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.
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, 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.
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.
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, 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.
We see an old man being taken from the plane, clearly in a bad way and he is stretchered with oxygen mask attached from our plane 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. 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.
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 to 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.
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.
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 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.
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……….
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.
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 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.
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.
After a fairly short afternoon we reach our days destination of Ghorepani at 2860m
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.