Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Kingdom of Lo: lamas, yaks and CIA (1)

Today's post takes us to Lo Manthang, the capital of the Kingdom of Lo, also known as Upper Mustang, in the depths of the Himalayas.

The journey begins with the landing of the flight from Kathmandu at the small airport of Jomsom. No need to explain the difficulties in landing at this airport. If the level of Grise Fjord airport was fourth on the WGSP scale (Whiskey Glasses for "Sedative Purposes"... you need to drink before takeoff), Jomsom should be level 6 (serious accidents in 2012 and 2013). Jomsom area, although belonging to the Mustang District, is at so called Lower Mustang, which has nothing to do with the real Kingdom of Mustang. The population is ethnically Takhali and their language is not intelligible with Tibetan, although both share the same language group.

When leaving Jomsom following up the Kali Gandaki river, the road climbs to 4.000m passing by, always following the river, in between two giants, Annapurna (8.091m) and Dhaulagiri (8167). Even trekking near these major summits, the path keeps quite easy and you don't need to be an expert mountaineer to do it. The road, right now, has been improved to allow motor vehicles. But it is quite common to find "traditional transportation": rows of iaks loaded with goods.

Before reaching Kagbeni, the town that marks the entrance to the Upper Mustang, the Kingdom of Lo, you need to cross a magnificent bridge over the Kali Gandaki river. It's a modern version of traditional Tibetan bridges. If wind does not blow, crossing it's just a matter of managing your vertigo. This modern Tibetan bridge can be crossed, apart from walking, riding a horse, with Yak, or even by bike ...

Kagbeni village (1,200 inhabitants) has a main crossroads. Well, crossroads means several roads and, to be honest, there is only one real road: that heading towards Muktinath. The other one, direction Lo Manthang, our destination, is merely a path. If it's not enough remote it wouldn't be interesting!

The route continues up along Kali Gandaki river, but now limited to iak caravans or, of course, those who prefer to walk. The river is a succession of rapids, rocks and eddies.This wild and indomitable river calls me up the 70's explorer Michel Peissel (Peissel and Heinrich Harrer's books made me discover Tibet and the Himalayas in my early youth). He had the idea to navigate upstream the Kali Gandaki river using small hovercrafts! Suffice to say that, from three hovercraft at the starting point, just one was able to finish the expedition, and Michel Peissel and a companion were about to drown. after a crash against some hidden rocks

Next town in the valley is Tsarang. The sorroundings are, now, a typical Tibetan landscape: barren mountains, rocks, soil and dust and, down in the valley, where the river passes by, trees, fields and villages confined at the river banks. In fact, despite being formally Nepal, once past the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri, we are on the northern slope of the Himalayas and therefore, the clouds that make India and Nepal have a very humid climate can not cross the mountains. Thus, both the Mustang and Tibet have extremely arid climates.The traditional white houses of Tsarang are overlooked by the monastery of Gompa Tsarang: It's just like having returned to Tibet 100 years ago.

The final descent towards Lo Manthang, the capital of the Kingdom, from one of the hills surrounding the city allows the visitor to admire the river plain where the walled city emerges with its red and white colors. Behind the city, standing up in the hill, there is a fortress in ruins. From this castle, during the fourteenth century, Ame Pal founded the Kingdom of Lo in one of the natural pathways between Tibet and India. This natural passage through the Himalayas turned into the passageway used by merchants with their iak caravans carrying salt from Tibet and returning with rice, tea and other products from India.

Lo Manthang, capital of the kingdom, has a thousand inhabitants, and so, roads and fields around town bustle with people going back and forth. Lhobas, like Tibetans (in fact, Lhobas are ethnically Tibetans) like to dress in a luxurious; men and women wear colorful costumes and many jewels according to their social status. Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Lo ar called Lhobas or Lhopas as "-pa" is the suffix in Tibetan to mark demonym of a place. Thus, a resident of Lo is a Lhopa, as a resident of Lhasa is a Lhasapa, and the Zanskar one is a Zanskarpa.

