Who Turned off Teh Interwebs?

I knew that various parts of the web are blocked inside of China, but I didn’t realize how much it would actually affect me during my five days there.  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TwitPic, Tumblr, Dropbox, Foursquare, Vimeo, various Google services (Calendar, Reader), certain news sites, podcast downloads.  All of these things were inaccessible while I was there.  I of course tried loads of VPN services and proxy clients but couldn’t get any to connect.

It didn’t stop at the web, though.  SMS messages to my family were garbled (this happened to both my friend Karen and me, and we were on different networks: MaxRoam (me) and O2 (Karen), so it didn’t seem to be a carrier issue) or just didn’t make it.  I missed loads of incoming SMS messages as well.  I can’t explain how frustrating it is to feel completely cut off from your friends and family. 

At the Lhasa airport on the way back to Kathmandu, I used Maxroam to call my family and it worked great.  I couldn’t wait to get back to Nepal and catch up more with folks.  It made me realize that even though I can go weeks without using the web when I want to disconnect, I do miss them when I know they’re there and I can’t get to them. 

It felt silly, because how much do you really miss when you don’t read Twitter or Facebook for a few days?  Usually not terribly much.  In fact I rarely use them or any of the other blocked sites I mentioned above when I’m on holidays.  But I returned to Kathmandu feeling like I had been in outer space for a year.  It’s a very strange feeling.

Tibet: A Whole New World

Tibet.  It’s full of newness, oldness, changingness and strangeness.  The one-hour drive from Lhasa airport to the centre of the city of Lhasa feels like something out of The Hills Have Eyes.  It’s very barren, very hilly and very brown.  We saw the occasional yak or construction work team, but little else.  So arriving in shiny, neon-y Lhasa after that feels like you’ve just arrived in Las Vegas.

I won’t write much about Tibet other than to say that I enjoyed Lhasa, but if I were to go back to Tibet I would skip it and go to some of the other Tibetan towns.  I’d be happy to talk in person about this varied and rapidly changing city, but it’s quite a sensitive subject for many reasons.  Mostly because I’d like to go back some day.  So I’m just posting a few pictures here of our visit, and I’ll leave it at that for now.

DSC00526

DSC00746

DSC00797

 

DSC00806 DSC00946

 

DSC00832

DSC01001

DSC00932

Unbelievable scenery.

Tibet – Bound

It’s a lot of work to get to Tibet.  Visas, money, paperwork, photographs, travel documents – all of these things are required with a lot of advance notice.  Not to mention the most expensive 45-minute flight I’ve ever purchased.

Once you get there, it’s queues and inspections and queues and waiting and more paperwork. Hopefully your guide is waiting for you when you try to leave the airport or you may have an even longer wait.

Mountains

But I’d do it all again just for the flight.  Flying from Kathmandu to Lhasa has to be one of the most gorgeous flights in the world.  I swear I felt the plane tilt as everyone ran over to the left side of the plane to see Mt. Everest as we sailed by.  It’s a spectacular sight.  On the other side of the plane, views were just as unbelievable, with gorgeous turquoise lakes surrounded by rolling brown hills everywhere.

Mountains

Mountains

Mountains

Mountains

It’s too short of a flight to actually be able to take it all in, but thankfully we had return tickets and another chance to see it all over again.

Pokhara: Lakeside Retreat

Pokhara We were delighted to have a couple of completely unscheduled days in Pokhara after our rigorous trekking.  The only thing I really wanted to do here came from a small paragraph in Lonely Planet which mentioned that Pokhara is the only place in the world you can go parahawking.  Not paragliding, parahawking.  Parahawking is a strange combination of falconry and paragliding where you let a falcon direct you into the wind to find the best currents for paragliding.  Then as you’re floating down, you feed the falcon to reward it for all of its hard work.  Unfortunately for us, the falconer was on holidays in the UK the whole time we were there.  Reason #1 I want to return to Pokhara.

Even without falcons, Pokhara is a well-known spot for paragliding as the mountains surrounding the small lake town are ideal for jumping off and swirling around in the currents that rise up from the lake below.  I went paragliding ten years ago in Switzerland and loved it, so we scheduled jumps for the following day. 

Paragliders

We were lucky it wasn’t raining, but we did get a lot of clouds and fog, so my photographs were not as great as I had hoped.  Paragliding, if you’ve never tried it, is amazing.  There’s nothing like running as if you’re about to free fall down a mountain and then realizing you’re still running but there’s nothing under your feet.  You sit back as the parachute behind you, now full, yanks you backwards and up into the wind for incredible views and occasionally a few stomach-turning drops.

