A Travellerspoint blog

Sikkim trekking journal #3: The winter playground

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Day 8 – Trek to Dzongri (6 December 2011)
We begin with our customary tea served at the tent door, followed shortly by bowls of warm water for washing. Today is a hair wash day for me, but as I’m flicking the soap suds away my wedding ring shoots off my finger and buries itself in the snow. We paw around fruitlessly until our hands are numb, then summon Mingma, who brings a pan of boiling water. We melt the snow and eventually the missing ring is revealed. Phew! Dzongri is only a couple of hours away, and we start under the familiar snowfall from a grey sky. We have none of the swirling clouds and bursts of sunshine that made yesterday’s walk so enjoyable. The clouds do not thin or part, and the sky is glowering and impassive, like the grim expression worn by the Queen during a Royal Variety Show. It reminds me of a winter’s day we spent trudging over the Cairngorm plateau a few years ago, and the scenery here is not dissimilar. There’s a surprising amount of activity at Dzongri; some 15 tents are pitched, and porters, ponies and yaks mill around the camp. We’ve now joined the trail to the Goecha La, a viewpoint beneath Kangchenjunga, and most trekkers heading that way have a rest day here to acclimatize.

The snow falls more heavily after lunch – this is a cold place. The afternoon is an exercise in staying warm and dry, either in a sleeping bag and huddled round a wimpish fire. We also have hot drinks aplenty, including a Cadbury’s chocolate concoction called Bourn-Vita. This promises to "multiply the power of milk", giving the drinker shakti (a Hindi word for power). "This shakti", claims Cadbury’s, "helps prepare your child to be a winner". We’ve had so many cups of the stuff, I will advise any children we come into contact with to buy lottery tickets. By dinner the snow is falling more thickly. We now have to consider our options, and talk them over with Pushpa. We’re all agreed that if this continues, we shall go down in two days’ time (tomorrow is a planned rest day here). It would mean an early end to our trek, but both of us readily admit that we’re getting fed up with the weather. Also, there’s no point trekking up to a 5,000m viewpoint if there’s no view. It’s not in our nature to retreat, but after seven days of hardship, it’s probably the best thing for our sanity. It would also be the right decision for the porters, some of whom have clearly been suffering for the last few days. At bedtime, the snow continues to patter softly on the tent, and the staff beat the frozen canvas to dislodge it. It’s like being inside a giant timpani.

Day 9 – Dzongri (7 December 2011)
Dzongri means 'meeting place of man and mountain gods', and today the mountain gods finally decide to reveal their winter playground. We are both awake at 4:30am as the sound of footsteps approach our tent, but we aren’t expecting to hear the following words: "Good morning! Today good view!" I unzip the tent to see Pushpa bearing cups of tea, his silhouette framed by a starry sky. Could it really be? We put on extra clothes in the night as it was real brass monkey weather – I had five layers over my balls, so at least they didn’t suffer the same fate as the monkey’s. Now there are icicles inside the tent. After tea we set off up the hillside behind Dzongri to the viewpoint of Taplagang, 30 minutes away. It’s a perfect dawn, and the break in the weather has drawn out all the trekking groups, some of whom have been sitting it out for several days. At the summit, the lines of prayer flags have frozen solid and a small crowd has gathered. Now, all the peaks of Sikkim are finally on show, including Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest. We feel incredibly blessed – it’s been worth a week of suffering to see this view. To the south we can see the Darjeeling ridge, to the west our route along the Singalila ridge, and to the north and east, a line of Himalayan giants.

You have to work up a hunger
For a glimpse of shy Kangchenjunga
She chose to surprise
At a perfect sunrise
And it made me feel ten years younger

We descend for a hearty breakfast, then embark on a morning hike to a nearby col with Pushpa and two porters. (Four of the porters left this morning, so we’re now down to eight). As we climb, clouds racing up from the lowlands envelop us, but we no longer care. We now have a mental map of our surroundings and the memory of this morning’s astonishing mountain panorama. As we reach the col, the Sikkim Himalaya is up to its old tricks again. The clouds part coquettishly to reveal a rocky flank or an icy ridge, but there are no more grandstand views. This weather persists all afternoon, but we’re grateful for the lingering sunshine, which allows us to wash, dry things out and generally relax. We need this good weather to stick around tomorrow, otherwise we still have the prospect of an early descent.

Day 10 – Trek to Lamuney (8 November 2011)
After another restless, chilly night, the day dawns clear again. The decision is made for us – we will go up to our highest campsite at Lamuney (4,100m). I start the day with my usual routine, first sniffing inside my sleeping bag and then checking my underwear and socks for acceptability. I won’t admit to how many days the current set has been worn for fear to followers of our blog abandoning me in disgust. We set off at 8am, full of pancakes, eggs and porridge. After a short climb we traverse beneath yesterday’s viewpoint, then make a nosedive descent into the Oklatang Valley, heading directly for the gap between the shining beacons of Kangchenjunga and Pandim. There’s no sign of clouds building up from the south and the views in that direction are exceptional; a recession of hazy blue ridges leading the eye down to the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal. Down in the Oklatang, we turn northwards and follow a beautiful river up through the forest. Once above the treeline, the mountains to either side begin to make their presence felt, and it feels as though we are walking through a guard of honour on our approach to Kangchenjunga. We pass Thangsing, a lovely grassy campsite at 3,800m, and around six hours after leaving Dzongri, arrive at Lamuney. After lunch, we walk a further half-hour up the valley to the holy lake of Sameti Pokhari, where, appropriately, the holy mountains are perfectly reflected in its calm waters. Dinner is a simple Indian meal of rice, daal and curried cauliflower, but I’m not sure the dessert (red jelly) is a traditional dish. Tomorrow is our big day – the trek to the Goecha La – and we have a pre-dawn start to look forward to, so we head to bed straight after dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:23 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