Even now, as in the last 700 years, the doors of the wall still get closed after nightfall, and open again at sunrise. Since the Kingdom was opened to tourism in the 90's, things have changed a lot (well, quite ..... well, leave it in a bit ...) regarding tourism infrastructure: there is now a hotel and a lodge for the 2,000 visitors a year who get permission (and pay the $50 daily rate to the Nepalese government) to visit the kingdom called by its inhabitants simply "Lo". The also used name Mustang is a distortion from Lo Manthang. Manthang, or Tan Mun in Tibetan, means "fertile plain", following the same criteria of "geography advertisment" also used, for example, when Viking Erik the Red named "Green Land" (Grønland) a mere block of ice and snow!

In the coming post I will show you this city of narrow streets, with a royal palace in which chickens can roam wherever they want (even when someone is received by the king) and we will know what CIA was doing in the Kingdom of Lo. Meanwhile, if you can wait no longer and have already your luggage ready to leave, here's a useful link for your accommodation in Lo Manthang and the rest of Mustang.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Further north there's nothing else

If anyone had the vain hope of finding this blog full of tropical paradise islands, let me say, I'm sorry, you won't find many beaches with coconut palms (never say never). I do not want to cheat you; at Grise Fjord it cools down a little bit, especially at night.

In 1953, the Canadian government carried out a plan to populate the Canadian Arctic in an attempt  to prevent the threat posed by the Soviet claims at the Arctic. So they decided to establish several villages and "friendly invited" (maybe "clearly forced" would be more accurate) tens of Inuits to settle in the far north. Two towns were created: Resolute on Cornwallis Island, and Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island.

Further north, there is nothing else. Well, yes, there is a weather station called Eureka and even further north you can find CFS Alert (Canadian Forces Station Alert) a Canadian military base that deserves a post by itself.
So, we are just 1500km from the North Pole. The name of Grise Fjord (Fjord pigs) was given by Norwegian explorer Otto Sverdrup who said that walrus scream,very abundant in the area, resembled that of pigs. Inuit name for Grise Fiord is Aujuittuq and is written (in Inuit): ᐊᐅᔪᐃᑦᑐᖅ. 

The few families that the Canadian government fooled 50 years ago to come live in this place, found on arrival that promised houses were not even built. In addition, the compromise of returning home after one year was fake; the presence of inhabitants at Grise Fjord was becoming more and more important than ever (or at least, this is what was believed at the offices in Ottawa), so Canadian Government decided that the settlement should become permanent. Luckily the new settlers of Ellesmere Island (an island nearly as large as Britain having the people of Grise Fjord as the only inhabitants) were able to learn the habits of migratory whales. The hunting of whales ended up becoming his salvation preventing them to die of starvation.

40 years later, in 1993, a parliamentary commission concluded that the so-called High Arctic Relocation was actually a forced displacement of Canadians; the government formally apologized and compensated those first families and their descendants with 10 million Canadian dollars.

Currently, Grise Fjord is home to about 130 people. A few years ago, the population reached almost 200 inhabitants, but the isolation and lack of opportunities has made the village population drop considerably. But this trend is beginning to change: the eco-tourism industry has come to Grise Fjord, and with it, employment opportunities for Grise Fjord youth.

Curiously, apart from having the record as the most northerly town throughout America, Grise Fjord also holds another record: the town has the less crime ratio throughout Canada. Considering that Canada is itself a fairly safe country, we could argue Grise Fjord is one of the safest destinations in the world!

This destination is easily accessible even if it takes some time: First you need to fly to Iqaluit (via Montreal). From Europe, and considering the transfer at Montreal, assume just 30 hours. Iqaluit Airport is the largest in Nunavut, the Canadian region where Grise Fjord is. And this is the main airport from where Air Nunavut flights take off. The plane will arrive at Resolute Bay after 5 hours of flight over the Canadian tundra and, if you are lucky, you will be able to link directly (even if you should spend a night in Resolute Bay, it's worth!) with next flight. Kenn Borek Air plane will take , in just 1:30 hours at the small airport of Grise Fjord.

