Three things you almost certainly didn’t know about driving around Tibet

I’m writing this on the train that runs between Lhasa and Beijing. We left the Tibetan capital a few hours ago, the start of the last phase of all the railroad adventures we’ve had on this trip. Eventually I hope to report on the highlights of those. But first I’d like to share the top 3 insights we gained from all the driving we did in the previous week.
1) The Chinese take the screwiest approach to accident-reduction you’re likely ever to see.

On the roads between Lhasa and Mt. Everest (and other points), government officials have set up a complicated system of speed-control checkpoints. Over and over, our driver would stop and our guide would dash into a roadside office to have the time recorded. Further down the road would be another checkpoint, and we would have to take care not to reach it sooner than the time allotted. If we did, that would indicate to the speed-control cops we’d been driving faster than permitted. 

The problem with this strategy was that the time allotted was often too long. And the intent was laughably easy to subvert. Our driver never drove at speeds that seemed reckless to Steve and me, but over and over, he would have to halt shortly before a checkpoint and wait for anywhere from 5 minutes to 20. This rigmarole increased the time of our final drive from Shigatse to Lhasa to seven and a half hours, instead of 7 or less.

A typical wait to beat the speed police

In addition to the pointless checkpoints, the Chinese authorities often set up phony police cars…

The lights are on, but nobody’s home

And phony policemen (often holding phony radar guns) along the side of the road. Apparently everyone knows they’re fakes and can be ignored (except for the occasional rube who blunders along and believes them?)

We also saw occasional installations of wrecked cars adorned with lots of wordy warnings. Tashi said the signs described the gory details of how everyone in the car had died due to reckless driving. Sometimes we passed under actual working video cameras set up to check driver speeds, but apparently every professional driver on the road knows the location of every one. Ours always slowed to a crawl (for the few seconds it took to pass under the speed detector).

2) Fueling one’s vehicle might be an act of terrorism.

We didn’t see many gas stations, though of course they do exist, sometimes resembling their American counterparts but sometimes tucked away inconspicuously on a small town’s side street. That’s not so strange, but what boggled Steve’s and my minds was learning that every time Tibetan drivers need fuel, they must present their id card and fill out special forms. They have to do this regardless of whether they’re filling up a van full of foreign tourists or a simple motorbike. We were told that the reason for this was to reduce the risk of some Tibetan dousing his body with gasoline and setting himself on fire in protest of the Chinese presence. That’s happened a lot over the past 65 years of the occupation, and apparently the authorities still consider it a serious threat.

3) There’s more than yaks and hillside monasteries to catch the traveler’s eye out in the country. 
To keep big trucks off one 50-plus-year-old bridge, the road masters built a special jig at each end of the span. Our 8-passenger Hyundai van squeaked through — but with only inches to spare.
A bit further down the road, we passed a congregation of trucks and vans.Tashi declared that it was a Chinese filmmaking crew making a movie. We also were amused by the sight outside tiny roadside establishments of kettles of water surrounded by parabolic mirrors set up to catch the sun’s rays and keep the water hot — solar heating in the service of sanitation (and a steady source of hot water for tea). 
We failed to catch a photo of any of those, and I felt it would be intrusive to aim my camera at the old lady who walked across from where our van was waiting for one of the speed-control stops. She casually climbed down into the ditch next to the road and squatted. All I could see was her head and shoulders, but it was obvious she was hitching up her skirts and apron. She squatted in that position for a couple of minutes, craning her head to observe the infrequent passing traffic. Finally she re-arranged her skirts, climbed out of the ditch, re-crossed the road, and went back to stand near a small cluster of storefronts. If she washed her hands, I didn’t see that.

Climbing to Mt. Everest

Never have I longed to climb Mt. Everest. However, a year and a half ago, when I learned we could visit the base of its north face, the idea of doing that seized my imagination, and it proved surprisingly hard to shake. Wednesday morning, as we were driving up the road that leads to the base camp, it struck me that ever since 4th grade, when I learned the name of the tallest mountain on earth, Mt. Everest lodged in my brain as a mythic spot, with the details of the myth growing in complexity over time (as I read Into Thin Air, saw various movies, and otherwise embellished the indistinct image in my mind.) When we crossed the last pass, and the great span of the high Himalaya stretched before us, I felt the same jolt I felt last year in Jerusalem when we visited the Garden of Gethsemene and the spot where Jesus is believed to have been crucified — the jolt of seeing the real physical object underlying the mythic one.

