Langtang and Gosainkund Trekking, part two

This piece continues on from part one, the first week of the Langtang Trek.

While writing this, it also occurred to me that I left out an important detail from my post from Darjeeling: on the jeep ride back to Darjeeling from the Singalila Ridge Trek, I saw a red panda! The driver spotted it by the side of the road, stopped the car, and everyone quickly got out to have a look at it. Absolutely beautiful animals. I didn’t realise quite how rare it was to encounter one until someone else’s trekking guide mentioned over dinner one night that even the locals might only see one every few years.

Day Eight: Wednesday 16/5

Thulo Syabru (2250m) – Sing Gompa (3250m)

I set off with the intention of reaching Laurebina, 2-3 hours past Sing Gompa, but soon discovered that I was very tired and hurt, well, everywhere: knees, shoulders and feet at any rate. The trail was ridiculously steep heading out of Thulo Syabru and continued that way for most of the rest of the day. For most of the day, I was walking through pine forests. Wonderful forest smells!

On arrival at Sing Gompa, I decided to try a seabuckthorn juice, which I’d seen on menus of a number of places in the mountains, but had no idea what it was like or even what a seabuckthorn was. But hey, I’d tried and enjoyed yak curd the day before, so how bad could it? It was okay. Sweet but also slightly tart, like lemon or grapefruit.

I also met Jezza and Izzy, a couple from Queensland. That’s Jeremy and Isobel for those who don’t speak Australian. It felt almost like being home to be hanging out with Aussies again, and I ended up trekking with them the next day.

4 hours walking, 2 hours resting.

Day Nine: Thursday 17/5

Sing Gompa (3250m) – Gosainkund (4380m)

Another steep, up-hill kind of day. Walked with Jezza and Izzy up to Gosainkund, through and out of the pine forests and above the tree line where the mountains are rugged and not much grows. As we looked around we could see far-off mountain peaks, Ganesh Himal and the Langtang. Up up up! Eventually we could see Gosainkund lake and the town just above it. About half an hour from Gosainkund, Jeremy started to feel a bit dizzy from the elevation. He was a tough Aussie bloke so didn’t say anything, just dropped to the back of the group and fell progressively further behind until either Isobel or I looked back, realised and waited for him. In the end, he made it there okay and was feeling better the next morning.

On the way up, I bought a slightly ridiculous-looking woolen Nepali hat. It cost less than my lunch and successfully kept my ears warm. Maybe it’ll be handy in Melbourne, too.

Gosainkund is a town set on the shore of a lake – “kund” meaning “lake” – and there are a number of other lakes adjacent to it. It’s a holy site in Hindu mythology, for reasons which I can’t recall exactly, and this trek is a fairly common pilgrimage route. It’s also beautiful. In the evening, around sunset, clouds started to roll in over the lake. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera on me when I noticed this, and was feeling too lazy to go and get it; I would have had to leave my warm seat by the fire and go back to my freezing cold room. In the morning, it was still and clear, and there were absolutely beautiful reflections of the mountains on the lake. Apparently the lake had only just thawed, and a month or so ago you could walk across it!

5 hours walking, 2 hours resting.

Day Ten: Friday 18/5

Gosainkund (4380m) – Laurebina Pass (4610m) – Ghopte (3430m) – Tharepati (3690m)

Said goodbye to the Queenslanders in the morning. They turned back to return the way they came from, while I continued south to do the Helambu trek, which takes a day longer. Lots of ups and downs today. When I got to the top of Laurebina Pass, the highest point in my fortnight’s trekking, I found a group of Israelis stopped for breakfast. They offered me a cup of coffee (real freshly-brewed Israeli coffee, not instant!) and we stayed chatting for a while. From there, it was downhill to Phedi, and trees started reappearing again. After there, it got quite foggy and started drizzling, so I don’t have many photos for the rest of the afternoon. After Phedi, it looked mostly flat or downhill on my map, but once again the countours deceived me. The trail kept going up and down and up and down, usually at an unpleasantly steep gradient regardless of direction.

When I arrived at Tharepati, the sky was a little bit clearer, with wonderful forest and mountain scenery. But shortly afterwards, distant sounds of thunder and storm clouds obscuring the far-off peaks again. The next morning, the skies were clear and blue again, and the view was spectacular.

6.5 hours walking, 1.5 hours resting.

