I have not been able to write in here for a while as we have been doing a lot of camping and even when I have stayed in towns, the internet does not always allow me to get into my blog.
Since my last entry from Kathmandu, I have been on the Dragoman overland truck tour travelling through Nepal and Tibet. We left Kathmandu and travelled to a really nice place on the border called The Last Resort. It is a campsite with huge tents, a nice bar and restaurant area set in really beautiful grounds and is at the centre of lots of adventure activities.
I sprained my ankle on my trek, so opted not to do the bungee jump or canyoning, but instead went whitewater rafting down the Bhote Khosi river. Many of the truck group went and we had to split into about six rafts. I ended up with a group of American mountaineers in my raft. The river was mainly Grade 3 and 4 rapids, which are not usually too bad, but there were lots of hidden rocks due to the water levels being high. This meant that our guide could not always steer us clear of danger and we frequently got pinned up against rocks and all had to jump to the other side of the raft to free ourselves. The scariest point was when we became pinned in a hole just below a waterfall and our raft was being sucked under at the same time that we were having water pouring down on us from the waterfall. The raft was almost completely submerged and every so often would spin around on the spot. In order to stop ourselves falling into the hole we had to all throw ourselves against the opposite side of the raft. We were there for over ten minutes until the other guides could throw ropes to us and pull us out. I was close to jumping out and taking my chances in the rest of the rapid rather than wait until we were slowly pulled under, but the guide told me to stay in the raft. He thought my question 'how long are we going to be here? I want to get out' was extremely amusing and told the other guides afterwards, who all laughed too. I thought it was a fair question myself!
Anyway, we left The Last Resort and headed over the border into Tibet, where we got stuck for two days. Apparently the local officials were reluctant to sign the paperwork to release our truck as they have recently had the embaressment of people protesting at the Everest Base Camp and no one wanted to have their name linked to a group of foreigners. As is usual in most border towns, Zhangmu was a very sleazy dirty town full of rubbish and the high street at night was a sea of fluerescent pink lights from the numerous brothels with bored looking prostitutes sitting smoking, drinking tea or knitting!
After two nights we finally escaped the town at 2.00am (due to the road being closed from 8.00am onwards) and made our way to Nyalm to start acclimitising. The trip gains altitude at a much higher rate than in recommended and so the chances of people getting sick was almost a dead certainty. With this in mind, the leaders recommended that everyone take Diamox, the altitude sickness tablets. I opted not to as I thought my trek would stand me in good stead and this was the right decision as I did not get sick at all - and also did not experience the Diamox tingles that everyone else was getting with pins and needles in their legs, twitching eyeballs and not being able to feel their lips!
Nyalm was a pretty basic and grim town, but gave us an introduction to the sights we would see from then on. Some of us climbed to the top of a hill for a panorama of the snow capped mountains in the distance passing herds of yaks and Tibetan farmers in their boy racer style souped up tractors that look like a cross between a wheel barrow and a drag car. The locals look really different to the other Asian people I had seen so far and look more like Peruvians with dark russet complexions, long black hair for both the men and women and they appear to like western clothing with stetsons, tassled jackets alongside rustic pinafores and trousers. All the children wear their standard school uniform turquoise tracksuits that make them look like little scousers!
We had a couple of nights camping in the middle of nowhere at higher altitudes and during the day drove up to higher levels to acclimitise. The scenery was pretty breathtaking in its barreness with the huge expanses of sand coloured plateau, sweeping hills and glimpses of the snow capped mountains in the distance. This must be a tough land to live off as very little seems to grow and it is cold and dusty. However, you pass the locals in their fields using hoes and spades to coax something out of the ground.
Wherever we camped we would be the centre of attention and provide the entertainment for the locals for the evening. We would park in the middle of a valley with nothing in sight for miles and yet within half an hour there would be at least six locals standing so close to you that you could feel their breath on the back of your neck. I think that personal space and privacy do not mean the same things here and if you look up when going to the toilet behind a discreet rock, there would be a friendly smiling face and a wave from one of them!
