Goodbye Australia, Welcome New Zealand!

Sunset at Byron Bay, Australia

Hi folks. As you may have gathered, this photo blog is waaaay behind. With my working and travelling in Australia I found it hard to find the time and fast enough Wi-Fi to keep it up. So, I’ve decided to change the format so I can update it more regularly. I’m going to experiment with some different styles of blog post and see what I think works best.

As the blog was using images from over a year ago, I have decided to start again in the present!

So – I arrived in New Zealand two days ago and flew from Auckland to Queenstown in the south island – adventure capital of the world! It’s been snowing, a bit weird as I haven’t seen snow falling for over two years! It’s coooold (I am acclimatised to Asian and Australian summers) and I just bought a new beany (a hat for cool people). It is red as I am so passionate and of course sexy and it goes so well with my very uncool Kathmandu jacket.

The skylift vanishes into the clouds

Queenstown is on a big lake where they do powerboating and Extreeeeeeeme stuff like that. Most people here are on holiday to ski/board and are excited about the snow as there hasn’t been much lately, it’s just the start of winter here. The town is very commercialised and reminds me of the ski towns in France I’ve been to.

I am here for a few more days then I will have to decide whether to stay and try and find work/accommodation – everything is booked out – or scoot off to nearby Wanaka (very quiet but beautiful) or over to Christchurch where there is plenty of work, but the town isn’t so good to live in (mainly due to it being flattened from the earthquake a few years ago!). I fear if I work here I will save no money as I will want to snowboard and party…

The cloud has been low so there isn’t much to see, but when I flew in yesterday we were surrounded by big snow-topped mountains. The weather hasn’t stopped some of the lake activities though, here’s a close-up of the lake. Maybe I’ll take you back to Asia next post!

Koh Payam

I got back to my bay after a narrow encounter with territorial dogs and just beat the rain - catching this nice sunset.
I got back to my bay after a narrow encounter with territorial dogs and just beat the rain – catching this nice sunset.

Koh Payam, Thailand

16/01/13 – 23/01/13

On Marc’s suggestion I headed from Bangkok on a night bus to the island of Koh Payam in the east, right next to the Burmese border.

  • The original plan was to visit Burma but Marc had recently been there leading a tour. It was peak season – full of tourists and many travellers could not find accommodation. So I decided to stay in Thailand instead.
  • Arrived in border town of Ranong in the middle of the night, got a rip-off tuc-tuc and waited until dawn in a deserted port for the morning ferry.
  • The mudflats there were full of salamanders and crabs with one giant claw, fighting for territory. They were a first for me!
  • Tourists trickled in. A little German boy with one arm ran around excitedly, it was good to see his injury hadn’t affected his enthusiasm.
  • Drove past trucks full of ice blocks on the way to the ferry, ice seems to be in big demand for the seafood industry and to ship to the islands.
  • Journey to Koh Payam was in a basic wooden ferry, loaded with ice and supplies in the hold. It took a few hours. I slept!
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We passed a few islands like this on the way. It was very hot!
  • Koh Payam is maybe 5 miles from end to end. There are few big vehicles, most people travel by motorbike or scooter. A few narrow roads pass between the main resorts through the lightly forested interior.
  • I caught a motorbike taxi with an Italian girl I met at the ferry to a bay on the other side of the island – Ao Yai – and I took a basic beach bungalow on a big, brown beach.
  • The restaurants at the many bungalow resorts here served a selection of Burmese food due to the proximity to the border. Soups and curries. Tasty!
  • On day two I went exploring on foot in the sweltering heat into the island.
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    A rare break in the trees along the road.
    Locals on motorbikes and tourists on scooters whizzed past me. I didn't want to risk a scooter because of my recovering shoulder.
    Locals on motorbikes and tourists on scooters whizzed past me. I didn’t want to risk riding a scooter because of my recovering shoulder.

     

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    I eventually reached the bay of Aow Kao Kwai (Buffalow Bay), dotted with resorts and lined with mangroves at one end. Salamanders frolicked in the wet sand.

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    A lot of the sand is quite brown and churned up thanks to the tiny crabs which burrow into the sand leaving these patterns. Each tiny blob is a little sand sphere!
    A lot of the sand is quite brown and churned up thanks to the tiny crabs which burrow into the sand leaving these patterns. Each tiny blob is a little sand sphere!

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As the skies clouded over, I had a tasty prawn pad thai. Yum.
As the skies clouded over, I had a tasty prawn pad thai. Yum.
The famous Hippy Bar, a masterpiece of driftwood craft.
The famous Hippy Bar at Buffalo Bay, a masterpiece of driftwood craft.

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I got back to my bay after a narrow encounter with territorial dogs and just beat the rain – catching this nice sunset.
  • I spent the next 4 or 5 days relaxing at my bay. I was tired and wanted to recoup. I moved up to Smile bungalows up the beach where the sand was nicer.
  • I tried my hand at bodyboarding in the breakers there. It was fun but I got too enthusiastic and badly sunburned myself! I spent the rest of my days here hiding in the shade reading, eating tasty cheap food and beers at sunset.

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Ao Yai Bay, where I was staying.
Ao Yai Bay, where I was staying.
Me looking a bit sunburned!
Me looking a bit sunburned!

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  • Met a young British couple who I went drinking with at a Rasta bar, owned by a German guy and his Chinese girlfriend. They told me a crazy story about the Chinese girl after we left:
  • She’d been travelling to India with her best friend before coming to Thailand, and her friend had… been shot dead! No joke! Her friend was very promiscuous and had been openly carousing in public with an Indian guy, which is a big no-no in their society. One day the couple were outside her hotel and a motorbike had driven up next to them - then a man on the back opened fire with a pistol and shot them both dead! The Indian guy must have been mixed up with the wrong crowd and it was assumed by the authorities that the couple’s lewd behaviour had angered a local gang. The Chinese girl, of course immensely distressed at losing her friend, was kept under armed guard for over two months whilst an investigation took place, but no culprit was found – the corruption in the police there meant that they probably had gang ties anyway and were just going through the motions. Eventually she was allowed to leave the country. Madness.

 

Wat Arun, Seedy Areas and off to Ranong

Wat Arun
Wat Arun

Bangkok, Thailand

14/01/13 – 15/01/03

I needed to change to a cheaper hotel today, but I had problems finding anywhere with room. After a fruitless two hours of walking around in the sweltering Bangkok heat I gave up and went to Tuptim, a little joint I’ve stayed at before on noisy (but fun) Rambuttri Street parallel to Khao San road. I spent the rest of the day working on the blog and researching Burma, I planned to go to the visa office tomorrow to get my Burmese visa.

In the evening I got the usual free entertainment of the local breakdancers who come to Rambuttri to show off their moves to the music pumping out of the bars. They are really good, spinning, flipping and even doing sychronised moves, occasionally making way for the odd tuk tuk – very entertaining! The next day I completely failed to get up in time to go to the visa office, my sleep pattern was really out of whack and the loud live music next door didn’t stop till 1am. I spent another day bumming around. In the evening I was sat in a restaurant and a tipsy man from Laos started talking to me, practicing his English. He is an English teacher and told me it was a relaxed place with nice people and said if I was ever near his city I was welcome to meet him. Love the Asian hospitality!

Wat Suthat
Wat Suthat

16/01/13

I again failed to get up in time to go to the visa office, I had suffered from insomnia the night before. I was pretty annoyed, another day wasted! I went to the post office to send some memory sticks to my parents with all my photographs on them. The stick I’d bought on Khao san road turned out to be a copy and corrupted all the files on it – annoying as it was 20 quid down the drain and no refunds! Welcome to Thailand! The Thai post office was easy to use, the staff spoke English and it only cost about 50p to send them to the UK, bargain! This way my photos from the last 6 months would be doubly safe.

I heard from my friend in Bangkok, Marc, the tour guide who works in South East Asia. We for a catch-up drink. He’d just come from a tour in Burma but advised me against going. He said there were so many tourists that all the sites were jam packed, and there is so little accommodation that some travelers were turning up to find every room in town taken! They then had no option but to go to the local monasterys and give a donation to spend the night on a hard floor or mattress there! In addition, the accommodation prices had risen to over $30 a night in most hotels, some as high as $50 a night!

Monk at Wat Ratchanatdaram
Monk at Wat Ratchanatdaram

It sounded crazy and I agreed if I was to go to Burma I would come back and do it in the low season instead when it would be quieter and cheaper. Marc offered to show me the view of one of the famous Bangkok temples, Wat Arun, down by the river. We walked for about half an hour to the dockside across from the big old temple. We walked through a maze of busy tourist markets to a floating jetty on the river. The sun was setting and the cunning jetty owners try to charge you for taking photos from there. Marc quickly whisked us away before they caught us!

Wat Arun
Wat Arun

We walked through a seedy area where prostitutes were sitting on plastic chairs on the corners, waiting for customers later at night. The place was full of ugly little motels for dubious purposes. However it was also host to a nice restaurant that Marc goes to with his clients sometimes. The rooftop there was a nice reprieve from the noise and offered a good view of the Golden Mount lit up in the twilight. We had some good food, a duck curry, star bean salad and beef liver which considering I don’t like liver was actually pretty nice.

17/01/13

With Burma off the agenda, I spent the day researching where to go next. Marc had suggested Ranong on the South West coast, close to the Burma border, and its nearby islands of Koh Chang and Koh Payam. I decided to head there and check it out. I had a week to burn before I’d return to meet my friend Paul from Manchester and his wife Amy who were due in Bangkok on their honeymoon. The rest of the day was spent in a valiant attempt to buy a waterproof case for my little underwater camera (!). It had broken in Nepal and the repair guy said it should have come with a rubber case, (it didn’t) which protects it from the water pressure. I took a local bus to the commercial area of Pathum Wan, very busy and full of giant malls and shoppers of all nationalities. I tried in a big electronics mall with no joy, they directed me to another one – a mighty modern posh plaza mall. In there all of the camera shops, even the Panasonic affiliated ones had nothing. Damn it, a wasted journey. I did get to see the most modern part of Bangkok though and also a little look at the famous but small Erawan shrine, overshadowed by skyscrapers and on a busy crossroads. I didn’t have any wish to come back to this part of Bangkok though.

The Democracy Monument
The Democracy Monument

In the evening I attempted to get a bus to the Southern Bus Station to get to Ranong, but the only correct bus whizzed past us, looking full to the brim. With my time running out I got an expensive taxi to the station which turned out to be right on the edge of the city, about 45 minutes drive through heavy traffic. At the bus station I bought a ticket on a local VIP night bus and settled back in the massage seat (!) to enjoy a really cheap western action film dubbed into Thai. As normal on the local buses they turned off the lights really early so I used my camera light to read until late. There was only one other westerner on the bus. We stopped at 1am for a meal at a bus terminal, just as I was falling asleep. The meal is included in the ticket price so the passengers, ever-eager to get their money’s worth, staggered out like zombies and we ate a bog standard buffet in the VIP room of the station. We continued onwards, but I only caught a few hours sleep, it was pretty uncomfortable.

At around 4am we arrived at Ranong bus station. I got out with the western girl who was in her early 30s. We got into a Songtaow (truck taxi) which took us to the pier for the island ferries, 15 minutes away. The price was double but as we were a captive market we didn’t have much choice despite arguing with the driver. The pier was deserted but the lights were on and a TV was showing western programs. The girl, Anna, was Italian. She ran her own little bar in a town on the Italian coast close to Croatia and was heading to Koh Chang to meet a friend of hers. We chatted for the next few hours as a few more tourists arrived by taxi, and zombied out to the boring transport history programs on TV.

Monk at Wat Ratchanatdaram
Monk at Wat Ratchanatdaram

Temples of Bangkok

Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawihan
Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawihan

Location: Bangkok, Thailand

12/01/13-13/01/13

Today I sorted out laundry and went shopping around the super-cheap Khao San road stalls, haggling hard to get some summer clothes, guide books and a hat. I was planning to head to Burma (Myanmar) next and started to research it. I discovered I’d need to go to their visa office in Bangkok in advance. That evening I got a fish foot massage, if you’ve not seen them, it’s a tank of little fish that you put your feet in and they eat your dead skin. I have very ticklish feet and right from the start it was almost unbearable! I sat there laughing my head off as everyone passing by laughed at me! I did endure the full 20 minutes, I’d been told it gets less tickly but it never happened! Never again! I followed up with an oil massage which was very relaxing. I stayed up really late drinking and walking around Khao San road (which is one big party at night). I passed a McDonalds and got the craving, I hadn’t had junk food for ages. One dirty Big Mac later and I was stuffed but happy!

Wat Suthat
Wat Suthat

The following day I moved to a better hotel and after some internet went exploring in the afternoon. I walked twenty minutes to the east to check out some temples I’d read about. The first, the mouthful of Wat Ratchanaddaram is built in an impressive tiered style like a castle, painted white with brown spires, each level getting smaller like a pyramid. Inside it was subdivided into a grid of corridors, the distance between each crossroads matching the number of steps it should take to meditatively walk. The interior was filled with information about Buddism. From the top level the views were nice over the area and I spotted the Golden Mount, a golden spire on a hill to the east.

The tiered temple of Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawihan
The tiered temple of Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawihan

 

View from the tiers of Wat Ratchanatdaram
View from the tiers of Wat Ratchanatdaram

 

I noticed these monks speaking English to a tourist and I asked if I could get their photos. They were visiting from another part of Thailand.
I noticed these monks speaking English to a tourist and I asked if I could get their photos. They were visiting from another part of Thailand.

 

Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawihan
Wat Ratchanatdaram Worawihan

 

The hilltop temple Golden Mount (Wat Saket)
The hilltop temple Golden Mount (Wat Saket)

I continued past the old city wall by some old colonial buildings to reach the Golden Mount (Wat Saket). The small hill was encircled by a wall and the road inside that was lined with small temple buildings. There were a lot of tourists and Thais here. The hill was covered in trees, and a flight of steps curved upwards passing through them. Statues were placed amongst the landscaped undergrowth. Half way up was a row of big bells which people rang as they passed, and a big gong, which made the air alive with sound. A monk’s incantations were piped through speakers all the way up the steps. At the hilltop the trees cleared to show a good view over the city, especially towards the commercial district with all its skyscrapers.

Bongggggg
Bongggggg

 

Reaching the top of the Golden Mount
Reaching the top of the Golden Mount

 

View from the top over the commercial district
View from the top over the commercial district

A temple building was at the summit, full of small buddah statues and people milling around. Monks sat giving readings, and vendors sold various materials for offerings. In the centre of the building narrow passages led to a golden statue which many worshippers were putting gold leaf on.

