Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Himalayas 2

On top of the world
That is one blue sky

On our fourth day trekking we got up really early as we had decided to tackle Tsergo Ri, which stands at 4984 meters and gives an amazing view over the Langtan Valley. After a hearty breakfast we took off at 5.30am. It was a bitterly cold morning and the soil was still frozen. I was wearing 4 layers of clothing, including a polar fleece, and was still feeling cold, but we needed to get to the top before the heat became unbearable.

Sunrise in Langtan...not what you get in Grosvenor Terrace
I have sometimes wondered why I do this type of thing, why I take these challenges, and why I put myself through the pain and inconvenience - this trek helped me answer that question.
The previous day things had gone pretty smoothly and, as a result, I was hoping that we were going to have an easy ride - I soon discovered that I was being a bit optimistic. The walk proved to be too steep, and I felt out of my depth, however, over the past year I have given up on things too often, too soon, so I decided to stick to the path and get to the top.

Even at 4200 meters there are beautiful flowers with stunning colours
Almost at the very top, I sank in the snow a couple of times and a feeling of complete vulnerability took hold. I had told the guys to walk ahead of me and I ended up losing the path, it was not a nice moment but, as I reached the top, I understood why I had done it. It was not the awe inspiring views that made it worthwhile but the fact that I had done it.
The Himalayas are magnificent but the thing I am enjoying most is the fact that I have done it on my own. I have carried my own weight, literally, and I feel as if I have achieved something.
We have decided to cut the Himalayas trip short. We now want to go to Royal Chitwan, the best national park in Nepal, which will hopefully present us with an opportunity to see Rhinos.

I had struggled on my first day to walk two hours but on our last day I walked for ten. The backpack had become a part of me.......

Now back in Katmandu I find myself missing the mountains, the blue skies and the clear air. Everything here is grey, polluted and dirty by comparison......

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Trekking in the himalayas 1

Himalayas with Tibetan prayer flags

We always walked clockwise when passing any religious site

Water powered praying wheels

We are just back from the Himalayas and I am left speechless by the beauty of the mountains and in particular the Langtan National Park.

This is my account of what is, so far, the most exciting and life changing part of my trip.

The road up to the Langtan National Park is probably the scariest, hariest road I have ever been on. Eight hours in total of which five were on a dirt track that was more like a cliff with a sheer drop of hundreds of metres on one side.

The road zig zags the steep slopes, still partly blocked by the landslides from last year's monsoon. In places the rocks have been moved just enough to let buses pass. Nonetheless, once we reached our destination, Syabrubesi, it was all worth it. Syabrubesi is a little town nestled among mountains and is the main gateway to the National Park. Even there, at a lower altitude, the scenery is stunning.

After a short stop for lunch we decided to walk for a couple of hours. By the time we reached a tiny spot called Landslide it was getting dark so we could not go any further.

By the end of the fisrt day, I was sure that Ignasi had decided to kill me. I had never trekked before in mountains and, in particular, I had never done it with a 15 kilos rucksack on my back. After two hours I was certain I was going to die, breathless, with my heart racing faster than ever. To ascend 100 metres you had to go up 300 and then down 200. I know now that God must have missed the Sesame Street episode about up and down. In Nepal you don't just go up, it is up and down, then down, and up again, in an ever so steep path.......

Certain that I was going to die before we reached our final target, I had decided that this trip was a mistake. After a quick dinner I collapsed in bed and slept through the night like a small child.

Our second day was definitely much better. One mistake I had made the day before was to try to race to the top but, by the second day, I had learnt that in mountain trekking you need to find your own pace, and I did, extra slow. I slowed down to a tortoise pace but started to enjoy the landscape and I let Ignasi cruise ahead of me.

The best thing about Langtan is that as you go up from such a low base in terms of altitude the landscape changes at an amazing pace.

Leaving our guest house the forest was thick and humid and we even saw a group of Long Hair Languns, white haired monkeys with black faces. The tree cover gave us relief against the sun and cooled us down. Beautiful birds were flying around, some velvet blue and bright orange, others emerald green with long tails.

