Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Nepal Research Project - At the Bangkok Airport

I recently posted two podcasts about a research project that I have started in Nepal. Those posts can be found at http://TravelGeography.info. This blog entry was written enroute to Nepal.

1 Jan 07

I am sitting at gate C5 at the Bangkok international airport, listening to the Slashdot Review podcast on a small RCA Lyra mp3 player, while recording some of the sounds of the waiting room on my iRiver. The sounds include different languages and a video screen showing a black and white documentary of the early life of the King of Thailand (the 60th year of his reign is being celebrated in 2007). The video’s narration is in Thai, though I think only a minority of the passengers here are actually Thai.

The passengers are a diverse population of East Asians, South Asians, and Euro-Americans. Many are wearing hiking boots, as I am, and several are reading through their Nepal guidebooks. The Euro-Americans tend to be on the younger, backpacker genre, though there are a couple of older guys, as well -- including me. And there are two Buddhist monks who are sitting next to me. They are wearing the more reddish saffron robes, which I believe indicates Tibetan Buddhism. Their language sounds somewhat like Mandarin Chinese, but since I cannot make out any of the words, they either have a very strong accent or are speaking another language -- most likely the latter.

I am typing this blog with my thumbs on my HTC/Audiovox XV6700, rather than turning on my computer. Speaking of computers, I was very dissatisfied with the quality of high-speed Internet access at the hotel that I stayed in last night (the Concorde Inn KLIA) (KLIA = Kuala Lumpur International Airport). I was able to do email and even got a usable video Skype connection with my wife. But I often had to refresh the screen to get a webpage to appear. Even more frustrating, I was not able to get into my online classes in Blackboard Vista for next semester. My classes are about 95-99% ready for the first three weeks of class. I would prefer that they be 100% ready, though, so hopefully I will find a good Internet café in Kathmandu in the next few days.

The problem might be related to the earthquake south of Taiwan the severed some of the main underwater fiber optic cables that connect Asia and North America. From what I have been reading in Malaysia's New Strait Times, it could up to a month before connections return to normal -- bummer! I don't think that South Asia was affected.


I wonder how common this is: As boarding time approached, the waiting room in Bangkok filled and people lined the walls as all the seats were taken. I think most of the world’s airports, outside the US, run security scans (x-rays and metal detectors) at the entrance to the gate waiting area -- and each gate's waiting are is completely self contained. Well after I sat down in the waiting room the ticket agent came by and took my boarding pass, leaving me with my receipt. When it came time to board an announcement was made for all passengers and a mob ascended on the gate. First and business class passengers were allowed on first, if they could get to the front of the mob. Then everyone boarded the plane. This approach also occurred at KLIA. It actually worked quite well. Do any other airlines do this? Does Thai Airlines do this all over the world?


Am I a bad traveler? Although I wrote a fairly lengthy research proposal on the topic of environmental and social change in Nepal, and I collected and scanned photographs spanning 40 years of Nepal, I have not really delved into any of the guidebooks on Nepal. Kevin gave me a couple of guidebooks to look at, along with a National Geographic magazine that had some great photos. I never got around to reading them prior to leaving the US, as the past 10 days or so have been incredibly hectic (Xmas, a family reunion, a daughter's wedding, and prepping my online classes for January). In a last minute decision I decided not to take any of the books with me lighten my load.

So I have a tinge of guilt -- like I somehow cheated on my homework. On the other hand, if I was going to Nepal on my own, then I would definitely bring the most comprehensive guidebook that I could find. So I guess I am really relying on Kevin Tatsugawa to be my guide, while I focus more on the research that we will be undertaking -- of which this blog entry is a part of.

I created two podcasts that have discussed our Nepal research proposal. The first discussed the research problem of how people perceive environmental and social change in the Khumbu (Mt Everest) region of Nepal (about 30 min). The second focused on the methodology (using photographs) and related theoretical context (20+ min). At some point I will put up a transcript of those to podcasts and link to those here, as well.

I currently think this research is going to be both highly informative and fun to do. I am sure there will be some challenges, and unanticipated turns in the research agenda. But I have a good feeling about this and I think the ultimate results will be very successful.

Dawa Sherpa met me at the airport. The Kathmandu Airport is small and chaotic – nothing at all like the massive and modern airports of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. I had met Dawa in Flagstaff a couple of months ago when Kevin brought him up from Prescott to talk about our research project. He had hired a driver for the day and took me to the Hotel Tibet. On the way we passed through the maze of streets that make up modern Kathmandu. The Hindu-based culture was quite evident with brightly colored cloth periodically glowing in the dust and air pollution of motorcycles and cars. The street life of a developing world economy was also evident with sidewalk barber stools and creeks that resembled open sewers. I tried to take a few photos out the windows of the car. I should have more chances to do that later.

