Nepal – It likes us.
First thing on Monday morning we were at the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu to get our Chinese visa. We shelled out 70 USD each in order to pick them up that evening and headed back to town to sort things out in anticipation of leaving the next morning for Tibet. However, only hours after we’d applied for the visas we got an email saying that there had been a mistake and that it was in fact Tibetan visas that we needed. This was surprising considering that Tibet has effectively been part of China for 50 years. Also, the visa office only opened on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays so we would have to wait until Wednesday to apply again. The even better news was that you can’t have a Tibetan visa and a Chinese visa at the same time so the Chinese one would have to be cancelled. I love burocracy. The plus side was that we would have more time to explore Kathmandu and to visit the ActionAid office. The rest of the day was spent wandering around, getting our bikes fixed up for pennies and feeding up on steak again. We also booked ourselves onto a flight over Everest for 6:30 in the morning.
The excitement was misplaced though. Having gotten up at 5:30am, gone to the airport, sat in the plane with camera at the ready and excited grins on our faces, we were informed that the weather around Everest was bad and that the fabled mountain probably wouldn’t even be visible if the plane went up. So that was that then. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we would be driving past the north face of Everest when we got to Tibet and could even drive up to the original base camp. On the way back from the airport we took a short detour to Pashupatinath – Nepal’s most important Hindu temple which draws devotees from all over India, including many sadhus (wandering Hindu holy men). Like most Hindu temples, we weren’t allowed inside but there was plenty to see on the outside. The temple is located beside the Bagmati river and it is here that the dead are cremated on large pyres before being thrown into the river. There is also a huge number of unfriendly monkeys roaming around – I counted over 50. They charge around in packs and terrorize each other and innocent bystanders. Seeing Richard getting harassed by a particularly mean-looking specimen is an image that will stay in my mind for a long time. Arf. We also met some scantily clad sadhus. Disappointingly, these holy men pose for photos for money. I suppose they have to eat like everyone else but it doesn’t seem very pious. Especially when they keep trying to increase the price.
After a couple of hours here, we headed back into town to the ActionAid office where we met fundraising manager Archana Sharma (see separate post). Later, we performed another oil change on the Landy then went out for dinner with Phil and Cristine who had arrived from the Chitwan National Park.
Wednesday was tourism day in Nepal so all the sights were open for free and we took good advantage. After a brief look around Darbur square in Kathmandu (it’s not very interesting) we headed to the confusingly named Durbar Square in Patan. Patan is the second largest town in the Kathmandu valley and is now almost joined to Kathmandu by urban sprawl. In the past however, there was much competition been the two in terms of Temples and civil buildings and Patan seems to have won out. We actually managed to find a really good guide in the square and the two hour tour of the Hindu and Buddhist temples was excellent. However, Buddhism in Nepal has been heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism and its practice bears little relation to the actual principles of Buddhism. They do let you into the temples though which is nice. We picked up our visas in the evening and went back to the hotel to get ready for an early morning departure to the Tibet border.
Tibet – It hates us.
And early morning it was. We left Kathmandu at 4am Thursday morning and drove 7 hours to the border town of Kodari. The fine views on the way were not reflected in Kodari which to put plainly, is a hell-hole similar to almost every other border town we’ve been through. It seems to be an immutable law of physics that border towns have to be hell-holes. After hours of messing around, the ever-efficient customs officials stamped our papers and we crossed the Friendship Bridge into Tibet where we met our guide Tunden. After several more form stamping exercises, we drove up a steep, muddy track to the Tibetan town of Zhangmu. On the way though, I managed to scrape a truck with the handlebars of Richard’s bike. The truck was unscathed but the handlebars looked as though an amusing attempt at constructing a balloon animal had been performed on them. At Zhangmu, we were informed that our forms weren’t ready and we’d have to wait until tomorrow to get them. Efficiency is always the key with these places. The next morning we eagerly awaited our forms but they weren’t to arrive until 5pm. It was then that the customs officials informed us we’d have to pay 160 USD for parking in the customs house! After an hour of arguing we had it down to 80 but they weren’t going to budge any further and we had no choice but to cough it up and hit the road.
