Nepal Trek - the prose and the photos!

Trip Start Oct 26, 2007
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Trip End Oct 26, 2009


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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I fell in love with Nepal, the country, and its people. 

Nepal is a land-locked kingdom located between India and Tibet, and flanked by the great Himalayan mountain chain.  The highest mountain in the world is in Nepal (in fact 8 of the highest 14 are in Nepal) and the country is known as the 'roof of the world'.  From the Lonely Planet: "Mount Everest's 'real' name is its Tibetan name, Chomolangma, which translates as 'Goddess Mother of the Universe'.  The Nepali name is Sagamartha which is Sanskrit for 'Brow of the Ocean'.  The Sanskrit word Himalaya means abode (alay) of the snows (himal).  Pronounce it correctly as they do in the corridors of the Royal Geographical Society with the emphasis on the second syllable - himaarliya, darling..."

Some travel writer noted that the most satisfying way of appreciating the high mountains is to trek along well worn paths into the mountain regions, passing through rural village that have remained unchanged for decades.  That's just what we did!  Who were we, you might ask?!

We were a group of seven trekkers - five women and two men.  All of the women joined independently, and the guys were mates from England.  I'm using my Irish passport for my world travels, so I was the Irish member, Grace came from Canada, Diane from Bristol, Ali from Sydney and Andrea from Switzerland.  Ron and Paul hailed from the UK, where Ron had celebrated his 60th birthday earlier in the year.  The youngest in our group was 27, eldest was Ron.  I was smack dab in the middle, but must say that Ron left most of us behind in his dust.  He is a trekker from way back, and has rambled and hiked most of the mountains and trails of the UK and much of Europe.  Diane was making her third visit to the Himalayas, after having fallen in love with the terrain and trekking over the years, so was the most experienced in the area.  The rest of us were novices, and given my dodgy right knee this past year, not to mention my complete lack of preparation, I was a little concerned about whether I'd hold the group back - not to mention whether I'd survive!

From the Lonely Planet Guide
Annapurna Sanctuary Trek
Duration
:  10-14 days
Max elevation:  4,095metres (13,435 feet)
Best season:  October to November

This trek goes into the centre of the Annapurna Range, a magnificent amphitheatre on a staggering scale.  Glaciers and soaring peaks and an eerie atmosphere create an unparalleled mountain experience. . . . At one time this trek was a real expedition into a wilderness area, but now there is a string of lodges that operate during the trekking season. 

So we were seven, plus our lovable leader, Vito, an experienced trek leader with Imaginative Traveler who has dreams/plans to start his own trekking company.  He was from Darjeeling, coincidently to be my next stop in my travelogue.  So my good luck has been with me from day one on this world tour, and long may it last!  Vito promised to link me up with his brother in law, the tourism officer, in Darjeeling. 

We met in Kathmandu, toured the city our first day, then the following day flew across the majestic Himalayan mountain range, to land in Pokhara.  From there we were bused in a mini-van type vehicle, for an hour to a point where we then hiked for half an hour to our first tea house.  Clearly they were breaking us in slowly, having us only walk for half an hour! 

It wasn't until we reached Nayapul, our first stop, that we met our Sherpa and porters, the young men that were to carry all of the teams' luggage on their heads, up and down the mountains.  We received high marks from our trek leader, Vito.. who said we were his " best group for this season really missed u all when i went for trek even the staff were talking about u all " - That team was made up of three of the most beautiful Nepali boys, from 17 - 21 years old, Pradeep, Ram and Ujjir, and our Sherpa - trek guide named Gangha (pronounced Gungha).  What a fabulous crew. 

