25 November 2010

Capital of the Roof of the World

Driving into Lhasa, it doesn’t actually feel very Tibetan.  You have the same large thoroughfares evident in all Chinese cities, industrial estates belching out fumes and producing god-knows-what and huge Chinese slogans printed everywhere.

It was only once we reached the heart of the city, got off the bus and walked the final 100m to our hotel that we could see how it was (and might still have been).  We still had a couple of days of sightseeing ahead of us, which would take us to the Jokhang Temple, the Potala Palace and a couple of other not so well known places in and around the city.

I felt somewhat guilty that we were going into the Potala Palace, as it is essentially the spiritual home of the Dalai Lama, and should theoretically be closed to all but his family and Tibetan government officials.  I think he would feel very unwelcome in its current guise, with all trace of him perfectly cleansed away.  You see his bedroom and study, but no single mention of him.  There are some amazing sights held within though, mainly ornate bejewelled stupas of all the previous Dalai Lamas.

And directly in front of it (standing on a hill all alone, it looks pretty impressive) there is a typically Chinese large square (with  large plaque celebrating the achievement of building it), with a multi-coloured dancing water fountain in it, blaring out classical music mixed with Canto-pop.  We were fascinated by its tackiness. (I have a similar video, but couldn't upload it):

Only an oppressive regime could manage such things.

Where's Wally?  Can you find him?

The local Tibetans spent a lot of time praying in the main square before the Jokhang temple, which dates from the 7th century, and is the holiest place in the country (whoops, slip of the tongue, I meant province).  Some pilgrims have walked for huge distances to be here.  That’s not that unusual in the religious world, but every couple of steps on the way they prostrate themselves.

Just 3,418,882 more to go

The locals were friendly as we made our way around the town (both Han and Tibetan).  We had been warned by a Han in Qingdao that the Tibetans were not good people, and will always try and rip you off, but that’s one of those situations where people have a blinkered view when there is a clash of cultures.  Tibetans probably think similarly of the Han.

Not a good idea
The army presence was immense; I haven’t seen so many soldiers stationed on the streets since Northern Ireland in the 80s.  It’s somewhat menacing, with all of them carrying guns.  No wonder the Tibetans seen rather downtrodden, with that and the constant flux of immigrants from other parts of China.

I also had a sweetcorn flavoured ice-cream, it was awful, and I couldn't finish it.  The local beer was surprisingly decent, simply called Lhasa (I'm still waiting for a beer to be called Swatragh).  Even though it was as light as the usual Chinese beer, the taste was crisp and a little sweet.  The other thing about Chinese beer that I noticed was that it is reasonably drinkable when it'snot chilled.  It still tastes the same (watery).

And finally we had got to a place where men did not use their T-shirts as belly tops (although that was probably more to do with it being a bit nippy).  Ever since Ulan Bataar, we’d seen this constantly, through China, SE Asia and Nepal.

We left on the train at 7:45 in the morning

Bus to Tibet

The bus to the border was bumpy, very bumpy.  The Nepali government has really been getting behind with road works.  Very close to the crossing point, we hit a traffic jam, which necessitated the bus reversing back down a road with a huge drop to one side.  At one point the bus nearly dropped the back wheels of the edge, which had a number of people on the bus clambering to get out, myself included.  It just about stayed on.

After that near brush with death came the ordeal of getting into Tibet.  Those in power in Beijing do not want anything sneaking over the border that might show the Tibetans who the Dalai Lama is.  All guide books need to be discarded before getting to the border.  Rather unhelpfully, none of them tell you that in their actual guide, lest it put you off buying it.  After a bag search (which was not that thorough, I think we could have got our book through), we were in.

We spent the next four days on the bus to get to Tibet going through some of the most stunning landscape yet (you can see we had some dust on our camera sensor and we bother with Photoshop either):

Seen a few monasteries:


And we got to see a bit of everyday life high up in the Himalayas :

It may be cold up there, but there's plenty of sun

It was my first experience of a group tour.  It was a very international group with about 16 different nationalities on board.  A few countries played out to their natural stereotypes, but I’ll not go into details, don't want to offend anyone  J

There were a few problems with people suffering from acute mountain sickness, and one girl eventually got evacuated from Lhasa to Beijing for hospital treatment.  The tour guide dealt shoddily with the situation, but as far as we know, everything turned out ok.

