Friday, 27 March 2015

Nepal and The Himalayas.


It’s impossible to encapsulate the essence of Nepal in a single blog entry. However, with that been said, I’ll give it a go. Pour yourself a cup of tea, sit back and enjoy the ride.

The adventure began on the 19th February, the very day my visa expired. The time had flown by - I remember returning from Cambodia with a one year Ed-visa like it was yesterday. After a 20min stroll to Chiang Mai airport I changed 50,000THB to $1500 and boarded a 3hr flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

On the plane I got talking to Areerak, a hotel owner from Chiang Khong on her way to Sri Lanka. I mention this because I've seldom met Thai female solo travellers and it was my last chance to speak the lingo for the next 36 days.


Malaysia


Going through Malay immigration I started feeling a pain in my right leg and lower back. Sciatica! Where the lower spine compresses the sciatic nerve radiating pain through the back and leg. After only 10mins of walking the pain was excruciating which didn’t bode well for a trekking holiday!



The main reason for going to KL was to apply for a non-b visa at the Thai Embassy. I arrived Friday morning with a rainforest of paper and met Kiwi Graeme who appeared to have two rainforests of paper. Turns out he'd just married a Thai lass and was applying for a non-o visa. We met the following Monday for a coffee and were relieved to collect our passports replete with visas despite being 220RM ($75) lighter in the pocket.


I always enjoy Malaysia but KL (like most big cities) will not win any beauty awards. I stayed in the excellent Oasis GH - the same place I stayed when I unsuccessfully applied for a Chinese Zvisa in Feb 2009. This was a pivotal time as I ended up binning China in favour of Thailand and have remained here ever since.


One of the best things about Malaysia is the food. Copious amounts of tea tarek, tandoori chicken, curry and naan bread was consumed. My Bangladeshi mate Saifun cooked up some delights opposite this Hindu temple.













The only downside of Oasis GH is its location - in the heart of bustling Chinatown. Bustling is a travel guide euphemism for skanking. Anyway, twas here I met Ian from Devon - a canny lad who maintained moral when the sciatica was playing up. I was sad to see him leave for Penang but I had other things on my mind, namely, Nepal and my 57th country.


Nepal

"Never Ending Peace And Love" is how a local lad summed up his country on the arduous bus trip from Kathmandhu to Pokhara. On reflection, an apt acronym.


It began with a 4hr flight from KL to Kathmandu. However, we pointlessly circled the city for an age making it closer to 6hrs. As soon as you step off the plane you can't fail to notice the contrast between KL's futuristic airport and Kathmandu's cattle shed where I saw a boy walking a goat with a string lead. In the ensuing chaos we managed to obtain a 30day visa on arrival for $40.


Nepal only has one kind of taxi: the diminutive Suzuki Maruti 800cc. They also only come in one colour: dirty white. I jumped in one with Kiki (a 24yo Guangzhuo lass I met on the plane) and for 500 rupees ($5) we rode to the Thamel area of the city where we shared an $18 room to cut costs (good) but didn't get to play hide the sausage (bad).

Kathmandu



The mere name Kathmandu evokes visions of the exotic - where the Himalayas, Buddhism and Hinduism fuse against a backdrop of poverty and chaos. Riding through the Nepalese capital of over two million souls you can't help but be shocked by the piles of rubble, poverty, dust and trash in Nepal's fastest growing conurbation.



The next day I moved to the Alobar1000 GH to hook up with Sabine - a German lass I met in Malaysia in 2013. The dorms are a whopping $4.50/night but, presumably, there's a discount if you’re a dreadlocked dope-smoking tramp given how many of them were in residence. They made the bare-foot weirdos of Pai look mainstream.

It was wet and cold and I was still in Thai attire so I bought a jacket ($25), fleece ($10), boots ($45) and hat ($1.50) from the dozens of trekking shops in bustling Thamel. Most of the gear is fake but at those prices nobody was complaining. I sent a postcard to Fatha but realised I'd forgotten to write ENGLAND on the address just after I'd shoved it into the postbox. I wonder if it'll make it?


Medical


A tough old lady massaged my sciatic spine ($20/hr) but I was writhing in agony by the end. The next day was spent limping around looking for a local doctor but they were all closed (Saturday – the Hindu day off). I ended up in a dodgy pharmacy applying magic oil to my back in a small room behind a secret Harry Potter door that was part of the shelving. The $6 anesthetic oil burned like hell and smelt like mustard but the locals swear by it.


