Saturday, 31 December 2011

To be continued...

I'm writing this year's final edition of the blog from Ireland. Not a location that was on our original (albeit vague) trip plan!
Just as we started the Annapurna Circuit we had some trip-altering news from home; Karl's mum had fallen over and broken both arms. As soon as the text came in we knew we'd be coming home, but were at least able to complete our trek around Annapurna before flying back to the UK.
Muriel is doing well and her fractures are healing, but we don't yet have a date for our return overseas.
On the positive side our unexpected return has provided an opportunity to see family and catch up with friends, to enjoy Christmas and satisfy some of those food cravings- we've barely left the kitchen since we got back!
Happy New Year to all readers, and watch this space for our adventures in 2012!

Christmas baking
By the sea in Southport- not quite Goa!
On the beach on Boxing Day

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Around Annapurna

At the end of November we set off on our third and final Himalayan trek. The Annapurna Circuit is one of the world's classic walks, travelling up to the beautiful Manang valley and over a high pass to reach the Kali Gandaki valley, looping right around the Annapurna Massif. We had doubts as to whether this trek was worth doing for two reasons- it's immense popularity, and the controversial building of a road up both the eastern and western valleys of the trek. We decided to go and see it for ourselves before the arrival of roads change it for good. Our timing for this walk turned out to be perfect- the trekking season was ending and as a result there were hardly any tourists about. Most places we stayed it was just the two of us, while a fortnight ago they'd had to turn people away. The weather was also glorious, an unusual warm spell for December with clear skies and sunshine every day and none of the freezing cold tea houses of the Everest region.

Terraced rice paddies on the first day
We started off from the town of Besi Sahar, on the roof of a bus. It was Saturday and local teenagers were heading up the valley for a picnic, so the bus was packed. On top was the place to be, fantastic views of the beautiful river and the tropical vegetation, and a party atmosphere with all the lads singing. We chatted to them as we got thrown around on the roof- they were all keen to shake hands, which was challenging as we were busy trying to hang on! A really nice bunch to wave us off on the trek. 

The walk began heading upriver past citrus trees laden with oranges and limes, bananas and red-topped wild poinsettia (which grows as trees here rather than the mini versions you see in British supermarkets!). The first couple of days from village to village in this 
Harvest time in the fields
landscape were fascinating. It was harvest time so families were out in the fields, along with their buffaloes which they were using to help make elaborate hay bales. Harvest seemed a very happy time, the meadows full of singing as everyone worked together. The finished house-size bales are topped with a bunch of flowers making the terraced fields look very pretty. There is practically no flat land and everywhere is terraced, with paths winding between fields to link the ridge top villages.

A fascinating aspect of the Annapurna Circuit is the variety of geography- a couple of days later the scenery had changed completely. We were now in a river gorge with massive cliffs interspersed with pine forests. This is where we saw the most evidence of the new road that has appeared in sections up this valley over the last couple of years. 
Road building Nepalese style
The road is causing a lot of controversy not just amongst trekkers but also the local community. The popularity of this trek in high season means a lot of families here now depend entirely on tourism. With the arrival of the road, the number of trekkers in the area is sure to fall and many people are already pronouncing the circuit 'over', causing lodge owners major concern for their livelihoods. It will also probably bring landslides, already too frequent a cause of death in the valley. 

On the other hand, it offers development and better access to education and medical facilities. This was brought home when we saw an old lady being carried in a basket chair on a porter's back- we imagine she was being taken to medical help, probably at least a couple of days walk away. As the road's not complete, there's currently no traffic in the valley, but in the next few years that will change. It was certainly detrimental to our enjoyment of the walk- you don't come to Nepal to hear explosions and road drills! However, it was really interesting (and a bit scary) to watch workers precariously balanced on cliff edges as they threw boulders off into the river and dynamited sections of cliff face. 

As the days passed and we got higher, signs of the road faded away and the valley opened up into a landscape of dramatic eroded sandy cliffs and pine groves. An impressive 1500m slab curved up above us to the skyline, the Swarga Dar (Gateway to Heaven). The scenery seemed more Californian than Himalayan. This was the upper 
Medieval village of Bragha
Manang Valley, home to the Nyesyang people who would canter by on their decorated horses. The villages here were the most amazing we saw in Nepal, barely changed since medieval times. The houses are built of stone and wood, piled up one atop the other with narrow alleyways between the dwellings. Each family lives in a couple of rooms, with their animals beneath, along with hay and wood stores for the winter.

