Beijing, China, May 2016, part 1

We left Xi’an in the evening on an overnight train to Beijing. We are a bit of a parade with the six of us- the twins and their retro frame backpacks, blue-haired Fiercely, and DH with his walking stick from the Himalayas. It was interesting to see the differences between Chinese and Indian trains. The station was clean, orderly, and free of animals. No one was sleeping or picnicking on the train platforms. We went through a gate to the platform only when we were allowed and after showing our tickets. We boarded the train at the appropriate car as directed by uniformed staff who stood military-straight by each car entrance and checked our tickets. Inside the car, we noticed that the car was bright with white walls, comfortable with a/c and the windows did not open. When the train started and people came by selling things, the people always wore uniforms. The cars seemed newer and very clean. There is hot water available in every car, useful for making tea or instant noodles, both extremely popular here. We had a nice ride, a decent night’s sleep and there we were at the Beijing station. Our destination from there took us on three subway lines and a bus, this is a big city!

We spent the first few days in the northeast suburbs hosted by a very sweet family (Lanxin and her mom, above) we met online through couchsurfing. They are so awesome! We hung out, cooked, shared photos and stories, played a wii-style dance game, and spent an afternoon at the Great Wall with our hosts. We also spent an afternoon with a Swiss family we had met in Xi’an. They are also going RTW with daughters for a year! We found a park, the kids had a great time, and I think all of the adults also enjoyed hanging out with other adults crazy enough to do this yearlong family travel thing.

The Great Wall. The section of the Great Wall we saw is called Mutianyu. Lanxin and her mom drove us there and we took a cable car up to the wall and walked from there. 

This section was originally built for defense in the 500’s and restored in the 1600’s. In the 1980’s it was again restored, this time to bring tourists in rather than keep invaders out. The surrounding land is forested and has some hills with rock outcroppings. The day was sunny and hot but the watchtowers have cool inside breezy resting spots, so the walk was not uncomfortable. I was happily surprised by the lack of crowds on a beautiful Sunday in spring. 



Handstands on the Wall!


We will always remember our first few days in Beijing and seeing the Wall, but mostly I think we will have warm memories of being with such a welcoming and kind local family.

Photoshopped passport photos

Next, we went to a hutong (small alleyways) district and stayed at a backpacker hostel. We had to get paperwork together for Russian visas. When we got our photos, the lady at the shop fixed our hair and skin on the computer, we thought that was a hoot. 

The hutong areas in Beijing have mostly been razed to build modern construction, a bad decision in my opinion, but a few remain. The one where we stayed, at Nanluoguxiang station, looks to be newer construction, all grey brick with one or two-story traditional style buildings and has almost a carnival or boardwalk feel. Much fried food, photo-taking, live music in bars, and crowds. The vast majority of tourists are Chinese, looking very happy and taking selfies and eating fried squid on a stick. 

Our hostel was excellent, right in the middle of everything but quiet inside. We walked around the neighborhood and found the historic bell tower and a park by a river.


We stayed a few days and worked on those Russian visas. Cross your fingers- after three visits to the office and numerous hours logged by DH filling out the 10-page form on each member of our family- we don’t have them yet. We are waiting for the visas and enjoying Beijing. More soon!

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Xi’an, China, May 2016 part 2

My camel obsession continues! It turns out they are important in the Silk Road, which starts in Xi’an.

We got up early one day and went to the Shaanxi History Museum, at least DH and I did. The younger generation was content to sleep late and take advantage of the wifi at the hotel. I had been looking for free/cheap things to do in Xi’an, since hotels in China are 4-5x what they cost in Nepal and India and we were having a bit of sticker shock. Unfortunately, biking ($76 for all of us) or even just walking ($42) on the beautiful historic city wall in Xi’an was out of our budget, ditto for the amazing live show at the wall ($290), and going inside the bell and drum towers ($50). Sigh. But the weather turned beautiful on about our third day in Xi’an and we saw the Terracotta Warriors and walked around the city finding parks and trying different foods. And one morning, the museum. 

Bronze artifacts (above)and awesome tomb guardians (below)

 

A limited number of tickets are available for the museum each day, and it is recommended to go early for the first ticket distribution at 8:30am*. We took the 610 bus from the south gate and arrived about 8:00. There was already a line. It was a pleasant line and nice weather, and soon we were showing our passports and getting our tickets. I thought it was a great museum and worth getting up early to see it. It was fairly crowded, but it did not look like they would run out of tickets that morning. 

