Category Archives: Nepal

into the breach

Nepalese flagWell the time has come to say farewell to my beloved Nepal, Pheri phetong la (see you again soon). Goodbye to the country that made me take leave of my senses and jump off a 160m suspension bridge, the country that has thrilled me with rapids, intrigued me with festivals, history, religion and temples, captivated the eye with hillsides, rice paddies, mountains, elephants and rhinos, and horrified with road traffic laws (or absence thereof). I am leaving this fairly relaxed, laid-back asian country for the thrills, trials and challenges of the huge more-than-a-billion-people diversity of India…wish me luck!

to base camp and back

jump shot in Ghorepani Fishtail morning shadowA tale of trekking, mountain volleyball, Indiana Jones-style-bridges, making momos, leeches, midnight runs in the rain to the outdoors toilet and soaring snow capped Himalayan peaks…interested? Let me elaborate…for the past twelve days I have been hiking the Annapurna Sanctuary trail in Nepal to Annapurna Base Camp. My guide, Sunita, was lovely, really friendly and very funny, especially on our last night when I made her share two beers and a Mustang coffee, turns out Nepalese women, not so used to alcohol! As I was the elder, certainly not the wiser, I became didi (older sister in Nepalese) and she was bahini (younger sister). I’m almost at a loss as to where to begin, it has been such a brilliant twelve days.

the route

Map of the route Fishtail (Machhupuchhre)
We began at Naya Pul and from there trekked up via Hille to Ghorepani, over across to the sanctuary route and via Chhomrong up past Doban, Deurali and to Machhupuchhre Base Camp (MBC) and finally Annapurna Base Camp (ABC). The heights given for the various villages and guesthouse stops are hugely misleading on the map. For example when you look at Ghandruk village at 1900m and then Landruk at 1595m, you think, great, only 400m to descend for the morning. Only once you actually look at the path it turns out that actually you are going to be descending about 850m to cross the river at the base of the valley and then climbing all the way up the other side. Chhomrong flowersMy knees are currently looking in to divorcing the rest of my body for malpractice! The scenery however was fantastic, climbing up and down stone pathways through small Gurung villages, getting occasionally jostled out of the way by munching Buffalo or run over by hoards of locals carrying huge bundles. Sunita thought it was hysterical to get me to try carrying the local’s baskets or huge mounds of grass every now and then whilst taking photos, I thought I was doing pretty well lugging my 10kg rucksack, nothing to what the villagers carry around! We also trekked through Rhodendron forests, groves of bamboo trees, across mountain streams, along hillsides, passed terraces of rice and millet and finally up through the scrubland and boulders to 4130m which is ABC.

the guesthouses

Ghorepani guesthouses Tadopani route
This is my idea of trekking. You walk four to six hours in the day and when you reach your destination there is a friendly guesthouse with stone rooms, clean (usually) sheets, toilets, occasional hot water and meals on request. For twelve days I have eaten large steaming bowls of porridge, pancakes, pizza, momos (Sunita persuaded the cook at the guesthouse in Chhomrong to let us watch (and help) him make momos for lunch so I could see how it was done!), dal bhat (Nepali rice and curry), noodles, rosti (fried potato pancake things topped with cheese and egg) and drunk a hot cup of Mustang coffee every evening. Now Mustang coffee is basically the Nepalese perversion of an Irish coffee. It contains the local alcohol made from Millet, smells and tastes like paint stripper with caffeine but definitely puts fire back into the body after a hard day’s walk. On our last evening Sunita and I drank cold beers whilst overlooking the hills surrounding Pokara and I then I suggested we both had a final cup of Mustang Coffee. Turns out Sunita is not as used to booze as myself and got quite tipsy! We were sitting in the smoky kitchen of the family who owned the guesthouse, listening to Hindi songs on her mobile phone and trying to get their 15 month year old son to mimic our Bollywood dance moves!

the dark side of trekking

Hungry hungry leech beetle
It wasn’t all fun and games, we had four days of torrential rain, whatever the weatherman says the monsoons have definitely not left Nepal. It takes some will power to get out from inside a warm sleeping bag when you can hear the rain of the corrugated roof of the guesthouse and you know that all your trekking gear from the day before is still damp and cold. Plus when you venture out onto the path, the earth has turned into a bog of squelchy mud, the stone steps have become slippery steps of doom and the leeches are out and looking for blood. I’m not joking these buggers get everywhere, in your socks, onto your walking poles and I even found one particularly big one having a grand old time sucking on my neck.