Day Eleven: Saturday 19/5

Tharepati (3690m) to Patichaur (approx 1000m)

Early – well, 7am – start now, hoping to get to Chisapani by the end of the day, and Kathmandu by the day after. Once again, descending through mountainous terrain to sparse forests, and hit the town of Gul Bhanjyang where I saw a vehicle track for the first time in ten days or so. I found myself a little bit off the trail on my way there, and didn’t end up going into the town itself. Instead I found myself on a rough jeep track going in the direction I was hoping for, and which a local assured me was the path to the next town.

I still don’t know if that initial path was the correct one or not. What I do know is that, as I wound my way around and down the hill, I stopped passing the places that were in my map, and started seeing vehicles for the first time since Syabrubesi: two motorbikes, a jeep and a bus. It seemed increasingly likely that I wasn’t on the right road, but I figured that since I was going down, I would eventually hit civilisation and be able to get a bus back to Kathmandu. I started seeing people working on fields by the side of the road; it may still be hilly countryside, but things grow here unlike where I’d been previously. One small boy yelled out “Hello! Give me money!” from the front of his house as I walked past. The trappings of Tibetan Buddhism – bright colours, prayer flags, prayer wheels – had given way to those of Hinduism. People looked more like Indians and the women had red tikas painted on their forehead.

After a few hours, I hit a river, a major (but still unsealed) road, and a small village that didn’t look particularly set up for tourists. I found a small shop that also advertised rooms being available, and ended up staying in what looked suspiciously like a child’s bedroom. I took out my map and the shopkeeper, who spoke fairly good English, pointed to the town of Mahankal. “Mahankal, that’s where we are!” A while later, it was clarified that Mahankal was the “big smoke” and we were in Patichaur, a few kilometres south. I asked if it was possible to get a bus or a taxi to Kathmandu tomorrow, and it turned out it wasn’t. There was a Nepal-wide transport strike, and there was no way to quickly get from anywhere to anywhere else.

It felt strange to be back in a place connected to the outside world by roads and hooked up to the electricity grid. I was reminded of the section of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where they reach the west coast, having come from the mountains of Montana, and the people are described as busy, distracted, absorbed in their own thing, miserable on the morning commute. Obviously it’s not exactly like that in Nepal, but it’s still a different world from the isolation and quiet of the Himalayas.

Instead, I made plans to rejoin the trekking route. From Gul Bhanjyang where I got lost, I’d come south-east when I’d been planning to head almost due south. If I went south to the next village, half an hours’ walk away, I could take another track heading west and eventually end up on the Helambu Trek again, at roughly where I’d been intending to get to today.

6.5 hours walking, 2 hours resting.

Day Twelve: Sunday 20/5

Patichaur (1000m) to Pati Bhanjyang (1830m)

Today, my mind was focused purely on the destination, but the universe conspired to keep me occupied with the journey. I set off at 6:40am from Patichaur for the town of Talamarang where the trail that took me back to the Helambu Trek began. After what felt like an interminable 2.5 hours of steep uphill climbing, I arrived at the village of Batase (pronounced “Battersea”, like the suburb of London). Near the top of the hill, or so I thought. As I arrived, a local guy offered to take me to his friend’s tea shop, which appeared to also serve as the school canteen: it was adjacent to the local school and a number of kids were buying drinks and sweets there. I had some tea and biscuits, and was offered a Nepali bride if I wanted one. I politely declined.

The next town was Thakani, where I’d hoped to stop for lunch. When I arrived, I asked an old man sitting outside his house if there was a tea house in the village. He said yes and pointed down one of the several trails heading out of town. After walking along the path for a while, no tea shop was evident. But it seemed to be going west, roughly the direction I wanted to be going in, so I kept at it. I was told at Batase that the path would be flat from Thakani onwards, but this path was definitely steep, alternating between going up and going down. This should have started ringing alarm bells in my head. Eventually I reached some farms, asked for directions, and they pointed me back the other way and along a minor side track. This process repeated itself a few times, and four hours later – three times longer than I was expecting it to take – I arrived at Pati Bhangjyang, back on the Helambu Trek again.

So, having managed to un-lose myself, I had a cup of tea, found a place to sleep, and ate a giant dinner. Once again, I’m in a town that’s joined by road to the outside world. It was so much nicer when I could stop moving and not be able to hear any human-related noises at all. But apart from that, everything is okay again, and – I promised myself – I’ll be in Kathmandu tomorrow afternoon.

7 hours walking, 2 hours resting.

