A Travellerspoint blog

14. Visiting the Potala Palace in Tibet

Lhasa, Tibet, China

sunny 15 °C

21st August 2011

And tour number two is underway. We’ve had our introductory meeting, a whistle stop tour of Kathmandu and now we’re sat at the airport waiting for a flight to Lhasa – the highest city in the world. The next two weeks are a trip of a lifetime on their own, and I’m incredibly excited to be going.

Lhasa itself sits at 3700m and Tibet is officially an autonomous region of China. The population of Lhasa is 50% Tibetan and 50% Chinese. We arrive in Lhasa and have our bags searched. Our tour leader has already prepared us for this: the authorities are looking for any trace of information about the Dalhi Lama, and so we hide our guidebooks in our dirty laundry. As a group, we manage to keep two of the three lonely planets. The fourth is discovered and confiscated.

My first glimpse of the Potala palace is from the rooftop of the Joksang temple – one of Tibet’s most revered temples and also one of its most smelliest. The stench of Yak butter, given as an offering, is nauseating. Set against a backdrop of snow capped mountains, Lhasa’s most famous residence doesn’t fail to impress. The suns rays shine down from amongst the clouds, illuminating the palace. It’s simply breathtaking.

We wait a day or so to adjust to the altitude before climbing the 200 steps up to the palace. We’re given an hour to look round (the length of time the ticket is valid and clearly not enough time). We enter this forbidden place and are greeted with a treasure trove of rich culture and history. Left in disrepair, dust has settled heavily over everything. We walk around the tombs of past Dalhi Lama’s, through reception rooms and studies, monasteries and bedrooms. Pictures of the current Dalhi Lama (number 14) are forbidden, so pictures of the 13th Dalhi Lama occupy the most sacred sites instead. In the corner of every room hangs a security camera that watches your every move. We’re strictly told not to discuss politics whilst we’re here.

In the afternoon, I join the throngs of pilgrims as they circle the Joksang temple. Wearing traditional Tibetan clothing, spinning prayer wheels and murmuring prayers, they walk along in a constant state of meditation. A single prayer wheel contains a hundred prayers rolled up inside. Spinning the wheel pushes the air through the paper, effectively reciting them on behalf of the pilgrim. Every so often, I spot a pilgrim from eastern Tibet who has walked all the way to Lhasa to pay his respects at the temple. Eastern Tibetans are considered the least fortunate in society and it’s a good deed for any Tibetan (and tourist) to help them out. Dressed in a thick leather, shoesmiths apron, with wooden blocks fixed to their hands, they move through a series of prayer like poses, rather than walking. They begin by standing upright, reaching up to the sky before kneeling on the floor and sliding the wooden blocks along the floor until they are laid flat with their hands together behind their head. They then return to a standing position before repeating the process again. Some are just young boys.

The following afternoon we take a hairy taxi ride from central Lhasa to the Monks debating chamber. In the main temple, we receive a blessing from a monk. As we climb the steps to the entrance, a monotonous chant can be heard. We sneak inside the entrance to see inside a semi circle of monks, dressed in red cloth, reciting the days prayers. We stand and observe the scene for a few minutes, before the monks split into smaller groups and begin debating. A group of students are sat on the floor asking a teacher questions. Once the question is asked, the teacher hops onto one foot, throws his left arm behind him, swinging it full circle over his shoulder, before bringing it down to meet the other and clapping, whilst simultaneously shifting from one foot to the other. Apparently this means it's a fair question. They then launch into their argument. It's fascinating to sit and watch although some of the monks seem to be doing it for show and some seem more interested in the tourists...

The influx of Chinese to Tibet is surprising. Incentivised by generous cash and tax incentives from the Government, the population of most cities is now 50% Chinese and 50% Tibetan. There’s often fighting between the younger generations especially in bars and nightclubs, and for this reason, it’s recommended we avoid them.

Military roam the streets and uniformed guards sit in perspex boxes on street corners. As you’re walking around, it doesn’t take long before armed guards march past you in groups of five and come to a halt. They stand in a line – one facing forward, one behind, one facing left, one facing right and one in the middle. And inside the temples and palaces guards sit dressed in orange.

