Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Of all the amazing things we witnessed while in Tibet, the debating monks at Sera Monastery, less than two miles from Lhasa, was the most surprising.  

Normally our interactions with monks involved sitting, praying, chanting, and the occasional bicycle ride. Seeing monks in full "debate mode" was indescribable. 

As part of their studies, young monks are given a topic to debate for three hours, taking turns changing positions on the topic. It may look a bit frightening, but the slapping of the hand is the young monk's way of ending the stating of each argumentative point.

 Lessons well learned, no doubt.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


A Chinese policeman monitors Barkhor Square as the sun sets on the Jokhang Temple.
Lovely Lhasa. We experienced all we could in the short time we were allowed to visit--China now requires all foreigners who travel to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR for short) to do so on a limited-day group tour made up of five persons of the same nationality.

Nevermind that the government in Beijing changes these regulations at a moment's notice, resulting in few foreigners actually being allowed in the area. We talked to five tour companies specializing in travel to Tibet before we finally found one that was still booking trips.

But back to Lhasa--one of the top tourist sites, besides visiting the Potala Palace, is a stop in Barkhor Square. Built by a Tibetan king some 14 centuries ago, Barkhor is the city's main plaza and is home to the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred temple in Tibet. Thousands of worshipers travel to Jokhang each year to make a once-in-a-lifetime religious pilgrimage. 

Any story about Lhasa would be incomplete without mention of the Chinese police and military, whose presence there can't be missed. In one afternoon, we counted more than 100 military (in full riot gear), police, and tourist police circling Barkhor Square.
Chinese military with their helmets and guns march through the lines of praying pilgrims.
Much of this military presence is a result of the numerous self-immolations that have been occurring in this region in protest of Chinese rule. Activists publicly set themselves on fire to draw international attention to the case for a free Tibet. These protests have been increasing in response to the upcoming Chinese government power transfer. 

We set out for a walk in the morning around the main square. To get in, we passed through a metal detector and police check point. The juxtaposition of the hi-tech screening equipment and the police in shiny uniforms contrasted sharply with the centuries-old Tibetan temples and brick streets surrounding them.
A shaft of sunlight shines on a Tibetan woman with prayer beads in hand as she walks around the Jokhang.
After entering the square, we were greeted with the beautiful scene of hundreds of Tibetans in traditional dress circumambulating the Jokhang Temple. Most of them constantly spun prayer wheels or counted prayer beads as they passed. Lhasa is the Mecca of Tibetan Buddhists, with many traveling days or weeks to get there. 

In addition to the pilgrims, we also saw piles of riot gear, fire extinguishers, and troops of Chinese soldiers marching among the shuffling pilgrims, most of whom were well into their sixties or older.  
Some riot shields and fire extinguishers during morning prayers in Jokhang square.
Outside the square, daily life moved on. Shopkeepers lined the streets selling tea, fresh meat, soap, and vegetables. Cars crawled along narrow roads, passing manned police stations every five or six blocks in the city center.

We had a hard time getting accustomed to constant armed surveillance and video cameras on virtually every street corner. After three days, we still couldn't help but stare (and risk snapping a few photos) when a troop of soldiers armed with shotguns and arm-length black batons walked past, eyeing elderly pilgrims and young monks alike. 

But it seems that's just part of daily life in Lhasa under Chinese rule. And it's not changing any time soon. Once outsiders get used to that part of the ancient city, they're in for a visit to one of the most memorable places on the planet.  

But take it from us--the state of present-day Lhasa is hard to get used to.

A shop girl oversees her display of tea for sale.
A man in traditional Tibetan dress--and very non-traditional facial hair. 
Morning meat delivery: though many Buddhists are vegetarian, lots of Lhasa residents are not, as evidenced by the daily trucking in of these massive slabs of buffalo. 
Muslim butchers slicing up beef. 
A woman in traditional dress sweeps the entrance to a monastery near Lhasa. Her son accompanies her.
After our tour of Lhasa's Potala Palace.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Above, a night view of Mt. Cho Oyu (26,906 feet) and the Himalayas from a frontier town in southern Tibet called Tingri. 

We'd like to say the summit you're seeing is Mt. Everest, which is clearly visible from where this photo was shot. However, in a typical moment of Liz & Kip travel brilliance, we realized at 4 am in the freezing cold on a tiny bridge just outside of town, that we didn't know which of the surrounding snow-capped peaks was the largest in the world.

Sadly, the world's highest mountain is about half-an-inch beyond the left edge of the frame of this shot. 

It looked real nice. Really, it did.

Yes, after six months, we're still the clueless travelers we were when we started.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


How romantic! Liz with the customer rep at the Lenovo Service Center contemplating computer repairs and the location of the nearest ladies' room.
As we exited the plane from Kathmandu into Lhasa's international airport, we were excited. The day marked our four-year wedding anniversary, six months had flown by since we'd left the United States for this journey, and we had been granted permission to enter Tibet! 

