Feeds:
Posts
Comments

 

If you’re reading this blog, then the chances are you are probably contemplating trekking around The Dhaulagiri Circuit.

dhaulagiri-circuit-trekking-map

I will provide some background before I start. My wife and I have been travelling to Nepal and Pakistan many times over the past fifteen years. We generally prefer to trek independently, but in some cases have used commercial trekking agencies on climbing peaks and remote locations such as K2 base camp. I first came across the Dhaulagiri Circuit well before I even started trekking. Twenty years ago I purchased a book entitled “Top Treks of the World”

The Himalaya section had many classic routes that I had already heard about, but my attention was drawn to an amazing photo that leapt of the pages with trekkers passing directly under the face of a vast white mountain. It loomed over them and for me was the most startling photo in the entire book. It was captioned “The French Pass on the Dhaulagiri Circuit.” I tried to find out as much as possible about this trek, but information at the time was very limited. Still to this day there is not a lot written. I did come across an article that warned about the severe nature of this trek and that the route and terrain should not be underestimated. In short it outlined many obstacles and perils awaiting those who think it might be like doing The Annapurna Circuit. Twenty years on and having just returned I can see what they mean, although I have been told that sections of the trail have improved in recent years.

The big question I had before any serious planning could commence was can this trek be done independently? All the commercial trekking agencies run this as a camping trek, but I was curious to know just how much camping was actually required? Were there any teahouses and could we get food along the way (as Independent trekkers) thus reducing the amount of food to be carried in from the start. I found it very difficult to get “up to date” confirmed information but hopefully this story will be of use to independent trekkers thinking of doing this, but also to other trekkers who would like to know more about this trek before going with a commercial trekking company.

We decided without knowing what lay ahead to go semi-independent. We hired some porters and a guide to help carry the food and tents and also to be there as a back up in case things went wrong, or the trek started to prove too difficult. We saved money by doing it this way when compared to a commercial trek, but obviously it cost more than just going completely alone.

Please keep in mind this is a personal and subjective travel diary but I will also try to insert neutral and factual information so as to help others planning this trek.

Day 1 Pokhara to Darbang – Drive via Beni

Journey time by Private Van and Public Bus 7 Hours

Owing to the fuel crisis in Nepal, we hired a 4WD van to take us from Pokhara to Beni. Normally we would have taken a local bus but did not want to risk losing any time. The usual price for a bus ticket is around 250-300 rupees per person. The private hire of the 4WD was 15,000 rupees or around $150 USD. The journey time to Beni was 2.5 hours. The town sits on the confluence of the Kali Gandaki and Mayagdi Khola River systems. Usually most commercial trekking companies will start from here and cross over to the left side of the river heading upstream, but we decided to transfer to a bus and take the road up to Darbang which is another 3 hours away and pulls back about 1.5 days. The cost for each ticket was at the time around 180 rupees. Our guide informed us that a private van would have been another 7-8000 rupees.

Keep in mind prices were around double the normal rate because of the fuel crisis. The road was pretty rough and the bus was very packed. Even though winter is just 4 weeks away, the heat during the day is still very intense at these low altitudes. The jungle is screaming with insects and I am grateful to have kept my sun visor out. We arrive into Darbang around 3pm and walk down through the narrow streets to a basic teahouse set near the edge of a football field. The Rainbow guesthouse (unknown to us at the time) is the last to offer any familiarity that people on other treks in Nepal may be accustomed to. The beds are very hard but they do have a small room downstairs where one can eat dinner and watch Indian television. The cost for each room was 300 rupees per bed. Dinner and breakfast was prepared by one of our porters Kargee who is also doubling up as a cook.

Our guide warned us that cooking hygiene was potentially poor on this trek and he was keen to ensure he could control food quality if not for us at least for themselves. We also brought food in the form of freeze dry meals and were going to cook for ourselves on certain days. In short we did not sample much of the teahouse cooking, but they were offering Dhal Bhat for 400 rupees. Important to note is that this was the only food on offer for fully independent trekkers. Don’t expect to see any menus like you would on the Annapurna Circuit. I must admit I was expecting the teahouses to be similar to those on the Manaslu Circuit (for anyone who has done this trek) but the Rainbow Guesthouse was even more basic than those as a benchmark.

DSC09964

Tea House room in Darbang

Day 2 Darbang to Khamla 800m – 1600m

6 hours walking time (not including lunch, but including stops)

This day was to prove a little confusing as I had assumed we would follow the traditional trail via Sibang and Muri, but instead of crossing the suspension bridge that starts close to the Rainbow Guesthouse and takes you over to the left side of the Mayagdi River, we crossed the football field and walked up to a narrow road on the right side of the river heading upstream. Not many people do this and the deviation was not to become apparent to me until later in the day.

Darbang Dhaulagiri Circuit

Football Field leads to the path that is a short cut on the first two days 

We leave just after 7.00am, keen to get an early start before the temperatures start to rise. It’s important as walking long into the day can become very tiring in the heat. Thankfully the right side of the valley is shaded and the road is free from any jeeps.

DSC09975

Darbang the bridge that takes you over to the left side of the river

It seems our guide has taken us on a short cut. By taking us up the right side of the river you stay lower and walk less distance and can make up a day over the traditional route. So if you are a little pushed for time and doing this trek independently and carrying a heavy load, this is a good alternative. You miss out on walking through Muri, but you get to walk through villages that see very few foreigners and are also very attractive in their own right.

The road turns abruptly into trail an hour after departing Darbang. A little under 2 hours later and we reach a small farm house in Kalleni just after 10am. A more lovely setting would be difficult to locate anywhere in Nepal. A bush that has been shaped into an arch shades the entrance and there is a small table under shelter from where to take a meal. Kargee our cook makes use of their kitchen and prepares some fried macaroni with cheese. While he is cooking, I make some coffees and wash my feet in cold water. A good tip when trekking is to take your socks and boots off during lunch and allow them to dry before you start off again in the afternoon. It really helps with feet hygiene and blisters, especially when lower down and it’s hot and sweaty.

DSC00040

Day 1 of walking Dhaulagiri Circuit

Lunch takes around 90 minutes to prepare and eat and we set off just after 11.30am. Min our guide informs me that it’s about another 3 hours to our campsite. I ask him about teahouse options in Muri? He looks confused and says we are not going to Muri we are going to Khamla on the other side of the valley. As I said I was not aware that this was the plan, but the trail so far has been very beautiful and we are happy to be taking the alternative route. The sun has now started to creep across to the right side of the valley and the trail also steepens just to make it a little bit harder.

DSC00008

Day 1 Dhaulagiri Circuit

I can see on the traditional left side of the valley the regular trail to Sibang and Muri is much higher. Our right side trail continues to climb as well, but there is a distinct time advantage in coming this way. Two hours after leaving our lunch stop we climb to a high point in the trail about 150 meters above the river and receive wonderful views of the farm terraces across the other side of the valley.

The valley now turns hard to the right meaning we are covering less distance as we are on the inside of the valley’s right-hand bend. The afternoon clouds have started to shield the sun and our sweat turns a little cold in the afternoon breeze.

Khamla is a collection of farmhouses draped across the side of the valley. The path is a little hard to follow through the farm fields but the locals point the way to a bright orange farmhouse where we set up camp for the night. You can’t miss it!

DSC00142

Heading towards the orange farm house at Khamla 

The owner allows us to pitch two tents and use his kitchen for cooking and washing. We pay him 2100 rupees for doing so, but Kargee cooks our own food, which just happens to be Dhal Bhat with some chicken added. Dhal Bhat was available for 500 rupees each (Kargee insists his is the best) and a tent pitch for independent trekkers is 500 rupees per tent. The man who owns the farmhouse is ex Indian army and can speak some English, a rare conversation on the Dhaulagiri Circuit.

DSC00170

I am beginning to understand that the infrastructure on this trek is far more basic than I had imagined. There are no little shops selling Mars bars or even bottles of water and no sign of Coke and Sprites, but I like it all the same. It feels like we are far removed from commercialised trekking in Nepal and back to what it may have been like 40 years ago. With this is mind bringing water purification tablets is required and a clear water bottle to make sure what you are collecting is free from sediments.

Day 3 Khamla to Boghara 1600m – 2080m 

6 hours walking time

The day starts with a gentle stroll through farm fields and terraces and soon falls under the cover of the jungle. Half an hour later we reach the right bank of the Mayagdi Khola and continue to walk under the shade for another 20 minutes. From here we look up and can see high above us on the other side of the river the village of Muri, which most treks pass through when doing the Dhaulagiri Circuit. Another 15 minutes and we reach an old swing bridge about 30 meters in length that takes you across to the left side of the river.

Emma and Min cross the bridge, which looks very flexible and swings up and down with every step. I take a nature break but before setting off, I spot a long bushy creature that resembles a large ferret crossing the bridge. A moment later a second creature emerges and follows its partner across the bridge and into the jungle. It is a Yellow throated Marten. Emma spotted one 10 years ago while on the Everest Base camp Trek. I thought she was exaggerating at the time about its size but they really are as big as she described. Emma feels redeemed.

DSC00205

Day 2 of walking Dhaulagiri Circuit

After walking for another 30 minutes we reach two small farmhouses and a large campsite at Jiggapani. This is where the regular trail from Muri connects to the river after a very long descent. We are now on the main trail and following the same route as everyone else for the rest of the trek.

We take lunch at another farmhouse in Nuara around 3 hours after setting off fro Khamla, and sit on their front patio trying to get a little shelter from the hot sun. They charge us 500 rupees for using their facilities but we do our own cooking. The owner is able to provide only Dhal Bhat for 300 each, if you did not wish to cook. It’s important to keep in mind that most of the farm houses we passed through will cook for you, but it’s going to be basic Dhal Bhat the whole way. There is no pasta or coffee or even bad porridge in the mornings for that matter. So if you like diversity in your meals, you need to carry that yourself. But for the hard-core trekker who is looking to go totally alone and needs to reduce weight and food carried, it is possible to get meals. It is very difficult to buy provisions however for further up the trail when the farm houses eventually run out. I will elaborate later.

DSC00225

Lunch Stop day 2 with Min our guide

After lunch the path climbs very steeply up to an exposed and narrow section of trail that clings high above the left side of the river. Caution needs to be taken along sections of this trail, as it’s a long vertical drop to the river below. The path is very rough with lose stones, so placing your feet carefully is good practice. I would not class this section as scary, but you certainly feel attentive. A couple of hours after lunch and passing through a zig-zag cutting, the valley turns left. We get breathtaking views of a large waterfall plunging a couple of hundred meters across the other side of the valley. Thirty minutes later and we reach the sparse village of Boghara.

DSC00282

Slightly dangerous path heading to Boghara

DSC00291

About an hour away from Boghara

There is an extremely basic teahouse without a name, but you can’t miss it as it’s the first house you reach. It has 3 tiny rooms, each containing 3 concrete hard beds. Each bed is 300 rupees and the old lady will make Dhal Bhat for 300 rupees each. She is consistent if nothing else. We pitch our tents on a lawn 20 meters below the house for 200 rupees each and cook our own freeze dry food with our MSR cooker. Roast Chicken with Mashed Potato makes a nice change. We are now just over 2000 meters and as darkness envelops us so too does the first evening chill.

