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We Take Real People To Amazing Places!

Himalayan High Stories: Personal Tales From The HHT Trails...

Page 1:
   1. My Pilgrimage In Burma by Venerable Lobsang Chokyi
   2. A Himalayan Panorama by Chuck Warren
   3. Ladakh Family Adventure by Jennifer Widom
   4. Footloose In Burma! by Chuck
   5. Nepal/Tibet 2011 by Bill Thompson

Page 2:
   6. The Yak Patrol Trekking Through Nepal by Mike Nicholson
   7. Artist View of White Tara & Tibet by Nancy Davis
   8. Nepal: KB's Story by Amber Tamang
   9. Nepal: On A Journey To Learn, From A World Away by Sheila G. Miller
  10. Nepal: Solo in the Himalayas by JoAnneh Nagler
  11. Kangchenjunga: Trailside Poetry by Linda Oster
  12. Nepal: Teen Trek During Spring Break by Pam Koppe
  13. Bhutan: A Unique Experience For Bay Area Nurses by Pam Koppe






My Pilgrimage In Burma by Venerable Lobsang Chokyi


My Pilgrimage In Burma


Introduction by Venerable Robina Courtin


Pilgrimage to holy places is revered as a spiritual practice in all traditions, and there's certainly a history of it among Buddhists over the centuries.

I love pilgrimages! Since 2001 I've led many — to the places where Lord Buddha laid his feet, in India and Nepal, to Tibet, and to Myanmar. Every time I'm amazed at how people are moved by going to these special places where since the time of the Buddha holy beings have meditated, studied, and practiced Dharma. We always follow Lama Zopa Rinpoches advice "to not just be tourists" but to make offerings, have teachings, meditate and say prayers at every place.

Twenty-four of us went to Myanmar, all for the first time, in 2013. Such a blessed place! Full of the most beautiful Buddhist structures, and populated by the kindest of people, who so welcome visitors to their holy country.

With me on this pilgrimage was my dear friend Ven. Lobsang Chökyi, whom I'd worked and studied with for years in San Francisco. She had already been diagnosed with cancer and wanted to make the most of time by going on pilgrimage (including, later, visiting the amazing stupa at Borobudur in Indonesia.) She took many photos in Myanmar and wrote of her experiences below. She passed away less than a year later.



This slideshow runs on a continuous loop.
Please sit back and enjoy this beautiful view of the Dharma Journeys Burma (Myanmar) Pilgrimage.




...

Venerable Lobsang Chökyi
1958-2014

Our beloved friend Venerable Lobsang Chökyi passed away on August 10, 2014 after a four-year battle with cancer. She lived her last days surrounded by friends at her home in San Francisco. She had typically given a slide show after her pilgrimages and these photos and captions may have been intended for that purpose.

Venerable Chökyi was born Catherine Elizabeth Lambert on October 8, 1958 in Washington, D.C. She was raised in Fairfax, Virginia as the youngest of four children. She attended George Mason University and spent a seminal year abroad in Bath, England. Chökyi moved to San Francisco in 1988 and worked as a bookkeeper for over 20 years. She was also a talented massage therapist, doula and photographer.

Venerable Tenzin Chogkyi (a Dharma Journeys pilgrimage leader) took Chökyi to her first talk by Lama Zopa Rinpoche in 1995. In 1996, Chökyi took refuge and bodhisattva vows with Khensur Lobsang Tsephel, and later that year attended the famous one month course on Lam Rim at Kopan Monastery in Nepal. In 1998 and 1999, she deepened her Dharma practice by attending Kopan again and by hearing teachings with His Holiness in Bodhgaya, India. She then went on a three-month Vajrasattva retreat at Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala. Chökyi was ordained by Choden Rinpoche in 2000 and became the director of Tse Chen Ling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies in San Francisco. From that point on, she devoted herself to Tse Chen Ling in many capacities including Director, Spiritual Program Coordinator and Teacher.

Venerable Chökyi traveled with Dharma Journeys on three pilgrimages, two to India and Nepal with Venerable Tenzin as well as this one to Burma with Venerable Robina. In early 2014, she attended our first retreat at Borobudur, Indonesia. Chökyi will be sorely missed by all of us at Himalayan High Treks and Dharma Journeys but remembered well for her warmth, loving smile and ready laughter.

— Adapted from her Obituary in Mandala Magazine
written by her close friend Venerable Tenzin Chokyi




A Himalayan Panorama by Chuck Warren


A Himalayan Panorama

by Chuck Warren



Panorama taken by Chuck Warren on the Everest Spring 2013 trek, May, 2013.







A Markha Valley & Ladakh Family Adventure by Jennifer Widom


A Markha Valley & Ladakh Family Adventure!

Notes On Northern India's Himalaya Trek & Subsequent Area Tour • 2013


Our Markha Valley trek, traverse of the Stok range, and climb of 20,187' Stok Kangri went off without a hitch. Our guide, crew, equipment, route, weather, and food were at their worst just fine and at their best outstanding, with no complaints or problems to speak of.

The variety of terrain, culture, and other trekkers kept the entire 13 days interesting, and reaching the high summit on the second-to-last day was truly the icing on the cake.

We opted for an "expedition-style" full-service trek. Comfortable camps and a crew that takes care of everything except the walking does take some getting used to, but we're accustomed to it by now, having trekked in a similar fashion on numerous previous trips. (Our first full-service trek was also in the Himalayas: Alex and Jennifer's 1992 Annapurna Sanctuary trek in Nepal.) On this trek we had a guide, assistant-guide/gofer, cook, cook's helper, and horseman, all at a very reasonable price, presumably thanks to low-cost labor in India. Seven horses toted everything: sleeping tents, a dining tent for us and cooking tent for the crew, a toilet tent for campsites lacking an established latrine, and of course stove, kerosene, full range of kitchen equipment, folding table & stools, everyone's personal gear, food, and probably a bunch of stuff we weren't even aware of. Here's our horse train and a typical campsite. We reminded ourselves periodically that we're providing jobs and boosting the economy, then we just relaxed and enjoyed the service.

Not that we were being lazy! The trekking varied from moderate to downright strenuous. We frequently camped above 14,000', and we crossed four passes over 16,000'. Hiking varied from 4-8 hours per day (except the 10-hour summit day; more on that below), and the altitude could be a challenge. Sometimes the trail was smooth and graded, while other times it was rocky, fraught with river crossings or steep ups-and-downs to avoid them, and on occasion nonexistent. The terrain was often steep-sided canyons (with passing shepherd, left), somewhat reminiscent of the US southwest.

But in addition there were high snow-covered peaks, glaciers, meadows, many streams, and a few wider rivers (with our trusty guide "K.G." right). Wildlife included yaks (technically not wild but they seem to roam at will), blue sheep, marmots, picas, and a variety of birds. Large herds of domestic sheep and goats wandered by (left), and there were shepherd dwellings throughout the trek. Adding to the scenery and providing some culture during the more settled Markha Valley portion of the trek were frequent Buddhist Mani stone walls (right), Stupas and a couple of monasteries, probably reminiscent of trekking in Bhutan or Tibet. Prayer flags were omnipresent on every pass and summit.



With 13 days on the trail one does tend to settle into a rhythm of hiking, eating, leisure time, weather-watching, and sleeping.

Hiking: Alex and Emily were in excellent physical shape after training for (and successfully completing) the San Francisco Marathon earlier in the summer. In addition, Emily maintained a routine of hundreds of sit-ups every day, even at the 16,300' Stok Kangri base camp! All of that meant Jennifer set the pace. Jennifer's slow-but-steady approach turned out to be faster in the end than many other trekkers, who thrived on lengthy rest stops.

Eating: It's remarkable what meals can be assembled by an experienced trail chef. It would be a stretch to classify our food as gourmet, but there was considerable variety including and beyond Indian fare ("pizza night" was a particular favorite), and always plenty for everyone. Around the middle of the trek we came within a day's horse-ride from a road; a resupply freshened up the slightly sagging menu. At a more basic level, nobody got sick, which is hardly a given for India.

Leisure Time: We typically started hiking before 8:00 AM, so on some days we reached our camp by early afternoon. Somehow we had no difficulty filling the hours -- reading, endless games of Shanghai Rummy, a bit of summer homework for Emily, and just enjoying the scenery.

