Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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UPDATED AS OF JUNE, 2012

This handbook is designed to help anyone who wants to visit the place on this planet that has most captured my heart, Pokhara, Nepal. Having spent three months in Nepal in late 2010, much of the time in Pokhara, and returning for long-term stays over the following two years, I came to know the town quite well and wanted to share with other Nepal-bound travelers my tips for everything from the best hotels and restaurants, to the not-to-be missed sights, and even the best place to get a haircut:

CELL/MOBILE PHONE SERVICE:

If you have an unlocked smart phone you can purchase a Nepal sim card for 300 Nepali Rupees (NRS), which is about $4 USD. This price includes 50 NRS of “talk time” which is charged at various prices, according to the type of phone you are calling (landline or cell). When you need more credit, simply buy a recharge card at any store that displays the purple NCell sign, scratch off the strip on the back of the card and follow the directions. A local number is invaluable, among other things, for calling an honest taxi driver with whom you’ve established a relationship or getting in touch with other travelers who also have local numbers to  team up for tours or trekking. I never travel for any length in a country without a local phone number, especially considering the cheap price. For three months in Nepal, my total cost will be about $5. If you have an iPhone, you may want to refer to my previous article: Traveling Internationally with an iPhone without Incurring High Cell Phone Bills. Nepal’s international country code is 977.

WALKING AROUND:

There is no such thing as a pedestrian right-of-way in Nepal; be alert at all times when walking in or crossing streets, however walking around Pokhara is much more pleasant than Kathmandu, as sidewalks are available in much of Lakeside and the traffic is much less. Additionally, the main street in Lakeside has recently been turned into a pedestrian mall every Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.

TOILETS:

There are no public toilets in the Lakeside area of Pokhara, so you will have to rely on restaurants and hotels/guest houses. Many places now have western toilets, though in many places you will still find squat toilets. Hoard napkins, you will need them as toilet paper, but as in most places throughout Asia, if there is a trash bin in the stall it generally means you should deposit used paper in the bin rather than the toilet.

WATER:

Many hotels are now buying five-gallon bottles of purified water and allowing guests to refill their bottles either for free or for a price that is much less than buying a new bottle. This water is perfectly safe to drink and travelers should not hesitate to refill their bottles from it. You will also be doing your part to help save Pokhara’s lovely lake, which suffers from the plastic trash that is so ubiquitous around Asia. Read More

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The Eleventh Annual Weblog Awards (“The Bloggies”) are upon us! For those of you who don’t know about The Bloggies, once each year they set out to discover the best blogs on the web in a variety of categories (sort of like the Academy Awards for bloggers). The Bloggies began in 2001 and have grown to be the longest-running and one of the largest awards for blogs.

The Eleventh Annual Weblog Awards (The Bloggies)

The Eleventh Annual Weblog Awards (The Bloggies)

Last week I learned that Hole In The Donut has been chosen as a finalist this year in the Best Travel Blog category. I am thrilled, not only to be chosen, but also because I am in the company of four other finalists who are masters of their craft: Gary Arndt’s Everything Everywhere; The Vacation Gals, written by Jennifer Miner, Beth Blair and Kara Williams; Kristin Luna’s Camels & Chocolate, and my good friend, Donna Hull, who writes the quintessential baby boomer travel blog, My Itchy Travel Feet.

Being selected as a finalist is certainly a validation of my hard work over the past four and a half years, but it’s especially nice that a lot of new readers will be exposed to my writing and photography through the awards. The Internet is a vast and complicated network – there’s a reason it’s called the web – and it’s not always easy to find gems amidst the mountains of trash in cyberspace. The Bloggies make it easy to find great new reads. For example, Ruth Pennebaker of The Fabulous Geezersisters has been a long-time favorite of mine, yet she never really got the notoriety she deserved. However Ruth has also been named a finalist this year in the Best Writing category, so she’ll begin to reach a much wider audience.

