...images from planet Earth
Nepal: 16 January - 8 February 2002
I arrived in Sonauli at about 8pm. After buying my visa at immigration, I checked into the Nepal Guest House which was recommended in The Book. That was 160 NRp. That night I saw rain for the first time on my travels. It was to mark the start of a long period of unsettled weather. The guest house was a nasty place run by a bunch of kids who couldn't cook. Not that I expected high standards, Sonauli is typical of most border towns. However, they were able to change my IRp to NRp and arranged a bus to get me to Pokhara.
The bus was comfortable compared to Indian buses but the journey was long, with frequent police checks. The views are good, especially as we approached Pokhara. The mountains glowed orange as the sun was setting. The further you are from the town, the more of the mountains you can see. On the bus, a local guide came up to me and recommended a hotel to stay at. He guided me through the taxi touts and I agreed to see the hotel. It was very nice and only 300 NRp so I took it. I only stayed there a couple of nights though. I moved out after I found out the people at this hotel told my guide that I wasn't staying here when he tried to contact me, so that I'd use the guide who works at the hotel instead. He wanted to sell me an organised (prepaid) trek, and tried to convince me it was cheaper, but I wanted to do it individually. I was also told that the hotel was in a central location when it wasn't.
So I moved into the Lubbly Jubbly Guest House. It was low season in Nepal (more to do with the political situation at the time than the weather) and I was able to get the room for 200 NRp. Along with my room in Pushkar, India, it was the nicest room I'd stayed in, clean, TV, nice thick blankets and a steaming hot shower. I wasn't due to start my trek for a few days and I spent those days exploring Pokhara and around.
I went rowing on Phewar lake and hired a motorbike to get to Sarangkot. I was very unfortunate with the weather. There was nearly always cloud around Macchapuchhare and the other mountains visible from the town. There's a potentially good viewpoint by the Fish Tail Lodge hotel but on the three occasions I went there, the view was obscured. When I went up to Sarangkot the clouds had built up when I arrived, after a clear morning. There's not that much to do in Pokhara, but it's a nice little town, small and quiet with, of course, the mountain backdrop. Many restaurants show films in the afternoon and evening and this is a good way to pass the time.
I made the final arrangements for my trek in Pokhara. I bought my trekking permit (2000 Rp I think) and hired a down sleeping bag and jacket (30Rp per day each). I managed to get my flight to Jomsom quite cheaply. It was $55 for me and $15 for my porterguide. His rate was $8 per day. My flight to Jomsom was cancelled. We were waiting to board the plane at the airport when the first plane turned back due to high winds at Jomsom. So I had to stay an extra day in Pokhara.
Jomsom Trek Day 1: Pokhara - Jomson - Kagbeni
We flew out the next day, on 21 January. The 25 minute flight took us right through the mountains I had being seeing from Pokhara. Jomsom was quite warm, dry, clear and sunny. We had lunch at one of the lodges there and then begun our long trek. Long trails of cow/yak hybrids were a common sight on the trail, and donkeys loaded with food and supplies were constantly making their way up the trail from Naya Pul to Muktinath. The sound of their bells were a common feature of the trek. Not only donkeys, people were also carrying things on their backs up and down the slopes - chickens, food, even huge timber beams. We walked for about four hours, most of which was along the flat dry river bed of the Kali Gandaki and we arrived in Kagbeni (2800m) at 1:30. A very picturesque medieval looking village, some buildings were 500 years old. The start of the Mustang region could be seen beyond. Wheat fields lay dormant further down. After unloading our things at the New Annapurna Lodge (which cost just 50 Rp), we walked round the village then back to the lodge. We sat round the fire in the kitchen with my trekking partner, our guides and the girls that run the place. Had pasta with spinach and cream for dinner and went to bed early at 9pm.
