Mountains and Cities – part three

(Continues from Part One and Part Two.)

Thursday was my final day in Sydney, after which I planned to head up to the Blue Mountains for a couple of days. I slept in, spent a while wandering around New Town, ate lunch, drank a coffee or two, read a book for a while, and before I knew it, it was half past three. If I was going to leave Sydney at all that day, it was time to make my getaway. After a hurried re-packing of the bike, I was on the road by 4:30. On the road, but not actually moving. Parramatta Road was a carpark, and the lanes were too narrow for me to filter through the traffic. Eventually I reached the M4, which I hoped might be moving a bit faster. Not so much. At least on the motorway there was enough space for me to duck between the mostly-stationary cars. The traffic continued to be heavy all the way to Richmond, and I was worried that I might end up riding Bell’s Line Road in a long queue of cars stuck behind a truck. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, and as I headed up into the Blue Mountains I had the road pretty much to myself. I did the final, winding 80km leg from Richmond to Lithgow a lot quicker than the 70km from Sydney to Richmond.

I pitched my tent at the Lithgow caravan park while it was still light, then rode into town to grab some dinner. The first restaurant I came to was one of those old-fashioned Australian places, no fancy food or posh service but massive helpings. They didn’t have anything vegetarian on their menu, but I asked if they could do something and ended up getting a vegetarian pasta with a sauce which contained large chunks of several kinds of vegetables. It was actually pretty good; not fancy but healthy and filling.

On Friday I did the tourist thing around the Blue Mountains. Saw the Three Sisters at Kattomba, then Leura Falls, then stopped at Rubyfruit, a vegan café recommended by Lisa for lunch. And coffee. And dessert. Then off to Jenolan Caves, which was a enjoyable ride in, until I got to the final few kilometres where the road was very narrow, steep and full of tight hairpin bends, which could more accurately be described as scary. I went on a tour of Imperial Cave and took the long way to Lithgow via Oberon.

When I got back to Lithgow I took a quick ride up to the lookout at Hassans Walls, sat for a while watching nothing much happen. Then I looked on Urbanspoon to see if there might be better dinner options in town than where I ate the previous night. I ended up going to a posh restaurant a little way out of town where I splurged and had a three course meal while I wrote my diary and consulted my maps to decide on my route home (with a little inspiration from people on the Netrider forum and the “Top 200 Rides in Australia” booklet that came with my map book).

I packed up my tent and set off early on Saturday morning, beginning my planned 1100km route back to Melbourne. I took a route recommended on my motorcycle road atlas, out of Lithgow along Magpie Hollow Road (sounds a bit like it should be in Harry Potter), through the ‘town’ of Sodwalls, and then along Mutton Falls Road (another excellent name) until I joined the main road from Bathurst to Goulburn. Then south to Goulburn, along the Hume Freeway to Yass where it was time for a lunch stop. From Yass I took a road recommended on Netrider, taking a narrow, twisty road to Wee Jasper and then a dirt road to Tumut.

Just as I left Yass it started to drizzle. By the time I got to Wee Jasper it was definitely raining steadily, but in the spirit of “what could possibly go wrong?” I pressed on along the dirt road. There was a 4WD right behind me as I left Wee Jasper, so I let him pass me and then stuck behind him for a good 35km. Then he turned off somewhere and I was on my own. With about 20km to go til Tumut, disaster struck: my front wheel hit either some slippery mud or loose, wet gravel and slid out. I lost control and fell off. The bike slid along the dirt for a bit but fortunately stopped short of falling off the side of the ride. I was very glad to be wearing full leathers. After coming off the bike at 50 km/h and landing hard on my knee, all I had to show for it was a bruise.

Embarrassingly, I wasn’t able to lift my bike up by myself, even though it’s just a 250cc. I walked half a kilometre to the nearest farmer, who came out and helped me get the bike upright. Then he bent my gear shift lever back into shape. We checked the brakes and they still did their thing. Started the engine and that worked too. A good start! All of my luggage was still firmly attached, too. The front left hand turn signal had snapped off, the bracket holding the headlight in had popped out and there was a big dent in the fuel tank. Not too bad. The farmer then suggested that I talk to his neighbour who “knew all about bikes”. He looked at it, couldn’t see anything seriously wrong and declared that if I’d managed to ride it a few hundred metres there’s no reason why it wouldn’t take me the rest of the way home to Melbourne.

