Some thoughts on South East Asia

Some

So our four months in South East Asia are up. At the end here is a very brief summary of the countries that I’ve visited.
Japan is by far the most impressive country because of its diligence, organization, technology, discipline, tradition and helpfulness towards visitors. Everything works. Malaysia has a higher standard of living than expected but Kuala Lumpur is rather a soulless metropolis and has adopted wholesale the western way of life. Outside KL it’s a different story and there are plenty of cultural activities to see as well as good beaches. The giant China has ugly cities except for Shanghai , high air pollution , clearly an experiment moving people from the country to cities leaving empty tower blocks and farming communities. How long will they be able to sustain their GDP growth with such high borrowing? Hong Kong is exciting , expensive and unique. Macau was interesting to visit with some nice architecture. Myanmar was the least developed country and had much decay of buildings, roads and pavements. Yangon was exciting, Began was a tourist hub with wonderful temples and Mandalay was depressing. Vietnam was a great country to visit but we were surprised at the mass tourism. Home stay was a good experience in Hou An.
The food everywhere was great and cheap with the exception of Japan and Hong Kong. Street food was wonderful and gave us an opportunity to meet people, both locals and travellers. With the exception of Hong Kong we had good clean accommodation normally in the centre of town where everything happened. We never felt threatened safety wise except for Beijing.
The following costs are for two people per day sharing a room with food and internal transport etc; It excludes air fares.
Langkawi Malaysia $70
China $115
Japan $140
Myanmar $56
Vietnam (excludes Halon Bay cruise ) $65

So its next stop San Francisco.

Week 13-14 Vietnam

On our first day in Hanoi I had to sort out some banking problems. The place is frantic, with thousands of motor bikes keeping up an incessant roar. Myanmar was bad but this currency drove me crazy. 1 Rand =1600 dong, 1 US $ = 23000 dong. One draws 10 million dongs from an ATM which is equivalent to $43. We went to the Hanoi Hilton , a prison museum where political prisoners were kept by the French and the Vietnamese kept American air force pilots prisoner including Senator John McCain. Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was closed when we visited as was the War Museum for lunch but we managed to sneak around and look at the shot down aeroplanes and bombs. In the evening the area around the lake was turned into a traffic free zone and the people came out in droves to make the most of it. There was dancing , singing, children’s games, skipping and a nice festival atmosphere.
We went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum but it was closed,and then on to the war museum which was also closed for lunch but we managed to get round to see the US shot down planes. In the evening the area around the lake was turned into a traffic free zone and the people came out in their thousands. There was dancing , singing, children’s’ games, skipping and a nice festive atmosphere.
We transferred by bus to Halong Bay for a two night cruise. This is a luxury cruise ship with cabins and good food. But the number of boats and the mass of people is quite off putting. We stopped at a beach and climbed up to a view point but the whole thing was a farce with hundreds of Chinese jostling, shouting and taking selfies.
Woke up next morning to a wild scene ,rain and mist but this seemed somehow to enhance the beauty. Halong Bay is a range of karst limestone mountains rising sheer out of the sea in spectacular fashion. We sailed to a floating fishing village, people living on floating platforms and boats in not much more than subsistence level. We then moved on to a cave. I wonder if there are any unspoiled places in the world to visit which haven’t been ruined by tourism. The number of cruise boats and the frantic building of hotels is frightening.. How will this area cope environmentally in the future.
We transferred to Cat Ba Island by speed boat and did some hiking in the area. We met travellers a bunch of travellers of all ages and nationalities. Cac Bar is a nice place, cheap with good food. There is a rash of developments of hotels, most of them seem to be tall, narrow buildings, like China and others they have no sense of aesthetics unlike the Japanese. But where will all the tourists come from, what experiences are they after?
Our hike across the island was tough, up and down rock faces and Carol took strain and a couple of falls and ended up on the back of a scooter.
Time was up for Cac Bar and we made our way back to Hanoi by bus , ferry and another bus. By now the weather was cold and we hadn’t packed warm clothing so keeping warm became a priority.
I enjoy the Vietnamese people much more than the Burmese. They are open , friendly and happy. How resourceful they are after all their woes. Again we heard the refrain of Government control and corruption. It doesn’t matter what system there is it’s the same story.
Travellers never cease to amaze me, to the Polish couple hitch hiking around South East Asia, to the Americans who grabbed a week off to come to Vietnam when they found a really good flight offer.
I would nt like to drive in Vietnam. On the highway they overtake on the inside or outside nd cruise on the outside. In the city it’s chaos, the motor bikes just do what they want, take to the pavements, run red lights , go down the wrong way down the street.
Hou An is a small town midway down the country with quant and historic houses, but its become a tourist haven with the usual mixture of hotels, restaurants , travel agents , coffee houses and anything connected with taking a dollar off the tourist. Nevertheless we enjoyed the experience cycling into town and later taking a tripdown the coconut plantation in a coracle and mixing with the locxals.In pouring rain we went to the market and bought ingredients and cooked spring rolls and fish. We stayed at a home stay, a very pleasant experience with friendly accommodating hosts, it gave us the opportunity to talk to them and find out some of the challenges of living in Vietnam and its history. Ho Chi Minh City ( Saigon ) is a busy city with horrendous traffic and lots to see and do. Its famously full of scooters and motor bikes and they think nothing of taking to the pavements en masse. Crossing the road is a challenge and needs a cool head and nerves of steel. We bumped into the first South Africans we had seen after 3 months We visited the Reunification Palace, the old Presidential Palace, complete with sumptuous furnishings , banqueting halls, bedrooms, and underground bunkers.
We’ve spent time in prisons ,museums ,Vietcong tunnels and seen horrific images of the war. War is senseless, barbaric and affects the innocent and the politicians who instigate it all get away Scott free.

Week 11-12 Myanmar

We transferred to Myanmar by Air Asia via Bangkok . People watching in the airport was entertaining. There was a group of 50 women who must be on the ugly, noisy women’s day out. Also I was fascinated by how locals can sit cross legged for hours . The joys of budget airlines, jammed into a seat designed for a Japanese dwarf, paying more for a bag than the actual ticket itself , surly flight attendants and paying for a blanket .I’m sure that Charles and Camilla don’t have to put up with these indignities. But there’s no doubt budget airlines have changed the face of flying forever, now middle class Asians including the Chinese are able to fly at will.
Our first impressions of Yangon were that it is more sophisticated than we expected, the cars are all right hand drive but they drive on the right, men and women wear sarongs, women wear ochre on their faces, there are lots of run down beautiful colonial buildings, barefoot monks walking the streets, people eating at street cafes, poor living quarters but a vibrant community where anything is available.
In the evening we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda which is an enormous complex with a central gold leafed dome. As the evening drew on the pagoda glowed from the lights and we squatted with the crowd and took it all in. It was quite a moving experience, people buy flowers and offer them and pray . It seems to me that this is a common theme for all religions to remain humble.
We had dinner on 19th street , a noisy active crowded area but well organised and delicious food.. Yangon is a kaleidoscope of people , smells ,colour ,people selling everything, men using old typewriters, crowded internet cafes . But everything is run down, the pavements are a nightmare to traverse with holes , open drains , polluted rivers ,litter and everything is run down including the railway station and the trains.
We took a 10hour leisurely bus ride to Bagan through lush countryside. This town has become a tourist haven and is the usual mixture of souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants, scooter and bike hire, travel agents , convenience stores with no prices and with a taste of rip off and greed., but its brought much needed income to the country.
We took a tour with a horse and cart at a slow clip clop pace and visited 5 temples but by lunch time we were wilting in the heat. This is on the lines of Ankor Wat with hundreds of temples scattered around the countryside. The next day we hired bicycles and rode around following a map and visited the more remote temples a bit off the beaten track. This was really nice as often we were the only guys on the road.. Many of the temples have frescoes and an inner four sided corridor with a Buddha on each side. Most date from the 12th century. We climbed up the steep steps of a temple and perched precariously on a ledge with a good view around. Climbing down was quite scary, I went down backwards, like descending a ladder.
We took the ferry from Began to Mandalay, a 10 hour trip along the Irrawaddy River. We saw dawn break , hot air balloons flying over Began and had breakfast and lunch on deck and passed through a lovely approach to Mandalay with temples on the hills.
Mandalay has little to commend it, roaring traffic and pollution, thoroughly dangerous pavements and people who see you as a money target, . We walked a long way to Mandalay Palace, paid a lot of money for a run down ,unkempt shabby palace in the middle of an army camp. The city redeemed itself a little after we visited three more temples .The following day we hired a taxi for half a dayand visited more temples, went up Mandalay hill and a gold leaf plant before tottering along the pavements home. This is the least attractive city we have visited.

