Category Archives: trekking

Playing at being ‘Jane in the Jungle’.

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Finally, the time of procrastination is at an end…  Back in China, almost settled into my new apartment, and knees as operational as they will get: time to don the hiking boots and explore the great outdoors of Hangzhou and beyond!!

Over the past twelve months, I have been on a fair few trips in China, mainly with organisations that cater well for the expat community…  Cash-rich (relatively speaking) and time-poor, weekend trips are often the only option for us, with longer trips reserved for Chinese national holidays or the long summer break when everyone hankers after an opportunity to escape China’s pollution and insanity, as well as Hangzhou’s oppressive heat.

Recently, a new travel group has burst onto the scene, this time based in Hangzhou itself.  Capitalising on a gap in the market for low-cost trips for eager low-budget travellers such as students and English teachers, they offer day trips for the adventurous and hike-loving,  all within easy reach of Hangzhou…  give or take a few hours of sitting in a coach… So my last few weekends have been fairly action-packed on a quest for the hidden gems and thrills of Zhejiang Province.

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Noodle Village

After an early start and a tedious drive battling with holiday traffic in China, we reached the ancient noodle village of Panzhoujia…  If we had expected to take part in the noodle making ceremony, we had arrived in the wrong season.  Tea leaf picking was the more urgent, and clearly more profitable business rather than entertaining hapless tourists with draping over-long noodles over the extended chain of arms…  Of course, we – all twenty of us –  had a little go and carefully stretched one noodle between us before having the pleasure – and it was a pleasure – of eating the famed noodle soup trying to fish out the meters-long noodles…

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The 3-D Village

Chinese people have a knack of spotting business opportunities where we might see none… Derelict and remote buildings nestled against a hillside would hardly attract our attention, but how better to entice the masses than by decorating walls with 3D paintings and calling it the ‘3D Village’…  And when a visit to this place coincides with the spring extravaganza of rapeseed flowers on the hillside terraces, you can be guaranteed of an influx of visitors and a healthy supply of traffic jams..

Authentic Hangzhou

Real adventure can definitely be found in and around Hangzhou with the Hash Harriers – the running/hiking group with a ‘drinking problem’.  Admittedly, I have so far stuck to hiking the trails rather than running, but a slower speed means more chance to take in the often spectacular scenery.  A recent night hike revealed Hangzhou’s West Lake in its nocturnal glory, a blaze of colour reflected in the water.  And of course,  there is more fun to be found off the beaten track, clambering over rocks and sliding down muddy slopes, experiencing some of the few remaining authentic nature areas that escaped a Chinese makeover…   Nothing beats a bit of a ‘Tarzan and Jane’ exploit!!

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Tianmen Mountain challenge… walking the glass plank…

And then there was the challenge of the ‘Coiled Dragon Cliff Walkway’, built along the edges of Tianmen Mountain’s summits, clinging to the sheer vertical cliffs. Part of the cliff-hugging walkway had a makeover last summer and those who dare can now brave a walk over the 100m long tract of crystal clear glass looking all the way down to the bottom of the cliff… It is not for the faint-hearted and requires a bit of stamina as the walkway is only reached after climbing 999 steeps steps.  Not a mean feat on warmer days, but the views of the valley and the surrounding nineteen peaks are awesome and certainly worth the effort.  And the scary looking bridge suspended between two peaks???  Luckily, it looked more flimsy from a distance; it was clearly well-maintained and in good condition to make sure that visitors do not come to a sticky end…  At the end of the climb, we found a delightful little pool, fed by fresh water streaming downhill…  How could anyone resist the temptation of dipping their feet in???

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The dangers of courting danger…

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They say that your life flashes before your eyes when you find yourself in a scrape that could easily have a sticky end…   I can assure you this is not the case.  Instead the air explodes in  a firework of colourful expletives, closely followed by desperate appeals to a merciful God:  ‘Please, let me not break any bones!!’

