Spirit Animal

Spirit AnimalI’ve had the Spirit Animal Blog Award on my back-burner since May while I faffed about with perfected my Tibet series. Apologies Marcia! Anyway, here it is now, though, as is my wont, I haven’t quite stuck to all the rules.

1.) Thank the blogger who nominated you and link back to their page. Marcia Strykowski is a children’s author and librarian, but she blogs about all sorts of other things too – art, history, music and travel. Sometimes they combine – my favourite recent post is Girls Reading Books, a collection of artworks of (you’ve guessed) girls reading books. So many thanks to Marcia for choosing me, and please check out her blog.

2.) Post the award on your blog. Done!

3.) Write a short paragraph about yourself and what your blog means to you. I don’t want to write too much here because I’ve answered similar questions before. I’m a retired librarian and used to be responsible for buying children’s books, so you can see where Marcia and I find things in common. Basically, my blog serves as my travel diary. I want to look back when I’m 100 (why not have ambition?) and relive my adventures. Well, maybe not the Tibet one.

4.) If you could be an animal, what would it be? Although I would say I’m an animal lover, I’ve only had four pets in my life. Would you like to hear about them? Well, you’re going to anyway!

The budgie:

Boris the Budgie
Boris the Budgie
This is me, aged two. Look carefully on my shoulder and you will see Boris the Budgie. Don’t ask me why he was called Boris, he came already named. A few years later, he fell off his perch and we buried him in a shoebox in the garden. It was my first experience of death and I found the idea of burial very puzzling. Would I like to be a budgie? No, too bird-brained.

The dog:

Mandy
Mandy
Fast forward a few years, almost a decade probably, and we got a dog, Mandy, a beautiful Basset Hound. Beautiful, but daft as a brush. Would I like to be a dog? No, too many walkies in the rain.

The cats:

John and I have had two cats, Purdy (grey and white) and Sally (the black one). Cats are fascinating. Their brains are the size of walnuts yet can produce towering – and very different – personalities. There are tales to be told about both these cats! Maybe someday. When Sally died we decided not to replace her to leave us more free for travelling. I sometimes regret that, but eight years later we’re still holding firm. Would I like to be a cat? I think so! You know the saying, dogs have owners but cats have staff. I would be happy lolling around in the sun or on a comfy bed with a tame human to cater to my every need.

Back to the rules:

5.) Pick and notify ten nominees. I never do nominations. However, I like to give shout-outs to blogs that I enjoy on a similar theme. So for animal lovers:

Travels with Choppy. Choppy the dog is the star but she has recently acquired a feline sidekick, Schooner. You won’t believe the things they get up to! Sarah, their human, has a fertile imagination.

Zombie Flamingos. Great title! Emily lives in Victoria, BC, and blogs about all sorts of things. However, rarely does a post end without the most important thing of all: pictures of her kitties.

Brian, Ardbeg and Lily. I don’t have a dog, and don’t intend to get one, so why do I enjoy Alex’s blog about living with, and training, rescue dogs so much? The pictures, yes, but there’s also a lot of wisdom in it. Turns out getting the best from dogs can be very similar to getting the best from people.

So those are my answers. They’ve been fun to write because this is so different from my normal posts. Thanks once again to Marcia for the nomination.

Oor Wullie

Wullie the Cowboy
Wullie the Cowboy

I’ve seen many charity sculpture trails in different cities. The latest one is Oor Wullie (Our Willie) currently gracing Dundee, the city where publisher D.C. Thomson has produced a comic strip featuring Wullie in the The Sunday Post since 1937. Wullie was a staple of my childhood with his spiky hair, dungarees and an upturned bucket, often used as a seat. Now over 50 artists have given him a makeover, but I didn’t have to go to Dundee to see them. A small group is touring the country – I found Wullie the Cowboy in Glasgow Central Station and the ones below were all in the Kibble Palace at the Botanic Gardens.

In September, the statues will be auctioned off in aid of Tayside Children’s Hospital. Isn’t Wullie braw?

PS Paisley, the town where my Mum lives, also has a statue trail at the moment: Pride of Paisley. There are lions everywhere! Unfortunately, most of the ones I have seen have been from the car, but here are two captured on a recent shopping trip. There are big lions and small lions, the latter decorated by local schoolchildren.

