Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2



So I have left the "Roof of the World" or Tibet, as it is more commonly known and so will update you of my exploits and experiences there. When I got into Lhasa, the capital I was rather knackered as I hadn't slept yet, so found a reasonable room that I shared with an American Jewish Buddhist, nice guy, but a little confusing. Then met James, an Ozzie whom I had previously met in Chengdu with his fiancée Rachel. The following day the three of us (Rachel, James and I) went to have a look around the Jokhang, one of the most key temples in Tibetan Buddhism, in there geomancy it is the heart of Buddhism (Jokhang actually means heart). There was some very interesting chapels and temples, and particularly good views across Lhasa. From the top one can see the throngs of pilgrims circum-ambulating the complex, spinning there hand held prayer wheels, chanting to themselves "Om mane padme Om", and prostrating themselves repeatedly in front of the main doors. After lunch I then went off to see the Potala (the Dalai Lama's palace). At thirteen stories it is rather large for a several hundred year old building. It is not a palace in the typical European style by any means. Most of the rooms if not actually chapels, have religious or historical murals on the walls. Some of which show meetings between the Dalai Lama of the time and the envoys or leaders of other states, there are several showing meetings between the Chinese Emperor and past Dalai Lamas. There are also some impressive treasures, but again nothing in the same vain as those of other State treasures I've seen in Europe or Asia. Most of the palace is very much a religious centre, the majority of the rooms are chapels crammed with effigies of various deities. One can only see a small bit of the Dalai Lamas private apartment, however after speaking briefly to a couple of monks who worked there they used there guile to show me more of the rooms. One of them distracted the PSB (policeman) on duty whilst the other showed me more of the Dalai Lamas private rooms. When I told him I was English he made a point of showing me the electrical lighting, radio and clock that the British had supplied and wired in. The reason for this being largely as the Chinese insist that there was no electricity in Tibet before 1959, when they put it in, in actuality the Brits had beaten them to it. Unfortunately the Chinese don't appreciate the value of some of these very old murals and the like, so they are slowly being eroded by people brushing past them, leaning against them etc.
The following day the three of us and Dani (an Israeli) went to the Norbulinka (the summer palace). It was quite nice but unfortunately not well maintained. We managed to get some monks to open up some more private rooms and there were more impressive murals throughout. One of which shows a group of foreign envoys petitioning the Dalai Lama. All of them of Asiatic appearance apart from one who is wearing a top hat and tails and was the British envoy, which looked rather odd in the setting.

That afternoon we all went to Sera Monastery, quite a large complex with a number of different temples, as well as accommodation for the many monks that live there. This place had a greater feel of authenticity to it. In a small garden there were a number of monks praying, debating and some drawing a mandala (a geomantic design) on a large, flat, circular rock. Once they had finished it they looked at it briefly and then wiped the rock clean, rather odd. Whilst we were waiting for them to complete the Mandala we had broken conversations with a couple of the monks. When I showed them the foreword to my guidebook which was written by the Dalai Lama, they rather overawed and proceeded to bless themselves with it, attempt to read it, kiss it, etc. It showed the depth of feeling they have for their spiritual leader in exile. After that I decided to try and help with a little of the maintenance and restoration they were doing (painting a chapel and fixing the brass plate on a roof). Something they found particularly amusing and decided to enjoy themselves taking photos with my camera, of who knows what.

The four of us had decided to go to Namtso lake, one of Tibet's four holy lakes, so early the next morning we went to get the bus to Damzhung from where we were led to believe it should be pretty easy to hire a jeep for the last leg. The journey was rather bumpy to say the least, at one point there was a degree of concern as whilst the bridge spanning a river was being rebuilt the traffic had to drive across the river itself. There was already a bus and a jeep stuck in the middle and whilst we were waiting to try and get across a big truck with a number of people in the back decided to try a different route and almost capsized. We eventually got across, going round the stuck bus with all the passengers still sat inside, helped them get out, whilst another truck got itself stuck. Our driver was one of the worst things to have in China, Tibet in particular, a good Samaritan - whenever there was a broken down truck, bus, yak, whatever he would stop and go and help. There were quite a number of them so the journey went on in fits and starts, generally not exceeding twenty minutes or so before there was someone else to help.

When we did eventually arrive in Damzhung, the first thing we did was get some food, then tried to find a jeep to take us to the lake. One old toothless fellow said he could take us, agreed a reasonable price for the return trip and then went off to get his jeep, an hour and a half later he reappeared without a jeep, as he had just realised he doesn't actually have a jeep. We'd managed to negotiate with one of the biggest morons known to man. As not only did it stop there but he told us that later on or the following morning would be best for him to take us up to the lake in the jeep he didn't have. We then had to go scouring the place for someone who would take us to the lake at what was an increasingly late hour. We eventually found someone and managed to set off into the mountains just as it was getting dark. Part way through the journey we rescued a couple of Chinese tourists from the mud they were stuck in and as thanks I went in the back of their nicer, newer jeep that actually had suspension, whilst the others bounced about in the other, with a bit more room. We eventually arrived at our destination at midnight, tired and bloody cold as the lake is at an altitude of about four and a half thousand metres.

