Passengers nervously hold their breath as the 747’s wingtip seems to caress the clothes strung out over the balconies of the towering residential apartments. We’re on the infamous “checkerboard” approach as the big jet banks sharply right for its eerie final descent onto Hong Kong’s notoriously challenging Runway 13 at Kai Tak Airport. It’s early November, and with one-way tickets, Christine and I have said goodbye to the concrete blocks and ticking clocks to appease our pent up travel yearnings.
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 by scampering across the cobwebbed window sill. It’s now 4 a.m. in Kowloon, and day one of our three month Asian adventure.
With our limited travel budget, we’ve resorted to taking refuge in a crowded and cruddy place called the ‘Chung King Mansion’; a home to third and fourth world immigrants when first arriving in the city. The name is monstrous misnomer, hardly rating a ‘mansion’ mention when sleep is fitful due to 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 rented 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 an inflatable dartboard. 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 unattached to primitive bamboo scaffolding. The adjacent alleyways sound like distant gunfire from the clash of Mahjong tiles, and reveal snake oil merchants peddling a medley of 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, or as it translates in English; ‘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. Men in slippers sit on the sidewalks smoking from long bamboo bongs and look like they’re sucking on a modified didgeridoo. However, as mornings lengthen, the calm is replaced by the city’s normal bedlam.
The Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island transports about 50,000 people a day and costs us a mere 70 cents; making it one of the cheapest and busiest ferry rides 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 about the bay in a sampan. Our last stop of the day is on the carless and sleepy little island of Cheung Chau.
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 their salads start to smolder against the light fixtures on the ceiling! Endeavoring to emulate their aerial skills, our inglorious results are an avalanche of garden greens spilling off our plate onto the floor!
Five days later our China visas are ready, and we take a 140 mile overnight boat trip upriver to the city of Guangzhou. Our first meal aboard falls short of the Chinese food we expected; instead it is some weird looking fungus and mushrooms floating in a bowl of gelatinous slop! To the chagrin of the Chinese, we fumble ineptly 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. Everything from the weather, to buildings, to boats shares a dearth of colour; with grey, green, and blues dominating. Even the people share a somber sameness as they shuffle along like wind-up toys, with their feet slippered, and hands stuffed into the sleeves of baggy uninspiring pajama-like Mao suits; all of course, either ink blue or duck-shit green.
Many Chinese habits we find gut-torquing, like the loud and proud belching and open-mouthed chewing like a pit-bull on a caramel. Even worse, our ears are frequently assailed by the vulgar sound of people intensely horking up ‘unhealthy’ phlegm, and using the floors or tables as a spittoon! 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!
Our sorrowful lodging does not have the luxury of hot water. Occasionally we find a place either offering hot water for a one hour window in the evening, or providing a boiling kettle of water which requires quickly bathing ourselves bit by bit! For us, this Chinese cleansing adversity is about as useful as a trap door on a lifeboat, but such are the irritations of travel on a shoe-string budget.
Venturing into the barbaric Quing Ping Market, we’re poleaxed with revulsion by all the ‘food’ that writhes, wriggles, croaks, clucks, or barks! Snakes slither about in glass terrariums. Cooked dogs hang from meat hooks above tubs of live squiggling eels, turtles, and starfish. There are buckets of blood, still-live filleted fish flopping about on filthy tables, and a plethora of mystery organs that should only be eaten just prior to a colonoscopy! Inside ludicrously cramped cages monkey, armadillo, badger, eagle, owl, and other unlikely food sources await their fate on death row. 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’. Believe me, seeing what is on display in this ghastly marketplace certainly gives credence to the rumor!
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, which quickly draws a crowd of curiosity seekers. It’s an interesting experience, as the cues have no tips and the pathetic table more warped than ‘Twisted Sister’. Later, I take on a kid in a game of ping pong on the street, 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.