DSC00305

Boghara Dhaulagiri Circuit campsite with the basic teahouse

Day 4 Boghara to Dobhan 2080m – 2520m

6 hours walking time

We leave Boghara around 7.30am and descend back down to the river in twenty minutes. Down here there are a few more farmhouses and a large camping site that I am sure is used by the big commercial trekking companies. We climb back up a steep bluff and then drop back down again. The left side of the valley is very steep so climbing up and down around steep spurs becomes a common and slightly frustrating occurrence, but I remind myself, that trekking is not always easy.

We manage to spot several large beehives hanging high above us in the cliffs. Thin worn strands of rope lead up to the much sought after honey. A dangerous job on two accounts owing to gravity and potentially angry bees.

DSC00372

Lunch Stop Day 3 of walking

We stop for lunch in a small clearing where two local men are tending to water buffalo grazing. They ask for some headache tablets as one of them has pain in the side of his head. I resist giving out sweets and pens to children but who can deny someone with pain some temporary relief. It’s always a good idea to take along a couple of boxes. I tell Min to let him know that if the pain continues for few days he should try to see a doctor, I doubt he will somehow.

There is a sign saying that Dobhan is 3 hours away but it takes us around 4 hours to reach. The afternoon walk is spent mostly in dense jungle with very little views. The path is wet and crawling with roots and stones and starts to play a little on my nerves. The pack feels heavier today, I must be getting tired. The last hour is consistently up hill until we reach a large clearing in the Forrest at Dobhan. I think the sign indicating 3 hours on this occasion was correct, we were just a bit tired and slow.

Dobhan has a farmhouse with camping, and a new teahouse, which is nearing completion. Expect to see this up and running in 2016. I take a look inside and can see beds and a dining room but again don’t expect the luxury you get on the Everest base Camp trek, this will be fairly basic. We pitch our tents and use the kitchen room for cooking and eating. Min pays the old lady 3100 rupees for all of us to stay and use her wood and facilities.

We notice her squeezing a pale brown sludge into her cooking from a rather old and dirty plastic bottle. Min tells us it’s lemon chutney, which he procures for further meals up the trail. Visually it’s not very appealing but Min seems convinced it will spice up our cooking. Kargee makes spinach dumplings for dinner. I decide it’s his worse meal so far and not overly appetising but that’s just my personal feelings. You can’t have it all your own way. Emma is consuming more than I can stomach that’s for sure.

DSC00379

Tea House in Dobhan e slept in our tents

Staying at the same campsite that night are two Czech lads in their late 20’s. They are attempting the trek completely on their own. We talk for a while and I can’t help but to be impressed by their plan to complete the trek alone. We are carrying about 13 to 15 kg each. They on the other hand are required to carry around 25 kg each and this makes a huge difference. I have trekked before with 18 kg but I can’t say I liked it very much. Not many people will attempt this trek on their own, so I do respect the challenge they are taking on. They seem experienced and have an amiable but cautious approach to going on their own.

Day 5 Dobhan to Sallaghari Camp 2520m – 3100m

4 Hours walking time

I had gone to bed the previous night thinking we could go the next day to Italian base camp, but it has been described as a long day and it’s also 1100 meters higher in altitude which is not great for acclimatisation. We decide instead to only go as far as Sallaghari (which is only 650 meters higher) and break the long day into two. I would say that very strong trekkers can do this in 1 day, but perhaps for good acclimatisation two is better. If you have come off another trek recently crossing high passes this would not be required.

We leave after 8am, as it wont be such a long day and descend down to the river, which takes us about 10 to 15 minutes. There is a small bridge that takes you immediately to the right side of Mayagdi Khola. Upon reaching the far bank we turn left and scramble across and up a recent landslip. Care needs to taken when ascending that you are not hit by any lose rocks but the slope is not too steep. We reach the regular path, which by now is well camouflaged but not too difficult to locate and follow. The jungle is dense overhead but the temperature remains cool further into the morning. The path is pretty steep and goes up for about an hour before levelling off and then meandering along the right side of the valley.

DSC00392

An hour further on and we set up for an early lunch on a dry wash in a clearing. I make up some Back Country dehydrated Beef Stroganoff by adding some boiling water. Kargee does not seem impressed and cooks up some Dhal Bhat for himself and the other porters. He offers us some, feeling sorry for us I imagine.

The trail after lunch meanders up and down for a while and then climbs very steeply over the next hour. This is very steep terrain where you really have to lean forward and zigzag up the side of the valley. We climb into Pine Forests that are a welcome sight after spending a few days in the straggly jungle lower down. The smell in places is very fragrant and refreshing. I have to say it has always been my favourite zone when trekking.

DSC00404

The trail levels off again and then gently lifts and falls around the side of bluffs. There are a few landslips to navigate and one small tree ladder to walk up but nothing to strenuous. For me this is a much nicer day in terms of scenery and forest walking compared to the day before

By the time we reach Sallaghari it’s just gone after 1pm, when a campsite greets me filled with dozens of tents and around 50 people milling around. It feels very strange to see a big group after days of being alone, but more importantly I can’t work out why they are here.

They would not have walked up here today and I can’t see why they would stay here for 2 nights. I conclude they must be coming back. One of the group members sees me and says hello. They ask me where I am from and what group I am with. I inform them that we are just 2 people with a few porters. Then they deliver the bad news. They have turned back at Dhaulagiri base camp because they believe the snow on the passes is too deep to cross. By now Emma has joined me and we stand there feeling very deflated. We had been told the same thing a year earlier on the Manaslu Circuit and made it over that time but the Dhaulagiri Circuit is a different proposition. There are two passes to cross in two days with a high valley over 5000m to negotiate. Deep snow here could really spell the end of the trek as it has for this large Dutch Group.

My only feeling on this is that they didn’t try, so they can’t know for certain and it also appears a couple of the groups members were not feeling very well. Maybe there is still a chance. All we can do is try and hope for good weather. One Dutch lady who is a little rude tells us “its impossible” and “not to bother”. This just spurs us on and becomes our catch phrase for the rest of the trip “Not Possible”. I think she is just disappointed that she didn’t make it and hates the thought that others might. Not a great attitude while meeting other trekkers.

DSC00425

One thing to keep in mind about Sallaghari is that it was not on our map of the Dhaulagiri Circuit, but I can see from commercial trip dossiers it is used a lot. There is a small wood cabin where a young girl no more that 17 runs the camp and collects the fees for its use. I never do find out what it costs to pitch a tent there, but I am assuming its around 300-500 rupees per tent and I did notice she could serve up Dhal Bhat but I wouldn’t count on that always here at Sallaghari. If I were returning I would plan to cook my own food here.

That night our porters light a small fire at the top of the site about 20 meters away from the small wooden cabin which is filled with smoke and not pleasant to remain in for too long. The porters belonging to the large group below are all partying as they know they are going home without having to cross the passes and also will get paid more owing to the extra days spent backtracking. The night is not as cold as the previous night even though we are 600 meters higher. The forest also does a good job of blocking the wind. I think this is one of the nicer campsites on the Dhaulagiri Circuit.

Day 6 Sallaghari to Italian Base Camp 3100m – 3660m

Walking time 3.5 hours

It’s a beautiful morning when we leave camp. Immediately after departing the trail runs into a long stone wash that continues long up the valley for about a kilometre. We pass a couple of independent trekkers traveling like ourselves with just a few porters. They too are turning back. Our guide seems a little frustrated and asks a Frenchman why he didn’t try to go further. The Frenchman I believe has had enough and simply wants to return.

About 30-40 minutes of walking across the rocks the path bends a little to the right and we continue for another 20 minutes on the rocks before reaching  a large dirt wall that lifts us back up to the high ridge. Keep in mind this is still on the right side of the main valley as you are heading up.

The climb up the dirt wall is very steep but not exposed and soon we reach the top after 15 minutes of hard slog. We re-enter a pine forest but the trees are much smaller than those we left back at Sallaghari. Dominating the skyline is the vast ominous West face of Dhaulagiri. This is the first day where the big mountains really close in around you.

DSC00522

20 minutes later and about 90 minutes after leaving Sallaghari camp we reach a very small area to pitch a couple of tents. It’s not serviced by anyone but could be used for those who tried to get from Dobhan to IBC and didn’t quite make it in a day. The forest or rather what is left of it becomes thin and wispy. Finally the trees surrender to heather and juniper bushes. We cross a few more small river washes and walk up a small bank to a large perfectly flat area that is guarded by a stone teahouse and a couple of stone kitchens and toilets. We have arrived at Italian Base Camp. The area is large enough for several trekking groups but when we arrive all we see are the two Czech guys we had met lower down the trail. They have only reached here today after stopping short in their attempt to get here in one day from Dobhan.

DSC00538

We will be spending two nights acclimatising at IBC, so inspect one of the rooms. They only have 3 rooms none of which have beds and only 1 of which has a light. Room 1 is the better option but I think you would be better off in a tent than spend time in room 2 and 3 they should be called sheds and that is being kind. I’m only harsh to drive home the point that this is not a tea-house trek and anyone thinking that part of the way is, will be sadly mistaken.Being empty we do take up the offer to sleep in room 1 as it has lots of space and a large bench to lie out our gear. This makes cooking and clothes washing the next day a much more pleasant and spacious exercise.

The main living room has a fire pit, around which to sit, but no chairs to sit upon. We use small blocks of wood instead. The lady who runs IBC can cook for you if travelling independent. So you could definitely count on getting meals here if you are looking to limit the food you carry. She can even cook up some potatoes and porridge with the regular Dhal Bhat on offer.

DSC00563

Italian Base Camp Dhaulagiri Circuit

Camping was 600 rupees per tent and Dhal Bhat 500 rupees per person. Later in the afternoon I take a short walk up to the edge of the lateral moraine. Before me is vast chasm filled with jumbled rocks and steep cliffs. I can see on the far side the entrance to gorge we have to reach, but the way across is not apparent. If travelling alone and without a guide the lady in the teahouse will probably be able to point the way. I will describe in detail the route we took later on.

Our plan is to stay here for 2 nights and then proceed to Japanese Camp or Glacier Camp at 4100m for 2 nights, then onto Dhaulagiri Base Camp 4700m for another 2 nights. Normally most treks will only spend 1 night at Japanese Camp but we are keen to be well acclimatised and feel strong for when we reach Dhaulagiri Camp and cross the passes. The terrain after leaving IBC is severe and coming back down with any kind of altitude issues would be extremely difficult when compared to retreating on the Everest Base Camp trek or the Annapurna circuit. So unless you have a proven track record of being quick to acclimatise, I would highly recommend spending 6 nights from the time you reach IBC to the day you cross the French Pass. Again if you have recently completed another high pass trek in the last 2 weeks then only 3 to 4 days would be required.

Day 7 Rest Day at Italian Base Camp

A cold strong wind woke us early in the morning and persisted for several hours. It made getting out of our sleeping bags very difficult and with nowhere to go why bother. I did get up to see what conditions would be like for the following day and noted that the sun did not reach us until 9.30am. Keep in mind this was mid November. We set about washing our clothes, as we wanted to get them into the sun as early as possible. Drying clothes in the shade only causes them to freeze. You have been warned.

