Thursday, December 24, 2009

Images!

so here are a few images starting with Bhutan. I'll have more to post at a later date, but for now here are some to get you hungry.






This one is an archery match in Bhutan, the national sport. When they hit the target (150m away) they do a little dance







The little dance

href="http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_ALw5DjhFUJ0/SzRVDxvNR3I/AAAAAAAAAAg/yDy8lH3BFho/s1600-h/IMG_3202.JPG">

This one is the Tiger's Nest Monastery. A 2.5 hour hike up a mountain, and totally worth it.















There are lots of Wangs in Bhutan, they are meant to protect the houses so they are everywhere, hanging from the walls and painted all over the place!






Monks studying at the monastery of the Tibetan Madman

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tibet

Friendship highway. Censorship begins. Cold nights. Where's my Facebook. 

After a couple of relaxig days in Kathmandu we were set to meet our tour to Tibet. Early morning bus meet up and with the 25 people in tow we were on our way. The tour guide up to the border was a friendly chap with a fairly solid grasp of English so his instructions to the very multinational audience was well received. The overall group was made up of Brits Germans Swiss Americans Dutch Irish Italians Aussies spaniards mexicans and some Finns, so it was a great mix of people and outlooks etc.
The bus would take us to the border where we would be split up into groups of 4 and put into jeeps. The drive up was uneventful and the fun really started when we hit the border. The guide had told us not to bring and pictures of monks the Dali lama or flags of Tibet. Of course our lonely planet Tibet had monks all over it so we proceeded to put stickers from a local skate shop all over the ones we found and we hoped for the best. We got to the border via the "Friendship Highway" a project by the Chinese to ease the eventual encroachment into Nepal from all looks of it, but for now it was meant to allow for the free flow of goods and people between the two neghbors. The road itself was fine if over crowded and a messy tangle of traffic. Once we got to the actual immigration checkpoint the mood quickly changed and all the smiles were wiped off the peoples faces, welcome to a police state. Nicky was he first to go through the 3 search points and as they flipped through every page of our papers, pictures and books they carefully scruinized the guidebook and decided that it was far too informative and thought provoking to be allowed in lest people think for themselves or receive opinions not approved by the committee. So the guide took our book and when we asked him to find out what was wrong with the book so that we could warn the other people in the group he looked at us as if we were crazy. You expect me to question his authority?  You must be insane. This fearful attitude towards any sort of authority would be an unfortunately recurring theme throughout our visit. We piled into our cars and we were paired up with a pair of Brits Jenni and Joe, they would end up being our jeep buddies for the remainder of the trip. The next stop was a whole 9 km from the border and we were told that it would take about 2 hours to get there!  I thought they were mistaken but once we hit the road I realized I was the fool. The part of the highway was still under construction so it was only one way for a good portion of the time. There was no rhyme or reason as to who went when and since we weren't allowed to ask any questions it will always remain a mystery.  There were about 6 cars in our convey and we were in the first 3-4 which ended up being a good thing because the cars behind us ended up getting stopped at a police checkpoint for about 5 hours!  And let me tell u it was cold, it got down to about freezing at night so being stuck in a car without and blankets, food or explanation must have been incredibly frustrating to say the least. Back at the guest house...it had gotten dark on the drive up and when we finally pulled into the courtyard of the guesthouse we found out how cold it had gotten. It had dropped to about freezing and I was still in warm weather gear so we ran into the house and were directed to our rooms. 4 to a room here so we would share with the Brits we were with. The beds were soft and big enough but the rooms were just as cold as outside!  