Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday May 31, 2009 - Lhasa - Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple

Everything in T. is built on a hillside, which means....stairs, uphill climbs, and breathlessness! This was the case with our visit to the world famous Potala Palace. When you hear of the Dalai Lama, you think Lhasa...the Potala Palace. It looms high on a rock overlooking the city. It was started in the 7th C by the 33rd King of T. It was the home of the Dalai Lamas until the current Dalai Lama fled to India. The Palace has 13 stories, contains over a 1000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and about 200,000 statues. It consists of two parts, the Red Palace and the White Palace. The White Palace is where the living quarters of the Dalai Lama are. The Red Palace is devoted to religious study and Buddhist prayer. It consists of many different halls, chapels, libraries with winding passages connecting a complex array of small galleries. We were stunned when we were told we were only allowed in the building for an hour. The reason given is that so many people come to Lhasa to go ghrough the Palace, the only way to preserve it is to restrict entrance. So, you have to go with a T. guide, you have to "book" your visiting time, and you cannot spend more than an hour inside. The Palace is truly beautiful. Every inch of it is carved ornately and painted. Beautiful drawings cover the walls, and T. carpets adorn the floors. It is built out of solid stone with steep wooden staircases inside. There are masses of small statues lining the walls in many of the rooms. As well, the large statues of the Gods and Goddesses are always engaging structures. We literally followed a set route through the buildings together with masses of tourists, mainly Chinese and some Westerners. The Palace was so spectacular, that all the commotion didn't reduce the impact but more time would have been decidedly preferable. After the Palace we did a big sweep on foot through the new town. We passed through a huge square which was built to commorate the Chinese victory over T. in 1958. Because of this it is the subject of much controversy and is consequently heavily guarded due to the potential for destruction and protest. We walked through a park with a man-made waterway and waterfountatins, but no water! Then we walked into The Barkhor. This is in the old city and is an area of narrow streets and a public square located around Jokhang Temple. Military presence in the Square was huge, but nonetheless, the pilgrims were immersed in their kora, turning the prayer wheels, and lying prostrate on the ground on their way to the Temple. The Jokhang Temple was the first Buddhist temple to be built in T. For Ts, it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet - because of its age and because of the God it symbolizes -. It too was very crowded but mainly with Ts paying their respect. The unique part about our visit was the ability to circle the Buddha in one of the chapels together with the people who had donated money to have the Buddha painted with gold paint. It was a very frenetic experience, as Ts seem quite frenetic about their prayer. So the energy level was high, and the monks tried hard to keep the crowd moving in the very tight space around the huge statue. It was all a very special visit. Late afternoon we wandered through the old town, looked in a bookshop, picked up laundry, had dinner, then spent some time at a group party organized by Ian and Tamar who appear to have lucked out and been given the "honeymoon" suite on the top floor complete with lounge, bedroom, sauna, chicouzy, private balcony and sun room.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Saturday May 30, 2009 - Gyantse to Lhasa, 254 kms

We had a beautiful drive along the Friendship Highway today. We left after breakfast around 8:30 am and were overawed at our views. We arrived in Lhasa around 3:50 pm. The drive took us up and down four high passes on a spectacular 2 lane road complete with a thousand switchback bends: Simila Pass - 4352 meters; Kampa La Pass - 4794 meters; Gambala Pass - 4970 meters; and a fourth whose name I don't know. We passed the Mala Hydro Power Station and its dam; the Karola Glacier at 5560 meters and drove alongside the Yamdrok Tso (lake) for ages. Its the third largest lake in T. and the colour, deep turquoise and blue, is stunning. We did some shopping in Nangantse, a small T. town for lunch. I was surprised at the lack of nourishing food and the vast quantities of sweets (candies), cakes, and other non-nutritious foods in the supermarket. We went to a bakery and got some flat, sweet, bread buns and to a fruit/veg shop for tomatoes, cucumber, chilis, and water melon. Then we picked a beautiful view along the side of the lake and ate it. The only downer was the cold. It was freezing. But the view of the lake and the high snow caps in the distance made up for all our shivering. Our hotel, The Lhasa Yak Hotel, in Lhasa is fabulous, very T. but with all the western accessories: phone in the loo, hairdryer, flat screen TV, bar, and beautifully furnished. After arriving, Ray and I sought out a laundry, left our dirty clothes (50 peices for 108 yuen, $16.00) and then walked the huge block around the hotel. There are shops galore and all types of fashion clothes, shoes, sports clothes, etc. all at great prices. This is by far the most civilization we have seen for a long time. The sad part is the overwhelming Chinese presence over the T. culture. At every corner a square is cordoned off and two or four policemen stand back to back on guard. We have also seen several small platoons of army marching in formation down the roads. All are dressed in riot gear with knee pads, guns, helmuts, some with face masks. All have been extrememly friendly to us and seem excited at showing us their English language skills. We had dinner in the restaurant beside the hotel - the Dunya, once again in a group. This group really sticks together and is very cohesive. There is quite a mix of ages and I think that is what makes it work. We came to bed around 9:30 pm. Can't say we felt great today. Mainly my cold, Ray's cough, and stomach discomfort!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday May 29, 2009 - Gyantse

We left Shigatse and our fabulous hotel around 8 am this morning and we munched on bananas, oranges, and some sweet pastries for breakfast as we drove along in the Truck. Daphne was good as gold! We drove through a beautiful fertile valley for about 2 hours to Gijantse. This is the 4th largest town in T. It is 3977 meters high and 254 kms south west of Lhasa in the fertile plain of the Nyang Chu Valley and on the Friendship Highway which connects Kathmandu to Lhasa. We hear that the town was nearly destroyed in 1954 and was largely emptied of people by the Chinese in 1959, but we are not sure why. Also during the cultural revolution the Fort, the Monastery and Kumbum were ransacked or destroyed. The BBC documentary "A Year in T." focused on the lives of ordinary T. living in this city.On arrival we went straight to the Palcho Monastery and the Kumbum. The monastery was built around the 1400s but was not as big or as elaborate as the one we saw yesterday. Nonetheless, it was fabulous. We saw the Thanka art on the floor in the Assembly Hall. This is Buddhist monks making mandellas with coloured sand, but it looks like they are painting. The mandella isn't permanent, and after some religious rituals it is destroyed. The art in the monasteries is incredible. Many of the statues of the Gods are elaborately constructed, the walls are covered wtih detailed paintings,and beautiful banners hang from the high ceilings all of which completes the monasteries and temples to appear like galleries of religious art.Coming out of the monastery, we entered the Kumbum, the largest chorten or stupa in T. It is six storeis high, with a total of 77 chapels in which are over 10,000 murals and many statues of Gods and Goddesses. It was fascinating climbingh a level, 3 times around clockwise, then on tho the next level. The bonus was the views from the top which looked out over the city to the fort and the mountains encircling the town.When we finished at the Monastery we checked into the hotel then went for lunch with some of the group from the Truck.After lunch, we went to the Gyantse Dzong Fort. It was originally constructed in 1390 to guard the southern approach to the valley. It is built on a piece of rock jutting out of the valley floor. The story goes that 500 soldiers of the Gyantse dzong held the fort for several days before they were overcome by the British forces in 1904 during the "Younghusband" expedition. It is largely in ruin, but the steep and sometimes dangerous climb to the top was well worth the effort to see an even higher view over the city.By that time it was 4 pm and Ray and I rushed back to the hotel for an emergency loo visit. Lunch perhaps, we guessed.For the rest of the day we wandered around the small town and then used the Internet to try to catch up with the blog.The evening was cold without the sun and I put on lots more clothes before going out for dinner. Then back to the room for bed at 9:30 pm. Guess, its the altitude, plus, I have a bad cold and I'm just wiped by bed-time!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Thursday May 28, 2009 - Shigatse and Chanting with the Buddhist Monks

