Kathmandu presents the traveller with a very special kind of culture shock. Our previous travels have given me the opportunity to use the phrase 'sensory overload' quite liberally: walking the streets of Hanoi, boarding an inter-island ferry in the Spice Islands, getting hopelessly lost in the winding alleys of the medina of Fez...The capital city of Nepal, however, operates on an altogether different level.
Arriving in Kathmandu by air in April does not offer the heartstopping views of the Himalayas one might expect. Delhi, which we left barely an hour ago, is baking in forty degree heat. Kathmandu, at an altitude of a kilometre or so, is a little cooler, but sitting in a broad, high-sided valley, it is almost invisible from the air - concealed behind a thick veil of haze. It is a huge city, low-rise but sprawling, but I am barely aware of its presence until we are practically on the runway.
Arrivals and immigration, the former dilapidated and the latter non-computerised - all pens and sticky labels - give something of a taste of things to come. With a thick wad of Nepali rupees in hand, we step out into a tangle
Foothills of the Himalayas
Looking south from near the trail head.
of taxi drivers, porters and touts - standard fare, and we brace ourselves. But the hassling never comes.
The five kilometre drive from Tribhuvan Airport to our modest little hotel in central Kathmandu keeps our noses glued to the van windows. Capital city of a nation of nearly 30 million inhabitants this may be, but the road from the airport into town - narrow, potholed - is barely a country B-road to our British eyes. More to look at, though, than those eyes can possibly take in. The saris of every imaginable colour, the gaudily painted hoardings covered in that unmistakeably Indian script, each word with its letters as if hanging from a neatly drawn clothes line, the improvised market stalls of planks of wood balanced on the handlebars of bicycles, the skinny brown cows nibbling at scrubby grass inches away from the traffic (there isn't much of it but it moves fast), the smouldering piles of garbage at the edge of the road...Children run and play in dusty open spaces, the road bridges streams of evil-looking black water, which somehow is being used to wash clothes...And all this to the accompaniment of psychotically blaring horns, a sound no
I wonder what Madonna would make of this...
description of Asia can possibly be complete without.
There isn't any time for us to get any more than a fleeting impression of the city: we leave tomorrow for Pokhara, a couple of hundred kilometres to the west and near the trailhead of our trek. One night at the International Guest House in Thamel - Kathmandu's answer to Khao San Road since the hippy days of the 1970s - introduces us to another facet of life in Kathmandu: the lack of electricity. Incredibly, this bustling city somehow manages to operate despite power cuts totalling about 16 hours out of every 24. Thank goodness for wind-up torches. A brief wander around the labyrinthine streets of Thamel reveals a familiar succession of second hand bookshops, coffee houses, cheap and cheerful restaurants and 'I love Nepal' T shirts, interspersed with more exotic offerings: Tibetan prayer flags, yak wool blankets, tie-dyed kaftans (the 1970s never went away in Kathmandu, it seems...). Not to mention the offers of marijuana - many of them, no doubt, from undercover policemen - every twenty paces.
Domestic terminals at airports are a great way to get a feel for a new country - and
Nepal, in this respect, does not disappoint. The country's rather hilly geography and consequent lack of roads make flying a necessity rather than a luxury for Nepal's many remote communities, who depend on a fleet of tiny planes for food, fuel and transport. We are flying with the wonderfully named Yeti Airlines to Pokhara, and while there are regular bus services there from Kathmandu we've opted for 30 minutes on a puddle-jumper over 6 hours plus in a bus.
A taxi driver with particularly creative overtaking technique (on the left, using the pavement) gets us to the domestic terminal at Tribhuvan - the first we see of the terminal is baggage reclaim, which consists of a couple of tables inside a sort of chickenwire pen out in the car park, onto which bags are tossed by ground staff! The TV screens on the outer wall of the terminal bear no sign of our flight to Pokhara...but our concern is quickly resolved once we realise that the flights aren't sequenced chronologically on the screen. Most logical. A bored looking policeman stares for several minutes at our passports and tickets before waving us through - a clever initial check to keep
Keeping it simple...
the riff-raff out of the terminal building? Inside the atmosphere is one of a bustling marketplace more than an airport. In the complete and utter absence of any form of computerisation (am I really asking too much?) boarding passes are completed by hand, as are passenger manifests. Luggage is weighed on old-fashioned scales. Security seems to amount to a cursory pat-down by an 'officer' far more interested in my bright orange plastic rescue whistle (which he blatantly tried to nick by telling me, straight-faced, that whistles aren't allowed on planes) than whatever I may have been carrying in my bag...
