Leaving Nepal

So the time had come for us to move on from Nepal. It’s fair to say this conjured mixed emotions for us both. On the one hand we had the most amazing time in what is a truly wonderful country – on the other we witnessed horrible suffering at the hands of the massive earthquake that ended up killing almost 8,000 people.

We had been told that both domestic and international flights were operating so we set off from The 3 Sisters Guesthouse (our home for almost 2 weeks – massive thanks to all there who made us so welcome) and headed for Pokhara airport. Immediately we saw half a dozen Nepali and Indian helicopters busy taking aid packages to some of the remote villages between Pokhara and Kathmandu.

We eventually took off for Kathmandu really not knowing what to expect when we got there. The flight took us over the glorious mountains but really we were looking around for signs of the devastation having been relatively sheltered from it all in Pokhara. Arriving into the Capital we were almost surprised that from the air things looked almost ‘normal’. The situation on the ground was anything but. Kathmandu airport was chaos – every inch of space was filled with travellers, embassy officials, news crews and relief workers – the runways were jammed up with aircraft from at least half a dozen nations and the mood of the place was understandably sombre.

Two faces among the crowds stood out – our gorgeous Australian friend Renee and her fiancée Ben had been hiking back from Everest Base Camp when the earthquake hit and had thankfully made it back to Kathmandu after being helicoptered off the mountain. Seeing them was so special and a real lift at a difficult time for everybody. We only had precious few minutes with them (they managed to get an Australian airforce flight out to Bangkok) but seeing them, knowing they were ok and congratulating them on their engagement was magical.

Jess and I were meant to have an early flight out to Doha the following morning, but on arriving at the desk we saw it had been cancelled. The advice was to stay in the airport and not risk going to a hotel – but seeing people sprawled out in every corner of the airport and knowing we would have to stay for almost 24 hours, we decided to chance our luck and see if we could get away earlier. Qatar airways were brilliant and put us on an earlier flight. They said a night in Doha airport was likely to be better than a night in Kathmandu. As it turned out they were very right as the airline kindly put Jess and I up in a hotel for the night.

It felt very strange taking off from Kathmandu – relief at being safe, guilt at leaving a country on it’s knees. Jess did a lot of good work in Pokhara doing pieces for the BBC and helping to ensure people at home knew about the devastation and what they could do to help – especially for some of the more remote villages which suffered horrendously but weren’t getting the aid they needed due to accessibility issues and a lack of resources. We donated of course but ultimately we felt a bit redundant without medical/search and rescue skills. I don’t think either of us said much for the first few hours of the flight.

We’ll remember our time in Nepal for the rest of our lives but not really because of the earthquake (as strange as that sounds). We’ll remember amazing, hospitable, humble and resilient people, beautiful scenery, precious time spent with family and chance meetings with friends from down under. I don’t think the people of Nepal would want it any other way.

More soon.
R&J xxx

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Earthquake

The last few days have been very sad and very surreal. We’ve been travelling around Nepal for nearly a month, meeting many of the amazing local people and climbing some of the highest peaks. Nothing prepares you for an earthquake.

We were very fortunately in the best place – out in the open. After our climb to Annapurna Base Camp (which we will write about another time) we headed back to Nepal’s second-largest City, Pokhara for some R&R. We were very lucky that we had booked to go on a white water rafting trip which left Pokhara on Saturday morning.

We were just about to get into our raft on the Kali Gandaki river when the 7.8 quake struck. We were about 100-150km from the epicentre, about 3 hours north of Pokhara at the time. It felt completely surreal. The ground – which a minute before had been rock solid – felt like it had turned to jelly. Vehicles nearby were shaking from side to side and we saw lots of rocks falling from the cliffs down to the waters edge. I can honestly say it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

We felt an aftershock at our lunch spot, but it was only when we got to our camp for the night that we turned on our mobile phones and received worried messages from our families – that’s when we realised how bad it was.

The next day we went past several funerals being held on the riverbank (in Nepal they traditionally cremate the bodies of their dead next to the river) and that was a very sobering site.

