Days 25-29: Everest, and as far as the Nepal border

The trip has carried on getting better and better, and I think these few days have been the best yet.

DAY 25, saw us leave Shigatze and head for Sakya. The main point of interest was a monastery that had a completely different look and feel because of the Mongolian influence.

Sakya Monastery, Tibet

It was a little odd to see monks visiting a monastery as daytripping tourists, not prostrating pilgrims, posing for mobile phone snaps in front of the prayer wheels…

A visiting tourist monk at Sakya Monastery, Tibet

…not least because they got more hassle from the souvenir (and yak butter) vendors than a dozen white western tourists!

A few of us hardier souls (the temperature fell to 2 degrees after lunch) scrambled up the hillside to some chortens, from where we saw a mini sand tornado sweeping through the valley below. We were blessed by a lovely amiable old monk in the ruined monastery up on the hillside.

My friend the elderly monk

I lagged behind the group afterwards writing a few things in my notebook, and he grabbed it from me to write his name and a short blessing in Tibetan. Absolute legend.

The next day – DAY 26 – we had an unexpected itineary change due to one of my lovely new friends being taken very ill and having to go to hospital for a wee while. Luckily he’s back to fighting weight and with the group again now, but he did give us all a bit of a worry back there…

DAY 27 was a biggie, finally making it to Everest Base Camp. We woke up to a winter wonderland in New Tingri, as it had snowed overnight. The bus wound it way up a twisty, snowy road (only getting stuck into a snowdrift the once) towards the Wula Pass.

A snow-covered Wula Pass, Tibet

There’s also a concept that I must introduce you to, that of the SGS: Shitty Gift Squad (© credit due, I believe, to Scott Irwin). Here they are, excitedly swarming around an arriving bus to peddle their remarkably overpriced wares.

'SGS', aka. 'Shitty Gift Squad' (Tibetan branch)

This particular branch were lurking at the top of the 5,200m Wula pass with Everest in the background (had the weather been clear enough to actually see it), but their natural habitat is anywhere where tourists gather in groups of four or more. Watch out for them on your next encounter: they’re devilishly persistent!

Back to the trail, we reached Rongbuk Monastery (5,100m above sea level: the highest in the world) for lunch, and to meet the locals…

The yak welcoming committee at Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet

… and then headed up a little further to the Tent City below North Base Camp, where we could just about see the peak of Everest peering through the clouds for a few seconds.

Tent City, Everest North Base Camp, Tibet

After stopping at the highest Post Office in the world to send postcards (update on May 24th, 27 days later: I’ve been home two weeks, and the postcard I sent myself still hasn’t arrived), it was a couple of hours’ breathless hike up a gentle stony path to Base Camp.
The highlight of the hike, given the peak didn’t grace us with its presence again, was the incredibly docile deer. I’m presuming that they see so few humans that they don’t take fright and bolt like deer normally do, and that meant we were able to get very close indeed.

When we got to Base Camp, there was plenty of time for photo opportunities. Predictable, moi?!

A very very special day, given it was something I’ve wanted to do since about the age of seven (having seen a documentary on Chris Bonington a few months after his return from the 1985 Norwegian expedition, fact fans!), made even more so when the peak finally came out of the clouds again for a minute or two as we were hiking back down.

DAY 28. We spent the night in yak hair tents at the Tent City – let’s just say it was minus 2 at 7am the next morning after the yak dung stoves had been re-lit – but there was SUCH a huge reward awaiting us. The morning sky was crystal clear and cloudless, allowing a full view of the peak. Magic.

A clear Mount Everest, from Rongbuk Monastery, Tibet

After that, nothing was really going to begin to be noteworthy.

The snow had melted as we zig-zagged back up the windy roads and over the Wula Pass, leaving zebra-stripes on the hills, and a clear view back south towards Everest and the other tall peaks in the distance.

Zebra-striped snow melt, Wula Pass, Tibet

We basically sat on the bus for an entire day (that’s an awful lot of knitting!), stopping in Old Tingri for lunch and then making a fairly hefty altitude drop off the Tibetan plain as the landscape got greener. Our last hour was a steep descent down a very precarious road down to the border. I say road, but most of it had swept down the steep slope to the river below in the last monsoon, and the new one hadn’t been built yet.

Ah yes, the main highway to an international border crossing

The bus was lurching around in the mud, perilously close to the steep drop, and I felt like it would have been safer to walk at least twice. Someone got valium out of their rucksack.

