15 October 2014

Week 107 - Kathmandu, Chitwan National Park, Kathmandu (Nepal)

After breakfast on our hostel roof terrace, overlooking Kathmandu, we jumped in a taxi to the Chinese consulate to lodge our visa applications. We were there over an hour before the gates opened and were first in line. As it had been shut for a week we were expecting to see huge queues and with only a 1 1/4 hour window when they accept applications, we didn’t want to miss out. We were first at the window when the clerk opened her desk, only to be told the form, which we’d printed from their website, was an old one and we’d need to fill in the newer one, the exact same form with the same details but a different number in the corner. The mistake meant we had to queue for over an hour to get back to the front.

Visas in, we wandered back into Thamel. As we’d agreed we’d send another parcel home from Nepal we had a chance for some more souvenir shopping, another smaller thangka (this time a mantra), another yak wool rug, a cashmere scarf and some smaller bits and bobs. Back in our room we had some chill time before another visit to the coffee shop, Himalayan Java for coffee, cake and fast internet.

The next morning, we had a ticket booked for the journey from the tourist bus park to Sauraha, the gateway to Chitwan National Park. We were up early and had time for a chai before leaving Kathmandu. The journey was long winded as we retraced our route through the Kathmandu Valley, along the Trisuli River towards Pokhara for about 4 hours before turning off to Sauraha. As usual, the bus stopped for breakfast and lunch before pulling in to our destination. 

The tourist bus park at Sauraha is a couple of kilometres from the village and the buses were met with hordes of hotel touts and jeeps collecting people who’d booked their accommodation. We had a reservation but there was no one there to meet us and no one would take us, we were quoted a price five times what it should be and they all laughed, so we picked up our bags and marched out of the park towards the village. We walked for about a kilometre, with people stopping to tell us we were going the wrong way while other people stopped to help us and give directions, our first impressions of the place weren’t good, blatantly being lied too while walking with backpacks in the midday heat isn’t the greatest experience.

Finally in the village we found a rickshaw who would take us the rest of the way, only to arrive at the hotel and be told they weren’t expecting us until the next day, they’d read the booking wrong. We sat outside waiting for a room to be cleared for us while being told of the tour options we could book through the hotel. Once in the room, we showered and walked into the village to check the prices at other tour agencies. Just as we left our hotel, in an army restricted area we spotted a baby rhino, living there as something had happened to it’s mum and he wouldn’t survive in the wild by himself. 

Although the village is only small, the main street is tourist orientated and has lots of souvenir shops and tour guides. It’s nowhere near as commercialised as Pokhara and with its dusty dirt tracks and riverside restaurants it has a real charm. We spoke to a few companies and found one who was offering the same trips for significantly cheaper than at our hotel. We liked the guide and booked on for morning trips for the following two days. With our bookings made, we wandered to the river and perched in a riverside bar to watch the sunset while pied kingfishers swooped down into the water.
Sunset over the Rapti River, Chitwan National Park.
The next morning the alarm went off at 6am. We dressed and walked into the village to meet our guide and his assistant before walking back to the river, past a group of hornbills, to wait for our canoe. We were on one of the first boats out and despite a very loud German man in the canoe next to us, we spent an enjoyable hour floating down the Rapti River, spotting kingfishers, storks, herons, peacocks and two kinds of crocodiles including a gharial with a long skinny nose. From the canoe we stepped into the national park itself. Chitwan is a protected area of sal forest, elephant grassland and water marshes and is one of the last places where Indian Rhino’s can be found. There are also Bengal tigers but we knew a tiger spot would be nearly impossible.
Canoe ride along the Rapti River, Chitwan National Park.
We walked for about two hours through forest and grassland, skirting the river back towards the village. Although we didn’t spot any mammals, it not being the right time of year as the grass is too high, we saw plenty of foot prints and scat, the animals were out there somewhere. We stopped at a viewing tower where Dharma our guide told us stories from his 20 years of guiding, including getting charged and thrown, several times, by a rhino. Back level with the village, a canoe collected us and took us back to the bank where we wandered back to our hotel in time for brunch. 
Walking through the long grasses, Chitwan National Park.
We spent the rest of the day at the hotel, we took a long midday nap and sat out in the garden before walking back in to the village for dinner.

The next day we were up early again to head back to the tour office. On our way we were stopped by a local boy who asked if we’d seen the rhino and pointed us to the river bank. Too excited to miss the opportunity but running out of time before our 6am pick up, we ran to the river and joined the group of people watching a fully grown adult rhino grazing right by the village. He’d swam across the river in the night and napped in the grasses until day break when his snoring had drawn attention to him and word had spread. We would’ve loved to have stayed longer, especially to watch him return to the national park on the far river bank, but we had an elephant ride booked.
Indian Rhino grazing, Chitwan National Park.
Indian Rhinos have only one horn and the best scientific name ever, Rhinocerous Unicornis. They are the world’s fifth largest land mammal measuring about 6ft tall and 12ft long, weighing up to 4,000kg and about 5,000 still live in the wild, 500 or so in Nepal. The population in Chitwan suffered, dropping by nearly a quarter, when the Maoist rebellion drew the attention of the military away from the Chitwan park border allowing poachers opportunities to trap and kill the animals. Since then, numbers have recovered and are on the rise.

We were 10 minutes late to the tour office but the jeep collecting us was 30 minutes late. Eventually it turned up and we squeezed in for the short drive out of town to the community forest. As the grasses in the park are about 7m high at this time of year you have more chance of seeing animals in the community forest and we’d decided to take an hour ride on a private elephant. Joined by another couple we climbed aboard and set off. It was an uncomfortable amble but riding an elephant is always going to be a good experience and we saw a couple of different kinds of deer, monkeys, kingfishers and a few mongoose (mongeese?!), no more rhinos though.
Deer in the community woodland during our elephant ride, Chitwan National Park.
We had time for a chai and to buy some bananas to feed to the elephant before we were back in the jeep and back in town. After checking to see if the rhino was still there, we stopped at a small local eatery for breakfast and had the worst, oiliest eggs ever, before ducking back to the hotel, hoping for a quick shower. Nepal has electric shortages and there are always times in the day without electricity, the problem with our hotel was that the generator never seemed to work properly so we were often without light when it was dark or had no fan or water as the pump wasn’t on. We’d made a bit of a judgment error when we’d decided to treat ourselves to an aircon room since we only got a couple of hours use out of it each day. Even in Kathmandu, electricity shortages are a problem and the streets are full of traffic police because they can’t install traffic lights!
Our elephant enjoying her bananas, Chitwan National Park.
We walked back into town at midday to watch the elephant bathing. Each day the elephants are supposed to be taken to the river to bath and for 60p you can join them. It just happened that all the elephants were busy when we were there and none were at the river. Disappointed, we walked back, stopping for lassi’s on the way.

We headed out again later and rented bicycles to ride the short distance to the elephant breeding centre. It was a hot, sweaty and very bumpy ride with creaky, wobbly bikes but the scenary was beautiful. We passed rice paddies, buffaloes grazing in paddocks, goats climbing every wall and lots of large, mud walled, thatched houses where the old men would be sitting outside chatting with kids running all over the shop. The ride was a bit longer than we’d expected and after asking for directions a couple of times we reached a small river crossing. Leaving the bikes, we hopped in a small wooden boat to be rowed over to the breeding centre.

