Sunday, 20 December 2009

Day 38 - Kathmandu, Nepal

There was supposed to be a strike on my first day in Kathmandu all those days ago, but it was cancelled at the last minute. I had hopes that the same would happen today, but as soon as I walked out of the hostel this morning it was 100% certain that this was not the case. The gates of the hostel were closed and there was high security watching people go in and out, all of the hustle and bustle of the shops outside the door was replaced with closed shutters, and more strikingly the honking of taxis, rickshaws, motorbikes and buses was completely absent. With no cars, everything closed, and people wandering around aimlessly, it was like something out of Dawn of the Dead. The above picture shows one of the busiest interchanges in Kathmandu, normally this would be chaos, with thousands of vehicles passing through every hour and a policeman standing in the centre attempting to keep some kind of order, but today you could actually walk down the middle of the road with impunity – in fact, I have only seen three cars in the whole day, and two of those were ambulances.

There are armed guards everywhere and you can't even get food or drinks; the only commerce that is taking place at all is by the odd enterprising individual who will approach you with his goods in his coat or suchlike, another beckoned me into his shop that seemed closed but still had a small opening in the shutters. And it's not surprising they're so secretive: feelings are running high in Nepal and a bus that experienced mechanical problems last night and so was rushing home in the early hours of this morning was set alight by people angry that they were breaking the strike – in fairness the demonstrators made sure everyone was out of the bus first!

So it's all a bit strange. Not dangerous or scary in any way – there may be protests, but if there are, they're nowhere near the tourist areas – it's just very eerie. Add to that the fact that at the usual 6pm time, the electricity has just gone off, and it has been a really rather anticlimactic end to the trip. If things change then I will try to get something done tomorrow before I leave and blog again, but if not then thanks very much for reading over the last 40 days or so, and I hope you've enjoyed reading about my travels – here's to Ireland, Iceland, Ivory Coast, Italy, India, Indonesia, and, err, Iran & Iraq, next year.


Day 37 - Pokhara, Nepal

As I was on my way out of the hotel last night I was collared by the manager. On my arrival I had asked him to book a bus back to Kathmandu for Sunday as I fly back to the UK on Monday night; this would be impossible, he explained, the Maoist strikes are to begin on Sunday morning and will last a minimum of three days: my only choices are to get to Kathmandu on Saturday morning or change my flights which could mean me getting back to the UK after Christmas. I think I would be disowned by my family if I had chosen option b, so I reluctantly agreed that I would be up for the 7am journey. I must've been visibly disappointed, as the manager offered me an olive branch; the sun rises over the Himalayas at around 6am every morning – did I want to be taken to the look-out point on top of a local mountain to see the view? I had struggled to get much in the way of Himalayan footage over the last few weeks and so this morning I found myself sat on the back of a motorbike at 5am riding through the deserted streets of Pokhara.

I have always thought motor- biking to be a particularly moronic form of transport: now I can add suicidal to my list of adjectives. As we sped past small fires set on the side of the road and zombie-like people trudging to god knows where, I thought to myself how well I'd done to avoid any serious injury on this trip – thus far. Things didn't get much better when we went off the highway and onto the winding road up the side of the mountain. By the time we nearly ran over an old man (later on when I spoke to the biker about it he laughed heartily and admitted that it was all his fault, I don't think the old man was laughing too much) my hands were fairly glued to the grip-points that I had chosen on the bike.

Anyway, somehow we got there, and the view was stunning. To begin with you can just about see the black outline of the Annapurna range against the slightly-less black sky, but slowly and surely it reveals itself in all its majesty. Firstly a white outline, then a golden shine as the sun finally hits the mountains followed by the familiar silver peaks. The only disappointments were the dozens upon dozens of japanese tourists who were stood behind me, snapping away, and that I couldn't stay until the really spectacular colour changes had fully taken place. We stood on the peak as late as we dared – knowing that I had to be at the bus park by 7.30 – and then flew back down the mountain – this time even more recklessly as my companion looked to ensure that I made the last bus home.

