A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Chris Parsons

Le Crock Monsieur: trekking round Mont Blanc on one leg

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My recent trip to the Alps is best summed up by a quote from Woody Allen: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans."

It began with what should have been a quick, painless trip to Chamonix, the base for our alpine adventure. Unfortunately for me, easyJet had other ideas. My flight was delayed by some Belgian fog. I missed my transfer at Geneva Airport and was bumped onto the last bus. The bus was delayed. I finally arrived at my destination at 1:30am, only to find my hotel room locked and no sign of the promised key. So the following morning I was not in the best frame of mind to start trekking round Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. The rain hammering down in Les Houches, our starting point, wasn't helping either.

On the other hand, I was in the Alps again, after a regrettably long absence, and the Tour du Mont Blanc (the official grande randonnée around the mountain) had been on my bucket list for a while. The trip had come together at the last minute. I should have been surveying garment factories in Bangladesh, but an eleventh-hour cancellation left me at a loose end, so I hurriedly made fresh arrangements to join Jen in France.

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We couldn't hang around in Les Houches either, as Jen had decided that it was not enough to merely complete the trek in the normal fashion. Carrying only a tiny pack and aiming to run the downhill sections, she had compressed the standard 12-day itinerary into eight and had warmed up for the challenge with a week of skyrunning in (or rather above) the Chamonix valley. This caused me some concern. Number one, I run for trains, not for pleasure, and number two, I was carrying three times as much gear. "Hang on", you're thinking. "Hasn't this guy heard of alpine-style climbing? Did he pack a hairdryer? Was he planning on a spot of extreme ironing?" The unfortunate truth is that I was a victim of timing. My last-minute phone calls and emails to the mountain refuges confirmed my fears. Some were fully booked, and I would need to carry a tent and a sleeping bag as there was no guarantee of a bed. My holiday was going to be more like a Royal Marines boot camp, except that I don't possess a firearm.

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Things started promisingly. The rain died off and thanks to an indulgent breakfast, I was powered up the first climb to Col de Voza by four kinds of cheese. Our aim was to skirt round the southern tip of the massif via a high trail over the Col de Tricot (a variante to the standard TMB route), finishing at the Auberge du Truc. This we managed to do, arriving in beautiful late afternoon sunshine, but a painful left knee left me limping the last few kilometres like a peg-legged pirate. It was a recurrence of an old football injury, which has a habit of flaring up when I ask a few questions of the knee. (At the end of the day, I suppose it was my body's way of telling me I was never going to be a footballer, at the end of the day.) The fabulous setting and clement weather helped to take my mind off the problem, but I already knew my TMB was in jeopardy.

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Leaving Truc the next morning, we had a long walk ahead of us. Our destination was Refuge des Mottets, the final accommodation before the Italian border, crossing no less than three passes en route. We built in two variantes; a climb to Tré la Tête at the beginning of the day and a crossing of the Col des Fours at the end. (The latter is the highest point on the TMB at 2,665m.) This was a day my knee will remember for years to come. That's just a figure of speech: my knee can't actually remember things.

Tré la Tête allowed us to bypass the descent to Les Contamines, and it proved to be a worthwhile detour. We were treated to fine weather, fine views and a photogenic cat.

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It was followed by a steep but lovely descent through shady, spring-fresh pine forests. I had every opportunity to enjoy it because my progress was painfully slow, in every sense. Clouds were building as we climbed to the Col de Bonhomme, and a sudden storm at the top sent most other walkers scampering for the nearby refuge. It was by now late afternoon, but we had to carry on.

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At the Col des Fours the sun reappeared, transforming the landscape from threatening to majestic in an instant. We lingered on the summit snowfield, enjoying the grand vista. But time waits for no man, and nor would the gardien at Refuge des Mottets. Jen took my heavy pack and bounded off ahead to make sure we got a bed and a meal at the refuge. I inched, winced and grimaced my way down cursing whoever was responsible for designing the human knee. It rained, it poured, dinner time came and went and I was still on the damned hill. As night fell, the refuge finally came into sight.

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Inside, the dining room was full of well-fed trekkers. A girl was attempting to play the accordion, but every few bars she lost the tune and started playing random notes. It was a bit too avant-garde for the French guests, who drowned her out with sympathetic applause. Jen had ordered our food, but it took a long time to arrive. The staff ate their dinner, people started drifting off to bed and still we waited. Eventually, a family-size pot of stew landed on the table, and we attacked it like ravenous wolves. After four bowlfuls I was starting to feel pleasantly full. Then it was replaced by an equally large pot of boeuf bourgignon, accompanied by a platter of rice and vegetables. We had made a tactical blunder – it was a three course dinner and the stew was the starter!

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The next day I soldiered on through the pain. I gritted my teeth, kept a stiff upper lip and did all the other things my British upbringing had taught me to do in adversity. But I knew deep down that my knee needed R&R, and the hardest day was still to come. I tried to think positive thoughts. “Don’t stop, never give up, hold your head high and reach the top.” Wise words, S Club 7, but you forgot about the bloody downhills. It was time for a plan B.

My mind was made up by the long-term weather forecast we picked up at the Casermetta information centre of the Italian side of the Col de la Seigne. Rain, rain and more rain. No thanks! I would walk as far as Courmayeur, then take a bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel back to Chamonix and rest up for a couple of days. Continuing our descent down Val Veni, we stopped at the impressively-situated Rifugio Elisabetta and ate chocolate cake on the terrace. Moments later the sun withdrew, and that was the last time we saw it.

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It was still raining in Courmayeur the next morning as I boarded the bus. Jen was bravely carrying on, climbing the Val Ferret to Rifugio Elena, then crossing the Grand Col Ferret into Switzerland on Day 5. Back in Chamonix, I set myself up in a hostel near the Brevent cable car station and planned some knee-friendly activities for the next two days. That afternoon I grockled in town, where gear shops outnumber cafés with free Wi-Fi by at least ten to one. In the time-honoured fashion of trekkers returning to civilization, I ate pizza and crêpes. That evening I went to the Chamonix Adventure Festival’s film night and marvelled at the likes of “Touch”, “Spice Girl” and others. On my second rest day, I swam in the local pool and tested the knee with a wet walk in the beautiful Gorge de la Diosaz.

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Having declared myself fully fit, I decided it was time to get back on the trail. A short train ride and a two-hour hike brought me to the Col de Balme on the French-Swiss border where I had arranged to meet Jen. The pass was snowbound and there was no sign of her, so I retired to the nearby refuge for a hot chocolate and an omelette. Entertainment was provided by the gardienne, for whom the phrase “hell hath no fury...” might have been written. Woe betides any poor sod that breaks the house rules. It seems she has quite the reputation: the Chamonet website has this to say: “Known to locals as the "dragon lady refuge" due to the charming disposition of the proprietress, worth a visit just to see how much wrath you can incur.” It certainly was!

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The usual descent from Col de Balme to Tre-le-Champ is direct and easy, so I decided to try the obvious variante over the Aiguillette des Posettes. Jen couldn’t be persuaded but let me off the leash to try it alone. Despite the wind and rain it was a lovely walk, glorified by a standoff with a brave marmot.

