Moving Mountains Blanches Himalayan Odyssey -Part II - Nepal

Day 11 - 28/11 - Kk > Katmandu

The flight from Kolkata is only an hour and I pick a window seat on the right hand side of the plane. We ascend not through clouds but through either fog or more likely the haze of pollution hanging over the city, many hundreds of feet high, until we reach clean air. Thirty minutes in the pilot announces that it is a cloudless day and visibility should be good. I look through my porthole and for the first time I see the Himalaya, stretching as far east and west as I can see. It is simply stunning.

As with every other new tourist here I try pick out Everest, but it is impossible. I just see the most fantastic mountaintops rising through the cloud, glistening in the sun. They run for miles across the whole horizon, and it quickens my heart.

Me, with all the stuff that has happened over these last couple of years, some of the most awful events of my life, dissipate into the surrounding vista. I really have made it.

We land in Katmandu and I get a cab the short journey to my destination, another AirBnb place slap in the middle of Thamel, the tourist part of KTM.

Again purposely I had not wished to look up the region too much, and in truth, Palin and Woods half hour asides, have done no research at all. I have a blank canvas up here and will just go with what feels best, my intent from outset.

I had imagined KTM to be a fairly populous city of perhaps 250k, busy but small and contained. As we flew in I realised it is much larger, the central populous being 1 million and the whole valley region 5 million.

Katmandu

Thamel is nuts (for want of not wishing to use the word mental again).

If you can imagine the lanes of Brighton, times 500, five stories high and with 100 motorbikes whizzing down every one you will get a loose picture. No thats too sedate, its Soho on speed. Yet its differs from India greatly.

The air for one is cleaner, though even here though not felt, I am told the air quality is not great. There is s ring road that circles the main event, but the rest consists of alleys and tiny roads, probably five people abreast wide. It is ram packed full of shops and restaurants and bars and people.

And motorbikes.

Whereas Delhi and Amritsar and Calcutta are death by car or tuk tuk or bus or lorry, this is death by Suzuki. The word 'Yamaha' unknown to most, translates from Japanese to 'mountain + blade'. Up here is death by a thousand cuts. If there are a million people here there are a million and ten motorbikes.

Bikes two deep

I had got used to waking through traffic in India - you simply walk where you want in the roads, and you either got car-horned out of the way or the vehicles simply go around you. Walking the roads of India I never once looked behind me to see if I was about to be hit. There was no need. The traffic was so slow and so congested that I had not an ounce of fear of being mowed down.

But here you have to have your eyes everywhere and within minutes I take on the peripheral vision of a chameleon.

My host greets me and immediately I have trust and a deep linking for this man. He is 40 but looks much younger, his excellent English understands immediately my own guttural cockney drawl and he shows me to my room. It is as per advertised, only better. It is easily the most spacious room I have stayed in so far. It is immaculate, cleaner even than out posh hotel and the bed is the biggest I have seen. The photos will prove me out here. It could easily sleep 3 people, 4 people would rest in comfort. Maybe 2 Lenny Henrys. I am overjoyed. Cost. £12 per night incl. breakfast.

KTM

Yogendra, (call me Yogi) is just so helpful. I unpack, we have masala tea, a drink I am now deeply fond of, and then I wander out to get something to eat. It is half past eight now and dark, so I take a pictures of the bright neon sign above the entrance, and a few similar placement photos too, in case I get lost in this labyrinth of shops and bars. I photograph a big sign of a clearly well know bar as my main pointer a hundred yards up the road. For the Nepal trip I am data free (simply prohibitive here on my tight budget), so visual landmarks to show to Nepali’s I am confident is the best form of navigation home. I am only going to find a restaurant close anyway.

I find an eatery atop one of the hotels, 6th floor overlooking the whole of Katmandu. The food is delicious and the people super, super polite. I am tired so pay the three quid or whatever it was for a delicious tom-yum style hot and sour soup (finally I talked the chef personally into cooking something that at least left a sting on the lips) and a huge curry, and descend to street level to return home to my new pristine 5-a-side pitch size bed.

Big mistake. During the hour or so I have been out eating, the place has shut down. 90 % of stuff here apparently shuts at ten. It is 10.20pm

And they turn their signs off.

Neon turns to night and I have now no visible indicators of where I am or which way I should go and my photos are useless as landmarks. Its like someone pulling the plug on Piccadilly Circus. It is close to pitch black.

Not only this every shop and doorway has its shutter down. And I have no phone signal. Hmmm.

I show some of the still active street hawkers my sighter, those offering ladies, lifts home or leaf, only to be politely greeted with blank stares. Finally after perhaps 30 minutes trying to get my bearings a hand drawn cart recognises what he thinks is it, and points to a locked shutter. He then shouts at the top of his voice and sure enough Yogen’s head leans over the balcony 5 stories up. I am so grateful to see him. I am home.

Day 12 - 29/11 - Katmandu

So today its temple time, or whatever the draws of KTM are. After a wholesome breakfast and a very pleasurable hour long chat with Yogen who is amicable, articulate and great company, he insists he take me the 10 minute walk to Durbar Square rather than me walk alone, to the epicentre and most famous place here. I gratefully accept knowing my own sense of direction to be worse than useless.

He tells me of the history of Nepal, that it was once a much larger kingdom but that land was ceded to India (which is another way of saying it was taken from them). It had many rulers and Katmandu had three 'kings' who all built a 'Durbar' square, all trying to outdo each other, hence the multitude of temples and opulence at each.

Durbar Square

We walk through the busy “it is very ancient" market near Ason Chowk and reach the square. It is surrounded by beautifully ornate temples, Buddhist and Hindu side by side.

It is immediately evident that sadly the earthquake last year has all but destroyed this place. The temples, many centuries of years old in tradition, but also construction, are either piles of rubble or are supported by vast piles of thick supporting beams or scaffolds. I would like to say the place has still retained its charm, and it has, you can still definitly get the feel, but it is devastating to see what was clearly a world wonder in such a distraught state. But rebuilding is in place and I am sure it will soon regain its former glory and is certainly still worth the trip.

For the evening I had decided to visit another Durbar square at Patan, on the outskirts of the city, which I believe had suffered slightly less so maybe some better photos. There is still a lot of damage here too, but I take some good snaps of the intricate structures and carvings that adorn the standing temples, and just wander around. Like all of Nepal it is super friendly and the people everywhere just genuinely outgoing, polite and pleasant. I had an ulterior motive for visiting Patan too, as there are a group of people I wish to meet here and this is the one place they meet. Its similar to my work in the prisons back home, and I make it. We meet for an hour, the talk is in Nepalese, but the communication and understanding is total. We speak a common language. Its an amazing experience and one of my highlights of the whole trip.

I return home, wander the streets for a little and return to the same restaurant for the beautiful soup and my daily fix of chilli. I have achieved what I wanted and have ‘got’ the place in the one day, so am happy. For me it is not about seeing as much as possible on a short timescale but 'feeling' somewhere. I don’t like the word vibe, but it fits here so reluctantly I shall allow it.

I ensure to permit myself time to adhere to their neon clock (lights out is normally 11pm apparently, last night was an oddity), and start to lay plans for tomorrow.

I look up Narangot, a 3-4 hour drive east where sunsets over Everest are meant to be stunning. And en route is the third Durbar Square at Bharakat. So it looks like a plan for tomorrow, it means I don’t have to leave until lunch, and I entrust Yogen to sort out the transport and details for me. Sunset is 5.08pm so I reckon on being back before 9pm which suits me.

I sleep with visions of blazing red skies over the worlds tallest peak, with yet more anticipation of another splendid day ahead.....

Day 13 - 30/11 - KTM > Pokhara

I wake around 2am, not unusually, and some inner adrenal clock tells me I should push on west not east. Within minutes it is decided, and again I have that sense that I have made the right choice. As it turns out I had….

Despite being paid up here for another day, by 3am I have booked flight and accommodation to Pokhara, further west along the valley and the underlying purpose of my trip I remind myself.

Trip so far

Pokhara has been my Shangri-La all along, and although even a few months ago was an impossible dream, I am now within touching distance. I shall have to break the news to Yogen in the morning and get him to cancel the plans he has made. But the Nepalese are so wonderful in their manner, and Yogen such an easy going guy, I know it will be cool. Sure enough over breakfast Yogen is completely supportive, “no worries” he smiles and means it, and I do some research on what I had booked in haste whilst half asleep last night.

The Airline.

Shit.

