Posts Tagged With: hiking

Tibet Day 6: Everest Base Camp

The story of our trip to Everest Base Camp really has to begin with where we stayed the night before. There was no running water and no heating. The temperature inside the room was around ten degrees below zero. When we awoke from what little slumbers we had managed, we were “treated” to a truly dreadful breakfast of two dry chapatis sandwiching a fried egg which looked like it had been through a nuclear explosion. The amusing thing was though, this was almost certainly the best hotel in town.

The cold and lack of sleep meant that I wasn’t feeling in the best of shape at the start of what was supposed to be the most auspicious day of the trip. We got into the van and started climbing up the most incredible mountain road. I’m not a fan of the Chinese government’s “peaceful liberation” of Tibet but this road is a truly incredible feat of engineering. The switchbacks were insane. When we reached the top of the pass, we were presented with the magnificent sight of Everest, along with four other 8000 metre peaks. All of them are megalithic in their own right but Everest towered over the rest of them. I was struck by how windy it was at only 5000 metres. I looked at the spindrift coming off the top of the great peak and imagined just how brutal it would be at the top. It was about this moment that I made a solemn resolution to never attempt to climb it.

After a couple of hours of driving through some incredibly beautiful scenery we arrived at Rongbuk Monastery. At an altitude of 5200 metres, this is the highest monastery anywhere in the world. We’d been travelling all morning and it was seriously cold so I asked Kalsang where we could eat some lunch. Sheepishly Kalsang said “actually there isn’t anything to eat.” I was incredulous. Pure hanger started flowing through me. What on earth did he mean, there wasn’t anything to eat?!  Possibly out of self-preservation, Kalsang then played a blinder. He managed to wangle us an invite to go and eat with the monks. This was a truly surreal experience. We were in the highest monastery in the world, sitting by a roaring fire, whilst saffron clad monks sat round chanting mantras. To make it even more bizarre, we were served butter tea (this was the only time that I found it palatable) and spicy pot noodles. That unusual combination would come back and haunt me later but it was still an utterly unforgettable experience.

After lunch, we were given the choice to walk from the monastery to base camp but were told it would take around four hours. None of us were feeling fit enough for this so instead we elected to go halfway down the road and walk from there. Finally, this was an opportunity to walk in the Himalaya. I started slowly and got very short of breath. This was easily the highest I’d ever been in my life and it felt like it. Janey, on the other hand, was powering ahead. She’d had an obsession with Everest since the age of seven and was definitely putting mind over matter. The walk took just under two hours. The highlight of it was walking across a completely frozen river, with Everest rearing up in front of us. Just after that, we climbed up a hill to a completely deserted base camp. Clearly, there weren’t many people mad enough to be there on 31st December. Our timing was impeccable because two minutes after we got back into the van, shaking with cold, the clouds moved in and the top of the mountain was hidden from us. We had been incredibly lucky to have had clear views for so long.

Unsurprisingly the rest of the day was a bit of an anti-climax. I felt pretty dreadful on the way back down the winding mountain roads (the aforementioned butter tea and spicy noodles combo may have had something to do with that) and all four of us were far too knackered to see midnight and ring in the new year. However, I can still say, without any doubt, that it was definitely the best New Year’s Eve I’ve ever had.

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Ten things to do in Myanmar

Myanmar has an incredible amount to offer to travellers. Ancient cities, unspoilt countryside and some pristine beaches all combine to make it one of Asia’s most exciting destinations. However, it is also a fairly big country with very poor infrastructure. As most visitors only have around 2-3 weeks there, it’s unrealistic to think that you can see all of the country in that time. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Tsipaw, Ngapali Beach and the Mergui Archipelago but it wasn’t possible in my two week timeframe. Based on the experiences that I did have though, I ‘ve put together this list of ten things I think you should do in Myanmar.

10) Yangon Circular Train

The name is a bit of a giveaway for this one. There is a local commuter train that takes a circuitous three hour loop through Yangon’s suburbs and into the surrounding countryside. The attraction is that you see a real picture of daily life in the city, which obviously makes for some brilliant photo opportunities. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole three hour loop, as we did. After a while it starts to get a bit monotonous and it certainly isn’t comfortable. Alternatively, get on the train, travel a few stops and take a few pictures, then get off and take a taxi back to central Yangon.

