Travel blog

#55 Day 33: Tokyo – Kyoto, Japan

Friday 28 April 2017

Luckily I didn’t have an early start, I had to be out of my room by 10am and my train wasn’t until just after 12pm. After breakfast in my room I said a quick goodbye to the nice lady at reception and somehow I made it to Tokyo main station by 10.30am! I wasn’t sure where to go so went to the ticket office to ask and a friendly customer service lady not only directed me but re-booked my ticket for the 11.03am train. Result. I was excited to go on the bullet train, which was quite comfy and had lots of leg room, not like the commuter trains at home. I hadn’t missed the daily commute, but at that moment in time I did miss my train buddy I sometimes meet in the evenings. He would have moved jobs (to a different city) by the time I get home so I probably won’t see him again and the thought of this made me momentarily sad.

I buried my head in my book, and occasionally looked out the window and the journey went quickly, before I knew it, it was 1.45pm and the train was pulling into Kyoto. It was a short distance to the local JR platform and I quickly travelled the two stops to Nijo where I was staying. I loved Kyoto the first time I visited and felt very much at home as I walked out of the station to find my apartment. In this area all the buildings are really cute and the streets once you turn off of the main road are quite small and set out in a grid system, which is great if you know where you are but not great if you don’t because they all look the same! I had spent some time before I left on google maps finding the apartment location and had printed out a map both in English and Japanese. It was simple enough to find the right vicinity, however the buildings didn’t seem to have obvious door numbers and in the end I asked this kind man who owned a tiny Barbers shop to point out the building, which was literally opposite his shop! I was pleased with myself for getting this far and was even more pleased when I found the key where it was supposed to be and let myself in. The apartment was tiny but I fell in love with it straight away. I had booked it through Airbnb and had agonised over the decision about where to live for six nights, but luckily it didn’t disappoint.

The whole thing was a rectangular shape, with the front door at one of the short ends. Once through the door, on the left was a little kitchen unit with a hob (one gas ring) and a sink with a couple of cupboards underneath and a shelf above. Next to that was a small fridge with a microwave on top. On the right were two doors, one contained a wet room with a bath, shower head and sink and the other a toilet. Directly in front was a door which divided the apartment into two. Through the door was the lounge/bedroom, with a sofa on the left hand side and a funky coffee table, a built-in cupboard on the right and the bed took up the far end across the back wall. At the end of the bed (and next to the end of the sofa) was a sliding door leading out to a balcony with a corrugated plastic roof where there was a washing machine. It was so cosy and I couldn’t believe my luck at how nice it was, and at only 5mins from the station it was the perfect place for me to spend the week. I knew I would be very happy here.

The apartment had ‘pocket wifi’, which was a God-send. You connect and then put the receiver literally in your pocket (it was smaller than a phone) and wherever you go you have instant wifi. Just like home! I went out to find a supermarket and just by the station was an entertainment complex with restaurants on the ground floor, a massive arcade on the next and guess what; a cinema on the top floor! I couldn’t believe my luck, Fast & Furious 8 was on and there was a showing in English at 5.20pm. I’m not quite sure why there was a showing in English, maybe it was just for me, because there were absolutely no westerners around and the people working in the complex didn’t really speak English. You had to buy the ticket via a machine, which didn’t have an English language option. Not wanting to buy the wrong ticket I asked one of the staff to help me and by way of pointing and smiling etc. we managed it. I can’t describe how excited I was and messaged my friend (using my pocket wifi, haha) to tell him. Grabbing a toasted sandwich and a rooibos tea from one of the café’s downstairs I was back in time to buy my popcorn and take my seat.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed the film and then skipped back to the apartment. On the way home I’d picked up a boil in the bag curry sauce and some microwave rice, not very gourmet but it did the job and I happily ate my dinner listening to some music on Spotify and started to plan my stay in Kyoto.

#54 Day 32: Tokyo, Japan

Thursday 27 April 2017

I woke up with a smile on my face (I was in JAPAN!) and enjoyed a relaxing lie-in, plus breakfast in bed. My trip to the supermarket had provided me with cereal, strawberries and a yoghurt, which I finished off with a nice cup of bush tea from my flask that I’d made the night before. Perfect! Before going to bed I had planned my day and my first port of call was the famous Shibuya crossing, rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world. All the lights turn red at the same time to allow people to cross, and it is said that at peak times over 1,000 people cross the crossing at any one time; definitely a sight not to be missed.

