Sunday, May 28, 2017

Kathmandu Nepal

Kyle and I spent 3 nights in Kathmandu prior to starting our trek on the Annapurna Circuit. It was a hectic two days of sightseeing and shopping for the last few items we would need for the trek. We stayed in Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. Everything in Thamel is walking distance and offers plenty to see and do, however it can be quite challenging to access the other parts of the city. Our hotel set us up with a driver so we wouldn't have to navigate the taxis and transit system on our first day in the country. It was expensive but well worth the cash as we were able to visit some of the major tourist attractions all in one day, and our driver would wait for as long as we needed.
Thamel: The Tourist District of Kathmandu. The place to go for souvenirs, international food and trekking equipment
Abi, our driver for the day
Our first stop was Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple. It is a large collection of small stupas (structures containing relics or remains of Buddhist monks or nuns that are a place of meditation) and shrines with the main attraction being a massive stupa that overlooks Kathmandu from the top of a large hill.
Monkey at the Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath)
The large stupa at Swayambhunath  
Hundreds of prayer flags
Jenny receiving a tikka, a Hindu blessing
Stupas and prayer flags
The view of Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley from Swayambhunath. The Himalayas are up in the clouds
Next, we drove to the ancient town of Patan, south of Kathmandu. We were dropped of at the Patan Durbar Square to explore. A Durbar Square is a plaza or palace area, which is why many towns have their own Durbar Square. We avoided the ticket booth and managed to wander in through one of the many other entrances before accidentally coming across the Golden Temple. A man toured us around and told us all about the celebrities that he has met when they came to visit Kathmandu. At this point we didn't have a good gauge on what people were like in Nepal. They all seemed friendly but we were wary that they were trying to rip us off or scam us in some way. We were hesitant to accept anyone's help or chat with them too long in case they were just trying to make a sale, as this is what we saw from people trying to sell us things when we were in Thailand. Nepali people are very friendly and curious about foreigners. It was difficult to tell whether they were genuinely interested in chatting with you and showing off their country or if they had financial motives. We got a bit more savvy as our trip went on, but it was definitely exhausting at the beginning.
Elephants guard the Golden Temple (a Buddhist Temple and Monastery in Patan, build in 1409)
By the time we reached Pashupatinath, a sacred Hindu Temple, we were starving. We could only find one restaurant so sat down to a large Nepali-style meal of daal bhat (lentils and rice), not really realizing that this would be our staple meal in the day of trekking to come. Feeling much better with full bellies, we set out to explore the temple area. Untouchables (low-caste and non-Hindus) are not allowed in the actual temple, however we were able to walk through the many gardens and smaller temple areas. Pashupatinath is the site of many cremations and the ashes of the dead are placed in the holy Bagmati River that runs through the temple grounds. The river looked very polluted and dirty.
Cremations on the edge of the Holy Bagmati River at Pashupatinath
Holy Bagmati River
Temples and structures of Pashupatinath 
Evidence of earthquake destruction from April 2015
Boys playing cricket in the park above Pashupathinath
By this time, we were exhausted, but we had one more stop to make at the Boudhanath Stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu. It had been amazing having someone who knew the city to drive us around. I think it would have taken a few days to have visited all these sites otherwise. The Boudhanath Stupa is the largest stupa in Nepal and we joined the masses to circle the stupa in a clockwise direction, spinning prayer wheels and listening to the Tibetan music playing from small shops lining the outside of the massive square.
Boudhanath Stupa - very clean compared to the rest of the city
After all that sightseeing, it was time to chill out in Thamel. Using the Lonely Planet recommendation, we found Sam's Bar, which was reported to be a local hangout for mountaineers and guides. The first person we met was a mountaineer who had just summited Lhotse! I guess Lonely Planet knows what they are talking about.
Enjoying an Everest Beer at Sam's Bar where we met some mountaineers who had just summited Lhotse
Since we had now seen many of the major sites outside of the Thamel area, the rest of our time in Kathmandu was spent exploring on foot. We had one day before we left for our trek and went to check out the Kathmandu Durbar Square. This area had been significantly impacted by the 2015 earthquake and the damage was very visible. It was unbelievable how certain neighbourhoods were so much more damaged than others. It is going to take a lot of work to return Durbar Square to its former beauty and glory.
Lots of construction in Durbar Square after the 2015 earthquake
Significant damage to Durbar Square remains after the earthquake of 2015
Concerned about the lean of the buildings in narrow alleyways
We also spent a few days in Kathmandu at the the tail end of our trip. By this point, we were feeling much more comfortable travelling in Nepal and we explored markets and small squares with confidence. Kathmandu is busy, noisy, dirty and dusty. You can only spend a day or two there before you start developing a sore throat from all the pollution and dust. There are people, vehicles and cows everywhere and it gets tiring fast when you are used to the quiet open spaces in Canada.
Busy intersections and crazy powerlines
Kathmandu traffic
Spice vendors
Garbage cow
The one place that you can find some quiet time is the Garden of Dreams at the edge of Thamel. We had visited it right at the beginning of our trip and didn't realize how unique the garden truly is. As you step into the courtyard, it is peaceful and quiet, unlike the noisy street you just left. There were lots of Nepali teen couples taking selfies and giggling to themselves, which was also different as it was rare to see men and women together in public in Nepal.
Some peace and tranquility in the Garden of Dreams
This garden was a major juxtaposition from the busy streets of Thamel on the other side of the garden walls
Kathmandu is a crazy place. There is so much to see, hear, smell and taste. My favourite part was wandering the crooked streets and dipping into a tiny doorway that lead to a beautiful square or stupa tucked out of sight from the main road. Oh ya, and the masala chai. That was pretty amazing too.
The first of many plates of momos
Busy streets of Thamel
Beans and lentils for sale
The cookware section of the market
Snack shop
Narrow streets of the local markets, not sure what the guy with the apples was doing...
Kyle is too tall for this country
Surprise stupa in a courtyard between Thamel and Durbar Square

