Annapurna Ambling - the inside story

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April 26th 2013
Published: April 26th 2013EDIT THIS ENTRY

Annapurna South from above Pothana abAnnapurna South from above Pothana abAnnapurna South from above Pothana ab

Early morning - before the haze
Inevitably, though slowly, departure day arrived. Mavis ran the Settle contingent to Manchester Airport, and after a brief leave-taking we wandered into the terminal where, as expected, Helen was waiting. Check-in was quick, and the wait didn’t seem too long, particularly as the flight left on time. I failed, yet again, to get any sleep, and I was not alone in this. As the cabin lights came back up Helen ran a survey of what we had been watching / listening to: she’d been watching ‘The Life of Pi’, Merrilyn had watched ‘Hitchcock’, Alan had been listening to Mark Knoffler, I’d heard the Beethoven Ninth (twice !), and Linda had dozed. No conclusions can be drawn ! Our sojourn under the blue dome of Abu Dhabi wasn’t too protracted, and after another relatively pleasant flight we landed in Kathmandu almost on time. Tom met us as we came through the Visa desk, so that for the first time all six Annapurna Amblers were together. Brief introductions, and then down to baggage reclaim (where I almost caused an incident by walking out with my bag without producing the receipt: I got away with it, but the others were stopped, and as I’d got all the receipts . . .) Unarrested I led the party out towards the exit, where with a sudden shout of ‘Hello Baji’ Krishna announced his presence, and that of Dhanraj. It was good to see them both again. Garlanded with flowers we were rapidly shunted into the minibus, and the, for me familiar, drive across the mayhem of Kathmandu had more impact on the others. They may have travelled in the Third World before, but Kathmandu is still an eye-opener (and anyway I was chatting away busily to our two Nepalis so missed the opportunity to be gob-smacked by the chaotic traffic). Nonetheless we arrived at the Kathmandu Guest House without any major incident, and, miracle of miracles, our rooms were as ordered – not garden-facing, but at least in the 2001 block across the garden. Pausing only to note the new Reception and foyer areas, and the new block that has replaced my old favourite room 131, we settled in happily. The KGH is still a wondrous oasis of calm amidst the cacophony of Thamel (though I was sad to see that Zitbahadur who I’d laughed with for two decades was now retired, and no longer patrolled the gateway to keep that cacophony at bay: at least Arjon was still there though).

Utam appeared at Reception, and as part of a cheerful conversation he offered to show me the new rooms built since my last visit. I suggested that rather than look at them we should be accommodated in them on our return ! He promised to do his best . . . I was also given a post-card from Renee Dover, and a phone call confirmed that she, Terry, and friend David would call on us the following evening. Meanwhile the others had made tentative forays into the streets, and determined that the Northfield would be an adequate place to dine, and indeed it turned out to be (though Tom, suffering, I suspect, from his longer journey), didn’t join us. I was delighted when, at the end of a good meal, the suggestion that we merely split the bill five ways rather than trying to play the ‘Yours was more expensive than mine’ game, was unanimously accepted. I’ve seen groups engaged in lengthy, often heated, arguments about bills, and was pleased that it seemed we were not going to suffer this problem. In an attempt
Gotcha !Gotcha !Gotcha !

Linda and Helen take a shower
to overcome another problem – the incompatibility of my sleep pattern with Nepalese clocks, I dosed myself with a final beer, and whisky, before turning in.

Morning came (for me at the ridiculous hour of 4 a.m., so that by six I was showered, and out in search of coffee), and, as arranged, Sanam came for a post-breakfast briefing, collecting the cash (to my great relief), setting out timings for the next couple of days, and sorting out myriad little details. Similarly predictable was the arrival of our vehicle and our guide for the day. Sanam had already assured me that Surman was to guide us, and remembering the excellent day he’d given us three years ago I was looking forward to meeting him again. He didn’t disappoint. Once we’d travelled through the congested streets, aided by our own personal policemen who tried to direct a way for us against the flow of a thousand motor bikes, we began with a visit to the hilltop Monkey Temple of Swayambunath (for a Surman on the Mount ?), which proved to me again how utterly incomprehensible is the Nepalese fusion of Buddhism and Hinduism. The only way I can approach it

Bisket Jatra in Bhaktapur
is merely to marvel at its Gormenghastian complexity and strangeness, and at the same time to be moved by the obvious faith of its adherents. The temple complex provides a wondrous mixture of exotic architecture, shrines of all sizes ranging from the central stupa down to small plaques, shops, cafés, monkeys, temples. Templed out, we set off to Dhurbar Square; the mass of traffic (caused by a student protest) meant that we abandoned the minibus and finished the journey on foot, jostling our way through traffic, dodging motorbikes, rickshaws and oxen, and finally reaching the relative tranquillity of the square where at least the congestion was people rather than vehicles (or oxen !). A brief coffee stop fortified us for another burst of being tourists. For me the highlight was a visit to the Palace, discussing the problems of being the Kumari (a Hindu goddess chosen from a Buddhist family . . . . and that’s the least of her problems), marvelling at intricate woodwork and at the tranquil courtyards. Finally, Palaced out, it was on to Bodnath (and lunch) where a brief circuit of the enormous stupa (clockwise so as not to upset the Wheel of Life) exposed us to more bizarre scenes. I’d met this before and still it surprised and excited me: the others, our ‘Nepalese Virgins’, had reached incredulity overload. Touristed out we beat a welcome retreat to the Guest House: it was incredible to realise that we’d landed in Kathmandu only twenty-four hours ago – so much seemed to have happened already.

The evening pace was similarly fast. Once repacking had been done, bags for leaving in Kathmandu, being sent on to Pokhara, and travelling with us on trek all organised, I went to the courtyard to host a party. Gill Groom turned up full of enthusiasm about her recent treks with Dhanraj, Terry, Renee and David arrived and regaled us with tales of their latest five month long visit to Nepal, doing good works in backward rural areas. The rest of our group drifted down, beer was consumed, and finally we decamped to a nearby restaurant for a convivial meal. My only regrets were that firstly, as often happens in such circumstances, I didn’t have sufficient time to talk to everyone as much as I wanted to, and secondly (paradoxically) that Rob ‘into-thin-air’, another Trip Advisor contact, didn’t show up (on balance a good thing as otherwise I’d have had to spread myself even more thinly). The evening ended with me sharing a beer with Helen back at the KGH, then a scotch with Tom after we’d climbed to the roof to enjoy the view of Swayambunath floodlit on its hill. I felt a familiar feeling of relief that tomorrow we’d be off to the hills, away from the urban clamour and the polluted atmosphere. Two nights in Kathmandu is more than enough !