I read last night that internal Nepalese flights are around $45 for locals but there is a minimum fare required by government for foreigners and all flights are a set fare of $121. Mine was $50. I check out who I am flying with in the sure knowledge that if something looks too good to be true then it normally is.

This airline aint no Emirates for sure. In fact they aint much at all. They have an entire fleet of 3 planes (I think only two in commission right now), had lost their right to fly in 2015 due to safety issue and so had their licence withdrawn, but flew anyway for the last year. On occasion.

In August this year when they were grounded completely having to pay a stipend of many lakh (million) before even being allowed near a runway I think.

Trip advisor news was no better - multiple and recent (October) reviews of travellers booking and getting to airport to find nothing there not even a check-in. If airlines were sneakers, these would only have two stripes.

And finally the planes are 18 seaters.

I retain my mantra ‘nothing is a problem’ and leave the stuff I don’t need at Yogen’s to dash out in the morning to pick up some gear. If I am pushing on it is so I can have that extra day to fit in a trek - its a wish too far and its not vital for me - Pokhara is my destination. But I want to give myself the option of reaching the absolute peak of where I can get too, and that is Poon Hill in the Annapurna region a 3200 metre summit and above the magical 3000m mark.

I have no idea what I need for trekking but one thing I do need is an ATM (these have zero queues and dish out). In the vestibule of one ATM booth I get into conversation with a Canadian lady in her 60’s perhaps. She is a many many time trekker and she and her friends outside give some invaluable advice. I had bought no trekking gear at all and my entire backpack consists of 4 pair shorts, 4 T’s and little else.

The single most important thing to do on a holiday like this is chat at every opportunity to experienced travellers, and the western ones at that if given opportunity. This proved very much the case here.

I am told I need, in no particular order, socks, a decent fleece, a North Face style jacket, water purifaction tablets, immodium, thermal gloves, walking poles (the Canadian insist these as most vital having seen people 'crippled', on the way down especially), a sleeping bag of about 1000 togs, sunglasses, a thermal hat, a peaked cap, sunblock, a permit, long and short sleeve T shirts, full thermal underwear top and bottom, and some nuts (in both senses).

Hmmm. I have 1 hour precisely before I must leave for the plane, and had started looking at jackets and fleeces before my chance meeting. I get quoted ’happy price mister’ of between 7000 and 8000 NPR’s just for the fleece and jacket. Budget now becomes an issue.

The ladies had recommended a shop, "its one of the more honest one in town", and tell me not to buy but to hire; hire the sleeping bag, hire the poles, hire the jacket. It doesn’t seem right, but I find the shop and negotiate all the above items, all bought excepting sleeper and jacket, at a simply brilliant 2,800 rupees. £23 or so quid. The gloves, poles, superb fleece, medicals, hat, and two pair of socks are purchased outright within that price which is shockingly good. So if trekking does happen by some miracle at least I am equipped.

The deposit however is 8000 NPR's. As I am coming back to KTM for only 1 day and these are not convertible back to $, £, € or even INR's that is a problem. I continue to chat with the guys and they must have seen something honest in my face as they say ‘forget it man, just come back safe and most of all enjoy it’. Truly lovely people and the first that haven't tried to leverage price for my ‘white face’. I couldn’t be happier.

I get back with ten minutes to spare before the airport taxi is due just time to pack and head off for a flight that aint gonna be there, and if it is by some miracle it is then I fear its only gonna have one propeller and no doors.

Oh and I am told they only fly at 4000 feet or something (not quoting and clear exaggeration here), but well below the ‘proper’ airlines Yeti and Buddha, which everyone else uses.

I arrive an hour before take off resigned to the fact that I will be spending another night in Katmandu, the mystical planes off somewhere being sold for scrap. I walk in and there sure enough is a single check desk, the only one without a huge queue, in fact zero queue, manned but a single young bloke of about 22. From what I have garnered he is probably flying the thing...

He is politeness personified, checks me through and my hopes for the first time are raised that perhaps I shall be moving forward after all.

I walk through into a tiny waiting area, though populated with a hundred or so people. The departure board shows every flight but mine. There is no one from my airline anywhere and when asking at other check in desks they give me blank stares when I show them the name of the airline.

Take off is at 2.30pm on my boarding card (hardly that its a scrap of paper). At 2.45 I am still sat fidgeting. Not nervously. After all what is there to be nervous about? There will be a flight or there won’t. ‘Nothing is a problem' I repeat, with no sense of irony. I am not kidding myself here. Its all gravy and whatever happens, I will simply take another turn, maybe go back explore the valleys etc. Fear of protocol and deadlines being met or fulfilled evaporated weeks ago.

I look up and see two young laughing lads, Kiwis I guess by their accent, perhaps 21 years of age. Both in shorts and one is holding a skateboard. This makes me smile. We are waiting for a plane to go up into the Himalaya proper and he has a skateboard. The complete rashness of youth. I see they are holding the same ‘pass’ as me and go chat. We laugh a lot and I tell them my findings about the ghost airline we are booked on. They show brief concern then laugh with me. But I learn that a Nepalese businessman had told them not to worry, that the plane lands, boards and takes off in about 10 minutes flat. It will be here. Great news.

Sure enough about 3pm we are summoned and bussed 3 minutes to the ‘light aircraft’ standing alone. There is no such formality as baggage check in with the guys and I disembark the bus and put my heavy rucksack in the hold of the plane myself, rather like you would put your suitcase in the back of a Ford Focus. Love it.

Fun Ride

We see an old man being taken from our plane, clearly in a bad way and he is stretchered with oxygen mask attached to a waiting ambulance. I joke to my fellow 16 passengers stood on the tarmac that that was our pilot. The atmosphere is broken and everyone laughs, especially the two young lads, who in fairness are buzzed by the whole thing. As am I. Truth is I woulda paid extra to go on a little prop plane like this, so the fact I paid nothing and its likely gonna be a bumpy ride is just a huge bonus.

Boarders on board. Flight decks

Reminds me of this and I smile: Roger - Roger, Clearance, Clarence

Inside, there are one seat on each side. The propellers start as the hostess does a quick emergency announcement. None of this standing in the aisle and blowing whistles and stuff. She simply says something along the lines “welcome to our airline; there are no emergency procedures on this plane. Please read the card in front of you. Enjoy your flight".

If that isn’t quote of the trip so far I don’t know what is.

I get talking to an American girl on the opposite side of the aisle (about two feet away). We chat in general, about travel, about this flight, and the 25 minutes fly by, amidst breathtaking scenery and views of 9 of the 10 highest peaks in the world. It turns out to be a great conversation (see the theme here), and we are to meet later.

Shangri-La

It turned out to be a great flight too - and I have made Pokhara.

I have achieved my goal. I am ecstatic and my grin is so huge I fear my ears are going to fall off. We disembark, and walk through the tea hut that is the terminal, and my new host Laxman picks me out, loads the taxi and off we go.

Laxman (gonna call him Lax from now on for ease) is chilled and has that look of somewhere who has seen something of the world. I like him immediately and the taxi takes us through a bit of town and then to the lake around which everything happens here. Its called Phewa, or Fewa lake, and is Swiss pretty and surrounded by forested slopes on all sides. We pass through a quaint high street of 100 shops or bars or so, and I know I am going to like it. The pace had dropped dramatically, and there is just more calm in the air. People saunter rather than sprint, people sit at cafes sipping coffee, there are a lot of younger white faces, gap year kids I guess, and it just looks like a cool place to hang out. I hear the sounds of some chill out music in one bar, some lilting reggae (sorry, deep cliche) in another. Every third shop offers treks and rafting and paragliding and pony riding and jungle safari and the like, but on a much more, 'hey man, chill out first look me up and maybe we can do a trip for you man', kinda feel.

The taxi skirts the lake anti clockwise, water close to our left edge and then we turn right to ascend a dirt track up an incline. Our taxi is 40 years old Lax tells me, but they sure made suspension springs in those days. A few hundred yards up we stop and disembark. We clamber a fence and then go almost straight up a serious of stepping stones and paths for about 5 minutes. Carrying out gear it was a bit tough and unexpected, so I stopped for couple of momentary breathers, but knowing the further up, the deeper into the forest we go the better the outcome might be.

We finally hit a beautifully layed slate path, that must have taken many weeks of work, through some rhodendendrum arches, past a bee hive which Lax attends and peeks at briefly, and up into Hidden Paradise itself.

Its one of those moments where its difficult to take in all in. A row of chalets to our right are fronted by an immaculate lawn, and to out left is the most stunning view of the lake and hillsides. There is a frame of flowers of all descriptions skirting the edge of of lawn before it descends to the forest below. It is beautiful.