Every other hairpin turn brought the mountain into closer view out my side of the van. It was spell-binding to take in not only the massive striking triangular form of Qomolongma (as the Tibetans have long called the most famous peak) but also to see the threadbare villages shivering in the nearby valley floors; to learn first-hand just how difficult it is to approach this monster mountain, even as a lowly tourist.

Such a visit requires special permits that are even more complicated than the already crazy-complex ones required for Westerners who wish to visit Tibet. No independent travel is permitted, so that makes it expensive too. The Chinese government is deadly serious about scrutinizing all the paperwork. Our Chinese and Tibetan permits got close attention in Chengdu Airport, and on the road, we probably had to stop 10 times to have our paperwork inspected. Most of the time our guide was able go into the inspection offices alone (sometimes just with the permits; sometimes with them and our passports). But at the start of our final approach to Everest, Steve and I had to present our physical persons, to be compared against the passports and other documents.

For a visitor to reach Everest Base Camp also means paying special attention to the task of acclimatization. Just arriving in Lhasa is rough. At 12,000 feet, it’s one of the highest cities in the world. When we came to Tibet a year ago, we felt slammed by symptoms of altitude sickness within an hour of disembarking from our flight from Kathmandu. And Everest Base Camp is almost 6000 feet higher than Lhasa. Even if you’re not planning to climb the additional 12,000 feet to the summit, visiting just the base camp means spending a minimum of 5 nights trying to get accustomed to the dearth of oxygen (only 50% of what it is at sea level).

Our trip was interrupted last year by Steve’s mom’s health crisis only two days before we were scheduled to hit the road and head for the Himalayas. I was still seriously sick from the altitude; had dreadful headaches and no appetite. Couldn’t sleep night after night because I felt like I was suffocating. Moreover, I had caught a cold and developed a terrible case of bronchitis in Nepal, so I was coughing almost hard enough to break a rib. Had we set off southward, as we would have done were it not for our emergency return home, I now think things could have gone badly. I learned on this trip that there is no possibility of helicopter evacuation from this part of Tibet. Our guidebook says one person a year dies from altitude sickness, but our guide Tashi told us that this year 16 Indian pilgrims perished from it while attempting to walk around Tibet’s holy western mountain, Kailash.

Given that background, I was fiercely determined to stay healthy. We sanitized our hands religiously as we shared metros and buses and trains with hordes of folks on the Malay peninsula, many of whom quite obviously were fighting respiratory infections. I started taking Diamox (the drug often used by mountain climbers to speed up the acclimatization process) a day before our flight to Tibet, and on the day of our visit to base camp, I added in a steroid (dexamethazone) recommended both by the CDC and personal friends. It all seemed to work. Or maybe we just got lucky. We avoided catching any colds or developing any traveler’s diarrhea, and when we left the tiny town of Shegar Wednesday morning, neither of us had any obvious signs of mountain sickness.

We had other reasons to rejoice. At the Pang-la Pass, Tashi confided to us that he was getting his first view this year of Everest and its massive companions: Malala, Lhotse, Gyachung, Cho Oyu, Xixiabangma. Tashi has probably made the trip to the base camp 100 times over the course of his guiding career, but this year we’re the 6th group he has accompanied. All the other 5 were greeted by a bank of clouds and fog and dust that obscured the fantastic sight. “You had to imagine it,” he said. But the sky was cloudless for us, and the snowy giants shone knife-edged against the preternaturally blue background.

By 11:30 we were checking into our room at the small hotel across the road from the monastery at the foot of the mountain. Here too there was good news. We’d been warned that the monastic-sized cells were unheated, with outdoor toilets located some distance away, no running water and often no electricity (when the wind blows the lines down). But a strong incandescent lightbulb clicked on in our room, which was further equipped with heating pads under the grubby sheets. I checked out the squat/pit toilets and found them to be less frightening than the ones we’d experienced on the road from Lhasa a few days previously. Those were big enough to actually fall in (and die shortly afterward, I presumed), worse than anything I’ve seen in Africa (where we’ve now traveled in 11 countries). Returning to the room, I repeated one of my favorite mantras for such situations: “Camping would be dirtier.”

