29 October 2014

Week 109 - Yangshuo, Wulingyuan (China)

After an extremely bad nights sleep on the train due to a snorer in our carriage, we were woken at 5am when the ticket collector knocked on the door. We had 40 minutes of our journey left before arrival at Guilin station. It didn’t take long to find a bus waiting outside heading to Yangshuo and although we had to pay white person inflated prices we were happy to be on the final leg of our journey. An hour later and we pulled into Yanshuo. 

We were at the hostel before 8am and they kindly let us check in to our room where we took a quick shower and climbed into bed for a well needed nap. We were only woken by the cleaner knocking on the door and took that as our cue to head out to explore. First we needed to do laundry which our hostel offered free. We bundled our clothes into a machine before realising we had no idea how to work it, over an hour and a half of flicking switches and turning taps on and off with help from a kind lady, and it was finally ready to hang out. Luckily, we had the view from the roof top terrace to entertain us while we waited, and what a view it was. Yangshuo is an extremely touristy town located on a bend in the Li River and famous for the towering limestone karsts that fill the horizon in every direction, and we had 360 degree views from the hostel.

When we finally left, we walked over to West Street, the main pedestrianised road with lots of alleys and smaller lanes leading off of it. The street is filled to bursting with shops selling all kinds of cheap and cheerful souvenirs, calligraphy sets, carved jade seals, polished rocks shaped like pigs trotters, sausages and cuts of bacon, and weird and wonderful sweets and jars of chopped chili, all intermingled with hundreds of bars and restaurants. 

After a lap of the town we grabbed a mango shake in one of the 50 different shops selling just mango drinks, all next door to each other, and walked down to the Li River. It was like a motorway with big boats bringing hundreds of tourists down from Guilin. We walked to the ferry port and back to town, stopping for Rhys to have his photo taken with a cormorant fishing bird. We had hopped to see the fisherman using their birds to catch fish but when we found out they didn’t do it anymore and it’s purely a show for tourists we decided against paying to see it.
Rhys with fishing cormorants, Li River, Yangshuo.
We sat on the roof terrace at our hostel to watch the sunset before wandering out again for dinner and found a cheap option on a side street with English menus where we could sit at a table on the roadside and watch the world bustling passed. 

The next day we’d decided to attempt the walk from Yangdi to Xingping, drawn on every tourist map of the Yangshuo area we’d seen and detailed in the Lonely Planet. We were out of the hostel early for a bus to Yangdi where we found the pier and tried desperately to get someone to take us across the river to start the hike. The pier is mainly for bamboo rafts taking people down the Li River to Xingping and on to Yangshuo and they weren’t keen to take us the short trip across the river, offering us the trip for £9.40, to go literally 20 metres, the same price it would cost to go halfway to Xingping. After spending an hour trying to find a boat for a reasonable price and meeting a lovely Chinese guy and a Swiss woman, also trying to do the trip, we ended up agreeing on £8 each to take us a quarter of the way, missing out the first stage of the walk and combining the first and second river crossings that were part of the hike.

Once we’d agreed on a price we still had to wait for 45 minutes as there’s a designated time when the rafts have to be off the river for the big ferries from Guilin to pass. We were desperate to start walking by the time we actually set off. The bamboo raft was a bit of a disappointment, it was made of plastic pipes with motors on the back and although the views of the Li River were spectacular, the noise took away from it.
View of the Li River from our raft, Yangshuo.
Finally we were off the raft and on the path, along with Jesse, our new Chinese friend. We followed the trail for a couple of hours, along the riverside and through villages and orchards growing thousands of oranges and huge fruit that look like giant pears but are more like grapefruits. Although the karsts were impressive and seeing rural life was really interesting, there was the sound of boat engines and electric lines strung across every view.
Rhys walking through the orchards, Yangdi to Xingping.
We had one final river crossing, this time at an official ferry that cost about 90p before the final walk to Xingping. Having missed the turnoff to the footpath we walked along the road and although it was empty apart from the electric carts running people from the boat to the village, it wasn’t the most interesting part of the hike. All up, it was a very expensive walk for what it was but the scenery and company made up for it.

Just before we reached Xingping we came across groups of people holding up 20 yuan notes and taking photos. It took us a moment to realise we’d found the view that’s engraved on the back of the note and we joined the throngs to take our own photos. Continuing to the village, we were a little disappointed to find so much building work on the Old Street, detracting from the peaceful beauty of the place and didn’t stay long before saying goodbye to Jesse and boarding a bus back to Yangshuo.
View of the Li River from Xingping.
Having walked around 20km we were pretty tired and after a quick shower and turn around we rushed out to meet Barbara, the Swiss lady who’d joined us on the raft at the start of the day. She’d traveled the transmongolian the other way to us and had Mongolian money to change. We sat in a restaurant on our favourite pedestrianised side street and swapped travel stories before we had to leave her to try to buy train tickets.

Internet research had informed us there was an official train ticketing office in town despite there not being a train station and we knew one of the trains we were after only had a handful of seats left. Unfortunately the office was closed so we were left hoping the train didn’t sell out before we could get there in the morning. After dinner we walked back through the hordes of Chinese tourists who had appeared blocking the streets, although the town was relatively quiet in the day, at night it was heaving. 

The next day our first stop was at the train ticket office where we managed to book most of our remaining China trains. Happy, we walked over the bridge and were offered a scooter for a cheap enough price that we agreed without a second thought. We consulted the map and headed south to Moon Hill, one of the karsts with a hole straight through. When we arrived, we were shocked to hear it cost £4 each entry and turned around, it was only looking at a guidebook later I realised they’d said £1.20. 

Checking the map we decided we’d try to follow one of the suggested cycle routes that seemed to be marked as a lane on the map. It certainly started out that way but after we stopped at ancient Longtan Village, strewn with electric wires, and after a wrong turn and a nice local lady pointing us in the right direction, we squeezed between some sheds and, following spray painted red arrows, we found ourselves on a rock strewn footpath. We persevered for about a kilometre, Rhys doing a superb job balancing us on foot wide paths between flooded paddy fields until we decided we were being stupid and turned around. It was a shame because the Yulang River valley is undoubtedly one of the nicest, quietest places in the area but on a motorbike it just wasn’t feasible.
Orchards on the cycle route in the Yulang River Valley, Yangshuo.
We then decided to drive to the north of Yangshuo to the Yulang Bridge, bad choice. The roads were horrific and we spent the next hour and a half being rattled and shaken within an inch of our lives. By the time we got to the bridge we were pretty much done and if we were closer to home I think we’d have just taken the bike back. Instead, we found a riverside cafe and sat down to wipe off some of the dust coating every inch of skin. We watched a wedding dress photo shoot in amongst the throngs of tourists on much more relaxed bamboo rafts than we’d seen the previous day (actually being made of bamboo and not having motors), before climbing back on the bike to head back to town.
View of the Yulang River from the Yulang Bridge, Yangshuo.
Unluckly, but unsurprisingly, all the rocks we’d hit on the cycle path had cracked the faring and we lost £8 of our deposit. Tired and frustrated from a long ride with very little karst scenery, we walked back to the room.
Sunset from the hostel roof terrace, Yangshuo.
We had a train booked for 7pm from Guilin the next day so even allowing a couple of hours for a bus and finding the right waiting room at the station, we still had most of the day for sightseeing in Yangshuo. We’d initially thought to go to Guilin early as there are things to do there but were too caught up in the thought of a lay in. 

We ended up renting bicycles and heading south to Fuli, a nearby village, before deciding we didn’t want to follow a main road all the way and trying to find a cycle path instead. We couldn’t find the path and after a few wrong turnings and a random trail that didn’t really bring us out anywhere, we turned around and headed back. Rhys picked up some fast food for lunch and we stopped by the river before heading back to the ferry and further along the Li River bank. Deciding we were just riding for the sake of riding and not actually getting anywhere we turned back and returned the bikes. 