But best of all, we simultaneously spotted a sign in English for "RESTROOMS," dead ahead. Now, if we could just make it the next 100 feet without any accidents, we would really celebrate. Either the food on Air China or the breakfast in Kathmandu had left us with a little stomach surprise.

Thankfully, we both made it to the bathrooms OK (thanks for being concerned!). We then cleared Chinese customs without incident, making it through their weird scanner machine that looks for books (a customs officer made Liz take out all her books, went through each one, and asked if they were all fiction) and finally made it to our hotel.

Looking forward to finding a pharmacy and sending some emails, we booted up the computer. Instead of the comforting Windows start-up sound, we were greeted with a series of beeps and the very panic-inducing blue screen below. Welcome to China, indeed.
Happy anniversary! The "FAILED" screen from our hard drive crash. Much more photogenic than stomach problems.

Our hard drive was fried, and along with it, we may have just lost nearly every photo from our trip. So much for celebrating.

Then Kip remembered seeing a Lenovo sign on our way to the hotel. Turns out, there was an official Lenovo Customer Service Center on the same street we were staying. We were saved! Or so we thought. 

After 30 minutes of CPR with something called "the Golden Key," the helpful young man shook his head solemnly. "Don't open the computer again, until you're back in the U.S.," he said. "There's nothing we can do here." 

We thanked him and immediately found a cafe with Skype, with which we reached the most unhelpful Lenovo customer service representative on earth. No luck, unless we wanted to mail the computer to New Jersey and pay a phone technician $150 per hour to talk about it. We both started to cry. Not really. (OK, Kip might have teared up a little). 

The owner of the Summit Cafe overheard our pained Skype conversation, and he recommended we go to a place called "the Cyborg." This conjured up all kinds of fantastic images in our heads, but it turns out it's a four-story high strip mall of electronic chaos. There, we met our saviors.

Since our tech savvy-ness is about as poor as our Mandarin, our saviors talked to us through an online translator. 

Three eager guys in their mid-twenties who spoke no English immediately grabbed the computer and a screwdriver. Despite our protests, one proceeded to take out the hard drive while the other two "spoke" with us via an online translator. The internets are amazing.

We're not sure what kind of magic they worked, but (as far as we can tell) they saved all our files to our new one terabyte external hard drive, replaced our fried 500GB hard drive with a new one, and updated all our programs--they did this all for less than $300 (the hard drive alone would cost that much back home). These are some cyborgs that we could get used to. Only in China.

In addition to our computer freak out, it seems all of our other electronics (as well as our GI tracts) failed us in Lhasa. We noticed that both (yes, both) of our cameras are beyond damaged. Our small point and shoot has a severely scratched lens (a design flaw due to the auto-lens cover being too close to the lens), and something in our DSLR lens is rattling, inhibiting the auto-focus from working. 

Not to worry, we are keeping a running list of our "first world problem" complaints in a notebook so we can look back and see how we were really "roughing it".

To top it all off, we were fortunate enough to come home to our extremely warm and cozy hotel room. At least, as long as you kept your parka and beanie on.
True romance--our anniversary hotel suite, with no heat or running water, and a squat toilet outside.

After a rough few days, we finally got back our appetites and went out for a fancy anniversary dinner (thanks, Larry P, Todd P, and Sheila Z!).  A yak pizza, yak steak sandwich, and a tall Lhasa beer were just what we needed. Happy Anniversary to us.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Thank you, China, for making this week's "Funny Monday" the easiest one yet. 
Menu items. In case you were wondering, 66 is meant to read, "Lhasa beer," we think.
We were looking for the "deer with feces" to go with the "bowel," but sadly it wasn't available. 
"Yes, I'll have one door, please."
"Purchase now, cuz!" Maybe this was written by the "Gangsta Monk" we met in Laos.

Harry Birtday to you! This is definitely a cake wreck.

Friday, October 19, 2012


Sunrise at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, on a cold October morning. It was a fun way to spend our 4th wedding anniversary, as well as our celebration of six months on the road (more on that later). 

The Palace served as winter home of the Dalai Lama since the 7th century. However, fleeing from Chinese invasion in 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama escaped to India, where he is living in exile today.

While the building remains a potent symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, the Potala now serves as more of a tourist attraction than religious center.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Stares and smiles greet us at a train station in rural Myanmar. 
As a foreigner traveling in Myanmar, you tend to get a lot of stares, particularly in the more rural areas where few tourists visit. It's an odd feeling at first, when a farmer stops his oxen team to wave or a group of kids halts a pick-up soccer game to point at the strangers strolling past. 

