Panoramic views from a pass back over Lake Llanganuco, near the start of the Santa Cruz trek. This 4 day trek featured snow, rain and sun and moved through just a few of the stunning valleys, glaciers, lakes and epic snow capped mountains that make up the Cordillera Blancas. Much like Nepal, we would have loved to have spent several more weeks trekking around them!!
Day 5 – Chame to Gyaru (8 hrs trekking, 19 km, 1,020m rise)
After an early start, the morning was spent steadily climbing to higher altitudes, through pine forests and expansive valleys while the Marsyandi river rapids continued to snake far below. The Annapurna snow peaks now dominate the horizon and each new bend in the path or crest in the valley, yields increasingly more resplendent views and angles. We pass through a ruined village, remnants of a former Tibetan Khampa (warrior) camp from the days of armed Tibetan resistance to the Chinese, now little more than shelter to passing porters. The villages now featured large Mani’s, rows of Tibetan prayer wheels, at both their entrance and exits and we could increasingly frequently spy Gompa’s (Tibetan Monasteries) and prayer flags ensconced in the clutches of remote clifftops.
After a few hours, a huge granite wall appears and dominates a large portion of the mornings trekking, the sheer face seems to ascend perfectly upwards and Karna reveals this is a holy site to many of the local Gurungs. Named ‘Paungi Dandi’ or ‘gateway to heaven’, it is believed to be where the dead ascend to heaven. Shamans hold rituals at the base for the deceased and the trail is littered by rocks arranged in neat pyramids and silks scarves tied around bushes and pines – prayers and offerings to the departed.
Continuing uphill, from mid morning the road divides into ‘Upper and Lower Pisang’ routes and we break from the main path to take the higher road. While considerably more challenging, we have read that this is the more spectacular view and experience, the villages more interesting and untouched – it will also be our first taste of higher altitudes and give us a good chance at some acclimatization. Immediately the change is obvious and we have the road to ourselves, blessedly free from other trekkers for seemingly the first time – our imaginations are suddenly sparked and free to roam unchecked. The river drops away to the floor of the valley and we rise up the valley wall. After a tough few hours climbing the thin, winding goat-track path, we reach the village of Upper Pisang, a rocky almost medieval town built into the mountainside and watched over by a large Gompa above. The surrounding land here is above the tree-line and brown and barren. Horses, goats and cows roam fields littered with round stones and bordered in turn by metre high stone walls, on entering the village we sight our first yak seated calmly in a straw covered courtyard. It looks a more desperate existence here, the Tibetan people are browner, tougher, more hardened – you can tell that the wind howls through here. The village itself is fascinating; the stoned paved alleys that link the town, reveal a complex warren of stone houses that fuse stables, living quarters and wood storage into a 3d labyrnth up the hill. Many places seem abandoned.
We pause for lunch to take in this new environment, our original objective and perhaps inspired decide to forge onto the next town. The trail continues softly along the valley wall for a while, ducking in and out of scattered pines and a beautiful, clear aqua lake. Then suddenly we are faced with a huge swollen incline crested by a Gompa. Depressingly we see a path snaking its way directly up the slope and realize we may have been too ambitious here. For 2 hours we slowly zig zag up the mountains, a 500m rise and by far our hardest climb so far. For company, we are egged on by a team of porters, good naturedly chasing their patrons up the slope into the setting sun. Every 50m or so, we are forced to stop and catch our breath, our first taste of altitude and far from a pleasant one.
Eventually though and truly exhausted we reach Gyaru, another medieval stone town and at 3,700m, far higher than I have ever been in my life. At the top we are greeted by stunning vista’s of the mountains, a definite fatigue reliever. The nearest guesthouse, the Yakru Mount View (their are only 2) is a 2 storey construction, built around a hollow central lounge room with fireplace – you can tell that this is essentially efficient and we secure a nice room overlooking the mountains. The young manager is playing some impressively funky music which helps to keep us warm in the fading light. It quickly becomes freezing and we settle in with an older english trekker around the fire, happily immersed in intimate conversation, until the embers start to fade.