All around the top offerings were being made
All around the top offerings were being made

 

The gold leaf encrusted statue at the centre of the Golden Mount
The gold leaf encrusted statue at the centre of the Golden Mount

 

Descending the staircase back down the Golden Mount
Descending the staircase back down the Golden Mount

Back at the bottom of the Mount, I walked through the old streets to find a road where they make traditional monk bowls, called Baan Bat. Unfortunately when I arrived the buildings were shuttered up. I walked back towards the city centre, crossing a canal and reaching a park where locals were relaxing, doing fitness and yoga (there was even an outdoor gym). After the park I happened upon a big impressive temple, Wat Suthat. Inside the main temple was a really big golden Buddah statue, with Thais sitting and praying to it. The walls were covered in ornate paintings.

Old town
Baan Bat

 

Wat Suthat
Wat Suthat

 

Wat Suthat
Wat Suthat

 

The big Buddah inside Wat Suthat
The big Buddah inside Wat Suthat

 

Outside the temple was a giant gate-like sculpture called The Swing. Across the road from this was a big square with a huge picture of the King of Thailand. In front of it a load of police were doing drills, some in full riot gear.

Police drill in front of the Kings image
Police drill in front of the Kings image

I walked back to Khao San road and that evening went to meet a Dutch guy I’d met that morning who had invited me to join his friends that evening. Annoyingly he never showed, so I just chilled out there on Rambuttri Soi for a while. It’s a great place to soak up the atmosphere and people watch, all the restuarants have tables at the street side and are peppered with coloured lights. As I was getting ready to leave a woman came to my table and asked if I wanted to join them. They’d seen me alone all evening and thought I might want some company. Very nice of them! I joined them; an English lady and her boyfriend, and two girls from New Zealand. I spent the evening hanging out with them, they were a good laugh, and we ended up drinking cheap cocktails in the street bars with plastic chairs and getting quite drunk. Classic Bangkok evening!

Wat Suthat
Wat Suthat

Leaving Jomsom and Last Days in Nepal

View from Mustang, down the valley we would take towards Ghasa and ultimately Beni
View from Mustang, down the valley we would take towards Ghasa and ultimately Beni

04/01/13

We got up early and after a quick breakfast went onto Jomsom’s main street to catch the 8am bus, only to find it had left early. We waited 45 minutes for another one. We hopped in and paid an extortionate price to go all the way to Beni, over double what we’d paid to get up here! Despite our protests the ticket man wouldn’t budge and Sophie made him dig out past tickets to show us. It’s a set tourist price, what a joke! Anyway, as we’d been in the dark on the way up it was good to see the views, passing many barren orchards and stopping in the next little town for a while. It had a huge Tibetan temple in it, looking almost like a castle with multiple layers – it looked like photos I’d seen from Tibet.

The mighty temple at Mustang
The mighty temple at Mustang

The bus bumped its way all down the mountain over the next 8 hours. It was horrendously dusty, so bad we had to cover our faces to breath. My Kindle acquired a thick layer of dust. The ride was extremely uncomfortable, with only one short stop for lunch in the bus park in Ghasa. We were sore and thankful when we got off in Beni (where we’d started our trip) at 4pm. Immediately I started asking around for buses to Pokhara just in case we could still get one. We got lucky, there was one just leaving and we somehow got a seat despite most of the bus standing. This was another long 5 hour ride, and we were delayed waiting for some big rock trucks to unload their cargo on the way. It was dark as we crossed over the hills and in Pokhara we caught a taxi to Noble Inn in Lakeside. We were exhausted after the most uncomfortable day travelling so far, grabbed some dinner and got an early night, glad of a real hotel after the basic comforts of the mountains!

A very Tibetan looking girl watched us from the roof of this house in Mustang
A very Tibetan looking girl watched us from the roof of this house in Mustang

05/01/13 – 12/01/13

We had a day free to chill out before Sophie needed to go to Kathmandu, so we spent it relaxing by the lakeside. The next day we caught a tourist bus to Kathmandu, which took all day, checking into a hotel in Thamel. The following day Sophie’s mum Ellen arrived, they were going to do some travelling together. We went out for dinner once she’d arrived. On the way back we encountered the ladyboy prostitutes of Nepal (I had no idea there were any!), who took great delight in trying to chat us up! Sophie’s mum didn’t even realize they were boys! Apparently there was a scandal not too long ago when a prominent politician had been caught picking up ladyboys in this hot-spot.

The next few days I spent chilling out in the city whilst Sophie took her mum out to the sights. I’d already booked a flight back to Thailand so I just relaxed, caught up on the blog and met the others for meals. We enjoyed some live Nepali music in a courtyard restaurant and we discovered a good pizza place called Fire and Ice, and a really nice western-style café with sofas and great coffee which we hung out in a lot. At night it was incredibly cold, thick blankets were needed. In fact the news said it was a new low for Kathmandu in over 50 years.

Road from Mustang to Beni, pictured is one of the jeep taxis which ferry locals around the area
Road from Mustang to Beni, pictured is one of the jeep taxis which ferry locals around the area

On the last day I said my goodbyes to Sophie and her mum. They were going to go up to Karmidanda, the village up in Langtang, to stay with Jabraj, and then see more of Nepal before going to India for a month. I caught an early plane from Kathmandu airport, unfortunately not getting a chance to get rid of my Nepali money – for some reason they don’t have exchange counters once you’re through customs! And I couldn’t change it in Thailand either, grrr! Consider yourself warned!

The flight to India had some incredible views of the Himalyas (I’m sure you could see Everest too), but I was gutted because I was on the wrong side of the plane and could hardly see it. On my side were endless jungle hill ranges with seas of mist hovering below them, good, but not as great as the jagged peaks I could glimpse on the other side.

A shale field up near Jomsom
A shale field up near Jomsom

After a change-over in New Delhi, I arrived in Bangkok, Thailand at 5pm. I decided to make use of the local transport and walked to the BTS station, the “sky train” which travels on a suspended railway above the roads. It was very easy to use with computer terminals and announcements in English. In half an hour I was in the centre of Bangkok and caught a taxi through horrendous Saturday night traffic to Khao San Road. I stayed in Sawasdee, a hotel I’d frequented last time, and went out for food and drinks. It was strange to be back in Thailand, it’s so different to Nepal and even Khao San Road seemed chilled out compared to the madness of Kathmandu’s streets. This was my fourth time back in Thailand!

Looking out over a Nepali town as as I fly towards India
Looking out over a Nepali town as as I fly towards India

Jomsom to Thini Ghaon

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A yak and mule train haul wood up the valley near Jomsom

Day Location: Jomsom, Nepal

03/01/13

We had a good sleep and we were feeling a bit better, looks like we had been suffering from altitude sickness after all. We decided as we still had a few days before Sophie would need to go back, that we would do some exploring of the Jomsom area. On the advice from the hotel lady, we set off after breakfast across the river, towards a village to the south up on a hill, visible from our hotel.

Bridge over the river at Jomsom
Bridge over the river at Jomsom
A passing mule train
A passing mule train

We soon realized we were on the wrong path when it terminated at a house, forcing us to climb a wall into some terraced fields. It was very windy and bitterly cold with it – but as soon as the wind dropped it was scorching forcing us to add and remove layers like Russian dolls! The path in the fields led us up into the village. It was very Tibetan with narrow streets, whitewashed buildings stood with flat roofs and flagpoles with colourful prayer flags stuck out of the roofs. Firewood was stacked on every wall and roof. Cows and yaks were tethered and chickens pecked around. The place seemed almost deserted with padlocked doors everywhere. Either we were about to be ambushed or the start of the zombie apocalypse. But then we did see a few locals who said hello and pointed us in the right direction. Sophie tried to make friends with a horse at the top of the village, the temple was closed there but the views across the mighty valley were impressive.

The deserted village
The deserted village
Stacks of firewood on walls and roofs
Stacks of firewood on walls and roofs
Sophie's favourite horse
Sophie’s favourite horse
A scraggly baby yak pummeled by the wind
A scraggly baby yak pummeled by the wind
These interesting ladders can be found in this area, carved from one piece of wood
These interesting ladders can be found in this area, carved from one piece of wood

We descended past skeletal orchards along the stone trail. A penis carved into a slab of concrete on the path confirmed that genital humour crosses all culture boundaries! We were half-way up the hillside and the trail led on to a steep drop topped by a stone shrine. The wind here was strong enough that we had to brace against it to avoid being pushed off the edge of the path!

Everybody can appreciate penis art
Everybody can appreciate penis art

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At the bottom of the drop was a rushing river, the side valley leading to the impressive triangular Himalaya above. Windswept pine trees covered the rocky landscape. We descended the hairpins into the valley being buffeted violently by the wind. At the bottom a yak and mule train passed us by, herded by men with sticks and making yipping sounds. They said hello and asked us where we were going. Friendly people up here.

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We crossed the river and climbed the path on the other side, leading us to a desolate sandy and rocky landscape. In ten minutes we emerged into another side valley with crazy bulbous rock formations made of what looked like sandstone. It was like another alien world (and I thought we had seen everything up here!). We were aiming to reach a lake and followed a track in what seemed like the right direction from the map. It turned out to head down into the valley which we didn’t need, but we did get to see the weird rock formations up close.

The strange undulating rock formations in the valley
The strange undulating rock formations in the valley
Sophie in her hole
Sophie in her hole
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The path continues around the edge to the next village

We backtracked to the main trail and followed it along the edge of the side valley to a crossing point. There was snow on some of the grass up here, and the terrain was a mixture of pine trees on the hillside and rocks. Across the side valley was another small village, some ladies there washing clothes at an outdoor tap pointed us in the right direction, but we couldn’t find the trail. Backtracking again led us to another dead end, so we went back to the village and tried again. The trail maps drawn on signs were just lines with named dots for the villages, giving nothing away about the terrain. It was already around 2pm and we needed to head back soon to reach Jomsom before dark, so we checked ahead in case it was up the trail. Sure enough, in ten minutes we reached the lake.

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The lake was fenced off to stop the animals contaminating it, and the strong wind blew swirling, pretty patterns of ripples on the surface. From here we could see a newly revealed, very craggy peak in the distance on our side. Satisfied and starving (none of the villages had amenities for trekkers, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast), we retraced our steps. Past the weird rock formations Sophie didn’t fancy climbing the steep hill to the village so judging from the map I figured we could do a shortcut down to the river in the main valley, and follow a path alongside to Jomsom. Although the drawn trail maps showed a path around where we were, we couldn’t find anything, so I led us over a rock field and over little streams heading down to the main river where I hoped we’d pick up the path. We came across some large square stone cairns placed in the rock field, some with writing on them. I later learned my suspicions were correct, they are burial cairns. Why this spot was significant I don’t know.

You can see the square cairns in the middle there
You can see the square cairns in the middle there
Writing on a burial cairn, presumably the person's name
Writing on a burial cairn, presumably the person’s name

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At the end of the rock field we entered some marshland and a young tree plantation. There was still no sign of the main path and the sun was going down. I was worried I’d got us into a mess but minutes later I found the edge of the river and we hit the main path. It clearly wasn’t a proper trail any more, the bridge leading to it was no longer there. We had been lucky. We followed it through the plantation, step-stoned over a side river and finally came to the edge of Jomsom, crossing a long suspension bridge over the main river. Before the road were some dead cars. Everything of use was gone, now they were just rusting away in the harsh environment. We walked into the town and found a restaurant catching the last of the sunshine and ate a much needed meal. Noodle soup never tasted so good!

Sophie crosses the rock field
Sophie crosses the rock field
The plantation we walked through
The plantation we walked through
The rippling cliffs beside Jomsom
The rippling cliffs beside Jomsom
Sophie on a mighty suspension bridge
Sophie on a mighty suspension bridge

I bought some apple brandy, a specialty of the region. Back at the hotel I tried it with some yak cheese. The cheese was great, I polished off two plates of it, but the brandy was nasty. We had a chilled out evening and got an early night, anticipating a grueling bus ride the next day, we were aiming to get as far to Pokhara as possible.

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Back in Jomsom
Back in Jomsom

Muktinath

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Day 123 – Location: Muktinath; Nepal

02/01/13

I had a terrible night’s sleep, tossing and turning, I had a bad headache and felt sick, light headed and weak. In the morning I realized I was probably suffering from altitude sickness, the symptoms fit and in the jeep we’d climbed almost 1000 meters in just a few hours. It might also account for Sophie’s continuing heart problems. We decided to see how we got on and head back down today if possible – the best remedy for altitude sickness is to descend before the symptoms get worse.

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After an early breakfast we ventured forth through Muktinath village, it reminded me of a Wild West town with a wide barren high street and balconied buildings lining it. Souvenir stalls, especially of homemade stripey scarves, or fossils, were being set up all along it. We walked to the edge of town to admire the views into the crater below. There were only a few other tourists around.

Sophie in Muktinath's main street
Sophie in Muktinath’s main street
Engraved stones in the main street
Engraved stones in the main street

 

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Next we walked to the other side of town and through Muktinath temple gate, where some babas (holy men) were sitting wanting money for blessings or photos. Then we climbed a long flight of steps towards the white temple walls wiggling along the rocky hillside. Prayer flags were strewn like spider webs on the rock face behind, some attached to seemingly inaccessible rock clusters.

A big prayer wheel by the main entrance
A big prayer wheel by the main entrance

We could really feel the altitude affecting our oxygen, after five steps we would already feel knackered and we kept stopping for rests on the way up. At the top we passed through the wall gate into the temple complex. It was quite large, possibly 300 meters square – a collection of buildings, a copse of trees and a barren section of small scree-like rocks. We explored the temple buildings, and saw homes inside the complex – a few women were going about their daily chores. Presumably the families who take care of the temple. We walked along the scree section which turned out to be full of little stone towers made by visitors for good luck. Me and Sophie made our own too.

Mount Al-Soph
Mount Al-Soph

The building in the corner of the complex had a nice Tibetan style temple room, filled with colourful carvings on the roof and pillars. Unfortunately photography is banned inside. Out in the courtyard was a circular reflective dish, like a satellite dish. We’d seen these around the area, this one had a kettle on a holder suspended in the dish’s center, confirming that they are used to focus the sun’s rays to heat water or cook food. Ingenious energy saving idea, the sun is so bright up here and they are using it. Solar panels are also used in some of the hotels, like much of Nepal. I put my hand in the heat field and sure enough it was very warm.

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We continued wandering through the rocky part past some traditional stone shrines, and into the copse, where the main temple building is hidden. Clusters of different sized bells were hanging in a mishmash on a stand. A pool by the temple was filled with blocks of smashed ice, guess they want to keep it clear. The inner courtyard of the temple was lined with bells as well, had bell clusters hanging around. I haven’t seen the bell clusters before and I wonder what the significance is?