Shigatse (elevation 3840 m), population 98,700, is the second largest city in T. It sits in a plain in Western T. at the confluence of the Yarlong Tsangpo and Nyangchu Rivers. About 97% of the population is T. but it has a comfortable feeling of being Chinese and T. all at the same time. Its an ancient holy city that is the traditional seat of the Panchen Lama (who ranks second after the Dali Lama in the Buddhist faith). We liked it. It has none of the chaos of Indian cities and Kathmandu. It seemed so ordered, and peaceful and the people were absolutely charming. You can't have much verbal communication because of the language, but there were many times when women would stare, make eye contact, and a special meaning would pass between us. In addition, a lot of the older men were delighted to be able to say "hello", and a group of younger men were also totally fascinated they followed us for quite a distance, stopped to look at whatever we looked at and smiling profusely whenever we looked at them. We also had fun looking at a couple of 200 and 150 motorbikes and took each other's picture sitting on them, egged on by the amused sales person!!In the morning we went to the Tashilhunpo Monastery. It was founded in 1447 by the first Dalai Lama and was fortunate to survive the cultural revolution. As with most buildings in T. it is built up a hillside. Its quite a beautiful compound containing the monks' residences and the 9 temples or stupas joined together by quaint narrow stone lanes where you catch quick glimpses of the saffron and orange robes of the monks as they scurry from building to building. We went into all the temples and moved all the prayer bells, well, that's impossible, but moved a lot of them, and just marvelled at the incredible art in the buddha statues and the paintings on the walls, ceilings, and pillars. The colours are brilliant and the atmosphere is alive with the chants of the monks and the swish of their robes as they move about. There were three extra special memories: First the 26 meter high Buddha, huge just huge, and his eyes smiled down at you no matter where you were. Second was watching the locals come in and spoon their yak butter around the base of the candles giving their blessings to the Buddha and earning their merit for their current life. Third was the experience of being in the midst of the assembly hall with 200/300 Buddhist monks chanting around me. I never thought we would get to experience anything like that. Surprisingly, some of the monks spoke to us, and said hello. Then all of a sudden there was a loud shout, and the chanting ended, the monks flung off their outer robes, and hurried out of the hall. It was an exhiliarating moment that I didn't want to end.After visiting inside the monastery grounds, we did the kora, or pilgrimage walk around the perimeter along with many others on a pilgrimage. There were many prayer wheels, pretty little chappels, prayer flags, mani stones, yak horns, and the sweetest little blue flower which beat all odds by growing on the barren rocky ground surrounding the perimeter wall.The rest of the afternoon we spent just walking around town. Bought some sunglasses, went into a "mall" and looked at the electronics. They had some neat computerized gadgets, and solar panels, probably for heating water. We thought that a little different as we don't think they've hit the malls in Toronto yet!Late afternoon, we went to the Internet but frustratingly I am totally blocked out of my blog.In the evening we went to Tashi's for dinner. I had a cheese and tomato pizza, with a difference, and Ray had a yak pizza! We sat with a group from the other Truck and Ian and Tamar. Then back to the hotel and bed around 10:45 pm.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Wednesday May 27, 2009 - Farewell to the Elusive Everest

We left our hotel after breakfast around 9:00 am, a dreary group, but hopeful that we had one last chance to capture a glimpse of the magnificent snowcap of Everest. We hadn't been going awfully long before the Truck over heated and quit and Ian and Tamar had to do another repair job. We started up the Giacuola Pass (5,230 m) and just before the summit had an opportunity to see Everest. Unfortunately, it is obvious that the bad weather has continued and the peak was hidden behind a mass of black clouds despite the beautiful blue skies everywhere else. We moved along The Friendship Highway which passes along the side of a river on the floor of a valley surrounded by weather-beaten hills with the odd glimpse of the white capis of mountains in the background. We passed yaks grazing on the sparsely vegetated ground, herds of sheep and goats together with their keeper, and small communities with the typically Tibetan houses, all the time struggling with the Truck over heating. We stopped for lunch in one of the typical villages, Lhatse, population 2000 and elevation 3950 m. Couldn't really face anything Tibetan so had a plate of french fries. This holiday has been atrocious on the nutrition side!! After lunch, I went shopping for the Truck and bought (11) a plastic basin (7 yuan); (2) a 10-pack of toilet paper - 25 yuan; (3) two perma markers - 6 yuan. Then back on the Truck and off again. Up over another pass, Cuola, 4500 m and on again. Once again the Truck broke down, this time everyone thought the engine had blown, but Ian got it going and we set off again. The Truck has caused a ton of problems and people are really sick of it all. Its been a tough few days let alone with all the struggles of the Truck. Ian and Tamar have done a superb job at keeping their cool and fixing everything that breaks, but many are saying that Dragoman should not put a Truck on a trip like this if it is not in the appropriate condition.
We had 80 kms left to do at 5:13 pm, and made it through to Shigatse for 6:15 pm. We had to go straight to the police station to have the Trucks accepted to China and Ian and Tamar had to pass a driving test. We arrived at the Holy Land Hotel about 8 pm. Its fabulous! Nice and clean. TV, a/c, shower cubicle, brand new toilet, hot water, telephone and a fabulous computer panel to play with that controls everything in the room such as lights, TV, maid call button, etc. There is also a hair dryer. We quickly went out to eat and funnily enough when we got there, many others from the group turned up theretoo. Just can't get away from each other!! Food was great. Back to hotel and sleep about 11 p.m.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tuesday May 26, 2009 - Disappointment

We woke up this morning to heavily falling snow. What a disappointment. No site of Everest or any other mountain. The road to the next base camp is closed, no buses are running because of the storm, and to walk up the 7 km over the snowy-stoney road would be horrendous at 5150 meters above sea level, so, as determined as we were to make the hike, for once, we will take the sensible road. We are stuck at the "New Base Camp" waiting to hear reports on the road back which includes going back over the high pass. We are not sure that the Trucks can make it safely because of the storm. Dan is putting chains on Suzette, but Ian is hesitant to do so on Daphne because of the tyre size. The other group has 3 or 4 people who are not feeling well. During the night one lady had oxygen, one man was being monitored for oxygen, one person was vomiting, and several others were feeling rough. They have a real reason to try to get to lower heights as soon as possible. The real fear is that if the storm sets in, we might be stuck here for the next week, so despite the fact we are all wanting to wait to see if it clears so we can see Everest, our guides are advising us to get out. [We did hear later that a Norwegian climber was stuck on the mountain due to the weather during the time we were at Base Camp.] Our Truck group seems to be holding up quite well with the altitude, and really apart from feeling very out of breath very quickly when you try to walk anywhere fast, Ray and I are generally feeling fine.Dan ended up leaving ahead of us and Ian finished off his never-ending repairs on Daphne. Poor Daphne seems like a tired old lady, gear and clutch problems mainly. Shortly after, in the snow and cold, we set off, a weary disappointed group, happy to be going back to lower heights but desperately sad not to have seen "The Goddess of the Universe", one of the main highlights of the trip.We made it to the bottom of the high pass, and Daphne quit. Ian is so patient. He didn't say a word. He and Tamar quietly got out and set about repariing the problem. I can't imagine what they will say to each other tonight out of the sound of all of us travellers. About an hour later we started our climb in the thick fog, on the snowy and slushy roads. There must have been about a foot of snow, and still snowing. Good Daphne made it up one side of the pass, down the other side, through the valley, and out on to the main road with no further mishaps. Once back on the Friendship Highway, it wasn't long before we had a check-point and a couple of very smart polite young men came on the Truck to check all our passports. After about 1/2 hour we were allowed through and after a short drive arrived at our hotel for the night - Qomo Lang Ma in Baipa. No snow, still cold, but seeming luxury with hot water. We ate dinner and crashed around 10 pm. We certainly can't say this has been a "party" group. But then the past few days have been quite hard on the body and we all, young and old, feel in need of sleep.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Monday May 25, 2009 - Everest - Goddess of the Universe

Everyone is in a joyous mood this morning as we are going to see "Everest". We are mostly suffering a little in one way or another with the altitude. Bad headaches, the feeling of being "drunk", as Jack one of the guys on the trip said, and shortness of breath being the main inhibitors to our elation. We set off from the hotel around 8:30 am. The road to the first check point, about 40 nminutes, was paved, straight, quiet and easy to drive. Daphne has behaved well! The next 102 km were spent on a dirt switch back road slowly climbing through the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp. The scenery is totally desolate. The foot hills so far as we can see are bare, stony, and vertical-sided. The skies should be blue, but they are not! They are grey, and, in the distance you can see the mist hovering. We stopped on Youla pass (5100 meters) at the entrance to the Qo'molangma. It was snowing, a light drizzly rain-snow. There wasn't much to see as it was so misty and I felt a bitter chill of disappointment. We passed two Chinese guys on bicycles, I am assuming mountain bikes since as Sarah says: "We are on a bloody big mountain!" What a feat! The climbs are massive but there are some some declines too, all on this switch back road, literally a series of alternating "U"s joined together. After one bend we saw below us a small Tibetan community "Wolong Hamlet", with about 30 houses. It was set alongside a dry stony river bed. Nonetheless, the fields and terraces were "bright" leaf green, ad made a welcome contrast against the muddy yellow/brown of the hillsides. When we eventually passed through the community we could see the women in the fields working along with their little pony carts. The women wear a really warm long black skirt, with a pretty coloured blouse and an apron. Most have ski jackets or some other warm jacket on top of that. Some of them have wonderful silver buckles to hold everything to gether and little trinkets hang from these buckles. On their feet, they wore the regular Tibetan shoes. We stopped for lunch at Tashi Dzom. We went Chinese and had vegetable fried rice ... again! It was delicious and tons of hot green tea which really warmed us up as we were already freezing cold. The local public toilet was an interesting experience. Use your imagination....and I'll leave it at that. We settled down to the drive on the bumpy road and it started to snow, and the fog and clouds closed in around us. Next stop was the famous Rongbuk Monastery at 5100 meters or 17000 feet.This lies at the foot of the Rongbuk Glacier which we could't see. It is the highest monastery in the world. The original monastery which housed 300 monks and nuns was destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. This was a new one we were visiting, and there are now only 32 monks and nuns. The decoration is always rich in colour, interesting in design, and tells many stoires about the Buddhist faith. The monastery is only 5 minutes drive from the New Base Camp where we checked out the "hotels" - tents with fireplaces which hold about 5 people. We are trying to decide whether to stay here or at the monastery in a hostel, but in my mind there is no decision. It has to be here! The atmosphere is alive, despite the snow, cold, and fog. The hotels are built in a big square with vendors taking up a row on the inside of the "hotels". I counted 21 down one side, so lets say about 10 across the top which would make a total of 62 tents holding 5 people each. We chose to stay in the Xut Yu Zhu Feng Zang Can, Tel: 13889022089! The tent is arranged with long Tibetan couches on 3 sides with a fire in the middle burning yak dung. The fourth wall is lined with items for sale such as coffe, pepsi, beer, red bull, cigarettes, and other sundries.There is a door but most of the day its been open an covered wtih a rug. There is a tent adjoining this one to the back of it which houses a family of 3 and this is where the cooking takes place. The loos are outside in a cabin towards the river at the back of all the tents. After arriving we took short walks around and tried to keep warm and lift our spirits. Its probably in the 5 - 0 C range and fully snowing a blizzard. We had Tibetan noodles for dinner and a pot of sweet tea. It's very milky black tea made with yak milk ad sugar - its delicious and we've drunk gallons of it. The beds were made up head to head on the couches with about 4 thick covers and a woolen blanket and a pillow. We also got our silk sleep bags, and sleeping bags. I put mine on top of their covers and uder the blanket and was toasty warm all night in my Mummy bag. The night wasn't exactly peaceful; we had a group of irrate visitors who stormed in turning on the lights and held a heated discussion before leaving - we were speculating they were demanding money for something!; some one's cell phone kept going off; and the baby woke up crying a few times. I woke up one time to feel my heart thumping really hard but steady, so I tried some of the yoga tecniques for breathing and lowering your blood rate. Ray sat up most of the night as it was just more comfortable on his breathing, and in the morning we all woke up with splitting headaches. However, after drinking some water and eating the headaches started to subside and we generally felt better.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday May 24 - The Rooftop of the World