We're rather early, so we take a seat and engage in a pleasant and fascinating half hour of people-watching. Every once in a while someone yells a boarding announcement loudly, in English, through an ancient voice-warping tannoy; if you listen very carefully you might just be able to make out where the flight is going...or you might not. At this time of year there are dozens of flights a day to Pokhara and Lukla, gateways to the Annapurna and Everest regions, respectively, and so very popular with visiting trekkers. Eventually our flight is called and, after yet another pat-down,
we board a rickety old Yeti bus to our plane, a small affair with propellers and not very many seats.
Before take-off the hostess (the plane barely seems large enough to justify one!) passes round baskets of Nepali Worther's Originals as well as little balls of cotton wool - observing the passengers in front reveals that these are for stuffing in your ears (the cotton wool balls, not the sweets) once the engines get going. Another highlight is the Yeti Airlines Air Sickness Bag - which features a graphic, full-colour cartoon of a lady in a sari puking into a bag, in case one were in any doubt as to what it was for. Thanks to the midday haze we see precisely nothing during the flight, and touch down in Pokhara barely half an hour later.
A car from 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking is there to pick us up. 3 Sisters - a local outfit we read about in the Sunday papers at home - is the company we've booked our 10-day trek with. Set up by (you guessed it) three sisters in Pokhara some 17 years ago, 3 Sisters's attraction is that it helps
Nepali women from rural areas - who traditionally are at the very bottom of the social pile - gain a measure of financial independence and social status which, even in 21st century Nepal, is otherwise extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve. The company does this by recruiting young women from around the country and training them to become porters and trekking guides. During the training period student guides are lodged and fed in a purpose-built hostel and receive a stipend. They accompany trekking groups first as porters and eventually, once ready, as fully fledged guides able to earn a decent living in a country where it is generally very hard for women to do so.
We've arranged for two porters and a guide on our trek: 3 Sisters are very particular about limiting the weight their porters are allowed to carry (in sharp contrast, as we later find out on the trail, to larger companies). We momentarily feel a twinge of guilt at having our bags hauled up and down hills by others before learning that portering is a very well-established and perfectly respectable - though not high-status - profession in Nepal, and has been around in the
Himalayas for a lot longer than spoilt Westerners have. We can take comfort from the fact that the porters at 3 Sisters will carry far, far less than those employed by most trekking companies - which turns out to be just as well, as our porters quickly turn out to be brilliant travelling companions. Strangely, one of our porters is male - he doesn't work for 3 Sisters but obviously thought that watching these two bizarre English people lumbering up mountains was too much of a good opportunity to miss! His name is Sumit: he’s in his early twenties and studying accounting and business at a college in Pokhara. Our other porter is Laxmi, not yet twenty and in the early stages of her training. This is her first trip to the Annapurna Sanctuary. Our guide is Chola, who grew up in a tiny village we'll be passing through on the trek, and has worked for 3 Sisters for a number of years. The introductions are a bit awkward, and we get the feeling that guide and porters won't fully open up until they get to know us a bit better.
The trailhead is at Nayapul, a small village
west of Pokhara by minivan. The trip doesn't start well - Chola spends the two hours almost comatose from intractable motion sickness and is green by the time we arrive. Pokhara is very much in the early foothills of the Himalayas as the scenery as we wind our way over endless switchbacks (definitely not good for carsickness) is spectacular. It takes pretty much exactly two hours to cover a distance of 30km as the crows flies - convoluted roads, insane gradients and giant, slow, rust bucket lorries do not a winning combination make. Never mind, more time to appreciate the scenery and thank the Lord for motion sickness pills…
Nayapul is buzzing. There aren't many places you can start long treks around here, as we are in a conservation area and permits need to be checked before heading off. This is one of the Nepal's most popular trekking regions and it shows. Gear aplenty is unloaded from vans, walking poles extended, boots laced up, straps adjusted. One of the advantages of walking in a pair is that you don't have to hang around for others to get their act together, and so we quickly get going. Annapurna ho!
