Katmandu intro I
Trekking I Rafting
by Pieter Hofmann
Photos by Martine Willox
and Patrick Spinks
the times have changed. Depending on your point of view, Shangri-la
has joined the 20th century for the better or the worse. A dysfunctional
time machine, Katmandu is a collage of crooked, cobbled streets. Flanked
by multi-roofed pagodas, a hodge podge restaurants catering to every
cuisine, bars with happy hours blasting Morrison, Joplin and Jagger,
the capital is a cracked mirror: east meets west. Money change? Hashish?
Ghurka knives? Gems? Bootleg tapes, Carpets? And yes, stone sculptures,
prayer wheels, or tapes of Buddhist monks chanting. During the 60's
and 70's, Katmandu was one of the premier, hash-hazed destinations on
the overland tour for any hippie worth a hit of orange sunshine.
Now that the world is
simply an e-mail or fax away, Nepal hasn't escaped the clutches of globalization.
Gone are the days of walking down Freak Street and stumbling into the
Himalayan Hash House or indulging in a piece of lemon meringue pie,
a bowl of hash and a cold beer at Jamaly's Restaurant in the Thamel
district of Katmandu.
Due in part to the
United States government's successful threat, in the late 80's, to withhold
foreign aid, a mainstay to the Nepalese economy, the Kingdom has cracked
down, driving more hedonistic pursuits underground. As well, the countries
own growing problem of heroin addiction among the local population has
resulted in stiffer penalties and less tolerance towards drug use. Considering
that the international community provides funding for more than 60%
of Nepal's development budget and more than 30% of its total budgetary
expenditures, Nepal must heed outside voices.
As one of the world's
48 poorest nations (annual income per capita, approx. US$ 200) along
with Asia's economic slump, Indo-Pakistani nuclear tensions, Nepalese
growth has been relatively poor over the past half decade. Adding to
Katmandu's woes is increasing traffic congestion and the ensuing air
pollution that nestles above the capital in the valley. Katmandu has
caught up with many of Asia's major urban centres; no longer are the
streets and alleys a haven for bicycles and pedestrians. Motorcycles
and automobiles have taken over with a vengeance, making the maze of
streets and alleyways a virtual game of human vs. metal. Recently, Nepal's
government instituted measures to curb the congestion including days
where cars are banned from the city center altogether.
is still a mecca for the adventurous and nostalgic. And justifiably
so. For many, the city is the ideal R&R destination after months of
difficult travel in neighbouring India or China. Instantly the hassles,
complexities and rigidity are washed away with platters of sushi or
pizza by the slice: Visa/Mastercard accepted.
After a steady diet
of dhal, chappatis and chai many travellers first taste of Katmandu
is literally from a restaurant menu. Virtually every cuisine has been
adapted by the cornucopia of local restaurants, albeit with varying
degrees of success. As well, an efficient Poste Restante service, the
availability of numerous foreign newspapers and countless bookshops
confirms that the outside world still exists.
Isolated and landlocked,
the Kingdom of Nepal resisted foreign visitors and the ensuing influences
until its borders were opened in 1949. Ever since, those in search of
enlightenment, trekking or white water rafting have found a country
blessed with some of the world's grandest scenery. The sublime beauty
and magnitude of the Himalayan Mountain range boasts many of the globe's
highest peaks which are readily accessible to trek. Of the 14 peaks
above 8000 meters in the world eight are located in Nepal. It is the
land of Sagarmatha (a.k.a. Mt. Everest, 8848 meters), the highest peak
in the world.
The mountains are a major source of international tourism for one of
the world poorest nations and climbing expeditions pay enormous permit
fees that filter through the Nepalese economy (Everest expeditions are
charged $70 000 U.S. for 7 climbers, plus $10 000 for each additional
climber) The monetary and other costs (most notably one's life) associated
with Himalayan climbing have been well publicized with accounts of the
1996 season where twelve climbers lost their lives. Trekking in Nepal
is not only for the rich, in fact, it is an affordable and safe undertaking.
Trail networks that access mountain villages, base camps and peaks are
well travelled, with lodges and food readily available.
The most accessible
trek in Nepal is the Annapurna Sanctuary, which takes about seven to
nine days return. Ten days or more allows for complete rest days or
side trips in the splendor of the mountains. The Annapurna trek brings
you to an altitude of 4200 metres, with monstrous snow capped peaks
soaring high above. The route passes through camps that have housed
the world's most famous climbers, and Annapurna Base Camp which still
serves active expeditions as well as casual trekkers.
Trekking permits must
be obtained from the Department of Immigration in Katmandu, a five minute
walk from the Thamel area where most travellers stay. Permits cost $8
(Can) per week, plus a 650 Rs park entry fee ($1 Can.= 40 Nepalese Rupees),
and take one day to issue. Applications require two passport size photos
and specify trekking dates and areas. Checkpoints exist along the trail
with fines levied for invalid permits.
Maps of the Annapurna
region are widely available for 50 Rs. These are good for naming famous
peaks, but not necessary for route finding since everyone follows the
same route, and locals are always nearby to ask for directions when
the trail forks.
from dormitory to private rooms with one to three beds, costing between
10-20 Rs for a dorm bed, and 30-60 Rs for a private room. Rooms on other
treks (i.e. Everest) go for up to 150 Rs, averaging 50 Rs. Bathrooms
are usually pit toilets and where there are no showers, buckets of hot
water can be purchased for bathing or laundry.
