05.11.2007 - 02.12.2007
Hope you're all keeping well..For those of you that might not know, I'm on my way to New Zealand to hopefully work for a year but I'm taking the slow route thro' Asia. It's been almost a month since I left Ireland and this is the first proper chance I’ve had to catch up…I’ll try to keep it as short as possible ;o)
So, for the story...the flight out was fine – had 6 hours in the middle of the night trying to sleep on the floor of the transit lounge in Delhi airport… Had the most perfectly timed arrival into Kathmandu – Marcus was just about at the top of an hour long queue at the visa counter so I only had to queue for 5 mins!! Marcus is an English friend of mine that I’m traveling with until mid-March. We did a 3 week work camp together in the French Alps in July of 99 and have been good friends ever since. He’s on his way home from 3 years in NZ at the moment.
On Marcus’ flight from Auckland to Kathmandu , he met a kiwi girl called Cushla who was planning on doing the same trek as us and we’ve pretty much been hanging out with her since then.. First off we spent a few days in Kathmandu, getting over jet-lag (we were on opposite clocks – Marcus and Cushla would wake up really early whereas I’d struggle out of bed, but in the evenings I was wide awake and they were falling asleep!), making enquiries about the best way to do the trek (completely independently, with just a porter or guide or using a package where all food and accommodation and everything is provided), buying some bits and pieces of warm clothing at ridiculously cheap prices (it’s all fake North Face etc. stuff here) and doing a little bit of sightseeing around the city. The pace of life there was fairly hectic – the typical hustle and bustle of a developing city. But I loved all the sights, sounds and smells of the place. There was so much colour everywhere, especially in the market places. Traffic was mad with cows being very high on the list of what not to knock down, with pedestrians definitely lower!
After a couple of days there we fled to Pokhara as it’s closer to the beginning of the trek than Kathmandu . It’s also a much nicer place. Everything was a lot more relaxed and chilled out, altho’ we only hung out in the touristy district of Lakeside… Here we organized a porter for the trip (for myself and Marcus – Cushla was carrying her own pack all the way!) thro’ our hotel, we hired a bag for our porter and I hired a brand new goose down sleeping bag for something ridiculous like 50 cents (euro) a day! We also visited the World Peace Pagoda on top of one of the hills overlooking the city and its lake and took a row boat out on the lake for an hour.
On Sunday Nov 11th we set out on the trek around the Annapurna Circuit. It was amazing!! We spent 18 days trekking around the 211km – that included a mandatory acclimatization day in Manang on the way up and a rest day at Tatopani on the way down – Tatopani boasts some amazing hot pools..!! To be honest, I don’t think myself of Marcus had a clue what we were really getting ourselves in for. While most of the trek was just plain trekking – the middle part, where you go over one of the highest passes in the world that people actually use, was very tough – not just physically but mentally too. The pass is at 5416 m. About 4 people died in the area this season alone (Sept-Nov) and 2 of those had died only a week before we went over. We crossed the pass on day 10, and in the 9 days preceding that, at least 6 helicopters went up the valley. Helicopters cost about 1500 USD for a call out so they’re only called out for serious emergencies. And apparently the pilots are putting themselves at risk flying at that altitude too – I have no clue about the dynamics of how helicopters work tho’.
From somewhere between 3000 and 4000 m we could really start to feel the lack of oxygen. Manang’s acclimatization day was 3540 m. We went to a lecture there about altitude sickness given by a Scottish doctor who was volunteering for the season. It was really interesting and really simple too. It reminded me in ways of lectures on decompression sickness – some of the factors that make you more prone to DCS are the same for AMS. Basically you shouldn’t sleep more than 300-400 m above the altitude of your previous nights sleep and you should always sleep lower than the highest altitude you’ve been to during the day. This often meant getting to our destination and then heading off up the side of the nearest hill for a few hundred metres, waiting there for about 30 mins and coming back down again. If you get any symptoms then you stop ascending until they’re gone, if they get worse you descend. People that die are clearly not listening to their bodies and are just too gung ho about getting over the pass – very understandable in one way – who wants to turn back? We passed a good few people between Manang the base of the pass (Thorong Phedi) on their way back – they all looked unwell and down…one couple went by on horse-back – she looked awful! But better to turn back than die! Anyways, as you can imagine the days leading up to the pass were a little bit stressful – everyone is wondering whether their headache is altitude, when will it go away, will they be sick/lose their appetite/suffer insomnia? People definitely get a little paranoid. I started getting headaches when we arrived at Manang. But they’d be gone after a little rest. Both myself and Marcus started taking Diamox (a drug that helps with acclimatization by changing the pH balance in your blood which makes your brain tell you to breathe more quickly, thus giving you more oxygen) the evening before we were due to go over the pass. I think everyone suffered from some insomnia in the days leading up to going over the pass.
Anyways, despite the stresses, going over the pass was amazing!! Such a sense of achievement! I’ve never walked so slowly anywhere before, nor forced myself to breathe so heavily all the way to the top – it was a 1000 m climb from Thorung Phedi (base camp) to the top and a 1600 m climb down the other side to Muktinath. I have to say I wasn’t feeling well at all by the time I got to Muktineth! In fact, if you don’t like vomiting stories, then skip on to the next paragraph now!!! But this is a funny one worth telling.. So I wasn’t feeling great – had a splitting headache and then my tummy started to feel not so hot..didn’t feel like eating anything. I’ve no idea what was wrong – it couldn’t have been altitude sickness cos we’d just descended 1.6 km, but I guess maybe it was the exertion of it all in the sun and snow and all the rest. Anyways, when Marcus and Cushla went for dinner I asked Marcus to get me a bucket cos the bathroom was pretty disgusting and too far away considering I’d have had to put my shoes on first too…so he got me a “bucket”, only it was actually a wicker basket type bin…so when I did eventually get quite horribly sick, the liquid part all leaked out over the floor…and not only that, but in no time someone was running up the stairs shouting wondering where the “water” that was dripping into the room below was coming from – the room below happened to be the dining room and there was a table full of Japanese people sat under my room having soup!!! They weren’t v impressed with having stuff dripping down around them when eating needless to say – but I felt so much better after getting sick that I thought it was hilarious!! The guy in charge was livid…and an asshole too! We’d quite a fight with him the following morning as he tried to charge us for it – but sure I couldn’t help being sick or not making it to the bathroom or that he had crap leaky floors!! We didn’t pay him anything extra – if he’d been a nice guy I would have.
