7 Super Shots

I am taking part in Hostelbookers 7 super shots thread, because they’ve started lots of travel bloggers scouring their digital photo archives on dark winter evenings (if you live in the northern hemisphere, that is) with this winning idea to inspire those with itchy feet.

Here’s my two penn’orth:

1) A photo that…takes my breath away
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland. It was an October afternoon, a couple of degrees above zero and blowing in a force 4-5 gale off the sea. But still it’s so beautiful that a couple of friends and I spent nearly two hours here taking photos. Just as we though we’d captured the sunset, someone set the sky on fire…

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Iceland

 

2) A photo that…makes me laugh or smile
A baby Orangutan flicking a crafty ‘v’ sign on his cheek at me. This youngster and his parents oozed character, and make for some fabulous photos.

Baby organutan, Lok Kawi zoo, Kota Kinabalu, Borneo

 

3) A photo that…makes me dream
Back to dear, lovely Iceland again. This time to Grundarfjörður, on the north side of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland. Out hiking in a rainstorm west of the Kirkjufell, a small glacier-carved mountain now forming a peninsula at the edge of the fjord, I stumbled upon some lovely wooden cottages. Maybe one day I will own my own cabin around here…

Wooden cabins, Kirkjufell, Grundarfjörður, Iceland

 

4) A photo that…makes me think
My trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau remains one of the most moving days of my life. I spent most of the day in tears at the awful things that humans can do to other humans, and the sheer scale of the loss of life. These small stones, lovingly inscribed with names and dates of those lost by their dependents and placed on the railway tracks at Birkenau, stun me every time I look back at the photo.

Memorial stones on the railway tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

 

5) A photo that…makes my mouth water
In stark contrast to the above, a very simple shot of my friend Jamie thinking just how much he would love a Pieminister pie at that moment in time. The added bonus is that this was taken at the legendary Glastonbury Festival, one of my favourite places in the world, at the stall next to the also-legendary Brothers Cider Bar in the West Holts.

Do you know what...? I love Pieminister!

 

6) A photo that…tells a story
These two young novice monks, at Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan, look all sweetness and light. But until about three seconds before I took this photo, they were having the most violent and un-monklike fight in the monastery’s courtyard!

Novice monks, Wangdue Phodrang monastery, Bhutan

A secondary story is that this was one of my Grandma’s favourite photos from my travels. I spent several hours at her house with the laptop talking her through my photos, but she was captivated by these monks above almost anything else (even the Great Wall Of China, which she had always wanted to visit but never did). I hear she told my Dad and many friends who visited her about “those two little lads who were growing up to be monks”.

 

7) A photo that…I am most proud of (aka my worthy of National Geographic shot)
This ‘accolade’ simply has to go to my photo of the stunning Yamdrok-tso lake, in Tibet. I often have this photo as my desktop background on my work computer, and people cannot believe it was taken with a compact camera, and has not been digitally enhanced (or even cropped) in any way. I was just lucky, and in a supremely beautiful place.

Yamdrok-tso, Tibet

 

This photo tag game has been going for a couple of weeks now, so I’m going to nominate 5 posts I’ve seen that I really like (and that inspired me to blog my own – thank you!):

  1. Cam & Nicole at Travelling Canucks and their 7 super shots
  2. Alex at Virtual Wayfarer and his 7 super shots
  3. Erin at De La Pura Vida and her 7 super shots (particularly love that baby sloth!)
  4. Cathy at Traveling With Sweeney and her 7 super shots
  5. Anja at Hitting The Road and her 7 super shots
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Toilets of the world

Inspired by this week’s #TTOT (that’s Travel Talk On Twitter… I’ll let Melvin explain), I thought I’d blog the answers to questions about travel toilets. And a few more besides (you can scroll down… no gruesome pictures!)

Q1. Coolest/most awesome bathroom you have seen? The cute, hobbit-like eco-friendly compost toilet at my friend’s parents’ summerhouse in the Finnish lakes.

Q2. What is the most disgusting bathroom you’ve encountered abroad? A toilet behind a restaurant in Damxung (aka. the “big plate of chicken place” for those who travelled with me!), Tibet. You could see  (and most certainly smell!) what people had had for dinner 2 days before heaped under the slit in the floor.


Q3. What is the best “Loo View” you have ever had?. The view over the Finnish lake (frozen when I visited one December) from the top photo was stunning. Also: Hongchungping monastery, Mount Emei, China. There was a beautiful view over a misty valley….

The window view…

…but sadly it was still a hideous hole in the floor, which did not encourage me to linger!

 

Q4. What was your most embarrasing travel bathroom experience? (I remembered a better one) It simply involves a train toilet with one of those “automatic locking doors” that doesn’t really seem to lock properly, and opens at the most inopportune moment…!

No-one uses Western toilets in rural China

Another contender for A3. A compost toilet in a shed at the foot of this Icelandic glacier.

And finally, a message from our Chinglish friends!

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…

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.

The Big Trip is booked…watch this space!

I sneaked a longer lunch and went to pay off the balance of what, from here on in, will be known as The Big Trip. SO excited!
For those who don’t know, I’ve been in my job just over ten years, and so I get a month’s paid (!) sabbatical as a loyalty bonus. Given a few Bank Holidays and some annual leave, I’ve got that up to six weeks.
So, I leave for DubaiMalaysiaChinaTibetNepalBhutanIndia on 31st March straight from work. I expect the highlights to be Tibet (pretty much all of it), Everest Base Camp, the Formula 1 at Sepang (Kuala Lumpur) on Easter Sunday, all of Bhutan, the Taj Mahal….okay, I’ll shut up now!