Sikkim trekking journal #2: The going gets tough

Day 5 – The trek to Sikkimey Megu (3 November 2011)
Today dawns much the same as yesterday, except that it’s not snowing. The same persistent cloud is there to greet us as we fold back the frozen tent flaps. Fresh snow has fallen during the night, lending a Christmas card look to our surroundings. This lightens our mood, and for the first hour of the walk we behave like children who’ve just heard their school is closed for the day. We lark around with icicles and write soppy messages in the snow with our trekking poles. Even the sun puts in a brief appearance, long enough to burn a window in the cloud, which only reveals even bigger clouds further away. I walk at the back of the group, and at one point I spot a hole in the snow in some rhododendron bushes to the side of the path. On closer inspection it appears to be an animal burrow, about a foot deep. Opportunities like this don’t come along often so I grab my toilet roll and do what I have to do: bliss. By midday, we’re back in the clag, hooded, hatted and gloved up against the hail. Ghostly apparitions on the ridge turn out to be yaks, signaling our arrival at the yak herder’s hut at Sikkimey Megu. The porters already have a fire blazing, their golden wellies removed and their socks drying. One pair has virtually no material left on the soles, making the three inch wide holes in my own look less impressive. Outside the snow continues to fall as we dash from the fireside to our sleeping bags, then back again for dinner (soup, prawn crackers, pizza, fried pasta and another new vegetable called potola, a smaller relative of the courgette).

Day 6 – The trek to Gomathang (4 November 2011)
A fitful night’s sleep. Jen is kept awake coughing and sneezing, I have a headache, and both of us are struggling to stay warm. I fight my way out of the frozen tent for a nighttime foray to the toilet to discover a star-filled sky. That would explain the plummeting temperature. When we emerge to wash and eat breakfast, we can see a fair way into Nepal, but the cloud is rolling in fast. In view of the persistent bad weather, Pushpa is changing our itinerary to skip tonight’s planned camp at Laxmi Pokhari because it’s high and there’s no means of making fire. We have a long walk to Gomathang instead. The clouds are, by now, huge, but they keep their distance just long enough for me to fire off a few pictures – painterly, ethereal landscapes that appear to have all the colour drained out of them. We climb to a col and then begin a long traverse of a snow-covered hillside. It strikes me that this is really wild territory, and not a good time or place for a problem to occur. We haven’t seen anyone since we left Chewabhanjyang. I think Pushpa has his hands full with the porters, who are not as well equipped as we are for these extreme conditions. Despite the lack of sun, it’s bright enough for sunglasses, but few of the porters have them. Being poorly kitted out can be dangerous in these circumstances and I worry that we will have to abandon the trek before much longer. As conditions deteriorate again, we cross another col in a whiteout, where the snow is already a foot deep and still falling (I later find out that this is the high point of the Singalila Ridge trek at 4,500m). As we descend, Gomathang comes in to view a long way below us, but it’s a long trudge down on a steep, awkward path. The campsite, situated at the confluence of three valleys, is beautiful, and would be perfect were it not for the resident yaks and a dog.

Day 7 – The trek to Tikip Chu (5 November 2011)
The night was cold enough to freeze my walking boots, but Mingma kindly thaws them out over the kerosene stove while I eat my breakfast. It’s snowing outside (again), and it takes longer than usual to break camp. I think the weather’s starting to get everybody down now. We start walking and have to cross two rivers on wobbly, iced-over log bridges. Pushpa takes photos – he’s hoping to persuade the powers that be to spend money on improving the trail. The snow continues to fall all day, but as tiny crystals rather than big, fat flakes, so it doesn’t accumulate on the ground. The beads of snow carpet the ground in their millions and sprinkle the vegetation like icing sugar. It’s actually quite pleasant to walk in, providing you keep an eye on the snow-covered rocks underfoot. One false move and you’d be bum-sliding downhill or face-planting into the slope. We climb back above 4,000m and re-enter a white world. On a snowy plateau we’re showered with spindrift, and briefly bathed in sunshine as a patch of blue passes overhead. We have to take care not to get burnt in these conditions, even when the sun’s not shining. Ironically, our faces got burnt in yesterday’s blizzard, such is the power of the albedo effect here (my old geography teacher would be proud of that one), and now we’re both sporting the classic 'panda eyes' look. On the descent we enter a dense forest of pine and rhododendron. The boughs of the trees seem to bend and buckle under the weight of snow. It’s like we’ve entered Narnia through the wardrobe door. The rhodies have already shut down for winter, their leaves hanging and furled like the wings of roosting bats. Suddenly the path levels off and we emerge into a clearing. This is Tikip Chu, where we will camp tonight. The clouds obligingly lift just enough to give us a view of beautiful snowy forests, steep hillsides and a thundering waterfall at the head of the valley. What a stunning location this is: it feels as though we have arrived at the middle of nowhere.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:19 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

