Spiritually thunderstruck.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

A kind of swishing sound, only just perceivable to my ear, was what I heard. It happened in such a microscopic space of time that I had no time to react. My instinct said the sound was to be alarmed at. My brain had the signal. The computations were in process. It didn’t add up fast enough. As soon as my central nervous system was signalling peril, it struck. It skimmed more than struck, gliding over my head and landing with a thump two metres to my left shoulder. My head had slowed its momentum and the rock landed with a dull thud. The snow around it had remained intact. It sank into a hole maybe a leg’s length deep. As I peered into the hole, one eye was facing up the slope, making sure this rock’s bigger relatives weren’t coming down to flatten me. The slope was still enough. I gave a little more time to viewing the rock in the hole.

It was slate in colour, crumbly around the edges, rough and worn underneath but jagged and unforgiving on the top. The size, well, it was close to that of a red house-brick. I reached down to touch it. It weighed as much as two bags of sugar, if not a little more. I thought to myself, if that had landed on me more directly, I’d be as good as gone. Game over? I assessed my injury. It was a bump and no bigger than two (or three) that I had experienced earlier in the trek from headbutting low roof rafters and doorframes. It’s a habit I have tried to avoid since being a kid, but as my Mum will agree, I am clumsy. It’s in the genetics somewhere.

With that new bump obtained between Bhratang, the beginnings of the huge western face of Pagunda Danda, I just carried on to Upper Pisang. Not much I could do but knuckle down and see how it panned out. Initially that day, I was fine and later that day, I was still okay. The next day, as we departed the lodge and started our walk onwards, I started to feel an ache spanning from the bump back to rear-right of my head. After an hour of trekking that ache became near agony. It was either the rapid onset of altitude sickness, or that injury was playing up. Livia, Srirang and I trekked through deep snow, and eventually Livia and I stretched ahead a little, but not much. As we reached the mani stones, just shy of a very snowed over river with two bridges, I took a moment to try to understand my pain.

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We had opted for the path up to Ghyaru and Humde, because the views would look back across the valley at the Annapurna Masiff. The great mani stones, stood on a ridge overlooking the raging river below, and the smaller tributary that was would have to cross. Many slabs, rocks and smaller carved models carried one simple message, ‘Om mani padme hum. The beautiful artistic Sanskrit writing curved and glimmered in the various levels of light: ॐ मणि द्मे हूँ. Om/Aum/ ॐ [white] is a sacred syllable. Mani/ मणि [green] is a jewel (or bead). Pad/प [sky blue] plus me/द्मे [red] is the lotus flower – a flower sacred to Buddhism. Hoon/hum/ हूँ [dark blue] is the spirit of enlightenment. It can also be found in Chinese as 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 and Thai as โอมฺ มณิ ปทฺเม หูมฺ, amongst many languages and cultures.

Right here, on the pathway, the stone plates featured the six syllabled mantra as a form of Tibetan prayer. Some had clearly been painted, but most were natural earthly colours. Decades and possibly centuries of devotion made up this wall, like many other walls throughout Nepal and other countries. I’ve seen many mounds and cairns in similar fashions. Each one, I believe, offers prayer to the locality and beyond. The time and effort for each creation could be seen. No corners had been cut. Devotion had been placed on each faithful stone. This wall was around about two metres high and sagged just a little. It was long as coach and as wide as a wardrobe. You always walk around a Mani wall, the same way the Earth rotates. Buddhism has rules. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, spiritualism and nature hugged each other. Lichens and mosses covered what surface they could, and birds occasionally perched on the walls, looking down at the snow, trying to find the little food available. At this moment, I assessed the bridges. Livia and I decided the lower bridge route would be the safest option. We set out.

After crossing the lower bridge, we scrambled upwards a few and awaited Srirang. He chose the upper bridge and we met once again. I walked up one gentle wide path and Srirang and Livia chose a steeper more direct route. They met me as I was sat down. My head was pounding inside – and I felt a little sick. There was dizziness. I ate some biscuits and drank plenty of water. Srirang and Livia were concerned. They suggested a rest and we discussed the injury or whether it could be altitude sickness. We were about 3500m up and we had never rushed the journey so far. Ghyaru (3730m) lay just a few metres upwards. After an hour, I decided I had to descend. Livia and Srirang disagreed but we all agreed, “if I feel better tomorrow, I’d head back up.” With that I scuttled back to Upper Pisang, and enjoyed the views of the frozen lake below on the plains, and the ever-angry flows of the Marshyangdi River. I was welcomed back into the same lodge. Even to this day I cannot recall the name of the lodge. It had a Sherpa-Tibetan family and they were ever so nice. I said about my discomfort and they said that I did the right thing.

After an evening of talking with trekkers on their way from Manang, and a few individuals heading upwards, I slipped off to bed. The dal baht power didn’t seem to be shifting my headache and numerous litres of water made me get up during the night several times. Peeing into a frozen toilet with no water to flush it, isn’t a nice experience, at 4am in the freezing cold. Still, it beat watching celebrities on mind-numbing television shows. I’d also spent hours on Wi-Fi trying to talk with customer services at Trip.com – for the second night running, to see if I could move a flight to Hong Kong, because of the growing seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Many airlines were cancelling flights and by this time Nepal had apparently closed its borders to China and reportedly banned Chinese tourists. In my anxious mind, it made sense to be proactive and try to remain in Nepal. The border crossings between China and Hong Kong were rapidly becoming fewer too. Why fly to absolute uncertainty?

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I awoke a little refreshed but still with a headache. I made the choice to descend further. I set out just before 11am and walked back. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t relieved. I just had a pain in the head that wouldn’t go away. The walk back was tough as the walk up. The deep snow and occasional blustery winds made it a slog of a day. As I rounded the cliffs and the path led through to The Farmhouse at Bhratang, I spotted a jeep. The driver helped me get to Chame. At Chame, I met a doctor who looked at my head, tested my reactions and concluded concussion. He said no need for emergency treatment and suggested I head back to Pokhara or rest for several days in a warmer village downhill. I was in luck, the jeep driver took me as far as Besi Sahar! Back to the beginning. Here I was dropped at the hotel Manaslu and booked onto the first coach to Pokhara that morning. It felt sad but I had a mix of emotions in my head, anxiety and a head injury.

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The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all travel to China but didn’t state a clear reason why. The outbreak seemed to be mostly confined to Hubei and a few other areas. The U.K. wasn’t even screening passengers on arrival from any Chinese city. Was it really that serious?! Could I return to China or not? Would I have to head to the U.K.? Could I stay in Nepal by extending my visa? I had a tight budget and worry had been with me for days. Worry and concussion are not ideal bedfellows.

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The cumbersome coach clumped along, bouncing and bumping, throwing passengers here and there, and visited countless villages on the route back to Pokhara. At one stop a toothless elderly man sat on a step. He had no shoes on and his clothing looked unkempt. His face crinkled from years of exposure to the sun. He looked at me. He smiled. He gestured with his fingers the shape of a smile, over his face. That’s what it is all about. Experiences, moments and smiles. I smiled back, greeted and waved goodbye as the cumbrous coach continued headlong. I could take much from this journey and experience.

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Looking back at the day where the rock had hit my head, I’d been clicking away like crazy on my camera before that. After that, I’d rarely taken many photos. It clearly marked a change in my behaviour and my general health. The physical and mental challenge had just been knocked out of me. Yet, I experienced many great moments, even on the jeep journey back down. It isn’t every day a herd of goats gets in your way! From then on Nepal would still give me more great moments, but the trek had finished.

So, what next?

I’m not gonna give up.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

Before the climb, we’d stopped in Danagyu, at a lodge on the right-hand side. It was busy. A family were playing cards. Kids were running around and one managed to hit both Livia and I with first her walking stick and second a snotty finger. I was fully aware of the coronavirus outbreak by now. It was by now February. Hygiene was on my conscience but this terrible toddler was not sharing my concern. Bogies smeared down my leg. I used soap and water to clean it away. Eventually a teenage girl came over and shuffled the toddler away. We’d already ordered pumpkin soup and momos now. Having seen the soon to be altogether contour lines on the map, our engines for walking needed some much needed fuel. One trekker’s bar wasn’t going to be adequate.

After reaching a waterfall tucked in a tight ravine, Livia went right along the road, and I went left up some steep steps. Srirang was just behind Livia, with his sore leg, yet he soldiered on and never gave in. Tough lad. After only a few steps, I started to see speedy little Himalayan squirrels and the view backwards of the peaks nearby to Manaslu was marvellous. Upwards was very much that. Up, up and away. After some crumbly steps, that could have been made of Lancashire cheese of apple crumble topping, I managed to reach the road, and cross straight over back onto the pathway. Here the green trees folded outwards ever so slightly, to show stacks of natural compost on the forest floor. The air had a damp natural earthy smell and occasional felled logs rotted alongside the trail. The track would mostly rise and do little of a fall. Soon enough the mud and dirt track became covered in frozen snow. Not the fluffy soft and easy to trudge through kind, but the solid mostly with a metre drop inwards should I find the bit unable to tolerate my weight, kind. And it seemed I was in for many steps up, and a few deep into the partially frozen snow. Heave. Heave. Heave.