As we found out that night none of the rooms in Tibet would have heating or any type of insulation so the rooms would often be as cold if not colder than outside since no sun would reach them during the day either. Well the rooms wouldn't be able to dampen the experience that much since the natural beauty of Tibet is absolutely stunning. The roof of the world indeed during our drives we'd end up crossing multiple high passes and the altitude proved to be too much for some of the travelers as they would become nauseous and disoriented. They had to be given O2 and taken to lower alt quickly lest they get worse. So they missed the 5250m pass that we crossed that gave us our first glimpse of Everest. Even from a great distance you could notice it hulking out of the earth and dwarfing all the other mountains around it. You instantly understand why these mountains are viewed as dieties and how Everest is queen of all. I'm absolutely in awe of anyone that would dare climb that beast although to hear the Tibetans tell it most tourists that do it owe it all the the Sherpas that really do all the hard work. Fair enough but it's still pretty ballsy. 
As for how we dealt with the altitude I think we did pretty well. Nicky was taking some pills for it and I figured that since I'd been in Colorado for all those years without any issues I would be ok. Besides my people were mountain people, Quito is way up there!  I was doing fine until I decided to have an Everest beer, son of a bitch that gave me an awful headache all night. Lesson learned. 
Back to the trip. The chinese influence in Tibet is so incredibly overt that it's hard to find any genuine Tibet left. The signs are all in both Chinese and Tibetan with the Chinese text at least twice the size and the Chinese govt is making a concerted effort to breed the Tibetans out. They are moving (by force?) huge numbers of Han Chinese into the area in order to ensure that it looks more like the rest of mainland. It's actually quite heartbreaking when you consider the fact that it is a gradual form of genocide and the world sits and watches. Again the fear and paranoia was evident. We were told not to mention the Dali Lama in conversation to locals, they would either not talk to us about it or would be too willing meaning that they were govt informants. Even at the temples we weren't to engage the monks in these sorts of discussions since all of the monks that were now in the monestary were somehow vetted by the Chinese govt. Even the Penchant Lama that was on display in photos in all of the temples was a phony. He (a boy of only 17) has been selected by the govt. The actual one that the Dali lama picked was never revealed for fear of reprisals.
So the tone was set for Tibet to be observed with some allowances for the lack of genuine Tibet which was slowly and sadly being suffocated. Quick note. Apparently there are random packs of dogs that have been known to attack people at night. I only mention this because the street dogs in Tibet are beautiful. Tibetan mastifs. Big beautiful healthy dogs that lie in the sun by day and bark all goddamn night long, anyway I just wanted to mention it before I forgot
Shygatse, Gyatse, Lhasa these were the cities that we visited during our week in Tibet and they were filled with picturesque ancient temples whose walls were stained with centuries worth of yak butter candles and imbued with the smell of Juniper insence, let me tell u something friends after a few days of repeated exposure to both these I just couldn't handle it! The walls of so many of these ancient templeshad been blackened by generations from these candles and as this was our first exposure to Budhist temples of this age and scale we didn't realize that it was a scenario specific to Tibet. Since the Chinese gvt has either demolished and then rebuilt many of the temples it shows what esteem they hold the culture and traditions of the native Tibetans. Now we wouldn't have realized that this wasn't the norm had we not seen the temples in Bhutan, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.
so overall Tibet is an amazingly beautiful country that isn't really itself, it has been stifled and suppressed by the Chinese and it may never have a chance to actually regain it's independance, if only they had some oil