It’s quite hard to get a decent picture of the crossing because it is so big, but I’d read that a good view could be found from the Starbucks on the first floor of a shop on one of the corners. It was fascinating, first of all seeing all the vehicles going to and fro, then the road completely emptying and then when the lights changed watching people stream across the road around the four edges and the diagonals. I spent ages there, hypnotised by the ebb and flow, and enjoyed the sheer buzz of being in the middle of it. In the end I roused myself as I had other sights to see, and if I hadn’t have moved I’d have probably stayed there all day! Last time I was in Shibuya I’d visited Shibuya 109, a shopping mall that boasts over 100 boutique shops. I had hoped to buy some jeans and non-hiking clothes in Japan but this mall was not a place for bargains, one look at the price tags and I was reduced to window shopping once again … I was almost tempted by the shoe shop and the handbag shop but had to settle with taking pictures for my niece Emily, who loves that sort of thing.

I don’t think I’m a big city person, I prefer small quaint towns and the countryside, but Tokyo is an exception. I love it! The thing with Tokyo is that it has lots of different neighbourhoods (47 in total, with over 1,000 train stations), each with their own atmosphere and look and feel, providing exciting sights and sounds around every corner. For example, Shibuya is the major entertainment, dining and shopping district, Akhiabara specialises in electronics and Japanese popular culture, Ueno has colourful markets, museums and cultural attractions and a lovely park (where I spent a relaxing afternoon reading my book by the lake in 2008) and Asakusa (where I was staying this time round) which used to be a ‘pleasure district’ but is now a historical centre with temples and royokan – traditional Japanese Inns that haven’t changed since the 1600’s.

I decided to wander to my next destination as I feel that when you walk the streets you often see things you could miss when underground on the metro. My walk took me past Tower Records, where there was a great crowd of people outside all excited, obviously a celebrity had arrived. I took a quick snap and then a second later it was all over and the crowd dispersed. I walked past a radio station, the DJ’s sitting in a studio with one wall a plate glass window that looked out onto a street (it was called Shibuya Cross FM). Further on I saw two boys with a PA system rapping, and came across a cat café! I wanted to go in but I was almost where I wanted to go – the Meji Shrine.

This is Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine, dedicated to the late 19th century Emperor Meji and his wife, Empress Shoken, located in a 200-acre park. It was a sunny and warmish day and as I was not in the UK my map reading skills led me there with no problems (see #15). Again, I had visited this shrine before but it was worth seeing a second time. Entering through the 40-foot-high torri entrance gate, reportedly made from 1,500-year-old cypress, I walked through shady paths to the second gate and the shrine.

This place is less touristy than other temples and there weren’t many people there, making the atmosphere peaceful and relaxing. I stood reading the petitions on the prayer wall (the ones written in English!), and showed my respects by following the local tradition of tossing some yen into the offering box, bowing my head twice, clapping twice and bowing once more. I’ve been to many different kinds of temples across the world and don’t usually adopt the local worshiping customs, because it is sometimes inappropriate if you’re not of that religion, but here it felt right. The origins of the Shinto religion date back to the 8th century, and in the present day Shinto shrines are devoted to the worship of a multitude of gods and people are encouraged to take part in local traditions no matter what religion they are.

Not usually one for superstition, I also bought my fortune: “47. GOOD FORTUNE. Nothing goes the way you would like at first, but if you work hard perseveringly, you will receive the blessing of the Divine and a good fortune you had never imagined will be yours.”. This could be true of anything, but it summed up this trip perfectly. I had worked really hard to plan everything and so far it has been much more wonderful than I could have ever imagined.

With an inner glow I walked to Shinjuku, my last destination of the day. I am a big Jackie Chan fan and a particular film called The Shinjuku Incident had stayed in my imagination and I decided I wanted to go there for no other reason than that! I also needed to activate my Japan Rail pass, which could be done at any main Japan Rail (JR) station. I found the JR office and booked my seat on the 12.03 bullet train to Kyoto for the following morning. Seeing the big shopping malls and entertainment complexes around the station I was minded to go to the cinema as Fast & Furious 8 had been released. A friend and I compete with each other who can see the latest film first and I didn’t want to be out of the running. The Tourist Information office was also in the train station building and I found out that there were two cinemas that showed films in English in the vicinity.

The problem was that it was already late afternoon and I’d bought enough food for my evening meal at the hotel so it wouldn’t make sense to eat out, and I needed to sort out my kit and repack my rucksacks in preparation for the move to Kyoto. I had wanted to go to the Tokyo Tower as on a clear day it is possible to see Mt Fuji. At 333m high it is the world’s tallest, self-supported steel tower and 13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower. It was the country’s tallest structure when it was completed in 1958, and remained so until 2012 when it was surpassed by the Tokyo Skytree.

The Tokyo Tower was in the centre of Tokyo though, and a bit of a journey. I was also tempted by the Tokyo Skytree, which I could see from my hotel in Asakusa (see #53), but last night I had read that you can visit the Toyko Metropolitan Government Building (in Shinjuku) where it was free to go to the observatory floor of each of the two towers and look out over the city. It was a fairly short walk from the station and I got there just after 5pm. Even though the observatory at 202m was not as high as the Tokyo Tower or Skytree, it was impressive to look out over the vastness of the city and see the various landmarks.

