Apr 25, 2015

NEPAL EARTHQUAKE: Shishapangma Seven Point Eight

Gasping for breath in the thin air I looked at my watch – 11.55am. An excellent time.  

Lhakpa Sherpa and I had set out from Shishapangma Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 9am in mixed conditions – heavy snow, fog, little visibility, and a gentle breeze that left the long string of prayer flags blowing gently in the wind. It was one of those mornings that you could almost hear the individual snowflakes falling to the ground, quietly covering the earth in an ephemeral blanket of white. Despite the weather, we felt warm, safe and enclosed in the ‘sanctuary’ of the mountain as we began to make our way up to ‘Depot Camp’ at 5800m. The objective of the round-trip would be to establish a 'cache' of tents, gas, stoves and other supplies that we’d carry up the mountain to higher camps on future rotations. 

It was a long, quiet walk that left us each to our own thoughts as we plodded our way over a maze of rock, mud and snow – there was little opportunity to gaze out and fully appreciate the mighty mountain vistas hidden in the mist. I’d been mesmerised by the fleeting views of the mountain over the past 15 days as we’d been making our way to its snowy base and was happy to finally begin establishing the route which would take us to her 8025m summit, the 14th highest in the world.

A quiet sigh of relief escaped my lips when I saw the giant lump of rock marking our final stepping stone before moving onto the icy glaciated and crevassed terrain that would lead us to Camp 1. Exhausted, I flopped down on a rock and gazed into the curtain of mist, wondering what secrets the mountain would reveal. 

I tried to assess my surroundings through the conditions. I could make out a row of jagged snow spires, 'penetents' and guessed that behind them were the snow-loaded and rolling slopes of Shishapangma; slopes that I'd studied in photographs, slopes that had captivated my imagination over the past few weeks, slopes that I’d visualised hundreds of times in preparation for this expedition. To my right, a steep, exposed rocky face with a ramp of dirty boulders. Behind us, another series of tall white snow spires, reminding me of foot-soldiers, protectors of the secrets that the weather conditions had conspired to hide from us and separating us from the aggressive snow covered peaks of Langtang. Finally, to our left, the traces of our footsteps rapidly filling with snow. 

Sat there in silence I reflected on why that mornings walk had been so satisfying. Put simply, mountains provide context - they make you humble and give you the sense that there are forces in nature that will never be harnessed, that won't bend to our schedules. Rather we bend to them. Coming from a job that often demands organisation and structure,  I find this lack of ‘control’ and opportunity for reckless mental and physical creativity liberating.

I was tired but content to be in such humbling, powerful surroundings. It was eerily quiet. I took a sip of water and looked down at my watch. 11.57am.

My ears began to pick up a faint, deep rumbling sound. A natural sound that broke the silence and sparked an almost animal-like instinct. Something wasn't right. It sounded like a steam engine picking up speed, like one you’d see in an old country western movie. Lhakpa and I looked at each other quizzically.  

The rumbling continued, louder and louder. 

My initial instinct was ‘avalanche’ - but where was it coming from? We were literally surrounded on all sides by mountains and had zero visibility and the sound seemed to echo from all around. My eyes darted in all directions trying to assess where the danger was coming from. It was so confusing.

I then felt the ground begin to shift back and forth in a slow rhythmic movement… like jello. I looked down confused at my knees which began to bob up and down. I tried to stand up and turn around and stumbled sideways. 


In that split second, I was mentally transported back to university geography class mapping out plate tectonics… and in the next second I tried to recall what to do in the event of an earthquake - stand in a door frame sprang to mind – but where were the door frames?!

Lhakpa shouted over the rumbling. ‘Avalanche!’ followed by ‘Stay down’. We tried desperately to assess where the avalanche was going to hit us from as our eyes scanned in all directions and crouched to the shaking, rumbling ground. I began to gasp, ‘ohno ohno ohno ohno’… under my breath in an effort to stay calm. I felt like four loaded guns were all pointed at us and I wondered which was going to shoot first.

My main focus was trying to establish which direction the avalanche would come from as I knew we were surrounded on all sides by mountains.  Would we get hit by the avalanche itself or the debris. If I hid behind the giant rock, would the impact move the rock and crush us in the process?

 Staring out at the sea of white all around me I thought, "Is this ‘it’? Is this really ‘it’? Here? On Shishapangma?" I turned round in circles trying to get the bearings on where the danger lay.

