NEPAL/ TIBET / TURKESTAN

August 15 - September 10, 1997
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The highlights of this trip were the monasteries of Tibet, the uigur cities of western China, the Buddhist caves in the desert (Dunhuang/Mogao), the Karakorum highway, the medieval cities of Nepal.
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Itinerary

  • Nepal
  • Aug 15: Katmandu. Flight from Bangkok (3 hours). Monsoon season, but rain will not be too bad. Visa on arrival for 15 days, and one must have two photos. Exchange rate: $1 = 56 Rps. Taxi to town (200 Rps). Hotel +Katmandu Lodge (200 Rps, very close to Durbar Sq). Russian embassy is open only monday 10-11am. Chinese embassy is open only every other day in the morning. Explore Nepal: $360 for an 8-day trip to Lhasa, leaves saturdays. Chinese embassy cancels my visa and issues a new one (15 days) that allows travel in Tibet. Tibet Tourist Corporation (in Naxal) useless and always closed.
    Lunch and dinner about 200-250 Rps.
  • +++ Katmandu. Thamel, where most tourists stay, is like Khaosan Rd in Bangkok. The new town is rapidly becoming Bangkok. The old town, quite big, has largely retained its character: a maze of narrow alleys lined with tiny stores, littered with temples and filled with a colorful crowd. Lots of ethnic groups. Newar are indigenous of Katmandu. Religion is mainly hindu. Language is related to hindi, and uses the same script (devanagari). Articrafts: thangka (antique shops on Durbar Marg). Food: similar to India's thali dinner. Topography: most streets not marked. Modern Katmandu is around Durbar Marg, which goes from the palace down to the pond. From here, the diagonal Makhan Tol leads down to Durbar Sq passing through the backstreets and bazaars of the old town. Pyaphal (aka Yatkha, aka Nhyokha) leads up to Chhetrapati, which represents the southern border of Thamel. Best way to visit is by bicycle.
  • Aug16: Katmandu. Jana Bahal: it's hidden in a courtyard off Kamalacki, decorated with both hindu and buddhist motives, surrounded by a garden of small stupas. Jagannath: temple in front of the royal palace, whose roof is decorated with erotic scenes. Kala Bhairab: giant stone image with six arms near Jagannath. Hanuman Dhoka Darbar: royal palace, majoestic wood carving. Taleju Mandir: huge pagoda inside the palace compound. Basantapur Tower: 7-story tower in the palace precint (south). Kumari Bahal: building on the royal kumari. Shiva's temple: excellent view of the old square from the top. +Boudhanath: huge stupa, with a square 4-eye layer near the top. ++Pashupatinath: temple complex on a river; west bank contains the main temple, the pyres for cremation, and a south quarter made of one courtyard after the other each one mixing family life and religious structures; the east bank crawls on a hill littered with terraces of small shrines. During the day, the old town is only a huge shopping mall, but at night the lights and a mellower place make it more interesting. There's a sharp contrast between Thamel, the commercial, material, decadent, center of tourism, and Durbar Square, with its centuries-old temples projecting their jagged shadows onto the deserted square. It rains every night all night long. No rain during the morning. Some rain in the afternoon.
  • Aug17-18: Katmandu. Frequent strikes of stores, taxis and buses. But renting a bike is better anyway (50 Rps a day). ++Patan (5 kms): ++Durbar Square (view from restaurant's attic), Krishna Mandir (black stone), Royal Palace (turned into museum), Kwa Bahal (small courtyard with mythic beasts), Mahabuddha (very small courtyard circled by homes). ++Bhaktapur (15 kms): The most authentic of the three old cities; very Newar and very hindu; Durbar Sq (Golden Gate of the palace, palace of 55 windows, Taumadhi Tol, Nyatapola temple, street down to the fields, brick-paved, side tracks for carriages, narrow alleys, sort of medieval). Changu-Narayan (6 kms from Baktapur): steep road and at the end 200 meters of stairs, very pretty temple and great view of valley. +Swayambhunath: on top of hill overlooking Katmandu, 4-eyed square platform on top of white dome, monkeys.