We are definitely not in the worst-affected area so we haven’t witnessed that much damage. But almost everyone we’ve met knows someone who’s been affected. One of our guides on our rafting trip said his whole village – not far from Pokhara – had been completely destroyed. A young woman who works at the hotel where we’re staying in Pokhara is originally from the historic city of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley. Her family are ok but her home has been completely flattened.

Our thoughts are now with those who have died and the huge challenge the rescue teams face. Obviously Kathmandu has been badly affected, but some of the worst hit areas are actually remote mountainous villages, which rescue teams haven’t even reached yet. In many cases even helicopters can’t land. There are reports from a senior official in the Gorkha district, which was at the earthquake’s epicentre, that 70% of houses there have been destroyed.

Here in Pokhara, which hasn’t been badly affected, many people are choosing to camp outside instead of sleep in their homes or hotels. We did stay in our hotel last night, but I have to confess I didn’t get much sleep and I felt another tremor early this morning. Apparently it was 4.5 on the Richter Scale and it was worst felt near Kathmandu. I expect many people will be sleeping outside again tonight.

Since we got back to Pokhara, we’ve been reading every article we can get our hands on to find out the latest information. The United Nations estimates 8 million people have been affected. The latest figures show at least 4,400 people have died and more than 8,000 have been injured. But, officials are warning those numbers may rise dramatically as rescue teams reach some of the more remote mountainous regions, where it’s feared whole villages may have been buried in rockfalls.

As you can imagine it’s pretty devastating and there is a very sombre atmosphere in Pokhara. Rob & I are trying to work out the best way to help but as yet the rescue efforts seem very uncoordinated.

Thank you so much for all your kind messages. We will keep you posted.

The ABC

After our week of ‘training’ with Jude & Simon, Rob & I were keen to do a longer trek. Along with Mum & Harry we took a travel-sick inducing minibus to Pokhara and stayed at The 3 Sisters Guesthouse. It’s owned and run by Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chhetri, who are also pioneers in providing female trekking guides in the Himalayas. It’s a simple but very homely place and we ended up staying there on and off for about two weeks. Mum & Harry had a couple of days of their trip left so we explored the local highlights; hiking up to see the Peace Pagoda overlooking the lake and heading up to the little village of Sarangkot for sunrise, to see the incredible view of the Annapurna mountains. We waved Mum & Harry goodbye as they drove away to the airport in a typically tiny Nepali taxi. Rob and I were going to have to rely on each other’s company again…..;)

But we didn’t have time to dwell on their departure; the next day, we began our long hike to Annapurna Base Camp….!

Day 1: Phedi to Landruk (6 hours)
– there’s no easy start; the trail climbs steeply from Phedi to Dhampus, then up through forest to Pothana.
– we missed the views promised on the map as we climbed up to Pittam Deurali then down through Bhedi Kharka and Tolka, because the mist came down and it rained!
– stayed in Maya Guesthouse in the Gurung village of Landruk (1565m) where we were the only customers!
– spent the evening being tormented by the owner’s young daughter who kept showing off while we were eating; dancing on tables, etc – not very relaxing!

Day 2: Landruk to Chomrong (4 hours)
– set off before 7am and walked down to the river past grazing cows and jumping goats.
– crossed over the fast-flowing water on a very long, extremely rickety wooden bridge, before going through the hamlet of New Bridge.
– climbed steeply up to Jhinu, then up even higher to Chomrong (2140m) where we got a room at the International Guest House.
– met an Aussie lady called Judy who managed to scare us into thinking we weren’t prepared for the higher altitude!

Day 3: Chomrong to Dovan (5 hours)
– neither of us felt very well so it was a difficult and slow climb down to another river and then back up to Sinuwa.
– walked through a Bamboo forest to get to a village called Bamboo!
– we were made to feel stupid here by several guides who said it was really busy further up the trail (with one group of 44 people) and we should’ve booked a guide (!) to ensure we had a place to stay…!
– despite that we managed to get a room at the Tip Top Guesthouse in Dovan (2505m) which was good because it rained all afternoon.
– the staff insisted on showing WWF Wrestling on an ancient TV all evening!