Lax says sit down, chill. I kick off my shoes as I am brought some delicious masala tea, as we sit almost silently and just drink it all in.

I am gonna love it here.

View over Phewa

We sit there in silence while we drink, imbibing the whole scene in front of us. Not just me. Lax too. He has been in KTM for a few days and you can see he still gets the same thrill from this view, from this place, that I do. After half an hour or so of occasional words and more tea we stir. He shows me the rest of the grounds and there are 11 rooms in total, all unique, all original and all with a special boutique hotel feel; there are four poster beds with forest side views, beautiful and romantic. There are two Swiss style chalet rooms with a balcony surround, up on stilts and sat amongst their own patch of forest up another little stone pathway. And we ascend a final flight of stairs through another flowered arch to a lawn and The Roundhouse, a circular building with an upstairs and downstairs and super quaint.

I go upstairs and immediately swap from my original room to this. It is just sublime and has French doors that open out at the foot of the bed offering views of the lake through flowers and lovely trees and I know that I will sleep here each night, with those doors to the veranda open letting the night time in and my stresses out. Its just perfect.

Roundhouse

The light fades and the shimmering on the lake makes way for onyx blackness, the lights of Pokhara dotted across the far perimeter and faint sounds of music waft up the mountainside. There is only one other resident there when I arrive, on his third consecutive yearly return, and he is slightly older than I, perhaps 60. We get chatting and he speaks not a word of English, which I love as it forces me to use my old school level French. We sit and talk for an hour, completely understood both, and words from my childhood learning come flooding back to me.

He tells me there is a fantastic walk round the entire lake which takes 6 hours at leisurely pace, and there are monasteries and some lovely places to eat, and drink all round. He has just done this today.

There are also two Buddhist monasteries the other side of the hill, through 'jungle', that are harder to find and fairly dormant at present. But mostly he says "C'est ici est parfait, tranquille et formidable’.

Its late but I want food and like to get my bearings, so despite it now being pitch black I tell Lax I am gonna go out, find somewhere lakeside and grab something. I have no headlamp to find my way down the dark hidden path, but in his chilled way he says 'hey man, use your phone light, you will find it'.

Its treacherous and steep and a whole lot of fun descending through the small worn path by torchlight. I find the dirt road and eventually hit the lakeside. I turn right instead of left as advised and walk perhaps 25 minutes until I see a restaurant called Sky High Bar or something along those lines. There are no other visitors and the English of the one or two waiters present is poor. But I manage to order vegetable soup ‘Piro’ and a Piro Chicken curry.

Piro if you know me at all means hot, chilli hot, bloody spicy hot, though like India I am not expecting much to my liking on this front.

I sit alone on the top veranda looking at the blinking lights of The towns bars on the far side of the lake, the water lapping, the faint echo of someone playing europop and laughter, distant but unmissable.

The soup is good. Its the first time someone has served me something even approaching hot enough and the guy steps back with a worried look on his face. But it is tasty and welcome and he applauds and bows. It fills me with warmth and strength from the inside out and I have a lovely hour alone, on a rooftop overlooking the blackness encircled by flinty lights far away. Its a nice moment and is, Golden Temple aside, my first real time of aloneness. An involuntary smile starts from my stomach and spreads. I am here and its all I dreamed of.

I have but a vague idea of how far it is back, or even which way the turn away and up from the lake is. I foolishly expects some kind of tuk tuk or taxi to pass, but the road is dead, retired for the night. Paying the bill of a few quid the lad who served me insists 'no problem I help, I take you'. So having served me my royal spicy feast, he brings me down stairs, jumps on his bike and indicates I jump on the back. And he takes me back to the foot of the hill stairs, pillion, across the bumpiest roads potholed roads I have yet encountered, (remnants of a recent landslide during monsoon). No helmut and just clutching on round the waters edge, its a real buzz and real kind of the bloke. He won’t take payment and I jump off and get my iphone out to go wandering through the jungle path I have to try remember from this afternoon, only this time in darkness.

After some stumbling and wrong turns I find it and return to Lax, his brothers, the Frenchman and a Swiss guy Martin, another serial returner here, sat around a blazing fire on the lawn still overlooking the lake. Its like going camping from my school days only on Lake Geneva.

We sit and talk, and tea comes, and we talk some more. I tell my story and then a few others pipe in. As with these kinds of things everyone becomes the worlds greatest philosopher on life, the universe and everything. The wind changes direction and the smoke is now blowing my way, stinging my eyes. Lax says "did you have a pee-pee on the way up man". I laugh. I did. He says "I know man, thats why the smoke blows in your face" and the small crowd laugh. There is no way Lax is letting any conversation get too deep or boring and we break into funnier stories.

Its been another long day and I give my excuses around eleven and fall heavily on my bed, French doors open at my feet, the sounds of the night quiet and mystic and I am asleep within seconds. Yep, I am gonna love it here.

Day 14 - 1/12 - Pokhara/Sarangot

I wake early to watch the sunrise but it is kind of hidden to my left so I shower, smoke on the circular balcony and watch the mist roll over the lake. I start to organise my stuff and find I have a message. The girl I had met on the plane, had messaged me and was interested in paragliding with her boyfriend, whom I'd seen meet her at the airport. They are staying at lakeside somewhere in the main town 10 mins away.

I pass details at length including a summary of how beautiful Hidden Paradise is and say pop up, if only for the views and pictures, and forget about it not expecting to see them.

I go down to breakfast and just breathe in the surroundings. Its the kind of place where silence is such a beautiful thing and my constant chatter of last few weeks with the lads subsides into something more respectful, more suited to the place here. I speak mostly only when addressed or to joke with Lax, and I take a host of pictures of the surroundings and grounds.

Hidden Paradise

Breakfast and a few masala teas later I walk the grounds. There are more chalets amidst another beautiful garlanded lawn and he shows me his second bees nest and explains to me about hives and how they work. Its December 1st and the sun is blazing hot. I return to the main lawn for bottled water and scenery. I could stay here for weeks and be perfectly happy. After the frenetic pace I had set myself across India and Katmandu, it is just nice to enjoy the near silence, the peace up here.

To our left is a high peak, Sarangot hill, and as the morning progresses we see paragliders circle high and directly above us, lazily catching thermals like huge brightly coloured Albatross, descending finally over the open water before gliding down to a landing promontory on the lakeside below us. It looks so serene and huge fun.

Albatross; Sarangot Hill

Lost in my own thoughts, I hear a familiar voice and Raina the girl from the plane has made it, along with her handsome bloke Z, and we sit and have tea, laughter all around. I smile knowing that now they have found there way up here, there is no way they are not gonna stay here. Thats a cert. Lax invites them to look around. Half hour later they return and have not only booked the four poster room but are booking paragliding flights too. They are on a long weekend over from Dubai where they both work as teachers, and are very much of the mindset 'can we do it now, today'? Its getting late in the afternoon, but a few calls and Lax has it arranged, and of course I am asked to join the party. Its not a hard decision.

I’m going flying.

The bus journey up the mountain was one of those wheels over the edge of the cliff trips, literally at one point as we took 20 minutes to edge inch by inch round an unthoughtfully parked JCB (yep). It really was inch by inch and visions of that scene from the Italian Job were at the forefront of my mind. It was a straight drop down, my side, and when the co-driver is screaming at the driver you know things really are on the edge. I love it. And of course we make it around and to the top.

Before you know it, Raina, Z and me are in gear, in harness and running at full pelt off a blind hill top - its brilliant and after the initial rush I relax into immediately. We catch a few remaining zephyrs of wind, skirt tree tops and buzz house roofs, before circling out over the lake and it is simply joyous. We approach a crested ridge of trees which we barely pass over the tops of, feet almost touching leaf it seems, beyond which is a huge sheer drop, the kind that give you instant vertigo....whoa! who took the ground away. I love it even more.

We land having pirouetted down over the water and bump down perfectly onto our landing spot. It was fantastic and such a beautiful place to do it at as my first time. Wasn’t expecting to be doing that today....

Raina, Z and I have lunch in town and at night we all sit round the campfire, a few beers come out and the conversation is lively, all encompassing and funny. Z brings out his music player and we take turns playing tunes from our phones (deep house and cafe del mar from me, obvious but entirely suited). Brilliant day, and a great, great night, tonnes of fun and new mates made. Shaking hands as we go to our respective rooms I tel Z that I am thinking of going for a run round the lake in the morning, if he fancies it. See you at six he says……..hes got the physique of a para and has 20 years on me. Lol. I do love a challenge....

