Published: November 13th 2011November 8th 2011
Hello to everyone back home! Thanks for reading so far - as promised, here's a lowdown of what we've been up to in Nepal. As always, we'd love to hear from you - how you're doing, what you've been up to, and what you think of the blog!
Kathmandu (15-19 October)
We rocked up to Kathmandu airport in mid-afternoon and took a taxi to the city centre. Having heard that Kathmandu was noisy, messy and polluted, we were happy to discover that it was nowhere near as bad as some of India’s big cities – pretty relaxing in comparison!
We were joined in our taxi by a guy from a travel agency who persuaded us to come and speak to him in his office about our trek. He tried to sell us a package deal including all travel, accommodation, food, a guide and a porter (to carry our bags) for the whole two weeks around the Annapurna circuit. We negotiated our asses off (especially Ori, as usual!) and got it down to $1,050 for the both of us (they quote a lot of prices in US dollars here). We didn’t sign up there and then, but went
away to think about it that evening. Neither of us have much trekking experience, but having read around a few blogs, we came to the conclusion that we could easily do it ourselves without a guide, spend less money, and have more flexibility too. The Annapurna circuit is pretty popular, there are loads of people on the trail and loads of teahouses and lodges to stay in, so we figured it can’t be that hard! We were even told it was possible to just follow the trail of donkey poo and you’d be sure to be on the right track! With hindsight, we definitely took the right decision – lots of people with guides and porters on the route were always complaining that they were in a rubbish lodge, or couldn’t choose the food they wanted from the menu as it was too expensive, and they also had less choice in the route they were able to take.
So our first few days in Nepal were dedicated to mainly two things – finishing our India blog (!) and planning and shopping for our trek!
We stayed in an area of town called Thamel, where most backpackers and trekkers
stay. It’s so touristic in Thamel – every street is lined with countless signs advertising restaurants, hotels, cafes, internet, souvenir shops, and especially trekking shops – pretty much everyone who does a trek uses Kathmandu as a base, or passes through afterwards. It was a far cry from India, where even the tourist hotspots weren’t so westernised. Every café and restaurant had western food on it – we had our first burger in about 5 weeks! Damn tasty it was too!
We met up with Thierry (a French friend of Oriana’s) on the 17th, and his mum Catherine and her boyfriend Maurice, and went for dinner and a few drinks. Catherine and Maurice had already been to Kathmandu (and trekking) several times in the past few years, and they gave us some valuable advice over dinner. As they already knew Kathmandu quite well, we met up the next day and they took us on a whistle-stop tour of the best there is to see in the city.
Our first stop was Swayambhunath – a Buddhist temple high above the city on a lofty hilltop, with monkeys surrounding the stairway to the top, where we found a gleaming white
stupa (dome) painted with the eyes of the Buddha, decorated with colourful prayer flags and surrounded by prayer wheels which the local people spin as they walk around. We then went to Bodnath – a similar Buddhist dome, absolutely enormous, populated by loads of Tibetan pilgrims, recognisable by their traditional robes. The dome was encircled by small shops and cafes where we stopped for lunch. In the afternoon we walked to Pashupatinath, a complex of Hindu temples along the banks of the Bagmati river with cremation ghats along the way – we stopped and watched from the opposite side of the river as they set alight a pile of logs covering a dead body, and then swept the ashes straight into the river! Strangely there were kids playing and splashing in the river just 20 metres or so downstream – can’t be too good for your health! And finally we visited Durbar Square – a mish mash of traditional architecture and temples. Many of the temples were adorned with erotic scenes in their wood carvings – all sorts of ancient filth, from threesomes to animal porn! Nice!
It was in Durbar Square that we saw the Kumari Bahal –
the house of Kumari, a living goddess. Every few years a new Kumari is selected – she is usually around four years old, has to be from a particular caste and star sign (the same to which Buddha belonged), must be in excellent health, and must satisfy the 32 ‘perfections of a goddess’ (such as a body like a banyan tree, eyelashes like a cow, thighs like a deer…). Legend has it that the candidates are then taken to a temple to witness the sacrifice of 108 buffaloes and 108 goats, with masked men dancing around. She then has to spend the night alone in the dark with the severed heads. If she shows no fear throughout this whole experience then she truly possesses the powers of a goddess, subject to one final test: she must be able to choose the possessions of the last Kumari from a selection of objects. If she can do this, then the chosen girl lives the life of a goddess in the Kumari Bahal, making few appearances in public, occasionally looking out through her window to the delight of the masses below. Her reign as the living goddess ends with her first period, when
she reverts to being a mere mortal (although with a pretty warped view of reality after such a weird childhood!). Pretty crazy stuff eh?
