Category Archives: nepal

Everest Base Camp Trek (2018) (5) : The hardest part but the best bits…

Day 6

Panoramic view from Nangkartshang Peak

Another rest day, another steep ascent!!  All the way from Dingboche at 4350m to Nangkartshang Peak at 5083m, and then down again.  I am totally confused when we arrive at the top, out of breath but still breathing…  Did the itinerary not state ‘ascent to 4800m’?   Sonam is adamant, ‘No, we’re definitely at 5000m and something…’   He probably mentioned the name of the peak at the time, but although my legs seem to function perfectly well in the low-oxygen zone, my brain is unable to keep pace.   Thank goodness there are plenty of photographs about on the internet to help me identify the peak in question weeks later.

It has taken us just under three hours to reach Nangkartshang Peak, the spot marked by an impressive white flag and an abundance of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze.  Plenty of stops for snapshots on the way.  Nangkartshang involves some minor scrambling but, apart from the effects of the altitude, is a fairly easy walk up.   Nevertheless, the crest is all but deserted when we get there, just a few other trekkers milling around.  Where is everyone?  Earlier on, nearer Dingboche, the trail was buzzing with other trekkers slowly snailing upwards, huffing and puffing in the thinning air, bearing down hard on their trekking poles.  I learn later in the evening that many other trekkers took the ‘rest day’ more literally.   ‘We stopped at the half-way rest point and turned back.  We were only supposed to climb to 4800m,’ a New Zealand father and daughter trekking duo explained.  Others opted for an even more relaxed approach and interpreted the itinerary quite literally: rest (all) day…  Five days of relentless hiking at altitude is taking its toll on many.

The trek up to Nangkartshang is tough but every bit worth it, so I am pleased to have made it to the top, doggedly putting one foot in front of the other and ignoring any aches and pains.   The panoramic views along the trail and from the crest are some of the most impressive in the Khumbu Region.  Many of the Himalayas highest peaks, such as Ama Dablam, Kangtega, Nuptse, Lhotse, Makalu and Tabochu are visible in their full glory from the summit. 

Taboche (6495m) and Cholatse (6440m), as seen on the way up to Nangkartshang Peak
Ama Dablam (6812m), as seen on the way up to Nangkartshang Peak

The change in the landscape is pretty dramatic: no more trees, or even large shrubs; just plenty of small compact bushes scattered on a gravelly soil.  The path is lined with precariously balanced cairns and littered with jagged rocks.  The magnificent mountains tower over crystal-clear fresh-water lakes and deep-cut valleys.

After our descend and a quick lunch, I am dead beat and ready for a rest too.  I sleep most of the afternoon…  Still, on the upside: only minor headache, no knee problems.  Things are looking good!!

Day 7

It is bitterly cold when I get up.  I dig out my warmer leggings and even wear my windproof jacket to keep warm.   Although today is supposed to be an easier trek, and we are only ascending to 4910m (Labuche), I am finding it tough going.  

I am sure tiredness plays some part in filling me with trepidation when crossing the most wonky looking wooden bridge on the trek.  It isn’t a long bridge, nor suspended high over a raging river.  Just a few wooden beams and thin boards spanning the width of a smallish stream that hefty yaks manage to tramp over with ease.  But my head suddenly brims with memories of past close calls: putting my foot through a rotten plank in the middle of a suspension bridge in the Vietnamese rain forest, or falling down a crevice near the turbulent Yangtze River in the Leaping Tiger Gorge in Yunnan, China.   I do not fancy a dip in the icy water coursing just underneath the bridge.  So I swallow my pride and take advantage of Sonam’s galanterie and outstretched hand to help me across…  I feel such a wimp, though…

Just past the bridge, we enter the Thukla Pass, a large plain dotted with memorial stupas and cairns honouring climbers and sherpas who have died on their quest to reach the summit of Mount Everest, or on their way down.  It is a sobering moment to reflect on the dangers and unpredictability of the mountains and the price some pay to realise their dreams: ‘The last word always belongs to the mountain’ (Anatoli Boukreev).   Although the solemnity of the place is palpable, the significance of this ‘memorial of the fallen’ is rather lost on me at the time, as Sonam’s English is sadly lacking the necessary vocabulary to explain it to me…  Still, the wonders of the internet once again help me out to piece it all together..

A lesser ‘highlight’ of the day greets me when we reach our lodgings for the night.  Of course, I had expected things to get less cozy with the increasing altitude since most food, goods, equipment, and whatever is required to sustain human life at the foot of Everest, has to be brought up either by yaks, or people…  Porters carry incredible heavy loads to the tea houses and lodges for the comfort of trekkers.

But I am not quite prepared for the state of my room and the ‘facilities’…  I can manage with the absence of a light bulb at the end of the wires; a head torch and the light on my smart phone take care of that.  It’s the ablutions that send shivers down my spine, and not just because of the daytime sub-zero temperatures..  On either side of the squat toilet, the floor is slippery with pure sheet ice and obviously someone had to break a thick layer of ice to get to the water for flushing.  This is not going to be fun during the night!!   

Day 8

The day we have all been aiming for!  Today we should reach Everest Base Camp.  First an early morning trek to Gorakshep (5,164m) to drop our bags at our lodgings and then have a quick satisfying mid-morning lunch before gaining the last 200m in altitude to arrive at Base Camp.  It is a challenging trek along the Nepalese ‘flat’, so plenty of up and downs, peppered with some adventurous scrambling over massive boulders and rocks.  Plus, the temperatures are well below zero when we set out in the morning; I even ever so briefly need to wear my gloves…

First view of Khumbu Icefall in the distance

Nevertheless, the awesome scenery along the way takes my mind of any discomfort.  It does not stop my mind wandering though, as I make the ascend on 29th October, exactly one month to the day of my sister’s passing.  But for the fickleness of life and fate, it could have been her achieving this.  She was the sporty one in the family, a PE teacher spending her holidays traversing the French Alps.  Me?  I eschewed any form of physical effort until I hit my forties…

This is where the ‘real’ mountaineers would set up their camps in the Spring, just in front of the Khumbu Icefall.  

In all honesty, the views of and from Everest Base Camp are not that spectacular, or even interesting.  The sky is grey and overcast when we arrive at the spot. The real showstoppers are the magnificent panoramic vistas on the way.  Maybe a Spring visit, when the real mountaineers prepare for their ascent to the summit and set up their tents, might add a little colour and excitement, but for most of the visitors it is about the achievement, a box to tick.  It is for me, in any case.

