We’ve failed lamentably at posting about our travels as most years we take several weeks out to travel. In the winter of 2017 we travelled to Bangladesh.
Flying into Dakha we travelled by ancient paddle steamer, car, plane motorbike and trains to (amongst other places) Barisal, Khulna, the Sunderbans, Sylet, Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar and St Martin’s Island.
For us, other than the terrible traffic congestion in Dhakha, Bangladesh turned out to be revelation so much so that we immediately returned in February 2018 to visit many places we had missed the first time, particularly in the north west and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (the UK Government advise against travel here).
I really cannot recommend this impoverished country too much as a tourist destination. In the first place hardly anyone goes there so you will only see a handful of tourists. Secondly the people are amazingly friendly and with genuine Muslim hospitality you are received graciously everywhere. If you live in the UK you can also get a 28 day visa on arrival (a letter of invitation helps – but we didn’t have one for our first visit). We stayed, where we could, with local families in villages. It is a photographers dream (and you will find youself the centre of attention everywhere being asked to pose for selfies) with everyone more than happy to be photographed. You can see a few photos on the gallery here
It’s strange how most people would probably give Bangladesh a wide berth, claiming amongst other things it is poor, dirty, dangerous and Muslim. Well to people who think like that your loss is our gain becuse we have spent over 6 or 7 weeks in this vibrant, culturally rich country (their annual outside book fair in February occupies the space of several football fields and lasts for a month). We have travelled on overnight paddle steamers, gone fishing with the otter fisherman, travelled on boats up rivers and through the mangrovees in the Sunderbans, spent days with the bonded labourers in brick kilns, visited the ship breaking yards in Chittagon, ridden motorbikes on the beach, shared village houses with the occupants and had some great food. Everywhere we have been met with huge smiles.
Even the poorest families will offer you tea and find some biscuits for you to eat with true Muslim hospitality; it really makes me mad to see some of the Islamaphobia in the west (particularly the western press). But then most who think that way have never actually met a Muslim family and interacted with them let alone gone to somewhere like Bangladesh (or Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan etc.). Travel is indeed one of the best educations you can have.
Obviously it’s not the easiest of countries to travel in, but a local guide is not expensive and will smooth the path for you (message us if you want some contact details).
We may even return in 2019, although Bangladesh does have elections coming up at the end of 2018 and this may bring about some unrest – so we’ll keep an eye on the situation.
As a few people know we’re kind of particular to traditional Irish music and the music of East Clare is high on our list. Most years we can be found heading for Feakle Festival (John helps out with their website) and it was a particular disappointment that we missed it this year due to the death of a close friend.
However, the neighbouring village of Tulla also has a smaller festival at the beginning of September and so we loaded up the campervan and headed of to East Clare for the weekend. Now Tulla can seem a bit of a quiet place (even the residents might agree) – by day it is an ordinary working town that probably doesn’t feature too highly on the tourist radar. It’s even known as ‘the Windswept Hill’. But for those in the know (together with neighbouring Feakle) it is a rich vein of traditional music that produces some of the finest pearls (that could be a tautology or some other linguistic faux pas – but I hope that you get the gist).
The music from this region is some of the best on the planet and I’ve seen some of the all time ‘greats’ playing in the pubs here; Liz Carroll, Arty McGlynn, Joe Burke, Seamus Tansey, Matt Molloy, Eileen O’Brien, John Carty, Mary Bergin, Darren Breslin – the list is endless. Mind you Tulla and Feakle have their own list of greats including the mighty Tulla Ceilidh Band and Martin Hayes.
We got to Tulla on the Friday to find the whole place buzzing with excitement as Clare were in the all Ireland Hurling final on Sunday (Probably the equivalent of the F.A. Cup final in the UK).
The Festival proceedings were due to ‘kick off’ around 8.00 p.m. on Friday night with a parade through the town. By 8.15 not much was happening (to the consternation of a couple who had found their way here from Quebec – and I had to explain that Irish time can have a slightly different meaning to elsewhere) but by about 20 minutes past the hour the Chapel Gate Wrenboys, All Ireland Wrenboy Champions, came strolling through town; looking remarkably like extras in Midsomer Murders. They then put on a lively, fun and (sometimes) bawdy show in the Courthouse; great fun.
