Sunday, October 21, 2007

Coming of age in St Petersburg

Yes I'm 21 on Friday. Or thereabouts. All gifts are welcome but I'll be in St Petersburg on the day in question, probably perfecting my Russian in a dubious bar or club. I can now ask for 120 beers, metro tickets or sets of those little Russian dolls so I'm well on the way to discussing post-Yelsin Russian economic development or perhaps some nineteenth century poetry. Before I get that exciting I have to obtain a visa for Belarus (for later in the trip) and book a rail ticket up north to the Russian Arctic. Unfortunately the Russian I've learnt doesn't cover these eventualities so it will be back to sign language and telepathy to get my requests across. Hopefully my next message will not be from Vladivostock after a catastrophic error at the railway ticket office.

Anyway I need to update from my last point which was Nizhni Novgorod, a town I will always fondly remember for the fact that I managed to get locked inside the Kremlin late one night. Of course it may be normal for Russians to have to climb over the razor sharp and very pointy gates of the Kremlin gatehouse. Or perhaps they're all slim enough to slide under the gate (too many pancake breakfasts and early Baltika sessions put paid to that hope). But I certainly didn't want to get noticed by any police types as I straddled the top of the gate in what was a very tricky manouvre involving complex limb positioning and nerves of steel. The upshot is that I wasn't arrested and I can still father childen. But one slip....

And then to Vladamir and Suzdal which involved more churches than exist in the rest of the world combined and finished with a frankly bizarre international festival of folk traditions, music and dance. Only around eight countries were represented including Nigeria, Albania, India, Spain and our new friends the Moldovans (we hitched a ride on their bus to get out to the festival site). Hypothermia was kept at bay long enough to reach Moscow where I had the good fortune to end up in a rather posh hotel for a couple of nights . The 34th floor bar claimed the best views in Moscow, there was a sushi menu in the shower!!, TV volume control next to the toliet!!!, remote control soft floor lighting!??, and the best breakfast buffet in Russia (that is official). So after caviar for breakfast (red of course) there would be a little sightseeing and the chance to spend huge amounts of money. Thank goodness I managed to.

A brief stop in Novgorod gave me the chance to see some churches (thank goodness) and prepare for St Petersburg which is quite frankly one of the best cities in the world. After a strange first evening involving ex-Russian youth team footballers talking us around supermarkets (too much vodka I'm afraid) it's just been a chance to see the glorious canals, palaces and perhaps another church or two. The weather's been pretty special here too. Good place to turn 21 I think...

This was originally written on 01 October 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

On the curious nature of provincial Russian nightlife

It was probably when I noticed that the barmaid was packing a pistol that I finally concluded that no night out in Russia would ever be entirely normal. It was lodged in a holster round the back of her jeans and I'd only noticed it on the purchase of my third beer. What surprised me most is that I wasn't surprised. I asked her if it was real and on being given an affirmative answer asked for a photo. It turned out that both barmaids in the place were armed and dangerous as you can see in the attached photo album.

But I'd already had a few unusual nights out in Russia. Obviously night one in Siberia I managed to get robbed whilst under the influence of a bit too much vodka. Second time in Russia we ended the first night in Samara at the rock bar and witnessed the most casual police raid I think I've ever seen. I almost expected the cops to pile their weapons in the corner and order a couple of beers at the bar. Samara also introduced us properly to the Russian taxi driver. Whether it be the glamourous blonde who simply didn't look like any taxi driver I've ever seen and certainly wasn't dressed in the manner I'd come to expect of cabbies, or the moonlighting rally driver who on seeing us screeched to a halt in his Lada (giving his bald tires a workout I was frankly surpised to see them come through) and then proceeded to take is on a Pole Position style tour of Samara. Every word we said led to the music being turned up louder or the accelerator being pressed harder (or usually both). The guy was a maniac but we liked him, particularly when we'd finished our journey and we were all still alive.

Kazan was an interesting place even without gun toting bar maids and we managed to make it more interesting for ourselves by getting drunk with Russian mafia (or so they claimed), losing a member of our party in an arm wrestling contest and finding the only restaurant serving food at 10pm was a childrens establishment with huge pirate statues and play areas. To it's credit it did serve beer, I guess Russians need to start early to develop the huge capacity for drink I've noticed thoughtout my time here. We had a camera stolen (and eventually returned) by some local "bad boys" and eventually had to thank a mild mannered bar security man (backed up by our well armed bar staff buddies) for removing the remaining bad boys from our presence. There's plenty more to tell but I can't remember it and of course I need space to tell you about the 101 churches I've visited, the majestic River Volga and the entertaining English Pub in Nizhni Novgorod. No wait I think my time's up....

