Saturday, June 26, 2010

Party in the Himalayas!

Man. 27 years old. Who'd have thought that by this stage in life I'd have no job, no girlfriend and no home. What a loser. At least I have a large assortment of bikes with which to measure my life's success.

The 21st of May marked a few kilometre-stones for me: I had after all reached the formidable age of three cubed, not quite as triangular as 3^3^3 but as good as I could rustle up on short notice.

It also marked the first time on my trip I'd left the Eurasian Plate, getting myself over the scraped up subduction zone of the Indian Plate (and managing to be neither scraped up nor subducted in the process!).

Another interesting kilometre-stone was that this was the time I finally had less money than when I started this trip back in October last year. What's this? Have I been selling my body in Bangkok to horny Thai girls? Nooooo... As it happens I started my trip with five weeks of paid leave and that, along with the odd squirt of bank interest (praise be to rising rates!), has lasted me these seven months traveling in Asia. The moral of the story: don't travel in Europe.

But all these kilometre-stones would have to be appreciated over time, for now I had just walked into the Kathmandu Guest House with Helio, my companion from the Tibet tour. I was just wondering how I would get in contact with Dad and Rob who were supposedly already here when I saw them walking to greet me. It was my first meeting with Dad for seven month and with Rob for over a year.

The next two days were fairly frantic – packing for the upcoming Annapurna trek, buying gear and meeting up with my excellent and dedicated friends Tim and Rhonda (who, like Rob and I, formed a small exodus from the Engineering Music Society’s cello section for the following night’s concert – good choice guys!). Reacquiring my bike from the Postal Universe – one whose physical laws seem to permit a high density of black holes (I lost my brake pads and beer magazine sent on from Hanoi to one of those black holes) – was another major priority. This was particularly nerve-racking: after disappointment at the reception of KGH where I’d sent it I was beginning to lose hope – until Helio spotted a notice for me on an obscure board. I had to visit eleven desks in five rooms at the sprawling General Post Office to get my hands on it, having pieces of paper stamped, money paid and documents signed in triplicate (Nepal’s bureaucracy is legendary – you can even read epic novels dramatising adventures within it). After stuffing the awkward bike box into a taxi and negotiating the tight twisting streets of Thamal I had to lug it the last couple of hundred metres on my head, following the natives’ lead. I would wait until my return from the trek to explore the extent of its intactness (excitement to come!).

However, I had other concerns now, for it was my birthday.

The evening began as advertised months in advance at the Jatra Bar in Thamal where I bought everyone a round of longnecks for making the effort to turn up – that should be sufficient incentive to travel thousands of kilometres to meet me on my birthday. There were six of us there to congratulate me on my great age, dispense presents and well-wishings and laugh at my jokes (as all good birthday party guests should). No large contingent of clandestine Melbournian or backpacking invitees presented themselves having booked flights on a whim without telling me, and they needn’t have with the excellent company I already enjoyed.

The rest of the night accelerated into a blur of two-for-one cocktails, a frenzied funky Israeli restaurant and Nepalipop dancing at a nightclub into the small hours – my drunken dancing skills would become the butt of jokes for many days to come.

Getting up the next morning for the trek was painful and difficult – I wondered why I’d bothered to go to bed. Saying goodbye to Helio who was staying behind to await his flight home we embarked on a halting and abortive journey to meet our bus to Bhulbule. After getting lost, trying again and then being taxied by the bus company to the actual depot, then lost again, we were finally on the bus and our way – all eight hours of it. Not good for hangovers.

The bus ride’s presentation of the epic Marsyangdi Valley did its best to bring me back to health, as did the haphazard traffic rules and a thorough update on the missed goss’ from home. Finally, we had landed at Besisahar and sat for geological ages on a sweltering and drastically cramped oversized “jeep” awaiting the one extra passenger who would make the driver’s trip to Bhulbule worthwhile. When the crowded jeep finally did depart we all wished it hadn’t as it jangled our concertinaed legs towards total uselessness. But the views and hospitality of the lodge at Bhulbule, overlooking the Marsyangdi River and underlooking the eight kilometre high Manaslu Range, dissolved the painful memories of the journey there.

