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That Day in Tibet

I recently “discovered” Instagram. Oh I had heard about it before, some of my friends had told me how cool it was but I chalked it up to yet another in the endless cycle of social media apps that I just didn’t have the time to keep up with. All of the apps, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest require time and effort, and I have a hard enough time organizing my day sometimes to keep up.

But I decided to give Instagram a chance and in order to participate I decided to look back at some of my trips. So I am going through my trips and uploading a favourite picture each Wednesday. I decided to start with the trip I talk about most, my trip in August 2010 to India, Nepal and Tibet.

I had wanted to go to Tibet ever since I was very young. I can’t remember exactly where I got the idea but I do know that one very major appeal was that it was remote, exotic, and unique. So after years of thinking about it, in 2010 I finally decided to go.

After a little research into that area of the world I found that the easiest way to get a visa was to join a tour who would do the paperwork for you. Due to the sensitive nature of the area the Chinese government is hesitant to issue personal visas, so group visas are the way to go. The British company Explore was selected and a trip to India, Nepal and Tibet was on. Group trips are usually not how I choose to travel as I worry that they would be too restrictive but other than the logistical issues I am very happy that we went with Explore at this time.

The mix of people my sister (she wouldn’t let me go alone) and I met on this trip were amazing. As a group we were looking to do more than just look around, we were there to experience these areas of the world. In particular we wanted to interact with our environment and the people we met. It wasn’t a consious choice, it was just the unique mix of individuals on the tour. The advertised scheduled tour was a mix of hiking and driving over 21 days between Lhasa, Tibet and Kathmandu, Nepal.

When hiking over mountain passes sometimes you have to make your own trail. Amazingly this pic does not show how steep this actually is!

The trip was amazing but nothing can beat that day in Tibet. It started like many had already. We had camped in a rocky field on the edge of little village between two mountain passes, one of which we had hiked over the day before and the other we would hike over that day. We were in good spirits, the afternoon before we had taught a village worth of children how to throw a frisbee using a paint can lid. That morning we were hoping to say goodbye to the kids but unfortunately they were no where to be seen. The plan for the day was to hike over the second mountain pass and down into a monestary where we would be sleeping that night.

I love mountains and believe that hiking in them is the best way to understand what they are all about. Hiking in Tibet is a mixture of loose rocks, amazing sights and dealing with exhaustion caused by elevations over 3800 meters above sea level. By about 10 am we were all packed up and headed out of town and began the steady climb to the top of the pass. Any progress where you have to gain elevation in Tibet is slow and even though the top of the pass wasn’t really that far away we took well over 2 hours to get there. The group consensus was that the top of the pass was the best place for lunch but as we were hiking darker clouds had gathered.

The rain started slowly at first cutting our lunch short. As we headed down the dusty slope it got worse and the normally dusty tracks began to become muddy rivers. The further down we went the more the runnoff concentrated causing the last section of the decent to the monestary to become a hectic race against time to get to relative safety against being washed away.

We made it to the monestary in what seemed to be just in time. Our guides took us through a mysterious door and straight to a room where benches ringed the edges. This was to be our room for the night so we took our chance to stake our claim to a portion of a bench and dry ourselves out.

We were mostly dry when our guides came into the room to let us know that if we wanted to see chanting monks on this trip this would be our only chance, so wet or not we all headed up the hill. As we were about to enter the temple a couple of us donated so that we could take pictures, a difficult task as no flash is alowed and it is very dark. Without a tripod good pictures are next to impossible.

Walking around the edge of the room in a clockwise direction (the manditory route) the seriousness of the monks was apparent. Chanting never stopped, as if even breathing was not allowed. Every monk was at a different place in the prayer so even if I could have spoken the language I am sure I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what they were saying. It was exciting and strangely calm all at the same time.

The monks ranged in age from very old to quite young. As we walked around the temple many of them started to make eye contact with us. It seemed to be something that would have been forbidden as their glances away from the prayer cards were quick and they never stopped chanting. As we stayed longer the glances were accompanied with smiles.

Monks outside the door to our room.

After our circuit around the temple we headed back down the hill to our room. We thought that was going to be it for the day but a few hours later the roles were reversed. On their dinner break the monks skipped eating to come down and visit us. Being surrounded by over a hundred monks, none of whom speak english was a little odd. We were at a little bit of a loss but luckily Chris was there. Chris had a way of making things happen and it was his idea to create challenges. He gathered a few rocks, made a pile and then proceeded to throw pebbles at it to see if he could knock them over. After a few throws we started handing out pebbles to any monk who was near to see who had the best aim. I can’t remember for sure but I think it was one of the monks who was able to knock it over first. What proceeded was a series of strength challenges from arm wrestling to an odd finger wrestling match and a game of what is the largest boulder you can lift.

