November 16, 2007

Exploding Chennai...

:: Thali Lunch ::

We stopped overnight in the town of Bhubaneshwar before catching a 20 hour train all the way to Chennai (formerly Madras) in time for the build up to Diwali - the biggest of Hindu festivals.

Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state is the fourth biggest city in India and is the second largest exporter of IT enabled services behind it's neighbour Bangalore. This combined with a strong manufacturing industries means Chennai is an economy on the up and up. The city also is home to a Tamil movie industry called Kollywood very different in language, content and music to the movies to those produced in Bollywood (Mumbai).

Our stay in Chennai was made all the more enjoyable by actually knowing someone living here. Krishna, who worked with Marcus in San Francisco, took us out for a fantastic meal, gave us pointers on what to see around town and left us with a huge box of Diwali sweets. He also generously agreed to mind our big bags for a few weeks so that we can venture down to the south unencumbered. Thanks for everything Krishna - see you again soon!

Diwali Festival for Hindus is the equivalent to Christmas. It's a crazy time of year with everyone running around the shops doing last minute buying followed by two days of parties, firecrackers, fireworks and the consumption of enormous amounts of sweets. For two days solid everyone set off fireworks and bangers in the street - in a very haphazard and dangerous manner may I add. (Heh..Dee has sensitive hearing :-) ) We spent two days walking around with our hands over our ears peering around corners to make sure there weren't any fireworks aimed in our direction. Now when we say everyone, we mean everyone. It was an incredible experience to walk down narrow streets just after dark and every household was out in the street letting off bangers, poppers, rockets, whirlythingys, sparklers and roman candles - kids parents and pets all in on the act.

As we'll be back in Chennai before Christmas we put off some sightseeing until then and concentrated on trying to clear down our memory cards and get the blog up to date.

25kg of luggage lighter, we set off for the seaside town of Mamallapuram a couple of hours south of Chennai.


Here is a little video I just uploaded of my rooftop ride on a Nepali Bus ...its the only way to travel !

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November 9, 2007

Puri and the Ocean

Hopping on yet another night train we got to the beach town of Puri in the State of Orissa and encountered our worst tout to date. Every tourist stop in India comes with it's own set of touts and rickshaw drivers trying to get you into their hotel, visit a silk shop etc. If you arrive late at night into a busy place their assistance can be invaluable in finding accommodation, however at 7am in the morning after a near sleepless night on the train they are the very last people you want to deal with.
If a tout accompanies you into a hotel the price immediately goes up as he gets a commission for the deal and generally the hotel owner will ignore us and deal with the tout. Therefore it's preferable to be doing the wheeling and dealing by oneself. In Kolkata Marcus waited with the bags while I set off to look for a hotel. Within minutes I had a tout on my tail and had to run down a few alleyways to give him the slip. Anyhow at this stop we were unlucky enough to attract a completely crazy rickshaw driver who just did not understand the meaning of the words "go away" .. and followed us for what seemed like forever; after a highly frustrating encounter we have since changed our approach tactics. We now arrive into places with our earplugs on the ready and use them at the first opportunity :-)

Puri is a popular Indian tourist resort, although it has two distinct ends, the Hindu end where all the local tourists go and then the other end where everyone else winds up. It was great to be back to seaside fare again .. mackerel, prawns, tuna on every little cafe's menu. It is not the sort of place where you strip off and go for a dip, more the kind of place where you savour the food and breathe in some fresh seaside air. Aside from the beach up our end literally being a toilet and cricket ground for the fishing community there are big rip currents which drown people each year. Around us were lots of hotels and lovely little garden cafes when we ventured down to the Hindu end we were surprised to see hotel upon hotel, camel rides, snacks on the beach and a promenade. We thought we were staying at the busy end of things!

:: The Sun Temple ::

In a side trip from Puri we went to see the Sun Temple in nearby Konark. Built in 1278 the entire temple has been conceived as a chariot of the sun god with 24 wheels, each about 10 feet in diameter, with a set of spokes and elaborate erotic carvings. Seven horses drag the temple. Two lions crushing elephants guard the entrance. The temple is well restored and its carvings certainly made it a little different from all the other temples we've seen on this trip.

As always there's a ridiculous transport story, this entry's installment happened on the way out to the Sun Temple. Boarding a local bus we both managed to get a seat and waited for the bus to fill up. As more people piled in the ticket collector greeted each person individually asking where they were going and made a point of personally squeezing each new comer in one by one thus ensuring that there wasn't an inch of space wasted down the very back of the bus. The moment the bus was in motion he started trying to move down the aisle to collect the fares causing mayhem as people were packed in so tight they couldn't even get their money out let alone let him pass. Obviously there's a system ......

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Everyone has heard of the city of Calcutta, although mostly in a negative light. Poverty, pollution, smell and dirt seem to be predominant stereotype people have. In short not the sort of city that you'd go out of your way to visit. We weren't really sure what to expect but were very pleasantly surprised. Arriving into the magnificent Howrah station we stepped out to be met by hundreds of Ambassador cabs - these yellow cabs, running for 100 years are a famous nostalgic icon of Calcutta. Beyond them were palm trees all around and big old colonial buildings in the distance. It was almost like stepping on to a movie set of India in British Raj times.

:: Calcutta Cabs ::

Calcutta changed it's name to Kolkata in 2001- some say to erase the legacy of British Rule. Kolkata served as the capital of India during the British Raj until 1911 when the capital was moved to New Delhi. A change of name maybe but what still exists is an impressive legacy of remarkably beautiful colonial mansions, wide streets of red bricked buildings and huge green parks.