The other problem was the Sinofication of all the Tibetan towns we went to.  Slowly but surely, they are all beginning to look like bland carbon copy Chinese cities.

As much as we like to slag China off for what it is doing in Tibet (and Xinjiang, and anywhere else it calls its own that the locals disagree with), I was grateful for the road, which was so much better than what we had to endure on the Nepali side.  But that is but a small plus to try and counter all the negative things implemented by the central government.

We arrived in Lhasa on the evening of the 13th of October.

20 November 2010

Paragliding in Pokhara

Trying to fly kites unsuccessfully in Nagarkot
The trip back to Kathmandu was a hairy one, more akin to a rollercoaster ride than a scheduled flight.  Audrey spent most of the flight praying to whichever God came to mind.  But it was nothing in comparison (in my opinion) to the 6 hour drive to Pokhara (Audrey was unfazed by this one).

We were heading there to do some paragliding, which I’ve been itching to do for ages.  We had already arranged a driver and vehicle, and convinced Fabio, a bubbly Brazilian, someone we met a few times in the mountains, to join us for the drive.  I was regretting the drive pretty quickly.  It started with a mammoth traffic jam leaving the capital, followed a road which would have even been considered a disgrace in the south of Ireland in the early 80s, combined with a crazy driver who must have felt he had a sixth sense that could see around corners.  This was the main “highway”.

Fabio and Audrey, and a dog's arse

Normally I can cope with dodgy driving, and it’s Audrey who whips out her luggage-case-strap-cum-portable-seatbelt on every bus journey.  On this one though, I was grippping the armrest tightly, and thinking about the cost of flying back.  And I reckon Fabio was wishing he had taken the bus.  Audrey, meanwhile, was calm in the front seat, oblivious to the obvious danger we were in; perhaps her seatbelt giving her a false sense of security.

We arrived safely.

Getting my first cut-throat-razor shave in Pokhara
Pokhara, despite being the third biggest city, was a complete contrast to Kathmandu, laidback and spacious, no in-your-face people trying to sell anything.  There wasn’t much to see either, but I needed a relaxing environment after the drive, hiking and Kathmandu.

Paragliding was good, but not as exhilarating as I expected.  Audrey had been really worried about it, but when we landed I was greeted by an over-excited Audrey.  She had loved it, and my disappointment was mainly due to the fact that my pilot had failed to hit the thermals properly to get up some good height.  Plus, the pace was a bit pedestrian, and I like to be in control, but that wasn’t possible.  Take-off was interesting, running down a hill towards a cliff, but the parachute really picks up the wind well, so we were up in the air before you know it.

Talking to the locals in Nepal was quite easy , as most spoke a good level of English.  We noticed that a lot had been to work in the middle east.  No one had much good to say about being there, which ties in with the recent stories in the news of torture by Saudi families on maids from South Asia and Indonesia.  Most went from Nepal during the Maoist insurgency, when tourism was at a nadir.  But now they have their peace process (which moves just as slowly as the one in Northern Ireland), and little threat from paramilitaries, tourist are returning in droves.

The only positive thing a couple of people could say about Saudi Arabia was that cars obey the traffic lights, which in Kathmandu isn’t really an option, as I only seen one set in the entire country, and that was on the blink, literally simply flashing orange, reminding me of this story of a county in Ireland.

The drive back to Kathmandu was similar as the journey there, but I’d gotten used to it by now, plus the driver was quite good even if he was a bit insane.  We met up with our guide Raj again, and he’d just come back from an audition for the Nepali version of Pop Idol, which I thought was quite funny.  He’d been bursting into song every so often on the mountains, practising I now assume.  He’d managed to get down to the last twenty, but missed the crucial cut for the last 10.  He says he’ll be back again next year.  Good luck to him.