Time to go trekking

Relief was not quite the prevailing feeling as I staggered down for breakfast the following day: it was still well before my normal getting-up hour. However, the sun was shining, and a couple of coffees inched me towards consciousness, and the arrival of Krishna the meet-and-greeter (and Krishna the driver) meant that departure was imminent, delayed only briefly by a sudden reappearance of Terry and Renee. Normally their Kathmandu life is fairly frugal, so I was amused at their second appearance in two days at the Gomorrah of the KGH, but apparently they had a breakfast appointment, and had generously arrived early so that they could see us off. And off we were; a relatively rapid trip to the airport where, because of the Byzantine contortions of Nepalese bureaucracy, Krishna was not allowed in, but had arranged for a friend to guide us through the check-in process. The relatively clear morning meant that our flight left on time, and those of us sitting on the right-hand side of the plane we were able to enjoy impressive, though slightly hazy views of the high Himalayas as we flew past the Ganesh, Ghorka, and Manaslu Himals, and finally the Annapurna range as we began our descent into Pokhara. I had settled for a left-hand seat, and watched fascinated as the landscape of ‘Middle Hills Nepal’ unwound below me, a maze of sinuous ridges, their sides cut into thousands of terraces, and villages linked by ridge-top paths. The scars of recent road building were also apparent: ‘roads’ or at least jeep tracks are appearing in rural areas all over Nepal.

Dhanraj greeted us as we left the airport, and I was very pleased to see Pradeep amongst the little group of Nepali who collected our luggage. Sanam had been unclear as to which of the many Pradeeps in Nepal he’d employed for our trip, but this was indeed, as far as I was concerned, the genuine Pradeep. He’d cooked for us on our Annapurna Circuit in 1999, and been a ‘sherpa’ on the 2001 trip. I’d last seen him in the Khumbu a few years ago when he’d arrived at Dingboche for an evening game of cards (the poor guy had walked for an hour from Pheriche, lost a handful of rupees, then gone back again . . .) Not only did I remember him with affection, but also I was able to catch up on news of Baburam, his father, who had also been with us for the Circuit, and Dani (his brother-in-law, our cook for two trips, and porter for another). It was almost like meeting obscure family members ! I was also introduced to Santos and Bijay, our porters for the trip, and was able to sympathise with Pradeep that as there were only two of them he would have to carry a load for the first day until the third porter materialised. We piled into a hired minibus and soon were on the road to Khande, the starting point for our trek. As it was a hired vehicle rather than a Spirit of the Himalayas bus we didn’t have time to stop at the Barahi for coffee, and in consequence the first item on the agenda once we’d arrived at Khande was to make up for this omission. We sat and drank in the warm sunshine (whilst Tom ran around ensuring that the trip was being well-photographed). For me it was a good excuse to delay departure. I looked ruefully at the ascent that would take us over the ridge to the Australian Camp.

Once committed to it, the ascent was as I expected: no better, but no worse. We settled into what was to become our normal ascent order – led by Dhanraj, Alan and Merrilyn in attendance, with Linda and Tom close on their heels, whilst I brought up the rear, generously accompanied by Helen who was obviously taking pity on me. As we were only at around sixteen hundred metres the heat was noticeable (and may perhaps have contributed to my slow pace), but as it was to be a short day I saw no great need for hurry (even if I’d been capable of a faster pace . . .). As is the way of such things finally we reached the ridge-summit, where unfortunately increasing cloud robbed us of a clear view of the panorama ahead. I was able to see, and to enjoy, the delightful contouring trail towards the Oz Camp, and soon arrived there several minutes after the others, but in good style ! Lunch went down, but the weather similarly declined. Whereas on arrival we’d sat in the sun, by the time we’d eaten the clouds had piled in, and our departure was delayed as a splendid storm broke over us. Thunder crashed, and lightning split the sky. Fortunately our porters hadn’t left, so a rapid delving into our big sacks produced waterproofs which appeared essential as thunder and lightning echoed around us, and soon rain and hail were beating down. I stood on the veranda wondering if this was to be a recurring weather pattern: I’d not trekked in April before, and was worried about pre-monsoon rains. Meanwhile the field in front of the lodge turned into a rice paddy. We mused as to how the porters, who’d left just before the rain arrived, would fare on the way to Pothana, and speculated about how wet their loads would get.

The storm passed, and clad in waterproofs mainly because the temperature had fallen radically, we tackled the short walk to our destination for the night. It was almost level, and in consequence I was well to the front as we reached Pothana, and the Annapurna Hotel. As lodges in the hills go it was average – small cell-like rooms opened off the balcony, the toilet and shower and a small sitting area were at the end of the balcony, and the ground-floor dining room had a pot-bellied stove which suggested that it would be a comfortable evening. We found our rooms, with our bags already stowed in them: by some miracle of Nepalese speed-trekking they were virtually dry. Our arrival was toasted, in beer for some, tea for others, and I listened interestedly to the groups’ reactions to our accommodation. I concluded that if this was going to be the norm then we’d all survive, even though I suspected that, for Linda in particular, it came as a slight shock. It seemed that the day had come as a slight shock too, as various members of the group nodded off to sleep briefly as we sat around the table. Once the cloud dispersed slightly we had views back over the Pokhara valley, including the Peace Stupa which showed up clear and white on the hill to the south of the town. Altitude induced (it couldn’t have been the beer !) tongue-tiedness caused me to describe it as ‘The Police Stupa’: from his laughing reaction it was obvious the Bijay had a reasonable grasp of English (whilst Santos, despite the studious impression provided by his glasses, seemed not to understand much). Our porter strength was completed when suddenly Dawa arrived from Pokhara. (I never managed to establish just how much he understood, but he spent most of the trip smiling happily, and was good news being a fellow smoker – in our virtuous company I welcomed those who share my vices !)

What was to become a nightly ritual, an adequate dinner, a warm beside the stove, a beer or two and then a quiet scotch with Tom (which I finished whilst sitting in the dark in the sitting area, with a grandstand view of spectacular forked lightning splitting the eastern sky as another storm rolled by) saw me off to bed by ten o’clock. I was therefore predictably awake by five a.m. though apparently I’d slept through another heavy rain shower. That shower had washed the clouds away, and the morning views of Annapurna South, Hiunchuli, and Macchepuchare were as great as I remembered. Cameras clicked happily as all at various times made brief trips up the street to get the best views. I looked forward to the day’s walk to Landrung, which from previous trips I recalled as a delight. A delight it may be, but nonetheless the ascent to Pittam Deorali was still a drag, though a drag mitigated by the delightful woodland, and the prospect of reaching the ‘Nice View Tea House’, which when finally I arrived there succeeded yet again in living up to its name. Lemon tea in hand I enjoyed the vista. Amongst the host of people there Linda rapidly found a photographer, and organised us all for an orgy of group photographs, the smiles fully justified by the great panorama that was the back-drop. From there the path plunges quite steeply through woodland, where Dhanraj pointed out to us splendid white epiphytic orchids adorning a trail-side tree which again provided a photo opportunity. Once the descent was over the path goes into its contouring mode, winding easily along the east flank of the Modi Khola valley, through delightful rural landscapes. Farms and terraces were our immediate surroundings, local Nepalis, goats and the occasional ox and water buffalo added interest, and frequent tea houses allowed for rehydrating stops so that we arrived in good style for lunch at a smart lodge in Tolka. The relatively short afternoon stroll to Landrung was again a delight, as was the celebratory beer that Helen and I shared on arrival at the Sherpa Hotel, our accommodation for the night. The lodge also provided us with the post-dinner cabaret of an ‘Ama Party’. The locals arrived to play music (unfortunately through a sound system rather than live), to dance and to collect money, and as is the way of such things to invite us to join the dance. I was amused at the speed with which Linda took up the invitation, Merrilyn was not far behind, and before the evening was over we’d all taken to the floor – even me! After the party, my forehead besmirched by a generously-applied red ‘Tikka’ (was this a sort of ‘Pass Out’, bestowed on those who had contributed to the collection ?), I whiled away a pleasant quarter of an hour looking at the star-filled sky before wandering (and wondering) off to bed. Unlike previous, all male, trips, because of the mixed nature of the group, and having a couple amongst our number, there was no rotation, so Tom was again lumbered with my company. We toasted his misfortune with a small whisky that set the seal on a very good day.