This was originally written on 18 September 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Chilling on the Volga

Well it's been a while but that's because I've been mostly messing around in the desert. Exciting days of dust, 42 degrees in the shade and extraordinary roads. We've been searching for the evaporating Aral sea and the legendary ship graveyard but nothing seems to be where it should be. Kazakhstan is the 9th biggest country in the world and it sure felt that way for a week and a half. But now I'm in Russia, Samara to be precise and although the weather seemed to change completely on crossing the border at least I'm in an interesting Soviet style hotel, complete with fist hole in the door and a room down the corridor that's been completely bricked in. I've spent my time visiting Stalins bunker (11 floors down into the earth), swimming in the Volga (with all the other mad people who seem eager to do this), and visitng rock bars which serve beer by the litre and only occassionally get raided by a dozen policemen with submachine guns. The raid we witnessed was, apparently, to clear out underage drinkers. As I was (I believe) the 4th oldest in the place I felt fairly safe. All very exciting but not as exciting as the Mexican meal I enjoyed last night. That's all for now, I'm doing my best not to end up in any more ridiculous situations but if I do you'll be the first to know.

And finally a link to a few pictures from Kazakhstan. There's better around but it's tricky to upload at the moment so they'll have to do. I hope you enjoy them.
This was originally written on 14 September 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

I'm glad I crashed the wedding

Ok so since I last wrote I've sliced and diced my legs on a short stroll in the hills, met a kebab seller called Borat and then watched the film of the same name after dinner with a Kazakh couple, and I've camped in the middle of a farm yard (which meant chasing away sheep, goats, horses and cows at one time or another). But I've made it safely to Turkestan home to one of the most beautiful buildings in Central Asia (when it isn't being renovated). And so I headed down to the masuleum yesterday evening to take a few photos. And of course being a Sunday all the wedding parties of the day headed down there as well to have their photos taken. It must have been wedding party number 3 where I met a young Kazakh I'll call Jack (for that's what he called himself). It started off with the standard "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?" but quickly , and rather surprisingly moved on to come on get in the photos. Why Jack seemed determined to ruin his friends wedding pictures by including a sweating, unshaven westerner dressed in last years Chinese fashions I couldn't work out but I'll try to send a couple later to give a fuller flavour. It should have stopped there but somehow it didn't. Suddenly I was being whisked away in a rather full car following, passing, or sometimes swerving round the wedding limo. We were off for more photos at the edge of town and then some toasts to the bride and groom. I was not exempt and as a resident of England (which it appears is a small town in America) was expected to come up with something particularly impressive. Needless to say, I failed. But despite this I was extended I rather informal invite to what I thought was the wedding reception. This was a not particularly ordered dance/dinner/toasting session. It was blazingly hot and I soon added a little more sweat to my already impressive appearance. How the bridal party managed not to passout in their full outfits I can only guess. It turned out that Jack was a bit of a show off and as his guest I was expected perhaps to dance in the rather impressive helicopter/whirling dervish manner that he had patented. Sadly I more closely resembled someones aging uncle failing completely to move his limbs in time with the music being played or indeed any music ever played.

And still it could have ended here. I was close to the hotel and it was as yet a reasonable hour. But no, Jack asked if I had any plans and before I could answer "yes lots" I was bundled into an even more tightly packed car and driven to who knows where. Well it was Jack's house actually and we were stopping for him to change into his favourite dancing outfit. As I had nothing to change into (my dancing outfit remained Chinese T-shirt and shorts, flip flops and a very dirty hat) I simply made do with a spray of Jack's aftershave. The preparation was infact for the formal reception. Hundreds of people were coming, all dressed to the nines. I had a feeking I might stand out a little.