 

9) Red Mountain Winery

They make wine in Myanmar? Really?! Yes, that was my reaction as well when I first heard about it. It’s true though. Around ten to fifteen years ago, some French and German winemakers set up some vineyards near Inle Lake. Red Mountain, the French owned winery, is just a 40 minute bike ride from Nyaungshwe, on the shores of Inle Lake. What you can do is taste the wine (3000 Kyat will buy you tasters of five of the most popular wines) and enjoy a delicious meal in a stunning setting. We treated ourselves to three courses, a taster set and an extra glass each and it still only come to around 12,000 Kyat each! Don’t expect that much from the wine but it’s perfectly palatable and well worth the ride out of town.

8) Experience a festival

This shouldn’t be too difficult in Myanmar. They seem to happen all the time! The day after we arrived in Yangon it was a full moon festival. In Kalaw, we saw a fire festival. At Inle 3000 monks and nuns were heading to a temple on the lake for an almsgiving ceremony. In Popa, we saw young girls and boys all finely dressed up in preparation for entry into the novitiate. If you do see one of these festivals, you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on. Don’t worry about that though. Just sit back and enjoy the craziness.

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7) Sunset at U Bein Bridge

U Bein is a teak wood bridge that stretches across the Ayerwady River, near the town of Annapura, about 20 kilometres outside of Mandalay. The picture of local people walking across at sunset is one of Myanmar’s most iconic images, right up there with the balloons over Bagan. For 12,000 Kyat you can pay a local boatman to take you out into the middle of the river, from where you can get the best photos. Yes it’s clichéd. Yes it’s crowded, but the classics are the classics for a reason. The photos are amazing.

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6) Innwa

Myanmar seems to have had an incredible number of capital cities in its tumultuous history. The one that served as the capital for the longest though was Innwa, until it was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1839. Today, you can visit the ruins of the city, which are situated on a bend in the Ayerwady River, not too far from Mandalay. It’s actually possible to combine Innwa, U Bein and Sagaing into a single day trip. The ruins are probably small enough to walk around if you can endure the heat. The thing to do in Innwa though is to hire a horse drawn cart to take you around the ruins, for 10,000 Kyat. It takes about an hour and a half in total and you can stop and take as many photos as you like. Be prepared for some extremely persistent salespeople though. One lady actually jumped on her bicycle and followed our cart until we eventually felt so guilty that we had to buy something from her!

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5) Mandalay to Bagan ferry

Travel in Myanmar isn’t easy. It’s still an incredibly poor country and the roads are not in great shape. Overnight trains are supposed to be unspeakably horrific and domestic airlines have rather dubious safety records. So just once, why not treat yourself and travel in a more luxurious way? That’s what we did when we took the ferry from Mandalay to Bagan. It was $42 as opposed to $18 on the bus. I can assure you that it was worth every cent of those extra $24 though. You get two meals and you can order beer, tea or coffee on board. If you like, you can sit up on deck and take in the views. You could snooze the journey away. Or you could do what I did and read pretty much all of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” in the country where it was set. Truly idyllic.

4) Bagan

I wrote about Bagan in more detail here so this is the concise version. There are hundreds of temples and pagodas spread out over a massive plain. They are all pretty impressive in their own right but throw in the spectacular sunrises and the balloon rides (presuming you’re as rich as a Russian oligarch) and you can see what makes Bagan so special.

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3) Inle Lake

Bagan’s main rival for the most popular tourist destination in Myanmar is Inle Lake. Located in Shan State, Inle can justifiably claim to be one of the most beautiful and unique places in South East Asia. The way the locals live their lives on the lake is fascinating. From the standing rowers, to the floating gardens and the stilt houses, the views are constantly captivating. It’s also a great place to just go and relax for a few days. I spent my birthday there. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

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2) Kalaw trekking

What could be even better than Inle Lake? Trekking there from Kalaw of course. For me, this was the highlight of my time in Myanmar. The countryside is incredibly picturesque, the trek isn’t too challenging and you get to witness a way of life that is seemingly the same as it has always been. I’ve done quite a few treks in South East Asia. This was my favourite one. Read more about it here.

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1) Shwedagon Pagoda

If any one place could be called the cultural and spiritual centre of Myanmar, it’s Shwedagon. This enormous golden pagoda is located in the heart of Yangon and attracts pilgrims and visitors from all over the country. The best time to visit is late afternoon for two reasons. Firstly, you have to go barefooted. If you do this in the middle of the day, you will burn your feet pretty badly. Secondly, at dusk (around 6:20 on the day we went there) the lights are switched on and the pagoda appears to change colour. The effect is absolutely spectacular. It’s one of the most impressive religious buildings I’ve ever been to.

