The magnitude of this trip is only just starting to sink in as I check off items on my packing list. Saved quite a bit of money by borrowing a tri-climate jacket, a down sleeping bag and a backpack from my friends. Still, stuff like gore-tex trekking shoes, dri-fit innerwear, winterwear (completely unnecessary in Singapore) and specialized hiking items like quick-dry towels don't come cheap.
Then there's the problem of fitting 2 weeks' worth of supplies into one backpack. Winter clothes are so bulky! Plus I tend to over-pack for security and frivolity. Feel a little - okay, very - sad that I'll be looking the same in all my photographs. I know this calls for a slap, but too bad I can't feel you over the Internet :)
Here's one tip I learnt: Bring back-up powerbanks and camera batteries because electricity in the mountain lodges is intermittent.
This will be my first Christmas away from home! I was buying my trekking shoes (not from IKEA, in case you were wondering) and saw these beautiful lights. I will miss you, Singapore.
I thought 1.5 hours between flights was plenty of time, but after a stop at the restroom and one more to grab bottled water I find myself quickening my steps through the transit area, realizing to my dismay just how far apart the boarding and arrival gates are. "750m ahead", says the sign. I break into a run.
I reach the gate 20 minutes before departure, gasping for breath, shoelaces undone on one foot. The plane isn't parked at the boarding gate. I am ushered to a minibus full of passengers, and the bus ferries us to a plane waiting on the tarmac. Kathmandu, here I come!
After a bumpy car ride punctuated with honks coming from every direction, I arrive at my hotel in Thamel. I'm still trying to work out the currency but already I've tipped too much to the guy who loaded the luggage into the car at the airport (and then said, "Ok, you can pay me tip now"), as well as to the guy who drove me to the hotel. I make a mental note to break down my money into smaller denominations.
At the hotel I gulp down a cup of too-sweet masala tea while trying to memorise a map. With all that honking I'd just experienced I'm afraid to even cross the street. I leave the hotel anyway, hoping I now know the way to Durbar Square.
One left turn and one right turn later, I am gloriously, gloriously lost. Oh well, at least I'm getting used to the honking.
Walking along the streets of Thamel is an assault on your senses. There's almost too much to see, hear and smell all at once. I duck into a compound where it's much quieter. It houses a Buddhist stupa and an arts school. People are lounging about in the afternoon sun, chatting and laughing.
These are the grounds of Kathesimbhu Stupa, a replica of Swayambhunath Stupa (also located in Kathmandu) built in the mid 1600s. History goes a long way back in this country, which, apart from its mountains, is most famous for being the birthplace of Buddha.
Time to leave the refuge of Kathesimbhu Stupa and continue exploring Thamel. The honking resumes as I walk along the street, keeping as close to the shops as I can. There's no differentiation between pavement and road here, and the larger cars can literally scrape you by as they pass.
I haven't the slightest idea where I'm going, but it isn't long before I find myself at what resembles a shopping area - "BISHAL BAZAR", reads a nearby sign. A superficial observation of the area is that there aren't any familiar brands at all - no McDonald's, no Starbucks, and most definitely no Forever 21 or Apple stores. Everything is 100% Nepali. Also the motorbikes lining the street are parked impressively close to each other. They seem to be daring me to tip them over like a line of dominoes.
Across the road, I spy a facade that looks strangely like images I've googled of Durbar Square. I can't believe I've just found the place by accident! Taking care to shadow a couple of locals in order to cross the road (honk honk), I head excitedly in the direction of Durbar Square.
I'm at Durbar Square which is famous for... I'm not sure what. Can't access the Internet on my phone and there doesn't look to be a ticket or information booth as far as I can see. Hahaha I'm such a lousy tourist.
I wander around to observe what people are doing. It's crowded not with tourists (except for the odd Chinese tour group and their giant flags), but with locals sitting on the tiered steps of a few pagodas. The architecture of the buildings in this area is stunning and regal.
According to Wikipedia (see, I'm so honest), Durbar Square houses the palaces of ancient kings who ruled over Nepal. The square continued to be the site of important ceremonies like the coronation of Nepali kings, up until the monarchy was abolished in 2008.
Spot a cafe called Himalayan Java which has a sign advertising free wifi. I remember reading positive reviews on it - may not have researched tourist spots but I'm always on the ball when it comes to food.
I order a honey latte and a slice of apple pie. Both are serviceable. The guy at the counter tells me the electricity's out (which I'll eventually learn is a very common occurrence) so there's actually no wifi. Oh well :/ Fingers crossed I'll find my way back to the hotel.
As I am trying to re-trace the route I'd taken that afternoon I am approached by a sadhu, or a Hindu holy man. He gestures at my camera and asks me to take a photograph of him. I should've known, really, but I oblige anyway. He holds out his hand expectantly for a tip, and I am unable to find any notes smaller than 500 rupees (slightly more than USD5, which is about twice an average day's wages in Nepal). I give the note to him reluctantly and he beams at me, imprinting my forehead with some colored powder as a "blessing". A few locals standing nearby are wearing bemused looks on their faces. How easy it is to fleece Asians, they must be thinking. Sigh. And I thought I was a savvy traveler.
I walk away unhappily but run into a rickshaw driver who urges me to hop on the rickshaw, leaving only after I refuse repeatedly. All this touting can be annoying, but I suppose it's a way of life for them. Just gotta deal with it smarter from now.
Eager to try some dal bhat for dinner, I explore the vicinity of the hotel. Most restaurants serving Nepali cuisine look devoid of locals, which can't be a good sign. Finally I spy a little Tibetan restaurant called Sherpa Cafe near Gaia Restaurant. It looks more like a shack than a cafe and the lighting is dim, but from what I can tell the patrons are Nepali men, which should be a positive indicator for good food.