After exchanging our FEC (tourist money) for Renminbi (workers money) on the black market to receive a more favorable exchange rate, we negotiate a boat trip up the Pearl River to the town of Wuzhou. Travel in China involves a series of interesting guesses due to its not-so Great Wall of language barriers; created with an alphabet that looks 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 only long enough to grab a sweet roll and find a bus bound for Yangshou. Surrounded by jutting mist-caressed peaks of the Huangshan Mountains, Yangshou is on the peacefully meandering Li River, and looks like a Chinese painting in motion. Renting bicycles to better appreciate the area’s applaudable geology, we swerve around countless mounds of rice drying on the roadside, and pass bent-double farmers planting young rice shoots or wading in muddy waters using water buffalo to methodically plow their emerald-green rice paddies.
Boating along the Li River, thickets of feathery bamboo hug the shore as we pass by towering craggy Karsts. As we disembark and approach the tiny fishing village of Fuli, obviously frightened children shout ‘Gweilo’, and dash away to hide. The term apparently means ‘Ghost Man’, used in reference to our skin!
Villagers use cormorant birds to catch fish, and I manage to get onto a long bamboo raft with an old fisherman with a face fanned with squint lines. Communication with the old fellow is chitchat-challenged to say the least, but despite a stunted dialogue we share an amiable curiosity, and do our best at talking with our hands. When not diving for fish, the birds stand on the raft spreading their wings out to dry; looking like a bunch of Batman wannabees. The exquisite surroundings easily rate a fifteen on a scale of one to ten!
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. An inquisitive crowd immediately invades our personal space wanting to touch us, and one speaking ‘Chinenglish’ wants to know how old I am. Asking them to guess, a gasp escapes my lips when I hear between 60 and 65; nearly twice my age. I’m now craving a mirror to see what all this rice munching has done to me. Apparently facial hair is what gets you there in China, as Chinese see beards as a sign of old age and wisdom. Well, I suppose that makes their inaccuracy a little more palatable!
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 wave down a bus and hitch a ride through the soaring limestone peaks to a major crossroad. One truck and another bus later, we arrive 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 anything 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 China’s Sichuan Province. The train station has zero signs in English and just finding the correct train proves a serious hassle. In China, ‘Face’ is everything, and unable to bear the thought of embarrassment if unable to answer a question, they will without hesitation offer up 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 through windows and doors like a bunch of meth-crazed squirrels while fighting for a seat. Our crowded and repugnant car quickly cauterizes any hunger pains due to a mosaic of hazy cigarette smoke, grimy engine soot, and the reeking of unwashed bodies and squat toilets. Filthy floors are both slippery and crunchy thanks to being carpeted in a gumbo of fruit peels, peanut shells, cigarette butts, and lest we forget, the wads of slimy spittle from a few 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. He 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 cruel slowness of last 20 hour/1000 km leg to Chengdu!
Mercifully we arrive in Chengdu, only to be demoralized by not being able to find transport into town. We set off on foot ambiguous about which direction to go, but favored by luck, an official Communist vehicle rolls up and stops alongside us. In the back is none other than the old fellow from the train! He takes us into town and 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 without his kind assistance, we may very well still be searching.
Acquiring our visas, we hire a rickshaw to take us to a place our new friend has suggested, and find sleeping quarters in one of the cheap dorms. Christine sources some medicine from a Chinese doctor, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be helping me. This leaves us debating if we should even attempt travelling to Tibet, as its average elevation is over 4000 meters, making it one of the highest 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 rainbows over the Himalayas, the planet’s highest peaks, before descending into Lhasa; known as the ‘Rooftop of the World’. Shocked by the bleakness surrounding the airport, we collect our backpacks and board a dreadful bus which is the only transport into town. The arduous 4 hour bladder-bursting trip is 80 miles through a predominantly barren landscape over a crushed stone road. Joining us on the journey is an annoying gritty cloud of dust that’s constantly being sucked inside the bus.
Oxygen-deprived Himalayan air is unkind to our lungs, and with my illness still lingering, I collapse semiconscious in the street. Christine is anguished over my lips turning blue and a lack of response to conversation. This leaves her with the unenviable chore of hauling both of 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 the Snowland Hotel, one of the few lodgings open to foreigners. Insultingly inadequate, it offers no heat or running water and the lavatories smell like gorilla’s piss after an asparagus feed. Still, it’s a marginally better alternative than a freezing night on the street!
