Mountain moments

There are just a few little things I’d like to share that aren’t really sufficient for individual posts but also don’t flow as a single concept, so I’ve grouped them together here:

Tibetan toilets
I’m sure most of you are familiar with the concept of the squat toilet, however I doubt many of you have experienced the group bonding variety that appears the higher (and thus more remote) you get in Tibet. I’ll just make it clear at the outset that these toilets were at least thankfully single-sex. At first the toilets lost their ceramic surrounding and became the literal ‘hole in the floor’ – fine, it makes little difference. They then become holes in the floor separated by low partitions with no door – oh well, since you have to squat anyway you can’t see your neighbour and you just choose the one furthest from the main door. Finally you lose the partitions along with any sense of privacy, ah group bonding at its finest! At least these are sometimes accompanied by fine mountain views.

Diamox the wonder drug
So people say that you will naturally acclimatise to altitude, give it a few days and drink plenty of water. These people clearly have not experienced the hammering headaches and sleepless nights of altitude sickness. Although it probably is true, when you’ve only got a few days and you want to enjoy yourself rather than feel like a zombie, diamox is the key! I thank the scientists who formulated this wonderful drug, I have never appreciated the blissful feeling of sinking into a peaceful sleep quite so much. My advice: don’t stick it out, bow to western medicine, those scientists have worked hard to make your life easy! (You may experience sporadic pins and needles in your hands and feet but the pros definitely outweigh the cons).

Yak dung
I realise I have already mentioned this in passing but as I lay here with the sweet smell of burning yak dung wafting past my nose I am reminded just how useful it is. Yak dung is an essential antidote to the cold mountain evening. The six of us in our guesthouse huddled around the iron stove last night, cheering as the lovely Nepalese lady who runs the place lit the yak dung (a feat that eluded the three western guys in the group) providing us with warmth for the night.

Shortly after writing the previous paragraph we were once again lounging around the iron stove when everything around us began to tremble. As the fixtures on the wall began to shake we hastily shoved our feet into our boots and escaped outside. Thankfully there was no damage done in our vicinity (Kyanjin Gompa in the North of Nepal) and a slight rumble is as scary as it got for us.

Simon’s birthday night out

As previously mentioned Simon’s birthday began with a singsong followed at breakfast by a birthday cupcake (supplied by another member of our tour group) with an improvised toothpick candle.

It seemed that after the beautiful views of Everest, and another long bus journey (with a lunch-time frisbee game), Simon had had all the excitement he wanted for his 29th birthday. You’ll be pleased to know that the others in our group and I did not let it end there, and thus we entered our second Tibetan nightclub.

After Simon’s description of Zhangmu you may appreciate that we were a little skeptical of what sort of nightclub this town would offer up. We were pleasantly surprised, this club was a far cry from the heaving modern establishment in Lhasa. Zhangmu’s nightclub was small, beer was bought by the bottle and shared out in glasses a little larger than a shot, and the walls were oddly decorated with small Christmas trees and cardboard rabbits (not easter bunnies as we first thought but in recognition of the Chinese year of the rabbit).

In many ways the club was reminiscent of a village disco, with most people seated at tables around the club perimeter and a few groups of each gender (not mixing) dancing in the centre. I think they were a bit bemused by our western style of dancing (it may have been a bit energetic). At one point as Simon and I approached the dance floor the music switched from western to Tibetan and we fled back to our seats as the locals began their traditional circle dance (a dance similar to line dancing that slowly rotates in a circle, we failed to establish who the leader was or how they knew when to do what).

The night ended with our entire group jumping around to the ‘Summer of ’69’ before vanishing back to the hotel, leaving some relieved locals to circle dance the night away.

Off trekking

It’s been too long since we last sat on a bus for 9 hours, so we’re off on another bumpy journey tomorrow in order to go trekking.

Apparently it takes 9 hours to go 120km to the start of the Langtang trek, some of which is blocked by landslides. Sounds like fun!

We’ll be trekking for the next week or so (not quite sure how many days it’ll take – that depends on how long it takes before Laura gives me a piggyback to the top!). That means (and this will be a shock to the system) no Internet, no blogging and probably no phones. Blissful mountains and lots of Yaks, we hope.

Anyway – we’ll let you know how it went when we come back, yeti permitting!