I enter with a little bit of trepidation but the owner of the restaurant, an elderly lady, greets me warmly. She hands me an English menu ("No dal bhat?" I ask disappointedly. She shakes her head.) and I order thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and a plate of vegetable momos, or dumplings.
All the other patrons in the restaurant are drinking something out of a metal cylinder. It looks fascinating, so I get one too. The guy sharing a table with me, Badri, tells me that it's called a tongba. I take a sip and wow, it tastes exactly like warm beer. "Is this alcohol?" I ask Badri. "No no, millet juice," say the guys at the next table. They seem to be very entertained by me. Also, it's alcohol. I checked later on. Haha.
The food here is great and I have a great conversation with Badri, who works at a local broadcasting station. For a country that sees so many travelers it's sad that most of its people don't have the opportunity to explore the rest of the world.
In order to trek in the Annapurna region one has to get to the city of Pokhara. Left my hotel at 6.30 a.m. in order to catch a bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara.
It's a 200 kilometer drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and while the highway linking the two cities is functional, the drive can get a little unnerving at certain points where the roads are narrow and mountainous. The tiny stone barriers bordering the edges of the cliffs certainly aren't going to stop any vehicles from tumbling over. Thankfully we get a driver who's alert throughout the drive.
As the highway only has a single lane for cars heading in each direction, an unseen obstruction halfway through the journey turns the 6 hour drive into an 8 hour one. I take the opportunity to stretch my legs and snap some pictures. The countryside is lovely and the air is so fresh.
After arriving in Pokhara I check into Hotel Third Pole with the rest of my trekking mates. I've volunteered to room with a lady from Hong Kong none of us have met yet. I hope she's nice haha.
The view from the balcony of the room is wonderful. Pokhara is a town built on the banks of a giant freshwater lake, Lake Phewa. Watching the sun fade to a warm orange glow and feeling the rapidly cooling air on my skin, I feel serene for the first time since arriving in Nepal.
It just turned Christmas five minutes ago here in Pokhara. Listening to Lyn on a wintry night, spending Christmas away from everything that's familar - all this time and distance hasn't stopped my mind from wandering to where it's not supposed to be, my heart from seeking what isn't mine.
I leave for my trek tomorrow. I wonder how it will change me, if at all.
Over dinner I met an elderly lady named Linda, who'd just returned from a trek to Annapurna base camp. She always spends Christmas away from home - last year she'd climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and the year before she'd joined an expedition to Macchu Picchu.
Watching Linda made me sad. There was something in her dignified composure that spoke of loss. Maybe it was a loved one, maybe it's regret at something she did or didn't do. I hope she finds what she's looking for.
In case you're wondering, my roommate, Patty, turned out to be very pleasant and friendly. After I'd packed all my stuff to bring along for the trek and dumped the rest at the hotel, I walked over to Purna Yoga's office for a morning yoga session and breakfast after.
Didn't trust myself not to lose my passport and other valuables in the mountains, so I left them in the company's care. All meals during the course of the trek would be provided for so I only had to bring minimal cash for drinking water, snacks and souvenirs.
Lake Phewa's literally in Purna Yoga's backyard. The clouds above the hills you see in the picture are obscuring the World Peace Pagoda. When they clear it's a stunning sight; not one that my camera could do any justice.
It's a 1.5 hour drive from Pokhara to Naya Pul, where our trek begins. Along the way the Annapurna range comes into view. It's amazing how these snow-capped giants seem so docile from afar, like they don't mean to be anything but picturesque.
We take a short walk through the village of Naya Pul and prepare to say goodbye to civilization for the next week. Haha okay that's a bit of an exaggeration - the Poon Hill trek is a popular one, with little villages designated as rest stops along the way. From the ready way the kids here grin at us it's clear they're used to visitors.
Our trekking permits are checked before we cross the Modi Khola river via Birethanti Bridge. The metal suspension bridge is adorned with colorful prayer flags printed with Buddhist mantras. When hung in mountainous regions, their primary purpose is to bless trekkers with a safe and successful trek.
At this time of day the terraces etched into hillsides catch the sun's rays at just the right angle. Every bend we take holds surprises - one moment we're flanked on both sides by steep hills, the next we're walking along the Modi Khola river, placid and flowing languidly in this area.
For lunch I go for dal bhat. It's the national dish of Nepal and comprises dal (lentil soup), bhat (rice) and vegetable dishes like curried cauliflower, potatoes, pickles and a local spinach called saag. Most Nepalis have it for both lunch and dinner every day. This rendition isn't bad save for the soggy papadum.
When we set off for the second leg of our trek after lunch I warm up quickly, sweating profusely though I've stripped down to my last layer, which unfortunately happens to be heat-retaining thermals from Uniqlo that do their job a little too well. T-shirts only from tomorrow!
I'm surprised by how quickly the terrain seems to be steepening. At some points I find myself leaning forward and digging my heels and trekking pole into the soil so I won't slide back down the same slope I've just climbed laboriously. Uh oh. I begin wondering what I've gotten myself into.
With a sigh of relief I climb up the final flight of steps to our teahouse in Hille, where we'll be staying for the night. That was a lot more tiring than I'd expected.
While we're served hot cups of tea I take in our surroundings. The area is covered in rolling hills for as far as my eyes can see and the village directly across from us is shrouded in afternoon mist, its houses looking impossibly tiny.
Mahesh, our yoga teacher, takes us through a stretching session. It hurts like a bitch when you're applying pressure to your aching muscles, but trust me, they'll be thanking you afterward.
