Family Gap Year adventure – Chapter 3, Tibet

Getting there – worlds highest train ride

– Tashi Delek!

The woman is smiling, her dark face beautiful, a shower of colored braids surrounds her slender figure, a traditional dress, a baby strapped to her back.

I reply, to her, and to the line of dark faces around:

– Tashi Delek.

This means “hello” in Tibetan, and the short exchange has already let me run out of Tibetan vocabulary, the means of communication left to us being looking at each other patiently, smiling. We are in the waiting room of Xining station, the train to Lhasa has been running 1, and now 2 hours late, people are tired of moving the line back and forth, with their suitcases, sacks, cardboard boxes and precious bundles, as we are trying to follow the chinese signs announcing our train, that keep jumping to other gates.

We are waiting to ride the worlds highest train line, a feat of chinese engineering, leading up to the plateau trough a series of passes, the highest one 5200 m, tracks built directly on permafrost, leading into the holy, mythical city of Lhasa.

I am clutching a pouch with my passport, train ticket and travel permit.  Precious, magic documents.

The permit circus

Agata PermitThe paper work to obtain these was not for the fainthearted.

You need a chinese visa to go to Tibet. And a special travel permit. They will tell you NOT to mention the fact that you are going to Tibet, when you apply for a chinese visa.

You can not apply for the travel permit to Tibet without a chinese visa.

And you can not buy a train ticket to Lhasa without the travel permit.

And you can not get the travel permit, without your ticket.

(And you need to document your itinerary with tickets to obtain the visa, but thats another story).

We were still in Denmark, looking at a map of the world, planning our trip by letting fingers wander, if you turn left after Mongolia, you go to Korea and Japan, if you turn right, you go to Tibet. Seeing the improbability of traveling in big zig-zags, the decision was firm:

– Lets go to Tibet.

Despite the disadvantages, such as that free travel is not possible, we found a tibetan owned company that could provide the mandatory guide service, and started the somewhat absurd process of applying for travel permits.

We was told that it is almost there, almost ready. At least, well under the way. Only one stamp was still missing.

Weeks flew by, and we found ourselves waiting in Beijing, train tickets booked, train leaving next day, but still no permits.

– We need just one more stamp.

Then it arrived, luckily, on the day we were leaving, and we could praise our good fortune, as passengers are declined boarding the train to Lhasa without this document.


Everybody, even the dark skinned tibetan natives that have linguered longer in the lowlands, arrive in Lhasa short of breath. The plateau is at the serious altitude of 3600 m.

– Welcome to Tibet. I will show you many, many beautiful things in my country

We are greeted by our mandatory guide, given white silk scarves, and taken to one of the few hotels, that are licensed to admit foreigners.

We have arrived in Lhasa.

The first impression is soldiers, police, everywhere, on every street and corner there is a tank, or a police car, or a booth. Brought there to guarantee safety to the liberated people.

The city is beautiful, the dignified, white Potala palace, empty home of Dalai Lama , the Jhomsong temple, a place of power, sizzling with energy, surrounded by pilgrims day and night.

We are here for 2 days, to acclimatize, before we can leave for Kharta valley.

These are happy days, as on this part of our travel our family of three is joined by my sister and mum, and everybody enjoys the reunion. We get a foot massage performed by blind therapists, and have a hairdresser apply the Lhasa hair style with colorful braids to our hair. We watch the movie “Seven years in Tibet“, and marvel at actually being in Lhasa.

Old Kharta Valley Trek

We are driving trough the country side, so slo….ooooo…ooooo…wly….. The police check points on the way give time limits to tourist cars, arriving to early or to late warrants a fine, giving us an average speed of 60 km/h for several hundreds of kilometers.  After 3 days of driving, when everybody is grumpy and tired, we arrive at a river, a rather dirty camp site, and put up our tents.

Next morning we are waken up by yells, as the yaks have arrived, together with two yak boys, that can whistle and shout commands for the yaks to follow.

Accompanied by the boys whistles, and the yaks bells, we set out on an eight day trek to the high and remote Kharta Valley, in hope of catching a view of the worlds highest mountain.