Day 15 - 2/12 - Pokhara

So the day starts with a run (we set of at seven) and we run down our step stones and hill and then jog round the lake. Its a great time to be out and the pace is just right enough for me to chat too. We reach town, I get some funds and bits and we walk back along the actual ‘beach of the lake’. We sit at one point and just gaze across the lake as Pokhara stirs and wakes, boats start to be lowered into waters, bamboo shutters go up on lakeside hangouts and shops begin to open. Its a moment of silence, just sat peering across the lake, two blokes who met 12 hours earlier, yet its like we have known each other for years. We chat all the way back up, about girls in case you think this is all getting a bit 'Brokeback Mountain', and when we get back breakfast is on the go. Z and Raina are going boating today on the lake before flyng back to Dubai.

I anticipate doing precisely nothing. I spend the early afternoon watching the colours change, the Albartross float, and feel the lush grass under my feet. In my entire stay here I have not worn shoes and, late night aside, no shirt either. It is like I am in my own grounds, and I walk and wander and count spider webs and photograph butterflies.

It could not be more opposite to the last couple of weeks. I don’t want to leave and have another 5 days before I have to start the journey home. I seriously consider staying here for the remainder.

The guys return from boating and we take some pics and say farewells. I am so glad they came, and so are they. A brief airplane conversation has enriched all our experiences. Thats how it works with this stuff.

Top: Me, Raina and Z - Bottom,: Lax and co

Back to relaxing for me. Yet its Friday and the nagging demon inside me is telling me that despite the fact I am here now, paradise is nice but you must go test yourself a bit more, push on. So I ask Lax’s brother Milan about trekking on the off chance. I was aware there were 5 or 7 day treks that take you to a place called Poon Hill. Even a 4 day one I think. All outside my timescale.

I ask Milan if we can do it in three. He goes off comes back and says ‘no problem man’. 'Quite difficult for you but we do it'. Its late afternoon now and he makes haste to go try arrange permits for the morning.

He is back within the hour and my next adventure is set for the morning, Saturday 3rd. Superb, although my excitement is tempered with (a) whether I am fit enough and (b) whether my 4 times operated on footballers knees will last the first hour, let alone the distance.

I wander out for dinner alone again despite the campfire offering, and find the best restaurant yet. Its tucked away just at the bottom of our path, overhangs the lake and is the coolest place ever. The music is light Jazz, spot on. Julie London, Lady Day, BB King, Ella. I take a seat on a marvellous slab of marbled tree, low almost cross legged, and strike up conversation with the waiter. He wants to know all about London and football, so we chat a while. I order soup and pork while Julie sings 'Moodys Mood', a favourite.

Crazy Gecko

I feel totally at peace by the lakeside on my marble covered tree stump, cigarette in hand, an ice cold coke, and I have another 'moment'. This place is too perfect. How did I get here. For the first time on my trip tears come and I let them.

I think about all the people who have done so much for me, so many things that have happened in such a short time, my Mum and Dad, and the many friends and relationships that have helped me get to this place. Those who know my full story will understand. Its a serene, humbling moment.

I quickly realise my tears are falling over a smile. Soup turns up and my reverie is broken. And it is the best meal I have had since moment one. It is outstandingly good. Tom Yum on top form. Ribs follow Nepalese style, and I dwell over each tasty morsel.

Having spent an hour or two alone by the lake, eaten wondrous foods and perhaps done the thinking I was hoping for when I came away, I am replete. Maybe it was just this place, maybe it was BB bluesing, maybe it was the jet blackness of the lake washing over and enveloping me. But I know that this was kinda what I had come for, and feel a few ghosts have been chased away into the mists of Lake Phewa……….

Bar at Gecko; Lunch there on my return

I had heard a young lad and two girls, all early 20’s chatting about the meaning of life as I was entering, probably over some mild plant leaf, and as is now custom politely say hi on the way out, hows it going, and offer a few pearls of lifes wisdom myself. Obviously now that I have travelled India and Nepal and had a couple of 'moments', I am clearly a qualified life Guru - ask me anything and I will give you my wisdom young ones. Lol

The two girls are here volunteering, something I learn a lot of young people I meet are and these two are doing 11 countries in 11 months. Wow. What a fantastic opportunity to see so much so young. I tell the lad I am off trekking tomorrow, he asks where and how long - I say Poon Hill; 2 days up, 1 day down, he says simply "OUCH". He has done ABC twice (Annapurna Base Camp), a fair bit (six days) beyond where I am going and he says unequivocally, the 3700 'steps' to Ulleri that I face tomorrow are the hardest part of all the trekking he has done.

And hes 23.

Oh dear.

I walk back in the darkness along my now familiar route up, chatter half hour round the fire and make arrangements with Milan for the morning so he can tell me whats needed and what the hell it is I am doing. "Dont worry. Will be cool. I see you at 6 man”.

As my eyes flicker closed, a serious realisation comes to my mind and I know from deep inside, something huge happened to me today. Guess thats the internal stuff dealt with, now for the external stuff.

Tomorrow, I going to climb the Himalayas.....

Bring it on...

Day 16 - 3/12 - the steps to ulleri

Up early showered, I have laid out what I think I need. The hired sleeping bag, the hired jacket, thermals, gloves, hats, combats and a fleece, and 3 pairs of socks.

I expect to be going up in long trousers and sleeves today as we climb from 800m at trail commence to 2000m, twice as high as Snowden. Always good to get some perspective here so in metres Snowden is 1085, Matterhorn 4478, Mont Blanc 4809, Kilimanjaro 5985, then a big jump to Annapurna 8091, and lastly Everest at 8848 metres high. Our 'summit' at Poon Hill is just over 3200 metres, though to be climbed in just a couple of days.

Milan says, 'no man, shorts today, T shirt - you will be hot’.

Fine. And he was right.

So when I say I am going climbing the Himalayas, what of course I mean is trekking, albeit pretty hardcore and straight up no circumnavigating, but its trekking. So there will be no ice picks, no crampons and no ropes, much as I would love to think I am mountain climber. I am basically clambering up the side of a Himalayan slope, albeit 2 miles high, which is a long, long way up.

So some more facts while I am it. The Annapurna Conservation Area (7,629 km²) is a well known trekking region. There are three major trekking routes in the Annapurna region: the Jomson Trek to Jomsom and Muktinath; the Annapurna Sanctuary route to Annapurna base camp (ABC); and the Annapurna Circuit, which circles the Annapurna Himal itself and includes the Jomsom route.The town of Pokhara usually serves as a starting point for these treks, and is also a good starting place for other short treks of one to four days, such as routes to Ghorepani or Ghandruk. It is Ghorepani that is our destination for the final climb to Poon Hill, for sunrise views over the Annapurna Range.

Annapurna

In October 2014, at least 43 people were killed, and some 175 injured, as a result of snowstorms and avalanches on and around Annapurna, including trekkers from Nepal, Israel, Canada, India, Slovakia and Poland. Between 10 and 50 people were thought likely to be missing. It was believed that about 100 trekkers had left a guest house at 4,800 metres (15,700 ft), to climb to the top of Thorong La pass and then descend. We are going to 3200 metres (10,500 ft) so will be fine. Its between 10,000 ft and 12,000 ft that altitude sickness starts to have impact so again, we will be fine. But I know today is gonna be a tough gig.

We load the car, me with a small sports rucksack not the big hiker I had thought I needed, him with a similar smaller pack. We look like we are going to play squash rather than hike a mountain.The young lad last night had said ‘take poles, what ever you do take poles’ the same advice the Canadian had given me back in KTM. So I take poles, (same as ski poles, only rubber footed and spring loaded), and this was invaluable advice.

An hour and half's drive and we are at our start point and off we go. The first part is great. Its gentle and the hills rise around us, rice paddy fields flank us, cattle pass us nonchanantly and the sounds of a babbling river follow our route. Its like a scene from The Sound of Music and I make good pace with Milan, thinking I can do this. Obviously we are going up so its not flat, and after an hour or two of incline a few things start twingeing. My hammy, the inside of my knee. But thats cool. Around half ten we stop for drinks at one of the many hostels clustered in little groups at cobbles street staging points. I know today the goal is Ulleri. But both Milan and young Tom from last night, and the Canadian doomsayer way back in town all say this second bit of the day is tough.

