A Travellerspoint blog

South Korea - Seoul

sunny 20 °C

I mentioned at the end of our last entry it was frustrating not being able to find accommodation in Japan during 'Golden Week', essentially forcing us to take a temporary detour outside of the country. On a brighter note we've ended up here in South Korea, a country which we probably wouldn't have visited for another ten years. I'm a self-confessed planning addict (surprise) so this was a welcome reminder that sometimes it's nice to go with the flow and see where life takes you! A really good friend of ours from Sydney has also been here so it's been great catching up. Seoul is the capital of South Korea (SK) and home to almost ten million Koreans. Surrounded by a mountainous and hilly landscape the city is densely populated with skyscrapers not to mention what feels like an unlimited amount of restaurants, bars and shops. Given SK's strong history and relationship with America its own Western vibe is quickly evident from a capitalist perspective. I must admit initially I had wondered if that had come at the cost of their own identity and culture. However once you take a peak beyond the surface both aspects shine right through.

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We spent Thursday evening with our friend Sonia where we had a chance to visit Gwangjang Market, one of the oldest and largest traditional food markets in South Korea. It recently featured in Netflix's 'Street Food' series including this lovely lady below who tells her story behind her restaurant and how it important it has been to her family. We can confirm the noodle soup was delicious.

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The next day we paid a visit to the Korean War Memorial, built for the purpose of preventing war through lessons learned from the Korean War. If you're in anyway interested in the division between the North and the South than this is a must visit. We were lucky to witness a show and demonstration outside prior to entry which included a band and singers.

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Friday evening was a messy one with Sonia... Korean BBQ (rude not to) followed by lots of drinks let us to the best retro game bar I've ever visited and of course some karaoke. Because one can rarely get tired from out-of-tune karaoke!

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On Sunday we spent the day with Sonia on the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) tour. We were driven to the border between the South and the North and had the opportunity to learn more about the creation of the North. I went through a slight obsession phase (!) with North Korea last year so this was a great opportunity to see a glimpse of the country in person. If you're not familiar there is plenty of information available online and it's pretty fascinating. There were a few different stops in the tour including a look at one of the tunnels the South Koreans had discovered in their territory by mistake and was in fact built by the North Koreans to invade long after the ceasefire of the original Korean War.

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Below you can see North Korea in all its glory! There are binoculars available to look through but we weren't able to spot anyone unfortunately.

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We also had the dubious honour of trying North Korean wine, aka the worst wine we've tasted in our ENTIRE LIVES. And that's say something... Blossom Hill come back all is forgiven! To our dearest Kim Jong Un & associates, please don't give up the day job lads.

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Today we visited the Gyeongbokgung Palace, built in 1395 and home to the Joseon dynasty. It reminded us a little of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

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'Children's Day' is celebrated here on the 1st May and although we're not sure if it's completely related there still appears to be celebrations and festivities taking place around the city.

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This is our final evening in South Korea and we've thoroughly enjoyed it. The weather has been ideal at a very pleasant 20 degrees and there's not been a cloud in the sky. Five days has been enough to get a good taste but we'd love to head back in the future and explore the rest of the country. For now though we're heading back to Japan and tomorrow we fly south east to Fukuoka.

Posted by mattld 02:27 Archived in South Korea Tagged seoul asia northkorea southkorea Comments (0)

Kyoto & Osaka

overcast 15 °C

As fun as Tokyo had been it was an action packed few days and Kyoto brought us a welcome change of pace and a taste of old Japan. There hasn't been a 'super fun crazy robot show' in sight. Using the JR line it was a short two and a half hour ride south and we booked four nights here to allow some breathing room. It didn't take us long to realise that Kyoto is a beautiful city filled with quiet temples, sublime gardens and colourful shrines. I had heard of it from many friends who had previously visited and it's obvious quite quickly that Kyoto is a must visit.

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The first major attraction on our list was the Fushimi Inari-Taisha. Now how to describe this... it's a vast shrine complex filled with seemingly endless shrines gates spread across a thickly wooded mountain. It was built in the 8th century (!) and dedicated to the gods of rice and saké. Sure why not.

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We also visited the Kinkaku-ji, Kyoto's famous golden pavilion. It was originally built in 1397 as a retirement villa. Lucky for some!