We are not lucky with the weather, most of the days it is raining, at night the temperature drops below zero, we have strong wind, fog and snow, low visibility. We have and odd problem with our guide, he tends to wander of chatting with the cheerful yak-boys, leaving our group in the fog banks, unsure of directions.

Somehow it is difficult to explain to our guide, that he should prioritetize walking with us, the clients, as there is really no other reason to have a guide, that to show the way. We have some heated discussions and clashes, trying to explain this to our impatient man. After a long, and very wet day, it is easy to build up anger.I remind myself of a fundamental Aikido lesson:

– Look at your feet, before you walk.


Our family posing with a view of the East side of the snow clad beauty – Chomolungma / Mt Everest .

The clouds are gone in the morning, and we get to pose with the snowclad beauty – Chomolungma, or Mt Everest in English. From here, to get back to civilization, it is either turning around and walking back for 5 days, or continuing towards the highest point of the trek, the Lhangma La pas of 5400 m.

Our coldest camp is the highest, at 4950m. Thats when we discover that the sleeping bags are wet. The potatoes are dry, though, as they have been riding in the sole plastic bag. And we are almost out of gas.

There are small simple stone huts, serving as shelters, and we huddle around the oven, together with tibetan yak-men and a few chinese trekkers. Suddenly, the man next to me collapses, and falls face down on the stone floor. My sister is a competent doctor, and after a quick examination, that reveals a gaping hole in his head, she is outraged:

– What is the man doing here, at 4900 m, with a severe wound in his head?

– Why are his clothes wet?


Blank faces, murmurs, shrugging shoulders, thats the way it is, he was wounded, is walking back to receive medical treatment, when he hopefully arrives back to civilization in a few days. The wound is infected, the man is losing conciousness, he owes only the wet clothes he is wearing, it is below zero outside, there is no helicopter that will come to rescue up a tibetan yak-man.

The first rule of treatment being keep the patient warm and dry, she commands around, and reluctantly the other yak-men make room for him to lie down, we find blankets and dry clothes, after a cleaning and provisory dressing of the wound, and administering antibiotics from our first aid kit. It is a relief to hear the patient as he starts to joke a few hours later, when the medicine kicks in.

As we break the last camp, we discover that our crew is planning to leave two big bags full of trash, a sad contribution to an already suffering fragile ecosystem.

– We need to take our trash with us.

– No, I paid environment protection tax! Somebody else will come and clean this.

When we bumble on the road back to civilization, it is without the trash bags in the car. An unpleasant taste in my mouth.

It is a moral dillema, how much should we complain, where is the line between impoving a situation, and a man losing his job. We meet with the manager in a fast food restaurant, get a long explanation about ecology, and missing elements from guide’s education, and issues with local goverment, eco tourism being a very complicated affair. We interrupt:

– No, it is very simple. Don’t leave trash.

– Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

The long train ride back, down from the Tibetan Plateau to Wuhan gives time to think.

We met many people in Tibet, but didn’t really make friends, there was no connection, a sad feeling.

But a few days later, I get an email from Sonam, general manager of Explore Tibet, the company that organized our trek.

– Your guide worked really hard, he realized his mistake.

Explore Tibet staff working on their community project – cleaning up a mountain, and raising awareness.

As I browse the photos, and read his story, I can feel a smile growing on my face. Explore Tibet has decided to take responsibility, and go forward in protecting the fragile eco system, and has demonstrated the commitment by organizing a clean up day, sending staff to remove bag after bag of garbage from one of the holy mountains, and sponsored signposts stating a familiar phase in 3 languages:

– Take nothing but memories – leave nothing but footprints.

This phrase, this recognition, is the missing connection. Now, I feel, that we channelled a change, we left a mark.

Balikaylar Canyon

Around 1 hours drive from Istanbul, close to an international airport is a fabulous canyon – Honey Rocks – or Balikaylar in turkish.

weekend vocabulary

  • fire – ateş
  • rope – ip
  •  fish – balık

It surprises me to se63321_439805333213_7562749_ne litter scattered around this beautiful place, but luckily its only around the head of the trail.

