A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about nepal

A journey in numbers


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

After 7 countries and 119 days on the road, we've reached the final blog entry - it's hard to believe we've written 52 of these things! Rather than trying to sum up our journey in words, I've compiled a few stats to tell the story.

8,788

Kilometres travelled, according to our Travellerspoint map. The real total will be even higher because we didn't travel as the crow flies on the overland routes.

7,343

Photos taken, to answer all those who've asked the question. This doesn't include the 4,000 photos we deleted along the way! 266 of these have been published on the blog.

14

Modes of transport used, including plane, bus, train, car, mountain bike, motorcycle, junk boat, longtail boat, dive boat, speedboat, tuk tuk, truck, songthaew and kayak.

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

Kayaking in a Malaysian mangrove swamp

964

The combined cost of all our visas and trekking permits, in US dollars. Over two thirds of this went straight into the coffers of the Nepalese government, so I like to think we gave their GDP figures a little boost in 2011.

4.5

The average speed in mph of the bus from Dhadingbesi to Arughat Bazaar (which we abandoned at nightfall after it became stuck in a quagmire).

5,450

The highest altitude of the trip (in metres), just above the Thorung La. We crossed three passes over 5000m on our five-week trek in the Nepal Himalaya.

0

Number of public conveniences in the Nepalese village of Phu. We later found out from some trekking companions that there was another lodge in the village which did have a toilet, but unfortunately the owners don't appear to have capitalized on this USP.

Looking down on the village of Phu

Looking down on the village of Phu

6.9

Magnitude of the earthquake which struck the Himalayas on 18 September 2011, the day we flew to Kathmandu. It was the second largest quake ever recorded in the region, causing at least 111 deaths and widespread damage. The quake was centred on north Sikkim, a region we visited 6 weeks later.

4:30

The earliest wake up call of the trip, in Dzongri, Sikkim. After seven consecutive days of trekking in a cloud, it was a make or break moment. "Good weather," said our guide outside the tent, not quite believing it himself.

200

Estimated maximum population of wild snow leopards in the whole of India, according to WWF, making it even more remarkable that I saw fresh snow leopard tracks in Sikkim.

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

Tracks of a snow leopard on the Goecha La in Sikkim

7%

Average annual growth rate of the Vietnamese economy from 1981 to 2010, 30 unbroken years of boom with only 3 years of less than 5% growth. Quite incredible statistics for a country which was the third poorest in the world after the Vietnam War.

1,200

Kilometres in the saddle on our epic three-week mountain bike trip through Vietnam and Laos with Red Spokes. The longest day was about 120km and the toughest had 45km of hill climbs.

American Chris on the road in Laos

American Chris on the road in Laos

10

Kilometres travelled in the Red Spokes support vehicle. It's not that we'd gone soft - the Vietnamese closed the road while they carried out some roadworks, and by the time it reopened, it was getting dark!

4

The maximum distance in kilometres of continuous climbing on a bicycle without going up a hill, in Red Spokes parlance. Anything up to this point is a mere undulation.

8.11%

Gradient quoted on a road sign in northwest Vietnam. Funnily enough as we rounded the previous bend I had remarked to Jen "This feels like an 8.11%er to me!"

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

The most precise roadsign in Vietnam

6,670,000

The largest withdrawal amount entered on an ATM keypad. No, it's not a typo. This was in Vietnamese dong, and is equivalent to about 200 pounds sterling. The traveller in Vietnam is wise to pack an expandable wallet.

14

Varieties of Asian beer sampled. They were Everest, Gorkha (Nepal), Kingfisher (India), Bia Hanoi, Bia Larue (Vietnam), Beerlao (Laos), Cambodia, Klang, Angkor, Anchor (Cambodia), Singha, Chang, Leo (Thailand) and Tiger (Malaysia). Beerlao goes down easiest.

7,500

The cheapest bottle of Beerlao in Luang Prabang, in Laotian kip. There are 12,500 kip to the pound and there's more than a pint in the bottle!

300

Casualties annually in Laos due to unexploded ordnance (UXO). More than half are children, and most are killed or maimed by cluster bombs. These and other chilling statistics we learned on a visit to Cope, a charity which provides prosthetic limbs and rehabilitation to UXO victims.

