Nepal: Annapurna Mountain Range

Kuala Lumpur International Airport is a wonderful addition to our lives. Asia’s hub has provided us with opportunities to reach multiple places throughout the continent with consummate ease. This time, we took advantage with direct flights to Kathmandu, Nepal.

It had been a while since we went on a holiday that provided us with a physical challenge. Since Nepal naturally lends itself to hiking we decided to take part in a trek beside the Annapurna Mountain Range.

There are hiking routes throughout Nepal but only a handful suited our Half Term time frame. This ruled out climbing Everest.

Our trek covered between 50 and 60km over 4 days and 3 nights. But first we needed to get there:

Our delayed flight into Kathmandu arrived in darkness and by the time we had sorted our visas and collected our baggage it was already quite late.

When waiting for our luggage we were baffled to see that almost everyone on our flight had checked in a 32inch TV. One by one they came onto the belt, with no sign of our ordinary luggage. Later, we quizzed our guide about this and he informed us that many people buy TVs when they are abroad because they are much cheaper than Nepal. This explained the weird TV phenomenon. Actually, during our week in Nepal I did not see a single TV being used. Perhaps most Nepali people have better ways to spend their time.

It wasn’t until the next morning that we got to see Kathmandu in its splendid craziness, albeit from the inside of a jeep. There was something quite anarchic about the hustle of the roads. There appeared to be chaotic traffic, a buzz of people and no real direction about either. Perhaps most noticeable about our first glimpse of Kathmandu, was the lack of colour. It is brown. It wouldn’t be until our return at the end of the week when we would have the opportunity to experience the capital city first hand.

I had heard horror stories about the road between Kathmandu and Pokhara with one YouTuber referring to it as ‘the most dangerous road in the world’. This out the fear of God into me, but I shouldn’t believe everything I hear and read. In fact, the most dangerous part of this road is the way the drivers drive on it. They are mad (even by Asian standards). It is like a 5 hour long game of chicken where everyone wins (or loses depending on how the game is determined) by narrowly missing each other. The road itself is bumpy but did not have the sheer cliff faces and tight corners I was expecting. I would go as far as to say the drive between Batumi and Tbilisi in Georgia was a more daring experience.

After a few stops, including for a honey, lemon and ginger tea (which would soon become a staple thirst quencher), we arrived in the lakeside town of Pokhara.

Before moving on it has to be noted that we had a guide during our trek in Annapurna. After the initial introductions both Nicki and I forgot his name almost immediately. It soon became ‘too long’ to ask him again so we actually went the whole week without knowing his name. I don’t think he actually know ours either. For the purpose of narrative, he will be referred to as Abdul (although this is certainly not his name).

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Pokhara Lake

Abdul joined us on a short walk around the lakeside before we enjoyed our first Nepali beer together: Everest. He seemed like an interesting character. We then embraced a lovely vegetarian Nepalese curry at a restaurant that we would return to after our trek due to its loveliness.

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The following morning we woke up early and got back in our Jeep bound for the start point or our trek. The roads got a little more dangerous along this route, with some vast drops only a few centimetres away from our wheels. By 9am we were out of the car, had our permits stamped and already on our hike.

Throughout our entire trek we were accompanied by Abdul and his nephew (potentially nephew). They made our lives a lot easier. In fact there are two ways to go about trekking in Nepal:

Firstly, you can go it alone, which is certainly the cheaper option. Or, you can go with a guide. Historically, we would have gone with the cheaper option. However, we decided to have someone else do the planning, directions, booking and transport for us this time (and pay a little bit extra for the service). This meant our itinerary was complete at the click of a button. Perhaps the lazier option?

DSCF6367Our first morning was relatively easy, with Abdul hinting that we was trying to judge our fitness to determine the speed of the rest of the trek. We had our lunch in a small restaurant along the route in the small village of Hille. This was about 5km into out route. This gave us a chance to reapply our Factor 50 (sensible, especially now that my scalp can be seen) and some bug spray.

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The trek got a lot harder after lunch as we began our incline towards the 3200m peak for day 3. It was at the point that it started to become clear that we needed to be more worried about Abdul’s fitness than our own. As a man approaching the latter years of middle age, and a gut to show, he is starting to show his years.