From their we trotted across the road to Minogue’s bar to catch up with a few friends, have a few pints and listen to the session going on. There is clearly some strange ‘time vortex’ in Irish pubs; before you know it – it is 2.30 or 3 in the morning.
Saturday evening brought the main event; the Concert in the Court House hosted by Mary MacNamara, a fine concertina player who does much to teach the youngsters in the area. What a great concert it turned out to be with fine playing from the start when it was opened up by some of those youngsters including 12 year old Lilly O’Connor.
The concert continued with a line up that just kept up a cracking standard all evening including, Johnny Og Connolly, Harry Bradley, Oisin MacDiarmada, Caitlin Nic Gabhann, Zoe Conway and the Full Set band. Brilliant stuff and a reminder that there is astonishing music out there.
Once again it was back of to the pub afterwards where Andrew MacNamara, Eileen O’Brien, Mark Donnellan and Michael Landers playing a great session. ‘Playing’ is not quite the word for Andrew (whose playing can be best described as ‘fiery’) was trading unusual phrasing with Mark and the battle went on into the early hours with Eileen smiling to herself every time these two issued another challenge to each other. Mighty music; you’d have to have been mad to miss it. Another late night/early morning in a pub (Tulla has this effect)!
Sunday was the day of the ‘All Ireland’ final and Tulla seemed deserted. Some more sessions were happening at lunch time but most minds were focussed on the big game starting at 3.30 pm.
Clare had not won the All Ireland Final since 1997. And there was much excitement as Clare led for most of the match, to lose the lead in added time and then equalise 30 seconds after the ‘end’ of added time. So it all has to be done once more in a few weeks time! Not sure I could stand that much excitement again.
Sunday evening was rounded off nicely by a CD launch from Edel Fox (concertina) and Neill Byrne (fiddle) who played a great set to finish the festival off. Time for another pint before heading for the Ferry and home. What a weekend that was.
Early May 2012 saw us setting off in Huey, our campervan, for Ireland. We headed off at first for East Clare and after calling in to Peppers Bar to see who was about we visited our good friends Michael and Dorothy and their family in their excellent B&B at Clondanagh Cottage. If you are ever visiting the west of Ireland I can’t recommend their hospitality too much!
We then headed just across the border to Kinvara in Galway for The Cuckoo Fleadh, a rather extended weekend of traditional music and drinking, to search out a few sessions before going on to Connemara. We then drove south, heading for the Baltimore Fiddle Festival stopping off on the way on the Dingle and Kerry Peninsulas. Finally we travelled back north east to Dublin staying overnight in the Wicklow mountains on the way before returning to Wales via Rosslare.
For us there are two different Irelands. The one that is represented by the traditional musicians who keep the tradition alive with their amazing musicianship. Just in these few days we listened to Edel Fox, Andrew MacNamara, Thomas Bartlett, Dennis Cahill, Martin Hayes, Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Sam Amidon, Cleek Shrey and Nic Gareiss. Most have devoted much of their lives to learning their craft and tradition. The other Ireland is the one that rushed headlong into the nonsense that became the infamous Celtic Tiger. A land of speculation, institutional corruption, garden decking, hot tubs and men in pink shirts driving 4x4s and talking excitedly into mobile phones about their next ‘Real Estate’ purchase in Bulgaria.
This two-facedness was apparent when we stepped into a bar in a village on the Dingle. The pub looked very traditional and even sported a plaque giving it some ‘Trad Pub Music status’. I should have known better when the menu outside was promoting their Chinese food. Inside there was a cosy fire and a large plasma TV which, about 5 minutes after we sat down with a pint to await pretty much the only non Chinese item on the menu, was turned over to ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ or some such programme. Until now I’ve not watched one of these shows and my worst fears were realised. A variety of truly dreadful acts were loudly cheered by a studio audience of imbeciles and was presumably watched by many millions of cerebrally challenged morons who clearly don’t have two neurons to rub together. First came an appalling girl singer followed by a dance act who cheekily misspelt their name to start with a ‘K’. I can’t remember what they called themselves but it should have been ‘Kuntz’. The teenage girl singer, whose sole talent seemed to comprise a pair of decent legs in a short skirt, was ‘singing’ some anodyne song with a voice that had all the charisma of public service broadcast in North Korea. When she had finished the judges, the two female ones of whom seem to have just come back from a face painting competition, pronounced their verdict. By now I’d lost the will to live so finishing my food and resisting the need to vomit (not from the food) we headed out on onwards to Baltimore Fiddle Fair.