:: Cricket in the Park ::

Poverty always been a part of Kolkata's history, under British Rule in the 19th century the city was divided into the rich "White Town" British area and impoverished "Black Town" the Indian part. In modern times the British are gone but there are the new wealthy and plenty of signs of affluence around unfortunately there are still the have nots.

::Victoria Mermorial::

After Varanasi Kolkata was like a breath of fresh air to us and offered us a completely different picture of Indian life. The busy streets, affluent shops and restaurants, leafy streets and big parks ooze with old charm. We took a walk through multiple cricket game and polo games in Maidan Park.

::BBD Central Business District::

One unusual thing we noticed about Kolkata was that there were no cheap and cheerful local restaurants. The choice was upmarket air conditioned restaurants or street food outside the really touristy areas. On saying that there was street food on every corner and most of the times the stalls were thronged with people having a snacks at all hours of the day. Surprising favourites were banana toast and panini style toasted cheese sandwiches along with the local dishes. With juice bars and chai stands on every street corner we were never far away from refreshments.

:: Government Cars (&Drivers) ::

We had some great food in Kolkata and enjoyed wandering around the leafy street and experiencing life in a big Indian city. Yes Kolkata is dirty, polluted and poor but it's also manages to be affluent, charming and endearing place to spend a few days soaking up the atmosphere.

Next stop and the Indian beach town of Puri.

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Our first stop in India was the holy city of Varanasi, a 3,000 year old city on the banks of the River Ganges and one of the most important places of pilgrimage for Hindus. According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi liberates soul from the human body to the ultimate.It is the goal of every Hindu to die there, because they believe that doing so will release them from the cycle of birth and death.
The river Ganges is also believed to have the power of washing away all of one's sins. Sacrifices, prayers and any charity donated here reaps a thousand times more rewards than the same act done elsewhere such is the power of the city.
For ages Varanasi has been a centre of learning of Indian philosophy, spiritualism, mysticism - with it's rich cultural heritage and tradition it is essentially the cultural capital of India.

:: Sacred Cow ::

The spiritual hub of Varanasi is along one side of the Ganges riverbank where over a hundred Ganga Ghats and temples, owned mostly by rich Maharajahs, are located. The ghats are broad flights of steps down to the bank of the river; pilgrims flock to these spots to take a dip in the sacred waters and to offer morning prayers to the rising sun. It is believed that people are cleansed physically, mentally and spiritually in these ghats. Near these ghats are hospices where terminally ill people from all over India spend their last days. We took an early morning boat trip at dawn up river, it was an excellent way to experience the pilgrims activities, admire the beautiful old temples and absorb and appreciate what is Varanasi.

There are few places where death is so public. Amongst the bathing ghats there are two burning ghats where cremations are carried out continuously day and night - this can mean up to 200 cremations per day. The burning ghats are open to all, and tourists get right up next to the funeral pyres. The lower the caste the closer to the river the cremations takes place. White shrouded corpses are men, coloured are female, gold coloured shrouds are old men and orange coloured shrouds old women. The family purchases wood to burn the corpse on, typically it takes 200 kgs to cremate a body and wood can cost 150 rupees a kilo (2.6 Euros/ 4 AUD) making it costly to the average Indian family.

:: The Burning Ghat ::

It is the male members of the family that carry out the cremation. Women usually do not attend as it is believed their open grief may compel the soul of the departed to stay behind. Untouchables prepare the body and wrap it in a shroud, the corpse is then run on a stretcher through the small alley ways down to the ghats where it is submerged in the water, it is then laid out to dry. Meanwhile a pyre is constructed from wood and the corpse is placed on the top. The eldest son lights the fire and acts as primary attendant for the entire procedure which can take up to three hours.

The Ganges may be the religious lifeblood of India but it is also alarmingly polluted; raw sewage, rotting carcasses, industrial effluent, fertilisers and pesticides infect the river from the Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal. The river that gives life also takes it away through disease and sickness - it's purity deteriorated as the Indian booming population places an ever growing burden on her. For the moment this doesn't stop pilgrims bathing and drinking the water. Efforts to clean the river are underway but it's an uphill battle given the millions of people that depend on the river.

Not only is the city a sprawling congested hive of activity but the old part near the river is a rabbit warren of small little lanes challenging to even the best navigator. We stayed in a small family run guesthouse right on the banks of the Ganges and never really ever felt 100% confident on finding our way back through the maze of street. Cows, goats, dogs etc wander through the tiny lanes and down around the ghats in an owner less fashion - and they're not always docile we've had a few experiences where they can charge. Whilst we were there the Durga Puja festival was in full swing. Makeshift temples were impressively constructed from corrugated steel and elaborate paper mache idols were paraded through the streets then immersed in the river. We could still hear the party going and music thumping at 4am in the morning.

As an introduction to India, Varanasi was as full on as they get.You don't really get used to the smokey ash filled air or walking past the burning corpses each day. Tourists are free to watch the cremations up close, however it seems almost disrespectful as there is not much left up to the imagination. There is real life in the city as well, cremations and pilgrims don't get in the way of the local boys who have regular cricket games in amongst the ghats .... cricket is a religion here .. but that's for another blog.

Due to a bout of very violent illness I'm going to put off writing about the Indian culinary scene until a later date.

