Location: Nepal, Asia - South East
Apologies for the lack of updates-as you will know I was pretty I'll during Vietnam and Tibet so I left the blogging to Denis-he did a pretty good job so I'm not going to bother going over it again!
Since Denis's last update we have spent 5 days in Nepal and 2 weeks in Cambodia.
We spent the 5 days in Nepal in the capital - Katmandu. We hadn't planned on staying that long but we'd left it to late to book flights to Cambodia so we had to stay an extra day. Kathmandu is mental! It is a really big built up city-but not in a good way. The narrow streets are crammed full of shops, restaurants, bars, hotels - anything you can think of - even industrial units and car repair shops! When walking down the narrow streets we were amazed at how many people could be in one street - vying for space with motorbikes, cars, minibuses and trucks-it was really tiring trying to walk through them!
Nepal is apparently like India was 20 years ago with electricity blackouts for hours during the day and night-no air con, no lights, no WiFi and very irritating!
We eventually found a hotel that we could haggle down the price to within or budget (about £10 per night) after being in some disgusting places. On the first night we met up with a guy who was on the Tibet tour with us - Anchul. We had a great night out! We met him again the next day and went to the Swayambhunath temple , it was beautiful and the views from the top over the city were breathtaking! We then got a taxi (if you could call it that - taxis here are like cars you would find in the scrap yard back home-no joke!)to the oldest Hindu temple in Katmandu- Pashupatinah temple. We walked up to it and were told we'd have to pay 2000 Nepal rupees each to get in as we were foreigners (about £12) and that we wouldn't actually be able to go into the oldest temple! Well we thought 'screw that!'. Anuchul did go in - being Indian and a Hindu he blagged his was in for free but said we didn't miss much.
The next day we had a chill out day - some beers and watched the last couple of episodes of series 1 of The Wire which we'd brought with us. The following day we went shopping. Those of you who know me know I hate shopping and its even worse in 40 degree heat! Denis bought a lens for his camera - excitement!!! All I got was hot and bothered!
We were on our way to Cambodia the next morning - which took us 24 hours because of the crap flights we had to buy - Nepal to Kuala Lumpur then to Cambodia. But as there were only a few seats left on the first leg of journey we had to get first class tickets so we proceeded to get drunk on free booze during the flight-although the only had 1 bottle of champagne!!!!! How rude!!!
Denis's bag got left behind and they gave us £60 for compensation-which we spent on paying into the airport lounge. This was because it was 10pm at night and our next flight wasn't until 7am next morning-so free food and drink and a slightly compfier place to sit/sleep.
We eventually arrived in Phnom Phen - the Cambodian capital.
Tired now - will write about Cambodia tomorrow-on our way to Borneo!!
After 3 flights, several taxis and minibuses over a two day period, we finally arrived in Tibet. All our concerns about gaining entry were allayed when we arrived and showed our permit to security and we're nodded straight through!
The first thing we noticed is that it is considerably more difficult to breathe. Lhassa is 3600m above sea level and the air is thinner meaning you tend to pant rather than breathe normally.
Anyways, we met our contact at the airport and he took us to our hotel. Because of the tight restrictions on tourists entering tibet, the only way to get a permit is through an organised tour. This isn't normally how we like to travel but if this is the only way, then tour it is!
We arrived at our hotel and are advised to spend the rest of the day in the hotel drinking water and trying to acclimatise. We are advised not to shower for a few days due to the risk of getting sick and are told the hotel has oxygen if we start to feel unwell as a result of the altitude. Pretty scary but we decided to venture out for a quick look around the town. After about 15 mins of walking slow we were both out of breath so decided to go back to the hotel as advised!
The scenery in Lhassa is mind blowing. At all times u are surrounded by huge barren, rocky mountain ranges that stretch into the sky... As usual, pictures just cannot capture the sheer size and scale of these mountains.
Day 2 and we meet up with Bassan, our official tour guide for the week. We head straight for Potala Palace, the highest palace in the world and the home of the Dali Lama before his exile. An amazing place that sits high on a mountain. Walking up the many steps really takes its tole on us and we are massively out of breath just walking up the first flight of stairs. Still, we persevere and are rewarded with a fantastic tour by our guide who is intensely knowledgeable about the place.
Next we head to Jokhang Temple, one of the most famous temples in Tibet. We wade our way though the sea of pilgrims who circle the temple. And spend the next few hours walking around the temple and learning about and experiencing Tibetan Buddhism. The look and feel of the place is very unique and unlike any other temples I have visited in other countries.
It's worth mentioning that it's Damn cold in Tibet! We're obviously not kitted out in proper thermals given that our backpacks consist mainly of shorts and tshirts. Even so, for some reason the hotels have no heating and we had to sleep with clothes on under the blankets to try and keep warm at night!
Day 3 and we are off to visit another 2 temples around Lhassa. The first one is Drepung Monastery which is situated in the mountains and built in 1416. A fully functioning temple, we got to see the monks doing their daily routines including cooking, reading scriptures and chanting. It was a fascinating insight into a monks life and as our guide explains more of Buddhist Culture, it becomes apparent that he not just talking to us but also challenging our interpretation of religion as a whole. One of his best friends is a monk and it is obvious that he has a realistic and grounded interpretation of religion, and how it applies within Buddhism. I found it refreshing to have so many of the apparent rules and limitations of Buddhism stripped back to a basic, simple foundation...