I awoke again at an unseemly hour. Perhaps I’d been more than ready to enjoy yesterday as I was aware that today would bring suffering as we tackled the short, but vertiginous route to Ghandruk. It also brought bright sun which whilst it lifted the spirits would not help lift me up the seven hundred metre ascent. The descent was to my taste, a helter-skelter to steps leading rapidly down to the Modi Khola. I was even passing other people ! One of them was an Australian lady (of seventy seven) who was being helped down by her own personal assistant guide. I was impressed by the way that this young Nepali danced attendance on her with every appearance of enjoying the task: I mused again on the professionalism of the Nepalese, but also on their good nature, and apparent respect for other people (including the aged !) Neatly sidestepping an ox, and a string of ponies, I crossed the bridge, then again strolled along what I remembered as a delightful stretch of trail. A couple of flower-bedecked lodges added colour to the sub-tropical delights, and across the river the cliff on which I’d watched the honey-gatherers managed not to look too menacing. Alas the flat episode was all too short, and the upward trail definitely looked menacing. Settling into ‘plod mode’ I began the ascent, pausing frequently to grab breath as the others forged ahead in Dhanraj’s wake. Again I had the company of Helen, and of Pradeep, which not only greatly encouraged me, but also enlivened the pauses as they shared an enthusiasm for bird-watching, and pointed out many things that otherwise I’d have missed. Spurred on by an awareness of the presence of Australian Madge behind me, and determined to arrive before she did, at one stage I caught up with the others. I admit that this was not entirely due to speed on my part: possibly dehydrated, and affected by the heat, Linda was going through a bad patch, and slumped on a wall just above me. I was impressed that Alan came bounding down to tend to her – love indeed that sees hard-won height lost like that . . . Having taken on water, and following my example of soaking her hat under a nearby tap, she was fit to continue, and was soon a relatively distant part of my horizon.

As Garth Barstow, that eminent philosopher, observed years ago ‘You forget the pain’. and indeed the effort of the ascent was ultimately overcome by a feeling of relief as finally I crawled in to Ghandruk, and collapsed at a table on the terrace of the Manisha Hotel. A beer seemed a just reward for my efforts, and lunch soon replenished the burnt-off calories so effectively that I was ready for a gentle afternoon stroll to explore Ghandruk. I’d not visited before, and found it a fascinating village. Although it’s obviously a trekking Mecca it has managed to retain a good semblance of being a working village. It gave an impression of relative rural affluence, possibly because traditionally the village has supplied many recruits to the Ghurkhas and consequently there has been a lot of external income. Strolling by neat farms amongst between well-tended terraces, watching a man weaving a mat, ‘Namasteing’ passing locals, goats and pony-trains, and enjoying halting conversations mainly triggered by my ‘Burrah Yeti’ t-shirt all combined into a delightful symphony. Oxen lowed, cocks, crowed, chickens cheeped, dogs barked mutedly. I was in rural Nepal, and was happy ! The worst ascent of the trip was over, the afternoon rain didn’t fall, and tomorrow I had a new trail to walk as on my previous visit to Tadapani we’d approached from Chomrong, not from Ghandruk. It needed only a reasonable dinner, and perhaps a beer or two, and a little scotch to complete an idyll. Between them the Manisha Hotel, Helen, and Tom supplied these requirements, and thus provided a fitting end to the day.

Again the morning dawned bright and clear, so that our departure along the initially ‘terso’ trail benefitted from good views of our ‘Big Three’ mountains. The immediate landscape was good too. We were gaining height, and reaching the altitude where the rhododendrons were in full bloom: lower down they were past their best, and higher up they would still be opening. As Helen observed, a series of time-lapse photos of the hillside would produce a ‘Mexican Wave’ of red as the blooms moved upwards. We also moved upwards, and even I was able to outpace the opening flowers as the trail wound upwards to a tea stop at Bhaisi Kharka, and ultimately to Tadapani. Most of the trail was been steadily upwards through forest, dappled sunlight and shade combined with trickling streams and small waterfalls to provide a very pleasant walk (though the ‘ukalo’ still hurt). Dhanraj, in his wisdom, had decreed that our aim for the day would not be Tadapani (as originally planned), but Banthanti, and as it was indeed only lunch time when we arrived at Tadapani this seemed sensible. The thought of onward progress didn’t deter us from taking a leisurely lunch break, and Linda engaged in an attack of ‘retail therapy’, buying hat, gloves, and a shawl from a local shop. I was more interested in lunch and rehydration: I’d walked the onward trail before, and remembered the steep descent and subsequent ascent that would take us towards Banthanti, and wanted to fortify myself for it. Mercifully it was no worse than I remembered, and the latter stages of the ascent were enlivened by the antics of the langurs that were playing on the cliff above what I remembered as the ‘Clean View Lodge’. Other than that it had changed its name I was just as I recalled it – a delightful haven. The welcome was cheerful, the lemon tea warm, and the scenery superb. I was tempted to suggest staying there, but Dhanraj assured me that Banthanti was not far away. He was correct. A superb half-hour stroll along a level path strewn with fallen rhododendron flowers brought us to journey’s end for the day. Banthanti is hardly a metropolis, and of the three lodges that make up this isolated settlement Dhanraj had chosen the furthest, the ‘Hungry Eye Lodge’. Compared with the sophistication of the hotel in Ghandruk this was significantly different - a single-storey, four bedroom lodge with separate dining room, and toilet and shower across the yard. The more fastidious amongst us (which did not include me) tested the claim to ‘Hot water shower’, and were not disappointed, though they reported that anyone taller than five feet was best to shower on their knees: but the water was very warm ! The welcome had been similarly warm. We chatted with our team, and with the Lodge community, who enquired if we’d be prepared to put up with another ‘Ama Party’ as they were still trying to raise the funds to pay for their hydro-electric scheme. We were delighted to accept, and in anticipation of the event the ladies of the lodge set to making garlands of rhododendron flowers for us. As a party it was fine, particularly as it took place in the dining room, within reach of the excellent stove. The music was limited, but the dancing was uninhibited. Pradeep again showed his grace, and several of us shook a leg or two. As Alan observed, although I’d given the party as much information as I could before we departed, no-one could really give a complete picture of all that a trip to Nepal would entail. Several times he’d made comparisons with their Mexican experiences, and Helen was frequently finding aspects that evoked memories of her life in the Sudan forty years ago. Merrilyn seemed to be coping perfectly well in her quiet way, and Tom was cheerfully enjoying this second, less demanding, trek (when he wasn’t lost in what I referred to as ‘Watson’s World’, a universe populated by cameras, mobile phones, and other technological wonders: I suspect that he was as happy there as he was in the world of Nepal !). The evening ended for me with another episode of star-gazing. The sky was clear, and although, in the deep confines of the valley, there was only a limited arc visible, the stars were superb, particularly once all the lights had been switched off. Again I retired happy, partly from the knowledge that tomorrow would be our last day of ascent, and also with memories of walking the superb ridge from Deorali to Ghorepani.

