Wednesday, 30 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Jewels of Jaipur

After fueling with an early breakfast of porridge with banana and a chai, slapping on copious amounts of sunblock and my trusty travel hat then loading up with water, the sights of Jaipur were waiting to be explored.

I think India has chai (tea) in its arteries and veins. Here chai is never called "chai tea", which basically means "tea tea", and so you will often see it listed as/ask for in English "Masala tea". It's fragrant, incredibly delicious and likely addictive (I'm starting to lose count of how much I've drank). If you want "typical" tea simply ask for "tray tea" or "English tea" although places with a menu usually make the distinction for you. The exquisite taste and insanely cheap cost will certainly make you lament why you pay what you do for so-called chai lattes back home.

I stopped by Jaipur's distinctive landmark Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) on my way to Amber Fort. Rising 5 storeys and looking a lot like honeycomb, this pink Palace was constructed by a Maharaja for the females of the royal household to watch the "buzz" and bustle of city life. Interestingly it's actually only 1 room deep. Whilst I didn't go inside, you can make your way to the top for the views and there's also a museum.

Amber was the former capital of the state and the formidable landmark of Amber (Amer) Fort, that most people "know" Jaipur for, is actually on the outskirts of Jaipur on the hillside. Built from pale yellow & pink sandstone and white marble, this ginormous magnificent fort is divided into 4 main sections, each with a courtyard. I spent over 2 hours here downing 2L of water, getting some bloody fantastic Nat Geo-esque photos (in my mind anyway) and still didn't see it all!

You have several options are getting up to the fort from the road if you don't want to trudge up there by foot but want to make a quick getaway from the snake charmers who are looking to make a quick few rupees by allowing you to pose with them and their cobras. To be honest, one of the ones I saw couldn't have looked any less interested and seemed to go to sleep. If snakes had ears I'd have placed bets on it wearing ear plugs. Now I love snakes but aren't these snakes also venomous??? Apparently not because, as I found out afterwards, they've had their fangs removed which didn't sit too well with me. Return jeep rides are cheap but of course most people opt for riding up on an elephant. I envisioned myself on the back of one being unable to say anything other than "by Jove!" like a British toff minus a Manificent-Men-in-their-Flying-Machines style handlebar moustache. I also forgot to pack my pith helmet. Damn! Jeep sufficed. I did however find out that each elephant only makes 5 journeys up to the fort, always returns empty and then is rested for the remainder of the day.

Depending on your ride up to the fort you enter Jaleb Chowk (the main courtyard) through one of two gates, Suraj Pol (Sun Gate) via elephant or Chand Pol (Moon Gate) from the jeep car park. You are about to bear witness to some stunning architecture so have your camera(s) ready. Highlights included: the Diwan-i-Am (Hall of Public Audience) with the tops of the columns carved in the shape of elephant heads and the Jai Mandir (Hall of Victory) with a beautiful multi-mirrored ceiling. Of course the views from the fort aren't too bad either and you might also see some pesky monkeys running around.

An attempted autorickshaw ride to the observatory, Jantar Mantar, ended up with some miscommunication somewhere along the way and being taken to the City Palace. Whilst it looked impressive, it wasn't where I wanted to be and so after some pretty hard haggling with a different driver, once I remembered that actual name of the observatory, off we set. It was actually just around the corner although he claimed it was "5km". Yeah right, I don't run long distance for nothing pal. If, like me, you're a bit of a Science nerd or you have an interest in astronomy, cosmology and even astrology then Jantar Mantar is a must see. This remarkable observatory, constructed in 1728 by Jai Singh, includes instruments to forecast the weather and eclipses, measure the zodiac star clusters and the intensity of the coming monsoon. Upon first entering you could be forgiven for thinking it was merely a collection of bizarre sculptures. Singh built 5 observatories in total and this is the largest and best preserved. Others are located in Delhi, Ujjain and Varanasi but there is no trace of the 5th. The most striking instrument in the grounds is the massive sundial with a staircase running to the top. Known as Brihat Samrat Yantra it is still used by astrologers.

I increased my liquid intake in the form of the lemony soft drink Limca and buying two more bottles of water it was time to get out of the searing heat and the hustle & bustle of Jaipur. After a quick bite to eat of a mint leaf stuffed chapati, I was in the back of a car with free transport to the Kerala Ayurveda Kendra for an Ayurvedic massage and hot herb treatment. In total, after tip, it cost me less than $30 and it was just what I needed. Be prepared to remove all your clothing however and have either a male (for males) or female (for females) therapist take a piece of gauzy material and make you a pseudo loin cloth-thong. I kid you not. It is the only thing you will have covering yourself during your treatment and it is undone and then removed for glute treatment/post treatment removal of excess oil. You start face up and the therapist works their magic with lovely aromatic heated oil which is poured onto you (or at least in the basic full body treatment I had, it's the sirodhara that is where the oil is streamed onto your forehead). It is very professional and a full body treatment is exactly just that (except for the groin area obviously). Feel fee to tell your therapist if there's a particular area you want focus on, pressure (they will all check in periodically) or if you are not comfortable with certain areas of the body being treated. Not everyone is comfortable being so exposed. After a 50 minute or so massage I was then pounded with this small heated sack full of herbs. Sounds somewhat barbaric but it was amazing. I left there feeling like a million dollars and well anyone who is willing to treat my dreadful runner's feet deserves a tip! The oils they use also made my hair feel and look amazing, even after a shower. Make sure you shower too, you'll fry in the sun with all that oil on your skin.....

Despite feeling incredibly relaxed and that I could nap, I decided that I should join the masses and go see a Bollywood movie at the Raj Mandir theatre. It is apparently the place to see a Bollywood movie in India. What an absolute blast. They sold popcorn and even had an intermission. Did I understand any of it? Well certainly not the Hindi being spoken (although they would occasionally throw in English words and sentences) but it wasn't hard to get the jist of what was going on. Boy from one background meets girl from another background. They fall in love. Her parents are against it. He wins them over. He has some weird relationship with his dad,who seems to be angry all the time about something. But thankfully everything works out in the end after a bunch of sexual innuendo and lots of dancing and singing. Inexplicably the men also grab their crotches Michael Jackson style... A lot. What actually surprised me about the movie "Two States" was they actually showed the young couple in bed together more than once and she was often wearing skimpy clothing and/or very Western fashion. People in the audience clapped and cheered at certain parts and you couldn't help but get wrapped up in it all. It was a spectacle like no other. I loved it! Tickets were only 150 rupees and popcorn was 50 rupees. Bargain!

Still, I have a sneaky suspicion that Bollywood won't feature in any Western movie any time soon. Shame. 

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Pretty in Pink

Before the 6hr bus ride to Jaipur today, I stopped by the Salaam Balaak Trust located in Paharganj. It's a charitable organization offering "street walks" with a difference. Your guide is a former street child who has firsthand knowledge and experience of life as a homeless kid in Delhi. After your walk you then get to meet some of the children currently in their care in the trust home. This one is all boys but they have a few other locations including for females. The kids love having you visit. You're soon playing clapping games even if neither of you speak each other's language (that being primarily me and Hindi) although the kids love trying out their English on you (they have classes within the home). I practised my (very) basic Hindi, told them my name, asked them theirs and then they took great delight in looking at photos I had taken, namely back in Canada with the snow. They also loved the photos of airplanes and from airplane windows. We were so engrossed in all this that I actually only managed to get one shot of us all playing together - I think I may have inadvertently taught them what a "selfie" is and I'm not so sure if that's a good or a bad thing.

When traveling by bus through a India make sure you choose one with AC. Your hypothalamus will thank you for it. Others can be overcrowded bone shaking saunas of questionable safety standards. RSRTC (Rajasthan State Road Transport Corporation) have excellent reviews for their volvo and gold line buses and even their cheaper silver line buses fair well review wise. It took 6hrs to get to Jaipur even in comfort and I saw lots of cows, camels, some pigs and an elephant during that time all walking down the road when I wasn't putting a crick in my c-spine due to falling asleep upright. There were also a lot of lorries carrying chemicals with versions of MSDS that were of dubious quality almost making the chemist in me have a Rongbuk moment (of course the nerd in me would have to notice that kind of thing). There's a lot of roadworks going on between Delhi and Jaipur but for most part the road quality was good and the roadworks didn't seem to significantly hamper arrival time, if at all (it took the said 6hrs to arrive). I suspect leaving Delhi a little after rush hour also helped as it didn't take that long to clear the city limits. There were tollbooths as you passed into different states but they were fast.

