While at home…

During my travels in 2012 I collected 14 hours of video. This week I finally got around to making it into a single collection, and put it online:

I also got around to writing detailed blogs for cyclists on crazyguyonabike.com of my routes in The Annapurna (Nepal), The Manali – Leh Highway (India), The Nubra Valley (India) and East Africa. When I was researching these routes it was very difficult to find information and advice online, so I hope they can help people who are thinking about those routes in the future.

And finally, I uploaded 50 recordings I made during the trip to The Freesound Project. My favourites are:

A buddhist ceremony of killing ‘ego’ in a monastery in the Himalayas
A train idling at night in India surrounded by frogs
A funeral song in Laos
Erte Ale volcano in Ethiopia
A pool full of bubbling sulphur in Ethiopia
Durbar Square market at night, Kathmandu

 

Malawi and the end of the road

A final update on the 2012 trip:

I spent a very enjoyable 3 weeks in Malawi on and off the bike. After a couple of days in Livingstonia I cycled to the Vwaza Marsh Reserve on the border with Zambia where I camped on the edge of a lake full of hippos and visiting elephants.

Elephant and calf, Vwaza Marsh (50m from my tent!)

Elephant and calf, Vwaza Marsh (50m from my tent!)

Following that I spent 5 days up on the Nyika Plateau, a vast area of wild grassland, zebra, bushbuck, viewpoints and great biking trails!

Camping on the Nyika Plateau

Camping on the Nyika Plateau

Then I stayed for a couple of days in Mzuzu before heading down to the lakeshore via the Chikangawa forestry road, an old road from the colonial days that zigzags down from the highlands to the lakeshore through pristine indigenous forest. On my second night I found my favourite camping spot of the trip: in a wood beside a lake full of loud birds during the day and insects and frogs at night.

Campsite at a resevoir near Mazamba, Malawi

Campsite at a resevoir near Mazamba, Malawi

Entering the forest, Chikangawa

Entering the forest, Chikangawa

Crossing a 'bridge' on the way to the lake

Crossing a ‘bridge’ on the way to the lake

I visited my old school at Bandawe, where I had volunteered for 7 months in 2006. All of my old colleagues had transfered to other schools or other jobs, but the school itself was in good shape, well equipped with a new science lab and computer lab and girls’ dormitory, all provided by the good old EU.

Back at Bandawe Secondary School, 6 years later

Back at Bandawe Secondary School, 6 years later

And to finish off my time in Malawi I went up to Ruarwe for a few days, a village I had visited before that can only be reached by a hot 11 hour boat ride. It was on that boat ride that I randomly bumped into Cuthbert – one of my old students – who was on his way home from university, so I had a chance to visit his family’s farm perched on top of a hill overlooking Ruarwe bay.

With Cuthbert in Ruarwe. You can see his house on top of the hill in the background

With Cuthbert in Ruarwe. You can see his house on top of the hill in the background

The best thing about being back in Malawi was seeing my old students again. The great thing about Facebook is that I’m back in contact with a lot of them, after a 5 year gap in communication. It was nice to hear that they had the second highest grade in the whole Northern region in the JCE (Junior) examinations the year after I left Bandawe and that now most of them are studying in 3rd level education. It’s difficult for students from a rural background to study in university because of a lack of scholarships or bursaries, but the government (and their donors) have recently introduced ‘bonded study’, paying the way for hundreds of budding nurses and teachers through college who then must work for the government for 3 years at a reduced salary.

Finally, it was onto a bus to Johannesburg to catch my flight home, where I’ve spent my time with family and friends at home, skiing in France and at my grandfather’s 90th. Good to be home! It was quite a trip.

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Slowly down the Great Rift Valley

I really didn’t expect to be freezing cold in Ethiopia, of all places. On my first few days in Addis Ababa the temperature went below 10 celsius and it rained constantly. I couldn’t handle it – I had to wear all my clothes, sleep in my hoodie and got a head cold. Don’t know how I’m going to survive back in Ireland!

I had chosen Addis as an entry point to Africa because of a cheap promotional flight from Mumbai with Saudi Arabian. $200 for the biggest jump of the trip so far – from the steamy monsoon of Mumbai to the chilly rains of Ethiopia. Otherwise I would have just taken a flight to Nairobi and headed to Malawi from there. But I’m really happy I decided to come to Ethiopia; the country is really beautiful in parts. I spent a month in the North of the country, wandering around some ancient Coptic churches, trekking up to the highest mountain in the country and then driving into the baking Danakil desert to the edge of very active volcanos.

Had a good time in Ethiopia

But first I had to learn a bit about the country. I spent the first couple of days visiting the excellent museums of Addis Ababa. Being from Ireland, I’m quite proud of my country’s ancient history going back to the megalithic tombs of Newgrange, but the age of history anywhere in Europe is nothing compared to here. The first exhibit of the first museum I went to was an original 3.5 million year old humanoid skull, found out in the deserts. From there the museum was full of discoveries charting the evolution of mankind, all found in Ethiopia.

A skull in the Ethnological Museum, Addis Ababa. Dated at around 3.5 million years old.

Then there were artefacts from the beginnings of Christianity (which came to Ethiopia in the 4th Century, 100 years before most of Europe) and older rock inscriptions that suggest the existence of a Judaic civilization long before that. Other museums were full of stories of the Italian imperial army’s  defeat to Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century (the only African army to defeat a European invading force) and pretty shocking collections from the time of the Derg, when Mengitsu armed local militias to kill thousands of dissenting civilians. In the Red Terror museum there are rooms full of skulls of the victims of the cold-war regime, toppled by a group of fighters that included the prime minister Meles Zenawi, who had just died two weeks before I arrived. The country was still in mourning, and every street is still lined with images of the ex-prime minister.

Fish for breakfast by Lake Awassa

After Addis I got a series of buses for 2 days through the fertile highlands filled with green and gold fields and round huts to Lalibela, an area full of 12th Century churches and tunnels hewn out of solid rock. I had a great day wandering between the churches – which are sunk into the rock rather than dug into a rock face – and getting lost in the labyrinthine tunnels.

St. Gyorgis Church, Lalibela. Cut out of solid rock 900 years ago.

The weirdest thing about Lalibela is that at any moment you could come face to face with a skeleton. Ethiopians believe that dying in the vicinity of a church grants you automatic entry to heaven, so many arrange to die in cells peppered around churches. As a result, walking down dark tunnels or entering the compound of a church, I often came face-to-face (or face- to-toe) with skeletons hundreds of years old packed in to small enclaves in the rock.

Some skeletons I found along the path

But the best part of Lalibela was just hanging around the cafes and restaurants. Ethiopia must have the best coffee in the world, and I became addicted to the stuff while I was there. For 10 cents you can have a cup of the best black coffee around or for 20 cents a thick, sweet macchiato. It’s central to the culture here and just walking down the street you can constantly smell it wafting around. I spent most of my time in Lalibela in coffee shops chatting to people. I hung around with the night receptionist from my hotel (BSc Pharmacy), the waiter their friend, a local technical school teacher (BA Education). Most young people in Ethiopia are very well educated but the opportunities for employment are pretty limited, so you meet them on buses and hanging around the towns with little to do.

Lunch, Ethiopian style

Next I took more buses North for one and a half days. Journeys in Ethiopia were very long but most of the road system was very good. Chinese contractors are building thousands of kilometres of roads around the country – on any given road construction site you can see a big group of Ethiopian construction workers with picks and shovels labouring away in the hot sun under the supervision of usually one Chinese engineer with a massive straw hat and smartphone. I arrived in Wukro, a one-horse town and entry point to the Tigray region, home to around 80 clifftop churches that date back as far as the 5th century.

The road to the Gheralta (with the worst bike in the world)

I rented a dodgy bike for two days and squeaked my way through the roasting hot countryside to the churches, climbing up the sheer cliffs using centuries-old hand and footholds to the little churches, perched on pretty stunning ledges and caves 100-200m above the plains. When the first Christian monks came here to convert the locals, they found that they got the most respect if they built their churches and monasteries on top of the rocky cliffs that jut out of the scenery. It worked, and the locals stopped worshipping sun and moon gods who lived on top of the hills and nowadays most of them are Coptic christians.

Climbing up to Abuna Yemata Guh, part of which includes walking along a 1m wide path with a large drop on the left.

While in the Gheralta area I stayed in Hawzen, a village infamous for a different reason. In the 80s the Tigray region was full of rebels trying to topple Mengitsu’s regime. In response he waged the ‘red terror’ campaign, killing thousands of people who lived in the rebellious region. One of the worst atrocities of the time was when Mengitsu sent in his Russian planes to bomb Hawzen on market day, when people from miles around converge on the village. Over 2,000 people died. Mengitsu fled Ethiopia when the cold war ended and his military support stopped, and now lives with Bob Mugabe in Zimbabwe. I gave the bike back and took trucks and buses along the very North of Ethiopia, up to the Sudanese border and back to Gonder to join up with some other travelers for a hike. It was market day as we traveled along the roads, which were full of hundreds of camels being driven to market accompanied by herders with AK47s on their backs. The Northern region is fairly volatile and is dotted with refugee camps full of Eritraen and Sudanese refugees. The Ethiopian government has offered all the refugees full citizenship but most of them haven’t taken up the offer, instead prefering to wait in the camps in the hope of gaining asylum to countries such as Sweden or Norway. They seem to have a decent enough quality of life; each camp I saw had a massive UN compound on the edge with WFP feeding tents, UNHCR tents and Medicen Sans Frontiers jeeps driving around.

Somewhere in Northern Ethiopia

We hiked for 7 days in the Simien Mountains to Ras Dashen (4500m), the highest mountain in Ethiopia and the 4th highest in Africa. It’s a beautiful wilderness area on the edge of the Northern tip of the Great Rift Valley with endemic species such as the Gelada Baboons that wander around, a special type of Ibex and the Ethiopian wolf.

Gelada Baboon

We hired a donkey, a scout with an AK47 (mandatory for any off-the-beaten-track travel in Ethiopia, it seemed) and a guide and set off into the hills. The hiking was fairly tough but the views were amazing – sheer drops off the edge of the path of up to 2,000m into the plains below. At night we camped in rented tents. I had rented a sleeping bag as well which ended up being a bad choice as it was infested with fleas. After 3 nights of scratching and feeling them hopping all over me I ditched the sleeping bag and wrapped myself in aluminium foil instead – less comfortable but just as warm! We crossed rivers in full flood that nearly washed some of us away, passed kids playing homemade guitars and donkey trains carrying WFP maize up into farms in the mountains.

Yotam, near the top of Ras Dashen

On the 6th day we reached the summit, up a sharp scramble on an exposed rock face. That evening back at camp we bought a sheep, butchered it and ate almost the whole thing (I accidentally had a chomp on a testicle before spitting it out).

Trekking along the escarpment towards Ras Dashen

A great thing about Ethiopia was the type of people I traveled with. Most people don’t think of Ethiopia as a travel destination, and the type of traveler that makes it here tend to be quite ‘intrepid’. India had been full of hippies and culture vultures, Nepal had its fair share of no-nonsense hikers and Southeast Asia was full of kids on their first trips abroad. But in Ethiopia I traveled with a mad mix of people – a Tanzanian historian trying to prove links between the Queen of Sheba and the West Arabian Old Jerusalem theory, 2 lawyers who had worked on Charles Taylor’s case at The Hague, a Japanese teenager who had bet his friends that he could travel from Cape Town to Egypt in 60 days by public transport, a Belgian who had worked with the Rwandan government for a year researching renewable energy possibilities and an Israeli student who was tracking down and interviewing Sudanese refugees who had been expelled from Israel earlier this year. Great bunch of travelers.

Hiking with friends at the Jinbar Waterfall.
Noam (Israel), Luke (Ireland), Liam (Ireland), Amelia (USA/UK), Yotam (Israel)

After the Simiens we took a bus journey from hell along an as-yet-unfinished road to Axum, capital of the Axumite kingdom that lasted from the 3rd Century BC to the 7th AD. At its height it was the only civilization apart from the Persians, Romans and Chinese minting their own coins, hosted the prophet Mohammed’s daughter and wife who fled from persecution in Saudi Arabia, and stole the Ark of the Covenant from Israel!

A tomb in Axum

We had a touristy day touring the tombs and visiting the huge stelaes, one of which had been stolen by Mussolini and shipped to Rome, where it stood outside the UN building until 2005, before the Italians finally agreed to fly it home to Ethiopia. The history and stories there would have been enough to fill a week, and the good food and great beer we consumed could have lasted us days, but after a day it was time to move on.

Stelae. Nobody really knows why these were built

The last trip in Ethiopia was to the Danakil Depression, a huge saline area over 100m below sea level along the border with Eritrea. We went there mainly to visit Erta Ale, one of only 6 continuously erupting volcanos in the world. It’s way out in the desert, 2 days drive from the nearest road. It’s also a very volatile region where Eritraen forces occasionally slip across the border to get up to mischief, and 5 tourists were killedon the volcano crater in January. The Afar people who live in the region are quite warlike, and kids threw stones at our jeeps as we drove past. Because of these things, we hired 2 jeeps for ourselves (8 tourists) and an extra jeep with 3 army guards and 3 local Afar scouts – all with guns.

Afar kid (photo by Jonathan)

This area was the stage for the Ethiopian – Eritrean War from 1998 – 2000, when both countries – already dependent on aid – spent 100s of millions of dollars on a pointless border war over an area of arid desert, causing around 100,000 deaths. Our little convoy drove through the arid desert, stopping off at tiny scruffy villages to pay homage to the local chiefs along the way. On the evening of the second day – after the heat of the day had disappated – we climbed up to the volcano crater over sharp lava contorted into weird and wonderful formations.

Pushing parts of the drive to Erta Ale

Standing on the edge of a volcano, looking into the red-hot lava that occasionally flared into 3-4m ‘fountains’, it was hard to believe that it wasn’t going to blow at any moment, entombing us all in lava. Apparently there are tunnels and passageways under the volcano that allows the hot lava to flow away from the crater, enabling a ‘circuit’ of boiling and cooling lava that prevents a major eruption. It was every boy’s dream, standing on the edge of the volcano throwing stones into the lava and playing with our guards’ AK47s. That night we slept on mattresses on the edge of the crater, in the light of the full moon and the glow of the lava, listening to the sound of the ebb and flow of the volcano underneath us. That day was also Dad’s 5th anniversary so it was extra special – I think he’d be pretty intrigued if he knew I was sitting on top of a volcano that night!

