Originally published: 5th April 2008
Poon Hill Trek, Annapurnas
North. Where the mighty jaws of the Himalayas feast greedily on Nepalese skies.
Our would-be trekkers gazed on at the majesty of nature, filled with awe and wonder and no little hint of trepidation. They were to climb only the foothills of this impossible range, but even these lowly hills stretched up higher, so much higher than anything the land of their birth could offer.
They looked at each other and in each other’s eyes they saw how far they’d come – away from the warmth and safety of their homes and families; through dense jungle and across scorching desert; over oceans and through strange and wonderful cities; all the while their imaginations stretching further than they ever thought possible – and now they were here.
Looking back at the mountains, they took a deep breath, and began.
Seriously, though, it was HARD. On day one we climbed up a distance higher than than the total height of Ben Nevis and this was on the level 1, super easy beginner Poon Hill trek that Nepalese grandmothers can run in 30 minutes while fast asleep and carrying a tree.
But it was totally, totally gorgeous.
There are no cars! This is awesome. Everything is carried up (literally, everything) on the backs of porters. These guys and girls can carry incredible amounts (like three big backpacks, or a roll of pipe six metres in diameter) up steep, steep hills for hours and hours and the best bit is they basically strap all this stuff to their foreheads. That’s right, they carry 60kg with their fricking HEADS.
Our guide/porter, Gopal, had it easy, though. He had one backpack of about 10kg. We had it easier, just a daypack and camera between us. In our defence, this is hill walking on speed.
During the days we climbed through many different environments – across fields and wide rivers; through deep valleys where steep rock walls climb up to the clouds on either side; through dense forests where the beautiful reds and pinks of the rhododendron flowers sparkled above our heads and across rocky cliff edges that plummeted down into the misty gloom below – and in the evenings we rested at little villages (reminded us of Switzerland) that dot the well worn trekking route; sleeping in guest houses that were basic but comfortable, only cost 1 pound a night, and had the most incredible views. Huge peaks of 7000+ metres loom over you, arresting your gaze for hours on end. They are so magnificent, and feel so close.
It’s hard to capture on camera, but harder to put into words, so it’s probably best to check out the photos.
Our 5 day trek was a wondrous, peaceful time that allowed for a lot of reflection and contemplation and, despite the sometimes arduous physical side, we came away feeling totally relaxed and happy and mostly wishing that we’d done more (which we will).
Back in Pokhara, we spent a leisurely few days eating tasty tasty pizza and pasta at an Italian-owned restaurant (we’ve eaten a LOT of curry in the past 5 months!) and messing around on boats in the beautiful lake.
We also tried a yoga course that was…interesting. We both kinda enjoyed the actual exercising part of it, and the quiet meditation wasn’t so bad, but some of the other stuff was a little kooky (and a tiny bit too religious for us) – like group chanting and ‘yogic cleansing’: pouring warm salty water up one nostril and letting it cascade out the other (it’s an experience).
We do have to pause for a second and send out insanely massive props to our American friend Jason, who managed to do 10 hours of meditation a day for 10 days. It was hard for us to keep still for 45 minutes – things go numb, you get itchy and tired – so 10 hours is an incredible feat of mental endurance.
Jason, we salute you.
Also at this retreat, we had to do some ‘karma yoga’. This is basically hard work. For an hour we had to do manual labour to help the yoga centre expand. This would be fine if we were staying at a donations-based ashram, helping them to keep offering basically free courses, but we weren’t. We were paying cold, hard and very nonspiritual cash to do their hard graft for them. It stank a little of exploitation of the wide-eyed, spiritually empty Westerners (i.e. us) who turned up looking for enlightenment (provided it came with hot showers), and three nights quickly turned into just the one.
Paragliding. Now THAT’S something we can get behind.
The morning of Erin’s birthday we drove up the side of a whopping great hill (are there any other kinds of hill in Nepal?), attached an instructor and a parachute (‘wing’ is the technical term. Other technical terms include the ‘happy sound’, which is the noise our altimeter makes when we’re ascending; and ‘pimping’, which is kind of like slipstreaming but with parachutes) to our backs, ran and jumped off the side of the aforementioned mound.
It was every other side of awesome up there. We spent about 45 minutes, following eagles and vultures into thermal updrafts, which take you up higher, and flying around over the hills of Pokhara before coming down over the lake (no thermals there), doing some aerobatics, which was basically spinning around really really fast, and landing comfortably in the ‘drop zone’ (more technical terms – I have all the words).
It was a trippy trip, and another expensive potential hobby. Apparently, you can stay up for 11+ hours at a time, just ridin’ the thermals (even in Wales – apparently they have hot air there too – who knew?) and flying around, which would be amazing. It’s so peaceful up there – no huge Rolls Royce jet engines here – and everything looks so different. Small, mostly.
Chitwan National Park
Then for a different kind of awesome: Chitwan National Park, home of the Asian One-Horned rhinoceros. On our first night, we were drinking Cokes at a riverside bar at sunset and we looked over at this field across a stream and saw two great big rhinos just going for a wander. Milling around in the tall grass like they owned the place, they were! It did bode well for us, though, cause if you’ve been following closely you’ll know that our wildlife trips have often times been cursed.
The next morning, it was up at 6am and out into the jungle for a day-long trek. Five minutes in, we saw our first wild rhino of the day, up close and personal. He was no more than 30 metres away, just standing there through the trees figuring out who we were and what we wanted. It was incredible. And these things are fricking HUGE. We had been briefed on what to do if a rhino charges you (climb a tree, hide behind a tree, run in a zigzag), and we thought we might have to use one or all of these techniques as this great grey beast turned it’s Land Rover-sized body towards us. Luckily, when we all stood up together, it freaked out and then we saw what it would have meant if it HAD charged us. These things move FAST. Climb a tree? Barely time to wet our pants.
After this encounter, we were buzzing like crazy, but it got better. About 30 minutes later, we heard another great rustling in the bushes up ahead (right where we were walking) so Ram, one of our two guides, lobbed a stick towards the noise and we heard this great rush as the beast pegged it. We listened until we heard it stop, then crept around to where we thought it would be and there it was in all it’s magnificence, standing with it’s side towards us in a clearing in full view not 20 metres away. It clocked us instantly, and ran off before we could get the camera, but for a split second it stood in perfect natural glory, framed by the jungle and looking totally wonderful.
Later, the excitement continued as we had to hide behind a tree cause we heard what sounded like machine gun fire. We thought it was guerrillas at first (damned Maoists), but it was actually the male rhinos fighting. We hid cause it’s not a good idea to get too close to them when all that testosterone is firing – almost as bad as Manchester on a Saturday night.
The next day we got even closer to these impressive beasts as we went on an elephant safari. The elephant’s smell hides our stinky human smell, so animals don’t know we’re coming and we can get right up close (like 5m close). We saw two rhinos, an eagle and a sambar deer all in our face and personal like. Unfortunately, this trip was tainted by the awful treatment of our elephant who received multiple whacks on his head with a heavy metal pole for the tiniest of misdemeanours. It made us feel pretty sad, and if we’d known we wouldn’t have gone. If we can’t treat domestic animals well, then we don’t really deserve to see the wild ones up close.
Anyway, we’re now back in Krazy Kathmandu, avoiding motorbikes and eating fine, fine food, preparing to leave this crazy beautiful country. We’re heading to Laos via Bangkok on the 8th April (April? Already? Damn). Onwards!
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