Later in the day we climbed up along the grassy side of the long lateral moraine that runs from IBC up to the West face of Dhaulagiri to a small ice cave. It can be covered in 30 to 40 minutes as a gentle stroll. On our way up we were lucky enough to spot a large herd of Blue Sheep running through the rocks and up into the cliffs.

The winds that rose up in the morning eased off, but I did notice that the afternoon clouds for the last 2 days have been getting thicker and persisting longer into the afternoon. We go to bed that night ready to move on and looking forward to reaching Japanese camp tomorrow.

Day 8 Italian Base Camp to Japanese Base Camp 3680m – 4100m

5.5 hours walking

This morning we were greeted by a magnificent morning with little winds to speak of. Our guide had indicated that the walk would only be 4 hours, which was not to be the case. We left IBC just before 8am still in shadow of Dhaulagiri’s west face. The path heads up a grassy slope behind IBC and within 10 minutes you reach the lip of the glacial moraine. The trail then traverses the inside of the moraine gently for another 10 minutes until you reach a steep Shute dropping down to your left onto the glacier below, which is completely covered in rubble. It is very steep about 50-60 degrees and 100 meters in length. In icy conditions small crampons would come in handy here and possibly a rope but today it’s just a matter of being careful and making use of our trekking poles. Our packs make life a little harder, but the average trekker with experience should not find this too difficult. We reach the bottom of the lateral moraine and then veer left at a 45-degree angle and head for the brown dirt moraine on the other side of the small glacier, which is about 150-200 meters away.

DSC00695

Day 8 descending onto the glacier after leaving IBC

The left side of the glacial moraine is already exposed to the sun and looks just as steep as our descent 10 minutes ago. I can see the path zigzags up until it reaches the visible top and disappears around a corner on the top right of the moraine. Our porters are ahead of us but I decide to wait as they are sending rocks hailing down from above. This section of the trek is a hazard. We have definitely made a mistake by setting off too late. I would in the future leave at 6am and make sure I ascended this moraine while it is still frozen in the shade. The potential here to be struck by debris is concerning. All I can do for now is to move quickly while keeping an eye out as often as I can for falling rocks. One person should remain at the bottom and keep a watch for rocks, for those ascending. Once they reach the top they should do the same for the last person coming up. This small section is sketchy and I have read other accounts of people being injured here, some seriously in the past. If you have helmets wear them. Chances are independent trekkers wont.

DSC00701

Dangerous moraine with potential rockfall path goes off to the top right

As I approach the top, the path bends around towards the left and disappears around a bend that heads directly to the cliff wall on the left side of the valley heading up. It is very narrow in sections with a steep 100m fall should you stumble or your pack pulls you off balance. With 5 minutes of careful walking you reach the steep cliff wall (that overhangs the path) and therefore provides protection from any potential rocks falling from above. The path also widens here and I feel that the little hazard is now behind us.

We are in a small gorge with a small pass to climb up a long grassy slope a few hundred meters in length. We can see back to IBC and the Shute we descended 40 minutes ago. About 30 minutes later we make the top of the small grassy pass and reach the entrance to the main Chongarden Gorge. It is simply one of the most vast, foreboding and magnificent features I have seen in all my years of trekking. The bottom of the gorge here is only 90 meters across. A small river runs along the flat bottom. We are on the left of it heading up. On the right side of the valley is the near vertical west wall of Dhaulagiri that rises over 4000m. We are literally at the base of this incredible mountain. The left side of valley only rises a scant 3000m in comparison. The gorge is very straight for two kilometers and then bends gently around to the right. It lures us forward. I feel microscopic in the huge valley. After years of trekking in stunning scenery, being impressed becomes harder but today I’m overwhelmed by my surroundings.

DSC00706

About ten minutes into the gorge we reach the stone hut that is Swiss Base Camp. It has taken us 1 hour 40 minutes but I think stronger trekkers could reach here in 1.15 if required. Larger groups will take longer owing to the moraine of falling rocks and ascending in staggered formation.

Today the hut is all locked up with a stout chain but I’m told it is sometimes open. Independent trekkers can on occasion get Dhal Bhat here but I wouldn’t count on it. There are some small level platforms to pitch tents and water is just a 5-minute walk down about 50 meters to the river. In short this is a good place to camp and is about 150 meters higher than IBC. Our plan is to spend two nights at Japanese Camp around 200 meters higher again at 4100m before going up to DBC at 4700m. I later decide that maybe it would be better to have spent 1night here and then do just 1 night at Japanese Camp instead of 2. I will explain a little later.

DSC00737

In the centre distance you can see the small white line we descended to reach the bottom of the glacier 

We snack on some nuts and a power bar before continuing up the gorge. The path is easy to follow and even if you do lose it you just keep heading up keeping the river on your right. An hour later and we pass underneath a steeper section of lateral moraine to our left. Again just keep an eye out here as you walk and move quickly for about 150 meters.

We reach a section of the valley floor covered in large rocks, which we pick our way over for 20 minutes and stop to take lunch. I can see that the clouds that have been gathering behind us are now closing in and turning nasty shades of grey. The winds start to freshen and just as we are finishing our meal, sleet and snow starts to fall.

DSC00780

Reaching the main gorge between IBC and Japanese camp

The valley that was filled with sunshine only an hour ago, is now consumed by thick clouds and cold winds. We put on our shells and down jackets. The fall in temperature is swift and abrupt. Thank goodness for good clothing. Around 45 minutes later we reach the terminal snout of the Chongarden Glacier. The river we have been following emerges out of a dark icy glacial cave. The snout of the glacier is about 80 meters in height. Previously trekkers used to climb up the left side of the valley and onto the glacier but recently it has melted back leaving steep cliffs that would be extremely difficult to ascend. This means we will have to ascend up the right side of the snout, but this as well comes with an obstacle. It will mean having to cross the small river, which at best guess is running at around 2 feet in depth. Crossing in boots will be impossible. The water is freezing and we are also in the grip of a small blizzard. Wind and snow is blowing at 30 to 40 Miles per hour. Visibility is down to 30 meters! This is no longer fun and I start to feel a bit concerned. I must admit if it were not for the company of the porters I may be feeling a tad scared being alone in this situation.

One of the porters tries to find a route up the left hand side but it is far too dangerous to contemplate in this weather. I would say you could rule this option out for the foreseeable future. They may try to repair or create a new route but for us there is no other choice we must cross the river. I search for an area that may allow us to jump across on rocks and sand banks but it’s no use. We find a way to get half way across but that’s the best we can do and start removing our boots and socks. Aside from our feet freezing, I am also a little concerned about falling over in the river on the uneven rocks obscured by the fast running water. We throw our boots over to the right bank, tighten our packs and wade into the frigid flow.

DSC00816

Bad weather coming from behind

The pain is instant and burns up my legs. I just stay focused on not falling over and 20 seconds later step across onto the right bank. It doesn’t help that’s its covered in snow. The wind catches our wet feet. I can feel ice forming on them almost immediately. We quickly sit down and dry our feet as best we can and pull on our warmest socks that we placed in the top of our packs in preparation. It’s difficult to get my boots on; I can hardly feel my feet. I stand up and start stomping and jumping on them. The best thing is to keep moving so we begin making our way up the snout of the glacier.

I’m cursing a little that I didn’t keep our baby crampons out, as the fresh snow and ice on the glacier is a little slippery. It is manageable but having them on would have been an advantage. The visibility is getting worse and is down to 10 meters. Thank goodness the wind is blowing from behind as our backpacks help to shield the gale and keep us warm.

DSC00819

Our guide looks a little lost and keeps stopping, trying to get a sighting, so we can reach Japanese Camp (glacier camp). It’s been about 30 minutes since we crossed the river and the feeling in my feet has returned but they are still very cold. I can feel myself getting a little agitated not knowing how far we have left to go. Min thinks it will be another 40 minutes but he normally likes to under-estimate and that’s in good weather.

The ridges and gullies on the glacier can hide a campsite at the best of times. I just hope we don’t walk past it by accident. Eventually about 90 minutes after crossing the river and ascending onto the glacier we reach Japanese camp. A collection of level platforms dug into the glacier with some abandoned old chairs and a few shredded old tents. It’s a relief to be here but we still need to get our tents up in the strong wind. Min seems pretty adept in all conditions and has our dome tent up in about 15 minutes. We crawl in and unroll our sleeping bags grateful to be out of the bad weather. I think finding this campsite on our own in the storm might have been very problematic. Possibly in good weather not so much an issue. Again a lesson learned is that bad weather usually comes in around midday. If we had left earlier from IBC we would have reached here before the storm arrived and I’m sure it would have been a much more pleasant experience.

DSC00821

Japanese Camp

We cook up some freeze dry meals in our tent being careful to allow venting despite the cold. We even make some coffee. Kargee brings us a bowl of popcorn. The storm continues to bash us for most of the night. All I can think about is how much snow must be falling up on the passes, and how all the other groups have turned back. I’m feeling pretty despondent. I had hoped that good weather might see us through but now after this storm, I’m not so sure anymore. We have another rest day tomorrow in any case; perhaps the storm will only last overnight.

Day 9 Japanese Camp (Glacier Camp) Rest day 4100m

Some time during the night the storm abated and the stars illuminated a black sky. The altitude is playing havoc with my bladder and I’m lucky if I can get through the night without at least three visits to the toilet. This is normally a few meters away as it’s too cold and dark to stray much further. I should explain that this is just for a pee. By the time morning breaks, I go for my fourth nature break only to discover that our tent is surrounded by large paw prints. It’s exciting to think that something wild was prowling around during the night only a few feet from where we slept.

The morning is crisp with very little wind, a perfect day in the mountains but we are still well under the shadow of Dhaulagiri at 9am with no sign of the sun appearing soon. The combination of shade and camping on ice is harsh. The sun eventually reaches our tents at 10.30am. I can see that as we approached Japanese camp yesterday were too far over to the right. We should have been more in the centre left of the glacier heading up. This makes sense as the old route ascended up the left side of the glacier while we came up the right.

Adjacent to the campsite is a waterfall coming down on the left side of the valley wall. This is a good feature to gauge your proximity to the campsite. As you face up the valley it is directly to your left. You may also fetch fresh water by descending a small hill to the left. It’s about 50 meters away, but be careful as you approach the stream there are some small lakes covered by ice and snow that might break. Despite the snow last night we can see some partially filled in footsteps leading down there.

We set up some of the abandoned milk crates and unfold some broken chairs and place them in the sun. We could walk towards Dhaulagiri base camp as a recce, but decide to conserve our energy and relax around our new makeshift dining table. I think back to our stop in Swiss Camp yesterday. In many ways it is a much nicer place to spend a night and break the journey from IBC to JBC into two days. This means an earlier start in the gorge with good weather as you ascend the Glacier Snout. It also means you can relax on grassy slopes the day before instead of spending a very cold rest day on ice at JPC. I make a note next time to do so, instead of spending 2 nights at the very cold Glacier Camp.

DSC00872

The weather holds fine for the entire day and there are no traces of storm cloud build up during the afternoon. Maybe (and more so hopefully) we are heading into a stable weather window. That night several large avalanches wake me. They crash down the sides of the gorge with the sound of canons and thunder that echoes off the walls. Despite the foreboding rumble they are exciting to listen to in the depths of the night, wrapped up warm in my sleeping bag. I’m really looking forward to our walk up to Dhaulagiri Base Camp tomorrow.

