7000km Journey from Mongolia to Nepal

Over a month ago I set out on an ambitious journey from Mongolia – I was looking at a nearly 7000 kilometer journey, four countries and some serious mountain ranges and deserts between me and Kathmandu, Nepal. My friend Diane was already trekking in Nepal and I was trying to meet her in early November so we could hike the Annapurna Circuit together, a long-term dream of mine and one of the few ‘must-do’s’ of my journey. Luckily for me, ambitious China has built the highest railroad in the world into Tibet, traveling in over 4000 kilometers in total from Beijing. Target acquired, lets begin.

Before my long Mongolian tour I booked a flight to Beijing from Ulaanbaatar. The price was nearly the same as a train ticket and saved me over 30 hours of travel. I couldn’t possibly handle another two-day delay at the Chinese border either. I also had been scrambling to arrange my Tibet tour from dodgy Internet connections in Mongolia and HAD to be in Lhasa by October 27th to meet my group. One thing I did not do was arrange my train ticket to Lhasa, as the owner of my Beijing hostel informed me over e-mail that NOBODY goes to Tibet this time of year, so getting a ticket will not be a problem. Well apparently a few people do go to Tibet in October because when we contacted the train station, the only option left was a hard seat in 3rd class. Not the most appealing option on a 48 hour train journey, especially in China. I had no other choice, so I booked the 4000k train for a stiff $50, got myself a massage and 15 lbs of water, food and beer and headed to the train station for tIMG_2778he 9:30pm departure….

Let me back up here – despite being through Beijing twice it hasn’t earned any blog time! This second time through was only a 36 hour stopover, but I used it  as an opportunity to visit a number of places that were closed on my first visit for the 60th anniversary celebration of the communist revolution in 1949. I walked through Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, going to the must-sees in in Beijing and snapping that obligatory photo with the man himself, Mao ze Dong. My first trip to Beijing back in early October was actually much more memorable despite the city wide lockdown and tight security. I was able to catch up with an old IBM Pittsburgh colleague of mine,IMG_2843 Dave Cai who now lives in central Beijing and works at Volkswagen. Dave showed me his posh apartment and took me out for a great dinner. I really enjoyed our intense conversation about the future of China, its relationship the United States and the rest of the world. I consider China the world’s great experiment of the 21st century – they have momentum and strength of an industrial revolution West of centuries past, but with the keen advantage of hindsight and history. They have a unique opportunity to change the world based on ideals and through planning, in way that has never been done. I find myself frequently talking global politics and the discussion always ends up in China. And back to China we go: Beijing – I rolled in a couple of days before the big October 1 National Day celebrations, figuring that one of the largest celebrations in history would be fun to be around. Well turns out only if you’re Chinese. Foreigners were given a tight lease, not allowed anywhere near the festivities or into tourist locations for many days. Fortunately I hooked up with a crew of travelers at my hostel, spent time hopelessly trying to sneak in to see anything, but ultimately watched the celebrations on TV like everyone else in the world despite the events happening only a 10 minute walk away.IMG_2860-1 At one point a few tanks rolled down our street on their way out from the celebrations. I’m not sure if anyone did catch it on television, but the ceremony was quite an impressive showing of the massive armament of the Chinese military. Personally I believe Nationalism breeds only more violence and division (How can you rally behind a single country and also promote world peace- it is a contradiction. Separateness always breeds division and violence through its very nature). This is another aspect of the China experiment that will play out in our lifetimes – they are fiercely nationalistic, at times quite xenophobic and have in my opinion placed their loyalty for country ahead of themselves or anything spiritual.

Back to the slightly more present (Oct 25), boarding the train for Lhasa. In China, you don’t need a ticket for a seat, just the train. People ended up lying all over the floor, in the common areas and just about anywhere a couple of inches of space could be found. I’ve heard that during holidays these trains are so packed that people have to stand for days at a time!