Jomsom Trek Day 2: Kagbeni - Jharkot - Muktinath - Jharkot
The second day was probably the hardest. The three hour walk to Jharkot (3500m) took us up past the snowline. Jharkot was another interesting and atmospheric village. We stopped there for lunch before continuing up the steep trail to Muktinath (3710m), the highest point on the Jomsom trek. Not only was it steep but the snow made it very slippery. It was quite frustrating at times. It was also very cold, but despite this, the down jacket wasn't needed. Once you start walking you warm up very quickly. A fleece is all you need. The hard work was worth it to see the Hindu/Buddhist temple which contains the natural spring and eternal flame (the rock/earth/water combination give Muktinath its religious significance). The snow-covered temple was surrounded by colourful prayer flags and, in the background, were the huge snow-capped Himalayan peaks. We briefly visited a monastery there before walking back down. On the way we passed several small settlements, kits sitting with their families outside, playing, women knitting scarves. It was very peaceful and often the only noise you could hear was the tinkling of the bells of passing donkeys and cows. We spent the night at Jharkot. There I had dal bhat for dinner and some Raksi, the local wine made from wheat or millet. Dal bhat is the staple food in Nepal. It consists if rice served with lentils and vegetables. Many people think this is dull but I liked it, it was different every time. Plus you always get a second serving if you want so you won't go hungry. But the Jomsom trek is very commercialised and you can get Western food anywhere along the trail. Jharkot was the coldest place I stayed at. In fact, in was so cold, the water in the pipes froze and so there was no water for washing. Fortunately, the dining room had a table with hot coals underneath, as did most places in the colder places.
Jomsom Trek Day 3: Jharkot - Jomson - Marpha
The next day we continued past Kagbeni, stopping at Jomsom for lunch, then walked along a flat windy river bed to Marpha, which is most famous for its apples, cider and apple brandy. I was aching badly after the five hour walk today. Marpha is a compact, clean village with narrow 'streets' and stone buildings with stacks of firewood on the roofs (in case of kerosene shortage). In the evening a group of us went to play pool at a pub nearby. It really didn't feel like I was in the mountains. For dinner I treated myself to a yam steak, plus an enchilada because the small portions don't tend to fill me up.
Jomsom Trek Day 4: Marpha - Kalopani - Ghasa
We left the next morning, at about 8am as usual, and descended down through Tuckuche and passed Larjung. Because the water level was low we were able to walk along the dry river bed and we were treated with amazing views of the towering Dhaulagiri to our right (8167m and the highest in the Annapurnas) with its prominent icefall visible and Tuckuche Peak to its right. Around were the beginnings of pine forest, it looked very Swiss. We reached Kalopani at about 1pm. I wished we could have stayed in Kalopani. It's one of the most scenic places along the route as it's almost comlpletely surrounded by mountains and pine forests. Unfortunately, cloud was gathering just as we arrived. Our destination for the night was Ghasa (2120m), and as we approached it the landscape began to change, it was more green here. It was situated in a narrow valley, surrounded by green fields and mandarin trees. It wasn't as pretty as the higher villages. The people were also different; in the villages upwards of Marpha they were generally Tibetan influenced. Here they looked more Napali. I walked for more than six hours today but I was getting used to it.
Jomsom Trek Day 5: Ghasa - Dana - Tatopani
The next day we continued to Tatopani, stopping at Rupse Chhahara for tea below a huge waterfall. The views weren't that nice here, no mountains and it was overcast. We stopped at Dana for lunch. This region grows lots of mandarins, so I had a fresh juice and mandarins (for the first time on the trek) with my dal bhat. As we approached Tatopani, the Kali Gandaki became wider and louder. Tatopani (means 'hot water' in Nepali) is famous for its hot springs by the river. Many people spend a day or more here, but a day is enough (unless you have injuries that need to heal), there isn't anything else of interest apart from the springs. We stayed at the Dhaulagiri Guest House for two nights, which was one of the nicer places along the trek, my single room was good value at 80 Rp. We were told we had to leave the dining room at 8:30 because of the curfew.
Jomsom Trek Day 6: Tatopani
The morning we were leaving, I was woken at 7:30 by the rain banging on my metal roof. This was worrying because we would soon be going to Poon Hill, one of the best viewpoints in the region. If it rains here, it'll probably be cloudy and snowing there. Here I separated with my trekking partner. He was tired and didn't think we would get a view at Poon Hill, so he took the other shorter route down to Beni. The area around Tatopani is prone to landslides and we saw the damaged caused by a recent one shortly after we left. The river had been blocked off for seven hours, I was told. In the afternoon I visited the hot springs to soak my weary body.