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That night we slept at the rustic Auberge La Boerne, which somehow manages to be full of charm and a complete death trap. How we would have extricated ourselves from our cubby hole of a bedroom in the event of a fire, I don’t know.

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The final stretch of the TMB involved a sustained climb (with a few ladders thrown in) to the Grand Balcon Sud, and then a high-level walk with stupendous views of rainclouds. Lac Blanc, picture-postcard perfect when Jen had run up here the previous week, was now framed by snow and rock and looked distinctly uninviting. On the Brevent, cable cars emerged from the mist, depositing another batch of disappointed tourists on the summit. That evening at Refuge de Bellachat, the clouds teasingly parted, but never quite lifted, as Mont Blanc stubbornly refused to reveal her full glory. So we were more than ready for the descent to Les Houches the next morning. We arrived at the train station only to find a replacement bus service was operating, which just about summed up our week.

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The TMB may have disappointed us weather-wise but the mountains have a habit of drawing us back, whatever hand they may have dealt us in the past. So don’t be surprised if we’re back with another blog from Chamonix next year...

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Posted by Chris Parsons 11:40 Archived in France Tagged mountains rain france trekking chamonix alps passes tmb Comments (0)

The F1 experience: a weekend at the Hungarian Grand Prix

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View Budapest 2014 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

I've been following Formula 1 since the heyday of Senna and Prost in the late 1980s. I've grown up with sounds of the sport: screaming engines, Fleetwood Mac's The Chain and the hyper-enthusiastic commentary of Murray Walker. I've cheered to "Our Nige" winning in '92, cried at the horror of Senna's death, endured the never-ending era of Schumacher-Ferrari dominance and cheered once again as first Lewis Hamilton and then Jenson Button scored back-to-back championships for British drivers. But I'd never been to a race - until this year!

The Hungarian Grand Prix is a somewhat unlikely event for this most glamorous of sports. The inaugural race at the Hungaroring in 1986 was the first to be held behind the Iron Curtain, and the place hasn't changed much since then. It's a tight and twisty circuit with a reputation for processional races because of the lack of overtaking opportunities. It's also the slowest track on the calendar after Monaco. Despite this, there have been a few classic races, including Mansell's charge through the field in 1989 and Button's maiden victory in the wet in 2006, and it remains popular with the drivers.

My home grand prix in Britain was celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2014. But a weekend ticket to Silverstone in a decent seat would have cost me a minor fortune, and Hungary was half the price. Then there's the location: the Hungaroring is only 20km north west of Budapest, meaning I could combine my F1 experience with a weekend break in a city I know and love. It was an easy decision.

I based myself at a hotel close on the Buda side of the Danube, where the main attraction was an open-air 50m pool. It was handy for the Castle District and trams to the sights in Pest. Budapest deserves more than a brief aside in a motor racing article, so I'll return to it in a future blog post.

Lengths in the pool and laps of the track: the story of my F1 weekend

Lengths in the pool and laps of the track: the story of my F1 weekend

My first stop was Bikebase (near Nyugati Station) for a hire bike to get to and from the track. Why cycle? Well, the Hungaroring is not the easiest place to get to by public transport and I didn't fancy the idea of standing in a long queue for a shuttle bus. With pre-loaded maps on my iPhone I managed to navigate my way out of the city, following the busy Kerespeci Road. It wasn't the most scenic of routes but it got me to the circuit in an hour and a half, where the stewards let me lock the bike to a fence just inside the gate.

The hybrid bike was heavy and unable to carry luggage, but reliable and coped with the variable quality of Hungarian road surfaces. On the return to Budapest I discovered a more scenic route by following a cycle trail on my map (I used the Gaia GPS app for IOS with preloaded maps from OpenHikingMap). This included a short but unavoidable off-road section across farmland near the village of Csömör, followed by a pleasant ride through the leafy suburbs and the City Park.

Just how many times can a road be repaired?

Just how many times can a road be repaired?

The Hungaroring lies in a wide, shallow bowl ringed by low hills. The main straight is at a slightly higher elevation than the infield section, giving spectators in the big grandstands views across to the far side of the circuit. My seat in the Red Bull stand was opposite Turn 13 and the pit lane entry. After settling in for Saturday morning's final practice session, I used the opportunity to observe the drivers in action and for some practice of my own, learning how to focus my camera on a 200mph machine – which takes some doing!

A panoramic view of the Hungaroring from my seat

A panoramic view of the Hungaroring from my seat

Prospects for an exciting race were enhanced by some unexpected events in Saturday afternoon’s qualifying session. Lewis Hamilton, who had topped the standings in each of the practice sessions, retired with a spectacular engine failure without setting a time. With Maldonado’s Lotus also exiting the session early, the rest of the teams gambled that the remaining four to be knocked out in Q1 would be the Marussias and Caterhams. The gamble backfired for Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, as Jules Bianchi pipped him to the final place with a late flying lap.

Lewis Hamilton suffered a dramatic engine failure in Q1

Lewis Hamilton suffered a dramatic engine failure in Q1

At the start of Q3 a short rain shower nearly claimed pole position favourite Nico Rosberg, who just managed to avoid the tyre wall after running wide at Turn 1. Kevin Magnussen, next on track in the McLaren, was not so lucky, and crashed. He would join Hamilton in starting the race from the pit lane. With 3 fast cars at the back of the field, we were guaranteed some action! Rosberg’s Mercedes claimed an easy pole position, ahead of current world champion Sebastian Vettel and the two rising stars of Formula 1, Valteri Bottas and Daniel Ricciardo.

On race day, a heavy thunderstorm at noon turned the track into a skidpan and meant a hurried change to wet weather tyres for all the teams. From a spectator’s point of view, the timing couldn’t have been better, for these "wet to dry" races often turn out to be thrillers. After taking refuge in a barbecue and beer marquee, I headed back to my seat. Formula 1 has always attracted the rich and famous, and Hungary was no different, with Santa Claus, two Smurfs and a Viking all taking their seats in the stand. This race also attracts lots of Germans and Austrians, showing plenty of support for Michael Schumacher, and legions of Finnish fans (hence the appearance of Santa).

Storm clouds over the starting grid

Storm clouds over the starting grid


An off-duty Santa

An off-duty Santa


Support in the stands for the F1 legend Michael Schumacher

Support in the stands for the F1 legend Michael Schumacher

The crowd rose to their feet as the red lights lit up on the gantry, and at lights out the race was underway. We were able to follow the action on a giant screen on the opposite side of the track, with accompanying commentary in English, German and Hungarian (not all at the same time, I should clarify). And there was no shortage of action!

On the first lap Hamilton span and kissed the barrier, but was able to continue. A few laps later a more spectacular crash for Marcus Ericsson left debris from his mangled Caterham strewn across the track, and the safety car was deployed. Some cars took the opportunity to dive into pits for slick tyres, but the front runners missed their chance. This shook up the running order leaving Ricciardo and Button to duel for the lead. Unfortunately McLaren had already sabotaged Button’s race by putting him on another set of wet weather tyres, thinking more rain was coming. It didn’t, and Button was back in the pits a few minutes later.