    Annapurna circuit (with Hanging Bridge of Ghasa)
  • Aug 19:
    Tour to Bhutan for 4 days costs $1,000, leaves mondays and tuesdays at 9:15am. only 4,000 tourists a year are admitted and the government charges $200 per day each. overland to Lhasa (3 days)
  • Click here for Mt Everest
  • Aug 20: Bus to Tatupani/Kodari, at the border with China (60 Rps, 6:45am) from City Bus Park. There are also buses to Barhabise, a small town before Kodari. The trip (100 kms) will take seven hours, because of poor road conditions after Barhabise. Spectacular mountain scenery. After the nepalese border station, one walks to the bridge and is let into China. Villagers will help carry luggage up to 3.000 meters, to Khasa (Zhangmu), the Chinese border town (150 Rps). The trail is very steep (1 hr). The road can be rode only with a four-wheel drive or a truck (30 minutes). On the Chinese side, there is only one (basic) hotel, Jen-jen, right after customs. Tourists without a permit to visit Tibet will be turned down by Chinese border police, even if they have a valid Chinese visa. Permits can be obtained only through a travel agency. No individual tourists are allowed overland to Tibet. Khasa is 2 hrs 45' ahead of Nepalese time.
    Restaurant +Godavari at the bottom of Durbar Marg.
    Hotel +Sherpa Guest House (200 Rps) in Thamel
  • Aug 21: Rode back to Katmandu to get Tibet permit. Biked to Kirtipur (Newar village with an old stupa, a Bhairab temple and good view of Katmandu), then on 10 kms to the Dakshinkali, a temple dedicated to Kali in a quiet, wooden setting.
  • Aug 23: Tibet. Left Katmandu at 5:30am in agency's bus. Trip to Kodari in only 4 hrs. Long bureaucratic procedures to get permit to go to Lhasa. Road to Nyalan is bad, with landslide. We have to change van. Porters help us carry luggage through the landslide. After three hours from Khasa we reach Nyalan ("path to hell") is at 3.750 meters.
    Hotel +Nagaden Guest House. Across the street Snowland Hotel.
  • Aug 24: Climbed to 5.000 meters (Lakpala), then down to the plateau. Long drive in the plateau. In Xegar children sell fossils.
    Slept in Lhatze, horrible hotel with no running water and toilettes outside.
  • Aug 25: ++Sakya monastery is huge. Just the three main halls are packed with colorful paraphernalia, frescos, statues, candles. There is an upper level from where one can have a view of the entire complex. Library. Visited also a monastery in Shigatze, ++Tashilhumpo, which is even bigger, like a village (800 monks). The winter residence of the Panchen Lama is closed to the public. Each hall of these monasteries is crowded to the limit with all sorts of things. A six-storey tall Buddha, statues of local deities, all covered in gold and silver, which are abundant in Tibet. Unfortunately, taking pictures is very expensive.
    Bus from Shigatse on mon-tue, thu-fri (12 hours to Lhasa)
    Religion Bon pre-existed Buddhism. Bons perambulate counterclockwise. Gezr: mythological demi-god who fell into the realms of devils. Gorakhnath: mythical yogi of the 12th century who performed magix.
  • Aug 26: Transfer of 90 kms (3 hrs) to Gyangtse (5 hours to Lhasa), which has three main attractions: a +monastery, a ++stupa and a +fort. The fort sits on a rocky hill and overlooks the entire valley. The monastery is perched on another hill and in between the two lies the old town. People are very helpful. Pictures can be taken for free and monks are eager to chat. The forst is a maze of tunnels, but mainly it offers a great view of the town and the monastery. The monastery is relatively small, but the 9-storey stupa is considered one of the jewels of Tibetan architecture. You may climb to a monk house overlooking the stupa, then back through the narrow alleys of the old town.
    Gyantze Hotel is relatively new with all comfort ($40 for a double).
  • Aug 27: Long (260 kms) drive to Lhasa, but spectacular passes at 5000 meters of altitude. The road coasts the holy lake, then descends into the Lhasa valley. At the bottom, the Bramaputra appears as by magix. From there or, the road is paved and it's an easy and modern 67 kms from the bridge to the center of town.
    Pilgrims circle around the ++Jokhang. The route is littered with stalls and shops. Vendors take shifts, organized by the police. An incredibly varied crowd, coming from all over Tibet, parades around the Jokhang all day long: city people dressed western style, mountain villagers, children, old women, mighty warriors, etc. SOme of them turn their prayer wheels, some sing. It's like an ordered carnival that goes on all day all year.
