Monday, 30 November 2009

Pap passes away

On Monday 30th November 2009 at 12:47GMT my (Anand) father passed away unexpectedly in the UK. He was 69 yrs old. He was full of life and in good health, but was taken from us all too early.

We have stopped our trip for a period, to be with my mum and family, and to deal with his affairs.

We will be restarting this trip in the New Year, as this is what he would have wanted us to do and I personally will be dedicating the rest of this trip, and each challenge I overcome to him.

He loved travelling himself, and spent a great deal of time visiting new places and trying to learn more about the world. In 1969 at the age of 29, my father came with my mother to study in the UK, before returning to India they embarked on a self guided tour of Europe. This was a tough ask for a young couple from, India to do this, but it was made even more interesting as they had my elder brother (1 at the time) in tow. For me, at that time this was the equivalent of a world trip now!

For now I apologise for the delay in updating the blog and pictures - my mind is truly elsewhere...

Monday, 23 November 2009

Trekking the Annapurna region – living there is much tougher than trekking there!

20091118_061630_DIG_NEP_RTW_9999_A350_Nepal Trek Marpha to Larjung

We have just completed the Jomsom/Muktinath trek and are now resting our tired limbs back in Pokhara. As we sit here, I thought back to the trek and what I had experienced. It was 11 days of tough but not impossible walking. And even on the days when the path was steep I think it is humbling to think about the locals who live out there in the mountains. Life is truly tough out there, not just because of the cold and the rugged nature of the terrain, but because their livelihood does not come easily. We as trekkers have a choice to be out there; we spend a long time ‘preparing’ physically and mentally for the trek; we take porters and guides and have endless amounts of equipment. Yet we still find it hard, and feel that we have achieved something by completing the Annapurna circuit or some other trek. But what of the people who have to live out there? They don’t have a choice...

The old shepherds who walk for hours to find grazing land – no choices
The school kids who walk for 1 or 2 hours to get to their classes – no choice
Lodges are basic but we spend more on a coke there than some people earn in a week – they don’t have that choice

We all should be honestly grateful and humbled that we walk around the most beautiful mountain range in the world, take in all its beauty and then return to our comfortable lives.

What I found funny was that we saw so many who had really amazing equipment and then gave it all to the porter to carry!!! Again they all had choice choice choice. I felt that was so ironic, people spending £100s to have the ‘most suitable’ and ‘best’ equipment, to only hand it all over to the porter, and trek with their small day packs!!! The porters then strap these huge bags every which way and carry them up the hill, in little more than shorts and flip flops.

I think that we are very fortunate to have choices in life the trick is to make the right ones, and more importantly to be thankful for this fact. I am growing more humble with this realisation each and every day.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Nepal Trekking how to navigate the options

Without doubt Nepal is one of the foremost trekking and adventure destinations in the world. So much so that I even heard 1 New Zealander saying that with a bit of infrastructure development Pokhara could be far better that Queenstown in NZ, as a adventure seekers paradise - with walking, mountaineering, Paragliding, Rafters, Kayaking etc etc all within a short distance from the town.

When it comes to treks you are totally spoilt for choice, and you have all the treks that attract real kudos points, such as the famous Everest Base camp or Annapurna circuit. You are also spoilt for choice in the options of how to go about organising your trekking. With all this choice there are some major questions that you have to consider if you are to make the most of trekking, these include:

1) How long you want to trek for? This can depend on your interest level, wider travel constraints and visas. We trekked for 11 days in total, but based on the intensity of our trek we could have gone on for 20 days. We were only trekking 5 hours a day max, and the terrain was pretty easy, therefore we could extend ourselves.

2) Do you want to trek with a guide/porter or a combination? This depends on where you are trekking. Quite honestly in the Annapurna region of Nepal, trekking with a guide/porter is a choice rather than a must. If you are by yourself it is good to have a porter or guide, for safety and company. However I would not say that the trekking in this region is technically challenging enough to need a guide, and with well equipped teahouses everywhere, you would not really need to carry so much equipment that would require you to have a porter.

The routes are really well marked and laid out, so there is a near 0% chance of getting lost. The guide does however give you knowledge that you may not get from other sources, and the language barrier is also no longer an issue.

3) Do you want to do one of the famous routes (which will be busy) or a lesser known route (which may not hold the total wow factor)? We trekked the Jomsom/Muktinath trek. This is essentially 2/5ths of the full Annapurna circuit. Both of these treks, along with a range of others that go through what is called the Annapurna sanctuary, are well known and well trodden. I am not sure that there is too much off the beaten track around this part of Nepal. You could however take on the upper Mustang region, which is closer to Tibet, more rugged and much less popular. This might be a good idea if you want to get away from the tourist crowd too. I must say though, part of the fun that we had on the trek was meeting the wide range of people we did. This would have been less likely if we had trekked an isolated route.

