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Eastern Iowa and the Quad Cities

So this morning I was scheduled to fly out of Cedar Rapids airport (CID), also known as The Eastern Iowa Airport. I never got one of the friendly Delta reminders to check in online 24 hours before my flight, but that was no big deal. I knew I was supposed to do it anyway. So I hopped on my iPhone and Cedar Rapids’ new 3G network (not scheduled to go into service until Dec. 1, but they got it up and running while I was in town – probably just for me) and tried to check in, but there was some kind of error with checking in online. Not a problem, I thought to myself, I’ll just do it at the airport.

Let me tell you a bit about CID. They have flights to thirteen cities, total. It’s a small little place, especially compared to Hartsfield. The Delta affiliate, ComAir, operates three to five flights a day – the last of these on Saturday is at 9am to Cincinnati. That’s the flight I was scheduled to be on. That’s the flight I showed up 29 minutes prior to. That’s the flight I missed this morning because nobody was at the ticket counter to check me in. I didn’t know this, but in smaller airports, there is apparently one person to work the check-in counter and to take tickets going onto the plane. Brent was that one person today. He also informed us that he’s the supervisor for both the ComAir and the United counters. That’s an odd mix since the two airlines aren’t exactly cordial towards each other.

I wasn’t the only person left out. A lady I’ll call Karen (because that’s her name) was standing there trying to find someone to help her when I went to use the kiosk. She was looking around for anyone to help her get to her flight, which was also my flight. So I knew I was screwed as I went through the kiosk menus anyway. Sure enough, the kiosk directed me to ask someone at the ticket counter for help. Since it’s physically impossible to be in two places at once, that one person has to leave the ticketing counter just a bit before he makes the call to start boarding the plane. So that’s why Brent wasn’t at the counter to help us. It isn’t his fault, it’s a flawed system.

So there we were, Karen and I, desperately looking for someone to help us. We heard Brent calling us over the intercom system and could do very little. I called Delta corporate and they had no power to do anything since they can’t communicate with the airport. I tried using the ticketing counter phone to call the gate and to use the intercom system, but being a modern phone it was all but impossible to use without a week of training. I felt like one of those people in the theater who yell at the people on the screen: I had no power to effect change but I was compelled to yell nonetheless.

Karen and I missed our flight. Brent came back to the counter. I’d like to say we were entirely civil in our tone. I’d like to say that I wasn’t shooting daggers from my eyes. But I’d also like to say that he was perfectly cordial and did everything in his power to help us. He admitted that he had the power to override the charges for changing our flights but that he wouldn’t. Rather than tell us that the system had failed us all, he stood by the party line. He and it will probably win an award.

For Karen and myself, our best option was to rent a car and drive to Moline‘s Quad Cities Airport and pay the airline change fees. So I went back to the Hertz counter and got a car at a discounted rate on account of our hardship (thanks Hertz counter guy!). We set out with directions from my iPhone and a map, as well as instructions from Brent – he’d become really sweet when he let go of a little stress from the boarding process.

Karen and I set out on our trip to Moline from Cedar Rapids. 100 miles of driving with a complete stranger who just happened to step in the same pile I did. But Karen had the same quirky sense of adventure I had and we got along really well. Along the way, she pointed out to me the Herbert Hoover Library and the World’s Largest Truck Stop. Following Brent’s directions got us slightly lost (FYI, Brent, coming from the west the sign labeled I-74 to Peoria takes you along I-80 until you’re past the airport) but it was nothing that our sense of adventure couldn’t handle. We also passed Rock Island, which Karen thought was a prison colony but it turns out to be the third most polite place in the country (though New York City is ranked number 1).

So the story ends at the MLI airport. We both made the flight. Karen went off the New York to meet her family for the holidays and I made it back to Atlanta. All-in-all I’d say it’s worth the extra $200 for the trip. If nothing else I got a good story to tell and got to know a good person. And isn’t that what life is all about? If it’s not then I’m living it wrong.

5 Days to Everest — Day 3

On the third day of our trip, all that was planned was a quick jaunt to Shegar, about 100km from Lotse. However, as we got on the road, it began to snow. That made the roads a little more difficult to get across. We got to the last pass between the two towns and it was snowing harder than ever. However, after a minute of heading down the hill, it stopped. After a few more miles, we noticed some folks over to the side of the road waving us down, so we pulled over.

This was a couple of Swiss guys who were biking from Lhasa to Khatmandu in the dead of winter. Insane. One of them had some kind of a stomach virus and was unable to ride. While we didn’t have room in our car, Kernby volunteered to ride his bike into town, around 25mi away. It took about a half hour to get things transferred and for him to get bundled up, then he and the other Swiss guy started riding down the hill.

We took off after them and quickly passed them with a blast from the horn. We rode for a while more, then came to a small section of road lined with shops. The driver stopped and proclaimed it to be Shegar. However, according to all our accounts, Shegar should have been about 7km off the road. After about a half hour of translating, we discovered that this was considered a part of Shegar and that the staying in the real Shegar (also called New Tingiri) would have cost us too much time the next day when heading to Everest. It was not clear what the rush was to get to the 93km of dirt roads that make up the path to EBC, but the driver was adamant. However, he agreed to take us to the other town after we’d eaten and gotten Kernby back from his bike trip.