1860

The year French explorer Henri Mouhot "discovered" the temples of Angkor. In fact they were well known to the local Khmer people and had been visited by other westerners before Mouhot. We were two of the 1.6 million tourists to visit the temple complex in 2011, a year-on-year rise of 23%.

2

Our longest flight "delay" in hours. What really happened was that Bangkok Airways cancelled our flight out of Siem Reap and put us on the last flight of the day, but of course they couldn't admit to that.

0

Rice-free days in Southeast Asia. Fried rice, steamed rice, sticky rice - it's all the same after two months.

160

Estimated age in millions of years of Khao Sok National Park's jungle, the oldest tropical forest on Earth. That makes it around 100 million years older than the Amazon rainforest.

10

Number of leech attacks during a two-minute walk through the jungle of Khao Sok. We had left the relatively leech-free stream bed and followed some tapir tracks through the forest to shortcut a bend in the stream.

100

Decibels of sound produced by a calling gibbon. Gibbon calls can travel more than 2 miles over the forest, and at our rafthouse in Khlong Seang I stood on the decking listening to four groups calling from different parts of the forest.

5

Years of hard training by the bar staff of Koh Lanta's Bamboo Bay Resort to perfect their fire dancing routine. And boy, did it show!

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

Firedancer at the Bamboo Bay Resort

80

Maximum weight in pounds of a jackfruit, the world's largest fruit, which is found throughout Thailand and Malaysia. The orange flesh is similar in taste to papaya.

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

The jackfruit - try putting this in your lunchbox

-32

Temperature drop in degrees Celsius between Langkawi, Malaysia and Manchester, UK on the day of our return home. Brrrrr!

The sun sets on our blog

The sun sets on our blog

We've had great fun writing about some of our experiences, but now the time has come to call time on our travel blog. Thanks to everyone who has been following us and to all those who have commented on Travellerspoint or liked us on Facebook! I hope we can resurrect the Parsons on Tour blog soon...

Posted by Chris Parsons 13:05 Archived in Nepal Tagged india cambodia thailand malaysia vietnam laos nepal statistics Comments (0)

Going places


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

Six countries in four months. Too much to take in? Too rushed? It certainly felt on occasions like we were stuck on a travel treadmill; a hamster's wheel of bus stations, taxi rides and departure lounges. On the flipside, he who leaves the wedding early cherry-picks the tastiest morsels from the buffet. And the sheer variety of places and modes of travel we encountered gave the engineer in me pause for thought. How can these countries develop their increasingly strained transport systems to meet the needs of their upwardly mobile populations?

In Kathmandu, the scale of the challenge is clear. In the tourist district of Thamel there are no pavements, so pedestrians are forced to share the streets with the Maruti-Suzuki taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Anyone carrying out a risk assessment would stay in their hotel, but despite the odds a functioning system has evolved which seems to minimise collisions. It relies on the drivers and tuk-tuk wallahs knowing the width of their vehicles to the exact millimetre, and on everyone knowing the significance of a sharp toot on the horn: "Look out, I'm coming through!" However, during the festival of Tihar there is an interesting reversal. The crowds take to the streets to dance, sing and play instruments, and no amount of horn-tooting can shift them.

Kathmandu street scene

Kathmandu street scene

Nonetheless, outside the old city the roads were still thronged with cars. At a busy intersection near the former Royal Palace, the Tata buses and Ashok trucks lined up six abreast alongside taxis and bikes at the traffic lights, revving their engines. In the midst of it all stood a traffic policeman, his manic hand-waving and whistle-blowing clearly taking precedence over the lights. There was only one problem though: cows don't follow orders.

On to West Bengal, where there's no doubt that Kolkata's transport system has benefited from an injection of order courtesy of the British Empire. The city centre was re-planned during the early nineteenth century to incorporate wide, traffic-friendly boulevards. Today, these streets are fought over by the usual jumble of traffic, people and animals common to modern Indian cities, plus, uniquely on our travels, trams. And like other great world cities, Kolkata has its own special taxi. The Hindustan Ambassador is produced locally to a 1950s design based on the Morris Oxford, and not a lot has changed since. Bench seats and central instrument panels are standard features; optional extras (based on our limited experience) include brakes, windows and door handles.