Day 6 – Gyaru to Manang (6 hrs trekking, 15 km, 190m fall)
After a sleepless night, a common symptom of altitude, we wake up to find the weather has closed in and the brilliant surrounding vista of yesterday afternoon has been with-held ominously from view. After a breakfast of Tibetan bread, (kind of like dampa, fried like a pancake and my new staple) we head outside and feel the first faint tickles of snowfall. For the first couple of hours we trek in the light snow along a thin, winding trail through pines and bushes regaled in the full spectrum of Autumns shades. Despite the weather and clouds covering the peaks, the views remain breath-taking and we are happily entertained. Walking comfortably along flat tracks, after the previous days climb, we reach Ngawal, another medieval stone town, set into the barren hill side and beset with the usual prayer flags and mani’s.
After tea in Ngawal, the snow gets heavier and more serious, the path on the stoney, thinly forrested higher altitude is very exposed and the constant snow means we are soon wet and freezing. We accelerate and button down for the long 3 hour trek to Manang; the walking turns into a slow endless and relentless drive to get there, Megumi is noticeably fading just as we reach town. We arrive to find that with the weather, the town is backed up with other trekkers, Manang is a reasonably sized village and normally somewhere that trekkers stay a couple of days in order to help acclimitization. On this occasion, the poor weather has mean’t that no-one has moved on and we are forced to take the only room we can. A wooden hut, down a muddy path at the back of a hotel. We take dinner early and retire exhausted and freezing, as the snow continues to fall steadily outside.
Day 7 – Around Manang
It is another sleepless night and I hope that I can acclimatise soon, you seem to dream more at altitude as well I think, which takes some getting used to. Outside everything is white and covered with snow, but there is blue sky about and the weather is clearing. We have decided to take a rest day as well and use the time to acclimatize by exploring some of the surrounding area.
After a solid breakfast and blessedly free of packs, we embark on a climb up to Prakeen Gompa, situated high on the cliff-face above Manang. As we climb, the weather clears and we are gifted with a constantly shifting series of glimpses at the stunning peaks that surround us in all directions. It takes about an hour and a half to scramble up to the vertical path to the Gompa- as we get closer to the top, we are again forced to stop every few metres to get our breath and stay thumping hearts as the higher altitude takes its toll. One guidebook says this is 4,500 metres, another 3,900 – Karna thinks its the former – even he is blowing hard .
At the top, we stop to catch our breath and then enter the Gompa. A 93 year old Tibetan Lama and his wife live here, the Lama is famed for providing blessings to trekkers who are crossing the Thorung La pass for a small donation which is why we are here. He greets us in a grimy temple cut into the cliff wall and then individually performs the blessing. First by giving us some medicine for the pass – small black seeds that we wash down with a special oil. He then places a braided necklace around our necks, to act as a charm for the crossing; and finally uses a Tibetan prayer within its protective wooden case to anoint our heads. Afterwards we are served tea and chat with him amicably. He, like everyone we seem to meet here, is fascinated by Megumi – with her nose ring and slightly mongolian cheekbones /nose, she looks convincingly Nepali or Tibetan; but her clothes just don’t fit. Megumi buys some prayer beads from him and he tells us he has lived in this cave for more than 40 years.
Feeling considerably energised and empowered by this experience, we depart the Gompa and charge back down the mountainside, shimmying down cliff faces and goat tracks across to a couple of other hilltop Gompa’s on our way to the neighbouring town of Braga. The views were breathtaking, the peaks continuing their games of hide and seek with the clouds, so that full paroramic was never quite in view. There is something about the mountains here that makes the spirits soar, I can see why the Tibetans dedicate themselves so wholly and successfully to pursuits of the spirit, the air tingles with a heightened consciousness and self clarity here, amplified a hundredfold by the vastness, solitude and immensity of nature.
After exploring the clifftown of Braga, we returned to Manang blending back into the menagerie of trekkers acclimitizing. There are more and more familiar faces now – a strange, eclectic mix and not quite the band of soulsearchers I had envisioned; at times, the place has more the feel of a European ski resort. Tomorrow, we make for Letdar, some 4100 metres and the the first real test for altitude sickness and although we climbed higher than that today, above 3,500metres you can only rise by 300m per day in order to allow your body to acclimitize. Should be interesting.
