LIFE IS CHEAP
Kathmandu is absolutely one of the most filthy, chaotic, polluted, and disorganised cities I have ever been to – I liked it. It might have no traffic or street lights and looks like it’s just been hit by a bombing raid, but it has an energy to it. Of course, the real reason for this trip was to reconnect with nature. And as we settled into the business of that, it became apparent how challenging it would be. In Kathmandu walking down the street means dodging motorbikes, bicycles, cows, dogs, cars, a man carrying a seven-metre ladder, rickshaws, push bikes, tuk tuks … did I mention cows?
The neighbourhood we were in was Thamel, and through all the chaos there were moments of serenity when you step off the main thoroughfare and into a small alley way only two metres wide. There, away from the blaring horns and motorbikes and cars and cows, sits an old woman in traditional clothing. Tucked within her small shop she looks as old as the 200-year-old building she’s in, selling antiques.
Then you move to the next shop and a man is selling tea and everything is peaceful, calm and quiet. The alley ways are so narrow that they prevent all the smells and chaos from the world outside coming in. But you can’t stay in the alley ways forever so it’s back to the chaos to see the beautiful Buddhist chaityas (shrines) that are scattered throughout the city. Durbar Square is a must-see in Kathmandu, surrounded by 300-year-old buildings and Freak Street, which is a street that was taken over by the hippies in the 1960s during their magical mystery tour through South Asia.
Himalayan Social Journeys kitted us with Michael Helfman breathes in the moment a guide and two Sherpas (porters) for our trek through the Annapurna region, but first we had to get there. We thought by taking a bus we would be able to see the countryside. So we got on a local bus to Pokhara, which is the gateway to the Annapurna region, with our guide Vishnu, two porters, and the three American tourists. The roads were extremely winding, narrow, and were cut into the side of the mountain so one side was a sheer cliff overhang with no guard rail. Along the way we saw several trucks that had plunged to the bottom of the cliff to our right side. Not to mention people would just pass the bus on blind corners with not a care in the world. All of a sudden the bus pulled over to the side of the road where several other buses had stopped. We got out thinking it was for lunch, but Vishnu our guide explained the real reason we stopped was because a truck had tragically hit and killed a five-year-old boy. A mob had formed and closed off the road stopping all traffic until the relatives of the boy had come down from the mountain to be compensated for the life of the boy. We asked if this was standard practice. Apparently it was, and the going rate for hitting and killing someone with your car or truck was USD5,000, but since this was a boy it would be more. We would have to wait and see, and that’s exactly what we did. Four hours later we were told it was okay to go back on the bus to proceed to Pokhara. It turns out the driver’s insurance company had to pay USD8,000 for the life of the fiveyear-old boy.
Pokhara turned out to be a small city built around a mountain lake nestled in the valley of the giant Himalayas. You can see the peaks of eight 20,000-foot mountains surrounding the city, and as we pulled up the peaks crept out for just a few minutes from behind the curtain of clouds. We indulged in momos, which are the Nepalese version of dumplings stuffed with buffalo meat. In Pokhara, and Kathmandu for that matter, you can blatantly purchase perfect replicas of all mountain gear from name brands such as The North Face at a fraction of the price with very similar quality. The black market reaches even into nature, it seems.
OFF THE GRID
The next day we were off to Nayapul, which is one hour from Pokhara and the starting point of our 51km trek through the Annapurna circuit. From this point on we were off the grid and computer technology was non-existent. At first we trekked through a few small towns and even on a road for the first few kilometres. It was a relief to finally hit the actual trail-head where the road ends
Bovines rule, okay?
Nature in full technicolour