We piled in the van and set off on the short ride down the road to the spot where the tourist tent camp is normally set up. We’d been booked to sleep in it last year, but the timing of this trip brought us here a bit later in October — just four days after the tent camp was taken down for the season. Slightly disappointed by this news at first, I now realized that spending the night in the communal tent would have been hideous in the ferocious winds that were developing. I had read that it’s possible to hike from the tourist tent camp site to the true base camp — the spot where the real climbers stay and from whence they depart. Steve and I climbed out of the van all geared up. I was wearing pants and long underwear, with six layers on top (including a fairly heavy down jacket), and Steve was similarly armored. We both had our collapsible hiking poles. The sun was shining brightly, but we walked only 100 or so feet down the road into a driving icy wind that occasionally blasted our small patches of exposed face with gritty sand. We stopped. I felt like I was moving in slow motion, with great effort (the way I felt approaching the summits of Mt. Fuji and Mt. Whitney, my previous mountaineering efforts that made me realize I would never, ever want to climb Everest.) Steve felt the same way, so we sheepishly told Tashi it would probably be better for us to be driven the 4km to the base camp.

There, Tashi declared he would wait in the van, but we could take our time climbing up to the large flat area where the serious expeditions pitch their tents. We moved slowly and carefully and reached it without incident. Once at the top, we estimated the gusts to be 60 mph or more. Time after time, they threatened to knock us off our feet. The site struck me as being perhaps the most dramatic and simultaneously brutal places I’ve ever stood (or wobbled). My iPhone died. (We later joked that it must have been on strike, declaring that I needed to take it back to some kinder, warmer place or it would never work for me again.)

The upper level, where the serious expeditions camp

In all, our visit to the climbers’ base camp lasted about an hour. Then we returned to the guesthouse and had a surprisingly tasty, if simple, lunch. The communal dining room is a congenial space, warmed only by a yak-dung stove, and after getting a bit more organized in our room, we returned there with our iPads and grabbed seats in front of one of the south-facing windows, with their commanding views of the mountain. We sat there for 5 hours straight, often glancing up and out.

From time to time, a mane of clouds appeared around the summit, and I thought of how similar clouds in the past have been harbingers of sudden homicidal storms. More than 250 people have died trying to reach the top of this monster since the first Westerners started vying for that honor in 1921. The wind whistled and howled; at times it shook the walls of the dining hall and forced cold air through the crevices. But no storm materialized. As sunset approached, the shadows on Everest deepened and spread, and near the summit, the remaining light made the mountaintop glow pastel orange, then coral, then pink. In a matter of moments, the color drained away. All that was left was white snow and menacing shadow.  

Not a culinary pinnacle

I was prepared for some of the contrasts we would encounter on this trip, as we traveled from temperatures in the mid-90s at sea level near the equator to the Himalayas in late October. We chose our clothes carefully. But I forgot about the culinary contrast that would ambush us. The Malay peninsula has one of the world’s highest concentrations of mind-blowingly great food. From there we’ve gone to the place that has the worst food I’ve ever eaten. It’s been a challenging adjustment.

We got our first reminder of what was coming on the Sichuan Airlines flight from Chengdu. Sichuan is a modern Chinese carrier with a good reputation; its attractive Chinese flight attendants wear stylish uniforms. Not long after we took off, one approached me down the aisle, passing out what I assumed would be hand wipes. Instead she extended a tongs and placed into my hand a chunk of hot boiled potato. It came without salt or butter or fork or even a lowly napkin to place it on. It was a portent.

Here’s what it looked like

We also got boxed breakfasts, though for some reason mine featured a rubbery egg slab, while Steve got a dish of unseasoned rice porridge, along with two packets of some salty beans and pickled cabbage to mix with it. A bit later, the attendants passed out paper cups containing yak butter tea, that peculiarly Tibetan concoction of the slightly sour yak butter mixed with salt, milk, tea leaves, soda, and hot water. (I would recommend against Starbucks adding it to their menu.)

After our arrival at Lhasa airport, our guide and driver immediately headed for the town of Tsedang where we would stay the first night (Friday). It was lunchtime, and Tashi recommended that we take our lunch and dinner at the hotel restaurant. Though edible, the Tibetan lunch buffet proved less than thrilling, and we took it as another bad omen that the tastiest choice consisted of rubbery globules the size of golf balls that were stuffed with some form of yak meat (one we could only hope was not from the part the spheres resembled). 
Dismayed by the prospect of eating a second time in the restaurant, we decided to check out the two restaurant choices listed for Tsedang in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We were feeling the altitude and moving slowly, but we eventually located the Tibetan one that reportedly featured a “traditional setting, partial picture menu, and lots of local color.” From the street, it promised to have all of that, so we returned for dinner a few hours later. We slipped in the door behind a portly monk in flowing maroon robes, but every head in the place (all Tibetan) swiveled to stare at Steve and me. Waitresses giggled. I slipped into a booth as quickly as possible while Steve went to ask if they had an English menu. That drew guffaws from the serving crew. 
The menu indeed had some photos, but not one word of English, so we couldn’t tell if any given dish included yak tongue, pig intestines, or similar popular ingredients. So we sadly gave up and returned to the hotel (where we were pleasantly surprised to find a good Chinese stir-fried chicken and fried rice).
Saturday we traveled to the site of the oldest monastery in Tibet, and had to eat in Tibetan joints for lunch and dinner. It was a good news/bad news experience. Good news: they were extremely inexpensive (we spent a total of about $14 to feed both of us both meals) and did have (sort of) English menus. Bad news: they didn’t have most of the hundreds of items on the menus, so we wound up eating yak and potato stew for lunch and yak and noodles for dinner.