As I write this I wonder if I’m just a miserable old git, elitist or probably both? Am I just sneering at what other people seem to enjoy? So what if someone enjoys such banality? Then, no doubt like my elders before me, I muse over the lowering of standards to the lowest possible denominator. Are people so fecking stupid that they can’t even get out and watch some live music for themselves and decide if it is good or not?
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we Love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
People seem to be sleepwalking into a packaged world where the advertising executives are trying to control what they think so that they can sell them more crap.
A world where people are so divorced from nature that thy think meat comes wrapped in cellophane in TWATCO’s. A world where people think they have talent because their ‘friends’ on Facebook tell them they have.
Baltimore Fiddle Festival was the antidote I needed. It was our first trip here but the amazing list of musicians that have been here over the years and played in small bars, rooms and marquees is almost a ‘who’s who’ of traditional music. This weekend was no exception and it would have been great to stay longer but we had to head up to Dublin.
Things only got better when we did get to Dublin, via an overnight rough camp in the Wicklow mountains, and not just because Liz got to see a shower for the first time in a week! We were in Dublin to see ‘The Gloaming’. This band are made up of some of the best trad musicians around who are pushing the boundaries away from the ‘trad’ tag. This Irish new wave doesn’t suit all the traditionalists; but of course music always evolves and needs to or else it just becomes repetition. We had been at their first ever gig in Dublin last August and now we were back for a ‘one off’ gig this year. It was a very, very special night; it must have been because even the Irish President turned up to the rather unglamorous venue at Vicar Street. Their trad tunes and songs were played on the edge with Thomas Bartlett (who also opened with his childhood friend Sam Amidon) playing some sublime piano. I probably shouldn’t use the word ‘play’ it’s more that he feels the music throwing in single notes and chords together with plucked and damped notes on the piano strings. Iarla Ó Lionáird’s singing (and I can’t understand a word of Gaelic) made you want to cry at the beauty of it. But I doubt that the media muppets who trotted out the bilge on the plasma TV will ever understand that music is about emotion not the plastic crap foisted on an acquiescing public between the commercials. The principal purpose of the whole exercise being to sell them even more crap (such as air fresheners) that they don’t even need in the first place.
And if you want emotion no one really puts their ‘heart’ in to it more than Martin Hayes. When he plays music, he doesn’t just play notes; he becomes the music and when it is over you feel drained by the emotional journey he has taken you on. You feel spiritually uplifted and know that you have been transported and transfixed in some world in another place. I could of course just be talking complete bollocks as a tone deaf Englishman who has absolutely no musical ability in his body. On the other hand I’ve always been able to make my own mind up and I’ll choose Martin Hayes, Iarla Ó Lionáird,Thomas Bartlett and the rest over what some TV executive deems to be talent any day.
After our trek from Langtang to Helambu we returned to Kathmandu to get showered and have a few drinks at Sam’s bar before setting off to Bardia National Park in the South West of Nepal. Neither of us had been to Bardia before as it is comparatively much harder to get to than the Chitwan Park (which I think is distinctly overrated). Getting to Bardia involves a very long bus journey (14 hours minimum) or a comparatively expensive flight to the border town of Nepalgunj. We opted for the latter. John had been to Nepalgunj before and spent 24 hours waiting for a flight to Simikot to begin a trek to Tibet; it has to be said that Nepalgunj has not exactly improved in the intervening years.
Leaving most of our gear behind in Kathmandu we set off to the domestic terminal at Kathmandu for a morning flight. This was unsurprisingly (this is Nepal) delayed by the foggy weather around the country and we were pleased to eventually get away 3 hours late (unlike many flights that were cancelled).