Week 9-11 Malaysia

 

We spent a week in Kuala Lumpur , mainly chilling out and in my case getting a new pair of spectacles, eating and watching the torrential rain storms flooding the river on the golf course. We visited Batu Caves , a Hindu shrine achieved by climbing up a long flight of stairs to the cave. The shrine itself is more like a building site but the cave was very impressive.

Then we took an interminable train ride in a vibrating freezing cold train ride to Langkawi past thousands of palm trees. We took a taxi and ferry ride to our hotel which was right on the beach. The situation is rather idyllic , a long sandy beach, palm trees , hot humid weather ; a dreamy location. We spent the day lounging about bemoaning the fact that we don’t have Japanese service anymore.

KL is a mixed area , Malaysian, Indian and Chinese but Langkawi is predominantly Moslem and it’s sad to see the women dressed as unattractively as possible and their shy , off hand and rather abrupt manner of serving in the shops.

The attitude towards alcohol is quite puzzling. In KL one can buy anywhere , in Langkawi alcohol is available in some shops and restaurants but very expensive. In some restaurants they will allow you to take in alcohol. Then we discovered a duty free shop where foreigners , by showing passports ,can buy alcohol at greatly reduced prices. Locals can also buy but must show their I D cards but are rationed to for example 72 beers a month. Duty free shops are only available in Langkawi and things like coffee and biscuits are much cheaper.

I took a boat trip to three islands, one attractive inland lake and the feeding of eagles. Cenang comes alive at night, lots of restaurants, shops and everything busy, busy. We’ve enjoyed eating at the local places, good food and much cheaper. But Malaysia is a big contrast to Japan, the people are easy going, sometimes the service is done without a smile and nothing is finished off properly.

We took another freezing cold ferry ride to Penang in a rather dilapidated ferry. It got a bit rough out to sea and one of the passengers put his life jacket on because he thought his last day had come.

During the afternoon and night it threw it down and the next morning we awoke to a flooded hotel lobby and a city awash. This was the first time that the city had flooded in 15 years. Penang city is a fascinating place, a mixture of Buddhist , Chinese and Indian culture with old rundown chop houses ,restaurants ,temples, all looking poorly maintained but with a unique attraction. Some properties have been done up and are quite up market .Street eating is the order of the day with great food and a chance to meet other travellers.

By absolute luck Prince Charles and Camilla were visiting a puppet theatre next door to our hotel. They arrived in splendour and Carol shook Camilla’s hand and welcomed her to Penang.

 

 

Week 5 – Hong Kong

Hong Kong week 5

Arriving in Hong Kong island at our AirBnB we had to lug our cases up 3 flights of stairs to a miniscule non too clean apartment which was so small that there wasn’t enough room to store a suit case. Spartan living but Hong Kong apartment prices are horrendous and we were well located. Our neighbours were a church and a massage parlour.
The next day we took the ferry to Portuguese Macau and found this to have a very European feel with squares and churches except for the masses of people and the heat.
Hong Kong is a great place to walk except for the heat and humidity , there is an escalator going right up the mountain with off shoots for shopping centres. We walked up to the Botanical Gardens, an oasis in the middle of the high rise office buildings. Hong Kong is not ashamed of its colonial past, street names are familiar English ones , statues remain of Royalty and English is widely spoken. Hong Kong definitely sees itself as being different from China.
It’s also very cosmopolitan, restaurants everywhere, and the developments inside and outside the city take the breathe away . The vistas of sea, islands, high rise buildings , bridges and old tenements like we lived in are unique. And everywhere there are people , masses of them, what vibrancy. But live there? I doubt it, real estate prices are astronomical and there’s a lack of breathing space.

Week 4 – China

China week 4

We took a bullet train for 8 hours to Guilian , for long spells it went at over 300 kms per hour and at that speed it’s hard to focus on anything outside. But it’s mysterious for us to see deserted building sites and derelict half ruined houses. Is this all part of a mass relocation project or is it just the on-going Chinese scheme to keep the GDP growth at 7% by creating engineering schemes.
The train stations are built on a model and all look the same and many seem far too big for their purpose. It’s like putting Shanghai station in the middle of a country village.
We stayed a couple of nights in Guilian but I was suffering again from breathing problems so stayed put. We then moved by bus to Yangshuo to a pleasant family run hotel next to the river. This is the land of the karst limestone mountains , at times it looked eerily like the Chinese landscape paintings, misty mountains, peasants tending the rice fields and a slow pace of life. Patrick and I took a bike ride and proceeded to get lost, we were rescued by a local who poled us across the river on his bamboo raft. We called in at an English language school; it would be very idyllic to teach there in the middle of the country.
There’s an element of interference by the Government here, empty state run buses which charge an arm and a leg and police manning road blocks . The local people resent this. It would seem that some people believe because of the one party state the individual has little say in the running of the country. The Government encourages a movement away from the country villages and that genetically engineered crops mean higher food growth and efficient agricultural system. The Government bulldoze their projects through, there’s little or no negotiation on compensation for building, the Government own the land on a 70 year lease.
We met some climbers from Switzerland who had travelled to climb the steep karst limestone.
Because of the increase in costs there are less foreign visitors who can visit other Far Eastern countries at a lower cost. It seems to us that China charges high amounts for some mundane sights , it’s not a cheap destination any more.
There’s an English school here . It would be nice to teach for some time here.
Walking and riding around in the heat and humidity is energy sapping. I need to keep topped up with water and food.
On our last day in China we took the bullet train to Shenzhen, the metro to the border with Hong Kong, went through customs and immigration , which seems strange as it’s now one country and then the MRT to our AirBnB on Hong Kong Island

Week 3 – China

China week 3

Xian is a complete contrast to Pingyao , row after row of high rises ,swarms of people and ugly. Patrick was not feeling well so Carol and I went in search of some medicine. The system is different here, pharmacies are inside a nearby hospital and this created a good impression. Clean , prompt helpful service despite the language problem , and we got our medicines. Patrick stayed in bed and Carol and I explored the Bell and Drum Towers and the Moslem market and old mosque. The market was frenetic with countless things to eat, men bashing bread, meat, making nuts , pasta and half the time we had no idea what they were doing or selling. We walked back in pouring rain.
The next day we did the sensible thing and hired a car and driver and visited first an archaeological site from 6000 years ago , living very similarly to remote African tribes today. On to the Terracotta Warriors, an astounding place. 3 digs of hundreds of clay soldiers , each individual in build and face together with horses , chariots . The question is why did the Emperor do this , have this whole army buried with him? Was it megalomania or as some think did he expect to carry on in death as in life , inspecting his army ?
The following hot day we went by public bus to the Large Goose Pagoda, another large temple complex in the centre of the city with splendid views from the top of wide avenues in 4 directions.. Here Carol took a tumble and has been hindered since by a badly bruised foot.
We flew to Shanghai , a painless experience except for having to open our checked baggage all for the sake of nail scissors. There’s a lot of mindless beauracracy in China , one becomes a little tired of bag and personal searches on trains, planes , and undergrounds but I suppose it’s better than terrorist bombs.
By now I had succumbed to the Asian bug and spent one day in our rather disappointing Air BnB . However it was well placed and for 2 days we took a hop on and hop off bus around the remarkable city. The Bund is a pedestrian area around the river with a collection of 1920’s well-preserved bank buildings and across the river in the financial district we went up to the 80th floor in a split second to have wondrous views around the city. Shanghai ranks up there as a major city alongside Hong Kong , Singapore and Bangkok and is far more modern and fresh compared to Beijing.
But you have to ask questions about the sustainability of the Chinese miracle.
A short train ride to Hangzhou and a special in a 4 star hotel which was welcome. A day spent by the lake with a boat ride alongside what seemed like a million other persons.
China never ceases to amaze , this town has an expanding metro , an airport and a population of 6 million, just another town in China.
A disappointing aspect of China is the lack of Facebook, Internet, Instagram due to China’s fear of social media. Their ATM’s are also a bit fear making and the vast railway stations with thousands of people milling about, the stations seem to be carbon copies of each other.
If asked the question “ Is it worthwhile to visit China ?” the answer is a definite yes. We’ve seen amazing sights, wonderful foods and witnessed first-hand a country that has transformed itself in 20 years.

