...through the Himalayas on into Nepal and then to Kathmandu.
29th August - 1st September 2005 Kathmandu - a rude awakening of senses. From the tranquility of open plains we entered the chaos of Kathmandu. Cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, people in narrow streets going all directions with no pavements on which to seek refuge. Large space to small space. Time for some serious readjustments! Or shall we just head out and go trekking...? 2nd Sep - 22nd Sep Took a bus to Besi Sahar from where we were forced onto the roof of a local bus to Khudi, 45 mins further up a very bumpy road, where our trek around the Annapurna mountain range began. First, the stats: the highest of the mountains in this range is Annapurna I at 8091m, with Annapurna II,III,IV, South and several other peaks all above 7000m. Over 21 days we covered more than 300km starting at 800m and climbing to 5000m to see Tilicho Tal (the highest lake in the world) - a side trip - then back down to Manang at 3540m and up again to Thorong-La pass at 5416m, before descending to about 1000m at the finish. With Ram Ji, our ever-cheerful porter-guide, we crossed 32 suspension bridges and numerous rivers and streams, and saw several spectacular waterfalls! Checking our map, we were surprised to see 'Marijuana Fields" marked but, sure enough, we came across marijuana ("ganja") growing by the side of the path! Along the trail, we met many mule trains carrying goods from the lowland towns to the more remote villages, along with the human equivalent - some were carrying loads of up to 80kg, ranging from steel bars to racks full of chickens. There's no way any motorised vehicle could get round... yet - but the flying rocks from dynamite explosions that we ran away from indicate that they are trying to make it possible some day! Soon, we discovered that our names weren't in fact Susana and Roger, but instead we are called "Pen" and "Sweet". We deduce this from the countless greetings we had from small children: "Hello Sweet", "Hello Pen". Sometimes we changed our names to "Money" and "Balloon". No doubt some well-meaning but naive travellers before us did not intend to help turn these children into beggars! If you want to help, DON'T GIVE THEM THESE THINGS!!! Give to a local school instead! From Tilicho Tal (5000m) we descended back down to 3600m before continuing our ascent to Thorong-La pass (5416m) - the highest we have been by foot! Expecting spectacular views, we were somewhat miffed to ascend in snow to a frozen and fog-ridden pass. After our 600m climb, we rested/froze for 20 minutes and began the 1600m same-day descent. With extremely weary legs, we staggered into Muktinath, an important pilgrimage place for both Hindus and Buddhists. We carried on to Kagbeni village, where we peered into the remote Mustang region (to trek there costs US$700 for a 10-day permit!), before continuing down the western side of the Annapurna range. Descending into the realms of apple trees, we were pleased to discover a distillery at Marpha, busily producing bottles of apple brandy. Needless to say we felt obliged to help out the local business - a bottle spurred us on for the remaining 5 days! Back at these altitudes, Susana was also pleased to be able to have her giant apple pies again. The last stretch went via Ghorepani and Poon Hill - a place to get an excellent panorama of the Annapurna range (Himal) - when it isn't cloudy, that is! The Maoists must have heard of Roger's karate prowess, since not only did they announce a 3-month ceasefire the day after we started our trek, but they also evacuated the Poon Hill area, heading west, a week before we turned up. We therefore made no donation to their cause, nor received the infamous receipt to avoid duplicate payments! We descended on through beautiful, mossy, rhododendron forest (cloudy), with lots of flowers to keep Susana busy with the camera and giving Roger and Ram Ji plenty of rest time, finally reaching a road and a bus to Pokhara. We arrived in the largest town in central Nepal on 22nd September, Susana's birthday! 22nd Sep - 27th Sep We spent the next few days recuperating in Pokhara - a relaxing town beside a lake with views to the mountains (when not cloudy) - enjoying the benefits of 24-hour electricity (apart from the power cuts), hot water on-tap, good cheap restaurants, nice hotels, western toilets, internet, and water buffaloes wandering down the main street! 28th Sep - 30th Sep Since we were now fit, and had 30 days left on our Nepal visa, we decided that now was a good time to do another trek. Back to Kathmandu for preparations for a trek to Everest Base Camp, this time without porter! 1st Oct - 23rd Oct - A self-guided trek to Everest After a nail-biting flight, descent through clouds, and landing at Lukla on the shortest (& uphill) runway we've seen (incidentally ending in a brick wall and mountain!), we arrived in the Everest region, to start our trek at 2800m. Differently from Annapurna, due to the higher altitudes, the majority of the villages in this area are only occupied during the summer months. Most villages therefore consist of Yak grazing land and a few lodges. The Annapurnan mules turned into Yaks carrying Chinese goods led by Tibetan traders coming across the high passes or trekkers' camping gear up from Lukla.