The snow pretty much didn’t want to convey me and with every drop my boots, and the best part of my legs disappeared. Out came the crampons. Out came the determination. Onwards I went. My imagination enjoyed the peculiar eerie silence. I imagined packs of wolves, snow leopards and bears watching me go by. Not your ideal range of animals to picture you pass by, especially if one of them was very hungry, but here I was in the territory of nature, and damned if I was going to imagine Minecraft or a rock concert.

The pine trees shed patches of snow and melt water dripped all around me. Glorious rays of sunshine broke the canopy and occasionally I caught glimpses of mountain tops here and there. Then, a sudden crashing sound in the trees ahead, had me at full alertness. I froze solid as the iced floor around me. Silence resumed. Then a larger and louder thump and crunch. Something was in the trees ahead. I heard a racket and a commotion. Voices yelled from the canopy to my immediate left. The thuds and thumps were accompanied by a disturbance in the snow maybe a few hundred metres away. Then I spotted a monkey, Himalayan langur, springing up and down in the snow, swiftly from tree to tree across a small clearing. They didn’t seem too perturbed by the snow, but didn’t hang around either way. I tried to shoot them. My camera wasn’t quick enough though.

Throughout this journey, I had seen many mammals. These included Himalayan langurs, Assam macaques, Rhesus macaques, Irrawaddy squirrels, orange-bellied Himalayan squirrels, Himalayan striped squirrels, voles, Himalayan field mice, Himalayan pika, shrews, a variety of bats, and some wild boar, I’d never seen many animals in the snow. It was a privilege to enjoy the monkeys and hear them move over the forest. It was a welcome break from the constant in and out walking motions of the snow. I also had chance to reflect about the fall onto my walking stick which had gave the stick a slight bend, or three.

After crossing many streams carefully, over tiny little snow-covered bridges, and occasionally playing find the rock over the odd crossing point, I reached a stretched out chain bridge. Snowfall and heavy damage had ripped one end of the supports from its foundations. The two guard rails fanned out, practically useless. It wasn’t quite and Indiana Jones movie, but it looked far more precarious than comfort. The river flow was about five metres wide, pummeling steeply down to the River Marsyangdi many metres below in altiiude. I decided to chance my luck at a bridge further upstream. After 200 metres, I realised that this was the only bridge. I hadn’t seen one downstream either. Whilst I could hear the river nearby, I couldn’t see it and no alternative route evident. The flayed and flawed bridge was to be my point of movement. A way like no other.

So, off came the crampons, and then I positioned my rucksack tighter to my back. I stowed my walking sticks. I pulled out my thin winter gloves with extra grips (thanks Black Diamond) and I stepped through the first pocket of snow on the bridge. I tested the bridge for movement. First with a little weight and then applying all slowly, readied to dive into the snow to the side of the bridge. Then, I did a kind of half-hop. The bridge was surprisingly sturdy – a real testament to the Gurkha builders who had provided so many bridges across the country. From that, I leant and tested the sideways cable to my left, uphill and in appearance the least damage of the handrails. I turned square onto it. I placed my left hand over my right hand and never left any motion rightwards without one very firm hand on the rail. By the time I’d reached the centre of the bridge, the rail tilted upwards, almost as it should have been and all the snow had melted in the sunlight. I gently walked up to the other side and looked backwards. Stepping off the bridge was a relief. Then I peered left at the small landslips dotted along the river bank.

The fallen ground and occasional uprooted tree didn’t prove too much of a challenge. The trail banked left and into an open field, which led onto a rock-cobbled road. Each rock was jagged and unwelcoming. It had a Lord of The Rings feel to it. Wild, and otherworldly. Onwards, I plugged until reaching the Hotel Royal Garden, where I met Livia aftera few minutes. Here, I also met Shadow. Shadow wasn’t his name but for that day he would be my little shadow and follow us throughout the village of Timang. After a great lunch, Srirang joined us, and we checked in for the night, just 100 metres down the road. Ahead of us the weather looked bleak and unsettled. So, a Sherpa family welcomed us, and we dropped our bags into a room each. The Hotel Manaslu View Point had a view of Manalsu in the distance and the panoramic view in all directions was a clear sign that we were now in the Himalayas, proper. Timang (2630m) was about 400 metres higher than Danagyu (2200m). The air temperature was much more-icy here. Clouds floated over the mountains behind us, disguising hidden peaks and over the River Marsyangdi to the opposite side, occasional matchstick-looking pine trees, empty of leaves and needles, stood like wooden stakes in a cemetery. There looked to have been a nuclear blast over the valley. Even the ground appeared clear of life.

This village was both sinister and beautiful. Firstly, the crows, those often billed in horror movie birds, were everywhere. They made themselves known with sharp piercing cries and occasionally softer sounds. The Kāga (काग Nepali for crow or craven) here were not Carrion crows. These were bigger ravens, Corvus corax tibetanus, with long grey neck feathers. Light on their feathers gave a beautiful purple-blue iridescence. Amongst the pairs of ravens, Carrion crows moved and foraging by jackdaws, and other smaller birds like sparrows could be seen through the village. Now, the sinister, I described wasn’t too much about the crows…

One single storey building with a shop front on the right of the road gave me new heebie-jeebies. Outside the front a man swapped tyres on a jeep. At the side of this passengers from the jeep waited patiently. At the rear of the building in the garden, an animal pelt hung from a washing line. From a distance I couldn’t work out if it was red panda, a dog or something of similar size. I know that the rules in Nepal are extremely strict regarding hunting, but I could not for the life of me understand what it was. It was, in all probability, a goat – and certainly unwelcoming. And, not far from that pelt on the washing line, a dead crow was tied up by its neck, flying in the wind like a grim version of a child’s kite. I expected haunted hillbilly music and a narrative from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

After a great dal baht, in front of a warm fireplace, we all departed for bed. The matchstick looking cluster of spiders in the toilets gave an appearance of buffalo pubic hair [you know what I mean!] – and they seemed to detect the cold too, nestling together like brush hair in the corners of the long cold toilet room.

After a good night’s sleep, a great omelette and some defrosted ice-water, we three departed, bidding our farewell to Shadow the dog and a variety of goat kids in the nursery nearby. The road headed out, skirting around the brow of the hills beside us, never quite leaving the river below. At Tanchok village it doubled back inwards, crossing a frozen stream before lurching back into the river valley below. It slid gently up to the crossroads at Koto before nestling its way into Chame (2700m), complete with signs for yet more hot springs. Monkeys had been sighted in the forest’s brow by the village of Tanchok, by Livia and I stood watching them for some time. Here the valley started to tighten up and appear much steeper than previous days.

Chame is a colourful place, but in February, the sun sets early, shrouded by mountainous ridges to the west. Here a dozen municipal buildings and hospitals can be found. Derelict military barracks stand to the village’s north. It is a town of about 1200 people. In winter it is quiet with many people heading to Kathmandu and Pokhara. There are signs of the April 2015 earthquake having struck here. There were also some very good small supply shops and chances to get some much needed fruit into our diet. We checked into the cosy New Tibet Hotel and Restaurant sandwiched between a brittle looking cliff face and the river’s east bank. We then had a wander around the village which seemed to be many scattered lodges along a kilometre of two. An upper level village to the west looked more modern and functional, but less touristic. There were the usual array of schools and public facilities with prayer flags visible all across the high points.

After the walk Livia tucked into her billionth bowl of rice pudding, and probably ordered one for the morning too. Seeing Livia eat rice pudding in a wolf/koala/bear hat was quite a frequent sight on the journey. I often had scrambled eggs, porridge and buckwheat bread of chapatti. Always with a milky coffee or tea. Several bank machines were available in the village but there was no internet and sporadic power cuts for the two nights that we stayed. There was even a roadblock on alert for any walkers from China! By now fear and panic about COVID-19 had spread up the road. I kept news that I had left China over two weeks before arriving there to myself. I’d heard Chame described as an often crowded place. We met only two other trekkers, both French and both walking solo (with a guide).

Our lodge was less than two minutes of walking from a lovely spot. The hot springs doubled up as an open air launderette. Livia and I washed our clothing in the warm flow of water, as local soldiers soaked up the minerals in the neighbouring swimming pool. The spring itself was a dull green bubbling hole with pipes jutting from it. Nothing exciting to the naked eye. The miracle of life and fresh water was surrounded by man-made concrete and exploitation. Still, it was a good place to wash my underpants. Bloody warm too. Later I scattered my clothes on the balcony and added some socks to a warm chimney to speed dry them in the fading sunshine. Night was soon rolling in, complete with starry skies and ice-inducing temperatures. To be continued…


 

On the I’d booked a flight between Bangkok Don Mueang International Airport and Shenzhen for April the 1st. April Fool’s Day. Appropriately Thai Air Asia cancelled it yesterday. As I had used Trip.com to book it, I have to use Trip’s customer services. Flight FD596 is no more. On top of that, my visa expires here on April the 14th. I have been told that to stay here, I need to have a letter from the UK Embassy to say that travel to my country of residence is not possible. The UK Embassy won’t give such a letter for British citizens traveling to China. Thailand’s Immigration won’t allow me to stay because I can currently fly to the U.K. There are flights to Guangzhou at drastically hyper-inflated prices but even they could be pulled. Trip.com’s phone numbers ring a little and then hang up, all three of them! Their email reply reads as follows:

“Due to the huge backlog of emails caused by Corona Virus pandemic, we are sincerely sorry that your email won’t be able to get reply as usual. It will be delayed but no later than 30 days. Kindly recommend to manage your ticket online or though APP.” – modern day example of a crappy auto-response from a customer disservice centre, March 2020.