I was a bit shaken after the crash, though, so I rode the short distance into Tumut, got a room at the local pub and downed a few pints.

When I got to Tumut I reattached the indicator with some glue and then on Sunday there was nothing for it but to ride the remaining distance back to Melbourne. As I first set off I realised that my front wheel no longer lined up with the handlebars and the handling felt a bit off, so I abandoned my plan of twisties and took some of the straight line highways that characterise most of outback Australia. First stop was Wagga Wagga, which wasn’t on the direct route home but the name makes it one of the icons of the eastern states, so I figured I might as well go there since I was in the area. From there, the Olympic Highway heads south to Albury on the NSW/Victoria border. It’s one of those flat, straight country highways that I’m very familiar with from my time in Western Australia. For some reason, I found it to be a much more enjoyable ride than the freeway. Perhaps it’s a combination of being in a slightly more isolated area with less traffic and the feeling that you’re actually passing through real places rather than being fenced off and bypassing them like you are in a safe, fast freeway.

But from Albury onwards, I stuck to the Hume Freeway, the quickest and most direct way home. After a few forgettable hours, I hit Melbourne’s Western Ring Road and then Sydney Road through the suburbs. Home safe and sound after 4000km of riding in two weeks, if a bit shaken after the crash and with a bike that would need a good wash and a few repairs before I rode it again for any distance.


Mountains and Cities – part two

(If you missed it, here is Part One.)

The story resumes in Canberra, where I’m staying with friends Lisa and Simon (originally from Perth, like me, but who I got to know when I was living in London). Lisa was having her birthday celebration on Saturday afternoon and evening, which I had cunningly arranged my trip around. Good times were had all around with plenty of vegan food and wine and interesting new people … although I did notice that everyone there worked for the public service or the University. On Sunday I caught up with another friend, Sam. We went to visit Mt Stromlo and then the Canberra Deep Space Centre in Tidbinbilla. There was a certain irony to be to travelling on some of Canberra’s best biking roads as a passenger in a Hyundai Getz, but sometimes that’s just how things turn out.

On Monday, I set off for Sydney, taking the scenic route: taking Kings Highway down Clyde Mountain to Batemans Bay, the north along the coast to Nowra, where I turned off towards Kangaroo Valley. More wonderfully twisty (but slightly scary) roads to Kangaroo Valley and out the other side to Robertson, where I took another “scenic drive” turn-off down to Jamberoo. The descent had lots of hairpins and the road was narrow and damp, so I took it quite slowly. So slowly, in fact, that there was a Suzuki Swift stuck impatiently behind me. Sorry, Suzuki Swift driver! There wasn’t anywhere I could safely pull over.

After Jamberoo I returned to the main road and rode to Wollongong, where I stopped briefly to refuel and have a drink of water. Consulting my phone, I memorised the route to David’s place in Sydney … or so I thought! At some point along the way, I missed the turn-off and ended up on the Eastern Distributor, a toll freeway tunnel that spat me out right into the CBD at the tail end of peak hour. I had no idea of the road layout of central Sydney, nowhere I could legally park to consult my map and anyway I wasn’t moving very quickly in the dense traffic. I decided to park on the footpath for a bit to check my map, and after a few more missed turns, eventually made it to Petersham an hour later.

On Tuesday, I caught up with another friend during the day and spent more time chatting with David and his partner in the evening. On Wednesday, I went for a bit of a ride. Crawling through Sydney traffic to Windsor, then out through Sackville Ferry and Wisemans Ferry over the Hawkesbury River. After the second ferry, I turned left onto the dirt road out to St Albans, a historic settlement with some beautiful old architecture. After about 50km of gravel I returned to the main road at Wollombi, where I continued north towards Singleton. At some point I hit the start of Putty Road, a name familiar to bikers and sports cars in New South Wales. And what a glorious road it is: a smooth, wide road with 140km worth of corners, almost all of which can be taken easily at the speed limit (on a bike, anyway).