friends and family

The gang in Chhomrong
Even though the season has not fully begun we met a fair number of people along the way, villagers, porters, other tourists and Sunita is extremely friendly to everyone and as the all-female trekking group she belongs to most people had heard of her, or know who she was! Chhomrong was one of my favourite places, I ran into three Israelis and an Irish girl; Aviv, Sagiv, Ben and Jenny with their guide Bush for the second time when I arrived at a beautiful guesthouse overlooking two valleys. Local lady in KimrongPersuaded by the nice rooms, excellent food, stunning views and, I like to think, first class company they decided to spend the afternoon and night there instead of hiking down to the bottom of the valley. So we sat drinking beers and eating Pizza on the terrace, looking out over the mountain sides and relaxing away the afternoon. They had all come from the Annapurna circuit so had been going for nearly three weeks…actually I think Jenny’s magic red pills (whatever they were) had been keeping Ben going at least! My guide Sunita (Bahini)In Deurail at 3100m Sunita and I arrived early and were staying overnight to acclimatise to the altitude (she was carefully monitoring my water intake to make sure I got through at least three litres and wasn’t letting me have any Mustang Coffee that evening!) so we ended up playing mountain volleyball with the other guesthouse owners for a few hours. Mountain volleyball is just the same as regular volleyball only it’s played on the side of a mountain, figures! Gurung lady!The Nepalese Sunita’s been teaching me on the trek definitely came in handy although most people seemed hugely amused by my blundering attempts at the local lingo. Still it got us free tea and corn at one teahouse and when in Ghandruk we dressed me up in the traditional Gurung dress and I asked one old lady how she was doing in Nepali, I thought she was going to choke on her cigarette!

the destination

Lunch at MBC mountains
The day walking up to ABC was definitely one of my favourites and at the risk of waxing lyrical, here is what I wrote in my journal at the end of the day:

“This morning we awoke again to brilliantly clear blue skies and after my usual breakfast of strong black coffee, porridge with apple and chapatti we set off to climb the two and a half hour path to reach MBC at 3700m. The trees had all but disappeared by now, occasional small ones cropped up between the ferns, wild flowers and scrub. About one hour from MBC we got our first sight of the awesome peaks of the Himalayas, Fishtail spearing up into the blue sky and the achingly white peak of Gangapurna straight ahead of us. By the time we reached MBC after a short detour to take photographs of me posing by a huge ice bridge over the mountains stream, the sheer circle of the mountains was unbelievable. How can I describe the feeling of standing surrounded by moss and grass covered hills with snow and ice covered peaks reaching up around you? Route to MBCIt’s enormous, magnificent, beautiful, nature on a truly awe-inspiring scale, totally untouched, unaltered, and in the case of Fishtail, unscaled by mankind. We spent about two hours at MBC eating garlic soup and Gurung bread. As we sat warming ourselves in the sunshine the clouds began curling and rolling their wag in again over the mountain tops. Two ravens briefly soared overhead before disappearing down the valley. Around 1pm we said farewell to the English couple I’d been chatting with and started up the final path to ABC. The shrubs had now gone, replaced with thick, white-tipped grasses rippling and flowing in the wind. A gushing noisy stream tumbled and tripped down its rocky bed to our left, tiny brown sparrows jumped up from out of the grass beside us. In-between the grasses grew tiny violet buds, tall dark purple flowers like foxgloves, large yellow wild daises and red and green wild con. Huge boulders lay strewn across the valley as if disguarded by giants. In the distance through the white clouds rapidly overtaking us, we could just make out the outlines of the guesthouses ahead. As we got closer they seemed to tantalizingly slip further and further from view. The altitude had begun to kick in now and although my legs felt fine my head felt compressed by a prevailing dizziness and it was possible to walk only at a snail’s pace, putting one foot in front of the other as slowly we climbed the track. Finally the entrance sign bidding us welcome to ABC appeared and a short flight of stone steps brought us into base camp.”

