Okay, Odyssey fans… this is it, the television show documenting my travels is being shown every TUESDAY at on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel, which is available in 40 countries across Asia and South America. If you can get it, great. If you can’t, you’re stuck with my YouTube videos until it gets broadcast on the BBC (fingers crossed) early next year!!
The eight episodes of season one cover the first 133 countries of The Odyssey Expedition – my journey from Uruguay to Egypt, starting on 1st January 2009 and finishing on 31st December 2009.
1. From Argentina to Guyana
2. Caribbean Castaway
3. From Cuba to Tunisia
4. Arrested In Africa
5. African Rough Road
6. Congo Chaos
7. Africa Island Hop
8. Pyramids Or Bust
As for the final 67 countries… (including Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea) Lonely Planet TV have just bagged first refusal on the second series… WATCH THIS SPACE!!!
So I wound up stuck in Dubai for four weeks. Tons of stuff happened, but not much of it relevant to the ongoing quest that is The Odyssey. I’ll divulge the whole sordid affair once I have more battery power on my laptop.
Here’s what you need to know:
It took two weeks to get a visa for India and then shipping myself off to the Sub-Continent proved amazingly difficult.
I was helped (immensely) by the following people: Mr. Kashi Samadder, Damien (Damo!!), Fajer, Ben, Dan, Alena, Pamela, Sarah, Martin, Youhan and Barry from CMA-CGM.
Mandy, my beloved, came up with the goods in the end, securing me passage onboard a ship bound for Bombay via Karachi. Hurrah for the Mandster!!
Whilst in Dubai, I sailed around The World, won at Laser Quest, watched the World Cup final in the Barasti Soccer Dome, learned to play backgammon again, attended a 4th of July party dressed as a communist, watched myself on telly, got recognised off the telly by a guy standing next to me in the urinals who was dressed as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (eek!) and generally staggered about the place much in the manner of Barney from The Simpsons doing an impression of Keith Richards.
One sad piece of news for you, though – my kick-ass old laptop, Dell Boy, has finally gone to silicon heaven. His screen is cracked and he’s been shipped back to England for a formal burial. He’s been replaced by Sony Jim who seems a lot more delicate and has a nasty habit of ignoring the keys I press when writing stuff. Don’t know how long this guy is going to last out in the big bad world, but at least he’s got the processing power to play Psychonauts. Hurrah!
In the end it was Rickmers Group Shipping who came to my aid, they stuffed me on board the magnificent MV CMA-CGM Jade bound for Bombay via Karachi in Pakistan (two birds with one stone, so to speak). I’m eternally grateful to them and will be adding their name to my lists of helpers very soon.
Well it was another frustrating (but remarkably pleasant) week in Kochi spent contacting shipping firms, tour companies, even the head of the Sri Lanka tourist board in the UK, but it looks like hopping over the 15 miles from India to Sri Lanka is going to be more difficult than balancing an elephant on your head. While on a unicycle. In a hurricane.
The mad thing is that it will probably be easier to take a ship from Malaysia – 1000s of miles away. It’s like the only way you can get to France from the UK is via America. But I didn’t waste my time in Kerala, I made a lot of new friends (including three different people all called Anthony) and I got my story published in The Hindu newspaper.
On the Wednesday, me and my new chums Anthony, Anthony and Louise (all hailing from Manchester) got up bright and early to watch a family of Elephants getting a bath. This was 100% awesome.
I also got chatting with a guy named Joseph Sham who was tremendously excited to have me visit as part of my expedition. He treated me to dinner at the Tea Bungalow, lunch at the Brunton Boatyard Hall, a show at David Hall and a tour of Kochi with the newly named Odyssey Kochi Rickshaws. What a guy!!
I’m particularly impressed with how Kochi is restoring its heritage buildings. In Bombay I commented ‘where is Griff Rhys Jones when we need him?’, well, it appears he’s in Kochi painstakingly restoring these amazing old buildings – some Dutch, some Portuguese, some British, but all unmistakably Indian. David Hall (400 years old, still using it’s original Jewish name) has been turned into a wonderful art and exhibition centre – just two years ago it was just about ready to collapse.
It warms my heart that the daft Modernist mantra ‘new for the sake of new’ is slowly but surely being put to death – and a trip around the brand-new, but old fashioned, Brunton Boatyard hotel just added more fuel to the fire I’m helping to raise – light-years away from your awful Marriots, your soulless Hiltons and your more-depressing-than-Radiohead-on-a-rainy-day Holiday Inns: boutique hotels are growing in popularity all over the world – and even though I never stay in hotels I can say quite frankly, thank —- for that.
As I said in my last blog, Kochi isn’t exactly a party town. Beer is delivered in tea-pots (ask for ‘special tea’) and everything closes at 11pm. The bored policemen then scoot around the town telling anyone they meet that it’s time for bed. No, it’s not a curfew, it’s… er… well, it’s a curfew. And while I wouldn’t want my favorite bit of India to turn into some kind of horrible party town, a late license in a nice quiet bar wouldn’t go amiss.
Joseph and my new friend Vipin (who tracked me down after reading about me in the Mumbai Mirror) did their level best to find me a passage to Sri Lanka, but it was sadly in vain and by Friday I realized that it was time to move on. Like The Seychelles, Sri Lanka and The Maldives will have to wait until the end of the Odyssey – I guess if I’m going to attempt the Seychelles from Malaysia then Sri Lanka and The Maldives are on the way.
If anyone is thinking of crewing a yacht from SE Asia or Australia to Europe early next year, give me a shout and you’ll have yourself a able-bodied shipmate with a nifty kanga hat who you don’t even need to pay.
So the new plan is to high-tail it towards Nepal, hitting Bangladesh and Bhutan on the way. There’s no other way across to China (the border with Pakistan is impassible, the border with India is closed, and I can’t escape through the ‘back door’ into Burma – it’s mined!) so I’m going to have to do the run from Kathmandu to Lhasa and then take the Sky Train from Tibet down to Beijing. Easy!
