Diary - Nepal

Friday 12th April 2002 - DAY 72

Starting point: Near Ghorakpur, India
Ending point: Pokhara
Distanced travelled: 215 miles

Crossing the border to Nepal

We awoke early to find we'd been eaten alive by mosquitoes in the night - Robin's arm now looks as though he has some strange skin disease. We arrived at the border in good time but ended up trapped in the inevitable queue of lorries that had got stuck by trying to barge their way to the front. Leaving India and entering Nepal was a relatively straightforward process, although the immrigration and customs offices are just by the side of the road which leads to further blocks as people leave their vehicles while they do the formalities. It was a relief to be able to drive away from the border and into Nepal proper - the difference between the 2 countries is immediately noticeable - Nepal is so much quieter and less crowded. The roads are more organised: there are road markings, vehicles have mirrors and use them - they even have a different lane for bicycles/rickshaws. We decided to take the longer route round to Pokhara as we had heard that the road was in better condition and the scenery beautiful. This proved to be quite true - the 200 mile journey took us 5 hours and we drove up through the Terai (the flatlands only 60m above sea level) which are normally lush and green but Nepal, like India, is looking a bit thirsty at this time of year - and up into the mountains. We passed rice paddies, rivers with rafts (although the rapids are a bit depleted) and banana trees. We arrived in Pokhara and found the campsite by the lake without any problems. It is beautiful although a little hazy so we can't quite see the snowcapped mountains today. Staying here for a few days should be quite cheap as the camping is 60rupees a day (about 110 rupees to the £) and you can get a meal (including various western foods and fruit and vegetables which we had practically forgotten existed) for as little as 35 rupees. Best of all - we are now at about 1000m altitude so it is a full 10° cooler and there are hardly any mosquitoes. Perfect.

Tuesday 16th April 2002 - DAY 76

Camping by the lake in Pokhara

Have spent the past few days not really doing too much and having well-earned rest. Nepali New Year has been and gone which meant there have been lots of processions and singing on the streets. Various trekking groups have been coming and going from the campsite and have persuaded us that we really must head up into the mountains at least for a few days. We hired a rowing boat for a day and went out to the far shores of the lake and went for a swim - not sure if that was a particularly good idea, but it looked clean enough and we're both still alive, although a little sunburnt through the cloud cover. The weather is still hazy and humid but apparently it's clearer and cooler up in the mountains. We have also acquired various souvenirs including a drum and some round cushion covers - despite being a trap for tourist consumers, trade is apparently down 80% because of the unstable situation with the Maoists so everyone is desperate to sell you anything they can.

Thursday 18th April 2002 - DAY 78

It was Robin's turn for a dose of food poisoning yesterday - the culprit: an innocent looking chicken sandwich. We figure that at least our stomachs should be a little tougher now. So we set off for trekking a day later than planned, having obtained our permits and bought a map. We drove to Nyapul - the last village that the buses can go to - and arranged to have the car looked after by an 'honest looking' villager with a barn (we felt a bit uncomfortable leaving all our possessions with a total stranger, but by all accounts it is safe enough to do so). We set off from Nyapul at about 10am, by which time it was already feeling pretty hot and we knew it was only going to get hotter. The first part of the route wasn't too difficult and followed an obvious path following the river, across various rope bridges built by Ghurkas, and into the mountains. It was a good feeling, although a bit of a shock to the system, to actually be doing some serious exercise after 3 months. We passed through various Gurung villages (usually consisting of just a few houses), people working in the terraced fields with ox-pulled ploughs, donkeys with bells, and porters carrying supplies. At about 3pm we were faced with a steep vertical climb (about 950m) and for some reason decided to tackle it that day rather than wait until morning. We were fairly dehydrated and exhausted by the time we got to the village of Ulleri at the top (we must have looked pretty tired as about half way up a wise old man advised us 'go slow - look inside'). So it was a relief to find a teahouse to stay in - the view and the hospitality made it worthwhile.

Friday 19th April 2002 - DAY 79

It rained heavily overnight (which was very noisy on a tin roof) and we woke up to clear skies and our first view of the snow-covered Annapurna 1. Having breakfast on the terrace and looking back down the valley we were glad that we'd done the climb to Ulleri (2075m) last night. What we didn't know was that we were only about half way up the mountain and that we had several hours of hard walking ahead of us. Somehow it seemed easier today though, perhaps as we were higher so it was a little cooler and much of the path was through a shady forest. It was very scenic following the path upwards next to a stream that would turn into a waterfall every few hundred metres. Everyone you pass greets you with a friendly 'Namaste' and we met several fellow trekkers along the way. We made good time and arrived in the village of Ghorepani (2853m) by 1pm so spent the rest of the day relaxing, doing some washing and playing cards with some Israelis. Ghorepani is a much more purpose-built village so not quite as scenic, but provides a base for the trek up to 'Poon Hill' for sunrise.