Perhaps it's somewhat akin to what it feels like to be a celebrity, but without the money, agents, or paparazzi.  

Eventually, you get used to it, even looking forward to it after a long day sitting on a bus or train. You soon learn that, with a quick wave and a smile, the uncomfortable stares morph into some of the warmest faces and most sincere greetings on the planet.

It's what we'll miss the most about Burma--the people.
More smiles from the train.
We'll remember Myanmar's citizens much more fondly than we will the country's two largest cities, Mandalay and Yangon (Rangoon), both of which, thanks to traffic, smog, dust, trash, noise, and a lack of much to see or do, we weren't huge fans of. 

We also won't get nostalgic for the buses, the over-priced hotels, the government limits on where visitors can go, or especially the country's cuisine, which is infamously underwhelming, despite being surrounded by the culinary-capitals of Thailand, China, and India. For example, Myanmar's most widely-used food product is a putrid-smelling paste called "ngapi" made from fermented fish or shrimp.

Despite the aforementioned drawbacks, Myanmar is not a bad place to visit--especially because of the people met along the way, like the U Paw Sans in Inle Lake and the giggling children everywhere we went--they made the trip complete. 

So here's hoping, with the continuing increase in tourism and growing foreign investment (rumors abound of the country's first McDonalds and Starbucks opening soon...), the lives of those in Myanmar improve dramatically while their openness and friendliness remain as they are today.

As a farewell to Myanmar, below are a few parting shots as we head to Nepal...

The 12-hour ride from Bagan to the capital, while not exactly comfortable, was as scenic a ride as we had in Myanmar. 
While one railway car does not a train make, it was still a fun ride, thanks to the kids...and the stowaway below.
A lady delivers grass to cows across the tracks.
A cute, stowaway joined us on the trip.

Myanmar's government relocated the country's capital seven years ago from Yangon (Rangoon) to a rural rice-paddy five hours north. After spending some $4 billion, a new city was born. 
Liz lies down on the deserted 20-lane highway in front of Myanmar's multi-million dollar capitol.
Despite the money, the massive highways and some gargantuan government buildings, the place remains pretty much deserted. A person could sleep safely in the middle of the 20-lane road in front of the capitol building. 

Embassies, NGO's and international workers have refused to leave Yangon, while the government has attempted unsuccessfully to force its own workers to relocate full time. They even built housing compounds for staff, complete with color-coded roofs, corresponding with the department in which you work. We can't imagine that would go over well back home--it would be hard to live next door to your co-workers and/or boss. But then, having a white elephant as a neighbor might help.

The government imported a sacred white elephant to live in the city. Liz loved the blond hairdo. 

It has been an impressive 28 days (the maximum stay allowed for foreigners) but we are excited to move on towards our next destination.  That said, we will certainly miss the Burmese hospitality, which Kip took full advantage of our last day in the country. 
A hotel worker insisted on giving Kip some shade.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Red Mountain Vineyard
A vineyard worker near Inle Lake wields a large knife used for trimming vines...and for welcoming thirsty tourists. 
When you think of Sauvignon Blanc, Burma is probably not the first place that comes to mind. But if a few forward-thinking vintners have their way, someday it could be. 

The hilly area surrounding Inle Lake in northern Myanmar is said to be prime grape-growing territory, or so we heard often during our recent visit. While we rarely drink the stuff ourselves (ahem), we thought it worth investigating these claims for the benefit of our countless handful of readers. 

There are actually two vineyards in the vicinity of Inle Lake. Only one was close enough for an out of shape tourist (Liz) to reach by bicycle, so we opted to head to Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery.  

Following a paved, winding road bordered by rice paddies, we reached the vineyard after a 20 minute ride from Nyaung Shwe, where we were staying. After passing the entrance gate, the road makes a steep climb to the top of a hill. 

The view from the top is impressive, with rolling, vine-covered hills, all the way to the lake. It certainly looked like a vineyard. 

Thirsty from the long ride from town, we went immediately to the tasting room, lest we risk dehydration from the heat and exertion. We sat down and perused the menu.

Because wine rarely passes our lips (ahem) we weren't sure which wine to order. So we decided to try them all. It was a good decision.

After the tasting, Naw Naw, our somellier offered to give us a tour of the grounds. We learned that globalization is alive and well in Myanmar. The wine maker comes from France, the vines came from France, Spain, and Israel, the oak barrels from Hungary, the Swiss-engineered equipment hails from Italy, the bottles from France and China, and the labels are designed right here in Myanmar. 

We're not sure how we remember the above statistics, as things got pretty unruly during a part of the tour. Lucky for us, Naw Naw is a very patient woman.


After purchasing a bottle for the bike ride home dinner later that evening, we headed  back down the hill.