Weather: Ladakh is popular for summer trekking because of its fairly predictable dry weather, especially compared with the Nepal Himalaya. We did have some rain, but nothing substantial and never during hiking hours. Most distinctive was how quickly it changed from hot to cold, sunny to cloudy, calm to windy -- that's the high mountains for you! Overall the weather was not a significant factor, and we were especially lucky with an absolutely clear night for our peak climb.

Sleeping: We generally slept long, sound nights, except early in the trek when we were still adjusting to the altitude, and one memorable camp where a lovesick donkey tied up nearby hee-hawed literally all night long.

Naturally we very much missed having Tim along. Over the years we've perfected traveling as a family of four, so undertaking an adventure of this scope as a three-some took some getting used to. (There's no denying, however, that Emily greatly enjoyed having her own tent!) We rented a satellite phone so that we could be reached in case of emergency, and Tim agreed to send regular text messages to the phone with updates on his bike racing in Europe. It turns out Tim's definition of "regular" didn't quite match ours, but it was nice that we could remain connected, and even nicer that the phone wasn't needed for an emergency.

Trekking in Ladakh, and the Markha Valley in particular, is quite popular, so we met a variety of other trekkers.

Many were traveling expedition-style like us with group sizes ranging from 2 to about 20, others were making use of the "home-stays" (left, a typical proprietress) and semi- permanent encampments that have popped up in the most popular areas, and a small handful were self-sufficient backpackers.


Some of the more memorable folks we met:

• An older Hungarian couple living in Hong Kong -- intrepid travelers headed to scale a technical peak.

• An American couple with their college and graduate-school age kids (the latter a recent Stanford grad), giving us hope that Tim and Emily will travel with us for years to come.

• An adventurous French family with 6 and 8 year old boys whose tents had shredded in a windstorm.

• A Swiss couple who had been told, erroneously, that they could find food and shelter near where we were camping; our crew generously provided them with both.

• An Israeli duo on reconnaissance for their group of eight. Their home-stay had run out of food and they too had erroneously been told they could find food near our campsite. We sent them back with a bag of chocolates and some energy bars, for which they were very grateful.

• A group of students from South India hoping to scale Stok Kangri. At an earlier camp their horses had apparently wandered off, so they arrived at the base camp with minimal gear.

Of course many trekkers, including ourselves, had few tribulations like the ones above, but even those with challenges seemed to be having a good time.

And lastly, an account of our Stok Kangri ascent, which was certainly the apex of the expedition. At 20,187' Stok Kangri is the highest mountain in the Stok subrange of the Himalayas. An earlier photo shows one view, but lest you think it's one of those mountains that's impressive on one side but a gentle slope on the other, the upper left photo shows the side we climbed. It's undoubtedly the hardest peak we've scaled, eclipsing Kilimanjaro both in altitude and in difficulty, although both are considered non-technical. The route up Stok Kangri has a bit of everything: regular trail, rocky glacier moraine, a glacier crossing, steep scree slopes, "class 3" scrambling on a rocky ridge, and some precipitous drops, all greatly compounded by the altitude. By 20,000' it's truly one labored step at a time. We were well acclimated, having been in Ladakh almost two weeks and frequently above 15,000', but at 20,000' everyone feels significant effects. On the good side, it's been a dry year and we were relatively late in the season, so there was less snow than usual and we didn't need to use crampons, ice axe, or rope to reach the summit, although some parties did rope up nonetheless. Finally, we were extremely lucky with the weather. Our 1:00 AM start (traditional on many mountains) saw a cloudless sky, which remained until well after we left the summit around 7:30 AM. Clouds eventually built up, but we were back in base camp enjoying a well-deserved rest by the time any rain set in. Upper right is the requisite family summit shot. The mass of prayer flags at the summit (K.G. surprised us by adding a string), along with another small portion of the magnificent view, which included world's second highest mountain, K2, in the distance, give a small flavor of the climb.

Post-Trek To Leh, Agra, Jaipur, Delhi!

Trekking in Ladakh was our primary reason for coming to India, but we planned a few days after the trek both to absorb any problems that might occur (luckily none did), and to take at least a gratuitous look at Delhi, Agra, and a small bit of Rajasthan, primarily Jaipur.

Our first task was to occupy the full day we had in Leh before flying to Delhi. We'd already spent three days acclimatizing in Leh at the start of the trip, and it's not a town that takes long to see. We'd also knocked off most of Leh's signature activities: trekking, cycling down from Khardung La, and visiting monasteries and palaces in the region. There was one obvious activity left -- whitewater rafting. We've done one-day rafting trips quite a few times before, and they have a remarkable similarity worldwide: an all-day affair for 2-3 hours on the river; bus ride; wetsuits, life-jackets, and helmets; basic paddling and self-rescue instruction; class 3+ rapids for plenty of thrills; no possibility of photos (except when an enterprising photographer takes them from shore and sells them at the end of the trip); interesting other clients; charismatic guide; lunch. And we always enjoy them! This particular trip was on the Zanskar river, ending where the Zanskar meets the Indus.

We flew from Leh to Delhi on GoAir, one of several new-ish Indian budget airlines. The airline seemed just fine, and Emily & Jennifer much appreciated something we've never seen before: ladies-first boarding. On arrival we were met by a driver in a comfortable minivan who would be with us for the rest of our trip. We immediately drove to Agra, so we'd be in position to visit the Taj Mahal at dawn. Despite housing one of the wonders of the world, Agra is a fairly typical large-ish Indian city. Shunning the Western-tourist enclaves suggested by our driver, we headed on foot into the Taj Ganj district, where we were quickly immersed in the "real India": garbage-strewn dirt streets, throngs of people young and old, masses of honking motorbikes and rickshaws, cows and other animals wandering freely, open drains. Photo right captures a somewhat tamer street scene in Old Delhi. Surprisingly, touts and beggars were minimal. In general we saw fewer beggars than on our previous trips to India. One local guide suggested that in Delhi at least, the slums have become more segregated from the main city over time. As for touts, at the top sites they were as persistent as ever, with prices of souvenir knick-knacks dropping by a factor of ten in the few seconds it took us to walk by.

Some people come to India expressly to visit the Taj Mahal, whereas we considered it a mere add-on. And quite a nice add-on it was! There's no question that it's a stunning architectural marvel, with a great story to go along. We very much enjoyed the couple of hours we spent there. Although there were plenty of other tourists, it wasn't crowded; we're told that in high season it's shoulder to shoulder. You've seen it a million times, but above left photo is our very own classic shot.

After the Taj Mahal we visited nearby Agra Fort (left), which we also very much enjoyed. While there were a fair number of other westerners at the Taj Mahal, at Agra Fort, and many of the other places we visited, the other tourists were almost exclusively Indian. It was a four-day weekend for many Indians, and some came from rural areas where they hadn't seen westerners before. Our family garnered regular attention, and Emily was especially popular with teenage Indian boys. Many wanted to have their photo taken with her; she usually obliged (right, at a mosque in Delhi).

On a tight schedule, we left Agra midday and headed to Jaipur, with a stop in the Keoladeo wildlife reserve. Rain was threatening and we didn't feel a need for more hiking, so we hired cycle rickshaws to take us around. The bird-watching was quite good, with some antelope and a monitor lizard thrown in. Emily & Jennifer lucked into a remarkably knowledgeable and enthusiastic Sikh rickshaw "wallah" (driver) -- one of those people we'll remember for a long time, left. But when we tipped him more than we tipped Alex's rather bland wallah, and the two compared, the bland guy got very angry and stood by the car window demanding an equal tip until we reluctantly complied.

Jaipur is even larger than Agra, also boasting some excellent historical attractions: Amber Fort (above right, reminding us of Carcassonne in southern France, but with a parade of tourist-toting elephants, left), an extensive palace, an interesting ancient observatory, and a great old-city bazaar for just walking around. And we definitely won't forget our Jaipur overnight. About 11pm, deafening Hindu-disco music began emanating from enormous speakers across the street from our hotel, and continued all night. (It's a toss-up which was worse: the all-night Hindu disco music or the all-night hee-hawing donkey mentioned in the earlier travelogue.) Peeking out our window revealed just a few people behind a small table wedged between the speakers, with some bowls of fruit. What gives? We learned in the bleary-eyed morning that our hotel was on the route of an 80 kilometer Hindu pilgrimage, and the stall was a refreshment station. A few of the older and more photogenic pilgrims can be seen on the right, but the walkers were of all ages and descriptions. The one thing they seemed to have in common was plastic sandals or flip-flops, hardly sensible footwear for a 50-mile walk.