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‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’, Yunnan Province, China

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With a little imagination you can see the tiger’s eye and nose, crouching, ready to pounce

We were on the last of our hikes, the one we had not been warned about.  ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’ – a scenic canyon on a primary tributary of the Yangtze River –  indeed featured on our itinerary, but we were assured that after our initial two days of strenuous trekking, we could retire our walking boots and gear.  As it was towards the end of our week’s adventure in the most beautiful province of Yunnan, with its snow capped mountains and spectacular mirror lake, I had put on my last clean t-shirt.  Crisp and white, unworn and fresh from Wal-mart, on its first outing, not a stain or blemish in sight…  Too late to fish out my proper walking trousers or a more suitable t-shirt, I settled for the essentials: changing my footwear and leaving behind my hiking poles.  Better not to carry anything in your hands, as it would be a hindrance on the way up, the guide argued.  Anyway, what could go wrong during a one-hour descent into the gorge and a two hours ascent on a well-worn path?

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‘The First Bend of the Yangtze River’, near Lijiang.

Earlier in the week, in the Meli National Park, we had tackled punishing steep climbs, when the high altitude sucked out all our energy and everyone struggled to catch their breath on the sharp inclines.  Our efforts and hard work were rewarded by awe-inspiring scenery and the sheer excitement of a mission successfully completed.  Nothing could surpass the glow of the awakening sun settling on the snow-capped mountains… Unless maybe glimpsing the arch of the rainbow thrown across the mountain range by a scattering of early morning raindrops.

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Nestled between the high peaks of the  Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (5,600 m) and Haba Snow Mountain  (5,400m),  the Yangtze courses through the ‘Tiger Leaping’ gorge in a series of treacherous rapids, deemed too perilous to navigate, and flanked by almost vertical, sheer  2000 m cliffs.   It is by far the most dangerous stretch of the river, and only two teams of rafters and sailors are known to have survived the attempt to pass it. Exhilarating to be so close to this, we thought, as we edged nearer the turbulent waters.  We eyed the wobbly bridge spanning the gap across the river to a large body of black rock outcrops jutting out from the gush.  A perfect spot for a group photograph.

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Just a few hundred metres along, another suspension bridge hovered over the thundering river,  a temptation hard to resist.  A small group of us ventured into its direction, in pursuit of yet another envy-inspiring picture to post on WeChat or Facebook and to revel in the dare of watching the water crashing underneath.  I stopped briefly to take a few shots, but clearly lingered too long whilst all the others in the group disappeared around the bend and into the distance.  Not a soul in sight.  I stuffed my phone in my pocket and tried to catch up with them…

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To this day, I cannot fathom what happened.  I have traversed many rickety bridges and walked gingerly on narrow ledges, always checking carefully I have a sure footing.  Maybe I was in too much of a rush and threw caution to the wind, blasé about having tramped over too many shaky and ramshackle constructions.  Maybe I just thought there was a wider crossing over the crevice in the rocks.  Perhaps I slipped on the curved surface of the tree trunk spanning the gap.  Or maybe part of the wood gave way…  When I surveyed the area later on, there was certainly evidence a chunk of wood had recently broken off.  In the end it did not matter, because whatever the reason, I found myself tumbling down the rock face, down towards the rush of the Yangtze River eagerly waiting at the bottom.

To begin with, I dropped down feet first, then on my back, my fall softened by sturdy bushes and plants and cushioned by a backpack bulging with my fleece and waterproofs.  I watched the mocking leaden sky peeking through the foliage.  No time to panic, my only concern: no one had seen me fall… the path in front of me and behind had been empty.  OMG, I kept on thinking!! ‘Oh no, oh my God,’ as I kept on slipping further down.  How did this happen to me? ‘How the hell am I going to get out of here…  oh, shit…’  The welcome respite from some branches that held my weight was short-lived as they quickly and suddenly gave way..  And I continued downwards, where greenery was scarcer and bare rocks protruded menacingly.  I hit my head on a rock, more aware of the sound than any pain..  How far was I still from the river?  How high was the path above the river?  How many more rocks would I crash into??  What would happen if I broke my legs or an arm?? Please let me not break anything!!

