Monday 28 February 2011

To Kathmandu

It was hard to leave Pohkara, particularly after so long out of the saddle but finally we pulled out of town with only 200kms to Kathmandu. At first the road was built up and uninteresting but soon we were again amoungst the rice fields and villages. We had heard that Bandipur was a town worth visiting and lay only 8kms of our route an easy days ride away. At the junction however the road slanted steeply up and there stood two cycle-tourists the first we had met in months.
Sophie and David were Austrailian and had been on the road 3 months through India and Nepal. They had tried to reach Bandipur, found it too steep and come back down again. As they looked much fitter than us we also declined the incline and together we stayed in Dumre, a village in the valley where we swapped tales from the tarmac.
Next day we walked together up a flight of steps through the forrest to Bandipur visiting Nepals larges cave system on the way. The village contained the finest architechture we had yet seen in the country which was unexpected in a hilltop settlement. Walking down another extensive ancient stepped path we reached our hotel just before dark. A wonderful unexpected day.
Our intention was to cycle together to Ghorka again uphill off the main road but I came down with a fever after only a few kms and had to hole up in the next town. I hated being the weak member of the group but we had to let the Ausies go on without us. It turned out I had contracted somehow Gardia, strange after such a long time of good health. We always filtered water and I still am not sure how I got it, though I blame eating Buffallo after 4 months of vegetarianism. I am back on the rabbit food. No, I jest, eating meat here is pretty unnecessary.
A day in bed shivering saw me strong enough to cycle though slowly and after another night in Adamgaht, a small village with a great little guest-house run by a friendly young chap called Kas Kumar (or similar) we climbed up towards the pass that would lead us into the Kathmandu valley.
As we reached the pass a few spots of rain fell but as we crossed it this turned to a thunderstorm with hard hail. Misjudging the severity we got soaked and cold as we hurried into the city and dove into a cheap hotel.
We were informed the next day that Tibet would be closed for the whole of March and there was no chance of us entering before April. If then. Bad news. This meant we would have to wait or fly to China. The route through Myanmar to Thailand being also shut to overland travellers. Deciding to wait we took a cheap apartement in Kahtmandu in a street believe it or not named Freak Street, where all the Hippies hung out in the seventies. We look over an interesting square and wander occasionally into this lively city.
In a few days we will go walking once more, this time in the Langtang Himalaya. There are worse places to kill time.