Jomsom Trek Day 7: Tatopani - Chitre From Tatopani
it was a gradual ascent up towards Chitre (2420m), where we spent the night. It was cold again, and soon after we arrived it began to snow. In the Namaste lodge (50 Rp), we sat around a wood fire while my guide chatted with the owners. It was nice there, sitting with the family which included an 84 year old woman. Outside the snow became heavier. When I went up to bed around 8, I was pleased to see the snow had stopped and the sky had cleared. I stared out the window, watching the mountains lit up by the moonlight, hoping it would stay clear for the next couple of days so we could make the hike up to Poon Hill.
Jomsom Trek Day 8: Ghasa - Dana - Tatopani
The following day we had a short walk to Ghorapani. On the way, we passed a trekker coming from Ghorapani who told us he didn't bother walking up to Poon Hill because of the weather. Ghorapani was under fresh deep snow. It was really nice actually. It began to snow when we arrived about lunchtime. We checked into the Snowland Hotel, right at the top of the town, and we sat round a barrel containing a large fire watching the snow fall through the window. Two couples later arrived with their guides and we sat chatting, reading, watching the snow and hoping it would all fall now so that there'd be none left tomorrow morning. Had a nice meal there, with banana fitters for desert and hot milk. When I went to bed at 9, the snow had stopped, revealing a few mountain peaks. I was quietly confident.
Jomsom Trek Day 9: Ghoropani - Poon Hill - Tikedunga
I woke at 5am in the morning to clear skies, but I didn't want to get my hopes up, I had to ask me guide what he thought. When he replied 'it's a beautiful day', I was so happy. It was a great moment. We walked up quickly though knee deep snow. We passed some Japanese trekkers who said they had to turn back because the snow was too deep, but we carried on anyway and didn't have any problems. Our footprints were the first on the rest of the 45 minute walk up, the moonlight revealing the trail before us. We reached Poon Hill at 6:40, about half an hour before the sun rose, but the moon was quite bight. A few people started arriving about half an hour after me and I watched the sun rise and cast an orange light over the tops of the peaks. What followed was one of the most amazing views I had ever seen, a huge panorama of mountain ranges. Most prominent were Annapurna South (7273m) and Dhaulagiri (the highest in the Annapurnas at 8167m) and its vast foothills. A few days ago we had seen the other side of Dhaulagiri. We could now see the fish tail peak of Macchapuchhare which gives it its name. At 8:15 we walked and slid back down. After breakfast of porridge and toast, we left Ghorapani at 9:45 and walked down to Tikedungha, though snow covered rhododendron forests. It was a long, steep descent of 1700m in four hours, down hundreds of stone steps. Tikedungha sits on the side of a steep high valley, with some waterfalls nearby, it was a nice setting. We arrived at 1:45 and checked into a lodge. We were below the snowline again, and it had begun to rain. The food here was awful, the only place I'd complain about on the whole trek.
Jomsom Trek Day 10: Tikedunga - Naya Pul - Pokhara
The next morning we left for our final leg of the trek to Naya Pul, where we caught a taxi for 300 Rp back to Pokhara. After ten days, about 70km, and trekking for an average of about six hours every day, I was glad to be able to relax. The first two days were hard but I became used to it and was soon feeling I could walk forever. Luckily I had no blisters or injuries. I spent a couple more days in Pokhara, dining at the excellent Lemon Tree restaurant, before boarding a bus to Royal Chitwan national park (four hours). I had wanted to spend three days there but I preferred to spend more time in Kathmandu, so I booked a one night two day package from Pokhara for only $31. Travel agents were desperate for business at the time and it was easy to bargain the price down. I wasn't impressed with Chitwan. I did a canoe ride/game walk which was OK, we saw some crocodiles, deer and monkeys. In the evening I was taken to a cultural show of Napali dances from different parts of the country, and in the morning I did an elephant ride. This was an ordeal. The elephant was distressed and constantly being stabbed in the head and smacked on the face with a bamboo cane. We were cutting though thick forest and so were constantly being whipped by branches, it was wet, cold and bumpy. We caught a brief glimpse of a rhino but it wasn't enough to raise my spirits. In the afternoon I took the bus to Kathmandu (included in the Chitwan package) which took about five hours and then a taxi into Thamel, Kathmandu's popular backpacker's centre. Someone had recommended the Hotel Pacifist, so I went there, after being approached by many touts begging me too see their hotel. It was a bit dull but the rooms were OK. It was 150 Rp per night. I spent five days in Kathmadu, the first I spent walking around Thamel to get a feel for the place. Thamel is a really touristy place. It's Nepal's equivalent of Paharganj in India. Almost all the shops are souvenir shops, restaurants, travel agents etc. So it was sad to see the place so empty. The 9:30pm curfew meant the place was dead quiet at nights.
