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.

A2803377

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?

wx_camera_1581058160318

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.

A2803372

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.

A2803359

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.

A2803410

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?

Vivid moments on the Earth’s crust.

好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!


Eddie, Eddie give us a wave!

Rest in peace Eddie Large. The comedian born in Scotland came to Manchester as a kid and adopted City. Well City adopted him as a mascot later on in the years and one thing about him and Syd Little, they really were a sweet comedy pair. On his heart problem: “He said, “What stresses you out?”, I said, “football”, he said, “What team do you support?”, I said, “Manchester City”. He said, “That’s it.”” Later he ends the brief video story as, “I don’t blame it on City, but he did.” Rest in peace big man – and condolences to your family. The likes of Matt Lucas saying that Eddie Large offered him support when he started out says a lot. Eddie Large has a large legacy.


Words and actions are being thrown around in these tough times. I love reading and can’t focus because the information that is out there is too much. There’s great and good. There’s sad and devastating. For example, the BBC News footage of the news presenter Jane Hill saying the government expected 30,000 ventilators. Before that, she sounded so bleak, and she shows all the pain in her face, “…and we have been double-checking this, but it does seem to say thirty.” So, so worrying. Even the media are struggling to comprehend this all now. Shandong province, of China, have sent support to the U.K.

“This virus is a disaster. Footballers can live without receiving a single paycheck for a few years, but I feel sorry for the person who wakes up at 6 in the morning and comes back at 9 at night just to feed his family. Us footballers can make a difference.” – Carlos Tevez, footballer

Someone, somewhere, wrote to me, ‘How’s the bat soup going down. & the puppy blamange desert?’At first I wan’t going t reply. There’s so much hate and pain going around. There’s so many xenophobic lines just bashed out on keyboards. I know, because all I want to do is exercise my right to reply or write something. Usually, I hold back. Spread peace and love. I try. I hate hate. But away, I went as per below:

This is obviously linked to wet markets and wildlife trade. China is pushing through some serious laws. They’ve lost so much face, and many lives, many. The world is suffering too. If it wasn’t here, it could have started in Vietnam, Korea, a whole list of countries. The thing is, it is too late to laugh at it all, because it’s on our doorsteps, everywhere, knocking and pushing its way through. We’ll all suffer for this. It is too sad for me to laugh at. Especially, seeing as bear bile is classed as a TCM (traditional Chinese med)… and is sanctioned to treat COVID19.

Sorry, I can’t joke anymore about this. Over here, in China, foreigners are experiencing xenphobia for importing cases into the country, jobs are going for fellow teachers and workers who were needed here. Gallow’s humour is all well and good but there is a time and place. The blancmange is to die for.

This virus and spread of disease may be hell for many. Some will go into lockdown and may never come out. Elliot Dallen imagined spending his last few weeks with friends. Now his final time is slipping away. I can’t imagine the dread he is going through and there are no words that I, or many others can offer for him. I hope he gets the tangible bonds of friendship and family time, he like many, are missing. Life must carry on, right to the end.


 

The journey goes on.

Leaving Chame (2710m) town, we clambered up a wide pathway, below a very steep cliff of a mountain. The rattle and whistle of prayer flags could be heard overhead. The path led out, upwards gently, hugging the valley. Eventually in reached a small village and then another smaller village. Bhratang (2850m) was quite a small village. Not so much a village, more of a hamlet. A small number of houses before modern signs for The Farmhouse. The Farmhouse is an eco-resort, and many note it as being a heaven for apples. I was excited. I wanted to try an apple from here, despite knowing that the orchard much be closed. Maybe, just maybe they’d have one or two apples knocking around in a cold room. I clung to hope. The Farmhouse has a link to both Bhratang Apple Farm and Agro Manang. This is Nepal’s biggest and most famous source of apples. Maybe, they’d have some apple sauce? Some ciders? Apple vinegar? The apples that the bus in Swayambhu, Kathmandu had carried (to Pokhara) had come from here. I’m not a huge apple fan (I could have said big apple, right?) but the smell of those apples on that bus journey was scrumptious.

Soon after I would pass a huge apple orchard with discernible damage from storms. Power lines, trees and fencing didn’t just lean over, it littered the scattered exposed earth. The acres of apple trees leaned towards the south in a way a rugby team would crouch in a scrum. The naked branches of each tree were bound together with reinforced ropes and supports, giving it the view of a kind of wooden graveyard. The towering rockface to the right of the path sparkled in the sunlight, with occasional ledges much like the whole mountain had been carved away by an immense force. The eco-park beneath it and The Farmhouse were closed. There was no chance of an apple tart or an apple flapjack. I refilled my water bottle from one of three gushing springs set in a wall.

The orchard was hidden by fences that could have belonged in Jurassic Park. Warnings about keeping out were everywhere. Every now and then a tree had fell out of the in, and into the road. Bits of electrical pylons dotted the pathways and the odd electrical wiring slung here and there. An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but this pile of ruins wasn’t inviting me to look for the scattered rotten apples on the floor. Quite the opposite. I trotted on.

Rounded a sharp-rising pathway from Bhratang, the huge western face of Pagunda Danda became visible. The mountain could easily have doubled as a slate of hill, or a hill of slate. It is so smooth-looking that you wonder if it has been moisturising for millennia. Many people trek the Annapurna Circuit for the biggies, the large peaks but views such as Pagunda Danda alone made my trip well worth doing. I can see the appeal of a scramble and ice-climb up the face, but with melting and sunlight upon it, the risks of avalanches were high.

Avalanches had been noted from just before Chame village onwards. One avalanche field had swept trees, boulders and all in its path down across the pathway. The pathway had been sliced open again and cleared. Either side of the road potato-shaped but basketball-sized balls of frozen snow piled high, with twigs, branches and stumps jutting outwards. On the lower levels of the pathway, fallen electric pylons and rocks the sizes of cars had crashed downwards. The avalanche was not fresh, but it wasn’t particularly old. Looking upwards into the steep valley to a mountain ridge, I deliberated about where all this material had actually come from. It was frighteningly too much for mind to compute.