There wasn’t much to see other than a row of stables, we arrived at around 3:30pm and the mum elephants were being led in from the jungle where they’d been out grazing, closely followed by their kids. Some were so tiny they could hide underneath between their parents legs. Our hearts started beating faster when one mischievous youngster turned away from the stable and started trotting towards Rhys. We wandered up and down the field watching the elephants for a while before heading back into the village, stopping to buy jungle honey on route.
Elephants at the Breeding Centre, Chitwan National Park.
Baby elephant, Chitwan National Park.
After some chill time at the hotel, we walked into town and ate a Nepali meal on plastic seats at the side of the street by candle light.

We’d decided it was worth setting the alarm for another early start even though we didn’t have a trip planned and our bus back to Kathmandu wasn’t until 9am. By 6am we were out walking along the river in search of crocodiles and rhinos. We didn’t have any luck and on the way back to our room stopped for breakfast. Walking back to the river after our meal we ended up finding a whole new path we’d never known was there. A local guy told us they’d seen rhinos that morning along the trail so we followed it as far as some elephant stables. It was the perfect place for grazing rhinos but by then was too late in the day and we had no luck. We spotted more kingfishers and crocodiles and enjoyed the walk, as we’d seen a rhino the previous day we weren’t too disheartened.

After a misunderstanding paying the hotel bill, we were finally transferred to the bus park where we boarded the bus for the final journey, the fourth time we’d driven along the Trisuli River valley. After a few stops for samosas we arrived in Thamel and walked back to our hostel. It was already late afternoon but we had some final chores to run, laundry to put in, paintings to collect, yet another parcel to send to the UK and a haircut and super powerful head massage for Rhys, I could barely stifle the laughter watching him in the mirror.

As it was our last night in Nepal, we decided to head to a Lonely Planet recommended momo restaurant for dumplings. We arrived 5 minutes before last orders and had a delicious last meal before wandering back to the room. 

We had the full day before our 9pm flight and had hoped to do some more sightseeing. Just as we sat on the roof terrace to wait for breakfast, it started to drizzle. We were due to collect our passports from the Chinese embassy that morning and walked over, excited to have one more visa out of the way before returning to the hostel to wait out the weather. The rain didn’t stop and we ended up back in Himalayan Java for more coffee and cake.

We had a taxi arranged to collect us from the hostel for the ride to the airport and made it through security with plenty of time to kill. Our flight left on time and we began the first 4 1/2 hours of a very long night.

1 October 2014

Week 106 - Kathmandu, Pokhara, Kathmandu (Nepal)

We had yet another early start to get to the Lukla airport for our flight back to Kathmandu. The security check was a bit of a joke, not only did me and Rhys have to open everyone’s bags and answer everyone’s security questions, but the boys queue to the departure lounge flew through and the girls waited an age only to be rushed through when the flights started being called. We finally boarded our small propeller planes and were catapulted down the runway and into the air.

As we flew through the valley I couldn’t take my eyes off the window where the mountain panorama passing by was spectacular. We hit small pockets of turbulence, not great for the bad flyers on board but overall the flight was gentle and before we knew it we were back in Kathmandu. 

In the carpark we boarded our bus and returned to the Tibet Guesthouse, sweaty and dirty after two weeks without showers, where we were booked in as part of the tour for another two nights. We had a slightly better room than during our first visit and after check in, we showered, changed and got our paperwork together ready for a trip to the China embassy. 

A taxi across town and we were met by a locked gate. We were expecting the embassy to be closed over Dashain and had only really bothered turning up to check the date that it would reopen. As always seems to be the case with us, we had fallen into another visa/national holiday situation, just this time we had enough flexibility to change our Nepal plans and still get the visa in time for our flight to Hong Kong. 

Dashain is Nepal’s biggest annual festival and lasts for 15 days with businesses shutting for various lengths of times during the period. Thamel for instance, was eerily quiet and possibly more enjoyable since, although many shops were closed, you didn’t have to spend every third step diving across the road out of the path of a racing motorbike, rickshaw, car or tourist. The festival honours the goddess Durga who was victorious over the forces of evil where evil is personified as a buffalo demon. Thousands of animal sacrifices are made during the holiday and everywhere you looked in Kathmandu there were goats tethered to posts awaiting their fate. Once we left Kathmandu for Pokhara we would also see swings lining the roads, hung from towering bamboo structures to celebrate the festival.

After our failed visit to the China embassy we retired to our room to catch up on sleep and admin. We had arranged to meet people from our trip on the roof terrace for a few pre dinner drinks and despite Ró abandoning us to spend time with her Nepali eyebrow technician, who happened to be visiting her family for the festival, we had a good but relatively subdued night, including a meal at a bizarrely empty Rumdoodle which is supposed to be one of the funkiest restaurants in town but was just completely dead apart from pretty much everyone on our trek who had found their way there.

We had intended a blissful lie in the next day but our body clocks had been set to stupid o’clock in the morning and we were up early for breakfast in the hotel courtyard. We had another relaxing day, venturing out for a bit of shopping in Thamel and to the Garden of Dreams. We ended up splurging on a thangka, a superbly detailed Buddhist painting, a symmetric image painted on silk with lots of gold swirly bits. The Garden of Dreams was an oasis of calm, it’s a small green area with ponds and hidden gardens, part of a restored1920’s palace garden designed in the British Edwardian style where mostly expats and tourists relax with books in the shade. 

That evening we’d arranged to meet everyone on the roof terrace again for more pre-dinner drinks. As we had a group meal organised for that night to say goodbye to all the new friends we’d made while trekking, Ró (with some style help from Karlie) put on her best outfit, her yak wool blanket, she looked divine... We were collected from the hotel and driven to a traditional Nepalese restaurant where a lot of tour groups go. We all sat on the floor around our table and were served rice wine and delicious food while we were entertained with men dressed as peacocks and dancers. By the end of it we were all up dancing and playing the drums. 

Back at the hotel we decided more drinks on the roof were in order rather than heading out to find a bar. We wandered out to find an open shop then Ró decided she needed another pashmina and we got sidetracked and lost everyone else (I came away with a lovely present, thanks Ró!). Next thing we knew, we’d bumped in to Furba, one of our sherpas, and ended up on the back of a motorbike to ride a block until we found everyone. By the time we got to bed we were a bit worse for wear (without spelling it out I think Rhys and Karlie will get the pun here even if Ró can’t figure it out...). 

The next day we headed to breakfast at 8:30am, the planned time for a farewell to Noemi, who didn’t turn up. We found her later still in her room, without a watch she had no idea what time it was and was in a rush to catch her transfer to the airport. We chilled in our room until the noon check out, despite the maid trying to rush us out at 9am, when we packed our bags and wandered across the road to our new hotel, a third of the price of the one we’d been in. 

