Peering down from the fifth floor window of our dilapidated, pigmy-size room, we watch people scurrying about beneath glaring neon dragons, stone lions, and other supernatural sentries guarding the buildings along Nathan Road. A brazen cockroach startles us both as it scampers across the cobwebbed window sill. It’s 4 a.m. in Kowloon, and day one of our three month Asian adventure.
Early November, Christine and I say goodbye to concrete blocks and ticking clocks; and with one-way tickets, hunker down for a leg-numbing flight to the great port city of Hong Kong to begin our extended backpacking ‘vaguecation’. Hong Kong’s name is derived from the two Chinese words ‘Heung Kong’ meaning ‘Fragrant Harbour’; but our first impression is the ‘fragrant’ part somehow got lost in translation!
Despite being only 386 square miles in area, over 6 million people reside in this vertical city, making real estate so astonishingly expensive it’s sold by the square inch! With our limited travel budget, we’ve resorted to taking refuge in a crowded and cruddy place called the ‘Chung King Mansion’; home to all third and fourth world immigrants when first arriving in the city. It’s hardly a mansion, as sleep is fitful when keeping one eye open to watch for the beady-eyed rats also calling this hovel home!
Our flat has been divided into six eensie-weensie rooms; one for the landlady and five others to rent out to ‘budget’ travelers. The small grungy bathroom is communal, and features a hotplate embedded in the wall, since it also doubles as the kitchen! Nothing like a shower in the kitchen; or is that a kitchen in the shower? In any case, the unhygienic mess just oozes inappropriateness, and is about as useful as windshield wipers on a goat’s ass. For the woeful week we’re spending here, we pledge to satisfy our culinary needs elsewhere!
After applying at C.I.T.S. for visas into China, we reconnoiter the city, marveling at a mishmash of medieval mysticism modestly mingling with modern business. Ultra-modern skyscrapers are being constructed by workers clinging to primitive bamboo scaffolding; while adjacent alleyways sounding like distant gunfire from the clash of Mahjong pieces reveal snake oil merchants peddling unusual snakes and their organs.
The latest in Mercedes and other expensive autos thread their way through the shuffling masses, and next to glitzy fashion shops, hogs strung up upside down stare back with dull lifeless eyes. Yes, the old and new jarringly intersect in the frenzied city of Kowloon; which we’re told translates in English to ‘9 Dragons’.
Dawn is almost serene in Kowloon, with locals out ‘bird walking’ lovely songbirds in ornate bamboo cages, while others coil and uncoil apparently boneless limbs in slow, soundless motion during the ritual of Tai Chi. On sidewalks, men in slippers smoke from long bamboo bongs, making it look like they’re sucking on a didgeridoo. As mornings lengthen, the calm is replaced by the city’s normal bedlam.
The Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island costs us a mere 70 cents, making it probably the cheapest ferry ride in the world. At the village of Stanley, we use the shuffle and twist technique to negotiate the bustling market before busing to the port of Aberdeen for a tour in a sampan. Our last stop of the day is to the carless Cheung Chau Island, for a saunter about the sleepy little island.
Fancying familiar food, we stop at a Pizza Hut where we’re allowed as much from the salad bar as one small plate will hold. Chinese patrons take this task to new heights by strategically stacking their plates to the point the salads are starting to smolder against the light fixtures on the ceiling! Trying to emulate their aerial skills, we embarrassingly cause an avalanche of garden greens to spill off our plate onto the floor!
Five days later our China visas are ready, and we leave by boat for a 140 mile overnight trip upriver to the city of Guangzhou. Our first meal aboard falls short the Chinese food we expected, and is instead, some weird looking fungus and mushrooms floating in a bowl of gelatinous slop! To the chagrin of the Chinese, we fumble uselessly with our chopsticks before resorting to stabbing at our slippery and elusive prey!
Our lodging is a hostel on Shamian Island in Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton. The city is home to seven million people, and about six million bicycles! On several occasions our queasy innards protest when passing by curly tailed dogs being butchered on the sidewalks. Fried dog is considered a delicacy here!
Our first impression of China is the overwhelming drabness, with everything from the weather to buildings and boats sharing a dearth of colour. Grey, green, and blues dominate. Even the people share a somber sameness as they shuffle along in slippered feet like wind-up toys, with hands stuffed into the sleeves of baggy, uninspiring pajama-like Mao suits; all of course, either blue or green.
