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1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

Well, onwards from Beijing the next destination was Tibet. I decided to enter Tibet the easy way, via a 36 hour train ride to the city of Chengdu and from there it was a 2 hour, $220 flight to Lhasa.

First impressions were very good, the flight passed over an immense spread of towering snow-capped peaks before touching down at the airport, situated a handy(?) 2 hour bus ride from Lhasa. The weather was spot on, I didn't feel any altitude effects (Lhasa sits at nearly 3700m above sea level, over 12,000ft), the Tibetan people immediately struck me as a lot friendlier than the Chinese I'd just left and arriving from the airport I passed by the Potala Palace, a building more impressive than any I'd seen in China.

The first day I popped over to have a look at the nearby Jokhang temple, the most sacred in Tibet. There was some ceremony in progress there so it was full of amazing, wizened old pilgrims mumbling prayers and stuff! I spent some quality time checking everyone out and watching the monks banging on drums and chanting. When I got up to leave though, kaboom, I suddenly felt worse than I'd felt the whole trip, the blood drained from my face and I was real close to just keeling over and fainting right then and there. I managed to sit down and spend the next 10 minutes lying on the floor of the temple recovering while listening to the monks' chants, it was pretty weird. Anyway, it was just a delayed reaction to the altitude. When I should have been in my hotel room taking it easy I was out sightseeing and the beer I had with my lunch didn't help I guess. Sufficiently humbled I took it easy for the next couple of days before doing anything energetic.

Lhasa was a pretty cool place with lots of excellent Tibetan sights to see. The Chinese have done their best to mess up Tibet as I suppose you know, e.g. Lhasa has more brothels than I'd ever seen before ("hey, what's wrong with that??"), around 300 I heard, all populated with Chinese women (yum yum) intent on servicing the soldiers from 3 of China's largest military installations which happen to be close to Lhasa. One interesting thing I learnt about Tibet though was how messed up the place was before the Chinese invaded. There is no doubt that the Chinese have f**ked the place up but considering that most of the non-nomadic population were nearly enslaved by the monasteries and the only 12 wheels in the whole country were the 12 on the Dalai Lama's 3 cars then you begin to wonder about Tibet's idyllic reputation of life before the invasion.

I had a bit of an adventure trying to get to Mt. Everest from Lhasa. You can actually drive all the way up to Everest Base Camp on the Tibetan side via a terrible dirt road and it's a popular side trip to do for those on the way to Nepal. I hooked up with four other travellers who were heading to the Nepali border (I was just along for the Everest part) and they had gotten a quote of 4300 yuan ($520) for a jeep trip to the border including heading up to Everest Base Camp and all the entry fees to Everest National Park.

Well we went to the travel agent, Potala Folk, to pay for the trip and they told us that no, the price wasn't 4300 yuan, it was 5000 yuan ($600). Arguing proved futile so we headed off and went to another travel agent, Tibet Friendship Travel Services (TFTS) who quoted us a reasonable 4200 yuan so we decided to go with them. Well, a few days later we had already given the travel agent, Tenzin, 2100 yuan ($250) and our passports and he was nowhere to be found. We were on the point of going to the police when we chanced upon an acquaintance of Tenzin's who said not to go to the police, that he'd help us get the passports back. We arranged to meet him later that day at the TFTS office. At 4pm he had no news of the passports and told us to come back at 5. At 5pm we returned to find out he'd broken into the TFTS office. The office was on the 3rd floor of a hotel on the main street in Lhasa but the hotel staff didn't have the key to the room so the guy had managed to get in via a rope from the room above!

Anyway, he still hadn't got the passports back but he told us the money Tenzin had stolen from us was all spent, surpise, surprise! I wasn't too worried about my passport because I kept thinking that Tenzin wouldn't really steal them because the punishment for getting caught would be a bullet in the back of the head. However, when his acquaintance told us that Tenzin had stolen 10 passports the year before (a story which proved to be false) we started getting really worried. He also said Tenzin was a drug addict, which was true I think. We were about to run out the door to the police when the guy tells us no, that if we go to the police now then Tenzin will disappear with the passports forever, that he had many Muslim Chinese friends who'd smuggle him across the border to India (Tenzin was born in India though his parents were Tibetan) and that's the last we'd hear of him.

