Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Seven Days in Tibet

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What possessed us to go to Tibet in Winter I’m not quite sure, but the pull was irresistible, and we wanted to have an adventure outside of our little world here in Dhulikhel while Kylie was visiting from Australia. As it turned out, it was an experience that while I sometimes wondered WHY we chose to have it, it was certainly worth having. It’s a high, brown, cold, occupied land, but beautiful, as are the Tibetans - an amazing people. One doesn’t have to go to Tibet to realise that, but going to see for yourself does heighten the amazingness quotient in my book.

So we did the research, commenced the communications with various potentially dodgy tour companies and after a few weeks, sent our deposits into the ether, hoping the transfer would result in genuine plane tickets from Kathmandu to Lhasa, genuine Chinese ‘Tibet’ visas and a tour guide waiting on the other end (going on an organised tour is a requirement of the Chinese government).

As it turned out, the visa thing did NOT work smoothly, and involved an exciting couple of days in Kathmandu chasing down tour companies who were supposed to be partners with our Tibetan tour company. It seems that the Tibetan tour company (visittibet.com) neglected to inform the Nepali company that they were their new Kathmandu partner. Not the best way to begin…

Finally, after hours of delays in the moshpit of Tribuvan International Airport, Kathmandu, we were on an Air China plane flying over endless brown lumpiness with the occasional snow covered range or peak. We descended and landed in the middle of it, with no hint of a city nearby, but there was certainly a very nice international airport that wouldn’t have been out of place in the middle of Europe.IMG_5778

Lonely Planet guidebooks are banned in China – radical, government-undermining things that they are – but ours was safely hidden away on our Kindles. I guess the authorities will be onto that sooner or later (probably thanks to this blog). Other travellers on the plane were searched quite thoroughly for guidebooks and we heard stories of travellers brave or stupid enough to have packed a ‘Free Tibet’ flag. They were on the next plane out.

Lhasa is basically a medium sized, very Chinese city – wide streets, identical buildings - that Tibetans feel very out of place in these days. However it has some absolutely amazing aspects. It’s possibly the most amazing people-watching town I’ve ever been in, due to numerous the friendly, character-filled Tibetans who have travelled there on a pilgrimage. You see them circling the major sites spinning prayer wheels and shuffling beads or sometimes prostrating themselves the whole way – something that I did not realise could be such an extreme sport until I saw some young guys doing it along a street, taking a run up, launching themselves and landing on their wood-block protected hands then sliding for a metre or two before rising and doing it all again. They are always ready with a smile or handshake (and once, even a sly poke of the tongue at some nearby Chinese soldiers). I’ve never been anywhere where the people are all so obviously committed to their religion, and their religion is integrated into every part of their life.

 From Jokhang Temple, Lhasa
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We spent 3 days in Lhasa kicking around either lying in bed with altitude sickness (or just recovering from a few hours of walking in the high altitude cold), walking around by ourselves (one of the few places in Tibet foreigners are allowed to do this) or being shown the sites by our guide, Sonam – a nice guy who we were lucky to have.

Potala Palace, the picture everyone has of Lhasa in their heads, is a phenomenal building and we went back again and again to gaze at it.
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Sera Monastery, with its clapping, debating monks was a highlight. The monasteries only have a fraction of the monks and buildings that they had before the Chinese invasion, but they are still interesting, vibrant places. The Chinese strictly limit the number of people who can become monks, although the demand is very much there.

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Jokhang Temple and the surrounding Barkor is quite a site… the most sacred temple to Tibetans, there is a continuous stream of thousands of pilgrims circling it and it’s a fantastic experience walking with them past the hundreds of stalls selling anything a travelling pilgrim could want. Inside the temple are suffocating smells, thousands of statues, pilgrims, burning butter wicks and tiny donated notes and centuries of dirt. Intense.

After a three days in Lhasa, we spent three days on the road in a landcruiser with Sonam and Doong Doong (our driver). Great guys who love their country. On paper, it seemed like an easy way to spend a few days, and in many ways it was, but the altitude, the intense cold and some food I ate in Lhasa ensured it was a challenging few days.

Say what you want about the Chinese occupation, but they DO know how to make a good highway. The first day took us up over a few 5000m passes, past the BLUE Yamdroktso Lake, Kharola Glacier, Kumbum Monastery in Gyatse and onto Shigatse – Tibet’s second largest city. The accommodation was in what at first looked like a very nice Chinese hotel, but it turned out to be a fa├žade as nothing worked and the place was freezing.