These statues will also be auctioned in aid of two local hospices. I don’t think my garden’s big enough for a lion, is yours?

Glasgow’s Clyde

Squinty Bridge (Clyde Arc)
Squinty Bridge (Clyde Arc)
A few weeks ago, our Sunday afternoon plans fell through so we took a walk down to the Clyde instead. So many times I have walked in other riverside cities and marvelled at what they have made of their waterfronts. Glasgow always seemed to be lagging behind – in fact there were parts of the Clyde Walkway I just wouldn’t have felt safe walking along at one time. Thankfully, in recent years we have been catching up with the rest of the world and the Walkway is a very pleasant stroll. It also allows for a trip down Memory Lane as you shall see.

We started at the old (1870s) Hydraulic Pumping Station on Yorkhill Quay which used to power a swing bridge over the dock entrance. These Victorians really knew how to dress up their industrial buildings! It’s been used as a restaurant recently, hence the much newer conservatory. From here, you can look back to the Riverside Museum and the Tallship Glenlee.

Across the river, on the south side, is the Science Centre flanked by the BBC building, just visible on the left, and the Glasgow Tower which opened in 2001.

Glasgow Science Centre
Glasgow Science Centre
According to the Science Centre website:

Glasgow Tower is the only structure on earth capable of rotating 360 degrees into the prevailing wind and holds the Guinness-World-Record for the tallest fully rotating freestanding structure in the World. At 127 metres high, the equivalent of over 30 double-decker buses, the Glasgow Tower is the tallest freestanding building in Scotland.

You should be able to take a lift up to the Tower’s viewing platform. However, it has been closed for about 80% of its life because of a succession of structural problems and the fact that it can’t operate if it’s too windy. To be honest, I’m not that keen to try it…..

Near here, two pedestrian bridges cross the Clyde. We took the Millenium Bridge across the river, pausing in the centre to look upstream to Bell’s Bridge (the blue one) and the Clyde Arc, better known in Glasgow as the Squinty Bridge.

Bell's Bridge and Clyde Arc
Bell’s Bridge and Clyde Arc
This is where Memory Lane kicks in. Bell’s Bridge was built as the entrance to the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988. I have wonderful memories of this – we had season tickets and visited often over the summer. Once the festival was finished, the site lay derelict for years until it slowly re-established itself as a media quarter. Here’s Bell’s Bridge in 1988 (with a bearded John) and a view of the site from the festival’s tower. Bell’s Bridge is visible at top left.

We only walked a little way along the south bank so that we could cross back over at Bell’s Bridge. We got a good view of the Clyde Auditorium (aka Armadillo) on the north bank and saw a poignant memorial to a firefighter.

The BBC Scotland Building is fronted by a sculpture, Poised Array, by Toby Paterson and displays a fabulous reflection of the other side of the river in its glass walls.

In 1988, Bell’s Bridge would never have been quiet enough to get a shot like this! Once again, we stopped in the centre of the bridge, this time to watch jet-skiers tearing downriver.

Back on the north side of the river we came to the Finnieston Crane – you’ve possibly spotted it already in both 1988 and 2016 pictures. It was erected in 1931 to load huge locomotives, a major export and Glasgow’s second most important engineering industry.

A little further on, we reached the North Rotunda. It and its southern companion mark the ends of the Harbour Tunnel built in the 1890s and long since fallen into disuse. The North Rotunda has been a restaurant for as long as I can remember, but the South Rotunda is boarded up. However, during the Garden Festival it served as Nardini’s Ice Cream Parlour.

Across from the Rotunda is a Hilton Garden Inn with a riverside bar. It was a very hot day, so we couldn’t pass that could we? Behind me, you can see the South Rotunda and the STV building. It seems that drinking beer in the sun was a 1988 pastime too!

Just past the Hilton is the Squinty Bridge. We didn’t cross it, but I’ve included this shot so that you can see why it got it’s nickname. I’ve never heard anyone actually calling it the Clyde Arc.

