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Archive for the ‘Nepal’ Category

When we first reached Kathmandu at the end of February the capital was still blanketed in late winter fogs and a cold breeze persisted during the day. It’s now the middle of May and the city has begun to swelter. The spring trekking season has come to an end and only a trickle of tourists now remain. The summer monsoons are not far away, but we are still here waiting for our Tibetan permits and Chinese visas to be approved.Crossing the Himalayas into Tibet and China is our only option if we are to reach Singapore without flying.

We must go north. The east is blocked by Burma which currently has no border crossings open. So it is with much relief that we finally receive the good news of our approval from Pradip. It has taken a couple of weeks longer than expected and put us behind schedule but our path to Singapore seems finally clear. This was possibly our last great concern, from a visa point of view at least. For the first time I begin to sense that we are going to make it.

A four wheel drive is waiting downstairs to transport us to the Tibetan frontier. For the second time on our journey we are forced to take an organised tour. The other being the three days we travelled through Turkmenistan to the Uzbekistan border. It’s not in accordance with how we wanted to travel but the rules of entering Tibet are simple…No independent travel permitted, an approved guide and private transport is required.

Rick is coming with us as far as Lhasa but Matt is flying back to the UK. Our time with him in Nepal has been too short but his visit much appreciated and a wonderful and unexpected surprise. He had promised over a year ago when we started in Africa to see us somewhere on the journey and he managed to keep his word.

Having spent almost three months here we are naturally sad to be leaving. Nepal has been a combination of difficult but rewarding days trekking over passes. Colossal views with cold mornings and colder nights high in the mountains. Long lazy days in Pokhara having long lazy breakfasts at Olive café. Sitting by the lake under the shade of Frangipani and Mango trees, contemplating what to do next. Fire and Ice pizzas, K-too pepper steaks and real chocolate milkshakes.

Leaving Nepal

Leaving Nepal

I think about all the people we have met on the trails. Jaylan the young boy from Adelaide who crossed a pass that many men turned back on. His older brother Liam and parents Sue and Phil. It’s impossible not to think of that trek without thinking of them. Nasir and Habib who returned to Pakistan many weeks ago now. Then there was Jeremy from New Zealand and Chris from the US who were both at times so sick on the Everest trek but battled on regardless. Robbie and Marie from Scotland who were so happy and complimentary we made it over the pass, despite their own disappointments. August from Sweden who fell off a plastic chair in a tea house when one of the legs broke. They have all left, already thousands of miles away in distant countries and now it’s our turn, but our departure will be much slower and gradual than theirs.

We wind our way through Kathmandu’s tight streets sadly one last time and head north through fertile green valley’s towards the Tibetan border. The sun climbs higher in the sky waking a chorus of insects. The heat builds and the haze intensifies. We pass through many checkpoints more than is expected for Nepal. Our driver tells us this is due to the sensitivity of the Tibetan border or more officially the Chinese border. The road is in terrible condition and possibly one of the worst we have travelled along for many months. It’s as though Nepal doesn’t want you to leave and is trying to prevent your departure by physically blocking your way. The efforts are so intense that I manage to hurt my neck in the process.

Nepal

Lush Nepal valleys

Four hours after leaving Kathmandu we arrive at a collection of multi-story run down hotels and the Nepalese immigration. It looks so sterile and not at all like the office we entered when we left India. The staff on the other hand are warm and helpful. They inspect our many documents mainly Tibetan and Chinese to ensure we won’t be sent back. Scrutinised and approved we are sent up a grubby road to a concrete bridge that spans a narrow gorge. Friendship bridge as it is known seems anything but. On the other side is Tibet or as it is now the People’s Republic of China. Half way across the bridge is a white line patrolled by two stern looking Chinese soldiers. Nepal it would seem is happy not to be represented.

They inspect our passports motioning us one at a time to proceed to the immigration building at the far end of the bridge. It’s a cold and disciplined greeting, efficient, organised and brief. Inside our bags are scanned and searched. We are asked by one officer if we have any books. I decline then change my mind and respond… not sure. This seems to amuse the officer who checks regardless but somehow misses the small bag on my back. Much to Rick’s annoyance his recently purchased copy of the Snow leopard is found and confiscated because it makes references to Tibet.

