After the craziness of Vietnam it was great to be home in Joburg for a bit of R ‘n R and to see Anne, my friends, family and ex-colleagues again. Unfortunately there was also a bit of admin to do: I needed to apply for visas for Ethiopia, India and France in the 13 days (all successfully obtained – yay!); head down to Cape Town for the annual actuarial convention to get some CPD (continual professional development); and keep an eye on the guys who were busy replacing all our wooden floors throughout the house (the most challenging bit). In between all of this I rushed around seeing everyone, doing a tiny bit of training for the upcoming trekking by going up and down the Westcliff stairs, and doing a lot of carbo loading in the evenings. All too soon my short visit was over and I had to say goodbye to everyone to start stage 2 of my trip – the Indian sub-continent (with a bit of Ethiopian thrown in).
I arrived in Kathmandu after a rather long series of flights via Addis Ababa and New Delhi. I had managed to get some sleep on the trip and so wasn’t too jet lagged. After settling in at my very nice hostel, Alobar1000, I popped across to the office of the trekking company I was using, Adventure Mountain Expeditions (AME), conveniently located in the same narrow side street a block away. I’m doing one of the newer treks in the Annapurna region, the Khopra trek. I chose it because it is one of the shorter treks (6 – 7 days, pretty much all I think I can manage given my lack of preparation), because it is one of the quieter treks (I’m here in the middle of the main trekking season) and because it is meant to have some of the best views of the southern Annapurna range. After sorting out the final admin I headed to a gear shop to pick up some stuff I would only be needing for the trek – a very thick fleece, waterproof shell pants, a fleece beanie, a pair of walking sticks and an extra pair of thick socks. After that I joined 4 other people who also doing treks through AME for a surprising good dinner and local dance show, where I had my first momo, a delicious Nepalese steamed dumpling. Two of the people, (actuarial trainees from London) were doing the Annapurna base camp trek, and the other two, an Englishman from Bristol and and lady from San Francisco, we’re going to Everest base camp (together with my mate Alice, who was arriving the next day from Joburg). I headed off to bed a little tipsy after me and the Englishman tucked into a few of the local Everest beer.
I decided to do a bit of sightseeing today before Alice arrived and headed through the narrow streets of Nepal to Durbar Square, about 1.5kms away. The streets off the main roads are fairly entertaining, with no pavement at all, and so cars, bikes and people al battle for the same space, which sometimes is only just enough for two tiny cars to squeeze past each other. Fortunately it is mainly pedestrians, but you need to be fairly aware of what’s happening around you in case there is a crazy biker weaving through the crowds at speed. The main area of Kathmandu, Thamel, is packed full of trekking gear shops and trekking companies, and you could easily kit yourself up for an entire trek. The choices range from cheap knockoffs of well known brands to fairly expensive genuine popular international brands, as well as any gadgets you may need. Back to Durbar Square, it is a group of very holy temples and buildings in the middle of Kathmandu. Some are only open to Hindus, but you can walk around most of them once you’ve paid the $7.50 entrance fee (and have successfully brushed aside the many guides who approach you at the entrance). The 9 story temple, an almost entirely wooden structure, gives great views of Durbar Square and the city beyond. There is also a fairly interesting museum on the life of the Nepalese king who reigned before the one who was killed together with almost the entire royal family in 2001. The main thing I took from the museum was that he was a prolific hunter and has killed many rare and endangered animals on several continents. Pretty much the only thing he didn’t shoot was a snow leopard (although I’m sure he tried). After a quick lunch I bought some trekking snacks and headed back to the hostel to meet Alice. We quickly sorted out her Everest base camp trip (she was leaving at 5:30 the next morning), had a quick drink with a Canadian with whom she had shared a taxi from the airport, and then all three of headed out for a nice dinner at a slightly upmarket restaurant in Thamel – our last meal before our treks started!