By the afternoon, we had left the tropics behind and moved into decidious forest where moss covered the trees. As I walked on my own I found one of the most beautiful places ever, a clearing in the forest where birds were singing, and I thought about Arthur and the Round Table because somehow it reminded me of England.......

To ensure that we acclimatised properly, and to avoid altitude sickness, we decided to sleep at 2800 metres.

By then I had got used to carrying my bag, I had found my pace and, most importantly, I had decided that this had been the best idea in the world.

On our second night we met a guy called Simon. The poor lad had forgotten his book in the previous guest house. I had seen it, and caried it for him, so he joined us for dinner. Nice Swiss guy, trekking in Nepal for three months, proof that he must be absolutely bonkers......

Nights at this altitude get really cold, but under a yak wool blanket they are warm and long. Long as we went to bed at 8pm, there's nothing to do in the mountains, and, as you don't want to waste the batteries of your light, you don't even read much.

Working on some yak wool

By the third day things got a lot easier. I started really early and was out walking at 7. Ignasi takes time to wake up so I decided to take off on my own as it wouldn't take him and Simon long to catch up with me.

The valley opened up a little and the path followed the river in a more straight direction, a gentle pace upwards, the river no longer cutting into rock. At this time of the year the Rhododendrons are flowering with pinks, whites and blood reds carpetting the path.

The tree cover got thinner, turned from conifers to shrubs and then dissolved into alpine grassland meadows where yaks come to feed when snow covers the grasslands at higher altitudes.

We had breakfast in Langtan, in a little cheese factory where we had yak cheese on Tibetean bread and delicious yak butter cookies.

The locals, mostly of Tibetean origin with pronounced mongolian features, live off subsistence agriculture and the money that tourists might leave behind. This money is probably not a lot, before the Maoist insurgency only 3100 foreigners visited the park and numbers have probably dwindled since then.

We eventually reached Kyanjin Gompa at 3870 metres, which would be our base camp for a couple of days. It was situated under the majestic shadow of Langtan Lirung that stood 7420 metres over us.

Will write about this tomorrow and how I climbed to almost 5000 meters.....

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Off we go to the less travelled road

We are now ready to go off to the mountains. My anticipation has been building for a while and I am really excited about it. It is the most exciting thing I have ever done, and probably the most dangerous, but I think we are both fairly responsible. I also have to meet Stephen in Kuala Lumpur in three weeks so I have to make it all the way back on time. We are trekking up to Langtang National Park. It could be considered the road less travelled as only 3,100 people visited it before the maoist insurrection, now they probably get even less tourists. However, we should still manage to find lodges to sleep in at night, that is as long as my fat arse does not slow us down too much. I am really looking forward to seeing the real Nepal away from the touts, fake holy men, and the buzz of the city.
After today, I know I will like it. I got up early and went down to the main square, which was already packed with locals who had gone there to pray and give money to beggars. I also went to the street market, got some food, took some pics, and saw a less intrusive and friendlier side of town.
When I asked this lady, selling limes, if I could take a picture, she started laughing but gesticulated for me to wait till she fixed her head scarf......loved her

I have found it quite odd that everyone marks their Gods with red or yellow paint, I doubt the Catholic Church would approve

We also popped down to Patan, another suburb that is quickly being assimilated in to the city. It was irritating that you had to pay to get into the town, and also that you had to wear a sticker confirming that you had paid, but the town was what I was expecting Kathmandu to be; a lot older, quieter, and more atmospheric, with lots of old brick houses with wooden terraces.

Lovely chai, so much better than Sturbacks

The main square was a set from 'The Last Emperor' (though I know that was in China).

I loved the wooden carvings in the roof........

.....and this cheeky fella sitting by the Shiva

I am off now and will be back in a couple of weeks. Ignasi seems to think that some of the villages we are visiting might have internet connection. If they do, you might hear from me before then.

PS To answer several emails, I am afraid to say that I have not got any more pics of red haired Roberto and we have not bumped into each other for the third time but, if we do, I will have to marry him......won't I......