I get that we’re in a global catastrophe and the world is going mad buying excessive amount of bog rolls and shutting borders, but when you haven’t got much cash, or hope to get around, and your head feels like it is going to explode if it doesn’t release the bubbling rage and worry inside. I even paid for new cycle lights to allow me to break out of my body, and fly away, like a bat out of hell… or at least peddle fast from stray dogs and monkeys now coming out from the temples and sanctuaries in search of food. Next I expect to see chameleons on sun loungers, well maybe not see them, but at least know they’re there when the fly numbers drop down. That’d be more amazing because as I am aware, there aren’t chameleons in Thailand, but with current world problems, maybe they’ll bounce back like other wildlife – especially now people are talking more about wildlife trade ending. Or, will this COVID-19 world hide a debate about climate change?

Still, worries aside, it could be worse. It could be much, much worse. I worry for others. I’ll survive and money I haven’t got will add to other money that I never had. You can’t repossess from a hobo, right? Especially one trapped in Thailand… trapped, with just two bottles of Vimto and two frozen portions of black pudding. Nope, it ain’t all that bad! Stay strong. Survive. Beyonce and her mates told you to.

“I’m a survivor (what), I’m not gon’ give up (what); I’m not gon’ stop (what), I’m gon’ work harder (what); I’m a survivor (what), I’m gonna make it (what); I will survive (what), keep on survivin’ (what)” Destiny’s Child’s song was covered by 2WEI.

 

Visit Kathmandu 2020.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

I’m sat here, in Thailand, writing an chomping away on a bag of makok. These fruits come from the Spondias Dulcis flowering plant. They’re sour, and pickled ever so slightly. The tough flesh makes it feel like a beastly olive. I’ve had this fruit in curries before, and always wondered what it was. Now, I know, I like makok. Oh. That’s erm, awkward. I like to eat… No I can’t finish that. Makok is very… No, not there either. The sour pickled green ball is yummy. That’ll have to do. I bet it’d make a mean dip if the chunky seeds were removed. Just don’t name the dip.


 

Finally, I have got round to my time in Nepal this year. 2020 has been marked as Visit Nepal 2020, a concerted effort by the Nepal government to get overseas and overland visitors to bring their hard-earned money into the country – and experience ever-lasting moments that will tease visitors back time and time again.

The landscapes from valley to valley within Nepal can give you sensory overload. My experiences across two visits gave me a bombardment of sounds, sights, tastes and colours. The moment I left Nepal the first time, I wanted to return. This applied to the second time – and has since applied to this third time of visiting.

I touched down in Kathmandu, Nepal once more. This trek was to take in some of the Annapurna Circuit region. With prior knowledge of snowfall being heavy, I purchased some rusty looking blue crampons in the twisting narrow streets of Thamel. I’d enjoyed a great breakfast at the Northfield Café and a good night of sleep at the Northfield Hotel. I was excited and happy to be back in Nepal. My plan was simple. Go for a wander. No aims, no worries. Some passes and some mountains can’t always be seen. It is, what it is. Bumping into Srirang at The Café With No Name, he revealed his plan to trek the Annapurna Circuit with Livia, from Hungary. We’d all met last year trekking the Everest Base Camp route. I had no problems about joining them on the walk this time around. Srirang looked much leaner than last year. He must have been training hard in his native Mumbai city.

Armed with a great salad, and a wonderful pumpkin soup, I tucked into my Panini and enjoyed the feel of this wonderful backstreet café. A ginnel is the route to the small and atmospheric café. All the profits of The Café With No Name are sent to the charity Our Sansar – which benefits street children and brings them into education. Every great coffee or beer you have, benefits someone. That’s maybe why I decided to visit this place every lunchtime I had spend in Thamel, this time round. You can find it down a small alleyway. Look for a chalkboard when you face from the central supermarket looking in the direction of Purple Haze Bar. When you reach the bar, swing left and somewhere by Merry Hotel, you’ll find this treasure of a café. Expect to feel at home on the crate-made tables, and cosy furniture. There’re books to exchange and lots of things to make the eyes wander. The staff are great and so heartwarmingly friendly, it makes you want to live in Kathmandu. Perhaps the world’s dustiest city needs great retreats. This is one such wonder. Expect to feel a great musical vibe and return time and time again.

At Northfield café, that first morning, I sat with a beaming smile on my face. I enjoyed a good hearty breakfast, with the masala omelette filling my belly, alongside a strong coffee. The staff went to turn on the heater, but I was enjoying the cool air. Cold air sharpens the senses. It keeps your wits sharp. It helps me to focus. Heat makes me sleepy and sluggish. I sat watching people drift up and down the street outside. Few shops were open. Shutters sank and sagged to the ground like dull metallic cold blinds to the world beyond them. A few clear western people walked by. Some were spiritualists, hippies long off the bandwagon of Thamel’s once famous Freak Street, trekkers, climbers, cultural tourists and no doubt a few who reside in Nepal for work. There’d be some amongst them feeling enlightened, some caught in the ambience and many sponging up the vast cultures around them.

Looking at the headwear of those passing by, there were knitted ski hats, traditional and regional ethnic pieces, and an equally diverse array of jackets. Some combined with various pieces of formal office wear and others with striking multi-coloured knitted socks. Evidence of around 125 different people and 123 languages mingled with tourism and those from elsewhere. It all belonged perfectly. A tapestry of diversity in a wealth of colour. This intertwined nation coexists with such ease. Poverty and adversity sit only around the corner from the luxury cocktail bars and the bright lights of pocket-sized night clubs.

The tarmac road created less than two years ago, now looks swollen, crumbled and churned. Bits stand out here and there. A vintage Royal Enfield motorbike tackled potholes and narrowly missed  a static scout mannequin outside of a store proudly displaying Gurkha knives, the kukri. Khukuri World Store was a trove of gifts, memorabilia, and shiny things hoping to lure people inside. The scout model held out a Nepal flag, its beautiful triangles coated with the sun and moon, a combination of blue, red and white like no other flag. Next door to this knife and survival gear shop, a sprawl of 100% natural cashmere and yak wool piles spilled over two steps. The Friendly Pashmina Shop had so much stock, it was practically leant against the White Mountain Outdoors shop further along the row. Above which was a White Water Rafting Co., somewhere beneath layers of dust and soot. Dusty raincoats, sleeping bags and long puffy down jackets hung still, half admitting that they’ll never find a buyer anytime soon in that state. A ginnel (tiny pathway) into Nana Hotel looked uninviting between a sodden empty crates and Nepalaya Money Exchange. The shutters of Al Noor Gems revealed little indication of what treasures lay within. I guess even Indiana Jones would be put off by the rusting bulk of metal. The possibility of tetanus for the sake of some fool’s gold wouldn’t be a good gamble.

A hairdresser and the ATM cash machine tussled for space over a few cubic metres as the morning footfall started to increase. School children dressed in an array of uniforms drifted in small clusters or singularly up and down the road. A hooded man, slimmer than a twig, drifted amongst the crowd playing the sarangi (a string instrument) and trying to sell many of the same pieces from his sagging shoulder bag. Along the very same road, powerlines and cables draped the floor as workers fed neat replacements overhead, clearing years of cluttered dangerous cables. Trybal Handmade’s shop’s lights flickered in reply. A call for help and stable feeding. New life, please.

Inside the glass-window front of the restaurant and a little over the shoulder, a family sat enjoying their foods and drinks. The grandmother of the group made gratified noises as two younger women, perhaps in their forties, jostled food around their plates. Three young children ate quietly with great respect for their surroundings. They talked infrequently, warmly and softly, amongst themselves in what I believe was Urdu. I don’t know the language but I recognised one or two words. A smiling waitress with big beaming eyes came over to them and served them tea. The well-kept long hair spilled from her headscarf far beyond the rear of her waist. Her hand glittered with earthly coloured stones, natural and modest yet bold and fitting. The Northfield Café itself had warm earthly colours dominate the walls, and even a real tree trunk shot up through two floors and out of the roof offering a canopy of green amongst the buildings.

Effigies of door gods stand by the glass entrance doors. A piece of A4 paper is taped onto the inside of the door. It boasts of WARM DINING inside, without skimping on the use of capital letters. By now my omelette had vanished and a second cup of coffee had found its way into my hand. Three men joined the large respectful group. The conversation remained tender and calm. The younger children remained as attentive as I did to my coffee.

Two staircases within Northfield Café stretched upwards. Two lobbies spilled outwards giving an aura of space. The energy of the room had a seamless flow. My eyes strayed around the room enjoying the care and attention each member of staff gave to newly seated customers. Each patron matched the calm of the room. The staff both blended in and simultaneously made themselves available. Hidden servants of the spiritual rooms of Northfield Café. The very essence of the symbiosis within the walls. Just like the draw of Kathmandu, I was excited to be back in the Northfield Café once again.

