Tuesday, 29 April 2008

People & countryside around Pokhara, central Nepal

Yesterday afternoon, after leaving the Internet, I walked south along the road that skirts the Phew Lake shore, to find the track that climbs up the hill to Sarangkot at the top. I found the track all right, and enjoyed the late afternoon atmosphere with people heading home and the air cooling. Some people were swimming, kids were playing everywhere, and neighbours were chatting. On my return I stopped for a beer at a small place out of town, sitting on the roof, watching a large group of kids playing on the ground a few metres away, with the lake in the background and the sun setting. There were about 30 kids, boys and girls, ranging in age from about 5 to 15. Their play was so innocent and inclusive. The 15 year old boy was much bigger and stronger than the rest, but he clowned around and didn't abuse his size. They played triple jump and cartwheels that I recall.

I ordered curried fish (from the lake) and chapartis for dinner. As has been the case in all small restaurants, it took a long while to be served - about an hour - as the cook prepared the meal from scratch. The only other guests were a funny kiwi and several young, local women. He was a wizened old hippy, who smoked pot steadily and bought the women sweets. I was surprised when he told me he was only 52. For a while I thought he might have been living with the women, but it transpired they were just friends who were there for the free food and his chatter. He got one of them to go to buy several large packets of sweets, which he proceeded to chuck at the kids. The kids appeared to know him, and loved the fun of chasing the sweets scattered around in the fading light. It was good fun, and I didn't leave till 7:45pm to go back to the hotel.

This morning I was awake at dawn - now 5:15am - as usual, and was at breakfast again at 6:30am. I then headed along the lake shore and climbed the steep, stony track to Sarangkot. The first part of the walk was through rain forest, then through small farms. It was very pleasant, but hot (maximum 33 degrees and humid), with the top of the hill marked at 1,595m. There were lots of small shops and restaurants, but I was the only tourist! I had been told climbing the track alone would take close to 3 hours, but it took me 1:45, so I've retained some of my fitness. There were wonderful 360 degree views from the top, but I took no photos because of the thick haze. Of course, I couldn't see Annapurna and the other magnificent high peaks.

I walked back to road, about 1km down, and headed back along it towards Pokhara. There was little traffic, and the road wound along a ridge through rain forest. About half way down a vehicle from a paragliding company stopped and gave me lift back to the lake side. I wouldn't have minded walking, but it would have taken me at least another hour. I was hot and sticky, so drank another delightful mango lassi. I bought both the English-language Nepal newspapers (Kathmandu Post and Himalayan) and had a double espresso (a LONG way short of the standard we're used to). Then went for a yak cheese and salad sandwich at an eatery overlooking the lake shore. Chatted to two friendly American women (they were in the paragliding vehicle coming back down the mountain), then back to the hotel for a much-needed shower.

The next three days will be focussed around travel. My flight back to Kathmandu is scheduled for 12:45pm tomorrown (Thursday), so will leave the hotel at 11:30am. Have arranged for taxi driver, Prayas, to meet me at the airport (or more accurately, about 800m from the domestic terminal, as that is as close as an empty taxi is allowed to go). Will collect a bag at the Hotel Thamel then proceed to the Shangri-La where I've booked and paid. Will take a bit of organising to get my gear within the 20kg limit. Then a car will take me from the Shangi-La at 11am on Thursday to start the long journey home.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Exploring region around Pokhara, central Nepal

This morning I was the first guest at breakfast at 6:30am (had to order it last night to be served at that time). I arranged for a bloke to row me the 1km across the lake (250R) to the start of a track up the hill. It was a steep track, but delightful through the rain forest. Saw a snake on the track right in front of me, and many monkeys swinging through the trees above. At the top of the hill, a 300m climb, there is the World Peace Pagoda, with marvelous views across the lake. I continued down the hill on the far side, coming out in rice and corn fields, irrigated by water from the lake. At that point I saw the only tourists I'd seen.

I walked to a point where the river disappears down a 30m sink-hole. A couple of hundred metres further on I climbed down into a cave through which the rivers runs. It was worth seeing at this time of the year, but would be spectacular in the monsoon season. A short distance away I visited a Tibetan refugee settlement in the hope of seeing a carpet factory and other handicraft production. The whole settlement was closed for prayers for the protesters killed and injured 49 days before in Lhasa, Tibet, in the anti-Chinese protest. I found a large hall packed with refugees, led by a priest, chanting a prayer. It was very moving and I sat watching for a while. A fellow outside told me they had been chanting the prayer all day - it was then 11am.

