Category Archives: trekking

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

Day 6

Panoramic view from Nangkartshang Peak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 7

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

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

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

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

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

Day 8

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

First view of Khumbu Icefall in the distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 9

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

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

Days 9, 10, 11 and 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 13

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

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

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

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

Day 3

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

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

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

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

Day 4

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

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

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

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

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

Day 5

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued)

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

Phewa Lake, Pokhara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This building marks the entrance to the cave complex.

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

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

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

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

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

Base Camp Everest, here I come…

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…

 

Dalat Dousings.

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Travel in Vietnam is proving to be a doddle…  For transport to our next destination, Dalat, we choose an overnight Futa bus.  Not that there are many options really.  Being a little off the beaten track, there is no train service to that part of the country and a taxi is definitely out of the question on our budget.  The staff at the reception of our guesthouse are extremely helpful.  Not only do they book our tickets, they accompany us to the bus when the time arrives.  Just as well, as the pick-up is somewhere in the middle of town, nowhere near what we recognize as an official bus stop…  And the blue scrap of paper with some seat numbers as tickets does not immediately inspire us with confidence…

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But the bus turns up punctually and we are shown are seats…  Great seats, soft and reclining; the only downside: nowhere to stow my backpack.  I happily put my suitcase in the hold underneath the bus, but insist on holding on to my backpack crammed with life’s essentials and flashpacker gadgets: laptop, an assortment of chargers and leads, smart phone and extra battery and my most important paperwork such as diplomas etc…  In the end I settle my legs comfortably in the foothold, lay down on the reclining seat and perch my backpack on my lap where it remains for the full 11 hours of the journey whilst I sleep peacefully, totally oblivious of the up and downs and hairpin bends along the hills, all the way to Dalat…

It is still pitch dark when we arrive.  It is 5.00am and neither of us is prepared for the sudden dip in temperature.  A twenty degree drop according to my phone, from 35 degrees in Kontum to a mere 16 degrees in Dalat.   Thank goodness, my fleece has not yet vanished into the bottom of my suitcase – we were warned about Dalat being colder than the rest of Vietnam… but 16 degrees comes as a shock to the system.   I had definitely not anticipated needing my ‘cold weather gear’ until I arrive back in the UK, end November…  Fashion out of the window, socks and sandals for comfort a must!!

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Nevertheless, Dalat – situated on a plateau 1,500 metres above sea level – thanks its popularity as a summertime retreat to the French colonials who took to the hills to escape the oppressive heat and humidity in other areas of Vietnam. The town, even featuring a mini-replica Eiffel Tower, is sometimes referred to as ‘Le Petit Paris’.  Because of its unique climate, Dalat is famous for its wide variety of flowers, vegetables and fruit from its surrounding farmlands.  The scenery is equally breath taking and attracts many local and foreign tourists.

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We have quite a bit of time to kill in Dalat before we can check into our Airbnb accommodation, but have been told we can leave our luggage in a coffee shop downtown, but even that one does not open until three hours after we make it to Dalat…  We spend the morning meandering around the Dalat streets, visiting a pagoda and waiting to get into our flat to catch up on some sleep…  No matter the comfort of a night bus, it cannot compete with the soporific effect of a soft mattress and white cotton sheets…

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Whereas Kontum put us in touch with local culture, Dalat would satisfy our hunger for adventure, so with no time to waste, the next day we book ourselves on an ‘Easyrider’ motorbike tour to visit the surrounding hills, waterfalls, silk production, coffee plantation and coffee tasting…  You name it, it is on the list.  However, as we have left it a little late to get going, we are on a tight schedule.  Fitted and kitted out with protective gear, tyres checked by Liz who is none too happy to detect ‘a bald one’, we set off full speed in the sunshine…  Pillion riders, rather than being in charge of the motorbikes ourselves…  After a stop at a massive mural portraying the life of ethnic minorities and a cable car on Robin Hill later, we arrive at the Truc Lam Monastery.  An oasis of peace with a colourful garden brimming with exotic flowers, a paradise for flora loving people such as Liz…  We linger, and our drivers come looking for us, worried we may not be able to finish the whole tour if we do not start hurrying up a little…

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Clouds have gathered, ominously…  We make it to the Pongour Waterfall as the sun makes a last half-hearted effort to jolly things up, but it soon peters out and the inevitable happens.