Sikkim trekking journal #1: A walk in the clouds

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Day 1 – The drive to Uttarey (30 October 2011)
We leave Darjeeling with our guide Pushpa and our driver in a flashy Mahindra 4x4 just after 8am. The dashboard LCD screen is showing the temperature outside is 12 °C. Three hours and countless hairpins later we’ve descended 1700m through tea plantations to the Rangeet River, the border between West Bengal and Sikkim (temperature reading 30 °C). A tourism pamphlet we pick up at the border checkpoint proclaims that Sikkim receives nearly four metres of rainfall annually. Judging by the riot of greenery lining the road, this may well be true. In Chasing the Monsoon, the book I've just finished reading, Alexander Frater describes the verdant hills of northeast India as "an abandoned overgrown garden" with "hills so unimaginably green they seemed radioactive. It wasn’t hard to imagine a seed planted at dawn blooming before dusk". The roads are often poor, slowing our progress to a crawl, but I’m kept entertained by the roadside signs. Indian bureaucrats love their signs and there are some especially fine examples here, announcing government initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the West Sikkim Rural Connectivity Programme (WSRCP). I wonder if they have been approved by the District Authority for Fonts and Typefaces (DAFT). We arrive at Uttarey in the twilight, and check into the Green Valley Hotel as the only paying guests tonight. Not long after, the director of our trekking company, Satish, arrives. I'm very impressed he's driven seven hours to come and greet us personally. He's also brought with him our cook, Mingma, our kitchen helpers, Mingma (again) and Gyalchen, and a gift of a weighty hardback book (which a poor porter will have to carry for the next two weeks). We're all tired after the long road journeys, and agree to reconvene in the morning to discuss the arrangements for the trek.

Day 2 – The trek to Chewabhanjyang (31 October 2011)
Breakfast is another feast. Outside, preparations are taking place: porters arrive, sacks of food are assembled and jerry cans of kerosene are decanted. Satish shows me photos of his parents' hotel in Gangtok which was damaged in the recent earthquake. It struck the Himalayas on 18 September as we were flying to Kathmandu and was the second biggest ever registered in the region. The Yak and Yeti Hotel, a seven-storey concrete structure, did not fare well. Several beams and columns on the lowest storey were seriously damaged. The building was evacuated and fortunately no-one was hurt, but two government engineers have pronounced it unsafe, and I tell Satish (who saw from my trekking permit forms that I am a structural engineer) that I'm inclined to agree with them. He runs the trekking company from the same building, but now it will have to be demolished, and I feel desperately sorry for him and his parents. There's no buildings insurance here and the government will not meet the cost of rebuilding. Satish and his son Ravi are pragmatic. In North Sikkim, the epicentre of the quake, many buildings collapsed and more than 100 lives were lost. After breakfast, we begin trekking under an ominously cloudy sky. We enter a birch and rhododendron forest where wild orchids flower on the tree trunks and cardamom plants form the understorey. Our information pamphlet tells us that the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, which we enter an hour or so into the walk, is populated by leopards, bears, monkeys and red pandas, but they remain unseen by us. We climb for several hours to a campsite on a ridge at 3,000m. This is Chewabhanjyang on the Indo-Nepal border, and we will follow the frontier northwards for the next few days along the Singalila Ridge. There's a police checkpoint here, and we're kept entertained by the officers as we wait for our porters to arrive. One gives us a lesson in Nepalese, another shows us how to prepare a good curry, and a third, a statuesque assistant commander of 31 years' service, scolds us for not producing any children. "You are married three years and you should have one child already!" he barks. He has a fine bushy moustache, and turns green with envy when a Nepali arrives with an even finer handlebar moustache. He turns to me and says "In India we say man with no moustache, he is woman!" I'm suddenly conscious of my own pathetic stubbly growth, but fortunately the saying only applies to Indian men. Then we become aware of issues with the porters – it seems as though we are a few short, and Pushpa is running up and down the path all afternoon barking orders. Eventually our tent arrives and is pitched in the dark. Clouds swirl around the ridge, unleashing sharp hail showers which bounce off the tin roofs. There are no views to speak of.

Day 3 – Chewabhanjyang (1 November 2011)
Pushpa comes to our tent at 7am to announce that today it's "impossible to walk". It's snowing outside, but this isn't the reason. After several excuses are offered, we finally get to the truth – we're still one porter and several loads short. The weather plays foul all day, forcing us to cocoon ourselves in our down sleeping bags reading books, in between dashes to the kitchen tent for meals. We have a late-morning excursion south along the ridge. I bale out after an hour, feeling weak and lacking energy – I'm on antibiotics for a dodgy stomach (again) and I suspect this is the reason for my fragility. Jen continues a bit further to a yak herder's hut where she is offered local delicacies such as stringy yak cheese, Tibetan tea (made with salt and butter) and rice beer. Food is the high point of the day, especially the delicious local squash (which is like a savoury galia melon), fresh beef and a banana pie. If Mingma keeps this up there will be no complaints from us! We fall asleep in a cloud to the sound of pattering raindrops on canvas. Today is the first day of our trip that we haven’t taken a single photograph.