We also found out in Kathmandu that we had time-travelled to the year 2068! Apparently the Nepalese use a different calendar - the months are pretty much the same, but they are 57 years ahead of us!
We left Kathmandu early the next morning to embark on our trek in the Annapurnas…
The Annapurna circuit (19 October – 2 November)
We spent 11 days walking a total distance of 138 km, from a height of 840m up to 5416m, and then back down as well!
Day 1 - Kathmandu to Bhulbule (840m) - By bus
Day 2 - Bhulbule (840m) to Jagat (1300m) - 20km
Day 3 - Jagat (1300m) to Dharapani (1910m) - 18km
Day 4 - Dharapani (1910m) to Chame (2670m) - 16km
Day 5 - Chame (2670m) to Upper Pisang (3305m) - 17km
Day 6 - Upper Pisang (3305m) to Manang (3540m) - 18km
Day 7 - Acclimatisation day in Manang
Day 8 - Manang (3540m) to Yak Kharka (4020m) - 9km
9 - Yak Kharka (4020m) to Thorung Phedi (4430m) - 8km
Day 10 - Thorung Phedi (4430m) via Thorung La Pass (5416m) to Ranipauwa (3700m) - 15km
Day 11 - Ranipauwa (3700m) to Kagbeni (2800m) - 9km
Day 12 - Kagbeni (2800m) to Jomsom (2720m) - 8km walk, then to Ghasa (2010m) by bus
Day 13 - Ghasa (2010m) to Tatopani (1190m) - by bus
Day 14 - Tatopani (1190m) - rest day
Day 15 - Tatopani (1190m) to Pokhara - by bus
We arrived in Bhulbule after a 10 hour bus journey from Kathmandu. It was pretty uncomfortable to say the least, as the local buses here are made for the Nepalese i.e. not very high and not much space for Lee’s legs! Luckily the views on the way were absolutely beautiful and it made up for the lack of comfort! We also met an English woman, Cheryl, on our bus who we ended up seeing lots on our way round the circuit.
A couple of hours after we arrived in Bhulbule, we realised that our toiletry bag and more importantly our camera were missing! We thought back to when we were on the
bus and our bags were put onto the roof of the bus out of our sight…the only people who went up there for the whole journey were the ‘conductors’ - the young guys who help the bus driver with collecting fares and luggage. Given that they worked on the bus, surely they wouldn’t rob from our bags, would they? We’d also left some bags in storage in Kathmandu (to lighten the load) and so thought that maybe in our morning haste we had packed both the camera and toiletry bag into the wrong luggage, leaving them in Kathmandu...we had no way of knowing until we returned two weeks later – had we been stupid enough to pack the camera in the wrong bag, or stupid enough to leave our bags on the roof of the bus for those little mo-fos to rob from us?! We’ll find out later, but in any case we were pretty stupid either way! Luckily though, we’d taken our old camera with us so we could at least take some snaps of the trek!
Mise en jambe (‘finding our legs’): From Bhulbule to Upper Pisang
As most of you probably know, neither of us
have actually done much trekking before – our warm up for this trek was to walk up Scaffell Pike, England’s highest mountain at only 978m! But it’s just walking, right? The worst that can happen is a few blisters! And it is with this spirit that we embarked on our journey in the Annapurnas, bouncing along the path with pace and determination: we will conquer the mountains!
We started the trek in Bhulbule which is named after the sound that the Marsyangdi river makes as it bubbles past the village. In fact, we ended up following the river’s course for a good part of the trek, up until Manang some 90km away. This also means that we had to cross quite a few long wobbly suspension bridges over the river - not Ori’s idea of fun!