I tried my luck at the CIWEC clinic opposite the British Embassy but baulked at the $95 price tag to talk to a doctor. Two tough looking Nepalese soldiers ordered me (at gun point) to delete the photos I’d taken of the Union Jack fluttering at the Embassy's prison-like gates. I detest governments and their monopoly on the use of force.


Pokhara


Kathmandu was interesting but it wasn't the Nepal I'd come to see. On Sunday 1st March we embarked on an epic 8hr bus journey to Pokhara, 200km west of the Kat. Pokhara is Nepal's second city with a population of around 300,000. Like the Kat, it experiences frequent blackouts. The Nepal Electric Authority simply doesn't produce enough power to meet demand resulting in 'load shedding' (power cuts to you and me). Pokhara's power is supplied in two bursts totaling no more than 6hrs/day!

Abnormal


I got talking to a local about Nepali abnormalities. Two come to mind:

1. The flag of Nepal is the world's only non-quadrilateral national flag.


2. Nepal is the world's only independent country that is 45 minutes ahead of or 15 minutes behind a standard time zone (GMT+5.45).





Sarangkot




We hired a motorbike and rode 8km and 1592m up Sarangkot Hill for views of the Pokhara Valley and the Himalayan peaks.









Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) mountain (6993m) is spectacular. It’s sacred to Shiva and revered by locals therefore it’s never been climbed and remains off limits. The "Matterhorn of Nepal" was clearly visible from our room.


We stayed at the Center Inn Lake for $8/night ($4 each). The young lad on reception is studying physics in college so we worked on some kinematic problems together. He says this is the first time a guest has ever helped him. I’m not surprised – he still owes me a beer.




Pokhara is a chilled lakeside place catering to thousands of trekking tourists. How cute is this baby?









Like India, cows roam the pot-holed roads. This one was staring me out - probably after my coffee ... or samosa?








It rained a lot which is unusual for March. This kid took the chance to kayak down the street. Sabine and I donned some traditional Nepalese outfits at the nearby Devis Falls.








Motorbike


I hired a nearly new (only 5000km) Indian-built Pulsar 180cc ($11/day), filled it with petrol (8L $9) and rode it 80km west to Baglung with glorious views of the Himalayas.




The roads here are atrocious and at one point I hit a ramp-like bulge and found myself airborne. On landing, disaster struck. The right foot peg and brake assembly sheared off.




I struggled back to Daonanda, a village about 30km west of Pokhara where Sonam (a Tibetan refugee) phoned the bike owner who rode out with the new part. I bought a round of Tibetan tea as a thank you and within an hour I was $16 lighter and good to go. I love the photo of the mechanic looking at the bike with a Himalayan backdrop and an eagle soaring above.

A couple of random shots. There are a lot of swing bridges here.








Holi Day



During the bike trip I kept seeing people covered in red paint. It was 'Holi' - a Hindu spring festival where people throw red water around - a bit like Thailand's Songkran. Luckily for me they'll leave you alone if you're not into it (unlike Thailand). I like this photo of Sabine and Ashok. Ashok is the father of the baby I was holding. He manages the Donosti Hotel and, incredibly, speaks fluent Catalan??


Bureaucratic Bullshit

After a week in Pokhara my back was much better and we were 
finally ready to start trekking. But first we needed our TIMS and ACAP. “What the hell are TIMS and ACAP?” I hear you ask. Well, they’re the Trekking Information Management System and Annapurna Conservation Area Permit. You need both to proceed, they costs $20 each and the Nepalese government nets another $40 on top of the $40 visa fee. Multiply these figures by the millions of tourists passing through and, voila, you have a ludicrously transparent money-making farce. None of the funds raised are funding infrastructure projects I can tell you. There isn't a pavement in the whole country. More likely a few nice Mercs in the capital. I detest governments and their monopoly on expensive red tape. End rant.



Parabolic

I saw a few parabolic solar kettles here. My students are always moaning that we never use maths in the real world. Well how about this? An excellent use of quadratics (y=x^2/4d where d is the focal length). Beautiful.




Trekking


After acquiring our TIMS and ACAP, changing $300 to 29,000NPR and renting a sleeping bag for 80NPR/day, we were good to go. I've dealt with Thai Baht, Malaysian Ringgit, US Dollars and Nepalese Rupees on this trip. Haven't seen a quid in donkeys!



So, on Sunday 8th March we entered the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) at Nayapul and proceeded to climb 3000 steps up to Ulleri and this guesthouse.