Sticking to food, we visited Gilingche, a Tibetan restaurant, far too late in the day and ate far too much. I had to take a doggy bag home – and fed a dog. I’ve visited here a few times and always enjoyed it.

Following two days in Kathmandu and a few purchases, Srirang and I took a tiny taxi (enough room for knees by your ears), two bags and a squashed driver to the new bus station. Here we purchased our bus tickets to Pokhara. And with a ticket for 17:00 and being told it would take around 13 hours, we departed just after 15:00 and arrived less than 9 hours later. The bus had spent an hour loading with apples on an industrial estate within Kathmandu too. It stopped at the Dal Bhat Power restaurant, around half way – and the scenic route had weaved perilous mountains throughout the foothills of the Kathmandu valley and the lower Himalayan range all the way to the reasonably flat Pokhara area.


 

Visit Nepal 2020 has progressively barred visa on arrivals to many nations. China, as Covid-19 origin, copped for it first. Three missing Nepali guides and four Korean trekkers succumbed to a terrible avalanche that also saw hundreds of people rescued from the Annapurna Base Camp region. In 2014 alone, 40 people were killed on the Annapurna circuit in one sever snowstorm. Nature rules these ranges. Man (and woman) is a guest. On top of this Donald Trump and USA struck Iran’s top military brass with missiles, putting many under the impression that perhaps a global war would follow. Even days after I landed the tragic news of eight Indian tourists died in a room, probably from carbon monoxide poisoning. With a lack of flights, and mobility – or will to travel during a time of pandemic, Nepal’s tourism, imports and other support lines have shrunk. Hotels, trekking lodges, guides and other such avenues offered to overseas clients have receded faster than my hairline (in the last decade). The demand from these avenues to agriculture and industry will slim faster than a diet pill overdose. An already struggling country is facing yet more challenge. I witnessed Kathmandu on my return from Pokhara and the Annapurna regions. It was akin to that of a ghost town. Nothing much happening, but worry and fear. And on top of all this (and more), many have mocked the artistic interpretation of the yeti drawn up for the Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.

Rhino deaths, Nepal may struggle even further. Over half of the money, earned overseas by Nepali workers, comes from Qatar (think World Cup construction), the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. As the virus hits that region, Nepal has taken actions to keep its people safe and on Nepali soil. It was no surprise to see that Visit Nepal 2020 has been postponed until 2022. I hope to return for Visit Nepal 2022 – and maybe I’ll pop back in 2021, if time permits. But right now, humanity is battling. We must pull together.

But, first a cup of tea…

Leave only footprints. 请只留下脚印

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

Run boy run sang by Bugzy Malone featuring Rag N Boneman is a soulful grime song. It shares its title with Woodkid’s Run Boy Run as featured on the album The Golden Age. There are so many songs that have the theme of escape or running away. Think Everybody’s on The Run, as belted out by former-Oasis man Noel Gallagher. You’ve got to love yourself these days. Bruce Springsteen sums it up with his song, Born to run. Either way, running right now feels as if a knife is embedded deep into my right calf. I’m certainly in no hurry to pick up the top 100 running songs albums or exercise megahit CDs that usually line the shelves in the run up to Christmas.

So, in order to occupy my recovery with a target, I’ve been digging around. And it all makes sense. Everywhere I look there are hints. In recent weeks I have seen shoes presenting the brand of Khumbu. A message appeared in my inbox from Srirang and Livia about their springtime plans. China had a recent movie release called The Climbers, focused on very early Everest expeditions. There was even an email in my junk email box from Everest Windows. On WeChat, I received a message from a Sherpa friend. But, above all that, my heart is longing for the glory of walking amongst the Himalayan mountain range. There is a deep-seething hunger that hasn’t gone away since the day I stepped from the bus onto the soil of the Jiri road in 2017. Seeing those mountains stretching west, east, north and climbing from the clouds of Nepal, on that bus journey has captured me. I read of many people, famous and unknown to the masses, that returned year after year – and everyone I met there had either returned or had immediate plans to come back. Whether it is the spirits of the mountains, the allure of the nature or the warmth of the people, Nepal gets into your skin. A small country with a big heart.

Deep down, my heart is torn. I want to go home and see family for Christmas, yet circumstances have worked against me. My sister Astrid will probably be most disappointed, but she’ll be the first one I’d like to take away in the summer holidays of 2020. I wish I could be there for all my family but I’m selfish. I want to see and do more whilst I still can. There should be plenty of time to make good memories in the future. You can’t have it all. The world is too big and too diverse for one lifetime.

So, Makalu, Manaslu or a trek near to Annapurna called are now on my radar. Makalu is a serious beast and February is noted as being too cold to attempt that trek. Plus, it has an offshoot trek that can get you back onto the path to Lukla – the famous Everest trail. However, that’s proper mountaineering actually – and rope climbing. Not quite the rambling I wish to do, right now. As a route it looks amazing, with diverse tropical valleys, temperate zones and then some serious Himalayan tundra. Plus, you get to see the world’s highest mountain range from a new angle – and all those glorious peaks in between there an India’s Sikkim.

Tumlingtar 285m – Mane Bhanjyang 1440m  – Chichara 1980m – Num 1851m – Sheduwa/Sedua 1500m – Tashi Gaon 2100m – Khongma/Kauma 3760m – [REST/ acclimatisation] – Dobato 3700m – Jark(Yak) Kharka 4800m – Hilary Base Camp 4800m – Makalu Base Camp 4870m – and back again…

Manaslu really seems inviting. There is need for a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) [USD50-100 +15/day over 7 days] because it touches the sensitive regions of the Tibetan-Chinese border. You also need the Manaslu Conservation Area permit [NPR2000] and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) entry fee [NPR3,000]. There are quoted trekking times of 14-22 days, depending on fitness and whether you explore the Tsum Valley. If that is the case then this area could allow time to fly to Meghauli Airport and get over to Chitwan national nature reserve. Rhinos and mountains. Tempting, very tempting.

Soti khola (710m) – 14km Machha Khola (900m) – 22km to Jagat (1340m) – 20km to Deng (2095m) – 19km to Namrung (2900m) – 10.5km to Lho Gaun (3180m) – 8km to Samagaun (3500m) – [REST/ acclimatisation: Pungyen Gompa or Manaslu Base Camp ] – 8km to Samdo (3690m) excursion to Tibet border – 6km to Dharmasala (4450m) – Larkya La Pass (5220m) 24km to Bhimphedi (3590m) – Gho (2515 m), 26km to Tilje (2300m) – 19km to Chyamche  (1410m) – Besisahar – and back again…

The third option is Dhaulagiri’s base camp trek which a friend has recommended highly. Highly being an appropriate word because it will be quite amongst the clouds. Ranked 7th globally, Dhaulagiri (धौलागिरी) stands at a dramatic 8,167m. The massif is the highest mountain within a single country’s borders. Dhawala (धवल) translates to dazzling, white, beautiful and giri (गिरि) is mountain. Its parent peak is K2. From 1808 until 1838 it was listed as the world’s highest point until Kangchenjunga was surveyed. Dhaulagiri I’s peak has a sudden rise. In just 30km of distance it juts up a staggering 7000 metres from the Kali Gandaki River to the southeast. The south and west face have equally dramatic 4000m rises too! The climbing history is dramatic and marked with deaths. The south face has never been completed. Plenty of contours on the trekking routes too. Might be worth further consideration and research

Trek Beni to Babichaur ( 1000m / 3280ft ) 6-7 hrs; Babichaur to Dharapani ( 1565m / 5134ft ) 7 hrs; Dharapani to Muri ( 1850m / 6068ft ) 6.5 hrs; Muri to Boghara ( 2050m / 6724ft ) 7.5 hrs; Boghara to Dhoban ( 2630m / 8626ft ) 6 hrs; Dhoban to Italian Base camp ( 3500m / 11,480ft ) 6-7 hrs; Rest and Acclimatization day; Italian Base camp to Glacier camp ( 4250m / 13,940ft ) 5 hrs; Dhaulagiri Base camp ( 4650m / 15,252ft ) 4 hrs; Acclimatization day; Dhaulagiri Base Camp to French Col 4 hrs; Hidden Valley Camp ( 5000m / 16,400ft ); Hidden Valley to Yak Kharka (4200m / 13,776ft) 6 hrs; Yak Kharka to Jomsom ( 2,715m / 8,910ft ) 7-8 hrs

 

Yesterday, as part of the recovery from my calf muscle tear, I hobbled up Baiyunzhang (白云嶂) in Huizhōu (惠州). It is 1003m tall, and in warm sunshine it certainly felt every metre as high, as we’d started from about 150m. Nick, Milly and Almog made good company on the dry walk upwards. The golden meadow at the summit was worth the wander having stumbled up dry dirt paths and tested my aching calf muscle beyond that of what I should have done. Around the uneven loose sands and slippery pathways birds tweet away and snakes slither through the undergrowth, oblivious to those who walk the well-defined path upwards. Unlike the sun-exposed first and last sections of the path, the middle section is under canopy. Here mosquitoes dart in front of your eyes, more keen on your warm blood than your desire to trek upwards.