Day 10 Japanese Base Camp to Dhaulagiri Base Camp 4100m – 4700m

6 hours walkingdeep snow

We wake to another fine morning in the mountains but it is bitterly cold at 6am. With the build up of snow from two days ago we decide to get an early start so as to try and keep on top while the snow is still frozen.

We immediately head steeply up the central moraine bearing slightly to the right. In no time I am out of breath and feeling somewhat sluggish. Sometimes you just have bad mornings. I remind myself not to worry and just go slow. There is no point in fighting altitude, it always wins.

DSC00899

Walking directly under Dhaulagiri on the way to the base camp is a humbling experience 

We keep bearing towards the right at a slight angle before reaching a small avalanche zone and then bear left. It is difficult to give exact directions but it is just a case of following the stone markers (not always obvious) and natural direction of the curves of the glacier as you head up. An hour after leaving the JBC we get our first views of Tukuche. The rounded summit glistens in the sun. It seems some distance off but DBC is near the base so there is work to do as the last of the morning shadows departs. Within a minute the temperature soars and it is time for a complete costume change, sunglasses and sunscreen. It is especially important to get those sunglasses on straight away when walking on snow. Snow blindness is a painful experience and like sunburn you don’t release it’s happening.

DSC00896

The valley opens to a wide T-junction with the saddle between Dhaulagiri and Tukuche off to our right. The icefall that runs down from the saddle is impressive but not nearly as dramatic as the uninterrupted sheer face of Dhaulagiri now above to our right.

DSC00884

Dhaulagiri Base camp is right where the brown ridge on the left meets the snow

We descend a small hill and then walk across a long flat basin. The snow here is very deep and the sun is baking off the pristine white surface. The one litre of water we started off with now seems unacceptable and I kick myself for not bringing more. It’s slow going through the deep snow but we make our way back onto the medial moraine and the rocks that prevent us from sinking. We pass remnants of older camps and ahead I can see the porters. It appears to be another hour away. The new base camp is closer to where the valley narrows under Tukuche, but just on the left side before you enter the next canyon. It has taken 7 hours but without the snow I would imagine this could be done in 5 and possibly 4 if you are very strong.

 

Day 11 Dhaulagiri Base Camp Rest Day – 4700m

For the third morning we are blessed with good weather but we still need another two if we are to cross the French and Dhampus Pass. Taking three rest days is more than most treks provide and it may cost us with the weather but we are determined to be well acclimatised before taking on both passes and camping in hidden valley. From the camp we take a short stroll over a small hill and around the left into the Tukuche Valley. To the right is Tukuche itself. A very steep high lateral moraine guards the left side of the valley. The view of Dhaulagiri’s North face is sublime from here and continues to improve as you head up towards the French Pass. But for now we just sit and admire the natural beauty of the mountains while trying to work out the exact route ahead, up the French Pass. From here it doesn’t appear too far, but looks do have a way of being deceitful in the Himalayas.

20151113_112439

Dhaulagiri from base camp

During the afternoon and while lying in out tent, I hear an avalanche that seems to go on and on. I come out of the tent to look to see where it is coming from, but I can see no tell tale signs of white powder trails. Min sees my confusion and lets me know that the noise is high winds on the summit. I have read about this before in climbing novels but this is the first time I have been close enough to a summit to actually here it. The roar sounds like a freight train that never ends. I can only hope that we are not moving into a period of high winds when we cross the two passes.

DSC00930

Dhaulagiri Base Camp looking back down from where we came

By late afternoon the tents are being bashed off and on by sudden gusts that abate as quickly as they arise. That night we retire early and plan to leave at 5am.

Day 12 Dhaulagiri Base Camp – French Pass and Hidden Valley 4700-5300-5100m

7 hours walking

Despite best attempts we are 30 minutes late out of camp at 5.30am. There is no wind and the morning is not overly cold. We walk over the small hill to the north and head up the narrow Tukuche valley on the left side. An hour of picking our way over rocks and we get to the point where you start to ascend the left side of the moraine. There is a breach in the wall where you can gain about 100 meters in height before then zigzagging up the left hand side of the brown stony wall. The last 60-meter traverse is fairly steep with little path cut into the side for traction. I can feel the weight of my pack pulling me off balance. In icy conditions or with snow, some rope protection would be advisable here. The slope slides a little as the wall is now loose shale and rocks but Min manages to provide a helping hand and we reach the lip of the moraine safely. It is a small relief and I am reminded that these sections are what make the Dhaulagiri Circuit harder than the Annapurna Circuit.

DSC00923

Heading along the left side of the valley you go up the left moraine wall then walk along the lip before veering left towards the true pass

It has taken just over two hours to reach this point and the rest of way ahead appears sedate both in gradient and difficulty. We continue along the lip of the moraine for an hour before reaching a large cairn but this is not the top. We then leave the lip of the moraine and turn 45 degrees to our left across a large bowl that is filled with snow. The slope then rises again up to the true pass. The distance is not too far but again the snow cuts our speed by half. The sun is out now and again the temperature in the windless bowl rises. The slope up to the pass becomes relentless. This is not the most difficult pass I have ascended and aside from the slightly scary scramble up the left side of the moraine, I would say that the Throng La is longer and steeper than the French Pass.

DSC01032

This was taken the morning we left looking back to DBC French Pass is behind us

About 4 hours after leaving DBC we reach the top of the French Pass. In front of us is the high Hidden Valley. Tukuche is directly to the right and behind us is the massive North Face of Dhaulagiri. It dwarfs everything around it. Having seen Everest and K2 I can say that this view of Dhaulagiri is more impressive than both with possibly only Nanga Parbat in Pakistan as a rival for big close up views of an 8000m peak.

DSC01054

Having climbed up the moraine wall and now walking along the lip towards the French Pass

From the top of the pass we make our way down the right hand side of the gentle valley through very deep snow. Straight ahead to the right is Dhampus peak, which one should aim for when walking through the Hidden Valley. As long as you stay to the right of the river now frozen, you are going the right way. We walk for another two hours then climb and descend a small hill about 50 meters in height and make camp at the base of the hill at 5100m. The way over the Dhampus pass is off to our right, but that can wait till tomorrow.

DSC01068

Leaving the lip and veering left to the true pass. This section in the snow was a bit harder than it looked

DSC01075

Tukuche left and Dhaulagiri right walking across the snow bowl

DSC01082

Nearing the top of the French Pass

The last two hours in the sun and snow have again been draining so we get inside our tents and try to rest up for the crossing of the Dhampus Pass tomorrow.

DSC01093

French Pass Dhaulagiri Circuit

DSC01112

After crossing the French Pass it is a gentle walk down the right side of the valley for 2 hours to Hidden Valley Camp

Owing to the snow and ice in the hidden valley, there is no accessible running water, and we are left to melt ice for cooking and drinking, a very slow process when hungry and thirsty. It is a cold night sleeping on the ice and with moderate winds blowing the temperature drops to minus 25c. If only for one night you will be grateful for a good quality sleeping bag or miserably regretful. Seriously make sure you do have a warm bag for the trip, as hidden valley is a frozen icy place.

Day 13 Hidden Valley – Dhampus Pass – Yak Kharka 5100m -5250m-4400m

9 hours walking

For the fifth morning in a row the sun is shining and even the winds have eased during the night. It looks as though the weather is going to hold, but mountain weather is known to change suddenly and with a long day ahead we leave early at 6am.

DSC01144

Dhampus Pass cutting the slope on a traverse to the top

From our camp we head in a straight line to our right and over to the large hill on the right hand side of the valley. We reach the bottom in twenty minutes and start the long traverse up the Dhampus pass. As you ascend across the slope it runs down hill from right to left. Directly to your right the pass is higher so keep going straight ahead at a slight right angle to the low point. It takes us about 90 minutes of traversing and we start to reach the low point in the saddle. I can see the top of the Annapurnas just cresting over the top of the pass but they are still some distance off.

DSC01148

Top of Dhampus Pass with Annapurnas straight ahead

Another 10 minutes of slight ascent and we reach the top of the Dhampus pass, which is marked with prayer flags and ram horns. Despite the short distance we are both feeling pretty tired after a sleepless night and also soreness from the previous day crossing the French Pass. A rest day in hidden Valley might have been worthwhile before crossing the Dhampus Pass.

DSC01236

Descending Dhampus Pass 

From the top of the pass a broad valley stretches before us. To our right is the Ridge line and summit of Tukuche. To our left is Dhampus peak and straight ahead in full view are the Annapurnas. The way down appears to be straight ahead and to the right but this is not the correct the way to go and will eventually lead to cliffs and a dead end with a long and painful hike to get back. Today the Dhampus pass is free from wind and basking in sunshine but I can see in bad weather this is a potentially deadly place. We walk straight ahead down a long gentle slope but keep high on the left side of the valley, being careful not to lose too much height.

DSC01227

Dhampus Pass

For two hours we keep staying on the left side of the valley keeping high. The traversing across the slopes in the deep snow is very tiring. I feel we must be getting close to the point where we begin our descent, but Min our guide dampens our resolve but saying we still have another few hours to go at least. This does come as a bit of shock but I can see the porters, three small dots ahead much higher on the left slope.

DSC01240

Dhampus Pass looking back you can see the saddle just below the small mountain top left. This is where we came from so you can see how you have to stay high on the left as you descend

There is more traversing to go, each time we come around a small left spur we see several more and release we still have to go up as well. The snow is getting softer and more difficult to cross. There are only small patches of dirt from time to time. It is now 6 hours into the crossing and still we are showing no signs of descending. In fact we round a bend and see the porter trail again rise steeply across the slope and off to the left. The obvious way down is to the right but I can see now it leads into a very steep shute and eventually cliffs. I can only imagine how heart breaking and dangerous it would be to have made this serious mistake. In bad weather it could mean death. It is at this point we see a body further down the slope covered in plastic. It is a sobering reminder that this pass does claim lives.

DSC01193

Dhampus Pass long left turn

Min informs us we are extremely lucky and that he has never crossed the Dhampus pass without strong winds. Many times he has had to camp if the visibility becomes bad. I can see even on this perfect day how this could all start to go horribly wrong. There is no path to follow and if you have not crossed before, then knowing to stay high and left would not be obvious.

DSC01239

Still more to traverse on the Dhampus pass up through the rocks

We traverse up the steep left wall again. It is energy sapping this late in the day. I feel very tired. The slope across to some large rocks becomes steeper and drops sharply off to our right. If on a dry slope it would not be so scary but on the ice and snow it does present a hazard if you slipped and fell. A bad fall is possible here so I stay focused and place my feet carefully. At the end of the traverse are some large rocks. We scramble up them but the ice is very slippery. Min cuts some steps into the slope above the rocks which is too steep to ascend with out. We are both wearing small spikes held on by elastic straps. Proper crampons are not required but the spikes most certainly are. There are a few sections of traversing that would have been difficult if not dangerous without them.

DSC01244

Dhampus Pass Dhaulagiri Circuit

The last 20 meters is a slightly sketchy experience and a small ice axe would have made me feel re-assured. As it is the walking pole does the job, just!