:: Spritual Ganga ::

Varanasi truly is a place where life and death come together. You cannot help being absorbed into the abundant spirituality and tradition that embrace the area around the Ganga giving it a strong feeling of purpose, history and longevity.

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November 7, 2007

The Annapurna Circuit (Diet)

Have you ever wanted to lose those pesky pounds while eating as many Carbs as you can ?
Well the Annapurna Trekking Diet is for you -
Every Day you can feast on as many potato and pasta dishes as you can handle.
No Gym work required
Everyone can walk, can't they ..?
All you need to do is walk (carrying your own bag) for 6-8 hours per day for more than two weeks... and the best part is, only half of it is up hill !

(Yes we dropped a fair few of those Chinese Dumpling induced pounds in Nepal)

We hadn't exactly planned on doing a big in trek in Nepal; we toyed briefly with the idea a few weeks ago, then suddenly found ourselves purchasing diamox and a set of walking poles in Kathmandu and asking ourselves did we really know what we were doing (clearly not).

Following fantastic reports of the Annapurna circuit trek and the no backtracking nature of the loop we thought this was the walk for us, particularly since we had seen Everest from Tibet and that is the other major trekking option. Dee's dad, Gilbert, bravely agreed to join our expedition in Jomson on day 11 of the circuit. With this deadline in place we rushed to the starting point of Besishar and started walking.

:: While it was Green ... ::

People have been walking the Annapurna circuit for decades, in fact we met a surprising number of people on their second or third lap of a lifetime. The trek is basically a ~300 kilometre loop, normally walked anti-clockwise, that circles the Annapurna mountain ranges. Over the course of the first 10 days we ascended from 900 metres to 5,416 metres. Such a change in altitude provided an ever changing backdrop of scenery. The path wound its way though tiny isolated villages and lush rice terraced fields, under waterfalls, through waterfalls, down waterfalls, up waterfalls (you get the idea) and traversed raging rivers on huge suspension bridges before climbing high into the mountains. Each day the path took us further and further away from road and civilisation.... there's one way in and one way out - you have no option but to turn back or proceed forward to Jomson where there is an airport should you want out.

After doing some research we decided to tackle the trek independently and to be our own porters/guides/fixers. As there's no sense of direction needed to follow the path (as most of the walk is through optionless valleys) and every few hours there is a small village with tea houses and lodges to stay in; this turned out to be a perfect choice. Most of the lodges have great food and some even have hot showers (if the solar panels got a good dose of sun that day). Our very first stop was in the small village of Ngadi, absolutely wrecked from a hard days walking we sat out under a starlit sky enjoying a potato curry and questioned what the hell we'd got ourselves into. 1 day down ... only a 15+ days to go, it wasn't the time to start measuring how far away the end was. The next few days passed surprisingly quickly as we negotiated our way over rivers, over waterfalls and up steep hills, all the time surrounded by green vegetation and the sound of gushing water. Stopping in the villages of Jayat, Darapani and Chame, all nestled under towering snow capped peaks, we were thoroughly enjoying the trekking but finding ourselves tucked up in bed by and fast asleep by 8pm every night.

:: A Breakfast View ::

The trek follows ancient paths used as trade routes between Nepal and Tibet. These paths have long facilitated the flow of cultures and religions in this remote and formerly inaccessible region. In the low lying area the dominant religion of the villages is Hindu, as you proceed further on this changes to Buddhism and there are chortens and prayer wheels as you enter the villages. As the path is the only route to the villages it's a busy thoroughfare of local porters and teams of mules, everything has to be carried in and out of the villages from the distant road. The long parade of mules causes huge early morning traffic jams on the small suspension bridges. Meanwhile porters are like ants marching with huge loads; we passed one guy who had a fridge freezer on his back. Carrying our own bags we could (sort of) empathise with the porters - we certainly had enormous respect for how hard their jobs are.

:: Boo... Snow ::

As we climbed higher and higher and the lush green vegetation turned to barren rock the day when we'd climb over Thorung La pass (5416 metres) grew closer and closer. Disappointingly the blue skies disappeared and gave way to snow. The day before we were due to cross the pass we battled our way in a freezing snowstorm to our lodge for the night. By that stage a foot of snow had fallen, over bowls of steaming porridge we warmed up watching as the snowfall got heavier and the threat of getting snowed in became a reality - the last thing we needed when we were meeting Gilbert three days later, and a further two days walk away. Waking up at 5am all ready to go we ventured out to find two feet of fresh snow on the ground and the track up the mountain completely covered. Resigned to having to wait another day in the hope the snow had cleared we all went back to bed. I'll just add here that snow in September is extremely rare, one guide was on his 50th lap of that circuit and had never seen snow this early in the year.

:: Trudging to the top ::

Luckily a day's thawing revealed the track and the following morning we began the slow very very steep loopback trail up the mountain. The day involves a climb 1000m up to the pass and 1600 metres down the other side into the town of Mukinath. Along with lots of other trekkers we chugged along eyes fixed on the narrow path below aware that the recent snowfall disguised huge drop offs. As for the magnificent mountain views, not a sniff, all we could see was white - where land met sky was indistinguishable. 4 arduous hours later we reached the 5416 metre high top, caught our breath, took a couple of photos and then started down before the high winds picked up. For a little perspective, at 5,416m (about 18,000 feet) this is 4 times the height of Ben Nevis, 600m (2,000 feet) higher than Mont Blanc, 1.5 times Mt Cook and 2.5 times the height of Mt Kosciusko. The steep decent 1,600m to Mukinath was an agonising 5 hours of knee jarring manoeuvring in torrential rain through a dismal barren scree landscape. To say we reached Mukinath absolutely shattered is putting it lightly - after a hot shower, cold beer and some macaroni, tuna and cheese we were almost human again.