Squinty Bridge (Clyde Arc)
Squinty Bridge (Clyde Arc)
The next bridge down, we most certainly couldn’t cross. The Kingston Bridge carries the M8 over the river. We could stand under it though and admire the mural by Smug (Sam Bates). It’s one of several around the city celebrating the Commonwealth Games of 2014 which were held in Glasgow. There’s also a memorial to another fire disaster.

From the Kingston Bridge we decided to head for home. First we had to negotiate the bridges and walkways across the M8 and the Clydeside Expressway, both very busy roads.

On the other side, we came across this lovely old building, a former savings bank.

We walked past the splendid new Central Gurdwara and the building it replaced…

….before heading home through the greenery of Kelvingrove Park.

Kelvingrove Park
Kelvingrove Park
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Clydeside stroll. The best bit for me has been looking out my 1988 photographs, though my memory failed me in one thing. I thought we had so many – but there are only 55. For the whole summer! We take more than that in a day now: how times have changed. I also went looking for our Glasgow Garden Festival whisky miniature but, unaccountably, that seems to have gone. I did find our Festival Friends lapel pins and this photograph of me hillwalking the following year in my Festival T-shirt (another non-survivor) so I’ll leave you with that while I go off and nurse my serious hair envy. Can you have that for your younger self?

Ben Chabhair 1989
Ben Chabhair 1989
Linked to Jo’s Monday Walks.

Tibet 2000: Lhasa to Kathmandu

Hotel Manaslu, Kathmandu
Hotel Manaslu, Kathmandu

(This is the final episode – find the rest by selecting the Tibet Category.)

We were happy to have made it back to Lhasa, but desperate to arrange the next stage of our journey. Incredibly, even though the advice the company had given us the evening before (to continue to Shigatse) had been so plainly wrong, W’s manager was still trying to insist that it was possible to get overland to the Nepalese border (in fact later that day the whole road was officially closed by the government.) However, they would get us flights if possible and W would meet us at 8 o’clock that evening to let us know the result.

After the manager had gone, W told us that the German party had priority and would get out before us – they were a bigger and more profitable group. However, he himself “knew somebody” at the airport and would try by his own methods to get us flights because he liked and trusted us. I have mentioned before how much we valued W, but it is true that this worked both ways. Several times, W had commented on what “nice” or “strong” people we were, by which I think he meant that we accepted adversity with good humour, no-one complained (well, we all did a little bit) and certainly no-one got angry or pointed the finger of blame at him. We knew he was doing his best for us under difficult circumstances, but a different set of people could have given him a really hard time.

At this point, we parted with our drivers. W gave us guidelines on what to tip them, and we did so at the lower end of the scale. Afterwards we felt a bit guilty because they had driven well through horrendous conditions, but overall we had got quite annoyed with them. The Landcruisers themselves were dodgy – apart from the axle incident, I’ve lost count of the number of times they had to be started by lifting the bonnet: not good in the back of beyond. Also, the two drivers did not seem to like each other very much and were very competitive, always wanting to be in front. Sometimes we didn’t know where the other vehicle was which was particularly worrying for us because W usually travelled with the other group leaving us vulnerable if something went wrong. We couldn’t decide whether our own driver was just trying to be friendly, or whether his interest in C was getting unhealthy – she sat in the front the first day, but after that we thought it safer to put John there. He didn’t mind – the front seat was much better sprung! Finally, we made the mistake of applauding our driver when he negotiated a couple of particularly difficult bits of road and this seemed to go to his head because his driving got very aggressive after that and we suffered the consequences.

That afternoon, we tried phoning various agencies we thought might help with tickets and got a gloomy response from all. It seemed the next two or three flights might be problematic, and John and I started planning what we could do for the next few days if stuck in Lhasa and we also considered if there were any alternative routes out, for example through Hong Kong. However, it all proved unnecessary. When we met W at 8pm, he said his manager was “more powerful” than he was and had secured us a 90% chance of tickets. It all depended on air temperature. Apparently, 20-30 seats were usually kept free, because with the air being so thin at that altitude, there might not be enough lift for a full plane to take off if it was over 10° C. If the temperature was right, we could have some of those seats. We told C not to feel too lucky; we could do without her sort of luck!

