Sunday, 20 December 2009
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.
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
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
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.
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
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. http://www.umbrellanepal.org/ 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
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.
Buddhist temples in Bhutan are, without exception, buildings of great beauty, colour and significance. The only problem is that there are so many – the line goes that there are more temples than houses and more gods than people – that you can become a little bit desensitized. This morning it was a 30 minute trek to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal which is notable for its incredible view of the Pokhara valley (above) as well as being built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother really rather recently. The hike took me over the rushing river and through the fallow rice fields to a four-story temple that, although modern, would not look out of place in a 17th century fortress. In fact, I sometimes wonder if this is one real problem with the religion – all of the religious iconography is identical, and Buddhist symbols are pretty much all you see, from temples to restaurants. I wonder if, because great artists are appropriated by the religious leaders, this has stifled centuries of art in the region.
Anyway. After a long walk it was time for a long drive. We headed on the 100 mile drive to Paro which, when your average speed is usually around 30 km/hr, is something of a journey. Two sights were notable: a royal cavalcade including one of the the fourth king's wives (he married four sisters – Bhutanese men are allowed to marry multiple women, so long as they can afford them – they can have up to 3 marriage licenses, but each license can carry as many female names as you like) and a leopard cub that bounced across the road and up a siding before I could even find my camera in my bag, let alone get it out.
When we arrived in Paro, it was late afternoon. Samgay, apologising that the museum was closed, took me to see an archery competition. As I mentioned a few days ago, archery is the national sport of Bhutan: it has failed to dominate Olympic medals thanks only to the country's small population and the fact that Bhutanese archery takes place over distances three times longer than international competition. Like the darts, the game takes place between two teams, each player having two arrows. The teams take it in turns to fire all of their arrows at the opposing team's target (which is surprisingly small, considering the distance) while their opponents yell insults. The arrows fly with awesome speed, but thankfully my vantage point – while very close to the target – was behind a wooden wall.
And so it was back to my hotel. It had been a busy few days so I took my dinner (incidentally, Bhutanese food, with the exception of their chili cheese, is pretty awful) in my room and prepared for tomorrow – a visit to the world famous Bhutanese Tiger's Nest.
One of Bhutan's national dishes – probably the favourite of most of the male population at least – is chili cheese. It's basically whole cooked chilis in a cheesy sauce, and boy is it hot. The Bhutanese feel that any dish without a huge splash of chili is virtually tasteless, regardless of other ingredients, but I'm sorry to say my stomach does not agree with their policy. I had something of an uncomfortable night and so was pretty tired as we set off this morning.
I had spent almost all of my local currency yesterday on the golf course and there are no ATMs in Bhutan that accept international cards, but thanks to my tour operators in the UK, I was able to wire some cash over. It was a bit of a crisis at one stage, but after a quick trip to the company's local offices, I finally had some cash... though in actual fact, by the time I'd visited a couple of book stores and the country's most famous paper-making factory I was already looking with concern into my wallet!!
So after a little souvenir hunting, we set off on the drive to the town of Punakha (pronounced poo-knacker) which was the former capital of Bhutan and is home to many important buildings. On the way we stopped at a high mountain pass, where one can see a view of the Bhutanese Himalayas – at least that's what I was told, when we arrived all we could see was mist. Still, we will be back tomorrow, so fingers crossed for a view.
All Bhutanese states have their own fortress where the monks live and where local government is run. The Punakha fortress is the oldest and is generally regarded as the most beautiful in the counrty. The story goes that its architect dreamt the design of the building when his body was transported to heaven. There is something heavenly about the fortress for sure – it is at the meeting of two of the bluest rivers you have ever seen, and, considering it was built in the 17th century, it is an awesome feat of architecture.
