One of the hardest things I think I will ever do..... A 211 kilometre trek!
So I boarded my BA flight from Heathrow to New Delhi in the hope that my friend Kelly who works for BA has managed to put a good word in for me and got me upgraded, unfortunately it was not to be this time (Kelmeister, remember must try harder next time!!) In all seriousness the flight was pretty busy and as it happens the seat in the middle of me and some Indian chap was empty so I thought I would at least have a bit of arm room, that was until 5 seconds after the captain turned off the seat belt sign and the guy next to me got out his blanket put it over his head and laid across it with his head almost in my lap for virtually the entire 9 hour journey! This was to be my first lesson about life in India, space is premium and nothing goes to waste!!!
By the time we landed it was 6:00am and I had managed around two hours of sleep! After collecting my luggage I found myself surrounded by people wanting to offer me a taxi ride, obviously at a price!! I had done my homework and knew what bus to take and the amount it should cost, after walking round for 5 minutes I was on a public bus with the other Indian people, not a westerner insight. When I got off the bus, I got my bearings and found the train station where my night train would be departing some 12 hours later! The thought of walking around Delhi with my rucksack in the blistering heat all day did not fill me with glee, so I consulted the trusty Lonely Planet guide and found somewhere for me a have a kip and leave my luggage, on route many people tried to tell me I was going the wrong way or the place I had chosen had now closed and that they knew a better place to stay, this was obviously all lies and I eventually managed to fine it.
After a brief sleep I spent the afternoon walking round Connaught Place to get a feel for Delhi, this is a traffic circle and seven streets that radiate from it, which are divided into blocks. It has various shops, banks, restaurants, hotels on it. If mayhem, animals roaming the streets, junkies on most street corners, beggars, people spitting and generally excreting their bodily waste anywhere and everywhere then Delhi is the place for you. Once again everyone is trying to be your best friend and show you where to go, for example I wanted the legitimate tourist office to get a map and at least half a dozen people tried to get me into their fake offices, in which they would try and sell you overpriced train tickets and excursions. After getting some food from one of the many street sellers, I headed back to my room to pack my bag in readiness for my train that evening.
As I booked my second class are conditioned sleeping berth (which I think is pretty much the Indian equivalent of our first class) online for £16 I didn't have my seat allocated, therefore I had to negotiate the craziness of the New Delhi train station booking office, endless numbered counters with people queueing. I managed to find a chap who gave me the carriage and berth I should head to, after a short lived panic thinking I had got my time differences wrong and missed the train. I soon found myself stood on the platform where the train was due to depart in around one hours time, trains passed through with people hanging out of the doors, rodents and rubbish littered the lines and I didn't see any other fellow travellers!! I paced the long platform up and down looking for some indication of where I should be standing, asking different people I seemed to get conflicting information, I now felt that I couldn't trust anybody and actually felt quite vulnerable for once in my life! The train came and I thought I saw what was my carriage at the front of the train, this also made sense as the first class carriages in England are usually at the front, though in hind sight I guess this also depends on the direction of travel..... I got to the front of the train just as it was stopping, there were a few police around and many Indian people queuing to get on the train, as soon as the doors opened that was it mayhem, people climbing in though the windows, police hitting people with sticks. I was pretty sure I was in the wrong place, after all I had a reservation! Someone told me I was at the back of the train, so thinking the train might go without me I walked at pace the 500 meters or so to the back of the train where it was far more civilised, found my reserved sleeping berth along with provided pillow and blanket, not what I would certainly call first class, but comfortable nevertheless.
The train set off and I felt much safer, every 10 minutes men came through selling tea and various snacks, there were half a dozen other Indian's around me. Most of them seemed OK and a couple of them asked me where I was from and what I was doing, I was still in Delhi mode and thought that everybody had an sinister motive for asking me questions. One chap actually got out his laptop and started showing me pictures of his family and work colleges, he even gave me a business card and wrote his personal contact details on in case I wanted any advise, he was obviously very proud and a hard worker. To be honest I suspect that many Indian people fall into this category and its only a few devious unscrupulous characters involved in the tourist industry that cause me to be extremely cautious.