Buses here appear to only have two kinds of speed: breakneck and snail's-pace-due-to-a-traffic-jam. The rule of being able to see not only the rear tires of the vehicle but road too also doesn't apply either. You basically touch bumper to bumper until the vehicle in front moves over for you. Don't forget to honk your horn either. I don't believe anyone has a reason nor knows why they are doing it but they do it anyway. May be somewhat surprising is the fact I don't recall the driver ever having to be overly heavy on the brake. So whilst there appears to be little or no rules of the road, what drivers here do do seems to work. That said, you couldn't pay me enough to want to drive over here.

Jaipur, a city of over 3 million, is Rajasthan's capital named after it's founder Jai Singh. The old city, often referred to as the Pink City due to the fact that it is pink (well more a salmon-terracotta pink). It was first painted pink back in 1876 to welcome the then Prince of Wales (who would become King Edward VII). Even today all residents are compelled by law to preserve the pink! Later the city burst it's walls and sprawled out wards disregarding previous principles of architecture and planning as laid out by Singh.

The old city is chaotic, loud and, I've got to admit it, exciting! It is pure mayhem... of the best kind. When you're attempting to cross a road you are dodging several things: other people crossing the road, autorickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, motorbikes & mopeds, buses, cows, horses, camels and people trying to sell you everything under the sun. It is madder than crossing the road in Hanoi and I never thought I'd ever say that.

Cows are sacred and so if one is in the way you wait until it has moved (and they usually have the common sense to get out of the way) or you move around it. They're everywhere, some belong to someone somewhere but know people will feed the, so come into the city to get food, whereas others are apparently "wild" and just roam around.

There are plenty of bazaars where you can barter with some incredibly wily shop keepers. Exploration on foot and by cycle-rickshaw was a good call especially as it was still really hot out in the evening. Your senses become overloaded with coloured fabrics, jewelry, gold and spices. The red chilli is a commonly used ingredient in Indian food and they must sell tonnes of it here judging from the large open sacks full of dried chillies. See how long you can last walking down the street before they over power you and you start coughing as though you're hacking up a lung.

For that reason I played it relatively safe with dinner, but the masala dal I had with a plain roti was still pretty amazing. You could probably work your way around India and never eat the same dish more than once. There are so many different kinds of dishes here that I can't imagine you'd ever be far away from something tempting and delicious.

Monday, 28 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Delhi Delights

Up & raring to go before the thermometer burst it's bubble, I headed out onto the streets of Delhi  on a mission. Sadly, many museums/sights are only open Tuesday - Sunday so I fitted in what I could and still went by a couple of the others. I can hopefully fit the Red Fort and/or Humayun's tomb upon my return to Delhi after my, not so much Golden triangle (the classic traveling journey) trek, more of a parallelogram trek of Rajasthan, Agra and Varanasi.

The Delhi Metro and I now get along famously. Plus it's air conditioned. Maps are in both Hindi and English, the trains themselves announce stops both via a variety of electronic means and vocally and I've yet to have an issue in buying a token (just let them know where you want to go). There's always cycle-rickshaw, autorickshaw, taxis and busses if you fancy a traffic-hampered struggle around town. Cycle-rickshaws have been banned from several places in New Delhi plus Chandni Chowk (to decrease congestion apparently) but offer an adrenaline ride around some parts of Old Delhi. As a pedestrian you're going to have challenges with all forms of transport above ground when it comes to crossing the roads.

Delhi hasn't always been the Nation's capital but historians reckon the first settlers were 2500 years ago. Old Delhi is believed the correspond to the 17th century Delhi built by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. The Brits, in 1911, moved their capital from Calcutta and built New Delhi.  By 1947 they were gone and Delhi became the capital of the now-independent India.

Chandni Chowk, in the heart of Old Delhi, is full of tiny lanes crammed with stores see long everything and anything. You certainly get to smell of the aromas of India here. It was chaotic but fun weaving your way through.

If you manage not to get lost you can get yourself to India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid ('The Friday Mosque'), a fine example of Mughal architecture built between 1644 and 1658. This place can hold 25,000 people! The alternating vertical strips of red sandstone and marble are stunning. You will potentially become quite a celebrity here. Despite wearing my own headscarf and a gown provided my presence didn't go unnoticed. Soon I had people, mostly kids, asking if they could have their photo taken with me. I even got a couple of marriage proposals (politely but very clearly declined). Crikey, this kind of pop star adoration almost made me want to stay here longer! I was not at all bothered about being approached. It was cute (with the kids), funny (when parents asked if their kid could pose with me) and kind of a wonderful way to meet some locals. If nothing else learn how to say "my name is..." in Hindi and may be even how to ask them theirs. They love it even if they laugh at some of your pronunciations and it then encourages them to try some English with you. When I wanted to go off and actually explore the site I was not hassled. There's no charge for the mosque but you pay a camera charge (whether you use it or not) plus a charge for the gown. In the grand scheme of things it's really not that much. You also have to remove your shoes before you enter. The stone and marble you walk on will already be hot and you will likely amuse many people with your skipping across the courtyard like you're walking on hot coals to somewhere that won't give your feet 3rd degree burns.

At the Sikh holy site Sisgani Gurdwara stands at the site where the ninth Sikh Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for refusing to accept Islam. During a time when the emperor was waging a war against Hindus, Guru Tegh Bahadur argued for freedom of worship and was executed as a result. Before his body could be quartered and exposed to public view, it was stolen under cover of darkness by one of his disciples, who then burnt his house to cremate the Guru's body. The severed head (Sis) of Guru Tegh Bahadur was recovered by another disciple of the Guru, and cremated by the Guru's son, Gobind Rai, later to become Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last Sikh Guru. Sikhism is the overcoming of the 5 evils - ego, greed, attachment, anger and lust - achieved through rigorous discipline and meditation. Several musicians were playing instruments and singing lines from what I believe were from their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Being able to witness worship taking place and getting acknowledged by several worshippers as I stood to leave was a real honour. Make sure you take a headscarf to cover your head (I don't think a hat would be accepted).

By the time I returned to the main metro hub Rajiv Chowk I had already worked my way through over a litre of water. Directly above the station is Connaught Place. This is the heart of New Delhi. Very obviously Victorian British in architecture, it is made up of several circles with streets jutting out of it like bicycle spokes. I wanted to avoid the expensive restaurants/bars of the circle and managed to find Saravana Bhavan. It appears to be somewhat of a chain, with a bit of a fast food-food court kind of feel but it was anything but. Incredibly excellent value for some really tasty Indian food with things like dosas, idlis, chutneys and traditional sweets. I had some wonderful and fragrant potato (aloo) dish wrapped in a roti with some to-die-for coconut chutney. It wasn't a huge portion but I was absolutely stuffed (the heat isn't helping my appetite either). Note for Vegetarians and Vegans: it appears that veggies will have no problem with food here. Food is usually classed as "veg" and "pure veg". The former won't contain meat/seafood but will usually have ghee, dairy and honey. Pretty much like back home. Vegans are looking for/need to ask about the latter but may be missing onions, garlic and mushrooms (based on Hare Krishna beliefs) or root vegetables/tubers (based on Jain beliefs).

I decided to keep walking albeit with a pit stop at the admittedly very western Costa Coffee for a cappuccino (they provide soy milk) and a street stall to pick up two large bottles of water. I found myself wandering amongst the stalls of the Janpath market, still within the circumference of Connaught Place. I wandered along Janpath southbound until I crossed Rajpath. At the western end of Rajpath is the official residence of the President of India flanked by the two domed Secretariat buildings (Governmental), which I walked by on my return to Rajiv Chowk when making my way back to the hotel. At the eastern end stands the India Gate, a memorial arch for various conflicts including WWI. I continued past several important looking buildings and the closed-on-Mondays National Museum before reaching Motilal Nehru Place, a garden in the middle of a roundabout. It sure sounded noisy in the trees so I took out my zoom lens in the hope of getting a better look at the species of bird making all the racket. Imagine my surprise when I looked up into a beady pair of eyes surrounded by even more beady eyes. Bats! I adore bats so was in a momentary heaven, as well as some much needed shade, snapping shots of them hanging there, trying to cool off and flying from tree to tree. On the ground several chipmunks were running around to boot. After rehydrating and getting photos I continued on. I passed some young school children on my way. The first one who noticed me stared wide eyed and pulled the sleeve of her friend. Soon they were all turned around saying hello.