Well, that was just what we wanted to hear! We spent the next while arguing about what the hell we would do when a Tibetan guy walks in the door and plonks the passports down on the table. Yeehaawww, what a relief that was I can tell yah! This guy had been able to find Tenzin and get him to surrender the passports. With the passports safe in our sweaty palms it was time to go to the police at last. The policeman there, called Tenzin (the Dalai Lama's name is Tenzin also), listened to our story and told us to come back Monday afternoon - it was now Saturday evening.

We were in a hurry to leave Lhasa though because one of us was flying from Kathmandu in a week's time so we went back to Potala Folk travel agency, the first one, and agreed to their 5000 yuan price to get us out of Lhasa on Monday morning. We then discover that TFTS has a main travel office somewhere else in Lhasa so Istuan and I set off Sunday afternoon to try and find it and see if we can cajole a 2100 yuan refund from them.

Our search took us to Tenzin's office in the hotel, where we hoped to find a clue leading us to the main office. We discovered the office locked though so Istuan did his best to jimmy the lock while the next door neighbour looked on. Pretty soon a bunch of Chinese-jabbering hotel staff had gathered round us trying to tell us that there was no key to the room. Istuan simply indicated a time on his watch to them and mimicked breaking in the door with his foot. The Chinese got the message (Istuan would bust in the door in an hour's time if they couldn't open it, a bluff of course) and one of them showed up with a rope. He went to the room on the floor above the TFTS office and rappelled down, managed to open the window and, presto, we walked into the Tenzin's office ... to discover, as if out of a movie, that the office was empty, it was back to being a hotel room with a couple of beds in it and no sign of Tenzin's large office desk that had sat there just the night before. We then discovered from the hotel staff that Tenzin had come there that morning and cleared the place out, despite being wanted by the police!!

Well, eventually we find the main TFTS office in another hotel in Lhasa and finally talk to a chap who identifies himself as TFTS's sales manager. We relate the sordid story to him and he says "No, no, Tenzin is not our employee, we know nothing of his TFTS office." And I say "Wait a minute, you're trying to tell me the TFTS office with a very large sign above the door with your company name on it right on the main street in Lhasa is not your office???" And he spins us some bullshit about never going up the main street and never seeing the sign! Whatever! Anyway we hop into a taxi with him and he brings us on a trip around the city, eventually arriving at his boss's house, which is empty. Here he makes a bunch of calls and I talk to another TFTS employee on the phone. After a while we hop in another taxi and he asks us to point out the "rogue" TFTS office's location so we're heading down the main street ready to finger the big TFTS sign hanging on the wall of the hotel when, mouth open, we pass the hotel and realize the sign has disappeared and try to tell the guy "but it was there 2 hours ago". Bizarre! It seems that all trace of the office has been wiped from the face of Tibet! Anyway the sales manager dude finally tells us that Tenzin definitely does not work for him and that we should make a complaint with the Tourist Board. Afterwards we figured out that he had called some people while we were with him and got them to remove the sign from the hotel!

Early Monday morning we went straight to Tenzin the policeman and told him we were heading to Nepal in a couple of hours and also related the events of yesterday. He told us that Tenzin definitely did work for TFTS and he would visit them that morning and meet us at the Potala Folk travel agency before we left.

Well, half an hour before we left in the jeep I was talking to two representatives from the Tourist Board and in walked Tenzin the cop with three minor employees of TFTS who came to refund our 2100 yuan! Justice prevails. Of course our problems didn't end there!

On our jeep trip we arrived at Everest National Park and listened aghast as our tour guide, Tashi, asked us for the 300 yuan ($36) entry fees for us to the park, the 300 yuan we'd already paid Potala Folk to get us in. Tashi didn't have enough to cover it so in the end I paid the whole lot as I was returning to Lhasa and I could try and get the money back of Potala Folk (note: Potala Folk was under the impression that all five of us were going to Nepal and not coming back to Lhasa).

That evening we made it to Rongbuk Monastery where we were to stay for the night. The monastery, the highest in the world, was a 25 minute drive from Everest Base Camp. The weather wasn't so good when we got there but it started to clear up and we were able to see Everest's dramatic north face so we told Tashi to get the jeep ready, we were heading to base camp. That's when he told us that that was not possible, that the office had told him we'd only paid to go as far as Rongbuk monastery! Now, we'd travelled over 400 miles on bone-jarring dirt roads to get to the monastery and he was telling us we couldn't drive to base camp! I nearly killed the bastard! After much arguing though we managed to get driven to base camp the next morning. The weather was great and I hiked on towards Everest for some spectacular views and reached a height of around 5500m (over 18,000ft).

