A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Patrick H.

Lebanon June 2017

Saturday, Sunday 10th - 11th June.

No direct flights from Manila to Beirut (not that surprising), and so as we were touching down in Dubai en-route anyway, we decided to stay a couple of nights. Arriving late we checked into the Sofitel and promptly fell asleep hoping that jet-lag wouldn’t suddenly arouse us in the middle of the night.
We needn’t have worried – we awoke about 6ish (a lie-in compared to Manila) and enjoyed a decent breakfast downstairs. After a quick wander outside we eventually caught a public boat all the way to the north of the city, passing the Burj hotel and various other landmarks such as the Palm and massive, sky-tickling towers packed too close together.
At the other end we passed through old Dubai, finding possibly the only café serving food and drink during Ramadan as well as the old Souqs. So hot, I don’t know how the locals fasted all day. We kept on popping into public toilets with bottles of water smuggled in bags etc…
But, we ended the ‘fast’ on floor 148 of the Burj Khalifa – the tallest building in the world. Baclava and soft drinks were brought out as the sun finally faded from view. A stunning view, looking down on top of already incredibly high buildings far below us. The fountain show started up in the man-made lake 148 floors below us and gave us a different perspective on the event.
Later, after riding the mightily efficient light train service now in operation in Dubai, we were back on the waterfront by the Sofitel. We found a falafel place and completely over-ordered and over-ate. Great food though.
Dubai is quiet during Ramadan. Cafes are shut, few people are around – the religious festival seems to grind the city to a halt until sundown. Then, the restaurants and cafes come alive with fast-ending Iftah buffets.Dubai

Dubai

Tallest building - the Burj Khalifa

Tallest building - the Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Burj Khalifa, Dubai

Sunset from the Burj

Sunset from the Burj

At the Burj Khalifa

At the Burj Khalifa

Monday 12th June.
We flew from Al Maktoum Airport in Dubai. Barely open after renovations, we found ourselves almost alone in a huge airport. There were two flights only operating that day and the one we were on was about 15% full. We arrived into Beirut mid-afternoon and after some feeble negotiating our expensive taxi driver happily deposited us at Le Commodore hotel in the area of Hamra in Beirut. With time to spare we went wandering.
The impact and effects of the Civil War were immediately obvious. New buildings with massive balconies stretched impressively skyward. The centre of Beirut near the old souqs had been re-built and although it lacked atmosphere (and people) one day soon hopefully, it will once again bustle with activity. Talking later with local people we discovered that the purchasing of the land and the gentrification of this part of the city may not have been completed in an entirely honest manner. This was a shame as it did (and does) have the potential to be beautiful.
In other places empty structures riddled with bullet holes provided a solemn reminder as to the grizzly and all too recent past.
Beirut, we found, is expensive. However, we came across a great little place called Le Patio (a strong French influence throughout the country was evident at all times) that served good local wine at cheap prices with a decent view of the sun dipping into the Mediterranean.
Nearer our hotel we found a lovely little restaurant called Abu Naim and we tucked into our first Lebanese food. It was just as good as we hoped it would be – hummus, matabal, tabouleh, wonderful freshly baked bread and various egg-plant dishes. We ate too much – something that would turn out to be rather a common theme.
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Tuesday 13th June
We woke early and set off for the Corniche which proved to be only about a 15 min walk away past the university. We ventured left after hitting the sea and eventually found the Bay Rock café overlooking Pigeon Rock. The coffee was over-priced and poor, but the view was excellent. We got back in time for breakfast at the hotel.
Then to the national Museum, which deliberately avoided any mention of the Civil War unfortunately and preferred to focus attention on Beirut’s Phoenician and Roman past.
We then headed to Tawlet – a wonderful little café, famous for its food. And rightly so. We stayed ages, trying everything their buffet offered. Lebanese food truly is fantastic. Needing a walk afterwards, I returned slowly to the hotel via the old souqs again and Marsha went shopping. We met in a bar later and ventured up to Iris – a roof-top bar. Not knowing quite what to expect, we suddenly found ourselves in amongst the rich and famous of Beirut. Clearly out of place in shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops, we decided against staying and having a $20 drink. Instead we found another roof-top bar (Grey’s) and in a much quieter environment enjoyed a slightly less expensive drink before returning home.

Wednesday 14th June
The previous day we’d organized a taxi to pick us up. Geiss was the driver’s name and he took us to Batroun north of Beirut along the coast. There, we hired bicycles just as the wind picked up and the first few drops of rain fell. We rode around the old souqs and found an old Phoenician wall on the coast serving as a sea defence. There was even a small Roman theatre in someone’s garden!
We rode the bikes back nearly as far as the town of Byblos. Here, in a town continuously inhabited for 8000 years, the Dravidian alphabet is thought by some to have originated. The little port was very picturesque, little boats bobbing up and down peacefully in the water. A group of small schoolchildren excitedly cheered on teachers desperately trying to set alight and send a fire lantern into the sky. It all could have turned nasty when one of the teachers finally let go thinking the flaming lantern would rise gloriously upward. Unfortunately, it didn’t. Instead, it pitched to the side and drifted through the group of traumatised children who scattered for safety.
We watched from afar, and after checking that nobody was suffering from third degree burns we ventured up to the castle. Mostly in ruins, it still gave great insight into what it would have been like to live there centuries ago. It had great views out along the coastline.
Then to the souqs, yet more great food and a persistent waitress who at one point I thought literally wouldn’t let us leave unless we’d recorded online how lovely she and her service was.
From Byblos to the surprisingly wonderful Jeita Grotto en-route to Beirut. Cave systems don’t generally do it for us – but this one was tremendous. Massive stalagmites and tites in cavernous underground spaces. Far below us through precarious cracks and crevasses in the rock we spied a blue river still gauging out a path.
The visit involved a boat ride along the underground river later on. We only travelled several hundred metres upstream – apparently many km have been discovered though. Has to be said, this outdoes the Philippine underwater river in Palawan that beat them to the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
Back in Beirut – we were still full from our massive lunch and so we had an early night.
Phoenician Wall at sea

Phoenician Wall at sea

Byblos, Lebanon

Byblos, Lebanon

Byblos, Lebanon

Byblos, Lebanon

Theatre at the old castle in Byblos, Lebanon

Theatre at the old castle in Byblos, Lebanon

Thursday 15th June
Geiss picked us up again – pretty early at 730am. We drive over the 2000m high hills of Lebanon to the east of Beirut and down the other side into the Beqaa Valley. Across the valley, not 20 mins away was the border with Syria. This was Hezbollah territory, indeed we saw shirts and caps with the Hezbollah image of guns lovingly adorned for sale in many places.
Roman and Phoenician ruins are in evidence everywhere in Beirut and its surrounds. It is weird to see Roman ruins riddled with bullet holes! But, there is no better sight in the Middle East than Baalbek. Our visit to this huge Roman site was made all the better by being there alone – no other tourists whatsoever – for the first hour. Gradually we were joined by 10 or 15 others.
Huge columns supporting decorative ceilings that would have once formed absolutely enormous temples dominated the skyline. We wandered around happily for a couple of hours snapping photos that we knew couldn’t do justice to the place.
Occasionally persons from Islamic State snatch people from here, but we saw nothing of this.
In fact, the people were very welcoming. On the ride over we stopped at an Arabian sweet store and the owners were so happy to see us they gave Marsha a free piece of Lebanese cheesecake. Then, before visiting the ruins, we stopped at what was claimed to be the largest stone in existence. There, a shop owner came out and gave us coffee for free.
After Baalbek we visited 2 wineries for tasting – Ksara and Kefraya. Both were very good, especially the first for some superb whites and at the second more for the reds. We stayed and had lunch at Kefraya – once again eating far too much, meaning that we didn’t go out for dinner again. Instead, we popped out for a walk along the Corniche and ended up at a rooftop bar watching the sunset. Later we explored our local area and found several bars and we propped one up for a while before going to bed.
Largest stone in the world - Baalbek

Largest stone in the world - Baalbek

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, lebanon

Baalbek, lebanon

View from Baalbek, lebanon

View from Baalbek, lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Baalbek, Lebanon

