Saturday, 31 January 2015

Annapurna Circuit

Although it was snowing when I went to bed, I awoke to a wonderful clear sunny day and I was very much encouraged about successfully traversing the Thorung La.  Some people begin this day at 3am but the logic of it completely escapes me.  It's both pointless and dangerous.  I left at 6.30am and enjoyed some wonderful mountain views on the way up.  I hit the top about 9.30am and then did the knee-crunching 1600m descent to Muktinath, arriving early afternoon.  Mission accomplished!

It's not for the faint hearted though.  I passed an English couple on the way up.  She was crying because she was dizzy and fatigued.  He was with her but wasn't a lot better.  He had a case of diahorrea and hadn't slept.  I gave them all the encouragement I could but after that there wasn't much I could do.  It was up to their own physical and mental strength to get them there.  The reward for the effort was the amazing feeling of being on top of the world!

Top of Thorung La Pass - 5416m

The other side of the pass was both interesting and different.  The walk to the Tibetan village of Kagbeni was very pretty with vibrant autumn colours contrasting with the snowy Himalayan peaks.  When I turned into the Kali Gandaki valley I was immediately walking into the wind that comes up every day in this area.  I think it's called a katabatic wind and it begins as the land warms up during the morning and eases with the cooling later in the day.  Whatever it is, it wasn't particularly pleasant and I had three and a half hours slogging straight into it!

For much of this section of the track I was actually walking on a road.  I guess eventually this will be extended all the way down to the end.  As I was trekking it seemed a little strange to be passed by motorcycles occasionally.  There were also a few planes passing overhead on their way to the airstrip at Jomsom.  So, from that point of view it was quite different to the first week of the trek.  But it didn't detract from some fantastic mountain scenery along this stretch and the fantastic feeling of walking gradually downhill!

Beautiful scenery near Marpha

Of course, as I descended the scenery changed back to how it was in the beginning - a lot greener and also a lot warmer.  I was so happy for that!  Tatopani was the lowest point (1100m) before the climbing started again.  So, it was perhaps ironic and a little unfortunate that this was where the hot springs ('tato' means hot and 'pani' means water) were.  How nice they would have been up in Manang!  That aside, I soaked in them till I resembled a raisin and my tired legs just loved it! 

The following day the hard work began again on my way up to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).  It started with a climb of 1600m up to Ghorapani.  Again, it was cold but I had a cosy guest house with the chimney from the fire in the kitchen extending up through my room.  I'm not certain you'll find the word 'insulation' too readily in a Nepalese dictionary so I really appreciated the little luxuries sometimes. 

Mule train near Ghasa

Tourists trek to Ghorapani to climb the nearby Poon Hill and watch the sunrise on the Himalayas.  It's been described as one of the great sights of Nepal and I wouldn't disagree.  At 5.15am I joined the long line of torch beams as we made our way up to the viewpoint.  There is something magic about watching the first rays of sun hitting a mountain and turning the snow a golden colour.  This gradually became a brilliant white as yet another beautiful day dawned.  

Trekking across into the Annapurna Sanctuary was a tough and long day.  My desination was Chomrong which is actually at a lower altitude to Ghorapani.  So, in theory it should have been a reasonably easy day.  However it seems to have been firmly instilled into the Nepalese that the quickest way between two points is a straight line...regardless of what might happen to be in the way!  In other words that particular day took me up and down the sides of various valleys and I was very weary by the time I arrived.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Annapurna Circuit

Namaste from Pokhara!  I'm back from my Annapurna trekking adventure and what a great experience it was!  I arrived back yesterday afternoon which was my 19th day so I'm a couple of days ahead of what I scheduled.  That means I can relax here for a couple of days before leaving again for India.  My laundry, backpack and boots are all drying in the warm breeze and I'm feeling great because for the first time in nearly three weeks I don't have to hike for most of the day.  Right now there's a cow looking at me through the front door of this little internet cafe. gotta love it!

It seems a very long time ago now that I started my trek with another one of those lovely bus rides to Beisahar.  The scenery in the first few days was quite different to later in the trek.  It was very green and lush from the recent monsoon rain and many hills have terraces cut into them to grow rice and corn.  It took until about the third day to see anything with snow on top of it.

Marsyandi Khola Valley

What took my attention initially was not so much the scenery as the people.  Trekking in Nepal is a wonderful insight into the life and culture of its people.  It's almost like stepping into a time warp because life for some of them has continued largely unchanged for hundreds of years.  Watching them harvesting, weaving, cooking, playing games and just passing the time sitting in the sun was all very interesting as I progressed up the Marsyandi Khola valley.

Of all the people I observed, the porters held the most fascination for me.  Put quite simply, these are amazing men.  Everything that is required in the Annapurna villages is delivered either by porters or trains of mules.  Nepalese men are not big in stature at all but some of the weights they manage to carry over some difficult terrain is just extraordinary.  During a break one day I tried to lift one of their consignments and could barely get it off the ground!  It must have been about 50kg!