We run along the trail with my 2 turkish friends, dragging the lunch with us, following the gorge upriver.

We meet friendly climbers, that let all of us have a go on an easy route, my first encounter with the vertical world.

We eat our lunch, bread, cheese, eggs, watermelon looking at the rainbow sparkles from a waterfall.

We get back to the camping, its first time my turkish friends try to tent, they are full of worries, but relax when we join the company of the climbers around the fire.

We sing aloud to celebrate the birthday of the owner.

We wake up in the morning mist, the body gets warmed by hot turkish tea from these small glass cups. Time to pack the tents, say goodbye to new friends, a little photo session before driving back to Istanbul.

On the way back to the city of 20 millions, just half an hours drive away, I am  tired, happy, and have a smoky smell in the hair.


Europa on Rails

Back and forth with the Orient Express

I am 34 years old. I have never ever been on a real interrail trip, with sleeping bag and foam matress slowly rolling and rocking trough Europe. Each year a new summer comes, the train stations fill up with young people with big backpacks and even bigger dreams.

Each summer I was dreaming of going too. But I couldnt, cirumstances were never auspicious.  At some point the young people stopped looking at me as “young”, and together with this change in perception the dream faded slowly away.

Until this summer. 2010.

On my daily commute to work, I have been passing a poster every morning “F*ck the plane, go Interrail“.

Power of marketing?

I bought an Interrail ticket. The best kind – one month of continuous travel – total freedom, no restrictions. And one for my 15 year old son as well, whom I managed to convince to go with his old mamma on a holiday, that involves changing lots of trains.

This is how a magic adventure started, that took us from Scandinavia to the Orient, and back, filled all senses, and left an impression of Europe as a single landscape, interconnected by culture, languages, family ties, rail roads, power lines, long black stretches of asphalt and fields of corn and wheat and sunflowers.

We went as far as we could go – to Istanbul in Turkey – and then came all the way back to the North.

It was a trip of many discoveries …

In search of European Longdistance Walking Path E3

I have a special love for long roads and paths that wind, spanning its own reality, leading a wanderer trough villages and cities, trough space and trough time, in a series of arrivals and departures, on a journey that quickly becomes internal as well as external. A couple of years ago walking the Camino de Santiago left a strong imprint on my mind and my feet. Where can I have more walking magic?

The European Union has a webpage, with so called Longdistance Walking Paths. I found one called E3. I dont know why I fell in love with it.

Maybe it was the one with blank spots on the map? Maybe because it starts in Istanbul – the easternmost possible corner of Europe, and runs across culture, countries and history, all the way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, the westernmost corner of our continent.

Maybe as a preparation to walk this fantastic route one day, I had this romantic idea of tracking down the eastern (blank, uncharted) part of E3 by train, and spending a few days here, a few days there, hiking the most scenic parts.

The E3 goes roughly like this:

  • Turkey – Bulgaria – Romania – Hungary – Slovakia – Poland – Germany – France – Spain.

Given a non-existent amount of information, like a map of Europe with a winding line, no travel accounts, blogs or description, I thought we can just go along the winding line, and try to find a path. Having choosen thecountries, I did a little bit of planning by looking for nice Couchsurfing hosts in each of these countries. And I thought that you can always buy a better map, ask people around, and hear more about the trail once in a given country.

How do you pick whom to meet of the thousands and thousands of possibilities? You dont pick, just trust that you will meet exactly whom you are supposed to meet:

David, an active himalayist from Budapest, that happened to be gone, but left os directions to his yurt.

Georgi, a construction engineer from Bulgaria, that dreams of standing on the highest point of each european country.

Kubilay, a security engineer from Turkey, that understands how to link psychology with the war on terror and information security into a bunch of cool new ideas.

Let me admit it at once. We didn’t find the E3. But we found so much else, that it didnt matter. E3 is for walking, anyway.


I was really struck by the beauty of Budapest Keleti, the Eastern train station. Like a temple of progress, like a belief in a better future, created by steel, rail, and working hands. 9am, crawling out of a delayed sleeper train, sweaty and weary by 48 hours of travel.