But firstly we had to get to Deorali ! Another ‘ukalo’, again through a delightful almost park-like valley, saw me trailing in to the tea house at Deorali after the others (apart from my two faithful shadows). Tom was particularly keen to push on, wanting to reach the ridge, with its superb views, before the morning haze closed in, and so the ‘A Team’ set off, leaving Pradeep, Helen and me to the delights of further cups of tea. They were indeed rewarded with splendid views, vindicating Dhanraj’s insistence on pushing on to Banthanti the day before, therefore putting us at least an hour nearer to Deorali than we would have been if we’d stopped at Tadapani. We stragglers had to be content with merely Dhaulagiri (an adequate consolation prize . . . ), as the Annapurnas had disappeared by the time we’d climbed to the ridge and then contoured through magical stands of rhododendrons. I encouraged us to press on to the chautara that marks the top of the ascent from Ghorepani as I remembered it to be a great viewpoint. I was not disappointed. We sat for over an hour, savouring the remarkable sight of Dhaulagiri appearing to float above the murky depths of the Kali Gandaki. We drank in the superb view (though I regretted that we couldn’t drink in another lemon tea as the nearby tea shack wasn’t open). Finally we launched ourselves down the descent into Ghorepani, and ended by having to climb up a little again to reach the ‘Hill Top Hotel’ which – fortunately – was not on the hill top, but was the highest lodge in the town. It was, however, a new pseudo-Western hotel, which contrasted sharply with the previous night’s accommodation. I know which I prefer, and fear that Linda and Merrilyn soon shared my opinion as they were served a very indifferent lunch. Nonetheless the rooms were adequate, and after we severally managed short strolls round the town we were relieved to find that dinner was better than lunch had been. An even earlier night than normal was decreed not only because at almost three thousand metres the evening was noticeably chilly, but as most of the party were to get up an hour before dawn to climb Poon Hill. This proposition I’d declined: not only was I unsure about what time Dawn got up (and certainly not prepared to rise an hour before her), but also I had no wish to ascend Poon Hill. From experience I knew that the view from the chautara the day before was as good, and anyway as chairman of Matinophobes Anonymous I felt I was excused from these middle-of-the-night absurdities.

My view was reinforced the following morning as I sat for almost an hour by the window of the bedroom, which overlooked the path up to Poon Hill, watching a constant stream of head torches passing. I tried to get back to sleep, failed, and contented myself with watching dawn through the window, and a good dawn it was. Ultimately the need for coffee overcame languor, and I was in course of drinking my third brew when the others returned. They were cheerfully gratified by their morning exertion, and had watched an excellent sunrise, but their tales of crowds on the summit served to reinforce my prejudices. I have no wish to share my hill with a thousand people, particularly gaggles of Koreans waving their national flag in celebration of reaching this lofty eminence. Private rant over, I joined the others for breakfast before we threw ourselves into the five thousand foot descent to Hille. In contrast to our upward days, today I was in the van, stomping cheerfully down through the woods, decreeing tea stops at regular intervals, and generally feeling very happy. Lunch at Ulleri was slightly surrealistic: we lunched under a newly-built pergola on the terrace where we’d camped in 1999, and in bright sun the village failed to convey any of the sense of menace that John Bradley had found as he, Neil, and I had staggered back from a late evening beer and local herbal tobacco session. Instead it was a delight, as was a good lunch, and we then continued downward progress until we found ourselves at the top of the notorious three thousand three hundred stone step staircase that winds down to Tirkedungha. I lost count after the first hundred, but, thanking the trekking poles that countered the jarring of the knees, ploughed cheerfully downward. The view down to Tirkedungha was impressive, but it still looked a long way off. Noticeably our joints began to feel the effort, and a tea stop was succeeded by several other stops for no particular reason. Gradually the bridge at the bottom of the hill became clearer, and we were also buoyed up by contemplating the sad fate of trekkers who passed heading in the opposite direction. Some were obviously going well, others feeling the strain: it was hard to find words suitable to encourage them, knowing that they had many steps still to ascend. Towards the bottom we encountered a number of Japanese schoolgirls, cheerily starting the climb: over a cold ‘Sprite’ at the teahouse beyond the bridge we speculated as to how far they would get before the cheerfulness was replaced by the awful realisation of the magnitude of the ascent. On arrival at this tea house I’d pointed out to Tom that I’d lost count of the steps, but he declined my suggestion that in the interests of science he should go back up to complete an accurate count.

A brief and gentle stroll along the valley brought us to Hille. I paused to have a chat with Australian Madge as she stopped outside her lodge for the night. It was a pleasure to spend time with such a cheerful and positive person: I congratulated her, and thanked her for the occasions on which she’d inspired me onwards. Our lodge was, predictably, almost the last one in the village. Our first floor rooms had windows looking out over the neat, well-cultivated valley floor, and the general feeling was of a comfortable, well-tended landscape. Over a celebratory beer I chatted with Bijay, Santos and Dawa, and then more seriously with Dhanraj. He’d mentioned that he had some sort of problem brewing in his home village, and needed to get back as soon as possible. I felt that this may have explained why he had seemed somewhat withdrawn over the past few days rather than his normal outgoing self and, thinking of tomorrow, I suggested that he should ‘do a runner’ and leave Pradeep to guide us. I confess that this was not entirely altruistic: I preferred the idea of completing the short last morning of the trek without being rushed along by an anxious Dhanraj, and pointed out that at Nepalese pace, without us to encumber him, he’d be able to get to Kathmandu by the following evening. We confirmed this over an evening drink. This was the first trek I’ve done that didn’t have an end-of-trek party, and I felt the lack. Dhanraj, however, invited me, Helen, and Tom (Alan, Linda, and Merrilyn having already retired to their beds) down to the dining room for a final drink (Tom declined as he had to attend to his eyes that need daily attention). We sat down at the table, and glasses of clear liquid were placed in front us. Confronted by a very large measure of rackshi I felt a twinge of unease – I’ve met this firewater often before. Dhanraj raised his glass, took a mouthful, and pulled a pained face. I took a tentative sip, and found I was drinking water ! My relief almost matched Dhanraj’s grin, and he then produced a small bottle of whisky so that the trek could be duly toasted.