Lhakpa shouted something over the roaring sound of falling rock against a background of rumbling. He was crouched next to a rock, eyes darting in all directions. I ran to him and we huddled together on the rock hugging each other, terrified, praying that the rumbling and shaking would stop and that the avalanche or avalanches would not hit us. 

I'm not sure how long the earthquake lasted - I don’t think that it was more than 20 – 25 seconds but it felt like an eternity. It’s amazing how many things can go through your mind in a few split seconds; it’s amazing how quickly ‘animal’ like instincts kick in. I’ve never been so afraid in my entire life. 

Even after the rumbling stopped we stayed hunched on the rock, our bodies attuned and senses heightened to every sound and movement. More rumbling followed, falling rock could be heard all around… but we knew we had survived the initial quake and any avalanches that had come down had missed us. We still had zero visibility and were relying purely on instinct. 

Lhakpa pulled out our radio to communicate back to Advanced Base Camp. Our hope was that because we had been on a glacier - generally quite ‘elastic’ – that the earthquake had felt much worse than it was. Perhaps those at Advanced Base Camp hadn’t even noticed it?

I looked at my watch – it was now 12.05. If the earthquake had been felt on Everest most climbers technically should have already passed through the icefall. My mind drifted back to my conversation with Lhakpa the previous evening. We’d spoken about about his brother on the South Side of Everest and his own personal experience in last years avalanche, prompting his decision to climb Shishapangma this year. My mind also drifted back to our conversation about his young family in Pangboche, a small mountain village just next to Everest itself. I wondered whether they too had felt the earthquake and prayed that they were ok.

Lhakpa and I sat on the rock at Depot Camp for a few more minutes before we began to make our way back.  Slowly and keeping together we left at 12.35pm. 

We began to notice the impact of the quake and the avalanches of snow and rock it had released - fresh cracks in the ground, lose boulders dislodged and sent careening down the snowy slopes, cracked ice in the lakes. Eerily, the snow had stopped and the cloud had lifted, burnt off by a blazing Himalayan sun revealing patchwork of sky. It was strange - rather than a scene of destruction and devastation as you'd witness in a city following an earthquake,  the mountain vista stretched out before us seemed almost…. beautiful, natural and strangely rebalanced. Life goes on.

We walked briskly and in silence back to Advanced Base Camp. Walking into camp we were met by Pemba Sherpa who approached us directly, his expression stoic addressing Lhakpa in Nepali. I could tell by his face that the news was not good. I soon learned that the earthquake had been widespread, its devastating impacts ripping through the Khumbu – from Langtang to Everest Base Camp to Lhakpa’s village of Pangboche to Kathmandu itself. 

I’m now in our mess tent on Shishapangma trying to summarise my thoughts. It’s hard to know what to do  - we’re sat here at 5500m without no internet, phone lines seem to be jammed or down, we literally have no contact with the outside world. We are still waiting for the news to hear whether Lhakpa’s family are safe. It’s a strange, sad, confusing, and heart wrenching situation – and now a waiting game. I pray that Lhakpa’s family and friends are  safe and likewise that the many friends I have climbing in the Himalaya and living in Kathmandu. 

For now all we can do is wait as the snow continues to fall and the mountain continues to rumble below our feet.

Note: Thanks to the committed and tremendously appreciated efforts of Bonita Norris and Kenton Cool via intermittent satellite calls and twitter exchanges, we found out three days later that Lhakpa's wife and daughter in Pangboche (a small village severely damaged during the earthquake) were safe as well as brother Padawa, a Sherpa on the South Side of Everest. I can't even find the words to begin to explain the feelings of mixed emotions of relief for the lives of friends spared mixed with sadness of all those lost.

Snowy profile of Shishapangma, the 14th highest mountain in the world

Summit profile before earthquake

Summit profile after earthquake

Back in my tent but a day I'll not soon forget

5 mins from Depot Camp (photo taken 5 days after quake)

Apr 24, 2015

The sacred pilgrimage of adventure: Shishapangma puja ceremony…

 An integral part of any Himalayan expedition is the highly auspicious ‘Puja Ceremony’, a ceremony of gratitude and religious ritual during which homage is paid to the mountain deity. 