 

 

Categories: 10 things to do in Myanmar, Asia, Myanmar, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Climbing Mount Rinjani

When I was a young boy my parents always used to take my siblings and I walking. Every bank holiday weekend, when our classmates were going to the seaside or to a theme park, we were tramping up and down the hills of the Lake District or Snowdonia. Needless to say, at the time we hated it. However, over the years, this fostered a love of the great outdoors that still persists to this day. By the time I was fifteen, I’d climbed all the three peaks of Britain. However, until last year, my love for walking had gone cold for a long time. That was until I climbed Mount Kinabalu and it completely reawakened my enthusiasm. New challenges needed to be sought. A colleague suggested Indonesia’s Mount Rinjani, reputedly even more spectacular than Kinabalu. In no time at all, flights were booked and a reservation was made. We were going trekking up an active volcano!

Situated on the island of Lombok, Rinjani is Indonesia’s second highest volcano, no mean feat in a country that has over a hundred of them. The summit of the volcano stands at 3726 metres. However, the main reason for Rinjani’s popularity is not the summit, but a spectacular crater lake, with the volcano’s new cone rising out of the centre. There are a plethora of trekking options available, ranging from one day to four days. We booked a three day, two night trek, which gives the option whether to go the summit or not.

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On day one, our trek began from the village of Senaru. The first section of the trek was through the jungle and was actually very comfortable. The heat wasn’t too stifling and the gradient was only slight, a far cry from the steep steps of Kinabalu. After around three hours we stopped for lunch and we saw the first negative aspect of Rinjani. The picnic area was covered in rubbish. Furthermore, the lunch that the porters cooked for us, although delicious, was far more than we could possibly eat. This meant that large quantities were wasted. As trekking up Rinjani becomes more popular, the companies are going to have to try to manage their environmental impact much more carefully.

After lunch, the walk became more challenging. Once we cleared the tree line, we emerged into savannah style terrain. Here the topsoil was almost non-existent, making maintaining our footing extremely difficult. The dust that this created stung our eyes, throats and nostrils. I resorted to drastic measures and wrapped my sweat towel around my face to combat it! Finally, after about seven hours of walking, we arrived at our campsite overlooking the crater rim. The second part of the trek had been arduous and the night time temperatures were freezing. However, the views of the lake, the stars, and Bali’s Mount Agung in the distance, made all the effort worthwhile.

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On day two we had the option of getting up very early and heading for the summit, or a trek down into the crater to swim in the lake, and visit the hot springs. Having been to the summit of South East Asia’s highest mountain a couple of months earlier, we had nothing to prove to ourselves and decided to have a few hours rest in the tent. On reflection, the walk to the summit probably wasn’t much harder than what we did. The crater is deceptively deep and it took us nearly three hours, down a steep winding path to reach the shore. Swimming in the lake was adequate reward, the hot springs much less so. Like the picnic area the previous day, they were absolutely filthy with food waste and even used toilet paper. It was a shame to see such a bucolic spot so tarnished. The trek back up to the crater rim was done in the height of the midday sun and took just as long. When we finally got there we wished we’d gone to the summit! Day two didn’t finish there either. Due to our desire to get to the Gili Islands the next day, we descended to Camp 3, just below the tree line. The dustbowl was even more precarious on the way down as our shoes had no traction at all. I took one very heavy fall, and awarded myself a large number of man points for bouncing straight back up!073093

Our final day began with a 5am wake up call. Following a delicious breakfast (the quantities were too large but the quality of the food on the mountain was consistently excellent) we embarked on a fairly straightforward three and a half hour trek to the bottom. Another three hours later, we were recuperating on the stunning Gili Islands, another of Lombok’s crown jewels.

The trek was challenging, but not as brutal as Kinabalu. The scenery, particularly the crater lake, was absolutely breathtaking. The only downside was the aforementioned litter problems. If you can get over this, I’d recommend Rinjani to any walking enthusiast. As for us, we’re taking a little break from climbing mountains for a while!

TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our trek through a company called Andreas Expedition. They were friendly and well organised throughout the booking process. However, we were not very impressed with our guide. Unlike the wonderful Diona on Mount Kinabalu, he was very impatient with Janey for her lack of speed, which clouded our opinion of him and the company somewhat.

