Saturday, October 22, 2016

Annapurna Sanctuary - Part 1

October 22nd, 2016

The Drive:

An hour and a half, 5 of us squeezed into something the size of a Nissan Micra.  An elderly Hindu gentleman taxi driver, who made liberal use of the horn: at corners, when passing, on the straightaway, random places in between.... There really was no place where more horn tootling could be thought of as inappropriate.

He had the odd habit of weaving the car back and forth, whether from force of habit from dodging potholes, of which there were many, or to confuse completing vehicles following or to intimidate approaching traffic, it was hard to tell.

His use of the brakes was erratic as well, which, combined with his steering eccentricities, caused us to proceed in a lurching and weaving fashion along a very rough road, rough enough to demand much weaving and lurching all on it's own.  And we weren't alone.  A steady stream of buses passed, many other jeeps, taxis and minivans, not to mention motorcycles.

Motorcycles.  Our taxi happened to be passing two at the same time that one was passing us and another was approaching from the other direction.  Not to worry.  Merely a situation where more horn blowing was seen as a solution.  From everyone.

To add to a potholed, stony,  barely 2-laned track, which still had some patches of asphalt remaining, were occasional piles of stony dirt, apparently dumped to fill holes in the road, but which had yet to be spread out.  Their present purpose was to reduce a possible 2 lanes to barely one.  A couple of passes with a road grader would have helped.

And there was the music.  The driver played a continuous track of Indian songs.  This particular set of selections sounded more to my ear like a rendition from the Chipmunks.  Just sayin'.

I tried leaning my elbow out the window, but became concerned that it might get scraped off by a passing vehicle, so I kept it inside.  Holding on to the overhead handle in an attempt to stabilize myself.  Why I bothered, I don't know.  We were packed into the back seat tightly enough extra movement was impossible.  We leaned to the left, we leaned to the right in concert to the weaving of the taxi.

After 90 minutes, we arrived in Nayapul (1070 m), along with many other tooting taxis and buses.

The Hike:

Anticlimactic by comparison.  We walked along a track about the condition of a poor BC Forest Service Road.  We left the noisy part of civilization behind.  Almost nothing but other people walking.  Passing small collections of houses, lodges and tea houses.

Many butterflies.  Some looked exactly like dead leaves when their wings were folded.  Even to the little stem on the leaf.  Unfortunately, they were too fast for me and my camera.

We stopped for lunch.  We pressed on.  We reached the planned day's destination, Tekhedhunga, at about 1 pm. Too early to stop, we agreed, so we pressed on until 2:30 pm, to stop in Ulleri (1960 m).  The last hour was straight up.  Think Davis Creek steep with about 2 or 3 km of stone stairs.

There is a collection of lodges here, overlooking a vista of steep, treed valleys.  Mountain cloud has moved in here and there.  Views are best looking down.  Time to rest, hydrate and wait for supper.

After recovering from the "stair master" workout, I wandered through the small collection of buildings, arriving at the playground where some boys were playing "volleyball".  One little boy was batting a red balloon back and forth so I played with him for a few minutes.

Supper of tomato, onion, cheese spaghetti and fries.  Then bed.

October 23rd, 2016.

Sunday.  We hike from Ulleri to Ghorepani.

Our track is steadily upward through forested hillsides, eventually becoming a rhododendron forest.  Sadly not the right season for blooms.

Occasional sessions with the stair master.  Some sections of flattish bits.

Arrived in Ghorepani (2860 m) after about 4 hours.  Quite a collection of hotels here.  The plane from Pokhara to Jomsom began passing overhead about 8 am.  That will be us in a week or so.

Some views of big peaks.  Some cloud is teasing us.  Only bits of the peaks are showing above the cloud.

Fortunately it's cool although somewhat humid.  By the time we arrive, I'm pretty damp.  Laundry will be on the agenda this afternoon.  Also the bakery.  A nap.

Friday, October 21, 2016

KTM to Pokhara

Basically, take my comments about Rules of the Road and increase everything exponentially.  Throw in hundreds of buses, hundreds of trucks, motorcycles weaving in and out, add a terrible road surface and near gridlock traffic, drag that out over 9 hours, and that would pretty much summarize our day of travel.  Keep in mind that Kathmandu and Pokhara are only 200 km apart.

There were many times that the bus advanced at a crawl.  Many times stopped.  For some reason I don't recall it being as bad last time we were here.  Maybe it wasn't as bad.  Maybe I've just forgotten.  Still took 8 hours last time.

I really wasn't able to take pictures that did the whole experience justice.  I have some video, but even that won't convey things properly.

The road isn't wide enough for the vehicles that are using it.  There are no shoulders.  Every time someone stops, or breaks down, you lose that lane.  Tractors, people walking.  Vehicles pulling out in front of you.  Vehicles turning.  Vehicles passing with oncoming traffic.  BIG oncoming traffic.  Motorcycles being squeezed to the very edge of the road.