When this all happenned, it was still only about 2pm, so we went to get our permits to drive to EBC and our permits to enter it. Then we went to the town of Shegar and headed up towards the monastery there. On the way, we encountered plenty of local kids who knew the words that all poor Tibetans seem to know: “Hello. Money.” Brian played with them for a while, dancing around and chanting the mantra as if it were a game. The kids all laughed and had a good time, but didn’t stop begging. After a while they got tired and didn’t want to follow us up to the monastery, so we climbed the hill that was between it and us.

We found out later that there was a much easier trail, but we had a great time scrambling up the loose dirt and rocks. The monastery was officially closed to tourists for the day we had been told, but the doors were all open and there didn’t seem to be anyone who minded. Shortly after we arrived, we realized that some kind of a ceremony was going on in the main building. We walked over that way, but it ended when we arrived. The many pilgrims inside filed out and smiled at us and bid us “Tashy Dele”. We followed them out of the monastery and down the hill.

We all piled back in the Land Cruiser and headed back to the hotel. This is when we found out that the electric heaters in our room were of no use, since the town didn’t have power after 2pm. The only light was from a lantern and the heat was provided by sheep and yak dung burning in the stove. The combination smelled terrible, so the three of us headed out to wander around in a giant field just outside of town.

We strolled about aimlessly, each taking a different direction. There were giant runoff canyons formed by the melting snow. These were quite fun to explore. While I was coming out of one of these, I noticed a young shepherd boy standing at the rim looking down at me with his herd of goats behind him.

We spoke briefly in the few words we knew in common and the few hand gestures that we could make sense of. His name was “Urtoo” or something that sounded like it. He invited me to take his picture and I obliged him. Later, we were walking through the same gully and I had the opportunity to show him his photo as well as other pictures, such as that of the Potala and Tashilhunpo palaces. I also shared some of my bubblegum with him. Eventually, he had to go back in his direction and I went in mine.

Back at the hostel, Brian and Kernby told me that they’d had a similar experience with some folks who invited them to their home and gave them authentic yak butter tea and tsampa. The Tibetans are a very warm and welcoming people, and this sort of thing is common in their culture.

That night, we all went to bed fairly early since there was nothing to do in the cold and dark. Later on that night, Kernby woke us up to go out and look at the stars. You could see into forever that night, but it was too cold for me to stay out too long. But Kernby grabbed some blankets and went to sleep in the field.

5 Days to Everest — Day 2

The second morning of our trip, we went to the Tashilhunpo palace. This is the home to the Panchen Lama line of monks, though the current Panchen Lama was taken prisoner by the Chinese as soon as the Dalai Lama announced his divinity in 1995. I can’t get many details behind the Great Firewall of China, but I think that he was about 5 years old at the time. However, the Chinese have appointed a Lama to take charge of the palace so that everything runs smoothly for them.

The palace opened at 10am for tourists and we filed in and began walking around. Brian and I took the most clockwise route we could, circling the monastery just inside the walls. However, this did not provide us with much to see, so we began following the crowds a bit more. Inside of the many chapels, things were much the same as in other monasteries, with various representations of different holy
people and things under which were placed stacks of bills. Inside one of the chapels was a kind of souvineer shop, but more authentic than in most tourist attractions, since the monks actually make the items in the same room. Both of us bought something, as much to support the monks as to get the tangiable items.

We met back at the hotel and got on the road at about noon. We made a pit stop at Sakya monastery on the way. It was much smaller, only one chapel, but seemed to have as many beggars. We paid the entrance fee, walked around, and then headed out again, off to Lhatse.

We arrived near dusk and went to eat at a small restaurant. Then we went and checked into our hotel. They wanted 40 Yuan per person, but we got them down to 25. The place was empty and there was another hotel across the street, so that helped. This hotel was the most interesting so far. It had no heat nor hot water, but it did have
wash basins in the room. The toilet was outside and was just a hole in the ground that led down to the ground. This made using the toilet on the second floor (where we were staying) much more adventurous than the first, since there was a constant breeze blowing up.

We went downstairs to the small restaurant/bar to talk over the next day’s travels and get things sorted out. After we had accomplished that, Kernby taught us a card game that is played in many variants throughout Asia. I’m not sure what it’s called and I won’t waste the space to tell the rules, but it is a bit like a cross between Hearts and Poker. We played that for a few more hours and then headed off to

5 Days to Everest — Day 1

We had our stuff packed up and in the Land Rover by 9am, ready to go. We drove out of Lhasa, headed for our first location, Yamdrok Tso. This lake is one of Tibet’s three holiest. It has no river which feeds it, nor does one flow from it. Tibet’s largest freshwater lake has been refreshed only by rains and has been drained only by evaporation for millions of years.

However, recently the Chinese have created a hydroelectric plant underneath the lake that drains the lake of its water to produce power for Lhasa. The water level is slowly dropping below the natural level since the project was finished.

