Day 58 – Kolkata, India (Republic Day)

Monday, 26 January 2009
We were at Howrah Train Station at 0802 to get our tickets to Delhi and there was already a long queue which did not appear to be moving. SB queued in one line while I tried our luck and joined the VIP queue and low and behold actually got served and we got our tickets to Delhi. We are leaving Kolkata on the 30 and 24 hours later will get into Delhi.
We had a lazy walk back to the hotel. Most shops are closed and there are lots of people on the streets with the Indian flags and obviously preparing for celebrations etc. Back at the hotel we had breakfast in the dining room – which is akin to a prison cell, very strange set-up. Oh well, we ate and packed and changed hotels. Due to the weird one-way systems, our taxi dropped us off about a block from the hotel where we walked the rest. We dropped our bags off and SB called the cooking school, but there has been a change and they can’t run the classes at the moment, so we have now got an extra unplanned day here in Kolkata.
We left the hotel and went to visit the Victoria Memorial, along with the rest of the indian population. I couldn’t be bothered with queueing, so went to the front of the queue, bought two tickets and then went to the front of the entrance queue, where a security man saw us and escorted us through the entrance gate, I think we would still be there otherwise. The Memorial is closed and only the gardens and parks are open. The memorial is very imposing and on a grand scale and the gardens are well maintained. Today it is overflowing with picnicking families – although the sign outside saying no plastic has obviously been ignored by everyone. We were confused why indians would come here on Republic Day, after all it is a monument to the extravagance of the british who were at the same time bleeding the country financially dry and caused the deaths of millions during partition. We walked around the perimeter of the memorial before managing to get out through the throng back onto the streets.

Victoria Memorial
Victoria Memorial

We walked around trying to find the entrance to St Paul’s Cathedrial, which we eventually found near the entrance to the Birla Planetarium, which also had a massive queue. The Cathedral was the usual catholic paranoia, all closed off to the public and surrounded by barbed wire – you don’t get that in buddhist or hindu sites. The Cathedral was built in 1847, but most of the inside was barricaded off so you couldn’t get anywhere near the altar.
We left there heading back towards the hotel stopping to have an extremely overpriced and ordinary cold drink and snack at Flurries, why anyone would want to come back is unthinkable.
Leaving there much poorer, we had a siesta (remember it is hot here) and organised ourselves. Heading out for a late dinner at Teej’s which was packed with large tables of indian families. This was also expensive, but the food was nice and the service was good. So today we have “pushed the boat out”, back to reality tomorrow.
After dinner we walked back towards the hotel, the restaurant next door was also full, having a line out the door and chairs set up outside for prospective customers. Restaurants here seem to be absolutely chockers or totally empty. We stopped off at a large bookstore for a browse, before calling it a night.

Day 57 – Kolkata, India

Sunday, 25 January 2009
We left the hotel at 0900am and headed off to the church service at the Armenian Church. This was built in 1707 and is the oldest church in Kolkata, however, there is a grave there dating from 1630 which historically means the Armenians were the first trading people to establish in this area. In fact so highly respected were they for honesty and loyalty, this continued up to Independence where uncertainty drove a large proportion to leave. The Church though is heavily financially patronisedand really well restored and maintained. It is surrounded on all sides by a mouldering city. On watching the service for a while we left and walked around the outside meeting a lady who is passionate about the history of the church and Armenium culture here in Kolkata. It was nice to hear the stories of the church and how this small group of people had so integrated into the area.

We delved back into the local streets and found the Mullick Ghat Flower Market – talk about colour and fragrance. There were huge mounds of garlanded marigolds etc, constantly being moved in huge bundles on mens heads. Everywhere you looked there were flowers making for a colourful and sensory overloaded spectacle.

Colour everywhere.
Colour everywhere.

We eventually left the market and walked across the Howrah Bridge which is 700m long and crossed the Houghly River and although built at the beginning of the century is still packed with traffic.

Howrah Bridge
Howrah Bridge

We decided to visit the Howrah Train Station (another edicifce to British Archite ture). Built in 1906 this station is still packed with what feels like millions of passengers. We finally found the area to book tickets to Delhi and got prices and train time information. We then decided to head to the Chowringhee area to find a different hotel (hopefully cheaper) etc, so caught the ferry from Howrah Ghat to Babu Ghat.

SB waiting for the ferry.
SB waiting for the ferry.

This provided the best view of the Howrah Bridge but due to pollution it is extremely hazy. It is also much more humid today. We got off at Babu Ghat which is near the Maidan where we walked yesterday. Today the walk was made a bit more difficult due to heaps of baricades put up for Republic Day celebrations tomorrow.
We found Sudder Street and had a walk around finding a small Dhaba for a late lunch and also looked into several hotels, finally booking into Sunflower Guest House. We then walked around the block and found an internet cafe and booked the Bengali cooking classes for the 27th and got a price for flying to Delhi and decided to get the train, so re-traced our steps to Howrah Train Station to find that as it was Sunday the booking area had closed early.
We gave up and went back tothe hotel. SB looked like he had a tan, but after a hot shower it turned out to be dirt – gross.
We ate at the hotel restaurant and then had a walk around the area again, but as it is a public holiday tomorrow, it looks like everyone has closed up shop early.

Day 56 – Kolkata, India

Saturday, 24 January 2009
We slowly started pulling into Kolkata but instead of 6am, it was 9am, apparently due to the heavy fog, which I had presumed was pollution. We pulled into the quiet and cleanliness of Sealdah Station, making our way to the exit and taxi pandemonium (we have never seen so many taxis in our lives) finally walking to the prepaid taxi booth in an attempt to escape the touts, looking to get you into their taxis.
We drove a fairly shortish distance to our hotel (Hotel Himalay). Our room was ready, so we checked in. I had a shower and SB then dropped down our laundry and we headed off to find something to eat. Finally coming across a small Dhaba and had what everyone else was eating – paratha and sabzi which is a potato dish and was lovely.
We headed on a walk to The Maiden. 

The streets of Kolkata
The streets of Kolkata

Eventually stopping to catch the Metro which is a true subway and is cheap and you didn’t have to wait long and even better, because it only has one line, even I couldn’t get lost. We got off at Esplanade and walked around that area seeing many of the heritage buildings (Raj Bhavan, Courts, Treasury Building) stopping at St John’s Church to see the Mausoleum for Job Charnock (founder of Calcutta) and also seeing the monument to the black hole of Calcutta.

Memorial to Black Hole of Calcutta victims - fact or fiction
Memorial to Black Hole of Calcutta victims - fact or fiction

We also found a gravestone for Peter Pan.
We followed the tram tracks through the market area near the mosque and before reaching the hotel we found the local fruit market where fresh fruit were being auction to local distributors, it was just amazingly manic with people, fruit, fruit carriers all squashed together. We ended up wandering around the area for ages, trying whatever people gave us.

Fresh fruit everywhere.
Fresh fruit everywhere.

At the hotel we had an afternoon nap. Kolkata is very humid and mid-afternoon is the hottest part of the day – good excuse for a siesta we think. The hotel gave us instructions for a local bengali restaurant which we headed off to past, a huge range of shops, stalls and people toing and froing. Finding the restaurant (Aahar) where we obviously ordered the most complication dishes off the menu, whereas the constant stream of people all seemed to just get whatever was being given out. Our waiter wasremarkably like Basil Fawlty. The food, however, was great, really tasty.
We wandered back into the streets fulland walked back through the throng of people setting out their homes for the night to the hotel.

Day 55 – Siliguri, India > Kolkata, India

Friday, 23 January 2009
We had a local brekkie and went and packed at the hotel, leaving our luggage, so we could wander around until closer to our train departure time.
We ventured to the Hong Kong Market walking up and down the streets, stopping to have a snack. The Market was nothing flash, lots of really badclothes and shoes.

