Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas in the desert

Leaving Delhi is no wrench - it’s big, bustling and whatever other overused adjective used to describe Indian cities you want to throw in there, they all fit - but it’s not a place destined to live in my memory. From Delhi I go west taking an 18 hour train from Delhi all the way to Jaisalmer near the Pakistani border and on the fringes of the Thar desert. Nights are cold, very cold in sleeper class and the fact that windows just won’t stay closed makes the problem worse. Worst of all though is the fact that, given the barracks-like nature of sleeping class carriages, you’re going to have a vast array of snorers, each with their own distinctive style. Together they seem to co-ordinate themselves so that you’re left with one long unbroken snore. Nights are very long on the train.

Jaisalmer train station is 2km from the city and so as you walk in you get to see the sandstone fort (well, this close to the desert it's unlikely to be made from granite) towering over the city and it’s a beautiful sight. All the guide books recommend that you opt not to stay in the fort because it’s crumbling at an alarming rate due to the overuse of water within the fort walls. Basically it’s a drainage issue - the overused water is leaking into the fort’s foundations causing them to crumble significantly in recent years. It’s now on the Most Endangered Sites list, nothing to boast about but the residents seem to be in denial. There are some 2,000 permanent residents - mostly Brahmins - inside operating guesthouses, restaurants, bookshops and all the usual souvenir shops so they‘re in the unfortunate position of needing people to stay at their guesthouse in the knowledge that this is damaging the very fort which attracts the guests in the first place.

In Jaisalmer I find the cheapest guesthouse of the entire trip - 80 INR - but at that price there has to be a snag and there is - the place is a dump, which, as snags go, is quite a significant one but I only need a bed for two nights so it’s good for me. Jaisalmer is the gateway to the Thar desert and most people who come do the tourist thing and get into the desert on a camel chasing that Lawrence of Arabia feeling. You can spend anything from a half-day to three weeks (strictly for those who don’t want children in the future) on safari and there are, as ever, operators on every street corner and everywhere in between offering to take the tourist to the non-touristed areas. Which then means that when they all go the non-touristed areas, everyone meets there hoping to avoid each other. I’m pretty sure this won’t be the case on Christmas Day.

The basic package includes your own camel (one hump, not two), food, water (handy in the desert) and desert style accommodation underneath a blanket of stars lying on the sand. Trotter’s office, where I book my safari, is plastered with alluring images of camels silhouetted on gigantic sand dunes and so I can’t wait to get going. Besides, there’ll be other people on the safari and no-one wants to spend Christmas Day on their own, right?

Except there aren’t any other people as, clearly, I’m the only one daft or sad enough to want to spend Christmas Day in the desert. My guide is Leeloo and my camel’s name is Khan which I’m not likely to forget as the words ‘MY NAME KHAN’ are written down the length of this neck. No doubt if he was a giraffe, Khan would have a longer name. Unsurprisingly I’ve never been on a camel before - though I was bitten by one once before in Australia - and so I have no idea what to expect. There are no instructions - camels don’t have a clutch - so I throw my leg over the saddle and Khan gets himself off the ground. Camels ascend and descend in four movements so getting up and down is akin to being on a bucking bronco - you just need to hold on tight. And then we’re off into the desert.

Now, when you think of the word ‘desert’, you probably get the same mental picture as I do which is not what the Thar desert is like at all. There are little or no Saharan dunes and lots and lots of flat, barren scrub. It is not pretty. It’s sort of like being promised Kerry and being taken to Longford instead. Well, maybe not quite that bad.

In the afternoon things perk up when I’m joined by two others who help to break the monotony - Penny and Alex from South Africa - who clearly have nothing else to do this Christmas Day either. We spend the night in ‘The Dunes’ - a solitary stretch of sand piled somewhat incongruously in the midst of the scrub. Within seconds of arriving there, the ‘Beer Man’ appears, mirage-like from the sands, a Balthasaresque figure bearing his gifts on this most auspicious of days. Beers cost 150 INR in the desert and the ‘Beer Man’ knows he has the market to himself and will not haggle. Still, what’s Christmas Day without a beer or two? Also, his beers are ice cold so what’s not to like? We sit around a campfire for the night, drinking our overpriced but precious beer and listening to our two guides sing traditional Rajasthani songs, and crash as soon as the wood we’ve plundered from the desert runs out. It turns out to have been a wonderful Christmas Day in the end. Really, who needs Quality Street and It’s A Wonderful Life when you can have camel flatulence and sand in your sleeping bag?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas y'all!