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Ambassadors and buses in Kolkata

Kolkatans are tolerant drivers, though this may be due in part to the sluggish Ambassadors forcing traffic to move at a sedate pace. Moreover, the local authority has successfully promoted the practice of cutting the engine at traffic lights on both economic and environmental grounds. The first time we experienced this was strange to say the least. We were becalmed in queuing traffic, listening to conversations taking place in other cars (those without windows, at least). Moving off again is also a leisurely affair, for acceleration is not a gift bestowed on the Ambassador by its makers. In fact, so accustomed did I become to slow-moving vehicles that I made a misjudgement when wandering down one of Kolkata's railway lines and, like Matt Damon in The Bourne Supremacy, had to take evasive action to avoid a speeding train.

The Kolkata to Hanoi leg of our journey would have been time-consuming and logistically challenging overland, so we opted to fly via Bangkok. There were no alarms, but more than a few surprises. Kolkata, a city of 14.1 million people (thanks, Wikipedia) has an international airport with two departure gates. Bangkok airport has the world's most expensive Toblerones and a Leicester City FC shop. AirAsia is very good airline; Vietnam Airlines is even better.

Arriving in Hanoi felt like an evolutionary leap forward – smooth roads, lane markings, modern cars and not a cow in sight. If Katie Melua ever writes a sequel to Nine Million Bicycles, this is where she should come, for the Vietnamese have a love affair with motorbikes, and in the city’s Old Quarter, the moped is king. Flush with their recently acquired wealth, a bike is the affordable luxury most people crave. Thousands of scooters swarm daily along the narrow streets, weaving their way between the tourists, street vendors and stray dogs. Pavements have been sacrificed as bike parks and shiny new Yamahas, Hondas and Vespas gleam at the countless dealerships.

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

A motorcycle dealership in northwest Vietnam

Walking the Old Quarter's narrow streets was daunting at first, especially crossing the road. There are no lights, no pedestrian crossings, no road markings even. But then we realised there are no accidents, because just like Kathmandu, Hanoi has devised its own system of unwritten road rules. When you step out into the road, you notice that traffic weaves naturally round you without appearing to slow down. Providing you continue to cross without changing speed or direction, nothing will hit you. This involves a fair amount of trust, but the Vietnamese are well practiced at avoiding each other. Just take a look at this brilliant time lapse video for proof.

Vietnam's economy is booming and new roads are under construction all over the north. But sometimes the heavy hand of communism overrides common sense, resulting in incongruous sights like empty six-lane highways running through middle-of-nowhere towns and giant phallic monuments presiding over roundabouts.

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Cyclists dwarfed by a roundabout monument in Vietnam - but what is it?

Across the border in Laos, we cycled for the best part of a week down the busiest road in the country. Of course, it was only when we got there that our tour leader revealed this fact. But there was no thought of us demanding a refund, for the Lao version of the M1 is more like an English country B-road. Apart from the occasional tourist bus blazing past, the bulk of the passing traffic was made up of chugging tractors, grumpy water buffalo and schoolchildren waving from bicycles. Luang Prabang also deserves a mention as a traffic-free haven, thanks to its location on a loop of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It was refreshing to be in a city where the boat and the bicycle are the commonest forms of transport. And as we proved, with a boat and a mountain bike, you can go pretty much anywhere in Laos.

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

Our bikes go on a boat trip on the Nam Ou River

A common feature of Vietnamese and Lao mountain roads is their relatively gentle gradients. The steepest climbs were 10%, tolerable even with tired legs at the end of a long ascent on the bike. It would be nice to think that this was purely for the benefit of us humble cyclists, but I suspect the knackered old buses, trucks and tractors would die on anything steeper. There are no such problems for the Thais with their sleek, modern cars and superbikes, so they build their mountain roads accordingly. We found this out the hard way on the 100km Samoeng Loop to the west of Chiang Mai. It's a killer on a mountain bike!