Hong Kong Market
Hong Kong Market

Heading back to the hotel we hung around chatting before getting a cycle rickshaw for the most uncomfortable ride to the main train station (NJP) which was a lot further than we anticipated. We found a seat and settled into wait but after 10 minutes were moved on by a very tall MP as we were in the army seating area, so we found a first class seating area and although we didn’t have first class tickets they let us sit and wait.
We eventually headed out to the train platform and had a thali when our train arrived, so we grabbed our bags and found our carriage. There had been a change of seating allocations, due to India Rail cramming in another bunk and seat, just to make sure everything was even more squashy. We sat in our new seats, but when the conductor came around, nearly everyone else had to change as it appears nobody can follow instructions. Unfortunately we ended up in the shorter bunks, so it was a cramped night reminiscent of a coffin. SB thought that even the submarine was more spacious and that is saying something.
We managed small amounts of sleep before getting numb and having to move around.

Day 54 – Darjeeling, India > Siliguri, India

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Murphys Law, we woke up this morning to a relatively clear sky and much improved visilibility. SB quickly went back up to the Mall to view the eastern vista; unfortunately the hills in the distance were only just shadows in the mist, so no real improvement on previous days.
We finished packing and went downstairs in the hotel to enjoy another breakfast of aloo dum, puri and milk coffee. After finalising our bill, we walked through Darjeeling to the train station. The visibility was slowly improving allowing us a view of the distant mountains to the north west (we guessed it was some part of the Himalayas, but didn’t bother identifying any particular peaks). We boarded the diesel toy-train and awaited its departure.
Whilst we were waiting on the train, our decision to leave Darjeeling was becoming vindicated as the cloud and mist began to close in again.
The diesel toy-train left the station pretty much right on time and we began the long, slow and bumpy ride down the mountain. The road we came up and the train tracks basically run parallel and cross each other many times, so TH wasn’t seeing any new scenery (remember, she was in the front seat of the jeep on the way up), so SB was enjoying the new views. The train was painfully slow, covering the 82kms in about 7 hours. We were traveling “first class” meaning our seats were slightly better padded than those in second class, but for the most part, they were still uncomfortable as the train bumped, rocked and jerked all the way.

Toy train runs right next to the road.
Toy train runs right next to the road.

Eventually we arrived at Siliguri Junction station and walked to the Conclave Hotel, which wasn’t going to offer any discount and would only provide us with their most expensive room (it’s off season and very quiet everywhere, so we’re guessing we might have been their ony guests so they were going to try and screw us for every rupee). So we went next door to the Conclave Lodge and got a twin room for a reasonable price.
We dumped the bags and headed onto the streets in search of a place for an early dinner. Many shops and restaurants were closed (at 17:00 on a Thursday?) So we walked some distance before finding a nice Bengali cafe. We are three dishes we hadn’t tried before (getting experimental/adventureous) all were delicious and only cost AUD$6.
We wandered back to the Lodge along the main drag, which appeared to be more active now than before, although not as chaotic when we were here only a few days before.

A quiet day in Siliguri
A quiet day in Siliguri

The Lodge didn’t lie when they said we had hot water in our room, we just expected it to last more than 15 seconds. Cest la vie.
An early night with a couple of books was needed.

Day 53 – Darjeeling, India

Wednesday – 21 January 2009
SB woke up early to look out the window of the hotel only to be dismayed that the cloud and mist appears to be a permanent fixture at this time of year. LP says the best time to visit is October/November and mid-March/May, we knew it wasn’t going to be perfect, but we were hoping for just a glimpse of the tea plantation covered slopes with maybe a Himalayan mountain or twoin thebackground. Sadly, this will not be the case, so over a hotel breakfast of sweet milk coffee, aloo dum and puris, we discussed alternatives if today we discover there isn’t much more to do/see here, or if today we do/see all there is.
We walked to Observatory Hill which was just above the main part of the mall, depositing our shoes and walking around the Buddhistand Hindu temples/monastery’s, keeping an eye on the monkeys and stray dogs. Not many places in the world where two religions have important sites at the same place and there is no conflict. The area is very quiet compared to Tibet and Nepal. We visited the cave that honours Mahakala, but didn’t got in due to my dislike of monkeys. We retrieved our shoes and decided to book train tickets etc for tomorrow as the view is still totally obscured and you get the impression that Darjeeling is above everything.

A joint Buddhist and Hindu Template above Darjeeling
A joint Buddhist and Hindu Template above Darjeeling

At the train station the chaos was hampered by the fact that of the 2 windows open only one at a time operated due to lunch breaks etc. So we filled out our form and both got in different queues to see who was the quicker. SB won and we booked our toy-train and Kolkata tickets – after an hour of waiting not bad going.
We walked back through the Chowk Bazaar which was a bit disappointing not as hectic as other chowks. We decided to walk through the back streets and see where they took us. We stopped for an afternoon snack of Dosa at Frank Ross Cafe -the filling was nice but the Dosa fell apart.
We continued our wander, stopping at an internet cafe to book some accommodation in Kolkata and also sent an inquiry regarding some Bengali Cooking Classes. We headed back to the hotel and advised we were leaving in the morning and organised breakfast.
We headed out for dinner and the restaurant we originally were going to was closed so we ventured into Hotel Chanakya for some Bengali Food. We had a veretable feast for RS84 (AUD2.50), leaving there stuffed and walking back to the hotel the long way around and did a quick pack ready for tomorrow.

Day 52 – Siliguri, India > Darjeeling, India

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The mossie coils did their work, sowe weren’t bothered at all during the night. We woke up and started getting our things together when there was a knock at the door to advise that breafkast was ready. So we ventured to their dining room at the back of the hotel where a waitress with limited English asked us what we wanted. We thought we had ordered our brekkie the night before, so were disappointed we had to re-order different things this morning. Still when it came, it was very nice and worth the change.
We went back to the room to grab our bags and check out, heading across the road to where their was a collection of jeeps heading to Darjeeling. With some interesting hand gestures and a bit of rearranging, we managed to getTH a front seat in the next jeep to depart, with SB sitting at the very back of the jeep.

Not forgetting there is a guy hanging on the back as well.  All nice and toasty.
Not forgetting there is a guy hanging on the back as well. All nice and toasty.

We weren’t sure what all the difficulties were all about until just before the jeep departed people appeared out ofnowhere and piled in. Nothing like 13 people crammed in a jeep together. There was even one guy on the back of the jeep hanging on to where the share tyre should be. The luggage and very bald spare tyre were all on the roof. We tore through town and into the road up the mountain, seemingly racing some of the other jeeps heading in the same direction, similarly packed as our jeep. The roads were just pot-holes connected by gravel and the occassional blob of broken tarmac. We stopped for a short reprieve at a roadside shop with toilet, then all packed back in for the remainder of the journey.

Tea plantations
Tea plantations

Down in Siliguri the air was hazy, smoggy and polluted; the higher we went, the visibility didn’t improve as the smog was replaced by cloud and mist. We were still hoping that Darjeeling might be above the clouds and offer some sort of views!
We continued the journey to Darjeeling, stopping at places along the way to let people out of the jeep and replace those disembarking with new passengers so the jeep was always full. We stopped at Ghoom next to the toy-train station to replace a flat rear tyre with the exceptionally bald spare, and continued with very little regard to the paper thin rubber on the rear. Eventually we made it into Darjeeling, still shrouded in cloud, mist and haze.
We were sort of hoping that Darjeeling would be similar to Simla where we visted acouple of years before. We discovered there were similarities but it is still quite different.
We grabbed our bags off the jeep and started climbing up through town in search of a hotel, asking for some directions along the way. With the aid of a localg entleman we found suitable lodging at Hotel Darjeeling Palace. The hotel is quiet, with only a few other guests staying here. We aren’t at the top of the hill, nor at the bottom, so hopefully being in the middle should give us the best of both worlds?
We went for a quick walk around the crazy streets, slapped onto the mountainside, eventually finding the Mall which is the “centre” of town. Again, this off-season is proving to be very quiet, a combination of the economic crisis and the recent events in Mumbai? Have we mentioned it is also very very very very cold up here?

Darjeeling perched on a hillside.
Darjeeling perched on a hillside.

We had a thali each in a nice restaurant that at another time of the year would have magnificent views but at the moment visibility is about 1km if that. After lunch we went to the train station to find out about the toy-train down the mountain to Siliguri and then onwards by rail to Kolkata, but the train station booth shuts at 14:00, and we arrived at 14:03. We wandered around town some more, looking at all the Nepalese and Tibetan stalls (not buying anything) and ducked into the Oxford Bookshop for some more reading material.
It was getting colder, sowe headed back tothe hotel for a hot shower and to catch upon the news on telly (dominated by Barrack Obama’s inauguration) before stepping out for dinner.
We shared a fantastic pizza at the La Casse Crute only a few doors from the hotel. The cafe was small and cozy, made warm with the pizza oven. It was a real multi-cultural affair, italian pizzza cooked by a tibetan in a french style cafe, serving Australian, Korean and Indian patrons.
We went back to the hotel, got some extra-blankets delivered and tucked into bed and some cable tv.