We spent the afternoon with Bryce while Ashleigh was at yoga, we had lunch near Durbar Square then Bryce wandered back to the hotel while me and Rhys paid our entry to see the buildings. Durbar Square is at the heart of Kathmandu’s old town and is the location of the old palace, many temples, shrines and courtyards, mostly built in red brick with beautifully detailed carvings and bells everywhere. It was incredibly busy since it was Dashain and there were queues to get in to most of the buildings. We walked a circuit before deciding to call it a day.
Queues at Kathmandu's Durbar Square.
Beautiful architecture in Durbar Square, Kathmandu.
That evening, after saying our goodbyes to Bryce and Ashleigh, we met up with Karlie and Ró who had had a pretty horrific day on a rafting trip that ended with them hitchhiking back to Kathmandu. We sat outside at a romantic candle lit restaurant with Ró wrapped up in a table cloth since her clothes were still damp from rafting. We were all pretty tired, Rhys headed home while we were finishing up in the restaurant and we weren’t far behind.

Me and Rhys had a 7am bus the following day, headed for Pokhara, a riverside town hemmed in by the Annapurna Massif, a 2,133m chain of Himalayan, snow capped peaks, one of which is Nepal’s only virgin mountain as it’s scared and forbidden to climb. We took a tourist bus and after a flat tyre and breakfast and lunch stops we finally made it to the town. We were expecting a pretty, atmospheric place set on the waterfront with spectacular mountain views. Instead we were presented with a town packed with tourists with a character lacking main street lined with western restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. The mountain was behind the town and blocked out most of the time by the buildings and the lake front was a street away, the lake itself bursting at the seams with life jacketed tourists paddling in circles. 
View of the Annapurna Massif from our hostel, Pokhara.
Luckily, we’d been recommended a hostel, Peace Eye, and despite being one of the cheapest options in town, it was brilliant, we had a bright airy room, hot water, roof top views of the mountains and great staff - it was only on check out that we found out they’d confused our booking and we ended up having a free upgrade, a real result considering they were fully booked and turning away a constant stream of people turning up without reservations.

After exploring the town, we stopped for a warm sweet glass of wine to use the internet before finding a cheap Nepali restaurant near our hotel for dinner.

We’d though to spend the next day hiking around Phewa Tal, a full day walk that would take us to the World Peace Pagoda on a ridge above the lake, with views across to the town and Annapurna mountains and on through local villages to complete a circuit of the lake and back to town. When we woke it was a little hazy outside and we couldn’t see the mountains so we decided instead to have a lazy morning. After a relaxed breakfast, we took a taxi into the main town, away from the touristy lakeside area, to the Gurkha Museum.

The Gurkha Museum was incredibly interesting and made you realise just how brave and hardcore the Gurkha battalions are. The museum followed their history from the Indian Mutiny to present day and it was interesting to find out that even now, the British have a recruitment post just outside Pokhara where hundreds of Nepali men go every year for the rigourous selection process that promises a very high wage and British army pension.

After the museum we started to walk back towards the hostel through Pokhara old town. As it was still Dashain, most of the town was closed and other than a small temple, there wasn’t a whole lot to see and none of the Nepali vitality the Lonely Planet had promised. We ended up catching a taxi back to lakeside for a walk along the water front, a pedestrianised flower filled track, and back to the hostel.

The next day we had the same intention to walk around the lake but woke to more haze. As we only wanted to do the walk to see the mountain views we decided on another lazy breakfast instead. Just before midday we attempted to walk to the World Peace Pagoda. We followed the road out of town to a dam where we crossed the river on a hanging bridge and skirted the edged of small rice paddies. We were walking through small villages, with trails lined with rubbish and people washing in the streams. We found the start of the walk through the sal forest to the pagoda with the help of some local boys but after scrambling through the trees up slippery mud banks with no real path to follow, we realised it was more hassle than it was worth, the sun was out and the heat was oppressive. Instead, we wandered back to the hostel and spent the rest of the day sorting out bits for our Russia visas.
Phewa Tal, the lake in Pokhara.
We didn’t love Pokhara, it’s the jumping off point for a number of awesome treks and if we’d walked there i’m sure we’d have a different opinion of the place, we definitely intend to come back one day to hike but we were short on time as we had to return to Kathmandu to apply for our Chinese visas. It’s also has rafting, bungee jumping, parascending and all kinds of adventure sports that make it a big tourist draw but they were expensive and not really on our radar.

We ended the week with another travel day, leaving Pokhara to return to Kathmandu. The journey took just under 7 hours with breakfast and lunch stops again on the way. Once in Kathmandu we checked in to our hostel, packed the laptops and walked over to Himalayan Java, a chain coffee shop that everyone had been raving about that had good coffee, naughty cakes and fast internet. Wandering out later that night for dinner we ended up in the Irish Bar, excited by the thought of pub grub, but it was so noisy we didn’t stay long and went to a quiet pub next door watching the cricket while we ate. 

Week 105 - Dingboche, Lobuche, Gorak Shep, Periche, Monjo, Lukla (Nepal)

Our Everest Base Camp trek continued and the week started with our second acclimatisation day, this time in Dingboche. We’d realised the weather was at it’s best in the morning and set our alarm to get up while the skies were clear. Before breakfast me and Rhys had already climbed to a stupa for views into the next valley and over to Lhotse (8,516m), while the sun started to rise and light up the tips of the mountains surrounding Dingboche. As always, we’d managed to collect a couple of dogs who escorted us to the ridge where we extended our pack to six dogs. We came across a lot of friendly dogs during the hike, the majority black and with thick hair to fend against cold nights in the mountains- to name a few, we walked with Fruit Loop, Plaster Cast, Marmite and Onion.
Pre breakfast exploration in Dingboche as the sun was coming up.

Back at the teahouse we ate breakfast with the rest of the group before heading out in the cold for the walk to Chhunkung at 4,730m, the final stop before Island Peak, a one day hike further rising to 6,189m. It’s recommended that acclimatisation days are spent climbing to higher altitudes then descending to spend another night at the same level, Dingboche was at 4,440m. The trail took us up a steady gradient along the Imja Khola Valley, negotiating a path of loose boulders while we followed the river, crossing streams on stepping stones. The clouds had come in soon after we left Dingboche so again we missed out on the views, supposedly one of the most scenic side routes of the whole trek.

We ordered lunch in Chhunkung then the majority of the group opted to continue a further 100m climb to a ridge that despite having no views would hopefully make the following day easier by giving our bodies more exposure to higher altitude. Apparently, through the clouds stood the world’s 5th highest mountain, Makalu (8,462m), one of the world’s 14 mountains that stand over 8,000m tall, 8 of which in Nepal. Although we were above the tree line, making loo stops harder to find, the floor was carpeted with tiny, delicate, beautifully coloured flowers, from bright reds to cornflower blues, pinks and purples.

After lunch we were all feeling pretty sleepy and the thought of facing the cold winds on the walk back to Dingboche wasn’t very appealing but as it was cold and down hill we made less stops and made it back quickly, only to find another group had moved into the teahouse. After 5 nights of having places mostly to ourselves, having to share the log fire was a surprise, i’d hate to think how busy they get in peak season.

We stopped in the common room to warm up with a flask of hot lemon before retiring to our room for a bit of peace and quiet. The reduced oxygen in the air really made you feel sleepy and it was a task to stay awake until bedtime, something we’d been recommended to do to help with the altitude sickness. For dinner that night Rhys ordered tuna pizza and was disheartened when it came as a cabbage, carrot, cheese and tuna mix, the ingredients for all meals were the same and variety in diet was limited to noodles, potatoes, rice or bread.