Looking into the crater of Erta Ale (photo by Yotam)

Erta Ale from 100 metres away from the edge. Hot stuff

We spent the next two days driving around the Dallol area that surrounds the volcanoes. It’s a huge saline area formed when the Red Sea flooded the Danikil Depression. Over thousands of years the water has evapourated and mixed with gases pushing up from the volcanic activity underneath the earth, creating otherwordly chimneys, poisonous pools, brittle terraces and deadly geysers. I got some good recordings of stinky sulphuric gas escaping from one of the psychadelic chimneys in the middle of a pool of water with a PH of around 3. Best to describe it more with a couple of photos:

Somewhere on the dark side of the moon

Walking on seas of cheese

Walking on seas of cheese

Detail from a bubble of sulphur coming up through the ground, Dallol

Detail from a bubble of sulphur coming up through the ground, Dallol

After the Dallol it was time to leave Ethiopia. It was nearing the end of September and I had only planned to spend 2 weeks there. So I took a series of buses back to Addis – relatively cool and refreshing after the 45 degree heat of the desert - and watched the All-Ireland final two weeks after it happened. It was great to watch Donegal win the Sam for the first time in 20 years, sitting in a hotel lobby stealing their fast wifi and drinking copious amounts of coffee to steady my nerves.

Time off from the road in Awassa, Southern Ethiopia

On from Addis it was a four day journey to Nairobi, down the Rift Valley through rich farmland and past lush lakeshores to the border at Moyale and then on through the Northern Kenyan wilderness, full of ostriches, dikdiks, zebras, giraffe and monkeys, dotted with nomadic villages and ubiquitous Chinese road builders toiling in the sweltering heat. I arrived into Nairobi at 5am at Eastleigh (nicknamed ‘Somaliland’), a dodgy area full of lads lurking in the shadows and angry looking graffiti. Luckily I was helped by some friendly ladies on their way to work who showed me the right busline into town from where I walked – covered in sand and mud from the bus journey – past all the smartly dressed people on their way to work in the CBD to my hostel where I stayed washing and recovering for two days. Kenya seemed so developed and efficient after Ethiopia. Nairobi was an exciting city to walk around – not the ‘Nairobbery’ I had been told to expect. Out in the countryside farmers used machinery and grew cash crops rather than the subsistence farming everywhere in Ethiopia (I saw 2 tractors in a month’s travel in Ethiopia; hundreds in Kenya).

Cycling in West Kenya’s forests

Everybody in Kenya speaks great English and were friendly and easy to talk to; in Ethiopia 90% of the conversations I had with people had contained requests for money. I was also pick-pocketed 4 times in Ethiopia, never felt unsafe in Kenya. In Ethiopia as I cycled in the countryside kids had thrown pebbles at me and shouted “YOU YOU GIVE ME MANEY”, in Kenya they waved as I cycled past and said “Hello, how are you?”. In Ethiopia every restaurant bill I received had some extra fake charge on that I then had to haggle about, in Kenya this didn’t exist: many things were easier. I spent three weeks in Kenya. An idea had been growing in my head since India to cycle down the Rift Valley to Malawi. So I bought a bike, a phone and a tent and started out from Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria (where I bought the bike).

Cycling with the Kenyan cycling team

Armed with a phone and fast internet I was more organized, and contacted cycling organizations and groups around the country before setting off. I also used Couchsurfing for the first time since Korea, and stayed with couchsurfers all over the place. First I visited Buffalo Bikes in Kisumu, a factory that produces extremely strong bikes suitable for African roads and paths. They sell all over Southern, Central and East Africa and also support communities with free bikes in some cases.

Pedestrian

From there I headed up to Kakamega, in the heart of sugar cane country. It was quite hilly around there and I found the speed of the slow-moving sugar cane tractors perfect for a bit of ‘surfing’. But I wasn’t the only one grabbing on to the back as they moved up the hill. Kids would appear from the fields and run along beside the trailer, grabbing desperately at the canes to get some free snacks. I have to admit I munched on some myself. Extra energy. I visited the Kakamega forest reserve the next day with Miles (an American couchsurfer and avid cyclist!), walking in to the jungle during the night to watch civet cats hunt and eating a buffet dinner in the nearby colonial-style lodge (the waiters wore dickie-bows). From there it was a long slog up to Iten, the home of long distance running in Kenya. I checked out a cycling club there – Kenyan Riders- who train professionally for big races (they placed 4th  in last week’s Tour de Rwanda 2012). I had tea and banana sandwiches with the lads and tried to keep up with them on their morning ride – 70km down the rift valley escarpment and back up a 15km hill to Kabsabet. I managed to keep up with them for all of 3km! My thick MTB wheels and inferior gears held me back, honest! But I caught up with them around 20km down the hill, where two of them had collided and caused a pile up. Teeth had been knocked out, backs bruised, but nothing serious. All in a day’s work.

50km/h down into the Rift Valley on a Monday morning

I stayed for a while by Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley. I camped for the first time 10 metres from the lake. It was an amazing location – hippos grazed in the lake and a rather large crocodile sunned himself around 20m from the door of my tent. The next day I cycled further down the valley along dry and hot roads to Lake Baringo, where I lazed in hot springs all afternoon, ordering cocktails from the bar. And they say travel in Africa is difficult…

Camping spot, Lake Naivasha

Over the next couple of days I made my way back to Nairobi. Cycling in the Rift Valley was very hot, but enjoyable. There were wild animals everywhere. I stopped off at a seasonal lake beside the road for a while and watched hundreds of turtles slouching about in the water as a herd of Zebra drank from the other side. Later I bought wild honey from a lady by the side of the road north of the equator and ate it with some chapatti a kid was selling from a stall south of the equator. The countryside became more lush as I approached Nakuru, and more commercial farms started springing up along the road. Long avenues of trees marked entrances to white-owned ranches and private conservancies.

Walking down the Hell’s Gate Gorge

I spent a couple of days by Lake Naivasha, cycling through Hell’s Gate gorge, created by a massive flow of water millennia ago when a huge lake burst and flowed down the rift valley. Nowadays it’s full of warthog, zebra, hot springs, buffalo, baboons, 5 geothermal power plants and giraffe. I went right down to the bottom of the gorge, where it gets so narrow I had to walk sideways to squeeze through the caverns and then raced a 12 year old English kid to the gates before they closed for the evening. After a week cavorting about Nairobi I was ready to head to Malawi. I had had to change my route. My original plan of cyclingdown to Lake Marigat (you might know it from the movie ‘The Constant Gardener’) and across into Tanzania, past Lake Natron, up to Ol’ Doinio Lengai (an active volcano) and around the edge of the Ngorogoro crater was too adventurous, according to the Tanzanian embassy who wouldn’t give me a visa to cross at that border point.

Road to The Mara

So I contented myself with a cycle to the Masai Mara and on to Lake Victoria. On my first day I made 156km, the biggest distance so far. I was helped massively by David Kinjah and his Safari Simbazclub. He’s a pro-rider in Nairobi i had made contact with and he’s training up a young team to be the next generation of world beaters. And they’re tough. Riding down the escarpment into the rift valley at 60kms an hour, we overtook trucks and safari jeeps and belted it around the bends. One of the kids took his eye off the road for a second and collided with the guy in front, doing a full flip over his handlebars onto the road. Undeterred, he got back on his bike and kept going. I said goodbye to them at the bottom of the escarpment and headed on to the Masai Mara, another day away on good roads.

Cycling with the Safari Simbaz. I’m second from the right. Also, that’s not my bike

I cycled through the Northern area of the Masai Mara, outside the park boundaries. But it was full of herds of buffalo, wilderbeest, gazelle and zebra, with cows being driven by Masai warriors winding past them.

Nice place to watch sunrise over the Masai Mara

It was a beautiful cycle through classic African scenery along a bumpy dirt road, and I camped that night on the escarpment overlooking the Mara. I woke up before dawn and watched the most amazing sunrise as herds of animals trotted around hundreds of metres below my rocky outcrop. I felt like an extra in ‘The Lion King’. From there I headed on to Migori and on Halloween crossed into Tanzania. Three days later I landed in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. I had been camping out for a long time, and had been washed out one night when I chose a low camping spot that got flooded during the night (I woke up puzzled at how I had acquired a waterbed), so it felt amazing to be sleeping in a proper bed again and dry out all my stuff. I stayed with Feng Tingkai, one of the million or so Chinese entrepreneurs working in Africa.

With Tingkai on the shores of Lake Victoria, rain coming in off the lake

He’s developing a satellite TV company in Western Tanzania – Startimes - providing decent subscriptions at a fraction of the price of DSTV, the South African owned competitor. Mwanza was a nice town to relax in for a couple of days – crumbling colonial buildings, a busy port, a forgotten railway line that has found a new life as a fish market, and a really good Chinese restaurant with Sichuanese chefs! I biked out of Mwanza finally on the 6th November, well fed and rested. From there it was 5 days to Kigoma, along the southern shore of Lake Victoria past the gold mines at Geita and on through the bush, turning South near the Rwanda border at Biharamulo to Nakanyazi and on South along the Burundi border to Kigoma. I found the cycling relatively easy compared to India. It was relatively flat (if you call 3km gradual climbs followed by 3km gradual downhills flat) and the weather mostly behaved itself (apart from the occasional downpour, when I put on my ridiculous superman-style plastic poncho and pedalled on).

The road to Biharamulo. Plenty of sand for my chain to make friends with

Cycling in East Africa is pretty repetitive. The scenery doesn’t really change: forests occasionally give way to scrubby maize fields cut out of the bush fronted by a well-swept mud hut compound with 7 kids playing around it, a man sitting in the shade checking his mobile phone and his wife washing clothes, preparing dinner, feeding the baby and pounding maize all at one time. “Mzungu wa bisakelli, wayway?! Ah ah AAAH!” (“A white man on a bike, why why?! Ah ah aaah”). Then the villages: all exactly the same. Two rows of mud huts with tin rooves front on to the road. The population is ever fluctuating: people walk to the village to drink tea and catch up on gossip and buy a miniscule blue plastic bag of salt or a single cigarette before walking back into the bush to their farms. I usually took an hour’s lunch break and sat watching the world go by. A truck or bus would arrive in a cloud of dust and suddenly the village is a frenzy of activity – a month’s produce of onions, mangos, firewood, charcoal or potatoes is offered on outstretched hands or in tubs expertly balanced on the seller’s heads.

One of my cycle buddies in Tanza. 100kg, no problem bwana!

Every village in Africa has a speciality – one will produce very good red onions while 3km down the road you’ll find everyone selling good quality toothpicks. There’s no diversity – usually only 3 or 4 types of local produce will be for sale. The truck revs up needlessly for a couple of minutes and then hurtles off, and the village settles with the dust. A crazy man with matted hair and bloodshot eyes (every village has one) wanders around in filthy rags, shouting abuse at everyone. People shout abuse back, then chuckle and give him food and beer to placate him. In the restaurant on the side of the road I’m usually sweating at a too-small table still wearing my helmet and eating a delicious meal of rice or ugali and goat meat (boiled vegetables if I’m lucky). The waitresses always insist I wash my hands in filthy brown water with a bar of laundry soap, then fills up my teacup with too-sweet spicy tea.

“mazuuuuunguuuu”

The kids amble around in their starched school uniforms with their schoolbooks. It’s 11am but there’s no need to actually go to school – the teachers are all sweating in the shade of the mango tree in the street checking their phones and conducting business (their salary of $70 per month isn’t enough to support their own family so they spend their time trying to make money on the side). But it was enjoyable – Africa is a continent of cyclists so I was never really alone. I’d be accompanied for a couple of kilometers every couple of hours by lads carrying huge loads of charcoal from the bush to the next market town or passed out by cheering bike taxi men with a chortling African mama on the back, weighing in at around 90kgs. Everyone rides ‘Black Mambas’, single speed Indian-made bikes that last forever and every time i stop men crowd around my bike, marvelling at the gear system and disk brakes. The only bad experience I had in 3 weeks cycling was being slide tackled by one of the aforementioned ‘village crazy men’ in SW Kenya, who ran from a roadside bar and took out me and the bike with a premiership - worthy 3 metre slide tackle. We both landed in a heap in the dust, luckily uninjured. As I picked up my bike and straightened the handlebars he did push-ups in the street in front of me and then stood up bellowing and approached me again. I threw a pebble at him and he scarpered. The whole village fell about laughing.

Back to civilization at the end of a long day

I reached Kigoma – the end of the road on the shores of Lake Tanganyika – for the weekend after a long long ride, and waited there for a week to catch a ferry down the lake. I stayed with Insun, a Korean volunteer teaching physics at the local secondary school, teaching Taekwondo in his garden and cultivating a lush garden of crops for his very productive kitchen.

Scruffy Irish Cyclist Reaches Shores of Lake Tanganyika. Washes Properly For The First Time In Weeks.

We went camping by the lake that weekend and I swam actively for the first time since Thailand. We set up tent on the beach, barbequed up some tender goat and fended off the monkeys when they tried to steal the mangos and bananas. On Monday he headed off to work and I explored the town. Kigoma is the end of the road and railway from the coast and feels like it. In the distance across the lake were the mountains of Congo with permenant thunder clouds hanging over them. Fronting on to the lake is a busy port with a large ship docked loading equipment for a prospecting voyage around the lake. Other boats were shipping goods up to Burundi and at night the lake lit up with fishermen fishing using spotlights to attract the fish. I cycled around the sleepy town eating endless snacks and drinking fresh passion fruit and mango juice before catching the MV Liemba on the 14th November.

Sunset over the Congo

The MV Liembawas built in Germany in 1913 and sailed to Dar Es Salaam, where it was taken apart and transported by the newly built railway line across the country. By the time it arrived World War 1 had broken out and it was fitted with guns to fight the British and Belgians on the lake. It’s a long story but basically it was purposefully sunk and lay at the bottom of the lake for 9 years before being resurfaced and has chugged up and down it ever since.

On the roof of the Liemba, the Mahale Mountains in the distance

Nowadays it ferries people and goods up and down Tanganyika from Kigoma to Zambia and back. I got myself into a tiny 1st class cabin and tied the bike up on deck and for the next 3 days sailed down the lake. There was a great bar on the boat and good food, and I got tours of the engine room and could drop in to the bridge to hang out with Captain Titus Benjamin whenever I wanted. There were other travelers on the boat too – a German social worker, Austrian architect and English sculptor. We spent a lot of time up on the roof of the ship watching sunsets and sunrises among the drying piles of fish.