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The next day we spent the morning in Shigatse checking out the Tibetan markets, including a huge number fresh Yak heads. We also had a look at the palace of the Panchen Lama. He’s sort of second to the Dalai Lama in the holiness stakes, however the Chinese cleverly got rid of the one the Tibetan’s recognised as their own and the current guy is generally regarded as a Chinese puppet.
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Old Tingri was our destination for the day, about 300km. We got in at dusk and it was windy, cold and desolate. The rooms in the courtyard at the guesthouse looking incredibly cold and uninviting so we chose to bed down in the dining area with the family who ran the place. In terms of health, this was probably the low point of the trip for me, so of it, I will say no more.

The next day was Everest Base Camp – a 2 hour off-road drive. Or it would have been 2 hours if we did not make an ill-fated ice-creek crossing which resulted in the landcruiser breaking through the ice and being up to its axles in ice/water. The couple of hours it took to find some help and get us out were probably the most enjoyable we had in Tibet. The locals were happy, willing helpers and at one point there were probably 20 of them taking part on the ropes trying to budge the vehicle. Despite plenty of feet going into the icy water, there were no complaints. Ultimately though, it took two tractors to get the landcruiser out, with the entire mission almost coming unstuck when one of the tractors made its own ill-fated creek crossing.
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Everest Base Camp itself was sufficiently spectacular, but I was a little disappointed at the arbitrary location of the ‘camp’ – a little too far from the actual ‘base’ of Everest in my opinion. Still, it was Everest and it was a clear, beautiful day. Juggling was performed.

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Due to the day’s delays, we spent the night at the same place in Old Tingri. I think the family that ran the guesthouse were a little less enthusiastic about sharing their living area for a second night running. But there was no way we were going to those little unheated rooms in -15 degree temperatures.

The final day involved a few more 5000m passes before the long descent back into Nepal – and the welcome site of vegetation. Trees are indeed beautiful things. The Chinese showed particular interest in Kylie’s camera at the border, checking every photo that she took in Tibet. Once satisfied that none of her photos had the potential to undermine Chinese rule, we were on our way. What a contrast to Nepal. The wide, paved roads and sparse traffic gave way to chaos once more.

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We had intended to spend the night at “The Last Resort”, a little getaway not far from the border and an ideal place to recuperate overnight before heading back to work, however after showering (hot showers – hallelujah!), lunching and taking a little nap, we were advised by the owners of the resort that due to a little local disturbance, we would have to be evacuated and there was a car waiting. Basically, the locals want the bridge that the Last Resort built. We found out via the news that things were sorted out the next day, however at the time the Aussie owner thought it had the potential to “get a little rowdy”, so we heeded his advice. Beautiful place though.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Wind Turbine Testing

Here’s a bit of fun for you…

Wait until night time, when the streets are pretty much empty – Nepalis are very much an early morning culture rather than late evening – borrow a 4WD, strap a wind turbine to it, a bunch of instrumentation then find a straight, smooth bit of road and go back and forth for a few hours measuring it’s performance.

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I WAS helping – just timed my wave right.

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Oscilloscopes are beautiful things.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Paragliding in Pokhara

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Well I finally tried something that I’ve always wanted to do last weekend in Pokhara… I took a hot chick for a ride on a motorbike for a few hours. With that done, I left Di in Pokhara and headed up the mountain to catch a paragliding flight.

Although the photo above makes it look like I’m awesome and doing by myself, I can assure you I had a very experienced Russian pilot, Iliad, doing the flying bit for me. Still, had I seen this news article before I went, I may have had second thoughts.

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It was a little daunting looking out from the take off zone, with around 30 paragliders already in the air jostling for space in the nearest thermal. Lucky Iliad had his little squeezy horn handy to warn others of our presence. Also useful when we flew into clouds and couldn’t see a thing. That was a little worrying.

Overall, it was awesome, and a sport I would definitely consider taking up (on cloudless days when there aren’t so many others flying in the same bit of sky).

Of course I logged GPS for the trip...



And last but not leaset... the video:

Monday, November 08, 2010

I'm still addicted to GPS

As an old, brilliant professor at USQ once said, "GPS is the closest thing we have to magic".

A few fun times in the last few days - first, a 50km ride from Dhulikhel to Kathmandu "via the back door", a dirt road from Panauti, over Lankuri Bhanjyang pass and downhill to the valley below. See link below for the trip, including a few photos embedded in it.
Then there was our Saturday morning mountain flight with Di's Dad. A beautiful day and beautiful, surreal views. These mountains are just gorgeous. Peering over them into the high altitude rolling plains of Tibet made us REALLY want to get over there. So we're thinking about Christmas in Lhasa... anyone want to join us?