Week 2 – China

China Week 2

To continue our journey we flew from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing via Air Asia. All went well until we drew cash from an ATM. We either were given counterfeit money from the ATM or had good money swapped by a taxi driver later. Our hotel was close to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City both of which cover a huge area. Carol kept saying that it’s a public holiday but that wasn’t the case, the number of people visiting these sites is enormous , estimates 80,000 per day. We filed past Mao’s body in the mausoleum being urged on all the time by the overabundance of police and minders. People laid flowers, some wept and there was an overall feeling of reverence. From there we walked through the Forbidden City , the scale of which is enormous. The next day we took a trip to the Great Wall and walked and climbed marvelling at the fantastic achievement that made this possible. We stopped at the Ming tombs and braved the hectic traffic back to the city . Our driver took a shortcut to avoid the snarled traffic and got the bus stuck in an alleyway. A shouting woman ran out and blocked us with a bicycle and stones but we gingerly reversed and turned around. It was nice to meet some intrepid travellers, Barbara a 70 + American who just travelled wherever she felt like it following the sun or her whim, two free spirited Belgian girls and 3 Filipino girls who live in Singapore. On our last day in Beijing we took the metro to the Summer Palace which is beautifully situated next to a lake but rather spoilt by hordes of people. But what does one expect , China has 1.4 billion people and over 20 million living in Beijing. In the evenings we walked the hutongs ( alleyways ) around the hotel into the poorer residential areas .
Our impressions of Beijing are that it is a huge city with wide clogged roads and highways, magnificent architecture and history, miles and miles of high rise buildings . In general the Chinese are not friendly to foreigners and overcharge and not particularly honest , there’s a huge security presence. Very few smiles are handed out and the people appear gruff and confrontational.
Beijing West is a frantic station with masses of people but we found our way to the huge waiting room for our train which was somewhat like being in an airport. The train itself was impressive, 16 coaches long, comfortable and new and reaches speeds of 300 kilometers/hour. A good way to travel.
Pingyao is an old walled town, the first morning Patrick and I ran the circumference 6.2 kms and saw one guy doing martial exercises with a sword, groups of women doing aerobics and people singing . Inside the walls the town consists of small traditional houses converted into shops , restaurants, hotels , no cars and old museums and temples to view. So we spent the days and evenings strolling around and eating and people watching. In fact both in China and Malaysia we have covered a lot of ground. The food is divine noodles soaked in vinegar, pot roast beef, green tasty vegetables and other pork or chicken dishes. We have found that an evening meal with drinks costs the same as 3 cappuccinos. So I think that in future we will be giving our coffee breaks a miss.
Our hotel is in traditional style with a huge bed that could sleep 6 but a hard mattress and a pillow filled with rice. So Patrick and I wake up wrecked with pains and sores and walk around like old men until we loosen up.
I would recommend Pingyao to anyone to visit when in China. The people are far more friendly and helpful than Beijing.
Some difficulties, no Google and Facebook , no one wants to sell us a SIM card, no pharmacies , worrisome ATMs and very little English spoken. Actually the latter leads to some fun situations with all sorts of people being hauled in to translate and explain the dishes.

Tamsin

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Tamsin

I have a very unusual grand-daughter Tamsin. She doesn’t think she’s unusual because her life has always been the same since she was born but other people shake their heads in wonder at the things she has experienced in her 12 years of life.

She has lived all her life at Phinda Game Reserve in Zululand South Africa where her parents live and work. Initially she went to a pre-primary school for children of employees but now she goes to Hluluwe Primary School. To get there each day the children drive 40 minutes through the game reserve and Tamsin told me that on one day she saw the big 5, that’s lion, leopard, elephant , rhino and buffalo; a bit different from most people’s drive to school.

The staff live in an area next to the airfield and particularly at night it’s best to keep your eyes open and tread warily. Lions march down the road past the houses and elephants come regularly into the garden to drink from the bird bath.

From an early stage Tamsin has accompanied her Dad in carrying out his tasks as Conservation Manager. This means she’s been there when they’ve darted elephants, leopards and lions to fit collars, rhinos to remove horns and helped out when the vet has cleaned up wounds on injured animals. She has no problem to swab out maggots from an infected leg or stomach. These operations don’t always go strictly to plan, on one occasion a partly anaesthetised elephant got angry and turned over the truck in front of where she and her mother were watching , injuring and trapping the driver.

Flying in helicopters and planes to spot animals from the air is no big deal for Tamsin .

She recently went with Simon to Malawi to relocate antelope from one reserve to another and in the near future she’s going to a private island off the coast of Zanzibar to do something similar.

She is also responsible for rearing and feeding orphaned antelopes which are kept in her Dad’s garden. This includes bottle feeding them every 4 hours when they are young.

Of course we all believe that she’ll follow in Dad’s footsteps and pursue a career in conservation. But that’s not a given, who knows Tamsin is just as likely to become a fashion designer or an accountant. It’s going to be interesting to see.

 

 

Annapurna Part2

On day 3 we were woken up at 04.30 and by torch light climbed Poon Hill to see the sunrise over the Himalayas. It was worth it, our first real sight of the Annapurna range with the first rays of the sun catching the summit of the highest peak and then gradually moving down until all the snow covered peaks were brilliant and glowing. There were a lot of trekkers up there and the mood became almost euphoric; people dancing , pulling funny poses and running happily around and taking photos.
Ours was the first Gap trek after the monsoon and there was still a lot of rain about. There was a weather pattern, dawn would be clear and peaceful and was the best time to view the mountains. As the sun rose higher water would evaporate from the soaked earth and form clouds and mist which would gradually obscure the mountains. Morning walking would be hot and humid and we would sweat buckets and then by the afternoon it would start to rain lightly. Evenings it would often clear and then we would see the most amazing sights sometimes completely by accident . We would be gazing at white fluffy clouds and then with a delighted shock realise that peaking out above the clouds would be a snowy mountain top. Often it would rain all night.
We progressed to walking through forests; bamboo, rhododendrons and wild flowers interspersed amongst the trees. Here we had to watch out for leeches, they would lie in wait on leaves and jump on to you and then make their way on to your skin and suck your blood. We used to check each other out and remove them but some escaped our attention, I found a bloody sock one evening and a mark on my neck.
With so much water about the waterfalls were truly spectacular. They were everywhere, falling vertically for hundreds of metres, crashing into rocks at the bottom and forming fountains. The scale of the Himalayas is awesome, raging rivers, steep mountain sides where land slides and avalanches roar down and mist which would suddenly swirl and then part giving glimpses of the snow covered peaks high above.
It was high up on the mountain we had an earthquake , I felt it as a 30 second shake of the bedroom with the door frame moving backwards and forwards but the others said it was 2 mins. It was 6.5 on the Richter scale and killed people in Kathmandu. A dog had followed us up the trail and had adopted our room to sleep in until I threw him out . I thought it was him trying to get into the room.
Only on the last day before base camp did we break out of the forest and walked through grass land. Then our luck deserted us and it rained heavily with thick mist. We slogged on and up and at last in the late afternoon stumbled up to Annapurna base camp, 4100 meters high. By then we were tired, wet and a bit miserable but our luck hadn’t entirely deserted us because later again the mists cleared and we caught views of the mountain tops , boding well for the morning.

And in the morning our luck came back ,the weather was clear and we were on the edge of a glacier and surrounded 360 degrees by the Annapurna range, impossibly high peaks cloaked in snow and glaciers ; all of them between 7and 8,000 meters high. Again the mood of the trekkers was exuberant, people dancing, whooping and doing cartwheels. Amongst it all were sheep herders living in a smoky bivouac tending their flocks. I think Ben felt quite at home. I couldn’t help thinking about the mountaineers where the base camp is just the start of their climb to the top. I couldn’t imagine how they summon the effort and will power to climb those summits.
Our luck really was out on the way down, it chucked it down. From then on it was wet clothes, socks and boots and often wading through paths pouring with water. It’s here where good gear is invaluable, I was lucky in that I had a 1st class rain jacket and pants but Adam seemed to do the trek in a yellow T shirt, cut off jeans and an umbrella and he suffered. We descended on a circular route and crossed the longest suspension bridges on the way down These swayed alarmingly as we walked and often we could see planks which had fallen off lying on the banks of the churning , roaring rivers way down below. One tilted dangerously to one side and we held on like grim death to the highest guard rail. The Nepalese health and safety inspectors were conspicuous by their absence.
We reached Pokara by the third night after base camp, and bliss; long hot showers, steak and chips and a chance to dry our clothes. Then it was one more time on the bus ride from hell back to Kathmandu, a lovely last dinner and then the following day people made their way home.
When we were climbing Poon Hill we saw early morning planes flying down the valleys and then swooping over the cols to continue on sight seeing trips of the Himalayas. They were below us as we continued to climb the mountains. Ramesh , the tour leader, offered us an opportunity to fly on one on the last day in Kathmandu. We all turned it down . On that day an Everest sightseeing plane crashed on the approach to Kathmandu and everyone was killed. On my return I read that Sir Edmund Hillary’s wife was killed in the same way many years ago.
I stopped off overnight in Dubai and the contrast with Kathmandu was amazing. I moved from 3rd world to not just 1st but a future world. What an influence our politicians and leaders have over us to create such contrasting states.
Trekking in the Himalayas is demanding physically but very rewarding. I take back with me memories of soaring peaks , misty valleys , beautiful indigenous forests, tranquil farmland in almost impossibly steep hillsides and everywhere the sounds of water rushing along in rivers and waterfalls . Last but not least I won’t forget the friendly helpful people, always courteous and always smiling

Annapurna . September 2011 Part1

Annapurna Nepal  September 2011.