We had a couple of hours of the day left to waste before it was time to catch the bus back to Guilin. All up, I was impressed with Yangshuo, it was incredibly touristy but incredibly beautiful and the views from our roof terrace where among the best in town. We probably would have got more from the place if we’d planned it a little better and we didn’t even do the big draws that lured us in the first place, rock climbing and the cormorant fishing. 

Once we reached Guilin we headed in to the train station, passed the very lax security checks and found the right waiting room with no issues. Our bullet train was spot on time and at a speed of 200kph we rocketed to Liuzhou from where we had an overnight train to ZhangJiaJie booked. Although not the most direct route from Yangshuo it was the best option to allow us a nights sleep. 

We dived in to a small local restaurant and ordered pointing at photos on the wall, fingers crossed we wouldn’t be presented with plates of unidentifiable animal parts (we saw braised dog on the menu in Yangshuo along with all manner of innards). Dinner sorted, we found the waiting room and with a few points and laughs at the whiteys in the train station, boarded the train. We shared our cabin with a Chinese couple who seemed really sweet until the lights went out and the guy started snoring like a rhinocerous. Bring on another night with no sleep.

We were grateful to get off the train at ZhangJiaJie City and using detailed directions from a blog i’d found, we headed outside, passed the signs telling the ‘6 foot tall people to please go forward’, to the bus station where we then followed the signs for the ‘Pit Mouth’ and found a bus leaving straight away for Wulingyuan. One of the highlights of China so far, even more so than the stunning scenery, is the English translations.

After checking with the other passengers by pointing to the map that we were on the right bus, we pulled in to Wulingyuan Village 40 minutes later. It only took 5 minutes to find our hotel and again, they kindly let us check in early. Despite the lack of sleep we were too excited to get to the national park to nap and we headed out to find the ticket booth. It wasn’t far away and before long we’d scanned our thumbs and were on a bus headed for Tianzi Mountain. As we’d had a hard night we didn’t want to do anything too challenging so started with a cable car ride to the top of the mountain. Straight away we were could see some of the sandstone pinnacles covered in subtropical rainforest that gave the creators of Avatar a basis for the planet Pandora.

We spent the next hour wandering around the peak taking photos at the various viewing platforms before climbing to the top of a pagoda and choosing a path to head back down towards the village. 
Mystical Avatar karsts through the haze, Wuilingyuan.
Sandstone karsts in Wulingyuan National Park.
Rhys in Wulingyuan National Park.
We ended up taking the popular 10 Mile Gallery route that’s also serviced by a monorail, a bit misleading as it was more like 3 miles but it took us passed some spectacular scenery and passed lots of screaming Chinese tourists - they must be the loudest nationality we’ve met so far, everything is said at a volume at least 4 times louder than it needs to be. 4 hours after we entered the park we were back at the entrance gate near our hotel.
The sun disappearing behind the mountains, Wuilingyuan National Park.
The next morning we woke early to the alarm having intended to spend a full day in the park. A quick look out of the sky light and we changed our minds, we could barely see across the road it was so hazy. Although we knew the park was often clouded in fog and obscured views were the norm, the weather had cleared in the afternoon the previous day we decided to spend the morning at the hotel. 

Just before lunch we realised we couldn’t wait any longer and a walk in the park would be nice even if we couldn’t see as much as we’d hoped. We headed to the bus station in the village and took a shuttle to the main entrance in ZhangJiaJie Village. Once in the park we were lured in to a food stall where Rhys bought cured ham on a stick and I got a bowl of roast potatoes. Satiated and ready to walk, we found the start of the Golden Whip Stream path and joined the masses. The trail was incredibly well maintained, a paved track that followed a stream, winding at the base of the tall pillars that towered overhead. As it was flat, it was one of the most popular for tour groups and there were hordes of them, all screeching and yelling. 
Walking the Golden Whip Stream, Wulingyuan.
We were glad when we came to a junction that gave us the opportunity to leave the Golden Whip, just before the Zicao Pool. Crossing a bridge, we joined the Shadao Gully Trail and all of a sudden, the crowds disappeared. It was beautifully serene as we wandered along the moss covered pathway, listening to the sound of the birds and craning our necks to look up at the towers, until we reached the stairway to the upper level of the park. It took about 30 minutes to climb to the top where we found some deserted view points of the First Bridge of the World and a road leading to the Bailong Elevator, a major attraction of the park but a bit of an eyesore, a giant elevator fixed to the side of one of the towers.
Freestanding karst with First Bridge of the World int he background, Wulingyuan.
After walking along the road, we found where all the tour groups had been hiding, a collection of walkways hugging the edge of the cliff with views out into the valley, billed as one of the shooting spots for Avatar. Not wanting to miss out, we bundled out on to the platforms amid the shouting and screaming to peer through the haze at one of the most spectacular natural wonders we’ve seen in the two years we’ve been traveling.

By this time it was 4:30pm. We had no idea what time the last buses ran within the park and had two options to get back to the entrance closest to our hotel. The first was to queue with the masses to use the elevator at a cost of £5 each, the second was to walk back down to the lower valley and rejoin the Golden Whip Stream at a point a little further than where we left it. We chose the latter option and estimated we had about 8km left to walk, hoping we’d cover the ground before we lost the light. 

Although we’d lost the views in the dusky light, the monkeys had come out to play in their hundreds and when we reached the Golden Whip Stream we were treated with magical images of the towers silhouetted against the sky. At the bus stop, most of the people had already left and it wasn’t long before we were on board, as darkness fell, and out of the park.
Leaving the park at dusk, Wulingyuan.
As we reached our hotel the rain started. We ducked out for dinner, where Rhys mistakenly ordered inedible intestines, before heading to bed, legs sore from a decent 7 hour walk.

We had to check out of the hotel the next day and had planned to catch an early bus back in to ZhangJiaJie to ride the longest cable car in the world and spend the day at Mount Tiamen. Peering out of the skylight we could see that the rain hadn’t stopped all night and was showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. Grateful we’d been able to walk in the park with only haze to deal with, we decided that spending £23 each to go up a cable car in the rain was a waste of time and money and instead hung around at the hotel until the early afternoon.

Still raining, we walked to the bus station and caught a bus into the city. Disappointed that MacDonalds was closed (atleast we can understand the menu there and don’t get charged tourist rip off prices), we headed through security and found a space on the floor, in the cold, for the 2.5 hour wait for our train. Then the train was delayed by over an hour and a half. Having wasted the entire day and getting cold from sitting on the floor, we jumped at the chance of paying £1.20 each to sit in the soft seating area when space became available. There were a lot of train delays and the station was heaving. 

When we finally boarded the train, we found our carriage and settled in. Luckily, we had the room to ourselves for the first couple of hours and for a change it was chilly so we could wrap ourselves in our duvets and get a decent nights sleep. Other than a visitor who decided to come and stay on one of the spare beds at 2am, and who got moved at 5am, we were alone and didn’t have to suffer with a snorer keeping us awake. Checking our progress as midnight we realised we were already 4 hours behind schedule.

22 October 2014

Week 108 - Hong Kong

We landed in Kuala Lumpur and were through immigration and checked back in, in record time. We had 5 hours until our flight to Hong Kong and headed straight to MacDonalds for a very early, 4am breakfast. Another couple of hours to kill in the departure lounge and we were on our way. 