:: The Top ::

The next day we felt in remarkably good shape considering the day before and power-walked to the "meet up" point of Jomson only to find that the airport in Jomson hadn't seen any flight action in 4 days. If there was no change in the weather and Gilbert's flight was cancelled the following morning then we would simply have to walk for a couple of days to meet up with each other halfway- and that's exactly what we had to do! Two miserably wet days of battling in the rain, wading through swollen rivers and scrambling over landslides finally brought us to the town of Tatopani where we walked into a hotel to find Gilbert and guide recovering with a cold beer. Over the next hour we swapped stories of woe - when his flight had been cancelled they had tried to catch a bus to Beni (an entrance point to the Annapurna region) but buses weren't running due to a landslide. Hopping into a taxi they charged through a few hair-rising floods before the maverick driver ran out of luck and got stuck. As the water began to rise to knee level in the back of the taxi they decided it was a good time to leave and abandoned ship wading to a passing bus with their bags hoisted over their heads. The bus (full of half drowned occupants) trundled on for a few miles before being blocked by a landslide and in a final twist of the story Gilbert and guide got out and completed the remainder of the journey on foot before starting the real trek the following day to get to us. What an introduction to trekking in Nepal!!!

If the recent advent of blue skies in the little town of Tatopani didn't help make our respective ordeals fade away then a relaxing couple of hours in the hot springs certainly did. And that's exactly where we spent the remainder of the afternoon.

:: Climbing ... ::

By this stage we were trekking for 15 serious days in a row and it was beginning to feel like this was our normal life. With little time for relaxing before tackling the next challenge, the following day we set off for the blue roofed town of Ghorepani perched high up in the mountains. 15 km of very steep steps took us up the 1,700 metre ascent through some astounding beautiful scenery. Spectacular valley views and thick rhododendron forests were admired between grunts of exertion - it seemed like the top would never come. Gilbert showed us what real trekking and mountain fitness is all about by bounding up the mountain. It was undoubtedly one of the hardest days of the trek both mentally and physically and all three of us were thankful when we finally reached the top.

:: Poon Hill ::

Poon Hill above Ghorepani draws crowds at dawn as has it one of the best views on the Annapurna Circuit. The panoramic view of over 50 mountains includes Dhauligiri, Manaslu and the Annapurna mountains.

:: Sunrise over The Fishtail ::

Hiking on to Tadapani we decided to have a rest afternoon - although we'd been up trekking since 4:30am that morning so it didn't really qualify as a short day at all. Relaxing outside our hotel in the sunshine with a beer we people-watched for a couple of hours. It was a rather sadistic affair as our location was at the top of a particularly steep climb and everyone coming up was struggling - the last thing I'm sure they needed was an audience revelling in the drama. The lounging abruptly ended when a group of 16 Finnish ladies suddenly arrived and we had to make a mad dash to get into the showers before them.

I'd like to say the remainder of the trek was downhill, but that's never the case. In clear blue sky conditions we hiked on to Chomrong in the Annapurna Sanctuary to get a close look at the Fishtail Peak and the surrounding awesomely spectacular Annapurna mountain ranges. Our final day of trekking (day 19) saw us say goodbye to the mountain vistas and we headed down the trail towards the main road back to civilisation. Treating ourselves to a taxi (a beat up Toyota Coralla circa 1970) we sat back dreaming of big juicy steaks and hot apple pie awaiting us in the traveller hangout of Pokhara. 10 km of hair rising dangerous overtaking on the brow of a hill/ hairpin bend / steep drop off proved too much for our Toyota Corolla and in a sudden shunt it was curtains for the steering mechanism. We were not even a minute out assessing the gravity situation before an pickup (already full of people and goods) arrived and offered to take us the rest of the way. Gilbert, well versed in the protocol involved in trashing and abandoning Nepalese taxis assured us that you're never waiting long for the next form of transport to come along. After four occupants squeezed into the front seat we stuffed ourselves, bags and poles into the back. After completing a delivery of whatever was in the back of the truck we were finally on the way to Pokhara.

:: The End ::

After all the fresh mountain air coming back to the "real world" made us acutely aware of all the traffic, noise and air pollution around. On the upside we were met with an impressive array of great food and home comforts like hot showers, comfortable beds, satellite TV, newspapers and internet. Situated on a large lake with impressive views of the mountains Pokhara is a low key touristy town that panders to every trekkers needs. We comfortably settled into to a few rest days here enjoying huge steaks (imported from Calcutta - not sure how that works), shopping/haggling and generally enjoying not having to get up and walk uphill for miles. After all the exercise of the preceding days, it was guilt free living at it best. However, all good things must come to an end and soon we said goodbye to Gilbert as he headed for the airport and we headed back to Kathmandu to get Indian Visas and head for the border.

Kathmandu is a crazy, often frustrating place. We thought dodging motorbikes in Vietnam was a harrowing experience - it's nothing compared to Kathmandu. Tiny little white Suzuki taxi put F1 to shame accelerating down populated narrow streets causing pedestrians to dive into the gutter to avoid getting hit. The city streets simply can't handle the volume of traffic resulting in constant traffic jams and horn blowing. Intermingled with the taxis are racing motorbikes and annoying rickshaws which have a 6 ft high and 2ft long piece of wood running over the drivers head. If you're lucky enough to be over this height you are under constant threat of being decapitated.