Later in the trip we spend some time in a traditional Tibetan village where we’re told spot checks and fines are common place for not displaying appropriate regalia. The country is changing and fast. It’s sad to think what further changes will happen when the current Dalhi Lama passes away and the current Panchen Lama (chosen by the Chinese) appoints a successor.

I’m lucky to see what’s left of Tibet. This incredible place may not be here for much longer.

Posted by Jayne Breckon 04:30 Archived in China Comments (0)

13. This is Africa...

all seasons in one day 18 °C

12,280 kms, 73 days, 10 countries, 26 great people and 1 moose. An epic journey through Africa, which has taken me from the game parks of Kenya to the vineyards of South Africa. Between there were mountains, lakes, deserts, beaches, rainforests and wild savanna grasslands. I've crossed the Equator six times and done gymnastics at the Tropic of Capricorn. I've had endless cold showers, some bitterly cold drive days and many freezing cold, sleepless nights. There's been truck parties, wine tours, singing around the campfire and movie nights and at least one samosa in every county. I've seen too many sunrises and sunsets to remember, but every one of them seemed better than the last. So you're bound to ask, and well, I'm bound to tell you, here are my answers... This was Africa!

Top five experiences...
1. Skydiving over the Namibian desert
2. Camping out in the Okovango delta
3. Helicopter ride over Vic falls
4. Spotting a Leopard in Atosha National Park
5. Spending a few days exploring Zanzibar.

Top five animal encounters...
1. Spotting a Leopard in Atosha
2. Looking a Cheetah in the eye in the Serengeti
3. Almost being chased by an Elephant in Zimbabwe
4. Unzipping the tent at 6am to find Zebra grazing amongst the tents in Zimbabwe
5. Standing face to face with a silverback Gorilla.

(And another five that are worth a mention...)
6. Camping five metres away from grazing Hippos
7. Taking an early morning stroll with Lions
8. Being in a broken down boat surrounded by Crocs
9. Watching Rhinos fighting at a floodlit watering hole
10. Being on horseback surrounded by Zebra, Wilderbeast and Antelope.

Top three countries...

1. Namibia
2. Botswana
3. Tanzania

Top five beverages

1. Savanna cider
2. Victoria falls Gin
3. Nile beer
4. Kilimanjaro beer
5. Tiger beer

Top five foods...

1. Samosas
2. Seafood in Cape Town
3. Chapatis from Mr Chapati Man in Uganda
4. BBQ Eland steaks
5. Crocodile

Posted by Jayne Breckon 05:48 Archived in South Africa Tagged africa; oasis; nairobi_to_cape_town; oasis_overland; traveling_in_africa; Comments (0)

12. Wine tasting in Stellenbosch

And a final goodbye...

sunny 25 °C

8th August 2011

It's my second time in South Africa and I only have fond memories from my previous visit. By the end of this trip, I’ll have covered most of South Africa by road. Sadly, it’s the last country on this leg of the journey and where my overland trip ends. We’re no longer on the truck or in tents because we can't take the truck into the country. After ten weeks in a tent, it’ll feel strange sleeping in a bed again, but it'll be good not to put up or take down a tent every day.

Our first stop is Stellenbosch, the infamous wine region, and a decent sized university town. Julie (aka as AJ), whose trip ended in Malawi, joins us. We're here three days – ample time to sample the local produce! :o)

On our second day, we are booked onto a wine tour, but decide to get a head start the night before (it would be rude not to right?!). Our tour leader recommends a bar that has terrible music and a clientele with an average age of about 19. Disappointingly, wine is served by the box and it has to be said, not the best I’ve ever tasted. It's a big night for most people, with some not even returning until breakfast. Needless to say, there are many funny drunken stories that we delight in hearing the next day: one girl made it all the way Cape Town, and back; another bribed a policeman, with a cheeseburger, to take her back to the hostel when she was lost; and Jess looks positively green as she tries hard not to vomit. Julia didn't make it! Several people are still drunk, several haven't been to bed and the rest of us, well... we are just hungover!

At the first vineyar, we are shown around the fermenting tanks and talked through the process. We’re then given a selection of whites, reds and champagne to sample. We swill it around, check it's legs and inhale the aromas, pretending we know what we’re doing.