As we start walking on our first day of the trek, we met a lot of children on their way to school; some little ones hand in hand with their sisters, whilst the older ones hung out with their mates, running around and laughing, and yelling ‘Namaste’ to us in playful sing-song voices as we passed.
The path led us through
hills that were lined with a patchwork of terraced rice and wheat fields. Lush green crops were growing on every bit of land, even on the most awkward steep slopes. We saw men and women carrying huge baskets of crops strapped to their head, making their way from the terraced fields back to their houses. It’s amazing how much some of these people carry. Not only do you have the people tending to their crops, marching all day up and down the hills, but you also have women and children collecting firewood in huge baskets, and porters (often employed by tourists and lodges) carrying absolutely huge loads, sometimes up to 70 kilos! It put us to shame with our 10-ish kilos each, and certainly meant we couldn’t complain about our bags being too heavy!
You hear all sorts of unfortunate stories about porters. Sometimes they are not well looked after – they are given substandard food and bedding in some places, receive pretty poor pay for such a punishing job, and are often given little decent equipment – imagine walking at above 5,000m altitude carrying over 50 kilos, with no proper jacket and wearing flip-flops! It’s a sad fact
that many porters die on the Annapurna trek (and other treks) each year from cold or altitude sickness. You might think that these porters should be used to the altitude, but some tour companies recruit any old guy they can find from the streets in Kathmandu or Pokhara to keep their costs down and profits high. You also hear stories of people being told they will have three porters for their group but when they arrive there is just one skinny little guy who has to carry everything. But that’s not to say it’s all bad – most of the porters are nice friendly fellas, pretty well treated, always hanging around together in the lodges, eating massive portions of ‘dal bhat’ (rice, lentil soup, curried vegetables and pickles) which gives them the power to go up the mountains.
But in general, lugging heavy loads is just part of Himilayan peoples’ lives and we were told later that they are prepared for it from an early age – the babies are well fed with corn and soup (dhado) so that they grow up to be big and strong (that’s why all the kids have such big chubby cheeks!) and they
are massaged with mustard oil which is also believed to strengthen them.
As we progressed through the first few days along the river-side path, through the canyons and valleys, we saw the landscape evolve from lush farmlands to dense green forests, and then to more sparse pine forests towards Chame and Pisang, where we caught our first glimpse of snowy peaks. We sat on a terrace in Timang on the third day, admiring the views of the impressive Manaslu (8156m) as we ate a long lazy lunch in the sun. It was so nice to finally see one of the immense mountains in all its glory, and it gave us a taste of what was to come in the following days. Later, on our way to Chame, we saw ahead of us Annapurna II dominating the skyline. It was so in our face, as though we could just climb to its summit in a few hours! And the next day, between Chame and Pisang, we came across Pangdi Danda – a massive curved bare slope that rises out of the river bed, high into the hills.
Not only was the scenery changing as we ascended, but the culture
and people were also different: whilst the lower altitudes are home to Hindu people, Buddhism is prevalent at higher altitudes. This is mainly due to the fact that there are more Tibetan immigrants living there, who escaped the Chinese invasion in the ‘50s. Changes in culture and people were noticeable - we came across many stupas and prayer wheels, as well as monasteries, and you could also tell the difference from the faces of the people - very subtle differences in the shape of their eyes and tone of their skin. All the people we met along the way were very friendly and welcoming, always greeting you with a warm smile and loud cheerful ‘Namaste!’.
As we made our way around this first leg of our trek, we spoke to a lot of people (especially locals) about the new road that’s being built. The plan is for the road to stretch all the way to Manang (most of the way to the summit) and it has already been built from Kagbeni (just after the summit) on the other side. So basically, when the road’s been built, people will be able to drive up by bus or jeep, do a
two or three day trek and then drive back down again on the other side. A lot of the locals we spoke to were dubious about this, for a number of reasons. For example, if everyone drives up to Manang, what’s going to happen to all the guesthouses earlier in the circuit? And what about all the porters and guides – they will have less work if everything’s being carried up by jeep. When you ask people up there in the hills, they have mixed opinions about whether it’ll be good or bad – it’s hard to know what’s going to happen until the road’s been in place for a few years, but it’s clear it’s going to change a lot of things. On a positive note it’ll open up access for those people to better medical care and schools, so it’s not all bad.