The final morning dawned bright and clear. I bid farewell to Dhanraj Rai, guide and companion on nine treks over the past seventeen years, wondering if I’ll return. With this in mind I was determined to enjoy the final stroll along the valley, and it was easy to enjoy. Within a few minutes the trail had given way to a new ‘road’ which mercifully carried very little vehicular traffic, but did allow for easy walking. Initially we passed farms and lodges, and in the increasing heat I decreed a tea stop at ‘the first lodge after nine-thirty’. Unfortunately immediately after this decree we entered a narrow section of the valley which was obviously devoid of tea houses, but did provide beautiful scenery, including a sequence of waterfalls that offered such tempting pools between them that I was almost inclined to descend to try them. A tea break was, however, my first priority, but it was almost with surprise that I realised as we reached the first tea house that we were already at Birethanti. A leisurely hour passed sitting in a sophisticated café. Obviously Birethanti is benefitting from its new road connection, and attracts numerous tourists. This was evident as we strolled on through the village, past ‘German Bakeries’, art galleries, and quite up-market tourist shops. By contrast the area beyond the bridge was much as I remembered it – very much a collection of local shops and tiny houses that lined the way down to Nyapul where, once Pradeep had completed the formalities of check points, we finally reached the main road, and our transport back to Pokhara. Fortunately the driver was consuming his lunchtime dal bhat, which gave us ample time to sup a celebratory ‘Sprite’ as it dawned on us that the trek was over. I handed out envelopes containing tips to our three porters and to Pradeep – a sure sign that it was over.

A Pokhara interlude

It was obviously over as the minibus pulled in to the courtyard of the Hotel Barahi. Quickly it was unloaded, and equally quickly the Nepalese team disappeared. A welcoming fruit juice preceded our walk to our rooms, and I was amused and gratified by the reactions of the others to the luxury of the hotel as we walked through its well-tended garden and past the swimming pool. As he carried our bags up to the room the porter also declared that he had two other bags waiting for me. I was not in the least surprised by this latest manifestation of Sanam’s efficiency – I’d become used to things happening as arranged. An hour later we assembled in the garden, showered, and clad in clean clothes, for the important business of finding lunch. Given that Pokhara has dozens of restaurants of all sorts we were spoilt for choice, but settled on a delightful garden looking towards the Lake, where the lengthy menu gave us a range of choice that was almost overwhelming after a week of the limited and repetitious menus of the lodges we’d stayed in. The quantity, and the quality, of the food when it arrived were also remarked on enthusiastically. We dispersed to attend to shopping, money-changing, and other such needs, and I finally found an internet café from which to email home, and to scan very quickly through the two hundred emails in my inbox: a thorough session of deleting was in order. A phone call to Krishna clarified the logistics for the next few days, and I settled down to the sybaritic delights of Pokhara, allowing myself a celebratory beer. I felt that the trek had been successful, and relief that as we were now into ‘tourist mode’ so that I would now feel less responsibility: I’d been conscious of a ‘nurse maid/sheep dog’ role so far, and was looking forward to abandoning it. It was also interesting that Merrilyn was talking in general terms about returning to Nepal, and wanted general details on the Annapurna Sanctuary trek. Obviously in her quiet way she’d been gnawed, if not bitten, by the bug.

As evidence of this I was delighted when the suggestion that we took pre-dinner cocktails by the lake came slightly unexpectedly from Merrilyn: both the suggestion and its source were gratifying. And so it was: we sat in the garden enjoying the ‘two for the price of one’ delights of ‘Happy Hour’ in the shape of Whisky Sours, Gin Fizzes, and suchlike. Dishes of peanuts and popcorn served to remind us that lunch had been both late and large, and the consensus was that we couldn’t face another full meal. A happy compromise rapidly emerged, and saw us soon in the next garden enjoying a desert and coffee, before wandering replete back to the Barahi (though I’ll admit that Helen and I shared a beer at the ‘Club Amsterdam’ where we’d all been earlier for cocktails. Our excuse was that the live band were good, as indeed they were).

A comfortable bed made for an adequate night’s sleep, but still I awoke disappointingly early. A long, leisurely breakfast set the tone for a leisurely day. An hour of boating on the lake (with the unaccustomed luxury of a boat man) took us to the island for a glimpse of the Barahi Temple, and a gentle drift back, but left us so exhausted that a drink was essential, and a suitable lakeside venue produced excellent coffee. By common agreement lunch was light to the point of being non-existent for some of us. However Tom, Helen and I went in search of the Everest Steak House, which had moved from its previous location, to check it out as a dinner venue. As it was up several flights of steps Tom and I gallantly allowed Helen to ascend and bring down a menu whilst we waited in the street below. It looked eminently suitable. On the way back, with Helen I stopped off for a couple of beers on the way back to the hotel, choosing a small road-side bar close to the Barahi where we were welcomed (and the beer was appreciably cheaper than on the main drag of Lakeside). Proving the ‘small world’ theory we were joined by Anna, a Canadian to whom I had been talking a few days earlier at Ghorepani. Apart from the normal topics she also needed a good company for a forthcoming Everest Base Camp trek. I was happy to pass on ‘Spirit’s details. Back at the hotel five of us spent the afternoon in and lounging by the pool. As a non-aquatic I was the exception, though I went as far as to have a bath before returning to our local internet shop to sort out emails and to phone home.

As Marie-Antoinette almost said “Let them eat steak”. We celebrated by doing just that. Whilst the ambience of the Everest Steak House left a lot to be desired, the menu offered steaks of beef with at least thirty variations of sauce. Being by nature abstemious, and more importantly having the experience of eating at its previous Pokhara manifestation, and at its sister restaurant in Kathmandu, I opted for a ‘half steak’, ‘au naturel’. It was excellent. I benefitted also from the over-ambition of others: the chunk of Merrilyn’s steak in red wine that I ate (generously helping her out) was also very good indeed, and there was a slight, but detectable difference between this medium rare steak and my rare one. The chefs obviously knew how to deal with steaks, and on the way downstairs I called in at the kitchen to congratulate them on ‘ekdam mito kana’. An excellent double espresso at a coffee house on the way back meant that only a final beer was needed to complete a delightful evening. I duly completed it.