On 30th January 1948, after 144 days in residence as a guest at 5 Tees January Marg, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated here by a Hindu zealot. This was barely after independence from the British was achieved, something he had campaigned for. Now a poignant memorial, there's a free museum, that includes his meagre possessions on view, and gardens known as Gandhi Smriti. Unfortunately it was closed with it being a Monday but I still had wanted to walk by. The tree-lined street was so peaceful that it was kind of hard to picture someone being murdered here.

After 7 hours of sight-seeing, +3L of water, soaring temperatures, some amazing food it was time to return to the hotel to cool off. Never mind Delhi belly, my Delhi feet badly needed a shower to wash off all the dirt!

Sunday, 27 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: In Memory of Daffy

Nepal's capital Kathmandu is situated in a valley full of historic sites, ancient temples and shrines, golden pagodas and fascinating villages. Apparently. I couldn't really say as I left less than 24 hours after arriving.

What it did seem to be was: full of backpackers, pollution and a great bookstore for picking up dubious editions of paperbacks you want to read for around $2. I am now making my way through "Seven Years in Tibet" by Heinrich Harrer and loving it. I also got a fantastic cappuccino from Himalaya Java during our reunion with John aka "dad" (back to his usual self after some R n' R these past few days here in Kathmandu) and enjoyed a final meal with my travel companions that put up with me for the past fortnight. The Nepalese vegetarian thali was amazing.

It was an early start this morning. Partly because, despite having traveled all the way across China, there was only a time zone change upon reaching Nepal (of -2.25hours). The other reasons were the dogs, crows and roosters, in no particular order. Oh and I had a 930am flight to my next destination Delhi, India! I had been warned there may be a taxi strike, although they couldn't tell me until the time the taxi I wanted to order was due to arrive. Sack that. So I ordered a private car to take me to Tribhuvan International Airport, about 6km from the city centre, for $15USD.

Upon arrival at the first "security check", which is as you enter the building itself, I felt someone tugging my trouser leg. Make that something. A monkey. I'd have likely been all gaga over it if the inner voice of impending doom (of the Rombuk kind) didn't yell "rabies alert". The guard thought it was hilarious. The airport is incredibly basic and ladies you WILL see signs that read "ladies frisking" for each checkpoint you go through. Interestingly, at the X-ray machine they asked if I had a Swiss Army knife in my backpack (No). Instead of actually looking the agent merely shook the bag, had another quick look via the machine and sent me on my way. This therefore makes the number of "friskings" that followed incredibly confusing especially the one where you leave the terminal to walk outside to the plane and the one you got at the bottom of the stairs up to the plane. I'm not sure what they figured could have transpired in the 30 or so metres, perhaps when they were blinking or something? Female security agents deal with the ladies only which is perhaps a good thing as I had my groin felt yet again.

The flight with the impressive Jet Airways was only 1.5hrs to Delhi and with a female pilot no less! (Wonder if she has to put up with any crap like that female Westjet pilot did a few weeks back?) I'm not sure how they would actually get out of Kathmandu airspace if it wasn't for all the electronic gadgetry as the smog/haze was absolutely dreadful. KTM's accident & incident list is mainly interesting for the following entry:

"21 March 2014 - A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 738 ran into a flock of ducks with 180 on board. There were no fatalities but 10 ducks were killed"

That's just quackers!


Delhi is the world's second most populated city. This is why after riding the Delhi Metro all by myself for 24 stops with the locals and walking in the right direction to my hotel, all without getting lost, I am feeling pretty darn proud of myself. It is very possible that, like myself, people have "warned you" against going to India, tales of how you'll either "love it or hate it, how polluted & hectic it is. But hey is anything perfect? It was 38 degrees when I arrived just after 11am. Customs was fast, I was the only foreign national in that particular queue. My larger backpack was coming onto the carousel as I walked over (yes, I did the unthinkable and checked it in). The Airport Express train was easy to locate and took me to the very efficient Delhi Metro. I suspect that the lady at the ticket office figured she was doing me a favour in giving me the "easiest" way to get to Jhandewalan. In a way she was, because even though it took me far longer than the route(s) I'd worked out albeit with less changes, it meant I was getting more of a taste of local life. I didn't bother with the "women-only" carriages which are available if you prefer. Yes I got curiously stared at, pointed at and obviously talked about but it was never threatening nor did it make me feel uncomfortable (I was also modestly dressed). I was met with smiles so I did the best thing I could do and smiled back.

By the time I reached the hotel it was over 40 degrees. Two lime juice & soda (one sweet, one salty) and half a litre of water later I'm almost feeling hydrated!

Saturday, 26 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: The Long & Winding Road

It was the exact same road down to the highway (approx 3 hours) but once again spectacular views adequately compensated – both Everest and Cho Oyo were visible for much of the way. Another 4.5 hours to Zhangmu crosses one of the most spectacular of passes topped with prayer flags and wind-driven prayer wheels. One last moment of feeling on top of the world.

We wound around and around to the scruffy border town of Zhangmu. We had jokingly called it Xanadu before arrival. Yeah no. This place gave me the heebie jeebies and I don't think I'd have felt safe here alone. Oh how I hate border towns. There was definitely NO sightings of Olivia Newton-John nor any spandex, which may be a good thing. Although the opening line to the title track of Xanadu is "A place where nobody dared to go...."  Hmmm.

Getting in was tricky as the entire two-lane road was a giant parking lot for the many Nepalese and Chinese trucks. Only one lane was active, basically because the other was parking, and this one lane had vehicles going in both directions. Still, we did get saluted by a Chinese soldier when he came to check our passports.

The climate also suddenly changed with the drop in altitude. It was a lot warmer, almost tropical, very lush and green. It was almost kind of pretty, until we drove past a man squatted with his pants around his ankles by the side of the road. I guess if you've gotta go....

Getting into Nepal was actually relatively quick, all things considered. Then again we made sure we were practically at the front of the queue a good 50 minutes before Chinese immigration opened. On your way to the Immigration building there are several check points, then inside the building there are several more. By now you will be so used to it that you will merely go through the motions. You put your luggage in the X-ray machine and then you're asked if you have any "reading material". I was prepared for this and hadn't even bothered bringing my Lonely Planet China guidebook. They have been known to confiscate it because it mentions the 14th Dalai Lama and Tibet. If you absolutely need to bring it then may be get the PDF version on one of your reading devices. They didn't even ask me about my iPad. They went through both books I did have (Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra and Tokyo). Everything else was so tightly packed that I suspect they gave up. I think if you show co-operation (I already had my books in my hand for them plus opened all compartments to my packs) then it goes a lot more smoothly. The other option that seems to work is if all your underwear falls out onto the table (thankfully didn't happen to me).

You then walk cross the Friendship bridge, an odd name for a bridge housing several solders with big guns and where photographs are forbidden, into the Nepalese border town of Kodari. Sometimes borders don't make sense, I reckon someone in a government office somewhere drew a line on a map with their eyes closed. Other times, it is very clear. The immediate difference was felt as I entered Nepal. It was night and day. The precise, strict Chinese border police made us go through several checks but on the Nepali side you walk around and have to seek out the visa office.

Immigration wasn't super fast but it wasn't nightmarish either, took about 15-20 minutes as we were one of the first. It was kind of nice to be able to sit and chill for a bit. You must bring with you 1 passport photo and $25USD cash for your Nepalese visa. All told the entire process from when the Chinese immigration doors opened to getting my Nepalese visa was about 50 minutes.