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Outside the temple, surrounding it on three sides, were rows of gargoyle head fountains. Long icicles hung from railings where the water had struck. I walked through the copse to get some shots of the prayer flags strewn on the hillside.

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Check out his icicle beard
Check out his icicle beard

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We wandered back to the temple complex entrance past a tower and some old locals sitting on their roof in the sun. They were friendly and we noticed how incredibly weathered and wrinkly their skin was. One of the women had her breasts practically hanging out, modesty isn’t such a big thing in this culture! Didn’t really do it for me I’m afraid, I prefer them a few years younger!

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Back in Muktinath village we stopped for lunch in a rasta restaurant (yes, they are everywhere in this part of the world!), and watched some of the local kids from the balcony, a little girl was spying on us and gave us a wave. I gave my big zoom lens a go, now it had been repaired. Seemed to be working fine.

Me waiting for lunch
Me waiting for lunch
The  wee girl who was checking us out
The wee girl who was checking us out
This girl was collecting water from the public tap
This girl was collecting water from the public tap
Weaving handicrafts on the street
Weaving handicrafts on the street
Weaving rig
Weaving rig

We discovered there was a jeep leaving at 4pm back to Jomsom so we walked to the jeep stop. There were a lot of people waiting, locals and trekkers. We bought a rather expensive ticket and piled into a jeep. We bumped our way for a few hours back to Jomsom. Sophie got stuck next to an annoying local man who wouldn’t give her any space and kept nudging her to try and get her to move (we were jammed in like sardines, so much that one girl was bending over sat on her husband’s knee). Us and the other locals kept telling him to stop but he just thought it was funny, though he did relent a little bit. We passed on the opposite side to the “crater” as on the way up, giving us great views of the huge rippling cliffs below, and we passed more of the villages which looked like they came out of a time machine. Again photography was nearly impossible due to the bumpy ride, tiny windows and clouds of dust.

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On the valley floor we stormed over the rock field that me and Sophie had crossed, in only twenty minutes, fording rivers and bouncing around all over the place. We arrived in Jomsom as the sun was going down and walked back to the hotel we’d left our stuff at. My altitude sickness had been improving during the day and I was feeling a lot better now. We had a relaxed evening reading and enjoying the tasty restaurant food. I tried to buy a torch from their attached shop, only to find that literally none of their torches worked. They all looked about 20 years old and many were rusted inside. The cheeky woman tried to make me pay for the batteries separately but I pointed out I only needed them for the torch! We turned in early, tired after our restless night up in Muktinath, but we were feeling a bit better.

Bridge at Jomsom's entrance
Bridge at Jomsom’s entrance
Mules hanging out, smoking, burning bins, as mules do...
Mules hanging out, smoking, burning bins, as mules do…
A yak chilling in the street. These things are big!
A yak chilling in the street. These things are big!
Sunset over Jomsom's valley
Sunset over Jomsom’s valley

Jomsom to Muktinath

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Day 122 – Location: Jomsom; Nepal

01/01/13

New Years Day. What better start to the new year than trekking around some of the highest mountains in the world? From the bedroom I heard and caught a glimpse of a few old-looking light aircraft landing and taking off from the airport. Trekkers can fly into Jomsom from Pokhara. The safety record isn’t great though, the aircraft aren’t in the best condition and the weather and wind can be unpredictable up here. There have been two crashes (1 fatal) in the past two years! But after yesterday’s torturous bus journey I could appreciate that it might be worth the risk! We had breakfast in the restaurant with the baking sun shining through the windows and admired the mountain ridge looming out the window. We tried the local buckthorn berry juice which was very tasty and refreshing. Buckthorn (or seabuckthorn as it’s also known) is unique to the upper Himilayas and is grown in fields here, generating good money from exports. It is one of those amazing “wonderberries” which is super-healthy and people back home will probably pay 5 dollars for a shot of it, and immediately be cured of all ailments. Well at least it tastes good.  After brekky we left most of our stuff at the hotel and set off with lighter bags with enough stuff to last a few days up in Muktinath, our destination.

Jomsom's main street
Jomsom’s main street

Outside in the sun at midday, we took in our surroundings (having arrived in the dark last night). We were in a big valley surrounded by mountains and ringed by sandy-coloured cliffs, which rippled in buldges. I was unlike anywhere I have been before or even seen, it felt like we had wandered into a planet set from the original Star Trek. The only thing missing was Kirk punching up innocent aliens. We walked through the middle of Jomsom passing the airfield and an army training camp which looked like it could have been in Afghanistan, sandy stone bunkers and all. There were some trekkers walking around and rugged-looking locals with flat faces. I was happy to see my first ever yaks – some wooly females and scruffy looking youngsters were tied up by the path. Bare, skeletal trees were planted all over the place, presumably buckthorn or apple trees (this area is also famous for its apples).

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We crossed the icy-looking river flowing through Jomsom over a suspension bridge covered in colourful prayer flags. The sun was very bright and it was quite windy. We were hoping to catch a bus up the dirt roads to Muktinath, a small village higher in the mountains, and trek back down. But there was no one around the bus stop in Jomsom and the bus office was closed. We walked to the edge of the town where we thought we could find private jeeps, passing a few male yaks being herded along. Compared to the females they are big shaggy beasts with magnificent smooth curved horns. I was pleased, I’d been refusing to leave Nepal until I’d seen one!

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At the outskirts of town was a little bus park and a big red Tibetan temple under construction. We asked the jeep drivers there but there wasn’t a jeep going up the mountain till 3pm, so we decided to walk and see how far we could get.

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We set off out along a grey dusty track aside a vast shale field covering the valley floor, segmented by strings of meandering river. At the cliffside on our right groups of women were sat on the scree, cracking rocks open with hammer and chisel. I’m not sure what they were doing, perhaps looking for fossils to sell which I had seen in the souvenir shops in town. If you know, send me a message!

Sophie walking away from Jomsom
Sophie walking away from Jomsom

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Sophie started to get some heart pain so we slowed the pace. She was concerned because she was still recovering from tonsilitis and if that disease becomes more serious it can infect the heart or lungs. We continued along the track admiring the mountains around us. All the rock was layered or scattered in interesting patterns, and the scale of the valley was awesome. A bus in the distance was a mere dot snaking around the shale field, making good progress, not that there seemed to be any track out there though.

The bus bumping over the shale down on the right gives you a sense of the huge scale of this place
The bus bumping over the shale down on the right gives you a sense of the huge scale of this place

Grey sand lined the edge of the rock field, scattered with humps from which round thorny bushes poked out. Now it really felt like we were in a cheap episode of Star Trek. I was glad I wasn’t wearing a red jacket (fans will get the reference)! We passed some other groups of trekkers, all heading the other way. The motorbikers from India who we’d met yesterday passed us and stopped to stay hello, they were heading up to Muktinath today as well. They had seen in the new year in Jomsom with some other travellers in a more busy hotel than ours!

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We reached the shale field (the track went down into it and faded from existence) and struck out across it in the general direction indicated by our map. The rocks were small but the footing was tricky, it would be easy to sprain an ankle here. We crossed streams and step-stoned across shallow rivers. We shuffled through heat-cracked sand bars and saw locals in the distance collecting rocks and flitering soil with sieve struts.

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Me standing on the valley shale fields
Me standing on the valley shale fields

After an hour we finally reached the track again and investigated a little set of shrines surrounded by prayer flags strung out over the surrounding rock faces.

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We followed the track to meet a change of scenery. Around the valley’s bend it had turned to a flat, sandy coloured plain dotted with wirey, leafless trees. On our left side was barren terrain, across the valley huge flat steps ascended the hillside, the steps made up of undulating cliffs. The mountains were only populated with tough grass, stones and bushes, reminding me instantly of footage of Afghanistan that I’d seen. Again the scale was immense. On the right a stoney valley wound up to a jagged Himalaya a river flowing down to the basic wooden road bridge in front of us.

The road ahead
The road ahead
The stoney valley on our right
The stoney valley on our right
The amazing view to our left, with the incredibly flat steps with rippling cliffs. You can see a village up there on the hillside.
The amazing view to our left, with the incredibly flat steps with rippling cliffs. You can see a village up there on the hillside, and the temple in the middle of the top ridge – now that’s high!
Looking back along the valley (we came from the left). You can see Sophie down there!
Looking back along the valley (we came from the left). You can see Sophie down there on the left too!

We crossed a pedestrian log bridge over the river and continued straight, down a drystone walled road and past a flat-roofed house which ominously had in its perimeter both a mummified yaks head and yak skull on stakes. A souvenir stall was outside. Buy a souvenir, get staked? It all smelled very Wolf Creek to me.

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We continued past certain death and followed the road for another hour as it snaked above another shale field on our left. This one had a river too big for us to cross on foot, although we saw a bus fording it. Traffic had been light, with the occasional jeep, motorbike or tractor rumbling past us (and creating big dust clouds!). We rounded into the next part of the valley and passed a long suspension bridge which was closed. Up the hills on the opposite side you could see little villages as dots against the wilderness, and there was even a little temple spire at the top of one of the ridges on the horizon. The road soon descended to the shale field and a cluster of buildings which we crossed over to. It was so windy here that we had to force our way forward so as not to be blown aside, the sand whipping our faces.

The track took us along the side of the valley
The track took us along the side of the valley
The cliffs were super jaggy here
The cliffs were super jaggy here
The settlement we stopped at for lunch
The settlement we stopped at for lunch

The buildings turned out to be lodges, only about five of them, and we stopped at one for lunch. We seemed to be the only tourists around. Sophie’s heart was still giving her trouble. As on the ABC trek the food selection was staples like Italian, Chinese and tibetan dumplings, I settled for a “lasagne” (made with tagliatelle of course, not lasagne pasta!). Checking the map, at our current rate we weren’t going to be anywhere near Muktinath before nightfall, we’d left Jomson too late. Instead we decided to walk to the next village a few hours uphill. But just after lunch a jeep approached. I ran outside and flagged it down (the sun had vanished forcing us inside from the bitter wind). It was full of locals and the driver didn’t speak English, but said he was going to Muktinath. We hurriedly agreed a price, paid our lunch bill and hopped in. How lucky! It was expensive (about 14 dollars one way) but all transport up here is for tourists. Locals pay a fraction of the price. We’d already seen this on the bus up to Jomsom, where we were paying a fortune compared to the locals despite our protests. We later found there is an official tourist rate they use up here though where the money goes I don’t know.

A jeep passes orchards
Another jeep passes the orchards, I took this through the back window of our jeep.

The jeep rumbled along up towards the next village, climbing above the shale fields and offering us good, if dusty, views of the river and the surrounding terrace farming and walled orchards of bare trees. I was sat next to a sheep skin and in-between us all were sacks of vegetables and rice. On the way we stopped and two local women got off to be violently sick! They don’t handle motion too well in these places (I’ve seen the same elsewhere in Asia). We reached the next village and the jeep was unloaded, passengers departed and jumped on. It was a charming place, very rustic, the people were all dirty and working out in the streets, the roofs were flat tops and animals and kids romped around. Colourful flags poked out the top of every flat building roof.

This was taken from the window but it gives you a feel for the village
This was taken from the window but it gives you a feel for the village

We departed and started to climb a winding and bumpy road heading right, going high above the town allowing us to look down on the vast valley which continued into the distance.Herds of animals being shepherded across the rock field were just dots from here.

Looking back down the valley, taken from the jeep
Looking back down the valley, taken from the jeep

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The terrain flattened out and became a barren plain full of the small round bushes. The sun began to set and we had a great view of the Himalayas all around us, poking out of the clouds. There was a lot of dust and getting photos was very difficult, we couldn’t open the dirty windows and were bumping around all over the place. I would have loved to stop to take pictures but instead had to take them through the windows!

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We bumped into a vast new area lined with huge cliffs in strange ripple shapes, peppered with round caves far below us. The area was like a massive crater surrounded by mountains. The terrain was completely uneven in this crater and villages hung onto the sides of the strange shapes. Unfortunately it’s hard to make out from the photos. Terraced farming and walled orchards littered the inner landscape. It was getting quite dark now. We passed through a village stacked on the hillside, a ruined hill fort towered above it. Some people got off and we got to see more of the hardy locals. It felt like we’d entered another world again, this really felt like we were in the heart of the mountains.

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You can just about see the “crater” here, but its hard to make out the rock formations and villages dotted down there

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The sunset had turned incredible, one of the best I’ve ever seen. The sky was baked in gold and orange light shone around the gleaming snowcaps, with dramatic clouds sweeping past. Glorious!

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For the next hour we rumbled along, climbing the edge of the crater winding along the track and past some perilous drops, passing more orchards and villages. We were now the last ones in the jeep. Sometimes the track was so steep the driver needed to reverse and take a run-up to get us up the slope. We passed a cluster of temple buildings and prayer flags strung out over the hillside which we assumed was Muktinath’s famous temple. It was almost dark now and we had finally arrived in the village proper.

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Despite the remoteness of the location there was plenty of civilization around, Muktinath was a sizeable mountain town with some big basic hotels. Some of them were constructed from very modern materials, ferried up the roads. Everywhere had 24 hours electricity even all the way up here. We walked along a track into the town centre as it got darker and darker, and found a cheap lodge in the centre of town. It was quite a basic affair, classic trekking lodge with a restaurant downstairs furnished in Tibetan drapery and very basic but clean rooms upstairs. There were only one other group of guests, some other Nepalese on holiday. It was bitterly cold up here, we were wearing all our 50 layers and we were happy to find they had a hot gas shower! I realized my head torch was missing. I’d had it since departing the jeep to see the way, it must have fallen out of my pocket. I wandered around in the night using the dim light from nearby houses to see, but after half an hour gave up – it was a well-used road and any local finding a good headlamp like that wouldn’t hesitate to take it. Just add it to the epic list of things I’ve lost on my travels!

Sophie all wrapped up with her blanket waiting for dinner in the restaurant
Sophie all wrapped up with her blanket waiting for dinner in the restaurant

We had some hot, filling food in the nice (but cold) restaurant. The waiter gave us some blankets to sit under as it was so freezing! I ordered some Mustang coffee as an experiment, the last time I had tried (on the ABC trek) it was awful. It’s a mix of coffee and rakshi, the homebrew whiskey. This time though, it wasn’t bad. We went to bed early – it had been a tiring day – wearing all our layers and each with two blankets – and we were still cold!

The Bumpy Bus Ride up to Jomsom

Waiting in Beni for a bus!
Waiting in Ghasa for a bus! (this becomes a theme in this entry!)

Day 120 – Location: Pokhara; Nepal

30/12/12

Me and Sophie enjoyed our last breakfast in the sunshine by Phewa lake (the only restaurant in Nepal that does good poached eggs – mmm!) and then went to the chaotic bus station where we arrived just in time to get the bus to Beni, a town around 3 hours from Pokhara. The route was the same as I’d taken to Naya Pul for trekking, crossing the bottom of a valley filled with rice fields and climbing up to the top of a ridge with great views of the Annapurnas.