Waiting for us is a tall slim Tibetan man. His hair is blow waved and slightly receding. His jeans hang low on his slender hips. If not for a tight belt they would probably fall to the ground. His name is Jamyong and he will be our official guide while in Tibet for the next 8 days. Our bags absent one less book are transferred to back of another four wheel drive. The buildings on the Chinese side of the valley are generic and unremarkable and for the first time in 10 months we are back to driving on the right hand side of the road.

Climbing up to the Tibetan plateau. Nepal on the other side of the river

Climbing up to the Tibetan plateau. Nepal on the other side of the river

The road once out of town climbs steeply. The forest gives way to low spindly bushes and eventually open grass lands. The temperature drops dramatically. With every hairpin we lose a few degrees. In just 36 kilometres we gain over 2000 meters in height. It’s hard to believe that just a few short hours ago we were sweating in the heat of Kathmandu. The green valleys and crops are gone now, this is an utterly different world.

The sterility of the Chinese border town is replaced with more aesthetically pleasing Tibetan villages. Flat roofed white washed buildings adorned with decorative painted wooden beams, door frames and windows. Colourful bunches of prayer flags complete the charming abodes. The villages may be Tibetan but the roads are very much Chinese. Smooth and unblemished, no one can discount their abilities to construct world class infrastructure in remote locations.

Tibtan Plateau

Welcome to Tibet

We stop for the night in Nyalam a village 3800m above sea level. Our time trekking in Nepal should ensure we are acclimatised but our last 10 days were spent in Kathmandu at the relatively low altitude of 1100m. We are a little unsure if this may be a problem. Our itinerary outlines that we will spend the first night in a… very basic guesthouse. The fact they have seen fit to emphasise the word very is noted and we all laugh with nervous anticipation. The room comes as a surprise and is better than expected with comfortable beds and an ample supply of floral printed blankets. The common toilet would be best described as… very disgusting and thankfully is not attached to our room.

The next morning we leave early. It’s again a relatively short drive owing to the steep climb in altitude. We reach Tingri at 4200m well before lunch. It’s another… very basic guesthouse this time with an… exceptionally disgusting toilet. We go looking for some snacks preferably chocolate or any form of crisps. I gaze at hundreds of strange products in each shop searching desperately for a brand I recognise, just a Snickers bar would do… but there are none to be found.

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That night we are woken to a chorus of canines howling and barking. They have spent most of the day asleep under cars getting ready for a busy night ahead. The barking goes on for hours but is so constant and regular that sleep is eventually possible. I discover the next morning after talking to the others that this is a view shared only by myself. I walk to the breakfast room praying for cornflakes on the menu but it’s just a cruel self-imposed torture. After a disappointing and lack lustre meal of noodles and a lifesaving but oily fried egg we head for Everest Base camp.

Cho Oyu

North face of Cho Oyu

We turn off the sealed road and head across a lunar surface. In the distance we can see Everest or Qomolangma as it’s known in Tibet, Mother goddess of the Earth. It seems a more fitting title as opposed to a British surveyor. More dramatically and immediately in front of us is Cho Oyu, the 6th highest mountain in the world. It feels strange to be seeing it from the north when only two weeks ago we were looking at the south face in Nepal. I can’t describe why but I feel a longing to go back. I take in as much as I can almost fearful I shall never see it again.

It’s a bleak road ahead that stretches to base camp. Bleached and baked by an unrelenting sun that floats in a deep blue sky. The sun is warm but the air is cold and dry. The cough that plagued me for several weeks in the Khumbu quickly returns. My ribs are still sore from the ordeal, it’s like being stabbed in the back with several sharp knives. I begin to day dream about warm moist air and a hammock stretched between two Palm trees. It’s amazing what altitude can do to the mind. We are now back over 5000m or 16,000 feet and despite being well acclimatised we all begin to suffer a little. Ambitions and aspirations are dealt a discarding blow by thin air.

Eversest base camp

walking up to base camp

Three kilometres from the base camp is a collection of Tibetan nomadic tents that have been set up as accommodation for tourists. They are surprisingly comfortable, spacious and most importantly kept warm by a central stove. Our hostess has a kind face and extremely red cheeks. Her skin looks tough and wrinkled from the years spent at high altitude. Lying in a cot is small boy perhaps 10 months old. He seems curious to our presence and tries to pull himself up for a better look. He might be small in stature but already his heart and lungs are performing much better than the gasping guests in the village.