:: A Kathmandu Market ::

Thamel, the main tourist area of Kathmandu is a myriad of outdoor shops filled with all kinds of everything fake, silver jewellery shops, souvenirs shops and lots of guesthouses and restaurants. Touts and rickshaw drivers continually compete for attention to the point where after a couple of days we started to completely ignore anyone trying to talk to us in the streets. Thankfully tranquil rooftop balconies exist where you can escape out of the constant noise and danger of ending up as roadkill for a couple of hours.

After two long very frustrating days queueing in the Indian embassy we finally got our Visas and the green light to leave Kathmandu and all it's madness. Hopping on an early morning bus in the rain we ran into horrendous traffic - the definition of which is three hours stationary inching a foot occassionally. Unfortunately the rain meant nobody was riding on the roof so conditions in the interior of the bus were snug to say the least. In darkness, running six hours late we finally reached the border town of Sunauli and all it's glory; money changers, pushy travel agents and filthy hotels. Rising the following morning we were delighted to escape across the border and into India. The first person we met was the border guy, in between smiles and chit chat he stamped our passports and vigiously shook our hands welcoming us before letting us loose to find our way to Varanasi.

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Everest at Dawn

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October 13, 2007

Mount Everest ....and the trip to Nepal

:: A spectacular Tibetan landscape ::

We arrived in Kathmandu almost a month ago but only stopped very briefly before heading off to the Annapurna region. Since then, we've managed to squeeze in 18 days of tough, vegetarian fueled, trekking around the Annapurna circuit and into the Annapurna Sanctuary. Dee's Dad met us along the way and endured the hardship with us - he can vouch for the never ending uphill ascents of the mountains over many long days.
Fitter and a little slimmer now than we've been in a while we stopped back into Kathmandu to enjoy good food that is gradually reverting us back to our former selves....before heading into India where we are now.

So to catch up where we left off in Tibet.....

Our route overland route through to Nepal took us along the scenic Friendship Highway; this highway begins in Lhasa , runs over the Tibetan Plateau and crosses the Nepal border before finally ending in Kathmandu. From our observation there are two popular ways of making the journey, by jeep over five days, or if you're a real thrill seeker, by bicycle over a fortnight.

:: Yamdrok Lake ::

Opting for the former we teamed up with Marc and Imma (from Barcelona) and departed Lhasa in our aging Landcruiser. Stops along the way included the turquoise Yamdrok Lake, the fort city of Gyantze and Shigatse, the home of the Panchen Lama and then onto highlights of all highlights Everest Base Camp before dropping down to Zhangmu to cross the border into Nepal.

:: Kumbum Monastery - Gyantze ::

Over the course of the five days we admired spectacular snow capped mountains and huge barren plains as we passed through lots of small Tibetan villages. As we climbed higher and higher up into the mountains towards Everest what impressed upon us most was the fact that families live and survive in these areas of desolation and isolation with very little shelter from the hostile elements.

Day 4 brought the highlight of the whole journey.... reaching Everest Base Camp. Blankets of clouds that can envelop the mountain for weeks on end constantly threaten to rob visitors of the overriding reason most people embark on this route. After three very bumpy hours of off road driving which thoroughly tested the full capability of the Land Cruiser we finally reached Rongphu Monastery and proceeded on to the tourist base camp looking disappointingly down the valley to see white clouds occupying the space where Everest should stand imposingly. We could see one small peak but knew that somewhere in the clouds a mountain towered above it. Base Camp for tourists is located at the very end of the road on which vehicles are allowed to travel on. 100 metres of the road either side is lined with big black tent "hotels". We checked in to Hotel California, dumped our bags and started hiking the 6km to the actual Everest Base Camp at 5,200 metres hoping the clouds would lift long enough catch a glimpse of the mountain. Hours of waiting and imagining the clouds were lifting finally came to an end when the sun went down and an icy wind drove us back to tented Hotel California for the night with the hope that morning would bring a clear view.

Before dawn early risers confirmed that heavy cloud completely obliterated any mountain views so there was little point in rushing to get up and out into the cold. As people turned over in their beds to get some more sleep there were sudden excited shouts of "it's clearing" followed by a flurry of activity as people hastily threw on their shoes and ran out with cameras. As we all watched the clouds slowly dissolved revealing a breathtakingly awesome sight as the world's highest mountain majestically imposed her towering form before us.

:: Sunrise touches the Summit ::

These sensational moments and the minutes that followed as the sun came up and gave a Midas golden touch to the summit have become the absolute highlight of our trip. It's hard to put words to the experience and emotion we felt that morning.

:: Mt Everest ::

Rattling along towards the Nepal border later that day we'd all had enough of jeeps. An hour from the border along a stretch of road with a cliff on one side and sheer ravine on the other we encountered Chinese "road works". A fleet of Land Cruisers waited whilst workers laid dynamite into the cliff .... literally put their hands over their ears and blew massive sections of the overhang up showering the road with debris. No such thing as anything being a danger to the general public here. An hour or so later a bulldozer had pushed the massive rock debris over the side of the ravine (almost going in himself in the process) and we were waved on to our final destination of Zhangmu, the last Tibetan stop before the border.