Ouch! Baalbek, Lebanon

Ouch! Baalbek, Lebanon

Winery near Baalbek, Lebanon

Winery near Baalbek, Lebanon

Lebanese winery

Lebanese winery

Lebanese winery

Lebanese winery

Sunset in Beirut

Sunset in Beirut

Friday 16th June
Friends of friends kindly met us at the hotel and took us to the Teleferique cable car. 650m further up the hills afforded us great views of the Lebanese coastline. The ‘Our Lady of Lebanon’ was perched on a pedestal above us.
We stopped off at an ice cream store on the way home – it was absolutely huge. That evening we went to Anno – an Armenian restaurant near our hotel which we’d been recommended. With good reason, great food.
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Saturday 17th June
Marsha found a walking tour online that had been reprised. For 3hrs we joined about 12 others wandering around the city hearing about the history. To be honest, the guides weren’t that special, but what made it super-interesting was the other people in the group. There was a local lady who described the area before, during and after the civil war. She pointed out old buildings still displaying war scars as well as showing us newer structures and explaining what used to stand in its place. Then there were the local men and women who poked their heads into our tour as it continued and gave their honest opinions on modern day Beirut. A Brazilian, who currently works in Syria, described life in that war-torn country. He presented a place free from fighting and blamed the western media for stirring up trouble. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle – but it was very interesting talking to him.
We stopped for lunch at an Albanian restaurant again – easily the best value place we went to: Badgeur. Highly recommended – and artisan place.
Once again, we ate too much and decided to walk it off with a long walk home and then along the Corniche later. We eventually caught a taxi to a local pub called Ferdinand and had some non-local type food for once – a burger. It was a great little place though.
Old man in Beirut

Old man in Beirut

old building in Beirut

old building in Beirut

Old fort, Lebanon

Old fort, Lebanon

Sunday 18th June
After breakfast we took a taxi to Sidon and met up with our friend again. We visited the old fort situated on the water in the town and then a soap museum. Then we escaped the hot weather and drove into the hills up to Jezzine. We enjoyed a drink overlooking the low hills below and a waterfall to our side. The coolish breeze blowing in our faces was refreshing after the heat of Beirut.
Back down the hill and off to Beirut again. As it was Ramadan, we decided to do an Iftah on the waterside at Boulevard Beirut. This is a buffet designed to end the day-long fast. We hadn’t fasted but, enjoyed it all the same.

Then a little sleep before the alarm roused us just after midnight and it was sadly time to say goodbye to Lebanon. There were places still to visit and many reasons to come back. The hills to the north remained unexplored as did all the monasteries hiding away up there, the Cedars where all the skiing takes still need to be seen and then there were so many good places to eat we still hadn’t made it to.Lovely being in the Middle East again.
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Posted by Patrick H. 02:09 Archived in Lebanon Comments (1)

Everest Base Camp Trek (Dec '16 - Jan '17.

all seasons in one day

Everest Base Camp trek

“Let’s do something different for Xmas this year.” That’s how it started. That’s how we ended up in Kathmandu. Our mission: to walk to Everest Base Camp – and back!
The trek is designed to take 13 days of walking, on average about 8 or 9 hours per day. It would take us from Lukla to Base Camp and back with a minimum altitude of about 2600m and a maximum of 5400m.
This all seemed fine. The main problem was the weather. We’d be trekking in the off-season over Xmas and New Year. This is wintertime in the Himalayan mountains and temperatures regularly drop into the negative twenties. We were likely to encounter snow and wouldn’t be staying anywhere with any kind of central heating. The best we could hope for was a fire burner in the tea houses we’d be staying.
Over the two weeks we saw the rescue helicopter venture into the mountains to save stranded trekkers on several occasions. No one climbs at this time of year – too cold – and so the people being saved were those simply hiking in the mountains. We later learned that the group behind us travelling with the same organisation we booked through had to send for the rescue chopper on three occasions to airlift out people suffering from hypothermia.
“Is it harder to trek in winter,” I asked our lead guide Ganesh on one occasion? He chuckled and looked away briefly avoiding eye contact. “Yes,” he said, nodding his head in emphatic fashion. The reasons seemed to make sense: walking on snow and ice is more difficult than dry land, the body has to work harder to keep warm when inhaling cold air thereby expending more energy, and airways in the body contract and narrow in cold conditions limiting oxygen consumption in a given breath.
Still, we’d paid the money and we were going – ready or not.

Sunday 18th December.
Having spent the previous day shopping for warm clothes we packed our bags and finally set off for Kathmandu. However, firstly we enjoyed a stopover for a night in Bangkok with Terri. She took us to Steve’s on the river where we enjoyed some fantastic Thai food – seriously, is there a better cuisine anywhere?

Monday 19th to Wednesday 21st December.
We arrived into chaotic Kathmandu with a couple of days spare. The earthquake that shattered the city a year ago was very much in evidence. Dust filled the air and clung to the back of our throats inducing a dry cough that lasted the whole trek.
Durbur Square, the old centre of Kathmandu barely resembled the magnificent buildings and structures we’d observed on previous visits. Crumbling temples with missing statues away for repair or simply lying in the dust stared back at us bleakly. Walls with giant cracks surrounded by rubble were held upright by supporting blocks of wood. It was sad to see. But, the streets still bustled with tooting horns and were awash with colour and the smells of Nepalese food. The local population seemed to coping well in the adverse conditions.
The living Goddess put in an appearance for us, scowling through thick make-up from her balcony for a few seconds before disappearing back into her wooden palace to be godly again. This premenstrual girl (Goddess) is selected from a short-list for the vacant deity position once it becomes available. She then presides over her people offering her scholarly opinions until she reaches puberty. Then, she is effectively discarded, her spiritual guidance no longer considered worthwhile and a new prepubescent girl-child is chosen.
We stayed at the Kathmandu Guest House – a place that has welcomed various celebrities and famous climbers across its threshold over the years and now even boasts a ‘star walk of fame’ imitating Hollywood’s similar attraction. We ate at The New Orleans Café (again – we’d been there on previous visits and despite generating Lonely Planet notoriety it remains a welcoming cozy little place with excellent good value food). We also ate at the 3rd Eye restaurant, which also had great food, even if the ambience lacked a little.
We met up with our trekking lead guide (Ganesh) and the eight other hikers joining us on the walk to Base Camp on the Wednesday. Like us, many others seemed anxious about what lay ahead, which we found oddly reassuring. Together we poured into a couple of hiking shops later and rented sleeping bags and bought a few final gear items. Feeling as ready as we could possibly be, we packed our bags and joined everyone at the K-Too restaurant for a steak and chips – our final meal before we landed in the mountains.
This was really happening…