Anyways, on next to the Sera Monastery. We are starting to acclimatise now and breathing and exercise is a bit easier. Here we saw the monks at their daily debate in the courtyard. It was fascinating! After reading the scriptures each day, they head out here to debate what they have learned amongst themselves! Some of the debates get quite heated and you can see the monks shouting at each other! If they get particularly annoyed, they will punch themselves in the arm! Lol!
Anyways, afterwards we get dropped in the centre of Lhassa. K is still not well following a reoccurrence of the bug we picked up in India so I walked her back to the hotel and then went for a walk on my own. I walked to the Jokhang temple where I was the day before but just went for a walk around taking in the atmosphere. Before long I found myself walking around the temple with the rest of the pilgrims, experiencing Tibetan life... It was a supremely tranquil experience...
Day 4 and we're leaving Lhassa for Shingatze. K is still throwing up constantly as a result of the tablets she was taking combined with some altitude sickness. It's approx a 6 hour drive but we have many stops to take pictures of the mind blowing scenery. We stop at Yamdrok lake, one of the 3 holy lakes in tibet which is set amongst the towering mountains. Then we hit Karo-la glacier which was pretty much just a snow capped mountain but still pretty good.
Day 5 and we have another 2 Monestaries to hit. By now we're starting to feel a bit templed out but the sights, sounds and atmosphere still makes it worthwhile...
Day 6 and we head to Everest Base Camp! We drive for approx 5 hours before stopping for lunch. After that we take the road between the mountains and have a 4 hour drive over a dirt Road to get to base camp. When we arrive, we are at 5200m above sea level, and the altitude is a serious problem. Breathing was very difficult and when we arrived, k started throwing up a lot with a headache and dizziness. Proper altitude sickness. Our guide was getting really worried (as was I!) as he had to take the decision of whether or not to drive the 4 hours back down to the base of the mountain or let her risk staying the night. People have died at base camp due to altitude sickness so I was getting really worried. I also had a busting headache and was finding it difficult to breath but just kept drinking water and not moving around too much. As we arrived, the snow came in completely obscuring the view of Everest so we decided not to go any further until the morning when we hoped the snow would have stopped.
We spent the night in a tent, a bit similar to a yurt with raised sleeping beds and heavy blankets. K was beside me and I periodically had to reach over and poke her to make sure she was still alive! During the night k woke me to go with her to the toilet which was a concrete shed with a hole in the ground! It was so disgusting that we went to a ditch beside the toilets to stop from throwing up! It was absolutely freezing! The wind chill must have been about minus 20 if not more but we were rewarded with a view of the stars that was unlike anything I've ever seen! They were 10 times brighter and clearer than the stars even in the thar desert in India!
Anyways we made it back inside and got under our blankets again. We were sleeping fully clothed with our hoods up so just our face was exposed. It was so cold that my ipod actually froze and crashed as it was outside the blankets! Needless to say we didn't get much sleep...
The next morning k was still alive so we got up to watch the sun rise over everest and then headed to the hill beside the expedition trekkers. This is the closest you can get without an expedition permit which apparently costs about $10,000! The views of everest were Spectacular but we could only stay on the Hill for a few minutes as the wind was so cold it was physically painful! We then headed down the hill and got in our car to head down the mountain, stopping in rombok Monastery which is just a few kms from base camp. As we made our way down, k started to feel better and by the time we exited the mountains she looked like she might pull through after all.
Next we headed for Zhangmu and the land border between tibet and Nepal. The drive was frightening, along narrow winding roads at the side of mountains with sheer drops to the side and piles of rocks that had fallen and taken out the safety barriers and sections of of the road! Add to that our crazy driver overtaking on blind bends and you have a requirement to change underwear when arriving at our hotel! That said, the scenery was again just incredible...
Anyways, after an overnight stay in our hotel, we crossed friendship Bridge into Nepal and started heading for Kathmandu.
Notes on toilets - Tibet has easily the worst toilets in Asia. It makes the dodgy Indian squat toilets seem fit for a palace. Toilets are essentially a concrete outhouse that has had the base dug out. There is a hole in the floor that you squat over and add to the pile of waste below. No running water, no sinks, no flushing. Yuk!
Notes on pricing - Tibet is actually quite an expensive place! The hotels we were staying in were basic 3 star and cost 60 to 70 quid per night! Food and drinks are also quite expensive with prices being similar to home.
Notes on travel - there is security everywhere in Tibet. You need to carry your passport at all times along with your permit to get through the numerous police and army checkpoints along the roads and at tourist sights.
Notes on altitude - this was a surprising obstacle which we didn't expect. The coldness along with the continued difficulty breathing made our visit a much bigger physical and mental challenge than we dreamt!
Notes on food - you need to like noodles and rice as these are the staples. No food was good anywhere we went though which is surprising given that it's hard to cook noodles or rice badly. Still, Tibetans manage it with ease...