Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Nepal   

November - December 2013

From time to time we need to find a new source of inspiration and photographs for our gallery.  Almost two years ago we went to the Venice Carnival and came back with some very satisfying results.  But since then life has been busy, doing other things, and we needed to get back to what we enjoy and what we do best.

Enigmatic cloud - sunset from Annapurna Sanctuary.

Nepal wasn't an obvious choice, especially at our age, but when a colleague showed us a website he had made for an Nepali friend and trekking guide, Nare Magar, http://www.trekkingguides.co.uk    we reckoned that a long walk in the Himalayas was something we should do.  Now we want to go back to Nepal as soon as we can -  there's a lot of ground still to cover.

Nare recommended a trek to the Annapurna Base Camp and some side trips.  17 days walking and two or three days in Kathmandu.  The trek wasn't easy and it wasn't at all what we expected.  It was far, far better than we had imagined.  The Annapurna Sanctuary is well named.  The whole area and the route that we took from Phedi has something mystical about it, almost sacrosanct.  We found ourselves speaking in hushed tones and not talking much at all as the atmosphere and the magnificence of it all commanded respect and attention, something like entering an ancient cathedral, but much more.

We hadn't expected the lush forests that lead up to the Annapurna Ranges.  The path takes you through several levels of vegetation from sub-tropical, damp jungle-like forest up to mixed rhododendron and oak forest and then into conifers, birches and eventually pure stands of bamboo.  Then of course, the rocky Alpine landscape as the track approaches 3,700m in altitude.  The Sanctuary itself, at 4,200m, is pure mountain and glacier, a place for contemplation, an atmosphere that seemed to affect everyone there.

 

Visiting one of the most beautiful places on earth is hard work.   Apart from the walking and the altitude, the lodges, while astonishingly good for the location, are fairly basic.  The higher lodges have no heating at all and the temperature falls well below zero every night, especially in winter when we were there.  For the local people life is really hard.  Everything must be carried on the backs of porters or, occasionally, mules.  And that means everything.  Gas bottles, food, building materials, bedding  -  everything.  We saw fridges and washing machines in lodges and these had been carried up for several days on porters' backs, a climb of several thousand metres.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the demanding life that they lead, the people are the friendliest and most welcoming and amongst the most cheerful we have met in our travels. How do they manage to serve up such fresh and nicely cooked dishes?  The food was always plentiful and excellent  -  we ate really well.

We didn't know about the stone steps either.  They're an engineering masterpiece and, given the heavy use of these tracks and the wet climate, the lack of erosion is a testament to the foresight of the builders of these tens of thousands of usually irregular massive stone steps.  But they are hard work for the uninitiated.

Also, we didn't know about the farmers' terraces.  In fact we didn't know much at all about what we were going to see.  Our guide, Nare, explained everything, anticipated everything and spotted everything.  He described the crops, pointed out the birds, the monkeys, the mountain goats, even a mouse hiding by the track, even leopard paw prints.  He showed us the beehives hanging from the eaves of the houses and the massive hives built by wild bees clinging to cliffsides.  

We always thought of rhododendrons as large shrubs.   But here they are major forest trees often of well over a metre in diameter and well over 20m tall.  They make lovely forests with their covering of creepers, mosses, orchids and lichens.  What must it be like when they are flowering.


In 17 days' walking we were hardly ever out of earshot of torrents, streams and waterfalls.  There is water everywhere and it's wonderfully refreshing and picturesque.

On the way back from the Annapurna Sanctuary we took a different route and followed a little-used path over a ridge rising to 3,700m to Dobato.  This was probably the hardest walking of all and as we nearly reached the top Nare stopped us for a break and offered us a cup of tea.  We thought he must be joking as we were miles from any lodge.  He produced a previously hidden flask of our favourite tea.  The views from the ridge were amazing.  Dhaulagiri, the Annapurna Ranges and Machhapuchhre all in one great unbroken sweep.

Many of the lodges function only as stops for trekkers.  But further to the south and west where agriculture is a practical proposition, there are hamlets and villages.  The most appealing that we visited is Ghandruk.

We met independent walkers with neither guide nor porter.  While that sort of independence has always been our choice in the past, we can't imagine going to Annapurna without our amazing guide, Nare, and our porter, Tek.  Quite apart from looking after our every need, Nare radiated calm and patience, which he needed and, thanks to him, this might have been the most tranquil three weeks of our lives.

Nare (left) and Tek

We were advised to spend a couple of days in Kathmandu and were glad that we did.  It's a chaotic and sort of run-down place but even in Kathmandu we found an atmosphere of relative calm.  

As seems to be the case with all cities, the past is more interesting and appealing than the up-to-date.  We went to Patan and were fascinated by the art and architecture and, once again, the laid-back atmosphere of the place.


"Man is made by his belief, as he believes so he is".  Bhagavad -  Gita

We've travelled a lot for our work and have visited many countries and worked with all sorts of different people.  Our trip to Nepal eclipsed most of those other experiences and reminded us of the happy and formative three years we spent in the Papua New Guinea Highlands in the early 1970s.

Thank you Nare and Tek for making Nepal such a memorable experience.

We'll post more photographs in the near future.


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