Trekking in Nepal

For us, coming to Nepal meant one thing – trekking; but with only 2 weeks, in a country containing an 800km stretch of the Himalayas, it was difficult to narrow down the vast number of available options.

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Even more prayer flags than usual in Kathmandu, celebrating Diwali

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The famous Boudhanath stupa

It is common amongst trekkers in Nepal to hire guides, who navigate and organise accommodation, and porters who carry gear. We were keen to avoid the use of a guide, and as they are a requirement in the Everest and Annapurna regions this meant we immediately reduced our search field.

Following some research at the KEEP (Kathmandu Environmental Education Project), a charity which alongside organising conservation projects around Nepal also has a catalogue of route log books, we settled on an 8-10 day trek north of Kathmandu in the Langtang region.

The Langtang trek, aptly named after the region, starts in a small town called Syaphru Besi. Daily buses make the 150km, bone shaking ride on dirt tracks that zigzag along the sides of steep valleys. The views to be had on the way are spectacular, but the sheer drops are at times unnerving.

Many people choose to avoid the buses and instead hire a jeep, but considering their lack of maintenance, in particular the thread bare tyres, coupled with tales of hair raising over-takes, we decided that this probably wasn’t any safer (and much more expensive!). After weighing up the options we decided to do what the locals do and take the bus. It turned out we weren’t alone and in fact most seats were occupied by like minded tourists.

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The road to Syaphru Besi

Whilst waiting for the bus to Syaphru Besi we befriended a group of 3 other trekkers who had a similar itinerary to us. As much as Luke and I enjoy each other’s company, we thought a bigger group would make for a more interesting experience and so at 7am the following morning, armed with a local map, the 5 of us set off.

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Crossing the Langtang Khola

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Not all snowy mountains and frothing rivers

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One of the many refreshment stops en route

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The higher reaches of the valley

We spent the first couple of days climbing up through a steep sided gorge shrouded in pine forest, which by day 3 opened up into a U-shaped glacial valley – prime yak pasture. The path then meanders up to the final accommodation stop, Kyanjin Gumba, a small town made up of hotels and bakeries. Here we spent 3 days further exploring the upper valley and enjoying the variety of cake on offer, before retracing our steps back to Syaphru Besi.

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Thin air near the summit of Kyanjin Ri

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Heading further up the valley to Langshisha Kharka

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Numthang: population 4 (yaks)

The Langtang region borders Tibet and as a result the majority of the valleys settlements are made up of exiled Tibetans. Along the trail most of the accommodation is provided by family communities, which allowed us an intriguing insight into a dying culture. We also learnt, rather quickly, that there is a certain etiquette to be followed when staying in trekking guesthouses. The majority of guesthouses provide free rooms so long as you eat all your meals in house. This rule is strictly enforced and even the friendliest of lodges can become hostile if you are caught sampling another establishments goods.

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The not so ‘Friendly Guesthouse’

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Anyone for Daal Bhat?

As you gain height food quality generally decreases; staples such as porridge are made less with milk and more with water, and Daal Bhat (the standard Nepali fare of daal and rice) loses its variety of vegetables. So when presented with bakeries offering delicious cakes and pastries, clandestine missions become a must.

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A well earned cake stop

For us trekking independently was the right thing to do, providing both freedom and flexibility. We were able to move at our own pace, stop when and where we wanted, and make decisions about extra day trips. Unless exploring the more esoteric routes, having a guide isn’t really necessary; the majority of trails are so well trodden that route finding is relatively easy.

On the other hand, porters are an important part of the Himalayan economy and don’t detract from the freedom of trekking independently. We decided that we weren’t carrying enough gear to warrant a porter, but this isn’t to say you shouldn’t.

Our initial expectations of trekking in Nepal were of commercial, busy routes, regularly punctuated with trekking lodges offering mainly western menus. In reality, for the Langtang region at least, this was not the case; the trail was reasonably quiet and most of the lodges were family run, offering basic accommodation and simple food. We have arrived back in Kathmandu, after another exhilarating bus ride, with nothing but praise for the Langtang region and would definitely recommend it to future visitors.

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Evening clouds over Langtang

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Post trekking slap-up meal in Kathmandu

Back in the city we have a couple of days before heading out to Burma, on the worlds most indirect flight (a 24 hour stopover in Qatar – twice the distance from Nepal, in the wrong direction!).

C

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Final days in India

(We wrote this post a couple of weeks ago, but haven’t been able to publish until now due to poor internet)

Eventually we had to leave the beautiful Hampi and head onto Kochi, our final stop. This was to involve two days of travelling; one night on a bus to Goa, and a second night on a train to Kochi.

The train is the quintessential mode of Indian transport; however when the train is fully booked, the next option for travelling long distances is the overnight bus. With descriptions such as “Volvo bus”, “Deluxe” and “Double bed”, we were both optimistic about our night ride. As it transpired, none of this was very accurate, and one major description was missing. The bus had no toilet, an amenity which when travelling for 12 hours we (wrongly) took for granted.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if we were given regular opportunities for relief; after lobbying the driver, the best we got was the odd street alley, and we were still left wondering whether the bus would be there when we got back. The following day’s overnight train was going to feel “Deluxe”!