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The third major attraction in Kyoto is the bamboo forest. It's just beautiful and you can really feel the sense of serenity as you're walking through it.

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There's also a palace and plenty of gardens to explore next to it.

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On Monday we arrived in Osaka via a short 30 minute ride. Osaka is Japan's third largest city and it's not a pretty city in the conventional sense. It's been overcast and rainy most of the time we've been here which hasn't helped either. When you walk through the city it all feels a little 1980s. Still though the main tourist hub spot of Dotonbori provides plenty of entertainment and is easier on the eye.

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Today we visited Osaka Castle, one of Japan's most famous landmarks and it was packed. We learned a few weeks ago that this particular week is known as 'Golden Week'. Most of the country are on holidays so we were lucky to find a decent Airbnb as almost everywhere was booked out.

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On a side note, one observation is that the Japanese are mad about their slot and pachinko machines! Particularly here in Osaka. It's almost like a private joke nobody is willing to let us in on. :(

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Unfortunately I came down with a bad cold for a few days so between that and the weather we've been resting up a little more. Overall it's been a welcome change of pace but we probably wouldn't have missed Osaka too much if we had visited it just for a day from Kyoto. Tomorrow we take a flight to Seoul, the capital of South Korea for five nights! It was not on the original plan but with the country enjoying a week of holidays we thought it wasn't the worst idea to take a slight detour thanks to some cheap flights we found online. We have no expectations one way or the other with South Korea so it'll be interesting to see what it's like.

Posted by mattld 05:18 Archived in Japan Tagged kyoto osaka japan asia Comments (0)

Kon'nichiwa Japan! Tokyo

semi-overcast 20 °C

Wrapping up our Everest Case Camp trek here's our walking trail from Luka in the south to Kala Patthar in the north and back down again. Phew!

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Truth be told we were very excited to be on our way to Japan as we have been looking forward to this for years. We've both been fascinated by the country for quite some time and this felt like our just desserts after the rollercoasters that were India and Nepal. Getting from Kathmandu to Tokyo was not as easy as it initially seemed and a reasonably priced flight involved a six hour stopover in Bangkok's airport where the air conditioning units had the audacity to break down when we were there. How rude. A speedy iPhone weather check confirmed it was more than 30 degrees outside in the evening so we had to take refuge on the floor in front of a portable fan unit that looked like a giant hairdryer. Only a few hours sleep was managed on the second flight and before we knew it we had landed in Tokyo with our eyeballs at the back of our heads. However, we had arrived! Wakey wakey.

We've been in Tokyo five days now and we're absolutely in love with the place. It's got all the quirky and crazy attractions we had hoped for, the metro is fantastic and thanks to Google Maps it's pretty easy to get around. Everything runs like clock work and the city is almost like a giant theme park. The streets are practically spotless and you could eat your dinner off the ground... a far cry from our previous six weeks. The Japanese are renowned for being one of the most polite in the world and even with a population of 13 million they're only too happy to help if their English permits and even if not their friendly smiles and warm personalities go a long way. In terms of budget it is certainly more expensive than where we've been but transport is cheap and there are low cost accommodation and restaurants available if you look for them.

Speaking of accommodation, we knew we'd have to give up regular double rooms in favour of cosier 'suites' shall we say and and that's not been a problem. We've been staying in the Shinjuku distract which is as central as it gets and decided to give one of the capsule hotels a go. It was definitely a bit of a culture shock but a fun one. You must collect sandals on your way in and immediately slip them on. Once you check into reception you're given two locker keys... one to lock your shoes away at reception and the other to store your bags. Only the backpacks we have didn't fit into the micro sized lockers so we had to store our bags behind reception desk and use the main lockers for what we'd need each day. This particular capsule hotel is for men only and each capsule allows enough room for one person. You've got a light, tv, ear plugs and water. The bed is pretty comfy.

