I spent the morning walking around Lakeside with Krishna and Shiba, arranging trekking permits, withdrawing cash for the trek and making final arrangements. To enter the trekking zone you have to buy two permits. One is a register card called TIMS so they know who’s on the trails, which also insures your guides and porters. The other is the Annapurna Conservation Permit which pays for upkeep of the trails. They’re only valid for one trek which is pretty annoying.
Around midday we caught a local bus from Lakeside to a main bus station in Pokhara. As usual the bus was rammed. Two young Buddhist monks sat next to me at the back, talking on their mobiles.
At one stop at the centre of town a punch-up flared up next to the bus between two young guys, who were pulled apart by passers by. The Nepalese are a fairly peaceful people with a similar “saving face” mentality to Thailand, so it was unexpected to see violence on the street. At the bus station rows of colourful buses lit the place up like a rainbow. It puts our dreary, characterless buses in the UK to shame. We gobbled down chow mein in a local restaurant, then walked around the chaotic station getting directions from the locals, bought tickets and piled onto a bus to Naya Pul, where the trek starts.
On the outskirts of town vendors came by the windows carrying fruit baskets, cheap watches, and there was an ice cream seller with a splendid moustache who happily presented it for my photo!
The bus was crammed by the time we left the city and we followed the road from yesterday, by the river. After this we entered plains covered with rice and wheat fields, and then climbed a forested hill, winding up hairpins past terrace farming. There was a pee break half way up (people just go on the banks) at the top of ridge we could see for miles over terraced valleys. The sun hid behind the clouds casting glorious god rays into the blue sky.
Down we went through many hairpins through another forested valley, passing buses loaded with trekkers and trekking gear. There was even a bus with a rickety wheelchair tied to the top, and behind that another with a guy sitting on the roof. In this part of Nepal it’s illegal, although it’s actually supposed to be just as safe as being inside considering the transport’s dilapidated condition!
We reached Naya Pul, a tiny village at the bottom of the valley in the mid-afternoon, and literally had to jump off the bus whilst it was still moving. A track led up the valley past a few shops and cafes, packed with trekkers from all over the world. I bought a little bottle of dark rum for the trek (Khukiri is the best here), as up in the mountains it would be expensive. Krishna carried my big bag, stacking his own little rucksack on top, and Shiba had the same setup with my smaller bag. I carried a daypack with water and my camera gear, and wielded my trusty donated walking stick.
We seemed to be the only people heading up the valley, everyone else was coming to the end of their treks, Naya Pul is as an end point for many treks here. A steady trickle of trekkers, guides and porters went by. Many of these porters, Nepali men of all ages, were carrying ridiculous loads on their backs, usually strapped together with a rope or a cover, and then hauled by a strap around the forehead. Some guys had three big rucksacks bundled into one package. Many trekkers toted two walking poles, but the porters had none. A big proportion of the trekkers were Asians kitted out in day-glo technical hiking gear.
We soon encountered our first mule train. Ten scrawny mules moved quickly, laden with goods hung from their saddles. Some carried boxes and packages, others a gas canister hanging from each side. They wore bells around their necks, a concert of rings announced their arrival. Behind them strode a man with a whip, making high pitched noises to keep them moving. We followed the track along the bottom of the wooded valley, terrace farming visible higher up, and reached the first Gurung village. A rocky river raged below and a metal cable suspension bridge hung over it. As we approached a mule train barged over the bridge and we had to stand well aside – the mules don’t give way, and on narrow paths people have been barged off down the slopes!
The village was charming, everywhere paved with stone and basic blue-roofed grey stone buildings lined the path. Little stores displayed their wares of chocolates, drinks, and other trekking snacks. The people here were looked noticeably different to Pokhara’s residents, with wider, Tibetanesque faces and a different clothing syle. Many of the women had long plaited hair and the children had long hair and called Namaste to us. Chickens roamed everywhere. I pointed to a thick round log hanging from a building porch, with a small hole cut into it, asking what it was. Shibu told me to look closer to see the bees coming in and out – it was a hive used for harvesting honey. The nests are taken from trees and housed in these hollow trunk cylinders. The bees weren’t aggressive and you could get really close with no problems. We regularly saw these logs hanging in the villages throughout the trek.