Loud but muffled music is being played in the village across from us, the pulsating beats bouncing off the hills and echoing through the valley. Now that my mind isn't fixated with surviving the day's trek I lapse into a somewhat melancholic mood - it's Christmas Day, and I'm spending it in the company of near strangers. This is exactly what I signed up for, I remind myself. Escape often goes hand in hand with loneliness.
After we're done unpacking, Mahesh has us lie in sleeping bags on beds in a darkened room for a yoga nidra session. If done right it supposedly places one in a state of lucid sleep, in which one is technically awake but only cognizant of one's dream environment, and not one's surroundings.
I'm naturally skeptical of everything so having never done this before I found the situation absurdly funny. Still, I followed Mahesh's instructions to a T - easy because he has such a soothing voice and reassuring presence.
2014 brought me through emotional highs and lows, and my thoughts have been all over the place because I've been putting off confronting facts I don't want to face. When Mahesh gently told us during the yoga nidra session to set a resolve for ourselves, something that we want to achieve in the distant future, and to repeat that resolve to ourselves thrice, the aim of my trip became immediately apparent to me. It was as if all my scattered thoughts had been distilled into a single line, clear as day, and when I awoke after the session I realized that my face was wet with tears. Scary, but helpful, I hope. Here's to facing the challenges that 2015 will bring.
The reverberating sound of the singing bowls signals the start of our day. I reluctantly leave the warmth of my sleeping bag and stumble to the door, receiving gratefully from our porters cups of hot ginger tea.
After we've washed up we head for a morning yoga session outdoors. The view is just unbelievable. I would practise yoga everyday if I could do it in this environment hahaha. #excuses
The owner of this teahouse, Dipak, is one crazy guy. We're hooting with laughter while he orchestrates photoshoots for us with props like baskets and scythes. Bijuli, the dog (whose name means "electricity" in Nepali), watches our antics without any discernible expression on her face. "Bijuli is pregnant," Dipak explains. "Naughty dog." Hahaha.
I arrive at our first break point an hour later, wheezing. If words were edible I would be forced to swallow them. It's winter so the temperature's in the high teens, but I'm glad I wore a t-shirt today because boy is the sun intense this high up. On the bright side (har har) we meet a pony blinking sleepily under the shade of trees.
I don't have the healthiest dietary habits but regular-sized candy bars are things I generally wouldn't eat. To hell with that now; I need an incentive to keep climbing. I stop to buy a Mars bar and devour the thing on the spot, then continue panting my way up.
There're plenty of these provision shops along the way and they sell basic necessities like bottled water, toilet paper, along with Mars, Snickers and Twix bars. Note that prices increase as you head higher up - the price per candy bar can vary from USD1 to USD2.
The houses here are painted in the most vibrant shades of blue and orange. They look lovely against the sky.
My mood for photo-taking returns as the steps get less steep. Even without considering the landscape the houses here are truly beautiful. Check out the stone masonry on that abandoned house. It's all the more impressive seeing as how settlers here have to make do with the limited resources they have, occasionally relying on supplies delivered by mules.
There're 3 Chinese guys heading my way and from their accents it's obvious they're Singaporean. Never happier to hear that accent than when I'm abroad. We exchange friendly greetings and continue on our separate paths.
I see our teahouse in the distance! That's my cue to slow down and take a selfie with the lush greenery.
Spent a relaxing afternoon by the fire in the teahouse and then it's yoga nidra before sitting down to dinner. There's a guy from Switzerland who's travelling by himself, so we invite him to join us for dinner. I think I'm scaring him by asking intrusive questions and offering unsolicited girl advice. Oops.
No but seriously it's so cold it hurts to breathe. They weren't kidding when they warned us to layer up for the night - teahouses typically have no heating. I'm in thermals, 2 layers of fleece, a down jacket, inside a thermal sleeping bag, underneath a comforter, and still I've woken up because of the cold. I burrow completely into my sleeping bag, leaving only the tip of my nose exposed so my roommate, Lynda, doesn't find a corpse next to her in the morning.
One thing this trek is forcing me to do is to unpack and repack my stuff everyday. It's such a chore when you're both OCD and lazy - I want everything to be organized with minimal effort hahaha such a brat.
As I prepare to leave the teahouse a familiar jingling and clopping sounds in the distance. It signals the approach of delivery donkeys, bells attached to their saddles. I keep to the side to let them pass, taking the opportunity to snap some final shots of the area. An evil cook and a thieving Santa are painted on the walls of the kitchen. Also that little girl has sass... and a bit of drool on her chin.
Yesterday was all about cliffs, and today we're heading through the woods. I've thrown a jacket on because it's chilly when the sun isn't shining on you. Actually, everyone else is in thermals. I just have a sweating problem - it's my tropical climate upbringing.
Had to get a picture with that waterfall. I'm trying very hard to look meditative.
It could be that I'm deprived of nature living in Singapore (still got nothing but love for you, motherland) or it could be a newfound appreciation for life that comes with age, but I seem to be wowed by all the sights that this trek affords. It's not that I'm easily impressed, is it? I'm only just beginning to realize how much beauty there is in the world. So it makes me a little sad that I'll never be able to see all of what the world has to offer.
We've arrived at Ghorepani, the village located nearest to the summit of Poon Hill. My happiness is premature as Mahesh explains that we'll be staying at the highest teahouse in the village so we have less to climb tomorrow. Dang it, here I was, thinking we were done for the day.
After I place my bags in the room (THERE'S AN EN-SUITE BATHROOM :,-) ) I'm sharing with Zoha, I head downstairs to the common area where everyone has gathered, waiting for our stretching session to commence. We chat for a while before I turn around to place my cup of tea on the table. It is then that I look out of the window for the first time.