We take a short rest before walking up to the official base camp. Owing to the road it’s a gradual climb and not too difficult. The strength of the wind however is cutting, large plumes of snow and cloud are being ripped from the summit of Everest. The North face is exposed and more of the mountain can be seen from the Tibetan side than from Nepal. It appears completely different in shape but still dwarfs all its neighbours.

Inside the tent

Inside the tent

Waiting at the base of a small hill is a large armoured personnel carrier. Inside are three very impatient Chinese soldiers. The sun is going down and casts a pink light across the mountains. The soldiers seem unaware or perhaps uncaring of nature’s work and start blaring the horn to signal it’s time to leave. This would never happen in Nepal or India where uncaring takes on a different meaning.

The next morning and we all awake with a decent headache. Nothing too bad but enough to desire a quick departure. After backtracking to Tingri we reconnect with the friendship highway and head towards Shigatse, Tibet’s 2nd biggest city. Tibetan cities and towns seem to follow a pattern. The new and unimaginative Chinese part of the city that rapidly envelops the old and charming Tibetan quarter…Shigatse is no exception. But despite the Cultural Revolution and an ever increasing presence of Han Chinese Tibetan culture persists. The Tashilunpo monastery is the home of the Panchen Lama but Jamyong tells us he spends most of his time in Beijing now.

Jamyong our guide

Jamyong our guide

I find Tibetan Buddhism highly confusing. Dali Lamas and Panchen Lamas, Future Buddas, Compassionate Buddas, Blue Buddas and Green Buddas. The eleven headed Budda and the thousand armed Budda. Reclining Buddas, standing Buddas and Buddas seated in the lotus position. The rituals of burning juniper, prostrating and pilgrimage all stem from Bon beliefs which was the indigenous religion of Tibet before Buddhism swept the lands in the third century.

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Six days after leaving Kathmandu we arrive at the ancient Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Atop a small plateau sits the unmistakable shape of the Potala Palace. But there is very little that is ancient nor even old about Lhasa these days. A once mysterious and forbidden city is now rushing into modernity at an alarming rate. Thankfully just east of the Palace is the old Tibetan quarter that still retains much of the cities former charms. At the centre is the Jokhang Temple which dates back to medieval times. Contained inside is a statue of the Budda said to be over 2500 years old and blessed by the Budda himself. It sits in a dark alcove, face golden and eyes staring at the faithful who have worshiped here for centuries. They regard the statue with wonderment as if it were the Buddha himself. Jamyong tells us it is the 2nd most important statue in Tibetan religion. They seem to find rankings very important.

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At nearly four kilometres above sea level and with over 300 steep stairs to ascend, our visit to the Potala Place must be one of the most asphyxiating tours on earth. The palace once inhabited by monks and The Dalai Lama is now occupied by tourists and their guides. Most impressive is the tombs of the previous or prior incarnations of the Dalai Lama. The fifth Dalai Lama’s tomb is gilded with more than 4000kg of gold. I can’t help but to think how a religion dedicated to meditation and enlightenment evolved into tombs cover with Fort Knox. But it seems to be a pattern with world religions. Despite being possibly a fiscal waste there is no denying the Magnificence of the finished product.

The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

The Jokhang Temple in Lhasa

Ten Kilometres from the city centre is the Sera Monastery. I am not certain where it ranks among Tibet’s hierarchy but it does every afternoon host a bizarre event. The Buddha originally believed that teachings and philosophies should always be questioned and examined before one can accept them. With this in mind the monks gather and for several hours argue about the teachings of the Budda. Some men sit and propose ideas while the standing monks refute and argue the claims passionately with hand slaps and personal remarks. Occasionally small rocks are thrown and even the odd face slap made. But it’s mostly all in good fun. One particular battle rages close to us for over an hour. At first it seems difficult to gauge who is winning but eventually the standing monk goes into a flurry of mocking laughter and repeated slaps of the hand. His opponent looks dejected and defeated. He calls for reinforcement but it’s too late and the standing monk see this rightfully as a sign of weakness. We never do learn what tenants of Buddhism are discussed.

Sera Monastery

Mad Monks?