The ceremony is traditionally conducted by a trained Llama or Sherpa who reads from a book of sacred prayers while sitting in front of a stone altar covered by a smorgasboard of offerings - cookies, sweets, chocolate bars, popcorn, rice and beer and whiskey. During the ceremony all climbers and equipment are blessed – absolutely essential before beginning the ascent of the mountain. Marking the end of the formal ceremony, ‘tsampa’ (a roasted barley flour) is thrown into the air and rubbed on the faces of team-mates and everyone is given a silk scarf as a symbol of being blessed.

Our puja on Shishapangma was conducted by one of the more senior, equally weather-beaten yak herders, who'd been trained as a llama at a local monastery near Nylam.  The ceremony lasted about an hour and a half and, at its climax, the llama began to pray louder and louder as his well worn fingers followed the cyrillic liturgy  scrawled in the prayer book laid out on the rocky ground before his knees. He sat cross legged in front of the stone "stupa" (a sort of stone alter) which was surrounded by out offerings flour, cakes, precious oils, cut up Bounty bars, Mars bars, Snickers bars… as well as an assortment of beverages including the finest whiskey as a sacrifice to the Mountain gods.

The yak herder / llama's intonation increased to an even higher, louder decibel and we all stood up as he threw his arms in the air releasing handfuls of tsampa flour, creating a halo of yellow dust high into the sky. The Sherpas, fully prepared for the move, eagerly followed his lead and for one brief moment the ceremony seemed suspended in time - a halo of flour superimposed over the omnipresent plume of spindrift from the summit Shishapangma.

Sat here and looking out from my tent, the whole expedition now seems even more 'real'. 5 long-streams of prayer flags in the colors of red, green white, blue and yellow radiate to our tents from the giant rock in the centre of the camp.

It felt "humbling" to be a part of a ceremony and belief system which is so clearly an integral part of the Sherpa tradition. As I look out at the panorama from my tent - the rock with its realms of multi-colored prayer flags flapping in the breeze against the clear blue sky and in the shadow of the mountain herself, I can not help but feel part of her spell, her magic, her power.

Apr 22, 2015

Base Camp: The Yak Rodeo on tour to Shishapangma Advanced Base Camp

Ayyyyeeeaaaaa, whoogh, whoogh”…. followed by the dull ‘thud’ of a rock hitting a kit bag.

This is the high altitude orchestra harmonising a band of burly plodding yaks as they help to transport hundreds of kilos of all of life’s ‘expedition essentials’ to Basecamps in Nepal and Tibet. 

Our move from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp is no exception. 23 lumbering, wooly yaks at a cost of approximately $5,000 and carrying 40 – 45 kilograms each are led by a team of ancient-looking, weather beaten and exceptionally commercial yak herders. The deep, dark lines etched into their faces and haggered hands reflecting their deep rooted and traditional lives living off the land in some of the most hostile and volatile environments on the planet. These are the environments where a day of clear blue skies and sunshine can turn to bone chilling storms at the drop of a hat. 

High in the mountains or on the dry, cold Tibetan plateau, there is little protection from the elements but they are bonded by their trade and the communities in which they travel. 

Yaks are basically big, wooly buffalo-like creatures with enormous horns and a variable temperament. Their unique, marketable and commercial feature is that they are incredibly strong. Before the winter the yaks are bigger, heavier, having profited from a summer and autumn of grazing on the scrub grasses. As a result they can carry up to about 60kgs. In the spring, they are weaker, after a long and harsh winter, therefore only able to carry about 40 – 45kgs. 

The yak herders arrived at Base Camp rather majestically on Monday evening – silhouetted against yet another magnificent sunset. We all gathered round to welcome them to camp and observe as what can only be described as a ‘yak rodeo’ began. Whilst they arrived untethered, numerous ill-fated attempts were made to bring them together and ‘contain’ them just outside the camp to prevent them from overrunning our dufflebags and down. 

Unfortunately for the yak herders, armed with lassos and rope the yaks seemed to enjoy their freedom too much. The hulking stubborn creatures did their best to fend off the impending captivity. The language betweek yak and herder consists primarily of a series of guttural shouts and whilstles – it was an entertaining sight. Likely more so for the observer than yak or herder!

