earth, over ridges and along cliffs where no road belongs. It’s an amazing engineering feat still incomplete. Descending, we realized that being killed was not a remote possibility. “Not many, four a week,” our driver responded when asked how often people are killed.
The road was partly paved, but in many places landslides had swept away everything, leaving behind rough tracks of mud and stones. Between vines, water poured down the rock walls, digging apart the fragile cliffs, where massive boulders loomed above, ready to collapse onto the road and tumble into the abyss, taking along the unlucky. There were no guardrails, and the wheels of vehicles were often inches, literally, from trenches that dropped hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet, straight down. The edge was usually soft mud, which vehicles rested upon, and visibly sank into, as they yielded to vehicles moving in the opposite direction. Death seemed plausible when the twisted remains of vehicles were seen through clearing fog on the distant bottom, especially when stones just driven over were released into gravity’s grasp.
Ahead, in an ancient bus with a dozen Hindu pilgrims riding on its top, a blond, dread-locked head suddenly poked out a window, spraying vomit. The bus smacked down into a huge pothole then bounced back up, the unlucky head smashing its chin on the window before falling back into the crowded bus. Simultaneously, a suitcase fell off the bus into the nothingness to its side. A barefoot man on the roof tried in vain to catch it, diving outwards while grasping a rail with one hand. The suitcase probably contained all his Earthly belongings, as he was dressed in soaking rags.
A boulder larger than a house was blocking traffic, bamboo scaffolding and machinery buried beneath it. The soil around it was fresh, perhaps only falling free hours before. In ankle deep mud and pouring rain, we had to walk around it and through a worksite, where desperate Nepalese, mostly barefoot and without helmets or gloves, welded rebar and poured concrete twelve hours a day. They lived on the road, in tents and shacks that hung to the precipice like spider-webs. Aware of the boulder, taxis had driven up from the odd little border town of Zhangmu and brought us to a guesthouse. Our vehicle and driver arrived in town the next morning, after the boulder succumbed to bulldozers and dynamite.
I often look at maps of Asia and place my finger on the Nepalese and Tibetan border, and butterflies still flutter when I imagine that such a place exists.
A Tibetan Exit
We had arranged to have someone meet us and take us to Kathmandu, but so far no one had greeted us yet. So what first welcomed us into Nepal, and bid us farewell from Tibet, was nothing magical or even pleasant. No golden Buddhas shining in sunlight. No mysterious Hindu icons drowning in sweet-smelling incense. No women in beautifully colored saris. No smiling brown-faced children with red dots on their foreheads. Nothing from any exotic travel brochure at all. What welcomed us were the horrible, guttural death screams of a large pig getting its throat cut.
Of all the animal species that endure mankind’s appetite, and therefore the blade of his slaughter, the pig makes it clear that it is unwilling to become part of the food chain. There is nothing like the sound of a pig resisting death. It is a distressing sound, and fills one with uneasiness, especially when far from home in an unpredictable, alien land. Nothing releases a scream so terrifying, so ear-piercingly high and simultaneously deep in tone, as a hog in terror. And what is most terrifying about a pig’s cry of agony is that it could almost be human, perhaps the insane cries of someone being skinned alive.
Technically, on hearing this horrible sound, we were not in Nepal yet. It was still fifty yards away, across the so called Friendship Bridge, which spans the roaring Bhote Kosi River, connecting the ramshackle town of Kodari in Nepal to the relatively more modern town of Zhangmu in Chinese Tibet. The two border towns sat in the depths of a warm and humid canyon that took us a quarter of a day to descend into from Mt. Everest and its icy and barren Himalayan siblings the previous day. After spending almost two weeks in Tibet, one of the most isolated lands on Earth, Zhangmu made us feel as though we were returning to civilization, but had we come to it directly from home, it would have appeared as a backwards, isolated settlement on the brink of some fairytale land.
The environmental change of the previous day’s journey had been sudden and dramatic. The morning we left for Zhangmu and the border we had sipped tea inside the Rongphu Monastery, the highest Buddhist temple in the world, resting only two and a half miles from the mountain rimmed Base Camp of Mt. Everest. The temple and the few homes around it were crude stone structures, their walls painted white and roofs a rusty red. The temple’s golden stupa reached fifty or so feet into the air, and was faded by the hostile climate. Wooden prayer wheels below were shifted by the wind, while a lazy Tibetan mastiff watchdog napped below them. Strings of red, white, blue, yellow, and green rectangular prayer flags were draped haphazardly about the buildings and some of the nearer hills, where they blew in the wind and became entangled with each other. The only sound besides the wind was the creaking sound of a water pump being worked by a young, rosy-cheeked girl nearby. Although these things were of man, they did not violate nature as our species so often does. Rongphu and the few people living around it belonged in such a place, no less than the mountains themselves.
