Friday, 16 October 2009

My 33th Birthday - Cabeza del Condor 5.700 m

Last year in Nepal when I was sitting with injured knee in a coffee shop in Kathmandu, I got talking to Steffan, a Swiss alpinist, who had dedicated his life to the mountains. Every season he was in Nepal, climbing unclimbed mountains and setting new routes. The rest of the year, he was taking clients to different parts of the world. When I told him that I would be going to Bolivia, he wrote on a piece of paper different places I should go trekking and climbing. As it happens, the piece of paper got lost and the only name that stuck to my mind was Condoriri.

12 months later, I am in Bolivia, having already climbed Huayana Potosi, I wanted to do something special for my 33th Birthday, something memorable. It had to be Condoriri with its main summit La Cabeza del Condor (The Head of the Condor). It is named after the sacred bird of the Andes: the Condor. The main peak resembles the head and the adjacent peaks are called Las Alas (the wings).

It was very late in the climbing season, which finishes the end of September, and it was difficult to find agency willing to take me to this summit for a reasonable price, let alone finding other people wanting to climb it. Failing to find a group, I booked a personal guide (compared to Europe it is a real bargain).
On the 2nd October, we set out from La Paz. It took us 3 hours from La Paz to the small village of Tuni, where Julio hired mules to take our equipment to the Base Camp of Condoriri.

At around 3pm, we arrived at the Base Camp, which is right at the foot of the Cabeza del Condor. The summit seen from there was awe-inspiring. Looked like a black giant bird looming over us. As we were pitching the tents, I couldn’t take my eyes of the pyramid of the Cabeza.
At 6pm Julio prepared dinner and we sat in the kitchen tent. The conversation invariably hovered around climbing Condoriri and the surrounding mountains. La Cabeza del Condor was the most technical of all. On to top it, I could sense that my guide was quite skeptical about my chances of getting to the top. Six hours left until my 33th birthday and seven hours until we set out for one of the biggest challenge of my life. I couldn’t help but feeling quite scared.
At 1am, we got up, had the obligatory mate de coca and set out under the full moon, which was illuminating our path and the peak. It was so bright that there was no need to use our headlights. The peak looked even more majestic under the moonlight. All across the Andes the Condor is revered as a sacred bird. For the Maputches the condor is the ruler of the sky, reincarnation of the most noble spirits. For the Incas the condor was the "Messanger of the Gods", who flew to the higher level of the religeuos world (el Hanan Pacha) and took their requests to the Gods .
I was praying and hoping it will be benevolent and would allow me to celebrate my birthday in his realms.

After 5 hours of walk on scree and glacier, we reached a huge crevasse. Julio said that unless we find a way to cross it, it would be the end of my Condoriri dream. As the crevasse was so long and there was no way to go around it, Julio found a spot where we could cross it by going down into the crevasse and then climbing up. We were advancing really slow, as Julio was making sure that there were no hollow parts under our feet. Eventually when we got down, all I could see around me were tones and tones of snow. I didn’t even want to think about it.

Out of the crevasse was the next challenge was awaiting for us: climbing through a chimney with 75 degree of inclination. Once out of it, we were on the ridge of the Cabeza. So close and so far away! Earlier in the season there would be ice and snow, so you could climb with axes, but at this time of year it was only rock, loose at times, because of the constant erosion of melting ice.
I was lucky that Julio was very secure and confident climber. On both sides of the ridge there were precipices of hundreds of meters. No room for wrong steps…..We reached the summit at around 9.30pm. The Condor, the keeper of the Andean sky, had allowed me to be there. I couldn’t get a better present.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

In Thin Air - Huayna Potosi 6088m

I have always wondered why mountains attract people. In Nepal for first time i had a taste of this demoniac thirst for high altitude.

I remember my mother, sitting in our flat in Sofia and dreaming about far- flung mountains. And I have seen so many great climbers, dreaming with those mountains, with their triumphs and tragedies.
I do not have this intrinsic vocation, this tragic draw to them. For me climbing Huayna Potosi was more of an attempt to understand it.

Huayana Potosi is 6088m and it is situated about two hours drive from La Paz, Bolivia.

About 9am myself and a Swiss guy, who was also going to climb the mountain left La Paz. Once out of the pollution and the traffic of the city, we drove on a dusty road through dry and barren lands. The only thing i could seen through the car window were the llamas and the countless graveyards of miners, killed by the government in 1953 over control of the local mines.