At 9.30pm, W summoned us again to say that his own negotiations had now borne fruit and we could definitely have the tickets if we gave his friend at the airport “a good present”. This amounted to $50 apiece – we paid, and kept our fingers crossed about the air temperature. The next morning, we got away.

Arriving in Kathmandu felt like coming home. The people there, as before, were friendly, colourful and, above all, clean. The horrors of the previous three days faded away and didn’t seem so bad after all. This was Saturday – the Fs invited us to a lovely farewell dinner at their hotel, C left on the Sunday and we left on Monday feeling that we had had a good holiday after all.

So what did I learn? That as I expected, I am a tourist not a traveller, but when things go wrong I can still cope. I don’t panic, and I keep calm and cheerful. The value of comradeship was also brought home to me – the experience was so much better for being surrounded by sympathetic people. I also saw at first hand the dirt-poor lives that people in some countries live and know I have so much to be thankful for.

As I said at the beginning of the series, I wrote this account at the time of our trip – in fact, I started as soon as we got back to Kathmandu and continued to write during the flight home on any scrap of paper I could find. I originally ended with some political thoughts, but I want to steer clear of that here. We won’t be going back to Tibet, but I’ll certainly never forget it.

If this has whetted your interest in Tibet, you might like to look at Travelling Rockhopper’s blog. Each month, she chooses a country and posts one photo a day with a little information about it. In April she covered Tibet – here is the first post, so take it from there!

Tibet 2000: the sleepover

Tibetan village
Tibetan village
(If you’re wondering why we’re planning to spend the night on the road, check out previous posts in the Tibet Category).

The other vehicles backed up and prepared to spend the night. W was more resourceful. He knew of several places we might be able to sleep: the road menders’ hostel, the hydro-electric power station hostel and an army hotel. The first two were closed and the last would not (understandably) let us in. By this time we had reached a small village with a teahouse and, after some negotiation, we were invited in for tea with the possibility of using the place to bunk down for the night. It was filthy, buzzing with flies and the roof leaked. We accepted the tea (which was fine, untainted by yak) but declined the offer of accommodation, preferring to sleep in the Landcruisers. W and the drivers said they would use the teahouse, but a young, single woman ran it and she didn’t want to share it with three strange men. W then reported that the farmers had offered us the use of their bedrooms and I asked if they would be clean. No, he said worse than this. We declined again and all six of us elected to sleep in the vehicles, so W and the drivers went to the farmers’ houses.

Teahouse and our Landcruisers
Teahouse and our Landcruisers
To say we were the talk of the steamie at this point would not do the situation justice. The entire village, it seemed, was ranged against the teahouse wall watching us. This was actually very typical of the whole trip. Wherever we stopped, however remote the location and however bad the weather, within a couple of minutes an audience would materialise to stare at us. Sometimes they would come right up to the car and stick their noses to the window, and if the doors were open they would stick their heads right in for a better look. The only word they knew was “hello” which they would say over and over again with C, being blonde, attracting the most attention. It was quite un-nerving.

Waking up
Waking up
Finally, we got settled down for the night. The village had no toilets so W advised us to “go anywhere”, which we did. The down jackets provided by our tour company, which we had been lugging around reluctantly, were now pressed into service and proved very cosy to sleep in – and, surprisingly, we did sleep. At least we did after fits of hysterical giggles when C pointed out that a week ago we had never even met, and now here we were sleeping together. The fact that this was in a Landcruiser in Tibet, and a privilege for which we had all paid out thousands of dollars, just made us worse. John remarked plaintively that I was always nagging him to take more time off, and look what happened when he did. I gave him permission to shoot me if I ever again suggested anything more adventurous than a fortnight in Bournemouth.

We got up about seven the next morning so that we could attend to the necessary ablutions before it got too light and our audience got up. Having done this, and breakfasted on water and crackers, we waited for W and the drivers. And waited, and waited. There was no sign of them, but the rest of the village appeared as expected to watch – except one guy who decided to provide his own show. John suddenly hissed to C and me that there was a man masturbating across the road from us. We were too ladylike to look, of course, but this was another example of how, just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, they always did!

