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Trip 1 --
India, Nepal, and China
Part 2: Nepal (21 Aug to 28 Aug 1997)
Exchange rate: US$1 = 58 Nepalese rupees (NPR)
21 Aug-22 Aug
Bus: Kakarvitta to Kathmandu
(15:25; 16h 26m; NPR 337)
For my first couple of hours in Nepal I was under the impression that the whole country was made of mud. At least that was the case with Kakarvitta. A tout met me after I was stamped in, and he took me into his travel agency so that I could buy an overpriced ticket for a bus to Kathmandu. He could reserve a seat on a 16:00 bus for me for NPR 365. It was only about 14:00, and I figured I'd try my luck at the bus station. There I secured a ticket for a 15:25 bus for NPR 337. Near the station was a currency exchange place, and I changed $20 (I didn't see myself needing more) for just over 1100 rupees, which were given to me almost entirely in 20-rupee notes.
Except for the first hour or so, the bus trip was surprisingly smooth - apparently there has been a lot of construction on the highway in the last couple of years. What kept the trip from being expedient was that every hour or so, at least while it was still light out, the bus stopped so that vendors could charge the bus and try to convince people that they wanted to buy beer, chips, eggs, or water. Next to me on the bus was a Nepali student who had converted to Christianity and was studying Nepali literature and English. He was quite friendly, and he helped me figure out how to recline my seat (I usually don't like to, but it was the only bus seat I'd ever seen that formed an acute angle on its own) and, before I could stop him, paid for my dinner at the little truck stop where we were all given half an hour to eat a basic Nepali meal of dhal bat and vegetables. He also explained to me why there were students carrying flaming torches in the streets: they were in preparation for a bandh (a general country-wide strike) called in protest against the new anti-terrorism bill, the government's artificially raising transport prices, and other regulations. Because of this, he explained, nearly all stores would be closed the next day, and there would be no public
I slept about six hours on the bus, and I awoke to find us in the beautiful Kathmandu valley. Occasionally students tried to barricade the road, and the bus driver didn't dare to take us all the way into Kathmandu for fear of sabotage; instead, we stopped about three kilometers from the city.
A bandh-stricken ghost town; Everest Steak House; Dave...
My friend was nowhere to be seen, but there was a tout from the Tibet Guest House (not the Tibet Peace Guest House, or the Tibet Cottage, or the New Tibet Rest House, or any of the other hotels whose names sound almost the same) who offered to walk two Japanese tourists and myself into Kathmandu. I thought we might be ripped off at the hotel in exchange for this favor, but to my astonishment I was given a room for five dollars a night - about a third of what it should have cost. Except for the Windamere, it was the nicest hotel room I stayed in, the management staff was very helpful and friendly, and the location (the Chhetrapati district) was
I checked out the city. True, it looked nearly abandoned, just as the student on the bus had said. Because there was no traffic, it was a perfect day to do the walking tours in my Lonely Planet guide - was this prescient planning on the part of the authors? Kathmandu was a fascinating place to wander for one day (and only one) - it is composed of toles (small squares much like Rome's smaller piazzas) linked by narrow alleys. In each tole is at least one Buddhist shrine, where most of the population stops to pay respects. The shrines line the alleys too, and appear in the most unexpected places. You can be walking along a row of food stores and suddenly in front of you will be a Buddha statue covered with red powder. The larger squares contain temples and stupas, and one square, Durbar Square, is a huge plaza containing many temples densely
Further south the city is different. Ratna Park is flanked on all sides by wide avenues, and on the day of this bandh some people dared to lay goods out on the sidewalk for business as usual - and quickly cleaned them up whenever the bandh enforcers came through. The bus station is also near Ratna Park, and indeed nothing was happening there. I stopped just outside the park to watch a parade of protesters and to visit the Mahakala Temple, which contains a vicious-looking Shiva statue and more than a few