The Liemba, almost fully loaded

Every time we stopped at one of the little fishing villages a frenzy of canoes and boats would surround the boat and start trading with the passengers. Fish, pineapples, baskets, roofing wood were all thrown on and off the boat as prices were agreed or disagreed on. Passengers disembarking at the villages also had to jump off the Liemba onto little canoes to make their way back to the villages and I saw more than one baby slung unceremoniously over the side and down into a canoe. We passed some ultra-luxurious wilderness lodges along the way too: Mahale Mountains national park had a forest lodge Bill Gates hangs out in and further south near Kipili is a $2000-per-night island where Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently spent his holidays last year. This all contrasts ridiculously with the people making their way up and down the lake in their canoes, but such are the paradoxes of Africa.

Trading boats, Lake Tanganyika

After leaving the Liemba at Kasanga we stayed at Oscar’s place for 3 days. He had made his money trading fish with Congolese and bringing back gold to Tanzania in his boat and had beached it in Kasanga, built a bar and some chalets and set up a tourist camp. Great guy.

Chipwa village, hiking to Kalambo Falls

We rented his boat out and sped down incognito into Zambia for a day to climb to Kalambo Falls, the 2nd highest waterfall in Africa. It was a great day, but a bit uneasy when we almost ran out of fuel on the way back, being chased by a huge electric storm coming across the lake from Congo. And finally it was up to Mbeya from Kasanga. I had wanted to link up with a Dutch cyclist on his way to Cape Town from the North Cape of Norway, so put the bike on top of the bus instead of cycling (which would have taken 3-4 days). 18 hours after leaving Kasanga we met up in Mbeya. After a day’s rest sipping juices and fixing up the bike a bit in Mbeya (the gear cables had snapped, of all things) myself and Gijs set off for Malawi.

Gijs cycling along Lake Malawi. He had just passed his 15,000km mark, I had just passed my 1,500km mark! We celebrated with beers on the beach. http://www.capetocape2012.com/

He’s riding an electric bike, which gives a little boost when the batteries are plugged in. He’s also got narrow tyres and is much fitter than me. But he’s carrying 70kgs and I only have around 25 so we even out in most things. We’ve tried swapping bikes and we still can keep up with each other.

Parting ways by the lake

We made it across the Malawi border in one day from Mbeya, up through pretty tea and coffee plantations, camping in a chief’s compound on the Malawi side. On the second day we cruised along the lake, looking out at the beautiful Lake of Stars I last saw 6 years ago. We parted ways in Chitimba, he to Mzuzu and myself up to my current position at a permaculture farm near Livingstonia.I’ve been here 3 days swimming in the nearby waterfalls, hiking up to see the 104 year old hydroelectric system on the nearby hill, having a barbeque and helping out a bit in the gardens. Auke – a Congolese-Belgian who has been here since 1995 – is an avid cyclist and i’ve already agreed to sell him the bike after I finish. He’s given me lots of ideas of places in Malawi to cycle, and I’m already ready to head off again into the Malawian bush.

It’s good to be back.

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Back in Africa

I haven’t updated this blog in too long. Since India, i’ve spent a month in Northern Ethiopia, then a week traveling down to Nairobi by buses and 10 days or so cycling around Kenya.

I will blog about all this in great detail come late November.

As of now, I’m in Nairobi about to leave on a long cycle to Malawi through Western Tanzania. The route will take me past (but not ‘through’) the Maasai Mara lands and Lake Victoria in Kenya, the Serengeti and Burundi border in NW Tanzania, then a 3 day sail down Lake Tanganyika on the ‘MV Liemba’, a 99-year-old German gunboat that still plies the route twice monthly and finally through the SW Tanzanian highlands to the Malawi border, where I hope to rest for a while.

I won’t be updating the blog until then, but for now here’s a map of the proposed route:

Route plan:

27th October: Nairobi to Narok (144km): couchsurfing

28th October: A day in Narok: couchsurfing

29th October: Narok to Oloololo (113km): camping

30th October: Oloololo to Migori (79km): couchsurfing

31st October: Migori to Musoma [Tanzania] (125km): couchsurfing

1st November: A day in Musoma: couchsurfing

2nd November: Musoma – Serengeti Stopover Camp (87km): camping

3rd November: Serengeti Stopover Camp – Mwanza (135km): couchsurfing

4th November: A day in Mwanza: couchsurfing

5th November: Another day in Mwanza: couchsurfing

6th November: Mwanza to Kasama (93km): camping

7th November: Kasama to Musasa (130km): camping

8th November: Musasa to Kakonko (88km): camping

9th November: Kakonko to bush camp (115km): camping

10th November: bush camp to Kigoma (144km): couchsurfing

11th November – 14th November: 4 days in Kigoma: couchsurfing

14th November – 16th November: 3 days on MV Liemba ferry

16th November: Kasanga port: hotel/camping

17th November: Kasanga to Mtai (64km): camping

18th November: Mtai to Laela (100km): camping

19th November: Laela to Tunduma (120km): camping

20th November: Tunduma to Mbeya (110km): hotel/camping

21st November: Mbeya to Tukuyu (70km): camping

22nd November: Tukuyu to Katumbi [Malawi] (70km): camping

23rd November: Katumbi to Chitimba (115km): camping

… and from there i’ll see what happens.

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How was India?

King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. 2pm.

I’ve got a 10 hour layover here to burn, with nothing to do outside of wasting money in the duty free or praying my time away in one of a plethora of prayer rooms. I can’t leave this ‘transfer area’ until my flight at 9.50 tonight, so now’s a very opportune time to update the old blog, wot.

I got here on a morning flight from Mumbai full of pilgrims on their Hajj, all dressed up for Mecca. It was a refreshing change from your average flight: veiled stewardesses, prayers during the safety demonstrations, and a huge cinema-sized screen up front that had a countdown on how many kilometers and what direction Mecca was.

It’s all a far cry from entering India exactly 7 weeks ago today, on a horse and cart that was racing another cart down a track past monkeys playing in the trees next to an irrigation canal. It had been a two day bus journey from Kathmandu and I had spent the time chatting to a couple of lads heading to Punjab to work as door to door salesmen selling clothes magazines. As we arrived at the Indian entry post (it was evident our horse and cart had won – the others were languishing at the last watering stop) we were asked for our Nepalese exit stamps. In the excitement of the horse race, the cart driver had forgotten to stop at the Nepalese side. So we did it all over again…

After a couple of days in Haridwar (where I wrote the last blog post) I made it to Manali, at the start of the Manali-Leh highway. Manali’s an unashamed backpacker ghetto full of spaced hippies washed up from Southern India by the monsoon walking down the street past wide-eyed gap year kids fresh out of France and England’s most prestigious public schools. Most prelavent of all are the resident Israelis recently out of the army, a terribly unfriendly lot roaring around on their ancient Enfields and leaving behind a stench of petrol and pot. I stayed in Manali enough time to meet some cyclists, have a couple of ‘western’ style nights out and buy a bike.

On my search for a bike I met a guy from Thailand who had flown his bike all the way from Thailand to do the same cycle I wanted to do, just for it to be crushed under the wheels of a bus on his first day in India. Rough! We agreed to do the trip together, along with his three friends. Two days later we had both bought decent second-hand imported mountain bikes, stocked up on supplies and hit the road.

On the first day of the Manali-Leh highway cycle

The Manali-Leh highway was built in the early 70s to link the region of Ladakh with the rest of India. China had recently trounced India in a border war in the area, and Pakistan was making clear its ambitions, so the Indian government decided it was high time to militarize the mountains. It’s a mammoth engineering project, crossing 5 passes higher than Mont Blanc and through deserts with shifting sands that cover the road every year. It is serving its purpose though and now for 4 months a year the road is kept open so troops and diesel can move through to Ladakh and relieve the 600,000 infantry stationed in grim camps along the borders with Pakistan and China with names like the “Punjab Panthers Camp Sec III” and “Bengal Bombers Transit Station”. In recent years, the army opened the road to the public, and since then motorbikers, buses and crazed cyclists have been added to the mix.

How the highway kicked my ass.
X = distance from Manali, Y = altitude from sea level (metres)

Yut, Ba, Frankie and Nick are all hardcore bikers. They belong to a club in Ranong, down in the South of Thailand, and have cycled long distance routes in China and Southeast Asia before. Yut doesn’t even have a job, so dedicated is he to cycling! They had flown in over 80kgs of food, medical equipment and bike spares from Thailand for the trip, and every lunch we would have lovely green curries, spicy egg noodles and “sticky lai” produced by Yut, who always assumed cooking duties.

Ba, 63 years old, spots his first glacier

It was great cycling with them for those first couple of days, climbing 2080m up to the Rohtang La past avalanches and rockfalls and then down into the Spiti Valley where we stayed in an old barn with a tarp roof before heading on to Keylong. Unfortunately Ba (the oldest in the group, a sprightly 63 years old – Nick’s father) was developing symptoms of altitude sickness as we climbed (by now we were above 3500m) and after a visit to the doctor in Keylong was advised to rest for 2 days. The rest of the guys decided to stick with him, and we parted. I was happy to hear 2 weeks later that after 3 days rest in Keylong they had slowly finished the route to Leh, arriving 10 days after me.

Coming down from the top of Rohtang-la into the Spiti Valley

Erps… another lorry tumbles down the mountain

From there I kept going alone over the mountains. But I was never alone for long. The next day I met a Polish guy ALSO suffering from alititude sickness, and had to bolt back down to the nearest army camp to get the ambulance to bring oxygen up to him. I’m lucky that having been at high altitudes in Nepal for 2 months has saved me the pains of acclimatization.

Just another morning’s climb. The tents at the bottom are Whiskey Nala.

On and up, through places with increasingly ridiculous names. Pang, Whiskey Nala, Zingzing Bar, Baralachala … I think the lads who wrote the map were just having a laugh (or too much whiskeynala).

And I kept on meeting cyclists! A German student who had cycled from the Black Forest to Southern India on a charity cycle with a friend (their blog here  [in German]) and had taken “a small detour” to cycle the highest road in the world. Later a French business man who had flown his foldup bike from Paris and was happily cycling the highway for his summer holidays. A Norweigan real-estate agent on his 12,000 euro custom-made all titanium bike with his support vehicle horsed it past me one day and finally a Spanish guy who taught me how to “Lorry surf”, which requires a tight grip and nerves of steel as you grab on to the back of a lorry with one hand and balance the rest of your overladen bike with the other, thereby getting a free lift up the hills. Most of the Indian truck drivers loved this and encouraged it with hoots of laughter and much thumbs-up. I only stuck with the Spanish guy for a couple of hours before he bolted off on another road to Tso Mori. Probably a good health decision: I didn’t have the guts to lorry surf on my own.

Meeting bikers in the middle of nowhere

I didn’t find any ‘party’, alas

Cycling the Manali-Leh highway was an amazing experience. It was by far the toughest thing I’ve done, and yeah it wasn’t all fun. I haven’t written about being reduced to tears from the sheer exhaustion of climbing Nakila-la, spending 3 hours trying to hammer my chain back together in the blistering heat after it snapped in the desert, having the shits all the way up the 22 switchback Gata Loops or dragging my bike (which weighed 32kgs with bag attached) through 10kms of sand in the Morei Plains. All “character building” experiences I’m sure. But these low points are vastly upstaged by the high points: the day Yut cooked lunch for us and a busload of Ladakhi women on an Alps-esque pasture, cycling down from Baralacha-la to the sounds of The Beatles while winding around psychadelic columns of rocks rising 50 metres to points in the blue sky, drinking army bootleg rum one night by the highway with the one-handed proprieter of a tent-hostel (who kept rats as pets), and the 63km downhill from the top of Taglang-la, descending 1900m in just over 3 hours.

Great times on the Morei Plains. 30 minutes later I was shin-deep in sand

I slept in tented ‘dhabas’ all along the route, run by Tibetan nomads

Inside, the dhabas were super comfortable and warm at night

And so 9 days after leaving Manali, covered in sand and very hungry, I squeaked into Leh.

Leh, overlooked by Stok Kangri (6000m+)

Leh was on the old Silk Route, and used to be an important trading post between the Persian part of the world and the Tibetan. It’s a beautiful old town in the middle of nowhere, 200kms away from the nearest town of notable size. It’s totally been discovered by fly-in tourists (grumblegrumble) but hasn’t really suffered for it. I checked in to an old mansion run by a really old woman and spent a couple of days eating my way around the amazing choice of restaurants in town. Pizza, shwarmas, thukpas, thalis, stroganoffs, kimchi chigaes, fish&chips, apple pies… all went down the gullet (and quickly out the other end unfortunately… my stomach hadn’t quite resolved its differences with me). The lady of the guesthouse had a deal with us that if we did manual labour, she would cook up a dinner so at times we were employed hauling water in from the street or weeding the veggie garden. Worked well for everyone. She also taught us how to make momos (mandu, dumplings, whatever they’re called) and sent us off one morning at 6 o’clock to see the Dalai Lama.

Tsavo guesthouse. Best place I’ve stayed. I shared it with Dutch, Czech, German, English, Indian and Canadian backpackers

I had heard rumours along the highway that the Dalai Lama was in town. Some people said he was cruising up and down the street regularly, visiting monasteries and schools in what I envisioned to be some sort of Popemobile. Others said he was closeted away in meditation in the mountains. Either way, I hadn’t held out much hope of catching a glimpse of the great man but as luck had it catch a glimpse I did. He was giving lectures in a field near Leh for a couple of days soon after I arrived – after indeed meditating on a mountain for two weeks – and the lectures were open to the public, so we went along. He’s a natural speaker and would often crack jokes in the middle of his talks. He spoke in Tibetan, which was then translated into Ladakhi and then into English, so the punch lines of his jokes took a while to go around the 10,000 or so people sitting around the podium the field. He spoke about self-discipline in Buddhism, how Buddhism isn’t suited to everyone and had some interesting thoughts on the Higgs Boson particle. Then he went deeper into Buddhist philosophy and I didn’t really follow but still, I got a sense of the type of person he is. Very impressed.

The Dalai Lama, telling us where it’s at

People traveled for days to come and hear him speak

I could have happily stayed another week in Leh but the visa was getting short – I only had 3 weeks left in India, so I decided to hop back on the bike for a last blast up to the highest road in the world.

Peep peep don’t sleep! On the road to Wari-la

I cycled up the Indus valley with some guys from the guest house, visiting some ancient buddhist monasteries along the way. They were really into their buddhism but to me one monastery is like another once you’ve seen a couple, and I usually abuse the cool interior of their sanctuaries for a snooze if I’m cycling by.

Thiksey monastery

They turned back on the second day and I headed over Warila to the Nubra Valley. It’s a surreal barren valley with random bits of greenery where over the generations people have carefully managed the scant water sources they have to create oases of farmland in the middle of the desert. I had a great day cycling as far as you can go until the military blocks the road at Turtuk, for this is the frontline of the Pakistan-India problem, where war has broken out 4 times over the past 40 odd years.