At around 11.30 am, we arrived at Campo Base. The fist day was dedicated to practice walking with crampons on the glacier and using axes. At night the cholita (that´s how the local women are called) gave us very educational talk on the sacred leaves of coca and its uses. The Antiplano people consider them a wonder drug, the panacea for headache, stomachache, overweight, altitude sickness and any ache one can think of. Every time I moaned to my guide about some ache, the inevitable answer was: “chew some coca”. Day 2 myself, the guide and the ported walked to Campo Alto, which is at 5100m. The walk took us only 2 hours and that meant that we had the rest of the day for rest before the night climb. We had lunch, went for sleep, had dinner and went for a nap again. We were supposed to leave for the Summit at 1am and arrive there at sunrise, as later the snow becomes too heavy, its dangerous to walk and there is a greater risk of avalanches. I was so exited, nervous, apprehensive that i could not sleep at all. All I could hear was the increasing wind, which eventually brought the snow storm. At 1am Elisio came to tell me that we cannot leave in such a weather and that we had to wait for the storm to settle. All this waiting made me even more nervous. 

Eventually at 2am, the weather settled and we were ready to leave. It still looked pretty horrible to me, but we put he crampons, tied the rope and headed for the Summit. All I could see with my headlight were the footprints left by Elisio. My mind kept on wandering: it was going back to Nepal, to Thailand, people I have met on the way, it was getting happy, upset…..In a way, it was good because time was passing by, but I knew it was dangerous. I couldnt afford to let my mind wander. Just as in Buddhist meditation, my mind had to be here, in the present, fully aware of the surroundings.
I tried to use some techniques I learnt in the Tibetan monastery in Nepal and later in Thailand. Instead of focusing on the breath, I was trying to concentrate on every step I took. And many, many steps followed… was never ending road…. . From time to time i was turning to see the people behind me. There was a line of slowly advancing headlights. Some of the bright dots were stopping at some point and then heading back to the valley. I could feel it was getting harder and harder to breathe. I was starting to feel tired, my legs were hurting, but i could still walk, I had plenty of strength and if there was anything to stop me form reaching the top, it was my mind.

Many long hours of walking in the dark followed. My mind slipped into some kind of delirium and i knew that i could walk and walk for many more hours. The Tibetan monks I have seen in the monasteries in high mountains of Nepal could keep their minds in full concentration for very long periods of time, some for days and weeks.
At 6am the sun started to come up and with it I got a second wind of strength. At this point we arrived under a huge rock, which we had to climb and the summit was there. Knowing that the Summit was so close gave me the believe that i could do it. I couldn't give up at thais point.

After 45 min of rock climbing we were at the top. OMG, I screamed at the top of my lungs. I made it. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of utter peace and bliss. Climbing for Nothingness! All the little thoughts that were bothering me were gone, evaporated with the darkness of the night. And it was the dazzling whiteness of the snow, the light of the arising sun, and me, there, in this very moment. Salvation.

On the way back to La Paz, I was sitting at the back of the car, listening to the conversations in the car, in the background there was Andean music coming from the stereo. I was looking at the llamas, running at the noise of the engine, and I couldn't stop smiling to myself.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Good Morning Vietnam

I got my Vietnamese visa in Thailand and remember being quite excited about going there. Since I have entered in Laos though other travellers have been sharing not so nice stories about the Vietnam. At some point I was even thinking not to go there at all, but fly back to Bangkok and go to Myanmar instead. Since I had the visa and I was not very far from the border I decided to give it a go and check it out for myself. Apparently not the easiest of all border crossings due to its remoteness, but how difficult could it be!
Sam Neua is the last bigger town on the Laos side. Apparently there was only one bus per week, on Saturday, that goes through the border. If not you have to get a tuk-tuk (small trucks fitted with seats for passengers at the back) to the Laos border and from there get another tuk-tuk to a town in Vietnam. Those on the Vietnamese side, however, run only Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. So it seemed to me that Saturday was the best day to do the crossing: I had two options in case one of them fails. So I had to hang around in the area, waiting for Saturday.