Still, we made it down to Zhangmu for our last night in Tibet. Like a typical border/trucker town, it was a wretched hive of scum and villainy, so much so that I expected to see Greedo or Jabba The Hutt in one of the bars. Instead, there were just money changers (who mainly changed Chinese Yen for freshly-photocopied dodgy Nepalese Rupees. Seriously), many “ladies of the night” and a bar with a picture of Oddjob for it’s sign! And, as the town clings tightly to the hillside, a lovely view down the river valley.

Looking south down the Bhote Koshi river, towards the Friendship Bridge

You just needed to shut out the noise of the ropey discos, and pretend you were on the edge of a fjord in Western Norway.

DAY 29. The once again full, reunited group said our sad farewells to our lovely Tibetan guide Yonten at the border crossing below Zhangmu, and then made our way across into Nepal over the Friendship Bridge.
We’re now at the top of a hill in Dhuklikel, hoping the thunderclouds will clear so we can see the Himalayan skyline again on the horizon. If not, the boys and I have just been into town to buy beer, haha…

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Day 23: update, as far as Shigatze

Firstly, I’ve just been checking out the news from home (in a rare moment here in Tibet, both the Guardian and Independent websites are accessible), and spotted this article (which might annoy the Chinese government censors, haha). A work of genius from Messrs Parker and Stone, which I can’t wait to see.

For the last few days, we’ve been in more remote places, therefore deprived of even electric and hot water at times, let alone t’internet. So a whistlestop tour of the last 5 days.

 

DAY 19: the last day in Lhasa, was again spectacular. The highlight was a trip to the Sera monastery to see the novice monks debating what they’ve learned.

Debating novice monks, Sera Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet

Fascinating, lively and vibrant. The video clip shows just a little of the religious fervour, passion and intensity of debate, also the friendships and respect between the monks. We stayed for almost an hour, but I could have stayed much longer to watch and listen.

 

DAY 20: we headed north-west towards Nam-Tso (heavenly) lake, stopping to get acquainted with the locals during one of their rest breaks from ploughing the fields (yes it looks like mud and dirt, but the soil is ploughed and prepared in advance of the rainy season so they can make the most of their rare opportunities to grow things).

'The Yak Whisperer'

We also stopped to cross wobbly footbridges (there and back again, purely for the sake of it), for food at the ‘big plate of chicken’ restaurant in Damxung, and take photos of our first Tibetan snow-capped mountains. After a prolonged red-tape break at a checkpoint, we drove up the winding 5,100m Lachen-la mountain pass, our highest altitude yet.

Lachen-la Pass, with Nam-tso lake behind

Nam-tso lake itself is around 4,700m above sea level (so c. 1,000m higher than Lhasa), and it was easy to spot the difference in altitude. Despite having ascended and descended, I got very sick, dizzy and headachey from the altitude, and spent a restless night shivering and hyperventilating next to a yak-dung-burning stove in a hut with the Tibetan guides. But the fantastic scenery and stunning sunset made it all worthwhile.

Nam-Tso lake, Tibet

 

DAY 21: was a bus day. We travelled back to Lhasa, then turned east towards the holy (and incredibly beautiful, even a the sandstorm came in) Brahmaputra river.

The holy Brahmaputra river, Tibet

We had to put all of our faith in our slightly precarious-looking flat-bottomed “ferry” ‘s ability to reach the other side in safety (hey, we had lifejackets, though!).

Note: in parts of rural Asia, the word "ferry" has a very different meaning Vs in the West

We spent a night in a guesthouse at Samye, an 8th century monastery claimed to be the first and oldest monastery in Tibet. It’s a huge monastery complex laid out in the shape of a mandala, but there are many more monasteries on this trip, Instead I’m going to focus on the the fact that it had the oddest souvenirs I’ve seen so far: rotating prayer wheels with flashing lights that played chanting music! If only I had space in my rucksack….

 

DAY 22. The morning was spent exploring Samye monastery, before heading back across the Brahmaputra on the trusty ferry, and back onto our bus (with the dodgy driver who has never heard of the concept of progressive braking).

Driving towards Gyantse (which took 8 hours, to add some perspective), we travelled up a mountain pass road which put the Stelvio Pass (Top Gear’s ‘Best Driving Road In Europe’) totally into the shade. It was hard to get a good photo of a road spanning several valleys from a moving bus, but what I would have given for the keys to an Aston Martin…

The best driving road in Asia? I'm fairly sure the Chinese government will never let the Top Gear cameras into Tibet to judge this one...

The entire drive was spectacular. From the top of the Gampa-la (also Khamba-la) Pass, the road dropped down towards the fabulously blue Yamdrok-tso lake, shining in the afternoon sun.

