Nepal: Back on Trek

With tourists starting to return to the Himalayan country, Nepal is regaining its status as the trekking capital of the world. Words by Mark Bibby Jackson.

credit: fotoVoyager

Nepal holds a soft spot in my heart. It was here that I first fell in love with travelling as a twenty-something after an arduous three weeks in India. Then I was blown away by its spectacular beauty and met people that are still friends today while trekking in Annapurna. In May, I returned to the same mountains that had so enraptured me for the first time in over twenty years.

The Thamel district of Kathmandu is a sprawling maze of narrow alleys and dusty streets frequented by travellers looking for cheap trekking gear, pizza and Nirvana cover bands. Vibrant at night, it can be a bit intense during the day, which is where a good refuge comes in handy. The Kathmandu Guest House is the oldest surviving hotel in the capital. Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2018, it’s been the watering hole for many a famous adventurer; mountaineers including Sir Chris Bonnington have used this as their base for exploring Everest. Though my trek is a more modest four days to Poon Hill, I still feel that I have chosen the right place to start my adventure.

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Kathmandu Guest House credit: Mark Bibby Jackson

Unfortunately the old building, which dated back to the turn of the last century, was destroyed in the April 2015 earthquake, but it has been replaced by a beautiful garden – unique in Thamel. A Hollywood style pavement celebrates the many celebrities who have stayed here, including Ricky Martin, Jeremy Irons and George Harrison who popped in during his Beatles flower power heyday in the late 60s.

Although Kathmandu is the administrative capital, the trekking capital is Pokhara, a six- to eight-hour drive – or 25-minute flight – away. We chose the road to stop off en route for rafting in Trisuli. The traffic was horrendous as colourful trucks and buses ploughed their lonely farrow up and down the hills leading from the Kathmandu valley.

Somehow, I had never been rafting before so I stood with a little trepidation in my bright red life jacket as our guide went through detailed safety instructions. Once in the boat I found it a thrilling experience, especially when we went over the rapids – each one was the hardest according to our guide, until the next one. While unlikely to make the next Boat Race we did manage to survive in tact. Only once did I find myself slipping over the edge and even then I managed to pull myself to safety via a handily placed rope.

The heat was intense as we set off from Bire Thanti shortly after 10am the following morning. The first day’s trekking started with a misleading stroll through a couple of villages and then into deserted countryside following the path of a river with the occasional goat to keep us company. More than once I ventured into the river in order to keep my cool. However, this proved to be the calm before the storm, quite literally.

Predicting the weather while trekking in Nepal is notoriously difficult. Blistering heat quickly changes to steady rains, and by the time we approached our tea house in the tiny village of Tikhedungha, where we would spend our first night – the heavens had opened. Wet clothes were strewn in all available spots as we ordered a well-deserved Gorkha beer or three, and our evening’s meal.

One of the major changes since my first Annapurna trek is the food. Then, the diet was an unrelenting succession of dal bhat – a Nepalese thali with rice, dal, vegetable curry, poppadum and pickle – for lunch or dinner and Tibetan bread and honey for breakfast that I adored, with the occasional Mars bar as a treat. I even picked up the nickname of Dal-bhat-man in part due to a passing hairstyle similarity to the Simpsons' only son. However, most of my fellow trekkers soon tired of the cuisine and by the end were craving western food, particularly pizza.

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Dal Bhat credit: Oskanov

Now, there is no such concern. Most tea houses offer the same menu – your guide can even phone ahead and order lunch or dinner in advance to speed up service – which includes steak, pasta, noodles and momos (Nepalese steamed or fried dumplings). There is even an occasional yak burger for the more adventurous carnivore. However, I stuck religiously to my dal baht, mindful of the t-shirts in Kathmandu which assured my diet would provide me with power that lasts 24-hours.

My sleep was interrupted by an urgent call of nature, I awoke at three. Glancing up I saw the most amazing starscape as, freed from the restrictions of artificial light, the Milky Way unfolded in front of my eyes. At the time, I did not realise how lucky I was that my Gorkha-inspired bladder had betrayed me, for this was the sole clear night of our trek and I became the only one of our troupe to appreciate the majestic sight.

The following day was our longest walk, so we set off at 6.30am to climb the 3,700 steps to Ulleri. On the way up, we walked over chain bridges and dodged a convoy of donkeys that had much more sensibly than us decided to take the downwards route.

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credit: Mark Bibby Jackson

The next two-and-a-half hours was more up and down – although with the emphasis being more on the former than latter. Starting off in clear land, we travelled along and up a river valley through rice paddies and small villages before settling down for tea in Ulleri where we had a great view of Annapurna. Passing through small villages, we then entered an enchanted forest, where spirits, goblins and leeches awaited us.