Sherpas - from The Lonely Planet (LP):  The Sherpas who live high in the mountains of eastern and central Nepal are probably the best-known Nepali ethnic group.  These nomadic Tibetan herders moved to the Solu Khumbu region of Nepal 500 years ago from Eastern Tibet, bringing with them their Tibetan Buddhist religion and building the beautiful gompas (monasteries) that dot the steep hillsides.  They are strongly associated with the Khumbu region around Mt. Everest (Gangha was from there), with others living in the lower valleys of the Solu region. The Sherpa name is synonomous with mountaineering and trekking.  Potatoes were introduced to the region in the late 19th century and are now the main Sherpa crop.  Sherpas are famously hard drinkers (!)  I didn't particularly notice this in our Gangha, but I wouldn't doubt he could handle his liqueur!  He and his team of porters made our life simple (well, relatively!) while on the trek.  Our daily routine :
Wake at 6:00am, place our breakfast order at 6:30, breakfast at 7:00, hit the trail at 8:00.  Trek from between 5-8 hours during the day. 
Our porters or Gangha would have secured our following night's lodging, or if all tea-houses were full, one of them would go ahead to the next village to book us in.  We'd get to the lodgings, be assigned our room, place our dinner orders and eat at about 6:30 or 7pm.  We grew to enjoy our routine, and I looked forward to our wakeup calls.  Gangha was not a smiler, but the boys were relentlessly cheerful, and had the most beautiful smiles you could ever see!  I fell in love with all of them, and with Gangha, whose smiles were rare but dazzling.  Vito has dreams of starting his own trekking business, and Gangha and the boys would be his main team.  For bigger groups (we were just seven) Gangha has more porters he calls on, but for our trek we just had the three.  All of them were related to Gangha in some way, one was a nephew, another his wife's nephew, and the third a neighbour!  They were fabulous.

Grace the Canadian and I were assigned roommates.  She was an experienced yoga instructor, which was great for me, and we tried to start each morning with a sun salutation!  A super stretching exercise that is a great way to prepare for an active day.  In reality we only did it about five of the 10 days on the trail.. the sleeping quarters were either too tight, or too cold, to cater to our needs!  The days I stretched I felt much better.  I'm still determined to work yoga or stretching into my daily routine.. but I haven't gotten round to it!  The best yoga class I've ever attended was in Fruita, Colorado, with Paula, my sister Eileen's best friend.  Although while in Nepal, the best class was led by Grace.  She was very funny, and sighed and groaned a lot during the stretch.  "Ummmm, feel that stretch.. let the breath come in and cleanse you, embrace the day.."   I simply wanted to prepare my body for the onslaught ahead, and was not especially interested in the karmic ramifications of breathing in good air, and out bad!  We were a funny (odd) couple that got along very well.  Poor Grace got violently ill half way through the trek, and couldn't eat for a day, but recovered.  Fortunately, I was fine the whole way through.. and I'm glad to report my knees held out.. although seeing the paths and terrain we were going to cover, I had my doubts! 