The second avalanche field I encountered was on the opposite bank of the gushing Marshyangdi River. It was so big that it covered over the river and arrived at the steep base far below my footing. The river had tunnelled through the frozen snow overhead. It was an eerie sight to behold. Just before that field a few tonnes had piled on the sharply-carved Bhratang to Chame road making the area impassable, and causing a huge landslide to make the footpath as wide as a human could walk safely. Just. Below in the river, a carcass of a Toyota jeep sat well-below the narrow road overhead. Later, Livia had found out that back in October, several people were on board as the jeep slipped off the road. Thankfully all had managed to jump clear. A real miracle in the mountains.

The sharp road is but only wide enough for one car. The rock above is barely two metres high. It’s a ledge that commands real respect and no hanging around. A long horizontal slat has ice caps and blastholes in equal scatterings. Walking far from the edge, I could peek at the drop below. Ravine of the week was alongside me for several hundred metres. I felt I needed to be roped to the wall behind me.

The largest path of avalanche destruction lay soon after the perils of the cliff track. A huge sweeping sheath of snow and debris had swept from the southern flank of Pagunda Danda. This casing of ice and power had ripped over the pathway into the river below. A clearly demarked pathway was cut through and lined with pines from nearby trees. The crevices and nooks around which were not safe to linger for too long.

On approach to the well-named Marshyangdi River Bridge, Pagunda Danda’s splendour was there for all to see. This 1500m (4,900ft) elevation is striking. Almost like a vivid piece of the Earth’s crust curved outwards and upwards in a kind of skateboard park half-pipe shape. It isn’t beyond the imagination to picture people skiing down the snow covered silky-looking solid surface or perhaps cycling up the shiny and extraordinary rockface itself. I was reliably informed by a passing guide that once upon a time it once was a lakebed. My imagination could barely see that. Now, local legends believe that mass of rock, known as Swarga (heaven) Dwar (gates) is the route to the afterlife. After leaving your mortal remains behind, you must clamber up this wall to reach the beyond. Few cracks and very little green grew along this gargantuan surface. Its various tones glimmered in the sunlight. Swarga Dwar is heavenly.

I decided I’d walk over the wider bridge. Bad idea. Not so soon after, I had to double back in deep-unbroken snow to the pathway that connected from the smaller chain suspension bridge. Still, the views were worth it, or that’s what I kept telling myself. On crossing the bridge, I noticed that not one, but of my walking boots had worn splits in them. They would remain watertight for that day, but worry set in. How easy is it to buy a pair of UK size-14 boots in the mountains? Was there much demand for European-sized 50 boots in that neck of the woods? Would a repair shop be open in Manang?

The slog up to Dhukur Pokhari (3240m) involved a little bit of that famous Nepali flat (little bit up, little bit down) on the last section. Ordinarily, I’d have enjoyed that, but waist-deep snow and a heavy frame meant I spent a fair bit of time digging myself out and starting up and over again, only to have to dig myself out again. Occasionally, for the sake of variety I flumped over like a dropped teddy bear and rolled around in the snow. These are the moments we hike for – to get in touch with nature, even if gravity is fully in charge. This also gave me time to really appreciate the incredible views. Snow-capped peaks are in every direction and the lower hills around me give glimpses of the fuller Annapurna range. The path had been a zigzagging tour of the under-canopy of pines and firs. The trees had nestled so closely at times that sunlight had failed to melt much of the deep snow beneath the natural green sunshade.

At Dhukur Pokhari, a brightly coloured lodge offering a fruit juice and sun-bathed benches caught my attention. Several trekkers were tucking into what looked like proper potato chips. Would they also have gravy and a nice piece of haddock too? I decided that lunch was needed. Well, actually my belly was rumbling like hell having ran on a trekker’s fuel bar, porridge and omelette for far too long. I greeted the lodges family, “Tashi delek” and took the menu from them. The crisp air, with sunshine beating down on me, reminded me of a winter’s sunny day on Morecambe Bay. I was warm despite the now sub-zero temperatures.

After a lunch of vegetable momos, chips, and allu paratha (potato in a bread), I didn’t enjoy the dal bhat later that evening, but I did have plenty in the tank for the final part of the walk. The steep upwards pathway through to Dhukur Pokhari had burned a fair bit of energy but on leaving the village, the trail was quite smooth, with only a few upward rises, and most of them in the finale of the path.Livia, Srirang and I set out once more and remained together for the final push of the day. The air was much thinner than earlier than day, and a huge radio mast amongst the crumbling old and proud new buildings marked out the final stop for the day. It grew ever closer.

After crossing a footbridge, alongside two twisted bridge remains, the pathway snaked in and out of small bushes and a very hidden abandoned settlement. To the left the river moved away, and fields spread outwards. To the right a new peak became clearer. Pisang takes its name from Pisang Peak (locally called Jong Ri – 6091m high), of which Paungda Danda is its south-eastern subsidiary peak. The so-called ‘Great Wall of Pisang’ was easily visible in the fading sunlight. Pisang Youth Club’s football fields could be made out amongst the snow on our right, as the goalposts gave it away. To our left, a huge sweeping curing avalanched seemed to have completely lost momentum at a stonewall. It was stonewalled just a metre from our footpath. The jagged windswept icy tufts of the avalanche stood in contrast to intact wheat shoots to the avalanche’s left.

Upper Pisang (3300m) is part of the Pisang village. Lower Pisang (3200m) is its slightly lower down and over the valley other half. About 307 live across 105 houses, according to a census in 2011. It seemed on my visit, that far fewer people were here. Arriving at our guesthouse, the lucidly turquoise Marshyangdi River could be seen a hundred metres or so below. If life it what you make it, then right there and then, life was wonderful. To reach Lower Pisang, you don’t cross the bridges, you follow the river and cross a different bridge. The Lower Pisang plains and the buildings looked cold and uninviting because the mountains above cast such a large shadow below.

Upper Pisang has sweeping great views of Annapurna II and ample opportunity to take endless snaps on your camera. The lodge’s family feel is completed by a young girl singing from YouTube videos on a phone. Mother and father, busy cooking occasionally pop out to check on her, and she looked up every time, with full respect and listened to all instructions, in the Tibetan language.