Thursday 22nd December.
A very cold start – and an early one. At 5am the ten trekkers and Ganesh headed for Kathmandu Airport. Fog in Lukla – our destination - delayed the flight by a couple of hours. But, by late morning we were on our way and 45 mins later with views of the white-tipped Himalayan mountains in the distance, we arrived at Lukla airport. The incredibly short runway has a considerable uphill gradient and boasts a safety record that makes you shudder. If Heathrow airport suffered a proportionally similar number of accidents/incidents per flight, then the London airport would be reporting about 4 problems/incidents/aborted landings/crashes/disasters every single day. Still, the pilot negotiated the terrifying stretch of tarmac without a hitch and jumping from the aircraft we snapped our first few photos of the surrounding peaks. We barely noticed the jaded trekkers waiting to board the flight in the opposite direction with their knowing smiles and raised eyebrows as they watched our innocent enthusiasm.
Lukla is 2800m above sea-level and the thinning air was at once noticeable. We were lead to a nearby lodge for brunch. Afterwards we met our porters. These incredibly strong young men carried our duffel bags (two to a man – about 20kg) as well as their own things throughout the trip. We carried our day bags, which with water, consisted of about 8-9 kgs. The first day walking was straightforward, but stunning. With the sun on our backs (I even wore shorts) we ambled for 3 hours, eventually ending up at 2610m at Phakding. Mountains soared overhead and prayer wheels, stupas and Buddhist mantras carved into rock resulted in multiple photo stops along the route.
As soon as the sun disappeared the temperature dropped with alarming speed and we ate hot noodle soup to keep warm before climbing into our sleeping bags.
Photos from the first day's walking...
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Friday 23rd December.
A long day set in dramatic scenery, which would have been even more stunning had the low clouds lifted. Crossing swing bridges spanning deep gorges and trudging slowly upwards we pushed into the clouds. The first sets of gloves and down jackets were pulled from our packs as the cold set in. Along the way we encountered horses, donkeys and yak herded by their Nepalese owners up and down the narrow paths. We punctuated our climb with breaks at teahouses served by cheerful locals seemingly oblivious to the cold. Small children ran around playing with anything they could lay their hands on. It was refreshing to observe the lack of phones, computers, headphones etc…
As the track steepened we slowed and were sometimes overtaken by Nepalese men and women heaving incredibly heavy weights up the mountains. “How heavy,” we enquired? Apparently it was possible for some people to carry as much as 120kg on their backs up the hills – amazing!
We arrived into the gloom of Namch Bazar at about 4.30pm, having set out at 7am. A long and tiring day - we’d climbed from 2610m to 3400m. We stayed at the Kala Pathar Lodge, which lacked a wood burner and was freezing cold. A hot dinner briefly warmed us and we were firmly tucked away in our sleeping bags shortly after 7pm.
Photos of today:
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Saturday 24th December.
Namche Bazar is a reasonably big place, especially as it is 3400m into the sky. Surrounded by mountains clouds hid it housed several trekking shops and a bunch of cozy cafes offering quality coffee and cake. It even had an Irish Bar! After a bowl of porridge we set off on an acclimatisation walk. We should only rise 400m in a day and since we’d climbed 800m the previous day we would be sleeping in Namche again that night. The aim today was to rise to 3800m and walk down again. So, that’s what we did! First we visited the Tenzing Norgay statue (1st man on the summit of Everest – with Sir Ed) and the museum. Then upwards into the clouds to the alleged highest airport in the world – which seemed far more perilous than Lukla until I learned that only helicopters used it. A little further up we settled into a teahouse for a lemon ginger honey tea and lamented the clouds preventing what would otherwise have been a fantastic view of the Himalayas.
Then, we returned to Namche Bazar and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to keep warm in the coffee shops. Paul (a fellow trekker from Newcastle, Uk) produced a string of tinsel, twinkling lights and two miniature Xmas trees for the dinner table, which was a masterstroke and helped generate some festive feeling.
We endured a shower in the sub zero temperatures – it turned out to be the last one for about 9 days.
Today's photos:
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Sunday 25th December. Xmas Day.
A returning hiker confidently informed us that the 2nd day of the trek was the hardest. This person was obviously an imbecile as today’s trek was far harder. We awoke and wished each other merry Xmas. I set off before breakfast to find a takeaway coffee from one of the many good cafes. Despite displaying opening times of 6am and it being an hour later, all were shut. However, not to worry – the clouds had vanished revealing the majestic Himalayan peaks towering above the town. Our celebratory Xmas breakfast consisted of porridge and Tibetan bread, but the exuberant atmosphere around the table had more to do with the clear blue skies than the birth of Christ I think. In jubilant mood we marched uphill to a crescendo of oohs and aahs as yet more mountains appeared on the horizon. At various points on the track we could see from whence we’d walked a day or two earlier. Swing bridges with prayer flags drifting in the breeze deep down in the valleys below us – stunning.
But, it was an innocuous looking turn in the small path cut into the side of the hill that was the best surprise of all. Suddenly, in all their magnificence, Nuptse, Lohtse and Everest were in front of us. The trip, the walk, everything – worth it for that one view. We stood, we stared, we clicked endless photos and slapped each other on the back in a rather indulgent self-congratulatory manner. Marsha declared it a Christmas miracle, which was possibly overdoing it slightly, but no one cared or disagreed.
After a while we walked in the direction of the mountains. Occasionally we’d remember to look sideways and behind at the incredible scenery there as well. At another large stupa we stopped and were joined by Santa himself. He obligingly posed for photos and told us he was actually from Yorkshire.
Onwards, upwards. A teahouse stop for more ginger, lemon, honey tea with some surprisingly good Yak (Nak) cheese. Then, lunch at 4000m and a downhill stretch to the glacial river, which took us to 3600m. Tengbuche Monastery sat on a hill across the valley in the distance – beautiful. Across a bridge over the river and then a steep climb to the small village of Phortse Gaon at 3810m. Exhausted, cold and in need of rest we tumbled into Thamserka Lodge. A fire fueled by frozen Yak poo gave the communal space a pungent kind of warmth. We all agreed it had been the hardest, yet the most beautiful day so far.
And, more exercise than most of us were used to on Xmas day!
Xmas Day Photos:
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Monday 26th December.
Phortse to Dingboche today. The water in our bottles in the bedroom had frozen. Yep, it was cold. As we set out snowflakes drifting down and lightly settling on the ground greeted us. But, we spied blue sky in the distance and before long the snow had disappeared and the sun warmed our faces. Clouds evaporated and mountains appeared again. We walked uphill, then downhill following the gushing blue river below us formed from the melted snows of Everest and other mountains. Eventually our path and the river met at a bridge decorated with colourful prayer flags. One of the most attractive aspects of the Himalayan region are these flags strewn across hillsides, bridges, rocky outcrops, stupas and other prominent landmarks.
We stopped for lunch at Sunrise Guesthouse standing at 4000m as the weather closed in. Inside the guesthouse was almost as cold as the outside. We sat and shivered and anxiously watched as the snow fell horizontally whipped up in the increasingly hostile wind. The bowl of noodles revived us slightly and when we ventured outside the weather had improved a little.
Wrapping ourselves in multiple thermal layers we set off uphill again. The river nearby was frozen in parts. Snow settled on the ground. It was a relief to finally reach Dingbuche (4410m in the sky) just after 5pm. We checked into Peak 38 Lodge knowing we’d be there for two nights – the following day was another acclimatisation day. We stuck on our bed gear – thermals, gloves, socks tracky bottoms – ate some food and tucked ourselves away in bed before 8pm. Around us the 7 & 8 thousand metre peaks towered above in silent contemplation.
Photos from today;
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Tuesday 27th December.
Frozen water bottles overnight again. One of the best ways to combat altitude sickness is to drink plenty of water. Another is to take Diamox – essentially a diuretic of which one of the side effects is peeing more. The overall impact is that at least twice nightly we have to leave the relative warmth of the sleeping bag and trudge down the corridor in sub-zero temperatures to the toilet. There, we find a very basic latrine system (often just a hole in the ground) with a bucket of water and a jug for flushing. Usually at this altitude the bucket of water is mostly ice and the whole loo area is just a treacherous skating rink. The joy of safely tumbling back into a sleeping bag post pee in the middle of the night is almost indescribable.
Porridge for breakfast. Then, we learned of the agenda for the day: a climb of 350m and back down again. And this was a rest day.
Climbing to 4750m was hard. The lack of oxygen in the rapidly thinning air burned our lungs and seemed to add dead weight to our legs. Sucking in freezing cold air and panting hard with every single step we slowly climbed the hill behind the lodge. We all finally made it and the view was exceptional: an uninterrupted 360 degree panorama of the surrounding mountains all higher than anything around the world except for some peaks in the Andes.
Slowly we descended again to the relative warmth of the lodge. It is amazing how sub-zero temperatures can appear warm when you’ve been far colder!
Amazingly, in the small town a coffee shop remained determinedly open despite the onset of winter and we ordered a French Press coffee.
Dinner was ok, although the altitude was beginning to take its toll on my appetite. Others were suffering with a variety of headaches, coughs, constipation, diahorrea, nausea and general fatigue. We concluded that the trek was probably not that great for our health!

Photos:
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Wednesday 28th December.
In the middle of the night I braved the extreme cold outside for a couple of minutes after one of my inevitable loo visits and admired the stars. Barely a spare bit of sky was without a star – amazingly clear.
In the morning we warmed our frozen water bottles by the yak poo fire and rubbed our hands trying to get warm. Apparently it was about -20 outside, and just a few degrees warmer inside.
Like Groundhog day, we packed our duffel bags and handed them gratefully to our porters. We slapped day packs on our backs and selected a path uphill. Quite simply, it was a shockingly hard day’s walking. We rose from 4410m to 4900m in Lobuche and parked ourselves at the Alpine Inn. Fortunately the weather was kind and although it was numbingly cold, the skies were clear and the views stunning.
Towards the end of the day as we were ascending a particularly steep part, the cold and the altitude finally took its toll. Marsha developed a massive headache as did another member of the group. At the lodge Ganesh tested our oxygen levels with a small device. Marsha’s was just about okay and steady. But, after seeing oxygen declining to dangerous levels the other member of the group agreed to descend to the teahouse a couple of hundred metres down the hill. She would end up being fine and we’d catch up again two days later. Marsha very nearly went with her, but decided to stay. “It’ll be a miracle if I make it to Base camp tomorrow,” she told me as we shivered in our room later – her headache still pounding away.