Crossing from an impoverished region of one Asian country into another impoverished Asian country all whilst sticking out like a sore thumb is like those fairground shooting galleries where you win a prize (granted usually a oversized stuffed teddy which, let's face it, only a pubescent teen would want to give to his girlfriend at the time). "Hit me and win!" Everyone takes aim, you're the one wearing the target. The entire town seems set on separating you from as much of your money as possible especially when it comes to trying to arrange transportation to get out of it. Thankfully I didn't need to worry about this, my transportation was already sorted. Travel websites are full of warnings: nobody will tell you when the bus leaves, touts sell tickets for busses that don't even exist, and the prices demanded are at least 500% of the local fare. I was so intent on not getting ripped off or losing any valuables that I took only one picture of Kodari. Thankfully if you act ignorant and avoid eye contact, the touts who had followed you down from the border will soon give up on trying to take advantage of you and skulk back up to the border to scam new arrivals.

The difference between Zhangmu & Kodari and the road from Kodari to Kathmandu through a 9842 ft Himalayan gorge is jaw-dropping. You drown in the beauty of the landscape, overpowering aromas of curry spices in the air and the Nepalese locals adorned with bindi, the sacred red dot marking of the Hindu, & vibrantly coloured clothing. Waterfalls pour from the sides of the cliffs. About 100km from Kathmandu there's the Nepalese version of Capilano  Suspension Bridge. It has a 500ft drop to the Bhote Koshi river below and if you're mad enough you can leap off it, whilst attached to a harness and bungee cord, at Nepal's first bungee jump site. Walking across it was more than enough for me.

It took about 4.5 hours to get to Kathmandu along what was primarily a long, winding, often bumpy road. There were several police checkpoints and they were certainly different to the previous ones. These people actually smiled!

"Where are you from?" asked the Officer
"Germany" replied SuperGerman
This prompted "Which town?"
Upon giving a reply the Officer replied "Dankeschön".

I suspect he'd been waiting months to try that one out.

Friday, 25 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Shine Bright Like A Diamond

I likely made the mistake of reading the "reviews" for Rongbuk Guest House prior to my arrival. The result was hearing the word "Rongbuk" spoken in more of a creepy/sinister voice complete with Vincent Price type maniacal laughter. So much so that we had all started to verbally do this whenever we spoke of it in the days preceding it. Upon reflection, I suspect many of the reviews were written by people whose idea of "roughing it" would equal a 3.5 star hotel. Some people actually sound like they were expecting a 5 star resort or something. Yeah um no. This. Is. RONGBUK. (Remember: must be read in creepy/sinister voice complete with Vincent Price type maniacal laughter....)

The way I see it is if you managed to make your way through the winding, bumpy 3 hour drive to get here complete with dealing with rocks that just barely cover your arse when you need to pee, then everything else is peachy keen. Yes, the room for 4 of us to sleep in was basic, the toilets, or lack thereof, were even more so but they were surprisingly relatively clean and not at all stinky although may be it had frozen in the subzero temperatures?! I did have to avoid the yaks when visiting the toilet in the middle of the night and their eyes glow all weird from your headlamp, but c'mon, this is the stuff of lifelong memories! Looking out of the window of the room at Everest looking down on you and watching her face change by moments from sun to cloud and back to sun more than makes up for even the slightest bit of discomfort.

Granted, I didn't have my best night's sleep here, due to the altitude and my bony hips on a hard mattress, and I believe at least 3 of us got headaches due to the altitude. I would wake every few hours, lie there for what seemed like an eternity, apparently fall asleep before doing it all over again at a new time. The superhuman German in the room of course slept in his boxers. Ah to be 19 again. The bedding was basically copious quilts and blankets providing the ultimate nesting experience. I also slept fully clothed complete with touque, two pairs of gloves, 6 upper body layers, two lower body layers & hiking socks all whilst inside of my sleeping bag liner. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly I awoke during the night absolutely roasting and although I knew the room itself was absolutely bloody freezing it wasn't an issue for me, at least whilst I was snug as a bug. The lock on your door from the inside was a twig that looked like chopstick that if you turned just the right amount, kind of like cracking a safe, you could somehow get it to make sure the door didn't rattle from the wind.

The common room area was always warm and welcoming even if it was heated with dried yak dung. You’ll probably have at least one headache from the effects of yak dung heaters if not due to the altitude. That said the pancakes were to die for although don't start thinking about the hands touching yak dung potentially then making your pancake. The electricity is used sparingly so take a headlamp/torch although they appear to turn them on in the toilets at night only. It all added to the experience. I wouldn't have missed any of this for the world. It certainly knocks the ego back a peg or two.

Upon waking "for real", a voice from beside me chirped up "Here comes the sun". This has been a trip of lyrics at the best and worst of times and this one fell right into my lap, somewhere under the vast layers of blankets. "Little darlin', it's been a long cold and lonely winter" was my retort. We laughed.

I was outside with my camera waiting for the sunrise to fall upon Everest. Oh how I missed my blankets! Dawn. Subzero temperatures. Couldn't feel my fingers. The crystal clear shots I got? Priceless. Of course as soon as I ran inside for a "quick warm up" the sun started putting in an appearance again so back outside I went. Click. Click. Click. Until I was literally wincing in pain. Oh but she was worth it. She glistened in the sun like millions of diamonds. It was breathtaking.

Pancakes and ginger lemon honey tea whilst sat beside the yak dung fire was ample reward although the real reward was obviously out in the cold. Alas it was soon time to leave, 3hrs back along the very same road that had brought us here. I felt a little bit sad to leave her behind. She has this pull on you, draws you in. I can see why people end up chasing the dream of wanting to summit Everest.....

"You've read 'Into Thin Air'" I sternly told myself.....

Over 250 people have died trying to climb Everest. Most deaths have been attributed to avalanche, injury from fall or ice collapse, exposure or health problems related to conditions on the mountain. Not all bodies have been located, so there are no details on those fatalities. Due to the difficulties and dangers in bringing bodies down, most of those who perish on the mountain remain where they fall, although some are moved by winds and ice.

The most infamous tragedy on the mountain was the 1996 Mount Everest disaster on May 11, 1996, during which eight people died while making summit attempts. It is Jon Krakauer's book "Into Thin Air" that I read covering the disaster. In that entire season, fifteen people died trying to reach the summit, making it the deadliest single year in the mountain's history to that point.

The upper reaches of the mountain are in the death zone. The death zone is a mountaineering term for altitudes above a certain point – around 26,000 ft (8000 m), or less than 5.16 psi of atmospheric pressure – where the oxygen level is not sufficient to sustain human life. Many deaths in high-altitude mountaineering have been caused by the effects of the death zone, directly or indirectly.

Well if lack of oxygen was ever a concern of mine, it didn't last long. Soon the bottled oxygen was cracked open in the van. Oxygen partaaaaaay! Of course someone had to do the whole "I am your father, Luke". And whatdoyaknow, my headache disappeared! In fact we all became quite the happy campers what with oxygen and candy being passed around. The ultimate sugar-oxygen rush! My former chemist brain didn't think there'd be any adverse reaction. Woooot! That said, my brains still look like they're coming through my nose however every time I blow it. Yay Diamox!

Oh and the Rongbuk monastery across the way from the guest house is the highest in the world. It is apparently open to visitors but of course for me the major attraction was the stunning scenery all around, and the view of the world's highest mountain's north face. In 2011, it was ranked on the top of CNN's 'Great Places to be a Recluse' if anyone is interested.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: The Day I Fell In Love With A Mountain

We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing of the world.
We give little thought of the machinery that generates the sunlight and makes life possible.
To the gravity that glues us to the earth that would otherwise send us spinning off into space.
Or to the atoms that which we are made and on who’s stability we fundamentally depend.
Few of us spend much time wondering why nature is the way it is.
Where the cosmos came from.
Whether it was always there.
If time will one day flow backward.
Or whether there are ultimate limits to what humans can know.
What is the smallest piece of matter.
Why we remember the past and not the future.
And why there is a universe.
- Carl Sagan

The official Tibetan name for Mount Everest is Qomolangma (Tibetan: ཇོ་མོ་གླང་མ), often spelled Chomolungma, and literally means "Holy Mother".

She is the Earth's highest mountain located in the Mahalangur section of the Himalayas. Her impressive peak is 29,029 ft (8,848 m) above sea level. The international border between China and Nepal runs across the precise summit point hence why Everest has two main climbing routes, the southeast ridge from Nepal (known as the standard route) and the north ridge from Tibet. Neighboring peaks include Lhotse, 27,940 ft (8516 m) ; Nuptse, 25,771 ft (7855 m) and Changtse, 24,870 ft (7580 m).