To be continued…

Mountains and Cities – part one

It was a cold, grey Tuesday morning in Melbourne as I was loading up my bike with the things I’d need for two weeks away: maps, camera, a few changes of clothes, my tent, some breakfast food and no laptop. Although supposedly an Australian summer, it wasn’t the kind I was used to in Perth. At 9am I set off, hoping that I’d miss peak hour traffic—but that also turned out to be a bit optimistic, and as I crawled along the CityLink freeway and out the other side of the tunnel to the M1, it started to drizzle. Not the most cheerful start to a roadtrip, but at least I was on my bike with nothing to be worrying about except where the road would take me. And I had a plan: leave the freeway at Cranbourne and follow the coast east, more or less, to Gippsland where my relatives lived. It took almost three hours to cover the 180km to Foster, where I stopped for lunch. By this time, the rain had stopped but the weather was still looking pretty grim.

Heading further east, I took another detour at Bairnsdale and went to visit the town of Paynesville, on the shores of one of Gippsland’s lakes. I’d arrived a bit late to take the ferry over to nearby Raymond Island, but it was good to stretch my legs a bit by wandering around the town. The wind was fierce, and on my ride into Paynesville I found I had the bike leaning over quite a bit to go straight, which was a new, exciting and not entirely pleasant experience for me.

But I still had a bit further to go before I reached Peter and Mary’s property just outside the town of Orbost. Visiting there is a bit of an experience, quite unlike my usual city slicker lifestyle: no mobile phone reception, electricity comes from their solar panels and batteries and water from the dam on their property. They even have a satellite internet connection. A fair proportion of the vegetables in my dinner came from their own garden. It’s a great place to be, but I suspect I’d go mad if I lived somewhere like that permanently.

I’d planned to leave on Wednesday to head up towards Mt Beauty, and then climb Mt Bogong—the highest mountain in Victoria—the following day. But on the radio in the morning we heard news of snow and subzero temperatures in the high country. Time to reconsider that plan, then. In fact, for most of the morning it was raining solidly and there was a severe weather warning for strong winds near where I was, apparently up to 110 km/h. I decided to stay inside where it was warm and dry. Early in the afternoon the rain stopped and I ventured out, visiting Cape Conran and Mesung.

Thursday was all about riding. I plotted out a less-than-direct route to Bright, on the other side of the Victorian Alps. Leaving Orbost I headed towards Buchan, along a wonderfully twisty road through amazingly beautiful countryside. It wasn’t really a road for going fast on, with lots of fallen leaves and rocks on the road, and most of the corners having poor visibility and no advisory speed signs. But that just made the scenery more enjoyable.

After Buchan, I headed north, where the road turned to gravel. After a while, I reached the fabulously named “Seldom Seen Service Station” (which appears to be closed for good), and then the road forks in three ways: the Snowy River Road north to the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, McKillop’s Road east through Gippsland to the Bonang Highway, or Limestone Road west to Omeo in the Victorian high country. I chose west. The sign said “78km winding road”. That’s the good kind of sign when you’re on a bike. I should probably point out that my off-bitumen riding experience at this point was pretty much limited to the 2.5km stretch on the way to Mary and Peter’s place, but I did okay taking my road bike on gravel for over 100km, building up a bit of confidence for further unsealed stretches that will appear in future instalments.

After a lunch stop at Omeo, I turned onto the Great Alpine Road and went a long way up and around a lot of corners to Dinner Plain and Mount Hotham. Then a long way down again to Bright, where I set up my tent for the night and downed a few tasty pints at the local brewery.

My aim on Friday was to be in Canberra by the end of the day, but I wasn’t in a hurry so I took the long way: down the hill to Tawonga, then a scenic detour along Redbank Road (as recommended in my “top 200 rides in Australia” booklet) until I hit the Murray Valley Highway to Corryong, near the Victoria / New South Wales border. I stopped for lunch and made sure my passport was in order and my money was ready to be changed. Hitting the road again, I crossed the Murray River and the Murray Valley Highway in Victoria became the Alpine Way in New South Wales. It was all a bit anti-climactic. Even the sign on the state border was fairly nondescript. Then came the corners. Lots of corners. I gained a new motorcycling skill shortly after I entered NSW: avoiding potholes mid-corner. Actually, most of it wasn’t too bad, but there were a few shockers near the state border. The road went up and up and around and around, past Thredbo and Jindabyne and then a more gentle decline in elevation down to Cooma.