From the fortress, we then trekked to a temple dedicated to Lama Kunley, the divine madman. He is a God of fertility amongst Buddhists., so most houses in the area have their outer walls adorned with enormous phallic decorations – very odd to western eyes!! I was approached by a young monk with a 12 inch long clay phallus which thankfully he just wanted to bless me with. Being in a foreign country, it is difficult to deal with their religious customs – on one hand, the locals often want to include you in their various blessings, but on the other you want to be respectful and not merely pay lip-service to their customs. Anyway, I accepted the phallus (so to speak) and the holy water blessings before we set off to another fortress – this one on top of a huge cliff which is supposed to look like a sleeping elephant, though I couldn't really see it. It was then back to my hotel: Samgay and Namgay, my guides, are huge fans of English football, so are really looking forward to tonight's matches – I've promised Samgay that I will send him some Chelsea memorabilia when I get back; he wasn't impressed by my offer of a Tranmere Rovers shirt.
Lots more driving tomorrow, as we try to fit as much of Bhutan in as possible in my 6 days in the Himalayan kingdom.
Friday, 11 December 2009
Today I played golf and snooker and watched the darts and a movie. But first I was taken to the hills around Thimphu for a view of the city.
Sadly it was fairly hazy this morning - apparently thanks to the sub-zero temperatures at night and the fairly warm daytime - it meant that there wasn't really much photography to be had, so instead I went for a walk in the hill, talking to my guide. He told me about the traditional courtship of night-hunting where a perspective couple would agree to meet up at the dead of night under the lame excuse of taking the girl's livestock for a walk in the woods. We also managed to photograph the Takin - it's an odd creature - the story goes that Drukpa Kunley, Bhutan's "Divine Madman" was once forced to perform a miracle. He asked to be brought a cooked cow and goat, ate them, and then began to reassemble the bones, putting the goat's head on the cow's skeleton. Then he sent it running on its way and it became the takin. There are many more (altogether less savoury) stories about Kunley - maybe I'll save them for another day - or I guess you could google them.
Anyway, the day before, I'd pointed out the golf course beside Thimphu's fortress, and so my guides organised a game. As a keen golfer it was a moment to remember, hacking around in the stunning Thimphu Valley> Though actually, once I'd got used to the odd bounces and fast "greens" (actually mostly covered in sand) I shot a decent score, so was happy.
From the golf course, we headed via the national library (home to the world's largest book - a tour guide to Bhutan) to the national stadium. Bhutan has three main sports: soccer, archery and (what was happening today) darts. This is no British darts though - the arrows are much more hefty, the tagets are a good 50 feet away, and it's a team game. In fact, the opposing team dances around the target trying to put you off as you throw. I am told that in inter-village matches, the girls from your opposing faction will yell at you as you throw: shouting that you have a big nose, or big ears, or will never find a wife. Anything to put you off. This is serious work, but very enjoyable for the spectator.
My driver, Namgay, had disappeared, so my guide Sangay and I walked a little while to a car-park style area to wait for him. It turned out that they were filming a Bhutanese movie there. There were a group of around half a dozen girls & half a dozen boys dancing in a bhangra style to some local music while many of the townsfolk gathered round in interest. We watched for a while while waiting for our lift, but it was nowhere to be seen. Thankfully Sangay knew one of the movie actors who gave us a lift back to where we'd last seen Namgay, and sure enough, there he was.
While I was burning up the golf course Sangay was bragging about his snooker skills. Well, I couldn't let this pass, so we agreed to head over to one of Bhutan's snooker halls for a match before they left for the day. I have to say that I think they let me win, but win I did, and so I finished the day not only entranced by the beauty of Bhutan, but also feeling like I was unbeatable at any sport. ^_^
Thursday, 10 December 2009
It's almost impossible to enter the Kingdom of Bhutan unless you're on an official tour, and when on the tour you need to spend a minimum amount of money per day. So it's expensive. That said, it's somewhere that I've wanted to visit for a long time and how often am I going to be in the area? The country is also in the H-for-Himalayas and eschews Gross National Product in favour of it's own measurement of "Gross National Happiness" so I felt it was perfect for H-research and made the booking; my last act before leaving on my trip. I'm so glad that I did.