After gaining 600m in elevation and trekking about 14.5km that day, we’d all earned a good night’s sleep. I tucked under my extra blanket and crept into my sleeping bag. I sat up suddenly and took one last look outside at the valley beneath and the few twinkles of electric light. The dark sky and stars made me realise how cold it was, so I slipped back into the sleeping bag and soon fell asleep, deep into a dream…

“Listen as the wind blows, from across the great divide, voices traoped in yearning, memories trapped in time. The night is my companion, and solitude is my guide…” – Possession by Sarah McLachlan

 

Cover image by the angry hungry Hungarian and great trekker Livia (Srirang and I passing an avalanche field the day after arriving at Upper Pisang):

FB_IMG_1581173028754

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.

 

Pokhara footsteps.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

Kathmandu to Pokhara is a long and winding road. The Beatles didn’t sing about it though. The final stop of the 700NPR bus journey was on the edge of Pokhara (827-1740m) by the sports stadium. We checked in at 0100 on the 21st of January 2020, in the Obey Guesthouse, where Srirang had arranged to meet Livia, the angry hungry Hungarian from last year’s trek. I said hello, looked at the rooftop view and fell into a deep sleep. I slept like a baby. In the morning, a bit later, around 9am, I awoke. I stretched my legs, had a cold shower and dressed. I walked up the three floors to the rooftop. I looked south, trees and rooftops, east, a building obscured my view of more trees and rooftops. I walked up some steps to the next layer of the building. Standing on top of the building, my jaw dropped. I looked north, a little west and east. What a panorama! The prominent views of the tourism capital of Nepal are striking.

Pokhara is in the top left corner of the Seti Gandaki valley, if you look at the valley as football goalpost set. The mountains can rise over 6,500 metres across just 30 kilometres. You can see Dhaulagiri (8167m), Annapurna (6000m to over 8000m over several peaks), Manaslu (8163m), Machhapuchchhre A.K.A. Fishtail (6993m). Meanwhile Phew Tal lake sits at just 827m at the Lakeside area of the city. The moderate humid subtropical climate was just hovering around the low teens of 11°C, which made it feel very comfortable. At night, it fell into single figures. Very comfortable indeed. The World peace pagoda stands to the south, a cave full of bats lies to the north. Resorts, climbing shops, massage houses, spars, restaurants and lakeside boating are everywhere. Temples, shrines, gumbas, and forestry – serve the population that sits under half a million. The sprawling metropolitan city is far bigger than Kathmandu, and it feels far greener. This is a city that has survived much hardship losing the great India to Tibet trading route, following the Indo-China war in 1962. However, tourism has grown since. The British Gurkha Camp and Indian Gorkha (Gurka) camps are here. Many education sites are here. Some major businesses are based here.  The airport (soon to be replaced) and roads have regular and easy to find transport links across the country. Oh, and yoga is everywhere.

For dinner, I ate a masala curry, with roti bread. For lunch, I skipped it. For breakfast I tucked into omlette and a peanut dish with spices. Alu patthar was needed alongside the breakfast – a lovely potato bread. Just like the city of Pokhara, every area and every meal was geared for every kind and every taste. Pokhara’s lakeside area was akin to Blackpool lights in England, but smaller, and much quieter. By now the news of the coronavirus Covid-19 was emerging into Pokhara. Sellers on the streets offered a selection of fruits, “Sir, pineapple? Bananas? Ganga?” I declined all, before later watching City beat Sheffield Utd on my phone, as the temperature hit 2°C.

On the 22nd, we set out to the TIMS office, which doubles up as ACAP (Annapurna Circuit) entry – and the Nepal Tourism Board (all flanked by the ill-fated Visit Nepal 2020). TIMS and the ACAP are essential for trekking the region. The national park has strict control. On the day we visited, we were told that the highest we could trek, was Manang due to heavy snowfall – and missing trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trail. Under clear blue skies, and an air temperature of 20°C, we entered the doorway to news crews, cameras and stressed looking trekkers complaining that they were airlifted out of Annapurnas region without choice. They would have to pay once again, if they went in. And, they had to get their insurance companies to pay the helicopter rescue fees. The perils of trekking in full motion. Many trekkers seemed oblivious to the lost reported guides and trekkers. We answered questions with the ACAP and TIMS before passing over 2000NPR and 3000NPR respectively. We’d essentially agreed to take zero risks, and trek only as far as Manang. To me, I was fine. I just wanted to get onto the trail and see the sights, meet the people and enjoy a safe walk with good views. I decided there and then that not reaching the pass or completing the Annapurna Circuit was fine. It is what it is, as my older brother Asa, always says.

Pokhara is a very spaced out city. It’s relaxed and very green. There is so much to see and do. It is at the top of the league in terms of watching people go by, and enjoying the sounds of birdcalls. Nature is all around you, whether it is kites swooping overhead, tropical birds chirping in the morning or the croak of frogs. Then, there are many friendly and cute dogs, cats and the occasional free-roaming cow ambling along the roadsides.

With the terrible news coming out of Wuhan, of a pneumonia-causing virus, I became hyper-aware of people around me. Every sneeze and cough triggered a twinge of worry. The spate of deaths in China may have been a long way away, but in my mind, it could have been much closer. The spread of such trouble, just like heavy snowfall could easily have remained an ongoing worry for our trek.

On the 23rd, we checked out from the Obey Guesthouse (1000NPR per night), had breakfast and caught a taxi to the bus station in Pokhara. We departed Pokhara at 1135 for Besi Shahar at 1700hrs. Besi Shahar is only 760m in elevation. On arrival we stayed at Manange Chautara – Hotel Kailash. 200NPR a night, plus food and drink, we went to bed and readied ourselves for the walk. We were in no hurry, because we could only go as far as Manang. I had to leave Nepal by February the 15th, so that was settled. Take it all in, enjoy the walk. Rather than break the camel’s back, the next day, we walked just 7km to Khudi, staying at the Maya hotel, alongside the river and bridge. On the short 3 hour trek, we’d had brews at the ACAP check point, watched Himalayan Grey Langur monkeys for a while and not rushed at all.