 

There’s a one-eyed yellow idol To the north of Kathmandu; There’s a little marble cross below the town; And a broken hearted woman Tends the grave of ‘Mad’ Carew, While the yellow god for ever gazes down.

 

Milton Hayes and Cuthbert Clarke 1911

 

Well I think I roomed with Mad Carew, an Aussie from Perth called Ben. When first coming across the delights of Nepal toilets he found there was no toilet paper. No problem, he used the lavatory brush; he said it was very effective. Ben used to go missing whenever we were about to go anywhere and then someone said he’d been seen on the back of a scooter wending his way through the crazy streets of  Kathmandu. He was very proud of his alarm clock but seemed unable to set it so it would go off at 3 o’clock in the morning. He would sit bolt upright in bed, switch it off and then turn over, go back to sleep immediately and start snoring. I, of course, was unable to get back to sleep. On our list of things to take was a sarong; Ben said he’d hunted high and low through Kathmandu but couldn’t find one. Pity; Ben waltzing about the Himalayas in a sarong would have been a wonderous sight.

The tour was organised by an international company called Gap and throughout we were accompanied by two leaders and on the trek five porters who carried our packs leaving us with just a day pack. We were 11 participants , mainly poms but also a Polish couple , a German lady ( don’t mention the war ) , a father of my vintage  and his son from USA and of course Ben from Aussie. I’m glad to say the group got on well together and helped each other along when things got tough.

I thought Ho Chi Minh traffic was bad but Kathmandu takes the biscuit, everything crammed into narrow streets; cars, buses , scooters with whole families on them, cows , dogs, chickens , children, trucks all accompanied by the constant sound of hooting horns and black diesel fumes. I’ll never complain about potholes in South Africa again; most of the time in Kathmandu the road surface is just potholes linked by bits of tar, so one just lurches along. Luckily traffic mainly proceeds at not much more than walking pace

.On day 1 we visited two temples, Bodhnath stupa which is in the heart of the Tibetan community and Swayambhunath stupa which is on the top of a hill and is the monkey temple with its Buddha eyes . I found both temples fascinating and watched people making protestations or lighting candles, ringing bells, turning prayer wheels , some ladies in a trance or others just meditating. However I’m still trying to get my head around what I saw at Bodhnath; a Buddhist monk dressed in saffron robes gave this stray dog a mighty kick that Wayne Rooney would have been proud of.

We then walked through Kathmandu to Durbar square which contains the palace of Kumari Devi who is an 8 year old  living goddess. Our day coincided with a festival where she goes in a chariot through the streets and when we arrived hundreds of police in riot gear and guns were assembling. Our tour guide advised us not to go which is a pity because the braver amongst us did and caught wonderful sights of her.

 

The next day was a bus trip to Pokhara, a 200km journey which took 8 hours!! The main hurdle is the pass out of the Kathmandu valley which is a bit like Sani Pass but with trucks. Inevitably a truck breaks down trying to get up the pass and major gear box or transmission repairs are carried out on the road. There’s only room for one vehicle to pass and a log jam then occurs which takes much shouting and cursing to sort out. This pass is not for the faint hearted; often we would turn the corner to see two trucks side by side heading straight for us; not to mention the more or less vertical drops down hundreds of metres with wrecks of trucks and buses clearly seen at the bottom. At one stage we got out of the bus and walked down the hill and waited for the bus to catch us up.

We started the trek the next day after a short bus ride from Pokhara. We trekked for 10days; on most days we walked from 08.00 to 16.00 with breaks for morning tea and lunch. There was very little level walking, it was either up steeply or down steeply. Often we would grind up to the top of a hill only to descend down the other side, losing all the hard won altitude,  in order to cross a raging river by means of a suspension bridge to get to the other side of the valley. The advantage of this is that we gradually acclimatised to the altitude and had no troubles when we reached the high spot of the trek. Afterwards I mentioned to my friend that I found the trek tough and in typical blunt fashion he replied “What did you expect, you were trekking in the flipping Himalayas not Richmond Park”

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and the majority of the 25million population live by subsistence farming. They are descendants of Indians, Mongols and an Ayrian race and you just don’t see any fat Nepalese, they haven’t yet been introduced to KFC or McDonalds. Particularly in Kathmandu one realises that poverty means many people living together in one room and a consequent lack of privacy ; we often saw women washing themselves at a tap by the side of the road, lack of choices in life, jobs , money   security and health care. When Buddhism refers to a life of suffering it’s always been hard for me to understand this term. Now I do. Yet the Nepalese are a good looking race, well dressed, particularly the women in their traditional clothes, school children in uniforms, tolerant and dignified .

The first part of the trek goes through villages and farmland with steep terraces where rice, millet , barley ,potatoes, mealies and other vegetables are grown. The richer farmers have buffalos and oxen and we often had to make way for donkey trains as everything has to be carted up the mountains. Higher up where the tracks are steeper and rougher manpower does the carting, it’s astonishing to see these small men, all muscle and sinew wearing either wellie boots or flip flops carrying huge loads at a breakneck speed. Unfortunately there are no yaks in this part of the country. Clearly the trekkers have had an influence on the traditional Nepalese culture but generally a positive one by injecting cash and in all cases we were greeted with smiles, friendliness and courtesy . The only negative point was that I had to drink tea out of a Chelsea mug at one tea house because nothing else was available.

I borrowed my friend’s walking poles and these were a life saver ascending and descending the steep paths. We met other trekkers on the way, many were independent and on strict budgets, one lone Englishman comes to mind and two 6 foot Amazon German girls with legs like Steffi Graf who of course had to carry all their packs up the mountain. We stayed and ate in tea houses, basic establishments with the bare essentials but in all cases excellent cheap vegetarian food and even beer for the troops lower down the mountain. Jenny, a 21 year old English girl hadn’t been to the toilet for 4 days because she had an aversion to the squat Eastern type and made a sprint for the first Western toilet on the trip only to emerge gagging as the toilet had no flush cistern. One had to pay extra for hot showers but there was no in between, they were either boiling hot or freezing cold. Needless to say the guys would play tricks on the hapless Jenny, tell her she could go first for a shower and then nip in quickly and bag the shower , which made her furious. ”What sort of man are you Adam to pinch my shower.” When she did get in to the shower we would shout to her the wrong instructions on how to operate the complex series of taps to enable her to have hot water. “ Now turn the left tap clockwise full on “ and then screams as she got a full on cold jet straight from the glacier. Needless to say she would get her revenge , she’s a marathon runner and on the Loughborough University track team so she  would shoot up the steep climbs leaving us all far behind..

