A Travellerspoint blog

The Bus that had it All

A tale of mystery, deception … and love on a Chinese bus

sunny 35 °C

Having spent the previous week or so exploring the southern Chinese province of Guanxi, hiking amongst the majestic Dragon Backbone Rice Terraces, cruising down the Li River in a bamboo/PVC pipe raft from Yangdi and enjoying the karst scenery exclusive to the region, it was time to make our way to Beijing. Having made the trip Guilin to Beijing by both train and plane the year before without hassle, the task of travelling the 2,000km didn't seem challenging, but as this was a new year, a new trip and new holiday, there had to be a challenge. The queue for tickets at the Guilin train station was unfathomably long, stretching through the ticket hall and spilling out the front entrance and onto the steps. After making our way inside, I thought my Chinese reading skills were failing me as looked up at a display screen to see that there were no tickets remaining to almost every destination, all booked out for the next 10 days. Hoping my Chinese reading was wrong (it has been known to happen) I followed the queue to the end where the man behind the counter, before I even had the chance to state my destination, uttered the words every traveller in China dreads to hear – “mei you” meaning ‘no’. With flights at this time of the year costing in excess of $300AUS one way we had to find another way.

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Fortunately, it was at that moment we were approached by a man who proposed an alternative solution – Why not catch a bus from Guilin to Beijing? Its only 2,000km and will only take 22 hours, he stated proudly. Normally I don’t buy tickets from hawkers outside train and bus stations, preferring to procure my tickets from the legitimate company at the station, but on this occasion, our alternative choices were seriously limited. After haggling the price down from an outrageous 850RMB to a more reasonable 500RMB (I was later told this was still an outrageous price to pay, but I realize my negotiating skills will never equal those of the Chinese). After settling on that price, we agreed to meet at his store (see: wooden table and chair on the footpath) out the front of the train station the next day, Saturday.

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Relaxing in the hostel that Friday night, reveling in the fact that we had found a cheap and easy way to get to Beijing and we would be there by Sunday evening, my joy was rudely interrupted by a phone call from the ticket salesman telling me there were no seats on the Saturday bus, the same bus I had just bought two seats on, and he told us we would have to catch the Sunday bus instead. Although an inconvenience, it wasn’t a problem and it did allowed me to bargain another 50RMB off each ticket.

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We had an uneventful Saturday exploring Guilin, wandering the streets and a relaxing Sunday morning before checking out of the hostel and hauling our packs to the train station. We agreed to meet the ticket salesman at 2pm at his desk, only for him to explain the bus was delayed and we would actually be leaving at 3.30pm. We took solace in the fact we thought this would just be a short delay and we would be on the bus soon enough and on our way to Beijing. This, however, turned out to be just the first of many, many delays. 3.30 eventually rolled around and, true to his word, the salesman came over to us, the only two foreigners sprawled out on their packs in the middle of a Chinese footpath, to say the bus was here. We followed him as he led us out of the train station and down a series of streets until we arrived at a minivan parked in the shadow of an underpass. My jaw dropped as I saw the six-seater minivan already packed with 7 people and their bags (there could well have been more people hidden inside the van!). I had made it clear to the salesman in my best Chinese that we wanted a sleeper bus (busses with beds along the aisles instead of seats), which he continued to assure me, was the case, even as we both looked at the crowded minivan. The sardines passengers inside where endlessly patient as I argued with the salesman until he eventually disclosed the minivan would drop us at another bus station where the sleeper bus would pick us up, only 10 minutes drive away. I conceded that 10 minutes in a sweaty Chinese oven/minivan wouldn’t be a problem, so we squeezed in, possibly suffocating a few others in the process (legally, Chinese busses only have to deliver 80% of their occupants alive anyway). 30 minutes latter and still crawling through the traffic of the tiny backstreets of Guilin, we began to wonder if we had been conned and we would indeed be spending the next 22hours trapped in this crowded minivan as it struggled along the road to Beijing. Just as I began to question how much of my sanity I was willing to sacrifice in order to reach Beijing, the van pulled over to the side of the road on the outskirts of the city. Sitting there on an assortment of chairs, stools, bags and anything else they could get their hands on were our fellow travellers, all loyally waiting for this mystery sleeper bus that should have arrived 2 hours ago.

Amongst the crowd was a family from Slovakia who had also chosen the bus as an alternative to the currently non-existent train tickets out of Guilin. Their destination was Xi’an, a city roughly half the distance of Guilin to Beijing, but they told me their selling point was that the bus only takes 22 hours and it’s a sleeper bus! Having heard this same sale pitch when we bought our tickets for a further destination, a quick look at a road map and a good memory of how terrible some Chinese roads can be, I was shocked by my naivety in accepting that the trip would only take 22 hours. I sat back down on my borrowed, rickety stool and hoped I was wrong and that we would indeed be in Beijing in 20 hours time, Monday evening. As minivans came and went, dropping off passengers and taking others away, including our new Slovakian friends, the hours crept slowly by and the sun began to sink, along with any hope I had of a sleeper bus arriving.