 

The journey had started. How about your journey?

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…

To be determined.

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

https://sunyatsens.com/

I opted not to take headphones with me, or earphones for the trek around Nepal. The soundtrack would be life and nature. However, if I was to take one song on that journey, then I’d struggle. Today, I watched the video of Ting Bu Dong by Sun Yat Sens. The track opens with producer Ryan Chambers on the didgeridoo. Throughout the track he continues flitting between this instrument, an acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Sometimes he manages two of the three. Talented bugger! Some of us can’t even play the spoons. The vocals kick in from Chris Bradshaw, who puts a J between his names. It could mean juggernaut or John, as in Lennon, I don’t know. Rob Laughlin on base, alongside Eric Charette on drums and a session guitarist in Brandane Mullane form the band’s entirety. The reason that I namedrop these guys, because somehow, somewhere and someday these boys could reach high. They’ve evolved since I first watched them at Magic Island Music Festival back in December 2016. They’ve gone from a group capable of pub gigs, to a professional looking, well-marketed and confident outfit. They’re more A-Team than A-list still. That’s a good place to be. With videography by the talented Ryan and drone footage, alongside their graphic design they can do anything they want.

The dreamy didgeridoo-opening has a touch of This Garden by The Levellers, and I’m feeling a touch of Dido in there. It has the played down nature of early Oasis-acoustic tracks without the overpowering aggression of a cocksure Gallagher on board. I’m expecting, “Today is gonna be the day…” but instead the song smashes in some Chinese. Why not? The reggae-indie rap is dreamy. The chorus is clear and takes me back to Nepal on that last walk. Songs that unlock memories and emotion are powerful things. The video showcases life in China, a wandering figure and gives your imagination an opportunity to test itself. Sun Yat Sens and their previous song WeChat was more Feeder and jolliness in style. My students feature somewhere in there around the minute mark. I hope that we all see and hear more of this band soon.

#15 – PYRAMID – GORAK SHEP 1300 – EVEREST BASE CAMP – GORAK SHEP 1800 ~ 12km

 

8th February 2019

We set out from Pyramid (5050m / 16,568ft) to Gorakshep (5100m) and then onwards to EBC (5360m). On Earth’s lands there isn’t much surface area above us at this point. The upper points above 7,000ft (2133m) is only about 7% of the total of Earth’s surface. 29.2% of Earth has land above sea level or uncovered by lakes and rovers. Our oblate spheroid of a planet has bumpy bits. The Himalayas (China/Nepal/India)) with the Karakoram range (China and Pakistan) are the only places to see peaks over 8000m. Only Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (a country I know nothing about) can be added to those countries for mountains over 7000m. Going to other countries and looking for big mountains is near pointless. Aconcagua (6962m) in the Andes (Argentina) is as close as you will get. Anyway I now found myself above 5164m for a night’s sleep. The highest that I have ever snoozed.

If Lobuche is bleak, then Gorakshep could have meant shithole in English. The smooth mountain top of Kalapatthar hovers over the lakebed that sits by Gorakshep. We arrived, ditched our things at the Buddha Lodge, ate a late lunch and then started the Everest Base Camp trek. The final leg towards a hidden shadow beneath Everest. The lodges are mostly supply drops and shelters. There is discarded waste in piles, banners and tents ripped to shreds scattered here and there. Armageddon refused to stop in Gorakshep on account of it being totally dilapidated and uninhabitable.

The worst night’s sleep ever followed. Firstly, the windows were rattling amd pccasionally flying open. Cracks in some panes threatened to explode. The roof was rattling. Each room had a temperature lower than -25°C. Snow slipped through the edges of the window frames. The lodge shook with each gust. Worse still – we were running out of yak shit. The main lounge room was starting to cool. As I lay my head down headaches came and went. Even if I wanted to descend downwards, this was not the weather to open any doors.

In the lodge a group of three from the U.K. with their The Baton flag slept, alongside Rhys, Al and Spanish Albert. Everyone seemed to endure a restless night of anti-sleep. Hope of making ot through a night without the roof blowing off was broken up by regular piss breaks to the toilet at the end of the cold corridor. The frozen stinking cesspit in the ceramic western toilet was perhaps the warmest thing for several kilometres.

The great thing about having a sleeping bag comfortable to -25°C is that when it finally teeters over that temperature limit, you’re still a little warm. An extra blanket on top helped. The noise of the howling winds did not. Gritty frozen grains pounded the windows outside. It seemed that the outside desperately wanted to be inside. Sporadically the dirt of the outside world slapped the windows like bullets being fired from a gun.


9th February 2019

Morning arrived. Breakfast was devoured. We set out.

Kala Patthar is 5,545 metres (18,192 ft). It might as well be higher. It is no mean feat to get to the top and capture a panoramic view of the Khumbu glacier like all the postcard shops have obtained. A panoramic sweep of clouds in all directions and zero visibility doesn’t sell the same. To quote trekker Rhys from Cardiff, “Well it is the mountains and that means clouds.” It is what it is. Simple. Black rock, as Kala Patthar means in Hindi, might well just translate as bleak rock. I read somewhere that the ‘The world’s highest webcam, Mount Everest webcam, was located here’ on Kala Patthar. In those clouds, you could lose anything – including life! No prayer flags were visible yet needed. No mountain climbing permit was required – making this the highest point to scramble without license to do so.

The Khumbu glacier is supposed, by scientists, to have formed in the last Great Ice Age. That was around 500,000 years ago. On reaching Lobuche (4910m), my legs were feeling equally as old. The Khumbu region stretches from Namche Bazar out to Thame in the west and Gokyo. Gorak Shep, and Chukung mark the northern and western areas.  The Khumbu subregion is a third of the region known as the closely named Khambu. The lowest point is 3,300m high around Lukla. Visibility was so low, that my feet were barely in sight. The gamble and decision to stay an extra day was not appealing. With heavy snow forecast, we headed down – our target, “as far as we can go.” Well, after struggling over the open boulder and rocks fields lining the banks of glacial death below, we dropped into a valley leading towards the Pyramid. We’d later show some pretty bad windburn on our skin – and thankfully we escaped anything more serious.

