New Illustrated Volume

Good news for those who have been asking: I have finally got round to sorting out some photographs and adding them to the Nepal entries (I can hear the distant popping of Champagne corks already…).  Thank you for your patience; I hope it was worth the wait.

For my next trick I will add the rest of ye olde stories from last year so that the history can be complete.  I believe that subscribers receive an e-mail each time I add a new posting.  This may or may not apply to historically dated entries but if it does please forgive the repetition and flex that finger over the Delete key.

A fresh Baku Update will follow soon.

Keep well all.

Scoffing and Quaffing in Nepal

For those who enjoy sampling the local culinary arts during their travels Nepal has some delights in store.  The various trade routes that have crossed through Nepal over the ages have introduced a wide range of spices, teas and other foodstuffs to the region which complement a healthy variety of indigenous vegetables, grains and livestock.  Add to that the influences that neighbours India and Tibet have had in the kitchen and there is much to savour on many a menu.

With the majority of Nepalis being Hindu and vegetarian the national dish is a relatively simple meat-free offering but open to countless variations in nuance nonetheless.  Daal Bhat literally translates as lentil soup and rice and does exactly what it says on the tin.  You are presented with a plate bearing plain steamed rice, a small bowl of daal, traditionally two portions of differing curried vegetable dishes (tarkari) and usually a portion of pickle (achar).  Sometimes you might also receive a roti, chapati or papad (unleavened bread) and in non-vegetarian establishments a dish of curried meat or poultry.  To consume this dish in the traditional manner you spoon the daal over the rice then use your right hand to form the cohesive mixture to rice balls with bits of vegetable and pickle mixed in and feed them into your mouth (I stuck to using a spoon).  During our trek I had daal bhat for lunch and supper every day and never tired of it.  Each cook has her/his own interpretation of how to make the curries, soups and pickles and as a result I did not receive the same dish twice.

While we were in Kathmandu, Callum arranged for a small group of us to attend a half-day cookery course.  Five of us squeezed into a small, simple kitchen with Ram Devi, her husband and her assistant and she took us through a dozen different dishes, all of which we gleefully sampled as we went along before serving the remainder as a big meal at the end.  Some English readers may be interested to know that the pressure cooker is not dead but is alive and well in Nepal producing cooking anything and everything at lightning speed (no doubt a necessity above certain altitudes).  It transpires that there is a lot of ginger and garlic used in Nepali cooking both of which I am particularly partial to.  Add cumin, coriander, chilli and turmeric as your herb/spice staples and you have most of a Nepali kitchen ready to go.  From there it’s all in the proportions and Ram Devi has generously provided us all with the recipes from the course: if anybody fancies a Nepali supper come on round to my place.

Much of the above might sound similar to Indian cooking; the Tibetan influence shows primarily in a range of noodle dishes and in momo.  Petrolheads will recognise momo as a famous brand in the world of high performance car parts but in this case the word refers to small stuffed dumplings; think dim sum in Chinese terms.  Momo can be stuffed with vegetables, meat, poultry or combinations thereof plus invariably a spice or three and they are served steamed or fried (I prefer steamed).  The results when done properly are delightful little packets with which to treat the taste-buds.

During our time in the mountains I had been hoping to see some yak but it would appear that they live in a different part of the Himalayas from where we were.  These shaggy beasts are the cattle of the mountains for some people and while I may not have managed to meet one in the flesh I did find some yak cheese on offer at a café one lunchtime.  It has very similar colour, texture and flavour to a mature Cheddar but comes with a lot of very small holes in it rather than totally solid.

A detail for steak-lovers to bear in mind: Nepal is a predominantly Hindu nation and with cows being sacred in Hinduism there is not a lot of beef on offer away from the tourist-orientated restaurants in major towns and cities.  Water buffalo is the substitute domestic bovine of choice, supplying meat and dairy products that compare very favourably with those of its sacred cousin.  Shorthand on most menus is “buff meat” or simply “buff” – one explanation of which is usually enough to linger on the memory.

As with England and Azerbaijan the national drink in Nepal is tea and as the manner of serving differs between the first two countries so here is a third variation.  To make basic Nepali chiya (at least in the manner demonstrated by Ram Devi) you boil some milk in your pressure cooker, add black tea and bucket-loads of sugar and then boil it all some more until the liquid is suitably brown.  The Lonely Planet version suggests infusing the tea in hot water separately and adding the cooked milk afterwards and I would imagine there might be further variations – experiment at will.  The drink is not as sickly sweet as the recipe might suggest and it is better still when you add cardamom, cloves and cinnamon to make masala chiya; my favourite.  During energetic walks through the mountains there is nothing better than a hot cup of chiya to revive you.