If, like me, you’re always on the lookout for quality, thought provoking writing, I encourage you to browse the list of finalists in all the categories for this year’s Bloggies Awards. Whether your interests lie with travel, sports, politics, fashion, science, religion, computer technology or even gossip, you’re sure to find some great new talent. And if you’re so inclined, you can also participate in choosing the winners in each category, as the general public is invited to vote for their favorite blogs between now and February 20th. Read More

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The bus stopped at a dusty crossroad and the driver shouted “Lumbini, Lumbini, Lumbini.” Indeed, I was Lumbini bound, but I had been told this bus would carry me all the way; suddenly it seemed I would have to change buses. I unfolded my aching legs from the cramped space between seat rows, stood and stretched to get the blood flowing after seven hours of sitting. Slinging the backpack containing all my electronic equipment over my shoulder, I remembered a time when this situation would have alarmed me. Though I carried a map of Nepal and could guestimate my location, in truth I was in a small town in remote southern Nepal where I knew no one, was unable to read Nepali, and was hopelessly incapable of figuring out which of the dozen or so tin-cans lining the dirt shoulder would take me to my final destination.

Smiling, I invoked my secret travel mantra, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and put myself in the hands of the adolescent boy who’d hung out the open door of my bus for the past few hours, hawking tickets. He grabbed my second bag and led me from bus to bus until he found the one going to Lumbini. This is my second secret: I turn myself over and just do what I’m told, with faith that whoever is leading me knows the way. As a strong-willed, fiercely independent woman, these techniques would have been inconceivable in the corporate world, yet in the world of long-term travel they are the secrets to success. Staying present, being mindful, not stressing out. Enjoying the experience, whatever it brings.

The mini-bus groaned and leaned precariously to the left as I stepped up. Inside, every seat was taken except for one spot on a front row bench next to a Buddhist monk. Respectful of his vows, I stood in the center aisle, but he motioned for me to sit.

“Thank you,” I said, surprised. I was even more surprised when he struck up a conversation in perfect English.

“Are you traveling to Lumbini for the Sakya Monlam Prayer Festival?” he asked. I told him I’d come to see the Sacred Gardens and the birthplace of Buddha, but knew nothing about the festival. He explained that prayers for world peace are held once each year at the four major Buddhist pilgrimage sites: the birthplace of Buddha; the site where he attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, India; where he first preached at Benaras, India; and where he died and achieved nirvana at Kusinagara, India. Luckily, I was arriving a day before the Sakya Monlam festival would begin in Lumbini and he invited me to attend, with an assurance that everyone was welcome.

“You are Buddhist, then?” he probed. I replied that I had been Buddhist for many years.

“And what tradition do you follow?”

“Well, that is an interesting question. I’ve long been confused by the many different sects and traditions of Buddhism. I have investigated Chinese, Theravadan, and Zen Buddhism, and briefly attended classes at a temple in the U.S. that was associated with the New Kadampa tradition, until I discovered they did not follow the Dalai Lama. But I’d never quite found my place until I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. Here in Nepal, in just a few short weeks, I’ve learned more about Buddhism than in the previous ten years, and have finally found my spiritual home.”

He smiled knowingly. “It was the same for me. You have made a good choice. And have you found a guru yet?”

“Not yet. I am not looking but I am waiting.”

He adjusted his orange robes and pushed gold wire-rimmed glasses up higher on the bridge of his nose. “Just wait, he is coming.”

I finally asked the question that had been bothering me for the last half-hour as I tried to keep from sliding into him every time the bus bounced over a pothole. “I always thought that monks are not allowed to touch women. I’ve even been told that women must not hand anything directly to a monk; instead items must be put on the ground for the monk to pick up so that he is not contaminated by the touch of a woman.”

He laughed. “That is the old way. There are some sects that still follow those rules, but most do not. Our main purpose is to help and we cannot do this if we are unable to touch others.”