I continued the 5km back through farmland to Pokhara for a lunch of tass, a set meal of marinated, grilled mutton and dry-fried rice (115R with tea) - a tasty dish that I ate in Gorkha last week. Then, at a specialty shop, followed with a lassi, the Nepali equivalent of an Australian smoothie. I ordered a mango lassi, made with fruit and yoghurt (called curd in Nepal), and thought that, at 90R, it was expensive. When it came I could understand the price: it was 750ml, with heaps of mango and ice-cold!

The electricity went off at 1pm, so back at the hotel it was too hot in my room without the air-conditioning or the fan operating. It was the hottest time of day, so decided to come to this Internet cafe. They have their own generator, but don't waste the power on unnecessary luxuries such as the fans, so have been sweating steadily.

I'll return to Kathmandu by plane on Wednesday, and the following day fly back to Canberra, arriving late afternoon friday after a 25 hour journey. Am looking forward so much to getting home, even though it will be only three weeks before Carolyne and I head to Vietnem.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

New Year festival in Pokhara, central Nepal

Yesterday, Saturday, I was up with the light, as usual, despite having my latest night yet on Friday after spending a long time on the Internet and my photos. As arranged, my guide, Kamal, met me at 8am and we walked to the local bus station where we caught a little bus (30R for both of us) to Sankhu, a small village on the eastern side of Kathmandu valley. From there we trekked up a steep hill through small farms to Changu, another small village but with a stunning Hindu temple dating from the 5th century. In the square around the temple were three small stone statues dating from the original construction. They were in remarkably good condition, even though exposed to the weather and constant worship. There were few people there, so enjoyed it very much.

We continued eastwards, climbing steadily, initially through farms and then forest, to Nagarkot a town on the ridge at the end of the valley, with views into the valleys on both sides. Though there is no wind in Kathmandu, there was a very strong wind blowing over the ridge, which at 2,100m is 600m above Kathmandu. It was tiring, so we had a lunch of daal baht at a local restaurant (265R for both). As usual, I stuck to bottled water, but had cup of tea in which the water may not have been sufficiently boiled, because an hour later I started to feel squeezy.

We caught a local bus (46R for both) down the hill to the town of Baktapur, where we caught another (36R for both) back to Kathmandu. I was heartily sick of the bus by the time we were back - very dusty, with constant honking and frustratingly slow - not arriving back till 5:15pm. The only entertainment was the bus tout/fare collector on the bus from Baktapur. He was about 12-13 and a real pro, whistling loudly and calling for customers at each stop. He swung in and out of the open bus door, waving and chatting to people at the front and was aggressive in collecting fares.

Feeling bloated, I skipped dinner and was in bed by 8pm. It was a bad night for electricity, with power off from 6pm, so read the local paper by my headlamp before going to sleep. This morning I felt quite sick, so skipped breakfast, took some Immodium and started a course of antibiotics for stomach problems. I exchanged a book I had finished for another at a bookshop.

The lunchtime flight to Pokhara was slow but uneventful. Arrived early at the airport and had to stand and wait for 35 mins until they opened the counter for my flight (they use just one counter for different airlines, making it a bit of a madhouse). Then through my first security and body check to the passenger area. There are seats there, but no information about flights. When a flight is to load a man stands at the single exit gate and calls out the name of the airline. Everyone races through to the second body check and onto an ancient, battered bus for the ride across to the plane. We sat and waited in the bus while maintenance men went around the plane with screw drivers, making sure it was held together. Another battle among the passengers ensued to get onto to the plane and grab seats on the right hand side, to get views of the Himalayas. As it turned out, continuing heavy haze ruined any good views. The plane was a 16 seater, with a row of eight seats along each side.

A car from the Lake Palace Hotel (US$23 per night, including breakfast) met me at the Pokhara airport for the short drive the hotel. I have a reasonable room on the third floor, with my own bathroom and air-conditioning. Still feeling ordinary I skipped lunch and decided to explore the town.

It was a good afternoon to do so, and the town is in a beautiful setting on Phewa Lake with forested hills (mountains?) on three sides. A New Year festival was underway in a large park on the lake with lots of food stalls and a continuous live music and dance program underway. The place was packed with locals (entry fee was just 20R) and only the occasional tourist in evidence. I sat and watched the entertainment for an hour, chatting to a friendly Pommie tourist (she and her husband have sold up in the UK and hope to settle on the Indian sub-continent - have met several who have taken such a big step).