We took the abysmal road out of Zhangmu in a steep climb up into the Himalaya mountain range. The scenery was spectacular but the road condition meant speeds of over 20 mph were impossible. The altitude gain resulted in a corresponding temperature drop and we turned on our Eberspacher heater in anticipation of a good warm. It wasn’t to be. The heater refused to work. We resigned ourselves to being cold. After 5 hours of driving we decided to get out, stretch our legs and give the engine a rest. Our guide, whom we’d learned by this time didn’t speak english very well met with some friends in another vehicle and agreed to meet us in the next town. We got back in and started up. Or rather didn’t. Taking a queue from the heater, the engine refused to start and tinkering with the sparks and leads proved fruitless. We sat and hoped our guide would realise we weren’t following and come back. Luckily he did and we got towed to the nearest village. Delightfully, we got our first puncture on the way and our hopes of the tow starting the engine were dashed. It seems Tibet had taken a dislike to us. Helpfully, our guide decided to leave for the night and we took up the task of changing the tyre with some relish. Some locals had turned up to help so we figured it would be a piece It was cold and dark and the soil was soft and the Landy was heavy. In short it wasn’t possible and we decided to give it a fresh try in the morning after a good night’s sleep.
Ah, the misery of that night will forever be ingrained in my memory. Altitude sickness caught us both in its vice-like grip and we woke up repeatedly feeling nauseous, sweaty, cold, dizzy and breathless by turns. The morning proved no better and my head felt like it was being carved in two with a remarkably blunt object. Our jack was proving to be useless in the soft soil so I flagged down a truck and used their 20T jack to change the wheel. At least one thing worked. Afterwards, we flagged down passing 4×4s to get attach our jump leads but after the 4th attempt it was clear that the engine was not going to start. The rest of the day was spent being harassed by local kids (one of the little feckers nicked a padlock of the back doors) and suffering from altitude sickness. Our guide eventually turned up at 4pm and set off to find a truck to take us to Lhasa. Amazingly, he was back by 6pm with a flat-bed truck. That’s right – a flat-bed. With no ramps or winch or nothing. We had to set about this the Tibetan way and the truck was backed up to a small precipice. The Landy was towed up to the top and then pushed off onto the truck. Large chunks of soil fell away as the massive weight of the Landy passed over it. Brown trousers time for all involved but it panned out ok in the end.
And so we were off, travelling to Lhasa over amazingly rough roads in the truck cab and enjoying the scenery of the Himalayas. By this time, we seemed to have acclimatised and were no longer suffering from altitude sickness which was a relief. Apparently it can affect some people for 3 days. The down side of getting towed was that we were yet again to miss a view of Everest as it’s a 3 hour drive off the main road to get to the base camp. It seems Everest hates us aswell.
Bouncing along in the cab was pleasant enough for the first few hours but we didn’t stop for nosh until 11pm and then we were off again. By 3am I was struggling to keep my eyes open and we managed to convince the truckies to let us into the Landy for some kip. We were met with a scene of devastation. Everything not welded to the floor had been thrown around randomly due to the shocking roads and the same was soon to happen to us. Wrapping up in two sleeping bags against the cold and being tossed around like two peas in a tin can, we had to laugh before sheer exhaustion took us and we experienced probably the most ridiculous sleeping conditions ever.
By 3pm on Sunday we had reached Lhasa after a marathon 17 hour driving session by the truckies. We pushed the Landy off in much the same manner that we had pushed it on and got towed a short distance to a mechanics. We met up with the travel agents who had arranged our permits and guide and enjoyed the spectacle of them being remarkably stressed out by our predicament. We weren’t concerned as we had been waiting for this to happen ever since the random engine problems in Pakistan. However, our permits were due to run out on the 7th of October and this would mean possible problems with the authorities. Not much we could do about it though so we checked into a hotel and went to explore Lhasa while awaiting the mechanics verdict.
Will our intrepid heroes ever get out of Tibet alive? Have their evidently evil previous lives proven to be just too much to allow them any luck in this country? Stay tuned for next week’s exciting instalment of “Tibet Hates Our Guts”.