The Great Trigonometric Survey of India, in 1856, established the first published height of Everest, known then as Peak XV, at 29,002 ft (8,840 m). The current official height of 29,029 ft (8,848 m) as recognized by Nepal and China was established by a 1955 Indian survey and subsequently confirmed by a Chinese survey in 1975. In 1865, Everest was given its official English name by the Royal Geographical Society upon a recommendation by Andrew Waugh, the British Surveyor General of India. Waugh named the mountain after Sir George Everest, his predecessor, even though Tibetans had called Everest "Chomolungma" for centuries. Waugh was unaware of this because Tibet and Nepal were closed to foreign nationals at the time.

She is one of the ultimate adrenaline rushes and attracts many highly experienced mountaineers as well as capable climbers willing to hire professional guides for a very costly sum. Everest is so high, the jet stream can hit it. Climbers can be faced with winds beyond 200 mph when the weather shifts. The first recorded efforts to reach Everest's summit were made by British mountaineers. With Nepal not allowing foreigners into the country at the time, the British made several attempts on the north ridge route from the Tibetan side. After the first reconnaissance expedition by the British in 1921 reached 22,970 ft (7000 m) on the North Col, a 1922 expedition marked the first time a human had climbed above 26,247 ft (8,000 m) by reaching 27,300 ft (8320 m) on the North ridge route. An expedition by George Mallory and Andrew Irvine in 1924 resulted in the greatest mystery on Everest to this day. They made a final summit attempt on June 8 but never returned, sparking debate as to whether they were the first to reach the top. They had been spotted high on the mountain that day but disappeared in the clouds, never to be seen again until Mallory's body was found in 1999 at 26,755 ft (8155 m) on the North face. Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary made the first official ascent of Everest in 1953 using the southeast ridge route. Tenzing had reached 8,595 m (28,199 ft) the previous year as a member of the 1952 Swiss expedition.

If you're looking for comfort during your quest to the north Base Camp of Everest then this trip is likely not for you. I suspect the only thing worse than the bone-shaking roads would be to be in the company of someone who complained for 3+ hour of dirt track-gravel road. Fortunately I did not endure this nor did I complain. It was all part of the awesome adventure and you couldn't help but feel the anticipation build. When find yourself staring at her mesmerizing beauty you will know then why you came and it will have all been oh so worth it. Right down to attempting to pee behind a rock that barely covers your arse or the sight of several men lined up along the road peeing, what appeared to be, in unison. There were clear blue skies upon arrival to Rongbuk Guest House, situated across from the monastery, so it was decided that after layering up, we would head straight out to hike to Base Camp.

The hike, whilst not that far, is by no means easy. It's about 2.5 miles (4km) each way but feels more like 10. Remember, you're above 16,000 ft (5000 m) so any form of exercise you perform will make you feel like that pseudo vice you've had around your ribcage since Lhasa is being tightened.

However, the reward is incredible; from the top of a small hill at 17,060 ft (5200 m) you can see the tent city at the base camp and right in front you, Everest!!! The weather changes very quickly however, and her top was soon covered with cloud. Can you imagine being at the top during that?!? On the left is Mt. Lhotse and on the far right, the impressive looking Mt. Cho Oyu at 26,906 ft (8201 m).

Posing for pictures was a lot more comfortable than when I was at the top of Kilimanjaro in 2011. I even assisted in hanging a group prayer flag! Otherwise you just stand awe-struck as you look at what is likely one of the most majestic places on the planet that I will ever see!! I think perhaps everyone needs a dose of this view when they've forgotten what true peace and serenity is.

On 18 April 2014, an avalanche hit the area just below the Nepalese Base Camp 2 at around 0100 UTC (0630 local time) and at an elevation of about 19,357 ft (5,900 m). Sixteen Sherpa climbers were killed in the avalanche and nine more were injured. RIP.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

Sakya, the base of the once politically powerful Sakya sect (red hat) of Tibetan Buddhism, took about 3.5hrs to reach from Shigatse. That is what with the usual check points and some twisty roads. After some lunch and a much needed ginger honey lemon tea, there was a short walk to the monastery which is situated in the town.

The huge fortified walls, Mongolian in style, are testament to the turbulent past of the region. It was beautiful inside with a lot of rare artifacts. There were no other tourists either and the Monks seemed a lot more relaxed, may be as a result of this? Still there were a lot of places inside where you couldn't take photos.

A hike up through the older part of town and up the mountainside afforded some lovely and serene views. It was also up here where the Sakya Nunnery is situated. Upon arrival there were no other visitors but the Nuns made us feel very welcome.

"Lie down, rest, go to sleep", joked one in Tibetan. Did this mean I'd have to shave my head? The iPhone of another rang and she cheekily answered "Hello" in English causing us all to laugh. They happily posed for photos and let us take shots within the small chapel.

The nice thing about that is we never asked, they simply offered off the bat. It was worth the small donation I made after the fact. These ladies were absolute class. It was nice to sit there and just take it all in. One Nun was making yak butter candles including the wick. Another was preparing to run into town to pick up stuff from the store. It was all very fascinating.

I'm not sure if the hotel was the only one in town although you kind of got the feeling you were in a Western movie... Tibetan style. If there be such a thing. The hotel restaurant did excellent veggie soups and freshly made roti. I got to watch, or should that read "forced to watch"?, a Tibetan pop star play air guitar, stretch his arms out a lot and sit under prayer flags whilst I practically sat on what I can only assume is the only heater in the hotel. The highlight had to be some old Kung Fu movie with English subtitles. I lost the plot within the first 5 minutes but that's even better because then you can dub it with your own lines! You had to be there. Basically the bad guy died suddenly at the end in some overly acted death involving loss of at least one body part and the movie abruptly ended. Isn't that usually the way?

The hotel was pretty basic but more than ok. Well, except for the fact there was no hot water unless you boiled the kettle. It wasn't even tepid. Think more Everest glacial temperatures. "Oh there's 24hr hot water today" I was told. I tried to remember this as I hand washed some clothes in the sink and lost all dexterity in my hands. I wondered if this is what the start of frostbite feels like. As you can imagine there'll be no showering in the morning, the wet wipe is going to be my friend!

"Well at least I can't see my breath in the room"

May be this is just all training for Rongbuk and Everest Base Camp?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Who Let The Dogs Out?

About 56 miles (90km) northwest of Gyantse is Shigatse. The name means 'the fertile land' which makes sense when you learn it sits in the plain at the confluence of the Yarlong Tsangpo and Nyangchu Rivers, where Tibet's most fertile land is to be found. It is Tibet's second-largest town and the seat of the Panchen Lama who ranks second in importance to the Dalai Lama.

There is a great controversy about the current legitimate Panchen Lama. After the death of the 10th Panchen Lama, a dispute between the Chinese leadership and the exiled 14th Dalai Lama resulted in two competing candidates. The traditional search committee process involving monks in Tibet was disrupted when the Dalai Lama unilaterally announced his selection of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The leadership in China took Nyima away to prevent him from being taken to India by the Dalai Lama's supporters. They then reverted to the Qing Dynasty's Golden Urn process to select Gyaincain Norbu, who currently fulfills the duties of the Panchen Lama in China.

The huge complex of Tashilhunpo is located on the southern slope of the Nyiseri Mountain to the west of Shigatse City. It is largest monastery of the Gelug Sect in Rear Tibet, and the main stage where generations of Panchen Lamas carried out religious and political activities. It is visited daily by hundreds of devotees. As ever, they're usually armed with yak butter to feed the lamps and you can watch them prostrate themselves around the stupas or walk up to the chapel that houses the 26 m-high, gold-plated statue of the future Buddha.

Perhaps not exactly the place where you'd expect to see one Monk kick another one up the arse! Guess when you're still kids, even being a Monk doesn't take that out of you. Cue half-impressed/half-horrified gasps from bystanders.

Shigatse bazaar also buzzes with life. Especially when one face plants in front of everyone whilst waving to some little girls and not looking where I was putting my feet. A Tibetan lady screamed on my behalf, which might suggest I was carted off in an ambulance horribly injured.  Nope, nothing injured bar my pride! Stalls sell everything from slabs of yak butter to yak wool, prayer wheels and rosaries and Tibetans vie with each other to win a sale.

