As suspected, we have been completely without internet, and often without electricity for most of the last three weeks. But in summary, Nepal has been amazing! Like many other places we have visited, we came to Nepal for one reason – the mountains – but ended up appreciating so many more things about the country.
The trip started somewhat inauspiciously: we arrived from Hong Kong in a very bumpy lightening storm that forced us to abort our first landing attempt in the last 500 feet because the runway lights suddenly went out. This was all great fun for Rachael, who doesn't much like flying at the best of times, and even more fun for Jeremy, who had to wait an hour and a half at the back of the plane for the seatbelt sign to be turned off so he could use the toilet! By the time we were finally safely on the ground it was almost midnight, and we stumbled to the front of an under-staffed immigration line, only to find that the visa validity period had been lowered from 60 days to 30. We eventually gave up trying to understand the garbled instructions on how to extend this to the 36 days we needed, and emerged bleary-eyed into the chaos of the arrivals hall.
Fortunately, Jeremy's mum Rosemary had generously funded a tour for our first three weeks in Nepal, so we were greeted by the very welcome sight of two representatives from Ker & Downey, the tour company, holding our names up on a placard. They whisked us to a waiting van, where we had welcome marigold leis placed around our necks and were driven directly to our hotel, the legendary Kathmandu Guest House. In fact, our tour did not technically begin until the following day, so this escort was a very pleasant surprise, and turned out to be a godsend when we tried to check in. Apparently the lightening storm had stranded lots of guests, so our reservation was out the window, and the man at the desk initially seemed uninterested in helping us. But our guys went to work on our behalf, arguing forcefully in Nepalese that this was an entirely unacceptable situation, and eventually we found ourselves being led to the last available room, where additional mattresses were set up on the floor for the kids. After spending an hour deciding what to leave in Kathmandu and what to take on the trek, we finally fell into bed for five hours of sleep.
Bright and early at 8am the following morning, the Ker & Downey crew were back, introducing us to our guide, Prem, and driving us back to the airport for our flight to Pokhara. The domestic terminal was like a huge dark warehouse, and introduced us to a whole new level of chaos! The x-ray machines were jammed with bags of produce, mountains of grain sacks blocked all the entrances, and several competing loudspeaker systems vied for our attention. There were also no signs, gates or information in any recognizable form, and a disturbing number of large screens blared out Bollywood soaps at high volume. The check-in process appeared to be a largely DIY affair, where we placed our own bags on the moving belt, then clambered over them to reach the departure lounge. Luckily Prem navigated it all with ease, and we were eventually aboard our Buddha Air flight, somewhat shell-shocked but otherwise intact.
Prem turned out to be an ex-military man from a village in the Pokhara area, with twenty-two years in the famous Gurkha regiments, and fourteen years as a trekking guide. He had an infectious smile and a great sense of humor and we all quickly fell in love with him. But we also discovered that beneath his jovial and calm exterior, he was extremely efficient and well-organized, expecting high standards and commanding great respect from everyone around him. Somehow we had been lucky enough to snag Ker & Downey's most experienced guide, which pleased Rachael no end, and she immediately handed over the reigns and allowed herself to completely relax for the first time since we left home!
In Pokhara, we boarded another bus to take us to the start of our trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary. This gave us our first glimpse of Nepali life outside the capital, which was reminiscent of images of India, with beautiful bright colored clothes, and intricately decorated buses everywhere with luggage, people and goats piled on the roofs. Nepal is the poorest country we've visited so far, and this was most apparent in the state of the roads. Some have clearly never been paved, but most seem to have fallen into total disrepair during the last ten years of civil war. At their best, they are extraordinarily bumpy and at their worst they are like miniature minefields!
Interestingly, the driving style here is a little different from other Asian countries we've visited. While they are more disciplined in following the rules of the road, Nepali drivers also seem far more aggressive and confrontational, which is a little worrying when you're hurtling along the edge of unprotected mountain precipices! The chief offenders are the young drivers of the public buses, who seem to get a little much enjoyment from the power that comes with sitting behind the wheel of a very large vehicle. They frequently race each other, passing on ridiculously dangerous corners, their musical horns blaring constantly. Given the poor state of repair of most vehicles here, it isn't difficult to understand why deadly crashes are all too common. The bus drivers also refuse to pull off the road when they stop, often holding up traffic in both directions while they pick up passengers, take a lunch break, or change a flat tire. And apparently they also often become involved in strikes and other disputes, where they band together to intentionally block the road completely. The sheer number of buses is hard to describe – dozens are often visible in the same short stretch of road. So when they decide to be disruptive they can easily bring traffic to a complete standstill. Needless to say, driving any distance in Nepal is quite a marathon adventure!