    The Chinese are bulldozing the outer route of the pilgrimage, so a few blocks towards the river the old 3-story houses of the Tibetans, with the large windows and vases of flowers, are replaced by modern 2-storey buildings which host hundreds of little shops. A broad street along the river marks the border between the Tibetan old town and the new Chinese development. One entire island (Jarmalinka) is being reconstructed as a huge tourist attraction in Tang style. Further downriver we found the little pier with prayer flags that Tibetans use for water burial. Turn right coasting the Borbulinka. The Chinese are lining up Minzu Lu with huge, modern constructions. Both the river road and the Minzu Lu host hundreds of little shops run by women in bold miniskirts...
    Sky burials still occur, but are forbidden to foreigners. Corpses of babies are cut and fed to the fish in rivers. Corpses of people with diseases are buried. Everybody else gets sky burial.
    The lamas of each monastery are chosen by masters, which assemble after the death of the lama. The masters are educated priests who studied the scriptures for 30 years. The masters are not selected by the lama. Before he dies, the lama may leave clues about his resurrection. The child that is chosen is submitted to a test. +++ Lhasa (ask about flights to
  • Aug 28: +++ Lhasa. Visited the gigantic +++Potala palace in the morning and the +Sera monastery in the afternoon and the Jokhang again. The Potala is one of the biggest palaces in the world. Sera is one of the three main monasteries. Chapels in Lhasa seem to be less rich than in Gyantze or Shigatze. Since the Potala contains the remains of the previous dalai lamas, it is also a sort of mauseulum of Tibetan culture.
    Restaurant +Kyichi Hotel (cheese momos, dal). Hymalayan Restaurant next door serves international food. The road of the Potala also has many intl restaurants. Prices in restaurants are rarely more than $4.
  • Aug 28: +++ Lhasa. Visited +Drepung, where hundreds of monks were killed in 1987, and Nobilinka, summer residence of the dalai lama.
  • Aug 30: ++Ganden monastery. Bus ride (40 kms, 3 hrs, leaves 7am and returns 2pm) through the fields up to 4200 meters. The monastery was completely destroyed during the cultural revolution and is being rebuilt.
    Trekking from Ganden to ++Samyen (oldest monastery) is possible in 5 days.
  • Aug 31: China. Bus to Golmud (33 hours, 7:30 am, $70 for a "sleep" seat). Long monotonous ride through the mountains. About 16 hrs to border of Tibet yet another pass at 5200 meters (Tanggula Pass), then another one 14 hours to the second pass (Kunlun) and 3 hours to Golmud. Every 4 hrs there is a town, where the bus stops and people can pee. If I start writing or open the map, people gather around me like children. There are no more foreigners around. The highest road and the highest city in the world were on route, as well as the source of the Yangtze Kyang. Near Golmud, in the desert, shepherds on camels. Most of the time on the road there were no towns, but quite a few trucks taking goods to Lhasa and some got stuch in mud.
  • Sep 2: Golmud.
    The bus to Dunhuang/Tun-Huan leaves at 7:30am (13 hours, Y88), but requires a permit (Y30) from the CITS, which opens at 9am and is already closed at 5pm... By train one has to go back to Xinin. Golmud is an awful city: only one hotel (50Y a single with no bath), many restaurants but nobody speaks english (they have english menus though). Easy to get visa extensions (Y100) and change money at the government building outside town. There is a salt lake (Qaran) in the desert. The road north is "salt bridge" and is paved with salt. The local economy relies on the potash plant, which is run with the help of the Americans.
    Hotel: when you check in, they give you a red card, which at your floor is swapped by the floor receptionist with a blue card; every time you need access to your room, you show the card and the floor receptionist opens your door for you; when you check out, the floor receptionist takes the blue card and gives you the red card back; you walk downstairs and they give you back the deposit; you never have your own key. The rooms are meant as dormitories, you pay per bed not per room. 33Y for a bed in a 3-bedroom, 50Y in a 2 bedroom, 100Y for a double. Then singles are 300Y.