Day 4 – The trek to Dhor (2 November 2011)
Today's weather report: woke in a cloud, walked in a cloud, went to sleep in a cloud. At least we're able to walk now that all our porters have finally arrived. I count 11 of them after breakfast, resplendent in their gold wellington boots. We walk for 5½ hours today, through rain, sleet and snow, and to make matters worse Jen has come down with a heavy cold. Conditions underfoot vary from slushy mush to mushy slush, making us slither and skid our way along the ridge on drunken legs. Visibility is never more than a hundred feet. In the Scottish Highlands, this would be called dreich, a thick pall of cloud clinging to the ridge with nary a whisper of wind to shift it. The forest is silent, save for the occasional flutter of wing beats, the soft plop of leaves shedding their snow and the swishing of our nylon clothing. As we eat our peanut butter and jam sandwiches at lunch, the weather gods decide to tease us, revealing a pale, milky sun which glows with all the intensity of an energy-saving lightbulb. Then it's gone, and I spend the afternoon walk to Dhor composing the following rhyme in my head:

The chance of fine weather is slim
When trekking in western Sikkim
So take a good book
And a man who can cook
'Cos without them your life will be grim

When we arrive we huddle round a fire in a damp hut, trying to dry out our wet laundry. Jen succeeds in burning her handkerchief. The kitchen staff collects snow to melt for water as I count the porters in. Wait a minute – now there are 12! How did that happen? Mingma, our 'man who can cook', rescues the day once again with a magnificent dinner. We start with pumpkin soup, ladled directly from the pumpkin. Then comes beef curry with daal and okra, another new vegetable for me. We could only dream of fresh food like this in Nepal!

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:06 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim Comments (0)

That sinking Darjeeling feeling

It was with great anticipation that we were driven up the corkscrew road past tea plantations into the cooler air of the mountains again. This was India, our second country, and an area completely new to us: destination Darjeeling.

If things can go downhill while travelling uphill then they very nearly did in Mirik, a small town not far from Darjeeling (Until we arrived in Mirik we had forgotten that we were actually in India). Our driver stopped us for a late lunch break, and so having just crossed the border from Nepal overland we immediately went in search of some cash. To our dismay the ATM shutters were down, and so started a typically Indian wild goose chase. As we were carrying US dollars, we asked if we could change them into rupees at the bank. The bank clerk pointed us towards a local hotel. The hotel receptionist pointed us to the restaurant next door, and the waiter pointed us to The Boss. We waited with baited breath... The Boss looked us in the eye, shook his head and uttered the dreaded words "Sorry, not possible." Our taxi driver was waiting and our 30 minutes for lunch was rapidly running out. It was looking like being a very light lunch indeed. We were on the point of giving up when The Boss had a change of heart, relented and said we could pay by card. Some good news for our rumbling stomachs. We savoured our pakoras and aloo parathas - this was the good side of India after a whole month of daal bhat - and made the taxi driver wait. With full bellies, it was time to settle the bill, and we duly handed our credit card over to the waiter. He took one look, and with a shake of the head offered uttered those immortal words "Sorry, no cards." I for one didn't fancy the washing up, and it was either this or we walked. Soon the credit card was taken into the back room and with no explanation we were left wondering if we would ever see it again. Welcome to India.

We arrived in Darjeeling just after dark at the Snowlion Homestay. This turned out to be a very welcoming place with a comfortable bed, delicious breakfast and a hot shower. The receptionist recommended we eat dinner in the Shangri-La Hotel up the road and gave us a discount card for our meal there. The Shangri-La "Hotel" turned out to be nothing of the sort, but preserves the facade for some reason. The food we were served there was excellent (I was loving the gastronomic offerings of West Bengal) but it was a bit of a lottery finding something from their own menu they were willing to cook. This time the refrain was "Sorry sir, no hot drinks" and "Sorry sir, no pakoras today". Hot drinks are apparently only served at breakfast and pakoras when the chef feels like it. Funnily enough though we did get the pakoras in the end...

Information, mis-information and downright lies were a familiar theme throughout our two-day stay in Darjeeling. In truth, we had probably arrived in India at the wrong time of the year. It was the middle of the Diwali festival and therefore a national holiday - the equivalent of arriving on the 25th December, and it made everything even more difficult. However, we needed to be fed and we had jobs to do too, including arranging our permit to Sikkim, so we fought on, trying to outsmart the bureaucracy.

