Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Tibet Adventure 4 - Hotel experiences and Sky Lake.

Note:  If you didn't read my firstsecond and third posts about Tibet, you might want to start there and then come back to this one.

Hotel Experiences in Tibet

Hotels continue to pose new challenges.  Certainly when compared to those back home. Rene and his wife Debbie seemed to have drawn the short straw encountering a room with a shower that alternated hot and cold streams of water, a reluctant drain, a telephone that did not work at all, air conditioning in name only and a hair dryer that simply didn't.  At breakfast the next morning, the hotel manager stopped by our table and asked how our rooms were.  Rene relayed the list of woes and the hotel manager offered to send someone to the room to fix it.  Of course this would be at personal disruption to Rene and Debbie's use of the room, so they declined.  They were hoping that his next response would be what happens back in the USA and the manager would offer an alternate room.  Instead the hotel manager assumes he has done his job and simply moves on to other topics and tables. 

As for my experiences with hotels in Tibet, I'm personally convinced that beds in Tibet are little more than elaborate seductive decoys, i.e. nice furniture surrounding hard wooden platforms wrapped in material that makes them look like mattresses, but any similarity ends right there.  Our first night in a Tibetan hotel was after an incredibly long day.  I plopped down on the bed and felt my butt jarred so solidly I was sure at least two vertebrae in my spine had been crushed.  Painfully rolling out of the bed onto the floor, I crawl up to the bed and pull back the sheets surrounding that lower mattress.  I’m certain I’m going to find a piece of plywood. While I remain convinced that's what was really there, it is in fact wrapped in material that makes it LOOK exactly like a mattress.  In fact, like a really nice mattress. The danger is contained in going past the looking stage.  That night I sleep on top of the comforter seeking any additional layer of softness between the so-called mattress and me.  Thinking this might be a unique hotel experience, our second night in a different hotel, I hoped for better.  Indeed, it was better.  I think they actually put an inch of cotton on top of this piece of plywood. Plus I had learned to slowly and tenderly approach meetings with beds, testing them with my fingers first.  That way I would know what was before me and I could make sure it wasn't going to be quite the jarring experience of the first.  In the end, I'm certain someone is going to make a lot of money in this country when they convince these people that they no longer need to retain the experience of sleeping ON the Himalayas while living IN the Himalayas and that mattresses which contour to your body rather than your body contouring to it, are a VERY good thing indeed.

While on the subject of hotels, Internet access is an experience that will probably cause me to shed what little color is left in my hair.  Wireless connections are sometimes free, but when one is not blessed with that, you’re left with a bewildering set of menus, all in Chinese.  In at least one case I was able to blunder my way through the top-level menu only to find at the next level, roaming logins to other suppliers.  All of which appear to be European or AT&T (Hey folks, really, I use AT&T for my iPhone and am counting the days till I can dump them. WHY would I ever buy a roaming account from them?  No bars, more places?  Been there, done that.  No, thank you).  Bottom line here is that my T-Mobile account, based in North America is useless in the half dozen T-Mobile European login options.  I know, because I tried them all.  (Hey T-Mobile, maybe you've heard of these things called computers and network routing switches?  They can be used to analyze a string that contains "", which you force us to type in our username anyway, and then ROUTE it to the proper server required to handle logins for that user.  I know, it’s a revolutionary idea.  You don't have to pay me for this T-Mobile, just IMPLEMENT IT!!).   So I give up on idea of a wireless connection and instead, I resort to an Ethernet line.  This actually does establish a connection.  A very, very slow connection and one that works only at hours of the day best ascertained with a dartboard, or as Bob suggests, matches the hours the censors work in China.  He speculates when they go home, the great red switch gets thrown and your Internet access is gone until they come back the next day.   I think he may be right.  But I do learn to set up the connection, go read an epic novel or two and return much later to read my mail.

Coffee machines in hotel rooms are another interesting experience.  Sometimes you get one.  Sometimes you get one and that's all you get.  No coffee, no coffee cup - just a coffee pot.  Interesting. Fortunately, I carry Starbucks Via packets with me and so I use a regular glass as a substitute coffee cup.  I sure do miss that coffee cup handle though as my fingers scream out in painful protest upon grabbing the glass.  People wonder why I have such faint fingerprints...  Now, the hotel we’re in as I write this has it all, except in this case, the Nestlé coffee is a convenience mix, containing coffee, cream and sugar.  Don't want cream or sugar?  Tough.  Where did I put those Starbucks Via packets??

Last, but certainly not least and the thing that got me started on this rant about the hotels, is that all-important thing we call toilet paper.  Now, let's face it, I'm a digital technology person, heck that's even why I'm here.  Even with that, I understand there are places where paper remains essential.  Like the bathroom.  And there is simply no more disconcerting feeling than reaching for paper in a time of need, and realizing there is none to be had.  Not anywhere in the bathroom, or for that matter, the hotel room.  Spare rolls?  A routine occurrence in virtually every hotel/motel in many parts of the world, but apparently a thought that has not yet reached the finest hotels in Tibet.  Fortunately, in anticipation of a trip to Mt Everest base camp, I've actually packed toilet paper.  (People wonder why my suitcase is so large).  I'm planning to share this experience with my breakfast mates and encourage them, if they have less on the roll than they anticipate needing in the next 24 hours, to hide that roll in a drawer and leave the cover up so the housekeepers can see the shortage and hopefully dispense a roll of that precious and rare commodity known as toilet paper.  Otherwise I'm thinking of checking with others to see if they'd be interested in a barter system where I get say, some more Starbucks Via packets In return for them getting some toilet paper.  You've got to get creative on the road.