The following morning was equally entertaining as we broke up camp and all bags, boxes, barrels and crates were divided and meticulously weighed.  It turned out that the amount of ‘freight’ we had to transport up the mountain had been underestimated. We were 25 yaks short – and about $5000. A frantic phone call was made to our agent, Iswari.

We set out in the direction of Advanced Base Camp as the yaks were being loaded. Not long thereafter we could see the herd approaching from the distance – like a black army of ants traveling steadily across the dry, dusty Tibetan plateau. The day continued in that fashion – we’d walk and then stop to rest and rehydrate, watching the army encroach. 

A particularly poignant moment came as the yaks were forced to descend from the plateau onto a frozen river.  The descent went steadily enough but the challenge came as the first yak took its first steps onto the fragile river of ice. With an almighty crack the ice gave way and the yak fell through the ice. What can effectively be described as a bumper-to-bumper collision course ensued. The yak immediately behind hadn’t quite registered what had happened and he literally plodded over of the trapped yak. The pile-up was accompanied by frantic whistling and shouting from the yak herders. 

The lead yak stuck in the ice finally gained enough purchase to pull himself out of the hole and from under the second yak and skittled his way across the snow covered and frozen riverbed. Slowly but surely the pile-up was untangled and  after about 20 minutes with all yaks accounted for we continued our steady progress toward Advanced Base Camp. 

Apr 18, 2015

First views of Shishapangma

A warm and windy night marks our first evening on Shishapangma. 

At 4,800m it had the potential to be a restless evening as altitude-fuelled dreams transition the mind between varying degrees of consciousness throughout the long cold evening – the first of many in my tent.  We arrived yesterday afternoon to Chinese Base Camp in wild and windy conditions, the mountain obscured by a thick blanket of snow, cloud and spindrift. Shishapangma was clearly not yet ready to reveal herself and waiting for the right moment to make her entrance. 

She chose to make that entrance in the early hours of Saturday morning under a cloudless aquamarine blue sky, the whole scene framed by a sparkling white carpet of thick white snow which had fallen overnight. The view as I unzipped the rear vestibule of my tent quite literally took my breath away… 

What an absolutely stunning mountain – even more grandiose, imposing and almost ‘magical’ than pictures had revealed – particularly under the blanket of snow. Shishapangma stands solitary, proud and elegant high above the Tibetan plateau, the snow-covered foothills rolling out from her flanks like long waves of ribbons, extending all the way to our little temporary Base Camp. As if to remind us of her power, a thin plume of spindrift wafts from her 8025m summit. Strong summit winds – something Shishapangma is notorious for and has thwarted many a summit attempt. Three large seracs are visible – covered in snow they almost look like eyes gouged into the mountain face.

A broad white path can be seen crossing from left to right across the lower flank of the mountain, then veering gradually and gently back left and up, the final ‘trail’ veering steeply up onto a snow loaded summit ridge. This looks like the obvious path but it’s heavily crevassed, seraced and snow-loaded. The less obvious path is hidden behind a lesser mountain which fronts Shishapangma.  It’s behind this mountain and from here that the traverse from Base Camp – Advanced Base Camp - Camp 1 – Camp 2 is made and then the climb up through a short couloir to Camp 3.

I can feel myself relax – the mountain doesn’t look threatening... Rather, it seems to beckon, from across the dusty dry and barren Tibetan plateau. It has the presence and notoriety of an 8000m peak but the grandeur which will no doubt continue to draw myself and countless others to explore her lofty heights.

With a quiet smile and without a shadow of a doubt, I feel quietly confident that I’ll be learning a lot more about the secrets Shishapangma has to share over the coming 3-4 weeks.

Apr 15, 2015

Creature Comforts in Nylam, Tibet

There’s a rule of thumb in the wonderful world of mountaineering that when the opportunity to have a shower arises, it’s best to take it as you never know when and where your next shower will be. Unfortunately the water coming out of the communal shower in the Snowland Hotel was so ice cold that one could only presume that there was a direct line to some sort of glacier outside of town or, perhaps it was used as a form of Chinese water torture.  

Traditionally, Tibetans only shower 3 times in their lives – when they are born, when they are married and when they die. Given the absolutely Baltic nature of the water it wasn’t surprising.

When you’re bored and desperate you can be driven to situations you’d ordinarily not find yourself in – one of the reasons why I love expeditions. So, it was with a large dose of curiosity and small dose of trepidation that I ventured into an old, dirty-storefront in Downtown Nylam following a sign which advertised ‘HOT shower, massage, coffee, tea’.

