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.

Burgers vs noodles

Well I've seen quite a bit of China and it's not quite as I'd imagined. Still the McDonalds rip off "Best Burger" has been a pleasant surprise. But supassing even this has been the quite remarkable Mogao caves near Dunhuang with their extraordinary Buddhist artwork dating back nearly 2000 years or the immense sitting buddhas which took my breath away as I wandered into the first room containing one. Up to 36 metres high and carved directly out of the cliff these creations are my highlight of China so far. Not that there has been too much competition. I've camped next to a railway line and a main road, or yesterday I slept out in the desert (perhaps due to 7 beers and alot of vodka at 3000m altitude) and woke up covered in sand. Today we have witnessed remarkable scenery on the run in towards Tibet. Rarely have I seen grimmer industrial waste land/desert. On a plateau at around 3000m it varied from salt wrecked earth to industrial sludge lakes and barely functioning ruined towns. We almost missed out on all this however as the one bridge across the main local river was being rebuilt on one lane and the other lane had a cement mixer in the middle of it that the workers refused to move. As queues (of lorries mainly) built up on both sides of the bridge violence and murder looked likely. That is until a policeman turned up and persuaded the workers to move the offending equipment.

Tomorrow we hit the first of the really high passes (over 4900m) and we'll see how the altitude problems are going to be. More from Lhasa...... hopefully.

This was originally written on 10 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

It never rains but it pours

Well I got the visa. And all it took was the completion of six hundred forms, a few dozen photocopies, the odd fax and an awful lot of queuing. The foreign affairs bureau in Beijing seems to exist largely to employ countless members of staff. I had to queue for visa consultatation, queue to get an application form, queue to get an application for an urgent visa (I wanted mine same day rather than the standard 5 working days). I then went off to persuade a friendly local travel agent to photocopy some documents for me and receive a fax with my Tibetan permit on it. Then back to queue to have my photo taken (must be on a light blue background), queue to pay for the photo, queue to have the photo printed out, queue to get for urgency form signed (I picked a rather harried supervisor who looked as if he didn't care) and then queue to make the actual visa application. To my utter relief the offical told me I could pick the visa up at 3pm that day. But then out of the corner of my eye I saw her alter my form slightly. She'd changed the exit date from 26 August to the 10 August. She'd only given me a same day turn around as she'd thought I was leaving the country soon. Thank goodness I persuaded her to change it back and it was just a 3 hour wait to come back queue to pay for the visa and queue again to pick it up. Fantastic. Now I just had to book some flights, get some money and relax. Evening was spent missing the flag lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square and falling for a classic scam of two students inviting me to have a meal with them (Peking duck in case you were interested) and then leaving me with the bill. As I'd even read about this earlier that day it was perhaps a little foolish to get caught out. Nice duck though.

Another flight, another problem taxi (this time it was a tetchy female driver and her mountain of receipts) and a bus ride and I was able to catch the group in Turpan. To my surprise I was greeted not with the hottest place in China (up to 49 degrees it is claimed) but the first rain they'd had for over a year. This was to cause a couple of problems as we left on the truck this morning (it arrived here at exactly the same time as I did) , got a mile out of town and found a flash flood had blocked the road. Maybe I'll get to Tibet one day....

This was originally written on 07 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