It was dark by the time I made it home. I wanted to stay longer but consoled myself with the fact that I’d have another day in Tokyo after the monastery. I went to sleep thinking about the exciting things I could do on my return …

#53 Day 31: Narita – Tokyo, Japan

Wednesday 26 April 2017

A slightly tiring journey, I didn’t realise Scoot was a budget airline = no food supplied, and I wasn’t aware that we stopped in Bangkok. For an hour. It was ridiculous, I had to get off the plane, have a sticker put on me, race all the way round the airport to get on the same plane at the same gate I got off of! I think the plane was slightly late arriving so that by the time I made it back to the gate I was the last to board. I’d stopped off to get some food – a McDonalds Fillet-O-Fish (my first McD’s on this trip) – however they wouldn’t allow me to take it on the plane! I had to sit down with all the airline staff watching me and try and eat it, I managed the F-O-F in record time after which they asked me to board; I was not best pleased to have to throw away the chips and my favourite drink – Strawberry Fanta!

For all my annoyance of being on this airline, they were actually very nice and it wasn’t their fault I wasn’t aware that I wouldn’t be fed or that we stopped in Bangkok. I wasn’t able to check in online therefore when I checked in at the airport I didn’t get a choice on where to sit. They had seated me by the toilet, and unlike other planes it was actually right next me as opposed to being behind me. After the Bangkok experience I just wanted to get a bit of shut eye and asked if they could move me, a very nice flight attendant managed to find me three empty seats and I was able to have a lie down in (relative) peace and quiet.

It was morning when I got to Narita and James’s instructions were to get the shuttle bus to his hotel. With it being Japan, everything was running on time and the bus stop was easily found and in no time at all I was in the hotel lobby and saying hi to James! I dumped my rucksacks and we went to a very cute coffee shop and had a lovely hot chocolate and a catch up. Having been to Japan before (back in 2008), I was already feeling at home. Afterwards we wandered through the town to an amazing temple and gardens, there weren’t many people around and it felt very peaceful. James and I talked non-stop, he was getting on well with his job (he is a flight attendant) and I was glad to hear all about his relationship and plans for the future. I really didn’t want to go, as a few hours wasn’t enough to properly catch up, but I needed to get into Tokyo and find my hotel.

Before I left the UK I went to see my brother and he found some useful things I could take with me, one of them was a Suica Card which is like an Oyster card. James and I worked out how to put money on it and what train I needed to take and I made it to the Hotel Palace Japan quite easily, it was in Minami-Senju in the Asakusa area. The name sounds posher than it was, however the lady on the front desk was really friendly and spoke good English and we had a chat for ages before I went up to my room. It was like a hostel as it had dorms and shared rooms, but I was put on the ladies-only floor where there were single rooms with a shared bathroom.

The room itself was smaller than the Tea House rooms in Nepal, with a single bed, a built in cupboard as a wardrobe, a fridge and a desk and chair with a small TV but it felt homey and I liked it. The bathroom was airy and clean with nice toilets (with heated seats!) and lovely hot showers. I was on the 6th floor, which was the top, and looking out of the window at the end of the corridor there were great views of the city at night, including the famous Tokyo Skytree. The Tokyo Skytree is the tallest structure in Japan, standing at 634m. It has two viewing areas, the lower (at 350m) provides 360 degree panoramic views of the city and the upper (at 450m) has the “the world’s highest skywalk”, which consists of a sloping spiral ramp that gains height as it circles the tower. If I had time I would try to go.

I had only eaten a few snacks since getting off the plane and it was now mid-afternoon. I went out and as I was walking I started to feel a little bit lonely; I had been surrounded with people for a month of my travels and suddenly I was all on my own. I came across a small temple and in the peace of the garden I took some time out until the moment passed. The hotel had a little kitchen area on the ground floor so rather than sit on my own in a restaurant I decided to make a home-cooked meal and picked up some chicken, veg and bean shoots and other supplies to stock in my little fridge. I found oil, soy sauce and seasonings in one of the kitchen cupboards and whipped up a nice stir fry for my dinner. Strawberries and a cup of bush tea finished things off and, after catching up with some of my friends on WhatsApp I felt much happier and ready to enjoy exploring Japan the next day!

#52 Day 30: Singapore

Tuesday 25 April 2017

I wanted to make something of my last day in Singapore as I was flying to Japan that evening. I have been to Singapore a few times before and didn’t feel the need to do much sightseeing however one place I wanted to go to was the Marina Bay Sands (or MBS as it is locally known) as it wasn’t there last time I went. It opened in 2010 and the main hotel is comprised of three 55 storey towers topped by the Skypark, the world’s largest public cantilevered platform which overhangs the north tower by 67m. It has an observation deck with 360 degree views over the city (that the public can access – for a substantial fee) and a spectacular infinity pool (for hotel guests only).