The Annapurnas tower above the mere mountains we are driving up
The Annapurnas come out of the cloud to tower above the mere mountains we are driving up

We continued past Naya Pul and descended through steep valleys and past craggy rock faces along a shingly river until eventually arriving at Beni around 3pm. As usual the bus was rammed and we were subjected to Nepali and Hindi pop music blaring from the speakers for the duration! Nepali people are quite small and so leg room is usually a valuable commodity for us freakish lanky westerners, after a few hours leg amputation definitely seems like a good idea to avoid the suffering of squished limbs! We were hoping to catch a jeep or bus in Beni to take us further north to Tadapani or beyond, which would make our journey the next day shorter. The entire west side of the Annapurna circuit, which is a popular 30 day trekking route around the Annapurna mountains now has a dirt road running along the route. We wanted to take transport up that road right up into Jomsom in the north, to avoid 5 days of trekking, time we didn’t have.

Driving up by the river towards Beni
Driving up by the river towards Beni, taken through the never-clean Nepali bus windows

Beni turned out to be a grim, poor, grey and characterless town on the banks of a big rocky, glacial river. At least the kids were enthusiastic there, excited to see some foreigners in their part of town. After instant noodles at a local restaurant (noodles commonly being the only thing you can point to when there is no menu and the owners don’t speak English!) we asked around for jeeps to Tadapani. We got pointed down to another part of town. After some time of wandering around asking directions we eventually were pointed across the river and found a bus park. But when we asked, it turned out the last bus going in that direction had just left – damn! We were stranded in Beni. We booked into a depressing hotel by the bus park and went for dinner when it got dark, a tasty local place. As Sophie said, at least in the dark you couldn’t see the town’s grimness! On the plus side, our room had some western TV channels so we watched The Hulk before bed, ready to get up early to start our trip to Jomsom tomorrow.

In Nepal you often see trucks and tractors down by the rivers with people filling them up with rocks
Approaching Beni. In Nepal you often see trucks and tractors down by the rivers with people filling them up with rocks

Day 121 – Location: Beni; Nepal

31/12/12

New Years Eve. After a sleepless morning overlooking the bus park below, we got up at 8am and hopped on the first bus in the dusty bus park outside up to Tadopani. Unfortunately we arrived just as it was leaving and it was full of locals. We crammed in, having to stand. The road was slow and very bumpy, we had to brace ourselves to prevent being flung around. We juddered our way up the edge of the river through villages reminiscent of the ones I’d seen on my ABC trek. We eventually got a seat but Sophie almost concussed herself when she bashed her head on the metal shelf above from a particularly nasty bump!

A village close to Tatopani
A village close to Tadopani

The valley slopes on either side got steeper and higher and after about 2 and a half hours of jolting we arrived at the small village of Tatopani, getting our trekking permits checked at a booth and hopping off at the start of town. There was some kind of school festival going on below us by the river, music was blaring from speakers and school kids were milling around. Volleyball nets were being set up and one of the death wheels, a rickety ferris wheel, had been set up. Up the valley we could see a snow capped Himalaya.

Tadopani with a Himalaya in the distance
Tadopani with a Himalaya in the distance

We walked up the road past Tatopani’s famous hot springs, uninspiring concrete pools where tourists were lazing around in the steaming water. The edges of the river were steaming too and covered in thick algae. There was no time for us to relax though, we reached the bus terminal and climbed some steps to the village proper. Here it was like any other trekking village, a narrow stone path with little walls, lined with shops and trekking lodges. Colourful flowers and laden fruit trees added some colour to the street. We went into a lodge with a nice patio garden for some breakfast and stayed for an hour waiting for the next bus which would take us to Jomsom.

Some of the natural hot springs steaming away in Tadopani
Some of the natural hot springs steaming away in Tadopani
The clothing of the people is already quite Tibetan up in Tadopani
The clothing of the people is already quite Tibetan up in Tadopani
Tadopani's main street
Tadopani’s main street

When we got to the bus terminal it turned out to be the same bus we’d been on before! The young conductor said they could only take us as far as Ghasa, about half-way to Jomsom. Up here in the middle of nowhere, you take what you can get, so we hopped aboard –the only passengers. The track got even worse, bump hell! The terrain became much more barren with impressive cliffs and life clinging to the hillsides as we climbed along the steep valley walls. Sometimes the conductor had to jump out of the bus to shift big stones on the track out of the way. We crossed little rivers on dodgy looking wooden and metal bridges which rattled when we drove over them. Waterfalls cascaded down the cliffside. In some places we were less than a meter from a death plunge into the river far below, with no barriers.The ride was very uncomfortable, the most bumpy of my life, and extremely dusty. We saw a few suspension bridges from the old trekking route crossing the ravine.

The steep hillside we were cutting across
The steep hillside we were cutting across
A rare bit of road with barriers, a death plunge is below. As usual, the Nepali bus cabin is filled with decorations and Hindu images
A rare bit of road with barriers, a death plunge is below. As usual, the Nepali bus cabin is filled with decorations and Hindu images

After a few hours we were glad to arrive at a bus park in Ghasa, having picked up a few more passengers on the way. There weren’t many people around, no one we asked knew of any transport going further north today. I got chatting to some passengers from our bus, a group of Indians who were doing a motorbike tour up to Jomsom. One of their bikes had broken down so some of them had had to get the bus. The rest of their party soon arrived on their bikes. The last night they’d had trouble with a bike and had ended up stranded in a random village. A local woman had kindly put them up for the night. They were going to try and get the bike repaired here so they could continue north.The valley here was covered in trees and sheer cliffs, quite different to the scenery I’d seen by the Annapurnas.

Ghasa
Ghasa
Looking back down the valley from Ghasa
Looking back down the valley from Ghasa

With no information to go on, we decided to wait around the bus park to see if any buses or jeeps came through. After a few hours we were getting desperate, the only vehicles had been some full jeeps of trekkers rumbling past, and buses coming from the wrong direction.

Ghasa's bus park, where we entertained ourselves (read: bored out of our minds) for over 2 hours.
Ghasa’s bus park, where we entertained ourselves (read: bored out of our minds) for over 2 hours.

It was already 4pm and we were preparing for a night in this village at a lodge. Eventually a Nepali guy appeared, started up one of the buses and we asked him if he was going north. He was, all the way to Jomsom! Sweet! We piled in with some other trekkers and so began another bumpy four hour journey up into the mountains. The bus became full quickly with locals (who by this point were all looking quite Tibetan) but at least we had a seat. We bounced our way through trekking villages and further up started to pass through a forest. On the other side of the valley there were a row of huge landslides which had decimated the sides, dotted with rocks as big as houses. Up ahead there were a few craggy Himalayas peeking over the ridgeline. Behind us, rocky and barren peaks glowed orange in the setting sun.

The road behind us as we enter the forest, the following photos are all taken through the dirty bus windows - in Nepal you are lucky if they open at all!
The road behind us as we enter the forest, the following photos are all taken through the dirty bus windows – in Nepal you are lucky if they open at all!
Huge landslides cover the  hillside. It's hard to convey the sheer scale of them here.
Huge landslides cover the hillside. It’s hard to convey the sheer scale of them here, check the size of the pine trees on the right.
The last sun reflects off the snow covered Himalaya above us
The last sun reflects off the snow covered Himalaya above us
The view behind us as we climb to the uppermost valley
The view behind us as we climb to the uppermost valley

After a few hours of rattling and snaking ever-upwards we emerged into a flatter, very different landscape, skirting the edge of a wide valley. The valley floor was flat, a huge bed of shingle with little rivers meandering their way through it. The sides were lined with pine trees rising to cover steep mountains looming above. We sometimes drove down onto the pebbly flats (which was even more bumpy!), and forded through shallow streams and rivers. We passed through villages with flat-roofed cottages which had chopped firewood stacked on the roofs and walls, covering every surface available. Colourful Buddhist flags fluttered from poles on the roofs.

The flat valley we emerged into
The flat valley we emerged into

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When the sun went down me and Sophie both fell asleep despite the jolting. We woke at around 7pm – it was pitch black outside and we passed through a pretty village full of lit-up lodges. I could make out bare trees here, orchards, lining the sides of the road, separated by stone walls. Half an hour later we finally arrived in Jomsom after our 11 hour endurance trip. It was a big town with a main paved road striking through the centre, passing the little airport which was a bare strip of land with a control tower and small terminal. Jomsom was effectively just the same as the other trekking villages but scaled up. Lodges, restaurants and shops lined the main street and dogs wandered around. The people up here all looked Tibetan with flat faces, brown skin and weathered features and there were still a number of locals milling around. Here we were only a few hundred kilometers from Tibet to the north.

Sophie celebrating New Year with as many layers on as possible!
Sophie celebrating New Year with as many layers on as possible!

We were lucky to depart the bus to find ourselves right outside the recommended hotel from the Lonely Planet! They had plenty of rooms, in fact there only seemed to be one other set of guests in the whole place! As Jomsom is such a popular trekking destination we were surprised, especially as it was New Years eve! It was a family run place, a friendly bunch. Our room was surprisingly clean and homely compared to most trekking lodges, and the hotel had a nice wooden restaurant. They even had hot water and we enjoyed our first hot shower in weeks! We soon ordered dinner and huddled next to the gas heater in the restaurant wearing all our layers, it was freezing. As it was New Years, I bought an expensive Yak Steak with their homemade sauce, it was really tasty – I say expensive, but that’s by Nepali standards – 8 pounds is hardly breaking the bank! With no one else around to celebrate with, we bought a bottle of rum and some coke and drank in our bedroom pumping out tunes from the iPod until midnight, giving a little cheer to bring in the New Year. We soon turned in, it had been a very long and bumpy day and a rather bizarre and very remote place to spend New Years Eve!

Yak steak - mmmmmm! Get in ma belly!
Yak steak – mmmmmm! Get in ma belly!

Christmas in Pokhara

The Fishtail, Pokhara
The Fishtail, Pokhara

Day 112 – Location: Kathmandu > Pokhara; Nepal

21/12/12

Me and Sophie took a tourist bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The journey was fast and uneventful compared to last time, we passed the time sleeping and reading. It was Sophie’s first time to Pokhara. We arrived at 2pm and took a taxi to Noble Inn in Lakeside, where I had stayed the last time I was in the city. The friendly woman there eagerly welcomed us and we got a good twin room for a cheap price. I took Sophie on a tour by the lakeside and we chilled out. In the evening Sophie wasn’t feeling too good.

Sunset at Phewa Lake
Sunset at Phewa Lake

Day 113

22/12/12

Today Sophie was feeling really ill and stayed in bed whilst I went to sort out my visa. On the taxi to the visa office I saw a familiar girl walking along the street – Anja, the Swiss girl I’d travelled with a few months ago! It made sense, as she was a volunteer at her school she was also on school holidays and Pokhara is her closest city. I sent her a text message, sorted out the visa (the Pokhara staff were not impressed with Kathmandu passing the buck to them), and went back into town.

Sophie and Anja
Sophie and Anja

Sophie was still in bed so I went to meet Anja at a café where we caught up. She was enjoying her time in Besi Sahar. Although her daily routine is always the same she loves the children at the school, and her host family are great to be with. She’d been involved in all the local festivals too. Another volunteer had joined her in the house recently, but he was struggling to fit in to the rather chaotic school conditions, being an orderly sort.  His overly protective girlfriend had been angry with him for going to Nepal and had insisted on flying over to Nepal to see her, so they wouldn’t be joining us!

I spent the rest of the day chilling out. Sophie dragged herself out of bed for dinner. Pokhara was really quiet compared to the last time I was here, now we were in the low season, and freezing at night. Most of the restaurants were open to the outdoors so for the next few days we picked restaurants with open fires to stay warm!

The skies were very clear now winter was approaching, every day you could see the Annapurnas
The skies were very clear now winter was approaching, every day you could see the Annapurnas

Day 114

23/12/12

Sophie discovered she had tonsillitis! No wonder she was knocked out! We spent the day chilling out, sitting by the lakeside restaurants in the sunshine and watching the world go by. Paragliders were doing awesome stunts, somersaulting around with the whitecapped Fishtail mountain looming behind them. The weather had been very clear every day so far and so we could see the Himalayas clearly. We looked up tonsillitis on the internet and went to buy Sophie the right kind of antibiotics. Although we’d been planning and researching trekking in the north of Nepal from Pokhara, for now it would have to wait until Sophie was better. In the evening we met Anja for dinner, she and Sophie got on well and they were both happy to be able to chat in German to each other.

This dog was in bliss getting tickled by Sophie's feet!
This dog was in bliss getting tickled by Sophie’s feet!

Day 115

24/12/12

It was Christmas Eve, although with the scorching sun it didn’t feel like it! Pokhara was a bit more Christmassy than Kathmandu though – a lot of tourist places had decorations and some even played Christmas music. Sophie was starting to feel a bit better with the antibiotics. We spent the morning in a Rasta bar relaxing by the lakeside, amazed by how different Christmas was here to back home. We met Anja in the afternoon to take a boat ride on the lake, rowing around for a few hours and soaking up the views and the peace and quiet. There were a lot of Indian tourists around and some of them were taking photos of us on the boat.

Sophie loves boats
Sophie loves boats
Anja loves boats more
Anja loves boats more

Afterwards we got coffee and exchanged stories about Christmas rituals in our own countries, and we entered the Christmas spirit by singing along to the piped chirstmas tunes in the café. We met Anja again in the evening for dinner. As the 24th is Switzerland’s first Christmas day (they have it over two days) we hade a Christmas meal early with tasty apple crumble for dessert. Amazingly it was Sophie’s first time trying it and she was instantly a crumble convertee!

Tourists explore Phewa lake a pedal boat
Tourists explore Phewa lake a pedal boat

Day 116

25/12/12

Christmas day! The sun was shining brightly. Me and Anja hired some bicycles (Sophie wasn’t feeling well enough) and we rode around the lakeside, following a tarmac road which passed through villages and farmland. Kids shouted hello at us and we dodged buffalo and motorbikes.

AlanStockPhotography-1090881

We had to steer around this narky group of ox and buffalo being herded along the road
We had to steer around this narky group of ox and buffalo being herded along the road

This side of the lake was popular with the locals for picnicking. It was really nice and great to ride a bike again (the first time since I broke my shoulder biking!).  We reached the far end of the lake after an hour. Here there were a lot of flat rice paddies and a paragliding landing strip sticking out into the lake.