My fever is not going away, and while I don’t have a thermometer stuck up my ass, I reckon if I did I’d likely have to add mercury poisoning to my list of woes! By the sheerest stroke of luck, Christine finds an English doctor; a fellow traveler living in China for the past two years. The doc generously provides some medicine to clear my fever, and a couple of days later I’m up and about.
Because of Tibet’s arid air we need to drink lots of liquid to avoid dehydration, and our unsexy choices seem to be mainly boiled water or Yak butter tea. For our meager morning meal we wander into a squalid, soot-covered kitchen and point to rice and an egg, which is fried in a large wok plunked on top of a roaring fire of wood and yak dung. With the sparse diet available, weight gain is unlikely to be an issue!
I’ve managed to break off half of a molar tooth, leaving me as uncomfortable as a teething piranha, but there’s no way in Hell I’m going to succumb to any hammer and chisel methods of local ‘dentists’! At night temperatures drop to well below zero, and we are feverishly rubbing our hands together hoping not to spontaneously combust. In further attempts to avoid a hypothermic end, we sleep layered like an onion in all the clothes we have, including our coats! Combining this anguish with trying to sleep with my tongue draped over the throbbing 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, thousand room Potala Palace; a former home of the Dalai Lama set high on a hill, allowing it to be seen from anywhere. Narrow backstreets in town are the turf of 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 its ancient walls we follow a trodden-smooth stone alley leading past a row of large brass prayer wheels into a courtyard. Averse to wasting a view, we climb a set of stairs and gaze out beyond golden three-toed dragons towards the snowy giants of the Himalayas beyond; feeling rather inconsequential in our incredible surroundings.
Tibetans are a tough deeply tanned nomadic people with heavily creased faces from squinting against this extreme environment’s fierce sun. Despite enduring so many hardships and their struggles against the Chinese, they seem a friendly bunch keen to share a smile. Often we hear them softly singing beside candles fueled by yak butter creating a pungent permeating aroma that is one of the predominant smells of Tibet.
Hyper-religious Buddhists are constantly mumbling mantras, spinning prayer wheels, and engaging in the spiritual practice of prostration, performed by dropping the body onto the floor with outstretched arms, followed by placing the hands over the head, mouth, and heart. Participants are mostly clothed in yak skin, with some wearing flip-flops on their hands, or pads on knees, to protect their skin from the ground. This grueling repetition of Pilgrim profusion looks not unlike a complicated ‘burpee marathon’, and is a religious demonstration of devotion 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 or coral or silver hair accessories. They respectfully circle the temple, always in a clockwise direction, offering prayers as they’ve done for the last thirteen centuries. One particular market stall catches our attention, and we elatedly purchase two thick Chinese hats with rabbit fur earflaps! We are hoping the bulky bonnets will help insulate us against Tibet’s bone-chilling cold.
Roaming the eclectic market, we spot a kindly looking old fellow wrapped in a yak skin coat and spinning a prayer wheel. We decide to present him with the forbidden Dali Lama picture from China, and seeing the photo, his jubilation is unbounded. Our new best buddy 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 then 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 full-wattage smile 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 that 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, known for his cruelty, had a black tongue; and as Buddhists, Tibetans believing in reincarnation feared he would come back in another form. Therefore they greet each other by sticking out their tongues to prove that they are not the reincarnated evil king!
Another unique custom is ‘Sky Burial’, where the corpse is transported high into the mountains and cut up, with the bones crushed and fed to vultures that carry the body upwards and onwards. The belief is there’s no need to preserve the body as it’s now an empty vessel, with the soul and spirit already set free. Disposing of the remains in this manner also solves the problem of trying to dig a grave in the iron-hard ground.
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, and have neither the time nor desire to painfully backtrack our way across China.
