Waiting for the Kathmandu flight I met Stuart(Canadian), Melissa(American) and Mark(Dutch), three fun people I'd spend the next few days with. Stuart had been to Nepal last year and was full of information about where to stay and what to do. He was also interested in Tibet and Kailash so we started forming a common plan.
I faired better on the digital front. The shops had a small selection of cameras. I eventually settled on a Yashica Samurai 1300DG, it has a zoom and a higher resolution than my trusty Toshiba PDR-5, but it wont be as convenient to use. The 8mb CompactFlash card that comes with the camera holds about 120 images, so that's all I'll be able to shoot until I get my care package from the states.
With my friends from the Bahrain airport I went for dinner at the Blue Note, an outdoor New Orleans themed restaurant serving traditional Nepali food. After dinner we walked over to Tongues and Tales, a dark, quiet little upstairs bar in the tourist district of Kathmandu. We reclined on the floor cushions an ordered round after round of drinks as people sang songs and strummed a communal guitar.
Around midnight, Vicky, a friend of Melissa's, arrived with a German guy(Frank) she'd met in Bangkok on the way from Atlanta. Introductions were made and more drinks ordered as they settled in to Kathmandu. At 3 a.m., long after the bar had intended on closing, Stuart suggested a trip to Swawambhunath, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple. We were all either too buzzed or too jet lagged to find a flaw in this plan so we piled out onto the street and flagged down some rickshaws.
Without the usual crush of trucks, taxis, bicycles, pedestrians, beggars, and cows we arranged a late night rickshaw race to the temple. This quickly devolved from a test of the drivers to a test of our pushing abilities but eventually they declared us "at the temple" and the winners were paid off. As the road away into the hours off sunrise we began to wonder just how it was they chose the finish line. The Monkey Temple was nowhere to be found.
We wandered through narrow winding streets listening for the far off cry of monkeys but instead hearing only the angry bark of rabid dogs. Just as things were looking bleak for our would-be pilgrims we stumbled across two devotees on their way to the temple. We fell into step behind them and began the kora around the base of the temple.
A kora is a ritual circumambulation(walk around). In this case, the main temple is built atop a hill. All around the base of the hill are smaller temples and hundreds (if not thousands of prayer wheels). A prayer wheel is and upright cylinder mounted on an axle. Inside the prayer wheels are Buddhist sutras written in Sanskrit on narrow strips of paper. As you spin the wheel it is thought you activate the prayers and gain their merit.
It took us about and hour and a half to complete the Monkey Temple kora, spinning each and every prayer wheel as we walked the perimeter of the hill. With a bit of time still before sunrise we relaxed over a tea before ascending the steps to the Monkey Temple proper.
As you might guess, the temple is full of monkeys. They roam freely, sometimes entertaining, sometimes annoying and occasionally even threatening. I never got a straight answer on their significance (if any). From the temple we watched the sun attempt to rise, but instead it just gave the mist an ethereal glow lending an eerie ending to an eventful night.
What permits do you need? Where can you get them? What do things cost? It's extremely difficult to get straight answers to any of these questions. We were quoted prices from $1,500 to $4,000 including and excluding an amazing array of services and amenities. That matter is complicated by the fact that the Nepali agents are all working through companies in Tibet with a big lag in communication. Six times we thought we'd worked out an arrangement only to have them come back and say, "Not possible." Finally we found an agent who seemed to know what he was doing and be in a position to help us. His advice was to get individual Chinese visas, something that isn't supposed to be possible in Kathmandu.
We returned at 7 p.m. to find our visas-- granted!
For the first time it started to feel like we might make it to Tibet.
The trip we ended up with is totally bare-bones. They get us to Lhasa and acquire the needed permits. We are supplied with a vehicle, a driver, and a guide, but are on our own for everything else. We have to arrange for food, accommodation, camping and cooking gear. It's getting quite late in the season for a trip to Western to Tibet so we need to be self sufficient and prepared for bitter cold and bad weather. Far from the luxury tour we thought we were on at one point, this has taken on the feel of a "real" expedition.
My guidebook promises internet cafes in Lhasa, but updates to this page and replies to e-mail will both be sparse.
Tucked away in the remote Southwest corner of Tibet, Mt Kailash is considered to be the center of the universe for Tibetan Buddhists and the 53km (30 mile) kora around the mountain is the holiest of Tibet's pilgrimages. If we make it to the mountain and snow conditions allow, we will do the Kora in 2 or 3 days. From Mt Kailash we go to Lake Manasarovar where a bath in the holy lake is said to wash away the sins of a lifetime.