The road is under here somewhere!
The road is under here somewhere!
We finally got away about 9.30, quite annoyed because we all felt that the sooner we got to Lhasa and were able to fix up flights the better. When we reached the washed-away part of the road again most of the other vehicles had already gone, but I was very relieved to see the Chinese minibus was there. The river over the road was still in full flood, but we got through it by driving upstream to a point where the bank was quite low, and onto the road at the other side from there. After this, it was plain sailing back to the Hotel Lhasa where we were met by a manager from W’s company and started to negotiate our way out.

Well, here I am 16 years later writing from Scotland so I can’t leave you with too much of a cliff-hanger. However, I hope you’ll come back on Thursday for the conclusion to my tale.

Tibet 2000: escape from Gyantse

(Part Five – to find out how we got into this predicament, check out Parts One, Two, Three and Four.)

The road from Gyantse to Lhasa consisted of little more than a dirt track over three mountain passes – one small one and two very high ones (over 15,000 ft). In many places, the track was churned up mud or a river ran over it. C said she felt lucky, and we knew we needed luck. We set off at 10, and 50 minutes later were sitting at our first landslide. The Chinese minibus and a convoy of other 4WDs were also waiting, including the Germans who had been there for two hours already. Two diggers were working on the landslide and I asked W how long he thought it would take to clear – about 3 or 4 hours. So what should we do? Wait. At first, progress was discouraging as every time some rocks were cleared, more fell down. We didn’t envy the drivers of the diggers their jobs.

Eventually, after 3.5 hours (more respect to W) it was clear and we all set off again. Passing the site of the rock fall was scary as we felt more could come down at any time. Neither were we too happy that one of the diggers had already gone off ahead of us, indicating another slide in front. Sure enough, after less than half an hour we stopped again, but this time it was just mud that had slipped and it was easier to clear. After only 20 minutes, we were away again.

Things then set into a predictable pattern. The convoy would move along fairly quickly until it hit bad mud or running water. The 4WDs would get through, but the Chinese minibus would always get stuck. It didn’t have sufficient clearance or power and shouldn’t really have been on that road. The other drivers treated it with a mixture of exasperation, jockeying for position to try to ensure it was behind them, and solidarity – there was always someone prepared to help pull it out. Often, the passengers would have to disembark to make it lighter and I felt very sorry for them as they seemed to have had far less idea of what they were letting themselves in for than we did. The ladies had nice shoes and handbags and were very reluctant to jump out into running water.

In this way, we made it over the first high pass, which had snow at the top. It was now late in the afternoon so W was beginning to think we would not make Lhasa before dark, and none of us wanted to be driving mountain tracks at night. There was a village in between the two passes which we would reach about 6pm and he thought we should spend the night in a guesthouse there. We looked it up in the guidebook and shuddered. This reluctance was not expressed in words, but must have communicated itself because by the time we got there the plan had changed to dinner only. We really wanted to press on, but as W very fairly pointed out, the drivers needed a break. He guaranteed we could still reach Lhasa that night so we trooped into the restaurant. It wasn’t very nice, but we saw worse later, and anyway we trusted W not to take us anywhere that would make us ill. It was not in his interests to have two car-loads of sick people!

Things were going well, we felt optimistic – and then W came back with some very bad news. He had just phoned his manager and the flight on Saturday was full! Not only that, the next flight on Tuesday was not certain either. Incredibly, the manager was still suggesting we should carry on to Shigatse the long way round that night and continue our overland journey. We were aghast. We didn’t believe we’d get through in time by land, and if we didn’t get flights to Kathmandu on Saturday, C and ourselves would miss our flights home. The Fs were not returning to Austria till Thursday, but were no keener than the rest of us to spend two extra days in Tibet. We’d had enough. W indicated subtly that there were sometimes plane tickets available “by corruption” and we all told him to ask his manager to acquire these if at all possible at whatever cost. This is how low we would now stoop.

Sometimes the scenery was beautiful!
Sometimes the scenery was beautiful!
A subdued party got back into the Landcruisers, but we made it to the top of the last pass easily and cheered up a bit. The road from here was reckoned to be quite good and W had never known it to cause problems. However, the weather on the other side of the pass was poor. It had been snowing, was now raining, the roads were icy and it was getting dark. There were so many tight bends we felt we could have slipped over at any time had our drivers not been so skilful. When we got below the snow-line the relief was almost palpable – until we turned another corner and came upon the whole convoy again, stuck at another landslide. This was a bad one – right on a bend, deep mud all over the road and about a foot of water running across it. Worse, the minibus was ahead of us.