Day Thirteen: Monday 21/5

Pati Bhanjyang (1830m) – Sundarijal (1460m) – Kathmandu (1400m)

Last day! Should be an easy one. There are three towns marked on the map between Pati Bhanjyang and Sundarijal, although one of them turned out to be just a bunch of prayer flags on top of a hill. At Sundarijal, there’s a big sealed road again, and it’s supposedly possible to get a taxi or a bus the rest of the way Kathmandu. Powered by tea and Snickers bars, I made it to Sundarijal in time a for a nice lunch of vegie chowmein. It cost about a quarter of what it would have up in the mountains.

4.5 hours walking, 1.5 hours resting.

As I was eating my lunch, I heard some disastrous news: the transport strike was still happening. It wasn’t possible to get to Kathmandu by any kind of motorised transport, no matter how much I was willing to pay, because a “strike” in Nepal means big mobs with a “we will tell your passengers to get out and then set fire to your vehicle” kind of attitude. Fortunately, it was only 18km to Kathmandu, and I was told it was an easy three-hour walk. I was tired, my legs didn’t want to move, and my feet were covered in blisters from walking for too many hours along steep paths for the last few days. But there was nothing else I could do, so I rested for a while in Sundarijal, and then pointed my legs south-west to Kathmandu.

After two hours of walking, I’d reached Bouddha. The blisters were getting worse. I was limping and every step was painful. I sat down for a rest, and then spotted some cycle rickshaws. The one mode of transport available to me that wasn’t powered by my own legs! I asked a driver if he could take me to Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. He could. I was saved. Along the way, we gave free lifts to a couple of Nepalis. One hour later, just as we were approaching Thamel, there was a snapping sound, and the rickshaw slowed to a halt. The chain had broken. I got out, paid the driver 50% more than the agreed price out of pity, and hobbled into town. The adventure was over, and having arrived in Thamel, I could get what I wanted more than anything else in the world: some hash. No, wait, wrong ending. I mean: a hot shower and a comfotable bed.

Advertisements

Langtang and Gosainkund Trekking, part one

I recently spent two weeks hiking in the Langtang and Gosainkund regions. The route I took was a fairly common one: from Syabrubesi east to Gyanjin Gompa, a couple of days there doing day trips to try to see nearby glaciers, then back the way I came until the road forked and I headed south to Gosainkund and then along the Helambu trek to Sundarijal, just outside Kathmandu.

Day One: Wednesday 9/5

Kathmandu (1400 m) – Syabrubesi (1960 m) by bus

Woke up at 5am after not very much sleep, feeling a bit sorry for myself. Made it to the bus station in time for the bus ride of doom, which took ten hours to cover 120 km. Apparently the road now is in much better shape than it used to be, too. I’d hate to think what it was like previously. We were stationary for a couple of hours due to a broken down truck or bus in front of us, and later on had to stop to change a flat tyre. Despite these minor problems, we got there alive.

The highlight of the trip was definitely the half hour I spent riding on the bus roof with a dozen Nepalis, two chickens, and everybody else’s luggage. Fantastic views, no motion sickness, just a faint fear that – since I hadn’t managed to get myself comfortably wedged between the luggage on the roof racks before the bus started moving – I might fall off if I didn’t cling on to the bars for dear life.

Between the passengers on the seats, the passengers occupying the aisle of the bus, and the passengers on the roof, the bus seemed to be carrying 60-80 people at one point. By the end of the steep, windy route to Syabrubesi, the aisle of the bus was sticky was vomit. Some people were evidently not as lucky as I was at keeping their motion sickness under control.

From my very basic hotel room in Syabrubesi, I could see and hear the river that the Langtang Trek follows for most of its route, and just about make out where the road ended and the hiking trail began.

Day Two: Thursday 10/5

Syabrubesi (1960 m) – Lama Hotel (2340 m)

I slept in and was eventually on the move by 9:20. After getting slightly lost leaving Syabrubesi and then walked briskly uphill for what seemed like forever. The trail followed the river, first on one side and then the other, usually through forested areas. This trek has the most frequent and civilised teahouses of anywhere I’ve gone hiking – perhaps even more regularly spaced than you’ll find villages with pubs in England. Food is very expensive, as you might expect when very little grows here and everything has to be carried up by porters. Highlights of the day: seeing a group of mountain goats, getting stung by a nettle and rained on in the afternoon. As on most nights trekking, my dinner ended up being dahl bhat, the usual Nepali meal of all-you-can-eat rice, dahl and curry. The lodge I stayed at also advertised “German-style apple pie” which turned out to be very tasty indeed.

I realised later that after my first day’s walk, I was now higher than the highest mountain in Australia.

