Himalayan Trekking

Thunder crashed and lightening lit up the dark sky. The rain that had been lashing down turned to hail, an inauspicious start to our 12 day trek in the Nepali Himalayas. Fortunately we had just secured the last room in a very basic lodge so could watch it from inside but there was no escaping the noise as the hail pelted down on the tin roof. After watching the weather forecast closely for nearly a week we decided we would just have to go. The forecast was for a mixture of clear days and days with unseasonable snow. Still we were itching to go and had all been looking forward to trekking for weeks. We wanted to trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary and to base camp at over 4,100m where we would be surrounded by the magnificent Annapurna mountains. To be able to get up there though we needed good weather. An hour into our trek we heard the news that the trek to Annapurna base camp had been closed due to snow and avalanches and with the current weather conditions it was likely to be closed for some time. Now what to do? We stopped for a late lunch and made the mistake of selecting what we wanted off the menu rather than asking what would be ready quickly. Still the one and a half hour wait for lunch allowed us to reconsider our options. We decided we would trek to Muktinath up the Kali Gandikhi valley over 120kms away. Gilly and I had both trekked in the Kali Gandaki valley before separately over 20 years ago. We had heard that as a rough road had now been built things had changed and it wasn't the same but we were interested to see and the glorious mountain views would still be there. If only we had known before though we could have done what Gilly and I had done before, fly up the valley and walk down, instead we were going to be walking up the valley and flying down. Still Gil, our guide/porter was confident it would be a great hike and so refuelled by lunch we set out. The next 11 days we walked nearly 150kms and saw stunning scenery. Whilst the weather was a bit hit and miss at the start it cleared up after a few days to give us great walking weather and outstanding views. We were staying in tea houses along the way and the ancient medieval Nepali villages were just as fascinating as the stunning views. For a change in blog style and so we can recall each wonderful day it's easier for me to write this as a diary. Day One - Phedi (1130m) to Deurali (2150m) - 9kms After a short taxi ride it was a stiff climb upwards to our lunch spot where we had to redo our plans. The day was grey so we weren't able to see much of the mountains but we continued to climb after lunch. As we approached the tiny hamlet of Deurali it started to rain. Fortunately there was one room left in the rather ramshackle lodge. This was how both Gilly and I remembered tea house trekking. The room consisted of just three wooden beds with thin mattresses. The partitioning with the next room was wafer thin and where we thought there was a window was just some tarpaulin covering a space through to another room where a trekker was already asleep. It was not going to be a quiet night. But just as we were settling in the heavens opened, first came rain and then a massive hail storm. We were just glad to have somewhere dry to stay. Downstairs there was a tiny dining room where everyone huddled around the heater watching the hail outside. The lodge was run by a delightful tiny lady who kept hugging everyone as she brought in steaming cups of tea and hearty plates of food later in the evening. Day Two - Deurali (2150m) to Ghandruk (2050m) - 10kms After a noisy night we woke to crystal clear blue skies and from the ridge we were on could see across to the mountains. On one side was Machapachure ("Fish Tail Mountain") and straight in front of us was Annapurna South towering to nearly 8000m. It was cold but stunning. It was a pleasant hike along the ridge before descending nearly 800 metres in to the valley below. The problem with descending 800 metres was that we needed to climb up again and so after lunch it was a tough two hour climb to the second largest Gurung settlement in Nepal, Ghandruk, a pleasant village with narrow stone lanes and views across the valley. Unfortunately the clouds had rolled in so we could not see the high mountains. Mind you this time our lodge came with attached bathroom, not something I remember from 20 years ago. The hot water though didn't seem to last to the fourth person's (my) shower. Day Three - Ghandruk(2050m) to Deurali (yes another one, it means ridge in Nepali, 3,090m) - 11kms Again we awoke to clear skies and wonderful mountain views but soon after we set off the clouds rolled in. This was becoming a pattern. We were hoping to reach the hamlet of Deurali that night but as we climbed out of another valley it started to snow. Seeing a tea house ahead we dashed in just in time for lunch. As we ate we could see the snow falling heavily and it seemed it would be foolish to head higher. Instead despite our warning to the girls to stay dry they could not resist playing in the snow. As we finished lunch the snow stopped and we decided we would try to make it up to the top of the ridge. The weather held off and we found a warm tea house to stop in. The girls parked themselves at the top