I was the only white guy in 3rd class and people curiously watched me down a couple beers and eat dinner. Feeling exhausted, I was able to sleep with mIMG_3435y hands folded on the table, waking up the next morning in Xian where the vast majority of people got off  the train. The next day I will always have great memories from. I’m pretty sure that every single person in 3rd class who could speak more than five words of English introduced themselves to me, and I found myself meeting many really incredible people, sharing food and drink and photos, exchanging e-mails and simply having an amazing time as the incredible beauty of China passed by my eyes outside the train window. This quickly changed in Xining, the halfway point. The train became packed again, and a nice family of Tibetans with 4 small children decided they were going to take FULL advantage of their one seat reservation in my row. I ended up with my face literally squished against the window, with a total of 11 people sharing 6 seats. Now – I was on my way to Tibet – why not start the cultural exchanges right away!? I already had a small IMG_3453child on my lap and the father brought out a stove to cook up some Yak Butter tea on the table. I played along for a while, but 24 hours like this were not looking very appealing so I bought my way into a comfortable sleeper cabin for the second half of the journey. While not nearly as exciting as 3rd class, I did get a great nights sleep in the oxygen filled cabin and woke up to the high Tibetan plateau out my window…The next day passed in tremendous comfort, I was sipping coffee and eating my snacks as I snapped photos of one of the most beautiful and yet inhospitable landscapes in the world. It was such a contrast to the lush forests and rice fields of the day prior.

Ultimately I recommend the same approach to anyone taking the train – spend half of your time in 3rd class, but enjoy some luxury and upgrade on the second day.

Eventually the train pulled into Lhasa, once the most inaccessible city in the world. Prepared for a complete shake down from the authorities, I strangely just walked off the train and out of the station without once displaying any of the many permit and visa papers I was carrying…. And just like that I was in Tibet.

… To be continued…

Flow and Reflection @ 4 months

During the past week, I really began to feel the ‘flow’ of traveling, with an exceptional amount of time to stare out the window, examine my trip and my thoughts in order to see where I am at on the ole pilgrimage.

I have found myself once again looking ahead a lot – plotting ideas on getting to Mongolia, back from Mongolia, eventually traversing China into Kathmandu to get there before the snows start. I’m racing the onset of winter rather than embracing it. I am not finding time to meditate, often busy traveling or surrounded by other travelers in small spaces. My trip was getting away from me, becoming a logistical effort in planning and movement. As I write this, this is still happening but hopefully this acknowledgement will enable me to take the power back.

Today was fantastic practice in this. I will write about Beijing later, but essentially due to the 60th anniversary celebrations and beginning of a weeklong holiday, I wasn’t able to freely move about the city and today I literally circumnavigated Beijing, going to three bus stations before finally ending up with the magical ticket to the Mongolian border. I was as close to losing it as I have been in a long time. Instead of my original plan of my guesthouse booking my bus ticket and spending the morning seeing sights in Beijing, I discovered that today pre-bookings were not being done due to the holiday and I would have to go to the station myself. I can only compare the feeling of being in a busy Chinese bus station to that of being on psychedelics. Everything is so vastly different: language, body language, emotions are simply not transferrable. As I raced for a ticket on one of the busiest travel days in China I felt completely helpless. Angels did appear and helped me to my goal. But during the process I was being very irrational – what was the worse thing that could have happened? Another night in Beijing? A slight delay to my plans? I don’t need to be ANYWHERE at ANYTIME. It was a sign that I do need to re-evaluate aspects of my approach and mindset in travel. Wanting something for tomorrow is no excuse to ignore today.

I have been looking recently at what it means to travel, why one (me really) would choose to leave everything behind to sail into uncharted waters. A nagging insecurity that has been with me the entire time is the fear that I am walking a path of escapism rather than growth. My life drastically changed in the few months before leaving home. New paths were opening for me, I was walking towards something that would have required enormous discipline and commitment- and yes I am talking about a spiritual path. I sometimes wonder if I chose to extend my freedom once again, seeking new places, people and experiences rather than moving within the world that I worked so hard to manifest over many years.