Fernando Alonso in action during the early, wet phase of the race

Fernando Alonso in action during the early, wet phase of the race


The view from the grandstand

The view from the grandstand

Lap 23, and just as things were settling down Sergio Perez ran fractionally wide out of Turn 13 and put a tyre on the grass, sending him careering across the track into the pit wall. Perez walked away unharmed, the safety car was back out and the field bunched together again. Ricciardo sacrificed his lead to Fernando Alonso and pitted for fresh rubber, a decision that was to prove crucial to the outcome of the race. Another driver who profited from the safety cars was Jean-Eric Vergne, running in second behind Alonso. Behind him, a queue of faster cars was starting to build, led by Rosberg, Vettel and – incredibly – Lewis Hamilton, who had brought himself right back into contention after a surge through the field. Rosberg should have been able to pick off Vergne quickly, but the Toro Rosso held its position for lap after lap. Meanwhile Hamilton was harrying Vettel, and eventually the German made a mistake, spinning after running wide out of Turn 13. He was very lucky not to end up in the wall like Perez.

After the second round of pit stops, there were four cars in with a chance of victory, but they were running different strategies. Alonso and Hamilton were trying to get to the end of the race on two stops by eking out the maximum life from their tyres. Ricciardo and Rosberg were going to pit a third time, but could lap at a quicker pace because of the shorter stints. The stage was set for a nail-biting conclusion as first Hamilton caught Alonso, then Ricciardo caught them both. The Red Bull fought past to take the lead right at the death, and the chequered flag. It was Ricciardo’s second victory of the season. Alonso clung on for second after a remarkable 31-lap stint on the soft tyres, and Hamilton blocked an attempted pass on the last lap from the charging Rosberg to snatch third, which could be crucial for his world championship prospects.

Ricciardo chasing down Alonso and Hamilton in the closing stages...

Ricciardo chasing down Alonso and Hamilton in the closing stages...


...and enjoying the taste of victory!

...and enjoying the taste of victory!

Hamilton was strangely subdued on the podium, and I couldn’t understand why after a stunning recovery drive. It was only later that I read about the controversial radio messages, which explained his reaction. Mercedes had asked him to move aside to let Rosberg through. It was a poor call, as even they admitted afterwards, and Hamilton was entitled to ignore it.

The podium ceremony (from a distance!)

The podium ceremony (from a distance!)

Formula 1 is doing a lot of soul-searching in 2014, after criticism from several leading figures in the sport. The new formula, with quieter V6 turbo engines and hybrid technology, has inevitably resulted in winners and losers up and down the paddock, and it’s no surprise that the strongest critics are from those teams who are struggling. Some fans lament the end of the ear-splitting V8 era and the perception that the sport is more about tyre and fuel management than out-and-out racing. Add to this the unpredictable stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone, whose latest bright ideas include the controversial staging of a Russian Grand Prix and the gimmick of double points at the final race of the season, and there are surely grounds to complain. The best answer to this is for Formula 1 to do its talking on the track, and those of us at the Hungaroring on 27 July 2014 certainly could not complain!

F1 fans on track after the race

F1 fans on track after the race

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:57 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest f1 Comments (0)

Tibet: Getting there is half the fun


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last summer, we fulfilled a long-held ambition to travel to Tibet. In our case, it was third time lucky. We had come close to booking a trip there in 2011, but decided it was too extreme for our first overseas cycle tour. The following year, our plans were thwarted by David Cameron's handshake with the Dalai Lama, which didn't go down well in Beijing's corridors of power. Travel restrictions were imposed making it all but impossible for British nationals to enter Tibet. The rules were officially relaxed in April 2013, and four months later we were on a plane to Lhasa.

Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Barkhor Square, Lhasa

Even before setting foot on Tibetan soil, it had lived up to its reputation as a difficult place for travellers. The Chinese government may have eased the visa restrictions, but entry requirements for foreigners can change on a whim and tight controls are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Over the years, many intrepid travellers have tried to bend or break the rules to enter Tibet. Most fail, but those who succeed usually have a good story to tell afterwards. As this blog will hopefully demonstrate, you can even spin a decent yarn if you follow the official procedures.

Our Tibetan tour was the first leg of a month-long trip to China, the second leg being a cycle tour in Yunnan province. With 10 days set aside, we had time enough to venture beyond Lhasa to other parts of Tibet. (The photographs that accompany the blog are from in and around Lhasa). This would seem entirely natural to you and me, but Chinese bureaucrats are sensitive to strange folk wandering around their far-flung provinces and impose a whole series of tiresome rules and conditions.

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Pilgrims and prayer flags at Jokhang Temple

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

Tibetan lady spinning prayer wheels

Firstly, we would need to secure the services of a licensed guide, who would accompany us every step of the way. The guide would also help to arrange our travel documents with the Tibet Tourism Bureau. The Bureau issue a Tibet Permit to all travellers and an Alien Permit to those travelling beyond Lhasa. (Being labelled an alien in Tibet makes UKIP's immigration policy look broad-minded.) On top of this, we were responsible for obtaining our Chinese visas.

The visa application system involved a certain degree of subterfuge, because we had been advised not to mention Tibet on the visa form. So for the purposes of obtaining the visa we devised an alternative itinerary, listing every night's accommodation, which sounded wonderful but was complete fantasy. Rumours vary as to how thoroughly this would be checked. Some people even go as far as booking the first few hotels only to cancel them once they receive their visas, but we decided to chance our luck, and it worked.

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

Young girl at Drepung Monastery

With guide, visas and permits all arranged, the final hurdle was getting in. Tibet's land borders, both domestic and international, are typically closed to foreigners, so most people circumvent this problem by flying in. With the exception of a seasonal service from Nepal, there are no international flights to Tibet, so flying from anywhere outside China involves a transfer at a Chinese airport and a domestic flight. We chose Chongqing, not for its beauty as a stopover destination, but because it's a relatively central hub with good value international flights and good connections to both Tibet and Yunnan.
Chongqing, with a population of 30 million, has been christened the biggest city you've never heard of. Its heavy industry and coal-fired power plants also make it one of the most polluted cities in the world. When the writer Simon Winchester reached Chongqing on his journey up the Yangtze, he described the air as "usually like that of Leeds or Dundee in Victorian times, with a sharp smell of half-burned coal gas, rust, scorched tin and dirt." In other words, not somewhere you would wish to spend any longer than necessary. With that in mind, we arranged our onward travel to Tibet the same day our international flight arrived, a decision which almost came back to haunt us.

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

Debating monks at Sera Monastery

The system seems to rely on foreigners spending at least one night somewhere else in China before entering Tibet. This allows the necessary permits, which must be produced at the point of entry, to be forwarded to your Chinese hotel ready for you to collect on arrival. Furthermore, if you are flying into Tibet, you need to present the original permit at check-in – a copy will not suffice. After a series of protracted email exchanges in broken English with various Tibetan tour agencies, we found one that assured us they could take the highly unusual step of arranging for a courier to deliver the permits into our hands at Chongqing airport's domestic terminal, in the six-hour window between flights. Our entire holiday hinged on us trusting that this one individual, who we had never dealt with before, would present him- or herself at the right place and the right time with the right documents. What could possibly go wrong?