We landed in Hong Kong, collected our bags and jumped on a bus into the city. We had to follow our progress from Lantau, over Kowloon and on to Hong Kong Island on the map since there were road closures for the protests. Luckily we got off at the right stop for the short walk to our hostel. After checking in to our tiny but perfectly formed room, on the 10th floor of a tower block above a Burberry store, we freshened up and headed straight back out, to walk to the agency we’d found who would help to submit our documents for our Russian visa applications.

We found their office without too much hassle only to discover that the application i’d filled in online for Rhys had wiped itself, for the second time. Exhausted from a 36 hour day, we ended up in Starbucks to try and retrieve some of the information before scribbling all the details we could onto a new form for the agency to complete. We didn’t intend to use an agency but needed a letter of invitation and they wouldn’t let us buy one without using their application service too. Since Russian visas are notoriously hard to get, especially when you’re not applying in your home country, we were happy to have someone who knew what they were doing deal with the formalities.

We were back at the hostel early afternoon but were too shattered to do anything other than enjoy the 24 hour electricity, fast wifi and hot shower, dinner was a pot of rice and chicken from the supermarket next door.

The next day we lazed in bed with a coffee before wandering out to explore the north coast of Hong Kong Island, the business area full of towering skyscrapers. Hong Kong is a Special Adminstrative Region of China and is made up of over 230 islands with four main areas, Hong Kong Island itself, Kowloon, the most densely populated area, the New Territories and the Outlying Islands. Hong Kong has an interesting history and was ceded to the British in 1841 ‘in perpetuity’. The Kowloon peninsula and New Territories didn’t pass into British command until 1896 and the population of the colony continued to grow as Chinese immigrants fled the 1911 revolution and the 1937 Japanese invasion. In 1984, the British agreed to give Hong Kong back to China in 1997, despite it only being legally obliged to return the New Territories, on the condition it would retain its free-market economy and social and legal systems for 50 years. The agreement guaranteed the right of property and ownership and the rights of assembly, free speech and association. 

We walked from our hostel towards the waterfront where we disappointingly found nothing but building sites and no actual access to the water. After a few photos through the haze across to Kowloon, we wound our way back and forth across the confusing walkways that zigzag over the main roads before reaching the exhibition centre where we had a quick detour as Rhys was sucked in by the promise of one of the world’s biggest electrical exhibitions. As we were signing up we realised how expensive it was to get in and left with nothing more than a free chocolate before giving up on a waterside walk and aiming back into the centre of Hong Kong. We stopped at a 7/11 where we bought sandwiches and found a park bench in the Hong Kong Park where we could sit by fountains and enjoy our picnic. 

Rhys remembered an aviary from his previous Hong Kong visit and we followed the signs, passed some caged hornbills towards it. Having become keen bird watches on our travels we were in heaven and spent the next hour searching for birds from the raised walkway. After the aviary and all the walking we decided to call it a day and jumped on the tube back to our hostel in Causeway Bay.

We had a couple of hours to chill before we were due to meet Katie, an ex-BDOer who I used to play football with in London, who has been living in Hong Kong for over two years with her husband Rhys. She met us in Causeway Bay after work and took us out to a restaurant, recommended by her food guru, where we caught up over plates of noodles, beef and pancakes and endless cups of tea. We made plans to see her again the next night before turning in for an early night, still exhausted from our all night journey from Nepal.

We seemed to have managed to mess up our sleeping patterns and despite being tired, didn’t sleep until the early hours (helped by the 3 litre carton of red wine we discovered for £7 in the Welcome Supermarket) so weren’t in a hurry to get out of bed again when morning came. Around midday we decided we should make an effort to leave the hostel and trundled over to the south side of Hong Kong Island, to Stanley. 

Famous for it’s market, we strolled between the stalls before seeing an oil painting of a rhino that we immediately fell in love with and ended up splashing out on after meeting the artist who was keen for it to go to someone who loved it (he was pretty intense). The market wasn’t all that, full of tourist tat, and we didn’t stay long before walking across the bay to the shopping mall and the supermarket to buy another picnic lunch to enjoy in the pavilion, a covered area at the end of a pier over the sea. 
The beach at Stanley, Hong Kong.
Stanley was really quiet and there wasn’t much of a buzz, after lunch, we walked around to the next bay where the only people on the beach were expats or white tourists and then we called it a day, catching a mini bus back to the north coast of the island with the driver pumping the accelerator so we bunny hopped all the way, passed Repulse Bay and Deep Water Bay, two of the nicest beaches on the island. 80% of Hong Kong is unspoilt green mountains and tropical forests, you don’t have to go far from the sky scrappers to find a patch of forest or a beautiful bay with gold sands and turquoise waters.

That evening we met Katie again, this time in SoHo, near where she lives. To get there from the tube station we had to take the escalators, a brilliant method of moving people around the city, a street of moving walkways and escalators stretching for 800m, making it the longest outdoor escalator network in the world, to get people from one end to the other. The street itself is lined with bars filled to busting with expats. We could only gaze in the windows longingly at the people enjoying city priced pints of cider and glasses of ice cold white wine as we rolled passed.

Katie took on the tour guide role for the evening and led us up to the Peak, according to all the guidebooks, one of Hong Kong’s highlights. I don’t think we would have found the path to be able to walk it without Katie. Despite the humidity making it a hot and sticky climb the view from the path was worth it and when we neared the top we stopped to watch the short light show on the International Commerce Centre building over in Kowloon. Before walking back down we went up to the free public viewing gallery and walked a short way along the trail that loops around the Peak with views out over the city, with the lights all glistening below. Since the weather was really hazy while we were in Hong Kong, visiting the Peak at night was by far the best shout.
View of Hong Kong from the Peak, Hong Kong.
That night after leaving Katie and heading back to our hostel, we tried to find a decent local restaurant with backpacker prices and failed miserably, ending up in McDonalds. The whole time we were in Hong Kong we really struggled with the food, there’s a great variety of restaurants but it’s not cheap and there’s not many small eateries that have English menus so ordering was a real chore.

It was the same story the next morning. We stayed up late watching TV and enjoying the room and ended up sleeping in. Late morning we headed over to the ferry port, negotiating all the stupid walkways to cross the main roads only to miss the boat by a couple of minutes and have to wait 30 minutes for the next one. Finally onboard, we sailed to Cheung Chau, one of the outlying islands off the coast of Lantau. Suddenly we were in a rustic fishing village, only 20 minutes from the central business district but miles away in terms of lifestyle. 
The harbour at Cheung Chau, Hong Kong.
We wandered along the waterfront peering in at the lines of seafood restaurants before choosing one of the cheaper options for lunch. Next, we tried to walk to the peak where we’d been promised views of the whole island by the guide book but after walking through a couple of estates, failed to find any sort of view point and headed back down. Rather than rush back to the mainland and with not much else to do, we settled at a little restaurant for cheap beer to while away the afternoon.
Fish drying at the market in Cheung Chau, Hong Kong.
Just our luck that the ferry was they delayed by 20 minutes and we’d misjudged how long it would take us to get back to the Russian visa agency. We were due to pick up our passports and all going well, would find shiny new Russia visas in place. We ended up practically running to their office, worried we might not make it before they closed for the day and wanting to give ourselves time to reapply should we have not been successful. Thankfully we arrived and our passports, and visas were waiting for us. Our final visa of the trip.
View of Hong Kong Island from the ferry, Hong Kong.
We found a chain restaurant for dinner with pictures on the menu, ordered and took a seat. It was only when we stopped and looked around that we realised that every other person in there had hotpots, we were obviously missing out on something special. Walking back to the hostel we passed Ikea and, as Katie had mentioned a weekend trip to Ikea was great for people watching, we ducked in. It was Friday night and it was amazing, it seems Ikea is a hot date spot and everywhere you looked couples were cuddled up on the couches and in the staged bedrooms, very, very odd, only matched by the rows and rows of people outside the Apple store selling iphones at higher prices from suitcases.