I was greeted by a gruff-looking shop manager sat alone smoking a cigarette watching a grainy Chinese television programme on full volume and sat beside a solitary heater. He grunted as I walked in and nervously asked about a ‘hot shower’ as advertised. By his reaction I suspected that I wasn’t the first Western tourist to enter the shop with a similar request as he immediately stood up, slightly perturbed that I’d disturbed the Chinese version of ‘The Young and the Restless’. I was led down a long dark corridor of stairs. The once white walls now grey-brown with mildew and dust. A completely rusted washing machine sat in the corner, open and looking like it had done a cycle or two too many.

We turned left at the bottom of the stairs and led down yet another corridor of broken concrete stairs, this one even darker and dirtier than the last.  A lone hair dryer lays in the corner – as if to remind you that you have in fact come to the right place. Finally, we turn left again into a tiled corridor. A filthy dripping mop sits in the corner next to a pile of old plastic flipflops. Realising that I had forgotten my ‘shower shoes’ I contemplated putting on a pair for all of about 2 seconds. 

In a haze of cigarette smoke, I am led down a final corridor – this one of ‘shower rooms’, on either side of the walkway as indicated by giant wooden doors covered in what can only be described as ‘house siding’. The shop owner swings open a creaking rusted door, strides into the ‘shower room’ and stands under one of the two showerheads. Grunting, he cranks open the tap to unleash a stream of water which begins to pool at the bottom of his muddy shoes. The look on his face indicates it wasn’t quite as hot as he’d hoped it would be. I try and communicate asking if it’s ‘solar powered’. This attempt at communication was obviously a step too far. The shop keeper stares at me blankly as he continues to wait for the temperature to improve. 

I take the opportunity to survey my surroundings. Long strands of thick black hair have accumulated around the drain. Mud from my shoes and that of the shopkeepers has left muddy tracks into the shower room, three ‘stools’ occupy the room and a large rusted metal cupboard filled with newspaper sits against the wall. The roof is a mix of old Styrofoam and again, that house siding now brown with rust and mildew. The most modern part of the room was the light which seemed to radiate heat – or, as I worried, seriously harmful uv rays.

Content that the temperature isn’t going to improve and keen to get rid of an increasingly nervous looking customer, the shopkeeper grunts, takes another drag of his cigarette and sticks out his remaining dry hand. I could only assume that it was for payment so I dig deep into my pockets and hand over the requested 40 yuan – equivalent to about $4 - a deal as long as there isn’t a follow up insurance claim to cover the medical costs. As he walks out, the shopkeeper indicates that the metal cupboard filled with newspaper is to house dry clothes during showering. I nod keen to complete the task that I’d set out to do. 

I can say with a strong degree of confidence that it wasn’t the most comfortable shower I’ve ever had and question whether I actually left cleaner than when I arrived… I spent most of the 5 – 7 minutes standing on my tippy-toes desperate not to put my flat feet on the filthy tiled ground (an exercise much harder than it sounds!). I danced around the long dark hairs and swirls of dirt that pooled around my feet.  Having said that, it was ‘refreshing’ and I felt that I’d had a truly ‘cultural’ experience.

An acrobatic dance of getting dressed without touching the ground and get my socks and shoes on as soon as possible soon followed. I pulled a comb through my wet hair, decided not to try my luck at the hairdryer I noticed earlier, dabbed on some strawberry lipgloss and headed back upstairs with a spring in my step. I managed to get a crooked smile and nod of approval from the shopkeeper as I headed back out into the cold, damp streets of Nylam.  

I wonder when my next shower will be?

Apr 14, 2015

Beverly Hillbillies meets the Wild West...

Heavy snow in the high passes has forced us to stop for three nights in Nylam. 

Nylam can best be described as the Chinese version of the Beverly Hillbillies meets the Wild West. Cows and dogs graze together along the side of the dusty road, eating cardboard boxes and whatever garbage they can find while the local people go about their morning routines - rolling up their shop windows, washing their hair, dusting off their front steps whilst eating their dry chapattis ready for another day of business. 
All the streetscape lacks is a roll of tumbleweed bouncing down into the Himalayan panorama to make the 'wild west' image complete.