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At this point it was quite tolerable, and there was something quite Brent-esque about his manner. Whenever he was tired and needed a rest (which could happen twice in the space of 200m) he would make it out as if we looked tired and needed a breather. His standard ‘take a rest, drink water’ was directed at us as he disguised his need to wipe his brow and limit his stitch.

We were pleased to find ourselves at our accommodation by 2pm: a teahouse in the hillside village of Ulleri. Here we got a chance to enjoy the magnificent views whilst enjoying a book and a beer. Once again, we were able to indulge in another vegetable curry and some Nepalese dal baht, which we would continue to enjoy as we climbed up further.

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For the first time in a few months (perhaps even this year), we felt the cold enough to put on jumpers, scarfs and jackets as we enjoyed the freshness of the evening. By night, I was proud enough to put on my long johns. Us tropical dwellers must look pathetic to the locals.

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Keeping warm
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Our view from the window in the morning.

The next day was much more of the same: climbing upwards. We covered another 10km over a 4-hour period and climbed over 1000m in the process.

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A rest stop

I am now famed (by Nicki) for never being able to hold onto a pair of sunglasses. I was determined to show her that I, as a responsible adult, could maintain and care for my latest pair. As someone who doesn’t wear sunglasses too often, I forgot that I had placed them on the top of my head. In a moment of madness I thought that a bug had landed on my head and gave my hair a big swipe. This sent my glasses flying from my head. At any other point this may have been a humorous interlude to break up the monotony of our walk, but I happened to be walking over a bridge at the time. This resulted in the slow motion free-fall of my glasses towards the crystal clear flow of the mountain river. Another pair gone. Nicki smug.

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We really knew we were up high when the sun began to disappear behind the mountains and the temperature dropped to the point of everyone gathering around the wood fire burning in the communal area of our latest tea house. In fact, I made the mistake of taking a cold shower at the same time. Thankfully I still had my long johns to comfort me.

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Warming by the wood burner. Not my pants.

This tea-house in Gorepanni had an amazing view of the Annapurna mountain range, where some of the mountains rival Everest for height. The most revered of which is names Fishtail Mountain because of its two-pronged summit. No one has ever managed to reach the top of Fishtail due to its steepness, which contributes to the mystery and spirituality of it.

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View from the accommodation

We learnt that the name ‘Gorepanni’ was derived from the Nepalese words for ‘horse’ and ‘water’ because, at one point, clean water could only reach the village from the springs and rivers below, and horses used to be the porters for the water.

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Once again we had another carb-fuelled dinner. Abdul seemed to take over the kitchen wherever he went (adding to his David Brent like quality) but he was really on form tonight. We put this down to the mug of rice wine he was swaying with.

We were better prepared for the cold this time and went to bed relatively early due to the 4am start of our trek to our highest point in the morning.

As hikes go, the Annapurna Trail is a popular route, and you are never too far from like-minded tourists. Many people are heading in the same direction. And that direction often leads to Poon Hill.

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Poon Hill by night

We woke up at 4am and were trekking with our head torches by 4:30. Our 45 minute walk to the summit was staggered due to the volume of people hiking with us, all only semi-awake given the ghastly hour.

Once we reached the top both Nicki and I became incredibly (if not pathetically) cold. We thought we were standing in sub zero temperatures but Abdul informed us it was more like 5 degrees…basically shorts and t-shirt weather in England. Our excuse was always that we are now so acclimatised to Malaysia’s climate that anything colder is Baltic.

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We stood on top of Poon Hill with the beautiful silhouettes of the mountain range staring back at us. The view, even in semi darkness, was astounding. The sun began to rise at around 6am and the snow peaks on top of the tallest mountains became illuminated, coming out of the shadows.

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Within half an hour the whole scene had changed. The mountains had come out of the darkness and now stood magnificently in front of us. We were so lucky that the clouds had made themselves scarce for the morning and given us a full view of the range. As with most things like this, we were struggling to take photos to do the scene justice. This may be because the view is only part of the experience alongside the chill, the freshness and the scale of it all. These were some of the tallest points in the world, and we were staring right at them.

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Once we had our fill of the views, we descended back to our teahouse for some breakfast and to pick up the rest of our luggage for our longest day of trekking yet.

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Masala Tea with a view.