Further along the lake, in another park, there were even more celebrations taking place around a Hindu Temple. Apparently it was a propitious time for religious blessings and weddings, as there were at least a dozen underway. As well as the religious celebrations, there were a few bands, using traditional instruments, playing with a couple of people dancing. While I was taking a photo of one couple dancing to a band, surrounded by a large group of onlookers, I was dragged into dance with a young woman, much to the surprise and amusement of the onlookers. After we finished dancing many patted me on the back, saying "Good! Good!"

Feeling a little better this evening I treated myself to a plate of plain rice at the hotel.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Anzac Day in Kathmandu

Arrived back in Kathmandu at 12:30pm yesterday (Thursday) after a four hour bus ride from Gorkha. Was quicker than I expected, though no less squashed - there were 16 of us in an old minibus, with five in my row: a woman and young son (who vomited during the ride), Kamal (my guide) & me, and another bloke. We were well air-conditioned, with all windows wide open, allowing the dust and the constant black exhaust fumes from the trucks and buses we overtook to flow through freely. We stopped for a brief toilet and Coke (30R for Kamal & me) stop. Before we reached the bus station in Kathmandu I rang my taxi driver friend, Prayas, and arranged for him to meet us and take us to the hotel (100R). As I alighted from the taxi the staff at the hotel greeted me with:

"Mr Robert, good to see you back! How was your trip?"

I'm back in room 409 (my preference, at US$22 including breakfast) for three nights. Gave Kamal a 1,000R tip, and have arranged directly with him to take me trekking tomorrow (Saturday) in the hills on the edge of Kathmandu Valley.

Apart from my hotel booking, my only firm arrangement is on Sunday to fly west to Pokhara, stay for three nights, returning Wednesday to the Shangri-La Hotel. Gopal, the principal of the travel agency that arranged my recent excursions, has organised return flights to Pokhara (30min each way) for US$170, with 3 nights in a 2 star hotel (similar to the Hotel Thamel) and breakfast for US$69.

Today was another contrast to the past few. Taxi driver Prayas took me at 6am to the Australian Embassy for the Anzac Day service at 7am (rather later than dawn, but practical in Kathmandu). It was better than I expected with 70-80 people all up, mainly diplomatic types. The Gurkhas (the famous British army unit comprised of tough Nepalese soldiers) and Neplaese army were well represented. There were several other Australians, and we chatted together before and after the service during the breakfast (including Anzac bikies and a tot of rum). It was very interesting listening to Aussies who've lived in Kathmandu for between 8 months and 3years talk about the country.

On returning to my hotel Kamal met me to take me to show me his one room flat that he shares with a cousin. Apart from the two beds, there was a tiny kitchen and several bookshelves: Kamal is in the first year of a humanities Masters degree. I left there to explore parts of the city I'd so far missed, following my guide book's recommendations, including the Durbar - the royal palace square dating from the 14th century.

The undoubted highlight was seeing the Kumari Devi, Nepal's living Goddess. I'd read about her before leaving Oz, and since arriving in the country, so was looking forward to it. She is a pre-pubescent girl in whom the goddess in reincarnated. The goddess leaves the girl's body when she reaches puberty, and a committee of holy people selects the young girl in whom the goddess is reincarnated through an examination of "36 perfections". It's a wonderful religious tradition that has become significant for Nepal. The Kumari Devi lives in the the most beautiful wood-carved building in Kathmandu, dating from the 17th century. It has a small courtyard, and the Kumari Devi gives her audience, usually daily, by appearing at a high window, smiling and throwing petals on the crowd below.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Trekking to Gorkha, Nepal

Yesterday morning, Tuesday, my guide, Kamal, and I visited the Manakamana temple again at 6am, to see the early worshippers in a more subdued atmosphere before the crowds of pilgrims arrived (the cable car starts operating at 9am). After breakfast we headed from Manakamana towards Gorkha, a six hour trek through terraced farms, small villages and areas of forest. It was a delightful day's walk, with no sign of any tourists and the locals most friendly and interested in me. We stopped many times to eat small, rich-tasting yellow berries that grow in prickly bushes everywhere in the region. The track varied from an easy, wide, gravel path, to a narrow track through farmland, to steep, rocky trails. We said hullo ("Namaste") to all the locals, and many chatted to Kamal, asking where I was from and what I was doing there.