Fortunately, we had only a light day of hiking once we arrived at the trailhead, including a fabulous picnic lunch en-route. The scenery was similar to northern Vietnam, as we hiked along many terraces and hills, and passed through several small villages, which offered an amazing glimpse of rural life. Throughout the trek, Prem provided us with a wealth of information about trees and flowers we passed, and about local history and customs, including the blend of Hinduism and Buddhism practiced here. He also shared a little of his own life growing up in a small village, serving in the Gurkhas, and observing recent political and social changes. Around 4pm, we arrived at Ker & Downey's Sanctuary Lodge, in the village of Birethanti. After being welcomed with lemon water and showed to our rooms, we ate tea and biscuits in the beautiful gardens at 4:30, then settled around the fireplace in the bar for happy hour and munchies at 6, moving to a long table in the dining room for a delicious candlelit dinner at 7. This would become the delightful routine at each of the Ker & Downey lodges we visited over the next ten days, and it felt a world away from the traveling we had been doing over the previous three months!
The following day we continued our way up the valley, passing through more small villages. Due to the abundance of raw materials, the village houses in Nepal are constructed in a traditional style very different from what we've seen in other countries, with beautiful stonework, wooden beams, and slate roofs. Most of the fields were surrounded by dry stone walls, and much of the trail was also paved, with stone steps leading up many of the inclines. We passed many villagers carrying heavy loads in bamboo baskets strapped to their heads, and learned the ubiquitous Nepali greeting “namaste”, used by locals and tourists alike, regardless of nationality. We also encountered the first of many mule trains transporting supplies along the trail. In the early afternoon, we reached the village of Ghandruk, stopping for the night at Ker & Downey's Himalaya Lodge. Unlike the previous lodge which had been purpose-built, this one occupied authentic traditional buildings, with wonderful low ceilings and doorways. And it was in the heart of the village, so we were surrounded by the sounds and sights of village life. And yet in spite of the differences, it immediately felt like home, with the same welcoming staff and comforting evening routine.
This was our first introduction to the fascinating weather pattern of the area, that would repeat virtually every day for the rest of our trek. In spite of beautiful sunshine all morning, Prem had hurried us along, eager to reach the lodge before 2pm to avoid afternoon rain. And sure enough, just as he had predicted, the sky quickly darkened after lunch and we retreated to the covered terrace outside our room as a deluge of rain began to fall, continuing into the evening. Then just as surprisingly, the sky completely cleared overnight, and we were awakened at 6am to a greeting of “beautiful mountains”, emerging from our rooms to discover a spectacular view of the snow-covered Annapurna Range above us that had been completely obscured by cloud the previous afternoon. As we sipped our tea and coffee and marveled at the views, we also noticed that the higher altitude brought somewhat cooler temperatures, and quickly pulled on the provided down jackets and woolly hats!
But things warmed up quickly when the sun came up, and right after breakfast we were back on the trail to begin the next stage of our adventure. We were attempting to climb to the Annapurna Base Camp (4,130 meters/13,550 feet) which is above the snow line at the foot of the Annapurna mountains. It was a challenging three day hike for us given the altitude, the early spring weather, our somewhat reduced state of physical fitness, and the avalanche zones we would have to traverse. And we were leaving the comfort of the Ker & Downey lodges, relying instead on local “tea houses” which are grouped in small clusters at intervals along the trail. But on the plus side we had an excellent guide who set the perfect pace for us, and four porters who woke us each morning with tea, coffee and hot chocolate, carried our bags all day, and tucked hot water bottles into our beds each evening! And while the tea houses had very basic rooms, they were comfortable and welcoming, and all offered a wide range of delicious food. Prem, Rachael and Jeremy usually chose the local favorite all-you-can-eat dahl baht (rice and lentils), but the kids tucked into omelets, pancakes, pizza and spaghetti, with deep fried Mars bars for dessert. Our only concession was that we generally went to bed without washing, as the bathroom was usually just a small concrete outhouse containing a bucket of cold water!