Sunday, December 6, 2009

KKKKKK Kathmandu

Ups and downs. Breathtaking views. Road-side eats. Where the hell are we.

When you last left our travelers they were happily leaving Varanasi, heading towards the Nepali border...
After we arrived at the border of Nepal and India we walked to the immigration checkpiont to sign in. We got all stamped up and made official-like, and now had to make our way to Kathmandu. We'd missed the regular bus since our train was about 3 hours late so we were now faced with the prospect of taking a 10+ hour and reportedly dangerous overnight train to Kath. Not sure if it's dangerous because of the roads at night or for some other nefarious reason, but either way we didn't want to find out. So we found a few other travelers in the same dilemma and decided to hire a jeep to take us the rest of the way. There are no shortages of guys willing to drive us so after some haggling we found a trustworthy fellow with a reliable looking rig to take the 7 of us the 7 hours to Kathmandu. Thrilled at the fact that we weren;t going to have to sit on an overnight bus, subjected to god knows what evils we'd been cautioned of we were in high spirits as we got moving. the drive was really quite splendid, the scenery was as beautiful as any we'd seen thus far. It reminded us of the hilly climbs we'd taken in Uganda on the way to the gorillas, beautiful forests and valleys that kept my nose pressed against the window for the better part of the trip. About 5 hours along we stopped at a small roadside village high in the hills to have a refresher. There were a few ladies and kids running the little cooker and I just couldn't resist the samosas that they had prepared. They were so tasty that I had to have a few more and a cold beer to wash them down. After our thank you's OI snapped a couple of shots of our hosts and they shyly giggled and hooped when I showed them the shots.
On the road for a couple of more hours and as darkness fell the trip became more of a roller-coaster ride, which thrilled me, but not so much for Nicky. We finally crested a hill to see the lights of Kathmandu, our trip was finally coming to an end! As we hit the streets of the city it was about 10 pm and the place was pretty deserted and had a slightly apocalyptic feel to it. Well it ends up that Kathmandu is very different by the light of day, and in fact is an excellent town, Bob Seager has never been more right, that clever bastard.
The contract between India and Nepal was stark and immediate to say the least, a wholly welcome change. The city itself was still pretty chaotic and fairly filthy but the energy was so much more welcoming and navigable that it let us take a deep albeit smoggy breathe and get to some unmolested exploring before heading off on our of Tibet.
We were in the Thamel area of the city which is the touristy section which was fine since we had to get some supplies and grab hold of some familiarity before the mysteries of Tibet took hold.
As we walked down the streets the next morning, the first thing we noticed was the relaxed style and attitudes of the people as they went about their fairly Western-style lives. Gone were the stares at uncovered shoulders saris and men's clothes that looked like they were collected from a thrift store in 1976 were replaced by skinny jeans, t-shirts and hair gel, shit we were back in Williamsburg!!!!! Well not really but it felt much easier for a few days and there was actually "Mexican" food in a few spots that were owned by Westerners,hallelujah!
So all was good on our first visit to Nepal, off to Tibet, more on that later.
Namaste
M&N

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Varanasi to Khatmandu

Cows in the train station, delays, long bus rides, Nepal.

So we had to get out of Varanasi and on to Nepal in order to head off on our tour to Tibet.
And to be honest with you all we had had enough of Varanasi and were ready to move on. There was an overnight train from V to the border
town and then we would need to take a bus or taxi over the border and into Kathmandu. Now our previous experience with the Indian rail system went splendidly despite everyone's warnings of delays etc. Well that would be short lived. It ends up we had no problem before because we caught the train at it's point of origin, not the case from Varanasi. The train was scheduled to leave at 12:30 am so we got there about 11:45. Now let me give u a quick image of what the train station looks like. First off it's a pretty big station with about 12 tracks or so, and it is packed 24/7. There were people everywhere! Litterally. They were sleeping on the ground outside the station they were sleeping on the ground in the station, they were sleeping on the platforms, there wasn't a square inch of space that wasn't occupied by a body. Actually I take that back, there were spaces for the cows who roamed freely and provided comic relief when we thought we were going to lose it.
So we get there for the 12:30 train that seems to be arriving on time and went to out jam packed platform, stepping carefully between sleepng heads and toes. We chat to a couple of fellow travellers that were going to be on the same train and shoot the shit for a bit when I decide to go take a look at the departure board and find out (for the first time of the night) that the train has been delayed for a half hour, OK not a big deal I got a book to read and some writing to do. Now the locals seemed extraordinarily interested in what I was reading and writing, they would actually stand behind me and look over my shoulder as I read, so I turned to the guy and asked him if I could help him, he just shook his head no and kept on reading, personal space does not exist in India so I just kept on reading. By now the train had been delayed again so we were stArting to get a little antsy, annoyed and bored. Luckily we had a couple of forms of entertainment. One was watching some of the guys try and catch a rat that they had trapped behind a scale on the platform, that's always a good time and at least it
kept the rat away from us. After the rat got away we had the bull saunter on to the platform and commence to take a 3 minute piss, I shit u
not it lasted 3 minutes straight and created a small steam which luckily flowed out into the waiting room and away from
us. After the bull ran off to catch his train we had been sitting there for 3 hours and the train was finally due to arrive, thank goodness. The train journey itself was uneventful except for the serenade from the loon that kept us all awake for the entire time. I've never wanted to throw someone off a train before, but it was very tempting. We get to the other end of the train line and had to take a bus to the border of Nepal which was only about an hour but then we had to take a car from the border to Kathmandu which was about 6 hours. Luckily the roads were nice and the scenery was beautiful as we climbed through the tree covered hills stopping once or twice to grab a bite from some local road side food vendors. We made it into Kath in the evening and collapsed in our hotel. More on Kathmandu in the next update.
Peace and Love
M&N