Horse caravan crossing the Thorung La
It was from here, 9 days in, that we climbed up through a lunar landscape of rock and mounds of scree, raptors soaring overhead and Himalayan blue sheep bounding across the path, to reach the 5420m Thorung La. The pass wasn't as dramatic as those in the Everest region (or as cold), but brought a new view of the desert like upper Kali Gandaki valley, gateway to the Mustang region, a restricted area for foreigners that leads to Tibet and used to be an important trading corridor. In the rain shadow of the mountains, the arid scenery couldn't be more different from the lush, rice terraced hillsides where we started the walk. It's also apple country, with lodges offering delicious thick cloudy apple juice, home 
Arid landscape of the Kali Gandaki valley
made cider and apple brandy, all happily sampled. Unfortunately for us, the road on this Western side of the trek is already complete and so the otherwise scenic flat bottomed valley comes with jeeps and the odd truck, throwing up clouds of dust in your face. After a couple of hours walking on this track we'd had enough and opted for a bus to skip two days of mainly road walking from Jomsom to Tatopani. Meaning 'hot water' Tatopani was a great place to stop, and we spent the whole evening relaxing in the hot springs by the river.

The next day we re-embarked on the trek with a 1750m climb out of the valley back into colourful, tropical terraced hillsides with gardens full of marigolds, children forcing oranges on us, before reaching the rhododendron forests of the higher ridges. I remember playing hide and seek inside rhododendron bushes in the park as a child, and this was like a scaled up version, the gnarled pink trunks twisting in all directions, festooned with ferns. It was really beautiful in these silent forests, sunlight streaming through between branches and pooling on the path. When out of the forest there were views of the Annapurnas, the impressive Machhapuchhare and Dhaulagiri. Our last night was spent in the lovely Gurung
Ghandruk village below the Annapurnas
 village of Ghandruk. This valley was new to us, the architecture and traditional dress both quite different. The prosperous looking two floor stone houses had carved windows, marigolds in pots and vegetables drying in the sun, all linked by stone flagged staircases and pathways. It was a lovely place to spend the night, but tinged with the sadness of knowing that the next day- day 50 of trekking in Nepal- was to be our last. We can't imagine a better way to have spent 7 weeks of our lives!

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Three Passes

Our plane at Lukla
On the 30th October we flew by little plane (sorry, not very technical- it had about 10 seats!) to the airstrip of Lukla in the Everest region. The domestic airport experience in Kathmandu was interesting- we had a flight number on our ticket, a completely different one on our boarding pass, and then a list of totally unrelated numbers on the departure board. Basically we tried to match our boarding pass colour to the people lined up at the one boarding gate, and a mere five hours after we were supposed to take off we found ourselves on the same plane as our bags- result! We were actually very lucky- the following day flights were suspended due to bad weather and no-one else made it out to Everest by plane for a week. This kept the trail quiet for us, but left 3000 outbound trekkers stranded in Lukla- a small village that began to run out of food with no supplies coming in- it got to the point that the army were called in to rescue people by helicopter (see Telegraph article- thousands stranded in Lukla ).
Freezing in a teahouse
Meanwhile we spent the first seven days of the trek walking through thick, freezing, fog. This was NOT how trekking in the Himalayas in peak season was meant to be! Day after day of walking, eating and sleeping in the freezing cold began to wear us down. We wore all our clothes all the time, our gloves and hats didn't even come off to eat or sleep. It was far too cold to wash- we'd have had to break the ice first! In the unheated teahouse accommodation our water would freeze overnight, ice on the inside of the windows never melted, and on 'acclimatisation days' we would sit huddled in our down jackets and sleeping bags. For a couple of hours each evening the dung fuelled pot-belly stove would roar into life and there would be brief respite before we had to retire, breath steaming, to a walk-in-freezer style box room. It was pretty miserable, and hard work to convince ourselves to keep going on and up as the temperature dropped further and further below zero.
First view of Lhotse
Attempting to cross the Khumbu glacier
Then on day 8 we woke to glorious blue skies and sunrise over snowy mountains! Suddenly we felt that we were IN the Himalayas. We had climbed up a valley to about 4000m at this stage, and so our initial views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam and other Himalayan giants were truly breathtaking.

Our initial plans were revived- we would attempt to complete the Three Passes trek- a challenging 20 day circuit of the Everest region involving climbing over 5000m on six occasions and crossing three high passes.
It was still very cold, but the sunshine and the views more than made up for this. For the next week each day of walking opened up new and exciting scenes of fluted, serraced, snowy peaks with exotic names that we have always read about. The glacial scenery made for some exciting trekking. After climbing our first pass and highest point so far- the 5535m Kongma La- we were faced with a crossing of the rubble covered Khumbu glacier. Despite being only about 200m wide, it formed a pretty impenetrable barrier. Exhausted after 8 hours trekking, and with dusk approaching, we stood on the lateral moraine and stared out over the ridges of rubble and walls of ice, watching boulders fall into glacial lakes . There was no clear way across- our lonely planet guidebook let us down for the first time with its description 'just follow the footprints across the glacier' and for the first time in Nepal we wished we had a guide. Luckily, the Exodus group descending the pass behind us did, so we waited, then tagged on and crossed the glacier with the group of British hikers!
Kongma La, pass at 5535m