We reach the top. From here I can see a long spur stretching far down into the Kali Gandaki Valley straight ahead. I can see a marker pole indicating the way down is again down the left side of the spur. If in doubt on the Dhampus pass remember stay left and keep staying left. The view is simply breathtaking. To our right is Dhaulagiri. Its summit ridge stretches for miles down into the valley. Moving to the left we can see the green lowlands of Nepal. A blanket of cloud is far below and stretches all the way into India in the south. The Annapurnas on the far side of valley are to the east and as we pan left to the North we can see the greenery turn dry and brown into the high barren but beautiful highlands of upper Mustang and Tibet. Of all the passes I have crossed this must be the most beautiful or is it a case of victory tasting so sweet. All the doubt from the Dutch group about having the turn back and the struggles through the snow are behind us. We are going to make it! And in that moment of realization and with the vista before me, I can feel my breath getting shorter and tears start to well up. They are the best tears in life, tears of joy and tears of pride. We’ve made it!

DSC01250

Finally heading down 

The decent down the spur into the Kali Gandaki is very steep but is well marked by a series of poles. Within a few hundred meters we are out of the snow. The safety of solid ground and grass is overwhelming. Our progress down improves but we still have a good 90 minutes to go before we reach Yak Kharka. I can see a small stone refuge far below, which will be our campsite for the night. By the time we reach our tent it is late in the afternoon. My big toes are very sore from descending on the steep slope and I worry about the state of my toenail, which is starting to throb in my boots. It’s our last night before reaching Martha and a bittersweet moment.

DSC01259

Reaching Yak Kharka late in the day with the Annapurnas behind

I can only reflect that the Dhampus pass is much harder than I had anticipated. This is mostly owing to the very long traverses after reaching the high point. It is not a case of reaching the top and then going straight down like the Throng La on the Annapurna Circuit. Without the snow this could have been done in 7 hours and possibly 5-6 if very strong and knowing the route.

DSC01263

Camp site Yak Kharka

Day 14 Yak Kharka to Marpha – 4400m to 2670m

3-4 Hours walking

From here down to Marpha it is all steeply down hill. Within 30 minutes we descend down to the tree line and onto a well-worn path. The valley floor is getting closer but still seems a long way down. We reach a small hut and campsite within 90 minutes after leaving Yak Kharka. It is a very pleasant spot among the sparse dry pine forest that grows on the sides of the Kali Gandaki valley. We stop for a break near a large tree wrapped in many prayer flags. Min tells us it is one of his favorite spots for rest so we make good use of the setting and watch eagles and huge vultures riding thermal breezes for half an hour.

20151116_101759

Yak Kharka to Marpha Dhaulagiri Circuit

20151116_095535

Yak Kharka to Marpha

20151116_091937

Last day Dhaulagiri Circuit

Four hours after setting off we reach the bottom of the valley and enter the small Tibetan township of Marpha. This is a beautiful whitewashed village with ornamental doorways and windows painted red. It is very different from the Nepali villages we passed through on the other side of the French Pass. We have reached the end of the Dhaulagiri circuit and connected into the Annapurna Circuit. All of a sudden there are modern Teahouses with menus and showers, pizza and apple cider and central heating. I miss the wilderness but a hot shower is welcome and so too an apple cider. We say goodbye to Min, Kargee and our two porters.

DSC01277

Reaching Marpha on the Annapurna circuit 

DSC01401

Marpha the end of the Dhaulagiri Circuit

They are keen to get back Pokhara. We decide to stay on in Marpha and plan to walk down to Ghasa in two days. I won’t go too much into that as this section of the Annapurna circuit is well documented, but I will say it was a very beautiful two days following the new paths that take you away from the road. In Particular the town of Chimang high up on the Eastern side of the valley or left as you head down was stunning and a very beautiful authentic experience. The other option for leaving is to head up the valley to Jomsom about a 90-minute walk from where you can fly out to Pokhara.

DSC01272

Emma with the Dhaulagiri Team we miss them already

Summary

In short, I would not attempt this trek on your own unless you can carry 25 kg over high passes and have previous experience with wilderness trekking at high altitudes. You will need to carry your own food for at least 6 days between Italian Base Camp and Marpha, as there is nothing in between to sustain you in any way.

The Dhampus pass may appear to be easier on paper than the French pass but I can assure you that the Dhampus is the harder and potentially more dangerous of the two, so keep this in mind. You should always allow 3 rest days before attempting the French Dhampus pass double unless you have come off a previous trek and are already acclimatised. We immensely enjoyed this trek and hope you do as well.

Happy Trekking,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello everyone, ever wanted to know what crossing Africa and Asia looks like? Well this short movie will give you an idea of what you can see when you stop flying in a plane and take the long way around by bus, train, taxi and tuk-tuk.

This version will play on a desktop or laptop computer

This version should work on a mobile device or tablet

https://mobileyt.com/42548264.php

sit back and enjoy this journey over 71,000km across this beautiful planet

 

Our train leaves Kula Lumpur on time at 8.30am. We pass through a small tunnel and emerge into the light. I am drawn to the doors of the carriage eager to see something of the city but mostly I think just from habit. The tracks are surrounded by motorways and non-descript buildings but my patience is eventually rewarded by a fleeting glance of the Petronas towers. I feel at last like I am in Kuala Lumpur and not in some rushed dream. The infrastructure closes back in and I never see them again.

Leaving Kuala Lumpur the final day of travel

Leaving Kuala Lumpur the final day of travel

Our train picks up speed and thirty minutes later we are flanked by palm plantations on both sides. They appear attractive and somewhat representative of where we are but then I am reminded by what has been destroyed in order that they should grow. Old growth rainforest now only appears in patches on the surrounding mountains. The scenery is by no means the best we have encountered on our journey but I find myself wanting to stare at it. To take in everything I possibly can, every blade of grass, every bird in the sky and every child that waves as we pass by.

Passing through palm plantations

Passing through palm plantations

We reach the straits of Malacca by lunch and I note our position on a map. It can’t be long now. Just a few more hours to go. A smile creeps across my face…we are going to make it. I think we knew this after getting our Tibet permits 8 weeks ago in Nepal, but now finally it begins to really mean something. With the end so close my mind drifts back to the start. Back to the Cape of Good Hope. I can see us sitting on a rock with our feet dangling in the Atlantic Ocean with the world in front of us. Is it really possible we have come this whole way without flying? That we have crawled across the globe like two small ants for one and a half years to reach this point.

Back to  where it all started

Back to where it all started

The train rocks and rattles and the palm trees begin to blur. I lose focus on where I am and the memories start to flow. First the big memories the obvious ones, the significant moments in time. I can see the bus station in Cape Town and us waiting to be called, feeling apprehensive and so excited. Being stuck on a crippled train in Mlimba Tanzania for 24 hours with Imogen and Flynn.

The train breakdown in Tanzania

The train breakdown in Tanzania

The setbacks, disappointments and relief at finally receiving the Ethiopia visa. The dreamlike Serengeti sunsets and the twenty magical minutes we spent alone with the cheetah while a storm approached. I think about crossing the equator back in Kenya and I look down at the copper bracelet I was talked into buying at the time. I’m so glad I have it now. I think about the morning we finally left Africa on the Aqua Hercules after four days of Industrial action in Port Said.

Crossing the equator

Crossing the equator

Adrian on the Aqua Hercules

Adrian on the Aqua Hercules

Then some smaller thoughts that I have not considered for some time start to return. They feel in some ways even more precious. I think about being on a beach in Zanzibar talking to some small children.

Zanzibar

Zanzibar

Spending time with Adolfo on the boat from Sudan to Egypt and watching the sunset on Abu Simbel. The debacle of going through Egyptian customs and then eating a Big Mac in Aswan. The bus conductor in Sudan who had the smile of an idiot and was more interested in spraying the bus with air-freshener rather than helping me get a jumper out of my bag.

The road to Ethiopia

The road to Ethiopia

The crossing of the border between India and Pakistan and standing with one leg in each country. Of Rehan who came to see us in the morning and brought a walnut cake for us to share before we left.

Pakistan India border

Pakistan India border

Of being stuck on the Karakorum highway for ten hours. Feeling like it didn’t really matter and being entertained by the Pakistani passenger’s. Pakistan a country among so many other wonderful nations continues to stand out. I think about long lazy days in the Hunza Valley and my afternoon walks along the water channels. The local villagers inviting me in to their homes for apples, grapes and chai. I think about Mr Yaqoob a special man in the world who has touched many people hearts. Of Amin the loveable Balti cook and of course Nasir and Habib. Nasir and Habib who helped us so much and have become such wonderful friends. Of Irfan who went out of his way to return our passports from Islamabad.

Bus travel in Pakistan

Bus travel in Pakistan

I think of our days in India. Without doubt the most vibrant country in the world. I think about the wedding in Mumbai and the days spent with Dan and Sophie on the houseboat in Kerala. The beer we had together at Varkala beach just because we could. There are so many characters who popped into our life sometimes for just a few moments and sometimes for a few months.

Sita from Jaisalmer

Sita from Jaisalmer

I think about our months spent in the Himalayas, with Sue, Phil, Liam and little Jaylan who had the heart of a lion and kept pushing over the pass when so many others turned back. Of the day we crossed the Kongma la and met Chris who was so sick but stuck it out for 8 hours and made it. Of August who was reading “The Climb” in Gokyo and fell of a plastic chair when one of the legs broke.

Jaylan in Nepal

Jaylan in Nepal

I think about how when you travel just a glance or hello can lead to having lunch and spending the day with someone like Matt who we met in Madurai. I think about sitting with him in the great temple and hearing his story about a bus driving off with his bag still on board. I think about Peter who met in Kashgar and then again in Hong Kong almost a year later.

Adolfo in Egypt

Adolfo in Egypt

I think about Kathmandu and having pizzas in “fire and ice” and being surprised by Matt who flew out from the UK to see us and the girl who worked behind the desk of our hotel. I don’t even know her name but I can see her face clearly.

And then I think about Rick. Who spent almost six months travelling with us through Africa and Nepal. I miss him very much and miss his humour, his kindness and support he always showed us. I miss all the memories we have shared with him. All the border crossings and all the cramped mini bus rides. All the times we were called Muzungu in Africa. I miss our breakfasts at Olive in Pokhara and studying the dinner menus in the tea-houses searching for price weaknesses together. Of saying it’s okay to buy a Snickers bar. I can’t imagine a journey without him to be honest.

Coffee with Rick one of many

Coffee with Rick one of many

The memories speed up and they become a blur like the scenery outside. We get an announcement that we shall be arriving into Woodlands station in ten minutes. Up ahead I can see the bridge that spans the channel between the mainland of Malaysia and the island of Singapore. We cross into the bridge. The wheels on the track roar… we have left Malaysia behind. We are now in Singapore but I guess we still have to go through Immigration before its official.

This sign back in Zambia seemed appropriate at the time

This sign back in Zambia seemed appropriate at the time

The train squeals to a halt and I look across at Emma. She doesn’t say anything we just pick up our bags after the other passengers leave. Before stepping off the carriage I quickly film the moment. Emma remarks that this is it. After 70,000km and almost 18 months we are here. This is where it ends. I keep looking for some grand entrance something momentous to mark the occasion. I glance back to the empty carriage one last time and step onto the platform.

I watch the most important person on this journey walk towards immigration. She is without doubt my best friend and I could not imagine ever doing something like this without her. She struggles slightly with the heavy pack.