Photos from today:
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Thursday 29th December.
The aim today, and the overall objective of the trip – to reach Base Camp.
Marsha was uncertain whether to even start or simply to descend to ease the headache. Many others in the group awoke with pounding heads as well. The water bottles were frozen. It was getting ridiculous; my toothpaste was frozen. Outside it was in the negative twenties – inside it was also in the negative twenties. Our breath formed clouds in the room as we silently ate porridge and gobbled painkillers for breakfast.
We all started out. From 4900m we walked alongside a glacier clambering over huge boulders; there was no path, only a direction. Every step took effort. Our lungs burned, our heads throbbed and all fingers and toes were chilled to the bone. I wore just about everything I had with me in an effort to keep the glacial winds at bay. Fortunately, the sun shone.
Eventually, we arrived at our final teahouse – and surely one of the highest permanent buildings in the world at over 5100m in the sky – The Snowland Inn. This would be where we’d sleep tonight. Before that though, was the little matter of the 3 hour walk to Base Camp. And back!
Lunch was eaten – hugely expensive, but not a penny was spent grudgingly. We knew how much effort it had taken simply to lug our own selves up the mountain, let alone carrying food for other people.
We set off. Marsha felt a little better and we formed the back of the group together. The thinning air challenged every step we took. We rose higher and vaguely appreciated the sight of Mount Everest towering above Nuptse to our right hand side – but at that point all our energy was focused upon reaching Base Camp. After more than two hours of trekking we spied Base Camp nestled on huge rocks and sitting on an ice flow surrounded by enormous mountains. This truly was the roof of the world.
Base Camp had little there except prayer flags strewn across a pile of rocks. It was only 200m away and yet it took us about 45 mins to negotiate the journey. At one point we circled around an opening in the ice that dropped down tens of metres. Down, then up, over boulders, avoiding sheet ice and finally we joined the rest of the group at Mount Everest Base Camp. Gasping for air and too exhausted to celebrate we snapped a few photos and received high-fives from the guides.
Although absolutely beautiful, Base Camp is a truly inhospitable place: freezing cold, high altitude (5365m), jagged rocks and ice. It’s unimaginable how people ascend another 3500m from here to the summit.
For me, the trek back to Snowland Inn at Gorakshep at 5140m was probably the hardest section of the whole trek. Wordlessly we trooped into the Inn and slumped in seats forming a large circle round the burner that provided the only warmth in the place.
Utterly spent and still wearing all our clothes from the day’s walk, we climbed into our sleeping bags and dragged various yak wool covers over us in an attempt to keep warm.
Mission only half accomplished. Now we had to get back.

Base Camp Photos - woohoo!
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Friday 30th December.
5140m in the air is not conducive to a good night’s sleep, especially in temperatures well below freezing. Everyone was pretty excited about the fact we were descending.
With every step down the density of the air increased and it became easier to breathe. We found ourselves admiring the mountains again and appreciating the scenery as the altitude dropped. “Not far to go,” we cheerfully informed those walking in the opposite direction remembering as we did how annoying it was when we were on the receiving end of such pointless and self indulgent utterances.
Even as we neared the Sun Rise Guest House in Orsho at 4000m at the end of a long day’s walking, it was still cold, we were still high, the sun was still shining, the skies were blue and cloudless and the mountains were impressive as ever. Rivers remained iced over and on occasions and we walked through a thin layer of snow on the ground.
Finally arriving, we sat around the heater and drank hot chocolate. Breathing was much easier having descended about 1100m over the course of the day. Our knees ached, but at last we were beginning to appreciate our own accomplishment of reaching Base Camp.

Photos today:
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Saturday 31st December.
This was the shortest hiking day so far, except perhaps the first day. It was all downhill for 3 hours until a half hour steep section up to Tengbuche Monastery and the Tashi Delek Guest House alongside where we’d be staying. There was a sprinkling of snow on the ground as we set off, but the sun was soon on our backs again.
The monastery was at 3800m and Marsha and I decided that trekking below 4000m was much more enjoyable for many reasons. It was easier on the lungs, the soaring mountains from lower down seem even higher and more impressive and along the route trees, stupas, prayer wheels, a nunnery, other porters, yak and more buildings lined our journey.
As we reached Tashi Delek Guest House everyone developed a hacking cough for five minutes – one of the side affects of altitude and constantly breathing in freezing cold air. But, the view was worth it. Everest soared in the distance, joined by Nuptse, Lohtse and Ama Dablam. Behind us, standing proud was the famous monastery (although historically it does have an unerring tendency to burn to the ground).
Before long clouds drifted over carrying snow. We tried to stay warm and visited the monastery as the flakes fell upon us. A monk showed us in asked us to remove our shoes, which he probably regretted once our days old trekking socks were freed from our boots. The monastery was colourful and no doubt atmospheric during prayer time. But, it was empty for our visit. We admired the paintings on the walls, which depicted a few lucky souls relaxing in gardens and being pandered to by various other beings. But, there were also other more grizzly images: a cauldron of people being boiled alive, a man being skinned to the bone, another being trampled to death and others on fire or being eaten by a variety of horrific looking animals. Still, a very benign and peaceful religion, I’m sure.

Photos:
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Sunday 1st December.
We didn’t see in the new year – not even close. We just about managed the Kiwi New Year at 6pm, but only a couple of people stayed up late enough to see the Australian New Year in at 8pm. We were in bed.
We descended 1000m today and stayed in Monjo at Chuma Guest House. We found ourselves back on a familiar path, passing through Namche Bazar again (unfortunately the whole town lacked power and the coffee and wifi we’d been looking forward to didn’t materialise).
Increasing oxygen levels, the thought of a shower in the not too distant future, warmer weather (still below freezing) and the end of the trek in sight created an excited atmosphere at the end of the long day’s walk when Marsha and I finally joined everyone at the lodge sometime after 5pm. It had been snowing quite heavily outside and the hot chocolate we ordered was wonderful.

Photos:
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Monday 2nd December.
Just 5-6 hours walking today and all below 3000m. We were virtually skipping along at times. Down, up, down, up as usual. Mountains overhead, prayer wheels and stupas – it was wonderful. The weather behaved as well. It wasn’t until we finally posed for the group photo at the end of the trek did the first few flakes of snow fall. By the time we’d checked into the Khumbu Resort in Lukla and settled into a coffee shop the snow was falling heavily and settling on the ground. Outside children began snowball fights. With concerned faces turned upward to the falling snow we wondered whether the flight to Kathmandu the following morning would be on time.
We enjoyed a final meal at the Resort with the assistant guides and porters followed by our first beers in 2 weeks and a bit of dancing at the Irish Bar.
We’d finished the trek. Over 100km of walking and nearly 100 hours of walking. It hadn’t sunk in yet. We wouldn’t have to trek tomorrow. We’d reached Base Camp and made it back – alive. It was only over the next few days that we really appreciated that it was over and what we’d all done.

Photos from today:
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Tuesday 3rd December.
It stopped snowing at some point overnight. But, snow on the planes, ice on the runway and a general lack of urgency meant that we had about 4 hours in the cold airport terminal waiting for our plane. Over twenty people watched as one man with a feather duster swiped snow from the wings of the small plane on the tarmac. A pilot appeared and demanded hot water (or ginger lemon honey tea) be poured over the plane before he was satisfied it would fly. At one point it seemed as though there weren’t enough people standing on the runway watching and so the girl serving behind the small coffee counter was asked to join the bystanders by the plane.
Anyway, Marsha won the sweepstake organised to determine when the plane from Kathmandu would arrive and we finally departed Lukla late morning and were back at the Kathmandu Guest House before lunch.
Base Camp Trek – officially over.

Posted by Patrick H. 22:36 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Bhutan, October 2015

Bhutan. October 25th – November 1st 2015.

October 25th
Having spent an afternoon and evening enjoying the delights of Singapore (great Chinese food from Sichuan Province, a relaxing wander through the Gardens on the Bay, a visit to the space age type building above the bay and some relatively uninspiring street theatre) we boarded our Druk Air flight to Paro, Bhutan, long before most people on a week’s holiday would have even contemplated awakening. A short stop in India and we were soon soaring alongside Everest and the Himalayas in the distance rising majestically above the clouds.
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It was still morning by the time we somehow navigated around the mountains and hills sometimes only a couple of hundred yards from the wing tips and landed at the tiny airport. The pilot welcomed us all as well as ‘His Royal Highness’. From our window we watched as a young Royal disembarked and was immediately surrounded by bowing dignitaries competing for His attention. We, however departed the plane to a slightly more muted reception and negotiated our way through customs and its numerous pieces of paper demanding our names and passport expiry dates etc… All very important I’m sure.
Anyhow, eventually we were officially in Bhutan and outside the tiny terminal building we were met by our tour guides. In Bhutan, you must have organised a guided tour for the week. Without it, you won’t get a visa and you won’t be allowed in.
Our guide’s name was Wang Chack and he took us to our hotel (Kyichu Resort) (from which I could have driven a golf ball onto the runway). Planes landed several times a day – their engines echoing around the valley announcing the arrival of more tourists. It was actually quite exciting watching them fly in from time to time. It was also a reasonably good alarm call as we found out the following morning when we were awoken at about 7am by what sounded like a jet plane landing in our bedroom.
The hotel was about 2km from the centre of Paro town. The walk in was relatively easy, although the place sits at well over 2000 metres in the sky and we felt the lack of oxygen. Paro town sits on a small river adorned with colourful prayer flags. Mountains surround the valley towering over the decorative buildings reaching up to 5000 metres into the sky. Far in the distance we spied the snowy peak of a 7500 metre mountain. It was stunning.
As we wandered we reminisced our travels to Tibet and Nepal and compared. Bhutan definitely had its own thing going on – but the scenery and some of the buildings and clothing were similar. We ambled through a local market – the vegetables looked great and plenty of chilies, which boded well for the week from a gastronomic perspective. In Tibet we never encountered anything other than bread and various products made from Yak milk or just bits of Yak generally, which is actually even more unpleasant than it sounds.
We popped into a couple of shops, had a drink and a cake at a café and wandered by the river. At one point we came across some fellas playing darts (not your Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor type darts, but a game of a far more energetic kind). Hurling large fist sized wooden darts with a long spike some 30 metres across a park aiming for a wooden post little bigger than a bottle of wine, we watched in admiration. Every single dart finished no more than a foot or two away, most missing by inches with the occasional dart spearing the post. It really was hugely impressive.
Back at our hotel we had dinner, which probably could have fed a small family for a week. Rather a westernised set menu was offered, which was ok, but we made sure we let our guides (who arrange everything!) know that we’d prefer to try the Bhutanese cuisine whilst in the country rather than be treated to burgers and chips etc…