A few more days wandering around the city followed, and we attempted to fly kites we had bought.  We got a quick lesson from one of the locals while we were on the roof of our hotel.  Kite fighting is a popular sport here, where the goal is to cut the string of other peoples kites with yours.  I thought it'd be really difficult for anyone to cut the string, but we predictably lost our kite after a group of experts from a balcony about 50 metres away got their kite string into the path of ours.

After a one night trip to Nagarkot, we headed off to Tibet on a 7 day tour.

18 November 2010

Trekking back down the Khumbu Region

We had a couple of nights in Gokyo, and on the first morning, we were up at 5:30am to hike up to the fourth and fifth lakes (the village is on the shores of the third one).  The weather was still in a state of permanent cloud cover, but we set off optimistically.  The view of Everest from the fifth lake is one of the best in the region.  We don’t have any photos of it though, as it threatened to show through many times, with windows of blue sky opening up every 10-15 minutes, but snapping shut again as soon as Everest was about to be revealed.

Whatever the weather system is around the summit at 8848m, it was hogging the haze that day.  Our guide politely informed us that it was the first time he’d never seen the peak from this point, and after 90 minutes we wandered back down.  20 minutes down the road, from a different angle, the peak (and only the peak) was briefly visible.  It was a bit of a let down.

We arrived back at the lodge tired (Audrey's boots were falling apart  and needed some emergency treatment with superglue), and resolved to be up early again the next day for our assault on Gokyo Ri, a peak of 5357m (about 600m above our current location).  This was the reason we were here, and this is the view that we had been told about.  Fortune (and the sun) shined on us.  The day welcomed us with clear blue skies, and we moved out early.  Rune set a ferocious pace ahead of us, and reached the top in well under two ours.  It took us just over two, but it was hard going.  We had to hand our backpack off to Raj, our guide, as breathing and walking was so difficult.

Getting to the top was a relief, and the view was worth it:

After getting our breath back, we took it all in for an hour and a half, before starting our descent. It was sore on the knees.  Back at the lodge, we had breakfast, and then set off on our descent proper in the early afternoon (leaving poor old Rune all alone).  It was nightfall before we reached our destination, Dole, and hiking without vision is not a good idea.

It was the toughest days hiking we’ve ever done (and are ever likely too).  Started before 6am, finished after 6pm.  Went from 4850m (Gokyo) up to 5350m (Gokyo Ri), then finished down to 4100m (Dole).  My knees did not enjoy that.  Luckily Audrey's boots where holding up at the repair job (anyone need a cobbler?).

During the last couple of days, as we were on the descent, Raj introduced us to a few of the local alcoholic drinks.  We hadn't been drinking anything on the way up, as alcohol and altitude don't mix so well, and you have to give your body the best chance of avoiding altitude sickness.  We had a few headaches from time-to-time, but nothing serious.  The first drink we tried was tongba, which was fermented millet seeds in a jug, that you poured hot water into. The hot water slowly released the alcohol from the seeds, and you could refill about 6 times.  The strength of the drink increased for the first few fills, and then decreased thereafter, until you felt you'd exhausted it (or had enough).  The next day we had a spirit-like drink called 'roxie'.  I've no idea of the correct spelling.  And on the final day came chang, something I would have a few more times in Tibet, and grow to enjoy.

This old guy above is a wonder of human endeavour.  For the last 20 years he's been building better trails for hikers on their way up to see Everest, and he's done this without any government help, based solely on the donations of people passing through.  He lives up in the mountains in self-made rudimentary accommodation, and is 66 years old.  In the donation book, we had a look through, and couldn't believe that someone had donated as little as 6 rupee (about 5p) to the cause (we also couldn't believe that they would actually write that in the book).

We flew out of Lukla on Day 13, as planned.

17 November 2010

Trekking up the Khumbu Region

We had 13 days in the mountain ahead of us, just to be able to get a good view of Everest (Chomolungma in the local language).  We were flying (again), but this time it was a short hop of 30 minutes from Kathmandu to Lukla, a small airport that connects the Khumbu region to the rest of Nepali civilisation.  There is no road there, simply a hiking trail.  You can get a bus from Kathmandu to Jiri, and walk for 4-8 days to get there, but we didn’t have the time (or will).