I walked with Sabine the first day but went solo afterwards as she was too slow. I made good progress making it from Poon Hill (3,210m) to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC - 4,130m) in 3 days. The best day was ABC to Chomrong in 8hrs. What a view.










This panoramic shot from Poon Hill is from my phone camera!! You can see Dhaulagiri to the left, the 7th highest mountain in the world at 8,167m (26,795ft in old money). The Annapurna massif is to the right.


I figured the occasion deserved a selfie - my first ever.








Tadapani. Not a bad place for a cup of tea. Loving the Tibetan prayer flags.










How do you secure a corrugated iron roof to your hut? With rocks of course.

Another random shot of Fishtail with its twin summits resembling the tail of a fish - supposedly.







I met some canny folk. Teddy from Indonesia is a 25yo airline pilot! He'd just come back from ABC and was thrilled to have seen snow for the first time. We met at Jinhu where I enjoyed a welcome soak in the nearby hot springs.







This little lass followed me for most of a brutal 1000m descent from Kot Danda to Jinhu. She only wore flipflops yet displayed superior speed and agility on the tortuous trail. This was the best smile she could manage - I got the feeling she hadn't smiled much in her life.








The sign on the left should be at Katmandhu airport. An 'open defecation free area'? Really? We need a sign for this? The sign on the right shows how much snow there is on the way to ABC. About 2m despite Annapurna being on a more southerly latitude (28N) than the Egyptian pyramids (30N).




The solitude during the ascent to ABC was surreal. It’s like being in an enormous amphitheater where the only spectators are the huge walls of rock, snow and ice towering over you in eerie silence. This is why it's also known as the Annapurna Sanctuary.




At 8091m Annapurna I is the world's 10th highest mountain. Since the first ascent in 1950 it's only been climbed by 130 people and 53 have died trying making it the most deadly. For every 10 that try, 4 die!


Even though I'm at the 4130m Base Camp (takes days to get here) - the peak is still 8km away (horizontally) and 4km further up. It still felt like I could touch the glaciers running down the gullies.






In the room at ABC there was snow half way up the window with icicles for decoration. During the night I went to the toilet only to find the water frozen! I marveled at the starry night sky - millions of diamonds glittering on black velvet. The Milky Way was clearly visible - the best star gazing since Mongolia! I didn’t sleep a wink because of the altitude and subzero temperatures. A tad cooler than Thailand!


The next morning I was off at 0630. I'd been lucky with the weather but it started to turn during the descent. The Himalayas are an extreme environment, no question. 43 people died here just 5 months ago during a lethal snowstorm in October 2014. I got away with a sun burnt face and panda eyes.

Forget any romantic notions you might have about being alone in the wilderness. Annapurna is spectacularly beautiful but it’s this very beauty that draws trekkers from all over the globe. Around 130,000 tourists visited the ACA in 2014. I’m glad I came in low season but it was still crowded on the trails at times. A bit different to Scotland’s West Highland Way – that’s for sure.

Here's a summary of the 110km trek:



Day
Where
Time
Notes
1
Nayapul - Ulleri
6hrs
Very slow. Steep ascent to Ulleri.
2
Ulleri – Ban Thanti
9hrs
Via Poon Hill.
3
Ban Thanti - Jhinu
7hrs
Via Kot Danda – a nasty 1000m descent to Jhinu. Excellent hot springs.
4
Jinhu - Dovan
7hrs
An easy day – lots of up and down initially.
5
Dovan - ABC
7hrs
Tough going in the snow after Deurali
6
ABC – Chomrong
8hrs
Crazy distance day
7
Chomrong - Kande
8hrs
Final night at Australian Camp. Strange to hear traffic again.

110km in 7 days doesn’t sound much but the steep inclines sap your energy. Hardly any of it’s flat. 
Additionally, the thinner oxygen at higher altitudes leaves you gasping for breath. I ran a sub-two-hour half-marathon in December but this trek felt more of an achievement. Most people take 11-14 days.

There are no roads in the ACA and it was blissful not hearing an engine (or horn). I also enjoyed a week 'offline' - rare in today's world. Returning to Pokhara was a bit of a shock. The hustle and bustle left me disorientated.



We’re used to trucks carrying everything in these contemporary times but humans still do it in the land that time forgot. Look at these two bundles of grass. 

If you ever eat chicken in the Himalayas spare a thought for the blokes that carry it up.



The final night of the trek was at the oddly-named Australia Camp just outside Kande and the road back to civilisation.

