Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Following The Dream

Ever since I was last in Nepal and went paragliding I have told nearly everyone I have met that I had one thing that I really wanted to do.  I wanted to learn to paraglide.  Now that I had travelled to all countries I wished to visit I had one thing left to do.  So I returned to Nepal.

The first few days were a bit odd.  I really like Kathmandu, but having seen the sights I had little to actually do and it was also a huge culture shock after the peaceful paradise of Gili Air.  I had gone from beaches and horse carts to a busy city full of noise, smells, people & pollution.  Thankfully I was able to find a cooking class & tick off another cuisine.  While this was possibly the smallest class I have done (there were only three of us, including Dominique & Yvonne) it was one of the best.  Located in Amrit's house and using the family kitchen, there was not room for us to do any actual cooking, but we did get to make the Nepalese standards of momo's and dal bhat, a never ending buffet of rice, dal, vegetable curry and pickles which is continuously topped up in the restaurants (their capacity for eating rice is astounding!) and Celebration bread.

More importantly we were educated on Nepalese culture and truly welcomed into their home, to the extent that we were all invited to a wedding!  This turned out to be one of the best experiences of my journey so far.

After a few days getting accustomed to Nepal I headed out to Pokhara to start on the dream.  Which is also were it all went wrong.  First my backpack broke, then my clothes started to show signs of strain of travelling and slowly fall apart.  And then the worst: despite being told last year that you could paraglide all year around in Pokhara, and despite the visible signs of paragliders in the air, no one was doing lessons at this time.  The season was restricted to a few weeks in October and November.  I was rocked.  I had been looking forward to this for months, getting admittedly slightly more apprehensive & excited as the time got closer.  And now the dream was gone.  I had to come up with a new plan.

First I decided to do a small trek, 4 days.  I did not have enough time to take on one of the longer treks and still see other parts of Nepal.  I chose a trek to Poon Hill for beautiful vistas of the Annapurna range, and then to the village of Ghandruk.  Having spoken to people coming back off this trek it was apparently not very difficult with a easy to follow trail, many guesthouses along the way, as well as many other trekkers and guides so if I did get into any trouble, well, someone would be along soon to help.

Nepal likes a bit of bureaucracy in it's trekking areas, especially the Annapurna range where I would be venturing, so first I had to get my ACAP card from the office in Pokhara ($20) and TIMS card ($20), also supposedly from Pokhara but due to a strike none are being made (!?) so I was told to just ask for a receipt a the park entrance.

I packed what I needed for the 4 days into my day bag (and learning from Rinjani put my clothes and towel in a dry bag as well) and  took a taxi in the morning to Nayapul, the start point for all treks into the Annapurna region (a bus is available but I had had to wait for the TIMS office to open before leaving).  I sorted out my TIMS at the office in Berhenti, registered at the ACAP office & advised them of my route and headed off towards Ulleri at a decent pace - I was not keen on getting caught  in any heavy rains.  The road was an easy gravel road, not too steep, and with a fairly straight route up the valley I passed a handful of other walkers with their porters and guides.  Preferring my own pace I kept going.  Looking at the map I was aware that I would have a steep rise coming up so stopped for some very basic food & a bit of  a rest shortly before I felt it was needed.  It was.  The path had left the road and after crossing the river went rapidly up. Over 3200 steps led to Ulleri.  I had been given some trek poles in Kathmandu & was thoroughly grateful for the at this time.  For an hour I hauled myself up the steps, passing a few porters who clearly had better sense, but heavier loads.  The guesthouse at the top was a joy to my legs although I did think about heading for the next village, just to make the next days section shorter.  I am glad I did not.  30 minutes later the heavens opened for a good couple of hours.  Comfy & dry in my guesthouse, I dined on the ubiquitous Dal Baht but abstained from the much needed but highly expensive beer.  With nothing left to do, & finding myself to be the only guest I had an early night to prepare for the next day.