4 hours cycle in one photo, up Wari-la (5330m). The distant greenery is where I had set off at 7am

Turtuk, near the Pakistan border. The people here are Balti, and some of their kids have blond hair and blue eyes. So different from the rest of India. They are cut off from their families 50km down the road by one of the biggest troop buildups in the world.

After a day relaxing, reading and eating apricots off the trees in Turtuk I finally cheated and threw the bike on top of a jeep-bus which took me up the long long climb to Khardung-la, the ‘highest road in the world’. In my defence, I had already come over Taglang-la and Wari-la, both just 30m lower than Khardung-la, and had eaten QUITE A BIG CURRY THE NIGHT BEFORE, OK??! But yeah, I was a bit ashamed at riding up the hill in a jeep instead of the bike. At the top, I met some nice English day trippers who had also taken their bikes up on the roof of the bus and we guiltily cycled down together into Leh, racing down the roads as the sun set behind the Himalayas.

THE SEVEN PASSES FROM MANALI TO KHARDUNG-LA

1. Rohtang-la (3980m)

2. Baralacha-la (5030m)

3. Nakila-la (4739m). Harrowing

4. Lachulung-la (5079m). Much happier

5. Taglang-la (5328m). The sign reads: “You are passing through second highest pass of the world. Unbelievable is not it?”

6. Wari-la (5320m). The toughest but most enjoyable climb

7. Khardung-la (5602m or 5359m, depending on whether you believe the road signs or GPS)

Thus ended the bike times. I sadly sold it to a nice bike mechanic in Leh, who gave me a very good price for it, and took the bus to Srinagar. It was horrible to be back on buses again.

First day back on the Indian roads: A digger falls down a hill. The driver had probably just sold his bike

From then on it’s been comparitively tame.

In Srinagar I hung around with a Kenyan backpacker for a couple of days who just happened to be a muslim, a big plus in the muslim heartland of militant Kashmir. We spent a day touring the mosques, and because I was with him I could get in to the sanctuaries other tourists wouldn’t have been allowed. I chatted with a group of young beardy lads about Kashmir, and they asked me loads of smart questions about Ireland. The most intelligent discussion I had in India was in a mosque with a group of possibly militant-minded conservative Kashmiris.

Hazratbal mosque, Srinagar

In Amritsar I stayed in the Golden Temple for 3 days. It’s a stupendous operation that welcomes literally tens of thousands of Sikh pilgrims every day from all over the world who come to see and venerate their holy textbook, which resides in the middle of a pond in a solid gold temple. Awesome.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Swimming at dawn

Everything’s free in the Golden Temple – everybody sleeps in the dormitories, which hold thousands of people every night; the canteen feeds everyone who passes by – 1000 people every 5 minutes – in an insanely efficient system that depends on volunteers. We volunteered for a while washing dishes, much to the mirth of the big-bearded Sikhs. We stayed up all night to see the ceremony at 2am where the holiest of holy men (who also seem to have the largest beards and turbans) carry the sacred Book from a temple on the shore out the walkway to the Golden Temple on the pond.

The canteen. Free 3 course meal served every 5 minutes to 1000 people

Meeting Mr. Singh at the Golden Temple. He came up to me asking for a photo. I didn’t dare turn him down

But it’s not all a happy history at the Golden Temple. Sikhs are very independently minded, and have been wanting their own country for quite some time. In the 1980s a group of militant Sikhs took control of the Golden Temple complex and began administering themselves beyond control of the Indian police. By 1984 tensions were high and India’s president Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mhatma) ordered army troops to attack the complex, codenamed operation blue star. The Indian Troops couldn’t get past the Sikh snipers positioned on the temple roofs, and so started shelling the compound, destroying thousands of years of history and killing hundreds of pilgrims inside the complex, as well as some of the militants. Eventually the Indian Army won, but had lost any respect of most of the people of India and 6 months later President Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

After Amritsar I took a train to the Western desert state of Rajasthan and rented a motorbike for 20 euro for the week. I drove around the state in a huge 1600km loop on my trusty steed – a 2011 110cc TVC.

My flashy bike

In my defence to the Honorable Mother, I was offered much more powerful bikes to drive such as a beautiful 1985 Enfield Bullet 350CC but declined because I didn’t trust myself on such a powerful bike. Plus, the TVC had a fuel efficiency of over 60km/l (3 times that of an Enfield). For my first tank of petrol I drove 620km!

Sorry, I digress.

I drove from Pushkar (yet another Hindu pilgrimage site, zzz) out to Jodhpur (the ‘blue city’) where I visited Mehrangarh Fort, a monstrosity of a palace on top of a rock overlooking the desert and the surrounding blue-whitewashed city. The audio tour of the fort was fantastic, partly narrated by the royal family themselves (who ruled until the 40s, and then built an even bigger palace on the outskirts of town part of which is now one of the most luxurious hotels in the world). The palace was full of beautiful swords, paintings and furniture, all with stories attached. It’s hard to describe. I suppose you’d have to imagine something like having an audio tour of Buckingham Palace narrated by Queen Lizzie herself, barking away about her favourite courtyard where she used to play hide and seek as a child.

Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur

On I drove into the desert, through Jaisalmer (‘the Golden city’) to Kuldhara where I discovered an abandoned town (abandoned overnight when a different royal family poisoned the wells in retaliation for the local chief turning down a marriage proposal for his daughter, apparently). The roads were arrow-straight – traffic limited to the odd camel, cow or turban headed warrior on a honda moped – filled with hundreds of Hindu pilgrims walking barefoot the hundreds of scorching kilometres to Ramdevra, a shrine near the Pakistan border that has recently become popular because it apparently repelled Pakistani soldiers who, during their most recent incursion in the area attempted to destroy statues of the hindu gods but were blinded before they could carry out their dirty deed. Nowadays, the shrines receive hundreds of thousands of devotees.

Kuldhara, way out in the desert near Jaisalmer. There are 84 such abandoned villages within a 20km radius of each other

I crossed into Gujarat, where greenery appeared and I was into real rural India. In the middle of a large ambling small-time farming area is the Ranniki-vav step well, a fairly jaw-dropping structure that goes 30m into the ground complete with thousands of religious carvings and beautiful pillars holding up the upper levels. I had the entire park to myself, and wandered deep into the well along the little ledges that run around the edge. Amazing. Eventually a security guard turned up, took charge of my camera and started taking photos. Thanks Mr. Patel!

Ranni-ki-vav step well, Gujarat

Exploring the well, level by level

Not too far away I visited the Sun Temples at Modhera, which have the most detailed carvings I’ve ever seen. Again, no tourists had found the place and I wandered amongst the pools and bats and gargoyles by myself. I have to say I don’t know anything about the history of these places – only heard about them from blogs – but they were beautiful places to visit and well worth the drives down little country lanes.

The Sun Temple, Modhera

And so ended my motorbike tour and my tour of Northwest India. I scooted up to Udaipur (overrated by guide books and blogs, but a nice place for a sundowner nonetheless) and then back to Pushkar via the jungles of Ranakpur to return the bike. 1600kms and only one puncture as proof of the wears of the road. I much recommend the tacky TVS!

Three days later my train screeched to a halt in Mumbai. Mumbai – what a place. Wish I had had more time there. Boulevards of colonial buildings crumbling away in the tropical heat, a train station more grand than any I’ve seen in Europe that had Queen Vic still standing disapprovingly on top, old libraries full of teak desks overlooking vast parks where students played some serious cricket beside the busy streets. Busy streets that led to the craziest markets I’ve seen. Fish, chickens, spice, tea, saris, opium… everything’s for sale. A hawker with a cart full of wicker baskets shoved one in my face and said “Seunayk, you buy”. I turned him down. He tried again, this time enthusiastically opening the basket to reveal a black snake coiled inside. I didn’t buy the “seunayk”. Later I went to a crazy Bollywood film in a 200 year old theatre, checked out some Indian contemporary art and drank Kingfishers with some Norwegians down at Leopold’s by the causeway. OK, I’ve just described the old colonial districts of Colaba and Fort, the only two areas I could cover in a day’s walk. Outside of this I’m sure Mumbai is a very different animal, but I was quite happy to spend a day in a bubble that reminded me of Europe. Apart from the seunayk.

So how was India? I had a great time. Granted, I wasn’t in ‘real India’ for most of my time there (Ladakh I would consider more like Tibet and Kashmir is quite seperate culturally), but I loved the diversity of the areas I passed through, the genuine friendliness and willingness to help from random people on the street, the possibility of always bumping in to some festival or pilgrimage party along the way, the food, the amazing guesthouses… but some aspects of traveling in India can be quite tough, and take quite a bit to get used to:

In India, you’ll struggle to deal with:
THE BEGGING

Beggars are everywhere in India. Outside the temples and mosques reading prayers, tapping on your window at the traffic lights, tugging at your sleeve in the streets, approaching you with open hands in restaurants and at the train station. One day in Jalandhar station I carefully watched a little girl begging from passing trains. She was wearing rags, was barefoot and her dirty face was smeared with tears. She would walk slowly along the carriages sobbing and piteously ask the passengers for some rupees. And most Indians do give to beggars; they’re a very generous people. This little girl – who couldn’t have been more than 8 – would get 1, 2, 5, 10 and sometimes even 50 rupees from the majority of the people she approached (US$1 = 54 rupees). Maybe one in five people would turn her pitiful face down and refuse to give her anything. I watched her do this multiple times with multiple trains and each time she’d get the same results.

Could you turn down this kid if he asked you for a rupee?

The strange thing was that when there were no trains in the station she would run to the end of the platform where she would start playing with other little kids who were the ‘rubbish walas’, collecting empty bottles and such from under the trains. They would play away for a couple of minutes, screaming with laughter and having great fun before the next train rolled in, when she would resume her sobbing at the windows and the others would climb under the train to retreive any new bottles. I figured that at a busy station such as Jalandhar, this girl and others like her could make a tidy income.

Let’s say your average train has 14 carriages, each with 6 windows. 1 train passes through the station every 20 minutes (it’s on the main line from Amritsar to Delhi), and let’s say she works a 9 hour day (with an hour’s lunch break where she runs down to the nearest gurdwara for a free meal). She works a six day week and has a day off on Sundays when she goes down to the river with her friends.

6 windows (-2 who turn her down) X avg 3 rupees each = 12 rupees
14 carriages X 12 = 168 rupees per train
1 train every 20 minutes X 8 hours work = 24 trains per day
24 trains X 168 rupees each = 4032 rupees per day
6 days per week X 4032 = 24,192 rupees per week
52 weeks per year = 1,257,984 rupees per year ($23,296 / £14,180/ €18,775)

Now, i’m not saying this little beggar girl is actually filthy rich. More than likely she has a very tough life. Perhaps she is an orphan who really does live on the streets. Maybe someone steals a large part of her earnings in return for ‘protection’, or a safe place to sleep. But too often I see these little ‘orphan beggars’ running back to a woman or man at the side of the street and handing them the takings. Someone is making a lot of money.

Oh, by the way the average yearly income per household in India is $1371.

THE STARING

Indians stare at foreigners the most out of any country I’ve been to. This can range from a casual eyeballing as a businessman stops at a traffic light while I walk past to an open-mouthed, incredulous 5 minute gawk from a group of students as I eat a samosa on a bench. At the start I just couldn’t handle it. I’ve always been taught that staring is the height of rudeness. For my first two weeks in India I tried to fight it. I would say ‘hello’ to the starers, at which point they would stare silently back at me all the more intensely. When this didn’t deter them, I tried to ‘fight fire with fire’, and would stare back at them balefully, at which point they would stare back at me all the more intensely. Sometimes I would crack and ask: “WHATAREYOUSTARINGAT?!!”, at which point they would stare back at me all the more intensely, and the group would grow.

But after a while I realized that there was no offense meant by this act of staring. Staring at uncommon things in India is considered perfectly normal. In Haridwar, a horse was dying a slow and agonizing death in the middle of the street, watched idly by a large crowd of people. I joined and, appalled by the sight of the spasming horse trying to catch its last breaths, asked the Indian guy I had been chatting with why nobody would just kill it humanely. I can’t remember his answer, but remember that he spoke a bit louder than normal, and the crowd, hearing English spoken, hushed and turned their stares on me. For the next minute or so, as the horse died an excruciating death in front of us all, I watched it die, and they watched me.

Could you handle this every day?

Then there’s the rubbish, the cows butting past you in the street, the flies, the flies, the flies, the scams… but the good things in India definitely outweigh the bad:
In India, you’ll love:

THE TRAINS
THE CHAI
MULTICOLOURED CLOTHING
LASSIS
RICKSHAW WALAS
THE HIMALAYAS
MASSIVE TURBANS
1 DOLLAR THALIS
CHILI PAKHORA
THE RELIGION
THE SAMOSAS
THE PEOPLE…

On the Mp3 Player:

Lost in Translation (soundtrack)
Pearl Jam – Rearviewmirror
Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis
Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti
Lanternfish – Volume One: The Instrumentals
Max Richter – Songs from Before
The Bad Plus – These Are The Vistas
The Beatles – Abbey Road

Books near at hand:

Noam Chomsky – ‘Hegemony or Survival’
Steven D. Levitt and the Stephen J. Dubner - ‘Freakonomics’
Mhatma Gandhi – ‘My Experiments with Truth’

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Two months in Nepal

From the roasting jungles in the south right up to the highest mountain in the world at the Tibetan border, Nepal is the home of superlatives. It has the best trekking in the world, best whitewater rafting, best mountain biking. It has 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the world, the shortest paved road system in Southern Asia and the densest concentration of World Heritage Sites. It has both the oldest Buddhist shrine and most sacred Hindu pilgrimage sites in the world, and is the world’s youngest republic. All in all, a nice place to have a holiday.

Everest from the plane

From 30,000 feet, cruising towards Kathmandu, Everest woke me up looking like it’s parallel to the plane

But I didn’t actually have many expectations while flying in from Thailand, after a week spent on the beach. I expected just to spend a couple of weeks hiking around with Eileen and Suzi – who were flying out for their holidays – before heading on to India.

Dinner

Meeting up in Kathmandu

First thing we did was hop on a bus down to Chitwan National Park, in the steamy south of the country. We stayed down there for an intense 2 days with all the snakes and elephants and rhinos and mosquitos and whatnot.