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek
The Himalaya is better thought of as a collection of several mountain ranges rather than one giant range. The Annapurna Himalaya is one of these. Rising to an altitude of 8,091 metres at Annapurna I, the range has no less than 14 peaks over 7,000 metres. Pretty impressive, then, but fortunately for us our trek is taking us to 'only' 4,130 metres at Annapurna Base Camp, or ABC, nestled deep within a gigantic amphitheater of rock formed by the highest peaks of the Annapurna range - the Sanctuary. This is our 'destination', I suppose, but we'll be walking for 6 days from Nayapul, across valleys, along gorges and over passes to get there! There is no doubt that the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek is one of the most popular in Nepal: a combination of gorgeous, varied scenery and, for the region at least, good infrastructure makes for an accessible trek which still has a wild feel to it...at least this is what we've read.
Well, the trek does not disappoint, to put it mildly. Sweeping mountain vistas of snow-capped peaks and forbidding, vertical rock faces, the dazzling display of rhododendrons - native to these parts
- in full flower, walking along valley walls perched high above raging rivers, scrambling across old avalanches, passing through beautiful Gurung villages surrounded by vast, tumbling rice terraces, climbing thousands - literally thousands - of stone steps up steep hillsides, stepping aside as mule trains loaded with food and fuel go past, huddling in teahouse dining rooms of an evening, sipping chai and sharing travel tales...
The Annapurna Sanctuary trek is what is referred to as a 'teahouse trek'. Teahouses are in fact small inns, which I suppose would have provided sustenance to long distance travellers along the ancient tracks which link the remote villages in this region. Nowadays they provide simple accommodation and meals to walkers - the Annapurna Sanctuary Trek is a particularly good example of this type of walk, with teahouses clustered together in villages along the entire length of the trail. You're never more than a few hours' walk from the next teahouse - a comforting thought when you've been walking for an entire day and desperately need a plate of momos (more on them later) and a warm bed! Part of the attraction of trekking with local guides and porters (you don't
Towering over the Modi Khola valley.
have to although it's encouraged) is that we never once worried about finding a nice place to spend the night - Chola and her team considered us (rightly, perhaps) incapable of choosing a suitable teahouse and took it upon themselves to find us the best places night after night!
The simplicity of the accommodation is not to be underestimated. More often than not our 'room' was a cupboard-sized box partitioned off with unpainted plywood, with room for two single beds and – in the more luxurious places - room to stand up between them. Occasionally, however, we would be treated to a larger affair equipped - luxury of luxuries - with its own bathroom and toilet. Hot water is an added bonus: the definition of 'hot' being flexible. A room for two generally costs 200 Nepali Rupees per night - about £1.80. Certainly the cheapest accommodation we've ever stayed in! These places also double up as refuelling stations, of course, and you are expected to eat dinner (and breakfast the next day) at any teahouse you are staying at.
Walking for six or so hours a day means that food takes on special importance! At the
same time, the Annapurna region’s relative isolation makes getting supplies to the teahouses quite a challenge. It seems strange to think that almost everything
you see on the trek – from stoves to basins to glass for windows – has to be hauled up by animal or human power, but it does. Likewise food. As we make our way towards the Sanctuary from the trailhead, we are passed by, and pass, train after train of mules and dozens of local porters carrying with all manner of supplies. Sacks of rice, huge tanks of cooking gas, trays of eggs, live chickens – all must be loaded into a doko
, a huge basket typical of the area, and fastened to a mule’s back or a porter’s forehead with a namlo
strap. The difficulty in getting supplies to the teahouses and local villages has interesting economic consequences: as we climb towards the Sanctuary so does the price of food. A serving of Nepal’s national dish, Dal bhat tarkari
– rice, lentil soup and vegetable curry – costing under 100 rupees in Pokhara or Kathmandu, will easily set you back 500 by the time you get to Annapurna Base Camp. Seeing porters scamper up
hillsides loaded with twenty, thirty, forty kilograms strapped to their foreheads, I’m not complaining…
I’d heard before leaving the UK that a trek in Nepal meant day after day after day of dal bhat
. While I can imagine this would have been the case in the seventies, fortunately there is a lot more variety these days, although unsurprisingly the teahouses all serve very similar fare. Swiss rösti
is a slightly bizarre yet popular choice, vegetable curry with chapatis, Nepalese takes on pizza, macaroni, and of course the odd plate of dal bhat
all make an appearance. None of it is exactly haute cuisine
but it’s usually pretty good and hey, it’s fuel for walking!