A tedious 7-hour drive (more on the roads below) brought us back to Delhi, India's capital. Nearing independence day, some of its best sites were closed for security (notably the Red Fort, though Emily & Jennifer thought we'd seen enough forts already anyway), but we enjoyed Humayun's Tomb (a precursor to the Taj Mahal, right), the giant Jama Masjid mosque where, like all foreign women, Emily & Jennifer were issued shower-curtain like cover-ups (below left), and once again a very enjoyable stroll through the crazy old-city bazaar area, where not another white face was to be seen. We also visited ian interesting museum at the site of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, drove though the clean, wide, tree-lined boulevards in the capitol and embassy districts, and popped into the Imperial Hotel, where we were decidedly out of place. At the mosque, one minaret could be climbed, which we were looking forward to, but the obscene number of people crammed onto the tiny and somewhat precipitous viewing platform at the top was downright dangerous. We snapped a couple of photos (below, left) and headed down. With a 2:00 AM flight home, we finished our trip with some vigorous bargaining in the Delhi evening market, where Emily snagged a number of clothing and footwear items, setting us back a whopping $10.

A few closing topics:

• Food: Except for a couple of boring tourist restaurants along the highway, the food varied from very good to truly superb, and dinner for three at the less expensive places ran about $12, including beer. We often ate vegetarian -- Emily recently became a pescatarian, but fish was uncommon. As is typical on our trips, in the last couple of days we let down our guard a bit in terms of what we'd risk eating/drinking, which resulted in minor stomach trouble but nothing that could be classified as true Delhi belly.

• Weather: We knew we were visiting in the monsoon season. On the plus side: far smaller crowds at the tourist sites. On the minus side: hot and humid, with sudden brief torrential downpours most afternoons. Aside from the lack of blue skies in our photographs, we thought it a worthwhile tradeoff.

• Driving: The Indian roads are indescribable. In the city the traffic is chaotic and dense. It's amazing there aren't constant fender-benders, but the drivers are skilled. The main roads between cities vary from equally dense to almost highway-like, although even in the latter case there are plenty of pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes of all descriptions, cows, pigs, and camels. Our driver seemed quite good, though he honked his horn more than he didn't honk it, and at one point we sideswiped a large Brahman cow at high speed. By the time we knew what had happened, we could see that both we and the cow were okay. The one exception to the hectic roads was a new private expressway between Delhi and Agra. The price must be too high for most Indians -- it was nearly empty and we made gloriously excellent time.

• Guides and Agencies: Effie at Himalayan High Treks, who arranged the trekking portion of our trip, also arranged our last few days. We were extremely happy with all of her arrangements, and her price was more than reasonable, but it was interesting to note the layering of agencies and middlemen in the whole enterprise. Effie contracted with an agency in Delhi, who provided the driver but in turn contracted with agencies in each of the locales we visited. We would arrive at our Jaipur hotel (say) and be met by a "local agent" who would help us check into the hotel (completely unnecessary), inform us about the local guide meeting us in the morning, and take his leave. One possible motivation for so many people involved is shopping commissions. It's no secret that if a tourist makes a significant purchase in India, every local involved in the trip gets a cut. What we hadn't known is that the cut is a whopping 35%, divided among guide, driver, local agents, and so forth. We're not shoppers, so I'm afraid our people may have been disappointed. On the other hand, American travelers are known to be generous tippers compared with other nationalities. When the service is decent (as it invariably was on this trip), we follow suit.






One Month Of Our Discoveries... Footloose In Burma! by Chuck


Footloose In Burma!

A Myanmar Trip Report • 2012







Impressions Of A People...



Home from four weeks in Myanmar (Burma), we're still absorbing our impressions of that land
that has been so isolated from the rest of the world for so long.

Our impressions are a dramatic contrast to our pre–trip expectations. We had anticipated seeing an impoverished, malnourished people, dispirited by decades of bad rule. What we found was a people who are calm, joyful, industrious, and welcoming, a people, however, who are not really a single group of Burmese but rather a polyglot conglomeration — 135 ethnicities, each of them speaking a different language and many holding to traditional dress and lifestyle. We saw little evidence of illness or hunger. The farmers seemed surprisingly prosperous and bent on improving their lives. Beauty and serenity will be dominant memories of this land and its people, overshadowed by doubts and fears about its political future. In this report, we'll try to focus on three themes: the warmth of the people, their industriousness, and their diversity.

Their Warmth: Again and again, we untied our dusty hiking shoes and climbed bamboo ladders into homes perched on stilts to keep them safe from the monsoon floods. "Mingalaba," was the usual greeting. This time we sat on the floor with several women holding babies, as older children peered from dark recesses of the room. The women usually served us local tea and sometimes extra tidbits. This time it was delicious popcorn. Our wonderful guide Than Zin relayed the story of how he had brought medical help to this family when their little boy had abdominal problems. In most of the six or eight villages we visited on our three–day trek with Than Zin we found a family he had similarly helped. These village visits, along with those on the five–day trek later, were the highlights of our trip.

The smiles deserve special mention... We have never seen such beautiful smiles. They smiled to greet us as we hiked on the trail.
They smiled to welcome us into their villages and homes. They smiled for the camera. We have never seen people so content to pose for pictures. Sometimes they even asked us to photograph them. One day at breakfast we talked to an older Burmese couple who had fled to London in 1964. They were back to visit and happy that a friend's son had just been released after 18 years of incarceration as a political prisoner. We mentioned the beauty of the smiles. "Those smiles are genuine," the woman said, "because the people here live their Buddhism. It's part of who they are."

Buddhism is omnipresent. Millions of Buddhas dot the countryside. We were astonished to see private roads lined with Buddhas in single file, clusters of Buddhas, even fields of Buddhas. We saw the biggest seated Buddha in the world and the largest reclining Buddha, maybe half a city block long. On every hilltop and mountain is a pagoda or at least a stupa.
Half a million men are monks and hundreds of thousands of women are nuns. The people revere the monks
and they visit the shrines. Ancient beliefs in spirits are intertwined with their Buddhist practices.

In reference to the smiles, we should add that the Burmese are physically attractive. Many of the women are stunning beauties.
And of course no one is obese or even fat.

Their Industriousness: The second dominant impression is the industriousness of the people. Everyone is always working. In contrast to Africa, for example, the men here work just as hard as the women. Each village we visited seemed to specialize. On our cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, we spent a couple hours in a village where one quarter of the families produce pottery. At 9 am, we saw people busily at work at numerous stages of production: some pedaled pottery wheels as others shaped the wet clay; some pounded the formed pots with paddles; others incised designs. In the morning sun, it was possibly the most picturesque place we'd ever seen. We photographed rows of pots, fields of pots, vast expanses of pots. I thought of a colony of busy ants as I watched women parade single file down the village paths with a big pot in each arm and two or three balanced on their heads. Boys balanced poles on their shoulders which were hung with pots on each side.

Villages that specialized in red peppers were among the most colorful. We came through just as the hot red pepper harvest was drying on bamboo mats in the sun. Other villages specialized in garlic, a winter season crop that grows in paddies used for rice during the rainy season. In another village a large percentage of the families produced large delicious rice crackers. We got our fill of them as we visited their production center. When an older woman for whom Than Zin had financed a new roof, called for us to come over for tea and rice crackers, we had to decline. They were delicious though.

Industriousness is only part of the story, however. The second theme here is the very high quality of all the work. When we visited the home of a hunter, he proudly showed us the crossbow that he handcrafted to shoot deer in the rainforest. It was so sturdy and finely honed that we could imagine it being used for 100 years. Their devices to facilitate labor are ingenious. We marveled at the way the mountain villages harnessed the power of streams rushing down from the Himalayas to create a pounder for transforming rice into flour. Their wooden looms are handmade and ingenious. Beautiful lacquerwork is another Burmese specialty; the process of layering the bamboo bark takes dozens of steps and many days for each item of lacquerware. We watched paper being produced from mulberry tree pulp, and swiftly turned into lovely umbrellas or lanterns with bamboo frames. Bamboo. Ubiquitous. Our list of the uses of bamboo reached 30, ranging from the cups from which we sipped tea at a wedding to the planks or poles used to get across the many rivers on our treks. So the people are not just industrious workers but perfectionists, and they work swiftly and efficiently, no matter what they're doing.