View

My view from the elephant

We went on an elephant-back tour of the edges of the park where I was unfortunately relegated to the back seat and had to endure the toxic fumes produced by the elephant’s exertions. Also this meant that, while the girls up front were cooing away about some rhino doing backflips that they had a great view of, I was stuck looking the other way into a small bush the elephant had decided to defecate into. Nice tour though. We saw a huge python cross the path ahead of us (I was busy studying a large tree the elephant was backing into at the time) and had great craic washing the elephants afterwards in the river.

washing

The girls ‘washing’ their elephant

That evening we went on a walking safari into the park. Our guide – Raju – had been really relaxed and joking around up until then but once we waded across the river into the park he gave us a pretty stern speech on following his instructions in the event of coming face to face with rhino, tigers or sloth bears (apparently the most dangerous animal in the park). I was uninterested at this stage – looking around for tiger prints – but his advice did actually have a practical element 20 minutes later when we had to run away and climb trees from some rhino who had smelt us in the long grasses and had started charging. Luckily, they lost interest after we climbed the trees and went off in the other direction.

rhino

Rhino wondering whether to charge us or not. They decided not to

Adrenaline was pumping again an hour later when we had to run away from more rhino who had started fighting on the edge of a riverbank we were nearing.

sweeney

A lesser-spotted Sweeney, rare and very dangerous animal to be found in the tropical areas of Nepal

As we were fleeing the scene – binoculars and DSLRs akimbo – Raju spotted a tiger on a bank above the river, about half a
kilometre away, watching us. We caught our breath for 10 minutes in a scrubby bush and sure enough it appeared again, sauntering across the ridge with the sun setting behind it before disappearing into the trees. Raju was ecstatic – apparently sightings of tigers are very rare because one tiger’s territory covers over 20km squared – it was his first tiger sighting in months.

running

Running away from wild animals – a very important part of our walking safari

The next day we careered dangerously up the hills to Pokhara, bumping around in the back seats of a ubiquitous Indian Tata bus. Pokhara was in the middle of strikes that had brought the country to a halt. The people were protesting against the government’s failure to pass a new constitution dividing Nepal into federalized states. This was first promised to the people 60 year ago, but hasn’t yet been passed. Shops and schools were closed, and the whole country had come to a standstill. We wanted to go to the mountains – less than an hour away – for some hiking, but no buses were running. So we had to pay for a taxi to take us out under cover of darkness – dodging around piles of burning tyres meant to block the street. We hiked for 2 days up valleys full of
rice terraces, then rhodadendron to Poon Hill, a 3210m high ridge with amazing views of the Annapurna Range. We reached the top at 4.30am, just as the sun was rising over the mountains, turning the wind-haze around the peaks fire red before rays of light blasted out from behind ‘fish-tail peak’ (Machapuchare), a 6993m peak sacred to Nepalis and off-limits to climbers.

poon hill

Sunrise from Poon Hill. On the left is Dhualgiri (7th highest in the world). Near the right is “Fish-tail Peak”

After taking in the views it was 3 more days walk back to Pokhara, down steep steps that zigzagged into the deep valleys, past people carrying all sorts of commodities from boxes of noodles to fridge-freezers, and past many tourists. We spotted one girl straight out of Phoenix park walking her terrier on a short lead up the hills, wearing flip flops and ray-bans. Behind her, her porter staggered up the hill carrying her massive backpack. A common sight in the Himalayas.

hiking

Are we there yet?

And so we left the mountains and after an extended celebration in Pokhara we headed back to Kathmandu where Eileen got her flight back to Galway General Hospital.

ritual

One of the trance lads in Kathmandu

Kathmandu’s a great city. It’s totally filthy, smelly and noisy, but every corner you turn is a blitz of colour and bizarre mayhem that grew on me after a while. We wandered around the market squares and alleyways, finding in one small square a performance where four men, deep in a trance, performed some elaborate ritual that we couldn’t follow but was watched intensely by each of the enraptured audience.

Another time in Kathmandu I was cycling down a street when a 4 storey tower of sticks and wood rumbled out of a side alley, followed by hundreds of people dressed in bright red and chanting a mantra of some sort. It turned out to be Rato Machhendranath, a ritual that happens twice yearly where statues of Machhendranath (the god of rain and plenty) are transported across the city on towers placed on wagons. It’s part of a complex series of rituals necessary for a good rainy season to fall on the Kathmandu Valley.

babel

Looks like the leaning tower of Babel on wheels

Unfortunately, as the chariot was making its way slowly down the street, the top got entangled in an electricity line and it had to halt or the whole thing would have come crashing down. Not to be deterred, the followers lit fires and immediately set up temporary shrines around the bottom of the wagon and started blessing passers by. This sort of thing happens every day in Kathmandu.

Before Suzi headed back to Ireland too, we headed out on a 2 day rafting trip down the Trishuli River, near Kathmandu. It wasn’t technically challenging – we didn’t really have to paddle to control the boat much – but the rapids were pretty huge and the force of the rainy-season river impressive. We followed the river along forest-edged hills with monkeys climbing around the cliffs falling into the river, and camped out on the river’s edge the first night. The rest of the crew were made up of Indians who were in a high state of excitement the whole time but didn’t have a clue how to paddle. In the flatter sections we could swim and it took one guy 5 minutes to realize it was his lifejacket that was keeping him afloat, not his desperate thrashing around.

rafting

Rafting the Trishuli. This guy was hyper as a coot

After this, Suzi flew back home and I applied for my Indian visa, which took a week to process. In the intervening days I rented a bike, took a bus up to the Tibetan border and cycled back to Kathmandu. Up at the Tibetan border I went out to look at the “Friendship Bridge” – the only bridge that links China and Nepal. It’s built 100 metres over a churning river and looks up at the Tibetan monastery of Khasa on the mountain above. I was chatting to a Chinese girl and taking photos when a small man in black clothes ran up and snatched the camera from my hand. Acting instinctively, I snatched it back, whereapon he snatched it back again. I asked him what he was doing. He muttered “Police” while looking through my photos and deleting them.

police

Don’t mess with the Chinese police (not my photo)

I asked him to show me his ID, or give me my camera back, as he didn’t look like a policeman. I thought it was a scam. At this, he quickly put the camera down, twisted my arm around and handcuffed me. Surprised me a little, that did. Luckily a Nepali police woman was walking by (this was on the bridge – neither in Nepal or China) and calmly asked the man in Chinese to uncuff me and explained to me that it was illegal to take photos (there had been no warning signs to this previously). I thanked her and scooted back to Nepal. I wasn’t that surprised when, 3 days later, I saw in the news that Nepali truck drivers had blockaded the border with their vehicles in a protest against “Chinese police brutality” that included their vehicles being vandalized and them being imprisoned without charge for days on end. I got off lucky.

Over the next couple of days I cycled back to Kathmandu down the Bhote Koshi river valley, over the hill to the Sun Koshi river valley (great fish restaurants) and back to the city via Bhaktapur, an old city state that now has World Heritage Site status, which means it’s much cleaner than Kathmandu, and receives lots of Chinese bus tourists (oh yay). In Bhaktapur I wandered around, visiting a local paper factory whose owner eagerly then showed me around his friend’s brick-making factory. Fun day.

Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur by night

A couple of days later I was on the way to Mount Everest, on a trip co-concocted with Dominik Werner, a friend I had met up with in Kathmandu. We first took the bus to Jiri, acquiring premium rooftop seats for the latter part of the journey. This meant clinging to the top of the bus as it flew around narrow bends, climbing up to Jiri: end of the road and the start of the 2 week hike to Everest base camp. The first couple of days went well, but on the 3rd day Dominik realized he had left his passport in the hostel the night before, so went back to get it.

Furwa

Furwa Lama and baby brother

That left me waiting in Nimar, a tiny little village of a couple of houses clinging to a hillside in the middle of Nepal. The hostess was mother of 5 children, and that day I took them to school – an hour long hike over the hill. The school – like many others in the region – was started by Edmund Hillary a couple of decades ago, and remains funded by his foundation. Buildings, textbooks and materials are all supplied by the New-Zealand based organization, while the teachers are supplied by the government. Great wee school. After 1 O’clock, I went home with the two youngest kids, Tenji (5) and his sister Furwa (7). Along the way they showed me the best places to pick berries, and we spent the rest of the day playing card games, trying to prevent the pet goat from eating our clothes, blocking the pet water buffalo from going into the kitchen and climbing the hill to the buffalo and cow pastures to bring them back for milking before dusk.

Tenji

Tenji Lama, having the lols

Over the next week we slowly gained altitude up to the Chukkhung Valley, between Ama Dablam (the ‘most beautiful mountain in the world’) and Lhotse’s South Face (not yet climbed, attempted by many). By that time we had already climbed 2 high passes, ascending a total of 10,550m and descending 7,300m, more difference than climbing Everest itself (although I hear it’s a tad tougher). The landscape had changed from terraced fields to open treeless pasture, the fuel changed from dried wood to yak dung, and the views changed from arable hills to snowy peaks. The Chukkhung Valley is at 4700m – the highest I had ever been by far – and it’s where I began to really feel the altitude. At that height oxygen levels are 62% that of what they are at sea level. Often people’s bodies can’t cope with this, which leads to fluid leaking into the lungs or brain that – in a bad case – can kill in a matter of days. It’s really important to ascend very slowly above 3500m – which we had been doing – and rest a lot. We spent two days up in the valley acclimatizing before heading on to base camp.

Chukkhung

The Chukkhung valley with Ama Dablam. We spent two days here

The first day was particularly hard for me. On a hike up to Imja Tsho – a glacial lake at 5100m, right below a massive rockfall and Island Peak, one of the popular low-altitude (6189m) peaks to climb – I felt pretty bad altitude sickness. My lungs suddenly seemed shallower, my legs heavier and the sun stronger. I had to sit down at regular intervals when bouts of nausea made me dry- retch into the dirt. My vision narrowed at times and I had a pounding headache. Fun times!

Chukkhung

Hiking up Chukkhung-ri, towards Lhotse

That night when we got back to our lodge at 4700m (you’re supposed to sleep at 300m lower than the highest point you reached that day to aid acclimatization) I took two paracetemols and a Diamox (altitude drug that thins your blood to allow oxygen to reach your vital organs faster) and passed out for 12 hours. The next day I felt great again! Most people feel the effects of altitude at different stages but Dominik didn’t feel anything up in the valley. In fact, I think the higher we got the more energetic he became. Some people just aren’t affected by the altitude.

Kongma

The view back down Kongma-la, the first of four 5000m+ passes we crossed in the trek

The next day we climbed Chukkhung-ri, a 5580m peak looking up onto Lhotse, the 4th highest mountain in the world, before heading over the Kongma pass the next morning to cross the Khumbu glacier and find the way to base camp. Everest base camp itself is fairly uninteresting – just a series of ruins of camps left by the various expeditions on their way up the mountain.

Japanese guy

The Japanese guy smoking a joint at 18,000feet, one of the reasons he might have got lost the day before

But the views up the icefall are pretty spectacular, and we spent most of the morning dandering around there. At one stage we spotted an umbrella out on the glacier, under which we found a Japanese guy asleep who – when he woke up – told us he had got lost the day before looking for base camp and it had got dark before he had been able to find his way off the glacier. He had slept out on the ice – an extremely dangerous thing to do given the glacier is always cracking and seperating as it moves slowly down the valley. We showed him the way back to Gorak Shep – the nearest lodge – where he had 5 helpings of rice and dhaal and the next morning accompanied us up to Kala Patthar, a 5550m peak overlooking Everest.

Base camp

Horsing around at base camp

We left the lodge at 4am, and reached the top around 6.30 to views that guidebooks describe as ‘breathtaking’. The Everest ice fall was slowly lighting up as the sun rose ahead of us, with Nuptse (7861m) rising to a jagged point to its right. Everest itself was cutting shapes behind. I could see up the South Col to the Hillary step – the single ridge of rock that leads to the summit – with the summit itself surrounded by its weird halo-esque snow rings that appeared and disappeared as the hurricane-force winds up there dipped and swelled. To the left of Everest we could see Lho-la, an ancient trade pass to Tibet now impassable because of the work of the glaciers. 150m vertical drop below us a glacier lake shone in the strong sun and behind us Pumo-ri rose 2 kilometres above our heads. Awesome.

Kala Patthar

Looking up at three giants from Kala Patthar: Everest’s west shoulder, Everest and Nuptse

We sat up there staring up at everest for a couple of hours. It’s not only a nice thing to look at: for many people it’s an expensive and dangerous obsession. Hundreds of people pay up to $70,000 to try to climb it every year and many die in the attempt – 1 out of every four that make it to the top, in fact. It’s a massive money maker for many local sherpa families, who must be among the richest people in the country. Most kids are educated in private schools in Kathmandu or outside the country and the top climbing guides live in the US or England in the off season, flying back to make a small fortune every year guiding starry-eyed (and generally rich) mountaineers to the top.

Pumori

Sitting on top of Kala Patthar, Pumo-ri behind. Only 7kms high

After all that, we teamed up with a French guy to go over Cho-la, a 5330m pass that leads to the Gokyo valley and much-famed Gokyo lakes. The first night we spent in a fairly dire semi-abandoned cabin in Dzonghla, at the foot of the pass. The place was deserted, cold and full of rats and we spent the evening huddled around a candle eating toblerone and playing cards in our sleeping bags. After a fairly miserable cabbage soup the next morning we set out for the pass through yak pastures and up a steep crevasse in the rock to the glacier that leads to the top.

Cho-la

Climbing the Cho-la glacier

By then it was around 10am and the sun was quite strong. At this time of year the sun is strong enough to melt the ice that holds the rocks on the high mountains, and they bounce down the sides at regular intervals. We got across one particular rockfall OK, but only just – one group of huge rocks missed Dominik by a couple of metres as he came through behind myself and Samuel. It’s not all that dangerous as long as you keep your wits about you – there are always rocks to hide behind! Climbing to the top of the pass was tough as well – we had to climb an exposed glacier above an icy lake to the flags at the top. The problem with these passes is that they change every week or so, as glaciers move and avalanches fall, so nobody really knows the way. Maps are incorrect and guides themselves often get lost. Cho-la was difficult, and I think it’ll get more difficult as the years go by. Careful now.

Cho-la top

Near the top of Cho-la. Samuel about to start the climb

The Gokyo Valley was very misty, so we only spent a day there before going over our third pass – Renjo-la – to Thame, where the Buddhist festival of Dumje was in full swing. Up at the local monastery there were various rituals taking place including burning an effigy of ego and throwing blessed rice around the place. Great craic. We had just missed the annual arrival of Tibetan traders, who still climb over the 4 day Nangpa Pass from Tibet to trade with the sherpas. Nowadays though, instead of trading in caravans of salt and leather they bring yak loads of Chinese TVs, clothes and fake iPads. There were still a few camped out along the route but most had gone back over the pass a couple of days before. Thame is home to a lot of famous everest summiters, including Tenzing Norgay (first man to climb Everest back in 1953, along with some Kiwi guy who tagged along) and Apa Sherpa, who has climbed to the top an unbelievable 22 times, mostly without using additional oxygen. We had lunch in his lodge one of the days. He was away in LA living the high life, but his sister cooked us up a mean Dhal Bhat.