Chose the above image because it's what I'll be doing for Christmas Day this year. I have no intentions of following any stars but I will be spending Xmas and Stephen's Day on camel back in the Thar desert somewhere far from civilisation. This is what they do in Jaisalmer and since there's bugger all else to do in the city tomorrow, I figure that I'm as well of in the sand being a proper tourist for once. I also get to sleep under the stars which will be cold but, as Christmas nights go, special. Special Christmas wishes to all the family at home who might be reading this tomorrow - they'd better be - and who have hopefully overindulged in everything today! Merry Christmas.

Personal Space

There is no such thing as personal space in India. You’re sharing a country with over one billion people - deal with it. The all too literal bump and grind is part of what makes this country what it is. It’s fascinating for me though to watch how people can be so oblivious to granting one another - and, well, me - even the slightest space. Take queues in India for example (the word ’queue’ in India means an orderly line of people who will break ranks in a headlong rush at the last moment, the discipline involved in standing still for so long ultimately proving too much) - standing in the line at the train station for a ticket will definitely mean being dry humped from the rear by an Indian guy who’s climbing over your shoulder to get closer to the window. And he’s only behind you because there are barriers to either side to prevent him from strolling past you, oblivious to your presence.
Fortunately I’ve been blessed with peculiarly pointy elbows and I am not afraid to use them, so as I queue and there’s a guy behind practically panting like a dog in heat in my ear, it suddenly becomes urgent that I adjust the straps on my bag so that Fido behind me gets it in the solar plexus, which only deadens his ardour momentarily. And the closer you get to the ticket window, the more you resemble this with arms reaching over your shoulders and heads peeking through your arms and legs. That childlike excitement on Christmas Eve feeling overwhelms people here when the front of the queue is in sight.
The other thing about Indian queues is that if you’re supposed to be standing in line and there are no barriers there to guide where you should be standing, just forget about it. Westerners are clearly invisible to Indians, who stroll past you just as you’re about to buy your stamp or ask when the next train to Kolkata isn’t leaving. If you get annoyed at this and express your anger to the teller, it won’t make any difference because, unfortunately, you’re invisible to the teller too. It’s a double bind.
I went to the post office to buy some stamps today and there were four tellers behind the counters with not one other customer to be seen in the place. I stood before each of them in turn, making plenty of noise as I did, but all to no avail as they each ignored me. Finally a guy behind the counter who looked like he might be management shouted “What do you want?” in the same tone of voice you might expect from someone if they found you squatting on their toilet and reading the Indian Times.
But best of all are the queues at the metro. There, the cosmetic process of actually standing in a line happens - the queuing equivalent of the sawing a lady in half trick. So by the platform you’ll see wonderfully ordered lines of seemingly patient people waiting for their train to arrive. And then when the train arrives, just like a dropped Coke bottle, as soon as the doors of the train open, chaos reigns, the lines break and it’s every man, woman and child for themselves. Everyone piles into the train before the passengers disembarking have had a chance to extricate themselves. Yup, very amusing to watch but no fun to caught up in when you’ve got a backpack on and you’re the one trying to get off.

To Delhi

The original plan, after Varanasi, was a train trip east to visit Kolkata. Train travel in India is a wonderful thing and purchasing tickets is largely a hassle free experience, especially so when buying tickets online which is a very straightforward process. But although buying the ticket is easy, having the train actually turn up is another thing entirely. On arrival at Varanasi station to take the sleeper train to Kolkata the other day, I listened as it was announced that the train would be delayed for 14 hours which meant one more night in Varanasi - certainly not the end of the world. It did mean searching for a railway station hotel, never a pleasant task. I was turned away from that many full hotels that I had to check the date to make sure that it wasn’t actually Christmas Eve.

The following morning the latest news on the Kolkata Express was that it had now become a 20 hour delay and so I decided, fuck it, I’ll go to Delhi instead. And so I did. That train to Kolkata probably still hasn’t arrived.

On the overnight train I share a compartment with a French guy who’s come to India to hone his sitar playing skills and a German architect who’s very excited at the prospect of checking out Chandigarh’s architecture which I can’t work out is either an example of extreme dedication to the trade or just plain sad. Either way, the three of us decide to look for a room in Pahar Ganj, the heart of the budget accommodation in Delhi and conveniently located right outside the train station. Pahar Ganj’s accommodation options remind me of Hong Kong’s Chunking Mansions and that’s no compliment - the cheaper places vary in quality from flea pit to cess pit. The first place we view costs 170 INR a night but it has the mildewed air of a place that even the local vermin would shy away from. We end up in the extravagantly named Hotel Decent which, it’s fair to say, is an exaggeration. The furniture in the room has nestled in the corner as if someone had lifted the room, tilted it to one side and allowed it to settle there. The window comes in two parts, both of which are broken but it costs us 200 INR (€3) a night so it’s a done deal.