I dis- embarked back at the hotel and my wobbly legs somehow carried me back to the room to pick up my already-packed bag. The bag is getting heavier and heavier as I discard clothes in favour of books and souvenirs, and the “short-cut” from the hotel to the bus park took us over more bumps and potholes then my body could really take – how my back wasn't put out by the rucksack's reaction to the many jolts I have no idea, but somehow we arrived in one piece and with no more than a minute to spare.

I was jostled to the final seat on the bus. There was no annoying French child this time, thank goodness, all I had to put up with was the smell of lager and body odour from the homeless-looking man on my left, the smell of rotten fruit being eaten by a ludicrously-dressed hippy to my right, an indian girl yelling into her mobile phone to my front, and a man repeatedly singing “are you going to Scarborough Fair” to my rear. (Not actually singing it “to my rear” you understand – I think he was just singing to himself).

The journey was long but uneventful and I arrived at the hostel in the late afternoon. It had already been a long day and everything was beginning to close, so I decided to retire to my hotel room. Dinner and premiership football, and it was time for bed. I don't know that I'll be able to do anything tomorrow; some say that the whole country stops for the strikes, but it's my final full day so will blog nonetheless.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Day 36 - Pokhara, Nepal

Last night I had my first full night's sleep since Hawaii – it's fairly unimportant as far as the trip in concerned, but I just felt that I had to share it. It has been a good 10 days since I crossed any timezones, so maybe I'm finally getting over the jetlag (a couple of days before the 22 hour flight back).

Anyway, after my meeting with the Tibetan lady yesterday, it was a trip to the World Peace Stupa this morning to see if my visit might somehow cause all wars to cease. I ambled down to the lake's edge where the Stupa looms impressively - at the top of a huge hill on the opposite side. The first problem is how to cross the lake, but before I could get to the boats lined up on the shore I was stopped by Michelle, an Irish molecular biologist who quit Ireland to volunteer around India when the economy began to nose-dive. She was also heading up to the site. Did I want to share a boat over? Perfect. And so we paid our 300 Rupees and were paddled over to the opposite jetty.

It was great to have a bit of company on the arduous trek up the mountain (actually it was little more than a hill, but it was a steep hill, ok!?) and after around 45 minutes we reached the top where the impressive white building adorned with a large gold buddha surveys a 360 degree view over the Pokhara Valley and then over to the Himalayas. I don't know what I've done to upset the cloud gods on this journey but they have stubbornly covered the mountains every time I've come to take a shot. Again they were all over the peaks and there was very little footage to be had. Still, I walked around the Stupa a few times, made my wish for world peace and we set off back down the mountain in the opposite direction this time, to find the nearby Devis Falls and the living proof that we're a long way from world peace: the Tibetan Refugee Camp.

The Tibetan Camp (above) was actually a bit more plush than you might imagine; they have been there for quite some time – fleeing their country 50 years ago; after the Chinese invasion – and now many of the people survive by making handicrafts and selling them to tourists. There is also a school there and a temple, which again, I walked around, turning the prayer wheels as I went. Unfortunately you had to walk under a ladder to get to and from the temple; so perhaps all my good luck was cancelled out! The Devis Falls, which are named after a woman called Mrs Davies who was washed away by them a couple of decades ago while she sat in a nearby pool bathing, were a little disappointing – the adverts showed an incredible gush of water, but these were clearly taken in the monsoon season as today there was little more than a trickle.

We were now a good few miles from the hotel area, and under normal circumstances I would have walked; but I had a travelling companion for the day and so before I could say anything , Michelle had jumped on one of the local buses and so I had little choice but to follow. And I'm so glad I did. The tiny vehicle, not much larger than a minibus, bumped and bounced through the streets picking up twice as many people as you'd think it could physically hold with all the tumult you'd expect from subcontinental public transport. Absolutely brilliant experience. So much fun that it was only once I'd disembarked that I noticed my pants were wet through – my bottle of water had sprung a leak in my bag. Drat. And while I was adjusting my trousers I was accosted by the Tibetan Lady who had given me such good stupa advice 24 hours earlier. With little choice but to buy some handicrafts from her, I purchased a Tibetan bracelet made from Yak Bones and headed back to my hotel.

