#6 China (Part 1) and Hong Kong

#6 China (Part 1) and Hong Kong
Xi’an – Shaanxi Province

China …oh China!!

Entering into Xi’an we were expecting a dirty, busy and crazy city, as the stereotype of China goes. What was waiting for us was quite the opposite and we were surprised at how clean and orderly it was. The public transport was frequent and efficient, traffic in the streets flowed and herds of (silent) electric motorbikes crept up on us out of nowhere only to be gone again in a flash. Rather impressive for a city of nearly 9 million inhabitants, which I guess is only a medium sized city by Chinese standards.

On our first night we tried to find somewhere to eat close by our hostel. We walked around the block and came across a strip lined with Chinese street BBQs. With groups sitting atop plastic stools and stooped over low tables, the pavement was full of loud talkative Chinese socialising, gambling and sharing a meal and a few Tsingtao beers. The language barrier hit us like a brick wall as we were approached by waiters in loud fast Mandarin and menus only in Chinese characters. Despite Charlotte’s basic middle school Mandarin, trying to enquire about the food was next to impossible. We started to retreat when we were met by a friendly Mandarin-only speaking restaurant owner who took us under her wing and lead us around other patron’s tables to point out the different dishes on offer. The locals were excited to see a western tourist and began offering us samples of their meals, one even pulling on his ear when we asked him “zhe shi shen ma?” (“what is this?”) – an ear of a pig was assumed. We ended up sitting down to a delicious Chinese street BBQ (we still have no idea what meat it was), Tsingtao beer, with friendly interaction and obligatory photos with the locals. Our spirits were lifted and even though we knew this was going to be like no other country we had visited we were now feeling up to the challenge.

On the way home we walked past what looked like a high end dining establishment (especially in contrast to our street BBQ). Sitting inside the window was a topless man with his T-shirt draped over the back of his chair. In China we soon began to realise that you can wear whatever, whenever. Ranging from pyjamas in public, T-shirts with inexplicable English sayings (‘You should see my black face’ – what ever that may mean?) to track pants with high heels, it is also socially appropriate for a male to wear their T-shirt sitting on the waist, tucked above or below the nipples or just not at all.

Xi’an itself was truly an amazing and captivating city with a lot of history and great architecture. As the oldest of the ‘Four Great Ancient Capitals’ of China it played a central role during the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties and was the starting point to the Silk Road.

The city centre is surrounded by a city wall (and moat) with gated entrances, which was rebuilt in 1370 after the original wall, dating back to 194BC, was destroyed at the end of the Tang dynasty. We spent our first afternoon walking and cycling around the 14km long perimeter, a strange feeling cycling atop a wall with such deep history. The wall itself has 5,864 battlements and you can imagine the arrows and crossbows shot and javelins thrown to protect the city during times of siege. I had an enjoyable interaction with a Chinese couple on a tandem bike. They cycled past at full speed and were shocked when I caught and cruised past them (must have maintained some of the cycling fitness from Sri Lanka). No words were exchanged but the laughter from both sides said it all. This was the first of many friendly interactions with the locals who were not scared to let their big personalities and humour shine.

Within the city walls stand the bell tower and drum tower (both from the 14th century). Seeing them lit up at night was a sight to behold. The nearby Muslim quarter was always abuzz day and night and had a great array of food on offer. The street is lined with street stalls where you can consume an array of flavours to please any tastebuds. The neon lights that light the strip at night set the scene for the hustle and bustle of this pedestrian only street.

The major tourist drawcard in Xi’an however is the Terracotta Warriors, which I have to say is one of, if not the, most interesting archaeological sites I have ever visited. Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, shortly after ascending to the throne aged 13 commenced work on a Mausoleum and underground army (made from life sized terracotta figures) to protect him in his afterlife. Discovered by a local farmer in 1974 the site is now a major archaeological work-in-progress with an estimated 8,000 soldiers, 670 horses and 130 chariots along with other non-military figures across 4 underground pits. Pit one, the largest, has over 6,000 soldiers to which 2,000 have now been restored. The site was significantly damaged and burnt by in a period around 200BC and subsequent collapsing of the roof led to damage of all but one of the figures, which due to his kneeling position was preserved whole. The most capturing characteristic of the army is that no two figures are the same, each having a unique face. This helps understand why 700,000 conscripts were required to construct the 98-square kilometre site. The site today sees 30,000 average daily visitors but has had up to a whopping 460,000 on national public holidays!

Jiuzhaigou National Park – Sichuan Province

From Xian we ventured south into Sichuan Province to the town of Jiuzhaigou, home to one of the most spectacular National Parks I have had the privilege of stepping into. Reaching the entrance gate at opening time we joined the end of a long ticket line. There is very different (read no) queuing etiquette in China so it took us quite some time to reach the front, often with help from being pushed from behind.

At the entrance to the park there was a large number of opportunists selling ‘selfie sticks’. These are sold absolutely everywhere in China and through extensive observation we can confirm that there are as many, if not more, selfie sticks in China, as people (for around $3 a piece who wouldn’t want to buy a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th?). At the key viewing spots within the park, which were packed with tourists, it was hard to take a photo without a selfie stick or a person in the frame. On one overcrowded walkway I almost took the handle of a stick to my face as it’s owner answered the phone connected to the other end – with selfie stick at full extension! This was the first of many National Parks that we visited in China and were continually amazed at the flow of tourists within the parks. Buses, elevators and escalators ferry people between the key sights, which leaves the trails in between empty and very enjoyable.

On foot, once inside, we covered about 25kms through the park and also took a couple of buses to allow us to get to see as much of the Park as possible. The Park had some of the clearest and most amazing coloured lakes we have ever seen, pristine waterfalls and dense forest with moss covered undergrowth. Visiting in spring the park was very lush and green. From seeing photos of it covered in snow in winter and the array of colours in autumn it would be an amazing site at any time of the year.

Chengdu – Sichuan Province

Arriving in Chengdu we had the most pleasant taxi experience of the entire trip thus far. The driver was unsure exactly were the hostel was so he turned off his meter until it was found. We found the Chinese to be very honest operators, even the taxi drivers, and never felt like we were getting taken advantage of, which is a rarity when traveling in foreign countries. It was a nice change.

We only spent a couple of days in Chengdu but they were highly enjoyable with the highlight being a visit to the Giant Panda Research Centre. This was truly fascinating as the largest home of Giant Pandas (which are found in Sichuan Province in the wild) in the world. It was also highly educational and informative. We could have stayed and watched the clumsy cubs play fighting with each other in the trees all afternoon but the Sichuan hotpot was calling.