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Showering is a culture shock because there are no cubicles! Enroute you must wear a two piece brown garment that can only be compared to something the High Sparrow from Game of Thrones would wear, albeit a clean one (if you haven't watched GOT... shame)! Again there are tiny lockers outside the showers and you must put your garments and towel inside. From here on in you are naked in a room full of Japanese men (and some other Johnny foreigners who are just as bewildered as you). You have the option to take a seat in front a mirror where you can wash yourself down with high quality shampoo and shower gel products. There is also a jacuzzi and a steam room. Now before you ask me have I lost the plot I must stress this is not something we were used to! But honestly nobody is looking at anyone and you have little choice if you want to get clean so you just go with it. The whole area is so spotless and the jacuzzi so revitalising that I enjoyed my second and third visits. Once dry you put your garments back on and had it not been for all the men's vanity products on offer it could almost be a scene from a prison what with everyone wearing the same 'uniform'. Even the toilets are polite... the lid will open automatically as you walk in, the seat is heated (how will I ever go back to cold) and there's at least a dozen buttons and options. I wasn't feeling adventurous enough to try them out but Alberto can confirm the warm bidet was 'magical'!

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As we arrived late on Saturday we had very little time for sightseeing and that evening we had a pub crawl around the gay district and it was a reminder after not drinking for so long what a lightweight I am as we were unconscious by midnight! I decided to completely ignore Alberto's requests to stop drinking fast and clearly peaked too soon. On Sunday we paid a visit to the Imperial Gardens and the Modern Art Museum.

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We also had our first look at Akhibara, the famous electronics and gaming district. As a former self-confessed gaming nerd of the 90s and still a relative fan today I was in absolute heaven. It's novelty central around here and we were naively escorted to a maid café where the 'maids' tell you they are '17 forever' when you ask their age and insist on calling you 'master'. It wasn't long before we were avoiding eye contact and making our way to the nearest exit before we had to pay a heavy cover charge. We'll be back soon we swear... seriously though it did make us wonder about whether this type of thing plays into something more sinister.

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There are also cat and rabbit cafés which are equally ridiculous.

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That night we met up with one of Alberto's old work colleagues, Kazumi. She and a friend were very kind to take us off the beaten track to a great restaurant only the locals would know and a handful of bars. Followed by karaoke... well it had to happen! And hey it's Japan so of course it involved fancy dress.

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On Monday we took a trip to Shibuya, renowned for its shopping and the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Yes, in the world! We spent the day at a virtual reality park where we had the chance to try out eight different VR games over the course of two hours. It was a huge amount of fun and you can really tell that VR will only grow in popularity not just in Japan but across the world.

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That evening we visited the 'Ninja Restaurant'. There's no way to elegantly describe this only to say it's set in an artificial underground cave, your waiters dress and talk to you like their ninjas and for a very reasonable price you can dine on a range of very tasty dishes. It was far cheaper than true fine dining but it was certainly up there in terms of quality and originality. The funny theme only added to it not to mention the random ninja magician who appeared halfway through to further entertain.

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On Tuesday we met up with one of Alberto's friends from Melbourne Mar who is also visiting and we went to the 'Robot Restaurant'. Now it's not really a restaurant... you can buy fried chicken, churros and popcorn but you're not sitting down to dine. Instead you're presented with the craziest fu**ing sh** we've ever witnessed (pardon the language father) and it was hilarious, bonkers, mental and a sensory overload! We almost avoided this for fear of it being 'too touristy' but we couldn't highly recommend it enough. We had no idea what was going on most of the time but who cares!

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We also made a return to Akhibara... we didn't have enough time during our first visit to indulge in old and modern arcade games and buy some geeky souvenirs. We took some time out to have a pint and play Super Mario Land on an original Gameboy in the local pub. Japan, we love you!

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Today was our last full day in Tokyo although we'll have three more nights at the tail end. We took a trip out to the National Museum which I'll be honest was disappointing. Ok it had a poor draw coming after the robot show but we expected far more exhibits and only a few were interesting. Plus points however for the Japanese gardens out back. We had hoped to visit another attraction but after so much walking the past few days (excluding EBC) we needed some chill out down back at our hostel to catch up on some Netflix and write this blog entry.

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A quick shout out to our second digs in Japan, the hostel 'Unplan Shinjuku'. Now we couldn't even swing a cat in our bunk bed room but the whole place is as clean as a five star hotel, including the shared bathroom and showers (which have private cubicles). Tomorrow we take a train south to the cultural city of Kyoto via our Japanese Railway (JR) pass. Japan it's been 10/10 so far, and we can't wait to see what's next. Sayonara for now amigos!