At 16,000 feet, lack of oxygen caused headaches, blurred vision, loss of appetite, and weakness. Movement by visitors had to be restrained, for anything more than a saunter caused us to gasp deeply for air frantically as if we had just sprinted up three flights of stairs carrying cinder bocks. Even sitting up from a chair caused me to feel a shortness of breath. The locals, however, moved about with no effort at all, after millennia of their bodies adapting.
Unlike the Chinese, Tibetans have dark skin. Their hair is also dark, most of the women keeping theirs in long pigtails. All had rosy cheeks. They wore basic, hand-made clothes, usually brown or reddish in color. Their children were well fed and plump, nourished off the high fat of yak milk. The faces of the adults were worn and wrinkled from the climate, and it was difficult to guess at their age if they were older than twenty or so. Besides the few who tended to the kitchen in our guesthouse, none paid us any attention, not even a nod of recognition or flash of eye contact when passing.
It was a cold place, hats and jackets and wool socks a necessity, even by day. There was nothing but gray rocks and gravel in every direction, and besides the occasional patch of green moss or tiny yellow flower hiding between boulders, there was not a hint of color to ease the eye. It was beautiful in its pureness and emptiness, a scene that could have been lunar if not for the cloudless blue sky above. And behind it all, was snow-capped Mt. Everest, a thing that dwarfed everything I had ever seen.
During the day, we managed to drag ourselves up the final two and a half miles to the official Mt. Everest Base Camp, where three Chinese soldiers napped in a concrete bunker, apparently guarding a sign that stated our elevation as 16,900 feet and the place as “Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp”, Everest’s local name. We stared at the sight before us for half an hour, finding it difficult to truly grasp where we were, then returned to the guesthouse late in the afternoon panting for air, our heads pounding with migraines.
We shared the guesthouse for one night with an old German man and two English men, who brought a guitar and managed to get some of the Tibetan staff to sing along with songs they improvised. A handful of Chinese tourists made a brief appearance in the evening, and their presence silenced the Tibetans, who retreated outside and stayed there until the Chinese left. Tibet may be technically part of China, but Tibetans are not Chinese, nor do they wish to be.
We slept in a freezing stone cubicle, where we wrapped ourselves in heavy yak blankets atop a basic wooden bed. At night the wind blew hard, and the mastiff guard dog barked until sunrise. Sleep was difficult to come, and when it did come, it came with odd, hallucinogenic dreams, mostly likely an effect of the elevation. The next morning, after the world’s tallest mountain exposed itself to us once more, we loaded ourselves and belongings into our Toyota Land Cruiser, and began our descent into the world.
It seemed as though we were so far from home, and we were, but more than in terms of distance. There were places further from home, but few as isolated or high, or as difficult to get to. Most people we knew would not be able find our location on a map. And the Rongphu Monastery was a place still mostly untouched by the encroaching modern world, something we were ironically a part of. Electricity was only provided for a few hours each day by diesel generator, and running water did not exist. But for all its isolation, the world was much closer than I had ever imagined. What was most shocking about Everest Base Camp was not its isolation and extreme elevation, but how quickly we were able to return from it to an earthly setting where we could quite literally breathe again.
Only six hours after watching Mt. Everest disappear from sight, we were in Zhangmu, sweating in sub-tropical heat and humidity, breathing normally, a variety of bright greens and other colors shocking our eyes. We had gone from a frozen land almost devoid of anything living, a dry and desert-like vastness, to thick, moist forests teeming with life. For four hours west of Mt. Everest the terrain remained barren and high, well above 14,000 feet, but when we turned south, towards the border with Nepal, the transformation from one extreme to the other took not much more than an hour. Here, the road was a continuous and steep grade downward that caused the stench of burning brakes to fill the vehicle.
