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Ernie Goes to Nepal Pt. 4

Back to Kathmandu

View Trip 4 - Kathmandu, Pokhara, Annapurnas (April 2010) on ErnieHK's travel map.


Breakfast the next morning took place on a small patio looking out on the twin peaks of Mount Machhapuchchhre. We sat at the wooden table sipping our little white porcelain cups of Masala chai, trying to stretch the morning out for another few minutes, watching the other trekking groups disappear down the trail, one by one. Our trek today would take us from Tadapani to Ghandruk, the second largest village in the region, and, in contrast to the first few days of the trek, it would be mostly downhill. Over the next couple days, the trail would loop around and start heading back towards Birethanti, the town where we had started our journey. Our guide eventually convinced us to get on our feet, and we spent the morning hiking through dense forest, following a small stream that led us through a steep gorge. At around mid-morning, the gorge gave way to a broad valley, and we stopped at a rest house by the river to grab a quick meal.





Not long afterwards, we emerged onto a terraced hillside dotted with small hamlets and villages perched precariously on the edges of the cliffs surrounding us. We followed the trail as it skirted around hills and rocky outcroppings, taking in the view of the valley below us, and the mountains beyond. As we approached the villages, the traffic picked up and we were accompanied at least part of the way by donkeys, farmers, school children, and other trekkers. The density of the hillside dwellings continued to increase, and, before we knew it, we found ourselves in Ghandruk proper. We entered the village from above, walking down a set of stairs carved into the hill, curving around the inside edge of a natural bowl formation. It was relatively quiet, with the exception of a group of women working on one of the farming terraces, and a few kids that followed us around for a while. Derek tried to get them to stand still so he could take a picture of them, but they ignored him for the most part. We had lunch in Ghandruk, but it would not be our final stop.





Our trek continued beyond the borders of Ghandruk, and our guide pushed us to make better time. From here on out, the trail would descend much more quickly – our destination was a guest house on the banks of the Modi Khola River, far below us. In some respects, the downhill hike was just as, if not more, taxing than the uphill portions of the last few days. The constant jarring of the knees and ankles chipped away at my already wonky knees, and once or twice I felt a leg begin to give way underneath me. The scenery remained much the same, hill upon hill, terraced from summit to precarious cliff, before dropping off into the gorge below. On the side of the road, we encountered a group of young girls, sitting on a mat and singing for passers-by. It was a slow descent, but, eventually, after a long afternoon on the hillsides, we reached the bottom and crossed the bridge to our final guesthouse, on the banks of the Modi Khola River. We cooled off in the river afterwards – Derek tried to swim through the rapids but the current was too strong – and then we hung out with our guide and porter for the rest of the night.




The next morning, after draining the last of our Masala chai teacups, we walked the short distance between the guesthouse and Birethanti, the town where we had started our trek a few short days ago. We said our goodbyes to our local guides, and then we piled into a van for the ride back to Pokhara. From there, we had the option of flying back to Kathmandu in thirty minutes, or hiring a car and a driver to take us cross-country, a trip that we were told would take around four hours. We had debated the merits of both while we were still in Hong Kong, but, in the end, we voted to take the car – we imagined it to be a leisurely, air-conditioned drive through beautiful Himalayan countrysides. This was a colossal mistake. The drive ended up taking well over eight hours, as the car needed to stop every hour to cool down, though the frequency of the stops increased as the day went on. We stopped and started our way across Nepal, dust flying in through the open windows due to the non-existent air conditioning, the only music a never-ending loop of Shakira and Akon for endless hours. At times, the roadside scenery was beautiful – lush, terraced valleys; looming, red gorges; the snow-topped mountains still gleaming in the distance – but we had little opportunity to enjoy them for fear of dying. Our fearless driver flung us back and forth on the dusty highways, careening around blind turns on the wrong side of the road, overtaking vehicles at reckless speeds on narrow cliff-sides, and just generally being supremely confident in his ability to not die. More than once, we swung out wide on a turn, only to just miss being crushed head-on by a speeding lorry. There was one sharp turn at night while on a cliff, without any railings, where we all agreed that at least one of the tires had spun out partway over the edge, a mini-landslide of rocks and gravel echoing in the darkness behind us. About an hour or so outside of Kathmandu, long after the sun had gone down, the engine sputtered out, and we were left with the prospect of being stranded in the pitch black countryside. Villagers seemingly appeared out of nowhere, huddling around the open hood of the car, offering suggestions and advice to the frazzled driver. Derek, Cora, and Vikki trudged over to a nearby village to call the guy that arranged the ride, while I stayed behind to keep our backpacks company. Something must have worked, eventually, as the engine miraculously re-started, but we must have been sitting in the middle of the road for over an hour. We were finally on our way again, but not for long. As a final touch, the car broke down for good on the city outskirts, and our driver had to wave down a taxi to take us the rest of the way. We weren’t exactly happy, but it could have been a lot worse. By the time we arrived at our hotel, the absurdity of our day’s journey outweighed the frustration and the anxiety, and I don’t remember as much grumbling as there was just incredulous smiles and laughter.