At the Hotel Tibet I met Karl Swingle, the documentary film maker who is going to be traveling with us and will be videotaping some of our interviews. Karl had caught some kind of stomach bug and was not feeling that well – though he was in better shape that I was when that happened to me in Hong Kong last September. I had a fever, was unable to leave my hotel room for several days, and lost 10 pounds! Dawa went back to the airport to get Kevin and the both of them arrived back at the hotel a couple hours later. Kevin took me to the Thamel District, which is a major tourist shopping area where we had sandwiches for dinner at Sandwich Point – possibly the best shop of its kind in all of Nepal (highly recommended).

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I used to lead treks to the Everest Base Camp and was a founder of
the first hut-to-hut system in Nepal. In the region during the worst
storm in memory, I was appalled by world press coverage of the foreigners
who died with no mention of the Sherpas who also perished. A librarian,
I researched the major data bases and discovered that while many
anthropologists had studied the tribe, no one had dramatized their lives in
fiction. I returned home to write their story.

Beyond the Summit is unique in being the first fiction about Sherpas.
Set in the Everest region in 1968 four years after Sir Edmund Hillary
built a landing strip at Lukla, the story shows the impact of tourism on
a culture still living in the Middle Ages. Young Dorje wants what the
foreigners bring while his father resents their intrusion in the realm
of the gods. The Sherpa culture and Buddhist religion are interwoven in
an adventure and romance in the high Himalayas. The story has something
for everyone: an expedition from the porter’s point of view, Tibetan
refugees, conflict between generations as tourism and the modern world
challenge traditions, a love affair between an American journalist and
Sherpa guide. Readers consistently comment on how much they learned about
a tribe they formerly knew very little about.

Beyond the Summit was released on May 29, 2006—the anniversary of Sir
Edmund Hillary’s historic ascent of Everest because he has devoted much
of his life to helping the Sherpa tribe. Because it is so unique, the
novel has generated a great deal of excitement. A week after its
release, an NBC affiliate invited me for a live TV interview and Colorado PUblic radio also interviewed me. Because the book is so unusual, it immediately generated a great deal of interest. A week after it came out, a Denver affiliate of NBC invited for a live TV appearance and I was interviewed on Colorado Public Radio. While I was in northern CA, I was interviewed for a one-hour program, A Novel Idea, on KRCB in Rohnert Park, CA; the Pat Thurston Show on KSRO in Santa Rosa; CA and the Morning show on KSVY in Sonoma, CA.

The International Porter Protection group has endorsed my book saying it is beautifully written and goes right to the life of a porter. They have asked me to be a representative for their association.

Barnes and Noble Review
Average Rating: *****
"Best book on Nepal ever... This is the book to read before you embark on your pilgrimage to Nepal. The author knows and loves the people and the country, and makes you feel the cold thin air, the hard rocks of the mountains, the tough life of the Sherpa guides, and you learn to love them too. This is a higly literate, but also very readable book. Highly recommended."
-- John (college professor)

Below are selections from reviews. To read the complete ones and excerpts go to www.beyondthesummit-novel.com
A hard-hitting blend of adventure and romance which deserves a spot in any serious fiction collection. Midwest Book Review

LeBlanc is equally adept at describing complex, elusive emotions and the beautiful, terrifying aspect of the Himalayan Mountains. Boulder Daily Camera

LeBlanc's vivid description of the Himalayas and the climbing culture makes this a powerful read. Rocky Mt News Pick of the Week

A rich adventure into the heart of the Himalayan Kingdom. Fantastic story-telling from one who has been there. USABookNews.com

A gripping, gut-twisting expedition through the eyes of a porter reveals the heart and soul of Sherpas living in the shadows of Everest. EverestNews.com

Memorable characters and harrowing encounters with the mountains keep the action moving with a vibrant balance of vivid description and dialogue. Literary Cafe Host, Healdsburg, CA

This superbly-crafted novel will land you in a world of unimaginable beauty, adventure, and romance. The love story will keep you awake at night with its vibrant tension and deep rich longing. Wick Downing, author of nine novels

The book is available from amazon.com, chesslerbooks.com, Barnes & Noble and Borders Stores, and the web site for an autographed copy.
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