Having sought cover just before lunchtime, we had cut a path through deep snowdrifts and found shelter. We were the only ones at the Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory. We hadn’t intended to stay again but we had no choice. After an hour a Chinese man and his porter/guide joined us. They said they were close to death out there. It was believable and no embroidery on their part. Barely two hours later and the blizzard vanished. The whiteout faded to a grey unsettling day. We chilled out in the warm lounge watching cricket, volleyball and eating too much. It passed the time before bedtime. Outside did not appeal to us.

#16 GORAK SHEP – PYRAMID ~ 10km

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

10th February 2019

The walk continued as in the spirits of each day before. It was always about just going forwards, and not rushing. Some loose targets and aims were handy but they were never set in concrete. The journey was to be lived. The destination was just for inspiration. Some target Everest Base Camp for status, spirituality or homage. Some push themselves as far as they can go. Some want to do their best. There had never been a race to get anywhere and likewise we weren’t descending fast for the sake of it.

Within an hour, I did not think that I could walk any more. My head was pounding at the rear and I was walking so slow, that deep down I was beginning to worry. Fatigue had turned to exhausation and my mental condition was slipping to the negative. Ten minutes after passing Ishwor, Srirang and Livia on their way up, I had to stop. Here the cough that had been niggling me for nearly two weeks began to rasp at my throat. I tried to catch my breath. A moment later, I was staring at my breakfast on the floor. My nose stang. I smelled terrible. My mouth tasted like a yak’s arse. After a few moments of composure, I explained to Maria we must head down fast – but steadily and for her to keep an eye on me. Barely an hour later and I felt great – reinvigorated and fully oxygenated. Resurrection in a Buddhist land is possible afterall.

We soon appeared at the tombs and monuments, standing tall under a sunlit sky. The spiritual air of the location fell away as we descended the pathway to Thukla. Here we continued over the glacial rover’s stepping stones, banked left and followed a pebble-stoned pathway into the valley around Pheriche (4371m).

I was told by many not to stay at Pheriche when doing this trekking route. It sits deep in the shadows of the mountains around it and on a cloudy day, little light makes it to the village. This day it was basked in splendid sunshine. The Tsola River flowed beneath it. The Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) are based here but we dodn’t stop by. We spent an hour hiding from yaks, by squating by a frozen stream as they passed by and then doubled back. Eventually we joined a British couple, their guide and porter to pass by. The top end of Pheriche village seemed to have a melting-yet-dangerously-frozen-river-road down the middle. That had to be negotiated slowly. Empty buckwheat and potato fields lined the pathways. Following the top end of the village a few kilometres before the lower village appeared. The neighbours there must be quite fit.

Arriving at Deboche (3820m) today we had dropped about 1230m. That’s 1.23km (4053 feet – about 7/10 of a mile). Burj Khalifa is the tallest building at 828m (2717’) tall. It had taken just a few hours. The walk up had been broken down.

#17 0900 PYRAMID – 1600 DEBOCHE; #18 0930 DEBOCHE – NAMCHE BAZAR 1700: ~ 40km
#19 NAMCHE BAZAR – LUKLA ~ 21km
#20 LUKLA: ~ 4km

More to follow.

 

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

The Great Pyramid of Nepal?

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

It could be argued that too much looking back is bad for the soul. Well my mind is also investigating a possible wander to Détiān pùbù, Bǎnyuē pùbù [板約瀑布, 德天瀑布]. This is located the Daxin County, Guangxi and Vietnam. The Lanning Nandong station may be a useful starting point. The Green City awaits. Then there is Zhēnzhū Tān Pùb [珍珠滩瀑布] too. Oh and Huáng Guǒshù Pùbù [黄果树瀑布]. Anyway they all need further research, and now I can carry on telling the tale of this year’s trek in Nepal.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

4th February 2019

The early morning pathway from Namche Bazaar is wonderful. However, we set off at 1130am, touching the afternoon. Having sat in Namche Bakery eating apple strudel and celebrating Ishwor’s Not-Birthday. Srirang and Livia had checked Facebook and assumed the date of birth he had published was his birthday. Turned out it wasn’t. Not that a candle in some chocolate cake wasn’t fun. We sweet off late having shared a fun morning with a birthday party that wasn’t quite right. We walked for a short time and enjoyed lunch at Kyangjuma in a lodge’s garden that I’d previously ate at two years ago. Thamserku was in clear sight and Ama Dablam lay dead ahead on the trail just beyond the Tyangbuche (3860m) brow and the huge monastery.

The owner of the lodge talked with me about how his dog, that I met two years ago, had been eaten by a snow leopard – and the two similar dogs were that dog’s offspring. We talked about the New Year celebrations in Sherpa culture, his hair being died and general local information. Stupas were soon, once again being passed on the left, as we bid our farewells and descended downwards to a river crossing.

We passed Thunki Tanga, which like everywhere seemed to have many variants of spelling. Funky Thanga seemed the best name. Completing the checkpoint registration, we began the slog of a climb up to Tyangbuche. Here we met Albert from Spain, who had walked from Thame. We also met a Sherpa man who had climbed Everest on several occasions when he was a few years younger. He’d walked from Lukla that day and would head as far as Pangboche. One hell of a jaunt! Our destination would be Deboche – and ideally at the Everest Lodge.

May people refer to this part of the trail as ‘Nepal Flat’. You really speaking only gain about 330 metres of altitude. There are woods galore, steep valleys and on this day the bright sunshine gave lovely sweeping clear views. Everest and Lhotse had been dead ahead for some time, until we sank down to Phunkitenga (see, another spelling!) – and here it was all up for a few hours.

On arriving in a darkened Deboche we checked into Paradise Lodge. I have a few tiny criticisms of the name. It was too cold to consider as a place of nirvana, but the warm log fireplace gave glory, I guess. The twelfth Dal Bhat was adequate for filling the belly.