Finally, at 7pm, a convoy of minivans arrived and told everyone to get inside. Kuai yi dian! Hurry up, they yelled! Better than most tetris players, the man in charge managed to break their own previous record of 9 occupants in the minivan and upped it to 11 for this 30 minute trip. I was more impressed than annoyed - impressed that so many bodies not only had the ability, but also the willingness to contort themselves in unbelievable shapes to make more space for others. Wishing I had a snorkel so I could breath air that wasn’t directly from my neighbours armpit, I did my best to hold my breath for the remaining 30 minutes until we pulled up at another underpass outside an industrial district on the far outskirts of the city. The passengers all disembarked the van knowing more about their own and others bodies than they wanted, we all sat around confused for another half an hour as the leader of the minivan convoy screamed into his phone with who I assumed to be the bus driver. Judging by how stressed he seemed, I assumed the bus would not be making it to Guilin and he would have to break the bad news to what was already a sweaty, impatient and increasingly angry group of 30 travellers. His face eventually broke into a smile and he raced off into the bushes by the side of the road and as we stood there feeling as though he had just bailed on us rather than deliver the news, we heard a distant “follow me!”. Women grabbed their children, men picked up luggage, old women hauled suitcases and everyone chased after the man in the bushes, hoping to see a road on the other side and a sleeper bus.

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Feeling more like we were being people smuggled than embarking on a Chinese bus trip, we pushed through the bushes to try and keep up with the old grandmothers and their gargantuan suitcases, only to find that the other side of the bushes did in fact lead to a road, but to no ones surprise, no sleeper bus. As we settled down for what we thought would be another long wait and disappointed conclusion, a sleeper bus skidded to a halt in front of us with its horn blaring. I stood by the door as it opened, feeling the rush of cool, air-conditioned air engulf me as the bus driver stepped outside. We had made it to the bus. Next stop: Beijing!

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It was around 7.30pm at this point and I figured the previous 4 hours factored into the trip time so even though we were probably only 20km from where we had started at the train station, I foolishly thought we only had about 18hours to go and we would be in Beijing by Monday afternoon. Rookie error.

The sleeper bus was comfortable enough for the first few hours, but you’re your sharing your bed with a backpack and stand at 6’2”, the length of the beds aren’t exactly designed with you in mind. The height of my fellow passengers was easily a foot or so shorter and the thin beds seemed to provide all the space they would ever need. The coffin design at the end of the beds that places your legs in a cocoon under the passenger in front meant that we could neither fully extend our legs nor bend them comfortably, a position reminiscent of certain torture devices found in the Tower of London. We were therefore initially thankful for the frequent rest stops that provided a much needed opportunity to allow blood back into toes that had otherwise given up hope and use a trough that passes as a toilet at Chinese rest stops. By about the third rest stop in as many hours, each stop lasting for at least half an hour, I pondered whether every estimate had been wrong and the trip would actually take 4 or 5 days like some people had jokingly suggested at the hostel back in Guilin. I settled in to sleep around midnight, the comforting sound of a Chinese movie at full volume playing above my head, daring me to even attempt to sleep.

I had nothing to complain about however as my brother, travel companion and China initiate, Ethan, manage to score a bed that had a fresh, boiling tub of noodles spilt all over it. ‘Welcome to China!’, I yelled from the other end of the bus as I saw the disappointment on his face when he realized this was now his wet, beef noodle scented home for the next 18 hours.

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After failed attempts at sleep and trying to embrace the Chinese film that played until 3 am, the bus pulled into a bus station in a small city, where it sat idling for 40 minutes before telling everyone to get out. I knew this couldn’t possibly be Beijing, so I had to ask when all the passengers began removing their luggage from under the bus. They said we were transferring busses, and we were only 5 hours away from Beijing so we would take a normal seated bus. Following the other passengers to our new bus, Ethan shaking the last of the noodles out of his clothes, we loaded the bus and everyone boarded, expecting to depart in a matter of minutes. Sitting in the stifling heat of the bus, a new driver came over and told everyone to get off, as the bus wouldn’t be leaving until 3.30pm, even though it was only 9am at this point. Obviously, there was outrage from some passengers, many of who had already been travelling from further south than Guilin, but the bus driver just shrugged with indifference and disappeared, hopefully to reemerge at 3.30.

We stepped back into the hot sun and looked around at the desolate bus stop with no idea what city we were in, let alone what province of China this was. I asked 3 different people and received 3 different answers, but it seemed as though we were either in Hubei or Henan province, but without a map or Lonely Planet to remind me where those provinces are, it didn’t seem to matter. As we prepared to find a nice comfortable kerb or footpath to sit on for the remaining 6 and a half hours, a parking lot attendant came over and told us to follow him to his air conditioned office, muttering something to himself about foreigners that I didn’t quite understand. He led us just past the bus station to a little tin shed with, as promised, an air conditioner and a row of benches, before telling us we could wait here until the bus came. I asked him if he wanted any money for us being there but he just laughed and said he just wanted a conversation. We sat there chatting about our two countries, as he would run back and forth between us and drivers wanting to park their cars in his spaces. As the day progressed he would see some of his friends passing by and invite them in to have a chat, until it felt as though we had met half the city. We left for a while to grab some Uyghur bread for lunch and some mystery meat sausages from the supermarket, which Ethan was convinced was dog food (“At 10c a stick, they can’t possibly be real meat”). 3.30 eventually arrived so we said our goodbyes and thanked him for letting us enjoy his hospitality and air conditioning, and walked over to the bus to find that the bus driver was still nowhere in sight.

It was now 26 hours after we had started our journey and we where still far from Beijing (estimates varied from 5 hours to 18 hours, depending on the optimism of the passenger I asked). We stood around with nothing to do but wait and stare vacantly until 5.30 when a relaxed bus driver arrives and tells everyone to jump in. What was only moments before a relaxed scene of travellers and passengers lounging around patiently, turned rapidly into an aggressive fight for seats as people at the back of the queue realized there were more people than seats on the bus. As we were near the back we began to think we might miss this bus and be forced to catch the next one, whenever that came, until the driver marched down the steps and brought order to the masses, and surprisingly, pointed Ethan and I out and called us through, not letting anyone else on until we had made it to some seats. We felt lucky to have made it on, especially as we saw fellow passengers standing in the dust of the station, left behind as we drove away shortly after.

