Friday, October 10, 2014

Heading for our trek

We flew from Kathmandu to Bhadrapur and drove to just before Fikkal. We are sitting outside our "hotel" (Kanyam Inn) surrounded by a tea plantation. Amazingly we have wifi!

Our guide, Raj, seems very nice and we just met up with our porters who came out by overnight bus. We went for a walk around the tea plantation with all of us taking photos, even our porters (on their phones). 

One more day of driving tomorrow to Taplejung / Suketar and then we start walking. We are looking forward to finally getting out into the mountains. 

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bhaktapur & Durbar Square

On the way back from Nagarkot we stopped at Bhaktapur, the ancient capital of Nepal. Lots of old buildings, temples, and statues.

let sleeping dogs lie
"let sleeping dogs lie"


Bhaktapur also has some crafts. This is pottery square.


This morning, we walked over to Durbar Square (the one in Kathmandu - there are more Durbar squares other places, including in Bhaktapur) The thing I remembered about Durbar Square was all the pigeons, and sure enough they were there in abundance.


We usually try to escape all the locals pushing to be your "guide" at these kinds of places. But at Durbar Square one latched onto us right away. He didn't try to negotiate a price so we let him talk for a bit. Finally we said "How much?". "Whatever you want to give me is fine" he said. We knew that probably wouldn't be the case, but what the heck, he was reasonably informative. When we finished he said "Some other people gave me 2000 rupees." Considering at Bhaktapur our driver had said not to pay more than 150, this seemed a little steep. I offered him 500 and he was outraged and at first he wouldn't take it. Finally he did and stomped off grumbling. I felt a bit bad because obviously I could afford 2000 (about $20), but at the same time it doesn't seem like a good idea to encourage ripping off tourists. After he left an older shopkeeper said to us, "You got a good guide, hey," laughing,  "we call him Alcohol Guide." Sadly, I guess we know where his money goes.


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Himalayan Sunrise

Our previous visits to Kathmandu have been fairly short and filled with preparations for (or recuperation from) climbing expeditions. So we haven't really explored the area very much. I had read about the sunrise view of the mountains from Nagarkot - a hilltop about an hour out of Kathmandu and looked into hotels but gave up because there were so many and it was impossible to figure out which to choose. When we got here we talked to our trekking agent (Himal of Visit Himalaya) and he recommended the Viewpoint Hotel and arranged for a car to drive us out and back. We were glad we'd waited for a recommendation since a lot of the hotels didn't look too appetizing and most didn't have good views.

drive from Kathmandu to Nagarkot
drive from Kathmandu to Nagarkot
The hotel and rooms were fairly basic but it's right at the top of the hill and has great views both of the distant mountains and the valleys.

evening clouds
I raised my eyebrows when I saw cappuccino on the menu. Given what I could see of the kitchen (and that the power was out), I was pretty sure it couldn't be the real thing, but I couldn't resist ordering one just to see what it would be. I ended up with a small water glass filled with a thick slurry of hot water, hot chocolate, and instant coffee. Not exactly cappuccino but I sure got my sugar and caffeine fix!

As usual, it was cloudy in the evening but we were lucky enough to get a few glimpses of snowy mountains peeking out.

Langtang at sunset

In the morning we got up at 5:30am just as it was barely getting light. The highest rooftop viewing area was crowded with people, but luckily the level below also had a good view and almost no people. We were lucky to have clear skies with only a few clouds in the valleys. The sunrise started with a beautiful pink along the horizon.


After a bit the sun hit the tops of the highest peaks.



Finally the sun itself came into view.


Although the mountains are still a long way away that meant we could see a long line of them. Far to the west was Manaslu. To the north Shisha Pangma (in Tibet) was just visible. We were on expeditions to climb both of these (in '99 and '01) so it was nice to see them again, even from a distance.

After taking a zillion photos we had breakfast and then went to find a nature trail that I had seen a sign for on the drive up. We didn't have a lot of time but it was nice to get away from roads and houses and walk through the cool moist forest. (A change from hot dry dusty Kathmandu)


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Kathmandu Zoo

I like to visit zoos wherever I go. Obviously, some are better than others, and places like Kathmandu don't tend to have great zoos but they're still fun to visit. (As long as you can get over the poor conditions that some animals are living in. But sadly, that's part of all zoos.)

Like the Hong Kong zoo, most of the cages were heavy wire mesh so it wasn't great for photographs.

One of the first things we saw were pelicans. The ones in Saskatoon are American white pelicans, these are an asian variety.


I'm not sure why the hippo was yawning, but we got a good look at his teeth!


Ostriches are such funny looking birds.