Which started quite early as I appeared to have developed an unwelcome habit of waking up at 4am.  I waited for sunrise and was rewarded with an early view of Annapurna South from my window.  No more inspiration was needed to get me going.  I spoke to the owner who told me it should take about 4-5 hours to reach Ghorepani, where I would start the next day for Poon Hill.  Wanting to arrive, again, before the rain did, I headed out a bit early.  I was also itching to be going.  There wasn't a lot to do in Ulleri.  The terrain for the second day was a bit different.  The steps continued for a short while, before the path undulated and winded through the forest and across streams.  I did not find many people ahead of me and so pushed on at my pace, mindfully choosing my steps, very much at peace with my body, my mind and the beautiful nature around me.  When I did pass people having a rest with their porters I was thankful of my decision to trek alone.  I chose my pace & when I would rest (which was rarely, just for water & photos).  In the late morning, totally absorbed in my environment, I turned a bend and saw a arch ahead of me welcoming me to Ghorepani - 2 hours earlier than expected or even intended.  I climbed through the village, signed in at the ACAP office, navigated my way through a group of pack donkeys just stood in the middle of the path and somewhat sheepishly checked in at my accommodation (which was just as empty as the night before as I had arrived so early).

After a bit of a rest and some lunch, and due to being at a bit of a loss at what to do, I decided to climb Poon Hill, just to see how long it would take in the morning (so as to optimise time in bed but not risk missing sunrise).  This is when it decided to rain.  So the view would still be a surprise in the morning.  At dinner I found that I was still the only person in the guesthouse.  With so many places to choose from we must have been thinly spread, but I can't even imagine what these small villages must be like during the peak season.

I awoke at what I thought was reasonably early, only to find it was already getting light.  I let myself out of the guesthouse and started the climb.  At the top of Poon Hill there was already quite a crowd, watching as the mountains slowly became clearer against the early morning sky.  It really does humble you to be in the presence of such enormous peaks knowing that they are still many miles, and many days trekking away (the Annapurna Base Camp trek takes another 4 days from Poon Hill just to get to the camp).

It also takes an amazingly long time for the sun to actually rise over 8000m peaks after full daylight, but it is one of the most incredible things I have seen (and fortunate - I was having a cup of coffee before going back to the guesthouse, taking my time.  I had just looked at the clouds rolling across the face of Annapurna South and thought 'well, that's it for the day...' when I turned back to Fishtail just as the sun appeared.  It took me a couple of seconds before I thought it may be a good idea to take a picture...)

If that's not enough to convince you to slow your life down & see what happens I don't know what is.  It's also another reason why drinking coffee is good for you!

After breakfast, day 3 of trekking.  Ghorepani to Ghandruk, with lunch at Thandapani.  This was the longest day, although even allowing for walking faster than the locals suggest I still got to Thandapani well ahead of schedule.  I did think I'd got lost at one point when the paths split, but after an hour or so and a few guesthouses later I was moderately sure I was going in the right direction.  I also acquired a dog as a guide for a while, who seemed more focused at trying to get me to fall over than anything else.  The morning was a wonderful walk, up and down ridges & valleys, through glades festooned with prayer flags.

I didn't actually care if I was lost or not.  The path would end up somewhere.  Thankfully it was Thandapani (where I managed to lose the dog while it slept) and then on to Ghandruk, a sizeable village perched on the top of the valley.  After coffee & a shower I relaxed for the afternoon, and a couple of hours later the unexpected happened - the dog turned up. It had followed my scent through the valleys for 2 hours.  It was now over 10 miles from where I had found it.  And very confused as I was clean, changed and it couldn't find the stench of the grimy trekker which had suddenly disappeared.  So it fell asleep again.

By morning it had (I assume) gone home.  And I was to as well.  Following the route along the side of the valley it soon went rapidly downhill via steps serving the village here.  It is said that it hurts more going downhill.  This is definitely true when it's steep.  Without my trek poles I don't know what state I would have been in.  I could barely drag myself back to Berhenti as it was. I fell into the first taxi I could find (still with energy enough to haggle a decent fare), slept back to Pokhara and went straight for a massage.  The most painful 2 hours I have experienced (I only wanted 90 minutes but apparently the masseuse felt this was not going to be enough time for her even start to help me) but it worked - the next day I could walk again! Kind of!