The plan was to be wakened up by Tamar at 4:45 am for a 6 am start in the Truck. We set our alarm and Ray was up, mattress and sleeping bag rolled up. I remained cuddly in my sleeping bag. I said: "Tamar hasn't called us yet! I wonder what that means?" Within seconds, Tamar was making her rounds of the tents in the darkness to tell us "Sleep in; don't get up yet; Dan won't be able to make it back in time, and our Daphne wouldn't be ready in time to make it through the checkpoint before 7 am." I snuggled up again in the tent; Ray went to make a cup of tea. The next thing I heard was Tamar going back around the tents saying: "Get up quickly everyone. The Truck will be here at 6 am and we have to make it through the check point which is 5 - 10 minutes away by 7 am." So, now I had to scurry to get ready. We tidied up the campsite and loaded the Truck leaving at 6:35 am. Everyone clapped and cheered when we got through the check point. We retraced our steps of Friday night and found ourselves driving on the rooftop of the world, a vast plateau about 4000 to 5000 feet above sea level. The landscape resembles a yellow desert of gently rounded velvet-looking mountains behind and rising above which were a range of high, jagged-peaked snow-capped mountains highlighted against the blue sky. We saw the sun rise on Shishibama at 8012 meters. We passed through Pangla Pass at 5050 meters adorned with prayer flags and mani stones. We stopped for an early lunch by the side of a river amidst the splendour of the mountains around us. Shortly after we got back on the road, we came to a police check who told us "Road Closed". No matter how hard we negotiated he wouldn't let us through. They then capitulated to making us wait till 3 p.m. about 1 hr 45 minutes later. So we stopped and waited by the side of the road watching the locals go by with their horse drawn carts or on the backs of their little ponies. At 3 pm sharp, we were back at the check-point but the guy tried to say "no" again. Our guide was very persuasive this time and in the end he let us through. We drove for a while taking detours off the highway from time to time. Then we had problems with Daphne. She wouldn't allow Ian to change from high to low range. At one point the guys got off to empty all the bags off to try to find a spare part. We had to stop several times after that and then came across another road block around 5 p.m. who wouldn't allow us through till about 8. So we drove off on a little side road across the river plain. But this came to an end when we came to a river and the bridge only had one solid tread and the way through the river seemed too soft. We made a cup of tea on the propane gas camp cooker while sending the two Tibetan guides back to the nearest village to see if there was another route. They never did come back and we had to pick them up in the small town when we retraced our steps to the main road. The water took ages to boil as the high winds tried hard to blow the flame out. Every so often a mini sand-storm would sweep through and cover everything it passed with a layer of sand-grit. At one point a herder came by with a huge herd of horses and yaks and they moved through the water beside us and swept all around us passing in seconds. 8 pm came eventually and we set off again and had a fairly consistent drive on the rocky road surfaces with only regular wee stops due to all the water we are all consuming. The air here is extrememly dry and throughout the drive we noticed how little wild-life there is. We have heard a few birds but not much else. Even when I semi-climbed the mountain there was nothing that caught my eye. We arrived at the Snow Leopard Guesthouse in Old Tingri around 9:30 p.m. and were so excited to be able to have a hot shower. But only till 10 p.m, then the hot water was turned off. After that we had somethig to eat which was actually very good, and crawled into bed around 11:15 into a deep, deep sleep. The effects of the altitude have reduced quite a bit since we started taking the altitude pills, but we still feel the breathlessness and the headache. The good thing is, if you can sleep, you generally sleep well. Old Tingri is at about 4000'. It is the last town where people trekking on Everest can stock up. It is typically Tibetan. Basically one street lined with shops and houses built in the typical Tibetan style with the colourful band of religious colours protecting the building. There was also a military camp and next morning we heard the sounds of the soldiers going through their daily workouts. The hotel was the "best" in town. It was actually terrific. The room was heated when we arrived, but freezing whe we woke up! It had a private bathroom with running water (hot between 10 pm and 12 pm). The unique parts were the lighting, which was so dim you could hardly see, and I just about fell off the toilet seat because the seat wasn't attached!! Did I mention that the heating in most of these deserted Tibetan villages is solar and you see rows of solar panels built facing the sun in the centre of the villages.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Saturday May 23, 2009 - Altitude Acclimatizing

We got up late trying to catch up on sleep from our late night/early morning adventure. Had a tea and a plate of cornflakes and milk and 1/2 a banana which seemed so civilized. We all enjoyed the peacefulness and the warm sun and of course our splendid view. Ray and I went for a long walk and came back in time for brunch: fried egg, fried potatoes, tomatoes and chipati. We feel so spoiled. We had a nap mid-afternoon, and around 5 or so Ray was doddering around and I climbed about 1 1/2 hours up the mountain side behind the camp site. It was very rocky and sandy and footing was quite difficult but the views made up for the breathless effort (remember I was at 3700 -3800 meters above sea level). I came across a deserted stone cabin with prayer flags and surrounded by manin stones. Found the source of the town's water supply. Saw a myriad of pretty little ground cover flowers. At the point that a big black wooly yak looked up from grazing and stared me in the eyes before taking a step towards me, I decided it was time to go down! This was much easier as I slipped and slid through the loose stones, squelched over the marshy grass, and climbed down over the boulders. I enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the mountain, the quiet moments of reflection. It was also an opportunity to accpt the reality that I was actually in Tibet. How lucky I am. On my way up the mountain I had noticed Daphne leaving the camp site; then shortly after that Suzette left. When I arrived back, I discovered that Daphne had broken down and Suzette had gone to the rescue. We proceeded with the evening rituals of camp life when about 7:30 pm our leaders called us together. Daphne was in the garage with gear box problems. At this time on a Saturday night it was unlikely we would find a mechanic. So things looked very grim. We had several options: (1) Dan would leave asap with Suzette and drive to Old Tingri, last stop before Everest, with his group, then come back for us, but this was controlled by his ability to drive there and back then there again between 9 pm and 7 am because of the road closures; (2) Daphne would be fixed and we could leave at 9 pm the following night and drive through the night; or (3) we could find local transport to take us some or all of the way; and a myriad of options of each of the options. After much discussion, plan 1 was chosen. So, we would eat dinner and the other group would pack up as quickly as possible and be on their way as soon as possible. Everyone pitched in, tents came down, dishes were washed, cook tent tidied, and Suzette loaded. Then we waved good bye. Four of our group volunteered to go with them so when they left, the 13 of us remaining huddled together and listened again to all our options all of which had to cope with altitude, getting to Everest, Truck, accommodation, and alternative transport. Then we toasted marshmallows around the fire and went to bed. The night was not peaceful and I slept little. Twice locals arrived at the camp site to speak to Tamar. One time she was told that we had to be ready in 15 mins for a ride! The centre pole of the cook tent collapsed on top of Tamar who was sleeping in it - freezing - because her sleeping bag ended upon the other truck; and Tamar heard some animals sniffing around the tent during the night obviously intent on the food inside. This is the fun part of overlanding - dealing with the unexpected!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday May 22 - Challenges of Overlanding and Altitude