The next day we headed to Lobuche, a climb to 4,930m. The first 2-3hrs took us to Duglha along a gradual incline where we stopped for tea by a river raging with ice cold glacier melt, where we filled our water bottles with such dirty water we couldn’t bring ourselves to drink out of them - even iodine doesn’t kill everything. 
Leaving Dingboche behind on route to Lobuche.
We then had a steep climb to the Memorial Park which left most of us out of breath. Lynn had been struggling with the altitude and managed to rent a horse to carry her up the worst of it. The park is incredibly peaceful and has a number of stone memorials wrapped in prayer flags and with poetic epitaphs to honour people who had attempted to climb Everest and died in the process. It brought it home a bit, although the trip to Base Camp is a tourist hike, climbing Everest itself is a hardcore challenge and although not the most technical mountain in the world, taking it lightly can be fatal. 
The walk from Dingboche to Lobuche.
From the Memorial Park we followed a river along a mostly flat section to Lobuche. At this point I started to feel lethargic and nauseous and despite it being the easiest section of the day I didn’t get a chance to enjoy it. Once in Lobuche where we stopped for lunch, a flask of hot lemon and lots of water seemed to quell the sickness and I joined the rest of the group who were continuing on a short outing to a ridge next to the teahouse. From the top of the ridge we got our first close up view of the glacier and the snowcapped peaks that until then had only been in the distance. Talking to the sherpas we realised just how much the glacier has shrunk in the last 20 years, pulling back almost to Base Camp from Lobuche.
Rhys and Bryce resting by the glacier, Lobuche.
View from the ridge in Lobuche towards Base Camp.
That night was a terrible nights sleep, I headed to bed early as I hadn’t slept well the whole trip, what with all the liquid you had to drink meaning you were up every hour in the night queuing for the loo. I was short of breath from the altitude and back to feeling nauseous.

The next morning I spoke to Gelu and decided to take Diomox (akin to taking sea sickness tablets while at sea) so I could enjoy the walk to Base Camp and up to Kala Pattar the following day. It was like a miracle drug, as soon as it hit my system I felt right as rain, by dilating your capillaries it enables your body to absorb more oxygen and so combats mild symptoms of altitude sickness. Most people in our group were already taking the drug from the start and by the end of it, only 4 people managed to make it all the way to Kala Pattar without taking it, Rhys, Ró, Ashleigh and Noemi. When you think about it, we climbed pretty high, baring in mind the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis is only 1,344m and when we skydived in Australia, it was only from 4,270m.
A beautiful morning in Lobuche with view of our teahouse.
I was glad to be feeling better and we headed out with a spring in our step to our final teahouse during the ascent, at Gorak Shep. It only took 3 hours following a trickle of a stream and we didn’t gain much altitude until the last kilometre or so which involved lots of short climbs and descents over loose boulders. Lunch at Gorak Shep was a welcome rest.
Rhys, nearly at Gorak Shep.
Then, after lunch, we headed to Everest Base Camp and we couldn’t have planned a more special place to be spending our two year traveling anniversary (go us!) It was a long walk and with the return to Gorak Shep, made for a long day. Although we didn’t climb much, the path was rolling and we were constantly either climbing or descending. Suddenly there seemed to be a lot of people around and there were queues to get passed some of the narrower sections. The final part of the walk dropped down to the glacier bed where sections were slippery with black ice. 
Me, nearly at Base Camp.
Actual Base Camp itself was a little unimpressive, just a pile of boulders drapped with prayer flags with views of the Khumba Icefall, the hardest part of the Everest climb and the sight of the 2014 avalanche that claimed the lives of 16 Nepalese guides. From Base Camp you can’t even see Everest as it’s nestled behind other mountains on the Tibetan border, but you can see a couple of tents that mark the New Base Camp (the one for trekkers is the Old Camp, for the new one you have to pay thousands of dollars for a permit), it would be really interesting to see how busy the new camp is in spring when people are there preparing to climb.

After 2 years of traveling, we make it to Everest Base Camp.
As for a few facts, Everest was first scaled in 1953 by the Kiwi Sir Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay while on a British led expedition. Since then, more than 6,850 people have made it to the top (and there are thought to be hundreds of bodies still up there), some even solo and some without Oxygen (if you were flown directly to the top of Everest without acclimatisation, you’d only have a few minutes until you passed out from lack of Oxygen and died). Hundreds of people set out to climb the mountain each year and it costs an absolute fortune to do so (upwards of GBP£30,000 for the cheapest companies), the success rate to climb is only about 56% with a 10% death rate. 

We stayed at the camp for nearly an hour. Our porters had followed us up with hot chocolate and cookies and we wandered around taking hundreds of photos and high fiving everyone. Although being there was the aim of our entire trek, we knew we still had a big challenge the following day to reach Kala Pattar. Of the 18 of us who started together, 16 had made it.

The sun had dropped below the mountains on the way back to Gorak Shep and the wind picked up. It was a cold walk and we moved quickly without stopping to prevent us getting too cold. By the time we reached the teahouse we were shattered and after a celebratory Mars Bar and hot lemon we took a nap before dinner. Most people had lost their appetites and forced down some food before turning in for an early night.
The walk back from Base Camp to Gorak Shep.
The earliest start of the trek and we were up and ready to climb Kala Pattar, a small hill(?!) at 5,545m with the path starting directly opposite our teahouse. The diomox had led me to having the best nights sleep of the entire trek but Rhys had started feeling lethargic and nauseous and hadn’t slept much at all. He battled on through though. We were 15 minutes late leaving the teahouse as we had to wait around for everyone to get ready and were all wrapped up in our puffer jackets against the bitter cold.

The climb was the hardest part of the trek. There was a lot of loose gravel and rocks and ice in places where the sun wasn’t yet up to defrost it. It felt like we were climbing for ages and it was the longest up hill section of the walk. We took it slowly and made it to the top in 2 1/4 hours, just after the sun had risen over the peak of Everest. 11 out of the 18 we were hiking with made it and some of those who stayed at Gorak Shep decided to get an head start on the descent while we climbed. Again, we had hot chocolate and cookies at the top and were happy in the knowledge that from here on it was downhill all the way back to Lukla. 
Everest before sunrise (the peak in the middle peering over from behind the closer peaks).
As we were late getting up to the peak, we were also the last leaving and had the place to ourselves, the view was spectacular with the valley rolling out beneath us and Everest in front of us peering out over it’s neighbours. It’s easy to forget just how high you are when everything around you is over 5,000m, I can’t even imagine standing at sea level and having an 8,488m mountain tower over you.
Rhys at the top of Kala Pattar, 5,455m, champion.
Our TnT trekking group at the top of Kala Pattar, Rex, V, Stan, Ró, Me, Rhys, Noemi, Kathy, Karlie, Ashleigh and Kathryn.
The way down was warmer as the sun was out and before we knew it we were back at the hotel being served breakfast. Rhys took a quick nap and we packed our bags for the porters to collect for the descent. We still had a long day ahead of us.
Descending from Kala Pattar towards Gorak Shep.
The return trail took us down to Lobuche where we stopped for lunch before continuing to Periche where we ended the day walking through sleet, glad to make it to a dung warmed common room where we ate dinner and stayed up playing cards. The evenings highlight was seeing one of the dogs we’d met on the way up run full pelt at us to say hello.