4) How tough you want the trek to be – relaxing trekking makes for a more pleasant experience, but you might have a lessened sense of achievement. To be honest I think this is a personal call. Some people trek hard and fast, in order to achieve something, others trek in order to see the world, and meet people. On the Annapurna circuit you meet both camps. The average circuit takes 16 days, but we met people who were completing this in 12 days and others who planned for 20+ days!! It just depends.

Other treks are physically tough because of altitude. I would suggest taking the altitude issue seriously and don’t trying and going too fast. How people cope at 4000m is not always down to their fitness levels. We were not doing the circuit trek, that goes up to 5000m but we have experienced this in Tibet, and it can be tough.

Once you are clear on these, you can go ahead and source your trek, or even plan an independent solution. I will be honest this is totally down to personal choice, but for some of the well trodden routes such as routes in the Annapurna conservation area, you can do your know thing. All you need is to pack your bag, get your permit, and make sure you have a good map, and guide book. The later are not really to assist if you get lost (seemingly it is tough to stray from the clear path) but rather, more to plot where you have been each night!!

Tours have their benefits; in particular if you are travelling alone, as they bring you together with a group, however we have found that they can be expensive. I think the most important question to ask, is how comfortable are you in being your guide, navigator, Porter and cultural attaché all in one? If you need other experts for these roles then book a tour, or source a guide or porter. We decided to go it alone and although we will have to carry everything will be staying in teahouses and there are reputed to be really great, let’s hope so!!!

For us the whole point of coming to Nepal was to trek, this is a common fact for most of the people who visit, somehow and somewhere in there trip most will ‘trek’. The problem/positive for people is making a choice between the endless number of locations and trekking combinations to choose from. Trekking in Nepal is a real experience and one not to miss. Make sure you look up, around and behind you, so as not to miss the breathtaking scenes and experiences of your trek.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Everest flight

20091108_060803_DIG_KTM_RTW_9999_A350_Kathmandu Everest Flight Everest

On taking the Jet Air flight from Bangkok to Bombay, I thought that the next flight we would take would be the long awaited business class flight on the airbus A380 to Sydney. However the most pleasant realisation struck when we recalled that we planned to take a mountain flight from Kathmandu.

At over $100 this flight falls firmly into the special activities to be done once, but trust me the moment you soar about Kathmandu with the sun gleaming in the east you know this is special.

We took a flight with Agni Air, however all the main Kathmandu based airlines (Yeti Air, Buddha Air, Guan Air and Sita Air) offer the same mountain flight. There are generally 2 flights a day, both in the early morning. We took the 06:30 flight.

We travelled through Kathmandu city at 0500 in the morning, when all was quiet, but the sun was peeking out of the east and warming things up. The airport in Kathmandu is actually pretty big looked well planned out, however the majority of the domestic flights, and the mountain flights leave from the old old terminal stuck on the side.

The terminal was mayhem, and packed out with travellers for the early flights to Lukla (the drop off for Everest base camp etc). Everyone looked so well kitted out as if they were all going up Everest that day, and made us look like total part timers!!

Agni runs jet stream planes, which are pretty comfortable and only have 18 people onboard (I think it is the closest I will ever get to the taking a VIP jet!!!) and thankfully as the whole point of the flight is the view everyone gets a window seat.

On takeoff you are presented with an amazing view of Kathmandu, which is pretty much as I expected – totally sprawling and almost medieval. The mountains are surprisingly close by and soon we were right alongside the most amazing sight of the Himalayan foothills, and the famous peaks behind them. We were on a west to east route and as we were seated on the right hand side, we spent the first half of the flight looking down to south Nepal, but half way through, the fun really started.

Everyone gets to visit the cockpit (despite 9/11!) and checkout the amazing view they have, but then the plane makes a turn to the left, swings round and all of us on the right meet Everest and her friends. I don’t think there is any point in trying to describe what we saw or how it made us feel, but is fair to say that being within touching distance (5 miles away) from Everest, and being at an altitude just below the summit, puts you in total awe of this most beautiful of natural wonders.

This is the highest point on this earth, and we have been fortunate enough to touch it through the windows of this special flight. I am not sure what else we will see, do or experience in the following 12 months, but this ranks up there for me as one of the experiences of the trip. 1 hour - just you and 17 others and the tallest mountains in the world. Unbelievable.

