We went through a time warp and got a glimpse of the future in the hills above Pokhara. We saw sustainable food production, local building materials, and renewable energy use. It was the year 2072! Actually, we celebrated Nepali New Year (which fell on the night of April 13) at this serene haven of eco ideas and education. The Nepali calendar is based on “Bikram Sambat” and is 56.7 years ahead of the common Gregorian calendar. The Nepali calendar (which is based on lunar cycles) was started by the emperor Vikramaditya (somewhere in India) after an important military victory. The new year always falls on the day after the new moon in the month of Chaitra. So, happy new year 2072. Apparently I will be turning 102!
The Annapurna Eco Village is a family-run enterprise that combines simple comfortable accommodation, great local food, and opportunities to explore meditation, massage, and relaxation in general! It can also provide a window into Nepali village life and is a good starting point for hiking in the Annapurna region. Cam couldn’t cope with too much relaxation (LOL), so he stayed for one night and then set off on his Mardi Himal hike, which he described in the previous blog entry. Actually, he had planned for the one night stay and the ambitious hike before we left Pokhara. Kaia, Jake, and I stayed a second night to soak in the mountains from a distance and from the comfort of a hammock!
On our first day there, the four of us took part in a 90-minute yoga/meditation/relaxation class. Our instructor, Yubi, was excellent and really explained the reasons for all the various components of the class. We even did lion roars (because lions represent strength, self-esteem, calmness) and laughter therapy (which Kaia excelled at)!
We liked it so much that we went back for more the next day. Our favorite part was when Yubi lead us through the relaxation process step by step. We can still hear his voice saying, “Bring your awareness to the right buttock. Totally, completely relaxed.”
So, what’s so “eco” about the Eco Village? Well, the owners are committed to environmentally friendly practices; they research extensively and have traveled to India and France to learn about various green technologies and farming practices. One of them gave Cam a tour of the facilities (while the rest of us were chanting “Bodum… Saranum… Ganchaaami” in the meditation room).
For more info about their mission and amenities, visit the eco village website: http://www.ecovillagenepal.com .
We met many interesting people at the eco village, including Claire and her 8-year-old daughter Salome, who are from France. I explained to Claire the gist of our trip and said (as I have said many times over the past 8 months), “We pulled the kids out of school for the year.” And for the first time, the response was , “Oh yeah, so did I.”
In the evening we had the chance to “help” milk the cow.
Nepali New Year was celebrated in a fairly subdued way: we had a nice meal and then Vishnu and Basantha (sons of the Adhikari family — owners) played the flute and drum while the family and some of the guests danced.
You can listen to this popular Nepali folk song here.
We had such high hopes for a prosperous new year. Who could have guessed that less than two weeks later, Nepal would suffer its worst earthquake in 80 years? I hope that 2072 sees a lot of healing and maybe the beginning of some type of building code that takes into consideration the likelihood of earthquakes and can protect people in the future from such catastrophes. Nepal is one of the countries we’ve visited this year that I feel I must return to some day. The natural beauty; the people; the culture; the food… all is stunning.
While hiking up then back down the deep Mardi Kola valley to the Annapurna Base Camp (see earlier blog entries) I noted on the map that there was another trail/trek perched high up on the ridge on the east side of the valley. It was hard to believe that a second trail could be running parallel, so much higher than our trail. This trail apparently snaked along the ridge climbing abave 2000m, 3000m, then up to 4100m at the Mt Mardi Himal viewpoint. A rough route rose further to the Mardi Himal base camp, but this was clearly well above the snow line.
The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued. Our route out of the ABC valley took us over this ridge much lower down, so I tried to convince the rest of my family to do this extra side route. They had loved the ABC trek but were thinking more about a rest than climbing back up another 2500 vertical meters for an additional 4 days of trekking. So that answer was “no”. Fast forward a few days. We planned to spend our last few days around Pokhara at the Annapurna Eco Village which is more or less near the bottom of the ridge that snakes up to Mardi Himal. I then schemed a plan to depart from the eco village (and my family) for a solo trek up to and back from Mardi Himal. I had only 3 days altogether, so I’d have to move quickly. But I like walking. And when alone tend to walk quite quickly, so it looked possible. I chose to go without a guide, mostly because I wanted the solitude, but also because I knew that once I reached the ridge, it was pretty hard to get lost following the ridge line up.
We had a lovely 1st night at the Eco Village (Yvonne will describe this in a final Nepal entry) and then after a tour of the village’s “eco” features (very impressive!) I set off. I was really excited to be returning to the Annapurna area for more trekking, and was quite enjoying the very modest day pack on my back (sleeping bag, water and some warm clothes). For the ABC trek we chose not to hire porters so I had quite a considerable pack (kids were traveling pretty light) all the way.
We had hiked up about 600 vertical meters the day before in order to get to the Eco Village. So I was a bit disappointed that I had to drop all the way back down into the valley before starting the climb to Mardi Himal.
Not long after reaching the valley bottom, a fellow on motorcycle stopped to offer me a ride, which I accepted. Turns out, my trail turn-off was only 500m ahead, but it was nice to chat a bit and he carried me across a river that would likely have meant wet feet if I was walking. I found my trail turnoff, and the climb began.
I had what I thought was a pretty good map. The route looked pretty simple. Follow the valley to the town of Lwang turn-off. Climb to Lwang. Then from Lwang take the very long and uphill trail to the ridge, then follow the ridge to “Forest Camp” to spend the 1st night.
When I reached Lwang, my plan started to come a bit undone. A guy who spoke English told me that the trail I was thinking about had many many unsigned junctions, and there was little chance I would choose the correct branches to find the ridge top. I should instead traverse along the hillside until I reached the town of Gahlel, from where it would be “easy” to hike to the town of Kalimati and up to Forest Camp. I heeded his advice, but none of his route was on my map, so I was a bit apprehensive. But he made it seem very easy to find Ghalel – just pointed and said “don’t go up, don’t go down … just straight”. How hard could that be?
I was quite happy at first – a nice trail followed the valley at a constant elevation as it passed fields, terraces and homesteads. But the trail gradually become more and more faint, and I could not find anyone to ask for confirmation. I could see no sign of a village ahead. This fading trail trend continued, and 30 minutes later I found myself scrambling across steep terraces and bushwhacking through the forest. I had a very long way to go today and this is not what I had in mind.
The trail was tiny. I didn’t really know where I was going. And I was quite concerned that I would run out of light before reaching Forest Camp. But I have to say I quite relished this portion of the trek. The trek to Poon Hill and ABC had been quite a trekker super highway. I was now in a valley virtually devoid of trekkers, high up on the hill, hiking past terraced field, forest and stone homesteads, heading deep into a side valley. I felt like I was in the “real” Nepal.
The other side of the valley that connected to Ghalel was a huge cliff face but I kept my trust in the woman’s directions and kept to the path. Sure enough, it crossed the river then climbed above the cliff and eventually emerged in Ghalel. I was (naively) relieved and figured I had a nice trail to follow the rest of the way.
The route from there to Kalimati followed a new road that had been recently carved from the mountain side. I caught up to a woman who was hauling an unbelievably heavy sack of manure on her back (I know this because I asked her if I could try to pick it up. Barely.). She assured me that forest camp was within 2 hrs reach.
Another 45 minutes put me in Kalimati. I inquired twice here about the trail up to Forest Camp and got the same answer – it was 3 hours away (so much for those earlier assertions …), and there were many junctions. At this point it was 3PM … and it gets dark around 6:30. As you can see, the weather all day was pretty marginal, and wavered between cloud, mist and rain. So I did not relish the idea of getting caught out in the forest for the night. Hmmmm….. So I asked if there was anyone I could hire to guide me up to the camp, and after some loud hollering around the village an older guy Chinta showed up a few minutes later ready to go. I was so relieved.
We moved quickly up through the steep, wet and very muddy forest – me with my nice hiking boots and Chinta with his flip flops 🙂 I was not sure what his plan was to get back down to his village before dark. I asked him, and he said “no problem”. This meant that either he would stay overnight at the camp or would come back down in the complete darkness (how could this be possible?). But if he said “no problem” …. who was I to argue?