Besides the culinary delights of the Snowland Hotel (which are not far off the grisly ‘jungle eating’ challenge on ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’, Nylam does offer one main attraction – the opportunity to acclimatise. A short stroll out of town quickly takes you from an altitude of 3600m up to about 6,000m. This acclimatisation stroll is essential to allow the body enough time to adjust to the thinner air. Our views from our 4200m resting point are obscured by the snow filled clouds – every once in a while a fleeting glimpse of an unnamed and snow covered peak is revealed.

Just outside of Nylam is a beautiful stupa, decorated by brightly coloured prayer flags flapping in the breeze. Wandering around the stupa feeling almost swept away by the powerful energy of the space, I realise that it’s a Tibetan burial ground.  Tibetans still practise the ancient ritual of sky burials where the deceased is cut into pieces and fed to the birds. To me the concept seems incredibly foreign, almost grotesque – but to the local people, it is a tremendous honour and opportunity for the spirit to leave the body and live on. As spiritual as I find the concept, I’m disturbed by the number of dogs that roam the grounds.

It’s been a great start to the expedition thus far – wonderful to get to know our Sherpa team, relax in the ‘relative’ comforts of Chinese hospitality and collect my thoughts on the journey ahead – am trying not to be overwhelmed by it all and remember to take the days and the hours one step at a time. Tomorrow I will get my first views of Shishapangma as we head to Chinese Base Camp. 

The news is that we are the only team on the mountain -  strange to read of the crowds which once again dot the slopes of Everest whilst we have an equally stunning 8000’er completely to ourselves. Shishapangma may just be this seasons best kept secret!

I must admit, I absolutely can’t wait!

Apr 13, 2015

And so the journey begins... Kathmandu, Nepal - Zheng-Mu, Tibet

After months of planning it’s finally go time as the bus pulls up to the hotel. The bus will take us from Kathmandu to Zheng Mu, the Chinese border town separating Nepal and China. 

We are now well and truly on our way.

Looking left out of the bus window I see rusty blue motorcycle with the exhaust cleverly secured onto the frame with oily twine and strategically placed electrical tape. From the handlebars of the motorcycle hangs a series of brightly coloured streamers - blue, red, yellow - filthy from years of pollution and urban dust. Sat in the drivers seat of this powerful machine is a thin Nepali man dressed in a North Face down jacket (even though it’s a festering 28 degrees) ripped blue jeans and Adidas flip flops. Sitting proudly behind him are what I assume to be his 3 year old son, 6 year old daughter and 12 year old nephew - all barefoot and smiling as the motorcycle zig-zags its way through the chaotic maze of buses, cars, rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrian traffic, oblivious to the health and safety laws which they would have been breaking had this been Canada or the UK! This sight is not at all uncommon in Kathmandu - give or take a child or two in the passenger seat.

The smells of Kathmandu do much to awaken the senses - the rich fumes of gasoline and a milky sweet smell hang thick in the humid air. Wires are strung haphazardly between buildings and random poles, some electrical power cables are so heavy they hang to the ground like giant black skipping ropes. In the middle of all of this urban confusion stands a formally dressed traffic warden in smart blue trousers and matching shirt -his uniform - and a pair of bright white gloves and facemask to protect him from the pollution. With his shrill whistles, flurry of hand signals and confident stares he brings a ‘seeming’ order to the traffic rocketing down and through the streets.

As the bus leaves the chaos of Kathmandu we move to a more rural setting where dusty urban structures are replaced by houses made of stone and sun-baked clay. Traffic is limited to chickens, cows, and random dogs roaming the pot-holed roads which wind through some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world… steep rocky hills covered in scree and masses of bright pink flowers, dull green shrubs, waterfalls around every bend.

As we drive through the small rural villages, a child can be seen running barefoot over the road with bright red cheeks, gigantic smiles and eyes sparkling with curiosity and adventure. The child’s mother doesn’t even bat an eyelid as the child darts along a cliff with a 100m vertical drop mere centimeters away.

Nearing the boarder to China one immediately senses a shift to a more industrial way of life. Roadside stands move from selling eggs and vegetables to giant woolen blankets, giant 5litre thermoses, and an array of brightly colored plastic ‘tat’ which can be found in Dollar Stores/ Pound Shops around the world.