Sunday, November 07, 2010

It’s Christmas in Kathmandu

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Well it feels like it…

Tihar is one of the biggest festivals, and I think feels the most like Christmas.  It’s Sunday in Thamel and most shops and restaurants are closed.  The ones that are open don’t have much available.  There are lights everywhere at night, strewn over houses and hanging from eaves.  Fireworks going off in the evenings and groups of children walking around singing songs to try to get a donation from shop keepers and hoteliers.  Then there was a bit of the ‘Australia Day’ feel today as dozens of revellers on the back of 4WD utes sped recklessly through the narrow Thamel streets, yelling and banging cymbals, followed by motorbikes weaving dangerously all over the place. 

Craziness… and fun to be a part of!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Expat Monkey

I just had to write to say it’s another beautiful day in Dhulikhel… mountains stretching off into the haze in both directions.  Love it.  We walked up the hill for breakfast at Hotel Panorama with Di’s Dad.  Good chiya, great pakora, interesting ‘french’ toast.

We had dinner at our friend Prem’s guesthouse last night (Tashidale Lodge – ‘Especially for Backpackers’) and had dinner with a couple of interesting people.  Keith, from the USA, is travelling randomly and photographing and writing about his experiences here (www.expatmonkey.com) and an Aussie architect travelling just as randomly.  I love how that always happens.

’Tihar’ or ‘Deepawali’ this weekend – ‘The Festival of Lights’.  Another excuse for a festival holiday in Nepal!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Langtanging

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An earthquake, plenty of smelly toilets, thousands of metres of altitude, some phenomenal scenery and some really fun people - 4 Norwegians, a Canadian, a Dutch/American and 5 Aussies, all living and working in Nepal - a memorable 11 days! WARNING: words such as awesome, spectacular, incredible and other insufficient adjectives may be overused in the following text.

The spectacular 100km, 10 hour bus ride from Kathmandu to Syrabru Besi was all it was cracked up to be – and more. It was a dusty work out, and I may have the endless hours of continuous and extreme bumpiness to thank for my lack of back problems during the rest of the trek. Probably the most exciting moment for me was when Andy and I, with a bunch of locals, attempted to assist a van that had lost it’s brakes roll down the road without rolling off the cliff. It turns out the van DID have brakes. Sometimes I think that even if we knew the language, communication wouldn’t always be much clearer. Anyway – an interesting way to spend my birthday.

First night’s accommodation in Syabru was pretty ordinary – but a good warm up to typical trekking accommodation. i.e. not that great. Di and I were glad we bought some lightweight satin sheets in Thamel before we left to cover the mattresses! Now I’m sounding soft, I know.

Day 1 started us off up the Langtang valley – initially narrow and rainforesty, with a glacial white water torrent running down the middle and the mountains steep and disappearing above. We had our first taste of the annoying tendency of trails to go up, leading you to think you are gaining altitude, only to head back down again.

The next 2 days saw us continuing up the valley. The further we went, the higher we got and the valley opened out onto beautiful vistas. The buffalo cheese factory at Langtang was a particular treat. Grilled cheese and tomato on bread was a wonderful break from trekking food – normally dhal baat or some bland noodles.

As we forged our way up the valley, the other thing that changed was the price of stuff. A Snickers, the basis of the internationally recognised trekking pricing index, while around 60 rupees at the beginning of the trek, climbed to around 180 rupees by Kyanjin Gompa, 3 days up the valley. Andy and I discussed porter wages and worked out that the price increase was definitely not proportional to what the porters are paid to carry the chocolate. When it’s 2 or 3 days walk to a cheaper shop, these places can charge what they want I guess!

4am on Day 4 saw us rising at 4am to catch the sunrise from Kyanjin Ri – a mountain a few hundred metres above the village of Kyanjin Gompa. Climbing that mountain in the pre-dawn, almost freezing, 4000m plus altitude air was one of the hardest parts of the trek for me. I resorted to the 10 steps and then rest option, and Jai and Andy joined me. We were trekking with some FIT girls though – they powered on up ahead of us… impressive. The views from the top were surreal, as light gradually increased, clouds came and went, as did glaciers, ice falls (what’s the difference!?) and jagged snowy peaks. It’s amazing when a part of the sky you thought was just that – sky – turns out to be the side of a Himalaya who’s peak you never get to see.

A side note – I need to state that the relationship one develops with one’s down jacket is more intimate and special in many ways than the relationship one has with one’s significant other.

Early morning on Day 5, I woke to find the building rocking and shaking. “Earthquake!” was the first thought that entered my head, followed by “or maybe it’s someone running to the toilet in this rickety old building” after which, I fell back asleep and didn’t remember it again until someone asked at breakfast whether I had felt the quake. Funny thing was, it could have been ‘the big one’ in Kathmandu and we would have had no way of knowing. Not funny at all I guess. It turns out it was a 4.9 somewhere nearby.