Leave only footprints.  [ 请只留下脚印 qǐng zhǐ liú xià jiǎo yìn ]

The trail up Baiyunzhang (meaning ‘white cloud sheer ridge’) is sadly surrounded by so much discarded litter and rubbish. It is sad to see. Passing fellow hikers on the route, they all had bags and pockets. There is no excuse for trail waste. Perhaps we should all greet each other along the route with a phrase, “Leave only footprints.”  [ 请只留下脚印 qǐng zhǐ liú xià jiǎo yìn ]

Huizhou’s other mountains for hiking are: Luofu Mountain (罗浮山), Nankun Mountain (南昆山), Xiangtou Mountain (象头山), Jiulongfeng (九龙峰), Lotus Mountain (莲花山), Baima Mountain (白马山), Wumaguicou (五马归槽), Baiyunzhang (白云嶂), Honghuazhang (红花嶂), Xieyan Top (蟹眼顶), Pingtianzhang (坪天嶂), Wuqingzhang (乌禽嶂), Axe Stone (斧头石), Xianren Village (仙人寨), Guifeng Mountain (桂峰山) and Sanjiao Mountain (三角山).

Next weekend I am looking for a hike in the Shenzhen area. Perhaps Maluan Shan Mountain (马峦山, address: 深圳市区东北方向约50公里的龙岗区坪山街道马峦村 – Xinxiu metro statio) or Dananshan (大南山) or the pretty looking peak of Wutong Shan Mountain (梧桐山, address: 深圳羅湖區梧桐山村 – bus 211 from Cuizhu metro station exit B2). So, with this all in mind, I’m going for a walk now and a little think…

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

Delete social media? Bye to glaciers?

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste

 

The trouble with the internet is us. Us. Them and us. Me. Click of a finger, bubble butts and exposed cultures. One day we’ll all be preserved in the London Museum. Relics, with no use. Everyone wants their piece of celebrity status on the internet or so it seems. Actually, no, they don’t. The people who have too much time to avoid looking for jobs, doing stuff that matters and being useful can be keyboard warriors. Just like me. Some spout off about this, that and the other. Some offer informed views or share their photographic talents. Others slip in their technical skills or artworks. Many view contents not really suitable for children. Don’t lie. Your internet history has been downloaded – the moment you clicked this post. It can be done. I have friends in high places, Huawei… then there are trolls, internet bullies, lies, spies and down right spies. Even Part-Man-Part-Cloth-Part-Stone, Donald Trump is allowed access to the internet.

Reactions to news, events, celebrities falling arse about face on Love Island or some such other lighter-than-light-floating-turdish entertainment can be shared. News and politicians can be slated, viewed and opinions slammed onto an electronic plain of imagination. Today’s thoughts become yesterday’s angst and we get to laugh at our previous electronic Dear Diary entries, when they pop up on Facebook as memories. Only these electronic reminders of something that happened before are flung at us digitally. I like writing. I’m not good at it. It is my ambition. I am writing more and more, because if you pile enough shit in the right place, somebody will notice. Why hasn’t The Guardian called me yet? The conservative government are gaining strenth from social division. Few engage the conversation needed to oust them. Maybe I can write some more crap and engage someone, somewhere. Unlikely.

Maybe I need to frame a crime. I’ve been studying detective shows and novels for years. I will train a wild Western chimpanzee (from Liberia) to murder. The victim will be a captive-bred but escaped stray Eurasian lynx from Iran. The weapon of choice will be supplied by Britain to Saudi Arabia and found in Yemen before being filed down to be used for the evil act. However, is it evil? No, the Western chimpanzee must end the life of the Eurasian lynx in order to prevent the death of an orphaned Muslim kid abandoned in Syria, because the transgender adoptive parents from Liverpool and Manchester were in the gender-neutral toilets of Starbucks – the Sana’a branch.

Who would you choose to support? The chimpanzee problem has multi-layed problems. An American pet chimpanzee once bit someone in Connecticut. Not everyone likes Travis. The Eurasian aspect gives a kind of cross-culture problem for the Eurasian lynx. Then, you must consider the location, race, and culture differences. What will the journalistic bit-part character Jeremy Corbyn do? Especially, when he finds that his salary is being paid for my MegaCorp based in its new office of Riyadh. What if this was a story inspired by real events? How would you react? Twitter. You know it. Two web browsers open, one for social media, and one watching kittens dance suggestively to the music of Gnarls Barkley. It wouldn’t be an easy scenario for a newspaper to report about.

“We don’t want paedophiles round here! Unless they’ve really worked on their choreography…” – 2009’s version of me, marked the death of Michael Jackson with an immature and tasteless comment on Facebook.

My Aunty Susan rightly put me in my place regarding subsequent jokes copied and pasted from recent messages marked the tenth anniversary of Michael Jackson’s plastic nose being melted down.  Even today, it is amazing how much respect Michael Jackson gets, despite the lawsuits and continual abuse allegations. Too much time is spent pandering to the needs of his estate and less talk or attention is given to the victims of abuse. Just like Jimmy Carr and other seemingly heartless comedians, sometimes something controversial needs saying or writing, even if the person doing so completely disagrees with it. Otherwise, we end up with a nation of Love Island watchers, completely devoid of conversation. England is becoming American on that front.

The bitter taste of supposed jokes about Michael Jackson still hangs in the air. It doesn’t mean that I am promoting said topic. I was quite shocked to see my words from a decade ago. Isn’t it time more voices condemned his music to the vaults of history? The talent and contribution to musical arts needs eradication through choice, not through censorship. The voice for promoting and celebrating Michael Jackson needs an airing too. He could have been innocent of historic child sex abuse. To quote MJinnocent.com there could have been “many inconsistencies, contradictions and outright lies being told about Michael Jackson” or not. Just like Operation Yewtree it is a mess, and one that may result in a desire by society to rid the worst types of crimes: child sex abuse. Or, we could do a Spotify and just add a mute button. Either way, the conversation cannot be ignored, because like historic sexual abuse cases, today there are in all probability a huge number of systemic problems likely being ignored by the top brass, globally.

Despite all of this, life is finding a way to eradicate these problems. Berlin is baking. Rome is melting. Spain is on fire. Britain is writing letters of complaint. The heatwave was warned to all. It arrived. It cooked. It killed. Like the Spice Girls it will keep coming again and again, and not just from the Sahara. Of course colimate change could be lies or truth. Greenland may be melting at an unprecedented level. Fake truth? Volcanoes going from dormant to active may be stronger reasoning. Is the weather stable near you? Are you experiencing snowfall or the falling of fires from the sky? Snow in June, in Italy? Are 8 billion tonnes of ice being lost from the Himalayas year-on-year? Do we need the third polar ice cap in the Himalayas? Is Greenland a safe place to travel? Should we still call Mont Blanc, Mont Blanc?

“Of course, snowfall can happen in mountain areas in June. But if global warming exists this shouldn’t happen anymore.” – Dr Marco Poletto, Geologist

If the world is warming, are you seeing flash floods and thunderstorms more frequently? Are these storms much more violent in nature? How many trees do we need to re-plant? Do sewerage works need re-designing? Should roads absorb more water? Do zero emission cities work? Are we thinking about the environment too slowly? Are European glaciers due to be extinct? Is plastiglomerate pretty? So many questions. Too many. Will mushrooms save the day?

“Let’s go to the Winchester, have a nice cold pint, and wait for this all to blow over…” – Shaun of The Dead

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

Namche Bazaar (is the place to find me)

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

Yesterday I played 7-a-side football with my new team Dongguan Raiders F.C. Sporting our bright pink kits we had another victory. Our team has played three games this last week with two wins and one midweek friendly training game against Murray’s F.C. Our team has Chinese, Italian, Serbian, German and Ukrainian players – alongside the token Mancunian. On Saturday, I also joined Murray’s F.C. in our game at Zhuhai against the Guangzhou Phoenix team. We won 8-2. It now means a draw or win against Zhuhai, in Dongguan at the month shall be enough to claim the inaugural Guangdong Super League. Football shall move into the sidelines for me now. I have 88 days to train for my debut Spartan Race. I opted for the killer 13km Super option. That involves 25 obstacles too. It is a challenge. Am I ready? No. Will I be ready? I’ll do my best to be. The trekking in the Himalayas tested me mentally and I feel that anything is possible. The arrival of the next challenge is always welcoming. After that, I’ll need a new challenge. Suggestions please. Of course, I’m still looking back on the time spent in Nepal…


31st January 2019

One week of trekking was to completed today. The walk from Kharikhola, via the Karila Pass (2730m) to Paiya (2730m) started with a reasonably steep climb up towards Bupsa Danda. Here made for a good brew stop and somewhere to enjoy the view. From Kharikhola’s Magar people to panaromic views of valleys and looming landslides, to Sherpa settlements and the Bupsa Danda village itself, heaven could easily have been placed on this spot of Earth. The hilltop is delightful.

From there the trail is up and down, but really gently. In fact it is the closet to a day’s walk being flat on the entire wander so far, and later to come. It feels like deception. At the end of the walk, we settled down a for a night’s sleep in a lodge. Here we met a trekking nurse who volunteers in Nepal, having retired from work in Germany. Her partner and guide, from Nepal spoke German and they were accompanied by several porters. We spoke at great length about porters and guides leaving Nepal for better opportunities. He seemed quite aware that many Nepali people are trapped in Qatar. Political and visa issues have been a problem. He mentioned the reduction in porters has resulted in an explosion in the mule population. The destruction to the pathways in two years was clear to me. A country ravaged by natural disasters, civil war and political turmoil now had to contend with horse-donkey hybrids smashing up a great Himalayan trail.