:: Tourist Base Camp ::

The following morning, after a slight delay in which a Chinese border guard questioned the authenticity of Marcus's passport, we left Tibet in a little minibus and drove the 8km down through no man's land to the Nepal border. On crossing the bridge into Nepal there is a marked difference, you're immediately aware that you are in a new country. The new spicy smells and aromas are the first to hit followed by the vibrant colours, decorated buses and hustle of bustle of a new race of people living their daily lives. Clambering on board a bus heading in the Kathmandu direction we settled back to take in Nepal and form our first impressions. It was an eyeopening experience. Firstly all local buses have almost a colourful circus theme, they are adorned in lots of flare in the form of flags, tassels and pieces of material that are draped in the front window of the bus, lots of bells and whistles dance in front of the driver's direct line of vision as he negotiates narrow cliff side roads, hairpin bends and swerves to avoid stray goats and chickens. Over the driver's head there are two vital pieces of electronic equipment. The first is a cassette player which demands attention regularly, at the end of each song a new tune on a new tape is selected by the driver. The second is a horn machine with ten different sounds, depending on the situation, i.e. stopping, pulling out, coming around a bend, mood of the driver an individual horn trumpets a little tune to accompany the circumstance. Between driving and undertaking these tasks the driver is very very distracted.

Sitting up the front we watched as the bus stopped every couple of kilometres to squeeze some more people in until finally there was an overflow to the roof of the bus. We stopped in a small village and waited for twenty minutes as a woman ridiculously loaded fifty big boxes of Chinese whiskey (no exaggeration) in through the back window of the bus. Anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting in the back seats was relocated to the roof. Shortly later we stopped and a ridiculous number of boxes of brandy were added to the cargo. There just doesn't seem to be a ceiling on the amount of goods people are prepared to load onto a public bus. We picked up more and more passengers who squabbled over every available inch of space. At one stage we stopped and a man jumped in the driver's window and sat in beside him. You know a bus is really full when there are two people sitting in the driver's seat!!!

After a long hot day on an underpowered bus painstakingly climbing hill after hill we finally reached the top and freewheeled down into Kathmandu valley - and into rush hour traffic. We stayed in Kathmandu just long enough to pick up some essential trekking supplies before taking another bus to the Annapurna mountains.

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September 7, 2007


:: Potala Palace by Night ::

Our first impression upon scooting into Lhasa from the train station was 'oh no', this magical place has been turned into another Chinese 'Han' City. Thankfully as we wound our way through the new apartment buildings, hotels and KTV bars we found ourselves arriving into the backpackers area which borders the Old Lhasa we were hoping to see.

Streets lined with Butchers selling fresh cuts of Yak, Shops full to the ceiling with Yak butter and people on pilgrimages doing rounds of the Monasteries soon filled the backstreets of Old Lhasa.

Potala Palace is obviously on top of everyones list as visitors to the city. Knowing this the local bureaucracy has outdone themselves inventing the most obtuse system to acquire tickets humanly possible. Queuing up the day prior to your visit, before sunrise, passport in hand, you are ushered through into a holding pen to wait until they open the Ticket booking office. Once at the window you obtain a ticket booking receipt for an allocated time which you need to get in the front gate of the Palace the next day.

The Next day you turn up , show your ticket booking slip and enter the palace, only to walk 25 min through the palace to find the actual ticket purchasing booth. Upon location of said booth you surrender your ticket booking slip and passport and (200RMB later) are issued with tickets, 36 hours after commencing the process. Needless to say, the rigmarole was worth is. The palace is an iconic building and seeing the Dalia Lamas tombs inside is remarkable.

:: Debating Monks at Drepung Monastery ::

One of the most unusual things we went to see was the Monks Debating at Drepung Monastery. At 3pm every day the heated, noisy (need sound below) debates get underway. One monk sits on the ground while the other barks points at him, finishing every statement with a loud slap of the hands. It really was quite extraordinary to see and hear.

:: Potala Palace ::

The next leg of our journey takes on the mandatory Jeep trip to the Nepal border. Over 5 days we will bump along dodgy roads, visit Lakes, Monasteries and the highlight, Everest Base Camp. The weather seems to have been stable here recently so signs are good that we will get a good view of the big hill.

Our Next report will be from Kathmandu...stay tuned.... and don't forget to leave comments below if you are so inclined.

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September 5, 2007

The Highest Train Journey in The World ....

After 45 hours of smooth train riding we have arrived in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. We spent the first night on the train from Chengdu to Xining on a normal sleeper train before transferring to the swanky "Rocket to the rooftop of the world" in the afternoon. This superdooper train has state of the art engineering and is more spacious and comfortable than your average Chinese sleeper trains. During the train swapping process there was an excited rush of local tourists who barged onto the new train to claim their territory - even though it's seat assigned and we were all to sleep in the same bed number, and thus the same position on the train as the previous night. Once settled it wasn't long before all the equipment and facilities were put through their paces and all the computerised gauges admired. The only complaint on board was that the hot water tank, a vital necessity in the noodle making process, was slow to heat up so there were lots of people wandering around with dry noodles bowls at a loss what to do.

During the first hour on the new train we were subjected to a lengthy description of altitude sickness and every possible affect it could have on the human body. To be honest it went from funny to slightly unsettling. At the end of the health lesson there was a stern announcement of ...."Smoking is very very bad for you - this is a non smoking train" ... yeah right no such luck more like the kind where everyone smokes in between the carriages and waves the smoke towards non existent air vents.

The most interesting section of the train line is between Golmud and Lhasa, it's here that the special diesel engines, capable of operating efficiently at 3-mile-high altitudes, get put to the real test running over track laid on permafrost.

