Half a world away, across 13.5 time zones, enduring 18-20 hours of flight time and a layover, endured four straight airplane meals, I have arrived. Mumbai. Formerly Bombay. The airport was a good welcome to the country. Hot, sticky, dusty, loud, smelly, crowded, and chaotic.
As someone told me before I left, India is an assault to the 5 senses. That’s not always a bad thing – sometimes the combat does you well. For example, the smells of a very spicy curry wafting from a roadside stand. Or the overpowering taste of some new and unknown fruit. Or the shocking blast of air conditioning upon stepping out of the sweltering heat. Yes, India is a land where your senses will be overwhelmed. The whole country seems to live like that, going from one extreme to another.
India’s clash between its history and its future is also a contrast. In many ways it still operates in its historical pattern and in some ways it has left that behind. In India much moreso than in any other place I’ve been, people still wear the traditional dress. Sarees, Bindis, Kurtas, are everywhere. Traditional garments seem to outnumber western ones, even in the cities. And bureaucracy reigns supreme in most places. At the airport going through security I was stopped because my ticket wasn’t stamped. It was one guy’s job to simply stamp the ticket at the counter. Even though I’d used the automated kiosk a red mark needed to be put on it for it to be valid.
India has a large upwardly mobile population, as well as a large population stuck in poverty. Still somewhat stuck to its old ways, India’s caste system is still somewhat in place, though on shaky ground. This also means that the tradition of servility is in place. Many of the wealthier Indians and foreigners hire full-time servants for things like driving, cleaning and cooking. I’ve been told these salaries may range from $40 to $250 per month. But that is changing, too; as opportunity comes to India money and business success is becoming the new caste structure. Some formerly from the lowest caste have become multi-millionaires.
And India can be very confusing. For example, Mumbai has two airports separated by 7 km – both with the airport code BOM. So if you’re flying into the country there, then on to another area keep this in mind. Nothing like getting caught at the wrong airport and wondering where your flight is. By the way, the going rate for an autorickshaw (also known as a tuk-tuk) ride from one to the other is about 100 Rupees – $2.50. Learn how the Indian drivers haggle.
India reminds me somewhat of China. And that’s not surprising. Both countries are climbing their way from third-world to first-world status seemingly in a generation. The pace at which each country is modernizing is shocking. And with that modernization come the natural byproducts of construction, squalor beside luxury, cultures intermingling, over crowding, breakdowns in etiquette, etc. It’s very much the feeling of a runaway train going at full speed. You’re going somewhere really fast but staying on the tracks is problematic.
In India this is more of a problem than in China because India is a democracy. Whereas China can shut down production in one area and relocate it overnight, India must nudge the free market. And controlling the direction of the economy means that bribery and corruption are natural outgrowths. This is something both countries have been struggling with in recent years; trying to get it under control. China simply executes those it deems guilty, but India cannot take such a harsh stance. From the feel of things, India seems to be doing a better job of reigning in corruption. China seems to be paying lip service but only needs an occasional scapegoat.
But despite its current challenges, India is a great place. It’s a country moving upward in the world. Quickly modernizing and becoming connected to the rest of the world.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the building in Shanghai that collapsed, as well as a bridge that partially collapsed. Today on the radio they said that the building developer’s license had been expired since 2004. This obviously does nothing to bolster the peoples’ confidence after last year’s Sichuan earthquakes where several schools collapsed (while other buildings still stood) and thousands of children were killed. This tragedy was linked to corruption in the construction and approval processes.
Also from the recent news, the Chinese government wanted special censorship software installed on all computers in their country. Called Green Dam-Youth Escort, the government eventually backed down after its citizens and PC manufacturers protested and after several vulnerabilities were discovered. But it turns out that the company hired by the government the software stole much of the code from a US software developer’s freeware version. Now that US developer is being attacked with custom written malicious code and phishing attacks, tenuously linked to Chinese sources.
When we were in China, Brian and I joked that “Chinese engineering will save us!” But that’s clearly not the case as this past week has shown us. No doubt that these are exceptions to the rule, but they are very public embarrassments for a government which tries to avoid them at all costs.
It’s been quite a while since I wrote the original pieces on Beijing, so my memory has faded a good bit. But I’ll hit the highlights and try to give you a general feel of the city.