"Lookie lookie!"

I haven't yet mentioned all the dogs that seem to roam the streets. Well, actually most of them laze in the sun. Then at night it's a question of "who let the dogs out". You can't but help hear them barking, growling, yelping in the middle of the night. I am convinced they take over the town at night. I wondered if there was a human curfew, a kind of a "Batten down the hatches!"/dog-zombie apocalypse. Of course, the next morning you see a few quite staggering home. The dog walk of shame?

There's surely B Grade horror movie in the making somewhere in all of this.

Monday, 21 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: And Then There Were 4

The morning started off with some bad news, John ("dad") had been surprisingly struggling with the altitude since arriving in Lhasa. Yesterday he went to the hospital to get checked out. His blood oxygen was 70 (they like it to be no lower than 85) and it wasn't something more Diamox was going to fix. Sounded like a touch of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) if I were a guessing person. We were scheduled to leave today with only higher altitudes ahead during an 7-8hr drive to the drive to Gyantse. It had been agreed that it was in his best interest to fly to Kathmandu and meet us all there at the end of the week. So now just 4 of us continue our trek across Tibet.

When I've told people I was heading to Tibet, I suspect most people pictured snowy ranges, icy-bearded mountaineers and hardy locals wrapped in yak hides. That’s probably with good reason; generally the higher you go, the colder it gets, and Tibet is high. Still, thus far I've only seen one out of those three.

Tibet isn’t called the Roof of the World for nothing. The Tibetan Plateau is the highest and largest plateau in the world with an average altitude of 14,800 ft (4,500 m). Only a meagre 36 countries have a mountain that reaches that height. The ride to Gyantse is a spectacular one. The views were quite literally breathtaking. There's something about the air up here that is magical.

We crossed three passes Khambala (16,404 ft / 5000 m), Korula (16,437 ft / 5010 m) and Simila (14,206 ft / 4330m) as well as skirted the shores of the beautiful turquoise lake, known locally as Yamdrok Tso. The lake is one of the most sacred in Tibet. I also got photo bombed by.... A yak. It has to be one of my best photos of the trip so far!  

Interestingly, there were check points along the way where you get time stamped by the Chinese police. It is apparently a 100¥ for every minute that you are too fast so you will often see vehicles pulled over just waiting until they can set off again. It's kind of ironic that you're traveling along a road called the Friendship Highway.

Once of major importance as a wool trading centre on the routes between India, Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet and China, Gyantse retains the feel of old Tibet. It was historically considered the third largest and most prominent town in Tibet although that is no longer the case. It was nearly destroyed by flooding in 1954. After rioting in 1959, local industries were dismantled and artisans fled while others were placed in workcamps. All a bit tragic really.

The imposing hill fortress, Gyantse Dzong, dominates views of the town although it is currently closed to tourists. This fortress was taken by the British in 1904 during their invasion of Tibet. Apparently there's an "Anti-British Imperialism Museum" which gives the Chinese version of the 1904 British Invasion. Sounds almost comedic.

The high red-walled compound of Pelkhor Chode monastery, founded in 1418, once encircled 15 monasteries from three different orders of Tibetan Buddhism. The surviving assembly hall (straight ahead as you enter) has some fine murals, statues and the now to-be-expected butter-lamp-lit atmosphere. Just beside the assembly hall is the Gyantse Kumbum (meaning 100,000 images) which forms a 3-dimensional mandala containing a seemingly endless series of tiny chapels full of Buddhist images – Buddhas, demons, protectors and saints.

This seemed like the perfect place to buy some blessed prayer beads from a monk.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Yakety Yak

The yak was originally domesticated in Tibet thousands of years ago and has supplied the indigenous people of these mountainous regions with most of their daily needs including meat, milk, butter, cheese, wool, fibre, leather, fuel, and packing/trekking/travel requirements. The versatile animal is an integral part of the lives of the Tibetan natives and substantially adds to the renowned health and longevity of these people.

The wild yak (bos mutus) is found at elevations of 14,000 ft. In fact the wild yak can't actually live below 12,000 ft for any length of time. But during these occasions, wild yak males interbred with various cattle breeds surrounding their native Himalayan Mountain terrain. The cross calf females crossed back several times to the wild yak. These multigenerational crosses became the domesticated yak (bos grunniens).

Adult yak females range in weight from 600 to 700 pounds and stand 4.5 ft at the shoulders, whilst yak males range from 1200 to 1400 pounds and stand 5.5 ft at the shoulders. Full size is achieved in six to eight years. Yaks do not bellow, bawl, or moo. Instead they communicate in quiet grunts, snorts and head shakes.

Similar to bison and other heritage breed animals that are gaining popularity among health-conscious carnivores, yak's meat is lean (95% fat free) and protein-packed, low in cholesterol and revered for its sweet, delicate, beef-like flavour.

So why am I telling you all this?

As many of you who read my blog are aware, despite my primarily vegetarian/vegan based diet back home, I like to embrace culture when I travel. This, within reason, will include sampling some of the local cuisine. I have now added yak meat to the list that includes cuy, camel, scorpion and water buffalo.

And it was absolutely delicious! Mixed with herbs, celery and onions, it was juicy & tender.

And get this... They're great for the environment. Because they evolved in the mountains, they're really efficient! They actually consume less grass per acre per animal than a cow, and get the same amount of nutritional energy. So say you have take a single acre of pasture, you can have one or two cows that are larger in size. But on that same acre, you can have three or four yaks. Even though the yak is smaller in stature, because they consume less grass per yak, you can pack more yaks on that acre and maximize your meat production on a per acre basis.

Yay yaks!

I have to admit for this entire post I've had Yakety Yak (Don't Talk Back) playing in my head.....

Saturday, 19 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Tibetan Buddhism 101

So just what is Tibetan Buddhism? Erm..... A tad confusing if I'm brutally honest as I found out on day one of Tibetan Buddhism 101 yesterday. It is likely that you know the best known face of it, the 14th Dalai Lama. What you may not know about him is that he has actually lived in exile in India since he fled the Chinese occupation of his country in 1959. Basically, Tibetan Buddhism is a religion in exile. Dalai is a Mongol word meaning ocean, and refers to the depth of the Dalai Lama's wisdom.

The religion is derived from the Indian Mahayana form of Buddhism, but much of its ritual is based on the esoteric mysticism of Tantra (a style of meditation and ritual) and on the ancient shamanism and animism of Bon, an older Tibetan religion. It is also called Tantrayana (tantra vehicle) or Vajrayana (vehicle of the thunderbolt). Padmasambhāva is said to have transmitted Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet. He was the founder of the Nyingma, the earliest school of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism which are: Nyingma (Red Hat), Kagyu (Red Hat), Sakya (Red Hat), Gelug (Yellow Hat). Like I said, it all gets a little confusing, which is I guess why it is esoteric, but if you ever see a statue wearing a yellow hat at least you'll know! Don't even get me started on the hand positioning (Mudras) which are external expressions of 'inner resolve', suggesting that such non-verbal communications are more powerful than the spoken word. Oh and then there's the female statues with 7 eyes!

Coloured flags/scarves hanging from various places inside most temples represent air (white), fire (red), earth (yellow), blue (space) and green (water).

Drepung & Sera Monsteries fall under the Gelug school, if you're still with me!

As far as all the temples and palaces you will see in Tibet, Potala Palace is definitely one of the more unique and memorable ones you will come across. It was once the seat of the Tibetan government and the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas.

Built on the side of a free standing hill you need to walk up several flights of stairs to make it to the palace grounds. Otherwise you will spend you time just staring up at towering fortress-like walls. Not that that initially is a bad thing mind you, gives you a sense of its wow factor before you've even stepped foot inside.

There's a large staircase leading up to this impressive structure. An architectural wonder even by modern standards, the palace is 13 storeys and contains more than a thousand rooms. The altitude alone will make this a challenging exercise, regardless of your fitness. Be warned - once inside there are many many staircases inside too, so go as full of energy as one can at an altitude of 11450ft + 13 storeys on top of a 426.5ft hill.

