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Jeffito's Journey 2005

This blog documents my journey when I worked & lived in Hong Kong (4/5/05-12/15/05). I can’t thank my company enough for this international assignment, as it has been an experience of a lifetime! A journey I wanted to share with family, friends, and my fellow cast members. Click on any picture to enlarge. Click on the archives to see past months. Enjoy.

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Location: Orlando, Florida, United States

Just happy to be here.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Wendy Writes Update

Hello from Hong Kong, Part III

Hello once again,

As most of you know by now, we arrived safely back in Hong Kong nearly two weeks ago, after our month of adventuring. We were due to return to the States on November 1st, but Jeff was asked to extend his assignment till mid-December. And, because I have such an amazing boss (Thanks Keith!) and a truly gracious co-worker (Thanks Julie!), I have been given the gift of more time in Asia and less time away from my husband. I will return to Orlando just after the Thanksgiving holiday, with Jeff following two weeks later.

Our travels throughout October were delightfully different experiences that began in Chengdu, China...

Chengdu is a large city with a population of 4+ million (a mere city, yet its headcount is close to that of the entire state of Kentucky) in southwest China, in the Sichuan province. Along with Kathmandu, it serves as a popular gateway to Tibet and the Everest region. And, fortunately for us, it is at the forefront of dentistry in China. Enjoying breakfast at Chep Lak Kok (i.e., Hong Kong International Airport) before our flight to Chengdu, Jeff broke a tooth on his Burger King egg & sausage biscuit. (And you thought only popcorn kernels and other such things broke teeth, didn't you?) Unlike his tooth/crown breaking experience the night before his flight to Hong Kong back in April, this time he was experiencing some pain and sensitivity due to a rattled and exposed nerve. However, it wasn't quite severe enough to detour him to a dentist in Hong Kong; no, Jeff valiantly decided to proceed with travel arrangements, as planned.

We arrived into a drizzly gray Chengdu crowded with folks out celebrating the start of a week-long revelry for China National Day. Intrigued by a review in our trusty guidebook, we wandered from our hotel down to Dave's Cafe. It's sort of a dive and real comfortable, like a friend's living room. There are good tunes, free Internet, some Western food for those home-sick cravings, and, of course, beer. Dave, the owner, is an amiable guy who also serves as a tour guide for points in the region. After some discussion, we signed on for an excursion to an authentic old Chinese town for the next morning. We also inquired into the matter of Jeff's tooth. While it wasn't severe pain he was in, it was definitely enough to be a nuisance and distracting from the pleasure of being on holiday. Dave said not to worry, a friend of his is a dentist. We confirmed the next day's meeting time and set out for the walk back to our hotel.

At 9:00 the next morning, Dave met us at the hotel porte cochere, and we took off for the day's adventure. The town he took us to was just about an hour's drive away. Regrettably, I didn't ask for the spelling or properly write down the name of the town, but I think it was something like Zhang Long Xi. It was as Dave described: full of lots of local people (more so than usual due to the start of the National Day celebrations) and very picturesque, on a river with pretty, narrow cobble-stoned streets and large, old, revered trees. We spent a few hours exploring before heading back towards Chengdu.