Monday, 20 April 2009


I am not sure what to think about Kathmandu. It is a fairly large city, 750000 people, dirty, polluted, with touts, street sellers, drug dealers and the fake holy man trying to plant a tika in your forehead and then ask for money. There are kids sniffing glue out of plastic bags, while begging for money, and chasing tourists around

Nonetheless, this town has got a certain charm.

This charm does not come from the hundreds of vehicles on the roads, blowing their horns for you to get out of the way before they run you over, but from the fact that it is an ancient city, with beautiful temples and stunning wooden houses that have seen better days, which give the Old Town a very atmospheric feeling.

Size is not all that matters....Ashok Vinayak, one of the holiest sites in Kathmandu and where you should pray before going on a journey.

I loved this temple with the clothes drying outside

We came here, as most people do, to get ready for our trek and to buy several items, like a sleeping bag, polar fleece, etc...all of them, in my case, fake North Face. The only genuine thing I bought was a pair sunglasses as I wanted ones with strong protection for the snow.

Today we visited the most important Hindu temple in Nepal, Pashupatinath. I thought that we were not going to be able to get into the main temple, so was a bit surprised when we were able to pay an entrance fee of £2.50. As in Varanasi, the river that runs through the temple is holy and people come here to be cremated.
I could not help but wonder how you were meant to be purified in the filthy river. Some holy men seemed to be wandering around and then there were other people who were just filthy and stoned, asking shamelessly for money.

Not sure if he was a holy or a stoned man
Just outside Kathmandu there are some towns, which will be soon merge into the Kathmandu sprawl. One of them, Boudha, is home to one of the world's largest stupas and also to a large Tibetean population. All around town we saw maroon-robed monks, a much more subtle colour than the bright saffron robes worn by monks in Laos and Thailand.
We both really liked the circular square containing the stupa, and took some pics as we walked around it, always in a clockwise direction. There were lots of older people just walking around with beads, very much like rosary beads, saying their prayers. It was calm and soothing after the madness of Kathmandu.

Tomorrow we are going to go to another town, Patan, and then off to the Himalayas.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Reaching Nepal

Waiting for a train
I love this pic, instead of asking for money , the kid just wanted his pics taken

Our journey from Varanasi to Katmandu has not been the nicest. The train we took was almost fully booked so we had to take separate berths. When we got on the train both of our seats were taken. The man sitting in mine tried to bully me into going away but, eventually, he was the one that left. Ignasi had the same issue but the guy threatened him with a gun. It was the first time in India where I encountered physical violence or, to be more precise, where the threat of physical violence was present. I woke up early in the morning and went to check the time on my iPod but sadly someone had taken it from my bag during the night. I had slept cuddling the bag but clearly I do not cuddle strong enough. I am really gutted about it as I love listening to music during long bus and train journeys - God only knows what I am going to do when I go from BKK to Kuala Lumpur on a 36 hour train journey. I am also upset as it was a present from my friend Stephen and I feel guilty that I will not have it when he arrives in Kuala. It was disappointing that I had to experience this when leaving one of the holiest cities in the world, but then again it is a major tourist centre.
Tonight we are taking another sleeping bus. It is the third night in a row that I won't be sleeping in a bed. It is a good way to save money but sometimes it has been the only way available for us to travel and, as we have not got a lot of time, we didn't want to waste time in the border town.I am now desperate for a shower. In this sweltering heat I have gone native. The acidic smell of my BO has dried so much that I no longer smell it or, even worse, I have become immune to it. We are about to get to Katmandu. I was really looking forward to it but have discovered that is a town of ¾ of a million people. Not the small quaint city I thought, not another beautiful Laung Prabang, more a Vientiane.We have to go there to buy a few things, a sleeping bag, a fleece and maps etc. I am a bit nervous about this trek. We are going to ascend to 4600 metres. I don't think I have ever been above 2000 metres and we are going without a guide...Lots of people do it, and there are two of us, so I am sure everything will be ok. I am trusting that Ignasi is as responsible and knowledgeable as he seems. I am also very aware of the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness and how to avoid it. I will be very strict about the rate we ascend at. The most important thing is that we allow our hearts to acclimatize. Well hearts and whole bodies. I am so energised by this part of the trip. Of everything I have done so far this is, by a mile, the most adventurous, and something I could never have done on my own. Actually, one thing I do know is that this type of trekking is like diving, you should never do it on your own. It is well beyond my comfort zone, not only due to the challenge it is in itself but also due to the fact that I am going with someone I hardly know. I am going to spend two weeks in the Himalayas with a stranger. Having said that, it is probably easier than spending it with a close friend. I have come to realise that when you are with strangers you are a lot more careful and considerate. I hope when I go back home that I will be as considerate with my friends. Just for my own peace of mind, I am going to register with the British embassy in case we get lost......