Travelers in Tibet are rare as frog’s fur, but a while ago we met an American fellow named Fred who is also planning to travel into Nepal. We update him that there is no longer a bus, and he informs us about a place in Lhasa where it’s possible to rent a jeep. It costs the three of us a staggering $280 each which is an absolute fortune by Asian standards, but sadly there are no other options available. The price includes both the transport and a mandatory driver, as it’s totally forbidden for any foreigners to drive in Tibet.
This intimidating undertaking involves a perilous 1,000 km drive over a crushed stone road gripping the edge of the world’s highest mountain range. Traveling across the vast expanse of the Tibetan plateau is a journey of epic proportions, but we’re up for the challenge. Setting out with large fuel containers strapped to the jeep, we soon realize the driver has the charm of a rabid weasel. Not far outside Lhasa, we roll the jeep onto a barge to cross a glacial river, before working our way into mountains breaching the clouds.
The barren landscape is occasionally interrupted by a nomad on horseback or a monastery with colourful flapping prayer flags called ‘wind-horses’, hung out like laundry so the winds will lift the prayers to the heavens. Our breathing is laboured at this altitude and the journey is long. What the three of us did not expect, 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 am troubled, seeing his rheumy eyes glazed over like a morning donut, and blinking like a drowsy iguana. Clearly this ignoramus at the wheel is just not with it.
Moments later, he nods off 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 do not want to be stranded here, and I tell Fred the dazed driver is a danger to us all. Fred’s assertion is ‘don’t worry, I know these people and it’s all about face; from now on he’ll be extra careful’. After I impale our ‘prince of ineptitude’ with a toxic verbal spear, we continue on, with more than minor qualms, along the bottomless mountain road perilous beyond words.
A short while later it becomes clear that Fred is all foam and no beer, as his hypothesis is clearly 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 specific 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 preventing a catastrophic plunge over a vertical eternity. Jesus Murphy that was close!
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 from the impact. Damn, at the rate I’m breaking teeth, my dentist back at 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 laying on a morgue slab or gobbled by vultures! Exiting the jeep I can’t stop my legs from trembling. In a vein-popping rage, I 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 a few times while demonizing him with a 12 letter word beginning with M!
With a sea of adrenaline surging through our bodies, we somehow manage to free the jeep from the rocks, and miraculously it is still drivable. No longer pussyfooting about, I grab the despicable driver by the scruff and catapult him into the back along with the luggage. Taking advice from Fred has proved to be as fruitless as taking Tango lessons from a gorilla, so 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, some granola, and peanut butter. Onward and upward! During our quest we cross Gyatso La Pass, with Mount Everest and its pals holding up the sky in the background. At an elevation of 17,126 feet, this ‘Taker of Breath’ is one of the highest pass in the world. Oxygen levels are less than half of those at sea level, and its touch and go if the jeep will make it, grumbling along in low gear with a top speed of about 5 mph. We’re encountering slight nosebleeds and headaches, and feeling anxious about our fate in the unlikely event we should encounter any authorities.
At this significant altitude we’re inhaling the thin air deeply, and concerned about encountering any altitude related sickness. Stopping for something to take the dust out of our mouths, I take out my pocket knife, brandishing it about as I repeatedly stab through the tin of tuna until the lid can be bent backwards. After the three of us eagerly share the contents, we continue on our mission to get through the mountians.
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 the sheets looking as if they’ve been worn by others since their last washing. Christine and I have a room, Fred has a room, and the scumbag driver responsible for so much trauma; well we just don’t give a crap! Grabbing our backpacks, I hurl the keys at him before stalking off to pillow our heads.
With the new day still waking up, both the jeep and driver have vanished. This is just fine by us, as we thought the fourteen karat fuckup might try to make trouble for us with border authorities. With no food, but joyous to be alive, we walk to the border and clear customs. From here we have to laboriously 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.
Relieved to reach the bottom, we cross over the border into Nepal, where our outstretched thumbs manage to get a large truck full of Tibetan pilgrims to pull over. The driver opens the cab door so the three of us can all squeeze in, and a body count reveals we’ve just increased the vehicle count to seventeen! In order to accommodate us and our packs, Tibetans are sitting on top of each other, including one in the driver’s lap.