AlanStockPhotography-1090857

Farmers carry their rice harvest over the paddies
Farmers carry their rice harvest over the paddies

We turned around at a simple water ferry – just a raft with a rope hanging over the river which the people used to pull the raft along. Anja loves kids and used her charms on the locals to get some kid pictures. Of course I didn’t miss the photo opportunity! Back in town we still had some bike time left so I took Anja to the dam with the rope bridge.

Rope ferry
Rope ferry
Some of Anja's victims
Some of Anja’s victims

In the evening it was “my” Christmas day so I chose a place that was doing a real Christmas dinner. The turkey was boney but hey, it’s the first time I ever saw turkey on the menu in Nepal so I can’t complain! I bought us a load of chocolate and crisps to emulate Christmas at home, and drank plenty of beer. Good times!

I love Christmas!
I love Christmas!

Days 117 > 119

26/12/12 > 29/12/12

We spent the next few days chilling out by the lake with Sophie’s health gradually improving. Anja left to go back to Besi Sahar to start school. She had introduced us to a Swiss bakery in one of the guest houses where she can get her favourite bread from home. She invited a Nepali friend with us to dinner, a guy who she’d met through Swiss friends. He’d got the wrong impression though and tried to kiss her up in her hotel room – although she’d done nothing to provoke it. Western girls can get a lot of unwanted attention from Nepali guys. The society is so stringent when it comes to relationships, and the western TV they’re exposed to (such as music videos) portrays western women as being almost slutty in their eyes, so they assume all western girls are like that. Anja now tells men in her town that she’s married as she gets so much unwanted attention – that quickly gets rid of them!

Rice getting carried from the paddies
Rice getting carried from the paddies

With Sophie feeling better we looked into the trekking. With the time available to us (Sophie had to meet her mother soon), we decided to go up to the remote town of Jomsom at the top part of the Annapurna circuit, which lies in the north of Nepal close to the Tibetan border. We bought our trekking permits and one day hired kayaks and paddled around the lake.

Our hotel roof offered a good spot for photos of the Annapurnas
Our hotel roof offered a good spot for photos of the Annapurnas

AlanStockPhotography-1090837

Back to Kathmandu

A colourful food market nestled amongst the shrines of Kathmandu's backstreets
A colourful food market nestled amongst the shrines of Kathmandu’s backstreets

Days 100 > 104 – Location: Kathmandu, Nepal

10/12/12 > 14/12/12

On my last morning in Karmidanda I got up early and said my goodbyes. Jhabraj and his family had been such great hosts and I was sorry to be leaving, but after two and a half weeks I was feeling restless and my health had returned, I was ready to move on. I caught a bus from the track near the house. People piled on, nearly all of them looked of Tibetan origin. Over the next few hours we bumped our way down the valley, some hairpins were so sharp the bus had to reverse to get an attainable angle to take them. We passed through villages similar to Karmidanda and eventually reached the tarmac roads, climbing the opposite valley and stopping at a town for lunch. There were lots of stalls selling big gourd vegetables, must be the season for them. I listened to “To Kill a Mocking Bird” on my iPod to pass the time. We wound our way around the hills and arrived in Kathmandu at 1pm, by which point my bum was completely numb! I took a taxi into Thamel and checked into Hotel Potala which I’d stayed in before.

I chilled out for the rest of the day enjoying some western delights, pizza and coffee! You start to crave that stuff when you’ve not had it for months!

Statue in Kathmandu temple
Statue in Kathmandu temple

That night I heard back from the Hong Kong passport processing centre, who were dealing with my passport replacement. They needed a written note declaring why I couldn’t get a countersignature for my passport application, so I sent them a photo which did the job.

Camille, the Belgian girl I’d hung out with a month or so back, was back from a meditation course, so I met her in the evening. She took me to dinner with a big group of people she’d done the meditation course with. They were a mix of all nationalities. The 10 day meditation course at a temple near Kathmandu had been pretty hardcore. They weren’t allowed to talk to each other at all for the whole duration, they slept in dorms, had big meals and cold showers. For an hour in the morning and the evening the teacher gave them lessons about meditation. They got up at 4am every morning and after breakfast sat down for 12 hours of silent meditation with a break for lunch.

A nice courtyard restaurant me and Sophie went to breakfast daily to catch the sun
A nice courtyard restaurant me and Sophie went to breakfast daily to catch the sun

Camille found it hard to begin with, but after a few days she focused her thoughts and finished with less doubts about life and more of a life plan. Rather than try to eliminate thoughts, you are supposed to just let them come and go. She did get bored after a week though. The reactions of the others in her group were mixed, some like Camille were really happy with the course. Others never got into it and spent it feeling bored and frustrated. Some said there wasn’t enough direction or that it was too hardcore – but they did treat it as a learning experience.

Rani Pokhari, Kathmandu
Rani Pokhari, Kathmandu

After dinner we parted ways and she said we’d meet the next day to go trekking with some of the group. However the next morning she didn’t turn up so I assumed she’d gone without me.

I spent the next three days bumming around, working on the blog now I had wi-fi again, sorting out photos, and reading – popping in and out of restaurants and bars. My laptop charger broke (add it to the big list of things that have broken down!) but I managed to find a replacement on the same night in the techhy area of Kathmandu. I took a few walks around central Kathmandu to get some exercise. I was bored but stuck without my passport, I couldn’t go too far from Kathmandu and I’d already exhausted the tourist options in the area. I knew Sophie would be coming to Kathmandu soon to do some travelling in her school holidays.

Traditional potter at work at the street festival
Traditional potter at work at the street festival

Day 105

15/12/12

Sophie and Jhabraj were arriving in Kathmandu today, both in school holidays. In the morning I ran into Camille. She apologized for standing me up the other day – she’d forgotten where my hotel was!  She didn’t go trekking and had been hanging out with some Chinese friends she met at the meditation course. We arranged to meet up later to visit a casino.

I popped into a nearby shopping street where they were holding a street festival. There was live Nepali music and dancing on stage, local food and handicrafts, a small zipline over the street promoting an adventure sports company, and an abseil down the side of the buildings. I watched a bike stunt display for a while as they pulled some impressive moves for the crowd.

Ziplining above the street festival
Ziplining above the street festival
Bike stunts at the street festival
Bike stunts at the street festival

In the afternoon I met Sophie at a café and Jhabraj joined us briefly. She was staying with Jhabraj and his daughters in their flat in Kathmandu. There had been yet more drama in the village! A girl had committed suicide after failing her exams. She’d supposedly hung herself and left a note. However it was a bit suspicious as no one had examined her body until the police intervened when the funeral was taking place down at the river. We didn’t hear the verdict.

A girl spots us from a temple balcony near Durbar Square
A girl spots us from a temple balcony near Durbar Square

After dinner Sophie had some stuff to do so I met Camille, who was with her Chinese friends. We took a taxi to a casino on the outskirts of town. It was a pretty cheap establishment, though it did have free drinks, free cigarettes and a free buffet which was the reason they were visiting! They got promotional free casino chips from their hotel so they could just turn up, play some games and then tuck into the buffet. The clientele were mostly middle-aged Indian men and a few westerners. Nepalese aren’t allowed in most casinos, except the really rich ones. Aside from tucking into the buffet I bought a few pounds worth of chips and played some roulette. The only games they had were roulette and two card games I had never seen before. I ended up with about the same amount of chips as I started. Some players were on big money in comparison, putting bets of over 100 pounds onto the table. One of Camille’s Chinese friends had a system for winning one of the card games, he went to the casino almost every night and made money using his free guest house chips as the starting bid! He eats for free at the casino and pays for his accommodation with the winnings! Amazingly they haven’t kicked him out yet! Back in town I met Sophie again and we had drink before calling it a night.

Traditional song and dance at the street festival
Traditional song and dance at the street festival

Days 106 > 111

16/12/12 > 21/12/12

Me and Sophie spent the next few days hanging out in Kathmandu. She had shopping to do for Christmas presents so we toured the streets, ate breakfast and lunch in the sunshine and chilled out in the evenings. I took her to the Garden of Dreams and a tour around the Durbar Square area. Jhabraj met us for coffee one day before he went back to the village. Some of the tourist places in Kathmandu had Christmas decorations and trees by this point, but the atmosphere was very unchristmassy with glaringly bright days of sunshine. It was very cold out of the sun though, but no rain or snow appeared. I Skyped with my parents back in Scotland, they showed me the decorations at home on the webcam, though they didn’t have snow there either.

Me and Sophie in our necessary puffer jackets, next to one of Kathmandu's few christmas trees!
Me and Sophie in our necessary puffer jackets, next to one of Kathmandu’s few christmas trees!

Finally I got word from the British embassy in Kathmandu that my new passport had arrived. I went there and picked it up. I overheard the guy in front of me in the queue asking for help – he’d had a nightmare, he is living in Kathmandu with his family, and a local guy he’d met, for no reason had invaded their house, beat him unconscious and beat up his wife, his children witness to the whole thing! He’d been in court and the psycho had been sentenced to prison. My passport woes seemed a drop in the ocean compared to what this poor guy had been through.

Abseiling at the street festival
Abseiling at the street festival
Devices for thinning cotton, used when making blankets
Devices for thinning cotton, used when making blankets

 

I went to the Kathmandu visa office as they’d instructed me to when my passport arrived. They ended up charging me 180 pounds in fees for the overstay on my visa whilst my passport was gone, which I argued with them was unfair as they hadn’t let me extend the visa without my passport anyway! But as they’d let me stay in the country without a visa or passport anyway, I didn’t want to push my luck and paid up when it was clear they wouldn’t back down. I extended the new visa to allow me some time travelling with Sophie, aiming to leave Nepal in mid-January. I spent all day there waiting for them to sort it out, unfortunately they had to contact the Pokhara office where I’d extended the visa originally to get proof that I had done it, and Pokhara in classic Nepali fashion had no electricity that day! As a result they didn’t get the final stamp of approval but said I could sort it out in Pokhara.  Me and Sophie booked a bus to Pokhara for the next day.

More bike stunts at the street festival
More bike stunts at the street festival
Rickshaws waiting for customers
Rickshaws waiting for customers
Kumari mask in Kumari's restaurant, Freak Street
Kumari mask in Kumari’s restaurant, Freak Street

 

 

Village Life

An old lady sits on the sidelines of the wedding
An old lady sits on the sidelines of the wedding

Day 93 – Location: Karmidanda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

03/12/12

I managed to get some much-needed sleep despite the grumbling tummy. Downstairs Jhabraj was shelling rice. Because a baby had been born the other week, they’d had to delay a festival ceremony for the occasion until today. He made a mixture of rice, millet and some other stuff to feed the goats, even the animals get to celebrate! The family had also mixed up a milky concoction for us containing milk, grated coconut, bananas, cinnamon, cloves and pepper. I managed to eat a little bit of plain rice with salt, my first food for a day, and tried a bit of Sophie’s milk mix – it was quite good though a bit too peppery for my tastes.

Jhabraj was off in the morning to visit Januka’s father about 40 minutes away who was very ill. He’d caught Typhoid and another condition. Although he had the right medicines he was very weak and hadn’t eaten for a week.

A friendly village chap
A friendly village chap

Feeling a little more human today, but still suffering from dioreaah and a midly churny stomach, I did some chores and managed a bowl of noodles. In the afternoon me and Sophie went up the hill to a nice spot in the sun with a good view, and relaxed up there in the peace and quiet. In the evening Jhabraj returned. He thought Januka’s father would be ok but he was still very weak. I wasn’t feeling too bad now. Just before we went to bed, the drunken teacher appeared again in his usual state!

Village houses painted in the traditional colours
Village houses painted in the traditional colours

Day 94

04/12/12

Another very cold night. Januka had left to Kathmandu to visit her daughters. I was feeling stronger but not 100% and managed some curry. When the others left for school I was in the company of Ama, Jhabraj’s. Unfortunately she doesn’t speak a word of English and speaks to you like you should understand what she’s saying, without using any sign language. This makes communication with her pretty much impossible!

I worked on my diary and helped with some house chores. Ama surprised me by appearing with a big pile of fresh cow poo in her hands and dropped it on the yard! Then she brought a bowl and a bucket of water with a cloth. I then understood what she was up to. She was adding a new layer of dung onto the yard floor, as it was getting patchy. When it’s dry you can’t even tell it’s poo, being light grey and dusty. All traditional Nepali houses use this method for painting their floors and walls. She set to work with a bowl of water and poo, smearing it over the yard floor. I swept ahead of her to get rubbish out of the way. It smelt pretty bad, but to her I guess it’s just another chore that she’s done her whole life. She didn’t seem bothered by it at all. Half-way through an old man, blind in one eye, came round and chatted to her, and tried to speak to me. Of course I couldn’t understand a word he said so could only nod, shrug and smile at him. It’s a bit awkward when you’re being spoken to by people that you simply can’t understand. All you can do is react with exaggerated confusion, laugh or smile but who knows what they’re saying to you? For all I knew they could be telling you a heart-wrenching story, or maybe just giving you a good telling off!

Ama with a load of poo!
Ama gets down and dirty!

Sophie arrived to give me a welcome respite from Ama’s one-sided chats. The flies were driving us crazy today, swarming loud enough to hear. I carried on updating the diary. We chilled the rest of the afternoon. In the evening Jhabraj got some bad news. Januka had been to the dentist in Kathmandu about her toothache, and they said she had to get half of her teeth removed as they were rotten! Although she brushes every day, it’s a genetic disease which her father also had. And it would cost a lot, another blow to the family’s finances.

Sophie and Januka in the local town
Sophie and Januka in the local town

Days 95-99

05/12/12 > 9/12/12

I spent the next four days relaxing and recovering from the stomach bug. Ama continued to chat to me whilst I was home alone, and I spent a good deal of my time watching Dexter and playing games on my laptop. When the others were around we’d chat or I’d go for walks with Sophie. The nights continued to be bitterly cold. With all of his family’s financial problems, Jhabraj decided to sell one of the milking cows and its calf. He found a buyer when he visited the local town. On the day he sold it, a bunch of his friends came round with the buyer to help move the animals. The cow and calf were not happy to be moved but were led and dragged along the path towards the buyer’s village. For the calf it was the first time it had left the house so it was understandably nervous! Jhabraj was feeling a bit down afterwards, after all, the cows are almost like family to him; he looks after them and they provide for him. His new plan was to to save up enough to buy a more expensive cow from Indian bull sperm, which would produce over double the amount of milk his old cow made per day. With only one cow remaining the days of limitless curd and milk every day were over, to Sophie’s dismay!

Village boy
Village boy

Sophie had finished her term at school, with the kids going into exams. She admitted she’d grown fond of them, even the troublemakers. Jhabraj agreed that the school in general has problems with discipline and non-attendance; Sophie had been facing the same challenge as the other teachers. She’d been partly successful in getting their attention; English children’s songs were a favourite of the younger class. A girl had vanished from Sophie’s class – it turned out she’d been pulled out for another arranged marriage. Apparently she was quite intelligent but there is nothing the teachers can do to stop it.

