Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Aussie Adventures

No year of global travel adventures would be complete without a visit to my homeland, Australia, so a group of friends and I spent a few weeks there in May, exploring the country, and bonding with the many strange creatures we found.

Firstly, a HUGE apology to my many friends and family who I didn’t get a chance to see while I was in Australia. As soon as I announced I’d be heading Down Under, a swarm of friends from all over the world decided this was their chance to visit Oz, so subsequently the seven of us spent 90% of our time travelling and touring around the country, leaving me with little free time to hang out with friends from home. I promise I’ll return again soon and hope you’ll forgive me and want to see me then!

Our international crew of Guri, Lee, Amanda, Eric, Elena and Sharbani, flying in from four continents, spent a couple of days in beautiful Sydney, soaking up the harbour and beach sights, sampling Sydney restaurants, and checking out the nightlife. All were deemed to be of pretty damn good quality, (although Guri would like to state emphatically that it’s not quite Moscow for nightlife). Mum and Dad had recently moved into a stunning harbourside apartment, so while we lost the space and beach frontage of my childhood home, we weren’t exactly suffering when it came to quality of accommodation. Unfortunately, with my Mum, Dad, and sister all overseas, I only actually got to see Dad, who appeared for a 48-hr guest appearance, which was great to see him for the first time in over a year.

After a couple of days acclimatising and regrouping (and Sharbani and I getting used to the comforts of civilization again), we flew north to Far North Queensland, home of the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest, thousands of gorgeous beaches, and Cane Toad Racing (you’ll have to ask Lee about this one). We stayed at the Mirage in Port Douglas, and spent 4 days swimming, diving, eating, drinking, and relaxing (when Cam wasn’t cracking the whip to get sightseeing done). We visited the Reef and Rainforest, as well as Cape Tribulation, one of the few places in the world where virgin rainforest goes right to the beach, with a reef right offshore.

We next flew to the Red Centre, and spent a few days driving through the heart of Australia, seeing such sights as Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), the Olga’s (Kata Tjuta), and King’s Canyon (don’t know what this is called in Aboriginal). The Outback captured everyone’s heart, although all were a little perplexed at the multibillion dollar tourist industry that had grown up around what is essentially just a big rock. The other excitement is that Eric finally turned up, having been scheduled to arrive the day we arrived, but waiting until a week later to mysteriously appear in Guri's hotel room. We rented cars and drove in convoy through the desert, travelling almost 1000km over two days to see all the sights and experience Australia's desert heartland.

Once done in the desert, it was back to Sydney for a few more days of sightseeing, eating, and drinking. We headed to the Hunter Valley to deepen everyone's appreciation of Australian wine, and ate yet more fabulous seafood. As everyone started to dribble back to their respective overseas homes, I was left needing a vacation from my vacation! Next stop- Thailand!

Thanks to everyone for coming from all over the world to visit my home country, it was great to have you all there.

As always, the photos are here.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Bhutan: Disneyland of the East

Bhutan, the mystical and virtually unknown Himalayan kingdom, sandwiched between India, China, Nepal, and Bangladesh, is a fiercely independent and proud nation with much to offer tourists. For better or worse, this often comes in the form of 100% pre-packaged tours to pre-defined areas that are “approved” for tourists to visit, complete with gho-wearing, smiling & waving Bhutanese, “tourist” hotels serving “international” food (only one Bhutanese restaurant in the country), all completely prepaid for using the government’s mandated $200/tourist/day minimum. The upside of this is that the government and the people have a huge incentive to look after their environment and local culture, so all-in-all, it’s probably better than the free-for-all in Nepal (although many similarities exist, including the locals’ incessant use of car horns as a crude form of sonar as they navigate the streets).

Sharbani & I arrived fresh from Nepal (although a little tired of hiking) for a 5-day taste of this fascinating nation. This is one visit where I’ll spare you the historical and geographic background of Bhutan, since Bhutan’s history is intertwined with the history of Buddhism, and as such is peppered with flying tigers, subjugated demons, all manners of miracles, and flying 10-inch penises. This tends to be very entertaining as recounted in absolute seriousness by our guides, but a little confusing to be retold in a serious travel account such as this... Anyhow, back to the flying penises.

They apparently belong to the “Divine Madman”, a Lama who wandered the countryside conquering demons (and women), and caricatures of whose member adorns many a Bhutanese house. His meditation rituals were said to include wine and lots of women. My attempts to explain that this is a popular form of meditation in many countries were met with incomprehension. Apparently the Divine madman was protected from demons at night by his erect burning penis, but my suggestion that there was probably medication available for that these days was also not well received by our guides.

It’s vital for an understanding of Bhutan that the reader appreciates that EVERYTHING is designed to look like the traditional Bhutanese way of life. All buildings are effectively identical, artwork, people’s dress code, castles, and signage follow strict guidelines. This can give an overwhelming impression that you’ve suddenly arrived in that part of Disneyworld which celebrates and stereotypes different cultures. Seriously, you want to imagine what an airport control tower would look like if constructed according to Bhutanese tradition? Look no further than Bhutan’s only airport at Paro! To add to the slightly surreal feeling, cannabis grows wild in Bhutan, sprouting up along the roadside as you drive by.