It turns out that a guide was very necessary. So often trail reached a little grassy area, with no departing trail in sight. Several times there were junctions that I would have been just guessing at. And it was so foggy that I, in the lead, lost the trail a few times. After an hour and half of walking, he asked to see my watch. Only then did it dawn on him his predicament about getting down in the daytime. He then said he would walk another 15 minutes with me then I would need to finish on my own. I was apprehensive, but he gave me very detailed instructions about what to do with several upcoming junctions, then I paid him and said goodbye. His directions were spot-on and by 5PM I happily wandered into Forest Camp. I had been walking since 9:30 in the morning and not stopped for lunch.
It was very cool at that point but I had been sweating so went for a very cold shower (they simply divert the camp water supply so it pours into the little shower room). When I entered the dining hall I was met by five guys in their 30s speaking German. Turns out, one of them (Lucien) moved to Pokhara 3 years ago. His friend Henys followed him 2 years later. Then 3 more friends came to visit for a few weeks, and they were on this trek together. They are fantastic guys and the conversation that night was lively. I especially appreciated after spending the day trekking alone.
Next morning we had breakfast together then set out for High Camp.
Not too far above Low Camp we broke out above the trees and WOW … it was just the trail I imagined it to be while hiking way below towards ABC.
It was cold and cloudy so we mostly hung out inside reading, chatting and drinking lemon ginger tea. Then all of sudden the New Zealand doctor shouted that the clouds had cleared so we rushed out to this view:
I had planned with my German friends to head further up the ridge to Mardi Himal viewpoint early in the morning. We met in the dark at 4:50AM dressed very warmly with headlamps going.
I moved quickly down low camp and headed down the very steep trail towards Sidhing.
I was getting near the highway I had planned to catch a bus from when a fellow sitting next to the road called out to me and pointed to an empty chair and insisted I sit down to rest. I had at this point been walking for 11 hours without a stop for lunch. I sat. He was quite an engaging chap and within a few minutes told me that he was fundraising for his church. A church! My eyes expresed my surprise. I’d met so many Hindus and Buddhists, and a few Muslims. But no Christians. Said he had been moved by reading the bible. After a while he got around to asking me if I could perhaps chip in to purchase a few bags of concrete. He left for a few moments so I asked the fellow sitting next to him “how big is the congregation?” He smiled, and said “just his family”. The pastor graciously came to realize that I would not be one of his benefactors. Soon after a local bus came by in my direction headed to Pokhara so I jumped on.
One fellow got on with his bike. Intermodal transportation is always a welcome sight. But I have to say I was surprised by what form of transportation was awkwardly loaded onto the bus next.
I was quite happy to reach Pokhara, meet up with the family and settle into some great food. I had really missed them – this was the longest that any of us had been apart since we left in September. But I really enjoyed the time alone. I have always noted that you see and hear more when you hike alone. And you are much more likely to connect with others along the way when you don’t have an easy conversation awaiting with your friends/family. I would highly recommend this trek to those who might be considering. It experiences only a tiny fraction of the traffic of the better known treks and gets you up into some fantastic mountain views. If you choose to access the ridge via the Mardi river valley like I did, you will get even more of an authentic rural experience. But best go sooner than later … this trek may get the better of itself.
We picked up our bikes from the bike shop today. Yesterday we took the train to the package depot, so finally it is here! We are almost ready to start our cycling trip, and the weather has turned nasty :(. But we’re very eager to get going!
The city of Pokhara was our “home base” for most of our time in Nepal. It is about 200km from Kathmandu, but driving between the two takes over 7 hours! Its population of 265 000 makes it Nepal’s 2nd biggest city (my dad met someone on a trek who said that in 1990 the population was 50 000). Its proximity to the mountains also makes it a place where lots of tourists start their trek. It’s right next to the beautiful Fewa Tal (Fewa Lake), and there’s so much to see and do in and around Pokhara. So much of Pokhara’s (and Nepal’s) economy is based on tourism, so even though many of the activities we did seem very decadent, they helped employ a lot of people. I’m sure that now after the earthquake, Pokhara must really be struggling.
We first went to Pokhara with Yadav and Hira from Solar Sisters on the “Tourist bus”. But, since there was a change of plans and only my dad could go to the village to do the solar install, Jake, my mom and I had some time to explore Pokhara.
We stayed at the Hotel Fewa, a very nice place, right on the lake. The Solar Sisters organization brings their clients there every time, so they get a good deal. The tourist area of Pokhara is called Lakeside, and is pretty much a nicer, safer and more laid-back version of Kathmandu’s Thamel district. For example, Lakeside has wide sidewalks, Thamel has none. Crossing the street in Lakeside is very simple, whereas in Thamel it’s a life-theatening activity. Lakeside is on a beautiful lake with mountain views, and Thamel is in the center of a very dusty, dirty and polluted city. The street vendors in Lakeside are usually quite pleasant, but the ones in Thamel are very pushy.
Our first adventure in Pokhara was going to the World Peace Pagoda. It’s at the top of a hill on the other side of Fewa Tal. Most people hire someone to paddle them over in a boat. A man came up to us and said that he had a restaurant across the lake, and if we agreed to eat lunch at his restaurant, he would give us a free ride across. So, we agreed.
At the other side, we started the climb up. It was pretty steep, but we got some nice views along the way. One hour later, we arrived at the top.
There are a handful of little restaurants at the Peace Pagoda, but we had agreed to eat at the one near the bottom, so we headed back down. At one point, Jake and I were ahead of my mom, and we accidentally took a wrong turn. Then, we decided to wait for her, and we got a bit worried when she hadn’t caught up 15 minutes later. So we went back to find her, only to see that we had made a wrong turn! We ran back down to the restaurant, and she was there waiting for us. We ordered a very yummy lunch there. Then, we took a boat back to Lakeside.
The next thing we did in Pokhara was go to the International Mountain Museum. We didn’t have much time there because it was close to closing time, but there were some good exhibits there. One of them compared the mountain people of the Himalaya and the Alps. There were pictures showing that their lifestyles are quite similar, including their houses, the way they carry things and the way they herd animals. It was a very neat comparison! Another exhibit showed the evolution of climbing gear, and displayed the gear that Edmund Hillary and Tenzin Norgay used to summit Everest in 1953. It looked very heavy. But then the museum closed, so we found some things to do outside.
When we got back to Lakeside, my dad was back! We spent a few more days in Pokhara finding a guide for trekking and getting organized. We always ate at restaurants, because the accommodation didn’t have cooking facilities. The restaurants always had the traditional Nepali food, some western food, and a page with Indian curries. That was where we normally ordered from, the curries. Our favourite restaurants were the Tea Time Bamboostan restaurant and OR2K, and our favourite cafe was Perky Beans.
Cows are very sacred in Hindu and Buddhist culture, so Nepalis always respect cows. If cows are on the road, drivers will always drive around them very carefully, so cows have learned that the streets are a safe place for them. They don’t care a single bit about the cars around them.
So who owns these cows? Why do they live in big cities? Why do they sleep on the road? We asked a few people these questions, but we still don’t understand.
We headed out on our trek with Prakash, then 10 days later we came back to Pokhara. This time, we stayed at Hotel Khukuri, cheaper than Hotel Fewa because it wasn’t on the lake. It was run by a very nice family.
By far, the very best thing we did in Pokhara was paragliding. Pokhara is one of the best places in the world for paragliding, and it looked absolutely amazing. We first watched it from the Peace Pagoda. Every day, we kept watching the paragliders, and finally, we decided that we just had to do it. Jake and I received money from our uncle Craig before the trip, and we used it to for paragliding.
First, we went to Open Sky paragliding to sign some forms, blah blah blah.
Then, we did the 30 minute drive from Pokhara to Sarangkot. The pilots were from all over the world: Turkey, Brazil, Romania, Russia, just to name a few. Jake’s pilot, Richard from Brazil, was telling us about different paragliding races there are in the world. In one of them, you trek/paraglide from Austria to Monaco over 20 days! He has even won an international competition in Argentina!
The drive to Sarangkot was very dusty and windy, and Jake was starting to feel pretty carsick. Finally, we arrived there, and by now we were practically fainting with excitement! Sarangkot is at the top of a hill overlooking Fewa Tal, and it’s where all the paragliders take off. Our pilots set up the equipment, and then we waited our turn to launch. Everyone had to wait for an updraft.
Then Jake took off…
My dad took off last so that he could take pictures of all of our takeoffs. Some of these pictures are taken by him, and some are taken by our pilot’s GoPro cameras.
To watch a YouTube video of me flying, click here.