Nowhere are the citizens of Asia more mobile than in Bangkok, a city which beats most European counterparts hands down in the futuristic transport stakes. My home town of Birmingham has Spaghetti Junction: Bangkok is Spaghetti City.

A bright pink Toyota Corolla whisked us from the airport to our downtown hotel along elevated highways which snaked between the skyscrapers. We cowered in the back while Thailand's answer to Sebastian Vettel took the racing line around every bend, reaching speeds which would have been unthinkable in Calcutta or Kathmandu. These highways are just one layer of spaghetti; above them runs the Skytrain, below them the city streets, and beneath the surface the Metro. Like a steep Himalayan gorge or a tropical rainforest, Bangkok is a truly three-dimensional environment.

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

A tuk tuk on the streets of Luang Prabang

It’s also home to the most unscrupulous tuk-tuk drivers on the entire continent. While the rest of the city zooms past at high speed, these guys go out of their way to make your journey as slow and stressful as possible. Our first attempt ended up with us abandoning the tuk-tuk within a minute of getting on board, as the driver stopped and drew us a picture showing us where he was going to take us (which was not where we had asked him to go). All our subsequent enquiries of tuk-tuk drivers were met with disinterest, incomprehension or an astronomical fare and a refusal to negotiate. It was nearly enough to persuade me to buy one of the ubiquitous "No tuk-tuk. Not today. Not tomorrow." T-shirts. But not quite, because elsewhere in Asia, tuk-tuk drivers had been our friends. Yes, they're pushy and they overcharge, but they are part of the fabric of life here and contribute to the buzz of the city streets.

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Boats on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

Bangkok's busy riverboat taxis are another means of getting around the city. And as our travels led us further south to the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, more of our time was spent on the water. Our boat to Koh Rong in Cambodia was delayed by three hours because of high winds and an absent captain. A substitute skipper was found, but it was not long into the journey before we were questioning whether he had ever left dry land before. He skilfully steered the boat so that the waves hit us broadside, drenching those at the stern, and then did his best to ram the pier several times before, to our great relief, we finally moored. The locals did not go fishing in such conditions, for theirs were the most basic boats I'd ever seen, constructed from nothing more than a rectangular board of expanded polystyrene.

A longtail boat bobbing in a turquoise sea is the quintessential image of southern Thailand. The noise of its engine may cut through the deepest of sleep (fact-checked personally) and there may never less than an inch of water in the hull, but I grew rather fond of longtails. I particularly liked watching the boat captains nimbly steering their crafts through narrow channels or off the edge of a reef. Any change in direction or raising of the propeller requires strength, agility and timing as the captain uses his body weight as a counterbalance to the pivoting engine, stepping neatly over (or under) the swinging tiller.

Longtail boat engine

Longtail boat engine

Less charming, but certainly quicker in a straight line, are the modern speedboats which carry island-hopping tourists down the Andaman Coast. If you're picturing luxury and decadence, think again, for in my experience they rival Nepalese buses in the unbearability stakes. On the first trip, I had to sit on the floor. On the second, I squeezed into the front of the boat on top of a pile of rucksacks. On the third, a one-hour crossing from Koh Lipe to Langkawi, I was relieved to finally get a seat. My mood soon darkened as we left the harbour and picked up speed. The sea was choppy, and if the boat caught a wave at the wrong moment it landed on the surface of the water with such force that it felt as though our spines were being crushed. The only lesson I can take away from this experience is that speedboats, like Nepalese buses and Bangkok tuk-tuks, are best avoided at all costs.

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

A Thai speedboat anchored off a reef at Koh Rok

To conclude this blog entry I decided I had to go back to bikes and two favourite photos from the end of our trip. There are no cars on Koh Lipe, only scooters. You might think the local police would have been embarrassed to be photographed on their 100cc Honda, but far from it. They smiled, they waved and they still managed to look cool. It was all very Southeast Asian and I loved it. And then, not a minute later, we stumbled across a second photo opportunity, the little boy playing on his dad’s scooter. How can your heart not melt!