Monday 14 February 2011

Night on a Bare Mountain

See Slideshow for Photographs

So there we were in Pokhara. Described as one of the most beautiful places on Earth, nestled at the feet of the Mighty Annapurna Himalaya. We stayed 4 or 5 days but visibility was bad. From the feet we could not see the knees let alone the lofty head of Annapurna 1 over 7000m somewhere above us.
Anja had for many years a small guidebook to a circular walkway in this region and had dreamt of one day hiking it. Here we were. We arrived full of enthusiasm and ready to start only to be knocked back a bit. First by the cold and foggy weather, secondly by the news that the 'treck' srarted a 5 hour bus ride away and thirdly by the fact that everyone we spoke to, Nepali and foreigner, said that at this time of year we would not succeed. Especially without a guide and porters.
I wanted to believe this was hype, a ploy to drum up custom for the locals. Fair enough but we could not afford nor wanted accompanyment. We had a map and a compass and no-one had ever carried my bags before. Why let them now.
It seemed the problem was not only the cold and snow in Jan-Feb, the possibility of getting lost on a mountainside in a blizzard etc. but the altitude. We were, it seemed unaware of the famous 'Thorong-La', highest (so we were told) pass in the world at 5416m which we would have to cross if we wanted to walk the 300km circuit.
'Had we done anything like this before'... 'Well.. no. Not at altitude'.
I began to get a bit depressed after we were told story after story of illness and death on the 'Pass' from avalanche, cold and altitude sickness. It seemed though thousands of people walked this way in the 'season' by no means all made it. Particularly not in the middle of winter.
Luckily we met Kido, a 30 year member of the findhorn community in Scotland who came to Nepal every year and had crossed the pass many times. He said that a fit young (ha ha) pair like us should have no real problems with the altitude if we followed the advice. The cold, well, just take the right kit and as for getting lost in the snow; wait for a guided group to go over and follow their footprints. You'll have a great time.
'Its attitude not altitude that is the problem' were his parting words 'Oh and the locals eat lots of Garlic soup, it helps'
We set off the next morning
A long bus journey was not for us so we took a local bus out of town and walked 2 days to the 'official' start point. The bus trip was one of those adventurous mountan-track journeys one so often hears about. Through rivers, around perilous hairpin bends and all on a trail a landrover would have struggled with. We were sitting up front and at times Anja, in the corner was hanging over a precipice as the front wheel rolled inches from the drop. The driver was good, relaxed but not too much so as he judjed perfectly the amount of turns on the steering-wheel needed to take up the considerable slack in the linkage and bring us safely round the bend. We had seen already enough overturned buses in Nepal to know every trip like this was an adventure. The local folks seemed to know this too.
After only one minor accident we arrived safely in the village of Karputar 550m above sea-level where we set off on foot confidently. We got lost an hour later on finding our map, though apparently good, was almost impossible to read. We reverted to our finding the way by asking technique which with the aid of some goat perfumed old women, brought us the first evening to the foot of a jungled mountain. We crossed a comically classic rotten-wood suspension bridge to a lonely dwelling where we were kindly taken in, fed, watered and wined by an old farmer and his family.
Next morning setting off early we climbed steeply through the forrest to the village of Namla and emerged into a paradise world of step stone steps leading from village to village through rice terraced hills framed at long last by the snowy peaks of the high Himalayas. The fog was finally left behind and it was clear in our minds that we were going to get over the high pass. We had cycled here all the way (nearly) from Devon, a short walk over some hills should be easy.
The next days were hot and our packs heavily laden with an assortment of second hand warm clothing bought in Pokhara. The path dropped steeply to Buhlbuhle where our permits were stamped at a police checkpoint and we entered the Annapurna conservation area. We were to walk up the valley of the Marsyangdi Nadi for pretty much the next week. Ever higher and higher. Jungle turned to Rhododendron forrest then to tall pine which gave way to blue pine then Leylandii amoungst low prickly bushes and a few wild narcissi.
There are times in life where you are suddenly aware that you are alive. That your life is both vitally important and at the same time insignificant in the giant machinations of planet and universe. I felt both big and small in this wonderfull valley, sometimes way above the ice-blue river, often crossing it on now substantial, Swiss designed suspension bridges.
Saying goodbye to the last of the trees as snow began to fall, we walked through a barren brown landscape into Manang, the last real village before Thorong La.
All advice was to spend a day here acclimatising and from now on to follow the two steps forward one back technique: arrive at a lodge at 3pm, climb at least 300m then descend to sleep as low as possible. Mild headaches and insomnia we were told was normal at 4000m.
Two more easy days brought us to Thorong Phedi, our last overnight before a 1000m dash over the pass.
Until Manang we had met few other 'trekkers' but now we were on the same schedule as a fit and fast French group and a slower and suffering Ausie/Canadian bunch both equipped with numerous guides and porters some of whom carried two rucksacks bound together and thier own small pack on top. More it seemed than the mule-trains we had passed lower down. Too cold for them up here in winter.
We got on well with the French contingent who said they were leaving at 3am to cross Thorong. They should reach the pass at sunrise and therefore avoid the ferrocious wind that apparently picks up as the day gets older. The other group was leaving at 4am and we decided to sandwhich ourselves between the two. We would have footprints to follow and help behind if we got into trouble.
Things had gone our way. The weather was perfect and we set off under a sky with more stars than space shortly after the Gallic group.
Air is thin at 5000m. Our lungs were wringing every last drop of oxygen out of it and we were exhaling frosty clouds of garlic dioxide (GO2) ? Anja I soon realised is half mountain goat, maybe himalayan blue-sheep. We caught up with the Froggies who looked like miners going to work, zig-zagging above, head-lamps all in a row. Past the dead Yak seen the day before, past High-Camp (closed) and into the last stretch.
I imagined I was gallantly bringing up the rear, a notion that was shattered as Anja skipped over a steep snow-covered scarp and I faltered. Ice and mud were frozen in a lump to the soles of my mountain-bike boots and my wind-up torch ran down as my foot slipped I dared not let go my stick to wind it up. I made the mistake of pointing the fast fading beam into the void. If I lost my footing I was gone. Suddenly my imagination got the better of me. What the hell was I doing in the dark on a snowface, 3 miles up with no torch, wrong shoes and a stick cut out of the woods. I tell myself it was the cold or thelack of air but I know it was fear. My knees began to shake. I thought this was a myth promoted by the Beano comic. A pathetic 'wait for me' was sucked up unheard by the sound hungry night.
'Get a grip' I told myself 'Don't think just move your feet, you have crossed far worse in the Alps'.
Every pound wheighs double this high and I wanted to throw off my pack. After a long 4 seconds, stuck, my mind got control once more of my body and I moved forward. The next mistake I made was hurrying to catch up the others. Speed is not possible, I was brought up sharp, leaning on my stick and gasping in vain like a goldfish on a carpet. On the next steep snowface I did not look down. I moved my feet like an automaton and was glad to later overhear an Alpine Frenchman saying he had to do the same.
Dawn arrived quickly and on time. Suddenly we were there. The top. 'Congratulations and 'Tres bien faitez' all round. It was cold. Damn cold. Anja's watch thermometer read -10c before we left then went into hibernation. Our hot lemon tea had frozen solid in the first half hour. (remember to drink, drink, drink). The waterproof rucksack material was stiff to the point of snapping. Three photo's was the maximum possible without gloves. Cold on the fingers seemed to skip the usual first stages and went straight to numb. We were all euphoric. We had all made it. It wasn't really that hard after all.
Dropping the 1600m to Muktinath was a pleasure, stripping off a layer every 10 minuites in the morning sun and finally being able to breath some thicker air oncemore. Hell of a day.