After leaving the hostel at 8:00, I headed to Kathmandu airport to catch my flight to Pokhara. The domestic terminal is a little bit chaotic – I was put on an earlier (but delayed) flight without being told (I only noticed when checking my very uninformative flight coupon against my ticket), the screens showing flight information have the two sides truncated, making it difficult to understand what is being shown (not much as it turned out), and we boarded through the same gate at the same time as another (delayed) flight – as you exit the gate the buses for the various airlines are lined up and you need to make sure that you get on the right one. There were only 4 passengerson our flight, a small plane seating around 20 people. The 25 minute flight in was pretty cool and it was the first time ever that I’ve been in a plane at cruising altitude where you look across to the distant mountains instead of down. Quite a few of them where even higher than the plane. Two of the guys on the flight were very enthusiastic with their cameras, taking photos through the cockpit window and of themselves with the pilots. The landing at Pokhara is slightly terrifying as the plane heads down a fairly narrow valley at low altitude, before making a sharp turn at low altitude while still descending and straightening up at the last second to touch down. Not one for those scared of flying! As you step off the plane you immediately notice the amazing 7000m Fishtail mountain, on the horizon – a lone snow covered peak looming over the town. My guide Kissin and our porter Razul were there to meet me and we caught a tiny taxi to Nayapul, the start of our trek. After being dropped off we had a short and easy 3 hour walk from Nayapul to Chimke (including a short lunch break at Birethanti). We had to stop there as it was late in the afternoon and cloudy and Kissin didn’t want to risk walking to Ghandruk in the dark (another 2.5 hours walking uphill). That means tomorrow is going to be a monster as we head to Tadapani – about 1700m of climbing, over 5 hours. So far the walk has been along a fairly rough road although surprisingly the tiny little Suzuki hatchbacks seem to manage over the rough terrain as easily as the 4×4’s. Tomorrow we head off the road up a steep flight of stairs to join the trail proper. The food has been pretty good so far with a variety of dishes to choose from. First dinner- curried eggs, my favourite (although it was quite different from what I’m used to). This is likely to change once I head off the main travel into the Khopra trail. One thing about the mountains here compared to other places I’ve been to is how quickly they go up. The start of the hike is just over 1000m, and yet less than 30km away you have a 8100m peak. Amazing!
We had an early start with a 6am wake-up for a 7 am start. A quick summary of the day: First thing steps! Middle thing steps! Last thing steps! We started with a 700m hike up through the village and surrounding terraces to Ghandruk in just over two hours. Throughout this part you caught views of the peaks above and the valleys below. Ghandruk is probably the largest village on my hike and it serves as an intersection to several trails and side trails (several places even have Wi-Fi). It has beautiful views down the valley heading to Annapurna base camp. After as brief stop for some tea, we headed up another 500m up to our lunch stop at Bhaisi Kharka (around 1 1/2 hours), through a nice wooded area. After a huge and pretty tasty plate of spaghetti we headed off to our stop for the night, Tadapani, a further 250m up. This part of the hike was through beautiful peaceful forests. By this stage the clouds had moved in and out has gotten quite cold, but every now and again you’d catch a glimpse of the surrounding mountains through the cloud. After a few stretches to ease my weary limbs I grabbed a quick beer and settled down for some R&R for the afternoon. As I was sitting staring out at the view a guy with huge package of 10 single foam mattresses, who was just behind us at lunch arrived 20 mins after me- amazing! As a main junction for several south Annapurna trails Tadopani was very busy with over 100 hikers staying in the 5 our so lodges. This meant a very full and noisy dining room- the place with the large wood fired boiler and hence all the warmth. However it meant that it was a good place to chat to a few people. As we got further away from roads and modern conveniences, the prices of things were starting to rise- a large beer was now $5, it was $1 to use the plug to charge your phone, and $1.50 to get a hot shower. The rooms were also not as comfortable as on my first night, with shared bathrooms and very thin walls but that said I still had a good night’s rest.