We were so high above the ground! It was a warm day, and hot air rises, so it was a great day for flying. The only thing that could have been better was the view – it was quite clear, but the mountains were mostly hidden behind clouds. Still, it was such an amazing experience.
One hour later, it was time to land in the field (full of cows) beside Fewa Tal. Jake started feeling sick at the very end, and he threw up in a cup. But, he says that it didn’t ruin his experience at all, and he’s glad that it was only the last 3 minutes of the flight.
The landings were very smooth. Mine was a little less smooth, but still pretty good.
Of all the adventure stuff we’ve done on this trip (ziplines, rafting, canyoning, caving, ect.), paragliding beats everything by far. It was just indescribable. If you are considering it but think that it’s too expensive, do it! It’s worth it! Thanks, uncle!
Our favourite Nepali snack was momos. Jake described them in his post about Kathmandu, but in case you’ve forgotten, I’ll describe them again. They are little dumplings, filled with either vegetable, chicken, or “buff” (buffalo meat, Nepalis don’t eat cow beef). They’re always served on a plate in groups of 10. They’re delicious!
We were actually quite obsessed with momos, and asked the family who ran our hotel if there are any places in town where we could learn how to make them. They told us that we could go to their friends, at the neighbouring little restaurant to learn.
The kitchen at the All in one Cafe was pretty tiny, but we all squished in. They had already made the momo dough, but they told us that it’s basically flour and water.
Making momos is something I’m going to practice we get home. I hope to experiment too… how about fruit momos? Chocolate momos? It’s worth a try!
Nepal is notorious for selling very cool, funky clothes. They weren’t exactly Jake’s style, but the rest of us went a bit crazy.
First I went and chose my shirt. I loved the Namaste expression, and the man at the shop said that he could sew that on the back for me.
Here’s the full outfit:
My dad also got a shirt like that:
Here are the rest of the shirts that my dad bought:
Nepalis wear beautiful and colourful clothing. To give you an example, we saw a wedding ceremony with both bride and groom dressed extravagantly.
My mom loved the clothes that the women wear, so one day we went on a little trip to downtown Pokhara to see what we could find. We took a very crowded city bus to a neighbourhood called Mahandra Pul. My mom walked into a tailor and found some colours she loved. They measured her, then they told us to come back in a few days when the outfit would be ready. When she did come back, it didn’t fit, but when we went back a third time… Tadah!
Some more clothes we got:
Nepal is famous for its meditation and yoga. Peace, serenity, happiness and clarity are the core of Buddhism. We heard that a place offered free meditation in Pokhara, so we decided to try it. None of us knew what to expect.
We went into the meditation room. The instructor came in, but she thought that everyone knew exactly what meditation was, and explained nothing. “Hello, Namaste everyone. We will start with five minutes of silence”. We sat quietly for five minutes. Then, she had us chant “Om, Om, Om, Om…” for the rest of the class, about 30 minutes. We didn’t know how long the class was, and we were worried that we would be chanting “Om” for an hour! My dad struggled not to laugh.
We left the class no further ahead on the question of “what is meditation?”. More on that in an upcoming blog about the Annapurna Eco-village. Here’s a picture of me meditating:
But one thing I’ve learned to love is the “Om” symbol. It means peace and serenity in Hindi. Here’s what it looks like:
Our last adventure in Pokhara was a very fun rafting trip. We chose the Upper Seti river, a short but intense two hour trip. The drive to the start took about 40 minutes. Then, we got a short safety briefing. The last time we had been rafting was on the Inka Jungle Trip in Peru.
At one point, we got out of the raft and jumped off a cliff! The water was very cold.
That was an exhilarating time!
Pokhara was a great place to spend time in. We met so many nice people there, and we just have to hope that they are okay. We heard that Pokhara wasn’t hit too badly in the earthquake, but we wonder if the Peace Pagoda is still standing. We hope that Pokhara and the area will recover quickly. Be brave, Nepal. Namaste. Kaia
We spent our final 3 days of Nepal in the Kathmandu valley. Amid beauty, pollution, serenity and squalor. We have 3 other blog entries from our time around Pokhara that we would normally sequence first. But at risk of overwhelming with photos, I wanted to share with you some images of the beautiful side of Kathmandu before the quake hit. We know you’re seeing lots of the destroyed Kathmandu in the news.
Our trip back to Kathmandu from Pokhara was so much more pleasant than the trip to Pokhara. The sun was shining, we were again on the correct side of the bus for river viewing, and mostly, Jake wasn’t throwing up.
As you approach within 1 hour of Kathmandu from Pokhara you begin to climb out of the deep river valley. The sheer drops down to the river and the ubiquitous steep slopes take on new meaning now as rescue crews try to navigate to the outlying villages through landslides and instability.
Kathmandu suffers from high levels of pollution – especially air pollution.
We took the local buses around but they creep, amidst the crazy traffic. Face masks are a must, and we bought and wore them. I just couldn’t imagine commuting amidst this every day. But of course, you do what you need to do.
We spent our first few days of Nepal in the tourist Thamel area of Kathmandu. During these final three days we visited two of the cultural districts just east of Kathmandu – the Buddhist “stupa” (round temple) of Boudhanath and the ancient city of Bhaktapur.
Boudhanath is the largest Buddhist temple in Asia. It is simply awesome.
Built about 1500 years ago, it was traditionally a stopping point for traders coming to/from Lhasa in Tibet. It is still a very important Buddhist center. Buddhist monasteries surround the stupa and there are many educational workshops (meditation, thangka painting) for Buddhists and tourists alike. The monks are easily recognized by their maroon gowns with gold ornamentation. Most of them apparently are Tibetan refugees from the Chinese invasion/occupation who started arriving around 1959.
A number of music CD shops surround the stupa, and many of them pipe out the Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum”. It became embedded in our consciousness. To help get in the spirit of Boudanath and Bhaktapur, click here to load the chant in the background while you read.
Boudhanath is a well known spot for “thangkas”. At a basic level, thangkas are phenomenally detailed paintings done on cotton by monks. But they represent much more than art. It takes anywhere from a week to a month of continuous work to complete one (sitting 8 or more hours per day) and this represents a form of meditation. Thangkas most often are done in one of two forms; the circle of life, and the circle of time. Both of these representations follow established forms, and represent many important Buddhist teachings. We went into one of the centers where Buddhists are trained in the art form, and saw the progression of talent from beginner to intermediate to advanced to master. We had no intention of making a purchase but were so taken with the stories and details represented that we bought one. The money goes to the school and monasteries for general use; the monk/artist receives nothing directly as a result of a sale and does not, in my understanding, do it as a commercial activity.
We really enjoyed soaking in the atmosphere of Boudhanath for a couple days. There were some fantastic roof-top cafe’s that overlooked the stupa, and we found some very cheap, tasty local eating spots.
Our guesthouse was on the higher side of our budget but accommodation is a premium here, with so much interest from monks and tourists.
I was happy to learn that the Boudhanath stupa itself survived the earthquake, and suffered only some cracks to the spire. The Buddha still looks out across Kathmandu. Buildings around the stupa were however heavily damaged.
We spent our last full day in Nepal in the ancient city of Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur was the capital of the kingdom of Nepal up to the 1500s and it represents the best preserved (until last week 😦 ) ancient architecture of Nepal. UNESCO designated the city as a world heritage site because of its buildings, wood and steel carvings and especially its temples.
Although the city is also popular for tourists, it is a fantastically alive, vibrant city of 300,000. We wandered the narrow streets, contemplated the temples, marveled at the carving, soaked in the music, enjoyed the momos, sipped coffee, and enjoyed the renowned Bhaktapur curd (yoghourt). Hopefully the photos below convey a sense of the city’s vibrancy.
Bhaktapur was breathtaking. But it was devastated in the earthquake. Apparently more than 50% of the buildings were destroyed. 80% of the many temples were destroyed. I don’t know the status of the temple 3 photos ago, but can guess. But I do know the status of the stone temple in the middle of my photo above. Look below.
I know many of these very sad before and after photos are surfacing in the media. We spent a few hours on our 2nd day in Nepal hanging out at Kathmandu’s Durbar square.
I take some comfort from knowing how strong Nepalis’ Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are. I read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography during my last week in Nepal and Kaia is reading now. We soaked in some of the Buddhist thoughts during our last several days in Nepal. They are compassionate people that will take care of each other. I saw the t-shirt below in one of the tourist shops that surrounded the Boudanath stupa.