Posted by mattld 06:40 Archived in Japan Tagged tokyo japan asia Comments (4)

Everest Base Camp III & Return To Kathmandu

sunny -8 °C

Here's a belated map update for India: Kolkata to Varanasi, Jaipur to Rishikesh, New Dehli to Agra and then back again before the flight to Kathmandu. Now that we have good wifi connection again we've also been able to go back in and add photos to our last two blog entries.

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Leaving Dingboche we both felt very determined to push on but we were starting to tire of the basic accommodation and it wouldn't be long before we'd start to feel fed up of the food. Yes it's true, I had spoken about the variety of the food on offer in my last entry but you know after so many days eating the same selection of vegetarian Asian dishes your body starts to crave something different. I kept thinking about having a good burger or fajitas with all the trimmings. Dear waiter... if there's any chance of guacamole on the side that would be wonderful? No? Not a chance!

Our next stop was in a remote little place called Lobuche and from there we'd make the trip to Gorak Shep. Our accommodation at Lobuche was pretty decent. It was basic but it was clean. Gorak Shep was a challenge. This was our final lodge en-route and our expectations were rock bottom. The room we stayed in was like a giant cardboard box and as for the toilets... well by now I had gotten used to holding my nose in most of the toilets on offer and you know you just have to grin and bear it. Or have a moan and a laugh with your other half about it as I did with Alberto over the course of the two weeks. As soon as we checked into our lodge in Gorak Shep we had a quick cup of tea (for a change) and off we went to the destination we had been thinking about constantly for the past two weeks. It would take us two hours to get there and on the way we passed glaciers and plenty of rocky obstacles to step over or walk through. By now our surroundings were mostly covered in snow with enormous, striking and beautiful snowy/icy mountains encompassing our view. You could well be forgiven for thinking you're at a ski resort somewhere in the alps. Only there was no sign of any chair lifts or a single piece of ski gear in sight. Despite being tired I could feel an extra sense of adrenaline to be here. On we went and a couple of hours later we reached our destination point... Everest Base Camp! Now the thing is you can't actually go into the camp itself as there are hundreds of climbers getting ready for their summit bid so instead you're taken to a vantage point close by where you can see all of the tents and the general circus it has now become. And of course... the infamous Khumbu Icefall. Despite my earlier excitement I felt a little underwhelmed. You could only see the very top part of Everest. To get the best view we'd have to make one last push the following morning to Kala Patthar (5,644m/18,519 feet).

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Kala Patthar was always a 'bonus day' for us and on day two we had written it off. How could we possibly ascend another few hundred metres if we even made it to base camp when we were struggling to ascend into Namche Bazaar? From speaking with our guide Kaji and other trekkers on the way it appeared that only 50-60% of those who go to EBC make it to KP. Usually folks who attempt it get up at 3am so they can make it there for sunrise. We had little interest in venturing out at crazy o'clock in serious minus conditions but we really wanted to give this a go. We asked our guide if we could have an early breakfast at 6am and make a dash for it afterwards. No problem. Going to bed the night before it felt like we had one final school exam in store before we could begin to relax.

The first hour of this walk was awful for me, not so much for Alberto. It was freezing cold, and I was starting to worry about my toes and fingers as I just couldn't warm them up. I never felt so happy to see the sun before when it finally came up and my shoes and gloves began to warm up. The walk was fairly vertical and it was the first time I had to use my trekking poles. They'd be just as important to get back down. You can really feel the altitude and even walking a short distance you end up out of breathe very quickly. I must have thought 'FML' to myself so many times that I lost track but after a couple of hours we could see the end point. One final push and we were there! We felt a sense of elation and accomplishment that was missing from base camp. By now our surrounding views were simply spectacular and I'm not sure the photos here do it justice. Our guide congratulated us and we felt such a sense of relief and accomplishment. Secretly I had always hoped we'd make the summit of KP but I never felt confident about it.