On the Sunday it was the Kerala Harvest Festival and the place was nuts with people (India’s nuts with people at the best of times, but this was moreso) and it made me observe something that I’ve never picked up on before, and obviously this doesn’t cover all 1.2 billion Indians, but I rarely see an Indian looking like they are having a good time. It’s like everything – even parties – are treated with po-faced seriousness. For a good example of this, check out an Indian’s wedding album – it’s hard to match the words ‘the happiest day of my life’ with an image of a glum groom and a bride with tears streaming down her face.
So I say to you, India – chill out, kick back and enjoy yourself a little! I loved the bus campaign started by the delightful (and let’s face it, hot) Ariane Sherine last year “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life” – when you consider that India has over a thousand deities ranging from elephant-headed boys, black goddess with human head necklaces to blue chaps with a flute and a penchant for cows – you might just see that the anxiety caused by that feeling that EVERYTHING YOU DO IS BEING WATCHED causes the average Joe.
In fact, doing even the simplest thing becomes incredibly difficult when you have someone hovering over your shoulder, doesn’t it? I much prefer Ms Sherine’s take on the matter. But this is India and never the twain etc., so getting transport out of Dodge was more tricky than it really needed to be, but I eventually found myself on a night bus heading to the town of Salem, halfway to Madras, (which has now been renamed Chennai but you won’t catch me ordering a Chicken Chennai in Rusholme). Moving on, I felt a little sad – I could have stayed in lovely little Fort Kochi for a long time, drinking Masala Chai in the Tea Pot Café, enjoying a bottle of Kingfisher in the XL bar, helping restore the cracking old buildings and attempting to outwit the fun police.
One can only hope that Kerala state is the future for India – after all it has the highest literacy level of anywhere in India (99%!) and the people there live, on average, TEN YEARS longer than their fellow Indians. Its defiant communist heritage (Kerala had the first – and possibly only – elected communist party back in 1967) probably didn’t help Kerala succeed in creating a Marxist utopia (because such a thing is impossible!) but what it did do was just as important – it got people into politics because they wanted to make the world a better place, not because they wanted to line their greasy pockets. I may not agree with their politics, but I certainly agree with their motives. If only I could say the same about the rest of India’s political elites…
Bright and early for the 27 hour train journey to Calcutta and it was indeed sweet to be back on a train again after the horror that is an Indian night bus. I had gone for Air Conditioned class this time, the ticket cost twice as much (something like a tenner) but even though it’s not hot enough at the moment to make AC class strictly necessary, the prospect of a working plug socket next to my seat/berth filled me with glee.
The train was, predictably, a monster: at least 35 carriages long, it stretched for over a kilometre. I made a bunch of friends onboard including a nice Indian kid named Sonu, who not only worked out why my mousepad wasn’t working (110v is not enough!) and was mad keen on helping me get to Bangladesh tomorrow. I could do with some local assistance, so it seemed like a good idea.
Now being a wily chap, I have no intention of jumping through all the hoops required to get a visa just to step foot in Bangladesh. And before you start piping up the old mantra of ‘you’re not really seeing these countries’, let me explain I’ve already been to Bangladesh and spent a few days in the capital, Dhaka. It was poo. Heart-breakingly impoverished, hideously polluted and someone tried to snatch my bag – although the long distance buses were a billion times better than any you’d find in India, Nepal or Pakistan. However, let’s face it, Bangladesh is not high on anyone’s list of tourist destinations so you and I are not going to miss much by giving it a cursory hop, skip and a jump.
The train journey took me up alongside the Bay of Bengal, but unfortunately I never got a glimpse of the Indian Ocean from the window (or hanging out of the open door). I had done this journey in reverse eight years ago, only that time, Maoist rebels blew up a train station further down the line, so the one day journey became a three day journey. Thankfully, there were no such hi-jinks on this trip and by lights-out we were bang on schedule to arrive in Calcutta tomorrow morning.
And so the train pulled into Calcutta’s Howrah train station around 11am. The plan was to head to the border with Bangladesh, do a quick border hop and then come back in time for tea and a train up towards Bhutan and Nepal.
However, my first problem was that (after queuing up a five different booths) the guy in the ticket office told me that the late train that left at 11pm was full. I would find out later this was a lie, but never mind, I’m getting used to it now. Therefore the only option was the Darjeeling Mail train which left at 7.35pm. This meant my trip to Bangladesh was going to be a bit of a race to say the least.
Sonu accompanied me across the Hooghly River that runs through Calcutta and together we went to investigate options for taking the bus to the border. It took us a good two hours just to get to the bus ‘station’, and when we arrived, I was informed that all the buses for today had left, and that even if they hadn’t, I couldn’t get on board as the buses went all the way to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and passengers weren’t allowed to get off early.
I don’t quite know why India feels it must be so infuriating, but somewhere along the line somebody must have mooted it as ‘a good idea’.
So Bangladesh was a no, then. In any case, I might not have got over the border, considering how much India’s security has been ramped up in the wake of the Mumbai Massacre. The last time I was at the western border of Bangladesh, I could have just walked straight through and nobody would have noticed.
So Sonu and I grabbed some lunch and Sonu invited me back to his house so I could scrub up and go and see his local church. The journey to his on a local train was so typically Indian it almost seemed farcical – far too many people squeezed into a carriage that hadn’t been cleaned since… well, ever. And that’s something that blows my mind about India, the relationship with dirt. I’m not one for living in a sterile bubble, but this place is the equivalent of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool only times 1.2 billion. Everything – from the streets to the buildings to the trains to the temples – must must must be grubby as hell. But the weird thing is how everything is meticulously ordered, like a freak who hoards his rubbish in his living room, but sorts it into neat piles first.