Their Diversity: The third theme is the diversity of the peoples, isolated from each other in mountain valleys and sadly, often fighting the government, which is dominated by the main tribe, the Burmans. On our nine days of trekking, our guides would tell us the name of the tribe as we entered each village. The tribe with whom we spent the most time, however, was the Karen (or Kayen), in part because our travel companion has taught Karen refugees in Minnesota. She spent some time in a Karen refugee camp in Thailand after leaving Burma. Those who reach the US are Christian, but those we saw on the trip were Buddhist. Their war with the government is the longest running guerrilla war in the world today. Political change is underway in Burma. While we were here the government and the Karen signed a ceasefire and the Karen guerrillas were out on the streets in some villages, though later they denied that what they signed had been a ceasefire. The government seems to be reaching out to ethnic groups. We attended a wonderful event celebrating an agreement between the government and the Mon people, but we saw our guide's fear and heard his warnings about the military people who were out in force at the event. "People do not readily give up the old ways," he told us. "We have to be very careful." He implied that the military might still turn on the people. We worry about the future of these beautiful people.


Below are some highlights.
We'll take you along with us on this trip, so please enjoy our first–hand discoveries!





Highlights Of Our Burma Adventure!

An Introduction:

We definitely recommend that our friends travel in Burma, now, before the deluge. Burma had about 400,000 visitors last year, compared to 24 million in Malaysia, for example, or 20 million in Hong Kong. More to the point, 400,000 was the same number of visitors last year to the National Museum of African Art, where our friend is a docent. Burma has 60 million people in a country the size of Texas. Explore Worldwide, which had never organized a tour in Burma until this winter, has 48 trips scheduled and all are fully booked. The New York Times just listed Burma as the third of 45 top places to visit in 2012.

The country can barely handle the tourists now and when the numbers multiply in the next few years, the strains on the tourist facilities will be enormous. We loved traveling as a threesome rather than in a larger group. We also definitely recommend hiking; it was the highlight of our trip. Some 85% of the Burmese still live in villages, 65,000 of them, so that's where you can see the real Burma, not the cities or towns. Go during the dry cool months. As we said above, the Burmese are delightful, helpful and hard working. The population density is low so you don't feel overwhelmed by crowds.

We encountered essentially no beggars. We saw no signs of malnutrition or extreme poverty or slums. The country is relatively clean; our hotels were adequate to excellent. We never felt in danger (Burma has essentially no crime) nor got sick, and our logistics went smoothly. The roads are not great and the bathrooms (outhouses) can be grotty. Alcohol or tobacco consumption is quite low.

All of our guides were excellent, locally born and raised, so they knew the languages and out–of–the–way places. They could take us into homes to visit families. The fresh fruits and vegetables are delicious. We can see why so many people come back to Burma repeatedly. One place we didn't visit was the Andaman Islands (Bay of Bengal), which must be spectacular and wonderful for snorkeling. We strongly recommend using Effie Fletcher of Himalayan High Treks to book the trip. She was indispensable in assembling our complex itinerary and gave us an extensive local network to use as a backup in case we encountered any problems.

We are guardedly optimistic that the recent political changes are real, but worried that the sky–high expectations will not be met, resulting in turmoil or even violence from frustration. Burma has virtually no civil society organizations and no relationships with the World Bank, IMF, or development aid funders. Animosities generated by the brutality of the military government (which has granted itself amnesty) still constitute a looming issue. Many ethnic groups still yearn for independence (more so after their bitter experiences with the government). The government budget is dominated by military expenditures, and entrenched oligopolies (connected to the military) dominate the economy. The new constitution guarantees significant military power in the parliament, and Aung Sun Suu Kyi may not be able to turn things around. But Burma is a fascinating place to visit, one of the only "undiscovered" places left in the world.     Go...   Soon!

Return to Burma:

For decades I had hoped to revisit Burma where I stopped in 1970 at a time when you could get only a one–day visa. Since then, Burma has become even more exotic and mysterious. Few countries are more interesting ethnically and historically than Burma, and for nearly 60 years it's been largely cut off from the outside world, reclusive, and racked by murderous xenophobic military Kleptocrats. Now, as we wrote before we left, there may be an opening that would end this extended nightmare. We wanted to see for ourselves. Here we'll refer to the country as Burma, although it's probably fairer to call it by its new name, Myanmar, because the Burman ethnic group comprises only about 60% of the population.

Buddhism:

The Burmese are overwhelmingly Buddhist. We have friends who know more about Buddhism than we do, but let us try to say a few words. It's a philosophy of life more than a religion. People do not believe Buddha is a god or son of god and do not (or at least should not) pray to him to do things for them. Rather, Buddha teaches us how to achieve Nirvana through various practices, including meditation. The greatest achievements in the search for Nirvana are selflessness, self mastery, indifference to results, and release of the mind. Buddhism affirms that suffering is part of life, but that people can live with suffering through the absence of desire, greed, hatred, and delusion. Buddhists believe in reincarnation; Siddartha became the Buddha in his 547th reincarnation. Buddha was, in fact, the fourth Buddha and one more is expected to appear. Buddhists practice good deeds hoping that this will create good Karma and lead them to be reincarnated in a higher consciousness. Without good deeds, one could be reincarnated as an animal. Given the horrors of the last 60 years in Burma, Buddhism has provided a crucial pathway to survival. The government has used it cynically, pretending to be ultra religious.

Rangoon:

Yangon, formerly Rangoon, appears shabby and polluted. As we walked the streets, we had to watch carefully to avoid falling into yawning, bottomless potholes in the sidewalk. Many buildings have power generators because the electricity supply is unreliable.
Informal markets with vendors squatting on the ground to sell, earning 50¢ to $1 per day, are ubiquitous. We saw no signs of
extreme wealth although we know that the military Kleptocrats are very rich and live in exclusive compounds.

Schwedagon Pagoda:

We visited the famous Shwedagon Buddhist stupa in Yangon (Rangoon), immense and impressive––one of the holiest places for Buddhists, on our
first afternoon in the country.

Climbing the high hill, we saw the massive inverted bell–shaped structure 325' high covered with 14,000 plates of gold (60 tons), topped by a tiara with 2,500 diamonds and other gems and an orb with 4,300 diamonds. (When Hurricane Nargis dislodged jewels from the stupa in 2008, government troops reportedly collected and expropriated them.) Surrounding the main stupa are hundreds of smaller ones, some for each day of the week, where people pray on their birthdays. The celebrants for the day we were there poured a cup of water over a small Buddha for each year of their life, plus one more for the year to come.

We saw many monks and devotees praying. In one amazing parade, we saw devotees, a broom in each hand, sweeping the ground for a group of monks who followed. Such acts of piety are common in Burma.



Bagan:

Next we flew to Bagan, where the first Burmese empire was organized on a large plain along the Irrawaddy River well north of Yangon. In the early morning, the scene was literally awesome: thousands of beautiful ancient temples and stupas bathed in a golden glow. In 850 AD a king converted to Buddhism and during the next 435 years the Burmese kings and others built some 5,000 stupas and temples in an area about the size of Manhattan. Europe has fewer castles than Bagan has stupas and temples. Many are elaborately carved and painted and some are crowned with gold. All the temples contain innumerable statues of Buddha (one had 4,000), often gilded with gold leaf. We visited and climbed some of them and were up high with amazing views during both a sunset and a sunrise. Watching the blood red sunrise and five hot–air balloons hover hazily over hundreds of stupas and temples was a breathtaking sight.

Cruising the Irrawaddy:

From Bagan we spent three days on a slow boat to Mandalay, going up the mighty Irrawaddy River. It was a tourist boat with 50 passengers from perhaps 10 countries. Only two others were Americans. A highlight of the cruise was a show with traditional Burmese puppets.

We stopped in two villages on the river banks. In the first, everyone worked laboriously to grow and process palm sugar. They had a few oxen to pull the plows and hauled water by hand from the river. We saw improvised rat traps, foot powered teeter–totter devices to pound grain into flour, and recumbent bicycle style levers to turn the pottery wheels. The villagers were always charming.

Mandalay:

We docked in Mandalay on a muddy beach. There we focused on the craft workshops. The most impressive was the gold leaf making for devotees to apply to Buddhas or stupas. Slight young men stripped to the waist stand pounding the gold for some six hours at a time to flatten it to an ultra thinness — horrendous work done with heavy wooden mallets.