Kathmandu

Laos,Cambodia 2012 Part 2

Victims
Victims
Tower of skulls
Tower of skulls
Pnohm Phen Palace
Pnohm Phen Palace
Phnom Phen palace
Phnom Phen palace
Vientienne
Vientienne
Vientienne
Vientienne
Bus to Luang Prabang
Bus to Luang Prabang
Monks receiving alms
Monks receiving alms
Mekong
Mekong
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

Now I was on my own. I wanted to get to Luang Prebang in Northern Laos and as a first step took the bus to Phnom Penh. The bus was quite luxurious with air conditioning and a hostess but painfully slow along badly pot holed roads. I stayed at Paddy Rice above an Irish pub and on the boulevard along the Mekong River where in the evening, when it went a little cooler, it seemed like to whole city took a promenade , played football and did aerobic exercises and just generally hung out.
I took a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields memorial. This was an experience in itself, hectic traffic, choking fumes and lots of potholes. At one stage I had to get out and lift the rear out of a hole otherwise we were stuck slap bang in the middle of the road.
In 1975 Pol Pot led the Khymer Rouge into Phnom Penh (see the film The Killing Fields) and forced all the inhabitants out into the country to fend for themselves. During this time an estimated 2 million people died out of a population then of 7 million . Many were killed in purges; government officials, doctors, lawyers, anyone with any education and this was one of the many killing fields. The memorial is well done; we were given a moving audio commentary spoken by survivors. The centre piece is a large tower filled from top to bottom with skulls and clothing recovered from the site. Our guide at Ankor Wat had lost both his parents and lived as a refugee in Thailand until 1992 before returning to Cambodia.
So when one looks at Phnom Penh now one must remember the recent history, the Vietnam War and the carpet bombing by the Americans and the devastation wreaked by the Khymer Rouge followed by the Vietnamese invasion. Now Phnom Penh is a seedy, crumbling but busy city. I visited the enormous Grand Market which is consumerism gone mad with fake brand watches, clothes, jewellery contrasting with the general poverty of the people. Talking with the people I found that they work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for maybe US $ 50 a month.
In contrast I visited the highly ornate Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda built by the French in the late 19th century inside is a beautiful jewelled Buddha.
In Phnom Penh there were quite a few Western old pensioners about. Generally they could be split into two categories, intellectuals visiting the museums and temples and the disreputable who seemed to rise late, drink beer and eat all day, go for massages and then frequent the girlie bars at night. You’ll have to decide which category I fitted into.
I enjoyed eating on the street in the evening, sit down and the locals will always come and chat. The food is good and remarkably cheap even for us South Africans, I just had to put up with the traffic fumes and the odd rat scuttling across the road.
But there were times in this last week when I wondered what I was doing there and that I should have just caught a plane home but in hindsight it was worth it as you never know if or when you will return to that area and what’s a week in a life anyway.
I established there was a bus to Luang Prabang but it took 2 days to get there so I opted for a flight to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Sitting next to me was a Vietnamese girl, travelling with her grandmother, with an accountancy degree from Australia and even she couldn’t get a job in Vietnam. We talked about rhino poaching and the use of the horn in Vietnam and she said that if the population believes that the horn helps them little or nothing can be done to change their minds.
Vientiane is a contrast to other cities in the East, wide boulevards, less traffic and much cooler weather. I took a tuk tuk tour around the city and saw That Luang , the city’s holiest site ,Wat Phra Kaeo ,the Victory Monument , modelled on Paris’s Arc de Triomph and took a walk around the city’s main museum. Laos has a conservative approach to tourism, nightlife closes at 11.00pm, women wear traditional dress and life is lower key than Bangkok or Phnom Penh. Booking a flight took one and a half hours, after a long process involving phone calls, third parties in the deal and my credit cards were declined. I had to go to an ATM and draw out 1.5 million kip ( about 180 US $ ).
The 10 hour bus journey to Luang Prabang was a real adventure, The bus wound up and up narrow mountainous roads with sheer drops to the river below, crawled over landslides, went past limestone towers cloaked in dense forests and terraced rice paddies on the lower slopes.. The bus made regular stops to drop off and collect goods and ladies came on board selling bread and what looked like 100 year old eggs. The wonderful baguettes and stick loaves are a legacy of the French colonial days.
At first light the novice monks wind their way barefoot through the town in long crocodiles, dressed in bright orange robes and receive alms in the form of food from the ladies kneeling at the side of the road.in containers that they carry
To my mind Luang Prabang is paradise lost, it’s now become a town devoted to serving the tourist hordes. The French colonial houses are converted into boutique hotels, fancy restaurants, gift shops, galleries and the authentic Laos inhabitants can no longer afford to live there. Having said that it’s a quiet oasis away from the bustle of the cities with little or no traffic and is at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is a very pleasant town to wander around with numerous beautiful old temples, river views and the King’s palace, built by the French in 1904 and more resembling a private house than a palace, including the cars that he had used. The King and family came to a sticky end at the hands of the communists but it’s easy to envisage in its’ heyday the quiet graceful lives they must have had. In the middle of the town is Mount Phousi and after a sweaty climb to the top there is an airy stupa and stunning views around the area.
The town has a night market and as always good cheap food available at stalls.
Early next morning I drove past the lines of monks in the rain and caught a plane to Bangkok.
This is the ultimate contrast, roads clogged with traffic and fumes, crowded pavements and a hot muggy atmosphere. But Bangkok is now easy to get about on the wonderfully air conditioned skytrain and metro and there’s lots to do and see. It’s an amazing place to go shopping; the choice of goods is phenomenal. At the top of the range are the upmarket department stores with all the major brands but at prices one would see back home. Then there are the medium, lower level stores and then the street markets along the pavements. I went to the huge Chatuchak weekend market and probably only got around about half of it before succumbing to the crowds and heat. Everything was for sale there, food, clothes, ceramics, jewellery, furniture, pets, you name it and you could find it somewhere.
It was quite a mission to find Jim Thompson’s house, a quiet haven almost hidden among the tower blocks, concrete pillars and building sites but well worth visiting. He is credited with reviving the Thai silk industry and his house evokes the Somerset Maugham era and atmosphere with lovely verandas, wooden floors and furniture.
So finally it was time to pack up for the last time and get to the airport for the flight back to Johannesburg.
I can certainly recommend a cycling holiday to anyone, it doesn’t have to be in the Far East; it can be a leisurely ride through France for example, sampling the wine and food. The rewards are open countryside, friendly people, getting away from the crowds, good exercise and most of all lots of fun.

First World v Third World

09-25-first-vs-third-world-nationalism[1]

I’ve recently realised that the gap between 1st world and 3rd world countries  is growing not narrowing and it’s interesting to investigate why. So here are a few observations based on my experience of life in first world countries such as UK, Switzerland and Germany and third world countries such as South Africa, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Philippines and Zimbabwe.

Firstly the traditional definition of first world countries is countries of the developed West e,g. UK, America, Western Europe ,and including Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. Second world countries are from the previous Communist states; Russia, China, and Eastern Europe and third world countries are from Africa, India ,Far East and South America. There’s also a failed state category either through war or mismanagement which includes Somalia, Syria, Libya, Iraq and now Venezuela.

Every day 3 million passengers use the tube system in London. This is part of an integrated public transport network of rail, bus, tram, light overhead rail and tube. A passenger purchases an Oyster card which is swiped on entry and exit to the station or bus and which can be topped up at automatic telling stations or directly from a credit card. No cash, no fuss, no bother. It’s not all sweetness and light though with the main problems being overcrowding at rush hours. London Transport continues to invest in new lines, systems, and trains and buses. Switzerland and Germany have, if anything, an even better and more efficient service and France has a wonderful network of high speed trains. Living in these countries it’s not necessary to own a car.

Compare this with South Africa where public transport has been handed over to the minibus taxi industry which has an increasing lobby with the Government and disputes any move to improve public transport with intimidation and violence. Drive by shooting a la Al Capone is common amongst warring factions. Apart from the Gautrain, which is a limited, elitist new railway serving the more affluent areas of Johannesburg and Pretoria the rail network has been allowed to deteriorate and is dangerous to travel on due to crime. So more and more cars and taxis are pouring on to the already traffic clogged roads. The rail network is all there, it just needs vision and investment to update and bring it into the 21st century.

The grid locked cities of the Philippines are worse. Most people’s mode of transport is being jammed onto a motorised tricycle or a jeepney, which is a modified American Jeep pick up with bench seats. Sitting in one of these means being shoved next to your neighbours, stifled in the heat and high humidity, choked by diesel fumes and sitting for hours in the continuous stopping and starting of the traffic. One Sunday it took us 2 hours to drive 8 kms to a friend’s house in Cebu City.

Kathmandu is a also a city where driving on the roads is a nightmare with many old , beat up cars, trucks and buses belching out black smoke on pot holed narrow, inadequate streets. Travelling the 200kms from Kathmandu to Pokara by bus took 8 hours and was a slow, bumpy journey on narrow roads filled with Tata trucks which frequently broke down and blocked the road whilst major repairs were carried out. The only alternative is by small plane which is more dangerous with frequent crashes in the mountains.
People quite simply earn less in the 3rd world.

I talked to the hotel receptionist in Vientienne , Laos and she told me she earns US $50/month for working 12 hours/day , 7 days per week .

The 1st world has 16% of the population and enjoys 78% of the world’s GNP. Working conditions are often poor; clothing manufacturers often turn a blind eye to the sweat shops that produce their high value branded products sold in the West at high cost. Rates of unemployment are higher in the 3rd world but it’s interesting to see that in South East Asia the population are very innovative in setting up stalls on the street selling anything from cooked food to carrying out scooter repairs. They don’t sit around and bemoan their fate like in South Africa. And there’s no welfare state in the 3rd world, no cradle to grave system to pick up the bills when things get tough. Switzerland recently held a referendum where the proposal was the Government would pay each adult SFr 2000 /month and each child SFr 600/month in view of increasing unemployment due to robots taking over jobs. The Swiss people actually voted against it. Can you imagine that in South Africa?