And the next morning we were off! The participants:
The stoical unstoppable Rhonda;
The avuncular Tim with his knowledge historical;
Rob - doyen of bushwalking Southwest Tasmania;
Sandy, faithful father, fit beneath his years; and
I, Felix, who came up the idea in the first place.

This marked the beginning of for some of us three weeks of almost continual trekking. On that day I dealt the group a bad portent when I misstepped while appreciating the disappearing cloud cover and thus fine views of mountain-hemmed villages and fell several metres off a cliff. Miraculously I landed onto an adjoining path upright and completely unharmed, pumping with adrenaline, despite having to support and balance an eighteen kilo pack. I used to criticise Tim’s sure-footedness: he’s so tall the electrical impulses take too long to get from his brain to his feet, lacking the advantage of a second brain in his hips like a brachiosaurus. But this trek has proved my critique outdated (has his lower spinal ganglion inflated?).

Over the next few days we learnt that we had chosen an excellent time of year to go trekking – perfect weather as the monsoon had yet to hit but, not willing to risk it, no crowds. From the few trekkers we did encounter we found ourselves to be in an extreme minority for opting out of both guide and porter. One French trekker we discovered later had employed both, like the motorcade of a presidential outing. Unfortunately, we were all versed in independent Australian bushwalking rather than teahouse trekking and lacked the ability of some European trekkers to keep their packs in the five kilo range. I managed to bring about five kilos of books alone (okay maybe two), not to mention a one litre glass bottle of port and 750 grams of salt (for oft-threatened but non-eventuating leeches).

The end of the first day was marked by lunch at our lodge of sleep – the only day this was to be the case – under the auspices of a spectacularly tall waterfall and an equally spectacular thunderstorm (two of my favourite water phenomena, excluding comets and tsunamis of course). Here we laughed ourselves to sleep at the hilariously inept PhotoShopping on a poster of a Bangladeshi bridge in our rough yet cosy bedrooms. We would later look back on that day as an age of innocence before we knew of the destructive effects of road building upriver.

Luckily, the next day’s annoyance at the horrible scar on the landscape wrought by picks and jackhammers, belying the remark in the guidebook, after promising ancient wooden galleries to negotiate some steep rock faces, that “They’ll never get a road through here” (a wry phrase we used sardonically throughout the trek), became great excitement as we were stopped by the army so they could blast the opposing cliffs with dynamite. The awesome spectacle was enhanced by the long delay between sight and sound, entirely unlike Hollywood special effects. As it happened, after the third day’s forced clambering around both working jackhammers and undetonated dynamite while perched precariously over a sheer cliff (one trekker was nearly wiped out by a falling boulder – if my work’s health and safety officer saw this he’d explode), the road construction ceased interfering with us. This road building stuff is a real tragedy – the teahouses upriver lobbied for it so they could sell cheaper beer to trekkers (so far it’s hauled in using frequently encountered mule trains) but I don’t think they realise what a disaster it will be for business, as others have discovered all too late.

A few days into the trek the real stuff began. Climbing higher into the Himalayas we passed through beautiful rhododendron forests (I’m told the flowers are a vivid red), around a curved, sloping and smooth glacial wall the size of a dangerously angled city, through sleepy villages of the Tibetan culture (prayer flags, sutra wheels, chortans and gompas vying for our irreverent attention) and beneath the ever-present gaze of the Annapurna Range’s ice capped behemoths, scraped up from the Tethys Sea to just below the maximum height our planet can sustain – if you want more go to Mars. Yes, the group being entirely comprised of engineers resulted in a constant stream of Nerd Talk. Quantum physics, genetics and a group-effort calculation of the gravitational acceleration on the Earth due to the sun dominated the conversation – I’d been missing nerds.