Friday, 17 April 2009

The City of the Dead

Cab in Kolkata, taken by Ignasi with some funny camera

We are now back in India. I was worried about how Ignasi was going to find it.

As soon we got off the plane we took a pre paid taxi to the main station to get a train to Darjelii or Varanasi, travelling by night we would save money on a guest house. I didn't know that this is the start of the holiday season so the trains, especially the non aircon sleeper carriages, were fully booked. We managed to get a sleeper with air con, which was 3 times more expensive, but at least we got to Varanasi.

Ignasi has been taken aback by India, its madness and its chaos, but at the same time that is the thing he is loving most about it. Arriving in Kolkata is a shock to the system, even if you are coming from Bangkok, but Ignasi seems to have taken the city and the country to his heart. I have started to worry in case he starts thinking that he would like to spend more time here, more time than we can afford, because we need to start acclimatising to the heights.

A quiet moment in Varanasi
Varanisi is pretty much what I was expecting. One of the oldest living cities, it is majestic in its decadence, half derelict buildings stand against the river or, indeed, anywhere in the town. People live their lives among cows, goats, dung and rubbish....yet somehow life still continues.

People washing in the Ganges.......funnily enough, I gave that a miss

People wash in their river, they wash their clothes while next to them buffaloes take a dip to fight the sweltering heat as temperatures hit 42 degrees. It is difficult to explain to anyone what India is like, you will only understand once you are here.

You need to see it through your own eyes to experience its chaos. There are two types of people, those who love India and those who hate it. I am glad that I am the type who loves it. Today we sat in the street having some small samosas with sweet curd for lunch, among flies. I was thinking to myself how much I have changed in the last year. I didn't look up the guide for a place to eat, we just followed our instincts and ate in the Muslim neighborhood, washing it down with some chai.

I know it is naughty, but I had to take a pic of this guy sleeping

Tonight we are off to Gorakhpur, just two hours away from Nepal. We will cross over in the afternoon, hoping to reach Kathmandu some time in the evening.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Water Festival

Could you imagine doing this to a Guardia Civil or even a British Bobby?

Joining in a side street fight ....

I have spent the last few days in a constant state of fear.........a fear of running out of water, of being attacked and not having any water left to defend myself......

I have spent most of the time completely soaked, behaving like a child in a water park, loving every second of it. I have settled old scores, like attacking tuk tuk drivers.....'where you go, where you go, a hundred baht'.......I tell you now where I go.......

But what I have enjoyed most is the fact that I have seen the real side of Thailand, I have mixed with the locals. Everytime we got covered in clay, or every time we shot someone, there was a thank you, because the meaning of it is to wish you good luck.

The party has been commercialised but, once you get out of the main streets, you meet the families that stand outside their houses with huge backets of water to throw at people and who then offer you water to throw back at them.

It has been refreshing, no pun intended, that not every one in Thailand sees you as an open for business ATM. Most people just appreciate you being here.

I have seen some trouble, but nothing compared to the way it has been portrayed in the press. Sadly this will have a long lasting effect on the country.
Nonetheless, the party continued, and most people didn't want to get involved in the street protests.

I am off to India tomorrow, just getting ready now. I am going to leave lots of things behind, we are planning to trek in Nepal unaided and I don't want to have to carry all my skincare products...mostly because I don't use them anymore. I don't know why but I seem to have become less concerned about those type of things......