Note: you can't bring water inside with you, because someone tried to smuggle in some flammable liquid several years back to set fire to the place. However, you can buy water inside relatively inexpensive. Also don't forget to slap on the sunblock.

Naturally the history of the palace relates to the Dalai Lamas and your tour guide will give you the full run down. The layout includes the rooftop White Palace, used for the living quarters of the Dalai Lama, and the central Red Palace, used for religious functions. The most stunning chapels of the Red Palace house the jewel-bedecked golden chörten (Tibetan stupa) tombs of several previous Dalai Lamas. The apartments of the 13th and 14th Dalai Lamas, in the White Palace, offer a more personal insight into palace. However, one can't help noticing that it is notably missing its main occupant, the Dalai Lama. Photographs cannot be taken inside any of the buildings. Still, this was a unique experience because of the number of pilgrims who were visiting the temple. Many carrying urns of melted Yak butter as an offering. I even got a lesson in Tibetan from an elder in how to chant the mantra, Om Mani Bêmê Hum, for generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, renunciation and wisdom. You see it written everywhere and it is often what you will hear being spoken with prayer beads and the turns of prayer wheels.

It is Jokhang ("House of The Lord") that is the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism and this is one of the most sacred places for Tibetan Buddhists. King Songtsen Gampo first built a temple in the mid-7th century, but the structure seen today is largely the result of reconstruction in the 17th century, commissioned by the Fifth Dalai Lama.

In the Sacred Temple, the first floor houses a series of chapels, each dedicated to a different deity, monk or king. Behind the numerous sculptures, the chapel walls are covered in vivid murals depicting relevant sutra and historical narratives. A path eventually leads you to the inner sanctum and this is used daily for worship. At its centre stand larger than life size statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who have put off entering paradise in order to help others attain enlightenment).

Outside, above the temple's third story rooftops are an agglomeration of pavilions, comprised of craftsmen's workshops and monks' living quarters. Looking out from here, you get to see some spectacular views across the Barkhor, the pilgrimage route encircling the temple, and across the roofs of Lhasa towards the Potala Palace (don't take photos of the rooves if you notice police on them, it is strictly forbidden to take photos of any police or military personnel).

The Jokhang houses the Jowo Buddha, a Buddhist sculpture brought as part of the dowry of the Chinese Princess Wencheng upon her arrival in Tibet. This ancient Buddhist sculpture is one of Tibet's most revered images.

The pilgrims prostrating around the temple is humbling to watch. The temple is stunning in its artifacts, colours, and one can feel the spirituality within the building. The air was kind of dense with incense smoke and the smoke from the Yak butter lamps and this can be a challenge. But it is just an amazing place to visit.

Friday, 18 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Place of the Gods

There is absolutely no independent travel for Non-Chinese nationals in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). You are required to obtain a special permit and must have a tour guide to visit Tibet. You don't need to join a mass group tour, but you must at least make private arrangements through an authorized travel service. This has been the rule since 2008. There are also limitations to how many nationalities can be on a permit at once too. Make sure you check what the current status is if you ever choose to visit. It is why I am using the ever-awesome G Adventures. I still feel like an independent traveler without breaking the law!

Lhasa literally means the "place of the Gods". Sitting at 11,450ft on the northern slopes of the Himalayas, it is not hard to see why, it is one of the highest cities on the planet and the administrative capital of Tibet. There's over a 1,000 years of cultural and spiritual history leaving an impressive heritage.

In the eastern part of the city, near the Jokhang Temple and Barkhor neighborhood, Tibetan influence is still strong and evident and this is where you will see traditionally dressed Tibetans engaged on a kora (a clockwise walk around the temple), often spinning prayer wheels. You just have to block out the sight of all the Chinese military and police. They're every where including watching from rooftops and, rumour has it, not all monks are what they seem..... The western part of Lhasa is more ethnically Chinese in character. It is busy, modern and looks similar to many other Chinese cities. The population of the city before the Chinese takeover is said to have been between 20,000 and 30,000. Today the city has a population of around 500,000, and Chinese residents easily outnumber ­Tibetans by about 2:1.

In 1416 Drepung Monastery was founded by a disciple of Tsong Khapa, a 14th century Buddhist Master. It was the biggest and richest monastery in Tibet and it's Lamas helped to train each new Dalai Lama. It was also home to the Nechung, the state oracle. At its height, there were over 10000 monks and it governed 700 subsidiary monasteries as well as owning vast estates.

The monastery is found just outside of the city and up on a mountain... as you might expect to find a monastery. This was where I spent my first morning in Lhasa. It was incredibly peaceful, exactly how I envisioned how Tibet would be.

That is until I got yelled at by a monk who didn't believe I'd thrown in my ¥20 to take a photo (I did) and he even started fishing through this huge cauldron of cash just to find my two notes. Good luck with that. Whatever happened to enlightenment?!? So, allegedly the monks pray and live peacefully on the grounds, which are huge. If you're lucky you will also get to pee with a nun in the "toilet". In case you missed it, they charge you to take pictures in most areas of the monastery that are indoors. There's a very strong aroma of burning yak butter that will singe your olfactory bulb and linger for days.

After a spot of lunch and, admittedly, a nap I headed to another monastery. Sera Monastery was founded in 1419 by Jamchen Choje Shakya Yesh, another one of Tsong Khapa’s disciples. It became famous for its tantric teachings, while Drepung drew fame from its governing role. Sera was smaller than Drepung, with 7,000 monks, but was very rich and comparable in power. The monks of Sera were apparently considered clever and dangerous. Good job then that I didn't get yelled at by one then. There's an assembly hall, 3 colleges and 33 houses with a total area covered of 114,964 sq m making it the 2nd largest monastery in Tibet. 

All monasteries I visited have had something special about them, however what makes Sera Monastery unique is observing the Buddhist monks debating at 3pm. Their style of debate is far more physical than anything you will witness in the Western world. Not only does questioner stand and the responder sit on the ground, but the questioner uses various arm and hand gestures to communicate about the question and the response. The debate can become very animated and despite the fact that you haven't the foggiest about either the language nor the rules of the debate, the debate is both intense and interesting. A delightful fascinating experience and they happily let you take photographs without a charge!

Thursday, 17 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Confucius Says...

By 6am yesterday morning both of the squat toilets in my hard sleeper carriage could be best described as pungent and primitive. I don't have any descriptive for "at worst". Let's just say people seem oblivious to the fact you are supposed to FLUSH after you have been. I wasn't even 12 hours into the journey! Imagine, if you will or rather dare to, what they were like by 6am today. They were actually worse the further down the train you went. Hold your nose and turn up the PSI. The quicker you're done, the quicker you're out!

If you are expecting the romance of train travel, with silver cutlery, your own toilet and shower in your cabin, privacy, and Poirot.... this is not it. This ain't no Orient Express. You travel with locals - Domestic tourists from China and people who actually live in Tibet that are heading home. There are also smokers. This is China. If it gets overwhelming, ask politely if the person smoking can smoke down the carriage (there are smoking sections in every carriage) and mime a health issue. The prepare to be amazed at the effect that has on humans who don't have psychic powers.

As it's an average 44 hour trip, I suggest you pay for the hard (6 bunks in 1 cabin) or soft (4 bunks in 1 cabin). The only other options are the seat carriages otherwise. It was very cramped in those and I question my insanity had I been in one of those for 44 hours. In the soft or hard sleeper, each bed has linen, pillow and a quilt. It was pretty clean although I slept in my sleeping bag liner. Having ridden several overnight trains in Vietnam, Thailand and Egypt, this was not actually that bad. I managed to get some pretty good sleep for someone who is 15hrs ahead of their normal time zone, usually only waking because my bum was a bit numb or for the bathroom (God help me). Cocooned in my sleeping bag liner with the sleeve of my jacket over my eyes to block the light in the corridor (there's no door on your cabin although lights go off in your cabin at 10pm, on again at 8am) served me well. My luxury item however was a pair of ear plugs!

We had two stops on the first day. At 1pm we rolled into Lanzhou then at 350pm we made another stop, both where we could briefly stretch our legs. At the 2nd stop I got a very tasty corn on the cob and some Yak yoghurt(!), which was surprisingly easy on the ol' gastrointestinal tract. On day 2 we stopped around midday. At all these stops you were able to get off the rain and stretch your legs. It was heavenly. All of these towns are undergoing major development presumably as the Chinese government tries to persuade people to move out there.