Ethan was sitting in the seat in front of me, next to a middle aged Chinese woman, and I was next to a man in a business suit, a clothing choice that was juxtaposed with the dirty condition of the bus and the unwashed Australian in shorts and t-shirt sitting by his side. As we arrived at the first of a bountiful supply of rest stops, I asked if my brother could please swap seats, to which he seemed hesitant, even annoyed, but he accepted. It turned out to be a beneficial decision for him, as the bus ride progressed he struck up a conversation with the woman next to him that must have been extremely interesting as they both began to kiss shortly after until they both fell asleep in an embrace. One does not often find love 27 hours into a cross-country Chinese bus trip!

Several hours after departing the mystery town in the unknown province, I noticed the first sign to Beijing, stating our final destination was only 750km away, the first acknowledgement that we were actually heading in the right direction! Although the bus was full and I had a bag on my lap the entire time, this bus trip was surprisingly comfortable. The 11 hours flew buy until we finally arrived in Beijing, only recognisable due to the capital number plates on the roads. We cruised past the last of the farmlands and moved into more industrial sections the outskirts of the massive city. Assuming we would be dropped off at a bus station or maybe Beijing West Train Station, I thought it was odd the driver pulled over to the side of the road, in an industrial section with no people visible in the twilight as sun was just beginning to rise, and told every one we had arrived. When I questioned him if this was the final stop, he just kept yelling ‘Beijing, Beijing’ and pushing any hesitant travellers through the door. With no bus stops or taxis near by, I thought that even after arriving in Beijing, the journey still wasn’t over. Fortunately, we had our first major stroke of luck as a lone taxi cruised along this desolate road and picked us up. ‘Ni men qu na er?’ ‘Where to?’ he asked with a welcoming smile and an instantly recognizable Beijing accent. Having started in Guilin at 2pm that Sunday, it was now 40 hours later and more than 2,500 kilometres away, but I could finally give directions to the hostel, ‘Sanlitun!’.

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Posted by jbnorman 22:13 Archived in China Tagged bus beijing guilin sleeper_bus Comments (1)

A Birthday/New Years Slaughter

The Annapurna Trek

overcast 15 °C

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Leaving Pokhara on a rainy miserable morning, we drove out to a small town that marked the start of the trek (the name escapes me…). Having done this trek the year before with my dad, I was familiar with the basic route. When I was here last year, I was suffering from a really bad stomach bug and struggled to even make it to the halfway point on the first day. Today however, I was feeling great and we made it to the town of Tikhedunga for the first night. This little guesthouse was one of the nicest I had seen on any of the treks in Nepal – 3 stories, with a shower and a large dining area and a beautiful garden courtyard overlooking a valley.

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Our next day was up to Ghorepani, the longest day of trekking, and we were lucky enough to have a heavy thunderstorm for several hours. My rain jacket, a $10 North Fake I had purchased in Yangshuo, China remained as waterproof as it had been on the Everest Base Camp trek – not at all. We finally arrived in a chilly Ghorepani by mid afternoon and warmed up and dried off by the fire in the guesthouse. I downed a bowl of potato soup, one of the most delicious meals that you can have after any day of trekking in Nepal.

The next day we woke up at 4.30am to get to the top of Poon Hill for the morning sunrise. Mum struggled at first due to the cold morning air and steep steps but she made it to the top just in time to see the first of the suns rays bouncing of the snowline of the largest peaks. Today was my birthday and I couldn’t think of a better way to have celebrated it. We dawdled back to the guesthouse where we pack up the rest of our gear and headed of for Tadapani.

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As we stopped in a small town for tea, our Sherpa ran after some villagers heading off into paddock. He yelled out for us to follow and as we rounded the bend we saw all the townspeople gathered around a wooden post all laughing and having a great time. Upon asking Bishnu, our guide, he said they were celebrating Nepalese New Year by slaughtering a herd of Yaks and drinking their blood. As he said this, some of the younger men of the village had separated a yak from the herd, lassoed it and dragged it into the center of the circle where they tied its head to a post. Another person came over with a pair of scissors and started trimming the hair on one side of the yaks neck, then pulled out a razor and nicked a large vein causing blood to squirt out all over his shirt and hands. The crowd pushed in, plastic, blood-stained cups in hand all jostling for a refill of this 'yak wine'. I was offered a cup (for $1.50) and, strangely, I refused. Normally I would have leapt at the chance to try a new cuisine (having already eaten dog, snake, lambs penis etc.) and a new custom, but I guess the fact we still had a couple of days walking to go and not wanting to get sick, I politely refused. After the Yak became too weak to stand from all the blood loss, they released it back to the herd where we were told it would quietly die. They planned to do this same ritual with the entire herd of Yaks, around 30 or so. Even though the whole scene could have been quite macabre, I definitely felt that it was more of a celebratory atmosphere. Certainly the most interesting birthday party i've ever had.

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Tadapani is another beautiful Himalayan village with a stunning view over a thick forest and up to overarching peaks, a view best enjoyed early in the morning. This days walking was some of my favourite as it was walking through forests, climbing over rocks, treading through small creeks and sliding down the muddy paths left by donkeys and yaks. A fantastic day walking that left us covered in mud. I remember that there is some point along this days trek that offers the best view of the mountain Machu Pitche, the “Fish Tail Mountain”.

