Category Archives: Nepal

Downtime in Pokhara

After coming back to Pokhara, I spent some time to unwind after the rigors of trekking through the Himalaya. It was wonderful to sit in the garden  of my hostel, drinking many small pots of milk coffee and reading the Kathmandu Post. It had interesting quirky news items and unfathomable cricket stories: England were 167 for three at tea after winning the toss and making first use of a pitch with good bounce but minimal sideways movement. I gathered that England was doing well… An item about rhino conservation brought the news that the Nepalese Army was instructed in the use of cameras, binoculars and GPS, which was about time one would think. To stress the importance of this training it was reported that more than 70 rhinos were killed in Bardiye National Park. Only that was between 2001 and 2003, which is a staggering 15 years ago.

Big monkey, Kathmandu

Big monkey, Kathmandu

Some people seem to think that trekking around the Annapurna is a perilous undertaking and that a guide, or at least a porter guide, is needed. I want to  explain the advantages of going it alone. First of all, I don’t think there is any  danger of getting lost on this trek. In the high altitude areas, the path is very clear and the direction is obvious.  At lower elevations, where there is at times a plethora of small paths used by local farmers, there is a more imminent threat, but getting lost here is hardly dangerous just because of the many people around that are happy to point you in the right direction. The only exception would be snowfall at the high pass on the circuit and I was determined to take no risks in case it would start to snow…
This brings me to my second point. It is easier  to minimise risks by having more time, making it possible to wait till conditions improve. This is also easier done when having no guide, so that adding extra days is never a problem. When I was sick for a day and had another extra day to recover, I had not to fret over running out of time or paying my guide his daily wages for the extra days where I didn’t need him.
Last of all, I have seen quite a few guides that I was happy not to have hired Some were babbling harmless nonsense all the time and some were outright disagreeable.  Having no guide means there is no requirement to be sociable. As for company: I have met many other trekkers and guides that were perfectly happy to talk to me. Even though I had taken the precaution of bringing a book, it is telling that I hadn’t finished it by the end of the trek.

Of course, having a guide can be very helpful as half the time I had no clue which mountain I was looking at… But it doesn’t comply with the Tao of Cheap…

Face on wooden door Kathmandu

Face on wooden door Kathmandu

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Walking around Annapurna IV

Day 19: Ghorepani to Chomrung
Ghrorepani is generally regarded as the end  of the Annapurna Circuit. It is close to Poonhill, a famous viewpoint where people go in the morning to see the sunrise. My stomach was a bit upset and I decided to stay in bed. I was quite happy to do so, because it was bitterly cold outside, and I wasn’t too worried about missing out on the spectacular views. Soon I would see those mountains from up close.
Around seven thirty I felt much better and after a nice breakfast, I started to walk to Tadapani where I had lunch. Because I knew that Tatopani meant hot water, and Ghorepani meant horse water, I was curious as to what Tadopani might mean and was amused to learn that it translates as: far from water… It started to snow, but only a few flurries. When it stopped snowing I decided to press on to Chomrung, a village two days into the Annapurna Base Camp trek.

Day 20: Chomrung to Deurali
A long day leading from farm fields, through jungle to high altitude scenery. In the dense forest I saw grey langurs (also known as Hanuman langurs) in the trees. With their distinctive  black faces they are far more attractive than the ordinary  rhesus macaques.
By the time I reached Deurali, clouds had drifted into the valley and the temperature had plummeted.

Machapuchare comes in view

Machapuchare comes in view

Day 21: Deurali to Annapurna Base Camp
Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) is not actually a Base Camp (anymore) as it is no longer allowed to climb this mountain. In 1957 it was climbed by Wilfrid Noyce, who was a member of the successful 1953 Everest expedition, and David Cox up till 50 metres from the top. They had promised not to set foot on the top as it was believed to be a holy mountain.
The name of the mountain is sometimes spelled with two double aitches, or even more ridiculously as Machhapuchchhre. In all cases, its name means fishtail in Nepalese.