What are 40 hours of flights and airports if the goal is to reach this paradise of ice and tundra! Oh! Yes! Those who suffer from fear of fying, I recommend you to take a Diazepam (or failing that, four whiskeys on its own) before leaving Iqaluit. Both the flight to Resolute Bay as the one to Grise Fjord are flown mostly with twin-engine cargo planes so it moves a lot!. Oh, and the approach to the small dirt road from Grise Fjord is, according to experts, one of the most complex in North America. In this video you can see what it means landing at Grise Fjord during autumn (and there is sunlight!). If someone is able to distinguish the runway 10 seconds before the plane touches the ground, you win the prize!


Once in Grise Fjord, you'll find a hotel, a shop where, apart from all the essentials to survive the Arctic, you can buy Inuit handicrafts, and a medical center. If you prefer to go directly to the adventure, you can stay in a camp organized here either to see fauna (whales, narwhals, seals and walruses and polar bears) as going hunting.

If you are traveling in the summer, keep calm: during many hours of the day (May to early August lasts 24 hours) you can reach 5ºC (41ºF) positive! If you decide to travel there in winter (no sunlight from November to February) please wear at least a cardigan, because temperatures reach often -50ºC (-60ºF)!

Monday, 12 September 2016

Kerguelen, the windy Island

The crossing between Cape Town (South Africa) and Perth (Australia) represents sailing more than 6,200 miles (10.000km) through the "Roaring Forties", an area of strong westerly winds located between 40ºS and 50ºS. In the Indian Ocean, these "Roaring Forties" do honor its nickname roaring stronger than anywhere. The crossing does not approaches any populated area or island except Kerguelen Archipelago which lies approximately halfway.

Kerguelen, also known as Desolation Islands, is an archipelago consisting of Grande Terre, an island twice the length of Mallorca, and more than 300 islets that surround it. The archipelago is formally an overseas territory of the French Republic, the TAAF, along with the islands of Crozet, Amsterdam, Saint Paul, the Sparse and Adelie Land in Antarctica. Logically, the prefect appointed from Paris, administers the territory from the remote tropical island of Reunion; is there a better place to administer remote near-Antarctica islands than from a Tropical touristic island? The island is home to about 50 people in winter and 100 in summer, all concentrated in Port-aux-Français.

The population is made up mainly by scientists and support staff, who normally spend six months on the island. The isolation usually lasts three months, which is the time it takes to return the Marion Dufresne, the ship carrying all the equipment, supplies and anything needed to be able to live in Kerguelen. In fact, all that can be found at the Kerguelen was transported by the Marion Dufresne or its predecessors. The merchant sails from Reunion Island each quarter with supplies and new residents of Port aux Français to replace those who have already finished their stay. The trip has many issues to be hectic; when navigating the "Roaring Forty" and you get near the "Fifty Furious" it is likely that the journey will be similar to what you have below:

I'm not a sea wolf at wall, quite the opposite, but I would be willing to bear this cross in order to set foot in Kerguelen. And it is not impossible: In every trip, there are some places reserved for tourists in the Marion Dufresne. If I am not mistaken there are 4 or 6 "seats", altough tickets can be cancelled if there is an emergency that requires the "seizure" of the cabins. However, it seems that the waiting list to visit as a tourist Port aux Français is, by now, 3 years! The stay lasts a few days, depending on whether the Marion Dufresne remains anchored in Port aux Français, or sails also to another point in the archipelago to provide them goods. During this stay, some of the "residents" of the island act as improvised guides so that visitors can learn how is life on the island and what activities do the Kerguelen "inhabitants".

