Trekking in Bhutan: A Snapshot

3500m Thangthangka. <- 24th March

There were a few rocks today. Or it could be that I keep squatting like an Asian person… but my knees are kinda sore. And just because we’ve had good weather and no major problems- Blisters. Seriously? My boots are already 4 years old. I told my guide, Pema, that it’s because my socks are old… yet without holes in them, he didn’t exactly sympathise. My heels have soft skin. A head nod… an understanding? And when I was cleaning my feet to put plasters on…, “I clean my feet at night.” Good point.

Today was definitely one of the easier 22km I’ve walked, only gaining 500m-ish elevation. We followed River Pa Chuu. Although the trail is “maintained” (through it constant use), I have to admit that the Rubbish is diabolical. (Sorry Bhutan!)- plastic bottles, hundreds, everywhere. Puma said that there is a cleaning (once a year) but unfortunately the locals haven’t really changed old habits. There are wire cage bins everywhere but clearly the government should be writting in Dzongka (the local dialect) on them. Of course, you can’t light fires anywhere in the national park. (As a simple method of clearing rubbish).

I still find it ironic that books say the treks follow ‘old trek routes’. There’s nothing old about them! Our horseman goes regularly to Tibet “for business”. When I asked about the border, “he has good relationships”. His horses are fat so I’m not going to ask further.

Tonight’s campsite- although it has the dual-purpose of being field, is home to a local family, kitchen shelter (for the trekking groups) and flush toilets. like wtf? When Pema told me there were toilets here, I thought he meant a hole in the ground. Evendently tonight and tomorrow’s are so. People have been donating money to fund them in order to redue bush toilets, and pit toilets. In a passing note, the field/campsite that is now empty would easy overflow the toilets in high season. Festival toilets, anyone?

On the first full day of my Jomolhari trek, the 22km was covered in 6.5 hours. Going by the time of a later group (on our return journey) was 9 hours, I figured we started out alright. Shing Karap, our first campsite, was a small collection of dwellings and a small temple. We offered a small donation to the local deity within the building before starting out. The route was full of large, round rocks. As it hadn’t rained for a few weeks, the trail was surprisingly dry. Rock hopping passed the time but didn’t make for happy knees.

Although I hiked prominently with my alone with my guide, we did pass the occasional mule train. As there are still large communities weeks walk from the Paro Valley, the main transport of mules & donkeys are still used. With the higher elevations, usually over the 4500m mark, the communities will use yak (which are better acclimatised to higher elevations). Had I known better, later on, I would have seen that the Jomolhari Base Camp was empty of Yak, which typically would have been exchanged for the ponies to make the Bhonte La and Thombu Shong passes. With too much snow covering the passes, our trek was changed a little to accommodate the spring weather, and we visited the Soi Yaksa valley by backtracking to a river junction.

It was really interesting and exciting to the see the trails still holding a function outside tourism. At one point during our trek we actually passed a sign saying “Tibet”, and a trail splitting left. As many goods are imported from India, one of Bhutan’s most important economic partners, cheap goods from China are carried over through Tibet via the mule trains. Out of the main trekking season, this underground, over-mountain trade is vital for the livelihood of many of the horsemen and farmers.

 

Bhutan for the Backpacker: My Experience

Bhutan is a magical place, one that many travellers can only dream about. Wanting to make the most of my opportunity, my two weeks could not have more perfect! I left with new friends, a wealth of Buddhist knowledge and hunger for more. Friendly, respectful and outgoing, the Bhutanese welcomed me with open arms.

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Thangthangka, Bhutan <- 26th March.2016

Well, I’m freaking tired. So is my guide so it makes me feel a little better. Somehow I missed that we’d have 2 more passes, even if we made it over Bronte La. 4800m sucks, but hopefully we don’t go higher than that.

The climb to the lakes was beautiful but hard at 9am and 4100m. My guide had decided we’d walk until 11:30 and see how far we got. We ended up getting high enough to see the Pass! Definitely “bush-walking” and snow plowing but we followed the Yak trail as far as we could. Coming back sucked, straight up. It was stunning scenery and on the way back we hung up prayer flags which I’ll claim was badass! The assistant cook ended up waiting for 3 hours back at the Jomolhari Base Camp and, after we had finished eating, we headed down together. Although it was only 4 hours getting up, it took 3 to walk down. My heels are shot (Blisters obliterated, but hey!) and I’m sure I’ll be sore in the morning! 3 days down, 3 to go!