Day 8 – Manang to Letdar (3 hr trek, 10km, 660m rise)
We rise at 6am to have breakfast and set off by 7am. We are determined to beat the crowd and ensure a decent place to sleep at the next locale. The trail rises slowly and the altitude ensures we are constantly out of breath, it is very slow going. Megumi in particularly is really suffering and unable to breath – its her birthday today, a little unplanned and hard to make much of a fuss given where we are. The morning starts out cold and drizzling but slowly clears and the mountain views steadily improve. After a few hours, we reach Yak Kharaka and cross the snowline. The hills are covered with Yaks grazing here, it is where all the locals in the area put their yaks out to pasture.
An hour further down the track we reach Letdar, there are 3 hotels and little else. These aclimitizations villages seem to becoming a littlew more desperate and isolated the higher we get. The first is already full care of a tour group and and at the second we are shown a twin room in a mud cave that has more akin with a stables, not quite what Megumi is up for on her birthday. Despite her fatigue and willingness for whatever, I stubbornly head back down the hill fortunately finding a Sunny room at our 3rd and last option.
Later in the afternoon, we walk back down past the yak mustering to Yak Karkha to give Megumi a reprieve from her fatigue (a major sign of AMS). There is a lodge here that is also famous for having some of the best chocolate cake on the circuit, so she is able to dine out a little and considerably raise her spirits. Not much of a birthday this and I didn’t even bring a present along, but I do have other plans further along!
We have some Diamox with dinner and bond over the cold, with a couple from Slovakia and a Korean trekker. Sleeping is a nightmare and the Diamox ensures we have to get up and brave the -5 / 10 degree weather every hour to get to the toilet.
Day 9 – Letdar to Thorung Pedi (3 hr trek, 5km, 400m rise)
Megumi wakes up feeling much better in the morning and we stomp the couple of hours along the rocky path in the mountainside to Thorung Pedi in very good time. The path is a slow climb, but not challenging with fantastic views back to Annapurna 2 and Gangapurna. We spend some time behind a trek group of some 15 Germans which makes us feel a lot better about ourselves and also pass see a huge group of Musk deer grazing.
On reaching Thorung Pedi, we fiork out an extra 200 RP for a room with an attached bathroom – quaking at the idea of venturing outdoors all night to the alternative. After a fortifying lunch of soup and baked potato’s we trek the hour and a half up to the high camp (4,850m) for some more acclimitization practice. It is an arduous climb and we can barely make 20 metres at a time without stopping short of breath. The steep snow and ice covered path is also quite hazardous and a daunting prospect for tomorrow. We stop at the teahouse and engage with our former english acquaintence and another older Irish chap before heading back down the hill.
Tomorrow is intimidating and there is little prospect of sleep. We need to trek for 9-10 hours tomorrow, the first 5 hours will be a tough, freezing high altitude climb to the pass of Thorung La, followed by a nightmare, 4 hour descent. All the conversations at the dinner table are quite restrained and sober as a result – everyone is feeling the effects of the altitide and focused on the big day ahead. It is freezing cold and we decide to retreat to our sleeping bags relatively early. Kana also manages to steal a few blankets for us. Our -20 degree rating on the sleeping bags has been sorely tested and come up short the last 2 nights.
As possibly one the bigger undertakings in our lives to date, this part of our adventure is impossible to throw up in a single blog. Apart from the amazing sights, people, cultures, mountains and the auspicious peak crossing (and engagement proposal) itself – there is also the simple fact that there was not a lot to do when the sun goes down… other than stay warm and make a few notes. While one could easily write a book on it (as many people seem to do here), I will try to simply capture the more salient experiences for posterity, but bear with me as I serialize this a little bit.
From Kathmandu, we braved a 7 hr bus ride through the scenic valleys, rice paddies & villages of the Prithi highway to Pokhara, a peaceful lakeside city in central Nepal. Whereas Kathmandu has a big city, chaos complex, Pokhara retains much of it’s hippie vibe and the tourist part of town (Lakeside) is happily insulated from the world and home to both long term travelers relaxing and soaking up a low cost, alternate lifestyle and a myriad of trekkers (largely Euro’s) preparing to savour the surrounding mountains that completely dominate the horizon.
As one of the longest (and most popular) treks in the world, the Annapurna Circuit is a 15-21 day hike that follows a course along two rivers – up, over and around the stunning mountain range known as the Annapurna’s – a region containing 3 of the 8 tallest mountains in the world; the highest pass; highest lake and the deepest ravine – all following trails that used to represent salt trading routes linking the villages and tribes between Nepal and Tibet for thousands of years. What makes the circuit most amazing though, is its accessibility and the ease with which it allows you to navigate and engage with this part of the world, as you stay & eat at local tea-houses in ancient villages scattered, every few hours along the valleys and mountains along the way.