The drivers went off to investigate, followed by John. C and I had long since abandoned getting out to look, and fortunately John seemed to enjoy his role as roving reporter (or so he said). He took his torch but came back without it, astonished that not one of the drivers carried one. This didn’t inspire confidence. However, the news was reasonable – the water level was dropping and the drivers seemed to think it would soon be “safe” to attempt a crossing. I tried not to think of the mud slipping further down the mountain taking our vehicle with it. Before this, there was still the problem of the minibus, which was bound to get stuck – our drivers thought so too and decided to overtake it. I could only close my eyes. The road was just wide enough and half an inch to the left and we’d have been off it. This was the moment when I most thought I might die. Still, we made it past the bus and over the landslide – and predictably, the minibus stuck. Our driver just carried on. There were now two more 4WDs behind the bus and I suppose he thought it was up to them to come to the rescue. I felt bad, but didn’t object.

A problem now arose with the other Landcruiser in our party. It had damaged its rear axle and could only limp down the pass. Eventually, we reached a flat, metalled road and the drivers stopped to make a temporary repair. Spirits rose again. It was only half past ten and we could still reach Lhasa by midnight. The road from here was easy – we thought, but as had happened so often that day, every time we thought the worst was over, an even bigger disaster happened. The metalled road we were on had been swept away by a flood just before the junction with the main Lhasa/Shigatse road. A couple of vehicles were trying to get across but it was too difficult in the dark. We would not get to Lhasa till morning.

Where did we rest our weary heads? Find out on Monday!

Tibet 2000: in Gyantse

Gyantse from hotel roof
Gyantse

(This is Part Four of a series. If you’ve just joined me, and want to know how we got to Gyantse, check out Parts One, Two and Three before reading on).

I should have mentioned we were having torrential rain every night. The next morning, W told us the road to Shigatse had been swept away, the bridge was gone and the river in town was flooding. We had two choices. We could go almost all the way back to Lhasa and take an alternative route to Shigatse, but there was no guarantee the roads further on were any better and we might get stuck again. Alternatively, we could cut our losses, go straight back to Lhasa and get a flight out. There were three a week to Kathmandu – Thursday, Saturday and Tuesday. This was Wednesday, so it seemed sensible to try for Thursday so that we could get out before the rush. No doubt every tour group was going to attempt the same thing. W called his manager, who called back to say that he had booked our flights but we would have to pay for them ourselves. There was a lot of argument about this, but eventually at 11:30 we set off along the road we had just come the day before. The difference this time was that we knew exactly how bad it would be.

Gyantse Dong
Gyantse Dong

Within an hour, we were back at the Gyantse Hotel booking in for another night. We had met a convoy coming the other way, which had already turned back from a point where the road was blocked. Part of the problem was vehicles stuck in the mud from the night before which had travelled later than we had and whose occupants had had to spend the night there. We realised how lucky we had been. W phoned his manager again and he agreed to change our flights to the Saturday.

The rest of the day became surreal. Everything we tried to do went wrong. We went to the monastery. It was closed. We went to Gyantse Dong (the castle). It was closed. Everyone in town was away helping to dam the river. We went to check on their progress and to see what the water level indicated for our chances of escape the next day. The military police stopped us. Our guide was taken away for questioning for almost two hours while we sat in the hotel, drank beer (not good for the headache) and sweated. W got a huge cheer when he returned, which he accepted with his usual modesty. We all respected him a lot by now, and this respect increased later that evening when two other groups, whose guides had not looked after them so well, returned dirty and tired having tried to find a way through to Shigatse – these were the already-mentioned Germans and a minibus full of Chinese. When W told us Shigatse was impossible, we believed him.