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department

Cuts are biting in Koh Lipe's police department


Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Baby biker, Koh Lipe

Posted by Chris Parsons 14:39 Tagged boats bikes india cambodia thailand vietnam laos transport nepal Comments (0)

Wildlife blog #1: Encounters in the Himalayas


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

Happy New Year one and all! As our trip draws to a close, we are furiously cranking out the last few blogs - today you get three for the price of one.

I wrote about zoos in my previous blog, but there's no substitute for seeing an animal in the wild. In the Himalayas, there's always the chance of an animal encounter, and we've had some memorable ones on our previous trips to Nepal and India: seeing griffon vultures at close range as we climbed to a ridge on which they perched, glimpsing musk deer and colourful pheasants in the forests around Namche, tracking a group of tahr (a wild goat) up a steep hillside and finding langur monkeys in the rhododendron forests of the Annapurna Sanctuary. This trip provided many more such moments.

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

Variegated laughingthrush in the Tsum Valley

There are two species of monkey in the Nepal Himalaya, and both are relatively easy to spot. Rhesus macaques are bold opportunists and they happily live alongside people, even in major cities like Kathmandu and Agra. We saw a large group on the first night of our trek and a lone individual at about 2,500m in the Tsum Valley, which is about as high as they venture. Further up the same valley we came across a troupe of grey langurs sunbathing on the roof of an abandoned stone hut, and they posed obligingly for photographs. The monkeys here have an uneasy coexistence with the local farmers, for they come down from the trees to raid the fields of millet and tsampa (a local cereal crop). In response, the farmers build elevated wooden platforms overlooking the crops and post their children as sentries to watch for marauding monkeys. Any animal that comes within range gets scared off with a well-aimed rock. If ever we heard a high-pitched, disembodied voice crying "Namaste!" it was sure to be one of the local kids on monkey watch.

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Grey langurs in the Tsum Valley

Higher still, the pine and juniper forests peter out and one enters a realm of windswept pastures and rock debris. Other mammal species inhabit these high, inaccessible valleys. Marmots are usually heard before they are seen, betraying their whereabouts with a piercing alarm call. They are the same species as can be seen in the European Alps, only they seem fatter here. Mustelids - Himalayan weasels and yellow martens - also patrol these valleys, hunting small rodents like the pika and Himalayan rat. In the UK you have to be very lucky to see a wild weasel, but I've seen their Himalayan cousins on several occasions. We surprised one individual who had just caught a mouse, causing him to drop his dinner and scamper into the bushes. We waited patiently and sure enough he emerged a short while later, scampered back to his kill, grabbed it, stared at us for a few seconds and scarpered.

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

Himalayan lizard in the Budi Gandaki Valley

The aforementioned tahr is one of a number of large herbivores which graze the scrub and kharkas. The one most commonly encountered is the blue sheep or bharal. It is not a true sheep, but rather one of those strange-looking hybrid animals that appears to have been designed by a committee. Males grow large curved horns and look most impressive when they engage in combat on the precipitous mountainsides.

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

Blue sheep near the Larkya La

The blue sheep is curiously named
For its blueness is falsely claimed
If I were a ewe
I'd paint us all blue
To stop us from feeling ashamed

Baby blue sheep and fat marmots are the favourite prey of eagles. Our trekking guides pronounced any large bird of prey in the sky as an eagle, but most are in fact vultures. Griffon vultures are the highest fliers and are commonly seen in small groups, circling on thermal updraughts to great altitudes. Lammergeiers, or bearded vultures, are usually seen in pairs and track up and down valleys below the mountain summits. I watched a solitary lammergeier wheeling and swooping around the outcrop on which the village of Phu is constructed, and as we got closer it buzzed us several times, flying so low that I could make out its eyes and the mane of golden feathers around its nape. A large, solitary raptor is more likely to be an eagle, always flying purposefully. In the Himalayas, we saw a fair number of golden eagles, the species we know from the UK.