We spend the last couple of days walking around Kathmandu. Derek had a guidebook with a list of things to see marked out, so we mostly just followed him around. On our last night, we went in search for a bar to grab a drink after dinner. One of the girls heard live music from the second floor of a building, so we went in and found ourselves in a dimly lit bar with, indeed, live music. The band was playing covers of songs from the 80s - I think I went up and requested Bon Jovi or Journey at one point - and after deciding that the place was "good enough", we slid into a side booth to while away the evening. After maybe half an hour, Derek went back to our hotel to get some rest, but the girls and I chose to stay behind for a little while longer. Unbeknownst to us, however, the bar had slowly emptied out as the night wore on, until we were the only group still occupying a table. I slowly became aware of some twenty-something looking guys gathered at the entrance, half obscured by the shadows and general lack of decent lighting in the establishment, and they very casually made their way over, asking if they could join us. The leader of the group, Subash, sat down beside me, while the others pulled up chairs or leaned against the bar countertop. I looked around the room and there was one other person present - a muscular Caucasian guy seated at the counter with a supremely disinterested look on his face. My thinking at this time was that if anything crazy happened, this guy could come in handy, but when I looked again a few minutes later, he was gone. Subash and I traded small talk for a while, before he declared that he was the leader of the gang that controlled this part of Kathmandu, and that his presence at our table was protecting us from certain physical harm. Whatever doubts I had about the veracity of his claim, I was definitely not in any position to put it to the test, and I was acutely aware of just how many of his friends were filling up the bar.


Subash seemed more interested in talking than anything malicious, though, and his friends didn't have much to say for themselves. For the next hour or so, we sat and listened as he shared about his absent father who went abroad to make a living, his thoughts on Buddhism and Christianity, his personal ambitions to follow in his father's footsteps and leave Nepal, and whatever else he felt compelled to share with three strangers from Hong Kong. The girls remained quiet, silently prompting me to speak for the group, but in between the paragraphs of thoughts pouring out from Subash, there really wasn't much room to interject. When we felt quite certain that the situation was safe, or safer, we began to hint to Subash that we really needed to get going. He insisted on escorting us back to the hotel, but we were adamant that we could find our way back on our own. At this point, he unzipped his jacket and reached into an inside pocket, and I thought for a moment that his hand would emerge gripping the handle of a gun. I felt a bit silly, but not too silly, when he pulled out a wad of cash instead, to help us pay for a cab. Again, we declined his generous offer, and, after I exchanged email addresses with him, we were finally free to go. We slowly walked towards the exit, mustering as much nonchalance as we could, but by the time I closed the door behind me, the girls were already on the street waving a cab down, having taken off at a run as soon as they were out the door. I actually exchanged a few emails with Subash afterwards, and he did end up moving abroad - the last update I got from him, maybe two years after this trip, he was working at a fast food restaurant in Dubai. I got all that I asked for on this trip, and more - everything that I imagined the Himalayas to be, this trip met and exceeded those expectations by a wide margin - the fairy-tale forests, the terraced foothills, the awe-inspiring mountains. But, years from now, I don't think any memory of this trip will compete with the night we shared beers in a rundown bar with a Nepalese gangster on the wrong side of the Kathmandu tracks.