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Our last two days were meandering walks from that lead from Landruk to Dhampus then finally to the road that lead back to Pokhara. Although not the most physically arduous trek available in Nepal, its certainly one of the most beautiful that offers great views of the Annapurna’s without going to a higher altitude. Having done the trek with both my parents now at different times, ive certainly enjoyed it but am ready to try a different, more challenging trek with them next time (if they are up for it!).

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In the next entry, a brief stay in Hong Kong, a day as a high roller in Macau then back to explore Chinas westernmost province, Xinjiang.

Posted by jbnorman 23:30 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Royal Chitwan Nature Reserve

sunny 25 °C

Well rested after a few days in Kathmandu, I was ready to head off to Chitwan Nature Reserve. After seeing one of the most amazing looking sandwiches at my hotel, I was compelled to try one for dinner. I ordered one “Encounter Special” and just as it came out, the Kathmandu power went out, leaving me to enjoy my meal in pitch-blackness. Now, I don’t know what it was in the sandwich but it gave me food poisoning for the 4th time on my trip (4 times in 4 months is a pretty good average when you consider that my diet in China consisted of 30 cent bowls of dumplings for 3 meals a day!). Unfortunately, this was the evening before my flight meaning I was incapacitated the next day, so I missed my flight. Luckily, I managed to change the flight for the following day, so after a visit to foreigners hospital (thank you insurance!), I was off to Chitwan!

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The flight was a definite improvement to the previous Lukla-Kathmandu flight. The Chitwan Nature Reserve is a national park located in southern Nepal, bordering on India. From the airport, it was about a 1-hour drive before the bus ran out of road and I had to transfer to a small fishing boat and paddled across the river. It was then a short walk through a section of the jungle where the air was so thick with butterflies you almost had to push past them with your hands. The first activity in the reserve was an elephant ride. I climbed up a three meter platform to be able to step out smoothly onto the elephant’s wooden saddle. The next 2 hours offered impressive close ups of rhinos and deer from the rickety seat atop of the elephant. Most of the rhinos didn’t seem to even notice the elephant and the enraptured tourists burning through their cameras memory cards. They were so focused on eating grass or chilling in the mud and water..

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The next day I hoped on a jeep safari that took us out to parts of the reserve that looked more like savanna than jungle where we saw peacocks flying overhead and huge deer racing in front of the vehicle. I was then dropped back in camp to head off for a jungle walk. They told us what to do in the event of finding an aggressive rhino and the even more rare chance of finding a tiger. Both escape strategies seemed to rely on you being able to run faster than the person next to you!

We spotted some monkeys screaming and jumping out of the trees as well as some crocodile’s sunbaking on the beach. On the boat ride back down the river to the camp we saw more crocodiles floating just below the surface. After lunch it was time for my most anticipated activity – the elephant bathing. A large female elephant walked down to the water where she started spraying herself down with her trunk before completely dunking herself under the water. I swam out to her and was told by her handler to climb up onto her back and hold on tight. Thinking I was just there just for a photo, I was surprised when the handler yelled something at the elephant and she dropped under the water then stood back up all while shaking her shoulders and head trying to throw me off. The longer I held on, the wilder she got until she through me off across the water. The elephant bathing session turned out to be more like an elephant rodeo! A lot of fun for all the tourists but the elephants seemed to enjoy it more than anyone.

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One of the nicest experiences was sitting in a treehouse enjoying a beautiful Nepali sunset and Everest beer as rhinos and elephants waded across the river, metres away. That was a beautiful moment and one of my favourite experiences of the trip so far.

I had another elephant ride the next morning before flying back to Kathmandu. I waited there for a couple of days until my mum came over from Australia. She had ten days in Nepal so I had organized a 6day trek for us on the Annapurna Sanctuary Trail. After a day showing her around the city we caught a flight out to Pokhara. The relaxed contrast between Kathmandu and lakeside district of Pokhara became immediately apparent as we drove to our guides house for lunch with his family.

Coming in the next entry (coming soon…hopefully), the Annapurna Trek, Hong Kong, Macau then back to a beautiful spring time Beijing.

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Posted by jbnorman 09:38 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Everest Base Camp Trek

12 Days of Innumerable Steps, a few days of Sickness and a Memory of a Lifetime

sunny 0 °C

Arriving in Kathmandu at midnight from a stop over in Dhaka and Hong Kong, I was really hoping for a hassle free airport pickup that I had pre-arranged. Unfortunately, as i had suspected would be the case, none of that went the way I planned. The hotels vehicle was nowhere to be seen and when asking taxi drivers if they could take me to the hotel, none of them knew where it was or if it even existed. The fact it might not have even existed proved a problem, as i did hope to sleep that night. Instead i caught a taxi to "Hotel Encounter", just outside of Thamel. The taxi driver was keen to practice his english, but his preferred conversation topics varied from the typical questions of family and where i come from and where more in the range of his preferred race of prostitute (Russian and Chinese) and how easily he could supply me with marijuana.

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Marijuana Incense

I had a day to spend in Kathmandu before the trek. Having already seen the sights last time I was here (Nov 2010), I just wandered around Thamel. Last time I was in Nepal I was with my Dad and was offered drugs a total of zero times. On this occasion I counted how many offers and it came to the wholesome number of 22.