Many Chinese habits we find disgusting, including their loud and proud belching, and chewing open-mouthed like a pit-bull on a caramel. Worse, the constant vulgar sound of horking up ‘unhealthy’ phlegm invades our ears not only on the streets but in the restaurants as well! Reeking, paperless Asian ‘squat-pot’ toilets also fall into the vile category, as the malodorous porcelain platform crap catchers require squatting to do your thing and then scooping water out of a bucket to eradicate the evidence!
Adding to our substantial lodging sorrow is there is only one type of water; cold! A few places offer hot water, but only for one hour in the evening. Usually two boiling kettles of water are provided, which for two people trying to bathe is about as useful as a trap door on a lifeboat! Ahh… the irritations of travel on a shoe-string budget.
Venturing into the barbaric Quing Ping Market we are shocked to see all the ‘food’ that writhes, wriggles, croaks, clucks, or barks! Snakes slither about in glass terrariums. Cooked dogs hang from meat hooks. Tubs of live eels, turtles, and starfish squirm about. There are buckets of blood, a plethora of mystery organs, and still-live filleted fish flopping about on filthy tables. Inside ludicrously cramped cages monkey, armadillo, badger, eagle, owl, and other unlikely food sources await their fate on death row. Eating here should only be just prior to a colonoscopy! Given their colossal consumption, it’s been said that Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table or chair, and anything with wings except an aircraft. I must say, the revulsion and unfathomable cruelty displayed in this ghastly marketplace certainly gives credence to the rumor!
Out wandering, we come across an old billiard table set up in the street, and being a pool player from way back I challenge one of the locals to a game; quickly drawing a crowd of curiosity seekers. It’s an interesting experience as the cues have no tips and the pathetic table is more warped than ‘Twisted Sister’. Later, I take on a kid in a game of ping pong on a makeshift table with a comical net. I want to win, but it’s like trying to lick my elbow, it just isn’t going to happen; table tennis, as I humbly find out, is China’s national sport.
Exchanging our FEC (tourist money) for Renminbi (workers money) on the black market in order to receive a more favorable exchange rate, we then negotiate a boat trip up the Pearl River to the town of Wuzhou. We find travel here a series of interesting guesses, due to the not-so Great Wall of language barriers, created by an alphabet looking like it’s made entirely out of tattoos and sounding like a chicken being strangled! The situation is further exacerbated by the fact we have somehow managed to lose our Chinese phrase book.
After twenty four dull hours, on a dull boat, we reach the dull city of Wuzhou; staying just long enough to grab a sweet roll and locate a bus bound for Yangshou. Located on the peacefully meandering Li River and surrounded by the jutting mist-caressed peaks of the Huangshan Mountains, Yangshou looks like a Chinese painting in motion. Water buffalo methodically plow emerald-green rice paddies, as bent-double farmers wade in muddy waters planting young rice shoots. We swerve around countless mounds of rice drying on the roadside while cycling through the area’s spectacular geology.
On a side trip down the Li River to a tiny fishing village called Fuli, our boat chugs past thickets of feathery bamboo hugging the shore, and towering craggy Karsts. Disembarking to approach the village we’re amused to see the wary-eyed children frantically running away to hide; obviously frightened by the ‘Foreign Devils’!
Villagers use cormorant birds to catch fish, and I manage to get onto a long bamboo raft with an old fisherman whose face is fanned with squint lines. Communication with the old fellow is chitchat-challenged to say the least, but despite the stunted dialogue we share a friendly curiosity, and do our best at talking with our hands. When not diving for fish, the birds stand about on the raft spreading their wings out to dry and looking like a bunch of Batman wannabees in the absolutely exquisite surroundings.
Continuing along the river towards Guilin, we’re forced to abandon our boat when it runs aground in the shallows outside the village of Yandi. Immediately we draw an inquisitive crowd wanting to touch us, and a couple speaking ‘Chinenglish’ convey they want to know where we come from, and how old I am. Asking them guess, I let out a gasp of grief when they suggest between 60 and 65. This is nearly twice my age, and I’m now craving a mirror to see what all this rice munching has done to me. Apparently facial hair gets you there, as they see a beard as a sign of old age and wisdom. Well, I suppose that somewhat softens the blow!
Burdened with backpacks so hefty that even the Sherpas would be seeking a word with their union rep, Christine and her ‘old man’ shuffle off down the lonely dirt road. Fortunately, Lady Luck smiles kindly, and we’re able to flag down a bus, and hitch a ride through the soaring limestone peaks to a major crossroad. One truck and another bus later, we show up in gorgeous Guilin; a town where Chinese proclaim the landscape as ‘the best under heaven’.