Day 5 was also time for the gang to part ways. Those who couldn’t afford the time for the longer trek carried on down the valley, while Svien, Freya, Kieh, Diana and I tackled the valley wall. After descending around 1000m, we had to climb around 1400m to Sing Gompa at about 3900m. It was tough and we went to bed early that night.

Day 6 was the final climb to the holy lakes of Gosaikund. There was some tough sections here too – especially for Diana, who was suffering from various trekking afflictions (general sickness) by this point. It was really starting to feel like high altitude by this point. We snuck the occasional phenomenal views of Himalayas, but the clouds were never far away. We also said goodbye to Kieh along the way, who decided to hang out in Laurebina Yak, with the promise of panoramic views in the morning, and the possibility that she could go home a different way and make it back to Kathmandu for a party on Friday night. So then there were 4.

Gosaikund was magical. It’s a major pilgrimage site at particular times of the year, but only one Sadhu, living in a hole, remained at this point. We arrived early enough to walk around the main lake and really take in the amazing scenery there.

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Our guide, Sonam, said we couldn’t stay at the lodge we chose, because the ‘cook was drunk’ – we could see him, motionless under a doona on the bench. We finally worked out that we could stay, but would have to eat Dhaal Bhat. It was only after the meal that Sonam proudly told us that actually, he cooked the meal that night. It was the best Dhaal Bhat of the trek in our opinion.

Day 7, clear and beautiful, and we climbed out of Gosaikund through the highest pass of the Trek – Laurebina Pass at 4610m. Then it was a steep, cloudy descent (with more than enough ascents as well), across a mountainside whose steepness was only revealed the next morning when the clouds had cleared. There was also snow on the pass we had walked through the day before. Just missed it! (Photo below shows the new snow and the ridge we traversed)

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The next few days involved more descending (again, with plenty of ascents) down ridge after ridge back towards the Kathmandu Valley. On Day 9, when we reached a village where a bus could be caught, we lost Svien, whose feet were looking scary and red. But by this point, we also had a new gang – two French Canadian guys trekking together and two French girls trekking together. We all ended up in the same lodges – great to have a bit of a gang again.

A highlight I must say was walking back into mobile coverage just in time on Mabel’s 2nd birthday to give her a call before she went to bed in Brisbane.

On Day 10, that first view of the Kathmandu Valley was something. It was beautiful, as it was the end of the walk, but the smog and buildings/traffic also contrasted painfully with the beauty we had just come through. I was feeling great by this point. It may just have been the lower altitudes, but my pack felt good on my back, my legs felt strong and my mind was used to the daily hours of trail. Pity we had to stop!

More photos here…
Langtanging

Monday, October 11, 2010

End of the first stretch

I’ve been thinking about what an interesting ‘book end’ Nepal has been for me. 10 years ago Di and I came over here – we had been married less than a year, I had just finished my Masters (sort of) and I had never been out of Australia. We spent the year overseas – most of it in the USA, with travel in Nepal/ Hong Kong, USA, Canada, Turkey and a lot of Western Europe.

After returning home we settled in Brisbane, I got a real job (debatable?), and we spent the next 9 years there – with various travels in between, for fun and work. I spent an unforgettable 8 1/2 years with my last employer, learning a lot about technology development, international business, the transit industry, managing teams, software development and a bunch of other things. Di and I have grown to love Brisbane – especially our friends there, and ended up going halves in a house with two of them. That in itself is quite a new phase in our life!

Now we find ourselves in Nepal again. I’m ready for a change of direction in my career (an interesting combination of factors influencing that one). We’ve been married 10 years. 5 months away from home to step back and take a look at life seems like a good idea. I’m also enjoying the chance to get some hands on experience with ‘international development’ – including all of the cultural, technical and professional challenges that includes – and there are many!

(The above was taken on the day when all ‘Machines’ were blessed for the coming year.)

Anyway where am I heading with all this? Who knows!? I’ve been cruising the jobs sites a bit looking at what I think I will be doing when I get home. Ideally it will be something in the area of either International Development or Renewable Energies – or possibly even both. I’m so busy here that I’m not taking a huge amount of time to reflect on what the future holds. I think that might come in the weeks after we get home when I’m unemployed and longing for the mountains of Nepal and Di is back at work bringing home the bacon (what’s the vegetarian equivalent of bacon?). As I said before we came here, I’ve scheduled in my early-mid-life crisis for late January 2011. Don’t worry – that will probably involve lots of Mountain Biking and sitting at Coffee Shops rather than buying a Lamborghini.

Anyway – we’re off to Langtang for 10 days of trekking. Bye all!