A hot pot is a traditional Chinese dish in the region and Sichuan is the benchmark for spicy. A boiling broth in the middle of the table becomes full of meat vegetables and noodles (in that order if you want to do it correctly) of your choosing (in our case due to a character-only menu again, being taken into the kitchen by friendly waiters and pointing at things to order!). The region’s signature Sichuan black pepper acts like an anaesthetic agent, which numbs your mouth to counter the spice. We soon were feeling the effects as our whole table of backpackers broke out in chilli-related sweats, having to remove layers of clothing making us stand out even more than previous, being the only westerners in the restaurant! Needless to say we remembered the spice again the next day.

Lijiang – Yunnan Province

We used Lijiang as our starting point for the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. The town itself is infamous for it’s old town, which is a UNESCO Heritage Site. With winding cobbled streets and waterways the once residential town is now packed full of restaurants and handicraft and art shops. A short walk north of the old town the Black Dragon Pool provides a stunning view towards Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the tallest mountain in the region standing at 5,596m.

Our stay in a hostel on the outskirts of the old town was the most memorable experience from our time here. We sat down to dinner with our roommates and hostel staff initiated by a Chinese guest who couldn’t speak a word of English but was determined to be our host. With conversation half in English, half in Mandarin (with a lot of translation and beer in between) we had a very interesting discussion around the political situation in China, it’s recent economic growth and bright future. Wherever we went we found Chinese people to be friendly, well humoured and genuinely interested in us, and the world.

Tiger Leaping Gorge – Yunnan Province

Joined by a new Singaporean friend, Edwin, and a number of other tourists we caught a bus from Lijiang to the start of a 2-day hike along the Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest and most spectacular rivers canyons in the world.

The gorge, 15kms in length, crosses between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the Haba Snow Mountain (5,396m). At its narrowest point of 25m wide the river surges by at incredible speed as the water squeezes past 2,000m high cliff faces.

Taking the 22km ‘high route’ we were spoilt with fine weather and amazing views along and down the gorge. On day 1 we formed a larger group with Emily (an Australian), Tanja and Raph (a Swiss couple), and a Chinese tourist from Beijing named Yan. Together we shared all meals, many stories and a spectacular dorm room with floor to ceiling glass looking down into the gorge.

Dali – Yunnan Province

Having formed new traveling friendships with a few on the hike and travel plans aligning, six of us continued on to the township of Dali, situated on the large Erhai Lake. We had a very fun day cruising on electric bikes along the lakeside and through rice fields, visiting ancient villages and religious sites. With Yan as our Chinese ‘tour guide’ (often jokingly asking for tips) we also sampled a number of famous Yunnan foods, including delicious gourmet ice cream! On our way back to Dali Edwin and Yan’s bike was low on power so we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a beer and some electricity. As dusk drew near and we got closer to Dali all of the bikes started getting slower and slower as the batteries ran low (in Edwin and Yan’s case completely running out of power leaving Edwin getting towed by holding on to the tray of a ute) resulting in us taking an early dinner stop for some delicious hot pot and some more charging of the bikes. Quite literally the restaurant ran an extension cord out the front door, allowing us to charge two bikes at a time on rotation. As environmentally friendly as they are it turns out they are not that suitable for long-distance trips out of the city!

Having said goodbye to our fellow travellers we spent the next day exploring the old city of Dali, with its vibrant nightlife, ancient wall and numerous tourist shops. We also took a cable car to hike in the surrounding mountains and enjoy a view out over Erhai Lake.

With our visa nearing its expiration it was time to get to Hong Kong for a new one, as there was still so much more of China to explore. Taking a quick overnight stop in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, we boarded a flight to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

Neither of us had visited Hong Kong (HK) before and had viewed it as a place to renew our visa rather than a destination in itself. Upon landing in the hot and humid air of HK (thankfully at sea level for the first time in a long time) we caught a bus into the city and checked into a room in the Chungking Mansions – probably the cheapest private room in HK, all 7m2 of it.

We aren’t regular users of Facebook but thankfully on our first morning we happened to go online to see that our good friend Neil was, according to a recent post, en route to HK. The stars aligned as we got to catch up with him on his one-night only stop over in HK in a sky-high bar we chose which happened to be 2 floors above where he was having dinner when we managed to contact him. We shared some travel stories and caught up on news from home over a couple of cocktails with a spectacular view of one of the world’s greatest skylines. It was both weird and normal but so wonderful to be unexpectedly with one of our best friends from home.

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Enjoying an unexpected catch up with our good friend Neil

We found HK highly developed after where we had been traveling and the commercialism/materialism took a little bit of getting used to. That said after a couple of days there I began to love the mix of ‘east meets west’ and could see the appeal to live and work there as an expat. We ate at our first Michelin Star restaurant (the world’s most affordable – Tim Ho Wan), hiked the Dragon’s Back trail and took a swim, and enjoyed the amazing HK skyline at night-time from both sea level and The Peak. With the highly efficient Chinese visa processing in HK we were once again ready to head back into China to continue exploring the history and culture of the world’s largest population. Stay tuned for more…

#5 Tibet

#5 Tibet

Flying into Lhasa (the capital of Tibet) from Kathmandu was an experience in itself and one of the only times I have ever requested a window seat: I normally opt for the isle for more leg room. The dry and barren terrain was covered in snow-capped peaks, as endless high altitude lakes dotted the earth’s surface. Without some infrastructure and life it could have resembled another planet’s surface. With an average elevation over 4,500m it was clear to see why the Tibetan plateau is considered the “roof of the world”.

As a western tourist the only way to see the Tibet (or the Tibet Autonomous Region – TAR – as it is formally known) is on a guided tour, also requiring a special permit. As we planned to travel onwards to China after Tibet this also doubled as our Chinese Visa (unfortunately only for 25 days and non-extendable). Our local Tibetan guide met us at the Lhasa airport where we boarded a mini-bus along with 2 other Australians, a Brit, an American and a Colombian – whom formed the tour group for our 8-day tour of Tibet. Upon entering the mini-bus we noticed the camera staring back at us. One thing that really surprised us was the level of monitoring in Tibet, which also extended to restaurants and public spaces. We drove to our hotel in the old town of the city, situated on a square that became a buzzing local produce market into the long sunlit evenings. As crazy as it may sound China only has one time zone so in Tibet, during the summer months, it stays light well into the evening after the sun has set in Beijing and Shanghai to the East (over a similar longitudinal distance Russia has 5!).

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Local produce market each evening outside our hotel

Without going into detail on the events in the 1950’s that lead to the Government of Tibet being dissolved and Tibet formally coming under control of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Lhasa was not exactly what I had pictured in my mind. It is split into two halves, the new town and the old town. The old town is a well-constructed rebuild of what the old Tibet would have looked like prior to the takeover (with cobbled streets, Tibetan architecture and lovely Buddhist temples and monasteries). The new town on the other hand is no different to any other modern day Chinese city with tall apartment blocks, neon lights and electric billboards, shopping malls and restaurants, with cranes dominating the skyline. This isn’t what I was expecting but it shows the change that has occurred in recent decades and the influence the PRC has had in the region. The last decade in particular has seen major investment in infrastructure along with a growing number of Chinese who are moving to the region for economic purposes.