1st February 2019

Leaving Paiya that morning we headed towards Surke. At Surke, Livia, Srirang and Ishwor went up to Lukla for supplies. We carried on up the pathway to Phakding (2610m) passing waterfalls, frozen streams and increasing numbers of lodges and houses. Around the sacred villages of Ghat, large boulders cast shadows over the pathways beneath. Some sported sproutings of trees and the odd leafless giant. Almost every rock had faces of lichens and bedcovers of moss. Beyond every short mountain towered ridges of snow-capped peaks. Eventually the trail met the main pathway from Lukla towards Everest Base Camp. Here we noted a huge difference in footfall. More people, more often. Now we were in the home straight. The business end of the greatest most popular and well known Himalyan trail. Also, those we passed by on their way up had some similarities. Most looked fresh and clean. Some had minor altitude exhaustion, having arrived a few thousand metres up at the modern and recently legendary Lukla airfield.

Under grey skies we plodded onwards. The pathways seemed to level on this day, and we stopped for lunch at a Sherpa family’s lodge. Reading the family’s walls of certificates and talking to the owners was quite interesting. The owners’ son is a pilot based at Kathmandu – on rescue helicopters. They regularly see him flying overhead. Their daughter is also overseas in Switzerland in the hospitality sector. Mountain people seldom leave the mountains, it seems.

From the moment we passed Surke to the upper levels of Phakding, the numbers of stupas, gompas, murals and mani stones seemed to explode. This region is known as extremely sacred. The Nepal version of the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. Many prayer wheels had been turned, so much so that my fingers became dirty from the dust. The clear signs of mules everywhere to be seen. The most obvious being the pathways under repair.

The modern looking Sherpa Guide Lodge was our stay that night in Phakding. We paid 3000NPRs for a shower each, twin room and food wasn’t much more on top. I’d seen this pine-looking wood and clean-cut brick building under construction two years ago. We were the only guests this time. The daughter of the owner was in charge. The next day she was due to head to Kathmandu to see her parents. The walls featured awards and commendations of her father’s achievements, photos of their family lifestyle and traditional prayers from Buddhism. It was a pleasant place to eat Dal Bhat number nine. The views of the near-Alpine looking region sat outside in total darkness. The roar of the river drifted away as I slipped into a deep untroubled sleep.


2nd February 2019

Phakding to Monjo (2835m) wasn’t too far. A few hours to the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Sagarmartha National Park. Having a gander at the monthly tourist record really shows how few people explore outside of the peak seasons (March-April & October-November). It also makes me feel like peak season may be a tad too busy to enjoy the freedom of the great trail.

As you enter the Khumbu subregion it isn’t hard to see why the Lonely Planet guide ranks it as the sixth best region to visit globally. This patch of northeastern Nepal has mountain scenery at every turn. Colourful Danfe birds resemble pheasants. The national bird can be seen amongst a whole host of colourful birds, mountain goats, musk deers, and other wildlife. The colourful guesthouses fell away as we entered the park, having paid our 3000 NPRs and a deposit of 1000 NPRs for a new tracking GPS card. Good idea. Less lost people in the Himalayas. Over one of the Dudi Kosi river’s many footbridges and we pass through Jorsalle (2740m), stopping at the last hut overlooking a river below. Here some yummy foods were required. The final hike upwards after luch would be near brutal. Over another bridge, we crossed down onto the river-accompanying pathway, up to some steep scary steps, and then to the final bridges looking up at the Namche pathway. Up the valley, Everest, Lhotse and a face of mountains hid away in clouds. We wouldn’t be seeing their beauty on this day, but Oasis sang, someday we’ll find a brighter day.

The Dudi Kosi river flows from the Mount Everest massif, just east of Gokyo Lakes and flows south, beneath Namche Bazar before heading west of Lukla. It was the same river heard during a night’s sleep at Phakding. Each bridge over the river seemed to always be occupied by flowing mule caravans. They were a bit pongy.

One last push, up the brow and around into the horsehoe-valley of Namche Bazaar (3441m), some energy was needed. Posters for the last edition of the Tenzing Hilary Everest Marathon and stickers offering all manner of expedition group, from nations so numerous the writing and logos blurred into a mesh of hieroglyphics. The downhill marathon is held every May 29th. Count me out. The maximum entry is 250. I’ll let those who want it, have a crack.

Over the last few hundred metres of walk, we met Nawang Chhiring Sherpa. He said that his lodge, Mt. Kailash Lodge, was free to stay at as long as we ate our meals there. He wasn’t pushy and seemed quite welcoming. As he guided a Taiwanese couple up the hill, we talked a little with them. Maria now had Mandarin-speaking company. An easy decision, and in hindsight one with zero regret. We would spend a total of two nights there on the way up and one on the way down. We’d recommend it to everyone too. Srirang, Ishwor and Livia joined us for the second night. The room wasn’t too cold too. Dal Bhat TEN was yummy with a crunchy prawn cracker on the side.


3rd February 2019

If ever I run away to get away from it all and not tell anyone where I am heading, then Namche Bazaar is the place to find me. I’d consider it the picture-perfect position to retire too. This morning, after a full belly, we had coffee and hired some thick down jackets. Following that we enjoyed a leisurely stroll up to the Everest View Hotel. The first of our altitude acclimatisation days was neither taxing nor boring. With lunch at the Everest View Hotel we peered through limited gaps in the clouds at Everest itself, Lhotse and Ama Dablam. To the east the tips of Thamserku (6623m) permeated from the drifting clouds. We’d walked by the sprawling grass runway of a near-silent Syangboche Airport and by yaks patrolling the high pathways. Through snow-lined fields and up a ridge to the mansion-like stairway of the grand hotel.

Thamserku is one of my favourite mountains to observe. Thronged by trees until around the 4000m mark, it was littered with snow and rocks thereafter. It has two almost identical peaks that resemble little horns. It is bulky and broad. With throngs of cloud circling high up, it is very atmospheric.

Excitement seemed to erupt from nowhere. Here I was looking up at vultures! Actual vultures gliding over away from dark cloud, towards gaps in the lighter cloud. Very much like Pterodactyls flying in a Jurassic Park movie, their broad wingspan effortlessly glided into the thickening clouds. Almost as soon as the elation began, it was over. The descent to the Sherpa Life Museum was swift and easy. The museum itself was interesting and full of photos. The colourful way of the Sherpa people is finely illustrated – and it also includes a mountaineering room with photos of those who have scaled summits throughout the region.

The charm of Namche Bazaar is multi-layered. West of the village is Kongde Ri (6187m) and other rolling hills around the basin of the village. Thamserku (6623m) looms to the east. The horseshoe-shaped village sits across many layers. It is almost as if someone carved the land to face the sun at sunset. Through the village centre sits recently renovated water features and statues. The eyes of the stupa face in four directions with helicopter pads in almost every direction. There are buildings of old rock, and timber structures amongst inconspicuous and understated concrete builds. The unobtrusive nature of man in the elements of nature and the rhythm of life is throughout the grounds. Cows and stray dogs walk the narrow passages. The silk road feels more short-gauntlet and less mammoth-journey here. Around 2000 people live here at the busiest point of year, yet during deep to late winter it feels sleepy and at rest. Save for helicopters and freight cargo flights, little sound of machines can be heard. Dal Bhat XI sat in my sleeping belly, ready to power the next new day.

#7 KHARIKHOLA 0900 – PAIYA 1730: ~ 7km.
#8 PAIYA 0900 – PHAKDING 1730: ~ 10km.
#9 PHAKDING 0800 – NAMCHE BAZAAR 1630: ~ 7km.
#10 NAMCHE BAZAAR – EVEREST VIEW HOTEL & GENERAL WANDER: ~ 10km

 

To be continued…

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

 

 

Lamjura La II: The Return

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

 

 

27th January 2019

In some ways the challenge of Lamjura La made me feel nervous. Last time round, it was not easy (see 2017’s post entitled Toils and rewards). Departing Sete (2900m) with a belly full of breakfast we started the walk at 0640hrs. The murky morning unveiled valleys below us and a clear pathway upwards. Rays of sunshine shit out from dark clouds covering Pikey Peak mountain and snow lay on the higher grounds that we approached. The cardamom plantation and streams by Kinja were long behind us. Chimbu village’s primary school squatted in a small area above the pathway but squeezed so tightly to the mountainside that a playground seemed barely possible.

A steady rhythm of one foot after the other didn’t matter. The most appropriate adjective is relentless. It is a tough, tough day. Moss-lined forests broke away and eventually a small hamlet appeared. By 0840 we arrived in Dakchu and spent half an hour so eating omelette and enjoying the view. After leaving the Sonam Guest House’s quick servce and reasonable prices, we headed off. The steam on the roof of the guesthouse, made way for a few rooftops of snow, and many places coated in the cold white stuff. Here the road reappeared and swept over the pathway time and time again. The snow went from light, to knee-deep quickly. A sudden drop down for twenty or so metres revealed an icy lake. Soon, we were heading uphill again. The mani stones became caked in snow. With the brighter sunshine, it wasn’t too cold. We stopped for another brew and snuggled two cute puppies. Beyond that we had yet another rise to clamber up. The trees became taller, wider and sparse of green leaves. The ancient landscape could have filled a Tolkein-fantasy novel.