We didn't leave Nylam till mid-day. Ray was feeling really sick and headachy with the altitude, and I was feeling a lot of tightness in the chest, and headachy as well. So we were a sorry bunch as we climbed on the Truck for the short drive to the Caves. Along the way we met a couple of police checks, and the seond one wouldn't let us through saying the roads were closed from 7 am to 9 pm. So, we turned back and found a unique camping spot on the lower slopes of a range of 800 meter mountains. In the afternoon Ray stayed in the tent and slept while I went for a walk with the group. The walk seemed to help the headachy feeling, and when I came back, I felt much better. We have a Tibetan guide with us and he spoke to one of the villagers in Gangka who allowed us to see over his homestead. The houses here are quite beautiful. They are made out of stone or brick, held together with dried mud plaster and coloured off white. At the top at the join with the roof there is a broad band painted in religious colour's denoting white for compassion, red for wisdom, and black for energy and power. There is a window in some rooms. The house is built around the courtyard where the hens and goats and dogs live. The rooves are flat and stacked with firewood or yak dung cakes. The houses inside are full of stuff. We saw some beautifully hand painted cabinets, some beautiful carved wood cupboards and a beautiful copper water urn. In the middle of one room there was a television and one of the other main rooms had beds in it and a shrine with prayer wheels. It looked like a husband and wife with 5 kids and a grandfather lived there. They were all very agreeable to photos and got a big charge out of reviewing them. We weren't sure how "set up" it was, but none the less, it was the home of a Tibetan family living in a small desolate village in the Tibetan plateau. Next we went down to Milaraba Buddhist Practice Monastery. The story from our Tibetan guide is that there was an old monstery there and a new monastery was being built. Two years ago, building was stopped, and everything, including the Caves, is now padlocked. No worries, it was simple, but interesting as this is a very religious area. There are lots of prayer flags and mani (or maybe mali?) stones and yak horns printed with sutras which represent active merit and serve to seek higher levels of rebirth. Then we walked back to the campsite through the small community living along the water's edge. Dan and Joey were in charge of dinner - delicious barbecued pork and chicken, with boiled potatoes, sliced tomatoes, and coal-slaw. So welcoming to us after the Asian flavours. During supper, Tamar told us of some changes of plan. The next section of the road also had road closures and we wouldn't be able to follow our original plan of driving further up to the pass during the day for acclimatisation, so we would do it that night - if we all agreed, as the road would then be open. So we finsihed dinner, cleaned up and climbed into the Truck armed with our sleeping bags and warm clothes. We drove for 2 1/2 hours to the Pangda Pass t 5050 meters. The road was largely unpaved, and we drove through the rocky mountains so it was an incredibly tough drive. Added to that was the fact that where the road was closed and a detour provided, it wasn't marked. On one occasion we ended up coming to an abrupt halt as there was about an 8 foot by 1 foot deep gash across the road. I don't think the Truck would have made it!! When we got to the pass it was freezing, but we stayed for over an hour, walking around and getting back into the truck to warm up all the time fighting the tightness in the chest, the shortness of breath, the headache, and for some nausea. What are we doing to ourselves!! We had no concept of the magnificence of the scenery. After 1 1/4 hrs we climbed back into the Truck, and drove back down the way we had come and crawled into our tents. It had been raining while we were away, and our tent had leaked, so our sleeping bags were wet and damp. None the less, altitude does wonders, and we were soon asleep.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Wednesday May 20 and Thursday May 21 - Nepal to China

We left The Last Resort around 8:30 am for our short drive to the C. border. We continued our drive along the canyon walls. In parts, where there had been mud slides, or wash-outs, the asphalt road became almost unpassable rock and boulders. The road was too narrow for 2 vehicles to pass, which resulted in one vehicle having to back up if we didn't meet at a wider spot. The journey was beautiful though as we went up and down and around and through majestice steep mountains heavily carpeted with green trees. After about 2 hours we arrived in Kodari for the start of the border crossing process. Once again the border town was a narrow street running through the centre of town. The passengers moved swiftly through the exit process and once back in the Truck we amused ourselves watching the commotion in the street. The trucks of course were blocking everything: officious looking policemen kept signalling us to move, but Ian was in the customs building dealing with the paper-work to get the Truck out of Nepal. So we just sat there, adding to the blockage! After about 1 1/2 hours we were on the Friendship Bridge between Nepal and C. The process of entry took quite a bit longer - actually till about 5 pm. First, the passengers got out at the C. customs to fill out a health declaration and have our temperatures taken. Apparently, someone had crossed at that point the day before with suspected swine flu. We wondered what would happen if anyone had a temperature. We later learned that an Italian group was held up for 5 days because one person had a temperature. Then we carried our luggage over to the customs building to be sprayed - we suspect with a mixture of dettol? - then we walked through the immigration/customs hall. All the officials were very professional and polite and wished us a good visit to C. But, the Truck was not cleared by then, so we literally lay around in the sun, marvelling at the scenery, sleeping on our napsacks. I was really not too well - stomach ache and feeling nauseous - so just lay and slept as best I could lying on the ground propped up against my backpack. Then, when we thought that the Trucks wouldn't be getting through that day, they appeared around 5:30 pm but we couldn't leave the area because the drivers had to report back to customs the next morning. So, we drove to Zhang Mu (2300 meters above sea level), about an hour away, once again marvelling at the beautiful scenery, and rattling about in the Truck on the bumpy-mountain roads. We are staying in the Hotel Gang Gyan - not what could be described as 5-star, but frankly I climbed from the Truck into bed and slept right through until 9:30 am the following morning. Ray had dinner, exchanged some money and came to bed about 10 -10.30. I didn't hear a thing! Next morning Ray dragged me out of bed to visit the Dr. He had had some trouble with his ears when we climbed the mountain at The Last Resort and wanted to check this out so decided I may as well see the Dr. too. So after a "hot" shower (yes it was hot!) we walked a few paces up the main street to the clinic accompanied by our guide. Ray was told "No problem, happens to the locals all the time!" I was given about 4 different pills, told to take 3 of each of them twice a day, and given strict instructions not to eat meat, or fried food and to drink boiled water, not mineral water. I've taken the pills today and so far, so good - no more vomiting and the pain in the stomack is easing off. I was also told I was in excellent shape - good body muscle and excellent blood pressure, etc.!! White waiting for the Trucks to be cleared through customs, we have literally spent the day dodging around the small town. Walked up and back on the main street, went to the ATM, found an Internet, but couldn't hook up to my blog; watched the traffic jams and are now sitting in the hotel, listening to the heavy beat of the rain on the aluminium roof tops. Shortly, around 8, we will drive for 4/5 hours to Nylam where all going well, we will stay the remainder of the night in a hostel. The trucks passing through town are priceless. The road is about 15 - 20 feet wide and there are always little green cars of white SUVs parked on one side or the other. If no cars are parked, then the two-lane road becomes a 3-lane road. The trucks just keep driving and they literally squeeze through spaces with less than inches between them and the other vehicle, wall, etc. No one loses their temper, although everyone is honking, and volunteer helpers gesticulate instructions wildly - but somehow, it all just works. Everyone slides forward, slides back, and pulls in a bit further, and slowly, the jam disappears to be followed almost immediately by exactly the same circumstances. Our trip from Zhang Mu to Nylam was definitely a lifetime "one of" experience. We left the hotel in taxis in the pouring rain, and pushed our way out of the town. The road was closed a short distance out of town because they are re-building it. It was first opened in in 2001, and just about each year or every second year since then, it has been washed out in the monsoon. The government made the decision to "close" the road during the day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. to do the required road-works! Our trucks had left a little earlier to drive to the point where the road opened, and supposedly where the paving started. About 1/2 hour from the point where the trucks were, there was a check point and the taxis were not allowed through. The story was that they had "broken the rules for the Trucks", but wouldn't do it again for the 33 Dragoman passengers. So, loaded up with small backpacks, cameras, snacks, etc. we set off hiking in the pouring rain up the stoney/bouldery/narrow road with huge gouges out of the edge on some parts and waterfalls on the other parts, around piles of dirt and stone waiting to be used for the road. At one section we came to the road-workers tents and they were all shouting and waving "hello" or "nee-how" at us. Finally, we reached the Trucks, spent a penny and set off on the most wild road I think we have driven on. It ws dark, and foggy, but the rain cleared up. The road was tarmacked, except in areas where it had been wsashed out and in those areas it was just like the conditions we had walked through. In other parts huge almighty boulders had rolled down the steep mountain sides to come to an abrupt halt on the road, or in some cases through the guard rail, across the road, and on down the mountain sides. We passed an other couple of police checks, some buses and trucks on the road, and finally arrived at the hostel/hotel at Nylam, 3700 meters up in the desolate, barren, Tibetan Plateau. Gone are the warm days, and out came the thermal underwear, jackets, hat, and gloves.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tuesday May 19, 2009 - Mountain Hike

We were awakened this morning around 5:30 a.m. with the sound of the Bungy jump crew preparing the ropes on the bridge which is just above our tent. So after breakfast, we went to watch the 8 people who chose to bungy jump and swing. I think its the fear factor that attracts people to do this! But although I admire them and respect them for overcoming their fear, there is no way I would ever do it...not even contemplate fact I was almost sick watching the first few people flying backwards and forwards over the canyon floor....but it was fun watching. After that Ray and I set off up the mountain behind us on a 4 1/4 hour trek. About 2 1/2 hrs straight up, 30 minutes for lunch, and the rest on the way down. It was quite hot, 32-36C, so the hike was strenuous, but we took it slowly, stopped and took pictures, chatted to the locals, etc. and thorougly enjoyed ourselves. Most of the way up was stone steps, but in some parts the narrow path had been washed away, and in others the path was just stone and dirt. A couple of people asked us to take pictures, and we did. The views over the canyon and valley were stunning, but unfortunately very hazy. Coming down was easy, and we had a local family tailing us for a while as they would not pass us, so we felt the pressure to speed it up, until eventually, we pulled into the hillside, and ushered them past! We had shared our lunch with them, taken their pictures, and I guess they felt some responsibility towards to us. When we got back, one of the girls off the other truck cut my hair, then I had a quick shower and went off to my Ayerurdic (????) massage. Amazing! Absolutely fantastic! Complete whole body (yes front as well) massage which surely got all the soreness and stiffness out from the hike. Then it was dinner after which we watched the video of everyone doing the bungy and swing. As we thought the rafting and conyoning were very tame, and choosing the hike up the mountain was definitely right for us.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Monday May 18, 2009 - The Last Resort