Day 4: Dovan to Machapuchre Base Camp (5 hours)
– both woke up feeling horrendous but decided to get a bit further up the trail, especially as it was good weather.
– whizzed through the village of Himalaya, spotting monkeys en route and then surprisingly arrived at Deurali about an hour ahead of schedule (it was 10am).
– we bumped into a group of Malaysian doctors who we’d met the day before (Ana, Ana, May, Sheila & Puven) and decided to carry on to Machapuchre Base Camp, or MBC (3700m).
– after navigating some avalanche-prone gullies, we made it to MBC before the afternoon rain set in and stayed in the Ganga Purna Hotel.
– met a lovely Canadian girl called Hye-Yeon (originally from Korea) who gave us some antibiotics for our upset stomachs – the perfect traveller gift!

Day 5: Machapuchre Base Camp to Annapurna Base Camp – then back to Dovan! (6.5 hours)
– the big day had arrived; we set the alarm for 4.45am and set off for Annapurna Base Camp, known as ABC (joined by Hye-Yeon and two Swiss girls called Jasmine and Manwella).
– it was dark when we left but you could just see the shadow of the huge mountains surrounding us. The climb wasn’t that steep but difficult under foot; we mostly trekked on snow and ice.
– about halfway up we met a large group of male and female porters coming down – one was wearing flip-flops so we couldn’t really complain!
– reached ABC (4,130m) at 6.45am and just in time to see a stunning view as the sun rose over Machapuchre (also known as the Fish Tail Mountain).
– we were surrounded by these incredible peaks with a natural amphitheatre (carved out of the rock by a glacier) below. Annapurna South and Annapurna 1 made a very brief appearance through the high clouds before the mist crept quickly up the valley. Within five minutes we found ourselves in a whiteout! But we’d seen what we came for, and we slipped and slid our way back down to MBC for a welcome bowl of porridge feeling on top of the world 🙂
– the adrenalin helped us to trek on down the trail and we arrived at Dovan again by early afternoon, not quite escaping the rain…!

Day 6: Dovan to Ghurjung (6 hours)
– around the communal breakfast table, one Nepali guy insisted on telling us about every person who’d died doing the ABC trek. I’m extremely glad we didn’t meet him on the way up!
– unscathed, we set off with Hye-Yeon to Bamboo, then down through Sinuwa, before climbing up the very steep and long flight of stone steps to Chomrong.
– we’d been dreaming about a so called ‘German Bakery’ there which sold real coffee, so that’s what we had as our hill-climb reward (along with a rather stodgy chocolate danish).
– said our goodbyes to our Canadian friend (what is it with us and Canadians?!) and turned right to Ghurjung, getting to the Green View Lodge in time for a late lunch.

Day 7: Ghurjung to Ghorepani (7 hours)
– we thought we’d done the hard bit but this was the most difficult day by far as we climbed up for about 6 hours!
– after about 2.5 hours we reached Tadapani and were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the mountains we’d been so close to a couple of days before.
– I had a bit of a sense of humour failure when the map proved to be inaccurate…!
– after going down and up through yet another valley we reached a seemingly never ending hill; up and up following a river and then along a ridge. Rob threw his poles out of the pram (!) but we eventually made it to the top and spotted Ghorepani ahead.
– collapsed thankfully with a welcome Dhal Bat at the Snowland Lodge.

Day 8: Ghorepani up to Poon Hill then down to Nayapul (6.5 hours)

– our ‘good nights sleep’ didn’t happen – mainly due to paper thin walls and a very noisy family!
– got up at 4am and walked up to Poon Hill (a local lookout point) to see the sunrise over the Annapurna region. Luckily the view was worth it, and we were down again in time for breakfast.
– we’d squeezed what could’ve been about four days into two and by this stage we were running on adrenalin and mars bars.
– it was 95% downhill today, which was a good contrast after the previous day, but our knees were not best pleased! We sped down the mountain trail and by the time we reached Nayapul we were fairly euphoric.
– really fancied a good meal to celebrate but after waiting an hour for food at one place, we gave up and settled for some dusty crisps and a bottle of fanta to share!
– it was heaven to arrive back at The 3 Sisters Guesthouse in Pokhara; have a shower, eat a pizza and drink a beer!