When Saturday finally arrived, I got up early and went to wait for the direct bus. To my great unsurprise the bus never arrived, maybe there were not enough passengers, or maybe there were too many and the bus left earlier when it got full. So I had to go with plan B and jumped on the tuk-tuk. On the tuk-tuk there were other 3 brave Swedish girls hoping to cross into Vietnam as well.
One hour and half later we arrived at the border. So far so good! Now we had to find the tuk-tuk, which was supposed to be running on Saturdays from the Vietnamese side. Well, there was no tuk-tuk to be seen, only a bus with very grumpy driver who demanded $30 for the 200km to Hanoi, which sounded like a total rip off. Tried to bargain with him but he wouldn’t even speak to us. He would just inhale from his stinky cigarette and blow it in our sweaty faces with a smirk on his face. Obviously he had more information than we did. He knew that there was no other tuk-tuk coming, so our bargaining power was closer to nothing. As we were discussing our options or the lack of them, and we were about to surrender, he decided it was the right time to go a nap and left us running after him with dollar bills in our hands. He didn’t care, he knew that sooner or later the money will go to him anyway, why rush? ! !
At this point, we decided to hitchhike or pay a lorry to take us to Hanoi. Its seemed that all the people in the town had this secret pact to screw us up, so they were all pointing at the bus with no driver! Even the housewives, who were peeping out of the windows were repeating “$30, $30…” …..”Yeah, we are happy to pay $30 as long as anyone get us from God forgotten place!”

Then the owner of the local hotel, who happened to be friend of the driver, approached us to offers us rooms, telling us that the driver had no intention to leave today. He would wait for tomorrow for more tourists, and more cash. So we realised we were trapped by the Vietnamese border mafia and everyone was trying to make some quick cash from us.
In a form of protest we refused to get room with the money- friend of the bus driver.

So our other option was to sleep on the bus, waiting for next day departure. But soon all the locals in the area knew we ll be sleeping on the bus, so we would be an easy target for anyone with wrong intentions.
At this moment, we surrendered and went to check in the only other hotel in town, that was not participating in the scam and spend the night there until we find a way to get out of this trap for falangs (as they call us around here).

On the following day, after mentioning the word "embassies", even the police got involved. They obliously didn't want to have troubles, so eventually The Driver bent down and took us to Hanoi for $15.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Shopping for Thai Silk

Ban Pa- Ao village is 1 hour by bus from Ubon. I heard that I could see brass making but what I was really interested was to wander around small, traditional village, take some photos. So I hopped on the bus and 1 hour later I was there. It was almost afternoon, so the village had gone for siesta. There was no one around. I could only hear some music coming from somewhere. So I followed the sound and found myself in the garden of the Wat. There some local women were decorating a lorry for a celebration. I never found out what the celebration was about, as no one spoke a word of English. They invited me to eat with them and since I was starving I accepted the offer. Everyone sat around one bowl of soup and as if it was some kind of ritual, they passed the spoon around. When it was my turn, I looked at the soup and only judging by the bright red colour I imagined how spicy it would be. But it was too late. I was committed. So I had a spoonful and tears came into my eyes. I was on fire. But to everyone else it was highly entertaining. Apparently, Thai laugh at minor accidents as an attempt to save on behalf of the person undergoing the mishap.
After the lunch, I was assigned a “guide” to take me around the village. She took me to different places, including the workshop where few men were crafting brass and bronze objects using wax casting method. And she talked and talked and talked. I kept on saying the phrase which was given in the LP for “I don’t understand” but, as in Thai everything depends on intonation, must have been pronouncing wrongly because she seemed not to understand that I couldn’t understand not even a word of what she was saying. In the end I gave up and just listened and smiled.
And even though that I didn’t understand a word I really enjoyed the walk with her and I enjoyed watching her speak, trying to pay attention for repeating words and corresponding gestures, which I was hoping to give me more of an idea of what she was saying.
Later she took me to the house of an old lady who was weaving silk (I assumed it was silk). Apparently the best silk in the world comes from Thailand and particularly from this region which is famous for certain technique called Mat Mii, which consists of abstract colorful patterns and it involves a very complicated process. Each village has its own pattern. So what this old woman was producing were unique pieces which would not be available even in the next village.
I really wanted to buy one of the materials but didn’t know if it was silk for sure, didn’t know the price…
As the communication was failing they went to fetch by motorcycle the only person in the village who spoke English. It turned out that old woman had worked in Dubai for 10 years and was a much respected member of the community for that reason. She translated my doubts to the old lady. In India I was told that a real silk if burnt should smell of hair and shouldn’t melt as the polyester does. So the owner of the precious material went in and came back with box of matches and a little bowl in her hand. We burnt the thread and after having established that it had the right smell, in order to clear any last doubts I might have had regarding the authenticity of the silk, she showed me proudly the little bowl full with silk worms. Apparently she had done everything herself, starting from the actual silk thread. I was happy with that and handed the money (not without a bit of bargaining, which I regretted after). Everyone smiled and shoved a silk worm in their mouths! Then it was my turn!!!I I couldn’t do it! But I had 3 pairs of eyes looking at me. I couldn’t say no, that would mean to offend them, to make them loose face, which apparently in Thai culture is a no, no.