Sadly the following morning began the two and a half days of torrential downpours so we didn’t get to see the final views from ABC but all in all I was still pretty damn chuffed!

back to civilisation
The way home

Today was the hardest trekking, partly because it was the final day and mainly because it rained like the very final monsoon last night and the steep steps all the way down to Phedi were slick as the sweat on my skin. But we made it and I am now showered, smelling less like I’ve been wearing the same sweaty t-shirt for two weeks (I have), and relishing the prospect of a comfortable warm bed tonight, I might even go and find myself a real Irish coffee!

belaying, blood suckers and beer

Rock climbingThis has definitely been the week of extreme sports for me! I was so pleased to finally have my India visa and be able to book tickets to Pune, sort out trekking and generally get out of the limbo that I’d been in whilst waiting. Angela and Mat had decided to go rock climbing so, having a spare day before heading down to Pokara, and still feeling some of the invincibility from my bungee jump, I joined them. Unfortunately the day fell foul of the indeterminable Nepalese bureaucracy. The park we headed up to was closed when we arrived and apparently we had to wait for an official to arrive to check our guide’s paperwork. After 90 minutes of chatting to the army guards it became apparent that the person was not going to arrive that day so we headed off to another spot an hour away across the valley. Sadly this rock face was not handily by any kind of road, so after the taxi driver coaxed and swore his vehicle up the hill through the forest (we had to hop out for the steep bits), we had a very steep hour walk down the mountain side to reach the destination. This wasn’t helped by the fact Angela and I were in flip flops, our guide ran ahead leaving us with his side kick who also ran off at the end (to check out the path), leaving us stuck for 20 minutes, and also the fact that the place was swarming with blood sucking leeches! So eventually at about 4pm, six hours after leaving Thamel, we finally arrived.

 The girlsWe just set up two different short climbs as neither Angela nor myself had been climbing outside before. It was good though and fragments of memory came back from my days climbing walls in London. I was a little wary of sticking my hands into all the nooks and crannies on the wall, especially after a very large lizard slid out of one just after we first arrived! Back in Thamel I went to visit Kirsty, a fellow Alpha dosser from my Raleigh trekking in Chile. Despite the fact she lives in Edinburgh, the first time we meet up in nearly six years, is on the other side of the world in Kathmandu. She is about to start work in a mountain clinic on the Annapurna Circuit for twelve weeks. So I had dinner with her, her boyfriend Liam, a Nepalese guy, Rabi and a friend of hers, John, who buys Tibetan singing bowls and Thanka art to sell on eBay. Then I went to meet Angela and Mat and we ended up in the only place in Thamel open after midnight, drinking shots called Acid Rain and managed to run into one of our rafting guides and my Australian friend Kirstin from Pokara. So by the end of the night I felt rather tipsy and that everyone in Kathmandu was now my best friend, including the barman who even played the Rolling Stones for us! I had of course, forgotten that my bus was leaving at 6.30am. I had two hours sleep before a very sweaty bus ride 8 hours down to Pokara! So now it’s just us girls, Andrea, Angela and myself here. Mat was supposed to be in Delhi today but on our night out drinking, managed to stub his foot and after we left he went to the hospital and it turns out it’s broken! So he is still in Nepal until he can get a cast done! Meanwhile, due to Andrea’s excellent Tibetan (she’s been working there for a few months for Amnesty International), the three of us were drinking tea with monks in the Tibetan settlement outside Pokara! And tomorrow I leave for Annapurna Base Camp so shall be out of touch with the online world for 12 days, possibly my longest time off line in a good five years! Oh, and mainly for Angela’s benefit I have written a translation page from English English to American English so she can decifer my apparent humorous use of expressions and words that just don’t exist in America. And don’t get me started on the pronunciation thing. It turned out whilst playing drinking games that the yanks refused to accept that yawn and corn rhymed. Well they do if you pronounce them properly people!

the twists and turns of fate

It’s funny how things can work out quite unexpectedly; from an annoying situation to possibly the most entertaining three days I’ve had yet in Asia!

Monday morning, 6am I rock up to the Indian embassy to find there is nobody there. I get given the no. 1 token and told to return at 9am. So I go have breakfast, come back when the office opens and so get to be right at the front of the queue. Only it turns out this is not yet the application part, I have to fill out a telex form which is sent to the UK  Indian embassy for clearance then I come back in three days to apply for the visa. So I walk back to Thamel extremely annoyed as my trekking plans have now gone up in smoke and I have days to kill in Kathmandu. An hour later I have gone and booked myself on a trip out to a safari tent style resort near the tibetan border called The Last Resort to have a day relaxing and then a day’s rafting. I’ve also run into a Kiwi guy called Waz I met on the bus in the guesthouse and he’s invited me to come for a ride on his motorbike he’s just rented, around the Kathmandu valley and up to a view point called Nagarkot. Waz in Bhaktapur 