The Himalayan Mountains acted like a giant wall, keeping everything to the north dry and brown, and everything to the south lush and green, healthily soaked with the moisture of the Indian Ocean and its monsoons. After driving through the last pass through the mountains, the change in climate was immediate. We had suddenly entered a new world within a few miles. The vegetation first began as thick conifer trees encased in fog, most small and twisted and bonsai-like, clinging to the steep cliffs and vertical rocks. Then gradually the vegetation became more tropical, with large shining leaves and parasitic vines clinging to everything.
The winding and infinitely descending road from the Himalayas leading to the Nepalese border was at best a few months old. It was an amazing feat that the Chinese had even attempted to build a road here, where for dozens and dozens of miles nothing existed but vertical cliffs thousands of feet high. Any small outcrop or crack in the stone was filled in greedily by vegetation, large ferns and awkwardly shaped trees that reached our first horizontally from their perch and then turned vertical towards the sky. Countless waterfalls called the place home, all of them unreachable by human beings. Many times small cascades tumbled onto the road and drowned our vehicle as we passed through and under them. Thick fog and mist made visibility short, at times less than a car length; at these times we inched along, thousand foot precipices only feet away. In places the road was still under construction, while other sections had collapsed into the abyss, massive fissures and gaps in the pavement showing just how soft and unstable the ground and rock beneath us was. Most areas did not have guardrails, and where there had been, evidence of mudslides surrounded tangled and twisted steel that had once been an attempt at safety. Many times the road was blocked by car-sized boulders that had fallen only days or hours before, or just as likely minutes or seconds prior to our arrival. I realized that it was merely luck and the coincidence of time that allowed us to be safe in our Land Cruiser – our driver’s skill, although admirable, had little to do with whatever gravity decided to do.
We could live, or end up as a pile of mangled flesh and steel and glass, after tumbling end over end for God only knew how far, gravity ripping us down into a ravine that appeared to have no bottom. If this happened, I could not conceive how any attempt could be made to retrieve our remains – we would never return home. No landscape I have ever seen has matched this place, nor could I have imagined such a place prior to seeing it with my own eyes. It was a place from fairy tales. The only thing to do was to bury our worries, and admire the amazing scenery we were surrounded by, accepting whatever the outcome, however horrible the possibilities were.
Two miles outside of Zhangmu, the road was completely blocked by construction. We could either wait several hours until the road was reopened and our Land Cruiser could drive through, or walk. A mist had gradually become a steady rain, but we had raincoats to cope with it. We decided to walk. Our guide would lead us, while the driver waited with our bags in the vehicle. He would bring our bags to the hotel once the road reopened. As we set off, it began to pour violently.
After a klaxon sounded, signaling that they were done blasting away rock and that it was safe to pass through, we moved quickly, more to get out of a place that seemed quite dangerous than to keep out of the rain. There was about ten minutes until they would begin blasting again and we didn’t want to be around when they detonated more TNT. We went through several hundred yards of construction, and it was obvious that safety is not the priority of Chinese construction crews.
Many workers wore only sneakers, while some were barefoot or wore sandals as they traipsed about over sharp objects and electrical wires that were submerged in mud and water. Few wore helmets, and those that did, appeared to have old fashioned steel army ones balanced on their heads. As we passed, the workers gave us odd gazes, as though we had suddenly intruded into their world. Along the sides of the road were collections of tents, where the workers appeared to live. Some were inside lying on cots, while others cooked over smoky fires or played cards and other board games I didn’t recognize. I wondered how long they stayed in such places, in the rain and mud, how many days, or weeks, or months was this their home?
We ruined our shoes in ankle-deep mud and trotted through streams that soaked us to our knees, all the while jumping over sparking wires and ten foot holes. We had to make way for a line of about twenty Chinese troops in combat gear, complete with helmets and assault rifles. They jogged past us in the opposite direction, chanting and shouting, a long uphill battle I was grateful to not be a part of.
The rain came down in torrents, and in places poured off rocky overhangs as small waterfalls that created walls of water that we had to penetrate with our soaking bodies. We ducked and climbed over tangles of rebar and cement trucks. A few times we had to dart underneath massive steel I-beams and concrete jersey barriers that were suspended above by cranes, while barefooted workers screamed in panicked tones as they pointed up at the cranes’ cables. Sparks from welding torches were sprayed onto us, and our clothing was peppered with drops of concrete by the time we came to the end construction area. We were soaked and filthy, and frustrated. But we this was Tibet, we reminded each other, not Boston. We imagined such inconveniences when we decided to come here.