There is much to be seen in Delhi and, wanting to spend as little time in our hotel room as possible, I head off on the tourist trail. First stop is the absolutely pointless commercial hub of Connaught Place. Featuring a smorgasbord of cinemas, shops, restaurants, banks and bars, it’s best seen in passing on your way down to Rajpath to the south and even then only fleetingly. Rajpath is one of those typically impressive wide boulevards which stretches, Champs Elysée style, from the uber-British Secretariat buildings at one end down to India Gate - a war memorial - at the other. The Secretariat buildings, though impressive from a distance, remind me, as do all buildings of their type, of that quote in Shrek when they first see Lord Farquaad’s enormous castle and Shrek asks: “Do you think he’s compensating for something?” Yes, impressive but, yawn, seen them before many, many times.

Old Delhi is found to the north east of Connaught Square and it’s where I’ve spent most of my time in Delhi. The city has its own perfectly functioning metro system - no doubt finished off in time for the recent Commonwealth Games - and yet I found the city compact enough to be able to walk around for the most part. Old Delhi involves more walking than most areas because its mazy bazaars are designed to make losing yourself very simple indeed. Both the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid mosque are found here also and are both equally stunning.

Now that I’ve been in Delhi for 3 days, following on from my 4 days in Varanasi, I already know which distinctive smell will forever in my mind evoke images of India. And that smell is? Piss. It’s everywhere. Indian males have a piss on sight policy and have no difficulty whatsoever in lashing it out when the need arises regardless if this is on a rarely visited side street or a main thoroughfare - if you have to go, then you have to go seems to be the prevailing mentality. And because of this the distinctive Eau d’India is omnipresent.

One thing is certain - and I’m sure this probably isn’t the same for everyone who comes here - but India will not make me a more pleasant person. Because of the forewarnings regarding hassles and scams and because of previous personal experience etc, I walk around the streets with the bullet-proof demeanour of a man who will not encourage chit-chat of any kind because it invariably leads to “You come to my shop? Just looking.” Besides, I make a point of never talking to anyone whose opening gambit is ‘Yo man, what’s up?’, regardless of what country I’m in. But the flip side of that is that you’re never sure of when somebody actually wants to engage you in conversation. For instance, this evening as I made my way back to the hotel I fell into conversation with a man from Bhutan (so he claimed). We chatted as we both made our way in the same direction and I waited for the inevitable request to view his shop/give him a donation for a Buddhist school back at home/buy a set of 10 postcards etc but when we parted, it never came and my rigid determination to avoid small talk at all costs weakened somewhat. I’ll be back to being a bastard tomorrow though. It’s easier.


When travellers speak of India it’s always with that irritating knowingness which suggests that, though you may have travelled widely, you’ve never experienced anything like India. And whether or not that’s true, to hear it repeated, mantra-like, inevitably chips away at my own belief that, whilst it may have its own eccentricities, it is just another country. Isn’t it? What people are getting at when they talk about India is the intensity of the experience. Well, we’ll see. If first impressions are anything to go by then the border patrol is as benign as border patrols get - upon arrival in the ‘office‘, there are five Indian gents enjoying a mid-afternoon chai as one instructs me on how to fill out the customs form whilst dabbing away pastry crumbs from the corners of his mouth. Welcome to India indeed.

First stop Varanasi. And it’s ancient, but uniquely and wonderfully so unlike Cairo, say, which is ancient and a dump. The old city looks as if it’s just emerged from the aftermath of a tsunami, red shit and dust clinging to every building in the old town. And there are people everywhere, a fact exaggerated by the city’s narrow, labyrinthine streets which are amusingly impossible to follow.

It quickly becomes clear to me that younger Indian men have adopted an unofficial uniform which at least 50% of them wear. It features all of the following; a pair of bell-bottomed pants, a vividly coloured mohair tank-top with added sparkly bits and finished off with a shirt which clashes best with the aforementioned tank-top. It’s like walking into a Bollywood version of Boogie Nights. With last week’s bomb blast in Varanasi, or with the appeal of wintering in the warmth of Goa to the south, westerners are few and far between here. Those that are here are of the Carlos Castaneda variety, bedecked in love-beads and kaftans and who’ve clearly come to India to lose themselves. This will be easy in Varanasi's back streets so they're in the right place.