More camels! China has the two-humped variety.

Xi’an was the capital city of China and known as Chang’an for many dynasties such as the Zhou and Han.  It was one end of the Silk Road and therefore very cosmopolitan and with considerable economic importance. The surrounding area has yielded many archeological discoveries such as a Pleistocene Homo sapiens fossil, a Neolithic village site, and of course the Terracotta Warriors. There are displays including all of these, as well as an impressive collection of pottery from different time periods. 


  
Apart from the museum, we walked around the city a lot and admired the clean, flat sidewalks. We had walked on challenging urban terrain in much of Southeast Asia so we appreciated this. And there were many things to see and hear. Men would slap down wooden discs in their board game they played on the sidewalks. Crickets in softball-sized wicker cages were for sale and sang. A tree was getting IV fluid. Painted signs in Chinese characters sold calligraphy brushes and ink. Cherries were in season and for sale everywhere. Random statues, some that look historic, were present on some sidewalks.



The city parks we have seen in China are full of people and life. Ping pong tables are wildly popular, couples swing dance to a man singing with a portable speaker and microphone, parents run after toddlers in squeak-shoes, a group does folk dancing, kites fly, a man plays a traditional stringed instrument on a rocky hill, flowers bloom everywhere.


We went to a park next to the south city wall and to one further north called Lian Hu Park on a street of the same name. Lian Hu was large with two ponds and some amusement park rides. What I liked best was the population of older adults using exercise equipment. 



What a great idea- playgrounds for the older generation! Kids were more than welcome; my kids were all over the equipment and got only welcoming smiles from the elders. But we did not see typical playgrounds for kids. As I thought about it, this made perfect sense. Older adults need exercise and socialization more than kids do, and this area was alive with elders talking, moving, stretching out (some were incredibly flexible!), smiling, out in the fresh air on this beautiful spring day. I often think I’d like to grow old in Asia, the respect for elders here is impressive, they even have a holiday for them!

We left Xi’an and there are things I’d like to do there if we ever return. Our next destination was Beijing!

* I read that they give out 2500 tickets at 8:30, and another 1500 at 1:30pm. I didn’t see anything to verify this at the museum. I did notice that the Chinese people, it appears, are unlike other locals because they like to go to museums. We saw the opposite elsewhere (I’m looking at you, Thailand!).

Xi’an, China, May 2016, part 1

  Bronze chariot at terracotta Warriors museum 

We had a bit of a rough entry into Xi’an, arriving by plane (not our first choice) at around midnight local time. Seat61 is right on when he makes the point that trains are great because they arrive downtown as opposed to airplanes which arrive way out in the middle of nowhere. We were about an hour from town, and a taxi driver suggested we pay about $90 for the ride. No thanks! But there were no nearby hotels with vacancies, we were told by the tourist desk. We ended up in a bus (about $20) to town. It was a surprisingly clean, modern, smooth bus. In fact, almost everything we have seen since returning to China looks sleek and new, not only because we are coming from India and Nepal. It is just a clean, modern, constantly rebuilding place. 

When we settled down, we had a look around Xi’an. Two big landmarks inside the historic city walls are the bell tower and drum tower. These are pagoda style buildings, both erected in the 1300’s during the Ming dynasty. They are lit up beautifully at night. 


We went out one night in the Muslim quarter, and it was hopping! People everywhere, neon signs, and lots of street life. Shop workers were making all kinds of things to eat. A pair of men were pounding a sugar and nut confection into a flat shape with large wooden mallets. The steady beat was heard several shops away. 

At another store, a man was pulling taffy dramatically from a hook on the wall into the street. He would twist it and pull it, then double back and do it again. Another shop made hard candies in jewel-like colors with cute designs. We tried a few snacks- a delicious yogurt, flat bread studded with nuts, some of the nut candies, beautiful tri-colored, flower-shaped cotton candy, and a disappointing slice of cooked rice that was masquerading as a piece of cake.

