Archive December 2, 2013

San Francisco

I’ve often been asked by friends ‘Giles, how can you have a phobia of hipsters but be so fond of San Francisco’?

Well that’s a good question. Such a good question as a matter of fact, that I’m going deal with it in the only responsible way: by all together ignoring it. You see, hipsters are people too and the only bartenders who don’t look at me funny when I ask for a cocktail involving pickle brine.

As a result, they’re okay by me. Kind of like bears, they’re probably as afraid of me as I am of them.

Now although I’m not one to claim myself as a scholar of American history, I do know that San Francisco holds a special place in its books, being a metropolitan hub during the California Gold Rush, a stage for large scale immigration, a nexus of the gay rights movement and a focal point for an unfolding wave of liberalism.

But before I discourage my readers by packing paragraphs with more parables than puns, let me assure you, like all my blog posts, this will be targeted towards a readership with a low attention span (just like its author). So much so, that I fully intend to include a whole array of random photos in completely inappropriate places. Like here:

Rectangle frames are too mainstream for San Francisco.

Fortunately, that photo serves as more than just eye candy, it provides a (not so) clever segway to my opening point: San Francisco is cool. So cool in fact, that no matter where I went, I always felt like something was going on that I wasn’t invited to.

Unfortunately for San Francisco, unlike at my neighbour’s parties, there was no fence to keep me out.

Any place which is willing to risk its financial viability for the sake of humour is okay by me.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Now, as my well-travelled and no doubt learned readers know, San Francisco is home of the Golden Gate Bridge, which is kind of like San Francisco’s equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, as it was the first sight for immigrants entering the United States through the bay.

Wikipedia is a better photographer than me…

China Town

Unsurprisingly, San Francisco’s history of immigration played an important role in shaping the area. In fact, as of 2010 San Francisco had the highest share of Chinese-born immigrants in the US, which is perhaps why it is also home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.

Now for anyone who has seen my previous travel blogs you’ll realize that I have a thing for immersing myself in markets and whatever other obscure attractions I can find. As a result, I spent a lot of time in Chinatown.


In fact, after spending around 4 hrs walking around in this one, I can assure you it’s impressively large. In fact, in the world of eating random street food and buying solar power waving cats, I’m king.

But SF’s CT almost had me beat, with a seemingly endless supply of toys, balms and disconcertingly food, which I find fascinating. You see generally for there to be a product, there has to be a buyer and understanding who they are and what they might be buying it for interests the hell out of me.

Of course, I already know who purchases fish ice cream, because it’s me. But who is purchasing solar powered plants?

And then there is the random assortment of graffiti:

Wait to ruin a perfectly awesome dragon Banksy!

Of course, I’m not going to be so bold as to claim it to be a major attraction of SF’s CT, but there are some pretty cool pieces of street art around the place. And although typically I’m vehemently against the defacing of dragons, for Banksy I’ll gladly make an exception.

It’s also hard to be mad when faced with the world’s largest LOL Cat.

Also home to the world’s biggest LOL cat.

 


Stanford

As you probably also know, I’m a geek.

Typically I’d rather sit in a library writing, than at a pub drinking. In fact even better is being at the library drinking. And while I was lucky enough to be taken on a number of whirlwind tours of bars in the area, they’re not included in this blog because touring Stanford trumped them.

Although it’s hard for me to objectively reflect on why I liked Stanford so much, I dare say it was mostly to do with how magnificent the campus is. You see, although I think it’s pretty cool to be walking around a campus full of nerd, a high nerd density is not sufficient for me to be impressed.

The reason I can attest to this, is that I have also toured Harvard…. although that might have something to do with me being escorted off campus after making too many references to Animal House. 

The Gates Computer Science building.

In any case, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Stanford, partially I suspect as a result of what the buildings at my university typically looked like.

Okay, my university looked nothing like that. We didn’t have walls. But check out this next photo:

It’s a car park.

That’s right, not content with just any old building to park their cars, somebody has constructed what is a Sydney Opera House for cars.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t spend ample amounts of time fawning over this thing, but it does make my point pretty directly that the Stanford campus is nothing short of epic, even when they’re just dealing with the temporary storage of cars.

Of course the explanation for this rather extravagant storage of cars is quite simple. You see Stanford is an amazing campus, with smart students and generous benefactors, and in such a place you can’t have your cars slumming it in a ‘car hold‘.

This is particularly because the university is built on such noble origins. Of which, I was lucky enough to be regaled with after ascending the illustrious Hoover Tower:

Hoover Tower.

You see, the founders of Stanford university did so in the memory of their 15 year old son, who died of typhoid in 1884. But as part of the endowment they stipulated that all Stanford roofs must be red, their son’s favorite color, so he could see them from heaven.

The view from Hoover Tower.

Now, maybe it was the fact that I’m a sucker, but I have to admit when I was told this story I shed a tear, which is in my defense is pretty easy when you’re staring down the barrel end of a view like the one above.