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It’s now our last day in Lhasa and our last day with Rick. For the second time on our trip we say goodbye. It’s hard to separate when you have spent so much time together, but it’s time for us to move on. We board a train bound for Shanghai. It will take almost 50 hours to travel over 3400km. By far the most efficient mode of transport we have taken since starting in South Africa. As night descends on the high plateau my mind drifts back over the last few months spent in the Himalayas. When we disembark two days later, we will enter a very different world…

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The sky is still speckled with stars, it’s 3.30am and I’m struggling to eat a poor excuse for porridge. Today we cross the pass and whilst I’m looking forward to the prospect of going over, I can’t help to be a little apprehensive as we shall be the first group to attempt the crossing this spring.
The Larkya la is notorious for being difficult to cross, especially in March owing to heavy winter snows that persist on its slopes. None of us had expected the constant daily flow of groups returning down the trail defeated owing to bad weather and impassable conditions. Their faces etched with a mixture of disappointment and resigned acceptance.
A group of four polish men had first alerted us to the situation on our second day of trekking. They all appeared very strong and capable, so their turning back was alarming for all of us. We calculated that we would reach the point where they retreated 9 days later and so hoped that conditions would improve, but every day we were met by more groups returning right up until yesterday when a small group of four had turned back at Samdo, which is half a day’s walk from Dharamsala. They had in fact been the first to reach this point but decided not to continue up to the high camp.

Manaslu Circuit

Manaslu Circuit

In the last few days we have teamed up with a family from Australia. Phil and Sue, Liam the oldest son is 18 and Jaylan who is remarkably only 9 years old. We decide as a group that the snow conditions look difficult but achievable if we commit to a very early start. The walk up to Dharamsala proves manageable and we were able to stay for much of the time on top of the frozen snow and reached camp just as it began to melt. The final hour was diabolical but we reached high camp in just under four hours.

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With our good friends and fantastic mountain guides Nasir and Habib from Pakistan here with us, I feel a sense of comfort at least. I finish the last mouthful of porridge and deliberate if I’ve eaten enough to sustain the crossing. In my pockets are granola bars and I go through my bag to ensure all my essentials are there. Today we estimate the trekking time will be around 8 hours maybe an hour or so more given the snow conditions. I pull my balaclava over my head and secure my head torch and walk out into the cold night.

Larkya La

Getting close to the top of the Larkya La

The snow crunching beneath my feet I try to keep a steady pace whilst regulating my breathing affected by the thin air. The moon bright tonight, revealing the mountains in the most beautiful cool light, it’s hard not to be distracted, but I try and keep eyes fixed on the back of Habib who’s a few feet in front. Walking in a straight line and closely together, we come to a sloped area that feels a little icy and I quickly lose my footing, cursing I wish I’d packed some small crampons. I make a mental note as I pick myself up to always ensure that I have them in the future, it’s crazy that none of us have a pair.
Fortunately the climb up the pass is not too steep but traversing across the smooth hard packed snow is difficult and we all take turns in slipping and sliding down the gulley a few feet. We are lucky so far not to have encountered too much ice and it is only due to this blessing that any attempt is possible. It’s impossible to know what the ground is like and we remind each other to be careful, it would be easy to make a mistake and twist and ankle with such unstable footing.
I look up ahead and see Rick, he’s falling into all sorts of deep snow and sits down to take a break. I myself am making progress but am continuously dropping again and again into knee deep snow. The pass going up may not be steep but it’s never ending false ridges tease and break your heart.

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After a couple of hours the sun rises behind us. Sunglasses go on and down jackets come off. Within minutes the temperature soars. The snow which is already struggling to support our weight gives in and becomes a powdery mess. Our progress is now reduced to crawling out of holes, every third step and sometimes less. At times it’s so bad that your hands also sink and you have to wriggle out using your torso. In desperation we take to jumping across from one rock to another. Occasionally we miss the target and sink down again into the white prison. All you can do is curse and laugh at how ridiculous the situation is. As I reach another ridge, I can hear above me everyone’s happy chatter, and it can only mean one thing… this is the top. It’s taken just over five hours to reach. The guide book assumes it normally takes around three to four at most.
Congratulating each other on what has been a taxing morning our attention turns to the descent on the western side of the pass and it looks incredibly steep. What’s more unnerving is how hot it is already and how badly the snow has started to melt, something we’d been fearful of.
Nasir and Habib tell us they have never encountered this kind of snow before. “It’s so powdery” Habib say’s. Normally in Pakistan the snow is much more firm and stable. He tells us how on the way up he had nearly fallen into a lake, he had been very lucky. I can’t even remember where there might have been a lake, maybe a good thing for me that I wasn’t aware of this precarious situation.