This was our goal anyway and while Megumi haunted our hotels’ wi-fi trying to finish her project, I stalked internet cafe’s, updated our site and spent time researching and talking to trekking companies under the taunting shadows of the Annapurna range. As many of my friends will atest I am a long way off any form of peak fitness, so you can imagine this undertaking came not without equal doses of both excitement and trepidation. After chatting to a few companies, I found some guys I connected well with and proceeded to hire an english speaking, porter to carry our main backpack (Megumi had injured her shoulder doing back somersaults from a high wire in Laos and I was not exactly fit, so it seemed liked the smart thing to do given our reservations). Not keen to be stuck with someone we didn’t like for 15 days though, we took this hiring process pretty cautiously, interviewing a few and actually ended up waiting an extra day to ensure we got a porter (Karna) who we felt especially comfortable with. With that sorted out, officially registered, some last minute hiring of down sleeping bags and jackets (when told it was likely to hit -15 degrees up top at night) and a quick stockpiling of drugs, energy bars & chocolates, we were ready to go.
Day 1 – Pokhara to BesiSahar (5 hr Bus) / trek to Ngadi (13km / 4 hrs)
Our porter Karna (running late), picked us up from our hotel at 6.30am in order to catch a local bus to our trek start point, some 100km (5 hours) distant. Catching a local bus in Nepal is a fascinating experience. The TATA buses tend to be brightly, almost psychedelically decked out and operated by a tight team of 2-3 individuals. Firstly, a driver who is completely focused on the somewhat extensive demands of driving along unsealed, one-lane cliff-faces at high speed; dodging oncoming traffic and sounding his ‘ring tone-esque’ horn ahead of every curve. He is closely partnered by a chief facilitator who hangs out the bus side door banging the side of the bus & ringing another horn in a code that seems to provide the driver direction on possible stops, fares, unsighted bends, road edges and reversing dangers; while at the same time managing to tout for additional fares to anyone they pass. All this is accompanied of course by blaring high pitched, bollywood female vocalists and a 4/4 drum beat, pumped through a nervously, thin speaker that amazingly seems to synch perfectly with every challenge the road throws up and the rolling rhythmic gate of passenger heads. The end experience – a constantly interrupted journey of jolts, yells, bangs, beats and melodies that works seamlessly together, as the bus team relentlessly compliment the full seated trekker passengers, with any passing fare from villagers, sacks or chickens that they can conjur.
After that extended education safely in the bag, we arrived at BesiSahar and decided to forego the jeep journey up the newly laid road and begin walking, at the very least to break in a few muscles with an easy day. We followed the rough, relatively flat, jeep road for a few hours along the winding course of the Marsyandi river, through hills brimming with rice terraces on the verge of harvest and local swarms of Gurung kids attempting to apprise us of our pens. Upon coming to the small village of BhuleBhule, the road noticeably stopped and a bridge leapt over the raging river below marking the start of the new travel frontier ahead. A transition easily accentuated by the donkey trains backing up – all being loaded up with food, alcohol and other essential supplies for the higher markets, many days walk above.
For the first time the dawning realization hit us that from here on in, there were no short-cuts or easy ways out. Commitment is a funny thing, for the next 12 days we would be on our own, the only way out from here was with our own 2 feet, or on the back of a donkey (excepting the expensive helicopter / plane evac.) Any which way it would take several days now to return to safety. Its amazing how few times in life you are really required to commit to that much time and effort without some sort of net.
Beyond the road we plunged, onward to the small settlement of Ngadi, a series of guesthouses clustered together into a tiny community, where we proceeded to grab a room in one overlooking the river. Arriving mid afternoon, we then watched trains of porters scurry desperately past, trying to catch their respective trekker groups, so that they can start setting up camp for the night. A group of 10 or so older trekkers in a group (most likely French) charge past. In the fading light of dusk they appear as though some forms of human arachnid – shiny, aluminium ski poles protrude unnervingly from hunched bodies, as though bionic grafted frontal limbs & accompanied by the scurrying, metallic CLIK CLAK sound of the poles searching randomly for grip in the rocks in the nature, an entirely alien and unsettling sight. We did actually bring a set of trekking poles ourselves, kindly donated by our porter and I swore to avoid them if at all possible.