The day before I was sipping a Mojito toes buried in the sand of a river-beach-bar in Eastern Berlin, close to the Gallery and whats left of the Berlin Wall.

The day before that I was sipping a capuccino at Nyhavn, a historic port  in Copenhagen, trying to get a hectic work week to disappear, and tune into the concept of holiday and adventure.

First things first. Money, bathroom, luggage store, food.

Beautifull secession architecture, the Fos, termal bath.

Stroll around, look at how Buda and Pest mirror each other.

What kind of money do we need here?

We follow the classic route of the Orient Express.

Ours is worn down and shabby, but we are rolling.

Hungary.  Serbia. Bulgaria. Turkey.

In 36 hours of travel, from leaving Budapest until arriving in Istanbul, we go in and out of the European Union. The language is changing from hungarian to serbian to bulgarian to turkish. Money is changing from Forinth to Dinars to Levi to Lira.

I have to write the exchange rates down on a piece of paper.


East meets west over a small glass cup filled with çay.

Bosphorus is spanned by several bridges, and criss crossed by ferries, that carry people from one shore to another.

Haga Sophia and the minarets of the Blue Mosque on one shore, the Galanga tower on the other, a breath of fresh air in the dusty warm city.

We are met on the station by our Couchsurfing host, Kubilay, and he looks nice, and I dont know that he will be such a fantastic friend, such a wonderful addition to my life.

He drives us trough the city, we pass the famous bridge, and we are in Asia. I am a little disappointed, its not allowed to walk there, and stand with one foot on each continent, its a highway with dense traffic, no room for romantic pedestrians.

We are in our hosts spacious apartment, where we are met by Ozan, the house mate, and we drink a cup of çay, looking a bit surprised at each other, still strangers.

But soon we arent strangers anymore, and even trough the boys are busy with work during the day, the nights are ours and fill quickly with laughter, and joy, and sheer happiness. A few days later I discover,  that what I thought a cliche is so true, and happened to us –  we were picked up from the stations by a stranger, when we left, it hurt because we were leaving a friend.

Our hosts give us directions, and everyday we go exploring this vibrant city, with its eternal clash of culture. The turkish flag is so proud, it is waving in the wind from every imaginable importan position, the red background and the moon. The city is crowded, the traffic jams are traditional, every word and concept has a deeper meaning.

Our hosts play a traditional turkish instrument called baglama, and my son is soon hooked into learning a simple tune. We learn lots of concepts about nazar, intuition, soul – and about hospitality. The words are so complicated, almost nothing is recognizable from other languages I know, and I have a hard time sticking a few courtesities to my brain.

But we have patient teachers. We leave after having stayed longer than originally planned, and with a brand new baglama strapped to the backpack.

Definitely the most amazing thing about Turkey is its people.

Bulgaria – enchanted by the mountains

We are in Devin. Rodopi mountains are lush green, full of herbs, birds, bees, smells.

Farming is done with the power of back and hand, horse carriages move with dignity up the winding mountain roads.  We go exploring into the wild country side, discover a termal swimming pool, and get lost on a pretty easy trail. When we climb up to the top, we see the country around us, we are pretty high, its wild, isolated. Range after range of mountains spans the horizon, everthing covered by green vegetation, and far far away gray-violet shapes mark the tallest mountains in Bulgaria.

Georgi, such a beautiful human being, full of dreams and determination is here in the little town of Devin to build a dam. We laugh that its a long flashmob, a thousand men came, spent 5 years building a dam, and will soon go away.

Learning, sharing, giving. That is what Couchsurfing is about.

Istambul take two

Back to civilization after a wonderfull time spent in the mountains. We bumble with bus from Bansko to Sofia, find the Central Train Station, and have a long look at the list of train departures, in all directions, everything written in the cyrillic alphabet.

We can go there. Or there. Or there. We had plans of going to Romania, we have left Istanbul.

At least we tried to leave, because we find out that we have to go back to our new turkish friends. An invisible power is pulling us back, and soon we are in the little glass booth that sells international seat reservations. Friendship has its demands.