The following morning we went for a bit of a walk about. In many of the crevices and caves around the lakes edge there are prayer flags, notes, inscriptions and offerings as well as some effigies. In one of the caves is a small temple tended by a some nuns. And in a couple of others are nuns living quarters with small shrines attached. One of the nuns invited us into her home/shrine and served us the foul concoction they call yak tea and gave us some yak cheese (Dunlop use a similar substance I'm sure for their tyres). After having pretended to have enjoyed the tea and having hidden the cheese in my pocket whilst she wasn't looking she showed us the rather basic contents of her home. We then took our leave and went to see if we could find something decent to eat, unsuccessfully. So in the only little cafe that existed on the lake I gave them instructions of what to cook for me and how given the rather limited range of ingredients and then seeing as they did a good job we added it to their menu.

The following morning a little runt kept busting into our room whilst we were sleeping, demanding money, needless to say we weren't very nice to him and it kind of spoiled the idea of a lie in. So we went off for another wander climbed a small mountain, had lunch (obviously the new addition to the menu) and then headed back to Damzhung. On the way there was some beautiful scenery that we had been unable to see on the way out as it had been dark, including the view from the top of the pass which is at about five thousand two hundred metres, with a nice view of the lake. On our arrival back in Damzhung he had some decent food, bought a range of sweets and also hats, as they were cheap and it was cold. The following morning we got the bus back to Lhasa and thankfully our driver was an inconsiderate bastard.

In Lhasa again we started to try and sort out a jeep to take us to the Nepalese border, via the various sites we wanted to see. Once again the Chinese have thrown hurdles in the way of easy travel by making it necessary to have permits to go to many of the sights. Surprisingly enough the only jeep agency that can actually obtain these permits is government owned and run by an evil wench who is constantly trying to rip off the customers. The itinerary we had planned would run over the time left on my visa so again the only agency that can get a visa extension, is the same government owned bitch run place. So I told her I would need an extra three or four days on my visa if I was doing the agreed itinerary, for which she tried to charge me four hundred Yuan, about fifty US dollars. Knowing this to be far above the correct price I went to the PSB to see if I could get it myself, I couldn't but, they did tell me it only costs one hundred and sixty Yuan.

They told me the stupid woman at the F.I.T.S. office knows this to be the case as well. I went back and told her this and she grudgingly agreed. So once after rather heated negotiations and the wench trying to screw us at every turn we confirmed an itinerary and paid deposits. The next day we had an appointment to meet the guide and driver (the guide having no function, but extra ballast) and check the jeep. They were a little late, I asked the wench did she have my visa extension yet, whereupon she told me it would cost an additional five hundred Yuan. At that point I unleashed a tirade of abuse at her telling her in no uncertain terms that if she didn't get it for the correct price in the next fifteen minutes she could stick the trip in one of her orifices. Fifteen minutes later all the paperwork and jeep etc. were there for inspection, and seemed adequate. We paid the rest of the money owing and went off to buy a few provisions for the journey.

So the following morning we set off Rachel, James, Dani and I, with the driver and Bucheng the guide. Our first stop was Sakya, the oldest monastery in Tibet, Rachel had not been feeling well so James, Dani and I went to explore the place. The place is very impressive with a number of impressive chapels and some interesting murals. The monks were also rather friendly and pointed out things we might not otherwise have seen. In our wanderings we met an American photographer who was taking photographic records of the whole place. He told us about various things there and also mentioned that there was a monastic debate taking place in a courtyard not far from where we were and there was an interesting temple of the vengeful deities that we might want to see as well. We found the debating in full swing. The debating is rather difficult to describe as it is nothing like conventional western debating. I'll try though, there are a number of monks sat around the edges of the courtyard (facing inwards) with a number of other monks stood facing them. Then those stood seem to be asking questions or something similar but when they've finished their sentence they slide their right hand down their left arm slapping their hand in the seated monks faces. Whereupon the seated monks make some response, and so it went back to the standing monk.

After that we went to the temple of the vengeful deities where a monk is in residence all the time chanting sutras or mantras (I don't know) whilst banging a drum and from time to time making a racket with his cymbals. The temple itself is rather macabre with stuffed animals hanging from the rafters, eyes painted all over the ceiling, skeletons and the like.