After leaving Everest we stayed over night in the town of Tingri at a hotel which possessed a notable toilet (yes, it's another toilet story for those of you addicted to Asian bog stories). Right beside the Lhasa-Kathmandu "highway" you climbed up some stairs at the top of which was a couple of holes surrounded by quite a low wall. So, to perform a major operation, you had to pull down your pants in full view of the whole highway and nearby village and squat down over one of the sandy holes (better hope it's not windy or it'll be sandy-ass syndrome for you). Okay, when you're sitting down nobody can see you but then again you miss out on one of the highlights of the toilet, a clear view of Mount Everest!! Nice!

I parted with the rest of the group in Tingri, they headed on to the Nepal border and I waited in Tingri as our guide, Tashi, had offered to give me a free lift the next day back to Lhasa. When he arrived back in Tingri at the appointed time I found out he'd been fined 2000 yuan ($240) by the Chinese border guards because I wasn't in the jeep as my name was specified on our travel permit! He wasn't able to pay the fine so the guards confiscated his travel guide licence (he's Tibetan incidentally). The travel agency ended up paying the fine.

Back in Lhasa I enjoyed two days arguing with Potala Folk trying to get my 300 yuan back off them. When they first agreed that they owed me 300 yuan they wanted me to sign a statement saying that it was Tashi's fault for leaving me out of the jeep at Tingri that caused the 2000 yuan fine and if I did this they'd give me the 300 yuan ... and take it out of Tashi's salary! Bastards! Anyway, I eventually got the 300 yuan, practically thrown at me, out of them but no compensation from them for only driving us to Everest Base Camp once (we had agreed on two trip to base camp) so it was time to kick some ass!

I made up a warning poster synopsizing the whole travel agency story (they're both Chinese travel agents would you believe!), entitled it "A Tale of Two Tr-evil Agents", and posted it on various notice boards in Lhasa, in two of the big traveller's restaurants (gave a couple of extra copies to their owner so that she could stick them up if someone took them down), gave one to the only travel agency, Nyingchi, that was now left in the centre of Lhasa (did I mention that Potala Folk has 4 branches in the centre, two of them under different names and all 4 quote different prices, assholes), gave a copy to a couple of guys who were flying to Nepal within the week for sticking on a notice board there, sent another copy to the Lonely Planet guidebooks and wrote a complaint note for the Tourist Board! Take that Potala Folk! I also have the original with me and will ensure Kathmandu, Nepal is covered with it when I get there in September. I think they will learn the lesson that you don't f**k with Mike Meaney, hah!

After that fiasco it was high time I left Lhasa to its Chinese corruption and I hopped on a 25 hour bus north back to China proper in what turned out to be my worst ever bus journey, stuck on a bed at the very back of a sleeper bus with 5 of us squashed into 4 berths and getting constantly thrown into the air by road bumps and body-slammed back onto the bed, just the sort of fun trip to keep that smile on yer face.

After that I spent a couple of weeks travelling across the deserts of western China. First to Dunhuang (had a laugh at spotting camels grazing on the side of the road on the way), a very nice town with some spectacular caves filled with Buddhist art, then on to Turpan, the hottest place in China and situated in the world's seconds lowest depression. Next stop was Urumqi, the furthest city in the world from the ocean which was at least 1500 miles away in every direction. Here I made it to Lake Tianchi, Heavenly Lake, which was a piece of Swiss scenery hidden in some mountains in the middle of the desert where I stayed with a Kazakh family in a yurt (a big tent), a very nice spot.

From Urumqi I had a record-breaking 44 hour bus trip to Kashgar. I nabbed a decent sleeper berth on this bus so the trip was a relative(!) piece of cake. Kashgar was a really interesting place, famous for one of Asia's greatest markets and, like Turpan, populated mostly by the Muslim Uighur people which gave the place a very Middle Eastern feel, very different from the Chinese-dominated Urumqi. Some of the Muslim women here wore what looked like brown towels over their head, with not even a slit for their eyes to look through!

Onwards from Kashgar it was a two-day bus ride over the spectacular Karakoram Highway into Pakistan. All in all from Lhasa to Pakistan I had had a 25 hour, a 14 hour, a 14 hour, a 6 hour, a 44 hour, a 10 hour and a 10 hour bus ride, quite a journey.

