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27 April 2011

From the Vault: Night Before Duge La

Night envelops camp, carrying the first bite of winter. The old woman begins to chant and her leathery voice reverberates off the large boulder that is our shelter. She rocks forward on her sit bones and back again, arms clasped about her knees. The shadows dance across the valleys of her face as it sails in and out of the fire’s light. Fat flakes of snow fill the air around us, falling thick to the ground. My anxiety about the next day’s journey is dispelled in the aura of this pilgrim’s song. The three younger travelers join in the mantra and the vibrations saturating the air are intoxicating. My lids flutter as I finger my prayer beads and gaze into the fire. In the darkness above lies the high pass Duge La, the portal that will take us into Tibet and around the sacred mountain Kawagebo.
The four pilgrims hail from the small village of Yongdri, on a tributary of the Mekong River in Yunnan Province, China. It is the gateway for the circumambulation of one of Tibet’s four holiest peaks, a village I had left that morning with blessings and warnings of the journey ahead. Beyond the buildings tendrils of water snaked down cliff faces and the subalpine forest burned bright crimson, flush with fall.
Higher still sits a giant boulder amidst a braided stream. Reams of prayer flags join features of the landscape, marking this stone as exceptional ground. Fluttering green. Flickering blue. Orange waving and yellow wafting. The stone is charred from the fires of many pious passersby and broad Tibetan script is scrawled across the overhanging face in charcoal. All now draped in darkness.
Under its generous cover huddle five pilgrims. Elder mother, son, wife, cousin, and me, our gear cluttered around us. Their belongings bundled on pliable wooden frames, lashed down with twine. Thick bedding wrapped in a tarp; a sack of pulverized roasted grain called tsampa; balls of yak butter; a bag of loose black tea; several bowls and one large kettle. With these provisions they plan to trek for eight days, from pre-dawn to dusk, crossing two 4500 meter passes to earn the blessing of the mountain, Kawagebo.
The humming dissipates and I materialize in this world once again. Over creamy spicy yak butter tea I am invited to join the family, to navigate Duge-La as a team the following day. I warmly accepted and we retire for the night.
Dawn. A foot of snow and unease in camp. My morning haze turns to disappointment when I see little movement from the others. It’s over and we haven’t even started. I fidget in my sleeping bag while the snow falls harder. Suddenly there is chatter in the air as a festive party of ten more Tibetans approach camp. Greetings and laughter are exchanged.  I am poked and prodded as my nylon and Gore-Tex is examined, ridiculed, and promptly dismissed. With a few shouts and shoves, we pack up and climb into the storm.

07 April 2011

Bangkok by Night

Plane and train deposit us in the heart of Bangkok. It is a massive sprawling city. Its arteries are eternally clogged with clots of cars, clumps of trucks, clusters of two-, three-, and four-wheeled vehicles. The anticoagulants that usually keep traffic flowing are grossly ineffective. Stop lights, stop signs, traffic wardens; all ignored, broken, or entirely absent from the scene. The result: extreme hypertension.

Tuk tuk drivers hassle us as we hail a taxi and immediately get absorbed into the gridlock. Motorbikes weave recklessly through the miniscule spaces between vehicles. Sidewalks turn into optional lanes. There are more honks per minute than rotations of the wheels on our taxi.

Annaliese and I stare out the windows in disbelief as the mayhem unfolds around us. We wonder at the law that clearly requires drivers of motorbikes to wear helmets but not passengers, and why the extremely law-abiding citizens seem to discard logic regarding the safety of their noggin. The dodge and weave of the bikes between lane changing cars seems to be quite an art. How many of those artful dodgers acquired their finely honed skill through broken mirrors and broken bones, ridicule and road rash? The stand-still traffic gives me plenty of time for due contemplation.

After snaking our way along six-lane roads, through twisting back alleys, past massive, gold-framed photographs of the beloved Thai king, we arrive at an impossibly crowded pedestrian walk. To my amazement, the driver begins plowing through the bodies where it seemed to me a vehicle clearly did not belong. Based on the throngs of farang surrounding the car, I infer that we have arrived at the infamous Khaosan Road… not our destination. I inform the driver that we are heading to Soi Rongmai, quite near Khaosan, but undoubtedly not here.

Our driver is perplexed. He nods as if he knows the location I speak of, then rolls down the window and begins shouting “Soi Rongmai! Soi Rongmai!” out the window. He appears to expect people to respond to this form of request, and eventually someone does. But they don’t know where it is. So we roll slowly down Khaosan’s packed streets as our driver continues accosting pedestrians.