I printed out my visa and flight ticket this morning at my Kathmandu hostel. The flight was to leave at 1:50pm so I had plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and to buy some currency. In the end, I took a little too long and was rushing to get to the airport, arriving at around midday only to see a very empty Druk-Air desk (Druk Air is the national airline of Bhutan, it gets it's name from the Bhutanese for "dragon"). Erm. I looked at the printout again - the flight leaves at 12:45?? What?? They'd changed the time of the flight and not told me. And now the check-in had closed. "Flipping Heck," I didn't say, as I searched desperately for someone to help. In the end the staff were remarkably helpful, two workers from another airline ran off somewhere to find a Druk Air official, who rushed me through to the departure gate. I was there just in the nick of time.
The departure gate was busier than I had thought, but I joined the queue. Only to notice that after a few seconds, my fellow passengers were being ushered away from the gate. The 'plane wasn't ready was the mutter of the line, so I sat back down. Thinking that things were getting a bit tight I spoke to a member of staff who looked at me horrified; the plane had already boarded and the other passengers were for the next flight to Mumbai. Again, I didn't say "flipping heck" and again I was helped by some brilliant staff members who rushed me to my seat. I was finally on the 'plane. Phew.
The 'plane sat on the tarmac for a good 25 minutes before taking off. The pilot blamed poor visibility, but I fancied that it was likely down to my useless timekeeping, but it was well worth the wait. The flight skirted the Himalayan range so that we could see Everest and many other famous mountains - truly breathtaking. The flight then began its descent after only half an hour, swooping down to the right into a valley to Paro. It was an enormously memorable flight. And so I was in Bhutan.
The first thing that I did once I'd cleared passport control was to smack my head into the extremely low door of the toilet in the airport. I was later told that in Bhutanese Buddhist temples the doors are often low to stop skeletons or other undead creatures from entering (apparently they can't bend down) - I'm not sure that the same logic applies to the restrooms though.
I collected my rucksack and met my guides for the next few days, Sangay and Nangay who drove me the 40 miles or so from Paro airport to the Bhutan capital of Thimphu. The roads were good, the drive was brilliantly calm (after the madness of Kathmandu) and the entire country just felt conducive to pure relaxation. Thimphu itself is something like Andorra la Vella, or perhaps a Swiss Village: it is in a valley with the houses build up the mountains and with a beautifully clear river running through the centre.
I checked into my hotel (the second-poshest of the entire trip so far) and was then taken to one of the main temples of the capital. It is in part the office of the King of Bhutan and in part the home of Thimphu's buddhist monks. The complex is enormous and enormously impressive. Sangay talked me through the various tenets of Bhutan society and the intricacies of Buddhist life - I learned a lot - and this was only the first couple of hours in the country.
I have included three pictures: firstly one of the temples inside the Thimphu fortress, secondly from the aeroplane window (Everest is there somewhere but really it is the range as a whole that is particularly impressive) and finally the site of the meeting of the Paro & Thimphu rivers. Now it seems I may be going to a karaoke bar. Very random indeed.
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
Feeling a little better, and a more than a little braver, I went for the Nepali breakfast this morning. A bowl of fruit followed by a spicy pea and potato curry along with a couple of pocket-style pancakes to dip into the sauce. You might think that curry for breakfast isn't ideal, but actually it really hit the spot, so I was full of beans by mid morning when I decided to approach the hotel's tourism dask to see what they could offer me for the day. They suggested that I take one of the taxis that were sitting outside the hostel and hire him for the day. At 2000 rupees (around £16), it seemed like a decent idea, but I was warned that they were not allowed to act as guides. It seems that they refuse to do so in case they might take work away from the guides themselves, but what I didn't realise was that this meant my driver would be almost completely silent. Maybe he was just the quiet type.
Anyway, the first drop-off was the monkey temple at Swayambhunath. I paid my entry fee and wandered into the area where there are dozens of temples, all in current use by local Buddhist. And hundreds of monkeys. And dozens of dogs. And thousands of pigeons. I had a wander around, taking some photos and decided to take some videos of the monkeys using the temples as a playground. Damn. I hadn't charged the video camera, and only had 7 minutes of batttery left. I kept shooting, a minute at a time, but they just wouldn't give me the shot I needed, until the very last minute of juice. It was almost as if they knew it was my last chance. A couple of minutes later I heard a scream from behind me; turning quickly, I just about caught sight of a monkey stealing a bag from a couple of female tourists. It took a couple of stewards with long sticks and a rather agile man climbing a good 10 feet up the temple to retrieve (most of) their possessions.