After an eternity of seconds, I came to a rest on a ledge extending from the vertiginous rocks, still conscious and able to check my vital signs: my phone was still in my pocket and working! But I watched, shaking,  as my water bottle escaped from my backpack and rattled further down, sneering with every bounce.   No time to wonder about the dull pain in my left ankle and having yet again hurt my left knee; no point in worrying about the bump on my head.  I needed to get out of there, quickly and on my own… Not once did I cast a backward glance to see how close I got to the river or how wide the little ledge was.  I scanned the wall looming in front of me, peering through the shrubbery to see how high I needed to climb…

At lunchtime, the Spanish pilot in our group of travellers related a story about a man who spent two days crawling out of a ravine after he crashed his car and broke both his legs.  We talked about the extraordinary willpower it must have taken and how he would have dealt with unimaginable agony.  Where does the strength come from?   Of course, with both my arms and legs sufficiently intact,  I was not in any such predicament, but the adrenaline rush that accompanies a stressful situation blots out the pain and turns jellified joints and muscles into incredibly strong steel rods.   I did not try to use my phone or even check whether there was any reception.  I felt the might of Hercules speeding through my veins and used all my resolve to haul myself up, hoping the plants that protected me from the worst on the way down,  were anchored deeply and would support me out of the crevice and back onto those wonky pieces of wood.  I probably only tumbled down 5 or six metres,  not enough to call the air rescue team…

Finally reaching the ‘safety’ of the path, I felt the sticky mess on the back of my head.  Hands covered in blood, red and green stains on my new t-shirt, I must have looked a sight.  Luckily, the cut was only superficial as my walking hat had shielded me from more deeper wounds… and I only saw the rainbow of bruises on my body when I got back home two days later.  It could have been so much worse.. but I never made it to the second bridge over the Yangtze River, feeling definitely a little too shaky after the experience.

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And as if I had not had enough adventure for one day… instead of meandering along the winding slope to the top of the gorge, we made our way up via an assembly  of ladders fixed against the  sheer  90˚ rock face.  Definitely the quicker way up, but safer????  We ‘only’ had  a few hundred rungs to go, so  I grit my teeth and got on with it…

In the future, I shall look at wobbly, decaying bridges and dicey river crossings with the respect they deserve and just maybe not be so flippant about them…  Courting danger can be dangerous indeed and good endings are not guaranteed!!

Conquering the Great Wall of China

 

dscn3007-2The notice at the entrance said it all: ‘This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public’.  Not that this deterred our tour guides.

We were joined by a wizened, wiry and axe wielding  Chinese man who forged a path for us through the dense bushes and overgrowth.   When the climbing became too steep, he fashioned himself a walking stick from a sturdy branch and lead us to the section of the wall we would explore.  No such luxury as sticks for us, humble trekkers…  None of us had quite prepared for this kind of journey, only ever seeing pictures of the official Wall of China where throngs of tourists and locals jostle for a bit of space on the proper steps of the Wall…  But we had signed up for a ‘Camping on The Great Wall’ adventure, and an adventure it was certainly promising to be…

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We finally reached the Wall to start our ascent.  Whereas the more touristy parts of the wall have been carefully restored to former glory, the part we visited had not yet benefited from a make-over and was showing definite signs of long periods of decline and neglect.  We  clambered over rocks and boulders, over roughly hewn steps disintegrating with passing time.   Facing a sheer wall offering very narrow ledges to support our feet certainly gave some of us the jitters.  ‘Where on earth was the rope to hold onto??’ grumbled the Germans in the group… ‘What about health and safety??’ crossed our minds…  As there was no alternative on offer and no one wanted to chicken out, there was only one way to go: upwards and onwards.