At most of the vineyards, we’re able to sample as many wines as we like. The second vineyard also produces cheese and does a good job of topping up the alcohol levels. Steph begins cracking endless cheese jokes, which have us (and the staff) in fits of laughter. The cheese is good and we manage to sneak a few extra loops of the counter. After a hearty lunch of fish and chips, we head on to two more wineries. The last vineyard has a stunning mountainous backdrop and one of my preferred wine sets. Here, I sample most of the reds but despite some nice varieties, I’m still not bowled over enough to purchase any.

Our next and final stop is Cape Town. The drive there is short and there’s a realisation in the air that the trip has almost ended. Some people are ready for the end, some aren’t looking forward to it. For me, it signals the end of my first leg, which feels as though its come around all too suddenly. I have the buffer of another short trip, but then the realisation that in two weeks, I’ll be on my own. I’ve also met some great people who it will be hard to say goodbye to. The intensity of the truck means you can’t help but know these people inside out.

Our first stop is the V&A waterfront. It's even lovelier than I remember. We find a restaurant and enjoy the seafood. The setting is idyllic and after three months of pasta and rice, feels like five star luxury. I also manage to go to Robben Island while i'm here. It's well worth the visit and having spent the entire journey reading 'A long walk to freedom' its really interesting.

We have one last meal together as a group, the night before the trip officially ends. Ostrich is on the menu, and it’s divine! It’s a quiet night and the mood is somber. Everyone is preparing to say goodbye. On my last night in South Africa, two of us go down to the waterfront and have a huge seafood platter. It’s a beautiful setting, the seafood is sublime and it’s a perfect way to end an unforgettable journey.

The last day is the hardest and there are tears all round. Our tour leader and truck driver leave first. They’ll pick up the truck in Namibia and drive it all the way back to Nairobi for the next trip. Steph is second and then it’s my turn. I’m relieved I don’t have to go through lots of these. A final check, a lot of hugs and a few tears and I’m on my way. I sit at the airport a little shell shocked, reflecting on the journey. I'm only just beginning to realise how incredible it all has been.

Posted by Jayne Breckon 00:22 Archived in South Africa Tagged oasis in south wine africa; cape tasting stellenbosch; overland; town; Comments (0)

11. Namibia

Sand boarding and skydiving

sunny 20 °C

Namibia is set on the western coast of Africa and known for it's desert, sweeping sand dunes and skeleton coast. With a population of 2.1 million, much of the country is uninhabited.

It's one of the countries I’m most looking forward to seeing and after nearly ten days there, it certainly feels like one of my African highlights. We enter Namibia in the north and head straight for Etosha National Park, where we experience even more incredible game viewing. We see a rhino grazing by the side of the road, a leopard strolling along the side of the road and lots of waterbucks, giraffe and zebra. The watering holes are teaming with wildlife, and a delight to sit and watch.

As we drive through the country the terrain changes from lush green game parks to scrub, rocky outcrops and finally desert. Sand dunes rise high above the ground on both sides of the road. We bush camp amongst them and climb to the top to watch yet another spectacular African sunset, before running all the way down the front of them. Back at camp we have one of our best cook group meals yet – a bbq with tasty eland steaks (a type of antelope).

The next day we head towards the coast for Swakopmund, where we go sandboarding. It’s a lot of fun, although I crash out a few times and end up with sand in my face, in my clothes and everywhere. I rack up 72kms an hour on my board, which is fun, but scary!

The same afternoon four of us get picked up at the hostel and drive out to a private airstrip where we're briefed on what’s about to follow and fitted into some rather fetching orange jump suits. The plane only holds six - two tandem skydivers and two video crews. There’s no door and the cameraman wedges himself in using his shoulder and foot. We take off and over the course of the next twenty-five minutes ascend to 10,000 feet over the sand dunes. It’s a lovely scenic flight but even though I wasn’t that nervous, I was thinking about throwing myself out of a plane rather than the scenery. The countdown starts. Five miles. The instructor does the final safety checks. Three miles. We put our goggles on. One mile. The cameraman climbs out the door and hangs on the side, Spiderman like. We wiggle towards the door and then all of a sudden I'm plummeting head first toward the ground thinking oh s*#t!! The first three seconds are known universally as the ‘oh s*#t moment’ and that’s exactly how it feels. I get a tap on my shoulder. I open my arms (and eyes), and we level up. As we plummet towards the ground at a speed of about 200kms an hour, it feels like we’re just flying and it's the biggest adrenalin rush and most awesome feeling in the world. I’m laughing and cheering as I go.