The journey down from Base Camp and back to Gorakshep does not seem as arduous, but after a quick bite to eat, I head for my cozy, warm sleeping bag.  Mission accomplished, I deserve a rest! 

In the evening, I join other trekkers in the dining hall, many of us feeling the worse for wear.  The dinner I so exuberantly ordered at lunchtime stares me in the face and, after just one mouthful, I can’t stomach any more.  The dreaded lack of appetite.  In the end, I take the advice of a Lithuanian man at my table, who is enjoying a luscious looking apple pie as dessert.  ‘Forget about nutritional value.  Just eat whatever you fancy…’  The cheese topped potatoes are returned to the kitchen and I order the apple pie..  Just dessert sounds good to me!! 

Conversation at our table revolves around the Mount Everest viewpoint on Kala Patthar where I am heading the next morning.  Sunset or sunrise?  My itinerary mentions an early rise to revel in the sunrise, whereas the Lithuanian couple preferred their afternoon hike.  Both have their pros and cons: sunsets dazzle with colour if the skies are clear but there is more chance of glimpsing Mount Everest in the mornings before the clouds start forming…  What I had not reckoned on was the additional four hours trekking to be added to the six hour downhill journey later on in the same day.   My itinerary was definitely a little sketchy on that point and Sonam’s explanation certainly did not shed any light on it either.

Minor headache tempered with some medication, stomach comforted with apple pie, and using my water bottle as a hot water bottle, I dive into my sleeping bag, fully dressed… Too cold to even consider anything else.  As on most days, I hit the sack around 8.00 pm and try to get in a bit of light reading before getting to sleep. Let’s see how I feel in the morning. 

Sonam has agreed on a not too early start.  ‘Let’s leave at 5.30 after breakfast,’ he suggested..  I set my alarm for 5.00 am.

Day 9

I can’t do it.  I ignore the alarm piercing the frost in the room and turn over.. Sonam knocks on the door, eager to get going.  I groan…  My head overflows with an acute desire to move towards lower altitude and a desperate need to wallow a little longer in the soothing womb of my sleeping bag.  Mind over matter fails abysmally.  I briefly get up, my stomach unsettled, and find Soman in the dining hall.  I shake my head, sadly… ‘I can’t do it…  I just want to go down.  Let’s have breakfast at 8 and aim for Periche… ‘  I get a few more hours of rest and feel so much better for it…  Maybe if we had added another day to just walk up to Kala Patthar in the afternoon, I might have managed, but Sonam is keen to get back to Lukla; he has another trek lined up already.

A couple of weeks ago, Sonam sent me a photograph of the view I missed; his subsequent charges managed to complete that part of the trek.  It is the next best thing to being there myself.  But I knew my limits, and there was no point in unnecessary heroics.  Plus, I promised my kids to come back in one piece.

Days 9, 10, 11 and 12

The descent is so much quicker.   Whilst on the way up to Base Camp altitude has to be gained very gradually – no more than 500m a day with acclimatisation days in-between – there is no such worry on our return.  We trek back to Lukla in just four days.

When we pass the flimsy bridge that looked so unconquerable a few days earlier, I almost waltz across. 

When we reach Tengbouche, my stomach rejoices and I greet the pang of hunger as a dearly missed friend.  I am in need of food, proper food, lots of it and I feast on a mouth-watering banquet of humble egg and chips (French fries). 

And of course, being back in the land of Western style toilets!  My knee may not have given me any trouble walking and hiking, but squatting with a knee that refuses to bend properly poses certain challenges…   Sadly, showers have to wait until Kathmandu; not even the lodge in Lukla provides those facilities..  I can’t wait to wash my hair; I am dying to use the shampoo sachets I so optimistically carried all the way to Base Camp and back…

And finally data on my phone…  I have missed being in contact with my kids and the world, although I am partly to blame for this.  Having bought a local SIM card for Nepal on my arrival in Kathmandu, I just assumed that it would cover the Khumbu region and I did not buy the more suitable Wifi card when I had the opportunity early on in the trek.  

Lukla is busy when we finally get back and the lodge where I stay overlooks the helipads next to the airport.  Lingering cloud cover throughout the day has grounded all flights in and out of town; only commercial and rescue helicopters are on standby, ready to fly out in case of emergencies.  I keep my fingers crossed for an improvement in the weather; I don’t even want to contemplate the thought of another few nights without shower facilities…  

Day 13

At least I don’t have too far to walk in the early morning as I am booked on the first flight out at 7.00 am, together with the rest of Lukla it seems…  The departure hall is packed with passengers hoping for a quick and timely exit.  The sky over Lukla looks promising, but rumour has it that not all is clear further ahead and flights are delayed…  All that is needed is half an hour of clear and cloudless airspace to get us safely to Kathmandu.  Without a control tower in Lukla to guide the aeroplanes, pilots need good visibility to be able to take off and land and navigate between the mountains.

I breathe a sigh of relief when finally, one hour late, our flight is called and we pile into our small aircraft.  Exhausted but very pleased with my achievement, I am on my way to Kathmandu and a hot, refreshing shower…

Everest Base Camp Trek 2018 (4): The Long Way Up

I have no intention of narrating every part of my EBC trek in detail. Boredom would kills us all, me included. Besides, the internet is rife with blog posts about EBC conquests.  Mind you, I am grateful they are there, because they help me to fill in the blanks and the minutiae..  Name places I have completely lost track of, views that were shrouded by persistent cloud, a reminder of the malaise of getting a touch of altitude sickness… Still, there is some merit in recording some of it, so here goes…

Day 3

Today is a ‘rest’ day, or an acclimatization day.  Take your pick.  Rest takes on a whole different meaning in the world of trekking.  No sitting around, putting your feet up. Instead we complete a shorter 3-hour hike and ascend to higher altitude, only to retrace our steps later on, back to our lodgings in Namche Bazaar in this case.  It’s called: ‘climb high, sleep low’ and allows the body to adapt to the thinner air, thereby reducing the risk of the dreaded altitude sickness. 

Still, today counts as one of the highlights of the trip:  my first unhampered view of Mount Everest itself. A steep and taxing climb up to 3880m to the Everest View Hotel with, as the name suggests, breathtaking views of the mighty Himalaya peak.  Not only Mount Everest, but also its immediate neighbours, Lhotse and Nuptse, as well as Ama Dablam and a whole host of other mountains in that vicinity.  With less oxygen around, the trekking is certainly becoming more challenging. 