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We spent around twenty minutes on top and tried to soak up the views as best we could. Today was going to be a long day as not only did we need to get back down we'd need to trek for at least another 5-6 hours. It takes 8 days to get to base camp, but only 4 to get back and now that altitude was no longer a factor we would be walking at a much faster pace.

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The few days we spent returning to Lukla were generally uneventful. We had the opportunity to witness much better views of the forests and mountains thanks to the welcome absence of snow and rain. We spent our final day in Lukla where it all began. We discovered it was New Years Eve and Nepal was about to move into the year 2076! We had hoped there might have been some celebrations but the place was like a ghost town. It appeared that all the locals were spending their time indoors with family. Fair enough. It rained heavily a lot that day and I was only too happy to spend it indoors drinking hot chocolate and reading the book 'Into Thin Air', a first hand account of the 1996 Everest disaster. Speaking of tragedies, Lukla airport is one of the most dangerous in the world and unfortunately a plane had crashed into a helicopter and three people had died the day before we were due to travel. So sad for everyone involved. We felt nervous the following morning boarding our flight but thankfully everything was ok. You could still see the crashed plane on the runway as we took off and I couldn't help but think about those who had lost their lives, two security guards and one of the pilots. We wish their family and friends all the best during this awful time.

We've been back in Kathmandu for the past four days and after the feeling of elation began to fade away physical and mental fatigue took its place. We unashamedly spent the last few days gorging on western foods (including KFC) and visiting the cinema. Today we paid a visit to two of the best Buddhist temples in Kathmandu, the Swayambhunath Stupa and the Boudhanath Stupa.

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We've been in Nepal for almost three weeks now. The EBC trek is not so much a sprint but an endurance... the altitude, the cold, the sweat and dirt, the accommodation and food, the non stop walking, pushing past the pain barrier etc. Despite its challenges the EBC trek will remain with us as a real achievement and lifetime highlight. We even managed to raise AU$4,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We'd encourage anyone to give this trek or something similar a go, you won't regret it! For now we're turning our attention towards Tokyo as we board our flight tomorrow afternoon. Japan has been a long time coming for us and we can't wait to tour the country.

Posted by mattld 04:42 Archived in Nepal Tagged everest asia nepal lobuche everestbasecamp gorakshep Comments (4)

Everest Base Camp II

all seasons in one day 0 °C

Today is day six of thirteen on the trail and it's been challenging in different ways. Every day we move forward it feels like a small victory as both the days and nights are long. I’ll rewind back to Saturday when we left Namche Bazaar… Alberto had been feeling very sick with a cold and it was touch and go whether he’d be able to continue. With thanks to the classic bowl of hot water, herbal remedy and a towel over the head followed by some antibiotics he started to feel a lot better and we could continue on together. Phew!

We woke up that morning colder than the previous day in Namche and it only took a peak outside the curtains to understand why. There was no sign of the sun as the sky was filled with cloud and rain looked imminent. We began a steep uphill walk to the top of the town just before 8am, and that’s when the rain began. We were told by others who were on their way back to look out for beautiful forests during this section. With the rain it didn’t look so great and visibility was poor. Our main priority was staying dry and our waterproof clothing did the job. After a couple of hours of walking through the mud and avoiding animal droppings (believe me there’s plenty of it) we were able to stop for tea and it tasted like the best cup of tea I ever had in my life. Please sir, must we go back outside? Come hither young men, you must move on.. grow a pair! Oh alright then.

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After a nice flat section (thank the gods, the old and the new) we were soon losing altitude and we realised this would have to be regained. And fast. Our final few hours were uphill and unlike day two we took it much slower and paced ourselves. It was far more manageable and the cold weather did mean less sweat. One must stay positive! I had envisioned another few hours of this and when we arrived at Tengboche our next stop I couldn’t believe it. This time I could actually speak on arrival and my legs were in decent shape. It gave us an increased sense of confidence that we could do this. #gotthis? We’ll see…

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Tengboche like most towns in the Himalayas is home to only a few hundred people but is home to one of Nepal's most famous monasteries. After some more tea we paid a visit and it definitely had that comforting feeling of serenity inside. Quick side note… I’ve lost count of how much tea I’ve drank at this stage and I am going on a tea strike as soon as I'm back in Kathmandu. By now you could see a lot more snow and although it was pretty cloudy when we arrived it later cleared and we had a magnificent view, including our first sight of Everest in the distance.