Of particular note was Gurung bread
, which rapidly became my breakfast staple. It’s essentially a large disc of dough fried in oil until it puffs up – a giant, flat doughnut, in essence. Plenty of calories to power those hill climbs! Served with a couple of boiled eggs and a mug of milky spiced Nepalese chai
, it can’t be beaten. One evening we were even treated to a demonstration of how to make this lovely, doughy, oily bread by a teahouse cook!
at a teahouse is a nice, cosy ritual, a time to rest very tired legs, meet fellow walkers from all over the world, pore over the route map, share the day’s photos and, while the electricity supply lasts, read a few pages of a book by the light of a 2-watt lightbulb. Porters and guides usually eat among themselves, at liberty to gossip and guffaw loudly at all the stupid things their customers have done that day!
As the altitude of each overnight stop increases so the evenings and nights become markedly chilly. In the obvious absence of central heating teahouse owners have come up with an intriguing way of keeping their guests warm during dinner: they put a large, roaring kerosene cooking stove under the wooden table! I suppose the risk of setting the place alight or giving third-degree burns to customers who aren’t careful about where they put their feet is secondary to the importance of keeping everyone nice and toasty. It is a little disconcerting to have what is essentially a gigantic, unenclosed blowtorch mere inches away from your legs under the table, so Alex and I stick to the ends of dining tables whenever we
It’s amazing how quickly you get used to new routines, and this trek is no different. Dinner is over by about 7pm, by which time it’s already dark in the deep, north-to-south valleys along which much of the trail runs. Eyelids start to droop, but before we can retire to our sleeping bags breakfast needs to be ordered – we’re usually ready to hit the trail by 7.30am or so – and Chola needs to tell us about the following day’s walk. These descriptions become something of a running joke between the three of us, and we quickly learn how to interpret what Chola says…
“Easy” means “quite hard”. “Litte bit hard” means “very
hard”. “Gentle up” means “25% gradient”. And “downhill” nearly always means “not-quite-so-steeply-uphill”.
Chola also give us an idea of what we might expect to see: bamboo forests, rhododendrons, magnolias, gorges, waterfalls, swing-bridges… It’s a lovely little ritual we like to follow before slinking off to our room and scrabbling around in the dark to get ready for bed.
It’s rise and shine at 6am, and a well-oiled mechanism sees us boot up and pack away our things before we
tuck into our Gurung bread with eggs and tea. Breakfast-time brings with it another crucial ritual – The Filling Of The Water Bottles. As in India, the water in Nepal is worth avoiding – doubly so if you’re planning to spend the day walking far
away from a toilet! The problem is, being active at altitude makes you drink rather a lot… Bottled water is available on most of the trail but is very strongly discouraged. Purification tablets make the water taste like you’re drinking out of a swimming pool. Filter pumps don’t remove viruses and a right kerfuffle to set up every day… Fortunately, we did our homework before setting off and brought with us one of the best inventions I can think of: it’s a portable ultraviolet light wand – a bit like a lightsabre, if you will – which you stick inside your water bottle and twirl around for a minute. ZAP! The magic UV radiation kills any nasties that might be lurking in the water, just waiting for their chance to give you the trots: bacteria, viruses, amoebae, giardia cysts… This futuristic invention, with its ghostly blue glow, never fails to elicit puzzled stares and bizarrely
becomes something of a conversation piece every morning! I don’t have actual proof that this thing works, other than the knowledge that we filled our bottles with water from the most suspicious-looking taps for almost two weeks and didn’t have the slightest problem all that time. Brilliant!
The weather is usually clear and fresh by the time we set off. There are several reasons for the early start: setting off early means you arrive early, minimising the chance of turning up in a village which has no available beds (not
good). Most important though is the weather: our experience of the area was that the weather is pretty predictable. A sunny, blue-skied morning until about 12pm, at which point the clouds slowly start to move in and then snag on the 7,000m-plus peaks which dominate the valleys. Cue rain – sometimes showers, sometimes a deluge – in the mid afternoon which clears up a couple of hours before sunset. Starting bright and early means more pleasant walking and climbing temperatures, better views of the towering peaks we are heading towards, and a quieter trail.
Walking the trail as part of such a small group is an absolute delight:
without the pressure to keep up with anybody else, there’s plenty of time to stop and admire the sublime, awe-inspiring landscapes, ask Chola questions about life in Nepal and in the mountains, learn a few Nepali phrases from a giggling Laxmi and listen to Sumit sing. The feeling of camaraderie in our little group of five was something extremely special.
On our last night, as we sat down to a fabulous dinner of dal bhat, smoked buffalo meat and freshly-picked wild ferns, we couldn’t help but think that we would be back in Nepal again, in this astonishing country of towering peaks and magical valleys, very soon indeed.
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