Archive for April, 2011

Goodbye Kathmandu and Nepal

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

The day after getting back from Lukla I had the tour of Kathmandu included in my trek package. There was just me and the guide and the taxi driver. We visited the large Hindu temple at Pashupatinath, the Buddhist temple at Boudhanath (claimed to be the largest stupa in the world) and the Monkey temple (claimed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the world).

My guide, Kumud (which he told me means lotus flower) was a Hindu and pretty much taught me everything I know about Hinduism and Nepal and Kathmandu. Apparently the population of Nepal is about 26 million, 1.5 million people live in the Kathmandu valley, 1.3 million of them in Kathmandu itself and the other 200,000 in two other cities. Agriculture is the main source of employment and income in the country.

In adition to the 26 million humans there are 33 million gods in Nepal, one inside every person and another 7 million lurking around for good measure. The big gods at least get loads of sex as and when they feel like it. Apparently head god Shiva is currently shacked up in the deer park next to the Pashupatinath temple getting loads of deer sex. There’s plenty of phallic symbolism all over the temple.

In the temple complex there is an old peoples’ home conveniently located right above the funeral pyre points on the western bank of the Bagmati river. There are 2 sets of funeral pyre points, one for the “ordinary” people and a second set for the “important” people (royalty, prime ministers etc.). There were several cremations taking place on the ordinary set. These funeral pyre points are the most wanted in the city and the going rate is NPR2000 per cremation, firewood not included. Golden monkeys roam around freely, hawkers try to sell you assorted tat, beggars sit with any deformed limbs on special display and hold out a hand or cup as you pass. And people come to pray or just wander around and take in the sights. Admission is free for locals (possibly all Hindus) and NPR 500 (a little under £5) for foreigners. There are some photos in my RTW2011 set at Flickr.

Boudhanath claims to be the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, but Kumud said he was told by another visitor that there may be a larger one in Vietnam. My homework is to check this claim and email him the answer! In a classic example of mixed measures the blurb for the temple describes the stupa as 120 feet in diameter and 43 metres in height. I can’t complain having been using both feet and metres for elevations in my trek posts. There was a bunch of dancers on one side of the stupa shooting a scene for a Bollywood type movie. Again admission is free for locals and NPR 150 for foreigners. Photos at Flickr.

Our final stop of the morning was the Monkey Temple, correctly called Swayanabath, on a hill on the western edge of Kathmandu. This is the oldest stupa in the world and home to lots of golden monkeys. I got the impression there were more monkeys at Pashupatinath. Access to the site is via 365 steps up one side of the hill, or for the lazy or those in a hurry there is an entrance and car park at the end of a road up the side of the hill. Admission is free for locals, NPR 200 for foreigners. On a neighbouring hill is one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the world. On a clear day you’d get a good view over the city and along the Kathmandu valley. It was a bit hazy when we were there. Golden eagles soared above and around the hill. There are photos at Flickr.

Yesterday was an admin day and today I’m off to Bangkok via Delhi and lots more sitting around before meeting Hannah tomorrow.

EBC trek 31 March

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

We had breakfast at 06:30 and then twiddled our thumbs until 08:30 waiting for a phone call to confirm we were actually on a flight today. Then it was a five minute walk to Lukla airport, check-in and sit around waiting for our flight to show up.

As the morning crept by loads of Tara Air and Sita Air flights came and went. Agni Air flights were conspicuous by their absence. I watched about five loads of the more affluent tourists arriving by helicopter (I heard the going rate is US$800 one way from Kathmandu to Lukla compared to about US$120 by plane) and took lots of photos of the planes and choppers.

It was cold in the departure hall at Lukla and rather warmer outside on the apron. We waited outside for most of the time except when chased back inside by the blue fatigues clad, gun-toting Nepali police officers. The cloud cover built up as the morning progressed and I worried that we might not get out today. Agni Air seemed to be operating only one plane and by 10:30 had flown only two return flights. Tara Air had flown almost a dozen in that time, and Sita Air about half a dozen. The moral of the story seems to be book with Tara Air or Sita Air if you have the choice.

Eventually at about 11:30 a different Agni Air plane turned up. Our plane at last! It wasn’t full, and for the return flight there were only four passengers. They can’t have made any money on that particular flight.

Kathmandu was hot and sunny and the traffic back to the hotel seemed a lot heavier than on my previous taxi rides. The first thing I did back at the hotel was take a long, hot, steamy, hot, very welcome, hot, much needed, hot, refreshing, hot shower. Having not showered in over a week (squat toilets I can cope with, freezing cold showers in cold mountain air I’ll just pass on) there wasn’t really much doubt about what would happen first.