And that red shit I see on the ground everywhere isn‘t actually blood, it‘s paan. To the uninitiated, the sight of all adult Indian males spewing globules of red shit projectile-like from their mouths on to the street, is potentially a disturbing sight. What they’re doing is getting rid of the paan which they’ve been chewing as an after meal digestive or stimulant. Paan-wallahs, the men who make it all happen, (paan handlers would be more apt surely?) are to be found everywhere and they’re in huge demand judging by the pools of red gunk to be seen splattered all over the streets. Paan contains nut, katha (which gives paan its red colour), chuna (slaked white lime) and, frequently, zarda (chewing tobacco). This is all wrapped in a leaf, made into a triangular wedge and shoved into the mouth for enjoyment of the users and the disgust of others. It leaves all Indian males who chew it with a teeth stain that’s a hundred times worse than red wine. It isn’t a good look.

Varanasi, of course, is a place where Indians come to die by the Ganges and, for the outsider, it makes for a thrilling spectacle. The riverside is dominated by the flights of steps or ghats and it’s here that, each morning, Varanasians come to bathe. In fact the Ganges serves as laundrette, toilet, bathroom and, judging by the state of the water, a dump for the locals. To the locals its waters are an elixir, to me it has the appearance of an outside toilet.

The belief in this most religious of Indian cities is that death here offers instant enlightenment, hence the cremation rituals by the ghats. And it really is an enthralling spectacle. Most of the cremation happens at Manikarnika ghat and it’s an unmistakable place, both because of the vast wood piles which fuel the pyres and for the smell of charred skin. The bodies - and there are several, brought with frightening regularity from the streets of the old town by stretcher (you hear them chanting Police Academy style before they appear)- are stripped of their ceremonial robes, left shrouded in a white cloth and place upon the pyre. One of the family members lights the fire and that’s it. The most thankless job here is that of the men responsible for stoking the fires. I watched once as one of them got his stick, placed it carefully under the head of a burning corpse, flipped it over like a marshmallow as the body snapped in half. There’s a definite absence of mourning here, in fact, there exists almost an air of celebration that the ashes will be returned to the Ganges. And for those who find the whole ritual strange, is it really any stranger than placing a body in an expensive wooden box, digging a 6 foot hole and burying it?

Farewell Kathmandu

Right then, time to get out of here. It’s been two months now in Nepal. Two months! Where the hell has that gone?! As much as I have loved my time in Nepal it is most definitely time for me to move on. I’m overly familiar with Kathmandu - the shops, the narrow streets, the dust and shit, the irritating fucker who stands in the same place on the same street and has approached me each day - Groundhog Day-like - for the past 2 months to ask if I’ll buy a flute (yes, a fucking flute) from him, the street kids on Thamel Chowk with their brown bags of glue and thousand yard stares and everything else that makes Kathmandu the place that it is. When I got here on October 21st, you couldn’t swing a fake pashmina scarf in the street in the evenings, thronged as they were with westerners clad in fake North Face gear preparing to hit the trails. Now it’s a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show as when I go back to that same hole-in-the-wall to get my falafel roll each evening, there’s hardly anyone around save for the usual faces selling Es and whizz and whatever it is you’re having yourself.

I’ve learned much about Nepal in the past while, more than anything is the fact that no matter how the country attempts to move forward, its political system keeps it deeply mired in a recession of its own making. If Nepal is world leader in anything then it’s the cutting off its nose to spite its face stakes. The average shelf life of a government here is 9 months and during the life of each government nothing constructive is achieved because those 9 months of power are spent trying to survive virulent opposition from the recently deposed regime. It’s a vicious circle the country seems to have been struggling with ever since the 2001 massacre of the royal family and so while the country shares borders with the nascent superpowers of India to the south and China to the north, Nepal continues to make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.