The Tibetan fries were curiously undercooked.

Good news: both places felt extremely atmospheric and Tibetan. Bad: a big part of the atmosphere was dark and grubby. Good: neither one of has had gut troubles today.
Our lunch place. I know it looks great, but it’s only after you sit down that the full grunginess becomes apparent.

Happily, before arriving in Tibet this trip I read My Journey to Lhasa, a wonderful account by a crazy French Buddhism scholar and adventuress who in the early 1920s posed as a fake Tibetan pilgrim and trekked for four months in the middle of winter in order to become the first Western woman ever to reach Lhasa. Alexandra and her adopted Sikkimese son (a respected lama) slept on the ground, begged for their food, and often hiked for 24 hours without eating or drinking anything. She shrugged off the hardships and claimed to be having a wonderful time. So any time I’m tempted to complain about my yak meat and noodles, all I have to do is think of Alexandra (and NOT think of Singapore.) 
On other fronts, tonight (Sunday) will be our third night at altitude. We’ll be sleeping at about 14,000 feet, and although we both still pant a bit when we climb stairs, neither one of us is experiencing much in the way of altitude sickness. Thankfully, I am NOT waking up in the night feeling as if I’m suffocating (as I did last year). So we’re optimistic that we will continue to be okay when we reach Everest base camp Wednesday morning. 
Along with the food, the Internet in these parts is nothing to rave about. So I plan to keep writing as long as my iPad has a charge. But I may not be able to upload what I write until Thursday night, when we are scheduled to stay in the second largest city in Tibet (Shigatse).

Taste of Sichuan

 For foreigners, there are very few ways to get to Tibet. Before the monster earthquakes struck last year, you could be driven from Nepal, but today (18 months later) the roads are still blocked; the border still closed. So you can take the train from Beijing. Or fly from one of only three cities in the world — Kathmandu in Nepal, Beijing, or Chengdu.

That’s why Steve and I went to Chengdu, a place I’d never heard of until recently, even though it’s China’s 5th biggest city, with more than 17 million residents — twice as many as in New York. We flew through Chengdu last October when our trip to Tibet at that time was interrupted by Steve’s mom’s hospitalization. When she passed away in August, we decided to tack a return to Tibet on to the excursion we’d planned to the Malay peninsula. It seemed easiest to travel from Bangkok to Lhasa via Chengdu.

Indeed it was easy to book a flight on Thai Airlines; easy to reserve a hotel in Chengdu on We had no trouble finding the taxi queue in front of Chengdu’s impressive airport and giving the driver the hotel address (written in Chinese on the printout of my reservation). We felt like yokels on the ride, gaping at the massive office and apartment buildings, the wide boulevards, everything looking clean and at least as well maintained as Park Avenue in Manhattan. The Wangfujang district in which our hotel was located provided the coolest surprise. With an ancient Zen Buddhist temple complex at the heart of it, sections of the surrounding area have been preserved (or more likely recreated) to look

 historic and traditional. Low wooden buildings house shops selling jewelry, bamboo art objects, intricate silver work, and more, and our hotel was a haven of dark wood and Buddhist art (and a relative bargain at $67 a day, including breakfast). On the surrounding streets, nicely arranged piles of produce spilled out into the sidewalks; old folks gathered around card tables playing mah jong.

Our hotel in Chengdu, the Buddha Zen
We were delighted, but it didn’t take long for us to feel like fish very far from our aquarium. Almost no one spoke any English, and worse, essentially nothing was written in Roman characters.

This one was extremely unusual in transliterating the restaurant name.

We pounced on the opportunity to put Google Translate through its paces and can now report that it may do a decent job with French or Spanish, but it is laughable (literally) at translating written Chinese.