In the bush near Yakse ← 27 March

…Today’s mission took us from Thangthangka to (nearly) the Yakse village. There was a building at the end of the valley that Pema no. 2 was aiming for but I had to, for the first time, bail on our destination! I had felt the resistance early on from my feet, and knew that coming back down to the campsite would suck. I performed minor surgery on my blisters this morning but there wasn’t much I could do to minimise the uncomfortable throbbing pain. On top of it all I had layered up, preparing for the worst of the weather and we ended up spending 5 of our 6 hours in 20oC sun! I seriously developed heat rash! At 3500m I saw it first this morning on my hands, initially thinking it was a reaction to the sunscreen. A few days of ‘liberal’ application evidently doesn’t let your skin breath. When we got to our base camp, I discovered it was also starting on my legs. 20oC doesn’t call for thermals to say the least. To top it off, I am recovering from a freakin’ sunburn! Thanks to the beautiful day at Tigers Nest, my face and neck feel like I fell asleep on a beach.

Enough of my whining! Who have I spent the last five days with?

Pema no. 1- Guide turned confidant
Pema no. 2- Cook helper & lunch runner
Jigme- Bhutanese cooking magician. Could make a meal out of water.
Dorley- One-eyed horseman. Definitely would hire him if I moved into the woods. Could easy make a mansion from a tree.

 My first six days in Bhutan was my Jomolhari Base Camp trek. Although I had booked the Jomolhari Loop Trek, it was evident early on that it wouldn’t be possible due to the snow still at high elevations. The normal plan in this case, would have been to spend a full day at the Jomolhari Base Camp for some sightseeing hikes, and then slowly head back down. Thankfully our cook (who was very experienced with over 30 years in the trekking industry) had suggested that we head further down and have the chance to head up to the Soi Yakse Valley, an area that I should have seen on Day 5 of the trek. Despite not completing the full loop, we hiked one day high enough that we could almost see the first pass. It had snowed in Thimphu only a few days before I arrived in Bhutan and, as I live in Switzerland, fully respected the “don’t mess with Mother Nature” attitude. We weren’t going to be annoying any mountain deities on my trip.

I was thankful to see more than other tourists but it made for two long days, aided by blown-out blisters. (My hiking boots are years old, but my soft snowboarding winter feet hadn’t seen my hiking boots for over six months!) Blisters riding Blisters x3, I was walking like I had a stick up my bum. And with sun on us all day, it was an overly exhausting 5th day. The best thing about the Trek was coming back to camp with an amazing fresh meal of vegg, rice and chilli cooked up. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the best Bhutanese food I had the whole trip.

The second week is referred to more a “Cultural Tour” where I had the opportunity to visit monasteries, Dzongs (fortresses) and temples in Paro, Thimphu, Punaka and Gantey. Although I have hundreds of photos of the beautiful architecture, I wasn’t able to take photos inside the temples out of respect for the deities and Buddha. With the oldest of temples, it really felt like I was walking into a museum…floor to ceiling murals of various historical stories. Lord Buddha’s life story, Buddhist teachings and Bhutanese folk-lore decorated entrances around Bhutan. I was lucky to have a very patient and knowledgeable guide who answered all my questions — especially when I asked them multiply times!

 During the second week of the tour, I would typically have breakfast at the hotel, buffet style with a mix of Indian and western items; scrambled eggs, toast, fresh fruit, etc. Lunch would be had a (very touristy) set restaurant. My driver would need to pre-order the food, usually ‘fusion’: a standard mix of three vegetables, rice and a noodle dish. During my holiday in Bhutan, it fell on a religious Buddhist holiday whereas you couldn’t buy fresh meat in the markets. Larger hotels would have stuff stock-piled, or used canned variations imported from India. DSC08344Dinner was usually again at the hotel, but on a few occasions we ate in the town, but again at touristy restaurants. Although I would request to try local restaurants, it took a few days for me to learn that this isn’t really their culture. They’ll eat together with friends and family, and on special occasions go to a nice restaurant. In reality though, what a meal cost was not something they could afford eat week. It was an interesting change from Switzerland, where people eat out regularly! In Thimphu, the most metropolis city (but still small by European standards), there was a few bars / nightclubs, but this was mostly to placate the modern-thinking younger crowd.

I learnt towards the end of my trip that the restaurants where we ate at, had already typically agreements set up with my company. Although alcoholic drinks weren’t included, tea, coffee and water weren’t a problem and were added to the bill that would be later sent to the company office.

There was a standard list of sites that we visited during the second week. My only (small) regret with my trip, was that I didn’t get to see any of the famous Bhutanese festivals. There are 100s of dances performed by monks dressed as various folklore. We did get to see a small cultural show on my last night but unfortunately it wasn’t comparable to the real thing. It’s on the list for next time!