I left with Maria in the morning as she had to go to work and then made my way to the Waterfront and spent a lovely morning wandering round the shops – apparently the largest collection of coveted designer boutiques in Asia. Window shopping only I’m afraid! I paid my Singapore $23 to go up to the Skypark Observation deck and enjoyed looking down onto SuperTree Grove and over the city under the moody sky that threatened rain at any second.

I was sad not to have time to visit SuperTree Grove, which is a series of gardens featuring giant trees made of reinforced concrete wrapped in a steel frame. Planting panels are attached to the trunk where over 162,900 plants are spread over the 18 ‘trees’. It was time I was making my way to lunch as I was due to be meeting Maria and her brother Mark. By the time I’d come down from the Observation deck it was raining so I hopped in a taxi, missing a call from Maria. I called her back and for some reason Mark couldn’t make it but as I was already on my way she and I still met and we had a nice lunch in an Indian restaurant, where I ate Chinese food!

Maria had to go back to work and I decided I would be a tourist after all as the weather had improved. I wanted to see the famous Merlion and, on the way, stopped off at the Fullerton Hotel where I learnt lots of history. Originally built on the site of the former Fullerton Fort the building was named after Robert Fullerton, the first Governor of the United Straits Settlements (1826-1830). When completed, in 1928, it was the largest structure ever built in Singapore. The General Post Office occupied the first two floors for many years however the building had many other uses, such as the headquarters of Japan’s military administration during the Japanese occupation from 1942 to 1945. It became a six-star hotel in 2001 with 400 luxury rooms and if the ladies was anything to go by, the rooms must be truly sumptuous.

After my history lesson I wandered over to the Merlion and tried to take some arty pictures with MBS in the background but I’m not sure I was that successful! It was now mid-afternoon and I was in need of some refreshment; I couldn’t come to Singapore and not have a Singapore Sling in the famous Raffles Hotel! It was a bit of a walk but I knew it would be worth it. The rain started to come down but luckily I had my trusty umbrella so that when I arrived I didn’t look too much like a drowned rat.

Once in the hotel I followed the signs to the bar. I had first visited Raffles back in ’96 and was wondering if it would be as I remembered, however the main bar was being refurbished and I was directed to the Bar and Billiard Room. On arrival there was a lectern with a sign to queue to be seated, but it was deserted. I stood there looking around and two men arrived and asked me if they could get a table. Haha. The waiter came out and showed me to a chair at the end of the bar and then showed them to the two chairs next to me. It turned out they were US pilots Bob and Drew (married and in their 50’s so don’t get any ideas!) and flying to Japan the next day! What a coincidence.

The bar was very oldy-worldy and colonial and I felt a bit like I was back in England, albeit a posh members club in London. I once had a lovely boss who was well to-do and one day we met in the RAC Club for a glass of wine and a discussion about Brexit and mortgages (he’s in his late 60’s so definitely don’t get any ideas)! Anyway, it felt a bit like that. The tradition in the Raffles bar is that you eat peanuts – the Americans were amused when I said we call them Monkey Nuts in the UK – and then throw the shells on the floor. It was quite strange walking on the floor crunching shells underfoot, I felt sorry for whoever has to clean up every day! I had such a lovely time, sitting there with my cocktail (at the bargain price of Singapore $36.50 = @£20!), having a good old chat with these guys as if I’d known them for ages. It got to 5pm and I reluctantly said my goodbyes. I didn’t want to go, but I was expected home as I had to leave for the airport in a couple of hours.

More goodbyes and then I was in a taxi back to the airport to fly to Japan. I was hoping there would be no delays because in the morning I would be seeing Australian James!! I could hardly believe it, he happened to be in Narita on the same day as me – see, fate isn’t always a bad thing.

#51 Days 27-29: Nepal – Singapore

Saturday 22, Sunday 23 & Monday 24 April 2017

I was feeling a bit emotional as I was sad to be leaving my new friends. All of Team Tortoise and some others came to see me off and Amanda and I were holding back the tears as we said goodbye. As the taxi drove out of the hotel gates I looked out of the back window and they were all standing there waving and that set me off. I find with these things you’ve just got to let them out, and after a while I felt a bit better. The trek had been an amazing experience – one I never thought I’d get to do, let alone complete and at the same time enjoy it! I didn’t think I’d meet such great people and I have no doubt that I will stay in touch with many of them.

It was going to be a long day as I had a stop in Kuala Lumpa and the flight out of Kathmandu was delayed. Of course, flights are always delayed in Kathmandu so that was par for the course … By the time I got to KL it was evening and the flight to Singapore was delayed by an hour, therefore it was about 1am local time by the time I landed. I got a taxi from the airport to my cousin’s house, the driver was very friendly and chatty and before I knew it we had arrived.