I can see her sitting on her backpack on dirty street corners sometimes in the dark while I go looking for hotels never complaining. She has endured heat rashes, broken toes, robbery, sickness, dirt, filthy toilets, military coups, and more recently deadly caterpillars and always managed a smile. I know she has touched the hearts of everyone she met and at this moment I am bursting with pride. That along with all the memories suddenly becomes overwhelming.

The immigration officer calls me up. I hand over my passport. She asks what my purpose for coming to Singapore is. I can feel a smile trickle across my face. I want to tell her why I am here. I feel an urge to tell her everything but keep it inside and say… I’m just here for a holiday.

We exit immigration hoping to see a sign that says welcome to Singapore. But all I can see is one that reads Photos are prohibited and cameras will be confiscated. It’s funny how sometimes scripts don’t go quite according to plan. For so long it was about reaching Singapore. I want to find a place to take a photo… a fixed point to call the end but there just doesn’t seem to be anything significant. I think I always knew it was not about the destination but more about the journey. Standing here in Woodlands station that cliché is resonating loudly.

I feel so lucky, I feel so fortunate to have experienced something like this. To have seen such amazing landscapes. To feel what it is like to cross continents, watching jungles merge into forests and deserts. To cross the world’s great rivers and mountains and to see the sun set on new horizons almost every day. But what shall stand out most in my mind are the people we have met.

We have both been greatly inspired to make this journey by a man some of you will be familiar with and some of you will not, and so I find it fitting and necessary to end with a quote that perfectly sums up our most valued lesson while travelling.

“The enjoyment of the world is immeasurably enhanced not just by meeting people who think, look, talk and dress differently from yourself, but by having to depend on them.”

Michael Palin

Lastly thank you to all of you back home and around the world. Thank you for staying with us on this journey. Your words of encouragement meant so much and after all the best experiences are those shared.

So for now this is the end of the peel, but I guess there are always other apples in life.

Till the next time love Greg and Emma…

We did it...

We did it…

I think when we set out on this journey I described this style of travel as knowing where you want to go but having little idea of what lies ahead. So our disappointment at missing the last bus to Krabi for the day is short lived. We go looking for a hotel and spot along the way a Pizza Hut. Make a mental note of its location before discovering the My Place Hotel. Inspect a decent room for 550 THB with air-conditioning, no need to look elsewhere this is indeed my place. Return to the Pizza Hut passing a night market along the way with no desires to sample local cuisine… at least not tonight anyway. I suppose upon returning home I will ignore fast food offerings and opt for Thai cuisine just to complete the irony.

The next morning and we are trying to purchase tickets to Krabi with mixed results. Prices vary from 150-300 THB. One gentlemen after asking where we are from informs me his son is studying in Monash University. A prestigious college, he must be very proud I say. Yes but the fees are very expensive he replies. He sells us two tickets for 150 THB each and we board a fairly decent looking bus across the road. The journey time to Krabi is as varied as the prices offered so I expect the lower priced tickets to produce a longer journey time. Four and half hours later I am proven correct.

We stop at the main station where all the locals on the bus depart. We go to get off but the driver with limited English motions for us to wait as he will let us off at another stop. Ao Nang, I ask now breaking the rule of travel that… thou shall never ask a question where yes can be provided…Yes he says. Ten minutes later we pull up at a deserted station where conveniently a lone truck sits waiting. We are not at Ao Nang. With us is Ryan a young man from South Africa who is teaching English in Surat Thani. The truck driver asleep in the front seat stirs like a crocodile on the river bank and gets out of the truck. He agrees to take us to Ao Nang about ten minutes away for 100 THB each. A very steep price for such a short journey but there is nowhere else to go and we accept the offer.

Arrive at Ao Nang hoping to see calm blue and inviting waters but are greeted instead by brown waves and dangerous rips. I had hoped that the rainy season was restricted to occasional heavy downpours but it seems the prevailing winds and currents make the ocean almost un-swimmable regardless of whether it’s raining or not.

We stay for a few nights around a cove at Railay beach which can only be accessed by boat. On this occasion a frightening experience of rolling waves and soaked luggage. Our entrance onto the beach must be timed to perfection should we be tipped over in the surf. The driver executes a precision landing with steely expression and years of experience. Hop over the side with pants rolled up and manage to cut my foot on a rock wedged in the sand. Ryan sporting massive biceps helps with our luggage and runs up the beach before the next wave comes crashing down. He hops back on the boat and makes for the next cove about five minutes away. Yet another act of kindness on a very long list.

Railay Beach

Despite poor weather Railay is still a paradise

I gaze around and despite the inclement conditions the splendour of Railay prevails. Soaring cliffs and jagged islands erupt from the ocean. The palm trees bending over in stiff winds. It’s not ideal but still very beautiful. Later that night after finding cheap lodgings we spend our savings on several expensive but incredibly well located cocktails. The grotto bar at the Rayavadee offers an experience of Robinson Crusoe meets martinis and mood music. Cast away chic with inebriation.

The grotto bar at the Ryavadee

The grotto bar at the Ryavadee

Three days later and the driving wind and rain have literally dampened our resolve and there are only so many lychee martinis one can consume. Well actually budget is governing that figure more than constitution. With some regret we abandon ship and head back to Surat Thani. While weather is at its worst on the west coast of the Thai peninsula, reports indicate that Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand on the east coast are currently ideal.

Krabi

Krabi

We book a prepaid ticket from Railay to Koh Samui for 750 THB or around $26.00 USD. This includes a boat back to Ao Nang, a transfer to Krabi, followed by a bus to Surat Thani and finally a high speed ferry to Koh Samui. I try to price it up separately but it adds up to be more and that’s provided we don’t run into any problems, which of course one must expect. The journey across the peninsula goes smoothly and with no real issues we reach the island of Koh Samui in about 6 hours.

Minivan from west to east coast of Thai peninsula

Minivan from west to east coast of Thai peninsula

Koh Samui is not nearly as beautiful as Railay but under blue skies and washed by calm waters is certainly more appealing at this time of year. The choice of locations and accommodations are almost endless as are the bars and restaurants along Chaweng beach. I can’t say I would ever deliberately come here on a holiday but it makes for an excellent place to eat, drink and reflect before we make our final push to Singapore.

Chaweng beach Koh Samui

Chaweng beach Koh Samui

We hire a small motorbike for a few days and explore the rest of the island. Disappointingly most of the views along the road are blocked by buildings and resorts. It also appears to be a very dangerous place to ride a bike as we witness three very bad accidents involving foreigners in as many days. It’s a sobering experience to ride carefully and to assume every vehicle around you is a potential killer. The third accident is particularly nasty involving a young Russian tourist. His head has been badly cut and the front of the van he collided with looks like it has been hit by a wrecking ball. After so many months on the road I really don’t want this to be our fate so we return the bike to its owner.

Bike accidents in Koh Samui

Bike accidents in Koh Samui

At best it’s supposed to take one and a half days to reach Singapore from Koh Samui so we allow three days just to be safe. It seems a reasonable margin for error while allowing some degree of risk and adventure. What remains uncertain is will we be able to get train tickets from Hat Yai to Kuala Lumpur later in the day. The first ferry departs at 8.00am and transfers to a Mini Van that will take us five hours south to Hat Yai. The expected arrival time is 3pm. The overnight train to KL departs at 4pm so there isn’t much in it.

The day starts poorly and we are not picked up until 7.30am. Now with slight panic we head to the pier wondering if we have failed to make the ferry let alone the train in Hat Yai. Arrive at the pier late but the ferry has not arrived yet and ends up departing not until 9.15am. Will this mean getting into Hat Yai too late for the train? The driver of the van must be telepathic and responds accordingly. His speed is a little unnerving but not frightening and I am just grateful that based on distance and glances to the speedometer we seem to be back on track. Arrive into Hat Yai at 2.30pm but the driver does not want to stop at the train station and instead drops a young lady outside the university before continuing to the bus station.

The race to Hat Yai

The race to Hat Yai

Feeling a little frantic we go in search of a taxi, tuk-tuk or tout but none to be found. Punishment no doubt for all my cursing’s along the way. Make some form of mumbled penance and get rewarded by a tout who leads us onto the street. A man with a beige car will drive us to the train station for 150 THB. Seems a good offer considering our surrounds and imminent departure of train for which we have no tickets and it smells new inside. Not a fragrance I can remember for some time.

Lift for 150 Thai Baht

Lift for 150 Thai Baht

When we get out at the station I thank the driver and watch the beige car disappear into the traffic. That was certainly never scripted. My anxiety regarding space on the train is somewhat justified. There are no sleeping berths available for tonight’s service nor are there any seats available in 1st class. She can provide two 2nd class seats for the 14 hour trip down to Kuala Lumpur. We engage in a quick meeting and decide that 2nd class train is still better than the bus although others might disagree as the bus is quicker by three hours but I don’t see the point of arriving at 3.30am.

Platform four is underutilised by a short train of just two carriages. The rains have cleared and the afternoon sun has dipped low enough in the sky that the roof of the platform no longer provides ample shade. The doors are still locked despite a planned departure in thirty minutes. I look longingly into the carriage, streams of air-conditioned condensation running down the window. Decide to pass the time by looking for a money exchanger. Swap Thai baht for Malaysian Ringgit, my penultimate currency. If all goes to plan I shall require it for only 20 hours and I begin to wonder why I am bothering but it’s such a hard habit to break. Return to the train to find the doors have been opened and take my place in the soothing air-conditioned comfort with a plastic bag filled with mangoes and cut pineapple.

Hat Yai station

Hat Yai station

The train departs on time and we head for the border at a slow and considered speed. Nothing remarkable outside to look at we arrive about an hour later at a very modern station. We exit Thai Immigration and notice a sign that warns that aliens of a Hippy nature will not be allowed to enter. The board then explains in great detail what exactly constitutes said Hippy Alien. Long scruffy hair, wearing ragged clothes and the unnecessary use of sandals are all deemed valid reasons for rejection. I can’t say based on our experiences that this policy is ever greatly enforced but hippies beware. Or are they trying to prevent some E.T looking character with dreadlocks entering.

Hippies Beware!

Hippies Beware!

The ladies at the Malaysian counter are wearing head scarfs. It’s been so long since we were in an Islamic country I had almost forgotten about Malaysia. We are given an entry stamp and allowed back on the train which I notice is considerably longer in length. I go to the ticket counter and ask if I can upgrade our tickets to sleeper class. Seems now we are in Malaysia with added carriages this is not an issue. Bit of a relief as I was not looking forward to a bad night’s sleep in a chair. The train pulls out of the station as the sun sets. This seems to be a common theme of late. If it runs on time we will arrive at 6.30am and hopefully be able to secure seats on the 8.30am to Singapore.

Leaving the Thailand and Malaysia border

Leaving the Thailand and Malaysia border

I go to sleep on a train crawling its way south during the night to Kuala Lumpur. I wake the next morning but it’s still dark outside. The conductor tells us we will arrive into KL central in 10 minutes. He tells me the time is 6.30am. This is good news we are still on schedule. We arrive into an underground station which is a little bleak and disorientating. Upstairs resembles more the inside of an airport terminal perhaps an early preparation. The ticket office is yet to open so we sit on some steel chairs looking and feeling a little discarded in the huge empty hall. I go out onto the streets of KL. Dawn is coming and some of the street lights begin to turn off. There is nothing to suggest where I am. I could be anywhere really.