Google Translate told us this meant “Blue bacteria water mixed with white meat.” An alternate rendering was “Ray of water division spleen white meat”

At first we weren’t worried. We’d eaten at plenty of hawker centres in Singapore and Malaysia by looking at pictures and pointing. But when we tried that at a little joint near our hotel, the girl behind the counter made it clear many of the dishes displayed weren’t available. We finally secured some noodle-heavy dinner, but we were growing alarmed! Here we were in the capital of one of the great cuisines of the world, and it seemed possible we might not find any place good to eat! Potential catastrophe! (We’d checked out the restaurants in both our hotel and a fancy modern one nearby and rejected both as being unpromising.)

The logical thing to do would be to check Yelp, but of course it doesn’t exist in Chengdu. Even worse: Google doesn’t exist in Chengdu! The Chinese government is still blocking it. I won’t bore anyone with the tedious details of how annoying it is to try and search for things online without a decent search engine. After wasting quite a lot of time being reminded of this, we finally figured out that Apple Maps (which is not blocked) has a “restaurants” filter that’s pretty useful.

Using that, we found a place that sounded promising. We walked to the lively little street it was located on, but then were confused about which of the many eateries was our goal. We picked out the most likely one, walked in, and asked the girl at the front door if it was Weidangjia. She looked confused, but another young woman got up from her nearby table and interceded. She spoke English! With her help, we learned that Weidangjia was actually two doors over. She led us to it and further helped us secure a table and order our food, then she took off to return to her own dinner party in the first restaurant.

Our dinner was delicious and the interaction with the friendly young woman warmed my heart. But I have to say, the rarity of such encounters in China is pretty striking. People don’t seem mean or hostile. But I once again got the sense I’ve gotten on previous visits: that the Chinese in China are under a lot of stress. There are a literal billion of them, and so many are smart and disciplined and hard-working and ambitious. The competition is so fierce. I notice many faces that look harried and brusque and tense.

But maybe that’s just a passing traveler’s misapprehension. Our other stand-out experience in Chengdu both confirmed and contradicted my theories. The mountainous western forests of Sichuan are where pandas live in the wild, and Chengdu is the base for one of the most important panda research centers in the world. When I learned that it’s open to visitors, both Steve and I were eager to go.

The girl at our hotel’s front desk wrote out the research station’s name in Chinese characters, and we caught a taxi in front of Wenshu temple. We went immediately after breakfast, as we’d heard it was best to try and beat the afternoon crowds. I felt optimistic. It was a cool, rainy Thursday morning in late October. How many people could be there? Silly me. Hundreds, many assembled in huge groups, jammed the front plaza. It looked more crowded than the front of San Diego Zoo on a beautiful Labor Day weekend. 

None of that wound up ruining our time there. The paths leading through the grounds pass through dense, darkly graceful bamboo thickets.

We’d read that something like 60 giant pandas live at the research facility, and though many were off display, we still saw around a dozen, including four youngsters devouring bamboo. In the nursery, four infants in incubators were screened from the crowd, but in the adjoining enclosures, three little ones piled up, napping, while one curious guy crawled around exploring.

Cameras clicked. People cooed. Doubtless because of the way the human brain is wired, looking at those big-eyed, round panda faces was making everyone happy. The crowd was probably 99% Chinese, but it felt very convivial and very chill.

Heavy rain, inadequate stomachs, and serendipity

Even through my earplugs, through the glass windows and heavy wooden shutters of our hotel room, I could hear the thunderous rain falling Sunday when we woke up in our hotel in George Town on the island of Penang off the northwest coast of Malaysia. It was still pouring when we ate our breakfast around 8 am, and the weather forecast on my phone promised a 50 to 80% chance the downpour would continue throughout the day. As we had only one day in this World Heritage Site city (the one-time capital of all of British Malaysia), we resigned ourselves to venturing forth armed with our umbrellas, raincoats, waterproof sandals, and the determination to ignore any uncomfortable dampness.

Out on the street, the rain brought at least one benefit: lowering the temperature into the high 70s. When we’d ventured out Saturday afternoon after arriving by van from the misty mountains, it had been at least 20 degrees hotter. The intensity of the sun beating down made me reel. In contrast, walking in the hard steady rain surprised me. I hadn’t done it in memory, but it wasn’t bad.

Something else Steve and I haven’t done in a long time is to wander into a strange city with a plan of discovering it only aided by a map and a guidebook. Usually I’m more organized; I could have hired a private guide to tour us around, or joined the food tour that gets good reviews on Trip Advisor. But we also knew that the historic heart of George Town is small enough to cover on foot. Sometimes you just want to poke around and puzzle out a place at your own speed. That’s what was calling to us Sunday.