Out the window we saw some incredible scenery, snow capped mountains were plentiful. We also whizzed passed China's largest freshwater lake,
Qinghai Lake. Due to the altitude along this section oxygen is pumped into the train cabins to fend off altitude sickness. Although I'm not sure how much sense this makes if you have to get out and breathe the real air when you arrive in Lhasa.

On the final morning on the train we were all roused at dawn by loud music. The amusing thing about long train journeys in China is that everyone gets up really early in the morning and then discovers that there's nothing to do and ends up going back to bed again. By the last morning some passengers discovered that the oxygen nozzles over each bed were now dispensing air once turned. It spread like wildfire and pretty soon everyone had their nostrils up against the valves taking deep breaths - for it to function correctly a tubed face mask must be connected up! In our carriage a woman "suddenly" became overcome with sickness and was dragged to the next carriage and back again by well wishers, with so many helping and rubbernecking they completely crowded her out so it was hardly surprising that she was overcome and couldn't breathe.

We reached Lhasa earlier than expected and stepped out of our "safe oxygen" chamber and out into the "real air".... everyone quickly forgot about the thin air and in true Chinese style rushed at full speed towards the exit and onto the bus to bags seats.

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August 31, 2007

China's Wild (Sth) West...

:: Lijiang ::

Since departing Myanmar we've spent the month of August high, high up in the Chinese mountains with yaks. Internet has been sparse so once again we're doing a big catchup on all our highlights of the past few weeks. This entry also concludes our time in China; on the 2nd of September, we hop into our bunks and travel on the highest train journey in the world (reaching 5072m) from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet.

From Myanmar our route back into China was a flight to the city of Kunming. We'd spent a few days here before so it was a familiar stomping ground. After a sneaky Big Mac we were ready to tackle the tasty noodle soups and skewers served up in the Muslim quarter. After a couple of days of getting back into the swing of using our Mandarin numbers and elbowing our way onto public transport we were ready to head north and tackle the rest of the Yunnan province - and further afield.

:: Dali ::

Our first stop was Dali an ancient city that has undergone extensive restoration. Flanked by a mountain, and surrounded by high city walls and a moat this city is a mecca for Chinese tourists. We spent quite a bit of time watching all the ridiculous photo opportunities that people were taking outside the city walls amidst downpours of rain. As a major tourist destination there were no shortage of restaurants to cater for demand. One thing that has shocked us is that since we were here eight months ago the price of meat has risen by a whopping 45%. Luckily we saw this fact on TV otherwise we'd still believe that people were trying to rip us off. Unfortunately we left Dali before realising that one of the most famous "chinglish" signs lived there, it's a famous sign over a squat toilet that simply reads "No shitting in the toilet". Moving north in the full brunt of the region's wet season we reached the picturesque city of Lijiang. Despairingly we reached the labyrinth of the old town as darkness was falling and when there wasn't much room at any of the inns. Arriving under such conditions is always the worst part about backpacking, particularly when the bags are getting heavier and wetter. Adding to the stress were armies of tiny Chinese tourists barging around with umbrellas held at a dangerously eye gouging height - well for me anyhow. Whenever they tried to pass Marcus they bizarrely would attempt to raise their umbrella over and above his! The following morning bathed in sunshine, Lijiang looked a lot more appealing - although the peril of the sun umbrella was still threatening. We managed to find a perfect little traditional Naxi courtyard guesthouse complete with a friendly pregnant owner who when asked when the baby was due replied "it's coming in two days".

The old narrow streets of Lijiang are lined with small waterways and little bridges making it a quirky little place with lots of character. The local ethnic minority in the region is the Naxi people and their Dongba religion and culture, of Tibetan origin, is an important part of the music, paintings and lives of the people. Lijiang is also an extremely popular destination for rich domestic tourists; after dark the bars and restaurants are full of this breed favouring expensive imported Heineken in place of their cheaper local brew. The rowdiness and noise level gradually elevates as rival bars compete in "sing offs" across the canals. Literally one bunch of girls trying to out-sing the other, what's more is that it appears to be the same song that they sing all night, every night.

After getting caught out in the rain badly once, we decided to invest in some very stylish ponchos... and they're not of the normal variety... we got ones that would definitely keep us and our backpacks dry. Designed to cover one's entire body on a motorbike (Marcus's has a see-through bit at the front so the headlights can shine through) this rain attire means business, we left Lijiang as ready for rain as Noah was for the great flood.

Our next stop was a 2 day hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, allegedly the deepest gorge in the world. Again, it's a heavily visited spot but thankfully the bus tourists are all confined to the bottom of the gorge close to the river (and near the bus parking lot). The hiking trail wanders high up the gorge along a tranquil scenic route far away from the hustle and bustle below. Hiking the gorge is relatively straightforward, you leave any big luggage under lock and key at the start of the hike and take off with a small bag, some water and a map. There are guesthouses dotted along the trail and red arrows mark the way. In total the trek takes about 8 hours. Most people complete it in an easy two day outing leaving lots of time to enjoy the scenery.

We set off early aiming to reach the halfway mark that day. There is only one place that you can go the wrong way, there are red arrows literally marking every conceivable wrong move you could make except this first one. A bunch of locals saw us go off in the complete wrong direction and said nothing - they've since been hexed. Three hours later we were still scrambling up the side of a mountain in the rain trying to find non existent red arrows. After asking a local to direct us to the right path he sent us up higher, way up into the already elevated altitude. Eventually after 7 hours we found a group of houses and asked for some help with getting back to civilisation. Weather conditions had made wearing our motorbike ponchos compulsory so we must have looked a right sight when the people answered the door to us. A local man walked us a couple of kilometers down the other side of the mountain back onto the trail. I'm sure he was wondering where we left the motorbike!