And I wasn't wrong. There were about three hundred people in the hall including two offical video guys. The 4 strong bridal party were on a raised platform at the end of the hall and I was placed on the table next to them. It seemed a friendly enough group and as Jack was doing the rounds with everyone in the room I got to know them a bit better. The one dark cloud was that even this early into the evening I was able to work out that I had the town vodka monster on my table. This of course meant a succession of toasts to whatever he could think of (not that it mattered as Andriy the American couldn't understand a word of it). I did my best to delay the inevitable be eating what ever I could (except for the sheeps head which I politely declined), but the fact that I was drinking Russian cognac only added to my difficulties. This stuff is lethal. Now there were a few gaps as everyone in the room has to go to the back of the room, meant the MC and perform for the crowd. Most people made some sort of toast to the couple (I presume) but some old ladies in headscarves would sing songs and I'm sure there were a couple of comedians out there as well. Even I was called forward, I can't remember what I said but as the only two people that probably would have understood it were blind drunk it didn't really matter. I hope I didn't ruin the video though. The night became a bit more blurry as I ended up finishing the cognac, visited the kitchen for vodka shots and then hit the dance floor with a very energetic grandmother who certainly showed she hadn't forgotten how to move. There's not much else to remember, maybe the communal squat toilets or perhaps the shouts of americanski wherever I went. But to sum up all I can say is that everyone should try a Kazakh wedding reception.... but probably only once.

This was originally written on 03 September 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

On the Beach

Of course I'm not on the beach. I'm infact in the largest city of Kazakhstan, the 9th largest country in the world and a very landlocked country. An increasing number of people now know that apples and tulips originally come from Kazakhstan. But not so many people know that Chris Rea, the popular crooner actually comes from Kazakhstan too. Well we're pretty sure it was him. We were finishing a slow evening at the Guinness pub in Almaty, drawn in by the promise of live music. Well niot much else was live in there, two other punters and a staff who'd clearly rather be home asleep. But as promised we were intoduced to a popular local duo, man and wife, brother and sister, or two strangers who'd met that night, we were never told. It certainly seemed that it might be the latter when they ignored the fact they were in an Irish bar and launched into a particularly moving rendition of "I'll be Washing You" by The Police. Yes English pronunciation was a big issue, and with only every 7th word unslurred it did sound abit like drunken karoake. So it was probably a mistake to cover the Clash. Up to this point we'd only heard the wailings of the female member of the duo, it was only when the guy began to sing that we realised he sounded like a Chris Rea after 10 too many vodkas (or how we imagined this might sound). Immediately a very spooky thing happened as the guy played too (nearly) instantly recognisable Chris Rea songs. And then it was over. No time for autographs or to ask why his command of English seemed so much better on CD. But I guess this sums up nights in Almaty, still not quite what you'd expect.

What I probably did expect was that my bank would refuse to send my new credit cards abroad (despite me having an insurance policy that covers this), it would then mistakenly send the cards to my bank so I'd have to spend the day searching for a fax machine to send authority for someone else to collect them and that for some reason they couldn't hear key phrases on the internet phone when I called to give them further instructions.

So that was Almaty and now there's more terrible roads, more chances for freak wind storms to blow my tent away, more opportunities to view plagues of insects that block out the sun, and of course the ever present local guy who wants to drink a bottle of vodka with you in the middle of nowhere in particular. I can't wait...
This was originally written on 28 August 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Greetings from Ust-Kamenogorsk

If you need help, I'm currently in North-East Kazakhstan enroute for an idyllic lake/river/puddle. I am trying to sort out the fallout from my little incident in Siberia and forget the doom laden feeling I had in Gornal police station (and the taste in my mouth when the investigator lit his 45th ciggarette and I thought I was going to throw up on him). To help me do this I will be staying in another ex-Soviet hotel in Almaty later this week and enjoying a "Bard's festival". Obviously I've no idea what this will entail but I can guarantee there will be absolutely no vodka involved. Anyway I've got to go so more later....

This was originally written on 21 August 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Crime and Punishment

Ok so Dostoevsky got there first but I'll see what I can do with this story of modern Russia. It all stemmed from lack of food, most shops in Mongolia serve nothing but "choco-pies", and lack of sleep, whilst camping I have been kept awake by biting insects, wild dogs, hurricaine force winds (nearly) and the fact that I always seem to put my tent up on top of a hole or on a steep hill. So we finally made it to Siberia after the bizarre Mongola/Russia border and on to the town of Gorno-Altaisk. This place is, according to the Lonely Planet, "a narrow ribbon of Soviet concrete blandness". They weren't wrong. Due to inclement weather we elected to stay at the biggest hotel. The description for this "crumbling Soviet slab" with shared seatless toilets and no shower (well there is actually one for the whole hotel now) finishes with the fact the "Lenin points accussingly to its door". This is true, infact the Lenin statue pointed straight through my window. I have a feeling he was trying to tell me something.