In the afternoon I have time to wander around Namche itself, the last real town we will see for a little while.  I browse the tourist shops lining the narrow streets, but it feels a little premature to buy t-shirts or yak wool hats emblazoned with ‘Everest Base Camp’ or ‘Kala Patthar’.  Let’s see if I make it first…  ‘People watching’ seems more appealing as I marvel at both men and women attending to laundry using refreshing water as nature provides it.  Icy cold, straight from the mountains. 

In the meantime, after three days, I am pondering about the state of my hair but decide that even at an affordable 400 Nepalese Rupees for a hot shower, I cannot bear the thought of standing in a state of undress in a very cold room…  Anyway, in another three days, I will be back to square one and it will be ever colder… I shall learn to love my hat and my indispensable, versatile tube scarves (neck warmers) and cover my hair instead!

Day 4

This morning I wake up to a hoar frost extravaganza.  White rime has crisped the grass and bushes. Piercing sunrays dazzle the morning sky.   At night, temperatures plummet to well below freezing and it is certainly getting much colder when we start our trek.  Time to dig out warmer leggings to wear under my trekking pants and have an extra fleece ready in my backpack…

Today’s destination is Tengboche at 3867m.  ‘A steep ascent ending with a nice downhill stretch,’ Sonam assures me.  Not in so many words though, as his English is rather more limited than I would have hoped for from a guide.  I gathered early on in our travels that my many questions never quite got the expected reply.  Conversation soon dried up and has been limited to very basic mono-syllabic vocabulary liberally supplemented with imaginative body language.  On the whole, I get the gist about simple matters, such as the names of the mountains and the villages, but it does not satisfy my curiosity about the local Buddhist culture in the Khumbu Everest Region.   With no immediate internet access – I did not buy the one and only wifi card that works in the area – I have to rely on Sonam’s sketchy information and my memory so I can check facts online later on my return…

But today, Sonam is particularly preoccupied, constantly on his phone whilst setting a brisk pace and I have to remind him to slow down once in a while so I can take some photographs.  Lunch in Tengboche comes just at the right time; I am famished, sapped of energy, ready for a much needed rest, and did we not just reach the ‘end of a nice downhill stretch followed by yet another steep upwards track’?  Instead of being shown my room after lunch, Sonam heads for the great outdoors and motions me to follow him.  No time to stop by the famous Tengboche Monastery, we pick up our backpacks and on we go…uphill…  It is not quite what I am expecting, but my queries don’t seem to spark any kind of sensible response.  

‘Another hour or so,’ Sonam elaborates.  I shrug my shoulders, none the wiser and go with the flow all the way Pangboche…  Pangboche??  It appears that all the lodges in Tengboche are full and we arrived too late to get a room.  On the upside, Pangboche is at 3,985m, just that little closer to EBC and at least Sonam has managed to get us some lodgings there.  At least we do not have to resort to sleeping in tents…

‘Not such a long hike tomorrow,’ Sonam smiles…  ‘Thank goodness,’ I think, as I collapse on the bed pretty shattered, and snuggle into my sleeping bag for a refreshing nap.  I’ll surface again later, closer to 4 or 5 pm, when the yak dung stoves are lit in the communal dining rooms and for just a few hours we can all relish in some warmth. 

Day 5

Today’s trek takes us to  Dingboche at an altitude of 4350 m, higher than Annapurna Base Camp!  With an ascend of less than 400m and a much shorter hike ahead of us, I am allowed a lie in!!  As there is less pressure on accommodation at our next destination, we’re setting off at 8 am rather than the usual 7 or 7.30 am. 

Still, the altitude is beginning to bite and even the three hour trek leaves me exhausted.  Luckily, no headache, no signs of altitude sickness.  Others though are not so lucky.  The last couple of mornings, the air has been thick with the whirring noise of rotor blades.  Rescue helicopters on emergency evacuation missions have been flying past to pick up trekkers who have succumbed to altitude sickness and need to descend urgently.

Having arrived at our destination before lunchtime, I have a full afternoon to kill…  Whereas reading a book would be my normal recourse,  in order to minimise the weight in my backpack, I have downloaded a couple of thrillers on my smart phone, which also doubles up as my camera…  What sounded like a great idea at the time, turns out less practical than I had anticipated.  Phones need battery, and charging phones and power banks is not free; the cost increases dramatically with the altitude where the tea houses and lodges rely on solar power.  The more savvy trekkers have bought and brought solar chargers to boost their phones and cameras.  A thing to remember for the future…

Luckily, Dingboche has some entertainment on offer in a few of the coffee shops: movie time accompanied by coffee and cake.  Not the latest adventure blockbusters, though, but a sobering tale about helicopter rescues when pilots have to push their machines to the limit and often risk their own life to save the lives of stranded trekkers and sherpas who are making a bid to reach the summit of Mount Everest.    At least I have no ambitions to go that far, I will be very pleased with myself if I make it to Base Camp!!

Everest Base Camp Trek 2018 (3) : The Long Way Up…

Day 1

I set my alarm for 4.15 am.  Enough time to pack the last essentials in my kitbag, deposit my suitcase with the hotel reception for safekeeping and still have a few minutes to spare to wolf down a spot of breakfast.  My flight to Lukla is scheduled for 6.00 am. 

Ashok may well have irked me by changing my departure date, but having secured me a seat on the first flight out turns out well worth it.  As the early morning skies are usually clearer, I stand a better chance of getting to my destination on that day.   And indeed, only a couple of early flights make it to Lukla that Monday.  Anyone booked on later flights is left to think up a plan B.  Maybe better luck tomorrow? Some with deeper pockets, such as the two ladies I meet at the teahouse the next evening, manage to salvage the day by snapping up a pricey helicopter trip.  Others, such as a young backpacker I met in Pokhara who waited two days for his flight, change destination and settle for a different trek altogether: Annapurna Base Camp, Langtang perhaps…  And there is always the option of a bus ride to Jiri and adding a day or two of hiking to make it to Lukla.  The roads between Jiri and Lukla are notoriously bad and motorised transport beyond that point probably not advisable and not available.   

Luckily for me, Fortuna’s wings take me across.  My flight takes off ahead of schedule and by 7.00 am I sit in the Paradise Lodge in Lukla, enjoying some hot coffee and meeting Sonam, my guide and porter for my epic journey to Everest Base Camp.

