Touching the void..... well almost!

Trip Start Sep 08, 2009
Trip End Jul 28, 2010

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Where I stayed
In a tent in the mountains

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Monday, October 26, 2009

In our last blog we told you all about our time in Pokhara - it's a great place, and we'd love to return there one day (although we could say that about a lot of places we've been). Anyway, we were preparing to go on a three day trek into the foothills of the Himalayas...

We got up at 6am, put our bags in storage at the guest house, grabbed a couple of chocolate croissants from a nearby bakery for breakfast, and headed for Frontier Travel to get our jeep to the start of the trek.
We were amazed at how much stuff they were cramming onto the jeep, but I suppose they did have to feed us and provide shelter up the mountain for three days. And there we were with our tiny daypacks, stuffed to the brim with everything we thought we'd need - the guides looked at them and we could tell they were thinking we were underprepared! As far as I was concerned, we had everything we'd need, including a fleece and base layer, just in case it got cold (and we'd come to be very glad we'd brought them).
We were soon hurtling out of Pokhara, the jeep straining under the weight of all the gear, not to mention the half a dozen porters and guides who were hanging out of the back of the jeep. It did seem like a lot of people just to get us up a hill! Before long the jeep headed onto a stone track, which we followed for several miles, even fording a river at one stage. It was incredibly exciting, and we looked in awe at the jagged, snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas as we got ever closer.
There was only one other person on the trek - a lady in her 50s from Perth called Lauren. She'd stayed overnight in the area where the trek begins, so we met her there before heading into the hills. The trek itself has only recently been opened (all treks are officially controlled, and permits are required for foreigners wishing to go on them), and we were told that it would be far less packed than many of the more established treks. They weren't wrong - in the three days it took us to do the trek we never saw another tourist. Furthermore, we'd get the chance to camp out, rather than stay in tea houses, as is normal on other routes.
The trek starts at an altitude of 1,200 metres, and we were soon making our way across a rice field towards a forested slope which rose out of the ground at an alarmingly steep angle. And then we started to climb through the dense vegetation. It really was incredibly steep, steeper than anything I'd climbed before, and it wasn't long before we were puffing and panting - all those pints of Guinness and packets of pork scratchings at the pub quiz were taking their toll! The path itself was barely a path at all - just a little dirt track winding its way up through the steep jungle.
All the while the porters marched on ahead of us, the heavy baskets of equipment and provisions almost dwarving their wirey frames. It amazed us that they wore flip flops rather than proper walking shoes, but I don't think the porters earn enough money to be able to afford such luxuries. One of the old porters stopped at one stage, and he really looked like he was struggling. We felt pretty bad, but I think he had a bit of a hangover, which was why he was finding it tough going - later in the trek he proved to be one of the fastest of the bunch.
After a few hours of serious exertion we came to a clearing, and thankfully it was time to set up for lunch. The guides soon had cups of hot, sugary lemon tea for us, and not long after they were serving up salad sandwiches and chips! It seemed like an odd combination, but we were ravenous and wolfed them down.
Being the great outdoors, we knew that there might be a few unpleasant creatures to deal with, and we'd been told that we might encounter the odd leech, which filled us with dread. They're totally harmless, but there's something horribly insipid about the way they can crawl onto your skin and gorge themselves on your blood without being noticed. As we scoffed our sandwiches it wasn't long before we spotted one or two of the little buggers making their way towards us through the grass. Luckily we avoided getting bitten, although Lauren wasn't so lucky, one of the little blighters having managed to attach itself to her wrist, just under her watch. The guides quickly came to the rescue and whipped it off.
We continued our ascent, again through thick forest and jungle, and after another two or three hours we came to another clearing, which would be our camp for the night. It was only about 2:30pm, but the guides were keen set up camp early, particularly as it would get dark at 5:30pm. They made us tea and pitched our tents, before getting dinner on. In the meantime we kept an eye out for the dreaded leeches - there were a few on the prowl, but luckily none got further than our shoes. Jane even took to tucking her trousers into her socks and sprinkling salt over her shoes to prevent them getting on her legs. I have to say, it wasn't a particularly attractive look.
We chatted to Lauren while we waited for dinner, and she was good fun. She worked as a physiotherapist in Perth, and as we were heading for Perth as our first port of call in Australia, we said we'd look her up when we got there. Dinner soon appeared - they'd cooked up the local Nepalese staple of dhal baat - boiled rice and a few stewed vegetables, over which you pour a runny lentil broth. It tasted as good as it sounds, but it was filling, which was the most important thing. Pudding was a tin of pineapple rings!
We sat round the campfire for a while, but soon it was too dark to do anything, so we left the porters to it and headed to bed for the night (it was only 6:30pm, but there was nothing else to do). We crawled into our sleeping bags and spent an hour or so making notes, reading, and playing backgammon by the light of our head torches.
The morning came far too quickly, and I'd not slept well - I'd been a bit cold during the night, and camping mats never make for a comfortable bed. Thankfully the guides had tea and coffee on the go, and before long we were scoffing a hearty breakfast of porridge, eggs, fried potatoes and toast. Jane didn't fancy her porridge, so I devoured that too, along with most of the leftovers. All that exercise the day before had left me ravenous.
We'd ascended about 900 metres the day before, and today we'd ascend a further 1,100 metres to our second camp at about 3,250 metres - we knew it was going to be another tough day. And so it proved, the guides setting a fairly demanding pace. As we got higher, the views of the snow capped Himalayas improved, and we stood in awe at their splendour every time we stopped for a quick breather.