of the trail throwing snowballs at the passing trekkers before retreating to the tea house to watch Hindi movies that were playing on the tv. Day Four - Deurali (3090m) to Shikha (2100m) - 10kms One of the reasons we had wanted to make it to Deurali the previous day was that just a few hundred metres above the lodge was a look out tower that had fantastic views if the weather was good. The views are supposed to be similar to the more famous and much more popular Poon Hill and as it was only a 20 minute walk up instead of over an hour we thought this would be a better choice. And it didn't disappoint. Although when we woke up there was some clouds in the sky when we reached the top after trudging through the snow the views were spectacular. We could see the whole Annapurna range as well as Dhaulagiri (8167m) set out in front of us. It was a fantastic start to the day. After descending for breakfast we set out to cross the pass at 3200m before descending to Ghorepani. When Gilly and I had last visited Ghorepani it was made up of windy wooden guest houses. Now there were three story stone hotels. We did not linger long but headed out down the track. Again as lunch approached the rain started to fall so we took an extended break before bracing it out in the drizzle to reach Shikha our stop for the night. Day Five - Shikha (2100m) to Dana (1750m) - 15kms The next day started with an 8km descent to just over 1000m to the town of Tatopani. Tatopani is famous for its hot springs and whilst waiting for lunch Gilly and Lucy could not resist taking the plunge into the hot pools. Tatopani is also where we first hit the new road that had been built up the Kali Gandhiki valley. Not that we noticed it much at first as there was a transport strike or something and in any event we could walk across the other side of the river as we climbed up to the little village of Dana. Mind you about 6pm the road reopened and for about an hour there were plenty of trucks and buses using it. Day Six - Dana (1750m) to Kalopani (2530m) - 18kms This was a glorious day not just weather wise but also for the stunning views. The road had reopened but traffic was light and again much of the walk was on the other side of the river. As we left Ghasa magnificent views of Dhaulagiri came in to focus. It was amazing and made the walking easy. For a while as it was laid out in front of us we were very happy to be walking towards it rather than down and away from it. At this point the Kali Gandaki valley is thought to be one of the deepest valleys in the world with the seventh largest mountain, Dhaulagari on one side and the tenth largest mountain, Annapurna 1 on the other side. As we approached the village of Kalopani we could see both the mountains on either side and today the weather remained clear giving us breathtaking views at every turn. Day Seven - Kalopani (2530m) to Marpha (2680m) - 20kms Another glorious clear day with blue skies and fantastic mountain views. It may have been a long walk but it was only slightly uphill and the views distracted you all along the way. We stopped for lunch in the lovely village of Tukuche. Lunch was in a beautiful Thakali home set around a courtyard with wonderful views from the roof of both the mountains and also the town which didn't look as though it had changed in hundreds of years. Marpha is also a delightful little town set above the road with flagstone pavings winding there way down the narrow lane and its drainage system running underneath the paving stones. The houses are packed in tight but on the hill was a lovely little monastery. The town is also famous for its apples so it only seemed right that we should tuck into some generous helpings of Apple crumble. Day Eight - Marpha (2680m) to Kagbeni (2840m) - 18kms Yet another clear day and another fantastic walk. We stopped off in the now large town of Jomson to book our flights back to Pokhara in a few days before heading into the wind to reach the old village of Kagbeni. As we headed up the valley here it widened and flattened out. Fortunately the notorious headwind was not too strong. Kagbeni brought back lots of memories for both Gilly and I. It was here that my dad and I had spent our first night trekking 20 years ago. It had left a deep imprint in both our memories. Whilst Kagbeni has certainly seen some development in those 20 years it is still a delightful village with its 500 year old monastery in the middle of town. On the edge of town you can see up the valley into the restricted kingdom of Mustang. To hike here you needed a special permit. The landscape looked different more like the high plateau than the mountains. Gilly and I looked wistfully, one day we will hike it. Although we might need to be quick as the road was been extended up there too. Day Nine - Kagbeni (2840m) to Jhong (3580m) - 9kms It was a hard slog up to Jhong and you could start to feel the altitude as you walked but again the views both down the valley to Mustang and back across to the mountains were magnificent. We could also see the Thorung La Pass which many people cross when doing a full circuit of the Annapurnas. Jhong is off the main route and there were only a few guest houses in town. We found a basic one with a wonderful view but as the sun went down we knew we were in for