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By this Author: ChrisEvans

Laos


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Just a short entry for a country we passed through in only a week. The whole of Laos is remarkable for its lush green vegetation. This was a particular contrast for us with the Tibetan Plateau we had recently left. On the way to Luang Prabang we missed a crucial turn-off. As road signs are almost non-existent, we carried on unaware until the end of the road, at the Mekong river. The Mekong runs almost the length of the country and is an important transport link (the road we had taken led to a port town). There was no choice but to turn around and drive the 200km back to the junction. This made for a frustrating, late night arrival in Luang Prabang. The city is renowned for its Buddhist temples (wats). It is also firmly on the Western tourist trail, which took some getting used to after not seeing any Westeners for a long time. However, we were glad to find some familiar foods; bread was not available anywhere we went in China.

The original plan had been to continue south to Vang Vieng and then east towards the border with Vietnam. We now knew that it was not going to be possible to take the truck into Vietnam; their price and travel restrictions were not acceptable. So the truck would continue south to Cambodia and wait for us while we explored Vietnam by public transport. We were still given the opportunity to drive east to the Plain of Jars and return to Vang Vieng. The Plain of Jars is an area containing many groupings of large stone jars, about 2000 years old. The most popular theory is that they were used for cremations. This area was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war and there are many large craters and unexploded bombs. Only three sites have pathways cleared for visitors and warning signs are everywhere. This gives something of an edge to a stroll around the randomly scattered jars. We were there on a drizzly afternoon and the effect overall was rather underwhelming.

After returning from our trip to the Plain of Jars, we continued to the capital, Vientiane, sitting on the north bank of the Mekong, facing Thailand on the opposite side. Vientiane is largely a French colonial city, but with many Buddhist monuments and wats. The city has a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere and is a noticeable contrast to the poverty seen elsewhere in Laos. We arranged our travel to Vietnam from here, for me a flight to Hanoi.

Posted by ChrisEvans 20:20 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Tibet and China


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After Everest we continued across the Tibetan plateau to Shigatse, the second largest city in Tibet. This is now largely populated by Han Chinese and has been rather brutally modernised. Our travels so far had been through areas that are almost exclusively Tibetan, and only small ramshackle towns, so this was quite a change. It did give us the opportunity to have our first Chinese meal. China was by far the most difficult country for communication so far. Menus are meaningless and they certainly don't speak English. Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, was our next destination. Again, there is now a sizeable Chinese population here, but the Tibetan influence remains strong. The major attraction in Lhasa is the Potala Palace, the seat of the Dalai Lama. The palace sits on top of a steep hill in the centre, with the holiest areas at the top. The Chinese flag in front of the palace makes a strong political statement. We were guided through room after room filled with shrines, manuscripts, art and general treasure. Although it is, of course, empty and unused, the overall effect is stunning. Also, it would be impossible to visit the inner areas if the Dalai Lama was in residence. Only a small number of monks are allowed to maintain the palace; they are obliged to wear caretaker uniforms rather than their traditional red robes. As well as the palace and other temples, the city has a mix of traditional market squares and alleyways, and modern hotels and shopping centres.

The Potala Palace
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After Lhasa we made our way through a little travelled area of Tibet towards China proper. We enjoyed several days of spectacular bush-camping on both sides of the border (not a real border, but there is an army checkpoint). The main route south was blocked by landslides (due to unusually heavy rain) so we took a diversion through the mountains. This was the type of narrow, twisting road with sheer drops that we were becoming used to. We made reasonable progress until a large boulder blocked the road. It took about half the day to split off part of the rock and clear the debris. Tiger Leaping Gorge was our next stop. The narrow, deep gorge has a road running along the Yangtze river and a walking trail higher up. The plan was to walk through the gorge and have the truck meet us at the other end. However, the road was blocked by a landslide (apparently common in the rainy season), so we set out to walk half of the 55km and return. The first day it was raining heavily and conditions were extremely difficult, with mud running down the steep track. Also the gorge was completely obscured by mist. The next two days were sunny and we had superb views along the gorge and to the mountains beyond. The guesthouses along the route were excellent, which made the trek much easier.

Descending from the Tibetan Plateau
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We passed through two of the most popular tourist destinations in this part of China before leaving the country. Lijiang is the ancient capital of the Naxi kingdom. There were huge crowds of Chinese tourists thronging the town, despite a poll tax on everyone who visits. The city is extremely picturesque, preserving its many waterways and bridges. At night the bars are packed with boisterous Chinese trying to out-do other tour groups. Dali is an old walled city which also attracts many Chinese tourists.

We had a long drive to the border with Laos. After an extremely wet bushcamp, we left early on Friday to reach the border before it closed. Within minutes of driving away, the right front wheel disappeared into the soft edge of the road. The rain had affected it badly and the sand and gravel was up to the top of the tyre. This was the first time our mighty 6x6 had got stuck. So we had a couple of hours of digging and lining the massive rut with stones to escape. Not as bad as it could have been. We still had hopes of reaching the border before 5pm, but had not gone far when we joined the end of a long queue of traffic. A walk to the front revealed that a landslide had claimed a section of the road. It was around six hours before the engineers had done enough work to make it just about passable. With no hope of crossing into Laos, we carried on to Mengla, not far from the border. Just to further prove that this was not our day, we found out the exit permit would not be available until Monday morning. Chinese bureaucracy and the weather had combined to keep us in this provincial city for the weekend. It turned out to be a pleasant enough place to stop for a few days, although the language barrier was still a problem. First thing on Monday we left China.