Although we spent the second week during various goembas and temples, I actually visited the famous Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) on my second day as the altitude change was perfect for trekking acclimatisation. It was a beautiful day, and the hike to the monastery was certainly easier that I expected.

22nd March – Paro

…One of the most exciting things was when Pema told me about a ,,wishing relic rock”. You have to make a wish, close your eyes, and aim your thumb at the round impression in the rock. My first two goes didn’t amount to anything, so wishing for children were so far off! The third go I changed my wish and got it! Now let’s see if it comes true! …

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As for the sites we saw after the trek, we started in Paro Valley where we visited Kychu Lhakhang, Paro Dzong and Sangchen Choekor Shedra. We made our way east, towards Thimphu where we would spend a full day exploring. We hiked to Tango Monastry and then had lunch back in the city. While we waited to visit the Tashi Chho Dzong in the evening, we stopped at the Big Buddha (50m tall!) and the Takin animal reserve.

When we did make it to the Thimphu fortress, it was so much bigger than I anticipated! Ironically, the King, Queen and Prince live in a modest one-story building in the lush grounds away from the busy Palace (although the king will walk the 500m to work every day!). There was surprisingly little security for the royal family, in the way of guards and security. Just one huge fence! The guards for the palace were the first ones I had seen in Bhutan that did actually carry guns, but we could almost look into the window of the royal residence across the river! We weren’t allowed to stop and look (or take photos) out of respect. When I asked about the lack of guards, Pema said that almost all tourists will have a personal guide and therefore it is the responsibility of the guide to keep their tourists in line. (On this note; when we went into the Palace, I was wearing my Burmese htamain (a long skirt) with my rain jacket. It took some discussion between my guide and the guards to let me in as they thought it was part of the ‘Kera’, the tradition Bhutanese dress for women . Had this been the case I would have need to wear the rest of the outfit, including a small jacket over the top. I had to show them it was certainly not a kera dress by un-folding it.

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Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’.

Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’. I didn’t realise until I saw photos from that evening that it had a very likable resemblance to the tradition dress. Although I never meant to insult anyone, my guide did get a quick lecture about what is appropriate attire for the tourists!).

After our day in Thimphu, we had a full day’s drive east to Gangtey. On route, we had stopped at Dochula Pass for tea but as the weather was slightly cloudy we couldn’t see the panoramic view. It was amazing to think that every year the Chief Abbott (Bhutan’s religious leader) makes the pilgrimage from Punakha to Thimphu each year Spring. It was almost 100km over a mountain pass!

Gantey was definitely the smallest town I had seen, with only one main street and a few hotels. The Gantey Valley is best known to bird watchers as the nesting grounds for the black-necked crane. Unfortunately all the birds were still in Tibet while I was there, and only got to see the injured crane whose home had been made in the Information Center.

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Rural Bhutan
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Phobjikha Valley

The following day we walked, and sloshed our way through the Gantey Nature Trail. Unfortunately my shoes were lost to the good cause due to the mud and puddles, but we continued nevertheless onwards. We saw the Fertility Temple, and later back in Punakha, the Punakha Dzong. From Punakha we headed back to Paro, stopping at a Nunnery and a local Tao Village. As I was flying out the next day we also did some souvenir shopping, where I was able to get myself a painting!

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Was it worth it? A perspective slice.

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 As a ‘backpacker’, my average Asian travel budget (or estimate while saving) is an average of 50USD per day, and I don’t include my international flights in this estimate. Usually within a few days of arriving this budget will change– especially in Central and South-Eastern Asian countries. As I mentioned before, the daily limit during my visit to Bhutan was $250 per day. Fives times more than my average budget. I am very, very fortunate to work in Switzerland at the moment, and without having much in the way of expenses, we work to travel. Making the most of my situation, Bhutan was not going to be missed!

I was certainly part of the small younger crowd that was travelling in Bhutan. Most of them visit for trekking, but usually for the one week tour. After, while I was in India, I usually had two reactions: 1) Omg! You were in Bhutan!! 2) What the fuck. Why would you spend so much money for that? … granted, the later came from one disgruntled Scottish traveller that was being pulled through India by his girlfriend and had consequently given up enjoying any last possible experiences.

Bhutan was the first country in Asia that I have not seen poverty. There wasn’t people sleeping on the streets (it’s illegal), children went to school everyday and were not allowed out after dark (unofficially). The only time I saw children selling anything, was personally made book-marks along the path to the Fertility Temple. When I asked my guide, he quickly said that the parents will get in a lot of trouble from the police if they saw that and chances are, the kids (maybe 5 or 6 of them) were doing it in secret. He thought it probably would have been to purchase sweets from the local shop– I compared this to kids selling lemonade on the street corner. Certainly not the beggars on the streets on India.