Its difficulties are best portrayed by the fact that, in a country which has enough hydro-electric power potential to serve not only its own needs adequately, but enough besides to export to India where there is a huge potential market, Kathmandu endures 16 hour daily power cuts. The infrastructure in the country is largely non-existent - road construction seems to be constantly ongoing but it’s not clear to me whether the roads are being dug up to improve them or leave them in their present state of disrepair. And it’s those roads I’ll have to face one more time tomorrow as I make my way to the Indian border for 3 months in northern India.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Or Lhaaaaza as our guide refers to it. Anyway, Lhasa, as the capital of the ludicrously titled Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) - clearly the Chinese don’t understand the word autonomous - is the end point for all tours in Tibet. Lhasa had traditionally been the home to Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, until 1959 when he was forced to flee across the border to India where he resides to this day. The presence of the DL didn’t quite tally with China’s idea of a godless state and so he was not so subtly ushered off centre stage. His residence - the sublime Potala palace - towers still over all of Tibet and so the DL may be gone but is far from forgotten. Images of the DL are expressly forbidden in Tibet and people are forbidden even to discuss the man. One evening in one of the many understated Tibetan restaurants which litter the city, a drunken Tibetan who's already bought us a beer, looks around and conspiratorially whispers; "Dalai Lama". This gets the thumbs up from Jaume and I as there's little else to add.
Like excited children on Christmas morning, as soon as we arrive in Lhasa, Jaume and I impatiently make haste for a close up view of the Potala palace. On our way there is the depressing sight of dozens of gun-toting military on every street corner and in several places in between. It’s even more galling when you consider that these arseholes are patrolling the most placid and peaceful people imaginable. In Potala Square there are few Tibetans and far too many military and police. The following morning our time inside the Potala is limited to one hour - blame the Chinese again - during which we race around the various chapels and rooms as Lawa does his best to remind us of what he’s already explained on many occasions before. For me at this stage it’s all about being inside the palace.
We enjoy some unexpected and unintentional comedy in Lhasa also by visiting the Tibetan museum, a three-storey exercise in propaganda if ever there was one. There’s a poster which refers to the “the peaceful liberation of Tibet (and it’s not explained what exactly Tibet was liberated from), particularly since the reform and opening up by the tender care of the Chinese Communist party central committee”, surely the first instance anywhere of the words ‘tender’ and ‘care’ being used in conjunction with the Chinese Communist party. It’s a palatial museum with some beautiful exhibits but it’s hard not to leave there without feeling that the Chinese are masters in the field of revisionist history.
We also visit the ‘Chinatown’ part of the city, a relatively recent construction, the sole aim of which seemed to be to discomfit the Tibetans still further as the site chosen for this futile and artificial monstrosity was formerly a favourite chill out area for the Tibetans. Tellingly there are no Tibetans here other than those carrying out the menial tasks of sweeping the streets. It's the most depressing part of the trip and we escape after 10 minutes of tedium.
The most beautiful and magical part of Lhasa, for me, is Jokhang Square. On our first night there as we make our way back to our hotel, we enter the square for the first time to see a few thousand people gather in order to celebrating the second night of an annual festival. It’s a thrilling evening, not just because we watch the monks chanting from the top of Jokhang monastery but because of the Tibetan people who almost literally fall over themselves to converse with us and tell us - as if we weren’t aware - how lucky we were to be witnessing such a celebration.
Then, without warning, as we look to our right the atmosphere of peace and harmony is shattered by the sight of about 200 people running in a panic away from something in one of the streets adjoining the square. It quickly becomes a stampede but dies down again as quickly as it began and no-one’s hurt. The ridiculously heavy police presence here do nothing but watch as the drama unfolds. Given the violent events of 2008 here in Lhasa it’s little wonder that people are somewhat spooked and on edge but we remain in the dark as to what caused the initial surge.
Jokhang square is also the spiritual centre for Tibetan Buddhists who come here on a pilgrimage from the neighbouring towns and villages. Central to this is the remarkable sight of hundreds of people prostrating themselves - throwing themselves to the floor in prayer - in front of the monastery. More remarkable still is the fact that many of these pilgrims have come long distances, prostrating themselves every three steps in a remarkable show of devotion. On my last morning here making my way to the hotel just before 7am and before the sun has risen, there are already hundreds of people prostrating themselves in front of the monastery in sub-zero temperatures. Incredible people.