After heading out to watch the cricket following the daily 6pm power cut (some bars have their own generators) I returned back to find the hotel owners enjoying a late-night nepalese whiskey. They asked me to join them; when you get a chance to hang out with cool people like I have today it makes you realise what travelling is all about. Tomorrow I'll have to do much more travelling than I'd hoped, but more of that in the next installment....


Thursday, 17 December 2009

Day 35 - Pokhara, Nepal

It was me who was annoying the neighbours this morning as my alarm went of at 6am for my bus to Pokhara. Pokhara is the third largest city in Nepal, but is certainly in the top two as far as tourism is concerned – it is the beginning of most Himalayan treks and is situated on the banks of a rather large and beautiful lake.

The bus journey was long and hot and all passengers were united in their annoyance with a French family on the front seats with a trés annoying child. It wasn't so much that the child was hyperactive and loud, but that he was being encouraged to scream by his mother and aunt. Still, such trifles can bring a group together and through the odd rolled-eyeball and raised-eyebrow I got talking to a few fellow-passengers, most notably an Alaskan who spends 3 months every year travelling and has just been mugged in Phnom Penh and an impressively bearded Canadian who has seen no fewer than two UFOs. 'Interesting' folk.

Anyway, it was an eight hour journey so was relatively late when I arrived in Pokhara. As we drove into the city it was just as crazy as Kathmandu had been, in fact it was even more so as the city's stadium was packed with people – a later google showed that this was likely the Maoists again, this time declaring another new autonomous state – and basically provoking the government more and more. There are nationwide strikes due on Monday when I fly out, but they don't really want to affect tourists, so hopefully it will be no problem. Anyway, by the time we arrived in the touristy area by the lake, there was an altogether better vibe: I'm not sure whether its because there is only one main street, as opposed to Kathmandu's maze, or maybe fewer taxis, but everyone seemed much less desperate to get wherever they were going.

One of the main attractions of Pokhara is its proximity to the Himalayas – I'm hoping to get some good shots – so I decided that I would head to the World Peace Stupa, a Buddhist monument on the top of one of the nearby hills, which is supposedly a great look-out point. The trip involves rowing across the lake then trekking up the hill, but when I got to the lake I was accosted by a tibetan lady who wanted me to buy some handicrafts. We got talking, and she advised me against the walk; apparently there was no way I would make it to the top before sundown and I should instead come back in the morning. I thanked her, bought a fairly tatty necklace and instead went for a walk along the lake shore. I will tackle the lake and the hill in the morning.

Day 34 - Kathmandu, Nepal

I remember my time in Hawaii with great fondness, especially being woken up at 4am by crowing cockerels – at least I did when I was woken at 6am this morning by half an hour of somebody clearing their throat in the adjoining room. It was a display to put most Premiership footballers to shame and when I finally left the room I half expected to find his vocal chords on the floor outside his door. With such a rude awakening I wasn't really in the mood for breakfast, but knew that I should eat so ordered a breakfast burrito. What came was an odd infusion of British, Mexican and Indian cuisine with curried beans and scrambled eggs in a tortilla – it shouldn't really work, and quite frankly it didn't, but I forced it down and headed out into the madness of Kathmandu again.

It was cold. Not uk snow cold (it has only snowed once in Kathmandu in the last 62 years), but cold enough that I decided a brisk walk to the museums was in order. First up was the former royal palace, it's an impressive building beside one of the busiest interchanges in Kathmandu and has only been open for a few months. When it first opened to the public it wasn't quite ready – lots of the rooms were not cordened off - which apparently led to many of the locals entering the former king's bedroom and bouncing on his bed.