I felt awful arriving so late – it was now 2am – but Maria and her husband Christophe (from Belgium) sat up with me for a while chatting and I got to pet their adorable Labrador Freddy. They have a lovely ground floor apartment, with a garden, in a detached town house in a quiet part of the city and after the craziness of Kathmandu it was very calming. I settled down on the sofa to sleep and looked forward to the next few days catching up with family news and not doing very much!

After a nice lay-in we got up and Maria and I sat outside and relaxed. Too late even for brunch, we went straight to lunch – Christophe making a wonderful roast dinner (roast chicken legs, roast potatoes, peas and bacon with a mushroom sauce, and gravy). Yum! It was so good to have a home-cooked meal and I really enjoyed it. The afternoon saw us relaxing again, I watched a film and we had a snack for tea and then bed fairly early as two of Christophe’s Belgium friends were arriving in the morning.

Slept in late-ish again and then Christophe came bustling in, tidying up and getting things ready for his friends – Evelyne and Peter. They duly arrived and we sat eating croissants for breakfast, hearing all their travel stories. They had been on honeymoon for the last few months, travelling mostly around Asia I think, and were now on their way back to Belgium to start their married lives. Maria and I left them chatting and popped out to get some supplies and have a little mooch around the shops.

Lunch was a simple affair of cheese and salami and we hung out all afternoon chilling. Evelyne had been on The Voice (Belgium) and treated us to some songs, accompanied by Maria on the piano – she had a great voice. There was more of Christophe’s home cooking for dinner, this time a BBQ, and we watched old British comedy series such as Little Britain and The Fast Show on TV until everyone started yawning.

#50 Day 26: Kathmandu, Nepal

 

Friday 21 April 2017

We woke up to a Scandal. As previously mentioned, the youngsters had gone out to Thamel and had enjoyed a night on the town. They came back in what I shall call ‘high spirits’ and, as you do when you are in high spirits, had not made a quiet entrance when they returned to the hotel. I understand some shenanigans went on – jumping in the pool and general larking around – and as this was at 2am it woke up quite a lot of people. Apparently a very irate German guest came out of his room and shouted at them and in the end hotel security had to escort them back to their rooms. A light sleeper usually, strangely I slept right through it all and missed the excitement! The culprits will remain nameless but they were not in the trek organisers good books the next morning.

Today I didn’t fancy doing much as I was leaving for Singapore the next morning, but I decided to go with a few of the girls to Baber Mahal to get Kay’s ring. It turned out to be a really cute boutique shopping area that used to be a Palace and we had a lovely morning wandering around the shops. It was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Thamel, which we went on to. By mid-afternoon everyone had made their purchases and we were looking for a taxi home. I didn’t have any intentions of buying anything more when, as we were at the corner where the taxi’s hung out, a man selling flutes appeared. As I had already bought a flute (see #29) I wasn’t interested, but he obviously knew that I liked them as he kept following me, lowering the price each time I said no thank you. As I got into the taxi he said 500, which piqued my interest as that was a really low price.

I had been wondering what I could get as a present for the people at my volunteer placement in the Galapagos. As I would be teaching music I wanted to get them something related to music and it occurred to me that I could get them the flute! “500 you say?” I said, “Let me have a look then”. At this point I was actually sitting in the taxi, 4 of us squashed in, the man hanging in through the window being jostled by the crowds also trying to get taxis. As he realised I was now seriously considering buying it he upped the price to 600. It was a nice one and the workmanship was good – and this time I was on my guard for the slight-of-hand business. I tried to get him to sell it to me for 500 but he wouldn’t so I handed over Rs600 and off we went. It’s all very well to haggle and get a good price, but like yesterday, I wasn’t going to make a fuss. While I am not rich, I’m certainly more well-off than the people selling things on the street so as long as I do a bit of bartering they’re happy because you’re interacting with them (and giving them some money) and I’m happy that I’ve had a go.

It was sunny when we got back so I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon by the pool, although I ended up suffering some good-natured ribbing from the others because I didn’t actually go in the pool. I’m not a strong swimmer and, frankly, don’t like the water due to some traumatic experiences when I was younger. Also, I just don’t like getting wet and cold, and avoid swimming when I can! My pool friends can attest to this. Back in 2014 I went to Ibiza with Sam and Carla who were my pool team team-mates. They were originally going with another girl but she pulled out so they asked me if I was interested. I hadn’t known them long at that time but we all got on and I thought why not, I probably wouldn’t get the opportunity again. Two days after returning from Peru and the Inca Trail I was at the airport again, this time on my way to Ibiza.