Down in the jungle not much stirred

Suresh and his minibus were on time – no surprise there, and after a brief breakfast we were on our way to Chitwan. As my senses had been dulled by many a Nepalese road trip I was not as shocked as the others by the hooting mayhem of traffic as we headed east. Suresh was an unusual creature – a careful Nepalese driver, and the minibus was relatively comfortable, so that the first couple of hours passed peacefully. A navigation failure on my part - I’d forgotten that the Chitwan turn off is in Mugling – saw us going six kilometres out of our way as I insisted that we called at Riverside Springs for a coffee. It also meant that we had to pass Manakamana, where the traffic jam bringing pilgrims and tourists to Nepal’s only chair-lift was at the same time frustrating and hilarious. Once we’d negotiated it, in a matter of minutes we were sitting in the unreal splendour of the Resort, quaffing excellent coffee. Returning to Mugling, and taking the turn-off, our onward journey gradually left the mountains behind as we drove down onto the flatlands of the Terai. The last hour saw us crossing flat, fertile farmland before finally we pulled into the car park of the conjuring trick that is ‘Safari Narayani’. Budi, our guide from our last visit, greeted us as we dismounted, and seemed genuinely pleased that not only did Tom and I recognise him, but also remembered his name. He’d been spared the task of looking after us this year; that fell instead to a fast-talking little Nepali called Tulsi, who provided us with Welcome drinks, and ushered us to lunch, after which we found our rooms (which were very close to where Tom and I had stayed last time). The place looked to be unchanged other than the newly-placed labels identifying the trees in the compound. It still had the faintly colonial air that I recalled, with its pleasant bar, and even more pleasant terrace overlooking the Rapti river. Other than in the order of things our programme looked to be unchanged too. The first element, an ox-cart ride to the local village, illustrated for me just how much an illusion the Chitwan resorts are. A few years ago the Nepalese Government closed down the seven resorts that were actually within the Chitwan National Park, and their replacements are mainly along the river bank, but on the opposite side from the Park boundary. Immediately you leave this ‘jungle paradise’ you are in densely-settled farmland – hardly an isolated wilderness experience, but nonetheless it’s a good conjuring trick. A pleasant, if bumpy ride brought us to the same village that we’d visited before, where this time we were greeted by two charming girls in traditional costume, and shown some of the artefacts in a house that acts as the village museum. We did wonder how long the traditional culture could withstand the pervading influence of television – a problem common across Nepal (and indeed in many other countries). Perhaps the ageing lady preparing river snails for the evening’s curry is an anachronism, and soon McDonalds will open a branch down the road. Similarly traditional house-building techniques will wane under the onslaught of concrete blocks and corrugated iron. One can see the attractive functionality of these materials when compared with the traditional mud bricks and elephant grass thatch (which needs to be replaced on an annual basis). Modern materials may look ugly, but they save an enormous amount of work. Nonetheless the overall impression is of relative prosperity: materially a life not endowed with many gadgets (other than television), but because most food is produced locally no-one is starving, and there appears to be enough cash to pay school fees etc. Back at the Resort our next delight was the traditional Elephant Briefing, with its several ton pachydermous visual aid and the opportunity to feed the beast with pellets of grass, rice, and minerals. Particularly for those of us who had not been up close and friendly with these magical beasts before it was a treat. The same was true of the final pre-dinner programme, a performance by the local Tharu dancers. Again I was impressed by the lithe and lissom grace of the dancers, but also by their work-hardened hands when we joined them for the final dance: these were obviously girls well used to working in the fields. This final dance reawakened echoes of the trek in my tired legs – I’d forgotten that ‘Resam Piriri’ had so many verses. Tom and I were flattered by being singled out for special attention from the announcer – it’s gratifying to be recognised from our visit eighteen months ago. I expressed my surprise at this, but Helen pointed out uncharitably that a bearded yeti and Hercule Poirot are fairly recognisable! The only antidote to such cheek, and to the effort of the dance, was to collapse on the terrace outside the dining room with an ample and adequate dinner. As the programme threatened a 4-45 a.m. wake-up call for the morning, after dinner festivities did not last long.

It was indeed at this godless hour that the next stage began. Fortunately coffee was available before we moved on to our Elephant Safari. I was confused when this began not at the mounting platform, but in the car park where we were piled into a minibus. Apparently the Government have now banned resort elephants from crossing the river into the National Park. This may explain why our safari produced little in the way of wildlife: a few deer, a couple of monkeys, but no tiger, no leopard, no python, and not even a rhino. Nonetheless it was relaxing to plod slowly through the elephant grass – now fairly short – and to watch expectantly for non-appearing beasts. A couple of hours gentle progress brought us back to the minibus for the journey back, a journey on which I realised a long-standing ambition by riding on the roof rack: not comfortable, but amusing !

At least an elephant safari makes you ready for a substantial breakfast, and we were not disappointed, though I was surprised to find that I was feeling weary at eight-thirty ! As the next element of our programme was not until ten thirty I organised an escape. Alan, Helen and I broke out of the resort and enjoyed a delightful hour, walking through the outskirts of the village, then returning via the Cold Store on the corner where we were entertained by the owner’s three year old grand-daughter. Ultimately she insisted that we went to meet her ten day old brother, and we were duly ushered into the house. I felt a real sense of privilege, as well as great pleasure: to interact with Nepali outside the tourist trade is a treat, and reaffirmed for me just how open and outgoing are most of the population. I floated back to the resort, in time for another coffee, and the next item on our programme – elephant bathing. We ambled down to the river bank, and exactly on time the resort’s four elephants arrived to bathe. Apparently at this time of year they get fractious if the aren’t taken to the river at least twice a day: not only do they enjoy the cool water, but also it gives them a chance to lie down safely. It seems that on land they cannot lie for any length of time as their weight may damage their internal organs (they sleep standing up). In water, the buoyancy enables them to lie comfortably. Initially however they were standing in the river, and we were invited to climb aboard. Linda and Helen immediately took up this offer, and were treated to a shower as the beast sprayed a trunk-full of water over them. Well soaked they dismounted, and Merrilyn rushed forward, followed, slightly to my surprise, by me. I’ve not bathed with elephants on previous visits, but felt it was time to try, particularly as the water was pleasantly warm, and shallow. We were also well showered with water, as was Alan in his turn (Tom staying resolutely dry, and photographing the whole scene). The cabaret continued: our elephant lay down in the river and we were invited to scrub it, using sandy mud as a gentle abrasive, and stones as scrubbing brushes. I marvelled again at the patience and gentleness of these enormous beasts. As finally we left the water we were each handed a towel, to dry ourselves. Linda enquired as to whether there were towels big enough for the elephants . . .

After a pleasant lunch our next diversion was a gentle trip down river in dugout canoes. It turned out to be an ornithologist’s delight, as a Kingfisher, Egrets Large, Small and Intermediate, Russian ducks, several types of heron, and an Adjutant Stork all appeared. We also met two wild Gharial crocodiles, though the more vicious Marsh Mugger failed to show. Our river journey over we walked the ten minutes of so to the Gharial Breeding Centre which is slowly reintroducing this once endangered species. I was surprised, and somewhat indignant to find that we were sharing the Breeding Centre with numerous tourists who had arrived by jeep: I failed to see why resort elephants were deemed to be more disruptive to wildlife than were half a dozen assorted vehicles. As we walked back through the forest it was obvious that there was serious disruption. The surrounding area had been recently burnt – part of a controlled programme – but eight people walking through dry leaves produces enough noise to ensure that any sensible animal is well out of the way. We seemed to wander in circles, our guides obviously trying hard to find us a rhino to make up for their absence during the morning safari, and after a commendable display of tree climbing our tracker pointed to the right, and off we trailed again, once more managing to produce rhino-scaring amounts of noise. I began to lose patience, and suggested to Tulsi that we abandoned this wild goose/rhino chase, and settled instead for a pleasant walk. Ultimately he agreed, and a pleasant walk it was, taking in a viewing platform (which I missed as I sat by a lagoon nursing a sore knee from an encounter with a vicious tree root. I thoroughly enjoyed my twenty minutes of peace and solitude !). Ultimately the group abandoned their tower, and our stroll continued through verdant forest which was unfortunately devoid of obvious mammal life. Arriving at the river our dugouts were waiting to ferry us across, and whilst the others went off to find showers I walked back to the Cold Store where I spent an enjoyable half hour chatting with the owner’s son (and father of the ten-day old). Discussion ranged over the political and economic plight of Nepal, his hopes for his children and the demise of Liverpool Football Club. I returned to the resort happy in the encounter and with several bottles of beer in my rucksack: his were half the price of those on the inside . . . .