Passing a stack of flat-packed wood, it seemed the same browny-grey cat was there exactly two years ago. The dramatic landscape smoothed off and we were at the start of the pass. The first few huts and buildings were crumbling. Spirit levels not included. The new road swallowed the original pass. This was for once, a good thing. The old pathway was narrow. The new pathway didn’t feel like the earth would fall away, despite the near waist-deep snow. Here, I had to add my thick snow gloves. The shadow of the mountain added extra chill to the occasion.

It was 1600hrs and we were in deep snow – and hungry. One single lodge, on Lamjura La, was open, high up at 3530m. We ate fried macaroni with rice and drank piping hot black tea. It was needed. The giddy puppy darting back and forth made it more of a game than a meal. The dog’s owners, a young family with a very young baby in a box, affixed to the head by a rope headband. Soon after we started eating Ishwor, Srirang and Livia arrived. After they drank and we had finished our reunion, we set out into the deep snow. Alongside us was an 80-year old Sherpa woman and her granddaughter.

We trudged slowly through our newly cut snow pathways for an hour or so to the final edge of the pass (3530m). Here a closed house, that I had black tea and a chocolate bar last time round, stood closed. The drift of snow covered one side. We took the odd photo here and eventually began our descent. The warm fire of the last lodge was now a distant memory. Light ws fading fast. Snow and hail began to shower down on us. The moss-covered trees on a rapidly steep descent hid the pathways below. The furrows and tracks resembled that of a toboggan run. Forest firs and rhododendrons cast out little sound and the air felt still despite a roaring blizzard rolling over the treetops. After a lifetime of torch-waving and some twists and turns below forest canopy, the pathway emerged by a few small houses. Many more steps were needed before the glow of the village of Junbesi could be seen in the valley below. I was at the point of utter exhaustion. Thirsty and without a single drop of water from the two litres available.

After some painful final few kilometres in a timeframe that seemed not to end, we arrived at Junbesi (2700m). The Apple Lodge made us dal bhat (#5) immediately after we arrived close to 2100hrs. Food was in the belly and an aborted attempt at a hot shower was had. The water was 60°C or 0°C – and could not be set between. In bed we all went, shattered.


28th January 2019

The following morning, Linda reported her blisters and some minor foot injuries. Livia and Srirang were knackered. Ishwor joined them for a rest day and another British couple, who had attempted Pikey Peak strolled by and said hello. A light lunch and by 1400hrs, Maria and I carried on, but not too far. At the Everest View Hotel, there was a view of clouds and a warm ginger tea to be had. Still we gently walked on, until reaching the Sherpa village of Solung at 1730hrs. Here was stopped for a brew, to be told that the pathway ahead was firmly frozen and a nightmare to pass. We accepted an invitation to stay at a Sherpa family’s home. Nawang and his wife Pupa lived with one of their three daughters. The 31 years old daughter cooked for us. They had attended a Sherpa wedding with Pupa’s older sister. The wedding procession was going on as far as Kharikhola village. Nawang was a former guide and porter. He claimed to be 80 years old but seemed much younger. From their farm came fresh milk, great vegetables and yummy eggs. Dal bhat number 6 was delicious. The best, so far, and in hindsight, the best overall.

Stories of Nawang’s hiking days, Sherpa lifestyle and the village’s culture stretched to quite late. With a frehs glass of hot milk in our bellies, we retired to the bedroom. The house, from the outside looked like a British detached two-up, two down. Downstairs half of the building served as an agricultural place and the other hald as a washroom/tool shed. Upstars the kitchen area had beds for four and the main social area. A second room, without curtains over the window (there is no invasive streetlighting), and a huge poster to the Tibetan flag and Dalai Lama stood. Maria, from China slept under that. I had the cool air drifting on over me from the window frame. Still it was a pleasant enough place to sleep. Very homely.


29th January 2019

The morning light crept through the windows. A cracking chapati with egg breakfast and wonderful milk tea set the day up well. We bid our farewell to the lovely Sherpa family and began the trek down to the villages of Ringmu. The ankle high bench of the previous lodge’s stay was a pleasant memory by now, as aches returned to pleasantly conditioning legs. I didn’t miss the playful grey cat that scratched my left hand as I slid into my sleeping bag though.

On this day the snowy peaks started to appear far closer. Ice lined waterfalls and melted under glorious beams of brightness. Numerous abandoned building ruins stood side by side their replacement housing. The scars of the 2015 earthquakes visible all over. Into a valley we walked, with huge prayer paintings that Google probably took inspiration from for its logo choice. Over a bridge meant one clear thing. The downward trend of the morning’s walk was now going to be an uphill strain. No pain, no gain – as they say. Passing orange-bellied rustic bird foraging in the damp dry ground a plateau revealed a dramatic landscape with fields towered over by nearby Himalyan peaks.

On finishing a brew in Ringmu, we passed by a ruined ghompa and mani stones. It looked dramatic on my last visit – but this visit it was surrounded by patches of scattered snow. Here we began the ascent to Taksindu (3000m) and walked through a monastery gate atop the peak, before a reasonable incline towards Taksindu monastery. The monastery looks shiny, bright and new. It was mostly a building site two years ago. On passing here, after a Mountain Man nutrition bar, the snow set in. Fearing a blizzard we moved down the mountain side at a steady pace, struggling over icy lips and frozen mud. Flocks of birds swept close to the ground, foraging whilst they could. At 1500hrs we arrived in Nunthala (2330m). A lodge was selected, one of two open in the sleepy village. Almost as soon as we dropped our things in the third-floor room, the snow stopped. Soon after a snow-swept Linda joined us with a French guy resembling Floki from the TV series Vikings. Dal bhat number 7 was greatly appreciated. Here we met a Bulgarian man, heading back from Everest Base Camp, who warned of serious levels of snow and struggles ahead. Nothing a warm brew couldn’t fix.


30th January 2019

The day had been intended to be a long one, ending in Bupsa Danda, but why rush things? From Nunthala we left at 0900hrs. A late lunch around 2pm was had in Kharikhola (2040m). Scarcely an hour later and we set down for the night at the Tashi Delek lodge (meaning hello in the Sherpa language), in the same village. We’d spent just under an hour dropping books with the Classrooms in The Clouds-supported Kharikhola Secondary School (with an attached tiny primary school). We’d even ate lunch at the Headmaster’s family home and met his son, and engineer of the mechanical kind. His friend was also an engineer, set to travel to U.S.A. to further his studies. After being shown their school grounds, a library and their new primary school buildings, we took some photos together and bid farewell. We walked a whole 250 metres in the village before meeting Srirang and Livia with Ishwor. We bunkered down for the night.

Classrooms in The Clouds have a short but rich history in Nepal. They prove that donations can make a real difference. £8.00 makes a day’s salary for a teacher. £10.00 will find three Nepali books. £15 will find three reusable menstrual kits for young women in school. Aside from sounding like just a charity appeal, they deliver. Their mouths put money and resource into action. Their expertise works with Nepali parteners, on the ground, focusing on education support, great quality new classrooms, teacher sponsorship and community work. They support their partners and their teachers. They have linked to the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service. If students can study and leave school with the School Leaving Certificate needed, then Nepal will reinforce from within. At places such as Lukla, Bakhapalam, Majhgaun and Kharikhola. My feeling is that, every kid needs to experience school. How can we inspire without a pathway? The early Everest expeditions gave us the gift of some of the finest Himalayan trail to tread upon. This gift needs repaying. Think global, act local? Ecotourism is more than not bringing food from home. Bring something rewarding and leave a place better. Just like picking litter up at the beach. There’s a classroom in the clouds just waiting to be imagined.

That day had been interspersed by numerous mule trains and lots of inhaled dust. The trail has been battered in the last two years. A quaint lodge at the foot of a hill from Nunthala had made way for a mud-spattered filthy mule resting point. Many plants including various fruits and vegetables could be seen today. The contrast between temperate, arid and mountaineous climates was very clear. The splashings of colour, the blue skies and the icy mountain peaks give a sensual overload to the eyes. Dreams could be seen here and there.

In the evening, we met Srirang, Ishwor and Livia. We ate Dal bhat number 8 and talked the evening away, occasionally pinching a look at the clear sky full if stars outside – and the Milky Way lines. Not a bad way to hit the icy cold pillow, as the walk up Bupsa Danda loomed overhead.

#3 SETE 0640 – JUNBESI 2100: ~ 15km.
#4 JUNBESI 1400 – SOLUNG 1740 / #5 SOLUNG 0830 – NUNTHALA 1500: ~ 17km.
#6 NUNTHALA 0900 – KHARIKHOLA 1500: ~8km 

 

To be continued…

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

Upwards in 2019.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae,

Welcome to 2019.