Every day was a by-the-pool day and the other two used to jump in and out on a regular basis. The pool was quite large, and the width was … well I don’t know how wide it was but as it turned out it was wider than I could swim all in one go. Anyway one day I decided to go in, I’m not really sure why, and the other two went over to the other side to encourage me on. I started off well but for some reason it got a bit deeper in the middle and at the halfway point I was getting tired, out of breath and then a bit panicky because I couldn’t touch the bottom. I went from attempting the front crawl to the breast stroke to the doggy paddle and ended up going the speed of a snail. The other two were already cracking up laughing at me when suddenly a woman got in ahead and started swimming across the pool so that our paths would intersect at 90 degrees. I panicked even more and shouted “Get out the way!” or something to that effect, I can’t quite remember the exact words but the girls swear that’s what I said. This poor woman took one look at me floundering around and quickly swum off, and the girls, now laughing hysterically had to pull me the rest of the way to the side. This incident still causes much hilarity amongst our little group and every so often Sam or Carla will post “Get out the way!” on Facebook or say it when we’re out for lunch and I laugh good-naturedly (while swearing under my breath).

Anyway, back to Nepal. I was asked many times if I was going to get my swimming costume wet. It was actually a new costume that I had bought some months before with the aim of using the pool at my gym to try to improve my swimming but I never quite got round to it. The answer was no, my costume wasn’t going to get christened and I was very happy sitting next to Amanda reading my book, thank you very much.

The sun went down and we went out to a local Italian restaurant for dinner. It was a slightly subdued event because certain people were still recovering from the night before, and it was the last night we would all be together as various people were starting to leave. When we got back to the hotel, we had one last glass of wine, gave Kay her ring (which she loved) and then I said my goodbye’s to people I probably wouldn’t see in the morning.

#49 Day 25: Kathmandu, Nepal

Thursday 20 April 2017

After the disappointment of not being able to see Federico before the trek, I was excited that today was the day we were meeting up. If you have read from #25 you will know that Federico is an ex-work colleague who now works for Rokpa in Kathmandu. The Rokpa Guest House is in Boudha, very close to the iconic Boudhanath Stupa and various trek members had not had the chance to see it yet. As I had been there before, and was now an old hand at haggling with taxis, at 9am I led a party of nine down the road and procured three cars to take us there post-haste. We parted ways at the temple and I made my way to Rokpa where I was happy to see Shiva and, at long last, Federico.

We went to a local restaurant where I had a giant vegetable Mo:Mo, quite different to the one I had at the Garden of Dreams (see #29)! It was great to chat to Federico and hear about his life and work at Rokpa and all the great initiatives they are championing. It was also good to share more personal thoughts about “Life, the Universe and Everything” and to impart my hopes and aspirations about this trip. We moved onto a slice of cheesecake and hot chocolate at a coffee shop, and our brief reunion had to come to a close as he had a meeting with the owner of Rokpa to discuss future projects.

As we said goodbye we happened to bump into some of the girls from the original party, so Federico went one way and Amanda and I the other, as she was taking me to a jewellery shop. In Namche one of the others had bought a charm in the shape of a Buddhist hand held prayer wheel on a chain and I had really liked it. I should have bought one there but I missed my chance. Amanda had seen one so I ended up buying it, along with a lovely silver garnet ring. I didn’t even try to haggle as I was quite tired, which I slightly regretted as I later found out others had bought items about a third less than I paid. However I didn’t really mind as it was still a lot cheaper than at home and I was happy with my purchases.

That evening we were planning a small drinks reception as the lovely Richard and the younger guys were housed in a mini-apartment with a couple of bedrooms and a living room with a little kitchen off the side. We needed some refreshments so a contingent of Team Tortoise went in search of wine, and stopped at the local artefact shop where I got Kay to try on my ring while the others were browsing. It was a cunning ploy to find out what her ring size was as we wanted to buy her something for being an amazing trek leader. We had found out that she wanted a ring from a particular shop in a place called Baber Mahal, so all of the A team had contributed to the pot and the plan was to buy it tomorrow.

It was nice to be able to relax – and dress up (in a dress!), sip wine, nibble on snacks and sit around chatting in Richard’s penthouse. I think we started our little reception around 7pm or 7.30pm and suddenly it was 9pm and we hadn’t yet eaten. The youngsters decided to go into town to Thamel and the rest of us found a local restaurant. We ordered or food and cocktails, my first of the trip I think, and then after receiving our cocktails we waited … and waited.

By about 10pm I was getting a little bit hungry so I enquired as to where our food was. “It’s coming” I was told “but would we like to order another cocktail while we waited?”. I cheekily said “Well, if you’re offering a free one then yes please!”, so they gave us all a free cocktail!! When the food did come it was really nice, it turned out that they were just about to shut when we walked in and so had to get the kitchen up and running again, which is why it took so long. I then felt a bit bad for asking for a free cocktail, however there were eight of us and we all had a cocktail and a main meal so I guess it was worth their while. At any rate, we were very grateful to them and went home with a happy glow.