Although most of this day was down we began our second trek of the day with another climb. This time we reached Thapla Hill (3165m) which provided us with views to rival Poon Hill (or perhaps we were more awake by this point).

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This was our last experience of such altitude as for the next 20km of so we made a steady decline.

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Naturally, we stopped for a curry half way through, at Tadipani, before continuing steeply down towards the village of Ghandruk. It was hard to imagine what it would be like to trek for multiple days (our trip was nothing compared to some of the 20+ day trips others were doing), but there is something quite therapeutic about walking. We weren’t always talking. In fact, much of the conversation happened in our own head. Yet, the lack of distractions (work, phones, emails, TV) gave us a lot of time to truly escape. Our calves wouldn’t agree.

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People watching from lunch

The nicest of our teahouses was the Milan Hotel in Ghandruk. This was a traditional Nepalese stone building that looked almost European. It also had a hot shower! This was quite a long day of walking so we didn’t have the afternoon to chill, but we still managed to find time to put our feet up before the muscle ache set in the following day.

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Milan Hotel

We had almost disregarded our final day of trekking as ‘a walk to the car’ but we shouldn’t have. Instead we walked for a further 4 hours before reaching the vehicle. This was the first day of a special Hindu festival where lots of livestock (mainly goats it seems) were to be sacrificed. It was clear that we were following some of the sacrifices down the hill as there was a lot of fresh blood on the corner of steps as we descended them. Abdul was very excited to offer us Mountain Goat at one of our rest stops. We had been vegetarians until this point in the trip (and have been since) but we ate a small piece of meat out of courtesy for their festival.

We reached the end of our trek at the base village of Nayapol. Here we had our permits checked out so that they authorities knew we weren’t stuck on the mountain and then we waited a few minutes for our Jeep.

The jeep didn’t turn up as the driver was enjoying the festival in Kathmandu with his family. Instead Abdul appeared to call in a favour from a random man with the smallest car in the world. Every other car was a 4×4, whereas we were stuck in the back of a shelled go-kart climbing Death Road. The car was so bad that there was an inscription of ‘Every day is a blessing’ on the inside of Nicki’s door. It was at the point when I began to question is anyone other than an British person (or even just us) would voluntarily get in such a death trap. We did anyway. When we nearly fell off the cliff I think Nicki was tempted to ask the driver to pull over. I, whilst sat beltless in the middle of the back seat, spent the 90-minute journey calculating my escape route if we were to capsize (a possibility).

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Mum wouldn’t have been pleased

As with most near death experiences, we survived.

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Fear

Back in Pokhara we had a nice afternoon walking around the craft stalls, drinking some lassi with Momos (a must eat here). I then managed to squeeze in a run before we had a great lakeside beer to celebrate our trek. Perhaps not the longest trek in the world, but certainly an achievement for us novices.

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The trek may have been the focal point of our trip, but we still had one activity lined-up before our return to Kathmandu: paragliding.

Neither of us had done this before and it came upon us too quickly to build up many nerves. Our tandem professionals made us draw cards to select which of them we were to fly with. I gratefully picked out the card of the man dishing out the cards. I inferred that he was some kind of leader, and thus a safe bet.

I was the first strapped up, and therefore powerless to console Nicki as she reluctantly let her partner hook her to a plastic sheet. My guy, Anil (I did get his name) told me to first start walking and then run upon instruction. I did as I was told but it went against every fibre of my being to run towards a drop with a stranger. Still, I trusted him and we were aloft immediately.

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The flight itself was quite surreal. It often felt like I was simulating the experience on a computer rather than actually living it. Unfortunately the fog restricted our visibility somewhat, but we were still able to see some of the mountain range in the distance. I noticed that the experience did not sit well with my stomach, but I refused to tell Anil. Instead we chased an eagle.

Before landing significantly before Nicki (because I am ‘heavy’), Anil decided to do a few aerobic swings. This meant I was quite relieved upon landing despite the pleasure of the experience overall.

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Knowing Nicki as I do, I was sure that she would not complete the trip without queasiness. 10 minutes after I landed, she did too. 10 seconds after she landed she was sick. A bottle of coke later and our stomachs were settled for the bumpy ride back to Kathmandu.

Paragliding was definitely the highlight of the day. And the 5-hour journey back to Kathmandu was relatively tame in comparison.

