Monthly Archives: September 2015

Trek to Poon Hill and Beyond.

Trekking in the Shadow of Annapurna (2):  Tuesday (Day 2) and Wednesday (Day 3):

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The trekking started in all earnest on Tuesday.  Monday was a mere warm-up, just a little, deceptive flavour of things to expect.  I had been warned by Bish, an almost-40 Nepali who had been drowning his sorrows at the table next to mine on Sunday evening:  ‘There are a lot of steps on the way to Goripani and Poon Hill,’ he elaborated,  ‘I was there only last week…’ ‘ Do you need a guide?’ he wanted to know.  Everyone in Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna mountain range,  is a guide cum porter and keen to take the weight of your shoulders whilst chaperoning you along the many trekking routes criss-crossing the surrounding mountains. Even the vendor whose sleeping bag I bought was only too happy to shut up shop and lead the way.  But many Nepali people depend on tourism for their income and it has not been a good year, what with the earthquake followed by the monsoon and many, many tourists cancelling their trips for October and November, the main trekking season.  The future looks bleak and at the moment there is probably more money to be made by playing guide than selling trekking gear.

A first glimpse of the snow capped mountains on our trek to Goripani.

A first glimpse of the snow capped mountains on our trek to Goripani.

So I was mentally prepared for the steps on Tuesday and spent about five hours navigating roughly hewn stairs to heaven, accompanied by the whispers of the wind, the kiss of the sun, the rush of the water forging a path down the mountain side and the clanking bells of the mules carrying provisions up and down the slopes. We crossed tumultuous rivers over mostly sturdy suspension bridges; and to reach the other side of gentler waters, we balanced gingerly (at least I do…) on slippery rocks or waded through the water.  and all the while, we were on the look-out for unwelcome passengers as leeches were on the prowl in the damper, shady areas on the walk.

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But as we were steadily climbing towards Goripani, my Table Mountain experiences came to mind:  the endless massive steps up, followed by  the dread of realisation that as the cable cars were not running, we had to get back down.  Just the mere thought of what was lying in wait, seized up our leg muscles… So I asked my guide, ‘Are there this many steps on the way down??’  His answer remained vague, ‘Tomorrow, the trek will be undulating.’ ‘So, many ups and downs? And will there be steps down or will it be a gentle path?’  Somehow, I did not want to hear his reply; sometimes it is best not to know too much of what lies ahead…  We made it to Goripani before the heavens opened.  ‘This is good,’ my guide reassured me. ‘Heavy rain in the afternoon spells clear skies in the morning, exactly what we need to watch the sunrise on Poon Hill.’

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We had an early start, 5.00am, on what promised to be the longest and most arduous day of my trek as we climbed to the top of Poon Hill before breakfast and before the day’s real long walk.  Only another ‘few’ steps up, but as the higher altitude took its toll,  the way up was more of a struggle than I had anticipated. But we were rewarded with the most breathtaking view as the clouds leisurely lifted to reveal the snow capped peaks of some of the highest mountains on earth.  A dense layer of stubborn mist drew a mysterious veil over the valley below as the sun unhurriedly lit up each mountain in turn, adorning them with glistening gold and sparkling diamonds. No photographs can ever do justice to this.

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After breakfast we set off, on the long seven hour slog to Ghandruk, our next port of call.  And indeed, there was no respite from the steps as we followed the rise and fall of the path, meandering through ancient forests where gnarly roots embraced in lovers’ knots and  the shade of the trees offered an escape from the merciless sun.  And all the while we were treated to glimpses of the snowcapped mountains in the distance. Towards the end I forgot to be charmed  by the beauty of the surroundings as my knees kicked up a mutiny and my calf muscles ached with every step.   We hastened as the day moved on to be ahead of the inevitable rainclouds which had been steadily building in the afternoon.  And we almost made it but were caught in the last dregs of the dying Monsoon which pelted us mercilessly in the final moments of today’s exhausting trek. In the space of just five minutes, I was soaked to the bone, and the Nepali rain was cold, England cold!day 3.9

