Nepal – Part 1

map_nepalI’ve always been lured by the mystical mountains of Nepal. Most people are I suspect. Even though Wayne and I used to rock-climb, we’d never truly had the desire to scale Everest. However I love trekking and always hoped that one day we’d tackle Nepal’s famous Annapurna Circuit. This 200km circuit located to the north of the Himalayan range makes its way through the Marsyangdi Valley winding up to the Thorong La Pass at 5416m, slightly higher than Everest Base Camp. Once over the pass we would descend to the desert-like terrain below to the upper Kali Gandaki valley.

October/November is the preferred trekking months, however spring (April/May) is also a lovely time to trek the circuit. Given our proximity to Nepal it made sense to book some cheap Air Asia flights to Kathmandu and go trekking rather than remain in the sweltering Thailand.

Over the past we’ve learned a lot about trekking – Chilkoot Trail in Canada; Los Glacieres National Park and Torres Del Peine, Patagonia; Villarica Volcano, Chile; Inca Trail, Peru; Cradle Mountain, Tasmania and of course Wilsons Prom in Victoria – so we know what to expect and what to take or what not to take.

From Blue Heeler‘s forward lockers I dragged out our hiking gear – backpacks, bivvy sacks, sleeping bags, trekking poles and other bits and pieces we’d need for the trek. Much of it hadn’t been used since our last trek in Victoria’s Wilson’s Prom a few years ago and fortunately I didn’t have to spend hours cleaning much mould as the items had stayed fairly dry in the lockers.

The Annapurna Circuit is widely referred to as a ‘Tea House Trek’ inviting trekkers to stay at guest houses along the way and forego using tents and cooking gear. Of course if you want to stay in a tent you can, but our tent and cooking gear would remain on Blue Heeler. Although our backpacks were a little lighter than usual they were still around 15kgs each.

The tag ‘tea-house trek’ may conjure up images of sitting in the sun sipping tea from porcelain teacups and saucers eating cucumber sandwiches. But don’t be deceived. The Annapurna Circuit can still be a hard trek due to its altitude, distance and duration. Trekkers must ascend over five kilometres vertically and over 200kms horizontally through an area of the most spectacular mountain range in the world – the Himalaya.

With Blue Heeler safety tucked away at Krabi’s Boat Lagoon Marina in Thailand, we flew Air Asia to overnight in Kuala Lumpur before flying on to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal to begin our adventure. We would depart to Kathmandu on Friday 13th. A sailors’ superstition is never to leave port on a Friday.

Friday April 13, 2013

From a height of 38,000 feet we eagerly peered through the Air Asia window to see the pointy snowy peaks of the Himalaya mountains peeping through the clouds slightly below us. As we approached the Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu the descent became bumpy until we landed safety at the airport where a bus was waiting to shuttle us to the arrival terminal.

A visa on arrival is a straightforward process and visa forms can be found quite easily on the web beforehand, or you can complete when you get to the airport. We got a 90 day visa (as we’re here for 45 days) and it cost US$100.01 KTM (4)

After a considerable wait at the tired and simple airport for our backpacks to appear through the carousel, we went through the arrival doors like movie-stars, as paparazzi-like touts all shouting “taxi, taxi” milling around the door. Across the road I clearly saw a sign displaying my name and hotel which I’d booked in advance. Making a beeline for the holder of the sign, a quick ‘Namaste’ then we proceeded to his car. Once again we were suckered into one guy offering to help carry the bags, who demanded a tip for the privilege. It was his lucky day as the smallest note I had was a 20 Malaysian ringgit. He wanted more but we told him to kindly bugger-off!

The distance from Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport to the Blue Horizon Hotel off Tridevi Marg is only around 6kms but took some time through dusty pot-holed roads. Today was the Nepal New Year’s Eve, and the traffic was crazy. Vehicles drive anywhere they like, in any direction, while avoiding sleeping cows in the middle of the road. I’ve read that 40% of all traffic deaths are pedestrians, which I reckon would be a conservative estimate.

View from the top of the Blue Horizon hotel

View from the top of the Blue Horizon hotel

Once at the hotel Blue Horizon we were welcomed by the staff and shown our simple room. So far so good – hot water, clean sheets, toilet and TV – not fancy but all working and very cheap. After a bout of bed-bugs in Malacca last year, I was prepared for the worst – sleeping in my silk sleeping sheet and with bug killer at the ready. However after two nights I was satisfied there were no other bed guests sharing our accommodation.