Unsure about how well I would cope on this trek, and mindful I do not want to be the one holding everyone up, I have decided to go solo.  This way I can hike at my own speed, neither rushed nor slowed down by others.  However, my map reading skills being what they are, it would be an adventure too far for me not to have at least one guiding hand at my side.  And let’s not  forget the other advantage of a guide-cum-porter: I will only have to carry a small amount of stuff in a small backpack… Sonam will carry the bulk of it in his slightly larger backpack.

Sonam… using selfie-mode on his phone to check his hair and how cool he looks…  

No point in delaying the start of the trek.  No sooner have I swallowed my coffee, and we’re on our way.  Sonam and I.  The first leg takes us through alpine forest, lush greenery under a cornflower sky, to Phakding, a mere 3 hours walk from Lukla (4 according to the itinerary).  Sonam is impressed.  ‘You’re strong, mam,’ he assures me approvingly, as we have walked much quicker than he had expected ‘considering my age’… ‘Fifty nine, mam, you’re very strong.’  Since he put my age somewhere around 45 earlier that day – it is amazing what a little bit of hair dye can achieve -, I suppose he was preparing for a leisurely hike up to Base Camp.

Contrary to what logic may dictate, by the end of the first day we have descended a full 200m: from Lukla’s elevation of 2860m to Phakding’s 2650m.  It’s called the ‘Nepali flat’: a little bit up and a little bit down, a phrase used to describe the up and down nature of Nepalese hiking trails…  

Day 2

‘Day 2 is the killer,’ Ashok explained to me a few days before I set off as we combed through the finer details of my trekking schedule.  Maybe not in those exact words, but you get the drift… ‘A long distance, numerous steep inclines and then there are the yaks and mules on the path,’ he continued.  ‘Make sure you hug the hillside when they pass.  For safety.’ 

With a tough stretch ahead of us, we leave early on the second day.  Breakfast at 6.30 am; out of the door by 7.00.   The trek to Namche Bazaar at 3440 m takes us to higher altitude territory.  Nothing too serious yet, but altitude sickness can rear up its ugly head from now on.  The key is to take it slowly, very slowly to let your body adapt and I set the pace for Sonam to follow. 

I am grateful for the countless mule trains we pass as each time it gives me a chance to catch my breath.  And, of  course, the heavily burdened yaks lumbering over the metal suspension bridges give everyone a break too.  There are plenty of those bridges between Phakding and Namche Bazaar and I quickly learn to look straight ahead, not down at the raging rivers and gaping valleys below.   Not for the faint-hearted and I hold onto the steel-cable handrail to steady myself as the floor bounces up and down with the steps of other trekkers.  But lots of bridges means lots of ups and downs as often the only way to reach the opposite side of a valley is by walking down a few hundred metres to a narrow suspension bridge and then climb up again…

On this second day, we pass two checkpoints: Monjo and Namche Bazaar.  Busy places packed with scores of trekkers, guides and porters, all showing their permits and having their passport details registered.  Not only do the permits bring much needed income to a still very poor country, the records held at the checkpoint mean that the authorities know exactly who is on the mountain.  Useful in case of an accident or disaster, or even to alert people when someone does not return in the expected time frame. 

More and more trekkers opt to go solo which involves more risk.  Guides are familiar with the routes and are trained to recognise the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).  Although the trek to Everest Base Camp is considered relatively safe, each year some trekkers die.

My notebook diary entry for Day 2 reads as follows:  ‘I think we just finished day 2.  Not as bad as expected.  Shorter than everyone made out.  But I’m not looking forward to doing this in reverse.  Too many steep inclines now, so a lot of downhill stretches awaiting me on the way back. Knee doing well so far!!’ 

(to be continued)

Everest Base Camp Trek 2018 (2) – Preparing in Pokhara.

Phewa Lake, Pokhara

Ashok pays me a visit at my hostel in Kathmandu.  I have met him before, during my first trip to Nepal in 2015 a few months after the big earthquake, when I did a shorter trek in the Annapurna Range near Pokhara.  This time he – or his travel agency more precisely – has sorted out my Everest Base Camp trip and he has come to shed light on the finer details of my itinerary…

‘You will be leaving for Lukla on 22nd October,’ he explains.  The 22nd?  This is the first time this date has been mentioned to me.  I had previously discussed 20th October and led to believe this was THE date.  ‘Ashok,’ I deplore him, ‘why am I the last one to know about the change of date?  My visa, my insurance, flight to Malaysia are all based on leaving for my trek on the 20th…’  As trekking over 4600m is considered ‘extreme adventure’, my normal insurance does not cover EBC and I have had to purchase an additional policy, just in case of an emergency requiring a helicopter rescue… 

I had given myself some leeway at the end – or so I thought – as flights to and from Lukla are notoriously unreliable and trekkers often get stuck for a day or two waiting for the weather and flying conditions to improve so that planes are able to take off and land on one of the shortest and most dangerous runways in the world…  Having spent enough time in the Far East now, the sudden change of itinerary should not have come as a surprise.  Without any malice on their part, travel agents and tour operators assume they know best and have the right to make changes as they see fit, without any prior consultation.  I take a deep breath and decide to go with the flow.  Not that I have any other option really and it gives me two extra days to get my legs and muscles into shape.

After five weeks on the road, I have not seen the inside of a gym since the end of August.  Apart from scaling the Lang Biang peak near Dalat on a very wet and soggy afternoon and some short cycling ventures in Vietnam and Cambodia, exercise has been seriously lacking in my daily routine.  So I arrive in Nepal 10 days (or 12 as it turns out) ahead of my EBC trek and set off for Pokhara, for some pre-trek trekking.  Nothing too serious, mind, merely a few day trips in and around the town to give my boots a feel of the ‘real’ surface they will be tackling, not just the cushioned version of the treadmill. 

Money conscious and adventure hungry, I make the journey to Pokhara by bus.  It may not be as comfortable as a flight, but at least you get to see more of the country.  Ashok has purchased my ticket, and I have been allocated seat 17A.  Early the next morning I make my way to the bus depot on the outskirts of Kathmandu’s Thamel area: a long line of buses from various companies all heading in the direction of Pokhara.  It is festival season, Dusshera and Tahir are imminent and many city dwellers go back to the villages to be with their families.  Buses are packed, no seats left unsold.  I find the right bus, suitcase in the hold, first passenger on the bus and am shown my seat…  Of all the seats in the bus, mine happens to be the middle one on the back row.  ‘This is my seat??’ I query rather pointlessly… ‘The middle one with the broken seat belt??’  There is no sympathy from the bus ‘conductor’ and I reluctantly take my seat.  If the dust and uneven road surfaces of Kathmandu are anything to go by, I am in for an eventful ride.

