Friday, February 22, 2013

Great Wall, Mutianyu: This section of the wall is located in Huariou County 70 km northeast of central Beijing. This is not the section of the wall that most people do day trips to from Beijing and that made a big difference once we got to the wall. We took a local bus to the city of Huariou and then a taxi to a hotel in Mutianyu. The bus station was easy enough to find in Beijing but there are no English signs or language spoken anywhere so it takes some diligence to get where you want to be. We had one "official" looking bus person try to scam us into getting off the bus earlier than we should in order that we'd have to take an overpriced taxi to Mutianyu. However, we suspected something was up and stuck to our plan to get off where our directions told us to, which was really by the side of the road where a bunch of taxis line up.

The day was brilliantly sunny and the taxi ride through the country side delightful. We left Beijing mid-morning and arrived in Mutianyu early afternoon. This is my first glimpse of the wall from the taxi. Even at this distance - impressive! 

The Brickyard Hotel in Mutianyu where we stayed for one night. This photo is not great but you can see our beds, a wall of windows, just out side a private courtyard and the mountain in the distance. It was nice but terrifically over priced. (I guess they are maintaining Olympic year fees.) November is off season and we got no discount. Breakfast is included in the room cost but not other meals and there is really no where else to eat in Mutianyu so they got you. Price of dinner - astronomical for what you got. For example $30 for nachos. Note to self: find other accommodation next time.
You can hike up the mountain to the wall but since time was short for us we chose the gondola. 
Arrived at the wall and guess what? There is hardly anyone around! Who was to know? Expecting hoards and got a handful of hardy souls (one of which took this photo of us). I guess a chilly, mid-afternoon in November is prime time to visit to avoid the crowds. 
My favourite photo of the wall. Looking north about 3pm in the afternoon.  
Looking south along the wall.
For as far as you can see both ways the wall had been restored. A magnificent work of stone. 
From one of the guard houses this is looking north. The wall goes for quite a distance and had we more time I would have liked to hike it to the top. But we arrived mid-afternoon and the wall closed at 5pm so next time. 

These steps are really, really steep. The photo does not do it justice.  Honestly it was like straight up. 
There was a skiff of snow. In sunny parts it melted but here on the northeast side you can see  it.
It was cold on the wall. The sun warmed you when you stood in it but in the shade, brrrrr..... Luckily there was no wind. 
No picnic but we took tiny mandarin oranges to eat. We sat in the sun, in silence, marveled at the incredibleness of it all and ate the sweetest oranges I have ever tasted. It was like a Leonard Cohen moment.  

The sun is setting and it is time to leave. 
As the sun set the light was lovely on the wall. 
Cat time!
Back in Mutianyu here's a local white cat with one green and one blue eye. Very common in  China. 
A cat of a different stripe. Bumble cat graffiti. 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Nepal - Kathmandu and Pokhara: I left the heat of Goa and arrived in Nepal on November 13, 2012 - Diwali.  It was madness. More so than what I have learned Kathmandu normally is. Thank heavens I have been to many parts of India which prepared me for it. I can't imagine anyone coming here with no prior Indian sub-continent experience. It must be an incredible culture shock. I read a description of Kathmandu somewhere: "Pro: There are a dime a dozen trekking outfits and a decent variety of food establishments. Con: Incredible traffic, pollution and and overwhelmed infrastructure. In a nutshell: A very nice and crazy place." That about sums it up. I did like it but I was very sick, my energy levels were low and I was coughing all the time. The air pollution did not help. However the days were warm and very sunny although nights were quite chilly. 

It is impossible to capture the manic energy that is Kathmandu, population about 1.7 million souls and so I will just share a few shots I took of people and things.