John had previously contacted Mr. B (based on Tripadvisor reviews) who runs a guest house called Mr B’s Place near the Park entrance. As things turned out this was an inspired choice and Mr. B turned out to be a good friend indeed.
Mr. B. had insisted on meeting us at Nepalgunj airport which is around 70 km from Thakurdwara where he lives. He drove all the way, on a foggy cold morning, on his motorbike to meet us at the airport (waiting 3 hours because of the delay) so that he could ensure that we got on the correct bus to Ambassa which is the nearest point on the main highway to the park. He then returned on his motorbike to wait for us to arrive. Eventually, 4 hours later, the bus stopped at Ambassa (fare 250 NR) and Mr B was waiting with his son on another motorbike. Here we transferred onto the back of the bikes together with rucksacks on our backs to make the ride across a river and along a track for 13km to the lodge at Thakurdwara. Liz did look a tad terrified on the back of a motorbike – but we made it without incident.
At Mr. B’s Place we met the ever smiling Kali, his wife, who looked after us and fed us huge meals cooked by herself and her sons. Later, when talking after dinner, we would learn about some of their personal tragedies that occurred during the Maoist conflict. We quickly knew that this family were quite exceptional people; honest, trustworthy folk trying to build themselves a better life in chaos and (sometimes) corruption that is part of everyday life in Nepal. Everyday we suffered long power cuts (load shedding); the longest period being 27 hours without electricity.
On our first day there we explored the local Tharu village and visited the very sad and run down crocodile breeding centre near the Park entrance. At the latter a few crocodiles lurk disconsolately in cages, concrete pools and murky water.
Of course, our prime purpose, was to try and see a tiger in the park. A tall order as the park is nearly 1000 sq km of jungle and forest and the fact that there are only around 22 adults and 5 cubs in the park (dramatically down from the 85 or so pre conflict).
So we spent 2 days walking on foot (and waiting at favourite watering spots) in the park looking for them but despite seeing loads of birds, crocodiles, deer, python tracks and a rhino; we didn’t see any tigers. So on the last day we hired a jeep to go further afield. Once again we weren’t lucky but did find very fresh tiger tracks on a riverbank.
On returning to Mr B’s in the evening we learnt that a nationwide Bandh had been called for the following day (and could last several days). Bandh, is a Nepali word meaning ‘closed’ and is a form of protest. Sometimes, as in this instance, the entire nation comes to a standstill with protests and rioting in the streets. This left us with a problem because if we didn’t make our flight back to Kathmandu the following day, we might not make it back to the U.K. for Christmas. So we decided to try and make a night time dash back to Nepalgunj to avoid the strike. Driving at night in Nepal is best avoided but on this occasion there seemed to be little choice.
So packing us off to bed to get a bit of sleep Mr. B organised for a car to drive the 70km from Nepalgunj to collect us late at night (this cost us around 35 pounds for the round trip). He also booked us a hotel in Nepalgunj telling them that we would be arriving in the early hours. Unbeknown to us at the time the driver was reluctant to come because he was worried about the rioters damaging his car and Mr. B had personally guaranteed that he would take responsibility for any damage. Later that evening the driver arrived, he was keen to get going before the situation (and weather – as it was starting to get very foggy) deteriorated. At this stage Mr B announced that he didn’t feel happy letting us go alone and that he was coming along armed with a knife in case of trouble! We set off into the dark in a somewhat ancient car and after bumping down the track from Thakurdwara joined the highway at Ambassa. The normally busy main road was pretty much deserted and we made good progress until a loud bang announced a puncture in one of the very bald tyres. Mr B obviously had good contacts as our driver had an equally bald spare to replace it and after 10 minutes or so we were on our way again.
We arrived in Nepalgunj sometime after midnight and parked in front of a shuttered hotel that can best be described (after banging the shutters for 5 minutes to wake the night watchman) as ‘a port in a storm’ – normally we’d call it crap. After a cold night with only one blanket we awoke to a very foggy Nepalgunj that was closed down by protesters, who in turn were being watched by the riot police. Things were not looking good as the protesters were even letting down the tyres on the rickshaws (the only transport that was moving). The hotel had no food so Mr B, as resourceful as ever headed off to find some eggs and bread which he then proceeded to cook for us in the hotel kitchen. He then told us that he wasn’t leaving until we were safely on our way and if necessary he would cross the border into India and travel along the Indian side to get home.
