Kathmandu 2002: Part One

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One of my favorite pictures from the trip: Temple bells.

As part of my blog I am adding edited excerpts of stories I wrote on/of past travels.  I have been thinking a lot on the person I was before I joined the Foreign Service.  The person I was before I became a mother.  My by-the-seat-of-my-pants travels, the ones without hotel reservations, the ones where I carried everything in a single mid-sized backpack, the ones where I stayed not in hotels but in shared dorms or cheap guestrooms, sometimes with shared facilities, sometimes without hot water.  The trips where I would walk for hours instead of taking a taxi or tuk-tuk or rickshaw that I thought cost too much.  The trips on which I might wear the same pair of pants or shirt for days.  I sometimes really miss those footloose and fancy free vacations.

Still I am, and was, a planner.  I poured over maps and guide books, train time tables and bus schedules.  Once on the road things could change.  If I arrived somewhere and I did not like it, I could leave a day earlier, even that afternoon, off to somewhere else.  If I liked a place a lot I would stay longer.  But I still had a very good idea of what I would find in any given place.  I was prepared.  Yet my 2002 trip to Nepal is the least planned of all my trips (except maybe that time I went to Albania).   I always wondered if I could be one of those people to show up at an airport and simply buy a ticket and fly to anywhere same day.  This is the closest I have come.

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Look at those snazzy hiking pants!  One of my first acts in Kathmandu was to buy two pairs.

I was a graduate student in Singapore and we all had one week off between classes and our exams.  I wanted to get away, out of the country.  I decided to fly to Thailand.  Inside my bags I had my class notebooks.  My plan was to sightsee during the day and then study for my exams in restaurants and in my guestroom in the evenings.

After a day in Bangkok listening to the thumping sample CDs competing with the bars and restaurants on Khao San Road, I knew Bangkok was not the place I wanted to be.  The day before, I had met a Japanese rafting instructor who was on his way to Katmandu.  I had been considering going to Brunei, but who goes to Brunei for a week?  So I went to one of the Khao San Road travel agents and instead of asking about a ticket to Brunei I asked about Kathmandu. A day later I was on the plane.

Now about 30 minutes before landing at the Kathmandu airport I am wondering if this trip was a good idea.  For one thing, I have no guide book.  For another, I have no cool weather clothes with me.  The pilots just announced the weather is in the 70s.  I look around the plane to see the majority of people dressed in khaki pants, long sleeved shirts with pullovers or jackets and hiking boots. I look down at my own knee length skirt, a short sleeved shirt and sandals.  I have one jacket in my checked luggage.  The flight attendants hand out the customs forms.  One question asks me to declare how much currency I am bringing into the country.    I realize I have about US$50, (US$30 is to cover the cost of the visa on arrival) and 50 Singapore dollars. I cannot recall if Kathmandu has ATM machines. Thailand has them on every street corner so it had not occurred to me.  Until now.

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I sought calm and inspiration in Durbar Square.  I am not sure who I liked more: the uber cool Sadhu chillin’ out at the temple, or the young man just below him staring up in rapt attention

But it was enough.  I bought some pants, found a place to stay, and have managed. It turns out there are two ATMs in Katmandu, although I was in a bit of a panic when I went to the first outside of the Kathmandu Guest House and found it out of order.  However the owner of the Thamel guesthouse where I found a small, quiet room on the third floor with a wooden desk perfect for studying and a window that looks out on a busy pedestrian street, told me not to worry and to just pay him the following day once I located the other ATM (which thankfully worked because it turns out that the banks are closed for two or three or four days for a holiday). 

I am so glad to be here in Nepal.  I love the atmosphere.  I am a bit envious of all the people I see heading off or returning from treks.  There is the excitement of starting something so amazing and the uncertainty of whether one will be able to complete the trek.  Then for the returnees there is the joy of accomplishment, of having the smiles and pain and blisters and stories about the journey.  I spent some time last night with some women about to head off on a two week trek to Everest Base Camp, and how much I longed to bunk my exams and head off to the hills.  I think they would have made lovely companions.  But as spontaneous as I can be on travel, I usually remain practical. No, this trip is just for a week.