Scamwatch: The Gem Scam
I was expecting to come across this in India, not Nepal. I had heard about it many times and from people who had fallen for it, it's even in The Book. I was walking along one of the main streets in Thamel when a guy outside a shop started chatting to me. I suspected he wanted to sell me something and I was tired so I just wanted to walk away, but he went on about how westerners are always cold to Nepalese people and that he's just trying to be friendly, so I gave him a chance and decided to meet him the next morning. When I went to his shop, he gave me tea, asked lots of questions about me and invited me to his place for dinner. Then he showed me a large collection of gem stones and told me how I can buy them very cheaply and sell them to a contact when I get home. I wasn't really listening to the details, I was too busy thinking how ridiculous the whole thing was. He showed me photocopies of people's passports and credit cards, people who had fallen for the scam. I pitied those people for being so naive. I told him I know what he was trying to do and walked out, annoyed.
In three days I went to three Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan. It was here I realised that the Nepalese street hustlers are even more persistent (and annoying) than those in Indian. In all three squares, major tourist centres in and around Kathmandu, people would come up to me offering to be my guide. It wasn't this that bothered me, it was the fact that they wouldn't take no for an answer. In India they would also persist, but they would give up after two or three attempts. Here they would follow you for five minutes or more, hoping you'd change your mind. I explained to one guy in Kathmandu's Durbar Square that people aren't going to change their mind after they say no but he didn't get it. I had to walk away from him. He then approached me again to say that he thought westerners are rude. I could, however, understand his reasoning and put it down to two very different cultures. I gave up and had to disappear from sight. It's a shame that it has to ruin my experience of walking amongst these amazing pagoda temples. I wanted to stay where I was but I had to get away from this guy. In the other Durbar Squares it was students offering to be guides, but they weren't quite as persistent. All of them approached me with almost exactly the same set of questions: what is your name, where from, ah, England - capital city London, prime minister Tony Blair, before him John Major, before him Thatcher etc, first time in Nepal, how long am you here, are you enjoying it... I was soon telling them I don't need a guide after the first question. It sounds rude, but I did say it in a nice way. A lot of them continued to follow me, telling me about the various temples anyway. I didn't want a guide because I like to take my time at places like this. I could spend an hour or more sitting on the steps of one of the temples and this wouldn't be fair on them. One guy, though, about 17 years old, didn't want to be my guide, he just wanted a chat and to improve his English. He accompanied me for most of the day in Bhaktapur and ended up catching the cab with me back to Thamel. Anyway, the temples are really impressive, especially the Nyatapola temple (the highest in the Kathmandu valley) in Bhaktapur. But there are so many, it does get a bit much after a while. It was nice to get away from the squares and walk around the backstreets, particularly in Bhaktapur where the streets had a medieval appearance.
On my other day in Kathmandu, after trying to do a couple of walking tours from The Book (it's hard to walk and appreciate things with your head in a book) I walked to Swayambunath (also known as the monkey temple). It's about half an hour's walk from Thamel and a long steep climb up the steps to the temple. It's famous for the large stupa with the golden Harmika with the Buddha eyes on each of its four faces. There are also gompas (monasteries) up there which you can visit, and there are good views of the Kathmandu valley (when the pollution doesn't obscure the view). I stayed there for a few hours, waiting for the evening light, but it was too hazy. Back in Thamel, I dined at one of the many restaurants to choose from; Indian, Thai, Tibetan, Italian etc. I would imagine it to be quite a lively place, if there wasn't a State of Emergency.
I was a week ahead of schedule in my itinerary, which ultimately gave me more time in Thailand. I brought forward the date of my flight to Bangkok and flew out of Kathmandu on the morning of 8 February.