Sunday, 12 April 2009

If my mother saw me

I have just had one of the best days of my trip so far.

I loved Songkran, it is like a huge street party where you go to soak everyone else. It is not put on just for tourists and is like the biggest Pride, only with water and no attitude.

The day started really well.....I am not going to jail. I went back to the travel agency where I was ripped off and, after half an hour of arguments and walk outs from their side (I was not moving until I got my money back), I got my refund.

The woman who sold me the ticket was out of the country until the day I was leaving and apparently she had to authorise her own refunds. Nonetheless, after several 'do I look like I care' or 'I will wait here till your next potential customer comes around', my money materialised.

So I decided to treat myself to a workout and, as I was leaving the gym with people already playing with water guns and buckets, I bumped into Roberto, the red haired builder that I met in Laos.

We caught up for a while and, as he had no plans, he walked me back to my guest house to drop off my iPod, passport and anything else that I didn't want to get wet. I put my camera in a plastic bag but then thought better of it so don't have many pics.

Although Thailand adopted our calendar they celebrate this festival to mark the old New Year. There is also a religious side to Songkran.

We bought some small guns, which turned out to be a big mistake. £2 badly spent. I soon realised that I wanted power and started coveting the guns that resembled bazookas, but they were £12 which I thought was too expensive. I did manage to find another good gun for only £4 - the water was held in a turtle that you carried as a backpack.

During the festival you cover your face completely in clay, not sure what it means, and then you walk around several closed streets with music pumping and alcohol flowing. It is, however, all done with an amazing sense of fun and is 75% or more Thai.

I could not believe it when we ended up dancing on top of stools to some Thai music with our arms in the air. The worse thing is we were not even drunk.

If my mother saw this pic I would probably lose my inheritance

Being Thailand, there is an element of high camp to the festival. We saw floats with big pink elephants and an endless amount of ladyboys in drag or 'plain clothes'. I even remembered seeing a Brit dancing to 'I will survive' with his pink turtle backpack, mine was green.....I briefly had a moment of clarity and wondered what was I doing but, exactly then, someone took revenge for my previous attack and war broke out again.

Talking to Roberto later we discussed how we both remembered an old dear sitting on a chair by the side of the road. She had one funny eye, and a huge gun. She could not stop laughing as she hit every one. Somehow she reminded me of Yoda, from Return of The Jedi. She was so old and wrinkly and had the same cheeky, naughty, laugh that he had.

As the sun set we started to get cold, and needed new clothes, so we went back to my guest house, got changed, and sat down for a few hours to sort the world out and get soaked further, though only occasionally.

Sadly Roberto has now left but he has gone to Nepal so we may meet again.

I need to start organising my trip to Nepal.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

False Alarm

Yesterday I thought I had crabs.

You can imagine the look of utter horror on my face, mixed with disbelief, when I saw something crawling just below my belly bottom. It was so unfair and was also the bloody Immaculate Conception all over again.....they were fatherless crabs. Cos to be honest, the closest I had been to any "action" was when my landlady in Attepeu had a good feel of my arms.

Anyway, there were no crabs, it was just another bug.

I am getting really tired of all the bugs on this island, and in South East Asia in general.

My feet have been so badly bitten by mosquitos that they look as if I've got measles. There are ants everywhere. If you buy any fruit you have to eat it fairly quickly as otherwise its soon full of them and if you put down a glass of juice it will be swimming with dead bugs within a few minutes.

I am so looking forward to Nepal, no more mosquitos, no more malaria risk. I am a bit concerned about this malaria thing though as I have been taking tablets for two and a half months now. That's two and a half months of taking antibiotics.

I was pleasantly surprised when, this morning, I bumped into my Frenchies, Melanie and Arnod, who were here finishing off their month long trip around South East Asia. It was so nice to see them and hang out for a few hours.

After they left I got a flat tyre. That was my worst nightmare, finding myself alone in some remote area of this very hilly and bendy island, having to walk for hours. I was so lucky, however, as there, in the middle of nowhere, was a man repairing wheels.

I was so relieved that I didn't even ask the price in advance.....not that I would have walked out had it been too expensive!!!