I will leave you with my favorite photo from Nepal. This little girl came running out of her house to greet me as I was finishing my solo trek to Mardi Himal.
We are torn apart with internet updates re Nepal. It just keeps getting worse. The roads to the communities are barely passable at the best of times … let alone after landslides and worse. The death toll will certainly rise.
Just after Jake finished this entry below about the final leg of our Poon Hill/Annapurna Base Camp trek, we learned that trekkers out there have been cut off by landslides and avalanches. The update came from a phone call from a little village called “Bamboo” where we had lunch on the way in to ABC and slept at on the way out. The trail follows a very steep slope so not surprising that landslides have cut off the trail.
We normally post entries in chronological order. But all our thoughts are on our last 3 days in Nepal – spent in the Kathmandu valley visiting the old temples and cities. I will write about this in tomorrow’s entry. But we wanted to post Jake’s entry below because it is part 3 of 3 entries on our trek to ABC.
I write this intro from my hospital bed in Frankfurt. An infection at the top of my leg got away from me and turned into an abscess that required full general anesthetic surgery. But let me tell you that I am not feeling sorry for myself, as I have nurses and doctors buzzing around, clean operating room, food to eat, a warm dry bed and my family by my side. I will be out of hospital on my feet later today. I am so lucky. Oh, Nepal …. 😦 Cam
From Jake ….
I’m writing this entry in French, but I recommend that our English readers look at the photos, because I’ll be putting in photos of our morning up at Annapurna Base Camp, where we got an amazing close-up view of the Himalaya mountains.
Brrr! La nuit à ABC était la plus froide qu’on a eu pour longtemps, probablement depuis qu’on est parti du Canada! On portait toutes nos vêtements chaudes dans nos sacs de couchage. Dehors, ça avait l’air comme le matin de Noël, avec la neige fraiche partout. On voulait sortir pour voir les montagnes avant même de manger le déjeuner, car il fait toujours clair les matins dans les montagnes. Donc, on s’est habillé pour le temps neigeux et sorti de notre petite chambre pour voir la levée du soleil.
Tout de suite, on était tous étonnés. L’après midi précédant, quand on est arrivé à ABC, il faisait nuageux, alors on ne pouvait pas voir ce qui nous entourait. Mais ce matin là, il faisait tellement clair, et on pouvait voir qu’on était entouré 360 degrés par des montagnes formidables! C’est difficile de décrire ce qu’on voyait, mais je vais faire de mon mieux, en utilisant le texte et les photos.
Annapurna est aussi considéré la montagne la plus dangereuse à escalader au monde. Un moyen d’un escaladeur sur quatre meurt en essayant d’atteindre le sommet. Maintenant, je lis un livre à propos du premier ascension d’Annapurna, en 1950. Le livre est écrit par le chef de l’expedition lui-meme, le français Maurice Herzog. C’était la première fois qu’un humain a atteint un sommet de plus que 8000 metres d’altitude. Herzog devait avoir toutes ses doigts amputés apres l’expédition, à cause de la gelure. Non merci, on préfère de juste l’observer!
C’était très different de notre vue des montagnes de Poon Hill, car on était si proche cette fois ci. En observant Annapurna, on trouvait difficile à croire qu’on était a 4130 mètres, ce qui voulait dire que le sommet était encore presque 4 kilometres verticaux plus haut que nous!
On a observé les montagnes pendant longtemps avant de retourner pour le déjeuner. Prakash nous a dit qu’on devait partir rapidement, car on devait passer la zone d’avalanches entre MBC et Deurali quand il était encore tôt, car c’est plus dangereux quand il fait chaud. Donc, on est retourné à notre chambre pour préparer pour faire un autre jour de randonnée.
Plusieurs personnes dorment à MBC et montent à ABC tres tôt, alors le sentier était bien tassé pour nous de descendre.
Les deux heures de marche d’ABC à MBC étaient pas mal faciles, et on s’est amusé avec la belle neige.
Mais, la section après MBC était un peu dangereuse. Voici pourquoi:
Des avalanches tombaient des montagnes, et quelques uns ont meme traversé le sentier. Ceux qu’on a vu étaient petits, mais Prakash a dit qu’il y a des fois des grandes avalanches aussi.
On a réussi à traverser la zone d’avalanches sans problèmes, mais on n’a pas vraiment aimé la section du sentier en approchant le prochain village, Deurali, car le sentier était couvert de boue, et c’était difficile à descendre les collines!
On a mangé des momos et du dal bhat pour le dîner à Deurali, un vrai mets Nepali! On a continué de marcher pour quelques heures, en passant les villages Himalaya et Dobhan.
Et souvenez-vous de la photo que ma mère a mit de l’homme coupant un enorme arbre avec un seul, petit axe? Deux jours plus tard, le travail était deja fini.
On a arrêté pour la journée à à peu près 3 heures et demi, au village de Bamboo, au même guesthouse où on a mangé le dîner deux jours avant.
Le prochain matin marquait huit jours depuis qu’on a commencé de marcher à Nayapul. Le plan était de marcher jusqu’à Chhomrong pour le dîner, et arreter au village de Jhinu, où il y a des sources d’eau chaude naturelles. On a marché pendant deux heures entre Bamboo et Sinuwa, et une heure pour descendre loin dans une vallée et remonter à Chhomrong.
On a mangé un diner delicieux à un restaurant à Chhomrong. Je pense que c’est le seul restaurant sur tout le trek de Poon Hill-ABC qui a un menu different que les autres restaurants. La cuisinière, que les guides et les porteurs appelent Didi, ce qui veut dire “grande soeur”, nous a fait des burritos, des bons pizzas, et même un gateau au chocolat! Ça goûte incroyablement bon après marcher pour plus qu’une semaine et en mangeant seulement la nourriture simple. Il y avait meme un article dans TIME magazine à propos des gateaux de chocolat de Didi, qu’ils appelent dans l’article “Sugar Mama”!
En partant de Chhomrong, on commençait à marcher sur un sentier qu’on n’a pas déjà suivi, car on est entré de Chhomrong d’une differente façon trois jours avant.
La marche après Chhomrong n’était pas tres longue; dans moins de deux heures, on est arrivé à Jhinu, où on passerait la nuit. Le guesthouse là était le meilleur qu’on a eu tout le trek. Mais rapidement après arriver, on s’est préparé pour descendre aux sources d’eau chaude, près de la rivière. On a marché en descendant pour une demi heure, jusqu’à la rivière. On s’est changé dans nos maillots de bains et entré dans le bain chaud.
Ah! Ça sentait si bon! On a parlé avec les autres personnes là, de plusieurs différentes pays. Après un peu de temps dans le bain chaud, on a décidé qu’il fallait essayer la rivière glaciale aussi!
C’etait tellement froide! On ne pouvait pas y rester pour plus que quelques secondes.
Ce n’était pas si agréable dans l’eau froide, mais ça faisait le bain chaud de sentir encore mieux! On a fait le traitement de froid-chaud plusieurs fois. Finalement, on est retourné à Jhinu pour manger le souper et se coucher.
Le prochain jour, on est allé au sud de Jhinu à un village appelé Pothana. Ce n’était pas un jour tres spécial, mais on a encore vu quelques choses intéressantes.
On a mangé le dîner à un village appelé Landruk, et après ça, on marchait sur une route. On a commencé de marcher avec la soeur de Prakash et son mari.
Enfin, on est arrivé à Pothana, ou ont passerait la dernière nuit du trek, car ça ne prendrait pas longtemps pour arriver à l’autoroute pour retourner a Pokhara. Le village de Pothana était très beau, et ça nous rappelait un peu comme l’Ontario sud, d’où on vient.
On s’est réveillé à Pothana le dernier jour du trek. Prakash nous a dit que ça serait beau de manger le déjeuner à un camp un peu plus loin sur le sentier, alors on a commencé à marcher de Pothana tout de suite. Pendant le déjeuner au “camp Australien”, on a rencontré une femme des États Unis qui a fait un trek appelé Mardi Himal, et elle a inspiré mon pere d’y aller plus tard…
On a marché pendant à peu près deux heures de plus, et on est enfin arrivé à la fin du trek, un village sur l’autoroute appelé Khare. Woohoo! On a complété le trek!
