Beautiful Faces of Tibet

Saturday, July 11, 2009

It’s 8:30 pm on Sunday, July 12, 2009.  I am in a hotel room that measures 8 x 8 – contains two twin beds, a dresser, a toilet, a sink, a shower head and two other women.  The shower and the bathroom are one and the same – hint for future travelers to far away places with bathrooms such as these – move the toilet paper before taking a shower.  One of the three girls has altitude sickness and has been on an oxygen feed for the past 6 hours.  The guide and the driver have taken the truck to see if it can be fixed as it broke down on the road earlier in the day – twice.  And we’ve all taken to calling it (with great affection) the piece of shit (POS for future reference) vehicle that we’re stuck with for 7 days.

I’ve been through one mudslide and run across a rockslide – with my luggage.  I’ve been yelled at by Chinese militia for taking pictures – had every item in my luggage examined in front of strangers and I’ve come the closest to a full strip search as ever before.  And I’ve blown up 327 balloons. I have left Nepal and am now in the highest region on earth – the Tibetan Plateau, in a small no-name town.  It’s been an exciting day and a half.


Often called the “roof of the world” it’s home to the world’s highest mountain – Everest – 29,000 feet. We’ll be driving from Kathmandu to Lhasa where I’ll catch a flight back to Kathmandu, followed by a flight to Beijing, China.


The difference between Nepal and Tibet (among other things I know) is a little thing called the Chinese. I’d like to refer to them as PITA – pain in the ass. Their actions in Tibet and behavior toward the Tibetan people are appalling – their behavior throughout my entire stay in Tibet and China – annoying and in many instances quite disgusting. I am not a fan of the Chinese. But I digress.

My journey to Tibet began with a lazy morning at Sukute Beach Camp.  I slept pretty well -woke up around 7:00 – took a quick shower – packed up my stuff and went over to the common area for coffee and breakfast.  I really didn’t know too much about what the next 7 days were going to bring – all I knew was that I was going to Tibet and my next driver was picking me up at 9:30.

He arrived on time and more importantly with my passport.  I looked inside and son of a gun – there was a big “Cancelled” stamped right over my perfectly good Chinese visa.

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To recap the visa events of the last few days — I needed two visa’s for China – one to enter Tibet – which I knew in advance I would get while in Kathmandu and the second for mainland China, which I secured while in the states (see above).

So, my guide asks for $164 for the visa to enter Tibet- no problem. But then he tells me that upon my return from Tibet – I will be flying from Llasa back to Kathmandu, then taking another flight to Beijing – I’ll need to get another visa for China. I said, no — see above — I have a visa for China. He told me that this visa would be canceled and that I would have to give him another $200 for a second visa. I asked why would China do this? He replied, because they can. China = PITA . I called my contact at Global Basecamps and they covered the cost of the second visa — but I was without my passport for the last three days and that made me very nervous. So, I’m glad to have it back in my hands once again – with a second visa for China…sigh.

We walked up the hill together and that was where I got my big surprise!  Three other people would be traveling with me!  Yea!!  Yippee!  Whooo Hoooo!

Two women from Holland and one man from Zurich, Switzerland.  The girls are teachers (25 years old) and the guy is an architect  (28 years old).  We were in a nice sized van…plenty of room for everyone and our luggage.  This would be the last time time I used the phrase “plenty of room”.

We started talking and didn’t stop — O.K. — to be fair – I didn’t stop.  I hadn’t realized how much I missed having full length conversations that I understood and that were understood by others.  Yes…everyone speaks english!

Here’s the first of many pictures that you will see with all of us over the course of the next 7 days.

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That’s Tessa in the black and Liedeke in the blue.

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The guy in the white is Basil…

We stopped here to check out the bungee bridge. Both girls wanted to bungee jump and I really wanted to take pictures of someone else doing it but the driver wouldn’t let us stop for the two hours that it would take. Something about getting to the border on time and making the transfer from him to the next guy responsible for us. He is ready for the “hand-off”.

Looking at this bridge…I was really glad that I had done it at Victoria Falls…this one looked a little shaky to me.

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I guess one thing to know is that the rains have been heavy here in the mountains…and the snow has been melting.  There is so much water coming down from the mountains it’s crazy…and it’s all coming onto the roads!