Saturday April 14, 2013

 In Nepal the year is 2070. Nepalese New Year (Bikram Samwat), which is 56.7 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. This New Year’s Day we took a stroll through Thamel, the touristy section of Kathmandu where it was filled with local people celebrating the New Year and spending time with their families.

In Kathmandu each morning we would sit in the pleasant garden area of the hotel planning our trip and reading the news. I indulged in a big bowl of granola and fresh curd and Wayne usually had a feed of eggs and toast. Each meal is delivered with a friendly “Yes please”, why I’m not sure why but ‘yes please’ appears to be the standard phrase when presenting something. In the evenings we usually had a simple biryani, chicken curry, or such. The food is pretty cheap and quite good.

The climate in Kathmandu is a welcome change from the heat and humidity of Thailand. The temperature is around 25 degrees and there is virtually no humidity. Kathmandu is around 1400m above sea level so given we’ve spent the majority of the past few years at sea level it’s a good idea to spend some time here before venturing on the trek. We stayed five nights in Kathmandu before beginning our trek along the Annapurna Circuit which will be much cooler again as we go up in altitude.

Many trekkers don’t have as much time as we do and opt for a trekking company and porter to make the best use of their time. We plan to do the trek on our own and without a porter but we have more time to acclimatise and organise, thereby (hopefully) reducing any chance of altitude sickness and any potential strain on our ageing bones and diminishing cartilage. I had a particularly bad experience with altitude sickness while in Peru 15 years ago, but I hadn’t prepared myself properly for altitude on that particular occasion.

Given that the trek has no facilities to withdraw cash or cash in travellers cheques (do people still use these??), it’s worthwhile having some cash on hand. Cash withdrawals in Nepalese Rupees from Kathmandu’s Nabil Bank ATMs are easy to do. The daily limit is Rp35,000 (A$400) and there is a small Rp400 fee. The funds come out in Rp1000 notes so it pays to try and have these changed into smaller denominations before you begin the trek as the local villagers prefer smaller notes. Restaurant food in Kathmandu is really cheap, although a 10% service charge plus 13% VAT is charged to your purchase.

As we are organizing our own trip, we had a number of things to do before we hit the trek. Firstly we had to obtain an ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) permit which allows us to enter the Annapurna National Park for the trek. Secondly a TIMS permit The cost per person was Rp2000 and Rp1750 respectively. To obtain the two permits, we walked about 2kms from our hotel to the Tourist Office. On the way we passed Rani Pokhari a magnificent pond built in the centre of Kathmandu in 1727.

Rani Pokhari pond in Kathmandu

Rani Pokhari pond in Kathmandu

The roads are not well signed and we headed off in the wrong direction. This diversion actually turned out to be quite interesting as we passed the local area where generally no tourists venture. Many of the locals wear face-masks to avoid breathing in the dust particles that contribute to the haze above Kathmandu. Not as clean as the tourist walk along Tridevi Marg, we walked along the street avoiding dog poo, pig’s ears and puddles of mysterious fluids, to eventually arrive at the Tourist Office with many other trekkers to fill out the necessary forms and receive our permits. Each permit required two passport photos so it pays to carry a few more just in case. Wayne had to hand over a passport photo and copy of his passport and visa to get an NCELL internet SIM card. Photocopying, passport photos, SD cards for cameras can be easily found throughout Kathmandu.

As there are no medical facilities to speak of along the trek, we’ve been advised to purchase a number of drugs to alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness, diarrhea, infections and giardia. The pharmacies in Nepal sell very cheap drugs without the need for a doctor’s prescription. There’s plenty of websites on this topic so I’m not going to list all the drugs here. Of course we’re not silly enough to actually use the drugs indiscriminately and will take them only in case we need to stop our heads exploding at altitude. Wayne has in fact already been hit by a case of Nepal-belly so the Imodium has already made an appearance!

Kathmandu has many beggars. Our daily walk to Thamel along Tridevi Marg we pass unfortunates with no home, feet, toes, or noses; others covered in filth and dried split feet; young children taking deep breaths to get high from bags filled with unknown chemicals; mothers with babies waving empty baby-bottles begging for milk “No money, just milk to feed my hungry baby” they say. Although I’ve read that as soon as the women have the milk they’ll return the container to the shop to get the money refunded. Nepal authorities have requested tourists do not encourage begging by giving any money to those in need, but this is always a hard thing to do mind you. Apparently there are agencies in Kathmandu to support homeless children and giving the money directly to the homeless kids undermines their efforts.