And on the seventh day we rested (the seventh from Kathmandu that is) for purposes of altitude acclimatisation. Or we called it resting. In actual fact the non-Rhondonians got up early in the regional centre of Manang for a day walk to Milarepa’s Cave. This involved a lot of scrambling uphill and arguing over directions, but for our troubles we received a cultural experience in a Tibetan Buddhist gompa and, our curiosity getting the better of us, a further climb to 4400m altitude to watch from close-range a gigantic glacier groaning and grumbling, tumbling and tinkling under its own weight.

It was during the surprisingly exciting audiovisual experience of the glacier (its face was in view but the rest was buried in cloud) that we heard a distant, deep rumble. Over the seconds it enloadened into a violent roar like thunder or a low-flying 747. We all looked at each other nervously: an avalanche.

“Let’s get the hell out of here!” someone shouted, possibly inside my head. Dad and I legged it uphill obeying the old principal that where the interests of good photography and life preservation coincide you should always follow your instincts, but Rob and Tim were too cool to do anything except adjust the focus on their cameras, as though for them Death by Avalanche was a typical Friday afternoon. When the rumble died away without consequence I was so relieved and disappointed I laughed until my brain ran out of oxygen.

That evening we celebrated our survival by socialising with some fellow trekkers over a few momos and seabuckthorn juices. One Dutch girl called Veronique who we’d been bumping into sporadically over the last few days enlivened us with tales of her bizarre trekking companion, an old American man, Douglas by name, whose physical capabilities seemed to lie well below the threshold required by this trek and was slowly going insane from nicotine withdrawal. They each had separate guides so they could split up meiotically, as they were doing then. Another pair, an English duo, were running out of money so badly they were forced to share meals – our group had been visionary enough to extrude wallet-warping wads of cash from the digital ether before our departure. All these companions were a sort of ephemeral community, crystallising and dissolving from the trekker-pool.

Day 9. The Ascent over the Thorung-La Pass. Rob is feeling poorly due sipping untreated tap-water (I need not describe the symptoms). The group is nervous but excited, somewhat short tempered. It has been snowing the previous night. The target elevation is 5416m with Rhonda fronting the assault. Tim has made the ultimate sacrifice. He is taking up the rear to ensure that any injuries are treated with a humane rock-to-the-back-of-the-head.

As it happened the actual ascent was not that tough. But it was spectacular – we were ascending to almost rival the surrounding peaks: teetering cornices towering above fluted snow faces, snaking moraines evolving from the rock/ice landscape with the Himalayan Griffin nonchalantly peering down at our puny party. At 5000m we heard a distant rumble and turned to this time actually witness a vast avalanche falling about a kilometre, reshaping an opposing mountain-face before of our eyes at the deceptive speed best known to astronomers.

At the pass we celebrated the highest altitude ever reached by any of us (from sea-level, not from the Earth’s core) by passing around the port for Port on the Pass (traditionally known as Port on the Hill, but one must be flexible). This communal offering deeply excited a pair of Spanish girls as the brand I’d lugged up here was a local favourite of theirs at home, luckily they got to it before the Nepalese porters got a chance – the porters’ gluttony of the drink is surely an etymological clue.

Strangely, having managed to largely avoid altitude sickness so far (apart from the odd headache), the descent from Thorung-La sent some of us into waves of nausea. I myself was inured thanks to my Tibetan escapades, but I happily took part in the group-snooze half-way down on a neat patch of grass at some ancient ruins. From here we could see a whole new set of mountains, towering above a bleak valley.

The next few days saw growing realisation on the part of Tim and Rhonda that their expedition was soon to end. We stayed in a passive/aggressive hotel called Bob Marley – a truly strange experience not easily described, toured the temple complex of Muktinath where Dad stripped to his jocks to purify his soul beneath 108 water-spouting gargoyle bulls (here we also rediscovered Ross, an English buddy of ours who’d been abandoned by his otherwise charming ‘friend’ Luke on the wrong side of the pass after exhibiting signs of altitude sickness), and made our way towards the oasis town of Kagbeni. This journey was harrowing in every sense of the word: deep bull dust, violent winds, then a combination of the two resulting in an onslaught of airborne missiles. I got one in my eye, ruining my views of 3000 year-old Buddhist caves and monasteries nestled amongst the eroded badlands.