I went to my first clown-themed party while I was in Beijing. Some of Elyse‘s friends were throwing a party for their other friend and she invited me to tag along. I didn’t have any clowny gear, so instead I just puffed up my hair as best I could and put some lipstick on my nose. I didn’t look much like a clown, but it worked well enough. That crowd wasn’t too picky about the outfit, they just wanted to have fun.
The party is hosted at a bar so there is a lot of room. Some of this is taken up by contests and booths set up, in keeping with the carnival like atmosphere. There is an “Adult Kissing Booth” for taking some pictures of the guest of honor with his friends in compromising positions. There are also some setups for the games we’ll be playing, like “Pin the Penis on the Donkey,” “Sexual Position Balloon Pop,” and “Lipstick Kissing Contest” where you cover each others’ bodies with lipstick kisses. We are all in teams of 3-4 for this, which really helped me get to know people quickly. We all fought hard and gave it our best effort, but our team didn’t win. On some controversial calls, we came in second.
The party ended and Elyse and I went off to get some food with one of her friends. We ate at a place named for a Scandinavian Table Tennis champion, if I recall correctly. The food was pretty good. Then we headed off to this cool bar in the penthouse of a hotel down the street. It reminded me of a Western style bar and felt very trendy and European. Lots of funky colors, just a bit retro, and top notch drinks. We spent an hour or so there, and I met some really interesting people: journalists, actors, etc. All expats living in Beijing.
The trip to the Great Wall was pretty nutty. Brian and I had heard all sorts of things about fake wall ruins close to or inside the city that tourists would get shuttled to, so we stuck to just what the LP said. We decided to go to one of the least traveled spots (Simatai) which turned out to be very complicated and hard to figure out. Getting there and back involved buses, minibuses, taxis, and walking. In the end we spent about 6 hours getting there and away and only about 3-4 hours on the wall. But it was certainly worth it.
We woke up fairly early, around 8am, and got our breakfast in the Pub connected to the hostel. It was good and filling. Then we went to the long distance bus station about a mile away. No one spoke English, so we pointed in our book at the Mandarin characters and eventually someone understood what we wanted. We located the bus, bought a ticket outside, and got on board. Only a few minutes after the scheduled departure time, we left.
As we rode out of the city, the bus made a few stops to pick up those who were standing at the side of the road and waving. There didn’t appear to be any regular bus stops, as we sometimes stopped twice in 50 yards to pick up people standing and waving, rather than running towards a spot. Just before we left Beijing, we were ushered off the bus with only a few people, and put onto one with quite a few more.
There were several seats in the middle of the aisle that folded down and we were put on those. Inevitably by the time we were full, people were riding on each others laps and on the floor by the door. It was not until no other bodies could fit into the vehicle that the driver refused to accept payment and let people board. We rode in this cramped position for about three hours and were encouraged to get off the bus in seemingly the middle of nowhere. However, thanks to the Lonely Planet, we’d expected this. A minibus was waiting for wall climbers to save them the 15km trek — for a fee, of course.
The area at the starting point of the hike to the wall looked like it would have been nice in Summer. In Winter, however, it seemed to fade into the background of gray. There was a dam across the small river there so there was a moderately sized lake alongside the switchbacking trail running up the hill to the part of the wall we were going to climb.
We collected some friends as we ascended the trail: two Chinese women who wanted to sell us some books or postcards or something. We told them “wo bu shu yao” (which means “I don’t want it” in a respectful tone), but they continued to follow us. When we reached the wall, they began to tell us things about its history when we stopped to take pictures. They were great climbers, having done this probably several times a day for many years. We ran into very few others climbing the wall, including a group of three Canadians who were traveling at roughly our speed. They were fairly critical of the Chinese women, scolding them for following us and telling us to watch out for ourselves, that we’d be hustled for money at some point. But we’d dealt with our fair share of hustles by then. At one point, one of the Canadians started speaking in Mandarin to the Chinese women and shooed them away. It was probably better for the Chinese women to not waste their time on us, but we didn’t mind them talking to us and it seemed pretty rude.
There were parts of the wall that were too dilapidated to cross or that were under construction, so there were trails heading down the side. Many of the old lookout towers, lived in by guards, were crumbling with little attempt to repair them. It was apparent which stones were old and which had been put in more recently to fill a gap. This is the way the wall had been built and maintained over the centuries since it was originally built. At first it was several separate walls guarding different cities, then it was joined to keep out the Mongols to the North. It didn’t succeed. And now the wall has become a reason to come to China, spurring tourism. This was an irony not lost on us. As a barrier to entry, the Great Wall of China has to be the most spectacular failure in mankind’s history, actually doing the opposite of its intent on a grand scale.