Along the trails we said "Hello" or "Namaste" to all sorts of nationalities except for one, that insisted on avoiding English or Nepali and had to say: "Bonjour" to which we replied: "Bom Dia"! And as a change from Annapurna, the children here greet you with "Hello Bonbon?". Which nationality(ies?) has converted these kids into beggars...? At Thami, we awoke to a bumping and the sound of distressed mooing. On looking out of the window, we discovered the source of this disturbance: a thirsty calf had found some water in a small plastic barrel. Its head fit nicely inside, but wouldn't come out, so it was randomly bashing into things and desperately hoping the owner would come along and free it. Fortunately, he came out to see what all the fuss was about, pulled the barrel off and gave it a slap! We took a few deliberate detours up neighbouring valleys to ensure that we covered all the main trails on our map, and several of the minor ones. On reaching Gokyo (4750m) we climbed up the nearby peak Gokyo Ri (5450m) - starting at 4am to be up in time for sunrise. Cold, with great views all around and Everest in the distance. A few days later, we arrived in Chhukhung (4743m) where we found another peak to climb: Chhukhung Ri (5550m) - starting at 4am of course! Three valleys and two passes (5420m & 5535m) later, we made it Gorak Shep (5150m) from where we went to the Nepalese Everest Base Camp (5364m) giving us the matching set! No tents, but two wrecked helicopters let us know we'd arrived. The nights (and days) at this altitude were colder still - so cold that the condensation froze on our window... we barely dared poke our heads out of our sleeping bags! Carrying on our trend, starting at 4am, we climbed the nearby peak of Kala Patthar (5546m) for good views of Everest and the vast extent of the Khumbu Glacier - this time under strong moonlight, strong enough to dazzle us if we tried to look at it. We waited for the sun to warm us up once it had finally risen above Nuptse at 7:20am, leaving us and our drinking water frozen for 2 hours despite all our layers.
As we eagerly awaited the sun's warmth on our lonely peak, a horde of porters unexpectedly ascended carrying guitars, drums and mixing equipment. What the ....? Ah yes, what else could it be but an attempt on the Guiness Book of Records for the World's Highest Gig? Music for sunrise over Everest. Not Bad. Gluttons for punishment, we descended, had lunch, then went back up again in time for sunset, only to have a lone guitarist supply music for us as the sun went down! Not bad at all! At Machhermo (4410m) we heard tales of the last sighting of a Yeti (31 years ago) that had killed 3 Yaks and frightened the living daylights out of the Yak-herder. We saw the spot and Sir Edmund Hillary launched an investigation to try to find it, to no avail. A reputed Yak skull was later taken to the USA to be examined and declared to be of a mountain goat, but we've seen pictures and almost bought the postcard! All along the routes, we saw groups on package tours sleeping in tents and wondered if they knew that it was actually more expensive to stay in tents than in a cosy, brick-walled lodge. The partitions between rooms were not much thicker than the walls of the tents, however, since you could easily hear the people in the next 'room' breathing or turning over in their sleeping bag! The odd accidental 'whack!' on the wall was enough to startle us awake, bolt-upright, until we got our breathing back to normal and slept again. 23rd Oct - 26th Oct One day in Kathmandu was enough and we high-tailed it to Pokhara, our post-trekking spot, for a few last breaths of relaxation before plunging into the expected chaos of India...
We exited Lukla with a downhill acceleration for take-off and were pleased to arrive back in Kathmandu to 24-hour electricity, cold and hot running water, hot showers on demand, and no longer being in competition with Nepalese porters for food! After our trek, we heard news of Hurricane Wilma and millions of Americans without power. Having spent most of our time in villages with no electricity anyway (or running water for that matter), we viewed this from a slightly different perspective!
27th Oct - 31st Oct Crossed the border into India