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Drizzle at first as we mount the bikes again onto our next port of call.  Having visited plenty of pagodas before in Vietnam, we opt to visit the silk production plant and coffee plantation…  We leave the nicely tarmacked roads and join the more bumpy, mud tracks as the heavens open..  The downpour of all downpour drenches us in minutes and my waterproof (?) jacket is woefully inadequate.  I am soaked to the bone and worry about keeping my phone dry… I am literally sitting in a puddle on the back of the motorbike. The road turns into a brown, brackish pool obscuring the potholes.  Liz is not happy, and keeps muttering on about ‘bald tyres’… With no houses or shelter either side of the dirt track, we carry on for a while until Liz insists on turning back and heading for home..  We part ways, as I think we may be better off finding shelter and waiting out the storm…

My driver, ‘Cow’ (his English name, as it is one people remember, he explains..) drives on, slowly, until we reach the silk factory and coffee tasting shop…   I shiver through the silk production explanation and warm up with a generous shot of 54% rice wine before tasting the most delectable coffee ever … made from weasel poo…  Not as disgusting as it sounds as the weasels are fed a diet of coffee beans, which are never digested but expelled unaffected via the usual canals.  A thorough cleansing and roasting takes care of the hygiene, without affecting the additional aroma the beans acquire during their travels through the weasels’ digestive system..   As for the more intriguing drinks on offer, I decline…  Somehow wine made from reptiles does not seem as appealing as the weasel coffee…

In the meantime, the rain has abated and we return to Dalat, trembling and shaking from the wet and cold…  By the time I get home, Liz has already vacated the shower and a hot cup of tea is waiting for me.  We spend the next day drying out and getting warm again, ready for another adventure : cycling and hiking to the summit of Lang Biang at an altitude of  2167m.  We know we are travelling during the rainy season, but surely, the weather cannot get any worse…

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The girl in the tourist office gives us a stern warning when we book the ‘hike and bike tour’, ‘There is no support vehicle with this tour.  If you cycle to the mountain, you will have to cycle back.’  We smile…  It is only 6 km there and another 6 km back.  Granted, there will be some hilly parts, but we are not deterred.  And the strenuous trek?  We are both keen walkers, so we should be able to manage rainforests and jungle paths.  Not entirely trusting the weather, we have come prepared this time and brought plastic ponchos as the locals wear, and most importantly, waterproof phone pouches.

Equipped with decent bikes complete with a bewildering assortment of gears we set off and are only defeated by one rather sharp and long incline..  We make it to the bottom of Lang Biang and clouds overhead look vaguely threatening, but we are optimistic and plan to stay ahead of any rain in the rainforest.  The path is muddy and treacherous at places, due to the recent wet weather, but the cool air and the shade from the jungle canopy make for perfect hiking conditions.

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It is indeed a hard slog to get to the top of Lang Biang, the path is steep and slippery and the steps have been fashioned for someone with much longer legs than mine…  About halfway up the hill, a light drizzle starts, nothing to worry about but it might interfere with our lunch plans:  Cow (again our guide) is carrying a picnic in his rucksack… Luckily, the morning rain is light and briefly vanishes as we reach the top of the mountain, just in time for Cow to prepare our food.  Sumptuous…   But whatever view we were expecting is shrouded in a thick cloud that has completely enveloped the hilltop, bar the fleeting appearance of a bright blue bit of sky.

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And it doesn’t take long for the rain to resume, only this time it comes down by the bucket load, collecting in deep puddles along the path and turning the steps on the way down into pools.  We no longer worry about leeches lurking on leaves ready to pounce..  Our only concern is to get back to the bottom of Lang Biang with all skin and bones intact…  Of course, we both slip and slide, it is inevitable, but at least the mud makes for soft landings..

And as for the bike ride back and no support?  Cow manages to convince his manager to organise a ride back home for us..  I don’t think our legs could have coped with any more exercise, they certainly felt as if they had had enough of a good thing already….

What did we expect in the rainy season???

A simple life in the hills of Sapa.

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‘September,’ the local guide told me, ‘September is the time tourists flock to Sapa.’  At that time of year, the bright green rice terraces slowly lose their verdancy; the amber signs of the impending rice harvest blanketing the hills.  The slopes glow sun-kissed yellow as ripened rice ears burst with kernels.  I have seen the photographs on the internet and the view is indeed spectacular…

Time-starved I had opted for an organized trip; the only thing required from me was to turn up on time.   An early morning flight to Hanoi meant I had a few hours to kill before boarding the overnight sleeper train to Loa Cai, a town near the Chinese border and the nearest train station to Sapa town.  I did not exactly have high hopes for my train journey, having experienced late evening trains in Vietnam before and was filled with trepidation at the prospect of battling for space on the floor near my seat, or even on my allocated bed itself…

As it transpired, I arrived in Sapa in style, ‘Orient Express’ kind of style!!  It felt like stepping back in time: royal purple velvet curtains festooned the windows; a classy lamp backlit matching flowers on the bedside table; there were chocolates, water and wipes and, as it is the 21st century after all, even a few sockets to allow us to charge life’s essentials… mobile phones.  And the bed??  The softest bed I had touched for some time.  As silence enveloped the carriages, the slow chugging and jolting of the train easily sent me off to much needed sleep in time for our arrival at 5 am for a taxi ride to Sapa town.