That night was my lowest point. I lay awake listening to the rain and worrying. When would we get out? Landslides and bridges could take days or even weeks to fix. What if the river flooded and we were trapped in the hotel? What if one of us got sick? What if we tried to get back and had an accident en route? – a distinct possibility given what I knew about the road. Should I be ringing home to remind people where our wills were and to get someone to adopt the cat? Things got really bleak – but next day dawned bright and sunny and W was optimistic. We met him after breakfast and he reported that the Germans had left at 8am to go back to Lhasa and, as they had not yet returned, he thought we should follow them. We rushed off to pack.

Find out how the journey went in Monday’s instalment.

Tibet 2000: the road to Gyantse

Lhasa - Gyantse road
Lhasa – Gyantse road

(This is Part Three of a seven-part tale. If you want to catch up, Part One is the Introduction and Part Two is about Lhasa.)

Soon, the day for our overland trip arrived. The day before, we had each been asked to pay an extra $87 to hire two Toyota Landcruisers because, according to W our guide, the roads were “very bad, very bad” and the bus wouldn’t make it. Well, we weren’t surprised about the bus and we’d seen some pretty smart-looking Landcruisers about town, so this seemed ok. And if the roads were bad – well, we hadn’t expected a holiday camp either. However, the Landcruisers were old, beaten-up and rattled more than the bus. Still, things weren’t too bad for the first 90 minutes, until we left the main road and swung off up a mountain pass on a winding, un-metalled track. We all began to wonder what we had let ourselves in for. This was supposed to be a 10-12 hour drive and already we felt we’d never survive. The scenery was spectacular, but we felt too awful to appreciate it.

After four hours, we reached a “restaurant” (hut in the middle of nowhere) where we had lunch. This was our big chance to try yak butter tea, the local speciality. John, who is notorious for trying anything revolting, quite liked it – it reminded him of Stilton soup. I smelled it and heaved, asking for jasmine instead. I’m sure this came in the same bowl, which hadn’t been rinsed out, but at least it was drinkable. After lunch, the ladies tentatively asked about the facilities. W advised us that there was a toilet, but that we’d be better going behind a wall outside. Hmm….

A word about Tibetan toilets. The hotels we stayed in had normal Western sanitation, but outside a toilet (usually announced by its smell) consisted of a communal room with two planks over a noxious pit. No running water, no privacy. When sightseeing, we had all managed to avoid this because we always went back to the hotel at lunchtime. (Except for John of course, who with his usual disgusting curiosity went into each one just to look, even if he didn’t need to go.) On the road, it was different. The men, as usual, had no bother. The women developed a system of standing guard for each other (no bushes or big rocks available), and certainly our modesty decreased as the week wore on. The first time was a bit of a disaster – C got through alright, but what we hadn’t reckoned with was that, although we were well hidden from our own Landcruisers, we were on a hair-pin bend and there was a convoy of Germans on the way up. I heard their vehicles in mid-flow but had been holding on so long I couldn’t get done in time. We kept meeting those Germans all week. I hope they didn’t recognise me.

Enough about toilets, and back on the road. The first day turned out to be only nine hours. Perhaps, we thought, W was the type to exaggerate how bad things would be so that we felt good when they were better. We arrived at the Gyantse Hotel for one night – it looked like a toilet block from the outside, but was quite smart and comfortable inside. Our brochure described the next day as a pleasant two-hour drive to Shigatse with a visit to a monastery in the afternoon – and if W was saying the roads were now “very, very bad”, well, we knew he exaggerated didn’t we?

Come back on Monday to find out what happened next….

Tibet 2000: Lhasa

Gallery 1: Potala Palace

(This is the second instalment of this tale. Part One is Tibet 2000: introduction).

We arrived in Tibet full of optimism. There were six of us: myself and John, C, a young Italian/American woman and the F family from Austria: mother, father and 17-year old son. The programme was that we flew up to Lhasa (at an altitude of 3650 m, about 12,000 ft), spent a couple of days sightseeing and then returned overland to the border with Nepal. This would be a 5-day drive, with the possibility of a 5-mile walk at the very end where the road into Nepal was often impassable. It would be downhill and there would be porters to carry our bags so it didn’t sound too bad. The best laid plans…..