Waiting in KL central for the train to Singapore

Waiting in KL central for the train to Singapore

The ticket window opens at 7.00am and we manage to secure two tickets on the 8.30am train to Singapore. I hand over some cash. The significance of the moment does not go unnoticed. I have just purchased our last two tickets. I hold them in my hand and examine them like precious documents. Sunlight is beginning to stream into the terminal a new day has begun, the final day of our journey has arrived…

It’s been a few weeks since we have experienced life on the rails. The Bangkok Express lumbers rowdily along tracks less smooth than those we experienced back in China. I pass an open door on the way to the bathroom affording irresistible views of the rice paddies now gleaming under a Thai sunset. I stand by the open door taking in the fragrance of the jungle transfixed as the sun slips slowly below the tree line. The passing of each day is beautiful but more so in recent weeks I am also left with feelings of melancholy.

Nong Khai train

Heading south to Bangkok

The last of the sun is extinguished and the spell lifts. I return to my seat which is now being converted into a bed by an enthusiastic and high-spirited conductor. He is a good natured man and while tucking in sheets explains the dinner choices on the menu. I order the set 2 option which consists of red chicken curry and some steamed rice with vegetables. The beds in 2nd class are not contained within a private compartment but they are extremely wide and could almost accommodate two people. My only complaint being that the main lights in the carriage are never darkened during the night and the pale blue curtains do a terrible job of blocking it out. But more so I am just grateful to have a bed to sleep in.

2nd Class sleeper Thai trains

2nd Class sleeper Thai trains

Our train makes steady progress during the night and we arrive into Bangkok just before sunrise at 6.30am. Despite being the final stop the conductor is keen for us to vacate the beds so he can pack the sheets and convert them back into seats. I try to extend my stay in the bed with desperate and tired looks but he is having none of it and claps his hands with a smile to hurry me up. I exit another train and step onto the platform of yet another city. The ground beneath my feet feels a little unsteady as I walk towards a sign that says Bangkok.

Bangkok train station

Bangkok Station

Despite feelings of tiredness we wait in line to purchase tickets for the next leg of our journey. I ask a man for two sleeping berths to Surat Thani. He seems a little surprised by my request and casts me a doubtful look before searching. I can see already by his expression that the news is not good. There are no seats available for several days; it would seem we have stumbled into Thailand during summer holidays. I ask him to check the morning train which is notably slower than the evening express trains. He finds two seats but it doesn’t leave until two days later. We could try for a bus but I feel a longing for the romance of trains and a weariness for buses. We book two tickets on the day time train which at least has the bonus of allowing the scenery outside to be observed, even if it is at a greatly reduced speed.

We then try to book onward travel south into Malaysia but advance bookings can only be made in Hat Yai from where the train departs. This is an issue as we won’t be in Hat Yai until the day of departure so securing a reservation might be difficult. And there I was thinking that things were becoming too easy. The disappointment is fleeting and washed away by positive thoughts. I think the philosophies preached to me by the station master in India are finally sinking in but do they extend to the Thai Rail network. I feel a consultation is in order. I want to ask him for emergency quota or tourist quota but those days are now many months behind us. There is nothing more we can do for now and that is comforting in a small way. I oddly begin to feel that some adventure has crept back in and I am almost a little happy by the uncertainty of it all.

The normally busy streets of Bangkok are empty and still in the early morning light. A city still sleeping after a busy night. It looks lethargic and unwilling to wake up which I can currently relate to. It’s a place renowned for its smiling people, glittering temples and garish girly bars. I remember back to a time when Bangkok was the most exotic city I had ever visited. But Bangkok once so far removed now seems an oddly familiar place. Women walk to work in designer outfits. Packs of teens take selfies and giggle on their way to school. Buildings are tall and sparkling. The streets look clean. Has Bangkok changed or have I?

We arrive at the Four Seasons hotel looking ragged and very much out of place. The staff also seem surprised and unsure about offering assistance. I don’t think they are used to seeing clients arrive with luggage strapped to their backs. I am feeling very tired but we are just in time for a buffet breakfast. This has become a recent treat while travelling; an all you can eat extravaganza that lasts for hours should you want it to. I see a boy aged around 11 at a table nearby. I notice he has taken a huge chunk of camembert cheese; in fact he has taken the entire block from the cheese counter. I stare at him with distain as he pushes the cheese around his plate with no intention of eating it. I look at his parents, both of whom haven’t even noticed as they’re so engrossed with their smart phones. As we’re leaving his mother has taken her attention momentarily away from her cyber life but only to ask the waitress to clear the plates. The lump of untouched cheese is taken away. I shake my head as I walk past thinking of the many children who might have appreciated just a small slice.

With little time remaining we make use of the fast access to internet and commit to booking flights from Singapore back to Australia. The thought of flying feels treacherous. For almost one and a half years I have noticed thin white streaks passing high above me in a blue sky. I always considered them the enemy in some way. A representation of modernity and fast paced life not linked to our world of buses and rickshaws.

It seems incomprehensible to me that we are planning our final days on a journey that stared so long ago. I feel as though any movement forward is killing me and the trip. The trip has become an entity in my mind, the memories make it whole and I don’t want to let it go. For so long we have been going forward with purpose and commitment on our journey, now ironically I feel am being carried unwilling to an end I no longer want.

We scan the internet for the best possible deals around a date that allows us sufficient time to reach Singapore. The traditional carriers are all very expensive but we find a reasonable fare with the budget carrier Scoot airlines. They offer such luxuries as in-flight meals, entertainment systems and extra leg room at an extra cost. But none of these seem relevant at this point in time so we purchase two tickets at the lowest possible price. With the push of a button we have now for the first time a line in the sand, a date that we must finish on. I feel like I am on some sort of travel death row. I know it all sounds terribly morbid and negative but there it is.

Heading up to the Grand Palace

Heading up to the Grand Palace

We try to turn things around by focusing on where we are and making the most of the time we have left. We head for the river and catch a high speed long tail boat up to the Grand Palace. Apparently the public boat is not due for 90 minutes. It seems unlikely but I need a rush and some instant gratification. Our boat driver seems to understand and obliges with death defying speed on the water. We arrive at the pier a man tells us there is a 30 THB or about $1USD landing fee. He even has tickets as proof. I ask him to come to the office with me but suddenly he moves on to the next tourist. Apparently sceptics need not pay landing fees.

A high speed river ride in Bangkok

A high speed river ride in Bangkok

The Grand Palace is by no means an exaggeration. A striking collection of buildings and temples adorned with golden tiles and colourful glass mosaics. Tourists pay $15.00 while Thais are admitted for free. At least in India they deemed the local population partly responsible for the upkeep of their own treasures but here in Bangkok the burden is exclusively shouldered by foreigners. I don’t blame them in some ways as I don’t think the Thai’s hold the behaviour of western tourists in high esteem. They wander the temples wearing clothes provided at the entrance as most have arrived inappropriately dressed.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The distance to Wat Pho is short however the late afternoon sun makes for a difficult walk. The road side vendors selling water and orange juice are greatly appreciated. The entrance to the temple is only 100 THB or around $3.00 USD…Thai’s are still admitted for free but it doesn’t matter despite the fleeting irritations, I love the inconsistencies of Asia. The Wat Pho temple houses an immense reclining Buddha that stretches the better part of an Olympic sized swimming pool. His huge face smiling down on mere mortals below almost looks appreciative to be out of the blistering sun. My mind wonders back to the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya India where he originally sat gaining enlightenment 2500 years ago. I contemplate the power of ideas and how the teachings of the Buddha have reached across all the lands we have traversed to get here but in an ancient world before trains and buses existed.

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

The reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

Small metal leaves hanging from the eaves of the building begin to tinkle. To the west is a bank of grey cloud. It billows thousands of meters into the air like a vast volcanic eruption. The brass leaves rustle metallic in a cooling breeze. The sound and the smell of the approaching storm is refreshing. A few drops of heavy rain strike my face. We take refuge in a building nearby which conveniently offers massages for 450 THB or around $15.00 USD. The rain is now coming down hard so we decide to take stay and pass the time with a traditional Thai massage. Actually we probably would have had one even if it were not raining but the weather outside helps remove any fiscal guilt. I ask for a firm massage demonstrating hard gestures. She calls for a stern faced replacement who looks like she enjoys administrating pain. Small in stature she has learned over the years how to harness the forces of gravity with excruciating results. A combination of pride and ego prevent screams from escaping but eventually I yield to her tortures. She seems pleased and smiles.

Bangkok Tuk Tuks

Bangkok Tuk Tuks

The storm has helped reduce the temperature outside but the humidity has increased as compensation. I guess any change is appreciated. We will be returning soon to winter in Australia so any complaints are quickly dispatched. It’s time to play our favourite game of guess the Rickshaw price back home. The rickshaws in Bangkok and particularly those tethered to the Grand Palace are some of the sleekest found anywhere in Asia. More streamlined and high powered than any we encountered in India and Africa. Their owners obviously have taken great pride and it shows. Fluorescent upholstery, low profile wheels, colourful lights and booming sound systems dazzle prospective clients. I think it is the only place in the world where a Tuk Tuk commands a higher fee than a taxi, but looking at the machines I can understand why. We strike a deal for 300 THB the original asking the price starting at 500 THB back to Siam square.

The sound of the engine is in accordance with the style of the Tuk Tuk. Deep growls released through chrome exhausts power us around and through seemingly impossible holes in the traffic. It’s an exciting ride and almost an essential experience with any trip to Bangkok.

Monks in Bangkok getting a ride home

Monks in Bangkok getting a ride home

The following morning and we are headed back to Bangkok station. It’s early and for obvious reasons I get a feeling of déjà vu. Was it only two days ago we arrived. I find time is not behaving in ways I am used to or perhaps more in ways I don’t want. We wait on platform 9 for the 8.20am train to Surat Thani to arrive. Without apologies it finally shows up just before 10am. We were to arrive in Surat at 4.30pm with a chance to reach Krabi 3 hours away an outside possibility but already that seems in doubt. I notice for the first time some signs of the coup that occurred in Thailand a few months ago. There is an increased number of soldiers carrying guns and wandering around the station. But I can’t say aside from the presence of the army that there is any change in behaviour or attitudes.

waiting on platform 9

waiting on platform 9

Our train leaves Bangkok just before 10.30am. I don’t expect it can make up time along the way and nor do I want it to as the ride is very rough and terribly un-assuring. A few hours later we pass through Hui Hin and a few hours after that the rails draw close to the coast and the gulf of Thailand. To our right is a long chain of green mountains that mark the border with Burma. We continue to run south down the Thai peninsula reaching a point that is only 30km wide. Eventually we reach Surat Thani just before 6pm. A tout offers to take us 17km into town for 150 THB. He hold up a picture of a Bus with a time underneath indicating a 7pm departure. Maybe we can get to the beaches of Krabi tonight after all. He loads us into the back of a converted Hilux jeep with 3 other tourists from Denmark. The jeep accelerates to frightening speeds and sweeps around bends without concern for physics or its consequences. The Danes are going to Koh Samui and headed for the ferry, 10km later we are transferred with some gratitude to a less menacing Tuk Tuk. By the time we reach the town centre we are dropped outside a fruit shop that apparently runs a bus to Krabi in the morning for 300 THB per person. I ask to be taken to the actual bus station which is difficult to convey but we eventually get there. The station looks devoid of activity and a little gloomy. There is no 7pm Bus the last one left at 5pm.