We spent the rest of the trip gazing at all the mountains that touched the heavens and dreamed of just how special they were.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Kathmandu – drops down the most enjoyed city rankings

20091108_061044_DIG_KTM_RTW_9999_A350_Kathmandu Boudnath Temple

After our short family break in India we got back onto the backpacking route and arrived into Nepal. I guess Nepal conjures up a range of thoughts and emotions from the pull of the Himalayas to the abject poverty, from the smiling Nepalese people, to the bravery of the Gorkha people. It was going to be a great way to get back into the swing of things.

The India/Nepal border at Kakarvitta is a funny place, situated right next to Darjeeling it was only a few hours down the hill Border crossing, we got to the Indian side with no problems and duly crossed over, however once we went to the Immigration post in Nepal to get our visas we were reminded that we hadn’t got our exit stamp from India! Indians are free to travel to Nepal without any checking, so when we walked across the border no one raised any concerns! It was the shortest time I have spent in any country, all of 10 mins!!! Exit stamp in hand, we got our visa and took the horrendous night bus from Kakarvitta to Kathmandu. I am sure that we could have totally not bothered with getting a Nepali visa, but to be honest; with these things it is better to get the visa, rather than have any funny business on the borders.

Kathmandu (KTM) has had a reputation as a real travellers collecting point, with people converging there, before they head out to Everest or other mountain regions. In the past during the age of the Hippy, KTM was right on the trail from Europe through south Asia to Thailand and beyond. I can imagine the wonder that people would have felt at that time, when arriving for the first time, but honestly today, it simply felt worn down and dusty. It surely still remains a traveller and tourist meeting place, but now the streets are littered with tourist junket shops, Tibetan ‘artefacts’ and rows upon rows of pashmina wool shops.

KTM is most people’s start and ending point for short or long trekking holidays to the Himalayas and the tourist area of Thamel is stuffed full of ‘trekking’ shops that will sell you endless varieties of clothing, footwear, bags and equipment. 99% of the goods are fake versions of the expensive western brands such as North face, and it is surprising how blatantly this kind of copying goes on, it is just as bad as the many street vendors who were trying to sell me Windows 7!

In many ways KTM is more a blend of many cities – from one angle it looks like any medium to large South Asian city, with dusty streets, horns hooting all the time and music piping out of most shop fronts, From another angle you can see the old world charm oozing from the almost medieval streets full of old houses and older people, yet another angle and the mountains and spirituality of the temples and Buddhist stupas take over, giving me a strong feeling of being back in Tibet. However all in the entire city underwhelmed me. The crowd there is full of people moving in and moving out, and these results in a total transient feeling. It is tough to settle into KTM, and although I might be over critical I don’t think I would really want to settle into the city.

I know this is totally judgemental of me, but I am worried that Nepal will be a little bit anticlimactic. We have planned it as one of the highlights of the whole trip, along with Tibet. Tibet lived up to expectations, but so far Nepal has made a faltering start.

The only other comment I would make is not related to Kathmandu, but rather the feeling of starting back in the travelling mode again. Since arriving in India, I have felt that our world trip has been paused and on hold, since arriving in Nepal I was hoping for a feeling that the play button had been pressed again. I have to say it took some time. You develop a momentum and routine while travelling for this length of time and once this is broken it does take time to get back again. I was worried at how quickly the world trip routine was forgotten and I think this was glimpse of how ending the trip finally will feel. So long in planning, so long in duration, so quickly back into the day to day routine – this is a risk for me.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Travelling around the world with people from around the world!!

While spending time in travelling, it dawned on me that while travelling around the world we have spent good times with so many people from all over the world. There are some regular groups that we meet, namely Dutch travellers, but we have met people from a whole range of countries.

To date these have included (in no particular order!):

New Zealand
Hong Kong

I am sure we will add to this list as we hit the Americas but I think it is kind of nice to see this list!!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Darjeeling – general update

We spent a few days in Darjeeling, sipping tea, taking in the chilled mountain air and getting our first sight of the monumental Himalayas. Darjeeling’s main draw are probably the laid back literally chilled atmosphere, the toy train that takes 7 hours to climb the mountain, and the tea; but for me the most magical part of this town are the endless views of the eastern Himalayas and in particular the mouth watering sights of Kanchenjunga the highest mountain in India and the 3rd Highest in the world. It is an impressive sight that is made unbelievable when you get up for the 5am sunrise and witness the flood of the first light of the day over the mountain.

It is views like this that really make me feel lucky to be here and so fortunate to be able to lock these vistas into my memory, and thoughts.

From Darjeeling we skip out of India to Nepal for a month of eating dal bhat, sitting in the lap of the Himalayas and trekking alongside the greatest mountains of the world. Look out for our pics from Annapurna!

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