Sweeping up in India requires you to push the dirt somewhere else, the concept of litter bins are as alien here as being a vegan is to an Argentinean. The mounds of rubbish, rubbish everywhere and the public health menace they pose would make anywhere else rise up and incarcerate the powers that be, but not in India. Like Ethiopia, the concept of germ theory is an undiscovered country, if you get ill well you mutter something about it being the will of the god(s) and quietly die without complaint – after all, you’re going to get reincarnated… right?
One thing I just can’t fathom about the concept of reincarnation is this: what’s the point? In Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons could download their memories – and consciousness – to a new identical body whenever they died. That seems perfectly sensible (within the realms of science fiction) and I don’t see why not. But to be downloaded into a completely new body (or even one of a completely separate species) but not retain your consciousness nor indeed any memories whatsoever seems, well, a little pointless does it not?
What exactly is being downloaded? And what lessons can be learnt, given you don’t remember anything from your previous life?
Anyways, I’m going off-topic a little here, but after grabbing a quick shower and sending a couple of emails at Sonu’s gaff, he drove me back to Calcutta. Unfortunately for me, his ludicrously optimistic view that he could get back to the city in 45 minutes was exactly that – ludicrously optimistic. Even twice that time would be gilding the lily somewhat. Try three hours, that would be a safer bet.
Needless to say, I missed my train.
As I had bought an ‘emergency’ ticket (at a 200rupee markup) my ticket was completely non-refundable. My discontent at this situation wasn’t helped by Sonu’s reckless driving – when there is a heady mixture of cars, rickshaws, cyclists, pedestrians, potholes, trucks, buses and cows vying for space one would tend not to drive like Toad of Toad Hall – doubly so when there are no streetlights. But Sonu’s over-optimistic appraisal of the time situation also translated into an over-optimistic sentiment that God was protecting his car and therefore it was impossible for him to crash.
I did point out that as a (rather militant) atheist, that if he did actually exist, this God fella has probably got it in for me, and that would seem to be the case as after a hair-raising two hours, Sonu managed to drop me at the wrong train station. Thankfully, a guardian angel called George came to my rescue. He worked for the trains and was on his way home when I ran into him running with all my bags along an unlit railway line. “You’re at the wrong station”, he told me – “but don’t worry I’ll get you on the later train”.
“I was told it was sold out”.
“They always say that. Come with me.”
So George and I hopped in a taxi and sped over to the correct train station. It took the best part of an hour to get there, but when we did, he sorted me out with a ticket on the 22.35 up to Siliguri in the north of West Bengal – not far from the borders of Bangladesh and Bhutan. The possibly of ticking off two countries in one day was a particularly sweet idea at this time.
With a hour or so to kill before I got on the train, I said my hearty thank-yous to George and bought myself a copy of Newsweek, very interested to read their list of the best 100 countries in the world and see how much it tallied with mine.
As they didn’t include rock n’ roll, lemurs or ladyboys in their criteria of what made a country ‘best’, the list was somewhat different from my League of Nations – with their top three nations being Finland, Switzerland and Luxembourg – three of the most boring places on Earth. India is a lot of things, and I could go on all night about how nuts it is, but at the end of the day, at least it’s never dull – and that counts for a lot in my book, yes India – you’re that lousy friend that we can’t help forgive because they make us laugh, you’re the nasty spiteful Dr. House who we admire because he’s always frickin’ right and the vacuous blonde we tolerate because she’s got a cracking pair of norks.
My League is based on places that excite or surprise me – I guess that’s why the top ten includes the likes of Egypt, Bolivia, Thailand and Iran. Finland, Switzerland or Luxembourg – godbless’em – are all very sensible and nice, but sometimes you need a little madness just to keep things interesting.
Today started with a bit of a disaster when I awoke to find that my new laptop, Sony Jim, that I had cunningly placed between me and the wall the night before, was a lot more delicate than my old laptop, Dell Boy. The screen had cracked in the night (I must have rolled over against it). This was not a good start to the day and I was determined to not let it overshadow the rest of today’s shenanigans. I had two – maybe three – countries to reach before the end of the day and a cracked laptop screen was the least of my worries – I had no visa for any of the countries I wished to visit.
The train pulled into New Jalpaguri station in Northern West Bengal at 8am. After throwing my bag into the station cloakroom and a bit of negotiation, I managed to score a taxi to the Bangladeshi border at Chengrabandha. It’s not that far away – perhaps thirty-five miles – but This Is India, so the trip took over SIX HOURS. No, really.
The road to Bangladesh was the worst I’ve experienced in India so far, and was so chock-a-block full of gaily painted trucks there was no chance of escape. And by ‘gaily’ I mean it in all senses of the word – happy, homosexual, a bit naff. Come to think of it, India has to be the gayest country this side of Saudi Arabia (which is by far the gayest country in the world). Funnily enough, being gay was illegal here until very recently, but let’s look at the evidence:
1) You often see men holding hands but never men and women holding hands.
2) Have you watched a Bollywood film? They’re all musicals! With song and dance routines! The only people who like musicals are a) middle-aged women b) gay men. There have been over 64,000 Bollywood films made since the thirties. And all but three of them have been musicals.
3) The brightly coloured floral designs adorning each and every truck and look like something from a Gay Pride parade.
4) LOTS of men have moustaches. Which are gay.
5) Everyone is gay or NOTHING MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL.
A-hem. So, er… yeah, Bangladesh. Eventually my driver took me on the back road to the border and after a quick natter with the Indian border guards they let me go and have a chat with the Bangladeshi border guard who was literally three metres away – no big fence, gates, barbed wire etc. here – in fact the only thing that gave away that I was now in another country was the flag and the large ‘welcome to Bangladesh’ sign.
So I got to cross the border, touch Bangladesh soil and ask if I could take a photo (my request was denied). Ack! But the GPS showed I had crossed the border so at this point (and over 600 days on the road) I’m beyond caring. After a good five minutes of jumping up and down going ‘whoop whoop whoop’ I came back to India and got back in the taxi.