After what feels like an age, but is actually only 30 seconds, we wave goodbye to the cameraman and the instructor pulls the parachute open. We’re pulled upwards as it opens and catches the wind. It’s time to sit back and enjoy the view as we gradually descend. It's awesome. We spiral down and come into land at the air base. I'm on a complete high. After wanting to do a skydive for so long I've finally done it and over somewhere I've wanted to go for a long time. It’s such a rush, everyone should experience it…

Posted by Jayne Breckon 21:03 Archived in Namibia Tagged namibia overlanding swakopmund overland; oasis; oasis_overland_trips overlanding_africa; nairobi_to_cape_town; oasis_overland; namib_desert; namibia; dune_45; skydiving_in_namibia; skydiving; sandboarding; sandboarding_in_namibia; Comments (0)

10. Fishing in the Okavango Delta

Botswana

sunny 20 °C

27th July 2011

We leave Vic falls with only 18 people, and head towards Botswana. Botswana is a beautiful country that's quite civilised compared to much of Eastern Africa. We head straight to the Okavango delta, the worlds largest delta and another thing I'm really looking forward to seeing. Covering 15,000km’s squared it’s vast. In the height of the floods, the delta swells to three times its permanent size. In just a few days we can’t cover that much of it so I decide to take to the air to understand it’s vastness.

But before I do that, we board Mokoro’s (canoes) and sit back whilst the polers wizz us off to a remote island in the middle of the delta. The top of the mokoros are only an inch or two from the water and they're hard to balance. The highest thing in the delta is the two metre reeds which are parting as our mokoro sails through them. Every so often the reeds part and give way to a deep pool where the hippo’s and crocs hang out. I feel a million miles away from everything, its so relaxing. After a couple of hours we reach the island where we set up camp for the next two nights. A toilet is dug, and a toilet roll and shovel are propped against the entrance to determine whether it's free! This is bush camping at its finest!

Whilst on the island we do two walking safaris where we see a big herd of elephants, zebra and giraffe. We also spot leopard footprints and the remains of a kill in the tree. We keep a fire burning all night to warn off predators. On the second day we persuade our polers to take us out fishing with them. (We've brought our own food but they catch their's and grill it on the camp fire). Five of us go out in three canoes. At a suitable pool we stop and the guys strip down to their underwear. Everyone on the first boat jumps out and sets out the net, which is about 1m deep and 6m long. The second boat pulls up behind the net and we all jump overboard and start wading towards the net dragging our hands low in the water. The idea is to scare the fish into the net. We catch five. We start again in another pool. It's great fun, but we're not very successful. After a few more attempts we come away with twenty fish – just about enough to feed the polers.

On the last day we have a go at poling ourselves – it’s not as easy as it looks! We also go out on a safari and get close to some hippos. Being in a mokoro that’s only a few metres away from a two tonne hippo is exhilarating to say the least.

After three days in the delta we head back to more solid ground and in the afternoon seven of us take a flight over the delta. Only by air can you really appreciate it’s vastness. The seven seater plane flies us over the delta for about 45mins at a low altitude of about 5000m. I manage to volunteer myself for the co-pilot seat, which is fun! As far as the eye can see there's a network of rivers and tributaries and we can clearly see elephants, giraffes and hippos etc.

Whilst in Botswana we also stay in Chobe national park where our boat brakes down in croc infested waters. We’re left for an hour, only being able to go backwards and have several rather large looking crocs circling us. Wouldn’t fancy my chances of swimming to shore right now!

We move on to another campsite which has a floodlit watering hole. After dinner, we take sleeping bags, wine and blankets down to the watering hole. As we arrive there are four rhinos jostling with each other. We sit there and watch for a while. Once they've left, a mother Rhino and her baby come along. The baby is crying for milk but the mother refuses to give it to him instead nudging him towards the water. She seems to be trying to wean him off her milk. It's cute to watch but the poor thing isn’t learning very fast and judging by the noise, is pretty hungry. Eventually they walk off and we crawl back to our own tents…

Posted by Jayne Breckon 02:21 Archived in Botswana Tagged africa; oasis; oasis_overland_trips overlanding_africa; oasis_overland; overlanding; botswana; things_to_do_in_botswana; things_to_see_in_botswana; chobe_national_park; Comments (0)

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