A rest day in Kagbeni, our first real chance at recuperation, saw us eating, sleeping, reading and exploring the local ‘Yakdonalds’ prior to a day ambling our way to Jomsom – racking off point for Tim and Rhonda. Unfortunately, the subsequent day the monsoon finally struck, grounding their plane and forcing them into an epic series of bus rides, an enormous taxi ride and a fuel fail as they limped and struggled towards the airport at Pokhara. Rob, Sandy and I were ignorant of this adventure at the time as we negotiated the Kali Gandaki river valley for our circuitous route to the Annapurna Base Camp.

Our own experience of this sudden weatherosity involved a nearby footbridge being washed away, another bridge on the main road almost suffering the same fate (Rob heroically helped some workers escape with their gear from the flash flood) and a landslide that threatened our planned bus departure from the town of Tukuche. Luckily this did not eventuate and so the next day we executed Project Wuss-Out and skipped two days of walking along the Kali Gandaki road. Our wussing out, however, was only partially successful as we decided to walk some of the way to Tatopani through an explosion of fertility and, allegedly, the world’s deepest gorge.

Here an evening of male bonding greeted us over a few beers while we marinated our tired bodies in the eponymous hot springs during a thunderstorm. We needed all the relaxation we could get for on the morrow we were to embark upon an arduous 1800m climb to Ghorepani. The valley on the way up was almost insultingly green. But what a view from the top! A four o’clock rise the next morning got us up to the summit of Poon Hill which, being 3200m high, would be called a mountain anywhere but Nepal. The sunrise over Daulagiri and the Annapurna Range was an awesome terrestrial syzygy (try using that word in Scrabble) – fingers of eclipsed light torn from the jagged peaks – and a superb backdrop for Port on the Hill (or Poon on the Poon!).

The Annapurna Sanctuary trek, beginning here, was everything the Annapurna Circuit trek was not: rather than rock-strewn landscapes scraped bare by glaciers we encountered damp jungles of plant-life fighting for every cubic millimeter (while competing with steep paddy terraces and frequent landslides). Instead of glaciers and ice lakes we had waterfalls and hot springs (complete with water nymphs!). Losing Tibetan Buddhism we found Nepali Hinduism. Rather than European trekkers we met those from the British Commonwealth (don’t ask me to explain the reasons for that). Although, as exceptions, we did encounter the Spanish girls and Veronique again – the latter had last seen a severely weakened Douglas crossing Thorung-La on horseback.

The four days’ ‘ascent’ to the Annapurna Base Camp at 4130m felt like a cruel joke – constantly climbing hundreds of metres only to descend again. Our total verticality for the trip worked out to nearly 25 kilometres (in 236 horizontal kilometres) and most of that knee-bending was achieved here (what a way to celebrate Rob’s 31st birthday!). But the views were seriously excellent and no more so than at the base camp itself: here we witnessed another mountastic sunrise while completely surrounded by the fishtailed Macchapuchhare and three Annapurnas (keeping clear of a vast flowing glacier beneath us). Unfortunately, I’d dropped my camera some days ago so could not record the scene (continuing the sprawling Camera Saga), but I recommend Rob’s brilliant photography. At evening-time I consumed three serves of Dhal Bhat, our staple food, which shocked even the local porters (but I sure got my money’s worth!). Heading back to civilisation we sprinted at twice the advised speed, stopping only for a deeply appreciated semi-rest day at the spur-perched Jhinu Dhanda, before finding ourselves standing in the sun, bleary eyed and awaiting the bus to take us to Pokhara. What a trip!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

7 Days in Tibet

As I recall, I left my gentle readers poised precariously on the cliff-hanger ending of whether or not I would make it all the way back through China to Hong Kong so I could collect my pack and then find some way of getting back through China and into Nepal in time for my 27th birthday party meet-up. In order to relieve the otherwise unbearable tension during this blog I will now reveal that yes, I did make it.

