Saturday, September 20, 2008

Annapurna and Pokhara, Nepal, in pictures

(Backdated entry)... Pokhara is definitely a must-see site in Nepal, and is the gateway to the Annapurna Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit treks - I pursued the latter, and found it a grueling but unforgettable experience. For those interested, although we had a guide and porter, it is entirely possible to do without either as the trails are marked and decently heavily traveled.

Typical "hotel"...

...with a quite atypical view.

Traffic jam

Annapurnas from Phewa Lake, Pokhara

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Kathmandu in Pictures

Jawlakhel, Patan. This is the area where I live. Although quite residential, it is home to a lot of international workers for UNICEF, UN, the Embassies, etc... In my house alone, we have an Austrian engineer, a Japanese UN Peacekeeper, two British doctors, a Norwegian students, and three Indian visitors. Accordingly, there is a great mix of food around, covering Nepali, Indian, Mexican, Indo-Chinese, Japanese, Cajun, and Italian. Reviews forthcoming...


The guesthouse


Typical traffic. Tuk Tuk/Tempo in green.


Durbar Square, Kathmandu. This square is accessible from Patan; what I did was take a microbus to Ratna Park (20 min), and then do a 15-20 minute walk through the narrow streets of Kathmandu. Getting back, one can easily go to Thamel. Thamel itself is a maze of shops and stalls; you'll need a good map to navigate it, and even then it is difficult. Thamel is also easily accessible from Ratna Park via a 10 minute walk; walk past the large pond on the right, past the large abandoned white building (very obvious) to the left, and turn left at the US embassy.


Walk towards Durbar Square


A building of the Square


Bodhnath Stupa, outer Kathmandu. We were able to get a taxi (150Rp) from Ratna Park (30min), to this center of Tibetian Buddhism. While the monastery cannot quite compare to the monasteries in Tibet, it is a hotbed of the Tibetan population and a great place to see daily Tibetan culture.


The Bodhnath Stupa... creepy eyes...


Tibetan schoolchildren and the random white guy playing soccer


Not fond of the Chinese...


Pashupatinath Temple, Kathmandu. Supposedly one of the most important Shiva temples, it is the center of Hinduism. The crowd here is noticeably different from the one encountered at Bodhnath, yet it is only a fifteen minute walk away through pristine farmland! (Just follow the road that is straight ahead of the Bodhnath exit). The architecture is beautiful, and the people plenty; they have a check-in for shoes for the temple, but you can only get in if you're Hindi - at least, I almost got through until the guard realized "one of these is not the same as the others." If you're of brown complexion, don't bring your yellow or pale skinned friends; my British-Indian friends were not allowed in as a result of me, so be careful! Definitely a place to visit however. Cool wild monkeys (technically macaques) also scattered around the temple grounds!


The walk to Pashupatinath


Temple entrance, Hindus only


Monkeys! She was not happy at the picture...



Friday, September 12, 2008

Load shedding, strikes, non-taxi transport, and cell phone

Quissential to Nepal, the following four terms:

1) Load shedding. Load shedding is a euphamism for scheduled power cuts. This occurs in Nepal to meet power supply and demand. During the monsoon season, the power cuts are less than during the dry season. Most of Nepal is used to this, and nice facilities will have generators which will kick in during the load shedding hours. Although there is a schedule for different sections of town - today, for example, load shedding occured during 14:00 - 18:00 - this schedule is not followed percisely. Account for your portable electronics to be fully charged, and that services which require two sections of town (eg. television, communicatons) to be down twice the load schedding schedule, on average. The current load shedding schedule, as of 9/11/2008, is 31.5 hrs/wk; however, this is subject to rapid change, as from mid-August to mid-September the schedule was set at 16 hrs/wk.