I’d started coming down with a cold, probably the only person to ever get sick in a city where they antibac every surface every 15 minutes and after a lazy start to the next day we decided the time was better spent booking trains for Russia and Europe than exploring. Now we had our visas we knew what route we’d be taking to Austria and wanted to make sure we got the sleeper trains booked in advance. As the day wore on I began to feel rotten and we didn’t even leave the room for dinner.

We’d made plans the next day to see Guy who used to be my manager at BDO in London and who is on secondment to BDO Hong Kong, where Tammy, another exBDOer, Guy’s wife, is from. We caught the ferry across to Kowloon and walked along the touristy Avenue of Stars, Hong Kong’s answer to the LA Walk of Fame. Leaving plenty of time we caught the tube up to Kowloon Tong where we were meeting Guy, Tammy and their 8 month old daughter Amelia, for dim sum. Amelia was quite possibly one of the cutest, happiest babies i’ve ever seen and it was great to catch up with Guy and hear about his adventures in Hong Kong. Tammy took charge and ordered an absolute feast, the food was delicious and a real treat for us, especially in a city where we’d been surviving on pot noodles and 7/11 sandwiches. We owe them one when they make it back to London.

After leaving Guy and Tammy we caught the tube back into Kowloon where we wove our way passed a flower market, a bird market and a goldfish market before strolling along quiet streets, blocked off by the Umbrella Revolution protesters. The protests are incredibly peaceful pro-democracy rallies, in brief, it was started by students revolting against all candidates for the upcoming elections being pro-Beijing and subjective to Chinese rule - against the 1984 agreement with the British.
The bird market, Hong Kong.
Rhys browsing at the goldfish market, Hong Kong.
Umbrella Revolution road blocks, Hong Kong.
We walked along a few other markets selling everything you could imagine before reaching Temple Street, the location of a famous night market. We were there a bit early and everything was just setting up, by the time we arrived at the river front we still had hours before the 8pm light show where we’d intended to finish our day and instead took a boat back to Hong Kong Island, just as the sun was setting. 
View of the exhibition centre on Hong Kong Island from the ferry, Hong Kong.
We had one last full day left in Hong Kong and set the alarm to make sure we didn’t waste the morning. Although still not at early start, we were out and on our way to the start of stage 8 of the Hong Kong Trail, the Dragons Back. Hong Kong is crisscrossed with loads of walking trails and if we had more time we would have loved to have tackled more of them. The one we did do was only a short 8.5km stretch and only took 2 hours. Once off the bus, we joined the hordes of people climbing to the peak of Shek O and along the Dragons Back ridge line. The views were marred by the haze but for an urban walk it was still impressive. The crowds disapated after we climbed down from the ridge and we had the trail to ourselves for the second half as we walked through woodland. The path ended at Big Wave Bay, another nice beach with body boarders out enjoying the water, with only expats and white tourists in sight. We didn’t stay long before jumping on a bus back to the tube station.
Rhys hiking the Dragon's Back, Hong Kong.
Having seen a market near the tube when we arrived that morning we thought we’d be able to find some lunch but a quick explore showed it was just fresh fruit and veg and uncooked tofu. Instead, we boarded a two storey tram that trundled at a very slow speed, stopping at every traffic light, back to Victoria Park and Causeway Bay. 

That evening we caught the tube over to the iconic Bank of China building where we’d heard there was a free viewing platform on the 43rd floor open until 18:00. We got there at 17:04, it closed at 17:00. Disappointed and at a loss with what to do with ourselves until the 8pm light show, we ended up walking along the ferry piers and stumbling across a British bar, selling all manner of ciders. Having not spent anything all day we were sucked in and spent a blissful hour or two sitting on the steps overlooking the water with a cider in hand as the sun set and the lights of the city started turning on. Eventually, we decided it was time to go and jumped on a ferry over to Kowloon where we perched for the light show. Although it wasn’t overly spectacular, it was so atmospheric to be out, sitting on the pier watching the city lights and we had a brilliant night. 
Kowloon at dusk from the Hong Kong Island ferry pier, Hong Kong.
Rhys waiting for the Symphony of Lights show at the pier in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
We ended the night back at Temple Street night market. We’d hoped to be able to find cheap street food but again failed miserably and ended up eating really bizarre and not overly enjoyable chicken from a random local restaurant before tubing back to ours.

We left Hong Kong the next day. Just before lunch we took the tube to the Chinese border and entered the town of Shenzhen. We’d left ourselves way more time than we needed incase there were queues at the border and ended up wandering around a cheap shopping mall wasting time - definitely the place to go to buy fakes if you live in Hong Kong. We found a chain restaurant for lunch and bought snacks for the train before entering the waiting area where we had another couple of hours before boarding. 

Finally onboard the train we were blown away, we’d treated ourselves to soft sleepers and had a four bed cabin with lace curtains, a power point, pillows and duvets and in cabin music. For the price, it was a hundred times better than Indian or Burmese night trains. We settled in and for the last couple of hours of sunlight, watched the world go by with the last of our carton of wine.

15 October 2014

Week 107 - Kathmandu, Chitwan National Park, Kathmandu (Nepal)

After breakfast on our hostel roof terrace, overlooking Kathmandu, we jumped in a taxi to the Chinese consulate to lodge our visa applications. We were there over an hour before the gates opened and were first in line. As it had been shut for a week we were expecting to see huge queues and with only a 1 1/4 hour window when they accept applications, we didn’t want to miss out. We were first at the window when the clerk opened her desk, only to be told the form, which we’d printed from their website, was an old one and we’d need to fill in the newer one, the exact same form with the same details but a different number in the corner. The mistake meant we had to queue for over an hour to get back to the front.

Visas in, we wandered back into Thamel. As we’d agreed we’d send another parcel home from Nepal we had a chance for some more souvenir shopping, another smaller thangka (this time a mantra), another yak wool rug, a cashmere scarf and some smaller bits and bobs. Back in our room we had some chill time before another visit to the coffee shop, Himalayan Java for coffee, cake and fast internet.

The next morning, we had a ticket booked for the journey from the tourist bus park to Sauraha, the gateway to Chitwan National Park. We were up early and had time for a chai before leaving Kathmandu. The journey was long winded as we retraced our route through the Kathmandu Valley, along the Trisuli River towards Pokhara for about 4 hours before turning off to Sauraha. As usual, the bus stopped for breakfast and lunch before pulling in to our destination. 

The tourist bus park at Sauraha is a couple of kilometres from the village and the buses were met with hordes of hotel touts and jeeps collecting people who’d booked their accommodation. We had a reservation but there was no one there to meet us and no one would take us, we were quoted a price five times what it should be and they all laughed, so we picked up our bags and marched out of the park towards the village. We walked for about a kilometre, with people stopping to tell us we were going the wrong way while other people stopped to help us and give directions, our first impressions of the place weren’t good, blatantly being lied too while walking with backpacks in the midday heat isn’t the greatest experience.

Finally in the village we found a rickshaw who would take us the rest of the way, only to arrive at the hotel and be told they weren’t expecting us until the next day, they’d read the booking wrong. We sat outside waiting for a room to be cleared for us while being told of the tour options we could book through the hotel. Once in the room, we showered and walked into the village to check the prices at other tour agencies. Just as we left our hotel, in an army restricted area we spotted a baby rhino, living there as something had happened to it’s mum and he wouldn’t survive in the wild by himself. 