Awijit and his teammates were entered in a karate contest in the nearby town to earn their next belt grade. He did pretty well and earned it by drawing in a fight – all that training paid off.

Another nice sunset over Karmidana
Another nice sunset over Karmidana

 

——

Would you like to stay in Karmidanda village with the Neupane family? Read on…

Cheeky little villager Jeneet
Cheeky little villager Jeneet

If you are thinking of visiting Nepal and would like to do a homestay with Jhabraj’s family and see his village, or you need an experienced trekking or private tour guide, Jhabraj is very happy to accommodate you. He can do tours anywhere around Nepal and for trekking, he is very experienced and a safe, responsible guide, having guided on all the major Nepali treks multiple times as a guide (including the popular Everest, Annapurna and Langtang treks). It is also possible to do some spectacular trekking in the Langtang area from his village area so you could always combine a homestay with a trek. Jhabraj charges very reasonable prices, he speaks good English, and you couldn’t meet a friendlier, more interesting and hospitable guy! Your enjoyment, satisfaction and safety are his primary concerns. Money that Jhabraj earns from visitors and clients goes towards the higher education of his children, which is extremely expensive for a village family. If you want to hear more, please contact me via this website and I will put you in touch with him. Highly recommended!

——

Would you like to help Jhabraj’s village community of Karmidanda? Read on…

Onlookers at the wedding we went to
Onlookers at the wedding we went to

Like many outlying villages in Nepal, the village Karmidanda is extremely poor and the community has many serious problems as a result. Almost all the families here are in a lot of debt, living on the breadline on the meagre earnings they can eke out – most are farmers. Other avenues of work are simply not available up here and most families cannot afford to put their children into higher education to improve the cycle. Public welfare does not really exist in Nepal and the area only has one health clinic staffed by volunteers and supplied by charity. If a villager requires hospitisation the villagers have to pool together to get enough money to pay for an ambulance to take the patient 5 hours to Kathmandu and also pay the expensive hospital treatment fees, if they can afford it. The village school was built thanks to charitable efforts but staff wages are low, equipment and resources are always scarce and there are not enough teachers for the number of students. These are just some of the problems that the community has – yet despite the difficulties the community spirit is amazing here, people help each other, they have a smile on their face and they are welcoming and friendly. If you think that you can help with donations, volunteering (including English teaching at the school) or charitable projects, please get in touch. Jhabraj has many contacts and can direct you to the right people so you know your money or resources are going directly to the local community and no share is going into anyone elses’ pocket. Some charitable efforts have also been started by foreign visitors who have visited Jhabraj and decided to help the community of Karmidanda – please check out the following websites: (links coming soon!)

 

Food Poisoning!

Jhabraj's sister-in-law, a cheeky woman for sure!
Jhabraj’s sister-in-law, a cheeky woman for sure!

Day 90 – Location: Karmidanda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

30/11/12

Another cold night. In the morning Jhabraj’s sister-in-law arrived to collect me, a funny, loud but good-natured woman who’d been nagging me for a while to come and harvest millet with her. She only speaks a few words of English. I agreed to join her today and so we set off with two other women up a steep path to some terraced fields where we began working.

With four of us at work we were clearing pretty quickly, emptying a field in a few hours.  All the ladies smoked. Jhabraj’s mother (Ama) arrived to help. After a few hours the sister-in-law’s son  brought us a sari used as a sack for a vast amount of popcorn! Huzzah! We stuffed our faces and after devouring a pile I couldn’t eat any more, despite them trying to force-feed me more! I left after 4 hours work when we’d cleared a few fields.

She flings the millet over her shoulder into the basket
She flings the millet over her shoulder into the basket

The rest of the day was chilled out. I watched the goat kids becoming more and more adventurous. They were getting brave enough now to venture quite far from the house, but would dash back at the first sign of trouble. The male one, Hump, enjoyed using me as a trampoline when I was lying on the bank. He isn’t the brightest and likes to nibble at your fingers. But if he gets his back teeth gripped on them it’s a whole world of pain – Sophie has the scar to prove it!

Ama at work in the field
Ama at work in the field

Day 91

01/12/12

Saturday. Jhabraj and a contigent of his friends arrived in the yard carrying big bales of hay, which they stacked into a storey-high pyramid. He’d had to buy it for the dry season to feed the animals, although it is quite expensive the pay-off is he gets milk every day and can sell the animals when he needs to.

We all relaxed in the yard after lunch. I started to get a churning stomach. Whilst me and Sophie were sat out in the sun the guy who had been in trouble for not feeding his dad appeared. As usual he looked out of place with his camo clothes and shades. He was wasted and slurred away to us for a while trying to explain something about being a trekking guide. Awijit reminded us he’s an alcoholic and said he had been drinking since 5am!

The house cats curl up by the fire
The house cats curl up by the fire

My stomach was feeling worse in the evening. Jhabraj had some friends round. One had a big wooden pipe like a small shisha. The smell from it was terrible. I need to find out what they were smoking! I turned in early, feeling awful. Jhabraj came up to check my temperature and pulse, I didn’t have a fever and my pulse was normal so we guessed it might be food poisoning, perhaps from the home-made yogurt we’d had at lunch, but no-one else had problems from eating the same food I’d had today.

A rather large inhabitant of the kitchen!
A rather large inhabitant of the kitchen! Check the padlock at the bottom for size reference!

Day 92

02/12/12

The night was hell. My stomach got a lot worse, churning horribly and I got pains as well. Although I felt like I wanted to vomit, I couldn’t. I tossed and turned, the minutes passing seeming like hours. I barely slept a wink. It’s the most ill I have felt since getting heat exhaustion when I was 18. After 12 hours of suffering, I came downstairs. I’d been drinking water all night. I managed to go to the toilet to be greeted with dioreahh. Jhabraj was concerned. Sophie said the symptoms were of bacteria in the stomach and the best thing to do would be to drink lots of water and wait for it to get out of my system. She recommended chamomile tea to help my stomach, so Januka made me one. I couldn’t even think about eating anything, and this is me we’re talking about!

Sophie gets serious
Sophie gets serious

It was Awijit’s 15th birthday but they aren’t usually celebrated in Nepal, and disappointingly he didn’t want me to buy him alcohol, cigarettes or chocolate! I spent the morning in a haze of pain. I suddenly knew I had to be sick and violently threw up in the bucket. For a short while I felt less bad. Unfortunately it returned just as bad, accompanied by very painful stomach cramps. I felt very weak. Januka was kind and kept offering me things, but all I could do was thank her and lie around, reading for a distraction. Bouts of dioreahh kept me close to the toilet. Around midday I was violently sick puking up a mighty 2 litres!

Two boys from the wedding the other day
Two boys from the wedding the other day

The afternoon passed slowly but it started to get a bit better. Sophie said the colour was returning to my face. By the evening it was definitely improving although I still felt bad. In the late evening we had a visitor. It was the drunken teacher who’d entertained us on the night I’d smoked too much ganja. He was exactly like the last time, very drunk and chatting away enthusiastically about random things. He kept calling Jhabraj “Jabba” which me and Sophie found very funny! Eventually Jhabraj managed to get rid of him and he waddled off into the night. I went up to bed but couldn’t sleep because of my stomach. But, after a few episodes of Dexter I managed to nod off and got a few hours sleep, thank god!

Onlookers at the wedding we went to
Onlookers at the wedding we went to

A Nepali Wedding

An old lady gives the bride a tika
An old lady gives the bride a tika

Day 89 – Location: Karmidanda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

29/11/12

In the morning we made some more butter. Later, Jhabraj called from school and asked me if I could go to today’s wedding in the village to take photos for the family. Happy for the invitation, I went along with Januka. The house turned out to be the one I’d visited on the first day in the village, where the woman had been recovering from being hit by a tree. At the end of the path leading to the house were two flower pots on either side with a piece of string between them creating a barrier. No-one would step over this, instead inching around the flower pots.

The girls guarding the entrance to the house!
The girls guarding the entrance to the house!

A man I knew who has the look of a Nepali-Italian Mafioso greeted me and thanked me for coming. Bizarrely there was a double bed sitting out in the yard, with a collection of food, jugs and tika dyes. Soon the guests began to arrive. An oil lamp was placed below the string barrier and then it was broken as the first arrival, the groom’s father passed through it, greeted by a host of girls in traditional ornate dress. Guests filed into the yard, some receiving tikas at the flower pot gate. The groom, a mild faced man around 30 years old received a tika from the bride’s father.

Not quite what I was expecting to see in the yard!
Not quite what I was expecting to see in the yard!
The queue of guests stretches out to infinity!
The queue of guests stretches out to infinity!
The groom receives his tika from the bride's father
The groom receives his tika from the bride’s father

A row of girls in the yard had lined up to offer wrapped presents to the brides father, who gave them all tikas. The whole wedding turned out to be a tika frenzy! The groom stood looking nervous and barely managed a smile for my photos.

Pretty nervous I think!
Pretty nervous I think!

He was led to a chair in front of the assembled food and tika ingredients. The bride came out of the house, although she’s only 19 she looked about 25 and was wearing a red and golden dress with a red veil. She fixed a second garland of grass around the groom’s neck, bashing him accidently in her haste much to the amusement of the packed yard. Then the groom put a grass gardland on her, put a ring on her finger and then fastened a flashy gold watch to her wrist. They gave each other tikas.

A grass garland is affixed around the bride's neck
A grass garland is affixed around the bride’s neck

The groom sat down and the bride’s father gave him another tika (see what I mean about tika frenzy), then stood and said a prayer under instruction from the priest. You wouldn’t know he was a priest by looking at him, a young chap wearing a puffy Adidas jacket and the traditional Nepali hat. He carried a prayer book and read out lines for the groom’s father to repeat. After more tikas a coconut was produced, blessed and given to the groom. Then milk and holy water was poured into his hand. The bride’s mother repeated this.

The priest on the left conducts the ceremony with the help of his prayer book
The priest on the left conducts the ceremony with the help of his prayer book

Now the bride, her sister, the groom and his father sat on the double bed and members of the family, friends and neighbours came forward one by one to give the bride and groom tikas and blessed their feet, which involved putting dye on them and pressing their head against the foot. The first was the bride’s grandmother, cursed with the common Nepali affliction of being permanently bent double.

The grandmother receives water for the blessing
The grandmother receives water for the blessing

During this someone waved from the crowd, Sophie had been let off school early to come and watch the wedding. Januka amused us by attaching a branch of leaves to her head to keep off the sun! There were more tika givings by the bride and groom to the relatives and then presents were brought forward to the couple, from the shape many seemed to be jugs and urns. Jhabraj arrived from school to watch.

Januka and her branch hat! Me and Sophie couldn't stop laughing!
Januka and her branch hat! Me and Sophie couldn’t stop laughing!

When I returned with a fresh camera battery the bride and groom separated to receive tikas and money from the rest of the congregation. Meanwhile the food started to appear. Leaf plates were handed out to the family not taking part in the ceremony and pots full of curries, rice, beans, vegetables and more were brought out to serve the guests. Me and Sophie had politely declined an offer for food but in typical Nepali fashion ten minutes later we were handed full plates and expected to eat! It was pretty good, especially the salted soya beans and pumpkin curry. We stuffed ourselves to bursting as another round of guests began to eat. Insistent women bearing pots of food forced top-ups upon us until we had to mime our stomachs exploding!

I can feel my health levels increasing just looking at it!
I can feel my health levels increasing just looking at it!

People started to leave and Jhabraj and Januka had vanished so we assumed the ceremony was over. We headed back to the house and chilled for the rest of the afternoon. Januka and Jhabraj arrived later and told us that the celebration wasn’t over and was still continuing over there. We could hear music pumping out over big speakers from the wedding house. Jhabraj told us about the background of the bride and groom. It was an arranged marriage. The groom was from a nearby village but now lives in Kathmandu. He is 30 years old and was looking for a virgin wife from his local area. His family knew the bride’s family in Karmidanda and they offered their daughter in marriage. For the bride’s family it’s a great deal (if you ignore the morals of arranged marriage) – the groom is rich, earning a great salary as he is a bodyguard for high-end clients. Normally the bride’s family would have to pay a dowry (marriage payment), but with the deal they didn’t need to pay anything. Even the marriage had been completely subsidized by the groom’s employers. The double bed in the yard was a gift to the couple from the bride’s family. They’d hired a truck which would ferry the couple, the bed and the other gifts back to Kathmandu that evening. Sophie asked what would happen to the bride now. At only 19 she was still in school but Jhabraj expected that would stop and become a housewife. Gone would be any dreams for a career or her own pursuits but she would be safe for money for the rest of

Onlookers at the ceremony
Onlookers at the ceremony

her life assuming her new husband kept in work, plus they could easily support a family. In the evening I played cards with Awijit.

 

——

Would you like to stay in Karmidanda village with the Neupane family? Read on…

Jhabraj at home
Jhabraj at home

If you are thinking of visiting Nepal and would like to do a homestay with Jhabraj’s family and see his village, or you need an experienced trekking or private tour guide, Jhabraj is very happy to accommodate you. He can do tours anywhere around Nepal and for trekking, he is very experienced and a safe, responsible guide, having guided on all the major Nepali treks multiple times as a guide (including the popular Everest, Annapurna and Langtang treks). It is also possible to do some spectacular trekking in the Langtang area from his village area so you could always combine a homestay with a trek. Jhabraj charges very reasonable prices, he speaks good English, and you couldn’t meet a friendlier, more interesting and hospitable guy! Your enjoyment, satisfaction and safety are his primary concerns. Money that Jhabraj earns from visitors and clients goes towards the higher education of his children, which is extremely expensive for a village family. If you want to hear more, please contact me via this website and I will put you in touch with him. Highly recommended!

——

Would you like to help Jhabraj’s village community of Karmidanda? Read on…

AlanStockPhotography-1090446

Like many outlying villages in Nepal, the village Karmidanda is extremely poor and the community has many serious problems as a result. Almost all the families here are in a lot of debt, living on the breadline on the meagre earnings they can eke out – most are farmers. Other avenues of work are simply not available up here and most families cannot afford to put their children into higher education to improve the cycle. Public welfare does not really exist in Nepal and the area only has one health clinic staffed by volunteers and supplied by charity. If a villager requires hospitisation the villagers have to pool together to get enough money to pay for an ambulance to take the patient 5 hours to Kathmandu and also pay the expensive hospital treatment fees, if they can afford it. The village school was built thanks to charitable efforts but staff wages are low, equipment and resources are always scarce and there are not enough teachers for the number of students. These are just some of the problems that the community has – yet despite the difficulties the community spirit is amazing here, people help each other, they have a smile on their face and they are welcoming and friendly. If you think that you can help with donations, volunteering (including English teaching at the school) or charitable projects, please get in touch. Jhabraj has many contacts and can direct you to the right people so you know your money or resources are going directly to the local community and no share is going into anyone elses’ pocket. Some charitable efforts have also been started by foreign visitors who have visited Jhabraj and decided to help the community of Karmidanda – please check out the following websites: (links coming soon!)