The farthest traversable point for the section of wall we decided to climb was high up on a hill, called Watching Beijing Tower. This spot has a tremendous viewpoint for seeing Inner Mongolia to the North and all the way to Beijing, 120km to the South. However, due to the smoggy conditions, we were only able to see a kilometer or two into the distance. It was still a gorgeous view and we rested for a while there.
We were able to head down much faster than we’d gone up, but it was also more dangerous. Some parts of the wall were nearly vertical for a few dozen yards, so traversing these sections was especially difficult. When we finally made it to the base of the wall and to the concrete trail where we’d begun, our legs felt like jelly. Brian decided that it would be easier to take a zip-line down to the base of the trail, across the dam from where we’d originated. Meanwhile, I decided that I would rather take photographs and videos in case the Chinese engineering didn’t save him.
When we both reached the parking lot, we had a couple of taxis to choose from. So they did what taxi drivers do in that situation, they fought over us. We finally negotiated a price for a ride back to the spot where the bus would pick us up. The cabbie spoke pretty good English, so we were able to speak with him a bit. We ended up making it back with only about 15 minutes to wait before the next transport back to Beijing, so the driver waited with us and we sat in his cab. When the bus finally came, he flagged it down and spoke with the bus driver — something we couldn’t have managed as well. However, the bus was obviously full. The bus driver wanted us to get on board, so he kicked someone back to a further back seat and offered something filthy for us to sit on. The cab driver, however, siezed the opportunity to offer us nearly the same price for transport to a different bus station which had traditional motor coaches instead of requisitioned minibuses. We happily paid and he delivered us with some more conversation.
It was nice to have the chance to spend a half hour or more speaking with a local and we used the time to find out about his life. He was getting ready to head back home when we’d come down the trail and had already called his wife to tell her he’d be on his way home. He lived about a half hour in the other direction, so he’d have some explaining to do when he got home. It apparently wasn’t worth the price of another phone call home. He seemed to be very happy to be doing what he was with his life, which was nice to hear, and his demeanor suggested he was telling the truth. But you can’t always tell when Chinese people say something like that because you don’t know what kind of pressure they’re under to appear happy whether they are or not. This can be both political and social pressure in their culture.
When we got to the other bus station, the driver pointed out the correct bus to us and we were overjoyed to see that it looked like something a High School might have chartered to take a long field trip! We thanked the taxi driver and wished him well on his trip home and in the future. We paid our fare to get on the bus, sat down, and napped most of the way back into the city.
Buying a ticket to embark on the Trans-Mongolian Express was an adventure in itself. The timetables we had were not quite right and the schedules had changed a bit. That’s not a small thing in this case, as it meant we might have to wait as much as a week before heading to Mongolia or take a series of buses to the border where we’d find a fairly regular train into Ulan Bator.
We woke up at 7:30 and were on the road by 8am. Our initial excitement was quickly tempered by the numbing cold. Our toes were numb and I worried about frostbite. The road was rough, the windows were frosted and we were nearly comatose.
We hadn’t slept very well the night before due to the near freezing conditions in our rooms.
In an attempt to stay healthy in the high altitude with all of the exertion from the day before, we’d all had quite a bit of the very weak tea they served. Tea was the best way to get clean water from the well which provided the hotel with water, since the water had been boiled. However, this caused us to have to get up to relieve ourselves all night long. Since the toilet was on the opposite side of the compound, across 20 meters of about -15C open air, it was quite a chore. Consequently, sometimes staying awake and shivering only a bit with a full bladder was preferable sometimes.
At around 9am, we approached a checkpoint. We all had to get out of the relative comfort of the Land Cruiser and go into the unheated building. The process of looking over our paperwork took us about a half hour, during which we were cold, but were at least moving around and out of the wind. The same wouldn’t be true of our second checkpoint where we stood out in the wind. A couple of us had to use the toilet which necessitated crossing the checkpoint without papers of any kind and going into a ramshackle shack. However, this checkpoint was faster and we were on our way up the mountain quickly.