That world primarily contains a home, people, and activities that I have slowly discovered over many years bring me contentment. I’m not sure abandoning them for an indefinite period of time is necessarily best for me. Travel will always be ONE of those activities, but with the risk of sounding too definitive, one thing I have learned is that I will never be a long-term vagabond, sorry to disappoint those of you who were hoping to live vicariously forever! I am even considering coming home for a couple of months over the holidays, to have myself a little mid-year review, examine the next steps in life in earnest. My intent would be to return to India and continue the journey, but the truth is it will depend on many circumstances. What’s different for me than for many travelers I meet is that my life is this. Right now. I am not returning to school or to a job or to something else and this trip is not a break or vacation from a different lifestyle. Every moment I am working with huge questions around who I am and how I want to be in this world. Listening to myself, I believe a reflection and rest from home (or my friends and families couches) is needed soon. I overestimated my ability to critically look at options for the future, to network with those at home and try things out (even mentally), while traveling. It could be done if chose I single place to live and exist, but I am constantly moving, seeing, doing. This lifestyle does not provide a great environment for really intellectual inspection of various options. To my point about long-term travel, I do envision a future for myself where my career enables me to take pointed, 3 maybe 4 month trips, but return to a place and an existence that I have built and am building. I too easily discarded aspects of my life that are simply not replaceable in a matter of months in the far reaches of the world. I also see the potential of a future trip to a single city or region, where I can develop roots, volunteer in the community and live a more normal existence.

One thing I miss tremendously is meaningful conversations with my friends, ones that allow me to see that hyperbolic mirror, to help me look into these big questions and decisions. I do meet some incredible people on the road – but how well can you get to know someone in a few days – are you going to share your deepest insecurities and desires with these people? Likely not. That creates a vacuum in my own head – and if there is ONE thing I have learned in the past few years, it is that I am not successful in processing my emotions and problems within my own head. I used to THINK I was successful, but really just sublimated and stored them away. Its those close to you that allow you grow as an individual. Life is relationship, I trust in this as I trust that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow.

Another thought I have been sitting with has to do with fate versus freedom. I have been discussing it with a few close friends over e-mail and generally pondering it as I travel. I hinted at this above, when I discussed extending my freedom. I realize now that as I wake each day with no commitments and endless choices before me, that this is some sort of pinnacle of the concept of total freedom– total freedom being a western, material view on what freedom entails. Freedom of choice and location and speech. Total freedom is not this however, as I have learned from Krisnamurti’s teachings – Total freedom is freedom from the known, choiceless awareness through cessation of the fears that bind our daily lives. It is psychological and spiritual freedom, not necessarily the aspired-to physical freedom of the west. Anyway, I feel that I had to reach this point in life, this apex, to see if this was truly the freedom I was looking for and the one would bring me joy. You have to be something before you can not be it. I use the word apex, or sometimes think of a ‘top of the bell-curve’ metaphor to describe how I feel, because I see my life moving in another direction in the future. Not one where I make all decisions based on the level of freedom they allow my life, but making decisions that are correct in that moment, sometimes accepting signs from the universe and the commitment that comes with this acceptance. Now, there is a fine line here between accepting ones fate, and living in accordance with the moment. I don’t like the word fate, because it does imply pre-determination. I don’t believe in this at all. BUT, I do believe as one becomes wiser and more self-aware in their existence, they can more clearly wade through he waters of what the universe presents to them on a daily basis, choicelessly choosing the correct path based on the principle of listening to themselves.