The roads out of Kathmandu are gridlocked. Cars, buses, lories crawl along and the air is choked with exhaust fumes and dry earth.  It does not take long for the caravan of traffic to spread out a bit and our bus finally picks up speed.  On the upside, we may actually get to Pokhara in one day, on the other hand… the driver does not seem to mind racing through the myriad of giant potholes sprayed across the road surface.   With nothing to hold onto – apart from my fellow travelers on the right and left side of me – it is but for the grace of my still rapid reflexes that I do not end up on the driver’s lap.  I am catapulted forwards, propelled upwards at every bump and pothole as the driver plows on regardless, not even slowing in the least when the road surface may demand it for the safety and convenience of the passengers, or to prolong the roadworthiness of the vehicle we are traveling in…

‘Are you a Christian?’ my left-hand neighbour asks.  The question takes me by surprise, it is not one of the usual ones: ‘Where are you from?’  ‘What’s your ‘good name’?’ and ‘Where is your husband?’  Although, come to think of it, the last one has recently been replaced with a surprised ‘You’re traveling on your own?’ ‘I thought I heard you say ‘Jesus’,’ he continues…  Having just survived a particularly nasty hump in the road which literally lifted me off my seat, I count myself lucky that nothing more offensive escaped my lips… Still, I like honesty, so I admit to being Christian, albeit one who doesn’t very often set foot in church…  He is also Christian, only a ‘New Christian’ recently converted in the wake of the last earthquake in Nepal, one who believes that God is about to send his son again to Earth.  ‘Soon,’ he explains, ‘he needs to come very soon to show people how to live.  Before mad people such as Kim Jong-un from North Korea start the third world war.’  I cannot recall whether he added Trump to this list of potential hazards to peace on the planet… Definitely a different take on Christianity than the one I am familiar with, but to every man his creed…   

Left-hand neighbour  speaks impeccable English.  Clearly  intelligent but not particularly studious, he left school at an early age and  spent a few years in Dubai ‘working in sales’ and perfecting his English – the  lingua franca amongst expats from poorer countries such as India, Nepal and The  Philippines.  The expats who do all the  hard work and have literally built the Middle Eastern skyscrapers and emporiums…But missing his home, he returned to Nepal and now makes a living as a porter.  On this trip he is part of a team of guides  and porters accompanying a group of Indian trekkers who are aiming to reach  Annapurna Base Camp.  Left-hand neighbour  enjoys this work.  ‘It may be tough,’ he  agrees, but this way he can afford to travel and see the fantastic sights in  his own country…  Sometimes it is easy to  forget that visiting these amazing and incredible places on earth is a huge privilege  not granted to everyone, not even the local people… Still, left-hand neighbour  is only 22, with a life of opportunities ahead of him.

After a long eight-hour journey, we reach Pokhara.  Whilst left-hand neighbour sets off to transport the luggage of his charges, I head for my guest house and my first short-distance trek the next day.  I just potter around really. With brand new inner-soles in my hiking boots – a concession to plantar fasciitis – I know that my feet have to get accustomed to the new arch support before I should attempt longer hikes.  But as everything seems well after day one, I feel ready for a serious uphill stretch to Sarangkot, a popular tourist destination with a viewpoint at 1592m. On a clear and cloudless day, the hilltop not only offers incredible views of the Pokhara Valley, but also spectacular vistas of the snowcapped mountains of the Annapurna Massif, Fishtail Mountain, Dhaulagiri range and Manaslu.  As my previous visit to Nepal coincided with the tail end of the monsoon, I never saw the full panoramic stretch and I am counting on having more luck this time at the top of Sarangkot.

Not a great view of the mountains, but the best one I get to see during my stay in Pokhara…  Taken from the rooftop of my first guesthouse on the first morning…

‘The hike up to Sarangkot will take about an hour,’ I am assured at my guesthouse.  ‘The trail starts where the paragliders land,’ the host adds for good measure.  I had already walked as far as the landing spot – or at least one of the spots – the previous day, so I have some idea of where to start … and for everything else, there is Google Maps, I reason.  On my way I stop to ask some further directions from a fellow hiker.  We both consult Google Maps on our smart phones and yes, it seems we have identified the spot.  ‘But,’ he tags on, ‘if I can give you some advice???  Don’t focus on the destination, enjoy the hike…’ 

It turns out to be sound advice!  What had been described as a one-hour uphill hike ends up lasting about three to four hours.  Admittedly, I stop on a few occasions to take interesting photographs; I am distracted by a young girl showing me her house and the fat, juicy goat that will be slaughtered for the upcoming festival; 

I watch some children trying to coach their kites into the air – flying kites is part of the fun of Dusshera;

and I am mesmerized by the paragliders twisting and twirling as they float over the Pokhara Lake and valley…   

But my main error is to rely on Google Maps which shows the 4×4 track up to Sarangkot, not the hikers trail.  ‘Look,’ a German hiker later clarifies, ‘the hiking trails are clearly marked on MapsMe…’ as she points me in the right direction for a shortcut to the top.  I make a mental note to download yet another app on my phone for future solo hiking adventures… By then I am puffing up the hill, and my knees are starting to protest even before I make it to the hundreds of steps up to the viewing point… I persevere all in the name of ‘practice for the real trek’ because the panoramic mountain view I am hoping for is stubbornly cloaked in clouds…  At least the greenery of the valley and the colourful paragliding parachutes make for a worthwhile spectacle.  The downhill route, although much shorter, is even more arduous than getting up to the viewpoint.  My knees are definitely not happy, so I hobble and limp down the steep slopes and the countless steps on the way down.  It doesn’t bode well for my intended EBC trip…Maybe a rest day is what I need!!

What better way to give my legs a break than getting up into the air.  A spot of paragliding seems a good plan, and maybe, just maybe the cloud cover will lift to reveal the mountains…  This time I get a ride up to the paragliding launch spot, along the windy roads to Sarangkot.  Much quicker and easier than a hike!!!  Although the paraglide is indeed awesome, the weather does not play ball and apart from a glimpse of The Fishtail, the rest of the mountains remain hidden behind the clouds… Still, it does not detract from the fun and adventure of using the thermals in the air to get a bird’s eye view of Pokhara.

With the pain in my knee slowly subsiding over the next few days, I continue my (shorter and easier) treks in the area and visit parts of Pokhara I missed last time.  I take a boat across the Phewa lake and climb the many steps up to the World Peace Pagoda, a stunning Buddhist monument to peace, with on a clear day amazing views of the Himalayas…  Not when I am there unfortunately.