Brimming with confidnce after our pass success we decided to take a detour to Kagbini a recommended village. We were soon following a solitary set of footprints up to a saddle. 3000ft below was the river valley we needed to get to but we lost the footprints in the thaw and were left on pony paths heading what seemed the wrong way. The map, we had long ago realised was not detailed enough. An unmarked wrinkle in a valley could mean a drop of a few thousand feet to a dead end or only to climb out again. At this altitude this could mean half a day at least.
Eventually we cut accross country heading down towards a gorge, trusting to find a way to the river. My mind is trained on smaller landscapes and I misjudged the scale of these hills. Luckily I looked back to Anja and realised I had crossed a path at right-angles; one going our way.
Trusting in the sheep-trail to know its way down the cliff, like believing in a horse to find its way home, we followed hoping there would be no impossible ice on the way. Streams flowing over the paths here often freeze into impressive ice-fountains, dangerous to cross. We were in luck and wound our way down to the broad river-bed. Home and dry.
We had been finding ammonite fossils all day but a vertical beach making up a whole cliff face, complete with preserved sand ridges and tiny sea snail fossils was a geologists dream. Later we saw a similar formation making up part of a village street.
Kagbeni was a square housed, flat roofed village looking upriver to the upper Mustang region, an arid, Tibetan type landscape in which we were not permitted. We stayed a few days.

Having failed to learn our lesson we daily tried to take unmarked trails down the long, descending Kali Nandaki Nadi valley on the opposite side to the dusty track. Often we were rewarded by needle-carpeted and magical paths through the ever thickening pine-woods, not unlike the Alps. The occasional lumberjack felled with an axe, squared up with an adze and called his son to help plank-up with a pit-saw. I realised I had not heard the nag of a chainsaw in either India or Nepal. Often though, our alternative route took us over fresh or live landslips and once to an abrupt cliff- face. No option but an about turn, backtracking and an after dark, sore-footed arrival in the next village. Luckily though, this temperate band was the apple capital of Nepal and he resulting brandy could compete with the best calvados. Aching soles soon forgotten.
In this valley we were meeting more hikers. In the evenings anyway. We spent a nice one with a French couple from Arcachon and a Dutch guy, Mink. sipping apple-brandy before a rare open fire.
Further down we met again two Russian girls with whom we walked a day or two. Another sociable night was spent with this entertaining pair and two Germans, Edwin and Isabel. It turned out that Anja had a mutual friend, Petra, in Reutlingen and Anja had heard of Isabels travels in Australia. They were taking a different route but maybe we will walk together in the Swabish Alb sometime in the future.

After 3 weeks walking through many different climates, from the land of hindu temples to that of Buhddist prayer wheels and flags; through the realms of the jungle pheasant to the home of the highplains partridge and the Yak. The people here live far away from the hectic world of the automobile, a quiet existance though a hard one. The slopes are too steep for tractors and often settlements are connected by steps rather than paths which should keep mules and ponies in employ for years to come. I recommend this 'tea house' trek to all. We will hopefully be privelidged enough to someday return to this area.