Here’s a secret about Pokhara which none of our guide books mentioned: it has some great local music.  We hired a couple of kids (named Kiss and Jelly) with a boat to paddle us around the lake for an afternoon.  They played music for us by local band Razor, which was great.  Later, we made the mistake of going to some cultural dinner show one night.  It was difficult to pick the dancer who least wanted to be there, it was quite painful.  We left and found a live band doing hilarious 90s covers including Mr. Big!  Pokhara’s not an incredibly late-night town, but if you look around there are some fun spots.

Rock: Pokhara style

The smartest move we made in Pokhara was to purchase upgraded bus tickets back to Kathmandu.  Our bus trips had been so slow and miserable that we decided an air-conditioned coach was worth the relatively astronomical $20.  We lucked out and only ended up with about 8 people on the enormous and comfortable bus.  The ride back was fast, the bus didn’t seem like it was going to break down at any minute, and we even stopped for a buffet lunch which was included in our fare.  I know, it makes me sound like I’m lazy, but after my last few car rides in Kathmandu, I felt it was a solid investment in my safety.

En Route to Pokhara

The descent to Birethanti village was much more laid-back and leisurely than the rest of our days on the trails.  There were still stone steps occasionally, but much of it looked like this:

Road to Birethanti

After arriving at the end of our trek in Birethanti village, we took a short break for lunch and then Nawan, our guide, went to negotiate a taxi to Pokhara.

The taxi from Birethanti to Pokhara was easily the most terrifying car ride of my life.  I’ve been in some scary drives.  Taxis in Mumbai and Kathmandu.  Overnight buses in the pitch-black Andean highways.  Half-broken motorcycles in the Amazon.  Late-night solo road trips between Seattle and St. Louis fueled mostly by Dr. Pepper and cigarillos.  And I have some fantastic memories of my Spanish mom hanging halfway out of the car to scream, “LOCOS!” at suicidal passing motorcycles in Alicante.  But this taxi ride easily takes the cake.

The mountain passes are blind, hairpin curves wide enough for only one vehicle.  They’re covered with potholes, massive mud puddles and villagers bringing grasses and produce out of the hills to sell.  Drivers careen around corners, honking their horns and praying no one is there as they cruise around the bend.  When another vehicle comes into view, drivers basically play chicken with each other as they speed up to make it through any potholes or avoid pedestrians before slamming on their brakes to see who can do a better job of squeezing around the other.  As we were on the outside of the road with no barrier, it was even more ridiculous as a foul step would send us flipping down the mountain side.  We arrived in Pokhara after a harrowing 45 minutes and finally I could breathe again.

We said farewell to Nawan and Thankur, our guide and porter, and settled in to the relaxed and agenda-less atmosphere of Pokhara.

Martha, Nawan and Thankur

Our Trek Comes to a Close

Our second-to-last day of trekking was spent in Ghandruk village, the highest altitude we reached.  Ghandruk is a very cute little village, and it’s bigger than I expected.  The village and surrounding areas include around 6,000 people, which seems huge for an area where you only come across a handful of people.

Ghandruk has a great museum, and one of the best parts is the instructions on how to make Raksi, which is basically mountain homebrew.DSC00271

I am game for trying anything, but wine after a day of slogging up and down hills just never sounded very refreshing.  Trying Raksi is the absolute first thing I plan on doing the next time I go to Nepal.

Ghandruk has an enormous elementary school near where we were staying, and we could hear them for most of the afternoon.  They were marching and shouting into a microphone and seemed to be having the best time ever.  It reminded me of my grade school’s annual Field Day, where we did three-legged races and egg-on-a-spoon races and long jumps and just generally had a lot of fun.  Just as Karen and I were about to go exploring the town, the skies opened up.  It. Was. Pouring.  “Those poor kids,” I thought. “Their field day is ruined.”

Nope.

These kids continued to play for hours and hours in what I would have classified as hurricane-grade winds and rain.  Even after it had been going on for a couple of hours, we could still hear them screaming and laughing from the field as we sulked inside our lodge room at the rain which made us feel like we were no longer on holidays and instead back at home in Dublin.

DSC00297

We woke up in Ghandruk around 5:30am to a parade through our lodge and monks who lived in the village playing music over loud speakers.  Maybe they don’t have a town rooster, or maybe this is just the benefit of having a monastery in your mountain village.  Either way, it caused great hilarity among the Finnish trekkers and their kids who were also in the lodge.  Karen and I were just relieved that for the next two days, we wouldn’t have to be awake before 6am. 