Nayapul - first stop, barking dogs outside at night, there was general excitement about the trek ahead among the group
Birethanti - we trekked along a gentle up-sloping trail, through typical villages.. lovely children, adults selling jewelry, food.  We left the populated villages, and entered with hills, where we were stopped by a group of Maoists who demanded money from us to trek through their territory.  This is something we had been prepared for by Vito, but to encounter the young men, by their prayer flags and red cycle and hammer flag, was quite an experience!  Fortunately, Vito took care of all challenging aspects of our trek, from dealing with the Maoists to group booking us on flights!  So we paid our fees, and I kept a copy of a letter from the Peoples' Party head, explaining their need to charge entry fees.  They look at it as a "donation" rather than an extortion of money!
Ulleri - I slowed noticeably towered the end of the third day, as I was knackered!  We had lovely lodgings, played card games with cards I had brought, and had fun.
Ghorepani - It rained on day three of our trek, but I was feeling strong.  Grace's sun salutation in the morning made a difference!  I was learning to pack a lighter day pack.  Today was a very rainy day, full of beautiful gorges and valleys.
Tadapani - We arrived here at 3:30, an early end to the day.  The lodgings were a bit grim, we were three to a square, damp cement room (we learned that the wood tea houses were better for sleeping, less damp).  As it happened, this turned into one of the funner evenings, we played "flickey-flickey", a local board game similar to air hockey, and were serenaded by the local children.  We also discovered popcorn on the route, and had a great meal.  My stomach has been holding up fine, unlike one or two on the trek.. so life is good!
Chomrong - Beautiful morning.  The rain and fog of the last three days has lifted, and we could finally SEE the mountain range ahead.  Fish Tail, or Machhapuchhare.  The clouds broke at last and the sun shone on us, it was a beautiful morning.  My knee was a bit achy yesterday so I made sure I wore my brace, which really helped.  It rained throughout the afternoon, and we reached our destination mid-afternoon.  Grace and I shared a room, and I immediately booked in a massage that became the best massage I have ever had in my life!  And I have had many.  When I first moved to London I was going for a massage once a week.. and for the last nine years in London I have gone to a Japanese hair salon, mostly for their head and neck massage!  So to say this girl, Sittal, was good, I mean she was amazingly good.  I think part of the marvel of that was that she was so unknowingly good.  She worked at the tea house, serving meals, and gave massage as and when people needed.  I would have expected her to be quite busy, with all the trekkers coming through.  But I don't think there was an active marketing plan, or outreach, for her services!  I was a good advertisement, and persuaded two more of our group to have feet and leg massages..  They thought she was great too.  I think that massage, half way through the trek, saved me!  She twisted me and pushed and pulled and pummeled out knots that had formed after all of the up and down hilling.  After the massage I joined Vito on a bench, overlooking a ledge that was a volleyball court!  Our porters, and other porters and local lads, were playing a match.  It was a new version of the game, where they used their feet as well as hands!  And they didn't seem to mind if the ball bounced on the ground in play.  I marveled that our porters had the energy to play a competitive game of volleyball after carrying 50-60lbs on their heads for five hours earlier in the day!  Vito had borrowed someone's guitar, and started strumming. We then passed an amusing two hours or so where he'd ask "Do you know this?" and if I did I'd sing it.. when I asked him "Do you know such and such" invariably he wouldn't!  And he called himself a rock star!  The volleyball players were amused, and we had a big group singing around us by the end of our performance!  Later that night at Chomrong local children sang and danced.  We shared the lodgings with a boisterous group of Korean men, who had just completed a long trek.. and were celebrating.  One of the men asked me to take photos of him with the dancers.  He was ossified! I was happy to comply, but I had visions of the vomiting that was going to go on later in the evening, when we would be trying to sleep, and I wasn't wrong!
Doban
Machhapuchhare
- MBC Machhapuchhare Base Camp!  We trekked for seven hours today before arriving at the MBC.  The camp was cold and dirty, and we discovered we had mice.  A fecking greedy one had got into my pack and nibbled through my Ziplock bag to get my raisins and cashew nut mixture.  I was devastated!  We screamed as the thing darted this way and that, and it was a comedy to watch Grace with my trek pole, shooing the mouse through the hole in our wall into Ron and Paul's room.  But, not matter how dire our sleeping and eating quarters, we always had a good night.. we played cards, we told stories, we compared dinner entrees.