Making Butter

Day 86 – Location: Karmidanda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

26/11/12

It was a very cold night and I didn’t sleep well. Poor Jhabraj had to get up at 6am to plant potatoes before school. Strange noises were coming from downstairs. It turned out to be Januka churning butter. They make it at home – as you can see in the photo, there are two handles and you pull alternately to spin the mixer in the churn. I helped out too – it was hard work!

Churn harder, Januka!
Churn harder, Januka!

After about twenty minutes of churning, lumpy bits of butter were formed on the surface. Januka scooped them off and put them in a pan for cooking. For breakfast we had some with roti bread. It was quite rich and not too bad, but not like any butter I’ve ever had before!

Lumpy butter from the top of the churn, ready for cooking
Lumpy butter from the top of the churn, ready for cooking

That morning I went to harvest millet again, this time in a higher field. After a few hours Januka joined me. It was back-breaking work as a lot of the millet stalks were competley flattened, forcing us to stoop over. Eventually we started sitting and kneeling to save our backs! Januka exchanged shouted conversations with women in nearby houses and fields. Jeneet, the funny kid from next door was being a monkey today and was shouting at us from half way up a tree in another field. I wish I knew what he was saying! After 4 hours and about to topple over, we stopped with two baskets full of millet heads. I helped Januka to chop some leafy branches from the trees for her animals and she chopped some millet stalks, then bundled both piles together with rope and hauled the huge load up the fields to the house the traditional way, using her forehead as a brace. It was so heavy I had to help her stand up at the start!

The cats' little present for me. Thanks for that. Bedroom door staying closed from now on!
The cats’ little present for me. Thanks for that. Bedroom door staying closed from now on!

I met Sophie at the house and we relaxed in the afternoon sun in our favourite spot on the path. Plenty of villagers use this path and they stopped to watch in curiosity as Sophie dug around with a needle in her foot to extract a splinter, surely wondering what madness the westerners were up to this time! I became acquainted with the Neupanes house cat, Soorie, who looks like a leopard. Soorie is a friendly chap when he’s in the mood, and jumped into my lap, purring away. There’s also a very young cat, a female, who just turned up one day a few months ago and stayed. The Neupane’s aren’t sure if she is Soorie’s daughter but they look after her anyway. She loves to play-fight with Soorie and you can watch them for hours running up trees and laying ambushes for each other.  She is very scared of people though and won’t even go for food until everyone is far away. Me and Sophie chatted in the evening and we turned in early. I started to read “Into Thin Air” by Jon Klauser, the true story of the 1996 Everest disaster as told firsthand by Klauser who was there. It’s a really good book, recommended!

Day 87 – Location: Karmidanda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

27/11/12

Another day in the millet field. Januka joined me after a few hours and we managed to finish the field we were working on. Jeneet joined us and practiced his monkey skills again, shimmying up the satsuma trees in the field, bringing us down little yellow satsumas, which inside were quite sweet. Ama, Jhabraj’s mother was also harvesting in a field above us. Impressive considering she’s in her 70s!

Awijit looks out at the view from the top of the rocky outcrop. You can see the beam of sunlight at the top as the sun slowly rises over the valley. The white section on the top right is a huge landslide, you can make out a village to one side of it - why would you want to live there?!
Awijit looks out at the view from the top of the rocky outcrop. You can see the beam of sunlight at the top as the sun slowly rises over the valley. The white section on the top right is a huge landslide, you can make out a village to the left of it – why would you want to live there?!

In the afternoon after some tea, curd and beaten rice me and Sophie walked up to the big viewpoint rock I’d climbed with Awijit previously, to admire the view. Unfortunately it was already quite cold by the time we arrived and we only got twenty minutes before the sun went down. We had taken up beer from the village shop and had to use rocks to get the bottletops off! We came back as a lovely blood red sun dissappeared behind the mountaintops. In the evening I smoked some ganja in the chillum, just a little bit to avoid the horrors of the last time, and got a mild but not unpleasant effect. Jhabraj told us an old man in his 80’s had died in the village today. After going to bed I couldn’t put “Into Thin Air” down and ended up finishing the whole book!

Sophie unleashes her demonic powers to push down the sun! Nooooooooooooooo!
Sophie unleashes her demonic powers to push down the sun! Nooooooooooooooo!

——

Would you like to stay in Karmidanda village with the Neupane family? Read on…

Jhabraj at home
Jhabraj at home

If you are thinking of visiting Nepal and would like to do a homestay with Jhabraj’s family and see his village, or you need an experienced trekking or private tour guide, Jhabraj is very happy to accommodate you. He can do tours anywhere around Nepal and for trekking, he is very experienced and a safe, responsible guide, having guided on all the major Nepali treks multiple times as a guide (including the popular Everest, Annapurna and Langtang treks). It is also possible to do some spectacular trekking in the Langtang area from his village area so you could always combine a homestay with a trek. Jhabraj charges very reasonable prices, he speaks good English, and you couldn’t meet a friendlier, more interesting and hospitable guy! Your enjoyment, satisfaction and safety are his primary concerns. Money that Jhabraj earns from visitors and clients goes towards the higher education of his children, which is extremely expensive for a village family. If you want to hear more, please contact me via this website and I will put you in touch with him. Highly recommended!

——

Would you like to help Jhabraj’s village community of Karmidanda? Read on…

AlanStockPhotography-1090446

Like many outlying villages in Nepal, the village Karmidanda is extremely poor and the community has many serious problems as a result. Almost all the families here are in a lot of debt, living on the breadline on the meagre earnings they can eke out – most are farmers. Other avenues of work are simply not available up here and most families cannot afford to put their children into higher education to improve the cycle. Public welfare does not really exist in Nepal and the area only has one health clinic staffed by volunteers and supplied by charity. If a villager requires hospitisation the villagers have to pool together to get enough money to pay for an ambulance to take the patient 5 hours to Kathmandu and also pay the expensive hospital treatment fees, if they can afford it. The village school was built thanks to charitable efforts but staff wages are low, equipment and resources are always scarce and there are not enough teachers for the number of students. These are just some of the problems that the community has – yet despite the difficulties the community spirit is amazing here, people help each other, they have a smile on their face and they are welcoming and friendly. If you think that you can help with donations, volunteering (including English teaching at the school) or charitable projects, please get in touch. Jhabraj has many contacts and can direct you to the right people so you know your money or resources are going directly to the local community and no share is going into anyone elses’ pocket. Some charitable efforts have also been started by foreign visitors who have visited Jhabraj and decided to help the community of Karmidanda – please check out the following websites: (links coming soon!)

Nepali Barber Shop

AlanStockPhotography-1090538

Day 85 – Location: Karmi Danda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

25/11/12

There was no school today, it was a national festival, so we hung out in the morning. The goat kids had discovered the joys of jumping into the big wicker baskets full of stuff and kept spilling corn heads all over the floor. Eventually we gave up constantly cleaning up after them and just left it! After chopping potatoes, in the afternoon me, Sophie, Januka and Jhabraj walked along the path out of the village back up to the nearby town of Kalikastan, through the pine forest. The path offered great views down into the valley.

Before the woods the path goes over rocky terrain dotted with cactus-like plants
Start of the path leading to the town, note the weird and huge cactus family plants dotted around the rocks

AlanStockPhotography-1090534Jhabraj met a local guy on the way who told him that yesterday there had been a suicide in the area. A 28 year-old woman had hanged herself in the forest only 15 minutes from where we were now. She was married and had a few children. At the moment noone was sure why, except they knew there had been some dispute in her household. For such an area that seems so peaceful, they sure have a lot of life and death drama here!

At Kalikastan it was quiet because of the festival. The town (well, village really) sits along a hairpin of the tarmac road winding up the mountainside, a typical mix of open-fronted shops, restuarants and residences supporting the local villages. The buildings are more modern compared to Karmidanda. A few new buildings were under construction, bamboo scaffolding criss-crossing their bare structures. We went to a tailor shop where Sophie bought some day-glo furry trousers for the cold evenings, and picked some colourful material for a long dress she could wear to work at school. The tailor took her measurements and said it would be ready in a few days. Whilst I waited, some kids and adults said hello, although this is a trekking stop-off point they still don’t get many westerners here. We walked up the road to a barber shop where Jhabraj got his hair cut. I got the same, wondering what kind of Nepali hairstyle I’d end up with this time. Not too bad, as it turned out, and for a few dollars you can’t complain! It was finished with a relaxing head massage. We bought some supplies, had a coffee and sauntered home as the sun got low, passing lots of school kids in uniform coming back from private school – due to the fees their families pay a festival isn’t enough to stop proceedings there!

I get attacked with scissors
I get attacked with scissors

Me and Sophie took a longer way back via the dirt road as the sun sunk below the ridge, taking in the great views of the valley wreathed in orange and shadows. Back at home we had dinner and I chatted to Jhabraj over some glasses of rakshi. He was quite stressed out at the time because he has a lot of problems, mostly financially. His daughters in Kathmandu (just out of uni) are living in their new apartment there and he’d had to pay a lot of money to outfit it with furniture and necessities. On top of that, both girls were very bored and getting a bit depressed. When they were at uni they stayed in a uni hostel and so had lots of friends around. Now that uni is over they have to find work or continue their studies. Their friends have all gone and they’re lonely. They don’t have money to go out or have a social life and had been asking for a TV, another expense Jhabraj can’t really afford. Another worry for him is that if they get scholarships (which he encourages) – he’ll also have to find money from somewhere to pay for that, perhaps being forced to sell some of his precious land. It’s a tough life working in such a poor place when you want to give your children a good life and education. After Jhabraj went to bed I read for a while and got an early night, arriving in my bedroom to find the baby cat of the household had left me a present. A little poo sat right on my silk sleeping bag holder. Thanks kitty!

Sophie on the walk home
Sophie on the walk home

——

Would you like to stay in Karmidanda village with the Neupane family? Read on…

Januka (Jabraj's wife) and her beloved goat kid!
Januka (Jabraj’s wife) and her beloved goat kid!

If you are thinking of visiting Nepal and would like to do a homestay with Jhabraj’s family and see his village, or you need an experienced trekking or private tour guide, Jhabraj is very happy to accommodate you. He can do tours anywhere around Nepal and for trekking, he is very experienced and a safe, responsible guide, having guided on all the major Nepali treks multiple times as a guide (including the popular Everest, Annapurna and Langtang treks). It is also possible to do some spectacular trekking in the Langtang area from his village area so you could always combine a homestay with a trek. Jhabraj charges very reasonable prices, he speaks good English, and you couldn’t meet a friendlier, more interesting and hospitable guy! Your enjoyment, satisfaction and safety are his primary concerns. Money that Jhabraj earns from visitors and clients goes towards the higher education of his children, which is extremely expensive for a village family. If you want to hear more, please contact me via this website and I will put you in touch with him. Highly recommended!

——

Would you like to help Jhabraj’s village community of Karmidanda? Read on…

Jhabraj teaching at school
Jhabraj teaching at school

Like many outlying villages in Nepal, the village Karmidanda is extremely poor and the community has many serious problems as a result. Almost all the families here are in a lot of debt, living on the breadline on the meagre earnings they can eke out – most are farmers. Other avenues of work are simply not available up here and most families cannot afford to put their children into higher education to improve the cycle. Public welfare does not really exist in Nepal and the area only has one health clinic staffed by volunteers and supplied by charity. If a villager requires hospitisation the villagers have to pool together to get enough money to pay for an ambulance to take the patient 5 hours to Kathmandu and also pay the expensive hospital treatment fees, if they can afford it. The village school was built thanks to charitable efforts but staff wages are low, equipment and resources are always scarce and there are not enough teachers for the number of students. These are just some of the problems that the community has – yet despite the difficulties the community spirit is amazing here, people help each other, they have a smile on their face and they are welcoming and friendly. If you think that you can help with donations, volunteering (including English teaching at the school) or charitable projects, please get in touch. Jhabraj has many contacts and can direct you to the right people so you know your money or resources are going directly to the local community and no share is going into anyone elses’ pocket. Some charitable efforts have also been started by foreign visitors who have visited Jhabraj and decided to help the community of Karmidanda – please check out the following websites: (links coming soon!)

 

Backpacking Advice and Tips – Money

BlogTravelMoneySurfing

Getting Money Abroad

The simplest way is to take debit or credit cards. With these you can withdraw money from ATMs in most countries, using a decent exchange rate. Most foreign ATM’s have an English language option at the start of the transaction. Visa and Mastercard are the most widely accepted abroad. You will usually be charged for a withdrawal by the ATM company, and sometimes your own bank as well. Remember to call the banks before you leave to let them know where you will be using the cards and how long for – or you’ll get a nasty shock when your card is blocked by your banks security when you try and withdraw out there!

Do some research before you leave to find the best cards. Don’t just take your normal bank cards, the withdrawal fees and exchange rates will be appalling. Some domestic bank specialist travellers cards offer the best exchange rate and don’t charge you at your bank’s end for ATM withdrawals. There are also online accounts you can apply for which have cards which have no withdrawal fees at all and even refund the foreign bank’s withdrawal fee. If you are from the UK, check out Money Saving Expert’s website which keeps up to date on the best accounts and cards. A pre-paid card such as Caxton FX provides good security as you can fill it up online with only what you need at the time.

Take Multiple Credit Cards!

If you are travelling for a while, I recommend you have at least 3 credit/debit cards from different accounts. It may sound excessive but a card can easily be lost, stolen, eaten by an ATM machine, get damaged and so on. I am down to my last credit card now. I’ve met travellers who have only brought one or two, then get screwed when they lose them. If you only have one card, the ATM machine eats it and you are in the middle of nowhere, what are you going to do?! Replacing a credit card when travelling is a massive ball-ache you don’t want to have to go through.

BlogTravelMoneyCreditCards

Tips for Withdrawing Money

Becuase you are usually charged for withdrawals, it’s usually a good idea to take out big chunks of cash and then keep it safe, though I rarely take out more than £100 in cash in case it is stolen. Obviously hide your big wads of cash before you leave the ATM, an under-clothes money belt is a good idea for big withdrawals.