Because it was Diwali the streets were filled with people celebrating the festival. Everywhere streamers were strung and it was a just a great time to be out and about. One gentleman pointed out to me, "Every day is a festival in Nepal. For example we celebrate 6 New Year's."  
A quiet street that has very broken surface (extremely challenging in a car); short, shuttered entrances to a typical Newar building  (Newars are the people of Kathmandu Valley), incredible carved wooden balconies above and the ever present electrical wiring that makes a Westerner cringe.
Bicycle apple (and orange) sellers
Bright pots of powder dye for sale in the market
A curious and very cool mask store.
To the left of it is one of the hundreds of Thanka painting stores found in the city.  (Thanka being a painting on silk usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala.)
A fantastic copper and brass shop with many wares stacked outside on the street. I love this shot.
A Sadhu (holy man, wandering monk) in Kathmandu. 80% of the population in Nepal is Hindu, followed by 9% Buddhist.  I'm not sure he liked me taking his photo from across the street. I'm getting the 'look'.
After a couple of days in Kathmandu I took a 8 hour bus ride west to Pokhara. There were few stops so I became good at snapping pics from the bus window. Sunny day but hazy with pollution. The white peaks in the far distance are the big Himalayas which are obscured by the haze.
This is appears to be a farm (rice?). It's winter so crops are harvested.
Terraced farming beside a pretty river.
The Himalayas are stunning and truly awesome even at a distance. I never got really close (a future trip hopefully). What appears to be clouds on the horizon is really huge peaks. Once again a bus window shot.  
Pit stop - literally.
I've had to use a lot of facilities that are very circumspect but this was one of the worse in my travels. I'll spare the details. I would not use it.
Typical village houses along the way. Snapped from moving  bus.
Another very typical house.
The road to Pokhara is paved and very good, a bit rough leaving Kathmandu and coming into Pokhara but otherwise in good shape. Lots of curves, ups and downs.
The city of Pokhara is approximately 200km west of Kathmandu. It is situated beside Phewa Lake. This photo is taken at sunset from the shoreline. Due to its proximity to the Annapurna mountain range in the Himalayas, the city is also a base for trekkers undertaking the Annapurna Circuit. I would like to do that but another time. I'll return.
Dinner of very good Pad Thai and the local beer, Everest. It was a special issue dedicated to a Sherpa who had climbed Everest many times. Twelve I think. 
Because it was Diwali (still) there was lots of street music and performances. These young dancers put on a great display. It was very chilly out at night and they are in bare feet, short sleeves, etc. Brave girls. They seemed to be having fun.
Sunrise on the Annapurna mountain range as seen from my hotel room window.
Sunrise over Pokhara
Sunrise over Pokhara. This day I returned to Kathmandu. Someday I hope to return and hike in the Annapurna range.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bhaktapur, Nepal: I took a day trip to a small city near Kathmandu. Bhaktapur is an ancient Newar town and listed as a World Heritage by UNESCO for its rich culture, temples, and wood, metal and stone artwork. It is an untouched and preserved ancient city that is well worth exploring. Heck, I would recommend skipping Kathmandu when you arrive and go stay in Bhaktapur.

Portions of the movie Little Buddha (1993) starring Keanu Reeves were filmed in the Bhaktapur. The story goes that the movie people suggested to the locals that in order to perserve Bhaktapur they charge tourists admission to the city. It cost US$13 to enter the city and supposedly the money goes to maintaining sites, infastructure, etc. Some locals dispute the idea that the money finds its way to these causes but Bhaktapur was in far better shape than any other town I had been in so they must be doing something right.

Temple of Nyatapola.
This is one of the tallest pagoda-style temples in Kathmandu Valley and is famous for its massive structure and subtle workmanship.

Changu Narayan Hindu temple believed to be built in the 4th century.

Up close photo of carving found on one of the temples.
Wood carving is intricate, plentiful and beautiful.
Hindu worshippers.

Friends greeting each other in the street.
The male inhabitants of this city wear a special type of cap called the Dhaka Topi.

Itinerant basket seller (left).
He carries his wares on his head, hence the turban type headgear worn for cushioning.

Bhaktapur sees a lot of tourists. I stepped away from the well trodden areas of the city and started to explore some side streets and areas. The raised road way was made of stone with gutters on each side. Probably good to have during the monsoon time.

I came upon a square where the women were drying rice in the sun.

Continuing on, there was more rice drying and being raked and cleaned.

Taking a rest and surveying their domain.

Of course I am always on the look out for cats.
Here's a lovely brass statue.

ME-OW-ZIG was a music store selling a lot of local music both secular and sacred. The owner had music blasting from his shop and that's what drew me to the location. The cat was an added bonus.

Drying hay and making terracotta pots. Both full time activities in Bhaktapur.

Bhaktapur is a famous centre for wood carving and in this workshop I found two women carvers. Good for them!

Typical shop front.

The famous "Peacock Window" wood carving. The window adorns the Pujari Math (Hindu monastery) which, with rows of exquisitely carved windows and doors, is equally appealing.  It is sometimes referred to as the "Mona Lisa of Nepal" and a rare masterpiece in wood. Dating back to the early 15th century it is an excellent example of wooden fretwork that you see all over the Kathmandu valley.

Literally next door to the "Peacock Window" is the "Chicken Window"!
Coincidence? I think not.