These are the greynecked or house crows that are very common here. They are the ones that wake us up at dawn every day. Another wild resident was a monkey (like the ones at the monkey temple). I looked over and saw it sitting by a tree, not in a cage, and my first thought was that it must be tied up somehow. But then it got up and sauntered away. Coming from Canada, I just don't expect to find monkeys wandering around!


The elephant seemed well looked after. When we left he was standing in the flower garden being fed grass and weeds by his keeper. He must be fairly well behaved because they were advertising elephant rides for the kids.


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Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Garden of Dreams


One of the sights listed on Triposo was the Garden of Dreams. Surprisingly it was close to Thamel but we'd never visited, or even heard of it for that matter. When we read about the history we realized why - it had only recently been rescued from long decay and only opened to the public in 2008. We'd walked by outside the wall of the garden many times but never known what was inside.

flowersYou have to pay to enter but it's only 200 rupees (about $2). It's a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of the streets. In addition to the garden itself there's also a nice restaurant at one end and a quiet little bar at the other end.


We went in the morning when it first opened, mostly so it would be cooler. There were only a few other people around and we wandered peacefully and took lots of photographs. We had tea at the restaurant and decided to come back for supper.


When we returned in the evening we were surprised to see how busy the garden was. It's quite large so it wasn't crowded but there were a lot more people than in the morning. We had made a reservation so we got a choice table overlooking the garden. There were some rumbles of thunder but no rain, just big clouds that turned pink as the sun set.


After the sun went down the lights in the garden came on. I had brought a tiny pocket tripod with me, not big enough for the SLR but sufficient for the little RX100. With its big sensor (for a small camera) it does amazingly well in low light, producing quite acceptable results at ISO 6400


It was still early when we finished dinner so we moved to the bar at the other end of the garden. At first we weren't sure it was open since there were no staff or customers. But the doors were open and the lights were on and someone showed up to serve us. It was peaceful enjoying a glass of wine, watching the twilight garden.


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Monday, October 06, 2014


Leaving Hong Kong, the waiting area for our flight to Kathmandu was dominated by trekking types - outdoor clothes, backpacks, water bottles, etc. Some people had obviously been in transit for a while - sprawled out trying to catch up on their sleep.

It was dark so there wasn't much to see on the flight. The highlight was a big lightning storm off to the side. Almost continuous flashes lighting up huge towering thunderheads. We were far enough away that we didn't even get any turbulence.

I wondered if Kathmandu would have a newer airport terminal but it was the same old arrivals area. The change was that they had computerized kiosks for visa applications. Which was a good thing because the paper application required a passport photo and the ones I had brought were packed in our luggage. Oops! The touch screens on the kiosks didn't work very well and, as usual, made you supply way too much information. Shelley cursed and swore at the machine. Despite the long lines, I could see one customs official on Facebook and another playing a game on their computer. Welcome to Kathmandu!

This time it was Shelley's bag that came out early and mine that took forever. Unlike Shelley and I, they don't seem to like traveling together :-) Finally we made it outside to the sea of people. Luckily our trekking company was holding up a colored sign so it was easy to pick out from all the white ones. They took us to our hotel where all was well with our reservation and we were glad to head to bed.

If you've never been to a "third world" country before the drive in from the airport can be a bit of a culture shock. The dirt and garbage, the poor people, the cows and dogs, the traffic. It was after dark so we didn't see all this. But the taxi windows were open to the smells of Kathmandu. They say memory is linked to smell and this was one of those times. It's a unique warm humid blend of dust and diesel and rotting garbage.

We're staying at the Nirvana Garden Hotel. We haven't stayed here before our trekking agent suggested it when I asked for one with a garden. The rooms are nothing special, but it's great to have the garden to relax in. There are flowers and butterflies and birds. And the hotel is off the main streets enough to be quiet.


For our first day in Kathmandu we decided to head to one of the standard sights, Swayambhunath, aka the monkey temple. It's a bit of a walk but it's good to get out of the Thamel tourist area. There were more monkeys than ever. The young ones are cute, but when the adults fight they are quite scary. You have to be a little cautious because they will jump on you if you get too close or have food.

Swayambhunath (monkey temple)


It isn't quite as hot as Hong Kong, but it was still a sunny 28c and we're glad of shade and cold drinks.

In the afternoon we wandered around Thamel seeing what was the same as we remembered and what was different. It was 2006 when I was here last and 2001 for Shelley. Lots has changed over the years. Hard to believe that on our first Himalayan trips (starting in 1999) we had no cell phones and no email or internet. Later there were Internet cafes with rows of desktop computers where we could struggle to send the odd email before the power or the Internet or the computer failed. The Internet cafes have pretty much disappeared. Instead, every restaurant offers wifi (albeit mostly crappy) and everyone is glued to their phones. Thankfully Shelley and I draw the line at Internet while eating!