Day 51 – Kathmandu, Nepal > Siliguri, India

Monday – 19 January 2009
Finished the last minute packing and had a light brekkie before paidng the hotel bill. We had just brought down our bags when the taxi arrived, so we said goodbye to the Hotel Himal Ganesh for the last time and headed to the domestic airport past the still festering piles of garbage.
We arrived at the domestic airportand checked our luggage onto Buddha Air flight for Bhadrapur and ventured into the departure hall which was very disorganised with announcements being made over each other. We moved closer to the one gate and waited for our flight. Which was on time. We caught a bus to the plane and boarded a new aircraft, which was small, but most importantly had two working propellers. We took off for the 45 minute journey, which must be one of the most spectacular flights in the world, following the Himalayas with views of Everest etc. We landed at Bhadrapur on time, which was very reminiscent of Kerala and there was definately no need for my down jacket. Unfortunately then having to wait nearly 45 minutes for our bags to make a very short distance, but they both arrived and we left the terminal and got a taxi for the border at Kakarbhitta, along the way the driver asked where we were going and then gave us a price to take us the whole way to Siliguri. So we agreed – lot easier than Taxi, rickshaw and bus. We progressed through Nepali immigration at Kakarbhitta and across the river to the Indian town and immigration of Panitanki where we also sailed through the immigration process and continued on the journey to Siliguri where the driver dropped us close to Hotel Hill View where we got a basic double room with attached bathroom (no hot water) for Rs450. It is basic but the manager is helpful. Only problem is the mosequitoes which seem to be everywhere, so we dropped off our bags and bought some mossie coils and then ventured in search of food (it has been a long time since breakfast). We headed towards the bus/train station where there were loads of foodstalls, settling for some dosa’s and walking back to the main street, waiting while some freshly made puri’s were cooked for us. We had a walk around the area and then went back to the hotel to light the mossie coils which didn’t seem to make a difference so we headed back out in the other direction finally coming across a small shop selling Mortein “quick Kill”, so we went and fumigated the room and then had to sit out on the verandah while the smell and smoke dissipated to something less radioactive. We went to Eniment Restaurant (no chicken or eggs due to the Bird Flu outbreak) which is in the hotel next door. We retired after a long day of travelling, hopefully our room will stay mossie free. The streets are still very busy and noisy so we hope it quietens down a tad as well.

Day 50 – Kathmandu, Nepal

Sunday – 8 January 2009
After a good nights rest we breakfasted on curd and fruit and planned the day whilst reading the local paper – all very sophisticated. We had wondered why there was somuch rubbish on the streets, apparently since we left for Tibet the rubbish hasn’t been collected due to problems at the rubbish dump site – the outcome being that rubbish is in giant festering piles on the streets for the last 13 days. With the warm weather, it iscertainly smelling none too good.
We headed to Thamel and sorted and backed up photos and caught upon emails, which took some time. We caught up with Suresh and updated him on the trip and then had a cup of coffee before hitting the shops for the final time.
First on the list were some new clothes for SB. We seem to have lost quite a bit of weight in Tibet, so now things are very baggy. We found some that he liked (a miracle for anyody knowing SB’s hatred of shopping) and also got some t-shirts. They only had the one pair of trousers, so decided to try some of the other million trekking shops in Thamel. Picking up momentoes of our stay as we wandered around. After visiting the million trekking shops, we gave up on trousers. We dropped the shopping back at the hotel stopping on the way for SB to have a shave at the local barber as he is starting to look like a woolly mammoth. The guy next to SB was having the full treatment – hair colour on head and eyebrows -very funny. Anyway SB’s trim finished with a head, neck and back massage all very vigorous with lots of manipulation and pulling/pushing, even his eyebrows got a workout.
After starting to pack, we headed to a tibetan restaurant for dinner (yes I said I would never eat noodles again), but this restaurant does good mexican food and also picked upour laundry.
We finished packing and thought we would actually settle down and watch a movie when surprise, surprise, the power went off as usual. Living here would just be depressing sometimes and everyone depends on little portable generators to fill the gaps of 16-19hours per day of no power.
At the hotel there is a large generator but that sometimes either doesn’t work or has no diesel, so it is candles and torches always at the ready.
We leave Npeal tomorow and no electricity or garbage collection will not be on the things we will miss. Not that India is any better, but as Nepal is selling them the majority of their electricity here is hoping we won’t have power cuts.

Day 49: Zhangmu, Tibet > Kathmandu, Nepal

17 January 2009

After a surprisingly good nights sleep we also had a good breakfast and then drove the final distance to the border.  We progressed through the departure system much easier than the arrival system and all the many of pieces of papers were all stamped and our passports returned when we said goodbye to Lobsang and headed into no-man’s land.

On the Nepalese side of the border we had a thorough bag search and then continued down the chaotic street (so different to the Chinese border) we went into immigration and after lots of pushing and the wrong forms, we were passed to another officer who got excited we were from the home of Ricky Ponting and we got all of the stamps we needed and headed outside.

Our driver and guide were not there so SB headed to the phone but there wasn’t any answer, so we walked a bit further down and waited for about 15 minutes when Ram (our guide) arrived and we headed off for the 90km drive to Kathmandu and due to the bad road conditions we only managed a maximum of 30kph.

We had a short lunch stop in the sun which was lovely, it is so nice and warm here and also seems to be crop planting, clothes washing and people washing day, so there seemed to be people everywhere.

Women planting (mustard? or potatoes?) in the fields - not a bloke to be seen anywhere!
Women planting (mustard? or potatoes?) in the fields - not a bloke to be seen anywhere!

We finally made it back to the chaos and noise of Kathmandu.

Whilst in Tibet, the garbage collectors have been on strike - not the view of Greater Thamel one sees in the Lonely Planet
Whilst in Tibet, the garbage collectors have been on strike - not the view of Greater Thamel one sees in the Lonely Planet

We were offered an upgrade at the hotel but choose faithful room 303 as it has the best bed and best shower (SB fixed the shower on our first stay here).  We had a quick shower and changed into some clean clothes and packaged up the washing and dropped that off, exchanged some books and changed our unused Yuan and SB dropped off his unused down jacket.

We returned to the hotel and chilled out before deciding to have an early dinner (there is a  2 1/4 hour time difference between here and Tibet) and headed out for an Indian – so nice to eat something with flavour and even had a glass of vino to cap off the end of another leg of our trip.

Day 48: Shigatse, Tibet > Zhangmu, Tibet

16 January 2009

We didn’t do the kora today, it was too cold and we just couldn’t be assed.  SB is feeling very monasteried out.

The breakfast at the hotel has to be the worst I have ever had in my life – never been a big spam person.

Today is a long drive, so we set off early and put the peddle to the metal.  We drove along the Friendship Highway – there was no requirement for us to stick to the 40kph speed limit today to we stayed around 120kph.  We only had q quick fuel fill up before getting to Tingri and the same hotel we stayed at last time and had lunch before getting back in the car.

The scenery is of mountains, mountains and more mountains and the road soon deteriorated from tarmac to gravel and even then sometimes you could hardly tell you were on the road it just disappeared altogether.  To say it was bumpy was an understatement and felt like it went on forever, at one point to save driving through all the switchbacks we just drove off the road and straight down the middle – as there was a track it obviously wasn’t the first time this drive had been done.  We finally started dropping in altitude and noticed the ice and snow on the roads and trees.  There are some major roadworks along this stretch of the road which just makes the ride even worse.

Mountains in the distance... a better stretch of road (just for the moment)
Mountains in the distance... a better stretch of road (just for the moment)

We finally made it into Zhangmu at bout 0630pm ish and checked into our hotel – The Gang Gyen Hotel and a wonderful dorm room overlooking the street.  Hmm not impressed.