Our Guesthouse, despite initial appearances is freezing cold and spartan, perhaps a too real introduction to the days ahead. Huddled into our dining room, for trekker company we have 2 aloof Frenchmen; a Mexican & an American girl, immersed in their knitting and a Canadian banker, Peter – plus an array of locals, guides and porters all waiting for us to finish dinner, so that they can themselves eat. Peter turns out to be our only real conversation, currently working his way from Mongolia, through Tibet & Nepal. We stay up late swapping world views, while everyone else retreats to the warmth of sleeping bags.
Day 2 – Ngadi to Chamche (8 hrs trekking, 16 km, 480m rise)
After an early start around 7am and a relatively even trail, we start hitting some more serious hills mid morning, as the river drops to the bottom of a deep ravine and we start to chart the path higher up the slope. Likely, this is just a small taste of things to come, but the going is tough, as I re-aquaint myself with many muscles, long forgotten and reluctantly employed. Megumi seems to bound up the steep inclines, but I am beginning to have considerable self-doubts about my own fitness and preparation. As we follow the river, the hills give way to a huge gorge and the rice paddies either side appear to impossibly cascade down the sides of the cliff-face & small isolated, villages dot the highest corners, seemingly completely inaccessible.
After a few hours we hear explosions echoing down the valley – blastings for a new road that seems destined to bring ‘civilization’ to this corner of the world. Thoughts flood my mind of the change taking place and the endless arguments for and against. Further up we pass a group of boys as young as 10, chipping impossibly away at the rockface, boring holes into cliffs for dynamiting and throwing loose rocks down the mountain side. I do wonder the death toll that this road racks up for these ‘workers’. With the task in front of them it will take years to complete, but they will get there – its is likely the only guaranteed employment around. For much of the afternoon, we follow the makings of the ‘new road’ relentlessly uphill, picking a trail through landsides and ‘blast sites’ till we reach the small village of Chamche. Blowing hard, I am sore all over and completely exhausted!
We stay in a Tibetan Guesthouse in the centre of town, a pleasant lodge with nice (warmer) rooms and get our first chance to partake of the local liquer “chyang”, a sake like liquor made from rice. Over dinner we watch 4 generations of Tibetan women manage the lodge. The great grandmother parades around the living area chanting mantra’s, twirling beads and cleansing rooms with sage. One of the grand-daughters takes a shine to Megumi, who manufactures a paper crane from scrap to become an instant hit and essential playmate til bedtime.
Day 3 – Chamche to Danaqyu (8 hrs trekking, 15 Km, 815m rise)
Another hard days trekking, the body endlessly protesting, but I do seem to find it a lot easier today than Megumi. Yesterday was lots 0f steep climbs, today is steady and I find that I can do ‘endurance’, its the shifting my weight vertically uphill that seems to be the problem! In the morning there is a steep climb and then more picking our way through road construction. Marijuana grows wild on the sides of the road here and the curious smell of dust and sensimilla adds a lingering strangeness to proceedings..
As the rice paddies, grasses slowly, give way to pine forests, we pass more and more donkey caravans, colourfully decorated and winding their way ever upwards with their precious cargoes; impressive in their ability to pick their way through the rocky crevasses. More amazingly we pass several locals barefoot and carrying a dozen, several metre length pipes on their backs up the desperately steep paths. A reminder of how isolated and remote the areas we are heading into really are, despite the seeming endless presence of other trekkers.
At the top of a hill, we pass a couple – the women is visibly upset, crying and seemingly lost in doubts. I know how they feel, though we seem to have very little room for hesitation. Karna is a godsend this way – quiet, friendly and assured, he maintains a steady, unerring pace and when we find it tough and start to falter he moves easily to the front, so that we can just match his assured and practiced footsteps. Already, I am not sure how we would do this without him. While we are carrying a day pack each, he is carrying a full backpack / sleeping bags and his own day pack on a frame half my size, yet never seems tired. Friendly with the locals, he is also able to easily pass on lots of insights and quickly get us settled into tea-house’s, often procuring local delicacies for us from the hidden kitchens – we have bonded pretty quickly.
