Category Archives: solo travel

Borneo: the kindness of perfect strangers…

I leave Nepal with only the vaguest of plans: breeze through Kuala Lumpur as a starter, have my fill of adventure on Malaysian Borneo, followed by a week of relaxation in Malacca for afters…  To be garnished with detail when in situ. 

‘Anything lined up for Borneo?  Heading into the jungle?’ a fellow traveler asks when we lounge at the breakfast table in my Pokhara hostel, weeks earlier.  All flights booked before setting off on my three-month journey, accommodation to be arranged last minute as per usual, my mind is foggy about the minutiae.  I have yet to conquer Base Camp Everest at that point and somehow my imagination is blocked by that monumental obstacle that seems to be commandeering my every waking breath.  In Pokhara, I cannot yet contemplate life post-EBC.

‘Nope,’ I admit.  ‘Haven’t made any plans beyond ‘no plans to climb Kota Kinabalu’…’  Uncharacteristically, prudence has ruled my head and I thought it wise not to book another strenuous hike in the immediate aftermath of The Hike.  I resolve to go with the flow, see what trips are available at the time and what I can fit into the one week I have allowed for the Borneo adventure.

It proves to be an error!!  Borneo may only be an island but it is a massive island which Malaysia shares with Indonesia and ‘The Nation of Brunei, The Abode of Peace’.   With dwindling finances and limited space – or more precisely ‘no space’ – left in my passport for collecting stamps, I decide to leave Sarawak for a future trip and focus on Sabah instead.  Travel by bus between the two Malaysian states on Borneo is very much possible, but involves multiple encounters with Malaysian and Bruneian border officials and inevitable passport embellishments along the route.  Definitely a no-no, my passport screams out!

I have booked a private room through Airbnb, cheap and cheerful, on the outskirts of the city of Kota Kinabalu in a less touristy area but within walking distance of the beach.  November is not exactly the high season on Borneo, so I am the only guest..  Not what I was hoping for, but, after making peace with sound explosions at ungodly hours emanating from neighbouring Kota Kinabalu International airport, at least I do not have to share kitchen and bathroom facilities with anyone else.  On the downside, no one to exchange travel experiences and tips with, so I resort to reading the brochures in my room, online travel blogs and Tripadvisor reviews when the internet speed allows.

Borneo has so many great trips and exciting activities, I am overwhelmed by choice and lack of time.  Do I opt for a day of white-water rafting?  Have another go at scuba diving or more sedate snorkeling amongst abundant exotic corals? Visit Snake Island and the mud volcanoes on Pulau Tiga? And what about the tempting river cruise through the jungle?  A two or three-day jungle trek in Kota Kinabalu National Park is quickly discounted, I simply have not given myself enough time… Also, many of the trips can only be booked with a minimum of two people, and some involve traveling to different parts of Sabah first..  To make the most of Sabah, I should have stayed at least a month on the island and forged some alliances with other single travelers to be able to take part in the more adventurous trips…

In the end, I opt for the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok, near Sandakan on the Eastern side of Borneo.  Let’s face it, there will be other snorkeling, scuba diving, jungle trekking and river cruising opportunities in different parts of the world, but places for a face-to-face rendezvous with the Jungle VIP in the wild are shrinking as we speak and breathe..  Only, Sandakan is a six-hour bus ride away, or a short 45-minute flight.  With time of the essence, the more scenic drive across the country loses out on the more practical air travel.  And relying on the wisdom of fellow explorers, I don’t intend to waste money on an organized tour at the other end; taxis are easy to get hold of and if I’m lucky to find some company, I can even save on the fare…

At Sandakan airport I order a Grab – the Uber of the East – straight to the town of Sepilok and the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where sightings of the ‘man of the forest’ are orchestrated to the tune of its hungry stomach.  The purpose of the centre is to prepare orphaned, injured or rescued orangutans for independent life in the jungle, a process which can take several years whilst trainers teach survival skills such as foraging for food, nest building, grooming, the art of tree swinging and other jungle essentials.