From there I went back to Durbar Square where I had spent my first full day in Kathmandu, indeed the guy who showed me around all those days ago collared me almost before I realised where I was. He told me with great zeal that the message I had written in his book last week (complete with a little QI logo) had been a hit with a number of British tourists who knew the show and had subsequently agreed to mini tours with him. I thought he was extremely knowledgeable, so hopefully his other customers felt the same. In Durbar Square is another former palace; it is decked out with many of King Tribhuwan's personal items – for instance his dictionary and his favourite bird-cage complete with his favourite bird, stuffed. The building also has a nine-storied tower which you can climb to get a great view of the city (above).

Next was the National Museum which is a couple of miles south-west of the Square. Feeling confident, I worked out my bearings and set off in that general direction only to be confronted by a huge number of protestors and almost as many riot police. “If you meet riot police on your journey – get the hell out of there, before it gets hairy” - if that's not a travellers' maxim then it should be. The protestors are Maoists who are currently claiming territories in the North of the Country as their own independent states – some of their supporters were attacked and killed last week, so they have organised a number of rallies and strikes. I rallied myself and struck out in the exact opposite direction.

So after something of a diversion, and with the temperature on the rise, I finally arrived at the museum absolutely exhausted. Outside the front of the building was a small shack selling drinks and snacks, so I ordered a coke while a bunch of teenagers used me as sport as well as, I guess, to test out their english. “We like your hair” they shouted without a trace of irony (though I'm sure it was there somewhere), and when I realised I couldn't take the bottle away from the shack and downed it there and then I received a huge ovation – only bettered when the inevitable belch followed. Nothing like bodily functions to span a culture barrier.

The National Museum was fairly interesting, with many many buddhist artifacts, a collection of dolls from around the world and more stamps than you could shake an enormous envelope at. More interesting though was the Nepalese Army Museum over the road that had the country's first rolls royce and a huge amount of information about the Gurkhas. And so, speaking of non-Englishmen who represented Britain, on the way back I managed to find somewhere that was showing the England cricket match – bonus. Can't let the fact I'm in a bar get to me too much though; early start in the morning as I get a bus to Nepal's second city - the resort of Pokhara.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Day 33 - Kathmandu, Nepal

Leaving Bhutan today. What a shame. As we exit the hotel, Samgay my tour guide and new friend implores me to stay for a while longer. At a minimum of £200 a day it's not really an option, but I promise to return one day. We just about have enough time before my 11am flight to check out the National Museum of Bhutan.

Samgay and Namgay looked a little worse for wear this morning; usually they are waiting for me to get myself together before we set out on a trip, but today it is me who has a little time in the hotel lobby - when they left me at around 10pm last night they were heading back into town, so I wasn't exactly surprised.

We were at the museum just after 9am - the only people there and the curators hadn't even bothered to open up yet. After a couple of minutes stood outside the circular building that overlooks the town of Paro we were finally allowed in, only to be greeted by four screaming monks running up the stairs - apparently they had found a mouse in one of the display rooms.

The museum has a set path that one must take - as most of the items are Buddhist artefacts it's in a strictly clockwise fashion. There are hundreds of Thankas (Buddhist Paintings), statues and urns at every turn (and about half way round a caged mouse) - but sadly time was very tight, towards the end we were fairly running round. Once I'd got back to the car we flew through the Bhutenese roads for me to arrive at the airport just in time for my flight.

The DrukAir 'plane takes off from Paro airport and banks sharply to the left to avoid crashing into a mountain, it then banks sharply to the right to avoid a second, and within 15 minutes anyone sat in a right hand side seat has a fantastic view of the Himalayas. (see above) I arrived back in Kathmandu Airport, and by the time I'd experienced an odd reception of a dancing yak and yeti (and been hasseled by taxi drivers) the serenity of Bhutan seemed a million miles away. Nothing for it but to immerse myself back into the Kathmandu life and so I decided to walk the mile or so through the crazy streets to buy some bus tickets to the city of Pokhara which I intend to visit later in the week. I got to the bus station which is really one of the most tumltuous places I've ever known: but no offices. I asked around and was given a tourist map - turns out the offices are about a mile away from the station, and about a hundred yards from my hotel! Still, good to wander around lost, nothing gives you a better impression of a city.

