Sunday, 30 May 2010

Around Lhasa

Day 7: In the morning we visit Drepung Monastery built in 1416, spread up a hillside, six miles west of Lhasa. Before 'liberation' 9,990 monks lived here making it the largest monastery in Tibet. Now only there are only 500 in residence but the recently repaired assembly hall is huge. Building work is happening all around, repairing damage. Here too pigs were kept during the Cultural Revolution.
Sara Monastery, built in 1419 and Tibet's second largest, is a delight. In the dappled afternoon sunshine young monks give an animated display of the art of debating - with much provocative stamping and loud clapping to drive home a point.
Early evening I walk the chora around Jokhang Temple, every inch of the route packed with stalls selling prayer flags, hand printed scriptures, emerald jewelry, trinkets, monk's maroon and saffron robes, incense sticks and hand held prayer wheels. I dodge between a stream of prostrating pilgrims and a squad of riot police armed mostly with tear gas rifles, buy a Potala Palace tee shirt and hike back to the floodlit palace to say goodbye.
Photos of excursions around Lhasa.

Friday, 28 May 2010


Wednesday 26 May: The mystical utopia city of Lhasa. This is a place of legend and the most sacred centre of the Tibetan world. It was nearly destroyed in 1950 when the Chinese army marched in and again during the 1966 Cultural Revolution when the Red Guards wrought havoc, but the real damage was done when the city was modernised, Han Chinese style, before being 'reopened' to western eyes in the 1980s. Lhasa survives, perhaps despite this or perhaps because of the resilience of the Tibetan people. And it does not disappoint.
Once the home of Trijang Rimpoche a high-ranking Yellow Hat Buddhist monk and tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama, we are staying at the 300 year old Trichang Hotel,, a delightfully traditional courtyard hotel in the quiet semi-pedestrianised back lanes of the old city. It also has an internet cafe but social networking web sites are blocked in China - what are the authorities so afraid of? I start taking notes in the old-fashioned hand-written way with a view to update my blog when I get to Vietnam unless, in the meantime, I can find a work around (I do - via a PPTP tunnel to Hong Kong, whatever that means!).
Day 6: We visit the majestic Potala Palace, the traditional winter home of the Dalai Lama. The imposing thirteen-storey structure, which alone survived the Chinese onslaught undamaged, dominates new and old Lhasa alike and is the home to the tombs of eight Dalai Lamas as well as many stunning statues (no photos). Dalai means wisdom of the ocean and Lama means teacher.
In the afternoon we stroll to Jokhang Temple, the spiritual heart of Lhasa. This is where until recently pigs where were kept by the Chinese military who used the complex as an army barracks. Soon we pass waves of awestruck pilgrims hunkering down and prostrating themselves on their clockwise chora circuit around the temple. Today is the most important of the Buddhist calender, the anniversary of Buddha‘s enlightenment, and devotees are out in force offering good thoughts, words and actions to attain worldly merit - there is a friendly joyous atmosphere. The Temple buildings are jam-packed with pilgrims and the glittering golden scenes from the spacious roof-top at sunset are awesome.
Pictures of Lhasa.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Gyantse to Lhasa

Day 5: Our eight-hour drive crosses Karo La Pass (15,437ft) and Kamba La Pass (15,728ft). We also pass a spectacular unnamed reservoir, not on any of our maps, and in the distance we see many long-haired Yak, like cattle dressed-up for a day at the races, and shorter-haired Zo (cross-bred dairy Cow and Yak).
The views of Kharola Glacier (18,241ft) are astonishing - prayer flags flutter in the breeze each of the five colours representing a Buddhist world element: blue - sky or space, red - fire, yellow - earth, white - air, green - water.
At Yamdrok Tso or Turquoise Lake there is a huge but thankfully passive Tibetan mastiff. In true tour group fashion we visit an incense and mandala artwork centre before eventually arriving in Lhasa.
Photos of the Friendship Highway, Gyantse to Lhasa.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


Day 4: Shigatse to Gyantse (12,959ft): A two-hour jaunt and we are in the pretty farming village of Gyantse dominated by the old fort captured by Younghusband's raid into Tibet in 1904. The main attraction here is the 1418 Palcha Monastery with it's many prayer wheels and hunkering, prostrating pilgrims. The extraordinary multi-door stupa, 112ft high with 108 separate cells, contains murals, some wonderful statues of Buddha and fierce, giant, toothy-mouthed, google-eyed protector gods. It's just wonderful.
Photos of Gyantse.