Back near the Tibet Guest House I lunched at the Silver Bell, where for NPR 160 I had vegetable momos, an apple lassi, and two Fantas - Kathmandu was still fairly hot, though much cooler than India. I was the only one in the restaurant, and on the radio the Yin Yang Restaurant was advertised in a repetitive jingle that accompanied me all the way back to New York. After lunch I slept a bit and did another walking tour, which took me to Durbar Square. It would have been a pleasant place to hang out for a while, except that it was getting dark, so the views of the temples were fading, and the area was being taken over by people offering hash. I also exhausted substantial energy convincing a tout that I didn't want him to show me
Very close to the hotel, I had dinner at the Everest Steak House, where I enjoyed a wonderful rum steak, yak cheese (very sweet stuff!), a mango lassi, a Fanta, some excellent apple strudel, and a lemon soda, for NPR 540. Midway through dinner another lone traveler, Dave, joined me. He was an jewelry importer from Burlington, Vermont; more interestingly, he was a train enthusiast and had recommendations of interesting train trips for my future plans: the trains from Ooty in India and from Chihuahua in Mexico. We also discussed the attempted scam I experienced in Agra, and he said he sees people ripped off all the time. We also discussed the aggressive sales tactics; he wasn't pleased with them either, but he said it was better than in Morocco, where the initial asking price will be at least a couple of powers of ten higher than it should be, and where the vendors will curse at people who decide not to buy. Before we parted he gave me his International Herald Tribune. What had happened in the last three weeks? I hadn't seen any news except for Gujral's speech in Delhi. Back at the hotel I educated myself. There was an article about the increasing number of companies buying kidnap insurance for traveling employees. Zhu Rongji was being hailed in China because of the prosperous economy and low inflation, and it was thought he might be the next prime minister. Chinese authorities were cracking down on entertainers' performing without permits (such concerts posed a threat to the government, apparently). Moscow was preparing to celebrate its 850th birthday. The UPS strike was over. The Dow was way down from when I had left. And, as usual, the peace process in Israel was making no progress whatsoever.
Nobody was quite sure what time the bus for Barabise left, and there wasn't complete agreement as to which bus station it left from, but the general consensus was that it left from the bus station next to Ratna Park pretty early in the morning. So at about 5:00 the next morning I checked out of the Tibet Guest House and walked the 15 minutes or so to the bus station.
Bus: Kathmandu to Barabise
(5:18; 4h 26m; NPR 49)
Finding the bus was just as easy as in Darjeeling: I yelled out, "Barabise?" and someone on the bus yelled back, "Barabise!" And at 5:18 we were on our way.The bus stopped more or less wherever there were people, and the conductor shouted "Barabise!" whenever we approached anyone. By the time we got to the Kathmandu Valley the bus contained many cramped passengers. The ride was interminable but the scenery was gorgeous: for most of the next four hours we drove on a narrow road along a steep gorge, passing by high waterfalls, across bridges above the racing Kosi River, and over mud where there had been landslides. Occasionally we stopped so vendors could offer us the usual assortment of drinks and snacks, and by the last hour our companions included two goats who did not take too kindly to the constant bumps of the unpaved Arniko Highway.
Bus: Barabise to Kodari
Finding the next bus, to Kodari, was also easy: someone yelled out, "This bus - Kodari" - and I boarded. Once we left Barabise, the sealed part of the highway ended, and the road became even rougher. I was crammed at the back of the bus, and I was barely able to look out into the valley and down the frighteningly steep gorge. (Dave from Vermont had told me the drop was about two thousand feet at this point.) For nearly three excruciating hours we drove perilously close to the edge, and the bus rocked precariously whenever we went over a landslide. One landslide, around a bend about two hours into the trip, was particularly troublesome. A family got off the bus just before we attempted to pass, and had I known why, I might well have joined them. For quite a few minutes the bus tipped back and forth; at one point we were about thirty degrees toward the mountain, and immediately thereafter we were twenty degrees over the gorge - this caused quite a few gasps from the passengers! Finally we were across, and the family got back
At Kodari, there were a couple of tour buses, and I stopped for lunch at a little restaurant: vegetable haakas, nothing splendid. Outside I could see the Tibetan town of Zhangmu perched over the valley; the buildings clung to the side of the mountain. A Nepali officer stamped me out, and he warned me that they weren't stamping individual travelers into Zhangmu - everyone came back. I decided to try anyway - I had to, right?