Anyway if I could remember more I would talk about the over excitement that comes from staying in a town for the first time in over a month. Really all that happened was that I had no food, alot of beer, even more vodka (courtesy of an increasing strange set of characters who inhabited the Medea bar on a Friday night. Come Saturday morning it came to light that I was short a wallet, $600 and my mobile phone. I probably have photos of the culprit but the police inestigator kindly advised me that any true investigation would take a long time and that I should simply report them as lost. And so the chain smoking and bureaucratic world of the Russian police force was revealed to me for 4 hours whilst I had photos of my pockets taken, gave 4 million personal details that couldn't possibly be of any importance and got laughed at by assorted men in tracksuits who wandered in and out. I have been told that I was very lucky it was so quick. And having waited 4 days for a police report in China I guess that relatively it was. However I'll be glad not to get involved with the Russian police again as I'm a little unsure about the amount of pieces of paper I signed without understanding anything that was written on them.

Now it's off to Kazakhstan where hopefully my luck will change and I'll win the lottery. I'll let you know when it happens.
This was originally written on 19 August 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

A few photos just so you know I've been

Yes you can catch up with the only photos I was able to upload.

There isn't much to update other than that. We've been to an enormous lake which was gorgeous but stupidly cold for those who stupidly swam in it. Also caught up with some reindeer herders who sold me all manner of nonsense. But it looked so good at the time, a carved fish made out of yak horn, anyone? Now I'm back in Moron before a heavily diverted (due to continuing issues with the plague) trip through western Mongolia, Siberia and Kazakhstan as far as Almaty. No hotels, no ger stays, just camping in the back end of nowhere. I could really do with a bacon sandwich. But enough of my life's ambitions I'm late as usual so I'd better go.

This was originally written on 10 August 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Plague and pestilence

In the mid fourteenth century a strange new disease swept into Europe from the east. The Black Death, as it became known, devastated two continents and killed between a third and a half of medieval Europe's population. And why, you may ask, do I mention this. No I am not (yet) a carrier of this deadly illness, but I have discovered that it's still around. But more of that later.

Because there are of course good things to say about Mongolia. As I sit here in an internet "cafe" in the charming town of Moron, I have time to reflect of the people, the scenery and the questionable foodstuffs. I've trekked around beautiful volcanic crater lakes, walked amongst the ger spotted green rolling hills and shared hot milk with local families. I've also taken 2500 photos (so far). There are also the less fantastic things. The clever short cut I took which involved crossing a ridiculous lava plain of razor sharp rocks. The river crossing which took 5 hours due to crossing the wrong river(twice) and the rainy season starting early. And of course our little problem last night. We were approaching the last bridge before Moron when we noticed some sort of checkpoint. Strangely it appeared that all the staff had face masks, many had full chemical warfare style suits and no-one was getting through. Through our Mongolian fixer we discovered there was an outbreak of marmet (a small furry creature) carried plague. These are the same beasts which are partially blamed for the Black Death and bubonic plague is not much fun at any time. We spent 3 hours at the checkpoint for no apparent reason until we were finally allowed through. We were only required to disinfect ourselves by wiping our feet on a bathmat. I'm not sure how effective this measure will be. Anyway that's all as I think I've got a bit of a fever coming on.

This was originally written on 07 August 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Nothing to report

I am now in noideawhere, which is somewhere in Central Mongolia. There is nothing much to report except for a small incident with a drunk bloke trying to start a fire in my ger, another incident with a drunk travel companion of mine ripping the only snooker table for 200kms and then having it "fixed" with some glue an iron and a large lump of concrete, and a final incident with a drunk bloke and some other drunkards in a curious rural Mongolian disco. I would like to make it clear that the author was only an observer to all these incidents.

This was originally written on 03 August 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Into the steppe

Genghis Khan is everywhere. Pictures, statues, on the currency and on the confectionary. As he was the man of the millenium (according to the Washington Post) it is probablt natural the modern day Mongolia would treat him such a way. But as there probably are only around four products you can by in a typical Mongolian provincial shop then it does mean you see alot of him.
I would like to regale you with stories of living the nomadic lifestyle, travelling from pasture to pasture and occasionally dealng with annoyances by putting an arrow in someones backside. But I haven't been living the nomad dream. Instead I've left a trail of destruction through every ger camp I've been through. This includes utterly destroying a bed simply by trying to get out of it and, my personal favourite, losing the sturdy, wooden door to the tent in a rather strong sandstorm. I still haven't got my luggage so the Mongolian world still know's me by my Chinese "Strength and Endurance" T-shirt and , of course, my "Happy Fatso" pants. However the news on the badly withered and barely functioning grapevine is that I may see my bag in Kharhorin (the old Mongol capital). I'll believe it when I see it.