There is a camaraderie in trekking that you do not encounter in other types of travelling. Food is shared, pictures taken for each other and the weaker members of the collective supported towards a common goal. On the ascent one of our group suffered from severe cramp. During the trek, she received a massage from our guide Prasan and then in the evening at our hostel in the village of Ghorepani we helped her with further massages and foot baths. There were also several leeches to remove.

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A much needed massage credit: Mark Bibby Jackson

We woke at 3.30am to make the hour trek to Poon Hill where we were promised majestic sunrise views of the Annapurna range. Only to discover the rains that were dogging us – avoid late May – had not yet dissipated. So our Poon Hill trek was destined to be sans-Poon. However, on the flip side it did allow us a further few hours in bed to recover from the previous day’s exertions.

The following day’s hike was undeniably the highlight of the trek. Leaving Ghorepani, I walked on my own for a while listening to the mountain. The landscape was more rugged and there was no river to follow, but the wind whistled through the trees, the sound of buffalo bells reassured, and birds tweeted in the trees rather than on someone’s phone. I consumed the expansive views of the dense vegetation below with a greater appetite than for my bhat.

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Annapurna credit: fotoVoyager

The day’s trek was a lot more exposed than the previous ones as we walked along the mountain ridge. At 3,000 metres high, it really does feel as if you are walking on top of the world, especially as a small plane flew beneath us in the valley below. Also, there were no villages up here so I was able to walk for an hour with only the forest to keep me company.

Eventually, we started to descend the mountain following the path of a small stream. The beauty of the verdant scenery is overwhelming. Huge cliffs plummet into the water, small waterfalls crash against the rocks, and tortured trees cling to the cliffs.

That evening we stayed at an old-fashioned tea house in Tadapani where our porters dried their clothes above the communal heater. Shortly before sunset the clouds relented to allow us a fleeting but no less rewarding view of Annapurna. It was spectacular.

Our final day was a pleasant two-hour downhill trek through forest with lots of small waterfalls along a river to the town of Ghandruk for lunch. The touristy town came as a bit of a shock compared with the isolation of the preceding days, during which we had walked 45 miles and climbed over 700 flights. But this was nothing compared with the return to our soulless supposed five-star on the edge of Pokhara, where all I wanted to do was return to the mountains.

Fortunately, we flew back to Kathmandu and the relaxing haven of the Kathmandu Guest House, from where I could hear the bands playing their universal covers in Thamel’s nearby bars, with little desire to listen to them. At the entrance to the hotel I was offered “massage, sex, marijuana …” by a passing trader’s hushed voice. Despite the late hour, I suggested chocolate and within a few minutes I found myself back in my room, a Snickers bar in my pocket.

I had just one more trip to make – but it was a special one.

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Durbar Square, Kathmandu after the catastrophic earthquake credit: think4photop

In November 2015, I returned to Nepal to see a country still recovering from the devastation of the earthquake six months earlier. Tourism had stalled and inexcusably the Indian government had exacerbated their neighbouring people’s plight by placing an embargo on fuel coming to Nepal. The villagers I met on a trip with photographer Nathan Horton had survived the monsoons and were awaiting the harsh winter with nobility yet anger. They had benefitted from emergency relief, but government red tape was preventing them from receiving the bank loans necessary to reconstruct their homes and start rebuilding their lives.

I took a four-wheel drive to the village of Nuwakot once an ancient capital of this country sadly ruined by the 2015 earthquake. On my previous visit, I interviewed several of the people here and the surrounding villages. One woman stood out in my memory.

Shobha Dangol pulled her now ninety-year-old mother Putali out of the wreckage that used to be their home. When I visited last time, her old house was a pile of rocks and she was living in a corrugated shed and separate tent with her 12 family members, including her mum. Now, I found her still living in the same shed, but at least she had a pile of bricks with which she could start building her new home.

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Shobha and her bricks credit: Mark Bibby Jackson

Remembering me she invited us in for some local wine (raksi) and dal bhat. Shobha lost just about everything in the earthquake, yet she still shared what little she had left with us. I felt guilty accepting her hospitality but feared refusal would cause greater offence. In Nepal, there is a saying that there are no strangers, just friends you have yet to meet. Never did this seem more apposite than now.

Trekking Annapurna is still my favourite travelling experience, yet as I sat in New Delhi airport waiting for my Air India transfer back to Heathrow, it was the hospitality of one woman that stirred my mind. Nepal is a country that all travellers should include on their bucket list, not just for the majestic scenery but also for the uncompromising warmth of its people.

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Two Nepali women spinning wool credit: hadynyah