Although the village is only small, the main street is tourist orientated and has lots of souvenir shops and tour guides. It’s nowhere near as commercialised as Pokhara and with its dusty dirt tracks and riverside restaurants it has a real charm. We spoke to a few companies and found one who was offering the same trips for significantly cheaper than at our hotel. We liked the guide and booked on for morning trips for the following two days. With our bookings made, we wandered to the river and perched in a riverside bar to watch the sunset while pied kingfishers swooped down into the water.
Sunset over the Rapti River, Chitwan National Park.
The next morning the alarm went off at 6am. We dressed and walked into the village to meet our guide and his assistant before walking back to the river, past a group of hornbills, to wait for our canoe. We were on one of the first boats out and despite a very loud German man in the canoe next to us, we spent an enjoyable hour floating down the Rapti River, spotting kingfishers, storks, herons, peacocks and two kinds of crocodiles including a gharial with a long skinny nose. From the canoe we stepped into the national park itself. Chitwan is a protected area of sal forest, elephant grassland and water marshes and is one of the last places where Indian Rhino’s can be found. There are also Bengal tigers but we knew a tiger spot would be nearly impossible.
Canoe ride along the Rapti River, Chitwan National Park.
We walked for about two hours through forest and grassland, skirting the river back towards the village. Although we didn’t spot any mammals, it not being the right time of year as the grass is too high, we saw plenty of foot prints and scat, the animals were out there somewhere. We stopped at a viewing tower where Dharma our guide told us stories from his 20 years of guiding, including getting charged and thrown, several times, by a rhino. Back level with the village, a canoe collected us and took us back to the bank where we wandered back to our hotel in time for brunch. 
Walking through the long grasses, Chitwan National Park.
We spent the rest of the day at the hotel, we took a long midday nap and sat out in the garden before walking back in to the village for dinner.

The next day we were up early again to head back to the tour office. On our way we were stopped by a local boy who asked if we’d seen the rhino and pointed us to the river bank. Too excited to miss the opportunity but running out of time before our 6am pick up, we ran to the river and joined the group of people watching a fully grown adult rhino grazing right by the village. He’d swam across the river in the night and napped in the grasses until day break when his snoring had drawn attention to him and word had spread. We would’ve loved to have stayed longer, especially to watch him return to the national park on the far river bank, but we had an elephant ride booked.
Indian Rhino grazing, Chitwan National Park.
Indian Rhinos have only one horn and the best scientific name ever, Rhinocerous Unicornis. They are the world’s fifth largest land mammal measuring about 6ft tall and 12ft long, weighing up to 4,000kg and about 5,000 still live in the wild, 500 or so in Nepal. The population in Chitwan suffered, dropping by nearly a quarter, when the Maoist rebellion drew the attention of the military away from the Chitwan park border allowing poachers opportunities to trap and kill the animals. Since then, numbers have recovered and are on the rise.

We were 10 minutes late to the tour office but the jeep collecting us was 30 minutes late. Eventually it turned up and we squeezed in for the short drive out of town to the community forest. As the grasses in the park are about 7m high at this time of year you have more chance of seeing animals in the community forest and we’d decided to take an hour ride on a private elephant. Joined by another couple we climbed aboard and set off. It was an uncomfortable amble but riding an elephant is always going to be a good experience and we saw a couple of different kinds of deer, monkeys, kingfishers and a few mongoose (mongeese?!), no more rhinos though.
Deer in the community woodland during our elephant ride, Chitwan National Park.
We had time for a chai and to buy some bananas to feed to the elephant before we were back in the jeep and back in town. After checking to see if the rhino was still there, we stopped at a small local eatery for breakfast and had the worst, oiliest eggs ever, before ducking back to the hotel, hoping for a quick shower. Nepal has electric shortages and there are always times in the day without electricity, the problem with our hotel was that the generator never seemed to work properly so we were often without light when it was dark or had no fan or water as the pump wasn’t on. We’d made a bit of a judgment error when we’d decided to treat ourselves to an aircon room since we only got a couple of hours use out of it each day. Even in Kathmandu, electricity shortages are a problem and the streets are full of traffic police because they can’t install traffic lights!
Our elephant enjoying her bananas, Chitwan National Park.
We walked back into town at midday to watch the elephant bathing. Each day the elephants are supposed to be taken to the river to bath and for 60p you can join them. It just happened that all the elephants were busy when we were there and none were at the river. Disappointed, we walked back, stopping for lassi’s on the way.

We headed out again later and rented bicycles to ride the short distance to the elephant breeding centre. It was a hot, sweaty and very bumpy ride with creaky, wobbly bikes but the scenary was beautiful. We passed rice paddies, buffaloes grazing in paddocks, goats climbing every wall and lots of large, mud walled, thatched houses where the old men would be sitting outside chatting with kids running all over the shop. The ride was a bit longer than we’d expected and after asking for directions a couple of times we reached a small river crossing. Leaving the bikes, we hopped in a small wooden boat to be rowed over to the breeding centre.

There wasn’t much to see other than a row of stables, we arrived at around 3:30pm and the mum elephants were being led in from the jungle where they’d been out grazing, closely followed by their kids. Some were so tiny they could hide underneath between their parents legs. Our hearts started beating faster when one mischievous youngster turned away from the stable and started trotting towards Rhys. We wandered up and down the field watching the elephants for a while before heading back into the village, stopping to buy jungle honey on route.
Elephants at the Breeding Centre, Chitwan National Park.
Baby elephant, Chitwan National Park.
After some chill time at the hotel, we walked into town and ate a Nepali meal on plastic seats at the side of the street by candle light.

We’d decided it was worth setting the alarm for another early start even though we didn’t have a trip planned and our bus back to Kathmandu wasn’t until 9am. By 6am we were out walking along the river in search of crocodiles and rhinos. We didn’t have any luck and on the way back to our room stopped for breakfast. Walking back to the river after our meal we ended up finding a whole new path we’d never known was there. A local guy told us they’d seen rhinos that morning along the trail so we followed it as far as some elephant stables. It was the perfect place for grazing rhinos but by then was too late in the day and we had no luck. We spotted more kingfishers and crocodiles and enjoyed the walk, as we’d seen a rhino the previous day we weren’t too disheartened.

After a misunderstanding paying the hotel bill, we were finally transferred to the bus park where we boarded the bus for the final journey, the fourth time we’d driven along the Trisuli River valley. After a few stops for samosas we arrived in Thamel and walked back to our hostel. It was already late afternoon but we had some final chores to run, laundry to put in, paintings to collect, yet another parcel to send to the UK and a haircut and super powerful head massage for Rhys, I could barely stifle the laughter watching him in the mirror.

As it was our last night in Nepal, we decided to head to a Lonely Planet recommended momo restaurant for dumplings. We arrived 5 minutes before last orders and had a delicious last meal before wandering back to the room. 

We had the full day before our 9pm flight and had hoped to do some more sightseeing. Just as we sat on the roof terrace to wait for breakfast, it started to drizzle. We were due to collect our passports from the Chinese embassy that morning and walked over, excited to have one more visa out of the way before returning to the hostel to wait out the weather. The rain didn’t stop and we ended up back in Himalayan Java for more coffee and cake.

We had a taxi arranged to collect us from the hostel for the ride to the airport and made it through security with plenty of time to kill. Our flight left on time and we began the first 4 1/2 hours of a very long night.

1 October 2014

Week 106 - Kathmandu, Pokhara, Kathmandu (Nepal)

We had yet another early start to get to the Lukla airport for our flight back to Kathmandu. The security check was a bit of a joke, not only did me and Rhys have to open everyone’s bags and answer everyone’s security questions, but the boys queue to the departure lounge flew through and the girls waited an age only to be rushed through when the flights started being called. We finally boarded our small propeller planes and were catapulted down the runway and into the air.