The Chinese seem extremely curious about us, and the stares I’m getting make me wonder if my fly is open, there’s spinach in my teeth, or I’ve grown an extra set of ears! Also odd to us is restaurants with ‘live menus’ resembling a reptile zoo, with the ‘food’ trapped in cages outside to attract customers. After selecting the snake, turtle, etc. of your choice, it’s killed and skinned in front of you then trotted directly into the kitchen.
After visiting some caves in Guilin we decide to test drive a camel; the animal not the cigarette. I’m not sure why, because basically I distrust camels, and anyone else for that matter that can go for a week without a drink! It doesn’t take us long to realize our Lawrence of Arabia fantasy is better left unfulfilled, and we dismount the ugly, fat-lipped ungulate to begin our search for a picture of the Dalai Lama. Although his image is forbidden, we manage to find one on the black market and intend to smuggle it into Tibet.
It’s now the end of November and I’m sick with a chest infection, aggravated by cold weather and 44 horrible hours of unheated train travel to Chengdu in Northern China. The train station has zero signs in English, and with no phrase book just finding the correct train proves a serious hassle. In China, ‘Face’ is everything, and unable to bear the thought of embarrassment when asked a question, they will without hesitation offer an answer; the fact that they don’t actually have a clue not deterring them in the slightest!
Ticket buying is a mob sport, and as the old train clanks into the station a crush of etiquette-less bodies swarm aboard, clambering in through windows and doors, all fighting for a seat. Our crowded and repugnant car quickly cauterizes any hunger pains with its hazy cigarette smoke, grimy engine soot, and reeking of body odor and squat toilets. The filthy floors are both slippery and crunchy from being carpeted with a gumbo of fruit peels, peanut shells, cigarette butts; and lest we forget, the wads of slimy spittle from the uncouth loogie-horkers!
Travelling along the tracks I’ve developed a high fever and tremors, and am coughing up everything but a kidney. Shee-it, maybe I’m turning Chinese? A nice older fellow who speaks a bit of English is concerned about my condition and brings me a blanket and offers to share his food. For his kindness I give him a B.C. souvenir pin, and he’s so moved his eyes actually do the tear duct dance. Later, he informs us that he is an official member of the Communist party. After a grueling night we reach Guiyang, and with diminishing enthusiasm, switch trains for the last 20 hour/1000 km leg to Chengdu which passes with a cruel slowness!
Mercifully we arrive in Chengdu, only to be demoralized by not being able to find transport into town, and set off on foot unsure of which direction to go. However, favored by luck, an official Communist vehicle rolls up and stops alongside us, and in the back is none other than the old fellow from the train! He takes us into town to the Public Security Bureau, where we have to apply for our visas into Tibet. We will forever be grateful to this lovely gentleman, as who knows how things might have gone without his kind assistance.
After acquiring our visas, we hire a rickshaw to take us to a place our new friend suggested, and find sleeping quarters in one of the cheap dorms. Christine gets some medicine from a Chinese doctor, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be helping, and we now find ourselves debating if we should even attempt Tibet, as it’s one of the highest mountainous regions on earth.
The reason we’ve made this onerous journey to Chengdu, is because the only legal means of entering Tibet is a flight into Lhasa, which leaves from here. Our decision is to forge on; excited by the fact this is the first year Tibet, which for hundreds of years was forbidden to Western travelers, has finally opened its doors.
Our perilous but thrilling flight soars over the edges of the Himalayas, the highest peaks on the planet, before descending into Lhasa; ‘Rooftop of the World’. Shocked by the bleakness surrounding the airport, we collect our backpacks and board a dreadful bus headed to the town of Lhasa. The arduous 4 hour bladder-bursting 80 mile trip is through a predominantly barren landscape over a crushed stone road, with an annoying constant cloud of dust being sucked inside the bus.
The oxygen-deprived Himalayan air is unkind to the lungs, and still suffering from my illness, I collapse semiconscious in the street. Christine freaks out because my lips have turned blue and I’m not responding to conversation, leaving her with the unenviable chore of hauling both our backpacks while trying to find accommodation in a city whose 12,000 foot altitude makes even the simplest of tasks a challenge.
In the Old Quarter of Lhasa Christine ferrets out one of the few lodgings open to foreigners called the Snowland Hotel. Insultingly inadequate, it has no heat or running water, and lavatories that smell like gorilla’s piss after an asparagus feed; but arguably a slightly better alternative than sleeping on the street!
My fever is not going away, and while I don’t have a thermometer stuck up my ass, I reckon that if I did, I’d likely have to add mercury poisoning to my list of woes! By the sheerest stroke of luck, Christine finds a fellow traveler who is an English doctor that’s been living in China for the past two years. She kindly provides some medicine to clear my fever, and a couple of days later I’m up and about.