Up around 7:30 and ready to leave at 9:30 am. We drove through the crowded streets of Kathmandu out through the country towns we had passed on our trek, Bhaktapur, Bunepa, and Dhulikhel. Then we started a beautiful mountain drive to our destination at The Last Resort. The drive was absolutely spectacular as we climbed up and down along the green-field lower slopes of a canyon, with a water-deprived river. We arrived at our destination around 2:30. Everyone was anxious to book their activities: bungy jumping (160 m) swing; rafting; canyoning; kayaking. I thought it might be fun to kayak, but no-one else was interested.....and when I saw the video, I decided I wasn't experienced enough anyway. Having said that, water levels are low and neither the rafting nor the kayaking would have created any problem. We had a late lunch then literally sat around chatting until dinner time. Had dinner, then chatted some more. Anyway, it was a tame evening to the point we came to bed around 9:30 - but it did look as if some might be set for the night. There are two Dragoman Trucks travelling in tandem until we split somewhere past Lhasa. One goes to Istanbul and the other (ours) to Xian. Dan and Zoe are now on the other Truck - Archie - which they have named "Suzette" after Dan's mother, and we have a new crew, Tamar our leader who is Swiss and about mid 30s, and Ian our driver who is English and about early 40s. Our Truck is still Daphne. The Last Resort is quite unique. It is built on the side of a canyon and you get to it by crossing the gorge on foot over a narrow suspension bridge, off of which is the bungy jump. High above us are some villages and the story is that it used to take the villagers 2 days to walk around the gorge to get their produce to market. The chap who built the Lodge, and Bungy jump, allows villagers to use the bridge, thus cutting their travel time down to about 2 or 3 hours. Its a great story. It reminds me a little of the story in Three Cups of Tea, the story of Greg Mortenson who built a bridge and a school for the people of the village of Korphe in Pakistan. Our tents are unique too. They are erected over beatufiul stone pads and inside space is about 10 x 10 or more and probably 7 or 8 feet at the highest point. There are 6 windows on 3 sides. The tents contain 2 beds, a table, and a stand which has a base to put your bags and some where to hang your clothes. Quite cosy and unique. There are probably tons of bugs too, but I'm not thinking of those!!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday May 17, 2009 - Final Day in Kathmandu - Headed for the Mountains and NO INTERNET

This morning we had a meeting and "altitude" training for the next leg of our trip. It will be tough from the perspective of altitude, conditions, and food. So far as we can see we will not have Internet again till May 27 when we arrive in Shigatse. Here is a run-down of our itinerary till then:
18th/19th - Kodari
20/21 - Zangmu - border crossing to China (Tibet Province)
22 - Lablungla Pass Area
23 - En route - over mountain passes
24 - Baipa Area (Passes over 5000 metres high)
25 - En route to Everest and Base Camp (5200 metres)
26 - Baipa Area (Going down from Base Camp and Continue on Friendship Highway
27 - Shigatse - Hopefully stay in hotel with Internet available.

In the meantime, enjoy the many pictures we have managed to upload through the highspeed Internet in Kathmandu.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday May 16 - Time for "Administrative Matters"

Today has been spent looking after various administrative matters, including updating the blog. So, I hope it gives you all some insights into our holiday. We have also tried to upload pictures, but after 5 hours, Ray was forced to give up the reader for the camera flash card and so has left. Do leave some comments for us – and elaborate on any of the information if you have more specific facts or if I have mis-interpreted anything. It’s all a lot to take in, and there is always a language issue which sometimes leads us to pick up incorrect information.
We are thinking of all of you and hoping things back in Canada are going OK.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday May 15 - Sightseeing in and around Kathmandu

Some may think we are on holiday. But “traveling” is no such thing. We were awake at 4 am with what sounded like garbage trucks. Nepal is a very poor country, has little infrastructure, and little organization. Consequently, there is little “waste management”. There are garbage trucks though, which we have watched being loaded. It is a hit and miss affair whether or not the garbage lands in the truck. We are told the garbage is dumped outside of town. Garbage management, though, is not high level as much of it litters the towns, countryside, and rivers. After waking every 12/ hour after that, we finally got up around 6:30 am and after breakfast were ready for our “city” tour at 8:30 am. This was another fascinating day in this beautiful and charming part of the world which is so rich in history and culture, but so poor in management and sustainability. Today we visited 4 UNESCO historical sites.

First, Swayambu Stupa, also known as the Monkey Temple. The monkeys were amazing. The little ones were diving and swimming in the “Monkey Swimming Pool”. They were having such fun doing cannon balls into the water on top of each other, sliding down the shute into the water, swimming under water, and swimming lengths just like human beings. We wandered around the various temples, spun all the prayer bells, and thoroughly seeped ourselves in the Buddhist culture.

We drove further south to Patan to visit the Darber Square full of ancient monuments, temples, and shrines which are renowned for their craftsmanship and architectural beauty. We also went in the Golden Temple built in the 12the Century and dedicated to business and marveled at the incredible carvings. We saw a traditional wooden chariot in the streets, and one that had collapsed and was being rebuilt.

Our next stop was the Pashupatinath site. This is a Hindu and Buddhist religious site rich in temples, idols, shrines, and seems to date back to 459 AD. It is also the “national” burning ghat site where bodies of all religions are cremated within 2 or 3 hours of death, and the ashes sprinkled in the Bakmati River running along the side of the Ghats. I read today in the paper that there is a 5-year project being planning to clean up this river. It will be in three stages, and involves prohibiting rubbish to be dumped in the river, and changing the sewage system to prevent fresh sewage going directly into the water.

Our final stop was in Bouddhanath to see one of the world’s largest stupas. This is a highly religious site for Tibetan Buddhist exiles. It is thought this stupa was built around 600AD but there are several legends as to who built it. We wandered around the compound around the stupa and ended up seeing a Thanka art school and some of the beautiful art work that the artists had completed. One piece, sold for $US 25,000 to the Mercy Corps in Portland, Oregon, was absolutely fabulous. It took 3 years to complete and I reckon they have got a really good price on this magnificent piece. We also went into another Buddhist monastery and generally tried to keep dry and out of the rain.

The intricate details of all that we saw today are beyond the scope of this blog. Suffice it to say we learned a ton about Buddhist and Hindu culture, saw much ancient art and architecture, heard monks chanting, and meditative music playing, and felt the reverence of prayer bells, ghats, stupas, and prayer flags.

We returned to Kathmandu around 5:30. We saw Anthony off to the plane for Hong Kong and Beijing, ate pizza for dinner with JP, Caroline and Sarah, and turned into bed around 9:30 p.m. As I lay writing my diary, a huge big cockroach rolled across the floor from under Ray’s bed. It’s only about the second or third one I’ve seen on our trip and never one as big. Yikes! It gave me quite a scare. I spoke to the front desk the next day and asked them to fumigate the room. They said they would. We’ll see!!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Thursday May 14 - Three Day Trek in Kathmandu Valley - Day 3

We were up at 6:30 am this morning and in the dining room just after 7:00 a.m. The sun was already out, and warm air caressed our bodies as we ate breakfast on the “mountain view” dining terrace. We were ready to leave just after 8 but our packed lunches weren’t ready. So…., we chilled…..You get used to that!! We set off around 9:30 am and the plan was to catch a local bus, so we walked up to the bus stance. We had at least an hour of “people watching” while waiting for the bus. We watched a bunch of guys trying to get an old station wagon to work. In the end they were successful, but the amount of pollution they spilled into the atmosphere was immoral. A little baby boy – maybe 2 ½ came and gave me a present of a small piece of cellophane he had picked up off the road. I accepted it graciously. We watched the roof of a bus empty of people leaving one poor goat on a tight tether so he wouldn’t strangle. The look of fear and loneliness on its face was quite heart breaking. We watched locals carting huge weights of produce on their backs with straps that tie around their foreheads. And we generally just watched.