Around 10 in the morning, our toes warmed up and the windows got clear, but the road got a little more rocky and icy. We didn’t notice these things. We had crested the top of a hill and paused at a scenic overlook. From this vantage point, we could see four of the 8,000 meter peaks in the Himalaya range.
The day was perfect. Though the day before had seen snow and heavy cloud cover, our visit would have neither of those things. From the overlook point, each of the highest peaks was creating its own weather; clouds were bellowing from them, turning them into chimneys at the top of the Earth. China has its smokestacks, regurgitating trash into the sky, making you weep for the shame they don’t feel. Tibet has majestic mountains lifting air to become billowy balloons of white, marring the blue with beauty and bringing a tear to your eye for that reason. The moment left all of us with a prescient sense that China was indeed a whole different world away from this place, not its master.
The ride down into the valley and back up, up, up towards the base camp felt like the stream must feel coming down from its heights — our limbs, words, and minds tumbling over one another without concern for their final destination. It was onward at any consequence. The final checkpoint unmanned, we passed through with momentum growing as we sped uphill.
We reached the end of the road, the Rong Phu monastery across from the newly built Chinese hotel with its satellite dishes and antennae like hairs on a bar of soap. We were the first Land Cruiser, but several others quickly followed. By this time, we were headed off towards the mountain which was calling us in a tune we didn’t hear but felt as a moth feels the draw of the fire. Our driver didn’t have time to give us instruction or deadlines, we simply gravitated towards that landmark.
As we walked along the road and up and over hills as shortcuts, we hardly noticed the vehicle starting from the place past which only emergency vehicles were allowed. In less than an hour we had covered probably a kilometer and a half, by which time the Land Cruiser had caught up with us. Though it was prohibited, there were no officials to challenge us, let alone stop or prohibit us from continuing. Our experienced driver tackled the ice and flowing water skillfully and carefully propelling us toward our destination. We emerged from the winding road on a flat where perhaps thousands of adventurers had come before us to camp and plan before heading beyond where we would go.
We danced and played in the snow and on the ice. We climbed the outhouse and the hills around. We stood in wonder looking up at the mountains around us, the farthest from us, we knew, the highest in the world. We were higher, both in spirit as in body, than most people would ever aspire to be. We drank a toast of Jack Daniels to celebrate.
But Everest was not a place of jubilation for all. This was evidenced by the many gravestones we found on the low hills around. These were monuments for men who headed on past our footprints without retracing them. One stone marked the place of the first descent attempted by snowboard. One was for a husband and wife team who were not underneath their names. There were remains, too, of people who had died in the camp before trying and after successfully ascending the mountain to which we now stood, nearly prostrate reading markers. A humbling reminder that not all days were this beautiful and not all people were this joyous.
On the way back down the mountain in the Land Cruiser, we drank our oxygen. We’d each brought 2 bottles for the ascent but hadn’t needed them. Sucking on it coming down kept us giddy, whether from physiological or psychological effects, we didn’t know. We didn’t care. We all felt like we’d touched the Gods; modern day Icari with our wax intact. We passed through Shegar, our previous night’s resting place, and felt as if it were at sea level. We continued on back across our route, things seeming to be much less consequential than when we first passed them.
We slept in Shegatse in the Tenzin Hotel. We arrived after dark and checked into our rooms. They were expensive and fancy, but we felt we had earned them. Showers, heaters, television — we were living in luxury compared to the previous three nights. It was nice for the hour we were awake to enjoy it. But it was late and we were tired. We fell asleep quickly and deeply.
After our incredible and long day, we slept in until about 9am. This was the first night of the Tibetan new year and our driver wanted to get back to Lasa and his family as soon as possible. We wanted to get back too because we had heard so many things about the holiday that we didn’t want to miss any part of it.
The drive back was uneventful and we had a chance to reflect on all we’d seen and done in the last few days. It was really incredible to us. Even 24 hours after being in that place, we still enjoyed talking about it to each other as if the others weren’t there. We told the same stories over again that we’d shared the night before on the drive East.
The monuments at EBC marked empty graves, but the spirits of those fallen were present where their bones weren’t. And we’d taken a bit of that fervor with us while still leaving it there intact. It was one of the greatest experiences of any of our lives and one we will all tell many times over, hopefully to spread what we’d caught on that mountain on the far side of the globe.