A bloke from a pretty, traditional farmhouse waved to us and invited us to have tea with him. We accepted, sitting on the ground that acted as his front porch, with chickens hopping over us and goats nudging our backs. There were only two men there, the 64 year old father and his son. The women were out working in the fields, as all women do during the day. We drank tea and then a couple of cups of raksi, a fermented millet drink. It was very pleasant, and the bloke allowed me to look inside the tiny, unlit house. Though electricity was connected, it operates for only limited periods, as everywhere in Nepal. The building was constructed of stone and rendered with clay and with a thatched roof. There was a fire going in the one room, with just a single, tiny window, so it was smoky, blackened and with many cooking implements. The views from the "porch" were fabulous, looking over a deep gully of terraced green fields, dotted with orange and lime trees

We continued with our trek, stopping in a small shop in a tiny village for lunch. We drank Cokes while the lady who ran the shop (most family-run businesses are run by women) prepared the traditional, and by now, very familiar meal of daal baht (literally, "lentil soup with rice"). The husband just sat and did nothing (again, this seems to be the occupation of many Nepalese men while their wives work). Within a minute of us arriving and starting our Cokes a horde of primary school children surrounded me, just staring and occasionally chatting to themselves. I don't think they'd ever been so close to a "gora" or white person before. We ate lunch around the back of the shop, seated on the dirt (swept and spotless), as we were served from pots on the clay fire. The food was very nice and the people could not have been friendlier.

After lunch the track descended several hundred metres through forest to a small river where a group of naked young boys were jumping from rocks, swimming and generally having a great time. On the far side of the river the track became a rough road. As we started to climb a truck loaded with rocks came up and offered us a lift to the top. We hopped in the cabin, making eight men, plus the hapless driver, and several more on the rocks in the back. The truck was an Indian-made Tata, and must have been 40 years old. The driver appeared to be skilful but the truck was blowing oil and struggled up the steep, stony road. Eventually the driver decided to stop to make some running repairs, so Kamal and I continued on foot.

At the top of the hill we reached a sealed road, and we caught a small, crowded local bus for the last four kilometeres into the town of Gorkha, our destination for the night. I stayed in what appeared to be the best hotel in town, and had toilet and shower (could get only cold water) as well as a fan. It was very comfortable for the two nights we were in Gorkha. I noticed that there were other westerners there: the European Union Election Observer team with their large 4 wheel drives (the only ones I saw outside of Kathmandu). Kamal is from a village not far from Gorkha and knew the town well. He soon found a good restaurant where we ate dinner of mutton soup, tasha (fried, marinated mutton, with dry-fried rice, pickles etc) and chicken momo, washed down with a couple of bottles of Tuborg beer brewed in Gorkha.

This morning, Wednesday, at sunrise Kamal & I headed up the steep hill behind Gorkha to the former royal palace, built in the 17th century, that is also a Hindu temple and for which the town is famous. The palace was also a fort, and sits astride a narrow ridge on the mountain, a fabulous setting, and with striking architecture. No cameras were allowed inside, but there were worshippers there, as usual with their livestock for sacrifice. Stone steps have been constructed by a later king from the palace to the highest of the mountain. We continued to the top, with hardly anyone else around apart from a small army base, monkeys and wonderful bird life. The forest was thick, and reminded me of botanic gardens. We headed back down the mountain, stopping for a small breakfast of curried peas & lentils and tea at a small restaurant beside the stone steps. I was back at the hotel by 9:30am.

The remainder of the day has been relaxed, having icecreams with Kamal and a friend (30R for the three) and walking around the town. Unfortunately it was Loktantra Day, the second anniversary of the restoration of democracy to Nepal, and a public holiday. As a result the Gorkha museum, housed in another former palace, 160 years old, was closed. I chatted to one of the European Union Election observers, a friendly pommie bloke, about the Constituent Assembly election in Nepal three weeks ago. He confirmed my impression from reading the papers that the election was, in the main, as free and fair as could be expected under the circumstances. He also told me that there quite a few instances of violence, mainly instigated by the Young Communist League. However the re-polling that has been underway since, and which finished on Wednesday had overcome the problems from election day. Kamal and I returned to the same restaurant as last night for dinner for a similar, and similarly tasty, meal.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Manakamana, Nepal

This morning, Monday, I left Chitwan by local bus and travelled back to the Privi Highway and followed it towards Kathmandu, along the mountain-sides with the river far below. This time I was on the side of the bus on the open side of the valley. It was hard to relax, travelling on such a narrow road, with no road-side barriers and heavy traffic with vehicles constantly overtaking each other.