October 26th
The next morning we were served a gargantuan breakfast, which we barely dented. Afterwards we met our guide who sadly informed us of his father who was ill and as we ventured up the valley to visit our first site in the Paro valley of the day we dropped him off and were joined by Sring who was to be our new guide for the week. Sring was very easy-going and good natured and both of us were actually pleased he was coming along for the ride.
We visited several places in the beautiful Paro valley during the day. An old burnt out Dzong (Drukyel Dzong) at the top of the valley, littered with prayer flags and boasting some of the best views I’ve ever seen from a building. The 7300 metre tall Himalayan mountain in the distance peaking out behind 5000 metre mountains in the foreground. It was sometimes easy to take the hills around us for granted not thinking about the fact that they were taller than just about anything you’d find in Europe. From there we visited various other temples and monasteries. We walked for an hour between the National Museum to a temple into which we were invited. Climbing the dimly-lit steep stairs we felt adventurous until we met a bunch of nuns coming the other way, none of them a day younger than about 400 years old. At the top of the 14th century wooden building our knowledgeable guide explained some of the multi-faceted concepts involved in the Buddhist religion and depicted in the small shrine located there. The views up the valley were simply amazing. We then went down to Rinpung Dzong.
We left our guide and driver in the late afternoon and had another wander through town. This time we encountered archers (Archery is the national sport of Bhutan) firing (shooting? twanging?) arrows well over 100 metres to a ridiculously small target and hitting it more often than not. Amazing.
Back at the hotel we joined a big tour group in the garden round a bonfire as a cultural dance was performed. Marsha was excited, as was I of course, as masked men danced around and beat drums and women sang local songs. It gets really cold at night and the warmth from the fire was good. Afterwards we had a similar dinner as the night before but requested a chicken curry as well, which was good.
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October 27th
And, so, to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. An hour away along the valley – we stopped so many times for photos of the scenery: bridges covered in prayer flags, mountains, rivers, temples and buildings perched on hills, small children playing and the odd monk thrown in for good measure. Once in Thimpu we visited monasteries, temples, Drupthob nunnery, important sacred sites, paper making places, an art school, a mini zoo ( Motithang Zoo) housing Takins and the library, which houses the largest book in the world! We also drove up to the massive golden Buddha sitting atop a huge temple overlooking the town. The view he had day after day was very impressive.
The first place we stopped at was teeming with people – mostly fairly old. A large Stupa with prayer wheels surrounding it kept people occupied as they circled in prayer. Nearby others fell to their knees and then stretched out prostrate on the ground praying, and then heaving themselves up and starting again. Apparently they’d repeat the process over 100 times – exhausting, but worth it I’m sure. A building housing larger prayer wheels sat a little further back from the stupa and was crammed with people. Each of them spinning the wheels, often holding a small one in their hand as well. Apparently people would spend every waking hour at this place spinning the wheels. Our excellent guide explained why and I listened and refrained from suggesting that perhaps time could be better spent doing just about anything else instead.
For lunch we visited the Bhutan Kitchen. We’d asked for Bhutanese cuisine. Sring (our guide) warned us that it might be quite spicy. “That’s fine,” we said and piled loads of a dish called Chilli Cheese onto our plates without really looking at what it was. The dish consisted of chillis in a cheese sauce; that’s it. It was indescribably hot and after one mouthful Marsha spontaneously combusted in a puff of smoke. That actually didn’t happen – but it really was super-hot!!
Later we were dropped off at the hotel, which sat above the river and opposite the national stadium (apparently situated directly on top of the site where a previous king of Bhutan had beaten those pesky Tibetans in a battle). We walked into town and visited the stadium on the way. A footy game was going on – the standard was about as bad as you could possibly imagine. It wasn’t helped when a dog ran on to the pitch at one point. Apparently Bhutan is the very lowest in FIFAs rankings. For once, I think they might have got the rankings about right.
There are no traffic lights in Bhutan. Instead they have smart traffic controllers stationed in small huts standing in the middle of the road waving the oncoming cars in various directions with their white-gloved hands. When the government decided that they’d use traffic lights instead, the people complained that it was all too impersonal and the controllers returned.
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At dinner we ate more Bhutanese food – but less of it compared to previous days. Good, Indian curry inspired food. Lovely. And, then bed before 9pm again, which is great!
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October 28th
We took a drive today to Wangdi (Wangduephodrang) via Punakha. We can’t have covered more than 100km but it took all day. Part of the reason it took so long was the state of the roads. One lane mud tracks with sheer drops far below just waiting for a landslide or driver error. The rutted tracks resembled more of a direction than a road. Bizarrely, from time to time, even though we could only go at a top speed of about 8mph, the local council (or equivalent) had felt the need to build a sleeping policeman just to slow us down even more.
The other reason was because we stopped so often. It seemed as though every time we turned a corner we’d be afforded yet another magnificent view of a valley and mountains and river and rice fields and stupas and temples and palaces…
We stopped for a long time at the Dochu La Pass. At well over 3000 metres in the air we had great views of the valleys below stretching off into the distance. But, ahead and up – way up – were the Himalayas. These stunning white peaks formed an astonishingly beautiful horizon that stretched as far as we could see. Photos simply couldn’t do justice. We stared, we walked a bit and stared. We climbed a little hill and stared. We immersed ourselves in the prayer flags littering the site and stared. Then we had a coffee and sat together in awe and just stared at the Himalayan mountains. We’ve seen them several times before but they really are just the most amazing thing to behold. Sometimes I’d take a photo of something in the foreground – a hill, some stupas, Marsha – and then realize that I’ve cut off the Himalayas at the top of the photo – they are simply that tall. The highest one in view was Mt Gangar Punsum (7520m) and the highest in Bhutan.
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Reluctantly, we eventually left the pass and descended about two thousand metres into a more tropical climate. Along the way we stopped for another spicy lunch at the Happy Village restaurant nestled in the hills by a small stream. Afterwards we walked up to a temple dedicated to the Divine Madman who gets ever more irreverent the more I hear about him. Inside there was the usual atmospheric colourful temple alive with monks and old ladies chanting and swinging hand-held prayer wheels amidst the haze of perfumed smoke.
In a nearby building, monks loudly chanted from their texts. Sring told us that they had exams coming up where they simply had to memorise vast texts, which is somewhat at odds with current educational research and practice, but still.
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We walked through a small village and encountered yet more phallic symbols adorning walls and shop fronts – they really do have a thing about it here.
Later we visited Punakha Dzong that lay between two rivers (a male and a female one apparently). With three inner courtyards and containing numerous temples it was very impressive. The main temple was about as detailed and colourful and atmospheric as any religious place of worship I’ve ever seen.
We travelled further down the valley, passing the Queen’s residence high on a hill on the opposite side of the river. At times the mud track barely provided enough room for a single car to pass and yet we occasionally met trucks going the other way. And, there was a sheer drop at times many hundreds of metres to our right. We were pretty grateful to eventually arrive at the hotel. A lovely little place known as the Happiness Hotel (or more officially: Wangdi Kyichu Resort) sitting next to a surging, bubbling river that provided a habitat for hundreds of birds.
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October 29th
Waking to the sound of the rushing river just a few yards from our balcony was a soothing way to begin the day. After breakfast we took the road eastwards. The only road connecting the east is impassable in the winter and barely navigable at other times. Tiny dirt tracks carved into the ridiculously steep mountains spiraled upwards. We feared for our lives every time we passed another sheer drop only inches from our wheels, and every time we saw evidence of yet another landslide of huge boulders cascading down the mountainside taking everything in its path. Our guide told us of a truck the other day that was caught up in one and was tumbled down the mountain. At one point we stopped – there was a queue. We got talking to someone on the roadside who told us of how he’d been delayed several times for landslips to be cleared and for the road to be made ‘safe’ again.
The whole journey up to the 3100 metre pass was terrifying but, ultimately worth it (I may have had a different opinion had we taken an involuntary ride down the mountainside at any stage). Although a little cloudier than the previous day, parts of the mighty Himalaya were in view. Sadly my photography skills were not up to the task of doing justice to the view. Snow-topped jagged peaks, misty mountains below and hills in the foreground carpeted in forest – stunning.
We visited the valley of the Black Crane and Gangtey Gompa (a Buddhist complex) inhabited by young monks. It was just so incredibly peaceful. We went on a walk through the wetlands valley (The Gangtey Gumpa Valley) for a couple of hours (sadly the Cranes were off migrating, which we all agreed was a little selfish of them) and admired the scenery: the sloping hills and green pastures – it was hard to believe we were nearly 3000 metres in the air.
Lunch in the valley consisted of a lot of food, enough to feed us several times over. We made a pretty big dent in it and even finished 1 or 2 of the dishes. But, outside afterwards our guide thought we hadn’t enjoyed it as we’d left so much. After we explained that a small family of elephants might have struggled to finish all that was on offer, he told us that for Bhutanese people this was a normal amount!
Back over the pass and a return to the hotel by the river. A relaxing day in which we didn’t really do too much, but once again enjoyed the wonderful scenery in this country.
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October 30th
A day in which we traveled back over the Dochu La Pass, via Thimpu to Paro. We stopped a few times on the way to admire the view. The pass was cloudier than before – occasionally Himilayan mountain peaks would reveal themselves briefly before being smothered in atmospheric mist.
In Paro we walked into town and sat and watched an Archery match. Firing arrows from an estimated distance of about 130 metres the contestants held incredible faith in each other, standing only about 5 metres from the target. Still, most of the time they either hit it or scuffed the ground alongside. The seemingly self-appointed referee/commentator loudly announced the fate of each arrow with cheers and whoops.
Dinner was the best food yet – back at the hotel. We ordered Indian styled dishes from the menu.
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October 31st
Our earliest morning so far. Having enjoyed early nights and late mornings we set the alarm for just after 6am this morning. The reason? – we were hiking up to the famous Tiger’s Nest Temple situated 900 metres above the valley floor at 3100 metres above sea level. The only way to get there is to walk up.
As we set off we became acutely aware that it was much colder than it had been previously. And, sure enough, the mountains surrounding the town were dusted with snow.
Horses carried the infirm, elderly and lazy and we soon left them behind as we followed the trail as it spiraled upwards. The steep track was littered with prayer flags and we stopped often for amazing views of the snow covered foothills of the Himalays that stretched above us – even though we were approaching 3km above sea level.
After a couple of hours we found ourselves looking down upon our destination. Perched upon an impossibly narrow ledge clinging to the mountainside with a vertical rock face both below and above, there was no doubt the walk to Tiger’s Nest was worth it. Unfortunately we were not permitted to take photos once in the temple complex, but it allowed us to absorb the wonderful spaces and individual temples instead. It was so incredibly atmospheric and colourful. Our guide explained all of the different figures depicted in the temples as monks chanted and prayed in each. Out of the windows we could look straight down to the valley floor – stunning!
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Eventually we started the long trudge back, albeit mostly downhill. It started to rain (snow only a little further above us).
Back at base we had lunch and visited a couple more temples before going back to the hotel. The last temple was a little different – it had 3 layers: Hell, Earth, Heaven. In many of the illustrations we’ve come across in Buddhist cultures the images of hell have always been prominent – and fairly graphic as well. It’s certainly not a place you’d particularly want to end up, which is probably part of the reason why all these elderly people surrounded themselves with prayer wheels every day.
The plane out of Bhutan for us was in the morning. So, we had another short walk into town and Marsha went shopping and I intended to find a café and write this, but instead found a celebration/show/festival going on in town with dances and singing etc… I sat and watched for a while observing the genuine pleasure people were taking in the entertainment. Local people offered me a seat several times – I was made to feel welcome. People were smiling and laughing. Bhutan may have taken commercial advantage of their ‘Gross National Happiness’ reputation, but there have been very few times this visit where we felt reason to disagree.
It has been expensive, but the two of us are already planning our return…
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Posted by Patrick H. 01:22 Archived in Bhutan Comments (0)