We actually saw them ‘constructing’ the road at one point. When we say ‘constructing’, what we really mean is ‘blowing the shit out of rocks with dynamite!’ Basically, any big rocks in the way get exploded, leaving a bumpy rocky road behind! Highly technical stuff! But it’s easy to see why they don’t spend
ages perfecting the roads – you see evidence of landslides all around the valleys: huge areas above the road where it’s green trees and grass either side of a massive flurry of loose rocks that have fallen all the way down, destroyed the road, and carried on into the riverbed below. A lot of the villages are at threat from landslides too, and the chances of being affected are worsened by disturbing the land (like when you build roads!) and deforestation – there are some areas of the Annapurna region where it’s forbidden to cut down any trees whatsoever. Can you imagine living in a village in the mountains where, for months of the year during monsoon season, there’s non-stop rain followed by landslides all around the valley, with your home at threat? Scary stuff.
In general, the first few days of trekking were pretty easy on us, quite warm, not a drop of rain (during the day at least). The lodges we stayed in were cheap and comfortable, the only problem being the lack of hot shower (in general, a Nepali ‘hot shower’ means that the water is slightly warmer than ice cold)! Houses here are basic and
simple but embellished by beautiful gardens with many colourful plants – the Nepalese, as we often saw during the trek, take great pride in their garden. The food in the lodges was pretty good (although most of them had exactly the same menu!), and we certainly had a big enough appetite after 6-7 hours of walking each day! Beer (Nepal Ice, Everest,…) was getting more expensive as we got higher (further for the porters to carry!) and so we switched to the cheaper local tipples: raksi, which is a local rice wine; and Manang coffee, which is a mix of coffee and raksi. As we got higher up, we start being more sensible, drinking less booze and more tea (mainly fresh mint, ginger-honey-lemon and masala tea).
By the time we reached Upper Pisang we were eager to crack on and get some more of those amazing mountain views that were just starting to creep into sight.
Amazing views: from Upper Pisang to Manang
The views from our lodge in Upper Pisang were absolutely beautiful. From our balcony, we could see opposite us Annapurna II, Chulu West and Lamjung Himal, and over our shoulders, on the other side
was Pisang Peak. Someone told us later about the face that you can see in the surface of Annapurna II – look carefully at the photos and you should be able to see it. Once you recognise it, you can’t see anything else but this face staring at you out of the mountain!
In Pisang, we also came across yaks for the first time. They only live above 2500m. They’re basically like cows but with short legs and longer hair! It’s quite funny actually because you also see some half breeds, which are not exactly cows nor yaks but a kind of mix!
There are two routes from Pisang to Manang – a lower easier route which follows the river bed, or a steep climb through Ghyaru which offers beautiful panoramas over the Annapurnas. We took the hard route, especially as we knew we had a rest day coming up in Manang. It was a good call and we saw some of the best views of the whole trek on this day. As we approached Manang, we entered a desert like landscape, very dry and dusty, with little vegetation and dry wrinkled sandstone cliffs which gave us the
impression of being in the wild west! This day was a difficult climb but well worth it for the views!
By the time we arrived in Manang, Lee was starting to feel rough with a cold – good timing for our rest day!
Acclimatisation Day: Manang
It is advised to stay two nights in Manang to acclimatise to the lower oxygen concentration at this altitude and avoid AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) in the coming days. AMS sounds pretty scary when you hear some of the symptoms: acute headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, vomiting blood and if you don’t take it seriously and descend when you have these symptoms, you could end up in a coma and…die. So it was a no-brainer – we stayed two nights in Manang.
It’s also advised that on your rest day, you should go on a walk to higher altitude and come back down but we couldn’t be bothered and so spent the day in the lodge, chilling out and trying to keep warm! Plus Lee was feeling pretty rough; we had his oxygen levels checked just in case but luckily it was only a nasty cold!
didn’t have any AMS symptoms, we did start to find it difficult to get to sleep at night – your body is used to finding a breathing and heart rhythm which is based on lower altitude, so you’d be starting to drift off to sleep when suddenly you’d wake up taking a big gasp of air, as your body isn’t used to such low oxygen levels. Pretty scary stuff, without doubt worsened by the creeping paranoia from all that you’ve read and heard about AMS!