I found a quiet spot and decided to do a little reading. While I'm traveling around, I am reading plenty of books, this one was perhaps more mainstream than usual, being Michael Palin's book on the Himalayas. I'm a pretty quick reader (as QI elves have to be) and was concentrating hard when I sensed the presence of somebody beside me. Looking up, the old man to my left smiled and bowed. I smiled back. It turned out he was called Isu, and he was very interested in my book. He asked me to read to him. Err, Ok, no harm in that, I guess, so I began to read aloud. All was going fine until I uttered the sentence “gray marble statue” which Isu seemed to take delight in. He began to shout each syllable in a gruff, almost angry voice. This was strange. Nonetheless, I continued to read, and got a couple of paragraphs down the page before Isu put his head on my shoulder. I was now totally freaked out. I smiled, said goodbye, and left. Sharpish.
Next stop was Patan, the next city to Kathmandu, and known as the city of fine arts. I was shown around the temples by a guide who pointed out the temple of 9,999 buddhas and the temple where huge bull sacrifices take place – the door is adorned with the animals' intestines. Lovely.
Next was another monkey temple at Pashupatinath. This one was much quieter than the last. While there, I saw the cremation of many of the area's dead which was something of a sight – pyres set up at the side of the river – and also the rather surprising sport of local teenagers who taunted the holy monkeys by chasing them with sticks and stoning them with large rocks. With time running out, I got to one final site: Boudhanath. The story behind this temple is that an old lady asked the Nepali King for land to worship Buddha; he agreed saying that she could have as much land as she could cover with a buffalo skin – but being a wily old lady, she cut it into really thin strips and created a circle with a huge circumference. Today the circle is filled with a great big temple decorated with a huge pair of eyes. The idea at this, and other Buddhist “stupa” sites, is that you walk all the way around the monument spinning the prayer wheels as you go. By doing this, you can have one sin expunged. As such, the temple is home to the odd sight of many hundred people walking around in a huge circle – think about a giant roller-disco without the rolling or the disco and you're not far off.
So I'd seen the most important sights of Kathmandu, and all in one day. Quite exhausting really, but there was not a second to lose, what with me leaving to Bhutan in the morning. I'm unsure how much connectivity I will have for the next week, so please bear with me on the blog front.
How different Kathmandu looks in the cold light of day. Don't get me wrong, it's still claustrophobic and a little bit intimidating, but the city is now alive with honking cars, cows in the road and stall after stall selling any Buddhist or Hindu items you could ever possibly need.
The breakfast choice was English-style fayre – sausage, eggs and toast - or a "nepali breakfast.” After my recent mild illness I decided to save the Nepali meal for another day and chomped down on some familiar grub.
Unsure of my bearings, I checked with the hotel how much it would cost to get to the National Museum of Nepal. 150 Rupees. £1.50. Perfect. So I waited for the first taxi driver to accost me and asked for the museum. Driving in Kathmandu is a law unto itself; it's even more crazy than in Santo Domingo. I would say that the general standard of driving is about the same, but the fact that Nepalis share the (much thinner) roads with rickshaws, (many many) motorbikes, pedestrians and livestock makes the journey one not for the light-hearted. What was worse about this journey was that once I had been dropped off, and the taxi sped away, I realised that he had dropped me at the wrong museum, and worse still, this museum was closed on Tuedays. *fume*
Ah well. The weather was bright, and I had a tourist map, so I decided to join the throng of pedestrians and walk to the main Durbar Square - it was quite a trek, but it gave me chance to enjoy the atmosphere of the city a little more. The Square is home to the palaces of the former kings of Nepal, as well as a number of temples and, of course, the museum. As I was catching my breath, I was accosted by a “guide” - who persuaded me to part with some of my cash for a tour of the area. As it happens he was great, explaining the significance of the temples, the history of the square and showing me where the hippies used to hang out as well as a glimpse of the living goddess and the huge gurning mask of Swet Bhairadya which once a year spits out a steady stream of rice wine enthusiastically fought-over by the locals.