Much of this thought process follows from my own reflection, but I have clearly been influenced by close friends – many of whom are now getting married, having children, solidifying careers, generally moving into new phases of life that limits there physical freedom. Almost without fail however, each of these friends accepts the new challenges of this path and doesn’t fight the ‘loss of freedom’. In many cases I believe they are gaining something through these commitments. While I don’t want to imply I’m looking to buy a house, get married and have a few children, I am considering what it means to move into a life of acceptance of my path rather than a constant disregard to things that require commitment and limit physical freedom.

OK, I think that is enough for today. I’m killing time in a Chinese Border town – if I thought my hassles in Beijing were rough, I just found out that the Chinese border is closed due to a holiday and that I’m faced with waiting in this nondescript town with nothing to do for 36 hours instead of 12 and then taking the overnight train for 16 hours to UB (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia). See you on the other side.

7 Minutes in Tibet

I dozed off on the bus today and when I woke up, I was in Tibet! OK, not really, but probably as close as I am going to get while in China. I am in a small town known as Shangri-la (formerly Zhongdian, renamed by the Chinese government to take advantage of a recent novel to increase tourism), whose population is primarily Tibetan. I met a Canadian and a couple of Israelis who I spent the afternoon with swapping travelling stories and talking about everything China. Tomorrow I am going to explore the area, spend time contemplating the two options I have before me. I’m either going to head north into western Sichuan, traversing Tibetan frontier towns on rough roads and unreliable transport OR take the road more travelled, backtracking south to catch a train into central Sichuan. I have set myself a timeline, booking a flight to Beijing for the end of the month – I really want to get into Mongolia soon because everyone I meet says it is already getting super cold at night. Plus, China celebrates the 60th anniversary of their Cultural Revolution on Oct 1- Tiananmen Square is supposed to be the sight of one of the largest parades and celebrations ever conducted!

I am back to traveling solo for a while. Wei and I had a great run, but ultimately we had different travel philosophies and at least for me, the goals and aspirations I have for this trip really require me to be alone. Today was a funny day for me as I have been relying on Wei’s Chinese to take care of things like bus tickets, restaurants etc, and suddenly found myself alone trying to figure this all out! Of course, it worked out just fine and that is really part of the fun of traveling in foreign lands.

After my last update from Kunming, we jumped on the ole Yunnan Tourist Trail, taking a slow train to Dali, spending a couple of nights. I had my first “Chinese Tourism Experience”, signing up for a cruise around Erhai Lake. It was hilarious. Me and a few hundred Chinese tourists, snapping photos, enjoying a tea ceremony and jumping off on islands for quick snapshots before the boat honked and we all ran back to not be left behind. Everything was in Chinese and I must have looked quite clueless so a few people helped me out. Two groups of Chinese girls wanted their photo taken with me so was able reconfirm my movie-star status! The next day was a real highlight for me, trekking around Cangshan Mountain. Early in the morning, I took a cable car to the top through the mist and clouds and spent the day walking about 10 miles through the beautiful landscape. Steep cliff walls with random shrines requiring super exposed scrambling to get to, waterfalls, monkeys and that beautiful mountain air that made me reminisce about home. Getting my hands on some rock, scrambling around and making some mileage was awesome. It really rejuvenated my soul, pushed me past my cold and gave me a nice day of reflection.

The next stop was Lijiang, a beautiful town famous for copper making and its Naxi people (one of the few remaining matriarchal societies left in the world), lined with cobblestone streets and canals. It was extremely touristy, although when the tourists are Chinese, it doesn’t seem as bad. Chinese tourists in China feels like part of the scenery. Nothing of particular interest happened here other than wandering the streets, getting lost, being found, eating, hanging out at the comfy hostel. LIjiang is definitely worth a visit, but I would not spend more than a couple of days here.

So here I am in Shangri-la, a town that feels as though it’s in Texas with a Tibetan twist. Danced with the locals in the town square, drank a few beers, shopped around for knocked of North Face gear in all the shops. Perfecting my bargaining skills as I gear up for cold weather. I’ve managed to find a beanie, next up are long-johns, a fleece and a pair of gloves. Peace!