4.5 hours walking, 1.5 hours eating and resting.

Day Three: Friday 11/5

Lama Hotel (2340 m) – Langtang Village (3430 m)

Another day spent initially walking alongside the river, getting higher and higher above it. More forests, lots of steep ups and downs, and by the afternoon I was starting to regularly encounter yaks. Some of the teahouse owners were suggesting I tried what sounded like “yuk good” – after a few seconds I realised they were saying “yak curd”. I stuck to more familiar-sounding items on the menu.

For most of the morning I had Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams stuck in my head, particularly the lines “My shadow’s the other one that walks besides me, / I walk alone”. But having said that, the Langtang Trek seems fairly popular, and I was regularly encountering other hikers, both going in the same direction as me (but usually more slowly) and coming towards me. Likewise there are always other people to talk to at the lodges when you stop at night. Considering that this is the off-season and, apparently, a lot less busy than the other Nepali “teahouse” treks, I’m quite glad I didn’t go for a more popular route like the Annapurna Circuit or Everest Base Camp.

On the way to Langtang were the usual teahouses and regular sight of Tibetan prayer flags. I also saw water-powered prayer wheels for the first time, which seemed to be a wonderful invention.

After arriving at Langtang, I went to the local bakery, which I referred to in my mind as “cheesebread” because that’s what was written on the roof in giant letters. Toast with melted yak cheese: yum. At dinner time, I discovered that “momos” here in the mountains were different from what I’d had everywhere else previously. Rather than steamed dumplings, they were more like Cornish pasties. Most lodges here offer snickers momos, which are similar in spirit to deep-fried Mars bars.

5 hours walking, 2 hours resting.

Day Four: Saturday 12/5

Langtang Village (3430 m) – Gyanjin Gompa (3830 m)

Only a short hike today. After breakfast at “cheesebread”, and then an hour and a half talking to someone who arrived as I was eating, I set off up the hill to Gyanjin Gompa, which would become my base for the next few days of exploring the area. On the way there were more water-powered prayer wheels, and also long stretches of mane walls – big stone walls with Om Mane Padme Hum inscribed on them in Tibetan. For correct karma, these should always be walked past on the left, so that you’re conceptually passing them in a clockwise direction, just like other Tibetan Buddhist monuments.

On the way I met two American brothers from Oregon, named Brit and Scot (short for, bizarrely, Britain and Scotland), who I would spend the next couple of days trekking with. I also met a German guy and an English guy who were on a project to photograph glaciers around the world before global warming melted them.

After arriving at Gyanjin Gompa and resting for a while, I went to visit the local monastery – which was more like a tiny temple, with no permanent monk populated – made a donation and lit a yak butter candle.

In the evening it started raining, and then snowing. We were all grateful for a nice warm stove to huddle around at the lodge in the evening.

2 hours walking, much time relaxing – the elevation was beginning to catch up with me.

Day Five: Sunday 13/5

Gyanjin Gompa (3830 m) – Chhalepochh (4260 m) and back

On Sunday, I’d decided to hike to Langtang Base Camp with Scot from Oregon and Kala from Kentucky. (Brit, the other Oregonian brother, was suffering from food poisoning and wasn’t able to join us.) We made a wrong turn trying to find the trail that led there, but Scot – who had a lot of hiking experience, including having done the Appalachian Trail and other other major long-distance routes in the USA – was confident that we’d be able to join up with right track “just over the ridge there”. After bush-bashing and occasionally rock-climbing along the ridge, looking down on the glacial valley from the opposite side we were originally expecting to be, we ended up at a small collection of stone huts marked as Chhalepochh on our map.

We’d hoped that we’d then be able to take the trail we’d originally intended to follow, but getting down the ridge, across the valley, and half-way up the ridge on the other side looked to be a little bit beyond us. (This is probably the point to mention that Scot’s nickname when hiking was “Not Dead So Far” due to his lack of preparation and gung-ho attitude.) Fortunately, there was at least a trail that led back towards Gyanjin Gompa which was much nicer than. It took four hours to get up, one hour to get back. We decided afterwards that our route probably had at least as good views as the trail we were trying to find, at was a much better adventure.

Got back to the lodge for a hearty meal and started re-reading A Fringe of Leaves, having finished the book on Tibetan history I’d been reading when I started the trek. The Kindle is probably the best thing ever invented for trekking – an almost unlimited supply of books for about the weight of a smaller-than-average paperback, with a battery that easily lasted the two weeks of the trek without needing to be recharged, even though most nights I was reading for hours.