The first few days, spent in Lhasa, were simply amazing. We visited the monasteries and palaces that are very important to Tibetans and have played a key role in it’s past. At 3,600m the days were warm and sunny, with the mercury dropping a lot lower in the evening. May was a good time to visit as our guide explained it is an auspicious month in Buddhism due to the birth of Buddha, enlightenment of Buddha and the death of Buddha. This brings an increased number of Tibetan people from rural areas to Lhasa on pilgrimage, leaving the Lhasa air full of incense, chanted mantras and the smell of yak butter (like off parmesan in case you are wondering).

The first stop was the Drepung Monastery. Perched at the foot of the West Valley Mountain and sitting above Lhasa this is the largest of all monasteries in Tibet and historically used to house 7,700 Buddhist monks, with the number now dwindling around 300. As one of the main monasteries of the Gelug-pa School, the physical size of the grounds was breathtaking as we wandered through the various temples, halls and accommodation areas. Our guide started building on our knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism through outlining the different schools, leadership and belief systems. It is rather complex and I’ll admit I didn’t quite have a full grasp on it all by the end of the week.

After lunch in a local Tibetan restaurant on Barkhor Square we ventured into the heart of the old town to see the Jokhang Temple, which originated in 647AD. Maintained by the Gelug-pa School it accepts worshippers from all sects of Buddhism. Tibetans consider the temple to be the most sacred of all in Tibet and when visiting at either night or day one is swept into the clockwise sea of Buddhists circumnavigating the temple carrying prayer beads and repeating mantras, swinging prayer wheels in their hand or prostrating along the ground (with one lap taking 2-3hrs). The physical devotion to religion was really something, something beautiful. In the evenings there were a lot of young people out and it was nice to observe that the Tibetan culture and religion is not lost in the younger generations.

The next day started with a visit to the world’s most spectacular building. The Potala Palace! This structure completely (and unexpectedly) blew me away. The shear size and physical presence of the palace truly can’t be described. Inside the palace the ornate architecture and intricate artwork is amazing, especially given that it was constructed in the 7th century. The Palace was home to the Dalai Lama in winter and his cabinet (Tibetan Government) up until 1959. All but 3 of the past 13 Dalai Lamas are also buried within the palace. We went back as the sun went down and stayed until dark to see it all lit up – an amazing experience that sent shivers down my spine (and still does when looking at the pictures today).

With a stomach full of yak Momos (Tibetan dumplings) we then headed for the Sera Monastery. Starting to feel a little ‘monasteried-out’ by this point this one had something a little different to witness. In the afternoon a small courtyard in the monastery comes alive with debating monks. Small groups of monks form to test each other on Tibetan Buddhism scripture and philosophy in a very jovial way. Each question is followed by a slap of the hands directed at the student. It was highly entertaining to watch.

From Lhasa we jumped in the mini-bus to explore the more rural areas of the Tibetan plateau, en route to Mount Everest (or Chomolungma as it is called in Tibetan). The long days on the road to cover the large distances weren’t helped by the continual traffic restrictions and monitoring by the government. Every 50km or so there was registration checks, speed checks and sometimes passport checks. What used to be a 4hr drive now takes 7hrs due to the low (60km) speed limit on straight rural roads.

We headed west along the Yarlung Tsangpo River to Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest town and home to the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, traditionally the seat of the Panchen Lama (the highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama). The size and presence of the Monastery was once again staggering as we wound between all the buildings and observed the various chanting halls and tombs of past Panchen Lamas. That evening we all went out for a group dinner and wandering the streets of Shigatse.

The road to Mount Everest the next morning wound us over 3 high mountain passes standing at 4,500m, 5,248m and 5,198m, all covered in colourful Tibetan prayer flags. On the final pass we were treated to a spectacular panorama of the Himalayas including Mt Everest and Mt Lhotse (the world’s forth highest peak). The summit of Everest was trying hard to peak through the clouds but it wasn’t until we reached the first base camp (aimed at tourists) that we could see the mountain in full glory. The north face of Mt Everest, as seen from the Tibetan side, is completely unobstructed and wow just WOW. It was amazing to be in the ‘roof of the world’ viewing the top of the world.

We spent the night in a Yak tent at the 5,000m base camp and awoke at 5am to walk up another 200m in elevation to view the mountain at sunrise. It was bitterly cold, with frost on our packs and jackets, as we strolled along with our head torches lighting the way. We hung our group prayer flag covered with personal messages and danced to some music to keep warm as we waited for the sun to hit the snow on the Everest slopes. With not a cloud in sight we had the most spectacular view of this majestic mountain that will stay with us forever.

At 4,980m stood the Rongbuk Monastery – the highest monastery in the world. Unfortunately it was closed due to maintenance works but this didn’t stop us from taking some photos with Everest in the backdrop. The monks could not complain about the view from their window.

After spending another night in Shigatse on the long drive back to Lhasa we took an alternate route to see the town of Gyantse. Surrounded by an agricultural area it was a lot greener than the rest of the dry arid conditions we had seen. The old town was very quaint and I could have roamed the cobbled streets for hours. The main tourist draw card here is the Pelkor Chode Monastery (Palcho Monastery) along with its 9-tiered Kumbum (large Stupa), housing 77 chapels with amazing works of art. Exploring the various floors and chapels was a unique experience. We were also fortunate enough to see the monks chanting in the main assembly hall of the Monastery (something that only happens once a month in modern times).

The final leg of the journey led us along the shores of Yamdrok Lake, one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. The turquoise water was in stark contrast to the dry mountains and blue sky.

Back in Lhasa we went out for our final dinner and after saying our goodbyes to the group the next morning we boarded a 34hr train to Xi’an. The Qinghai-Tibet railway is the highest in the world climbing over 5,000m altitude. Extra oxygen is pumped into the carriages as a safety precaution to avoid any passengers getting altitude sickness. As horrible as a 34hr train ride may sound it was actually a very pleasant experience. We dined in the restaurant cart, took in some fresh mountain air from the train platform as it snowed and admired the changing landscape as we climbed and descended through the plateau. It was a perfect way to round out our eye opening Tibetan experience.

#4 Nepal

#4 Nepal

Namaste!

In true Nepalese fashion our flight into Kathmandu from New Delhi was delayed due to bad weather. After circling above the city for 20-30mins and almost having to be diverted we landed in Nepal – a country I have been eager to visit since a child. This may stem from being a New Zealander, meeting the great Sir Edmund Hillary as a kid or just a general love for being in mountainous areas. What ever it was, in planning the EPIC Adventure, Nepal was the country I was most excited for and I was happy to finally be here.