We also saw wood and alabaster carving (mostly statues of Buddha) and workshops producing wonderful puppets, leather goods, and tapestries. The work is tedious and very precise, but it gives people a chance to earn cash. Gold leaf pounders earn about $10 a day, five to six times the local wage.

Pindaya Cave:

From Mandalay we flew to Kalaw in Shan State, the easternmost province of Burma. Near Kalaw we visited the Shew Oo Min shrine in Pindaya where 8,000 statues of Buddha have been installed in a huge multi–chambered maze of a limestone cavern. Buddhas of every size and variation of gesture, many covered in gold leaf have been installed by Buddhists from many countries. The subdued lighting gives the shrine a peaceful, eerie feel; the few other visitors were mostly Burmese devotees.

We wandered from one chamber to another, losing all sense of space and place. Pa'O women pilgrims — in their traditional checkered orange and black head scarves — purchased gold leaf to apply to the statues as an offering. Hundreds of years ago the monks planted Banyan trees outside the cave to shade the pilgrims so now there's an immense forest.

On the drive to and from the caves, we watched farmers harvesting wheat — smashing tied bundles of 30 or so stalks on rocks to separate the kernels, and then winnowing them in the wind. Laborers were rebuilding the road with crushed stone arranged by hand and asphalt applied with a watering can. It appeared that in one day 10 workers could complete only about 50 yards on one side of the road. The word "laborious" comes to mind. On the road we competed with an array of overloaded mini–buses, Chinese pickup trucks piled high with eggs and produce, bullock carts, and motorcycles.

Trek to Inle Lake:

From Kalaw we'd planned to trek down to Inle Lake. The itinerary implied that we'd hike about six miles a day, But our guide said it would be nine to 18 miles. We blanched! Even our athletic companion said there was no way she would hike 18 miles in a day.

Well, you know how this story turns out.

We hiked the nine miles the first day and it felt glorious, so we hiked eighteen the second. Only a few blisters and sore muscles. We carried light backpacks and four porters, including our cooks, carried the rest. We slept on the floor in Buddhist monasteries on and under huge quilts that kept us reasonably warm despite the (literally) freezing night temperatures. The novice monks accepted our offer of breakfast toast with jam; the elder monks prayed for our good journey. Each day we visited villages of different ethnic groups.

We saw men weaving bamboo baskets and mats, and herding and washing water buffalo and cattle, women nursing babies, kids playing with wonderful handmade kites, old women carrying prodigious loads including endless containers of water, and men transporting a portable gasoline pump to the fields to draw water for irrigation. Everyone was working hard without mechanized aids. It appeared that most crops were being grown for market (for cash), but they use no hybrid seeds or chemical fertilizer (only vast quantities of manure), so their yields must be paltry.

In each village prosperous farmers had finely made cinderblock houses with teak wood windows, some with glass. Each house had an outhouse (squat toilets) and some had gutters and downspouts rigged to water cisterns. In the villages and on the trails we could see that during the five–month monsoon, these people live in a sea of mud. We took tea and were given peanuts, beans, popcorn and tea cups (made of bamboo) as gifts. Our guide often asked for a handful of a particular crop for us to have for dinner. We visited two schools and donated boxes of pencils to the grateful students.



Inle Lake:

Arriving at Inle Lake, we traveled by motor boat, sometimes in open water and sometime slaloming down canals. Our hotel, the Inle Princess, was as luxurious as our nights in the monasteries had been Spartan. The lake is fairly shallow depending on the season. As we toured the lake, we saw several types of fishing, all of which depend on the fisherman standing on one foot at the fantail of a flat–bottomed sampan (long canoe), using the other leg to paddle the boat (with the paddle hooked to his heel). It's hard to describe "foot paddling" but basically the long paddle snakes down the body and around the leg so it is "held" without use of the hands. (They can balance even when the speed boats put off a large wake.) The advantage is that the fisherman can use both hands to cast and haul in a net, smash a bamboo pole on the water, drive the fish into the net, thrust a conical bamboo cage into the water to trap the fish, or cast and retrieve a line strewn with hooks.

Closer to shore, we also saw a man using a triangular net that he nudged along the bottom to scoop up shrimp. In addition to fishing, the people, most of whom live in stilt houses, have developed extensive floating gardens of staked tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, and gourds. They paddle around in sampans to tend and harvest their crops. Along the canals, we were captivated by shimmering reflections of the houses — often festooned with colorful laundry — and domestic scenes of people on their verandas and docks washing clothes, bathing, tending orchids, mending fishing equipment, or buying goods from the sampan "convenience" stores. The buildings varied from ready–to–collapse to elaborately constructed. As we passed the schools, we could hear the students chanting their lessons. We also visited a center for hand weaving silk as well as lotus threads (the fibers from 8,000 stems make one scarf), a blacksmith shop, a cigar making factory (the girls make about $3–4 per day for rolling 1,000 cigars), and a silversmith. As in the villages, everything was handmade and everyone was extremely industrious.

Golden Triangle:

From Inle Lake we flew further east in Shan State to Kyaing Tong (also referred to as Keng Tung), a remote and spectacular mountainous region near Myanmar's border with Laos and Thailand — the famous Golden Triangle that produced 25% of the world's heroin for 20 years until the opium king, Khun Sa, made peace. (He championed Shan independence so he could run his own drug–smuggling fiefdom and lived out his days like a king in Rangoon.) The Mekong River defines the border between Burma and Laos and then cuts down through Thailand on its way to define the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. From Kyaing Tong it's only 50 miles to Laos, 100 miles to Thailand, 50 miles to China. The Chinese form a small but economically powerful ethnic group here. They are mostly descendants of refugees of Chaing Kai–shek's Kuomintang army after it was routed by Mao's communists. Indeed, the racist dictator of Burma who launched endless ethnic cleansing campaigns — Ne Win — was ethnically Chinese!

Kaing Tong Treks:

Eastern Shan State is famous for some 33 colorful ethnic groups, three of which we visited on treks from Kyaing Tong. In a Wa village, we were invited into a house for tea and a long conversation about the world. The mother had been a teacher and, unusual for the modest Burmese, asked us many questions.

Among the 1 million Wa in Burma and China
are some who were major players in opium production in the Golden Triangle. The other two tribes we visited, the Lahu and the Loi,
are distinctive as well. At one Lahu house we inspected a device they use to harvest the larvae of ground wasps, a delicacy. A funnel attached to a cage is placed over the entrance to the nest, the villagers hammer the ground to scare the wasps into the cage, and then easily harvest the larvae. But they don't take all the larvae; the funnel at the other end of the device permits the wasps to reenter the nest. Ingenious and sustainable technology. At the Loi village, which we reached after a tortuous four–hour drive on a deeply rutted road and a four–hour climb up a steep rocky trail, we visited a long house on stilts where 120 people live under one roof. Each family maintains a separate kitchen and an open fire in the common area. Since they have no chimneys, the smoke lingers inside and the ceiling has layers of soot dangling into the room.
Many of the Loi have asthma. These were the only children we saw running wild (they have no school). The little monks (called novices) who live at the monastery were out of control; several eight year olds were careening up and down a hill on a motorcycle. We jumped out of their way.

For the Lahu village school we packed in work books and pencils to donate to students but for the Loi, who have no schools, we brought medicines. We refused to follow our guide's request that we give directly to the children. In Senegal we saw how the children fight over any goodies that go to just a few. A Belgian couple was distributing cookies to the Loi kids. The bigger kids were grabbing the most. Some visitors became notorious for teaching developing world children to demean themselves by begging for "bon bons." We've learned that the best approach is to give these gifts to an authority figure, such as a teacher or a headman who can take control of fair distribution.

Luminaries:

One night in Kyaing Tong we sat waiting for our dinner at a sidewalk restaurant when an amazing display suddenly filled the sky. We later learned that a prominent monk had died so each night until his cremation, they were launching luminaries hung from paper hot air balloons. each trailing a tail of sparklers. They rose slowly, silently, drifting first one way and then another, forming and reforming constellations in the sky. Noisy, colorful fireworks periodically punctuated the display.