We did go and watch a film (“Caravan”) whilst in Manang – in their makeshift cinema, basically a small hut in a backstreet which had a log fire and a projector in it, showing movies regularly throughout the day. The film was set in the Himalayas, with some guys who had to navigate through a massive snowstorm…and when we came out of the cinema – surprise, surprise – it was snowing! Luckily not too much though or we’d have been stuck there for another day!
Other than that, Manang was quite nice just because you see so many familiar faces – you’re always bumping into people you saw earlier in the trek at
a guest house or in the same lodge. Also, we tried some local food such as yak cheese, which tastes a bit like tomme (a French cheese); and yak meat, a bit tough but edible enough!
Out of breath and cold! From Manang to Thorung Phedi
And so we set off on the next leg of our journey – two short days of walking as we had to limit the altitude gain each day. Lee was still feeling pretty rough as we set out from Manang, still coughing and sniffing all the way. We toyed with the idea of a detour to Tilicho Lake, which is supposed to be beautiful, but it would have added two days to our schedule and was supposed to be a much more challenging route, gaining much more in terms of altitude. Oriana was extremely keen, but Lee was less so with his snivelling cold and also struggling much more with the altitude, so we decided to stick to the plan and head up towards Thorung La Pass directly.
These two days were pretty hard on Lee. Having Irish-English heritage, he was probably less well adapted to the mountains than Oriana, who
has Alpine blood! So the rest of the trek consisted of Oriana zooming ahead and waiting for Lee, slowly but surely traipsing up the hill at pretty much the slowest speed you can imagine! Sometimes it almost looked like he was going backwards!
Because these two days were pretty short (only around 3-4 hours walking each day), we ended up freezing our asses off each afternoon. We’d arrive at our lodge at around 1 o’clock, eat lunch, and then wait around shivering, wearing everything we had, until they lit the fire at 6 o’clock. At night it obviously got even colder, and we weren’t exactly well prepared – our sleeping bags are supposedly only to be used to a minimum temperature of 11 degrees, so to cope with the sub-zero we had to wear pretty much everything we packed all through the night (hats and scarves included!).
In the lodges, rumours were spreading about a Spanish guy who died near Thorung Phedi the night before we were due to be there! Apparently he was an experienced trekker who’d been at high altitude many times before. He was trekking with his girlfriend who was feeling sick in Manang and
wanted to go back down. But they decided to carry on, taking mules up to Thorung Base Camp (4860m). At night, the guy felt very sick and had to go back down. Because he was a fairly big guy, the mules couldn’t carry him on the way down and so a few porters carried him on a stretcher back to Thorung Phedi. He died on the way…there are mixed opinions as to what exactly killed him. Some say it’s from altitude sickness, others say it was a heart attack. Either way, it certainly planted some seeds of worry in our minds, and this feeling was worsened by the constant stream of rescue helicopters flying above our heads to and from the Pass!
The BIG DAY: Over Thorung La Pass
The big day had come. With 1000m climb to the Pass and 1700m descent over a 15 km distance, at high altitude, this was by far the hardest day of the trek. We left bright and early just after 6 (some guides even leave as early as 2 am!).
The climb started with a really steep scree slope and this time Lee was really going backwards – never
in my life had I seen someone walking so slow! It was like he had been replaced by a 90 year old man! But it was all to do with the altitude more than anything else – some people are lucky (like Oriana!) and adapt relatively easily and some people are unlucky (like Lee!).
After the scree slope, the path started to wind around slightly easier hills and slopes, some coated with patches of snow and soon we had the snowy Thorung Peak in our sight, which we knew was one of the peaks either side of La Pass (along with Yakwakang, which weirdly was snow-less). But we had been warned the night before: whenever you think you’re getting close to the summit you turn another corner and see another climb in front of you!
The last hour or so was almost unbearable – even Ori was starting to struggle now with stomach pain and feelings of nausea, to Lee’s secret delight! We kept asking people how long until the summit and to our despair the answer was always ‘30 minutes away’! These were definitely the longest 30 minutes of our life! We started feeling very weak and
Ori adopted Lee’s old man pace. It was torture, not a pleasant feeling at all…I (Ori) kept freaking out about what might happen if I get really sick now…what if we have to turn back and start the climb all over again the next day? You hear so many horror stories (the Spanish guy!), and it’s hard to know whether you’re being paranoid or whether you should turn around!