Day Six: Monday 14/5

Gyanjin Gompa (3830 m) – Langsisa Kharka (4285 m) and back

Said goodbye to Kala in the morning – she wasn’t planning on staying at Gyanjin Gompa for very long and was going back down the hill – and when went hiking up to Langsisa Kharka with Brit and Scot. We passed what looked like a lunar landscape – actually a dry river bed – and onwards through grassy hillside, a few abandoned stone huts (population: 7 yaks), and up the hill to the Kharka. Along the way there were incredible views of the whitest mountains I’ve ever seen, which turned out to be part of the Nepal-Tibet border. We underestimated the distance a bit: the owner of the guest house told us it was a six hour return trip, but it ended up being 5 hours up, 3.5 hours down, even moving fairly quickly.

On the way back we saw a herd of what we thought might have been ibex but probably wasn’t because there aren’t any in Nepal. Some kind of big four-legged creature that moved much faster and more gracefully than a yak, and wasn’t a mountain goat, anyway.

Scot and I somehow ended up being conned into carrying bags full of rocks back to Gyanjin Gompa for a Nepali woman. Initially I was trying to carry the back on my shoulder like the locals do, before deciding that putting it in my backpack was a slightly better option. My shoulders hurt for a few days afterwards.

Day Seven: Tuesday 15/5

Gyanjin Gompa (3830 m) – Pahare Hotel (1680 m) – Thulo Syabru (2250 m)

Got up early and was moving by 7am. Long distance to walk – longer than in my original itinerary – from a combination of having spent a day longer at Gyanjin Gompa than originally expected, and one of the trekking lodges telling me over dinner the previous night that the distance I wanted to travel to not possible to do in a day. But I made it!

Between Gyanjin Gompa and Langtang I stopped for a cappuccino at Tip Top Guest House and Restaurant. It was a place that had obviously had Westerners help them with their marketing: quirky signage and menus, and even a web site. The signs boasted Italian coffee, so I had to try it. It was easily the best coffee I’d had up in the mountains, although pretty average by absolute standards. Freshly caffeinated, I did the downhill stretch ridiculously quickly. In fact, one teahouse owner yelled at me as I went past: “Namaste! Why are you running? Try some fresh yak curd!” I did, in fact, end up trying some yak curd. It was actually pretty tasty, although a bit warmer than I normally expect yoghurt to be, and with a fairly lumpy texture. I guess this is what all yoghurt used to be like.

Thulo Syabru turned out to a town built on an incredibly steep hill. Exactly what I wanted after my legs were knackered from spending the entire day walking there. On arrival, I had my first shower in a week, ate dinner, and collapsed in exhaustion. From here on, I’ll be travelling south along the Gosainkund and Helambu trek routes.

8.5 hours walking, 1.5 hours resting.

To be continued…

Kathmandu

Crossing the Border: Friday 4/5

My plan was to get up early in the morning, quick pack and grab breakfast and then set off for the Nepal border. Those who know me will already be laughing at the “get up early in the morning” bit. Every aspect of this plan took a bit longer than expected but by 10:30am I was in a 4×4 headed down the hill and out of Darjeeling. From there I tried to find a shared taxi to Kakharbitta, the border town. Unfortunately, all the taxi drivers insisted that it wouldn’t be possible to find anyone to share a taxi with at this time of day, and so paid the full fare to the border myself. The taxi driver was a dodgy bastard, though, and managed to pick up an additional five passangers as we were heading out of town. They paid about $1 each, and I paid $14. When I suggested that their fares be paid to me, or at least that my fare be the same as theirs, the taxi driver said no, I said I was okay with sharing the taxi. Sigh. At this point my idealistic adherence to principles of fairness collapsed, and it didn’t seem worth arguing over a few dollars.

When I arrived at the Nepali immigration office, it turns out that the taxi driver had been even dodgier than I thought, driving straight past the Indian side of passport control to the Nepal side of the border. It didn’t seem to matter for the other passengers – I guess crossing between India and Nepal is a bit like going between Australia and New Zealand for natives of these respective countries – but the Nepali immigration officer pointed me at the road I’d come from and said the Indian passport control was 1km back where I’d come from.