Happy 41st birthday!! Unfortunately I only remembered 30 mins into the hike. Woke up to fantastic clear skies and an amazing view of the mountains, and best of all, no stiff muscles (my walking up and down the Westcliff stairs obviously doing some good). We had a bit of a late start (8am) as our lunch break was only 3 1/2 hours away. We were now leaving the main trail and you could immediately see the difference. Gone were the wide occasionally paved paths of the earlier trails- now we were hiking along narrow trails covered in leaves and tree roots. It was also much more peaceful with almost no-one else one the trail (in the morning I passed one group of two hikers heading in the opposite direction). The scenery was even better than the previous days. We stayed in a beautiful old, untouched and dense Rhododendron forest, with moss covered trees and Autumn leaves lying on the green grass. Occasionally you’d get glimpse of the mountains through a the trees. As before we were continuously heating up, the trees slowly changed into pines, and then disappeared altogether to be replaced by low grass. The path also changed, becoming more rocky, but still steep. We stopped for a quick breaks at Meshar, a group of three houses at 3000m, and Ishuri, before reaching our lunch spot Dobato, at just over 3400m. At this stage the midt has rolled in, and so there was no view. The temperature has also dropped significantly, with ice forming on some of the rocks. I had a special birthday meal of egg curry rice, a cup of black tea, and a mini mars bar for pud. Unfortunately the weather didn’t improve and so we decided to spend the night at our lunch spot, as it had a really good view point just 20 mins away which we could visit in the morning. The lodge is surprisingly comfortable given that everything has been carried up here either by people our by mule (including huge sheets of corrugated iron. After putting on almost all my warm clothes, the boiler was fired up, a beer was opened and I settled down for a small party with some fruit gum teddies, some curry flavoured Niknak style chips, sliced apple, a few Oreos and a game of cards with my guide, my porter and two of the ladies from the lodge. Eventually the porter was trying to impress the young lodge lady with a series a magic cards tricks. Also tried some Nepalese dried meat- tastes very much like very burnt bacon. Not much English spoken but still quite a cool (but very different) birthday. So far this birthday is setting many firsts: highest birthday (3400m), coldest birthday (definitely below zero), most isolated birthday, least drunk birthday (in my adult life), most energetic birthday.
Today started with a 5:30am rise to climb the 200m up to Mulde Hill, a 3634m high hill with fantastic views of the Annapurna range as well as the nearby Dhawalagiri range. From there you can see over 25 peaks, including 3 8000m+ peaks. You can get a similar view from the famous Poon Hill near Ghorepani, except Mulde is 400m higher and almost 5 km closer to the mountains. I also had the hill all to myself, compared to Poon Hill where you share it with many other hikers. I also got to see my first yaks and nyaks (the female version, which makes me a lot more suspicious of the yak butter you see advertised in shops in Kathmandu). After heading back to the lodge for breakfast we headed off to Khopra Danda, a small group of lodges on a 3600m high ridge. To get there you need to cross a huge half bowl of sheer mountain cliffs. We decided to follow the higher route that’s only open during the dry season because of the very narrow path, steep drops and avalanche risk. It also means needing to cross many steep gullies, and there was lots of zigzagging up and down some very steep paths. At the end of the 4.5 hour hike my legs and knees were definitely feeling it. However, the amazing wide open panoramic views more than made up for it- today was definitely the most spectacular day with high mountains above us and deep valleys stretching as far as the eye could see below us. Our lodge in Khopra Danda is a lot busier than the previous one with 8 other hikers inside the lodge, and camping outside. Also at the lodge was my personal hiking hell- a group of about 30 very noisy teenagers on a school hiking trip. Fortunately as campers they aren’t allowed inside the lodge to share in the heater (unless they pay) which partially insulated us from the constant noise. The afternoon clouds continue to make there appearance, and we’ve heard that the conditions further up the mountain are very tricky- lots of ice and frozen snow on very narrow paths, so we’re not going to be going higher. The plan for tomorrow is to head up about up little in early morning to catch the sunrise again before heading down to another village on our way to Tatopani, a large village on the main Annapurna Circuit route with some hot springs.
After another beautiful sunrise we headed down to Paudwar, a beautiful little traditional village with only 2 simple lodges sitting in the deep valley at 2100m. This meant a steep 3 hour descent of just over 1500m, mostly down fairly uneven stone stairs and along some disturbingly high cliff edges. Every now and again you’d spot one of the small scheduled planes fly passed through the valley, or spot vultures soaring above (and on several occasions below) us. By the time we reached the village my right knee was hurting quite a bit, so I was really happy to have a lazy afternoon reading and catching up on the blog. I was joined by a Spanish couple and an American couple (Ben and Ashley) who has also been at Khopra Danda, and we had a nice evening drinking some not-too-bad tasting local millet wine before everyone headed to bed at around 8pm (pretty standard on the hike!).