As we flew through the valley I couldn’t take my eyes off the window where the mountain panorama passing by was spectacular. We hit small pockets of turbulence, not great for the bad flyers on board but overall the flight was gentle and before we knew it we were back in Kathmandu. 

In the carpark we boarded our bus and returned to the Tibet Guesthouse, sweaty and dirty after two weeks without showers, where we were booked in as part of the tour for another two nights. We had a slightly better room than during our first visit and after check in, we showered, changed and got our paperwork together ready for a trip to the China embassy. 

A taxi across town and we were met by a locked gate. We were expecting the embassy to be closed over Dashain and had only really bothered turning up to check the date that it would reopen. As always seems to be the case with us, we had fallen into another visa/national holiday situation, just this time we had enough flexibility to change our Nepal plans and still get the visa in time for our flight to Hong Kong. 

Dashain is Nepal’s biggest annual festival and lasts for 15 days with businesses shutting for various lengths of times during the period. Thamel for instance, was eerily quiet and possibly more enjoyable since, although many shops were closed, you didn’t have to spend every third step diving across the road out of the path of a racing motorbike, rickshaw, car or tourist. The festival honours the goddess Durga who was victorious over the forces of evil where evil is personified as a buffalo demon. Thousands of animal sacrifices are made during the holiday and everywhere you looked in Kathmandu there were goats tethered to posts awaiting their fate. Once we left Kathmandu for Pokhara we would also see swings lining the roads, hung from towering bamboo structures to celebrate the festival.

After our failed visit to the China embassy we retired to our room to catch up on sleep and admin. We had arranged to meet people from our trip on the roof terrace for a few pre dinner drinks and despite Ró abandoning us to spend time with her Nepali eyebrow technician, who happened to be visiting her family for the festival, we had a good but relatively subdued night, including a meal at a bizarrely empty Rumdoodle which is supposed to be one of the funkiest restaurants in town but was just completely dead apart from pretty much everyone on our trek who had found their way there.

We had intended a blissful lie in the next day but our body clocks had been set to stupid o’clock in the morning and we were up early for breakfast in the hotel courtyard. We had another relaxing day, venturing out for a bit of shopping in Thamel and to the Garden of Dreams. We ended up splurging on a thangka, a superbly detailed Buddhist painting, a symmetric image painted on silk with lots of gold swirly bits. The Garden of Dreams was an oasis of calm, it’s a small green area with ponds and hidden gardens, part of a restored1920’s palace garden designed in the British Edwardian style where mostly expats and tourists relax with books in the shade. 

That evening we’d arranged to meet everyone on the roof terrace again for more pre-dinner drinks. As we had a group meal organised for that night to say goodbye to all the new friends we’d made while trekking, Ró (with some style help from Karlie) put on her best outfit, her yak wool blanket, she looked divine... We were collected from the hotel and driven to a traditional Nepalese restaurant where a lot of tour groups go. We all sat on the floor around our table and were served rice wine and delicious food while we were entertained with men dressed as peacocks and dancers. By the end of it we were all up dancing and playing the drums. 

Back at the hotel we decided more drinks on the roof were in order rather than heading out to find a bar. We wandered out to find an open shop then Ró decided she needed another pashmina and we got sidetracked and lost everyone else (I came away with a lovely present, thanks Ró!). Next thing we knew, we’d bumped in to Furba, one of our sherpas, and ended up on the back of a motorbike to ride a block until we found everyone. By the time we got to bed we were a bit worse for wear (without spelling it out I think Rhys and Karlie will get the pun here even if Ró can’t figure it out...). 

The next day we headed to breakfast at 8:30am, the planned time for a farewell to Noemi, who didn’t turn up. We found her later still in her room, without a watch she had no idea what time it was and was in a rush to catch her transfer to the airport. We chilled in our room until the noon check out, despite the maid trying to rush us out at 9am, when we packed our bags and wandered across the road to our new hotel, a third of the price of the one we’d been in. 

We spent the afternoon with Bryce while Ashleigh was at yoga, we had lunch near Durbar Square then Bryce wandered back to the hotel while me and Rhys paid our entry to see the buildings. Durbar Square is at the heart of Kathmandu’s old town and is the location of the old palace, many temples, shrines and courtyards, mostly built in red brick with beautifully detailed carvings and bells everywhere. It was incredibly busy since it was Dashain and there were queues to get in to most of the buildings. We walked a circuit before deciding to call it a day.
Queues at Kathmandu's Durbar Square.
Beautiful architecture in Durbar Square, Kathmandu.
That evening, after saying our goodbyes to Bryce and Ashleigh, we met up with Karlie and Ró who had had a pretty horrific day on a rafting trip that ended with them hitchhiking back to Kathmandu. We sat outside at a romantic candle lit restaurant with Ró wrapped up in a table cloth since her clothes were still damp from rafting. We were all pretty tired, Rhys headed home while we were finishing up in the restaurant and we weren’t far behind.

Me and Rhys had a 7am bus the following day, headed for Pokhara, a riverside town hemmed in by the Annapurna Massif, a 2,133m chain of Himalayan, snow capped peaks, one of which is Nepal’s only virgin mountain as it’s scared and forbidden to climb. We took a tourist bus and after a flat tyre and breakfast and lunch stops we finally made it to the town. We were expecting a pretty, atmospheric place set on the waterfront with spectacular mountain views. Instead we were presented with a town packed with tourists with a character lacking main street lined with western restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. The mountain was behind the town and blocked out most of the time by the buildings and the lake front was a street away, the lake itself bursting at the seams with life jacketed tourists paddling in circles. 
View of the Annapurna Massif from our hostel, Pokhara.
Luckily, we’d been recommended a hostel, Peace Eye, and despite being one of the cheapest options in town, it was brilliant, we had a bright airy room, hot water, roof top views of the mountains and great staff - it was only on check out that we found out they’d confused our booking and we ended up having a free upgrade, a real result considering they were fully booked and turning away a constant stream of people turning up without reservations.

After exploring the town, we stopped for a warm sweet glass of wine to use the internet before finding a cheap Nepali restaurant near our hotel for dinner.

We’d though to spend the next day hiking around Phewa Tal, a full day walk that would take us to the World Peace Pagoda on a ridge above the lake, with views across to the town and Annapurna mountains and on through local villages to complete a circuit of the lake and back to town. When we woke it was a little hazy outside and we couldn’t see the mountains so we decided instead to have a lazy morning. After a relaxed breakfast, we took a taxi into the main town, away from the touristy lakeside area, to the Gurkha Museum.

The Gurkha Museum was incredibly interesting and made you realise just how brave and hardcore the Gurkha battalions are. The museum followed their history from the Indian Mutiny to present day and it was interesting to find out that even now, the British have a recruitment post just outside Pokhara where hundreds of Nepali men go every year for the rigourous selection process that promises a very high wage and British army pension.

After the museum we started to walk back towards the hostel through Pokhara old town. As it was still Dashain, most of the town was closed and other than a small temple, there wasn’t a whole lot to see and none of the Nepali vitality the Lonely Planet had promised. We ended up catching a taxi back to lakeside for a walk along the water front, a pedestrianised flower filled track, and back to the hostel.