Having had my fill of information, I decided to head back to my hostel – saving the museum for another day. I began to walk in the general direction of home, but soon realised that I had absolutely no clue where I was going. It took a good 30 minutes of aimless wandering before I decided to swallow my pride and agreed to allow one of the many rickshaws to take me home. The rickshaws are powered by young lads on bicycles, but it turned out that the hostel was up a fairly long (if not too steep) hill. The youngster was clearly beginning to struggle, and I felt like offering to have a go on the pedals when he got out and started to push. How embarrassing. I just felt like hiding my head in shame as this poor guy huffed and puffed to get me up to the top of the hill. I gave him a hefty tip anyway, and headed back to my room to sort out a bit of admin.
After sorting my receipts and a late lunch, I decided to investigate the hostel's immediate vicinity. The sun was getting low in the sky, and it seemed that this was the signal for the city's drug pushers to come out. These are not your typical inner-city drug dealers, you understand, just people who were trying to sell maps and jewelery a few hours earlier, but now saw more of a market for marijuana. They are brazen as well, quite happy to ask you within a couple of yards of a police officer with a rather large gun. Apparently the state turn a blind eye to personal smoking – which was one of the reasons for the influx of hippies in the 60s and 70s – but if you're reading this and don't know me, then you wont know that it's not really my scene: I politely declined, as I did to the guy who approached seconds later trying to sell a rather large knife.
As I was walking back to the hostel, I noticed that one of the bars was holding a charity pub quiz. What a treat – this is much more my scene! A chance to pit my wits against the brains of Nepal. In fact, I didn't even have to wait for the quiz to start: as I walked along the road a teenager walked alongside me asking where I was from. “England” I replied. “England, capital London” was the fairly standard response, but as we continued to talk, he gave the audacious claim that he knew every single capital city in the world. Well. So do I. So we had a capital-city-off in the middle of the street with honking cars passing perilously close on either side. “Belgium” I asked, not wishing to embarrass the lad: “Brussels. Guatemala” he retorted: “Guatemala City. Canada:” “Ottawa. Cambodia”- Damn, he definitely knew the easy ones. I tried him with Laos and Swaziland which he answered correctly while gesturing to a couple of young beggar children to join him. I was impressed, but could see that I was about to be tapped for money. It sounds harsh, but I made my excuses and left; sadly you just cannot give cash to kids on the street, it encourages them to beg and keeps them out of school. Moreover, they don't keep the money, it invariably goes straight to an adult nearby who runs a gang of street-kids. It's a shame, because I reckon he'd earned a couple of rupees.
I made it to the quiz and joined a team of volunteers from a local children's charity and we came second. Hmmmm. My team-mates claimed that the team who had won “wrote the questions” but it was still a disappointment. I also got a question about the number of hearts that an octopus has incorrect, which is embarrassing as I'm pretty sure it has been on QI. Anyway, we won 2000 rupees which we donated back to the charity and a good night was had by all.
Tomorrow, all being well, I will see more of the town, but for the time being it's goodnight from Kathmandu.
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
My greatest shame on this trip has been my frequenting of numerous Starbucks, McDonald's-es and Burger Kings. It's not that I particularly like this kind of food (except for the coffee at Starbucks) but sometimes when you're looking for somewhere to get food or drink in an unfamiliar town - especially when you're on your own and so not looking for a full restaurant meal - the familiar brands tend to catch your eye. Perhaps more important is the fact that these places generally have free wi-fi. Anyway, enough attempts to justify myself, what I'm trying to say is that there was little surprise this morning when I headed straight for a coffee at Seattle's finest before my visit to the History Museum of Hong Kong.