I’m not going to lie – the trek was tougher than we both thought. But the challenge was worth it. There’s something very satisfying about completing an extended hike to the base camp of a proper mountain – following in the footsteps of so many adventurers and pioneers. I think this may be just the start of our ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ phase (to quote the legendary Tina Turner…!) 🙂

J&R xxx

The Hills

The time had come to move on from crocodile farms and charging rhinos, and head to see Jess’ Aunt and Uncle, who are currently living and working in Nepal.

We had another fairly spine altering journey to a place called Besisahar where Simon and Judith Hill are based. They are nine months into a two year VSO project – Jude working with young girls to try and get them to stay in school and Simon working with farmers trying to improve their practices and productivity.

Besisahar is a little off the tourist trail – it’s really only trekkers you see if at all (in fact I think we saw two other westerners all week). Jude and Simon live in a nice flat with a temple on the roof (all the rage in Nepal) and welcomed us with open arms into their home.

What we didn’t know when we arrived was that they had drawn up a gruelling schedule for our visit – mostly consisting of long walks, local cuisine and competitive evening games. Before we knew it we were being whisked off to a tea party with Jude’s colleagues and getting an early night to ready ourselves for Trek 1.

I’m pretty sure Trek 1 was described at one point as being an ‘easy one to get you started’. Not a word of it. Jude marched us up over the hills to one of the schools she works with, before making sure we ate our body weight in dal bhat (Nepali staple that includes rice, dal, greens and potato curry) and marching us down again. A puny 7 hour trek to get us started 🙂 The trek was of course amazing: incredible mountain vistas, traditional Nepali villages and a running commentary on everything we saw.

Out for the count by about 7pm, we woke the following morning thinking today would have to be a little easier. However, Simon returned from Kathmandu the previous evening and had a glint in his eye that could only mean one thing – more walking.

Trek 2 took us over the nearby river and up through various gorgeous Nepali villages. We stopped at one home in particular that Simon and Jude knew from buying some blankets from there before. The ladies in this small village are weavers and damn fine ones at that. They are also incredibly welcoming and funny. We sat with them for a couple of hours drinking tea and watching them work. They even managed to recruit Jess to do some weaving with them. I don’t speak Nepalese (and thankfully neither does Jess) but I’m pretty sure they were telling Jess to ditch her odd looking husband and come and work for them…. We had another magnificent dal bhat at the top of the next village then walked down via yet more fantastic scenery – some monkeys even dropped in to say hi and we met one of Jude’s ‘Little Sisters’ – girls helping to spread the word that girls dropping out of school is not ok.

That night we sat down to play some ‘games’. Scrabble wasn’t doing it for us so we decided to spice things up by playing the name game. This wasn’t a game Simon and Jude were familiar with but suffice to say that by the end of the week they were hooked – tears, laughter, screams and all.

Trek 3 involved a castle, stolen pigeons, an orange grove, more dal bhat, bubbly Nepalese women, Harry and I adopting 2 goats and a spectacular walk back down to Besisahar – it had it all. I won’t even attempt to explain all of the above but a specific mention must go to the Nepalese women who were just brilliant – they, like everyone we met on our walks, were nothing but genuine, fun, warm and desperate to ask us as many questions as possible (thankfully Simon and Jude speak really very good Nepali). For Jess, Fiona, Harry and I to be able to get out and meet these people was special and only made possible through Simon and Jude’s life out there.

Exhausted from the previous evening’s name game battle, Simon and Jude took it easy on us for trek 4. A mere four hours. We bussed it down the valley and walked back to Besisahar on the opposite side of the river. This was made particularly brilliant as we got to see Simon at work. Much of what he has to do to get his message across to Nepalese farmers is to go to their farms and explain as simply as he can that by changing some age old practices they could exponentially increase their milk yield. We watched on as he showed a local farmer (by drawing him a graph) how he could do things differently when it came to his cow/buffalo – the farmer was ready to appoint Simon Prime Minister by the end. Amazing to see. That afternoon involved some retail therapy for Fiona back in Besisahar followed by our final evening meal and the name game decider (let’s just say the best team won).

Our time with Simon and Jude was so special for all sorts of reasons. Jess, Fiona, Harry and I want to thank them for hosting us and we all think that what you’re doing is amazing. We can’t wait to see you back in the UK in July.