High altitude selfie

High altitude selfie, my hair frozen…

Annapurna Base Camp in the snow

Annapurna Base Camp in the snow

Annapurna Base Camp is the base camp for the more difficult southern approach of Annapurna I and for this reason its more precise name is South Annapurna Base Camp. It is not the base camp that was used by Maurice Herzog in 1950, who used North Annapurna Base Camp.
In the afternoon it started to snow and the next morning the ground was covered in a centimetre of fresh snow.

Day 22: Annapurna Base Camp to Sinuwa

Glacial arch

Glacial arch

 

Drinking coffee

Drinking coffee on the way down

I have to admit a certain sartorial imperfection in the trousers I wear in the photo above, but I had torn out the seat of  my only pair of trousers and  these were the largest I could find…

Day 23: Sinuwa to New Bridge
In Jhinu Danda I had lunch and after that I joined some other trekkers to the nearby hot springs, I did this bit on my flip flops, which was a bit ambitious. In the hot springs I noticed a little shrine hanging above the pools. One of the guides told me it was for the god of the hot water (obviously, a freak phenomenon like hot water is holy in Hinduism).
Which god? I asked.
Do you know how many gods Hinduism has? he answered rhetorically.

Leaving Annapurna behind

Leaving Annapurna behind

Day 24: New Bridge to Siwar.
Bus to Pokhara from Siwar.

Postscript : The beard has gone. I shaved it off.

Walking around Annapurna III

December is the shoulder season in the Annapurna trekking region, which means that it’s getting cold, but not yet brutally cold. Generally the weather is fine, but there is the off chance of snowstorms, whiteouts and avalanches. These in turn can lead to hypothermia, frostbite and, in extreme cases, death.
Hypothermia is the condition of having an abnormally low body temperature. Symptoms of this disorder include: loss of judgement, slurring of speech and general denial on the part of the victim. Obviously, these manifestations could also rise from indulgence in chang or rakshi, two Nepalese alcoholic beverages of choice….

When preparing for the trek, I was reading The Mountain Traveller’s Handbook, written by Paul Deegan and published by the British Mountaineering Council. I learnt a lot about acute mountain sickness and how to recognise symptoms of the dreaded pulmonary oedema and  cerebral oedema, both of which can be fatal. It described the merits of bringing a pressure chamber which can be operated with a foot pump, but, after ample consideration, I thought it would add too much weight to my daypack…
Other useful tips involved methods to stay warm at night: if you put up with a bursting bladder, the night will feel much colder because the body will be forced to divert precious heat to the bladder to keep the liquid at a manageable temperature (..) you’ll be better off if you get up to relieve yourself.
This was something to keep in mind when lying under cosy blankets in an unheated room with temperatures dropping below zero and  where going to the loo involved a lengthy trek through dark, icy corridors to a frozen toilet.
It made the tailor made luxury trekkings very appealing, where clients get a warm towel after arriving at camp, and where a western style toilet is carried up by a porter to save clients the inconveniences of using a squat toilet which are the norm at the more basic lodges…

Planning

Planning

It was not only the cold season that meant fewer people on the trails. The past year saw a massive earthquake too, and the recent blockade at the border with India with its resulting fuel shortages, hasn’t helped much either in luring trekkers back on the trail.

Day 15: Kagbeni to Tukuche
This day was harder than I had anticipated… Although my sphincter was back in line again, I had not yet fully recovered. Still, I chose the trail rather than the dusty jeep road but had difficulty with the accumulated elevation gain that far exceeded that of the more gradual road on the other side of the river.
Tukuche was the village where Maurice Herzog in 1950 based himself and it was here that he and his team decided to climb Annapurna rather than Dhaulagiri as they had permission to climb either one of them. Their decision was based on the grounds that Dhaulagiri seemed impossible to climb which, in hindsight, is ironical because since then Annapurna has proved to have the highest fatality rate of all eightthousanders.
In 1960 a Swiss expedition left from Tukuche to reach the summit of Dhaulagiri. An important role in the undertaking was played by the pilots Emil Wick and Ernst Saxer of a Pilatus PC-6 Porter airplane who delivered supplies for the expedition at a landing strip in the snow near the North East col. They took the opportunity to return with some unusual  cargo: We were staying in Pokhara, but there was no electricity. So we always carried a big drum up to the glacier, filled it with snow, flew it to Pokhara and cooled our beer. Eventually, towards the end of the expedition, they crashed on take off at he Dhampus pass and, though both pilots were not injured, they were not acclimitised eiither, but they nevertheless managed to walk down to Tukuche.
The 1973 US expedition saw Wick back at Dhaulagiri where he dropped supplies. The high flying Americans had asked for two bottles of wine and a chicken, the latter which, for reasons unknown, was still alive when it plonked down from the aircraft. Because the sherpas wouldn’t allow the chicken to be killed, as they believed it would anger the gods, it was kept as the expedition pet.