The cab’s aroma is an offensive 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. The populous truck barrels down coronary-inducing mountain roads, until 100 heart-pounding kilometers later, we reach legendary Katmandu. Only then do we exhale! The last 48 onerous hours has undisputedly proven to be one Hell of a harrowing expedition.
Bidding adieu to Fred, our first priority is calories for our malnourished bodies, and spotting a sign for ‘Paradise Restaurant’, we are on it like ravens on roadkill. Being hungry enough to eat our own shoes after a month eating mainly rice plus the few rations on our hair-raising overland trip, the extensive menu which even includes pizza has us drooling like a pair of elderly Saint Bernards!
Knackered from our ordeal, we’re eager to try and find some of the pounds we lost in Tibet! We munch our way through the menu, unhinging our jaws and ravenously stuffing our mouths in the manner of an ill-bred chipmunk! After testing the endurance of our mandibles, and fearful of exploding, we slither out of the restaurant like a couple of overstuffed pythons; seeking a room to succumb to the God of Snooze!
Katmandu both seduces and repels. We find it exotic and alluring with odd sounds and smells, eerie flute music, haggling carpet dealers, ancient wooden buildings, legless beggars, eye-painted temples, and women with a third eye on their forehead. Sacred cows wander aimlessly about 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 to get a better 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’. ‘Namaste-ing’ our way about town, we’re fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the ‘Living Goddess’; a 4 to 7 year old girl, thought to be the reincarnation of Buddha and chosen on the basis of her looks and bravery.
At the ‘Monkey Temple’ I receive an unexpected surprise when bending down for a photo of an unkempt woman and her child. As she reaches over and removes the top off her wicker basket, a cobra snake periscopes up, looking like a menacing question mark 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 before the serpent unwinds.
Today brings another alarming experience while 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 hurl him down into the street gutter.
Getting up with a venomous look, he runs to a market stall and grabs an even bigger knife, coming at me 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, keep our heads on our shoulders and use purposeful strides to fade into the crowd.
Rather than risk the possibility of another ‘mid-knife crisis’, we’re off to the jungles of Royal Chitawan Park for a change of pace. Along the way we relish passing through mustard fields merging the swath of yellow with jungle greenery, with fluffy white clouds kissing the imposing Himalayas looming in the distance.
Once in camp, we arrange an elephant safari, and 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 branches snapping under his formidable feet, the comfort factor is sorely missing, being stretched as tight as an overenthusiastic facelift, on this lofty ride astride the hide of the gentle giant.
With time in thin supply, I mention to a guide that I’m disappointed at not having seen 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! Armed only with my abundant charm, it takes slightly under a nanosecond to exhaust all avenues of conversation. Running like a tourist at Pamploma, I’m on the guide’s heels up the closest tree, where we regain our breath and watch with wide admiration as the two Sherman tanks slowly lumber by beneath. Move over Nepal, we’re on our way to Thailand.
Our first night in Bangkok is a night of ugly! Over estimating his navigational skills, our taxi driver is now lost. Unable to locate our hostel after what seems an eternity, the befuddled twit exasperatingly strands us in the blackness at a strange guesthouse with a ‘No Vacancy’ sign posted, and promptly buggers off. With no clue where we are, and no good options available, we pass the night sleeping curled up like a pair of puppies outside on the hard wooden veranda. Not exactly an auspicious start to our stay in the Kingdom of Siam!
In the morning after acquiring directions, we make our way into town, and witness a sidesplitting sight. A Thai guy riding down the main road atop his elephant suddenly stops, dismounts, and tethers what is not exactly a portrait of frailty, 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’; 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 distinctively patterned skin is draped around our necks like a hefty scaly scarf. After bidding adieu to my new ‘squeeze’, an irked Asian Sun Bear nearby gives me ‘paws’ when I happen to venture too close to its cage. Suddenly, a blow with bad intentions, from a blur of fur with Freddy Kruger-like claws, leaves an angry set of welts and bruises on my forearm!