The journey back from 'Shangri-La' east was much faster than coming the other way. Paivi and I took a bus to Jiangxi and then, after an afternoon heeding Chinglish warnings against 'irrational shopping', appropriated part of a sleeper bus back to Kunming. The beds on this bus were just about long enough for the decapitated body of a white male of average height and contained no more carry-on luggage capacity than might be secreted in swallowed condoms. However, I slept far better than the only other sleeper bus ride I've taken - India, 2001, in which I'd spent the whole night throwing up over the Western Ghats while avoiding having my height adjusted by oncoming trucks.

Arriving back in Kunming I immediately booked the next train (departing that afternoon) for Guangzhou near Hong Kong. Paivi was also desperate to get out of the city as she was in serious danger of missing her flight back to Finland from Beijing. Like most Chinese cities Kunming guilted me into feeling like I should get a life, find a job and be productive for the Progress of The Nation, thus the day went by like a picnic held during an air raid - you want to join in the frenzy but you've just uncorked a bottle of wine.

The train ride to Guangzhou was one of my best yet - 28 hours in a largely empty train, reading 'Shantaram', a huge foundation stone of a novel written by a Melbournian ex-crim, who's sort of like an evil Kim Stanley Robinson, and engorged as a right-of-passage by almost every backpacker I meet.

On the train I met a friendly young Guangzhou local named Kyo in possession of excellent English skills and a charitable desire to establish me in a hotel. This ended in a quest far more involved than for which I was prepared as we traipsed across the entire city in the dead of night employing the extensive metro system, multiple taxi rides and kilometres of foot-work, bypassing acceptable cheap digs is search of a hotel that satisfied both Kyo's requirement for a place worthy of my imagined social status and my requirement for absolutely anything costing me less than $50. This was not helped by a massive conference on African development that weekend filling the city's hotels with stylish black businessmen.

But the next day I was out of the city and on my way to Shenzhen, taking one of the 200 km per hour bullet trains in which China is now being enmeshed - the fastest I've ever traveled on land (with respect to that land - I'm not getting into a discussion on galactic divergence).

Eager to know if my pack had left Postal Space and now existed in the familiar dimensions of our own universe, and also because the bullet train dropped me off right on the border, I delayed the tour of Shenzhen until my way back out and once again went through the interminable procedures of leaving one country and entering another - an experience somewhat more irritating than usual because Hong Kong is now a part of China and so I wasn't technically crossing any national borders at all. Since this terminated my Chinese visa I had to stay in Hong Kong long enough to get a new one - three days since it was a Friday afternoon. Impeccable timing as usual. Nicely, Hong Kong's metro joins right into Shenzhen's, a system designed specifically for failed cycle tourists lugging heavy inward-leaning panniers.

I'd been hearing all sorts of things about Hong Kong on my trip, some positive and most negative. Somebody told me it's like Blade Runner - all the rich people living in high-rises trying to escape from the poor people at street level. Whatever the truth of it it's a cool image and certainly had some resonance with my experience living in the Chungking Mansions - a vast cubic firetrap crammed with tiny cell-like rooms with windows overlooking ventilation ducts like Bespin's Cloud City from Star Wars, every conceivable ethnicity in roughly equal proportions inhabiting the rooms, queuing for lifts and haggling over samosas. I got a real buzz out of this crazy place despite paying $15 for a room that could charitably be described as a coffin a few sizes too big for me.