The prearranged time of 11 o'clock came and went. My palms were going sweaty, and I had visions of our Tibetan dream slowly evaporating, to be replaced by a Chongqing nightmare. I made eye contact with a woman as she entered the building. She approached me directly and we exchanged greetings. I couldn't tell you what she looked like or what she was wearing, because I was completely focussed on the big envelope tucked under her arm. Our permits had arrived! Wide-eyed and trembling, I snatched them uncontrollably from her hands and cried "Myyy preccciiiouussss!" in a creepy, lustful voice. Or something like that.

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

A family picnic in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

Two Tibetan ladies in Norbulingka Park

We brandished the permits at check in, and were waved through to departures. At security, there was a problem. Uniformed officials gathered, frowning. We showed the permits again, and the officials immediately relaxed and ushered us through. After repeating this ritual several more times - there is definitely no way of boarding a plane without the Tibet Permit - we finally made it onto the aircraft, much to our relief.

The Chongqing to Lhasa leg takes just under three hours. Somewhere below us was the middle of nowhere. Thick cloud cover obscured most of the views, but occasionally we were granted glimpses of towering peaks, awesome glaciers and long valleys that disappeared into the distance. These were the Hengduan Mountains of western China, which eventually gave way to the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. The final descent into Lhasa airport was memorable, the plane sweeping low into the wide Yarlung Tsangpo valley, turning sharply over a pinnacled ridge and aiming for the runway, dwarfed by the mighty river alongside.

It had been a day of drama, and now our Tibetan adventure could finally begin!

The Hengduan Mountains from the air

The Hengduan Mountains from the air


The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

The Yarlung Tsangpo Valley

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:01 Archived in China Tagged planes tibet visas Comments (0)

In pursuit of the perfect Potala Palace picture


View Tibet and Yunnan 2013 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Lhasa takes your breath away, quite literally as we discovered when we stepped off the plane at 3,700m. Canisters of oxygen were provided in our airport transfer car and next to the minibar in the hotel room, but being experienced in the acclimatization business we refused to succumb to their temptations. After 24 hours of suffering we were ready for Lhasa, and Lhasa was ready for us.

The Potala Palace also takes your breath away: not only for its scale (1,000 rooms, 113m high and 2m thick walls), but also for its dramatic setting and dizzying construction which make it quite unlike any other building in the world. Even seeing it for what felt like the hundredth time, our eyes were still drawn magnetically to it; such is its captivating power. Capturing this emotional response in a photograph is impossible, of course, but that didn’t stop us from trying. And so we embarked on a quest for the perfect Potala picture.

We used an early drive-by as a reconnaissance, checking out the light and shade on the Palace walls, imagining the trajectory of the sun and assessing the promising backdrop of mountain peaks. An elevated viewpoint to the south west of the Potala seemed promising, and a quick non-Google search (this is China, remember) revealed this to be King Medicine Hill. We hatched a plan to return early the following morning armed with bagfuls of camera gear.

The following morning was overcast, but undeterred, we hailed a rickshaw to take us to the viewpoint. We were dropped off some distance short – at first I thought we were about to be victims of a scam, but in fact this was as close as our rickshaw could get. Security around the Potala was tight, for this happened to be the first day of the Shoton Festival and a big show was taking place that evening in the square in front of the Palace, featuring live performances and a fireworks display. We paid 2 yuan each to climb the steps to King Medicine Hill and reeled off a few photos of the Potala under brooding skies. We knew the photos were nothing spectacular, but they were 'bankers' and might look quite effective in black and white.

Potala Palace in monochrome

Potala Palace in monochrome

The same website that had given us the name of the viewpoint also mentioned a small temple nearby which afforded another view of the Potala from a slightly different angle, so we headed there next. Events took a turn for the bizarre at this point. The temple kept two tame blue sheep (a wild species normally found at high altitudes in the Himalayas). Here was an animal I had spent many hours tracking across remote mountain slopes in India and Nepal in a vain attempt to photograph, now practically tame enough to eat out of my hand. I knelt down for an eye-level photo (at this point a pet rabbit had taken shelter under the sheep’s body, adding an even more surreal aspect to the scene). The blue sheep faced down my camera lens and charged – I had to take evasive action to avoid a head butt. Round one to the sheep, but it wasn’t finished there. Clearly thinking I was a rival worth seeing off, the sheep made repeated attacks on both me and Jen, and only by grabbing its horns could I stop it. Salvation came in the form of a friendly local, clearly highly amused by proceedings, who managed to distract the sheep with some food, allowing us to dodge into the temple. The photos of the Potala from here, it has to be said, were not really worth the effort.

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Potala from the Pabuluk Temple

Early afternoon saw us back at King Medicine Hill with our fingers on the shutters again, this time with the Potala looking resplendent in the sunshine. We had just finished our guided tour of the Palace: all tourists are allotted a one-hour time slot, such is the popularity of the tour. It’s forbidden to take photos inside the Palace, but there are plenty of interesting angles as you climb the switchback stairs to the main entrance, and we covered them all. Now we had a set of classic Potala images, and we thought that was that.

Potala Palace in the sunshine

Potala Palace in the sunshine


Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

Climbing the stairs to the Potala Palace

But the quest was not over. Our Tibetan guide Phurpu mentioned how impressive the Potala looked at night, when the whole building is floodlit. Suddenly our mission seemed unfulfilled without that night-time shot. Musing over this problem at a local café later, it struck me that if I could get on to the roof of the hotel, I would have an unrivaled view of the Palace from another angle. I’m not sure guests are supposed to go on the roof, given that it involved crawling through an access hatch at the top of the stairs, but I was proved right. Now all was set!

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Potala Palace from the hotel roof

Dinner came and went and night began to fall. Over in the Potala Square, the various dignitaries, officials and army officers were assembling for the Shoton Festival show. Just when it seemed our quest would be fulfilled, the weather decided to intervene. Rumbles of thunder and flashes of lightning signalled a major storm was about to hit the city. I fired off some shots of the Potala before the rain arrived, beautifully floodlit and looking magnificent. Yes!

Potala Palace illuminated at night

Potala Palace illuminated at night

But my ultimate Potala Palace photo is none of the above. In fact, it’s an image I hadn’t conceived and didn’t even realise I had taken. As the storm raged outside I caught another sound in between the thunderclaps: the fireworks had begun. Wouldn’t it be cool to capture the Palace and the fireworks in the same photo, I thought. With the rain now pelting down (those poor Chinese dignitaries), I found a window at the end of the corridor outside our hotel room which afforded a good enough view of events, braced myself against the window frame and began to reel off some continuous shots of the fireworks exploding, hoping to capture the perfect moment. Well I got it, and then some: it seems God himself decided to partake in the display. It’s not sharp, but it’s a one-off!

Potala Palace lightning strike

Potala Palace lightning strike

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:19 Archived in China Tagged photography tibet lhasa potala Comments (2)

Crocodiles on mopeds and other tales from Hanoi

The crazy street life of Vietnam's second city


View North East Vietnam 2012 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Last year's brief visit to Hanoi left a strong impression, even though Jen and I weren't able to make the most of our time there. Arriving straight from the Himalayas, we were tired and preoccupied by lists of errands. We arranged excursions to take us out of the city, thinking we would prefer the tranquillity of the coast and countryside to rubbing shoulders with millions of Vietnamese. It was probably the right decision at the time but it left me feeling short-changed by Hanoi. So we did the obvious thing - we went back.