Our guide was mistaken about the supposedly short distance to the hotel, so we hired a taxi on the outskirts of Zhangmu, which took us partway to the hotel. Finally, two hours after leaving the vehicle behind at the construction site, we checked into the Snowland Hotel. I felt as though I had beaten the odds in some kind of game. After walking through the construction site and the rain and mud, my body had been cleansed of the tension that had buried itself in my muscles during the frightful ride down from the Himalayas, and although we would have to share a squat toilet bathroom and cold water shower with a family of Indian pilgrims, we felt good.
Zhangmu was a unique place, built on the side of a steep mountain. It was still hard to believe that our elevation was still 7,500 feet, after we spent so long doing nothing but driving down to get here. There was only one main road in town, barely wide enough for two small cars to pass each other. It zigzagged back and forth in tight, hairpin turns as it descended to the bank of the Bhote Kosi River and border. Traffic was horrible, and was made even worse by endless lines of Indian-made and brightly decorated Tata trucks that were parked along both sides of the road, either heading back into Nepal and India or arriving with goods bound for Tibet. Walking the steep road was far quicker than driving, as traffic would sit at a standstill for ten minutes before moving a mere twenty feet, where the insane process would begin again, the horns of vehicles and curses of their drivers never ceasing.
The ugly concrete buildings of Zhangmu clung to the vertical rocks behind them. Waterfalls, some nearly twenty feet wide, poured between buildings, past storefronts, and into cavities dug into the stone that led the water to the next level of buildings, over and over again until the torrents reached the Bhote Kosi. Stairways between the buildings provided shortcuts from one road level to the next, but they were so steep one had to use hands to climb up them. They were also wet with the rain and constant mist, and algae grew like carpets making the surface as slippery as ice. Walking through these tight areas it was easy to peer into the homes of people who called this odd place home.
It had been over a week since we had been in Lhasa, and every town since then had been not much more than a wild outpost, almost appearing derelict to our eyes. Zhangmu appeared as civilization to us. Restaurants and cafes lined the streets, many with English signs catering to the Western tourists passing through, Zhangmu being the only land crossing into or out of Tibet for hundreds and hundreds of miles, perhaps even a thousand. Internet cafes glowed at night. We had continuous electricity and a TV in our hotel room, albeit one that only entertained us with static. And to keep all the men working on the road to the north and the many border troops stationed nearby content, at night bright pink lights illuminated street level windows, where scantily clad Chinese prostitutes lounged on sofas for all to see. This was a Tibet – a tropical, decadent Tibet –that I did not imagine.
At the border the next morning, the sky was far above and small, and the sensation of being enclosed and oppressed by enormous quantities of vertical rock, all covered in thick dripping vegetation, was tangible and not easily ignored. Nature was resisting man’s intrusion here. At times the weight of all the rock around and above us seemed to be waiting for the just right moment to collapse upon us, destroying and burying all that was unnatural and did not belong in such a place. We could feel its tremendous mass pressing in on us.
The sun was out and bright, and its light glistened through the thick layers of fog and mist rising up from the torrents of water below. The occasional breeze brought dripping water off the walls of rock surrounding us, creating a light sun shower. All around was the natural sound of large quantities of quickly moving water. The sound, smothering most others, was brought clearly to our ears from directly below, and from hissing echoes around us, bouncing back and forth off the vertical columns of rock as it had for millennia. The only sound that seemed to have the power to penetrate the roar of the water was the terrified hog, which added to the surreal and otherworldly quality of the moment and place. Like us, the pig did not belong.
We had just walked out of the Chinese customs and immigration building in Zhangmu, and were relieved to be finally heading into Nepal. We expected that an undeveloped, poor country like Nepal would present us with some frustrations and unpleasant hassles in visiting, which it certainly would, but relief in entering Nepal was not a feeling I had expected, which should tell you something about Chinese border crossings in Tibet.
As in all communist, totalitarian nations I’ve visited, we first had to stand for over two hot and stifling hours in one of several unorganized, chaotic lines, all of which eventually crashed together as a seething mob. We – mostly white foreigners – then had to submit to an intimidating search, in which heavily armed Chinese soldiers rummaged through our bags and suitcases looking for and seizing anything that may have painted China in a bad light, or had the appearance of favoring Tibetan independence. The pages of books were flipped through in search of hidden materials that were forbidden. Digital cameras were turned on, and soldiers scrolled through photographs looking for any images of police, soldiers, checkpoints, or military equipment; if found, they were deleted without a word. We even heard rumors that pornography was also being confiscated, most likely to end up under the mattresses of members of the communist party. The worst item to be caught with was a picture of the Dali Lama, which if possessed would result in a fine and deportation for foreigners, and prison, or worse, for Tibetans, who couldn’t leave the country legally anyways.