The weather was a reminder that we were heading into the Himalayas, a place where nature was always going to be the boss.

In the lead up to Nepal we had done some research on the various regions and treks that were available. Reinforced through a number of recommendations we decided to trek the Annapurna Circuit (AC) in the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) – historically voted as the best long distance trek in the world. With the construction of a connecting road around the circuit nearing completion the full impact of this on the trek is unknown. We were after a long distance trek that we could do self-guided (for freedom and to reduce costs) and for that the Annapurna Circuit came out on top, a decision we will never regret.

From Kathmandu we headed to Pokhara, Nepal’s second biggest town and a base for those venturing into the ACA on various treks. It is a very touristy town and therefore a very comfortable place as a westerner with all types of cuisine and adventure sports on offer. The tourists congregate in Lakeside where every second shop is selling trekking equipment, with the others being made up of cafes, bars and restaurants. We acquired a few required clothing items, hired some down sleeping bags to get us through the cold nights, ate a ton of food, purchased a map and were then ready to head off on our walkabout.

We had always thought we would do the trek self guided but as time got closer and we started speaking with people in Kathmandu and Pokhara we started considering whether a guide or porter was in fact a good idea in case we got in any strife, especially given the elevation we would be trekking to. After much deliberation we decided that we should be fine oursleves. With a medical kit, sim card for emergency calls and some altitude sickness medication along with a decent understanding of trekking in high altitude we thought we were well equipped (especially myself with a personal doctor in tow).

With our bags packed with what we needed for the estimated 21 day trek we caught a “Tourist Bus” to Besisahar – the starting point of the AC. Upon boarding the bus it quickly became apparent that our seats had been sold 4x over so we took any seat we could as it became a first in, first served basis. Many late arrivals weren’t happy about this, as the 5hr bus ride just became a little more uncomfortable for them. In true Nepal style as soon as the bus left the Tourist Bus Park it started stopping to pick up a number of locals (and the varying goods they were carrying). Within 30mins I had someone resting on my knee, another backpacker seated in the isle intermittently dozing on my arm, as people hung out the doors. Surprisingly a local managed to get his booked seat (albeit after 10 minutes of arguing with another local as the bus sat idle waiting for the near physical dispute to end). Upon exiting the bus it was nice to know that we would be relying solely on our own two feet as a mode of transportation for the coming days and weeks.

We set off from Besisahar and found the New Annapurna Trekking Trail (NATT) at the edge of the town. Along with the construction of the road came fears from some guesthouse owners that trekkers wouldn’t want to walk along a dusty road so a number of NATT trails have been developed to avoid the road and lead you up and down (and up and down) through amazing natural scenery and remote villages. We had downloaded a pdf guide to help us follow the NATT trails, also aided by the red and white markings. These beautiful trails ensured we spent less than 5% of the time on the dusty road and the road did not detract from our experience at all.

Not too far into day one we crossed our first of many swing bridges. We saw another couple from the bus (yes they were also allocated our same seats) heading off in a different direction so I tried to wave them back. I don’t think they saw but quickly realised themselves and backtracked slightly.

They were a lovely American-Hungarian duo, Michelle and Gabor, whom we walked with for the rest of the day and then for the entire trek (after the essential “are we a thing?” conversation). Over the course of the coming weeks we developed a very strong bond as we jointly experienced the ups and downs of a long distance trek. Together we were stronger as four and formed a good team that motivated each other along the way and supported each other’s anxieties, which were inevitable given the challenge ahead of us. Hiking around 8 hours a day and eating 3x meals a day together is recipe for quickly developing a close friendship and we thoroughly enjoyed their company and support.

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Our trekking buddies Michelle and Gabor (in the Annapurna Sanctuary)

The first few days, starting at 740m elevation, took us through a tropical hot, humid and hazy rainforest environment, following a raging river that led us from village to village. Having never really trekked with a heavy pack before, a few hours in I was already wondering how I was going to lug the 14-16kgs over the 5,416m pass! Thankfully the back muscles strengthened and after few days started to become trek fit. That said our scheduled breaks every 2 hours provided much needed relief for the shoulders.

As we climbed through 4 different climatic zones, each with its distinct vegetation, wildlife and culture, the haze began to lift. Once above 2500m we were spoilt by never ending Himalayan views of pristine peaks and majestic mountain ranges.

The experience of the AC extends beyond that of natural beauty. The trek leads you though small villages and towns along the way where you can stop at teahouses for food and then sleep at a guesthouse when you are done hiking for that day. The rooms are very basic and are often free so long as you buy dinner/breakfast at the guesthouse. As they are very frequent this also allows the flexibility to walk as much or as little as you like each day. The menus are very similar offering simple local food at prices that rise and fall with the elevation (due to the cost of getting supplies in). The Nepalese are just lovely people and we were always greeted with a smile and “Namaste” as we passed farm workers, guesthouse owners and other locals on the paths. This is a unique trekking experience as you can trek for weeks without having to carry food, lots of water, tent etc. and also experience the Himalayan way of life.

Religion is also a big part of their life and given the close proximity of the ACA to the Tibet border there is a strong Tibetan Buddhist influence. We visited some amazingly remote and ancient monasteries, temples and stupas, sometimes 4,000m+ high.

It was not only the natural beauty, friendly locals and culture that made the experience so memorable but also the trekking itself. Having done a few overnight hikes in Latin America and numerous day hikes this was something else. It was more technically and physically challenging than I was expecting and therefore more rewarding.

We were now starting to hike in an environment where you had to take precautions. One of our major concerns before and during the trek was altitude sickness – especially as I had constant headaches at altitude in Peru. Once I felt it coming on (around 3,000m) I took Diamox to help the acclimatisation and from that day on experienced the side effect of intermittent intense tingles in my fingers and toes but thankfully no more headaches.

As time was on our side we were able to do a couple of side treks to help with the altitude acclimatisation process. One in particular to Tilicho Lake, which added 3-4 days, was an amazing but somewhat sketchy experience. To reach the Tilicho Lake basecamp (4,200m) you have to hike along a very narrow path through a landslide area – at times stepping through moving piles of gravel that are covering the ~40cm wide track. We followed the guidelines in the NATT book and passed through here first thing in the morning before the sun heats up the rocks and things really get moving. Thankfully we only experienced rocks up to the size of a tennis ball hurtling down the steep slope but others were not so lucky. We heard many horror stories throughout the rest of our trek where other hikers got stuck in landslides with rocks the size of two basketballs, had shoes completely knocked off and gone forever, tendons damaged and by all accounts were lucky to be alive. On the walk up to the Tilicho Lake I saw some large rocks moving at speed and can only imagine the damage they would do if you got in their way (luckily no one was in this instance).