Annapurna Base Camp - ABC.  This was the aim of our trek.. It only took us two hours from MBC to get to ABC.. I think we were all a bit curious about what we'd do for the whole day at the base camp, especially if the lodgings were as dire as MBC's!  But, when we approached, and saw the majestic mountains ahead.. it felt great, although the altitude hit me yesterday and today.  The cold is no fun either!  But, we posed for a group photo at the base came arches.. and then set about exploring the glacier beyond the camp.  It was a stunning setting.  There were many trekkers there, so while my preference would have been quiet contemplation of the most beautiful mountain scape I've ever, and probably will ever see! it was a bit busy!  and cold!  A pitiable group of camping trekkers was located below the base camp.  Our group could not imagine sleeping in a tent during the freezing cold weather.  My sleeping bag was warm.. but it took me five nights or so to figure out how to sleep without getting drenched.  I was covering my whole head, and my breath was freezing and dripping inside the bag.  I was so uncomfortable most nights!  But I cracked the code at the latter half of the journey.. and slept a little better.  The days leading up to the base camp arrival were not great for me, my mood was not as 'up' as in the previous days.  This was due to chronic cold, no hot water in many places we stayed, repetitive big meals (my hopes to lose lots of weight were ambitious! we have been eating huge carbo-loaded meals every day.. I'm not drinking beer.. which is a fun pastime for most trekkers after a hard day on the trail.)  I've gotten completely used to the squatting loos, although the smells will always be revolting! But some loos have been better than others in the stops along the way. The ABC loo is mint green, and very nicely appointed!  haha.  You gotta laugh, although after last night's mouse-capade, and complete lack of sleep! I did suffer a sense of humour failure, and felt in a grumpy mood.  The Mt Abu experience was so tremendous, I'm striving to 'bless everyone' and see the soul in them, and curb my 'waste thoughts' - but those thoughts (let's call them negative!) are definitely swirling around.  Here at ABC there's a photo plaque on the dining room wall noting Anatoli Boukreev's trekking accomplishments.  The young Russian died in 1997 at the age of 39.  He only discovered mountaineering in 1980.  There was a lovely commemorative piece written about him, how he worshiped in the mountains, and how to him conquering the mountains had nothing to do with status, or class, rather it was about personal accomplishment.  It was very moving. And being in the mountains has made me appreciate how obsessed with mountain climbing people become.  Anatoli is one case, more recently the American woman, Christine Boskoff, who died in an avalanche in the southern province of China, in November 2006.  They did not find her body until Sept 2007.  She had young children.  I remember reading the story at the time, and thinking, judgmentally, that it was irresponsible to risk your life, when you have children, etc., but I understand peoples' need to do what they love.  Like me, traveling!  So, back to the trek.
Bamboo Our last two days trekking were my most memorable. We had become such a comraderly group, and so thoroughly enjoyed eachothers' company, and loved our guides, that the thought of finishing was not appealing.  But it was not simply the people, the setting was absolutely stunning.  And it changed around every corner.. our downhill trekking of the last two days was along wide, gently downward sloping trails.  It was a doddle! And it was a pleasure.  We got to take in the stupendous setting that it was.  Initially I was worried about the final two days, as downhill proved more difficult for my knees.  But this downhill was not the steep, deep downhill of previous days.. when we would trek up and down several thousand feet daily.  It was a lovely, meanding path down.  Two days of it!
Jhinu Danda Gangha did not speak much English, but I find I'm pretty good communicating with people who only have a bit of English.  That's why traveling in parts of the world where I don't speak the language does not daunt me.   I think there are universal expressions, ways of being, that are easily understood.  I was able to find out, over the course of our trek, quite a lot about Gangha and our porters.  Gangha had four children, from 2 to 14.. he was 34 years old.  His normally stoic expression turned to surprise briefly, when I told him how old I was! haha, I get such a kick out of telling people my age.  It's gratifying to hear people say they thought I was younger, but it's unimportant to me.  Isn't that great!  I think I was more age concerned when I was in my mid-30's, now I just enjoy life and don't think about my age.  Anway, back to Gangha.. he wanted to know why I wasn't married, and you could see it was not something he understood.  Another nice thing about India and Nepal, fate and karma factor into peoples' lives, and I think it's been my fate to not marry so I could have this experience.  We'll see what happens next.  I met a woman recently whose mother married after her husband died, at the age of 79!  
Dhampus What a disappointment it was to "come back down to earth."  Leaving the path, and hitting the street pavement was a real let down.  But we had a sense of accomplishment also!