It paid off. Next to the elaborately British Colonial city hall, we found a “speaker’s corner” deserted in the rain. But in the grassy field next it, we stared at a huge circle of bears, each posed in the identical posture (palms raised high), but uniquely decorated. The field was so flooded we hesitated to make our way to the explanatory sign. Then a Malaysian guy came along and braved the soggy ground, and I followed him to learn that the installation was a salute to international harmony, conceived of by some Berlin artists. There were bears for almost all of the 140-plus countries in the UN, each one painted by artists from its country, to represent their national spirit. I couldn’t resist going further, to see America’s ursine avatar (a bear done up as the Statue of Liberty). I was hooked. Steve at first refused to follow me, declaring that he was afraid there would be leeches in the shallow water. But eventually, he couldn’t resist either.

Moving downward through the alphabet, I had worked my way around to the French bear when I glanced down and noticed something moving in the inch-deep water — long wormy creatures wriggling along at a brisk clip. Leeches?

I thought there was a good chance they were leeches but what a dilemma they presented! I wanted urgently to finish looking at every bear. But I didn’t want any leeches attaching themselves to my vulnerable feet. I finally figured out a way to complete the circuit by walking on the bears’ concrete pedestals. 

I can’t say which was my very favorite; so many were charming. But the Moldovan bear gets the prize for humor. 

The rest of the day brought other discoveries big and small. The charms of Georgetown hadn’t been all that obvious in the streets around our hotel. Traffic was hellish, and even on our short walk Saturday afternoon, the shoddy condition of the city’s walkways appalled us.

Busted concrete, constant changes in level, ubiquitous trash, and open sewers — that’s the pedestrian experience in George Town.

We’d read that the whole place looked decrepit 20 years ago, but it had great history and a big enough stock of striking (if dilapidated) architecture to win the World Heritage Site designation in 2008. Since then, money to spruce it up has poured in. 

Street murals have become a big deal here. They’re less colorful than what we saw this summer in Bogota, but very creatively three-dimensional!

Today even in the central core, there’s still a roughness to the place; it’s no Brugge or Barcelona. But it has some gems. We’d never anywhere seen anything like the complex created and still owned by the Khoo family, one of the Chinese clans that immigrated to the island in the 1800s. They multiplied and prospered and by the dawn of the 20th century were rich enough to build a temple that reportedly made the gods jealous enough to burn it down. The Khoos shrugged and built a replacement (the one we visited). It’s hard to imagine how its predecessor could have been more ornate and gorgeous.

Even more impressive to Steve and me was a volume on display from the family’s genealogical records. They went back more than 1000 years. 

When we got hungry, we walked into a seafood joint in the center of town and asked if they served fried fish. A friendly young woman led us to a table piled high with whole fish and directed us to pick out a good one.

She weighed the red snapper we chose and said it would cost 40 ringgits (about $9.50). A few minutes later, the fish appeared on our table, reincarnated.

Working only with forks and spoons, it didn’t take us long to reduce him to rubble (he was delicious)..

By late afternoon, we were ready to head back to the hotel, but the rain, which had disappeared for a while in the middle of the day, returned with a vengeance. Happily, we were just a block or two away from one of George Town’s many small but intriguing museums. The Upside Down Museum is probably the cheesiest, but I’m a sucker for anything this weird. I wondered whether we’d be disoriented walking from one room to another in which all the visual cues were upside down. Now that we’ve done it, I can report: the answer is no. The main thing visitors experience is being bossed around by young Malaysian employees who tell you how to pose to look the weirdest and then take your picture in room after room. It wasn’t all that interesting. But on the other hand, I now have quite a collection of photos like the following:

More than any of the sights, what the guidebooks rave most about is the food to be had on Penang. To me it felt like a mixed blessing. From our very first meal, it seemed astoundingly good. For lunch Saturday, we walked in the infernal heat to a nearby Chinese family restaurant filled with what appeared to be locals. The fried rice was the best I’ve ever tasted, the rice shot through with subtle flavors and studded with prawns and tender bites of chicken and finely minced vegetables. We ate it with chicken in savory plum sauce, soybean pockets stuffed with prawns and served on crispy noodles that melted into silky smooth strands, and home-made tofu fried and then braised in clay pots along with minced beef and salted fish. Every bite made me swoon, a revelation and so seductive we had to consume almost everything they put before us. (With beer, it came to less than $20). Stuffed as we were, we nonetheless went out for excellent north Indian food Saturday night.