#48 Day 24: Lukla – Kathmandu, Nepal

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Our lodge was next door to the airport, in fact the helicopters took off from what seemed the backyard, so we had the pleasure of waiting on comfy seats until our Sirdar (the Head of the Sherpas) called around 8am to say we should come. 5mins later we were at the airport. For such a tiny airport, basically two rooms, one for check-in and one to wait for the plane, check-in was just as much as a palaver as it was in Kathmandu but eventually we were all approved and walked down the stairs to the ‘departure lounge’. There we found the other groups, but they were soon whisked off and we were hopeful for a speedy departure.

There are only a few airlines that fly between Kathmandu and Lukla, and apparently only four planes can be accommodated on the airstrip at any one time. Once the planes are allowed to start flying each day they basically make the half hour trip back and forth until the clouds roll in and they have to stop due to poor visibility. Bearing in mind the planes only carry 19 people, and as they navigate by peering out the cockpit’s beat-up Perspex (hence the need for a cloudless sky), there is a narrow window each day to transport everyone. If the day starts off cloudy, or it rains or snows, there are no flights at all so you can imagine in bad weather the queues start to build up. People have been known to have to wait up to 5 days for a flight out, by which time you might as well have walked …

After many days without seeing any television, there was a small TV on mute hanging from the ceiling showing wrestling, and then BMX-ing; we were mesmerised by the sight. We were jolted out of our reveries by an official shouting that we were needed on the tarmac with our (handwritten) boarding cards. By now we had been waiting quite a while – a good two hours – and the rumour mill was rife about the delay. Was there another wild animal on the runway at Kathmandu? No one was sure. We were excited to see our plane and had duly lined up and had our boarding cards torn in half. 5mins later we were given half a boarding card back and ushered back into the waiting area. Huge disappointment, what had happened?

Our Sirdar (he was still there because he wanted to see us off) got on the case and found out that all planes had been suspended at Kathmandu because the Indian President was flying in that morning! Nothing was allowed in the air space until he had safely landed, so of course that had delayed everything. But now that the flights were operating, we asked, why couldn’t we board? Oh, the pilots are having a tea break was the answer! We obviously wanted our pilots in tip-top condition so didn’t begrudge them a cup of tea, but after sitting through another episode of BMX-ing and seeing the clouds steadily rolling in we started to get worried.

Eventually we were allowed outside, lined up, the half boarding card collected and off we went. As it was now about 12 o’clock there were quite a few clouds around and the flight was quite bumpy, one nervous flyer spent the whole time in a high state of anxiety thinking that we were going to plummet to the ground at any moment. De-mob happy from having completed the trek, I enjoyed feeling like I was on a rollercoaster and if we had gone down I would have died happy.

It was very strange seeing concrete, tall buildings, smog and roads containing cars/buses/bikes/tractors etc. We prepared to be assaulted by the cacophony of blaring horns on our way back to the hotel and placed bets on how many we would hear. I said 263 and someone else 300-and-something. As we pulled out of the airport and onto the main road it was strangely quiet. “One!” someone shouted, we listened for more but heard nothing. We then noticed signs tied to every post along the road with the sign of a horn with a line through it – while we were away they had passed a law banning the beeping of horns! I’m sure it was hard for the Nepali’s to break the habit of constantly beeping, as a beep tells everyone you’re overtaking/undertaking/cutting in etc., but the traffic still seemed to work and this simple change improved the last part of our journey and eased us back in to Kathmandu.

The plane journey had made poor Amanda feel quite nauseous so she had a lay down. The rest of us relaxed, sipping a glass of wine with an early dinner and then bed.

#47 Day 23: Namche – Lukla, Nepal

Tuesday 18 April 2017

It was a warm and sunny morning and Team Tortoise had been going for two and a half hours and had reached Monjo, which was the whole walk of the second day of the trek (in reverse, see #33)! We were very encouraged by this and hoped we would soon be in Phakding, our lunch stop. However, Phakding was in fact a really long way away and we were literally on our last legs by the time we reached the lodge and collapsed at the dinner table.

The lodge was really nice and owned by a Sherpa who had taken part on previous Xtreme Everest treks. It was at this point that we said a sad goodbye to Sherpa Gite. Amanda and I had a lovely picture taken with him; I will never forget treading in his footsteps following his infamous ‘Sherpa Shuffle’ as he faithfully got us up and down the mountain.

In dread of being given yet another plate of spaghetti I was happy to receive chow mien (with the obligatory potatoes) for lunch and afterwards felt a lot more revived. As we had got lower the trees appeared in abundance and the lovely smell of pine and flowers made the going pleasant. The snow had gone and while I still had my cold and chest infection (today was my last day of antibiotics and yesterday was my last day of diamox), my nose had stopped running.

I don’t know if it was the lower altitude or the knowledge that we only had a few kilometres to go but suddenly I had lots of energy and the afternoon saw me striding out in front of the group, eager to reach the finish line. Everyone else was quite tired and one girl in particular was really suffering, so Amanda put on some music on her mobile and she and I danced and sang to an Abba song to encourage everyone up the last hill and suddenly, 9 hours after starting our walk, we found ourselves in Lukla.