All in a flurry our bus arrived, we grabbed our backpacks and ran to catch it. I guess I was the bright spark that said, “let’s ride on the roof”, and innocently we scrambled up the some-what ladder at the back of the bus. We sat on what you can imagine as a metal luggage rack secured to the bus roof. There were sheets of galvanized steel, some piping, and some eavestroughing we had to maneuver around as well as about 10 other people sitting in the lotus position. The chap I squeezed in beside was a Tibetan living in New York and just visiting. Half way along the ride, we suddenly had an extra passenger, a young boy, who appeared from nowhere – I think he was running along beside the bus and then hopped on the ladder and made it to the top. If yesterday’s ride was tame, today’s ride was madness. It was a beautiful ride up the mountainside. The road deteriorated from a narrow paved road, complete with potholes, to a dirt road complete with big boulders. We climbed most of the way with a few downhill segments and of course we maneuvered through countless bends, met a few vehicles coming the opposite way, and generally shuddered our way up. The worst was the “S” bends when you hoped and prayed the driver didn’t mis-judge the corner and end up with one or two wheels suspended in mid-air. Other nerve racking parts were when you suddenly lurched sideways and felt as if the bus would topple over either down hundreds of feet drop on one side of the mountain or straight into the steep bank on the inside of the turn. When Ray and I eventually spoke about it, we agreed it was one of those “out there” moments. We put all our faith into the driver and the equipment in circumstances where neither warranted it! We have heard enough stories, and seen enough accidents to prompt some really serious “what are we doing” thoughts on the trip. But….we were on the way to a Buddhist monastery and temple, and it was a pilgrimmage for others on the bus, so, I prayed along with them and trusted in Buddha which was obviously the right thing to do, as we made it safely to the top. We jumped down and hugged each other with relief. Then we walked the last 5 minutes up to the Thrangu Tahi Yangtse Temple set high on the mountaintop and surrounded by forest. The monastery/temple was only opened in December 2008 and houses over 200 monks. It is splendid. The colours and decorations were vivid and depicted life in the world of Buddha. The large temple was still being worked on by the artists painting various scenes on the walls with paints mixed by the monks. I knelt on one of the monk’s meditation stools and for the first time on our trip felt the “reverence” of the religion around me. It was another of those “special” moments in life that urge you to stop, and reflect. We wandered all over the monastery grounds seeing the various shrines and places of worship. Anthony and I spent a few reverent moments among the prayer flags at the very top point of the monastery. Prayer flags come in red, yellow, blue, green and white depicting the 5 elements of the universe, earth water sun, moon and air. They are written all over with mantras. Devotees buy the flags and pay something for the specially trained people at the temples to mount them. When they blow in the wind, the concept is that they spread their good “karma”.

When our guide called us away from the monastery, we wound our way slowly down the mountain path stopping for lunch on the way and visiting the original Namo Buddha Temple. We emerged out of the forest to over look the valley richly cultivated with corn, potatoes, wheat, and all sorts of vegetables. Once on the valley floor we wandered past hay stooks, bags of potatoes, small villages, dogs barking, baby lambs, and people working in the fields or on the terraces. It was simply beautiful. After reaching the town of Namo Buddha, we had about a 1 ½ hour’s walk through the countryside to Panauti where we saw the burning ghats on the river’s edge before visiting the temple which many say is the oldest temple in Nepal. Panauti is a small, quiet, hamlet, which with French help has recently had much of its traditional architecture restored. Our driver met us in the middle of the small town and we crawled into the van exhausted, but happy. We made it back into Kathmandu just after 6, then after a refreshing shave and change of clothes, we grabbed dinner and were in bed by 10. Sleep came easy!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wednesday May 13 - Three Day Trek in Kathmandu Valley - Day 2

Life off the Truck is a little more relaxed, so we woke up around 7:30 this morning to a view stretching out over the mountains. I took some pictures, but they can never pay justice to the magnificent view over the valley and on up into the mountains stretching far behind. The hotel was excellent, staff charming and efficient, food very good, and hot water for our showers and warm beds! This morning the sun was out and thankfully, all our clothes were dry. We were all cheered up and happy to be on our way. We left about 9:30 and were just getting happy with our “downhill” trek, when Ragu, our guide, turned up the hill and for the next hour or so it was pretty steady climbing on a mixture of dirt tracks and narrow tarred roads. We passed through some beautiful pine forests where we had to be careful that a tree didn’t fall on our heads as 3 guys were in the midst of felling one when we passed. We passed the military camp and hear the bullets being fired seriously hoping it was target practice and not “tourist” target practice! So, we smiled ever so sweetly at the officers guarding the perimeter and said “nameste”. We climbed up a tower to a lookout point and became the object of photography by a Nepali couple who were also visiting the tower. The only thing was, they were so tidy and clean, and the woman even had high heels on and a beautiful colourful sari. I felt really grotty in my trekking boots, convertible pants, and sweat soaked t-shirt. From this point, the trail started down hill, and we trekked down the terraced sides of the mountains, through areas of corn, potatoes, and rice growing (although this doesn’t start yet, the farmers are getting the terraces ready). We passed little villages, communities of houses, and many schools. I think school is compulsory till about age `12, and free to that point, but literacy is still a major problem. We passed cows, goats, chickens, ducks, and of course dogs. The children we passed were always excited to see us and gave us beautiful smiles and big waves. The odd one asked “give me chocolate”. Adults were chatty and always friendly. We came across a “low cast” wedding in one little village; we watched people building houses, and we saw others going about their daily chores of washing, preparing food, and cooking and sweeping. Occasionally we would pass a piece of land where chicken shit or cow shit, or some other fertilizer had been spread by hand on the fields and terraces, but generally the aromas were sweet with the country air and foliage. We sat and ate our packed lunch in the middle of a terraced field. The dogs soon joined us but then the landowner came along and chased them away because he was trying to grow cabbages and he didn’t want dog shit all over them. I guess he wasn’t scared that we would do anything to hurt his crops, but admittedly we were sitting on an unplanted terrace. As we approached the valley on our dirt track, the villages became a little more plentiful and slowly turned into the town of Banepa and before we knew it we were in the main street of a large town and in the middle of a political protest. They had laid out “bodies” of certain dignitaries as a symbol of the people they were gunning for. Ray and Ant thought they were real bodies, so that was good for a laugh! We walked through that then our guide suggested we take a local bus as the last bit of our hike was along a busy highway. So after 5 hrs 57 mins since we left the hotel we thought the bus experience might be fun. It was quite tame, and about 10 minutes later we arrived in Dhulikhel where we are staying overnight at the Dhulikhel Lodge Resort another nice hotel with a beautiful mountain view and just off the main street, again on the edge of a mountain. We arrived about 3:30 and had till 7 to relax before dinner. The time passed very quickly and we went to dinner and were in bed by 9:30. The electricity is so erratic – it’s a huge problem here. Most places have generator back up but our hotel room was plunged into darkness shortly after we got back from dinner for apparent reason – we really can’t work it all out. The TV of course was toast from the last power outage around 4:30. Can you imagine trying to run a business? No light, no phones, no visa, no computer – its quite horrendous. The Maoists are threatening violence, the parties can’t come to a decision or a new leader, and all the people want is peace and to have an opportunity to live a good life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Tuesday May 12 - Three Day Trek in Kathmandu Valley - Day 1

We met our guide Ragu and car this morning at 9:00 am for the start of our three-day trekking program (cost US $165). We drove for about an hour through the congested streets of Kathmandu and out into the country. Our first stop was the town of Bhaktapur, a UNESCO site (population about 65,000), the third largest town in Nepal. It was a lovely town, made up of 3 squares joined together by narrow, cobbled, streets, full of vendors, selling goods for both the tourists and the locals. The town is so much less busy and less polluted than Kathmandu. It’s an ancient Newar town and at one stage was the capital of Nepal way back in the days of the Malla Kingdom until the 15h Century. We walked slowing through the Durbar Square and its exquisite array of temples and royal palaces. Apparently the town was badly damaged in the 1934 earthquake, which is why the Durbar Square appears so roomy, compared to the squares in Kathmandu and Patan. In particular we loved the 55 windowed, 5 story palace. The next square is the Taumadhi Square with the famous 5-story Nyatapola Temple. The last square was the pottery square, or Dattatreya Square which was covered with pottery and wheat drying in the sun. We went inside a little potter’s workshop and took pictures of a man at his work. Of course, then there was the usual payment of rupees. The town is known for its beautiful woodcarvings, potters, and weavers. The German funded Bhaktapur Development Project has funded the restoration of buildings, paved dirt streets, and established wastewater management programs. The town is an absolute treat and definitely shouldn’t be missed on any visit to Nepal.

After seeing the town we climbed back in our van and drove through the countryside to Changu Narayan, also listed as a world heritage site. The temple there “The Changu Narayan Temple” is about 323 AD and is the oldest in Kathmandu Valley and it is charming with beautiful with stone, wood, and metal carvings. It is devoted to Shiva and has a spectacular image of Vishnu with 10 arms and 10 legs. The walk up a long street of artisans and peasant carvings and weaving to get to the temple was also interesting.. After spending time there we had lunch in a rooftop restaurant overlooking the valley and the agricultural terraces and the mountains looking towards the trails we would soon be trekking.

The route was fairly challenging in that it was mainly up as we climbed from Changu at 1700 m to Nagarkot at 2175 m, but it was absolutely beautiful. We walked along paths that the local villagers use past their mud-baked houses, through the agricultural terraces, and just through the most natural Nepali scenes. We said “namaste” to everyone we met, tasted berries along the way, and came across a sadhu high on dope. The only downer was the rain. We had one heavy downpour around 3 pm that cleared up but then started again and didn’t stop. By the time we got to our hotel at the end of our 3 hr 45 minute walk we were soaked and cold. The hotel Country Villa, thanks to the agent we booked it with, is beautiful. It is right on the edge of the mountain looking over to the Himalayas stretching from Mt. Kenchenjungo in the east to Annapurna massif in the west. Although the hydro was off we had a lovely hot shower, a cup of delicious masala chai, then sat and chatted till dinner. After dinner we went to bed around 9pm. My only problem is I am freezing and although I brought my rain jacket, its now soaking and unlikely to be dry by tomorrow morning. But it was a fabulous day and we all enjoyed the exercise both of the mind and the body.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Monday May 11, 2009 - Around Kathmandu

Another lazy morning getting up at 8:30 am, and breakfasting in the hotel. Our first task was to sort out our laundry. Yesterday morning we took our dirty clothes to a little laundry we discovered in one of the alleyways. The shop front was about 5’ by 6’ and there was no electric light other than a dim desk lamp. The chap weighed the laundry and told us it was 10.5 kg. The price was 200 rupees per kg and we paid him 2100 rupees. We were a little careless in doing this and after realized we had paid him about $32 which of course was ridiculous. We got back to pick it up yesterday when he told us to….and it was not ready! We got back to the hotel and found a telephone message saying it was ready. So…. we went back. He still said it wasn’t ready and when we queried him on the money he said he didn’t have any money to repay us with until tomorrow. We really began to wonder if we would ever see our laundry again let alone any money. However, when we went over this morning, he had the price all worked out, and the laundry was there and he gave us 1000 rupees back. Phew!!