Finally, we saw some prayer flags in the distance! We knew we were almost there, only a few steps away. As we approached the summit, we couldn’t fight back the tears welling up in our eyes. WE MADE IT!!!! Such a feeling of relief, happiness, pride and accomplishment! We cried, laughed, hugged each other, took a million photos, put up our prayer flags for everybody back at home (and CCR who were playing a hard game against Stuttgart the next day!) and then headed into the teahouse and had a cuppa and a fag! What a way to celebrate! Suddenly, all the breathlessness and struggling were behind us and we were full of beans!
Although we were elated to have reached the high point of our trek, in hindsight,
the view at the top wasn’t the best that we’d seen over the course of the trek. It’s a bit strange, but given we were at ‘only’ 5416m, and there were two 6000m-plus peaks either side of the Pass, and dozens of higher peaks visible in the distance, it’s not exactly as if you feel on top of the world or anything like that – you’re still looking up at peaks higher than you are. In fact there are over 100 Himalayan peaks that tower over 7300m!
The way back down was obviously much easier, and we were blessed with a whole new array of mountains to admire on the other side of the Pass – in particular the pyramidal Dhaulagiri (8167m). The descent was very steep all the way and our knees were quivering by the end of the day. It wasn’t long until we sat down to celebrate our success with a cheeky beer over lunch. We kept plodding down, with the huge sandy lunar landscape in front of us, and mountains in the distance, until we reached the first proper settlement, Muktinath. This town had a really peaceful complex of temples including one surrounded with 108
water spouts and another in which there is a natural flame burning underwater, a sign of God around which the temple has been built. Muktinath was a really beautiful unspoilt village and as the sun was slowly going down, the mountains in the background shimmered in the evening haze, like a watercolour painting in the sky.
After Muktinath, we carried on a little further to a town called Ranipauwa, where we were drawn into Hotel Bob Marley by the chilled out music and the cocktail menu! We had a great night there, sharing our stories with all the other trekkers who’d just had exactly the same brilliant day as we had!
The slow mooch to back down: from Ranipauwa to Pokhara
After a good night sleep and a bit of a hangover, we made our way down to Kagbeni – only 2 hours away! The landscape was much different here to what we’d seen elsewhere on the trek – we walked down a broad dusty canyon, with wind swirling around us, throwing dust into our eyes. Unfortunately there’s a road between the two towns and so you are often passed by jeeps or motorbikes, which make the dust
situation even worse! And it’s not particularly nice to walk on a bumpy dusty road!
As we approached Kagbeni, we found the same patchwork scenery of crop fields as in the start of our trek, but this time families were working hard cutting crops, laying them down to dry, collecting them in big mounds and carrying them back towards the village.
Once in Kagbeni, we had a wander around the small charming town. Kagbeni is in the Mustang district and unlike the Manang district earlier in our trek, houses here have the particularity that the ground floor is inhabited by the family’s animals. On the rooftops, there’s always something left out to dry, be it wood or crops or even cow shit (which they use as fuel)! We visited a monastery here – it was about 600 years old and full of loads of freaky masks hung up on the walls!
We stayed in the Red House lodge, nearby the ruins of the castle which now is home to multiple families. In the evening, as we entered the dining room of the lodge, we see some guys with a video camera and microphones, talking to the lady
owner. Speaking to them a bit more, it turned out one of the guys was the writer of the Annapurna guide book that we’d been using! Partha S. Banerjee was in the room! It’s not a famous book, but he was like a celebrity to us, royalty even! His book has only sold a few thousand copies over the last few years, but it had been dead helpful, providing us with lots of info on the trek as well as local customs and cultures in the Annapurna region. It was such a funny coincidence, especially as Ori had been reading the guide for the last couple of hours before dinner!