5th February 2019

Today’s walk bid farewell to trees somewhere just beyond Pangboche and touching Otso village. The trail is the first day of true discomfort. You adjust and pace yourself with much more care now. The air is getting noticeably thinner. You concentrate on slowing your pulse and breathing with more effectiveness. There is touch of anxiety about me. This is where in 2017, I reached. And not much higher.

Deboche to Pangboche and finally Dingboche (4410m) is a photographer’s dream. There are gompas, vast valleys, huge rockfalls, streams and views of Ama Dablam up close. Then, as you climb into the valley that holds Dingboche, you see the mountainous borders of China with Island Peak, and Nangkartshang looming overhead.

My sleep that night wasn’t bad. No headaches and a confidence that this would be the year. Maria wanted to go on today. I insisted that we acclimatise. Over-confidence can be your downfall. Breathing normally is on the cards for tomorrow. Dal Bhat the 13th, was certainly no nightmare. It would assist on the battle against altitude-related doom.


6th February 2019

Coaxing the morning breaths into a steady rhythm, I tucked away breakfast. Last night we met Rhys and Al, who had travelled from Wales to climb to Everest Base Camp for charity. This morning we set off together to go up the neighbouring mountain. Nangkartshang is an unwelcoming rocky mountain lined with grass at first sight. The walk started vigorously. Our bodies would need the climb up, feel the strain and then sleep low. Every step would soon be an exertion and the higher we went, the harder it felt. On reaching the summit and ledges, the views are out-of-this-world yet remind us that we are on this world and we’re quite small. The cold air and clash of bright warm light make for an up and down body temperature. I regret wearing the down jacket – yet later, I was thankful for this piece of clothing.

As we descend the valleys beneath us fill with cloud. It filters from many directions and eventually covers the sky blotting out the fading evening sun. Winter is coming, so they say and the next day we will wake to fine flakes of snow. Everyone at the lodge talks in whispers of a big snow storm in the region over the next three days. A couple, from China, who are descending talk about a Pyramid lodge to stay at. We take the details and set that as tomorrow’s aim. But will the snow be too much? At least the fourteenth helping of Dal Bhat would surely help get me there.


7th February 2019

Dingboche to Thukla started in light snow. The snow eventually faded yet the sky remained jaded. My cynical mind remained open to further snowfall. The great sweeping plains above Dingboche, lay beneath mountains to the right shoulder, and beneath my left shoulder, a drop down to the river valley below. The left side view of Taboche (6495m) and Cholatse (6440m) gave a dramatic slant to the world. Cho (lake), la (pass), tse (peak) are Tibetan words. They’re impressive peaks and highly photogenic. The ravine of the Khumbu glacier folds away as we ascend to Thukla (spelt in numerous ways, as always) and onwards to Lobuche. The climb is gradual and striking. There are remarkable pathways cutting through the snow. But, before the bigger climbs, we stop for lunch at Thukla.

Upwardly walking in clouds and snow is unearthly. It heightens your senses and brings the imagination out. Beyond the cloud could be a sunny day, Godzilla or the Manchester City reserve team. You have very little way of knowing. To quote Meat Loaf, ‘what you see, is what you get’.

The cloud lifted and a strange black square shape could be seen. From this parapet a stream of colourful flags fluttered down. They formed a line stretching to a shrouded stockade to my upper right side. These ramparts appeared to be stones stocked one upon another and squared off with rough edges. The first two stupas formed a gateway from the pathway leading up from Dughla.

To my left, the flag of New Zealand fluttered. Rob Hall, of the famous Adventure Colsuntants was marked here. From the 1996 climbing disaster on Everest was the Mountain Madness Everest Expedition leader Scott Fischer. Both bodies of these remain on the South Summit of Mount Everest. There are others from this and groups of other deadly climb attempts. There are touching tributes, grand notes and plaques. I tried to read as many as I could. I was spellbound. It was sad but also life-affirming. It made me ask questions and think things that I seldom think or have never thought. The cloud drifted out to reveal lines of cairns and stupas. Suddenly, I was in a living graveyard. I felt that I was in a dizzying field of tombs, like the iconic Sad Hill Mexican standoff (which was filmed in Spain) in the the movie The Good, The Bay & The Ugly. Dizzying is a word that I have used lightly before. On this occasion, it felt apt for my vertiginous and flighty state of mind. I thanked the Gods (all of them, that others respect and worship) for people remembering the fallen, doing the thing that loved the most. But, does anyone really want to die doing the things that they love?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

More than 290 people have died attempting the Everest peak – or assisting those who climb it. Official statistics of deaths amongst the trekking population, that go to see Everest, are unknown. It is expected to be around 4-5 people a year, from altitude sickness. Crevasses, mountain sickness, being struck my your own icepick as you fall, avalanches, exhaustion, death by Serac, disappearance, falls, drowning, heart attacks, blood clotting, exposure to the elements, rope accidents, and others reasons for not wanting to climb Everest may have deterred me. For climbers, they must climb. Those lucky enough get to trek and explore wonderful places with blotched histories and wonderful moments. This is the spirit of nature. It takes and it gives.

On reaching Lobuche we step into the Oxigen Lodge and have a brew. We decide the snow is lighter and crack on for Pyramid. It should be around an hour away. Lobuche is a near barren wasteland. It is unwelcoming and borderline unfunctional. This town is notorious with early trekkers and climbers as being the place where everyone inhaled yak shit dust from early fireplaces. It has improved dramatically in recent years but still has a feel of drabness. The frozen toilets, a stream full of ice and a pocket in the snow with a dozen stray puppies gave an air of menace. Here you are expected to tolerate the simplest of simple accommodation – complete with ice. The trite options surrounded by inclines mark the start of the really, really dangerous glaciers – so we didn’t hang around too long.