“Back to NJP (New Jalpaguri) sir?”
“Nope. Let’s go to Bhutan.”
“We won’t make it before dark. The roads are very bad”
“It took us six hours to get here. Whatever happens, it will be quicker to go to Bhutan.”
After a bit of haggling, my driver relented and off I jolly well popped. Again, the border was around 30 miles away, but it still took us three hours to get there. The roads were indeed, very bad.
But the Indian countryside was magnificent. So so green and yes there were ladies in saris picking leaves from tea bushes; paddy fields and cotton plantations: the rural idyll Indian-style. Farms and farmers, villages and villagers, I guess what hacks would call the ‘real’ India. Luckily for you, I’m not a hack so I won’t go down that road, but let’s just say that although the rural poor are the poorest of the poor, there was a measure of contentment that I found lacking in the big cities round these parts. Isn’t that always the way?
Oh, I almost forgot – Bhutan – yeah, file it under the same heading as Sao Tome, Comoros, Djibouti and Kiribati – under “countries you didn’t even know existed.” It’s a tiny, secretive kingdom in the Himalayas that has (successfully) shunned modernity for a long, long time. I think they only got televisions a few weeks ago. Lucky them – imagine wondering all your life what it would be like to own a television set, you finally get one and the only thing to watch is ‘India’s Got Talent’. Urk. Unlike Bangladesh, I would quite like to visit Bhutan, go for a tour, that kind of thing. However, in this trip it’s just going to be a border hop I’m afraid, but for a very different reason than my Bangladesh innie/outie – like St. Petersburg, Samarkand and San Francisco, there are places that I don’t want to ‘do’ just yet and I certainly don’t want to ‘do’ them alone.
I need someone to nudge and say “wow – look at that!” Yeah – sad but true.
So it was getting dark as I hit the Bhutanese border. There was no Indian ‘side’, just a big Chinese-like gate announcing ‘Welcome to Bhutan!’ Fantastic! I walked up to the gate, chatted with the border guard (a kid dressed in jeans and a t-shirt), showed him the article about me from The Hindu and he smiled, nodded and let me through!
Unbelievable! It was so so easy!
So I found the first sign I could find that said ‘Bhutan’ and filmed as much as I could on the other side, ensured my GPS was getting a good signal and after about five minutes headed back.
Then I got into trouble.
The guard on the way back was wearing a uniform and he wasn’t happy about my little bit of international subterfuge. I tried to explain, but he didn’t speak much English. Luckily, at that very moment the kid in jeans came through to the Bhutanese side of the gate.
“He told me I could!” I said, much in the manner of a schoolkid ratting on his mate. The kid in jeans smiled, explained something in Bhutanese to the uniformed chap, and then it was all smiles and handshakes and don’t do it agains.
But by then it didn’t matter. I had done it. Two nations knocked off the list in one day; 165 down, only 35 more countries to go – and I’d be hitting nation 166 tomorrow morning. I walked triumphant back into India.
The taxi ride back to NJP was just as terrifying as the night before with Sonu, but with the added terror of the monsoon rains belting down so hard I’m amazed we weren’t washed away. It was around ten o’clock by the time we got back. I paid my long-suffering (and, hell with it, long complaining) driver, checked into a hotel and crashed out for the night.
For the first time in a long time I felt as if I was moving again.
Duff information can be a real pain in this line of work, but it’s hard to know who you can trust. Yesterday’s taxi driver was right about getting to the borders of Bangladesh and Bhutan, so when he told me that buses left from the Nepalese border for Kathmandu in the morning and would arrive in the evening, I saw no reason to doubt it.
I wasn’t too happy with having to drag my arse out of bed at 6am, but, well – if I meant I could get to Kathmandu before midnight, I was game. I grabbed by backpack out of the NJP station cloakroom and jumped onto the first shared taxi jeep to the border. We got there so quickly it didn’t even occur to me that I might have to go back a kilometre to get my passport stamped out of India.
My last little piece of Indian bureaucracy, and what a way to sum it all up. I’m already out of India (the jeep didn’t stop!), but for the sake of godknowswhat I head back to the Indian immigration post. I was the ONLY person there. It still took an HOUR to get the stamp out. Not only did the stamp nazi go through every word of my (two) exit forms – he went through every letter.
Oh, bugger! You caught me! I was illegally sneaking out of India using a fake British Passport and a fake Indian Visa in order to go to Nepal and sell all of India’s nuclear secrets to the highest bidder. AND I WOULD HAVE GOT AWAY WITH IT TOO if it wasn’t for you pesky kids – LUCKY you spotted the spelling mistake on the part of the form in which you enquired about my maternal grandfather’s middle name WHICH GAVE THE GAME AWAY.
You wily little f——.
So (marvellously enough) they stamped me out after making me wait for an hour and I headed back to the Nepalese side of the border.
India, my friend, I’m sure you’ll always draw me back, there is something magical about you that none of the blaring car horns, vociferous rickshaw wallahs, malodorous drains or screeching Hindi musak can drown out. For a country whose fortunes were built on the West’s insatiable appetite for condiments and tea, I guess it makes sense that you should take India with a pinch of – let’s say – spice; and once you learn to laugh at the unfathomableness of it all, it could be your new best mate too. Goodbye, I’ll see you soon.
And so to Nepal…
I’ve always had a soft spot for Nepal. It’s hard to put my finger on what it is about the place I like so much, but I’m sure it will come to me very soon. My prejudices that I would continue to like Nepal were very much confirmed when, having cheerfully PURCHASED MY VISA ON THE BORDER (FANCY THAT – the ONLY country between North Iraq and South Korea where that is possible) I was recognised off the telly by a chap called Dawshan.
“National Geographic Adventure!” he shouted, before welcoming me to his country with a hearty handshake and the offer of a cup of tea. Don’t mind if I do old chap. I jumped on the back of Dawshan’s motorbike and we headed off to his family’s hotel.