I hike to the Davis Falls, named after a Swiss woman who drowned there when she went for a swim, and the Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave opposite.  As it is holiday season, the cave is packed with tourists making the journey down the dimly lit path and the slippery steps a little treacherous.  I actually find it a very claustrophobic as I am swallowed up by the crowd, so I don’t take time to enjoy the stalagmites and stalactites and just take a quick snapshot of the bottom of the waterfall, barely visible through the mist and a narrow gap in the rock face.

This building marks the entrance to the cave complex.

Later, I walk amongst rice paddies, cross wonky bridges and watch locals prepare for the festival of Dusshera. 

With just a couple of days  left to the big day of Dusherra, goats are being slaughtered, houses cleaned and garments washed…  

And in parks and other large open spaces, enormous bamboo-pole swings have been erected and children of all ages are testing their agility.  Nepal is getting ready for its biggest festival of the year.

My bus ride back to Kathmandu is rather uneventful but at least this time I have a safer seat.  Kathmandu, and even the touristy Thamel area,is rather quiet on my return.  Many shops and restaurants have closed for Dusshera and the few that remain open are packed with tourists in need of food and coffee.  Luckily, most of the outlets selling and hiring trekking gear are open for business. It may well be festival season, but October and November are busy trekking months so it’s also the time for businesses to make their money. 

I spend my last three days before leaving for Lukla sorting out my trekking kit: hiring sleeping bag and down jacket; buying warm thermals and a fleece and plenty of energy bars…  I even (optimistically) add some shampoo sachets.  And of course, the packets of painkillers I brought from the UK in February…  A little bit of discomfort is not going to keep me from climbing that hill, but better be prepared for the downhill stretches that will definitely test my knee joints…

Base Camp Everest, here I come…

Happy Anniversary, says Wordpress…

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Netheravon, August 2013

The message took me by surprise.  My second anniversary on WordPress.  Two years of writing blog posts, almost weekly…  I know I have slacked a little lately.  Too busy having experiences, not enough time to keep a record of it all.

I have no idea how many words it amounts to or how many pages it would fill in a book; how much of it is interesting and how often visitors actually read the text or just scan through the photographs.  But it gives me some idea of how I spent those 24 months, where I went and whom I met; the places I grew to love or hate; the people who stole a small piece of my heart..

How many stamps did I collect in my passport? So far I have visited 11 countries. Not all for the first time, but I stayed for longer periods, immersing myself in different cultures, customs and traditions.  Definitely often challenging, but nevertheless the experiences of a life time and I feel I have not even scratched the surface..  Much more to explore on this ever expanding journey, no end yet in sight!

And trawling through the wealth of accumulated photographs I struggle to condense my exploits to just a few highlights.  There have been too many really…  Maybe my adventures had already started in August 2013 when I took the plunge with a skydive, ‘chaperoned’ by my son; or when we as a family hiked Mount Snowdon in Wales (March 2014)…

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Snowden (Wales), March 2014

But my travels really started, way back in May 2014, with a short trip to Florence, accompanied by one of my dearest friends… It is strange how when life turns upside down you get to know your real friends: the ones who support you when things are tough, those whose ears do not grow tired of hearing the same old lament; the ones who do not point out the flaws in your plan but are ready to help you pick up the pieces.  However until I left for India in October 2014, England was my home, the place I returned to after travelling.

So if I look back over the last two years to catalogue my ‘travel around the world’ adventures, I have to start with that journey to Florence.  No better way to put a smile on my face than a close encounter with David, although we only met in a coffee shop being too stingy to fork out for a visit to the real one.

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Florence (Italy), May 2014

In September 2014 my daughter dropped me off at Heathrow  airport,  the starting point of my African adventure and beyond.  ‘Don’t do anything silly or stupid.  Make sure you stay safe.  And keep in touch!!!’, the sage advice of my daughter.  I was the one setting out on the gap year!!! Talking about role reversal…

In Cape Town (South Africa) I scaled the Lion’s Head and tackled Table Mountain.  I watched the sun rise over Dune 45 in Namibia and spied some of the Big Five on the plains of Etosha.  My flight over the Okavanga Delta in Botswana was easily eclipsed by fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition of Grade 5 white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi River, with the roar of the magnificent Victoria Waterfalls in my ears.  I stood eye to eye with fierce black rhinos in Zimbabwe.

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Table Mountain (Cape Town, south Africa), September 2014

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The Lion’s Head (Cape Town, South Africa), September 2014

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Sossusvlei (Namibia), September 2014

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Sossusvlei, Dune 45 (Nambia), September 2014

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Ethosia (Namibia), September 2014

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Exploring the Okavanga Delta by Mokoro (Botswana), September 2014

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Bird’s Eye view of the Okavanga Delta (Botswana), September 2014

 

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Flying over the mighty Victoria Waterfalls (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Awesome white water rafting on the Zambesi River (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Facing the rhinos in Zimbabwe, September 2014

In October 2014, Southern India beckoned… I learnt to navigate the Indian traffic chaos, and became adept at opening a coconut without proper tools.  I spent months swaddled in churidars, only to expose my legs near the more tolerant beach towns of Kovalam and Varkala. I kayaked the backwaters of Alleppey and bathed elephants in Periyar.   I have fond memories of exploring the hidden treasures of  Munnar, Kumarakom and Ponmudy with Dr Anne…  I watched the sun rise in Kanyakumari, at the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent and felt my stomach lurch at the sight of men hanging from flesh hooks to appease the gods and earn more desirable opportunities in the future.  No more idyllic end to my Indian adventure than spending four days luxuriating on the uninhabited islands of Lakshadweep, definitely one of the best kept secrets of Indian tourism.