Walking from Gorak Shep to Lobuche.
Our tenth day of walking took us down to Khumjung at 3,700m. We had a huge descent before lunch, taking us down hill over a kilometre before climbing 500m again to the teahouse. The start of the day had been cold, with no fire in the lodge and we’d had a late start while we waited for everyone to get their stuff together. We didn’t make it to the planned lunch spot and ended up eating in Tengboche, where we’d stayed and visited the monastery. We still had some down hill to go after lunch to reach the river bed but we were back in the tree line and the temperature had warmed up a bit. The final descent was steep as we wove between trees and yaks before we began our final climb of the day to Khumjung.
Our tired group heading down to Monjo.
Khumjung was a beautiful little village and our favourite of the trek with a sacred craggy mountain towering over terraced plots and rows of stone houses. We followed a track passed piles of mani and small shops to a stupa on the far side of the village, opposite which we were staying. The common area had huge windows with views over town, the toilets were clean and the beds were comfy and warm. It felt like we were returning to civilisation despite the village being a little off the main trail. TnT, our trekking company is one of the only ones who stay there on the the return and even though it was just above Namche, there was hardly anyone else around.
Khumjung village.
After a hot lemon me and Rhys wandered out to explore, swiveling at every step to try to see where all the yaks were from the sound of their bells. We didn’t get far before we were enticed into a shop selling beautiful yak wool blankets and scarfs and ended up making a few purchases. Although probably a little more expensive than in Kathmandu, at least you feel like your money is going straight to the source. We treated ourselves to salt and vinegar Pringles and watched men playing a local game flicking plastic counters across a chalked board into holes. Ró wandered out later and returned to show us her new Yak wool dress, a scarf that she planned to artfully wrap around herself to make an elegant evening dress for our final farewell meal, I was glad to be at a lower altitude else all the laughter may have caused a black out.

We only had a short walk ahead of us on day eleven but rather than walk directly down to Monjo, we took a scenic route. Our little group decided to do a bit of final yak wool blanket shopping after breakfast and were running a bit late to get back for the school tour so we had to fast walk through the gates to catch up. No kids were about so there wasn’t that much to see apart from a big Sir Edmund Hillary statue that made us realise just how much he’s done for the villages surrounding Everest, building hospitals and schools, helping create the national park, bringing in programs to replant after climbing groups cut down all the trees for firewood, not just sending money but really getting involved. 

Next, we wandered up to the monastery, that although only small, held a Yeti skull in a locked cabinet. It was interesting to see, a cone covered in thick ginger hair giving off a strong wet dog smell but i’m doubtful whether it was real, even though i’m open to their existence. We stopped at a small hospital in Kunde, the next village along before descending to Namche.

Once in Namche we headed to one of the German bakeries for an expensive lunch, grateful to have something that wasn’t rice, potatoes or noodles. We then had some free time to finish off any shopping, more yak wool, yak bells, maps and T-shirts showing the route we’d just trekked. 

By the time we left Namche we were all pretty tired and didn’t really fancy the 2 hour walk we had left to make it to Monjo. Nevertheless we persevered, crossing back over the high bridge and two lower bridges, zigzagging up the valley passed the hordes of people trekking now peak season had started, to our teahouse, passing the time planning a Utopian community where we’d move to Khumjung, wear nothing but yak wool and make moisturiser and protein milkshakes from berries and plants.

After a great nights sleep following a night time PJ party in Ró’s humongous room, we were up early for our last day of walking. We still had 5 hours of trail to cover until we reached Lukla and we’d forgotten how much uphill was involved. It felt like an extremely long day and the ridge behind which Lukla was tucked, never seemed to get any closer. Finally we rolled in to town, Rhys and Ró racing the last 200m to be the first back (Rhys won). We dropped off our bags, ordered dinner and headed out to an underground Irish Bar for celebratory drinks with Ró, Karlie, Ashleigh, Bryce, Noemi, Rex and Kathy. I think Ashleigh even found a new favourite tipple in the hot rum punch.

Back at the teahouse our guides had arranged a buffet Dal Baht dinner in a separate room along with our porters. Food was great and was washed down with a few more drinks. Lots of dancing followed as we thanked our porters and assistant sherpas in style and getting to bed, although not late was all a bit hazy.

24 September 2014

Week 104 - Delhi, Kathmandu, Phakding, Namche Bazaar, Tengboche, Dingboche (India, Nepal)

Leaving our hotel in Delhi we had a short walk to the airport Metro station. The train was fast and on time and before we new it we were at the airport and checked in. The flight was painless and the hardest part of the whole journey was trying to work out which queue we were supposed to be in to obtain our visa on arrival in Nepal. We were met at the airport by a representative from the trekking company (which we’d prebooked on Groupon, oh yes, some things never change) and had beautiful marigold fresh flower necklaces hung around our necks. Feeling like we were living the high life, we drove to the hotel where we’d be spending our first two nights in Kathmandu.

We were given a dingy basement room and quickly realised that the rooms given to the tour groups using the hotel were tucked away at the back. Being next to the kitchen, the smell of curry permeated our room and with all the crashing about, we requested to move and ended up in a far better room at the front. 

Once in the touristy Thamel area of Kathmandu, where every building is either a trek gear shop, souvenir shop, hotel or restaurant, we had some final purchases to make to prepare for the trek, dirt cheap hiking poles, water bottles, socks, hats and the like.

We’d also been in contact with Mario again, our favourite Portuguese and as it turned out he was in town. We caught up over delicious but pricey pizza before calling it a night.

The next morning we had a tour briefing in the hotel lobby. Half of our group had arrived a day early and already had their meeting so we only met a few of the 16 people we’d be joining to hike to Everest Base Camp. We received very brief instructions and were issued with our duffle bags with sleeping bags and puffer jackets, followed by a surprise luggage weigh in. For the flight to Lukla, the start of the trek, we were only allowed to carry 14kg, 4kg of which was taken up by the jacket and sleeping bag, not leaving much room for snacks and 12 days worth of clothes. A bit concerned and a few tough decisions about what to bring and what to leave later and we had to rush back to reception to meet the rest of our group for a day of sightseeing.