We went to see the famous Terracotta Warriors outside of Xi’an. We took the 306 bus from the train station (very easy to find, 7 yuan each) which takes about an hour. Once there, we did not immediately see the museum area. It was about a ten-minute walk away. The surrounding grounds are sculpted and park-like with statues and shops with many souvenirs for sale.  It was a gorgeous sunny day, even more lovely because it had been cold and rainy our first few days in Xi’an. 

The Warriors site is large, with more lawns, paths, and flowering trees, and hills in the background (below). The Army itself is something to see. Buried for millennia and discovered just 40 years ago, it is still under excavation. The statues individually have unique faces, armor, even hairstyles. There are three excavation areas creatively named Pit 1 (both photos above) Pit 2(below), and Pit 3. There is also a museum displaying some small artifacts such as delicate metal pieces from the reins for the  terracotta horses, and the reassembled bronze horses and chariots.img_1433

Officially, this UNESCO site is called the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emporer. The 3rd century BC ruler ordered 700,000 workers to make the figures, which also include horses and chariots. A contemporary account indicates that the tomb originally had rivers of mercury and also buildings, all meant to protect Qin in his afterlife. A farmer found some pottery prices while digging a well on the property in 1974, which led to archeological investigation and the eventual discovery of the elaborate site. 

We feel lucky to have been there on a beautiful spring day, but since the exhibits are indoors it would be fine to go in bad weather as well. In fact, entrance prices are lower in the off season (Dec. -March). The kids ran around the grounds as tour groups meandered through and staff took their lunch breaks, enjoying a beautiful day and surrounded by what be the world’s most elaborate gravesite. 

We spent a few more days in Xi’an, more coming soon.

Kathmandu, Nepal to Xi’an, China

  We had no choice in how to leave Nepal-the land border to China was closed and we didn’t wish to go back through India, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos as we had come.  It turned out to be a beautiful experience because we crossed so many snowy mountains. We flew to Lhasa, Tibet, then Chengdo, China then Xi’an. The twins, who had never been in an airplane, now had three flights under their belts. DH and I realized we hadn’t flown together since around 2002. 
  We were six in a row on the first flight!

We crossed over the mighty Himalayas first. They were as beautiful and majestic as I would hope. We saw one peak sticking out through the clouds before we saw a clearing in the clouds with many peaks.   

 Himalayas are the thin band of white beneath the clouds, not easy to see in photo. Lhasa in lower photo.

We landed in Lhasa among the velvety brown mountains and went through customs smoothly. Well, there was the kind of tiresome part when Cleverly had to empty her enormous collection of books and art supplies to surrender a lone pair of children’s scissors in her backpack that would not be joining us. But the inspection area was quiet and the staff were friendly so it really wasn’t that bad. I am just impressed that we managed to hold on to our hard-won, 10-year, multiple-entry Chinese visas since getting them back in July. Not getting a new visa for this border crossing was a pleasure.

 What really surprised us on the flight was the vast sea of snowy peaks between Lhasa and Chengdu, kind of visible above. I did not know the name of this mountain range, but it differed so much from the thin band of snowy Himalayas. I looked it up and I think it is the Mahabarata Range in parts of Nepal, Tibet, China and Bhutan. It was beautiful. Since we had to fly, I’m glad we were able to see such gorgeous mountains from above. 

The plane was clean and quiet. No squattie potties, but rather western-style toilets with toilet paper, yes! We had a meal and snacks, some mysterious items but we ate most things. There were videos of a show with practical jokes that were all visual and fairly entertaining. At the end of each flight was a ‘relaxation excercise’ video where we massaged our head meridian and stretched our arms. After the third flight, we were in Xi’an in a sleepy airport. We were all struck by how new and shiny everything looked, and how quiet and deserted it seemed. We had gotten used to train stations in India with monkeys, dogs, and farm animals, many sounds and smells, and this was so different in comparison. 

It was nearly midnight when we got to Xi’an, but to us on Nepal time it felt two hours earlier. We wandered a little, hoping for a nearby hotel, and thought about a taxi to town. The girls had a great time with the luggage dollies. In the end, we took a remarkably smooth, clean bus (no bumpy roads or beat-up minivans like in Kathmandu) an hour to the downtown and slept in a business hotel. It was 2am local time and we slept almost until checkout time at noon. Kind of a tough entry but we were in China after it all. 