Bridge on the Annapurna Circuit

Bridge on the Annapurna Circuit

Day 16: Tukuche to Ghasa
Good views from Dhaulagiri, which was the highest mountain in the world for a while, a title that was, until then, bestowed on the Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador.  It was measured by British surveyors in 1808, a remarkable accomplishment given the fact that Nepal at the time was inaccessible and the triangulation was done from India. Most people outside India thought the outcome was preposterous and continued to entertain the view that Chimborazo was the highest mountain in the world.
In Ghasa I drank two glasses of delicious apple cider for which the region is famous.

Dhaulagiri

Dhaulagiri

Day 17: Ghasa to Tatopani
An easy day along the jeep road that fortunately saw very little traffic and was mostly downhill. In Tatopani I found a pleasant lodge with a nice garden where trees were laden with mandarins. In the late afternoon I enjoyed a bath in the hot springs on the other side of the road of the lodge. Tatopani means hot water in Nepalese.

Day 18: Tatopani to Ghorepani
This was a long day with a lot of altitude gain, Tatopani being at 1190 m and Ghorepani at 2860 m.  Ghorepani means horse water in Nepalese and was historically a watering hole for mule caravans.

To be continued…

 

Walking around Annapurna II

The name Annapurna derives from Sanskrit and means something like full of food. The mountain is named after Annapoorna, the Hindu goddess of cooking, who was a daughter of HImavan, the king of the mountains. The connection seems to be the melting snows of the formidable ice fields on the southern slopes of the mountain, that gave water and therefore fertility and hence food, to the lower regions.

Viewpoint at Thorung HIgh Camp

Viewpoint at Thorung HIgh Camp

Before crossing the High Pass on the Annapurna Circuit it is advised to spend an extra day in Manang  to acclimitise. This town lies at 3500 metres above sea level, and the onset  here of the first symptoms of altitude sickness, even at this moderate elevation, is not uncommon.

Day 7: Manang – acclimatisation day
During this day I tried to find Milarepa’s cave, which was located on my map, not far from  the village of Brakha. Milarepa was an 11th century Tibetan yogi who had studied sorcery at his mothers request and had reached an acceptable level in that field. At first he mainly seemed to have specialised in hail storms, but in later life he repented and attained Buddha-hood. It was then that he wrote his Hundred Thousand Songs, which is impressive by any standard, and which made him the Paul McCartney of Tibet. For his cave: I couldn’t find it.
It was very cold in Manang that evening and several fellow trekkers had to abandon their ambitions because of altitude sickness. Two young brothers from Denmark were helicoptered back to Kathmandu after they’d come down by horses from Thorung Phedi, further up the trail.

Day 8: Manang to Ledar
This day I noted several sightings of blue sheep. These agile animals created mini avalanches as they performed their antics on the steep slopes of the nearby mountains. Nobody knows why they are called blue sheep. They are not particularly blue and they don’t seem to be sheep either. However, they constitute the main food of snow leopards and were studied by Peter Matthiessen who wrote a book called The Snow Leopard. It reamains questionable whether it would have enjoyed the same popularity were it called The mating habits of the Bharal
Further up the valley I spotted many yaks, or, more likely, crossbreeds between yaks and cows, which are called dzos and have desirable qualities for high altitude farmers. The reason they can be crossbred is that they share the same number of diploid chromosomes, which is 60 in case you wondered. This impressive number makes you think again next time you drink a glass of milk. The hybrid cows are fertile but the steers are sterile.  Crossbreeding of cows and yaks poses certain questions of religious significance with regards to the holiness of the bovines in Hinduism, a religion that understandably didn’t take genetic engineering into consideration.
Yak dung is used for fueling stoves, which is very practical in areas with few trees.