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Rick looking tired as we head down

We slowly begin to make our way down. I look to my right and see a steep slope where any loss of traction would soon see you sliding onto the glacier far below. Further down Greg and Nasir are in a hazardous situation. I watch horrified as Greg drops into waste deep snow and Nasir self-arrests as he slides rapidly down the slope. A large slab of snow has broken free and tumbles down the slope. There is a moment between them as they look at each other worried. Nasir shouts up to us that the snow is really unstable and we need to be really focused. I start to wonder what we’re going to do if there is an accident but dismiss these thoughts as I realise that I have to remain calm and concentrate on the task at hand. Everyone looks a little frightened.
My throat is dry from heavy, nervous breathing. I realise that we are committed to getting down. There is no way we can climb back up now. We must keep going and we must do it safely. The slope is so unstable that I lean into my metal pole to support myself and as I pull it back out to move it has been bent into a shape that resembles a Urie Gellar illusion.
Sections leave me breathless and my forehead hurts from the muscles tensing up from clenching my jaw and frowning. This is the most physically challenging task I have undertaken. Rick shakes his head. Shouting up to me he asks for my thoughts on how we’re going right now. I shout to him “one word springs to mind…ordeal” he shakes his head again and agrees he to thinks this is the most difficult thing he’s ever done. Thank God it’s not just me. I look at everybody else and see the strain on their faces. I know we will get through this but right now I am seriously wondering what I am doing. I must be nuts…..

Larkya La Pass

Heading down the Larkya La

Every third step I fall into thigh deep snow and as I come to an icy section, terror pulses through my body. My pack feels so heavy and is weighing me down so much and pulling me off balance. I see the boys below sitting down and sliding down a shallow gully spreading their body weight across the snow. I take their cue and do the same. I am sure I saw Bear Grylls do this once on his TV show and it seems to be doing the trick. I cover ground much quicker though stopping is somewhat tricky. I have to dig my heels in hard to arrest the slide.
Greg shouts up to me that we’re nearly there just a few more sections to go and we’ll be on dirt again. I am so relieved to have finally reached bare earth. I sit for a moment to slow my breathing. I am so thirsty my lips are cracking from dehydration. I throw myself down and lie on my pack, gulping water it’s been over 8 hours of continuous slog and I am very thirsty. We all change out of cold weather gear and cool down. We have another 3 to 4 hours of walking until we get to the town of Bhimtang.

Bhimtang

Entering Bhimtang

Everyone is ecstatic to have crossed the pass. We have done it and celebrate and start talking about the food and the drinks that we will have when we get to Bhimtang. I have around half a bottle of water left, if I sip conservatively it should be enough. Legs shaky and bodies aching we make for the last section it seems to go on forever. As I take my last sip of water Greg points to an area where small buildings are dwarfed by a giant mountain. I decide on sight that I will finish my water, we’re only an hour a way I think to myself. When we get there I will have a nice cold can of coke.
As I drag my feet through the last section of town. I see the boys all sat outside a tea house. As much as I find the idea of a welcoming committee a nice gesture I find it odd. But as I draw closer I see no joy, no laughter, nothing and then I realise why. I can’t utter the words to myself it can’t be true…. Nothing is open, the town is shut! We can only deduce that because no one has crossed the pass this year and with so many people having turned back, the tea house owners have remained shut waiting for the snows to abate before opening. I am in shock. I can’t believe this is happening and I sit down deflated and despondent.
We seriously contemplate breaking in and paying for any damages caused later, we are that desperate and tired. It becomes a serious option that is discussed but our guide Dilly is not confidant this is a good idea. The next town is still another 4 hours away but already the sun is starting to disappear behind the mountains. In the next hour or so it will be dark and cold. We have run out of food and have no water left.
I am reluctant to continue. I’m worried that we will arrive at the next tea house and that too will be closed. But what are we to do, we are forced to continue. We’re all so cold and tired but we put our backpacks and head torches on anticipating the fading light to come. We talk of the possibility of wild camping something I am becoming increasingly in favour of. We walk past a few small caves, stop and look but resign to carry on. We stop near a river gasping for a drink and take the gamble to fill our bottles with the stream water. My overwhelming thirst diminishes any kind of concern. I just hope that the water is clean enough not to make me sick. The sterilisation tablet should work under normal circumstances.
Not a morsel of food has not passed any of our lips for nearly 5 hours. My stomach is so noisy that its rumble can be heard over the sound of our footsteps. Night envelopes and we take a break to discuss what we should do next, should we continue or just lie down under a tree. We look at the area we’re in, it seems ok. But as we look at a moon being draped in clouds we debate what we would do if it were to rain during the night. Our down sleeping bags would be soaked. No we must push on and keep going. I know that this makes sense but physically my body is fighting every decision I make, it simply wants me to lie down. We press on.