There is still certainly an economic class structure in Bhutan, but certainly not as rigid as neighbouring countries. My horsemen, the lowest earner in my group during the trek, still made enough to send two kids to school. One son was studying to be a monk, but he had a sick wife in the hospital. His main form on income was the tourist treks, where he made 450 Nu./ 7USD per horse, per day.

For the duration of the trek my 250USD daily tariff kept four people employed. Sure, you could argue that I was sleeping in a tent and eating by a campfire for six days but I knew after that, these guys would all have money to support their families after. The company could also afford to buy good quality gear from Nepal, instead of cheaply made tents imported from India. When it was 5oC at 4100m, I was happy to be sleeping in a -10oC Marmot bag.

During the later part of my trip, the daily tarif included all meals, the accommodation (which was easily over 100USD each night for the hotels I was staying in), and of course pay the wage of my guide, driver and having a nice car for 8 days.

Although I thought I would argue with myself for why they don’t provide a cheaper, affordable option in order to carter to a larger market, the quality was unbeatable. This is a country that is proud of its image; an educated country that is welcoming to their guests. They are not shrouded in corruption and political problems with homeless people sleeping in the doorways. Indian labourers work often in Bhutan as they earn more, but still must follow strict Bhutanese rules. The population is educated, often up through to university and has a better sense of the global world than some of the visiting travellers themselves. All the younger generations spoke amazing english, and most hindi, as well. Television, although recently introduced, played BBC, CNN, HBO, SKY and Al Jezeera New stations- a more rounded source of information than available in Switzerland! Other than selling hydroelectricity to India, the only other main source of income for Bhutan is tourism. This funds the education system, health care and infrastructure (which as I was there, they were widening the national highway which travels through to Eastern Bhutan).

Financially, I couldn’t afford to travel through Western Europe on the same budget while being offered similar quality services. And even if I could (and did), that money would be going straight into the pocket of the private company’s bank account, leaving nothing for the local people to benefit from.

Was 250USD a day worth it? Yes! For the sake of preserving their culture, they are doing it the right way 🙂

My trip to Bhutan was definitely once-in-a-lifetime, and combined with my 4 days in Delhi/Agra, but I left knowing that I will have to go back at some point. So much still to see!

Packing Tips: My Must Have Items

The adventures of packing. The smallest detail which can make or break a trip. That small charger you forgot, or that extra pair of shoes you never needed. We’ve all been there. I know each time I go on a trip I play a small game of tetris with my backpack, hoping to make the most of my 55L Eagle Creek Truist backpack. After a few solid trips, I feel comfortable to share my 5. The items that come no matter where I go, hot or cold. Long or short. A trip is an adventure!

Stuff sacks.

In this day and age, most travellers will have some form of packing system. Some use packing cubes, but as I’m not travelling with a rectangle suitcase I find the stuff-sacks work better for backpacking. I purchased my Me°ru’ ones at the local outdoor outlet center for a bargain, with 5 different sizes (S-XL). I usually split them into the following categories; undergarments, t-shirts and light pants, jeans/sweaters, one bag for the trainers/hiking boots (this is always the same bag, in my case a red one, so I’m not fussed about dirt from the shoes getting on my clothes.), and dirty laundry. It works well for dirty laundry as the fabric of the stuffsacks is breathable so the clothes don’t stink a lot when put together for a few days. Unlike packing cubes, the stuff-sack pack completely flat to save space when I’m not using one of them!

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Two padlocks and a Swiss Army knife.

Although most will travel with some sort of padlock, I have found it easier to always have two. On a not-so-recent trip to Thailand, I found that my main padlock didn’t fit in the hostel lockers. My friend’s luggage lock, with a smaller shackle, fit perfectly. I now always have two, also allowing me to lock valuables away and keep my other belongings locked in my bag if necessary. When my whole bag doesn’t fit into the storage provided, I will typically leave everything (minus valuables) in my bag, as to save ‘unpacking’. The second lock is also perfect as my small packable day bag can also be locked as neccessary. Locks don’t take up a lot of room, and are definitely worth it. A Swiss Army knife is pretty standard I believe and with I use the keyring clip from my bag so as never to accidentally pack it in my carry on!

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USB retractable cable.