So we head off out of the city with me holding on with one arm and attempting to map read on the back (and we all know how much of a sense of direction I don’t have!) and eventually we make it out onto the highway and head to Bhaktapur. Having last been here for the craziness of the Cow festival it was nice to walk around in the peace and quiet. We had lunch overlooking the temples in Durbar Square before heading up the long and winding road, through villages and terraces of rice paddies up to Nagarkot, where we sat drinking lemon sodas and eating apple crumble overlooking a beautiful view. Back in Kathmandu Waz took me out to Thamel’s premier steakhouse. Where they get the meat from in a country where the cow is sacred is beyond me! It was, however, fantastic steak, beautifully cooked and Waz is a lovely guys, runs trekking trips, rafting trips etc mainly in South America, in the three countries I want most to go back and visit; Venezuala, Colombia and Ecuador!

Bungee BridgeTuesday morning I head off at the ungodly hour of 5.45am with about 40 other backpackers to The Last Resort. Most people it turns out are here for the day to go bungee jumping as the resort is reached by a 160m high suspension bridge over a stunning deep canyon. Nutters I think. Now I have no problem with heights but bungee jumping has never appealed to me in the slightest. I get chatting to a few people and end up going to see the first group do their jumps and to take a few photos. Twenty jumps later I still think the whole idea is utterly ridiculous and have no plans to join the other group. About half an hour after lunch, however, a treacherous thought pops into my mind that maybe if I go back to Kathmandu without doing a bungee jump I will spend the rest of the trip regretting it. Wondering if it is covered by my travel insurance, the thought occurs that actually, if something goes wrong, I’m not going to be needing the travel insurance! Angela, my new American friend finally pushes me over the edge as I bring the subject up, and the next thing I know I’ve handed over 75 US dollars and am getting weighed before heading out to the bridge with the last two jumpers. On the bridge I feel pretty calm, they put on the harness, the sky is blue, flecked with white clouds, the river churning away 160m below me, I stand on the edge, excited and totally fine. Then I jump.

The Last ResortFor the next 30 seconds my blood curdling screams of total unadulterated terror rang around the canyon. I have never been so scared in my whole entire life. The second my feet left that platform and I felt myself just falling into oblivion, I was certain, beyond all doubt, all reason and all logic that I was falling to my death. Even after the cord pulled me up again I was still screaming.I didn’t in fact stop screaming until I began to be lowered down to the bottom, and only once I was lying and getting unhooked, did I finally accept that, maybe, I wasn’t going to die after all. It was brilliant, and incredible and I am so, so glad that I did the jump and now I never, ever want to do one again! Of course I had to by the DVD, seriously it was priceless, everyone else’s had them silent or whooping with exhilaration. Everyone listened to mine and said, Wow, you sounded really, really scared!

After a shower to wash away the stench of fear soaked into the sweat of my clothes, I ended up in the bar sitting on low cushions in the lovely surroundings of the Last Resort with my new found American friends; Angela, Andrea, Mat and Eric. We did the only sensible thing you can do after jumping off a 160m high suspension bridge, we got drunk! From 5pm to midnight there was a lot of drinking, drinking games, more drinking games and finally we all peeled off to our safari style tents with oil lamps to get some sleep before rafting the next day.

Eric and MatRafting, it transpires is an excellent hangover cure. We had our own raft called Bad Seed and after getting briefed on all the rafting commands we head off down the churning Bhote Kosi. For the next three hours we paddled, paddled faster, soared up and over white foaming waves, avoided the holes and sped over the rapids. Really good fun and really (this word is coming in for a spot of abuse) exhilarating!

Back in Kathmandu I went to the Indian embassy this morning to find my telex came back okayed and everything went through without so much as a question. I pick the visa up this afternoon which is such a huge relief. So now I am heading down to Pokara with the American girls (maybe after a spot of rock climbing!) and finally sorting out my trekking into the Himalayas!

preparing for doomsday

Tomorrow morning I shall be getting up at 5.30am to have my final triste with the Indian Embassy and I have a deep sense of gloom and foreboding about the whole thing. I do, however, have a masterful infantile response should they deny me the visa. I shall sit on their embassy steps, tearing the pages out of the enormous India Lonely Planet that I have been carting around for seven weeks and burn each page one by one whilst demanding they give me £14.99 as a refund!