We pressed on, following the stony track uphill above the river. We saw some big monkeys scarper into the woods, and a jeep carrying a big transformer in the back trundled past, bumping over the potholes. Frequently the river below us dropped into impressive waterfalls. The water was a glacial turquoise. We descended into farmland and stopped at a café. Krishna and Shiba were given water from a shared jug. I dived through the simple and dark stone house to the loo at the back, a little stone shack with a squatter and a baaad smell.
We continued up through some dramatic woods and here the track had been blasted out of the rock face, only this year Shiba told me. Wires came up from the river via poles to the next village – they get their electricity from small hydro-power plants. We passed through another village, full of the animals and children and entered dense woods, the track ending and changing to a stone slab footpath. Stone stairs led us into another village full of lodges and restaurants. We stopped for some tea and admired the view. It was getting dark now and half an hour later we arrived in another village where Shiba asked around for rooms. The lodges we passed were full of trekkers in the restaurants, many sitting at tables out on the path downing beer. We reached a lodge with basic, very small rooms with private bathrooms (bit of a luxury for trekking, and even with western loos and hot showers!). The inner walls were made of thin plywood so you could hear everyone else nearby. Shiba got me a double room and he and Krishna took a twin room. As I was on an all-inclusive tour Shiba was responsible for securing accommodation for us.
The temperature dropped fast as the sun vanished and after changing into warm clothes I explored the village before it was too dark. The villages here don’t have side-roads, all the buildings are usually strung along the main path. The lodge restaurant was simply constructed from a wooden frame with glass windows and thin sheet metal walls, standard fare up here. We ordered dinner, in the mountains you have to order as early as possible, usually by 4:30pm (we were late) so all the cooking can be done at the same time. This is to preserve resources; they cook with firewood or gas and so group the cooking where possible. There were only a few other guests inside and the Nepali family who owned the place. There was a funny little boy (who looked remarkably like a girl), about 18 months old who was toddling around playing with a balloon, so we played with him for a bit and chatted to his young father. Most of the family spoke decent English and they were a friendly bunch.
The menu was the same I’d see for the rest of the trek –pasta, noodles, potatoes, rice dishes, pizza and sometimes chicken or pork. You could usually eat fruit pies, cake or popcorn for dessert. Krishna and Shiba as workers had to wait until all the guests had been served before they were dished out a mighty plate of dahl baht – the Nepali staple dish. This is what they’d eat for the whole trek. You get a big plate with baht (rice) surrounded by extras such as fried potatoes, pickled vegetables, chillies, and always accompanied by a bowl of dahl (lentil soup with spices). You mix the ingredients as you see fit. The locals use their right hand to mix it and shovel it into their mouth. It’s a very nutritious meal and very filling. Usually you also get free top-ups until you can’t eat any more! I asked the guys what they thought of dahl baht and they both love it – they eat it at home every day. They told me that no other meal gives them enough energy for trekking. All porters and guides eat this every day, it’s cheap and made in bulk, and usually all the guides and porters in a lodge will eat together on a separate table, swapping stories and catching up with old friends on the trail.
Stuffed after dinner (I was allowed two main courses and a dessert on my package!), we watched some kids’ TV. The toddler was watching inside the neighbouring house and this TV was linked to that one. Bizarrely they had Cbeebies here, which is a BBC kids channel and it was in English. It was very weird watching programs set in the UK considering our remote location on the other side of the world! The kid returned and we played with him. He was fascinated by my photos on the laptop and my camera with all of its moving bits. I tried to show him how to stick his balloon on the ceiling using static electricity, by rubbing it on my head. But the balloon was too old and wouldn’t stick. Brilliantly though he then spent the rest of the evening rubbing it against his head, copying me! He wasn’t happy at all when he had to go to bed, and was carried off screaming by his laughing grandmother. I turned in for the night after a nice hot shower!eaHHHEeasfsdl