Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Trekking in Nepal: Prologue

Pokhara, NEPAL: 1 - 7 Feb. 2012

Once I got to Nepal I had to make several decisions about trekking:

Where? Nepal is synonymous with top class trekking, so it was hard to choose where to start. In the end I went for the three-week Annapurna Circuit. It has oft been called the "best trek in the world", but recent and future road building threatens this status. So I thought I should walk it now that I had the time and before the road encroaches too much.

When? Peak trekking season in Nepal is October and November, with the low season corresponding to the summer monsoons. I arrived in Nepal in January, the middle of winter. Not many people trek the Annapurna Circuit in January and February because of the cold and snow, which can often cause the Thorung-La Pass (the high point on the circuit) to be unpassable. While that risk is the disadvantage of trekking in winter, the advantage is the avoidance of the crowds of peak season. I decided to wait until a week into February before starting, hoping that the weather might get a bit warmer.

With whom? While many people trek in Nepal with guides and/or porters (the sight of porters carrying huge bundles on their backs held in place with a strap on their foreheads is one of the defining images of trekking here), I wanted to do it independently. But for safety I didn't want to trek alone, So through a trekking website, which felt like a form of internet dating, I teamed up with Aly from England and Laura from Germany. As Aly wasn't able to start for a few days, I had time to spare, leading to another question:

What to do while waiting to begin a long trek? Simple, do a short trek! With the son of the owner of the guesthouse where I was staying in Pokhara, whose name Sagar means ocean, which is something that he, like most Nepalis, has never seen, I went on an enjoyable three-day trek. While the days walking passed fields filled with mustard-seed with views of the Annapurna mountains in the distance were enjoyable, the experience of spending a night in Sagar's home and a night in his uncle's home made this "mini-trek" a memorable experience.Other homstays that I have done, in Mexico, Bolivia and Vietnam, were more like staying in a B&B (the Irish equivalent of a "homestay") than staying with a family. But this was different. The first evening I sat in front of the house watching the world go by (i.e. a few old men using discarded trekking polls as walking sticks, and women carrying wood down from the forest) with newly-hatched chicks under a wicker basket to my left and Sagar's 74 year old grandmother stripping sheaths of corn to my right. While Sagar's mother prepared dhal bhat (the staple Nepali meal of rice and vegetables) in the smokey kitchen behind me, their goat gave birth to male twins (I learned that male goat meat is tastier and therefore more valuable).I was thankful for this fascinating though brief insight into rural Nepali life.When I came back from that short "homestay trek", I had been in Nepal for three weeks, so I was now eager to start one of Nepal's great treks - the Annapurna Circuit.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Back to backpacking

Kakarbhitta, Kathmandu, Sauraha (Chitwan National Park), NEPAL: 18 - 31 Jan. 2012

Although Darjeeling is near the Nepal border, getting to Kathmandu turned into a bit of a mission. To get to the nearest crossing that can be used by foreigners, my travelling companions (Denna and Helly) and I took a three-hour shared jeep ride and a one-hour bus journey. We filled out the immigration forms by candlelight and then entered the twenty-sixth country I've visited since starting my career break in September 2009.

After spending the night at the border town of Kakarbhitta, the plan for the next day was to be driven in a jeep to Kathmandu. Frustratingly, that 600 kilometre trip ended up taking twenty hours because we were stuck from 9am until 4:30pm at a roadblock that was set up in what seemed like the middle of nowhere by locals angry at a recent government decision. This sort of thing is common in Nepal, so the locals just relaxed, waited and asked "What to do?" in a rhetorical rather than a solution-searching way.There was another strike during one of our days in Kathmandu, meaning all businesses stayed closed until the evening. This was organised by students in protest against high gas prices and "load shedding" (the policy where the electricity supply is turned off for up to 18 hours a day for different areas at different times).The Thamel area of Kathmandu reminded me of other tourist hotspots on the world's backpacker circuit. Like Cusco in Peru and Siem Reap in Cambodia, it is filled with Western bars and restaurants, souvenir sellers, internet cafes, travel agents and trekking shops. While obviously this is not the "real" Nepal, we enjoyed treating ourselves to things unavailable in Darjeeling, like falafel wraps and decent pizza. Spending a week with Denna and Helly in Kathmandu, which was a fun and easy reintroduction to backpacking, highlighted how different it is to travel in a group compared to going alone. Because we did not need to, we didn't interact with any other travellers. But when the girls left to return to Darjeeling, I quickly reverted to being the sociable solo traveller - I chatted with three Irish sisters on the six hour bus journey to Chitwan National Park, and once there I teamed up with a Polish girl for an elephant ride and a one and a half day jungle walk.

We set off on that walk after a three minute briefing from our guide: "If a sloth bear attacks, make yourself big and be loud; if a rhino charges, run in zigzags and hide behind a big tree; if you see tiger, keep eye contact and back away slowly". While we saw lots of animals, including rhinos, wild pigs, and several types of deer and birds, as far as we know the closest we came to a tiger was seeing a footprint in the mud.

But the main reason why I had wanted to come to Nepal was to trek. So after an enjoyable day cycling around the villages near Chitwan, I hit for Pokhara - the lakeside town overlooked by the Annapurna range.