I alighted at a cable-car, built by Austrians 12 years ago, where I met my guide, Kamal, who is to look after me for 4 days. The cable-car travelled 2.8km, climbing 1,000m, to Manakamana, a small village that exists because of the presence of a highly significant Hindu temple. Pilgrims travel from across Nepal, and from India, to give sacrifices and worship at the temple that I found surprisingly small and modest. When we arrived there was a long, very slow moving line of pilgrims with their offerings of food and flowers, and sacrificial animals - chooks and goats - ready to be slaughtered. The temple has many bells around it, and as the pilgrims arrive they ring the bells to announce their arrival to the gods. So the whole effect was quite electric, with bells ringing constantly, the animals bleating and squawking, people chatting, incense smoke filling the air and blood from slaughtered animals covering the stone grounds around he temple.

After a while marvelling at the scene, I headed off with Kamal to climb the hill behind the temple. (Kamal told me that 17% of Nepal is mountain i.e. more than 3,300m, 68% is hill country, and 17% low rain forest, as I had seen at Chitwan. So anything less than 3,300m is a "hill".) It took us most of the afternoon to climb past small, terraced farms and up through the forest to the peak, surmounted by several small temples. We returned to Manakamana, where we're staying in a small, basic hotel.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Chitwan National Park

It was pleasant escaping from the heavy air pollution of Kathmandu which was giving me quite a sore throat by the time I left. Am continuing to have a wonderful time, though I won't be sorry to breathe clean, Canberra air and will not miss the filth that encroaches on every city and town. Only the countryside is relatively free of rubbish.

My bus left Kathmandu at 7:30am on Saturday, but after about 15 mins we were caught in terrible traffic jam that took an hour to penetrate. Once out of the city the countryside was striking as we wound along steep mountain sides between terraced farms growing rice and corn. The traffic was heavy - mainly trucks and buses, with much terrifying driving, but only one accident that I noticed.

I changed buses after lunch and we drove south, away from the mountains into lowland tropical scenery. Arrived at Chitwan National Park about 2pm. My hotel, Rhino Lodge, was in a small village across the river from the park, and was mercifully quiet, another contrast to Kathmandu. It was substantially hotter there, in the mid 30s with high humidity and quite a heavy smoke haze as Carolyne and I saw in Laos two years ago. The hotel was fairly basic but quite comfortable. My room was air conditioned, but the hotel didn't have its own generator, so during the twice daily 4 hour power cuts, I just endured the heat! The only others staying there was a tour group from the Netherlands that stayed the first night.

My package deal at the hotel included several activities in the National Park. For each I've had my own guide. Late afternoon Saturday we visited the elephant breading centre several kilometres away. At my suggestion we cycled there, using old Indian, single-speed bikes along the rough, stony roads. The local people were a different ethnic group from the majority Newari, being related to northern Indian groups. They speak Hindi rather than Nepali among themselves, though they are all fluent in Nepali. Their domestic architecture is different to that in the mountains and Kathmandu. Their homes are constructed of reeds rendered with clay, and the rooves are thatched. The elephant breeding centre was fun, but not nearly as good as the one Carolyne & I visited north of Ayutthia in Thailand.

At 7am on Sunday morning my guide and I headed for a canoe ride down the river for several kilometres, then walked back though the rain forest for several hours. It was great fun. The guide pointed out numerous species of birds on the river, and he lent me his binoculars. We saw a large stork, only metres from us, catch a substantial eel from the river, and try to kill it before eating it. We also saw the two species of crocodile - freshwater and salt - that inhabit the river. The salt (why? there's no salt water here!) one we saw from the river bank, we were right above him.

The walk was even better, particularly when we saw an old rhino about 30m away. We had to be very quiet, as it is potentially deadly. The guide had advised me of escape plans if we were to come across a rhino, so I was prepared. As we moved away from it, the rhino started to move through the scrub in the same direction. We took off at full speed, stopping at a large tree that I started to climb. The rhino stopped moving, so we crept away, my heart beating at 100%. Later I found that several people a year are killed by rhinos here!

