Annapurna Nepal September 2011.
There’s a one-eyed yellow idol To the north of Kathmandu; There’s a little marble cross below the town; And a broken hearted woman Tends the grave of ‘Mad’ Carew, While the yellow god for ever gazes down.
Milton Hayes and Cuthbert Clarke 1911
Well I think I roomed with Mad Carew, an Aussie from Perth called Ben. When first coming across the delights of Nepal toilets he found there was no toilet paper. No problem, he used the lavatory brush; he said it was very effective. Ben used to go missing whenever we were about to go anywhere and then someone said he’d been seen on the back of a scooter wending his way through the crazy streets of Kathmandu. He was very proud of his alarm clock but seemed unable to set it so it would go off at 3 o’clock in the morning. He would sit bolt upright in bed, switch it off and then turn over, go back to sleep immediately and start snoring. I, of course, was unable to get back to sleep. On our list of things to take was a sarong; Ben said he’d hunted high and low through Kathmandu but couldn’t find one. Pity; Ben waltzing about the Himalayas in a sarong would have been a wonderous sight.
The tour was organised by an international company called Gap and throughout we were accompanied by two leaders and on the trek five porters who carried our packs leaving us with just a day pack. We were 11 participants , mainly poms but also a Polish couple , a German lady ( don’t mention the war ) , a father of my vintage and his son from USA and of course Ben from Aussie. I’m glad to say the group got on well together and helped each other along when things got tough.
I thought Ho Chi Minh traffic was bad but Kathmandu takes the biscuit, everything crammed into narrow streets; cars, buses , scooters with whole families on them, cows , dogs, chickens , children, trucks all accompanied by the constant sound of hooting horns and black diesel fumes. I’ll never complain about potholes in South Africa again; most of the time in Kathmandu the road surface is just potholes linked by bits of tar, so one just lurches along. Luckily traffic mainly proceeds at not much more than walking pace
.On day 1 we visited two temples, Bodhnath stupa which is in the heart of the Tibetan community and Swayambhunath stupa which is on the top of a hill and is the monkey temple with its Buddha eyes . I found both temples fascinating and watched people making protestations or lighting candles, ringing bells, turning prayer wheels , some ladies in a trance or others just meditating. However I’m still trying to get my head around what I saw at Bodhnath; a Buddhist monk dressed in saffron robes gave this stray dog a mighty kick that Wayne Rooney would have been proud of.
We then walked through Kathmandu to Durbar square which contains the palace of Kumari Devi who is an 8 year old living goddess. Our day coincided with a festival where she goes in a chariot through the streets and when we arrived hundreds of police in riot gear and guns were assembling. Our tour guide advised us not to go which is a pity because the braver amongst us did and caught wonderful sights of her.
The next day was a bus trip to Pokhara, a 200km journey which took 8 hours!! The main hurdle is the pass out of the Kathmandu valley which is a bit like Sani Pass but with trucks. Inevitably a truck breaks down trying to get up the pass and major gear box or transmission repairs are carried out on the road. There’s only room for one vehicle to pass and a log jam then occurs which takes much shouting and cursing to sort out. This pass is not for the faint hearted; often we would turn the corner to see two trucks side by side heading straight for us; not to mention the more or less vertical drops down hundreds of metres with wrecks of trucks and buses clearly seen at the bottom. At one stage we got out of the bus and walked down the hill and waited for the bus to catch us up.
We started the trek the next day after a short bus ride from Pokhara. We trekked for 10days; on most days we walked from 08.00 to 16.00 with breaks for morning tea and lunch. There was very little level walking, it was either up steeply or down steeply. Often we would grind up to the top of a hill only to descend down the other side, losing all the hard won altitude, in order to cross a raging river by means of a suspension bridge to get to the other side of the valley. The advantage of this is that we gradually acclimatised to the altitude and had no troubles when we reached the high spot of the trek. Afterwards I mentioned to my friend that I found the trek tough and in typical blunt fashion he replied “What did you expect, you were trekking in the flipping Himalayas not Richmond Park”
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world and the majority of the 25million population live by subsistence farming. They are descendants of Indians, Mongols and an Ayrian race and you just don’t see any fat Nepalese, they haven’t yet been introduced to KFC or McDonalds. Particularly in Kathmandu one realises that poverty means many people living together in one room and a consequent lack of privacy ; we often saw women washing themselves at a tap by the side of the road, lack of choices in life, jobs , money security and health care. When Buddhism refers to a life of suffering it’s always been hard for me to understand this term. Now I do. Yet the Nepalese are a good looking race, well dressed, particularly the women in their traditional clothes, school children in uniforms, tolerant and dignified .
The first part of the trek goes through villages and farmland with steep terraces where rice, millet , barley ,potatoes, mealies and other vegetables are grown. The richer farmers have buffalos and oxen and we often had to make way for donkey trains as everything has to be carted up the mountains. Higher up where the tracks are steeper and rougher manpower does the carting, it’s astonishing to see these small men, all muscle and sinew wearing either wellie boots or flip flops carrying huge loads at a breakneck speed. Unfortunately there are no yaks in this part of the country. Clearly the trekkers have had an influence on the traditional Nepalese culture but generally a positive one by injecting cash and in all cases we were greeted with smiles, friendliness and courtesy . The only negative point was that I had to drink tea out of a Chelsea mug at one tea house because nothing else was available.
I borrowed my friend’s walking poles and these were a life saver ascending and descending the steep paths. We met other trekkers on the way, many were independent and on strict budgets, one lone Englishman comes to mind and two 6 foot Amazon German girls with legs like Steffi Graf who of course had to carry all their packs up the mountain. We stayed and ate in tea houses, basic establishments with the bare essentials but in all cases excellent cheap vegetarian food and even beer for the troops lower down the mountain. Jenny, a 21 year old English girl hadn’t been to the toilet for 4 days because she had an aversion to the squat Eastern type and made a sprint for the first Western toilet on the trip only to emerge gagging as the toilet had no flush cistern. One had to pay extra for hot showers but there was no in between, they were either boiling hot or freezing cold. Needless to say the guys would play tricks on the hapless Jenny, tell her she could go first for a shower and then nip in quickly and bag the shower , which made her furious. ”What sort of man are you Adam to pinch my shower.” When she did get in to the shower we would shout to her the wrong instructions on how to operate the complex series of taps to enable her to have hot water. “ Now turn the left tap clockwise full on “ and then screams as she got a full on cold jet straight from the glacier. Needless to say she would get her revenge , she’s a marathon runner and on the Loughborough University track team so she would shoot up the steep climbs leaving us all far behind..