The only way to know that you are at your destination is to keep a close eye on where the train stops, I asked the conductor what time we were due in Gorakphur and set my alarm for 8:30am, an hour before I was due to arrive, ate some pretty good food (I just ordered what most other people ordered, see photo, cost about 50p), locked my luggage to my bed and got some sleep. Woke up to find the guy I been speaking to before had been replaced by a large Indian guy snoring! With a couple of hours to go I spent the morning reading and looking out of the window at all the primitive settlements along the way.
At Gorakphur it was the same old story people trying to get you on their bus at a price they have just made up based on their initial impression of you. I soldiered on and managed to find the local bus to Sunauli where the Nepali boarder is, you may remember me writing about a couple of oddballs that I met on my flight from Manchester and the fact I seem to attract this sort of people... On route to the bus I bumped into a couple of crazy Russian guys (they had just spent 6 months in Goa and sent their wives home and were now ready to trek) who were actually on the the same train as me and were basically in the same boat. We got on the bus and started talking, one spoke pretty good English and the other spoke broken English, they were on their way to Nepal to do some trekking the same as me but did not have any firm plans. We got on well and they decided to join me to Pokhara, where I was then going to plan my trek round the Annapurna circuit.
We arrived at Sunauli after a couple of hours and successfully negotiated the boarder crossing, at the other end Nepal was not that different to India, people trying to offer you 'discounted' journeys to Pokhara. Me and the Russians stayed strong and managed to track down the local bus station and got on the 5:00pm bus, this was classed as the night bus and it was probably a good thing as in the daylight the erratic driving on bad Nepali roads with sheer drops at the side I would have been a nervous wreck by the time we arrived! When we got into Pokhara some 12 hours later, after numerous Daal Bhaat (basically all you can eat rice, lentil soup and curried veg) stops we were ready for a good sleep. As you might imagine when we got off the bus, there was a guest house owner there to offer us a room for what was left of the night, for two pounds each we had a bed! It made sense and in fact turned out to be quite a nice guest house and whilst slightly out of the way turned out to be good value.
We spent the next couple of days in Pokhara, nice chilled place, hired out a boat for a couple of hours and generally got ready to do the Annapurna circuit trek. Nepal is generally quite a cheap place to visit and you can probably stay in a fairly nice guest house and eat reasonably well for around 500 rupees ( >£5) a day, once you get on the treks you probably need about 1200 rupees a day. The people are genuinely nice and are certainly not so aggressive in their sales tactics, though there is certainly still an element of trying to get the most out of tourists.
So on the 12th April at midday we set off to get the bus to the Annapurna trailhead, Besisahar. Unfortunately all the seats were taken so we were forced onto the roof with a couple of other Nepali people, I would have more photographs of some of the amazing villages and people along the way but I was too busy hanging on for dear life. I don't know whether it was something I had eaten, the terrible driving, jet lag, heat or an amalgamation of all these things, but on the roof I started to feel a bit sick! Luckily other than feeling a bit rubbish I arrived at our destination without incident, we got ourselves a bed at a place that was basically like a ghetto and I tried to sleep it off, if it wasn't for the dogs barking all night and the Mosquitos I might have managed it!
So the next morning was the start of a 211km trek that would take us to 5416 meters high and take 15 days to complete. I would describe this as one of the exhilarating things I have done and at the same time one of the hardest physically. To date the 'Yorkshireman' an off-road marathon was probably the hardest thing I had physically done, but that only lasted for one day and didn't go from tropical to near arctic weather conditions!!! The scenery was magnificent, people, animals and villages we came across on the way were an eye opener, my backpack was pretty heavy at something like 20kg but some of the porters must have been carrying twice that and the mules maybe four times. Whilst in the bigger cities you get the feeling that people of Nepal are poor, but its only when you get to the villages in the middle of the Himalayas you realise how poor these people are. Many people live in what can only be described as a wooden hut and live solely off the land, in fact around 80% of Nepal live purely off the land and 20% live off tourism and other services.