Saturday 20th April 2002 - DAY 80

Sunrise over Macchapuchare sunrise at Poon Hill

Dragged ourselves out of bed at 5am when the alarm went off and set off still half asleep up the steep path to the Poon Hill view point. It was beginning to get light as we climbed so it was an incentive to get there quickly. When we reached the top 45 minutes and 435m vertical metres later, up above the tree line, we found most of the other trekkers we'd seen on the way were already there - one Irish guy had set his alarm wrong and had been there since 4am. The view was absolutely stunning as the sun arrived and first shone on the western peaks and Annapurna 1 then rays of light and a silver horizon started to appear from beind Macchapuchare (fish tail). We stayed for quite a while admiring the view before heading back down to the lodge for some breakfast. After another steep climb out of Ghorepani the going became easier and the path followed a high ridge with great views through the forest and rhododendrum trees in blossom (the national flower of Nepal) - even at 3000m we still had the impression that we were up with the highest peaks. The route had become much quieter as most people continue on to Jomsom or the hot springs at Totopani, so it was very peaceful. The path started to head downwards into a gulley and then back up again to the village of Todapani where we were to spend the night. The accommodation was pretty basic but our room had 2 walls consisting of windows so the view was fantastic - especially in the evening when the most almighty thunderstorm took place, illuminating the himilayas like a sound and light show.

Sunday 21st April 2002 - DAY 81

We saw another fantastic sunrise this morning, but this time from the comfort of our beds. The trekking was fairly leisurely today as it was all downhill - down and down and down - we passed through the pretty village of Ghundruk (where we had been expecting to stay the night) but as it was only 11.30am when we arrived, we decided to continue to the next village. We reached Kimche by early afternoon and found a little teahouse to stay in. It was very basic with no electricity, but a great place to sit and watch the world go by - the porters carry amazing loads to and from Nyapul to the villages which are cut off from the road. A very positive thing is that most of the villages don't seem to have been spoiled by tourism as the area is very well manged: strict environmental regulations mean there is hardly any litter and all the prices are fixed so there is no corruptive money-grabbing.

Monday 22nd April 2002 - DAY 82

Our last day trekking and we were sad to head out of the mountain tranquility and back to civilisation, cars and roads. But we were rewarded with great views right until the last minute as we walked along the terraces of maize back along the river to Nyapul. It was a relief to find that our car was still where we left it and that despite obviously having had things tied to it and been clambered all over (to be expected) was still safe and sound. We paid our trusty man and headed back to the campsite in Pokhara, our legs feeling quite stiff from all the downhill walking. The thunderstoms had left the air much clearer so we were able to see the mountains from the lakeside. We had heard rumours on the trek that the Maoists were organising a 5-day strike and that no-one would be allowed to travel during this time. As it turned out, the strike was due to start the next day so we were glad that we hadn't been stranded in the mountains and 'reluctantly' resigned ourselves to 5 lazy days of eating, drinking, sleeeping, reading and watching bad quality pirated films in the restaurants. Usually there would be a heavy thunderstorm during the film which made it even more impossible to hear - one night the hailstones that fell were somewhere between the size of a walnut and a golf ball.

Sunday 28th April 2002 - DAY 88

Starting point: Pokhara
Ending point: Sauraha, Chitwan
Distanced travelled: 99 miles

The strike finally ended so, like everybody else, it was time to get on the road again. During the journey south to Royal Chitwan National Park we passed a huge queue of buses and trucks waiting to be cleared through a check-point. I say 'passed' as opposed to 'got stuck in' because we were pretty sure that, as westerners, we didn't look particularly like Maoist terrorists and they wouldn't be too bothered about us, so cheekily drove down the other side of the road for a few miles until we reached the checkpoint. We did cause a bit of a jam at one point as we met a bus coming the other way, but we certainly saved ourselves several hours of waiting. On arrival at Sauraha, the village just outside the park, we found our way to some suitable accommodation: little mud huts with thatched roofs amidst a garden of weird and wonderful plants. We were the only people staying there and were apparently the first to arrive since the strike - Sauraha had been deserted for a few days. Naturally as soon as we set foot outside the lodge we were bombarded with offers for elephant rides, canoe trips and jungle walks. We signed up for a canoe trip and half day jungle walk for the next day, then spent the evening in one of the bar/restarants next to the river and watched other tourists gradually arriving. Apparently there would normally be a hundreds of people in Chitwan at this time of year, which was good for us but a real shame for the tourist industry.

