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.

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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.

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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

 

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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!

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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!)