With technology enriching our lives (and travels!), we all have the trips where we bring wayyy tooo many cables. My first recommendation is to have everything charging with the same cable! I have never travelled with my laptop (tablets all the way!) so this eliminates the biggest hassle. My camera, phone, and battery backup all charge with mini-USB. With minimal space taken up, I usually bring the small cable with my carry-on so I can charge my phone while on long-haul flights. Most hostels (and hotels) will have USB charging points nowadays although I do still bring an international travel adapter. Battery backup is perfect for my camera, as I never want to run into having a flat camera battery!

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Rayon Sarong.

A towel, blanket, scarf, skirt, curtain, quick drying… need I say more? I got mine on my first trip to Asia and it hasn’t left my side since! They pack small and are light. With darker colours, they show less dirt too!

Add It To Your Packing List!

  1. Passport Photocopies; digital and paper versions!
  2. US Dollars; perfect for emergencies and every country exchanges them! Preferably only new notes, as countries are becoming sticklers for old, creased ones.
  3. Sewing kit. Making your clothes last that little longer! Mine is super basic.
  4. Flip-Flops. Compact and comfy, can be worn in the evenings instead of your walking shoes (even with socks when its cold 🙂 ). Although I’ve seen Crocs as a substitute, they take up more room and are fashion suicide (more so than socks and flip-flops!).
  5. Digital Watch with alarm clock. Mine is an old Swatch model that also can do two clocks, one usually set to my home timezone.

 

Happy Packing!

Himalayas 2.0

Bhutan 2017

I always think it’s interesting to look back to the moment when I choose a new country to visit. With Bhutan, I remember vividly the moment I read about the Druk Path Trek, and discovered trekking options in the eastern Himalayas. It was rainy September day, and I was waiting excitedly for our upcoming trip to New Zealand. I was reading Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Adventures. Best Treks with Killer Views? Sign me up!

“From bucolic blue pine, fir and thick alpine forests and dwarfed rhododendron trees to sparkling lakes and steep valleys nestled beneath Himalayan peaks, the landscape simultaneously feeds the soul and makes the camera happy …yet the subtle beauty of nomadic yak herders you pass while gliding through high-altitude meadows is just as stunning as the dramatic terrain.” – p72. 1st edition.

I had heard of Bhutan before. My partner’s mother had travelled there a few years ago with her Buddhist teacher and was able to visit both east and west Bhutan. In the three weeks she was there, she was able to experience a very different side of Asia. Mesmerizing prayer flags, high Himalayan peaks, and friendly people… I was very intrigued! Over the years, she has extensively travelled around Central and Southern Asia, and her opinion weighted heavy on my mind. It had been life changing.

I spent a few weeks researching activities in Bhutan, as I am the more active type, and discovered there was quite a few different options in regards to treks and ‘adventure’ sports. I liked the idea of possibly rafting or biking in Bhutan but did find it challenging to source credible reviews on actitivies. Throughout my research, I had to keep a very open mind at this point in regards to price, as any activities outside of the daily ‘normal sightseeing’ tour incurred an extra fee.

I had decided early on that I would prefer a longer trek. While in Nepal a few years ago, the 12 days we took for the Annapurna Base Camp was extremely rewarding. Wanting something a little more challenging, I choose the Jomolhari Laya Gasa Trek. Although based in western Bhutan (the side known to be more developed), the trek will take me high into the Bhutanese Himalayas and into rural mountain living. Having my introduction in Nepal, I’m throughly excited to experience this culture again.


Once in a Lifetime.

I’ve always been a believer of fate. Things happening because they should, and occurring at the most influential time. Whether good or bad, we learn from each experience and those to come.

When the opportunity arose to visit Bhutan, I knew this would be one of few countries that I ‘very likely’ would not be returning to. When I spoke to my partner’s mum about this notion, she agreed. Even if it was primarily due to funds, my goal was to know make the most of this trip. Jam-packed, adventure-filled Bhutanese fun.

When I emailed Raven Tours and Treks, I had listed a few activities that I would like to do while in Bhutan. I had sent the same email to a few other companies (honestly, I think the top 3 on TripAdvisior :P) and the manager wrote me back within a few hours saying he would put something together for me. The promptness won me over immediately. Within a few weeks we had a rough plan, including some cycle tours and a two days drive to the Gantey Monastery. The flexibility and eagerness to help and answer my questions only instilled my choice with this tour company. In the proceeding weeks, only one other company had replied to my email. Something of the more genetic type. Did it matter? My 6 day trip had been upgraded to a 2 week adventure!


Travel is never a matter of money but of courage. – Coelho.

In recent weeks I have certainly heard most of them…how much will it all cost? Isn’t the visa expensive? Don’t you need a guide? Don’t you have to pay a lot? Isn’t it closed to everyone? Until I did my own research, I didn’t know myself.