Nepal produces a limited amount of coffee and it is both rare and relatively expensive as a result.  If you order a coffee at a bar, café or restaurant you will generally receive a Nescafé.  We visited a café in Kathmandu that offers Himalayan coffee and it had a soft, nutty flavour that suited serving as a long drink very well; it is was not strong enough to make a particularly good espresso though.

There are half a dozen or so beers offered in Nepal including European names like Tuborg and Carlsberg but as the bottle you buy will come from one of two breweries there are essentially two flavours to choose from.  Using the local brands I recommend Everest for a light, easy drink and Gorkha for a drier, hoppier taste.  In terms of spirits there is a full range of imported products to choose from in towns and cities as well locally made equivalents of the gin/whiskey/vodka staples selling at a fraction of the price.  I did not try any of them but I did sample a famous local rum called Kukhri XXX and it was very pleasant.  Wine, as far as I could see, is all imported, expensive as a result and not of particularly high quality judging by the couple of bottles we tried.

If you feel adventurous while supping in the mountains there are a couple of homemade moonshines to try.  The “wine” of the mountains is Raksi and during our trek we actually visited a village that happened to be making some at the time.  Millet, yeast and water are boiled in a tall earthenware pot over stood over the fire.  On top of the pot is a copper vessel filled with ice, snow or cold stream water that condenses the rising steam which then drips into a small collecting vessel suspended in the middle of the earthenware pot.  This simple distillation process produces a clear, colourless liquid, the sample of which that I tried was very smooth and very smoky, tasting mostly of the open fire that had created it.  Our host was so pleased that his Raksi went down well that he promptly produced a glass of Chang.  This was cloudy white like Ouzo with water and had small particles visible in it similar to those you might see in a freshly squeezed orange juice.  What it was made of I don’t know (it can be barley, millet or rice according to Lonely Planet) but the flavour was again very gentle and the particles while visible did not make themselves felt.  I believe the strength and quality of both these drinks can vary widely so I would imagine I was fortunate with the samples I was served; beware.

A Raksi still and it’s owner at work in the kitchen

Welcome to the jungle/We’ve got fun ‘n’ games…

Unwinding for a day in Pokhara had been good fun but it was time to get back on the move.  This time around we elected to travel by road and for that the one recommended carrier for tourists is the Greenline Tours bus company.  Don’t let the inadequacy of their website fool you, these chaps provide a tidy service.  It is a six hour journey from Pokhara to Chitwan; we drove in a well maintained air-conditioned bus, each passenger was provided with a litre bottle of water on departure and comfort stops along the route included a free buffet lunch at an upmarket holiday resort, all for a ticket price of twelve US dollars per person.

The Royal Chitwan National Park (to give it its full name) is a nine hundred and thirty-two square kilometre conservation area, within which are several lodges.  We had chosen to stay at the Chitwan Jungle Lodge so our designated Greenline drop-off point was a place called Tandi where we were met by a CJL driver.  Our arrival coincided with that of a Danish couple and the four of us were ushered into the back of an old but well preserved Land Rover to complete the journey.  Jens and I both felt the lack of head- and leg room but all of us soon realised that the choice of vehicle was not just for show.  After fifteen minutes on sealed road we promptly turned off onto a dirt road that soon became open country.  Half an hour later we had left civilisation behind, crossed grasslands, forded rivers, passed an army camp checkpoint and driven along rutted jungle forest tracks to finally reach our destination.

Readers of English adventure stories of a certain period (such as I) will instantly recognise Chitwan Jungle Lodge.  The buildings are all wood frame bungalows with thatched roofs; the electricity generator is switched on between 18:30 and 21:30 in the evening after which you share your night-time hours with a kerosene lamp; there is a charming man amongst the staff who is happy to nonchalantly mention small anecdotes designed to make the hairs on your neck stand on end (apparently a wild bear came up to the dining room doors the night before we arrived, for example).  There was no lazing around listening to tall tales for us though: after arrival it was a swift lunch and then straight out for our first excursion – elephant safari.

Elephants have always intrigued me and having met a few African ones at varying distances it was fascinating to get up close and personal with some of the Asian variety.  This was the first time I had ever ridden on one and to do so in such circumstances was superb.  The driver sat astride the elephant’s neck while Leyla and I sat on a simple cushioned wooden frame on her back.  Accompanied by Jens and Susan on a second elephant, we started simply enough following open clear tracks and occasionally waterways.  It was when we turned into the thicker forest that travel by elephant started showing decisive superiority over that by four-by-four or even by foot: as long as the tree trunks are far enough apart an elephant can pick a path through anything in the jungle.