The saga of the Sikkim permits is an excellent example of the way information and misinformation go hand in hand in India. First, we visited the Foreigners' Registration Office for the correct forms. The clerk seemed helpful and told us to take our completed forms and passport photos to the Office of the District Magistrate at the bottom of town, though it was closed that day because of the festival: "No problem sir, open tomorrow." As an afterthought, he also added that the Old Bellevue Hotel, close to our homestay, would issue permits. We called in at the Old Bellevue, but they were closed too. Would they be open tomorrow? "Yes," came the reply, and then a "maybe." Back at our homestay the manager listened to our woes and told us getting a permit was now an easy five minute job. so the following day we called in again, and unsurprisingly, they were closed. Our plan B was to try our luck at the magistrate's office. This was the only place left in town that would issue a Sikkim Permit. On a sunny Friday morning, we traipsed down through the market to a leafy quarter to find a haphazard collection of government buildings. Through a courtyard, up some stairs and down a corridor, we found a sign over a door for "Sikkim Permits". Promising...until we saw the sign underneath, "closed". The informative sign revealed that the permit office would infact remain closed throughout Saturday, Sunday and any further Bank Holidays. It was Friday, and we were leaving for Sikkim the next day: an urgent telephone call to Yak and Yeti, our trekking company, was required! Satish was reassuring though, "not to worry", we were told, we could get our permits at Melli, a border checkpost, en route to the start of the trek.

Unbeknownst to us, the following day our trekking guide, Pushpa, and our driver decided to make a shortcut to a different border crossing. On handing over our application forms at the border, we were laughed at by the jobsworth policeman (a Kim Jong-Il look-alike). After a sweaty 15 minutes, while Pushpa tried to find someone who knew someone who knew someone willing to issue us a permit, we were let through on the proviso that we make a 30km detour to Melli to get the permits. One bumpy, dusty hour later we arrived at our second border post to find the only guy in India issuing Sikkim permits. We nearly bought him a beer...

We experienced so many examples of "Sorry, sir" or misinformation that I've now lost count, but it very nearly left us dinnerless on our second evening in Darjeeling. There is a paucity of good restaurants in the town - we counted three and ate in all of them at various occasions. But on this particular evening, Diwali celebrations were in full swing and only two options were open to us: the Shangri-La, where we had eaten twice already (and would have to go through another round of the "Sorry sir, no tea..." routine) or Glenary's, an English cake shop serving West Bengali fare in their upstairs restaurant. It was looking doubtful when we walked into Glenary's, and the restaurant was stacked with a queue bulging at the door, so we settled upon the posh Elgin Hotel for our evening meal. Although we did eventually get to eat at the Elgin (a a very pleasant high tea the following afternoon), on this particular occasion we were turned away at the door. "Sorry sir, dinner is served to hotel guests only." I guess that's what you pay 100 quid a night for.

Darjeeling's a nice place to be
If you don't mind the bureaucracy
For a taste of the Raj
Let your batteries recharge
With the Elgin's delightful high tea

By the time we had found our way back to Glenary's we were met with another rebuttal at the door. "Sorry sir, kitchen is closed". It was 7:30! Either Glenary's were turning away an easy profit (for there were still people queuing) or the chef wanted to make his own tea. Either way, we were by now starving, and as Darjeeling was operating on an '8 till 8' shift, we were rapidly running out of time. Rejecting the option of a desperation omelette at the Snowlion, we walked down through the town, gravitating like moths towards some neon lights down an alleyway. These announced the Blue Dragon restaurant. The door was bolted and padlocked and the dining room lights were out, but appearances can be deceptive. Within about five minutes, we were installed in a clean and functional dining room with fish and chicken thalis (Indian daal bhat) on the way. It was the most unlikely of turnarounds. We were extremely well fed for 179 rupees - a pittance. Thank you India!

Posted by jparsons 07:14 Archived in India Tagged india darjeeling Comments (0)

What a difference a day makes

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Monday 24th October 2011

Arrived in Jomsom after battling a gusty headwind in the Kali Gandaki valley, strong enough to knock you off course. The wind picked up huge plumes of dust from passing jeeps which caked our hands and faces.

Trekkers eating dust on the way to Jomsom

Trekkers eating dust on the way to Jomsom

Tuesday 25th October 2011

Arrived in Pokhara after a morning flight from Jomsom. Checked in to our hotel, enjoyed complimentary tea and coffee, a flushing toilet, a hot shower and a king-size bed.

Chris in seventh heaven

Chris in seventh heaven

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:07 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal pokhara jomsom Comments (0)

The Annapurna circus

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The mountain they call Annapurna
Is certainly quite a head-turner
Her awesome south face
Is the very best place
For those in the know to discern her

It can be a dangerous thing to return to a place that you have fond memories of, and so it proved when we joined the Annapurna Circuit three weeks into our Nepal trek.

This is the most popular trail in the country, a two-week walk around one of the world’s highest mountains taking in a variety scenery and local cultures which is perhaps unrivalled on any other Himalayan trek. It also includes the formidable challenge of the 5,416m Thorung La pass. As first-timers to Nepal in 2007, it was an obvious choice for our introduction to the Himalayas. But the Annapurna Circuit was hardly a secret back then, regularly appearing on the top-ten lists of the world’s best trekking routes. We therefore planned carefully to avoid the peak season. Furthermore, We had read about the construction of new roads which were beginning to encroach on the trail on both sides of the pass. Our timing was also slightly fortuitous, for Nepal had been through a period of political instability and tourist numbers had not yet bounced back.

In 2007, the day's hike from Dharapani to Koto was been a delightful walk via a high-level variant path with fantastic views back to the Manaslu range. It passed through the quiet village of Timang, which back then was a tiny hamlet with a handful of houses and a couple of shabby restaurants catering for the few trekkers who came that way.