  • Sep 3: Bus Goldum-Dunhuang about 13 hrs, mostly through very arid terrain, slowly going down the mountains to the ++Gobi desert. The road is mainly a narrow straight tongue of asphalt for 100s of kms. First part goes through the "salt sea" and the potash plant (like a marsh of salt deposits, icy patches of glowing minerals). Then occasional oases interrupt the barren landscape. Then the road climbs up the mountains to a pass at 3800 meters. Tents of nomads and camels near the oases. Finally the descent to Dunhuang, through a desert of gravel. No more rocky hills, just shapeless plains. Dunhuang is really an oasis among the sand dunes. Along the road ghostly relics of the communes that were forcibly built in the 1960's and abandoned in the 1980's. The town is geared up for tourism.
    Faitian Hotel, double room with bath for Y70. Tourist cafe with tables outside. Staff at the hotel very friendly, what a contract with the communist bureaucracy of Golmud!
  • Sep 4: +++ Mogao caves. Visited 30 caves for 80Y + 5Y for luggage/camera deposit and flashlight. 5Y to go by public bus, 20Y by taxi. The most impressive feature of the caves are the murals, which change from simple devotional pictures of the early caves to complex scenes of daily lives in the later caves. The sculptures are less refined. Two huge sitting Buddhas and one reclined Buddha. Some caves have an altar-like display of statues, some have the indian-style quadrangular temple. Northern Wei (386-554): same age as Yungang and Longmen; painting of former lives of Buddha (jataka); ceilings with geometrical designs; indian influence. Sui (581-618): chinese elegance; jataka; lotus flower. Tang (618-907): vast compositions; future Buddha (Matreya); sumptous robes of bodhisattva; four fierce warriors (lokapalia); mandalas; lotus flower; ceilings with apsara (angels). Best caves: +16 Tang (painting of thousand Buddhas); ++61 Song (60 sq meter backyard of Wutaishan landscape, very detailed idealized map, other walls have scenes of daily life); 85 Tang (large "altar" and detailed scenes of life); +96 (colossal Buddha, 33m); 98 Tang (scenes of daily life); 100 (scenes of daily life, statues are laid down on pedestal, almost a nativity); +130 Tang (colossal status of Buddha, 26m, colorful background); +148 (reclined Buddha); 152 (spatious, open temple); 173 Tang; 209 three gods; 231; +244 Sui (colorful); +249 Wei (ceiling, elegant, simple cave, no temple in the middle); +256 Song (statues in open space); +257 Wei (indian-style temple); +323 Tang (chapel-like cave painted in fragile japanese style); +328 Tang (noble statues); 329 Tang; +427 (external statues); 428 (indian-style temple).
    Bus to Liuyuan (Y10, 3 hours). Train to Turpan (Y172, soft sleep, 11 hrs). Bus to Turpan (1 hr).
  • Sep 5: Turkestan. +Turpan: second lowest depression in the world, very hot. Still very much a turkish enclave. Ruins of ++Gaochang, ancient uigur capital. The walls are still standing and one square is being rebuilt. Jiaohe is similar but it was a Chinese town.
    Turfan Hotel (Y100, double room). Turpan is geared up for tourism. Hotels are first class, hundreds of restaurants have english menu, many people speak english. The muslim character of the town has been reduced to a tourist attraction. The rest is new, with a big square in the middle which has dancing fountains a la Sentosa with loud western music. Some of the streets are covered with grape vines. Pretty, very hot. Very mediterranean, in a sense. Definitely the grape is everywhere.
    Many vans offer tours of nearby attractions for Y40.
    In this part of China hotels for foreigners provide only higher-class accomodation or domitories: nothing in between.
  • Sep 6: Turpan bazaar. Bus to Urumqi (Y16, 5 hours). Very modern city with skyscrapers. Mainly Chinese, very few turkish people. Wealth is tangible. Farthest city from sea on Earth. Excursions to the mountains, including the place where Russia, Kazakstan, Mongolia and China meet. Museums shows artifacts of ancient people who came from Europe (1000BC). Caves of Luolan are a few hours away.
    Urumqi is one of the most expensive cities in China.
    Bus to Alma Ata costs Y460 ($56), leaves at 5pm and takes a day. Kazak consulate: 31 Kun Min Rd, 1 km north of World Plaza Hotel, off Beijing Rd, big sign on Bejing Rd, turn right, then left, then right about 300 m, Y10 for standing in line, long line so arrive early, phone 3821207, open Mo-Th 10:30am-1pm). Kazak Airlines has only one flight on Th, $150. China Airlines flies to Alma Ata (Alamutu) Mo and Fr $200. Best place to inquire is Xin Jiang Airlines Booking Office (Guang Ming Rd & Jiefang Rd). Cash only. The headquarters for Russian, Kazaks, Kirgis tourists is the Bianjiang Hotel (room 2218 is a travel agency specializing in visas to these countries).