There seemed to be people of three different categories waiting to pass through the border, all of which were segregated by Chinese officials into three different lines. The most common were Nepalese workers, both men and women, who traveled north into Tibet to work on the many construction projects China was implementing in the region – roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure. While in Tibet, we met many Nepalese who worked for months or even years at a time without returning home or even making a phone call to loved ones. For these people, it was the only way for their impoverished families to survive back in Nepal, and I knew that the money my wallet contained was equivalent to a year of grueling work for two or three such people. Unlike the Chinese, their faces were Caucasian-like, dark and rough from too many hours under the sun, and their bodies were thin and haggard, overworked like draft animals. They wore rags, and while some had small bags, most had no belongings at all. They waited with expressionless faces, without complaint or movement, not because of patience, but because of exhaustion, a complete defeat of their spirit. These people moved through customs the quickest, some without stopping, and only the occasional few were halted by officials. These, usually men, produced wrinkled papers out of their pockets, which received at best an inattentive glance from bored soldiers who quickly urged them through.
Indian people made up the next group, and they were almost as numerous as the Nepalese workers. The members of this group, also segregated into their own line, were well dressed and fed, most quite fat. They lounged about on the floor in a regal-like manner, as if they were in the sanctuary of their own homes. Some laid flat and slept, apparently accustomed to such delays and inefficiencies, either because they had been through this before, or because things in their homeland were no different. They were obviously wealthy, and for every two or three of them, there seemed to be a silent servant who hovered above them, puttering about quickly, carrying bags and suitcases from place to place, fanning elderly women and men, or preparing food on portable stoves for families that seemed not to acknowledge them at all. No orders appeared to be given; the servants simply knew exactly what to do, and when to do it.
The Indians were returning from a pilgrimage to Mt. Kailaish, one of the holiest places in the world for Hindus, where it is believed the God Shiva lives. Thousands come each year, the old and young, the sick and healthy, the fit and unfit, to walk the 35 miles around the base of the 22,000 foot mountain. A rare few can do this holy rotation in a day, while most take up to five days to complete the task. The terrain is barren and difficult, well above the home of any tree, resembling an icy moonscape. Elevations range from 15,000 feet to a staggering 18,000 feet, where each breath brings into the lungs not much more than half the oxygen a breath at sea level will. Summer temperatures can dip below freezing during the day, and almost always at night. The place is isolated, even in Tibetan standards. There are few shelters during the journey, so most sleep in bags on the cold ground or in tents carried about on their backs, or the backs of their servants. There are no hospital facilities for many, many miles, and unless a doctor is making the pilgrimage nearby, professional medical attention is impossible. Deaths are expected, and happen regularly. Privileged or not, the people waiting to get across the border to our sides certainly were part of a group that was now smaller, however slightly, than when it first arrived. It seemed as if a man from each group produced papers and passports for his entire family, then as a group, they all passed through customs without opening their belongings for inspection.
The third and smallest group consisted of Cindy and I, and everyone else – the tourists – all from developed, free societies. Most were white, from Australia, Canada, the United States, and throughout Western Europe, but there were a few groups from South Korea and Japan. And all of these, unlike the Nepalese workers and Indian pilgrims, were used to efficiency and being defiant, and complained loudly about the situation. The Chinese officials gave almost all of their attention to these people, because they were seen as the most likely to speak unpopular and loud opinions of the situation in Tibet once they returned home. They were a threat, and needed to be treated accordingly.
This group took great offense to having their bags rummaged through by yellow-toothed, cigarette-smoking officials in oversized military uniforms. Each bag owned by a white face was taken apart, piece by piece, sock by sock, shirt by shirt, book by book, and scattered about on tables where soldiers pushed through the material clumsily, dropping things on the ground. Woman’s panties and bras were held up, for no logical reason. Any complaints fell vainly on ears that belonged to heads that had no idea just how ridiculous the situation was, and that the Chinese attempt at stifling negative publicity of Tibet was not lessened by their idiotic searches, but intensified with every second of intimidation, with every finger that touched the tiniest piece of personal property.