This section of the Wall may not have been ‘open to the public’, but we met other hikers keen on avoiding the hordes of tourists.  And even the locals got their penny’s worth as they had set up a stall midway to the turrets and sold bottled water and iced beer.  Welcome refreshments during our arduous trek.

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On reaching our final destination, we were awarded with spectacular views of the surrounding hills and a sumptuous BBQ courtesy of our tour guides and the local ‘sherpas’ who delivered our tents and supplies to the top of the wall.  We drowned our walking aches and pains with local beers and warmed ourselves by the heat of the campfire whilst dancing the night away..  There was very little point in aiming for an early night as the flimsy mats underneath our sleeping bags were hardly covering the hard slabs and spiky rocks at the top of the wall and were certain to keep sleep at bay.

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And the promise of a dazzling sunrise over the mountains??  The early morning fog blanketed the surrounding hills, adding a dash of mystery, but blocking out the early sun rays.

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Luckily, our journey back to modern civilisation was a lot easier… it appeared that there was a much less challenging track leading to the wall, the one used by the locals and the porters who carried up our tents and food..  But I suppose, using that one on the way up would have detracted from the ‘adventure’ and the accomplishment we felt at reaching the top of wall…

Sampling the ‘atmosphere’ of Yellow Mountain.

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The weather forecast for the weekend sounded grim: drizzle on Friday, rain on Saturday and more rain on Sunday.  Not quite the best prospect for a hike into the mountains!  But as Jeff, my companion for the trip, argued: they are mountains after all, whimsical, just like the weather.  We were not going to be put off by a little bit of uncertainty about whether to stuff our backpacks with protection from the unrelenting sun or from the unrelenting downpours.  Umbrellas and waterproofs bulged our bags;  sunglasses dangled at the front and a wide-brimmed hat  would come in handy whatever the weather would throw at us.  So we bought our bus tickets and off we went on our four hour jaunt to the foot of the Yellow Mountains, one of the most famous and beautiful mountainous areas in China and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990.

Our arrival did not go unnoticed and a posse of hotel employees was on hand to point us in the  ‘right’ direction.  Our smugness at having our accommodation sorted out the night before soon evaporated as the cheap hostel of our choice was a whopping 80 km away.  So after a brief discussion at the hotel reception, we settled for a nice, comfortable twin room at the price of 100 Rmb shared between two.  Definitely less than a taxi fare to the hostel.  Even adding the non-refundable hostel cost to our night, we did not even spend £10 a head for a soft bed and a hot, gushing shower…  Luxury, affordable luxury indeed!!

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In our room devoid of a window we were oblivious to the weather antics outside and only at breakfast caught a glimpse of what Noah must have been facing in his Ark… If there is such as thing as sheet rain or curtains of rain, this was it.  I may have missed out on the monsoon experience in India, but this made up for it!!!!  No way was this walking weather.  We dawdled and ate more breakfast.  We made for the shops stocking extra weather- and water-proof gear and settled for the canary lookalike outfits with ‘blue-footed booby’ matching booties.  And waited… and waited for the worst of the storm to ease.

Eventually the biblical deluge slowed into a trickle, and dressing the part, we set off to the bus which would take us to the cable car.  Although I would have been happy to tackle the millions of steps to the top of the mountain, my companion was more keen on exploring the views at the top… He had been before and the sunset and sunrise unfolding over the eerie mountain landscape were definitely the highlight of the trip, he assured me.  Plus we were planning to walk down the mountain on Sunday to take in the scenery on our descent.