At the base camp we experienced a snowstorm and awoke to a couple of inches of snow. As we started our slow ascent to the 5,020m Tilicho Lake Charlotte began to feel very out of breath, dizzy and lightheaded with a growing headache. Selflessly she made the call early on to turn back (we could still see the guesthouse) and stay at the base camp altitude for further acclimatisation. This meant that I could tackle the switchbacks with Michelle and Gabor as we took in the snow-laden view back down the valley. At the top we experienced some snowfields about 1-foot deep, icy paths and strong winds. Thankfully we timed it well (as others turned back early) and at the lake were greeted by beautiful sunshine and dying winds. It was a magical and serene place that was well worth the side trip.

The night before the pass there was a lot of altitude sickness talk amongst trekkers, some who were really starting to feel the effects. We had been very sensible in our acclimatisation, spending a number of nights above 4,000m and often climbing high and sleeping low. All in all we were feeling pretty good. That said there was still a lot of nervous energy amongst the 4 of us as we went off to bed early to prepare for the early start.

By now it was day 13 of trekking so we were well into our routine of wake – eat breakfast – hike – eat lunch – hike – air clothes – drink tea – eat dinner – play cards – sleep (normally in bed by 7-8pm!). Pass day however was a little different; we had to wake before dark to start the climb. Sleeping at 4,500m we had a 900m-elevation gain to the 5,416m Thorong La pass and then a big steep decent to 3,700m on the other side. With headlights lighting the way and wearing all of our layers we started the switchbacks. Near the top the breathing was tough but standing on the pass in the glorious sun after 13 days of trekking was a massive sense of accomplishment that (literally) brought tears to my eyes – just a couple. There were high 5s and hugs all around, prayer flags were hung and a happy birthday to our German trekking friend Frank was sung. We were all feeling great we even stopped to have a noodle soup spending about an hour to take it all in as other hikers came and went (some in need to get down quickly). With spirits high we then started to descent down to Muktinath were we were greeted with our first rain shower in two weeks and the first meat for some time (we ate vegetarian most of the time).

Once through the pass we entered an (unexpected) extremely dry high altitude environment. It was barren like a dessert allowing the irrigated towns in the riverbed to stand out like an oasis in the desert.

With the highs came the lows. After long days of descending I had somehow developed a blister on top of a blister on the outside of my little toe. Admittedly it sounds like nothing but it grew to a size that had to be lanced (a couple of times as it reformed) and unfortunately gave me a lot of grief. On day 17 I resorted to trekking in jandals (aka thongs or flip flops) as the pain was too much and I was beginning to get knee pain from an altered gait. Day 18 was a much needed rest in Tatopani at the natural hot springs (our only rest day in 25 days of hiking) but unfortunately it wasn’t quite long enough and I was back in jandals on Day 19.

By this point we had decided to trek longer and join Michelle and Gabor in heading up to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC or Annapurna Sanctuary) but due to the blisters this plan was in jeopardy. We still had an option to head back to Pokhara but I decided to have one last crack and thankfully it had healed enough to carry on and I was able to finish the trek to ABC in shoes.

The next few days brought many steep stairs as we hiked up and down through bamboo forests and valleys on our way to the Annapurna Sanctuary. Due to the lower elevation it was hot and sweaty, with the views once again impacted by the haze. As we were feeling pretty fit by this point we were able to cover a fair distance each day and were back up to 4000m with clear views and freezing cold nights in no time.

Standing amongst the Annapurna Sanctuary was amazing – nestled in amongst towering peaks peering down at us, we were surrounded and humbled. The view was mesmerising and it is easy to see why the great Sir Edmund Hillary said that this was one of the best places to view mountains. Once again the sense of accomplishment washed over me – I was glad that I had pushed on, as this would have been such a shame to miss.

After the final sweaty days descending again through rainforest on day 25 we exited the ACA. Since the pass many other hikers had began to exit in jeeps along the newly constructed road. From the outset we were committed to walk until the bitter end and felt a great sense of accomplishment when we finally caught a local bus in Nayapul heading for Pokhara. It was here that we gorged ourselves for a number of days and I implemented a daily ice cream regime to replace the large amount of weight I lost over the 25 days (I didn’t need to unbutton my jeans to take them off!). The beer drought was broken and as we were finally able to let our hair down a little with our new friends Michelle and Gabor. Since the trek we have kept in contact, sharing travels tips etc. and I am sure will stay in contact and plan future adventures together.

Trekking in Nepal was one of the best things I have done in my life. For anyone that is a lover of hiking in the mountains I am sure that Nepal is on your hit list, if not: add it. Now is a good time to visit – post earthquake combined with economic impacts of a newly signed constitution (i.e. fuel/gas shortages) means the tourist dollar is very welcome.

Nepal was all that I had hoped for. It is a nation that draws you in and holds you in its arms knowing very well that you will return. For me I know that I will be back, for this was only a teaser. There are many amazing hiking regions to explore and we already know where we are going next time – the Everest region.

#3 India (North)

#3 India (North)

India continued…

For those of you who are interested to hear about our travels in India and haven’t read the first post (South India) please do so as it provides some broader context for this 2nd instalment.

Northern India was very different to what we experienced in the South, emphasising the diversity of this fascinating country. In general it was much hotter, dryer, dirtier and smellier (both good and bad smells, but often the later) but also had amazing forts, history and culture.

We started in Agra as no travel to India would be complete without seeing the Taj Mahal, right? Unfortunately on the flight to New Delhi we read that the Taj Mahal was closed on the day we were going to be there (Friday) – yes, a massive oversight on our behalf (perhaps Karma for buying a set of Taj Mahal cards in Goa pre-empting the visit). As disappointing as this was we managed to view it from a range of vantage points around the town, just not from within the gates. We couldn’t argue with the reason for closure and were happy to hear that it is still an operating mosque, only open to Muslims for prayer on Fridays. We then visited the Agra Fort in the afternoon, which was very impressive and interesting. It was a long weekend in India due to the Holi festival so we had to stop for many selfies with local tourists – we were just as much the attraction for them as the fort was.

Agra as a town was a depressing place and we were grateful to leave early Saturday morning even without entering the Taj Mahal grounds. It is a very dirty, smelly town that we got a bad vibe from. The rickshaw drivers will exploit tourists to their limits – unfortunately no matter how they treat tourists the Taj Mahal will continue to draw numbers in, so they use this to their advantage by dragging you to hotels (for commission), restaurants (for a free meal) and souvenir shops (again for commission, regardless of whether anything was purchased). This is common practice across all of India but seemed to be exacerbated in Agra.

This ended up being all we saw of Utter Pradesh (a very large state in northern India). We were familiar with this province from our tour in Mumbai where we were informed of the many men that travel from the north to work in Mumbai. They move for the job opportunities of the big city but end up working 364 days of the year (with only Holi festival off) and only returning home once every 1-2 years. This is a massive commitment to financially provide for their families, in hope of sending their children to school. We were told that up to 60% of men travel for work. This theme of sacrifice that we saw and heard so much of in India is both sad and touching.

