A Travellerspoint blog

May 2012

Pokhara, Nepal

Back to the mountains

sunny 85 °F

Pokhara is a six hour bus ride from Kathmandu that left us wondering how bus drivers manage their time. After leaving at 7am the bus stopped at 10am for breakfast, then at noon for lunch! At one point we were worried that our six hour bus ride might also include a dinner stop! The great thing about buses in Nepal is that the scenery is always mountainous and the local busses are always filled to the brim with travelers sitting on top of the bus yelling, beating drums and playing their supped up version of a “Tommy Tonet” (remember those recorders from when we were kids?) The sounds and sights kinda made you wanna ride the bus all day! Luckily, we made it there in only 6.5 hrs and were able to find a guesthouse just as everyone deserted the streets as a huge wind and dust storm was picking up.
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The storm left as quick as it came, and after unpacking we had the best chicken momos ever at a place called Parbati Restaurant next to our new friend Hemant’s Nepali Cottage Guesthouse (where we were staying). It was more like the front yard of the Parbarti family’s home, but after sampling around town, it turned out that this place had the best flavor and prices in all of Lake Side. Our room had a sweet view of the mountain tops and a park that filled up with soccer players every day. One of youngsters turned out to be a neighborhood kid that we met. His dad proudly told us that he will be headed off to some Nepali National team tryouts in a few days.
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Since we were only on a 15 day visa in Nepal, we decided not to enter into the Annapurna Mountain Range boundary and instead do a few day hikes from town. One of those hikes was up to the Peace Monument across the lake. We thought we were going to rent bikes, ride around the lake and then ride up to the monument… but turns out that our tourist map was missing the contour lines and the words ‘3 inch deep loose dirt road!’
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We also hiked from town to Sarangkot for a picnic with a view the Annapurnas.
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On the way back down, we chatted up a local who told us that there was an alternate way down that was not as steep that took us through a village. We thought this would be a good idea for Robin’s knee, which it was, until we got lost and stuck on terraced rice paddies with 5 foot drops and confused water buffalos.
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During our hike to Sarangkot we watched some paragliders soar up the thermals and then down to Phewa Lake. This inspired Robin to eventually take her own flight. Flying was an amazing experience, one she hopes she can do more!
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Most of Pokhara’s Lake Side district caters to trekkers who are preparing (or just got back) from the 20 day Annapurna Loop / Base Camp trek, so there are lots of fun heath food grocery stores and nice little cafés along the lake. With views like these, now you know why we are somewhat behind on writing this blog!
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 02:57 Archived in Nepal Comments (5)

6 Months Down

Is this really halfway?

After spending some heavy time mulling over a map of the world, we are beginning to realize that our initial plan to travel around the world in just a year may have been a little too ambitious. We have concluded that there is way more to see than there is time, and wonder if perhaps we need to extend our trip. For now we have made some hard choices about where we won’t be able to visit on this trip, and tried to segment out geographic chunks for future adventures. The good news is that we have an outline for the next few months! Take a look and let us know if you would like to meet up with us somewhere along the way…

After we go through Nepal and India, we will leave from India for Turkey and then work our way up the Mediterranean in time to catch stages 10-13 of le Tour de France. We will then fly to over to Serbia for Kojarez's wedding and afterwards fly to London to catch the tail end of the Olympics. After some time with Robin's family in England we will make our way to Munich to celebrate Kev’s lil bro’s 30th birthday at Oktoberfest, and then down through Spain into Portugal on our way to Africa...

Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 05:09 Comments (9)

Kathmandu, Nepal

Hello hippies!

sunny 78 °F

Traveling through Eastern China, we felt as though we were usually amongst the locals, or other Chinese tourists. There weren’t many westerners or English speakers outside of the Hostels and we had to heavily rely on charades, pictionary and showing images of food and Chinese characters on our phone. When we entered Kathmandu all of a sudden we were surrounded by white folks and people were speaking English! After the initial shock we were super excited to shop at grocery stores full of new kinds of recognizable foods. We celebrated making it safely through Tibet’s many military checkpoints by having some Tibetan Hot Beer called Tungba, which is really served hot and thick with millet grains.
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Kathmandu is a bustling town, with the main tourist area completely over run by peace signs and other hippie apparel. It was pretty funny at first to hear everyone saying ‘namaste’ as a greeting which we learned actually translates to ‘hello’ in Nepalese. In the search to replace Kevin’s broken engagement band, we picked up a matching pair, making sure Kevin’s had the mandatory engraved peace sign.
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We didn’t have much in the way of plans for Nepal or India, so we decided to hold off most of the site seeing in Kathmandu and instead spend some time on the computer. We did however take a break to visit the KEEP center (Kathmandu Environmental Education Project) to learn about porter conditions on the popular Mt. Everest trek. We watched a very compelling BBC documentary called “Bearing the Burden” that explains how badly the porters are treated and the great risks they take by taking on such dangerous work. Fortunately, the KEEP center outlines the many ways a conscious climber can make all the difference.