Returning less than a year later felt like a homecoming rather than a holiday. Not only were we reunited with our cycling chums, David (Painted Roads tour leader), Phong (local guide) and Eddie (impossible to categorize), but we instantly fell in love with the city all over again. Hanoi casts its spell in unexpected ways. The guidebooks may try to talk up its tourist sites, but it's not the prospect of puppets, pagodas or pickled propagandists that excites me. Instead, it's the pulsating bustle of Hanoians going about their daily business in the enchanting Old Quarter. This is the beating heart of the city, an inside-out place where everything happens on the street. Ladies in shimmering blouses and stilettos revving their mopeds; pensive groups of men hunched over their cờ tướng boards on street corners; flower sellers weaving their bicycles between uniformed schoolchildren; street food vendors stirring, frying, serving and smiling. With so much life on show, we were keen to brush up on our street photography.

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side

A motorcyclist stops to check his phone on the busy road along Hoan Kiem Lake's east side


Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

Parents coming to collect their children in Hanoi cause a traffic jam outside the school gates

The Old Quarter was our base for the few days we spent in the city. Here, we watched Hanoi wake up, go to work, take coffee, exercise and go to sleep. A great many hours were spent at the street café opposite our hotel, sipping glasses of bia hơi and watching the city pass us by. At other times I would go off to explore, walking the streets morning, noon and night in search of the unexpected. Despite venturing no more than a mile from the hotel, my senses were thoroughly overwhelmed.

At first light, the street vendors begin to appear. Every morning, an estimated 10,000 of them - mostly women - converge on Hanoi from the surrounding rural provinces, as they have done for centuries. They bring fresh produce from their farms, but it’s not just fruit and vegetables they sell. I passed one lady whose bamboo baskets had been transformed into mobile ponds full of splashing turtles. Fresh ingredients are very important in Vietnamese cuisine, so the street vendors fulfil the same role as a Tesco Express would in the UK.

These women are amongst the poorest people in the city, earning around US$2 a day. Worse still, their earnings can be confiscated by the overzealous police, who increasingly enforce local laws which place restrictions or even outright bans on street selling. I have since discovered that the British government has recently provided funding for a project to improve the lives of Hanoi's street vendors.

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark

My attempt to go undercover in Hanoi falls short of the mark


One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader

One of the many women who travel to Hanoi on a daily basis to earn a meagre living as a street trader


A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

A street vendor completes a sale at one of Hanoi's many food markets

Hanoi’s street cafés are a local institution enjoyed by city folk and foreigners alike. Space is at a premium in the Old Quarter, so the clientele sit on child-sized plastic chairs out in the street and conduct high-volume conversation over the noise of passing mopeds. Many cafés serve the aforementioned bia hơi, a weak home brew costing around 8,000 dong (25p) a glass. The quality can vary but at that price, who's complaining?

Others are purveyors of Vietnamese-branded coffee, a distinctive beverage filtered slowly into the cup and mixed with condensed milk. The connoisseur’s choice is cà phê Chồn or “weasel coffee”, the world’s most expensive variety. The coffee beans have passed through the digestive tract of an Asian palm civet (a weasel-like animal) which supposedly takes the bitter edge off the taste. A rather bizarre fact which begs the obvious question: who discovered it?

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi

A smoker with his glass of bia hoi at a street café in Hanoi


A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

A newspaper seller cycles past a Hanoi café in the city's Old Quarter

To the south of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake, the spiritual heart of the city. I wrote a blog article last year which discussed the famous giant turtle which inhabits the lake, a creature so rare it seems destined to join the dodo on the path to extinction. There were no turtle sightings on this occasion, but our lakeside walks offered up a number of equally extraordinary visions.

Dragging ourselves down to Hoan Kiem at dawn, we found the paths and parks had been taken over by a small army of exercising Hanoians, all stretching, pumping and burning. Around the lake swarmed an anticlockwise wave of joggers and power-walkers, whilst in a public square nearby, impromptu classes were being held for aerobics, salsa, ballroom, tai chi and, my favourite of all, laughter yoga. Perhaps they were laughing at the committed fitness fanatic who was attempting to target all his major muscle groups whilst sat on a park bench.

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

Laughter yoga is the latest craze sweeping Hanoi

In the evening, another swathe of the population descends on the lake’s leafy promenades. The exercisers are now a minority, but this only seems to encourage exhibitionist tendencies, judging from the shirtless men performing chin-ups on lampposts and five-minute headstands at the very edge of the water. Meanwhile, young lovers stroll hand in hand and wedding photographers fuss over their subjects as they contrive to maximise the romantic potential of the scene. Quite what the turtle makes of it all, I can only wonder.

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers

Ly Thai To park is floodlit at night, providing a perfect stage for skateboarders, breakdancers and rollerbladers


Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

Performing your yoga routine at the water's edge adds an element of danger!

The action has spread to the nearby square, where the painted lines of badminton courts are being put to good use. There are no racquets to be seen, however, for the game of choice is played with the feet. The Vietnamese call it đá cầu and have made it their national sport, but it originated as jianzi in China. The standard is (literally) very high, with some unbelievable agility on show as the players leap at the net to smash the shuttlecock down into the opponent’s forecourt with their feet.

Despite all the activity on show, the Vietnamese revert to type when it comes to road transport: everyone and everything travels by motorbike. In Bangkok airport’s duty free zone I came across a neat little book called Bikes of Burden, a photo journal from across Vietnam showing an amazing variety of cargo being transported on bikes, from furniture to scaffold frames, carpets to water tanks and livestock to ornamental goldfish. We kept an eye out for unusual bikes of burden ourselves and found the Hanoians more than lived up to expectations. My favourite was a giant cuddly crocodile toy about the same size as the rider. Sadly there’s no photo to prove this – I obviously wasn’t snappy enough.

Crocodile! Snappy! Ok, I’ll get my coat.

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike

A typical scene in the Old Quarter, where all manner of goods are transported by motorbike


A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

A bamboo ladder would be a challenge to carry by oneself, but a passenger helps to balance the load

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:03 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people food markets bikes vietnam hanoi photography Comments (3)

A journey in numbers


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

After 7 countries and 119 days on the road, we've reached the final blog entry - it's hard to believe we've written 52 of these things! Rather than trying to sum up our journey in words, I've compiled a few stats to tell the story.

8,788

Kilometres travelled, according to our Travellerspoint map. The real total will be even higher because we didn't travel as the crow flies on the overland routes.

7,343

Photos taken, to answer all those who've asked the question. This doesn't include the 4,000 photos we deleted along the way! 266 of these have been published on the blog.

14

Modes of transport used, including plane, bus, train, car, mountain bike, motorcycle, junk boat, longtail boat, dive boat, speedboat, tuk tuk, truck, songthaew and kayak.

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

964

The combined cost of all our visas and trekking permits, in US dollars. Over two thirds of this went straight into the coffers of the Nepalese government, so I like to think we gave their GDP figures a little boost in 2011.