Emerging from the forest briefly to cross one of the main trails we encountered a group in a Land Rover out on a “jungle drive”.  The respective drivers exchanged rapid words in Nepali after which we dived back into the undergrowth at a slightly brisker pace.  Dramatic tension started to build as we made frequent pauses for the two elephant drivers to scan the terrain and call out to each other through the trees.  Suddenly our driver started pointing towards the vegetation ahead of us and the reason for the excitement became clear: twenty metres in front of us was a very large rhinoceros.  Having spotted rhino over longer distance in Africa and watched them promptly disappear I was fully expecting this one to do the same but here again we had an advantage being elephant-borne.  The two drivers chose their paths carefully and we managed to follow this rhino peacefully for at least five minutes; after which we realised that he had lead us to two more – seemingly the mother and child of the family.  To find one rhino on your first foray into the jungle is fortunate; to find three…

Asian One-Horned Rhino

We kept up with the rhino family for perhaps an other ten minutes but being slighter in stature than we were they did not have to worry about tree branches slowing their progress and they eventually drew ahead out of sight.  During that parting period we became aware of something else in the forest.  There were noises of something large moving through the undergrowth and of rhythmic vocalisation that could only be of human creation; perhaps a detachment from the army camp was out on exercise nearby?  Our elephant drivers started pausing again but this time they were repeatedly shouting the same phrase very loudly; somehow this didn’t feel like animal tracking any more.  Not long later we heard gun shots that seemed disturbingly close; tension was definitely rising.  Soonafter we came across a group of half a dozen casually dressed young men, two of whom were carrying automatic rifles with banana clips; not AK47’s but something that looked pretty similar.  Tension in the back seats was palpable but the elephant drivers seemed perfectly relaxed now that contact had been made and conversation flowed freely.  Elephants and pedestrians walked happily together for five minutes until we exchanged cheery waves with the group and left to make our way back to camp.  Once we had returned all was explained: apparently a wild male elephant had been stalking the lodge because all the lodge elephants are female and he obviously feels drawn to them.  The group was out to drive him away.  Hmm…

At this point it was only natural to visit the elephant stables and meet the family.  They were indeed all female and one had a two year-old daughter while an other had a four month-old daughter.  The names and ages of the elephants were explained as were the relationships between the elephants and their drivers, their diets, their names and a lot more.  The four month-old (named Lucky) unsurprisingly attracted the most attention and the sounds that her mother was making suggested mild disapproval on her part.  That interpretation was soon proven wrong when a member of staff started pointing into the forest behind the stables.  It took a moment to spot him standing still but then the wild male elephant was clearly visible; the female elephant’s vocalisations had been to do with him, not with the child.  He strode around a while but kept his distance while it was still daylight.  The following night we briefly spotted him somewhat closer by torchlight as he passed by the accommodation huts on the other side of the camp.  Perhaps I should mention at this juncture that the camp does not have any form of perimeter fence.

The following day’s activities while still enjoyable were unsurprisingly a little less gripping than those of our first afternoon.  Our repeat elephant safari in the early morning was scenically beautiful, our nature walk taught us about some of the local plants, the Elephant Briefing shed more light on the magnificent beasts and our jungle drive showed us further beautiful scenery but we saw little in terms of major wildlife save for tracks and spoor.  We squeezed in a brief early morning walk with bird-watching before leaving the next day and mounting an other Greenline bus for six hours further driving back to Kathmandu.  The jungle of Royal Chitwan National Park will hold a particular place in my memory.

Early morning elephant safari

The Lonely Planet guide to Nepal writes some pretty stark words about Royal Chitwan National Park and reading them during the writing of this posting makes me all the more grateful that I was able to see fresh tigers’ footprints and live rhino during my fleeting visit.  Where territory is disputed between people and nature the balance between humans and wildlife seldom seems to swing away from the humans’ favour and there have been few exceptions in the history of Chitwan.  I have followed a friend’s recommendation to learn about organisations such as WWF and EarthWatch who do intelligent conservation work in places such as Chitwan and I urge you to do the same.

The Pleasures of Pokhara (Off-Peak)

We arrived back in Pokhara feeling hot, travel-weary and keen to be reacquainted with a few home comforts in our lodgings.  Callum had booked us into the Hotel Barahi knowing from previous experience that it was a good one and it did not disappoint.  A few lengths of the swimming pool and a long hot shower helped me feel a lot more human (albeit still a very stiff and tired one) as we stepped out into the warm evening in search of dinner.

Pokhara is situated next to a large lake (Nepal’s second largest to be precise: Phewa Tal) and the long road running parallel with the shore is essentially a tourist strip of cafés, restaurants, bars and tourist-oriented shops.  Perceived danger due to political instability has seen a steep decline in tourist traffic nationwide over recent years and walking down the street I could imagine that Pokhara was used to seeing ten times as many people out in the evening air than were walking with us that night.  We made our first stop at the Monsoon Bar to start the night with B-52 cocktails and thereby observe a tradition that Callum has been following since several visits ago.  We then dined at the Boomerang after a leisurely stroll and later retired for the night with smiles on our faces.