To officially feel like we were in Nepal, we joined a meditation group at the Om Family retreat for guided meditation. This was a bit different than the meditation class we had in Laos in that it involved first chanting with “oooooommm” while meditating and then lying on your back and meditating. Kevin learned the hard way that you are NOT supposed to fully shut your eyes when performing this style of meditation… zzzzzz.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:41 Archived in Nepal Comments (3)

Tibetan Tea Tips

The sweet and the sour

sunny 50 °F

Tibetans love their ‘butter tea’ and believe it helps with altitude sickness. The unfortunate problem with it is the flavor! It’s one of those acquired tastes / love it or hate it foods. His Holliness the XIV Dalai Lama even admits to not liking butter tea. To make butter tea you take hot tea and blend it with salted yak butter and wha-la, frothy salty butter tea! Thankfully, they seem to only drink it for breakfast and then turn to ‘sweat tea’ for the rest of the day, unless at altitude where they drink it ALL day long to help prevent altitude sickness. Tibetan sweet tea is sweetened milk tea and you order it by what looks like a 2 liter thermos. Since there aren’t any pubs to hang out at in Tibet, the tea houses are packed with people from morning ‘till night. Although there is food available, most of the time people will just have a huge thermos on the table and sip out of their little shot glass sized tea glasses. Although most tea houses are dark and cold inside, we found them quite comfortable, with their low rug lined benches and their local/family atmosphere.
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We attempted to talk politics over tea, but quickly realized that it’s an unacceptable conversation to be having. One Tibetan told us that he was paranoid about undercover police and increasing arrests. It was a strange feeling for us to be spending big bucks on our trip, toting around taking photos when Tibetans are not even allowed to own a passport. Our guide had a deep sadness in his eye when he responded to our travel plans with a comment about how he has never, and will never be able to leave Tibet. We later watched a documentary called “Undercover in Tibet” in which we learned about a Tibetan named Tash Despa who went undercover into Tibet a few years ago to document what it’s really like in Tibet for Tibetans. When we watched this documentary we thought to ourselves; if we hadn’t visited Tibet ourselves we probably wouldn’t believe it… but spending the time to watch this documentary opened our eyes to why the Tibetans reacted to us the way they did. If you do watch it, we’d like to note that the military presence is very real, and that the makeshift police tents that you will see in the documentary have since been solidified into fortified houses in the middle of the streets and squares:
http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/dispatches-undercover-in-tibet/

Although prayer flags are symbolic of Buddhism and thus a reminder of Tibet, the Chinese government has made it illegal to raise the Tibetan flag. In fact, it is a serious and punishable offence to be caught with a picture of the Dali Lama, or the Tibetan flag. Thankfully we made it out of China and can now safely wave whatever flag we want:
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:31 Archived in China Comments (0)

Zhangmu, Tibet

Everest to Zhangu border and border crossing

sunny 45 °F

We headed out for a walk this morning to enjoy the mountain one last time… the sky was still clear for an amazing sunrise.
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After tipping out some tea for our Homies we packed up and headed out. From EBC (5250m) we headed down the mountain through New Tingri on our way to the Zhangmuzhen/Kodari (China/Nepal) border (2300m). The newly opened shortcut was still a bit of a rough road and just as were thinking about how we were in the middle of nowhere, we came upon stuck tourist jeep. After piling rocks under there wheel and giving the jeep a good push we were off and watching the jeep drivers racing each other for no apparent reason other than there really wasn’t much of a clear road.
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The border towns are divided by a really pretty river and waterfall which made for a great view, but that is about all. The next morning, we headed to the border where our guide Tashi showed us how to jump queue Asian style and scored us a spot right in front of the line. We are not sure if this was just his great service, or his desire to get on the road for his long drive back to Lhasa. The border crossing was a little nerve racking when a Chinese guard unpacked everything from Robin’s backpack and went through all her clothes asking her questions about where she had been! We eventually made it through without any issue and walked across a beautiful bridge into Nepal.
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The Nepal side of the border scores our ‘most confusing border crossing’ award because there are no signs or anything about how to immigrate… all of a sudden we were simply walking through town. If we weren’t so cautious about getting an entry stamp we would have walked right past the place where we were supposed to pay for our tourist visa and stamp. We met up with the girls whose jeep got stuck yesterday and shared a jeep taxi (one that carried 7 passengers!) from the border to Kathmandu.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