I soon found out that my taxi driver was making stuff up about a bus leaving every hour of the morning for Kathmandu…. They don’t leave until the afternoon, and they are all overnighters – something I wanted to avoid, especially given the difficult conditions presented by the monsoon rains. Never mind, it gave me the opportunity to hang out with Dawshan for the day.
“This is so weird… I had a vision that I’d meet you” he told me over breakfast, “I knew you would be going to every country and if you were going to Bangladesh and Bhutan you’d be coming into Nepal this way.” I explained to Dawshan that I’d be trying to get to China via Tibet from Kathmandu – I figured it would take a fortnight to get the Chinese visa, Tibet pass and train ticket. In fact, a tour company in Tibet had quoted me a whopping $2,500 just to get from the Chinese border to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
“That can’t be right” said Dawshan and while I had a go at riding his mate’s brand new Royal Enfield motorbike (I haven’t ridden a bike since I was a wee nipper, with Dawshan’s mate on the back and the streets all but flooded, it was wonderfully terrifying) Dawshan got on the phone and organised my trip all the way from Kathmandu to Beijing LEAVING NEXT TUESDAY.
I couldn’t believe my luck.
Thank you Dawshan, you excellent excellent chap you!
Dawshan also organised my bus ticket to Kathmandu, my Nepalese SIM card and the tastiest samosas I have ever (and possibly will ever) eat.
It was at this point that I remembered why I like Nepal so much – it’s like India, but ten times easier.
At five o’clock I was on the bus and hurtling towards the capital at a great rate of knots. That was until we came to a bridge that looked like it was about to fall through as a result of last night’s floods. You would think that the notion of a bridge collapsing would ward everyone off the bridge, but conversely it attracted rubberneckers and slack-jawed lollygaggers from all over the place to congregate on the very bridge. We would have to take a detour that would add an hour onto the journey time.
Well, we would have if our driver wasn’t a gung-ho maniac and COLLAPSING BRIDGE BE DAMNED he looked like he was going to go for it. Myself and my fellow passengers had about thirty seconds to exit the bus before he floored it and shot across the bridge – the one with the cracks and the big hole in the middle. Thankfully, the bridge stayed up. We all had to run to get back on the bus, this driver had ants in his pants – we all boarded it (yes and that includes the old ladies) while it was moving – once we were all on board (perhaps) we thundered off into the night.
I found out the next day that later on the bridge did indeed collapse.
By 11am we had arrived in Kathmandu. The bus ride had tested my X-Men power to the extreme (that power with which I can sleep anyplace, anywhere, anytime) but I had still managed a decent amount of shut-eye and was raring to go. Dawshan had arranged for me to be picked up by the hotel I was staying with – by the brother of the owner, no less. But on arrival at the Khangsar Guest House, I met up with the owner himself, Raj. But, alas, he had bad news – because my bus was late getting in, he doubted if I could get the Chinese visa I needed quick enough to get on the tour for Tuesday.
But Raj wasn’t giving up hope just yet. After a few phone calls, he asked for my passport and said he’d see what he can do. It was going to be expensive, but in a country where money trumps bureaucracy, anything is possible. Raj and I chatted about my travels and what I had learnt on the road and he treated me to lunch. By early afternoon the signs were good – Raj gave me a 80% probability that I’d be leaving for Tibet on Tuesday (the next tour wouldn’t be for a week).
My only worry was the fact that I have a Chinese visa in my other passport (I need to leave and re-enter the country for Mongolia and Korea), which is currently winging its way to Shanghai, and that a bit of cross-checking could result in a headache.
I headed out to reacquaint myself with Kathmandu, returning at 6pm to meet with Raj and the Danish ladies to watch some Salsa dancing (Yup! Got a problem with that?!) at Raj’s new restaurant-bar called the Tantra. As in Sting having sex. Actually best not think about that, especially if you’ve just eaten. I had a cracking meal and afterwards headed out to see my old haunt, The Tom and Jerry pub, to see if my signature was still on the wall from 2002.
Sadly, the place had been painted over since then. The owner, Tom (funnily enough) told me that it had to be done – it was all getting too much – but they did keep the signed T-shirts that expedition-types like myself had put up on the wall. As thousands of people have climbed Everest, but so far NOBODY has visited every country in the world without flying, I felt my expedition deserved a place on the wall – so if you’re ever in Tom and Jerry’s in Kathmandu, look out for this historical relic:
Met some people, drank a little too much Everest beer, ended up going to Platinum, but to be honest I remember very little. I blame the altitude. Don’t look at me like that! This time last week I was in Kerala by the sea!
The next day I had some errands to run. First up – see if I could fix Javier, my damn camcorder – the screen of which hasn’t been working probably since I attempted to sail around the world with Fajer on the fourth of July. Kamal, the nice guy in the camera shop on JP School Road said he could fix it for fifty quid, which is what I’d pay in the UK for someone to look at it, so I said yes. This was turning into an expensive weekend. I also looked for somewhere that could fix Sony Jim, my laptop YES I SPEND A LOT OF TIME ON MY OWN SO I ANTHROPOMORPHISE MY THINGS STOP PULLING THAT FACE but it looked like I’d be better off getting it sorted in Beijing.
I then met Cirrus, the most awesome tailor in the whole of Nepal, who agreed to fix my shoulder bag, make me a new slip for my laptop, embroider The Odyssey logo onto a polo shirt (something I should have done ages ago) and supply me with badges of the flags of pretty much every country in the world (I wrote the list out from memory). Those badges that they didn’t have they would make for me. Hell yeah!
Another night in Tom and Jerry’s, but one that was spent pretty much all on the phone to my mum in a vain attempt to get a video file I needed emailed over to me. You know people bitch about the way that Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boarman have this huge logistical team helping them out, but I can’t help but envy them. Later I returned to Platinum only for the place to be raided by the fun police about five minutes later. I have no intention of spending another minute in a foreign police station I DON’T CARE IF IT MAKES GOOD TELEVISION so I made like a tree and got out of there.