The drive to Sepilok is a 15 km long jaunt through the middle of nowhere, to the middle of nowhere…   Trees in abundance line the roads but buildings and other signs of human life are far and few between.  I wonder slightly about my return later on in the day, 25 km to Sandakan..  How many Grab drivers will want to pick up a ride that far out of town? The Tripadvisor reviewer had not added any info on that part but, being on the optimistic side, I quickly dismiss my disquiet: something will turn up, it always does.  And indeed, at the ticket counter I spot a bus time table and a quick confirmation from the sales girl settles my doubts.  I have until four pm when the orange and white mini bus arrives at the car park and ferries visitors all the way back to Sandakan.  Who needs taxis when there is a bus service…?

At the rehabilitation centre, an indoor viewing platform looks out at the orangutan playground where twice a day adult, teenage and baby orangutans entertain visitors with acrobatics and antics on their way to the feeding stations.  No better place for a bit of fun, socializing and sibling bickering than at a dinner table laden with effort-free grub.  A second outdoor platform attracts not just more mature and jungle-primed orangutans, but also long-tailed macaques who are clearly the real Jungle VIPs.  What the macaques lack in size is made up by the unveiled aggression of the dominant male monkey.  With a few threatening growls and a vicious baring of teeth, it quickly cows the much larger hairy apes into retreat to higher branches, wistfully eyeing the bunches of bananas handed around the greedy macaque troop. Only the last scraps are left for the orangutans.

After an amusing few hours watching orangutans, and sun bears in the conservation centre opposite, I venture to the car park to wait for the bus.  Better be on the early side and at the front of the queue; it is Sunday after all and the park is busy.  I sit and watch, and wait, and wait a little more… Slowly cars start drifting away, pre-arranged taxis cram in their passengers and disappear, a lone taxi driver tries his luck touting for customers and soon purrs happily into the distance.  I wait stoically as four o’clock comes and goes and the car park drains of human presence.   A park attendant saunters my way and asks whether I have a taxi arranged.  He shakes his head when I explain that I was hoping the bus would make an appearance soon…  ‘Ah,’ he sighs, ‘the bus only comes if it still has empty seats..  If it isn’t here yet, it probably won’t come..’  Incredulous, I groan, ‘You’re telling me now…’   It looks like I may be spending the night in the company of the orangutans who get free reign across all parts of the park at night, including the car park…

The attendant walks off studying the few remaining cars.  ‘Give me a minute,’ he reassures me, ‘I have found a Grab car.  Let me have a word with the driver.’  The news is not promising.  The Grab driver is enjoying a day off and is visiting the centre with his own family, a full car load..  Whilst I ponder a plan B, the Grab driver turns up, family in tow: wife, mother and aunt…  ‘Let me phone a friend,’ he offers, but even his taxi friends are not up for the trip as there are more lucrative Grab journeys for grabs closer to town.  In the end, all other avenues exhausted, his mother and aunt shuffle up and I squeeze into the back seat.  As it happens, the Grab driver lives in Sandakan, so he is heading in my direction anyway and does not want to leave me stranded… Plus picking up a tourist gives him the opportunity to practise his self-taught English.

‘Do you have anything planned for tomorrow?’ Grab driver enquires…  Labuk Bay, the Proboscis Monkey sanctuary, has crossed my mind.  A relaxed half day trip before catching my flight back to Kota Kinabalu.  ‘It is a bit further than Sepilok, so make sure you arrange a return taxi this time,’ he recommends, as he passes me his phone number and offers his services.  Of course, how can I refuse and not repay his kindness?

The Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary turns out to be an interesting place, a safe haven for another species on the verge of extinction.  Privately-owned and located within a palm oil estate, the centre has two feeding platforms from which to observe these rather nosy creatures…  The Proboscis Monkeys may well be the main reason for the centre’s existence, but it’s the Silverleaf monkeys that steal the show when I am there.  Imagine having the cutest orange baby, the envy of the rest of the troop. Imagine being that cutest orange baby and being passed around the aunties, uncles, grandmas and other nosy creatures to have a good sniff and inspection… Baby boy or baby girl?? It was definitely NOT grooming that was going on…  Isn’t that what we, humans, do too??? Only maybe a little less hands on…

In the end, Grab driver did rather well out of his good deed.  A generous tip, a free English lesson, a morning’s work… But it’s the hospitality I have come to associate with Malaysia; people are incredibly friendly and unassuming.  It’s definitely my favourite place in the Far East so far… but then, so far I’ve only experienced it as a tourist, not yet as a member of the workforce..

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…

Everest Base Camp trek 2018 (1) – Answering the irresistible call of the mountains

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And this is where I must abandon the chronology of my blog..  Events kind of overtook my ‘well-laid’ plans plus I had clearly not considered that the amount of time taken up by adventures and fun would leave me woefully short of time to chronicle it all.  Maybe I was trying to cram in too many countries and exploits in too short a time?  Central and Southern Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and some parts of Malaysia in the space of three months may have been a little ambitious.  Not that I hadn’t allowed for restful periods: in Cambodia a whole week had been set aside for beach and island romps, a little respite before tackling the ruins and temples of Angkor Wat.  However, as one of my sisters passed away quite suddenly in Belgium, I went on a hurried one week jaunt across the globe to attend the funeral, whilst Liz found her wings and ventured solo to the island of Koh Rong before completing the rest of ‘our’ Cambodia itinerary – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat – on her own.  As plans go, it is my intention to catch up on the parts of Cambodia I missed before heading back to Vietnam early next year, so I will make a little detour via Siem Reap and its famous and fabulous ‘city of temples’.  Blog posts about Cambodia to follow then..  In the meantime, on to Nepal..

It is early October and I stay in a hostel in Pokhara.  Being a traveler on my own, finding company once in a while is a must and hostels are usually friendly places full of friendly, like-minded people who are often interested in similar experiences.  In Nepal, chats about completed and impending treks fill the air over breakfast, mid-morning coffees and dinner.  It’s a comfortable place to be, no one queries the sanity of my planned endeavour – reaching Everest Base Camp before my creaky bones and knees give out.  It is not necessary, we understand each other, we dream the same dream.  We know it is going to be tough and arduous and maybe we will not succeed, but the pull to test our limits in one of the world’s highest mountain ranges is irresistible.

‘You can see the Himalayas and Mount Everest on the TV,’ my brother-in-law pointed out just a few weeks ago; he does not get it and I struggle to explain the difference.  One evening in Pokhara, over bowls of ramen in a Japanese restaurant, on the eve of her Annapurna Base Camp trek, a Dutch girl sighs, ‘Why are we doing this?  The cold, the exhaustion, the headaches at high altitude?  It’s going to be sooo tough…’   There are only smiles because we all share her sentiment and, still, none of us waver in our resolve to answer the call of the mountains.  It is a compulsion, as necessary as the air we breathe.

I cannot honestly pinpoint the exact moment I decided to attempt trekking to Everest Base Camp, but the seed was planted in my mind quite some time ago.  Almost 10 years ago, I joined a Charity Challenge, trekking through the Lares Valley of Peru and visiting Machu Picchu.  At the time, the five – or was it six – day trek did not seem challenging enough; there was discomfort, don’t get me wrong, but as a ‘challenge’, it did not match my expectations..  I did not feel challenged!!  Kilimanjaro beckoned… Maybe a summit at just under 6000m would be more taxing.