Everest Base Camp, Tibet

Sleeping with the stars

sunny 38 °F

Tashi prepped us in the morning with “if you’re lucky you’ll see the mountain today, you can only see it from this pass a few times a year.” We crossed our fingers in anticipation as we went over the final pass and low and behold there it was!! “Lucky, lucky, lucky” were Tashi’s words as the infamous mountain Tibetains call Qomolangma came into view.
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Another three hours on the road (but just 100k for the day) we were 8k from Everest Base Camp (EBC) at Rongbuk, the highest monastery in the world (5000m). After lunch at Rongbuk we packed a day pack with snacks and clothes thinking we would be able to hike around but were a bit dismayed to learn that we wouldn’t be able to walk around. Having passed at least 3 other police and military checkpoints today, we were surprised to be restricted to such a small observation area (5250m). None the less we enjoyed the place to ourselves.
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Fortunately we were able to explore a bit further down from the EBC check point. We climbed around the nearby nunnery and walked along the river between Rongbuk and EBC. The sky was clear throughout the day and after an awesome sun set against the mountain we walked to the Yak Tent Camp. To our surprise there were Tibetans playing pool (billiards) even up here! Tibetans love playing pool and every town we passed through, no matter how run down or poor seemed to muster up enough to have at least one outside pool table. After watching for a bit we headed into our “Peace Hotel.”
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We were a little nervous about sleeping in a tent, as it was freezing outside and we had all of our clothing on! However, when we stepped into the tent we were pleasantly greeted by a yak-poo furnace burning strong! We played a Tibetan dice game that moved shells and coins around the table and required you to yell as loud as you can for the number you wanted and then slam the dice container as hard as you could onto the leather platform, so we fit right in  Thanks to Sam’s recommendation, that night we went for a walk outside to look at the stars. The sky was still perfectly clear and the sky was unbelievable, cheesy as it sounds we even managed to see a shooting star.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 07:48 Archived in China Comments (2)

New Tingri, Tibet

Overland from Shigatse to New Tingri

sunny 51 °F

We drove 240k over two passes Tso-La pass (4500m) and Gyatso-La pass (5252m). Luckily the altitude wasn’t an issue so we could hike around the top of each pass and enjoy the stunning views.
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We took what was going to be a small detour to Sakya Monastery but ran into some construction and ended up trailblazing through some irrigation channels only getting stuck once (we were happy we had a 4-wheel drive land cruiser) The grounds at the monastery were open and sunny with a bit of ice still lingering in the shadows. The rooms were quiet, cold, dark and full of ancient scriptures. It makes you realize how simple a monk’s life is, and how many sacrifices they make.
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We arrived that evening in New Tingri (4500m), a very small town along the main road, with very little in the way of entertainment other than heckling back and forth with the kids peddling ‘fossils’ on the dusty street. This place was windy, dusty and the people were reminiscent of a Mad Max movie, with their motorbikes decked out with streamers and their faces wrapped in flowing rags. We taught some Tibetans how to play a card game we call “Rich Man, Poor Man” that night… Tibetans are very good at cards, and they get really emotional when they play. Our cards took quite the beating that night as they bent and threw the cards down with great enthusiasm…. but it was so worth it! We retired to a long dark hallway with no lights (our first two nights on the road were 6 stars compared to this place). To give you an idea of how primitive this town was, here is a picture of the bathrooms at this hotel (this is the ENTIRE bathroom, no shower, no sink):
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

Shigatse, Tibet

Overland from Gyangze to Shigatse

sunny 56 °F

We had a short 90k morning drive into Shigatse (3836m), and spent some time exploring above the circumambulation path around the Tashilhunpo Monastery. This gave us a nice bird’s eye view of the monastery and a spot we scoped out to visit the next morning for the sunrise on the Shigaste Dzong.
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Fortunately for us, our guide Tashi was raised in Shigaste and he invited us out with a few buddies of his (including one monk) at a teahouse for some grub. They were hard core coca cola drinkers (their substitute for beer) but we were feeling pretty acclimatized to the altitude and decided it was time to celebrate with a beer. The lady of the house said they had either Lhasa beer or barely beer and so we opted for the unknown barely beer. The beer came in a plastic bucket with floating grains of barely and some unintentionally smeared butter on the rim. Tea houses are dark, cold and don’t advertise that they are ‘restaurants’ so the locals were definitely getting a kick out of the fact that there were white folks taking shots of barely beer. The custom is for someone else to fill your mini glass with beer and then you take three deliberate progressive swigs until its empty; then pass the glass. Our bucket was refilled from what looked like an old canola oil jug at least three times, and the owner refused to accept any payment.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 04:42 Archived in China Comments (0)