Cleverly the diva waves to the late-night Xi’an airport crowd as her minions push her chariot.


And, yes, that is a stick (near the kids’ feet) DH emancipated from the Himalayas.

On Leaving South Asia

Does everyone weep as they leave Nepal? I am full of sadness as we go through immigration at the airport. I wanted to work here, learn some of the language, hike to one of the base camps. When can I come back? It would help if I knew. And we are leaving all of Southern Asia. I had my last cup of chai this morning. I forgive the guy who stole our motorbike in Myanmar, I forgive whoever took our laptop from the street in Sawai Madhopur. It doesn’t seem to matter now. Everyone who overcharged us or pestered us to buy something- all is forgiven. Just someone tell me when I can return. It is the nature of travel to be temporary. It is my fate to return to the US and the east coast in the fall. None of this comforts me now. I know most people in the countries we have visited would love to be in my place, but I don’t think they notice the beauty of their everyday life. And in America, I hear so much complaining, anger, anxiety. Yes, in these countries where we have traveled there is poverty, lack of education, poor treatment of women, little personal space, trash and sewage issues. But there is pulsating life, humanity, calm, an openness, sincerity, simplicity, gentleness, a meshing of the sacred and the ordinary, beautiful outdoor spaces, and people have been so generous and sweet. One thing I especially notice is the cheerfulness and camaraderie of everyday work. A man may be standing next to a fruit cart all day or women may be pounding gravel by hand, but they have an easy pace and friendly interactions with co-workers and passers-by. Men hold hands or play-fight and women smoke and spit without stigma, it’s just part of a day going by. I will miss this cheerfulness and acceptance of life. My family continues our trip and soon we leave all of Asia. I do not look forward to being just a bunch of tourists, and kind of shabby underfunded ones at that, in Europe. We’ve been told to deny our nationality in Russia due to its strained relations with the US. And then there will be the transition back to work, bills, our house, etc. I am the luckiest person in the world to have traveled like this. It is hard to leave this place and this time in my life, but the earth turns, time goes on, every trip has an end, and we hold the memories and enjoy the present wherever we are and rise to meet the challenges of our surroundings. Right? But, still, I just am not ready to leave Nepal.

Annapurna Conservation Area, May 2016

“Sweet baby Jesus in a cradle!!! Another set of rock steps and I can’t see the top!!” Did I actually say that out loud? Quite possibly. 

img_1242Beginning of the hike

We were hiking, or as we hear more frequently in Nepal, ‘trekking’. We had gone to the city of Pokhara, about 185km west of Kathmandu, and hit the trails of the Annapurna Conservation Area.  We got our permits, chose to forgo guides and porters, and we were on the endless elevation-changing paths in the lower Himalayas. It was challenging at times, but it was actually going well. It turns out to be a massively excellent thing to do and we just stumbled into it. I wrote a post about logistics (including things I wish I had known beforehand) here. Basically, it is major bang-for-the-buck hiking because you not only get all the views and wildlife- in the Himalayas no less- but you can have all comforts of home without carrying the gear for them. Small hotels called teahouses exist along the paths to feed and house trekkers- you can even get apple pie! We didn’t budget well because we didn’t know the prices are jacked up compared to the rest of Nepal, but we were eating decently and sleeping in beds with blankets and pillows we didn’t have to carry. It was a dream and we are already talking about going back.

img_1239Anyway, we had started on a dirt and rock road at the village of Kande. We walked along the road and some locals directed us to a path as a shortcut through some agricultural fields. The fields are beautifully terraced (above), and there are stone houses sprinkled here and there. The path was made of rock with steps and some level parts. We passed goats, water buffalo, dogs. Further uphill, we came to a checkpoint at the park entrance, showed our permits, and then we were inside the park. 

img_1319

Beautiful Annapurna after the storm

We passed forests and meadows with less agricultural fields and hiked to a beautiful ridge called Pitam Deurali. It had been raining for an hour or so at this point and the wind was blowing strongly. We were warned of and actually saw downed trees. We reluctantly stopped for the night. The rain stopped but the wind kept blowing. The skies to the north cleared enough that we could see the rounded peak of Annapurna and, to the east, the pointed peak of Machapuchare or ‘Fishtail’ Mountain which, being declared sacred to Shiva and therefore off-limits to humans, has never been climbed. Much further to the east would be Mount Everest, not visible from here but a presence nonetheless. The cloudy view was far from perfect but took our breath away all the same. We were there in the shadow of the top of the planet! We ate dinner and slept in beds and rejoiced that we had to carry none of the gear to make those comforts possible. We were surprised at the food prices-two to three times those in Pokhara and Kathmandu- and realize we had to adjust and possibly shorten the trip to make our cash last.  