So I just had so get a handful and stick them in my mouth and to be honest it wasn’t that bad. Maybe it is not my favorite thing but if I have to eat it more often I might even like them!

Thursday, 15 January 2009

In Search of the Lost Paradise

After two weeks soaking sun in the south of Thailand , sipping cocktails on the beach, I decided to go in search of the traditional Thailand. I looked at the Lonely Planet and the north-eastern part was the only area that there were not any tourist attractions. So I randomly picked one town in that area as a final destination and I headed in that direction.

My first stop was Auythaya, the ancient kingdom of Thailand. It is situated only one hour away from Bangkok, but I was surprised to find out how few tourists were around. So much so, that in the guesthouse that I stayed me and a Korean couple were the only visitors. That worked quite well because the owners treated us as family guests rather then paying clients. There were no menus; we just got the food that was cooked for the house.

After two days of wats (Thai Buddhist temple) and a lot of warnings by fellow travellers that the east is the poorest part of Thailand and I should be careful, I got my train ticket to Buriram. 6 hours later I arrived at the provincial town of Buriram. And even though I didn’t find any tourists with big suitcases and fast tan, I did find mega Tescos and Boots in those “dangerous”, “poor” parts of Thailand.

Even though the remoteness of this area has not protected it from the arrival of the mega stores, billboards, the lack of beaches with booze and any major attractions have protected it from the arrival of mass tourism. So the local people see very rarely foreigners and are very curious to talk to travellers.

At Buriram I boarded the bus to go to another small town called Nang Rong. While I was reading my book two girls from the seat behind passed me a little note with request to practice their English with me. And after 10 min of conversation I was invited to stay at their student residence. I didn’t think twice and accepted the offer.

Once at their place the news that there was a “foreigner” in the residence spread out and I was quickly surrounded by more than 20 students!!! It turned out that they were trainee teachers so next day I was taken to the local school, where I had to improvise a series of English lessons. Lunchtime I was assigned a little chair and students could come and talk to the “foreigner”. And in no time there was a queue of pupils wanting to find out if I support Arsenal or Chelsea.

And as the school day was drawing to an end and I was planning to continue my journey, one of the English teachers invited me to stay at the village of her mother for the night. I was taken there by car, shown around, at dinner the best part of the fish was served to the guest …and in the morning I was even taken to the bus stop. I spend with the family only one day, but because of their hospitality I felt like we have known each other for ages. I was really sad to leave.

Next stop on the itinerary was Surin, where I spent just few hours while waiting for my bus to Ubon Ratachani. Ubon is another sleepy provincial town, where there is not much to see apart from the many wats and the stray dogs (which kept on terrifying me). And if it wasn’t for the people one night would have been more than enough.
Today yet again I was amazed at the friendliness and the readiness to help of the local people. They share the same attitudes that I encountered among the Tibetan people in Nepal. They are both Buddhist nations: The Tibetan are Mahayana Buddhist and the Thai are followers of an earlier tradition of Buddhism, Theravada. Being Buddhists, they believe that being selfless, mindful of the others, helping will bring them good karma and ultimately liberation. The religion is inseparable part of their life and thus becomes a way of being. This generosity and openness, which I have seen in the Tibetan villages in the mountains of the Himalaya and the plains of Thailand, seems to be common to people of all walks of life in every situation.

Today as I was rambling around town, map in hand, an old person in barely comprehensive English asked me what I was looking for. When I named the temple, bless him, he tried to explain to me, but giving direction in English turned out quite challenging for him and I must have still been looking quite confused. Then a lady who owed a small roadside restaurant pointed at her motorbike and spoke to me in Thai. I still couldn’t understand…!! At this point everyone around got involved and finally after a lot of miming it became clear that she wanted to give me a lift to the temple in her motorbike. My objections didn’t stop her. Still wearing her apron, she jumped on the bike, dropping everything else and cruised through the street with me at the back to the very entrance of the temple!

After that I decided to pay a visit to the tourist centre, get some free maps and ask how to get to a temple outside the town. The lady behind the counter said that unfortunately there was no public transport and taxi would be expensive but if I had time tomorrow she would take me by her private car!!!!! So tomorrow I am off to the countryside with the car of my personal guide.

I read in LP that recent Government Well- Being index indicates that people of the northeast are happiest, despite of being the poorest region of Thailand. I can see why!!!

It seems that i might have found the lost paradise in rural areas of eastern Thailand.

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