Day 9: Ledar to Thorung High Camp
The High Camp is at 4900 metres and most trekkers at this point experience some kind of headache and many suffer from insomnia. For reasons I do not understand, I had no problems whatsoever, and after devouring a sumptuous dinner, I slept snugly under the thick blankets provided by the lodge.

Day 10: Thorung High Camp to Muktinath
This day I had to cross the Thorung La which is the highest pass on the entire trek at 5416 metres.  The night before, at the lodge, I had met some fellow trekkers and I thought it expedient, if not prudent, to team up with them. Unfortunately, my new friends, who were trekking with a guide, chose to start early in the morning to avoid hiking in the strong winds that usually start to pick up later in the day. This meant we had to leave the lodge well before the sun came up, It was utterly dark and terribly cold when I woke up. I had packed my tiny backpack the night before and after I had put on my warm clothes, I ventured out for some breakfast. Then we set out in the dark. My head torch was of low quality and I had to carefully negotiate my way past some icy patches of frozen snow. Luckily, the sun came up not much later and because my pace appeared much faster than my fellow trekkers, I bade them goodbye. Swiftly I walked to the pass which I reached in due time. The weather was clear but after arriving at the pass a strong wind started to blow in an icy fashion… I didn’t lose much time at this barren desert and soon I was heading down again.
It was a long descent to Muktinath where conditions once again were much milder.

Day 11: Muktinath to Kagbeni
From Muktinah I took the scenic route through picturesque hamlets. This side of the pass was very arid and close to Kagbeni, I had a good view into the Upper Mustang valley.

Peeking into Upper Mustang

Peeking into Upper Mustang

Day 12: Kagbeni rest day
From Kagbeni I walked a few kilometres north to Tiri which is as far as you can go without paying 500 US$ for the required permit for the Upper Mustang valley. The lama of the gompa had gone to Pokhara and there wasn’t much to see. An old woman slowely turned the prayer wheels as dust was blown through the dried up riverbed in the centre of this small town. In a small traditional eating house I ordered  dhal bat..
On the way back I looked for fossils in the riverbed of the Kali Gandaki.

Day 13: Kagbeni sick day
During the night I was woken by severe diarrhea. That day I stayed in bed, drinking water, but feeling too weak to eat. Having  a room with an attached bathroom was a godsend for understandable reasons.

Day 14: Kagbeni recovery
The woman in the kitchen urged me to take the tsampa porridge for breakfast. It was very good for the stomach, she said. Tsampa is the traditional Tibetan staple of roasted barley flour.
The kitchen was dark and because of the smoke it was hard to breath. I preferred the freezing cold dining hall

Kagbeni protector

Kagbeni protector god…

To be continued…

Walking around Annapurna

The Annapurna Circuit is an easy but variegated trek that circumvents the Annapurna massif. This region of the Himalayas is home to Annapurna I (the tenth highest mountain at 8091 m) and the other Annapurnas (II to IV). When trekking around the massif there are good views of Manaslu (8156 m) in the Mansiri Himal to the east and the superb snowscapes of Dhaulaghiri (8167 m) to the west.

In October 2014, around 40 people got killed in an unexpected snowstorm, and so it was with a little trepidation that I kept to my original plan to hike solo, i.e. without a guide. In Pokhara I spent several days shopping for some warm clothing: thermal underware, a down jacket and a sleeping bag. This, together with some underware, shirts, rain jacket and toiletries, fitted nicely in my 40 litre backpack. Next I bought a 1:100,000 map of the Annapurna region and several strips of water purification tablets. A trekker I met in my hostel gave me a dented water bottle, some trekking poles and a beanie. The poles, my flip flops and the water bottle I strapped on the outside of my backpack. All my gear together weighed roughly eight kilograms.