Climbing Karst in Yangshuo China

Magical views of karst towers and rice paddies
China is a crazy place. It has crazy cities, landscapes and juxtapositions of modern and ancient. It is big, busy and a sensory overload. I landed in Shanghai with Brett and Alison after having done basically no planning for this trip. We spent our first two, very jet lagged days wandering the streets of Shanghai and eating dumplings for most meals. Still exhausted, we caught a quick flight to Guilin after meeting Jon and Heather in the airport on our second night. From there, we took a van to Yangshuo, arriving in the early morning. Fortunately our driver had waited for us despite the 2 hr delay. We checked into our disappointing accommodation but promptly went to bed. That was tomorrow's issue.
The Shanghai skyline on night #1
The Oriental Pearl behind an old home
The big 3 in Shanghai
Alison and I were up at 6. I looked out the window and saw where we were. It was a breathtaking landscape of mist, rice paddies and jungle covered karst (rock formations usually of limestone, characterized by underground cave systems and above-ground towers, formed by erosion of other rock types). We spent the morning figuring out new accommodation. We had originally booked at a cheap place, Crash Pad Yangshuo, that looked like it was geared for climbers. It had an outdoor bouldering wall and a craft beer pub next door! Unfortunately, it was also geared a bit more for the long-term dirtbag type, for $7 a night we should have guessed. The place was dirty and there was going to be a shared squat toilet between 5 of us, not ideal when you are worried about how the food is going to agree with you. It did come with a kitchen and would be great for people that wanted to stay for a while, but for a 2 week stay, it wasn't for us. Instead, we checked in at the No Kidd Inn, which suited us way better. The girl at the front desk helped us out so much and we were situated much closer to the restaurants and shops of town.
The first view out the window in Yangshuo
Andrew and Kalen also checked in so all 7 of us were in the same place. We spent the 2 weeks exploring the region on rented cruiser bikes and climbing most days. The rock in Yangshuo is limestone and reminded me of the climbing in Thailand (minus the beach). It is actually formed in the same way which explains the similarities in features. There were tufas, stalactites and caves galore. One thing you did have to be careful about were the insects and snakes that liked to hang out at the crags too. The majority of the climbing was bolted sport routes and ranged from single pitch crags to various multi-pitches that topped out on the towers.