4.5

The average speed in mph of the bus from Dhadingbesi to Arughat Bazaar (which we abandoned at nightfall after it became stuck in a quagmire).

5,450

The highest altitude of the trip (in metres), just above the Thorung La. We crossed three passes over 5000m on our five-week trek in the Nepal Himalaya.

0

Number of public conveniences in the Nepalese village of Phu. We later found out from some trekking companions that there was another lodge in the village which did have a toilet, but unfortunately the owners don't appear to have capitalized on this USP.

Looking down on the village of Phu

Looking down on the village of Phu

6.9

Magnitude of the earthquake which struck the Himalayas on 18 September 2011, the day we flew to Kathmandu. It was the second largest quake ever recorded in the region, causing at least 111 deaths and widespread damage. The quake was centred on north Sikkim, a region we visited 6 weeks later.

4:30

The earliest wake up call of the trip, in Dzongri, Sikkim. After seven consecutive days of trekking in a cloud, it was a make or break moment. "Good weather," said our guide outside the tent, not quite believing it himself.

200

Estimated maximum population of wild snow leopards in the whole of India, according to WWF, making it even more remarkable that I saw fresh snow leopard tracks in Sikkim.

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

7%

Average annual growth rate of the Vietnamese economy from 1981 to 2010, 30 unbroken years of boom with only 3 years of less than 5% growth. Quite incredible statistics for a country which was the third poorest in the world after the Vietnam War.

1,200

Kilometres in the saddle on our epic three-week mountain bike trip through Vietnam and Laos with Red Spokes. The longest day was about 120km and the toughest had 45km of hill climbs.

American Chris on the road in Laos

American Chris on the road in Laos

10

Kilometres travelled in the Red Spokes support vehicle. It's not that we'd gone soft - the Vietnamese closed the road while they carried out some roadworks, and by the time it reopened, it was getting dark!

4

The maximum distance in kilometres of continuous climbing on a bicycle without going up a hill, in Red Spokes parlance. Anything up to this point is a mere undulation.

8.11%

Gradient quoted on a road sign in northwest Vietnam. Funnily enough as we rounded the previous bend I had remarked to Jen "This feels like an 8.11%er to me!"

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

6,670,000

The largest withdrawal amount entered on an ATM keypad. No, it's not a typo. This was in Vietnamese dong, and is equivalent to about 200 pounds sterling. The traveller in Vietnam is wise to pack an expandable wallet.

14

Varieties of Asian beer sampled. They were Everest, Gorkha (Nepal), Kingfisher (India), Bia Hanoi, Bia Larue (Vietnam), Beerlao (Laos), Cambodia, Klang, Angkor, Anchor (Cambodia), Singha, Chang, Leo (Thailand) and Tiger (Malaysia). Beerlao goes down easiest.

7,500

The cheapest bottle of Beerlao in Luang Prabang, in Laotian kip. There are 12,500 kip to the pound and there's more than a pint in the bottle!

300

Casualties annually in Laos due to unexploded ordnance (UXO). More than half are children, and most are killed or maimed by cluster bombs. These and other chilling statistics we learned on a visit to Cope, a charity which provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to UXO victims.

1860

The year French explorer Henri Mouhot "discovered" the temples of Angkor. In fact they were well known to the local Khmer people and had been visited by other westerners before Mouhot. We were two of the 1.6 million tourists to visit the temple complex in 2011, a year-on-year rise of 23%.

2

Our longest flight "delay" in hours. What really happened was that Bangkok Airways cancelled our flight out of Siem Reap and put us on the last flight of the day, but of course they couldn't admit to that.

0

Rice-free days in Southeast Asia. Fried rice, steamed rice, sticky rice - it's all the same after two months.

160

Estimated age in millions of years of Khao Sok National Park's jungle, the oldest tropical forest on Earth. That makes it around 100 million years older than the Amazon rainforest.

10

Number of leech attacks during a two-minute walk through the jungle of Khao Sok. We had left the relatively leech-free stream bed and followed some tapir tracks through the forest to shortcut a bend in the stream.

100

Decibels of sound produced by a calling gibbon. Gibbon calls can travel more than 2 miles over the forest, and at our rafthouse in Khlong Seang I stood on the decking listening to four groups calling from different parts of the forest.

5

Years of hard training by the bar staff of Koh Lanta's Bamboo Bay Resort to perfect their fire dancing routine. And boy, did it show!

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

80

Maximum weight in pounds of a jackfruit, the world's largest fruit, which is found throughout Thailand and Malaysia. The orange flesh is similar in taste to papaya.

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

-32

Temperature drop in degrees Celsius between Langkawi, Malaysia and Manchester, UK on the day of our return home. Brrrrr!

The sun sets on our blog

The sun sets on our blog

We've had great fun writing about some of our experiences, but now the time has come to call time on our travel blog. Thanks to everyone who has been following us and to all those who have commented on Travellerspoint or liked us on Facebook! I hope we can resurrect the Parsons on Tour blog soon...

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:05 Archived in Nepal Tagged india cambodia thailand malaysia vietnam laos nepal statistics Comments (0)

Snap happy: a photographer's perspective


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

This is one for the photography enthusiasts – I make no apologies for the techno geekery which follows!

Several months of planning went into the trip and a large part of my time was spent deliberating over what camera/cameras to take. Jen and I both enjoy photography, and since buying our first DSLR in 2007 (for our first trip to the Himalayas), we have both become converts to the superior image quality, responsiveness and creativity when compared to digital compact cameras. That camera was a Pentax K100D, an entry-level model that we chose over the more common Canikons because it was good value, had in-body image stabilisation and was backed by a line up of compact, inexpensive lenses.

The K100D was a solid warhorse but was beginning to show its age, so I decided we would replace it for this trip. After much umming and arring we finally plumped for another Pentax DSLR, the flagship Pentax K-5. When it arrived, the 400-page user manual and lack of an automatic mode signalled that this was a serious piece of kit. It has headline-grabbing features such as live view and a video mode, but for me the biggest selling point was the weather-sealed body. When paired with Pentax's similarly weather resistant (WR) lenses, we had full protection against dust, sand and rain. In 2007, I had to do some emergency sensor cleaning on the K100D at Annapurna Base Camp after our sunrise photos were spoiled by dust spots, so I was sold on the strength of this feature alone. The K-5 also brought us numerous other improvements: a high-resolution sensor, reduced noise, higher ISO, better autofocus, more user control, a quiet shutter and an impressive viewfinder.

King of the mountains - the Pentax K-5 poses on a Himalayan pass

King of the mountains - the Pentax K-5 poses on a Himalayan pass

It proved to be an excellent package when paired with the WR kit lenses (18-55mm and 50-200mm), and withstood monsoon rains in Nepal, blizzards in India and the dusty roads of Vietnam. It even survived an accidental dunking when Jen, who was carrying it round her neck, decided to audition for Total Wipeout by falling off a rolling log into a lake in Thailand. This wasn't the only pitfall to befall our camera gear. The K-5 had an unscheduled sleepover in a Darjeeling restaurant and one of our SD cards decided to go for a little dip in the sea.