Conversation over breakfast

Tom: ‘I nearly forgot to take my steroids. If I stop taking them things get odd’

Alan B: ‘When did you last take one ?’

Linda: ‘That explains how you’ve been all trek !’

Helen: ‘Yes, but what’s everyone else’s excuse ?’

Time to move on !

Back to the Future ? New Year 2070 in Bhaktapur

When first I’d planned the itinerary for the trip I’d determined to include as wide a range of Nepalese experiences as possible, and was confident that Bhaktapur would be a contrast to the tranquil comfort of Chitwan. Unfortunately whilst a Nepalese road journey is an experience in itself it’s not one that I would willingly repeat too often, nor for too long. Suresh was ready, refreshed from his day of doing nothing, so that we were able to get away immediately after breakfast for the start of what turned out to be a six hour journey. Thanks to his driving skills it was not exciting, just lengthy, particularly as it involved a complete traverse of Kathmandu. This allowed us to see the full extent of ‘The Kathmandu Problem’ – over an hour of chaotic traffic, appalling driving, litter, squalor and crowds. I wondered how many who’d left the hills for a better life in the City had actually found that it was an improvement. It was a relief to get through to the east side, and to Nepal’s only section of dual carriageway road, then finally to be halted at the gate of Bhaktapur. Various formalities had to be completed, and our admission tickets to the central area were issued – it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and there’s an admission charge. My first inkling that there was anything unusual happening was being told that there was a limit on incoming traffic because of the New Year celebrations, so that twenty minutes of form-filling and rubber stamping were necessary before we could be driven to the door of the Bhadgaon Guest House. Immediately I had my second inkling: it’s hard to ignore a thirty foot high chariot parked fifty yards away ! Apparently this great construction is an integral part of the celebration of ‘Bisket Jatra’, the Nepali New Year. A brief check in, and a chance to wash away the road journey, saw us out in the square among the thronging crowd, who seemed to radiate good humour. Several bands, mainly percussion, with only the occasional trumpet or shawm to provide ‘melody’ paraded past, street traders shouted out their offers, the crowd by the chariot milled around though fortunately there was no sign of it moving: apparently when it had been moved the previous day several people had been injured, and two killed, by being run over. We went with the flow, down to the bottom end of town where in a very crowded square thousands of people were being held back by helmeted, shield-carrying riot police who were trying to bring a semblance of Health and Safety to an absurd scene. Every balcony and rooftop seemed similarly crowded with spectators, and we found our way to the centre of the hubbub. A thirty five metre long pole was lying on the ground, with a dozen stout ropes attached to one end. Several hundred people were pulling on these ropes in a vain attempt to raise the pole – not an easy task when you consider the physics of the situation, but, being a generous soul, I joined the pulling throng. For some reason my contribution didn’t seem to make much difference, and after a few minutes I decided that there were better ways to pass the time. Moving through the jostling mass we made our way up the square, when suddenly we were engulfed by a tidal wave of humanity rushing towards us. I was hauled bodily onto the high pavement, away from the risk of being trampled, by several Nepalis. Looking round I saw Tom, and then Helen resurface in the sea of people, and we slowly worked our way towards each other. Of Alan, Linda, and Merrilyn there was no trace. We walked slowly up to the Square of the Potters, where already another pole stood semi erect. It seems that climbing these poles is part of the celebration, and that from the Potters’ Square version coconuts are thrown. Catching a coconut is rumoured to be a very hazardous activity: it is alleged to lead to the production of a son, and is therefore a prized prize, but apart from the risk of being hit by a fast-falling coconut one also has to hang on to it amongst the scrum of potential son-producers. Safe from flying coconuts, and the risk of filiogeniture, we ambled back to the hotel where the other three were licking their (metaphorical) wounds after their encounter with the masses. Over dinner on the rooftop terrace we heard a sudden cheer, and saw the first pole, now floodlit, finally standing vertical – a triumph of faith and person-power over physics ! Within seconds we noticed people attempting to climb the ropes, and swiftly succeeding. Apparently the first man to the top wins a motorbike, though I assume that a safe descent is also needed before he can claim his prize. Bands still passed in the street below, and I set out for a further battle with the crowds, but found it impossible to get to the Pole Square as the throng was now leaving. Bemused and bewildered I made my way back.

Surman failed to explain the strange rituals when he arrived the following morning, but he did lead us on a merry dance around the three main squares of Bhaktapur allowing us to marvel at the remarkable buildings, beautifully carved woodwork, and strange statuary. The central area has been extensively restored since the 1934 earthquake, and combines the best of Nepali architecture with the un-Nepalese quality of relative cleanness. I was impressed that even away from the squares the street-cleaners had been busy, and yesterday’s litter had gone. There being a limit to the amount of culture I can take without coffee, a stop was decreed and I sat happily in the sun over the brew watching Nepalese life go on around me. A cheerful woman failed to sell me a wallet, across the square a gaggle of women were drawing water from a well, and porters scurried by with assorted loads, but feeling that I’d seen enough of crowds and cities I looked forward to the next phase of the trip: originally I’d suggested Nagarkot, but Sanam had declared that Balthali would be a better experience. Having sorted out by phone the day before that we would be transported there by jeep I was keen to go (the alternative would have been by minibus, then an hour of uphill walking during the heat of the day. Give me a jeep any time !)

From the ridiculous . . . . to the sublime

And thus after a brief walk we found our jeep awaiting us. An hour or so journey took us ultimately through prosperous-looking farming areas with large areas of potato fields to the end of the tarmac road at the foot of the hill on top of which the Balthali Village Resort stands. From here on it was an ‘interesting’ journey up a dirt road, through woodland and small villages. A couple of hairpin bends seemed to cause our driver some problem, and the smell of burning clutch hung heavy in the air, but ultimately, much to Linda’s relief, we pulled into the car park below the resort. Lunch was immediately served, and after a brief delay we were shown to our rooms. I’d expected that our ‘superior’ rooms would be on the first floor, and so it was for Alan and Linda, and for Helen and Merrilyn. Worryingly Tom and I were led at ground level, then down a further flight of steps. I had visions of a room in the cellar, and such it was, except that on this steeply-sloping site our ‘cellar’ room opened onto its own terrace, with a superb and wide view. We settled in happily., though Alan discovered a problem as he couldn’t find his camera, and concluded that he must have put it down as he folded himself into the back seat of our hired jeep. The loss was not so much the camera itself, but the three hundred plus images on its card: cameras can be replaced, but there wasn’t time for a second lap of our trip. I phoned Krishna who said he’d see what can be done, and within the hour he confirmed that it was in the jeep, and would arrive with the minibus the following morning. The younger, first floor dwelling, element of the party was led off by a local guide to visit the village on the top of a local hill, and Tom set off in their wake. He returned about twenty minutes later having been almost mugged by a group of the local eight-year olds who had poked inquisitively at his camera and his pockets. I, in the meantime, had had encounters with two groups of locals who visited our terrace. The first was a delightful quartet of local young ladies with whom I had a pleasant conversation. The second, far less pleasing, was with a group of urchins whom ultimately I told in no uncertain terms to leave. During a brief conversation with the owner of the resort I pointed out two problems that I’d encountered – firstly the local kids, and secondly the amount of litter. To his credit, as soon as our village-visiting group returned from their pleasant trip (and Alan was given the good news about his camera), the guide was dispatched with a bin, and very soon the litter problem had gone (at least temporarily: I was saddened to see that a large group of Indian visitors soon produced a fresh crop. It seems that oriental visitors are less offended by mounds of litter than are our Western sensibilities). I don’t know if, or how, he tackled the ‘local kids problem’ – perhaps it was exacerbated as we were still in the New Year celebrations and the schools were closed. Late at night I sat on our terrace, the last of the Scotch in hand, looking at the star-filled sky, and musing with Tom on the absurd contrasts of Nepal. Twenty four hours ago we had been in the thronging streets of Bhaktapur: now we enjoyed the silence of a rural night.

