Sunday, May 15, 2011

Holiday pt 2 – Kathmandu and the Himalayas

I left the last blog post at a pretty low point. We'd just reached Kathmandu and had been sat in the back of a falling-apart old coach for 17 hours. We were tired. We were hot. I'm sure that I've looked better... definitely needed a shower. Ah, the joys of travelling, right?

We found a hotel and managed to restore a hint of respectability to our appearances. Unfortunately we didn't have much option but to head straight back out and try and organise our next steps – we needed to get to Pokhara the next day and start our trek as soon as possible.

I have a confession to make here. Normally when I go “travelling” I don't do luxury. I do things the way the locals do if I can. It's more fun. It's cheaper. It generally leads to more of those random experiences that make it all worthwhile. However. I refer you to the 17hrs we'd just spent on a coach. We were now left with two options:
  1. A 7hr coach journey starting the next day at 7am.
  2. A 25min flight leaving at 2.30pm
Yes, the flight cost almost 10 times the cost of the bus. Yes, it's cheating. Yes, it was bloody worth it!

After getting things organised, we had a quiet afternoon and then an absolutely fantastic meal in a Nepalese restaurant near our hotel. Well, the atmosphere and the starter was fantastic anyway – the main struggled to live up to that (much like my half-marathon run in August – peaked too soon.....). Oh, and seeing as she got so excited by the mention in the last post, I should point out that Kez funded this meal too. UK pounds go a bit further out here – so thanks again Kez!

With our morning blissfully free of coach journeys, the next day we headed into the “old town” part of Kathmandu. We saw some more temples (this is India after all) and lots of pigeons (felt like going to Trafalgar Square in the 90's!).

From there, it was time to grab our stuff and head to the airport, stopping en route to grab some cakes which made a fair few people in the airport jealous as we scoffed them down for a extremely unhealthy, but brilliantly tasty lunch!

Now, I've been on a lot of flights in a lot of countries. That's not meant as a boast, it's meant to show that I'm not exactly new to air travel and therefore have seen and experienced most things in an airport. However....

Our flight was called for boarding. We headed out into a bus. Nothing unusual about that. They hooked our baggage on with a trailer, which seemed kind of amusing (not sure why – it was actually pretty reassuring as we could see our bags!).Off we set, out towards, and then alongside, the runway. A couple of minutes later and we turn a corner to see a line of small prop planes. Cool I think, haven't been on one of these for a long time!

Then we drive round and past them. Hmmm. Not on those then. We're heading towards the runway again. We turn left, away from the airport and all the planes, running parallel to the runway again. And we keep going. I can see there's nothing ahead (except Kathmandu, which we can see a mile or so away). We get to the end of the runway, go past it, then turn right, down into a ditch below the level of the runway, along that the width of the runway and then appear back up on the far side. At this point, considering we're (allegedly) in an airport, I can no longer see a single plane. We've been driving for 10 minutes and are now driving back in the direction we've come from, but on the far side of the runway. We keep going. Past the point we started, the airport drifting past again to our right. After 20 minutes I'm beginning to wonder if we'd have spent less time in a coach if we'd just driven to Pokhara....!

Eventually we reach our plane. It's tiny. Two rows of seats, one on each side of the plane, maybe 20 seats? Fantastic. I can see the cockpit from my seat. The 8-yr old me suddenly reappears and I get ridiculously excited by this! The cabin isn't pressurised, so they have to give you sweets to stop your ears popping – awesome!

The flight was a bit bumpy, but 25mins is 25mins and you can't argue with that. Suzie might disagree – don't think she enjoyed it too much :-)

When we reached Pokhara we were expecting to be met at the airport by our guide (confusingly called Susan – probably not how he spells it, but there you go). Instead, Suzie somehow spotted a taxi driver with a piece of paper the size of a business card with “Timothy” on it. Eyes of a hawk, obviously.

We were a bit worried as we'd had a hotel booked for us and had done no research. We shouldn't have worried. The hotel was perfectly fine – newly built and just what we wanted. We dropped our bags and set out to explore.

Pokhara is in the foothills of the Himalayas. Now, most people think of Everest when they think of the Himalayas. Don't. Pokhara is nowhere near Everest. Apparently these Himalayas are quite big....What Pokhara is near though, is Annapurna. Annapurna I is the 10th highest peak in the world, measuring over 8000m and we were going to climb it.....

Yeah right! Not only do you need to have a ridiculous amount of training (and equipment) to do something like that, but also while Annapurna might be 800m shorter, it's harder to climb than Everest. Lower success rates, higher fatality rates. We were only going to Base Camp (a still-not-shabby 4100m up).

So, Pokhara, beautiful setting, by a lake. Lots of restaurants and bars, not much else! Really nice atmosphere though. We had some great food and a couple of beers anticipating not too much of that over the next 8 days!

The next morning off we set. 10 years ago you'd have actually had to walk from Pokhara, but now there's a lovely twisty road through the mountains – fantastic scenery. After 1.5hrs we reached the starting point of the trail. One last chai before we set off, much to the amusement of some local women!

There is a point on the Annapurna trail called Poon Hill. It's not actually on the main climb to Base Camp, but off on a side loop. It's famous for it's sunrises and I do like a good sunrise, so that was on our itinerary. It's also only 8-9hrs walk from the starting point, so Day 1 was a leisurely 3 hr walk. Felt a bit lazy to be honest! Thankfully it was a wonderful place to stop, by some waterfalls, so we got a bit of photo opportunities. We also had the first (of many) Dal Bhats. Literally this means “Lentils and Rice” and for most Nepalese they eat it a couple of times a day. I've got to say, it's pretty good, but I like a bit more variety in my meals!