As I'm under time contraints and am still operating a little slowly due to a dangerous night consuming Genghis Khan beer (probably), "Bears Blood" Bulgarian wine, and of course Genghis Khan vodka with a can of Genghis Khan (a Mongolian rip off of red bull). Have fun and watch out for floods.

This was originally written on 30 July 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

The depths to which I have sunk.

I will be crossing to Mongolia in an hour or so and I will be wearing my new "Happy Fatso" pants (the largest size available in this part of China). That's all I can bring myself to report at the moment.

This was originally written on 20 July 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Shopping for fashion in China

Don't ever do this unless you have to. However as I've got 4 months of travel and absolutely no luggage, courtesy of Heathrow Terminal 4, I've started investigating what a provincial Chinese town can offer the 6 ft 3 style guru. And the answer is vitually nothing. One day you may see the photos, but not if I have anything to do with it. Chances are I won't even get into Mongolia with this kit on. Anyway I've got to go find some socks in something above size 5.

This was originally written on 18 July 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Why the British Empire never really happened.

I can't believe it. The whole last week has been a nightmare of organisation. It's been stress, stress, stress, aside from the 2 wedding days in Cuiaba and Bath which were fantastic. But anyway I'd kept telling myself during those dark hours trying to get the right songs on my ipod that once I got on the plane everything would be ok. Not that this seemed very likely when I arrived at Heathrow yesterday suffering from a major hangover and dicovered that Terminal 4 had been closed due to a broken luggage belt. How... why.... what.... who....!!!!!! A broken luggage belt!!!!!! It was probably at around this time, as I stood amongst hundreads of rather damp fellow travellers outside the terminal, that it occured to me that the British Empire can never really have happened. Just like the moon landings, the death of Elvis and England winning the Ashes in 2005 the whole thing was faked. There's no way this country could have conquered and then administered 25% of the planet. No I refuse to believe it is possible. And this thought has only been strengthened today when I arrived in Beijing (the flight did eventually take off) only to find that my luggage was still somewhere in London (where it will probably be blown up by an over enthusiastic bomb disposal man when he finds all the batteries, alarm clocks and other devices stuffed inside).

So I'm in Beijing with a couple of winter coats (it was 32 degrees centigrade today), 3 cameras (but no batteries) and an order of service from Toby and Helen's wedding (I'll not be singing Jerusalem I'm afraid). I can't smell good, although hopefully I smell better than Beijing itself, I could do with a shave and all I have from BA is a piece of paper with a reference and two phone numbers both of which turned out to be for little old ladies with no history of employment for "The World's Favourite Airline" or indeed anyone else.

So whilst I wait in hope for my faith in Imperial Britain to be restored I've seen some more of Beijing. It's been a little strange even though I avoided the inevitable disastorous and just plain wrong taxi ride from the airport by hiring an executive car and driver (highly recommended if only to see how driving gloves should be worn). During my subsequent wanderings a woman invited me into her shop for a shave which turned out to be a haircut which then looked like it might be a massage. On declining her offer I was then subjected to a barrage of rather heavy blows. I'm not sure what signals I must be given off in my dischevelled state. Later I met a Brazilian saxophonist who invited to come see his jazz act at Suzy Wongs. But due to exhaustion I'm here, not there and will soon be trying the air conditioning and taking advantage of other hotel comforts before a month of camping in Mongolia, Siberia and Kazakhstan. Assuming Britannia finally comes through for me that is....
This was originally written on 16 July 2007. It is from my summer trip from Beijing to Birmingham.

Ouch, that hurt!!

That is a slightly understated version of my now regular outbursts everytime I accidentally sit or lie on my right side. You see I had a little accident whilst on an epic mountain bike trip through the Bolivian highlands. But even worse than the long list of injured spots all over my body is the fact the the main force of my landing (after I had careered over the handlebars) was on my head (always wear a helmet kids) and then my camera. Well I´d owned it for almost 3 months so it was probably time for a change anyway. Medical expert opinion (that is looking at myself in the mirror) suggests I will survive but it was damn close as I finished a few feet away from a 100m drop. So that´s two attempts at off road mountain biking in my life, two crashes and approximately a fifth of either route completed. It´s got to be third time lucky.

