Sunday, 21 June 2009

50 Day marker reached!!!!!!!!!! Still Loving it

We have been on the road for 50 DAYS!!!! The pessimists would say that’s already 10% of the trip gone, I guess we are thinking that we still have 450 days left to enjoy!!!!!!

Hope you are enjoying the blog and the pics, I have been having a few problems with the camera, so the pics are not as good as i would like them, but I hope they give you a taste of the sights around the world.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Mount Koya Temple experience

On arrival into Japan the first area we spent some time in was Kansai. This is south of Tokyo and includes some of the most notable locations to visit.

20090619_054205_DIG_JAP_RTW_9999_A350_Mount Koya

Urvi had found out about this place called Mount Koya which is famous for the collection of temples where you can stay and get the full experience of Japanese Buddhism, temple life, food and ceremony. Basically you book a room, which is in the traditional Japanese style (tatami mats and all) and you get dinner, bed and breakfast, most temples also have the traditional baths and expect you to take part in the early morning prayer ceremony.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that this experience was either ‘simple’ or even cheap, it was neither! To my mind the temples are actually more religious retreats than functioning temples, and the experience was spiritual but with comfort and luxury. The rooms are simple (as is the Japanese style) but classy, and the service was impeccable (we soon found that this was very much the norm in Japan – even in MacDonald’s!!!!)

We had an amazing tea and then full traditional dinner – which was fully vegetarian. I felt that eating Japanese food in this style is a bit like eating on a plane (albeit in first class!) as there are so many little compartments of food, and everything is really nicely presented. You never think that you will be full but are always stuffed by the end of it. Top of the bill was the tofu, which they do a few different ways, this is the cuisine that Koya is famous for. The Miso Soup was amazing and the pickles soooo aromatic.

It’s safe to say that we enjoyed the food totally. The only problem for me was that again in tradition style the dinner was served on the floor. So that meant sitting on the floor, not a strength of mine!!!

In the morning we got up for the traditional prayer ceremony. This was really amazing, very relaxing – so much so I nearly fell asleep again! In total the prayers lasted about an hour, and they are actually more a meditation, rather than prayers. After the meditations, the main guru, invited people (mainly tourists) for coffee and to discuss the ceremony and what things meant. This was nice and again helped us to understand what we have experienced.

After this we went back to the room, where breakfast was waiting. This was no stale croissant and dodgy coffee affair, it was a full on Japanese breakfast. I must say that there were some major similarities in the design of the meal between dinner and breakfast but the dishes were all different. It was a really great and refreshing start to the day. It was also a huge brekkie and therefore set us up perfectly for the days touring.

We then checked out and took a walk around the rest of Koya. It’s a really beautiful place. The town is placed on the mountain, and it has a quiet reflective feel to it. One of the main things there is the Buddhist cemetery. This is pretty much the largest in Japan, and definitely the most important. Any ‘important’ Buddhist in Japan would want to be laid to rest there. It is completely set within a wood and is just magical.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Taking the Maglev to Airport

After having seen the awesome scale of the Transiberian, and the engineer feat and beauty of the Quinghai railroad to Tibet, we now boarded the fastest train in the world, the Shanghai Airport Maglev shuttle. Don’t get me wrong, this trip is not some kind of train spotter’s paradise, but these are some of the great manmade achievements in the world. The Maglev – Magnetic Levitation Train, has no wheels, it does not really have rails, rather there are magnets that when set to the same polarity make the train levitate. This frictionless environment allows super duper speeds of up to 400km/h. That is quick; trust me it is the closest thing to flying on land that you can get. The technology is so expensive that this is the only track in the world that is fully running, but typically the Chinese want to build a track that runs from Shanghai to Beijing, the train would take about 1-2hours to make the journey, that is overnight right now.

20090617_054077_DIG_CHN_RTW_9999_A350_Flight to Osaka

8mins to lug our bags from the hostel to the metro stop, 8 minutes to travel at 370km/h and get to the airport to board our flight. Time is so relative isn’t it!!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Kailash Kora is complete, with tears and an amazing sense of achievement!

54Kms, 5700m, 3 major passes and 21hours of trekking – we have completed the most amazing and most challenging experience of our lives.