The final descent!! Before starting our 900m descent into Tatopani, we had a quick visit to the village cheese factory, where they make a local cows milk cheese. The whole process is quite basic, with a giant wood fired stove to heat the milk and a hand driven fat separator. While we were there a few of the local farmers arrived carrying that mornings milk from their herds situated far away from the village. It once again highlighted how difficult life is around here, with everything needing to be carried (usually by people), often up 100’s of meters of really tough landscape. The walk down was fairly uneventful, although my right knee was really starting to take strain. After reaching the river in the valley below it was a short walk along a dusty road to our lodge in Tatopani where a myriad of wonders awaited me: a private bathroom, a shower, hot water, a flushing toilet, a non-squat toilet, electrical sockets to charge things, a wide variety of foods not containing rice or lentils, and wifi. Later in the afternoon I headed to the nearby hot springs for a relaxing (but very hot) dip to ease my weary limbs before returning to my lodge for a few beers and dinner. Although we had to cut the trek short by one day, overall I’ve really enjoyed it, and it has been the perfect length and difficulty for my amount of preparation and general level of fitness. It’s a great trek for anyone looking to catch some spectacular views of the Himalayas without going on a 10 – 15 day trek. It is also possible to extend the trek by several days to some of the (large) foothills south of the Annapurnas, or to join the base camp trek.
I had been warned about the public buses in Nepal, and they did not disappoint. Imagine the worst road and the worst bus in the world. Now imagine that the bus has been designed for people half your size. I was actually slightly fortunate in that no-one on my bus was vomiting – an apparently very common occurrence. After 2 hours of bouncing along the 25 km’s or so to Beni, we thankfully moved to a large bus, and as the road surface improved a lot, we could also go faster, something the bus driver took full advantage of. Soon eth worst music in the world was blaring at maximum volume throughout the bus as we sped around the narrow roads. Fortunately I had my headphones and was able to drown out some of the music, and I made sure not to watch what happening on the road. After 3 1/2 hours I arrived in Pokhara and gratefully checked into my hotel, before hitting the main drag around the large lake edit to Pokhara. After some much needed pizza (I was on a lentil and rice strike) I caught up with Ben and Ashley for several beers, before stumbling to bed.
I treated myself to a much needed lie-in before exploring the area around the lake a bit. After lunch I met up with Ben and Ashley again for a tour of Pokhara’s main sights – another beautiful lake with nice views of the mountains, the very interesting and well done mountaineering museum and a smallish waterfall in the middle of town called Devi’s Falls. After the tour we met up a little later for some another enjoyable late night drinking session.
Feeling a little hungover I packed up and headed to the airport for the flight back to Kathmandu. Once again I was treated to the amazing view out the window of the Himalayas stretching as far as the eye could see outside y window – really an amazing flight. Once in Kathmandu I was tempted to see a few more sights in the afternoon, but after seeing the dust, noise and crazy traffic I quickly changed my mind and instead opted for a relaxing afternoon in y hostel. Tomorrow I head off to Mumbai and southern India for the next leg of my journey, and hopefully to somewhere with any hills. It’s only 2 weeks for Anne joins me which I’m very excited about. I’m keen to come back to Nepal at some stage to try some other treks – maybe somewhere in the Everest region…
1. AME trekking: http://www.ametreks.com
2. Alobar1000 hostel:http://www.tripadvisor.in/Hotel_Review-g293890-d3323700-Reviews-Alobar1000-Kathmandu_Kathmandu_Valley_Bagmati_Zone_Central_Region.html
3. Annapurna trekking guide (2013 version – all the other guides especially Lonely Planet are out of date): http://www.amazon.co.uk/Trekking-Annapurna-area-along-NATT-ebook/dp/B00F1X3LQ6/ref=la_B00J4RLWJS_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1415603601&sr=1-2