It was time for the last stretch back to Kathmandu, over the 5755m Tesi Lapcha pass and down the Rolwaling Valley to the roadhead, 4 days fast hike away. Most tourists fly out of the everest region, but having the luxury of time and wanting to complete the entire circuit on foot we had targeted Tesi Lapcha from the start. Dominik still had a month left on his visa, but mine was getting short, so he decided to come halfway up the pass for the views and then turn back for another couple of weeks in the Khumbu region. We hired two local climbing guides to take us over the pass, which 20 years ago was safe enough to bring yaks and horses laden with goods over but nowadays is rarely used.

Thyambo

The upper Thame valley that leads to the Tesi Lapcha pass. Or is it Donegal?

It took two days to go over the pass, first climbing 1300m to Ngole, which consists only of a couple of huge rock caves that we camped in up at 5100m, shielding us from the elements. All the hiking we had done up til then had been baby-steps compared to what was to come. The next morning we started at 2.30am for the top, climbing endlessly over boulders that gave way to loose stones and eventually bare ice. Dominik turned back at this stage, and the rest of us hurried to the top of the valley, which abruptly ended at the bottom of a 100m high ice-wall, angled at about 70 degrees, leading to the pass.

Khumbu

Looking back into the Khumbu valley from 5600m. 4am

I hadn’t realized we were going to be ice climbing and was fairly terrified pulling on my crampons and tying into the rope. We remained tied together slowly up the ice, Ang Dhora (lead guide and beast of a man – climbed everest twice and attempted the West face this year with a Canadian expedition) painstakingly cutting footholds with his ice axe for myself and Karshang below me to step into. We reached the top of the wall from where it was a couple of hundred metres to the pass along a narrow ledge with a 200m drop on our left side back down into the valley we had come from.

Top

On top of Tesi Lapcha (5750m)
R-L: Me (24, inexperienced tourist); Ang Dhora (27, multiple everest summiter); Karshang Lama (60, local electrician)

We reached the top at 4.30am, just as the sun was rising above the Khumbu region on one side and the Rolwaling on the other. Probably the most stunning views I’ll ever see, and in my high altitude induced mental state I got a bit emotional! We couldn’t spend long at the top, because as the sun rose it started melting the sheer glass-like walls of ice on either side, sending small stones skidding down the surface of the glacier to our feet. Going down was much tougher, gripping on the ice was very tiring, and we had to abseil down a 20m vertical drop from the first glacier onto the second. All along the glacier it creaked and popped ominously below us, and we kept going fast without rest, reaching the upper Rolwaling Valley at around 8am. By this stage waterfalls were forming off the edge of the glacier and we watched a massive avalanche the size of Europe fall down a towering mountain above us. From here it was an exhausting 3 hours across a rocky glacier and up over yet another rockfall to the end of the valley. At this point the Rolwaling glacier, which is ripping the sides of the mountain out on its way downhill, meets another glacier in a collosal mass of ice, stones and mud. The result is a huge lake which, if the stone wall gives way, will pour down into the unprotected valley below and wash away all the people who live there.

climbing

Climbing down into the Rolwaling Valley, 9am

4 hours later we were in Nagoan, the first settlement in the Rolwaling region that consists just of a few yak herders’ houses and a monastery. We were welcomed into one of the shacks for the evening by a lonely old yak farmer, who plyed us with plenty of roxy and chang (the local rice and potato based liquor) and fed us piles of thukpa (potato and yak stew). We had walked for 12 hours pretty much non-stop, and I was exhausted. Karshang and Ang Dhora though were already preparing themselves for the climb home. They left at 2am that night, hoping to make it to Thame in a day. I myself horsed it down the pristine valley the next day, walking through the pain as my feet fell apart.

Rolwaling

Looking back up the Rolwaling valley. We came down from the glacier on the left

I was only back in Kathmandu for a couple of days rest before I rented out a beast of a mountain bike and cycled the Annapurna Circuit, an area of mountains and deep valleys in the West of the country. Most people (naturally) hike this route, but it’s been done by a couple of bikers, said google. I was forewarned to expect to carry the bike a lot of the time, but it was a lot less difficult than I expected. The main problem was the rain – I started the route in the Marsyandi valley, which is the wettest area in Nepal. The road was an endless quagmire, I had to climb under and through waterfalls falling onto the road with the bike on my shoulder but after the second day it began to get much easier.

Tilicho

Some beardy fella up at Tilicho Lake

The upper areas were a lot drier, and there were a lot of great trails and downhills to follow along the Manang Valley. I had a day off the bike in Manang, where I climbed up to Tilicho Lake (5090m – the “highest lake in the world” according to my map) through landslides and weird sandstone formations. It was pretty barren up there and noisy – half the mountainside seemed to be falling into the lake and the other half was preoccupied with avalanches tearing down its slopes. It was Dad’s birthday that day too, so it seemed fitting to get in a good hike for him.

Manang

The upper Manang valley in the morning

For the next two days I cycled and pushed up to the Thorung-la pass (5400m) and onwards and downwards into the Muktinath Valley, a desert valley in the isolated Mustang region.

bike

Bike shop, 5400m

This was the best part, as I bombed it down the hill and across barren hillsides populated only by goats to Kagbeni in a couple of hours. The final two days were tougher than I had imagined – cycling down another rain-soaked valley full of mud where I had to ford rivers every half hour and got stuck in the mud every 10 minutes.

Mustang

Leaving the Mustang valley at dawn

Thus ended the stint in Nepal. I got my beard shaved off back in Kathmandu (massage and tea included) and booked myself onto a bus to the Indian border. 30 hours later I find myself in Haridwar, in Uttarkhand state. It was a great journey to get here – through the lower Terai and across the border at Mahendranagar with 16 Nepali guys heading to Punjab to work as door-to-door salesmen.

Beard

Near the end, my beard was provoking unfair comparisons (never mind the ginger-bashing). Had to shave it off

I arrived into Haridwar at 2am to find the place heaving with tractors hooked up to massive soundsystems tearing it through the streets and teenagers in bright orange robes running along the Ganges with huge fire-torches. I hadn’t realized that I’ve arrived slap-bang in the middle of the annual Kanwari festival, when 17 million devotees of Shiva come to Haridwar for a dip in the river. Busy times. You have to admire a religion that sanctions a yearly journey to a riverside resort with your friends for a swim. Everyone’s having a great time here. In my country the dominating religion encourages you to go to Lough Derg to break your feet walking in circles around a couple of freezing cold rocks. Less fun.

Nepal highlights:

- Walking safari, Chitwan N.P.
- Tesi Lapcha pass, Solukhumbu
- Biking down the Muktinath Valley, Mustang

Nepal lowlights:

- Kathmandu’s dogs

Dogs

Kathmandu’s Dogs: harmless during the day. At night they transform into howling savages, chasing me down alleyways and having unresolvable fights outside my window just as I’m trying to get some sleep.

- Nepal’s roads

Bus

Bus disaster I came across on the way back from the Tibet border. An hour before, this bus had overtaken me on a bend and the conductor and people on the roof gave a cheery wave. Every time I took a bus journey in Nepal we came across at least one accident.

Books:

Dave Grohl – This is a Call
Jon Kraukener – Into Thin Air
George Orwell – 1984
Richard Branson – Autobiography
Heinrich Harrer – Seven Years in Tibet

Himalayan

The Himalayan: Is the country open today or not?

Music:

Florence and the Machine – Lungs
Animals as Leaders – Weightless
J.S. Bach – The Brandenburg Concertos
Herbie Hancock & Jaco Pastorius – Live Voyage
Radiohead – The King of Limbs
The Bad Plus – Give
The Beatles – Revolver
Morton Feldman – Patterns in a Chromatic Field

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From South Korea to Southeast Asia by bike, boat, train and bus

So I eventually made it to Bangkok, after 2 months wandering from the chilly shores of Northeastern China to the tropical jungles of Eastern Thailand through the Yangtze River plains of Anhui and Jiangxi provinces, then the foothills of the Hengduan mountains in Yunnan, followed by three weeks spent along the Mekong river and its tributaries in Laos and a final week on an island in the Gulf of Thailand.

Actually, I started long before that. I finished work in Korea on the 27th February amid around 2 weeks of farewell dinners and lunches with colleagues, friends and students. The next day I went on a quick three day roadtrip with Dahye and Sunjin to Gangneung for raw fish and karaoke, the DMZ to hear the armies shouting and look at the barbed wire beaches and Seorak Mountain to get vertigo on a freezing, clear day.

Seoraksan

Finally slipped up one of the Seoraksan peaks, 3rd March

Between then and St. Patrick’s Day I took my bike out on the roads along the Southern edge of the Korean peninsula, finally being able to do them in my own time, without the constraints of a school calendar to draw me away. It was warmer down there also – a big pulling point. I skirted the Southern coast from Busan to Geoje to Namhae to Yeosu, passing through dying fishing villages full of old people sticking to the old ways. I had a policy of having a midday nap at 12 on the nearest beach, and stayed at Jjimjilbang every night, to rest my muscles.

After three days cycling I took a boat to Geumodo – a remote island off the Southern coast of Korea, of interest to me because it was the set of the brilliant Korean horror movie ‘Bedevilled’ (김복남 살인사건의 전말). I spent the day walking a circle route around the idyllic place. Most of the farming out there was still being done by hand and oxen, and the population was old, very old.

Geumodo

Geumodo (금오도), South Korea

Walking through some of the tiny communities, I was reminded of the ‘Bedevilled’ movie, in which a girl returns to the island of her birth after years spent away in Seoul. Her former neighbours are now suspicious and cautious around her, and she begins to notice some strange changes in the atmosphere of the place. I did get some strange looks that day, but i’ll put it down to the sight of a white man ambling along the paths at the bottom of their fields. That would freak me out, too.

Fast forward 10 days and I’m on my last weekend in Korea, visiting the DMZ.

There is only one place where you can visit the ‘demarcation line’ of the DMZ proper, and that’s at Panmunjeom, the only place on the peninsula where South Korean soldiers literally stand face to face with their North Korean counterparts. I was lucky to be visiting the week before Barack Obama himself was due to fly in, and preparations were underway; the South Koreans installing bullet-proof plastic for his 10m walk to the conference room on the line, and the North Koreans watching them every step of the way (standing only 20m away).

We started our standard tour of the conference room (the blue cabin to the left of the photo below) but in mid-talk were suddenly ushered out, our guide hastily padlocking the door behind us. We were herded back up the steps just in time to see some North Korean generals come out of the North Korean building, 20m away, preceded by goose-stepping soldiers. Our guide – Patrick, an Irish-American soldier with tattooes to prove it – muttered “watch these guys step over the line” and indeed they did. 3 of the Nordies turned into the alleyway between the two buildings and stepped up ON to the concrete boundary between the two Koreas. Doing this, they were liable to get shot. But Patrick re-assured us later that they do this quite often, just to rile up the South Koreans, who indeed did get tetchy; moving into battle stance (all the South Korean army in Panmunjeom are over 6’3″ and are the country’s best experts at martial arts). It was a surreal moment, one I’ll never forget. After all that, the North Korean generals took a quick poke around the conference room we had just left and ambled back to their own building, stopping for a moment to point and laugh at us and take photos with old Kodak reel cameras from the 80s.

DMZ

Left: The view North from Panmunjeom. The blue buildings are shared ‘conference rooms’, built half in North Korea, and half in the South. The far building is in North Korea, with the generals appearing. The closer guards are South Korean, and the far guards are the North Koreans who had just stepped on the demarcation line. Right: pointing at us, the imperialists.

And then, after a suitably debaucherous St. Patrick’s Day with good friends, followed by a quick jaunt across the Yellow Sea to Northeast China and a 22 hour train journey South, I found myself in Anhui province, 500km Southwest of Shanghai, and itching to get back on the bike.

Southern Anhui / Northern Jiangxi provinces was where a lot of rich merchants were exiled to during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644). They came with all their wealth, and set up a feudal system – using the locals as their serfs – a system that effectively still exists. They built beautiful merchant villages and towns among the valleys and plains that I cycled through, the buildings all built to allow water to flow through during times of flood, when the families and servants would just migrate to the upper floors. Each village had a pond (Chinese love looking at water) usually situated in a beautiful courtyard where the old women would come to wash clothes at dawn and the old men would come to play chess at dusk.

Honcuen

Walking around Honchuen in the evening

In Honchuen, on the second night, I turned up to my hostel to find they were having a family party. My host apologized profusely for not having a bed free, but insisted I stay, and offered me a tent in the courtyard beside the pet monkey’s pen. I stayed for 3 days. Nayxier – the man running the hostel – had been an electrician in Shanghai for 15 years, but got sick of the city life, saved up $30,000 in 10 years, and bought an old decaying merchant family’s mansion in Honchuen to refurbish with the money.

Nayxier

In Honcuen with Nayxier, outside his home.

I earned my keep by helping him lug wood in from the road to the courtyard, where his craftsmen were cutting them into shape to replace the old rafters of the mansion. In the evenings I gave his 9 year old daughter English lessons. I was fascinated by the way the old mansion was built, with intricate carvings in every nook and cranny and little solars for old people to rest in. I’d love to see how it looks in 5 years.

Cycling

Some eejit with a bike, South Anhui province, China

After the success of that trip I rented the bike out again for another 3 days and struck out for Jiangxi province – 150km to the south over a small range of hills. There, I found more stunning villages and riverside ports, although unfortunately the tour groups had found a lot of them. Then on my last day in Tunxi I climbed Huangshan (Yellow Mountain), one of the holiest mountains in China.

Wangkou

A random village I cycled through, Northern Jiangxi province

It was a bit of a farce. It cost $40 to climb, and was swarmed with hordes apon hordes of screeching Chinese tour groups. My first experience of mass-tourism in China was a bad one. I was almost knocked off the path at times by convoys of older tour groups going up the mountain on the backs of porters, and was constantly harraunged for photos with giggling teenage girls on school trips (“huallo, pickature ok?”). At the top I could barely find a place to get a good view, and ended up almost killing myself by falling off a cliff trying to find a peaceful spot (OK, I was also trying to take an artsy photo). Eventually I gave up and ran down the mountain, tail between my legs.

Huangshan

Huangshan: almost falling off a cliff trying to escape the tour-bus crowds.

Next was a 36 hour train journey (eat, read, sleep, repeat) followed by a 12 hour sleeper bus (full of chinese college kids playing out of tune guitars) and a 7 hour minibus ride (where my neighbour spent a good 4 getting sick into her shopping bag of groceries) to Shangri-La!