The weather was starting to get pretty cold and the layers were starting to come out to deal with it. However, during the day if the sun was out it was still pretty warm and we were able to admire the scenery even better from the seats on top of the truck.
We then left to go to a town called New Tingri, which was near to Everest and so had a few guesthouses to stay in. We all had a much needed shower and enjoyed staying in the little Tibetan style house with their white walls and black window frames. The dining rooms are generally quite sociable places with a wood burner heater and cushioned seats to relax on whilst drinking Jasmine Tea and eating the local dishes of Momos (dumplings) or noodle soup. Everytime I try and order something different, I always end up with one of these two, so eventually gave in and accepted this is what I would have to eat - although it will be a long time before I can face a Momo again.
We left for Mount Everest and along the way stopped for brunch on top of a hill with an amazing panorama of the Himalayas with Everest, Makalu and Choy Oyu (all over 8000m) dominating the landscape.
I along with a handful of others decided to walk up to the Base Camp rather than driving the whole way and hiked through the dry hilly area. By the time we reached Base Camp there was fog everywhere and you could not even see the mountains. We stayed the night in tents made from Yak skin, which are owned by local families and used by them for their daily living. Our family had a very cute little baby who was wrapped up warm in a white yak fur lined crib and sat on the end of my bed staring unblinkingly at me for much of the night.
The next morning we rose and set off walking up to the higher Base Camp where the trekkers begin from. Even on this section, there was still a steeply winding track that the more lazy people either took either a four wheel drive car up or alternatively the locals used little ponies with bumpy carts pulled along behind them. The walk was only about an hour and a half and gave you the chance to admire the scenery along the way. At the final turn you come across frozen shallow ponds and the enormous Everest towering upwards. There were lots of prayer flags attached to a stupa on top of one of the hills and gave the best views of the mountain. There were still a few tents pitched with people waiting to climb Everest, but you were not allowed into their section without paying a large sum. I stayed and admired the view and took many pictures. However, to be honest, I think that the Nepalese side is much more impressive.
We then left to stay in more bushcamps on high passes that were very cold and appreciated the much needed camp fire before sprinting to your tent to try and warm up.
We went to a pretty Tibetan town called Shigatse to see some monastaries with lots of ornate golden Buddhas and were shown around by a friendly local monk. The town had some nice streets with Tibetans in pretty natty clothes sitting out on their doorsteps going about their normal daily business. The women wore dark pinstripe ankle length pinafores with bright coloured shirts and flouncy hats. The men wore suits with trilby hats or more casual clothes and stetsons.
We then stayed in another nice town called Gyantse which had a really nice tibetan feel and had the white and black buildings, a street market with lots of trinkets and very little traffic. There was a huge monastary there that had a festival taking place when we were there with monks in elaborate masked costumes dancing around to the sound of horns blowing. The buildings had thousands of rooms with shrines in each of them and took quite a few hours to explore.
We then travelled straight to Lhasa and were happy to be in the capital city. The home of the Dalai Llama, the Potala Palace is a stunning building that overlooks the whole city from up on the hill. It is filled with thousands of rooms but you are only allowed to rush through about twenty on your one hour ticket, which makes for quite a whistlestop tour. However, I was pleased to note that the meditation room had comfy seats and lots of chocolate - seems like my kind of religion.
One of the other sights in the city is to visit the main temple. The locals have an interesting way of worshipping outside it that seems to be a bit like a squat jump. The stand with their hands praying, then get down onto their knees, slide forward onto their bellies with their arms pointing ahead on the floor, slide back up to their knees and then return to standing. They do this for hours and some even do it along the road as a way of getting around whilst praying. Many of them have little hand cover to aid the sliding forward and they take it all very seriously.
Inside the temple was a slightly chaotic crush as everyone lines up to go into every single shrine (there are hundreds) and they all take flasks of foul cheesy smelling yak butter to pour onto the candles, count their prayer beads and touch every Buddha. It was quite dark inside and I found myelf slipping around on the spilt yak butter, being knocked over by over zealous worshippers and generally feeling a bit stressed by it.
However, Lhasa itself is quite a nice city to wander around and explore the markets, eat some good food and recover from camping in the cold.