The riot van waiting outside informed me that I had made a good choice.
On Monday, it was all about getting my camera back (Fixed! Woo!) and taking it on a walking tour of Kathmandu. It’s really quite amazing the way that statues carved over a millennia ago, which in any other country would be in a museum, are to be found on the streets of Nepal being used as a child’s plaything or as something to tie the washing line to – but it makes the whole place a living museum – and one that has many Easter Eggs to find!
One thing that’s been a bit -urk- during my stay here has been the fact that the bin men are on strike. The rubbish is piling up on the streets in a way that not even India would stomach (well, maybe it would, who knows) and the stench is quite unbearable. But that’s just one black mark against an otherwise perfect scoresheet for old Nepal. I like this place, I really like it a lot.
That night I headed over to Cirrus’s tailor shop (it’s just to the right of the stairs leading to Tom and Jerry’s, by the way) and picked up my personalised polo shirt, laptop slip and badges, badges, badges (haven’t decided what I’m going to do with them all yet!). One thing I had to get done was to transfer all my camcorder tapes to my hard-drives before I attempted to enter Tibet – I have a feeling that the Chinese authorities are not going to be too pleased to see them. Unfortunately, my battery charger had blown (my fault – didn’t switch it back to 240v after using it on 110v setting on the train) and I didn’t have the battery life to do it. I would be taking one hell of a risk trying to get these tapes into Tibet – they could easily be confiscated – and if the Chinese decide I look like a journalist, they can always turn me back at the border. But by now it was too late – I was leaving for Tibet at 6am.
Planning a trip to every country in the world? Worried about what you should and shouldn’t pack? My advice? TRAVEL LIGHT! It’s best to have too little and purchase stuff on the way than to have too much stuff and have to carry things that you never use for the best part of a year.
Here’s A Bunch of Stuff You Can Leave At Home:
1. A Towel
Don’t do it. PLEASE! DON’T TAKE A TOWEL. Despite what The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide tells you, you DON’T need it. You’ll dry yourself with it in the morning then stuff it in your bag (soaking wet) and get on the bus/train/whatever and it will STINK. It will also double the weight of your bag. FORGET IT. Ask at the hostel you are staying at, they’ll give you a nice clean dry one for like 5p. Failing that, use your bedsheets. Or if you’re really desperate, your t-shirt. Then put it on.
2. Extra Shoes
You need ONE pair of shoes. Comfortable, light, trainer (sneaker) shoes. You are not going to be visiting any swanky restaurants or attending any film premieres in Bolivia, so LEAVE YOUR GOOD SHOES AT HOME. They will weigh you down, dig into your back and you will wear them once. Maybe.
3. Travellers Cheques
Utterly utterly useless. Just give American Express twenty quid for no reason and then spend the night in a bus-shelter. Nobody will swap the little blighters, and on the few occasions that they do, you get walloped for commission when you buy them AND when you use them. Avoid like the plague. Take some emergency US dollars instead and hide them in your shoe or something.
4. Rough Guide
Impenetrable, counter intuitive and the thinnest bloody paper in the world make carrying a Rough Guide a frigging nightmare. Trying to suss out how much the local hostel costs in the middle of the night in the monsoon rain while touts are pulling at your arms, stray dogs are biting your ankles and all they give in the book are ‘codes’ which are explained on page 132 (instead of JUST SAYING HOW MUCH IT COSTS) will have you soon using the book for something more useful. Like wiping your bum.
5. Optical Camera
Alright, I know you want to take the photos you see in National Geographic, but please, for the sake of all that is holy, TAKE A DIGITAL CAMERA. Download your pics as often as you can and put them on facebook, flickr, shutterfly or something, because somewhere, at sometime you are almost guaranteed to LOSE your rolls of film and even if you don’t, they cost a fortune to develop.
6. Anything you cannot afford to lose
Seriously, if you want to take something precious around the world with you, make it your better half. Otherwise, LEAVE IT AT HOME. It’s not just the fact that you might lose it, it’s the fact that you will spend every moment of every day worrying about it.
7. Bar of Soap
The traveller’s worst enemy, next to malaria. It’s slippy, it’s slimy and there is never a good place for it in your bag. Take liquid soap instead, or just use your wet-wipes.
8. Beauty Products
While you’re travelling, you’ll look the worst you ever have in your life. But paradoxically, you’ll also look the coolest you ever have in your life. SO WHO NEEDS BEAUTY PRODUCTS?! If you need a bit of make-up, go to a big pharmacy and ask to ‘try out’ a few of the products. Works for me 😉
When you’ve quite finished being mad… IT WILL GET NICKED! DON’T TAKE IT, leave it AT HOME. I’m looking at YOU, girls.
10. Somebody who doesn’t really want to go
This is the biggest no-no there is. You will have a miserable time, any difficulties or problems will be amplified fifty-fold, the constant whinging and whining will make you consider stabbing orphans in the face just to make it stop, and you could end up destroying a great friendship. If none of your mates want to do it, don’t drag them along against their will, go on your own instead – you’ll have a much better time. Trust me, you’re never alone for long!!
Stuff I Never Travel Without:
If you’re going to be getting on and off a ton of planes, trains and automobiles, your combined luggage shouldn’t weigh more than 10kg. Seriously! If you need a new pair of trousers, buy them on the way. If you finish your book, swap it with somebody for something else. All the rest is needless baggage. Now go pack your…
1. Lonely Planet Anyone who claims that Rough Guide/Footprint/Time Out is better is a liar and a thief.
2. Sleeping Bag Even in hot countries, a sleeping bag can be a lifesaver on overnight buses where the AC is set to zero Kelvin.