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Periyar, Kerala (India), December 2014

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Kerala (India) , February 2015

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Kanyakumari, July 2015

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Ponmudi (Kerala, India), October 2015

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Travels with Dr. Anne, (Munnar) , October 2015

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The unspoiled islands of Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

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Exploring the underwater world around Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

My travels in India were briefly interrupted by a little sojourn to the UK and Amsterdam (March 2015).  No adult gap year would be complete without tasting the elsewhere forbidden pleasures of space cakes and smoking a joint.  And yes, sampling cheeses, lots of exotic, colourful cheeses…

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Amsterdam, March 2015

Entitled to a two week break in August and September 2015 I made it to Kathmandu, Nepal, where I  witnessed the devastation wreaked by the April earthquake. I made acquaintance with Sadhus in the sacred Pashupatinath  Temple where Hindus come to cremate relatives who have passed away.   In Pokhara and Poon Hill I had my first (so far…) encounter with the impressive Himalayas and in Chitwan I had the privilege of glimpsing the elusive tiger in the wild…

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Pokhara, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunrise at Poon Hill, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunset over the river in Chitwan, September 2015

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The elusive tiger, September 2015

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Making friends in Kathmandu, September 2015

In February 2016, I landed in Hangzhou, a stone’s throw away from Shanghai. The end of the winter, still bitter, when only the colour of clothes and bicycles brightened the grey, dull atmosphere.  In March I joined a group of Chinese students taking selfies in the yellow expanse of rapeseed flowers.  April found me blowing giant bubbles in a massive park.  The rains of May turned Huangshan’s Yellow Mountain into a sea of mist and mystique.  In June I looked down on Shanghai from its Pearl Tower.  In July I cruised the Li River, admiring the mysterious hills and mountains lining its banks.  In September I conquered the Great Wall and in October I explored the wonders of Yunan and Shangri-La…

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Rapeseed flowers in Wuyuan, March 2016

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Giant bubble fun in Hangzhou, April 2016

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Mountains in the mist, Huangzhan, May 2016

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First visit to Shanghai, June 2016

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Mysterious mountains in Yuangsho, July 2016

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The Great Wall of China, September 2016

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Sunrise over Mount Meli, Yunnan, October 2016

In August 2016, I escaped the oppressive heat of the Shanghai summer to briefly visit the UK and have a break in Thailand touching the very beaches made famous by James Bond and Leonardo Di Caprio..

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Bangkok, Thailand.  August 2016

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James Bond Island, Phuket, Thailand.  August 2016

Not a bad list of achievements for two years of travelling ‘Round The World’…  I wonder what will be in store for the next two years..  Where to next???

 

 

 

A brush with Hindu death in Nepal: Pashupatinath

On my first day in Kathmandu, I visited the Garden of Dreams.  ‘An absolute must,’ Ashok insisted, ‘if you have the time…’  So after my immersion in Kathmandu and Nepal’s history in the early part of the day, I ventured out in search of the garden AND the pizza parlour opposite, on Ashok’s recommendation.  And I did fancy pizza!!  Apart from a dismal imitation I bought in a local bakery in N (India) months ago, I had not tasted pizza for ages, certainly not since leaving the UK at the end of May.

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The Garden of Dreams was indeed rather breathtaking: a little gem hidden from the tourist masses and an unexpected oasis of calm and peace in the midst of Kathmandu’s charming chaos.  Constrained architecture blended seamlessly with dated buildings, statues and voguish plant-scapes (is this even a real word??? If not, I have coined it now!!!). After the morning’s hectic, Japanese-style sightseeing, I felt the need to rest my feet on a comfortable bench and was joined by ‘Nameless Man From England’.  We exchanged Kathmandu experiences and whereas I completed three major tourist attractions in one morning, his approach had been rather more leisurely.  He had already spent a full week in Kathmandu, exploring each and every heritage site unhurriedly, but he admitted, ‘maybe a week was too long,’ and he was ready to check out the rest of Nepal.  ‘But,’ he continued, ‘ you must visit Pashupatinath, the sacred Hindu cremation place. Interesting and very worthwhile.’  I cannot say the idea of cremation immediately grabbed me, but with still a whole day to fill in Kathmandu at the end of my trip, I made a mental note of the name and added it to my list of things left to do.   I suppose I could have spent some time shopping, but I promised faithfully not to collect more ‘things’ on my travels which then have to be stored in my son’s garage.

Having duly consulted the internet, on my return from Pokhara I asked Ashok to organise a taxi driver to take me to Pashupatinath, one of the most holy Hindu temples of Nepal, dedicated to the god Shiva.  The  ancient temple complex straddles both banks of the Bagmati River on the eastern outskirts of Kathmandu.  For centuries, this has been where many Nepalis faithful to Shiva have chosen to be cremated in the belief that they will be reborn as humans because any misdemeanours in their past life will just be brushed under the carpet.  In the final weeks of their lives, those Nepalis travel to Pashupatinath to meet their death and, after cremation, to travel their last journey carried along the waters of the sacred river, which later joins the river Ganges.

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When I arrived, hawkers were in waiting, encouraging me to buy apples or bananas, or beaded necklaces and bracelet.  At the entrance a shopkeeper displayed a rainbow array of coloured tikka paints, the paints used by husbands and wives to put marks on each other’s forehead and the paint powders used in the festival of Holi, when no one can escape being covered in paint and paint powder.

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Not being familiar with any of the Hindu death rituals, I gratefully accepted the help of a ‘guide-at-a-price-who-may-take-liberties-with-the-truth’ to explain the goings-on at the temple. As a non-Hindu, I was not welcome in the bowels of the temple but could view the cremations from the river bank on the opposite side.  I looked on, spellbound, as the funeral pyres on the ‘poor side’ billowed with smoke whilst the families stood by.  On the rich side, the dead were covered with orange sheets and men performed the necessary rites to ensure the recently departed were cleansed and bathe in the water of the holy river before their send-off.  And yes, I did see some of the dead bodies…
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Next to the river, I watched a family’s puja on the anniversary of a death of a close relative.  One of the male relatives, assisted by a priest, prepared offerings to appease the Gods and secure a safe passage for the departed into the next world.  The ‘prasad’ of food and money was set afloat on the river, where eager monkeys and children sat in waiting.  Whilst the monkeys feasted on the rice and edible treasures, the children chased the rupee notes and coins…

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The PashupatinathTemple is also a magnet for Sadhus or Hindu Holy men from all over the Indian Subcontinent and my guide expertly guided me in the direction of their abode on some steps in front of ancient shrines where they pose for photographs with eager tourists, all for a fee of course. Clearly, I could not escape and had to take part in the photo session: various poses, various combinations with ashen grey men (covered in grey ashes from cremated bodies), brown men, naked men and barely clad men with unkempt hair and straggly beards.  I allowed myself to be promised a long and happy life again (hence the red dot) for which I gave a generous (in my view….) donation. But then again, having made vows of celibacy and poverty, the Holy men depend on the charity of householders and tourists for their food whilst they spend their days meditating and contemplating in order to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.  And to be fair, their ‘accommodation’ at Pashupatinath did not exactly shout ‘comfort’.