At Danaqyu, we arrive quite late as the sun disappears behind the mountains and the temperature drops dramatically. We find a guesthouse (The Potala), run by another Tibetan lady that is otherwise empty, so as to guarantee us a hot shower. (There is usually only limited solar heating for a couple of these we have learned) While rooms are generally cheap (200 RP / night or US$3), food is where the tea-houses make their money (you have to eat where you stay) and meals are progressively getting more expensive every few hours now. A coke is up to 150R now, from 35 R 3 days ago. When everything comes up via donkey you have to expect that I guess.
Day 4 – Danaqyu to Chame (5 Hours, 12 km, 510m)
Supposedly a very tough climb to start the day, but it was surprisingly ok. The body still protests and seems to continually discover new untested muscles, but we seem to be getting fitter or at least used to it now. The dramatic, snow capped mountains of the Annapurna range start to pepper the horizons, as we ease up the valley and onto a plateau covered with crops and horses. Villages are slowly changing from the wood dwellings and farms of the Gurung people, into the stone and spartan lifestyles of the Tibetans.
It is a small hike today and we arrive in the thriving township of Chame about lunchtime with ample time to check into a nice, sunny, guest-house by the river and do some much needed washing, while the sun still shines. Chame comes across like one of the last real outposts and the village is an key administration centre. The town is a significant size and its paved streets expound with dozens of enterprising shops showcasing innumerable treasures invaluable to the trekker unprepared or desperate for comforts. We happily take in the sights and pride ourselves in our lack of temptation; Megumi manages to track down the towns, tiny little Hot spring.
Later, we meet Peter again and spend the evening around our guesthouse fire exchanging stories and news, along with a young German couple on their honeymoon and a troupe of 50+ yr old Belgians who we have been leapfrogging for the last 2 days. An easy day and fresh comforts has everyone in a good mood and positive about the paths (and pass) looming ahead.
View from our hotel rooftop of the Himalaya’s. We spent 2 weeks trekking the Annapurna circuit around them…. ネパール、ポカラのゲストハウスの屋上からヒマラヤ連峰のひとつアンナプルナ山脈を臨む。ここからアンナプルナ・サーキットを廻る2週間のトレッキングに出発
There is something mythical about the Himalaya’s, Nepal and Tibet. The mountains (Everest) at the roof of the world, that man has striven for so long to try and conquer, coupled with its amazing myths (Lama’s and Yetis) and its unparalleled trading, cultural and religious meeting points and legacies. Nepal is where the Buddha was born and is now home to many of the Tibetan Buddhists forced to flee and live in exile, it also a huge Hindu country and home to more than 70 different ethnic groups. All this and more, attracted us here and it feels like this is where our real adventures begin. SE Asia was really just a soft landing, a safe exploration of the known – Nepal really kicks off the rest – new, colourful, rich and uncharted.
The change was palpable before we even boarded the plane in Bangkok. Over the last 2 months we had gotten used to being surrounded by young, independent travelers and in some senses had subconsciously started to assume that this was our ongoing travel environment. The crowd waiting to board our flight to Nepal however was different – gone were the cheap cotton t-shirts advertising exotic versions of SE Asian beer, replaced here with designer outdoor fabrics and brands. Backpacks were now tighter fighting and smaller, boots had replaced thongs and the average age had jumped up by some 20 years. Strange definitely, but it felt comforting for some reason. The draw of something different and potentially more exciting!
On arriving in Kathmandu, we caught a taxi into downtown Thamel and started lapping the streets to find a cheap guesthouse. Thamel is I guess the trekking equivalent of Khao-san Rd in Bangkok. A teeming hive of activity just north of central Kathmandu, based completely around travelers and the foreign market. The place literally buzzes, as motorbikes and cars endlessly honk they way through crowds of international trekkers, travelers and the odd hippy, all working their way through the labyrinth of hawkers, clothing, Tibetan souvenir, trekking supply shops and agencies as they prepare to embark on a trek or adventure into the Nepalese outdoors and other adventure thrills. Bangkok (and Tokyo) have prepared us well for this; the crowds, noise and touts seem to fade comfortably into the background as we focused on the cities treats.