But let me assure you it was a manly tear. In fact it was so manly, that it impregnated the ground.

Unfortunately, like many origin stories, outside of Marvel, this one and by extension my whole Stanford experience, was a lie. The roofs are just red because that’s the style, and there is no heaven.

Okay, a tad melodramatic, but it really didn’t make a difference as I didn’t tip the tour guide. Take that, thoughtful stranger!

Overall though, I have to say San Francisco stands out as one of my favorite places outside of Asia.

Which is why in an attempt to get closer to living there I’m already devising a plan to become a billionaire.

Langtang

If somebody from the future had told me that I’d be willing to pay good money to lug a backpack around and not shower for seven days I’d be sceptical to say the least. However, when the nearest beach is further away than the nearest mountain you have to make a choice.

The trek I chose to do is in ‘Langtang ‘ which, for those who aced geography, is right next to the Nepal/Tibet border (north of Kathmandu).

For those who aren’t good at geography here is a map:

Nepal – the meat in the China/India sandwich

For those of you who want to get up close and personal, here is a more detailed sketch of the area:

Langtang trek –Syabrubesi to Kyanjen Gomba

Although my method of estimation is rather crude, from all accounts the trek I had planned was 20km and went from Syabrubesi (1,550m above sea level) to Kyanjin Gompa (which was around 3800m above sea level).

For references sake, Everest base camp is around 5,360 metres above sea level which means if we apply a linear ‘hardness’ formula I’m 43% as hardcore as Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

As an additional point of reference, ducks have three eyelids. So I’m 33% duck.

Day 1 – Kathmandu (1,300m above sea level)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Nepal, the main expression you need to know is ‘geez there are a lot of mountains out here’.

The country is home to 8 of 10 of the world’s tallest mountains, and if I had to do an interpretive dance for Kathmandu I’d try to look like this:

Unfortunately, I’m not very good at interpretive dance, , unless what I’m trying to communicate is ‘the sprinkler’.

But my point here is that Kathmandu is surrounded by mountains, meaning that getting out of the city can take some time. In fact, for me, it took something like 5 hrs to travel 145km which although might suggest we were driving at a leisurely pace of 30km/h, was actually more like this:

In any case the drive was much better than riding on the top of a jeepney and in any case, I made it to my first stop:

Syabrubesi (1,550m/5,100ft above sea level)

Syrabrubesi (Seera-broo-bessy) is a common stop-off-town for those doing the Langtang trek or crossing (more rarely) over to Tibet.

The town is of a moderate size and stocks a whole range of modern necessities like coca cola and oreas. Although I wouldn’t suggest you rely on it for any of your trekking supplies, it is a safe place to pick up snacks and some minor woolly items (such as beanies and the like).

It’s also overrun by chickens, which are my favourite animal (no really).

    Syabrubesi – the township

The river next to the town

    The hill is prime real-estate

 

Day 2: Trek to River Side Lodge 2,769m above sea level (seal level?)

Now call me superstitious and all, but around six people have gone missing on the Langtang trail over the last couple of years and none of them had a guide. Obviously I have no proof that there is a correlation between having a guide and whether a person gets lost, but who wants to take chances? I had a guide and I’m alive. Coincidence? I think not! Actually, on a serious note after the last person went missing the Nepali government has imposed a ban on trekking without a guide.

Anyway, much of the first hour of the trek is pretty straight-forward with nothing more complicated than the occasional wire bridge, steep hill and pit of snakes. But probably the best thing about this first hour is that it gives you a chance to whet your appetite before having to climb near-vertical inclines for 6hrs.

    The first bridge on the way to Langtang

“Get out of my way fatty”

Okay so I might be exaggerating, those donkeys look like they’re having a leisurely stroll more than scaling a cliff. But it was an ordeal, I can assure you.

Although there are significant portions of steep inclines they’re predominantly in the shade, meaning you aren’t being simultaneously roasted by the sun while putting your legs through their paces and it makes it all the more enjoyable when you arrive.

    River Side Lodge (our first place to stay)

Now I’m not usually one to parade pictures of my accommodation all around the internets. After all who really cares what my bed looked like?

But this time I’m making an exception as a lot of people expect they’ll be sleeping on an icicle with three other people, wrapped in penguins. Fact is I only had to do that once, and that was because I couldn’t work the temperature control on the spa.

For those of you from a temperate climate I would suggest three things to help make you more comfortable:

  1. Bring a sleeping bag;
  2. Check with the owners of the lodge whether you can hire a blanket for the night; and
  3. ‘borrow’ one of the chickens wandering around to use as a hot water bottle (and an alarm clock if it’s a rooster).

Although I don’t know exactly how cold it gets at night, it definitely drops to the negatives.