Posted by ErnieHK 07:30 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Nepal Pt. 3

Sunrise in the Himalayas

View Trip 4 - Kathmandu, Pokhara, Annapurnas (April 2010) on ErnieHK's travel map.




It's still dark out when we head out the next morning. Our goal is Poon Hill, about an hour's climb from Ghorepani, a popular place for trekkers to catch the sunrise. We shuffled out into the cold mountain air, our guide leading us through the town and onto the trail in the pre-dawn darkness. We saw other dark figures making their way up the hillside, and within minutes we had joined the silent army, a line of bundled up figures stretching in front of and behind us. I remember the hike being mostly quiet, except for the semi-regular exhortations of our guide, urging us to pick up the pace in order to reach the summit in time. Based on our lackadaisical trekking experience so far, his concerns were very real, but we eventually found ourselves scrambling up the last few steps and emerging on to a small, grassy plateau. A small crowd had already formed at the far end, where it looked out onto a dark valley, a shivering audience waiting for the curtains to go up. The sky had already begun to shift, from the deep black of night, to the royal blues of a new day dawning. Below us, the shadows of the valley began to dissolve and recede, and hints of forests and rivers and foothills emerged from their nightly slumber. We watched as the sun's first rays lit up the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas across the breach - the mighty Mount Machhapuchhre, Daulaghiri I (7th highest peak in the world), Annapurna I, Tarke Kang, Tukuche Peak, and Gangapurna - and then, all of a sudden, a blinding invasion, as the fullness of the sun emerged from behind the stone curtain. The sight of it was breathtaking, and all second thoughts about the lack of sleep from the night before were dismissed and dispersed in the sun's relentless light. After a few moments more, we turned around and headed back down the hill. Breakfast awaited, and we still had another full day of trekking in front of us.





This was probably the best day of the trek, in terms of what we were able to see. After witnessing the sunrise in the morning, we packed up our things and headed back into the blossoming heart of the rhododendron forests towards the Deurali Pass. The Himalayas remained at our periphery throughout the morning's hike, but there came a moment when the treeline broke and we walked out onto a ridge of hillsides that gave us an unbroken view of the mountains beside us. We had arrived at the Deurali Pass, and over the next hour or so, we took our time wandering the hillside trail, interspersing our hike with brief periods of lying down on the grass or sitting on cliff-sides to survey the panorama of sky, mountain, forest, and valley. From our vantage point, we could trace the unbroken contours of the Himalayan landscape, from the top of the highest peaks, down into the forested foothills and valleys below, ending in grassy plains or river bends. The entire scene was just so big, so immense, it hardly seemed real, like I was looking at an incredibly detailed matte painting. We had to eventually leave the pass behind us, but I wish that we had had more time to appreciate the simple fact of being present. Whenever I think back on this trek, years later, many of the images that come to mind are from this day, and on this pass.






After making our way across Deurali, we began to descend, leaving the mountains behind us, for now. We hiked for another couple of hours before arriving at Tadapani, where we would be staying the night. Of all the hostels that we stayed in, this was the most basic. The shower line started outside the kitchen, for starters. The idea was to wait outside until somebody in the kitchen had boiled enough water to fill up half a bucket of water. Afterwards, with bucket in hand, you would be led downstairs into the basement, a dark maze of mud and wet brick, until you arrived at a bare room with a metal spigot. Here you would find out that the bucket was only filled up halfway because you needed to fill it up the rest of the way with the cold water from the basement tap. You would then be left with a smaller bucket with which to scoop out the warm water and splash over your tired body in a vain attempt to feel clean. No complaints here, I knew what I was getting into with this trip, but I did check off "bathing myself in a dank Nepalese dungeon with a small bucket" on my ... bucket list. For dinner, we had our usual metal tray of dal bhat - steamed rice, lentil soup, and a mishmash of vegetables - and mac and cheese (of the yak variety). Our guide appeared to subsist purely on dal bhat and fresh yak milk every day, and that seemed to give him more than enough energy, so we followed his lead, at least with the dal bhat. It was a simple dish, but in my energy-depleted state each night, it was like spoonfuls of heaven. The yak milk was not unpalatable, but we much preferred a hot mug of masala chai instead. In any case, sleep that night was very sweet.