Rule Britannia

The only people to come out of this well so far are the British consulate. Well that's not quite true but they have been a shining beacon of light in this murky bureaucratic world of pointless bits of paper, red ink and inexplicable delays. But to explain all this would be jumping the gun rather. Back to where we were, three days and 4000km ago I was in Kashgar. It had all seemed relatively straight forward, I would collect my police report on Monday and head off to capital city to sort myself out. But of course it wasn't so easy. My first problem was the last minute replacement of my highly efficient English speaking interpretor. I was just on my way out the door when he was called back by his boss. It seemed that he was needed for a secret mission to the Taklakaman dessert (or is that desert?). So whilst Atawulla was digging for oil or testing nuclear weapons, I would be accompanied by an interpreter who was different in many ways. I'm not sure if the fact of her gender or the standard of her English was the biggest difference but there wasn't much in it. Her manager was confident that her English was better than his and that her Chinese was quite good too. As the Uighurs (the traditional residents in this part of China) have their own language and many don't speak Chinese at all I was not filled with confidence. She was pretty though. Anyway, I digress, predictably there was no police report, no sign of the officers I'd seen on Friday and just a stern talking too from the officer on duty. Apparently they must investigate the loss before anything was done. Of course, how stupid of me. So back tomorrow, maybe Wednesday. The PSB (foreign affairs department) made my police buddy look like the most helpful man in China so the less said about them the better. By now I had waved goodbye to my companions and I was beginning to consider how I might deal with living in Kashgar forever. Maybe I'd start a yorkshire pudding restaurant or something, it looks like they need one. After I quiet drink in the afternoon I was advised by a Brazilian girl of two different PSB's in town. My inital excitement was dampened when I visited both to discover they were the two places I'd already been to. However on turning off a sidestreet by the police station I made a wonderful discovery. The gaudy, Chinese fronted, advertisment filled boulevard was gone and I was in a completely new (or old) city. The multi-coloured shop fronts were replaced with simple brown buildings, horse carts were the most common transport and language was no longer Mandarin. There were also children around who wanted to kill me. Or at least nearly kill me and have it imortalised forever on my camera. Driving a heavily laden tricycle directly at me, at high speed and vearing out of the way at the last second may have been exciting for my new 11 year old acquaintance and his buddies but for me.... well I felt it best to say my goodbyes quickly. On Tuesday I was granted a new interpretor, the last one having been deemed too advanced a linguist. As I was struggling to exit the cramped taxi my new helper remarked that I was "too beautiful to fit in the taxi". Obviously this remark can work on many different levels, and it's probably true, but I had to assume that this was not a cheeky compliment(or indeed insult) but infact a frightening example of the sort of translation that I would be experiencing later. Fortunately it didn't matter as there was an English speaking officer on duty and it only took a few minutes to obtain my pathetic police report. Less than an A5 piece of paper, thin as tissue with a big red stamp on it. Four days I waited for that!!! I had to be careful though as this was effectively my passport and visa, without it I could not travel, stay in a hotel or play Blackjack in Las Vegas. But for now I could book my flight out. I decided on flying to Urumqi (the region's main city) that night and onto Beijing tomorrow. I'd be at the consulate by lunch time and maybe have a passport in time for afternoon tea. Just time to book myself a night in Beijing, visit the 3rd biggest Chairman Mao statue in the world and meet some more crazy kids in the old town (you can see the back to Mao from the steadily decreasing old town, kind of sums up what's happened here). Arrived to Urumqi at around 2am, I'd decided to try to spend the night at the airport as I had an early start next day. A kindly hotel tout advised me that the police would throw me out at 4am and offered to take me to his comfortable and cheap airport hotel. Well it was cheap but not quite like the photos. The room was bizarre, very sparten with two beds (no mattresses) and an enormous TV. But outside my door I could have sworn that I was already serving time for visa offences. The corridors were dark and forboding, buckets (for slopping out?) were outside most doors and the floors were seperated by prison style bars. The woman? on reception wouldn't even give me a room key as it was "too dangerous". I locked myself in, used the blankets as a mattress and waited for the inevitable... I guess that dawn is inevitable and I was back at the airport safe and sound (although unclean as I dared not use the bathroom). Chinese provincial airports are tricky for the foreign traveller as there is little if any English signage, little if any queuing (imagine buying a drink in a packed bar at ten before closing) and a disturbing lack of security. The previous night everyone had burst on to the plane completely unchecked. The confusion this engendered in the casual observer (me) was only heightened as once on the plane to Beijing nothing much seemed to happen. The odd Chinese announcement was made and an hour later everyone stomped off the plane. Not really knowing what was going on I followed the crowd upstairs to find a complimentary Chinese airport breakfast (lovely....). Then back down, onto the plane for another hour, and off again. No-one seemed to know what was happening. A stewardess mentioned something about a military situation which was a bit ominous but that's all I found out (later it I heard that the whole of northern Chinese airspace was affected). It was an incredibly frustrating experience and I didn't get in to Beijing until 7pm. So no afternoon tea with the ambassador for me. Of course my accommodation reservation didn't exist either even after the taxi driver had eventually found the place. But it's easy to sort those things now.