What do monks do to keep strong? Lift the closest boulder… they are everywhere!

While some of us were proving how strong we were out came the phrasebooks. We started to try and practice our Tibetian which was semi successful and it was at that time that the one young monk with some english was shoved towards us. As it turns out the sum total of his knowledge consisted of WWE wrestlers names.

After about an hour of this and without warning one of the older monks determined that the fun was over. I didn’t hear him speak but every monk just took their chance to smile and wave and they were off within a moments notice and that was it. They were back on the clock for chanting after their dinner break.

It is now about seven and a half year on from that and I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Looking through the pictures in order to pick the best ones is very hard as amazingly I don’t have a ton of high quality ones. Being in the middle of a mass of red robed monks makes it hard to step back and photograph the event but I am glad that I didn’t. I think that if I had a lot of really good pictures I would probably have not been a part of the event…. and that is what I really love about that day in Tibet.

Some of the monks even came into our room and checked out our stuff…. they were hilarious!

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Swiss Conversations

When I am traveling I live for nights like tonight. Traveling alone is not an easy thing to do and can be quite isolating. For a long time I didn’t go places that I wanted to because I could not convince my friends to join me. They always had a reason why they “couldn’t” go, either family or money or something else was holding them back. So something happened (can’t remember what) about 7 or 8 years ago that I call the F#@% it moment when I said I am going… you are welcome to come but I am not waiting for you to make up your mind. So I tend to travel alone and I meet who I meet, and tonight I met Dan (Daniel).

Dan must have had the most amazing day because all he wanted to do was talk about it and through the evening sitting out on a roof top patio at a Swiss Gasthaus I heard the story. Dan is 70, originally from Holland and was trained as an aeronautical engineer but decided fairly early in his life and mandatory military service that sitting in an office was not for him. So he became trained as a teacher and went to Kenya to teach on an island in the middle of Lake Victoria. He told me of stories of trying to make the lessons have meaning and in trying to show the kids that physics and math were interesting subjects by burying treasure around the school and giving grid coordinates to find it or by using cheap flimsy air mail newspapers to create hot air balloons that worked indoors but quickly caught fire when let off outside. After that he must have traveled around a bit because he eventually ended up in Australia where he now lives. When he arrived there he became a carpenter, met a girl who he married, together they raised 4 boys but unfortunately after doing so they split up. And so Dan was traveling around on his own in Europe as well, back for only the second time in something like 13 years.

His main story of the day and the reason why he was so excited was his meeting with Zep the farmer. When driving past Dan had seen this man walking along at the end of the day with his farming tools over his shoulder. The look of him called to him and so Dan found a place to park his car and walk back and talk to this man. I don’t know how long they talked but they at least discussed the amazing thing it is to live in this area. Zep told Dan about the reasoning for a local church that they both were looking at was because of Foot and Mouth disease. Apparently there had been a time when the disease was coming up the valley and the people of the village had prayed that if god had stopped the disease from spreading they would build a church. You can guess the result.

I love having these kinds of encounters on my trips. People who are traveling always want to talk. It has been harder this trip as language has been a barrier. People all seem to see that I am the fish way out of the water here (unless they are other tourists in Amsterdam who kept stopping me for directions). Conversations seem to be nothing more than to the point and what we need to figure out at that time so I really enjoyed my time listening to Dan’s stories, and the nightcap of Glenfiddich we shared really helped as well :).

To catch you up on where I am. Yesterday I rolled out of a very sleepy Strasbourg and drove by back roads again to Triberg, Germany. I followed this here because the Lonely Planet book that I bought said that it was the king of Cockcoo Clocks and the highest waterfalls in Germany. On arrival I went for a hike up to see the falls which where not impressive in their size but I found the entire area very calming. As I hiked down I also thought of how much I enjoyed the little town so I decided that even though it was only 1 pm and I had thought of going further that I was going to stay, and so stay I did.

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Triberg, Germany. That is Hotel Pfaff on the corner where I stayed the night.

This morning I went south and into Switzerland and find myself at Gasthaus Waldheim in a little town called Furstenau which is south of Chur (don’t forget to check out the map of the trip if you want to know exactly where this is by clicking here). The plan is to stay here tonight and tomorrow as I think I may take a ride up the Stelvio Pass tomorrow if it is nice enough. I am in the Alps now but the cloud cover is around the more impressive peaks at the moment. I am hoping that it will lift soon and the view will be worth the trip. If not, well I am sure I will figure something to do.

Anyways, I leave you with today’s favorite picture. There are little fountains everywhere around here but this is my favorite one, Hope you like it too.

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I hate having a constantly running nose!