Apart worrying about blood poisoning and the understanding of insurance companies I´ve also had a little time in La Paz to wander. It´s a crazily situated place in a huge bowl with mountains all around(-ish). Yesterday I came across various unusal sights (llama fetuses for sale simply being the one I was warned about. More unexpectedly I also witnessed some sort of marching band outside the presidential palace. Ot seemed wildly popular although all it seemed to do was stand still in the afternoon heat for 30 minutes at a time and then play the national anthem (or some other tune which necessitated me to take my hat off) after which everyone would stand still again and try to fidget without being noticed by the quite frightening bloke who seemed to be in charge. However much fun this was it wasn´t quite my highlight of La Paz. No that was definitely the zebras on the zebra crossing by the main square. Yes 4 people dressed as zebras control the traffic and direct people to the crossings at the appropriate time. And they do it with style. Of course I should also mention the donkey with a placard saying something to the effect of "only a donkey doesn´t use the zebra crossing.

Well must go now as I´ve a flight to catch and I need to consider what all the riot police I saw at 4am this morning might have been gearing up for. More later.....
This was originally written on 05 July 2007. It is from my summer trip to Latin America.

High times on the Altiplano

Ok Bolivia. Yes I´ll admit it has surprised me, especially as I only came here to fill some time up before a wedding in Brazil. Suddenly I´ve found myself going to mass at 7.30am and making offerings to the devil in a mineshaft three hours later. No I´m not hedging my bets with regards to the afterlife it´s just that life is tough here and people take help wherever they can get it.

However if I ever have another bus driver like yesterday´s specimen I´ll be selling my soul to the highest bidder as long as he can keep the insane creature´s foot off the accelerator. This cursed gentleman seemed determined to break all Altiplano land speed records despite the road regularly having sheer drops of 300 feet or more in either direction and the tires of the vehicle having no tread whatsoever. Any request for him to slow down was taken as a personal insult and only led him to try and gain an extra few mph from the already straining vehicle. Well I´m now still alive in Potosi and could recount tales of extraordinary landscapes on the Bolivian salt flats, give accounts of freezing temperatures (minus 15 and below) on the high plateau and regale you with stories of maneating llamas and the deadly desert rabbit. But I won´t.

Instead I will briefly pass over a morning which involved me purchasing mild narcotics, some stupidly strong alcoholic bevridges (96 per cent I believe) and some dynamite before heading up to the silver mines to blow things up. This was an experience that my ear drums are still coming to terms with but that´s nothing compared to the guys who work in there from the age of 13. That´s all for now though as there´s a chance I could fit another mass in before dinner.

This was originally written on 01 July 2007. It is from my summer trip to Latin America.

And now it begins.....

Right, there's going to be one attempt at this and due to a dodgy spacebar it mightn't be pretty. The big news is that I've finally started the 5 month soujorn. It's time to forget about 60 hour weeks, over crowded desks and malfunctioning computers. Instead it's 60 hour bus rides, over crowded train stations and malfunctioning bodily functions. I can't wait. After two nights without sleep (that was in the UK for work and packing purposes!!!) I took a flight to Amsterdam and then Sao Paulo, Brazil. Here I briefly met up with Paul, my reason for heading out this way. No we're not in love, I'm actually ushering at his wedding, although he only revealed the ushering bit two weeks ago, and he only told me I'd have to do some ceremonial dance with one of the bridesmaids this morning. But I digress...

Now I'm in La Paz, Bolivia on the one computer in the hotel. A queue is building up behind me and the pressure is stunting my comic imagination. I can see Bolivia will be an interesting place. A country where taxi drivers accelerate non-stop down steep hills. A Spanish speaking country who's biggest airline will only let English speakers sit on the exit rows of their planes (not that I'm complaining). A country with more bowler hats than people (this may not actually be true). Yes I think I'm going to enjoy myself, if these crazed drivers don't finish me off.

(Only China, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, some bits of Europe yet to be decided and Bath (for Toby's wedding) to go.)

This was originally written on 26 June 2007. It is from my summer trip to Latin America.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The end....