Luckily, when we arrived I had the luxury of my own bathroom in the tea house, with  bath, which clearly stated NO USE, so the shower it had to be!  ‘Maybe there will be hot water, or maybe not,’ my guide explained, ‘depends upon whether the solar powered heater has had enough sun today…’  I groaned!  I did not need a cold shower; I had just had one.  Yesterday, in Goripani,  I had been fortunate enough to be the only guest in the tea house to have a warm ‘shower’.    I liked setting off early, whilst the sun was still in snoozing mode and had not yet reached its full peak of heat, so we tended  to beat the other trekkers to our destination.  So it was that yesterday, Tuesday, I hit the jackpot and instead of the promised hot shower, which evaporated with the longest power cut ever, the guesthouse owner offered to heat up water and I could wash the familiar Indian way, with bucket and measuring jug.  But there was no hardship in that, I am used to it although the room temperature in my Kerala home is several degrees warmer than my Nepali bathroom.  And the Trekkers who arrived later? They missed out on any kind of hot water altogether… As they say, the early bird catches the hot shower!day 3.12

But after my very long day and very tiring walk to Ghandruk, the Gods were looking down on me favourably and I was blessed with a soothingly warm and refreshing shower.  I could rest my sore limbs and feet and watch the rain obscure what would have been a most spectacular view of the Annapurna mountain range.  I curled up in my sleeping bag with a book and my iPad and the world was rosy…  A just reward after a hard day’s work.

The Fish Tail, a sacred peak in the Hindu religion, the one mountain that no one has ever climbed... or so they think..

The Fish Tail, a sacred peak in the Hindu religion, the one mountain that no one has ever climbed… or so they think..

Trekking In The Shadow Of Annapurna (1)

day 1.5Monday, Day 1:  Hot or cold shower.

‘Do you want a hot shower or a cold shower?’ my guide asks.  We have arrived at the tea house, our accommodation for the first night of the trek.  Still having vivid memories of the cold shower last night, when I waited over twenty minutes for any warm water to spout out of the tap in the hotel, there is no doubt in my mind: ‘Definitely a hot shower, please!!’ I answer eagerly. I need to wash away the sweat and grime after the first few hours of trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area.  My hair is a mess, clinging to my face in damp tresses; my clothes feel clammy with perspiration, or should I admit soaked…  I cannot wait for the comforting gush of warm water to relax my tired muscles; they are not yet aching, but the last bit of walking was reminiscent of Cape Town’s Table Mountain and I am fully aware that too many steps will eventually take their toll on anyone’s legs.

I inspect my meagre pile of clothes for something appropriate to wear… This does not prove easy as this morning, my carefully selected attire to see me through the six days in the mountains was rudely and drastically decimated by the guide.  I cannot blame him as after all it will be his job to cart them up the mountain!  But all I seem to have rescued are my British Flag Shorts!  Whether they will keep me warm will have to be seen, but at least they look cute. You see, I do have my priorities right!  I have pair of walking trousers and one pair of shorts, what more can a girl want…  At least I will not while away the hours deciding which clothes to give an airing..

With towel, washing essentials and fresh, dry clothes in hand, I find the ‘hot’ shower.  It is a ‘wet room’ with nowhere to put my change of clothes, my towel or anything else for that matter.  I improvise and make use of the wonky windowsill and hope that the spray of water from the shower attachment, suspended on the ceiling, will not reach them.  ‘Look on the left,’ the guide had helpfully shouted when he saw my puzzled face on opening the shower door.  On the left I face a blank wall, but indeed, on the RIGHT are some taps linked to a hose pipe leading to the shower attachment.  I have a sneaky feeling that my guide is having some issues with left and right as earlier on today he sent me to the ‘right’ toilet, which was clearly more intended for either Nepali people or men, whereas the left one was much more like what I was expecting.

I turn on the tap and a trickle of water appears, which slowly but surely heats up nicely.  With some relief, I turn on the other tap to adjust the water temperature to my liking. More water flows and the trickle becomes a promising stream…but the water does not get any cooler.  I turn the tap a little further, to no avail….and within minutes I am engulfed in steam.  Exactly what I needed after a hard day’s slog: a sauna to open up the pores and sweat a little more..  I contemplate how to wash my hair and decide that if I put my head close enough to the floor the rays of burning water will have had some time to cool down.  I see no other option so kneel down, lie on the cool floor and dampen my hair in the only fashion available to me, but it works to some extent and I feel so much better for it. I carefully flash each limb under the hot stream and cup my hands to catch and pour water over the rest of my body.  Not how I would normally shower, but I get there in the end: all clean and fresh!