The stunning Yamdrok-Tso lake, Tibet

I’ll gloss over the bit where we were mugged by camp motorbike bandits (they pulled a small knife on our driver when we and our guide were off the bus taking photos, and made off with about £1.27, bless ’em!), we then passed a beautiful glacier plus several amazing mountains and rock formations on our way to overnight in Gyantse.

 

DAY 23. This morning we explored Gyantse, which may be known to some as the place where the Chinese journalist Sun Shuyun spent, and wrote about, her ‘Year In Tibet’ (it was also made into a BBC documentary, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00949bt , which I know has been shown outside of the UK).

The most interesting part was the monastery. Its stupa which was beautiful and ornately decorated outside, but stupifyingly dull inside (most of the chambers were closed, the artefacts having been, ahem, lost at some stage…).

The stupa, Gyantse Monastery, Tibet

After a good-natured haggle with the monks and souvenir vendors (and a CD of monks’ chanting, some finger cymbals and a bracelet added to my rucksack), we took a wander through the old town, chatting in pidgin English to the locals and being lucky enough to be invited into a couple of their homes for a short while.

It was then upwards to the fortress, scene of a bloody battle during the 1904 British invasion of Tibet led by Sir Francis Younghusband, and subsequent occupation (you can read Wikipedia yourselves, but this New York Times article may be more interesting?). Climbing the rocky slope in the midday sun (300m upwards makes a difference when you are already c. 4,200m above sea level) was a little taxing, shall we say.

Gyantse old town, Tibet

Following a late lunch (more yak!), we took a short drive across to Shigatze, where I’m writing this in a dilapidated internet cafe.

Tomorrow we head into another unbelievably holy site, the Tashilhunpo Monastery (home of the Panchen Lama), which I can see out of my bedroom window in our guesthouse.

Day 17: Sacred Place

Hello from the third of five days in Lhasa, Tibet (which means ‘sacred place). We’re just bimbling around gently to acclimatise to the altitude (3,700m above sea level).

It’s a fantastic, vibrant place which is close to being everything I’d dreamed it would be. I may even have had a little cry when I arrived, cos I was so happy. Just a shame I could not have visited earlier than two years ago…

So far we’ve visited the Jokhang Temple (I also joined a traditional Tibetan women’s work crew resurfacing the roof – videos to follow!)

, had a good old walk around the city & bazaars, had a Tibetan language lesson, cooked momos (traditional dumplings), and been to a phenomenally fun & moving school for blind children called ‘Braille Without Borders’ (will post more on this at a later date, too).

To come: the Potala Palace & monks’ debating at Sera monastery. On Tuesday we leave to travel to frozen lakes, another 1,000m above sea level.

Day 14: Chengdu take two

(Yep, there’s going to be a lot of backfilling on this blog. It’s just so hard to get onto WordPress when I get internet access…

Firstly, have just heard that there was an earthquake out this way overnight (UK time). It was about 500km north-west of here, and I didn’t feel a thing.

We’re just back from 3 days in the Emei Shan mountainous area, staying at lovely, peaceful monasteries enjoying the scenery and the quiet).

I didn’t sleep much on the first night at Bauguo monastery on Mount Emei Shan, and seemed to spend most of the night sitting in front of altars drinking the most fantastically fresh jasmine tea. By 4.30 I’d had enough of trying to sleep, and got up to listen to the amazing sounds of singing, percussion and brass horns of monks’ morning prayers in the semi-darkness.

Night-time at Bauguo monastery

After breakfast and the doling out of ‘monkey sticks’ (apparently we’d need them later?) we set out, taking the lazy (bus) option most of the way to the Golden Summit of Emei Shan. Leaving the bus, we walked through a monkey area (and a seriously naughty food-snatching and bag-grabbing simians they were, too) and learnt the old Chinaman’s trick that monkeys can be scared off by wooden snakes. Yes really.

I was introduced to the job of Monkey Policeman (where do I apply?!), and heard one man utter the immortal words “trust me, I’m a Monkey Policeman. I’ll get them” before  basically going in kung-fu-style on the wee blighters with his stick. That sounds cruel, but tourists feeding monkeys without thinking have trained them into bad habits (above is evidence they can easily unwrap a stolen processed sandwich). If the wooden snakes training trick fails, a small bash with the stick is the only way to keep them away.

A cablecar ride took us above the drizzle and clouds just below the 3,000m summit. We were rewarded with glorious sunshine and amazing views of mountains (Mount Gongga, 200km away, was the highest we could see) peeking out from above the cloud sea.