"HOMYGAWD," I shout.
I hadn't looked behind me the entire time we were climbing the stairs in Ghorepani. This is what I'd missed out on seeing.
The dal bhat served here is EXCELLENT. So good, in fact, that I'm going to order it for dinner again tonight.
Post lunch I hold a cup of masala tea, trying to take a selfie with the mountains that comes across as effortless. These ones are the hardest to pull off okay - in the same way how the no-makeup look is actually one of the most difficult to create. After several failed attempts Zoha takes pity on me and helps me out, nailing the shot on her first attempt. "I've never seen anyone take so many pictures of themselves at one go," marvels Lynda. I puff up in pride hahaha.
WIFI. THIS PLACE HAS WIFI. Have to pay USD1 before the lady keys in the password on your phone but whatever, take my money, lady!
I sit by the crackling fire, scanning through the flurry of "ARE YOU ALIVE" messages that stream in. I refresh the page again and again, searching for what cannot be found. I really should learn to temper my expectations.
The sound of the singing bowls slices through my troubled slumber. I sit up groggily, fumbling around for my trekking pants. I slide them on over my thermals and they're cold as ice. Just the shock I needed to my system. Fully awake now.
I brace myself before opening the door of the teahouse for the blast of frigid morning air to hit my face. Unsurprisingly, it's completely dark outdoors. I haven't brought a headlight or a torch hehehe. Luckily my night vision isn't too bad, and I manage to get by with the ambient light from Zoha's torch (she's right behind me).
The light illuminates only the two steps immediately ahead of me so I have no idea how much more we have left to climb. It's silent all around save for the sounds of trekking poles hitting the ground and the crunch our boots are making as we step on snow and fallen leaves.
The flight of stairs seems neverending. I grit my teeth and up my pace to get it over and done with, which just tires me out more quickly. We're about 3000 metres above sea level and oxygen is thin. In half an hour I've stopped thrice to catch my breath, standing on rest platforms by the side of the stone staircase.
The downside to taking these breaks is that passing climbers keep beaming their torches at my face to see if I'm someone they know. I try to be polite to strangers (I get progressively ruder the better you know me, it's my special way of showing affection) but after the nth flashlight I can no longer be bothered to contort this face - (-_-) - into a smile.
Legs are jelly but I've made it to the top of Poon Hill! At 3,280 metres above sea level this is the highest I've ever been. Already there's a crowd waiting for the sun to rise.
I take my place on the ledge, accepting gratefully from Sumit, our guide, a cup of hot ginger tea and a hobnob biscuit. The sun is still slightly below the horizon but it's bright enough to make out several peaks, including Dhaulagiri (8,167m), Annapurna I (8,091m) and Annapurna South (7,220m). The sight of these giants is spectacular.
There's really nothing quite like sipping on tea and watching the sun cast its first rays on the Annapurna massif. This is how every single day begins, with the mountains gradually reclaiming the majesty that darkness has stolen from them.
We begin our 400 metre descent to Ghorepani. I'm impressed by how many steps I'd managed to climb up at dawn.
The descent is slow because there's ice on the steps so we have to tread carefully. Going up I hadn't noticed the ice, but now that we're descending I nearly slip a couple of times. Shortly after the picture below is taken the guy in red (not part of our group) falls where there happens to be a rock and hits his head on it. Loudly.
All I do when I see him fall is to say "OH, F***." I'm ill-equipped to help - can barely keep my own balance and have no first aid knowledge - so I have to keep moving because the staircase is a narrow one and there's a line of climbers making their way down. The guy's wound is not a pretty sight, but thankfully Mahesh is by the guy's side in seconds, holding a towel to his wound, with his own guide nowhere to be seen.
It's a sobering reminder to be extra cautious when heading downslope. At this height there're no clinics, much less hospitals, so if anything happens you either bear with it till you complete the entire trek or be airlifted off the mountains for the foreigner price of USD5,000 (though in legit cases insurance should cover this).
The morning's adrenaline from summiting Poon Hill is ebbing and is slowly being replaced by fatigue. We're walking through a forest patchworked with white where snow has fallen, but all I feel is dread in the pit of my stomach as more stairs appear. I've never been more in need of bubble tea than right now.
From Ghorepani (2874m) we ascend again to a height of 3100 metres. Poon Hill is visible in the distance, nestled comfortably amongst its taller neighbours, its observatory tower resembling a toy. Hard to believe that we've come so far since the start of the day.
Today we're blessed with a clear and incredibly blue sky.
I thought I would take an entry to talk about Mahesh, who's been an incredible guide/yoga teacher to us. This guy radiates calmness - he's got such a gentle and comforting aura. Even when he's hiking uphill his steps are measured and unhurried, his breathing even, his footing sure. He spent two years in Singapore teaching yoga back in 2006 and 2007, so we talk about that a lot as we climb. Well, whenever I'm not gasping and wheezing.
"It's like he floats up mountains," said the trekkers on the previous trek he led to Annapurna base camp, at our welcome dinner on Christmas eve. I believe them now.
The only type of shopping you'll be able to do on the mountains will be for colorful hats and mittens or Tibetan style trinkets and souvenirs. It's obviously cheaper to get these at Thamel in Kathmandu, but if you're a first world bugger who's itching for some form of retail therapy then you'd be pleased to know that they won't cost more than a couple of USD each anyway.
We suddenly find ourselves in a forest where everything is white. It's so beautiful it's surreal, and I don't think I've ever inhaled air this clean. Got a lot of thinking done here, but watch out for the ice on the ground.