The Far North:

From Kyaing Tong we flew to Putao, Burma's northernmost city in Kachin State, near the borders with India and China at the eastern end of the Himalayas. Leaving Kyaing Tong was an intense experience; we suppose they are attempting to prevent the smuggling of heroin. At any rate, they checked us against three lists of names, and stamped our tickets, boarding passes and luggage tags six times. They patted us down with an electronic wand (that beeped for my credit cards). We then waited amid the throng in the departure lounge. Needless to say no information was available about flight status and when they called a flight, it was hard to understand which one was ready. We double and triple checked until finally our flight came, the last of the day.

The Last Village Trek:

We trekked to the last village on the trail before the mountainous terrain begins. It took five days and we slept in village trekking houses, sometimes on the floor. Again, we were apprehensive about the challenge but we finished the whole trek, and we loved it except for the precipitous ascent and descent. This and the earlier three–day trek were the loveliest hikes we've ever done because of the scenic beauty, fascinating village visits, and cool hiking weather. Only about 200 tourists a year take this trek. Truly a special and exclusive opportunity.

The hike is called "Last Village" because we end up in the last village up the Hpankanrazi Valley before the terrain becomes too precipitous for human habitation. We had spectacular views of a ridgeline of snow–capped 15,000' peaks, the easternmost Himalayas.

That first day of the trek we took off early from the town of Putao in a tuktuk, a tiny three–wheeled jitney with a motorcycle on the front pulling a wagon. An hour and a half later, the road for vehicles ended at a stream crossed by a rickety bridge consisting of several bamboo poles so we climbed down and strapped on our backpacks. We started our five hours of hiking with the steepest ascent we had ever undertaken, three hours on a 60–65 degree incline. The road, riven with deep gullies now, had been constructed three years earlier, but the monsoon had immediately destroyed it. Throughout the trek, we had many river crossings sometimes with suspension bridges of dubious reliability (with missing floor boards and inaccessible railings) but often only bamboo poles or rocks as river crossings. We passed through charming villages. The third day we rested and the fourth and fifth, we returned over the mountain pass, which was more difficult on the descent than it had been on the uphill.

The trekking houses were on stilts with walls of flattened bark or woven bamboo. We slept on the floor on thin mats or in wooden beds with quilts for warmth. It was cold up there —in the 30s at night. The fire pan in the middle of the room provided a little warmth but with no chimney and green wood, we couldn't stop weeping from the smoke. To get warm and avoid the smoke we went to bed at 8 pm each night; anyway we were tired. We slept in our polar fleece and wool hats. When we emerged from bed before sun up, the village would be enveloped in mist; we could see our breath for the first few hours after sunrise. We felt like we were in a very remote place.

We were impressed with the multiple ways these mountain people harnessed the power from the rushing streams. For example, every village had a water–driven system for pounding rice into flour. This involved a kind of teeter–totter with the pounder on one end and a large ladle on the other. As the ladle filled with water, it sank and the pounder rose. When the water emptied out of the ladle, the pounding end thunked down on the rice. Ingenious. In another village we saw a water wheel driving a pulley to run a rice milling machine.

We saw men chopping wood and women carrying it — endlessly. We saw men building stone walls and walkways to keep out of the mud during the monsoon. It seemed that every house had hanging pots cultivating orchids that they pick up in the forest after strong winds knock them down from the trees. We ran into four men returning from two weeks of a forest search for medicinal roots; sadly, they had failed to find any. We heard radios playing Celine Dion and Michael Jackson and yet found villagers who had not heard of Aung Sun Suu Kyi. We met a very spry 104–year–old woman with a huge smile and a firm handshake. Countless adorable children waved and yelled "Bye Bye." We met women crocheting. We saw few people wearing glasses and no evidence of medical care. But the people looked healthy and vigorous and the children seemed always irrepressible. What we didn't see in the villages was much evidence of government assistance or infrastructure.

On our way back we took a slightly different route so we could take in a Christian wedding. The bride wore a white dress and a tiara with a bouquet of flowers. The groom wore a traditional multi–colored long cape. A flower girl and a guard carrying a ceremonial machete walked behind them. Guests mostly contributed money as gifts, so we did too. When we arrived, they handed us bamboo cups with steaming sweet rice milk and tea and later food wrapped in a banana leaf. The guests photographed us even more than we photographed them.
So some folks had cameras; very few had
cell phones, however. This was another
huge contrast with African countries.

A guide and six porters/cooks supported us on this hike. They were all fabulous. One night we heard them singing to the accompaniment of a guitar and asked them to sing to us. The next day they came to the trekking house and for an hour serenaded with great enthusiasm and some talent. Our guide later told us what these songs were about: love and lost love, endurance in the face of great hardship, and lots of "Jesus" songs.

Rafting Near Putao:

We were a little reluctant to take on a whitewater raft trip the day after we returned from the hike, especially given that it was bitter cold when we left that morning for the put–in. But it turned out to be a delightful experience. We rafted for four hours on the Moula and Mali Kha Rivers, all of us paddling, and navigated about 20 Class I and II rapids (not very rough). At the confluence of the two rivers the rapids were Class II plus. The biggest obstacles were fish skeens extended into the river and an improvised bamboo bridge that required a portage. After the confluence we entered a narrow canyon of still water with remarkable reflections of granite cliffs rising above the river and locals panning for gold. At the end of the canyon, we took lunch on an island revered by the Burmese as the home of Nats, spirits who emerge on nights of the full moon. Water had sculpted the island rocks into beautiful, softly rounded shapes. They had set up an umbrella, lawn chairs and lunch for us! Then, much to our surprise, we returned in a long boat with a sputtering outboard back up through the whole confluence! The boat had barely enough power but it didn't die on us.

Arrival Back in Yangon:

From Putao we returned to Yangon and took a five–day swing to the East into Mon and Kayen States. Our arrival at the Yangon airport was hysterical. We walked into the terminal and were told to wait in the departure lounge for our luggage. Porters holding the luggage tags of clients rushed out on the tarmac and started ripping apart the large containers. I joined them, fighting off porters wanting to take our bags (by accident). A crazy "system."

Mawlamyine (Mon State):

We spent two nights in Mawlamyine, the former British state capital. A bustling, gritty, intense port city, it has the feel of India. In fact, many "Indians" do live there. A dozen mosques line the main streets, because most of them are Muslims from Bangladesh, not Hindus from India. We ate our best meals at our hotel in Mawlamyine: soft shell crabs, squid, and snow peas. Just before departing to visit World War II sites south of Mawlamyine, we witnessed a massive celebration, with a cast of thousands in uniforms and ethnic dress, of the recent peace agreement between the Mon people and the government.

We found key viewpoints along the parade route taken by the country's Vice President and that night we attended the cultural show for the dignitaries. We weren't sure we'd be able to get through security, but not only did they let us in, they went to find us chairs. Then, driving south, we passed miles of rubber plantations. We examined a tree and played with the rubber. We also went off on what appeared to be a wild goose chase to find local weavers, but after many wrong turns and requests for help — with two people pointing in opposite directions — we found a weaver producing gorgeous cloth. Her loom had eight foot pedals and eight heddles. One our way home we visited a shrine on a scale almost like Mount Rushmore — a massive concrete reclining Buddha perhaps 500 meters long, flanked by 500 concrete marching monks. Quite a concept! Wealthy Buddhists build such monuments to gain merit for themselves.

Death Railroad and World War II:

South of Mawlamyine we visited one of three cemeteries for the Allied war dead from World War II in Burma: British, Australian and Dutch, who died building the Death Railroad under the Japanese. Many of the graves bore statements of love from parents, brothers, sisters, wives and children. Beautifully cared for by the British War Graves Commission, it's nonetheless a sad, sad site.

The cemetery is near the terminus of the famous Death Railroad which had been constructed in 1943 by slave labor for the Japanese. The Japanese built the 260–mile long railway as their principal supply line between Burma and Thailand, avoiding a long and dangerous detour around the Malay Peninsula. For each mile of the railroad, 47 Allied POWs (British, American and Dutch) and 346 local laborers died — 12,400 Allied POWs and 90,000 local laborers. The Japanese were savage and brutal. Only 3% of Allied POWs held by the Germans died while nearly 50% of those held by the Japanese died.