Fast forward to October 2011, and things could not have been more different. The road had been blasted through the forests, meaning many trees had been felled and the haphazard engineering work had left piles of rubble and ugly scars on the mountainsides. This completely altered the character of the walk, and is probably going to spell the death knell for the Circuit. In five years the road will reach all the way to Manang at nearly 3,500m. On the west side of the pass, it’s already possible to get a bus to Jomsom and a jeep to Muktinath, meaning the Circuit will be reduced to a five-day walk.

What’s more, the pace of lodge construction is out of control. Timang now sprawls across the hillside with dozens of brand new lodges, and all the trekkers come this way. The sad thing is, when the buses and the jeeps arrive, they will ferry tourists straight up to Manang, meaning all the new lodges on the lower part of the Circuit will lose business and close. Our guide, Ram, told us that villagers in the mountains long for their communities to be connected to the highway network, but when the road arrives, it does not bring them the prosperity or the improved quality of life which they expect.

But my goodness, the locals are certainly cashing in right now. What crowds there are! There may not be any vehicles using the road just yet, but that doesn't mean there are no traffic jams. We couldn't believe the number of trekkers swarming up the trail, with guides, ponies and porters in tow. Being fitter and better acclimatized than most, we were storming past most of the tour groups, weaving our way through the huffing, puffing, sweating masses toiling up the hills. In fact, it reminded me of trying to fight my way through the lunchtime crowds in Manchester city centre. Jen decided to re-christen it the Annapurna Circus and that's where I got the idea for this blog entry.

The French seemed to be the dominant nationality, perhaps because of the heroics performed by their compatriot Maurice Herzog in 1950. He became the first man to climb an 8,000m peak after leading an epic French expedition to Annapurna, the large part of which was spent trying to find the right mountain. His account of the climb, called simply Annapurna, is required reading for anybody trekking the Circuit.

On reaching Koto, we breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the following morning we'd be leaving the chaos behind as we turned off the Circuit into the Nar Phu Valley. A week later we were back on the Annapurna Circuit again, staying in one of our favourite places, Braga. This is the start of the Manang Valley, where the Marsyangdi river enters a broad, flat valley and passes beneath the beautiful summits of Annapurna II, Annapurna III and Gangapurna. Here, the crowds seemed to have miraculously dissipated, and what's more the same few lodges and excellent bakeries were waiting to greet us. Over the other side of the Thorung La, we were concerned about having to walk down the jeep track from Muktinath. I had visions of us choking on dust and diesel fumes for a day. But we chanced upon an alternative route which led up to a quiet col with an awesome view of Dhaulagiri, and then down to the charming little village of Lubra. We ate a snack in the only lodge in town, which had just opened. The owner is still finishing off the bedrooms but is keen to attract more trekkers this way. I don't think he's got anything to worry about - it's an idyllic spot and word will soon get round!

So perhaps all is not lost yet for the Annapurna Circuit. Between Braga and Jomsom the combination of fine lodges, fine food and outrageous scenery keep this at the top of my favourite trekking areas. What's more, the bakeries do not yet serve custard pies, so perhaps it'll be a while before the circus reaches this part of the trail.

Posted by Chris Parsons 16:06 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal annapurna Comments (0)

Beasts (and men) of burden

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

There are times when a Nepali is happy to carry a load (like when he's being paid), and times when he'd rather get someone else to do it for him. On these occasions, he turns to his two favourite beasts of burden. The pony is the jack of all trades, the yak the high altitude specialist, and both are very different in character.

Ponies and yaks move along the trails in trains, marshalled and cajoled by a scruffy man at the rear. He likes to give the impression of being in complete control of his animals, but this is seldom the case. Pony and yak trains (like Northern Rail trains) are prone to regular unscheduled stops. To keep the beasts moving, he shouts commands such as "Shhhooo!" and "Yyyaaa!" but these don't seem to have much effect. His other weapons are a whip or a well-aimed rock, which does have a positive effect on the speed, if not the direction, of travel. The startled animal he strikes bolts forward and veers off the path until it regains its composure and stops again. For this reason, when you spot a train of animals coming in the opposite direction, it's best to get well off the path (and always on the uphill side).

The pony is a docile beast and seems resigned to its fate as a load-carrying slave. Its needs are simple - a nosebag and a dust bowl are all it requires - for a pony is never happier than when munching something green or rolling around in the dust. Woe betide the pony man who takes his eye off his animals for one second, for they will have their noses in the bushes before you can say "Yyyaaa!". I do pity the pony man, for the back end of a pony train is not a pleasant place to be. Ponies are walking fart machines, especially on uphill paths. When they're walking nose to tail, it can't be very pleasant for the ponies either (after all, who likes the smell of someone else's farts?) Perhaps that's why the train keeps stopping and the lead constantly changing - it's all a tactical game of fart evasion.