On returning to my room, I pass the guesthouse sign and read the note: ‘hot & cold shower’ and realise they mean it…literally…  There is no in-between, no such thing as fiddling with taps to find the middle ground, or giving in/pampering   to individual tastes.  But then again, as the establishment is run by an ex-Ghurka (not anex Ghurka…), should this come as a surprise? Those Ghurkas are made of sturdier stuff; this is not a place for wimps…



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Exploring Kathmandu’s Mind-blowing Heritage (2)

Durbar Square in Bakhtapur

Durbar Square in Bakhtapur

During my stay in Nepal , I visited Bakhtapur and Patan, two of the Royal Cities of the Newari Kingdom which dominated the Kathmandu Valley  until mid-eighteenth century.  Most of the important and well preserved temples, monuments and shrines are found in their famous Durbar Squares which are delightful examples of Newari art, architecture and workmanship.  Or maybe ‘were’ would be more accurate as much of Nepal’s rich heritage was destroyed in the April earthquake and many of the famous temples and shrines lie in ruins, waiting for conservation experts to rebuild them in a more earthquake proof manner.   Although many of the Nepali pagoda style temples still stand proud in the midst of the squares, several of the stone, Indian temples are almost completely level with the ground.  Stacks of salvaged bricks and lines of rescued statues and sculptures bear witness to the resilience of the local people, many of whom have lost their own homes, but who have already started thinking about restoring and rebuilding their common heritage.




As I went to Kathmandu without the ‘obligatory’  Lonely Planet Guide, I had no imprint of its former glory in my mind and I was certainly not disappointed with what was left.  Let’s face it, time generally takes its toll and often what remains of historical buildings is just ruins and weathered walls, so to still find so many well conserved temples and monuments, some dating back several centuries, was pretty amazing.  No wonder the sites gained the Unesco World Heritage stamp of approval.





IMG_5712I explored Patan on my own, marvelling at the ‘God’ deposited in the middle of a narrow road, its huge carrier-cart making the road impassable to cars and only motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians could squeeze past.  I was awed by the impressive, immaculate buildings and inspired by the many colourful artisan shops selling original paintings, unique sculpted statues, wooden masks and other handicrafts.  Men sat in the shade of the overpowering royal castles whiling away the heat of the day.  And I bumped into a ‘living God’ who blessed me with a long and happy life. I am not too bothered about the long life, but certainly would sign up for a happy one!!


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In Bakhtapur, I saw sense and decided to avail myself of the services of a very nice and persuasive ‘student’ to me fill in on the parts of history that would be lost on me if I just wandered around on my own.  So far I had resisted an overdose of cultural background but I did remember the occasions when I had been grateful to have some explanation of the mysteries of unfamiliar cities and cultures; and my financial contribution would at least put some money into the Nepalese economy. The guide took me around the still-standing  Bakhtapur temples and other remnants of royal life such as the bathing pool overlooked by three snakes, the golden gate guarded by soldiers, 17th century statues of  Brairab and Ugrachandi, and lastly pointed out the famed pagoda style temple used by 15th century newlyweds to learn the facts of married life (or was it to amuse the king and queen?).  Sex education in a different form!  Thank goodness, I was left to check out the ‘erotic’  woodcarvings in privacy so as to spare my blushes as the Kama Sutra pictures of yesteryear – albeit rather obscured through the distance from the ground –  are probably the forerunners of modern pornography.  I had seen the temple before and unwittingly taken photographs of the beautifully carved beams, without realising what was on them…


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But then again erotic pictures seem a recurring theme in Nepal.  There are many ‘Kama Sutra’ temples depicting a healthy sex life as, according to Hindu theology, Kama (sex) is deemed an essential part of life and both Hinduism and Buddhism are important religions in the country.  So on my last night in Kathmandu, and completing my stay in Nepal, Ashok invited me to a meal at the Bhojan Griha, a restaurant priding itself on preparing authentic Nepalese food, accompanied by Nepalese traditional music and dance, in what was once a building belonging to the royal priest of the king of Nepal.  And as he guided me along to the main room for our meal, we passed the ‘Kama Sutra’ bar… I do not know whether women in Nepal do not linger much in bars, but this one certainly had an overwhelming male clientele…although I cannot say how much notice they took of the woodcarvings in front of the bar.  I was just passing through but not without taking a few photographs,  just in case one day I may need to resort to the suggestions of the Kama Sutra…


Exploring Kathmandu’s Mind-blowing Heritage (1).