Monday, 24 May 2010


Day 3: Lhatse to Shagatse (12,795ft): A six-hour drive brings us to Tibet's second city, Shagatse. Here we visit Tashi Lhun Po Monastery, the seat of the Panchen Llama. One of the monasteries of the Yellow Hat 'Virtuous Order' (Geluhpa) Sect, a pure form of Buddhism, it was founded by the first Dalai Lami in 1447 and is the home of the highest gold and copper Buddha in the world.
Little aerosol canisters of oxygen line shop windows and hotel reception shelves. Unlike some of the group I'm well acclimatised and, in the Yak Hotel, I discover the delights of Great Wall dry red wine - it's been a while.
After eight months of using water and my left hand it's back to dry toilet tissues, strangely this seems less hygienic - I make a mental note to install a bidet when I return to London.
Photos of Shagatse.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Friendship Highway to China (Tibet)

Saturday 22 May: Under the current Chinese dynasty, to travel this classic route across the roof of the world, you must be part of an organised tour group, have a China group visa, Tibet access permit and use a recognised agency to provided you with a Tibetan guide or 'escort'. So it's an eight-day tour bus (51st mode of transport) trip form Kathmandu with forty-four other travellers many of whom, like myself, will burst out of the tour package in Lhasa and continue over the Tibetan Plateau into Han China. Printed matter prohibited by the current Chinese government are religious books, pictures of monks (although there are plenty of monks in China) and maps of Taiwan.
Day 1: Kathmandu to Nylam (11,811ft): We bump our way along the Arkino Highway (named after the Nepalese architect who first introduced the pagoda to China 500 years ago) to the Nepal border post of Kodari. We cross the Chinese built Friendship Bridge (no photos) and continue on the smoothly paved Friendship Highway to Nylam and basic dorm accommodation with no showers or hot water.
Day 2: Nylam to Lhatse (13,287ft): Snaking upward on to the highest plateau in the world we reach Lalung La Pass (17,060ft) with views of the Himalayan range and the distant north face of Mt Everest (Qomolongma in Tibetan) where Andy Irvine and George Mallory were last seen "Heading strongly for the summit".
In Lao Tingri village I split from the group and enjoy a lunch of Yak and potato stew, cauliflower, rice and green tea in a tiny sitting-room sort of a restaurant. In the corner an old herder pulls a sun-cured sheep leg from his sack. Carving thin slices of the cold mutton the toothless Tibetan chews and sucks at them while slurping from his bowl of hot potato stew. He carefully replaces the leg in his bag with the furry hoof still sticking out of the top and ambles off. Air-cured meat keeps for up to a year in the dry Tibetan climate. As I'm about finish eating my dish it's immediately topped-up with more delicious stew and I'm happy pay 150Y (about
£1.40) to the smiling cook, she's happy too. Tibetans only eat the meat of grazing animals, Yak, Goat and Sheep, not Chicken, Fish or Pig as these animals eat other living sentinel beings, maybe ancestors. Yak is the meat of choice as the death of only one large animal provides many meals.
In Latse we are again in a basic dorm with no shower or hot water.

Photos of the first two days on the Friendship Highway.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Nepal summary

Some tourists will recall the dawn chorus of hoicking and spitting as the sound of Nepal but for me the mesmerising rhythm of Buddhist monks chanting Om Mani Padme Hum will forever sing Nepal. It is said that visitors come to Nepal for the mountains but come back for the people - I will return.
Water: There is safe filtered drinking water stations on trekking routes which is far better than using endless plastic mineral water bottles.
Drinks: Wine - local clear fire water 'wine' in the hills. Beer - Nepal Ice or Everest pass muster. Tea - generally available but Ilam and other varieties from the east, near Darjeeling, far superior - I brought my own Ilam dunking bags. Coffee - variable.
Toilets: A mix of upright and squat in hotels, lodges, cafes and restaurants.
Nepalese Rupee (currently £1 = 109 NRp).
Language: Namaste is hello, and then some, in Nepalese. Most people in the tourist trade can speak some English, even porters if you are prepared to listen.
TICs: Helpful with free maps and advice.
Accommodation: Room only is the norm but in trekking areas you are expected to dine and breakfast at your lodge
Food: Dhal bhatt rules but smaller portions of more expensive western fare is usually available
Small local shops in Kathmandu and even smaller 'corner' stores elsewhere.
Transport: Buses and microbuses (minibuses) serve most destinations. Mountain ponies and mules work in the hills if you need them.

Medical: Good quality medical and dental care is available for a fee.