The compromises with a DSLR are weight and bulk, important considerations for us with the amount of trekking and cycling we had planned. We wanted to be able to reach for the camera at all times so the means of carrying it was another issue. I purchased a Lowepro Apex case which comfortably held the K-5, the kit lenses and all the usual paraphernalia (batteries, SD cards, filters etc.) This could be attached to the waist belt of a backpack, carried in the hand or slung over a shoulder, so it was always quick to retrieve on trek. In fact, thanks to the K-5's weather sealing we rarely put the camera in the case. The same was true on the bike ride, which meant we would more readily stop for photos than if the camera had been buried in a rucksack.

Jen photographing the Nam Ou River in Laos

Jen photographing the Nam Ou River in Laos

Reviewing the photos from our previous treks, I discovered that the most commonly used focal length was 18mm (equivalent to 27mm on a full frame camera), the wide end of our kit lens. So a few weeks before we left I treated myself to a little luxury – a 15mm prime lens from Pentax's delicious "Limited" lens collection. This little jewel weighs just over 200g, has a constant maximum aperture of f4.0 and all-metal construction (including a retractable hood). We made good use of it for wide angle landscapes and shots inside buildings too.

A high altitude valley on the Manaslu Circuit - shot with the Pentax DA 15mm and an ND8 filter

A high altitude valley on the Manaslu Circuit - shot with the Pentax DA 15mm and an ND8 filter

The one place we couldn't take the K-5 was underwater (not without a very expensive housing). To enable us to take photos of the Andaman Sea's marine life, we also carried a compact 'rugged' camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT2. This is waterproof to a depth of 10m, perfect for snorkelers. Underwater photography is perhaps the most challenging field to master. You have to contend with a lack of natural light, the changing colour spectrum with depth, strong waves and currents and moving subjects, some of which can kill you with a single bite or sting! Not only that, but snorkelers are also constrained by the time they can hold their breath and their buoyancy, which makes it difficult to control position on a dive. Any compact camera struggles under such conditions, and the FT2 was no exception. Taking good underwater images is more a matter of luck than skill – I probably discarded 80% of my shots instantly. Worse still, the zoom lens utilises folded optics. This means the lens does not extend and can therefore be sealed within the camera body, but there is a trade-off in image quality, especially when zoomed in. Occasionally, however, it did produce a corker.

Colourful clams in the crystal-clear water of Tarutao National Park

Colourful clams in the crystal-clear water of Tarutao National Park

We take it in turns to carry the camera. Jen is great at spotting and snapping the most dramatic landscapes, and she takes great portraits too. My approach is a bit more scattergun – I take more photos, but they tend to be a mixed bag! I also like wildlife, action and architecture as subjects. People are always interesting subjects but capturing the right expression is tricky, especially with a hulking great DSLR. They can react in unwanted ways: reticence, anger, self-consciousness or showing off! Sometimes a little ice-breaker is needed to establish a rapport between photographer and subject, especially when language is a barrier. At Gumba Lundang in Nepal, we wanted to take photos of the Buddhist nuns, but they seemed a little shy. We approached a couple of the younger girls to ask permission, and they agreed. Showing them the images on the camera's LCD screen sparked a sudden change, and within seconds we had a crowd of nuns round the camera, all clamouring for their photograph to be taken. A bicycle is another great icebreaker. We had some very good photographers on the Red Spokes cycle tour, and it was instructive watching them in action. In a group situation you need a camera on you at all times to capture those fleeting moments which will get a good reaction when you share them later. I missed lots, but fortunately others were always on hand!

Sharing our photos with the nuns of Gumba Lundang

Sharing our photos with the nuns of Gumba Lundang

In four months of travel, it's difficult to be 'up' for photography every single day. Even sharing the work between two, there were still a few days when the camera stayed in the case. But we've certainly enjoyed taking all our photos and sharing some of them on this blog. Now we are back home we're enjoying them even more on the TV screen. The K-5 has been a superb tool for the job – yes I still wish for faster, longer lenses (particularly for those damn wildlife shots) but would I have been prepared to carry them? No way! On the other hand, I'm very taken with the new breed of compact system cameras, especially after seeing David, our Red Spokes tour leader, using his Panasonic GF1.

If I were doing a similar trip again (if only), I would seriously consider investing in a rangefinder style body from the Panasonic/Olympus Micro Four Thirds system, which seems to me to have the right balance of size, image quality, product range and value. I would also take a high-end compact camera with a fast, sharp lens and an underwater housing (unless the manufacturers can seriously improve the image quality and performance from their waterproof cameras). Must do some research....

I've been asked by lots of people how many photos we took on our trip. All will be revealed in the next and final blog entry, but to give you some idea, I'll leave you with this thought. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then we have a potential War and Peace on our hands.

Posted by Chris Parsons 15:21 Archived in Malaysia Tagged photography Comments (2)

Going places


View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Six countries in four months. Too much to take in? Too rushed? It certainly felt on occasions like we were stuck on a travel treadmill; a hamster's wheel of bus stations, taxi rides and departure lounges. On the flipside, he who leaves the wedding early cherry-picks the tastiest morsels from the buffet. And the sheer variety of places and modes of travel we encountered gave the engineer in me pause for thought. How can these countries develop their increasingly strained transport systems to meet the needs of their upwardly mobile populations?

In Kathmandu, the scale of the challenge is clear. In the tourist district of Thamel there are no pavements, so pedestrians are forced to share the streets with the Maruti-Suzuki taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Anyone carrying out a risk assessment would stay in their hotel, but despite the odds a functioning system has evolved which seems to minimise collisions. It relies on the drivers and tuk-tuk wallahs knowing the width of their vehicles to the exact millimetre, and on everyone knowing the significance of a sharp toot on the horn: "Look out, I'm coming through!" However, during the festival of Tihar there is an interesting reversal. The crowds take to the streets to dance, sing and play instruments, and no amount of horn-tooting can shift them.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nonetheless, outside the old city the roads were still thronged with cars. At a busy intersection near the former Royal Palace, the Tata buses and Ashok trucks lined up six abreast alongside taxis and bikes at the traffic lights, revving their engines. In the midst of it all stood a traffic policeman, his manic hand-waving and whistle-blowing clearly taking precedence over the lights. There was only one problem though: cows don't follow orders.

On to West Bengal, where there's no doubt that Kolkata's transport system has benefited from an injection of order courtesy of the British Empire. The city centre was re-planned during the early nineteenth century to incorporate wide, traffic-friendly boulevards. Today, these streets are fought over by the usual jumble of traffic, people and animals common to modern Indian cities, plus, uniquely on our travels, trams. And like other great world cities, Kolkata has its own special taxi. The Hindustan Ambassador is produced locally to a 1950s design based on the Morris Oxford, and not a lot has changed since. Bench seats and central instrument panels are standard features; optional extras (based on our limited experience) include brakes, windows and door handles.