We arrived in Panaji, Goa, at 7am – stiff, tired and laden with luggage. With our train not leaving until the evening, we had 12 hours to kill. There is only so much masala chai one can get through before reaching saturation point, and so with a cinema in sight we decided to watch our second Bollywood movie – “Haider”. This time it was an Indian adaptation of Hamlet, based around the Kashmir conflict. This was not the usual Bollywood plot, but nonetheless a really enjoyable movie, and more interesting for the fact that we had visited the same area just a few weeks ago.

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Charlotte ‘enjoying’ a delicious curry juice

After a more comfortable nights travel we made it to Kochi the following morning. Kochi is a major port city on the west coast of India, and the sleepy state capital of Kerala. It is unlike any other town we have visited, and with it’s Portuguese architecture it almost feels as through you are no longer in India. As a coastal state, Kerala is well known for its seafood, and whilst in Kochi we both enjoyed sampling the various fish thalis.

We only had a couple of days before returning to Delhi, so to make the most of our time we drove out of the city and took an organised boat tour around the rural Keralan backwaters. These are a series of interconnecting lakes, canals, rivers and islets. Much of the day was spent leisurely winding through the waters, taking in the scenery and watching the locals dig for shellfish. When we did leave the boat it was to explore the area, and in particular to hear about the medicinal value of the local plants. We were sceptical about most of these, particularly a leaf which reputedly cures diabetes!

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Sedately cruising through the backwaters

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Traditional Keralan houseboat

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Punting along a smaller waterway

As our time in the south of India drew to a close we reflected on how it had compared to our time up north. Generally we felt that the south was more relaxed, and more cosmopolitan. We weren’t stared at as much and there seemed to be less people wanting to sell, tell, show you something.

India is known for its chaos, and this can be off putting at first. Many parts are hectically busy, noisy, and smelly; there is devastating poverty, with countless people sleeping on the streets; there is a lack of basic sanitation and infrastructure, with millions not having access to a toilet or fresh water. However despite all this, there is a ceaseless energy and determination about the place and the people which is hard not to admire. The vivid colours, the enormous variety of culinary delights, and the fascinating culture and history all combine to make India a special place.

We flew out of Kochi and arrived into Delhi for the final time. By now we were walking the streets with the look of well seasoned Indian travellers, immune to all tout attempts. Ironically it isn’t until you leave that you realise how comfortable you have become in a country.

Tomorrow we head out to Nepal, where we hope to spend most of our two weeks trekking in the Himalaya.

C

Hampi Bouldering

After Goa, our next stop was Hampi – a world heritage site, and also India’s premier climbing destination.

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Hampi

Hampi is a tiny town, nestled in an otherworldly landscape of ancient temples, verdant green rice paddies, and endless hills of orange boulders. The town itself is split into two by a wide meandering river; the major area is the Bazaar, made up of temples, guesthouses and touristy shops. Across the river is the far quieter Hampi Island, which contains a small selection of guesthouses and the main climbing areas.

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Passing a waterfall on the train journey from Goa to Hospet

We arrived by train in nearby Hospet just after dusk, and set about the usual game of negotiating a rickshaw ride to our accommodation on Hampi Island. We were informed by our driver that, due to heavy rain, the ferry crossing the river from the Bazaar to the Island wasn’t running, and so the only way to get to Hampi Island would be to take a 50km rickshaw ride around to the nearest bridge. After several weeks in India we had heard a lot of fishy tales like this, and so we asked to be taken to the crossing regardless. When we arrived half an hour later it turned out that, due to heavy rain, the ferry crossing wasn’t running!

We ended up staying overnight on the mainland, before taking the long rickshaw ride around to Hampi Island the following day. Spending 2 hours on a rickshaw, on prodigiously potholed Indian roads, with one cheek perched on the front seat with the driver (as we shared a ride with 2 Korean girls) is definitely not recommended! It was a relief when we finally arrived at the Goan Corner, where we stayed for the next week. This is where the majority of climbers seem to stay, and we enjoyed our time here – a relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff, good food, and hammocks outside every room! Most of the other climbers we met were friendly and down to earth, though there were also a fair number of ‘cosmic energy’ hippie stoner types. A choice quote we overheard – “You know man, you don’t choose the plan, the plan chooses you, you know?”.

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The Goan Corner

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Another tough climbing day

Hampi first rose to fame as a climbing destination in the 2003 bouldering film “Pilgrimage”, and climbers from around the world have flooded here ever since. Only a small proportion of the boulders have been climbed, and there is almost limitless scope for development.

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Plenty of boulders

Despite the hype, after our first couple of days climbing we weren’t sure whether we liked it here. The granite boulders are characterised by small, sharp crimp holds, which are painful on the skin. It is also really hot, all year round. This means that for the best climbing conditions (as cold as possible, to improve the friction of the rock) you need to climb at dawn and dusk. Good conditions don’t really exist – even in the depths of winter, the temperature at 5am doesn’t dip below 15 degrees Celsius. By 9am, it’s too hot for any serious climbing, with conditions only improving again at about 4.30pm, before sunset at 6.30pm!