Nasir, Emma, Rick and Habib

Nasir, Emma, Rick and Habib

Hours pass and we try to keep each other’s spirits up. I can’t help to feel sorry for Habib and Nasir this is supposed to be a holiday, a time to hang out with us, enjoy a relaxing trek. Nasir tells me that he and Habib have never had such a challenging situation. They too are now exhausted. Our conversation halts as we see a torch light coming towards us. Dilly has seen ahead a building. A jubilant cheer erupts. But there is a hitch…of course. The building is just a shell there is no one there no windows, no doors, no food and no beds but there is a roof to provide shelter. None of us care we will sleep here tonight and tomorrow continue to the next town. I don’t even care that I won’t be able to eat. I am passed that need. All I want more than anything right now is to get in to my sleeping bag and sleep. I don’t even care that I am sleeping on planks of wood. My eyes are heavy I look out at the stars and a moon washed with fleeting clouds and drift into a deep sleep.

Jaylan the 9 year old boy who didn't turn back

Jaylan the 9 year old boy who didn’t turn back

The sound of talking awakens me. My body is stiff from sleeping on hard wood. I have a tingling sensation running up and down my back. Outside a fire has been lit and the boys are sat around warming themselves. I pack up my things and climb down the ladder from the second floor. It’s amazing how hunger can motivate a person. We are hopefully just a couple of hours away from the next tea house. Of course we have to hope that it is open given what happened yesterday in Bhimtang. But we must continue regardless we have no choice.

The half finished house we slept in

The half finished house we slept in

I sip what remains of the river water in my bottle, so far this has not caused any of us to be ill. We set off through some of the most pristine pine forest I have ever encountered. The floor of the forest is soft with fallen pine needles that have built up over the centuries. It’s so beautiful that I am momentarily distracted by a rumbling tummy that has had no food in over 18 hours. We walk past ancient trees covered in moss, every now and again breaking into open areas where gigantic mountains soar high above.

Beautiful Pine Forrests

Beautiful Pine Forrests

Two hours later we sight a small collection of houses on the far side of river. We cross a small bridge but can see no sign of activity. The first few houses are empty so we continue up a small slope and around a bend. There sitting in a charming garden is Habib, Nasir and Dilly. I can see a lady wiping down tables inside the dining room. We have made it. Thirty hours after leaving Dharamsala we can at last relax. I feel relieved to have reached a soft bed and warm food.
We spend a few more days trekking down to the road head. I feel so fortunate to have made it over and not have turned back. We could so easily have missed out on all of this. We set our sights on Pokhara and a long recuperation before heading east to the Everest and beyond…

Food at last

Food at last

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We arrive at Varanasi station cloaked in darkness. Despite not the slightest hint of light to the east the station is already heaving with people. Many of them lie discarded on the platforms having spent a chilly night under thin blankets. Others less fortunate huddle together with shirts wrapped around their heads to keep warm.

Varanasi Train Station

Waiting for the train at Varanasi station

As yet there is no expected time of arrival for our train to Gorakhpur. The swelling crowd seem ambivalent and more interested in obtaining chai. I go in search of the station master’s office. During our travels through India I have always found them extremely helpful and eager to guide a hapless foreign traveller. This morning is no exception. A loud man with a thick moustache and a straining belt directs us to the train’s conductor. He informs us that the train is delayed but is expected to arrive within the hour. There is nothing to do but find space on the crowded platform and join the others in search of chai.
Two hours later the train finally arrives. The conductor waves to us and nods. I think they feel sorry for us, almost knowing we are not used to pushing through crowds and fighting our way onto trains. We have been spared significant dramas in the last few weeks, but as if knowing this is our last train ride in India we are dished up one last epic battle. As the train slows the normally passive Indians panic and surge toward the open doors like frightened livestock. Standing back and waiting is tempting but also risky as you may not get on before the train departs. We pick up our bags and enter the fray one last time.
It’s a strange experience for us westerners. We would normally associate pushing and pulling as acts of aggression but here it’s just required survival and nothing personal. The idea is to smile remain calm and fight harder than the person next to you. For us it’s not always easy but with practice you start to get the hang of it. I glance at my opposition most of whom are several inches shorter and many kilos lighter than I. A few well timed pushes and arm blocks and we are on the train. Having built up the required skills it feels almost a shame to be leaving now.