All confusion aside, it was the easiest land border crossing I’ve been through after England-France on the Eurostar. A form here, a few US dollars there, and I soon had a shiny new Nepali visa stuck to my passport. The immigration outpost even changed my Indian money for me, at a rate which turned out to be much better than the money changers in Kathmandu were offering. After crossing the border, I followed the friendliest-seeming tout to his travel agency where I bought tickets for the poshest bus to Kathmandu. The guy went to great pains explaining to me that the tourist buses in Nepal were nowhere near as good as the ones in India, despite being expensive, but at least they had reclining seats and were about 8 hours faster than the local buses. Initially my mind complained, “it’s a whole $10 more expensive!”, but after a bit more contemplation, this seemed like a worthwhile sum to pay to make the bus experience only slightly miserable, rather than very miserable.

Kathmandu: Saturday 5/5 – Tuesday 8/5

Shared a taxi from where the bus dropped us off into Thamel, the central tourist area of Kathmandu, with the two other white people on the bus – a Spanish couple whose names escape me. I have no idea for how much of the bus trip I slept. I don’t remember falling asleep, but neither do I remember anything at all between 11pm and 5am. On arrival, I was – as usual – a bit dazed and disoriented, so my first priority was to have breakfast and a strong coffee. One omelette and an “Americano” – as the rest of the world calls a long black – later, I had skimmed my guidebook and decided on which hotel to try first. Not the absolute cheapest, but very central and included free breakfast and wifi. I’d paid more in India for worse rooms.

Kathmandu is a long way from being my favourite city. On the plus side, it’s very well set up for tourists. On the downside, well, it’s very well set up for tourists. There are touts everywhere, although nowhere near as aggressive as the ones in Northern India. The ones selling hashish really creeped me out, sidling up to me and asking quietly, “Do you want something, sir? Want some hash?” There’s lots of restaurants serving pretty much every cuisine other than Nepali, usually not very good quality and sometimes outrageously expensive. The ones recommended by Lonely Planet have turned out to be nowhere near as good as their description. But the tourism focus also means that it’s easy to get anything you could possibly want for going trekking.

Perhaps the culinary highlight was having a horrendously overpriced but tasty Nepali meal, consisting of several courses and traditional dancing on the stage behind me.

Not all of the touristy places were terrible. As I right this, I’m sitting in Sam’s Bar, which is a pleasant and quiet rooftop bar, playing the kind of music I’d expect to hear on Triple J – even a couple of Australian bands which I didn’t realise had made it out of the country, such as Bag Raiders and The Temper Trap, making me wonder if there’s an Aussie behind the playlist. (Bag Raiders and The Temper Trap are permanently associated in my mind with the Mongol Rally, when we listened to them a lot, all got heartily sick of them, but somehow kept listening to them again anyway.) Definitely better than the music played at Himalayan Java, a cafe modeled after Starbucks, which played old and generally mediocre pop music, including AC/DC, Green Day, and that “under my umbrella-ella-ella” song that I had thought had slipped from the world’s radar. I also spent quite a bit of time in Green’s Organic Cafe, which served – amongst other things – some delicious salads, and nice tea by the pot. Salads are a thing I’d been missing in India; even when they were on offer, I wasn’t generally game to order one, especially after suspecting that to be the cause of my food poisoning in Gokarna. Green’s Cafe had a very different choice of background music: constant Tibetan chanting, usually a variant “om mane padme hum”. It was actually surprisingly pleasant. Perhaps I’ve turned into a bearded hippy.

Another positive about Kathmandu is the frequent sight of jacarandas. They’re one of my favourite trees, and remind me of areas of Perth where I used to live. I hope Melbourne will also have jacarandas.

Spending four days here ended up being one day too many. On Tuesday, my final day in KTM, I’d arranged to go bungee jumping. Somehow managed to sleep through my alarm and miss my 5:45am bus, so no bungee for me. Oh well. I’d already done all of the sight-seeing I was interested in around the city, so spent my time in cares and restaurants with books and the Internet. I only hope that the same doesn’t happen tomorrow, when I have to get up at a similar time to catch the bus to the Syabrubesi where I set off for two weeks of trekking. Trekking is, after all, the main reason I came to Nepal in the first place!

My plan is to spend the next two weeks hiking by myself, without a guide, along the Langtang, Gosainkund and Helambu treks. I have a map and a compass, there are lots of tea houses along the way, so in the words of Jeremy Clarkson – what could possibly go wrong?