After Cooma, it was a straight and dull 110km ride to Canberra. I finally arrived in Canberra at 5:30pm, just in time for the afternoon peak fifteen minutes of traffic. Fortunately, being on a bike, the congestion didn’t really apply to me, as I filtered through long queues of stationary cars. Oddly, this didn’t seem to be a common thing for bikers in Canberra to do; I passed a few that were sitting in line with all the cars, and as I got closer to the town centre, a car decided to shift position in his lane to cut me off. Wound down his window and yelled “get faaaaarked”. This was the first time I’d encountered hostility towards filtering! But I made it through Canberra’s maze of roundabouts without getting lost and met up with Lisa and Simon—which felt slightly odd as I realised the last time I saw them we’d all been living in England.

To be continued…

Road Trip

Well, I’ve had my bike about six weeks now and still haven’t done any serious long-distance travel on it. So yesterday, disregarding the forecast for possible rain, I went for a ride down the Great Ocean Road and back. I took a few photos, but mostly this was a trip about proving to myself that I could do 540 km in a day on a motorcycle, and revisiting one of the more enjoyable stretches of road in Victoria.

I set off at 7am took the freeway into the city and then out again along the M1, which now ends slightly after Geelong. Shortly after that, I reached the town of Torquay, the start of the Great Ocean Road, and stopped to stretch my legs and reassure myself that my hands could still move. Doing 100 km/h on a small motorcycle is a lot more physically demanding than it is on a car.

After Torquay, there’s almost 100km of beautiful winding road to Apollo Bay. I’m still not particularly confident when it comes to going fast on roads like this, especially when you’re sharing it with buses that only approximately fit in their lane and Europeans in rented camper vans who are still getting the hang of driving on the left hand side. Fortunately traffic was pretty light. The only slightly harrowing moment I had was entirely my own fault: feeling like I was going a bit fast through a corner, I reached for the front brake, which pushed the bike more upright and sent my veering off to the edge of my lane. Luckily, my bike’s ability to corner is far greater than my own confidence, even on slightly damp roads, and I was able to correct my position with no major drama.

At Apollo Bay, I stopped for a cuppa and second breakfast.

After Apollo Bay, the road gets faster, with fewer tight curves and more sweeping bends that you can take at 100 km/h. In practice I was doing a little bit slower than that because going around any kind of corner on a bike at 100 km/h still feels to me like everything is happening all at once. After another 100 km, I reached the Twelve Apostles, a beautiful rock formation formed by erosion of the coastline.

The Great Ocean Road goes on for a bit further, but this was enough for me. At Port Campbell I turned off onto the country back roads that lead back to the A1 to Melbourne, through the dairy country around Cobden. Cows on either side and almost no traffic made for quite an enjoyable ride. Eventually I reached the main road, filled up with fuel at Colac, and rode the final 160 km home.


Bangkok: Saturday 2/6 – Sunday 3/6

The flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok was pleasantly uneventful. Jet Airways are pretty nice to fly with for a cheap airline, and the amount of legroom you get on an aeroplane feels like absolute luxury compared to Nepali buses. Indian and Nepali airports have more security checks and bureaucracy than I’ve encountered anywhere else before, though. My boarding passes ended up with half a dozen stamps on it from various checks before I was finally allowed to board.

My one mistake was not getting my remaining few Nepali rupees exchanged for Thai baht before I left Nepal. No money changers in Thailand accept rupees. I guess I’ll be hanging onto a few hundred rupees as souvenirs.

Bangkok was a lot more Westernised and less chaotic than anywhere I’ve been to since I left Kuala Lumpur in January. It’s also a lot bigger than I realised. I got a taxi to the tourist district of Khao San Road, an area which confirms all of the worst stereotypes of whitefella backpackers. Drunken Aussies and Europeans running amok amongst cheap alcohol. Of course, I was on my way to be exactly one of those people at the full moon party on Koh Phangan. Overall, Bangkok was a bit of a culture shock after the conservatism of India and isolated mountains of Nepal. Even Thamel, the tourist and drinking capital of Kathmandu, is relatively tame in comparison.

I picked a hotel at random and it turned out to be right on top of a nightclub. 3am and the music was still pumping so loud you could feel it. Whoops.