At the Paradise Lodge Amanda and I were lucky to have an outside room, with no neighbours, and not only did we have an en-suite with a western flushing toilet and a sink that dispatched (cold) running water, it was big enough to fit three beds! We were deliriously happy and marvelled at the fact that if we had been shown this room in the UK, for example, we would have been very disappointed but after the deprivation on the trek it seemed the height of luxury; paradise indeed.

Dinner was Smash (yes, potato smash!), fried chicken, veg, salad and the dreaded spaghetti. As the trek was finished I was very happy to pass on the spaghetti and Amanda and I shared a celebratory beer. Following cake, we had a touching ceremony where the trek leaders handed out medals to each of us, including the Sherpas and Porters. It was hard to believe that we had started and completed the trek, it only seemed a short while ago that we had set off from the Paradise Lodge with the whole journey in front of us. We felt like a big family, having experienced the highs, helped each other through the lows and achieved our goals together.

The A team was once again spared the early morning flight, so a few of us stayed up a while with the Sherpas and had a party of sorts before heading to bed with a smile on our faces.

#46 Days 21-22: Dingboche – Tengboche – Namche, Nepal

 

Sunday 16 & Monday 17 April 2017

Amanda and I enjoyed our extra hour in bed this morning as we weren’t leaving until 9am. Walking into the communal room for breakfast I was greeted by a chirpy Sarah (not sure if I’ve mentioned her previously, she provides admin support to the project and was also on the trip as a trekker), who was handing out little bags of mini eggs from Xtreme Everest – it was Easter Sunday! 

When you’re travelling you can easily lose track of the days and I hadn’t realised it was Easter so it was a very nice surprise and receiving a present put everyone in a festive mood. It hadn’t snowed overnight so while it was cold in the morning and still a lot of snow on the ground, we knew we would be descending into warmer climes as the day went on and were in good spirits. At this point I should mention Team Tortoise, of which I was a member. Going along the trail you fall in with the people who walk at a similar speed to you so there was a little core of us ladies who had gotten in the habit of walking together – me, Amanda, Tiffany, Steph, Michaela, Sarah, Helen and occasionally Anu and Sethu. 

As we were now descending and the pressure was off we weren’t in a rush and leisurely made our way, stopping to take photos and enjoying the walk and exchanging “Happy Easters” with people on the trail. Sarah had some spare bags of eggs and gave them out to people who were particularly jolly or kids who enthusiastically said hello to us as we walked past.

The ‘Everest’ film we had watched the night before had made a real impression on all of us and we literally talked about it non-stop for at least an hour. As we got lower the snow was melting away and once we had crossed the tree line there was a lovely smell of pine. We once again walked through the forest of rhododendrons and pushed ourselves up the hill to Tengboche, where we were happy to be staying in the nicest lodge in the village.

When all the room keys were dished out Amanda and I found ourselves in the basement, as we were both still suffering a bit with our colds and chest infections the lovely Jess and Alice kindly gave us their room on the second floor (and received a beer in return). Our new room had lovely views and as the sun was shining through the window it was warm. Amanda and I decided to buy a wifi card and spent a relaxing afternoon catching up with family and friends and Facebook. I know there are pros and cons with social media but for me it’s been quite comforting to be able to contact people, and to receive encouragement and positive comments to keep me going.

Before dinner I went to use the toilet and saw a big rat; animals became the theme for the evening … On coming back from dinner (a very nice Dhal Bhat) we came across a cute puppy! It was curled up at the end of the corridor and we didn’t have the heart to chase it away as it was cold outside. We said goodnight and went back to our respective rooms. During the night there was a bit of a kerfuffle, Sarah and Michaela were in bed and heard some rustling. They switched on the light and saw some debris on the floor, as Sarah went to put on her shoe she found some rodent droppings inside and as Michaela pulled out her kit bag she discovered a mouse (or mice, or even the rat) had eaten the nuts in her bag! I’m not sure if they actually saw the mouse or if it was long gone by the time they had rummaged around in the kit bag, but I don’t think either of them got much sleep that night.

The next morning we were given a choice to either have a lunch stop or walk straight through and eat at Namche. Team Tortoise chose the latter and we had a nice walk down the hill and along the side of the mountain. Towards the end it was a bit like the walk to Gorak Shep where we kept ascending hills only to find another one waiting for us. In this instance we kept approaching a hairpin and Steph would say “I’m sure Namche is just around this bend” and then of course we’d see another corner in the distance …

We reached there before 2pm and after some lunch headed down into town for a hot chocolate and the internet and then back up for dinner. Everyone went to bed early as we had a long walk tomorrow – up to 10hrs – and then we would be back in Lukla where we started!