Pictures of life along the road to the Tibet border…

Drying Laundry

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We are headed towards the town of Kodari (altitude 8254 ft), the border town between Nepal and Tibet.  The surrounding area is stunning and it has an exotic history going back to ancient times as the starting point of the Trans-Himalayan caravan route, the Nepalese equivalent of the silk road.  Merchants bound for Lhasa would head north from Kodari and cross the Kuti pass before turning east to begin the perilous journey over the Tibetan plateau – the same journey as we would start tomorrow.

Everything is built on the side of the mountains…

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Actually, we didn’t even make it through the entire town of Kodari before the vehicle came to a stop. That’s as far as we got in this vehicle – now and forever known as “the comfortable one”.  Our driver got out, opened all the doors and told us “No further – bad road – you walk the rest of the way”. So we unloaded everything and started our hike up the road to the Nepalese Immigration offices.

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It was about a 15-minute walk uphill and if this piece of luggage on wheels that I have makes it through the next 7 days – I will personally call Eddie Bauer and congratulate them on one hell of a sturdy piece of luggage!  It’s taking a beating – the roads are not paved – and the damn thing is still rolling!   It bounced and careened over rocks, through puddles, to the top of the hill and into the building where we filled out the appropriate paperwork and handed over our passports for inspection.

It’s been two hours and the four of us are getting to know one another.  The girls had just recently arrived  from Holland and had spent three days in Kathmandu visiting the same sights as I had just one week ago.  They’re on summer holiday and have 6 weeks vacation.  After Tibet, they will continue traveling further into Nepal for another couple of weeks before returning to Holland.  Basil has been traveling for a while now and along a similar route as me – India and Nepal.  So we’ve had lots to talk about.  We’re bonding.

We left the Immigration office and continued up the hill about 100 feet to the “Friendship Bridge” that connects Nepal and Tibet.

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Friendship Bridge

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Now mind you – I’m carrying my backpack, a purse and the orange wonder otherwise known as my suitcase up this hill AND still taking pictures!  High Five to me! Or not. Here come the Chinese – in the form of a dozen militia personnel standing at attention along the bridge.

This was where I had my first and last warning about taking pictures where I was not supposed to take pictures.  Two militia came towards me quickly and in very angry tones began yelling at me and waving their arms at me and my camera.  I freely admit to a brief moment of uncertainty (OK…terror).  I backed up a few steps and then my guide, Tsering, stepped in – told me to put the camera away – spoke to the two militia men and calmed things down.  If Tsering had spoken enough

If Tsering had spoken enough English for me to be understood correctly, I would have told him that this was information I could have used before coming onto the bridge.

Three cheers for the flag – representing human rights abuse, torture, slavery, murder and so much more bad stuff we can only imagine.
(with much sarcasm and disdain)

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We came to an official building on the far side of the bridge and were told to put all of our bags down and step aside.  We didn’t know why – and again – Tsering was not terribly forthcoming with information.  We dropped our bags, hesitantly stepped aside and waited. Two men wearing hospital masks over their faces came toward us with a large can and two sprayers.  It was disinfectant. They sprayed all our bags – thoroughly.  It seems they are very afraid of swine flu. For a moment, we wondered how funny it would be if the four of us started coughing and sneezing – then we came to our senses.

Still standing around outside, we were handed yet another health questionnaire to be filled out and shown to a different group of men milling around on the outer steps – health supervisors I’m sure. We were now up to 4 forms – all requiring similar information in a different order – bureaucracy at its best.  And this was all before the real security began – when the four of us really got to know one another.

For the next 30 minutes, they opened every single bag and went through every single item contained within each bag.  We all now know what each other is packing – no secrets – dirty undies and all.  A steely-eyed guard requested that I remove my baseball cap for better identification and while I tried for a few seconds to explain hat hair – the cap was removed and after a moment of careful examination of my passport and me – what seemed to be a look of doubt (I did try to explain hat hair) – I was passed through to the next station.

A few steps further and we went through our third and final electronic security system.  This was the body check.  Women are herded into our own area – one at a time – and I soon found my shirt lifted for a complete investigation of my undergarments as well as a complete pat down – removal of shoes etc. And the bags went through one more electronic scanner before leaving the building. The Chinese are nothing if not thorough.

Outside the building, we all jumped right into the bargaining process for the exchange of money. Banks were giving 6.8 yuan to the dollar – the street folks were offering 6.3 – so we settled on 6.5.  It’s not recommended to change money on the streets, but we were told that an ATM machine was three days away and we had to eat…

Just ahead, we saw our guide Tsering, speaking with a man in an open bed Toyota.  He motioned for us to join him and explained that a landslide up ahead was blocking the road, so our next vehicle couldn’t get to us.  He would take us as far as he could…We threw our luggage in the back – squeezed into the cab of the truck and off we went up a very narrow, very rocky, very wet and slippery road.