On a pris un taxi de 45 minutes pour retourner à Pokhara, et dit au revoir à Prakash. On a vraiment aimé avoir lui avec nous. Le trek de Poon Hill-ABC était le trek parfait pour nous, et on le recommande à tout le monde qui visite le Nepal. On a eu des vues fantastiques des montagnes, et sans devoir monter à des hautes altitudes. C’était 10 jours très agreables, et c’est un sentiment incroyable d’etre proche aux montagnes Himalayas, les plus grandes au monde.
Our trek in Nepal seems rather frivolous in light of the recent earthquake and the suffering that is going on there. However, we have wonderful memories from our time there, and our thoughts are with the people we met.
We often had the Jackson 5 song stuck in our heads during the days of hiking towards “A.B.C.” — the popular name for Annapurna Base Camp.
After the stunning sunrise vista at Poon Hill that Kaia described in the previous entry, we hiked through more rhododendron forests, past Prakash’s favourite viewpoint on the trek, and towards a mountain pass at Tadapani. However, this involved a huge downhill followed by a huge uphill… affectionately known as “Nepal flat”.
At our lunch spot that day, we saw a hiker with his foot elevated and swollen. One bad turn of the ankle and the trek becomes more complicated (and shorter, and probably quite a bit more expensive!) He was a physiotherapist from Belgium and knew that his best option was to be airlifted out. However, he had to get to a place where a helicopter could safely land which was several kilometers of “Nepal flat” away. He limped along with a trekking pole in each hand and eventually made it to Tadapani. We also stopped in Tadapani (early — around 1pm) because of our pre-dawn start that day (hiking by 5am). Prakash had predicted that Tadapani would be busy and there might not be many rooms available at the tea houses. Sure enough, we got the last 2 rooms at a fairly mediocre place. The dining room/common space was so small that we had to take turns with the other guests to sit at the table! But we managed to have hot showers which are a great boost to the morale. We also spoke to a young Norwegian man who was on his way down from ABC and he was definite in his advice: “You MUST go there.”
The weather was pretty socked in at Tadapani and we didn’t get a view until around sunset when some of the peaks popped out. Next morning, we saw the helicopter come to pick up the injured Belgian and his girlfriend.
We hiked (mostly down) to a place called Chiule where a group of Australians was camping. They were on an ambitious trek that should have taken them to some high passes but the weather had foiled most of their plans.
We had another day of steep down/steep up, but the trail was quite open in many places so we enjoyed great views across the valley.
We passed a school that was getting a new roof. Slate tiles. Carried up by donkeys.
That afternoon, we arrived in the bustling metropolis of Chhomrong. It actually was quite a big village that boasted some souvenir shops and not one, but two “German bakeries”! We got set up at the Elysium Guest House (great view and excellent kitchen, we found out at dinnertime). The guesthouses make most of their money on meals and the pricing for the rooms is based on the assumption that you buy dinner from the same establishment. We had been thinking of eating across the road at a place that got great reviews for its burritos and chocolate cake, but when we found out that the cost of our rooms would quadruple, we changed our minds. And the food was delicious at Elysium!
Next day, we started with another major downhill (the knees and thighs were really starting to feel it, and I was using a trekking pole by this point).
Continuing up the valley of the Modi Khola, we had lunch at a little well-named place called Bamboo. It rained throughout the entire lunch stop, but cleared up as we got back on the trail.
We spent the night at the village of Himalaya with 35 grade 9 students from United World College in Singapore. They were all in a pre-IB program and this was part of their outdoor education. We were impressed! And also kind of happy that we weren’t the supervising teachers. But, they had several professional expedition leaders as well as an army of porters, so the students only had to carry small day packs. The group leaders performed a simple medical exam every evening on each student. They had spent the day acclimatizing at Himalaya (~3200m) to make sure that all were in good shape to head up to ABC. It also meant that the students were going a bit stir-crazy and had lots of energy for singing, laughing and guitar playing into the evening (I think Kaia mentioned the paper-thin walls at the guest houses). We made sure we left early the next morning to get well ahead of them on the trail!
The following day was one of the most exciting and scenic of the trek. We did a substantial amount of climbing (about 1km vertical) and the mountains were really coming into view. Until the clouds rolled in and it started to snow, that is.
Hiking through a place called “Deurali” en route to “MBC” (Machhapuchhre Base Camp), I realized that those names fit in quite nicely to our new version of the Jackson 5 song: ABC, not as easy as 1-2-3, it’s further than Deurali, and MBC; ABC is a sight to see!
We hiked the last section in snowfall — it was beautiful! The steady uphill trek kept us warm, and we knew we’d have a room (and hopefully a view) once we got to the base camp.
In our high altitude haze, we saw some movement in the snow…
After dinner, we actually ended up going to one of the other guesthouses to take advantage of a little more heat generated by more bodies. We played some cards, but went to bed early in anticipation of getting up for sunrise. It was a chilly night, but the extra blankets kept us just warm enough! Yvonne
In case you hadn’t seen our update two entries back, we are now in Germany. We left the Kathmandu valley 6 days ago. The earthquake is so tragic – reminds us of Haiti, insofar as its emergency response capability is very limited at the best of times, and now much of it is damaged or destroyed. Most Nepalis live day to day, so the days ahead are difficult to imagine. We are also really sorry about the temples that were destroyed. We visited some of them last week and they are unique and majestic. Stay strong, Nepal. Nameste. Cam, Yvonne, Kaia & Jake
For anybody who is planning a trek in the Annapurna region of Nepal, we would like to highly recommend to you our guide Prakash Dhungana. He is based out of Pokhara. He is very easy going and friendly, and he knows so much about the area. If you’d like to contact him, his email is email@example.com, and his mobile number is 0977-9846029552.
Nepal is very famous for its mountains. In the world, there are 14 peaks over 8000m above sea level, all are in the Himalaya, and 8 of them are in Nepal. The highest peak outside of the Himalaya is Aconcagua of Argentina and Chile, 6962m. The most famous mountain in Nepal is shared with Tibet, 8848m tall, first summited in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary… Mt. Everest! Nepal is a dream destination for anyone who likes looking at, walking among or climbing the mountains.
Our number one reason for visiting Nepal was to go trekking. Nepal is an amazing hiking place because of the diversity. In some places, you can hike in a dense jungle, then walk over a 5400m pass, then visit a Buddhist temple, all in one day! The most popular trek is the Annapurna circuit. It circumnavigates the Annapurna range, just northwest of Pokhara. It takes about 20 days. The next most popular trek is the Everest base camp trek (EBC). It takes about two weeks. It starts at a place called Lukla, northeast of Kathmandu. Most trekkers fly from Kathmandu to Lukla, because it takes a long time by bus (the distance isn’t big, but the roads are bad). But we chose the Poon Hill – ABC (Annapurnna Base Camp) loop. It is a “teahouse” trek, meaning that you eat and sleep in basic guesthouses and you don’t have to pack a tent or food. Since we would already be in Pokhara to do the “Solar Sisters” solar panel install, it would be very convenient because the starting point, Nayapul, is only two hours away by bus. From Nayapul, we would trek northwest for two days and arrive in Ghorepani. Then, the next morning, we would do a side trek to Poon Hill (3200m) for sunrise and get a fantastic view of the Annapurna and Dhaulagiri mountain ranges. From there, we would turn east and trek two days to Chhomrong. Then, for a few days, we would follow the Modi Khola river north all the way to ABC (4130m), where we would be surrounded by mountains. Finally, we would retrace our steps to Chhomrong and continue south all the way to Khare. This would take us about 10 days. As for the blog, we will divide the trek into three parts: approach to Poon Hill (me), approach to ABC (my mom) and descent from ABC (Jake).
This trek goes up to 4130m altitude, which is quite significant, and it is not uncommon for people to get acute mountain sickness (AMS) at ABC. AMS is nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and pounding headache – not what you want to get in a remote place. I know this from experience, because last time we went up that high was on the Ausangate trek in Peru, when Jake and I got sick. We were a bit worried about getting sick on this trek, but one of the reasons we chose Poon Hill – ABC was because there were many quick exits. If one of us got injured or sick, there were places where we could make a shortcut to the highway. We had AMS pills, and, just in case, our travel/health insurance covered emergency helicopter evacuation.