Nepalese mountain porter

There are two things that make their efforts even more remarkable.  Firstly, in the lowlands (it was a little different at higher altitudes) all they seem to wear is what we would take to the beach.  Relatively few had anything resembling hiking boots and I even saw a few with bare feet!  The second thing is the way they carry their loads.  While I had the comfort of a backpack with shoulder and abdominal straps their method is quite different.  They tie a rope in a loop that goes under the load and up around their forehead.  They walk leaning forward so essentially the weight is supported by their back and neck.  Their work never ceased to amaze me…

It was on the third night that I noticed the change in temperature.  Up till then I'd been sweating in t-shirt and shorts.  Suddenly, that evening I could see my breath in front of me and I was diving into the bottom of my pack and pulling out warmer clothing.  That particular night was in a village called Temang which didn't have any electricity or solar energy so I had to have a 'bucket bath'.  They gave me a bucket of warm water and then shown to a little stone outhouse.  Let me tell you - splashing yourself in warm water and having a cold breeze coming through the gaps in the walls really makes you feel alive!

Scenery near Pisang village

On the fourth day the scenery began to change.  The lush green flora was replaced by pine trees and an increasingly drier landscape.  I was entering the watershed area cut off from rain by the mountain range.  The vegetation gradually became even sparser as I got up to the Tibetan plateau because the only precipitation there is snow.  And of course as the altitude increased the temperature continued to drop.  It was getting distinctly cold in some places and I was starting to wear nearly everything I could find!

With the ascent, came the thinner mountain air and risk of Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS.  I had some problems with this.  In fact, I had a bizarre introduction to it in a village called Pisang (3200m).  Through that day I'd noticed a slight shortness of breath but nothing that particularly concerned me.  That evening though as I was having my fried rice I very suddenly felt dizzy and then nauseous.  I quickly excused myself and went outside for some fresh air.  My bedroom and the toilet were both upstairs so I staggered up the steps towards them like I'd had six pints.

When I got to the door of my room I paused and fumbled around for my key.  It was then that my world really started to spin and I lost consciousness.  When I awoke I thought I was on my bed but couldn't understand why it was so hard.  It was dark and cold and I had a frightening moment when I didn't know where I was.  I then realised I was lying flat on my back in the hall outside my room.  My finger was bleeding after instinctively grabbing at the door handle as I fainted but I did feel much better and returned downstairs for the rest of my dinner.

At Manang village

Further up in Manang I experienced a few of the other symptoms such as loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping and a slight headache.  It wasn't anything too bad though and I stayed the recommended second night there to help with the acclimatisation process.  It's a nice little place with several good short walks.  In the village itself there is a cultural museum and even a little cinema showing three movies a day.  They also had a daily Mountain Sickness talk which I went to.  The information was great but I was left feeling slightly daunted.  The pass was still over 2000m up so I just wanted to get over the damn thing and down the other side!                

I walked through snow for part of the day going up to Thorung Phedi.  'Phedi' means foot of the hill and is the last village (4420m) before going over the pass.  It's a bitterly cold place and I wondered as I huddled under my covers that night how people could live comfortably up there.  I concluded that they are simply very hardy people and for some it's all they've ever really known.  I didn't sleep a lot that night as I considered what lay ahead the following day...

Friday, 16 January 2015


I'm in Pokhara, Nepal and preparing to leave tomorrow to trek the mighty Annapurna Circuit.  

I'm absolutely loving it here.  It's so peaceful here and the setting beside the lake with the Himalayas in the background is simply beautiful.  Well, okay...I haven't actually seen the Himalayas yet because it's been so cloudy (in fact it's raining as I'm writing this) but the pictures I've seen look stunning.  I hope I'll get to see it like this when I return next month.
Nepalese Bus

It's wonderful to escape the noise, pollution and constant attention that I've had so far in the big cities.  Because it's just the beginning of the trekking season there aren't a lot of tourists here yet.  But, for a few reasons I'm very glad to be here and starting my trek at this time.  Firstly, the weather (once I get out of Pokhara I've been told) will be perfect for trekking.  Secondly, this is the first time in over a decade that Nepal is in relative peace and stability.  Finally, there is a new rule coming into effect on October 21 that states that every trekker must have a guide or porter. Fortunately, right now I still have the freedom of choice.

I'm getting used to Nepalese bus travel after a seven hour trip across from Kathmandu.  I wondered as I waited for the bus that morning whether Friday the 13th was the best day to be taking such a journey.  I wondered just a little more when we passed a point where another bus had left the road and plunged into the river bed below…  Fortunately we were fine in our 'tourist' bus (the 'local' buses are often poorly maintained) and I had relative comfort compared to other trips.