About one mile up we came to a stop – in front of the rockslide.  There were a half a dozen Chinese militia standing around watching the scene along with another dozen men and women.

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As soon as we stopped, the men made their move on our luggage – each one grabbing at something – trying to pull them out of the truck bed. We jumped out of the truck and grabbed it back! They wanted to carry it up the hill for us – at a very reasonable price – of course.  Both the girls were a little unnerved by how pushy these guys were – but for me – after India – it was nothing. However, in hindsight, I should have handed over the orange wonder.

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After reclaiming our stuff, we settled in for a wait of about 30 minutes.  It didn’t look as if the bulldozer was going to get the whole thing cleared, so we really didn’t know how long we would be there.  So there we are, sitting on our bags, chatting and relaxing when without warning, the militia began yelling at us to RUN!

Now, it’s not as if we understood the command – it was in Chinese – but  all around us, everyone else started to run. HUGE indicator to move tail! As fast as we could, we threw backpacks over our shoulders and started running up the hill. The girls and Basil each had their backpacks – I had the what seemed to be 200 lb orange wonder plus, the backpack and purse. Man, I do not travel light.

It only took about 5 seconds for the militia to assess my chances of getting my suitcase over the rockslide.  One of them just stepped up to me – grabbed the bag – threw it up onto his shoulder and took off. I just ran after him – muttering silent prayers of thanks.

Guy in the orange hat carried my bags

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The plan, while not obvious at first, was to get everyone to the other side before the bulldozer came back for another shot at the big rock. Now why they didn’t just ask the bulldozer to stop for two minutes to let us past was beyond me, but they didn’t, so we hustled.

Waiting for us on the other side was another beat up looking Toyota and a driver waving at us to come towards him.  We got to the truck and he tried to open the back doors to put our suitcases in…but they wouldn’t open.  That was our first introduction to the piece of shit vehicle (in the future referred to as POS) we would be spending the next 7 days in.

The driver improvised and tried to throw our bags in the side doors and over the back seat…no small feat as all the luggage was heavy!  I say “tried” – the process didn’t go well. The police kept telling him to move the truck because it was a one lane road and we were holding up traffic.  So, he would throw one bag in – then jump in the truck and move forward 50 feet – we would pick up the remaining bags and sun to catch up with him – he would stop and throw another bag in the truck – get back in and drive forward – we ran to keep up – etc. I’m not making this up. Honestly, if we hadn’t been so hot and tired, this would have been really funny to watch.  The end result was our guide up front with the driver and the four of us in the back – on each others laps!  We are all sweating and out of breath – looking at each other and all thinking the same thing.  What the heck?  Stress plus a little fear of the unknown really bonded us together. We were bff’s by the time we arrive at our stop for the night. and hey — we’re in Tibet!

It was a short drive to the small border town where we would spend the night.

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I have paid for the highest level of hotel room I could get (which you’ll was not saying much) and the other three have paid for a lesser level.  This became important when the girls had their first look at their lodgings for the night.When the girls saw the hostel

When they saw the hostel dormitory room they had been assigned to, the three of us decided that we would share my room.  Basil would stay in the hostel.  It was pretty bad – stinky – no lights and the beds – YUK! The bathrooms were located down an unlit hallway and there was danger of stepping into one of the (urinal) holes in the floor.  I had had enough of being alone so the company was very welcome!  My high rent hotel was one step up from the hostel…and a small step at best…but the lights worked and it came with a pet.


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And a really great view!

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We had a great evening! Dinner at a diner across the street and my first Lhasa beer.  It’s perfect for me – very light and refreshing.

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There is one other beer available in Tibet – Budweiser!  That’s right folks – Bud is King in Tibet!  I asked a man in a shop who was selling Bud ”What’s the deal with all the Budweiser?”  He proudly explained to me that Tibetans drink more Budweiser than anywhere else in the world!  Now, I don’t know if that’s true but he believed it. So I congratulated him.  I told him that I have family in America who own a Budweiser distribution company and he congratulated me.  I will be thinking of them (Mike McCormick) as I travel through Tibet, drink a Bud and think of home.

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We strolled through town – just checking things out – a mountain town is so different. Narrow streets – buildings built into the sides of the mountain – very tightly packed together.



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Then all four of us went back to my room to hang out – listen to music – and talk about the next 7 days.  Tsering was meeting us at 6:00 am for breakfast and then we would head out at 6:30 – so we went to bed early.