Posted by ChrisEvans 05:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

Nepal


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Our first stop in Nepal was at Chitwan National Park. This area of the country is home to a small number of tigers, although they eluded us. We did manage to find a rhino with a calf when we were out game spotting. As we were riding elephants through the jungle, we were able to get close without being in danger. Later in the day we went with the elephants to the river. We had an enjoyable afternoon helping to wash the animals and playing with them in the water. They are able to lift people on to their back by raising their trunks, and will then throw you in the water as soon as you get seated. We had to leave quickly when a wild male elephant appeared on the opposite bank (all the elephant used for riding are female).

Pokhara is Nepal's second largest city, beside a lake and surrounded by mountains. We spent six nights here for a break after three months on the road. Althought the city is large and bustling, the lakeside area is much more relaxed. There are lots of excellent restaurants and cafes which were much appreciated after some of the food in India and Pakistan. Above the city is a superb viewpoint with a huge view of the Himalayas to the North - my first sight of the mountains. Some of us went on a two day rafting trip, camping by the river in the afternoon. There was some moderate white water to enjoy and a very scenic ride between the rapids. We also spent a day boating on the lake, failing to catch any fish, but enjoying the scenery.

At the end of the rafting trip, near Pokhara
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The group was in a celebratory mood when we reached the capital, having completed the classic London to Kathmandu overland route. Because Kathmandu is so cramped and congested, we had to leave the truck on the outskirts of the city. This did make it an interesting place to walk around, as it was almost impossible to go anywhere without getting lost. The Rum Doodle restaurant has the autograph of everyone who has climbed Everest, but none of us could spot Hillary's.

Leaving Kathmandu, we travelled North on the Friendship Highway, which links Nepal and Tibet. The road climbs gently at first towards the border, increasing in steepness through the jungle. After the border towns there is a long continuous ascent on to the Tibetan Plateau. Due to work on the road, traffic was only allowed through at night, and only in one direction at a time. So at midnight we set off in a convoy of vehicles, aiming to reach the plateau by 6:00. This was by far the worst section of road on the trip. A narrow, uneven strip had been cleared alongside the road for the traffic to pass the roadworks. There were steep drop-offs and sharp turns all night as we slowly climbed. By dawn we were up on the plateau and reeling from the effects of the altitude. After a few hours rest, we set off for our Everest adventure.

The highest point of the trip, a pass on the Tibetan Plateau
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Camping in Tibet
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Looking across the Plateau
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Posted by ChrisEvans 20:47 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

Everest

Lhasa, Tibet

-17 °C
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After several days of confusion and uncertainty, we made it to Mt Everest. After crossing the border from Nepal, things started to go wrong almost immediately. The first 50km of the Friendship Highway are being reconstructed. Traffic is only allowed through at night, so we had to drive from 1am to 7am. For most of the distance, the only passable route was a very rough, narrow track to the side of the road, often with a sheer drop below. After a few hours sleep, we headed into Tingri to try to solve our second problem. When the trip began, the plan was to drive the truck to Everest basecamp. Since then the Chinese announced their plan to upgrade and tarmac the road to basecamp. This means that the road is passable only in jeeps, now that work has begun. When we could not find vehicles in Tingri, it appeared that there was no way to reach Everest. The next morning, heading away from the mountain, we stopped in Shegar to buy some food. Unexpectedly finding vehicles for hire, we arranged some for the next morning. We returned to the camp we had left in the morning and tried to acclimatise to the altitude, ready for a 4am departure.

After driving for about 4 hours, we reached the end of the road. From there, it was an hour's walk to basecamp. Everest was covered by cloud most of the way up, with just brief glimpses of the summit. Just as I got to the viewpoint at basecamp, the cloud began to clear, giving an almost pefect view of Everest. We sat taking in the view for a while, then walked down as the cloud closed in again. From the end of the road, Everest was now completely obscured. Despite being tired and suffering the effects of altitude, it was a thrilling day. Having had our Everest fix, we were happy to head for Lhasa.

Everest seen from basecamp
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The north face of Everest
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Chinese flag at basecamp
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Posted by ChrisEvans 21:44 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Karakoram Highway & India

Varanasi, India

-17 °C
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The Khyber Pass was an interesting day trip from Peshawar. The part of Pakistan which borders Afghanistan is known as the Tribal Area and is fully autonomous. This region is beyond Pakistani law and permission has to be sought from the tribal leaders before entering. We drove through the pass to be within sight of the border post and Afghanistan beyond.

The next leg of the trip involved something we usually hope to avoid - doubling back along the same road. For the Karakoram Highway it was well worth it. The road is cut into solid rock along most of its length through the gorge and surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery. Staying in Karimabad, a trip by jeep to a nearby glacier was my highlight. After following the highway back down, we arrived in Islamabad during a heatwave which was making the locals suffer, never mind us.

Standing on a glacier near Karimabad
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The meeting point of the Himalaya, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush
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Meeting of the Indus and Gilgit rivers
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India, while still hot, feels like a relief after Pakistan. At the border we saw the bizarre closing ceremony, where the guards from each side face each other off. The flags are lowered in unison, while crowds on both sides chant nationalistic slogans. Delhi provided a welcome opportunity to indulge in some Western luxuries, especially fast food and shopping. The Taj Mahal has been the highlight of India for everyone. It has a captivating quality and an astonishing level of detail. The changing colour of the marble as the sun rises and sets is endlessly facinating.

Posted by ChrisEvans 02:27 Archived in India Comments (0)

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