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Kolkatans are tolerant drivers, though this may be due in part to the sluggish Ambassadors forcing traffic to move at a sedate pace. Moreover, the local authority has successfully promoted the practice of cutting the engine at traffic lights on both economic and environmental grounds. The first time we experienced this was strange to say the least. We were becalmed in queuing traffic, listening to conversations taking place in other cars (those without windows, at least). Moving off again is also a leisurely affair, for acceleration is not a gift bestowed on the Ambassador by its makers. In fact, so accustomed did I become to slow-moving vehicles that I made a misjudgement when wandering down one of Kolkata's railway lines and, like Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, had to take evasive action to avoid a speeding train.

The Kolkata to Hanoi leg of our journey would have been time-consuming and logistically challenging overland, so we opted to fly via Bangkok. There were no alarms, but more than a few surprises. Kolkata, a city of 14.1 million people (thanks, Wikipedia) has an international airport with two departure gates. Bangkok airport has the world's most expensive Toblerones and a Leicester City FC shop. AirAsia is very good airline; Vietnam Airlines is even better.

Arriving in Hanoi felt like an evolutionary leap forward – smooth roads, lane markings, modern cars and not a cow in sight. If Katie Melua ever writes a sequel to Nine Million Bicycles, this is where she should come, for the Vietnamese have a love affair with motorbikes, and in the city’s Old Quarter, the moped is king. Flush with their recently acquired wealth, a bike is the affordable luxury most people crave. Thousands of scooters swarm daily along the narrow streets, weaving their way between the tourists, street vendors and stray dogs. Pavements have been sacrificed as bike parks and shiny new Yamahas, Hondas and Vespas gleam at the countless dealerships.

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

Walking the Old Quarter's narrow streets was daunting at first, especially crossing the road. There are no lights, no pedestrian crossings, no road markings even. But then we realised there are no accidents, because just like Kathmandu, Hanoi has devised its own system of unwritten road rules. When you step out into the road, you notice that traffic weaves naturally round you without appearing to slow down. Providing you continue to cross without changing speed or direction, nothing will hit you. This involves a fair amount of trust, but the Vietnamese are well practiced at avoiding each other. Just take a look at this brilliant time lapse video for proof.

Vietnam's economy is booming and new roads are under construction all over the north. But sometimes the heavy hand of communism overrides common sense, resulting in incongruous sights like empty six-lane highways running through middle-of-nowhere towns and giant phallic monuments presiding over roundabouts.

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Across the border in Laos, we cycled for the best part of a week down the busiest road in the country. Of course, it was only when we got there that our tour leader revealed this fact. But there was no thought of us demanding a refund, for the Lao version of the M1 is more like an English country B-road. Apart from the occasional tourist bus blazing past, the bulk of the passing traffic was made up of chugging tractors, grumpy water buffalo and schoolchildren waving from bicycles. Luang Prabang also deserves a mention as a traffic-free haven, thanks to its location on a loop of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was refreshing to be in a city where the boat and the bicycle are the commonest forms of transport. And as we proved, with a boat and a mountain bike, you can go pretty much anywhere in Laos.

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

A common feature of Vietnamese and Lao mountain roads is their relatively gentle gradients. The steepest climbs were 10%, tolerable even with tired legs at the end of a long ascent on the bike. It would be nice to think that this was purely for the benefit of us humble cyclists, but I suspect the knackered old buses, trucks and tractors would die on anything steeper. There are no such problems for the Thais with their sleek, modern cars and superbikes, so they build their mountain roads accordingly. We found this out the hard way on the 100km Samoeng Loop to the west of Chiang Mai. It's a killer on a mountain bike!

Nowhere are the citizens of Asia more mobile than in Bangkok, a city which beats most European counterparts hands down in the futuristic transport stakes. My home town of Birmingham has Spaghetti Junction: Bangkok is Spaghetti City.

A bright pink Toyota Corolla whisked us from the airport to our downtown hotel along elevated highways which snaked between the skyscrapers. We cowered in the back while Thailand's answer to Sebastian Vettel took the racing line around every bend, reaching speeds which would have been unthinkable in Calcutta or Kathmandu. These highways are just one layer of spaghetti; above them runs the Skytrain, below them the city streets, and beneath the surface the Metro. Like a steep Himalayan gorge or a tropical rainforest, Bangkok is a truly three-dimensional environment.

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

It’s also home to the most unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers on the entire continent. While the rest of the city zooms past at high speed, these guys go out of their way to make your journey as slow and stressful as possible. Our first attempt ended up with us abandoning the tuk-tuk within a minute of getting on board, as the driver stopped and drew us a picture showing us where he was going to take us (which was not where we had asked him to go). All our subsequent enquiries of tuk-tuk drivers were met with disinterest, incomprehension or an astronomical fare and a refusal to negotiate. It was nearly enough to persuade me to buy one of the ubiquitous "No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow." T-shirts. But not quite, because elsewhere in Asia, tuk-tuk drivers had been our friends. Yes, they're pushy and they overcharge, but they are part of the fabric of life here and contribute to the buzz of the city streets.

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Bangkok's busy riverboat taxis are another means of getting around the city. And as our travels led us further south to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, more of our time was spent on the water. Our boat to Koh Rong in Cambodia was delayed by three hours because of high winds and an absent captain. A substitute skipper was found, but it was not long into the journey before we were questioning whether he had ever left dry land before. He skilfully steered the boat so that the waves hit us broadside, drenching those at the stern, and then did his best to ram the pier several times before, to our great relief, we finally moored. The locals did not go fishing in such conditions, for theirs were the most basic boats I'd ever seen, constructed from nothing more than a rectangular board of expanded polystyrene.

A longtail boat bobbing in a turquoise sea is the quintessential image of southern Thailand. The noise of its engine may cut through the deepest of sleep (fact-checked personally) and there may never less than an inch of water in the hull, but I grew rather fond of longtails. I particularly liked watching the boat captains nimbly steering their crafts through narrow channels or off the edge of a reef. Any change in direction or raising of the propeller requires strength, agility and timing as the captain uses his body weight as a counterbalance to the pivoting engine, stepping neatly over (or under) the swinging tiller.

Longtail boat engine

Longtail boat engine

Less charming, but certainly quicker in a straight line, are the modern speedboats which carry island-hopping tourists down the Andaman Coast. If you're picturing luxury and decadence, think again, for in my experience they rival Nepalese buses in the unbearability stakes. On the first trip, I had to sit on the floor. On the second, I squeezed into the front of the boat on top of a pile of rucksacks. On the third, a one-hour crossing from Koh Lipe to Langkawi, I was relieved to finally get a seat. My mood soon darkened as we left the harbour and picked up speed. The sea was choppy, and if the boat caught a wave at the wrong moment it landed on the surface of the water with such force that it felt as though our spines were being crushed. The only lesson I can take away from this experience is that speedboats, like Nepalese buses and Bangkok tuk-tuks, are best avoided at all costs.

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

To conclude this blog entry I decided I had to go back to bikes and two favourite photos from the end of our trip. There are no cars on Koh Lipe, only scooters. You might think the local police would have been embarrassed to be photographed on their 100cc Honda, but far from it. They smiled, they waved and they still managed to look cool. It was all very Southeast Asian and I loved it. And then, not a minute later, we stumbled across a second photo opportunity, the little boy playing on his dad’s scooter. How can your heart not melt!

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department


Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:39 Tagged boats bikes india cambodia thailand vietnam laos transport nepal Comments (0)

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