Silence was broken shortly after five the following morning. Woken by noises on the terrace I peered around the curtain to see a family of monkeys enjoying the view (and various leaves). Within minutes we were out with cameras, and joined by Helen we indulged in half an hour of wildlife photography more eventful than we’d found in Chitwan. Such delights set us up well for a good breakfast, and indeed such was enjoyed as an hour later we sat in the sun on the upper terrace. Our departure was scheduled for nine-thirty; I was to travel down with the luggage, whilst the others would have a guide to lead them down on foot to the bottom of the hill. At exactly that time Pradeep appeared, to universal cheerful greetings as we’d not expected to see him again, and led the walkers away. I arrived at the jeep, and was offered the front seat.

‘I’d rather have that one’ I said, pointing to the driver’s seat

‘That is possible’ said the owner, which is why, ten minutes later, the worst of the bends having been passed, I found myself at the wheel of a Landcruiser inching down a Nepalese dirt road, scattering chickens and goats ahead of me on our way down to the waiting minibus. I declined Suresh’s (not serious) offer to drive the minibus back to Kathmandu . . . To my non-surprise Alan’s camera was waiting for him. There is still a reassuring honesty about the Nepalese that we encounter: it would have been very easy for the jeep driver to say ‘No, I haven’t seen this camera’, and no doubt to get a few hundred rupees for it, but that is not, in my experience, the way of Nepal.

I sat and talked with the owner of a local shanty-shop, then walked up along the trail to meet the descending party. Together we clambered aboard the minibus, and Suresh drove us through to the hell of the Kathmandu traffic jam, finally deposit us in the courtyard of the Kathmandu Guest House

Going out where we came in

My influence had worked ! Utam happily informed me that we had rooms in the new wing (though he did say that there would be an extra charge, but that Sanam had agreed to pay that). After a quick swap Tom and I unpacked into the air-conditioned luxury of the ‘Jeremy Irons Suite’, whilst Helen and Merrilyn were prepared to accept the ‘Doug Scott Suite’ – the difference being the ‘Jeremy Irons’ had a balcony, a great boon to a social-leper smoker. Alan and Linda were similarly delighted with their room, and were soon tucking in to the complimentary noodles. The normal Kathmandu rituals of emails, phone calls, last minute shopping, occupied the afternoon, and then it was off to the Thamel House restaurant for a final dinner, courtesy of Sanam. And a good dinner it was, the ‘normal’ five course Nepali set meal, interspersed with numerous bowls of rackshi. As ever at the Thamel House it was good rackshi, and Alan and Linda, neither drinkers of spirits, struggled gamely through theirs, whilst Merrilyn took a few sips, and passed on her bowl. Within a few minutes I seemed to have acquired not only my own bowl, but also Linda’s and Merrilyn’s, and had to remember to turn them upside down to avoid their being refilled. By the time Sanam, declining a fourth refill, put his bowl in front of me my area of the table looked like a sanctuary for small round tortoises. Conversation flowed (as did the rackshi), and the dance cabaret provided a pleasant background to a very enjoyable meal. As we left I was surprised how much the fresh air affected me . . . A final Ghorka beer at the Maya Bar saw me staggering happily to bed.

For some reason I wasn’t too bothered about breakfast, other than copious drafts of fruit juice and several cups of coffee, but I was fit to join the others for a last excursion. Helen had read on line about the Garden of Dreams, a ten minute walk away, and thither we went. Again the contrasts of Nepal ! Leaving the crowded, bustling street we entered an oasis of calm. A formal, well cared for, garden in the ‘Colonial Baronial’ style was a gem. With expressions of delight we wandered happily amongst graceful trees, flowering plants, quiet pools, carved elephants, a gambolling chipmunk/ squirrel, and finally sat in the portico of the Kaiser Café for an excellent coffee. Common consent was that as a ‘chill out’ in the midst of chaos this was a treasure.

Back at the KGH Krishna appeared to take Tom to the airport: his flight left several hours before ours, and after farewells we repaired to a nearby lunch stop before spending a gentle afternoon in the hotel garden. On time Krishna reappeared and presented us with the traditional scarves, and we were soon en route for the airport, and a final farewell. Etihad again managed to leave on time, and I settled down for the flight to Abu Dhabi, then after a short wait on to Manchester. I spent much of the latter flight mulling over the past fortnight. It had been a remarkably crowded and varied trip, which would obviously take a long time to process fully. My over-riding feeling was one of pleasure: it had been great to be back in Nepal and amongst the Nepalese. Kathmandu had been its normal paradoxes – splendour and squalor in equal measure, the trek had been hard, but not excessively so, Chitwan had been somewhat disappointing in its lack of wildlife, but pleasantly relaxing, Bhaktapur had been wonderfully bewildering in its excess of wild life, and I’d enjoyed our brief stay at Balthali. It had taken me some time to adjust to a different group dynamic: it was the first time that I’d visited in almost a ‘tour guide’ role as opposed to merely being with a collection of mates, the first time since our initial visit years ago that the majority of the party were first-time visitors, and the first time that we’d had a recognisable ‘sub-group’ in the shapes of a married couple. It was also, because of gender, been a trip without the now normal rotations, so that there hadn’t been the opportunity to spend the last few minutes before sleep chatting through the events of the day with someone different each night. Perhaps because of this I felt that I hadn’t really been party to Alan and Linda’s, and Merrilyn’s reactions to the whole experience. Helen had talked more about the delight she found, and about her Sudan parallels, and Tom had been the staunch Doctor Watson that every Holmes needs, and good company. Perhaps as time goes by, and we digest the whole experience, more will emerge.

And I am left with the recurring dilemma, again articulated by Sanam – will there be another trip ?

To paraphrase (slightly) the words of T.S.Eliot

‘Which leads us to an overwhelming question.

Do not ask ‘What is it ?

Let us go and make our visit.’

Perhaps I may take his advice. Within a day of returning home Rob had sent me details of a trek he’d done recently to the Mardi Himal.

It looks interesting . . . . . . .

The wheel revolves

‘Old Yeti’ in Nepalese. I had a couple of shirts embroidered some time ago, and they rarely fail to raise a smile from the locals, particularly when I declare ‘Mera Nam’ – ‘it’s my name’. I reckon that over the years they have now cost me only fractions of a penny for each smile they’ve produced

‘Excellent food’


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