Where are all these jobs going to come from that Governments talk about with their job creation promises? Every company is intent on increasing productivity, reducing head count and automation.
Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world at 84 whilst South Africa is 60 and the worst is Sierra Leone at 46. Looking at the charts 1st world countries have a far higher life expectancy than 3rd world countries. Diet, exercise, superior medical conditions all contribute to this and 3rd world countries have to deal with wars, HIV Aids, chronic diseases such as malaria, malnutrition and inadequate medical systems. As a continent Africa suffers from the lowest life expectancy in the World.

Population continues to grow at a higher rate in 3rd world countries than 1st world countries; in fact in countries such as Japan and Italy the population is declining. Better education, women pursuing careers and a focus on life style means that couples make a conscious decision to limit the size of their families. Although with younger families In South Africa family size would seem to have decreased its very common for grandmothers to raise children whilst single mothers have to be the bread winners. In the Philippines the population continues to grow thanks mainly to the Roman Catholic Church’s policy on birth control. But this does mean that grandparents have a role to play and a place in the family. They are looked after in old age and not just shoved into old age homes when they become infirm.

The route to a prosperous and thriving country is through educating the population ; South Korea achieved its aim of becoming a 1st world country by education, discipline and hard work. Currently South Africa is in the middle of an” education transformation” which in effect means dumbing it down. Students would like to have a free education consisting of turning up at the end of three years and receiving their degrees without attending lectures or taking exams. And in the meantime the schools frequently have 70 students per class and being taught in bare concreted schools with broken windows and zero facilities.

1st world countries have established democracies with independent judiciaries and strong policing. 3rd world countries have weak financial systems and the rule of law and governments are highly corrupt and nepotism and cronyism rule the roost. Any Government position, even a minor one, is highly desirable because it gives the incumbent access to the honey pot.

Nothing gets done in service delivery because there’s no money left over after the increasing army of Government employees have creamed it all off. Witness the sad slide of South Africa since Zuma took over as President and the abject poverty of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

In the World Happiness Index 2016 it’s no coincidence that Denmark was 1st followed by Switzerland and Iceland. The ratings were based on GDP per capita ,social support ,life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, and perceptions of corruption.

It’s a sad world we live in. 80% of the world’s population live in poor housing, 50% don’t have enough food, 24% don’t have electricity, 17% don’t know how to read, only 7% have access to the internet and only 1% have a college education. Meanwhile the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Everest Base Camp 2013 part 2

The next day it really felt like we were getting closer to the mountains with the high peak of Thamserke dominating the skyline ahead of us. We dropped down to a river which had water driven prayer wheels . After lunch we started the long slog up to the monastery but disaster befell us.

On the first stage of the climb the path was narrow and very crowded with trekkers. Suddenly a panicking out of control yak came rampaging down the hill with two gas bottles swinging about in the air. I thought it was going to take Simon out but at the last second it swerved and ran over Elmien. She was badly trampled and had a severe twisted ankle, it was only when she returned to South Africa it was discovered that the ankle was broken; a real yak attack. What to do? She decided to continue on a hired horse and carried on like that to the end of the trek. Those prayer wheels didn’t work for us that day.

We continued up to Tengboche Monastery at 3,860 meters high , made famous by Hillary and Tensing on their conquest of Everest in 1953 and then down to our night’s stay at Dlboche. Many villages we passed through had Mani stones, large boulders inscribed with prayers. When we started walking the next day we passed a Mani wall, a long wall in the middle of the path made up of countless inscribed stones which one must pass clockwise. Then we passed through an enchanted forest, lovely glades with pools and boulders covered with lichen. Overhead the trees were adorned with old men’s beard, quietly stirring in the breeze.

Later the forests on the opposite hills were ablaze with autumn colours and it was hard not to believe we weren’t walking in Scotland. From there we walked through grassland sprinkled everywhere with wild flowers, red, blue and yellow colours covering the ground.

Often it’s difficult not to allow the mind to wander: I spend too much time thinking about the past and the future rather than the present. Up in the high Himalayas I had no such problem, there’s so much to concentrate on , flowers , birds , spectacular mountain scenery , shrines by the side of the road and not least negotiating the rocky trail. Exercising at high altitude mean that just putting one foot in front of the other requires a concerted effort. Getting in and out of the sleeping bag at night left me breathless.

The next day was a “rest day” so we went straight up the nearest mountain for 500 meters in the mist as part of “acclimatisation “. Our lodge was in a valley and the sherpas were farming veggies and looking after their yaks. We urged Wayne to go for excellent photo opportunities into an adjacent field where there was a fierce looking hairy yak bull which chased everybody in sight , but by now we all had a healthy respect for these beasts. Wayne has an alter ego, in another life he would like to be a paparazzi. Don’t fall asleep anywhere in public because Wayne will snap you, careful where you go to the toilet because Wayne is lurking behind a wall with an itchy finger on the trigger.

The next day we trekked through a wide beautiful valley covered in wild flowers with fantastic views of Cholatse and Tawache with the mist lingering on the lower slopes. The path then snaked steeply through the boulders of the Khumbu Glacier terminal moraine. Here there is a site with many stone cairns built in memory of many of the climbers and Sherpas who have died on Mount Everest. We followed the glacier to Lobuche , a rather bleak collection of huts at the foot of the Lobuche Ice Fall. Now we were at 4,300 meters and it was noticeably colder which didn’t stop the students going for a swim and wash in the ice cold stream.

In the early mornings helicopters came up the valley taking people on sightseeing trips, collecting injured or sick trekkers or delivering goods. They were a spectacular sight ; one time we watched as a helicopter did loops in the air to gain height to pass over the glacial moraine. Imagine our surprise later when we learned that Nico had taken a flip , he probably passed over the top of us as we puffed and panted up the hills.

On our trek we kept pace with other trekker parties from all over the world. Five Czech men and women were on a Do It Yourself trek with the aid of the Lonely Planet Trekking guide to Nepal , carrying their 17kilo packs up there themselves. Jana, one of the group, told me that she preferred to spend her money on trekking around the world rather than on a mortgage . She would work, save money and go off trekking again but her parents worried about her. Lakshika , a single girl from India, had hired a guide and was doing the trek on her own. She said she preferred doing it that way without having to bother about other people and their problems. She had very understanding , liberal parents because Indian girls are normally restricted in what they can and can’t do.

There were lots of Chinese, many of them spitting images of my students at Maritzburg. A few times I nearly shouted, “Hey Zoe, hey Marco what are you doing here? “ The girls were all identical , covered from head to toe in trekking gear even when it was hot ; big cowboy hats , a scarf across their faces ,a huge pair of round glasses , gloves and knee guards on the outside of their trousers, giant cameras , all wending their knock kneed way up the mountains with the aid of walking poles.

Then there the Aussies, we gave them a hard time as we had just thumped them at rugby as well as cricket earlier in the year. They didn’t like it, but they’re quick to dish it out when they win, so I felt nothing. Other groups from UK were also walking to raise funds for deserving causes, hospice, heart foundation and prostate cancer amongst others. We met Nepalese trekkers who put us in touch with the author of a book on rhino poaching in Nepal but unfortunately we had no time to meet up later. An Aussie lady and her daughter were trekking to distant lakes with the aid of a porter they had hired. They trek in the region every year. Everyone had one thing in common, a love of adventure and trekking in high places. The rhino suits caused lots of interest, particularly Elmien on her horse, and we became well known on the route.

The next day was the final push, following the Khumbu Glacier up to Gorakshep. Trekking was hard up there at 5000 meters and when we reached our destination at lunch time I made the decision to sleep in the afternoon rather than go to Everest base camp. I thought about it for a while and then decided to give it a bash; it would have been a mistake to go all that way and cop out at the end. I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I started earlier because the younger guys were walking faster than me. The path follows the Khumbu Glacier and up there it’s wild and barren and like a moonscape. The ice is covered by rocks but there are glacial lakes with ice cliffs and every now and again the deep and threatening sound of an avalanche. One more hill, one more bend and we were finally at base Camp .

The route up Everest can clearly be seen with the summit sitting behind the twin peaks of Nuptse and Lhotse. We had made it. Photos, high fives and a good feeling of achievement. I couldn’t help thinking about the men and women over the years who had stayed months at the base camp and then gone on higher to climb the peak. Putting up with no showers for weeks, melting snow for water , illness, effects of altitude, bad and cold weather and the climb itself requiring courage , strength , technical ability and above all else a strong determination to succeed. I take my hat off to them. One in two people of my age, 60 and above, die attempting the summit. Over 200 people have died on the mountain and many of their bodies are still up there.