 img_1272Waterfall and New Bridge

The next day we had breakfast and headed towards Chinu and the hot springs. We walked downhill a disconcertingly long time, knowing that every step meant uphill trekking later on. We came to the town of Landruk, where children were heading to school for the day. We were back on the road for a time, then continued on more rocky paths and steps.  

 Typical stone house, and that’s a wooden beehive at center

We went through more terraced farm fields and passed goats and water buffalo, past several high waterfalls, down to a river valley and eventually to New Bridge, where a shiny new footbridge did in fact exist. It’s not clear to me if the settlement there has that name or if the term notes the landmark, but we walked across the shiny metal bridge and happily continued on our way. It started raining a little and we stopped for lunch. Afterwards we continued on and passed a beautiful narrow waterfall cascading down the giant rock face of a cliff. The air was fresh and cool and clean. We decided to push on to the hot springs. 

 We made it there and after a short rest we dropped off our bags and headed to the springs. We got our tickets and followed the path. We walked for what seemed like a long time and while I was feeling tired and a little whiny, the kids skipped down like mountain goats. I was dismayed to see a very long staircase heading down to the river. Another rock staircase! But there was no turning back, and besides there were hot springs to look forward to. We kept going and soon saw the three stone pools next to the whooshing river. I changed and got in as fast as I could. The water was so warm and relaxing after hiking all day up and down those hills. It felt amazing to just be barefoot and buoyant. We met other hikers and soaked until closing time. The walk back to the teahouses was cold and unwelcome, but beautiful in all the lush forest with its moss and birds and the receding sound of the river below. We had dinner and fell into soft beds with warm blankets, sleeping especially well after the long day.

  End of steps at hot springs  

We decided to rest the next day and stay in Chinu. We went back to the hot springs in the morning and virtually had the place to ourselves. We spent the rest of the day playing cards, meeting other trekkers, and just relaxing. We changed teahouses to one that was uphill- we hadn’t realized there were places higher up and we certainly hadn’t wanted to hike higher than necessary when we’d first arrived. But now we were staying at a teahouse that boasted a great view from every room. It was still cloudy, but we did get some nice views the next morning.  We made a plan to hike on the ridge trail starting the next day.

 We headed back to the ridge in the morning. The hiking was easier and faster; there must have been more downhills. We found the ‘old bridge’ and traversed the rickety wooden crossing, feeling more adventurous than we did with the newer metal one. We rested and had lunch in Tolka, just past Landruk. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice the path from Landruk to Forest Camp, which would have saved us some hiking and put us further on the ridge trail. But fortunately, we made it to the ridge teahouses before a rainstorm that lasted most of the night. We also had some more amazing views from Pitam Deurali, including an early morning view of Dhaulagiri, which is about 100 meters taller than Annapurna but appears shorter, being behind it from this angle. We had breakfast and headed to Forest Camp, said to be four hours away. 

 Lower hills to the south

The trekking here was different. The paths were more rocky and less sculpted. They appeared less trodden and we saw only two people, both locals, in five hours as we hiked. It was very green, festooned with vines, and had a carpet of moss covering almost everything. We went uphill at first then were relatively level as we walked on the ridge. This was delightful after all of the previous elevation changes of the hikes thus far.  At times I felt like running along the path a la Maria in Sound of Music. But I controlled myself because there were roots everywhere and I would likely have done a very un-Marialike tumble. Due to the many trees and again the clouds, we did not have amazing views on the ridge, though we occasionally saw the hills on either side. Cleverly and I each separately caught a glimpse of a small deer we believe was a barking deer or muntjac. The forest felt ancient, quiet and cool and undisturbed. The air was delicious.  Forest Camp with friends

After about five hours, we came to Forest Camp. We had hoped to continue hiking to low camp, two hours away, or even high camp, five hours away and from which you can hike to the Mardi Hawa base camp. However, after we ate lunch, the kids did not want to go another inch. Additionally, one of them had been resting frequently while hiking because she didn’t feel well. She later had a stomach bug in Kathmandu. We knew we could hike to the road from here, but not from points further on this trail, plus the austerity measures due to our low amount of cash were wearing thin. We wondered about the time estimates since we often took longer. DH and I talked about leaving the kids and going for the base camp in about 15 hours hiking on our own, but it didn’t seem like a good idea. We had to admit that it looked like we wouldn’t make it to the base camp. 

