Go back to: Dave's Newsletters or to Dave & Whit's Page
The Dave Adair I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore Newsletter
October 4, 1992
I want to tell the story about how I decided to go on this trip. About four years ago I had vacation time I had to use, I had a little money in the bank, and I wasnít dating anyone. I thought maybe I should take a trip on my own somewhere. That was a scary thought, considering Iíd never gone anywhere alone more adventurous than the movie theater. First I thought about going to the Club Med in Tahiti. That sounded relatively safe, and only a little scary. I heard, though, that it was all couples there, and started thinking about going to Greece, which seemed substantially scarier, and made Club Med sound really easy. Then I thought about going to Peru, which was horrifying and made Greece seem like nothing. After much inner turmoil and debate about which place to go, I chose Peru. I was really quite nervous, and on the plane it hit me. I thought, Iím going to Peru by myselfówhat the hell am I getting into? Reading the guidebook just made it worse, with talk about constant theft and rare diseases. By the time I got there I was pretty well flipped out. My first day though, was amazing. I met a Peruvian girl who offered to show me around, and while I was with here we met two Dutch girls and then an English guy, then two girlfriends of the Peruvian woman. That night the seven of us went out salsa dancing and had a blast. It was just what I needed on my first day, and the whole trip went like that.
While traveling I met a lot of people from all over the world who were on trips for months and years. I thought, I wondered if I could ever do that, quit my job, rent my house, and take off? As quickly as it occurred to me I dismissed it, saying thereís no way. It was so foreign of a concept and such a stretch for my mind that it wasnít even a possibility. One day, a couple of weeks after returning from Peru, it struck me that it was a possibility. That didnít mean that I had to do it, but at least realize that itís a choice. Only a week after that, I decided I would do it. In just a few months Iíd gone from planning to to to Club Med to going to Peru to planning a trip around the world for a year, and it was kind of a shock to my system. There were lots of times from then until I left, two years later, that I stressed about it. I thought Iíve finally got a job I really like, Iím making good money, how do I know if Iíll like traveling that long, how can I give up the security Iíve got, what about my career?! Itís occurred to me lately that people should spend less time working on their career and more time working on their life.
When the time came to give notice at work, I decided on a Friday that Iíd quit on Monday. I had a lousy, stress-filled weekend and on Sunday had what Iíd have to call an anxiety attack. It was so bad that I couldnít go through with it on Monday. After calming myself during the week and remembering that this was really what I wanted. I gave notice on Friday and Iíve never regretted it even for a moment. One result of this series of events is that I see more choices in life than I used to. Itís not quite as restrictive as I once thought.
When we last saw our reluctant adventurer (me) he was in China, making his way to Tibet, which was not open to individual travelers, but only to expensive group tours. Rumors were flying that Tibet was opening to individuals, but they were also flying that it was easy to get to. It was impossible to get in, that truck drivers would be shot if they were caught giving you a ride and lose their license, etc. The information coming out was so bad and contradictory that we had no idea what was true. Iíd been traveling with a Dutch guy, Peter, and weíd heard you could get a permit to go somewhere, and from there get to Lhasa. Thatís helpful. In the barren wasteland of a town called Golmud, we saw a sign from the government travel service for a trip to Tuotuohe, and figured thatís where we had to go first. We were being really secretive, not saying "Tibet" loudly or telling strangers our plans. Someone said Tuotuohe was a lake, and we figured it must be nice if they offer a trip there. Peter and I went to ask about the trip there and had to act like tourists going there, and not mention Tibet. Of course we didnít know it at the time, but there is no lake and itís only a desolate truck-stop town with nothing to see. I asked the guy at the travel service, "Is the lake really nice?" My friend said, "is it nice?" He yells, "What lake?! What are you talking about?!" We said we were thinking of spending 4-5 days there and he says, "4 OR 5 DAYS?!" I thought, this isnít going so well. Although they said it wasnít possible we got a permit from the police and took a public bus to Tuotuohe.
What a foul town this place is, 400 miles from anywhere. It was at very high elevation, 15,500 and cold. The hotel had no running water and no light switches (all the lights were turned off by a main switch about 1 A.M.), but it did have two goat heads, recently removed, hanging in the hall. The toilet, such as it was, was 550 yards from the hotel and was three holes in the floor with no dividing wall between. We were happy to be there, on our way to Tibet. That night I woke up with terrible nausea and ended up getting sick in the morning, both from altitude sickness. It snowed quite hard in the morning, and between that and my being sick I had to spend two glorious nights there. Peter hitched out the first morning.