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My guide Govinda and I

It was an early start for the first day of the trek - 7.30am, one of the earliest rises I've had on this trip. I met with my guide and porter for the trip - Govinda, a 48 year old man from Pokhara who guides all over Nepal. We left to Kathmandu domestic airport where we caught our 30minute flight to Lukla (2820m) without a problem. The plane was a tiny, 8 seater with a roof so low I had to crawl down the aisle to reach my seat at the front of the plane. I was seated so close to the pilot, I could steered the plane from my seat. Upon approaching Lukla airport, I felt nervous as I remembered Nepal notoriously poor aviation record and the sight of the 100m long sloped runway finishing at a large stone wall certainly added some extra excitement as we made a speedy descent. It was 11am when we arrived, so we walked straight through Lukla before and onto Monjo (2840m) where we spent the night. It was an easy first day and as we arrived at Monjo so early, I felt we could have easily kept going to Namche Bazaar (3440m). Like almost all the guest houses along the trek, the room was simple but perfectly comfortable with 2 beds and a bathroom down the hall. A sleeping bag is necessary as the beds usually only have a pillow and a thin blanket.

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The Lukla Airport. So chilled I could walk right out onto the runway and have a nap if I wanted to.

The second day we headed out at 8.30am, a little late in the morning in my opinion but Govinda said that at the pace we were going it would be fine. The trek to Namche was the first time the trek showed some difficulty as after walking though a valley, along a river and crossing several long suspension bridges, there was a long stretch of uphill that concluded at Namche. We arrived at Namche around midday. I went of to explore the largest village that we would encounter along the trek. It had no shortage of guest houses, trekking stores and German bakeries. I had a coffee at one of the bakeries that overlooked the town and the large snow peaked mountains across the valley. Up around the 4000m mark on the nearby mountains, Govinda pointed out a deluxe resort where guests have to be delivered by helicopter. Although it would be an interesting experience, it wouldn't be nearly as rewarding as trekking there. The next day was an acclimatisation day in Namche, but instead of just sitting around drinking coffee and Everest beer, we hiked up to the top of a nearby hill where I caught my first glimpse of Mt Everest in the distance. It wasn't the most spectacular looking mountain, as there were many more eye catching mountains such as my favourite, Ama Dablam (6856m), south of Everest. Having spoken to a trekker who was returning from Everest Base Camp (EBC), I realised I would need a good down jacket. As every store in town sold them, I managed to pick up a good North Fake jacket for AUS50. For both lunch and dinner I ate the Nepalese classic dish, Dal Bhat, a fantastic combination dish of rice, vegetable curry, lentil soup, potatoes and a papa dam, all of which is unlimited per order so you can have as much as your stomach can handle.

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One of the many suspension bridges that cross the rivers and gorges in the region

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The streets of Namche Bazaar

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Ready to continue on, we left at our standard time of 8.30am to get to Tengboche (3860m). It was all flat or downhill for the first half of the trek until we reached another suspension bridge crossing a particularly crazy set of rapids. As i was halfway across, I see Govinda turn and yell at me to run to get off the bridge. I got off just before a herd of 20 yaks pushed past me to get on the bridge. Its not a good idea to be on the bridge with the yaks as if they get spooked, they will just run, knocking or dragging you with them. It was that evening in Tengboche that I spoke to a man with a huge gash across his arm when a yak had crushed him onto the side of one of the bridges cables. Tengboche was a good looking town with a large paddock in the centre and a huge monastery to the left. As I arrived, there wasnt a single person around except for a cow standing in the middle, mooing as loud as it could. I tested out my new down jacket that afternoon and evening, and was pleased that, although a copy jacket, it did indeed keep me warm against the cold air and wind. I went and had a photo with one of the towns residents, a large yak trying to sleep in the sun and not caring at all about the trekkers that marched right by him. This was the first cold night of the trek and I was great to retreat to my sleeping bag after dinner for an early night.

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A friendly Yak enjoying the sun after a long day hauling crucial gear for one of the many Everest expeditions

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Our next day had the first sign of some difficulties arising. Govinda took longer than usual to get ready and throughout the morning, he would disappear well behind me, strange when previously we walked together or him in front. I didnt think anything of it but we decided to have a rest at Pangboche (3930m). We drank Hot Lemon at a small restaurant that felt so close to Ama Dablam that I could reach over and grab some snow from its peak. From this close view, I could see all the details of the mountain and thought that although a dwarf compared to Everest, it would still be a hairy climb up. After the refreshing drinks we continued on. I was fully expecting to arrive and stay at Dingboche (4410m) that afternoon, dump our bags then do a quick acclimatisation hike up to Lobuche (5100m) and return to Dingboche for the evening, all as planned. It was then a shock when Govinda stopped me at Shomare to say that we would be spending the night there as he was feeling to sick to continue. I was seriously dissapointed but didnt want to push him or take him to a higher altitude where he would feel far worse. I told him I would still be doing the acclimitisation hike up to Lobuche and return that evening. He decided that he would come with me. We made it to Dingboche in 30 minutes without the weight of the packs and stopped for lunch. The weather was beginning to change and it looked like an afternoon storm would be coming in so Govinda suggested we turn back. I realised that a night at Shomare would delay us by a day as we would still need to stay in Dingboche to acclimatise for one night. I suggested to Govinda that I go back to Shomare and grab both his bags and mine and bring them here so we could stay the night. He agreed. It was a difficult load due to both its weight and the awkwardness of carrying 3 bags (one on my back, one on my front and the other on my right shoulder). It took me and hour and a half but I made it and certainly had a lot more respect for the Sherpas who carry far more difficult and cumbersome loads for far longer than I did. I met three Americans that night in Dingboche who were on the way to climb Lobuche East then climb Everest. Amazing.