Because of Tibet’s dry air we need to drink lots of liquid to avoid dehydration, and the choices seem to be mainly boiled water or Yak butter tea. For our meager morning meal we wander into a filthy soot-covered kitchen and point to rice and an egg, which is fried in a large wok plunked on top of a roaring wood and yak dung fire. With the sparse diet not optional, weight gain is unlikely to be an issue!
I’ve managed to break off half of a molar tooth, but there’s no way in Hell I’m going to succumb to any hammer and chisel methods of local ‘dentists’, who would surely give my choppers something to chatter about! At night the temperature drops to well below zero and has us feverishly rubbing our hands together hoping not to spontaneously combust. Further attempting to avoid a hypothermic end, we sleep layered up like an onion in all the clothes we have including our coats! Combining this anguish with trying to sleep with my tongue draped over my broken tooth I’m hardly radiating contentment!
Stepping outside our hovel into a beautiful Tibetan morning, the frosted ground looks as if it has been dusted with diamonds. Lhasa is dominated by the staggeringly vast Potala Palace; a thousand room former home of the Dalai Lama set high on a hill allowing it to be seen from anywhere. In town, the narrow backstreets are a menagerie of cart-pulling merchants, yak dung sellers, bicycle-riding Chinese soldiers, runny-nose kids, and mangy flea-ridden dogs.
Jokhang Temple is Tibet’s holiest shrine and the Mecca of Tibetan Buddhists, and within the ancient walls we find a trodden-smooth stone alley leading past a row of large brass prayer wheels into a courtyard. Not wanting to waste a view, we climb a set of stairs to gaze out beyond the golden three-toed dragons towards the snowy giants of the Himalayas beyond; feeling very small amid our fascinating surroundings.
Tibetans are a tough nomadic people; deeply tanned, with heavily creased faces from squinting against this extreme environment’s fierce sun. Despite enduring so many hardships and struggling against the Chinese, these folks seem a friendly bunch and keen to share a smile. Often we hear them softly singing beside candles fueled by yak butter, whose pungent permeating aroma forms the predominant smell of Tibet.
Tibetans appear to be a hyper-religious people, constantly mumbling mantras and spinning prayer wheels. As a demonstration of devotion, pilgrims repeatedly throw themselves face-down on the road with arms stretched forward then stand where their hands just touched. Some have flip-flops over their hands and/or pads strapped to their knees to protect their skin from stone already worn smooth by the hands and knees of thousands of pilgrims circling the temple in previous centuries. This grueling profusion of prostration is apparently performed in hopes of jacking up their karma.
Encircling the Jokhang Temple, a marketplace known as the ‘Barkhor’ draws a gathering of interesting characters, including yak skin clad nomads; maroon robed monks; and longhaired women bejeweled in turquoise, coral, or silver headgear. They humbly circle the temple, always in a clockwise direction, offering prayers as they have done for the last thirteen centuries. One particular stall catches our attention and we stop to elatedly purchase two thick Chinese hats with rabbit fur earflaps; hoping the bulky bonnets will help insulate us against Tibet’s frigidity.
Roaming about the eclectic market we encounter a kindly looking old fellow wrapped in a yak skin coat, and present him with the forbidden Dali Lama picture from China. Seeing what we’ve given him, his jubilation is unbounded, and our new best friend jumps about and embraces us in an almost injury inducing hug that would make any bear proud! He rubs the photo on his head and over his heart and follows us around with puppyish devotion. To him, the picture is an incredibly precious gift; perhaps in this country, the equivalent of winning the lottery. We find the epic smile of delight on his gap-toothed face reflecting right back in our own; one of many cherished memories in unforgettable Tibet, and the type of moment we travel for.
As part of the unique customs here, women braid their hair into 108 separate braids, supposedly to represent the 108 human flaws that must be overcome. Another curious custom is it’s considered good manners to stick your tongue out at people. We are shocked by this behavior, but apparently back in the 9th century King Lang Darma had a black tongue and was known for his cruelty, and as Buddhists, Tibetans believe in reincarnation and feared he would come back in another form. Therefore they greet each other by sticking out their tongues to prove they are not the reincarnated evil king!
Another unique custom is the ‘Sky Burial’. A deceased’s body is taken high into the mountains and cut up, with the bones crushed and fed to vultures to carry the body upwards and onwards. The belief is there’s no need to preserve the body as it’s now an empty vessel; the soul and spirit already set free. Disposing of the remains in this manner solves the problems of having no wood for fuel, and ground too rocky to dig a grave.