For every one of these people that was granted exit out of China, dozens of Nepalese or Indians went through, inciting more frustration. It seemed as if the frustration and resistance to authority of this small group of people from the other side of the planet began to boil over and begin to infect the wealthy Indians in the line adjacent to us, who in turn gradually got up from their lethargic positions on the floor and began to make angry demands to officials far head. This in turn agitated the Nepalese workers furthest from us, who also started to show hesitant, but clear signs of frustration with the situation.
The indifference of many hundreds of people waiting along with us had suddenly disappeared completely, and with that indifference so did the relatively organized lines. Nepalese workers were suddenly mixed in with German tourists, who were cut by Indian pilgrims. South Koreans pushed across the crowd towards what appeared to be an opening, but were then blocked by the waist-high piles of suitcases placed as a barrier by the servants of an Indian family. Large crowds full of frustrated people tend to worsen, unless space and mobility is given, and given quickly. So by the time we reached the front of what was now a pushing, angry mob, the soldiers and incompetent officials began to lessen the extent to which they searched through each bag, and ours fortunately passed through with not much more than a glance, sparing our Lonely Planet Tibetan guide books from being confiscated and my photographs of Chinese troops from being deleted. After a handful of officials took turns looking through our passports with looks of either confusion or suspicion decorating their faces, we each received our exit stamp and walked out of the building, onto the Friendship Bridge. We may not have been in Nepal yet, but we were finally out of China, and thankful for it.
When first entering China through Shanghai we were treated the same way as when one enters France or Canada, in an organized relatively respectful manner. But that was a false face to appease those who fail or choose not to see the true face of the Chinese government. It was in China’s interest to put forth a façade of relative openness in the large cities in the east of the nation, where money from the outside world flowed in. However, leaving China through one of its Tibetan borders, where few foreigners visited, revealed an entirely different reality, a reality where the outside world knew little of. The government’s obsession with control reeked of intimidation and paranoia in Zhangmu, where it was ripe in the air. It showed what was truly behind the mask of China, which all too often seems well intentioned from a safe distance.
On the Chinese side of the Friendship Bridge we paused for a moment to gather our thoughts and belongings, and that’s when I heard the agonizing, gargled scream of something. It startled us, and instantly I knew that it was the sound of death, pain, and fear. I looked up, and partially hidden behind a corrugated steel fence I saw something large and pale-skinned hanging by its hind legs above the ground, surrounded by a half dozen camouflaged Chinese troops wearing combat helmets. It was twisting its body in vain as it hung helplessly, and then let loose yet another scream, more a roar of rage than fear. I saw now that it was a large pig being killed.
“Lunch time,” a heavily accented voice suddenly said. We looked up to see a Chinese soldier dressed in camouflage. He was about my own age, smiling slightly, most of his forehead covered by his helmet. With one arm he held a large, black assault rifle, and with the other he gestured politely for us to continue walking away from the customs building and across the bridge. With a nod and an uneasy smile, I obeyed him, all the while the pig continuing its terrified screams, now gargled by it most likely choking on its own blood. I looked back quickly and saw the massive beast hanging by the relatively thin ankles of its hind quarters. It was now silent, the skin of its back quivering, blood hanging from its mouth in what looked like long strands of thick red slime.
There was a cluster of rusty buildings on the far side of the bridge, hanging on to a precipice high above torrents of water below. We assumed we could buy our Nepalese visas to gain entry into the country somewhere on the opposite side, so for the time being we were in a kind of limbo, a no-man’s land between the two communist nations. As we walked across the Friendship Bridge towards the Nepalese side, high above the roar of water, we passed several Chinese troops who stood like statues along the bridge’s length. Each had a face of indifference. Although I would have liked to have captured a photograph of them with the backdrop of thick green vegetation and the mist of small waterfalls rising around the bridge, I knew not to. I had already been accosted by Chinese police in Lhasa for taking a picture of them, and these ones were combat troops with assault rifles, not batons as in the capital. I didn’t want any problems with them, baton or rifle. As we neared the Nepalese side, I actually felt as if I was both escaping from a forbidden place, and returning to the world I belonged to. With each step, I felt less and less uncomfortable, even though the unknowns of a place like Nepal still lay ahead.
“Mr. John!”, someone shouted over the sound of crashing water. I looked about and saw no one.
“Mr. John!!”, the voice shouted again. A young man, thin, and looking like a young Gandhi, approached us.
“Yes,” I said.