Darjeeling and Singalila Ridge Trek

On a Train: Tuesday 24/4 – Wednesday 25/4

Varanasi to Darjeeling is roughly 800km by road or rail, or about the same distance as Melbourne to Adelaide. Back home, I’d think of that as a fairly easy day’s drive. In India, though, everything takes a bit longer and is a bit more involved. Getting my train ticket was enough of a mission in itself, with all of the trains from the stations near Varanasi being completely booked out for weeks in advance. Fortunately, Indian trains have a “foreign tourist quota” where a few berths on each train are reserved for non-Indian residents, so I managed to get my ticket on just a couple of days’ notice. My backup plan if I hadn’t been able to do that was to buy tickets in 2nd class unreserved, a.k.a. cattle class, which would almost certainly have meant standing up for the 14-hour overnight train journey. That would certainly have been a memorable experience, but I was secretly quite glad to have a bunk of my own in an air-conditioned carriage.

My train was scheduled to leave at 6:30pm from Mughal Sarai, just over the river from Varanasi. The electronic signs at the station listed a platform number and noted that it was running half an hour late. At around 6:30, as I was waiting at the platform, there was an announcement in Hindi which I didn’t understand, followed by an announcement in English which I couldn’t hear because suddenly everyone around me had got up and was moving to the opposite side of the station. The train was on time, and had arrived at a completely different platform. Indian Railways really did learn all of their tricks from British Rail.

I got off the train at around 9am the next morning, feeling a bit bleary-eyed from having slept poorly. This may or may not have been related to staying up late reading. The station closest to Darjeeling is New Jalpaiguri, about 90km from Darjeeling. There’s a “toy train” – a narrow-gauge service more like a tram than a normal train – which goes up the hill. Sources on the Internet informed me that if I went half-way up the hill to Kurseong by road, I’d be able to catch the afternoon service from Kurseong to Darjeeling which would be pulled by a steam locomotive. The Internet lied to me, and it was actually a diesel train. Such is life.

The Darjeeling toy train was … okay, I guess. The train ride down from Ooty that I took back in February – which feels like a lifetime ago now – was a lot more enjoyable. Still, definitely more comfortable and picturesque than the alternative, i.e. travelling the whole way in a car occupied by nine other people.

I arrived at Darjeeling early in the evening, walked into town, had dinner, and found somewhere to stay.

Darjeeling: Thursday 26/4 – Saturday 28/4

Three days in Darjeeling. Drinking tea and eating scones and cucumber sandwiches and pad thai and masala dosa with fruit and nuts and visiting a tea factory and reading books and the constant sight of the not-so-distant Himalayas and being rained on and sometimes meditating. It’s not really a place for being active – although you could certainly have done more “stuff” than I did – but right now, that’s perfectly okay with me.

Darjeeling must be one of the few places in India where you definitely drink tea, not chai. Tea is brewed from loose leaves, served in a teapot, and if you ask for milk or sugar, those are provided separately rather than all pre-mixed into the sweet, milky tea-resembling beverage that I’ve been accustomed to drinking for the last few months. Provided separately, that is, if at all: at one cafe I went to, the waitress gave me a horrified look and told me, “Sir, milk is not advisable with Darjeeling tea”. I guess she was right, because the tea tasted just fine without milk.

The tea here is definitely a step up from the “throw a Twinings teabag into a mug” beverage I was usually drinking before India, too. The best tea that I had in Darjeeling was at Sunset Lounge Cafe, run by Nathmulls Tea Company, where you could select from any of the many varieties of tea they had available. That’s not “varieties” in the sense of “different flavourings added”: they had teas of different quality, plucked at different times of the year and different years’ harvests as well as the usual choice of black, white or green tea. I didn’t dare ask for milk there, in case they threw me out of the shop. You could look at and smell the different teas before ordering, and after it was brewed they brought out two teapots: one containing the leaves so you could see and smell them after brewing, and the actual tea itself poured in a separate pot so it didn’t gradually turn into a bitter, revolting fluid if you took your time drinking it. The second time I went there I tried one of their ‘premium’ teas; it was very tasty, and the first time in years that I’d had actually, really good quality tea. It was also outrageously priced (by Indian standards) at about $2.50 for a pot – although it doesn’t sound so bad when you consider that’s roughly what you’d pay in London for a styrofoam cup with a teabag in it, served with a scowl.

I think I’ve been drinking between six and ten cups of tea a day here. This feels eminently civilised.

Singalila Ridge Trek: Sunday 29/4 – Thursday 3/5

Day One: Maneybhanjang (2130m) – Tumling (3070m)

Got up early Sunday morning to grab a quick aloo paratha for breakfast before meeting the trekking guide at quarter past eight. As we left, the sky was a cloudless bright blue, showing no sign at all of yesterday’s downpour, which I hoped was a good omen for it not raining during the trek. After an hour and a half in a ‘jeep’ – a battered old Mahindra 4×4 – we arrived at Maneybhanjang, the starting point for the trek.