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Somehow Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro remained a fantasy as so often life gets in the way and plans needed to be adapted to reality… Kids at uni, job uncertainty all took priority.  But my life and options changed dramatically when in 2014 I embarked on my ‘5-year gap year’ and ended up working in South East Asia.  Suddenly the master of my own destiny, Everest Base Camp – rather than reaching the peak of Kilimanjaro – moved into the realms of possibility.  It was just a case of finding the right time between contracts to coincide with the most opportune trekking weather: spring time in March or April or the autumn months of October or November…  Neither period fitted particularly well with the normal school year, and with the window of opportunity shrinking each year (I have noticed, I am not getting any younger.. what went wrong??), I knew I needed to plan for an extended travel period around any EBC venture…  My contract in Vietnam coming to an end early September, and a promise to the kids to be in the UK for Christmas, there seemed no better time than now…

Reaching Everest Base Camp is not an easy feat, but with the right preparation and mindset, and of course the right footwear, it is not impossible to achieve.  Many people with fewer and many people with more grey hairs than me have proven this..  Good, well-worn boots are essential though…  Just a year or so ago, I owned a lovely pair of snug, warm walking boots bought in China to keep my feet warm in the minus-20 January temperatures of Harbin. But in the cull of possessions that inevitable accompanies a move to a different country (from China to Vietnam in this instance), they did not make it into my suitcase when I slipped away… Surely, it would not be that difficult to replace them in Vietnam, the country of good quality (?) counterfeit brand names, I had reasoned.   And although I’d had the opportunity to purchase a new pair in February during my last UK visit,  there were too many things to cram into the two-week holiday, so I dispensed with such errands, focusing instead on quality time with the kids.  On my return to Vietnam, I scoured the shops in Quang Ngai, I traipsed recommended stores in Hanoi, I even tried my luck in the many hiking gear shops in Sapa but a pair of decent-looking, reliable boots that would stand a chance of taking me blister-free to EBC and back again appeared elusive.

In desperation, I combed through the depths of the internet for the Vietnamese equivalent of Amazon… And, hey presto, I found them!!   The perfect pair of boots, exactly the same as a pair I owned before, so they were sure to be a perfect fit.  And at an excellent price…  a bargain, indeed…  until they were delivered.  Being British, and still part of Europe’s free market, I was totally oblivious of the existence of ‘import duty’…  What had seemed such a good buy at the time, turned out a rather expensive purchase as the import duty more or less equalled the cost of the boots…  Still, I needed them.  Everything else I could buy or hire in Katmandu, but comfortable boots were non-negotiable..  So I grumbled and grumbled even more,  but with no alternative I chalked this one up to experience, an experience to avoid in future…

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The rest of my pre-EBC groundwork mainly happened in the Quang Ngai gym.  Every week, without fail, two hour-long sessions on the treadmill wearing in my new, clean boots on ever steeper inclines with temperatures rocketing to above 35 degrees Celsius…  I wasn’t sure how effective it would be as preparation for high altitude trekking, but it was the best Quang Ngai had to offer and would have to do until I reached Pokhara in Nepal where I could practise on real hills and slopes…

 

Twenty Four Hours of Seascapes.

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I don’t know what I love most…  The mighty call of the mountains wrapped in the mystique and mystery of a nebular mist draped over the valleys.  Or the ever-changing moods and caprices of the sea, bowing to the will of whimsical winds chasing wispy or thunderous clouds…

Depends upon my frame of mind, I suppose…  Do I crave testing how long I can hold out traipsing up and down the slopes, or do I fancy something a little gentler such as a peaceful stroll along the beach, adding to my year-round tan and maybe dipping in a toe..  Just not too far, just in case Jaws lies in wait in nearby waters.  How can a seventies movie nightmare still have me in its unyielding grip… but I admit I only feel save when I can touch the seabed and spy my toes through a glass-bottomed surface..  And definitely not too many waves or ripples to obscure what may lurk beneath.  I am a coward at heart, I know…