2) Strikes. Strikes in Kathmandu are frequent, and can bring the whole capital to a standstill. It is part of the Nepali political process, and probably occur for good reason. When a strike is called, notice is usually passed from public word-of-mouth. By the time one sees a strike article in the newspaper, such as the Kathmandu Post or (a good website for Nepali news!), it is probably many hours already in effect. During a strike, transportation screeches to a halt, as well as the sector in question (markets, hospitals, shops, etc...) and police are stationed to prevent massive protests. The positive side effect of this is that the air becomes wonderful to breathe! During a strike, many governments do not advise their nationals to travel outside; the Korean goverment, for example, calls its citizens to inform them to stay home. However, I found my trip outside fine; just avoid the protesters one meets, if any, and obey the strike rules.

3) Non-taxi transport. Other transport in Nepal occurs by walking, bike, motorbike, tempo, mini-bus, or bus. Tempos, mini-buses, and buses are hard to navigate without knowing Nepali, but they usually stick to the main roads (there are few in Kathmandu and Patan). One can rent a bike for use, or travel like the Nepalis do - on motorbike. However, walking will be the transport of choice for most. Get a map, as there are literally no road signs in Nepal and most roads are unmarked. With the map, one can at least match hotel and restaurant names to locations and triangulate a position. This is particularly handy in Thamel.

4) Cell phone. A rudimentary GSM cell phone network, with no EDGE/GPRS data service, exists. I am unsure about CDMA. Mobi mobile sells SIM cards for 510 Rp, incuding 490 Rp credit, through stores. One can add more credit through recharge cards. The reception in Kathmandu is excellent; however call-service is poor. I am not sure if this is due to an analog network, or VOIP. It is very cheap to call nepal, 35 Rp/ min for international, and free to recieve calls, as of September 2008.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Patan, Nepal - first impressions


Immigration in KTM is in a small building more reminiscent of a cabin in the woods than an immigration depot. It took around 45 minutes to pass the visa-on-demand. As of July 2008, prices are $25USD/15days, $40USD/30days, $100USD/90days, all mutiple entry visas, payable in USD/GBP/CAD/JPN/HKD. Money exchange at site; passport photo needed but at site; ATM outside; hounds of people past immigration. ATM rate good for NPR; using Bank of America debit, recieved ~74NPR-1USD (before $5 fee).

Landing at KTM.

First impressions:

Nepal is a fascinating landscape; reminiscent of Tibet but without the altitude sickness and the low hanging clouds. Large mountains in the background, as can be seen in the photo from my guesthouse. The air does not look polluted, but the streets are pretty bad; mostly motorbikes and car exhaust. The buildings are definitely unique, as are the unlabeled roads. The people are wonderfully nice, however! First motorbike ride today was a death-defying experience. Make sure the driver doesn't brake...

View from my guesthouse in the Kathmandu Valley.

Otherwise, internet is slow but available. Visited Patan hospital, more on that later.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bangkok en transit

Went through Bangkok as part of the stopover from Beijing. From Beijing, as of September 2008 there are three main ways to get to Kathmandu:
1) via CTU-LXA: very expensive and potential Tibet Travel Permit concern
2) via CAN: infrequent via China Southern
3) via HKG: many airlines. Royal Nepal flies this route, but you cannot book outside of Nepal... nor would you want to given their record
4) via BKK: my route, courtesy Star Alliance

Went via EgyptAir, a very nice carrier to BKK. At BKK, did a stopover at Queen's Garden Resort at River View, which is a 10min taxi drive away; BKK immigration took less than 10 minutes. Booked through Web Sawadee, which I recommend although I am uncertain about the prices. One-way transfer free, return 150 bhat. Bring USD or GBP, as exchanging RMB is horribad rates!

The view from the window. Suprisingly, the hotel is not bad.

A suprise in the morning, however - if you leave the airport, prepare to pay a 700 bhat "Airport Tax"! In hindsight, I would have probably slept in the airport - which is actually decently nice - or checked in my bags before I left / got my boarding pass, and then left the airport to avoid the tax. Otherwise, BKK is a ripoff for food (Burger King is 2-3x NYC prices), but it's a pretty airport. Free wi-fi outside the OneTeam lounge! Good to know, as this trick has worked at PEK also.

Note: Thai airlines is amazing. The ample alcohol, meal and snack, and drinks, along with the new planes and very good flight attendants made this my most pleasant flight yet! Unlike on AirTran, when a couple with a crying baby was evicted from the plane, here the situation was taken care of with a quick toy to a crying child during takeoff. US Airways, get learning!