The following day dawned bright and warm and it was time to gain some altitude again only this time we were not walking.  Several of the ‘adventure sports’ are offered in Nepal and while the world’s second highest bungee jump was too far off our route to fit into the schedule we thought that having paragliding right on the doorstep was an opportunity not to be missed.  The same company that arranged our trek also booked our flights so it was easy to stroll to their office, climb into the back of a long-wheelbase Mahindra four-by-four and set off up the nearest steep hillside.

The flights were tandem flights with experienced pilots and I found myself paired off with Jamie from Swindon (isn’t it a small world?).  His briefing was concise and his instructions for take-off simple: a couple of strong strides to start moving as the wing goes up then keep running until lifted clear of the ground and don’t try to jump.  Simple eh?  To be fair it was that simple but with me being relatively heavy for a tandem passenger it became a matter of running off the end of the short launch slope and letting the wing arrest our fall rather than getting a proper lift-off: good for the adrenal glands.

Up in the air it was marvellous to sit back, enjoy the view and hear nothing but the rush of the wind and the gentle beep-beep-beep of the ascent-rate indicator.  We watched the larger birds of prey to gain an insight into where the thermals were and worked hard using what little lift was available in the morning air to climb well.  Towards the end of the flight we headed out over the lake and I took the controls for a few minutes before Jamie polished off with a brief flurry of aerobatics and a finely measured landing near the shore.  We were up for nearly an hour but it barely felt like it had been half as long.  Jamie divides his year between Nepal, America and Australia following the seasons.  A change in employment seemed very tempting that morning.

After lunch we took a brief taxi ride out of town to visit the International Mountain Museum, some parts of which were illuminating while others were collecting dust like neglected afterthoughts.  Back at Lakeside we chose to conclude the day with an hour’s boating on the lake as the sun went down.  The water was mirror smooth and I enjoyed refreshing my paddling skills while we made an unhurried navigation round the island bearing the Varahi Mandir Hindu temple and crossed the lake.

Englishman Afloat (picture courtesy of Callum Newman)

Dinner on our final night in town could only be local lake fish and the restaurant we chose served an excellent meal.  The waiter was not able to tell us the name of the fish and as it was served filleted there was no way of identifying it on the plate either but whatever it was it was fresh and flavoursome.

Finally to bed in preparation for an other early start and a bus ride to Chitwan.  Next stop jungle.

Himalayas for Beginners

It was agreed very early on that some sort of foray into the mountains was a must; they are some of the biggest ones in the world after all.  Fortunately Callum has trekked a few miles and scaled a few peaks in his time and was hugely generous in his supply of advice, equipment and support to a pair of novices.

With the Himalayas being a highly popular tourist destination it is possible to tailor virtually everything to your desires, from spending weeks self-sufficient in the wilds to a few days strolling from teahouse to teahouse in the foothills with a train of porters carrying everything including the kitchen sink behind you.  Our itinerary erred safely towards the latter but we set ourselves a fairly challenging schedule considering the terrain: fifty-five kilometres at elevations ranging from 1000 to 3200 metres in four days when some people allow six.  We chose to stay in teahouses and took a guide and one porter to share between the three of us but as this was the first decent exercise I would see since leaving England I elected to carry almost all of my supplies in my own pack (safe in the knowledge that I could fall back on the porter if it turned out I had overcooked it).  My Gerber tool was in my pack and I had read a few salient chapters from my copy of Essential Bushcraft during the journey from Baku: I was ready for anything.

Kathmandu is in the middle of a large valley, towards the north side of which Pokhara is a popular staging town for reaching Annapurna range of the Himalayas and you can fly between the two by light aircraft in well under an hour.  As they have the fastest ‘planes on the route we booked our flights with Yeti Airlines but other fabulous names to choose from include Buddha Airlines and; if they get back into business as suggested; Cosmic Airlines.  Sitting on the starboard side of the dinky Jetstream 45 ‘plane gave us a superb view of the mountains while our stewardess miraculously found time to distribute peanuts, cola, sweets and; most importantly; cotton wool earplugs during the twenty-five minute flight time.

Once landed at Pokhara’s similarly tiny airport we were met by our guide, Jeevan and our porter, Budi (apologies for any spelling inaccuracies): two fine fellows who completed our travelling party in very good-humoured style.  After a couple of brief stops in town to collect my hired sleeping bag and change some money we set off for Nayapul: the set-down point for our trek.  The drive lasted about an hour, during which time we encountered beautiful mountain gorge scenery, little boys selling crimson red rhododendrons by the roadside (Nepal’s national flower) and a water buffalo running straight for us as we rounded a bend (no animals were hurt in the making of this blog posting).

Arrival at Nayapul was easy to judge as the open road suddenly became hemmed in by an unbroken line of wood frame and corrugated metal that housed numerous shops and trading posts.  The main street of Nayapul (a dirt track leading down from the road to the river) was much the same but only lasted ten minutes or so, soon after which we crossed a suspension bridge to the opposite bank and more open territory.  The trek had begun.

We got off to a gentle start.  Around an hour of mostly flat terrain following the river lead us to Birethani (1050m) where we stopped for lunch.  Birethani is a gateway on the edge of the Annapurna Conservation Area and a fork in the road where several trekking routes start, finish and cross.  From here we headed north-west along a lesser river valley to follow the Ghorepani/Ghandruk triangle in a clockwise direction; our destination for the first night’s stop: Tikhedhunga (1575m).

We followed a road of roughly dressed stone through a terraced, agricultural landscape and it soon became clear that while a Londoner could say that we were walking through the wilderness we were actually on one of the main trunk roads of the area.  When we hit heavy traffic it was caused by numbers of water buffalo or goats (or a small group of other tourists) rather than cars.  Electricity reaches the numerous villages and dwellings by cable but everything else arrives on foot.  We saw people carrying loads as large as themselves on their backs using head-straps (kitchen sink-sized trekker packs included) but the real Eddie Stobart/Willi Betz haulier of the area is the mule train.  On first encounter it was puzzling to hear what sounded like bass-tuned sleigh bells in the middle of the green Himalayan Spring but when the lead animal rounded the bend all became clear.  Carrying anything from sacks of dry goods to cylinders of propane gas, the first of anything up to a dozen animals will come plodding past you with its companions sometimes strung out many metres behind, all following the sound of the bells.  The mule driver usually comes last; an occasional cause of delay in a mule train traffic jam on particularly narrow tracks and believe me, you can come across these animals covering the most challenging terrain (perhaps the original “best four by four by far”?).

The Open Road, Annapurna-style and Mule Train Traffic

We made good time to Tikhedhunga and arrived feeling well exercised but not overly so.  Repairing to the terrace for a quick round of Nepali chiya (tea with so much milk and sugar it makes builders’ tea look like water) soon revived us and we set about preparing for the evening.  I will warn my sensitive compatriots now: a teahouse in Nepal bears little resemblance to the premises of the same name in England.  A room for the night can be no more than a small cell made of wood with walls about an eighth of an inch thick and no furnishing save for a simple bed and perhaps a small table.  Nepali mountain people are hardy folk with very little by way of ‘modern’ building materials at their disposal and they do a superb job in constructing what they do; bear in mind that a similar degree of hardiness may be required of the visitor in certain establishments.  Personally I was perfectly happy with the accommodation: it was a warm, dry night spent in a picturesque Himalayan valley.

Come the morning I was less happy with the cockerel that seemed to be announcing daybreak from a vantage point only twelve inches from my ear but seeing as we had a good day’s walking ahead of us I endeavoured to thank him.  Day Two was our serious climbing day.  As we set out into the crisp morning air and crossed a couple of suspension bridges Jeevan cheerfully announced that we had three thousand seven hundred and fifty-eight steps to climb.  Can’t say I was jumping for joy at the prospect; don’t think either of the other two was either but the superb sunlit views down the valley kept our spirits up.

Three thousand seven hundred and fifty-eight steps later we reached the village of Ulleri (2073m).  We were still many hours, many kilometres and many steps away from our destination.  We were also pretty knackered and thinking rather dark thoughts about the joker who decided to allegedly count all those steps so far and then leave us with umpteen thousand uncounted steps between us and our beds for the night.  One sobering thought that helped us keep a perspective: during our climb we were frequently passed by primary school children in neat uniforms skipping down the steps.  According to Jeevan they travel the full set of steps down and then up again every school day (six days a week) and once they reach secondary school age they add an extra hour in each direction to reach a school further down the valley.  Try telling that to today’s London child who gets driven two hundred yards down the road to school and back by Mother Monday to Friday.

View along the valley from near Ulleri

As we climbed out of Ulleri the number of dwellings dwindled, the track became rougher and steeper and we could start to feel that we were leaving the main population behind us.  Our path took us up through beautiful rhododendron forest (not quite in full bloom alas) into the cloud base and into the remnants of the Winter snowline.  Chiya was taken not on the terrace but in the fire-heated communal room when we finally reached our teahouse in Upper Ghorepani (2850m).  Dinner was accompanied by traditional dancing, Khukri XXX Rum and green chillies (don’t ask), all of which combined to take some of the altitudinal chill off my night’s sleep in the Andrew Flintoff ‘suite’ (all the rooms were named after international sports stars, with varying degrees of accuracy).

Day Three was scheduled to be our longest day in terms of distance and started with a pre-dawn ascent of Poon Hill (3210m) to watch the sun rise over the mountains.  Waking up so early in the dark with no light other than a torch at one’s disposal felt a little less than brilliant and wading through the already thick crowd of tourists scaling Poon Hill grated a little (it must be hellish in high season) but reaching the summit makes all the effort worthwhile: watching the sun rise over some the world’s highest mountains is an experience worth labouring for.  For crystal clear views one is recommended to visit in October just after the monsoon season has finished cleaning the air but let me assure you that the relatively cloud-shrouded March vista is a sight to behold.

At three thousand two hundred and ten metres Poon Hill was officially the highest point of our trek.  Apparently it is from three thousand metres upwards that people can start feeling the effects of altitude sickness but be it through brevity of elevation or strength of constitution none of us felt any illness.  We had the occasion to feel a distinct measure of the altitude though: there can’t be many places in the world where you can stand on solid ground and look down upon scheduled passenger aircraft at cruising altitude but we certainly looked down upon the Jonsom route ‘planes as we returned to Ghorepani.

Sunrise over the Annapurnas as viewed from Poon Hill

Just in case Poon Hill pre-dawn had not been challenge enough the rest of our longest day threw almost everything at us.  Leaving Ghorepani we started by walking through rhododendron forest and flirting with the snowline atop sun-warmed ridges looking out over sprawling vistas.  Hugely steep descents and ascents of sheer-sided valleys soon followed though, our travel made at once glorious by the increasingly flowering rhododendron trees and perilous by the heavy rain and even hail showers that made the earth trails treacherous as we descended below the cloud base once more.   By the time we reached Ghandruk (1950m) in the late afternoon my thigh muscles and my knee caps knew I had descended twelve hundred metres the hard way and I was ready to collapse.

The advantage of the day’s rain became clear the following morning when we woke up to breath-taking clear views of the snow-capped mountains in bright sunshine and a near-cloudless sky.  As we continued our descent towards Birethani and Nayapul we started our day on eye level with the eagles ascending the morning thermals.  The pains in our bodies were far from assuaged by the signs we saw declaring that we had twelve thousand steps to cover before reaching Birethani but we didn’t care.  The sun was warm, the views were fantastic and the knowledge that we were in the process of successfully completing a full and varied journey through the Himalayas; even if but a small corner of them; was enough to keep our mood buoyant.

Returning to Nayapul’s dirt street in the early afternoon felt like arriving in a metropolis after the relative solitude of Ghandruk in the morning.  The minibus drive along the open stretches of mountain road provided just enough of a cushion to re-adjust as we headed back to Pokhara.

Rhododendron Forest and Snow-Capped Peaks

First Stop: Kathmandu

We walked out of Kathmandu Airport into warm early afternoon sunshine to be met by our host, Callum: Leyla’s good friend of several years’ standing, instigator of our visit and thoroughly good bloke.  While driving us to his apartment he introduced us to the city with a few practical pointers so it seems fit that I should do the same:

Civil Disquiet
The world’s only recorded Hindu kingdom has been bouncing between democracy and autocracy via several steps in between for a few years now with the “Maoist insurgency” being a more publicised aspect of the situation recently.  On the ground this makes bunds (similar to general strikes) a common occurrence leading to loss of such things as open shops and public transport and manifestation of demonstrations that often make main roads within the diminutive city impassable.  Such a demonstration was taking place when we arrived and the death of a pedestrian in a road traffic accident precipitated similar reaction a few days later, during which we witnessed a couple of young men very casually fuelling and lighting a couple of motorbike tyres that they then cast nonchalantly in front of our vehicle adding an extra degree of challenge to our navigation.

Creature Comforts
While Kathmandu is a charming city there are various reminders that it has had neither the politically settled time nor the money to develop a world-leading infrastructure.  Be prepared for the rivers that cross the city to smell like the open sewers that they are when you cross them.  The area is powered by hydro-electricity and the growing population’s demand means the only strong supply is now during the monsoon season: be aware of the frequently updated timetables that advise of the times when each district of the city is due to have its electricity switched off for several hours a day six days a week (compared to the unannounced cuts I experience here in Baku it’s surprisingly easy to live with).  There is open internet access in Kathmandu but when it comes to mobile ‘phone coverage check with your network provider.  Neither my British (T-Mobile) nor my Azeri (Azercell) ‘phone was granted access to either of the two Nepali networks they detected.  I did however meet a British chap in Delhi on the way home who said his O2 ‘phone had connected with no difficulty.  If you wish to hire a motorbike (Lonely Planet states that there are no car hire firms in Kathmandu) check the availability of petrol.  During our visit there was an acute shortage of fuel and queues of vehicles at the few serving fuel stations in the city literally ran into the hundreds every day.

Crosstown Travel
Kathmandu is just about small enough to walk from start to finish if you have the time and the energy.  For the rest of us the public transport works up through four tiers.  Cycle rickshaws are a colourful and leisurely way to cover short distances; be prepared to haggle over the fare.  Tempos are based on the same little three-wheeler tuk-tuk taxi’s made famous by such films as James Bond’s “Octopussy” only in this instance they have seats and hang-on space for a dozen or so people rather than just two or three.  We were advised not to try one but I am happy to believe that they are the cheapest way to get cross-town relatively quickly.  Minibuses are a bit random in that they appear to be unregulated and there are no obvious designated stops for them but as long as you check the destination with the driver and/or the youth who often performs the role of conductor you can flag one down virtually anywhere and get from A to B for ten Nepali Rupees (about eight pence sterling).  Taxis are tiny (see earlier posting) but obviously provide the most flexibility in terms of route.  They are fitted with reasonable meters but drivers can be reluctant to use them during evenings and other times such as fuel shortages (see above) – be prepared to haggle in such instances.

Streetlife, Bhaktapur

In The Meantime…
Those are but details: get on with meeting the city and you should soon find yourself drawn into a wealth of colour, aroma, religion, culture, history, hustle and bustle.  Along dusty narrow streets numerous deep, dark little shops with tiny frontages spill goods of all hues onto the streets: bright bolts of cloth from haberdashers, radiantly fresh vegetables from grocers, gleaming metal kitchenware from ironmongers.  Smells of cooking with garlic and pungent spices, incense burning at temples and the smoke from a hundred different wood fires intertwine at every alley way.  With Hinduism or Buddhism being a major part of daily life in Nepal there is a temple or shrine seemingly on every corner, ranging in size from a few feet tall to a major building plus attendant monasteries.  Nepal is the birthplace of ‘pagoda architecture’ and many surviving older structures have the familiar several four-sided, tiled, pitched roofs becoming smaller with each higher storey.  These intricately crafted, centuries-old buildings in ochre-red brick and dark hardwood jostle cheek by jowl with modern, rectilinear grey concrete ones.  People wearing anything from traditional dress to European football strips go unhurriedly about their business, the peace only disrupted by bicycle bells and motorbike horns as their riders rush forth in the belief that no street is too narrow nor crowd too thick to hinder their progress.

The Golden Temple, Patan

Step out of the tiny streets into the broader, traffic-bearing thoroughfares and the presence of motor vehicles immediately makes itself felt through a litany of beeping horns as drivers, riders and pedestrians weave in and out of each other with seemingly reckless but measured manoeuvres.  The pavements are in very good repair (I mention this chiefly in contrast to those of Baku which are often shockingly bad) and in the city’s commercial hot spots they carry tight-knit crowds of people who flow round endless pitches of street sellers like water round rocks.  Stepping in and out of the fast-moving throng takes some practice and timing but thankfully never involves any aggression, or embarrassment.  On the streets of Kathmandu it feels like everybody is equal and everybody from the begging little boy to the lumbering English oaf has a fair chance to make his way through; compared to streets I have walked elsewhere I found this most refreshing.  What price humility?

It’s not just the arriving…

When you are flying on a budget the process of getting from Azerbaijan to Nepal and back is an event in itself.  The inexpensive option in this case was Uzbekistan Airways which resulted in a route of Baku-Tashkent-Delhi-Kathmandu return; switching to Jet Airways between Delhi and Kathmandu; and enduring some moderately severe transit periods.

Initial impressions were good as we boarded at Baku: the aircraft was small (an Avro RJ85) but the seats were larger and better spaced than anything I’ve seen British Airways offer in the back of the Airbuses on their London-Baku service.  The feel-good factor was mildly dented once the bar service had commenced and it transpired that the only alcohol on offer was a “Gold Standard” Uzbekistani red wine that tasted anything but.  It suited the meal though.  The tray arrived with a cold sausage, a tomato, a bread roll, a bag of dried apricots and the usual butter, condiments and so on.  The main dish followed close behind, it’s foil lid in place as if to make you feel like the lucky recipient of the package in the final round of a game of pass the parcel.  Lifting the lid revealed what might best be called Chainsaw Chicken: a lump of refrigerated greasy poultry that had been cleanly chopped from a cooked bird using methods more recognisable to a lumberjack than to a butcher.  It sat alone in the tray with neither vegetables nor garnish to accompany it looking very disgruntled – a look no doubt mirrored by most who beheld the sight.