It’s now time for us to pull the plug on Lhasa, but since there are no flights into Nepal, we investigate a bus that supposedly goes overland through the Himalayas. To our chagrin, we learn that a few weeks ago the old bus broke down in the harshness of the jagged mountains, causing frostbite among its stranded passengers. News that the bus has yet to be repaired works us up into a lather of frustration as it’s essential we get into Nepal; having neither the time nor desire to painfully backtrack our way through China.
Travelers in Tibet are rare, and if given the opportunity we always stop and exchange information to try and help each other, as there are no guide books or maps. Earlier, we met an American fellow named Fred, also planning to travel into Nepal. We inform him that there is no longer a bus, and he tells us of a place in Lhasa where it’s possible to rent a jeep. It costs the three of us a staggering $280.00 each which is an absolute fortune by Asian standards, but sadly there’s no other option available. The price includes a mandatory driver, as it’s totally forbidden for any foreigners to drive in Tibet.
This intimidating undertaking involves a perilous 1,000 kilometer drive over a crushed stone road gripping the edge of the world’s highest mountain range, at an average height of more than 4,000 meters. However, we come to the decision that we’re up for the challenge, and in the morning the three of us plus, the driver, set out with large fuel containers strapped to the back of the jeep. Not far outside Lhasa we roll the jeep onto a barge and cross a glacial river before working our way up into mountains breaching the clouds.
Breaking up barren landscape, we pass the occasional nomad on horseback, and several monasteries and holy sites with colourful prayer flags called ‘wind-horses’, hung out like laundry so the winds will lift the prayers to the heavens. Our breathing becomes laboured at this altitude and the journey is long. What none of us expected is to be spending serious window time with an erratic driver messed up on some sort of drugs! Spying his face in the mirror from the backseat, I’m troubled by the slow motion blinking of his listless eyes now glazed over like a morning donut. Clearly this ignoramus at the wheel is just not with it.
Moments later, he nods off at the wheel and crashes into a large rock, ripping open a tire. Fortunately, there is no other damage and we manage a swap using the spare tire. We don’t want to be stranded here, and I tell Fred the dazed driver is a danger to us all. Fred’s reply is ‘don’t worry, I know these people; it’s all about face, and from now on he’ll be careful’. After I impale our ‘prince of ineptitude’ with a toxic verbal spear, we continue with more than minor qualms along the bottomless mountain road perilous beyond words.
A couple of hours later it becomes clear to me that Fred is all foam and no beer, as his hypothesis is debunked! The driver once again loses control, involving us in a near fatal accident as the jeep careens around a sharp corner, hits a shallow ditch, and becomes airborne. Remarkably, this particular corner has a wide shoulder with huge boulders piled up at the outer edge. The jeeps lands with a thud, with the front end up on the rocks; the only thing stopping us from a catastrophic plunge over a vertical eternity!
On impact Christine is struck in the back of the head by a piece of luggage, Fred cuts his arm when thrown into the windshield, and I crack a front tooth. Damn, my dentist back home will likely be able to pay off his mortgage when/if we return. Had our accident occurred a few feet on either side of the road, there is no doubt we would all be on a morgue slab! Exiting the jeep I cannot stop my legs from trembling, and in a vein-popping rage snatch keys from the ignition and go all ‘gangster’ on the driver; grabbing his throat and bouncing his head off the side of the jeep while cursing him with a 12 letter word beginning with M!
With a sea of adrenaline flaming through our bodies, we somehow manage to free the jeep from the rocks, and miraculously it’s still drivable. No longer pussyfooting about, I grab the despicable driver by the scruff, and catapult him into the back along with the luggage. Since taking advice from Fred has proved about as useless as taking Tango lessons from a gorilla, there’s no longer a debate; I inform him with a bitter finality, that as of right now I’m doing the driving; Period. Dot. The end! All that matters to me now is getting us to the border alive, and I don’t give a red rat’s ass that this is illegal; or, that we are now in a hijacked jeep!
We pool our paltry food, coming up with a tin of tuna, juice, granola, and peanut butter. During our journey we cross over Gyatso La Pass, which, at an elevation of 17,126 feet, makes it the highest pass in the world. Here, the oxygen levels are less than half of those at sea level and it’s touch and go if the jeep will make it, as we can use only the low gear with a top speed of about 5 mph. We’ve all got slight nosebleeds, and are anxious about our fate should we somehow come across any authorities.
At this significant altitude we are inhaling the thin air deeply and worried about encountering any altitude related sickness. Stopping for something to take the dust out of our mouths, I take out my pocket knife, brandish it about by repeatedly stabbing it through the tin of tuna until the lid can be bent backwards, exposing the protein within to be shared among the three of us.