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We did indeed have a great few hours hiking on Saturday …. and the views of the rugged mountains and protruding rocks with  fanciful  names such as ‘The Immortal Pointing the Way’, ‘The Eighteen Arhats Worshipping At South Sea’ and ‘Ladder on the Clouds’ …  ???  My photographs of the veil of mist draping the landscape are absolutely awesome and breathtaking  …  How did Jeff phrase it?  Atmospheric …  and so it was.  But just here and there the fog lifted gingerly and the drizzle dried up to tease us with a fleeting glance of what was lying beyond the grey murkiness.  And the sunset?  It was probably magnificent, but hidden behind the cloud deck.  We did not even bother to set our alarm for the 5 am sunrise event…

Luckily, the weather was more merciful on Sunday.  As the rain had dulled to a mere dribble, waterproofs could be binned and we followed the throng of Chinese visitors on the steps downwards, bemused at the few people whose idea of visiting Yellow Mountain involved sitting on a chair being carried upwards by wiry, strong men.  On the other hand, it does give an income to some of the less fortunate people…

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Most of the locals disappeared once we passed the cable car; they opted for the easier route to the bottom of the mountain.  So we had the paths mostly to ourselves, or shared them with the brave ones hiking up from the foot and with the porters who cart up all the supplies as there is no other way of bringing goods to the hotels for the tourists and hotel staff…

And on the upside… As we missed out on the spectacle of an awesome sunset and sunrise, and actually seeing the impressive rock formation of Mount Huang, we are already plotting our return in October  when all the trees are cloaked in their autumnal shades.  The great thing about Yellow Mountain is that every season has its charms and one visit is never going to be enough…

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I have not yet finished with the Himalayas!!!

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Day 5 (Friday)  – Leeches continued (Landruk to Dhampus)

I wake up early, far too early, it is only quarter to six. But nature calls and I untangle myself from the comfort of my sleeping bag to make my way to the ‘toilet and shower’ block. This is rather a grand label for what is essentially one toilet and one shower!  Not a problem for me as I am the only guest of the establishment, but  I hate to think what happens when there is a full house.  Queues for the shower AND the toilet?

Clouds hide the mountains...

Clouds hide the mountains…

Early morning revelations.

Early morning revelations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As I glimpse in the direction of the hills, I am rewarded with another mesmerising sunrise over Annapurna South, the mountain which was hidden behind yesterday’s afternoon cloud deck.  Most mornings the sky is clear until the sun starts warming the morning dew and wispy clouds ride across the glittering mountains.  And as the day passes, rising moisture darkens the sky until it can no longer hold onto the water and the afternoon showers begin.

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We continue our walk along the Nepalese Flat,gently meandering through woodland areas and always watchful for leeches. Often the path turns treacherous where yesterday’s heavy rain has made the algae covered rocks very slippery and havens for bloodthirsty leeches.  So we catch a few on our boots and even in our boots where the tell-tale bloody patches on my socks give away their presence. I am still not keen on picking them off by hand, but can remove them with a stone or a leaf but am freaked out when at our morning tea stop, the tea house owner spots one on my neck and swiftly takes it off.  I need strong tea after that, ginger tea with two teaspoons of sugar!

No leech to be seen, but the unstoppable flow of blood a clear sign it was there as some stage...

No leech to be seen, but the unstoppable flow of blood a clear sign it was there as some stage…

For my final tea house stay I am spoiled by having a room with TWO double beds and my OWN bathroom with working, hot shower!  Plus a socket in the room so I can charge my iPad whilst I am reading or writing and I do not have to sit idle in the dining rooms where usually they provide the one and only charging point for guests.  The small luxuries in life that we take for granted in the West!