Plus, the airport is a sight to behold.  Planted onto a small strip of land, the runway has a 12% incline (or decline if you are where we took the picture above).  As the plane hones in to land, you can almost see the landing strip rising into the mountain (normally runways looks like it’s disappearing into the horizon).  It can only handle tiny single and double prop planes with about 12-16 people onboard.  The incline helps to slow planes down as they land, and to get planes up to speed as they take-off. 

The scenery on the flight was also amazing, with views over improbable farms on step hills giving way to mountains that even the Nepalese wouldn’t farm.

Our hike started pretty soon after we landed, when Raj (our guide) found a suitable porter, Kumar, among the hundreds of people crowding around the airport exit.  We felt kind of guilty having some carry our backpack for us, but it was part of the costs, plus, after less than an hour, we realised that Kumar had it relatively easy; some porters were carrying three or more backpacks, never mind those who actually transported stuff around the villages in the mountains.  Raj told us that some of them carry up to 160-170kg at a time.  A lot of them are the local Rai people, who, supposedly, have an extra strong muscle down the back of their neck (hence use the head strap to support the weight, see picture below).

When we arrived, I joked with Audrey about finding an Irish pub for a pint while I was here.  I needn’t have joked; I should have known there would be one.  It reminded me of the time me and a couple of friends headed to Gradiska, a town in Bosnia, on the border with Croatia.  As we crossed the bridge that crossed the river that separated the somewhat unfriendly neighbours, literally connected to the border checkpoint, complete with armed guards and barbed wire, was an Irish pub.

First day was a simple three hour hike to our first nights lodging.  We were now at 2650m, about 200m below the airport.  Sleeping wasn’t too big a problem, but the Diamox that we were taking was a strong diuretic, which meant getting up in the middle of the night to get to the bog.  Day two involved a 5-6 hour hike, climbing up about 650m to Namche Bazaar, where we would stay for a couple of nights to acclimatise.

Here we met Rune, a jovial Danish bloke, who we hiked along with to the top of our part of the trek.  He also came out with one of the best quotes of our trip, when, as we were talking about cheesey movies, he said:

“You’re talking to a man whose favourite TV show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

Apart from that, though, travelling up the hills with him was good craic and company for us, although he won rather too many cups of hot chocolate from us over a few card games, and Ludo.

We pushed on upwards on day 4, past the local airport (at 3750m, a pebble runway on suitable for single engine planes), and to a place called Dole.  It was a tough day, rising 500m before descending about 400m, and then back up another 500m.  Fortunately the next day was a relaxing two and a half hour hike to Machhermo, where we had another acclimatisation day.

The final (upwards days) day push to our target of Gokyo would have been so much nicer, had the weather played ball.  I haven’t mentioned much of breathtaking scenery, simply because we hadn’t seen much yet.  Whoever decides the weather had been unkind to us, and fog and clouds had masked the views of the jagged peaks, apart from the occasional, fleeting glimpse.

Still, it didn’t detract so much from the landscape around us; we were enjoying the nature, a great break from the dust and smog of Kathmandu.  The Dudh Kosi (literally translated as milk river, as it is rushing down so fast it looks white) kept us company from day one.  A roaring river, I’ve never seen one descend so quickly and for such a sustained period of time.  On our trek to Goyko, we left it behind.

Three lakes lead up to the hotels at Gokyo, each one more beautiful than the previous, with two beyond the small settlement.  We would spend two days there, hoping the weather would play nice so we could get a good view of Chomolungma.

The five of us finally arrived at the Namaste Guesthouse at 2pm, ready for a hot chocolate.

07 November 2010


What a crazy town.  Thamel (the tourist centre) is a district with a myriad of small streets teaming with tiny taxis, rickshaws and peddlers.  Normally I don’t get offered drugs anywhere (despite what other travellers say about their availability), but I was being offered hash at every turn-around here.  I declined, continuing my search for a decent draught beer (the last time had been in HK two months previous, and prior to that, it was in Irkutsk, around the start of May).  No luck here either.