Kathmandu revisited

Wednesday 19 May: Three hectic days of blog updating, checking Foreign Office and other e-mails, laundering and mending trekking gear. The tee-shirt tailor stitching my clothes also embroiders an 'Om' symbol on one leg of my trousers, his trademark, - he's very quick and skillful.
I confirm my individual 'group' visa for China, Tibet permit, Lhasa overland bus seat, onward soft sleeper reservation from Lhasa to Chengdu and change my Nepalese Rupees and a few US dollars into Renmnbi - 'the people's money' which comes in 1, 2, 5, 10, 50 and 100 Yuan banknotes. I also visit the well appointed CIWEC Travel Medical Centre, opposite the British Embassy, to get a Hepatitis B shot which will boost my antibodies for at least another five years.
A coke at Rum Doodle bar and then a final dhal bhatt - it's an early morning start for the China border.
Kathmandu revisited pictures.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Annapurna Sanctury

Saturday 15 May: I practically run the mile downhill back to Ghoropani, have my usual breakfast of oat porridge and black tea, and at 6:30 am set off at pace for Ghhomrong (7,119ft) eleven hard miles north - all of them steeply up, or down. I grab a quick lunch of boiled new potatoes and Yak cheese at the Hotel Grand View in Tadapani and reach Ghomrong's Hotel Excellent Top View in time for a Dhal Bhatt dinner and hot shower. When the snow-clouds clear the sight of Machhapuchhre's (22,956ft) 'Fish Tail' twin peaks highlighted in the dusk sunlight are magical. This is a virgin mountain, sacred to Buddhists and unconquered.
Sunday 16: This is a long tough day. I hear two young American's describe the climbs and dips as brutal but I'm acclimatised and now have leg muscles I didn't know existed. I make Sinuwa (7,579ft) in two hours, Bamboo in four, Dovan (8,530ft) for lunch in five, Himalaya (9,580ft) in seven, Deoralia (10,499ft) in more than eight and MBC's (Machhapuchhre Base Camp's) basic Ganggapurna Lodge (12,139ft) in eleven hours. Ten miles in eleven hours and I'm knackered but the lodge serves great Dhall Bhatt and even the porters are impressed by my efforts. Surprisingly, hanging on the wall, is one of Philip Storey's pictorial maps of the English Lake District. It's a well worn copy but it's been carefully mounted on a cut-to-size teak board. This must have been carried all the way up from the nearest trail head, three days on foot, at Nayapal. It seems the British Cartographic Society has a long, and high, reach. I know Philip and perhaps he should take this as a hint to expand his horizons.
Monday 17: It's a dawn start again and I reach ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) at 13,550ft in two hours. The rest of the day is the long 15 mile descent back to Ghhomrong (7,119ft). In the final section I count more than 2,200 steps from the river valley up to the top of Ghhomrong village - and this is on the return 'downhill' trail.
Tuesday 18: Another dawn start and I reach the main road at Nayapal mid-afternoon, take a taxi to Pokara and a microbus (minibus) to Kathmandu and the joys of a hot shower and clean dry clothes from my big pack at Annapurna Lodge in Freak Street - two swift Everest beers and it's midnight.
Pictures of Annapurna Sanctuary trek.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Tatopani to Poon Hill

Thursday 13 May: The Essex trio bus it to Kathmandu to squeeze in a bungee-jumping and white-water rafting trip before the Maoist strike resumes on the 23rd and I continue trekking to Shikha and on to Ghoropani (9,416ft). This is a quiet enjoyable two-day stretch and I'm glad to be alone. I hear bird song and see a variety of wildlife including a bright orange and black snake, little blue finches, a magnificent Impeyan Pheasant and numerous brightly coloured butterflies, all far too quick for my camera.
Friday 14: An invigorating dawn hike up Poon Hilll (10,499ft) reveals a spectacular mountain scape dominated by the massive bulk of Dhaulgiri (26,869ft), the world's sixth largest peak and Annapurna South (23,861ft). It's now decision time - do I continue to the relaxing lakeside resort of Pokara as planned or attempt the tough eight-day Annapurna Sanctuary trek to ABC (Annapurna Base Camp) in four days so as to get back to Kathmandu in time to get to Tibet?

Tatopani to Poon Hill pictures.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Annapurna Circuit