On Sunday I found a nice vegetarian cafe, had a tofu red curry and waited until my train was ready to leave. Thai sleeper trains are more expensive and less fun than the Indian ones. No chai-wallahs wandering up and down the aisles. Nobody talking to anyone else. The food is expensive and disappointingly mediocre. There’s a little bit more privacy and the beds are a bit more comfortable, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Koh Phangan and Full Moon Party: Monday 4/6 – Sunday 10/6

The ferry to Koh Phangan was one of the choppiest rides I’ve ever been on. After a few hours we arrived, I found somewhere to stay at the next beach along from where the full moon party happens and went into town to have dinner.

The big party was happening on Tuesday night and I was planning on a quiet night on Monday after not having slept too well the previous couple of nights, but as I was heading back to the shack where I was staying, I bumped into a German couple who were going to a rave party by a waterfall and encouraged me to join them. So on my ‘quiet night’ I ended up drinking gin and tonic out of a bucket and dancing to trance music until after 3am.

The full moon party on Tuesday was also pretty fun – the first time in years that I’ve stayed up partying until sunrise. The weather here has been pretty rubbish for beach-going, with grey skies and rain most afternoons, but that actually made for really fantastic beach parties. Alcohol by the bucket, music blaring, dancing in rain with everyone getting drenched and still having a good time made it a little bit different from anything I’d experienced back home. I felt a little bit overdressed, though; I only saw one other guy wearing a collared shirt, with most people wearing singlets or going bare-chested.

A couple of nights like that was enough for me, and so it was time to move on to somewhere a bit more secluded for a while. On Thursday I took a boat to Haad Thian, just a couple of beaches down from Haad Rin, but not joined to any of the surrounding areas by road. It was a long way from being an isolated paradise where I could have a long stretch of beach purely to myself, but much quieter than Haad Rin or, say, Cottesloe in the summer time. I couldn’t help but think that the beach itself was pretty average compared to what I’ve grown up around in Western Australia.

The first place to stay I saw was relatively posh resort, which did also have cheap dorms, but they turned out to be all booked out. I went next door, which turned out to be rather more to my taste anyway. I ended up with a shack—sorry, “bungalow”—to myself, from which I could see the beach out of one window and the jungle out of the other. I had my own hammock, and the restaurant nearby did cheap Thai food with tofu options available on almost all of the dishes. Sure, there was no hot water and the toilet was a squatting type, but that’s more than sufficient for me. Okay, so a hot shower is quite welcome when it’s cold outside, but here in the tropics by the beach, completely unneccessary.

Three days of beachside solitude. How’s the serenity?

Return to Australia: Monday 11/6 – Wednesday 13/6

Haad Thian to Perth took 47 hours, travelling by boat, taxi, ferry, two buses, another taxi, two aeroplanes and a Ford Focus. I need to stop telling myself that I’m home now, even though in some sense I am. I grew up in Perth, most of my friends and family live here, but it’s no longer where I live. I don’t have a house or flat of my own here any more. It’s not the end of my travels. I’m only here for thirteen days, and then I’m off to Melbourne. But Melbourne doesn’t quite feel like home yet either. I don’t have anywhere permanent to live there. The prospect of getting myself settled down in a new city and readjusting myself to the university lifestyle means that my life will continue to be filled with Adventures in the near future.

At the same time, Perth seems like a good opportunity to draw an arbitrary line in the sand. This one particular Adventure – travelling through Asia – is over and I’m back in Australia. Or as the British would quaintly put it, returned from abroad. I expect I’ll continue to write in this blog, at least once I’ve reached Melbourne, although I’m not sure yet what kind of things I’ll have to say.

Return to Kathmandu, plus Pokhara

Kathmandu II: Monday 21/5 – Friday 25/5

Almost as soon I arrived in Kathmandu, checked back into a hotel and had a shower, I checked the Internet. To my surprise, there was a Facebook message from Tristan, who I worked with back in Perth, saying that he was in Kathmandu and wondering if I was too. So we arranged to go for drinks at an Irish pub, where I ordered a Guinness. It turned out to be the very last Guinness they had left, thanks to the strikes. The Irish pub was a bit noisy and smokey, so we ended up moving on to Sam’s Bar – definitely my favourite pub in Kathmandu. Shortly after we arrived, there was a voice calling out my name from behind. It was Soffia, who I’d met in Malaysia back in January. The world is indeed very small. Soffia was there with a number of friends she knew through volunteer work she was doing at an orphanage. This pretty much set the theme for my return to Kathmandu, which ended up being quite social and more than a little bit alcoholic.