So that was a chicken scratch run through our trek.  When we returned to Kathmandu I found a book, "A Spell in Nepal" by Dervla Murphy, the Irish travel writer, about the seven months she spent in Nepal, in Pokhara, working in a Tibetan refugee camp.  Pokhara is where we started and stopped our trek.  She tried to described Nepal then, in 1965, as I would still today.. "It would be futile to try to describe this region, for in exclusively mountainous countries every beauty is too extreme to be conveyed by an words that I might choose.  None of the books or photographs studied before leaving home had even slightly prepared me for such majesty.  Truly this is something that does have to be seen to be believed, and that once seen must be continually yearned for when left behind, becoming as incurable a fever of the spirit as malaria is of the body."  I loved every minute I was in Nepal, especially the hills and mountains. Kathmandu took some getting used to.. but funnily, after our time in the mountains, Kathmandu looked less threatening and the Nepali people were more friendly than when I first arrived.  Probably they hadn't changed, but my time in the mountains changed me!

Dervla:  "Yet simply to say that we were going up and down hills all day gives a misleading impression of monotony.  around every corner of the winding track one saw a new loveliness, or an already familiar and striking vista from a completely different angle.  Sheer mountains rose beyond the narrow gorge and we passed from thick forests to barren stretches of rock-littered moor, and from sunny, grassy glades .. to cool, dim tunnels overhung by giant shrubs and filled with the tumult of waterfalls - while everywhere were patches of pungent herbs and a glory of wildflowers splashing the mountainside with colour."

Machhapuchhare.. Dervla wrote of the Himalayan snow peaks:  "They are majestic, and I can't help it if everyone else has said so already.  This really is the only adjective that begins to convey the impression received ... going straight towards Machhapuchhare itself - a king of snow and ice soaring far above the rest, high and mighty, into the blueness." 

Here's some more info, lifted from the Lonely Planet travel guide to Nepal.. Lonely Planet guides, in my humble opinion, are the best!

"Nepal's flag is totally unique, consisting of two overlapping red triangles, bearing a white moon and a white 12-pointed sun (the first mythological kings of Nepal are said to be descendents of the sun and moon).

The first cars were transported to the Kathmandu Valley in parts, on the backs of porters, before there were even any roads of petrol in the kingdom.

Since February 1996, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has been waging a People's War against the Nepali state in the hills of Nepal.  Formed in 1995 after innumerable splits in the country's communist movement, the extremist party advocates the establishment of a Communist republic in place of the existing constitutional Hindu monarchy.

The "war" itself started after the Maoists presented the then prime minister with a 40 point charter of demands that ranged from favourable state policies towards backward communities to an assertive Nepali identity, an end to public schools and better government.

The Maoists two main leaders are the Chairman Pashpa Kumar Dahal, better known as Prachanda (the Fierce), and Dr Baburam Bhattarai, they are both high-caste intellectuals.

The initial Maoist forces were armed with ancient muskets and khukuris (traditional knives) but they quickly obtained guns looted from police stations, home-made explosives and automatic weapons, all bankrolled by robbery and extortion and helped by an open border with India.  The USA handed over millions of dollars to Kathmandu to help fight its own version of the 'war on terror'.  Initial Army heavy-handedness only succeeded in alienating the local people.  Political disenfranchisement, rural poverty, resentment against the caste system, issues of land reform and a lack of faith in squabbling and self-interested politicians has swelled the ranks of the Maoists, who now number between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters, with a further militia of 50,000.  Maoists effectively control around 40% of the country.  Recent moves seem to suggest that the Maoist leadership is moving towards a political role, with an alliance with the seven main political parties. The Maoists have suggested UN mediation to end the dispute, a plan the government has rejected."

Some more statistics ..
Per 100,000 people there are only 5 doctors.. compared to 606 per 100k in Italy).
% of Nepalis who live on less than $USD 2/day  =  82%.
% of seats in parliament held by women  = 6%.
Average age = 20.
Life expectancy = 61.

Mountain voices is a website with information about Nepal, and includes stories told by real Nepali villagers.
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