However, by early after noon (our flight was at 17.30 p.m.) the fog started to clear a bit and the protesters were seeming to run out of steam a little. Mr B. had also managed to call someone at the airline office who said that the flight should leave as planned. So mid afternoon we found a rickshaw to take us the 6km to the airport. Nepalgunj airport was still the very Spartan, down at heel airport it had always been but it was actually a welcome sight on this occasion! Especially as by this time the runway was clear for us to take off and we had a great view of the Himalayas as we flew towards Kathmandu (and home). The protest had also ameliorated in Kathmandu and we got back to our guest house (and the UK) with no further dramas.
Thanks Mr. B. you were truly a star and we will definitely be back one day.
At the end of November we travelled to Nepal and spent most of December there, returning to the U.K. for Christmas. The first couple of weeks we spent trekking in the Langtang region and this blog details how we walked from Langtang to Helambu (I’ve put a map here) across the Laurebina Pass (4610m). The information and prices here are correct as of December 2011 and is provided on a goodwill basis (i.e. use your own common sense, check nothing has changed and don’t blame us if it doesn’t go as planned!). The weather was warm and dry but did turn increasingly cold at night as we moved into mid December. There was a very small amount of ice on the trail but the route was easily done with normal trekking gear although the high altitude lodges were cold at night. This trek would become harder in January and February, once there is snow, without proper gear (crampons and an ice axe?). The variety of scenery and the comparative lack of other trekkers (although the time of year may well have been a factor here) made this one of our favourite treks in Nepal.
On arriving at Kathmandu we went to stay initially at a guest house in Thamel; The Sacred Valley Inn. The owners Ailsa and Ganga are old friends who we first got to know twelve or thirteen years or so ago when John used to bring trekking groups to the Annapurna region. This is without doubt probably the best value guest house in Kathmandu and unless you are a backpacker on a very tight budget or need unashamed international style luxury I doubt you will find better value. You may also note that Liz is the model on their website page as John took some photos for them when we stayed there there last year!
To do the trek from Langtang to Helambu you will need to reasonably fit and have some decent boots, rucksack, sleeping bag and warm clothing. Other than ‘broken in’ boots (which you need to bring with you) everything can be bought cheaply or hired in Kathmandu at a shop like Shona’s trekking shop (there is an interesting article on Andy the ‘Brummie’ who runs it with his wife here). The lodges will have extra blankets so you don’t need a fantastic sleeping bag. Take a water bottle (or Camelback) and some water purifying tablets to avoid having to pay for bottled water (and more importantly reduce the use of plastic in the Park).
Before you start you need a TIMS card and a park entrance permit. Both are probably just an excuse to extract money from tourists. Anyway you can get them from the Nepal Tourism Board in Kathmandu (ask your hotel to direct you) for $20 per person for the TIMS and 1000 Nepalese Rupees for the trekking permit (the later can also be purchased at the park check point). In addition to obtain the TIMS you need to take along a copy of your passport and two passport-size photographs. Note that the Tourist Board office helpfully (Not) closes at 14.00 hrs so get there in good time before then.
So fully kitted out we set off to the starting point of Syabru Besi not far from the Tibet border. This is probably the most dangerous part of the trip (i.e. seven or eight hours on a Nepali bus). The bus is caught from the bus stand at Macha Pokhari (in Kathmandu – most taxi drivers should be able to take you there) and leaves at around 7.00 a.m. we got their at 6.30 and obtained seats OK, but in busy times you may need to book the day before. Seats at the back of the bus are not recommended as they get very bumpy and the ride is bad enough. By the way at the end of the journey I counted 14 people get out of the front 2 rows; in addition the bus will be loaded up with chickens, rice, vegetables and barrels of cooking oil. Many people choose to ride on the roof but the bus will stop before every check point to allow them to climb down and cram inside to satisfy the authorities. It will then stop half a mile later to allow them back up on the roof! Ensure that you have sufficient water and snacks for the journey although the bus will stop halfway for a food break. Eventually, the bus will reach Dhunche where you need to get out and complete the Langtang Park formalities (or get a Park Permit if you didn’t get one in Kathmandu). The bus will then travel on another hour or so to Syabru Besi.