Trishaws are plentiful and invite you for a ride for a small fee. Most have horns made from discarded plastic drink bottles and they signal their arrival behind you with a loudly distorted ‘toot’. Motorbikes and cars fight for a small strip of dusty road, often at the expense of a pedestrian and often from any direction.01 KTM (14)

The Thamel district of Kathmandu is a Mecca for trekkers, tourists and bohemians, all searching for a bronze trinket, cheap trekking gear or to spiritually immerse themselves in Buddhism and the teachings of the Dalai Lama. For us, we were in outdoor equipment heaven! Much of the items for sale are labelled as North Face or Mammut, but of course these cheaper knock-offs probably won’t last the distance of the original brand items, which can also be found in Kathmandu. A pair of zip-off leg hiking pants can be bought for less than $10, walking poles for $4 and such. But of course you get what you pay for. We didn’t stock up as we didn’t want to carry excess weight around the trek.01 KTM (13)

Street hawkers appear out of nowhere attempting to sell items such as Tiger Balm, flutes and carved wooden violins. Shoe cleaners will eagerly ask whether you want your shoes polished, which seems a little odd when wearing a pair of thongs. Unless you really want the item, I suggest you clearly say “No thank you”, avoid eye contact and keep moving otherwise they’ll have you pinned! You can usually hear the violin vendors’ squeaky string instrument as they sneak up from behind.

Each street looks the same, sells the same products and the fragrant aroma of incense pervades the streets, particularly in the evenings. Within a couple of days you begin to remember the layout of the streets and the number of stupas and prayer wheels also act as landmarks.01 KTM (6)

Wayne brought his iPad with him and it’s handy to have local and international information at our fingertips. I however liberated myself from my iPad for the duration of our stay in Nepal. I was slightly dismayed though that I couldn’t bring my Nikon SLR camera, but as it and associated lenses would weigh up to 1.5kgs, I had to forego it for my lighter and waterproof Olympus Tough ‘happy-snapper’. Although I forfeited many a good photo, the extra weight and the inability to use it in snow, dust and harsh conditions would have proved to be a very weighty and cumbersome accessory. Those that generally take large cameras would generally have a porter carrying the rest of their gear.

Electricity in Kathmandu is delivered sporadically as there is a load shedding system in place which means that the power is off for up to half of the day. Much of the electricity in Nepal is provided by its southern neighbour, India, but Nepal also produces power through hydro stations. At this time of year though the water levels are low so Nepal is at the mercy of India for their power supply. Our internet provider in Nepal was NCELL but as it turned out we couldn’t get a signal anywhere along the trek but we could log in to WIFI which was available in some of the larger villages. Using the WIFI at a local restaurant, we read about the Boston Marathon bombings, a plane that overshot a runway in Bali, and of course keep up to date on the ongoing saga of Australian politics.

Close to our hotel is Kathmandu’s Garden of Dreams.  A very pretty place, but less tranquil than it may have been in the past. Now full of tourists all wanting a little bit of grass to sit in the sunshine. We spent an afternoon there and although very scenic it wasn’t particularly relaxing with so many visitors.

Children and visitors at the popular Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

Children and visitors at the popular Garden of Dreams, Kathmandu

As we organised our trek, we also had to organise getting to Besi Sahar which is the start of the Annapurna Circuit. Our options were: (1) get a taxi to the bus depot then local bus direct to Besi Sahar; (2) take the Tourist Bus to Dhumre then a local bus from there to Besi Sahar; (3) hire a driver to take us directly to Besi Sahar. Given Besi Sahar is at least five hours from Kathmandu, and given that we wanted to arrive by early afternoon to begin the trek to Bhulbhule, we opted to pay Rp8800 for a driver. This is unusual for us as we usually take the cheap/local option. As it turned out I was very impressed with our driver’s ability to manoeuvre through the traffic and dodge the cows and people walking through the villages along the way to Besi Sahar.

After five hours we arrived at Besi Sahar at 2.30pm where we checked into the ACAP office to begin a two hour walk to Bhulbhule – the first day of our trek along the Annapurna Circuit.

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