We headed straight out to dinner knowing the Tibetans penchant for either not opening or closing early and had dinner at the Karma Restaurant which was nice and the guy there even spoke English.

We headed back to our crappy room and retired to the sounds of trucks and deafening squealing brakes of the trucks, hoping that as the border is now closed the trucks will also stop for a few hours at least.

Zhangmu perched on the cliffside basks in afternoon sun.
Zhangmu perched on the cliffside basks in afternoon sun.

We will certainly miss the people here in Tibet, their colourful attire and total devotion. Although SB is of the opinion that being part of China has brought some benefits I am not convinced they are all for the better. However, Iam mightly impressed with the sustainability efforts here – solar cookers, solar hot water, recycling bins and signs everywhere about protecting the environment and biodiversity (not of Tibetans though). I hope the Tibetans can find a voice – the 2 child policy is in place and they are able to continue their way of life.

Day 47: Lhasa, Tibet > Shigatse, Tibet

15 January 2009

Another pre-dawn wake up to complete another kora.  This time we circambulated the Jokhang monastery with the thousands of faithful who also brave the pre-dawn freeze.  As we approached the Jokhang, we noticed a queue had formed; we later discovered the queue to enter the monastery was several hundred metres long and was under constant observation from the PLA snipers on the nearby rooftops.

Snipers on the roof watch over the faithful.
Snipers on the roof watch over the faithful.

We made comment to ourselves, we thought christian religions would be exceptionally jealous to see the number of people who will queue in the freezing dark to get into their monastery to make substantial cash donations.

It was cold and the light was not favourable for good photos, so after a single circuit we headed back to the hotel, stopping to buy some local fried breads for brekkie, which were eaten plain when they really needed anything to add flavour.  We finalised our packing and waited in the foyer for our guide and driver.

We left Lhasa for the final time just after 10am and again noticed an increase in the number of military and police on the streets as we drove out of town.   Chinese lunar new year is just over a week away and may be the reason for the increased presence?

We stopped at one of the checkpoints where we were lucky enough to be chosen to receive a speed/time ticket.  These tickets are used to monitor the average speed between checkpoints on the Friendship highway; which has a 40kph speed limit.  Of course no-one sticks to these limits, so we had to stop short of each next checkpoint to allow time to elapse so that we passed each place with the requisite average speed for the leg.

We were planning to get to Shigatse just after lunch, but because we were restricted to the speed limit we did not arrive until 1700, even having to stop at a small town for a large bowl of noodles.

We stopped (again) to allow time to pass...
We stopped (again) to allow time to pass...

When we finally made it into Shigatse, we were met by a chap who would be helping us with our visa extension.  He took us to the”Service Office” (which if you didn’t know it was there, you would never be able to find it).  We were told to wait for about 10 minutes, after 40 minutes we changed offices, where a police man gave us some forms to fill in, took our photos and after another 40 minutes we had our visa extensions; and got our passports back.

We were dropped off at a different hotel from the first one we stayed at here, it was definately more luxurious, although hot water is still ata pemium.  We decided to “push the boat out” and visit the bar where SB had a local beer and TH tried the chinese wine (absolutely disgusting is one word for it).  We adjourned to the room and tried to order room service and after many phone calls and visits by staff were told there was no food.  So we just gave up and went to bed.

Day 46: Lhasa, Tibet

14 January 2009

SB and I left the hotel in the dark and headed to the Potala Palace to do the Kora, joining the pilgrims that were out and about at this early hour.

The circuit runs around the base of the Palace.  At the back of the Palace there are large sections of prayer wheels and also large burners for juniper branches.  By the time we finished the first kora it was lighter and there was now a larger stream of pilgrims, so we did another kora to take some photos, calling an end to our walk after the 2nd kora and because were were frozen.  Back towards the hotel there is an increase in military presence, particularly at intersections.

The Potala kora, at the back of the Potala
The Potala kora, at the back of the Potala

First up today is Drepung Monastery (founded 1416), which used to be the largest in the world and was also left relatively unscathed during the CR and currently houses about 600 monks.  It was used by DL’s 2-4 all are entombed here.  After the 4th built the PP and moved there.  There was a constant stream of pilgrims so we joined the flow, the murals throughout the monastery are particularly beautiful and the sheer quantity of Buddha’s and other monastic statues, thangka’s and wall murals is literally gob-smacking and your head just spins.  The sad thing is that most of the monasteries we have visited, behind the facades are in need of restoration or other works to stop them falling into disrepair.  You can only imagine what this monastery would be like with 10,000 monks and a staff of at  least 20,000 to just work the lands to support the Monastery.  After leaving the Ganden Palace we ventured into the monastic kitchen which was medieval with huge cauldrons next to modern rice cookers.  We went into the main assembly hall which is so atmospheric with 180 columns and thangkas hanging everywhere.  We wandered back to the car for our next monastery.

For a fee you can take photos inside the Drepung Monastery; it's beautiful.
For a fee you can take photos inside the Drepung Monastery; it

Next up is Sera Monastery (founded 1419).  Straight away this monastery was busier than any so far with large buses of pilgrims and lots of stalls.  We headed up to the monastery and got our tickets.  The monastery is really a town with lots of sections and used to be famous for its debating monks, but they have recently stopped as they don’t see any point continuing.  We walked to the Sera Me College and then saw the line, it was huge.  As usual we pushed our way to the front – Buddhism here is quite physical and even the oldest lady will push you out of the way.  We got to a gate where the way forward was jammed with pilgrims, so we climbed over a side gate and headed through the back way and made it through to the front of the queue.

To get rock-star status you have to climb a few fences!
To get rock-star status you have to climb a few fences!

We walked around the main hall and then it happened – a chapel women can’t visit, so even Buddhists are perpetuating the sexist myth that men are better!  We also visited the Sera Ngagpa College which is meant to be the oldest structure at Sera.  We then quickly entered the Sogchen main assembly hall to be met with the monks chanting which was just magical and almost brought you to tears – we were allowed to film and record the monks so it was a real honour.  The room is huge with many thangkas and it has 3 chapels at the back.  We visited one chapel where you make a wish and the monk pushes a stick to your head – hope mine comes true.

The sunlight streams through the butter-candle smoke and incense onto the chanting monks.
The sunlight streams through the butter-candle smoke and incense onto the chanting monks.

So after listening to the monks we ventured back to the car tired and hungry.  We were dropped off near our hotel and headed out to a restaurant overlooking Barkhor Square.  From our window we saw a massive western tour group complete with a lady at the front with a large sign – what a nightmare.  We walked back around the Barkhor Circuit, doing a bit of shopping and taking photos of the very colourful locals.

The Circuit is for all ages...
The Circuit is for all ages...

Back at the hotel we got a phone call to say there was a problem and we had to head to Shigatse tomorrow to try and get our visa extended – bugger.

Day 45: Lhasa, Tibet

13 January 2009

We had a late start and met Labsang in the lobby.  Champo is having the car fixed so today we are relying on taxis.  First on the agenda was getting our visa extended so we got some money from a bank, had some photos taken and handed everything over to an agent to arrange – hoping to see at least our documents in the not too distant future.

We then headed through the throng of pilgrims who still prostrate themselves, into Potala Palace, the last home of the Dalai Lama here in Tibet.  We were the only tourists – different to summer where you have to go into a quota system for tickets into the palace.  It is an eerily quiet place as it is no longer used and there are only a few monks left to maintain the relics.  After climbing what felt like a trillion stairs is the ticket office and once through security and x-ray machines were were into the courtyard of the white palace which was used for festivities.  There are then a set of stairs (one side up, one side down, middle only for the DL).  from there we followed the walk for the White Palace and Red Palace.  Most of the rooms were open but apparently they are opened and closed sporadically, so this may be the reason there is no actual audio tour.  There however a lot of restoration work happening which is a good sign.

The palace is magnificent and just dominates over everything else around it.  We were lucky and able to wander through at our own pace (in summer you are only allowed 1 hour).

Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, us.
Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet, us.

After spending the morning here, we walked back to old Tibet where we had a milk tea en-route to the Jokhang.  Now if Potala Palace is eerily quiet, the Jokhang is the opposite and is the most revered structure in Tibet and is heaving with people.  Again we did the VIP thing and bypassed all the queues.