Today I witnessed efficiency, no not taxi drivers (I was dropped off 1.2km from my destination by mistake), but the British consulate. Suddenly the whole British Empire made sense. The recommended waiting time for a new British passport is 8 days. With a little sweet talk, a tug of the old school tie and a fistfull of documents I was the proud owner of a new (and sadly empty) British passport in just over 4 hours. Well done chaps (actually well done ladies). That four hours gave me time to visit a medical centre for continuing health problems. Rather entertaingly I was advised not to drink alcohol and then was prescibed (amongst other things) a traditional Chinese remedy that should only be taken with alcohol, 4 times a day!!!! That was worth 50 quid. Other than that I've had my photo taken with all manner of unexpected Chinese tourists in front of the Forbidden city, seen some acrobatic acrobats and found an extraordinarily helpful couple of travel agents in a posh hotel. Maybe I'll get a visa tomorrow..... Stay tuned

This was originally written on 04 August 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Three Rules of Travelling

The three rules of travelling, as handed down through the ages to intrepid travellers everywhere, are as follows:

Number 1: Do not lose your passport
Number 2: Do not lose your passport in China
Number 3: Do not lose your passport in China about as far as possible from the nearest place that can reissue it.

But more of that later.

When I last left you I was enjoying the comforts of Bishkek. There were many beers, chicken flavoured crisps and statues of Lenin. Enough for anyone it would seem? Perhaps, but I wanted more. And it seemed my tour group was the best way to do it after the taxi related shenanigans of Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan. Things started a little disappointingly as breakfast in our retro-Soviet style hotel (I don't believe any irony was involved) became a game of what did the waiter find in the cupboard/oven/bin. I left before the cold spagetti and "meat" was served. Then it was off into the blue yonder to our homestay in the town of Kochkor. This town is famous predominantly for.... no I can't remember. Anyway suffice to say I bought a stylish felt hat before a delightful meal of sugar cubes and jam.

Next day was a long drive towards the Chinese border. The special thing about overland tours is that you can start drinking early and carry on right through to the time you attempt to put up a tent at 3000 metres in a gale. The Icelandic members of our party seemed to have a music taste based on 80s/90s heavy metal, which was nice, and this only added to the ambience. Sleep seemed only a secondary concern, which was lucky as I didn't get any. But I'm sure I'll get used to this camping lark.

Day 4 was the day we would cross the infamous Torogut pass. At 3800 metres this would be a chance to test ourselves at altitude and also a chance to enjoy 6 checkpoints of various styles and standards of professionalism. The early high spirits, which saw us play football, badminton and a cowboy shoot-em up at the first checkpoint, rapidly declined as we waited at the various barriers and drove the many kilometres between them. My own worries increased as it was revealed that my name had been left off an official list (or to be more accurate I'd been listed as a 68 year old woman) and that I might be left at the border. This would have allowed me to accompany the truck which also lacked the appropriate paperwork and was to stay in the Chinese customs compound until.... well until. Well to cut a short story shorter I was allowed through, and the truck wasn't. So we were given a big yellow Chinese bus to take us to the fabled Silk Road city of Kashgar. It wasn't quite as I expected as a four lane highway and highrise, bright lights city centre were the main "highlights"on the way to our hotel. We were further surprised to be greeted by a troop of muscians and dancers (I think). I shall expect more of this VIP treatment.

All too soon our comfortable slumber was disturbed and we were off on the next part of our journey. Down the Karakoram Highway towards the border with Pakistan. This would allow us to witness some magnificent scenery and stay at nomadic yurt camps in an undisturbed lakeside setting. Well that would have been the case if the Chinese hadn't decided to rebuild the entire 300km of road at once. Yes the scenery was spectacular as we crossed 4000 metre passes with 7000 metre peaks all around us. But to have to share this with so many Chinese road builders and subsequently suffer some of the most appalling roads in Asia was a little too much. The unscheduled and lengthy puncture stop of the "Yellow Devil" (our beloved bus) only served to try our patience even more. The startling inability of the Chinese to deal sensibly with a relatively simple repair and the alarming lack of any decent tools led me to wonder whether we would soon discover huge graveyards of almost roadworthy vehicles rusting away in the Chinese hinterland. But there were only several hours available for such reflections as by sunset we reached the less than homely town of Taskurgen. We were in an exhausted state but that was ok because we'd be staying by the glorious Lake Karakol tomorrow.