Dave had been unable to make contact with his dentist friend but suggested we go to the emergency room of the hospital--specifically the dental area, which apparently is what you do in these types of circumstances. And, he reminded us again that Chengdu is known for its dentistry--the best in the country! If we had to have a dental problem in China, this is where we'd want to be. A very kind woman, who is studying to be a dentist, peered into Jeff's mouth and proclaimed "Do not worry." She advised us to come back at 2:00 p.m., when the hospital re-opens after the lunch/rest hour. We re-emerged from the elevators on the second floor and were promptly greeted by the student. She led us to the dental quarters and, amazingly, Jeff did not turn and walk right out. There were 21 (yes, I counted) dental stations all together in one room and all occupied with patients undergoing some sort of dental procedure, along with a nurse/student, and a doctor. Jeff was seated, the doctor had a look and asked a few questions (with the student patiently assisting in Mandarin-English & English-Mandarin translations), and the procedure to repair the broken tooth began. No one ever asked his name, requested insurance information or demanded payment up front. Nearing the end of this 30-minute procedure, the student led me downstairs to a cashier, finally requested Jeff's given and surnames, and asked for payment. The bill: less than 25 USD! That's it. Jeff was as good as new and made it through without Novocain or any other anaesthetic. Amazing. We enjoyed some yummy Indian victuals for dinner (let me just quickly recommend to each of you: very spicy food is not the best idea the night before a flight) and a rickshaw ride back to the hotel. Early to bed in preparation for an early morning flight.

On the flight to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, I had a real sense that all of us passengers (which included, from what I could see, business people, tourists & mountaineers from Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Italy & the US) knew we were en route to a very special place. And, we were. As we started our descent, dramatic scenery unfolded below when massive mocha mountains, raked with ravines, filled the plane windows. A safe landing and an hour jeep ride later, we were in Lhasa city...a world away from Hong Kong, let alone Orlando.

Going from an elevation of about 400' to nearly 12,000' in the course of a few hours does not go unnoticed by most people. Nor did it slip past Jeff & I. With our Tibetan journey just underway, our hearts let us know they were busily undertaking the physiological changes necessary for our very survival by pumping much more quickly than our normal resting rates. And throughout our trip, we experienced several of the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS: breathlessness, nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia, irritability. In response to the sudden severe altitude climb and the resulting lower levels of oxygen, our bodies were, to put it simply, adjusting. I find the process so fascinating that I'm going to quote from Lonely Planet's 2005 guide, Tibet, and share with you what occurs. (I suppose it would be better if I quoted from an official medical reference book, but as I don't have one handy...)

"This process of acclimatization is still not fully understood, but is known to involve modifications in breathing patterns and heart rate induced by the autonomic nervous system, and an increase in the blood's oxygen-carrying capabilities. These compensatory mechanisms usually take about one to three days to develop at a particular altitude. Once you are acclimatized to a given height you are unlikely to get AMS at that height, but you can still get ill when you travel higher. If the ascent is too high and too fast, these compensatory reactions may not kick into gear fast enough."

Isn't it amazing the capabilities of the human body? To ensure optimum acclimatization as referenced above, our tour kept us put in Lhasa for three nights before we journeyed on (or up). In that time, we were able to visit the highlights of the city. These included:

The Potala Palace. If you've seen the movie Seven Years in Tibet, you've seen this palace. It's a striking building set on a hill in the city and is comprised of the White Palace, completed in 1649, and the Red Palace, which is estimated to have been completed in 1694. Unlike many monasteries in Tibet, the Potala was spared major damage during the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese in 1959 and again in the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. The structure is not a functioning meeting space for the monks, though; its presence is a stark reminder that the Tibetan spiritual leader, the 14th Dalai Lama, continues his exile in India.
Norbulingka. This was completed in 1755 and was the summer palace of the Dalai Lama. It's quite lovely & colorful, with gardens and a more airy feel inside. It was the first place we experienced this phrase from friendly Tibetan children: "Hello. Money?" After several of these such greetings, it got to be quite difficult to deal with, especially when they would wrap their arms around our leg and not let us go.
Sera Monastery. This is an active monastery with a monk population currently numbering in the several hundreds (down from 5,000 at its peak). It was founded in 1419 and is known for its debating monks. You can go (and we did) listen to the debates and you'll hear the distinct sound of clapping long before you see the participants. This sound is the monks boisterously slapping their hands together to dramatically make their point.
The Jokhang. This is the most holy of sites in all of Tibet and is believed to have been founded between 639 to 647 AD. The Barkhor kora (i.e. a pilgrimage circuit) circles the Jokhang and, on any given day, you'll see hundreds of pilgrims, many of them doing repeated full prostrations. We were at the Johkang in the late afternoon, and it was so beautiful. The mountain peaks off in the distance had been dusted with snow the night before, and the sky was filled with gorgeous post-storm gray and white clouds. It was pretty cold that evening, but I think it was the amazing sunset that night that really took our breath away.
With our bodies adjusted to altitude, it was time to climb even higher. We were ready to leave the "big city" behind and start seeing the more rural areas of Tibet. The start of our overland journey took us first to the town of Gyantse (elevation: 13,035'). A seven-hour (but only 175 miles) bumpety-bump-bump-bump jeep ride took us past the stunning holy lake, Yamdrok Tso, and over a 16,371' pass with amazing views. This was the first town in which we heard the lovely sound of sleigh bells from the many horse-drawn carts on the stone streets. Long after they'd passed, the air would still be thick and hazy from the dust kicked up by the horses' hooves. Sights in Gyantse included the deserted (we arrived just after opening and before the crowds) Pelkor Chode Monastery (founded in 1418) and the Gyantse Kumbum. The term kumbum means "100,000 images." Before you ask, no, we didn't even come close to seeing them all.