Other than that, the horror stories I'd heard about the prices in Hong Kong seemed to be a phurphy. Things are the same price here as the same things in China, there's just more overt availability of very expensive things. On the first night I went to a classy Vietnamese restaurant perched near the top of a glass ovoid-shaped building and paid just $7 for a full meal. On the other hand I was forced to clench my face in an attempt to lock out emotional displays, my left eyelid flickering with the strain, as the bill came in for the round of beers I had shouted the Hanoi Backpacker's Hostel's barman's friend and his girlfriend for allowing me to send my pack to them (and for it's reunification with me) - they'd recommended an expensive rooftop bar above the main pier so we could watch the sun set through the haze, it's path punctuated by the crowded skyline.

Considering the amount of time available I managed to do a pretty thorough job on Hong Kong. I wandered through the city streets on both sides of the channel, familiarised myself with all forms of public transport (including dirt-cheap ferries, metro, buses and even trams), spent long hours watching the afternoon fade into evening with the accompanying laser show erupting from the tops of dozens of buildings while sitting on the end of a Prohibited Entry pier (AND not getting arrested!), had nights on the town with both British descent and Chinese descent locals - acquaintances of different backpacking buddies, and visited the major peaks of Hong Kong's two biggest islands. The first one being 'The Peak' on 'Hong Kong Island' - a wealthy green utopia in the clouds, like the way books from the 70's depict the perfectly landscaped habitable surfaces of orbital ring colonies - and the second being Lantau Island with its giant Buddha statue near the summit. When the gondola cost and queue proved too much for me to withstand I got up there the old fashioned way - every hour I asked someone how far a walk it was to go and each time they gave me an answer twice as long as the previous person, like an inverse Xeno's Paradox. The girl I met just twenty minutes before reaching the top reckoned I'd never make it.

On Monday morning, visa in hand, I took the metro and left the country, touring Shenzhen (a poor cousin to Hong Kong I must say - China likes to spread its cities out a lot, buildings edging away from each other in mistrust) meeting Kyo in Guangzhou again for a night of beer and pool, and then embarking on a long and spectacular train ride to Chengdu - launching pad for Tibet. An Annoying Incident boarding this train occurred as I was listening to an Atheist podcast on my ipod (I'd been really getting into podcasts). I had to put my panniers and newly acquired pack down on the metal detection conveyor belt but accidentally got my headphones hooked in my pack straps. I tried to free myself but my major luggage item, already in the grip of the conveyor belt, began to pull me into the jaws of the metal detector - no doubt to a terrible fate of radiation poisoning, acquisition of super powers and an eventual stand-off with an evil mastermind planning the enslavement of humanity. Since my hands were occupied holding my panniers I had to clumsily roll myself off the conveyor belt - snapping my headphones cable in the process and cutting off the podcast mid-sentence, trapping it inside my ipod. Clearly it was a message from the Atheist God telling me He does not exist (but due to my lack of faith I refused to believe Him).

This is where the real work began: I was pretty set on checking out that new train line to Lhasa, had been interested in Tibet since my Tintin days and wanted to keep up my aversion to flying (it being a fairly cop-out way to travel the world) - but for some reason the Chinese government doesn't trust us nice tourists to be in Tibet on our own, as though we'll tell the world what nasty bastards they are up there (or worse: tell the Tibetans). So I needed to be on a package tour - something I'd managed to avoid so far. Unfortunately, a package tour to get from the train station at Lhasa down to the Nepali border costs about $1500, so I needed at least one person with whom to share the exorbitant cost. Chengdu's Mix Hostel was exactly the place to find such a person so I spent a week there, slowly running out of time, finding possible companions and being abandoned by them, finishing 'Shantaram' and visiting a panda zoo. My lamentations of failure were eventually overheard by a British dude called Helio who was a) keen on seeing Tibet, b) didn't mind handing over the vast wad of cash required for a visit to said autonomous zone and, crucially, c) was happy to go with my somewhat condensed absolutely-must-be-in-Kathmandu-on-the-21st time-frame.