Summer Holiday 2015, Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn, Estonia July 11th – 13th. 2015

Squealing breaks brought our airplane to a shuddering halt shortly before 2.30am on the tarmac in northern Estonia. Remarkably, less than 30 mins later we were squeezing into our tiny hotel room in Estonia’s capital – Tallinn. Passport control consisted of a bored looking fella standing in the connecting walkway to the aircraft who barely glanced at our documents before waving us forward. Our bags were among the first to appear and we were consequently at the front of the taxi queue and soon on our way through the ancient city walls and into the quaint little old town. Passing several gentlemen’s clubs en-route our Garden City Hotel was central and easy to find.

We slept until late and ventured downstairs just in time for a surprisingly good breakfast. Then into Tallinn. That first morning we headed for the main towns square only a two-minute walk from the hotel. Squeezing our way through the packs of cruise-boat tourists huddled around flag-waving guides, we found the pleasant little square nestled between an imposing old Town Hall one end and a seemingly endless line of cafes and bars. Estonians have an unwavering ability to drink vast quantities of alcohol at any time of day. Each morning we’d leave our hotel and emerge into the dazzling morning light to find cafes filled with locals guzzling litres of ale. Empty tankards littered the tables suggesting they’d been at it some time. Occasionally we’d encounter somebody tottering along after a particularly lengthy day and/or night on the booze, but most people seemed to be able to handle twelve hour drinking sessions without any problem.
Market stalls dominated the centre of the square and we weaved in and out admiring the collection of objects and warm clothing on offer (Tallinn is closer to the North Pole than John O’Groats – the farthest northern tip of mainland Scotland – and it was bloody cold at times!) The first stall owner we approached wore some sort of medieval garment, which clearly needed a wash. The next was clothed in an outfit more appropriate to the time of the Tudors. The next wore a suit of armour. Just beyond him some poor fella was being placed in stocks. Rather later than it should, perhaps, it dawned on us that some sort of medieval celebration was taking place in the town. This was confirmed when an area was cordoned off and a pair of jesters attempted to liven up the gathering crowd. Their comedy routine was falling flat and so they resorted to shouting, “VIVA,” and organising probably the weakest Mexican wave ever recorded. Horses with Vikings upon them (apparently the Medieval ages stretched back a little further than I’d thought) trotted into town to save us all from the jesters and various speeches took place followed by a parade through the cobbled streets of the town. We followed the parade consisting of the horses, Vikings, jesters, musicians, dancers and the occasional flame-thrower to where the ancient city wall marked the end of Old Town and the beginning of the new. There, accompanied by a modest crowd the riders entertained everyone with a modern day version of jousting, which basically consisted of knocking off a cabbage from a pedestal as they rode by.
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We left after a little while and explored the city. The city wall, some of which is still walkable, was punctuated with watchtowers holding silent guard over the town. Large stone walls, tiny passageways, big towers (some with cannonballs wedged in the walls), ancient churches (including one which claimed to be the highest building in the world for a couple of centuries long ago) and an old castle presented a beautiful old town that was simply lovely to stroll around. We climbed up the stoned spiral stairway of one church and admired from up high. We turned the next street and found a wonderful little nook filled with antique shops and a café that only served coffee and all things chocolate. A photograph on the wall showed how the ‘nook’ used to look only 15 years earlier – run down and falling apart.
We did venture outside of the old town and found a market housing thousands of old war medals and, well, bizarrely, not much else. There was also a craft area where we sat and had coffee and a fantastic lunch consisting of cold meats and cheese.
Later in the day we had some Estonian beer at Hell Hunt, which was much nicer than it sounds. A little verandah overlooking a street in which drinkers were provided with a blanket in preparation for the cold night ahead. We either drank enough to combat the cold or are becoming acclimatised.
Later we ate at ‘Grandma’s’. The food was good, although clearly it hadn’t evolved very far from gruel.