Trekking: to Landruk village

Our next few days of trekking involved all stone steps.  It’s not that I thought this was going to be an easy haul, but I seem to have invented in my head a more leisurely trot through dirt trails.  We were actually ascending and descending mountains from village to village, so I should have expected very steep climbs and drops. 

I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse that the trails are covered in steps.  It’s probably easier to climb up them instead of the dirt trails which turn into unsteady, muddy ground after the evening rain.  Descending down them, however, before the sun has had a chance to dry them can be terrifying.  Our group is six people, and when I’m watching five people in front of me clamber down steep and wet stones, all I can think about is dominoes: one bad move and I’ll wipe out everyone on this trail!

But we don’t even have so much as a face plant in our group, which is truthfully both anti-climactic and awe-inspiring.  More awe-inspiring, though, are the views.  How could you ever tire of looking at this:

 

DSC00252 I couldn’t.

This trek has been a lot more fun because of the group that we have.  Obviously, Karen and I are incredibly fun, but we were lucky to be paired for a few days with a very nice couple from the UK as well as lovely guides and porters.  After three days, Gus and Jules from the UK took a different turn as we were departing Landruk village: they were heading to Annapurna Basecamp, while Karen and I were on a bit shorter trip.  We were sad to see them go, not just because they were fun to drink Everest Beer with at the end of the day, but because it is always fun to hear about other people’s trips and travels.  I’m looking forward to seeing their pictures on Facebook, primarily so that I can steal them for myself.

With just a couple of days left on our trek, we were starting to feel pretty good about our progress.  And then every so often, a porter would run by in flip-flops and jeans (it was usually around 35 degrees Celsius) carrying a 100 kilo table and enough food for 15 people, and our egos would get put solidly back into place.

Nepal Trip Q&A

DSC00251

 

Gandruk Village: We’re on day three of our Annapurna trek, and it’s currently pouring and thundering outside, so it’s time to take a short break and reflect on some of the things we’ve done and seen so far.  I wrote a short quiz and had both of us fill it in blindly so we wouldn’t see each other’s answers.  Answers are as follows:

1) What is your favourite thing you’ve eaten so far?

Karen: veg noodles, tasty and full of energy for all the bloody steps in the Annapurnas… oh and the fact that they are non Delhi-belly inducing which is always good!

Martha: Yak cheese pizza maybe.  I also liked the momos a lot, very tasty.  I had a great South Indian dhosa (also with yak cheese) at Feed & Read, and Nandan Indian near Freak Street in Kathmandu was excellent too.  Basically, I haven’t been starving here, everything is wonderful.

2) What’s the best Nepalese beer?

Karen: Nepal Ice … but Everest tastes pretty damn good after a day of trekking – more research required

Although I have a strange marketing inspired desire for a San Miguel…

Martha: I’m still doing investigative research on this, but I liked Garung beer a lot.  Any beer tastes good after a tough day of trekking.

3) If you lived in the Annapurna hill villages, what would your job be?

Karen: Foot washer, I would make a killing and probably help to reduce the hole in the ozone layer!

Martha: Not a masseuse, I don’t think I’m creepy enough.  But I’d enjoy coming up with menus for Western hikers and cooking for them, because most people are so hungry when they get to a lodge that they’d eat anything.  So I could get creative and make things like “yak cheese bruschetta” or “millet burger marinated in Everest Beer”.

4) What souvenir[s] are you planning on bringing home with you?

Karen: A horn from one of the rickshaws made out of soap bottles that sounds like a duck getting run over, for my car, A yak

Martha: yak cheese, yak jerky, baby yaks.  Maybe a yeti.  And definitely some baby sherpas. 

5) What’s the funniest/weirdest thing you’ve seen in Nepal?

Karen: The amazing range of sounds that Nepalese people can make while spitting, and the frequency with which they do it

Martha: On the bus back from Chitwan National Park, I saw a goat on top of a minivan.  I don’t know if they knew he was there, as he wasn’t tied on or anything.  He just looked like he was surfing and chillaxing as the minivan roared past our bus.  It was awesome.

6) What’s been the best part of the trek so far?

Karen: See point 5!

The view of the high peaks of the Himalayas as we walk, and the fact that they have gotten closer now, which means no more ascending

Martha: I get really excited about the breakfasts, and I also love the menus because the spelling is hilarious and awesome.  They have things like “prickles”, “cheeps” and “lassaniya,” and you can order “buff spring rolls” for dessert.  Oh and those views are pretty awesome, too.

7) What’s been your least favourite part of the trip?