Note that this road is being extended and improved by the Chinese all the way to the Tibet border. Once it does become sealed all the way the journey should improve dramatically but I fear that the unique character of this Tamang area will rapidly be changed forever.
At Syabru Besi there are a number of Guest Houses to choose from. We went to the Village View, a small guest house where we had stayed previously.
I asked the owner of the guest house if he knew a reliable local guide who could also carry up to around 15kg for us. I had hired a suitable 60 litre rucksack to hold our sleeping bags and waterproofs etc at Shona’s (50 Nepalese Rupees per day) back in Kathmandu.
The Lonely Planet suggested a rate of 1000 Nepalese Rupees per day for a local guide (most guides from Kathmandu start at 20$ per day). Here we met the lovely Tempa Tamang who became our guide and we agreed on 1300 NR per day with him carrying our bigger pack whilst we carried day packs with our personal gear and clothes etc. Tempa (pronounced more like Demba), although in his own words uneducated, proved to be a very reliable guide who spoke some English. Although not a professional registered guide he was excellent company and should you wish to seek him out ask for him at the Village View Lodge in Syabru Besi or try emailing his wife’s sister in Kathmandu –Starting at Syabru Besi there are a number of treks and combinations. The main ones are the Tamang Heritage trek to Gatlang, Tatopani, the Tibet border and finishing around Khanjim before returning. This trek is more home stay based than trekking lodges so has more potential for interaction.
Another option is to trek straight up to Langtang and Kyanjin Ghompa before returning much of the same way (perhaps coming back from Rimche to Khanjim). We had previously done this trek and it makes a nice short trek with some great views up at the highest points.
The third option is to trek to the sacred lakes of Gosainkunda then across the Laurebina Pass to Helambu and finish literally back on the outskirts of Kathmandu. This trek can be combined with either or both of the previous treks to make a longer trek. We decided on the last option with a slight detour at the start to take some photographs (we took last year) back to the villagers in Khanjim. In addition because of the altitude of the trek this gave us a couple of nights to acclimatise a little. Above 3000m it is advisable not to sleep more than 300m higher each day.
Our route was as follows and although we broke the 300m rule by sleeping at Laurebina we had no problems as we had had a couple of nights to acclimatise.
Day 1 Syabru Besi to Khanjim – half day trek. Good walkers could easily push on to Rimche.
Day 2 Khanjim to Rimche – an other easy walk; only half a day.
Day 3. Rimche to Thulo Syaphru
Day 4 Thulo Syapru to Shin Gompa
Day 5 Shin Gompa to Laurebina
Day 6 Laurebina to Phedi – A long day walk over the pass at 4610m.
Day 7 Phedi to Tharepati
Day 8 Tharepati to Kutumsang
Day 9 Kutumsang to Chisapani
Day 10 Chisapani to Sundarijal. Then return to Kathmandu by bus
We estimate (very roughly) the total distance to be around 95 kilometres. Trekking lodge room rates varied from 100 NR at Kanjim to 500 NR at the high lodges (around 80 pence to 4 pounds for 2 people). We probably spent between 600 and 800 NR each on food for a whole day.
At our guides village, Thulo Syapru, we spent the day at a Tamang wedding and the singing and dancing went on late into the night. The food was excellent and they had killed a buffalo especially for the occasion. It did come as quite a surprise though to see all the locals videoing the wedding on their latest ‘smartphones’!
At Chisapani you hit roads (or rather tracks) and I’m sure that you could negotiate a vehicle (not sure if local buses come this far) back to Kathmandu from here. We walked on to Sundarijal (probably another 5 hours from Chisapani) which is literally on the outskirts of Kathmandu. We then returned to Kathmandu from Sundarijal by bus (only about 40 minutes or so). As we had met a few other trekkers along the trail we negotiated a whole mini bus for 2000 NR to take all of us and the guides back into Thamel. Back in Kathmandu we had a welcome hot shower, a few beers and some respite from eggs for breakfast. We then went onto Bardia National Park in the south west of Nepal.