Even though the trek we were doing was incredibly remote, the mountains themselves did have the odd farmer who lived up on hillside during the warmer months to tend to their sheep and cattle. We stopped with one of the farmers to top up our water supply - he seemed to be staying in a little corrugated iron cattle shed, and I have a feeling that he just filled my water bottle from the Cattle trough. There were bits of leaves and other crud floating around in the water, and it didn't look too appealing, so it got heavy dose of iodine and purification tablets to render it drinkable.
As we headed up the mountain we were almost swept of our feet by an avalanche - a sheep avalanche, that is. Hundreds came flooding down the hill, and we had to stand behind bushes to avoid being swept away by the woolly torrent. It really was a sight to behold. The farmers followed the flock downhill, nodding to us as they passed. As we climbed we passed their camp - little more than a lean-to made from corrugated iron, a couple of empty pens, and a few whicker baskets with some contented looking lambs in them! Jane wanted to take one of the lambs with her, although she didn't make clear whether it was as a cuddly pet, or for chops!
As we got to about 2,700 metres it became cloudy, limiting the visibility a little, but not enough to trouble our climb. At around this time I began to feel the effects of the altitude - nothing serious, just a shortness of breath and a little light headedness - and it made the climb feel even more strained. It made me wonder how difficult it must be climbing the 8,000 metre peaks that dominated the landscape in front of us.
After a few hours we cleared the tree level, and stopped for a spot of lunch - biscuits, tins of tuna, hard boiled eggs, peanuts and bread. An odd combination, but perfect for topping up our depleted energy reserves. As we ate our lunch we looked at the final part of the climb - a menacing looking section of the mountain that loomed out of the mist above us. We were soon snaking our way up, and it was easily the steepest and most frightening section of our climb. All around us the sides of the mountain seemed to drop away into the mist below, and the prospect of loosing my footing and bouncing down the side of the mountain to a remote valley below filled me with dread. Still, there was no option but to keep plodding on towards our camp for the night, and after an hour or so it was with a great sense of relief that we made it to the top.
The guides pitched our tents on the hillside and got some tea on the go, then set about preparing yet more dhal baat for dinner. We stood and admired the view for quite a while, and took plenty of snaps before settling down by the camp fire to eat. Before long it was dark, and the temperature began to drop. We donned pretty much all our clothes - base layer, fleece, cagoule etc - and sat by the campfire to keep warm. At 6:30pm we decided to turn in for the night, so we headed for our tent. The outside of it was covered in frost, and we had a feeling we were in for a cold night. We climbed into our sleeping bags fully clothed, and shivered uncontrollably for ten minutes while we tried to warm up. It was too early to sleep, so yet again we played backgammon by torchlight, but this time it was so cold we had only our faces and one hand poking out from the sleeping bag. Before long we decided to give up the backgammon as a bad job, and try to get some sleep.
I woke at dawn, although I'd hardly slept all night - I'd been far to cold, and spent half the night just shivering in my sleeping bag, waiting for morning to come. I still had all my clothes on, so I pulled on my walking shoes and headed out into the cold morning air. The views that greeted me were stunning - the snow-capped mountains were bathed in morning sunlight, the skies were a striking blue, and below us in the valleys lay a thick blanket of cloud. It was as though we were in a different world, the thick cloud separating us from civilisation 2,000 metres below. I quickly took a few snaps, and tried to wake Jane, who looked like she'd slept as little as I had. I headed back out to take in the views, and before long Jane surfaced. The guides were soon serving up breakfast, and I scoffed as much as I could, knowing that I'd need all the energy I could get for the climb down - ordinarily the descent is made over two days, but we were going to do the whole 2,000 metres in one day.
Lauren was continuing to trek for another two or three days, so we said our goodbyes, and headed off back down the way we came with one of the guides and a couple of porters in tow. As we left camp, I kept stopping and looking back at the spectacular peaks, and I understood why mountaineers want to climb. There's something about them that just seems to draw you towards them, and I'd love to have kept climbing. Alas, it wasn't to be on this occasion, so I took one last look and headed down the mountain.
We made our way down the initial difficult section, and although the mountain still fell way steeply on either side of us, this time the improved visibility meant we could see below, and it made the route a little easier than it had been the previous afternoon.
We kept going at a pace that was on the wrong side of brisk, but it would take us a good six or seven hours to get down, and our guide didn't want to hang around. So we kept going, stopping only occassionally to drink some water or eat some of the wild raspberries that grow on the mountain.
The descent seemed to go on forever, and my legs began to ache, my knees started to hurt, and I could feel blisters rising on my feet. There's something about going downhill that makes it far more difficult than actually climbing, and after a few hours I was ready to collapse. We eventually made it out of the forest and into some paddy fields, then passed through a tiny village, much to the amusement of a group of young girls who'd been playing in the narrow cobbled streets. They followed us through the village, then stood at a viewpoint at the edge of the village and waved to us until we were out of view.
The last section of the walk was a never ending set of zig-zagging steps which had been cut into the side of a cliff face. The steps were much bigger than normal steps, which made them even more difficult for tired legs, and by this stage I was walking at the same pace as an average 90 year old. Thankfully we soon reached our pick up point, grabbed a drink and some chocolate from the small shop there, and ate the rest of our provisions (a tin of tuna and some biscuits). Before long a taxi appeared and took us back to Pokhara.
First priority back at the guest house was to get a much-needed shower - washing faciltities were rather lacking up in the hills - and then head out for dinner. We were torn between having steak or Chinese, but in the end the Chinese won. The meal we'd had a few nights previously had been so good that we ordered exactly the same dishes, and they were just as good second time round. As were the well deserved beers that we couldn't resist in All that Jazz - it was our last night in Pokhara after all, and it seemed a shame not to make a night of it!
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