I think spending 1000USD on a handbag is a lot. It doesn’t make you a better person, you don’t learn from it. 500 on a weekend in the city to purchase material objects for your wardrobe doesn’t change you as a person. 3000USD computer? 250USD jeans? 15000USD diamond ring? It’s perspective.

Travel teaches first hand experiences that one can’t get from a book. Whether is the mental growth in a surprising situation, communicating without common language, or meeting other fellow travellers with different stories to share, travelling does change people. For me, I am probably comfortable spending more on these ‘experiences’ than some others.

With that in mind, Tourism is the income in Bhutan. They don’t have a massive capitalistic, exporting/importing economy like other countries. Tourism has been developed to support the country and economy.

Depending on the time of year in which you visit, the “daily rate” can vary between $200USD (buffer season) and $250USD (high season). Including the $65 ‘Royalty Fee’ (supporting the free medical system, free education, and infrastructure), the daily rate supports a full board travel experience. Meals, Hotels, A Driver and Guide are all included. In my case for the trek, Porters, Cooks etc are also included. Raven Tours and Treks also organised the Bike Tour costs, Visa and my flight from Delhi to Paro (with Druk Airlines). Other then my flight to Delhi, there wasn’t much left to organise! Definitely a different style of travelling for me!


Adventures are the best way to Learn.

With the 30 day countdown on, the excitement is real. I get to head back to Asia, a place I have come to love over the years, and in doing so experience a new side of the region. When I was younger, I naively thought that most of Asia was similar. Same, same but different. Over the years, and getting to see different areas of Central and South Eastern Asia I have proved myself wrong! Here’s to exploring another side!

 

2-Wheeled Escapades: Bolivia’s Death Road and Cocaine.

We started the day high in the clouds.

We couldn’t see more than 50m around us, only taking in the windy road and sheer rock faces as inspiration for our imagination.The morning sun glistened against the rocks along the road, sunshine trying to push through the damp. At 4700m we could have been anywhere in the European Alps… but we were in La Cumbre, Bolivia about to ride down the Yungas Road. Bolivia’s Death Road.

Although throughly upgraded by the late 2000s, the Yungas Roads have quite the reputation. We were biking down the North Yungas Road, the original blood line to Northern Bolivia. Starting at La Cumbre Pass, we continued throughout the day to Yolosa, 3500m lower than our starting point. While most daily traffic uses the newer South Yungas Road, we weren’t alone. “It was incredible to see full-size trucks and coaches still use the road!”. The road wasn’t sealed for the last 60+ kilometres, adding to the excitement with our mountain bikes. Gravity Assisted had done a great job at providing sound mountain bikes, riding gear (including helmets) and various layers of outerware.

Most of the trip was on gravel…I wouldn’t say it was hard, but you definitely wanted to pay attention to where you were on the road. Some local traffic still use the road so we needed to ride on the left side (opposite to “most” traffic in Bolivia). It means that both drivers can see the outside of the road and know how close to the edge their vehicles are. We were told the last accident was over a year ago when it was the main road there was an accident every week!

We stopped every few hours to enjoy a quick break, for snacks and photos. The scenery alone was worth the trip, the view clearing as we lowered in altitude. Warming up as we journeyed down, we were soon losing the layers quickly! It became very pleasant to travel against the warm wind, an already dramatic change from the mist and wet of 4700m!

The valley that we drove through was beautiful though! Although the road was sketchy at times the scenery was something that you wanted to sit back and admire! You only needed a quick [look] over the side to remember where you were!

At the end of the day, we finished in the Senda Verde Animal Refuge. It was amazing to see all the animals rescued from various Black Markets across South America. If I ever make it make, I’ll be spending some time there!

After a great afternoon feed at Senda Verde, we drove back to La Paz. We made our way back long the same road, getting to experience driving along the narrow road! We were able to stop at the San Pedro waterfall, made famous by Top Gear a few years back. It was a quiet drive back, most of us falling asleep after a full day’s bike ride!


The best thing I have found about trips like these, although overly commercialised in some aspects, is being able to see and experience local culture. The most evident, was the widespread production of the coca plant. Although used in western medicine since the late 19th century, for thousands of years it has been a major source of income in rural areas. Long used in traditional medicine and as a source of vitamins in South American culture, it wasn’t until it was brought to Europe and cocaine developed, that the Coca Leaf’s history turned for the worse.

I’ll be very open, being someone who ‘doesn’t do drugs’, that my partner and I discussed ‘trying’ cocaine while in South America. It’s what you do, isn’t it?