Over the years, facilities have been added in Kerguelen. Maybe, you have watched the film "Haute cuisine", which tells the story of Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch. When Danièle resigns as French President's chef (in fact she was the real cook of François Mitterrand), she becomes the cook a French scientific base ..... Yes, so it was; during 6 months, the scientists living at Kerguelen enjoyed the creations of one of the best chefs in France. Worth or not worth the trip? In this video, while people from the 64th mission (2014) dances "Happy" by Pharrell Williams, you will be able to see the facilities of the Port-aux-Français base.

But not everything was "Happy" on the island. Since its discovery, the island served as a refuge for survivors of shipwrecks, whalers and some illuminated. Even during the nineteenth century, someone had the bright idea to leave a small colony of rabbits that could serve as food for any sailors forced to take refuge on the island. Of course, now the rabbits have colonized much of the island and are damaging native flora. In 1893, the French government gave rights to exploit the archipelago for 50 years to the Bossière brothers. They created the "Compagnie Generale des Iles Kerguelen" and tried to establish sheep farms and an produce oil from seal blubber. It was a complete failure. They also introduced in addition to existing rabbits, reindeers and sheeps. And again they get nothing more than another alteration of the islands ecosystem.

The ones that succesfully established on the island, but secretly, was a German Navy expedition during 1st World War. They wanted to control and monitor all allied ships sailing the southern Indian Ocean. Germans established a farm with a small detachment on the other side of the island, well away from Port aux Français. During a couple of years nobody noticed them. The conditions for those men, and the dogs that accompanied them, were a real harsh isolation. Only 30 years ago, the descendants of the dogs that brang the Germans were still living, totally wild, near the abandoned German farm.

Near this farm there is what could be one of the most spectacular places on the island: l'Arche des Kerguelen (The arch of Kerguelen), a rock formation shaped arc.

Around 1910, the top of the arch collapsed, and currently only two pillars remain standing.

For those interested in visiting the Kerguelen, and has required time and money, here's the link to the Marion Dufresne touristique offer. The small amount of € 8300 entitles you a shared cabin. But you will be able to visit Kerguelen (let's consider it the big metropolis), Crozet Island and Amsterdam Island; and maybe, if you are lucky and the weather allows it, you will can also visit Saint Paul Island.  

Remote geographies

When I was a child and, although it seems impossible, we lived without the Internet, I could spend hours in front of a map or an atlas. It was what it's called "traveling without leaving the room." I memorized countries, cities, mountains and seas, and most of these places, I could get some information in books or encyclopedias. But there were some other places that, for me, were still unknown, undiscovered and hidden. I only had a name and a location ...

Who was living in Tristan da Cunha? How Longyearbyen in Svalbard looked like? Were there schools in Grise Fjord? How could I get to Kerguelen Island? And most important; why should I want to get there?

Dutch Harbor, Lo Manthang, Pitcairn, Stromness, Ogasawara; places that evoked loneliness, isolation, harsh climates and normally hard lifes.

And the Internet age came! For me, that sought to know more about those remote places and their inhabitants, this was the perfect oportunity. And for the people living in those reomote places and who wanted to connect the world and shout: "Hey, we're here", a world of possibilities was open. But the World Wide Web is so extense that, for Kelpers, Zanskarpas or people living in Norfolk Island, This was likely to continue as ignored as ever, but at least there was the possibility of accessing them.

I hope to maintain consistency feeding this blog with interesting entries for those (I guess few) who might be interested in these remote geography complemented with cartographic, linguistic and historical anecdotes.

The original blog is written in Catalan. I'll try to be as accurate as possible with translations but, if you find any mistake, please accept my apologies and let me know.

Although years have passed since I dreamed looking at this point in the world map on the wall of my room, where it was written "Kerguelen Is. (Fr.)", I remain, essentially, a literary traveler. So unfortunately I could not visit these sites. But I'm ready, no matter ramshackle boats, unpaved airfields, or tortuous roads; I'll try to provide all data if someone (or myself) gets encouraged.

And of course, if anyone has been so lucky to have been there and wants to share his experience, I'll be happy to publish it.