We push on, across 'I’m a celebrity jungle' rope bridges, and there are some beautiful waterfalls cascading alongside and under us. It is a joyous morning. I am half expecting bluebirds to come and sit on my shoulder.

I have purposely pushed hard on the pace, because, well, cos thats just what I do. We reach the half way point of the morning in two hours, a full hour ahead of schedule. Milan says I should slow down - its to be enjoyed not raced. I nod with the full intention of making this afternoon even faster. I wanna know what the quickest time up there by novice…lol. You get the picture - all ego zero brains.

The Steps to Ulleri: The middle photo best illustrates the unrelenting severity of the climb.

We have lunch and move on. Immediately there are steps. Well not steps, but large slabs of rocks and boulders that form sort of a stairway. And each step up its about two of our stairs at home. And they are drunkely uneven and sharp and loose and missing and wet, and stone dry and covered in treachourous slime leaves and they go up and up and on and on.

Milan sets off in front but I find it harder to follow him - it is easier for me to lead mentally, for a reason I am sure some physchologist will tell me, but if I am leading I find I can force the pace more and have the impetus of someone behind. It makes a real not imagined difference and as soon as Milan does overtake me and I am following his back I feel sluggish and despondent. So he lets me lead.

And it is relentless. I keep my eyes on my feet and the next stone to hit. A wrong footing and my ankles over and the trip done. And there have been many ankles done here. Many. So its 'eyes down, look in' as my father says and I exert total concentration.

I feel the sting on the front of my thighs, as (two stair) steps, become three stair heights, I leap from one to another, and each vertiginous staircase reaches a bend to reveal another. It is constant. Each corner I turn I look up, glance at the top, and attack this fifty stones that will get me to the next ridge. But I am full of energy and spirit and drive like never before. The four times operated knees twinge but hold, the front of my thighs burn and groan, but I am pushing on, harder, faster. I get the sticks out and find my rhythm. I could go on all day. I drink a litre of water during the morning, three litres in the afternoon.

Milan stops us for a final tea before Ulleri. Its just before two and I say how far to go (Milan is always reticent to say but I want to know for my pacing), he says maybe two and a half , three hours . Wow thats a lot more steps...

Ok I set my pace clock, re align my brain and legs and push on again, setting another strong pace. Strong for me anyway. At points I want to run up flights I feel that pumped, someone else seems to have inhabited my body (someone a hell of a lot younger) as I reach another turn, another 30 metre set of stairs and turn again to attack them, eyes on every next step, plotting my course from the thousand variant combinations of stones I can step upon.

We pass hikers, lots of them. A young Chinese lady we saw in the morning says "your have very good pace, very strong", omitting the silent but fully intended 'for an old man'.

At 2.30pm I ask Milan for a five minute breather, not so much for breath but too take in the views. My legs are now numb but working fine, my panting heavy though still even.

Fitness is not a moment in time it is built up over years. As I leap and scale upward and upward, all those training nights in the freezing cold, doing laps round the football field, those killer three-quarter pace runs, the lung busting doggies (short sprints), the 3 mile runs before training, the pre-season piggy backing and tyre pulls, the throwing up, the catch the leader pairings round the cricket pitch. All that gruesome training from 15, 20, 30 years ago, is all present now, not only in those old enemies my legs but more importantly in my mind. I have done this stuff. I have pushed this hard before. And I push on again. This is clearly a mental challenge, my body feels good enough. Its gonna a head thing for me.

In half hour we are there, we have reached Ulleri. Its is perhaps 3-3.15pm. Milans tactics are either to get my mindset expecting more (probably to slow me down to a trekkers pace), or he simply aint that good with a watch. I am 99% sure its the former.

So we make it to our stage post for the night and the dreaded Ulleri steps have been conquered.

There is only one tinge of fear I have now. I know tomorrow is going to be an easier day more scenic through woods more shaded, more beautiful, though still some 900m.

But its the coming down I fear. What I have just come up those steps (3700 I am told by one, 3200 by another) I have to go down. Because of the time restriction, in one day.

The descent is gonna hurt.

But thats in two days time and here and now I have my first sigh of the mountains. We ascend to our lodging rooftop and there is Annapurna Sud (south). I talk with Liz and Tina, a Brit and a German on volunteer work in Nepal and who are going up to Poon Hill too. We take some snaps, and just stand in awe as we watch the sun go down and the mountain change from toothpaste white, to orange and finally to the most wonderful shade of pink imaginable. The sun disappears and all of a sudden I realise I am still in golf shirt and short's, so go in to change from my climbing gear into something more suited to the evening.

They light a stove in the hostel, we have food and I get chatting to Paola, a lovely lady, Argentinian, living in Switzerland, via time in many other countries. She was in a similar job to mine, (and now we aint) so we have a light, refreshing but meaningful take on what life is all about. She recommends a book she says suits me perfectly which I later buy for my flight home from Delhi. She is really interesting company and I really hope she follows her heart and sets up the classes she really wishes too. Its a conversation on what we should do with our lives, follow our dreams or chase material wealth. Its always a finely balanced conversation as one begets the other (I would not be here had I not had the money to do so) etc. The book she mentions is called 'The Monk who sold his Ferrari' and that is the gist of the talk. But great company and a lovely lady.

Paola, Myself, Monks and Ferrari's.

I drink my final Masala tea and go up to bed early, before Milan, and am asleep in seconds ready for the next days adventure. Its been a great day and my ego is thrilled at my drive and my fitness but more than that by my mental approach. The lakeside took something heavy off my shoulders......and it helped my ascent today.

Day 17 - 4/12 - ulleri to Ghorepani

We wake early at 6, have breakfast and set off. Today is a lot gentler and the dreaded steps few and far between. It is mainly walking uphill through mountainside paths, through pretty forest and mountain streams and cascading waterfalls.

Milan stops me and his guides eyes have spotted a white monkey, fairly rare in these parts, on the slopes high above us to our right.

I cant see anything at first and then a distant rustle of leaves and branches and there it is. It sits then moves at great speed leaping from high branch to high branch. And I manage to capture it on film seemingly at close quarters with my new super duper zoom lens (thanks Mart).

Cheeky...

Our day moves on fairly uneventfully and at last I take time to soak in the surroundings and glory in them. No longer having to focus on my foot placements I am able to immerse myself in the views, the dappled shade of the forest trails, the thunderous river below us, the sudden gaps that reveal the mountains looming high and splendid. Its a great morning and the sun is fiercely hot when exposed.

We stop for lunch and I get talking to a father and daughter couple we had spotted earlier. He is perhaps my age and she around 20, Morton and Mari. I give a wise talk to Mari on how lucky she is to have such a wonderful father bringing her on such an adventure and so on and she calmly replies that it is the other way round, that she is working voluntarily in Nepal and has invited Dad out to share the experience. Clearly I am not at master guru stage yet.

Anyway on saying hello Morton had asked where I was from, and I duly replied "London". He responds, "Queens Park Rangers". I shake my head and ask him to repeat and he says "QPR". I say "Yes but, errr, how would you know that?"

Turns out he doesn't, but it is something he says whenever he meets a Londoner. He lives in Oslo but is a season ticket holder at Loftus Road and part of the 60 strong QPR Oslo supporters massive, who travel every fortnight to London to see us play. He show pictures of him fully kitted in blue and white hoops and then another with 60 Danes all stood behind a huge unfurled Rangers flag. Top man.

So whats the chances of that? Its pretty mad whichever way you look at it, up here in the middle of no where, madder still that he supports my little club above all the usual bigger (but boring) suspects. We swap numbers and agree to meet at the next home game when I am next back in Sheperd's Bush. I am grinning uncontrollably. It just keeps getting better.

Having stocked up on peanuts and water we press on with "see you at the top" farewells and a hearty "C'MON YOU Rrrrr's" and we enjoy another glorious afternoons hiking. More new friends and ones with taste. I am happy in the extreme.

Me and Morton; Rangers abroad

After a fairly short afternoon we reach our days destination of Ghorepani at 2860m

It is noticeably colder here, so I don my layering and get a great photo as the sun sets again, perfectly capturing the golds and pinks against Annapurna Sud in the background.

Golden moment

We retire early, but not before having a chat with 2 German lads in our lodge in their early twenties and a South African in his early 30's and an experienced trekker up here. He is going to ABC, and has already done Poon Hill this afternoon for sunset. He tells me when I reach the top in the morning, not to look toward the sunrise in the morning, as everybody else will be doing, but to look behind me. He says I will understand why.

I find out in the morning he is spot on.