Posted by ErnieHK 20:12 Archived in Nepal Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Nepal Pt. 2

And the trek goes on

View Trip 4 - Kathmandu, Pokhara, Annapurnas (April 2010) on ErnieHK's travel map.


The next morning, we joined a small procession of trekkers streaming out of Tikhedhunga, towards the stone staircase that would take us to the village of Ulleri. We took our time advancing up the hillside - every so often, we'd come across a rest station that offered stunning views of the valley below us, and we made sure to take advantage of each one. Our guide would urge us to get on our feet again, and we would try to get a serious trekking rhythm going, but as soon as the next rest station appeared, we'd fall into temptation and pretend that we were only stopping to appreciate the sights around us.






The top of the hill came soon enough, though, and with it a sight that I had long been waiting for. We could see the end of the valley now, or, at least, we could see where it ended in cloud and sky. The clouds began to drift apart, however, and then it became very obvious that what I was looking at was not just empty space. A massive snow-covered mountain range was unveiled - the scale of it was mind-boggling, on a different level completely from the Rockies that I saw the year before. It was as if my mind was unable to process something so big, like it was a trick in the perspective, or an optical illusion. The vision soon became shrouded in cloud again, but it was enough. I had gotten my first glimpse at the mighty Himalayas - already I could say that the trek had been worth my while.






After passing through Ulleri, our guide led us into the beautiful oak and rhododendron forests of the Himalayan foothills. The wild rhododendron trees, with their brilliant pinkish-red flowers and gnarled roots and branches, lent the trek a bit of a fairytale feel - looking back at the pictures from the trek years later, it certainly gives off some enchanted forest vibes. After filling up our water bottles and taking a dip in the mountain-fed stream in the forest, we stopped for lunch at Nangethanti, just in time for rush hour. Goats poured into town soon after we arrived, and our post-lunch trek was slow-going for much of the early afternoon. The absolute flood of goats covered the trail in a mass of white, washing up into the surrounding hillsides as the overflow forced the animals to find whatever path forward available. Our guide was not happy about the situation, but there was nothing that could be done. When the traffic finally cleared, the trail gave way to more rhododendron forests, before climbing up to our final destination that day, Ghorepani. That night, we were in a considerably better mood, having hiked through the entire day and getting our first taste of the Himalayas. We idled around the mess hall for a bit, taught some Nepalese guides and porters how to play poker, and then turned in early. The next day would start in only a few hours, as we would be hiking up nearby Poon Hill to watch the sun rise over the edge of the world.


Posted by ErnieHK 02:09 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking himalayas nepal annapurnas Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Nepal Pt. 1

Higher than high

View Trip 4 - Kathmandu, Pokhara, Annapurnas (April 2010) on ErnieHK's travel map.


I had moved to Hong Kong in 2009, in part so that I could see the world, but a year had nearly come and gone and I still didn't have much traveling to show for it. Hong Kong itself was an incredibly fascinating city to live and work in, and, in many ways, it felt like I was on holiday every day. I had found a close-knit group of friends that became like family to me, and I attended a church that engaged and challenged me week after week - the months flew by without a second glance. Still, I was eager to take advantage of my time in Asia, not knowing how much longer I would be in this part of the world. There was a short trip with friends in March to northern China to visit an orphanage, but that was the full extent of my "travels" thus far, and I was keen on going to places that I figured might be of the once-in-a-lifetime variety. So in the spring of 2010, I got together with three other friends, Cora, Derek, and Vikki, and threw around the idea of trekking in Nepal.