Gyangze, Tibet

Overland from Lhasa to Gyangze

sunny 57 °F

After four days of acclimating in Lhasa, it was time for our real adventure into the highlands of Tibet. Equipped only with our guide, our driver, a land cruiser, and Kevin’s full bag of snacks, we hit the road. We drove to the top of Kamba-La pass (4794m) and stopped for a view of Yamdrok Lake. It was breezy up there so Robin suited up in traditional Tibetan wear and warmed up with a lovely Yak named Anko.
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We continued on over Karo-La pass (5010m) and then to Kharola Glacier. In total our first day’s drive was about 270k into Gyangze (3950m) but it only takes 1k of driving through a Tibetan community for us to notice a few things. First we noticed all the many colorful prayer flags waving about, either strung between rooftops or waving off of a bundle of sticks coming straight out of the rooftop. Each color represents something sacred:
Blue = sky
White = clouds
Green = water
Yellow = land
Red = fire
Our first thought was green=water? wtf? but then standing on top of the pass looking out at the scenery we noticed all the elements represented in the landscape with the dry yellowish clay rocks covering the hills and the reflection on the water making the lake appear slightly green. Here is an example scene, can you find all 5 elements in the picture?
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The other thing we noticed fairly quickly was the enormous collection of yak-pies (aka dung) stacked up at each house. The farmers collect the horse and yak-pies then splat them against their walls to dry in the sun. After the poo dries, they stack each one up like bricks and create massive pyramids or walls. They do this because there are no trees in the high altitude for wood so instead they burn the dried yak-pies to fuel their stoves and keep the house warm in the winter.
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We visited Pelkhor Chode Monestery in Gyangze and walked through Tibet’s largest stupa. This stupa has many floors filled with singleton rooms that you could access from the balcony of each floor, and in each room there is a larger than life sized Buddha statue with all the walls decorated and painted with a story about that specific Buddha. We didn’t even attempt to visit each room because there are over 10,000 Buddha figures in this one stupa.
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That night we stayed in Gyangze and eventually learned a Tibetan card game called 51… trying to learn the rules without a proper English speaker made for an interesting game of cards in which the objective of the game kept changing. We got the blood flowing early the next morning when we narrowly escaped a pack of wild dogs. We were walking around the Gyangze Dzong (Fort) and managed to get inside a fenced area that must have been really nice in its hay day, but has now turned to a ghost town over run by litter and dogs. Yelling and throwing sticks we held them off as we hoped the fence back to civilization. We then cautiously ventured off the road and up the back of the Fort’s hill for an awesome sunrise view of the city.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 00:43 Archived in China Comments (1)

Lhasa, Tibet

The long awaited journey

sunny 65 °F

After months of planning and permit uncertainty we were actually on the train to Lhasa! Although controversial in Tibet, the railway connects Beijing and Shanghai to the highest train station in the world at Lhasa (above 3,500m) via the highest railway pass in the world (over 5,000m) and in the process passes by the highest lake in the world (Lake Nam Co above 4,700m). The graph of the trip looks sorta like this:
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The journey passes through unbelievable terrain including Tibetan villages with their unique square like architecture with their longhaired Yaks grazing in the plains all towered by picturesque mountain ranges. As we were sitting by the window we noticed that there were two little red hearts pinned to our curtains. There were no other curtains with these markers and no other white folks on the train so we started asking the other cabin members and determined that they were ‘foreigner’ markers. Who knows why we had to be marked but we thought we’d have some fun with ‘em and wore them around for a while.
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Lhasa is sadly very much like it is described in Wikitravel – flooded by the Chinese Military. There are always two points of view on how history has come to pass. In this case there is the Chinese run Tibetan History Museum we visited in Lhasa where the “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” is boldly proclaimed and then there is the BBC documentary series on China we watched as well as the blockbuster called “7 years in Tibet” which both show a not-so-peaceful conquering of Tibet. We decided to spend half of our time with Ganlan in a newly established Chinese part of town called Jia Malinka where we enjoyed some of Ganlan’s home cooked Chinese food and talked about what it is like to be Chinese living in Lhasa. We then we moved into the Tibetan quarter for a contrasting experience where we had some homemade Tibetan food at Mima’s house including sambat, dried yak cheese, butter tea and some barley beer transported from his village in an old oil 2L bottle. Conversations on politics were extremely hush-hush even in the comfort of his home.

Our Tibetan guide Tashi gave us a breakdown of how to find locally owned businesses. We were then off and exploring sweet tea houses, slurping dumpling soup, and dominating momos one by one… the Tibetan tea houses welcomed us in but we were definitely not their normal customers and it was an experience all together trying to order. Luckily ‘momo’ was easy to pronounce and we are now comfortable using other patrons’ food as a menu selection.
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Instead of basing our touring around visiting all of the monasteries in Lhasa, we continued with our “unorthodox yet effective” lifestyle and cycled around the city. We still rode around to see some of the major tourist sites, stopped to walk the clockwise circumambulation path at Sera Monastery and trekked the mountain high above the Pabongkha Monastery. To say the weather was good would be a complete understatement, it was AWESOME and had us excited for what we hoped would be clear days at Everest base camp.
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Posted by Robin-and-Kevin 00:45 Archived in China Comments (2)

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