After the debacle of Huangshan, I wanted to have some time to myself – sans tour groups – and really off the beaten track. So, having done extensive research almost exclusively on google maps (NEVER plan a trip based solely on google maps, by the way) I set off on another rented mountain bike from Shangri-la – a picturesque frontier town up in the mountains between Burma, Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. The name is actually a Chinese government fabrication – they changed the name from Zhongdian in 2001 – and the ‘old town’ has actually all been built in the past 10 years. It’s all built in Tibetan style, a beautiful style of architecture that meshes logs together to maximize their strength against the ripping winds up there.

Shangri-la

Overlooking Shangri-la

From Shangri-la it was a very tough 2 day cycle to Tiger Leaping Gorge. In my amateur research I had figured that the drop in altitude from 3,200m at Shangri-la to 1,900m at Tiger Leaping Gorge could only mean a chuckle-worthy freewheeling descent with stops only to take photos and have picnics beside mountain streams. Couldn’t have been more wrong. What I didn’t realize was that to reach Tiger Leaping Gorge, the road needs to cross 5 river valleys first, and when you cross a river valley in Tibet it means falling a luxurious 500m in altitude before grinding the gears to make up the distance on the far side. Absolutely exhausting, mentally and physically. Thank God for the old lady in the guesthouse in Baishuitai, the halfway point, who cooked me up the best noodles i’ve ever eaten for breakfast on the second day. Noodles, bananas, water and snickers. That’s how I got through it.

Anyway, it was all worth it in the end. Tiger Leaping Gorge was stunning. Coming in from the bottom down a 30km (yes, that’s right… 30km) straight descent, I nearly fell off the road when I spotted the gorge opening up below. It’s the deepest gorge in the world; a full 2km almost vertical drop from the top of the mountains to the Yangtze river far, far below. Legend has it that it’s so narrow that a tiger hopped it back in the day and blah blah blah, but really it was quite a sight. I stayed for 2 days.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Cycling down Tiger Leaping Gorge. My photos can’t possibly do it justice. Google it.

After another very enjoyable week in the outer regions of China, it was time to go to Laos.

The 24 hour bus journey from Kunming to Luang Prabang was the most fun of the trip so far. The bus driver was – granted – crazy, but he stopped every 4 hours for a bite to eat, and dragged all the occupants of the bus with him. We had a couple of hours kip at the border before it opened and then lumbered into Laos. It was the most marked change in landscape i’ve come across. Laos – in contrast to China – didn’t have any grey buildings to form its village streets. Everything was built from bamboo. Kids were walking around with hoes and buckets in their hands – whereas the precious Chinese kids would never be seen to be doing labour – and animals were roaming free in the streets. And it was Songkran.

I am so lucky to have arrived in time for Laos New Year. The New Year (a.k.a. Songkran in Thailand, Pi Mai in Laos) is a time when everybody goes to the temples to pray for good fortune, and on their way back home proceed to soak eachother – seen as a sign of good blessing – in the biggest water fights i’ve witnessed since Glenties harvest fair 1998.

Pi-mai

Kid with semi-automatic weapon. Laos is a dangerous place, water-wise.

The whole country disolves into mayhem, as families take to the streets to soak anything that comes near. It took our bus 11 hours to drive the 250km to Luang Prabang from the border, because we were constantly stopped by people running out onto the road, ambushing us with buckets, flour, food colouring, whatever they could get a hold of. Our Chinese bus driver found all of this side-splittingly hilarious, and could barely continue driving the bus at times he was laughing so hard. Once he even stopped the bus to chase a kid down the road who had soaked him through the window, much to the hilarity of the whole village.

On arriving in Luang Prabang it got more intense. I met up with Andrew, David, Eoghan and Mark and immediately entered the fray. The next day was parade day, at first a respectful affair, with beauty queens and recently graduated monks walking in an orderly fashion down the street. But it quickly gave way to anarchy, as houses produced huge buckets of water from nowhere and everybody filled their bottles or water guns to soak everyone else. We commandeered an old Land Rover, and spent the afternoon driving up and down the street in pitched battle with the locals. Andrew thought he was back in Nam. It went on and on into the night. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Pi-mai Laos

Screenshots from Laos New Year. Take a look at bottom-left: a gutted Beatle still doing the rounds.

4 days later we were 150kms North, on the Nam Ou river, a tributary of the Mekong. It was quite far upriver, and our boat-bus almost collided with an oncoming boat as we navigated a series of rapids – we missed eachother by inches. We arrived in Muang Ngoi, on a bend on the river, at the same time a pig was being slaughtered in the middle of the street. There was a big funeral going on over those couple of days, and the village was full of people who had come in to attend. We spent about a week up there between swimming, trekking through the jungle and visiting caves.

We walked through large areas of former jungle that had been ‘slashed and burned’ in the past year. At night it would rain, and just before the rain hit, we’d see flares of fires being lit on hills surrounding the village. They would burn fast through the bamboo and undergrowth before quickly being extinguished by the rain, and the next day the farmers would be out in force clearing the burnt remains to transform it into farmland, or for palm oil. The local government have a policy of ‘grouping’ villages together into one central village to improve services and reduce this style of slash and burn farming, and a couple of the villages we passed through were empty shells of their former selves. Vita, the lad guiding us (great petanque player) told us the government want to stamp out slash and burn farming in this area altogether by 2015.

On the last day, we walked by a cave system in the jungle. This was where the local villagers hid in the mid 70s for years, as American bombers blew everything that moved around them. The cave had a natural spring inside, electricity and even a school, but still many people died when they ventured outside the cave at the time, as much from poison gas dropped in the local rivers by American planes as from the bombing itself. During the ‘Secret War’ – a war that officially didn’t exist according to the US – bombers dropped the equivalent of “one B-52 bombload every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973″ (The Guardian) – targeting supply routes of the Viet Cong by employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy. In fact, the Americans dropped more bombs on Laos during the Vietnam war than during the entire WWII campaign. It is the most bombed country in history, yet was a neutral country for the duration of the Vietnam War.

Muang Ngoi

A ‘new village’ near Muang Ngoi. High up on the top of a hill, this replaces several smaller villages in the surrounding area.

A couple of days later, 3 of us decided to get off the main roads for a couple of days, and rented scooters to head off into the interior of Laos. Laos is a country bigger than Britain but with only a population of 6.5 million. This means large areas remain wilderness, and we hoped to do a circle route along back roads that I planned using my own map and (sigh) google maps. To cut a long story short, we had an amazing time chugging over mud tracks getting hopelessly lost, taking a boat across a huge resevoir that wasn’t marked on any maps but eventually being turned back at an army outpost after 2 days driving, because it was a ‘special zone’, and outsiders weren’t supposed to be there. I did the trip with Andy and Eoghan, and Eoghan wrote up a decent account of it on his blog, if you’d like to read more.

Xaysomboune Special Zone

Eoghan on the boat across the reservoir: 3 bikes, 5 people, 1 lawnmower engine.

Then, for our final week in Laos, we met up with the other lads to ‘relax’ in Vang Vieng, the ‘party capital’ of Laos. It’s an awful place on first impression, a case-study in where backpacker tourism goes wrong. In the 90s – when tourists were first allowed in Laos – people came here to relax among the beautiful hills that jut up from the riverside, and to float down the river on inner-tubes of truck tires. Gradually the clientele has changed. It was the first time i’ve seen backpackers like it. Angry looking, muscular English and American guys strutting down the streets like cockerels, wearing t-shirts reading slogans like ‘why not?’ or ‘drink triple, see double, act single’ and getting into drunken fights in the evenings. These guys were invariably followed by tanned blond girls wearing almost nothing, usually drunk.

They come to Vang Vieng for the ‘tubing’, which has evolved from a relaxing activity to a full on all-day all-year drinking/drug festival. The river is now lined with bamboo shacks with guys employed to throw out ropes to backpackers floating down the river. After being pulled in to shore, you get offered a free shot of ‘Laolao’ whiskey, followed by a free bucket filled with knock-off coke, knock-off whiskey/rum/vodka, knock-off red bull and possibly drugs. Revellers will stay at one of these bamboo bars for around an hour before hopping back in to their tubes to float down to the next bar. There are around 10 along the length of the river, some built high off the water with rope swings and slides into the shallow water. People die every year falling off these bars while rotten drunk, or smashing themselves off rocks at the bottom of the river. Back in town, around a third of the backpackers walking down the street have gashes or open wounds on their bodies, many choosing alcohol to kill the pain instead of going to hospital. The bars employ ‘volunteers’ – Western backpackers who are broke and get free room and board for their services – to heckle people in to the bars and offer them free drinks before encouraging them to buy more. A Western traveller will be less suspicious of another Westerner offering them drink or drugs at inflated prices, so the system works well for the bars.

Vang Vieng

Memories of Vang Vieng. L-R: Drinks literally ‘on the river’; Dr. Joynt; One of the death-defying jumps off the bar;
Bottom L-R: Mr. Hornshaw enjoying a cold one on the river; Typical example of the ‘dirty backpackers’ we met; the slide I nearly lost my camera on

Although we were affronted by Vang Vieng at the start, we had to ‘get amongst it’, to quote Andrew Hornshaw. So a couple of days we went down to the river for a float down the stream and some drinks. It was – i’ll grudgingly admit – good fun. Every bar had drinking games which served their purpose well. One, a massive Jenga tower on a floating platform in the river, was especially entertaining, and we were amused by the random characters wandering around the bars. I talked to an English guy who didn’t seem to know how he had got here, talking vaguely about taking a bus from Chiang Mai to Phuket and then flying in, which is of course impossible. It’s 1500km from Chiang Mai to Phuket and there’s no airport in Vang Vieng. A Scandanavian guy was full of hyper energy and spent the whole afternoon swimming over and back between the two bars in the strong current. As it got dark he disappeared down the river into the gathering darkness, not to be seen again. I nearly had a disaster myself as my underwater camera fell off my head after coming down a huge slide at one of the bars. It quickly sank to the bottom of the murky river and try as I did, I couldn’t find it. After exhausting myself by diving down repeatedly – I could barely touch the bottom – I sat at the edge of the river dejected. Then after a full 15 minutes later a little kid surfaced clutching the camera, still recording! It was a pure miracle, and the resulting video is amazing to watch.

A week later I had split from the lads (they were heading North to Vietnam and I was heading down to Thailand) and spent a week on Koh Chang, an island lying off Eastern Thailand in the gulf within sight of Cambodia. It was a much needed beach holiday. I rented a bamboo shack for $4 a night, a motorbike for $2 a day and spent the time snorkelling around the outlying rocks and islands, scooting around the islands’ little roads and tracks and reading Max Hastings’ massive history of the Second World War (a random book I picked up in China). On my second day I found a hidden white sand beach at the end of a forest track edged by coconut trees with nobody around, and spent a lot of time there. I also met up with Eoin, an old friend from Korea now living and working in Bangkok, who was on holiday with his girlfriend. Koh Chang’s a lovely island, as yet not over-developed but all around the island ‘land for sale’ and ‘sold’ signs crop up everywhere, and I think it’ll have been transformed in another 5 years. But for now, it was a little paradise.

Koh Chang

Secret beach in Koh Chang. Anybody who wants directions, email me

It was a perfect way to end the journey down from Korea, through China, Laos and Thailand before heading to Bangkok and taking the flight to Kathmandu, which ended up taking 40 hours, 35 of which were spent waiting in airports for delayed or re-scheduled flights, where I had enough time to finally write this blog.

And now it’s on to Nepal for a month with Eileen and Suzi, India for a couple of months with possible onward trips to Bangladesh, Central Asia or Africa. It’s all up in the air as of yet, but that’s the way I like it.

Bangkok airport

Bangkok airport, en route to Dhaka after a 24 hour delay

3 best and 3 worst of the trip so far:

BEST:

The architecture:

It makes me sound really boring, but i’ve been really impressed by the way people build their houses differently in these countries. In central China, villages have to deal with flooding every year on the river plains, and so under the flagstones of all the houses and in the streets are drainage systems that allow the flood waters to flood through the houses, and then quickly away. In Tibet there is a culture of Polyandry, where one woman has many husbands. This makes for a lot of extra hands around the house, and they build huge houses on the steppes, with large compounds just to – as far as I can see – keep busy! Then in Laos, everything is made from bamboo. Rice is cooked in bamboo, bamboo soup is the national lunch and elaborate huts are constructed from all sorts of materials derived from bamboo. They build beautiful homes on stilts with balconies to sit on during the hot, hot days.

Architecture

L-R: Typical houses in Central China; typical Tibetan-style compound, (always) under-construction; typical Lao house containing typical kid at the door

The cycling:

It was an obsession I had cultivated on the weekends in Korea, and in China I spent most of my month on and off the saddle. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s by far the best way to see a country. China’s cities were well developed for cyclist - with roadways parallel to the main street reserved exclusively for cyclists and mopeds. In the countryside people almost exclusively used bike transport, so I didn’t feel as intrusive on a bike. I could just shoot off on little side tracks and explore the fields on a whim. Ultimate freedom.

Baishuitai

The road from Shangri-la to Tiger Leaping Gorge, high above the Baishuitai terraces

The food:

$5 dinner in China. The fish had been swimming in the bathroom sink minutes before. Delish

$5 dinner in China. The fish had been swimming in the bathroom sink minutes before. Delish

China is famous for its food culture. Unfortunately, I can’t read or speak Chinese. As a result, I would walk into a restaurant, sit down, and commence an extremely awkward situation which eventually usually resulted in me being brought in to the kitchen to point at the ingredients I liked. Sometimes though, the ‘lao-ban‘ (manager) would realise my predicament and cook me up the house special without question. It was very hit and miss, but I had some delicious stews, weird hot-pots and amazing fish in China.

Then in Laos it was all about the ‘sticky lai’ (sticky rice). Cooked in a hollow bamboo shoot, it’s slightly undercooked rice that was the national staple, and which I got quite addicted to during the 3 weeks there.

WORST:

The cycling uphill:

Needless to say, cycling in Tibet was a challenge. I can handle an uphill, as long as it’s followed by a nice down. But when you spend 2 hours climbing a switchback section, just to reach the watershed, descend for 10 minutes and then face in to another punishing uphill it can be demoralising to say the least.