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The crazy loads that some of the porters, donkeys and Yaks have to carry

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At 6am I was woken by Govinda with the news that he could no longer continue the trek. He said his stomach problems had gotten far worse overnight and he needed to descend to a lower altitude. He was deeply apologetic and suggested that I descend with him. I decided that I had come so far already, I didn't want to just turn around and quit now so I told him I would continue to EBC. It was a shame that he got sick because it meant that we would not be able to cross the famous Cho La Pass (5330m) to reach Gokyo. I packed just enough supplies (thermals, down jacket, toothbrush, medicine, journal, money, sleeping bag) for the expected 3 days I would be away from Govinda and my main pack. We agreed to meet in Pangboche at the Ama Dablam Guest house once I returned. I had a fantastic breakfast called the "Snow Lion Special" which was toast, potatoes, eggs and baked beans with tomato sauce - the perfect breakfast I thought. I then headed off for my first day trekking alone.

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Perfect weather for Dingboche - Lobuche

I couldn't have asked for better weather that day. Although it was quite cold with a bit of wind, the skies were perfectly clear offering panorama views of mountains to the south west. It was a really enjoyable and easy days walk to get to Dughla (4620m) where i had a hot lemon drink (my favourite drink thats available at all the guest houses). The next part of the day was a scramble up a steep rocky slope to a large stoney flat with memorials to all the Sherpas and mountaineers who had died in the course of trying to summit Everest. It was a sobering sight to see how vast and how many plaques and stone memorials there were. It was just another 30minutes walk to then reach Lobuche (5100m) and although the ground was just a gentle slope, courtesy of a large glacier, I found myself, like everyone else, very much short of breath as I walked. Throughout the walk up from Dingboche I saw dozens of emergency helicopters flying up to EBC to evacuate people who were sick of injured.

I arrived at Lobuche and checked into a guest house. I relaxed in the warmth of the dining hall with a bowl of vegetable soup before heading out for an acclimatisation hike up a glacial moraine. I came back to write in my travel journal by the fire but found myself feeling slightly sick in the stomach. I figured it must just be nerves. I knew that tomorrow would be a long day. I would rise at 5am and be out the door by 5.30am for the 6-7hour trek up to EBC. It would then be another 3 hours back to Lobuche - a long, exhausting 10hour day in the thin air at 5000+ metres above sea level. I ordered potato soup for dinner (that and Dal Bhat are the top dishes to try on any Nepalese trek), but as soon as it arrived, I was feeling so sick I could barely manage half of the tiny bowl. I then had to race off to the toilet which I learnt where outside. Squat toilets, although more hygienic and in case you are interested, my preferred option when travelling in Asia, are far more difficult to use when, thanks to many people urinating on the floor at -20 degrees, means squatting on slippery "urine-ice". I slipped over once upon entering but managed to save myself and my clothes from a disgusting and painful mess. As i left the toilet I realised I had a pretty bad case of food poisoning. I thought back to who the delicious culprit must have been and realised it was that fantastic Snow Lion Special from Dingboche. I remembered the tomato sauce they used must have been the same one i saw sitting in the sun growing lumpy and seriously inedible. I decided to go to bed and hope that I would feel well enough to continue in the morning.

I have never in my life had a night as bad as that one, nor do I think I ever will. Even though my sleeping bag was made for -30 degrees, I spent the whole night in a mad shiver. Muscle cramps spread across my entire body, felt dizzy and when I looked around the room it was spinning around like crazy. On top of this I had to go outside to the toilet every 20mins, sliding along the walls and stumbling up and down steps struggling to keep any form of balance. By 4.30am, I could barely lift myself out of bed, let alone walk the 10hours to EBC. I just lay there feeling completely alone in the middle of the Himalayas. I doubted I would be able to walk back down to Dingboche so I decided I would see what other options I could have to get off the mountain, mainly thinking of helicopter evacuation. I did my best to sleep until daybreak but without success. By the time sunrise came, I rolled over to look out my window, only to see snow. Flying sideways.

It was a snowstorm outside with winds so strong it was coming in horizontally. I realised that this eliminated any chance of helicopter evacuation so I just sat there for a little while thinking over my options. I figured I could stay here another day until tomorrow but I didnt want to do that, in case my stomach bug got worse. I eventually decided I would have to walk down so I got up and began packing my gear. It took me an hour to pack even the small amount of gear I possessed and by the time I was ready to leave, it was 9am. I walked outside to find the town completely empty of trekkers, further giving me the feeling of isolation. I started making my way down to Dughla but I had to stop every 20 metres to catch my breath, rest or vomit. It took me 3hours to walk to Dughla from Lobuche. I went inside the warmth of the sole guest house and warmed up by the fire. I ended up waiting there for an hour before deciding to continue on to Dingboche.

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One of the rare moments where I wasn't curled in the foetal position vomiting up different internal organs. Returning from Lobuche - Dingboche

This was the most difficult part of the day as there was no visible path. I found myself walking in a set of Yak tracks in the snow that looked like they were going to Dingboche. I followed these for as long as I could until they dissapeared and I was just crossing virgin snow. I felt lost as visability was reduced to 20 metres and I couldnt find any recognizable landmarks or estimate my distance covered. I sat down on a rock and thought how much miserable the situation was for me, but how in the near future I would look back and laugh (I am laughing at myself as I write this). I never felt in like I was in serious danger, as I knew what terrible conditions people actually up on Everest must be going through and I felt far more sympathetic for them than I did for myself. After 20 minutes sitting on the rock, thinking what to do, I noticed the Sherpa walking towards me. I didnt speak to him but I followed his tracks as I knew he must have come up from Dingboche. It was a few hours later that I arrived in Dingboche, feeling completely exhausted and no better than I did that morning. The total days hike took me seven and a half hours. A normal person in good weather would have taken 2hours to do the same route, but it didnt matter to me because I had a warm place to rest.