The first few days were hard, mainly because I was still not feeling 100% and my expensive walking boots that I thought I had worn in gave me a couple of lovely blisters! It took 9 days to walk the 111km mostly uphill to the highest pass in the world 'Thorung Pass', this included an acclimatisation day at Manang, I also had a great Yak steak and apple pie & custard here. Acclimatisation is very important to make sure that you do not suffer from altitude sickness, people do die from this!! In fact a couple of Israeli's that were doing the circuit at the same time as us got ill and had to take an extra day to make the pass. The higher we got the colder the days and nights got, at the pass it was freezing with snow along the trail and the effects of the high altitude were quite apparent, slight headache and lack of breath. At this altitude there is half the amount of oxygen in the air than you would find at sea level!
The food along the trek was on the whole pretty good, places like Manang were a real surprise! Back in England I had very high food hygiene standards, maybe from my days working in kitchens or McDonalds...... In Nepal that had to go out of the window and I have had to virtually abandon these high standards, whilst most items you eat off 'look' fairly clean I have witnessed the cleaning process which basically involves giving it a quick rinse in some naturally occurring cold spring, not a bottle of fairy liquid insight!! Here we are in a local restaurant eating noodles, most cooking along the trails is done with wood!!
It then took us another 6 days to descend the 4416 meters and walk the remaining 100km to the end of the trek, Naya Pul! This included having a rest day in Marpha because we got drunk on the local apple brandy, the first alcohol that I had drunk since the start of the trek!! To our surprise the last two days were probably some of the hardest we had to do, this was basically a full day walking uphill for 17km's to reach the village of Ghorepani at 2870 meters, that's 1670 vertical meters in one day from the village of Tatopani where we had stayed the afternoon before, enjoying the hot springs. On the last day we got up at 4:30am to walk a further 330 vertical meters to watch the sunrise at Poon Hill, this was a walk in the park without our backpacks and was well worth it!
We thought the last day was going to be a easy 3 hour walk down..... but due to a miss calculation we were only kidding ourselves, instead we had 14km and a drop of nearly 2200 meters to finish with! The last two days were like spending two days on the stepper at the gym, one day climbing up and one day climbing down!! We took our time and even stopped for a nice swim in a waterfall and made the bus back to Pokhara for late afternoon!! I was looking forward to getting back to Nepal's second biggest city and getting in contact with my family and work as I had not spoken to them for over 2 weeks! The trek finished on a high with once again a nice open top bus ride into Pokhara as the sun disappeared behind the Annapurna range, thankfully this time whilst the driving wasn't any better I felt hunky dory!!
The porters and animals are the backbone of these treks around Nepal, they carry anything from chickens to building materials and usually wear nothing but some beat up sandals, shorts & t-shirt and certainly don't have all the modern comfortable backpacks that most non Nepali people have. The children are happy and are certainly not starving, they may have a very basic schooling if they live in the bigger villages, but more often than not have no formal education. People often give the children a balloon or a pen and by the look on their faces you would think that all their Christmas's had come at once. The adults are also usually fairly happy and are content with what they have, you can see tourism has had a massive impact on just about everyone that lives in proximity of the trekking trails, this can be seen in the many shops selling western food (Cadbury's, Coke etc..) and getting increasingly more expensive the higher and further you get. Mud roads are already starting to be built from the trail heads and as far as I am concerned its totally spoiling the people, their livelihoods and the trek itself! People have said that two years time a road will exist around the entire trek route and therefore what was previously only accessible by foot, sweat, blood and blisters will be taken over by people land rovers, a travesty!!
Met many good, like minded people along the trek, I can probably count the number of English people I met on one hand, there were many French..... mostly in big groups and quite noisy for some reason!!! Quite a few Israelis and a few more Russian's, plus obviously many other nationalities. Basically I was never expecting the mix of people that I met along the way, guess I am used to going to places where the English are in the majority!! I have learnt a lot about Russia and Israel which when I planned my trip I certainly didn't think I would happen and can only be a good thing, guess it just goes to show you that you can never plan what people you will meet in life!
So the next 4/5 nights I will be spending in Pokhara, mainly resting my battered feet, eating some good food after eating Daal Bhaat & MoMo (parcels of curried vegetables) on the trek and then its off to Katmandu, Nepal's capital city......