Climbing

This may not look like much, but it’s a 15km hill climb in Yunnan, on the way up to Lugu Lake. During those 10 days I’d climb around 3 of these a day. Torturous

Chinese mass tourism:

Huangshan

Climbing Huangshan at times felt like exiting the Seoul subway system in rush hour

China has 1.2 billion people milling around. All (or most) with annual leave from their jobs. And with such a huge, vastly varied nation to see most of them end up holidaying in their own country. The result is that any tourist attraction you visit in China is invariably mobbed by tour groups of older Chinese, or tour groups of college-age Chinese, or tour groups of schoolkids. I found that after a while I started avoiding places mentioned as ‘popular’ in the Lonely Planet, and instead of visiting famous cultural or historical villages, I would skirt around the edges of it and visit a nearby village, usually with similar sights but without the crowds.

Another thing that was sometimes a bit tiring was the paparazzi that followed me around. If I was in a town or village frequented by tour groups, I learned to run down an alleyway and hide before they descended on me. It happened quite often that a group of brightly coloured tourists would break away from an  ancient temple or suchlike tourist attraction to stream after me, snapping away on their DSLRs, fascinated by the one white tourist in the whole village. They’d follow me up paths (as happened on Huangshan) or into restaurants (as in Wangkou). Humorous for a while, but became a bit annoying when they stood videoing me eat my dinner!

Tourism

Being photographed while eating my dinner in China: a favourite pasttime

Southeast Asian ‘dirty backpackers’:

Shouting at hostel owners, arguing with taxi drivers, getting drunk and disorderly in quiet towns, complaining when their Western food doesn’t taste Western, paying triple for an air-conditioned van instead of a local bus, pointing at people, wearing skimpy clothes in conservative societies, drunkenly lifting up kids and throwing them around: it’s all part of being a Southeast Asian dirty backpacker. And somehow Southeast Asians seem to deal with it calmly.

VV

A typical backpacker specimen in Vang Vieng, on the hunt for fish ‘n’ chips

Books read:
Jung Chang – Wild Swans
Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything
James Hilton – Lost Horizon
Max Hastings – Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45
James Gleich – The Information

Music listened to:
Cliff Martinez – Drive (Soundtrack)
Eddie Vedder – Into the Wild (Soundtrack)
Paul Simon – Graceland
Primus – Green Naugahyde
Bon Iver – Bon Iver

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회식

Food culture here is massive. Eating out is expected of people, eating alone at home is frowned upon. A town the size of Taebaek (50,000) has hundreds and hundreds of restaurants. Within 100m of my small apartment block, I can count 24. Back home these restaurants would never be able to stay open. Expensive licensing laws alone would close them before they ever got started. But in Korea you don’t need a license to sell food and drink, you just open the doors and get going. And it’s lucrative too. One of the main reasons it is so is the culture of the 회식 (hweshik – working dinner).

Every company, school, club, study group, alumni group or anything that consists of a group of people working together will inevitably have a hweshik. It’s basically a gathering of co-workers to strengthen bonds, get to know eachother outside of the workplace and, most importantly, get hopelessly drunk together. Usually over dinner. Whereas at work the employees are uptight, formal and at times awkward amongst eachother, once the hweshik gets into full swing bonds are strengthened, relationships are formed, and colleagues become friends. My experiences from working in a high school where the teachers are all hell-bent on getting promoted and eventually working their way up to that coveted head-teacher or head-master’s position might be a little different from other peoples’, but our hweshiks were always rowdy. Beyond rowdy.

Hweshik1

Hweshik 1차: the ‘first round’

There’s always a reason for a hweshik. Whether that be the end of the school year, the start of the school year, the promotion of a teacher, the transferal of the janitor, the opening of a new building, the graduation of the science teacher’s daughter… there’s always a reason. Around 4.30pm on the day of the hweshik a message will be sent around on ‘Cool Messenger’, the Korean school intranet system, inviting teachers to meet, usually at 6.30pm, and usually at a 한우 (hanu – Korean beef barbeque) restaurant. A grumble will murmer around the office from those who had other plans for the evening. It’s OK to opt out, but it sort of loses you face, and if you’re looking for some good words or a good reference from the guy who invited you, you’re not going to opt out. By 6.30pm people will begin awkwardly arriving at the restaurant in dribs and drabs. This will be happening all over town. Each company will have a hweshik every couple of weeks. At my school it was usually once a week. Even if it’s just one department or a couple of lads who play tennis together in the evening, it still counts.

soju

The weapon of choice at the hweshik

From the opening speech by the boss and clink of glasses it’s pretty much all downhill. The soju (Korean sake) is cracked open, further speeches are made, the meat is on the grill and people start getting drunk. A side note on soju - the Korean poison of choice. Made from burnt rice originally, but nowadays probably almost 100% chemically processed, it’s a little bottle of laughs. 20% alcohol so weak enough to not have a strong alcoholic punch but strong enough to get you drunk, it sells for the measly sum of $1 at your local mart. It’s so central to socializing in Korea that 3.5 billion bottles of it were consumed here last year. An average Korean drinks 90 bottles of it a year.

At the hweshik when the soju’s flowing suddenly people can speak English, and teachers are literally coming out of the woodwork to speak to me. I’ve gotten to know the majority of the teachers in my school not in the office at school or during sports or hikes or whatnot, but around the dinner table at the hweshik. To pour your own drink is against Korean table etiquette, so you first have to be offered a shot glass (which you receive with two hands), drink the drink that’s offered and then return the favour. This can become quite confusing if, early on, you offer your shot glass to a colleague who then gets another shot offered before drinking yours. In this case sometimes your shot glass can be lost, and for the rest of the hweshik you wander around the restaurant shot-glassless skiving off other people.

And so it goes for around 2 hours. Everybody sitting on the floor in their socks, chatting. Copious amounts of food is eaten, and copious amounts of alcohol is drunk. My principal’s favourite drink was a full glass of beer topped off with a generous slug of soju (called ‘somaek‘, a mixture of the words ‘soju‘ and ‘maekju‘ (beer)). Passed all around the table – everyone has to take a drink. Rocket fuel.

After it all the bill is generally paid for by one person. Korean beef is pretty expensive – 200g will cost $20 – and when you have 30+ people eating and drinking together it comes up quite a tally. Our final hweshik of the year cost 1.9 million won – around $1500. All bankrolled by the principal. Cheers guy.

Hweshik: second round. At the noraebang (Karaoke room)

Hweshik: 2차: the ‘second round’. At the noraebang (Karaoke room)

What follows the ‘first round’ at the restaurant varies (usually depending on the physical state of the remaining attendees). Either it’s on to a bar crawl, to a ‘business room’, or to a noraebang where colleagues who 3 hours before were teaching kids maths and english and science fall around passionately singing their favourite ballads to each other. A successful hweshik would have at least 3 rounds – i’ve been to ones that started at midday and continued until 2am, 6 rounds. As the night gets later the tongues loosen and co-workers let flow their real feelings about each other. A seemingly national dislike for bosses and principals waits until the second or third rounds to be voiced, and from then on the nattering grows. I’ve sat for many a night in a dingy bar or fried chicken joint nodding in agreement as older colleagues told me in detail the failings of the principal.

The hweshik has been a big part of my experience in Korea. Many school nights have been followed by a day of horrifying hangovers experienced by all the school’s staff. It’s perfectly normal to students, who often wrinkle up their noses at their teachers and comment on the ‘soju naemsae’ (‘soju smell’) during morning classes following epic hweshiks. It may seem unprofessional and downright irresponsible to an outside observer, but just try sitting down to dinner with 30 seasoned hweshik professionals and not getting drunk – I’d put money on you failing in that regard.

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수능

Watch this:

It must be pretty tough to be a high school kid in Korea. First, you have to go to school from 8 in the morning until 10 at night. Then you come home to parents who push you to study later into the night, usually 1 or 2, according to my students. And after three years of this it all boils down to one single test, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT, 대학수학능력시험 aka 수능, suneung).

The suneung is a damn hard exam. It starts at 8.40am, and doesn’t finish until 6.30pm. It consists of seven sections: Korean, Maths, English, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Occupational Sciences and a Second Foreign Language. These are further subdivided into sub-categories (social sciences has 11 subjects such as history, geography etc.). Every question is multiple choice, every multiple choice question has 5 options.

On suneung day (usually the second week of November) everybody in Seoul goes to work an hour later than usual to avoid creating traffic for students going to the exam centres. Flights are delayed until after the listening section of the exam is finished, and police are employed to secure schools to avoid cheating or interference. Here in Taebaek it’s a smaller affair, but it has been an interesting spectacle to see 1st and 2nd graders gather at the gate to the school to cheer on their schoolmates going in to the exam at 8 in the morning. Parents stay all day praying or waiting in cars for their sons to come out of the exam hall and whisk them away to a spa or restaurant to conclude one of the most important days in their lives.

Suneung

Students taking the suneung test

The preparations for the exam are even more extreme. The teachers who write the test (total 690 people) are closeted away for 32 days in a mountain resort without internet or phones. There they write the test in absolute secrecy – in the history of the test no questions have ever been leaked before the exam – and are released on the day of the exam. This year a 55 year old test writer died 2 days before the exam of a heart attack in the mountain resort.

The high school i’ve worked at for the past two years is a mid-level academic school. Only a handful of students make it to the prestigious universities in Seoul (know as SKY – Seoul University, Korea University and Yonsei University) each year. The competition to enter these universities is so great that you need an almost perfect grade to get in. In my school most final year students would study for 18 hours a day and sleep for just 4 – 5 hours a night in order to prepare for the test. Exercise, dating and hobbies are cast away by most final year students, replaced by gruelling study regimes enforced by teachers, tutors and mostly by parents.

Night study

10.30pm. One of the final year students passed out in the dormitory ‘study rooms’. He still has 3 hours to go.

What university you attend in Korea affects your standing in society much more so than back home, and both students and their parents obsess about getting a high enough grade to enter a reputable university. There has been much talk of reforms to the test to reduce its severity, and a whole different English curriculum is in the planning, but in 2 years here of all the talk i’ve heard of reform, nothing has changed.

And it’s the universities and the chaebol who apparently are holding back reform to the test. Korean universities pride themselves in their high entry standards and ‘international standing’ (although Seoul University, the best in the country, ranks 124th in the world, while Trinity College Dublin - Ireland’s top uni – is 117th).

So back to the suneung itself – as a native english speaker, how well do you think you’d do if you took the English section of the test? How about giving it a try – here it is:

2012 CSAT Exam – English Section

(Questions 1 – 17 are listening questions, the rest are reading comprehension)

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재벌

Chaebol

Korea inc. is pretty impressive. I’ve never been in a country with more of a capitalist mindset. Brand recognition is extremely strong – simply having a different type of North Face jacket in high school determines your status. Status symbols are very important – when iPhones were finally released here in 2010, parents scrambled to buy the phone for their kids so they could flash them off in school.

Every government policy is honed towards the accumulation of wealth, the raising of GNP, improving Korean companies’ standing overseas. Right from the way the education system is structured to prepare students for entry tests to the big companies to the way the leaders of these big companies are afforded ways by the government to expand and maximize their business interests.

These ‘big companies’ are the 재벌 (chaebol: conglomerates), the multi-billion dollar corporations who effectively run this country. We’re talking the Samsung, Hyundai, LG, Lotte type of corporation: with subsidiaries that deal in everything from electronics to entertainment industries, insurance to cars. The top 5 chaebol in the country account for 66% of Korea’s GDP, Samsung alone counts for 20%. Suwon, Samsung’s ‘home town’ grew from a village to a city of 1 million in under 10 years. Lee Myung bak, current president and favorite to win this years elections, is a former CEO of a subsidiary of Hyundai. Under his leadership, chaebol have been granted powers to create their own financial firms and the CEOs of Samsung and Hyundai – having being convicted of tax evasion and embezzlement respectively – both avoided prison sentences because of their ‘importance to the South Korean economy’.

Lee Kun Hee

Samsung CEO Lee Kunhee: “Tax evasion? What tax evasion?”

As an outsider and an Irish person I admire how a small country like Korea has developed its native industries to become world leaders. Our economy has always depended on direct foreign investment and – alcohol aside – there aren’t many internationally recognized ‘brands’ (Kerrygold, maybe?). But Korea has managed to drag itself from the abject poverty of the 50s to being the 12th largest economy in the world, largely thanks to the chaebol. Their status around the world, also, is growing and growing. Apple’s iPhones’ memory system is made by Samsung. Sony’s TV screens are made by Samsung. 1 in 5 of the world’s cellphones are made by Samsung. But their domineering power in Korea has negative effects as well. Entrepreneurship here is smothered by the big chaebol. Start up companies are bought up or have their staff poached before they can contribute any real innovation to their field. Chaebol subsidiaries out compete independent businesses in every field thanks to their endless funds.

A random example of this negative effect is to be found in the massive growth in coffee shops and bakeries that has swept the nation. In 2003, there were 18,000 independently-owned bakeries in Korea. By late last year, this number had plummeted to 4,000, while the number of bakeries has almost tripled. All over the country franchises – 4 of which are owned by the daughters of the CEOs of Samsung, Hyundai, Lotte and Shinsaegae – sweep aside and out-compete locally owned bakeries on a daily basis. Paris Baguette – the biggest franchise – opened a massive 300 stores last year. It all seems very incestuous. A lot of these franchises are funded from the top by the chaebol, whose infinite monetary resources ensure that the daughters of the big men can keep expanding their “hobby businesses”, as they are called by the president Lee Myung Bak: “Second-generation or third-generation chaebol may be doing it as a hobby, but it is a matter of survival for ordinary people running bakeries,” he said in a surprising rebuke of chaebol power.

LG Advertising

Korean pop group Kara advertise the new LG Optimus

The chaebol dominate business here in a way much more encompassing than in the West. For example, LG –  known in the West only for electronics – has a large market share in entertainment (it manages many of the country’s top pop stars), owns the country’s leading coffee shop franchise, owns the LG Twins (one of the country’s top baseball teams) and has a large cosmetics range. Having ‘a finger in every pie’ greatly benefits LG’s blanket advertising, where a pop singer can be used to advertise a cellphone, aftershave product, baseball team and coffee shop all in one sweep.

With China developing its manufacturing industry with a more specialist and high-end focus, Korea needs to innovate and develop new products with more cutting edge appeal to global consumers. If they want to keep their hold on electronics and automobiles markets they need to stay one step ahead of other Asian competitors, particularly China. But what I see is the opposite – the chaebol sticking to what’s served them so well over the past decades – affordable replicas of American designs. The reason most Western consumers choose Korean products over Japanese – for example – is because they are cheaper. A couple of years down the line, it’s likely this comparison will be able to be made between China (the cheaper model) and Korea (the older brand that is becoming out of touch and expensive).

As labour costs here go up and competition from ‘cheaper’ economies grows fiercer, from South Korea’s point of view, the chaebol seem to be a narrow base on which to build the country’s economic future.

Samsung galaxy launch

Samsung launched the Galaxy Tab last year. Looks much like the iPad to you?

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