The next day we saw some of the service in the monastery and then went back to the jeep. That's when the arguments began, on our itinerary was the town of Tsetang, the guide and driver however didn't want to take us. When we insisted they said they would, but they would not take us to Yumbu Lagang the only thing to see in Tsetang, therefore the reason we were going. After a great deal of protestation they consented and so we went to Yumbu Lagang, supposedly the oldest building in Tibet and a rather impressive fort. The setting being more impressive in many ways than the actual building. The fort is perched atop a finger of rock that makes it seem much taller than it really is. The monks there were very nice and friendly and it was definitely a worthwhile side trip. We then had the long drive to Gyantse via a couple of high passes and some great views of mountains, lakes and valleys. In Gyantse we went to see a rather nice big fort with great views of the surrounding area. Within the fort is a rather amusing anti-British museum with laughable stories and pictures of the Tibetans and English fighting. More intriguing though was the fact that there seemed to be some rather well tended hemp growing by the ticket office. When I tried to pick some they got rather upset, obviously it's their stash. From the fort we wandered through rather medieval looking back streets to the monastery complex. There were a number of nice temples, but the most impressive bit was the Kumbum (a multi-layered stupa) with chapels all the way round and on each level, with effigies of the deity and appropriate murals relating to it on the walls.

From Gyantse we went on to Zhigatse, Tibet's second largest city. En route we could see the extent of the damage from the recent floods. As we had a couple of nights in Zhigatse I had a bit of a lie in the next day and then had a wander around town. Then did the circuit of the prayer wheels that encircles the monastic complex. Then Dani and I met up and when the monastery opened in the afternoon went and toured al around it. Again there was some lovely stuff, this being one of the larger complexes in Tibet there was a number of chapels to see. Later on the monks were rehearsing for an upcoming festival, so we got to see monks sword dancing, with the accompaniment of their orchestra and choir, a difficult thing to describe so I won't.

Next stop was to Samye another nice monastery, but a bugger to get the monks to open up the various chapels. It is also home of what is reckoned to be the largest book in the world. It measuring something like two metres by one metre and having several thousand pages. Unfortunately we couldn't see the thing as it has been hidden behind one of the large Buddha’s, as the monks are worried about a repeat of the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

There was also another vengeful deity temple that is supposed to be interesting, but the monk with the keys had apparently gone to lunch, so we couldn't look in. Hanging outside though, were several wolves stuffed with hay, as well as some smaller rodent like animal we couldn't identify. Bucheng the guide was becoming more and more obnoxious, difficult and argumentative all the time and Rachel was becoming increasingly negative, generally the group was not working as well as we had hoped. The next day the driving took us through more spectacular scenery, at some points we were able to see the end of the Tibetan plateau and the start of the Himalayas. With the most famous peak (Everest) generally obscured by clouds.

The day after that we went to Ronghpu just down the road from Everest base camp, again with some spectacular views. Dani and I hitched in a jeep to the base camp and managed to get a really nice look at the tallest mountain in the world (recent measurements say eight thousand eight hundred and forty six point one metres). We walked a little way to a nice hillock built a couple of cairns, watched the clouds come into obscure the view and then walked back to Ronghpu.

The next day it was my turn once again to ride up front with Bucheng. He was reaching the peak of belligerence, etc. by this point. Although when I had previously gone in the front we had coped fine, he decided he didn't have enough room and was trying to push me through the door, was sticking his elbows in my ribs etc. and generally being a bloody fool. On a couple of occasions I made it more than clear that short of amputating my arms there was little he could do to make more room, and to stop with his prancing about. The driver also appeared to be telling him to calm down. When we stopped for lunch the driver decided to put Bucheng in the back with the bags. We continued on for a few hours more, through more spectacular scenery to Nyalam where we were to spend our last night in Tibet.

The following morning we went via jeep to the border, or at least to the Chinese customs, despite the fact that they were supposed to take us to the Nepalese border, and other jeeps from the same company were going as far as they could. We had, had too many arguments already so we got someone else to take us as far as they could for a small fee. In the middle there had been landslides that meant we had to walk the rest of the way. The others followed the road whilst a little Nepalese guy guided me down the shortcut, or waterfall whichever you prefer. I made it to Nepal in one piece and mostly dry and saved the long walk. The Nepalese were an immediate relief after China and the Chinese. Although there were touts trying to cajole business straight away, it was not aggressive as in China, it was generally refreshingly polite. The officials on the border were helpful and friendly (something that didn't ever happen in China) and the prices had once again dropped again to reasonable levels.

We got a bus for the four hour journey to Kathmandu, on good flat, smooth roads. Something else, that had not really existed in Tibet. We arrived in Kathmandu tired but in generally good spirits. Over the last few days since arriving I have generally been taking it easy. Got a few things sorted that needed sorting. Met more decent folks and had a nice relaxing, cheap time.



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