The next morning I was feeling better, still not 100%, but good enough to continue on to Pangboche and meet up with Govinda. The only problem with that was that when I arrived in Pangboche, Govinda was nowhere to be found. I went to every guest house and restaurant in the town and no one new who he was or where he went. I thought that maybe he had bailed on me and stolen my pack. I had no phone or number to contact him on so I had to find the towns computer and send some frantic emails to his boss asking what was happening. It took 2hours, but his boss replied saying that Govinda was feeling more sick than he thought and was now recovering at the guest house in Namche Bazaar. It was a nuissance, but ultimately no one was to blame and nothing could be done about it. I continued on that day to Tengboche. By that evening, I managed to have my first full meal since the measly vegetable soup 2 days ago in Lobuche. That night I had a good nights sleep and felt considerably better the next morning.

The feeling of fully recovering was short lived as an hour into the walk from Tengboche to Namche Bazaar, I was back to having serious stomach cramps that required a rest before I could continue each time. I eventually made it to Namche and checked up on Govinda at the guest house. He seemed perfectly fine to me, playing cards and drinking Chang (a local Sherpa spirit), which I found infuriating considering I had been so sick, when he was just chilling back here with some friends. I spent the afternoon and evening reading by the fire and thinking about what we would do for the rest of the trek. I had 9 days before I needed to be back in Kathmandu for the arrival of my mum and our trek together in Annapurna. This gave us a limited amount of time to up to Gokyo Lakes and I didnt think we could meet that deadline, especially if Govinda became 'sick' again. I eventually decided, after consulting with Govinda (who said he was too sick to continue hiking), that we should return to Lukla and fly to Kathmandu. I was seriously demoralised and filled with a sense of guilt and shame that I hadn't made it to EBC. This feeling was made far worse by the fact that people 3 or 4 times older and fatter than me had made it up without even so much a stomach ache. As sorry as i felt for myself, I never regretted making the decision to make this trek. Although I didn't make it up, I had alot of fun and an interesting challenge in the form of getting my vomiting, debilitated self of the mountain without any assistance.

We made it to Phakding where we spent one night before continuing on to Lukla the next day. Our flight back to Kathmandu was arranged for the following day so I spent the day using the free wifi at a 'Starbucks' cafe to contact the outside world and manage emails and other travel plans. It was here I started organising my trip to Chitwan Nature Reserve - the next blog entry that will be online shortly, when I get around to writing it, as im currently in Xian, China and don't know where i'll be in the next few days. Hua Shan maybe? Who knows...

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Starbucks and a herd of Yaks juxtaposed in front

Posted by jbnorman 03:08 Archived in Nepal Tagged trek nepal everest_base_camp ebc Comments (1)

The Route to Beijing

22hours of Train and 46hours of Buses

sunny 10 °C

After a day lounging in the strong, high-altitude sun of Shangri-La reading and getting sunburnt, I decided with a Geraint and a Dutch friend from the hostel, Fred, that we should see some more of the region. I went to the train station with Fred on some hired bicycles to buy bus tickets to Deqin. Although the town of Deqin is only 180km away from Shangri-La, it took us 8hours by bus to get there driving entirely on thin dirt tracks along the side of some formidable cliffs (there were some points that I guessed 4WD would have struggled past but our bus driver managed just fine with a cigarette in one hand and texting with his phone in the other). Some would call this bus ride a slow, painful form torture but for Geraint and I, it turned out to be a lot of fun. About 30 passengers were squeezed into a small mini bus made for a number far less than that. All around us there was chain smoking next to ‘no smoking’ signs, yelling into mobile phones, exotic smells coming from the shrink wrapped chicken feet everyone was eating, rubbish being thrown around the bus and out the windows (many of which somehow flying onto my lap) and numerous other shenanigans that could only go down on a rural Chinese bus.
The road to Deqin

The road to Deqin

Bus to Deqin

Bus to Deqin

Along the way, the bus stopped at a small restaurant where, with no other options around, passengers are charged exponential amounts for lunch. Previously having been to a similar stop where I had a free meal, I told Geraint that the meals here would be free, which I genuinely believed. Having already told me he wasn’t hungry but hearing that the food was free, he raced of to the kitchen to come out with one of every dish they had. After we had finished what was left on the communal plates, I saw Geraint’s face drop as he saw the lady come round accepting payment for each dish. She smiled widely as she saw the small mountain of plates and bowls that we had accumulated and named the price - $10 (expensive when you are travelling on a budget and consider the usual cost of a meal in rural China). As it was Geraint’s turn to foot the bill, he paid but I could have sworn I saw a tear in his eye as he did so. We spent the remainder of the bus ride laughing at how he always manages to get scammed at every turn and him telling me that he wasn’t even hungry to begin with.

Looking out at Deqin

Looking out at Deqin

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After 8hours and three passes over 5000 metres above sea level, we made it to Deqin, where, apart from the large mountain that is the towns claim to fame, we were slightly disappointed with what we found – nothing. From the luxury of Shangri-La as the best youth hostel I have ever been to (6 beds to a room, electric blankets, private bathroom with hot water showers, quality food – all for AUS $4), we were now in a dodgy little Chinese hotel where for the same price we got next to no comfort. The rooms were on the roof, five stories up with a hand railing that didn’t even reach my knees – an OH&S inspector would have loved it. The lack of comfort wasn’t an issue as we were only there for two nights. After our days of exploring the town, eating my regular Chinese diet of at least 20 Chinese dumplings (jiaozi) each day and whatever regional beer is on offer (in Yunnan it is Dali Beer – not recommended), we got onto another bus back to Shangri-La, this time loaded with supplies of strawberry wafers (which lasted less than 30 minutes) and Chinese bread and bananas to make some “Australian Sandwiches” (mashed banana in bread).