   

  

 We got comfortable there at a very picturesque teahouse. The kids were thrilled that there was a horse, a dog, and several water buffaloes, including baby buffs. A couple from Israel we had met previously on the trail were also staying for the night. We suddenly had more cash since we were leaving the next day, so we ate like kings. It started raining not long after we arrived and kept raining. We congratulated ourselves on our wise decision as the teahouse owners started a cozy fire in the dining room stove. We learned some Israeli card games and watched the rain from the warm dining room. It was a very pleasant evening. 

The next day, our companions headed towards the base camp and we were, alas, headed back to Pokhara. We were somewhat consoled with a great breakfast. It felt like goodbye to the Annapurna park, but we still had some major downhill hiking to accomplish. And thus began the most downhill steps I ever hope to do in a day. The path to Landruk was actually very steep and not well kept, so we weren’t completely sad to have missed the experience of going uphill on it. We went through the little town for the third time and continued downhill. We crossed the river on another suspension footbridge at the bottom of the long, long descent. DH estimates that we went down a vertical mile. Our ears were popping. Eventually the path evened out somewhat. Looking behind us, we caught some excellent last views of the snowy peaks of the Annapurna range. We made it to the road, and after some haggling with a taxi driver and a bus, we decided to keep walking to the town of Birethanti, where we checked out of the park using our permits again and found a jeep taxi that took us to Pokhara. We ended the night eating all the things we had promised ourselves while hiking- falafel, chocolate, french fries, soup, ice cream. We were proud of the hiking we had done, and we were glad of low food prices and the nice, flat sidewalks of Pokhara.  

 With lambs near new bridge

Kathmandu, Nepal, May 2016

  It felt strange to leave India after almost three months there, mostly in the Rajasthan desert. We had our sunset boat ride in Varanasi and it seemed a fitting goodbye, our visas were expiring, the weather was uncomfortably hot, and it was time to go but I still felt like we would be back in our Jaipur neighborhood in 10 days in our usual pattern. Yet there we were, heading north to the Nepal border.  

 And someone was waking me up. The border-we had to cross it. The last time we did this, it was a complicated situation with visas and permits, police checkpoints, and walking a mile with our heavy backpacks at the Myanmar-India bridge. This time, I was a bit groggy but the process was smooth. They even let the twins in for free! As for the bus, we had heard the bus can change, charge you more, or leave you at the border, but none of this happened. The government bus staff were very helpful and soon all of us passengers were in Nepal on the winding roads to Kathmandu. We followed high cliffs along a chalky blue river and took hairpin turn after turn. We watched the Bollywood movie on the screen at the front of the bus, napped, passed the time. Eventually we came to the city and through to the bus stand. 

 View of Kathmandu from  Swayambhunath aka ‘monkey temple’

We noticed some new construction, a lack of wandering cows, many motorbikes, dust, smog, litter, hills. It was much bigger than I’d imagined- 1.7 million for the district in 2011, I later read. We took a taxi to the Thamel district- the backpacker neighborhood. We found a hotel and relaxed. 

Thamel, like any backpacker part of town, is not a place to get to know your surroundings. It is wonderful for familiar food, coffee shops, bookstores, gear, money changers, and travel companies. What I like to do is peruse the local travel offerings and see if we can arrange them ourselves. DH started talking with random people about trekking and we began planning to head for the Himalayas. But first we wanted to plan our exit to China since we had only 15-day Nepali visas. We also wanted to see some of the city. We ended up staying three nights in Kathmandu, about a week trekking, then another three nights in KMD. 