Leaving Pokhara I went south, to the plains, to Lumbini.  I wanted to see the birthplace of Buddha.  Lumbini seems only to exists due to this reason and has a few basic guesthouses.  There is little to see here to warrant more than a couple of nights.

The birthplace itself is marked by a flag stone inside the Maya Devi temple, itself situated within a beautiful garden with bodhi trees covered in prayer flags that Gautama Buddha would have meditated under and a pool where his mother went into labour.

It is very serene and I spent quite a while here before heading towards the World Peace Pagoda at the other end of a complex of international Buddhist monasteries.  The pagoda itself was quite nice.  The rest however beggared belief.  In what could be a monument to global peace, many countries have built monasteries here, some based on the designs you would expect to find in their on country.  The result is a collection of poor pastiches resembling little more than ornate embassies within a large building site.  Quite disappointing and no doubt largely due to the fact Nepal is not wealthy enough to realise what could be a very beautiful dream.

The next stop was Chitwan National Park for a bit of safari.  Getting there was a nightmare.  While tourist buses go straight to Chitwan from other places in Nepal, not so from Lumbini, its closest attraction.  The local bus was not built for western size people so for several hours I was a bit cramped.  It took 2 hours longer than expected, stopped everywhere for ages (once they even went looking for a passenger who wasn't at the stop they expected him at - a definite first as most drivers would just have left them behind).  The local bus does not go all the way either.  Dropping you at the nearest large town you need to change to a local minibus (nor does it drop you where the buses are, but where the taxi drivers stand who deny all existence of the buses).  This bus doesn't take you all the way either.  Another, even smaller, local bus takes you to the village where the safari resorts are located.  As they all have similar names, and I was supposed to be picked up from the tourist bus park, I did not risk being dropped somewhere randomly.  As it turned out I need not have worried.  That happened anyway.  The bus did not go to the tourist bus park so I was deposited, in the middle of a very hot afternoon and already a bit grumpy, 1km away.  When I finally stumbled in there was no one waiting for me.  I found a nice local man who called my resort & a driver promptly turned up & whisked me away.  I apologised in case I had delayed the days events for other people.  Not to worry, he said.  It was low season.  For the next 2 nights I was the only guest...

It was a full itinerary.  As it was just me I could drop things if I wanted (so no washing elephants as I had done this in Chiang Mai) and do other things instead (such as a jeep safari - it goes further than the elephants and gives you more chance to see more animals).  Over the next 2 days I saw lots of rhinoceroses, some within 10m, elephants, crocodiles and a vast array of birds.

Although I made it clear that I was not interested in doing an elephant trek, and much preferred the jeep safari I paid a little extra for, it was evident that the resorts have an agreement with the elephant farms to take people out.  So it was that on my last morning I found myself on top of a platform climbing onto a seat o the back of the elephant.  When I was in Chiang Mai a friend had told me she went on a trek like this after going to Woodys Elephant farm and found it to be a painful experience.  I fully agree with her.  The elephant was clearly not comfortable with us strapped to the back of her and the mahout had little interest in her well being, routinely beating her with a metak stick when she stopped to eat.  The trek itself was uninspiring, the route going through maze of paths within a relatively small area close to the village.  Little wildlife was to be found this close to human habitation, just a couple of herds of deer.  The jeep safari was much more interesting, and more importantly humane.  I was glad I had chosen to do this.

I was fortunate to be invited to a second Hindu festival whilst in Chitwan.  The child of a family close to the owners of the retreat was to celebrate Anna Prasana - a rite of passage to signify the first solid food that the child will eat.  This was held at the familys house in a small tribal village nearby.  The ceremony itself was only for the direct family, but I was honoured enough to be invited in the home of another Nepalese family at such a sacred time for them and share in their meal.  Including, finally, chickens feet (it wasn't worth the wait).

My second visit to Nepal was not what I had intended, but it did not disappoint with the surprises it gave me.  I have found the Nepalese people to be among the friendliest I have met and I am sure I will visit here again.  I still want to learn to paraglide and now I want to do even longer treks to more distant valleys and get closer to those peaks.

But I'll definitely go in the opposite direction.