The next stop was Shigatse. This was a larger and lower town, at a mere 12,870'. Our accommodation, The Holy Land Hotel, even had a "business center" with Internet access. What a strange and comforting feeling to be in an area as remote as Tibet and yet be able to feel connected to friends and family, via a computer.

Our third day along the bumpy road brought us to the one-street town of Shegar. The drive on this day was especially thrilling as Sonam, our driver, took an existing (but hardly noticeable to our untrained eyes) shortcut--down a mountainside! We had outstanding views of the Himalayas from two passes we crossed--the Tropu La at 16,236' and Gyatso La at 17,122' (this was the second highest point we reached on the trip). We really enjoyed our short time in this town with its pretty mountain vistas and serene silence broken only by the occasional vehicle--truck, jeep, motorbike or horse cart--on the road.

And now for the big event, the 29,048' Mount Everest (or, as the Tibetans call it, "Qomolangma"). A two-hour journey took us from Shegar to Rongphu Monastery & Guesthouse. En route, we traversed another spectacular pass, Pang La (elevation 16,794') with incredible views of several of the "8,000-ers" (mountains over 8,000 meters or 26,000 feet). Our shared room in the guesthouse had breathtaking views of Everest; its North Face beamed at us with no clouds or mist or haze to cloak its beauty. An hour horse cart ride took us as far as we were going, Everest Base Camp. Holy moly, was it ever cold up there! (Imagine that, cold at Everest.) Even at 17,333' (the highest point we reached on the trip), there were a few hotels, cafes and even a post office at the camp--all housed in heavy duty canvas tents. It appeared that there were a couple of expeditions, as well. Standing at the top of the small prayer-flag bedecked hill at the camp, shivering despite ample cold-weather clothing and gasping for air, I looked at the expedition tents and thought quietly to myself for a moment "There's no way in hell I'd even consider climbing that mountain! What's the matter with those lunatics?" Now please don't get me wrong. I really do respect those who attempt summits on Everest and the other great peaks on Earth.

Another ride in the horse cart, and we were back in the cozy warmth of the "restaurant" of the guesthouse. We enjoyed hanging out by the fire (that is, the large stove used for boiling water), sipping hot tea and listening to the stories of our fellow travelers from Japan, France, Canada and the U.S. We were thoroughly relaxed and yet, at the same time, invigorated by Everest's majesty. Even the thought of the inevitable need to use the dark pit toilets in the freezing cold weather couldn't detract from that.

I hope, if you've managed to get to the end of my winded post, that you've enjoyed the read. It was the trip of a lifetime at the roof of the world.

Stay tuned for our tales from Kathmandu!


Wendy
~Tuen Mun, Hong Kong~

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