Next morning started with a beast of a climb. 3000 steps apparently! Beginning to wonder if this is such a good idea.... Later that afternoon we arrived in Ghorepani, which was to be important for a couple of reasons on this trip.

First, it was where our love affair with German Bakeries began. For some reason, the Nepalese have decided that German Bakeries are what people want (much to the consternation of some Austrians we met later on!). We decided to give it a go – Strudel time! From that point onwards every town was basically rated by the availability and the quality of their German baked goods. Obsessed with food? Moi? ;-)

Secondly, our guide had to leave us at this point. He said there had been a death in his family. Sometimes you have to be skeptical of this sort of thing, but I genuinely believed him – if he was lying he's wasted as a guide and should go into acting. This did leave us in a bit of an awkward position though – we'd paid for an English-speaking guide and a porter. Susan spoke good English, Lal, our porter, didn't. Oh, and he was partially-sighted too. Excellent.

I should say for the record here that Lal did an excellent job, considering it's not one he's trained for. We only got lost once and then not really (Suzie and I rushed on ahead and went the wrong way – difficult to blame him!). He got us to Base Camp and did it with a smile on his face. Of course at the time point we weren't sure how things would turn out....

The next morning we woke at 4.30 to catch the sunrise. It's a 45min walk from Ghorepani to Poon Hill. The walk takes you to about 3100m above sea level. Unfortunately Suzie felt a little bit unwell on the way up – we weren't sure if it was mountain sickness or not. Would we be able to make it to Base Camp – another 1000m up?

I mentioned German Bakeries earlier. Obviously they won't be everyone's cup of tea. What will be? Literally, a cup of tea at 5am when you're standing in the cold waiting for sunrise. The guys running the tea stall must make a fortune. Rs80 for a cup of tea – probably cost them Rs5 per cup, if that!

Sunrise was spectacular though. Some days it's apparently cloudy. Not for us. Perfect visibility and truly spectacular. Pics of this sort of thing never come out the way you want, but I hope some of these give an idea of what it was like.

The next 3 days went a bit like this:

Day 3 – walked for a stupidly long time. Everyone we told what we were doing said “really?” with a look of disbelief, but we had a timetable to keep to and we made it. Arrived in the guesthouse at 4pm. At 4.05pm the heavens opened – timing! German Bakery rating – 3/5, good strudel, rubbish choc cake. Two Israeli girls in Guesthouse look like they're having as much fun as a Liverpool fan at a Premier League Champions party....

Day 4 – walk up a slope, down a slope, up a slope, down a slope, up a slope, down a slope, repeat until you can see Macchupuchre peak. Stop. Be in awe. Spend evening listening to French couple singing Nepalese songs they've been taught by their guides. No German Bakery :-( Israeli girls are following us. Still look miserable.

Day 5 – Head up valley to Macchupuchre Base Camp (3700m). Israeli girls are only other people in our guesthouse – what did we do to deserve this?

MBC is just below the snow-line. It's therefore pretty cold. We were there by midday, which meant a lot of sitting around, but heading up to ABC wasn't on the cards as we didn't fancy staying there for the night (even colder!) and we were still worried Suzie might get hit by altitude sickness again. At that point she was ok, but no point risking it!

So at 4.20am we're up again. It's bitterly cold, but off we set. It's 1.5hrs to ABC and we want to be there for sunrise. After 15mins we're walking on snow, up a valley. It's pitch black initially, but slowly, as the sun rises behind us, the mountains to our right begin to be bathed in a gorgeous pink light. It's spectacular. Honestly, my photos can't and won't do it justice. We later heard of someone who's been to Base Camp eight times before. He said it blew him away this particular morning.

I know I joke and brush over a few things, but I can honestly say this will be remembered as one of the most spectacular events in my life. That's not something you get to say everyday. Truly breathtaking.

We got to Base Camp and set up to take photos. We'd been there for about 10mins when suddenly Suzie felt ill again, so rather than take any risks we headed back to MBC for a big bowl of porridge and some hot chocolate! Celebrated with some Toblerone. Swiss Alp chocolate eaten in the Himalayas. Perfect!

From there it was back down the mountain. I say down - considering our aim was to descend there was an awful lot of climbing! Met some guys who had been to Everest Base Camp – one of them did it wearing a pair of plimsoles. Loon. Australian, obviously.

On our penultimate day we stopped in Jinju, which has some hot springs, which definitely soothed some aches and pains! Then it was to Pokhara and a well deserved beer and some nachos. And a hunt for a German Bakery ;-)

Originally we'd been thinking of heading to Chitwan National Park from Pohara and spending a day there before heading back towards Hazaribag, but we were a bit knackered to be honest and thought a couple of relaxing days in Pokara would be good for us (you know, a holiday or something!).

So if you want to read about Pokhara, Suzie's time in Hazaribag, or our trip to see an IPL match in Kolkata, you'll have to read the next post. Congratulations if you managed to read all of this one. Bit of a mammoth one....not unlike an 8-day trek in the Himalayas or something!


  1. Shit, I don't know what's wrong with me. I just had that weird wave of emotion resulting in wet eyes, thinking of the awesomeness that is this trip and that C and I will be doing it in just over 2 months!

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