    Flying to Kashgar costs Y980 and there are two daily flights (8am and 6pm). The only other intl destinations are Moscow, Novosibirsk and Islamabad (We, Su).
  • Aug 31: Bus to Kashgar (6pm, 36 hrs, 250Y, sleep seat). Desert, oasis, desert, oasis. Very few towns. Coasting Kazakstan, Kirgizstan and Tadjikstan.
  • Sep 10: +++Kashgar. Old town is entirely uigur, very few Chinese around. They speak uigur and most signs are in uigur first, then Chinese and Russian. They are Muslim. Throughout the town one can admire the costumes of the various ethnic groups. Many little artisan shops, from hardware to woodcarving. Very poor and dirty. Visited tomb (3 kms from town, via a road used by many horse and donkey carriages loaded with goods and people). On the way back, stopped at the Central Asia Market, a maze of stalls which sell all sorts of colorful textiles.
    Winiwak Hotel (near customs, single with bath for Y120).
    Very difficult to eat vegetarian in muslim restaurants
  • Sep 11: ++Karakorum Highway. Bus to Pakistan (12pm, 270Y). Ten hours to border Tashkurgan, through mountains and lakes. Chilly. Overnight slept at Ice Mountain Hotel (15Y each with 3 others).
  • Sep 12: Pakistan. ++Karakorum Highway/ Khunjerab Pass. Three hours to the border (Khunjerab pass). The border is 1880 kms from Urumqi. Lots of tents, camels and nomads tending to their sheep. One can see the Karakorum glaciers. The road follows a canyon between huge, spiky mountains and descends very quickly: 81 kms to Sust, 280 to Gilgit. Total eight hours to Sust from Tashkurgar. Bus to Gilgit (8 hrs 100 Rps).
    Gilgit hotel: JSR Hotel (150 Rps, single with fan and bath), across the street from PIA (Pakistani Airlines). Virtually impossible to book a flight to Rawalpindi, the line is immense already early in the morning.
  • Sep 13: Bus to Islamabad (300 Rps, 1pm, 16 hrs). Still mountain scenery, not too hot but getting warmer. The urban landscape is rapidly becoming Indian: flies, garbage, filth. People are very friendly and sweet. Long, winding road to Rawalpindi, lots of stops including police checkpoints.
  • Sep 14: Rawalpindi. Flight to Karachi (10:15 am, 2700 Rps, 1h 40'). Karachi: modern city with no character. Airport is connected to all Central Asian countries (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, etc).

Notes

Trip Difficulty: moderate
Season: May to September
Length: 30 days
Approximate cost: $4,000
  • Pictures of Nepal
  • Pictures of Tibet
  • Pictures of Turkestan
  • Pictures of China
  • The tourist visa for China is impossibly expensive for USA citizens (as of 2008)
  • It is possible to travel in Tibet at most times of the year. May and June, September and October are the most pleasant times, cooler but drier. July and August are the monsoon months. But the weather is fine most of the year. There are no flights between Kathmandu and Lhasa in winter (December to March).
  • Tibet is one of the filthiest places in the world, which can only be partially blamed on poverty. Plastic garbage (that does not biodegradate) is now (2005) adding to the general sense of filth.
  • Dunhuang, a former capital of China and a stop on the Silk Road, is situated in an oasis north of Tibet and west of Xian. The 492 Mogao caves, carved in the rock and stretching for about 1.6 kms, located 25 km southeast of Dunhuang, have 45,000 square meters of frescoes, 2,415 painted statues and 50,000 scriptures. These are mostly Buddhist, making the caves a veritable museum of Buddhist art. Dunhuang was founded by Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty in 111 BC. The first cave was made in 366 AD. In 781 the site was occupied by the Tibetans. Chinese rule was restored in 848. The site lay empty and ignored until 1907, when it was re-discovered by a British archeologist. He and his European followers looted what had not been yet looted (go to the British Museum and other European museums to view the stolen artifacts).

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