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the next day…

It’s 5am and we are up – getting showered – repacked and ready for our Tibetan adventure! Downstairs in the lobby, there were 150 Indian people having tea as they got themselves ready for their meditation tour.   There was a lot of mediation ummm’ing going on in that lobby. It was quite the hoppin’ place.

We walked outside to a town-wide blackout.  This is just something you just have to get used to.   Blackouts were common in Africa and India and apparently they are in Nepal as well – no surprise.  The length of the blackout and availability (or lack thereof) of a generator close by, determined the level of inconvenience to all. As you may have guessed…there are no generators in Tibet. So the restaurant was closed and it was drizzling.  No breakfast today.

We waited for Basil to come downstairs then we set out to wait for Tsering.  Finally at 6:30, we asked our front desk guy if he knew where our guide might be staying? He said yes and that he would get him.  He returned saying that he had woken him up.  Tsering showed up around 7:15 rubbing his eyes.  We all decided at that moment that Tsering might not be the best guide in Tibet. Please understand that as we were waiting for our sleepy guide, we watched two dozen really nice, big, four wheel drive vehicles hit the road before us.  We knew our vehicle was a POS and now it seemed as if our guide might be as well.  But we were in high spirits because we’re in Tibet!

North Face is alive and well in Tibet!

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This would be one of the “nice trucks” – the ones with doors that opened.

We drove out of town and up the mountains behind a train of other four wheel drive vehicles all headed in the same general direction – towards Lhasa.  Tsering had moved to the back of the truck with the luggage and about 2 minutes into the drive – began snoring.  He didn’t stop snoring until we hit Lhasa three days later.  He couldn’t even be bothered to wake up when we stopped places to take pictures – our non-english speaking driver took the pictures.  As bad as I’m making this out to be – it really didn’t bother us too much.  We were having such a great time together that we didn’t care!  We stopped whenever we wanted to – took a bazillion pictures of everything and just talked and laughed and enjoyed the drive and the country!

The road we took was not much more than rock and rubble mixed with a drizzling rain that made it slippery.  I know this because our driver not only accelerated into the darn turns – he slid through them too.  The width of these roads is not the size of two vehicles either.  So every 10 – 15 minutes, we would have to find a place to pull over and let a line of 10-20 cars coming down the mountain pass by us.  The windshield wipers worked – but the defrost did not – so the windows were foggy. The left side of the road did not exist (unless you count the 4000 ft drop as an option) and since I had not had coffee yet – my nerves were strung pretty tight.   It’s early – it’s dark – the driver is going too fast for my comfort – and I’m in the back seat.  It was almost too much for a type A control freakish personality to take. But then rain stopped and the sun came up.

We continued east – into the Himalayas – the world’s highest mountain range.  I’m getting used to the bump and jostling of the 4×4.  The sky is now a brilliant blue and we see glorious mountains on either side of us.

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Typical Tibetan village homes, made from grass, yak dung, clay and dirt. There’s always a prayer flag or two inserted into the walls or the roof of a Tibetan village home. The homes are frequently clustered together. I didn’t see any real vegetation in the area, so I wonder about the kind of farming the people engage in.

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Our driver…sleepy Tseng

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A man and his yak are plowing a field…

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Line for gas

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A quick stop for breakfast…so happy 🙂

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A little road congestion..

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The first of many security check stops we made throughout Tibet.

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Our POS vehicle..  🙂

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And our POS guide – Tsering – sound asleep and happily snoring 🙂

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The best part of the day was early – when we stopped at a small village where children were playing outside. Tessa and Liedeke had brought bags of balloons with them and we spent an incredible hour blowing up balloons and taking pictures with the kids.

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The adults swarmed around us as much as the children. They were more timid but just as curious and eager for a balloon.

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The children danced around us – each trying to get another balloon in their hand. We just kept blowing, and blowing, and blowing! Who knows how they kept the balloons? Some of them took them straight home to mom – others played with them in the street.  They seemed to have only one English word – Hello – and they repeated it over and over again like little birds.

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This little guy with the green balloon was my favorite.  These two pictures show him going home to show his grandmother his prize.

This was such a wonderful experience – it’s hard to put into words how grateful I am for these unique and beautiful experiences – but I am very grateful.

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He was very nervous he wouldn’t get a balloon. He got several 🙂

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You can return to tending your herd with a balloon 🙂

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Or just continue down the road…

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Missing a few teeth – but what an awesome smile!