Love to all,

R&J xxxx

Crocodiles, elephants & a charging rhino

We left the high-tech, spotless and highly efficient Japan and headed for Nepal. Our long-winded journey involved going from Tokyo to Abu Dhabi airport (where we sat on the runway for about 2 hours) and then back to Kathmandu (which was about twice as far as we needed to go)! But it didn’t matter because we were meeting my Mum and youngest brother Harry 🙂

Kathmandu is an assault on the senses; it’s noisy, busy and has a lot of interesting smells. The drive from the airport to The Kantipur Hotel was pretty hairy. Cars, buses, motorbikes, cyclists, pedestrians and cows all vie for space on the narrow dusty roads and there is a wilful abandon of road safety. But eventually we arrived at the hotel, run by the infamous Dr Shakia. He’s a friend of Rob’s brother-in-law, John and seems to be a bit of a local celebrity. He’d already given Mum & Harry the grand tour of the city and they in turn showed us around the local area. It was so great to see them! We hadn’t really spent long periods of time with other people in Japan – partly due to the places we stayed – and it was lovely to see some familiar faces.

Mum & Harry had just under two weeks in Nepal, so to try and cram in as much as possible, we boarded a bus to Chitwan National Park the following morning. Six hours later, with matching bruises on our lower backs and sweat pouring off us, we hopped out at Chitwan and into an open-top jeep which took us to the Rainbow Safari Lodge. We had no idea what to expect, but we’d been told you can see all sorts of animals if you’re lucky. They gave us lunch and then we headed straight out on a nature walk. This also took in the government’s elephant patrol centre. The huge animals are mainly used to frighten off poachers. They’re all male elephants with massive tusks and our guide, Roshan proceeded to point out the one that had killed six people and another elephant recently. We kept our distance. Further down the trail (and very near several cafes and lots of people) there was a crocodile casually lying on the bank. In the water, another lay still with just its nostrils visible – lying in wait for an unexpected tourist. “Don’t worry” we were told, “only one or two people a year get eaten”….! A beer watching the sunset soon chilled us out. Later that evening, we piled into the jeep again and were whisked away to a cultural evening of dancing and music. It was great to see the traditional moves and we even got on stage at the end to join in! But the highlight was when a man dressed up and performed a peacock dance; hysterically funny and also very realistic!

At the crack of dawn we had breakfast and then all got into a very dangerous looking canoe. They’re hollowed out from huge trees and they look beautiful. However, they sit very low in the (crocodile infested) river, so you constantly feel like a giant mouth full of razor sharp teeth is going to leap out of the shallows and drag you into the water. Despite the threat of crocodiles, it was absolutely stunning paddling downstream and watching the wildlife. The tranquil illusion was once again shattered though when we got out the canoe to find a massive croc sitting on the bank. I am pleased to say we escaped with all our limbs.

The packed day also included going to an elephant breeding centre, where we saw some gorgeous babies. They’re currently trying to extend a project where more of the elephants can wander around freely instead of being tethered. I highly approve. In the afternoon we crossed the river in another canoe (!) before getting in a pretty smart-looking jeep and heading for the more remote areas of the park. There are deer hiding in every bit of undergrowth, peacocks perched on the trees and within half an hour we’d already seen a wild rhino bathing in a pool. That was exciting enough, but a bit further on we spotted another rhino behind some scrub. Just at that moment, a patrol elephant being ridden by his trainer walked past, startling the rhino. In a split second we were in its path and two tonnes of rhino was bearing down on us! Our jeep driver jumped in to start the engine and at the last minute the rhino swerved and careered off through the bushes. That’s an experience we’ll never forget!

The lodge packed in the activities and the next morning after breakfast we rode an elephant! They are amazing creatures and up close don’t really seem real. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about riding elephants but I think you should try everything once. Our elephant was just about the biggest of the lot. You get on by climbing some wooden stairs and stepping onto her (all the tourist elephants are female) back. The four of us sat in a little wooden box (!) and it felt like we were miles in the air. I have to say the ride wasn’t very comfortable, but it was an amazing experience. Our first safari experience was pretty action packed and we were very pleased we could share it with Mum & Harry. We then got on another bone-shaking bus and headed north to stay with some long lost relatives 🙂

J & R xxx