    Photos of my room, complete with that teenage heartthrob Buddha

    The view from our guest house

Day 3: Langtang village 3,430m

Now, although any time is a good time to talk about breakfast, this is a particularly good one. So you know what to expect breakfast is usually pretty basic, insofar as there is no Pop Tarts or French toast. Maybe there weren’t enough USB ports to plug in this baby over there. But the Nepalese have their own local substitute: porridge and Tibetan bread.

Both are highly recommended on account of them not being frozen, and because they’re reasonably tasty substitutes for French toast. In fact if you look at the photo below you should be able to see a plate with the Tibetan bread on it. Essentially it looks like a pancake but tastes like not a pancake.

    An oven in one of the kitchens in Langtang

An icy waterfall -You cold bro?

The yak equivalent to ‘come at me bro!’


Now I have it on good authority that I didn’t see that guy (the yak) after I saw the icy waterfall. But let’s face it, Yaks are the main reason (after the mountains) people come to Nepal. This one was no exception. As you can see from the photo he is filled with hate. He is pretty much the hitler of the yak world. But I came prepared with my puffy jacket which makes me look 3 times bigger (and squishier) than I actually am.

Those photos above are also just after I had escaped the clutches of the forest part of the trek (which is pretty much the first day and a half of the trek)Although I won’t claim that it’s an easy walk, you’re likely to face at most a moderate incline. The views are also, as you can see, spectacular.


The disadvantage of wide open spaces is how small you feel, particularly relative to the trek you’re doing. This is also around the time you have to start thinking about altitude sickness, as the sign below clearly indicates. The rule is basically once you get over 3000 metres you should only increase your altitude by 300 metres per day (to allow acclimatisation).

Things just got real…

Also, as you might expect as you get closer to the Langtang things get more and more …Tibetan. Tibetan bread, yaks, rocks piled on top of each other and prayer wheels.

A lightly frosted prayer wheel

Prayer wheels are reasonably rare things to find, but there were at least two that I saw while doing the trek.

As you hopefully can see from the picture above there is a brass cylinder inside a stone box. The one above is also suspended above a (currently frozen) river, which typically will turn the wheel. Although the pattern on the wheel might vary, typically they have in Sanskrit the prayer ‘Om-Ma-Ni-Pad-Me-Hum’ which I’m reliably informed is a prayer or mantra which means ‘Generosity, Ethics, Patience, Diligence, Renunciation and Wisdom’.

As far as I’m concerned having nature doing the praying for you is clever. I wish Catholicism would have caught onto this so that I didn’t have to do this prayer thing manually.

For an idea of what one of these looks like in action have a look here.

Again, although I was nowhere near basecamp altitude, I did start to feel impacts of altitude as the trek progressed. For me this essentially involved feeling short of breath and having moments of what, at the time, I would have described as lucidity.

My favourite moment of lucidity was in my dream. Essentially this involved my uncle, Rowan Atkinson, showing me around New York City. Rowan Atkinson is not my uncle for the record and I remember he looked like a hobo. Still I didn’t call him on it as I wanted to know more about New York.

I suspect this was painted thousands of years ago with dye made from the tears of mountain lions. Only science knows for sure.

Kyanjin Gompa (3,870m/12,697ft)

Our final stop was a place called ‘Kyanjin Gompa’. Although I am informed that this is a Buddhist temple, I personally saw nothing which looked like a temple while there.

I did, however, see the hill ‘Kyanjin Rr’.

Kyanjin Ri (4779 metres)

Kyanjin Ri, as it’s called is what I (as an Australian) would say is a mountain. Unfortunately when I used this term with my guide it was lost in translation as he claimed it was a ‘hill’.

Whatever it was, it was intimidating. Particularly after I had been walking up a slight incline like Neil Armstrong. But it seemed unlikely I’d have another shot at this, so I gave it all I had.

About half way up the epic hill

Now while my guide pretty much ran up the hill (mountain) I took plenty of time to take in the scenery. As you can see from the photo above, the view was amazing. There were also ‘cairns’ (stone stacks) right up to the summit.

Now I’ve done a lot of googling and haven’t found what I’d consider an authoritative guide on their meaning, but from my guide and the interweb I know that they are stacked to bring luck. In some ways the higher they are, the more ‘lucky’ they can be, as individual stones may represent an individual wish.

Mind you, they’re also fun to make (I made a couple) and help mark out the trail for other travellers. So like most things the etymology is probably more grey than black and white.


Anyway, the trek up that hill was epic for all except my guide, who had been power-walking the entire way, and ended in the view below.

Langtang Lirung Glacier

So there you have it. A brief overview of the langtang trek, complete with an evil yak and crash course on why people are stacking stones everywhere.

One thing I didn’t talk about much was just how good our guide and porter were. Besides being tough as nails they were friendly, patient and extremely knowledgeable. So if you’re planning a trek in Nepal I would highly recommend you contact Shanta.

EDIT: Shanta, my wonderful guide from this trip has recently launched a website with more details about the services he offers as a guide:

http://www.magichimalayatreks.com

This photo of a chicken was intentional. It’s an intentional chicken.