After a dismal first day and a hard seven hours of climbing we ended up a mere two hours into the hike. We turned up like drowned rats at Naxi Family Guesthouse and were greeted with cups of tea, piping hot showers and superb food - some of the best we've had in China. That's the way we remember it ... maybe it was the relief of finding the path with the red arrows. Anyhow after a good night's sleep we woke up without too much muscle fatigue and managed to complete the hike. After the previous days exertions the remainder of the hike seemed like a dawdle - all we'd to do after all was to follow the red arrows to the end and enjoy the spectacular views and incredible mountains all around us.

:: The End of the Rd. - View from Seans ::

We stayed the second night in Walnut Garden where lots of backpackers round off the trek before heading back via taxi to pick up their big bags and head on to the next destination. Our excitement didn't end there however, heavy rainfall had caused two landslides on the road back forcing us to clamber over the debris watching out for falling rocks. Luckily/unluckily a minivan was stuck in the middle of the two landslides so he was able to ferry us the few kilometers between landslides.

Our next stop was the charming old city of Zhongdian (3400m) where we chilled out for few days soaking up the hot sun and getting used to the thin air. Of all the old cities we've been to in China this is by far our favourite, its small scale, restored buildings, cobbled streets and the lack of tourists around made it a perfect place to relax. The aroma of bbq-ed skewers wafted from the old town square all day as stall upon stall cooked up beef, pork, potato and veggie skewers. In the evening the stalls were cleared away to make room for the locals to dance in the square. The dancing was attended by everyone from the old ladies of the village, to the local policeman to toddlers ... and surprisingly it wasn't all put on for tourists... there were only a few of us there watching on has they danced for hours nightly. It was neighbourhood aerobics in it's purest form.

:: Dancing in Zhongdian ::

We found ourselves traveling along the same route as Aussies Blake & Ros and Stu & Jane. After a couple of packs of cards were introduced we settled into a couple of competitive nights of cards interrupted only by last minute dashes down to make the skewer ladies before they packed up for the night. Jane and Stu suggested a day trip of picking a nearby mountain and climbing it with a picnic. The contents of the picnic quickly expanded to included a kilo of the finest yak cheese and a couple of bottles of Yunnan red - that was all the incentive the rest of us needed. The following morning laden down with a massive picnic we marched up the selected mountain and polished the lot off. After a fabulous picnic we made a somewhat giddy decent back into down ... no ordinary hike indeed... positively flashpackery.
Our next stop in the weird town of Daocheng, as it's national park Yading is currently closed there is no reason to spend any time in this place; you stop for the night and then escape as quickly as possible the following day.

We arrived in Daocheng after a horrendous day of traveling. Not only did we get a puncture that day but as night fell and we were climbing hairpin bend roads over an extremely high pass (no trees or vegetation to be seen out the window) the engine started making funny noises as the universal joint totally gave up on us. Thankfully we made it to the top and pretty much freewheeled down the other side of the mountain into a town where we were met by a mechanic. After a bit of old school soldering and hammering (using the car headlights as a flashlight) the universal joint was miraculously fixed and we rolled on into the kip that is Daocheng.

:: Litang Monastery ::

Escape from Daocheng to our destination of Litang the following morning turned out to be another nightmare. A minibus driver agreed to take us and a price was negotiated and agreed - then he refused to leave. These antics went on for couple of hours spreading to all the drivers in town until they were demanding a ridiculous amount of money. We got so infuriated that we all ended up ignoring them, going for a beer and telling them we were quite happy to wait for the bus the following day rather than bow to their greed. At 2pm tickets went on sale for the bus, by 2:01pm in a massive crush the tickets were all sold out leaving us with limited options. Luckily we found a driver returning to Litang and all hopped in willing him to drive us out of town before he changed his mind like the rest of the drivers. Nobody relaxed until we were a couple of miles out the road and well clear of Daocheng.We stopped for a couple of nights in the Tibetan town of Litang - highlights included giving the yak meat dishes a go and visiting the monastery.

:: View Over Litang ::

Our next stop was the wild west cowboy Tibetan town of Tagong located in the middle of the Sichuan rolling grasslands. Tagong is a one street colourful trading town - the local woman wear heavy silver jewelery and weave a red braid and yak bones into their hair. Most of the local men have long flowing hair and stride around in cowboy hats. We stayed in Gayla's Guesthouse a Tibetan home converted into funky accommodations - the dorm rooms were there most ornate one's we've seen to date.

After a couple of one night stops in Danba and Kangding we hopped on a super deluxe bus (unintentionally) and floated into Chengdu city hours ahead of schedule. Luck continued to be on our side when we found out that there were only two tickets left for the train to Lhasa on the 2nd of September. (The Tickets are sourced from the black market, such is the demand...)

The next thing on the agenda is to go and do a big shop for foodstuffs for the train, the Chinese are the masters of individually wrapped snack foods, entire supermarket floors are filled with every type of snack imaginable. There's no excuse for boarding without preserved eggs, vacuum packed skewers, jellies and a carefully chosen range of noodle dishes.

So, that's the saga so far, it's time to say farewell to China and take the a train up to the rooftop of the world, Tibet & Nepal, here we come.

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