Varanasi Train

Crowds rush to the train

We head north through farm fields and flocks of yellow flowers. I take one last opportunity to stand in the open door. It will be several months before we are on a train again and possibly none will allow you to open doors and sit on the stairs. We arrive into Gorakhpur station 6 hours later. By now it’s well after lunch and we still have a 3-4 hour bus ride to Sonauli at the Nepalese border. Motorised and manpowered rickshaws descend upon us as we exit the station. Apparently its several kilometres to the bus stand and too far to walk. A helpful policeman directs us to a corner about 100 meters directly in front of the stations main clock tower. A statue of a once important man astride a horse sits in the centre of the intersection. There waiting among goats and cows are several busses. One driver immediately spots us knowing almost every westerner in Gorakhpur is heading to the Nepalese border. He shouts out Sonauli, Sonauli and ushers us onto the bus with false promises of a quick departure. The bus is about half full so his claims appear at first possible.
An hour passes with only a trickle of passengers joining. To pass the time I go in search of oranges and decide I shall leave India having secured the best price for them on the sub-continent. I just want to try and get the better of a vendor once before I leave. I succeed in passing time but remain marginally ripped off. The bus remains idle, its engine cold and unwilling to start. It’s now almost 90 minutes and even the locals are growing impatient and angry. One passenger is shouting at the driver and then appeals to me in English that this is scandalous and criminal. He is well dressed and I notice he is carrying a leather briefcase. I am guessing he is a businessman of sorts. He continues to berate the driver and conductor in loud bursts while speaking to me in a calm but condemning voice. He even apologises for what he claims is a national disgrace. I like the Indians and I love the way they use our language to great and sometimes colourful exaggerations.

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

The Bus at Ghorakhpur

When the driver starts the engine and blows the horn we receive an immediate surge of interest from people on the street. The empty seats fill up quickly. Why he did not do this almost two hours ago is completely beyond me. With practiced tolerance and a pretence of cultural understanding I assume there is a good reason but the businessman’s shaking head has me returning to the belief that it’s just simple stupidity. With great difficulty he performs a U turn and heads back up the broken road a 100 meters before stopping. He then makes in the narrow street a 7 point turn that takes almost 5 minutes to complete before coming to stop and killing the engine. It’s all too much for the businessman and he immediately erupts into a volley of abuse and fist shaking. I like having him here. There is no need to get angry, I have a proxy who is doing a splendid job. Several other passengers join in and the surge of condemnation is finally too much for the driver to bare. He starts the engine up, spits out the window and pumps his musical horn before setting off.
Four hours later our bus sighs, hisses and stops among the littered streets of Sonauli. We wait to make sure we have reached the last stop. The driver waves his hand and shouts Nepal border. We retrieve our bags from the back storage area of the bus, a blessed rarity in India. A few bicycle rickshaw men offer to take us to the border. As usual we are told it’s too far to walk, in reality it’s only a couple of hundred meters away. I feel a nostalgic urge to dwell and accept their services as I know we are now spending our final moments in this wonderful country.

India Nepal border

Walking to the India Nepal boreder

The flow of human and motorised traffic is unabated at the border. Indians and Nepalese are free to cross without passport and formality. As such the immigration office is rather non-descript and unassuming. The immigration officer almost looks relieved and keen to be of use. He stamps us out and bids us goodbye. We pause in no-man’s land to take a photo. Ahead is a white arch with a Buddhist chorten and a sign that says “Welcome to Nepal” A small group of foreigners are gathered inside the Nepal Immigration building. We fill in a form and hand over $100.00 USD each for a 90 day visa. Within ten minutes our passports are returned and we are free to enter what was once a forbidden Kingdom.