The Jokhang was originally dated to 639AD and was built to house the dowry of the Kings Nepali and Chinese wives.  The Buddha image from Wencheng (Chinese wife) is the most revered Buddha image in Tibet and after going into the chapel and seeing it, it is just awe inspiring, not that you get long to take in everything that is in the chapel as the monks ensure everyone keeps moving at a very hectic pace.  the whole place is just abuzz with life – there are prostrating pilgrims everywhere and considering a lot of the template was restored since 1980 (go the Cultural revolution desecration again) you can’t really make out what has been restored and what hasn’t.  The Jokhang has a myriad other chapels but unfortunately they start to blur after a while and it becomes harder to recall who is who, but the whole experience is fantastic, definitely the highlight of the trip after the Potala Palace of course).

The Barkhor Circuit heaves all day, every day.
The Barkhor Circuit heaves all day, every day.

Lobsang left us here after helping us buy some prayer flags.  We joined the pilgrims kora, this time taking in a more overall view – it is just amazing everyone in traditional dress with prayer wheels etc.  After our first kora we bought some beads – managing to negotiate a fair price we thought.

We dropped our shopping at the hotel before venturing out past the yak cheese vendors to a supermarket where I bought shampoo and conditioner after much charades with the staff – nobody here speaks English and there is no English on any of the bottles.  We also bought some chippies for later – yum.  Back at the hotel the chippies were very disappointing – oh well.  Our washing also arrived back so even more clean clothes are at our disposal – all this luxury.

Close to sunset we rugged up and headed to the square opposite Potala Palace for a sequence of sunset and nighttime photos, at one time drawing a crowd, but as it got darker and subsequently more bloody freezing we were left to our own devises except when SB sat down on the ground and this soon drew the attention of the army who marched over and signaled for him to stand, but we could stay and take photos.  By the time it was completely dark it was only 8pm and we were frozen, only to find out that most restaurants close early, so we found the only available place for noodles and tea.

The Potala by night is even more impressive than by day.
The Potala by night is even more impressive than by day.

Back at the hotel I tested by shampoo and conditioner – so nice to actually brush my hair.

Day 44: Gyantse, Tibet > Lhasa, Tibet

12 January 2009

It was still freezing this morning -4c in the hotel lobby.

We headed out to Gyantse towards our ultimate destination Lhasa.  We stopped at Mt Myugying Kangsang (7191m) and its adjoining glacier (Jojin – Kangtsang) crossing Kara La (4960m) and having lunch in Nangartse before continuing around the outside of Yamdrok Tso one of Tibet’s most sacred lakes and now one of Tibet’s largest hydro power plants – don’t really think they go hand in hand somehow.

Yup, it's cold here!  High too!
Yup, it
These lakes are sacred and if it weren't for the ice, perfect for sailing!
These lakes are sacred and if it weren

We approached Lhasa entering the city from the Chinese side which is all large gleaming buildings, but not many people.  Lhasa is big with huge highways and a lot more traffic than we have seen  so far on the trip.  We turned into old Lhasa and arrived at the Yak Hotel which is located just near the Barkhor area.   The hotel is very swish with all mod cons such as hot water – what a luxury.

We headed immediately out of the hotel to find a bank, but it appeared to be closed, so we followed the old town walking tour in the Lonely Planet to get our bearings.  The weather doesn’t seem so cold here, I even ventured out without my down jacket.  We walked through a continual stream of little shops that only had a pool table, but they were obviously popular.  The Muslim quarter was busy but non Muslims aren’t allowed into the mosque so we continued on finally getting caught up with the flow of pilgrims from all over Tibet all doing the Barkhor Circuit.  It was fascinating seeing everyone praying etc whilst they were also buying things from the continual circuit of shops selling everything you can imagine – prayer flags, yak meat, cheese!

Outside the Jokhang there were hundreds of pilgrims prostrating themselves.  We did another 1/2 a kora to find out street, going back to the hotel for a very very hot shower and even some clean clothes.  We wandered around for a restaurant, settling on a place near the hotel, where the food was nice and a change from noodle soup.  We retired happy, fed and clean back to our fancy hotel.

A beggar woman on the Lhasa street outside the restaurant.
A beggar woman on the Lhasa street outside the restaurant.

Lhasa is much bigger than we both expected and there is also a large military presence everywhere, particularly in this older part of town.  I think the chinese have realised they can’t stamp out Buddhism so have started restoring some of the monasteries destroyed during the cultural revolution as it is also a major tourism drawcard – who would come to Lhasa if they couldn’t see any of the history.

Day 43: Shigatse, Tibet > Gyantse, Tibet

11 January 2009

We headed early to the Tashilhumpo Monastery which was given to the Panchen Lamas (PL) by the 5th Dalai Lama (DL).  We visited the first chapel and as today is a special day in the Tibetan calendar to say there was a queue was an understatement, it was like going to a rock concert.  We were luckily given VIP passes and headed to the front of the queue only to meet an actual scrum to get through the actual door at the Chapel of Tampa to view the worlds largest gilded statue (26m) of the Maitreya (future Buddha). There is a ridiculous pricing scheme making it too expensive to take photos inside the chapel.  The whole chapel was beautiful with gilding and not to mention the massive oil lanterns and offerings that everyone was bringing.

Tashilhumpo Monastery in the sunshine
Tashilhumpo Monastery in the sunshine

From there it was to the tomb of the 10th PL whose picture appears everywhere, not sure if this is in part because you can’t have photos of the DL.  This was a beautiful chapel as it is fairly new (the PL died in 1989).  We then headed to the tomb of the 4th PL (1570-1662) which was only of the original and only tomb chortens not to be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  It was dark and you could only just make out the painting on the walls due to centuries of burning yak butter candles.  This chorten led us to the main assembly hall, but there weren’t any chanting or music playing monks at the moment.  This is a huge hall and dates to the 15th century and holds all the scriptures.  The room is dominated by the throne which is only used by the PL and sadly that may not be used again.

The last chapel we visited was the tomb for the 5th to 9th PL and was built to replace the tombs destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  From there we headed into the main courtyard which was full of people and monks doing monastic business.

The entire complex in the background is the monastery, quarters and chapels (it's a huge area!)
The entire complex in the background is the monastery, quarters and chapels (it

There were two koras running around the monastery, one side the monastery and one that takes you around the town.  Although the skies are blue it is freezing here, especially in the wind so we wandered through the many lane ways before heading to the car and starting the drive to Gyantse.

We passed lots of Tibetan villages and some new Chinese styles villages, but there were loads of fields, greenhouses and sheep.  We finally reached Gyantese and dropped our bags at the hotel which again looked flash but we soon realised there was no water, suppose you can’t complain about no hot water, the pipes are frozen (apparently).

We headed to a local restaurant where you choose what you want in a bowl and it comes back to you all turned into a giant veggie soup.

We headed into the Pelkon Chode Monastery, through the usual throng to get to the main chapel.  The Pelkor Chode was founded in 1418, but your eyes are drawn to the Gyantse Kumbum which is huge and largest chorten in Tibet, housing 100,000 Buddha images.  In the monastery assembly hall we listened to the monks chanting and the main chapel holds statues of the Sakyamuni and flanked by past and future Buddhas.

We escaped the throng and climbed the stairs of the Gyantse Kumbun which was 5 stories high, giving view of the monastery and the Tibetan part of the town below.  We headed down for a wander around the complex before heading back to the car and the hotel.

Are all the monasteries starting to look the same?  Or is it just me?
Are all the monasteries starting to look the same? Or is it just me?

SB and I decided to explore the town on foot eventually buying some fruit and also looking at the vegetable and meat market.  We headed back to the hotel to rug up as it was absolutely freezing – SB even has his beanie on in bed and is still cold.

Day 42: Zhaxizong, Tibet > Shigatse, Tibet

10 January 2009

We were ready for 9am breakfast, but no-one else was so we made plenty of noise dragging our luggage downstairs and plonked ourselves where we sat yesterday even with the sleeping person and about 0919 Lapsang appeared and we had breakfast.  SB had Tsampa a Tibetan breakfast of roasted barley flour, tea and butter if you wanted, you mix it up to slurry.