Car: Kodari to Zhangmu (45m; free)
I walked across the Friendship Bridge, and the Chinese guards on the other side made no movement as I went by. This wasn't customs, though - I still had to climb nine steep kilometers up the mountain to get to the official frontier. I started the journey, and after a few minutes I heard a honk behind me. A Chinese driver asked, "Going up?" and for the next 45 minutes I sat in the back of his station wagon with his family. I explained that I couldn't pay for the ride, as I had no Chinese money, but he didn't mind. This ride was even rougher than the bus ride to Kodari. Large, sharp rocks infested the dirt road we bounced continuously. It would have taken less than three times as long to walk! But finally, after passing some Chinese huts (did their inhabitants officially live in a country?), we arrived at customs, I disembarked, and the family drove off.
At one window I filled out a health declaration form. At the next I handed over my passport.
There were two officials, one man and one woman, and the man looked at my visa and then gave the passport to the woman. She pored over it for a moment and then handed it to me and said, "Sorry, you have to go back to the Chinese consulate in
I looked at her quizzically and said, "What is the problem?"
"You don't have this stamp." She showed me a stamp that of course I couldn't
"But I have a visa."
"But you need a stamp. It says, 'Entry point: Zhangmu.'"
"I just got this visa in New York. They didn't say anything about a
She was very friendly but firm. "Sorry, you must go back to
I smiled. "Please. I don't want to cause any trouble. I just want to get through so that I can get to Beijing. Can I show you my plane
They looked at it for a minute. The idea might have worked, except that the date on the ticket was two weeks away - I had plenty of time to go back to Kathmandu and to Beijing via any of various land or air routes. They gave the ticket back to me. "It's not until the
"I know, but I'm afraid I won't have time. Please. I'm not trying to make any
"I know, but this is our country and our rules." Ah, but that's the problem. Many people don't think it should be your
And so the conversation went on for 20 minutes or so. I was surprised how friendly she was, and when I spoke with her leader he was equally friendly, but still firm. As he and I were talking a tout offered me a ride back to Kathmandu - do they ever know when to shut up? But eventually I gave up. It was pretty clear I wasn't going to make any progress, and I didn't want to hold up the line of people waiting to enter. True, all of the travelers were on group tours with leaders who held permits for their groups. The conversation reminded me of the scene in Kodály's opera
Háry János, where one family is denied permission to cross the Russian frontier because their visa is too small, and then another family is denied permission because their visa is too big. Rather comical,
This left me with the question of where to go. I figured if I walked quickly, I could make it back to Barabise before dark (about 25 kilometers), and I could spend the night there. That way I could walk across that awful landslide instead of having to pass over it on a bus. I started the nine-kilometer descent to the Nepali border. After a few minutes a Chinese woman waiting at the side of the road showed me the shortcuts I could take. (Ah, the people were so friendly! It was just the authorities causing the trouble.) I wasn't eager to try the shortcuts on my own, as I didn't know where they went. But just behind me were two Nepali men, and they guided me down the horrifically steep shortcuts. They were long and treacherous, and my legs hurt for about four days because of the strain. Still, the trek was cut to less than an hour, and I was very relieved when we finally crossed the Friendship Bridge. I went back into the customs office.
"You were right," I said to the official.
He was also friendly. "Everyone comes back."
I paid him $15 for another Nepali visa and filled out an application
Now that was an interesting predicament; I had none. I started to think about spending the rest of my life trapped between two countries, one that would deny me entry because I had no permit, and another that would deny me entry because I had no passport photo. But of course there was nothing to worry about. In the space where my photo should have gone, the official just wrote, "Male".
Car: Kodari to Kathmandu
One of the men who accompanied me down the mountain showed me to a car that he said was going back to Kathmandu. I knew if I accepted the ride it would be expensive, but probably better than a 16-kilometer walk and a night in Barabise. The driver asked for NPR 2500 at first (almost $50), but eventually I bargained him down to $20 - he was going back regardless, so he could either take me for a lower fare or have the seat empty. There was one other paying
The drive back took about five hours, during which we listened to the same tape of Nepali pop music over and over again. The songs themselves were repetitive, so I had the experience of five hours of repetitions of repetitive songs - by the end of the trip I could practically sing along with the tape.
23 Aug-28 Aug
A very helpful staff; bookshops; Thamel; Northfield Cafe; Joshua, Hulda, Trine, and Meta; Pashupatinath; Thamel House Restaurant; an unofficial tour...