The train to our next destination (Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan) was about 2hrs-delayed meaning it was unlikely that we would be able to get on an afternoon safari in Ranthambore National Park (NP) and potentially sight a Bengal Tiger. We caught a rickshaw directly to the ticket office. If you can imagine a 10mx8m room with 6 “lines” of Indians yelling at the top of the lungs and pushing to get in front of the next to buy tickets – this is what it took to get on a safari. Luckily I meet a local tourist who spoke English and informed me to write our names and vehicle preference on a piece of paper. He then got to the front, negotiated on our behalf and managed to get us on a Gypsy (6-seater jeep). Outside we found our rickshaw driver, along with our belongings and made plans to be picked up in 5mins from our hotel. Some things when travelling just seem to fall into place – this was a prime example.

We went to zone 8 of the Ranthambore NP which lead us high up into the hills and offered amazing view out over the plains and surrounding area. We saw many deer and birds but unfortunately no tigers. At the end of the tour the driver and guide quietly mentioned that we should get to the ticket office early the next morning and request zones 3 and 4.

On their advice we were up nice and early. It was 4:50am, rain was starting to come down and there was a large crowd outside the ticket office ready to surge as soon as the gates opened. I spoke with the only other westerners I could see in the crowd (3 South Africans), gave them the run down on how it worked and prepared myself for the impending hustle and bustle. Through teamwork we managed to get to the front of the line and hand over our pieces of paper but were repeatedly told that zones 1-5 were sold out. The South African trio, who turned out to be travel journalists on a TV show, had also been told to target zones 3-5. One of them gifted his hat and after about 1.5hrs of negotiating, system outages and at times having no idea whether we were going to get on a tour we had our own Gypsy and access to zone 5 (for a slightly higher price). This part of the NP was very different to what we had seen the day prior. In addition there were many lakes filled with crocodiles eating breakfast and then basking in the sun, Kingfisher birds, fighting deer, monkeys and then in the final 10 minutes, as we were exiting the Park, there was a female Bengal Tiger sitting about 10m off the dirt track. It was absolutely amazing to see a Tiger in its natural habitat, our mission was complete.

We caught an evening train to Jodhpur on 2nd class reserved (not as fancy as it sounds). This was our first time experiencing a seated only class and an experience it was. Being the end of a 4-day long weekend the train was packed to the point that I thought we weren’t going to be able to get on (even though we had a ticket) before it pulled away from the platform. As the only westerners in the carriage we quickly drew attention and were helped by passengers to get to our seats (which were reluctantly given up upon us showing our ticket) as we squeezed through small openings with our backpacks. Seated we could observe the craziness of the carriage which was bulging at its seams. Every inch of floor space with taken up with bodies or belongings. Thankfully when we passed through Jaipur (the capital of Rajasthan province) almost the entire carriage departed and it refilled to more of a suitable western standard. We conversed with those around us and kept a keen eye on the cricket (Australia vs. India in the 20-20 World Cup). We also managed to be the spark for a heated debate between 2 other passengers about whether or not tourists only came to visit India because it was cheap to travel around. This provided entertainment for the entire carriage.

Arriving in Jodhpur we caught a rickshaw to our hostel, ate some delicious (yet super spicy) Rajasthan food at a local restaurant and watched the dying overs of the cricket. The next morning we awoke to a different town. The narrow streets in the old town were abuzz with business, trading and crazy local traffic. The old town is nestled below the amazing and magnificent Mehrangarh Fort, which towers above the city. We spent a few days exploring the narrow streets, visiting key sites of importance and learning about the interesting history of the area. Unfortunately the exploring for myself was limited due to gastro, which naturally took its toll. That said we loved the town, which was generally less touristy than others we had visited, perhaps due to the rising summer temperatures which halts tourism. Charlotte made friends with a lovely Chinese lady from Beijing and together they explored the Mehrangarh Fort. Everyone was super lovely in the town and even rickshaw drivers weren’t out to get tourists, which was a pleasant change. Having mostly recovered, yet still low on energy we took our scheduled train onto Jaisalmer, our last stop in Rajasthan.

Arriving at around 11:30pm we were greeted at the train station by a friendly and smiling man named Gaji. We had been recommended his hotel from the hostel owner in Jodphur, who arranged a price we couldn’t refuse. Gaji’s hotel and restaurant turned out to be a killer find. With the number 1 restaurant in town we were able to sit on the roof top terrace, replace much-needed calories with delicious food and take in the panoramic view of the Jaisalmer Fort. In Jaisalmer we spent most of our time in the Fort – which is unique as it is the largest lived in fort in the world, with a number of the cities population residing within its walls.

Jaisalmer is the most western town in Rajasthan, close to the Pakistan border. Situated in the Thar Desert it is famous for it’s overnight camel safaris. This was an amazing experience which involved riding a camel out into the desert, eating food cooked over the fire, drinking a pre ordered beer that was delivered to us and then sleeping under the stars before returning back to the city the following day. Riding a camel was interesting and the standing up/ sitting down process required considerable concentration to not go tumbling over the front. As much as we would have loved to go for more than one night the near 40-degree days prohibited this. Perhaps a blessing in disguise as after a couple of hours on the camel I was ready to hop down, bringing back painful memories of hip-opening yoga classes in Goa! Being out in the middle of the dunes, with no one else in sit was an awesome experience only topped by an amazing sunset and sky full of stars.

All over India, but in the North in particular, animals and people alike share the streets. When we first arrived passing cows, dogs, goats and sometimes pigs roaming and defecating in the streets was a bit overwhelming and sometimes disgusting. However after a while when it became a bit more normal, we actually saw the beauty in it. Hinduism celebrates animals and all of life and here people and animals were all living together in harmony and respect, the dogs especially happy to roam freely yet still receive much love from humans.

With our brief but amazing Rajasthan experience at an end it was now time to head back to New Delhi so the EPIC Adventure could continue into Nepal. After the 20-hour train ride we had 6 hours to rest in a cheap airport hotel before an early international flight. Charlotte woke about 1am with bad gastro, which made for an interesting morning. Just as the Indian adventure started in Sri Lanka it looked as though it was going to continue into Nepal.

#2 India (South)

#2 India (South)

Firstly, thank you for all of those who read the first post, provided comments and words of encouragement and have been “pestering” me for this long awaited 2nd instalment. Due to the shear size of India and it’s likely correlation to the size of this blog I have decided to first take you on a journey through our initial two weeks in the South.