Hints and tips if you’re thinking of doing a similar trek

  • Hire any bulky gear like down jacket and sleeping bag in Kathmandu.
  • Don’t bother with a (silk) sleeping bag liner;  the damn things are hard to get into, hard to get out off and get all tangled up in the night. I gave up using mine after two nights. Just sleep in your clothes.
  • One change of clothes is all you need.
  • You will smell, so will everyone else. Don’t worry about it. Even after a week I wasn’t that smelly.
  • You can do laundry any afternoon if you really want to. Stuff might be dry the next day, or just frozen. Best to do it in the morning on rest days. That way it has all day to dry in the sunshine.
  • One pair of boots, one pair of flip flops/sandals are all you need.
  • Make sure you have plenty of slack days in your itinerary. Flight delays are possible at either end of your trek and bad weather is always possible in the mountains. For a nominal two week trek I suggest allowing three weeks.
  • Bring hand gel and travel wipes, you can buy toilet rolls everywhere.
  • Get some diamox before you leave home, or in Kathmandu, or possibly from your guide.
  • Get fit and get some training in before you arrive.
  • Have fun.

Your mileage may vary.

How does it feel?

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

My previous EBC trek entries have concentrated on the practicalities of what and when but skipped the emotional stuff. I hadn’t really thought about that until we were on our way down from Gorak Shep. So, in the words of Bob Dylan, how does it feel?

Cold, hot, tiring, exhilarating, fascinating, beautiful, awesome, joyful, alive sounds about right.

The Nepali people are very polite and helpful. Most of them reply to a “Namaste”. The porters generally don’t but then they’ve got up to 100kg of load on their backs and don’t have the time or the breath to spare for pleasantries with the hundreds of trekkers they pass every day. The trail-side sellers always have a reply and some banter but they’re hoping to sell you some overpriced, made in China “Nepali” craft work souvenir tat. When I was about ten years old I got a Plasticraft set at Christmas. It had a selection of moulds, release agent, clear epoxy resin, resin colourants and assorted small items to encase in clear plastic. One of the souvenirs I saw yesterday was straight out of the Plasticraft kit – an inch long scorpion encased in an oval of clear resin with a yellow background layer. I had to smile.

The environment has been stunningly beautiful. The rivers are a wonderful turquoise except where they turn white to gurgle and burble and roar over rocks and small waterfalls. Watching the water flow and listening to it is good for the soul. The next most common sound is the mellow clanging of the yak/dzo bells. Passing the beasts, or being passed by them somehow feels very satisfying.

Outside the villages the air is clean and fresh and it feels good to just stop and breath deeply – especially after an uphill section. In the villages the smells are mainly of burning incense or juniper twigs first thing in the mornings and yak-dung fires in the late afternoons and evenings. The burning yak dung smell is so much better than the stink around the fields at home after the farmers have been muck spreading.

The mountains are incredible, especially above the level of Namche. Many of them are snow capped and stand out against the brilliant blue sky. The best views come at first light or just after dawn. Everywhere you look there is a photo waiting to be taken and I probably drove Goki nuts with the number of times I stopped to just look around and take photos. Actually I was quite restrained on the number of photos I took, only about 1200. Later in the day the cloud and sometimes mist build up hiding the peaks and “spoiling” the view. I didn’t get the best possible views since we couldn’t climb Kala Pathar but those I got were easily worth the trip. The Himalayas are one of the youngest mountain ranges but the time periods involved in their creation (about 70 million years) are still mind boggling. Seeing and walking over sedimentary rocks at 5000m asl and knowing they extend all the way to the top of Everest at 8848m asl is mind-boggling. Knowing they were once under the sea and have been, and are still being, thrust upwards by the movement of the tectonic plates is awesome.

The lower valleys are starting to turn green with crops and the flowers are starting to appear. The rhododendrons are starting to open and in a couple of weeks the trails will be a riot of colour. I felt uplifted watching three golden eagles soaring above Namche and Dingboche. Not quite as uplifted as the eagles themselves, maybe, but uplifted anyway. When I finally get home I’ll be using Photobox to turn some of my photos into wall art.

I’ve met interesting people and talked about places we’ve been or are planning to go, things we’ve done or are planning to do.

Trekking the trails, breathing the air, seeing the sights, hearing the sounds has been a wonderful, joyful experience. There aren’t really enough superlatives to describe it. I may not have been present for the whole trek but I’ve felt more alive in the last two weeks than in ages. Coming to Nepal has been a great way to kick start my year off.