3. Anti-Malaria Pills Malaria is one of the biggest killers in the world and one that should not be taken lightly – once you get it, you’ll have it for life. It’s no laughing matter, take your damn pills. Although Larium does make you go crazy. I use Doxycycline.
4. Wetwipes A total essential anywhere you go. Flushable wetwipes are the best.
5. Laptop Seriously, buy a small cheap laptop off eBay. You won’t know how you survived without it.
6. Debit and Credit cards The traveller’s best friend. So far I’ve only been to three countries (Liberia, Comoros and Iran) where I had a problem using my cards – not bad out of 175!!
7. A cheap (unlocked) mobile phone Eager and willing to have weird and wonderful foreign SIM cards slipped into it. You want one with a little torch in the top of it.
8. A decent camera/camcorder You don’t want to come home with fuzzy shots of the Taj Mahal now do you?
9. A hat Seriously.
10. Deodorant Shower in a can!
11. Enough undies/socks Critical.
12. iPod As much as I hate the cult of the dirty Mac, music is essential and Sony have wasted the last 9 years on a FAIL of biblical proportions, monumentally failing to come up with an alternative.
13. Compass watch Yeah I know it’s geeky but it’s great for sussing out what’s up and what’s down when you first arrive somewhere where the streets have no name. Like New York.
14. A Secret Money Pouch Preferably one that you stuff into your underwear – after a few days on the road, nobody’s going to search you there…!
15. A Deck of Cards And learn a couple of magic tricks while you’re at it 😉
Hope this helps… and… oh yeah: don’t forget your toothbrush…!
As I knew what I’d be like in the morning, I took a shower the night before because even though Kathmandu does offer hot showers (IN YOUR FACE, INDIA!) I decided it would be best to squeeze every last second out of sleeping as I could. I’m not a morning person. So up up bright and early (well not that bright, it was still dark, but it was early) and onto the minibus that would be taking me and a handful of fellow wayfarers over the border to the Forbidden Kingdom of Tibet.
Now as you know, I’m a bit of an independent traveller, but the Chinese government don’t take kindly to westerners mooching around Tibet without a chaperone. As a consequence and as there is simply NO OTHER WAY to get from India into China, I had to join a tour group. It would take us a week to get to and explore Lhasa, but I guess I might as well stop to smell the roses as I don’t have a choice and the guy waving the roses under my nose I need to keep sweet as I jump back and forth into Mongolia, Korea, Japan and Taiwan over the coming weeks.
My comrades on this journey were none other than politics graduates Tobin, Stuart and Sam, Sam’s girlfriend Nikki, a Dutch couple called Jerhan and Sarah, a guy from Nepal called Brukas and a woman from Thailand called Newe.
The journey to the border was one of typical Nepalese madness – potholes, crazy drivers, blind corners and perilous pitfalls, but we made it as far as we could before the gods of the mountains well and truly blocked our path with a kick-ass landslide which had taken out half a kilometre of road – and one that stopped just inches from some dude’s house. He must have been praying to the right gods that night.
So our bus stopped and we had to pick our way on foot across the hazardous terrain, getting our feet wet crossing two rivers on the way. We then took a couple of shared taxi jeeps the rest of the way to the frontier. The Nepalese side of the border was the usual – easy as hell – they didn’t even check our luggage. The Chinese side, though – eek! – if the guards standing sentry at the border gates wasn’t enough to put the willies up you, then the seventeen x-ray machines and small army of bag-checkers certainly were.
But were they interested in looking for guns, or drugs, or explosives? Nah – they were all on the hunt for something MUCH more dangerous – pictures of the 14th Dalai Lama. So much so that my comrades had to rifle through their Lonely Planet, ripping out references to any (and all) of the three ‘T’s – Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen. China in a way reminds me of a little girl who thinks that by shutting its eyes, sticking its fingers in it’s ears and going LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA it can drown out the sound of anything it doesn’t want to hear.
The sad thing is, China’s probably right. I mean, I’m too scared to upload this blog until I am well and truly out of this place – you know, just in case. And every other nation is terrified of incurring the wrath of the People’s Republic by inferring that, well, maybe China could work a little on making the place a People’s Republic (I guess the Autocratic Dictatorship of China just doesn’t have the same ring to it).
So I was the only one left with the Tibet chapter of my China Lonely Planet intact. This was because I had taken my cue from the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and downloaded the damn thing onto my damn iPod “the bad” Touch. Didn’t think of THAT now, did you, Lao Che?
One thing that I found quite disturbing as I crossed the border was the Everest expedition gang that was also crossing over at the same time. Healthy young men in their 20s and 30s, with octogenarian grandmothers ferrying their equipment (heavy blue barrels on their backs, held up by a strap worn across the forehead) over the border for them. Un-be-f—ing-lievable. What the hell were they thinking? I mean, it’s $25,000 just for the permit to attempt Everest, surely they weren’t short of a few readies to pay some local teenagers to help them? Or, you know, carry the damn stuff themselves? Lazy buggers.
Anyway, I said ta-ta to our Nepalese guide and said nee-how to our Tibetan guide on the other side. Her name was Doma and yes she was Tibetan. Her brother (whose name I never discovered) drove our minibus.
That night we stayed in the microscopically small town of Tingri, just over the border from Nepal. This is when I found out that most of the lads on the tour were politics students. Vive le Revolution, Agent Calavera! If there’s one thing Tibet’s got to talk about, it’s lots of politics.
Wednesday started early with us all bungling ourselves onto the minibus for a long drive – we were all suffering from altitude sickness so some degree, but some were worse than others. Newe, the nice Thai lady, was looking the worst out of us all and it was decided that today we would press on all the way to Shigatse, Tibet’s second city, as there was a hospital there if need be. Altitude sickness is rather unpleasant – your head feels like it’s going to split in two, your joints ache, you feel nauseous and sick.