Pony paradise is a roll in the dust

Pony paradise is a roll in the dust

Yaks are basically shaggy cows with a rebellious streak - you could describe them as the punk rockers of the cattle world, but they also have a skittish nature. A yak train is more unpredictable than a pony train, because yaks are more contrary and easily frightened. We came close to being trampled in our kitchen tent by a runaway yak in the Tsum Valley. Here, the yak trains carry goods over a high pass into Tibet, an old trading route which nowadays means an influx of cheap Chinese goods. (You could say this valley is a microcosm of the global economy). One particular family brought their animals down from the pass and camped next to us at Kalung. No sooner had their yaks been unloaded and released, they scattered far and wide, up and down the mountainside, seeking out (deliberately, or so it seemed) the steepest, most inaccessible slopes to graze on. The following morning the yak herder had to retrieve his errant beasts. We went on a morning walk up the valley, and when we returned at lunchtime he was still trying to locate the last few animals.

Yaks prefer their own company, but there are times when we saw them gathered in large numbers. If ever you approached a door or gate in a stone wall across the path, you are guaranteed to find a posse of yaks on the other side, waiting for an absent-minded trekker to leave it open so they can all pile through. Yaks can be quite vocal when they are seen together. They communicate with deep, guttural grunts, which translate as "Bugger off" to my ears.

As well as being beasts of burden, yaks provide a whole range of services for free. Those with a special touch (yak whisperers, perhaps?) can milk them; the milk is turned into curd, butter and a very pungent cheese. A female yak is called a nak, so it's not strictly correct to talk of yak cheese and yak butter. With their long shaggy curtains of hair swishing round their legs like a valance on a bed, it's not easy to distinguish the males from the females. I'm sure there's a knack to tell a yak from a nak, but I'm afraid it's a knack that I lack.

A great number of yaks must be sacrificed to satisfy the western craving for meat, judging by the number of yak steaks, yak curries and yak burgers on the menus of Kathmandu's and Pokhara's restaurants. (Buddhist Nepalis are usually vegetarian and Hindu Nepalis stick to chicken, mutton and goat).

The yak is a beast that keeps on giving, and its final gift is the valuable commodity known as Nepali gold, which comes courtesy of its rear end. In the high kharkas (pastures) of Nar-Phu and the Solukhumbu, women venture out early in the morning to collect dried yak dung for fuel. It sounds an unpleasant task, but when you are warming frozen hands on a dung-powered stove late at night, you’re very grateful to them. In the Tsum Valley the villagers take a different approach, collecting fresh dung and applying it to the walls of their houses to dry. I should imagine it makes an effective, if somewhat fragrant, render.

I have to admit a soft spot for the yak. When you see them peacefully chewing the cud, with their sunlit coats shining like halos and their colourful ear tassles lending a comical air to their solemn expressions, I must confess that my heart softens a little. I would never go as far as to describe a yak as cute though. As they stare at you balefully with their big black eyes, you just know the cantankerous bastards are thinking of interesting ways to kill you. But it was only on our Sikkim trek that I finally understood the true nature of the yak. Trekking through blizzards and thick clouds, we came across a group of yaks clustered on a high ridge. We were togged up in waterproofs, fleeces, hats and gloves, desperately trying to stay warm and dry. The yaks stood impassively, facing down the elements. One of them turned to me and grunted: “Bugger off and leave us alone.” And so I did just that.

Yak a doodle doo

Yak a doodle doo

This blog wouldn’t be complete without some words about porters. When it comes to load-carrying in the Himalayas, it’s sometimes a case of ‘four legs good, two legs better’. Yaks and pones are easy to joke about, but portering is a tough way to make a living. The daily wage is just US$5, cheaper than the cost of hiring a yak or a pony. In the mountain villages of Nepal and India, carrying loads is an essential survival skill. Firewood, freshly harvested crops, dried foods, chickens, blankets, building materials and babies are all carried on the locals’ backs, typically in bamboo baskets with the weight transferred via a thick strap to the forehead. (Even our rucksacks were carried this way.)

Our Nepali porter Sinkhada on the climb to the Kang La

Our Nepali porter Sinkhada on the climb to the Kang La

In the age of Empire, British officers took advantage of these skills and employed native ‘coolies’ to carry equipment on field expeditions and into battle. With such objectionable origins, you might think that there would be a stigma attached to portering, but this is not the case. There’s a chronic lack of job opportunities in Nepal, and thousands of young men emigrate every month in search of work. Portering is welcome chance to earn some much-needed cash for a few weeks.

Although most porters are from poor, low-caste backgrounds, they can be a surprising bunch. One of our Nepali porters, Jack, spoke several languages and had worked for the British Army during the last Iraq war as an interpreter. Our porters genuinely loved being in the mountains as much as we did, and a great camaraderie developed between them.

In Sikkim, we were worried that they were poorly equipped for the cold weather and snow, but porters are tough and although some were clearly suffering at times, our guide took good care of them, and they all pulled through. The ethical trekking companies limit a porter load to 25kg, but some will willingly carry more to earn more pay. Sherpa porters are the toughest and strongest and are quite prepared to carry 50kg or even 60kg, more than their body weight.

In Nepal, people will find a way of carrying absolutely anything on their backs. Here are some of our favourite porter loads:

  • Mr Moving Roadblock was stopping the traffic on the Annapurna Circuit with his sheet of corrugated tin (carried horizontally).
  • A party of Korean trekkers were served lunch in dozens of delicate little porcelain bowls. I suppose it made them feel at home, but I pity the poor porter entrusted with them.
  • A pampered British party set up camp opposite our lodge in Phu. Not only had they paid for helicopter transfers to and from their trek, but they had a sit-on loo seat in their toilet tent. Quite what their porters made of it all, I don’t know.
  • In the fields around Tilche the bushes were moving. On second glance we realised the locals were collecting the corn harvest, and they were carrying so many plants their whole bodies had disappeared from view.