Monkey Temple, Kathmandu

Nepal is a wonderfully cheap place to travel in.  My accommodation for example costs me $3 AUD per night.  Okay, I'm sharing with a friend I met on the bus but it's a very nice place and we have our own ensuite bathroom with hot water and even toilet paper.  (Don't take anything for granted in this part of the world)  Going for a meal costs about 3-4 dollars and now I'm over the Delhi Belly I'm starting to enjoy the local cuisine again.

Today I walked around the lake and hiked up to a stupa (Buddhist temple) on the far side.  Only 90 minutes each way but a good hint of what the next three weeks will be like.  Tomorrow I'll be on a bus to Besishahar.  I'll be hiking the circuit around as far as Ghorepani which will take me over the Thorung-La Pass which is 5416m.  Instead of continuing through to Birethanti I'll cut across into the Annapurna Sanctuary and hike up to the Annapurna Base Camp.  From there I'll come back down the valley and finish at Phedi, which is only a short taxi ride back to Pokhara.  Altogether, my health and God willing it should take me about 21 days.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Indian Life

Over here I am a huge curiosity for the Indian people.  Everywhere I go people will look at me simply because I am so different.  Often the look is a prolonged stare and when I look back at some of these people it's like they've seen a ghost.  Quite honestly, I feel like a celebrity.  I have people everywhere I go staring, smiling, waving, greeting me, wanting to shake my hand and find out where I'm from.  Often I've been talking to one or two people and before I realise it, there'll be a group of six or eight just looking and listening to me.  I've almost lost count the number of times people want their photo taken with me. 

I find most of the children adorable here.  With big brown eyes and smiling grubby faces, they call out to me, come running over, ask me all kinds of questions and often put out a hand for a few rupees.  Despite the difficult living conditions they still have much of their innocence and charm.  As they get older, they'll sadly become burdened by everyday life and lose these endearing qualities but at the age they are now I love chatting and laughing with them.
Waiting at a level crossing

For many Indians life is unquestionably hard.  It makes me grateful to have grown up in a country like New Zealand.  There is a huge gulf between wealth and poverty and to be honest I haven't seen much evidence of the wealth.  The poverty though is everywhere.  For the past two nights in Agra I've been staying in what I consider a luxury hotel.  (It was part of the package put together for me and wouldn't have been my choice)  I couldn't help noticing that immediately adjacent to this accommodation, locals were living on the dirt under tarpaulins.  The stark contrast of this didn't escape me...      

People have to eke out a living in whatever way they can.  This often means selling things from a tiny shop or perhaps even more commonly from a cart or awning shelter on the side of the street.  Footpaths as we know them hardly exist here.  When you walk you usually have to share the road with everything else that may be moving along it!  During my time here so far I've only found one place that you could refer to as a shopping mall.  In India, you get whatever you need from the countless tiny places which are on virtually every street.

Typical street scene - anything goes!

Many men operate rickshaws of various types.  The lucky ones seem to be drivers of the auto-rickshaws...a three-wheel contraption instantly recognisable by its green body and yellow roof.  The driver sits in front and up to three people can share the passenger seat comfortably.  But India being what it is, I've seen anything up to ten people riding these things!  The less fortunate men ride the pedal rickshaws - big, old things with only one gear.  If they're not carrying people then they'll have (often huge) loads of various items.  The drivers sweat and strain to deliver their consignments and the slightest incline usually means they have to get off to push.    

The noise of an Indian city has to be heard to be fully appreciated.  It's a ceaseless commotion of vehicle horns, engines, shouting and if they can be heard above all that, there are the animals which placidly wander about in the traffic.  Road rules seem very vague and rarely adhered to anyway.  Often it seems that the vehicle with the loudest horn will get the right of way.  Watching a roundabout is amazing.  Forget about giving way to traffic already on it because you'll never go anywhere!  I asked my driver one day what the basic rule was and his reply: "We only really have one rule for driving in India.  Drive like everyone is blind"!

Indian street market

It's hot here in India but in all honesty it's not that bad.  When the Delhi forecast indicated sunny and 36C I was expecting worse.   I find it's a pleasant heat over here and more comfortable than my stopover in Kuala Lumpur.  The humidity is very low and the sun isn't nearly as harsh as we're used to in New Zealand or Australia.  I'm drinking 4 or 5 litres of water a day and already starting to leave a trail of plastic bottles around the country!  I don't trust the water at all unless it's from a sealed bottle.  I've had no hint yet of the dreaded 'Delhi Belly' but not getting complacent in any way...there's a long way to go yet and the sanitary conditions are no better in Nepal

So, here I am in Agra now.  I'm getting a train tonight to Gorakhpur so in a couple of days I should be in Nepal.  I've loved India so far but it'll be nice to have a change of pace in the serenity of Nepal.  I'm really looking forward to the trekking and stunning Himalaya scenery.  For now though, I'm off to get a curry and catch my train.  I'm sure that will be another adventure in itself…