Now that we're on the downhill part of the trek I'd expected to be bounding down the steps. Turns out I'm even slower going down than I am climbing up.
The ice covering the rocky steps compounds my anxiety about possibly falling and smashing my face into a rock. Before we take each step we have to assess the rocks or slope ahead to look for a non-icy part to step on. Sometimes there are none, and my stomach clenches in fear as I ready myself for the feeling of slippery ice beneath my sole, preparing to break a fall if it happens. The DSLR camera slung round my neck is actually affecting my balance at this point (and to be honest I would protect it with my body in a fall haha), so Sumit kindly offers to hold it for me.
Not fun at all, but the combined charm of snow and nature did make the experience a little better.
Further down the trail we see stones stacked into structures resembling pagodas. These are known as prayer mounds. In Buddhist tradition, each stone, blessed with a prayer by a passing traveler and added to a prayer mound, merges with the prayers of bygone travelers and enhances the spirituality of the area.
Finally reached our lunch spot. Exhausted by this point, but our porters are as upbeat as ever despite carrying loads of 25 to 40 kg each. Me? I'm just glad I had the foresight to order a double fried egg to go with my dal bhat.
It's common to see children helping out at teahouses owned by their families, and this one is no exception. This little boy was a sweetheart.
I slide out quietly through the door at the crack of dawn, taking care to make as little noise as I can so I don't wake my four other roommates. The teahouse had been overbooked the day before so we were five to a room, our beds side by side. Was a cozy night to say the least.
I sit on a stone bench in front of the teahouse, pulling my knees close to me for warmth. It's absolutely freezing, no thanks to the strong winds in the area. A line of prayer flags strung across the field flaps about helplessly.
You'd have to try really, really hard to take a bad photo in this area. Because we're still going downhill and I'm still afraid of falling, I've packed my DSLR into my backpack, relying on my phone to take pictures. The iPhone (I use a 5s) can do some pretty awesome things when natural lighting is good.
That photograph of the horse is probably my favorite of the entire trip. It was an extremely lucky snap, as the horse turned back to look at me at just the right moment.
Aaaand this marks the end of our trek for the day - wish every day could have been like this haha. #sloth
The moment I set foot in Little Paradise I realise the word "idyllic" was invented for this place. The vibe at this lodge is incredibly laid back - it has a mountain view, hammocks, farm animals and PUPPIES. I mean, come on?!
Freshly showered, I wander around the property, pausing to feed a stalk of celery to some ravenous rabbits. Stumble upon a mini weed garden at the back so I guess the place isn't quite as wholesome as it looks haha.
It's hard to put into words how incredibly relaxing Little Paradise is. It's a place that truly deserves its name. I haven't left and already I want to return someday.
I'm all wrapped up in my yoga blanket, journalling to this view while listening to music and sipping on a cup of hot masala tea. This moment would be perfect if I'd remembered to put on a pair of socks.
We're gathered in the little glass and wooden hut at the center of the compound for dinner. The other guests (all two of them) are playing Bob Marley songs on their Macbook, and we sit in chairs around the fireplace staring contentedly into space, wishing we could stay here all night instead of battling the cold in our rooms.
After dinner I head outdoors to gaze at the stars. As with the night at Banthanti there are dozens of them dotting the night sky, only this time the outlines of Hiunchuli and Annapurna South are bathed in moonlight (starlight?) and visible as well. It's a sight I hope to remember always.
1. Fruits (pomegranate, apple) carried by our porters
2. Nuts and cheese carried by our porters
3. Whatever we want to order off the teahouse menu: Most of the time I get a veggie omelette, honey toast or a vegetable soup. Better to stick with veggies on the mountain - last thing you want to deal with while trekking is an upset stomach.
The path to and from Little Paradise runs along a scenic ridge. Feels like I'm in The Sound of Music.
The dogs from all the teahouses we've stayed at have a habit of following us after we leave. They'll walk with us for about 20 to 30 minutes before turning back. I'd like to think that it's their little way of saying goodbye.
We're at Ghandruk, a relatively large village with a population of 4,750. Haven't seen a concentration of this many houses in a while now so it takes some getting used to.
On this trip I've learnt that in order to get animals to look back at you for a picture, you have to sound like one of them. I stood outside the goat's shed for a good minute going, "Mmmmeeeehhhhh." What? I can't tell when animals are judging.
I've developed a Twix obsession. Had one pack right before lunch, which was (surprise!) dal bhat with an extra double fried egg. I'm eating like a sherpa without actually doing any of the work a sherpa does.
I've given up on using my trekking pole and suddenly I'm moving so much quicker. It was useful going up but I find that it hinders my balance heading down. It's like I have an extra limb I don't know what to do with.
Now that I'm not fixated with trying not to fall I stop and marvel at the simple and effective infrastructure that's in place throughout the route. Steps constructed from slabs of stone, winding footpaths carved into the sides of hills, little wooden bridges that look rickety but are sturdy enough to bear the weight of humans and mules. These are truly feats of engineering.
These guys somehow manage to reach every break point before we do, laughing and singing merrily as they walk with giant sacks pressed against their backs and strapped to their foreheads. It's amazing how sure-footed they are, helping us down slippery slopes when we're (not least yours truly) are struggling to keep our balance.
Splashes of vibrant colors in unexpected places as we walk through a farming village.
Been thinking that if I were a farm animal I would definitely want to live in the mountains in Nepal. Vast expanses of grassland to graze on, mountain views, no cars to scare me. Even better if I'm a cow - most Nepalis are Hindus and won't be able to eat me. Notice how I'm already referring to myself in first animal. Worrying.