But, since time was already short, plus with the Tibet permits taking three days to acquire, as well as the train taking a week for the booking, this was no guarantee of success - the hostel informed us that there were no tickets left that would suit us but that they'd check later if someone canceled. I despaired at our chances and took a sad walk through the streets of Chengdu, but upon my return I was informed that yes! Miraculously, two people had in fact canceled! We were going to Tibet! I had had no idea before then exactly how much I was emotionally dependent on that outcome: instantly my spirits elevated right into the stratosphere and I had a mega-enjoyable afternoon (but by the next day my body had used up all its available endorphin reserves and I came crashing back down again until it could manufacture some more).

The next few days we spent waiting for our permits and train, seeing the town and the construction of its new metro system, wrestling with banks to get enough money out for the tour and in the evenings hitting the town. The most noteworthy night was when thirteen of us (we'd conglomerated with Mix's backpacker community by then) stormed a nightclub with a suspiciously high girl/guy ratio. It was after the tenth Lady Ga Ga song came on that the guy component of the backpacker group began to nod knowingly at itself - this was not a normal bar. Of course, it took until the girl component was the victim of successive waves of female instigated arse-grab attacks for it to realise that this was, in fact, a local lesbian bar and so stormed out, disappointment from all parties left trailing in its wake.

I could devote a whole blog to Chengdu and its crazy night life but we had a train to catch so I must move on.

The first day of this 48-hour train ride was quite uneventful, except for admiring the profusion of altitude warning signs and oxygen supply nozzles coating the walls. Helio and I were assigned not only different beds (cramped top beds too) but different carriages, so our interactions mainly revolved around endless rounds of the ubiquitous card game Shithead, all while listening to three tracks inescapably played over the sound system on repeat: Beethoven's 'Fur Elise', Celine Dion's 'My Heart Will Go On' (Geez - Titanic came out in, like, 1997!) and a Propaganda speech describing the Happiness of the Tibetan People. I was foresightful enough to bring along two bottles of red wine and a corkscrew for the journey, but Helio over-ruled me with his sensible consideration of altitude sickness (grrr...).

And altitude was a real worry - that night we left the deserted landscape of north-western China and the Silk Road (we had traveled as far north as the latitude of Beijing) and started climbing solidly up to 5027m above sea level - the highest I'd ever been on land and so it would be again until the trek in Nepal. I slept very soundly despite two annoyances: firstly the Chinese guy next to me snored so loudly and spasmodically I almost launched into giving him an emergency tracheotomy with my unused corkscrew, and secondly someone seemed to have decided to open one of the windows for a smoke during the night, evacuating roughly half of the atmosphere in the previously pressurised train.

But when we awoke - What. A. View. I don't know how those Chinese did it but they put a train line across the vast frozen plateau of Tibet, five kilometres above sea level. I hear they have to pump cooling fluids through the piers of the 167 kms of bridges so they don't sink into the gradually warming permafrost - yet another reason why I had to take this journey now. The only way I can really describe this landscape is to compare it with the cliche of the frozen northern latitudes of Mars. Little grew out here, blasted by constant snow storms even during summer, and the only objects to punctuate our views of the half-frozen lakes, vast desert plains and snow covered peaks were the occasional shelter, community or wandering horseman.

The line terminated in Lhasa where our tour guide failed to meet us at the station as planned (not a comfortable place to be left alone - shotgun toting Chinese military personnel in full riot gear grace every street corner in the capital). This set the tone for our relationship in the following days as he later failed to book us tickets for Lhasa's star attraction of the Potala Palace, in our itinerary for the next day, forcing us to stand outside the ticket office for an hour begging them to let us in, and finally, despite us paying his company over $400 per day, excusing his total ignorance of our tour's surrounding geography with the fact that this was his first time beyond Greater Lhasa. As I never tire of hearing, 'you get what you pay for'... (no, I'm being sarcastic - apart from the straight-forward rip-off, there are too many variables valued too differently by different people for prices to be a real universal measure of subjective worth).