After about 30 minutes we reached a ginnel, a short passageway to our left. Two clear signs pointed towards EvK2CNR and SHARE. It is possibly mothballed by the Italians, but it seems active. We walk the pathway for about 10 minutes. We had to cut through the reasonably deep snow. On arriving the squat brick building with a glass pyramid looked lifeless. On opening the door, it was far from lifeless. A dozen or so noisy Chinese voices mixed with a few western accents. We met Spanish Albert, Al and Rhys once again. Amongst the crowd were many friendly porters and guides. The lodge manager pointed us to the warmest room on the entire trail and apologised that the solar panels were too deep under snow, so the internal heaters were not working. It was more than comfortable. A bucket shower and all meals were inclusive – for 4000 NPRs per person, per night. That’s £26GBP or there abouts. Luxury in an amazing setting.

The Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory is a high-altitude research centre. It has the aims of promoting sustainable development within mountainous areas. It is there to safeguard high altitude ecosystems. These areas for some of the most fragile in the changing world. There are works on the wall. I sit reading through them on eating Dal Bhat 15 and trying to find City’s score versus Everton away. The score flashes up. City’s title battle continues. Spanish Albert is also happy. His Barca team avoided defeat against Real Madrid.

#12 DEBOCHE 0830 – DINGBOCHE 1530 ~ 10km
#11 NAMCHE BAZAAR 1130 – DEBOCHE 1800 ~ 12km
#13 DINGBOCHE: Nangkartshang & back ~ 5km
#14 DINGBOCHE 0800 – PYRAMID ~ 11km

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

Johnny Marr is in Sete.

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

A2809404.JPG

16th February 2019

Boarding the Yeti Airlines flight, under the colours of Tara Airlines, I lifted my feet onto the steps. The DHC-6 Twin Otter at Tenzing–Hillary Airport stared vacantly and without emotion at the asphalt. The 11.7% gradient didn’t faze the lifeless tincan with wings. Nor did the altitude of 2,845m (9,334ft). Many surprised and excited voices could be heard. Some had landed here on the journey. None of my accompanying 11 passengers had made this take-off. The pilots, with their minimum of 100 short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) had. Thankfully. The excitement of my first flight from here came back. I sat back, looked out the window and enjoyed the moment. In less than the full length of the 527m (1729ft) of runway, it was over too soon. It had begun what seemed like only yesterday.


A2808558.JPG
22nd January 2019

Returning to Kathmandu gave me an oddly warm feel. It was familiar territory and a place that has acted as a gate for many journeys. Early expeditions to map the region started in the 1850s and continued as such until 1953, when a beekeeper called Edmund Hilary arrived with Tenzing Norgay, and around 400 men – including porters, guides and mountaineers. Anyway, here I was, once again, at the brickwork of Tribhuvan International Airport (1,388m/4,390ft) and passing the cremation grounds of the Pashupatinath Temple. The holy (to Buddhists and Hindus) Bagmati river flowed under a severe-angled concrete bridge as the hotel pick-up car drifted over it. Many bodies have had a triple-dip into that river prior to cremation. The chief mourner also takes a quick dip before setting his or her lost relative on fire. Relatives also bathe. If the Bagmati river purifies them the source in the Letter Himalayas must be the reasoning. Somewhere downstream of the source, inside Kathmandu itself is the Tukucha Khola tributary. The sewage levels are unbelievable. The city’s eight rivers are sad sights in many places.

As the Hotel Horizon car rumbled into Thamel, over less-than-smooth tarmac, I noted that the central entertainment and shopping area was now closed to cars other than taxis or those with right of way. A wise move. The streetworks that had been taking place when I left in January 2017 had been completed and smoother tarmac took hold on two or three streets. The rest was a tad muddy. New Road (another shopping district) and a road approaching Thamel looked almost new or refurbished since my last visit. My initial thoughts were surprise and pleasure in seeing Kathmandu’s partial regeneration.

At Hotel Horizon, Deveraj, the manager, that I had met on my last trip and since kept in touch informed me of a possible jeep to Shivalaya village or even as far up the trek as Phaplu. I didn’t fancy going so far up the route. Villages such as Sete and Kinja, not to mention the challenge of Lamjura La (a pass at over 3500m high) were great memories. So, I agreed to a jeep to Shivalaya, missing Jiri out completely. The bus journey last time was uncomfortable and numerous accounts show that some dangerous rides have been had. Part of me didn’t want that. How bad could a jeep journey be?


A2808567
24th January 2019

Departing at 7am, following a day of last-minute provision buying, our car departed. The backseats of the jeep, covered in a carpet, had no seatbelts. The driver was jolly but not a huge conversationalist, however, the journey was pleasant enough. By pleasant, I mean, he steered away from sheer drops and perpendicular plunges. He gave us a break here and there, about 30 minutes in total throughout nine hours of driving. The intense and terrifying journey comes with 100-metre or so vertical gravity-testing points here and declines that I for one decline to experience. Burned out wreckages of buses, cars and flat-packed former vans can be seen like rare leaf-litter. Not rare enough to ignore. Frequent enough to add as landmarks. Without a crowd of people, animals and baggage, the jeep was mildly more comofortable than the bus journey.

At least we weren’t taking our morning exercise running along the dusty Kathmandu smog-filled roads, like many groups of school students and the ever-numerous morning traffic. Over time the Kathmandu valley fell-away and we went up and down the Lower Himalayas on the Tibet-bound highway. The double-laned road occasionally filtered into a narrow single-laned road. Often our pathways went above cloud levels and passed signs of roadway expansions with Nepal advancing new bridges between communities previously cut off. Wide gorges, huge valleys, glacial stonebeds, and tree-lined foothills baked in sunshine could be seenm throughout. Clouds broke away to reveal sunshine and the traffic lessened with every kilometre covered. Soon, the odd bike and very odd car was noticed. In the final few hours as we neared Jiri, new concreted roads, patched in places broke away into muddy tracks and back to smooth concrete lanes. At Jiri we stopped, to check the road to Shivalaya was open. It was – despite very heavy rain the day before.