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Festive colors for Diwali and the Newali New Year

I feel lucky to have come to Nepal at this time even though I had not planned on this trip.  It is a week of celebrations.  First, it is Diwali.  The streets are full of lights.  Candles and carpets of yellow flowers lie at the entrances to many shops.  Groups of children are caroling from door to door for tika, a blessing and a small amounts of money.  Tomorrow the boys will receive tika from their sisters. They give a small present to the sister, who will then give them some small amount of money.

Today Kathmandu Durbar Square was full of holiday makers buying fruits, flower garlands, and new clothes for the occasion.  The last time I was in Kathmandu, although there were certainly people in the Square it was more of an oasis from the crowded narrow streets, but today the Square rivaled the streets in energy and raucous noise.  It was rather wonderful. On the way to the square I was blessed by a Sadhu, who planted a tika on my forehead, put some flowers in my hair and doused me with holy water.  I returned the favor with a “donation.”

 It is also the Newari New Yea.  At first I was a little confused.  New Year?  I thought it was New Year the last time I visited Nepal, in April 2001.  And it was.  Then it was the Baishakh New Year 2058.  Now instead it is turning 1132.  What luck to always turn up during such celebrations.

Because I have been to Kathmandu before and am a little familiar with the

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I felt pretty blessed to receive “tika” from this happy fella

streets and restaurants, I can sit and study in a cafe enjoying a cup of Nepali tea or in a Kashmiri’s shop having lemon tea, do a little studying, but still enjoy a different atmosphere..  It feels just right.  I hope I feel the same after a week (or even tomorrow because I tempted fate by having dinner in the same restaurant that A&P had our last dinner together the last time I was in Kathmandu, and the following day I was extremely ill.  I sat at the table beside the previous table.  I think I even had the same surly waiter!  But it was a delicious meal then, and it was tonight too.)

I am growing a bit tired. Although it is just 8:45 Nepali time, it is 11 pm Singaporean time (Nepal doesn’t like to have the same time as India, so it is 2 hours and 15 minutes different from Singapore).  It’s time to head back to my hotel and sleep.  I want to get up early tomorrow and head out sightseeing.

Namaste & Happy New Year

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Shanghai Disneyland Trials

I have seen colleagues around the world be involved in some rather substantial events.  From important election monitoring to Presidential or other high level visits, from attending major sporting or art events to standing in the room during key speeches of global significance.

At long last I am at post when something of major historical significance occurs: the opening of the world’s sixth Disney park!

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We got the “golden” tickets

And not only am I here for the opening but I was able to be one of the few to experience the park before the official opening day on June 16, 2016.  Okay “few” might be stretching the truth.  The park opened in early May for a six week trial period.  Though closed Mondays and Thursdays, each day the park welcomed somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 people to experience the park to allow cast members and crew to practice and rehearse.  So, that would mean approximately 600,000 people would visit the park even before opening day.  By May 20 Fortune reported that one million Chinese had already made their way to Disney Town, the ticket-free Disney restaurant and shopping mecca next to the park.   But still, for my daughter and I to be two of the lucky ones felt pretty darn awesome.

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The shortest Main Street (called Mickey Avenue) and the largest castle

C and I visited the park not just once, but twice!  Once we went as part of a group of tickets purchased through a special release to the US Consulate.  We had a second chance for a visit because C has friends and those friends have parents who work for Disney.

I am not a Disney expert.  I know some Disney experts and they could really provide you with a detailed treatise on the similarities and differences between the Disney parks.  I have been making a valiant effort to become more of a Disney authority—Shanghai Disneyland is our fourth park in the past year.  We have been to Disney in Orlando, Anaheim, Hong Kong, and now Shanghai—but I still have a long way to go.  I can only tell you my impressions, share only what we experienced. And this was during the trial period so hard to say if it will remain the same when the park opens.

