Gagging to start our trek!

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March 26th 2008
Published: March 26th 2008
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Raj leads the wayRaj leads the wayRaj leads the way

Raj's favourite phrase when posing for a photo - 'ho ho ho' with his hand on his belly!

Day One: Pokhara - Phedi - Dhampus

It was an early start as we had a long, long minibus journey to Pokhara then on to Phedi for the start of our trekking. Everyone was absolutely gagging to get into the countryside and breath some fresh air into their dust and smog coated lungs! We'd put all the things we'd need for our trek into kit bags ready for the porters to carry (we were allowed no more than 10kg per person as each porter carries two people's gear!), the rest of our gear was left at the hotel in Kathmandu. It was here that Krishna, one of our two sherpas joined us (little were we to know then how we would all come to love little Krishna in his desert combats and denim jacket!).

Having experiened the transfer from the airport to the hotel and traffic in general no-one was looking forward to the 6 hour journey and we expected some hair raising moments - we weren't disappointed. There were so many near misses it was better to try and sleep so you couldn't see!

Watching the changing scenary was fascinating. It took a long, long time to
Getting used to the stone stepsGetting used to the stone stepsGetting used to the stone steps

From left to right - Raj, Niamh, Sinead and Sharon.
work our way out of Kathmandu. The outlying parts are so run down, dirty and crowded but with such disparity between the haves and have nots. You will see, sitting in the same run down area, a lady obviously living from hand to mouth, desparately trying to survive while next to her is a young guy with smart western style clothes, a trendy hair cut and chatting to his mates on his mobile phone! Apparently there aren't any smarter districts of Kathmandu and everyone lives side by side whether rich or poor.

This reminds me of another strange sight I saw: a buddhist monk in full length, red garb also on his mobile phone!

As we left the city behind we started to see some of the countryside. There were steep valleys with terraced fields and much healthier looking rivers flowing through. The villages and towns we passed through seemed well looked after, the people seemed happier and the pace of life seemed much slower. Groups of men and women sat around chatting, some doing chores, children either smartly dressed for school waiting for a bus or playing together in little groups by the roadside. People seemed to take more pride in their homes and surroundings and even the assortment of junk in the streets was sorted and neatly piled, rather than strewn everywhere as in Kathmandu.

We saw a lot more cows on the roads here (not surprisingly being the countryside!) and this involved lots of lurching and swerving (and accompanying gasps from those of our group not asleep!) to avoid not only the cows but also stray dogs, goats, children etc!

We noticed neat little domed haystacks near each house raised off the gound on platforms with either firewood neatly piled underneath or cattle or goats sheltering. The stacks had a central vertical pole with hay draped over forming the shape of a bell (photo to come when I get time).

I was fascinated to see the building techniques used. Lots of bamboo poles were used as either scaffolding or props for the upper floors as they were being built. Alarming to see some of these wedged with bricks if they were not long enough!

Many of the children seem to play a game on a raised board/table and throw or shove coins across the surface. On the subject of children, I asked Raj about the Nepalese children's access to education, having read in the Rising Nepal newspaper that this week the high school children are sitting their School Leaving Certificate. I wanted to know what proportion of children reached this stage. I found out that education in Nepal isn't compulsory and it's left up to the parents to decide if their children attend school. Education is expensive so this choice isn't always much of a choice to those with small incomes. Raj reckoned that about 50% attend school in the city but this proportion is much less in the countryside as just getting to school is difficult, never mind the cost. Apparently the School Leaving Certificate is an extremely tough exam to pass and if you do fail there are no second chances - no pressure there then! Obviously passing the exam opens up far more opportunities for further education and better paid jobs so no laziness in Nepal schools!

After what seemed like days but was in reality about 4 hours we stopped at a roadside restaurant and sat under straw roof shelters to eat our food. We were visited by a very clean, tiny little cat (the dogs are all covered in mange - minging! Cats are so much better than dogs!). This little cat had the loudest, lowest meow that kept scaring the b'Jesus out of us (I'm picking up the Irish way of putting things with 6 Irish girls in our group it's pretty unavoidable really).

The food came and everyone started to tuck into their assortment of veg fried rice, pizza etc. Phil and Mark had opted for a cheeseburger! You should've seen their faces as they prodded and poked at what came back. It was a kind of dry vegetable burger or may have been made entirely of cheese! Lets just say cheese burgers a la Nepal won't be top choice this trip!

Fluttering around the garden were some beautiful large black and white speckled butterflies and what looked like a black and blue version of our swallowtail butterfly. Oh and I also spotted this gorgeous dark red damselfly. It's fascinating seeing the different plants and wildlife - I'm sure there will be plenty more 'spots'.