After nine months of feeling like  a virtual prisoner in Quang Ngai, I finally managed to persuade the powers that be to change my day off.  It used to be Fridays but with only one day out of the shackles each week, the Friday sentence was like having eternal doom cast on you…  Death row, with Saturdays and Sundays hard labour: seven and a half hours of face-to-face teaching, starting at 8.00am and persevering until 8.45 pm with, granted, a generous break for lunch and a short break around 5.00 pm.  Exhausting!  Being allocated Friday as my day off certainly limited my travel opportunities, as I could never venture anywhere that would involve an overnight stay… Maybe if I had been braver and got on a motorbike I might have seen more than my weekly glimpse of My Khe beach…  The sights of Quang Ngai – enthralling as they may have appeared in week one – have long since lost their luster.  Still, on the upside, things have changed for the better since the June break and with Monday being my new day of freedom, and my classes on Tuesday starting in the evening, I can finally explore and go a bit further afield…

I heard about the Sa Huynh Beach Resort from fellow expats: an American couple who work in Duc Pho with victims of Agent Orange (watch later posts in a couple of weeks…).  The perfect place for a bit of relaxation and replenishing sapped energy after a long week at work.  As a bonus for me, Sa Huynh is also easily accessible by local bus, just over an hour to the South of Quang Ngai.  And Vietnamese public transport is quite affordable, maybe not as cheap as in China, but still a good option for those who’d rather not be in charge of motorized two-wheelers…

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I arrive in Sa Huynh just before lunchtime and, through the pine trees, a pristine beach is beckoning.  Behind a generous stretch of golden sand, a cerulean sea expands into a rivaling azure sky, fleetingly brushed with white wispy clouds.  The beach is deserted, only the soothing whispers of the tranquil waves my company.  At midday, when beach-loving Westerners chase the sun and a tan, Vietnamese locals shy away from the heat, instead staying indoors for lunch and a siesta.  The beach resort is not yet on the touristy agenda and most of the visitors I encounter at the resort are Vietnamese holidaymakers.

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After lunch, I venture back to the great outdoors, the sea still blue.  But behind me, over the hills, a storm is brewing, the searing heat over the water boosting the moisture in a leaden sky.  A Vietnamese summer is hot, and often very wet with heavy afternoon showers. Thankfully those violent bursts of pelting rain are usually rather short-lived, a mere reminder that we shouldn’t take the sunny weather for granted and should set about our business and the world armed with the ubiquitous umbrella.  A handy gadget come rain or shine.   Of course, my umbrella has long since been windswept into the bin and I now live in hope that I can survive, if not entirely avoid, the odd shower.  Compared to England, this is warm rain, a heavenly blessing sent from above.  It’s only water after all, another baptism will surely not do any harm.

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I stay on the beach as long as seems sensible, but retreat to safer and drier ground when the big drops make their entrance.  Not to my hotel room though, I think I have plenty of time… I make a detour to the hotel reception to find out tomorrow’s bus times, a good pastime on a rainy afternoon.  Within minutes the heavens are in full fury.  Bright lightning flashes clash swords across the blackened sky, explosive booms echo through the endless hollow over the waves.  A loud crack knocks out the power, and the resort descends into darkness, if only briefly.  An hour later, the storm dissipates to leave the air refreshed and I once again make it to the beach…

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The deluge of water has drawn new patterns in the sand and raging rivulets of water have chiselled new channels across the beach.  On the horizon, a watery rainbow slowly creeps up. Hardly noticeable at first, but slowly gaining in prominence and brightness, and eventually, however briefly, stretching to a full arch.  But by then, I have taken my phone back to my room, so I can join the locals and swim in the sea and enjoy the last couple of hours of daylight.

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I am not a fan of very early mornings, although these days I seem to be awake around 6 am every day…  But I want to catch the sunrise and set my alarm for 5.00 am..  Yesterday’s dense clouds linger and obscure where the sun slowly edges itself above the horizon, but the resulting sunrise is no less spectacular as a palette of pastel clouds and a faint sun mirror themselves in the still waters below.  And I am not the only one making the most of the cooler hours.  Whereas the beaches look pretty much abandoned later on when the sun climbs to its zenith, in the early hours Vietnamese people are out in droves on the beach enjoying vigorous exercise, brisk walks and playful swimming.