Ashok arrives punctually, the perfect host and entrusted with making my stay in Nepal both comfortable and enjoyable.  Indeed, he has already put together a most ambitious itinerary promising to give me an all-embracing flavour of some of the best of the country:  culture in Kathmandu, trekking in Pokhara and Annapurna, a jungle experience in Chitwan in Southern Nepal, and if luck is with me, some adventure on the rapids of the fast flowing rivers.  And this morning, he has a driver in tow who will take me to three of Kathmandu’s most famous landmarks.

Our first stop is the Swayambhunath Stupa, or the Monkey Temple as it is known by tourists, an impressive Buddhist temple perched on a hill crest overlooking the Kathmandu Valley bearing witness to Nepal’s ancient history.  Centre stage is a large white dome-shaped stupa  topped with a glittering gilded tower, which is painted with Buddha’s watchful eyes on four sides, its spire stretching skywards.    When I arrive, the fascinating, chaotic jumble of minor Hindu and Buddhist temples and ancient monuments depicting gods or commemorating the departed is wrapped in mesmerising air thickened with the wafting smells of sweet burning incense and butter lamps as worshippers mingle with the many tourists.  The green of the hillside is festooned with the criss-cross spider web threads of colourful prayer flags.

Although a major tourist attraction and Unesco World Heritage site, the Stupa is still a place of worship for Buddhists and Hindus alike and today, Saturday, the complex is buzzing as the Nepali people celebrate the Hindu festival of Raksha Bandhan, the festival which honours the strong bonds between brothers and sisters and also luck.  We forge our way through the throng and rather than being allowed to do the steps to the entrance, the driver takes me all the way to the top, saving time and my energy.

And at the temple, Buddhist monks saunter amongst the ancient relics; priests tie the tell-tale good luck strings of Raksha Bandhan around wrists; shopkeepers sell Nepali mementoes;  rows of women peddle oblations for the gods; tourists and worshippers alike touch the spinning prayer wheel; the faithful perform their pujas and offer food, drink and prayers to the deities, and ‘living’ gods earn their upkeep by posing for photographs.  And all the while, the monkeys that mob the temple round the clock are keeping an eye on things, wasting no time to feast on the goodies left at the statues’ feet or on occasions even more audaciously stealing fruit and crisps from unsuspecting visitors; they are after all referred to as the ‘holy’ monkeys.

If the recent earthquake indeed demolished some important historical landmarks in Nepal, it has been kind here and only a few of the smaller buildings suffered major damage.  Most of the temples are unaffected and the rebuilding work on those that bore the brunt has already started so that the Monkey Temple will hopefully soon be restored to its former glory.











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My immersion in Nepalese ancient history continues with a visit to the Great Buddha Stupa of Boudhanath, which until last April dominated the Kathmandu skyline with its massive mandala, making it one of the largest spherical stupas or domes in Nepal.  But the earth tremor was more brutal to this monument to Nepal’s past and whereas the stupa itself only sustained minor damage, the cubical gold encrusted tower and spire which crowned the base were toppled by the force of the quake.  Today, scaffolding and plastic sheeting shield the remnants and protect the restoration work in progress; and much of the interior of the Buddhist temple remains closed to the public.

Although the view afforded from the Buddhist monastery opposite the Stupa can now only give an impression of what must have been an imposing vista, it does not deflect from the aura of mystery and piety.  It certainly does not deter faithful Buddhists and Hindus to flock to the temple for their daily rituals of praying and offerings to the Gods, spinning the prayer wheels whilst circumnavigating the structure, burning incense to sweeten the smoky atmosphere; and leaving Pujas or Prasad to appease the gods.  Elderly Nepali women take respite on benches and doorsteps and work their way through strings of prayer beads as a sign of their devotion.  They seek reprieve from the oppressive heat of the sun under their huge umbrellas as a lonely boy monk watches the world go by.

And on the sidelines, shopkeepers are hopeful for sales to tourists who have stayed away this year, fearful after the earthquake, making Nepal’s recovery all the more tricky through lack of much needed income.
