With this shift to a more industrial economy comes an unbelievable amount of garbage scattered along the roadside. Plastic bags, old clothing, children’s toys, household waste…

Formalities are followed as we reach the curious but imposing border between Nepal and China. Separating the two countries is an imposing concrete bridge stretching over a river of white-water littered with garbage. The architectural differences between the two countries could not be more dramatic. On the Nepal side the shops and restaurants of the border town are made of old tin and wood with hand painted signs in basic lettering, faded with age and dust. Dogs roam the streets and women wait impatiently at the parking lot so that they can meet the busses as they arrive and carry the heavy bags over the boarder to earn an income (busses are not permitted to cross the bridge without extensive security clearance and permits). The Chinese Immigration hall is a solid, modern and imposing structure which is as regimented as it is chaotic. Our luggage is checked on industrial sized tables by Security and passports are checked and double checked. Eye contact is avoided.

We’re whisked into China by vans and unloaded in the Chinese border town of Zheng Mu. Zheng Mu is a fairly large town built into a hill so that the town is spread over a series of about 8 switchbacks. It’s used primarily as a stopping point for trucks entering / leaving China. The stores and services lining the streets are primarily of the ’dollar store’ variety, the occasional telecom shop, nightclubs and brothels advertising all sorts of services not limited to the ever popular “foot bottom massage”. 

We pile into the jeep morning happy to leave dreary Zheng Mu. The road leading up from Zheng Mu to Nylam is a feat of road-building engineering genius and can easily put many of the roads we find in the ‘western world’ to shame. Not a pothole in sight over the 15kms of switchbacks that are cut into the steep rock face. The last time I was on this road in 2011 it was far from complete with water, cement mixers, pic-axes, and people spread chaotically along a muddy dirt track. Today, I’m astounded to se a fully completed road of engineering craftsmanship. A journey that once took 5 hours by car now takes 45 minutes… 

Apr 10, 2015

DESTINATION Kathmandu: Where life slows down & up a gear at the same time...

There’s something about Kathmandu, the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Nepal, which heightens the senses. A city where chaos rules. Where life both slows down and up a gear at the same time.  

Dust clouds swirling around in the sticky heat, bumper-to-bumper traffic crawling at a snails pace accompanied by the persistent honking of horns at decibles which pierce the ears, generators grinding and humming loudly echoing in the alleys, cell-phones ringing, chimes tinkling as they sway in the warm breeze against the red-clay buildings framed by green windowpanes and trimming that has gone grey from the pollution. Flea-bitten dogs laying lazily in the middle of the broken sidewalk with concrete slabs jutting in all directions as barefoot pedestrians walk non-chalently past… Children laughing and running through the streets, zig-zagging around the cars and kicking up swirls of dust as they go with red cheeks and huge smiles… the entire scene framed by bright pink-fuchsia bougainvillea which emit a sweet incense over the city… 

Heading into the ‘backpacker’ area of Thamel one is overwhelmed by huge photos of Himalayan panoramas juxtaposed against brightly coloured signs “Best Expedition Everest”; “Helicopter flight to Everest”; signs as big as the shops themselves selling every outdoor brand and trekking combination you can possibly imagine in a multitude of colours. 

The dust is omnipresent and the pollution and cacophony of the city's 'hummm' is overpowering as hundreds of motorcycles fight for space on the narrow dirt roads, zig-zagging between cars, pedestrians, dogs and the sacred cows roaming the streets…  weathered-looking peddlers selling Tiger-balm out of small wooden boxes while women and children sit alongside the broken streets with their hands outstretched for money or food. Bamboo scaffolding towering precariously toward the sky - the playground for barefoot construction workers keeping up the pace of this rapidly modernising and expanding city of over 975,000.

The soothing sound of the ‘Om mani padme hum’ mantra gently keeping the calm through the chaos. 

Looking up at the darkening sky it’s clear that a storm is brewing as the sound of thunder can already be heard rumbling in the distance – no doubt about to be proceeded by a downpour of biblical proportions to clear the air and send people running indoors, tourists looking for cafes offering cheap internet, cinnamon buns and some of the best pizzas on this side of Italy....

The city takes a breath.

And tomorrow I get to do it again as the preparations and an an almost endless cycle of packing, packing and repacking continues. This city fascinates me. It reminds me of the unexpectedness of living, throws me into remembering to experience the joy of the unknown, the start of many past adventures and many more to come...