We encountered many other hikers on the trail and in the lodges, most of whom were on a tighter budget, and clearly missing some of the luxuries provided by Ker & Downey. One woman complained jokingly to her guide about the lack of a hot water bottle in her bed! And our little party was quite an unusual sight, with the four of us wearing our matching Ker & Downey hats, and Prem and the porters all in matching outfits. At one lodge, a German man asked to take a picture of the “matching hat family”, while a Spanish woman eyed our porters and asked Prem nervously if the Nepali Army had been called in! We sometimes felt a pang of guilt when we passed hikers struggling under full packs, but we also noticed other porters who were horribly overloaded, and were glad to be with a company that clearly treated its employees very well.
The next day we crossed several deep valleys to reach Chomrong, the last real village on the trail. At one point we had to detour over the top of a steep ridge to bypass a huge landslide that wiped out the original trail last year. Unfortunately, landslides are becoming an increasing problem here, as traditional farming techniques that protected the soil are being abandoned, and climate change is disrupting normal rainfall patterns. Every year tons of irreplaceable topsoil is being washed down the rivers, leaving more and more of the steep rocky mountainsides exposed. From Chomrong we descended an incredibly long and steep series of stone steps to reach the bottom of the main valley that would lead us the rest of the way up to our destination at the base of the Annapurna mountains, which were now clearly visible ahead of us. From this point on, the trail became more rugged, and we watched the trees thin and the valley narrow as we steadily gained altitude. We passed through a large area of bamboo forest, before stopping for the night at one of the tea houses clustered in Dovan. By now we were at 2,500 meters, and fleeces and woolly hats were standard attire in the afternoon.
The next morning we began our final full day of climbing, mostly following the rocky valley floor along the river. But we were now into avalanche territory, so periodically we had to pick our way across the huge masses of packed snow that had tumbled down from the rocky cliffs above us all the way to the banks of the river. There had been a huge avalanche a week before in a completely unexpected section of the valley, so Prem was on high alert, especially during the later part of the morning when he knew the sun would have softened the snow above us. In the end, we made it through without any unwanted excitement, although we watched an enormous avalanche crashing down into the valley below just a few hours later, after we were safely settled in for the night.
We stayed in a lodge at the Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC), which is at the top of the valley, and at the foot of the Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) mountain. We had now reached the snow line, and from here the trail turned to the left for the final stretch to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), passing between Annapurna South and the rest of the mountains in the Annapurna range. We decided to make the push to the top early the following morning so we could sleep at a lower elevation and reduce the risk of altitude sickness. But we wanted to arrive at dawn, so we rose at 4:30 and began the hike in the dark with our headlamps, which was very exciting. The snow crust was still frozen, which enabled us to walk easily on the surface, reaching ABC in less than two hours, and just in time to see the sun rise in a brilliant blue sky over a bowl of enormous Himalayan peaks. It was the perfect culmination to a wonderful three days.
After an hour or so of enjoying the spectacular views, we returned to MBC to eat breakfast, before retracing our steps all the way back down, arriving back at the Himalaya Lodge exactly on schedule three days later, where we met up with Jeremy's mum Rosemary (Granny) and sister Stephanie. Needless to say there was great excitement all around, especially when Granny handed Lucas the last two books in his Alex Rider series, and produced lots of candy treats from her bag, including chocolate Easter eggs! Rosemary and Stephanie had just completed the first two days from Pokhara, staying at Sanctuary Lodge on the way, and had enjoyed it as much as we had. They were accompanied by a Dutch couple Raymond and Francine, and their 8 year old son Mees (pronounced “mace”). Raymond works as a geologist for Shell Oil, so they move to new locations around the world every four years. They are currently living in Malaysian Borneo, but have previously lived in Egypt and Paris, so we all had lots of travel adventure stories to share. Mees attends an international school, so he spoke perfect English, and he and Lucas immediately hit it off. The two of them were inseparable for the rest of the day, involved mainly in activities related to beekeeping.