The first day started with a trek from Darchen, past the site of the Saga Dawa Festival and on into the valley between the mountains. This was actually quite a tough day, despite not having to climb very much, but I think the exertion got to us. We stayed overnight at a guesthouse in front of the north face of Mount Kailash. This was really amazing, as it was bit like staying at a temple site. The mountain was right in front of us all the time and you couldn’t help but get enthralled by it.

The second day was really the toughest. We started at 0530 when it was -3 degrees and pitch black! This was where it felt the most difficult. Breathing was difficult and you felt really cold. We would take 1 hour to go a few 100 metres, and would be stopping every few steps. There were moments during this stage that we really didn’t think that we could make it and really thought of turning back. Not sure what it was but I was absolutely determined that we both were to make it to the pass. The next hours passed by very tough - snow, ice, bitter cold, windy. I don’t understand how we made it but we did. It was so amazing to get to the top of the pass. I can’t see how the older people can do this; they struggle with the horses, so goodness only knows how they could walk it. I feel very proud and also really privileged to have been able to walk this mountain and to have actually achieved it.

Mount Kailash – we did it without addition oxygen – the way of the Chinese, without altitude sickness tablets – the way of the western tourists and without horses or yaks – the way of the Indian pilgrim! I am glad we did this totally unaided!

20090607_053890_DIG_TIB_RTW_9999_A350_Saga Dawa Festival

The Drom-la pass which is the key and most difficult part of the trek. This was the biggest achievement. We put a prayer flag up which had the names of all our family members on it. This was to give good luck and blessings to them. We hope that our pilgrimage will bring good fortune to them all and all our friends and acquaintances.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Mount Kailash – a trip that opens your eyes

We are not even at Mount Kailash Kora yet, and still this has been the highlight of our trip and is likely to be when we are through the 16 months.

Tibet is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been, and I tell you when you catch a glimpse of the towering Himalayas it is a real life changing moment. I felt totally humbled by just the sight of the mountains. I will be honest, Tibet is not the picture postcard all the time, there is some really changing scenery and some is barren and raw. But the moment you see the mountains it is just amazing. There is something very pure about the snow caps and so untouchable about the mountains. Very inspiring.

Once again the people are just as beautiful as the countryside they live in. We have been really overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people and their gentleness. Goodness only knows why China insists on controlling and commanding over them. The thing that really hurts me is that the people of Tibet are not allowed to even hold a passport and therefore are treated as second class citizens within the Chinese ‘empire’. I find this so horrible and when you meet the amazing people here, and in particular the kids, they are just so kind, welcoming, and willing to talk and play with you. I think it is a tragedy, that they are constrained and controlled. They don’t have the opportunity to tell people about their country and spend time sharing the amazing traditions and culture that they have.

The trip we are taking is over 16 days, and takes in the major Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the highlights of the Tibetan scenery and will conclude with the total highlight of the trip – the Saga Dawa festival and the pilgrimage to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar. This is a really highlight on a number of fronts, but we have now really taken the Mount Kailash Kora as a pilgrimage and a spiritual event. Mount Kailash is a holy centre point for the Buddhist, Hindu, Jain and Bon (ancient Tibetan) religions. Tomorrow (7th June 2009) is the most holy date in the Tibetan calendar, and is a special date for people to undertake pilgrimage. For Buddhists, Mt Kailash is one of the holiest places in the world, and therefore to undertake a pilgrimage here at this time is special. For us Jains if you do the ‘Kora’ (circumbulation) of Mt Kailash at this time, it is even more special, and worth 13 normal Kora’s. So it is going to be hellishly difficult (3 days – 54kms, at 5700m altitude) but it is going to be one of the most important religious events we can do.

I would not class myself as very religious, but when you come to Mt Kailash you can’t help but feel the spirituality of the place, and can’t help feeling spiritual in a place like this.