India was a country where I didn’t know what to expect. In speaking with others that have been to India it very much seemed to be a “love it or hate it” kind of destination for tourists. Since backpacking through Latin America in 2011, whilst reading the novel ‘Shantaram’, I had been very keen to visit India, yet didn’t truly know what to expect.

Having heard many stories I knew it was going to be an adventure and one in which I would likely be hassled (or harassed – depending on your definition of the two), experience amazing flavours on the taste buds, at times be over-charged, meet some very generous and friendly people and experience the infamous ‘Delhi belly’ first hand. All of which happened across the course of the month.

For us the Indian adventure started in Sri Lanka prior to departure. Our plan was to travel overland from India into Nepal and us such we hadn’t booked any onward travel from India. Proof of onward travel wasn’t mentioned when applying for the electronic travel visa online (a process which provided the Indian government with enough information that they could probably sit a job interview on my behalf) so we thought that it would be fine.

When checking into our SriLankan Airlines flight from Colombo to Trivandrum in the south of India was when we heard the dreaded words “Sir, can we see your proof of onward travel from India”. Doh! After explaining our plan to cross overland we were told that we needed to show proof of onward travel, it had to be a FLIGHT and we had to show it within 20mins before check-in closed or we wouldn’t be able to board the plane. To cut a long story short we got online, after multiple attempts managed to buy a flight (that was later cancelled) at the check-in counter just as they were closing. We were upgraded to Business Class for our troubles (or for being a tourist?). Either way we were on our way to India and the EPIC Adventure continued.

After a recommendation from a work colleague we were heading to Varkala Beach in the state of Kerala, in Southern India. This was the only thing we had pre-booked before leaving Australia as we knew that after completing the cycling trip in Sri Lanka we would be more that ready for some beach relaxation time. After trying to navigate the large bus terminal in Trivandrum we were on a bus and en route met some other backpackers from Spain who had been in India for a couple of months. Feeling a little apprehensive about our upcoming month in India I asked one of them what his number one tip for India was, to which he responded “100% patience… there are no rules”. This turned out to be invaluable advice, which over subsequent days and weeks we had to put into practice.

Now back to Varkala Beach… the warm Arabian Sea, the delicious Indian curries (both veg and non-veg), fresh seafood and super friendly locals ensured our 4 days here were very relaxed and refreshing. The setting of the beach is spectacular with most the shops, restaurants and accommodation sitting atop large red cliffs that look down onto the beach, coconut trees and ocean below. Almost a Santorini meets India vibe. We staying in a quiet place south of the main tourist area and would almost have the beach to ourselves each evening as we went down for our routine swim. The humidity was extreme so we didn’t venture to far from the beach where we frequently needed to cool off.

This time allowed us to plan a route trough India and book train tickets in advance so we didn’t have to always try and get TATKAL (emergency tickets available 24hrs in advance). Those that have been to India should be able to relate to the hassle of getting train tickets. Although we’d been given pretty extensive advice about this, had access to fairly good internet and that fact that Charlotte and I are both educated professionals with a fair bit of travel experience it took the best part of 2 days to actually figure out how the whole system worked and get our train tickets (both online and at the station once our Credit Card was blocked). In the end we had it mastered and even managed to get meals delivered to our seat from a 3rd party vendor after ordering online.

Leaving Varkala we ventured to Alleppey to visit the Kerala backwaters. The backwaters are an extensive network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets, inhabited by small communities scattered along its banks. We spent the day being canoed through the backwaters observing people conducting themselves in everyday activities: hand washing clothes; fishing; collecting mussels; working the rice paddies; and chasing goats. We saw a sea snake, swam and tried a local coconut based alcohol (nearer the end of the day when it was at its strongest). Alleppey as a town had a great vibe, everyone was very nice and friendly and we had some great (cheap) southern Indian cuisine.

Before we knew it we were back on the train, this time for a 14hr journey. The rail system is what moves India, whether that is passengers or freight. Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest employers with 1.4 million staff! It moves 8.397 billon passengers and over 1 billion tons of freight annually across a network of 7,112 stations. On a daily basis that is 12,617 passenger trains and 7,421 freight trains. It is on these trains that we were able to meet locals, learn about Indian culture and religions, try new foods and catch up on sleep. In total we spent 72hrs on trains in India – 10% of our total time in the country.

It was on a train in Northern India where we meet an intelligent young man of 24 years (they print everyone’s ages on the carriage list!) and the conversation still sticks with me today. He was temporarily moving home after resigning from his government job in New Delhi. His near perfect English, friendly smile and open nature meant that we could ask many questions about life in India. It turned out that he had resigned to make him less appealing for marriage, as he wasn’t ready for that just yet. He was accepting of the arranged marriage culture (to which around 90% are married in India) but had already set expectations with his parents that there was to be no dowry. As they had made it clear to him that the dowry was their right for spending so much money to raise him he had decided that he was going to pay it to his parents himself, rather than support this tradition. He was in a well paying job in New Delhi and donated a significant share of his earnings to those that needed it more. He loved his country and was never going to leave. Progressive in his thinking one would hope that this is the future of India. We also enjoyed other locals sharing their food, stories and photos of their family with us as well as their genuine concern that we were OK, not lost and enjoying their country.

The 14hr train journey led us to Patnem Beach in Southern Goa. It was here where we had decided to spend the week doing a 1-week yoga intensive course. We were commencing at the same time as a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training Course (YTTC) but were told that it would still be suitable for beginners. In hindsight this may have been a bit over ambitious as most had been practicing yoga for 10+ years, could bend in a million different directions and were in India solely to complete the teachers training. We on the other hand had cumulatively attended 9 yoga classes in our lives, were the most inflexible we had ever been after all the recent cycling and were just passing through Goa for a bit of ‘relaxation’. I found the 4 swims a day relaxing but the course was intense. We started each day at 7am going through the full Ashtanga Primary Series for 2hrs followed by 1hr of breathing and mediation. Between breakfast and lunch there was 2hrs of anatomy and alignment, a yoga philosophy class and another 1.5hrs of yoga in the afternoon pre my final sunset swim.

The Kranti Yoga Village was a great environment with a lot of positive energy, lovely students from all around the globe, delicious vegetarian food and a layout that promoted socialising. We spent the week in this little bubble, felt amazing by the end of it and were starting to see and feel the benefits, both physical and mental, of a daily yoga practice. It was hard saying goodbye to everyone at the end of it but I have no doubt that we will cross paths with some again.

Feeling all limbered up; we were ready to be thrown into the hustle and bustle of Mumbai (formally Bombay). Mumbai was a city that had it all – and with a population of 23 million I’m not surprised. Mumbai is the financial capital of India and has both ends of the wealth spectrum. With the world’s most expensive home (at US$2b), a number of slums and homeless and everything in between. On the first day we were talked into a private guided tour of the city. This turned out to be a great way to see the key sights (and sit in an air-conditioned car in between) and ask the guide many questions we had about the city. Highlights included the Ghandi museum, Fishermen’s Village and Dhobi Ghat – dubbed the world’s largest outdoor laundry. In the afternoon we took a ferry to Elephant Island to explore the ancient Hindu cave art until the sun went down.