We left the lodge at 0930 and started a very long and windy drive up to a view point for Everest and surrounding mountains.  We continued climbing up and through another pass to Gyatso La (5100m) before finally starting to descend.  We continued the drive stopping at Lhatse at a fairly westernish Chinese restaurant, although the town was quite large we got a lot of stares and waves and hellos.  The town is a mix of the old and new and we left down overtaking horse/carts and tractors/trailers, all packed to the brim with people and goods and highly decorated with flags etc.

Gyatso La through the windshield...
Gyatso La through the windshield...

We continued the drive to Narthang Monastery (12th century) and was able to go into the hall to hear the monks chanting and playing musical instruments.  This monastery is famous as it held the printing blocks of the scriptures, although only about 8000 remain, some are still hidden and the remainder destroyed during the cultural revolution.  About 130 monks sill reside at the monastery and there is also a nunnery beside.

An altar in the Narthang Monastery; the library of scripture printing tablets in the background.
An altar in the Narthang Monastery; the library of scripture printing tablets in the background.

On arriving into the outskirts of Shigatse a car in the centre of the road decided to turn right straight into us, and even weirder, into my passenger door; weird because today I swapped sides with SB.  There were suddenly lots of people mulling around, but we were okay and only superficial damage to the car, so the other guy paid some cash and we continued our journey to our hotel (Yak Hotel) in the Tibetan side of the town.  It was flash on the outside, but the room could do with a clean and a vacuum and the 24 hour hot water really only meant slightly warm.  Still I had a shower and washed my very grotty hair.

If you look hard, you will see the tyre guard is missing.  If you look harder (like eveyone here) maybe the slight panel damage will go away too?
If you look hard, you will see the tyre guard is missing. If you look harder (like eveyone here) maybe the slight panel damage will go away too?

We wandered into the town and the entrance of the monastery before heading back through some very persistent beggars who try to get into your pockets, we physically had to push them off.

We had dinner at Gongkar Tibetan Restaruant and called it an early night.  On returning to the hotel, SB managed to get a piping hot shower – so not fair.

Day 41: Tingri, Tibet > Zhaxizon, Tibet (including Everest Base Camp)

9 January 2009

See the TV ad:  Diamox, brought to you by Bastards Inc.  Who else would make a product that you only take at high altitude; altitudes where t is freezing; a product to help you sleep if feeling the onset of AMS; a product which also happens to be a diuretic so you have to get up several times during the night to go out into the freezing cold to pee in a Tibetan hole in the ground!

The night was the coldest temperature either of us have ever experienced.  At the start of the night, the sheer weight of blankets and doonas should have been enough to crush a car, but we were still cold.  Slowly, we started to warm up, enough tot get an interrupted (thanks Diamox) high altitude sleep.

The integration of Tibet into China meant that all clocks were set to Beijing time.  When the sun finally rose at about 0900 we were having a “typical” breakfast near the warm stove in the dining room.  It was still bloody cold outside, probably in the vicinity of -15c or colder with a breeze that just went straight through the umpteen layers of clothing.  Maybe it was the cold or the restless sleep, but TH wasn’t feeling too flash and ate very little of her Tibetan bread, flatbread and omlette; coffee was good though.

We paid our bill for the dinners and put our bags into the Landcruiser.  We took the first turn off after town, turning onto a track that was barely adequate and for the most part only describable as “shithouse”.  The drugs TH took to try and ward off AMS and travel sickness allowed her to (somehow) snooze through all but the worst sections.  At one point the single track was blocked by a broken down tractor and cart.  So we all got out and heaved, pushed and pulled it off the track so we could be through.  After about 4 hours we finally arrived at our intended destination – Everest Base Camp, Tibet.

Everest in the distance... The sunshine belies the fact it's still bloody cold!
Everest in the distance... The sunshine belies the fact it

At the final approach to the actual camp there is a huge expanse of flat ground which in the summer climbing season becomes a tent city.  In the winter the area is completely deserted and only a plethora of small piles of prayer rocks remains.  the actual base camp is of course controlled by the Chinese Army, who allegedly establish quite a sizable presence there in the summer, but even now it’s too cold to be here.  We wandered around the site and took some photos to remind ourselves how cold it was in the shadow of Everest.

Us at Everest Base Camp (Tibet)
Us at Everest Base Camp (Tibet)

With the camera starting to play up (at 5200m and minus lots of degrees who can blame it), and our hands beginning to freeze, we climbed back into the Landcruiser and began the journey along the same trail to our next destination.  We briefly stopped at a town we passed through on the way to EBC, Rongbule where there is a monastery.  A few more happy snaps and we were again on the road.

Fortunately we turned off the track a few miles later onto a much better track which took us through the landscapes to our stop for the night – Zhaxizong Village.

Our family run guest house is very much like the previous night’s accommodation.  The dining area has a warm stove and the small cold rooms have a car crushing quantity of blankets and doonas, and some decent pillows too!

After tea and some more tea, followed by some noodle soup and more tea, we wandered through the little village.  We were the centre of attention, especially for all the kids who came running up to us with their hands out asking and begging for money – we are the wrong ones to ask for that.

We headed back to the lodge where I went to bed and read as it was warmer than anywhere else.  SB came and got me at 8pm as they had lit the fire and by the time we got back downstairs the room was baking hot and we had dinner and more tea and then retired early.

On getting back to our room we realised we had the room with the neon sign outside it and a noisy group of tibetans below us.  Anyway we were warm and toasty and had a better sleep expect for the horrible night time toilet breaks.

Wandering Bears Have Been Here

A friend with whom we went sailing in the Beagle Channel and through Tierra del Fuego in 2007/2008 has left home in the UK to go travelling in Peru.  He had always been a keen traveller and has visited many parts of the world.  Imagine our surprise when, whilst we were waiting for the delivery of food and even more tea, TH was perusing the notice board in the guest house to spy this:

There's a bear in there...
There

The card is of course from our friend Andrew Dare (aka Wandering Bear).  What is even more surprising is that, if memory serves us correctly, the photo was taken by TH using Bear’s camera at the foot of a glacier in South America?

If you want to read some amazing travel and adventure stories, have a look at Bear’s Blog at : http://www.wanderingbear.info/

Day 40: Kathmandu, Nepal > Tingri, Tibet

8 January 2009

Got up early (0445) and by the time we finally got downstairs our guide (Ram) and our driver were there to collect us.  So we loaded up the warmest gear we had and headed off.  The ride was scenic and through valleys and gorges with the dawn coming through the mist.   We stopped for breakfast in a Nepali breakfast of curry and puri’s and a very very very sweet tea.

As we got closer to the border the number of trucks expanded exponentially.  We got dropped off at the Nepalese border where we cleared customs/immigration by the time I had a wee, amazingly fast – obviously they weren’t interested in matching my passport to me.

We then continued walking through several gates – we are the only Westerners here.  We finally made it onto the Friendship Bridge and crossed to the Chinese side after my bag was searched by a guard who didn’t have a sense of humour, one of the Nepalese locals explained to him we were from Australia and he then let us through.  We then entered the very flash and super organise customs/immigration centre on the Chinese side, where both our bags were now searched.  Meanwhile people were unpacking trucks and hauling the goats through the immigration line.  We had our own immigration line where all our papers were seriously scrutinized then Ram was allowed to get our Tibetan guide who had even more paperwork for the Chinese officials to check, my passport scanned and processed but SB’s wouldn’t so the lady officer rushed off somewhere and did something and finally all was well and our documents stamped, we then made it through customs with only another bag scan and we were through the doors into Tibet.

We said goodbye to Ram and headed off with our new guide (Lobsang) and driver (Chambo).  We drove into Zhandmu and had tea in a local tea shop where we changed some larger Yuan to smaller notes.  We then went next door and had lunch of thukpa (basically noodles and vegetables in a soup).  We then talked about the itinerary and decided to drive through to Tingri tonight which will give us more time at Everest tomorrow and more time in Lhasa.

So we jumped in the LandCruiser and started a phenomenal climb over a road that was good and in some places really bad in others.  We were surrounded by pine forests and lots and lots of thick ice, making the roads very slippery – always great when you are driving up a cliff.  In a short distance we arrived in Nyalam which was meant to be our stop for the night, but we only filled up with fuel before hitting a dirt like road track and the scenery changed to glacial scree, no trees and very sparsely populated areas.   Although there were yaks, sheep and fields which apparently grow wheat and barley as well as radish and potatoes.