The weather in Hong Kong had been glorious for the last few days, but had turned by this morning. It was very overcast, and perhaps not t-shirt weather, but I'm from the north so there was no turning back for a coat - a stubborn decision regretted 15 minutes later as the heavens opened! Maybe it was my damp, slightly bedraggled, look, but the museum was not nearly as helpful as it had been a few days earlier: my supposed meeting with the curators turned out to be a case of being left in the resource library along with an administrator who had little idea about anything. However, before he kicked me out so he could go for his lunch, I did get to meet one of the managers who gave me a few pointers on their intranet and showed me their image library, so maybe it wasn't such a waste of time after all.
I left the museum and took the bus to the airport to check-in for my 6 hour flight to Kathmandu (for the final leg of my trip – H-for-Himalayas). The plane, for some reason, stopped in Bangladesh on the way. As far as I was concerned we weren't supposed to be in Dhaka, but actually I felt it was a bit of a shame that I didn't have time to get out and look around as within a couple of hours we were back in the air and on the way to Nepal.
I arrived in the airport and took a taxi to my hostel. The arrival lounge was a little bit crazy again with many many taxi-drivers, tour guides and hotel owners looking to capture a tourist, but it was an officially sanctioned cab that took me through the streets to my hostel. Kathmandu gives the impression of a very poor city: you can see many kids living on the streets and untreated piles of rubbish, but it is also a vibrant capital with many people driving, cycling or walking with a purpose – even at midnight, which was the time that I arrived.
I dumped my rucksack and decided to go for a quick walk around the hotel: it was rather intimidating (as it often is, no matter which city you arrive in) with the tight roads, the hawkers on the street and the lack of streetlights (it was the early hours of the morning after all). There's one thing for sure: there won't be many Starbucks, McDonalds or Burger King escapes for the next couple of weeks!
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Today I decided to take a day off from work. I've been a little under the weather recently, so thought I needed a bit of a break. Still, I'm in Hong Kong, so I had to do something; so my plan was to try to catch some of the East Asian Games that are currently taking part in the city.
I attempted to have a lie-in but sadly I don't think 5am counts as such, so I was out of the hostel nice and early. Yesterday I was stopped on no fewer than five occasions by well-dressed men clearly trying to sell me something - I'm fairly well versed in dealing with hawkers now, so just walked on - but my curiosity was piqued, and so, determined to find out what it was they were trying to sell (I was guessing a haircut) I traced my footsteps from the previous day. It turns out they were all tailors trying to sell me a suit. Either they thought I was someone who regulary wears suits, or they thought I drastically needed a change of clothes (I kinda hope it was the latter). I politely declined anyway, and it was still nice and early when I arrived at the Kowloon Park to attempt to watch the swimming and diving.
The volunteer who greeted me barely spoke better English than I spoke Cantonese, but I soon realised that there were no tickets available for the day. I asked if there were any other events nearby and he sent me in the direction of the cricket. A nice bit of Twenty/20 sounded good, so I made my way to the stadium only to find that he'd mistaken the English word "Cricket" for "Hockey" - and even the hockey was sold out. Ho hum. Back to the drawing board.
After talking to a much more useful volunteer at the hockey venue, I found out that it was a music store that dealt with the event's tickets, and so, with headphones in ears, I lolloped over to the shop. I sometimes wonder if people notice the change in my gait when the theme to Garden Force comes up on my ipod.
There were tickets to the evening's football match between South Korea and China available and so I snapped them up; the game was great. 3-0 to the Koreans. While it may sound quite one-sided, it was far from it, and the atmosphere was great with thousands of Chinese fans outnumbering the Koreans by, I would guess, 200/1. Still, at the final whistle it was the few dozen fans from the peninsula who were making all the noise.
So it's my final day in Hong Kong tomorrow - over all too soon - though I don't really feel that I've missed out on too much. Fly to Kathmandu in the evening for the final leg of my tour - H for Himalayas.
Saturday, 5 December 2009
Hong Kong is an incredible contrast to Hawaii. Gone is the laid back atmosphere, the clean air and the empty beaches, and in their place are throngs of people, traffic everywhere and consumerism at every corner.