A big disappointment was the Nepal-China border. It is still closed to tourists as it has been since the earthquake last year. We had gone from Philadelphia to Kathmandu without airplanes, but here we were stuck. We did not wish to go back the way we came (complicated Myanmar-India crossing in reverse, back through Thailand and Laos and then into China: we’d love to revisit where we had been, but it would be expensive and time-consuming). We had hoped to go to Tibet, despite the penalties of high cost and reducing our Chinese visas from 10 years to 20 days. Yes! China does this if you visit Tibet. Anyway, our hands were tied. We arranged for a flight through a travel agent. Sigh- so much higher cost than all the trains and busses we had been taking, but not nearly as exciting as a ship. No child discounts. Speaking of children, though, the twins were very excited about their first trip in an airplane! And we would fly over the Himalayas. We considered flying to Lhasa but quickly saw that we would have all the downsides of land travel (high fees in Tibet, downgraded Chinese visas) but very little of the benefits. We were sad not to visit Tibet, but we decided to go all the way north to Xi’an, where we hope to see the terra cotta warriors and then go westward towards Europe. 

Durbar Square

  So we did a little sight seeing in Kathmandu. We took a pedal-rickshaw, actually three of them, to the UNESCO World heritage site of Durbar Square. It was the royal palace site dating back to the third century, though the buildings are much more recent. There was extensive damage from last year’s earthquake and repairs were underway. There were so many pigeons! People were feeding them corn sold by vendors.   

  We decided we couldn’t really afford the fees for entering Durbar, so we thought we’d view it from outside the gates. But then, just as we were turning away, a twitchy guy who spoke English pretty well made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. He said he could take us in a back way to see the gated area and be our guide for a fraction of the fee at the gate. We had noticed people walking through who did not look like tourists, and it did look like there were other ways to enter. In yet another questionable travel decision, we said ok. The next thing I knew, we were stooping low to pass through a doorway and then walking through a dark alley. “Here are the drunks and monks!”Our guide giggled as he led us through the alley. He giggled some more when he showed us an unexpected sight.  

  “This is fertility shrine. Couples make offering here when want children.” Yup, we were looking at ancient, UNESCO-recognized X-rated wood carvings. The kids got a little embarrassed, but I was laughing, partly with relief that we hadn’t been kidnapped by this fast-talking entrepreneur we had followed into sketchy environs. And of course this is the first place he shows us! We saw plenty of other things afterwards. Here is a God of justice. If you could survive telling it that you did not commit the crime, you were free.

 This one was under renovation but still receiving offerings as we watched. Red powder seems to be a typical offering; it is often placed on the faces of the idols.   

An interesting thing we learned was about Nepali living goddesses. These are young girls (5yo or so) chosen by religious committees who, until they hit puberty, are believed to embody the divine. There are several throughout Nepal. Kathmandu’s living goddess resides near Durbar square and her home was not harmed in the earthquake- further proof to believers of her holiness. It’s a fascinating Nepal tradition; check out the link for an NPR article about a former goddess.

Swayambhunath 

  DH and I decided to walk from Thamel to this important hilltop temple. It took about two hours and we passed through some non-tourist areas. We stopped and had tea at a hole-in-the-wall shop. We peeked into stores where people were stringing some kind of necklaces for offerings. We saw dogs and kids, men wearing the fez-like hat that is so common here. Soon we saw a tall stone staircase and some dogs and monkeys.  

 We walked up all 350+ steps and were rewarded with a ticket office asking for the entry fee. Ok, no complaints here. It was only $2 and post-earthquake restorations were being done as we watched. There was quite a lot going on up there, actually. A group of women in glittering red saris were making an offering. Many vendors were making and selling their wares. Monkeys were being fed and shooed away and ignored as they climbed and jumped around.   img_1367

Random neighborhoods

We walked around Kathmandu just to see where the little streets would go. There were lovely little back streets with momo (dumpling) restaurants, tailors, and little courtyards with shrines. We are sandwiches with yak cheese (very good!) and tried a strange beer served hot with many seeds in the wooden cup. 

DH with hot beer. It came with a straw that was pinched at the bottom so you don’t drink the seeds. It also came with a pot of hot water to pour over the seeds to make more beer after you drank what was there.

     
 
Most of our time in Nepal was in the Himalayas, but we did enjoy Kathmandu when we were there. Stay tuned for the Himalaya trekking adventure! img_1368img_1363