In the Burma war theater, perhaps 200,000 Japanese troops died (60,000 of them in the invasion of India) and countless were wounded, and 25,000 British, American and Indian troops died. A million Burmese died. The exploits of the British Chindits and American Marauders — guerrilla style fighters behind the Japanese lines — are legendary. The extraordinary characters in this drama — Stillwell, Merrill and Chennault for the Americans; Slim, Wyngate, and Mountbatten for the British; and Chaing Kai–shek for the Chinese were profoundly interesting, deranged and/or brilliant. Churchill and FDR meddled in highly destructive ways. The father of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the pro–democracy leader, led the Burmese support for the allies, only to be assassinated by rivals soon after the war, just before independence was won.

Hpa–An (Kayin State):

From Mawlamyine we traveled back towards Yangon to Hpa–An in Kayin State, home of the most determined opponents of the military government, the Karen (also known as Kayin) people. The highlight was visiting a series of Kayin villages and interacting with the villagers. On one of our drives, we hit on the day astrologers said was the most propitious in February for weddings. (The Burmese depend on astrology to guide their lives.) Wedding parties, in decorated cars and tuktuks, came singing down the road, blaring out greetings over loudspeakers. We visited two weddings to take in dancing by Kayin groups in traditional garb and were treated like honored guests at each. It was thoroughly charming. (In terms of astrology, the government's dictators relied on the advice of astrologers in 1975 to switch the country from left hand to right hand driving.) It seems that every two hundred meters in Mon and Kayin State
there is a monastery or stupa.

In town we witnessed boys playing two games; one had them kick a bamboo ball among the group until someone dropped it (reports are that they can do this for hours on end) and the other employed the same type of ball to play volleyball using only their feet and heads (we saw a boy spike the ball over the net with his head).
In both games the boys could expertly kick the ball with their heel as it fell behind them.

In Closing:

This was an intense but wonderful trip. We took twelve air flights including six on Burmese airlines. Overall, however, our experience with the Burmese airlines was good; we took six internal flights, all of which were on clean modern planes and all on time. The onboard service was reasonable, and we didn't lose any luggage.
Our homebound flights were 10,500 miles and 38 hours long, door to door.

Within Burma, road travel is crazy. The roads are too narrow, often one (?) lanes wide, necessitating a game of chicken between people, bicyclists, motor cyclists,
tuktuks, bullock carts, and trucks. Our driver often leaned on the horn
when we were in traffic.

And of course, we hiked for 10 days.
If you can handle the hiking, that's the way to really see Burma.


For the whole month, we were really immersed in this fascinating country.
Everything we saw was interesting — we took 4,000 pictures!


Go
                                              ... and go soon!






Nepal/Tibet 2011 by Bill Thompson


Nepal/Tibet 2011

by Bill Thompson


It’s not the way your suppose to plan a mianajor trip
nor the way I would suggest
but... it worked for me.

I had planned for over a year on taking a group to travel to Nepal and Tibet with the end goal of visiting the Dickey Orphanage in Lhasa Tibet, to donate money that was collected from generous donors over the past three years.

My problem was that no one committed to joining me on this adventure!

Change Of Plans

Busy with sea kayak symposiums all summer put my trip on the back burner and it wasn’t until the end of August that my thoughts turned back towards the Himalayas.

So the way not to plan a trip is to decide on Sunday that I was going, book the frequent flyer miles on Monday, pack a small day pack on Tuesday and depart on Thursday… but it is what I did.

It had all of the makings of a trip that was a logistical nightmare including 5 different flights on three different airlines.

The Good Karma Tour

Maybe it was the brand new People Magazine describing the recent Kardashian wedding on the flight to Detroit, or the brand new Detroit Freepress left for me on the plane to London, or it could have been the fact that on the flights to New Delhi and Kathmandu I had the entire row of seats to myself… but it seemed like I was cashing in my karma way too soon!

Arriving in Nepal one is immediately thrusted into the chaotic world of Kathmandu. With horns blaring and cars and motorcycles weaving in and out of traffic with no apparent rules of the road it amazes me that not once have I ever witnessed any form of road rage – just organized chaos!

I made my way to the Kathmandu Clubhouse, which I found through my affiliation with the American Alpine Club. The home features several bedrooms with multiple single beds in each room. The bathroom is shared and the house offers free internet access. The clubhouse provides the perfect setting as it offers a quite, relaxed atmosphere with internet and hot tea- ideal for expedition logistics!

The staff at the clubhouse was unbelievably friendly and hospitable and prepared traditional Nepali meals twice a day. My Nepali "sisters" danced around the house signing Nepali songs and were quick to whip up my favorite meal — Dal Bhat! Did I mention all of this special service runs $15.00 per day for AAC members! It was by far the best deal in all of Nepal!

Tamang Heritage Trek

Himalayan High Treks based out of San Francisco and Three Jewels Adventures in Kathmandu are 2 organizations that I have worked with over the years and have proven invaluable to me. I like working with them as I am one of those guys that likes to do it my way…and they are very accommodating. I tell them what I want to do and they make sure that it happens!

Originally I had planned on doing a trek up in the Everest region but due to budget restraints I had to alter plans and find a suitable trek. Effie from HHT and Amber (← far left) from Three Jewels worked together and put together the perfect option for me: The Tamang Heritage Trek. The trek is a recently opened trekking route in Langtang region North West of Kathmandu on the Nepal – Tibet border.

Previously a restricted area, the Tamang Heritage Trekking Trail opened for trekking in 2004, and offers a unique glance of the Himalayan life style and culture. Back in 1855 Nepal, fought with Tibet for salt and some of the biggest areas where this war took place is in the Langtang Region of Nepal, wherein lies the trekking trail. It seems like not much has changed in this area as very few tourists visit… perfect for exploring and immersing in this beautiful culture.

Ambar and I embarked on our trek by boarding a public bus for a long 7 hour bus ride to Shyaphru. The bus was jammed with locals looking to get back home to the mountains and it was real common for them to transport their goods, produce and animals along with all of us passengers.

It certainly wasn’t a place for someone that might be a bit claustrophobic and it was quite common to have folks practically laying on top of you as the bus rocketed through the narrow streets and along the mountain tops.

This bus ride was by far the most dangerous part of my trip and it was not very comforting coming around a switchback and gazing across the other side to see a burned out shell of a bus teetering on the side of the mountain. I was burning through all of my good karma with each switchback we climbed!

The further we drove into the mountains the more deteriorated the road became.

Actually the road was more of a path which was being washed away with the daily monsoon rains. Several landslides blocked the road in which we had to leave the bus and count on the fearless driver to get the bus across to the other side!

Gatlang set high on a hillside among terraced fields is a Tamang settlement and was the first stop along our Tamang Heritage Trek. It is an idyllic village of traditional stone houses with it residents living much like their ancestors did over a hundred years ago.

After the long and hot day we settled into our guest house and enjoyed a well deserved meal of Dal Bhat and hot tea cooked over a wood stove. Dal Bhat is a traditional Nepali staple dish which is essentially rice (bhat) and lentil soup (dal), and is served daily in almost 100% of the homes in Nepal! Our evenings Dal Bhat was also served with delicious curried potatoes and a green vegetable similar to spinach.

Exhausted I retired to bed early with the sound of a baby crying "Ama, Ama, Ama" which is the Nepali word for mother.

Our days consisted of trekking through beautiful landscapes of rice paddies and corn fields, alpine terrain, flat meadows, and rhododendrons forests.

Each night we arrived in small villages and located a guest houses where the local family would prepare us delicious Nepali meals. Our evenings were spent drinking endless cups of milk or salt tea and discovering the different "stories" of the village and the families we stayed with.

August is the end of the monsoon season in Nepal and a couple days into the trek I was seriously considering that I may have miss calculated the amount of shirts needed on this trip! By the end of each day I was completely soaked with sweat and it was impossible to dry anything due to the high humidity.

Each evening I hung clothing to dry and even though my pack only weighed 11 pounds was cursing the fact that I brought a down jacket!

Tatopani means "hot water" in Nepali, and this village perched high along the ridge top is blessed with a natural hot spring that draws locals from as far away as Kathmandu to bathe in it’s waters. The village being a "destination" still holds on to it’s traditions and culture and while exploring the village we were fascinated when we discovered an old woman utilizing a traditional method of weaving. The sticks she was weaving with were polished from years of use and it was heartening to see her passing on this valuable skill to her daughter.