a cold night. Day Ten - Jhong (3580m) to Jharkot (3500m) via Muktinath (3800m) - 7kms It was an easy days walk today with the sun shining and the sky clear allowing the snow capped peaks to be perfectly set against the deep blue sky. We walked the short distance to the temples at Muktinath. Here both a Buddhist and a Hindu temple were in the same walled complex. Most of the pilgrims today came by jeep rather than on foot and after the majesty of been on the mountains I was not that impressed with the man made shrines when there was so much natural beauty nearby. I am not a religious person or particularly spiritual but I can see that a shrine set in a beautiful part of the mountains that takes a long walk to get to has some significance. But building a road so that "pilgrims" can be bused in to stay in unsightly concrete hotels to take selfies of themselves at the shrine seems to me to be some what missing the point, but then what do I know. The town of Muktinath is also been developed and we could see lots of new buildings being built so on the recommendation of our guide, Gil, we continued down a short way to the still traditional village of Jharkot which had its own monastery perched on the edge of the valley. We arrived in time for lunch and decided after our previous days exertions that a relaxing afternoon was in order. Day Eleven - Jharkot (3500m) to Jomsom (2760m) - 18kms The weather held for our last day of walking. As we walked back down the valley we were rewarded with more spectacular views. Unfortunately most of the walk back was along the new road and it was dusty with the work lorries and the buses and jeeps, so not the most pleasant walk we have had. As the wind was blowing up the valley we decided to do the whole walk before lunch. Arriving in Jomsom, the bustling little town with an airport was quite a shock after all the time in tiny hamlets in the mountains but we were still able to have one last Dahl Baht for lunch before a well earned hot shower. Day Twelve - Jomsom to Pokhara by plane After hiking up the valley for 11 days it only took 20 minutes to fly back the way we had come to Pokhara. Just chance for one last look at the mountains before they disappeared behind the clouds and we descended into Pokhara. We had all thoroughly enjoyed our mountain trek. Gilly and I were amazed at how well both Alisha and Lucy had walked and how they had enjoyed staying in the quirky tea houses, chatting with other trekkers and just the whole experience. The views along the way were spectacular and simply took your breath away and whilst these will be the enduring memories we also loved seeing traditional Nepali life in the small mountain hamlets. Both Gilly and I enjoyed partially retracing a route we both had happy memories of taking many years before. Whilst the views and some of the ancient villages were unchanged its clear development is on its way and that the road is changing things quickly. For the locals most of this change is for the better, they are able to receive more money for their produce and bringing goods in is cheaper. Also medical care is now much closer to them. For the walking tourist it's not so good although the road can be avoided in most places. In a few years time though I think it will have changed significantly. We arrived back in Pokhara very happy after a wonderful trip. Now back to some more mundane things like sorting out the dirty washing and deciding just how we were going to get out of the Indian subcontinent.

Chilling by the Lake

In overlanding, like life, there are bad days as well as good. The day we arrived in Pokhara was definitely one of the bad ones. In the morning we'd tried to get an early start out of our parking spot at a hotel, only to find that the petrol station and road we needed to pass through to get out was totally jammed with trucks and buses as they had at last received a diesel tanker. The main ring road around Kathmandu was a total mess due to earthquake damage so we frequently questioned whether we were actually on the road or not. Another worrying thing was that every kilometre or so the police were out wearing riot gear, should we be worried? Everyone seemed to be going about their daily business but we decided not to linger. Then we got bad news about our proposed routes home (see Steve's previous posts) an email saying that due to fighting in the Shan State of Myanmar meant our route to China was looking unlikely. Another email came soon after that telling us that it would be almost impossible for Steve to get a Pakistani visa in time to go that way to China. The shipping agent in Mumbai, our backup option, kept on promising to send us the schedule but never actually did. The truck's windshield fogged up as the rain started to fall and we debated, yet again, our options. On arriving in Pokhara in the driving rain, several hours later, we took the narrow road out of town along the side of Fewa lake. We hoped to camp at the only overlanders campsite, that we know of, in the country. When we eventually found it their neighbours told us it was closed and had been sold but they said we could park there for one night. Trying to get in the gate, we scraped the side of the truck on the post. We retreated to the lay-by in front of the neighbours house to assess the damage. It was time to put the kettle on, break out the emergency chocolate and get out in the rain to seal the wound with yet more bathroom silicon.  