One more piece of Nepali infrastructure that definitely isn't working.  And nobody working to fix it.

Anyhow, we arrived at the bus station in Pokhara, got whisked to the Hotel Yeti and our room was waiting.  Same room as 3 years ago.

This evening we will probably have a stroll down the main street, but since we will be back here twice before we're done, we don't need to go for the whole Pokhara experience today.

Tomorrow we will be picked up by a van or taxi or something and driven to Nayapul.  That's about an hour away and is where we start our first trek.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Kathamndu - More Dusty & Chaotic Than Ever

A Typical Lane Near Thamel

I remember being impressed by the chaos of Kathmandu the last time we were here.  The noise, weaving motorbikes, the cacophony of horns, voices, and the surge of people.  Small cars trying to navigate lanes too narrow for sensible passage.  The smells of dust, incense, garbage.  And yet, despite all that, an almost endlessly fascinating place to wander.

If anything, three years later, the main streets are worse.  Traffic consisting of motorbikes, cars and trucks, backed up for at least a block.  Pedestrians weaving in and out to cross the street.  Non functional traffic lights (no change from three years ago) with intersections being controlled by traffic cops.  Most intersections requiring several cops.

Why would anyone even consider trying to drive.  Walking is enough of a challenge.

On the lanes of Thamel, near our hotel, in the old part of the city (not sure how one defines old here), it is perhaps less busy.  There could be fewer tourists here.  In the aftermath of the earthquake in April 2015, visitors stayed away in droves.  It is, apparently, only now starting to  improve.

It's been a hard time for the business community over the past 18 months.

Rebuilding is ongoing.  We read in the paper that the Boudhanath stupa repairs are completed and that a dedication ceremony will be held on November 22, the day before we start our voyage home.

Some buildings have been torn down.  There is new construction.  Concrete bring mixed.  Parts of streets are being dug up to repair pipes.  And all of it being done by hand.  The largest pieces of equipment I've seen have been shovels and picks.

We leave Kathamndu tomorrow for a few weeks of trekking north of Pokhara and north of Jomsom.  It will be nice to get out into the country for awhile.  First will be 200 km by bus to Pokhara.  I expect that will take most of the day.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Occupied With Security

First, for obvious reasons, there will be no pictures with this post.

Second, when you travel to different parts of the world, different security regimes impose on one's life in various ways.  One gets used to the system at home, not knowing that in other parts of the world, people face vastly different conditions.

Third, this post isn't just about security matters.

China (Guangzhou)

I might have mentioned before the greater presence of police.  Most look like traffic cops and or security guards, but you see more than would be common in Canada, at least.


Starting in the 1950s, China began a crackdown in Tibet.  This has all been documented elsewhere.

Incidentally, directly across the street from the Potala Palace is a "new" square.  A monument sits at the back called the "Monument to Tibet's Peaceful Liberation".  If you need to puzzle over that for more than a second or two....  We walked past it a few days ago.  Playing over very loud speakers, at near pain threshold levels, was something that sounded like Chinese opera, accompanied by a water fountain display.  I can only imagine what Tibetans think about this.

The Dalai Lama, of course lives in exile in India.  His picture is forbidden in Tibet, the Tibetan flag is forbidden, and Tibetans are not allowed to leave the country.

Currently, here in Lhasa, there really are police everywhere.  Not a militarized presence, mostly, but there are scanners for bags at various strategic locations.  More of an annoyance, really.  Yesterday, for example, we would have gone through at least a dozen.  I wasn't counting, but lots.  They don't slow you down, but....

There are police "stations" everywhere.  Sometimes quite visible, sometimes not.

Occasionally, you see military type police equipment parked here and there.

When you check in to your hotel, your passport information is entered into some computer system.  I understand this is common in many countries.  Obviously someone is very interested in knowing where you are most of the time.

We went on a 3-day road trip before we left Tibet.  There were numerous police checkpoints a!long the way.

At some, our passports had to be shown, along without permit to be in Tibet. (Note that foreigners can't enter Tibet without a travel permit and can't leave the Lhasa area without a guide, and usually a driver.  Tibetans all have identity cards and they need to be shown at checkpoints too.

In a feeble attempt at controlling vehicle speed, there is a mandated minimum time imposed on distances between cities.  For example, the route back to Lhasa from Shigatse was about 300 km.  Our driver would have been fined if he was under that time.  Based on our observations, it was having little effect on speeds, or, more importantly, driving behaviour.  People seem to drive the easy they want and then just stop and rest somewhere until the time is made up.

Interestingly, we saw NO police patrol vehicles on any of our drives, either to monitor speed or driving habits.

In Barkhor Square, where there have protests and some self-immolations, there are soldiers wandering around, police on the roofs of buildings, police in the square where people are praying.

All in all, it was a slightly less than comfortable feeling.