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I have no personal experience with the TRON coaster, but it looks cool.

There are familiar rides at Shanghai Disneyland such as a carousel, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Stitch Encounter.   There are also brand new to Shanghai rides such as the TRON Lightcycle Power Run and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  I have heard the last two are pretty spectacular but I can tell you absolutely nothing about them.  I have never even been on the Mine Train.  I am a single mom of a four year old girl.  We ride a lot of Dumbo and Pooh.  We meet a lot of Princesses.   And that is totally okay.  That is one of the great things about Disney. We can enjoy it now when my daughter is 4 and we can enjoy it again as she grows older.

We loved the Fantasia inspired carousel.  The Hunny Pot Spin, the Shanghai version of the Mad Tea Party spinning cups, was also a huge hit.  I enjoyed the Voyage to the Crystal Grotto boat ride, mostly because it is probably the longest lasting ride and if you have a sleepy or sleeping child it can provide the most break time for the parent.  I expect C would have enjoyed the displays from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Mulan and more but I certainly was not going to wake her.  After holding a snoozing C for 20 minutes in line I was grateful for the ten minutes or so I actually got to sit down.  C loved Shipwreck Shore in the Treasure Cove area.  It is an interactive pirate boat activity area with water guns, ropes that lift pirate treasure or a shark from the water, and barrels that shoot water out on unsuspecting guests.  It was really the only thing for a single mom and a four year old to do in Treasure Cove.  We also had fun on the Buzz Lightyear Planet Rescue.  It is a fun ride that allows two passengers to each shoot his or her own laser gun and rack up points video game style.    Well, to be honest C spent the first minute or so hiding under the dash of our rocket ship so although she came around she could never quite catch up to me and lost something like 240,000 points to 3,200.  Still I told her I could never have defeated Zurg without her.  Then she wanted to ride again.  (I said no because the line was a slow moving 50 minutes at least)

I also really liked both the parade and the Golden Fairytale Fanfare, which is a musical show in front of the Enchanted Storybook Castle featuring Snow White, Anna and Elsa, Aladdin and Jasmine, Ariel, and Merida.  The downsides were that like any Disney parade route you need to get in place early, so I could only see what I could make out over the heads of the five people deep Chinese crowd (though C got a seat on the ground in front with other kids) and for the Fanfare the “host” speaks all in Chinese and it is standing room only. Although there are 5 or 6 rows they are flat rather than rising.  So if you are in the back rows you have no height advantage facing the stage over those in the first rows.  We stood in the very front of the second row and still had a limited view.  (I put C on my shoulders though so she could see unobstructed) I also really liked the Alice in Wonderland Maze.  The “Once Upon a Time” Adventure in the castle though felt like a waste of time. Character meetings with Baymax, Stitch, Rapunzel and Belle made up for that though.  You can even meet Captain America, Spiderman, and Darth Vader in this park.

If you think about it, this is the only park in the world where the majority of international visitors will require a visa to visit.  Of course international visitors will still come.  And of course there are a lot of foreigners who live in China who will come.  But the majority of visitors to this Magic Kingdom will be citizens of the Middle Kingdom.    And the park has been designed with the locals in mind.

For example, probably 75% of the toilets in the park are the squatting kind.  You read that right.  And for the Chinese that is not a problem.  And look, I have been around Asia long enough that it is not a problem for me.  I would just prefer not to use a squatting toilet if I have the option.  I am getting a bit old to squat.  Seriously, my knees are just not as forgiving as they used to be.  Also my daughter is not a fan of the squatty potty as she once fell in.  That was not a fun day for me either.  So I sought out the western sitting commodes and unfortunately on more than one I found footprints.  Probably where children—at least I hope it was children—tried to stand on the seat.

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Picky Western eaters, you will not starve!