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Work forces me back to reality, I have classes on Tuesday evening.  But before leaving, I spend more time on the beach.  Almost solitary, bar one small Vietnamese family not afraid of the sun, but it’s only 9.00am.  The early clouds have all but vanished leaving the sky and sea yet again an enviable blue, as if the last 24 hours never happened.

Picture perfect.

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Rice, glorious rice: Vietnam’s staple

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Seasons take on a different meaning in Vietnam.  Whereas all the usual seasons songs in my ESL repertoire are firmly rooted in the northern hemisphere cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter, this does not match the reality of Central Vietnam.  Autumn – or fall as it now just as easily rolls of my tongue – does not come dressed in golden yellow or burnished red hues; neither are trees unceremoniously defrocked by blustery winds leaving branches bare and waiting to be robed with the sequined sparkle of snow.   Although Tet and the onset of spring in early February is marked with a flurry of yellow buds and flowers on the pavements, in Vietnam the only things that change colour as the seasons progress are the rice paddies….

 

My first view of the rice paddies in Vietnam was in late August, on a trip to Binh Ninh – an area not too far from Hanoi.  Against the backdrop of impressive karst scenery, lush green fields filled every available stretch of land either side of the waterway coursing through the valley.

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On arriving in Quang Ngai, central Vietnam, I did not take much notice of the rice paddies; I was too engrossed in the experiences of exploring a new country.  During my first trips to the beach and the nearby pagoda, I was focusing on memorizing roads, routes and landmarks.  Of course, the verdant fields attracted my attention, but cycling to keep up with others meant that taking photographs had to be postponed to a later time, when I could visit the area at my own leisurely pace.   Early November finally saw me on a solo trip to the beach, phone in hand to take snapshots of the green landscapes of the locality.   With the start of the rainy season and the promise of water galore in the paddy fields, water buffalo wallowed among the rice plants and noisy rafts of ducks splashed in their vastly extended ponds.

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I can only surmise I missed the early winter rice harvest, as only a couple of months later, the abundant greenery had suddenly vanished.  In the gloom of January and early February, brown, muddy fields, bearing the spikey remnants of rice stalks, were already being prepared for the next rice crop.  In central Vietnam, the rice cycle – from seedling to mature plant ripe and ready for harvesting – takes about three months, so farmers can produce at least two crops each year making the most of the wetter and cooler months.

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In mid April, I was alerted to the next harvest.  Bags bulging with rice appeared on the pavements  and  mounds of rice were spread out thinly on the roads near my place of work…  Just before the rice is harvested, the paddy fields are drained, leaving the threshed rice kernels damp.  Unless they are thoroughly dried, farmers risk their crop becoming mouldy and no longer fit for consumption.   No better place to dry the grains than on sun-soaked, tarmaced or concreted roads…

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So, it looked like the time had come to get back onto my bike and cycle the familiar route to the beach…  Alongside the road the once green and brown fields had turned the telltale yellow shade of grains ripened and ready for harvest.  Ears of rice drooping down, heavy with fat kernels.

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Normally bustling roads were fringed with rice-coated plastic sheets; most courtyards were covered too and offered easy pickings for a lone cockerel.  Even the gates to the military cemetery for soldiers and fighters of the Vietnam War were opened and the path leading up to the memorial was blanketed with more rice grains…

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If I was expecting to see farmers toiling with scythes and sharp knives to cut down the rice, I was in for a surprise.  With plenty of low-lying land on the coastal plains, small combine harvesters have made light of that side of the rice harvest.  New technology and mechanisation are slowly but surely transforming how rice gets from the paddies onto the table.

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Nevertheless, there still remains a lot of manual labour involved in the rice harvest and the fields are busy with people…often only too happy to pose for a picture..

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