the elephants’ bathtime

We left Pokara early in the morning and caught the bus down to the village of Souraha on the borders of the Chitwan National Park in the southern strip of Nepal known as the Terai. Our bus was greeted by a near desperate group of hotel touts as it’s destination and I was quite thankful that we’d already arranged the accommodation and could navigate our way through them to our waiting jeep. The Maruni Sanctuary Lodge was a lovely little network of thatch roofed bungalow rooms on stilts in a garden of tall slim trees hidden back from the road and run by probably the most effeminate man in the whole of Nepal, Madhav, who was lovely. On the first afternoon we went to visit an elephant breeding centre with two Austrian girls, Sylvia and Andrea, and watch their feeding. Initially though we were too preoccupied with two furiously fighting cockerels on the path to pay any attention to the elephants! The younger elephants aren’t tethered so two of them came bunddling out onto the path to search us for potential bananas and bread. They may still be babies but they are still a good ton of charging elephant and watching one come running directly at me down the path was a little intimidating. Don’t worry, Madhav said helpfully, just don’t be afraid, they can smell the fear in your sweat. Great, just act natural I thought. Luckily the bounding baby halted before turning me into a serious insurance claim, felt me up and down with her trunk looking for food and then disappointed bounded off again with a slightly sulky expression!

Chitwan National Park

The next day we all got up early to be taken on a Jungle Walk. I did suggest strongly to the guide afterwards that this should maybe be renamed Leech-feeding which would be a more accurate description. We were told the appropriate responses to a tiger or Rhino encounter, Tigers – gather together and look scary (!), Rhinos – hide in the bushes or better climb a tree if they charge. We needn’t have worried, unlike the foolish tourists the animals stay well under cover and hidden after any torrential rain. We did spot plenty of monkeys and a peacock on the canoe ride down the river but once on foot the only creature apart from the bright red cotton bugs that were out and about were the leeches. Luckily they didn’t seem to fond of me although I caught a few hopefuls making their way up the backs of my trousers, three managed to get a good drink out of Sylvia’s stomach (none of us worked out how they got there!) but they really seemed to like Andrea who it turned out had somewhat of a leech phobia and I don’t think massively enjoyed the walk!

Climbing onto the elephant When we got back to the riverside it was time for the elephant bathing. Very simple, the elephant’s handler, the mahout, brings the elephant close to the edge of the river (I would like to point out the self same river we’d just spotted the snouts of two large, hopeful crocodiles in) and you grasp the tough ears on both sides, place your feet on the trunk and at a signal the elephant raises its trunk propelling you onto the head where you climb over and sit on the animal’s back. Now when they say elephant bathing they do, in fact mean tourist bathing, because the elephants rise up and fill their trunks with rather muddy monsoon river water and liberally spray it all over their passengers, several times. We were still gasping and laughing when the elephant then suddenly dropped down into the river, rolled over and threw us in (you can tell they love this part). The mahout helps you back up (he has miraculously stayed standing on the elephants back during this whole interlude and remained bone dry!) and you do the whole thing all over again. It is absolutely brilliant, so much fun and completely worth getting soaked!

elephant bathing! In the afternoon we had a slightly more formal elephant ride on the safari into the national park, it’s a curiously sedate, rocking and mildly uncomfortable way to ride, and given the size of the elephant not the best way of trying to happen unawares on any jungle animals but still a bloody cool way to get about. We did spot a mother and baby rhino feeding in a clearing, several peacocks and a family of large Sambur deer. When we got back to the lodge Kristy and I were inducted into the game of Carom, Nepalese billards played with discs on a flat wooden board, the guys working there were very patient with our initially feeble attempts to flick one disc into another and sink them in the corner holes but by the end I think we’d almost got the hang of it!

Our final day in the Chitwan we ended up on a traditional Ox-drawn cart ride out to visit a Tharu village, the main ethnic group in the area (originally driven out from India to settle in the previously uninhabited Terai region). The houses are all constructed from mud and dung with hay rooves, many of them with stilts. Mothers and children sat talking or playing on simple wood and hemp beds on the front porches, buffalo and goats fed on large hay bales under open sided barns and chickens and families of ducks ran all over the road and paddled in the adjacent ditches…it really was like stepping back in time.
Tharu village

So now I am back in Kathmandu, Kristy and I had time for shopping yesterday and dinner at Fire and Ice which does the most surprisingly wonderful pizza and then today visited the beautiful restored Garden of Dreams. It was originally built in the 1920s and then abandoned to disrepair before being rescued about six years ago and restored. It’s an oasis of calm, with pavillions, marble statues, white benches and fountains in the general craziness of Thamel. Really peaceful and incredibly beautiful.