The second day I hitched at 5:30 A.M. with Gail, a Hawaiian girl Iíd just met. We got a ride quickly in a truck that was going all the way to Lhasa, about 400 miles. We drove over a snow-covered pass at 17,150 foot elevation which the book claims is the highest road in the world (I doubt it.).
At the first police checkpoint I had to hide under a blanket while we drove through. The next checkpoint they werenít willing to take the risk and told us we had to walk around the town and meet them on the other side. This town, Nagqu, is quite large, and we started walking through these little alleys, dodging yaks, stepping over dead animals and trying to look Tibetan. We stuck out so much we might as well have worn a flashing red light and siren. We were so nervous about being caught and having to go all the way back to Golmud. In China every mailman and dog-catcher wears the same green uniform as the police, and whenever we saw one our hearts just stopped. W e ended up having to walk down the middle of a large street, and it was obvious to everyone exactly what we were doing. We didnít know where we were going, and we were so stressed by the time we got to the truck over an hour later. I canít say that it was terribly enjoyable during it, but somehow when itís over it seems like the most fun youíve ever had. The rest of the ride to Lhasa was uneventful, just long. We arrived at 4:00 A.M., 22 hours after being picked up (there were 2 drivers). Our excitement about arriving in Lhasa was tempered by our realization of what a Chinese city it has become. Parts of the city have retained the Tibetan charm and I ended up liking Lhasa very much. The huge Potala Palace, the former residence of the Dalai Lamai, is spectacular. It was built in the 17th century without the use of the wheel and using no nails. It has something like 1,000 rooms and sets high on a hill in the center of the city. It is really an amazing sight.
Gail left Tibet and Peter and I went to a big festival, supposedly the largest in Tibet. It was the least festive festival Iíve ever seen, due in large part to the presence of large numbers of aggressive Chinese police, wielding electric cattle-prod batons and leather whips. Their method of crowd control was to constantly raise their baton above their head and act like they were going to bean somebody. They were really nasty. Every day of the festival started with a parade where at the head of the parade they carried a large picture of Mao Tse-Tung (I think itís spelled Mao Zedong now). Mao is the man who told the Dalai Lama that religion is poison and was responsible for the Cultural Revolution where almost every Tibetan monastery was destroyed. Iím sure the repression is easing quite a lot, but it is definitely still there. Some friends knocked on a door rather hard late at night because they wanted to buy a sweater in the shop. No one would answer the door, then a child came out and said he was alone in the house. They were all in the house, but didnít answer because they thought it was the police. That shows the kind of mind-set the people have towards the Chinese.
We left the festival and decided to take a 3-day trek to the base of Mt. Everest, which the Tibetans call Chomolongma. Travel in Tibet can be really tough for individuals. If there are no buses, you have to hitchhike, and trucks arenít allowed to pick up foreigners. We took a bus as far as it went, then spent the next two days hitching without getting a ride. After giving up and going back to the town we started from, we found a bus the next day going to the trail head. The trail started at 14,000 feet. (Lhasa, at 12,000 feet is one of the lowest places in Tibet. There are some Tibetans nomads who never go below 16,000 feet.) We stayed the first night in the kitchen of a familyís house and it was pretty wild. It was very dark, with black soot caking the ceiling and walls. A stove sat in the center of the room, with some furniture, bed and cooking utensils around the outside. The floor was dirt even though it was the second floor. Speaking of dirt, the kids in the village were something to see. Some of them had dread locks, and most were infested with head lice. Beautiful kids, though.
We walked over a 17,000 foot pass and then through these wide, flat valleys. The walking itself was pretty boring, though the villages were interesting. The last day we stayed at Rongbuk Monastery, at 16,500 feet. Although it was mid-July, the rain in the evening turned to several inches of snow in the morning. I canít imagine how cold it would be in the winter for the monks who live there.
Everest is the highest mountain in the world at 29,000 feet or so. (I made a mistake last letter: there are 14 peaks over 8,000 meters.) It was first climbed in 1953 by Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali Sherpa. They climbed from the Nepal side. After a border dispute between China and Nepal with both claiming the whole mountain, the border now runs right through the summit.