Last thing I go out for a smoke just before bed and look up at the sky. It is shockingly beautiful. In Spain the lack of light pollution where I am enables me to easily pick out the stars, something I just don't see in London. But here it is at another level. I bring the boys out and they too are blown away. Alone I venture 10 minutes up the final steps to Poon Hill and find a clearing then look again. Here as I thought, it is even more profound.

Above me the vast black velvet carpet of the sky shimmers and shines with pulsating lights, and I can see vast swathes of stars, and what looks like the milky way. It is the most visually awe inspiring thing I have seen yet.

I go to bed tired but as alive as at any time in my life. Beyond wildest expectations? Here it is without doubt true.

Day 18 - 5/12 - Poon Hill & 'Home'

I wake at 3am two hours ahead of schedule with the whole guest house at Ghorepani still asleep. I go to the rooftop and have a crafty fag, sacrilege up in the freshest air in the world, but heh I enjoy it. I find a cha woman and have some hot steaming masala tea. An hour passes in minutes and I shower and return to the room - it is now 4.45am, still dark, and time to wake Milan. We dress quickly and start the ascent, stairs all the way, to Poon Hill, my final destination.

A few headlamps and clacking sticks had passed as we dressed, but we soon catch and pass these people. Milan tells me the summit is just shy of 500m straight up and should take 45 minutes, maybe an hour. After 2 days he still doesn’t know me yet. We make it just inside the half hour.

It is off season so there are perhaps thirty people there, and we passed as many again on the way up. At peak season this small hilltop is cram full to around 700 people, all there to glimpse the most awesome of sunrises.

By 6am, we number perhaps 90 and there are photo spots for everyone. There is a small tea stand and I take strong coffee this time, and as I do I hear Morton, my Danish QPR friend shout "you bring the English tea and I bring biscuits". We meet and embrace and chat for a while as the horizon starts to change hue.

There is a large ‘lookout tower’, which you can ascend if you think the extra 50ft is gonna make a whole lot of difference. I don’t bother.

Instead I walk around the hilltop, and meet many of the guys I saw on the way up. Liz and Tina are there and we take a couple of groupies and chat. The Chinese girl screams's "Hi" happily, more relieved to show that she had made it than to see me. I take another memento snap. And there are others. Paola arrives a little later and another couple we met en route, who join Morton, Mari, Milan and I.

The sunrise is straight in front, the mountains to our left and a little behind. I recall Reinhardt the guy from the last night had told me that whilst everyone watches the sun ascend the horizon to show its shiny face, that I should look in the opposite direction behind me.

New Friends; Summit at Sunrise; Milan, my guide and friend in green: Mad Czechs

I do this and he is right - the colours here more magical, blues and pinks and mauves bandwidth across the background, the mountains now to my right still in shade. For once a camera here can do so much more than words. Its eerily beautiful, the clouds phenomenal, as majestic as anything I have seen.

Look behind you! Utter magic at dawn, unphotoshopped, breathtaking and other worldly.

(I later look hard at this photo to get the perspective. It becomes and still is my favourite).

I see four guys I saw last night who ate next to us. We didn’t speak as they were clearly Eastern European, but I had seem them scoff huge plates of food last night and then ascend at nighttime.

This time I venture English. They are Czech, and had slept up here all night. I ask where are their tents. They had none. They had slept on the mountain top, completely open to the biting wind and sub zero temperatures in just sleeping bags and no doubt a few shots of Vodka. These are tough guys, I mean proper tough. And they look it. They let me take a photo (see above) and I return to the viewing places in front. Then the sun finally breaches the horizon and the whole hilltop kind of cheers, yays, whoops and woohoos simultaneously. Its a memorable moment.

But the interest for me is now the mountains, AnnaPurna Sud, directly and closest to my left, Annapurna II behind that, the Fishtail now prominent, and behind the huge Dhamabra amongst the other mountains , Annapurna III, IV and V and others whose names I don't recall.

Anyway time for pictures now as again words just won’t cut it.

Once I have the mandatory though brief camerawork done to my satisfaction, I suggest to Milan that we head down.

I am desperate to make it down in one day, though he still thinks perhaps two is better. It is an arduous day down, 2400 from where we are and then a many mile trek back to start point and the transport back round the lake and home.

The start of the long steep descent, steps orderly at this stage, not so further down.

But I push the point, so we are first off the mountain, cut breakfast short and set off by 8.15 am. It was cold at the top as expected (unless you are Czech), but it was cold here too. I had again decided on shorts and light T, but for the first 2 hours I realise I may have erred here, as the morning is largely through forest and shade and my hands become numb with cold, as do my arms. I know that areas of sunlight will hit us and we are walking at pace, so am reluctant to don more clothes. But when we do hit a sunspot I ensure to take a minute and let the warmth permeate my body before entering back into the wooded areas.

At 10, Milan, suggest we stop but I ask / insist another hour. I have a rhythm going and feel terrific and do not want to break that stride. Somewhat reluctantly he agrees, and when the descent flattens even for 30 metres or so I purposely push on and stretch out my gait, still in front.

We step-stone cool streams, pass fresh mountain waterfalls, skip over tree trunks and sidestep down the obligatory and treacherous steps. I know the bottom half is going to be a real stretch for me, as it was coming upon, so am keen make as much distance as possible before lunch and the Ulleri descent.

Its gets to eleven and I eek another half hour out of Milan before we finally sit and rest at a guest house to take lunch.

As I had hoped it is the guest house we stayed at on Night One - we have come down in 3 hours what took us a day to ascend. I am pleased in the extreme. I take only peanuts and chocolate, not wishing to eat until later. Its a full seven or eight hour descent, and we are just 3 hours in.

So to the steps.

For the first time I struggle and slow almost to crawling place. Having mastered the poles on the way up I find it harder on the way down. In concentrating on where to place my poles below me, putting weight on shoulders rather than knees as advised, I constantly miss my footing, going over on my ankle before I even start - fortunately without lasting damage. Three minutes on the steps and I take my first fall. The poles are hindering rather than helping, but I persist and get some rhythm though decide that stepping down side-on is better for me, though this quickly takes its toll. I see a local girl off to school, and she literally skips down the vertiginous steps like a mountain goat, and I feel ashamed, embarrassed, and feel my age as I slowly and ponderously limp down one step at a time. But seeing her galvanises me and I disarm the poles and try just heading down and finding footholds at each last split second, and it works. Too much momentum and its a hard fall, not enough and I am back at a snails pace. But again I find rhythm, poles for the really naughty bits, slowly over streams and wet parts, speeding up where the rocks are dry and even.

It really is one step at a time and takes all my concentration to find foot placements and pick out routes that will hurt the least. However I soon find that whichever route I take, it is a world of pain muscles and tendons screaming. Still my speed has increased noticeably, though I am always conscious that a wrong step or too much momentum will send me falling a long way.

As is my way once I find the 'solution' for the descent, one that fits me and is still at a decent speed, I feel myself erring on complacency. I know a slip here, a wrong footing and I will be taking an unexpected helicopter ride. Yet I then find myself repeating the mantra 'pride comes before a fall' which has jumped into my head from somewhere and has never been more apt. The more cocky I get the more likely a calamitous outcome, and this phrase helps temper my efforts whenever I pick up too much speed or confidence.

I repeat it perhaps a hundred times, and it works. We make good progress, not quite yet at schoolgirl standard! but decent nonetheless. On the flat parts, forest paths or slight declines I stretch out the pace, really forcing myself on. I imagine Milan behind me muttering something (probably idiot) on these parts but I have set a goal of a one day descent and that is what it shall be.

Strong at the Top: Spent at the Bottom

After perhaps 5 hours we reach the bottom of the 'steps', and I know now that I will make it. We stop for a late lunch at the 'foot' of the mountain. I had lost Milan for a bit on the way up at this stage, and now I find out why. A farmer is selling rabbits and Milan wishes to buy two as pets and take them back to Hidden Paradise. So thats what he did. We still had another 3 hours or so to walk, albeit more on downhill though 'flat' ground, as well as they transfer back to Pokhara, but he had his mind made up, and deal done we have two new travelling partners. They are boy and girl, and over our late lunch he asks what he should call them. I suggest 'Anna' and 'Purna'. It sticks.

We leave lunch and start the trek back to the waiting cars. Its longer than I thought, and whilst I knew now I was gonna make it, it takes the full two and half to three hours. We have done 15km of hard slog. But we finally get to our pick up back at the trail start and have an uneventful ride back to the lake.

I am so happy that I pushed on, that my journey led me up to this wonderful place.