On arriving at Shivalaya (1770m), sunset was fast approaching. Knuckling down at the Kala Patthar lodge, enjoying the second dal bhat of the journey, the excitement set in. I stood outside for a moment by that first blue bridge of my previous Nepal trek. It felt good to be back. Eating in the lounge, with doors wide open, and cool fresh air drifting in, Maria and I met Srirang and his porter-guide-friend Ishwor. At that time, we didn’t know that we’d share parts of the journey, but here we were, an Indian, a Nepali Sherpa, a Chinese and a Mancunian. Talking with the lodge proprietor Padam Jirel, we were introduced to his son and daughter, their local schoollife and the family home. A warm night’s sleep followed a few chapters of Jonny Marr’s Set the Boy Free.


A2808576.JPG
25th January 2019

In the morning breakfast consisted of chapati, eggs and porridge. Waking up to a misty valley around the quaint village of Shivalaya (27°36’25.7″N 86°17’53.4″E) added extra emotion to the air. The feelings in my mind weren’t far off those that swpt over me in January 2017. Registering for the Gaurishankar Conservation Area & National Park and handing over NPRs, the trek began in Dolakha District, Province Number 3. Longleaf Indian pine trees, rhododendrons, alien-looking Woolly-leaved oak trees and other temperate forest species lined the mountain climbs. Within only a few hundred metres of walking and an elevation gain of not much, a few breathers were needed. The respites were quite often. My knees ached. My feet strained. The pauses and rests weighed on my mind. Had two years aged me so much that I could no loger climb or walk in the Himalayas? I tried to focus on seeing Himalayan Thars, red pandas and part of me would have welcomed a Himalayn black bear. It could have made a comfortable seat with a cuddle.

A2808586.JPG

After a wee while, a brew was needed. At this point, we’d hooked up with Srirang and Ishwor, and as we went to stop, a striding brunette with large eyes strode up, sporting two natural trekking poles of bamboo. Introductions were had, and now Linda (U.S.A.) joined us for a brief while. Soon after meeting Linda, just before Deurali Bazar (2800m), we met Livia (carrying a house or two worth of weight on her back) and at this snow-threatened top we ate lunch. The snow-dusted rooftops of a dozen closed buildings faced a lovely modern and bright façade on the chosen lodge for lunch. The cat and dog in a state of stalemate over territory and positioning were both equally cute. Srirang gave both some noodles. The lunch hour was a more than welcome hiatus. That reduced the amount of meowing and sniffing for food greatly. On full bellies, we headed downwards towards the village of Bhandar (2100m) under the cover of thick heavy grey clouds.

#1: SHIVALAYA 0830 – BHANDAR 1730: ~12km.

In the evening, at my second stay in Shobha Lodge, the great owner and her family cooked us a delicious dal bhat (#3 of the journey) and Maria roasted some small potatoes on a fire outside. A jolly evening was had and lots of conversation with Linda, Livia and Srirang revealed their reasons for hiking this trail. I stood looking at the buildings around this lodge. Two years ago, most were serious ruins. Now many appeared rejuvenated. Against one such building a red rose stood in shadows against a dark wintry sky.


A2808602.JPG
26th January 2019

The next morning gave bright light and some showered upon footing, but the weather wasn’t bad all day. We set out as a band of six, downwards with the destination aim being Sete. After crossing a delightful vale with a wooden bridge, here the old pathway faded and became swept over or completely consumed by a new carved out road, unpaved and muddy as hell. Every now and then you’d resume the old pathways, but quite often the new road zigzagged the old meandering ways. Soon after passing a small waterfall, I slipped on loose earth where the old met the new path. The devris flung over rocks and coating the unclar pathway made me twist my left knee, striking it on a rock and bending my leg in a way that my right hamstring brought my other leg under my back and bag. I tentatively stood up. I suspected in that moment that the rambling was over. After the shock, I carried on, carefully and slowly. Warning taken. As the path neared Kinja, it broke into a fork. The right fork headed to the muddy and dusty new road. The left fork appeared a tad overgrown. Linda, Maria and I carried on left. After 400 metres, the path disappeared. A chasm with the new road was presented before us. In the end we doubled back and scrambled down the right fork onto the road but the latter section was pretty messy and difficult to get over.

 

The walk into Kinja, was terrible compared with the route two years ago. The road has dismembered too many houses, farms and forested areas. A new hydro-electric plant in a mine has added to the dichotomised region. Many of the crumbling earthquake buildings have vanished. The two new bridges are seldom used. The old wooden bridge is sealed off. The new road dam-cum-bridge allows easy footing into Kinja but feels like a building site. Work in progress may mean new logistical advantages and easier access but it will probably deter hikers. It was now 1300hrs, so at Kinja we stopped for lunch over an hour’s break. The Riverside guest house and restaurant had a sky blue and white sign. What’s not to like about Manchester City colours? Oh, and it had a western toilet, of sorts. It was a ceramic squat hole.

With lunch in our bellies, the climb up from Kinja (1630m) was long and hard but easier than the previous day. The aches of yesterday faded and early conditioning of muscles was felt. Rays of sunshine, refurbished ruins and new settlements lined the upward pathway. The rise steadied and fields of green, shaped like steps leapt out from the hillsides. If enough coins could be found, it’d resemble a penny-arcade machine of the greatest scale. As light faded, we arrived in Sete. Dal Bhat (#4) was served. The Sunrise Lodge was once again my place to stay, in the Sete (2900m).

BHANDAR 0930 – SETE 1800: ~15km.

In the village of Sete, I left my Johnny Marr autobiography copy. I Set the Boy Free. So, if you haead to the Sunrise lodge, expect to find the illuminous green cover. And like me, you’ll find it hard to put it down. The former Talking Heads, Black Grape, Kirsty MacColl, Brian Ferry and Billy Bragg collaborator worked with Pet Shop Boys, Beck, Modest Mouse, andmovir composer Hans Zimmer. Not bad for a Mancunian born and raised in the supposed rougher parts of our fair city. Actually, the boy did good, working with Hulme-born Billy Duffy, having a great connection to Portland throughout his expansive and colourful music life – and being not far from where we both witnessed City’s 3-2 win over QPR on that day. Playland is one of my favourite albums ever. The marathon man was also in a lesser-known band called The Smiths. Anyway, just beyond the multi-layered poster on the wall, featuring Barmouth Bridge, that’s where Johnny’s book is.

 

To be continued…

 


 

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