Escaping India for a holiday in Nepal.

thamel 6I hit Kathmandu completely unprepared.  Although the seed for my visit was planted ages ago, I had no  time to explore the abundance of information available on the web and was enticed to Nepal by other travellers’ tales of unrivalled walking in stunning scenery and being bowled over by impressive remnants of long ago histories.  Three months in the UK  were whittled away with sorting out ‘my’ past and three months in India with trying to appease and combat the management of a school out of its depth.  And the earthquake? That was never going to stop me in my tracks, unless of course there was specific advice that would make the trip too risky.

‘You will love Nepal,’ my friend L. assured me, when I went to see her at the end of May and was introduced to a family friend, Karnasher, ex-Ghurka and owner of a Trekking and Adventure company in Kathmandu.  I left sorting out the minor – and major – details of my itinerary to him and only needed to book my flight and turn up on time.  It sounded easy, and it was!  I arrived in Kathmandu after ‘deplaning’ – I was flying with Air India so we ‘deplaned’ rather than disembarked – and an effective and swift sweep through customs and immigration saw me outside the airport within 30 minutes of touching the tarmac.  My ride into town not yet there, but the rest of Kathmandu’s taxi drivers were… and within mere minutes, like swarms of bees to a honey jar,  helpful men engulfed me trying to relieve me of my luggage, find the quickest route to my hotel and making phone calls to tell the manager of the adventure company that everything was taken care of…all at a price!  Luckily, I did not have to wait long for my prearranged ride to appear and set off to town.

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Being used to the melee of Indian traffic and its accompanying screeching and honking noises, Kathmandu, although in places equally bustling, seemed more tranquil and serene, until we reached the touristy Thamel part where impatient taxi drivers and rickshaw cyclists vied for customers and fought for tarmac space with unsuspecting tourists and locals on foot and the ubiquitous motorcyclists whose identities were obscured by pollution defying masks.  ‘Are people wearing masks because of the earthquake?’ I asked Ashok, the Manager of the Trekking Company.  Apparently not and people use them to protect themselves from the dusty air in Nepal.  And if I felt the need to join in with the health conscious locals, I even found them on sale on a stand next to sun hats, clearly an essential item in this town.

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How amazingly satisfying to explore a city for the first time!  With the scenes of devastation still fresh in my mind, I expected a city pulverised and reduced to dust and rubble, all evidence of a grand rich past wiped out, World Heritage temples and palaces razed to the ground by the massive April earth tremor. But many parts of Kathmandu escaped the ravages of the earthquake and the touristy heart of the capital is one of them.  My taxi weaved its way through the labyrinth of nameless ribbon roads crammed with touristy shops, colourful signs and advertising boards.  Shopkeepers were peddling exciting adventures in the Himalayas and sold all kinds of trekking and walking gear; they were hawking colourful beaded bracelets and necklaces and displaying the muted coppers of mesmerising Nepali singing bowls and bells next to statues of Buddha and Hindu deities.  Wooden mask dolls added vivid hues to rival the intense shades of the hanging decorations.  Indian leaf teas from Darjeeling and Assam competed with Nepali Ilam tea; the teas, probably rated amongst the best,  found interested customers from all over the world.  ‘I have been buying my Darjeeling tea here for the last ten years,’ an English speaking passer-by explained.    Ghurka shops offered special Ghurka knives bearing inscriptions which reflect the Ghurka’s maxim:  ‘It’s better to die than be a coward.’   Local women sold vegetables on the pavement and fruit sellers on bicycles tried to attract customers; a tailor was busily working his sewing machine.  I could not but succumb to the charms of the city and struggled to contain my excitement at starting the real tour the next day and getting first-hand experience of how the earthquake had affected some of the most famous landmarks of Kathmandu, and seeing what had been spared.

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I finished my first evening in a Nepalese restaurant to sample Nepalese cuisine, a genuine delight: Dal Bhat.  As I find out later during my visit, this is the Nepalese staple meal, often eaten twice a day: once for breakfast and again at evening time.  Lunch is usually a very light affair.  Strangely, the Dal Bhat is not that much different from the Kerala meals I cannot stomach, but they use a Basmati type rice which is so much more appetising and there are more vegetables on the plate…

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