Thursday, 3 December 2015

2015 - November - Trek to Annapurna Base Camp

The view from our first 'guest house' in Ghandrouk

The trek to Annapurna Base Camp is popular but quite tough. We hadn't intended to do it but got a bit carried away, so rented some extra boots, poles, jackets and so on, and set off. 

Our first stop was Ghandrouk, which is a sizeable Gorung village - one of the communities the Gurkha soldiers come from - our guest house had proud photographs of local men in enormous British Army  shorts.  Since Joanna Lumley successfully obtained rights for ex-Gurkhas to move to Britain, some of the properties have been abandoned.  The road stops a few miles before Ghandrouk, and after that everything has to carried up on the backs of mules or people.

The view from Chomroung at lunch on day 2 - we've
got to get across to the spot half-way up the right-hand side of
the opposite hill for our guest-house

The good news is that the trek just involves following a river for 2 miles – the bad news is that the 2 miles is vertical, from 1100 metres to 4100 metres. So it’s 4 days of slog upwards, quite a lot of it on steps.

Even this would not be so bad if the path just kept on going upwards, but there are huge valleys to cross - after Chomroung we were staying on the hill opposite, but first had to plunge down to cross a river on a spindley bridge.  The valley was more than 300 metres deep, like climbing down and up the Eifel tower.  After two of these in a day, it all gets a bit wearing. 

I was grateful for my twin poles to protect my knees, but tough Kate just scorned such artificial support.

End of Day 3 - distant view of Deurali where we spent the night.  Kate holding my poles.

We stayed in 'guest houses', which are situated about 2 hours apart. Basic rooms with a couple of beds for about £2 a night, but relatively expensive food - which is hardly surprising as everything has to be carried up on the backs of porters.  Deurali even had a huge Italian expresso machine, which sadly was not working.

The usual wonderful spelling - anyone for an Apple Fitter or a Roasty?  But everything from Tuborg beer to Pringles was available, at a price.  The menus were basically a choice between spaghetti, noodles, macaroni or chow mein - all very filling and all remarkably similar.

There was usually wifi, and even hot showers, or at least a bucket of hot water.  But it was cold at night, and we asked for extra blankets (well I did, being the feebler member of the party). 
End of Day 4 - reaching Annapurna Base Camp at 4100 metres with Padam and Ramesh.
Being old and having money, we supported the local economy by having both a guide and a porter, which was probably unnecessary but meant we carried almost nothing, and this makes a difference when going up and down miles of steep stone steps.  Our guide, Padam, was wonderful and patient, while Ramesh our porter just kept on smiling and enjoying the trip, taking more pictures than we did. 

The view from above Annapurna Base Camp - prayer flags next to the glacier, and guest houses with a great view. 
The area around Annapurna Base Camp (or ABC as it is known) is also known as Annapurna Sanctuary - surrounded by peaks up to 8000 metres, confusingly called Annapurna 1, Annapurna 2 etc.  Tough if you climbed the wrong one.  The whole area is dotted with memorials to people who have died there - the area is very popular with Koreans, and three of their top climbers disappeared on Annapurna 1 in 2011.

At 4100 metres, the base camp is just half-way to the top of Annapurna, but we felt no inclination at all to go further.

The altitude was not too bad as we had taken 4 days to get there - a slight headache and thirst.  Wonderful sunset, moonrise and sunrise.

Panorama from Base Camp -

With some relief, walking down the valley on Day 5.
We were so lucky with the weather - fine days and not too hot.  It could have rained or snowed, and we had all the kit, which we fortunately did not have to carry and so could just  focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

Hot springs at Jinhu at the end of Day 6 - easy to throw ourselves in the icy river

We just plodded on, for about 6 hours a day, stopping at guest houses for morning tea and lunch.  All very civilised, and a bit like doing the South West Coast Path, but without the cream teas, and with some tough ups and downs.

Padam leads us out at the end of Day 7
The earthquakes, and the current problems with fuel and cooking gas, mean that tourists have been advised to avoid Nepal and the country is suffering even more because of this. There was even a strike organised by the Maoists on the day we walked out, and we had trouble getting a tourist bus to take us back to Pokhara.  

But we have to admit that all this disturbance was to our advantage - this is generally a very busy route, with crowded guest houses and droves of trekkers, but we saw relatively few people and had the pick of the rooms.  And, as usual in Nepal, everyone was helpful and kind.  A great trip.

And if you need a great guide in Nepal, please contact Padam Raj Adhikari on .

Saturday, 7 November 2015

2015 - November - Ceremony at Bouddranath

Bouddha, Kathmandu, Nepal

The first morning here we went down to the damaged Stupa, sad to see the state it was in, with all the brick structure on top of dome demolished. But we also found huge crowds, mobs of monks, and a row of high lamas on thrones of varying highness.

Clearly something big about to happen.  We had no idea what, but jostled among the river of people, and found a 'band' waiting for things to start.

Ladies were passing round butter tea from huge kettles - an acquired taste.

The big hats were out, and the horns ready, but we still did not know what was going on.

Then we realised that the monks on the back of a truck were collecting offerings from the crowd, stuffing the katas (traditional silk scarves) into a hollow container, and separating out the money.  We quickly bought a kata, Kate shoved her way to the front in good Tibetan style, threw it to them, and in it went. 

We finally realised that this was all going to go into the stupa before it was restored, and felt so lucky to be able to participate.

Just as well we moved quickly, as suddenly the musicians started up.  The boy on the left had the job of carrying the front of the trumpets, and didn't seem too pleased about it.  No ear-protection provided.

More monks piled onto the truck, clearly having a great time as the procession pushed through the crowd, preceded by the musicians making a wonderful noise.  They all went right round the stupa, and then a crane lifted the pillar onto the platform below the dome.

The issue was, how were they going to get it up to the top?  We got a ringside seat in a cafe, and, along with everyone else, settled down to see if it would all end in disaster.

The organisation was excellent, although a health-and-safety nightmare. Muscular young monks clambered over the rubble, tying the pillar to a chain that was strung between the crane and the top, where a cheerful gang stood and hauled it up.  

Fortunately it was not too heavy, and so nobody was pulled off the top, and it slid up the dome rather rapidly - it should have been slower for the full dramatic effect.  But it arrived at the top to huge applause, from both the crowd and a huge variety of monks and nuns, including the beautiful pink robes from Burma. 

And there it is now, sticking up in the air, waiting for the new brick pyramid to be rebuilt around it. And our little offering will be inside.

Monday, 26 October 2015

2015 October - Through the Kangra Valley

We went down into the Kangra Valley which runs below Dharamsala to stay on the Darang Tea Estate.  This turned out to be a real 'homestay' - living in a room in the bungalow, eating with the family (lots of their fruit and veg), and shouting at rather deaf but still very bright 93-year-old granny.  Even a chota peg before dinner. 

Here we are with Naveen and Neera, with the tea plantation behind.  This is using my selfie stick, which is taking all my concentration.
We went off to the Sherabling Tibetan monastery which was very fancy - in fact 'bling' is the right term.  The Dalai Lama's temple in Macleod Ganj is very modest indeed, but this was the full business - big campus in a forest, huge buildings, and the main temple and courtyard that had all been roofed in.   Got to see some great practice - huge drums, trumpets, and a massive gong to get the monks back from their break.
                      Then, rather bizarrely, we headed off the the landing site of the World Para-gliding championships which were due to start the next day at Bir, just down the road.  All very beautiful and Himalayan, with a sky full of practicing paragliders, although the landing site was rather Indian, with stray dogs, chai stalls etc. And, in spite of its name, Bir was a dry town and so I am not sure how all those para-gliders felt about not getting a drink at the end of the day.

The next day came the major treat - a ride on the Kangra Valley Railway, a 100-mile narrow gauge built by the British in 1929, and still going strong.  Worked out the time-table and fares, which was 10 rupees each (10p).  

The average speed of the train was less than 20 mph, and it was clean and cool inside.  But clearly the thing to do was to sit on the step as we trundled along. Which I did.  Some of the landscape was spectacular - rattling along looking down gorges in the sunshine.

Finally, if the video works, it shows us going over the curved viaduct just before Jwalamukhi Road - such excitement!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

2015 October - Up the local mountain from Macleod Ganj

This is the view looking up from Triund, which at 3000m is 1000m above Macleod Ganj - that 1000m is a few-hours slog up a good path.  Triund is a 'base-camp' for further exploration, with tents and rooms to rent, and inevitable chai-tents. We had booked a guide to take us up towards the Andrahar Pass at 4300m - but we were not going to attempt that.

Here is the memsahib in the morning at the lodge we had booked through Summit Adventures - fairly rudimentary  but a bed and a warm sleeping bag, which was needed.  Had a snooze in the afternoon and woke to have pakora and chai in bed, which was a bit of a treat.  

The earth toilet in a small tent reminded us of trekking, similarly the joy of 'tent-tea' in the morning.  But happy not to be sleeping in a tent.                                     

The path leads steeply up from Triund along a steep cliff through fine forest which eventually peter out into a slightly desolate landscape of large granite rocks interspersed with grass, rather like the Dolomites. 

The mist started thickening, but then down towards us came a huge herd of goats which had been led over the pass that morning. They were, not surprisingly, exhausted as they had been on the move since 5am in incredibly inhospitable terrain.  The shepherd was carrying the youngest goat, and we both had a cuddle.  Then it just sat looking a bit pathetic with a 'carry-me' expression, until it got picked up again.


We got to the glacier, which was  grubby and slippery.  Then on up an almost vertical path to the Lahesh cave at 3500m, and that was quite far enough.  Very happy to turn back - the weather was grim and I did not envy the people we saw carrying on.

Met the goats again on the way down, who had collapsed in heaps where the grass started, and were due to stay there and recover.  We just stepped through them, like that scene at the end of The Birds.

 The next day we started down happily the path from Triund, when there was the most dramatic storm  - huge lightning flashes, deafening thunder and hailstones like large ballbearings.  Almost frightening. We plodded on, Kate helpfully pointing out that it all was transient, but we got very wet and cold, not being properly eqipped for storm and tempest. Briefly stopped at a chai-stall only to find a group sheltering who were on a charity trek for Alder Hey hospital.

We were very relieved to be greeted by a blast of hot air as we walked down to Dharamkot, and looked forward to a latte and pancake, just like Ice Cold in Alex.  But the first cafes we came to had no power, so no latte  - this never happened to John Mills and his Carlsberg. But eventually found someone who could provide the goodies.

Friday, 2 October 2015

2015 - September - raining in Amritsar

 September 2015 Amritsar

My selfie-stick had come apart, and so we got directed to a warren of little shops that did everything electronic. They managed to re-solder it, and then mend my Mac charger, and sell us a 4-pin plug converter, all for 170 Rupees (£1.70), and refused to take more.  The picture is an unposed test of the stick.

But then the rain came down - real monsoon style, and the streets filled up.  

Traffic was a shambles, and in the end our auto-rickshaw driver just gave up, and passed us over to a cycle-rickshaw. 


We had been reluctant to take the cycle-rickshaws as they seemed to much like something out of the Raj, but they were the only practical way to get through the streets.   

We were fine, but people were stuck pushing their conked-out motorbikes through a foot of water.  The streets were full of potholes which became invisible, and even open drains - locals put little red flags up as warnings.  I thought immediately of classic Laurel and Hardy scenes of walking through a puddle and disappearing, but it isn't so funny in real life - apparently people regularly just drop into the sewers as they are walking along.

In the evening we set out to eat at the 'Brothers Dhaba' - an Amritsar institution (a dhaba is midway between a cafe and restaurant, like a snack-bar, and Punjabi dhabas are famous - we saw them all over Kashmir and Dharamsala).  We had to take a cycle-rickshaw through the pitch-black flooded streets, it would have been lethal to try and walk.  And outside the Brothers Dhaba they even had a makeshift jetty so that customers could get in without wading.  We sat inside by the window, watching people struggle to get home.  Apparently these floods are a regular occurrence, the drains having been blocked by shabby road mending.

We were quite generous to the rickshaw-wallah, and after a good dinner we came out to find that he had waited the whole time to take us back to the hotel.  So we stepped daintily along the jetty and got home quite dry, feeling like the Sahib and Memsahib.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

2015 - September - at the Golden Temple

September 2015

The Golden Temple at Amritsar is an iconic structure, both as the centre of the Sikh faith and through watching Michael Palin's Himalaya.  It was just round the corner from our hotel and so we kept going back at different times of day - taking our shoes off and leaving them with efficient volunteers, taking a head cover from a basket outside, then into the main area with the central Harmandir Sahib sitting at the end of a covered causeway in the middle of the artificial lake.  

Wonderful, calm, but also full of families enjoying themselves, talking, taking pictures,  praying and bathing.  Stayed while the sun went down, just sitting and taking it in.  Difficult to imagine the surrounding buildings were all restored after the Indian army stormed the complex with tanks when it was held by Sikh separatists in 1984, with huge casualties on both sides, although the Indian army were under strict instructions not to hit the actual golden temple in the middle.

Meals are free, and so one morning we turned up for breakfast at the Temple.  Just followed the crowd, picking up a steel plate, bowl and utensils, and lined up on the floor in rows.  

Along come the buckets of dal, rice, and chapatis, and the food is slopped out.  Then this extraordinary machine is wheeled along by a finely-bearded man, dispensing water into bowls from a control like a bicycle brake.

We finished quickly as we did not want to be the only ones left after everyone had got up, and then thought we would help with the washing up.  We lined up at the 'first rinse' section, ladies one side (Kate is just visible in the picture above), gents the other, sloshing the plates and passing them rapidly to 'second rinse'.  Wonderful noisy efficient chaos, ending with thousands of clean plates lined up. Apparently they serve 30,000 meals a day, all free.

Just to end, I can't resist putting in some pictures of the fine tiling after a downpour of warm rain in the evening. Like optical illusions.

The Temple is intended to be open to people of all religions, and non-Sikhs were treated with great respect. When the sacred text was carried to its resting place at night, the heavy 'throne' is supported by mobs of volunteers who all want to help carry it -  we met a friendly Sikh from Burton who was almost overwhelmed with the joy of getting to help, and enthusiastically explained everything to us.  It felt a real privilege to be there.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

2015 September: With the nomads in Kashmir

September 18th 2015

Lazing on our houseboat in Srinagar was like something out of the Raj, but in spite of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's advice not to venture out of Srinagar, we wanted to see something of the Kashmir landscape.  Rahim suggested Naranag, which is a trekking spot around 90 minutes down the road from Srinagar to Ladakh, so off we went, weaving through the packed buses belching fumes. 

The roads were not made any safer by substantial flocks of sheep driven by families of Gujjars nomads who were on the move from their summer pastures down into the lowlands near Jammu for winter, a steady stream of brightly-dressed families with all their possessions carried on ponies.  

Beautiful Kashmir views

The countryside started looking rather Swiss (although not so obsessively neat and tidy), and we headed up into the hills until the road gave out in the trekking starting point of Naranag - once very popular but now we only say the Indian army on exercises.  We had a chai from a stall, and walked into a valley following the river.  The water was freezing.

Kate in a Kashmir alpine setting
We kept going through dense woods along the river until we came out into a clearing with a nomad camp, complete with tepees and tents from bits of tarpaulin.  Rahim got us invited into a tent with a family who gave us tea.  It was not polite to take pictures, so you must imagine us sitting on the ground being well and truly stared at by old men and some extraordinarily attractive young girls, with sharp features and piercing eyes (like the famous shot of the Afghan girl). They were fascinated by Kate, how she had let her hair go grey, and didn't wear any bangles and had a watch with a plastic strap, whereas they were fully adorned with all their jewelry.

Unprofessional picture of nomad camp with tarpaulin tents and tepee.
When Kate left the tent to put her boots on, all eyes followed her and everyone leaned in to catch every detail.  We showed family pictures on our phones. There were piles of roots drying in the sun that apparently were used in Ayurverdic medicine - they would sell these and their sheep near Jammu.  We said goodbye to a gang of teenage girls collecting berries in the forest - apparently they get education at each end of their annual move, with the school following them.  We felt like the ones with the odd lifestyle being studied, whereas they seemed utterly at ease and charming. 

A fine hot walk down the valley back to the car - at the end of a day's walking I usually treat myself to a pint of bitter and a packet of pork scratchings, but realised that this was not going to happen in this deeply Muslim area.

We negotiated the herds of sheep clogging up the roads, and got back to find there had been people shot near the line of control (LOC) between Indian and Pakistan-held Kashmir, which was about 30 miles from where we were.  But we had felt perfectly safe all day, although we saw no other Western tourists.