The rest of the high passes, although exhausting due to the altitude, went smoothly. We watched sunset from Kala Pattar in the Everest valley, and a highlight of the trip so far was seeing the full moon rise over Everest as we descended beneath snowy mountains glowing in the moonlight. We climbed through a cloud inversion in the Gokyo valley and felt like we were flying as we sat surrounded by summits above the clouds. There were too many amazing sights to describe, and the hundreds of pictures we took speak for themselves really.
Moonrise over Everest and Nuptse

However, the trek involved spending almost 2 weeks sleeping at around 4000m or above, and we did find the altitude and cold draining. Much of our talk was about the beaches we will visit in India, fantasies about food (roast dinner, please!!) and the alien concept of hot water. Kathmandu seemed a warm, far away paradise. Any ideas about a third trek after this one were quelled. But then...just the day after we returned to the city we seemed to find ourselves back at the tourist office filling in applications to trek in the Annapurna region. It is a little crazy, but it's amazing how much better we felt after just a single hot shower and beer. So, off we go again for another round of dal bhat eating, teahouse sleeping and lots and lots of walking...
Trekking above the clouds. Everest is on the far left

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Karl attempts to grow a moustache

In response to all of the jibes Karl has received about his lack of facial hair, he has decided to participate in Movember- a month of moustache growing in aid of men's health. This will not only prove all those naysayers wrong, but hopefully also raise some money for a good and under-represented cause. No longer being in a customer facing job, and the general lack of hot running water experienced whilst trekking here in Nepal does make the task easier, but we hope you will never-the-less show your support for him. Please take a moment to read about Movember and consider donating. Find his  page at

The people of the Langtang Valley

An unexpected but fascinating aspect of the Langtang and Gosainkund trek was the opportunity to meet some of the people who forge a life in the Himalayas. Tourism has brought great opportunities for employment where before there was only limited subsistence farming, but many people seem to continue to live much as they always have, growing their own vegetables on small plots of land and keeping a few yaks and chickens. The village of Langtang exists above and beyond providing services to trekkers and we felt privileged to have an opportunity just to walk through this traditional Tibetan village at about 3500 metres.
Langtang Village
The stone houses have intricately carved wooden doors (however hard life may be, there always seems to be time to make things look pretty!) and the meadows were full of women and children gathering hay. Yaks are used for ploughing, and Dyzopkus (yak-cow crosses) are kept for milk, butter and cheese. There is even a high altitude cheese factory set up with Swiss assistance that exports 7000 kg of yak cheese a year to Kathmandu!
The village of Langtang is entirely Tibetan although most people have never had the opportunity to visit Tibet. The Tibetan border is in sight- it follows the summits of the mountains at the head of the valley. The people here are 1 or 2 generations separated from Tibetan exiles from the Chinese invasion of the 50's. The Tibetan religion, dress and way of life are for the most part preserved here. Paths are lined with water powered prayer wheels, every pass is draped in colourful prayer flags and there are buddhist stone carvings, monuments and monasteries.
Kyanjin Gompa- monastery in the Langtang Valley
It is only in the younger generation (who mostly study in Kathmandu) that the Tibetan culture has started to be diluted with western clothes and tastes- one young girl we met only speaks Tibetan to her parents, loves the X men and Justin Bieber and wants to be a businesswoman when she grows up. 
Langtang village is over 2 days walk from the nearest road- and it's not an easy walk with over 2500 metres to climb! Everything that cannot be produced is brought in by porters. The loads we saw being carried in varied from 2 sacks of rice weighing 60kg, to a mattress or even a single large plank of wood. Unfortunately a lot of completely unnecessary things are also carried in for the benefit of trekkers- like glass bottles of beer, plastic bottles of water, tins of fruit cocktail, snickers bars and pringles. Porters are not paid to carry rubbish back out so there are lots of environmental issues with this- but that's for a different post!
There are of course very limited medical facilities up in the valley- it's a long walk to a hospital. While we were staying a 20 day old baby was brought back home after being born in the lowlands. She was bundled up in a basket on the back of a mule for the journey.
Another issue is education. Most of the people we met have managed to establish international sponsors who help pay for boarding school fees for their children in Kathmandu. Although this splits up families it gives much greater opportunites, and if the fees can't be paid then education is extremely limited. One lodge owner we met is desperate to find a sponsor so he can send his son to school- if anyone is interested in helping then get in touch with us! The fees are about 800 Euro a year.
This boy wants to go to school!
As we descended from the high mountain valleys to the foothills the culture changed from Tibetan Buddhists to Nepalese Hindus, and it was really interesting to see the transition in the villages we walked through on our return to Kathmandu.