The mountaintops and the forests and sunrises and ghost skies and the people and pulsing stars, they waterfall through my mind and send me finally into a deep slumber.

I am still smiling as I drift off...

Day 19 - 6/12- Hidden Paradise

I wake early, have breakfast and decide on my final day here to take a last walk into town. Its gloriously sunburn hot again, and my legs are sore but not seized from the descent. Raina had told me about a Spa that does brilliant massages, perfect for my tired limbs, so I track it down and have an amazing deep tissue work over. It helps. I go on to have two more the next day in KTM at their sister branch and feel life begin to come back to my arms and legs and back, the proper kind of happy ending.

On the way back from the spa I see an interesting looking guy, someone who looks like he has seen a bit of life and perhaps a change from the normal backpacker convo's I have had to date. I grab a coffee with the express intent of getting into conversation. And I do. As I thought his story was a particularly fascinating one. "Lemmy" is German by descent and first came to Pokhara in the 70's, before tourism had hit. There was no ring road and no airport. He talks about his life, both when living here for many years and of other places he has lived, amazing by any standards and encompassing many countries, many trials and many tribulations. After half an hour of engrossing talk he unexpectedly pulls out an iPad and shows me incredible pictures of Nepal, and Pokhara in particular way back in the day, photos he had taken. The ring road, now heaving with traffic of all kinds was just a dirt track peopled by horses and other basic modes of transport.

Pictures of a rudimentary airfield are next and he tells me it opened up around the late seventies and had one flight a week at most. "They would have spotters out" he says, "and when the plane was visible, would employ around one hundred women with brushes made of sticks who would quickly shoo away the roaming cattle, so that the grass landing strip would be clear for the plane to put down on". The pictures are amazing and a real insight into this ancient land, virtually untouched as little as forty odd years ago. When I deem polite, I thank him for his time and insightful conversation and buy him a coffee for sharing his experiences with me. It is only an hour meeting but one that will stay with me. This talking to strangers bit (the more offbeat the better it seems) is a winner and I resign to do it more often, back at home. I have learnt so much from just saying hi, it has increased my experience beyond my imagining, and I reach the conclusion that travelling alone need never be lonely, and can in fact open up opportunities that travelling with company simply would not present. That has certainly been my experience.

Lemmy: A character with an extraordinary tale

I go back to Hidden Paradise and learn that Martin, the Swiss guy, is taking us all for a final dinner at Crazy Gecko, upon my recommendation, as he too leaves in the morning. It is a brilliant end to a brilliant trip and we have a joyous evening, a lakeside feast to end an unforgettable few days for me. I shall be extremely sad to leave, and now start to attune myself to the fact that I am in effect homeward bound. I am slightly downbeat for the first time in a month.

Serenity is a lakeside place

Day 20 7/12 - PoKhaRa to KTM

Having looked at return flights and seen that they started at about £150, not even a consideration for me nor my budget, so buses and coaches seem the only option (even I in my new Bear Grylls form I aint trekking those 200km).

Their is a public bus for about a dollar which I consider just to share a vehicle with people hanging off the roof and live chickens running between the seats, but my legs are in bits now and I need something a little less authentic this time. There are ‘luxury’ buses that look a step down from ‘Daves Coaches’ (allrright sugartits), and at the bottom I see something called 'super deluxe' run by just one company. This looks a bit of me. Pictures reveal something that really does look likely to take the strain off the 8 hour bus trip so I try book and obviously the site doesn’t work, nor the email, nor indeed the number.

But of course I have Lax and Milan and they sort it out.

The coach is due at 8am so I am packed (fortunately) and eating another yummy chilli omelette breakfast when Milan rushes down to say they have changed the timetable today. My coach is now arriving half hour early (only changed this morning), so I leave my breakfast mid mouthful, pick up my laden rucksacks and we scramble down to Laxmans motorbike. It is exactly 7.30am right now. And we are 3 miles away.

Missed it! Which is gonna be a bitch. "Hey man no worries" comes the now typical almost catchphrase response from Lax, and at the top of our hill I put on my rucksack, jump on the back of his motorbike and we start the bumpy descent to lakeside, then through town and are in pursuit of my journey home. I have a connection the next day, and onward to London so things could get errr, problematic missing this. But to be fair everything on this trip has worked out just fine, and sure enough after a thrilling motorbike chase we see the back of the bus, overtake it and flag it down. They stop, chuck my bag (and nearly me) in the boot and off we go.

The coach is awesome. It has only 21 seats, a row of singles and a row of doubles. Its like one of those footballers coaches and the seats I can only describe as what the yanks call ‘lazy boys, you know recliners with bits in the seats for drinks and stuff. I am also booked on the single row and on the left meaning I have views the whole way back with the mountains and the river to my left.

$20 well spent

Once clear of outskirt townships the scenery becomes more beautiful. I have Himalayas in the far distance, wooded hillsides along side me as we follow the river all the way back.

We are in Deliverance country now, a replica. The river is fast flowing and a lovely shade of what reminds me of the Badedas green (for you oldies) we used to bath in as kids.

I see a couple of rafting dinghies, eight in a boat, paddling and yelping their way down stream. It was something I wanted too do here but both time and dollars restricted me, though that can be for another time in another place.

The river reaches a confluence, and changes colour to a soft olive green, but whereas before it was flowing downstream with us, now it is flowing upstream?

I don’t know what trick of nature has happened but it is definitely going away back behind us yet still on my left as we continue the descent. I decide not to try work it out too much and just enjoy the views. I recline to almost vertical, (the seats are so far apart my outstretched arm is still eight inches from reaching the seat in front) and gaze up into the hills and mountains beyond. Even after all I have seen over the last seven days in Nepal, its beauty has not once diminished.

Pokhara to Katmandu: A coach journey worth doing

We reach KTM at around 4.30pm and this time I notice the smog. I had always thought those commuters especially of Chinese background who wear those funny little masks a little, well, weird. The London air is clean and fresh to me. As we move toward the city centre more people wear theses, locals, perhaps a third, maybe more. And I get it. Living amongst such pollution, as do those from Shanghai and Beijing no doubt, and definitely those in Delhi, all have real fear for their health, and well its just not very pleasant. So I forgive my previous bias towards these surgeon looking folk with their dainty white mouth covers and will not now take a second glance. It is second nature for them but a sad indictment of the effect the ever expanding Metropoli around the globe are having on our simple ability to breathe. Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Tokyo, all these hugely 10, 20m, 30m population cities are creating their own biospheres of unbreathable air. Until you have spent more than a day in Delhi this will be of no interest to anyone, but its another learn for me.

Anyway back to Thamel and the waiting Yogen, and my fabulous huge bed. He offers to cook a traditional Katmandu meal himself that night as a farewell, and it is excellent. Its been a long day and sleep comes quickly.

A welcome sight for tired eyes and limbs

Tomorrow Delhi.

Day 21 -8/12 - KTM to Delhi

So after a superb nights sleep I am up at 6 to go for my final massage to try get some feeling back in these old legs. My hat trick for Tranquility Spa, and I had negotiated down to about £8 a pop, for an hour a time. Deep tissue again of course to try to remove the rock crystals from my calves. Back for brekkie, pack, a 5 minutes 'round the shops as time is tight', heart goodbyes and thanks with Yogen, and then a taxi to KTM airport. The queues are long again but I manage to negotiate the now normal 'foreigner' track and am through to departure lounge in 15 minutes. Money wise, as a white faced westerner you will always get stung for cash (6 taxis refused to take me at local fare because they insisted I was ‘foreign rates’). But all over India and Nepal there is no question that preferential treatment is given to foreigners, and that is the seventh or eigth time where being English (and handsome) has saved me hours of queueing. So I guess it goes both ways.

I had booked the 1 hour 25 flight to Delhi when I first landed in Nepal so had forgotten details (it was another midnight impulse booking). I am seated on the plane and am in seat 1A. With no one next to me. Prime position and those seats I always normally walk by thinking ‘posh twat” as I am sat in row 87b or something. But I remember now. When booking the seating had come up as a free choice and I clicked on this, expecting to see a big surcharge and cancel, but no, it clicked in and at no extra cost so I thought why not.

So sat here I am happy and can see The Himalaya resplendent in the distance. I feel sad to be leaving this country and in truth am pleased I only have a short overstay in Delhi tonight before an early morning BA flight back to LHR. Probably in row 87b. I can’t remember now.

But I look at the mountains and there is a sense I have achieved something here, have lived and climbed amongst them, that I am in a tiny, tiny way, part of them.