We saw deer and monkeys, and lots of evidence of a small native cat, sloth bears and others. We saw even more birds, including eagles and woodpeckers, and a close encounter with with a wild rooster, a fine, brightly coloured fellow that appeared to be the ancestor of our domestic chooks.

When we crossed the river to return to the village, the working elephants were being taken for their twice daily bath in the river. It was wonderful to watch, and several tourists joined in. I was tempted, but was suspicious of the quality of the river water. The elephants splashed themselves and everyone nearby, and rolled and soaked up the cooling water. The handlers scrubbed them, which the creatures seemed to relish.

This afternoon, Sunday, I took an elephant ride. I'd been told it would be about 2 hours, but was on my elephant (unable to get off for a piddle!) for 3h 40m. It was also much more exciting than I'd expected, as most of the time we were in the national park, with all its wildlife. The elephant handler knew where particular creatures were likely to be, and the animals ignored the presence of the elephant despite there being myself and 3 Singaporeans on its back, a well as the handler. It was the same effect as being in a jeep on safari in the game parks of South Africa. We saw a total of nine rhinos - some only a couple of metres away - and including several very young ones. We came across several swamp deer, wild boar, wild peacocks and an eagle at close quarters. By the end of the ride I was filthy from brushing against the leaves, cobwebs and so on at about 4 metres above ground.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Baktapur, Kathmandu valley

The weather in Kathmandu has been pleasant, with a usual daily range 12-31 degrees. On Wednesday night a spectacular electrical storm lit the sky with sheet lightning, but there was little rain.

I've enjoyed my few days here, at a slower pace than the hectic Everest trek. Prayas, the taxi driver who took me from the Shangri-La Hotel to the Hotel Thamel was a nice young bloke, with good English and a most careful driver (in contrast to most in Kathmandu).

Yesterday I engaged him to take me to Bhaktapur, another former royal capital about 25km east in the Kathmandu valley. It's superbly preserved, with the "55 window" palace, and many temples. Amazingly, the Nepali New Year festival, Bisket Batra, which is celebrated only in Bhaktapur, was in full swing. The schools were closed and the narrow streets filled with school children, women of all ages, and the men who were not working. The main attraction was an attempt to drag a huge, ponderous wooden chariot, maybe 8 metres high, along on its wooden wheels, with many young men pulling on large ropes. It was great entertainment, particularly when it rolled back down a small hill, nearly collecting a few people in its wake! The other entertainments were primarily games of dice played on a dusty rag on the ground (I lost my single bet!). Many people used the opportunity to make sacrifices to the gods at small Hindu shrines everywhere. Chickens were in great demand: after a brief warm-up ceremony with food offerings the participants would grab their chook, slit its throat and spray its blood over the other offerings. I was assured that the chooks would all be eaten for the evening meal.

Last night was the first night I'd eaten by myself, as the last of my fellow Everest trekkers flew out during the day. I ate at a simple Nepalese restaurant, The Thakarli, in contrast to the rather fancier ones at which we'd been dining since returning from the trek.

This morning I went for a short (7km) run along the Bishnumati River, which looks and smells like an open sewer, with the carcasses of slaughtered animals tossed in for good measure. Prayas picked me up and we drove to two significant places in the Kathamndu valley: Swayambhunath Stupa on a hill behind the city, and Patan, another former royal capital a few miles away.

After cooling my heels in Kathmandu since Monday, I'm heading west tomorrow. I'll catch a 7:30am bus to Chitwan National Park, 6 hours south-west, on the border with India. It's at the lowest altitude in Nepal, so will be hot and humid. I will spend two nights there, going on a safari and paddling in a canoe along the river, among other activities. I expect it to be touristy, as the wild animals attract lots of foreigners. From there I will travel a short way north to Manakamana, a small village with a special Hindu temple. It is back at altitude, and there should be few tourists. After a night there I'll trek five hours to the small town of Gorkha, site of a famous fort and reputedly a beautiful place. It should also be free of tourists. I'll spend two nights there before returning by bus to Kathmandu on Thursday afternoon. I've accepted an invitation to attend the Anzac Day service at the Australian Embassy on Friday morning. Plan to stay 3 nights again at the Hotel Thamel.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Hotel Thamel, Kathmandu

Monday afternoon and yesterday I spent by myself, catching up on basic matters such as phoning Carolyne on skype, buying a SIM card for my mobile phone (1,010R including 600R for calls), arranging for my laundry, having a haircut (70R plus 150R for a post haircut back massage!), checking my credit card account and finding a hotel to stay at after the Shangri-La.