No…No, it isn’t. Two Coca Museums later and with a wealth of knowledge, we both agreed very quickly that there wasn’t going to be any chance. We both had no idea the amount of nastiness that goes into Cocaine production. More importantly, it’s not even something one takes (or enjoys) to “do as the locals do”. Produced primarily for the North American and European markets, there is very little of the “coca plant” left in the final product. And yet, it has become illegal in countries were its production kept the farmers out of poverty. In spite that the natural product has remained legal in Peru and Bolivia and is relatively inexpensive in street markets, there are extensive checks at security points, (and even when we mailed a parcel back to Europe!), and you are not allowed to leave Peru/Bolivia with the coca leaf.

And as for the drug-filled South America? The only place in 5 months we were offered drugs was Cusco, Peru. Alongside Colombians, Bolivians are enthusiastically trying, and succeeding, in projecting a positive future. Who thought a bike ride would turn into a culture lesson?

2- Wheeled Escapades: Kathmandu to Daman.

Classic but gruelling on-road ride over a 2488m pass, culminating with incomparable Himalayan views at Daman. The ride begins on the Kathmandu- Pokhara Hwy, which gives the only access to the valley. After leaving the valley, the highway descends to Naubise, at the base of the Mahesh Khola Valley, 27km from Kathmandu. … Start a 35km climb to Tistung (2030m) past terraced fields carved into steep hillsides. On reaching the pass at Tistung (2030m) you descend for 7km into the beautiful Palung Valley before the final steep 9km climb to Daman, at a height of 2322m.

Lonely Planet: Nepal, 9th Edition. pg.296

Well, I remember I cried. Twice. It was exhausting. We left the Lonely Planet book in the hostel to keep weight down (we had just bought day packs), and figured we couldn’t really get lost as we had one turnoff, in Naubise. When we got to the Palung Valley, knowing that we certainly hadn’t missed Daman, but had no idea how much further… the journey suddenly got a lot harder.

29th Oct. 14.

Yesterday we cycled to a small town called Daman, 80 km from Kathmandu… uphill and in three valleys across!

Leaving Kathmandu, we instantly regretted not having something to cover our mouths and noses with. Our mucus was black from exhaust and fumes within meters. Weaving in and out of huge mountain trucks, small import cars and dodging the odd cart, the ride down to get outside of Kathmandu’s Ring Road was exhilarating and congested. And very ugly. The snaking highway from Chasapani to Naubise slowed the traffic down immensely, more so for the single lane switch-backs that the buses needed to navigate. On two wheels however, we quickly covered the first 30 km. We simultaneously agreed that we would return with the bus for the the last leg, from Naubise to Kathmandu, the following day.

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The Fashion of the Backpacker’s Tour-De-Nepal: Flats, woolly socks, leggings and running shorts.

The next 50 km was predominately uphill 🙂 Honestly, if it was any steeper, any more traffic, or if the bikes were shyte – we couldn’t have done it! Honestly² it wasn’t physically challenging- at no point were we really “puffing” or completely done for. It was however, one of the most mentally challenging things I have ever done! I realised coming down [from Daman] that half my problem was that after Tisung –  we didn’t really know where we were, in relation to where we were heading! After Palung Valley (which we didn’t remember existed!) the road just seemed to never end. Without the Lonely Planet’s basic description of the trip, we were just on a never-ending bike ride.

Palung Valley was gorgeous though – and it was nice to visit something out of the standard backpacker’s jurisdiction. Surprisingly, there were a few hotels and guest houses around! Given how big Palung is- we were surprised it wasn’t given more street creed in our journey! By the time we arrived in Palung town, it was mid-afternoon and we were starting to feel the mental drain and physical saddle sore! It was getting hard to sit down, adding to the strain that we still had at least 2 hours to go! If only we knew! I think normally, we should have made it in about 1.5 hours but we were getting to the point when we would walk for 50m or so, just so our legs could fully extend. 60km in, we kept guessing over every peak where Daman could be. We had no idea where, or how much longer we had to go! We had been going up hill all day. It was only when we thought we could see the lookout tower for the Daman Mountain “resort” atop a hill in the distance we though we might be getting close. Looking like a communications tower from an airport, it was seemingly out-of-place.

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Somewhere in the distance is Pokhara.

We arrived in Daman as the sun was kissing the mountains good-night. We stayed at the Daman Mountain “resort”, and as the complex contained the viewing tower that we would watch the sunrise from, we took what we could get. We ended up getting a room that had hot water, but didn’t end up showering because we were too cold! (It was the electric variation that took 10min to warm up!) The real treat was the small television not understanding any channels, it was nice to have something to watch and relax after a full day’s ride.