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, Mount Rinjani | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Climbing Mount Kinabalu

Mount Kinabalu is the highest mountain in South East Asia. Standing at an impressive height of 4,095 metres it towers over the rest of Borneo. Ever since I arrived in Malaysia last September, I’d wanted to climb it. Why? I don’t know. Because it’s there I guess. I’m not really much of a mountaineer. Prior to climbing Kinabalu the highest mountain that I had climbed was Ben Nevis which is a molehill in comparison, at just 1,344 metres. There was something about Kinabalu that really made me want to take on the challenge though. Therefore, in May this year, Janey and I headed to Sabah, with the intention of ascending the great peak.

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On the first morning of our two day trek, we departed from the Timpohon gate, at 9:30am. Part of what makes Kinabalu unique is that for the first day of the climb you can’t actually see the peak of the mountain, as you’re trekking through fairly dense jungle. We’d been warned to expect sweltering heat and to sweat profusely. This didn’t really transpire as the temperatures were pleasantly mild. Nor did the steep steps seem too sapping. I naively congratulated myself for the many hours spent on the cross trainer and stairmaster in preparation for the trek. This wasn’t going to be that difficult after all! However, at about the 2.5km mark we started encountering people who were gingerly making their way down the mountain. One girl told me that she was so exhausted that her legs were shaking. Maybe that confidence was slightly misplaced.

Rain has a habit of following Janey and I around. Maybe it’s because I’m from Manchester. Just after we’d stopped for lunch, it decided to make its customary appearance. This wasn’t the warm tropical rain that we’re used to in Penang. This was ice cold, torrential and it meant business. We tried to take shelter for a while but as it showed no signs of abating we ventured out for what would be the toughest part of the trek. Between 4.5 and 6 km the trail maintains its steep upward gradient. Just to make it more difficult though the steps disappear and the walkers have to navigate their way over or around some very larger boulders. The added challenge of the torrential rain made it akin to walking up a waterfall. Finally though, the tree line cleared and Laban Rata, our home for the night, appeared like a beautiful beacon of light. Soaked and miserable, we staggered into the hostel. There was only another 2.5km to go in the morning, with the prospect of more rain to come.

At first you can’t believe it. Is my alarm clock really going off at 1:30am? Then it dawns on you, it’s time to get up and attempt to summit. After trying to force down some beans on toast (seriously difficult at 2:00am) we departed Laban Rata and started our ascent to the summit. The most difficult aspect of this part of the climb is not the darkness, but the volume of climbers. Around 150 people all leave at the same time, which makes progress painstakingly slow. Eventually though, the stronger hikers get to the front and the line starts to spread out, and you can relax a little bit. Until you reach the rope. This is definitely the most dangerous point of the trek. We had to tightly grip onto a rope to enable us to inch along a very narrow ledge, with a sheer drop to the right. This torturous ordeal lasts for about fifteen minutes until you reach the final checkpoint. After that the rope continues but only as a marker to guide you across a long ridge. Strangely, for me, this was one of the easiest parts of the climb. Gone were the steps and boulders. We were just walking across smooth granite at a slight gradient. The challenge though is mental. In the approaching light, the summit is visible for a very long time before you get there, cruelly playing tricks on tired minds.

After what seemed like an eternity the ridge levelled out and we only had to scramble up a rocky crag to reach the ironically named Low’s Peak, the highest point in South East Asia. The sense of elation was overwhelming. I had done the Inca Trail some years earlier, but Kinabalu was easily the toughest physical challenge I’d ever undertaken. For that reason it’s also one of my proudest achievements.

Triumph!

Once you have finished revelling in the magnificent views, it’s time to go down. And believe me, this is just as tough as the ascent, even with a stop for second breakfast (definitely the best meal of the day) at Laban Rata. Janey, who had performed heroically up to this point given the fact that she had twisted her ankle a month beforehand, started to suffer from exhaustion. This made the descent very slow. Throughout this section, we were indebted to our wonderful guide Doina for her seemingly endless patience and indefatigability. Finally, we dragged our battered bodies back through the Timpohon gate at around 4:45pm. The whole trek had taken about 16 hours from start to finish. Was it worth the agony and several subsequent days of muscle pain? Of course it was. Every single bit of it.

 

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TRAVEL TIPS

We booked our 2 day, 1 night package through a company called Sutera, who seem to have a monopoly on climbing packages and accommodation. Expect to pay about 1000RM. This seems pricey, but it includes 7 meals, 2 nights accommodation and all climbing insurance etc. Ss the official Mount Kinabalu website http://www.mountkinabalu.com/ for details.

 

 

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