The second day we took personal audio guides from the Tourist Info place and wandered all over town following the instructions given according to the route set out for us. It was informative and brought alive some of the past events of the city. In one church we encountered an organist and a trumpeter seated about 30 metres up in the rafters playing music for twenty minutes. It was very therapeutic – that is except for the agitated Russian gent at the back who ran around the place trying to keep everyone from making any noise whatsoever whilst the music was playing. As you might imagine, he made a hell of a noise dashing about and sshhhing people and generally getting angrier and angrier. Anyway, when we left he looked like he was going to blow his top.
Most of the time the people we encountered were very pleasant though. Perhaps a little abrupt at times, but mostly patient and nice. Everyone spoke English well and were polite and friendly.
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We found a garden festival. Small patches of ground were sectioned off and various people representing countries had cultivated their own personal area in the fashionable style of the selected theme. Some were not overly impressive, but others were creative and demonstrated evidence of thought rather than the scattering of random seeds as was the case for some. One patch was called the Olympic Vines and had several pipes along which vine leaves were supposed to grow in a race to the other end. The British entry had either been disqualified or had yet to start. Whatever the case, it was last equal with Canada and France who were equally as hopeless. Japan were leading the way…
After stopping for coffee and yet more chocolate delights from the place we’d visited the day before, we eventually ended the tour. I then holed up in the Irish pub and watched the Wimbledon final – and Marsha joined just as it was getting interesting.
Later we found a great restaurant that was housed in the Scottish Park (really was Scottish too – Sean Connery and Robert Burns statues stood in the garden).

On our last day in Tallinn, we rose late. To be fair, the sun set well after 10pm on our visit each night, and even then it couldn’t be considered dark until about midnight. Tallinn is so far north of the equator and the sun sets at such an angle that even though it pops out of sight, it still lights the earth for long afterwards. So, we were to bed after midnight each night – each time disbelieving of the time as we hopped into bed.
So, we were late up, but still with only about 8 hours sleep. However, we’d covered a lot of ground over the first two days in the city and were disinclined to be too adventurous, especially with a boat trip to Russia planned that evening. I settled myself down in a café and caught up with stuff – like writing this ☺. And Marsha had a little wander and visited some shops and then did the same as me.
Tallinn had been lovely – a little old place steeped in history. As our boat pulled away from the city later that evening we were sad to go. As the skyline drifted away a huge hot air balloon rose serenely into the sky above the castle as if to wave goodbye.
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Posted by Patrick H. 00:45 Archived in Estonia Comments (0)

Summer Holiday 2015, Sicily, Italy

Sicily June 9th – 21st

Introduction.
A car journey in Sicily.

Car journeys in Italy should always start with food. Ours began with pistachio ice cream accompanied by a coffee in a side street paved with Roman slabs of stone buried inside a forgotten hilltop town submerged in cloud at a time too early for dessert and too late for cappuccino. But, this is the island of Sicily and the ice cream is divine and the coffee brewed to perfection.
We maneuvered our bike-sized car into the flow of traffic and we were on our way. Each individual road varied in size throughout its length and rarely remained consistent with its depiction on the map. One moment we would be coasting down a wide autostrade and the next plotting a course through the cobbled streets of a small village. It was akin to the M6 suddenly, and without warning twisting into a narrow one-lane high street filled with busy shoppers.
The speed limit changed alarmingly often for no discernable reason. A two-lane highway with no other car in sight suddenly required a drop in speed to 40kmph for about half a minute before then resuming the national limit of 110kmph. Obeying these rules nearly resulted in several cars ploughing into the back of us and so we decided to imitate the locals who clearly ignored the signs altogether. Our fears of receiving a speeding ticked eased as we watched a biker, evidently intent on beating the land speed record, cruise past a police car that was itself travelling well in excess of the limit.
Those responsible for erecting road signs in Sicily undertook their task with enthusiasm in the countryside and ensured we were never short of information. However, they evidently assumed that once in town everyone knew exactly where they were and in which direction they were going; or perhaps they preferred motorists to rely upon blind luck and sheer guesswork to get from place to place. It is like a surgeon receiving detailed training on how to open up the skull and then once the brain was revealed being slapped on the back and told, “I expect you’ll probably be okay from here.” Upon entering the town we were headed for, directions to the famous Roman site promptly ended. Threading our tiny car through alleyways barely wide enough for two people to pass we circled the town in vain search of our illusive destination. Passing majestic churches, ancient fountains and bemused locals watching us from the comfort of their doorsteps, we finally happened by chance upon the Roman villa itself.
As we drew into the car park another motorist cut in front of us without a glance behind him in our direction. In many ways this driving epitomises modern day Sicily; the people here are only interested in the present and the future. Whatever has happened in the past, and whatever is taking place in the road just behind them is of little relevance and no interest. And, given the recent past and the fact that the food here is just so good, who can blame them.

June 9th
Our first few minutes on Sicilian soil were not our most favourite. Impatiently awaiting bags that never arrived we finally informed the Lost & Found Dept at Catania Airport of our missing luggage. Am I wrong to expect those working there to be reasonably proficient in the art of locating, retrieving and returning misplaced baggage? The overwhelming sense of bewilderment and confusion that enveloped the Lost & Found office suggested they’d never encountered a problem such as ours before. Eventually, and with some reluctance, they took our details and promised the safe return of our bags within 24 hrs.
After 3 days, numerous phone calls, a long trip back to the airport, raised voices and a series of finger pointing in response to wild Italian gesticulations which left us in no doubt that they held us fully responsible for our lost baggage, we finally convinced the man behind the desk at the Lost & Found counter to have a quick look for our bags in his cavernous office even though his computer informed us that they were both still in Rome somewhere.
He returned with one of them. ‘The other one is exactly the same, except it’s red,” we said.
“It is in Rome,” he told us angrily.
“The World Tracer website says it is here,” we argued.
“It is wrong,” he said flatly.
“So where is it?” we asked.
“Contact Rome,” he said.
Contact Rome? What does that even mean? How do you contact an entire city? The hotel owner in Taormina had recommended we take a pistol to the airport and threaten whomever was necessary until our bags were returned. “It is the Sicilian way,” he had announced. At the time I had nodded half-heartedly in an effort to make it look as though I was vaguely considering the idea. Part of me now wished I’d acted upon his advice.
“Please, just one more look; it’s red,” we implored. Muttering under his breath he stomped off into the depths of his office space. A minute later he appeared with the second bag.

The first three days we were in Taormina, wearing pretty much the same outfits throughout. We stayed in the Villa Astoria, which was lovely and the owner, despite his vigilante tendencies was great and couldn’t have been more helpful. We got caught in the rain shortly after arriving and stopped for a pizza each when half of one of them between us would have been enough as it turned out. It was wonderful though, all washed down with good wine. We visited the ancient Roman Amphitheatre and wondered around the cute little town before a combination of sun, jet-lag, and wine led us back to the hotel for an early night.

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June 10th
About 500 metres above the town of Taormina lies Catelmola and we climbed the steep track up to this pretty little village clinging to an outcrop of rock affording stunning views of the coastline and Mount Etna behind. We sat and admired the scenery, had some drinks and congratulated ourselves on having walked up before descending once again. Later that day we were wandering around the town when we bumped into an old friend from Australia I hadn’t seen for over 14 years. We spent the rest of the evening with him and his wife over some drinks and lovely Sicilian food.

June 11th
A day on Etna on tour with a knowledgeable guide who couldn’t stop talking. Still, he was mostly interesting to listen to and I can remember a few things he said. He showed us different (old) lava flows dating back just a few years to centuries previously. We walked up to the crater from the 2002 eruption passing over the top of a three-storey hotel that lay beneath our feet submerged in the rock that had been the lava flow (no-one had died). He took us to ‘chimneys’ where there were 50m deep perfectly vertical holes and we peered over nervously. It was a wonderfully exciting walk – being on top of this active volcano.
And then, suddenly the mountain exploded. It erupted spewing molten lava high into the sky above us!
Only joking. There wasn’t even any steam actually…
On the way back to town we visited a river gorge and dipped our weary feet into the icy water. After a really good dinner in town we returned to the ancient theatre for the 9pm showing of Jurassic World, which signified the beginning of their week-long film festival. The film actually began a little after 10pm by which time we’d oohed and aahed enough at the coastal backdrop twinkling in the dark behind the Roman stage. Consequently, we only stayed long enough through the film to confirm that dinosaurs were indeed going to escape private enclosures and eat a bunch of people, but probably not the two fairly nauseating kids that had featured heavily in the beginning of the film.