True to his purpose, as we disembarked from the bus in Lumbini he pulled a cell phone from the folds of his robe and offered to call my hotel for directions. When he learned he had instructed me to get off one stop too early, he accompanied me the mile to the hotel and deposited me at the front door, with a reminder that breakfast would be served at the monastery at 7 a.m. the following day.

Anxious not to miss the beginning of the festival, I set out for town before dawn the following day. Muted green plains stretched to infinity on both sides of the highway, the vast flatness relieved only by an occasional tree and a sleepy stream meandering between sinuous red dirt embankments. Smoke from burning rice stubble gnawed its way up and mingled with morning mist,  creating a gauzy curtain that turned the rising sun into a crimson candy apple. Slowly the town came to life. Rustic wooden carts loaded to overflowing with rice stalks rambled down the highway behind teams of white oxen. Buses spewing black smoke from long tailpipes groaned to life with the day’s first load of passengers. Focused on dodging cows and buffalo meandering along the road, I was caught off guard when a wild monkey passed me. Turning a menacing gaze upon me, he bared his teeth in a “what are you staring at” challenge. I looked away, telegraphing my acceptance that he was the alpha, and he continued on his way. As I neared the town, monks began emerging from tents set up alongside the road, rapidly becoming a tidal wave of saffron, crimson, and orange that surrounded and swept me into the front gates of the monastery.

Can’t see the above YouTube video of the Monlam Prayer Festival in Lumbini, Nepal? Click here.

Picking a spot at the rear of the courtyard, I sat cross-legged on a patch of grass, one of only three foreigners in a sea of Tibetan faces. Women in ankle-length gray dresses with golden nose ornaments and thick braids hanging down to their waist twirled Read More

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At the Tashiling Tibetan Refugee Settlement in Pokhara, Nepal, women card and spin wool, which is then dyed in rainbow colors and painstakingly woven into intricate carpet designs on huge wooden looms. The carpet being woven in the video is approximately eight feet long and will take about two months to complete, after which it will be sold for 3,000 Nepali Rupees, or about $43 U.S. dollars.

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As I waited to fill my plate during the International Human Rights Day celebration at Tashiling Tibetan refugee settlement in Pokhara, kids darted back and forth through the dinner line, playing tag. When one of them unexpectedly scooted in front of me, I reflexively took a step back and bumped into Tseten Chomphel. He laughed, diffusing my embarrassment, and introduced himself. By the time we made it to the head of the buffet line we were chatting like old friends. For the next hour I sat cross-legged on the concrete floor of the community center with Tseten, his wife, niece and mother-in-law as he related how he came to be an artist and art teacher in Nepal.

Tseten came to Nepal from Tibet at the age of six. Like his older brother and sister before him, Tseten’s parents sent him out of the country to receive a better education than he could hope for in Tibet, especially since he’d shown great artistic promise from the time he could pick up a pencil. At the Tibet-Nepal border his parents handed Tseten over to his older brother who, with help from the Tibetan Assistance Agency in Kathmandu, arranged for him to attend school in India. After graduation, Tseten returned to Nepal, where he reunited with his brother and began focusing on his Tibetan art.

Tseten Chomphel, artist and art teacher at Tashiling Tibetan refugee settlement

Tseten Chomphel, artist and art teacher at Tashiling Tibetan refugee settlement

Tseten's niece and mother-in-law

Tseten’s niece and mother-in-law

Although he is happy living in Nepal, the forced separation from his family is a difficult burden to bear. Since the day he left Tibet, Tseten has seen his parents only once and they have never even met his wife. In 2007 the Chinese government finally granted permission for his parents to travel to the Nepal-Tibet border to reunite with their son, but only for six hours. They huddled together in the bleak landscape that marks the border between the two countries, enduring the scrutiny of Chinese soldiers as they shed tears of joy and despair.