With his attention clouded by multi-tasking, our driver rolls over the flip-flopped foot of a poor foreign girl in a white dress. A Thai man starts banging on the car and yelling at us. I lock the door. The driver apologizes profusely (he is really sorry and almost looks as if he wants to cry). The girl looks startled but not severely damaged. Some more shouting and pointing and arm waving. Eventually we are cleared to proceed, and the conflicted parties go on their ways.

Being the geographer that I am, I unsheathe my trusty Lonely Planet map and find our street. It takes some convincing of the driver, but he eventually succumbs to my determined pointing and we arrive safely at the hostel.
Clothes changing, bag dropping, dinner eating. Several hours pass.

After nightfall, Annaliese and I are strolling alongside the Grand Palace, gazing at the golden parapets and spires rising up from behind great white walls and illuminated by floodlights. In the foreground, miniature geckos scramble along the vertical surfaces, scooping up unsuspecting insects. In the back, unbelievably beautiful structures jut into the sky. The Grand Palace complex includes several large Buddhist temples and the former residence of the royal family. The architecture inspires visions of an alien empire, as the impossibly thin and dagger-like adornments climb glittering into the night. The brilliant gold and rust red glowing as from an unseen fire or lava pit below. At any minute I expected one of the towers to open up and a spaceship to rise up and take off to do its regular rounds of terrorizing its citizens. Or at least see Indiana Jones swinging amongst the towers with his trusty whip.

The Marble Temple, Wat Benchamabophit

Disregarding my fancies, I am inspired by the magnificence of the place. The craftsmanship and architectural style is so unique and stunning, and unlike anything I have ever seen before. Much of the decorative flare is reminiscent of a flame’s flickering edges, passing spontaneously in and out of existence. The essence of impermanence. Seemingly fragile yet enduring in what it represents.

These Buddhist inspired structures are symbols of peace and understanding and the royal family is widely respected across the country. Of course, Thailand’s political situation is considerably more complex than this. There have been several large protests over the past few years by the pro-democratic “Red Shirts” and the pro-monarchy “Yellow Shirts,” some of which have ended in violence. The largest and most recent was in March, April and May of 2010, when Red Shirts held massive protests in Bangkok which ended in military suppression. I am not well read enough to tackle this topic here, but in searching I have come across some good articles for those that are interested:

Chatting and walking, walking and chatting, Annaliese and I circumambulate the Grand Palace and all its amazing structures. She’s got a few hours left before her flight takes her back to the States, so we keep exploring. We wander our way further through the streets and come upon a bustling night market with sizzling food stands, dusty relics, and raw meat hanging from stalls. The sights and smells are invigorating, overwhelming, and some are pretty much just gross. Many sensations sandwiched into a brightly light, tightly packed place.

Through the market, down an alleyway and onto a pier, we stand with a large river stretching on in both directions, the Mae Nam Chao Phraya. The choppy dark waters coursing through the city absorb all light, and are a stark contrast to the brightly lit buildings on its banks. Illuminated high rises and temples inhabit the opposite shore. Though the river is dark, we spy outlines of boat traffic working on through the night. As we stand on the floating pier, listening to the city and to the water, a deep rumbling crawls upstream to our ears.

I glance left and see a small tugboat chugging slowly toward us. Its stature doesn’t seem too diminutive until its looming load lumbers into view. An enormous barge, black and oily seeming in the darkness, manifests in my field of vision, as if it climbed up out of the depths to settle on the surface for a brief bout of air. The entire structure is dark save a small porchlight on the rear deck, where squinted eyes can also make out the tell-tale blue flashes of a television set. But no human form do I see. Watching the barge troll by brings a coldness to my chest, with its empty windows devoid of all color and life. I expect some band of ancient, long-dead pirates to swing off its flanks and take us for all we are worth.

Annaliese and I watch, eyes wide, as the barge pulls past, only to notice another, and … yes! A third! All being hauled by that tiny beam of light, the tug boat torch in the void. And these vessels are just as creepy as the first, with their eerie silence and sole, lonely porchlights. A massive hulk cutting through the waters with such stealth. Discomforting.

The beast fades into the upstream dark. I have been so enthralled by the bizarre aura of the passing freighters that I don’t notice the small crowd gathering on the pier. I glance around me and wonder what they are doing here. My questions are quickly answered as a water taxi sails like a dagger out of the distance directed at its target: us. It looks like a mere sliver at first, but as it quickly gains ground I see it is quite large and not slowing down. The boatman pulls the equivalent of an aquatic e-brake and drifts into the pier, which is now rollicking in the massive wake. I’m holding onto to anything for dear life, so I don’t topple into the Mae Nam Chao Phraya and become a crew member of some ghostly midnight freight hauler myself. The other people shoot humorous glances at me and board their taxi, which is off as quickly as it arrived.

The rolling and rocking slows and then is gone. I look toward Annaliese and smile. So this is Bangkok?