Leaving Shangri-La


Tibet has often been cited as the true location of James Hilton’s mythical fantasy land of Shangri-La. Between the mountaintop prayer flags, monasteries of chanting monks and wafting insense, you can really appreciate the likeness – although perhaps not so much now with the Chinese troops on the streets and jarring horns from each passing motorbike and car.

However, as we crossed into Nepal at the border town of Zhangmu, there seemed to be more of a resemblance to the modern day imitation Shangri-La at Glastonbury Festival than that of 30’s literature. Darkened alleyways with flickering florescent lights; narrow streets lined with mysterious shops bearing indecipherable Chinese script; sanitised quarantine zones for immigrants with quasi-english directions; and salubrious red-lit doorways with ‘hostesses’ awaiting their next customer. Ok, Glastonbury doesn’t have the last bit, but its sensory overload night venue is a fair representation of the contrast we saw in the last night we spent in Tibet.

We’re now in Kathmandu, Nepal, collecting our thoughts and future plans before embarking on the next step of the adventure. We arrived on Sunday after a journey through a landscape that felt more like Costa Rica than our expectations of a landlocked plateau.

The border was both classic and bureaucratic. A single lane bridge over a river cut through a deep gorge, with soldiers from each side arranged next to the line of control – the stuff of Cold War movies (or the opening sequence of Die Another Day for the younger generation). Then a laborious hour-long process of form filling, stamping, correcting, re-stamping and finally getting the signature of the chief immigration officer, who has to personally sign each visa. By hand. Not that the visa was actually needed to enter the country – the visa office was just a door on the street that we could well have just wandered past and into town if we didn’t have a guide with us!

The Costa Rican element of the journey came from the glorious green forest cut by a wide river, around which our dusty and landslide-evident road wound and precariously leapt. Luscious, balmy and humid – none of which I’d have previously thought would fit Nepal. Oh, and cramped, sweaty and bumpy on the bus, which fitted the bill more!

So we bade our farewells to The Rooftop of the World, and to the great friends we’d made on the trip from Beijing. We’re hoping to catch up with some folks in Delhi in a few weeks time, and others hopefully back in London – or elsewhere in the world. It’s strange to think back now to three weeks ago, indulging in Peking Duck on the first night, and the experiences we’ve had since then – seeing hundreds of people doing salsa/chinese crossover dancing on the streets of Beijing at night; shopping in The Gates Of Hell (massive supermarket, I’ll explain another time); crazy food – and being ripped off – at the night market; friendly shared gestures and photos with Buddhist Nuns; and the sight of Everest at last after the longest bumpy road imaginable!

Kathmandu feels so much more like India than China, with brightly coloured hand-painted adverts covering shop shutters, the continual screech of car horns (often musical), and the fabulous wafting smell of curry. It’s a lot more frantic and noisy than I’d imagined – probably closer to my vision of Bangkok than a centre for trekking. Each narrow street of the Thamel district is teeming with honking motorbikes and rickshaws jostling for space among the pedestrians, and it’s easy to get a headache after just a few minutes.

We spent a final night basking in the delights of a hotel room (with windows on three sides, no less!) before downgrading yesterday to a twin room at a hostel (en suite) for 1/10th the price. Cell-like – yes, in need of a good clean – definitely, but cheap as chips at £3 each per night. And with wifi and a rooftop view over the valley – bargain!

Yesterday we accidentally* wandered into the middle of one of Nepal’s biggest festivals, which was bemusing. Appropriately we arrived just as the various ambassadors of the world were driving up to palace in the main square here, and we slotted into the peculiarly prominent tourist area, waved past lines of riot police tasked it seems with holding the locals back from seeing their own festival. In short (this post is way too long already, but I’ve got to finish this now!), six year old living goddess, her feet can’t touch the ground, she gets out once a year – on this day – and rides a chariot (people, not horse-drawn) around the old town after blessing the president for another year of rule (it used to be the king but that stopped after he massacred his whole family ten years ago). Oh, and a dancing elephant (more people, not real animals), and man with a huge red hat. For three hours in the hot sunshine. It was certainly an experience! Then a final dinner with the remaining Gap Tour folks who had stayed an extra day.

Today we procrastinated and sat out on the roof garden of our hostel, admiring the view while Laura beautified her scrapbook and I watched a huge raincloud wash in over the valley. It’s lovely and (relatively) quiet here compared to the bustle of the Thamil area 5 minutes walk away – the distant car horns sounding more like quietly bleating sheep, fitting nicely with the surrounding vista of green hills and dreams of mountain passes and trekking adventures.