Tibet isn’t the easiest place to visit at any time, what with the Chinese government changing the entry regulations on a whim. I remember two years ago hoping to take a train from Beijing to Lhasa and being informed that I couldn’t enter Tibet unless, as an Irishman, I entered with a group of fellow Irish. Perplexed, I replied “So you expect me to go on to the streets of Beijing looking for random Irish people who might want to go to Lhasa?” “Yes,” came the humourless reply. Welcome to China.
Two years on and the same typically restrictive Chinese border controls now mean that you can only enter Tibet as part of a group. Naturally the restrictive nature of entry leads to a plethora of nixers, back-handers and who knows what else in order to get from A to B once inside Tibet. A little part of me dies whenever I encounter a group travelling, so having to join one was an excruciating prospect. Your first problem entering Tibet is the border crossing, a simple process made impressively difficult by the border guards. Any images of the Dalai Lama are expressly forbidden in Tibet - this, to me, in simple terms is the Chinese equivalent of a child closing its eyes and putting its fingers in its ears shouting ’Na na na na na’ and pretending that someone does not exist - and so all baggage, small and large are checked for anything which might show an image of the DL. I watched as one of group had a book which contained a tiny picture of the DL, and instead of ripping it out, the book was confiscated. Indoctrinated humourless wankers.
They’re also touchy about Taiwan. Any maps or guide books showing Taiwan as a separate state distinct from China are also confiscated, another example of the ‘I still believe that the world is flat’ bullshit mentality depressingly prevalent in this part of the world. Another example of the Chinese propensity for sticking their heads in the sand when thinking things out might actually work better is the fact that there is only one time zone in the entire country - there used to be 5 but now when Beijing gets out of bed, so does the rest of the country. If it’s good for Beijing then fuck everyone else.
Tibet is a wild and beautiful region. On our drives from town to town the landscape remains a constant of mountains far and near, and vast open spaces flecked with hidden villages built far from the admittedly impressive road which helps us cut a dash on our way to Lhasa. It’s entitled the Friendship Highway which shows that the Chinese might be intolerant but they can be ironic.
And so the Tibetans must live in a region entitled the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), a name as grandiose as it is ridiculous, and hemmed in by the Himalayan wall to the south and an autocratic Beijing regime far to the north. Under such circumstances and, given the fact that it’s winter here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Tibetans would be a browbeaten people but they’re anything but. Much put upon - to put it mildly - by Beijing for one, they seemingly go about their daily business in constant chatter and hawkish curiosity. Visiting Tibet in winter reinforces the idea that the Tibetan people live in a struggle with the land, taking from it what they can. Nothing is wasted here - the fires which burn in each Tibetan restaurant are fuelled by cow and yak dung which produces much smoke but little heat.
There are 26 of us in total in the group and, in spite of my misgivings, everyone manages to survive the 8 days together. As with any group there is the Loud Annoying One - an American as it happens - whose repertoire of jokes are about as welcome as flatulence in a lift. His penchant for wearing shoes without socks disturbed me more than his sense of humour though, a crime up there with wearing sandals and socks. There’s also the Loud Arrogant One - a Norwegian - who just falls short of donning a Viking hat in tribute to his ancestors who he’s fond of alluding to and pillaging the local villages.
Peak season for tourists in Tibet are the months of June, July and August so to be here in December with no other tourists in town gives the entire country even more of that Shangri La feeling. For instance we overnighted in the town of Gyantse and we had an entire hotel to ourselves. Things are so quiet that they don’t bother manning reception so if your toilet doesn’t flush - a very, very common occurrence here - well then it’s, quite literally, tough shit.
For the duration of the trip I room with Jaume, a fanatical Barcelona fan and our trip happens to coincide with the first El Classico of the season (that’s Barcelona vs Real Madrid for all the non-footie fans out there) and our third evening sees Jaume embark on an epic and ultimately successful crusade to watch the game at all costs - he manages to convince the owner of a nearby restaurant to throw open her doors to the two of us at 3am so that we can watch the match. In fucking Tibet! But ultimately it transpires that we manage to find the channel in our hotel room and we both wake at 4am to drink beer and watch Barcelona dismantle Real 5-0, always a pleasing sight and so avoid rousing a family of Tibetans from their sleep. During the course of the 90 minutes Jaume transforms from a pleasantly chatty and amiable Spaniard into a foaming, frothing and incandescent Catalan. It’s funny as hell to watch and something I can relate all too easily to, not that I've had anything to cheer about this year.
Our schedule is reasonably hectic and by Day 4 I’m already templed and monasteried out. Our guide, Lawa, is well versed in the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism but imparts this knowledge in the manner of a man reading out obituaries. Before long I’ve taken all I can of references to and statues of the Past, Present and Future Buddha (yes Lawa, the one with a fucking stupa on his head), the Buddha of Compassion, the Buddha with a thousand hands and eyes and, probably, the Buddha of Monday Night Football. It is wonderful to have it all explained but by Day 2 all I’m hearing is ‘Blah blah Buddah blah’.
Each day we get to experience the curiosity and shy but penetrating stares of the Tibetan people and have that all to ourselves given the fact that we‘re about the only westerners in town. But it’s a two-way street of course as the Tibetans fascinate us every bit as much as we fascinate them - their pronounced cheekbones, the men‘s remarkably pleated hair and the incredibly beautiful clothes they wear. The wonderful thing is that in spite of (or because of?) the presence of an oppressive regime, the Tibetans have clung on to their cultural identity and it makes our time outside the guided sections of the tour equally enlightening. Quite what they make of us is anyone’s guess but their constant smiles, chatter (“Welcome to Tibet”) and good humour charms everyone.
Communication is an issue as very few speak English - they do manage to not speak English in a much more friendly way than, say, the Russians though. Our visits to various Tibetan restaurants usually require one of us to enter the kitchen and point out which food we’d like to eat. A must try on arrival in Tibet is the famed yak butter tea. It’s made by adding tea leaves to hot water, then yak butter and salt are added to give it its, er, unique taste. I’m informed that it’s an acquired taste but having tried one cup, I’m certain that it’s a taste that I’ll never be acquiring.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Week 3