One thing you need to think about before trekking in Nepal is hiring a guide or a porter. The trails can be steep and difficult, so many people hire a porter to carry their things. We decided to pack light and skip the porter, and turns out, that worked out just fine. But we hired a guide, Prakash Dhungana. You can’t really get lost on this trek, but having a guide can really enrich your experience by teaching you about what you’re seeing. And guides know how far/difficult it is to the next guest house in terms of planning lunch or the night stop. We learned so much from Prakash, we were very glad that we hired him!
So… we had bought our equipment in Kathmandu, we got our required trekking permits in Pokhara, we found a guide… we were finally ready to trek. We started with a two hour bus ride from Pokhara to Nayapul. The distance between the two is only 34km, but the road is so bad and the bus is so old, so it takes two hours! Most trekkers take a private jeep because it’s much faster, but we took the local bus. We were sitting at the very back, so on some of the biggest bumps I think I caught air! It was absolutely jammed with people, and getting on and off with our packs wasn’t easy. It also rained the entire time. But it was an experience!
We got off at Nayapul and did our final preparations. Then, we headed off in the rain.
The food on the trek was something that surprised all of us, and I’ll explain why now. Everything in ACAP is controlled, and so is the menu. It’s pretty much the same everywhere, but the price varies from village to village, getting more expensive the further and higher you go. Unlike the rest of Nepal, it’s “fixed price”, meaning “no bargaining”. It’s a good system, because it prevents neighbours from competing for the lowest price. Instead, it encourages the guesthouse owners to make good quality food, because the guides will always bring their clients to the best kitchens.
But the thing that surprised us the most was what was on the menu. Breakfast: pancakes, toast, french toast, muesli, porridge, “gurung” bread (Tibetan fried bread). Our favourites were gurung bread and muesli. Lunch and dinner: Dal Bhat (classic Nepali food. “dal” means lentil soup and “bhat” means rice. It usually also comes with some curry or veggies, and to eat it you mix it all together. The guides and porters always have it because they get a discount on it. It is high in protein and vegetarian, and it gives so much energy to keep walking), spaghetti/macaroni, roasty (very delicious potato pancake, felt like comfort food even though I had never had it before), various soups, momos (yummy Nepali dumplings), and even pizza! Imagine going to ABC, very remote, and ordering a pizza! Most of these meals came with the toppings of either egg, veg or cheese. Most Nepalis are vegetarian, so most of the meals were too. Sometimes, they could mix in a little bit of tuna or chicken, although that was much more expensive. Here’s why:
Our favourite meals were dal bhat and rosties. We loved them so much that we want to make them at home. We were very surprised and impressed by the food on this trek. But Prakash said that on the other treks, it isn’t the same. The menu is similar, but the taste is not.
So, after lunch, we continued on in the rain. We walked for a few more hours before stopping for the night in Tikhedunga village at the Indra Guesthouse. Now I’ll explain what the accommodation was like during the trek. Most rooms had two beds, so we needed two rooms. Sometimes, we got a family room for four, and once we shared in a 6 person dorm room. But at most guesthouses, the walls were so thin that you could hear the conversations 5 rooms over. So I guess you would call that half dorm, half private room! The mattresses were usually pretty hard. The sleeping bags were necessary, because we didn’t know how clean the sheets were. I don’t know if anything would ever dry in that cold wet weather! The guesthouses usually provided blankets if we asked for them. They were quite warm, but heavy! I felt so bad for the porters who carried them up!
There was always a shared toilet. Usually, it was an Asian style “squat” toilet, and if you’re lucky there was a western style “sit” toilet. Bring your own toilet paper. Most guesthouses had solar hot water as well as a propane tank, and charged about 100 rupees/$1 for a hot shower. They used to use firewood to heat the water, but deforestation was becoming a big problem, so ACAP banned it.
All of the guesthouses had connected dining rooms (or sometimes “dinning” rooms) where everyone hung out and ate in the afternoons and evenings. We played lots of card games: euchre, hearts, and we taught Prakash our favourite game onze. He kept winning! We also learned a Nepali card game, I forget the name. We all had our books to read, so we were never bored. The accommodation was nicer than we had expected.
Alright, so now you understand the food and accommodation of the Poon Hill – ABC trek. It’s time I start talking about day two.
Day one had been so rainy, so we were excited to wake up to a blue sunny sky. We saw the view across the valley for the first time because of the clouds on the previous day. But, as Prakash warned us, day two was of the most challenging of all. We checked the map, and here’s what the morning looked like: the trail crosses a river, then crosses a lot of contour lines in a short distance! Sure enough, we crossed a river, then we saw this sign: Tikhedunga to Ulleri 3500 steps
Ok. Inhale. Exhale. We started up.
Two hours and 800 vertical meters later, we stopped for lunch in the beautiful village of Banthanthi. The dal bhat was so good. But my dad was having stomach problems that day, and he had eaten nothing for breakfast and ate nothing until dinner that night. He was hungry, though, and eyed our dal bhat enviously.
Then, we continued walking toward Ghorepani village.
One of the perks of coming to Nepal in April is the rhododendron bloom. It’s the national flower of Nepal, and it’s not hard to see why. I’ve got to say, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And the closer we got to Ghorepani, the redder and pinker the forest became!
Prakash took us to a very nice guesthouse that night, the Hotel Tukuche Peak View. It had a big dining room, and a fireplace! My dad was so hungry and he finally ate. Here is what my and my mom’s room looked liked like:
We went to bed very early that night, because the next morning was the Poon Hill morning. The plan was to wake up at 4:30AM, and be walking by 4:45 to get to the top before sunrise. We got everything ready in the evening, including filling up water bottles, sleeping with our trekking clothes in our sleeping bag so that they would be warm in the morning, and perfectly placing our boots beside our beds. We didn’t have too much trouble waking up in the morning, and I think we were walking before 5. Headlamps on.
The walk up took one hour. We found a “front row spot” and waited for the sunrise. The sun finally popped out from east of Machhapuchhre mountain. I’ll let the pictures explain… because words just can’t!
It took quite a long time for the sun to fully hit the mountains, but when it did, it was fabulous.
I don’t think that we would have ever left if Prakash hadn’t told us that in the next village, Tadapani, there aren’t many guesthouses, so to make sure we got a room, we had to press on. We found another picture spot part way down, where we could get the rhododendron AND Dhaulagiri mountain in the same shot!
At the bottom, we went back to our guesthouse for a late breakfast that we had ordered the previous night. Poon Hill was absolutely divinely phenomenally jaw-droppingly beautiful. No wonder it is so popular! Some people turn around at Poon Hill and go back to Nayapul, so for the rest of the trek there would be fewer people. The adventure continues… Kaia PS- I was almost finished writing this post when WordPress app decided to throw it all in the garbage for no reason. Twice in a row this has happenned. I am very frustrated and will never use that app again. It has wasted so much hard work. Ugh! I hope take two was almost as good! PPS – On our way out of Ghorepani, we saw a two-day-old horse! It really is horse water!
We arrived in Frankfurt Germany yesterday afternoon after 2 full-on days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi after leaving Nepal. We mastered Frankfurt’s very efficient train and bus system to travel a bit outside of town to a campground (even hostels cost about 90 Euro for the family! … campground was 25 Euro). Last night was a bit cold in the tent (5degC?) Today we will start the search for bicycles to purchase for the next two months of cycle touring, and hopefully the box of cycle equipment our friend Javier sent from Canada 6 weeks ago will arrive today (it was in Hamburg 2 days ago). Hoping to hit the road in a couple of days.
Lots of blogging ahead of us to catch up on the amazing time we had in Nepal. Please forgive the lull in entries. Our WordPress App updated itself 10 days ago and the new version is awful. I kept losing text and photos. And worse, believe it or not, Kaia lost another entire entry (remember her Hong Kong entry disappeared). So she had to start from scratch, yet again. After hours of searching around, I found a way to reinstall the older version and we’re back up and running again.
Anyone who knows me knows I love renewable energy, and especially love the promise of solar power. At home in Peterborough, we have 77 large panels installed on two roofs. I like looking at them. I like even more that they generate much more green energy than is used by the two houses, with the excess being sold to the electricity grid. And of course I like that they have been a good investment through the provisions of Ontario’s Green Energy Act. On this trip, I have always been on the lookout for how electricity is produced and to what extent renewables have been implemented.
There are a few things that are important to understanding Nepal’s electricity system.
1. Virtually 100% of the grid electricity is generated by abundant hydro power. Many rural areas are serviced by micro hydro generation that may or may not be connected to the main grid.