The next day we had the same intention to walk around the lake but woke to more haze. As we only wanted to do the walk to see the mountain views we decided on another lazy breakfast instead. Just before midday we attempted to walk to the World Peace Pagoda. We followed the road out of town to a dam where we crossed the river on a hanging bridge and skirted the edged of small rice paddies. We were walking through small villages, with trails lined with rubbish and people washing in the streams. We found the start of the walk through the sal forest to the pagoda with the help of some local boys but after scrambling through the trees up slippery mud banks with no real path to follow, we realised it was more hassle than it was worth, the sun was out and the heat was oppressive. Instead, we wandered back to the hostel and spent the rest of the day sorting out bits for our Russia visas.
Phewa Tal, the lake in Pokhara.
We didn’t love Pokhara, it’s the jumping off point for a number of awesome treks and if we’d walked there i’m sure we’d have a different opinion of the place, we definitely intend to come back one day to hike but we were short on time as we had to return to Kathmandu to apply for our Chinese visas. It’s also has rafting, bungee jumping, parascending and all kinds of adventure sports that make it a big tourist draw but they were expensive and not really on our radar.

We ended the week with another travel day, leaving Pokhara to return to Kathmandu. The journey took just under 7 hours with breakfast and lunch stops again on the way. Once in Kathmandu we checked in to our hostel, packed the laptops and walked over to Himalayan Java, a chain coffee shop that everyone had been raving about that had good coffee, naughty cakes and fast internet. Wandering out later that night for dinner we ended up in the Irish Bar, excited by the thought of pub grub, but it was so noisy we didn’t stay long and went to a quiet pub next door watching the cricket while we ate. 

Week 105 - Dingboche, Lobuche, Gorak Shep, Periche, Monjo, Lukla (Nepal)

Our Everest Base Camp trek continued and the week started with our second acclimatisation day, this time in Dingboche. We’d realised the weather was at it’s best in the morning and set our alarm to get up while the skies were clear. Before breakfast me and Rhys had already climbed to a stupa for views into the next valley and over to Lhotse (8,516m), while the sun started to rise and light up the tips of the mountains surrounding Dingboche. As always, we’d managed to collect a couple of dogs who escorted us to the ridge where we extended our pack to six dogs. We came across a lot of friendly dogs during the hike, the majority black and with thick hair to fend against cold nights in the mountains- to name a few, we walked with Fruit Loop, Plaster Cast, Marmite and Onion.
Pre breakfast exploration in Dingboche as the sun was coming up.

Back at the teahouse we ate breakfast with the rest of the group before heading out in the cold for the walk to Chhunkung at 4,730m, the final stop before Island Peak, a one day hike further rising to 6,189m. It’s recommended that acclimatisation days are spent climbing to higher altitudes then descending to spend another night at the same level, Dingboche was at 4,440m. The trail took us up a steady gradient along the Imja Khola Valley, negotiating a path of loose boulders while we followed the river, crossing streams on stepping stones. The clouds had come in soon after we left Dingboche so again we missed out on the views, supposedly one of the most scenic side routes of the whole trek.

We ordered lunch in Chhunkung then the majority of the group opted to continue a further 100m climb to a ridge that despite having no views would hopefully make the following day easier by giving our bodies more exposure to higher altitude. Apparently, through the clouds stood the world’s 5th highest mountain, Makalu (8,462m), one of the world’s 14 mountains that stand over 8,000m tall, 8 of which in Nepal. Although we were above the tree line, making loo stops harder to find, the floor was carpeted with tiny, delicate, beautifully coloured flowers, from bright reds to cornflower blues, pinks and purples.

After lunch we were all feeling pretty sleepy and the thought of facing the cold winds on the walk back to Dingboche wasn’t very appealing but as it was cold and down hill we made less stops and made it back quickly, only to find another group had moved into the teahouse. After 5 nights of having places mostly to ourselves, having to share the log fire was a surprise, i’d hate to think how busy they get in peak season.

We stopped in the common room to warm up with a flask of hot lemon before retiring to our room for a bit of peace and quiet. The reduced oxygen in the air really made you feel sleepy and it was a task to stay awake until bedtime, something we’d been recommended to do to help with the altitude sickness. For dinner that night Rhys ordered tuna pizza and was disheartened when it came as a cabbage, carrot, cheese and tuna mix, the ingredients for all meals were the same and variety in diet was limited to noodles, potatoes, rice or bread.

The next day we headed to Lobuche, a climb to 4,930m. The first 2-3hrs took us to Duglha along a gradual incline where we stopped for tea by a river raging with ice cold glacier melt, where we filled our water bottles with such dirty water we couldn’t bring ourselves to drink out of them - even iodine doesn’t kill everything. 
Leaving Dingboche behind on route to Lobuche.
We then had a steep climb to the Memorial Park which left most of us out of breath. Lynn had been struggling with the altitude and managed to rent a horse to carry her up the worst of it. The park is incredibly peaceful and has a number of stone memorials wrapped in prayer flags and with poetic epitaphs to honour people who had attempted to climb Everest and died in the process. It brought it home a bit, although the trip to Base Camp is a tourist hike, climbing Everest itself is a hardcore challenge and although not the most technical mountain in the world, taking it lightly can be fatal. 
The walk from Dingboche to Lobuche.
From the Memorial Park we followed a river along a mostly flat section to Lobuche. At this point I started to feel lethargic and nauseous and despite it being the easiest section of the day I didn’t get a chance to enjoy it. Once in Lobuche where we stopped for lunch, a flask of hot lemon and lots of water seemed to quell the sickness and I joined the rest of the group who were continuing on a short outing to a ridge next to the teahouse. From the top of the ridge we got our first close up view of the glacier and the snowcapped peaks that until then had only been in the distance. Talking to the sherpas we realised just how much the glacier has shrunk in the last 20 years, pulling back almost to Base Camp from Lobuche.
Rhys and Bryce resting by the glacier, Lobuche.
View from the ridge in Lobuche towards Base Camp.
That night was a terrible nights sleep, I headed to bed early as I hadn’t slept well the whole trip, what with all the liquid you had to drink meaning you were up every hour in the night queuing for the loo. I was short of breath from the altitude and back to feeling nauseous.

The next morning I spoke to Gelu and decided to take Diomox (akin to taking sea sickness tablets while at sea) so I could enjoy the walk to Base Camp and up to Kala Pattar the following day. It was like a miracle drug, as soon as it hit my system I felt right as rain, by dilating your capillaries it enables your body to absorb more oxygen and so combats mild symptoms of altitude sickness. Most people in our group were already taking the drug from the start and by the end of it, only 4 people managed to make it all the way to Kala Pattar without taking it, Rhys, Ró, Ashleigh and Noemi. When you think about it, we climbed pretty high, baring in mind the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis is only 1,344m and when we skydived in Australia, it was only from 4,270m.
A beautiful morning in Lobuche with view of our teahouse.
I was glad to be feeling better and we headed out with a spring in our step to our final teahouse during the ascent, at Gorak Shep. It only took 3 hours following a trickle of a stream and we didn’t gain much altitude until the last kilometre or so which involved lots of short climbs and descents over loose boulders. Lunch at Gorak Shep was a welcome rest.
Rhys, nearly at Gorak Shep.
Then, after lunch, we headed to Everest Base Camp and we couldn’t have planned a more special place to be spending our two year traveling anniversary (go us!) It was a long walk and with the return to Gorak Shep, made for a long day. Although we didn’t climb much, the path was rolling and we were constantly either climbing or descending. Suddenly there seemed to be a lot of people around and there were queues to get passed some of the narrower sections. The final part of the walk dropped down to the glacier bed where sections were slippery with black ice. 
Me, nearly at Base Camp.
Actual Base Camp itself was a little unimpressive, just a pile of boulders drapped with prayer flags with views of the Khumba Icefall, the hardest part of the Everest climb and the sight of the 2014 avalanche that claimed the lives of 16 Nepalese guides. From Base Camp you can’t even see Everest as it’s nestled behind other mountains on the Tibetan border, but you can see a couple of tents that mark the New Base Camp (the one for trekkers is the Old Camp, for the new one you have to pay thousands of dollars for a permit), it would be really interesting to see how busy the new camp is in spring when people are there preparing to climb.