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Dinner at one of the hotel employee’s sister’s restraurants, next door to the hotel.

6:15- And the Himalayas looked amazing!

I didn’t realise how much the pollution from Kathmandu effected viewing the mountains. By 8:00 we couldn’t see them because of the glare. I think we saw Everest but it was quite small given how far away it was! The Annapurna and Langtang mountains looked enormous though! I’m glad we got up for the sunrise, as the best time to see the mountains lit up was just before the sun came into our view. It was beautiful. The Himalayas were all colours of glowing blue and purple. With the sun coming up, they shifted to warm tones of orange and yellow. The fact that I most likely won’t see the mountains again like that definitely made the trip worth the bike ride.

After a quick breakfast of curry and donuts, we zipped back. Hilariously fun. Two small hill climbs and 80km downhill. Best riding day ever! Once we got back to Naubise, we caught a local public bus back to the Ring Road in KTM- only costing us Rs100 🙂 The bikes were thrown on the roof (and tied down!) and we were saved from climbing the big hill while using exhaust fumes as our source of oxygen 🙂 Dollar well spent!

Chasing Temples: My Review of Bagan’s Most Exclusive Activity

8th Feb 2016 ⇒ Somewhere on the Irrawaddy River

Well, I have checked off another box on my bucket list. On Sunday I flew over the Bagan Temples with Oriental Ballooning. Out pilot, Ravi, was British trained and had been flying for over 30 years. Definitely received the best service for any activity I’ve done in Asia! We were taken out to the golf course near Nyaung U for the take-off and had coffee & tea with croissants for breakfast. After a quick introduction, we watched them blow up the balloons. I never realised how technical the whole process really is! Once the balloon was inflated, we had a smooth take off, heading towards the Bagan Resort. We got to fly over a few of the main temples- all the time Ravi explaining a brief history of them. It was an amazing experience!

My only expectation (a.k.a. why I shouldn’t make them!) was that the sunrise photos were going to be amazing. I really think the sunrise ones from our temples (which we had to ourselves) were the best! It was incredible to see the temples in all their glory however! The champagne at 8am wasn’t bad either!

Pros:

  • Coolest way to see the temples.
  • Meet a cool Aussie family.
  • Learnt a lot about what air- ballooning is.

Cons:

  • Started too late for sunrise photos
  • Very small breakfast
  • Still 320 USD!

A Must- Do while in Bagan. Soaring softly over ancient temples as the day slowly warms up with the rise of the sun.

For me, it was probably the most expensive Instagram photo that I will ever take. Gorgeous, though.

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I selected Oriental Ballooning mostly because of TripAdvisor. The original, and well-known, Balloons over Bagan (BoB) was relatively similar in cost but tourists seemed to be more impressed with Oriental. At the takeoff sight, I realised how massive the operation is. BoB had significantly more balloons in the sky than Oriental. There was also the newcomer, Golden Eagle Ballooning.

With the benefit of just a short trip, I decided to treat myself a late christmas present, and booked my flight a few months before my visit to Myanmar. I had seen hundreds of beautiful photos with glowing sun, orange skies and golden temples. I needed some of my own!

The booking process was relatively simple, and they dropped off my “ticket” the night before my flight. Although the 5.30 pickup time simples early, after a day in Bagan, you realised that everyone is there for the sunrises. We were driven out to the golf course for our “breakfast-snack”. Tea (not the yummy Myanmar Sweet Tea) and instant coffee were served alongside some pastries and croissants. We had our introduction and safety briefing shortly after and had a few minutes to watch the pilots and their assistants set everything up. In order of sonority the balloons took off, with Bob starting then Oriental and lastly Golden Eagle.

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Inflating the Balloons

As an obvious safety measure, the balloons can’t fly in the dark. But unfortunately this leads a delay getting airborne. The gorgeous sun-kissed temples are already sitting in the morning sun by the time your flying. The flight was quick but of course, as your standing there soaring over ancient temples… there isn’t anywhere I would rather be. I was very grateful that we had only one couple with a massive overbearing SLR clicking in the corner. I shared my compartment with a family that were content on taking selfies on their phones. Watching our pilot steer this massive instrument was part of the fun!

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Our landing was pretty soft, only momentarily sitting on top of a shrub before we could be pulled away. The pilots unfortunately can’t control the direction, just the height at which we fly. Different times of year mean they have different land spots!

To close the morning off, we had a glass (or two!) of bubbly and shared our excitement while getting our certificates. We had some slices of fruit before getting taken back to our accommodation. I was back by mid-morning to continue Temple- seeing for the rest of the day!

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Thanks Ravi!