The woman has such an unintersted face when she tells me, that I cant go to turkey because  I am a woman, and the train has only reservations left for men.

– No problem.

No, no, you cant go.

– But I want to go to Istanbul.

Cant, cant be done. Only for men.

The feminist inside me wakes up. This is gender discrimination! We are inside the European Union, where my right to free movement is restricted because of gender. I decide to tell this unparticipating lady, that I want to report the incident to the police.

– Little english, little english.

But in the end she produces a ticket. I can go – my son is a bit worried.

– Mamma, maybe you have to wear a fake moustache? Otherwise everybody can see that you are a lady.

We roll trough Bulgaria, a full moon is accompanying us, spilling a flood of white light on the corn fields, the roads, the power lines.

Everything is so connected, we move along lines planned by others, new roads built on old ones, for thousands of years people have moved on this road, like a river.

The ceremony of getting the right stamp in the passport at the Bulgarian – Turkish border is repeating itself, just as entertaining and surreal as the previous time.

And in the morning we are back in Istanbul, the city-desert full of houses, the horizon cut into pieces with tall minarets from all directions.

Back together with our two new friends, more sightseeing, more museums.

A full moon is shining for us on our night walks.

There is more of the singing, playing, laughing, nagre, rake – turkish people know how to enjoy life.

All the way back

I am talking with one of the room mates in the sleeper, a middle aged lawyer from Argentina, and I discover that 1o minutes, talking non-fluently in spanish, you can drill down to core of thing, the essence of life, and purpose in life. We are like naked to each other, and seeing the reflection of oneself in the eyes of the other brings a new clarity to the understanding.

We are talking about love, about divorcing, about integrity.

The Argentinians leave us in Sofia, the train is running late, we cant leave it to power shop some food supplies, so we ask them to do a favor, and they come back from the food run with new supplies of chips and ice tea.

The next new friends in the sleeper room is a couple thats romantically in love, two jewish-russian-american college students reunited after a year of studying abroad and self-realization. We make lists of countries we should love and hate, its a competition, the couple with the longest hate list will loose the game.

– Germany, Russia, Gypsies, …

– Aussies, Mexicans, …

Time flows, we pass a border, stamping game, passport control, and the dicrete 3 men in suits, that slip a bunch of money into the pocket of the controller. Its the only compartment that doesnt get a thorough check.

We have left the European Union, and rolled into Serbia.

The trail is winding trough mountains, high faces rise on both sides and shadow the sun. Its grey rocks, emptiness, a hard land to live in, a hard land to fight for.

The train pulls into the station of Nis. Serbian railways havent discovered the concept of a restaurant car, but they will change the engine, and we have a little less than 10 minutes to make a food run. With a loudly beating heart and using hand gestures and a mix of polish/english we make a quick order of two gigantic hamburgers with freshly grilled meat the size of my plate at home. I forget that I am semi-vegetarian, and enjoy the sight. Breathless from running back we are at the coach just in time for departure.

We keep rolling, the sun is lower and lower, the turkish train conductor pays us a lot of small visits, he gives us tea, and fruit, we show each other family pictures and talk in a mixture of sign language, and the few turkish words, that we managed to learn.

The train creeps trough Serbia, and is unbelievably sloooow, but we learn from the turkish conductor, that this is a record trip, we are only a couple of hours late, and not the usual 18. Its dark outside when we finally pull in to the station in Belgrade.

– Train to Budapest?

– It left 3 hours ago!

– When is the next one?

– Tomorrow!

We have to admit it, we are stuck here in Belgrade.

A couple of desperate phone calls isnt enough to arrange an emergency-couch, and we decline the conductors kind offer of letting us sleep in the train. Instead,  we check in for the night in the youth hostel thats just opposite the train station. 6 Euro for a dorm bed and  hot shower after such a long train ride – thats gooood value.

Smiles come back on the tired faces, and stay there until we discover lice in our hair – the seats were suspiciously looking in the sleeper from previous night.

So we have to find a pharmacy-after-dark, and a restaurant, and try to find the main walking street, and also do some sightseeing, now that we are here.