Our first stop was at a Tibetan refugee carpet warehouse where we watched rows and rows of Tibetan women working at an incredible speed to weave beautiful rugs. Next, we drove out to Durbar Square in Patan, supposedly one of the finest collections of temples and palaces and displays of Newari architecture in Nepal. The majority of the buildings date from the 14th to the 18th centuries and there’s a mix of tiered pagodas, stupas and shrines. Our guide was nice enough but his English wasn’t great and there was a lot of hesitation and repeating himself so actually following what he was saying was difficult and we soon lost concentration.
Tibetan lady spinning wool, Kathmandu.
Durbar Square, Patan, near Kathmandu.
Wandering the streets of Patan, near Kathmandu.
Next, we stopped by the ‘Golden Temple’ nothing at all like the Golden Temple we’d just visited in India but instead a small Buddhist temple with gold covering every surface. Interestingly, at the Golden Temple, the priest is a young boy under 12 who serves for 30 days before passing the duty to another young boy. Our next stop was at a singing bowl shop. Again, it was pretty drawn out as lots of people wanted to experience the healing qualities of the bowls. We’re a bit cynical and although we love the look of the bowls, we find it hard to believe that one that was hammered out on a full moon would really be any more powerful than any other and the steep price in the shop didn’t really seem justified especially with our tight budget. We ended up waiting outside for everyone to finish their shopping before wandering back to the bus. 
The Golden Temple, Patan, near Kathmandu.
We made one last stop on the tour, at Bodhnath. We ate in the compound while getting to know some of the people we’d be spending the next couple of weeks with before completing a loop of the stupa, taking hundreds of photos of the prayer flags waving in the wind. Bodhnath is a centre for Tibetan Buddhism and the eyes of the Buddha gaze out at you, painted brightly beneath the golden central tower. The stupa used to be on the trade route from Tibet to Kathmandu and attracted traders praying for safe journey through the high passes of the Himalaya, quite apt for our group.
Prayer flags at Bodhnath, Kathmandu.
Although the tour wasn’t done, we requested to be dropped back near the hotel along with two others. The trip was running late and we still had things to do before our early morning flight the following day and we’d arranged to meet Mario again for dinner. Knowing we would return to Kathmandu a number of times before leaving Nepal we didn’t feel rushed to continue the sightseeing.

We finished packing and finally managed to get our bags under the weight limit before heading out to find Mario. He was running late too and after we’d given up waiting and he’d chased us down the street, we ended up stumbling across a tiny, dirt cheap little restaurant called the Momo Cave. It was like sitting in someones spare room with hardly any furniture and a young boy to serve us.

We managed to get a relatively early night ready for the 4:45am start the next day to head to the airport. The domestic departures lounge was hidden around the back of a building site and when we got there it was still closed and our guides piled all our bags at the door. When you book a flight to Lukla, you don’t get a time and it’s done on a first come first served basis (from what we can gather) so it’s all a bit hectic.

The flight was incredible. One of the stewards at the airport had recommended we sit on the right of the plane and the views of the Himalayas were spectacular. A little 12 seater propellor plane with just one seat on each side of the aisle and a clear view into the cockpit. The flight was smooth and in no time we had arrived at Lukla, the highest and shortest commercial airstrip in the world, and the most dangerous. The airstrip itself is built with an incline to reduce the speed of the aeroplane on landing and to give an extra push to those taking off. 

Once off the flight we congregated in one of the guesthouses in town, enjoying the last of our packed breakfast boxes before perching on a stone staircase where we could watch the planes arriving into Lukla, screeching to a halt before picking up new passengers and heading out again, appearing to almost be catapulted down the ramp and back into the mountains.
Lukla airport, the highest, shortest and most dangerous airstrip in the world.
After an hour or so, it was time to start walking. The first day was far from strenuous and we didn’t cover much ground at all. Having traveled independently for so long, suddenly being part of a group and being told when and where to eat and sleep and having to wait for people all the time was a little frustrating. Although i’d worried about our fitness levels prior to the hike it was immediately evident that we were able to keep up with the front of our group without any hassle. The frustration over the excessively long waits, when we’d start to get cold and disheartened was to become a bit of a sore point for the next couple of days, until the weather improved and the clouds lifted to reveal some of the most spectacular mountain scenery you could ever imagine and which we could happily while away hours photographing and soaking in. 

The trek we’d booked on to was a Groupon special and for only marginally more money than it would have cost to organise independently, all the stress and hassle was taken out of the planning, we literally just had to turn up. For our group of 18 people we had two lead guides, Gelu and Furba, two assistant guides and nine porters to carry everything but our day bag essentials. The majority of the time, we walked with one of the assistant sherpas at the front who we bonded with after a few days and who, other than our nightly briefing, was our only real contact with a guide, it was a bit of a shame that his English wasn’t very good and we couldn’t really ask questions or learn much about our surroundings.

Our guides were Sherpas, probably the most well known of Nepal’s ethnic groups, their history tracing back to the days of nomadic Tibetan herders who moved to the Solu Khumba region of Nepal 500 years ago bringing with them Tibetan Buddhism, evident all over the countryside around Mount Everest through the prayer flags, beautiful gompas and carved mani’s with mantras praying for safe passage. With the increase of tourism in the Everest region after the Maoist rebellion, the Sherpa name has become synonymous with mountaineering and trekking.

The trek itself involved 12 days of walking, taking us from 2,795m in Lukla at the airport to Everest Base Camp at 5,300m and on to Kala Pattar at 5,545m, spending our nights at teahouses along the way. As the increase in altitude is quite marked, it’s necessary to take acclimatisation days to prevent altitude sickness so it takes about 8 days to ascend but only 4 to descend. Altitude sickness has claimed 200 lives on the trek in the last 40 years at altitudes of as low as 3,420m including two Australians recently who ignored advice and didn’t take time to aclimatise. In order to ensure we were all in health, each evening after dinner Gelu would take oxygen and heart readings for each of us to track any significant changes that could indicate we were having problems, fitness levels have nothing to do with how your body will react at altitude and there’s no way to tell if you’ll suffer or not until you get there.

The first day was only a short walk and saw us spending the night in Phakding at 2,620m. It wasn’t until we came to walk back to Lukla that we realised how much down hill there had been on this stage as we followed the trail along the Dudh Kosi Valley. We crossed some long bridges, fed noodles to the crows (there are crows everywhere), saw our first snow capped mountains and quickly learned to pass Buddhist stupas, flags and mani clockwise and to spin prayer wheels clockwise. Once in Phakding we gathered for a short excursion up to a monastery overlooking the village. As we started to climb (one of the steepest paths of the whole trail) the rain began and by the time we were at the top we were all wet and cold. Rhys took a nap before dinner then managed to sleep for a solid 11 hours waking up refreshed to start the second day.

Day two took us about 14km over long swaying bridges crossing the Dudh Kosi river and on to Namche Bazaar at 3,420m, where we were due to spend our first acclimatisation day. We spent lunch by the river side in Jorsale at 2,830m and entered into the Sagarmatha National Park (Sagarmatha being the local name for Everest). From this point on, as no animal could be killed in the National Park and all meat was to be carried up from lower levels, unrefrigerated and sitting around for who knows how long, most of the group opted to go vegetarian, I think Rhys found this part of the trip the most taxing and worse than the walk itself.
Buddhist stupas, manis and prayer flags on route to Namche.
Bridges spanning the Dudh Kosi on the way to Namche, (we crossed on the higher one).
Porters carrying twice their own body weight across the river.
The teahouse we were in in Namche had a dark and dingy common area and after a few games of cards, most of us turned in for an early night, with Karlie and Noemi on Ró entertainment duty, taking her out for a midnight walk. 

Namche was a decent size town and although we were in the shoulder season and a lot of the restaurants and bars were closed, there were enough souvenir stalls to get our attention. We’d see the contrast between the September and October trekking traffic when we returned during our decent and all were thankful we’d walked in shoulder season. Peak season might bring the best weather but it brings hundreds and hundreds of people and queues of up to an hour to even cross bridges, never mind the queues on the unstable paths when you reach Base Camp. We probably passed 100 or so other people on the trail at the same time as us, in October, numbers can reach 10,000 during the month and that doesn’t include those doing other hikes off the main trail and those climbing some of the smaller peaks, the most we had to wait for was a few yaks (or naks or even caks...) to walk passed carrying supplies to the teahouses on route.