Einstein’s theories are bobbins. Kent is a car park. Queen are number one, again. Hair is allowed to be grown by choice and we’re being made to watch it. Earth is scarred by more than Brexit. Welcome to the year 2019. I’ve just clicked off from The Funny Thing About… Bigorexia. Russell Kane presented it. He hit the nail on the head and the hammer-in-particular he was chatting about is body dysmorphia in males. We’re all expected to look like the cast of The Only Way Is This Is Essex In Chelsea. So, after that little show I gave Jayde Adams on grief, smart little series with tough, tough topics. Privilege, being little, being offensive and online trolling are also covered. Well worth a look and listen. Made by ITN productions, it is available on BBC’s website. This is what happens when all I can find in the sports news is a story about an assumed 90 year old cycling cheat.

One word that is scary fear. And not, the James Bond meets Jurassic Park kind of petrifying. The year ahead could be a scary one if we all get too weighed down by politics, news, the environmental disasters and the problems of plastic. So, what is there to look forwards to in 2019? Game of Thrones ends too. Must look up Killing Eve and the next instalment of True Detective. I didn’t see The Bodyguard, made by BBC. Peaky Blinders should be back soon too. The War of The Worlds is also being made as British TV series – finally!

I had started writing this yesterday, ahead of hearing of a new series of Luther. BBC released a few teasers. I’d downloaded it and watched it in a state of man-flu. The Heavy’s ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ is one song that I’ve really enjoyed from this series – and its wonderful closing credit choice of songs. Paul Englishby’s input on the scoring also adds a very emotive soundtrack. Red Titanic and their song ‘White Rabbit’ (dubstep version) is deeply emotive. Grinderman’s Palaces of Montezum is ace too.

Back to Nepal.

TV and news aside. In this month on the 22nd, the planes wheels will be touching down on Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport. Having already seen Swayambhunath on the large stupa, the Kathmandu Durbar Square, and Pashupatinath Temple, I need to look at things to do in the city. The Birenda Museum was quite small, but closed, on my last visit. The Aircraft Museum doesn’t appeal – set inside one old former Turkish Airlines aircraft. Information on the Mahendra Museum is limited. The Narayanhiti Palace could be interesting but I’m hoping the Colt M16A2, Glock 19 9mm pistol, and other guns of June 2001 by the the penultimate King of Nepal (King Dipendra). He was Eton educated. Say no more. Should have attended North Trafford College or Reddish Vale School – he might have learnt some respect. At least his successor had the decency to be abolished. The Narayanhiti Palace could be a weirdly interesting spot. I wonder if Japan’s Knight Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum awarded to King Dipendra will be on display. Maybe the National Museum of Nepal will be more fruitful. Maybe my footsteps will find the Natural History Museum this time round. I’m growing quite excited by a return to Kathmandu.

The rambling plan – section 1

Despite my residual man flu symptoms (sneezing, aching muscles, headache, testicular pain and so on), I am in full planning mode for Nepal. The plan will loosely resemble the below. Give or take a few parametres. The first part is get the trekking permit, bus ticket and start the small matter of 200kms of walking… only then will it be clear as to the what is possible. Last time I started from the village of Jiri, but this time I hope the trek can start a little further up, but it must involve Kinja and the Lamjura Pass as they were stunning. A further starting point may allow a day to be sat in hand, in case it is needed later.

KTM: COLLECT TIMS http://www.timsnepal.com/
Kathmandu to Jiri (6 to 8h by road) Bus #5064? 0530am?
[DAY 1] Jiri 1951m – Ratmate – Chitre – Mali – Shivalaya (New Sherpa Guide) 14km [5.5H] Gaurishankar Permit 2000NPR
[DAY 2] Shivalaya  – Deorali 2705m – Bhandar 12km [5H]
[DAY 3] Bhandar- Kinja 1630m – Sete 2575m 15km [6.5H]
[DAY 4] Sete – Dagcha 3220m – Goyam 3000m – Lamjura Pass – (3530m) – Junbesi 2675m 15km [11H]
[DAY 5] Junbesi – Phurteng – Ringmu 2730m – Numtala 2360m 17km [9.5H]
[DAY 6] Numtala – Khari Khola 2100m – Bupsa Danda 2340m 10km [7H]

The rambling plan – section 2

The difficult part starts about here. The former section will have geared the muscles and mind. Here the key will be acclimatisation – and adjustment to an increasing altitude. Garlic soup will be on the menu.

[DAY 7] Bupsa Danda – Kari La – Paiya 2730m – Surkhe 2293m 14km [7H]
[DAY 8] Surkhe – Muse – Nurning –  Phakding – Benkar – Manjo (Monju 2835m): 1000rs entry fee at Sagarmatha National ParkJorsalle 15km [7.5H]
[DAY 9] Jorsalle – Larja bridge 2830m – Namche Bazaar 3440m 5km [4H]
[DAY 10] Namche Bazaar
[DAY 11] Namche Bazaar  – Phunke Tenga – 3250m – Tengboche 3860m 12km [6.5H]
[DAY 12] Tengboche –  Deboche – Pangboche – Dingboche 4360m 10km [6.5H] 5am ceremony
[DAY 13] Dingboche: Nangkartshang Gompa
[DAY 14] Dingboche – Duglha – Lobuche 5020m [ 1 day]

The rambling plan – section 3

This will be the toughest planned route. There is no margin of error in time. If a day can be gained before here, it will be an unexpected miracle.

[DAY 15] Lobuche: Gorak Shep 5357m/5140m – Kalapathar – EBC 5357m
[DAY 16] Lobuche – Dzongla 4840m/5545m [4H]
[DAY 17] Dzongla – Cho La 5420m – Thangnak  (4765m) [7-8H]

Crampons-5am start.

[DAY 18] Thangna  – Gokyo 4750m [4.5H]
[DAY 19] Gokyo – Gokyo Ri (5360m) – Pangka (4455m) or Machhermo (4410m)  [5-7.5H]
[DAY 20] Machhermo – Himalayan Rescue Association – Dole (4200m) – Phortse Tanga (3600m) [6H]
[DAY 21] Phortse Tanga  – Mong – Namche Bazaar [6H]
[DAY 22] Namche Bazaar-Phakding- Chauriharka – Lukla [6H]
[DAY 23] Lukla Airport-KTM

Then a day’s rest, some food, maybe a wander and a flight back the next day…

The rambling plan – let’s get ready to ramble

Between now and then there is much to do. Recovery, training and to double check my insurance cover is adequate. It isn’t mega-hard to prepare for, but it isn’t a walk in the park. Well not Scotland Hall Road Park [Newton Heath, Manchester], anyway. Less danger but more yaks, though. It isn’t a marathon but it does share some similarities. The biggest one is the need for stamina – both mental and physical. You are able to do this – but can you do it? That’s upto your mind. Attitude and altitude are similar words and probably make a good marketing slogan.

The thing about the Everest Base Camp trek is that every year young and old people walk it. The thing to remember is that it comes with easier distances, longer wanders and optional extras. Slow and steady wins the day. There is no race. Only your time constraints bind you. Many complete the up in around 8 days with just 3 days down. That’s allowing minimal acclimisation and elevation adjustment. The golden rule of not staying 300m more each day can be achieved. The problem with just 11 days on foot, is that the views and the feel for the place can’t fully be savoured – and the local life can’t be fully appreciated. I’d hate to waste a view.

This next week I must wear in my walking boots (two pairs) to work out which ones are best suited. Then, I need to buy some duck tape for emergency repairs to said boots. My rucksack I already know to be comfortable and bigger than the Vango Sherpa 65L bag I had last time. This Vango 90L bag may be a bit excessive but I don’t plan to take the 25Kg I carried at the last walk. They’ll be a few practice treks and even one with Here! Dongguan magazine at the Dongguan Botanical Gardens this weekend. I won’t be overwhelmed by training like last time, and it will be a fun process getting myself readily mobile again. I won’t be Usian Bolt. Proper practice and prepartion prevents piss-poor performance. After all, fun is supposed to be enjoyable, right?

High altitude sickness, lower jetstreams, increased bad weather… these are things you must have in your mind, be prepared to accept and meet with bodily adaptations or call it quits. A response will be needed and if you’re fit enough, you’ll rise or fall – or best just turn yourself around. The first discomfort will need pushing through. The second too. There may be more. After that, it is amazing how far you can go. Endurance grows rapidly. Difficulty and challenges may increase but you become stronger and most ready to it.

My recovery will need some aerobic exercise. I have football, cyckling and some jogging on the next 12 days of things to do. I must be able to breath and focus. The recent man-flu hasn’t been ideal. Difficulty and duration will be built up again – and hopefully I’ll feel more viking than mouse. There will be steps and one park already have my name on it. The park with my name on it and I will be good friends soon.

The strength of mind to enjoy a view, rather than bend down and try to catch breath, will be a motivation. Our bodies are designed to walk. They’re dedicated vessels for this kind of activity. This is why the park with my name on it, will see some running, some rest walks, some lighter jogs and some step sprints. I will run my balls off. Fatigue will know my name. I may do a few lunges and squats to get the lactic acid boiling. Stretches before and after will be normal.

Things to be mindful of include: time to prepare; time to adjust; increased nutrition (calories and protein); dynamic stretches in the morning; static stretches at night; and

The Himalayas await…

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr