Ben Van Millingen
Sitting next to the loo on the Aeroflot flight to Delhi was a good introduction as to what to expect in Nepal. Trekking there was an earthy experience where you are always close to your bodily functions and usually those of the people with you and at times it seemed close to those of the whole population of Nepal. Fearing the worst we went armed with antibiotics, lomotil and iodine but fortunately only used the iodine for sterilising drinking water.
John, Tony and myself arrived in Kathmandu in the middle of October to meet Gus, a friend from Bangladesh. We were loaded with packs weighing 30-40lbs each, depending on whether you had bothered to include binoculars, sketch pads, more than 5 changes of clothing or were forced into carrying Ben's duty free ciggies. We were lucky to get out of Kathmandu in two days having booked a seat on the bus towards Pokhara and got our trekking permits (cost £9 for three weeks). We had decided early on not to go to a trekking agency or to have any guides or porters. They don't cost much per day and would have been useful on some of the steeper parts judging by the grunts and gasps of some of us and may have made it easier to communicate with some of the Nepalese but we felt it would have taken away some of the sense of achievement not to carry our own gear.
Our trek split itself naturally into two parts. The first part followed the Marsyangdi valley up from the Kathmandu - Pokhara road to the Thorung Pass above Manang. The second half followed the Kali Gandaki river down to Pokhara, Nepal's second largest town. This route encircled the Annapurnas which dominated the view most of the way round. Armed only with one of the millions of guide books that you can buy, route finding is dead easy because the paths are used by the Nepalese for getting from one village to the next and were the previous trade routes up to Tibet. Any doubts were soon sorted out by following the river upstream. The only problem was knowing which side to be on as there weren't many bridges. Those that there were were impressive - suspension bridges hanging on rusty wires 50 ft above the river bed, usually with planks missing, minimal protection on either side and performing torsional oscillations as you crossed.
The bus from Kathmandu dropped us in a village called Dumre which was at about 2,000ft. The vegetation initially was subtropical changing to deciduous then pine trees higher up. Going in autumn gives the best walking weather but few of the plants were in flower. The houses also changed as we went higher from mud and wattle to stone built. They consisted of one room in which the whole family lived, ate and cooked. The open fires filled your eyes with smoke but kept the bed bugs at bay. We stayed in houses that called themselves hotels, along with the fire, family and even animals. Beds cost up to 9p a night and in the Marsyandi valley as much rice, lentils and vegetable curry as you could stomach cost 30p. We were offered meat only once in this area, dried yak meat, very tasty and plenty to chew on. During the day we found that the Nepalese stopped for lunch at 10.30, whereas we wanted to stop at the hottest part of the day. This unfortunately meant we couldn't taste the delicacies of rice and lentils as often as we would have wanted and had to resort to lunchtime snacks of chappattis, peanut butter and bananas.
Manang was the only village we stopped in for more than one night. It lies at the head of the Marsyangdi valley at 11,000ft. We stopped there for a rest after nine days solid walking from Dumre and to acclimatise to the altitude before crossing the Thorung Pass. (Although it was the furthest we had been from 'civilisation' and was in the centre of a bare landscape with little growing, Manang was the first place to provide anything apart from rice and lentils - noodles were the principle replacement and even meat from some animal or other.)
We had carried two tents all of the way and only used them for one night between Manang and the Thorung Pass at 14,000ft. The alternative was a very crowded tea house. (We were in our pits by 6 O'clock in the evening after eating the only dried food we had brought with us. The altitude and cold meant that none of us slept well and we were away by 7 in the morning.) The walk over the pass was the only day we were above the snowline. The deserted landscape was magnificent, the walking a little tiring: you had to walk at a snail's pace, any quicker and you were forced to stop and catch your breath. At the top of the pass (17,600ft) we were assailed by three Japanese to have their picture taken in front of the cairn. Somehow two of us still had enough breath left for a quick fag.
The Kali Gandaki valley is a far more popular trekking route than the Marsyanhdi valley and as such there is far more choice in accomodation and food. The prices were not much more expensive but we spent more because we had the choice: noodles, pancakes, porridge, muesli, chocolate cake and alcohol. A mixture of the last two were blamed for a nasty attack of vomiting. We had gone for 10 days without a drink - quite a feat for some of us. But the appearance of it in the Kali Gandaki valley was too much.
The most expensive and best was a German type beer at about £1.10 a bottle. The local beer, Chang, brewed in the villages from rice and barley tasted and looked like the dregs in the bottom of a bottle of homebrew. Rakshi, the rice spirit was warming stuff that would soon send you blind. The most interesting drink was Tumba that we found in a dive in Kathmandu. Fermented millet seed is put in a plastic mug on which is poured hot water from a thermos flask. When the mixture turns cloudy the water and alcohol are sucked up through a septic bamboo straw. More water is poured on until all the alcohol is removed. Unfortunately we couldn't carry back a sack of millet seed.
When we first dropped into the Kali Gandaki valley from the Thorung Pass the river flows in an incredible wide flat plain leading up to Tibet. However it soon develops into a steep gorge with Annapurna on one side and Dhaulagiri on the other. We had been hoping that it would be downhill all the way back to Pokhara but after dropping to 4,000ft the path then goes back up to 10,000ft at Poon Hill where we had superb views of all the mountains at dawn.
We took 18 days to get round this walk, having planned to have three days off for gut rot we had time to kill in Pokhara, which is not a very inspiring town. At one end of the lake a small tourist village has grown up populated by hippies and druggies. The hotels and meals are more expensive and you're continually pestered to buy drugs and magic mushrooms. But it did provide our only spot of caving while in Nepal. Having read Thorne's account of his trip to Pokhara (Cambridge Underground 1980) we were determined to find the Harpan River Cave. Buying a town map and hiring a bicycle for the day (25p) we managed to locate Mahendra Cave to the North of the town. Small boys besieged us to look after our bikes or to be our guide in the cave. We were not over impressed with the trip, realising it wasn't Harpan River. Explaining our dilemma to the guide he assured us he knew the real thing and led us to a shakehole filled with nettles that didn't look as though it had seen as many tourists as the last one. Inside is a chamber maybe 15ft high, 20ft across and 40ft long with a roof that is covered in bats. Our guide seemed to sense our anxiety not to disturb them and promptly started hurling rocks at them. We left as quickly as possible, argued about how much to pay him or whether to pay the boys who had been riding around on our bikes for half an hour and cycled back to Pokhara. We later discovered that Harpan River Cave, also known as Devi's Fall, was only a mile away from where we were staying. A large stream thunders down the entrance pitch, cutting through a conglomerate rock: luckily we didn't have any tackle to investigate further. During the rest of the trek we had seen little signs of cave development. Near Muktinath, at the top of the Kali Gandaki, a vertical cliff was riddled with caves that looked as though they had been eroded by surface water and looked suitable for human habitation; there was no limestone present.
From Pokhara we returned by bus to Kathmandu for the flight to Delhi, although we had considered going by bus and train from Pokhara to Delhi which is cheaper and almost as quick. For the Delhi to London trip travelling by Aeroflot is always risky in that seats are rarely confirmed for the return journey. We had heard stories of people stranded in Moscow airport (which does a very good pint of beer) for a week. It took a visit to the Aeroflot offices in both Kathmandu and Delhi to confirm our seats on the plane, and even then two were not confirmed for the Moscow - London leg. Aeroflot didn't seem too keen on bringing back John's luggage - maybe it smelt too much but it sat in Delhi for a few days before being returned, much to his anguish and the insurance man's delight.
Surprisingly this holiday was not as expensive as may be thought.
For anyone interested our rough costs in 1982 for 4 weeks holiday were:-
|Aeroflot flight to Delhi return||£284|
|Delhi - Kathmandu single||£77|
|Kathmandu - Delhi single (25% off for under 30's)||£59|
|Duty free and presents||£30|
|Food and accomodation on the trek||£62|