We spent a day touring the main sights in the city.  Mad traffic, dog-, bird, and monkey-shit everywhere, street sellers saying hello constantly, taxis and rickshaws offering rides, dust and smog.  Sensual overload in a negative sense.  Complete chaos.

The sights were amazing though, Monkey Temple, ancient town centre, massive Stupas and Pashupatinath Temple (where you can actually witness people burning their dead, and pushing them into the river, it was intense).  By the end of the day though, I’d already succumbed to Hindu/Buddhist temple fever.

The day was also an opportunity to test out our new camera, a Sony Nex-5 (a present from Dr. Tam).  We’d left the Nikon D70 in the safe hands of Audrey’s dad in HK.  It is very different working with it (I’ll not go into the +ve and –ve points just now), but the picture quality seems to be better, and most importantly, it’s much lighter.

We met with a tour company who were sorting out our trip to the Everest region, a 13 day trek up to Gokyo Ri, where we should get good views of the big hill itself (details in the next blog entry).

While on the tour, we found out a few interesting things about how things work in Nepal.  Road accidents were the most disturbing.  According to our guide, if someone knocks down, and serious injures someone, then are required not only to pay for hospital bills, but loss of earning for the rest of their life.  Insurance is a rarity.  So, if possible, the drivers try and finish them off, then go to the police and tell them that they knocked down and killed someone.  A large fine (but less that would otherwise need to be paid) will be handed down, along with a few years ban from driving.

Vigilante justice is also common.  Someone caught stealing from a shop or a foreigner will be set upon by anyone in the near vicinity, and given a bit of a beating.  Even if the police are nearby, they let it go on for a short while before intervening, to teach the lout a lesson.  Then, possibly to stop the crowd from going too far, they interrupt and arrest the criminal.  Charges probably won’t be pressed, as that involves too much paperwork, but he might get a few more “touches” once at the copshop.

After buying a load of trekking stuff, we were picked up at 5:30 at our hotel by our guide, Raj, and headed to the airport.

First Flight in 6 Months

Having travelled some 20,000 km (rough approximation) without leaving the ground, getting used to the formalities of an airport was very unfamiliar.  In China, there had been scanning machines and metal detector at every train station and most subway stations, but no one was really paying attention, so it didn’t matter what was in your luggage or pockets.

Arriving at Saigon airport, I got lucky with the check-in queue, and was on my way through security within minutes.  Without thinking, I dropped my bag on the conveyor belt and wandered through.  Beep.  Mistake number one.  I’d completely forgotten about my wallet, phone, belt, keys and change in my pocket.  Going back, I deposited them in a tray, and went through again.  The attendant told me I had a bottle of water in there, and to take it out.  Mistake number two.  I handed it to her, and walked off with my bag, not mentioning to her (now that I’d seen inside my bag) that I had my laptop in there too.  Mistake number three.

I found a small shop to finish off the remainder of the local currency (Dong) by buying a beer and a snack.  I sat down, and took my bottle opener out of the bag to open the beer, and noticed that my penknife was attached to it.  Mistake number four.  The security personnel hadn’t picked it up on their fancy scanning machines.  While in the air during that flight, I kept thinking that, with my ‘lethal’ penknife, I was potentially the most dangerous person in the air at that time.

I had to spend the night in Bangkok airport.  I changed a tenner, bought some passport photos for £4.50, and spent the rest of the night trying to eat and drink of £5.50 (sleeping anywhere apart from a bed is not something I can do well).  I managed to squeeze a few beers and a couple of snacks out of it from the 7-11.

I got talking to a very drunk local, who was spouting all types of information about random stuff.  Mostly we talked about football, where, had he been coherent, he could have sounded like an authority on the subject.  All sorts of stuff came out of his mouth, the most interesting piece being:

“And League of Ireland, Shelbourne, very good, playing in Tolka Park, big problem with debt now.”

And this was just after talking about Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow (“capacity neally [sic]
 80,000, Torpedo Moscow, submarine missile”).  After a while, I wandered on to get another beer.

The rest of the journey was much less eventful, and I landed in Kathmandu the following afternoon.