In their yard two children are taking turns to play on a swing fashioned out of rope, shouting with laughter. They glance shyly at us when we say hello.
These two didn't do it, but it's a little heartbreaking to hear some children in these villages go, "Chocolate? Chocolate?" when they see tourists. Apparently they've gotten used to passing trekkers giving them chocolate or money. Mahesh discourages us from doing that as that kind of behavior teaches them the wrong values. Well it's not like I would part willingly with chocolate under most circumstances anyway, but it's still nice to have a valid excuse for not doing so.
That's "Happy New Year" in Nepali for you. Of course I googled it.
A group of young women are scurrying up staircases to their homes. They're clothed in deep red saris embellished with intricate gold embroidery, their raven black hair gathered into long braids. The village is aflutter with villagers getting ready to welcome the new year.
It's party time down here in Syauli Bazar. A group of Nepali guides are gathered in front of the dining hall at our teahouse, singing and dancing to the beat of tambourines. Next to our table a bunch of rowdy British travelers are toasting the heck out of their drinks.
Zoha, Lynda and I turn in early after dinner (we're grandmas at heart) but lie awake in the dark chatting about well, girl stuff. I'm going to miss these two.
This teahouse serves an inconsistent masala latte - just last night it tasted like a Starbucks Christmas drink but this morning it's practically masala flavoured water :,-(
Short one-hour walk back to where we started at Nayapul Crossing, where a van will be waiting to take us to Pokhara. I chat with Mahesh and then Sumit about the problems Nepal faces.
It's crazy that a country so rich in resources should be so underdeveloped. Mahesh says there are 36 political parties in the country jostling for power. Politicians make short-term promises to please the electorate, knowing that before the ruling party has a chance to implement its policies they'll be voted out at the next election. Bribery and corruption are rampant from the municipal to the cabinet level. Having given up on the government, people are apathetic about trying to change the country, preferring to leave for greener pastures.
How did this get so intense? Haha. Here are pictures of some things I saw along the way.
After an hour's drive we're back in Pokhara. The major roads are closed for a street festival so we have to take a detour to Hotel Third Pole, where our porters unload our stuff.
Lunch is at a cafe near Purna Yoga's office overlooking Lake Phewa. I order Nepali grilled fish. The filleted fish arrives covered in a brown sauce that makes it impossible to photograph appetizingly. It is pretty good though a tad salty.
I had to make my way back to Purna Yoga for a New Year's Eve/ farewell dinner. It was a 3 kilometer walk, and I didn't realise the area near Hotel Grand Holiday would be so dimly lit and so suburban. I was the only foreigner out on the streets as far as I could tell, and I wasn't comfortable taking out my phone to check the map.
I made a turn onto the main road, which was crowded with honking vehicles carrying people headed for the street festival. It was when I reached the border of Pokhara (huge "THANK YOU FOR VISIT" banner ) that I realized I was epically lost. Went into a travel agency to ask for directions, and the guy kindly helped to point me in the right direction. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared at all.
Ended up being 45 minutes late for dinner - and worn out from an unplanned trek - but hey, at least I got there.
After saying goodbye to everyone I hitched a ride with Mahendra, the boss of Purna Yoga, back to my hotel.
It was my first time riding on a motorbike haha. Felt pretty amazing to whiz down a bumpy road, the chilly winter wind nipping at my face.
Back at the hotel I couldn't get wifi in my room on the fifth floor (the modem is in the lobby so the signal weakens the higher up you are -.-). I went downstairs to the third floor and sat on a chair outdoors in the dark. The sound of music and partygoers by the lake traveled to me in the night as I counted down to midnight at Singapore time.
Had an appointment at 9.30 a.m. but it was pushed back. While I was waiting a Nepali man came into the shop and offered some celebratory snacks to the staff (because New Year's Day!), and very good-naturedly offered me one as well. It was really... sweet. Haha.
After waiting for some time I headed to a patisserie just across the road for a light breakfast. The place was actually full, so I figured it couldn't go too wrong. Got a croissant and a cup of black tea.
Wasn't expecting much when I bit into the croissant, but it turned out excellent. By excellent I mean it was a warm, buttery, crispy, flaky dream of a croissant.
The best part? The total bill came up to USD0.55. Crying tears of gratitude.
We're standing on the edge of a takeoff point, waiting for a nice juicy thermal to hit so we get a good lift for take-off. The weather today is cloudy and the lack of thermals make for flying conditions that are less than optimal.
After strapping me into my harness, Becca coaches me on how to feed Bob, who'll be flying with us. My anxiety is palpable, so a French paragliding instructor helping to check our set-up offers some wise words of advice: Look into the horizon. Don't look down.
I fix my gaze on clouds in the distance, and begin running on command. I run as fast as I can, moving my legs even when the ground beneath me has given way to nothingness.
The views are splendid. I'm giddy with adrenaline.
Can't think of a more amazing and unforgettable way to start a year.
I'm on the other side of Lake Phewa from touristy Lakeside (confusing, I know). It's really quiet and laidback here.
I spot a restaurant I vaguely remember reading about on Tripadvisor, Samay by the Lake. Order fish momos and veggie curry. Instead of rice I opt for samay bhaji, a Newari staple consisting of flattened rice and roasted soybeans. Funky.
Food here is pretty okay. Fish momos were a little too salty, though I suppose most people would be sharing them. I sat next to a table of affluent Nepali girls who kept looking at me curiously. Don't think it helped that I was seated at a table meant for 9. It was also a little too chilly to be sitting outdoors, but that view was hard to resist.
It's a 30 minute walk along the lake from where I am to Lakeside.