Garden of Dreams

So now, back to being the lone ranger and a final (hopefully) attempt to get this bloody Indian visa, seriously if there are problems this time, heads with roll! Also, the most bizarre group is staying at the Kathmandu Guest house right now. Now fair enough, if you seriously want to prescribe to a cult-like religion that believes that an evil alien race of beings has parasitised every bodies brains and that only by paying vast sums of US dollars and the proper meditations can you free yourself, on your own sanity be it. But why oh why would you parade around in a t-shirt to let everyone know. At least these were my thoughts upon spotting the yellow t-shirted Scientology International Volunteer Group at breakfast. I shall be steering well clear!

glimpses of the top of the world

Yesterday morning at 7am we saw our first glimpse of some of the highest mountain peaks in the world. Finally I can understand what all the fuss is about, you see all the postcards showing the perfect panoramic view of course, but it doesn’t quite compare to gazing sleepily out from your balcony to see the huge snow covered peaks looming above the hills, partially covered in clouds. Half an hour later they had disappeared again like a fleeting memory.

Pokara

Yesterday morning, after a decidedly decadent breakfast of porridge organic coffee and French toast in a little riverside cafe called Bistro Carolina, Kristy and I decided to get the legs moving again and hike the two hour scenic route up to the famous World Peace Pagoda overlooking Pokara and the lake. Despite a few red herring pathways we managed to climb our way through the woods, over the slippery rocks, under the noisy cicadas and emerge finally on the top of the ridge under a blue sky and hot sun. The pagoda itself is currently undergoing building work so was a little bit of a concrete jungle but the views were beautiful, we watched a local man supervising four bathing buffaloes and ended up having drinks and crisps on the little cafe perched jauntily on the cusp of the ridge. We got chatting to two lovely French men about their travels in India and they must be the first of their countrymen I have ever met who waxed lyrical not only about the British people but about the food as well!

Hilltop cafe, Pokara

It took us an hour to climb down the short route from the pagoda but during this short time a buzz had gone out on the leech network and although I was totally unaffected, at one point Kristy pulled up her trouser leg to find five of the little suckers, having a heavy lunch courtesy of her ankle! She remained admirably calm I thought as I helped flick them off and wipe up the blood streaming into her shoes! At the bottom we caught a leisurely boat ride back across the lake, went back to mop up Kristy’s injuries and then went for a late lunch by the lake.

About half way through dinner last night it started to rain, monsoon rain, sheets of water punctuated by lightening and roaring thunder. About fifteen minutes walk from the hotel we had no chance but to make a run for it…I spotted a stripy big golfing umbrella en route back and we did a quick detour to purchase it. It helped, sort of. The road up to our place was dark, I’d forgotten the torch again (!) and we must have stepped ankle deep into every water filled pothole along the road that was already mimicking a grade II white water river. We were laughing and soaked when we eventually stumbled in through the door to the undisguised amusement of the guys working there. It continued to rain all night, but by morning had eased off and the clouds were starting to lift. We went to visit Devi’s falls which in the photos looked like a river cutting through a shallow gorge then following majestically over the rocks below. After the night’s enthusiastic downpour we arrived to see an impressive churning mass of water careering around over the tops of the gorge, swamping half the viewing platform as the waves fought desperately to make it down the gap below.

After the falls we went to visit the International Mountaineering museum, a vast building devoted partly to the different casts and ethnic groups in Nepal and partly to the climbers and expeditions to the vast number of 8000m+ peaks in the Himalayas. It must have come as some what of a surprise to the locals, after generations of them had been happily traversing the Himalayas through valleys and mountain passes, to encounter (after they reopened their borders in 1948), a generation of European mountaineers obsessed with climbing to the tops of all the peaks, only to photograph themselves, and then walk all the way back down. Reading the stories some of the ascents must have been a real labour of love. As our guide Krishna yesterday said offhandedly, “Climbing Everest these days is easy, they even leave the ladders up the ice walls for you!” None-the-less I think a valley trek between tea houses maybe slightly more in the realms of my comfort zone!