During the night it snowed and the next morning we set off in the dark at 04.00 to climb Kala Pattha. Higher up we could see lights snaking up the mountain as we set off through the snow. The temperature was -5C and fingers and toes were numb. Simon set a good pace , afterwards he said he gauged it by the sound of my breathing and I just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other to keep up with him .After scrambling over rocks covered in ice we arrived at the top, 5,545 meters high and the climax of the trek. The sky lightened and we waited for the first of the sun’s rays to hit the mountain tops. We were literally at the top of the world with Everest right across the valley and surrounded 360 degrees by soaring snow covered peaks. Photos were taken, hands shaken and all too soon with the sun now strong and bright we descended through the snow for breakfast.

All we had to do now was descend in 3 days the 75 kilometres we had already covered. We started in bright sunshine with the snow melting off the roofs but later the weather changed and a strong cold wind started to blow across the valley. I was caught out and had only packed my rain jacket in my rucksack. The only thing was to walk as fast as possible to keep warm. It was here I made my first mistake and followed the Irish group down the wrong path and eventually one of the sherpas came panting up and pointed me in the right direction. Never follow the Irish anywhere.

So it was back the way we had come and up and down the hills and valleys. The highest suspension bridge is built over the top of one considered unsafe and condemned. Simon and Wayne had just crossed over the high bridge and were resting on the other side. “There’s some idiot crossing the unsafe bridge, hang on it’s Dad “How I came to cross the wrong bridge I’ve no idea.

Mistake 3 came at lunch time, I walked on and on and felt decidedly grumpy that the group hadn’t stopped for lunch. After a while it dawned on me that I must have walked right past the lunch stop ; by now I was tired and slowing down so I stopped at the next shop , went inside , sat down and had a coke and Mars bar. It must have been at that time that Duncan, who had been despatched to find me, must have run past and turned round and run back. So feeling refreshed I started again and then one of our sherpas found me. I told him to turn round, tell the guys I was OK and continuing on to Lukla. Eventually I heard a shout, “You bastard ! “ and there was Simon and Wayne walking full speed down the path. By then we were nearly at Lukla and in deteriorating weather we made it to the Guest House and put our feet up. The end of the trek.

The airport had been closed all that day due to bad weather and the following day proved to be the same. It was there that I discovered that Simon and Michael were bar billiard champions; they took on all comers in the Irish and Scotch pubs and beat everyone. Being good at snooker or billiards is a sign of a misspent youth and Simon admitted that he and his friend used to play after Tech in their student days in Cape Town. We spent the day shopping, drinking coffee at Starbucks and checking out the weather every half hour.

The next day was a little clearer and suddenly there was the sound of a plane’s roar landing at the airport. There was a mad rush to the airport and an almighty clamour at the check in desks to get on a plane. We were very aptly given prayer flags by our Sherpas .This is where being in a group pays off and our fixer and mover had the bags checked in, piled on to a trolley , boarding cards issued and then we were through security and waiting for our flights. We watched awe struck as decrepit looking fully loaded planes struggled up the short rise to the top of the runway , turned round , revved to full throttle and then seemingly hurled themselves down the runway and off the end into the abyss. The most disconcerting thing is that the whole town turns out to watch the planes land and take off, all with cameras and videos at the ready to capture the film of the century of a plane crash.

All too soon it was our turn. We were held on the tarmac, the plane landed, taxied to a halt, shaky passengers got off, bags off, new bags on, we were rushed on to the plane, doors shut , smart stewardess gave us a sweetie and we were off trundling up the incline. Simon closed his eyes and put his head on the seat back in front of him. Elmien grabbed my hand and then we were off, roaring down the runway with the drop off at the end getting closer and closer. Then we were up and away and the relief was palpable. Actually the flight was fantastic if you could forget about possible accidents as we skimmed so close to the mountain tops watching the Nepalese working in the fields, villages and rice paddies sculptured on the hillsides. We were so close you could see the whites of their eyes. And then we were back in Kathmandu with another rip roaring landing.

We had two part days in Kathmandu, enough time to do some shopping and go to the Botanical Gardens. Four of us crammed into an old beat up Japanese mini car taxi and fought our way through the traffic with streaming eyes and gasping lungs. The gardens are a quiet oasis amongst a traffic maelstrom, certainly past their best and a reminder of long gone colonial days. The four of us suffered afterwards with chest and cold infection, a souvenir of Kathmandu and its’ traffic pollution.

The flight from Kathmandu to Dubai was filled with mainly young, small Nepalese male migrant workers travelling to become part of the poorly paid, unskilled , abused labour force in Dubai for building the new developments there. Nepal has a population of 25 million, half of whom are illiterate and of whom about 2.5 million live in the Kathmandu area under very densely populated conditions. The majority of the population are subsistence farmers and the population continues to double every 30 years. We who were born in the affluent West are very privileged. The world has a population of over 7 billion, 80% live in poor housing , 50% don’t have enough food , 24% have no electricity and most of the other 76% only use it at night , only 7% have access to the internet and only 1% have a college education. The world population is expected to grow to between 8.3 billion and 10.9 billion by 2050 , the densest population is in Asia. It’s hard to see how the world can sustain this population growth.

This was a wonderful adventure and thank you to my great travelling companions and their worthy cause. Rhinos continue to be poached in large numbers and face imminent extinction. We saw fantastic natural sights as well as wonderful local culture and friendly, helpful, peaceful people living in difficult conditions. Whether the Everest region tourist capability is sustainable is also questionable. In the meantime I would recommend any adventurous, moderately fit person to go and trek to Everest base camp; it’s a truly wonderful experience.

Roger Naylor November 2013

Everest Base Camp 2013 Part 1

Everest Base Camp 2013

This trek was organised by Pretoria University male residence students as a fund raising exercise for Save the Rhino. The students set a target of R100, 000 to raise by sponsorship from companies, schools, organisations and individuals and far exceeded that by raising close to R160, 000. Three full rhino suits were made and were worn by everyone in turns on the trek. This was a bonus when we reached high ground but lower down, when it was hot, proved to be somewhat uncomfortable. Altogether the party was made up of 15 and consisted of students, mothers, fathers, and wild life conservators. Ages ranged from 21 to 68 and a big plus for me was to do it with Simon who was representing and Beyond.

We started with a day’s tour of Kathmandu which I had visited two years earlier. We stayed in Thamel , an attractive area catering for trekkers and tourists with alleyways crowded with travel agents, restaurants, gift and trekking  shops  where one can kit oneself out with gear for a fraction of the price in South Africa. A first visit to the city comes as a culture shock; it feels like one has been immersed into a kaleidoscope of sounds, sights and smells. The traffic is a nightmare of old small Japanese cars , luxury SUV’s, beaten up buses ,bicycle rickshaws, scooters weaving in and out , sometimes loaded with whole families ,most of whom don’t wear crash helmets and all thrust onto narrow pot –holed lanes winding through the centre of the city. Mix this in with cows, packs of very bold dogs, pedestrians ranging from small kids on their way to school, women in brightly coloured saris, and shops opening straight on to the street selling everything from baths to yak meat. Overall is the on-going sound of car horns being used continuously and fumes which make one’s eyes water and chest tighten up. Surely one day this city will become grid locked as more and more cars and scooters pour on to the road. The most impressive thing is that you don’t see aggravation or road rage like on our roads, people just accept the situation and get on with it.

We visited Durbar Square, Bouddhanth and Swayanbhunath stupas that I had visited before. The temples are not sterile, dark cloistered buildings like our churches and cathedrals but lively active places where people sell souvenirs, turn prayer wheels, make offerings at shrines, prostrate themselves in worship and allow monkeys and dogs to run riot. Then we visited a small factory where Tibetan ladies hand spun and wove traditional carpets. Afterwards we went to Pushapatinath where the Hindus cremate their dead. By custom the cremation is carried out within 3 hours of death, the body is not taken out through the front door but a hole is knocked out through a wall. The body is wrapped in orange and first the feet are dipped in the river before being put on the pyre. The head of the family must conduct and start the fire by placing the torch into the mouth of the deceased. Friends and family watch, and the head of the family has to have his head shaven and eventually the body remains are tipped into the river after about 3 hours on the pyre. We saw children in the river searching the remains for gold teeth or rings. Then a young boy stripped and dived into the river and was swimming around next to the burning bodies. Afterwards the family have to adhere to a strict protocol for a number of months. It’s shocking for us Westerners to see this ceremony for the first time , I won’t forget the images of burning bodies , the  pall of smoke rising into the sky, relatives and friends crowded next to the river , holy men and just general hangers on watching from the other bank . Our guide said that in the East people have time but no money whilst in the West we have money but no time. But we do tend to shy away from death whilst the Hindus meet it head on in all its starkness.