It was hot and humid. We had arrived in the monsoon season and found most of the crags deserted. We also had a few days of overnight rain and showers where we couldn't climb everywhere we wanted. Fortunately, we had a great guidebook with recommendations for rainy day crags. We made the most of the days we had and climbed in some spectacular caves and on big overhanging walls. Yangshuo is know for its hard routes, but there were also plenty of lower grades. Unfortunately with the rain, those were usually the first routes to get wet so I did a lot of top roping on hard climbs while the boys pushed it on 11's and 12's.
Riding out to the crag through the fields
The biker gang with the Wine Bottle Crag on the left
Bikes and rock walls
Misty mountains
JD climbing at The Egg
Jenny at the Egg
Jon and Kailen
Cool views from the Treasure Cave Crag
JD traversing the tufas in Treasure Cave
Brett and Andrew high above the fields at Treasure Cave
Photographer Brett
Working out the moves at Chicken Cave
When I mentioned that I hadn't done much research about this trip, I meant it. I was expecting to be in a small town in rural China. Yangshuo is actually a bustling city of 300,000 people and a main tourist destination for domestic travelers. Climbers and foreigners are by far the minority of visitors which was very evident by the amount of attention we got when we walked through town or passed by on our bikes. Chinese tourists visit Yangshuo for the beautiful Li River, the view of the karst towers, caves, various cultural programs, and the chance to spot Westerners! Large tour buses unloaded hordes of tour groups onto giant golf-cart style buses to shuttle them around town to various markets and attractions. We ended up in more than a few peoples photos. Some people would blatantly take photos of us, others would ask politely and some would be stealthy about it. We had a few younger people claim that they needed photos for their homework. Not sure what class that was for. The main strip, West Street was full of noise, lights, smells and people.
Our favourite dessert destination on West Street
Nighttime lights in Yangshuo
Backstreet Yangshuo
Downtown Yangshuo
"I need a picture for my homework?!?!" Jenny and Alison tower over tiny chinese girl
Bamboo boats on the Li River
Another main attraction for the region is Moon Hill, a massive hill with a hole right through it that you can access on a walking trail with plenty of stairs. Moon Hill had the first bolted sport routes in Yangshuo and some crazy features like bat hangs under the photogenic roof and a few 5.13's. There was some talk of access issues to the climbing, and when we arrived there were signs indicating that people did not want climbers there. Luckily we had been told by some locals that the park was just concerned about getting sued, so they put up the signs, but didn't actually care if you climbed or not. 

We got to put this theory to the test after a misunderstanding at the gate where we thought we had paid for our park entry, but did not receive any tickets. The taxi driver likely just took off with our cash. A few hours later as we were finishing up our climbing for the day, a security guard approached us. He spoke no English, we spoke no Mandarin. We were convinced we were getting a fine, but he just wanted to see our tickets. Luckily, a Chinese climber was able to translate and sort out the mess. The guy didn't care that we were climbing at all! At the end of the day, he even gave us a ride back to town (for a fee of course) and we all piled into the back of his clean car, soaking wet from a thunderstorm and muddy from climbing.
Hmm... Sign at the entrance to Moon Hill
Moon Hill arch from the top of the hiking trail
Views from under Moon Hill
Jon looking to the next bolt at Moon Hill
Andrew spider-mans up Moon Hill
Brett moving on crimps at Moon Hill
Top of Moon Hill scramble
This lady hikes up the trail every day to sell cold drinks to tourists. We couldn't say no
Navigating in China was a bit difficult. It is rare to find people who spoke English so there was a lot of figuring it out on our own or using gestures and sign language. Trying to find climbing crags adds an entire new element of difficulty to way finding. The guidebook was alternately very helpful or frustratingly misleading. Unmarked roads and trails were the norm and we often passed through tiny quiet villages and agricultural land just outside of town and away from the chaos on our way to the cliffs. I love how climbing gets you off the beaten path and into areas that you would never think to go. We definitely got lost a few times. Fortunately people were very easy going and didn't seem to mind when we ended up lost on their farm, and would often gesture in the direction of the climbing area if we showed them a picture in our guidebook. . 

In addition, all things google are blocked in China and you need a VPN to access it. I never realized how much I rely on google maps, gmail and the google search engine until I wasn't able to access it. It made navigation just that much more challenging.
Some of the approaches were a little wild. Hope we are going the right way!
Relaxing at the bottom of the crag
Topped out on Jeremy's Jiji
Great views from the top
Although the focus of the trip was on climbing, it wasn't all we did. We also ate. A lot!! The region is know for its spicy food and everything came with extra chilis. It would be hard to be a vegetarian in China as even the tofu dishes came with bits of meat (hopefully pork). We didn't go too crazy, but did try the river snails and a number of popular meat and veggie dishes, all cooked in different sauces. Our favourite foods were steamed pork buns from "steam bun alley" and mushroom dumplings from "dumpling drive". Of course we had to have dumplings at most meals too. This was not your typical North American chinese food but it was very tasty. Maybe it was all the MSG?
Colourful veggies at the market
Dinner time at our favourite chinese restaurant
Hotpot night

On one of our off days, we did a chinese cooking class and learned how to make pork dumplings, green beans with eggplant and kung pao chicken. It was super fun!
Heather and Jonathan getting stoked for cooking class
Alison's perfect dumplings

We made that!
It was a great trip, with great friends. A perfect way to celebrate a big accomplishment and our graduation! Thanks so much to Brett, Alison, Kailen, Andrew, Heather and Jonathan for being awesome travel and climbing partners and for all the great photos featured in this blog.
Rainy day walk