Saturday 1 May: Leaving Throungla Guesthouse in Beni Sahar I catch the bumpy local bus to the trail head at Bhulbule for a gentle first day strolling across perilous foot bridges along the River Marshyangdi then steeply uphill for lunch at the ridge-top village of Bahundandae and on to complete the seven miles to Ghermu (3,707ft).
Day 2: Following the river valley I pass marijuana plants growing wild like weeds on the pathside and continue under a welcoming Buddhist chorton for another seven uphill miles to where the river opens in a broad plain at Tal, and a cosy room in the Paradise Hotel (5,577ft), perched just a little higher than Ben Nevis.
Day 3: Today I meet two Brits with mountain guide and porter, Jane, Mark and Ojay. We carry on for six miles, past sappers placing blasting charges to build a new road to China thus scarring the National Park for ever. We overnight at
Danaqyu (7,218ft). It transpires that Jane is a quality 400 metre sprinter from my old running club, Belgrave Harriers, and Mark says he has been described in Scotland as an "English woose".
Day 4: We pass mule supply trains and delightful gompas along the seven-mile uphill stretch to Chame
. At 8,891ft it's twice as high as Ben Nevis and breathing becomes increasingly difficult.
Day 5: It's nine miles to Pissang where I buy a thick slice of Yak cheese - delicious, and on to Upper Pisang
(10,860ft) for the night.
Day 6 and 7:
After a twelve-mile hike we reach the Tilcho Hotel in Manang (11,614ft) where I attend an illuminating HRC (Himalayan Rescue Association) lecture on AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), HACE and HAPE. The views here are literally breathtaking and we enjoy a relaxing acclimatisation day taking only a short hike to view Chongkor glacier and it's turquoise terminal moraine lake. AMS kicks in around 8,000ft but my blood oxygen level and heart rate are okay at 89% and 87 respectively. We see the blanket-wrapped corpse of a Nepalese cook draped limply between two bamboo poles. He's being carried down for post-mortem - too much alcohol at this altitude can be fatal.
Day 8: Today is a steep six-mile climb, passing prayer wheels and gompas, to Yak Kharkha
for lunch and on to Ledar for the night. At 13,779ft this is three-times higher than Ben Nevis.
Day 9: Thorung Phedi
is our next lunch stop on the five-mile climb to High Camp (15,912ft) where we pose for photos. There are fine views of Ganggapurna (24,455ft), Annapurna II (26,040ft), III and IV, all more than five-and-a-half times higher than Ben Nevis. We are at breath-stealing altitude and Mark has a splitting headache, the first sign of AMS. Ibuprofen helps but it only masks the symptoms.
Day 10: A tough 4:30 am early morning ascent to the freezing-cold exposed summit of Thorung-la Pass. At 17,769ft (5,416m) this is four times higher than Ben Nevis and as high as I have ever been, but we make it. I rush down the long steep descent in search of richer air and complete the nine miles to Muktinath
(3,800ft) in short time. A piping-hot shower and good food awaits at the Hotel Muktinath.
Day 11: It's a twelve-mile stroll-in-the-park down to Jomsom and the circuit is complete. Mark and Jane fly homeward but I meet up with young gap travellers Sophie, Josh and Max from Chelmsford. A parting gift from Jane is Rory Stewart's travelogue The Places Between for which I'm grateful. It tells the story of the intrepid Scottish author's walk across central Afghanistan in mid-winter, should be a good read.
Day 12: The path now meets the flat, dusty and wind-swept new road so we take a four-hour bus ride to Ghasa, walk for an hour, then jump on a jeep
for an hour to end the day soothing aching muscles over a cold beer in the hot springs at Tatopani. Three hours later we are sipping local apple brandy in the Hotel Himalaya to wash down yet another good high-carbohydrate dhall bhatt dinner. The bus stops en-route so that we can look at Annapurna I. A guy wakes his sleeping American girl friend to see the view - "Don't wake me up to see another fucking mountain, I've been looking at mountains for fifteen days! - wake me up when you see a beach."
Pictures of the around Annapurna trek.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Nepal: Kathmandu

New country, new currency - but is Nepal like India? "Same, same but different", so it's said.
Saturday 24
April: To avoid the noisy nightlife of Thamel's trendy bars and clubs I'm staying at the final destination of the old 1970's hippy trail in 'Freak Street' - little of the magical mystery remains but the music lingers on - Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull The Doors and the omnipresent Tibetan incantations of 'Om Mani Padme Hum'. It's next to old city's quiet, traffic-free palace and temple zone of Durbar Square, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Tuesday 27: I enjoy an informative two-hour presentation on trekking routes, by British photo journalist Chris Beall, at the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel. We go for a quick Everest beer afterwards - it's a long night.
Wednesday 28: An organisation day - I collect a TIMS (Trekking Information Management Systems) card, an ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) permit, pick up some printed trek altitude profiles and visit KEEP (Kathmandu Environmental Education Project) to buy biodegradable soap, iodine water purifiers, a map and some mountain gear. The frozen bodies of poorly educated lowland porters are often found during the Spring snow melt, asphyxiated in the cold high altitude air. KEEP provide porters with donated clothing and education. I also apply for a China visa, Tibet permit and sign up for an eight-day 'package' tour to Lhasa leaving 22nd May.
Thursday 29: There is a major Maoist demonstration and general strike in Kathmandu planned for May Day. It is likely to turn into a serious riot and disruptions will continue for some time - it's time to leave.
Friday 30: I head for the hills very early in the morning - no time to hire a guide or porter. My secret weapon - I can read a map.
Photos of Kathmandu.