I checked back into the Tibet Guest House and explained what had happened. The staff smiled empathetically - what a friendly place this was! - and gave me the same $5 room rate. I asked about flights to Lhasa - I didn't have time to go by land, and I had no desire to endure the drive to Kodari again. One staff member said the next morning he could get me a plane ticket. I had a tasty but unexceptional dinner at the nearby Nepalese Kitchen and walked back to the
The next morning a hotel staff member and I discussed the possibility of my flying to Lhasa. Because the visa and permit requirements kept changing, he didn't know if I could get in on my Chinese visa. But he was willing to organize a ticket for me on China Southwest Airlines for the following Tuesday (two days later), for $190 - and I wouldn't have to pay for a tour. He warned me that if I wasn't allowed on the plane, and I wanted a refund of the ticket, I'd only get back $130, and it would be in Nepali rupees. He gave me a half-sarcastic suggestion for dealing with the immigration official at the airport: "Show them your ticket home from Beijing. Say that your mother is worried about you. Do you know how to cry? You can start to cry, and you can ask the official, 'Do you have a mother? I have a mother too. She's worried about me. Please let me in.'" I had to relinquish my passport for the day in order for the ticket to be arranged, but there was no problem getting the
There's really not much to do in Kathmandu once you've been there for a day. With longer, I could have visited other cities or done some trekking. I discovered that the city had a lot of good bookstores, however - and I think I eventually visited all of them. I checked quite a few that day; I was desperate to find a copy of Peter Fleming's News from Tartary (the story that inspired Stuart Stevens's hilarious
Night Train to Turkistan, which describes his trip along China's Silk Road) or Paul Theroux's
Riding the Iron Rooster (one of his travel books that I hadn't read yet). I didn't find them, though a few stores had the Stevens book and other Theroux books. I lunched at Le Bistro (peanut sauce over stuffed eggplant; very filling) and then explored the Thamel area for a while. Almost everything in Thamel is in English, and there are far more tourists than Nepalese. Unless you're shopping for mementos, trekking supplies, or hashish, it's really not very interesting - though the restaurants are usually pretty
For dinner I tried a Mexican restaurant, the Northfield Cafe. It was a very pleasant place to eat; I had a table outside in the garden, and it was there that I met Joshua and Hulda (from Boulder, Colorado), Trine (from Norway), and Meta (from Denmark), all about my age - we spent quite a bit of time together that evening and the next day. We didn't start talking until I completed my quesadilla with chorizo, fruit salad, and two margaritas. The restaurant owner and a German also joined us. Joshua and Hulda were in the middle of a two-year trip through Europe, Asia, and possibly other places too. Trine and Meta were preparing for a trek and had also been traveling for quite a while. They were surprised when I revealed the duration of my trip: "You came all this way - why only one
The restaurant closed at around 22:00, after which we all went inside to the bar. Hulda and I talked for a while about traveling, and in particular about India. She told me about Gita Mehta's book Snakes and Ladders, which describes her thoughts about the Indian lifestyle. Hulda said that India, for her, was a place not so much to visit as to experience. That was how I had felt, too - and that's how the country is described in the Lonely Planet guide. I said that I found most of Asia to be very safe; she agreed in part, but said that as a woman she had experienced stares and minor incidents that had made her uncomfortable. She and Joshua (her husband) were going to Thailand next, and thereafter to Australia, where they'd spend a few months working in exchange for housing. We also discovered that a friend of hers was from Flint, Michigan, the same place my father is from. Eventually the music (and the beer) inspired some of us to dance - despite the skips of the scratched compact disc, and we stayed there until 2:10 in the morning. We set a tentative meeting time of 12:00 for lunch for anyone who wanted to come. Kathmandu was very dark and almost lifeless at that hour (though a couple of rickshaw drivers perched on their vehicles woke up to offer us rides), and I had to bang on the gate of the Tibet Guest House in order to wake up the security guard to let me
The nice part about getting back to the hotel so late was that I didn't have to try to figure out what to do for much of the morning. I browsed a few more bookstores, and eventually bought Gita Mehta's book and Maurice Herzog's