So I make use of my bathroom and have a brainwave.  I wash my walking trousers, which I have been wearing for the last five days.  They are no longer fresh…  I hang them on the washing line outside my room, and then the real Monsoon arrives.  It rains bucket loads, I can no longer see the hills and feel my trousers getting damper by the minute.  Maybe washing them was not such a good idea after all as they will probably not be dry by tomorrow.  It looks like I will be walking the British Flag!  At least it will be easier to spot the leeches on my bare legs than on my trousers.IMG_5195

 

 

Day 6 (Saturday):  The Last Leg (Dhampus to Pedhi to Pokhara)

Once more I get up early, at the crack of dawn…  To me 5.45 am is the crack of dawn; to my guide this would probably be more like midday.  When he is not busy taking tourists into the mountains, Namal lives a homely, Nepali life, which means getting up at 4.00am to get food for the cattle, milk the cows, look after the chickens, collect firewood to heat the home and provide fuel for cooking and help his wife with preparing breakfast and getting the children ready for school… But I get up early with the promise of a spectacular panoramic view over the Annapurna range.  Only this time the heavy rains from yesterday and during the night have not done their usual trick and the sky has remained misty, wrapping the mountains in a dense blanket of cloud.  A little later, they lift here and there to reveal a glimpse of what lies beyond and I grab my camera to quickly snap shimmers of The Fish Tail and Annapurna South.
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Today we finish the last leg of our trek and it is downhill all the way.  We have the luxury of Nepalese Flat first (a gentle downward slope), but soon are back on the steps of rocks and boulders which are extremely treacherous after the rains. So no time to worry about leeches! But on sound advice from the internet I have sprayed my socks with Jungle Strength Mosquito spray which is supposed to keep the leeches at bay and maybe they are right as I don’t spot any unwelcome guests today.   We follow small streams bordering green paddy fields and feeding the thirsty rice plants: nature’s irrigation system works perfectly well and the fields are a-swimming.  It only takes us an hour to get to our destination, much sooner than the two hours predicted in my itinerary and we wait for our ride to town.

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Whilst sipping my usual ginger tea, a local guide decides to strike up a conversation, but being somewhere in his mid thirties and clearly the worse for wear, it does not take long for the chat to head into familiar territory. After the obligatory questions about name and country, things veer into the unwanted direction, and ‘No,’ I tell him, ‘I do not feel the feel of love for him…’  He seems unperturbed as once a year he has this woman or girl who comes to see him, for you know what.  ‘Marriage?’ he carries on. ‘There is a wife, but well, that’s just the wife… And divorce will cost me money. So things are better this way. No harm done…’  Life in the mountains certainly appears very simplistic indeed, but I wonder about his bravery once the alcohol has worn off… It is a relief when our taxi appears and I can escape.

After a refreshing shower at the hotel and clean clothes, I head into town and eat the most delicious Dal Bhat (Nepali rice and additions meal) and cannot resist a relaxing massage afterwards.  Maybe not the most relaxing experience after all as the masseuse seems to give the most intensely painful muscles of my legs a good workout.. but I am sure it can’t do any harm…

But no matter how much my muscles ache, I will be back.  One day, one day soon, I will aim for Base Camp and who knows, maybe I will aim for Everest Base Camp…  Anyone can do it, so they all say.  Now that is a challenge….
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Trekking with Uninvited Guests

Day 4 (Thursday) : Ghandruk to Landruk

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Yesterday’s mammoth trek has taken its toll: my knee joints are welded in an unyielding position and my calf muscles are all a-jitter.   And this is even before beginning today’s walk.  ‘Today is an easy walk,’ my guide assures me. ‘First two hours downhill and then an hour uphill, and the last stretch is on the Nepalese Flat.’  The Nepalese Flat? Better not to ask and wait for the surprises at the end… ‘We are heading for Landruk, just across the valley,’ he further explains and points to a distant village on the opposite side. And as no one has yet built a bridge across, the only way to reach it is by descending to the bottom of the valley, crossing a raging river which fills the air with thunderous noise, and then start uphill again to reach Landruk, at just about the same level as Gandruk, but on the other flank of the valley.  A bit like yesterday then, just not so many hours.  My knees start protesting and my calf muscles freeze up at the mere thought.4.12