A smile stretched across the man’s face. “So wonderful to meet you, Sir.” He extended his hand. “I am Babu, and it is my responsibility to take you to Kathmandu.”
I shook his hand and introduced Cindy. He introduced another young man who had appeared next to him, his name I did not hear.
“Please follow me. And welcome to Nepal!”, he said turning, taking his friend’s hand in his own and walking ahead of us. Their hands were locked together, and I noticed as we followed them that their fingers were gently rubbing one another’s hands and knuckles in a loving manner. Once, as they walked, Babu’s friend rested his head on Babu’s shoulder, and whispered something that brought smiles to both their faces. And in this unexpected fashion, we were led to the opposite shore of the Bhote Kosi River, our exit from Tibet.
Killed with Kindness in Uzbekistan
I was almost killed in Uzbekistan – and it had nothing to do with the bombings outside the Israeli and American embassies, or that air was vacuumed from my window with a high-pitched whistle on the flight to Tashkent. Uzbeks are so kind towards guests that one may be killed by their hospitality.
There was a mob at the airport as police ripped apart passenger bags. Women clutching babies argued with police, who tossed their belongings about on tables, putting items aside like CDs, radios, and anything else valuable. Men stood silently, while round grandmothers with huge hands slew curses at the police.
As I approached, a policeman gestured to me, and led me through the crowd. He let me pass without even looking at my bag. My passport was stamped, and I walked out into an Uzbek dawn.
A group of men waited outside. They stared at me, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, then something registered on their faces, and they swarmed me. “Taxi!” “Where you go!” “Englishman!” Then my old college roommate Shavkat appeared. I pulled him to me in a hug, like a child clinging to an adult for protection. With him was his cousin, Kamol, and Ravshan, the family driver.
Shavkat said we’d be driving to Samarkand, five hours away. “But you’re tired, so we’ll arrive in four.” I went to buckle my seatbelt, and realized it had been slashed. Strands of fiber were all that remained. I glanced at the speedometer and realized our speed was approaching 100 mph. This was the first time I thought I’d be killed.
The road was two lanes, and was pockmarked with craters, which we swerved between. On the sides were shepherds leading sheep, as well as occasional cows. Sometimes an animal would dart into the road, and to avoid it Ravshan would careen into oncoming traffic. Trucks, overloaded with cargo, barreled at us, belching smoke, horns blaring, missing us by feet. Every so often we seemed to go airborne. Heaps of metal that were once cars rusted on the roadside, reminding me that things don’t always end well. But I was tired, and the hospitable thing to do was to get me into bed quickly.
My hosts began arguing, and we screeched to a halt. Kamol got out and hung towels over the windows. Shavkat explained, “He’s caring for you. He doesn’t want the Sun on you.” So we raced on, towels blinding me from the inevitable crash.
Our survival surprised me. We arrived in Samarkand, where Shavkat’s uncle, Olim, awaited us with a breakfast of eggs, sausage, bread, and the usual morning beverages of coffee and vodka. After several coffees and an equal amount of vodka shots, I was allowed to lie down in Olim’s spare bedroom. I drifted into unconsciousness more akin to a coma than sleep.
The second time I thought I’d be killed was when I woke for lunch and realized that vodka wasn’t an anomaly, but a staple of all Uzbek meals. Before food was served, four toasts to my health were made, each time a mouthful of vodka was hospitably forced on me. By the time lunch was finished, I could not stand or speak. For two weeks it never ended, with every meal, every introduction – vodka – a dozen shots daily. There was no escaping. With each toast to my health, cirrhosis approached and my health worsened.
I made the mistake of revealing my birthday one day, and vodka flowed hatefully. I woke desperate for water. I didn’t want to wake my hosts, so I drank water from the tap, which led me to the third time I was almost killed in Uzbekistan – amoebic dysentery. I spent the next week in the latrine, grateful for the temporary reprieve from low quality vodka.
The Registan is an ancient mosque in Samarkand, its minarets 275 feet high. Due to its crumbling structure, visitors aren’t permitted inside. I was disappointed, and this was intolerable to Olim. Bribes were paid, and up we went past numerous danger signs.
I hadn’t eaten for a week, and I was back on a vodka regimen, so my mind was untrustworthy. A spiral staircase brought us to the top, where we looked at the horizon. A feeble wooden structure stood between us and the edge. I leaned against this structure to pose for a picture. Just after the picture was taken, the wood collapsed and I fell backwards onto the minaret’s edge. Another few inches and I would have fallen to certain death. That was the fourth and final time I was almost killed in Uzbekistan. We laughed on the way down, and later, with great hospitality, a toast was made to my good luck in surviving.