Tonight I attended a quiz run by the Umbrella Foundation. They do these every week and it pays for their many volunteers to look after orphaned and displaced kids in the country. A good cause and a good quiz (thanks to the fact that me and the Kiwi couple that I joined won it!). Tomorrow I will visit the National Museum of Nepal as well as the Natural History Museum - I wonder if they'll have any mice...

Monday, 14 December 2009

Day 32 - Paro, Bhutan

The Tigers Nest is, without doubt, one of the highlights of the trip, if not my life.

It begins with pain – the trek is two hours of very very steep paths. I began to feel tight-chested which at first I thought could have been down to the altitude. But then I realised that the highest we were getting was around 11,000 feet – not only that, I was barely a third of the way up. Much more likely that it was down to my lack of fitness. Head down: left foot, right foot, etc etc...

At half way you get a fantastic view of the temple – if you've ever heard of Bhutan you'll have seen it – it's the national symbol, a buiding that balances precariously on the side of a sheer cliff. Tradition says it is held aloft by the hairs of angels. But to be honest, at this stage you're much more impressed by the conveniently (for trekkers, though I'm not sure if it is for the owner's bank balance) positioned café. After a bitter coffee and some dry biscuits, we walked on, finally reaching the temple - my head was light and my legs were heavy - maybe the altitude was having a little effect after all.

There are a number of religious sites at the Tiger's Nest, but the first one we entered was the most special. It was the Tiger's Nest itself – named thanks to the “divine ruler* who arrived into Bhutan from Tibet on the back of a tiger; he left the animal here to live as he entered the country. Today it is a grotto deep in the cliffs where monks go to meditate. The temple opens as normal, but in the corner of the room there is a tiny door: ducking through there takes you to a rickety ladder that then leads to the cave. It's not a simple climb, you have to lodge your body tightly against two walls before clambering down, making sure you don't fall down a fatal-looking chasm. There's then another piece of improvised rock-climbing before you reach the tiger's nest. It's not surprising that Buddhists 1200 years ago found this place sacred – just surprising that they found it at all!

But this is not the end of the adventure – by squeezing through a tiny passage you find yourself looking out into daylight again. A quick hop over a heart-stopping gap and you're finally on a ledge, on a sheer rock face, over 10,000 feet above the forested floor. My guide beckoned me to join him sitting with his legs dangling over the edge and whie my head said that it was fine, my body seemed to be telling me that this was the worst idea I'd ever come up with. I crouched down behind a large, somewhat precarious, rock and enjoyed the view without being an itchy-bum away from a 3000 meter drop. My cowardice was eased by the assurance from Samgay that anyone who makes it this far has all his sins forgiven - considering you normally need to walk all the way around a stupa for a single sin to be quashed; this heart-thumping adventure was probaby worth the effort.

After seeing another three temples which were great in their own right, but somewhat overshadowed by the Tiger's Nest, we began our descent. As well as the steep, steep paths, there are 800 steps on the route and so when I reached the bottom my legs were like jelly. - though my head was like a 5-year-old full of jelly and ice cream. It was the one morning of this whole trip that I'll never forget.

A quick lunch before we drove out to a fortress razed by the Tibetans 400 years ago. They're impressive ruins, but the main reason for this walk was to see the country's highest peak which is visible from here – like a white-finned shark rising over the ocean of the Bhutanese Himalayas. By the time I got back to the hotel at 4pm, I had done an awful lot of walking, and needed a lie down.

I leave Bhutan tomorrow, but hopefully not before seeing the National Museum. I will be very very sad to leave the country – maybe I'll be back one day soon. Apart from anything else, the Yeti has proved elusive.