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I had a terrible night’s sleep. The room was freezing and temperatures at night time are now dropping below freezing. I wore almost everything I had and could barely move in the sleeping bag. It was anything but cosy. FML. I took a couple of herbal sleeping tablets to help send me off but I must have only slept for a couple of hours in total. I had to sit up a few times as I felt I couldn’t breath properly. This is quite common and apparently sleeping tablets can cause this. No more sleeping tablets for me so! Aside from that you’ve got a lot less oxygen than usual and with five layers of clothing, a sleeping bag and a duvet it all feels very claustrophobic. I told myself to take lots of deep breaths and stay calm. We woke the following morning to a blanket of snow covering most of the fields surrounding our lodge.

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Snow was definitely better than rain but I couldn’t help but think to myself for feck sake, they’re really testing us now between Alberto getting sick, rain all day yesterday and snow today. On we went and the initial scenery in the snow was quite beautiful. It had a kind of wintery Japanese quality to it. We’ll take that. A few hours later and you could notice everything becoming a lot more desolate. Vegetation became less frequent and large areas that resembled a wasteland began to appear. We had expected this and it felt like a check point that we were getting closer to our destination. The walk that day was more of a consistent gradual increase and again we could manage this.

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We’ve been staying at our current stop in Dingboche for two days to allow for acclimatisation. We’re 4,410 metres above sea level but we still have another 1,000m to go. The temperature has noticeably dropped and even at 7am this morning it was -6 degrees celsius. I did sleep a lot better though, Alberto not so much. We’re starting to think that perhaps the physical part of this trek won’t be our biggest obstacle but perhaps it’ll be the cold and possibly the altitude as we get higher. We met a Japanese lady named Kayko back in Phakding (our first lodge) and she turned around at the stop we’re at now due to the cold. We sort of shrugged this off and told ourselves ‘ah it’ll be grand, she clearly overreacted’ until she told us she had been to Antartica seven times as a tour guide! Gulp.

Going to bed has become our least favourite time of the day as we desperately try to stay warm and comfortable enough to nod off. We’re wearing thermal vests and leggings and filling our bottle with hot water and placing it in the sleeping bag to provide some heat and comfort. Unfortunately it’s your face that feels the cold the most. You can put your neck scarf around your face but then it’s difficult to breathe so you’re left with pulling part of the sleeping bag over your head but allowing just enough space for the air to come in that doesn’t feel too cold, whilst getting comfortable enough to fall asleep at the same time. It’s definitely an art and we’ve yet to master it! The lodges are starting to decline in quality and we expected this. We were actually give an 'ensuite room' at this stop but when we saw the toilet without a seat or a flush I couldn't help but laugh loudly about it. Flushing would require dropping large amounts of water in via the bucket we were provided. I wonder what our final two lodges have in store for us...

I haven't spoken about food yet but can say overall we're pretty happy. Animals are not allowed to be killed on the mountain for religious reasons so after Namche so we were told by our guide to avoid any meat. We've only had meat twice in the past week and unlike in Rishikesh we're not missing it as much as the meals here are more varied and freshly made by the Nepalese with love and pride. We've had toast, fried/scrambled eggs, porridge, muesli, corn flake and Nepalese bread for breakfast. Lunch and dinner are interchangable and could include all sorts of rice and noodle dishes, soups, curries, potatoes, veggies etc. The variety is starting to diminish so perhaps in another few days we'll be starting to struggle.

Today is a beautiful day weather wise and this morning we trekked a few hundred metres up for some panoramic views of the glaciers and the fourth highest mountain in the world, Lhotse. We’re off to a bakery now to enjoy a warm pastry and watch a documentary on the Sherpas. The Everest Base Camp Trek is overflowing with challenges and rewards. I’ve shared a lot of the challenges we’re facing but equally I am almost pinching myself being in such a remote and beautiful part of the world. We have just a few more days before we hopefully reach Everest. Fingers crossed.

Posted by mattld 02:39 Archived in Nepal Tagged everest asia nepal tengboche dingboche everestbasecamp namchebazaar Comments (1)

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