Also, many Internet sites are blocked.  Most things Google (maps, blogger), as is Facebook.  Couldn't access the CBC or some newspapers.  This was common elsewhere in China.

Contrast that with Nepal.  A very different place.

It seems like an occupying force being imposed on the Tibetan people

I was reminded of a moment 3 years ago, here in Kathamndu.  I had just bought a Nepalese flag and a Tibetan flag.  The young man said to me, almost in an undertone: "free Tibet".


Kathamndu - 18 Months After

Temple .. Durbur Square

Temple .. Durbur Square

In need of some propping up

We were up for our walk at 6 am.  Nepal's big earthquake happened in April 2015 and we wanted to see for ourselves.

We were somewhat surprised during the drive in from the airport.  Most seemed as we remembered it.  Little visible damage, for the most part.

Our hotel was undamaged.  New structures are going up around it, but it remains a little oasis amid the bustle and chaos of the streets and alleys surrounding it.

I had seen media images from the old palace square (Durbur Square) which has many very historical buildings and temples, as a  UNESCO World Heritage site.  Yes, there was damage, but surprisingly, many structures are still standing, some with a certain amount of damage, some walls propped up with beams.

The old palace, a newer structure than some others, sustained a lot of damage and is mostly blocked off. 

Life goes on.  Street merchants were out in force by the early hours, the market was busy by 6:30 am.  The usual touts and salesmen were working the streets.  We were constantly solicited by rickshaw and taxi drivers.

We don't have enough time today, but when we get back, closer to the end of November, we'll have time to really explore.  We've heard that the historical structures in Patan were badly damaged.  There are some other historical sites we'd like to see as well.

It's nice to be back.  We head off tomorrow for a few weeks of trekking.


Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Rules of the Road in Tibet

An Intersection in Lhasa

I use this phrase very, very loosely.

Cars drive on the right, generally, except as described below.

Rule # 1 - Cars rule.

Rule # 2. - Pedestrians NEVER have the right of way, no matter where you are.

Rule # 3 - Pedestrian safety is the job of pedestrians.  When you cross the street, which you can do anywhere, it is up to you to decide when it's safe, watching for cars, pausing in the middle of the road, if necessary, to allow cars and scooters and motorcycles to pass.

General Principles For Drivers :

Getting ahead of the next vehicle is paramount.  If liberal use of the horn doesn't encourage them to give way, then passing is the only option.

Passing can be considered anywhere.  Neither oncoming vehicles, blind curves or double lines should deter if you feel you can make it past.

Passing can be either to the right or the left, as the situation requires.

If you're a taxi driver, your sense of entitlement is magnified many times.  More speed, greater use of the horn...they only serve to enhance your superior image.

Those white lines setting out lanes and even those yellow lines separating you from oncoming traffic?  Consider them merely as vague guidelines.  In fact, positioning yourself straddling the lane markers only enhances your chances of getting ahead to the right or left and makes it more difficult  for those behind to pass you.

When pulling out, don't be too concerned unless anything approaching is much larger than you.

General Principles for Pedestrians

Your safety is your job and yours alone.

When crossing the street, especially at uncontrolled intersections, there is safety in numbers. If a crowd of people decide to make a move for it, go with them.

There might be some safety in crossing the street with old ladies, on the assumption that nobody wants to hit a grandma.  Crossing with a monk might convey similar protection, for obvious reasons.

When crossing, keep your eyes on the traffic.  Adjust your pace as necessary.  Stopping in the middle of lanes of traffic is OK.   It will flow around you.

Realize that traffic comes as cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, rickshaws, electric scooters and carts.  The last three are stealthy.  Keep your eyes open.

Last Day in Lhasa

Today was interesting.  We thought it would be just another monastery, but there was more.

We were driven some distance east of the city and waaaay up a very winding road nearly to the top of the mountain.

Technical note: the valley floor is at about 3600 m and the monastery is at 4300 m.  At least this time we felt OK, no wheezing lungs, no burning legs.  The picture looks down to the valley below.  (The picture may have to wait for a few days. Posting issues.)

This is the Ganden Monastery nestled into an amphitheatre near the top of Mt Wangburi.  This monastery was nearly completely destroyed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution and has since been rebuilt.

We wandered through some of the buildings and then did an hour-long walk around the mountain.  This is a traditional, religious walk called a "kora", done by Buddhists, clockwise, around many of their sacred temples.   We've done several here in Lhasa as well as one in Shigatse.  This particular one was on a narrow trail overlooking the valley.

Along the way, we passed a place on the mountainside where they perform " sky burials".

We also had a quick look inside a "cave" where monks may stay for extended periods meditating.

Back in Lhasa, we did the kora around the Potala Palace, found some French fries (spiced) to eat and settled down for a rest.  We have a couple more things to see before the day's end.

Tomorrow, a short flight will take us over the Himalayas to Nepal.