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June 12th
Back to Catania Airport to tell the Lost & Found dept how to do their job, picked up our bags and traveled up via bus and boat to Salina Island in the Aeolians (volcanic islands to the north of Sicily). We checked into the Ravesi Hotel and unpacked a little knowing that we were there for 4 days. The view from the infinity swimming pool was stunning, overlooking the bay and two other islands in the group. A quick wander around the town of Malfa to get our bearings before returning to the hotel for a glass of wine and Antipasto (these Italians really do know their food…!).
Back into town for a snack, which consisted of bread, capers, tomatoes, cheese and tuna – and was amazing!! Especially, as capers and tomatoes are usually foods that I pick off things and leave to one side. But, here they are lovely.

June 13th
A 6am start. Bus ride to a nearby church and then a walk up the 960m tall volcano – the highest point in the Aeolians. Great views from the top that the camera can’t do justice. We were back before 11am and in time for breakfast at the hotel. The rest of the day was spent reading, swimming and relaxing with a mid-afternoon trip to local wineries for some tasting.
Dinner next door, wine by the pool afterwards watching the stars. And, we saw the best shooting star I’ve ever seen. I almost had to duck is was that close…

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June 14th
We hired scooters and set off around the island dropping in at various places for coffee and a wander around the shops and finally arriving at Pollara beach, which was stunning. The water was quite cold and seemed to attract numerous small jellyfish, but not enough to stop us getting in and swimming about. And so, we stayed for the rest of the afternoon and eventually had dinner at the restaurant overlooking the bay before returning to Malfa on our little scooters in the dark.

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June 15th
Scooters to Salina Marina and then the ferry over to Lipari. A quick wander around the town and then we caught the bus over to Quattropani intending to start a hike from there, fortunately meeting on the way the only English woman alive who can speak Italian fluently and in conversation with the bus driver, she showed us where to get off. Had she not, we would probably either still be on the bus or lost in the hills above Lipari somewhere.
The walk went straight downhill through an old sulphur mine initially which, for some bizarre reason, was littered with dead rabbits – a bit unnerving actually!
One dead rabbit – fine. (Well, not for the rabbit I suppose)
Two dead rabbits – that’s a bit weird.
Three dead rabbits – there must be a reason for this: snakes? Miximitosis?
Four dead rabbits – are we next?
Then along the bluff of the coast overlooking many of the other islands before heading back inland and up to a town and then back down again to the beach. We rested our weary limbs in the water and then hiked back out when the taxi boat driver at the beach decided he actually wouldn’t take us back to Lipari. Dinner at some Michelin Guide restaurant in Salina Marina before another hair-raising scooter ride back along the sharply winding steep little roads in the dark to Malfa.

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June 16th
We reluctantly said goodbye to Hotel Ravesi and Salina island and caught the public ferry to Stromboli Island, which is basically just one big volcano. Checked into a cheap hotel, arranged a hike for later in the day and had lunch overlooking the lapping waves of the ocean.
So, 5pm we set off up the volcano that is just a little shy of a kilometre high. It was steep, but the views were gorgeous. Up and up past the height at which trees and shrubbery decided there was no longer any point in growing any more, into and across old lava flows and as the sun set against the horizon we glimpsed the first of two craters belting out suplhurous steam. We gratefully reached the summit and then planted ourselves several hundred feet above the second crater and watched for nearly an hour. Every six or seven minutes the volcano roared and glowed orange and a fountain of lava lit up the night sky. It was one of the most thrilling natural spectacles I’ve ever seen. Our guide informed us that the crater was over 100m deep and so when large glowing orange rocks were fired out the top and landing around the ridge they were being projected a distance somewhere in the region of 150m. It was simply stunning. Sadly, photos couldn't capture it.
After an hour we began to get cold and so we started our way down. Fortunately the volcano had considerately formed a massive ash/sand dune down one of its sides and the descent was very straightforward and took us a fraction of the time that it did to go up and we arrived back in Stromboli town a little after 11pm. The only problem had been the dust getting everywhere and making it difficult to see. We had to empty our boots of volcanic ash back at the hotel and shake our jackets free of the blackened layer of dust.
Time enough for a celebratory drink and pizza at Giodanni’s nearby that was excellent.

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June 17th
We left the Aeolians and headed for the capital – Palermo. It took most of the day: a combination of ferries, bus, train and taxi. Arriving later than we had hoped there was still time to wander around its amazingly atmospheric centre. Extraordinarily huge buildings from long ago adorned every street and every corner. It was like a museum all contained within a single city. For crying out loud, our hotel had 20ft wooden doors which opened into a medieval courtyard complete with statues and columns etc… The ceiling of our breakfast room had a mural/fresco dating back centuries that anywhere else in the world would have been a highly regarded artifact housed away in a national museum. And it was $60 a night.
There was a slight edge to the place – people were watchful, and as a result, so were we. But, nothing happened and we walked all over the city that night until after midnight just staring straight up at every astonishingly impressive building we encountered. Finally, after several hours of wandering we realized we were hungry and ordered 2 pizzas. Again, only one would have easily done. And, I know that Italians invented the pizza, but even so, how come they make soooo much better than anyone else..?

June 18th
Breakfast in Hotel Orientale underneath a piece of art that was probably worth more than most hotel buildings. Then into Palermo again. We visited markets with sellers loudly advertising their vegies, fish, meat and fruit. The tuna were huge! Who knew that they grew to the size of a horse? Well, maybe you did, but I didn’t, they were massive! We visited the Palentine Chapel, which was covered from head to toe (or steeple to pews) in mosaics depicting various stories from the Bible. Hugely impressive. There was also an art exhibition by someone famous – Boteli, I think – and we strolled round contemplating how easy it is to make money from art these days – well, I did anyway.
Street food followed and a tour around the massive opera theatre (First and last time in the Royal Box in all probability).
Could have stayed another day or two admiring the architecture, but we had a car booked. Two hours to Scopella, a lovely little village on the coast. We had a glass of wine or two overlooking the sea as the sun dipped and then some great food (once again!) in a nearby restaurant.

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June 19th
Back in the car and away to several places en route to Agrigento where we stayed the night in Villa Athena – a 5-star hotel with a view to die for…
First though, we visited Errice, a hilltop village/small town perched on a craggy cliff high above the plains of Sicily below. Our little Renault struggled up the hill and then we struggled up the rest of the way along old cobbled streets twisting and weaving through alleys between old stone buildings that had stood obstinately in the clouds for centuries. It was fortified and boasted a castle, much of which had tumbled through the clouds to the bottom of the cliffs a number of years previously, but impressive nonetheless.
We had a coffee, more great food and then moved on. Next was a place called Segesta, which we found by accident – such are the roads and the driving in Italy (see intro!) But it was a happy mistake. A massive Greek temple and a fantastic amphitheatre that was worth the climb.
From there to Selutente. Another Greek temple setting, which, in its day housed the 4th biggest Greek temple in the empire. It was intentionally destroyed by its inhabitants forced to flee the place and not wanting to leave it for the Romans – fair enough! Gradually, the Sicilian architects are rebuilding the temples here, but in fact I preferred seeing them in their natural state – toppled columns and vegetation growing in amongst broken pillars and statues. Just before leaving a big black snake popped up to say hello to Marsha. She screamed and ran away, which was an entirely appropriate response in my view.
Then to Agrigento where we lazily checked into a top hotel and paid more than we could really afford. Still, the glass of wine overlooking the ancient Greek temple lit up on the hill just 100m away was phenomenal.

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June 20th
Too much brekky and then a slow amble round the Greek temples of Agrigento. This was at one time over 2000 years ago, the 4th biggest city in the world providing for 200000 people. Amazing really, as this is a sizeable place by today’s standards. The 3 main temples to see were interesting and the first was in great condition. After a couple of hours, however, we’d seen enough and were on the road again. The bewildering road systems flushed us out at Enna, Casa De Carmina, Piazazza and Siracusa. Each were pretty and deserving of much more attention than we gave them. Still, we eventually arrived in Siracusa and then negotiated our way through the most bizarre checking-in system to a hotel I’ve ever encountered. The reception, the car parking and then the actual hotel were in three entirely different places in the city. And, because of the elaborate one way systems in operation we had to complete a round trip of several kilometres after checking in just to find our car parking. Then we had to lug our bags through the streets to the hotel. Probably won’t stay there again…
Siracusa is a beautiful city and made us both realize that we’d be back in Sicily at some point. We could easily have spent several days there. Perhaps we’ll time it with when Etna blows its top!
Anyhow, we did wander round of a while admiring the Piazza Duomo and its enormously impressive massive cathedral. Some lovely food followed – our last on Italian soil for a while, for tomorrow early morning we were leaving…

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Posted by Patrick H. 01:12 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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