I am staying in Mong Kok. I didn't just choose the area because of it's funny sounding name; it was mostly thanks to the Guinness Book of Records claim that it is the most densely populated place in the world. And boy, is it busy - there are blocks of flats everywhere and where there aren't flats there are honking cars and neon signs aplenty.
With only three days in Hong Kong, I was determined to make the most of today, so decided to aim for the central and museum districts. But most important things first, I grabbed a coffee and headed for the nearest park. The park was extremely busy for so early in the morning, and it soon became clear why. The East Asian Games (a kind of mini Olympics) are taking place in Hong Kong from today for the next week - and so the park (which is home to the city's largest swimming pool) was all decked out for the event. Tomorrow I think I will try to catch some of the action.
Next it was to the History Museum of Hong Kong. It's great. If you're ever in town, you must go. Full of interesting facts and very very visual; they've clearly decided to make the place as spectacular to the eye as possible. The story of Hong Kong goes right from the formation of the area's rocks to consumerism of the 1980s and 90s, and doesn't miss a trick. You end up leaving believing that there could be nothing else to know about the city. Before I left I spoke to one of the managers, and will hopefully return on Monday to speak with some of the curators.
I then walked down to Hong Kong harbour to take some footage (it was very Hazy thanks to the pollution and lack of wind) and then took the ferry over to the central district to take the funicuar railway to Victoria's peak to see the supposedly incredible views over the city. After the walk up Diamond Head in Honolulu, I must say this was a little bit of a disappointment. Not due to the views, which were stunning, but because when you reach the top it is basically just a huge shopping mall. The locals have seen the popularity of the peak and so have exploited it to its full extent. Maybe I should have expected it - this is Hong Kong after all.
A trip to the small horse-racing museum at Happy Valley followed before I got back to the hostel. Tonight I am meeting a friend of a friend who has lived in the city for years; hopefully to gain some idea of how to spend my final two days.
Friday, 4 December 2009
Very little to report today, it was basically just an 18 hour journey. The only event of note was first thing this morning when I somehow missed the turning for the airport and found myself on the road to the Pearl Harbour naval base. Not the museum, the actual base. With no way out, I had to come clean to security that I was lost, and was given an armoured guard back onto the motorway.
I have arrived in Hong Kong now; will get some sleep and report on the city in the morning.
Today was museum day for me, on the island of Oahu. So I was up early and drove to the North of the Island for my first stop: the Dole Pineapple Plantation. The plantation was a bit of a disappointment to be honest, it was basically a garden that didn't come close to yesterday's botanical trip and field after field of pineapples (spot the pineapple, above). I took a couple of pictures and then went to the main attraction – the world's largest maze (as confirmed by the Guinness Book of Records, apparently). 20 minutes and 33 seconds later and I'd completed the course; very hot and quite a few holes in walls that frustrated maze-ors had clearly made; but really good fun.
The next place to visit was the largest museum on the Island, The Bishop Museum, which serves as the state of Hawaii's national museum. I managed to blag my way into the archives and met a fascinating guy – typical museum curator – who talked at length about some of the treasures of the museum. They included writings of early Hawaiian kings, original drawings from Captain Cook's voyages, and beautiful pa'u cloaks made from up to a million birds' feathers. The feathers were extremely rare - from a bird that has now died out – but it wasn't hunted to extinction, the Hawaiians would carefully catch the bird, pluck a couple of feathers and then let it go. It sadly succumbed a number of years ago due to loss of habitat.
I left Bishop Museum to find the third of my triumvirate, the Lucoral Museum in Waikiki, a small establishment that specialises in gemstones of all kinds. They have the world's largest sculpted piece of ruby quartz as well as many fossils. One family earlier in the year were walking through the museum and said: “we have loads of these in our back yard in Oklahoma” - sure enough, within a few weeks a box had arrived at the museum full of excellent fossil examples. It now has pride of place in its own cabinet.
So with much learned, I headed back to my hotel to write some postcards, and then an early night. It's a long long journey to Hong Kong in the morning – must get some beauty sleep.