We spent our acclimatisation day in Namche doing a short half day hike to a higher altitude, stopping at a National Park museum, before dropping back in to town for lunch. We walked up past the Shyangboche airstrip to a hotel that supposedly had great views but the clouds were in and we weren’t rewarded. Brendan, one of only five boys in our group, had been ill before we’d started the trek and was starting to struggle. That night his oxygen and heart rate reading was scary and it was the last we saw of him. The following morning he was too ill to continue and along with one of our assistant guides, made the decision to turn back to Lukla (where the weather meant the planes were backlogged and it took him three days to get out). Fingers crossed he gets another chance and makes it to Base Camp.

As we were back in Namche at lunch time, me and Rhys ducked out of the hotel to eat at a restaurant in town. We found it a little annoying that we were forced to eat at the teahouse where we were staying and that the tour company had failed to mention this to us in advance. Rooms are basic and dirt cheap but the price is dependent on you eating there and can quadruple if you eat out. We were happy to have breakfast and dinner there but felt a bit of variety for lunch wouldn’t go a miss and we had the best meal we probably had on the whole trip. We ended up going back to the same restaurant for hot lemon later with Ró, Karlie and Noemi to duck out of a rain storm and while away the afternoon after a short walk to another gompa and through a quarry full of carved mani (rocks covered with mantras and prayers).

The food on the trip was, in general, decent but extremely carb heavy and all the menus were the same. You could have fried rice, fried noodles or fried potatoes with a choice of carrots and cabbage, nak cheese or eggs, with momos (stuffed dumplings) for a rare treat.

By this point friendship groups had started to form and we spent most of our time with Karlie, Noemi, Ashleigh, Bryce and Ró, one of the funniest people i’ve ever had the pleasure to meet and who never failed to make the entire group laugh, I honestly don’t know who let her go to Nepal by herself when she can’t even make her own bed but am mighty glad she did. 

Our fourth day took us to Tengboche, another short day covering only 10km which saw us follow the river valley, getting our first views of Everest’s peak in the distance, to a series of water turned prayer wheels before a steep ascent into the village. Far smaller than Namche, the group of teahouses at Tengboche were centred around a monastary but when we arrived the clouds had rolled in (a lot of the time we’d be late leaving in the mornings while we waited for everyone to get ready and it would mean we’d get to view points after the clouds were already in). 

There was a ceremony at the gompa that evening so we wandered over and took seats against the walls to watch the monks bang on their drums and chant while being handed stacks of food stuff before popcorn was distributed to us in the wings. We stayed for about 30 minutes before leaving them too it, since we left Namche the weather was notably colder and we were wrapped up warm against the night chill, enjoying a yak dung fueled fire in the common area of the teahouse. I had a stonking altitude headache and the continuous drumming wasn’t really helping to calm it. I think most people suffered from the headaches at one point or another and they could get pretty bad, the best cure being to drink lots of water (you’re supposed to drink at least twice what you normally would when you’re at altitude), and to take painkillers.

The next morning we were woken early as the skies had cleared and we had breathtaking mountain views with Amadablam rising sharply in the foreground. There’s no better way top spend the morning than gazing out at the snow capped Himalaya before breakfast.
Ashleigh enjoying a beautiful start to the day, sun rise over Tengboche.
Rhys and Ró making the most of a clear morning in Tengboche.
Our trekking group, Ró, me, Kathryn, Alicia, Lynn, Stan, Noemi, Rex, Kathy, Ashleigh, V, Karlie, Natasha, Shirley, Erica, Rhys and Bryce.
After Tengboche, we continued our hike to Dingboche. The first hour or so flew by as we had clear skies and lots to look at as the sun rose over the valley, before we descended to cross the river again to Pangboche at 3,900m where we stopped for tea. Having seen the increasing price of bottled water (everything being carried in from Lukla in ridiculously big stacks balanced on ropes strapped across porters foreheads) we were extremely glad to have purification tablets. The trail continued to Shomare at 4,040m where we stopped for lunch and then on to Dingboche at 4,440m. That afternoon we climbed above the tree line and seemingly within metres the landscape turned to scrub, seperated near villages by stone walls.
Another spectacular valley view on route to Dingboche.
Hairy yaks passing us on their way down the valley.
Above the tree line, a change in scenary on the way to Dingboche.
It was too cold to do much in the evening with our teahouse on a ridge line and after dinner and cards in the yak dung warmed communal area, we turned in for an early night. The altitude was starting to show it’s affects and the cold was giving people bad coughs and sore throats. Sleeping was becoming more difficult and although the altitude makes you sleepy, you get vivid dreams and the extra liquids you have to drink mean you’re up several times each night limiting the amount of sleep you can actually get.

17 September 2014

Week 103 - Mcleod Ganj, Amritsar, Delhi (India)

We had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 8am for the drive from Shimla to Mcleod Ganj. The roads were windy and we were glad we hadn’t opted for the night bus. After a couple of chai stops, we made it to Mcleod Ganj in just over 7 hours and checked in to our hotel. We were upgraded to a mountain view room and the panorama was stunning. 
View from our room, Mcleod Ganj.
We didn’t waste much time before walking the mile downhill back in to the centre. Mcleod Ganj is a small town and the village below, Gangchen Kyishong, is home to the Tibetan Government in exile and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who claimed asylum in India following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949, (the Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959). It’s estimated that more than 250,000 refugees crossed the Himalayas to India and in Mcleod Ganj, you can’t walk 50 metres without seeing a monk or a string of prayer flags, the restaurants serve Tibetan food and the shops sell Tibetan handicrafts. Tibetan culture is being repressed in their homeland as they’re forced to assimilate into China, in India, the Tibetan’s are trying to ensure it’s not lost and forgotten. The Tibetan refugees are still fighting for the liberation of Tibet and being there makes you hope more than ever that one day soon it’ll happen. 
Tibetan propaganda, Mcleod Ganj.
Monks on the main street, Mcleod Ganj.
After exploring the shops for a while we stopped for dinner. Discovering it was Dalai Lama day and no Tibetan restaurant was serving meat, we ended up in a Punjab restaurant for Indian. 

Rhys’s allergies were playing up the next day so we delayed our planned day hike and spent the morning at our hotel. We walked in to town for lunch and to visit the Tsuglagkhang complex which comprises the official residence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibet museum and an important temple. As we entered we found groups of monks of all ages, scattered around the Gompa, deep in debate, stomping their feet and clapping their hands to get their points across. We watched for a while before wandering upstairs to visit the temple and stopping at the small museum on our way out. That night we walked back in to town again for a Tibetan meal, lots of dumplings and noodle soup.