Local Game This afternoon we’ve been strolling lazily around Old Pokara, a world away from the tourist cafe lined streets of Lakeside. Traditional Newari houses line the roads, tiny Hindu temples, basket weaving shops, tailors mending clothes on ancient Singer sewing machines on the pavements, the odd cow sleeping in the centre of the road being avoided carefully by the otherwise gun-ho buses and mopeds! A group of four local boys were playing the popular game in the photo, it’s a little like pool but with flat round disks that are flicked into holes on the corner, ingenious, simple and far harder to play than it looks!

from blessings to boating

Deciding we needed a little more cultural insight into life and religion in Nepal, other than that provided by the Lonely Planet, Kristy and I decided to spend a day with a guide, Krishnu, visiting a few places in and around Kathmandu. We started off at the rather unsocialble hour of 6.30am, but then Nepal truly is an early to bed, early to rise kind of country. We caught the morning prayer crowds working their way clockwise around the Bodhnath Stupa, one of the biggest in the world. It is almost totally hidden from the road, you walk through an archway and a huge area is cleared from all the mish mash of houses and this enormous white domed stupa covered in pigeons appears (it is so wrong that they are sacred here!). We also went to peer at the monk’s college and saw them all at their morning meditations dressed in dark red and bright yellow robes, looking very serious for teenage boys! From monks to monkeys, we then went up to Pashupatinath, one of the most important Hindu shrines in Nepal, and for Indians as well, as supposedly it is the birthplace of Shiva, the most important of the hindu gods, creator and destroyer (depending of course on which side of the bed he got out of that morning). It is a beautiful complex of temples, houses for the slightly hippy, dreadlocked holy men, cremations along the river that runs through the centre with burning funeral pyres and the whole place is totally overrun with glossy haired, quizzical looking Rhesus macaque monkeys.

Cow festival, Bhaktapur
We spent the rest of the day in Bhaktakpur outside Kathmandu for the Gai Jutra, or cow festival. Legend goes that an ancient King of Nepal lost his son, and his wife was so overcome with grief he began to think she was being overly indulgent. He ordered all his subjects to parade for one day in the Durbar square showing tributes to all their family members that they had lost throught the year so his wife would see that she was not the only one. But he also asked them to make it entertaining and humourous. So in present day Bhaktapur, by midday, every temple and step and rooftop cafe was covered to overflowing with locals and the odd tourist and a huge never-ending prcoession was weaving its way through the crowds. Families with decorated towers showing photos of their loved ones, burning incense, plaster cows on platforms, brass bands, young children dressed up in gold outfits (supposedly to resemble cows) and lines of boys and teenagers dancing with sticks…also, bizarrely the odd man dressed up in a saree with make-up on, just to get attention. It was loud and colourful and completely crazy but great fun to watch!

Blessings in Bandipur The following day (don’t ask me which day of the week, that has gone totally out of the window again) Kristy and I headed off down a bit and East a bit to a small hill top town called Bandipur about four hours from Kathmandu. We got dropped off on the main road after a mildly nailbiting bus ride and, with two Irish girls, got picked up in a rusty old jeep to drive the 10km up the hill to the town. Bandipur has a bizarre feeling of a old English market town. The cars can’t get into the centre due to the paved steps along the road. Wooden buildings have knarled old columns holding up the overhanging first floors, geraniums and pot plants adorn the side of the road and into the valley there are beautiful views of the terrraced rice fields and nearby villages. The place also seemed to be full of school children who unashamedly loved having their photos taken! We walked up to a tiny hindu temple at the crest of a hill and sat chatting with Rasu from our guesthouse and listening to him sing us Nepalese pop songs! That night as we slept in a our tiny brick walled room, the rain started pourring down outside the window, gently lulling us to sleep. School kids, Bandipur

Rain was less amusing the following morning when we had to leave and catch the bus to Pokara. Actually, we didn’t get too wet and by the time we caught stuck in the 90 minute traffic jam outside the town, it was lovely and sunny and we got a chance to chat to our bus drivers and a few passengers, people here really are lovely! Pokara is a total tourist pre-trekking hang out, but very endearing none the less and the lakeside views are absolutely beautiful. Being the end of monsoon season although the sky is clear and blue, the fluffy white clouds are tending to stick very closely to the mountains and the result is that those pesky himalayas have not shown so much a snow capped peak since we arrived! It is still a lovely view, with the jungle covered hill slopes rising up from lake, the rice paddies squeezed into gaps between the restaurants and the waterline and the hills turning blue black to grey in the distance until they are swallowed by the clouds. In the evening we were playing cribbage after dinner (which I have introduced Kristy to although my constant victories are, I feel, getting a little boring) when we got invited to play Knockout whist with an Irishman, an Englishman and a Belgium (no, this is not the start of a bad joke!) Despite getting nicknamed ‘Ruthless’ after the first 10 minutes I lost all the games so Kristy finally got to have her card revenge!