The north of Pakistan turned out to be one spectacular destination after another. The Karakoram Highway cuts its way through the meeting of four of the world's highest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Pamir ranges and northern Pakistan has the world's highest concentration of tall peaks, topped by K2 the world's number two after Everest. Added to the towering peaks you have the largest amount of glaciers outside the polar regions which all makes for pretty speccy sights.

Into the bargain, Pakistan is very cheap on the pocket and the people generally very friendly, hospitable and honest making for an easy country to travel in. Spent a couple of weeks in the north enjoying some great day treks. Got sick once, it involved a couple of bouts of projectile vomit (yum yum) and a dash of diarrhoea (natch), it was only the first time I puked in 5 years though, bound to happen I suppose. The weather was excellent in the north but it got really hot once I made it to Gilgit, it hit 48C (118F) one day I was there.

The heat has been an unpleasant factor in the rest of my time here, a constant unwelcome companion. Made it down to Rawalpindi, the old town close to the capital Islamabad which is a new city designed from scratch over the last 40 years. It's not much of a city, it's bits of town separated by virtual wilderness with no real heart but you can't but love a city though that is covered in wild-growing marijuana eh? A city scented by that heady ganja aroma is hard to beat I tell yah!

After a bit of visa business in the capital a few of us headed across to Peshawar near the Afghan border. We had a good trip there up to the Khyber Pass. We hired a taxi for $25 and went and got permits to travel to the pass. Included with the permits was a policeman armed with an automatic Kalashnikov! The drive up was quite scenic, the road wending its way by the massive compounds which held the houses of various extremely wealthy smugglers who made their fortunes smuggling guns and drugs and whatever between Afghanistan and Pakistan. We made it pretty close to the border, at a point where we could see Afghanistan. Heading back the taxi driver dropped us off at Smuggler's Bazaar, a hotbed of smuggled products, and we were able to make our way through a police checkpoint into the part where guns and hashish were sold openly. All the guns are locally made copies of Western weapons. At one shop we posed for photos with a kilo lump of opium and perused a clever pen gun which shot 22 calibre bullets out of a very simple metal tube that looked like a pen. The pen gun plays havoc with airport x-ray machines apparently, very easy to smuggle it through.

At another shop we enquired of the owner if we could possibly shoot off a Kalashnikov. "Certainly" says he and he organizes a rifle with a full clip of 40 bullets and brings us 10 yards off the main road and the four of us merrily pump 40 rounds into the air just like that! I mentioned before the hospitality of Pakistanis so before we left it was only proper that we join the shop owner for a cup of tea and a couple of hash cigarettes! Didn't want to be rude and just leave now did we? Incidentally the full clip cost $12.50 to shoot and hashish can be picked up for 10 cents per gram! We topped off that testosterone-packed day by going to see Jackie Chan in Police Story 3: Supercop, pheeeeyeewwww!

For those wondering about the Pakistani toilet situation I must report that we are back to the typical Asian toilet affair. Squat toilets with water dispensers supplied so no need to use toilet paper anymore (shake hands bro), unlike in China where paper is quite necessary. Sound good to you?

Incidentally, Pakistan is a country where, for the most part, the males practice the idea that females should be neither seen nor heard by anybody else but themselves. In some places females are hardly ever seen outside their homes and many of the ones you do see have their faces completely hidden. Western women travellers who've travelled through the open Muslim countries of the Middle East, e.g. Iran, Syria, Jordan, rate it the worst for the suppression of females. In a month here I've never eaten a meal cooked by a woman or hardly ever spoken one word to a Pakistani woman, quite odd.

Well, I'm now in Islamabad and should be picking up my Indian visa tomorrow and will be in India in a few days. Current plan is to spend a while there, head to Nepal around mid-September where I'll be meeting up with a friend from home, Dominic (yo bro), in mid-October for some mega-trekking and more besides. Till the next instalment watch this 'hot space' ...

1. Haven't left yet | 2. Fiji, New Zealand | 3. Australia | 4. Australia, Indonesia | 5. Indonesia, Malaysia | 6. Thailand | 7. Cambodia, Vietnam | 8. China, Hong Kong | 9. Macau, China | 10. Tibet, Pakistan | 11. India, Nepal | 12. Nepal | 13. India | 14. Sri Lanka, India | 15. Pakistan, Iran, Turkey | 16. Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt | 17. Grand Finale

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