I entertain myself by tailing a cute guy in hobo pants walking on the other side of the road. He stops for too long to observe a grazing goat, so I move on without him. On hindsight I guess he could have been trying to shake me off :/
I decide to make the mini trek back to the hotel before sundown. It's the last day of the street festival and I love that the major roads are still closed to traffic. Not looking forward to returning to Kathmandu at all.
After a short rest at the hotel the plan was to walk back to touristy Lakeside (I know) for dinner at one of the Korean restaurants I'd passed earlier (I know). Because it was raining I ended up at the Tibetan restaurant right across the road from the hotel.
In addition to my usual dal bhat I wanted to get a soup to warm myself up so I went with the thukpa. Forgot a thukpa contains noodles and ended up with two meals in front of me. Felt too guilty to let food go to waste (especially here in Nepal) so I ate everything. I've even progressed to eating the dal bhat with my hand. The friendly uncle running the restaurant was mightily impressed :)
Roll lazily out of bed and order room service. Complimentary breakfast offered here! I get a tomato omelette, a grilled apple cheese toast and a hash brown.
The hash brown turns out to be a mound of diced and stir-fried potatoes. Uh I may be a big eater but this is beyond me. Plus it's cold... Luckily the grilled cheese toast (sans apple for some reason) is delish.
Since the spa is right next door I don't bother changing out of my PJs. I'm even wearing flip flops despite it being 10 degrees out because of the rain. No regard for propriety but ahh it's not like I have an image to upkeep here haha.
Back at the hotel to put some shoes on - if I walk the 3 kilometres to town in flipflops I'll be returning to SG with no toes.
Speaking of frostbite my fingers have felt slightly numb since midway through the trek. Was expecting sensation to return after leaving the mountains, but it still feels like I'm touching everything through gloves. Can only hope it's nothing permanent haha.
Rainy day today! :( It's the light drizzle kind of weather that lasts the entire day, so my plans... I have none... will revolve around indoor places I guess.
Back here for the third time in two days - this place is what I'll miss most about Pokhara. I try the chocolate danish this time (and of course... how could one resist that croissant?) and it's delicious.
Raj gives me a discount on the bill. Loyalty discount, maybe? Haha. "You can pay me more next time!" jokes Raj. I tell him sadly that I return to Kathmandu tomorrow.
Spending my last night in Pokhara sitting on my hotel bed, eating instant noodles and watching The Simpsons on cable. Occasional blackouts plunge the room into darkness, but the light's back on in a matter of minutes. Only annoying thing is that I have to switch the TV back on when it happens.
It's a rainy, frigid morning. I try not to drink anything at the hotel because I don't want to have to use the toilet later on, but it's too cold to refuse the masala tea that the staff keep offering me.
I leave for the bus terminal a short drive away, where I'll embark on a butt-numbing 6 hour ride back to Kathmandu.
Finally back in Kathmandu! Had to get a cab. Haggled the price down from USD5 to USD3 (hotel's a mere 5 minute drive away) but on the way out of the bus park the policeman on guard demanded 50 rupees (about USD0.50) from the driver for no reason, which of course I was expected to pay. Ridiculous. The cab driver could sense my unhappiness and tried to explain to me that that was just how things worked in Nepal. On hindsight I guess it's not his fault and I could have been nicer about it.
Thankfully at the hotel I got a great room (downright luxurious if compared to the accomodation of the past ten days), so that cheered me up a little.
Delighted to see a Himalayan Java. It's located above the only authentic North Face store in the whole country. Hahaha. I wonder how they survive in an area populated by shops selling counterfeit apparel which, to be honest, don't look half bad at all.
Cars are still honking all the time on the streets of Thamel, but I've come to realise that these honks are mostly friendly. It's their way of letting you know that they're behind you.
Want to get a small sandwich because this is meant to be tea, but when I ask the waiter for recs he points to the largest sandwich on the menu. I figure I deserve a reward after surviving that bus ride. Two Chinese girls at the next table stare at me when my order arrives, two halves of a colossal sandwich stuffed with turkey breast, ham, eggs, cheese etc. Solo travelers, let me assure you that there's no shame in ordering for two when you're a party of one. I even got a cup of honey latte to go with this.
First taste of meat in nearly two weeks makes me realise that... I could probably never be vegetarian. Haha.
I'm turning into one of those retiree tourists who sign up for package tours so they can eat at a Chinese restaurant at every meal. I was on a serious quest to eat Korean food again, but as the route to the restaurant I sought out was giving off some seriously dodge vibes, I ditched the plan.
I proceeded to seek out provision shops in the area, entering every one I saw till I struck gold at a Chinese one; now I'm back in my hotel room eating Shin ramyun for the second night in a row. WILL BE ADVENTUROUS TOMORROW :,-(
(Psst I get that Shin ramyun isn't Chinese, but you know how non-East Asian countries operate.)
The most famous local market in Nepal is located in Thamel at Asan Tole, a busy square where six streets converge. It sits on one of two historical trade routes linking India and Tibet that pass through Kathmandu, and dates back to 500-600 B.C.
What adds an extra layer of awesome to this place is that these aren't some ruins preserved for tourists. This place was a market 2600 years ago, and it continues to be a market today. Mindblowing.
I could spend a whole day wandering Asan Tole and not run out of things to see. Ingredients that are difficult to procure back home are commonplace and dirt cheap here. Makes the most gourmet of supermarkets look like a joke.
Rarely will you find more colors than in cuisines where spices are a primary feature, and Nepali cooking thrives on them. Cardamom, saffron, turmeric, anise, cumin, cinnamon - their exotic names run off the tongue beautifully. Large blocks of Himalayan rock salt sit in sacks, their pinkish crystals giving off an unassuming, almost exquisite charm. Food is so fascinating even in its raw form.