With no choice given in when we took our one-week break from teaching, I visited Sapa in early June at the start of the rice planting season, just after the winter chill retired from the mountains.  Rice needs warmth and plenty of water to guarantee a good crop and in this mountainous area of Vietnam, winters are too cold.  Unlike Central and Southern Vietnam, where the temperature allows several harvests a year, in the cooler hills of Sapa, there is only opportunity for a single harvest each year.  Enough rice to feed the local population as families grow their own on family-sized plots, but scarcely enough to take to markets or wholesalers and sell on.

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I may not have seen Sapa in all its golden glory, but the sea of greenery made an equally riveting scene.  With warmer days ahead and plenty of heavy, revitalising summer downpours on the horizon, the rice terraces were brimming with activity at the beginning of a new rice season.  The day before my arrival, Sapa had been drenched by heavy showers making the hiking trails extremely slippery and treacherous.

Probably not ideal for the tourists and hikers in the area, but a definite boon for farmers and locals who depend on the rain to get the season off to a good start.  Add to this the arrival of the summer holidays for kids, plenty of hands about to put the seedlings carefully and meticulously, one by one, into the muddy and water-filled paddies.  And it was muddy!!  Having tried a bit of rice planting myself, almost knee-deep in the squelchy slush, it is back-breaking and monotonous work under a blazing sun.

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Whereas in the flatter low-lying areas of Vietnam, many facets of the rice growing cycle have become more mechanized, in Sapa age old traditions still survive.  As the rice in and around Sapa is grown on steeper hill flanks, only small machinery can be used to prepare the paddies and help with the harvest.  Most of the work is still done by hand, laboriously and intensively.  Farmers not only tend to the crops, they also need to look after the banks that separate the many rice terraces and keep the tender rice plants in their pools of water.  Crumbling or collapsed banks are easily strengthened and repaired using strong and flexible bamboo canes which are found in abundance in the area.

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Life in the Sapa hills is simple and largely self-sustaining as households still make ample use of nature’s resources for food, clothing and shelter.  Many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities live in the mountainous regions, their traditional clothing, lifestyle and culture attracting as much attention as the ever-changing hues of the rice terraces.

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Rice and corn are the main staples whilst buffalo, pigs and chickens provide additional protein.  Traditional dwellings are built using wood; clothes are fashioned using the fibres and dye from locally grown plants.

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On my first day in Sapa, we hiked down to the bottom of a steep valley to Cat Cat, a small village where the traditions of the Black Hmong tribe have been preserved to give tourists a glimpse of how life used to be, and maybe still is for many…  Most of the Black Hmong we encountered proudly wore their customary clothes, carefully hand-tailored to achieve a perfect fit.  The clothes are made locally using cloth woven from hemp plants which flourish in the valley.  To give the fabric its distinctive blue/black colour, it is dyed in huge vats using the sap from the indigo plant, not only colouring the fabric but also staining the hands of those involved in the process.  Lastly,  batik details and cross-stitch embroidery are added, making each garment unique as every family has their own design.

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But things are changing in the Sapa hills as tourism has become a major source of income for many.  Although the extra money lifts a lot of  families out of poverty, easy pickings from visitors are spoiling the authenticity of the experience and bargaining is a must for any purchase if you don’t want to pay extortionate prices (for Vietnam… ).  Tourists make easy prey for vendors plying them with embroidered anklets, hand-made silver bracelets or batik textiles.  Only, not all of these are made in Vietnam.  With the Chinese border only about 30 km to the North, cheap copies and imports are all the rage.  ‘Buy in the village,’ our guide urged us, ‘then you can be sure your purchase is genuine and helps the local community…’  Whereas it may be easier to ignore the adults, when children are used to tug at our heart strings, it can be difficult to resist.  Dressed in local fashion and traditional attire they badger tourists, older children carrying their younger siblings in slings on their back…

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Of course, I did my bit and bought the obligatory anklet and batik throw..  but only after three days trekking with one very nice and friendly local (the one in the left hand corner of the photograph above) who accompanied us the whole time…  How could I not reward her hard work helping me stay upright on the slippery, muddy paths with at least paying for a few trinkets??  Buying from the children may seem reprehensible and should be discouraged,  but they certainly learn English fast… How better to master a useful language for tourism and a skill for later life than through engaging with native speakers…  Our local guides were living proof of that!!

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