Tuesday morning, crawled out of bed, went to get breakfast and discovered that all of Kathmandu appeared to be shut. Of course: strikes were still going on, and it wasn’t just transport that was affected. Fortunately, a few places were still open. It was easy enough to find somewhere to eat, even easier to find a dodgy chap wanting to sell you hash, but the travel agent where I’d booked my Tibet tour had its shutters down. I did manage to re-book my bungy jumping trip for Thursday – the one which would have been doing the day before I left for trekking if I hadn’t I’d slept through it.

Fortunately, by Wednesday the strikes had stopped. But when I went to check on the status of my Tibet tour, the news was not so great: the Chinese had made it yet more difficult again to get Tibet permits, and unless the rules changed again in my favour, it was incredibly unlikely that I’d get one. I decided to cancel the trip and get a refund rather than keep waiting.

Bungy jumping was a fantastic experience. I opted to do both the canyon swing and the bungy jump, and I’m glad I did. The canyon swing was first. It was pretty unnerving to just walk off a small platform and into thin air, 160 metres above a river. Sure, you’ve got a harness around you and you’re holding onto a rope, but there’s an instinctive part of the brain that is very, very certain that this is still a rather bad idea and the supposedly-rational side of my brain had a hard time taking back control of my legs.

And then I was falling. This lasted for what seemed like forever, though according to the people running it, you’re only in freefall for 6.5 seconds. Once my brain had adjusted to this, there were amazing views along the gorge. The actual bungy jumping was even more exhilarating, if less scenic, because the forces acting on you are even stronger. You jump off the platform, then you’re upside, then you’re the right way up again, and with each bounce you’re very briefly in a period of “anti-gravity” where all the forces acting on you cancel each other out. But it’s over very quickly, and then you’re grabbing onto the bamboo poles on the ground and returning to a more normal experience of gravity.

On Friday night, I was once again at Sam’s Bar and got a bit of a surprise when Tristan and his partner Kim wandered in. Perthed in Kathmandu, twice! Never mind that I had an early morning bus to Pokhara booked, I didn’t get to bed until around 1am.

Pokhara: Saturday 26/5 – Thursday 31/5

After a few hours of uneasy sleep, I woke up at 5am to pack for Pokhara and at 6:15am I was out of the hotel and on my way to the bus stop. The bus was relatively nice by Nepali standards but there was no way I could sleep on way with the bumpy tarmac meaning that I occasionally discovered myself airborne. We arrived a little after 2pm and abandoning my usual refusal to go to places recommended by taxi drivers, I followed the dude’s recommended “your taxi is free if you go to my friend’s hotel” place. It turned out to be quite decent, just south of central Lakeside, free wi-fi and only $5 per night. I checked in and collapsed in exhaustion for a few hours.

Pokhara wasn’t the best time I’ve ever had. It was approaching monsoon season, so it was humid and most afternoons and early evening there would be heavy rain, often thunderstorms. This is wonderful when you’re inside a bar drinking cheap cocktails or at a restaurant chowing down tasty food, but not really conducive to doing very much outdoors. The usual touristy things to do in Pokhara are horse riding and paragliding, neither of which really appealed to me. There was a four-day trek to Poon Hill which, in retrospect, would have been a more enjoyable way to spend my time in the area, but I would have had to have started planning it back when my feet were still blistered and my knees and legs resistant to any form of movement.

On Thursday I caught the bus back to Kathmandu for one last day there before flying to Thailand, the final country in my adventure.

Kathmandu III: Friday 1/6

Back when I first arrived in Nepal and was trying to make plans to go trekking, I looked on to see if there was anyone else interested in doing the Langtang/Gosainkund treks at the same time I was. I exchanged a few emails with an American named Joanna who wanted to the same trek, but our schedules didn’t quite work out. We get along quite well via email, though, and had each done quite a bit of travel in places the other wanted to go, so arranged to have dinner instead.

So I stayed an extra night in Kathmandu rather than flying straight to Bangkok so that I could have dinner with a woman I met on the Internet. As it turned out, we actually got along even better than either of us expected, and it was sad to have to say goodbye after spending just a few hours together. I feel that there should be some kind of moral to this story, but have no idea what it is. Oh well. Yay for new Internet friends, anyway.

Updated Map!

I’ve just updated my map of where I’ve been to show my travels through Nepal, including a rough approximation of the trekking route.

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.

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…


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.