Late morning we set off with Sarah, an Aussie girl from our trip, to investigate the city. We walked to Hanuman dhoka Durbar Square, a world heritage site. There are apparently 7 UNESCO sites in Nepal and I think we will see them all except one. The square is a complex of temples and shrines, both Hindu and Buddhist. The population is apparently about 80% Hindu, 10% Buddhist, 5% Muslim, 2% Christian, and the rest is mixed. I heard someone say that there are over 58 temples in the Square, but I am not sure of this figure. The building are mainly built in the pagoda style with ornately carved exteriors and built in the 12th – 18th Century. The kings of Nepal are crowned here. It was certainly a very interesting area. One of the temples was especially interesting. It is the Kumari-ghar and the home of the “kumari” or living goddess who is said to be the incarnation of the Goddess Taleju. If you go to the temple around 4 pm (which we did), you see her appear at a third story window to be seen by her admirers. Apparently there is quite a process to choosing a pretty little girl for this task.

We spent the afternoon wandering through the less traveled areas of Kathmandu and saw a plethora of temples, shrines, hitis (water tanks where people wash their clothes, and bahals (courtyards) as well as fabulous street scenes of people living their lives and going about their daily business. It was really fascinating, not always pretty though as there appear to be still the remains of buildings devastated in the 1934 earthquake. We also experienced a ferocious thunder and lightening storm complete with hailstones. We managed to shelter in the stairway of one of the temples (which non-Hindus weren’t allowed in) and really felt as if we were just one of the people living in Kathmandu. It was a fabulous afternoon and we got back to the hotel around 5 p.m. We went for dinner to the Road House Café and had a delicious pizza, then back to the hotel to prepare for tomorrow and our 3 day hiking trip.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday May 10, 2009 - Kathmandu

It was luxury to know we didn’t have to get up at any specific time; and we deliberately allowed ourselves a “relax” day. So, at 5:30 am we are both lying wide-awake in bed, determined to “sleep-in”. Eventually, after listening to all the noises in the hotel, the noises in the narrow streets outside the hotel, and the birds, we got up at 8:30 am. We pottered around, took a leisurely shower, dropped our dirty clothes off at the laundry, had breakfast on the rooftop restaurant and at 11:30 along with a couple of others from our group went to the travel agent about a trekking trip. Business is not conducted quickly here, and it was about 2 pm when we finally left having booked a 3-day trekking trip outside of Kathmandu and a one-day site-seeing trip. Ray and I then went for lunch in a little open-air café, did some Internet and went back to the travel agent to see about our Chinese visas. Then the wind came up, the clouds moved in, the temperature dropped, and for the first time in a month we saw rain. There was quite a thunderstorm, the power went out, and everyone cleared from the narrow streets.

We met our group at 7 and went for dinner in a cheap, mediocre Thai restaurant, then back to the hotel and bed around 10:15. Generally the Nepalese, as the Indians, are not around late at night and the only people you meet are the tourists. They warn you here not to walk alone at night because of “drunks”. They also warn you that if you take a taxi be sure to check the driver isn’t drunk! We are wondering how you do this? Uh, “Excuse me, would you mind taking a breathalyzer test before I get in your taxi?”

We had a long chat today with a guy we met in the travel agent’s about the government, and how inefficient they are. He said, no planning! For example, he has been without water for 2 weeks now. Nepal apparently has a supply of water next only to Canada. The electrical power cuts have been going on for 3 years. According to this chap, the government simply has not planned for expansion of the population, progression, or done any “sustainable” planning.

There is apparently no hope of the 2 political parties forming a new government in the near future, according to the local paper. “Begging” is “ profession” and is not to be supported and “spitting” is a way of life. There is actually a whole process that precedes the “spit” which us westerners consider vulgar, but to the Nepalese, it is acceptable. I worry about disease, because we did notice a tuberculosis hospital, which means they must have this disease. You always remove your shoes when you enter a Nepalese home; you never step over anyone, and you never pat children on the head because the feet are the “lowest” part of the body, and the “head” the highest. So many customs to remember.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Saturday May 9, 2009 - Mountain Drive to Kathmandu (230 kms)

It was a beautiful morning when we left the Rhino Lodge at 6:3 a.m. this morning. The sun was out, it was still cool, and all the flowers were fresh. For many this is the last day of their holiday, but many continue their journey in different directions from Kathmandu. We are amazed at the stark differences between Nepal and India both in scenery, facial features of the people, typical houses, and the personality of the people. We are taking a new route through the mountains. Already we have seen several truck accidents, and we are just staring our climb up the mountain. We have passed agricultural terraces built in the side of the hills, electric green rice paddies, and have already formed the impression that the Nepalese are much more industrious towards their land in putting in an effort to grow produce and to keep everything clean and tidy. We came across a parade in Hetauda, passed gravel and cement quarries and watched the stones being carried up and over the mountains in cable cars. We came upon a bridge that had collapsed, many little mountain villages, and a military patrol. There were lots to see. We climbed up and over the Simbhanjyang Pass at 2488 meters. The scenery along the Tribhuvan Highway was breathtaking. We had lunch at Daman at 2322 meters, which has the best outlook in Nepal. Then we rolled down to the Palung Valley and the mustard, rice, and millet fields. We climbed again but this time the peace and quiet was gone and once again we were back in chaos as we entered Kathmandu. We transferred all bags over to a van as we had to empty the Truck and also the Truck couldn’t get to the hotel, then we walked to the Hotel Tradition in Thamel. At 8:00 p.m. we all met and went over to the K-Too Bear and Steakhouse for our departure dinner. And, yes, we did have steak…and it was delicious! We were sad to see many of the group leave us, but 4 of us remain to continue our journey to Xian.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Friday May 8, 2009 - Rhino Hunt

The Lodge we are staying in is by far the best place yet. Rooms are clean, and a good size; the gardens are nicely designed and colourful; and the service is efficient and the food is good. A lovely place to be for 2 days.

This morning we had a delicious breakfast at 6:00 a.m. then at 6:30 a.m. we walked down to the river and got into wooden canoes for a 5 km “float” down the river. There was a chap with a long pole standing at the back end of the canoe. He propelled us lazily down the river. As with rowing, the boats seemed a little tippy whenever you moved in them, and of course your bum got so sore and numb, but the sensation of floating down the peaceful river was like being in Camelot. We saw a couple of crocodiles on the bank, and tons of beautiful birds.

After the boat ride, we trekked back through the forest always hoping to catch a glimpse of rhinoceros, bear, or even deer. But sadly, we scared them all away with our heavy footsteps. Saw lots of “paw prints”, a place where rhinos had mated, and the pee of the rhino which is squirted in a 4m area to mark its territory. Other than almost stepping on a deadly common king cobra much to our guide’s alarm, the trek was uneventful. We ended up opposite the Lodge at the end of the trek and were once again gently propelled across.

As we walked back on the river bank we saw some elephant handlers giving the elephants a good wash in the river. They use stones to rub them down and their voice to get them to stand up, lie down, roll over, squirt water, etc. We were supposed to have gone elephant washing but the people who do it are “on strike”, so there is none at the moment. This morning it is about 36C so thankfully, a little cooler.

After our morning activities we had about 1 ½ hrs relax time. I thought I might sleep, but in the end just sat quietly outside our room enjoying the garden, writing my diary and chatting with some of the group. At 12 we had lunch, then time to pop over to the internet to check some details on our China/ Russia trip before setting of at 2:30 for our elephant ride. By this time it was about 38-40C – not quite so “cool”. None the less, we have become used to heat and don’t find it as tiring.

Riding on an elephant was huge fun! We climbed on to the “howdah” from a tall mounting block, four up. Imagine a foot-stool turned upside down and cushions placed inside the frame. Each person sat at a corner inside the frame with legs straddling the legs of the stool. Got the picture??? The motion is a little confusing because you are more or less sideways as opposed to facing forward and the stride is gigantic. Going up and down hills was surprisingly smooth. We crossed a river, praying that the elephant wouldn’t spray water over us (the cooling effect would be great but it wouldn’t be so good for the cameras!). We followed well worn paths through the forest feeling the tickle of spider webs on our skin, the scraping of branches against our legs, and the whip of the smaller upper branches against our face. We also seemed to forge through the jungle creating new tracks which meant quite a bit of extricating yourself from leaves, branches and wines. We ended up covered in spiders, little bugs, and leaf debris. Every so often our elehant pooped and the strongly pungent smell was nausous! All our efforst were rewarded. We cam upon a wide open space and 5 rhinos, 2 bathing in a water hole and 3 grazing in the grass. They are huge, scaley anmilas with mean, visious faces, but elephant and rhinos live well together so we were able to get within about 6 feet, and being high on the elephant, we had a splendid view. Happy and contented at seeing these huge beasts, we returned to the elephant station and then the hotel.