Cora was and is an old friend from my university days, and she was instrumental in helping me land on my feet when I arrived in Hong Kong the year before. It was through her that I met most of my friends in the city, including Derek and Vikki. Her group of friends was mostly made up of young, single expats from all over the world, trying to make something of themselves in a brand new city, and I fit right in. With little-to-no attachments in our lives and a decent amount of disposable income, it was never hard to find travel companions. After doing a bit of research and reaching out to various trekking companies operating in Nepal, we decided to do a 5-day section of the Annapurnas Circuit - the Ghorepani Poonhill trek. We would fly into Kathmandu for one night, fly out to Pokhara the next day, trek for 5 days, and then spend another couple of days back in Kathmandu.

As we were descending into the Kathmandu Valley a few weeks later, I looked out the window and observed a city shrouded in darkness, little pinpricks of light puncturing the cover of night from the valley floor to the steep hillsides surrounding the Nepalese capital. We stayed at a B&B we found online, Asmita Rooms, on our first night, and we went back to stay there on our last few nights in Nepal after we returned from our trek. It was perfectly adequate - clean rooms, comfortable beds, a serviceable breakfast, and a convenient location. On that first night though, we just needed a place to crash before waking up early the next morning to catch our cross-country flight to Pokhara, ground zero for trekkers heading towards the Annapurnas.


The next morning, we took a cab to the much smaller local airport to catch our flight with the incredible Yeti Airlines, a decision that was made in no small part because of its name. The flight itself was short, maybe around thirty to forty-five minutes, and after landing at the even smaller airport in Pokhara, we were met by representatives from our trekking company, Above the Himalaya Trekking. They had helped us book and coordinate much of the logistics of the trip, including transportation to and from Pokhara, as well as our individual trekking permits, and they picked us up to make the ninety minute drive to our actual starting point in Nayapul.




The itinerary for our first day would take us from Nayapul to Tikhedhunga, at an elevation of 1540 m. We met our guide and our porters in Nayapul, but I can't for the life of me remember their names - not surprisingly, as this trip happened almost five years ago. Our guide was a tough love kind of guy, he'd push us to work our tired, out-of-shape bodies to climb just one more hill, but he'd take the time to chill with us when we needed a break as well. Our porters were the real heroes though - they took two of our heavy bags each and climbed ahead of us each day in order to secure rooms for us at the next guesthouse.



The first leg of our trek took us through the town of Birethanti. From there, we walked through green valleys and farmers' fields, picking our way across narrow streams and brooks, before entering into the bamboo forests to have a short lunch in Sudame. After lunch is when we really started to break a sweat. We climbed up and up towards Hile, and none of us were prepared for it at all. Looking back now, I don't even recall why we were struggling so much, or what we were complaining about, but I do remember how utterly defeated we were once we finally arrived at our guesthouse in Tikhedhunga. We joked about giving up and turning around over dinner that night, but I got the sense that some of the humour was more serious than we let on. Then our guide came over to inform us that the next morning would start off with two hours of uphill hiking, and maybe there was a gleam of half-pity, half-glee in his eyes. This would end up being the low point of our trek though - as our bodies adjusted to the workload, the groaning and complaining began to fade, and some of the views we were treated to over the next few days were almost enough to make the pain go away. In any case, after stuffing ourselves with momos and yak cheese, we dragged ourselves off to bed, both to rest up before the next day's hike, and to forget about the one that just happened.


Posted by ErnieHK 20:15 Archived in Nepal Tagged trekking himalayas nepal kathmandu pokhara annapurnas Comments (0)

Ernie Goes to Western Canada

Calgary, the Rockies, Vancouver, and beyond

View Trip 2 - Calgary, Banff, Vancouver, HK (May 2009) on ErnieHK's travel map.


In March of 2009, one week after I returned from my three month travels around Asia, I accepted a job in Hong Kong. Problem was, the actual office space was undergoing renovations at the time, and I wouldn't be needed until the end of May. There wasn't a whole lot keeping me busy that spring - I spent a lot of time seeing friends and eating at restaurants I would miss the most. The prospect of living and working in Hong Kong motivated me to start brushing up on my Chinese reading and writing as well - I probably learned more in three months of cramming than in ten years of after-school Chinese lessons. I don't recall feeling much anxiety about the impending move, though - probably my biggest concern about Hong Kong was my social life. I'd have to start almost from scratch, and that could go either way. Thankfully, I had a few friends in town already, although I was a bit wary of treading too much on their existing social networks. In any case, I had about three months to prepare myself for the next season of my life, and that was fine by me. I wouldn't be flying out of Toronto though - there would be one more mini-trip before my move, a short little jaunt in familiar woods before venturing into parts unknown.