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Warm up arête

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A quick go on the classic 7B ‘Double Arête’, in sweltering conditions

After a few more days we started to get into it a lot more. Our skin started to toughen up, we got more used to the hot conditions, and the grades started to feel a bit less harsh. Charlotte and I both got stuck into projects, and climbed some top class lines. Charlotte was chuffed to climb a classic 6A+ (‘Crimpy Piano’) with a scary top out, and my highlight was a technical sloper problem at 7A+ (‘Why Like This?’). Not exactly big numbers, but after 2 months of no climbing, and having initially struggled, we were both pretty satisfied.

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‘Crimpy Piano’

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Success!

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‘Why Like This?’

As no climbing happens during the main part of the day, we had plenty of time to explore the local area. We hired bicycles and cycled to a nearby reservoir for a refreshing swim, and the following day to the nearby Hanuman Temple. This is said to be the birthplace of the Hindu monkey God, and is built atop a hill flanked by a winding staircase of 500 steps (and a lot of monkeys!). We made the classic error of arriving in the midday sun, collapsing in a sweaty mess in the shade at the top, before eventually summoning the energy to head back down.

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On our bikes

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Winding stairs up to the Hanuman Temple

We also spent an afternoon seeing the sights back over the river in Hampi Bazaar. The temples here date back to the 14th century, when Hampi was the capital of the Hindu Vijayanagar empire. The architecture of the temples is stunning; the layers of the temple structure become progressively smaller with height, creating a distorted perspective of size. The carvings and statues on the outside of the temples are beautifully intricate… and also highly explicit in a number of cases! However, beyond the architecture we didn’t find the temples particularly interesting, and thought that combined with a wander through the markets, an afternoon in Hampi Bazaar was sufficient.

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The impressive Virupaksha Temple

We were in Hampi for almost a week, and in terms of the climbing we felt like this was about the right amount of time. The hot conditions and short time windows aren’t conducive to hard climbing, and whilst some of the problems are fantastic, many others are fairly basic lines of (painful) crimps. On a purely climbing basis, we felt that the same length of time could be better spent at one of the classic Euro venues, such as Font / Magic Wood / Albarracin etc.

However, aside from the climbing, Hampi is a fantastic place to relax. We met a lot of interesting people, there are things to see and do nearby, and the setting is unparalleled. As the majority of the day is too hot for climbing, we found ourselves spending a lot of time chatting, eating and chilling out; moreso than we would on a normal trip. On a typical day we would head out climbing at 6am, be back at the restaurant by 9.30am for a game of chess over a lazy breakfast, have lunch chatting with friends, wander out for a couple of hours in the afternoon, head back to the boulders at 4.30pm with others, then back to the restaurant in the dark at 7pm for a well earned Indian feast!

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Breakfast chess

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The delicious ‘Special Thali’

As a hybrid of a holiday and climbing trip, Hampi is pretty tough to beat.

L

Beach Break

From the bustling cosmopolis of Mumbai we headed down the coast to Goa, to unwind with a few days of sun, sea and sand.

Goa is one of India’s major tourist destinations, popular for it’s beautiful tropical beaches and relaxed vibe. Perhaps even more significantly, it also has the lowest alcohol tax of any Indian state! We headed to the quiet town of Mandrem on the north coast in an attempt to escape the crowds, and stayed in a little beach hut settlement overlooking the sea. By chance we arrived on the first day of the post-monsoon season, and so to start with we literally had the place to ourselves.

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Our hut

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Beach to ourselves

We’ve spent several chilled days here now, alternating between swimming in the sea, relaxing on bamboo beach loungers, and eating delicious local food in the on-site restaurant. The menu changes each night depending on the day’s catch, which the waiters are keen to bring out on a tray to show you. We tried some delicious fish curries, made with freshly caught mackerel and tiger prawns. The only downside has been the expense – we have spent a whopping £5 ppn on accommodation, and another £5 each on our 3 meals each day at the restaurant…! We were expecting inflated prices to the rest of India, but this hasn’t seemed to be the case.

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Getting the hang of it

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Twinkling lights at the restaurant

As those of you who know us will be aware, we are not natural beach bums, and would never usually consider a beach holiday, instead preferring something more active and adventurous. Because of this it has been an interesting experience to spend time at a world class beach destination. We’ve tried hard just to laze around and relax, and we think we’ve done a fairly good job. It’s been really enjoyable to swim in a warm sea (in stark contrast to our holiday in north west Scotland before leaving the UK!), and we’ve both enjoyed laying in the balmy breeze reading our books, and listening to music.

However, after 3 days here we both feel that we have just about reached our threshold and need to get moving again. Even though we’ve been eating light meals and not drinking lots (we seem to be the only ones), we are starting to feel sluggish and lazy. It’s been a lovely break from the cities, but we’ve both concluded (as thought) that beach holidays just aren’t for us!

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The end of another tough day of relaxing

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Piña colada 🙂

We are excited to be boarding a train tomorrow morning to Hampi – our first climbing destination!

L