Our tour took us through the towns of Shigatse, Lhatse and to Prayang. From there we continued across country towards Lake Manasarovar. We stayed in small, wonderful guesthouses, where you only get a bed and some food, and no showers. By the time we started the walk we basically had not showered for 5 days!!! Upto the trek we spent our time driving for the 4 days and covered about 2000kms in total.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Tibet – a different country indeed

20090531_053398_DIG_TIB_RTW_9999_A350_Lhasa City

Let me park the politics for a second. Tibet is a beautiful country that really is steeped in history and culture. The major focus of any visit here is the Buddhist religion and the scenery. The mountains are everywhere and are such a strong force in Tibetan culture. In Lhasa (the notional capital and largest city) they are all around you. However the other thing that is as ever present in Lhasa as the mountains are the Chinese army. It is a really bizarre sight to see this many armed guards. They are on every corner of the main areas of Lhasa. (Back to the politics!) After the uprisings of the last year, the Chinese forces are everywhere, which in this time of current peace feels really weird. Also I have to say that from our experiences of the last few days, you would never meet such placid, kind and relaxed individuals as the Tibetans, so this display of power and domination seems totally over the top. China has a really funny relationship with Tibet, on one hand they actively suppress the Tibetan people, they can’t hold passports and therefore can’t travel; ‘Chinese’ people are drafted into set up businesses and other commerce at the cost of the Tibetans; and in general Tibetan people are seen as very much second class. However Tibet is stunningly beautiful and full of natural wealth, therefore an increasing number of Chinese tourists are flocking here, and openly China talks about its pride in Tibet. I find it very weird. Of course if you were on the Chinese side, one would be saying that Tibet is part of China, and that is without question. Therefore they don’t see what the argument is. The troops are there to protect the people and ensure order is maintained and this would happen wherever in china there was unrest. I don’t buy it. I think that Tibet is a status symbol for china, oh and full of the rich minerals and other natural treasures. I got a real sense of unease, with people going about their own lives but always under the watchful gaze of the military. What is funny is that the troops (often young) looked really bored, and why wouldn’t they, there is such little to do. I think the Chinese have totally over done it.

Back to the interesting stuff! I fell really honoured to be in Tibet. It is a place no one I know has been and although once you get here, it feels very much like other parts of china, it is still a bit of a voyage into the unknown. There is a mystic feel about the place, and about the people. The altitude also plays its part in making the experience very different. Lhasa is at about 4500m above sea level, so the air is thin, and takes some getting used to. I struggled a little bit for the 1st day or so, but after that it got better. When you get to Lhasa you see 2 distinct sides to the place, the first is the Chinese developed, status symbol that the city has become. Much of the city is brand new, and there are new buildings coming up everywhere. The station is a prime example. Built only 3 years ago, linked to the completion of the amazing Quinghai Tibet rail road, it would do any city in the world proud. It is spacious, even imposing and really quite stunning. The other side of this city are the Tibetan people. In contrast to the shiny new buildings the people are understated and really soft and welcoming. They are always willing to offer a smile and seem to be really hard working and contentious. We are visiting at one of the most holy times for Tibetan Buddhists, and so everywhere you go there are pilgrims visiting the many important monasteries. The biggest thing for me was the devotion that each pilgrim was demonstrating. These were not rich people sweeping in for blessings, these were poor people from throughout Tibet, young and old, they would arrive with the strongest belief and devotion I have ever seen. It was amazing and humbling to see and be part of. So you have this interesting juxtaposition of the new china and the old Tibet. I wonder who will win. The funniest example of this was one evening. We went to see and photograph the Potala palace by night. This place is one of the most impressive and to some extent beautiful buildings I have seen, we loved it. But opposite the palace the Chinese, in their pomp, have built up a park with a monument to the military (poor taste I think!!) In the evening, this park has very subtle neon lights and a booming musical and water fountain performance! It was garish and really out of place when you look at the building over the road. The funny thing was that that all the foreign tourists were looking at the Potala, and all the Chinese were engrossed by the dancing water!! This is the funny thing about china for me, it has soooo much history and yet people are more interested in musical fountains... we move out of Lhasa tomorrow and head west towards Mount Kailash. This is will be Chinese tourist free I think!

The enormity of this trip kicks in

We have been travelling for just over a month now and although I am bowled over by what we have seen so far I am even more taken aback by what we will be experiencing in the months to come. Tibet is already likely to become a jewel in this trip but then I think about Nepal, The Taj, and the Great Barrier Reef, the Rio Carnival, Patagonia, Egypt, The Wildebeest Migration, Shark Diving and soooo much more, I can’t believe that we are doing this trip.

Being in Tibet it feels even more special, and we feel even more privileged as it is not an easy or cheap place to come, the fact that we have been able to do this trip really makes me feel that this whole 16 month trip is a once in a lifetime and totally special.

The most amazing thing is that we have 470 days of life changing experiences left!!!

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