Calgary, for a city of over a million people, is a small place. Or, at least, back in 2009, it seemed small. There were six of us on that trip: me, Justin, Karen, Derek, Alex, and Angela, and on our first afternoon in town, it took us less than an hour to walk its streets and decide that our time was better spent resting up at the hotel. We didn't come to Calgary just to sightsee, though - a close friend of ours, Elsie, was getting married and she had invited us to her hometown to celebrate with her. We had gotten to know her a few years back when she had done an internship in Toronto, and we were only too glad to make the cross-country flight to see her again. The timing worked out in my favour as well, as the wedding would take place just before I was due to start my job in Hong Kong. As we drove out to the venue just outside of town, the big blue prairie skies filled our vision, and we watched as fields around us arced and flowed into the hazy shimmer of purple and blue on the horizon that hinted at greater heights beyond.




After the wedding, we spent a day in Banff walking around a frozen Lake Louise, before treating ourselves to a meal at Grizzly House, a local landmark that specializes in exotic fondue meats - shark, alligator, rattlesnake, and ostrich, alongside buffalo, wild boar, and venison. We had tried going to Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks as well, but the valley remained in the firm grip of winter still, and access to the lake was blocked off. The next morning however, the weather had improved considerably, and we drove out into the mountains again with hiking on our minds. We eventually found a trail that led us through wooded paths and narrow hillsides, occasionally spilling out into grassy meadows that offered stunning views of the forested valley below. It was a beautiful day - spring was just beginning to emerge from its slumber, and we took our time hiking up the sunny hillside. By the early afternoon, we found ourselves facing an impossibly blue alpine lake, the kind of blue that can only come from melting glacial waters. That would be as far as we would go that day - the trail may have gone on even further, but after a few moments appreciating what was in front of us, we turned around and started making our way back down the mountain. Before we knew it, our time in Alberta had come to an end, and we packed our bags for a short morning flight over the Rockies, to a place I'd never been before: Vancouver.



My flight was the last to arrive that morning, the others had arrived a couple hours earlier and were out in the city already, so Derek had to come back to the airport with the rental car to pick me up. As we drove up Granville Street, I was enveloped by the warm spring breezes blowing gently through the trees lining both sides of the road, bursting with green leaves and flowering buds. It was a stark contrast from the slushy browns and yellows of Calgary, and the icy drifts of Banff, and I was enamoured. I stayed with another friend from university, Dan, who had moved to Vancouver the year before, and we made a brief stop to drop off my luggage before going out to find the rest of the gang. The next few days were a blur.



We spent one whirlwind day with Tracy, a friend of ours from our home church, walking and driving around her favourite places around the city - Kitsilano Beach, Granville Island, Stanley Park, and all the rest. Grouse Mountain took up another day - we took the gondola up and zip-lined across mountain valleys and forest, the view stretching into the distant greens and blues of the horizon. The pace slowed down a bit when I took a day to drive into Langley with another friend from university, Sonja, who was attending graduate school in the area. I was able to see one of my university housemates as well, Brian, who is actually from Vancouver and not a transplant from Ontario, and we caught up while we hiked around Lynn Canyon.



On my second-to-last day in Vancouver, I said my goodbyes to my travel buddies from Toronto, as they would be flying back home that day without me. It would be my second-to-last day in Canada as well, as I had decided before the trip to fly straight to Hong Kong from Vancouver. The next morning, Sonja invited me to her Mandarin class, which ended up being her and some friends teaching one another, before dropping me off and saying her goodbyes at the airport as well. And with that, my time as a resident of Canada came to an end. Fifteen hours later, I stepped through the front door of the apartment in Mei Foo, as I had done countless times in my previous travels, only, this time, it was home.


Posted by ErnieHK 23:34 Archived in Canada Tagged calgary rockies vancouver hong_kong Comments (0)

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