The most stressful element of our trip has been tipping. We have no idea when, how much, or why. We paid quite a bit to have a guide during our stay in Nepal, which I consider to be paying the wages of the people we knock about with. However, we were ‘reminded’ that people ‘rely’ on tips. We had no idea how much these people were expecting. In the end we gave away $20 to the driver, guide and his nephew. This added $60 to our trip. And we don’t know if it was too much, too little, or just enough. We will never know. We are too British for expected tipping.

Arriving in the early evening meant we had time to explore some of Kathmandu by night. We were staying just beyond the lively tourist hub of Thamel. So that is where we headed.

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Night starts early in Nepal during October. By 6pm we were in darkness. This, combined with the hundreds of people in the narrow streets, made for an interesting introduction to Kathmandu.

We wandered slightly to the south of Thamel, where the locals lined the streets in celebration of their festival. On reflection, I have realised that I find these experiences less enjoyable than I used to. Walking down a crowded alley in the dark would have seemed quite a thrill a few years ago. However, I am now more fearful of others and their intentions. Perhaps I am less trustworthy. I also find that I am very conscious of what Nicki is doing and where she is walking. Maybe being aware of both of our safety makes the experience a little stressful. Maybe we were just too hungry to enjoy a culture binge.

Thamel contains a little more lighting and more friendly looking restaurants. We ate here but concluded that there was better food in the mountains. We decided to explore Kathmandu properly in the light.

Indeed our only full day in Kathmandu enabled us to see it in a different light. It was still as brown, however.

Due to the festivities, we were told to avoid taxis as they would be overcharging. Instead we made a plan to walk to Patan Durbar Square simply because we had seen Micheal Palin visit there in the documentary we fell asleep to the night before.

We made our second, much more pleasurable visit through Thamel and Kathmandu Durbar Square (where we did not enter due to the 1000rupee entry fee even though we know it will aid the post-earthquake restoration = end of holiday budget).

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We ended up walking along lots of local streets. Nicki aptly pointed out that lots of Kathmandu is like what we would imagine the streets to look like after Armageddon. They are not maintained (and often not complete), there are often electricity wires hanging low enough to touch (and knotted up in their hundreds when they’re not), and there doesn’t seem to be any forward planning in their building (i.e. earthquake proofing). This led us to lots of discussions about the influences of politics and religion on progress. Thoughts we will avoid sharing here. However, we did conclude that Nepali people appear to be reactive rather than proactive. I.E. it would appear that when there is a fault in a power cable, instead of fixing the problem they just add another cable. This leads to this…

Nicki concluded that Kathmandu is the poorest capital city she has ever been to. I concluded that they might just been to start again.

We did meet the pagodas at Patan Durbar Square which is where the Chinese got their ideas for pagodas (Palin told us).

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We enjoyed a mid afternoon beer at a restaurant overlooking the square before working our way back to Thamel to meet some colleagues who also found their way to Kathmandu at the same time.

In the meantime we ended up sharing a table and some dal bhat with 2 middle aged kiwis (one of them looked like Paul’s mum, Denise, until we took a photo of her). It was really pleasant to sit down and chat with them. They were on the beginning of their journey towards Everest Base Camp. One of them was as fascinated as me about the electricity cables.

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We did finally meet Eve and Catherine in Thamel and ate a wonderful dinner with them to toast off our time in Nepal. It was good to catch up with some friendly faces and share our experiences together.

The next morning was our flight back to KL. I couldn’t resist a run in Kathmandu to sign us off. I ran a few laps of the dust track in Tundikhel Park, where Ghurkhas are said to have waited for shipment during WWI and II. It was nice to experience a bit of Ghurkha history before heading back.

Our final friendly face was the same driver who took us to Pokhara. This time he took us to the airport. We reluctantly tipped him again because we still don’t know the rules.

Nepal was really something different, which is one of the reasons why we loved it so much. The unforgettable views of the Annapurna Mountain range will live with us forever, as will the memory of Abdul’s rest stops. Hiking gave us the escape we needed in preparation for diving into the Christmas run-in at work.

Reminder: please let us know if you want to see some of our updates on Facebook. We have set up a private group as we are trying to update loved ones regularly without bombarding everyone with pictures of our everyday lives on social media.

 

 

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