So strange to be in a city that has been at war not so long ago, now its vibrant and modern, full og highrise building, glam shops, fashion and open air cafes.

Back in the hotel we improvize some lice-extermination attack with plastic bags and a chemical potion that has a very acid smell, and gives tears in the eyes just from bein near it. My son goes to sleep, but I cant resist the tempation of joining a happy party of people sitting on the balcony, overlooking the roofs of Belgrade, sipping wine.

They are so amazed, that I am here just by coincident, moving on the very next morning.

Warszawa Rising

After 48 hours of hardcore train travel, we arrive in Warsaw Central. We have an unmovable deadline with history, that my son doesn’t want to miss.

Its August 1.

A day full of emotions in the city of Warsaw.

The anniversary of the Warszawa Rising.

During II World War, in 1944, when the russian red army was camping on the left hand bank of the Vistuala river, a desperate military action started in Warsaw. For 63 days thousands of young boys and girls participated in a desperate effort to liberate the city, and threw out the german oppressor. Really not armed with weapons, but with songs and love for the homeland. The new untrained soldiers were beaten, shot, deported. The city was burned down to the ground, the population carried away on trains to unknown destinations. Unbelievable loss of life, of everything that was beautiful. Warszawa has been rebuilt, but the old one is gone forever.

We go together to the military cemetery, Powazki, to participate in the memorial.

Exactly at 1700 the traffic stops, and every driver in the city makes a long noise with the car horn. The infernal sounds go on and on, everyone knows, that  it was exactly at this hour 61 years ago, that the fightings started.

– We are proud that you dared.

-We remember you, that you died fighting for our freedom.

-You didn’t win – but we admire your courage.

Red-white flags, red-white flowers, red-white ribbons.

A sea of solemn faces, in deep thoughts.

North, north, north

Next day comes, and I am going further north.

From Warszawa to Berlin, we pass fields of wheat, and small villages, I pass the time practicing my few japanese words with three wonderfull ladies that were in Poland to play Chopin. Japanese love Chopin.

In Berlin i try to buy a ticket for the sleeper train to Sweden, but there are none left. I ask the train conductor, but he says there are none left. I decide to stick around the train anyway, because I have set my mind on going to Sweden. Another woman with a backpack looks like she is doing the same thing. Combined magic of two determined female travelers works, and the train masters hushes us into the train. I share the tiny cubicle with Margita, she is returning home from a circuit of Mont Blanc.

We discuss the different sizes of our backpacks, compare shoes and blisters, what a fabulous meeting on platform 26 in Berlin Hauptbahnhoff. When we wake up, we are in Sweden.

I have to switch trains in Lund, a hurried hug to Margita, and I have 1 hours to drink a cappucino, and see the famous Lund cathedral.

Cathedrals are so inspiring – this effort of thousands of uneducated people, that made them dream and transcend from stones and mortar into a world of timeless beauty.

Next train goes to Stockholm. Like the last frontier of civilization, Stockholm is the city where I always spend time between trains running around for last minute shopping – fuel for the mountain stove, new trekking socks.

The next train, from Stockholm to Kiruna is full of people dressed for the fields, backpacks, boots, light in their eyes.

I share the appartment with 3 old friends, they invite me to their meal of cheese, pears, bread and wine. We make mixed english-swedish conversation, and go north, north, north.

Sweden is full of woods, unending stretches of dark green woods.

The sky is different, higher, lighter, the air is cooler. It doesnt really get dark that night. I lay in my berth, and I think that its time to get ready for the next challenge.

A challenge of a 110 km adventure run in Lapland, a frozen country above the polar circle, the Fjellrevan Classic 2010.

The interrail ticket is due to expire. End of one adventure, a new one is beginning. But thats the next story

Into thin air with kids

We have successfully completed a nepal trek with my 2 children aged 9 and 12.

We trekked from Jiri to Gokyo Ri, which is a peak located at the Gokyo lakes, 5360 m heigh.

I loved every minute of it, the friendly people, the amazing views, the air, the silence, the high sky.

We had a wonderfull experience with our 2 sherpa porters and funny, friendly guide.

We made it!