The next day we had a nice few hours from Kagbeni to Jomsom, walking along the rocky river bed surrounded by strange rock formations in the “S” shape. As Partha says in his book: “It is as though you are witness to the process of Himalayan formation; the push and pull of tectonic pressure” (this guy is a legend!). But given we were getting sick of walking along the jeep track (I mean why walk if you can go by car?!), we decided to take the local bus from
Jomsom. We arrived late in Ghasa, found a hotel by torch, and in the morning took the bus again to Tatopani.
The bus journeys were scary as hell, a massive overloaded bus – stuff stacked for a metre on the roof, the whole carriage full of people and luggage in every nook and cranny, even puke on the floor. We were right at the back, the worst place to be! We were bouncing around on rock hard seats, which were doing a pretty bad job of protecting us from the bumpy rock hard road. On one side, above us, sheer cliffs with rocks balancing up high, some with massive landslide scars. Look in front of you to see we’re approaching a waterfall with a crap wooden bridge. Turn the other way, and you’re faced with a 50m drop down a cliff – we even saw an upside-down tractor that we were told had fallen off the cliff the night before! And inside the bus, as packed as it was, there was a pretty good atmosphere, Nepali music in the background, a funky colourful décor on the ceiling and smiles all round from the locals!
Anyway, we got there
alive. Tatopani was much anticipated as we knew we’d find hot springs there, a good relief for aching muscles! We spent two nights there, enjoying the warmth of the (sometimes too) hot springs. But then the weather turned pretty grim, plenty of rain and low cloud. Originally, we planned to walk to Ghorepani and Poon Hill to enjoy more panoramas over the Annapurnas range, but then with bad weather you risk going on a hard walk with no view of very much at all, let alone the Annapurna range! So we chose to go to Pokhara directly, back to civilisation - a good call as it turned out the weather only got worse over the next few days!
Rafting (3-5 November)
We had read that rafting, from either Pokhara or Kathmandu, is one of the best things you can do in Nepal – so as soon as we got to Pokhara, we went to Paddle Nepal and signed up for a three day rafting trip down the Kali Gandaki, leaving the next morning!
It was an awesome trip, we were sharing the raft with 6 other people, a guide, 3 safety kayakers and a guy who was guiding
the kit boat with food provisions and the camping and cooking gear.
The grade of the river is supposed to be 4 (out of 6) but it didn’t seem that hard! There were some proper strong rapids (some that the guide called a ‘washing machine’ because they suck you in), but no persistent rapids. There were only 4 falls from the boat in the whole 3 days – two of them being Oriana!
One of the best things about the trip was the camping at night, on sandy beaches by the riverside. The team was so organised - out of two paddles, a rope and a sheet, they’ll make a tent. At night, they would light up candles and use plastic bags full of sand as candle holders. The toilet was pretty funny. They’d just dig a hole, put a stone on each side, and shelter the hole from view with a tarpaulin, and there is your long drop! Further, they’d stick a paddle in the sand with a helmet balancing on top. The rule is, take the helmet to the toilet (in case you fall down the hole?!) and if helmet is gone, toilet is busy! Simples!
The scenery all along the river was nice but pretty misty, with plenty of low cloud and not much sun. The water in particular was freezing! Especially for Lee who had chosen on the first day not to pick up a wetsuit!
We could see the green cliffs nearby, and all the people working in the hills, but not the mountains in the distance – which was a shame, but at the same time we felt lucky it wasn’t raining (unlike in Pokhara and elsewhere!). And the mist, especially at night, with the outline of the cliffs all around and the river bubbling past, created a mysterious atmosphere around our campsite. The second night we could only see the moon and one star in the sky, pretty unique!
One scary thing about the campsite though, is that we came across scorpions! Only tiny ones, but still, scorpions?! Apparently they like to get into small warm spaces, like shoes (where we found one of them) or even sleeping bags (where we found the other one!). Needless to say that we checked our ‘bed’ thoroughly before going to sleep each night from then on! They’re not deadly but allegedly
it stings like a bitch!
Pokhara (5 - 7 November)
Back in Pokhara, after the rafting, we discovered that the weather had been horrible there, and also up in the mountains. In the news they were talking about 3,000 tourists being stuck in Lukla airport (the ending point of the Everest base camp trek) due to bad weather and there were food and lodging issues up there, with the ATMs running out of cash as well! Helicopters started rescuing groups of people, based on their visa expiry and date of return flights. Glad we missed all that chaos!