Decent coffee has also become ubiquitous here. It used to be all you could find was instant. Now there are lots of coffee shops with espresso machines.

Some things remain the same - the narrow twisting streets with no sidewalks, lots of crazy tourists, bicycle rickshaws and taxis and motorcycles all honking and threatening to run you over. Garbage and pollution everywhere. The rivers especially, are used as garbage dumps.

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Saturday, October 04, 2014

Hong Kong 3

Despite it being a tourist trap we enjoyed riding the Ngong Ping 360 cable car up to visit the Tian Tan Buddha. It was another smoggy/foggy day so we didn't get great views, but it made for some moody photos.



It was a little cooler up there, which was a welcome relief. There were tons of people and all kinds of junky tourist souvenir shops. But there was also quite a nice tea house, which for some reason was empty, so we enjoyed a quiet respite from the hordes.

enjoying Pu erh tea

Another way to avoid the crowds would be to hike up. There's a good trail but an awful lot of uphill in this heat. There are lots of trails on Lantau island, including a 70 km loop around the island. Despite being so close to millions of people the hills are quite empty and natural. If I had to live in Hong Kong (god forbid!) I think I'd be heading over here to escape the city.

The heat and humidity here has been wearing. I always say I like the heat - as long as I can sit in the shade with a cold drink. But walking around here, especially uphill and especially in the sun, is too much. I guess you'd get used to it but I can't imagine living here. Of course, they'd say the same about our winters but at least you can dress for the cold. Not much you can do for the heat other than sweat, copiously! And then you get to freeze every time you go into air conditioning. I can never understand why people set the AC so high you need a sweater. But it seems universal in hot places.

People here have been very friendly and helpful. And most people's ability to speak English means you can actually communicate. Whenever we puzzle over a map or look lost someone will stop and ask if we need help. As much as we like to figure things out on our own, it never hurts to get pointed in the right direction.

Hong Kong has been an interesting experience but I'll be glad to get away from the crowds and the malls! Next stop Kathmandu.

waiting to leave Hong Kong

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Friday, October 03, 2014

Hong Kong 2

I was all ready to buy a membership (as is my habit) at the zoo & botanical gardens but it turned out to be free. They had quite a few birds, a few monkeys, and a few tortoises. Unfortunately, it wasn't good for photography since they were all in wire cages and none of the aviaries were the kind you could walk through. So I didn't take many photos, but we still enjoyed wandering around.

When we were watching the tortoises a small rodent ran out and stole some of the tortoise food. I said "look at the mouse". A small girl standing next to me said "it's a rat". Thinking I would educate her I said "it's quite small so it's a mouse". I should have known better. Her father said "Actually it is s rat, it's my area of expertise, that's why she knows." When I looked closer I saw that it did have a rat like head. And the father informed me it's the ratio of the head to the body that helps determine which it is. Learn something every day. Including not to assume you know more than small children!

Beside the lower Victoria peak tram station we had noticed a World Wildlife Fund building. Inside they had information about the Mai Po Nature Reserve that they manage. It's a ways out of town (in the New Territories) but we decided to visit. If nothing else navigating the transit system would be an adventure.

To make it easier to pay fares we bought "Octopus" cards. You can add money to them and use them to pay for transit. The advantage is that you don't have to keep buying tickets. They also seem to be accepted at quite a few stores as well.

Thank goodness that in Hong Kong the signs are in English as well as Chinese. If we were in mainland China getting around would be a lot more difficult!

It took about an hour to get there. The trains were quite crowded (i.e. standing room only) even though we were travelling the opposite direction from all the people commuting into town to work. The last stretch was by taxi. I was glad that the WWF website had provided taxi directions in Chinese (and that I had saved the image on my phone) since the driver didn't understand us.

We were feeling quite proud of ourselves for making it out there, until we found that you couldn't go into reserve by yourself, and the upcoming tour was only in Cantonese! Having come all this way we figured we'd better join the tour. In the end the tour leader was nice enough to give us the high points in English. One of the reasons you aren't allowed to go in on your own is that the reserve is on the border with mainland China which might as well be a different country. We could see the border fence and the buildings of Shenzhen in the background.

Mai Po Nature Reserve

Given that it was supposed to be a good time of the year for seeing birds, there didn't seem to be a lot of them around. And the ones we did see were common and familiar - grebes, cormorants, ibis, egrets, and herons.

great egret

The lotus flowers were beautiful:

lotus flower

I always look for lizards in tropical countries but I hadn't seen any so far. I asked the tour guide and she said they have lots of skinks and geckos. Sure enough, a few minutes later I spotted a skink.