Geraint and I wanted to make our way to Chengdu; a journey Lonely Planet says should take 4 – 5 days by bus from Shangri-La. We agreed that this would be doable and we got our first ticket for the trip. Another 8hour bus ride led towards the town of XiangCheng, an interesting combination of a provincial border town filled with minorities of Yunnan and Qinghai. We ate at a hole in the wall Qinghai restaurant fully equipped with dirt floor and a 50-inch plasma television. We were joined by two police officers that were probably manning one of the hundreds of passport checks that we passed along the way. We seemed to be the only travellers in the town and after an hour exploring the main street, we went back to the hotel, which was half-built in an extravagant Tibetan style but entirely empty. We handed our passports over to the owner to fill out the “Foreign Alien” form that is necessary at all Chinese hotels, but is more strictly enforced on the border of Tibet.

At the XiangCheng bus station, we tried buying tickets for the next leg of the journey, a 14hour epic from XiangCheng to Kangding. It was difficult to communicate to the lady behind the counter as she ignored us in between rounds of the poker game she was playing and regular calls on her mobile phone. I did my best not to punch though the glass separating us as stress levels soared on our side but we eventually got our tickets for $15 plus a commission of $2, which we guess she took for herself as we noticed it failed to find its way to the cash register.

We thought that we had established that we couldn’t get a bus ride worse than the one Shangri-La to Deqin but we were to find out soon how wrong we were. We took the seats at the back of the bus and when no one else sat there, we had all 5 seats to ourselves – a good start to the trip we thought. The other passengers had all filled the bus from the front, desperate to get seats as close to the driver as they could because they clearly knew what we didn’t. We only realized our mistake of sitting at the back once the bus hit the first of what would be an immeasurable amount of potholes. The lack of suspension (correction: no suspension whatsoever) for the back wheels meant we were lifted and bounced out of our seats and thrown around the bus like two rag dolls at every turn and bump. It was a bit of a laugh at first but after ten minutes, I had hit my head on the roof twice, bitten my tongue in half (almost) and smashed every limb into the window and armrest. Our sense of humour could only last so long before we were eventually keeping to ourselves, subdued to our fate, trying to take ourselves to a happy place and realizing we were both probably going to have a bad case of post traumatic stress disorder after this incident. We eventually made a triumphant arrival to Kangding (with a squashed spinal cord and probably and inability to have children in the future) where we where treated like celebrities at a paparazzi storm as we disembarked the bus. We were swarmed by different people wanting us to come to their hotel before we eventually chose another $4 hotel that had even less luxury than Deqin and was situated right next to what looked to be the most popular brothel in Kangding. I ate some dumplings that definitely didn’t look or taste right and spent the rest of the evening in fear that I would be sick the next day for our final herculean bus ride.

I woke up and was superbly happy to find myself in good health and not vomiting from the dumplings. We got onto what we hoped would be our last bus journey for a long time to come, and made our way towards Chengdu. This bus was actually the height of Chinese travel luxury – a comfortable leather seat at the front of the bus and ‘no smoking’ signs that were actually acknowledged and followed – it was heaven. We pulled into Chengdu and after a bit of deliberation we decided to go to Sims Cozy Guesthouse, a pricey option at $6 but well worth it. We had made it to Chengdu from Shangri-La in three days with a total of 30hours on painful buses, beating the Lonely Planet estimate by at least a day.

Chengdu didn’t end up being one of my favorite Chinese cities (a title that is reserved for Chongqing and Beijing) but it did have some decent food and a McDonalds, which I enjoyed in abundance after a diet consisting almost entirely of just Chinese food, although very nice, made a good change. I eventually grew bored of Chengdu as I had been there previously in 2007 and had seen all the city had to offer and was not keen to see the sights again.

I bought my $50 hard-sleeper train ticket to Beijing and was due to depart the next day. I said goodbye to Geraint, who was heading back to Kangding by bus in order to travel northwest to Qinghai and Xinjiang, eventually hoping to end up in Kazakhstan. We agreed to meet up again at some point again this year, possibly in Jordan or India and we then went our separate ways. The hard-sleeper class on the Chinese trains isn’t too bad. There was no room for my small day bag in the overhead racks so I had to place it behind my head on my bed, drastically reducing the already midget sized bed to next to nothing. I did have the comfort of the top bunk (the cheapest), which allowed me to have the majority of my legs hanging down in the aisle, only to be bumped occasionally during the 22hour ride by the (rare) tall Chinaman.

I arrived in Beijing early in the morning where I caught the already packed subway to my home away from home in Beijing – the Sanlitun Youth Hostel. I enjoyed the next 6 days in Beijing where I met with friends, visited my old school, had dinner with my host family, partied with some French and Polish friends in Sanlitun and at the hostel bar, watched countless hours of TV shows and movies on my computer and waited to leave to Kathmandu. During all that, I had one sick day, which was almost as bad as the last time I was sick in Beijing (see “One Week in Beijing”). By the end of it all, I did eventually get to the airport and board my flight and I was of to Kathmandu.

Posted by jbnorman 02:37 Archived in China Tagged bus train beijing chengdu shangri-la kangding xiangcheng Comments (1)

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