The days when Kathmandu was the essential destination on the hippie trail are long gone it seems, replaced as with our fellow plane passengers, by largely amateur 30 -50 something trekkers (much like the mountains of Japan actually). But the hippy trail legacies still remain everywhere. The clothing stores along Thamel, all hawk an amazing profusion of cheap, alternative, colourful fashions with fairytale like qualities, though I suspect their business is much more of the wholesale variety thee days given the pedestrian profiles. Equally and most especially at night, the streets fill with whispers, where every step brings another dark face, followed by discreetly projected offers of ‘hash’ or ‘marijuana’. Though nothing quite prepares you for the same discreet whisper, that mystically projects ‘Tiger Balm’ covertly into the chill night air. After 4 days here, this never fails to bring a smile to my face as I contemplate the changing of the guard that this really represents – from the escapes of the hippy high, to the soothing of aged, sore muscles – how things have changed indeed!
We are camped in Kathmandu for 5 days or thereabouts. Once again, Megumi has picked up a translation project and I am free to catch up on the blog / website side of things and plan out our trekking adventures. But we are also taking time to explore the city and greater Kathmandu Valley. As one of the original trade routes connecting China, India and the west it abounds with ancients sites and cultural legacies.
On our second day, we ambled south to the old city, following the ancient alleys and cobbled streets as they transition into an eclectic mix of markets, squares, spice shops and teahouses, dotted throughout with ancient temples, effigies and side streets – unchanged in hundreds of years, holding on resolutely amongst the bustling, colourful cacophony of everyday life. Further south we come to Durbar Square, the site of many of the cities grand temples and the former Royal Palace, immersed in an eclectic mix of Sadhu’s, beggars, touts, gurkha’s, overloaded porters and tourist groups, the square hums with activity and it is simply enough to be there. We sit atop one of the temples and soak up the view and fascinating patchwork of passing lives and cultures.
On Day 3 we made the half hour trek across Kathmandu through the slums and suburbs to Swayambhunath, a Tibetan / Hindu temple perched on a hill providing a fantastic vista of the city and valley. Over run with monkeys, flags and ancient carvings, Buddha himself is said to have sermoned here once and it provides a great perspective of the city, mountains and valley at sunset, as we join the locals in parading clockwise around the Stupa spinning prayer wheels as we go.
The next day we head in the other direction to Pashupatinath, the most sacred Hindu temple in Nepal, set by the river its ghats are a major cremation site and the surrounding streets teem with the devout; women and families in bright sari’s and Sadhu’s in their strange outfits posing for photo’s and seeking donations. We keep walking to Bodhnath, a magnificent stupa at the centre of the most accessible Tibetan community in the world. Joining the hundreds of tibetan women, monks, tourists and others as they circle the stupa and prayerwheels clockwise, we stop off in our circuits to admire and explore the many surrounding monasteries (Gompa) and backstreets stocked with hundreds of Tibetan vendors (Thangka, Singing Bowls, jewellery etc) and other sellers. The place resonates with a deep and special energy, by its very nature unavoidable as you are immersed and whisked along in the participatory clockwise loops with all the other pilgrims.
As we prepare to leave Kathmandu and head across to Pokhara for an ambitious attempt at some Himalayan trekking, we realize once again we haven’t even scratched the surface here. The city with its crowded, loud, dusty and poverty ridden backstreets we won’t miss that much, but still the pervading atmosphere tingles with potential and of stories untold. Further out in the valley, there are more ancient sites and temples, villages and ancient tales to explore and further still there is Everest itself. Not for the last time I wonder whether I will ever get the chance to return, but our destiny lies elsewhere this time in Nepal – wistfully once again it is time to move on.
- “The Snow Leopard “, by Peter Matthiessen
After the excitement and surprise of Myanmar, Laos turned out to be a totally different adventure again. From Bangkok, we caught the overnight sleeper train to ChangMai in Northern Thailand, a pleasant slow paced 12 hour journey that reinforced many of the aspects of travel that you miss when simply jumping on an plane. I had been reading a fantastic book by Tiziano Terzani called “ A Fortune-Teller Told Me”, which narrates the tales of a year spent traveling around Asia by land and boat (after a fortune teller told him he would die if he caught a plane) and his subsequent embrace of time, mystics, distance and the experience. Sitting on that overnight train and later on a 2 day boat trip down the Meekong, these ideas resonated strongly within me. Somehow watching the cities slowly give way to villages and the farms, fields and rice paddies fading into mountains is immensely satisfying. You absorb these transitions to the rhythms of the journey without thinking, your subconscious celebrating the minor changes. Reaching a destination has such a greater sense of expectation and arrival that way.