Sunday lunch was that super-fresh fried snapper, and for our final dinner in Malaysia, we walked to a food court just a few blocks from our hotel. It wasn’t as big as some of the places we saw in Singapore, but I couldn’t count all the dishes available. Culinary inventions from Indian and Japan and Korea, a dizzying number of Chinese and Malaysian favorites, even Italian, Mexican, Middle Eastern choices. Our stomachs were only big enough to accommodate three separate dishes plus rice and beer and durian ice cream. To see all those interesting choices but not get to try the vast majority of them felt cruel. For all that’s wonderful about home, there’s no place there where we can eat like they do it Penang.

High tea

Steve and I now know how the tea gets into our teabags (on those occasions when we drink tea instead coffee, i.e. rarely.) We learned all about it Friday in Cameron Highlands. This region of Malaysia is an archetypal former British “hill station,” shockingly cool, high, and misty — in all ways perfect for growing Camellia sinensis. I’d been on a tea plantations in Uganda and Rwanda, but had forgotten how glorious they can be. Few agricultural crops are more beautiful. In Cameron Highlands the sculpted bushes blanket the steep slopes and rolling valleys in a quilt of greens so bright and intense they make the Irish countryside look insipid.

We had arrived in the town of Tanah Rata late Thursday afternoon, after a trying almost-7-hour journey from the jungle, so we didn’t feel like doing more than checking into our charming B&B (the comically named Do Chic In), dropping off our dirty laundry in town, having a few drinks, and eating a good Indian dinner. Also, after consulting with one of our hostesses at the guesthouse, we had her book us into a half-day tour of some of Cameron Highlands’ most popular activities. 
Visiting the Boh tea factory (founded in the 1920s by a Scottish family that still owns it) is near the top of the list, though as it turns out, tea-processing isn’t anywhere near as complicated as wine-making; we blew through the factory pretty quickly. Basically you dry the freshly picked leaves overnight, then crumble them, let them “ferment” for an hour or two, toast them, and screen them into different particle sizes. All this was being done on the original machinery installed in the factory almost 90 years ago.

Dried tea leaves being loaded into the toasting machine.

I popped briefly into the gift shop, and Steve and I tasted two varieties of the Boh in the tea room, but the hour allotted to our stay at the plantation felt more than adequate. In contrast, I wished we had more time in the Mossy Forest that lies further up the mountain. Less than a week before, we’d been dazzled by the magnificent artificial Cloud Forest biome in Singapore, where we’d learned about the wonders of these rare and fragile ecospheres. Now, suddenly, unexpectedly, we were in an actual example of one!

It was magical. A penetrating fog pressed in around us, but there was enough light to take in the spectacle of moss covering almost every surface. The sole exception was underfoot, where the layers of compressed compost had built up over the ages to a depth of 12-15 feet. It gave a bouncy quality to walking on the flat stretches, though mostly the path wound upward for the short distance it extended.

Our guide Francis was 40, born and raised in Cameron Highlands. His grandparents immigrated here from south India.

It may look a bit creepy, but it felt like the setting for a fairytale with a happy ending.

The massive rhododendrum trees were dripping with huge and fantastically colored (carnivorous) pitcher plants.

After the forest, everything else we did in the highlands was an anticlimax, if pleasant. The whole area is all so British; we got the most intense dose of that when we had tea and tea sandwiches and scones and clotted cream in a dead-perfect clone of an English country pub. 

We tried to burn off some of the calories by taking a long walk back to the guesthouse, detouring through a state park with a beautiful waterfall. Then I got my head and neck massaged (less than $10 for 30 minutes with a master), while Steve did email in a nearby coffee shop. In the evening, we ate a Chinese feast cooked by the guesthouse owners (for about $6.50 per person) and discussed politics with the two Dutch couples also staying there.

Now we’ve moved on to our final stop in Malaysia, the city of George Town on the island of Penang. Once again, we’re sweating profusely and eating some of the best food in Asia.

Jungle spell

A big percentage of the Malay peninsula was traditionally covered with tropical rainforest, but big chunks of it either have been or are being clear-cut, often to create palm-oil plantations. We’ve passed many logging trucks and sawmills laden with the stout corpses of mahogany and other tropical hardwoods, many a hundred or more years old. But we have the sense that harvesting and selling the wood isn’t the main driver of this environmental devastation; rather it’s the boundless appetite for the oil to fry up all the rice and samosas and other savory dishes.

Still, some nature preserves have been created, and a huge one is the Taman Negara National Park, said to be at least 130 million years old. It’s not on the railway line, so not easy to get to. But Steve and I were determined see it. Monday we endured a twisty 3-hour ride from Kuala Lumpur in a van owned by a big Chinese Malay outfit. The van took us to the Tembeling River where, after a quick lunch, we climbed into a motorized pirogue for the 3-hour river trip to the national park.