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Delhi to Varanasi


After a couple of days in Delhi we decided to get out and see a little more of Northern India before we headed onward to Tibet. We'd head some good things about Varanasi from some of our new travelling buddies Layla and Matt and decided to make it a stopping point on the way to Kathmandu. We booked a second class reserved sleeper on the overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi and prepped ourselves for our first India railways experience.
The train left on time at 6:00 pm from New Delhi station and were set and excited. We found our car and it wasn't much worse than we expected. The manager of the hotel was shocked that we weren't traveling in the first class car since I assume he thinks that all Westerners are loaded and might only be traveling for a few weeks. We are neither so second class it is.
For those of you that have done Euro rail you might remember that there are doors on your compartment and the semi-cushioned seats, yeah well forget both those things suckers, these are sleepless slepers. The long seats are mildly cushioned and there are just "booths" where you and your bunk-mates sit/sleep. The hallway as you can see is right there at your feet (which hang off the end) and you are constantly serenaded by those nightingale-like tea sellers. CHA!!! CHA!!! all night. Well we make it to Varanasi by the morning and almost on time, which is a miracle as we would later find out, and make our way to our guest house.
Varanasi is claimed to be the oldest living city in the world, it is the spiritual center of Hinduism and through its heart flows the sacred Ganges river, lifeblood of India. Souds romantic, right? Well my friends reality can be a bitch sometimes. To be fair we arrived during a festival (Deepawali to be exact) so it was more crowded than usual, but I will count that as a plus. We stayed on Ahsi Ghat in a nice enough place with views of the river from our balcony.
Have you ever smelt, juniper incense? sounds nice, sure, but when you combine it with urine, cow/people/dog shit, a rotten river and cremating corpses, well let's just say it can lose its charm. The sights, sounds and smells of Varanasi were intense to say the least, and with all due respect to this ancient and sacred city, it was hard to appreciate it through all the clutter, stench and hawkers.
I know there are people that were enchanted with this place and I've heard many wonderful things, but it was really hard to get past the sensual assault to get down to it. Now you may say that it is my spoiled western view that leaves me incapable of appreciating the genuine spirituality of such an ancient place and be that as it may when you are watching a public cremation on the ghat and not 10 feet away there are 2 boys taking a poop in the river and 10 feet from that a man is washing his clothes and next to him the body of a dead dog is floating next to the guy brushing his teeth, well call me confused but the sacred value is either a bit blurred or so all encompassing that it permeates through every activity in life. I'll go with the latter I suppose.
Well I can't say that we weren't ready to leave Varanasi when we did so it was off to another sleeper train! This time e weren't so lucky with the on-time departure we experienced in Delhi (mainly because the train didn't originate it Varanasi. So our 0:30 train left at 3:30 and we waited at the train station for a good 3 hours. They were entertaining hours mind you. The highlight was probably the bull walking out on the platform among a crowd of train-waiters and watching him take a piss for about 2 straight minutes! This boy had to go, and a river flowed forth. Locals didn't mind, just roll your trouser legs up and keep on keeping on. Finally got on the train and was kept awake by some loon singing all night, seriously he sang the entire ride, drove me mental, but, hey, that's half the fun. got to the last stop on the train and off to a quick 3 hour bus ride to the border followed by another 8 hour ride into Kathmandu. The ride into Nepal was amazing, the mountains rising and climbing up up up and us along with them. As soon as we crossed the border you could notice the difference in the people. Genuine smiles and curiosity was written all along their beautiful faces and our smiles quickly returned.
More on Kathmandu next time.
Namaste
M&N

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Whoa Nelly, we made it to Delhi!