After a little less than three hours flying time we arrived in Tashkent where we were due to spend a similar period in transit before departing for Delhi.  It was approaching nine in the evening local time.  Tashkent Transit Hall welcomes you up the steps to the door with a red carpet and then deposits you in a smoke-filled, Soviet-era grey box the moment you cross the threshold.  The faux-marble floors are grey, the walls with their faux-columns are grey, the wood panelling and plants are all plastic and so tired they almost look grey too.  An assortment of wall-mounted televisions tuned to different stations provide a cacophonous clashing soundtrack as you wander disconsolately around the place in search of comfort or sustenance.  There is one bar-cum-restaurant with such a limited selection to offer they have decided to dispense with the menu.  Having sampled the national wine I was curious to try the beer.  A bottle of Azia (it was barely beer) and a Coke cost four US dollars, as did an hour on the internet (I declined), as did the pack of cards in the madly over-priced duty free shop (it is still in the plastic wrapper).  Departure for Delhi came not a moment too soon.

Tashkent to Delhi by Boeing 737 only takes about two and a half hours.  This was just as well because the seating arrangement was back to the usual pack-‘em-like-sardines style and the bar was completely dry.  On the plus side the meal improved: the lone tomato was joined by a gherkin and the Chainsaw Chicken was replaced by a mildly potent curry with rice.

We landed in Delhi at half past three in the morning local time with eight hours to kill before our Kathmandu departure.  Following the sign to the Transit Lounge we were stopped at the door and asked about our itinerary, at which point the fun began.  Moments later we were escorted downstairs and sat down in a corner of the immigration hall.  A man then relieved us of our passports, our tickets and our baggage receipts and disappeared for nearly an hour.  He returned with our documents and fresh baggage receipts but no boarding cards and ushered us back upstairs to the Transit Lounge door.  Here we were signed into a book before finally being admitted to the Lounge.  We had been told that we should speak to Uzbekistan Airways staff in the Lounge to receive our boarding cards.  After asking several random badge-wearing individuals we learned that there were no airline desks in the Transit Lounge and that the airline reps would come and find us a couple of hours before the flight was due to take off.  Presented with this (dis)organisational fait accompli we took stock of our surroundings and worked out how best survive the small hours.

Transit Lounge is a very grand name to give to a piece of no-mans-land between the departures area and the gates.  This particular part of Delhi Airport looked about as old and weary as parts of Heathrow just with higher ceilings.  Many of the shops and services areas were building sites behind screens so renovation is obviously in progress but the current state of the place was rather dispiriting in the dead of night when feeling tired and thirsty.

Salvation appeared to be at hand when I spotted a couple of lounges with British Airways’ insignia next to the doors: my frequent flier card could do its bit.  It transpired that neither lounge was a ‘normal’ BA lounge and I required a special invitation to enter.  Not prepared to give up that easily I tracked down a BA rep and managed to secure the required invitation after a couple of minutes of little-boy-lost conversation and a few smiles.  Relative peace and quiet and some marginally less uncomfortable chairs to sleep in were ours.

After some fitful dozing and a light breakfast we went back out into no-mans-land late morning to track down an Uzbekistan Airways rep and secure boarding cards.  Interrogating an other selection of random badge-wearing individuals soon produced the required person and he in turn repeated the run-away-with-the-documents routine before returning with them plus boarding cards.  Quite how an airport the size of Delhi manages to operate on such a basis I don’t know; I am just glad that the process was successful.

Flying Jet Airways at lunchtime could almost be an experience specifically designed as a tonic for people who have just got off an Uzbekistan Airways flight.  First offering once the seatbelt signs had been turned off was tray upon tray of Heineken beer (the best choice as the ‘fresh’ lime juice that came afterwards was awful).  The meal was then a very good curry served in a china dish with metal cutlery wrapped in a cloth napkin: refreshing stuff after several years of plastic and paper everything when flying nearer the UK.  Air travel may have ceased to be exclusive many years ago but there is no reason why it should become uncivilised.  Hats off to Jet Airways: after an hour and a half of their hospitality we arrived in Kathmandu feeling refreshed and ready to explore.


Wot no Yak

Here begins my much belated update process having now returned from Nepal.  I realise that proper blogging is supposed to have a certain live, of-the-minute quality to it and I recognised that this was going to be difficult to achieve when there are no internet cafés in the Himalayas.  I should have guessed that there would be a similar lack of online infrastructure in ‘jungle’ of the Royal Chitwan National Park too but somehow managed not to.  As it was also impossible to get my mobile ‘phone connected to either of the Nepali networks I have spent two weeks almost entirely isolated from ‘the outside world’: a refreshing experience in many ways but one that has left me with a little bit of catching up to do.

Trying to write a daily diary retrospectively looks unlikely to produce any significant results so I will try dividing the trip into chapters by subject.  Let’s see how it goes…