I went down swimming in the river with Dave to cool down remembering that morning we had seen two crocodiles basking on the banks of the river. We met a Spanish guy riding his Marawi horse along the edge. He had moved from Spain , bought some horses, and set up a riding center. It never ceases to amaze me the confident with which some people run their lives.

In the evening we saw Tharu stick dancing. This is a powerful tribal dance with clashing sticks, loud drums, and chanting. It was very arousing and the opportunity to join them in the ritual dancing was very stirring and emotional. Then, it was all over and it was off to bed. Today was filled with memorable moments.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thursday May 7, 2009 - Sauraha

Morale is high in the Truck today. Already we can feel the differences between India and Nepal. We left late at 8:00 a.m. and set off across the plains to the foot of the Himalayas, which rose silently out of the haze in front of us. We started to climb, then made a chai stop at one of the many little eating huts built up the side of the mountain. Here, as opposed to the all-male environment of India, there are women cooking and serving at these stops, babies and little children crawl around, and there are no people clawing around the Truck or trying to sell us stuff. And…. the mountains; after the parched-plains of India, the “mountains” are a welcome relief to our eyes. Don’t imagine mountains like in Canada, but instead think Africa, with beautiful fertile valleys of green corn leaves, and red sunburst trees. The roads however, although paved are a challenge particularly when one half of an already narrow road is dug up for repair. We have already seen one Truck whose brakes failed coming down crash into the step slope rising up directly from the road opposite a drop of sever hundred meters through dense forest to a river bed below.

Here are some initial “quick facts” on Nepal that I can glean mainly from Lonely Planet. It has a population similar to Canada, about 26 million people, although the people here tell you less. Life expectancy is 61. Literacy rate is 63% for men and 28% for women. 82% of Nepalese live on less than US$2.00 a day. Average age of the population is 20. Nepal has apparently never been conquered or ruled by anyone else, but its political background is totally unstable. It is a democratic republic – some times! The King was stripped of all of his powers in 2006. Currently, there is a political emergency because the Maoist Prime Minister fired the Chief of the Military. The President said he couldn’t do this and re-instated him. So now there is no government but the Maoists seem to be in control. There are numerous parties several of which are communist and the Maoists. There is a democratic alliance, which is struggling to negotiate with the Maoists who are intimidating the rural residents by violence in their struggle to take supreme power. Nothing has happened for the past 8 months in the way of government management. The Prime Minister has been sacked and replaced in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2003, 2004, 2005, and again recently. 25% of the state budget comes from foreign aid, and the people say that only 75% of that actually goes into the country, the rest goes into the pockets of the government. Some people are scared that the King will take over again and that they will lose democracy. There is virtually no infrastructure. The government has invoked 20-hour load shedding (power-cuts) a day because there is no electricity despite Nepal having tons of water available for power.

We arrived at Sauraha at the entrance to the Royal Chitwan National Park and to the Rhino Lodge where we are staying for the next two nights in time for lunch. We immediately walked down to the Rapti River and paddled in its gently flowing waters. Lunch was delicious. We had about an hour’s free time and skipped into the small town to the Internet Café. We are happy and excited. Our trip to Mongolia and Russia is not cancelled. Someone booked a t the zero hour and saved the trip! I can’t quite believe that, and it has been suggested that either our agent or Sundowners were trying to do an “up sale” on us for $2000 each. But then, I can’t believe that either….so who knows!! At 4 p.m. we loaded into our Oxen-drawn carts to take us for a visit through the Tharu Village to the Elephant Breeding and Training Centre. It was a wicked afternoon and evening. The Brahma oxen are the most amazing animals. They are so pretty, and strong, and have such courageous hears. I feel for the way the carts are loaded though. The yoke lies directly on the skin of their necks in front of their hump. However, its not rubbed raw, and the animals seem in good condition. The village provided an insight into the Tharu way of living. They are so clean, and tidy- no garbage or litter anywhere, and their houses are full of character. Unlike India, the people and children are shy – and oh, so cute and pretty. It’s a great feeling when you make eye contact with a little kid whose face just literally beams when they realize you are focusing on them and a small wave solidifies the communication. We walked across a river in water to our knees, taking time to skip a few stones across the water. The elephant center breeds elephants, which they train at the age of about 1 or 2 for use in the National Park for things like trekking to protect the rhinos from poaching and other conservation and safety issues in the park. They use elephants because of their size and strength. We saw elephants of all ages, played – cautiously – with the babies and saw them being fed (100 sachets of rice and grass a day). It takes 3 people to prepare the food for one elephant. When we walked back to our oxen-drawn carts, a herd of oxen and water buffalo were being driven towards the side of the river and we dallied in amongst them talking to them and taking pictures and just thoroughly enjoying the sun-set and the shadows in the river.

Once back at the lodge, we were no sooner in our rooms than we heard quite a commotion in the main street of the town, so of course, we had to go and look and found ourselves in the middle of a Maoist rally. I haven’t mentioned that a couple of days ago there were riots in Kathmandu. The leader of the Maoist party has said that tourists will not be targeted, but they should be careful not to get involved and get caught in between the opposing parties. So once all the torches had been dimmed, and the protestors went home, we went in to dinner. Now, I am lying in bed, secure from mossy bites under my mosquito net. I haven’t slept under a mosquito net since I lived in West Africa in the ‘50s. It brings back a lot of hidden memories from my childhood.

The sad part about this Maoist thing is that one of the people we talked to in the street, said that people in the village feared for their safety, so were supporting the Maoists. I can believe this because even in Canada during the recent municipal elections, I heard this same story from a new candidate who told me that residents had indicated they couldn’t vote for the new candidate otherwise the incumbent could make their life difficult. How to clean up politics to remove the elements of power-over and fear?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Wednesday May 6 - Mad Dash to the Border - Last Day in India

There were a few hangovers this morning after a group consumed a bottle of the cheapest vodka available last night but to everyone's credit, all were on the Truck on time to leave at 5:00 a.m. They were celebrating our "last night in India".

Our last 400 km drive was not an easy one. The roads were narrow and congested which required constant passing of slow moving vehicles. The temperature was very hot, 46C; and the facilities along the way were limited. The scenery was flat, stony, dry and un-noteworthy. I doubt that many tourists take this route.

The border crossing into Nepal was uncomplicated. The Indian immigration office was a house in the middle of the congested main street of Belahiya. The Nepalese customs was a slightly larger house and we paid our US $40 for our 30-day visa, and were welcomed into Nepal by a friendly border official. We walked from there through the streets to our hotel and sank into the air-conditioned restaurant of the hotel where we substituted Nepalese “Everest” beer for the Indian “Kingfisher” beer.

The power in Nepal, as in certain parts of India, is erratic. Fortunately, the hotel has a generator but unfortunately; we were unable to check email and still don’t know the fate of our China/Russia trip.

To be honest, I never woke up today. The short sleep, the hot temperatures, and the long drive left me sleepy all day and at 10 in the evening I literally collapsed into bed exhausted.

So on this our last day in India, in an effort to put it all into perspective, the following is a summary of our thoughts:

We have traveled from Mumbai in the western upper limits of southern India to Nepal in the northeast border of India, and although this is quite a distance, there are many other regions of India, which offer a different experience, such as the Great Himalayan circuit. India stretches you in every way; it forces you outside of your western-norm, and it challenges you to learn more about its religion and history both of which add a layer of colour over society and affect modern living on a constant basis. The journey has been an unforgettable experience. We have seen sights that exceeded all expectations such as the Taj, the ghats in Varanesi, the ruins at Mandu, and the forts and palaces; and we have come to discover the personalities of the Indian psyche which in many ways have disappointed us due to the greed/expectation of something for nothing/the scourging of the tourist, and the lack of compassion. But, we have also met the opposite: the kind-hearted giving nature and the realization that great change is needed to give the majority a quality life. We have struggled to come to grips with some of the social problems such as abuse of women, poverty, child labour, and we have been appalled at the environmental issues such as pollution, garbage littering the towns and country side villages, contaminated waterways, and the lengths of plastic found in the cows stomachs. We have come to love some of the Indian characteristics: the cups of masala chai, the head woggle, the big wide smiles of the adults and children; the ringing of the bell in the temples to wake up the God and say “hello”. We have lived through its dynamic history from the invasions by Muslim armies in the north in the 1000s, to the Mughal Empire and the Rajputs in the 1500-1700s, the British onslaught in the 1800s, and finally independence in 1937. We have tried to learn about its main religions, Hinduism, Muslim, Buddhist and Jain, and although we have learned and seen much there are still many more layers of society that we have not even touched. People say you either “love” India, or “hate” it. I think I love it and hate it all at the same time. It is a fascinatingly different country!

So far, our group has been really terrific and together has an interesting mixture of knowledge levels and personal skills. There hasn’t been much time for partying or physical activity so life has been a little “serious”, but all in all, it has been an amazing experience that has broadened my mind and stretched my senses.