This morning we got a taxi up to a viewpoint called Sarangkot and sat drinking tea watching the early morning cloud rise up from the valley, the river Seti cutting through the gorge and the early morning sun just breaking through the clouds. On the two hour walk back down to Pokara I managed to slip and fall on my arse three times, put my hand in stinging nettles and get leech bites on my ankle…oh and yesterday a crow shat on my arm from a tree. I seem to have temporarily become a walking diaster magnet!

View from SarangkotDespite this however, after spending a few hours relaxing with drinks in a riverside cafe called Boomerang, Kristy and I decided to hire a wooden boat and go paddling around on the river before sunset. Even perched precariously on the back with both feet dangling in the water I managed not to fall in so maybe I back in the karma good books…

namaste, nepal

Buddhist monksAfter a slightly rocky start to my arrival in Nepal I have decided that this place is pretty damn cool! My flight from Sri Lanka to Doha was slightly marred by the fact that my video screen was not working so instead of zoning out with bad american films I had to resort to reading bad american sci-fi novels instead…actually “Rendevous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke turned out to be a very good Sci-fi novel, but that’s not the point. I got into to Kathmandu at 8am, sans luggage and with no helpful reassurance as to when it would arrive. I got to the Kathmandu guesthouse to find my room wasn’t ready and so decided not to bother showering or complaining and instead settled in the sanctury of the cafe with a cappucino and pancakes. After a brief wander around Thamel, during which time I passed at least seven huge bookshops full of an amazing selection of literature and guide books and only having two guys approach be to ask if I needed a taxi, I had decided that Nepal was literature-rich and hassle-low which endered the country to me immediately! By late that afternoon, both Kristy and my luggage had arrived and my initial annoyance had completely evapourated.

How to describe Kathmandu? The city is like everything I always imagined in my mind and never thought could possibly exist. We Blessingare staying in the traveller’s central of old Kathmandu, Thamel. Narrow streets lined with shops selling everything from prayer bowls to fake northface trekking geer, travel agencies, cafes, guesthouses, restaurants, rickshaws, motorbikes, taxis, tour touts and temples. Everything feels somehow very old, as if you could remove the cars and light bulbs and be looking at a street view that has not changed much in hundreds of years. The people are a mixture of indian, chinese, mongolian and tibetian features dressed in anything from sarees, to traditional nepalese outfits, jeans to shalwar kameezes.

Tiger Moving GameKristy and I spent our first day exploring the vast number of Hindu and Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas around Durbar square and wandering around the muddy streets of the old part of the city. The food here is fantastic, I am already hooked on momos, a kind of light dumpling snack filled with meat or vegetables and lassis, a kind of curd milkshake with fruit. Everywhere smells of incense and the oil lamps burned in the temples, of motorbike fumes, or sickly sweet rotting vegetables. We also visited Swayambhunath, a hill top buddhist temple affectionately known as ‘Monkey Temple’ due to the large numbers of roaming Rhesus macaques scurrying over the walls. On the way up at one of the stalls I was shown how to play a traditional game called ‘Tiger Moving Game’ played on a slate board with 20 brass goats and four tigers. After managing to beat the stall seller of course I ended up buying the board and pieces, as did Kristy and we now spend our lunchtimes perfecting our respective ‘tiger’ or ‘goat’ stratgies!

Kathmandu is a photographer wonderland. The temples, the architecture, the life, the clothing, the people. There are also numerous little nooks and crannies from which to surruptiously take clandestine photographs of people, without them noticing, which is always handy. But whether it’s mothers and babies, buddhist monks examining stone tablets, local guys relaxing on the steps of stupas or, like today in Putan, crowds of people gathering around in circles playing drums and singing everywhere you look is just the perfect photograph begging to be taken. sacred pigeonWe’ve been blessed by pilgrims, had numerous red spots daubed on our heads, fed the pigeons to increase our karma, learnt about the hindu and buddhist religions in the fascinating Putan museum, ridden around on a crazy bicycle rickshaw, brought children’s bird whistles in a hindu festival and for my birthday meal tonight we went to a traditional Newari house for a huge meal and cultural show of local dances. They kept pouring us small clay pots of local rice wine which is incredibly strong! So tomorrow we are getting up at the crack of dawn to see another festival in a nearby town to Kathmandu and then we are on to Pokara by local bus which itself could prove to be somewhat of an adventure sport. The Lonely Planet helpfully points out that your chances of dying in a road accident in Nepal are 30 times higher than in Europe! Fantastic!