I have to report: there are aspects to trips like this that I find enchanting. You’re low enough so you can dip your hand into the cafe au lait water, and the reflections of the jungle along the bank often take my breath away. But three hours is hard on the butt and back and knees (mine, anyway). The heat and whine of the engine and monotony of the passing scenery are natural soporifics. Both of us dozed for part of the ride, and by the time we reached our destination, we agreed we’d prefer to take the van only for the return trip.

We had only one day (two nights) at the “resort” next to the river, just within the park boundaries. With so little time, we practically raced from one activity to another. If a bit frantic, this schedule certainly gave us a taste for the place, which, if you like ancient equatorial rainforests, is magnificent.

Highlights for me were the daytime outings. First thing on Tuesday morning, we trekked 3 hours, climbing from the riverbank a thousand feet up to a vantage point that offered great glimpses of the surrounding country. The change in elevation took us from the steam bath at the bottom to sections that felt almost temperate. And the forest was fantastic, dense and tangled and home to creatures ranging from pit vipers to macaques and gibbons to aboriginal humans who still hunt with blowpipes and poison darts. (The scariest jungle denizen we saw were just the huge golden orb spiders still clinging to the elaborate webs they construct daily).

Our guide wasn’t actually touching this one, just putting his hand in back of it. He told us these spiders are only moderately poisonous.

The flashiest part of our jungle trek (and most-advertised to tourists) was a canopy walk said to be the longest in the world, more than a half-kilometer long and strung from a series of six or seven platforms affixed to huge trees. At the highest point, it swayed almost 150 feet above the forest floor. Even there, at the center of it, the tallest trees stretched far higher over our heads.

Pretty scary. We’re weren’t supposed to stop mid-span.

Even scarier were the steps we had to descend to get to the final platform.

In the afternoon, we took a riverboat upstream to visit a tiny village of Bateq people — some of Malaysia’s Orang Asli (“original people”). They and other tribes ARE the people who still support themselves largely by hunting forest animals with poison darts. In fact, a big part of our time with them consisted in learning how they make the blowpipes and darts — and trying our skill at hitting a target with them. Some of the details of Bateq’s lives are pretty astonishing: it sounds like they’re still largely hunter-gatherers, with some tribes more nomadic than others. Our guide claimed that the villagers we were visiting pack up their simple belongings and move pretty often — every time one of the group members dies. He further explained that the Bateq dispose of their dead by wrapping them up in leaves, putting them on platforms, and hoisting them up huge trees deep in the jungle.

Steve didn’t hit the target, but he came pretty close.

I don’t regret doing either of the night activities we engaged in. On the first evening, we set off a little before 9 pm on a walk in search of exotic jungle fauna. We didn’t spot any sun bears or black panthers or elephants or Sumatran tigers (mostly they’re glimpsed in remoter areas of the park). But we did ooh and ah over a very large black scorpion and a couple of shy green tree snakes. Even if we’d seen nothing, we heard enough buzzing and clicking and chirping and croaking to make me feel Yoda would have felt right at home here.

Steve felt the second night’s activity was a bust, but I found it both wild and educational, in its own way. It had been billed as a “night safari” in which one would be driven along the edge of the park to look for bigger wild animals from the comfort of a vehicle. But the vehicle turned out to be a small extended cab pick-up truck. The back was open and equipped with two rough benches running down the long axis. Five of us crammed in there, including Steve and me, while two other guys and a spotter/guide had to sit on the roof. (“Just don’t tell my mother about this,” yelped one of the tourists, a tall, good-humored rheumatologist from Amsterdam.)

We tore down the highway and within minutes stopped to admire something marvelous: a white sloth running along an electrical wire. I’ve never seen a sloth before and didn’t think they could run that fast. He must have been scared of us. In a moment or two, however, he settled into that famous, cartoonish and comical slow-motion amble along the high wire. We drove on, and after a while turned off onto a rough dirt road that at first took us through a palm-oil plantation. I found it creepy, dense and vaguely menacing with all those thick palm fronds not far overhead; I kept thinking about the huge bird-eating spiders that live in these parts. But soon we moved out of the plantation and for an hour or so drove through ruined countryside littered with the corpses of dead palms and occasional clumps of human garbage.

The spotters shone powerful flashlights out both sides of the truck. They lighted little of interest: some wandering cows, a large owl, a small feral cat. Distant lightning flashed. For mile after mile, we saw nothing moving in the moonscape all around us. It seemed exactly what one should find when you cut down a magnificent forest, plant palm trees, and later abandon them: almost nothing that’s alive and wonderful.