The plane taxi's 15 minutes ahead of schedule so we will take off on time no doubt. Its still 29 degrees outside.

"Dhanyabad' Nepal..........its been emotional"

The flight was even better than the way in. Once again fortuitously I am ‘right side’ as the Himalaya are clearly visible through my porthole. Its 3pm and the view is the clearest yet. We ascend and then follow them as we fly west along them toward Delhi. Its now for the first time I get the full, unhindered scale and magnitude of them. They go on for ever. I film for a few minutes and capture five, eight peaks at most. Twenty minutes flight later they are still passing by, filling the horizon, peak after peak. I start counting, onetwothree, seven, fourteen….. I stop counting at forty two and have got no where near a third of the range.

I see Everest, this time clear and unmistakable (well I am 95% sure). It is a shape so familiar to us all, and far from towering over the peaks surrounding it, it is just fractionally higher. I think to myself that it perhaps hogs the limelight here, gets all the attention, and that the rest of its brothers and sisters must be a tad miffed. I have just had close encounters with the 10th highest in the world, the lovely Annapurna, but no one makes a film about her. Or Cho Oyu the 6th highest, or even the 3rd*. Go on name the 3rd highest mountain in the world after Everest and K2……....exactly.

They fade into the distance as am I, so an hours kip till landing now seems the way to play……..

* 3rd highest is Kangchenjunga. Told you.

I arrive at Delhi and have the now normal disagreement over fare, finally getting an 'honest' firm which charges me 500 rupees rather than the 1500 plus tax initially quoted. I have learned something from Seamus it seems.

I had no idea what to expect at my last Air BnB, having booked it quickly at the last minute, and just picked somewhere close to the airport that looked nice. But again I had chosen well. Very well.

I find myself in a vast metropolis just 10-15 minutes from Indira Ghandi, similar in many ways to Canary Wharf, though without the water. Huge skyscrapers surround me with all the big players here. Across from my stay I see KPMG atop a 30 story building, Deloittes on another, a large RBS Building bang opposite, a yet bigger Microsoft tower. We are in the financial district, 'Cybercity' as its known, and it is the most affluent part of India let alone Delhi I am told.

Cybercity

I am staying in a tall residential building, 13th floor and am pleased to finally reach the front door having spoken with my host Anupuma prior, and negotiated the concierge.

Anu is delightful and the flat incredibly spacious and well appointed. My room even has a balcony so I can go out and take pictures of the surrounding buildings, unlike anything I have seen in India before. As is my custom I tell my host that I wish to go out and get my bearings and grab a bite to eat on my final night and she informs me just behind her building is 'Cyberhub' which will cater to any tastes I have. So I take the short five minute walk and find myself in an amazing complex of bars and restaurants, vast and buzzing and very modern. A huge Flatscreen perhaps 30 metres high peddles the latest technology in high def, and there are bars and eateries in every direction. It is excellent and I am happy to have found this part of India to top and tail my trip. From the backstreets and inner city places I had purposefully picked out on my earlier India trip I am now in the centre of the 'new' upcoming India we hear about back home.

I see the normal food franchises, whom you will know without me naming them, but there is no way I am eating something even vaguely western on my last night, so I find the only restaurant with a sign in Sanskrit and plonk myself down. Another good choice it turns out. I am the only westerner in there, another good sign, and many Indian families are seated and all eating from large silver trays, similar to those we had at Golden Palace, only larger and with side dishes placed around the centre.

An old Gentleman with zero English comes up and we struggle to make each other understood. But he just warmly smiles and summons a waiter and I too have the huge silver tray placed in front of me, with 6 or 8 empty 'cups' thali style around the side. No menu's here! Then one by one waiters come over and start to fill my dishes with all sorts of strange looking but as it turns out wonderful dishes and stews and pickles and dips and breads and sweetened butters and it is lip - smackingly delicious. I eat everything, but waiters keep coming back and re-filling the pots, the centre of my gleaming tray now smeared with all sorts of foods as I dip my breads and rice and god knows what into the superb sauces and potions.

Silver service, starters..

It is a proper feast, Rajasthani I learn, and when I can eat no more I finally manage to wave off the deluge of ladel bearing waiters, until the old man is satisfied I am replete. It was a brilliant meal though I could not for a second recount what I had just eaten. The bill comes quickly and the whole lot cost 500 rupees, a fiver. Excellent.

I make my way back to my digs so pleased to have finished the trip on a high and in such contradictory surroundings to those that had gone before. I feel like I really have seen all sides of India now.

I anticipate early bed but get into a brief conversation with Anu and we finally take a seat and talk more. She is attractive and very bright, previously working and fully qualified in law but now in banking, and doing exactly the same role I had just finished. Exactly. It is so funny. We talk shop, then I relay my story to her and we find many similarities. It is clear Anu doesn't rent the room for financial purposes but more for the opportunity to meet a wide and varied group of people, and she affirms this. She is genuinely interested in my recent journey and back story and I in hers. I learn she had recently had her first trip outside of India to Italy and we talk about Rome a place I had visited a decade ago. I say my favourite place there was Villa Borghese, not that well known and slightly off the beaten tourist track and she says she knows it, visited it and loved it too. Not only that it turns out she is a talented artist and brings her sketch book from Rome. It is lovely drawing, intricately penned in ink, and on the very first page is a drawing of......Villa Borghese. Coincidences abound on this trip, although as said earlier I don't believe in coincidences, not even the Danish QPR supporters club half way up the Himalayas. Her partner 'J' soon joins us and we sit chatting for hours and it is a great conversation and terrific company. I feel I have yet more new friends but finally I excuse myself and retire, conscious that they both have work the next day. We could have talked all night and nearly did.

Anu, J and myself

I couldn't have hoped for a better last nights stay and we swap details with promises to stay in touch and take a selfie.

So thats it. My final night on a truly incredible three and a bit weeks. I have loved every minute. India has been an amazing melting pot of experiences, of extremes, of juxtaposition, of great beauty, of desperate poverty, of incredible buildings and sights, of great religious learning, of rich ancient history, of wonderful food. The mountains and Nepal truly breathtaking, the buzz of Thamel, the splendour of the countryside, the majesty of the tall peaks. But most of all its the people I will remember, beautiful throughout.

I had hoped for something incredible here, something indelible. I leave with more than I could ever have hoped for......

Day 22 - 9/12 - Delhi to London

I had marginally upgraded on the 10 hr flight back, and as I sit here in my comfortable spacious seat I find myself with time reflect on my great adventure. From my introduction to India, being dumped in the middle of the Delhi backstreets in the dead of night, the chaos of that great city, meeting the boys, the beauty of the Taj Mahal, the peace of Golden Temple, the hugely entertaining but deadly serious border ceremony at Wagah, the conversations around religion and the learning of its history both ancient and new, the tigers and temples in Kolkata, the frenetic buzz of Katmandu, the unscheduled meeting with like minds in Patan, the incredible lakeside jewel of Hidden Paradise, the daunting steps to Ulleri, the sunrise over Annapurna, the 'new' India. All of it, each and every day filled with a fresh incredible new experience.

Life changing is an over used phrase so I shall not use it here. Life enhancing, life affirming perhaps. But one thing for me is sure; I have never felt more alive....

Notes

A few thanks and at the risk of sounding like an awards presentation, but heh its my stuff so why not. Thank you for those who followed my journey, it was greatly appreciated. Readership of my little blog has far exceeded my expectation, with Facebook downloads alone approaching 650 reads and counting (though that was far from the point its still nice). It was great having you along and I did warn you at the start that it might be a little wordy!! But I hope I managed to give a feel for the places I have been and a true sense of the people I have met and the experiences I have shared. The feedback especially has been awesome. I started this posting for my pleasure, as just a few words to enhance the pictures. But it has turned out to be something a bit more substantial and I am sure it will prove to be a great keepsake for me to look back upon in years to come. I enjoyed the process of documenting this hugely and it has only enhanced what was an already wonderful moment in time for me. To all I met on my travels thank you, you have all been amazing people and shown great kindness to me. To Seamus, Jack and Liam for great company and great laughs. To Martin back at home for the camera and for more than I can possibly mention. To Neil for his unseen help. To Rich for the inspiration. To Steve and Shula for enabling my future. To Mum and Dad for unswerving support and for not crucifying me too much over the haircut. And finally to Air BnB to whom I must doff my cap for giving us a simply brilliant way to see the world. Thank you all.

I shall leave you with a few final pictures. Until the next time......

Rich x

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Richard Blanchett
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