As we head out for the day, leaving Lhasa, within five miles we encounter what will undoubtedly be the first two of what will be many checkpoints that day.  One is for the district you're leaving, and one is for the district you're entering.  They never seem to be back-to-back but instead are separated by an eight of a mile.  Each requires our tour guide to get out of the bus and negotiate the process with the guards. One might think that the back-to-back checkpoints could be combined to streamline these processes, but one also has to realize this country has an abundance of people.  And people need jobs.  So this is one way to supply them.  Yet we also have to realize this is a huge resource this country can unleash at will. 

Continuing to move along, we note a number of commercial vehicles we're following that are emitting tremendous amounts of dark smoke.  We comment to our guide that in the U.S. these vehicles would not be permitted on the road.  He tells us that emission restrictions are being introduced.

Sky Lake, Tibet
Way, way up in the sky, a lake

We've long ago passed the tree line, in fact the vegetation line, on our way to Sky Lake.  We're now looking at mountains approaching 23k ft tall, capped in snow, against a brilliant blue sky.  The raw, rugged beauty is magnificent.  It's hard to say why we are so deeply stirred by this kind of beauty.  Maybe because it's rare, maybe because it's spiritual, I'm not sure.  I'm only certain I can't stop looking at these mountains.

At a rest stop we learn the hawkers selling goods have clearly mastered a few words of English, including “Hullo”, “Lookee” and “Money, money”. 

We've just visited the highest salt-water lake (Sky Lake) in the world at some 14k ft in altitude. (I’m pretty sure, this means I’ve now visited the lowest and highest salt lakes in the world, the lowest being the Dead Sea in Israel). It’s a very large lake by any measure, and a beautiful blue color, surrounded by some stunning mountain peaks.  It's a photographer’s canvas, waiting to be painted. Upon arrival at the lake and after navigating several more checkpoints, we go to a restaurant/hotel for lunch.  It’s an unusual place.  People staying here literally stumble out of their rooms directly into the dining room. The fare is very good and this stop is an even better idea before trying to navigate the trail to the lake.  It's not a long trail, but we're now at 14k feet and every step reminds you of that fact.  (Meanwhile, I’ve started to think the Mt. Everest leg might have been a bit ambitious given the toll this slope is taking on me).  After eating we navigate the first obstacle course to the lake, the hawkers selling goods.  An aggressive lot to say the very least.  However, they have a unique approach to selling.   I really can't remember the last time so many pretty girls told me they loved me (well, ok, its my money they love and we all know that, but hey it's nice to hear at my age).  My refusals to reciprocate by breaking open my wallet makes these affairs of the heart extremely short lived.  I soon realize I too will be short-lived if I keep moving too fast going down this trail.  It doesn't help bolster my confidence that so many people are carrying oxygen tanks and there was a medic truck parked at the top of the trail offering free doses of oxygen to those in need.   Moving slowly, Bob and I get to the lakeshore having passed on the offerings of a secondary obstacle course of hawkers offering rides on small horses. 

Bob and I start looking for a spot to shoot photos.  The problem here is a third obstacle course of hawkers with Yaks that they load you onto and then back the animal into the water so your friends can take a photo of you.  These animals are literally side-by-side for as far as the eye can see on the shoreline.  We finally locate a wide spot between two animals and get right up by the water.  But not before having to convince the Yak owners on both sides of us that we are NOT including their Yaks in our photos (if you do, you’d be best be ready to shell out some money to them).  I always like to get a shot where I basically lay on my side, right at the edge of the water, placing my camera as close to water level as I can so that I can capture the sand, lake and mountains.  I do so, and get off a couple of shots before Bob points out, with some urgency, that if I don't quickly move, my skull and a Yak hoof are about to have an unscheduled meeting.  Thoughts of an egg being squashed are enough, even at 14k feet, to get me moving very quickly.  CT decides he wants to have each of us photographed on the Yaks and despite Bob and I resisting, we finally agree.  We climb on the Yak, get backed into the water and photos get taken.  Then begins the uphill track back to the bus.  Why didn’t I rent one of those oxygen tanks? Many breaks along the way and many slow steps finally result in us getting back up to the parking lot.  I eagerly anticipate folding into the bus seat, shedding the jacket and hat and collapsing for the long ride back.

A stop at a gas station introduces us to another glitch in the way services are provided in this country.  While most of us are visiting the typical two-hole restroom (apparently the norm on the road), our driver fills the van with gas.  Only when he tries to pay, they're in the midst of a shift change - so no payments can be accepted.  Of course, you also can't leave without paying.  So you climb back on board, grab your seat and wait for the shift change to complete so payment can be made.  In the end it only take about 10 or 15 minutes, but it reminds you again that some of the core infrastructure and processes we take quite for granted back home have yet to circle the globe.

Next up, food adventures inTibet and a King’s Palace.  If you want to see more pictures from the trip, you'll find them on my FLICKR site