Tourism is strictly controlled. All tourists must pre-confirm their itinerary and pre-pay the aforementioned daily fee (rumoured to be increasing to $300/day in the near future). There are several areas of the country that tourists are unable to visit for cultural preservation reasons, and they must all stay in designated hotels. Fresh from our Nepalese experience, and the parallels with the Korean prison, there were times when Sharbani & I felt we might have been taken North of the Korean border, with some of the restrictions on food, residence, and visiting areas. As such we took to talking to the pepper and salt shakers (afraid they were bugged), and took to randomly ducking into side alleys for some illicit exploration sans-guides.

Prior to arrival in Bhutan, we had been fascinated to hear about Bhutanese cooking, and the prevalence of chillies as a vegetable. Despite early pleas, we were restricted to our “international” dining options (French fries, strange Indian substitutes and rice) in our hotel until Sharbani invaded the kitchen in one location, and subsequently we were fed more chillies than we could stomach, along with jellied yak skin and fried fern. While they were quite a gastronomic excursion, I sometimes wish she’d stayed out of the kitchen!

Bhutan itself is a country of stunning natural and cultural beauty. The Dzong’s (fortresses which administer each region), are impressive structures, often with commanding locations. The famous “Tiger’s Nest (Taksheng) monastery, perched high on a cliff face, is a feat of ancient engineering, and the ubiquitous monasteries, prayer wheels, archery ranges, and red-robed monks roaming the streets make it a visual feast. The Lonely Planet describes Bhutan as “Nepal for the jet set”, and while I think this is a little bit of a stretch, the less strenuous nature of Bhutan travel, it’s all-inclusive package flavor, passionate guides, and emphasis on driving rather than walking certainly made it less challenging than Nepal.

As for me, I had a great time there, and am very much looking forward to the next stop- Australia!

The photos can be seen here.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Nepal & Everest Base Camp

I’ve just returned to Kathmandu from a 15-day trek to Mt Everest Base Camp. To all those skeptics out there- Yes, I was able to survive 2 weeks without alcohol, nightlife, or girls.

Nepal was a fascinating country, and I can’t wait to go back and explore further its stunning scenery, extraordinary mountains, warm and friendly people, and diversity of environments, not to mention it’s the only country I’ve been to where 90%+ of the population wears North Face clothing (fake, manufactured in Kathmandu, complete with all labels!). I was accompanied on this hike by Sharbani, the sister of a close b-school friend of mine, and it was great to have the company in the endless expanse of the Himalaya. An English girl, Katie, on her Spring Break, made up the third on our trek, along with our fearless guide, Dawa (“Papa”) Sherpa, and porters.

Kathmandu is an interesting town, plenty to see (but pollution worse than Moscow), and a tourist district that reminds me of Bangkok (without the sleaze, for better or worse). I was fortunate to meet up with Kenna, a b-school friend who’s also taking a year off work, and we shared some stories of life on the road.

The trek itself was not a walk in the park. We hiked over 160km, and climbed a total of over 6,000m, with our highest peak of Kala Pattar at 5,550m. Constant headaches, ice in our water bottles in the mornings, and only 3 quasi-showers in 2 weeks made it a challenging experience. During our considerable downtime, in addition to attempting to read my first Russian novel (ouch), I read a book about a guy who was imprisoned in Korea, and there were several parallels I could relate to from our trek. ; )

The Himalayas were extraordinary. Waking up every morning to the highest mountains in the world surrounding us, hiking through lush valleys, across high passes, glacial rivers, and dizzying drops from the side of the trail was an unforgettable experience.

We shared the trail with other trekkers and climbers, but also a myriad of heavily laden local porters (their loads can be over 100kg!), their yaks, as well as assorted wildlife including goats, deer, and birds. En route we passed charming villages, stopped at ancient monasteries, and marvelled at the thousands of religious chortens and carved Buddhist prayer stones.

The trek itself started at relatively low Lukla, and for the next week we steadily progressed upwards through Namche Bazar, Tengboche and Dingboche, before reaching the high valleys and our last base at Gorak Shep (5,150m) before hitting Everest Base Camp.

After reading so many stories about Everest expeditions over the years, it was surreal to actually be hiking alongside (and on) the Khumbu Glacier, with peaks such as Lhotse (8,500m), Nuptse (7,900m), and of course Everest (8,850m) towering over us.

We hiked up to Base Camp where, due to the arrival of the Olympic torch on the Tibet side, the Chinese had requested no summit attempts until May 10, as well as a media blackout from Nepal. As a result, over 60 expeditions were parked at Base Camp, making it a crowded and colourful place, right on the glacier at the foot of the Khumbu Icefall. The day we were there a climber had been expelled from Base Camp for having a pro-Tibet flag in his belongings.

That evening, I made a momentous effort (at over 5,000m, every movement is an effort) to climb Kala Pattar and take sunset pictures of Everest & the Khumbu valley. At 5am the following morning, we climbed to the peak of Kala Pattar for stunning sunrise views of the valley. After this much pain and exertion at below 6,000m, I have NO desire to climb Everest itself, and much respect for those who do!

After 11+ days of altitude and endless fried food and Dal Bhat, we started back and made rapid progress towards Lukla, with some scenic detours to Pheriche and Porche along the way.
As Everest faded from view, and the headaches receded with every step downwards, we were left with amazing memories, some great photos, and serious longings for running water, hot showers, fresh food, and of course, a well-deserved drink!

The photos are here.