The Golden Summit

We still had the crap local guide with us (no, Pandas did NOT live at the same time as dinosaurs Jimmy), and so the group consensus was to do our own guiding around the summit and its various temples and statues (Chinglish sign-reading was more informative. And funnier by far). I also got ‘papped’ by a bunch of Chinese tourists who’d clearly never seen a pale-skinned ginger kid before, and had no clue that other, better-looking westerners were available.

Of course, setting out in wind and rain but hitting glorious sunshine above the clouds has it’s disadvantages: littlegingerkid sunburn. My arms have been generating their own heat for the two days since.

We then descended again, to start a full climb (not lazy this time!) from the Wuixangang gate up another part of the mountain. We started hiking along a river with many tourists, passing stalls and a couple more temples. But once the day pilgrims turned back it started getting quieter as we walked through the Jokung monkey zone (Tibetan macaques, for the monkeyologists out there), where the afternoon’s surreal diversion was provided by a guy trying to get a monkey to smoke. No I don’t know either (and the photo didn’t come out).

At the far side of the monkey area, we started the climb (1200 steps. Clearly advertised as such, though I did see two ladies attempting it in foolishly high heels!) to Hongchungping Monastery. By this time the famous Hongchungping drizzle and mists had set in and, given the close forest cover, you couldn’t see much beyond the slippery concrete ahead.

At the top was the monastery, built in 1782. Everything was wooden, creaky, damp and fiendishly cold, but we had beautiful surroundings, amazing tranquillity and even electric blankets (a luxury. Which I subsequently found was never to be repeated across the whole trip) to warm us up after the freezing cold showers.

A hundred or so steps below the monastery we also had hot (both temperature and Sichuan spice) food courtesy of Betty, the indomitable proprietress of the Hard Wok Cafe.

The legendary Hard Wok Cafe

The next morning we breakfasted with Betty (surely she is the stuff of traveller legend…there were certainly many messages from happy customers on the walls) then started our descent down the steps, back through the Swiss Family Robinson-esque walkways of the Jokung monkey zone, eventually returning to the Bauguo temple.

Peaceful valley scene

Everyone else opted to get out of the incessant rain and take a trip to the health spa, but I decided to carry on hiking and exploring. I walked about another ten miles, visiting the Laofeng Nunnery and the Fuhu Temple

Fuhu was lovely from the outside, right up until I headed into an auxiliary temple called the Albert Hall. Inside were several many-headed goddesses and hundreds of golden buddhas whose eyes followed you all around the maze-like room. A a lot of them had very strange faces, a few were doing Nazi salutes and one seemed to be eating his babies!

All in all a really creepy place. I managed to go the wrong way out, stumbling upon a strange, semi-hidden compound with massive satellite dishes. By this point my sci-fi influenced and insomnia-addled brain had gone into overdrive, and I thought I was in some kind of Jackie-Chan-baddies-meets-Bond-villain’s lair, with an annexed (Doctor Who) Cyborg Industries farm for mechanoid generation. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough, and may have run until my path was blocked by tree fellers just short of Chunyang Palace!

(I’m writing this having travelled back to Chengdu for the night. We leave to fly to Lhasa early in the morning. I can’t wait!!)

Day 11: Chengdu, Le Shan and Emei Shan

Hello from the mountains of Sichuan.

Yesterday we got off the night train at 5am for a day in Chengdu, including a visit to the fabulous and cute pandas. We also walked around a lovely old part of Chengdu after lunch in a city centre monastery, before a night in a hotel. A few of the group went to see Sichuan opera, and the rest of us went for local hotpot (meat and fish cooked in sizzling oil).

This morning we went to the giant buddha at Leshan which was, though spectacular, too too crowded and turned into half a day of queuing.

Tonight, and in two nights’ time, we’re staying in Bauguo Temple, a Buddhist monastery. I think I’m actually quite looking forward to being woken up a 5am by the monks’ chanting.

Tomorrow, we head for the 3000+ plus summit of Emei Shan.

Day 8: Seein’ Xi’an

Another VERY slow & ropey internet connection, and certainly no photo uploader!

Today we arrived in Xi’an just after 8.30am, after a 12-hour night train from Beijing. There was time for a quick shower before heading out for hand-pulled noodles, then we took a couple of public buses over to the Terracotta Warriors. It was awesome, and I learnt a lot, but I’m not going to the effort of typing it all up now when I’m not sure this will post.