Nepali girl

Our first Himalayan trek- Langtang, Gosainkund and Helambu

Room for one more?
Our first trek in Nepal started with a very long bus journey. This was actually a lot of fun, especially the part where we all had to get out and walk- a truck had got stuck at a landslide and men from all the buses behind it helped to push it up the hill amid lots of cheering from us on the sidelines. The bus was PACKED, everyone ended up with a Nepalese lady or baby on their lap, and there were about 20 people on the roof too.

We trekked for 14 days, and climbed about 8500 metres (similar to the height of Everest). Starting in the hot and humid forest of the lower Langtang valley, complete with monkeys, and after climbing extremely steeply for the first 2 days, we came out above the tree line into a high alpine valley very close to the Tibetan border. All the villagers were Tibetan, descended from exiles from the Chinese invasion in the 50s, and there were Buddhist prayer wheels, carved stone walls and prayer flags all around. One of the best things about the trek was having the opportunity to meet the Tibetan lodge owners and get to know a little about their lives.
At one of our highest points- 4600m
We stayed for a few days at the high summer settlement of Kyanjin Gompa- a 500 year old monastery, now with a large collection of tourist lodges. From here we could explore the upper valley of summer yak pastures with soaring peaks above. We climbed to our highest point in the world so far- 4600 metres- beside the glacier and snowslopes of the 7000m Langtang Lirung.
After another few days trekking and our coldest night ever we arrived at the sacred lakes of Gosainkund, a pilgrimage destination for both Buddhists and Hindus.

Approaching the pass of Laurebina La

From here we crossed the 4600m pass of Laurebina La before descending from snowy highaltitude scenery into the heavily terraced foothills of Helambu, walking for the last few days through farms and villages full of animal and human life all the way back to the outskirts of Kathmandu.
Bizarrely, after 2 weeks walking with packs every day, we have no injuries, don't feel we need to rest and have actually started to (almost) enjoy the steep uphills??! We're pleased that we could keep up with those who had a team of porters and a guide and enjoyed the independence of trekking 'self-supported' this way. The first day Harriet almost collapsed with exhaustion, but now we feel fitter and stronger and ready for the next trek! So in 2 days we fly to the tiny airstrip of Lukla to start trekking in the Everest region. If conditions are good and we have no altitude problems we hope to climb to passes over 5000 metres and get a view of many of the highest peaks of the Himalayas.
Dense forest of the lower slopes
Prayer flags adorn every pass and summit

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

H's upgrade

Our 24 hour journey from London, via Bahrain, to Kathmandu wouldn't normally have it's own blog entry. However, on the second leg of the journey Harriet was blessed by that most illusive of things - an upgrade to first class. How or why this came about we don't know, but she didn't complain!

First impressions of Kathmandu

Kathmandu is hot, hectic and not what we expected. It's quite overwhelming walking the narrow streets dodging motorbikes, rickshaws and taxis, with the constant tooting of horns, and everywhere is so busy it's hard to take all the activity in. Outside the touristy area of Thamel with its hundreds of trekking gear and souvenir shops, street vendors selling tiger balm and snake charming whistles, the narrow streets of the old town are even more fascinating, interrupted by little squares with pagoda temples surrounded by burning candles, every space filled with somebody selling something. Medieval temples are decorated with amazing wooden facades, and by climbing the steps of one of these temples we could get a bird's eye view of city life. Each night there's been a black out, but life just carries on by candlelight. It's easy to get lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets, but so far we've made it back to our 'hotel' each night (it turns out 6 pounds a night doesn't get you a bargain deluxe hotel room, just a horrible place to stay!).

Tomorrow we're leaving the city on a 117 km journey to the Langtang region of the Himalayas. 117 km may not sound very far, but somehow it takes 10 hours! If you watched 'World's most dangerous roads- Nepal' you may understand. Apparently there is a landslide blocking the last section of the journey but we should be able to get nearly the whole way and walk from there! We have read that the bone rattling bus journey is so bad that some people have opted to walk the 8 days back instead! We're hoping to walk up the Langtang valley to a high monastery, and then to some sacred lakes and out via lowland villages. The whole trek will probably take about 2 weeks, and we'll be staying at tea houses each night. So you'll probably next hear from us when we're back in Kathmandu nursing blisters and sore shoulders.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

The journey begins

Well, this is it! All our worldly possessions are in Karl's mum's loft, Hamish the cat is living the life of Riley in Scotland, and the van is off on new windsurfing adventures on the south coast. We had a fantastic send off in London last night but are feeling a little worse for wear today! It still hasn't really sunk in that we're actually going but we're as ready as we'll ever be!
Next stop Kathmandu, where we're spending the first few days planning and preparing for our trip into the Himalayas. 
Watch this space!