2. There is not enough grid electricity to supply the country’s fast growing demand (current capacity is 800MW, demand is 1400MW), so rolling blackouts (or “load shedding” as it is known here) are common throughout the country, including the two largest cities Kathmandu and Pokhara. We have experienced this every day we’ve been here.
3. Businesses, homes and institutions have installed small scale solar PV where they can afford it so they have at least some lighting during the regular blackouts. But most homes and many institutions have not been able to afford even these basic systems.
4. Nepal’s extremely rugged geography means that many of the remote areas are not serviced by the grid, and nor are they easily accessed for the transport of off grid solar components of panels and batteries.
Enter the Himalayan Light Foundation. HLF was founded about 20 years ago “to improve the quality of life of the remote population of the Himalayan and South Asia region via the introduction and use of environmentally friendly renewable energy technologies (RETs).” The organization uses very small scale solar technology to provide light and income opportunities to rural Nepal. In doing so it also reduces the health, environment and income setbacks of burning kerosene or wood for light. Many of the projects have partnered with local women’s groups. One of the HLF’s main forms of implementation is called Solar Sisters. This project “offers international traveler / philanthropists an incredible opportunity to visit some of the most remote and majestic sites in the world, live with indigenous communities, and promote environmental and social justice by sponsoring the installation of a solar energy system. “Solar Sisters” are men and women from across the globe, students and professionals, individuals, retired people and groups.
Project objectives include: – To offer solar energy to communities who could not otherwise afford electrical systems – To support the energy rights and roles of women and villagers whose limited financial resources results in oppression and voicelessness. – To fill the gap not covered by existing RET support programs which normally tend to reach the richer individuals. – To reach the poorest populations with these services. – To create harmony and understanding among the diverse and disparate peoples of the world by close and supportive, meaningful and immediate asistance. – To create an opportunity for international travelers, village residents to learn first hand about practical applications of solar electricity – To enable foreign volunteers to see South Asia in a more involved, useful and realistic level than simple tourism allows.
Typically, recipient organizations are schools, health centers, community centers and monasteries. They are paired with a donor/visitor according to system size (depth of donor pocket) and donor’s preferred area of travel.
So you can see why this caught my interest back in August when I was doing some planning for our Nepal leg of the journey. But I had difficulty finding contact info for HLF and emails I sent did not receive responses. Fast forward to 5 days before we arrived in Nepal. Remember my Hong Kong friend Mark? He was looking into expanding his business into Nepal and had made contact with a “fixer” guy in Kathmandu – the sort of person who knows lots of the right sorts of people and can make things happen. Mark put me in touch with this fellow and within a few hours I was in email conversation with Yadav Gurung, HLF’s Project Manager. We agreed to meet upon our arrival in Kathmandu which we did on the 1st morning. Yadav greeted us with a very warm smile, four symbolic red scarves, and we got right down to planning. Because we had not had time to plan ahead, he had only a small window of time open between two other installations, and this meant that we would not have time to travel/trek any great distance into a village like many donors like to do (In some instances the recipient villages were 8 days’ trek from the nearest road). He knew of a health center that had a very busy birthing center that was without electricity and lights most of the time. The village was a very rough 4 hr local bus ride from Pokhara (Nepal’s 2nd largest city) which itself was an 8 hr bus ride from Kathmandu. We wanted to use Pokhara as a base for trekking after the install, so this made good sense to us. We would miss out on the trek to the recipient village, but knew we’d have plenty of time for this later. The next day was spent (as Jake describes in the last post) getting organized and outfitted for the trekking while Yadav and his technician got the solar equipment together. We met the next morning at 7AM to get the “tourist” bus to Pokhara.
Yadav had booked our tickets and made sure we were sitting on the right side of the bus. Most of the trip is spent winding along beside several very scenic rivers. We must have passed at least 30 pedestrian suspension bridges over the river and hundreds of rice fields.
The journey was long but pleasant for 3 of us with two nice stops for food. Jake was less enthralled with the trip though because he threw up four times. He does struggle with car sickness but this experience was much worse than usual.
We were to head off to the village early the next morning. But Jake kept throwing up and we came to realize he hadn’t been car sick but instead had something more serious. He did not do well through the night. Yvonne had been sick the night before we left for Pokhara and her stomach was still off. Then Kaia threw up in the morning. Clearly they were not fit for a 4 hr bus ride on a crowded bumpy bus. Pushing the installation back wasn’t really an option because Yadav and technician Hira had to get back to Kathmandu in a couple days to start the next install. So we had to make the difficult and disappointing decision that only I would go to help with the install and the other three would try to catch up to us in the village if/when healthy. We had envisioned this as a family project.
Yadav, Hira and I got a taxi to the bus station early morning and were the only ones on the bus when it left. I remarked “Wow, we get our own private bus!”, but Yadav assured me that the bus would fill up.
It took about an hour to just get out of Pokhara, with the snarled traffic and many stops to pick up passengers. The seats were now full. We then made our way past Begnas Lake which is scenic and a popular spot for tourists wanting to get out of Pokhara.
Then the real journey began. Up up up we went, into the forest on an increasingly rough and rutted road. By this time the front cab area of the bus had 12 passengers including myself. The main seating area was full and the standing room aisle jammed too. This daily bus is the life line for the villagers as few own motorcycles and virtually none own cars.
We immediately walked the short distance over to the health center for introductions and orientation.
All in the group introduced themselves. Next to Yadav on the left is Dr. Dharmadhi, medical assistant Samjhang, widwife Namila, me, nurse Ranjana, and office helpers Tikaram and Narayan. They were pleased of course to be receiving the light system and explained their challenges of birthing by headlamp.
Our lunch was delayed so we immediately got to work. We assembled the panel mounting system and had the panel mounted on the third floor balcony before heading off to lunch.
Short lunch and right back to work. Hira had an incredible focus. He knew exactly what he was doing and did not stop moving. I helped but he was so competent and task oriented I felt like he must be just tolerating my help. But I know he has been given very clear direction from Yadav to allow the sponsor/volunteer to help wherever they want so they feel more ownership for the final result.
Once the panel was connected to the battery and the charge controller installed (the charge controller ensures that the battery does not overcharge, and shuts off the feed to the lights if the battery runs too low), we started stringing wires into the rooms for the lights. One light in the inpatient room (4 beds), 1 in the store room/pharmacy, 3 strategically placed in the birthing/procedure room, one in the outside verandah so arriving patients can find their way and 1 in each of the two initial intake/examination rooms.
During the afternoon an interesting challenge arose. The nursing staff & families live upstairs and of course live by the same intermittent power realities as the health center. At a personal level they were encouraged by the solar installation because they hoped we would electrify their apartments. But it is HLF’s policy not to provide lighting to personal accommodations because invariably they would become charging stations for all village mobile phones and this, with the additional lighting loads can overload the system and compromise the core function of birthing center lighting. But Yadav explained to me that in this culture you can’t really say “no” to such requests. Instead he told the staff that he would try to meet their requests but only after the core functions had been taken care of. Sure enough, when we’d finished the system we’d installed 8 lights and had two bulbs left over for replacement, so he apologized for not being able to accommodate their wish. In Canada, with two more bulbs, we would have installed another two sockets/switches to max out the lighting. But here, with the LED bulbs being so expensive and hard to procure, HLF has realized that they must leave some extras. Burned out bulbs are not likely to get replaced.
I explored the health center while the installation was in progress and was quite saddened by the facilities. Overall, things were in a very run down state of affairs. Clearly, health care dollars in these rural locations are limited, and the staff here are stretching to provide the best care they can in difficult circumstances. The birthing room was really nothing more than two beds (one for examination, one for delivery) …. I did not see any intervention equipment in sight. Similarly, the pharmacy appeared to my untrained eye to be stocked with only the most basic sorts of things: vitamin boosters, stomach antacids, pain killers and antibiotics. And one that rather surprised and amused me … look carefully at the label below!
We (OK, 90% Hira, with us helping by handing him things and moving the desk that served as the ladder) finished the installation in the fading daylight using a headlamp.
So, we test the system and …. voila 8 new bulbs light up 6 different rooms. Applause went up all around, and then I had the team pose for a few photos.
Doctor Dharmadhi gave me a passionate thank you, and we then went to the (unlit) meeting room upstairs to enjoy some food and drink together. This was a lovely feeling to sit with these folks. Of course I felt happy that my family could help in this small way. But I was humbled and overwhelmed by the need here, and felt it simply the least our family could do to help. Especially in light of the fact we are jetting around the world this year with beautiful medical insurance!