The next day lead us on an organised tour through the Dharavi Slum. Similar to the Fevala tour in Rio we took a few years ago we were a little hesitant on witnessing this type of living without being obtrusive. Thankfully the tours were well run and the organisation was respected amongst the community through giving 80% of profits to run educational programs for the local population. Despite what most people may think a slum is not defined as a place where the poor live. It is a collection of illegal buildings on land that is government owned – some slums are highly desired places to live; the poor people of India live on the streets. 40% of the Mumbai police force, along with other professionals, live in the slums and while the conditions are not what we would consider completely desirable the sense of community and caring was clear and celebrated. What was most interesting and unique about the Dharavi slum were the commercial activities that went on inside. This involved a massive recycling program (plastic and aluminium), manufacturing, ceramics and tailoring to name a few, with a total annual turnover of US$1 billion – larger than some countries’ annual GDP.

From our experiences thus far India was an incredibly diverse country. It was diverse in every way, shape and form with varying religions, language, food and cultural practices from one region to the next. We were very excited to see what the North had to offer.

#1 Sri Lanka (Aal Project)

#1 Sri Lanka (Aal Project)

Introduction: 2016 EPIC Adventure –

So after much deliberation the decision has been made to write a travel blog and I have finally gotten around to documenting this first post. Hopefully through these posts close family, friends and colleagues can stay informed of where we have been travelling on our 2016 EPIC Adventure (the name given in its planning stage, some time ago!), some of the experiences and mishaps that we have had along the way and perhaps learn something new.

Given that we are already 6 weeks into the EPIC Adventure don’t expect a high frequency of posts but more a summary of key experiences, thoughts and feelings.

First stop Sri Lanka –

In the dying hours on February 6th we landed into a very hot and humid Colombo night. The adventure had begun and we were already wrecked. Wrecked from a long day of travel. Wrecked from a frantic pack up in Melbourne. Wrecked from ticking things off a ‘to do list’ for a number of weeks. We were wrecked but as our driver drove us towards Colombo (in the middle of two lanes), with hot air passing through the vehicle, horns sounding and sweat dripping down my face whilst sitting a top our bike bags I felt alive. It finally sunk in. We were back in the developing world, on the road again and free to experience everything that it has on offer.

We had planned for Sri Lanka to be the first stop on our itinerary and then became very fortunate as it coincided with a fundraising trip for Ondru – a Melbourne based Arts not for profit. A friend – it’s CEO – Desh had first mentioned the concept to me a couple of years ago in the initial planning. We were to cycle 1,000kms across Sri Lanka, from north to south, to raise money for an arts project (Aal Project) to help rebuild communities devastated and displaced from 25 years of civil war. It was meant to be and after convincing Charlotte that she could do it too, we were on board. We knew it was going to be hot and we knew it was going to be challenging (both physically and emotionally) but we were on board. We were unsure what we would experience along the way, who would we meet? What we would eat? Will the roads be horrible? We knew it was going to be an adventure and a great way to see this beautiful island in the Indian Ocean just above the equator.

Starting from Thihagoda in the South we spent the next few weeks cycling 1,008.1kms along the coast, through national parks and through many villages both large and small. With a great crew of 7 riders, a local support van with a photographer/ videographer on board there was nothing stopping us… except for stray cows, goats, crazy tuk tuk drivers, tractors, trucks, other cyclists carrying an array of animals, sticks and humans etc., feral dogs, pot holes and head winds. I think you get the drift. Expecting the worse in terms of riding conditions was a good mindset to go in with. It was very hot and humid but surprising the roads were in a lot better condition than one would have assumed. All in all cycling through a country was a truly great experience. So engaging. So real. You can feel the heat/ wind, take in the sights and observe locals in their everyday life working in the fields etc.

We ended up riding 11/16 days in a row with a few community engagement days to build ties with local organisations, tertiary institutions and the community to try to understand or comprehend what those in the East and North (along with the rest of the country) have been through. I say the East and the North as this Tamil region is where we spent a lot of our time. Thankfully for us having 2x Tamil guides on the trip (Desh and his brother Bala) meant that we were able to learn the complexities of Sri Lanka, specifically those during and post the end of the war in 2009. We were able to learn a great deal about the social, political, economical and geographical environments and were very fortunate to do so. I won’t go into too much detail here but the people of Sri Lanka have been through a lot and some in particular have had it from all sides. The Sri Lankan government, the rebel group (Tamil Tigers) and other opportunist groups are all to blame for what remains today.

Starting in the south it was hard to believe a civil war ended here 6-7 years ago. Tourism was booming, people had big smiles on their faces and there was a sense of optimism in the air. As we started to venture into the East and North there was a shift. People still had smiles on their faces, but there wasn’t the same sense of hope and optimism for the future. Tourists were far and few between. The experiences and memories of the 25-year civil leave its toll. Witnessing a cute, innocent young boy (around 6 years old) about to throw a brick down onto a stray kitten (until we called out) is still vivid in my mind today. You have to think what would drive a kid of his age to think that that was acceptable behaviour? What has the poor child seen or experienced in his short life to date? The people of Sri Lanka have seen and witnessed a lot. The war is now over and it is time to heal and move forward. Bringing these communities together through art, to assist the healing process is what Desh had in mind. This is why we were here.

We greatly appreciate those who so generously donated to support this cause. It was an enriching experience and one that we will never forget. Thank you to the people of Sri Lanka who took us into their homes, provided such wonderful hospitality, feed our bellies with delicious curries and for openly sharing stories from the war (some speaking out for the first time). Also a big thank you to my lovely wife Charlotte for coming along on the journey. I know that riding a bike (or sport) doesn’t come as natural to you but you were an absolute trooper across the 1,008.1kms – even if your legs were hurting from day 2. Your friends can now actually call you an “Athlete”.

Post the ride the team went separate ways, some returning to Melbourne and others continuing their travels and seeing more of what Sri Lanka has to offer. I have to say that the team really made this trip amazing and it was great spending time with you and getting to know you all better. A big shout out to El Capitano, Chris and fellow cyclists Desh, Bala, Juzzy and Leonie!

We chose to head to the hill station towns of Ella and Nuwara Eliya for some hiking, cooler weather and tea drinking and then to Kandy (which is a very cool city) as our final stop. This was a bit of a cultural shock from the rest of the trip due to the tourist numbers. However we could see why the tourists came as the scenery was amazing and fast changing. It was nice to eat with cutlery for the first time in many weeks.

Sri Lanka really set the bar. An experience that will be hard to beat across the next 12 months.