We got back on the road and eventually swung into famous Pokhara (the Lake District of Nepal) where me and Mark picked up our sleeping bags (hired for only 360NR or about 2 pounds 80p - can't find a pound sign on this keyboard) and we all had a taster of the luxurious hotel facilities we would be sampling after our trek. The hotel has an outdoor pool - wow that will be lovely after a hard trek in the mountains.

Aside - Clown Convention

While on the road we've heard all manor of what can only be described as comedy horns. Instead of just one tone beeps we got three notes descending in rapid repetition, five notes in random order and the usual honks and beeps we'd already grown accustomed to. Every time one vehicle comes withing 10m of another off goes the comedy horn and it was just like a conversation between competing clowns! A veritable clown convention on the roads of Nepal! The constant beeping is starting to make more sense as we go along - sort of! Continual beeping seems to indicate 'I'm behind you, move over into the gutter so I can get past' and a random beep for no apparent reason means 'Mind out of my way or get run over' but occaisionally 'Look out anyone round the corner. I'm in the middle of the road and there's no way we can pass each other'.

Trekking from Phedi to Dhampus (1,700m)

At Phedi we all piled out of the minibus looking dishevelled and very unprepared for a 2 hour trek up to our first tea house at Dhampus. Our other sherpa Govinda was waiting for us along with our 5 porters looking highly amused at the strange bunch of slightly nervous looking foreigners. They heaved the huge packs up onto their backs using straps over their heads and under the packs and set off - fast - up the stone steps that rose steeply into the woodland above the road. 'Are we going up there too?' asked an incredulous Helen looking longingly up the slightly inclined road instead. And yes this was the start of our long awaited trekking in Nepal.

The climb was up stone steps very similar to our stone pitched footpaths in the UK, but these were steep and went on FOREVER! After we'd been slogging up these for about 10 minutes it started to drizzle and our odd assortment of waterproofs emerged. I soon adopted the Nepalese way of wearing a raincoat sleeveless with the hood on my head and the rest of the coat over my ruck sack. We soon resembled some sort of strange hunch back procession up the hillside. We started to pass through little hamlets and met a few locals along the way who seem to gamble up and down the steps with such ease compared to us novices wearing flip flops - oh yes! Even up here we were approached by an old man begging on one of our many stops to get our breath. Raj had already given us the advise not to give money to beggars as it just perpectuate the cycle of begging. It is hard to ignore someone who obviously has great need and who sees us as being so rich. The advise was to save any giving to the 2 school donation points along the way to help build and run more schools for the mountain children.

The countryside along the way was lush green terraced hillsides with villages dotted around. I took so many photos, it's all so new and interesting to me. Everyone we see gives us a friendly 'Namaste' greeting. Some of the children say this then immediately follow it with 'Sweets?', another thing we are discouraged from giving as it makes for bad teeth! We had about half an hour to go when the heavens opened and we just had to push on to our first tea house. It was such heavy rain that we were all completely soaked and could only laugh hysterically at our predicament. What a baptism of fire. There were even some massive hail stones towards the end of the trek and this just added to the hilarity - not something I'd been expecting AT ALL!

We eventually arrived at our tea house at Dhampus and were shown to our 'rooms'. We'd been warned to expect very basic accomodation and basic it was. in tea houses the beds are made up of rough bits of wood with a very thin mattress and a pillow if you are lucky. The toilets are really basic squat style and often don't even have a sink outside to wash hand. Thank god for hand sanitiser. The shower, if there is one, usually says SHOWAR - Hot and Cold on the door and tepid is more the expression they are searching for. I was amazed that they had showers at all. The walls between rooms is often just plywood and we found it amusing to think that with the beds shoved up against the wall of ajoining rooms you are virtually sleeping with a stranger all bar the 5mm thick ply between you! Thinking about the standard of the tea houses put me very much in mind of the barn I used to live in on Bardsey Island. In some ways we had it worse there as we had cobble stones on the floor, still had horse stalls and gorse grinder machinery in situ, oh and no electricity except in the evenings when the generater went on. The toilet were elsan bucket style that you had to empty into an open cess pit. So tea houses are pretty luxurious in comparison. I think that maybe this meant some of our group took a bit longer to adjust than me but everyone was pretty accepting and just got on with it. Our group is such a good group.

When it came to dinner time we were very surprised to have a menu with a huge variety of meals on offer from noodles, veg fried rice, omelettes, pancakes, soups, veg fried potatoes (which quickly became a firm favourite with quite a few of our group) to momos and traditional dahl baht. How they manage to cook such wonderful food in such conditions is amazing and we were so stuffed - so much for the expected weight loss on the trek! This view was compounded when huge plates of apple fritters arrived for us all.

And so to bed, tucked up in our sleeping bags and extra layers at the weirdly early hour of 8pm! It gets dark and with intemitent electricity it is hard to do much. As someone who usually goes to bed at about midnight I found I had to read or write up my diary by the light of my head torch until late (10pm!!).


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