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La

Tibetan snowcock on the descent from the Thorung La


Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

Pacific golden glover on a mountainside above Samdo

You have to be extremely fortunate to catch sight of other large predators in these mountains. They are rare, wary of humans and mostly nocturnal. But my most memorable wildlife moment on the Himalayan leg of our trip involved one such predator, and I didn't even see the animal in question. It was above the treeline in Sikkim, at an altitude of nearly 5,000m, that my guide and I came across fresh tracks in the snow. The lower forests harbour leopards, Asiatic black bears and red pandas, but the extreme altitude ruled out any of these candidates. They were the tracks of a Himalayan wolf, a rare subspecies of the grey wolf restricted to the remote corners of Nepal, northern India, Tibet and Pakistan. As if this were not exciting enough, further along the path we came across yet more tracks, this time a trail of much larger pawprints with a shallow groove running between them: tracks left by a snow leopard. The groove was created by the snow leopard's long tail trailing through the deep snow. An actual sighting of a snow leopard must count as the ultimate animal encounter, because of its inaccessible habitat, its beauty and scarcity and the fact that it almost exclusively hunts at night. In Nepal we trekked through the Annapurna and Manaslu Conservation Areas, both prime snow leopard habitat, but even here there are thought to be no more than five snow leopards per 100km2. To illustrate the difficulty of seeing one, even the experts at the BBC Natural History Unit took a year to locate a snow leopard, and a further year to obtain some decent footage of it, when they decided to film the species for Planet Earth. I would settle happily for a set of fresh tracks!

There is one creature of the Himalayas even more mythical and elusive than the snow leopard. Legends speak of a dark, human-like shape moving swiftly over ridges, huge footprints in the snow and eerie moaning cries in the night. It is of course the yeti. Did I see dark shapes moving swiftly over ridges, or huge footprints in the snow? I did not, more's the pity, though I was once woken with a start in the middle of the night by a strange moaning sound outside the tent. A yeti, perhaps? Chance would be a fine thing - it was only Jen bringing up her dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:04 Archived in Nepal Tagged wildlife india himalayas nepal Comments (0)

Things we lost in the mountains


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

We managed to get through both our treks relatively unscathed but the same cannot be said for some of our gear. Here's a list of kit that we lost, broke, or managed to wear out!

  1. Chris's trekking pole - broken on the Tsum Valley trek, now only suitable for people four feet tall. Replaced in Pokhara.
  2. Chris's sunglasses - broken on the Annapurna Circuit. Also replaced in Pokhara. Combined cost of trekking pole and sunglasses? Ten quid.
  3. Chris's glasses - broken on the Manaslu Circuit. Just got them fixed in Hanoi - nothing serious, thank goodness!
  4. Jen's miniature Swiss army knife - lost in mysterious circumstances!
  5. Jen's inflatable pillow - deflated! Neither gaffa tape nor glue worked, so it was replaced in Kathmandu.
  6. Chris's inflatable sleeping mat - also deflated! Can you see the problem with inflatable gear? Still awaiting repair, hopefully a bicycle puncture repair kit will do the job.
  7. Chris's socks - more hole than sock. See photo below for evidence!

Chris_show..f_heels.jpg

  1. Chris's handkerchief - lost in the Nar Phu Valley. Nan, can I place my order for Christmas please?
  2. Jen's handkerchief - charred by a campfire in Sikkim!
  3. Chris's MP3 player - fried by our solar charger in Nepal! Thank you to Amazon and my Mum for the replacement.
  4. Jen's shampoo bottle - the top disappeared down a waterfall.
  5. Chris's waistbelt for our camera case - fell off the roof of the Arughat bus.
  6. Chris's replacement trekking pole - left at the end of our Sikkim trek (deliberately).
  7. Jen's trekking pole - left at the end of our Sikkim trek (not deliberately!)

Posted by Chris Parsons 06:08 Archived in Nepal Tagged india trekking gear nepal Comments (0)

What a difference a day makes


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

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


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

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)

Keep it clean


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

After the somewhat vulgar tone of my last blog entry on toilets, I thought I'd balance things out with a little insight into another important topic - washing. Keeping yourself and your gear clean while trekking is a running battle against mud, sweat, grime and dust (and in my case, soup spillages too). If, as they say, cleanliness is next to godliness, then trekking in the Himalayas is like shaking hands with the devil.