This was just the first “balloon” stop we made.  There were opportunities throughout the entire week to spend some time with the Tibetan children.  I will always remember their beautiful faces and the excitement and joy they found in something so small as a balloon and I will always smile when I think of them!

There are not many places for restroom breaks, so when in Rome…so to speak. We noticed everyone going wherever and whenever they felt like it.  We passed countless people standing or squatting by the road doin’ their business. At first, we were just slightly south of judgmental. I mean really…we’re not animals. But after one or two trips to some of the most disgusting toilets I’ve ever been in, the bushes on the road side were the Taj. If we needed to go – we stopped – and we went – and many times there weren’t even any bushes!  This is another good reason to always carry a little package of tissues with you and a baggie.  Sometimes,  we would come across a friendly face who would be happy  “make a picture” of us.

And so we continued our journey across the Friendship Highway, driving along the Bhote Kosi river and ascending higher and higher – over the Nyalam Pass (12,467 ft.) then crossing the Thongla Pass at (16,306 ft).  After passing over the Thongla Pass, the altitude drops for a while but then sharply rises as you come to LaLung La Pass (17,060 ft) where we stopped for pictures – and Leideke succumbed to altitude sickness.

Prayer flags at Lalung La Pass – 17,000 ft above sea level

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This picture was the last time Leideke was standing upright for almost two full days.

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We started the day at 8,000 ft – drank lots of water – then crossed our fingers we wouldn’t suffer the horrible symptoms of AMS – Acute Mountain Sickness. Symptoms include loss of appetite, headaches, nausea, vomiting, fatique, dizziness, insomnia and more. “Fingers crossed” did not work.I started feeling the effects of the altitude about an hour before we got to the pass – just a little

I started feeling the effects of the altitude about an hour before we got to the pass – a little light-headed at first.  But then we got out of the truck and I really felt woozy.  I had a headache that just kept getting worst and I felt like I might fall over at any time.  I felt weak.  It’s not a good feeling.  But at least I was still standing.   Leideke got progressively worst until she was in tears and we had to get her an oxygen tank in the next town.

But as happens when something is urgent – like getting Leideke to town quickly – shit happens – and this shit took the form of our POS vehicle.

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Yup…our little POS vehicle crapped out on us. Not exactly the road you want to be stranded on – traffic was light that day 😦

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Finally on our way again. We stopped at the first town we came to get some oxygen for Leideke.

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Not expecting high-end medical treatment – but they had a good stash of oxygen bottles!

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Real NorthFace or Fake Northface? You decide… Tibetans make on average per year…$300.

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They have an opinion on the fake stuff…

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While our driver and our guide relaxed a while..

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Leideke lay down with her canister of oxygen

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And Tessa and I headed back outside with more balloons 🙂

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Funny thing…teens in any country are still the same.  The cheeky little guy in the turquoise sweater used his cigarette to run around and pop the younger children’s balloons until Tessa and I ran him off.

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Little stinker! I was practically hyperventilating blowing those balloons up! Leaving town…it looked like it might rain ..but it held off until later that night.

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We arrived at their hotel around 5:00 pm and I thought they would just cry.  It was a pitiful excuse for a hotel and to add insult to injury – there was a tiny stream of water coming out of the sink – but no where else.  No shower.  And the toilet was a hole in the ground with the floor covered in urine and something else that no one wanted to identify.  These places are just incredibly horrible.  So I told them not to un-pack and we went to my hotel – which though small – was relatively clean and had a toilet and a hot shower.

We got Basil his own room and the girls wanted to stay in my room. So we put Liedeke in one of the twin beds with a cold compress on her head and the bottle of oxygen – closed the drapes – told her to drink water – and left her alone to relax a bit.  I’m carrying enough Advil with me to heal the world of a headache – so she also got three Advil tablets.

That left me, Tessa and Basil to head to the hotel restaurant and there – we met a young couple traveling like we were – only in the opposite direction – Lhasa to Kathmandu – and we all had dinner together.

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They’re students from Canada – the first people since leaving the states who knew what PBS and NPR stood for and understood what I used to do for a living.  We shared travel stories and pictures – I brought my laptop with me and they had a really beautiful Canon camera with a large viewing screen.  We had a great time together and by the time we got back to the room, Liedeke was feeling a little better.  There were four extra down comforters in the room for some reason – so Tessa built her bed on the floor. I took the other bed and it was lights out at 10:00.

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And that’s the story of my first 36 hours in Tibet.



































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