It was all a bit too cloudy to see Everest as we raced by, but we did get out of the bus for the Gyatso-la Pass, at 5220 metres above sea level, you might just be able to guess why everyone was feeling a little dizzy – a week ago I was in Calcutta – pretty much at sea level. This was the highest I had been since this journey started back in January last year (as this trip does not involve aeroplanes!) and boy my head was letting me know it – the prayer flags strung out across the landscape looked like bunting from a 1970s street party. I liked it.
We covered another few passes before hitting Shigatse in the afternoon. We all went out for a bite to eat and were left up to our own devices until the following morning. Shigatse being a sleepy town there wasn’t much to do, but we ate dinner together and I stupidly drank beer which did nothing good for my hangover.
Thursday morning we headed out with our guide to the fabulous Tashilhunpo monastery – one that takes up half the mountainside. There we learn about the two Lamas – the Dalai Lama and the Penchen Lama. The Penchen Lama doesn’t get as much press as the Dalai – the latest one (number 11) is a teenager living in Beijing. But if he ever wants to come back to his temple in Shigatse, I’m sure the locals would be overjoyed to have him.
One thing we came across in the monastery complex (it’s like a small town) was a courtyard filled with monks debating, Tibetan style. This involves the teacher quizzing the younger monks about scripture and if they get the answer wrong the teacher rocks back on one leg, steps forward as if to throw a cricket ball and then SLAP! he claps his hands together like this:
It’s all very choreographed and all very cool.
That night was a little more interesting than the last, as we hit the karaoke bar and watched a string of (remarkably talented) local singers belting out Tibetan classics and receiving white silk scarves as a accolade depending on their popularity. One kid with a magna hairdo and shiny shoes got four scarves. He must have been the local Elvis. I have to say I did get a little jealous – where was my scarf? But I doubt they would have let me do my world famous Total Eclipse of the Heart in the style of Louis Armstrong anyway.
The next day we headed out to Gyanste, a slight detour from the road to Lhasa, but a welcome one. More authentically Tibetan than the Han-infused capital, it’s the home of the Pelkhor Chöde Monastery – notable for housing the biggest Stupa I’ve ever seen. A Stupa is a religious monument that you see in many Buddhist countries, they usually look like a marshmellow cake with big brother eyes painted at the top. Only this marshmellow was big enough to house 10,000 Images of Buddha. Crikey!
Tibetan Buddhism is deeply infused with influences from Hinduism, and nowhere was this more obvious than the many many statues and pictures depicting various ‘aspects’ of Buddha, ranging from the chilled out type familiar to us in the west to angry bad black mofo Buddha breathing fire and stomping his enemies into dust. Our tour guide kept calling this one ‘Buddha of Much More Powers’ but the parallels to the Hindu black goddess Cali were strikingly obvious – right down to the necklace of human skulls…!
On Saturday we finally rolled into Lhasa. A strikingly modern city, which was a little unexpected (although I was pre-warned), this is not some ramshackle Shangri-La in the mountains. Our hotel was amazing though and I would heartily recommend it to anyone – not only run by Tibetans, it was the most boutique boutique hotel I’ve ever stayed in – over 300 years old (mind your head!) the attention to detail was amazing.
The next day was the big one – the utterly stunning Potala Palace – the winter residence of the erstwhile Dalai Lama. Opulent but brimming with character, this massive edifice dominates the Lhasa skyline – 13 stories high, over 1000 rooms and once home to tens of thousands of monks, it’s just a list of superlatives followed by the word NICE in large friendly letters.
I tell you what though, one thing that may not sit well with your westernised view of Tibetan Buddhism (but something that is the damnation of all religion) is just how much gold, money and wealth these temples enjoy. The tombs of the previous Dalai Lamas (housed in the Potala Place itself) were only just short of the ostentatious dead wealth of King Tut – solid gold caskets as big as a house bedecked with fabulous jewels. Jeepers! And you’re telling me that religion – all religion – isn’t just about the readies? But Buddhism is all about improving yourself, right? Hmm, well if stuffing fivers into the cold indifferent hands of golden statues to bring yourself good fortune is improving yourself, then go for your life, mate!
Another thing that spun me out were the people around the temples doing their worshipping. Jeez, I thought Muslims made a meal of it! But in Tibet you see people launching themselves at the floor head first as though there’s a madman on a shooting spree across the street – resulting in massive whelks and bruising to the forehead. And, just to make things extra nonsensical, some of them are doing it for money. Weird, just weird.
Anyway, Lhasa was a sweet place – lovely people, lovely scenery and lots of stuff to see and do. And no, visiting Tibet does not ‘prop up’ the big meany Chinese government: trust me, the pennies they get from handing out visiting permits are buttons compared with how much they are earning from international trade. Going to Tibet primarily helps local Tibetans – it strengthens their culture, gives them money in their pockets and – best of all – makes it difficult for the Chinese to commit atrocities when there are thousands of tourists swanning about with camcorders (although having said that, I often think of a certain Super Furry Animals song when it comes to the Chinese government).
I’m not counting Tibet as a separate country on this journey. Sorry. I suppose I could do, but at the end of the day, unlike Palestine, Kosovo or Western Sahara, I can never see it becoming a real independent and sovereign nation – even the Dalai Lama has given up on that dream – he’s now resigned to requesting greater autonomy from the Chinese. Yeah I know it’s sad. But it could be worse… they could have been annexed by India. Sikkim, anyone?
Well with our tour of Tibet drawing to a close, Tobin and I jumped on the Tuesday morning skytrain to Beijing. For me this meant two nights on a ‘hard seat’ (exactly what it said on the tin) as the highest train in the world (and engineering masterpiece) snaked its way down from the rooftop of the world. Lots of card games and banter helped pass the time, but the fact that my computer (once again) went do-lally meant I couldn’t catch up with my blog and my pictures of Tibet on the hard-drive hung in the balance. I would just have to wait and see what the capital of China held in store when I arrived on Thursday morning…