At the center of Asan Tole is a 3-storey temple built to honour Annapurna Ajima, goddess of abundant food grain and patron deity of the neighbourhood. A steady stream of devotees stop by briefly to pay their respects before heading off to begin their day.
The aunty selling garlands does not look happy on this Sunday morning.
Time to start preparing the dal bhat! Super exciting to cook what I've been eating for days. To recap, it's THE national dish of Nepal and consists of lentil soup (dal) with rice (bhat) and a variety of other vegetable dishes like sautéed spinach (saag) and different types of pickles (achar). Sudesna lets me try a tangy achar made with plums I haven't had before.
I pound spices using a pestle and mortar carved out of stone that Sudesna brought to Kathmandu from her village years ago. Cool stuff.
To end the meal we cook a sweet rice pudding called kheer, which is flavoured with milk, cardamom and raisins. Delicious.
What's a trip to Kathmandu without visiting its treasures?
On my itinerary for the day are three UNESCO World Heritage Sites - here I am at the first one.
The Boudhanath Stupa was constructed between 400 to 600 A.D. and is said to contain the remains of the Kashyapa Buddha. The square surrounding the stupa is home to a number of Tibetan monasteries and of course, restaurants and souvenir shops.
Incredibly lucky that my visit coincided with an event organized by one of the monasteries. The usually empty mandala surrounding the dome of the stupa was crowded with monks, nuns, pilgrims and a few nosy people like me.
Each part of the architecture in this place has a symbolic significance. Take, for example, the eyes on all four sides of the tower, which represent the wisdom, compassion and omnipresence of Buddha. The symbol for the nose is the Nepali character for "1", which signifies unity and the one way to reach enlightenment - through the teachings of Buddhism.
Everyone here is walking in a clockwise direction around the stupa. The Boudhanath Stupa is also known as "The Stupa that Answers All Prayers", and it's believed that circumambulation will lead to the fulfilment of wishes. I didn't do it because I'm not Buddhist, but I thought the ritual was an enchanting one.
As some of the pilgrims walk they spin prayer wheels. These wheels bear an inscription reading "Om Mani Padme Hum", the mantra of the bodhisattva embodying compassion.
At Pashupatinath Temple, foreigners are charged 1000 rupees (approx. USD10) for admission while Nepali and Indian nationals enter for free. I find out after paying that the main temple is off-limits to non-Hindus. That means I just paid USD10 to take a picture of the temple from the outside. Off to drown myself now bye.
Conveniently enough Pashupatinath is located by the banks of the Bagmati River, where I could drown myself if I wanted to. After seeing what the people sitting on the stone steps across the river are watching I think I'll look for another venue to do that.
Cremation takes place daily outside Pashupatinath along the Bagmati. Bodies are swathed in bright orange cloth, before garlands are laid over the deceased and prayers said. I am told that those covered in plastic sheets are accident victims, poor guy in the foreground.
Macabre as this may seem, it's actually a part of life for most Nepalis, 81% of whom are Hindu. I sat on the steps on the opposite bank for a long time, watching corpses smoulder and relatives wail. Just slightly upstream was an uncle washing his face in the same river. It was a strange scene to witness.
The temple grounds contain several shrines built to preserve some artefacts belonging to a select few people who died a very long time ago. Must have been some wealthy and important folks.
Near the ruins of a temple (no photography allowed in there) there are vendors hawking snacks. The quiet compound is softly lit by the rays of the afternoon sun streaming in through the branches of tall trees.
The Pashupatinath complex is sprawling and must have been magnificent in its heyday. It's still pretty impressive now, though like the other tourist sites in Nepal it would be nice if a little more care could go into preservation.
Walking along the Bagmati to exit the temple grounds, I notice more pyres on the opposite bank. Foreigners aren't allowed on that bank in order to respect the privacy of the deceased and his relatives.
Outside the temple are a line of shops selling artwork and boxes of colorful powder known as tikka. These tikka are used by Hindus for making tilaka, a mark on the forehead or other parts of the body.
Last stop for the day and third UNESCO World Heritage Site - Swayambunath Stupa aka Monkey Temple aka the stuff nightmares are made of.
At the end of a flight of steps leading up to where the stupa is located I see a Buddha carved out of a single slab of stone in 700 A.D. Even with modern machinery I would not be able to do this, I can maybe give you a man made of ice cream sticks wow I would have been worthless as a person living in 700 A.D.
But anyway, here's a brief story on how Swayambunath Stupa came to be:
Thousands of years ago, there used to be a huge lake where modern-day Kathmandu is.
Legend has it that one day a vedic saint, Rishimuni, came to visit the lake and planted a lotus seed. A giant lotus flower bloomed in the middle of the lake, and when the lake was eventually drained by the bodhisattva Manjusri to form Kathmandu Valley, it was discovered that the flower sat on a hillock. The lotus flower was then covered by a king with a huge stone in order to protect it from calamities and human misdeeds.
That stone eventually became Swayambhunath Stupa, which sits atop 312 steps.
Mythology aside, it's believed that this place is about 2,000 years old. Amazing.
Ugh. Surveying Kathmandu Valley like it belongs to him.
From Wikipedia: "Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning was raising the hill which the Swayambhunath Temple stands on. He was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long and head lice grew. It is said that the head lice transformed into these monkeys."
It's sundown, and I can't believe what a spectacular sight this is. The temple stands elevated above Kathmandu Valley so you get a bird's eye view of the surrounding landscape - at this moment there happen to be a few Jacob's Ladders clearly visible in the distance, casting spotlights on select areas of the densely built city. So freaking gorgeous.