Monday 29th April 2002 - DAY 89

Stuck in the mud at Chitwan local women giving us a helping hand

We got up early to meet our guides (there has to be 2 for safety reasons) and set off down the river in a very wobbly dug-out canoe which sat about 6 inches above the water - had we met any crocodiles it might have been interesting. After about an hour we left the canoe and set out on foot into the jungle. Every now and then our guides would climb a tree to make various animal calls. At one point one of the guides who had wandered on ahead suddenly froze, then came running back through the trees indicating for us to get up the nearest tree. We caught sight of a large rhino about 20m away in the bushes - although, to be honest, I was more concerned about the huge red spider that I was sharing my tree with. Later on we also saw a few deer, wild hogs and monkeys, not to mention many species of brightly coloured birds - Nepal apparently contains 8% of the world's species of birds which is quite amazing when you consider the country itself represents 0.2% of the world's surface area. After lunch we decided to drive round to the other side of the park, via a lake renound for wildlife spotting, to go to the crocodile breeding centre. Unfortunately half way along the road we came across a fallen tree blocking our path. We cursed ourselves for not having brought an axe with us, but found a way to drive round it - or so we thought. Naturally we ended up getting stuck and had to use all our resources (spades, sand ladders etc.) to try and get ourselves out. Passing villagers stopped to help us dig and push - it took 2 hours and we had to empty everything out of the back of the landie, but we did eventually get free. Nepali people are incredibly strong - it was quite a sight to see the women carrying our boxes of tools on their heads that I can barely lift. It was getting late so we didn't make it to the crocodile breeding centre and headed back to Sauraha.

Tuesday 30th April 30th 2002 - DAY 90

Had a leisurely morning, then after lunch went on an elephant ride in the 'buffer zone' of the park as you don't need to buy a permit for this area. We were sharing our elephant with an Irish/Australian couple (Paddy and Sheila - as we came to know them) and were fortunate enough to come across several rhino grazing in a clearing about 20 minutes after we set off. Riding on the back of an elephant is the perfect way to see rhino as they're very short sighted and so can't see or smell you - rhino also look reassuringly small when you're 15ft up. It was like a scene out of Jurassic Park as these creatures really do look prehistoric close up. We also glimpsed a mother with a very young rhino, but she protected it so well we hardly saw it.

One-horned rhinos at Chitwan

Wednesday 1st May 2002 - DAY 91

We drove to the elephant breeding centre in the morning (after fording a shallow river - definitely gluttons for punishment) and bought some bananas to make ourselves popular. There were about 20 elephants in total, including a couple of young ones about a year old who were very friendly and cheeky (you would suddenly find a trunk over your shoulder or in your pocket) and a really tiny one that was just 25 days old. They're such beautiful creatures. We had heard that you could go for an 'Elephant Bath' so at noon as the elephants were taken down to the river in Sauraha we were able to ride bare-back on 'Puna' as she went into the water for a wash and a play. This was a great experience as you get squirted with water and rolled off into the river until you've had enough - the elephants really seem to enjoy this too. We met up with Paddy and Sheila for some food and offered to give them a lift up to Kathmandu the next day.

Thursday 2nd May 2002 - DAY 92

Starting point: Sauraha, Chitwan
Ending point: Kathmandu
Distanced travelled: 135 miles

Picked Paddy and Sheila up at 10am and set off to Kathmandu - there are 2 choices of route, one which the buses take and backtracks the way we had come, and one which goes up over the mountains. We chose the mountain route as we'd been told it was very beautiful, however we could appreciate why the buses went the other way as it was incredibly bendy, parts of the road were still being repaired from the last monsoon damages and we climbed up over 2400m. The map showed that there was a village at the top of the mountain (the Nepalese don't seem to consider mountains as obstacles and consequently their roads don't go round mountains - they go over them), but when we arrived it appeared to be a small collection of houses and no shops. So we found some snacks in our food box, made some tea and had a picnic. We were approached by some curious village boys and some giggling old hags, who must have been smoking something, and were very insistent that we gave them some food. We gave them a biscuit each but they wouldn't go away so we packed up and set off on the road again. The road was just as bendy on the other side of the mountain and seemed never ending. We did eventually join the 'other' road, along with a queue of traffic into the Kathmandu Valley - the pollution was already becoming noticeable. A joint effort at map-reading meant we found our way fairly easily to Thamel and to a hotel where we could park the car.

Monday 6th May 2002 - DAY 95

Despite Kathmandu being quite cheap for accommodation and food, we seem to have spent quite a lot of money over the past few days. I guess a trip to the casino, eating well, drinking beer + souvenir shopping all adds up. We have now acquired 2 fleece-lined yak wool jumpers, a mandala, a khukri (ghurka knife) and the obligatory buddha. Oh, and we did manage to service the car and do some sightseeing as well.

outside the Monkey Temple Bodnath Stupa

Tuesday 7th May 2002 - DAY 96

Starting point: Kathmandu
Ending point: Tatapani
Distanced travelled: 80 miles

Visited the Bodnath stupa on our way out of Kathmandu - the largest stupa in Nepal. I've been humming the mantra 'om mani padme um' ever since which is driving Robin mad. Passed through a couple of check points and followed the road next to the river further up into the mountains. We saw a couple of rafting groups (the rapids didn't look too exciting) and the cable/rope bridge where they do the bungee jumps. There was nobody around, but we stopped and walked across the bridge, which in itself provides a bit of adrenalin as it's quite high up and long, with plenty of gaps to see the river beneath. The road started to deteriorate soon after this and turned into a dirt track with evidence of recent landslides. We reached the village of Tatapani and found a guesthouse to stay the night - it was a small, Tibetan, family-run lodge where you sit at low tables on cushions to eat your dal baat. We tried teaching the children how to play snap but they seemed more interested in the pictures on the cards.