Friday, March 30, 2012

From cold to warm to hot

Kathmandu, NEPAL & Mumbai, INDIA; 19 - 29 March 2012

For the third time I went back to Kathmandu - a city I grew to like more with each visit. I spent my last few days in Nepal exploring the Kathmandu Valley. And I was impressed. Boudhanath's stupa and Patan's Durbur Square and surrounding alleys were both well worth seeing, and I really enjoyed strolling around historic Bhakpatur.But the most memorable moment was at the Muslim site of Pashupatinath. There for the first time I saw dead bodies being cremated (note the smoking riverside pile in the background of the monkey photo below).Given how much I enjoyed my nine weeks in Nepal, it was fitting that my flight out of Kathmandu was one of my most memorable. Luckily I had a right-hand side window seat during the first leg of my Air India flight to Mumbai via Delhi because the mountain views were extraordinary. Even though I had spent most of the previous five months in or within sight of the Himalayas, I was mesmerised by this final view of them.

Going from the cold, calm Himalayan villages on the Everest trek back to warm, bustling Kathmandu felt like a big step; but going from there to hot and hectic Mumbai four days later was a giant leap.

While going to the sights of Mumbai, I saw so many other fascinating things all around me that at times it was too much to take in. The tacky horse carriages bringing tourists past India Gate were more brightly lit than the monument itself. Speeding taxis and sauntering cows distracted me from the impressive train station.And watching people jumping on and off moving trains on the way to and from the Kanheri Caves was more interesting than the caves themselves.Given the high day-time temperatures (I twice went to the cinema at noon to have somewhere air-conditioned to sit), I found that strolling around in the evening was more enjoyable. And I wasn't the only one judging by the large numbers along the three kilometre Marine Parade and on Chowpatty Beach. My time out there was the highlight of my time in Mumbai (with eating lots of cheap delicious food coming a close second).

I look forward to my next rip to India - a country of which I definitely want to see more.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Trekking in Nepal: Everest Base Camp

Dates: 8 - 19 March 2012
Start/end: Lukla (2860m)
High points: Everest Base Camp (5340m), Kala Patar (5550m)

While the primary goal of the walk to Everest Base Camp is to have great views and to see the world's highest mountain up close, this trek had something not just for the eyes but for all the senses.

As I was running out of time in Nepal, I did what the majority of trekkers now do by flying to Lukla to start the trek from there. Although I'm not a nervous flyer, that flight from Kathmandu in a 14-seater plane, where the cabin crew handed out cotton wool to use as earplugs, is not one I'd like to do too often. The amazing mountain views out my window failed to distract me from what I could see by looking straight ahead through the cockpit's window. Lukla's short runway, which slopes at a 12 degree angle upwards, starts at the top of a cliff, and it looked from my angle that we were flying straight for that cliff-face! It was with a great sense of relief that I hopped from the plane and felt my feet touch the runway's surface. It certainly was a memorable start being the first time that I began a trek straight off an airplane.Taste
Just as during my Annapurna trek, the fuel that got me to Everest Base Camp and back was porridge for breakfast, vegetable noodle soup (sometimes with delicious fried Tibetan bread), and that Nepali staple of dhal bhat for dinner. While having rice (bhat), lentils (dhal), and curried vegetables everyday sounds monotonous, the greatness of dhal bhat is twofold: firstly, it is always a bit different, leading to the popular trekkers' conversation of "where was your best dhal bhat?" (for the record, mine was in Tengboche and it is pictured below); secondly, it is customary to give a full second helping, which is exactly what is needed after a day of strenuous walking.Hearing
The two classic sounds heard while trekking in Nepal are prayer flags flapping in the windand the ringing of the bells tied around yaks' necks. Using yaks and porters (men, women and children) to transport heavy goods on their backs remains commonplace.But now the sound of yak bells is at times drowned out by helicopters - the goods brought in by helicopter are much appreciated by us Western trekkers, but yaks make for better photos.The most memorable sound for me of the whole trek is the deep groaning sound made by the glacier at Base Camp. It gave a hint of the awesome power of nature. If I had had any desire to one day climb to the summit of Mt. Everest (I don't think I ever had, but I certainly haven't since reading "Into Thin Air" - a book that is omnipresent in Nepal's tourist areas), that glacier's threatening grumble would have made me seriously question the wisdom of such an ambition.A less awe-inspiring and hopefully more forgettable sound that featured heavily on this trek was that of sleeping trekkers farting. It was unfortunate that the bedroom walls were usually only plywood given the effect of all those lentils.