Things start promisingly in Kathmandu, where the supermarket shelves in Thamel are stocked with miniature bottles of L'Oreal this and Pantene that. So, no complaints about the range of toiletries on offer; the only question is when will you actually be able to use them?

One place name we always look out for on the map is Tatopani, which indicates a thermal spring (the name literally means "hot water"). Locals come to bathe in the thermal pools or shower under the hot taps. We came across one on our third day of trekking, but we were still in the humid foothills at that stage and a cold shower would have been more appealing.

On our camping trek in the Tsum Valley, we usually stayed near a village or a gompa, which meant a cold tap was the only means of washing. Elsewhere, rivers and streams were also available if we were feeling particularly brave or desperate. My first experience of washing in a river was at Soti Khola on our second night's camp. The sight of me stripped to my boxers going for a full-body immersion in the river must have been the most exciting thing to happen in the village for a long time, judging from the crowd of hecklers gathered on a footbridge above me.

The most scenic natural bathing spot we found was definitely at Chhokangparo. Just above the village a waterfall plunges off the mountainside into a deep pool, and then down a series of cascades. We figured this must be the place to wash judging by the number of locals doing the same thing. We climbed to the top of the cascades to find a private spot, so close to the waterfall that it was possible to have a bath and a shower at the same time. Nevertheless, we still attracted the attention of the local kids, who were fascinated by our legs. They'd never seen any as white as mine or as hairy as Jen's.

On our lodge-based trek, the washing facilities were not necessarily any better because the lodges round Manaslu and in the Nar-Phu Valley are fewer in number and more basic than on the well-established trails. In Lho, a sizeable village on the east side of Manaslu, we had to wash in a public tap outside the lodge watched by an interested gaggle of spectators. At Bimthang we fought over the only tap with a group of ponies.

The locals got to the shower before us

The locals got to the shower before us

At Phu, the piped water supply was blocked and all the taps in the village were out of action. We had a choice of three rivers to wash in, all the same shade of chocolate brown. Needless to say, we drew the line at this. The following day, we descended to a beautiful campsite at Junam, desperate for a wash. The only choice was a nearby stream which was absolutely freezing. Looking up, we could see the glacier which fed the stream - but on a sunny afternoon we soon warmed up again.

Chris looking happy at the prospect of clean pants

Chris looking happy at the prospect of clean pants

On these less-frequented trekking routes, one of the favourite topics on conversation amongst fellow trekkers is when the next hot shower is likely to be. It becomes something of an obsession. In our case, we knew there was a good chance of a hot shower at Dharapani or Koto on the Annapurna Circuit, three weeks into our trek. The shower at Dharapani disappointed, never getting above lukewarm. Koto would be the last chance for another week, and the anticipation was almost too much to bear. "Hot and cold shower" proclaimed the sign outside the Snowland Lodge, carefully worded to cover all possibilities. What came out of the shower head was a cold dribble. My heart sank, and I hurried to wash myself as quickly as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of minutes, the shower spurted into life and sprayed me with a gushing torrent of streaming hot water. Oh, the ecstasy! To celebrate, I poured a generous dollop of shampoo from my Tresemme bottle (carried all the way from Boots at Manchester Airport) and lathered up.

When it comes to washing clothes, the mantra is little and often. Pants and socks are in constant rotation, but can be pushed to a few days' use at a stretch. In Sikkim, we really stretched the acceptability of Coolmax and cotton! Tops and trousers are usually sniffed first thing each morning, but we invariably end up putting on what we wore the day before - and the day before that, and the day before that.... Handkerchiefs need to be regularly de-snotted under a tap.

For the first time in the Himalayas, I decided to take a leaf out of the locals' book and buy a bar of soap. What a superb investment this turned out to be. It can be carried with you at all times, and takes the place of shampoo, shower gel, hand gel and travel wash. In honour of the fetishistic practices of ultralight backpackers, I even shaved the corners off my bar with my penknife so it would fit inside the smallest soap dish I could find. However, I'm still carrying that Tresemme bottle, ever hopeful of the next hot shower.

Posted by Chris Parsons 08:20 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking nepal washing Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 8 of 16) Page [1] 2 » Next