While the engineers have promised to replenish the water from a nearby river, this process has not yet begun. However, the water from this river has much different properties and may be toxic to the wide variety of life which lives there, including some species found only here. Not only that, but it is widely speculated that this procedure will actually end up in a net loss of energy and will only serve to destroy one of the Tibetans’ holiest sites.

People also question the need for the power generation capabilities, since Lhasa does not currently exceed its capacity. The reasoning goes that Lhasa is growing quickly, and demand will soon outstrip its current ability to power the city. However, the growth is due largely to Chinese migration to the Tibetan capital, not due to a wide scale change in the Tibetans’ traditional herding and nomadic lifestyle.

The lake was a beautiful place, even despite the lack of greenery and the fact that the lake was nearly completely frozen over. Nearby, there is a glacier, moving ever so slowly down a mountain slope. Hawkers have set up nearby selling worthless junk and attempting to charge a fee for taking pictures. They have also brought dogs and yaks to a scenic overlook of the lake, attempting to charge pictures for shots with the animals. They shove them into the pictures then demand payment. They forced Kamson to pay 30 Yuan by surrounding and not allowing him to get back into the car. It probably would have cost more but we got out and pushed them all away from the car. They might have struggled more had another Land Cruiser not rolled up as we were trying to get away.

That afternoon, we stopped in a town called Gyantse. Famous for its monastery and its carpet manufacturing, it is the 4th largest city in Tibet. Inside the monastery, there is a structure called the Kumbum (meaning 1,000 images) filled with murals and chapels. However, we arrived too late in the day due to the poor roads going on the way to Yamdruk Tso.

The carpet factory we went into was an interesting place, with several buildings full of women in various phases of preparing wool and creating the carpets. We talked to them for a bit in the few short sentences and phrases of English they knew and the gestures we could work out in common. Kamson bought a carpet and we packed it into the car and headed off to Shigatse.

When we arrived in Shigatse, we checked into the hotel of the driver’s choice. Kernby, Brian, and I weren’t involved in the decision making process, Kamson and Sonam worked it out between themselves in Mandarin before we’d arrived in the city. We set our stuff down in the 4 person room and got ready to go to dinner. But first we took a brief tour of the city. With only a few streets and a handful of traffic lights, it didn’t take long.

We went to a restaurant that the Lonely Planet recommended, but it seemed a bit dingy for Western consumption. We tried another place and it was much nicer. We had a good meal and noticed that the other two tour groups who had been trailing us all day long had wandered into the same place. They were also at the same hotel, on their drivers’ recommendations. These were probably the most Western-catering places in the city.

When we got back to the hotel, we were tired and went to bed immediately. We were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. The next day we were to see the Tashilhunpo monastery, one of the holiest in Tibet.

5 Days to Everest — The Preparation

After we got to Lhasa, we learned that it was still possible to take a trip to Everest Base Camp, despite the season and the approaching of the Tibetan and Chinese New Years. EBC, as it is known, is the 5200 meter (over 17,000 feet) high lower encampment from which those who attempt to climb the world’s most famous mountain begin. Composed of only a few permanent buildings (mainly a postal hutch and several outdoor toilets) and tents of those who are visiting, attempting to climb, and even some tents rented as hotel rooms. The camp is located 7km away from the road, meaning that to reach EBC, you have to hike that distance in an altitude higher than most mountains in the world. At this height, the air is a little more than half as thick as it is at sea level, meaning that you have to breathe about twice as hard to get the same amount of oxygen into your system. This becomes a real problem when hiking.

We located a tour organizer, Lotse, who could get us set up with a driver and a good route of between 3 to 5 days for sightseeing, with stops at restaurants and hotels along the way. The cost was to be the same for 1 or 4 people, so we teamed up with a couple of people who were also interested in taking the trip. We sat down with our tour organizer and planned out a route from Lhasa around Yamdruk Lake, to Gyantse to see the monastery, then sleeping in Shigatse. The next day, we’d see Tashilhumpu, the palace of the Panchan Lamas, go from Shigatse to Sakya monastery and sleep in Lhatse. Then from Lhatse to Shegar. On the fourth day, we’d actually go to EBC, then back to Shegar. On the fifth day we’d make the long return trip to Lhasa and be done. We met our driver, Sonam, and paid half of the total fare.

Our traveling companions were two Canadian citizens of Chinese ancestry. Kernby was the first of the two we met. He was traveling with his father, Kamson. We’d first noticed them on the train coming to Lhasa, then gone out with Kernby and a couple we met our first night in Lhasa named Andy and Katch. That night, Kernby had been telling us that he didn’t really believe in Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), a condition where the high altitude and relatively little oxygen content in the air can lead to nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia, lethargy, dizziness, headache…lots of not so fun symptoms. However, by the time we were ready to leave for the trip, Kernby had been fighting the condition and had finally won; his body had become acclimated to its new surroundings. We were able to buy small bottles of oxygen for the trip to prevent this kind of thing happenning on the multiple mountain passes and places we’d be hiking and sleeping where the relative 3600m height of Lhasa would seem like flatland.

We all went to bed early the night before we were to leave on the trip to be ready for the next 5 days of our adventure.