Well it's two hours before my taxi comes to take me to Kathmandu International Airport.... And I'm not ready. Well as usual I'm not not packed but that's not what I mean. I need more of this. I'm back in Kathmandu and Nepal after nearly ten years and it's the same fantastic place that it was back in 1996. The difference as we rolled across the border from Tibet was quite extraordinary. It was similar to when I watched the 1982 world cup final in colour after only seeing the previous games in black and white. Everything was so vivid in the Nepalese valleys after the dry, almost desert expanses of the Tibetan plateau. And the people were suddenly everywhere, the women in vibrant saris, the men carrying monstrous loads of who knows what. I love this place and I have to leave today.

Still in the meantime I've managed to do virtually nothing. Kathmandu is a travellers paradise... especially if all you want to do is eat, drink and buy dodgy travellers trousers. So that's what I've done, except of course the dodgy travellers trousers which I'd have burnt in an enormous conflagration if I could. To all those who were in Nepal with me back then it's exactly how it was, with a little more traffic perhaps and a few more internet cafes but the same random buildings, signs and people, the same outrageous scenery (who terraces the sides of those mountains) and the same friendly greetings of "Namaste" wherever you go.

So now it's coming to an end the highlights of this trip stand out quite clear. No not losing my passport in the mud, not the remarkable collection of taxi rides from hell that I had to endure and not the interesting variety of illnesses I was able to experience. No it was those moments such as the first view of Everest when the clouds momentarily cleared on a cool evening at base camp, or sitting on the roof seat of the truck as we bounced through another stunning Tibetan valley, or perhaps trying vainly to stop my horse in the high pastures of Krygystan or maybe even the 165m bungy jump at the Last Resort just over the border in Nepal (it's a long way to walk back up). I don't really know but I had a great time anyway. I'm sorry there are no painful misfortunes to read about this time but as my Nepali visa seems to have been issued to expire yesterday there may still be the chance of some fun.....

Until next time....

This was originally written on 28 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

Going Down

Yes it's nearly the end of everything. I've spent the last week in Tibet visiting monasteries, admiring mountain scenery and wondering why Chinese chocolate tastes so bad. We've attracted dozens of curious Tibetans to our camps. Most of whom just stand and watch or collect our empty cans and jars. It's quite a strange situation.

Perhaps the highlight has been Everest base camp, or maybe the cultural festival at Shigatse or it could be the crazy villages we end up stopping at. I don't really know.

Everest base camp was an 8km trek at 5000 metres. Not as easy as it sounds. I left alone at 7am through the low cloud. With only some kit kats and a bar of inedible Chinese chocolate I stode (rather slowly) up the winding track. I was unable to see the mountain in front of me but I was pretty sure it was there. After all it was in the Lonely Planet. To cut a long trek (about 3 hours and 150 photos) short I finally turned round a corner about half a kilometre from base camp and there it was. Well I think it was Everest but a remarkable low fog bank suddenly rolled up the valley and after that I wasn't so sure. And then the truck passed me (a surprise as no foreign vehicles are permitted at base camp) but I wasn't going to give up. I trudged on past the concrete toiletl block from hell, past the Hotel California (I don't believe that this ragged tent was the one which inspired the song) and on to a stoney plain. And there it was. In less than a minute the morning sun had burnt off the fog and Everest stood before me. It was quite big. There wasn't time to appreciate the scenery as the was a monastery truck stuck in the river and only we could save the day. So we did. After that there was time for a quick motorcycle ride up to a scenic lakeside view point. And it was pretty scenic. The price included being carried over a fairly fast flowing river on the back of a Tibetan guide who was about a foot smaller than me. We I tried to cross it myself he wouldn't let me. I can't imagine how ridiclulous this must have looked but it can't have been any worse than our "Naked at base camp" photo which startled the local tourists as the bore down on us with video cameras at the ready. I'm sure this will appear on an internet site near you quite soon.

Now we're at some odd border town a few kilometres from Nepal. Kathmandu is only 3 days away and then.... Well then it's time to think about having a holiday as I'm shattered.

This was originally written on 24 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

Yak Enchilada

Hmmmm.... it was gorgeous. Certainly better than the dodgy yak buger.

Anyway just a quick update as there are temples to visit and pilgrimage circuits to ... well do whatever you do on pilgrimage circuits.