After a few days enjoying the relaxed city, food and magnificent markets of Chang-Mai we then took a minivan to the Thai border with other like minded traveling brethren. From that moment to crossing the Laos border at Houei Xay (via boat over the Mekong River) until reaching Vientiane and heading back into Thailand, Laos felt like a strange, alternative travel, SE Asia backpacking theme ride. We seemed to follow a route so defined by Lonely Planet and others as the “backpacker adventure trail”, that we rarely felt we had an original experience, even when out “trekking” amongst the Hill Tribes or kayaking down a river. Thankfully though, it was not Contiki or P&O and we had a great time doing it and of course there were several fantastic exceptions.
From the border, we took the 2 day slow boat down the Mekong, stopping for the night in Pak Beng before arriving at Luang Prabang. We had heard conflicting tales alternating between the glowing and the horrific about this trip (mostly referencing the wooden seats, nightmare accomodations & drunken revelry), but actually found the experience to be a lot of fun. Packed onto a large boat with about 70 other like minded souls, the Mekong banks, eddies, fishermen and occasional village flow by at a steady, almost dreamlike pace. You have little else to do but read or interact with fellow passengers. (Typically an interaction that becomes more boisterous towards the end of the day, as the beer flows more freely). One tip if you do ever take the slow boat though – its definitely worth making the effort to be at very least friendly to the other travelers; we spent the rest of our time in Laos crossing paths – sharing tours, restaurants and transport with them.
Arriving in Luang Prabang, we shored up in a cheap guesthouse room, just back from the old city centre. Luang Prabang is a wonderful city, sitting at the junction of two rivers it is the ancient capital of Laos, home to its former kings and royalty. As a result, the place teems with temples, style and good food and is so unexpectedly civilized, orderly and relaxed for South East Asia, that it would be more at home in Europe, made more pronounced by the distinct french influence on the food and architecture. Several days flew by simply soaking up the markets and many shops showcasing wares of the Hill Tribes, cycling around the town and trialing the wonderful delights of the Laotian cuisine. We also did a single day trek out through a Hmong village, some jungle and a spectacular waterfall before moving on with some regret.
Reluctantly dragging ourselves away, we endured the nightmarish, 7 hour bus trip along the treacherous winding roads to the bizarre tourist oddity that is Vang Vieng. Set on a river, with a spectacular backdrop of limestone cliffs and caves, Vang Vieng is a once beautiful undiscovered village oasis, evolved into a tubing and adventure sports wonderland. Full of cheap, garish guesthouses and bars – it attracts with the triumvirate of traveller offerings – low cost, parties and adventure. Not that we were any different mind, all across Asia you will see people wearing singlets with the logo “In the Tubing, Vang Vieng”, equally you will hear tales of ‘tubing’ as being the most fun to be had in Asia. Big claims and despite our reservations and initial horror at the circus we were now joining, we found a somewhat secluded guesthouse with a view and signed up for the ride.
Tubing refers to a big day out on the Nam Son river. You rent a tractor tire tube in town and jump in a mini truck for a lift up to the river. Once there you jump into your tube and float down the river to one of the 20 or 30 bars that dot the shore especially for this purpose – each with its own range of activities, swings, drink specials, shots and “mystery” shakes. The goal is really to get back before 6pm or lose some of your deposit on the tube. Tacky perhaps, but without doubt a lot of fun, if not simply because its something you just don’t get to do anywhere else!
After couple of days of this, we decided to Kayak our way to Vientianne, a pleasant outdoorsy break from the constraints of bus travel. Vientianne though was really very simply about the food – we spent a couple of days working through the menus at some nice Laos and fusion restaurants – incredibly cheap for the quality. While most of the Lao food was great, I can especially recommend the Lao salads (Laap) – vegetables and / or meat minced together with mint and other herbs, highly addictive and refreshing and goes perfectly with Lao beer which was also very good.
All told, with more time and flexibility we would have loved to get off the track and probe Laos further, especially in the far North where the hill tribes and mountains remain largely untouched. While our trip felt quite shepherded it did not really detract from the experience, the people are friendly & relaxed; beautiful vistas and the food fantastic. Very hard to complain, but we were quite happy to move onto the real travelling.
- “Ant Egg Soup“, By Natacha Du Pont De Bie (A fantastic travel guide to Laotian cooking)