Then there is the food.  If you are a fan of Chinese food or the Chinese version of Western food, then this is the park for you!  Rice bowls, noodle bowls, steamed buns, dim sum, Mongolian beef, and grilled squid skewers are all available in the park.  If you want a Mickey shaped pizza that is most certainly not Chicago or New York style, topped with seafood and sweet soy sauce then you have come to the right place.  None of these float my boat.  If you want a gigantic bin of popcorn then be prepared for the super sweet kind.  It smells divine but if you like salty and buttered you are out of luck.  Western food is not out completely though.  You can find German style bratwurst, Australian-style meat pies, and gigantic turkey legs in the park.  The Stargazer Grill in Tomorrowland also serves up some nice hamburgers, hotdogs, chicken fingers, fries and salads.  In Disney Town you can find a Wolfgang Puck eatery, Starbucks, a California sushi joint, Thai food, BreadTalk, and Asia’s first Cheesecake Factory.

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This is joy!

There are a few downsides…

The FastPass system.  It kinda sucks.  When we went to Disneyworld in Orlando, each single day ticket included three FastPass selections that can be chosen as much as 30 days before arrival at the park. If you wanted to change the ride or the time, you just go online.   In other parks there are FastPass machines.  Shanghai Disneyland also has the machines but you must visit the Guest Services kiosk in the section of the park where your FastPass eligible ride is located.  The line to use the machines was in many circumstances as long as or longer than waiting in line for the attraction itself.  I much prefer the Disneyworld model.

Line Jumpers.  This was a disappointment.  Despite the “reminder for your enjoyment” on the brochure to “Line up together with your entire party, please respect other guests while queuing, and guests should not jump ahead of others in the queue” I saw people blatantly disregard this repeatedly.  At the security line, the ticket line, lines at the carousel, Dumbo, Buzz Lightyear, Storybook Court…just about anyplace there was a line I witnessed people trying to bypass it.  At the security line on our second visit a woman walked right up and then stood in front of me.  When I pointed this out, in Chinese, she turned to look at me, responding in English, with “I did not see you there.”  When I indicated this was pretty unlikely as she stepped right in front of my daughter’s stroller she shrugged and told me “This is China.  You are not going to be able to control us all.”  That does not bode well.

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Stitch in Chinese.  As annoying as you can imagine.

Language.  Although there are English and Chinese brochures the primary language is, naturally, Chinese.  You may have heard that Chinese is a difficult language.  i.e. You cannot sound out characters and figure out what they mean.  Not a chance.  Most shows and information for attractions are in Chinese.  Disney even created a Mandarin-only live production of the Lion King for the theater in Disney Town.  We went to see the Stitch Encounter.  I should have known that something was up when there was only a 10 minute wait.  In Hong Kong you can see shows in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.  In Paris, it’s in English or French.   In Shanghai, It is all in Chinese.  (Though in their defense Tokyo has only Japanese).   My daughter loved it—I expect it is a combination of her understanding of Chinese and connecting with an annoying animated alien—but I learned to never get in line for that attraction again.  Ever.

And as usual in China, my daughter became an added attraction for local guests.  She entertained other people in line simply by also being in line.  She was photographed by far more than myself and the Disney photographer while chatting with princesses and other Disney characters.  It added another exhausting element to a day at the park.

I do not have many tips other than take the metro to the park.  It has its own stop on line 11 and reportedly even a few trains are decked out in Disney.  It’s an inexpensive and quick way to get there and back.  Just check the last train times because once its closed I hear the taxi drivers are unforgiving.  Oh, and also, if you are riding the metro do not buy any of those beautiful Disney balloons—no balloons are allowed on the Shanghai subway.  I found out the hard way leading to once very sad little girl.  But luckily I knew before we went to Disney.

So did we have fun?  We sure did.  This is the closest I may ever live to a Disney park.  Though given I am in the Foreign Service (Hong Kong, Paris and Tokyo could be possibilities) and I could choose to live in either Florida or California…  I expect to take C again once the park officially opens so we can also stay at least one night in the Toy Story hotel.  Even with the negatives it is still Disney and we are on the path to hardcore Disneydom.