But Helio and I couldn't complain too much, our guide was an alright bloke and could translate the driver's extensive familiarity with our surroundings. Plus he told us such interesting facts as that Tibet is suffering under the effects of a fifteen year drought because "Scientists say the Universe is getting hotter", and that another scourge wreaking havoc on Tibet is that the farmers have all seen the movie '2012' and hence have stopped tending to their fields because they fear, of all things, that they are in immanent tsunami danger. I had just been thinking that it would have been a convenient time for a four kilometre high tsunami to sweep the globe and was on alert for a sudden inner-ear pressure change announcing the wave's approach.

Our guide did, however, have an excellent knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, taking us to many fascinating and beautiful temples and monasteries in Lhasa and southern Tibet. I must say though, I've always had a bit of a soft-spot for this peaceful and compassionate religion, but now I'm not so sure. The more I learned about it the more I was aware of its pre-enlightenment backwardness. Like, rather than concocting practical solutions to their drought problem they feel their best interests are served by either constant prayer or the invention of machines that can pray for them and so allow them time to install messy-looking prayer flags everywhere. Plus, when we visited the solid gold tombs of the previous Dalai Lhamas, each weighing hundreds of kilos, our guide blithely mentioned that all that gold had been extracted from the peasants. What??!! What WERE those methods of extraction!?

However, the Tibetan landscape was incredible. On our way out of Lhasa in a completely unnecessary Land Rover (all the roads were Prince's Highway standard, grrrr...) we encountered a large lake at 4400m or so with distant peaks poking above it - I know, I'm as surprised as you that Tibet has beaches (after a brief swim I can report that, yes, the water is frikkin' freezing). The towns are all mud brick, weathered and ancient - blending seamlessly into ruins that could be thousands of years old. Towering glaciers greeted us at roadsides, vast rivers negotiated ancient canyons, occasionally isolating decrepit forts clambering above the waterline, while just over half the atmosphere remained to shield us from the glaring sun. Our view would often open up to reveal infinite wind-blasted deserts punctuated by whistling mesas and, sometimes, fertile oases where yaks in immaculate headgear would till the land.

I only experienced mild altitude sickness, staying in the city of Shigatse (supposedly the highest city in the world at 3800m, but I have my doubts), where I got a day-long headache definitely NOT cured by the Chinese Medicine foisted on me by a local pharmacy (I didn't even get the placebo effect!). I was almost tempted to wuss out and buy one of the prolific oxygen canisters sold in every conceivable context (expensive restaurants and hotels, rather than advertising AC, would advertise O2) but settled for a random selection of drugs containing codeine from my first aid kit.

Apart from the obvious satisfaction in seeing Mount Everest on Day 2 of the drive (we didn't go to the base camp because the tour operator told us it was "crap"), the highlight was certainly Day 3, the final day, in which we reached the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. Now you'd probably imagine that the edge of the plateau would be something like reaching the end of a tall sharp-edged table: the Himalayas poking up beyond it with views between the mountains into the vast haze of the Indian Subcontinent. And you would be correct - that's exactly what it was like. A brown flat bit of land 4.8 kilometres up suddenly giving way into nothingness and a straight line of eight kilometre high mountains receding into the distance like the perfect formation of an unreasonably large alien invasion force. It blew our minds. I have photos on Flickr, but, like most of this stuff, they don't do it justice.

After that it was only a matter of executing a steep descent between two mountains into Nepal, stopping at the mandatory fifty million military checkpoints per milimetre along the way, celebrating our final night in Tibet with our guide and driver over my last remaining bottle of wine in Zuegma, allowing our bags to be searched by the Chinese border to the extent of having each of the 900 pages of Neal Stephenson's excellent book 'Quicksilver' scrutinised by paranoid customs officials (undoubtedly looking for the secret plans for China's new Death Star, naturally I'd hidden them in my underpants), crossing the Friendship Bridge into Nepal, finding an old shack off the main road dispensing $100 three month visas for Nepal (if we hadn't seen it I would still be at large in this country), catching an awesomely scenic bus into Kathmandu and...

...Meeting up with all my friends and family who had made the trip out here for my birthday!