The following morning Raymond set off on the trek up to ABC, while Francine, Mees and the rest of us stayed at the Himalaya Lodge for a day of well-needed R&R, before launching into another four days of lower-altitude hiking together. In the afternoon Prem took us for a walk around the Ghandruk village and the surrounding countryside. Rachael took a detour to watch ritual animal sacrifices at a local temple (sorry, no pictures of that!), but the rest of us declined to participate, and instead spent a very enjoyable hour sitting in a meadow enjoying the scenery. Back at the lodge, we watched the young locals parade through the village banging drums and other loud percussive instruments as they performed a semi-annual cleansing ritual to chase away evil spirits. This was of course followed by our own ritual of tea and biscuits, beer, and dinner.
The next day dawned bright and clear, giving Rosemary and Stephanie an opportunity to see the amazing views of the mountains as we ate breakfast. The six of us then packed up and, together with Francine and Mees, hiked back down to Sanctuary Lodge. In the afternoon, we toured the local village of Birethanti, including a stop at a nearby waterfall. Later Jeremy, Rosemary and the kids walked down to the river, where unfortunately Lucas sprained his ankle rather badly. Jeremy carried him back up to the lodge, where Rosemary applied lots of arnica and prayer, and we all hoped for the best.
In the morning, the ankle was still rather swollen but not in serious pain, so with Lucas wearing a support bandage, we all set out for our next stop, Gurung Lodge near the village of Tanchok. We were now traveling eastwards, making our way back towards Pokhara. Lucas, accompanied by Jeremy, Beckie and the porters, took a shorter route and arrived mid-morning, while the rest of the party showed up a couple of hours later. The ankle held up well, and after a few hours of rest, Lucas seemed to have stopped worrying about it entirely, and was running around the lodge with Mees, playing with the resident puppy whom they nicknamed “Chewy Louis” (due to his penchant for tugging on everything in sight with his teeth). Once again, this lodge was the same but different. As usual it was situated on a hillside with beautiful gardens and spectacular views up the valley. But with more space available, they had built each pair of rooms in a separate building, all designed to look exactly like authentic Nepali village houses. And in fact, they were constructed using traditional techniques with materials from thirty abandoned houses in the nearby village that Ker & Downey had purchased from the locals, and carried down to a parcel of terraced farmland that had proven too infertile to be useful for crops. Once again, Prem led a tour of the village in the afternoon, but only Rachael and Jeremy had enough energy to participate! It was a hard climb up the hillside, but well worth the effort. Most of our time was spent inside a local house that had been converted to a museum, and was a goldmine of fascinating artifacts and information. As always, Prem was a superb guide, providing us with lots of insight into the life and history of the local people. Back at the lodge, dinner was the usual sumptuous feast, but this time was followed by a lengthy napkin folding class, where the kids learned lots of new tricks from the staff.
Our final full day of hiking took us from Tanchok to the Basanta Lodge in Dhampus. This turned out to be one of the most spectacular days of the entire trip, with beautiful weather and incredible views. As we left the lodge, we had a wonderful clear view of the familiar Annapurna peaks at the top of the valley against a clear blue sky. Soon, however, we descended into the meadows and woodland of the next valley, with only occasional glimpses of the Fishtail Mountain through the trees. About an hour and a half later, however, we emerged from the forest to join the main tourist trail, and suddenly the entire mountain range was visible behind us, extending to the east far beyond anything we had seen previously. After a brief drink stop, Prem took us off the main trail, and up onto a long ridge-line, with some terrifying drop-offs, and spectacular views on all sides. At the very end, we climbed up onto a small grassy hill where we literally had a 360 view, with Pokhara in the valley ahead of us, and the entire Annapurna Range to our left. By now some cloud had rolled in over the highest peaks, but the panorama was breathtaking nonetheless. We all sat for a long time at the top, before eventually Prem's stomach started rumbling and he persuaded us to make the final descent into Dhampus. In the village, we passed a fascinating and colorful festival celebrating local business, before eventually arriving at Basanta Lodge to enjoy our final night on the trail.
After a spectacular sunrise, we picked up our hiking poles for the last time, and descended a long series of stone steps to the main road, where we boarded a bus for the short ride into Pokhara. We were dropped at the Shangri La hotel, which is a beautifully landscaped resort with a tropical theme and mountain views. We spent several hours by the pool, followed by a wander around the town, and dinner with Prem at a popular local restaurant. We then said farewell to Francine and Mees, before returning to our hotel to get a good night's sleep before our next exciting adventure: rafting down the Seti River!