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The walk turns out very leisurely actually; there is no rush to reach our destination and we have all day. As long as we get there before the afternoon downpours, there is no hurry.  So we don’t.  We slowly make our way to the bottom of the valley; I use my walking stick to avoid slipping disasters whilst the guide bounces down nimble as a goat carrying his belongings and most of mine. Although there is no sign of any sun peeking through the clouds, I soon hot up and feel rivulets of sweat running down my forehead and pearls of perspiration dripping of the end of my nose.  The back of my t-shirt, smothered under the weight of my backpack, clings damply to my body… And I have mirages of clean clothes, freshly laundered and cool, waiting for me at the other end… If only, it will probably have to wait until I get back to Pokhara.4.2On the way down we bump into children on their way to school, carrying their heavy backpacks, and cheerfully greeting me with their tourist English, hoping for some rewards: ‘Namaste!  Chocolate? Photo? Sweets? Rupees?’  At the school gate, one of the older girls ventures further, ‘What is your name?’  I oblige, and their chants of ‘Have a nice day, Leefa!’ follow us down the path.  And a little while later, a two year old is quickly mastering the essential language for grabbing attention from tourists.  She carefully puts her hands together making the traditional greeting sign and shouts to me: ‘Namastechocolate!’LEECH

Today we are traversing leech country, so are constantly vigilant to spot uninvited guests who may have taken a ride on our boots and are hoping to feed on our blood.  But this time it is a real leech country as yesterday’s rain has left rocks dewy and greenery buoyant and we have to cross many small streams and leafy places where leeches like to live. Sometimes the water cascades down our rocky path making our descend more treacherous and as well as looking out for leeches, I try to find the least slippery way down.  But here and there the mossy stones are deceptively slick and only my stick keeps me from tumbling over.4.14

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We reach …. and stop for a ginger tea and a spot of lunch. I suddenly become aware of a strange pinching feeling inside my left boot.  Maybe I brushed too close to a prickly bush and caught a thorn?  Whilst untying my boot, I notice the blood soaked stain on my sock; it is a lot of blood… A big thorn, I wonder.  I carefully peel back my sock and scream in horror at the sight of two fat bloodthirsty leeches having the feast of their life…  One, already fully gorged and probably drunk and delirious having tasted my blood,  falls off of its own accord; the other has no intention of letting go.   I, for one, have no idea how to tackle this, so whilst the owner of the tea house rushes to get out the salt, I grab my camera… Priorities, priorities…  With the creatures removed, I try to stem the flow of blood and cannot find a tissue; the owner provides stacks of napkins to mop up the blood and puts the bin right next to me…  Eventually I grab my first-aid kit and cover the bloody mess with a huge plaster, cover it with a sock and hope for the best.4.8

After lunch we continue the walk and I soon discover the meaning of Nepalese Flat, which clearly is not in the least bit flat but rather less steep than the rest of Nepal… But it makes a nice change from the steps and boulders on the way up and down the Mountains and hills lying in the Annapurna Conservation area.

The Nepalese Flat... not so flat after all, just less steep and without steps...

The Nepalese Flat… not so flat after all, just less steep and without steps…

Just after two, well before the afternoon rains have started, we get to the tea house.  I am desperate for a hot shower to wash away today’s grime and blood and feel fresh again.   ‘Hot or cold?’ I ask the guide, when he points to a ramshackle little building housing the toilet (Western, hooray!) and the one and only shower.  The guide seems convinced that hot water will be available as he has noticed the solar panels.  I head to my room and take off my boots and hazard a glimpse at my left foot.  The plaster has become detached and I notice another, tiny leech…. ‘Where is the salt?’ I run downstairs to find my guide; I cannot possibly touch this ghastly, slimy creature so he does the honours for me… Another leech bites the dust.

And the shower? Just perfect once I had waited half an hour for the hot water to finally flow… But today, there was no rush, so it was all fine!

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Trek to Poon Hill and Beyond.

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

day 3.4

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

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

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

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

day 2.5

day 2.3

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

day 2.8

day 2.11

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

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

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

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

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

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