I went to bed with a very full belly after another round of dal bhat and learned before retiring that Yvonne and the kids, while mostly recovered, would not be making the trip to see the health center and solar install. There is only one bus per day (early morning) and the install was finished. So they would spend 4 hrs on the bus, have 2 hrs to look around, then board the one afternoon bus for a 4 hr return trip. Yadav and Hira would have already left. So sadly, I realized that my family would not really be a part of this project. Perhaps on a return trip to Nepal?
We returned to the clinic early next morning to meet with the area’s head Doctor (Soti) who had been at a TB workshop the previous day (TB is still a problem in Nepal). He too expressed gratitude and signed the official HLF document to verify the install.
We noted in the HLF office in Kathmandu that many of the hundreds of solar installs over the past 2 decades had been indicated on a country map. And there was a book of photos. But I remarked to Yadav that it would be excellent to have a little GIS map page on their website to geo-reference all the installs where prospective donors/visitors could pull up project photos and descriptions by clicking on the recipient villages. He said this was on their wish list but they did not have a budget to implement it. When back home, I hope to connect with the GIS program at Sanford Flemming College in Peterborough to find a student who could do this as a course project.
The Himalayan Light Foundation does important and innovative work. Those who want to help but can’t make their way to Nepal can donate directly to support all or part of a new install. Yadav is very committed to this work. He has been at the helm for about 20 years and before that was very involved in community based reforestation work. Thank you, Yadav. I really hope my family can do another install some day and go back to Rambazaar to meet the health team again and see the simple wonder of solar technology at work.
Okay, so Kaia mentioned in her latest entry that our flight itinerary to get to Nepal was downright awful. We took off from Hong Kong in the evening, going to Mumbai. It was about 7 hours long, and actually very comfortable because we had the bulkhead seats, with lots of legroom, and personal TVs. But in the Mumbai airport, we were exhausted, and we had to wait 7 hours through the night until our flight to Kathmandu. Worse still, there were armrests between all the seats in the waiting room, so we couldn’t lie down across them. It was definitely not my favourite night of this trip! At least our second flight was only about 2 and a half hours, and we got our first view of the Himalaya mountains.
Finally, we arrived in our 14th country on this trip.
Facts about Nepal: -Population: 29 million -Area: approx. 147 000 sq. kilometres (57 000 sq. miles), similar size as Florida -Currency: Nepali rupee (77 rupees=1 Canadian dollar) -Religions: mostly Hindu and Buddhist, which are apparently very similar in Nepal. -Languages: Nepali is spoken all over the country, and there are 128 local dialects. English is pretty well spoken, so you can go most places knowing only one word in Nepali: Namaste. It officially translates to “I salute the god in you”, but it can mean hello, goodbye, thank you, or pretty much anything positive.
-Drives on the left -Landscape: varying from high mountains near the Tibetan border in the north to low-lying plain and jungle near the Indian border in the south. Fun facts:
-There are 14 peaks in the world above 8000m altitude, and 8 of them are in Nepal (including the highest).
-Though Nepal has lots of unique animals like red pandas, yaks, elephants, rhinos and tigers, they chose the cow as their national animal, because they’re sacred in Hindu and Buddhist culture. It’s hard to find beef in Nepal.
-When we got off the plane, we had to change the time on our watches by 2 hours and 45 minutes, because for some reason, Nepal has it’s own mini time zone, 15 minutes off the time zone that the nearby part of India uses.
-The Nepali flag is the only national flag in the world that isn’t rectangular. It looks like this:
My mom actually booked a guesthouse in Kathmandu in advance, something we rarely do, so someone was waiting to pick us up at the airport. Kathmandu is a pretty big city, of about 3 million people (but seems tiny after being in Hong Kong), so it took about half an hour to drive to the guesthouse in a very touristy neighbourhood called Thamel. Our room was nice and big, and even had a whole kitchen. It was on the 5th floor though, so we got some exercise carrying our big packs up to it! Once we got settled in, we went out for lunch. Food in Nepal isn’t as cheap as it was in Indonesia and the Philippines, but still cheap enough that we hardly ever used the kitchen. We had chapati bread with curry for lunch. It was delicious! Before coming to Nepal, we didn’t know what to expect with the food, but after that lunch, we knew Nepali food would be good.
That afternoon, we didn’t go anywhere or do anything special, but we walked around Thamel a bit to get to know the area. Kathmandu is nice, but very, very busy, loud and polluted. Walking around Thamel was a stressful experience. There aren’t really any sidewalks and the streets are narrow, so you’re forced to walk through crowds of people, cars and motorcycles.
There were also tons of tourist shops. Nepal’s big tourist attraction is the Himalaya mountain range, and the best way to see it is by trekking. So, there are hundreds of shops selling trekking equipment: down jackets, boots, walking poles, you name it. There are also lots of souvenir shops selling Nepali clothing, bracelets, and all the rest of those little trinkets. There were a lot of really nice T-shirts with names of treks and pictures of mountains on them. Some have expressions like “Nepal: Never Ending Peace And Love”, or (this next one sold mostly to people who have already been trekking) “Nepal flat: little bit up, little it down”. Now that we’ve been trekking, that expression makes sense to us, because sometimes our guide would say “the path will be Nepal flat” or in other words “there’s no such thing as flat in Nepal”!
We went to a little restaurant near our guesthouse for dinner. One of the things we ate was a dish of these things called momos. They’re little Nepali dumplings filled with vegetables and sometimes chicken or buff (buffalo meat), and they’re really good! We’ve eaten many more momos for the 3 weeks we’ve been in Nepal now.
We slept okay that night, but not great, because of all the cars honking. We spent 2 more days in Kathmandu. During that time, we did some stuff that I’ll talk about, but I kind of forget when they happened during those 2 days, so for the rest of this entry, the events may not be in chronological order.
We took a taxi to the office of an organization called Solar Sisters, to organize an activity installing solar panels in villages. My dad will write about that in the next entry.
Back at our room, we spent time getting caught up on the blog, and Kaia had a Skype conversation with her class. Since our room was up on the 5th floor, we had view of the Thamel “skyline”.
And, we learned that there are urban monkeys in Kathmandu! One climbed right onto the rooftop patio, back down the other side of the building, then jumped across to the next building. I guess it’s kind of like how there are squirrels living in cities in Canada.
For lunch one day, we went to a middle-eastern style restaurant called OR2K. We sat on cushions at low tables, and the restaurant had a cool ambience. The music was funky, the walls were painted in a cool way, even the menu was artistic! And of course, the food was delicious. We had naan and focaccia bread with middle-eastern dipping sauces like hummus and babaganoush, and Israeli salad.
We went shopping for trekking equipment, and got stocked up on jackets, boots, socks, leggings, and more, because we’d be going up to Poon Hill and Annapurna base camp, and it would get cold up there.
All the trekking items at stores in Thamel are marked with famous brand names like The North Face and Mammut, but they’re all counterfeit. How can we tell? Well, read this tag that was on my new trekking boots that are apparently The North Face.
The tags on all the other items we bought weren’t much better, either. One of the shop owners we bought from even admitted they were fake. At least we know they’re definitely made in Nepal!
We walked to Kathmandu Durbar square, an ancient plaza that was once part of the old Kathmandu kingdom. We didn’t realize until we got there that tourists need a ticket to get into the square, and it was quite expensive for 4 people. So, we just walked around the outside of the square, then discretely walked in at a place that didn’t have a ticket booth. We had to be firm with a few very persistent guides that we weren’t interested in a tour of the square. We just sat up on the steps up to one of the temples and enjoyed the view.
Since it was a bit of a long walk (and walking is a stressful activity in Kathmandu) between our guesthouse and the square, we decided to take a bicycle drawn rickshaw back.
It was a crazy experience! The driver had only one gear on his bicycle, and since my mom and Kaia were riding in one right behind the one my dad and I were in, they could see that one of the back wheels on ours was loose and wobbly. My mom was worried it would fall off on one of the many potholes it went over! The rickshaw weaved it’s way through traffic all the way back to the guesthouse.
So, Kathmandu was a pretty hectic start to our time in Nepal, but in a way, it was good to start with the loud, crazy stuff, because it makes the rest of our experience in Nepal, out in the Himalaya, seem so calm and quiet.