Tomorrow started early for me, at approximately 4am infact. Some quite startling stomach cramps led me to rapidly eject fluids from every available exit. This rather painful process of speed dehydration left me in a bit of a unfortunate state. A state in which I was perhaps not best able to appreciate the ironies inherent in China's use of a single time zone in a country spread over 4000km of latitude. It was all I could do to (weakly) curse the fact that even by 9am I couldn't find any water for love nor money. Unfortunately everywhere in town (except for government offices) operated by unofficial Xinxiang time (2 hours behind Beijing time) so everyone was still in bed. My unfortunate illness coupled with the effects of altitude meant that I was very happy to accept the offer of a taxi all the way back to Kashgar rather than take my chances with the group in the concrete yurts of Karakol. A nightmare ride along roads that were seemingly 180 times worse than yesterday ensued, with me lying on the backseat just willing myself not to leave any more of my special marks on the edge of the road. Somehow we made it to Kashgar without any more disasters and I was beginning to feel a bit better at the thought of a comfortable bed and a relaxing day off. I waved goodbye to the friendly taxi driver and prepared to check in to the hotel. That was the moment I realised that I had broken all three rules of travelling. I could not find my passport. Where could it be? Still badly dehydrated and quite weak I tried to recall the journey. There were three possibilites. Perhaps I'd lost it as I wandered in a daze the wrong way through the Chinese military checkpoint some way along the road, or maybe it had disappeared into the mud when I was summoned from my sickbed to push the taxi out of the offroad trucktrap that it had sunk into. Most likely, however it was still in the taxi. So dreams of relaxing pillows and soft toilet paper were put on hold as I dragged myself to the police station to report my loss and attempt to locate the taxi driver. At this point I can say for certain that I was rather unhappy with the whole situation.

This unhappiness increased the next morning as a call to the British embassy emergency number revealed that I would have to travel all the way to Beijing (around 4000km away) in order to get a new passport. As this was plainly stupid, I knew I would have to find my old passport. A trawl of long distance bus stations and taxi ranks found no trace of the mystery taxi cab so I made the decision to take another cab ride along my favourite piece of highway in search of the elusive passport. 7 wasted hours and 75 wasted dollars later and I was no nearer to being legal. I had discovered that when it rains in the mountains the road can become a river, particularly in the area where the cab had got stuck the day before. I was also surprised to witness a failure in Chinese form keeping as there was no record of yesterdays taxi in the checkpoint logbook. Despite the two staff ignoring any locals wanting to go through the checkpoint as they went through page after page of handwritten records we came up blank. I'd all but given up hope on my return when I was suddenly summoned to hotel reception. The mystery taxi driver had been located and he was on his way. But the cliche "from hope to despair"barely does justice to my feelings after I'd searched that cursed taxi. On discovering a couple of unusual bits of plastic and 35 years worth of dust, but no passport, I felt the life draining out of me. I may also have been a bit peckish as it was over 2 days since I'd eaten anything but I have seldom felt so deflated by an experience. My dream of spending a day and a half relaxing in front of Chinese daytime TV had been dashed (I must note here that this would not have happened anyway as all three televsion sets I have come across have shown no sign of life whatsoever) and instead... well enough said.

So today has been more of the same with the small but photograpically insane diversion of the Kashgar Sunday market. My worries were forgotten for a while as I learnt to value a goat in less than thirty seconds by looking down its throat, discovered how to persuade cows to jump off trucks and took part in an unexpected noodle skipping ceremony. 650 photos later I had to leave this fantastic, colourful and ethnically diverse experience and return to my epic battle with Chinese bureaucracy. Latest problem being that I need a passport and valid visa to fly despite the fact that the only reason I am flying is to get a new passport and visa. Tomoorow I will be taking on the combined forces of the Chinese police departmemt and the PBS (foreigners buearu thingy) and then, all being well, I will make a dramatic 7000km round trip to Beijing. After a brief pause to read the English papers and visit McDonalds I will attempt to obtain a new passport and visa before catching up with my tour group (wherever they happen to be). This can't possibly work (partially as I can't access any money and no-one takes credit cards but mainly because I can't go into Tibet as an individual traveller) but I'm going to give it a go anyway. So cross your fingers for me, or laugh at my misfortune. But whatever you do don't miss out on the next entralling installment....