The view of the icy roads heading up the Tibetan mountains
The view of the icy roads heading up the Tibetan mountains

We stopped at La Lungla Pass (4910m) and then Yakri Shong Pass (5050m) just to think we started the day at 1400m in Kathmandu.

The road continued on bumpy and dusty, passing some locals that were rugged up, again we emphasize how cold it is expected to get.

We did mention it was cold, didn't we?
We did mention it was cold, didn

We finally arrived in Tingri just before sunset and walked into a lodge straight out of the movies.  There were benches all around a central fire which kept hot water constantly coming.  Obviously we are the highlight and talking point of the locals, they were just as amazing to us all wearing lots of fantastic beards in their hair and the most fantastic hats.  The women as usual worked tirelessly keepng them fed and watered.

We went to our room and did the usual bed shift and they kept giving us more and more blankets and duvets, apparently we will need them in addition to our sleeping bags.  We got out our things for tomorrow and then ventured to the toilet – well how do I explain that.  There is a room, one for boys and one for girls, these are closed off by a half height door.  The toilet is two planks of wood with a gap, luckily it is so cold you can’t smell anything.  SB had the bad experience of his toilet paper blowing back at him – gross.

We headed back to the dining area that was toasty and warm with our dinner ready – thukpa again.  Luckily by now the locals had moved on so it was quiet and we could eat wthout anybody staring at us.  After dinner we had a plate of roasted nuts before venturing back to the freezing room and trying not to sufficate under the pile of blankets.

Day 39: Kathmandu, Nepal

7 January 2009

I still had a cold so had a light brekkie and headed back to bed.  SB set off into Thamel with his list and managed to get everything, including my fleece jacket from the laundry which I had given up for good.

He came back and dropped everything off and I then headed out with him to swap my books and have a light lunch.  We ambled back to the hotel and had a hot shower before heading out into the cold to catch up with Suresh and go through our booking and information for Tibet and pick up our flight tickets for the trip back into India (Darjeeling).

We then headed back to the hotel to pack adn pay bills ready for our 5am pickup tomorow – groan.

Day 38: Kathmandu

6 January 2009

Woke up with a cold, great just what I don’t need.  We had brekkie and checked our money before heading out to Indra Chowk where the locals shop and after a wander around bought two rugs and a warm woollen beanie for the next leg of our journey.  The markets were busy and you can buy anything and everything here, wish we had more space in our bags.  We wandered back down some different lanes and came out at the back of Thamel where we had a late lunch that was meant to be pumpkin soup but the look, texture and smell couldn’t confirm what it was, which was a shame as I had invisaged it would actually contain pumpkin.  I then opted for an apple strudel from the bakery which was full of fruit and SB had a huge plate of steamed momos which he rated very highly.

We headed back to Thamels main square so SB could hire a down jacket for our trip, so we had to wait while a couple of different jackets came from somewhere else.  He selected a North Face Jacket and we then wandered back to the hotel so I could dose up on drugs and have a snooze.  On the way back we stopped at the Pharmacy to top-up the medical kit – no issues getting sudafed here.

After my snooze we headed to a local place for dinner – El Mitho, which was packed and we ordered Dahl Bat which when it finally came was huge and really tasty.  The whole bill came to $6.

We headed across the road and got our laundry, but back at the hotel we found that my large zipped fleece was missing, so SB headed back there but no luck as they were closing up, we need to go back tomorrow.  What a bugger, I can’t afford to lose a fleece at this late stage of the trip.

Day 37: Kathmandu

5 January 2009

A late start and as SB feels much better we had a l.eisurely breakfast.  We did up our budget and checked funds – not good news, we are way over, so will need to cut back on late nights drinking cocktails. 

We dropped off our laundry an mpressive 5.5 kgs which will be ready tomorrow, amazing considering there is no electricity for 12 hours a day (soon to be up to 16 hours a day).  We caught up with Suresh and due to not getting a seat on the flight back from Lhasa, we are now overlanding back to Kathmandu – this is becoming an epic voyage.  he has booked our flight to the Indian border and we will then get a local bus/taxi to Darjeeling due to the high costs of a private car and our rapidly diminishing budget.

We had coffee in one of the rooftop cafes in Thamel, where SB got computer envy as it felt like we were the only ones within an EEPC.  We then headed to the internet cafe to take a copy of all our photos due to the ongoing issues with the Olympus memory cards.

I had a wander around soaking up the noise and pandemonium of too much traffic and not wide enough streets.

We had a late dahl bhat lunch at Nameste Garden.  I have been testing out my down jacket today as both my fleeces are in the wash and it is incredibly warm, hope it handles Tibet.  We headed back to the hotel where I had some time to read “himalaya” by Michael Palin who has doen a similar trek to us and it is interesting and funny to read his notes on the journey to Lhasa – he encounters freezing temperatures and the worst toilets in history although the LP also comments on how bad toilets are in Tibet, they must be awful considering how bad Nepalese ones are.

We had a lovely hot shower after SB fixed the sproadic showerhead.  We had dinner at the hotel due to the freezing temperatures and our laziness to go outside.

Day 36: Chitwan > Kathmandu

4 January 2009

Another early start at 5:45am when I got up and headed out into the cold jungle for a nature walk.  SB is feeling better but not enough to come with me (light weight).  We headed into the jungle and learnt about the local flora i.e. get stuck in the jungle and the sap of the Blackberry bush taken with water twice a day stops the runs – could be handy.  We also learnt that the park is open in January and July for locals to harvest different flowers and shrubs.  We walked through the jungle for about 45 minutes before heading back to the resort, where miracles occurred and the mysterious blue-eyed bunny arose and slowly ate a piece of toast.

We left on our canoe at 8:45am to get our bus to Bharaktpur Heights Transit Resort wher we waited for 20 minutes for the bus to kathmandu.  We were seated at the back of the bus and my seat back was broken, but the bus was packed so we had no option to change.  the ride was the bumpiest I have ever encountered, the Nepalese roads are in shocking conditions, not helped by the volume of trucks etc on the roads.  As usual the scenery once we on the main Pljkhara road was of people living in shacks right next to the road and of a constant stream of litter.

We got dropped off where we had after the trek and escorted a few people back to Thamel as they didn’t know the way.

We headed to our hotel where our reservation was fine and collected our other luggage and had a hottish shower and got into our last clean clothes and had dinner in the hotel.  I put SB to bed after raiding the spare duvet in the main areas as it seems incredibly cold here in kathmandu.

Day 35: Chitwan

3 January 2009

Rudely awakened at 5:45am we headed off on our dawn nature walk.  We had only been going through the jungle for about 10 minutes when we found ourselves with eleephants on either side and a rhino straight ahead not sounding the happiest soul in the world so we all kept running after it.  SB managed to get a video before it ducked away into some denser undergrowth.  We also saw what looked like a bear and a few other native species before heading back to the main resort for breakfast – what a strange way to start the morning.

Straight after breakfast SB started getting sick with cramps and nausea, so I checked with the resort and they didn’t have any medication or means of getting any until later in the afternoon – hmm not very good when you are a toursit hotel.  Anyway I rustled up a variety of pills from other guests and put him to bed and I headed out on another nature walk/crocodile river canoe ride.

The walk didn’t see any animals, although we saw a lot of rhino prints and huge piles of poo.  There are apparently 15-20 rhinos in the park, but only 2-3 tigers, who are nocturnal so the likelihood of seeing them isn’t much good.  However, we did get to see prints and scratchings and tiger poo – how exciting.    We walked out of the jungle and to the river where we saw 2 crocodiles who disappeared as soon as I go the camera out – typical, I am not usually in charge of the camera so am feeling the pressure.  There were also a plethora of wild birds that stay in this region on their migration from Siberia.  The walk ended with a boat ride back along the river to the resort.  The current of the river was so strong that the oarsmen didn’t need to even paddle.

Next activity asn’t for a while, so I checked on SB who is worse, so I left him with more drugs and sat in the sun reading my book, skipping lunch and enjoying some peace and quiet.  There was an elephant talk at 2:15, so kathryn (on the the other guests) and I were late so decided to try and find it and had a walk through teh jungle finally finding the elephone homes and the talk.  When that finished we watched the elephants for a while and got to feed them.  They were all bred in captivity and ranged from 25 to 40 years old.  They just look so majestic it would be interesting to know what they are thinking.