Whoa Nelly we made it to Delhi, and this place is ape-shit crazy!
It took a little longer than expected to get here since the incompetent boobs at Kenya airways cancelled our flight from Mozambiwue and instead sent us to Johannesburg for a night and then to Nairobi for another night before we finally got out flight to Delhi.
Well we made it here early this morning around 4.30 am. We got some sleep and were awakened this morning by a cacophany of noises that can only be described as bedlum. We wipe the 4 hours of sleep from our eyes and walk out of the hotel to see the streets packed with people, tuk-tuks, rickshaws and lord knows what else. The stimulus overload was immediate, but I had a grin on my face instantly. Yes I was asked if I was Indian a couple of times and for the first time, Nicky got more stares than me!!! I guess they think that she is my paid for lady or that I am rich enough to have a white wife, either way win-win ;) At any rate the city is boisterous, crowded, fast and hot and we had to dodge cars and people all day as we groped out way around this first day.
We'll be here one more day before we head to Varanasi for a couple days and then to Kathmandu on our way to Tibet!!!! We'll be there before Bhutan and then Nepal for another day or two before we come back to India for the final 3 weeks or so.
This is quite a change from Africa and we were just getting used to African culture etc. so we're going to have to adjust fast in our new spots. We're thrilled to be here and can't wait to see and do as much as possible, I'll be keeping you guys up to date as often as we can, take care of yourselves,
Peace & love
M&N

Uganda and the Gorillas

When we last left our intrepid explorers they were fresh on the trail of the reclusive mountain gorillas in Uganda. We made our way out of Kenya on the bumpiest most speed bump laiden road ever created. Adter 9 hours on the truck we mafe it to Lake Brunyoni, Uganda the launching point for our gorilla trek through the impenetrable forest. We woke up at dawn and hopped on a minivan that wound its way through some of the most picturesque scenery that was ever created. the misty mountains poked through the low clouds and cast the landscape in a quiet gray blanket. As we reached the guides camp we got our instructions and some key words on what to do should a gorilla decide to charge and pull our arms off. Basically it was crouch down, don't make eye contact and look non-threatening, not a problem. The trackers gave us a good idea of where the group was in the morning and we were off. They don't call it the impenatrable forest for nothing, we hack, crawl, climb and slide our way through steep terrain for 3.5 hours before we find out that the gorillas had found some food, about 20 minutes away. By now we're drenched, exhausted and thrilled. We meet up with the other trackers and they point down a steep, tree covered slope at a HUGE black mass among the trees. Our silver back has been found, and our hairs stand on end. We look at each other with disbelief in our eyes as we make our way even closer. This giant is simply pulling branches down, nibbling on the good bits while we totally intrude, but he doesn't even seem to notice us. We get to about 15 feet and we finally get a good look at his face. People, I can't even begin to describe what it feels like to be that close to a creature that powerful, astonishing and familiar. It was sort of like looking back in time and recognizing something base and wonderful. You could get an idea of the kind of power these animals have from being near them, but when he got up you got a real idea of his size. He was MASSIVE and he wasn't even the "boss" according to the guides. About 400 lbs of solid ape.
He points at another point in the distance and you start seeing other huge black masses in the green tangle. We found the family. 3 silverbacks, 2 black backs 3-4 juveniles and a couple of females. all happily chomping away and playing. Some were climbing trees, others were hanging on to the females and a couple of the youngsters started wrestling. They couldn't really be bothered with us (thank god) so we were able to get even closer. We got to about 8 feet of the boss and he decided to let us know that he knew we were near. He stood up and pounded his chest, took a couple of steps towards the group of us and made some loud ass calls, Nicky, always the one to pay attention quickly dropped into non-threatening pose while the rest of us just froze to the spot we were on, totally forgetting what we were told and just stared slack-jawed. We sat with them for a little over an hour and I am sure that I've never had a more humbling or gratifying experience in my life, it was extraordinary in every sense of the word. After the hour was up we headed back out, which meant another 1.5 hours of hard core treking, following a fresh elephant trail. Oh yeah, there are elephants here as well and aggressive ones as well, but luckily these tracks were heading in the opposite direction. I have no idea how the elephants live on such steep tightly packed mountains, but they do. So we get out of the forest, back across the river and up the steep hills to the road where we collapse until the van meets us to take us back to camp.
The way back was reflective and so satisfying that we all had huge grins on our faces.
There are only about 750 of these gorillas left and they will soon be extinct unless we manage to reverse the trend. It will be such a loss that I pray it never happens.
We're now in Zanzibar, Tanzania sitting on white sand beaches sipping Mai Tai's, enjoying a break from the overland camping safari excursion. Scuba tomorrow, then off to Mozambique on Wednesday.
This trip has already been epic, and we're only 18 days into it, we can't wait to wake up every morning.