The next day we woke to good weather. We laced up our hiking boots and headed out towards Dharamkot, a village not far from our hotel. Having found a dog (Bruno) who we enticed with biscuits and who stayed with us all day, we turned off the main road to an unpaved track, walking up hill to a small temple where we stopped for chai with commanding views of the Dhauladhar Ridge. Continuing, we followed an uneven goat track to Triund, a ridge at 2,855m, where we stopped for more chai as the clouds began to swirl in, obstructing the valley views. On the way down, the rain started and after spending an hour hiding out under cover at a chai stop, we decided to make a break for it. Walking about 18km in total we completed the walk in about 5 hours (without stops). Considering we’d been warned to allow 7-8 hours i’m now feeling a little more hopeful for the Everest trek next week.
The hike to Triund, Mcleod Ganj.
Rhys bribing Bruno, the hike to Triund, Mcleod Ganj.
We left Bruno at the turnoff to his house, sad to say goodbye, and headed back to our room to dry off and relax before walking back into town again for dinner.

We took a bus the following day to Pathankot from Mcleod Ganj,a bumpy, uncomfortable 4.5 hour journey with beautiful valley views to take our mind off it. The bus dropped us at the terminal for the government run buses to Amritsar and we didn’t have to wait long until we were on our way for the final 2.5 hours to our destination. We’d descended from the mountains by this point and were driving through rice paddies and pastures.

Once in Amritsar we jumped straight in a rickshaw to our hotel in the Old City, weaving through chaotic streets and peering into the shopfronts as we went. As it was already getting dark and there’s only so much exploring you can do in India before all the noise and hustle and bustle starts to break your resolve, we opted for a quick dinner at a small vegetarian Indian restaurant, (in the Golden Temple area, all the restaurants are vegetarian to Rhys’s disappointment), peering in at the temple through the archway as we passed, before bed. 

We were primarily in Amritsar to see the Golden Temple and wanted to visit for lunch so were in no rush and treated ourselves to a lay in. We ventured out for a morning coffee before handing in our shoes at the cloakroom, collecting a headscarf to cover our heads during our visit and walking through the shallow foot baths to the entrance. The Golden Temple is Sikhism’s holiest shrine and was full of pilgrims, every Sikhi is supposed to visit and volunteer at the temple for one week in their lifetime. The complex was beautiful and the temple itself glistened in the centre, covered in gilded copper plates (the gold said to weigh 750kg), reflected in the pool of sacred water in which it stands. Priests inside the central temple chant continuously and it’s broadcast throughout the complex.
Storm clouds rolling in at the Golden Temple, Amritsar.
We walked a circuit of the courtyard admiring the temple from all angles of the marble walkway, before reaching the dining hall. In line with the Sikhism central principal of equality, everyone is welcome for a free meal, no matter what religion or nationality. We joined the crowds, collected a tray and cutlery and were led into the hall where we took a seat on the floor in long rows. Before we’d got ourselves comfortable, people began walking the line and depositing scoops of food onto our trays, we had dhal, rice, roti and delicious rice pudding. Considering all the clattering outside it was peaceful and quiet while we ate. The kitchen prepares meals for around 80,000 people a day and they have the process down to a fine art.

Once we’d finished, we rejoined the throng, handing in our used trays to the chaotic and crowded washing up assembly line where literally hundreds of people were passing the trays into huge sinks, ready for the next hungry visitors. It was a great experience.

The sky was beginning to darken as we finished our lunch and we took it as a sign that our visit was over and we should head back to the hotel and as soon as we walked in the door a heavy rain storm hit. We had a couple of hours to while away before it was time to head to the taxi stands for a trip to the Pakistan border.

By 3pm the rain had mostly stopped so we made our way to the taxi stand where we had a ticket for a shared taxi to see the border closing ceremony at Attari. The border is only about 30km from town but with a chai stop and the traffic in Amritsar itself, it took us a while to get there. We parked up and headed off, me and Rhys being filtered into the foreigner queue to enter the border zone. Stupidly we didn’t think to take any ID and Rhys wasn’t carrying his wallet. They let me in on a soggy photocopy of my passport and Rhys somehow managed to get in using my drivers license. We took our seats and waited. 

As closing time drew near the music struck up on the Indian side and the women all clambered down to dance in the road, they looked like they were having a wail of a time. Officials handed girls huge Indian flags that they took turns to run to the Pakistani gate, it was like we’d stumbled upon a party rather than a border ceremony. The whole time, the Pakistani side was still and quiet, we could hear some music drifting over to us from their side but there was no dancing or flag running. 
Crowds on the Indian side of the Pakistani border.
When the ceremony finally started, there was a lot of shouting, drumming, marching and incredibly high leg kicks from both sides of the border. The show was choreographed by both sides together and they mirrored each others actions, considering the difficult relationship between the countries, it was nice to see them collaborating. The gates were opened, the guards performed some stamping and waggling trying to intimidate the other side before the flags were lowered and taken in for the night. Border closed. It was a bizarre sight and very drawn out but interesting to see and it might be the closest we ever get to visiting Pakistan.

Back at the car we had time for a chai before we were due to meet the driver and leave. 30 minutes later and we were still waiting, as they separate out all the men and women, one of the men in our car had managed to get himself lost. Finally he turned up and, tired, we headed back to Amritsar. 

As it was late and we had a stupidly early start the next day we grabbed sandwiches to eat in the room and quickly popped in to see the temple all lit up at night before bed.
The Golden Temple lit up at night, Amritsar.
The alarm went off at 3:45am and we rolled out of bed, dressed and finished packing to meet our 4am rickshaw to take us to the train station. We were booked on to a Shatabdi train again which is one of the nicer ones that serves breakfast and chai and biscuits. The journey took 6 hours before we arrived back in to Delhi. 

We’d spoken to a few people who had been badly conned on arrival in to Delhi and were half hopping someone would try it but instead we made it back to the hostel without any trouble. We checked in, dropped off our laundry and settled in for a nap. Leaving the room later than afternoon we finished up some shopping on Main Bazaar, sent yet another parcel home and ate Indian food in a roof top restaurant, far above the crazy streets below.

We made the most of our last lay in before Nepal and missed the free hostel breakfast. Instead, we stopped by a roof top cafe for chai before walking to the metro station. We jumped on a train south to visit Humayun’s Tomb. We’ve done so much sightseeing over the last month that another action packed day wasn’t that attractive so instead we decided to pick one site to visit, another Mughal Tomb. Built in the mid 16th century, the red sandstone tomb towers 30m over a small, peaceful park. Away from the crowds of Delhi’s streets, we wandered around visiting some smaller tombs in the grounds before turning to the main tomb, a wonderful display of early Mughal architecture in a style that was later refined and influenced the design of the Taj Mahal.
Humayun's Tomb, Delhi.
After the tomb we headed back to Pahar Ganj where we stopped to grab Rhys a sandwich before hiding from the heat in the room. Leaving Rhys to chill, I wandered out again later for a final tour of Main Bazaar, dodging the cows and the hawkers to buy some hippy PJ’s for our Everest trek. We ended up at the same roof top restaurant as the previous night for our final Indian feast. Food in India has been immense and even though i’m not vegetarian i’ve skipped meat for the majority of meals because the choice for vegetarian food has been amazing and delicious. 

We’ll be ready to leave India to have a break from the chaos and the noise but I can’t wait to come back one day. It’s an incredible country with so much to see, every corner hides something intriguing and colourful. We’ve managed a month without being conned (if you exclude the Pushkar Passport) and Rhys has only been ill once, all up, a success!