So..hmm..this is getting pretty long!! Food along the way was great. Generally accommodation was good too, altho’ a bit draughty at times – we’d be wearing lots of layers to bed at night and would be down to t-shirt and shorts in the heat of the sun during the day. Bathroom facilities were better on the other side of the pass than on the way up – mostly just squatting toilets and a bucket of hot water as a shower on the way up – altho’ solar heated showers were available too – they’d never be more than lukewarm tho’ if you were lucky. The other side is better equipped as it’s a trek in its own right called the Jomosom trek, so it gets a lot more trekkers and has western toilets and gas heated showers. I couldn’t tell you which side I preferred trekking on – it was all great except for a part of the Jomosom trek where they’ve got a road and the trek follows the road – not very nice for walking on..
Oh yeah, we met Maoists 3 times too!! The first time they wanted to charge us 100 Nepalese rupees per day that we’d be on the trek. This was way more than we’d heard they’d charge (90 rupees is about 1 euro) and we’d already paid 2000 rupees for the official government pass, so we really didn’t want to pay these guys any “voluntary” contribution! So we told them we’d pay later at another checkpoint. The second time we saw them was on the other side of the pass, but they were busy with other trekkers so we just walked by. Unfortunately on the last day we met them and couldn’t get by without a receipt proving we’d already paid. So we pretended we’d flown into Jomosom and spent 4 days trekking and only paid them 400 rupees. We also pretended not to speak English and told Ganga (our porter) to pretend he couldn’t communicate with us either. This sort of thing worked especially well for trekkers who didn’t have a porter or guide that the Maoists could communicate with. One couple of Israelis we met left their porter miles behind and pretended to be deaf and dumb and walked by (that was at the first checkpoint), a couple of Aussies also had a funny story of their meeting, but it’s way to long to go into here and wouldn’t have the same effect anyways!
We met a great group of people on the trek. We were kind of hanging out with them on the way up, but over the other side, where everyone was way more chilled out and relaxed, we made sure to stay in the same accommodation each night and we did a fair bit of trekking together during the days too. In fact, we had enough people in our group that when we arrived at Kalapani (that would have been day 14 of 18) two of the German guys we were with (Michael and Karl), on seeing some of the locals kick around a football, challenged them to a match the following morning!!! So, at 2500 m, we played a 2 hour game of football (which we won 5-2 despite the difficulties running at that altitude!) against the Kalapani villagers – it was great craic!! The pitch had tyre ruts running thro’ it which often made the ball bounce in very unexpected directions. I think it was our height and longer legs that partly helped us win, although we had some pretty decent players on our team too!! At Marpha (day 13) we were lucky enough to be around for a Buddhist ceremony in honour of some Japanese people…not really sure why, something to do with a twinning between towns.. Anyways it was really interesting too. Generally speaking, the way down was just way more relaxed than the way up. We also took a rest day on the way down at Tatopani cos there were some hot springs there – way to tempting to leave behind! Also, our hotel in Tatopani was a really nice one and the village was lovely too..
Now we’ve been in Pokhara for 4 days. Originally we were going to leave after 2 and go rafting down the Seti river to Chitwan National Park with Perry and Jeanette (2 of our trekking team). But then Marcus got sick and so did Cushla, so that fell thro’. Perry and Jeanette tried to organize a second rafting trip for themselves leaving this morning, but that fell thro’ last night – rafting season is pretty much over apparently as the rivers are drying up…so I think we’ll skip that one! Cushla, Perry and Jeanette all left this morning by bus for Chitwan NP so this morning was the first morning that it was just myself and Marcus at breakfast since the beginning of the trip. He’s feeling a lot better now so we’re going to take the bus to Chitwan tomorrow morning and meet the others there. It’s a national park that has tigers, one-horned rhinos, elephants, two types of croc, a river dolphin and some other stuff…but I doubt the chances of seeing a tiger are v high – altho’ I’d love that!! We can do the safaris by elephant, dug-out canoe, walking (!!) with a guide and by 4WD…not sure what we’ll do yet.. From there we’re going to head to Limbini, the birthplace of Buddha. It’s close to the border with India so we’ll cross there and head to Varanasi – can’t wait for that!! I reckon it’s going to be pretty mad!! We’re going to follow the railway (Marcus isn’t too fond of buses) from there to Delhi stopping along the way at places that seem interesting, including Agra for the Taj Mahal.
Anyways, I know this is probably one of the longest emails I’ve ever written – well done if you’re still reading now!! But I doubt I’ll get another decent chance until Hanoi at the end of Dec…so enjoy this!!
Oh yeah, one final thing – did you know Nepal has a different calendar to us? In Nepal time we’re in the year 2064, in their 7th month and I’m not sure what day of the month is is…somewhere in the middle tho’!! Also we’re 4 ¾ hrs ahead of GMT and when we cross the border to India we’ll be 4 ½ hrs ahead! If we crossed the other border to Tibet we’d be 8 hrs ahead – bloody Chinese having just one time zone for their entire country that suits those on the coast best!
Take care all of you and I'll be in touch again sometime,