There is a road from the highway to the monastery that we had walked along, and we managed to get a ride back with a tour group. Due to the rain, the road was badly washed out and we got stuck eight times getting out. It was really exciting because several times it looked like we just couldnít continue, but with lots of pushing, pulling and digging we managed.
We went back to those with the intention of leaving soon, but heard about a special festival and decided to go. The festival only happens every 12 years, but because of the religious repression in the past, they didnít have the last two, so the last one was in 1965. Twenty-one of us chartered a bus and drove six hours outside Lhasa to Drigung Monastery, where we had a really great time. There were maybe 5,000 people there, and our group were the only tourists. The Tibetans were incredibly friendly. A woman offered to let us stay in her family tent (five of us) and wouldnít take any money for it. It was a 1-1/2 hour walk from our tent to the festival grounds, and it was a really beautiful walk in a steep-sided valley along a river. There was an amazing procession of people, horses and yaks, all fully loaded. Some of the people were really colorful with beautiful and intricate turquoise headdresses and necklaces. Itís likely that at least some of these people had never seen tourists, or seen very few, and their behavior reflected that. They were genuinely curious, friendly, interested, generous. No doubt all of Tibet was once like this but no longer. Once again I have mixed emotions about the effects of tourism. Most Tibetans see tourists and see dollar signs. Unfortunately itís uncommon to meet someone who is interested in you and doesnít have ulterior motives. Thatís what was so nice about the festival. It actually changed my whole impression of Tibet, and I have much warmer memories as a result.
I was sad to leave Tibet, but I think itís best to leave feeling that way instead of being anxious to go. Because I wanted to travel the whole way by land and avoid flying, I started on a marathon journey over the next two weeks. After having decided that I definitely wasnít going to Beijing and was going either to Nepal or Vietnam, I somehow changed my mind and decided to take the Trans-Siberian train from Beijing to Moscow. In order to get to Beijing in time for my train, I took a 12-hour bus trip, a 20-hour bus trip (with only one driver), a 14-hour train ride, a 5-hour train ride, a 25-hour train ride, a 12-hour overnight bus ride, a 3-day boat trip down the Yangtze, and a 17-hour train ride. I donít recommend it. The boat ride was actually really nice and relaxing, but weird because I was the only tourist and no one spoke English.
Traveling independently in China can be pretty demanding. The people can be friendly but theyíre more likely to be incredibly rude. Language is a constant problem. The main language, Mandarin, has four different ones, and Cantonese has eight. In Cantonese, the same word, pronounced with different tones, means either chicken or prostitute. That could be a problem when placing your order at a restaurant or a bordello. My experience is that they donít understand you regardless of how you try to say something. The Chinese have some unappealing personal habits. Frequently they leave the toilet door open when theyíre inside, they donít flush the toilet, they throw all their garbage out the train windows, and they spit. I donít mean a little patooey, I mean a huge, gut-wrenching hawk that lands with a kerflop on the floor next to your feet. Come on, pal, Iím wearing flip-flops. The spit constantly and everywhere - or on bus and train floors, in nice buildings. It really gets on your nerves. And you couldnít possibly eat or belch too loudly. As sort of a social experiment Peter and I tried unsuccessfully to belch loudly enough in a restaurant to get anyone to notice. Chinese "diapers" are pretty funny. The rear end of kidsí pants have a big slit in them. You see kidís butts sticking out everywhere you go. I was on a train sitting across from a couple and their baby, who had slit pants on. I was thinking Iíd never actually seen those pants being used for their designated purpose. Be careful what you wish for. Torpedo number 1 was a direct hit on the leg of the man sharing their seat, then mom holds the baby over the floor where the kid must have lost about half his body weight. Thatís when I gave up wearing flip-flops on trains.
Beijing is a nice city, very cosmopolitan and unlike the rest of China. My first meal was a great Chinese meal - Big Mac, fries, coke and a chocolate sundae. Yes, there is a McDonaldís there. At home I wouldnít go to McDonald'sís but after traveling for a long time I practically ran to this one.