Next morning it was off to Kathmandu airport for THE flight to Lukla. The internal terminal is a bit of a free for all, firstly you are greeted by many porters grabbing your bags and making off with them towards the terminal. They all want a tip of course and we worked out that Wayne must be the only tourist ever to negotiate $2 off a porter for carrying his bag. Then it’s general mayhem; luckily we had a fixer and mover who smoothed the way and no doubt back handed us on to the plane. We drove out to the tarmac on a bus and then took bets on which dilapidated plane the bus was going to stop at. Finally it drew up next to this circa 1st World War jobbie which was stuffed with newspaper on the wings and minus one engine. There was much moaning and gnashing of teeth but then the real plane came forward. It was a Dornier; those things that used to drop bombs on London in the 2nd world war! So we got on board and by then were becoming slightly hysterical. The plane had a flight attendant who squeezed past us, handed out a sweet each then sat at the back looking quite unconcerned. The take-off and flight were fine and we had wonderful views of the high Himalayas but then we started our landing procedure to Lukla. We had all watched YouTube clips which were very frightening but the real thing was much, much scarier. In case you don’t know it Lukla is the number 1 most dangerous airport in the world. It’s on the side of the mountain with a runway 400 meters long which ends in a wall with the mountain side behind it. It has the worst crash record in the world. The pilot did  a Stuka like dive down to the runway, hit the ground hard, jammed on brakes and reverse thrust and then  headed for the wall. At the last minute he did a hard turn to the right and screeched to a halt in front of the terminal amongst a huge round of applause from the passengers. Then it was  all out as quick as you can with a policeman blowing his whistle  , bags off , next lot on , and then it turned on a shoe string and haired off down the runway and dropped  off the end  and slowly gained height.

In the afternoon we started our trek. The red duffle bags were loaded on to yaks leaving us with a day bag to carry. The yak is a hairy beast of burden and has often been bred with cattle to form a cow like animal but with a large pair of horns. They really pant hard going up the steep hills. Our trek to Everest base camp took 8days up and 3 days down and went from a height of 2,840 meters to 5,545 meters. The trek went up hills and down to valley bottoms to allow us to pass over high suspension bridges over roaring torrents. We also spent time for acclimatization at different heights and this gradual ascent together with taking the drug Diamox helped us to combat altitude sickness. This helps breathing with the lack of Oxygen at high altitude but is a diuretic meaning that one urinates prodigious amounts. It made me feel like an 18 year old again, no dribbles but more like a waterfall or Lisa’s horse. But it’s not so good in the middle of the night when in the desperate rush to get to the toilet one passes other like-minded souls stumbling about down long dark corridors    before an accident occurred.

The pace of the trek was fairly leisurely and this allowed Simon and Wayne to bird watch and linger at the back and then catch us up later. This certainly added another dimension to their trek. One lunchtime Simon fell asleep with his Nepalese bird book next to him and a tiny girl trekker from Malaysia crept up and started quietly thumbing through the book. Simon woke up with a start and she jumped about 5 meters in the air, a bit like” Who’s been eating my porridge?”  She had videotaped a bird she’d seen and they were able to identify it. She desperately wanted to see the Danfe , a colourful Partridge  which is the national bird of Nepal, and the guys had seen it that morning and told her where to look . She went away very happy.

Generally trekking follows a pattern; we started walking at about 8 am after breakfast and carried on until lunch time at about 12.00. After a lunch hour we continued walking until about 3-4pm when we stopped for the night. The weather also had a pattern, clear and bright in the morning and then gradually wispy like clouds would form around the base of the mountains and gradually rise up to cover the peaks. In the afternoons it would darken, become colder and threaten rain but we were lucky and only walked a couple of times in light drizzle. Here I enjoyed my umbrella but was mocked profusely by Wayne: everybody knows that an English gentleman always carries a brolly in case of a shower, even in the Himalayas.

We started walking through forests with distant views of snow-capped mountains, crossing backwards and forwards across raging glacial rivers, over high suspension bridges. People waited on the far side of the highest ones to watch and photograph Simon cross in a kind of scuttle rush, neither looking to the left or right and definitely not downwards. We had great faith in these bridges until we saw one that had collapsed into the river. Often we had to wait for heavily loaded yaks to cross from the other side, at other times one would get about half way then see Sherpas carrying things like beds walking towards one on the narrow bridge. Then it’s a question of squeezing past, leaning far out over the raging river far below, to get by. Sometimes there were log jams of yaks, donkeys, porters and trekkers all trying to cross the bridge at the same time from both sides.

Although we could walk at our own pace we had at times to do some serious uphill climbing for 2 hours at a time and in the rarefied atmosphere it was hard going. We had two so called “rest days” but we were in for a nasty shock. In each case as part of the process we climbed adjacent mountains and went straight up about 500 meters zig zagging our way up lung busting hills, all in the name of acclimatisation .

Nico, unfortunately had to descend, as he was struggling to adapt to the altitude. We saw other trekkers being air lifted out by helicopter with severe altitude sickness.

We stayed in guest houses and these tended to be fairly similar. Built with stone walls , hacked out and laid by hand , with hardboard interior walls , all carried up by porters , and  a large central dining room and rudimentary bed rooms and washing and toilet facilities . Lower down one could have a hot shower at a price but higher up it was wet wipes and brushing teeth with ice cold water. The food was excellent right through the trip, we ate vegetarian with noodles, local bread, potatoes, curries and pizzas to keep us fuelled up.  I must say that by the end of the tour I was fantasising about steak  chips and onion rings and singing the Peter Sellers  and Sophie Loren classic ,” Give us a bash at the bangers and mash me muvver used to make”

Tourism is booming in the Everest region , we were right at the beginning of the trekking season so we found generally we had the lodges to our selves , but on the way down we could see a large increase in the number of trekkers. This has put a strain on the Sherpa homeland. The retreat of glaciers is resulting in a lack of water for agriculture and tourism and with more and more lodges being built there’s a question mark over the sustainability of tourism in the region.

On the third day we reached Namche Bazaar , the centre of Sherpa life. This is a lively place with shops, pubs and coffee houses but not so conducive for strolling about as the main street is a seriously steep thoroughfare.

The next morning we were woken by the sound of running booted feet down the corridor and banging on our door by the hugely enthusiastic Wayne.” Wake up, come and look at this, quick , quick “ This became a feature of every morning ; reluctantly we peered out of the widow but the sight was truly spectacular. The sun was rising over the snow-capped mountains with the first rays  touching the highest peak and then moving slowly down the flanks. We sat outside and had cups of hot, delicious Masala tea and watched and heard the monks being summoned to prayers by the mountain horns at the monastery on the hill. They started with the large deep horns and progressed to smaller higher pitched ones, the sounds echoing across the valley. After they stopped a saffron robed late sleeper monk came dashing down the hill trying to make prayers on time, it happens everywhere , even with monks. Later in the afternoon I visited the monastery and it was a special day where the monks and nuns were finishing reciting their prayers, written out beautifully in their script on manuscripts. The village people were sitting in the middle and I joined the men on one side. Ladies kept filling up my mug with Masala tea; it was very pleasant to sit there and be accepted by the local people. This is not like our Western churches , it’s very informal; whilst the monks are reciting their prayers the people are chatting away ten to the dozen , even one deaf guy communicating with his neighbour using his cell phone to write down what he wanted to say. Plates were brought out for a meal and I deemed it time to move out. One of the ladies took me to the visitors centre and then I chatted to her for awhile. She had been born in the village, educated in the local schools and spoke good English.  She said that anyone lucky enough to be part of the tourist industry was doing well but otherwise the huge majority of the 24million people were very poor.

That morning was the first of our “rest day” hikes up to the helicopter landing pad and hotel and the guys then had an impromptu cricket match, with Nepal thrashing South Africa. I slept through the entire proceedings. Wayne got caught short and had a negotiation with the guy at the hotel who told him that if it was a number 1 then he could go in the bush but if it was a number 2 it would cost him R10 to use the loo. Wayne didn’t have much choice so duly paid up but then boasted that he’d had the highest dump amongst us. It was a record that was bound to be beaten as we went higher. It was here we caught our first sight of Everest on the horizon far away etched high in the blue sky.