Tomorrow we need to actually plan our trek and start the journey onwards – but for tonight, it’s a cosy meal somewhere easy and then curling up with a book, possibly by candlelight if the one of the city’s regular power cuts sweeps in before we sleep.


* Apparently we were told about it by some friends from the trip, but I’m denying all knowledge.


Birthday at Base Camp


I’ve often heard people say things like “The weather comes in quick in the mountains” and never quite known what it means. Surely they can at least be more specific than ‘weather’? And shouldn’t that be ‘quickly’?! Well, we experienced it yesterday first hand.

The Chinese for Everest is Qomolangma, in case you wonder where we went in the photos. It’s a short walk up to Base Camp from where we were staying in a very basic hostel, and we started in brilliant sunshine – like a hot summer’s day in Britain thanks to the altitude. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the famed mountain itself thanks to cloud over it (Base Camp is still 20km from the summit, of which 3.5km is upwards, with us at 5000m and the summit at 8500m).

We’d been walking for 15 minutes when a translucent sheet of, well, weather just hit us. And it was quick! Within a few seconds there was rain, then hailstones, and an inkling of snow as an icy wind swept in. The sun kept shining through, so somewhere there was probably also a rainbow which we’d have seen if we weren’t desperately hunting for fleeces, waterproofs, hats and gloves. I’d love to be able to tell you the hailstones were the size of golfballs, but alas they weren’t. Laura and I concluded they were about the same size as the Calypso flavoured ice balls if you’ve ever encountered them – or small gravel if you haven’t. Basically normal hailstones.

Base Camp itself was pretty underwhelming, especially because a) we couldn’t see the mountain, and b) there was nobody there but us since it’s not mountaineering season – just a rocky plateau where people would camp with apparently amazing views of the mountain if there wasn’t heavy cloud. We got the obligatory kazoo photo (I’m pretending to be a yeti, in case you wonder), sent a postcard from possibly the highest post office in the world (it’s a tent), and retreated into the (ahem) bus journey down.

Our accommodation for the night was effectively a camping barn with beds, and lots of blankets – and at least in theory an Everest view from your pillow. We cocooned ourselves from the cold, and made use of the oxygen canister we’d bought, unsure whether we’d been sold compressed air or actual oxygen. We still don’t know either way! Fortunately the altitude wasn’t too tough – just some minor headaches and getting out of breath from hefty tasks like folding blankets.

The following day was my birthday, and it was fantastic. Being woken by a rousing Happy Birthday song at 7am more than made up for the clouds still obscuring our bedside view of the mountain. One of the group got a clear photo at 3am lit by moonlight – hopefully we’ll get a copy.

Our 10 hour bus journey saw us retrace the previous day’s dirt track for 102km, before (after applause for the driver) we headed west, over passes and barren plains before we started our descent into Zhangmu on the Nepalese border. A 2.5km descent on winding mountain roads is an adrenaline rush at the best of times, but the rain and mist that hit us as we sunk into an amazing deep gorge made it an incredible if slightly stressful experience! Waterfalls hundreds of feet high, sheer cliff faces and all manner of tropical vegetation seemingly floating in mid-air, with a twisting road disappearing into the mist ahead and an occasional blast of the horn as the driver checked nobody was coming the other way. Our confidence wasn’t exactly boosted by occasional stretches where the (fairly new) safety rail had been torn from the concrete by vehicles that had opted to take the quick route to the bottom!

Zhangmu is a salubrious traffic jam of a town, and had more than its fair share of character, which was great after some of the soulless places we’d stopped in. It is essentially a set of buildings around a single steep hairpin-twisted road, with sheer drops in every direction. What better place for hundreds of lorries transporting goods between Nepal and Tibet to exchange loads!

Driving through the town, it becomes apparent that it’s essentially a single lane road as haulage trucks line the rest of the street, brightly painted and with amazingly musical horns. This makes for an entertaining and hair-raising gridlock, a continual
dance of edging forward optimistically only to have to reverse back long distances to find a passing spot, along with the three lorries, two taxis and police car behind you. We saw one car trying to squeeze round an obstacle with half its tyre over the edge and a cliff face beneath!

To cap off a very different but delightful birthday, we finished with curry (yak of course) and a club. Brick Lane it may not have been but it was great fun, and we made it in one piece!