I arrived in Lhasa four days ago from the high plateau and since then life has been one long round of monasteries and unusual food. It's been great. The Chinese haven't managed to make the Tibetans assimilate totally yet. It is still a very religious area although there are far less monks and lamas than before China came in. The city is largely a modern Chinese creation, a classic example is the huge square in front of the Potola palace. But small Tibetan areas remain and being able to sit in a chapel and watch the monks debating, or experience the throat singers in the shade of a monastery courtyard have been highlights for me. I've got lost round some huge monastery complexes, been called a yeti by the monk kitchen staff (due to having hair on my arms) and tried on some truely spectacular hats in truely spectacular locations.

On the downside the taxis here are equally as bad as anywhere else on my journey. None of them appear to know where anyplace is. I have to do impressions of a horse to get back to my hotel (it's next to a race track), but even that doesn't guarantee sucess. Last night, in an effort to fit all four of us in his cab, the taxi driver persuaded the passenger he already had to travel in the boot. He seemed only too happy to lie in foetal position in the locked boot whilst the driver vainly tried to find our hotel. I'm glad to report that he was still alive when we finally arrived at our destination.

Lhasa's nightlife could do with a bit of an overhaul but have had a few late nights in bizarre circumstances. Most of the bars seem to serve beer in shot glasses and spirts in half pint glasses (this is one of the dangers not mentioned in the Tibet Lonely Planet), the music is ecclectic (that's a polite way of putting it) and..... no I don't remember anymore.

Must go now as I'm late for whatever it was I was going to do..

This was originally written on 14 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

Sex, Drugs and Yaks on the Roof of the World

Well there were quite a few yaks, a fair haul of aspirin and anti altitude drugs but that's about all really. Sorry for the misleading title.

Anyway it's been 4 quite tricky days since leaving the mining town of Golmud. But then I'm sure these emails are most appreciated when I'm not enjoying myself 24-7. I suppose the main problem has been breaking all the rules of ascending at high alitude. And then the odd beer and a little over exertion inevitably led to a crash. But it wasn't immediate...

The first day out and we went from 2800 metres to 4300 metres. We had reached the high plateau of Qinghai on the run in to Tibet. There were snow capped mountains and glaciers, giant passes (over 4800 metres) and, of course, the railway. The Chinese have been building this since 2001, a railway to link Golmud with Lhasa. Many have said it will be impossible and it has been a tad expensive. But it is a most impressive achievement so far. Unfortunately it will probably be a further nail in the coffin of Tibetan culture as firstly the Chinese army and then civilians can flood in without experiencing the arduous road journey.

And it has been an arduous journey. Day 2 dawned rather painfully as I slept badly and developed a banging headache. That'll be altitude sickness then. The important thing in these situations is to get lower, not really an option in our case. Instead we travelled on a little but the ill health of a number of the group led us to camp at 4600m on scenic rolling hills. Unfortunately my condition was getting worse and I was banned from leaving the truck entirely. I felt nausea, dizziness and exhaustion to add to my entertaining headache. Luckily I hadn't gone blue or started foaming at the mouth so the offer of oxygen treatment from the railway workers up the valley was politely declined on my behalf. Instead there was a selection of aspirin, paracetamol and some anti altitude drugs. That night was not one I would wish to repeat too often and by morning I felt worse. But rather than descend we had to keep of climbing over two monster passes, the second being nearly 5300m. I was actually quite concerned about this as my condition wasn't improving, however I was promised that we'd be back down to 4000m by evening. This as it turned out was not possible as we only got down to 4600m and I felt rough. It was all I could do to avoid a minor yak stampede as I mistakenly got between them and evening pasture. I retired under a stunning night sky, starfilled over us but surrounded on all sides by lightning storms. Didn't really appreciate it though.

By some miracle I slept like a log and was able to eat the next day. And what a day. This is why overland travel is the best way to go. Yesterday we'd crossed the border into Tibet proper and now we were on the high northern plateau. The scenery was magnificent. From glacial peaks to rolling grassland, nomads tents to mud built dwellings and everywhere the smiling, weather beaten faces of the Tibetan people. I don't guess they see the likes of us very often as we attracted crowds wherever we stopped. The highlight of the day (and probably my whole trip) was when I spotted a gathering on top of a small hill. It turned out to be the annual horse racing festival of the local area. Everyone was dressed up in their Sunday best to watch the 9km ride across the plateau. Small boys were the heroes for the day and they somehow managed to keep their crazy pointed hats on as they raced across the grassland. The crowds of spectators were as excited to see us as we were to see them. The outfits on display were fantastic as were the jewellery other accessories that were in evidence....

Continued in later as my taxi is leaving...

This was originally written on 18 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.