Posts Tagged With: Tibet

Divine peaks & intransigent Maoists… or “Welcome to Nepal!”

As I was flying from Chengdu, China to Kathmandu, Nepal – over the most spectacular vistas you will ever see from the window of a plane (8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world are in Nepal and they’re on glorious display), you might have thought I would be in a paroxysm of delight. And I was … sort of.

The only Tibetan I met.

But I was also plenty cranky because we were flying over Tibet – where I was supposed to be going for three spectacular days, if my visa had not been rejected by the Chinese government. Yes, after I’d spend $200 to assure that my passport, Chinese visa, 30-day in advance Tibet visa application, confirmed flights, carefully crafted bio (in which I assiduously tried to avoid using the word “writer”) and thorough retinue of places I wished to travel was in order, China flipped me the bird.

Now, the fact that you even need a separate visa to go to Tibet, which China is obsessive about referring to as its own territory, adds salt to the wound of having to pay $500+ for a stupid Chinese visa … it’s like paying an arm and a leg for a USA visa, then having to pay extra to visit Montana (which would be totally worth it, btw). In any case, I was bitter about my aborted visit to Tibet when I could SEE IT from the plane… in fact, we landed in Lhasa and spent an hour in its militaristic little terminal.

The Lhasa Airport (all I saw of Tibet)

To make my bitterness even more acute, my adjusted plans to visit additional Heifer projects in Nepal (after my last-minute rejection in Tibet) were jettisoned by threatened Maoist strikes throughout that country. So yeah, I was experiencing a little Global PMS (Post-Maoist Sh#$%t).

But then I got to Kathmandu and the sheer, delightful energy of the place blew my crankiness straight away.

This dusty, frenetic city of 1 million people is wall-to-wall shopping, drinking, eating, building, bargains, music, stupas, shrines, westernized food, trekkers, scarily fit Europeans, aging hippies, buskers, players, monks and prayer wheels.

The eyes of the Buddha are upon you.

Nepal was a surprise to me on many levels – probably because I assumed I knew quite a bit about the country (so many people I know have been there) but in truth, I was clueless.

I thought Nepal was mostly Buddhist; it’s actually 90% Hindu, with an ingrained caste system that is rigid and unforgiving, particularly for women.

I also thought Nepal was a monarchy; but the King and his family were assassinated in 2001, and a Maoist revolution succeeded in 2006 (hence the strikes that truncated my project visits). This small landlocked country, sandwiched between the titans of India and China, is the only Asian nation never to be colonized and knows well how to walk the delicate line between diplomacy and independence.

Nepal’s 3 regions: Terai lowlands, Hill Country & Mountains — and what mountains!

Not to sound too tourist guide-y, but Nepal is a land of contrasts, from the rice paddies of Chitwan to the nosebleed peaks of Annapurna and Everest– and a country of constant surprises.

The swastika is a Hindu symbol for prosperity, and the Star of David stands for knowledge – but what a juxtaposition to see on a home’s entrance gate!

I knew Nepal’s 26 million people were poor, but I didn’t realize that 40% of children under five are underweight and likely to be stunted in growth.

And I didn’t realize there would be so many adorable things to buy, but for once I’d have no appetite for shopping.

I was happy to be in Nepal, and a bit sad to be alone in my sweet room at Kathmandu Guest House.But mostly, I just needed to go see some Heifer projects and people… the cure for all crankiness.

(But that’s tomorrow’s story.)

Categories: Children, Heifer International, Hunger, Nepal, Photography, Poverty, Travel, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

First Impressions of China …

A lot of how you first experience China probably depends on how you feel about China before you go there.

Where I went in China (Sichuan province).

For instance, if you think of China as the majestic, longest- lasting civilization in the world–one  that invented paper, gunpowder, kites, ice cream and toilet paper (hard to say which I value the most)— you’re going to be pretty darn impressed with all the rich history and present-day achievements you see. But if you are pretty sure that with 1 billion people, a land mass only slightly smaller than America (I was totally sure it was twice our size) and an economy growing at breakneck speed, China will be taking over the world in our lifetime – and not in a fun, let’s-break-the-bank European way but in a we-are-all-striving-together-to-suffer-and-achieve way – then you’re less likely to be enamored of the culture. Although I have to say, there wasn’t a whole lot of culture on display where I was in Chengdu. Mostly it was just gray skies, lots of smoking and spitting, a million high-rise buildings, and noodles galore. (But I wasn’t in the groovy old-world part of Chengdu with all the pandas, etc. so maybe I just missed the boat.. or the junk.)

Yup, this is pretty much my memory of Chengdu.

Once you get out into the countryside, though, China is awfully pretty.

The people are adorable, friendly and fascinating. The roads are great. Everywhere you look, you see building and new bridges and tons of billboards offering tons of stuff for sale and people who seem to be coping with the stress of living in this highly competitive, highly regulated country pretty well.

I have no idea what this means, but you gotta love a headline that uses the word "protagonist" right?

And make no mistake: China is regulated. You can’t get on WordPress, any Western blog sites, Facebook, twitter or YouTube in China. And my month-long quest to get a visa to visit Tibet came to naught, as they don’t seem to want to let Westerners in to visit that cheerful, beautiful Buddhist country. It’s astonishing how restrictions like this chafe and bind when you’re used to being able to go anywhere you please and criticize, make fun of, and badger your government (go, Jon Stewart!).

Despite the general affluence of China (there are more thousand-dollar handbags slung over skinny girls’ shoulders here than in New York), I also witnessed some of the worst poverty I’ve even seen.

I heard last night on CNN that the Chinese economy has slowed down to a roaring 8%, although China is still producing more millionaires a day than anywhere else on the planet. But there is a world of difference between people in the cities and people in the countryside – as well as a huge income gap between the haves and the have-nots. Which makes the work that Heiferis doing to improve the lives of rural, agrarian Chinese so vitally important. The people I was with were gentle, thoughtful, grateful and sweet– of course! they were Heifer folks, working in conjunction with some really helpful and committed people from the Chinese government– but I have to say, the overall charm quotient in Chinese cities is pretty low. By the time I got to Nepal and a beautiful monk smiled directly my face, I almost dropped over in surprise, I was so accustomed to the anonymous stare of the urban Chinese.

But looking back, all I can remember (as usual) are the children.

And what’s not to love there?

Categories: Children, China, Heifer International, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

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