We are stuck in Surat Thani for the night…

The main street of Luang Namtha is abruptly vacant and calm. The emptiness is occasionally broken by an odd motorbike. Most of the locals don’t even bother to look up at the momentary traffic passing through. A few rusted awnings are squeaking in the breeze and a neon sign flickers to life in the dying light. It could be a scene from a western, but we are in the north of Laos not far from the China and Burma borders.

Conveniently across the road is the Thoulasith hotel which is just as well as its obvious we are going no further tonight. A large room downstairs comes with that all-important luxury in the tropics, air-conditioning for a princely sum of just 110,000 Kip. We have gone from dividing by 6 to 8000 for $1 USD. Having changed our money at the Laos border I have since become an instant millionaire.

Laos Tuk Tuk

A Laos Tuk Tuk

That night we lie in bed plotting new adventures with remote hill tribes in Phongsali, sleeping in jungle tree houses and zip lining with gibbons in Huay Xai. But while calculating the time required to reach these locations, something that has been pushed deep into the recess of my mind surfaces. An ugly unwanted thought. A feeling of dread, reality and sadness .We are running out of time and we simply don’t have enough left to do as we please any longer. It comes as a shock after living a life so long without limits. I know it’s been coming for a long time but up until now it simply had no relevance. Now for the first time on our journey I can see the end and I’m not sure I like it.

We start to plan an itinerary based on reaching Singapore in three weeks. The figures are not good and as expected we have to stop thinking about detours up wild rivers and focus on reaching our goal. It is a bitter pill to swallow, to turn your back on exotic experiences but our objective must be to reach Singapore and not to stretch ourselves too thin with the short time we have left.

The next day we book a bus to Luang Prabang, 380km south of Luang Namtha and the cultural heart of Laos. The station is about 5km out of town. The mini buses are not permitted by the local Tuk-Tuk drivers to pick up passengers from the town centre thus ensuring monopolised employment by captive clients. I am surprised the same rule did not apply when we were dropped off last night. A large bus sits waiting for passengers when we arrive but across some broken concrete is a modern mini-van that is only 20,000 kip more than the bus. That’s about $2.50 for those slow to divide by 8000 which is perfectly understandable. I am going to miss making such calculations. The total cost per person being 110,000 kip. The journey time is supposed to be around 8 hours which I treat with suspicion.

Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang

Lunch Stop heading south to Luang Prabang

The driver is a surly man who seems disappointed by the turn out. He draws back on a cigarette and then dashes it to the ground. He hands out plastic bags to the few passengers gathered before we even set off. Not an encouraging sign for a smooth journey ahead. The locals grab at the bags with prior experience and nauseated desperation. I decline and try to keep a more positive but ignorant outlook.

 

The driver seems determined to put the plastic bags to “good use” and sweeps around unrelenting bends. I try to keep focused on the road ahead and pretend that I am driving the vehicle. Fortunately we are seated near the front and have good vision ahead but it’s not long before we suffer our first casualty. A lady behind us starts to falter and lowers her head into a bag. The driver mercifully slows down for five minutes allowing her to recover somewhat before speeding up again.

Another stop this time to buy fruit

Another stop this time to buy fruit

The hills around us are dripping with rain forest. The sun beats down on the green canopy sending insects into an orchestral frenzy. We make the journey to Luang Prabang in just over 9 hours. The driver still appears to be in foul mood and deposits our bags into a shallow pool of brown water. He closes the rear of the van and speeds off leaving us to face another Tuk-Tuk cartel, although they appear to be more Truck-Trucks in Laos. A wily driver and some friends approach us and enquire as to where we are going. Luang Prabang I answer sarcastically. His starting price is 70,000 kip a ridiculous figure as we are only 3km out of the town centre. Even the tourist price is supposed to be 20,000. We get him down to 30,000 after having to walk away for about the 500th time on our trip. It’s not annoying anymore it’s just a way of life. We are let off outside the Apsara Hotel and give him 30,000 Kip. He looks at the money and feigns confusion then offence. 30,000 each he explains and even points to both of us 30…30 as though I am grappling with mathematics. We smile at him and I give him a pat on the shoulder as if to say nice try and walk over to the Bamboo restaurant. The long day of travel has made us hungry and we order a rather excellent plate of fresh spring rolls with pork and tofu.

Luang Prabang is an immediately charming place of style and sophistication located on the Mekong River. Although I notice its strength and power is greatly diminished from the river we saw in Jinghong China. No doubt due to a Chinese dam further upstream I imagine. It’s still a lovely scene though, made picture-perfect by passing long tail motor boats ferrying goods.

Mekong River Luang Prubang

Mekong River Luang Prubang

Later that night we begin what becomes a culinary love affair with the cooking at Rosella Fusion. It’s by no means a stately affair but the food is amazing and the green curry is plate licking delicious. They also make an excellent mango smoothie with yoghurt that chills your throat and freezes the brain. An excellent cure for tropical fatigue.

The next day we hire a truck to take us to Kuang Si about 30km south of Luang Prabang. Lining the rural roads are locals carrying umbrellas. A very useful apparatus in Laos as it’s either beating down with intense sunlight or pouring with biblical rains. Our driver waits with trust in a car park while we trek into the jungle in search of the famed blue swimming pools. In reality there is a walking path and a restaurant to guide us but it’s easy to pretend otherwise.

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfalls

Aside from excellent restaurants and stylish hotels, Luang Prabang is an important religious centre for the people of Laos. There are many monasteries and some fine-looking temples that are beautifully decorated with colourful mosaics and topped with elaborate multi-tiered roofs that sweep almost to the ground. Although expensive to enter we are glad to at least seek refuge from an unrelenting sun. Inside is a gilded budda. His features are very different from those we saw in Tibet as is the temple is which he sits.

Wats in Luang Prubang

Wats in Luang Prubang

Early each morning Monks leave their monasteries in search of alms in a ceremony known as Tak Bat. Locals and an increasing number of tourists deposit sticky rice balls in the monks begging bowls. It’s a striking and contrasting scene of saffron clad monks walking along dawn grey streets. One advantage of travelling during the off season is that not many tourists are present which makes for a more authentic experience this morning. It’s a silent march and very understated and after a few minutes I return to bed happy to have witnessed just a small part of the ceremony.

Tak Bat ceremony

Tak Bat ceremony

After a few more nights of green curries we sadly leave upmarket Luang Prabang behind and continue south to scruffy Vang Vieng. We have reconnected well and truly with the tourist trail. I am somewhat concerned about what we will find in Vang Vieng. Our bus is completely filled with foreign tourists and I can’t ever remember that happening anywhere on our journey. I feel oddly out of place and slightly irritated by my surroundings. The drive to Vang Vieng is spectacular but most of the passengers have drugged themselves and seem more interested in just sleeping their way to Vang Vieng which is a terrible shame.

Heading to Vang Vieng

Heading to Vang Vieng

A common theme of Laos’s bus depots is there inconvenient distance from the town centres. Tuk-Tuk drivers obviously hold greater power here in Laos than their counterparts in Asia. We walk out onto the street after a fruitless debate with the local cartel. A passing driver picks us up a few hundred meters south of the depot and happily takes us into town for the correct price. I feel a resurgence of stubbornness to hold true to correct fares in our last few weeks. Soon we will have to suffer the boredom and convenience of fixed prices.

The road to Vientiane

The road to Vientiane

The main street of Vang Vieng is crowded with all the trappings of a tourist town including Irish bars and Italian restaurants but they are poor replicas and geographically out of place. There are thankfully some Laotian restaurants among the imposters and enough of the town feels authentic enough to make for a pleasant stop. We hire a motorbike and escape the bars playing Friends into the surrounding farmlands which are spectacular and surrounded by dramatic limestone Karts. We ride a loop and pass a sign showing Vientiane the capital 175km south. I look back behind us imagining a sign that reads Cape Town 75,000 km. I am somewhat tempted to ride the bike all the way to Vientiane but can’t quiet work out where to store Emma and the backpacks.

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng

 

Back roads of Vang Vieng

Back roads of Vang Vieng

We avoid the travel agencies in town and go directly to the bus station hoping to find a local bus to the Capital but are taken to another station south of town where a herd of tourists sit waiting in the shade. The bus is late to arrive and even later to depart. We sit waiting for 30 minutes without moving for no apparent reason I can determine. No one else seems to have noticed as more sleeping tablets are consumed.

It’s a four hour journey to Vientiane and finally the beautiful roads and dramatic mountains of northern Laos give way to flatter and infinitely less appealing scenes. There is some confusion when we arrive in Vientiane as to whether we have reached the final stop. It would seem we have although the bus is continuing to Cambodia. Vientiane must be the smallest capital in Asia with a population of under a million people. Small in proportions the central part of the city rests against a disappointing stretch of the Mekong. Its restaurants on the other hand are far from disappointing and offer world class standards. I am beginning to think that no one goes hungry in Laos.

I go to inspect a few hotels as we shall have to stay a night; it’s too late to cross the border with Thailand. I notice many of them including some pretty cheap hostels have shoes piled up outside. No doubt to protect the travertine marble inside. I find a hotel not pretending to be a home for just 130,000 kip about $16.00 USD with ensuite bathroom and air conditioning. The young man at the front desk is a little nervous as it’s his first day at work at the Mixok Guesthouse.

Mixok Guesthouse in Vientiane

Mixok Guesthouse in Vientiane

 

The next afternoon we catch a Tuk-Tuk to a small train station that sits on the edge of the city. The rail network of Laos must also be one of the worlds smallest. Just a few kilometres of track that runs across a bridge that spans the Mekong River to the border of Thailand. I am feeling a little nervous as we have just read some information that indicates that Thai customs can refuse entry if you don’t have onward proof of departure. Laos’s only train station also acts as an immigration building and before boarding the two carriages we get stamped out.

The small train trundles along the tracks and makes its way across the border bridge. I look across the Mekong which is at this point is very wide. Laos flags flash by then in the middle they stop and change to Thai flags. We are now geographically in Thailand. A few minutes later we stop at Nong Khai station and disembark. I walk along the platform until we reach Thai immigration. They scan my passport and I notice a photo of me on a screen taken five years ago when we started our first trip and entered from Malaysia. It feels so strange to see a picture, a moment captured in time you had forgotten. I notice how red my backpack looks. Now it is a pale and sun bleached rust colour after so many years of travel.

Laos Thai border

Laos Thai border

The officer stamps us in without any questions or hesitations. No visa is required for Australian citizens but we are only permitted to stay 15 days. We go to the ticket counter and purchase two berths on the Bangkok express due to depart in 40 minutes. The sun is setting as the driver blows the horn. I take a picture as I have so often done of our different modes of transport. The driver sticks his thumb out the window giving the all clear. I allow myself a feeling that surely now nothing can stop us from reaching Singapore. The carriages jolt roughly and we pull away from Nong Khai. Tomorrow morning we will awake in Bangkok…

 

The Bangkok Express thumbs up

The Bangkok Express thumbs up