The railway itself is a piece of engineering in its own right with many technical difficulties for it to overcome. According to Wiki:

"About half of the second section was built on "barely permanent permafrost" (odd that it would be therefore called permafrost in my humble opinion). In the summer, the uppermost layer thaws, and the ground becomes muddy. The heat from the trains passing above is able to melt the permafrost even with a small change in temperature. The main engineering challenge, aside from oxygen shortages, is this weakness of the permafrost. For areas of permafrost that are not very fragile, an embankment of large rocks is sufficient. Meanwhile in the most fragile areas, the rail bed must be elevated like a bridge. The engineers dealt with this problem in the areas of weakest permafrost by building elevated tracks with pile-driven foundations sunk deep into the ground. Similar to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, portions of the track are also passively cooled with ammonia-based heat exchangers. The integrity and strength of the railroad is not fully secure. Due to Climate change, temperatures in the Tibetan Plateau will increase by an estimated two to three degrees Celsius. This change is sufficient to melt the permafrost and thereby affect the integrity of the entire system. The effects of climate change have yet to be seen."

The railway passes the Kunlun Mountains, an earthquake zone. A magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck in 2001. Dozens of earthquake monitors have been installed along the railway. I'm kind if glad I read all this AFTER the journey. The line includes the Tanggula Pass, which, at 16,640 ft above sea level, is the world's highest railway. More than 960 km (600 mi), over 80% of the Golmud-Lhasa section, is at an elevation of more than 13,123 ft. There are 675 bridges, totalling 159.88 km (99.34 mi), and about 550 km (340 mi) is laid on permafrost.

It is without question an incredibly long trip but so worthwhile. Bring your own food and prepare to be blown away by the geography, wildlife and people you will see as you gradually climb to your destination. The air in Tibet is much thinner, with the oxygen partial pressure being 35% to 40% below that at sea level. You can breathe the oxygen pumped through nozzles in the rooms and hallways to prevent altitude sickness. I popped the Diamox to the max and subsequently had numbness and tingling in my heels. But I otherwise felt pretty good. Admittedly, having read "Into Thin Air" over a couple of hours on day 1 probably had something to do with me upping my dosage to the maximum 4.

When not reading, entertainment came in the form of "who can hack the loudest" (vocal version only!!!), "What would James Bond's German name be?" (Tomasz Müller won although I still liked my offering of Johan Bund), chin ups to the Village People's Macho Man, "let's play elevator music at random moments" (admittedly you had to be there to appreciate the comedic value although I did actually do this in an elevator in Beijing!), sing-a-long to ABBA and "Pose like the person on your noodle packaging". Perhaps a sense of delirium had overtaken us all?!? Sharing a cabin with a mountaineer has also been kind of awesome. 60 year old John, an orthodontist from Perth, has an impressive resume including advanced base camp of K2 with a group that included Peter Hillary, Edmund's son. Several of the mountaineers on that climb were blown to their death by the jet stream after reaching the summit, Hillary himself lucky to make it back alive. Combined with reading "Into Thin Air" that firmly cements my non-desire to climb Everest. Why on earth would I want to go somewhere called "The Death Zone"? But I digress.

Of course having now ridden and more importantly survived the journey, I can say it afforded me some of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. Eventually you hit the more barren and remote parts which includes an altitude of over 16000ft. Aside from the occasional nomadic settlements, all you see are snow covered mountains, icy rivers, wildlife (birds of prey, deer, marmot-like creatures) and Yaks. I kept expecting to see Genghis Khan race over on the back of a horse. It really is rather wonderful. This is after you managed to somewhat block from your mind the sounds and occasional sight of people on the train clearing their throats with such gusto that you're pretty sure they've just coughed up a lung. Hopefully, unlike me, you won't bear witness to someone depositing it on the floor, despite the no spitting signs. Like the "please flush" sign it would appear that the "please don't spit" sign is largely ignored.

Coles notes for the train ride:
* There's a hot water dispenser near the sinks, so you can make that umpteenth bowl of noodles.
* Bring your own food - noodles in a bowl, noodles in a packet and more noodles. I also brought fruit (fresh & dried), protein bars and two big containers of water.
* Bring your own music, movies, cards or make your own entertainment like we did!
* Bring wet wipes & hand sanitizer.
* I concur with The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - a small towel indispensable in all travels.
* Bring your own toilet paper (ladies, bring panty liners).
* Wear comfy warm clothes - it will get colder as you get higher in altitude.
* Have PJs for bed - no one wants to sit around in the same clothes for 44+hrs.
* Toiletries (pretty self explanatory really).
* The food sold on the train looked ok although I was dubious about the vegetarian offerings. They come round to carriages with a trolley and you buy straight from that. I ate in the restaurant car once and got some spicy tofu. It wasn't spectacular but it wasn't terrible. It was, however, nice to have a change in the surroundings. Bringing your own food is definitely the way to go.
* There are power plug for chargers are located in the corridors. Everyone was gracious enough to "take turns" with charging devices.
* There are a number of stops where you can grab some quick food from trolley stalls on the platform - fruit, boiled eggs, corn on the cob, Yak yoghurt etc. The train will stop for about 10-20 mins and it's great opportunity to stretch your legs.

So the moral of the story is..... Bring a cast iron stomach, a bottle of hand sanitizer, wet wipes and a good sense of humour when you ride the Trans Tibetan railway from Beijing to Lhasa and prepare yourself for the journey of a lifetime! And if all else fails, you can never go wrong with friendly chin up competitions to the music of the Village People.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

... Crouch With Tigers, Hide With Dragons: Scorpion, the "Other" Food Group

Food is an absolute obsession for the Chinese. Beijing is where you will find staples such as noodles and dumplings. Peking duck is the city's most famous dish. I'm therefore wondering where scorpion factors into the mix but if you go to the night market in Wangfujing, like I did last night, you will see not only scorpion but seahorse, starfish, silk worms and other bugs/creatures which I'm still not exactly sure where Darwin would've categorized them.

"You try lady? You try!" shouted the seller as he banged his hand on the counter top. The scorpions all started "dancing" despite being speared on a stick. Oh! So they're alive! Even more tempting!

By the time I had walked the length of the market and back, I had somehow talked myself into trying one. In fact for the same price as a Starbucks you could get 3! Who knew!?! The scorpions themselves actually meet a grisly end before you crunch down on them. They're quickly fried and then, if they weren't dead by then, suffocated in spices and likely a healthy shot of MSG. It was crunchy. No slime. And actually quite tasty even if I did fleetingly fret about the ramifications of a scorpion stinger stuck in my teeth. Not exactly as filling as the wonderful vegetarian dumplings I got from a small non-English speaking hole in the wall. Still, not enough to make me even contemplate trying a silk worm.

This morning I visited the world's largest public square along with thousands of others. To most of us Westerners, Tiananmen Square is strongly associated with the protests in June 1989 in which many died. It is a monument representing the supremacy of the Communism and whilst not the most relaxing of places thanks to the security, it's 440000 sq metres of it make it pretty awe-inspiring. If you feel so inclined you can queue for hours with many Chinese who have come to pay their respects to the embalmed body of Chairman Mao in his namesake Memorial Hall.

At the end of the Square, the Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world. There are 800 buildings with 9000 rooms, as well as courtyards, pavilions and gardens. I spent 3 hours there and still only saw a small fraction of it. It has been home to 24 emperors and was the heart of China for 500 years. Highlights, at least for me, included the Gate of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Middle Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony. These emperors were certainly harmonious! You will see lots of dragons. The Imperial Garden, at the north end, would've been perhaps somewhat more tranquil had I not been visiting it with hoards of others.

I've done a lot of walking since arriving in Beijing. But I've also braved the subway and the bus. I've read that Beijingers are getting better at queuing but it is still quite a work in progress. Expect some scrums! I'm pretty sure that the elbow I got whilst trying to board the 103 bus came from a wily geriatric lady. She actually knocked me out of the way and climbed over someone else. Don't bother losing your temper in public - it is considered bad form. Just smile, smile, smile!

I'll try to remember that over the next 44 hours or so on board a train bound for Lhasa, Tibet!