Annapurna, which describes his conquest of the 8075-meter peak in 1950. I thought it might be good to have some reading material for all the buses and trains I would be taking in China. Finding books wasn't easy in some bookstores - sometimes books were arranged by last name, sometimes by first name, sometimes by title, sometimes in sections according to subject, sometimes randomly, and sometimes a combination of the
At shortly after noon Joshua, Hulda, the German, one of his friends, and I were at the Northfield Cafe. I had a tostada for lunch, and we thought about what we might do that afternoon - we decided to go to Pashupatinath, a Hindu temple on the banks of the Bagmati River, where the dead are cremated in burning ghats. It started to rain, though, so we spent a couple of extra hours at the Northfield Cafe before leaving. The discussion turned to chocolate, and Joshua, a fan of
Harper's Index, remarked that Britons, on the average, eat 18 kilograms of chocolate yearly. We discovered there was no good measurement for chocolate, so we invented one: one briton of chocolate would henceforth be equivalent to 18
We shared a taxi (NPR 20 each) to Pashupatinath, where there was, as usual, a cremation ceremony happening. It was dusk when we got there, so the impressive flame provided most of the light in the area. The ceremony looked respectful but expedient - family and friends came by to view the cremation for a few minutes and then left silently. We weren't allowed into the temple, but we had an excellent view of the ceremony and of the numerous wild
We had dinner at the Third Eye, though I wasn't hungry enough and just had mulligatawny soup. After dinner we went back to the Northfield Cafe, where we met Trine, Meta, and a few Russians. The scene was much more active than the previous night, with most people drinking heavily. I abstained, as I was planning to leave for Lhasa the following morning and didn't want to be further affected by the plane ride or the high Tibetan altitude. Joshua and I discovered that our planes were going to leave at about the same time, so he, Hulda, and I agreed that we'd probably end up meeting at the airport - and I agreed to give them a wake-up
That proved to be more of an event than I thought - I had to call the hotel front desk, dial the number at Joshua and Hulda's hotel, and hang up, and then the front desk staff member called me back when the call was put through. I took a taxi to the airport (NPR 150) and paid my NPR 700 departure tax. Indeed I met Joshua and Hulda, and a friend of theirs; we said farewell, and I got in the queue to reserve a seat on the
But as I approached the counter I had my doubts that this plan was going to work. My first clue was when the person in front of me called out to her friends, "We need the permit." And it was true for me too - the man behind the counter looked at my passport and said, "Impossible." I asked what was wrong, and he showed me what a proper permit looked like. I explained that I was really on my way to Beijing, and he said, "There are no flights from Lhasa to
"I know. I have to go to Chengdu."
"Then where is your ticket to Chengdu?"
"I have to get it in Lhasa."
He didn't look like the kind of person to whom I wanted to start crying and talking about worried mothers. There was also a woman behind the counter, and I talked to her about my situation too. She said that I had to buy a permit for $150 from a travel agent and that then I could get on the plane. At least she didn't say anything about joining a group tour. A travel agent suddenly appeared next to me and gave me his card; he quoted the same price for a permit and said that if I went to his office later that day (he'd be there soon), he could get a permit for me and change my ticket for the Thursday flight at no extra charge. I agreed to meet him at his office. Before I left the airport, though, I tried to see if it would have been possible to buy a ticket to Chengdu there. Also impossible - they don't sell airplane tickets at that airport. How
Two more days in Kathmandu! The idea was formidable. I got to the travel agency as quickly as I could, in the hopes that maybe they could arrange my permit in time for me to make that morning's flight. Of course it was impossible, but worth a try. I waited at the agency, reading
Annapurna, until the man from the airport showed up about an hour later. He was quite friendly, and he assured me there would be no problems; he'd have everything ready by the next day. I left my passport and plane ticket with him and checked into the Tibet Cottage across the street. I would have much preferred the Tibet Guest House, but how embarrassing it would have been to explain (yet again) why I was back there! Also, it was in a different part of the city, and I wanted to stay near the travel agency. There was nothing wrong with the Tibet Cottage (except for the few mosquitoes); it was almost as nice as the Tibet Guest House, though I couldn't get the same excellent rate. Still, I bargained the staff down to $6.60 a night, which was pretty good.