After 2 years of traveling, we make it to Everest Base Camp.
As for a few facts, Everest was first scaled in 1953 by the Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay while on a British led expedition. Since then, more than 6,850 people have made it to the top (and there are thought to be hundreds of bodies still up there), some even solo and some without Oxygen (if you were flown directly to the top of Everest without acclimatisation, you’d only have a few minutes until you passed out from lack of Oxygen and died). Hundreds of people set out to climb the mountain each year and it costs an absolute fortune to do so (upwards of GBP£30,000 for the cheapest companies), the success rate to climb is only about 56% with a 10% death rate. 

We stayed at the camp for nearly an hour. Our porters had followed us up with hot chocolate and cookies and we wandered around taking hundreds of photos and high fiving everyone. Although being there was the aim of our entire trek, we knew we still had a big challenge the following day to reach Kala Pattar. Of the 18 of us who started together, 16 had made it.

The sun had dropped below the mountains on the way back to Gorak Shep and the wind picked up. It was a cold walk and we moved quickly without stopping to prevent us getting too cold. By the time we reached the teahouse we were shattered and after a celebratory Mars Bar and hot lemon we took a nap before dinner. Most people had lost their appetites and forced down some food before turning in for an early night.
The walk back from Base Camp to Gorak Shep.
The earliest start of the trek and we were up and ready to climb Kala Pattar, a small hill(?!) at 5,545m with the path starting directly opposite our teahouse. The diomox had led me to having the best nights sleep of the entire trek but Rhys had started feeling lethargic and nauseous and hadn’t slept much at all. He battled on through though. We were 15 minutes late leaving the teahouse as we had to wait around for everyone to get ready and were all wrapped up in our puffer jackets against the bitter cold.

The climb was the hardest part of the trek. There was a lot of loose gravel and rocks and ice in places where the sun wasn’t yet up to defrost it. It felt like we were climbing for ages and it was the longest up hill section of the walk. We took it slowly and made it to the top in 2 1/4 hours, just after the sun had risen over the peak of Everest. 11 out of the 18 we were hiking with made it and some of those who stayed at Gorak Shep decided to get an head start on the descent while we climbed. Again, we had hot chocolate and cookies at the top and were happy in the knowledge that from here on it was downhill all the way back to Lukla. 
Everest before sunrise (the peak in the middle peering over from behind the closer peaks).
As we were late getting up to the peak, we were also the last leaving and had the place to ourselves, the view was spectacular with the valley rolling out beneath us and Everest in front of us peering out over it’s neighbours. It’s easy to forget just how high you are when everything around you is over 5,000m, I can’t even imagine standing at sea level and having an 8,488m mountain tower over you.
Rhys at the top of Kala Pattar, 5,455m, champion.
Our TnT trekking group at the top of Kala Pattar, Rex, V, Stan, Ró, Me, Rhys, Noemi, Kathy, Karlie, Ashleigh and Kathryn.
The way down was warmer as the sun was out and before we knew it we were back at the hotel being served breakfast. Rhys took a quick nap and we packed our bags for the porters to collect for the descent. We still had a long day ahead of us.
Descending from Kala Pattar towards Gorak Shep.
The return trail took us down to Lobuche where we stopped for lunch before continuing to Periche where we ended the day walking through sleet, glad to make it to a dung warmed common room where we ate dinner and stayed up playing cards. The evenings highlight was seeing one of the dogs we’d met on the way up run full pelt at us to say hello.

Walking from Gorak Shep to Lobuche.
Our tenth day of walking took us down to Khumjung at 3,700m. We had a huge descent before lunch, taking us down hill over a kilometre before climbing 500m again to the teahouse. The start of the day had been cold, with no fire in the lodge and we’d had a late start while we waited for everyone to get their stuff together. We didn’t make it to the planned lunch spot and ended up eating in Tengboche, where we’d stayed and visited the monastery. We still had some down hill to go after lunch to reach the river bed but we were back in the tree line and the temperature had warmed up a bit. The final descent was steep as we wove between trees and yaks before we began our final climb of the day to Khumjung.
Our tired group heading down to Monjo.
Khumjung was a beautiful little village and our favourite of the trek with a sacred craggy mountain towering over terraced plots and rows of stone houses. We followed a track passed piles of mani and small shops to a stupa on the far side of the village, opposite which we were staying. The common area had huge windows with views over town, the toilets were clean and the beds were comfy and warm. It felt like we were returning to civilisation despite the village being a little off the main trail. TnT, our trekking company is one of the only ones who stay there on the the return and even though it was just above Namche, there was hardly anyone else around.
Khumjung village.
After a hot lemon me and Rhys wandered out to explore, swiveling at every step to try to see where all the yaks were from the sound of their bells. We didn’t get far before we were enticed into a shop selling beautiful yak wool blankets and scarfs and ended up making a few purchases. Although probably a little more expensive than in Kathmandu, at least you feel like your money is going straight to the source. We treated ourselves to salt and vinegar Pringles and watched men playing a local game flicking plastic counters across a chalked board into holes. Ró wandered out later and returned to show us her new Yak wool dress, a scarf that she planned to artfully wrap around herself to make an elegant evening dress for our final farewell meal, I was glad to be at a lower altitude else all the laughter may have caused a black out.

We only had a short walk ahead of us on day eleven but rather than walk directly down to Monjo, we took a scenic route. Our little group decided to do a bit of final yak wool blanket shopping after breakfast and were running a bit late to get back for the school tour so we had to fast walk through the gates to catch up. No kids were about so there wasn’t that much to see apart from a big Sir Edmund Hillary statue that made us realise just how much he’s done for the villages surrounding Everest, building hospitals and schools, helping create the national park, bringing in programs to replant after climbing groups cut down all the trees for firewood, not just sending money but really getting involved. 

Next, we wandered up to the monastery, that although only small, held a Yeti skull in a locked cabinet. It was interesting to see, a cone covered in thick ginger hair giving off a strong wet dog smell but i’m doubtful whether it was real, even though i’m open to their existence. We stopped at a small hospital in Kunde, the next village along before descending to Namche.

Once in Namche we headed to one of the German bakeries for an expensive lunch, grateful to have something that wasn’t rice, potatoes or noodles. We then had some free time to finish off any shopping, more yak wool, yak bells, maps and T-shirts showing the route we’d just trekked. 

By the time we left Namche we were all pretty tired and didn’t really fancy the 2 hour walk we had left to make it to Monjo. Nevertheless we persevered, crossing back over the high bridge and two lower bridges, zigzagging up the valley passed the hordes of people trekking now peak season had started, to our teahouse, passing the time planning a Utopian community where we’d move to Khumjung, wear nothing but yak wool and make moisturiser and protein milkshakes from berries and plants.

After a great nights sleep following a night time PJ party in Ró’s humongous room, we were up early for our last day of walking. We still had 5 hours of trail to cover until we reached Lukla and we’d forgotten how much uphill was involved. It felt like an extremely long day and the ridge behind which Lukla was tucked, never seemed to get any closer. Finally we rolled in to town, Rhys and Ró racing the last 200m to be the first back (Rhys won). We dropped off our bags, ordered dinner and headed out to an underground Irish Bar for celebratory drinks with Ró, Karlie, Ashleigh, Bryce, Noemi, Rex and Kathy. I think Ashleigh even found a new favourite tipple in the hot rum punch.

Back at the teahouse our guides had arranged a buffet Dal Baht dinner in a separate room along with our porters. Food was great and was washed down with a few more drinks. Lots of dancing followed as we thanked our porters and assistant sherpas in style and getting to bed, although not late was all a bit hazy.