Gallery 2: Barkhor Square and the Jokhang

We were met at the airport by W, our Chinese guide, and driven into Lhasa (one and a half hours away) in a very rickety bus which we were dismayed to learn was our transport for the week – we were expecting the roads in Tibet to be a bit rough and it didn’t seem up to it. Still, the Hotel Lhasa was very plush and we were to have three nights there, so things didn’t look too bad especially as our first evening was a success. C, John and I went out to find a restaurant and, as we had followed our guide’s directions wrongly, we missed the tourist ones and ended up on a street where all the restaurants were aimed at Chinese locals. However, we found one that had its name in English as well as Chinese and we took the fact that it was busy as a good sign. When we went in, we caused total consternation amongst both staff and customers. Such an invasion of foreigners had obviously never happened before. Eventually, a diner with some rudimentary English was found, we were ushered into a separate room and he helped us to order some food. It was excellent, and cost less than a fiver for all three of us. As we ate, we congratulated ourselves on how well we were feeling – slightly headachey perhaps, but no real symptoms of altitude sickness. Little did we know.

Gallery 4: Drepung Monastery

The year before, John and I visited Quito* (9,000 ft) and felt a little dizzy the first night, but otherwise were fine. The extra 3,000 ft made a huge difference. At two o’clock that morning, we both woke up with the most incredible headaches. I have never felt anything like it. John said it resembled a very bad hangover, but either he has experienced hangovers of a spectacular quality I have never attained, or he was not suffering anything like as much as I was. I thought my head would explode. I thought it would fall off. When I got up the next morning, I could only move in slow motion. All week, this headache stayed with me, usually at a fairly low level, but it could be aggravated by various things such as the sun or the motion of the vehicle and it was always more painful at night so I slept quite badly. To make matters worse, another symptom of altitude sickness is loss of appetite and I suffered from this too. Most people will find that hard to believe of me, but it’s true. Typically, I acclimatised on the day before we left Tibet when I began to feel quite human again.

Gallery 4: Sera Monastery

We were joined for our two days’ sightseeing by V, a large Russian, who entertained us all at top volume to his views on the Russian military and the shortcomings of Tibetan food (it wasn’t Western enough) in perfect, if pedantic, English. We could tell W didn’t like him, especially when he called him Comrade. We were supposed to meet up again a couple of days down the road, but this never happened. Our last, incongruous, sight of him was when he was despatched in a tiny rickshaw back to his hotel on the second day. We did ask about him later in the week, but apparently he had disappeared and we never heard what happened to him. We saw the Potala Palace, former home of the Dalai Lama, and three monasteries. All contained gloomy rooms, glorious golden Buddhas and many red-robed monks. However, my strongest memory is of the smell of yak butter candles which permeated everywhere and didn’t help with my queasiness.

Find out what happens when we set out on the road in Thursday’s instalment.

*See Q is for Quito from 2014’s A to Z Challenge.

Tibet 2000: introduction

Potala Palace
Potala Palace, Lhasa

After our visit to Galapagos in 1999, which I blogged about earlier this year, we had a problem. Friends now regarded us as intrepid travellers and kept asking “Where on earth will you go next?” We felt we had to live up to our reputation, so the following year we chose Tibet. No-one we knew had been there….hmmm, I wonder why not? We were to find out. I know some people question whether it is ethical to visit Tibet at all (and it does make me uneasy) but, having decided to go, our big mistake was the timing.

Paintings on the road from the airport to Lhasa
Paintings on the road from the airport to Lhasa

In 2000, for work reasons, we had to take our holidays in September which is the beginning of the rainy season. The first company we booked with cancelled because there weren’t enough people to make a viable group. Should’ve taken the hint then. We found another company who would take us, but we discovered when we arrived for the start of the tour in Kathmandu* that we were their only clients. We were added to another company’s group, and when we arrived in Tibet we were delegated yet again to a Chinese company. This made it very difficult to know who to complain to if things went wrong – and go wrong they did.

Tibet bookWhat follows in the next few posts is a lightly edited version of an account I wrote at the time. This was long before I was a blogger, but a lot of friends and colleagues read it, and years later when I was leaving work one of them contacted John without me knowing to get some photographs and she made me a book as a retirement gift. Thanks Cheryl!

So – come back on Monday for the start of our adventures in Tibet.

* See K is for Kathmandu from 2014’s A to Z Challenge.