The vineyard workers had just finished and were heading home, and the light was perfect, so we couldn't help but snap a few hundred photos. Here are some of our favorites, including another of our friend the knife-wielder. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Our many readers (both of them...thanks Mom and Dad) have been asking what "Stand Up Paddling Burma-Style" actually looks like in action.  Miraculously, we happened to come across a video we took that shows the man himself (U Paw San, not Kip) in perfect form, effortlessly moving through the water.

He makes it look so easy. We can assure you, it is not. 

Background soundtrack is provided by the chanting monk from the monastery adjacent to the river.


Friday, October 12, 2012


Train travel in Burma is said to be an adventure. And it is. 

We spent 12-hours rocking along on the rails of what was supposed to be a six-hour trip between Bagan and the new and strange capital of Nay-Pyi-Taw. The train was actually a single car/engine combo--an engine built into one passenger coach car with room for around 40 (or 80, if you're not counting closely) on old wooden bench seats.  

The best part was the scenery and the breeze from the open windows, and of course, the other passengers, who included the two kids above. They couldn't stop laughing and smiling the entire ride. So glad they were contagious, or it would have been one looooong, uncomfortable train trip. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


The ancient city of Bagan, dotted with hundreds of stunning temples, is best explained through photos (particularly when internet connections don't allow for much else). 

Above and below are a few. 

Leaving Myanmar soon...NEPAL AND EVEREST HERE WE COME. 

Monday, October 8, 2012


Yes, even monks surf the internet. From the looks of things, they especially like Facebook. 

We tried to imagine what a monk's status update might sound like. "Yo man, I meditated for, like, four hours straight today! Total enlightenment. Hitting up the monastery tonight if anyone wants to join!"

Feel free to add your own in the comments section.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Yes, that's a real rainbow, and it looks like this fisherman on Inle Lake in Burma is paddling straight for it. Not sure if he ever made it to the end for his pot 'o gold or not, but we thought the view was pretty priceless either way. 

By the way, if you're like us and confused about the whole Burma vs. Myanmar thing, here's a story on the name change. The country used to be called Burma, but the new government changed it to Myanmar. They also changed the names of many cities (Rangoon became Yangon, for example) and have re-located the capital as well. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012


What stand up paddling in Burma is supposed to look like.
Move over stand up paddle boarding--there’s a new sport in town. Pioneered decades ago by Burmese fisherman in the shallow, weed-filled waters of Inle Lake, this acrobatic style of stand-up paddling may soon knock “SUP” from its perch as the latest, greatest thing in water sports.

If you’re not familiar with the soon-to-be-outdated American version of SUP, there are plenty of photos of bikini-clad celebrities doing it on the internet. Basically, participants would stand atop an over-sized surfboard facing forward, then, slightly bent at the waist, they paddle the traditional way on either side of the board, balancing and steering as they go.

So simple, even a celebrity could do it.

The Burmese version of SUP, however, requires far more skill and agility. Plus, men usually wear skirts, so there’s that. 

Our nine-yr-old English student gives us a lesson.
Here, the locals stand on one leg balanced at the tip of their dugout canoes. From there, they begin to paddle with one arm and one leg, while at the same time doing a whole host of other things such as fishing, farming, collecting sea name it, they can do it, while balanced precariously on a spot most people wouldn't even be able to stand in. 

Using the calf and heel as both fulcrum and lever, they power the paddle with one leg while using an arm to help fine tune the motion for steering, speed and navigation. It's hard to explain on paper but it's poetry in motion to watch...when done right.

Naturally, we had to give it a shot ourselves. And who better to teach us than our adopted family, the U Paw San's?

While it took us quite a while to explain to them the concept of teaching someone to stand up paddle (even nine-year-olds can do's not really something to be taught, they said), U Paw San's wife and daughter agreed to give us both a lesson. 

The results were initially less than stellar. Simply standing up in the canoe proved difficult. Kip fell in immediately, luckily only in a knee-deep rice paddy. But after a while, both he and Liz got the hang of it. Mostly.

Kip getting a lesson from U Paw San's patient wife.
Out of the rice paddy and into deeper waters. Still not at the tip of the boat though.
Graceful Liz picked it up pretty quickly.
Clumsy Kip needed another day's lesson.
On day 2, properly dressed in a traditional longyi, Kip finally gets the hang of things.  Having a laughing, somewhat terrified nine-yr-old tutor in the boat definitely helped. 
When the lessons were over and we'd dried our clothes from the splashing, we suggested that giving tourists stand up paddling lessons could be a booming new business opportunity. U Paw San said he was willing to give it a shot. 

Together, we put together some text in English to promote the stand up paddling lessons. The language will be used on a flyer and a large sign to let visitors know lessons are available for what may soon become the world's next big water sport. 

The ground work has been laid. Celebrities, you best get prepping.