The Uzbek people are the kindest people I have ever encountered, but they will try to kill you.
A Long Way
The world’s longest railway is the 5,772 mile Trans-Siberian. It connects Moscow with Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean. I say I’ve ridden it, but technically I haven’t. Outside Ulan-Ude, 3,514 miles east of Moscow in Siberia, the Trans-Mongolian railway branches south from the Trans-Siberian and runs through Mongolia, ending in Beijing, where we boarded, bound for Moscow. At 4,863 miles, it’s the third longest on Earth. Although shorter than the Trans-Siberian, it’s still a long way. In comparison, Boston and Los Angeles are 3,000 miles apart. The journey along the Trans-Mongolian takes slightly over five days non-stop, but we spent some three weeks exploring the regions we traveled through, getting on and off the train several times.
Years could be spent exploring China, but a month after starting our journey in Hong Kong we were antsy to move on. Beijing pushed our limits with its traffic, crowds, heat, pollution, and begging children. As the city's crane-packed skyline receded from the window of our Mongolia-bound train, I felt relieved.
At sunset on our first day aboard, we entered a drab landscape, barren and brown – the Gobi, a word that translates in Chinese as "desert". That night we woke when the train stopped and began rocking violently; we had reached the border and the train’s bogies (wheels) were switched to fit onto the larger rails used outside China. Each carriage, along with its passengers, was lifted and slammed onto new bogies. The reason behind this stems from China's fear of a Russian invasion. By having a different size train gauge than Russian trains, any Russian offensive would not be able to utilize China's rail system without a great deal of inconvenience.
Morning greeted us with crisp, blue sky and endless green steppe. Only the occasional man on horseback, far off, broke the routine. Nearing the Sovietized capital, Ulaanbaatar, clusters of yurts crowded the outskirts - a third of Mongolia's populace lives a nomadic life, and out of necessity live in the easy to construct and transport yurt. The air as we entered the city was full of wood smoke and the smell of cooking meat. We disembarked and spent several days in the city itself, then in a yurt, surrounded by amazingly vast scenery I’d never before imagined in Terelj National Park.
Aboard the train again, near the Russian frontier, pine and birch forests filled our view. Gone was the emptiness of Mongolia. Russian soldiers made a brisk entry onto the train at the border, haphazardly searched third class for contraband, and we were allowed entry into the world's largest country by area.
At Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest at more than a mile in depth, mountains rose from the horizon like shards of glass. A dip in its frigid Siberian waters is said to lengthen life; I caught a cold. In tiny villages such as Listvyanka, old men stacked wood as their wives picked mushrooms in the forests, and children pumped water manually from wells. Further west we reached Irkutsk, a large rustic city on the Angara River with wooden houses and stylish people – a bit of cosmopolitan Europe deep in Asia. Although it did not feel it, Korea was still nearer to us than Moscow.
Travel on a long-distance train is an isolated, self-sustaining world, a place separate from the train’s actual location. Your bunk becomes your bedroom, your room your home, your carriage your neighborhood, all its inhabitants your friends, or at least friendly acquaintances. Those who share your room are family, like them or not. You share food and blankets and socks with them. You’re in physical contact with them more often than not. You hear their snores and burps and arguments. You learn to fall into yourself for privacy, despite the five people who are within easy reach. The adjacent carriages are foreign countries with people you consider outsiders. After a full day on a such a train, passengers from these carriages are easily noticed. Carriages further away are alien, seemingly more distant than your final destination. Hours, then days, pass. You read. You nap. You feel disturbed when the train stops, not because the time until you reach the final destination has been lengthened, but because the rhythm of your current life has been upset. A train is supposed to move, not sit idle.
With 1,104 miles left, we crossed from Asia into Europe, an imaginary boundary marked with a stone obelisk, surrounded by the same birch and pine trees we’d watched blur by for days. A bottle of champagne was popped somewhere. Twenty-four hours later, we rolled into giant Moscow, an entire continent and several billion people behind us.
There’s something comforting about a distance so great, especially today when jets circle the planet in a day, when everything’s so fast. When you watch every inch pass of 4,863 miles, you realize the world’s a very big place, still a long way.