Each night I've met up with members of the trekking group for dinner. Last night we ate at the Thamel House restaurant, across the road from my new hotel. It is a traditional Nepalese restaurant, in which guests sit on cushions n the floor. I chose the set menu (750R), more expensive than the a la carte but comprising 12 delicacies, including spicy soup, a special chicken dish, roast wild boar and vegies. It was marvellous food.

I'm now in the Hotel Thamel in the busy shopping district of Thamel. It's a lot more basic than the Shangri-La, but for US$22 I have an en-suite room with a bath, TV and air conditioning, and the price includes breakfast. I've arranged for a taxi driver to collect me at 8am tomorrow to visit the last couple of members of the trekking group who haven't left, at the Shangr-La, and then to take me to the town of Bhaktapur, on the other side of the Kathmandu valley, for the day. He'll return me to my hotel by 4pm. We've agreed on a price of 1,250R, which will be good value if all goes well.

Monday, 14 April 2008

From Namche back to Kathmandu

Since last Friday my trip has been much less exciting than the previous two weeks but still enjoyable. That afternoon we were rejoined by the young couple, Simon & Sharnie, who had left us because of altitude sickness at the first high pass, Konma La. On Saturday, we trekked south from Namche, retracing our steps from the first three days, along the Dudh Koshi River valley, through pine forests, with many large, red flowering rhododendron trees. The river was flowing strongly, fed by numerous tributaries. We crossed the river several times on swinging bridges, fortunately made of metal rather than broken timber as they had until several years ago. As I mentioned in my first email, the track is a pedestrian highway at this point, with many trekkers passing along, with even more Sherpas (the local Nepalese) carrying huge loads on their backs to the small towns and villages at the higher altitudes. Yaks, the local beasts of burden in caravans of 4-5, also carry large loads.

We stopped overnight at Phakding in the same lodge we had used on the outward journey. That night was Nepalese New Year's Eve (we are now in year 2065 in the Nepalese calendar), and being the second last night of the trek, the guides and porters joined us for dinner. Several of the group joined me in buying Nepalese rum for the guides and porters. They appeared to enjoy it, cleaning up the lot.

On Sunday we completed the trek, returning to the town of Lukla. In the afternoon another member of the team, Peter from Manchester in the UK, and I went for a walk along a track through small farming settlements past Lukla. It was pleasant getting away from other trekkers and the crowded track north. As well as the farms we saw lots of birdlife.

At afternoon tea at 4pm the group of nine presented the guides and porters with a combined tip of 42,000R to be distributed by the head guide, Tashi.

This morning we were up at 5am to prepare for our early flight back to Kathmandu. The airport at Lukla is the most amazing I've ever experienced. Lukla is built on a narrow strip of land along the side of a mountain. The runway is 300m long and at an angle of 30%to horizontal, finishing in a rock wall in the mountain side. Planes touch down a few metres from the start of the runway and are able to stop in the very short distance because of its steep gradient. At 6:45am the first plane, a 30 year old Twin Otter that was our aircraft, landed. It turned onto a tiny tarmac off the end of the runway, and the passengers and luggage were bundled out. We raced out and jumped in. Meanwhile three other small aircraft landed and turned into the remaining space. I timed the whole operation at less than 5 minutes. Our aircraft, without having stopped its twin propellers, turned to the top of the runway, gunned the motors, raced down the tiny strip and flew off the side of the mountain into the wide, blue yonder!

The flight was also well worthwhile, with grand views of the higher Himalayan peaks in the distance, and the lower mountains below, heavily forested, with large areas bright red with rhododendron blossoms. We flew over heavily terraced farms connected to others only by barely visible tracks.

In Kathmandu we returned to the up-market Shangri-La Hotel, where a further two nights accommodation are included in the price of the trip package. We were all desperate for our first proper shower in three weeks.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Everest Base Camp, 3 high passes & 4 peaks conquered!!

It has been a most eventful time for me: challenging and tough, but very exciting with stunning views of 3 of the world's highest peaks, plus many others over 6,000m, and extraordinary valleys, glaciers and lakes. I'm fine, with the only residual damage rather battered hands from the extreme cold and strong winds. I had a short bout of Delhi belly, with nausea and lassitude, but Tashi, the head guide, fixed me up from his medicine cabinet, as he did for the others who experienced the same problem.