Karen: Steps…steps and more steps… and smelly feet and beeping horns, and the fact that it is going by so quick

Martha: The smell of my backpack, the smell of my clothes, and the smell of my hiking boots and feet.  It’s pretty horrendous, so it’s a good thing Karen and I are very, very good friends.

8) What are you most looking forward to during the rest of the trip?

Karen: The trip to Lhasa and not being choked by the smell of our feet!

Martha: I can’t wait to try parahawking in Pokhara (paragliding with a hawk attached to your arm eating food from your hand at 2000 ft.  Yes it’s real.)  Also the flight to Lhasa will be amazing, really looking forward to that.

Trekking Day One

Any day that starts with you being told you’re going on a five-hour bus journey and ends with you having been on a bus for almost ten hours is a tough day.  At 6am this morning, Karen & I set out to begin our trek into the Annapurna hills.  We first had to take a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara.  The five hours which doubled due to us being on a bus that seemed likely to break down any minute as well as mad traffic jams was actually not bad at all.  We definitely had some gorgeous scenery!

DSC00235

We stopped once for a snack and once for lunch and finally rolled in to Pokhara a little after 4pm.  There, a taxi took us and our guide and porter further into the hills to start our trek.  We needed to move quickly as the trails aren’t lit and it was going to be dark before 6pm. 

It turns out we accidentally chose a stairmaster trek.  A couple of hours later, we had climbed rock stairs non-stop to get to the Dhampus village where we’re staying for the night.  Karen and I are both in decent enough shape, but this was definitely a tough climb.  I don’t know whether to be more nervous that this trek qualifies as a “family trek”, meaning it’s recommended for families with young children, or that we were both pleasantly optimistic about being able to handle a five-day trek no problem.   We’ll find out tomorrow, as I’m pretty sure my legs are going to be like concrete blocks after today.

The lodge is fantastic.  We were expecting very rough conditions, but we have a lovely ensuite (which is brand new; they’re doing construction work day and night out here to accommodate the trekkers and tourism) with hot showers.  When we arrived, they presented us with a menu to order our dinner.  It had everything from dal bhat to pizza.  And thankfully a few Everest beers as well for a hard day’s work.

Tomorrow is five hours of trekking to Landruk village, and I’m very excited about waking up as the views should be amazing in the morning!  This is just as we started today, so it’s only going to get better from here.

DSC00246

Dublin to Nepal

First view of the Himalayas

It’s my third night in Nepal, and it’s all still a bit of a blur.  Actually the entire last week is quite a blur.  My last day in the office  was Friday.  I spent the next three days checking off to-do lists, packing, running errands and making phone calls.  Then it was a 5am trip to the airport for the first of three flights to get me to Kathmandu.

I can’t say too much about Kathmandu as I wasn’t there for long.  Long enough to grab some dumplings (mo mo) and an Everest beer and get a bit of sleep before an early, early bus to Chitwan National Park in the south of Nepal.

I’m staying in a town called Sauraha on the border of Chitwan.  Sauraha reminds me a lot of another jungle town I visited: Pucallpa.  While planning a trip to Peru, Lonely Planet Peru had me believing that Pucallpa a) had it going on, as far as jungle towns went and b) was the right place to catch a river boat through the jungle up to Iquitos, capital of the Elephant and Phanit, or elephant driverAmazon, ala Motorcycle Diaries.  Wrong on both counts.  But I liked it, quirky little small town that it was.  A big difference between Pucallpa and Sauraha is that in Sauraha, you’re guaranteed to see someone go by riding an elephant every few minutes.

Sauraha is a mixed bag.  It’s half full of regular villagers who go about their normal life not taking much notice of the tourists and half-full of those working to cater for tourists.  Activities offered daily include elephant rides, canoe trips, jungle walks, tiger treks, bird watching tours and lots more.  I arranged to stay in a lovely little lodge and told them my schedule and what I wanted to do.  They put together an excellent itinerary for me and have kept me very busy.  Almost too busy to notice that their wifi rarely works, but hey, it’s holidays right?  It’s good to unplug.

The first night we went to a cultural program showing the dance skills of the local Tharu men.  I’m always hesitant about these types of things.  It can sometimes be difficult to respectfully observe traditional displays without feeling like exploiting the culture somehow.  The dancers were excellent though, and they definitely seemed to be enjoying themselves.

The food here has been very tasty, and I’m falling in love with their masala tea which they serve after meals.  Although I’m getting better at getting up at 5am, I have to admit I’m still not a huge fan of it.  However when the sun sets at 6pm and most of the day is scorching hot, you have to make the most of the daylight hours you have.  So 6am elephant ride, here I come.