Speaking of smells, personal hygiene is low on the list of trekkers' priorities here. Lodges charge for warm water and the idea of a bucket shower or trying to wash and dry clothes given how cold it is out of direct sunlight isn't appealing. Lets just say that when I went to the monastery in Tengboche, where trekkers had to leave their boots at the door and enter in socks, I was impressed that the monks were able to maintain focus on their chanting.Sight
Smelly socks were a small price to pay for the experience of getting to Base Camp and of looking at Mount Everest from atop Kala Patar. I generally had sunny, clear skies throughout the five days that I worked my way up (given my recent Annapurna trek I was able to skip the acclimatisation rest days so I got from Lukla to Base Camp quicker that most people).Then on the final push to Base Camp, the clouds closed in, the wind picked up, and it started to snow. This all gave the experience an "epic expedition" quality, which I was actually quite happy with.Besides, the views from Base Camp itself aren't as good as from nearby Kala Patar, so getting to Base Camp is all about just getting there (by the way, there was nothing there at this time of year). Thankfully the clouds cleared during the night, so at 5am, with altitude-induced shortness of breath, I slogged up Kala Patar. The sight of Mount Everest close-up, as well as the 360 degree panorama of mountains and glaciers, was simply stunning. When freezing hands forced my temporary trekking partner to return to the relative warmth of the lodge, I had the top of Kala Patar and the views all to myself. Given that the number of people who do this trek every year is into the tens of thousands, I was incredibly lucky to be alone with such perfect views.Again, going without a guide and/or porter worked out just fine as I was able to go at my own pace and at this stage I'm well used to carrying my own rucksack. Apart from the two big days when I got to Base Camp and Kala Patar when I teamed up with other independent trekkers, I tended to walk alone. Then most evenings I met and chatted with interesting people (and I generally managed to avoid the guesthouses filled with large, guided groups).

It was a great eleven days and I count myself a lucky man to have had the chance to enjoy this experience.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Trekking in Nepal: Interlude

Pokhara, Kathmandu, NEPAL, 4 - 8 March 2012

When the blind Nepali masseur, who had just lowered my boxer shorts as a prelude to pressing his hands hard onto my bare buttocks, asked me if Ireland was part of the UK, I thought that that was the most unusual time that I was asked that common question. During my travels I often feel that I am earning my pay by being an ambassador for Ireland given the countless times that I have described hurling and Gaelic football, told people about the extent to which people speak Irish, and summarised Irish history (I'm now an expert at succinctly explaining the whole Northern Ireland issue).

That massage in Pokhara was one of my post-trek activities. In the four days between finishing the Annapurna trek and starting the walk to Everest Base Camp, I enjoyed some of the things missing from my time in the mountains, i.e. hot showers, a shave, clean clothes, pizza, steak and beer.

Then in Kathmandu I enjoyed something missing from my life in general, i.e. strangers coming up to me on the street to rub paint on my face and head! Holi, the Festival of Colours, involves streets full of people, lots of coloured powder and water bombs, and it was a fun way to spend a sunny day.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Trekking in Nepal: Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary

Dates: 8 February - 4 March 2012
Start point: Besisahar (820m)
End point: Pokhara (827m)
High points: Thorung-La Pass (5614m), Annapurna Base Camp (4130m)

Walking in the Annapurna mountains was the trek that had it all:

Great, ever-changing scenery
I spent the first few days wearing shorts and a t-shirt as we passed rice paddies and banana plantations. Then as we got higher the layers came on as we walked through snow.The beauty of an area blanketed in snow and the sight of frozen waterfalls more than compensated for having to wear a woolly hat to bed (something I always think is a bit depressing) and for having to use outside squat toilets where the water in the bucket to be thrown into the bowl was frozen.Then once we got over the Thorung-La Pass and started descending the landscape became desert-like until we reached apple-growing country.This all gave a corresponding variety in the animals we saw, which ranged from lizards and monkeys to eagles and yaks.Cultural insights
Unlike places where I've trekked in other countries, people live throughout the whole Annapurna area. We passed through and stayed in many picturesque villages, their narrow, stone-paved streets and alleys giving them a medieval feel (an impression that was somewhat cancelled out by seeing the locals watching satellite television and chatting on their mobile phones). We came across several village meetings and a couple of weddings, giving us interesting insights to life in this region. On a more practical level, the advantage of trekking in a well-populated area was that we didn't have to carry our own food as there was an abundance of guesthouses along the trail.A challenge
To complete the Circuit, the 5614m high Thorung-La Pass must be crossed. As we began our walk, days of heavy snowfall higher up forced the Pass to be closed. So during the days that we were making our way up towards the Pass, we met scores of trekkers on the way down who had given up the hope of completing the Circuit and had turned around. More heavy snow on days four, five and seven depressingly increased the likelihood that we too would have to turn back. When most people in our lodge in Manang decided to go down, we opted to wait one more day. When the next morning brought the first clear skies for days, we happily though cautiously continued our ascent.Thankfully a French group with guides and porters did the same. So on the eleventh day, we battled through deep snow and freezing temperatures to make it over the Pass. Though it was a long, hard day, the sense of achievement more than made up for the hardships.Solitude and Socialising:
Paradoxically, time spent trekking can be perfect both for being lost in your own thoughts and for getting to know people. This trek had the perfect mix of solitude and socialising. Importantly, I got on well with my trekking partners Aly and Laura. As it was off-season, we often walked for hours without seeing other trekkers and sometimes we were the only people staying in a guesthouse. But most nights there were usually a few others so, sitting around heaters burning yak dung, I met a lot of nice people and learned some new card games. I can't imagine what it is like to walk this trail in peak season when there are nearly twenty times the number of trekkers (in 2010, 340 tourists came to the Manang district in February compared with 5,960 in October).

While I like the peace that comes with walking on my own, I was reminded of the dangers inherent in solo trekking by an incident we came across on our third day. An Englishman who took the wrong trail slipped and fell off the edge of the path, injuring his legs and getting a concussion. A text message that he was able to send to a friend took over three days to be passed along to the locals in the village that he said he was near. We arrived in that village around the same time as that message. That evening, although we were well wrapped up in the lodge, we were still cold (a few nights later the temperature was measured at minus six degrees Celsius inside our bedroom). It was worrying to say the least to think about that guy out there on his own for a fourth night. Once the message was translated for the locals, they found him quickly after starting their search in the morning. We were glad when we met him as he was being brought into the village to see that all in all he was in pretty good shape.

An added bonus:
I enjoyed trekking around the Circuit so much, that after nineteen days I didn't want to stop. So after watching the sunrise from Poon Hill, I said farewell to Aly and Laura and started the Annapurna Sancturary trek. This week-long walk to Annapurna Base Camp brought me to the centre of the mountains that I had spent the previous couple of weeks walking around. While this trail was a lot busier with plenty of large groups (and therefore safer for a solo trekker), I'm really glad that I had the time to do it and to see the sunrise at Annapurna Base Camp.On my final morning I reached the road at Phedi where buses run back to Pokhara. Leaving the mountains and returning to town and city life meant returning to an all-too-common feature of such life in Nepal - a strike. I discovered that no transport was running all day becuase, to quote a local restaurant owner, "some group wants something from the Government". I decided to walk the twenty kilometres to Pokhara rather than wait until the following day. While that extra distance wasn't welcome given the hundreds of kilometres that I had just completed, as I walked along the traffic-free road I saw some interesting sights of how the locals handle such strike days, which mainly involves just chilling out.

My Annapurna trekking experience was so positive that I decided that the only way to spend my remaining time in Nepal was to do another of the world's great treks - the walk to Everest Base Camp.