I'm also a fan of praying mantises so I was pleased to see this one:

praying mantis

In the evening we went down to the pier to watch the laser light show. It turned out to not be the best viewpoint but we still got a chance to see some of the night lights.

Hong Kong at night

The escalators (the longest in the world) run downhill in the morning for people going to work, and uphill the rest of the day. They transport a steady stream of people.

mid level escalators

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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Hong Kong

On our first day in Hong Kong we decided to head up the Victoria Peak Tram early to beat the crowds. Tons of police everywhere but our walking route did go by Government House and the US Consulate. Maybe also related to the Occupy demonstrations, although we didn't see any signs of that.

It was a fun ride up the tram. We walked around the Victoria Peak loop (about 3 km) which was thankfully mostly shaded. Can't really beat the heat by getting going early since the overnight low was +28c. We enjoyed seeing and hearing all the birds. Hong Kong is on a bird migration path and also has quite a variety of habitats so there are lots of birds around. This little guy was using his sharp beak to poke holes in the base of the flowers, presumably to extract the nectar.

bird on flower

There were also some good insects. One quite bizarre one with a giant "horn" and colourful wings.

horned insect

And lots of giant spiders, some of the biggest I've ever seen. (Shelley's hand is closer to the camera so if anything the spider is bigger than it appears here.)

giant spider

Lots of different plants and trees, a few of them flowering. And great views onto all the sides of the island. I'm not sure how whether it was smog or fog.


It never did get as busy as I'd feared at the top of the tram. So far Hong Kong overall hasn't been as people packed as I expected. Busy in spots but nothing too crazy.

We had lunch with a view and then headed down to do some sight seeing. We checked out the architecture of the HSBC building and wandered by all the high end shopping, ending up back at the airport express station since we wanted to figure out our departure. You can actually check in for your flights downtown and check in your bags up to 24 hours ahead. This will work well for us as we have to be out of the apartment in the morning but our flight doesn't leave till the evening.


Mostly because it was the only place that wasn't full we stopped for a drink at a fancy TWG tea place where we had tea infused lemonade and tea infused ice cream (both very good). They had hundreds of kinds of tea, starting at about $12 (cad not hk) per pot and going up to $20 or $30 - as bad as wine! They also had tea infused macarons but we didn't try them so I'm not sure how they compared to Michelle's.

Our apartment is in the trendy Soho area where there are lots of little bars and restaurants. We had a glass of wine before supper at Staunton's wine bar. And supper was at Herbivores, a cute little vegetarian place that only seated about 12 people, mostly at one long table. We enjoyed the lentil stuffed portobello, despite the waiter telling us it was nothing special and trying to talk us into other options.

The forecast thunderstorm finally arrived as we were eating and there was quite a downpour which luckily had mostly ended by the time we left. Sadly, it didn't seem to cool things off at all, if anything it only raised the humidity (if that's possible!)

Although there is a ton of shopping, coffee shops are in short supply. There are a few Starbucks around, and a local chain called Pacific Coffee. And don't go out too early - none of them seem to open till 7:30 or so.

General impressions -

A lot of people, not just walking around, but the multitude of huge apartment buildings.


So much shopping! Miles and miles of malls. Who buys all this stuff? Why? I admit I'm biased and tend to avoid malls and shopping, but this seems over the top! Although, I have to admit we took advantage of the mall air conditioning more than once to cool off.

I love the little walkways and stairs and escalators and the rest of the unashamedly pedestrian infrastructure. There are still cars and busy streets but there are an awful lot of people getting around on foot.

And lots of parks and trails and exercise stations. Even some specifically for seniors.

Remember I said there weren't as many people as I expected. Well Kowloon fixed that notion. Nathan Road was crazy and Kowloon Park, a supposed quiet spot in the area was almost as busy. It was fun to take the historic Star Ferry across, but we were just as happy to ride it back to the relative peace of Central. (Relative being the key word.) Afterwards we realized that one of the reasons for the crowds was that it was a national holiday. We also saw groups of the Occupy democracy protesters, which appeared peaceful but we stayed away, not wanting to take any chances of getting tear gassed or something.

Star Ferry
one of the Star Ferries
One of the busiest stores was the Apple Store in the IFC mall. It was jam packed with people every time we went by. iPhone 6's were flying out the door. And curiously, there were people out on the walkway selling iPhones out of suitcases. Were they legit? Where did they get them? Why would you buy one on the street right outside the official store?

crowded Apple Store

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