In the evening, we had dinner with the rafting team and also met Cheryl, a friend from the trek. The next day was Ori’s birthday and she got treated to one and a half hours of a “trekker’s special” massage. A perfect way to relax after two pretty hard-core weeks! Other than that, for her birthday we tried to go on a bike ride but Ori didn’t quite realise what it would be like trying to ride on Nepal’s crazy busy bumpy roads, with trucks whizzing past, so we quickly ditched that idea and returned the bikes!
to be beautiful – it’s centred around the Phewa Lake, the second largest lake in Nepal, and the views are said to be amazing, with the reflections of the Himalayas on the water. Unfortunately we only witnessed these views on the postcards that were on sale in Pokhara – the whole time we were there it was foggy and cloudy, you could barely see the other side of the lake, let alone the mountains in the distance! Although it was still nice while we were there (the lake looked pretty atmospheric with all the mist rising from it), we spent most of our time just relaxing and enjoying creature comforts such as hot showers, internet and MEAT (which was very expensive up in the mountains!).
Kathmandu (7 - 11 November)
And so we arrived back in Kathmandu for our final few days to reflect on Nepal and prepare for the next leg of our trip in South East Asia.
As we were on our way back to Kathmandu on the bus, we started to think more and more about the moment of truth that was approaching…had our camera been robbed? Or was it in the bags that we’d
left in Kathmandu? The first thing we did when we got there was check our bags…THE BASTARDS! THEY DID ROB IT!!! …Oh well, you live and learn! It was pretty stupid of us really. We then had to spend an afternoon at the police station filling out a report so hopefully we can claim it back on the insurance.
On our last two evenings we met with a few of the guys from our rafting trip – Rob, Charlotte and Guy. Fed up of always eating in cafes and restaurants, we decided to go for a picnic in the Garden of Dreams - a peaceful haven, hidden away from all the traffic and noise of Kathmandu - armed with half a kilo of yak cheese, some local meat, bread, hummus, fruit (a pomello that we’d picked up from a restaurant the night before), veg, weird local sweets, and of course a few beers!
In our final few days, we also went to visit Bhaktapur (?), about an hour’s drive out of Kathmandu. Bhaktapur is known as a ‘living heritage’ – a place where they try to preserve the historic way of life. We got lost wandering through the
backstreets, through the ancient buildings and Hindu temples, each decorated with extremely detailed wood carvings. Some of the buildings were so old they looked like they were ready to fall at any moment! There were countless women shovelling their crops into piles, drying them out in the sun. And ‘Pottery Square’ where they work the clay and cook them in a makeshift oven – at the bottom of a smouldering pile of hay.
Some thoughts about Nepal…
It’s tempting to make comparisons to India when you speak about Nepal, but we’ll try not to do that too much – the Nepalese people certainly don’t like it and are proud to be Nepalese, and proud to be one of the few countries in the world not to have been ruled over by someone else, or colonised (the English tried at one point but never really succeeded – instead we just recruit their fearsome hard-core Gurkha soldiers to our army!).
We had read that Nepal was poorer than India, but we have to say that it wasn’t evident from what we saw. That may be because we were mainly in touristic places (even the remote areas of the Annapurna circuit
have a lot of money flowing in from tourists), but in any case it wasn’t as ‘in your face’ as it was in India. Some people say that this is partly to do with the Nepalese nature – they are much too proud and shy to ask for money. We’ve also heard that there are other areas of the country, over in the far west, where almost everyone lives in extreme poverty. And there were some slums around Kathmandu, but they were far less cramped and dirty than those we saw in India.
One thing we’ll remember of Nepal is the diversity of scenery for such a relatively small country – not only do they have the mountains, rivers, forests and desert-like landscapes that we saw, but they also have jungles and rainforests that we didn’t get round to…maybe next time!
And most importantly, the people are so warm here. They were friendly in India too, but you get a lot less hassle in Nepal, rather than it always coming back to some scam to extort money from you!
As we flew out from Kathmandu, we got a final stunning view of the Himalayas that we’d visited just
a few days before, stretched out all the way along the horizon… what a good way to end a fantastic few weeks.
There are more photos below