Nepal: Hiking amongst the highest mountains in the World

Here is a chronological account of my hiking trip to the Annapurna Base Camp, Nepal. For my email subscribers, here’s a preview of the end!

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The adventure starts in getting to the tourist town of Pokhara. Not even 200 km from Kathmandu, but by bus it takes about 7 hours. I had read the flights in Nepal were not safe, with fatal crashes almost every year, so I tried the road.

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Long, not comfortable and certainly not any safer. The accident rate is very high in Nepal, and we saw it first hand. I will spare you more gruesome pictures, but suffice to say the police were looking for the motorcyclist’s head. I flew on the way back!

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Lakeside Pokara, where you can rent a boat to have a look at the mountains from the water. Unfortunately, the weather was completely unusual for the season, and the visibility was terrible.

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Although quite a long drive away, the village of Sarangkot apparently offers incredible views of the mountains. Here’s the description from a guidebook: “Most people come here at dawn or dusk, when the sun picks out the peaks, transforming them from a purple-pink to a celestial gold”. So despite the dreadfully early timing, tourists came in droves.

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And this is what we saw. Mind-blowing. Continue reading

Tibet, part 2: Incredible mountains, hot guides and weird fireworks.

In my last post, I mentioned my endless visits of monasteries that made Tibet a little boring for me. Now, let me tell you about all the fun things I did in Tibet.

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First, the landing at Lhasa Gonggar Airport was quite exciting. Apart from being one of the highest airports in the world, at an elevation of 3,570 m (11,710′), LXA is in a narrow valley, which requires a rather unconventional approach. At about 1 o’clock from the centre of the photo, you can see the strip. I have seen much steeper, last minute turns on small planes in the Caribbean, but not so much on an Airbus 319! But, this is Tibet, and things are different here.

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Like the telecommunications equipment. Next time you wonder why I am not updating my blog, please think of this picture.

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Or this one for that matter. The beautiful town of Tigri, near the border with Nepal. It reminded me a lot of Monaco.

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Just making sure you’re paying attention.

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In order to properly acclimatize to high elevation, you must take care not to put any additional stresses on your body. For example, your beer intake should remain constant throughout the process. Oh, and this is the summit of Mount Everest, by the way.

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In focus this time. Tibet offers the most incredible mountain scenery, and the great things is that they have roads, so unlike in Nepal, you don’t have to walk for 2 weeks to see the mountains. In fact, you can even drive to the Everest Base Camp. Unfortunately, we could not because of a storm a few days before that stranded several tourists for days and killed a German hiker and his 3 sherpas. Continue reading

Tibet, part 1: Monasteries, temples and other boring things.

Visiting China as an independant traveller is not very difficult, although as a Canadian, I had to provide the Government with my detailed itinerary to get the visa (you can change your mind as much as you want after you get it). The province of Tibet, however, is a different story. You need a special tourism permit and you must visit as part of a Government approved tour (it is not, however, a Government run tour).

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The Potala Palace is the star attraction in Lhasa. It was built by the 5th Dalai Lama, probably the most important one in the line of 14. Before him, the Dalai Lama was the religious leader of the province. But no 5 united all powers under him, and the position of Dalai Lama became like that of Ayatollah in post 1979 Iran, or the Catholic Pope before 1870 (except for the weird selection process: in all three systems the absolute leader is selected by a few geriatric men, but the later two select one of their own, while the former selects a 7 year old kid).

The history of Tibet in the 1950s is extremely complicated, involving many warring Tibetan factions, the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan), the People’s Republic of China (i.e. Beijing), and a slew of other people and interests. The bottom line is that during the 1959 Tibet uprising, it was no longer safe for the Dalai Lama to stay there and his Government was moved to India by the CIA.

I can’t help but wonder how the changes would have worked if they had been done in the 1980s, with Beijing trying to reform the province using soap operas and pop music, as well as abolishing serfdom and theocracy, thus bringing Tibet out of the Dark Ages in which it had been rotting for centuries. Unfortunately, Beijing intervened right before the Cultural Revolution, so “reform” was mostly done by destroying temples and killing people (as was done in every other part of China, except of course Taiwan). Needless to say, the Tibetans have little love for the Central Government, or the Han (China’s major ethnic group). The clearest illustration came in a very non-political discussion we had.

My fellow tourist: “I heard a new stadium is being built in Lhasa”.

Our guide: “I don’t know. I’m not interested in what they are doing”.

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Back to the Palace. It costs a fortune to enter, but you can’t take pictures, so here’s the upper courtyard.

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The best part is the view, including this super-typical Communist square Beijing built right in front of the Palace. Continue reading