Day 120 – Location: Pokhara; Nepal
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.
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.
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.
Day 121 – Location: Beni; Nepal
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!