The start of a new day turns into yet another dramedy, when unbeknownst to us we depart a water taxi at a misplaced stop on Chao Phya River. As the boat chugs away, we realize we’re now marooned on a partially sunken jetty leading nowhere but into the murky flooded alleys between some 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 some sea-clusion takes us to Southern Thailand’s sun-drenched island of Phuket. The palm treed haven is a welcome change, with white beaches, emerald waters, and colourful fishing boats all composing a perfect tropical postcard. To call our funky little bamboo hut on the beach modest would be charitable, but it costs only six dollars a day and seems like heaven.
Christmas morning begins with some unintentional off-roading. Our hired 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. The only thing that seems clear is that ‘right of weight’ outweighs ‘right of way’!
Fortunately no harm is done during our field surfing, and with heart palpitations out of the danger zone, we continue on to locate a boat to James Bond Island; the famous ‘why-doesn’t-it-fall-over’ landmark in Phang Nga Bay. We boat out to the Muslim sea gypsy village of Ko Panny built over the water on stilts, and can’t resist buying a couple of gorgeous but outlandishly large seashells which we have no idea how to 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 fiery bottle of Mae Kong whiskey. Then 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 take us from Thailand into Malaysia, and on to the refined city/country of Singapore. Quite atypical of the rest of Asia, S’pore has been disturbingly sanitized to the point that even the cockroaches seem to have lost interest. Having lost most of its Asian flavor, it’s more like Asia with training wheels, and after the usual unusual we’re accustomed to, seems little more than an antiseptic bore.
We determine that most hotels in Singapore will cost an arm and leg, three toes off your remaining foot, and both eye brows; and accordingly, are staying in the seedy backpacker ghetto of the Bencoolen, where a wily fat-assed rat keeps stealing our food from the room! Seeking a better quality of wildlife, we visit the delightful zoo where Christine enjoys an up close encounter with two hairy red apes, sitting down with a big mama orangutan and her adorable infant, who seems totally enthralled by her shiny 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, with destitute souls burrowed like termites into sky-high piles of garbage to sleep. We’re staying a few days on the backpacker’s street of Jalan Jaska with an Indonesian family who offer us a basic room and kindly share their fridge and shower.
Viewing Jakarta as a hapless stop, we opt for a two day train trip aboard the ‘Mutiara Utra’, clanking along the tracks watching Java blurring past outside, until reaching the end of the line at the dismal port city of Surabaya. From here we ferry over to the petite island of Bali which we’ve heard so many good things about.
Only a sixth the size of Vancouver Island, Bali is both farmer and artist, and sometimes both at once. Palm trees gently sway, volcanoes reach for the sky, and terraced rice fields tumble down mountains like emerald staircases. The hypnotic traditional sounds of bamboo xylophones and gamelan orchestras make our ears smile, and people make temple offerings to their gods each and 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 banana pancake our way through several villages on the island, with most rooms costing about five dollars a night, including breakfast! Of course nightly room sweeps are prudent, as on one occasion we had to expel a sizeable centipede from a shoe, and on another, evict a black scorpion looking like an evil little land lobster! At day’s end we sip a glass of Arak while enjoying a montage of raging, awe-invoking sunsets and watching villagers paddle ashore in outrigger canoes, eagerly waving their eclectic catch at us.
Sarong clad workers, beavering away in the rice fields, pause to gawk as Christine and I run past; no doubt mystified why we would be running in this heat, unless of course, we were being chased! Stopovers include the 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. Christine trades an old pair of sneakers for lovely ebony sculpture and I swap my shirt and sandals for an ornate bone carving, just as a monsoon ‘Niagaras’ down from the grim sky, causing the streets to swim. Clutching our new treasures we 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 newly acquired foreign plunder; a Girka knife from Nepal, carved buffalo horns from Thailand, monster shells, a blowgun from Java, and a Tibetan human skull kapalla. 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. Our exotic three month Asian odyssey has been a true vagabonding experience with the things we have seen and the places we have been. 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’ll definitely be back for a second helping.
Mark H. Colegrave 1985