It’s no secret that I love children and I was surprised that the village of Tatopani was loaded with them! I spent one glorious evening introducing the kids to the game of frisbee , and with no shared language between us it wasn’t long before I had every child in the village running, laughing and masters of the frisbee! We continued until it was too dark to see and then I donated the Pocket Disk to the group and being completely worn out and satisfied with my play time, I retired to the kitchen for a warm cup of milk tea.

From Tatopani we walked through dense rhododendron forests, caught glimpses of Grey Langur monkeys, and then gained a ridge until we popped above the treeline. All day the clouds were moving in and out and offered us quick glimpses of the Langtang mountain range.

Situated on the ridge, Brimdang is a small village — 3 homes and a monastery, that offered shelter from the light rain that was starting to move in.

Our host, seemed glad to see us as he and his two small children were the only residents currently in Brimdang! Brimdang proved to be the perfect stop over to view the spectacular Himalayan peaks including Langtang Lirung at a lofty 7227 meters. The following day we hiked to a higher view point which offered a panoramic view of the range including glimpses of the Nepal –Tibet border.

"We must get up early to see the Shaman" is what Amber said to me at our guest house in Thuman. We had just finished an amazing dinner which included the best grilled corn I have ever tasted. I didn’t have a problem getting up early as I was mesmerized by the locals drumming all night as they were preparing for the upcoming celebration.

Shaman translates to "one who knows" and Nepalese shamanism is widely practiced in Nepal.

Shamanic traditions comprise the oldest forms of healing and mysticism and in many villages in Nepal, local shamans hold great power and authority and are revered as elders. The shamans serve as a bridge between the village communities and the spirit worlds consulting about the curing of the sick, leading the community and guiding the souls of the dead. It seems as if my trek had the perfect timing in that the Shaman was preparing to go on a spiritual journey along the same trail we were hiking!

The whole village was alive with excitement as we made our way to the Shaman's house. Many villagers were already there offering money and Chang, "the nectar of the gods", a Nepalese type of beer, for the Shaman's safe journey. We watched in amazement as the villagers were dancing and singing the morning away. I don’t know who was more excited, Ambar or I, as this ceremony was not very common.

We followed the throng of villagers, a sort of long samba line as they made their way to the local monastery for more singing, dancing, drinking and celebrating. What an amazing way to top off the trek before heading back down the valley to Shyaphru and the dreaded bus ride back to Kathmandu.

Kathmandu

Back in Kathmandu I spent the next few days with no set itinerary and cashed in a little more of my good karma!

I was very fortunate to have perfectly timed my return to Kathmandu to participate in the Indra Jatra Festival.

The Indra Jatra is where the Living Goddess Kumari, in all her jeweled splendor travels through the older part of Kathmandu city in a three tiered chariot accompanied by Ganesh and Bhairab each day for three days.

The people of Kathmandu celebrate the religious festival remembering Lord Indra, the god of rain. This festival was started by Lichhavi King Gunkamadev and dates back to the year 3822. I was there with 10,000 of my Nepali friends and the scene in Dubar Square was electric as the massive crowd anticipated the appearance of the Kumari.

With a giant roar from the crowd a golden chariot rounded the corner and I caught my first glimpse of the living goddess.

Kopan Monastery

In 2008 my family visited the Kopan Monastery and received a special blessing from Lama Lhundrup Rigsel, the abbot of the monastery. It was a very special time for us and one of my fondest memories from that trip as Blake was able to personally meet Lama Lhundrup and receive a very special message from him.

With some extra time in Kathmandu I went back to the monastery for a visit with my friend Amber Banjan Tamang and was shocked to find out that Lama Lhundrup Rigsel had passed away two days earlier. The main assembly hall was packed with monks chanting and praying and the entire monastery was buzzing with activity as the monks were preparing for his cremation. We were very fortunate to be able to offer a blessing and kata for Lama Lhundrup Rigsel.

Tibet

For the past 3 years my family has collected donations for the Dickey Orphanage by presenting slide shows of our previous trips to Tibet and by selling beautiful Tibetan earrings that my wife made. The sole purpose of this trip was to deliver that money to the founder of the Orphanage.

Tamdrin 'Mama' Dadhon sold her family business, gathered the proceeds of the tea house and with 300,000 Yuan and a lot of courage started Dickey Orphanage in Lhasa, Tibet's capital, on September 10th 2002. In Tibetan 'diki' means 'fine' and 'happiness' and that is certainly what one finds at the Orphanage.

At the moment Dickey is home to 72 children, with a majority of the kids ranging from ages 6-9. These kids are very fortunate — they all get lodging, schooling and medical aid. The parents of these children have either died because of illness or accidents or were abandoned because their parents saw no way out of their miserable situation and fled to neighboring countries. At Dickey these children are given a chance to a new start in life.

With much anticipation we opened the gates to the Orphanage and looked for the children. Usually bustling with activity, the place seemed almost deserted… in fact is was deserted! We looked around and finally found Tamdrin Dadhon who explained that all but 4 of the kids were off to school!

The Orphanage is going through a growth spurt with a new Tibetan style kitchen facility and a new trade school being built on site. The new kitchen is being built as the need for a larger facility — and one that is better suited to withstand earthquakes is desperately needed. Some of the kids who struggle in a traditional school will benefit by having a trade school on site so they will be able to leave the Orphanage with a skill.

After catching up with what has been going on with the Orphanage I was able to meet the 2 newest babies — a 17 day old, and a month and a half old whom had be abandoned in Lhasa. These adorable babies were bundled up and were obviously loved by Tamdrin and the staff at Dickey oh how I would have loved to bring them home!

Having not seen the majority of the kids I made a return trip the following day to look up some of the kids we had interacted with in the past. This was my 4th trip to the Orphanage over 12 years and its amazing to see how the kids and orphanage have grown — and how hard it is to recognize them! One girl I did recognize was Yanzoom. Three years ago we practiced our English and read a book together on the steps of the Orphanage. She is now 3 years older and at least a foot taller then the last time I saw her!

It’s bitter sweet on the last day visiting the kids as I am so grateful to have the ability to visit the kids, but sad that it might be a while before I see them again.


Lhasa

Twelve years ago I traveled to Lhasa and was enchanted by it’s Tibetan charm… it really was like traveling back in time.

The smell of juniper incense burning in the morning, the sight of pilgrims on a kora, and the sounds of monks chanting will be forever burned in my memory.

Lhasa has really changed… it's now a big city with new cars and buses. Chinese malls have been constructed over traditional Tibetan buildings and the most upsetting part of all — is that it is a full on military occupied city.

As disheartened as I was with the changes to Lhasa, I was lucky enough to escape to the small Tibetan quarter to see some true locals.

Tibetans are devout Buddhists and pilgrims from all over Tibet still make their pilgrimages to Lhasa to visit many of the holy sites. One of the advantages of having traveled to Lhasa so many times was that I was able to escape the bustling new city and find the real Lhasa.

I spent my days exploring the small Monastery’s of Lhasa, people watching and taking in the sights and sounds. What I discovered was that as much as the city as a whole has changed so much, the inside of these places and the way the people worship have not changed in hundreds of years. It is a real testament to how resilient the Tibetans are.

I ended my stay in Lhasa with a visit and dinner with my good friend Mr. Bhuchung. I spent a lot of time with Mr. Bhuchung on a previous visit and it was so good to catch up with him and know that he and his family are doing well.

Back To Kathmandu

Back in Kathmandu and hanging out with my Nepali brothers and sisters, we had just sat down for dinner and that's when I felt it. It was a quick shaking not too bad, but defiantly something I hadn't felt before. When Rajendra and Ekal started running for the door, my rule of "if the locals run, you run" kicked in.

It had been raining and we met in the backyard and were joined by the girls standing in the soggy grass. Another minute of shaking, more like several waves went right under us and the power flicked on and off.

When it was all said and done I has experienced my first earthquake. The epicenter of the quake was located 90km east of Kathmandu on the Nepal–India border and registered a magnitude 6.8. The quake ended up being a deadly one with 100 people dying in 3 different countries including 6 in Kathmandu.


Like I said before it was not the way your suppose to plan a major trip nor the way I would suggest but...
it really did work for me!

The only way I was able to pull this off was with the help from my friends at Three Jewels Adventures and Himalayan High Treks.

Both of these organizations are professional, organized, friendly, and are there to make sure you have a wonderful experience.

Like the ad say's, I won't leave home without them!












All Photos & Text: © 1988-2016 Himalayan High Treks (for the authors)