I wandered back to see SB – no change and headed out for birdwatching which really wasn’t my cup fo tea, so I bailed and went and found a doctor and more drugs for SB, so fingers crossed these help him a bit more.

I headed back to the main area to watch the stick dancing show, which wasn’t too bad, but you feel trapped and have to look interested.  Although as soon as it was over, there was a stampede to the dining hall and as the resort appeared to be packed, anybody that dawdled had to eat their dinner outside.  Dinner was exactly the same as the night before, so a tad disappointing.  It appeared that all the tbles had a reserved sign, so Kathryn and I joined with another group of 4 and made that a bit larger.  There are a lot of large Nepalese family groups who sit up drinking and partying late into the night, so the resort isn’t exactly the quiet experience we were hoping for.

Day 34: Kathmandu > Chitwan

2 January 2009

It was still dark when we headed from the hotel through the back steets of Kantipath.  We did realise that Kathmandu does have a garbage system other than burning it in smouldering piles, no idea where they take it, probably dump it in the river cnsidering all the rubbish in and around that.

We found our bus very easily and departed at 7am, even with people still trying to get on, not sure why they bother to get you to arrive at 06:30am.

The bus ride was the same way we also took to Besi Sahai/Pokhara and wasn’t too bad considering the state of the roads here in Nepal.  At least this journey won’t involve walking up a mountain, although I did keep looking at the hills knowing I could climb them if I wanted too.

We had a breakfast at a sort of tourist spot but we just stretched our legs.

Finally arriving at what we thought was a pre-arranged spot, to find there was 9 of us and a little taxi with 3 seats, so we did a ferry system arriving at a hotel, which in no way resembled the inforamtion we had been given and wasn’t even in the National Park but inside the town.  On further questioning of the receptionist, this place is the transit hotel where we have lunch before the final drive to Jungle Island Resort.  Whew thought I would have to go balistic at this.  So after a very ordinary lunch we boarded a smallish minibus which took us through some very rural areas where the housing was very similar t Jaisalmer – houses made of dung and polished so much you could eat off the floor.

The road soon turned into a dirt path and we finally got off at a sort of jetty where we were met by a wooden boat and ferried across the other side of the river.  We disembarked and walked along a forest trail to a very basic lodge where they have power from a generator between 3:5pm and 9pm.

Our room is clean and simple, similar to the lodges on the trek.  So we got organised and headed back to the meting place at 3:30pm for our elephant ride.  We got on the elephant the easy way via a set of stairs into a Howdah and on the elephants back.  There were 3 of us, I was wedged behind the driver and SB was on my left with a very hard wooden pole between his legsl.

We headed into the forest and almost immediately stumbled onto a Rhino which we followed for a while, before continuing along some other tracks seeing wild boars, deers and a hornbill.  The ride was lumbering and you are so high it gives you a different perspective.  After 1 1/2 hours we headed back to the lodge for some R&R as dinner wasn’t until 7pm.  SB retired to the bar area and I stayed inside the room where it wasmarginally less freezing than outside, but only marginally.  We joined a table containing mainly Americans for dinner, but they were probably the best travelled Americans we have ever met.

After dinner we retired as it was cold and I mean cold and we had a nature walk at 5:45am to get up for.

Day 33: Kathmandu

01 January 2009

Welcome to the new year!

We had a lie in and eventually made it to breakfast after 09:00, the hotel dining room was very busy due to an influx of tourists and a few having a late night.

We walked to Kantipath to time how long it will take to get from the hotel to the bus stop the next morning for the trip to Royal Chitwan National Park.  On the return trip we detoured to the travel agency where we were told we should get our visas for Tibet by 06 Jan, so our trip departing Kathmandu on 08 Jan and returning by air on 17 Jan is still on; although we will have to get our visas extended whilst in Tibet because although they haven’t been issued yet, our original plan was to only be there until 14 Jan and it is far too hard to get changes made between the travel agent and the Chinese embassy.  The travel agent also helped with our post-Tibet plans to get from Kathmandu to Darjeeling – we can fly to the Eastern end of Nepal then his brother can drive us across the border as we need to get to Darjeeling in one day from Kathmandu.

We did a bit of shopping and had a very ordinary coffee at the Pumpernickel Bakery, which for some reason unknown to us, is heavily frequented by tourists (maybe like us, they all thought the coffee there was good – why would everyone go there otherwise?)  On the way back to the hotel we bought another metal water flask (useful as a hot water bottle, also these don’t tend to freeze in the cold as quickly as the camel packs we also have, and Tibet is going to be freezing; -10C to -30C there now according to local reports when the January average is a positively balmy -2C).  We wandered slowly through Thamel back to the hotel for another lunch in the garden with Kirsty and took the opportunity for our favourite afternoon siesta.

We started packing for the bus trip tomorrow and put what we weren’t taking with us into the hotel store room, and settled our bill before heading back into Thamel for last dinner with Kirsty and Emily.  At Tom and Jerry’s Bar we had a few cocktails and plundered their free popcorn (if you don’t want us to eat our body weight in popcorn then don’t give it away for free!) then made our way through the very-quiet-compared-to-last-night-streets to Yin Yang Thai Restaurant for a really nice meal. The restaurant was very busy which is in complete contrast to the streets and everywhere else we have seen tonight.  We said our goodbyes to Emily (continuing on to India a couple of days) and Kirsty (heading home to NSW in two days) and went back to the hotel to complete preparations to leave for Chitwan the next morning.

Day 32: Kathmandu

31 December 2008

Last day of the year; and what a year it has been!

We had breakfast at the hotel as TH is feeling a little better than yesterday.  We headed into Thamel and picked up our bus tickets for the upcoming trip to the Royal Chitwan National Park, then wandered throught Thamel watching the activities there.

We spent the afternoon sitting in the sun in the hotel gardens, chatting with Kirsty who has also checked in here (the Kathmandu Guest House was just too noisy and the local touts camped just outside the hotel gates too agressive.)  We are catching up with the remnants of the trekking group at 19:00 for NYE dinner, so as the sun went behind the close-by buildings and shade drew across the garden, we adjourned to the room for a quick siesta and made preparations to go out.

Whilst in the room we received a telephone call from the travel agent who informed us he couldn’t get the visas for Tibet until 06 Jan at the earliest, so we have changed the trip and will depart Kathmandu on 08 Jan, driving overland to Lhasa and flying back to Kathmandu.

We met up with Kirsty and Emily at the Kathmandu Guest House.  The streets were very busy; there were a few tourists out and about, but by far the majority of the crowds were locals; it seemed like everyone at the north end of Thamel was heading south and those at the southern end heading north.  The central junction was just a complete fiasco of people, rickshaws, taxis, cars and motorcycles with no-one in control.  We headed to La Dolce Vita (which conveniently is directly across the road from KGH but it still took ten minutes to get there!) for an Italian meal and treated ourselves to a few bottles of imported Chianti.  The food was pretty good, the first bottle of wine was OK but the second tasted better.  From the restaurant first-floor windows we had a birds eye view of the streets packed with revellers still trying to swap ends of Thamel.  After dessert we decided to brave the streets for our return to the hotel (it was nearly 22:00, a very late night for us).  It was manic.  Everywhere was in complete gridlock and no matter how many times the local traffic volunteer blew his tiny whistle, the gridlock just stayed, well, gridlocked.  Once we were out of the main part of Greater Thamel things were a little less chaotic, so we could wander back to the hotel in relative peace and quiet.  When we got back to the hotel there were still a few souls up and about, but the power was off so things were mostly quiet.

We retired for our final sleep in 2008, looking forward to the prospects of 2009.

Happy New Year.

Day 31: Kathmandu, Nepal

30 December 2008

We have a plan: We are looking to leave for Tibet on 06 Jan 2009 and are now just waiting for the visa.  We spent some time with the travel agent and getting dates organsied, and had lunch back at the hotel.  We relaxed in the gardens for a while as TH seems to have picked up a bit of a tummy bug for last night’s dinner (?), so an easy afternoon.  We had dinner in the hotel, and an early night.

All in all, a very quiet day.