What a superb finale!

I even made an 8min video and stuck it on youtube to commemorate the event.








Lumbini

Nepal is a small nation sandwiched between the Asian giants of China and India. However, in one day you can travel from Arctic Annapurna on the Tibetan Plateau to Tropical Lumbini on the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the Indian border. A journey of less than 200km.

The Buddha was born in Lumbini (with a B) and this is where Bangkok’s Lumpini Park (with a P) gets its name! I paid 200NPR and entered with a group of Burmese pilgrims.

It's a meditative place where you can't help contemplating a man born 2578 years ago. His legacy continues to influence large swathes of humanity. The Thai calendar begins 2558 years ago when the Buddha became enlightened around the age of 20.



To the left is the Ashoka pillar, placed by Ashoka (emperor of the Maurya Empire) around 245BCE. Inside the white building is the actual birth place, encased in glass and, when I was there, covered in money.

A spiritual experience like this is difficult to describe. Suffice to say I'm pleased I made the effort.



Buses

Nepal's road network, like its electricity supply, is woeful! I travelled a total of 675km in 27hrs. That's about the same distance as Newcastle to Plymouth. 675km in 27hrs is an average speed of 25km/h. To put that into perspective, Usain Bolt runs at 36km/h. 25km/h is only 15mph in old money.

Where
Distance
Time
Price
Katmandhu - Pokhara
200km
8hrs
$7
Pokhara – Lumbini
190km
8hrs
$8
Lumbini - Katmandhu
285km
11hrs
$12
Total
675km
27hrs
$27

For the last trip I splashed out on a VIP tourist bus after the bone-shaker from Pokhara to Lumbini. I was the only 'tourist', it broke down, the AC didn't work, the advertised WIFI was non-existent and it dropped us off on the outskirts of Katmandhu. Every single bus in Nepal has TOURIST and WIFI emblazoned on them - but it's all BS - not one single bus is exclusively for tourists and none of them have WIFI.

Poverty

Nepal has never won an Olympic medal. It ranks 177th out of 195 countries on the CIA's GDP/capita chart. Only African countries are lower. Even Cambodia is 24 places ahead in 153rd. This makes Nepal the poorest country I have visited.

This probably explains the dreadful roads, the lack of electricity, the piles of rubble, the litter and the begging. I'd be lying if I said Nepal wasn't a shithole. Remote areas are OK but urban areas are minging - very Third World.

Arriving in KL after 28 days in Nepal felt like I'd time-travelled 1000 years into the future. There were 377 people on the flight from Katmandhu - most of them Nepali immigrant labour. I couldn't help but wonder what they made of KL's modern infrastructure - it must have blown their minds.

However, I really enjoyed myself there. Perhaps I've been away from the developed world for too long?  I wish Nepal and its people the best of luck in the future. They're fantastic hosts but they have a long way to go.

Budget

Item
Cost
Return Flights
CNX KUL KTM
$580
Visas
Thai ($75)
Nepal ($40)
$115
Clothes
Boots ($45)
Jacket ($25)
Fleece ($10)
Hat ($2)
$92
Permits
ACAP ($20)
TIMS ($20)
$40
Motorbike
Rent ($11)
Petrol ($9)
Part ($16)
$36
36 nights room, food and misc.
$737
Total
$1600

A 5 week trip of a lifetime for $1600, £1070 or 52,000THB. Not bad. I left Chiang Mai with $1500 spending money and returned with $500. Enough for a night at the shop, a MaeHongSon loop, a well-deserved massage and anything else that might spring to mind.

Conclusion

After flying 9,940km, bussing 675km and trekking 110km; after 36 nights and $1600 I find myself back in Chiang Mai. It's the first time I've ever felt homesick. I've missed the food, the lingo, the weather, the pool, the 24/7 electricity, the motorbike, drinking at the shop, my friends and sunset jogs at the park. It was a fantastic adventure but it's good to be back.

Lingo

I didn't pick much up but Nepali uses the exotic Devanagari script like India.

तपाईंलाई कस्तो छ = Tapai lai costa ka = How are you
धन्यवाद = Dan ya vat = Thank you

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like quite the adventure Stephen! Must have been quite something to motorcycle off on your own and I think you're pretty courageous to do that in a place you don't know. Would you do it all again? Can't tell if you enjoyed the overall experience or not...
    Great photos! If I have any tip it would be to make them bigger on the site cause they're really great.
    Frank (bbqboy)

    ReplyDelete

Please be nice.