A moving roadblock on the Annapurna Circuit

A moving roadblock on the Annapurna Circuit

The only downside to porters is politics. In Nepal, our porters were generally well-behaved (especially after the cook had thrown their playing cards into a ravine), but there was one bad egg who was lazy, got drunk and got into a fight one night. He was promptly sent back to Kathmandu by the guide, but not without a scene. In India we were delayed at the start of our trek because not all our porters showed up for work. There were further problems which we never quite got to the bottom of, but once our guide had put his foot down and threatened them with docked pay, they did as they were told.

A porter, a pony or yak
Will happily carry your pack
The pony is lazy
The yak is plain crazy
But neither will answer you back

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:09 Archived in Nepal Tagged india trekking nepal ponies porters yaks Comments (0)

Halong, and thanks for all the fish

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I'm going to interrupt the sequence of trekking blogs to bring you right up to date, because right now I'm floating on the South China Sea and I never thought I'd be able to write "I'm blogging from a boat." We are in Halong Bay off the north coast of Vietnam enjoying a few days of cruising. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and you can appreciate why - an other-worldly landscape with thousands of sheer-sided limestone towers jutting up out of the water. ̣̣̣̣If you saw the Top Gear Vietnam episode, this is where Clarkson and co. ended up in their ocean-going converted motorbikes.

A Halong Bay sunset

A Halong Bay sunset

We arrived in Vietnam three days ago, after a few days in unappealing Darjeeling and a de-clutter in Calcutta. In between Darjeeling and Calcutta we trekked in Sikkim for two weeks. Sikkim is the finger of India that pokes up between Nepal and Bhutan, scratching the arse of Tibet. The Sikkim trek was a different experience entirely to trekking in Nepal - we have some more blogs on that to come. From Calcutta it was a jump and a hop via a very sodden looking Bangkok to get to Hanoi.

So far we are enjoying Vietnam immensely. I must confess this is a place I hadn't done much research on prior to the trip. We have no guidebook because our accommodation and tours were all booked from the UK, so every experience feels fresh, and most are a pleasant surprise. The contrast with India is striking. Driving from the airport to our Hanoi hotel, we noticed that though the roads are just as busy, traffic flows on smooth tarmac, horns are used sparingly and politely and there are no cows/beggars/rickshaws in the middle of the carriageway. Everyone drives mopeds, which weave in and out of lanes, their riders squinting out from behind their helmets and face masks, never looking in their rear view mirrors. It was also a refreshing change to drive along streets that weren't lined with stinking heaps of litter and human detritus. This is a much more civilised and prosperous place all round.

Halong Bay is a four-hour drive from Hanoi. We are based on the Oriental Sails, which is styled on a traditional junk boat, though so far the sails have not been used. The boat holds around 20 people, and it's definitely not a backpacker crowd. This is marketed as a luxury cruise - which was part of the appeal after two months of trekking - and the clientele is typically middle class and middle-aged. We have met some very interesting people as a result - well-travelled, educated, good storytellers. And lots and lots of Germans, for some reason. There are only six sun loungers on this boat, and I fully expected the Germans to be up on the sun deck at the crack of dawn placing their towels down, but these Germans are actually well-behaved, funny and generally all-round nice people.

We have been treated to wonderful food too - fresh fish, seafood, salads, fruit, succulent meat - and all brought to our table presented like works of art. Last night our spring rolls arrived skewered to a hollowed-out pineapple lantern.

Fish farming amongst the limestone outcrops

Fish farming amongst the limestone outcrops

The cruise has included some activities too. On the first day we visited the Amazing Cave, along with a queue of a thousand other tourists. We then went kayaking, trying to dodge passing boats. Yesterday was much more enjoyable, because we transferred on to a smaller boat and travelled around an hour from the main touristy spot to a much quieter part of the bay where the only signs of life were the locals fishing from their floating houses. In the morning we explored the area by kayak, and after lunch we transferred to a beach for some rock-climbing. The rock is all limestone which means it's nice and grippy, with lots of cracks and jug-like holds. It's also very good at cutting your knees, as I found out to my cost - but not before our instructor had done the same thing. We climbed three routes of increasing difficulty. Jen sailed up with no problem but I was pleased - and a little bit relieved - to get to the top of the last one, as it was the hardest thing I'd ever climbed.

We're now on our third and final day on board, heading back to the harbour at Halong City. We have a few more days in the Hanoi area before we start our next big adventure, a three-week mountain bike trip starting on Sunday. Oh, and apologies to the late Douglas Adams for the blog title.

Chris with our kayak at a deserted beach in Halong Bay

Chris with our kayak at a deserted beach in Halong Bay

Jen rock-climbing at Moody's Beach

Jen rock-climbing at Moody's Beach

Posted by Chris Parsons 17:49 Archived in Vietnam Tagged cruise vietnam halong Comments (2)

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