Driving through the night over the Hellish road has been harrowing, and we’re all exhaustively frayed from a scarcity of sleep by the time we finally reach an area with questionable accommodation close to the border. We let out the driver who is now puking his guts out; but as the Russians say, “tuffski shitski”!
With absolutely no other options other than sleeping outside through a shivery night, we retrieve our dusty backpacks from the Jeep. Unhappily we pay our money for a room with the most basic of basics, including a small bed with sheets that look as if they’ve been worn by others since their last washing. We have a room, Fred has a room, and the scumbag driver responsible for so much trauma – well, we could care less! Grabbing our backpacks, I hurl the keys at him before stalking off to dent a pillow.
With the new day still waking up, both the jeep and driver have vanished, which is just fine by us, as we thought the fourteen karat fuckup might try to make trouble for us with the border authorities. With no food, but joyous to be alive, we walk to the border and clear customs. From here we must labouriously hike another 9 km through a buffer of ‘no-mans’ land between the borders of Tibet and Nepal. This area has just recently been opened and we are amongst the first trickle of foreign trekkers to make the crossing.
We’re informed about a ‘shortcut’ down the mountain, that in fact, is a near vertical Sherpa trail that even a mountain goat would have trouble negotiating. The descent is so outrageously steep we crab-walk down on our bum-cheeks to avoid somersaulting down skull-first with the burden of our weighty backpacks! If I listen closely, I swear I can hear the mutterings of a mutiny escaping from Christine’s beautiful lips.
Getting our sweat-sodden bodies to the bottom we cross over the border into Nepal, and sticking out our thumbs, a large truck full of Tibetan pilgrims pulls over and the driver opens the cab door so the three of us can all squeeze in. Counting bodies, we realize that we have just increased the vehicle count to seventeen!
Tibetans are sitting on top of each other, with even one in the driver’s lap to accommodate us and our backpacks. The cab aroma is disagreeable mix of yak butter, yak dung, and ‘eau de pee-ple’; but transport here is rare and it’s essential to take whatever is available. Our populous truck recklessly barrels down the mountain roads, and 100 heart-pounding kilometers later, we can finally let our breath out, as we reach the ancient city of Katmandu. The last 48 hours has surely proved to be one Hell of a harrowing expedition!
Bidding adieu to Fred, our first priority is calories for our malnourished bodies. The first sign we see is ‘Paradise Restaurant’ and we’re on it like ravens on roadkill. After a month eating mainly rice and the few rations on our hair-raising overland trip we ogle the extensive menu which even includes pizza, and are drooling like a pair of elderly Saint Bernards.
Brutally knackered from our ordeal, we are eager to try and find some of the pounds we lost in Tibet! Unhinging our jaws, we gorge on goat-sized portions of food with the gusto of famine survivors, testing the endurance of our mandibles. Finally, fearful of exploding, we slither off like a couple of overstuffed pythons in search of a room to succumb to the God of Snooze!
The medieval city of Kathmandu both seduces and repels, but we find it exotic and alluring; with odd sounds and smells, eerie flute music, haggling carpet dealers, ancient wooden buildings, legless beggars, street peddlers, and eye-painted temples. Sacred cows wander aimlessly through the streets with immunity, helping themselves to neatly stacked pyramids of fruit, as merchants angrily curse at them for the spillage.
We exchange money on the Black Market, in order to acquire a better exchange rate, but it’s a strange feeling being led down narrow alleyways into the backroom of a bookstore or carpet shop to deal with the shrewd ‘money man’, who tries to soften us up by offering a cup of tea before making the transaction.
‘Namaste-ing’ our way about town, we’re fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the ‘Living Goddess’. This is a 4 to 7 year old girl, thought to be the reincarnation of Buddha who is chosen on the basis of her looks and bravery to be given the title of Kumari Devi, and worshipped on all religious occasions.
On a visit to the ‘Monkey Temple’, I receive an unexpected surprise while bending down to take a photo of an unkempt woman and her child. As she reaches over and removes the top off her wicker basket, a cobra snake pops up like an evil question mark, just a few inches from the end of my nose! Nonchalantly, the woman takes a long draw from a crudely rolled cigarette as I rapidly recoil from the unexpected encounter.
Today brings another alarming experience. Walking through Durbar Square with a large recently purchased Girka knife riding on my hip, some dirt-bag behind me suddenly grabs for the cutlery. With an ingrained reflex I grab his arm, twisting it up behind his back and hurling him down into the street gutter.