Missing you all. Peace
M&N

Sunday, August 2, 2009

I test the rains down in Africa

OK, so due to a lack of Facebook reach we've decided to go ahead and start wht the kids today are calling a blog. So here it goes
Hey All,
Quick check in from Kenya. Made it here all safe and sound via Dubai on a layover. Landed in Nairobi the next morning and got ready to start the safari. Nairobi is a pretty packed city, and the traffic makes NYC look tame. Left the next day for the Masi Mara and got to see some incredible things. Got 3 of the big 5 out of the way on the first day, saw elephants, water buffalo (mean bastards, more on that later) and lions (real close up) Visited with some Masi tribes people and checked out there village and handiwork. Houses made of cow dung and Man United bracelettes all around. (We're all a lot closer than you think)
Back to Nairobi for another night then off to Uganda with stops in Olpajebi game reserve where we saw black and white rhinos. These things are as prehistoric as they get.
Went to a chimp preserve and while we were walking to see the hippos that live in the river encountered a big male water buffalo. Well he didn't like the looks of us or the fact that we surpirised him so he decided to charge our group. So we're pinned betwenn a 20 foot drop to a river that had a mamma hippo and a baby, an electric fence (that obviously didn't work too well) and a 2000 lb buffalo. We scatterd and dove behind trees and anything else we could get in between and luckily the beast passes about 4 feet from us,Nicky swears she could see the evil in his eyes. The guide caught up with him just as he was turning around to go after a Canadian lady that had fallen over a log and distracted him by throwing some sticks at him. That bothered him enough to make him run off a couple of minutes before the guys with guns showed up. Apparently they had to kill one earlier that charged them too!
So with that getting our hearts racing we set off back to camp where we were visited in the middle of the night by an elephant about 20 yds from our tent, looking for food.
Needless to say it was a slightly restless night sleeping from that point on.
We are now in Nakuru and went on a game drive this morning and got to see the last of the big 5. A beautiful leopard with her young cub. They were cruising around and the mother was teaching the youngster how to stalk, it was just incredible!
At lunch one of our bus mates decided to take his lunch with him to baboon cliff (the guide told us not to) and was immediately mugged by a huge baboon for his sandwich, it knocked him to the ground and just grabbed it out of his hands as if it was his! The cheeky bastard was bold. Everyone was OK, and we had a good laugh about it after. Tomorrow we start the 8 hour drive to Uganda to do some whitewater rafting on the Nile, then to Kampala and them to the border with Rwanda to try and find the gorillas! We're all pretty excited about the prospect of seeing some up close and personal, but not too close judging from our experiences so far.
I got some good shots and I'll share those with everyone when we get back.
I'll check in when I get another chance, not sure when, but stay tuned.
Peace.
Mike and Nicky