India Sonali Immigration

India Sonali Immigration

The streets on the Nepalese side of the border seem less littered although it’s a bit hard to tell in the fading light. The sun has set as we go in search of a hotel. It’s always best to leave a border as quickly as possible but Kathmandu is still another 10 hours away. The first few inspections are a little depressing but we eventually find a satisfactory room for 1500 NPR. Conveniently the Nepalese Rupee is currently trading at 99 to the USD dollar so adjustment to the new currency is made easy.
Downstairs the restaurant is overstaffed and empty as our stomachs. We order a vegetable fried rice and an aloo or potato curry with two cans of coke for just under 500 NPR. I survey my surroundings with a combination of satisfaction and relief. It’s always comforting to have crossed a border. A feeling of progress and achievement on our journey. This time tomorrow night we will be in Kathmandu. Our travels towards Singapore will for a few months cease as we spend time trekking in the Himalayas.

India Nepal Border crossing

Crossing into Nepal

The next morning Sonauli is blanketed in thick fog. I open the curtains. Below me a lady is burning juniper branches and a chant is being played on a loud speaker. Despite the excitement and prospect of reaching Kathmandu I feel tired and lethargic. Yesterday’s early start and the long delays in reaching the border have caught up with me. I test the shower optimistically for hot water or tatto pani but none is forthcoming. Outside I can hear bus engines starting up and a chorus of horns. By the time we pack up and walk down to the street they have all but left. One pitiful example remains rusting and empty. The taxi drivers circle around me like some weak member of the herd that has become separated from the others. I feel willing to succumb to them as I just don’t have the energy to wait for another bus and face a 10 hour journey. An immediate departure and a promise of 6-7 hours is too much and we cough up 8800 NPR. The starting price was 9000 and I pitifully manage to negotiate a $2.00 discount! The car at least looks clean and I run through several justifications for taking the taxi instead of the bus which would have been 600-800 NPR each depending on service offered. It’s a rare moment of laziness but I still feel a bit guilty.

Sonali Taxi

Jelly Bean head

Our driver has a head shaped like a jelly bean and I find it difficult not to stare at him. He is friendly enough but not overly talkative. I am still a little annoyed at paying $88.00 USD to get to Kathmandu so I engage him in Nepal’s current economic costs. He explains that the cost of cars is very expensive when compared to India. I have no way of knowing this is true but nod agreeably. Our progress is slowed by the fog. Above the sun is trying to break through. The road is slick and shines like a mirror. So far there is no sign of the mountains for which Nepal is famous. Just flat plains and patches of mist.

DSC08805

Within an hour the early cloud breaks and we see the lower foothills of the Himalayas ahead. Large forested mountains that rise about a 1000 meters in height. The white giants further to the north are for now hidden. A couple of hours later we connect with the main road that runs between Pokhara and Kathmandu. We stop for some food, but opt for a can of soft drink and packet of chips. This seems to have become our staple diet during the day at small and suspect restaurants. My brevity for testing out local food has somewhat diminished knowing that we will start trekking in a few days’ time.

Lunch

Lunch

The rolling green hills of Nepal are a visual feast. Lined with terraces and dotted with charming houses and livestock. We start the climb up a long and winding pass. The road degrades into terrible condition. Trucks and busses send up large plumes of dust that force us to close the windows. Overtaking becomes difficult on the narrow broken surface. In the five years since we last came up the pass there has been no improvement at all. This is to use the Indian Businessman’s words a real National disgrace.
We snake our way up, overtaking where possible and sometimes where not. The vegetation changes from thick jungle to pine forests. Finally we catch a glimpse of the Himalayas. Among the huge bank of clouds to the north icy tips manage to break through. We crest the pass and Kathmandu comes into view. In the distance I can see a huge Chorten on a hill with a golden peak. True to his word our driver with the jelly bean head has us into Kathmandu within 7 hours of leaving. I feel a little satisfied at least in knowing we passed the busses that left early in the morning a few hours ago.

Nepal Village

Nepal countryside

We enter the tight busy streets of Thamel and get dropped off at the Kathmandu Guest House. Almost every souvenir and trekking shop has the chant Om Mane Padme Om playing and the air is filled with smoky juniper incense. We sit in the courtyard of the hotel too tired to check in and order a sweet lassi, feeling very excited and relived to have at last reached Kathmandu…

Thamel Kathmandu

The tights streets of Thamel in Kathmandu

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