Menus are surprisingly
familiar: spaghetti, spring rolls, vegetable or cheese macaroni, all
designed to please western tourists. Whether or not this is achieved
is another question. Trekkers often joke that you could order the same
item at every lodge and never eat the same thing twice. Generally the
food is palatable but one should let Nepalese stick to preparing local
dishes. Order the ubiquitous dhal bhat, or try >momos= a Tibetan dumpling,
particularly prevalent in the Khumbu region around Everest. Meals generally
cost about 30-60 Rs. If money is tight, stock up with trail mix in Katmandu
or Pohkara before leaving, and add some to your porridge in the morning.
Bringing instant noodles and buying hot water from lodges isn=t uncommon,
although would be frowned upon if that was all that was ordered.
understand they are expected to eat at their chosen lodge. Owners make
more money from food and provide cheap accommodation to entice trekkers.
Discerning travellers may want to check the lodge=s kitchen as well
as the room before agreeing to stay. Although some kitchens follow a
reasonable standard of hygiene (for Nepal), disturbing sights include
the combination of raw, unrefrigerated meat, domestic animals (dogs,
goats, chickens), diaperless babies, dirty dishes and coughing, sneezing
porters surrounding food being prepared. Some lodges use only iodine
treated water to wash dishes and vegetables, keeping commendable standards
and preparing good food. These places are somewhat rare however, and
higher prices reflect the increased standards. Stomach ailments are
common in Nepal, so come with your hepatitis vaccination and exercise
some caution in what you eat and drink.
As for gear, travel
light, yet be prepared for all types of weather. Rain jackets are essential,
and polypropylene under clothes with a fleece layer provide effective
insulation in cold weather. If trekking off season, down clothes can
be rented in Pohkara and Katmandu, as can sleeping bags (15-30 Rs per
day). Extra blankets are available at most lodges. The best months for
trekking are April and September -pre and post monsoon respectively-
although shoulder seasons are enjoyable, and less crowded.
Some lodges have tent
sites, but for the price of accommodation, leave it at home and save
the weight. Essentials include a water bottle, iodine tablets, hat,
sunglasses and sun screen. Treat all drinking water by boiling or adding
iodine. A tip for those who find the nights chilly is to get your water
bottle filled with boiled water before bed and place it under your blankets
as a heater; in the morning, you have sterilized drinking water (which
the conservative may then treat with iodine).
If unable to carry
a pack, there are plenty of porters available for hire. Rates vary from
$10-20/day, plus food and accommodation depending on the arrangement.
Remember that even with keeping to a budget, porters need to earn a
living. The dollar or two a day bargained hard over has a lot more significance
for a Nepali than in your travel budget. Porters that are paid a fair
wage and treated with respect are more likely to do those special extras
to make your trek enjoyable, such as explaining cultural practises and
beliefs, and showing you lesser known places.
Our trek began in Nayapul,
a small village near Phedi, reached by a 400 Rs taxi ride from Pohkara.
Pohkara, Nepal's second largest city is located on beautiful Lake Pohkara,
a six hour bus ride from Katmandu. In addition to convenient trekking
access, Pohkara is also the operations centre for most rafting/kayaking
excursions. Taxis are readily available; usually old Toyota Corollas
in varying states of disrepair, they are inexpensive and the ride is
always exciting. We managed to cram five people plus our packs inside
one to split the cost between us.
Our first day in the
Sanctuary brought us to Ulleri at the top of a a "two hour"
(plus!) stairway from hell. The next day seemed a breeze with a four
hour walk to Ghorepani, where we climbed Poon Hill for the sunrise,
braving the cold winds to watch the day begin over the Annapurna range.
Due to the high altitude, those who are not acclimatized should ascend
at no more than 400 metres per day. Although this makes for short days
walking, it gives ample time to go explore the surrounding area and
meet more locals.
Gaining altitude, the
forests of rhododendron trees in full bloom (April-May) give way to
rocky alpine terrain. Machupuchre base camp (altitude 4100 metres) yields
phenomenal views of its namesake mountain, and the valley through which
you access the area. The peak gleams in the daytime, the sun shining
on its rock face visible from across the plains in lower Nepal. Machupuchre
means fishtail in Nepali, and the mountain is considered holy, never
having been summitted (it is now closed to climbers beyond the base
Climbing to Annapurna
Base Camp for sunrise offers the amazing sensation of being completely
surrounded by towering summits. Those with extra time may find this
a good spot for a day off. The return trek was effortless, save for
a few climbs out of valleys (villages like Chomrong require grueling
climbs in both directions), and relaxing in the natural hotsprings (an
hour east of New Bridge), may be a little slimy, but feels great on
Returning from the
trek, Pohkara offers the familiarity of home. The genuine kindness of
Nepalese culture is evidenced in even the most remote villages; fond
memories will include images of jovial porters and smiling children.
Spectacular scenery, rich cultural history and treks to some of the
highest points on earth. All these and the affordability of travel make
Nepal an adventure travel Shangri-la.
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