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The rest of the tour of Pashupatinath covered many stories about the various temples, shrines and different versions of Shiva, but the one that kept cropping up was Shiva’s appearance as Lingam, Erect Phallus, and could be found all over the complex…

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Just like many of the places I visited in and around Kathmandu, the area around Pashupatinath’s one main temple was jam-packed with smaller buildings and shrines, most of which withstood the powerful April earthquake and showed only minor damage. 
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On The Trail of Sher Khan.

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‘This reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book,’ Mike reminisces.  And indeed, watching the convoy of elephants lumbering through the dense forest cloaked by early morning mist, you can almost hear Colonel Hathi’s Dawn Patrol or Elephant Song and imagine Mowgli following at the tail end…  Mike is a retired history teacher, with a love of nature, wildlife and travelling, and we are sharing an elephant’s back on a trek through the jungle in Chitwan, Southern Nepal, on a quest to spot some grazing rhinos and the ever so elusive tiger.  Of course, we are sure to see deer and hopefully some wild boar or mischievous monkeys, but to catch a glimpse of the evasive tiger would be a highlight of any trip.

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Mike takes out his camera to shoot a little video so his Facebook friends can get a flavour of riding through the jungle on an elephant.  ‘I have tried out almost all possible modes of transport,’ he reveals, ‘and riding an elephant completes the list.’  He feels a little smug at his accomplishment, brushing away the invisible cobwebs hiding in the low-hanging branches which are slyly sneaking up on him.  Although I would not consider being squashed in a wooden box with three other bottoms on top of an elephant a comfortable ride, it is a vast improvement on my last elephant adventure sitting astride a large pachyderm in Kerala – my legs took hours to get back into normal position.

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Trumpeting its loud protest, our elephant is cajoled and encouraged to wade through the crocodile infested river and into the darkness of the rain forest.  We hold on for dear life as with sudden speed and an unexpected spurt, it obliges the commands of the mahout.  We hobble through the jungle, being jolted left and right, forward and back again, as the elephant squelches through the slippery paths, muddy and slick after the heavy monsoon rains, and plods through algae-covered slimy ponds.  Sitting well above ground level, we scour the dense thicket for tell-tale movements in between the leaf cover and the mahout scans the forest floor for familiar paw and hoof prints. And there, just at the edge of the river, the mahout points out a tiger’s paw prints, fresh looking paw prints and a sure sign that a tiger is not far off.

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tiger paw prints

‘These are not any tiger’s paw prints,’ the mahout explains in Nepalese. ‘These are the paw prints of the tiger that attacked and killed a local woman only last week.  She was in the jungle collecting food for her livestock.’  Lucky for the two non-Nepalese speakers in the box, Mike and me, one of the other tourists is happy to translate. Even if the stories of a prowling tiger are true, the early morning bush is brimming with local Tharu women ignoring the dangers to forage for food and medicinal plants they can sell in the markets. They fill their enormous bags, fastened around the head, with heavy loads as they live in symbiosis with the jungle, the tiger their nemesis.

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However this is not the last time we are entertained with the killer tiger story, only there appears some disagreement about whether the victim was a woman gathering firewood or medicinal plants or a man doing a spot of fly fishing.  And the timing seems a little vague: was it indeed only last week or did the fatal tiger encounter happen a few weeks ago?  Do all visitors to Chitwan get fed similar stories? But recently a tigress with three cubs has been spotted in the area, a mother fiercely protective of her brood making her a dangerous animal to cross.  At least we are sitting high and dry on our elephant should the tiger make an appearance now…  In the event, we see no tigers or rhinos, but are rewarded with sightings of deer and a lonely wild boar accompanied by the noisy twitter and tweets of the birds’ dawn chorus.

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In the afternoon, when the heat of the day has subsided, I continue my game watching with a guide and take to the river in a canoe hollowed out from a huge tree trunk.  We look around expectantly for rhinos drinking lazily at the river banks after a day’s grazing.  But only the crocodiles play ball, lurking just beneath the surface of the water, eyes unblinking, waiting for the right moment and the right prey.  When we get out of the canoe to start our jungle walk, I keep an eye out for crocodiles sunning themselves on the sandy river banks, just in case. We trample through the soggy mire of the forest floor but only come across deserted termite mounds, a herd of fleeing deer and a camera-shy wild boar.  We admire parasite trees looping and snaking around twisted, gnarled tree trunks and watch huge orchid leaves on the branches, waiting to spring into bloom. Rhinos and wild elephants, we see none.  We make our way to the Elephant Breeding Centre when suddenly we spot another tiger paw print on the marshy path; I feel just a little on edge with this morning’s stories of Sher Khan still fresh on my mind and my guide just carrying a long stick for protection.  But although plenty of evidence of tiger is abound, very few people have actually ever seen one and in his fourteen year long career in the jungle, my guide has tallied only about twenty sightings.

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To complete my day’s ‘Jungle Book’ experience, I take up my guide’s offer of watching the sun set over the river.  It was to have been the closure of my previous day, but then heavy, leaden rainclouds blocked out the sun and  hampered any chance of a worthwhile sundown.  Today we reach the spot just in time, together with a handful of other tourists who have come to delight in the spectacle and maybe a last glimpse of the wild animals that are drawn to the rivers and waterholes now that the air is cooler.  A lonely canoe traverses the river, cutting through the golden shadows on the water and the blood red river in the sun’s fading moments.

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And suddenly some commotion!  On the other side of the river, a creature crawls from the shallows of the water.  ‘Is that a wild boar?’ a woman asks her guide, who quickly trains his binoculars into the direction of her pointing finger. ‘No, it’s a tiger!’  And as I am standing just next to her, I whip around to see the animal, but it is too far away to be sure. I grab my camera and take a photograph and then zoom in to expose the distinct features of a tiger.  Having just pulled itself up from the murky brown river water, the tiger’s coat looks matted and bedraggled, its zoo-familiar stripy pattern concealed by the mud clinging to its body and paws.  But its face leaves no doubt that it is a prime example of the Royal Bengal Tiger, a real Sher Khan, strutting across the riverbank I walked on just over an hour ago!  And all I was worried about was sleepy crocodiles..

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The news of the sighting travels ahead of me and at the hotel I am greeted with awe as if merely being in the proximity of a tiger endows me with celebrity status.  ‘You are one very lucky lady.  No one ever sees a tiger..,’ they sigh.  Or could it be that very few people who see a tiger, live to tell the tale…