Getting up with a venomous look, he runs to a market stall and grabbing a huge knife, comes toward us screaming he is going to behead me! Actually, it’s more like: ‘I cut you head off mutha-fucka’ or something close; quite the impressive English vocabulary, considering! Luckily, bystanders intercept the lunatic, while Christine and I, who want no part of a knife fight, use purposeful strides to fade away into the crowd.
Rather than risk the possibility of another ‘mid-knife crisis’, we’re off to the jungles of the Royal Chitawan Park for a few days in the bush. Along the way, we relish passing through mustard fields. The yellow merges with jungle greenery, as fluffy white clouds kiss the imposing Himalaya Mountains looming in the distance.
In camp we arrange an elephant safari, and on meeting the towering elephant it immediately probes my cranium with its wrinkly seven foot schnoz. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m always up for a little romance; but being ‘Frenched’ by three tons of testosterone is not exactly at the top of the list! As ‘Girth Vader’ dawdles through the jungle with huge branches snapping under his formidable feet, the comfort factor is sorely lacking while being stretched as tight as an overenthusiastic facelift on this lofty ride astride the hide of the gentle giant.
Our other modes of jungle transport include a dugout canoe trip on the Rapti River to view the crocodiles and birdlife along the banks, followed by a return to camp via a primitive ox cart; the shock absorber-less latter even less comfortable than riding spread eagled atop the elephant. Man, I am truly missing my car!
With time in thin supply, I mention to a guide that I’m disappointed at not seeing a rhinoceros, so he offers to take me out for one last try. Stumbling along as dawn becomes day, we encounter two of them in the flesh! Running like a tourist at Pamploma, I’m on the guide’s heels up the closest tree; watching with wide admiration as the two Sherman tanks slowly lumber by. Move over Nepal, we’re on our way to Thailand.
Our first night in Bangkok is in short, a night of ugly. It seems our taxi driver has over estimated his navigational skills, and is now lost. After what seems an eternity and still unable to locate our hostel, he exasperatingly leaves us stranded in the blackness of the night at a strange guesthouse with a ‘No Vacancy’ sign. With no clue where we are, and no other good option available, we spend the night sleeping curled up outside on the hard wooden veranda. Not exactly the most auspicious start to the Kingdom of Siam!
This morning after acquiring directions, we make our way into town and right away witness a sidesplitting sight. A Thai guy riding down the main road atop his elephant suddenly stops, dismounts, and tethers the massive pachyderm to a wimpy car parking meter. We’re laughing so hard we’re on the verge of wetting ourselves, seeing this ‘four-footed drive’ vehicle being ‘parked’ on a Bangkok street!
With wallets battened down we visit ‘Thieves Market’, which is basically a woodpile of tourists, riddled with local termites all determined to have a chomp. After visiting a floating market with sellers in sampans, we stop at a snake farm where a muscular boa constrictor with a distinctively patterned skin is draped around our necks like a hefty scarf. After bidding adieu to my new ‘squeeze’, an aggressive caged Asian Sun Bear nearby gives me ‘paws’ when venturing too close to its cage, as I receive a mighty blow from a blur of brown muscle with Freddy Kruger-like claws, that leaves an angry set of welts and bruises on my arm!
The start of a new day quickly turns into another dramedy when we accidentally get off a water taxi boat in the wrong spot on the Chao Phya River. As the boat chugs away we realize we’re marooned on a partially sunken jetty that only leads into the off-putting murky flooded alleys between ramshackle housing.
Oh expletive; up ‘rio de caca’ without a paddle, or for that matter, even a canoe. Wishing we had a wetsuit, we wade thigh-high through disgusting layers of filth, unsure of what is underfoot; past people’s kitchens, kids urinating in the water, and a stew of floating garbage, before eventually sloshing out onto the street!
A few days before Christmas, a notion for the ocean and sea-clusion takes us to Southern Thailand’s sun-drenched island of Phuket. The palm treed haven is a welcome change with white sandy beaches, emerald waters, and colourful fishing boats, all part of a perfectly composed tropical postcard. To call our funky little bamboo hut on the beach modest would be charitable, but it costs six dollars a day and seems like heaven.
Christmas morning begins with some unintentional off-roading as our van is suddenly forced to lurch off the highway into a field, to avoid a head on collision with a massive bus rounding a corner on the wrong side of the road. Gasp! As in most of Asia, there is total abandonment of the rules of the roads, and the only thing that seems clear is that ‘right of weight’ outweighs ‘right of way’!