But looking at the wider picture our silly niggles are nothing compared to others who are living with the problems that are thwarting us. The Nepalis unable to go about their normal business due to earthquake damage, fuel shortages and political uncertainty; the twenty thousand people in Northern Myanmar who have been recently displaced by regional fighting; and the Pakistanis who live life in fear because of the Taliban. It definitely puts our irritations into perspective. As often is the case, in the morning the world looked a lot brighter even if the rain was still falling. We backtracked to the outskirts of town, found the grassy parking lot of a completely empty hotel and paid to park and use their loo. The August hotel turned out to be a great spot for us, the few little local shops provided everything we needed and the parking lot was used by a bunch of friendly kids as a playground. Overhead scores of paragliders drifted down to their landing spot in front of us by the lake. In town we met Raju (our neighbour) again in a trekking agency, we hadn't realised when we had chatted to him that morning that he was a guide. He was able to sort out a porter and permits for our trek. Just the other side was a cool little cafe-bar owned by Wendy, a Canadian married to a Nepali, perfect for an afternoon coffee and relaxed night out chatting to interesting people. It was a few kilometres into town but still surrounded by rice terraces with a view of the lake. On the morning of the festival Holi, the local kids were out squirting water and throwing coloured powers. Too much fun to not join in. The girls reminded me that the coloured powers and water are to remember some of the antics the god Krishna got up to when he was a boy. They ran off in their old clothes to join the neighbourhood kids squirting water at everyone.  We could see the weather forecast for the following morning looked good, so we hiked up the steep paths for a couple of hours to the village of Sarankot. But the weather was miserable at the top. We hunkered down in the dining room of the small hotel we were staying in, warming up while the friendly owner cooked us veggies from her garden and a chicken from next door. At dawn next morning it was perfectly clear, we could still see the full moon as we hiked up in our layers to the viewpoint. We sat in awe at the first rays of the rising sun lit up the peaks in front of us. The whole Annapurna range was spread out in front of us Dhaulagiri (8167m), Annapurna II (7937m), Lamjung (6983m) and the unclimbed holy Machhapuchhare (6997m). The hike up to Sarankot whetted our appetite for getting into the mountains, we needed a few days to prepare and wait for a window of good weather at the highest altitudes. We have decided to do the Annapurna Sanctuary, a 10 day trek up to Annapurna Base Camp at an altitude of 4130m, at the moment there is quite a lot of snow up there. Back in Pokhara we picked up the last few bits of warm kit ready for the trek. I had to modify a pair of crampons, ready for the snow, for Lucy's tiny hiking boots. Both girls are very excited about the prospect of going up closer to the mountains. Hopefully with all the preparations, we will make it safely to base camp to enjoy the splendour of the mighty Himalayas.

In Search of The Green Eye of the Yellow God

I first came to Nepal 20 years ago with my Dad. The local newspaper where my Dad lived in Spain thought this was such an adventure it ran a series of articles under the title above. I had thought the heading strange and did not know where it came from until now.  There's a one-eyed yellow idol To the north of Kathmandu; There's a little marble cross below the town; And a broken-hearted woman Tends the grave of 'Mad' Carew, While the yellow god for ever gazes down. It's a poem by J. Milton Hayes. Gilly had also been to Nepal several times before and we had both visited Kathmandu together on a trip to Bhutan about 15 years ago so returning to the tourist enclave of Thamel for a few nights in a hotel was like a trip down memory lane. Thamel is full of guest houses, restaurants, souvenir shops as well as shops selling lots of trekking clothes and everywhere we turned it brought back wonderful memories of previous trips. As we had done on previous visits we thoroughly enjoyed our time in such a touristy area. After all it was quite some time since we had been anywhere with so many tourists. We also needed to do some shopping for clothes especially if we were going trekking and Thamel is ideal for that although some of the fake branded goods stood out a little too much with their spelling mistakes. We also enjoyed the restaurants. After three months without any red meat it was wonderful to have a steak even if it was buffalo meat. But Kathmandu is far more than just Thamel. The city is full of life with temples on every corner. The narrow twisting lanes are full of people and motorbikes and overhanging the streets are some magnificent old buildings. Unfortunately things had changed since we were last in Kathmandu. Yes there had been development but the biggest change was from the impact