The shoes I had brought with me to Nepal were low shoes and not waterproof. According to the manufacturer they were suitable for good paths, parks and daily walks... Eventually I decided against buying trekking boots because most of those for sale in Nepal are cheap counterfeits and they had to be broken in as well.  Neither did I buy gloves: good ones are really expensive and the cheap ones are bulky woollen things that would make up too much room in my tiny backpack. If I would encounter cold weather I would put some spare socks on my hands…. Annapurna was famously first climbed by Maurice Herzog who lost his gloves near the summit and subsequently lost all his fingers as well because of frostbite. He also lost most of his toes, although exact numbers of lost digits by Herzog are hard to come by on the internet… Then again: Herzog summited the mountain whereas I was merely going to walk around it.

The Annapurna Circuit is a so called Tea House trek which means that all along the route there is lodging available, obviating the need to carry a tent and food.

Day 1: From Pokhara I took an early morning bus to Besi Sahar where I started walking to Ngadi along the road.

Day 2: Ngadi to Jagat
During the day I passed vistas of medieval argriculture. Men were threshing sheaves of rice in the fields and women were winnowing the grain in clouds of chaff, it was nearly the end of the harvest season. A small boy with a reed was dancing around three cows that stoically turned around a pivot, threshing the … whatever they were threshing. I am no scholar in medieval agriculture.

Day 3: Jagat to Bagarchap

Day 4: Bagarchap to Chame
Fine views of Manaslu in the east, the eighth highest peak in the world.

Day 5: Chame to Upper Pisang

Dunno which mountain, but nice view from Upper Pisang

Dunno which mountain, but nice view from Upper Pisang

Upper Pisang looked utterly Tibetan and it seemed to signify the change of predominant Hindu to Tibetan Buddhism culture. This change goes together with a a marked change in the climate which seems to be much dryer. The fields were dusty and arid. Towards the evening boys were herding droves of goats back to the the village. I had a look at the village gompa, but I found it closed.

Day 6: Upper Pisang to Manang
This day started with a steep ascent to Ghyaru where a scruffy gang of pilgrims was circumambulating a chorten. I drank milk tea and bought some lovely yak cheese and watched the religious fervour. After I had finished my tea the pilgrims were still walking around the chorten and I left them at their devote task.

Me again

Me again, on the so called Hight Trail from Upper Pisang to Ngawal

 

Pilgrim in Ghyaru

Pilgrim in Ghyaru..

To be continued…

 

 

 

Touchdown in Asia

After merely setting foot on the continent in Istanbul, I am now firmly  in Asia. On Kathmandu airport I got a visa on arrival and after collecting my baggage in the chaotic department hall, I found a ramshackle taxi that brought me to Thamel.

Here be dragons Kathmandu

Here be dragons
Kathmandu

In the morning I went out to find some breakfast and settled for an ‘American breakfast’, which, frankly, would leave a  lot Americans puzzled.
In the afternoon I got my trekking permits arranged. The whole process went remarkably painless and within twenty minutes I got both my TIMS card and the Annapurna permit.

My hotel has an intermittent electricity supply, but the management has posted a schedule in the lobby:

Electricity time table

Electricity time table

The schedule is important when you want to charge your devices or if you want to know when the 18 year old hippies down the hall will stop listening to Jefferson Airplane..

In preparation of the trekking I was planning to do, I set out to buy a small backpack of some 40 liters. At first I was charmed of a Chinese made North Face copy that had the text Keep wlaking (sic) stitched on it. Eventually I opted for a Nepali made Deuter copy where I broke off a zipper of one of its compartments. As for the quality, I had no illusions that the other models would be better and it gave me an edge in my bargaining position.

Danteshwori Devi Shrine

Danteshwori Devi Shrine

In Kathmandu I did little sightseeing as I’ve been there before and wasn’t that keen on spending longer in this city than necessary. These days, tourists are supposed to pay a whopping 1000 rupees to visit the Durbar Square, but it’s easy to walk around and follow some back alleys to get on the square.
Close to Durbar Square is the Danteshwari Devi Shrine (see photo above), which means: The shrine of the goddess who alleviates toothache. People nailed coins to a block of wood in the hope that the goddess might help sooth their pain. In the immediate vicinity of the shrine there are several practices of dentists for those whose faith is feeble…