Fascinated by his story, I could hardly believe my good fortune when he asked if I would like to see his paintings. At the elementary school he pulled aside a floor-length tapestry covering the front door of his tiny apartment in the teachers’ residence area and stepped aside for me to enter. A huge oil painting of a leopard chasing prey dominated one wall of the front room and smaller paintings covered much of the remaining wall space. He served up tea and offered me Yak cheese and dried sheep yank that his mother-in-law had carried all the way from Tibet, then pulled out a large portfolio and began spreading piece after piece in front of me on the sofa table, most of which were produced in watercolor on art paper that Tseten makes by hand, since canvas and oil paints are expensive and rarely available.

Tseten and his wife share tiny teacher's quarters

Tseten and his wife share tiny teacher’s quarters

Leopard mural dominates Tseten's small living room

Leopard mural dominates Tseten’s small living room

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Jampa Chodok is 83 years old but he remembers his days as freedom fighter in Tibet as if they happened last week. He joined our small tour group just as we were finishing lunch at the Jampaling Tibetan refugee settlement, located about 12 miles east of Pokhara, Nepal. He sat in the sun, as old men often do to warm their bones, and, squinting in the bright light, began telling us about a life sacrificed to years of war.

Hostilities began in 1949, when Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China and made it a top priority to incorporate Tibet into the PRC. The government of Tibet sent letters to the U.S. State Department, Great Britain and Chairman Mao, declaring its intent to defend itself against occupation “by all possible means.” China sought negotiations with Tibetan government officials but they refused to talk, instead stationing more than 8,000 ill-trained and nominally equipped Tibetan soldiers on their eastern border with China. Chinese troops invaded on October 7, 1950; 12 days later 5,000 Tibetan soldiers were dead and the army had surrendered.

Jampa Chodok, Tibetan freedom fighter now living in a refugee settlement near Pokhara, Nepal

Jampa Chodok, Tibetan freedom fighter now living in a refugee settlement near Pokhara, Nepal

Jampa was only 22 years old at the time and not involved in the fighting. Like other Tibetans, he watched helplessly as China amassed 20.000 forces on their eastern border, advanced to within 120 miles of the capital, Lhasa, and then stopped. Surprisingly, the Chinese government demanded Tibet send a delegation to Beijing to negotiate an agreement. Although they were given no authority to sign any such agreement, representatives put their seal to the Seventeen Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet, giving China sovereignty over Tibet. It was signed and sealed in Beijing on May 23, 1951 and confirmed by the government in Tibet, which later repudiated the agreement, claiming it had been signed under duress and threat of attack.

China immediately began implementing land redistribution in the far eastern part of Tibet, where the indigenous Khampas and nomads of Amdo traditionally owned their own land. By 1956, fighting had broken out in both Amdo and eastern Kham and in 1958, when the Chinese ratcheted up their efforts to fully incorporate the still semi-autonomous area around Lhasa into the PRC, Jampa, now 33 years old, joined the resistance forces forming in the capital.

In March  of 1959, Chinese officials invited the Dalai Lama to attend a theatrical performance at the Chinese military headquarters outside Lhasa and insisted that he not be accompanied by his traditional armed escort. Thousands of citizens of Lhasa, alarmed by rumors that the Chinese army was mounting an attempt to kidnap the Dalai Lama, surrounded Norbulingka Palace, where the Dalai Lama was in residence, preventing him from attending the event. Within days, protesters were marching in the streets of Lhasa, proclaiming Tibet’s independence and infuriating the Chinese. As the Dalai Lama was preparing to flee the city, the Chinese army surrounded Norbulingka and began shelling the palace.

Miraculously, the Dalai Lama, accompanied by a lone security guard, made his way through the Chinese lines and escaped. Jampa and his fellow resistance fighters accompanied the Dalai Lama and his small group of followers for nearly a month as they trekked across the Himalayas on foot and on horseback, bound for northern India. When they had safely delivered their spiritual leader, Jampa and his fellow soldiers headed back to Tibet to fight, however the Chinese forces in Lhasa were so overwhelming that they soon had no choice but to return to India.
 

Can’t view this YouTube video of Tibetan refugees telling their stories of escaping from Tibet during the 1959 Chinese invasion? Click here.
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