Our next stops after Muktinath are two of the most beautiful villages on the entire circuit - first up Kagbeni (which is often missed out by trekkers on their way to the dump that is Jomsom) and Marpha. Kagbeni charms with its Animal Farm-esque feel - the animals are seemingly in charge of everything here, running wild throughout the village. Kag also pulses with the sense that this is a living village and not just a settlement to cater for passing trekkers. This is also the case with Marpha, the self-declared 'Apple Capital of the Mustang region'. In Marpha almost everything is made with apple, well in so far as that's possible - you can try cider, brandy, crumble, pie etc etc. I venture into one of the local restaurants and sample the apple pie and, truth be told, it's a soggy mess. Marpha is also memorable for its ancient red and cream coloured brick houses. There's a cantankerous lady who owns one of them and from it runs a souvenir shop and who gets increasingly exasperated at the fact that I'm not here to shop; "Just have one look," she entreaties, her voice rising each time I pass.
Once the Pass is crossed many trekkers overnight in Muktinath and then make their way by jeep to Jomsom, and it's beyond Muktinath that the road and, consequently, vehicles (and the dust) become an issue. Fortunately though, Bhuwan knows his way around and we manage to trek high above the road at all times, only rejoining it at the end of each day's trekking. On one of the days that we trek by the road we peer down upon a village cremation ceremony and watch as the pyre is built, the body stripped and placed upon the pyre. One of the family members lights the fire as the other family members and onlookers wash themselves in the river, beside which the pyre has been lit. It felt a lot more real watching this than sitting for over an hour at Pashupatinath.
Our arrival in Tatopani is a cause for celebration as we get to soak in the village's famous hot springs and it truly feels indulgent coming on the back of two week's trekking. The following day however shatters any sense that the trek is almost over. It is the day that the trail bites back. I'm not quite sure of the distance between Tatopani and Ghorepani but what I do know is that it's a relentless slog - one stone staircase after another - of 1,700m of non-stop ascending. That's the equivalent of a Carrauntoohil, plus another 600m leg loosener at the end of the day. I've never felt worse trekking in my entire life. The first 3 hours are fine but by mid-morning my body is a busted flush and I look at Bhuwan striding ahead with a mixture of envy and resentment. We get to Ghorepani in the early afternoon and I sit downstairs, unable to bring myself to climb the one flight of stairs to my room. The following morning we trek to the summit of Poon Hill and our luck holds out again as we witness the clearest skies for sunrise and see the Annapurnas from a different perspective.
That day's trekking is unpleasant also but only because my body simply hasn't recovered from the previous day's marathon effort but come the following morning I'm back to normal again. On our penultimate day we walk for the last 15 minutes in rain, the only time in our 18 days we've gotten wet.
Our lodgings on our second last night are the grimmest of the trek. We're met by a man with the pinched expression of someone whose wife has been witholding sexual favours. I sleep that night in the common room, a place so damp that if you sit and stare at the damp patches on the walls for long enough, you'll probably see the face of Christ. Or Roy Hodgson. Or both Christ and Roy Hodgson on a cross. Hmmmm. Anyway, once again we awake to a spectacular sunrise and the fish-tailed peak of Machhapuchhre is revealed in all its glory. We trek for 2 hours that morning to Phedi where, with no little regret for yours truly, we rejoin civilisation once more. And so ends the trek to surpass all treks; the villages, the people, the lodges, the weather, the mountains, holy shit yes, the mountains. And not a blister in sight. I'll be back.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Until I began this trek I firmly believed that LOL was the most irritating acronym out there. However, having spent 2 days in Manang and with a further 3 days still until the Pass, AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) became my latest bete noire. To say that, upon arrival in Manang, people become obsessed with AMS, would be understating things slightly. Manang is the Goa or Mecca for AMS obsessives on the Annapurna circuit. You see, once a day there’s a talk on AMS which is ostensibly there to assuage the fears of trekkers - and there are many fears out there - who may be under the impression that they’re experiencing the first stages of AMS and more than a few who can't understand why they haven't been affected yet.
People flock to this daily talk like recovering heroin addicts to a methadone clinic. Though the aim is to allay fears, remarkably these meetings seem to have the opposite effect - dinner and breakfast after the talk are punctuated by various folk at almost every single table propagating their AMS myths. Everyone in Manang seems to be suffering from a headache and in Manang headaches are looked upon with the same suspicion as a lesion in a leper colony. The worst it gets for me is chronic insomnia while I remain at altitude and some pretty vivid and gruesome dreams - both apparently normal at this altitude - not worrying, just a pain in the arse.
AMS in Manang suddenly becomes Acute Moaning Sickness - you’re not sick but you’re boring the arse of everyone else, you hypochondriacs. One of the many nuggets which emerge from the talk is that the over 50’s are at less risk of developing AMS because shrinkage of the brain at that age lessens the chances of becoming ill - an unfair advantage for all Manchester United fans crossing the Pass then.