After a short nap I wandered back to some of the bookstores I had visited during the previous few days - maybe a copy of News from Tartary would have shown up! I still couldn't find one, though I did find a copy of my favorite novel, Ordinary People, as well as a copy of Jude the Obscure, which is mentioned in Ordinary People. I wondered if you could play the Kevin Bacon game with books. Jude the Obscure is mentioned in Ordinary People, which is mentioned in...but I couldn't think of a book that mentioned Ordinary People. I bought one more book, which instilled a small feeling of homesickness. It was New York Days, New York Nights, by Englishman Stephen Brook - it's his collection of anecdotes from traveling in New York City. Later that day I ran into Meta, who said that Trine was sick and that they didn't know if they'd be able to trek as
I wasn't hungry for lunch, but for dinner I had a huge meal at the excellent Thamel House Restaurant. The staff sat me on the top floor of the restaurant, where everyone dines sitting on the floor. I had a table for one when I entered, but I eventually joined Cassie and Zara, two English jewelry designers, who came in shortly after me. After a fruit appetizer, I had the house specialty, wild boar - quite tasty. Early in the meal the staff gave us each a tiny shot of the Nepali drink roxy, which is 70 percent alcohol. None of us got through more than a sip or two - the drink was potent enough just from its smell. Dessert was delicious; we each had the cinnamon yogurt with dried fruit. All this wonderful food (and mango juice and lemon juice) for only NPR 630.5 (why the half-rupee I have no idea), and they even gave us souvenirs as we left. As I tried to stand up my feet reminded me of all the walking I'd been doing lately, and, borrowing a word from a friend of mine, I said, "Standing up is
Zara looked at me curiously. "What a strange
The next morning I walked down Durbar Marg and had lunch at the Nanglo Cafe, which sounded as if it might have traditional Nepali food. But it had the same dull Westernized menu as so many other restaurants in the city, and even that they didn't get quite right - my "paprika pizza" (the concept of which sounded interesting) was really just green-pepper pizza. The vanilla shake wasn't bad, though. Lunch cost NPR
The day did serve one useful purpose: I happened to pass by an Air France office and was able to reconfirm my flight home from Beijing. I found another bookstore, but it had nothing useful. Late in the afternoon I went back to the travel agency. My ticket and permit were ready, but they wouldn't take my Mastercard because "Mastercard closes at five
"Really? I used it last night at a restaurant."
"In a restaurant is okay. But here it closes at five
Fortunately I had cash. He gave me my passport and ticket, but he wouldn't give me the permit. Instead, he would meet me at the airport the next morning at 8:00. I begged him for a copy of the permit - I didn't want to take any chances! But he (almost) convinced me that there was nothing to worry about. I wasn't at all hungry for dinner, but I wanted to try a German restaurant; at the Old Vienna I had a basic wiener schnitzel, fruit salad, and two Fantas for NPR
Sure enough, the travel agent was at the airport in plenty of time for my plane. The permit (signed by someone named "Benny" - go figure!) was for two people, myself and one Korean man whom I didn't formally meet until we arrived at Gonggar airport. In Gonggar another travel agent would meet us with another copy of the permit. The travel agent in Kathmandu gave me all sorts of warnings about traveling in Tibet, even with this permit. I had only paid $150 for the permit (which included transport to Lhasa from the airport and three nights at the Banak Shol, where I had planned to stay anyway), but if anyone questioned me, I was to say that I had paid $290 for a four-day, three-night tour. If I was found walking around alone, even in the hotel, I was to say that I was feeling sick and didn't feel up to sightseeing with the group. Would I really run into such
The same two people as on Tuesday were checking permits and giving out seat assignments. The woman wrote a number on my ticket, and I asked, "Window
"Yes. You can see the mountains," she said with a
The time on the ticket said 10:00, but the signs in the airport said that the plane would leave at 10:30. There wasn't much guidance given once the boarding
process began - everyone was escorted outside, but no one gave any directions as to where to go. That there was only one plane at the airport made everything a lot easier. It was a big jet, certainly large enough so that all 12 passengers could have window seats.
Air: Kathmandu to Lhasa
(10:30; 56m; $190)
The flight was gorgeous. Once we were above the clouds, I suddenly saw in plain view a snow-capped mountain peak. Several more appeared shortly. How strange to have this pseudo-Arctic view only about seven minutes after leaving the lush Kathmandu Valley! An announcement was made as we passed Mount Everest, and a snack sandwich was served. Later in the flight the scenery changed to another marvelous display of beauty: the white of the highest mountain tops, the red of the shorter mountains, and the brown of the plateau appeared in vivid contrast. And then, within an hour after departure, we had landed. There was a plane, a building, a road, and nothing but mountains.
Go on to part 3