This evening we had a good meal in a sweet & sour restaurant, played pranks with the obligatory chicken’s head (which may have been mostly instigated by me!), and then went for a walk around the Muslim Quarter behind the Drum Tower.

Tomorrow we’ve got enough free time to cycle (or I’ll run if I’m up early enough) around the city walls, then we head for a 17-hour train to Chengdu to see the pandas.

Day 4: Sepang prangs

So to, for those of you who hadn’t guessed (!), the real reason my final flight change on the way to Beijing is in KL rather than Hong Kong (or even flying straight there from Dubai). Well when in Rome, sorry, I mean a several hundred mile radius of an F1 race…

Welcome to Sepang!

I’d say the car park is a bit more Brands Hatch than Silverstone!!

Moseying around in the F1 village:

Vettel and Webber rounding the final hairpin to finish the first lap in P1 and P2:


As, indeed, the race finished.

Vettel still in the lead on lap 9, as the prone Virgin of Timo Glock is towed away:

One M Schumacher, limping past me at north-circular-rush-hour-commuter-speed on lap ten, about 15 metres before stopping for good (apparently a rear suspension / drive problem):

And being driven away on the back of a motorbike, waving to the crowds:

Vettel still out front:

Lewis Hamilton speeding by:


He started 20th, owing to a bad tyre choice in incredibly wet qualifying yesterday, but finished 6th. Good drive, fella!

Seb Vettel taking his lap of honour:

Nico Rosberg taking the crowd and marshals’ cheers for finishing third:


A good finish for him, particularly given he roundly beat Schumacher again.

Alguersuari, Buemi, Hulkenberg, Trulli and F1-folk-hero-Karun-Chandhok all making it to the flag:


Well done, lads. I still maintain Hulkenberg is one hell of a one to watch, and Chandhok is just doing an amazing job given the practice time he’s had in that car. With a smile on his face, too!

Ending on someone who really should have listened when he was told that duffel coats were too hot for Malaysia!!

Thass all, folks. Off to board a plane for Beijing now. Let’s see how much of the internet I’m allowed on from then on in. If not, this might have to switch to after-the-event updating…

Day 3: Muddy Convergence

In case, dear reader, you don’t read every Lonely Planet guide, Kuala Lumpur means ‘muddy convergence’ in Malaysian. I’ve smelt the two converging rivers, the Klang and the Gombak, and they’re smell not only of mud but sulphur and putrefying fish. Mmmm.

For all that Dubai was a multicultural place, it was very segregated between the Finance and traditional districts. Kuala Lumpur is truly integrated, with shacks next to old Colonial-style grand architecture, next to gleaming modern skyscrapers. Then add in a monorail, and it looks a wee bit like The Jetsons:

You have to get up pretty early, and brave the dazzling early sunlight, to head to the Petronas Towers to queue for a ticket for the skybridge visit.

It’s a long way up from the bottom, and even further from just halfway up (the skybridge is the 41st and 42nd floors):

Batu Caves are about 10 miles north-west of KL, on a crazy local bus. Once you’ve climbed the 272 steps, you’re inside a cool, damp cave with lots of Hindu temples and hilarious monkeys!


Odd Malaysian monkey God, with 1980s Kevin Keegan wet-look perm:

Finally, in honour of the Formula 1 tomorrow, here’s Malaysian Stig skulking around at the bottom of the Petronas towers looking for petrol to ingest:

TTFN.

Day 1: Disneyland on acid

Hello from Dubai: a surreal world of bright, bright lights and strange, strange shapes.

A place where you will find the tallest building in the world (the Burj Al Khalifa)…

Burj Al Khalifa, Dubai

… where shopping centres contain fountains, aquariums & theme parks, plus ice rinks and ski slopes WITH REAL SNOW (yes, it snows inside the shopping centre). And ladies in burkas go snowboarding!

Indoor ski slope, Mall of the Emirates, Dubai

A place of crazy man-made islands with hotels that are a cross between the Ferrero Rocher ambassador’s gaff, and that of Karl Stromberg in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’.
That hotel – the Atlantis on the Palm Jumeirah – has a house speciality cocktail called ‘Ambassador Lagoon’, which matched their piano bar’s aquamarine walls, and was pretty much bang on the thematic money.

Atlantis Hotel, Dubai

I’ll add more photos when I get a better wi-fi connection (Dubai International Airport’s, somewhat implausibly, is borderline useless). Until then, here’s a man dressed as a horse skulking around in a consumer electronics shop. No, I don’t know either!

I’m off to board a flight to Kuala Lumpur (singing the b3ta badger song over and over again!), so see you on the other side.