Different foregin ATMs charge different withdrawal fees and have different maximum withdrawal limits. If you want to save some money, do some research beforehand on the cheapest banks to use (often guide books or travelling websites have this info) – or simply wander around different ATMs in town, try your card and see what their costs and limits are – you can just cancel the transaction before withdrawal costing you nothing. Some people end up paying upwards of 10$ per withdrawal! You should be able to get this down to less than 4$ using the right cards and banks.

BlogTravelMoneyATMEvil

When You Arrive

When flying in, I usually take out money from airport ATMs to start me off. When you arrive  in a new country with wads of big notes from your first withdrawal, it’s wise to find a chain shop like a supermarket and buy some small stuff to break one of those huge notes. Otherwise, especially in poor countries, you are going to have problems getting change. If you are going to take a local taxi/bus to start with, get hold of some smaller money before you get in, they are usually short on change (or at least claim to be).

For your first country, it’s a good idea to have some cash – US dollars, Euros or British Pounds. If something goes horribly wrong with your cards when you arrive, at least you can get around, find somewhere to stay, eat and start calling people!

Figuring Out New Money

It always takes a while to get used to how much things are worth in a new country. First of all, when you arrive check the exchange rate online or at an exchange counter to get an idea of how much the local currency is compared to yours. People will often try and rip you off at airports or sometimes short change you. If you know how much in your currency soemthing is, you will be better prepared. If a taxi ride is going to cost as much as back at home but you are in Asia, alarm bells should be ringing. With taxis from airports/bus stations, if you can find out in advance from other travellers, guide books etc about how much a taxi should cost this will give you a good idea about whether someone is trying to rip you off.

I find it useful to begin with to scribble a note I keep in my pocket which has the rough conversions for $1, $2, $5, $10, $50, $100.

Travellers cheques and money emergencies

Some people like to take travellers cheques in case of emergency. In reality, only some banks accept them, the exchange rates are poor, you have to carry them around with you and you have to pay surcharges. If you do have an emergency money situation, chances are you are closer to a Western Union branch anyway (which can arrange other people like your family to send you money). My advice is don’t bother with travellers cheques. If you take a number of credit cards and a small amount of US dollars and keep them in different places, these will act as emergency backups. Another last resort if you lose everything is to go to a local bank and arrange a bank transfer from your bank to theirs.

Dawson uses travellers cheques for the first time
Dawson uses travellers cheques for the first time

Backups, Backups!

Make sure you have access to your bank details, or someone at home does (at least the account code and sort number), and try and memorise all those annoying passwords. Change PIN numbers to ones you will remember (although it is stupid to have the same PIN for all your cards!). If something goes wrong, you’ll need this info to get started again or communicate with your bank. It’s a good idea to take a note of the emergency cancellation phone numbers and keep them seperate to the cards – remember when calling from abroad you will need to add a phone number extention.

If you need to get another card sent to you, get someone to send it to somewhere secure, like a hotel you trust or maybe even your local embassy if they will agree to it. If you need to get information like your PIN number or sensitive account information, use common sense and do it over the phone and not via email or text message.

I personally use Dropbox (an online file backup program) to store my basic account information like account number and sort code. Noone can do anything too drastic with that, and I can access it from my laptop and so can my parents. If my laptop gets stolen, they can’t access those files, and I can get access to them again online if necessary.

You, after reading this page
You, after reading this page

Changing Money

If you can find other travellers who need the currency you want to get rid of, do a deal with them – you both win. You can check the latest conversion rates online (XE.com is a good start). Failing that, local banks often offer better exhange rates than money change booths and shops.around. If you do have to go to a money change shop or booth, shop around for the best rate, and if possible get a local or guide book recommendation for reputable money changers, some short-change travellers.

See also: Bargaining / Haggling

Corn on the Cob

Jhabraj's nephew pops by for a chat
Jhabraj’s nephew, a farmer, pops by for a chat

Day 84 – Location: Karmidanda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

24/11/12

It was Saturday and everyone was off work. I rose early after yet another restless sleep – I kept rolling onto my damaged shoulder in the night. In the morning I helped Januka and Jhabraj to strip the ears from a big pile of dried maize, and then we went through the arduous and slow task of breaking the corn off the cob. It was hard work working it off with bare hands (a twisting grasp was the most effective method) especially with the Australian variety corn which was rock solid and hard to budge. We had blistered and sore hands afterwards, but a few sacks full of corn. They mixed it with dry rice and millet seeds – then Jhabraj sacked it up and carried it a few houses along to the village mill, where it was ground into flour.  Jhabraj lugged this back in sacks. This flour they add to the water that their livestock drink. Jhabraj said the mixture contains carbohydrates, protein and vitamins, a real power feed. The flour they’d made today should last fourty days. Unfortunately due to the poor maize crop this year (they had six months without rain!), they wouldn’t have enough to last the whole year and would have to buy flour in later months.

Januka and Jhabraj break corn off the cobs whilst one of the goat kids causes havok as usual!
Januka and Jhabraj break corn off the cobs whilst one of the goat kids causes havok as usual!

Jhabraj served us a traditional Nepali dish of maize paste with curd, joined by spinach soup and egg. Then we relaxed for a while in the sun. I helped Januka and Awijit to chop a big pile of potatoes that they’d harvested recently. These were for planting and so we chopped them so that each segment of potato had a few potential shoots on it. After planting, each shoot can grow into a new potato plant – an easy self-sustaining crop. The Neupane family would be planting these again soon. The rest of the afternoon was leisurely; I read, chatted with Sophie and watched the goat kids at their amusing jumping antics. Sophie told me about a man she’d seen at the mill with a wrecked face, Jhabraj said he’d been attacked by a wild bear a few years ago whilst cutting grass nearby! He was lucky not to be killed.

Jeneet's grandmother and his sister
Jeneet’s grandmother and his sister

I watched Jhabraj chopping very dry firewood (collected from the woods) for the kitchen fire, splintering into dusty pieces. There was a nice sunset thanks to the cloudy sky. Down in the fields below the Neupane house, Awijit was teaching some new karate students, in the absence of his karate master. I watched them for a bit and played with Jeneet who for some reason was wearing his baby sister’s pink hat!

Awijit (in yellow) leads the karate training in harvested rice fields.
Awijit (in yellow) leads the karate training in harvested rice fields.

 

Jeneet loves his girl's hat!
Jeneet loves his girl’s hat!

Then I did some physiotherapy excecises for my shoulder, I am trying to build my shoulder strength up again. After dinner we chatted and Jhabraj had some news. He’d heard that in Kalikasthan (the town half an hour walk away) there’d been a fight in a pool house. One guy had been stabbed badly in the back and had been rushed down to hospital in Kathmandu. The attackers had gone into hiding. Under police law if they can’t be caught and charged after around 35 days then they are safe. Crazy! He also told us another baby had been born in the village today – the good and the bad in a day!

A cloudy sunset over Karmi Danda's fields.
A cloudy sunset over Karmidanda’s fields.

——

Would you like to stay in Karmidanda village with the Neupane family? Read on…

My awesome host Jhabraj, a great man indeed!
My awesome host Jhabraj, a great man indeed!

If you are thinking of viisting Nepal and would like to do a homestay with Jhabraj’s family and see his village, or you need an experienced trekking or private tour guide, Jhabraj is very happy to accommodate you. He can do tours anywhere around Nepal and for trekking, he is very experienced and a safe, responsible guide, having guided on all the major Nepali treks multiple times as a guide (including the popular Everest, Annapurna and Langtang treks). It is also possible to do some spectacular trekking in the Langtang area from his village area so you could always combine a homestay with a trek. Jabraj charges very reasonable prices, he speaks good English, and you couldn’t meet a friendlier, more interesting and hospitable guy! Your enjoyment, satisfaction and safety are his primary concerns. Money that Jhabraj earns from visitors and clients goes towards the higher education of his children, which is extremely expensive for a village family. If you want to hear more, please contact me via this website and I will put you in touch with him. Highly recommended!

——

Would you like to help Jabraj’s village community of Karmidanda? Read on…

Sophie on her first day of English volunteering
Sophie on her first day of English volunteering

Like many outlying villages in Nepal, the village Karmidanda is extremely poor and the community has many serious problems as a result. Almost all the families here are in a lot of debt, living on the breadline on the meagre earnings they can eke out – most are farmers. Other avenues of work are simply not available up here and most families cannot afford to put their children into higher education to improve the cycle. Public welfare does not really exist in Nepal and the area only has one health clinic staffed by volunteers and supplied by charity. If a villager requires hospitisation the villagers have to pool together to get enough money to pay for an ambulance to take the patient 5 hours to Kathmandu and also pay the expensive hospital treatment fees, if they can afford it. The village school was built thanks to charitable efforts but staff wages are low, equipment and resources are always scarce and there are not enough teachers for the number of students. These are just some of the problems that the community has – yet despite the difficulties the community spirit is amazing here, people help each other, they have a smile on their face and they are welcoming and friendly. If you think that you can help with donations, volunteering (incuding English teaching at the school) or charitable projects, please get in touch. Jhabraj has many contacts and can direct you to the right people so you know your money or resources are going directly to the local community and no share is going into anyone elses’ pocket. Some charitable efforts have also been started by foreign visitors who have visited Jhabraj and decided to help the community of Karmidanda – please check out the following websites: (links coming soon!)

Facebook Photography Page is Live

Bromo volcano and its bretheren, Java, Indonesia - May 2013
Bromo volcano and its bretheren, Java, Indonesia – May 2013

Hey folks. I’ve made a Facebook page to showcase some of my best travel photos, including more recent images not yet posted to this blog. I also announce new photoblog posts there. If you Like the page updates will appear on your news feed. I’m hoping this will open up my audience a bit and give me an easier way to communicate. If you like the page, please share it with your friends! Thanks!

https://www.facebook.com/AlanStockPhotography

Another day as a Nepali Farmer

From the day before, looking down the valley from the rocky outcrop me and Awijit climbed.
From the day before, looking down the valley from the rocky outcrop me and Awijit climbed.

Day 83 – Location: Karmidanda Village, Langtang Region; Nepal

23/11/12

An extra sleeping bag helped with the nightly death freeze, but I had a restless sleep because of a strange problem: really sore ears when lying with my head on the side, enough to wake me up. It’s happened to me before (when I was trekking around the Himalayas) – I thought the cold might be responsible but my ears felt warm to the touch. Weird. Januka was still asleep. She helps at the village medical centre and had been there till 4am helping to deliver a baby. Jhabraj, Awijit and Sophie went to school and Ama went off to whatever mischief old women get up to in Karmidanda.

A common sight in the village, villagers lugging grass to feed their animals. They head out into the fields and countryside twice a day to gather this amount. Cows sure eat a lot!
A common sight in the village, villagers lugging grass to feed their animals. They head out into the fields and countryside twice a day to gather this amount. Cows sure eat a lot!

After breakfast and a read in the sun, I set off for another day’s work in “my” millet field. I spent four hours filling another basket with seed heads. This time I borrowed a cap to ward off the beating heat and I found the work boring but sometimes meditative. Traditional Nepali songs drifted over the fields from a house radio and an occasional local conversation, other than that my only company was the sounds of nature. It was quite therapeutic cutting away. At 2pm Jeneet, the funny little five  year old from next door arrived in my field, wielding a sickle! Ealier he’d passed with his mum and seen me working here, now he was here to help. I watched as he violently hacked away at the stalks, cutting towards himself, and I immediately confiscated his sickle before he needed Januka’s help in the medical centre. To give him a job I handed him the seed heads to put in the basket and tried valiantly to keep him away from the sickle which he kept attempting to grab, determined to be a little farmer boy! Ten minutes my basket was full and I hauled it to the Neupane house, where Jhabraj and Sophie had arrived back from school.

Another full basket of my harvested millet seeds
Another full basket of my harvested millet seeds

I took a much-needed shower before the water temperature became Antartic, and spent most of the afternoon relaxing with the others and playing with Jeneet with his boundless energy. The father of the baby Januka had delivered dropped by with a big smile on his face. Mother and child were doing well. In the evening we chatted away over copious amounts of rakshi, discussing trekking and Jhabraj’s work as a trek and tour guide. I hadn’t realized he had done so much of it – in the holiday months of school he is usually out earning extra money as a guide. When Jhabraj turned in, me and Sophie watched a film on my laptop, it was a bit strange to be transported to the remote Arctic in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” – and then step outside in real life to the middle of the Nepali mountains in a moonlit, isolated village!

——

Would you like to stay in Karmidanda village with the Neupane family? Read on…

You want fresh milk for breakfast? Gotta get it yourself!
You want fresh milk for breakfast? Gotta get it yourself!

If you are thinking of viisting Nepal and would like to do a homestay with Jhabraj’s family and see his village, or you need an experienced trekking or private tour guide, Jhabraj is very happy to accommodate you. He can do tours anywhere around Nepal and for trekking, he is very experienced and a safe, responsible guide, having guided on all the major Nepali treks multiple times as a guide (including the popular Everest, Annapurna and Langtang treks). It is also possible to do some spectacular trekking in the Langtang area from his village area so you could always combine a homestay with a trek. Jabraj charges very reasonable prices, he speaks good English, and you couldn’t meet a friendlier, more interesting and hospitable guy! Your enjoyment, satisfaction and safety are his primary concerns. Money that Jhabraj earns from visitors and clients goes towards the higher education of his children, which is extremely expensive for a village family. If you want to hear more, please contact me via this website and I will put you in touch with him. Highly recommended!

——

Would you like to help Jabraj’s village community of Karmidanda? Read on…

Village school kids await Sophie's instructions
Village school kids await Sophie’s instructions

Like many outlying villages in Nepal, the village Karmidanda is extremely poor and the community has many serious problems as a result. Almost all the families here are in a lot of debt, living on the breadline on the meagre earnings they can eke out – most are farmers. Other avenues of work are simply not available up here and most families cannot afford to put their children into higher education to improve the cycle. Public welfare does not really exist in Nepal and the area only has one health clinic staffed by volunteers and supplied by charity. If a villager requires hospitisation the villagers have to pool together to get enough money to pay for an ambulance to take the patient 5 hours to Kathmandu and also pay the expensive hospital treatment fees, if they can afford it. The village school was built thanks to charitable efforts but staff wages are low, equipment and resources are always scarce and there are not enough teachers for the number of students. These are just some of the problems that the community has – yet despite the difficulties the community spirit is amazing here, people help each other, they have a smile on their face and they are welcoming and friendly. If you think that you can help with donations, volunteering (incuding English teaching at the school) or charitable projects, please get in touch. Jhabraj has many contacts and can direct you to the right people so you know your money or resources are going directly to the local community and no share is going into anyone elses’ pocket. Some charitable efforts have also been started by foreign visitors who have visited Jhabraj and decided to help the community of Karmidanda – please check out the following websites: (links coming soon!)

My travelling (mis)adventures. It's ok to cry.