Thais love their king!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Beijing: change, and olympic interlude

Beijing has changed an amazing amount since August 2007. The subway has expanded almost 3-fold, the airport and infastructure is brand new, the air (seems) cleaner, and the prices have gone up! It is more and more looking like a Western metropolis, and nothing like the dusty city I found myself first in nine years ago.

Beijing Metro: 

Arrived at Beijing Train Station at 5AM; the train station is still the same, the busiest part of town. The subway, however, has changed signifigantly; cards are now RF-ID, only 2RMB, and the subway lines have expanded! Be sure to keep your card, as you will need it on the way out. For Olympics I presume, each station has a bag scanner. If NYC could emulate the efficiency of Beijing's Metro. I always find it suprising when people do not run to catch the leaving train, as I am used to Boston's once-in-a-forever subway system. The crowding from before has been reduced; the trains are nicer; even the recordings from nine years back have been changed! It's a marvel to ride.

Outside of Wukesong station, the auto-rickshaws are gone; taxis will have to do. Taxis are now 10RMB flag, then 2RMB/km after initial few km. If you can catch one in the suburbs, they are 5RMB usually to a Metro stop. It's a tight squeeze for two!


The air quality is signifigantly better than even a year before, although these are my subjective observations. It is still hazy, however, but does not give instant asthma anymore. Interesting.


In case anyone is looking to tailor clothing (suit, qipao, etc...), there was an entry I found on the web for Daxin Fabrics, at Gongzhufen. Expanding on this, the place is located about a 5 minute walk down Changan Jie past Ciwei Shopping Center. You'll pass by a KFC, and eventually a Giordano/Baleno store and turn a corner to the left. You can get tailored attire here; buy the fabric, then find the tailor. It was 280RMB for a suit to be tailored, though I may have gotten ripped off. Shipping abroad to the US takes 1-2 months at ~300RMB. I suspect China is no longer good for this anymore, as things have become signifigantly more expensive.

5% of what this place has.


Golden Dragon, in the Jiangguomen area, has an amazing all-you-can-eat buffet, 189RMB, which includes food from pretty much every corner of the world. I can almost guarantee this will be the largest buffet you will ever encounter. Of particlar interest is the sashimi section. 


New airport express line leaves Dongzhimen for 25RMB, train came every 15min in the afternoon, and takes (30?) minutes to arrive, also RF-ID card (keep to exit). Terminal 3 is the international departure terminal! The terminal is stunning in its construction, although of gigantic proportions. Definitely a not-miss.

Thought: For all the advertising for the Paraolympics, not many people are watching...

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Call for travelers

Places I would like to go in the near future. Friends, interested?


*Urumqi, Xinjiang
*Kashgar, Xinjiang
*Ali/Ngari prefecture, Tibet
*Zhongmu, Tibet
*Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan
*Chengdu, Sichuan
*Zhongdian, Yunnan
Possible route:

Karakoram Highway/Silk Road

*3 week trip: Beijing -> Chengdu/Zhongdian/Lanzhou -> Urumqi -> Turpan/Aletai -> Kashgar ->either Almaty (Kazakhstan) by train or Gilgit (Pakistan) by bus via Tashkurgan

This trip should work well, at least in the China region. Chengdu and Lanzhou are easily accessible, as well as Urumqi, then train to Turban/Kasghar/Kazakhstan or Aletai, which is in the north of the province and has rave reviews from the Chinese I spoke to who went. Apparently there is also a route through Inner Mongolia, but that is not traveled by anyone. Train to Kashgar information.

Another interesting route for passerby, though I will not be traveling it:
DPRK Excursion
*5 day trip: Beijing -> Dandong/Shinuiju -> Pyongyang -> Beijing

This trip can be done with surprisingly minimal effort. One would need a multi-entry Chinese visa, and arrange for a tour guide in Shinuiju to join a Chinese tour, for up to 4000 RMB. It is a purely organized tour in the DPRK.