There is a company in Beijing that sells tickets for the train to Moscow, so there ended up - a big group traveling together, and everyone had a great time. The only ticket available was one that included 6 days in Mongolia, which I knew nothing about. It turned out to be fascinating. The train to Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, was 1 Ĺ days. We were taken out into the country for 3 days, and I was much more beautiful than Iíd imagined it to be. There were rivers and rolling hills covered with the most beautiful trees in fall colors. We stayed in the large round tents called Gers or Yurts that are the traditional home of the nomads. We went on some nice walks but the highlight was the horseback riding. I made sort of a mistake in asking for a fast horse because they actually gave me one. This horse would not stand still and only wanted to run full out. The horses are quite short and stocky, so they are pretty rough to ride. I had such a blast, even though I had a terrible v-shaped saddle that left me speaking in a falsetto for two days. We crossed some rivers that were quite deep, up to the horses ribs, then we crossed a wide meadow to see a head of yaks. It was really cold, and on the way back it started snowing hard and blowing really hard in our face. It was freezing but so exciting that we loved it.
The next 3 days we spent in the city of Ulan Bator. Itís one of the strangest places Iíve ever been. Mongolia was a communist country until 1990, and their economy was supported almost entirely by the Soviet Union. That support has stopped and the country appears to be on the verge of total economic collapse. The city has a population of 550,000, but I donít know where they are or what they do. There are huge apartment buildings about 20 stories tall, but Iíve never seen a city in such a state of decay. The buildings are crumbling, weeds are growing everywhere, there arenít many buses, even no bicycles though it is perfectly flat. There are long lines for staple goods like bread, sugar and meat, and you must have ration coupons to buy these. Just a few years ago the exchange rate was 3 tugrugs to the dollar; not itís 250. I was told there are three electricity -producing generators in the city, but two are broken and they donít have money to repair them. The year-round average temperature in Ulan Bator is 28 degrees F, and coming into winter, if the other generator fails there will be no heat. I had such a casual attitude about going to Mongolia; I knew nothing about it and only went because it was the only way to Moscow. When I got there I realized that these are real people that are facing real problems. I felt kind of embarrassed about my indifference.
The train from Ulan Bator to Moscow was 4 days. I thought it would be boring and Iíd read at least a couple of books. I read 10 pages total. Everyone in the group loved the trip and we didnít want to off in Moscow. If you were alone or in a small group, or if you had just started traveling it would be different, but weíd all been on the road for months and it was great.
Moscow is a beautiful city, and though they are having similar problems as Mongolia with respect to currency devaluation and inflation, it is very clean and well-maintained. The museums are absolutely spotless. Things are unbelievably cheap here. A ride on the very efficient metro system, where many of the stations are like palaces (chandeliers, statues, inlaid marble), costs 1/3 cent. Thatís 300 trips for $1. An all-you-can-eat meal costs $1, an ice cream bar 7 cents, a great loaf of bread 4 cents, a bottle of champagne $1, a Big Mac 75 cents (yes, there is). I needed new contacts and got an eye exam and soft contacts for $3.50. I saw a really nice symphony last night for 2 cents and Iím going to the ballet tonight for 15 cents. A first-class overnight train ride costs $2. Enough already.
Itís hard for me to imagine that Russian was supposedly our mortal enemy just a few years ago. Things are changing so fast here itís amazing. Economically itís a mess. They have about 1000% inflation and the exchange rate gets worse for the ruble every day. I read that the government printed more money in the last two months than in the previous 30 years. Weíve been staying in peopleís houses for $5 - $7 a night, which is nice. (That last sentence is in completely the wrong place - sorry.)
After 3 days in Moscow, I went to St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad). Itís a beautiful, European-looking city with ornate buildings, Venice-like canals and lots of museums. The Hermitage Museum is supposed to be one of the largest in the world, with 350 rooms and two million doo-dads, including 20,000 statues.
Tomorrow Iím heading south on a two day train trip (first class, $4) to Sochi, on the Black Sea near the border to Georgia. From there I plan to take a ferry to Turkey, though Iím not convinced that tourist can cross there. Iíll spend maybe a month in Turkey then work my way across Eastern Europe on my my way to London, where Iíll fly home. Congratulations on Plowing your way through this letter (or did you just skip to the end?!) Iíll be home for Christmas, Itíll be a difficult adjustment to life at home. But if you all sent me, say, a couple hundred dollars, it would surely ease that stressful time. Itís just an idea.
Go back to: Dave's Newsletters or to Dave & Whit's Page
You can contact me at DavidAdair@myrealbox.com
All everything © 1997 by Dave Adair.