This was originally written on 31 July 2005. It is from my summer trip to Central Asia, China and Tibet.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Things I Wish I Could Do

I have often wished I could roll my r's. This thought occured to me as my Krygyz horse sped across the high alpine meadow with no hope of ever stopping. The problem is that to get your placid horse moving simply requires you to tap it on the flank and whisper "chu chu chu" (something like Ivor the Engine but not with a Welsh accent). On the other hand, to stop the crazy beast, you need to pull back on the reins and shout "d-r-r-r-r-r-r" being very careful to roll your r's. "Dur" simply doesn't cut it in the harsh nomad way of life and simply leads to the embarassing experience of having a thirteen year old boy chase you down to stop your horse from exploring as yet uncharted parts of the valley. Upon being reunited with the rest of the group there are, of course, laughs and smiles all round but deep down there is the thought this proud people will never respect a man who can only say "dur".

But despite my failures I had a fantastic 2 days in the mountains. As a last minute guest I was the only tourist in the yurt camp. I had no translator so I had to rely on the limited English of the managers daughter. This wasn't a problem at the yurts as I simply had to let them know when I had eaten enough of the delicious food they'd prepared. But when out on a horseride with the manager, he described the surroundings in our only common language..... German!!! It's around 12 years since I spoke German and I wasn't particularly skilled back then, so sadly I probably missed the once in a lifetime sight of a flock of golden eagles attacking a pack of wolves, and I certainly didn't see the dancing snow leopard. I did see some little yellow birds though.

The weather had been questionable on my first day but had broken briefly for a spectacular firey sunset down the valley. By 4.30am on day 2 the sky had cleared and a dazzling moon hung low over the mountains. This boded well for my afore mentioned horse trek up to the high yak pastures. Despite my shocking inability to control a horse I was still able to take in the rolling hills with snow capped peaks beyond and in the foreground flowers everywhere. Blue, purple and other posh colours in between. It was all very nice but what I was really thinking was it's already 10am where's the crazy alcoholic binge drinking. I was not to be disappointed as the head of a yurt household higher up the valley invited me into his tent. After meeting the family the real business began. We started with fermented mare's milk (with authentic horse hair chaser) and moved onto his special occasion vodka. We proceded to knock back some shots and despite my protests that I might fall off the horse (I guess they thought this would be an improvement after my earlier performance) we drained the bottle before washing it down with some more of the slighly sour tasting Krygyz national drink. After this I could care less that the yaks must have heard of my riding abilites and had retreated out of range. Instead I enjoyed another tasty lunch before we headed back down to the lower camp.

I also wish that I could organise a taxi quickly, easily and efficiently and that taxi (and driver) would also be quick, easy and efficient. Of course this wasn't the case yesterday. I had been advised on booking the tour (in German through Belgian interpretors) that it would be easy for me to organise transport back to the city. This proved to be a total lie (or a total mistranslation). For it turned out the no taxi would come up the valley due to the awful state of the roads. And as an alternative there was only one car in the village (where most of the yurt dwellers lived in the winter). This car was around two hundred and fifty years old and unfortunately was "kaputt". The manager, who had been rather surprised to be told I'd be organising transport locally, went to great lengths to try and salvage the situation. But already my evening tour of Bishkek with Alina was looking unlikely. Occasionally some banging would be heard or there would be the sound of a two hundred and fifty year old car not starting. Once the heap of junk was simply rolled out of the village. To cut a very long story short, I eventually paid for some crucial part to be replaced (an engine perhaps) and we were on our way down the to civilisation. The scenery was astounding in the late evening sunshine but my mind was on the terrifying sounds coming from under the car's bonnet. Everytime the accelerator was pressed the noise become a little closer to what I imagined complete engine blowout would sound like. But some how the manager, resplendent in his traditional felt hat, nursed that undead vehicle to the nearest big town, and then (as if sensing my inate fear of clapped out Russian automobiles) he found me the taxi driver with the biggest, fastest and (most importantly) newest car in the whole bus station. Of course my new chain smoking Russian driver was then stopped for speeding 15km from our destination but that's another story.

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