of the tragic earthquake which had struck Nepal in 2015. Everywhere we went there were damaged building or piles of rubble where buildings once stood. The Nepalis were working hard at rebuilding but there was a lot of work to do. Entering Durbar Square, the medieval seat of royalty with palaces and temples, it was heart breaking to see that many of the magnificent temples had fallen to the ground and where they once stood there were just empty plinths. Whilst there was some rebuilding going on it will be many years before it is fully restored to its magnificent glory. We still had an enjoyable time showing the children around and admiring those temples that had withstood the tremendous force of the earthquake. The children were particularly interested in the Kumari's palace which although damaged still housed the Living Godess. The Living Godess is supposedly a young girl occupied by Durga ( a Hindu Godess). The child is specially chosen and lives in the palace until puberty when she returns to normal life. Whilst we were there the Godess made an appearance (no photos allowed) at one of the beautiful ornate windows that surround the palace courtyard. Deciding we needed some trekking practice we hiked up to Swayambhunath ("The Monkey Temple") perched on a hill overlooking the ever increasing sprawl of Kathmandu. It's a beautiful temple with a resident troupe of monkeys looking to grab a snack from unsuspecting visitors. From here we could also see the pollution from which Kathmandu suffers. During our time in Kathmandu we couldn't help but notice the amount of dust in the air. Some of this is a result of the earthquake and rebuilding but it also comes from new building works as well as the brickworks that surround the city. Having seem one magnificent stupa it was only right that we went out to Bodnath to see the biggest stupa of them all. We were lucky in that we arrived on the last day of Tibetan New Year and whilst things were winding down there were still Tibetan monks giving a service and many pilgrims circling the stupa. Food and drink were been served to all, including us as they insisted we join them for some sweet milky tea. While looking at the amazing paintings of the Tibetan demons on the walls of one of the monasteries Lucy and Gilly were beckoned over to receive a blessing from one of the monks. After a few days of culture, shopping and steaks we headed back to the truck to drive all of 12kms to another ancient Royal city, Bhaktapur. First we had to find somewhere to stay. There was no way we could take the truck into the town down the narrow cobbled lanes. Instead we parked next to a hotel on the main highway overlooking the brick works. We do get to enjoy some wonderful spots! The upside was that it is always good to be back in the truck and it was only a short walk into the wonderful city. Although again damaged by the earthquake with some really important temples destroyed the remaining temples in each of the three Royal squares were magnificent. Throughout the town there were many ancient Newari buildings with ornately carved windows. The Peacock Window is the most famous but the intricate carvings could be found everywhere. It was lovely to just sit on the steps of a temple and enjoy the view whilst watching the local towns people go about their daily routines. It was much more peaceful and less frantic than Kathmandu and although it was a lived in city it still retained its medieval feeling. Bhaktapur is also famous for its King Curd, supposedly the richest creamiest yoghurt you will ever taste so we settled in at one of the hole in the wall shops to check this out. Whilst I don't know if it really is the creamiest in the world, I can say it tasted fantastic so much so that we bought a large pot to take away with us. Our time in Kathmandu has been slightly over shadowed by the growing problem of how we get back to Europe. The Nepal border with China is not opening any time soon and our planned route to China via India and Myanmar is now not looking possible due to conflict in the Shan State of Myanmar. I had got myself comfortable that I could drive the truck through Pakistan and we even visited the Pakistan Embassy in Kathmandu to enquire about visas, with the girls flying over with Gilly. However I can only get a visa in London and even then it could take from 2 to 8 weeks. So this does not look possible. Whilst our Nepali visas don't expire until the end of May our Indian visas expire at the end of April so there is a real danger of us been trapped. Whilst Nepal is a wonderful place to be trapped we need to find a way out which may mean we need to ship out of India which will be such a disappointment as we had our hearts set on driving back across Asia and in particular across the Himalayas. Shipping from India will no doubt be a challenge in its own right! We have been in Nepal nearly two weeks now and whilst we have seen the hills we have not yet seen the mighty mountains for which it is famous. When we have been in places where we could potentially see them they have either been shrouded in cloud or the haze has been so strong it was not possible to see them. So it's time to leave the Kathmandu Valley and head to Pokhara where hopefully the clouds will part to reveal the beauty behind them.