Fortunately no harm is during our field surfing, and with heart palpitations out of the danger zone we continue on to find a boat to James Bond Island, the famous ‘why-doesn’t-it-fall-over’ landmark in Phang Nga Bay. Stopping at the Muslim sea gypsy village of Ko Panny built on stilts over the water, we can’t resist buying a couple of gorgeous, but outlandishly large seashells that we have no idea how we will get home.
With no option for a turkey Christmas dinner in Phuket, we opt for a dinner of fried shark. Feasting on the piscatorial predator in this ‘nog-less’ country, our celebratory drink substitute is a bottle of Mae Kong whiskey. During our unconventional meal things get a little hairy with a visit from an uninvited leggy guest, as an intrepid, gerbil-sized tarantula scuttles past beneath our table startling the bejesus out of us!
The next ‘legs’ of our journey involve a lengthy bus trip from Thailand into Malaysia, and another to the cosmopolitan island/city/country of Singapore. Quite atypical of Asia, S’pore is for the most part, clean and safe; a boot camp for newbies to Asia. It’s done a remarkable job of modernizing, but after the usual unusual we’re used to; it has sadly lost its Asian flavour, and seems little more than an antiseptic bore.
Most hotels in Singapore will cost an arm and leg, three toes off your remaining foot, and both eye brows. Accordingly, we’re staying in the seedy backpacker ghetto of the Bencoolen District, where a fat-assed rat keeps stealing food from our room! Seeking a better quality of wildlife, we head for the zoo where Christine has an up close encounter while sitting down with a couple of adorable orangutans. One of these lovable hairy red apes wants to hold her hand; totally enthralled with her red nail polish.
Travelling on to Jakarta on the populous island of Java in Indonesia, the difference in countries is instantly obvious. It’s hard not to be appalled by the squalor and destitute souls sleeping burrowed like termites into high piles of garbage on the filthy, fume-filled streets. For a few days we’re staying in the Jalan Jaskar area with an Indonesian family, who offer us a basic room and kindly share their fridge and shower.
Viewing Jakarta as an unfortunate choice we opt for a two day train trip aboard the ‘Mutiara Utra’. Clanking along the tracks and watching Java’s landscape blurring past, we finally arrive in the dismal port city of Surabaya, to ferry across to the little island of Bali which we’ve heard so many good things about.
Only a sixth the size of Vancouver Island, Bali is enchanting. Palm trees dance in the wind, volcanoes reach for the sky, and terraced rice fields tumble down mountains like emerald staircases. The traditional music with dreamy notes from bamboo xylophones and the hypnotic sounds of full-fledged gamelan orchestras make our ears smile, and the Balinese make temple offerings to their gods every day as they have for the last thousand years. This, by far, is the most comforting place yet in our crazy adventure-prone travels.
We stay in several villages across the island, with most rooms costing about five dollars a night; including breakfast! Of course it’s prudent to perform nightly sweeps of the rooms, as on one occasion we had to expel a sizeable centipede from a shoe, and on another evict a black scorpion looking like a petite Goth land lobster! Late afternoons we sip a glass of Arak, enjoying a montage of raging, awe-invoking sunsets while watching villagers paddle ashore in crudely rigged outrigger canoes, eager to display their eclectic catch.
Sarong clad workers pause from their work in the rice fields to gawk as Christine and I run past; no doubt mystified why anyone would run in this heat, unless, of course, they are being chased! Our stops include the small villages of Ubud, Sangeh, Tanah Lot, Mas, Kuta, Legian, Candidasa, and the lovably named Bug Bug.
Out for a walk in the boondocks outside of Ubud, we engage in a rather interesting bartering session, as Christine trades an old pair of sneakers for lovely ebony carving, and I swap my shirt and sandals for an intricate bone carving. As a monsoon ‘Niagaras’ down from the sky causing the streets to swim, we clutch our new treasures and wade away barefoot, clad in only the few threads we have left and a smile!
On another occasion, I trade some clothes and Rupiah for a sinister looking, but authentic ceremonial Barong mask, complete with wild boar tusks. While much to Christine’s chagrin, I believe it to be a fine addition to my other recently acquired foreign plunder; a Girka knife from Nepal, carved buffalo horns from Thailand, a blowgun from Java, and a human skull kapalla from Tibet. No point going around the world and coming back empty handed, right? Don’t worry Honey; these will look lovely in the house!
Our favorite souvenir, however, from this amazing adventure is obviously a much broader perspective, as our exotic three month Asian odyssey has not exactly been a holiday, but rather a true vagabonding experience. During the cultural smorgasbord we’ve enjoyed an opportunity to sample a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and we both agree that in the future we will definitely be back for a second helping.
Mark H. Colegrave 1985