Not only was the natural environment overwhelmingly beautiful and monumental, but I feel a great sense of achievement. Only 7 of the original 12 finished the entire trip, but several of them didn't do all the peaks: only one other bloke - a very nice Pommie bloke from Manchester - did the 4 peaks with me.

We experinced 2 REALLY difficult days, crossing over the 2nd pass, Cho La. The weather deteriorated after we climbed Kala Pattar (at 5,545m, the highest point of the trek), heading back down the Khumbu Valley and climbing towards the pass. We were battered by winds of 50-60kph, and temperatues below freezing. We camped high, at about 5,000m. It was snowing the whole time, and we woke with our tents covered in 10cm, and about 30cm on the ground. Despite continuing snow, Tashi was confident we could get over the pass. It was the toughest experience of my life, with the snow at about 1m on the pass, and continuing to fall, occasionally blizzarding for 10-15 minutes at a time. We didn't have crampons, so on the large rocks on both sides of the very steep pass it was treaturous. I was in the first group of 5 to reach the village of Dragnag on the far side. What Tashi had expected would take us 4 hours took us 7:40. Three of the party of 10 (2 quit immediately prior to the first pass at Kongma La) quit the following morning.

The next morning the rest of us headed across the Ngozumpa Glacier (at 23km long, one of the word's largest) to Gokyo. Since then the trip has been fantastic and uneventful. Gokyo overlooks a beautiful lake, one of 5 along the glacier, surrounded by snow covered monster mountains. The next morning we climbed Gokyo Ri, a small mountain (5,360m) beside the village. We enjoyed 360 degree views from the top of the entire Himalayan range in the region, including terrific views of Everest, and 3 other 8,000m+ peaks.

The next day we attacked the final high pass - Renjo 5,345m - in beautiful conditions. It was tough and tiring, put with great views on both sides from the top. We descended into the Bhote Khoshi River valley, the most beautiful we'd seen. We followed the valley along to a tiny village of Marulung where we stayed in a basic (dirt floor, plywood walls, no toilet) but friendly lodge. The couple who ran the lodge had a single child, a 7 year old cute little girl, to whom I gave a yellow rubber ball. She played with it - and us - till she went to bed, and wa playing with it a again first thing the following morning. What a hit!

We left Marulung early yesterday, following the gorgeous valley as other valleys joined it. We stopped for lunch at the town of Thamo. It was the first town with a polling place for the national elections, so I went to have a good look. It was in the open air beside a primary school. Men and women entered in separate lines, and went to a table with 4 blokes who gave them 2 ballot papers, one for the constituent assembly and one for the presidency. One of our guides told me that all the people he spoke to - and he spoke to a lot as we were entering and leaving the town - had voted for the Maoist Party.

We continued along the valley. reaching Namche late yesterday. Last night we celebrated with several bottles of Aussie red wine, and this morning lingered over breakfast. We're staying here tonight, before heading to Phakding tomorrow and Lukla on Sunday. We'll fly back to Kathmandu early Monday, weather permitting.

Am off to enjoy my first brewed coffee in 2 weeks.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

A second day in Dingboche

Dingboche is above the tree line but the locals grow potatoes in small fields divided by dry stone walls. They're planting at the moment. All the field work is done by women as all the men appear to act as guides and porters for trekkers. As one woman hoes another woman drops the seed potatoes in the ground. We've been eating the potatoes at least one meal per day, and they're terrific.

Last evening, for the fourth consecutive evening, it snowed. On the previous occasions there was just a light dusting, but this morning there was a heavy blanket of snow covering the countryside, including the yaks in the field behind our lodge. As usual we were brought tea at 6:30am by assistant guides, and ate breakfast at 7:30am. As today is an acclimatisation day where we stay in the same lodge tonight, we headed off to climb Nagartsang Peak, the peak behind the lodge, and then return for lunch. The walk was only 5km, but we climbed 500m, to an altitude of over 5,000m. Five (including me) of the 12 in the group reached the summit as it was hard work at this altitude. Unfortunately the whole way up we were clouded in, but it cleared as we descended, for spectacular views of the nearby snow-covered mountains, and the valleys from where we've walked, and where we'll head tomorrow.

After lunch I indulged in a bucket shower in the open for 250R - it will be at least 4-5 days before the next opportunity.