The first hour was a steep incline along a road also used by cars, dodging the occasional jeep hurtling towards us, past Meghma Gompa temple, and then to our morning tea stop where our trail diverged from the road. Unfortunately, the blue skies had turned grey, and then it started to get really foggy. We were, in fact, walking through clouds. Quite impressive to experience, but didn’t provide the Himalayan views I’d been hoping for. We continued hiking through the fog, stopping again for afternoon tea, and eventually reached Tumling at 3:30.

The ridge that we were hiking along is the India-Nepal border. Our lunch stop and overnight stay were both in Nepal – there’s even a nice big “Welcome to Nepal” sign as you reach Tumling. In some ways, it’s still India: the cars have Indian number plates and we pay for dinner with Indian rupees. But the people here are ethnically Nepali.

Day Two: Tumling – Sandakphu (3636m)

The guide wanted an early start today, but I woke up feeling a bit crap and we didn’t get moving until 8am. Moved fairly slowly uphill in the morning, through blue skies, green scrub, mountain scenery, magnolias and lots of rhododendrons. Lunch was at Kalapokhri where really-free-range chickens were wandering in and out of the restaurant. By mid-afternoon the sky was foggy and grey again, sometimes with only 10 metres of visibility. We stopped at pretty much every village on the way for cups of tea. Arrived at Sandakphu at 3:15 feeling exhausted and just collapsed into bed. My guide insisted that drink lots of tea and not sleep, so I sat around reading and eventually finished Blood Meridian.

Day Three: Sandakphu – Phalut (3600m)

Once again, lots of greenery and blue skies – this time, fortunately, lasting the whole day’s walk. On the way, we had splendid views of snow-capped mountains. Closer by were rolling green hills with horses, goats and yaks. While we finished the day at about the same altitude at which we started, there were plenty of ups and downs along the way.

Lunch was at a tiny hut in the middle of nowhere. Packet soup with bread, boiled potatoes and a cup of tea. Never before had these tasted so good, making yesterday’s momos and chowmein feel like absolute luxury. The accommodation at Phalut was also very basic: a trekker’s hut with no running water, no electricity, but plenty of tea and biscuits. As the afternoon progressed the blue skies turned grey and it started to rain heavily. The falling rain turned to snow, and the windows were covered in ice. Dinner was filling and tasty: popcorn, pappadums, rice with dahl and vegetable curry and an omelette.

Day Four: Phalut – Sirikhola (1900m)

I didn’t sleep well that night because it was so cold, and got up early to climb to the top of a nearby hill which was the point were Nepal, Sikkim and West Bengal meet. From there we could see Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks, far off in the hazy distance. There were still patches of ice on the ground from the previous evening, although it was quite warm in the sun.

On our final trekking day, we went a bit further than the usual Singalila Ridge itinerary – apparently 28km, though most of it downhill. We had a quick breakfast and set off early, descending steeply for two and a half hours, down through forest of trees and bamboo, then came out into a clearing, crossed over a river, and entered the village Ghorkey. The river was the boundary between the Indian states of West Bengal and Sikkim, and we’d cross it several times during the remainder of the trek. At Ghorkey we stopped for an hour to drink tea and relax. Then we walked a bit further to the next village, Rammam, where we stopped for lunch.

At this point we’d mostly left the forest behind and the remainder of the trek to Sirikhola was along the side of a steep hill. We felt like we were beginning to re-enter civilisation, passing houses and farms and a school. The lodge at Sirikhola was also very basic, though – no electricity and the toilet was flushed by tipping a bucket of water into it.

Day Five: Return to Darjeeling

The usual Singalila Ridge trek continues a further 6km to the town of Rimbick, but we went all the way from Sirikhola to Darjeeling by jeep. I don’t think I missed out on too much – the scenery was much the same as the final section heading into Sirikhola, and a fair chunk of the road to Rimbick was paved tarmac so not so great for hiking. We got back to Darjeeling at 11:30, giving me the remainder of the day to shower, rest, drink tea, and get ready to cross border into Nepal.

End of a Chapter

If all goes according to plan, this will be the last post I write from India. It’s been a pretty intense three-months-and-a-bit here and feels strange to be leaving so soon. The Nepalese border is just a few hours’ drive away from Darjeeling, and from there it’s a nice, long bus ride to Kathmandu.

As always, if you want to see more photos, there’s a full set uploaded on Piacasa.