Week 2

Week 2 is when the magic really starts to happen. For starters we’re in Manang and the mountains are within touching distance. Our acclimatisation day is spent trekking up to the Ice Lake, a demanding 1,000m ascent to 4,500m - at that stage the highest I’d ever been. On our way we see some musk deer and Bhuwan constantly reminds me of the importance of trekking slowly at this altitude. On arrival the Ice Lake is nothing special but the views from its shore are easily the best of the trek. There’s a spastic beauty to the mountains from this vantage point, a sense that there’s a beauty overload and so what you’re looking at isn’t real at all. I’ve looked over some of my photos and this feeling remains - they somehow look like paintings to me, not at all of the physical world. It’s a special moment and a highlight of the trek. Of course a 1,000m ascent means a 1,000m descent and it’s a painfully boring slog alleviated only by the beauty in front of us. By the time we reach the base of the climb my eyes may love me but my knees despise me.
We overnight at Yak Kharka on our way to Thorung High Camp and we’re due to cross the Pass on Day 10. By now the Pass has become ‘THE PASS‘, and, collectively, it’s talked about with the same irrational fear as ancient sailors discussing possible encounters with monsters at the edge of the world. At Yak Kharka, whether it’s real or not, I develop a headache which disappears overnight, but I’d be lying if it didn’t leave me slightly paranoid especially with a night at High Camp to come. The perceived wisdom is that it’s better to overnight at Thorung Phedi rather than racing towards High Camp some 500m higher. Those who trek to High Camp for the night are looked upon with a mixture of sympathy and disdain. The trek to High Camp is laboriously slow but pretty easy, given the fact that we’re, quite literally, trekking at snail’s pace.
My night in High Camp is the longest of the entire trek. After an evening spent playing cards (very badly indeed) with Dave and Andrea - we retire to our 4 bed dorm which we share with Gyanendra, the friendly and flatulent sherpa who had been left without a room. From lights out at 9pm until our 4.30am start the next morning, I don’t sleep for a second and so I get to listen to every fart (of which there are many thanks to our sherpa friend), grunt, moan and groan. Trying to sleep is an exercise in futility and it’s a blessing when our flatulent friend turns the light on to begin the day of The Climb.
It’s ridiculously cold outside as we begin - but you’ll have that at 4,600m, right? - and the only thing on our minds for the first hour of the trek is the wait for the sun to rise. In spite of multiple layers, it’s painfully cold and progress is once again slooooowwwww……but when the sun eventually rises - the trekking equivalent of a 'watched pot' - and we see what’s in front of us the mood lightens (well mine does anyway). There are several false summits to cross before we finally reach our goal and, damn it, my arrival there is anti-climactic. I don’t feel any of the euphoria I’d expected, probably because I’m still too bloody cold and it’s way too fucking early to be that happy. The Pass itself is festooned with a multitude of prayer flags and there’s a sign congratulating you for reaching 5,416m. Remarkably there’s also a tea house which sells refreshments at prices that would make a Colombian coke baron blush and so I convince myself that I don’t need a milk tea in spite of the fact that all I want some 5,416m up is a milk tea. Bhuwan and I stand in beside the sign for the obligatory snapshots - just in case anyone ever doubts that I made it - and then we’re off again.
As we descend in the direction of Muktinath - a 1,600m descent - I’m suddenly struck by a headache of migraine intensity. Now whether it’s AMS or a result of the biting winds which greet us once we cross the Pass I don’t know but I accelerate my descent just in case. By the time we reach Muktinath it’s gone and so it’s forgotten about. After 10 days of trekking my lips feel as if I’ve been French-kissing a Brillo pad and so Muktinath is a welcome haven for our weary bodies and ultra-chapped lips.