My final day in Kaua'i, and I was lucky enough again to have Barbara and David as my personal guides for one last time.
Today it was to the Botanical Gardens (on what is known as the Garden Island) one of only five in the USA. Hawaii is known as the world centre for endangered species; this is in some part down to human invasions of habitat, but in the main thanks to the introduction of non-native species that tend to be much more hardy than their delicate Island counterparts, and out-compete them to extinction. The first thing I encountered in the gardens when I arrived was the head gardener removing two very rare specimens that had succumbed to disease. Very sad.
I was shown the tasteless mint and the brambleless raspberries, as mentioned the other day, as well as stinging nettles who no longer need their stings. There was also a project sponsored by Bette Midler (which helps in some way to finance the much under-budgeted Botanical Garden) a Hibiscus Clayii which was sent to Kew Gardens 100 years ago, went extinct on the island and whose descendent was subsequently sent back from England, and the vinblastine plant that is used to treat childhood leukemia.
Following the tour of the nursery, there was enough time for a walk around the private gardens, (above), all the way to the beach, and for a look at the o'o'pu fish that have suckers on their bellies that they use to climb up waterfalls, before we were back for lunch – with some delicious coffee as grown at David's coffee plantation. It was then, with much sadness, that I had to say goodbye to my guides and head back towards the airport.
I had an hour or so to kill before the flight, and so looked into the Museum of Kaua'i, which was an unexpected treat, containing at some real nuggets of information that may well be useful for the show. It's a bit unsavoury, but I never knew about the Ni'aupi'o system of ancient Hawaii where family members committed incest to preserve their royal genes. The result of these nuptials obviously were often very sick or stillborn, but if a child was healthy it became incredibly holy, so much so that everyone had to bow down in their presence. This became such a problem that they would only travel during the night, when no-one could see them. How bizarre.
Anyway, from there it was back to the airport for the 30 minute flight back to Oahu, and for my final day in Hawaii, back in Waikiki.
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
There are thousands and thousands of feral chickens on Kaua'i. They have no natural predators. The story goes that the only crate of mongooses to land on the island was dropped into the ocean after the unloading sailor was bitten on the finger. (as an aside, if mongooses actually *did* get on the island they could be an ecological nightmare; once someone thought they spotted one and the government paid an expert for three years to capture it - three years later the position was stopped, no mongoose had been found). The chickens though, they certainly are conspicuous; they are loud, especially, it seems, at six in the morning...
The island has only one main road, it skirts the coast of the island but only gets as far as the giant cliffs on the north side, so one cannot drive all the way round. Yesterday I drove clockwise to the end of the road, and today it was my plan to drive anti-clockwise to the other dead-end, taking in the sights as I drove.
The first stop was the Kilauea lighthouse, the most northerly part of the Hawaiian island chain. It is famous for having the largest lens of its kind in the world (with the brightness of 2.5 million candles), for its many nesting birds (frigates and boobies especially) and for its position alongside a refuge for humpback whales. It is the very start of whale season at the moment, they're just beginning to arrive. Whales don't feed in Hawaiian waters, instead relying on blubber stored in the North Pacific: they are here to breed and calf. Did I see one? Well, I saw a dark shadow and a large splash, and the group beside me certainly thought it was a whale - if I'm honest, I think it may have been a large wave.
So I continued the drive and stopped at a number of beaches; these northern areas are where the TV series "Lost" is filmed. Having not seen it much, I couldn't recognise specific places from the show, but I certainly could see how the north of Kauai could be used to portray a desert island. I continued to the very end of the highway, at which there is a trailhead leading to the Island's most inaccessible areas, and got a good mile or so up the steep steep trail before I decided it was time to turn back. I certainly got some decent pictures, despite the trade winds battering the cliffs.
So all in all it was a fairly successful day, certainly as far as photography was concerned. Tomorrow I'll hopefully be learning again, as I will be shown around the Botanical Gardens by one of the Island's experts. It's around 11pm here and thankfully there are no crowing chickens; they have evidently been scared away by the inexplicable late-night roadworks.