It turned out that our campsite for the night was close by and within sight of the beach-come-graveyard. The guys put a tent up for us on a perfect sand beach and set about preparing starters, popcorn and spaghetti. Candles were dotted around camp and a toilet set up. The stars were bright and we could see the Milky Way fairly clearly.
The next morning on the river we were approaching some rocks when a few young boys sitting on them waved at us and motioned us over. We couldn’t stop and thought they were just curious to meet us. We found out later that one of the boys who had been swimming had drowned half an hour before and they were trying to find his body. Even one of our guides admitted to us he had lost two friends to this river. It was to be feared and respected in equal amounts.
Not long after, we passed a river bank where a jubilant crowd was gathered. They seemed keen to say hi to us, and the younger ones were taking photos of us drifting by, so we shouted back our own greetings. We wondered whether it was some sort of party.
Then we noticed the pile of rocks.
And the fresh bamboo.
Oh. It was a funeral and a fresh grave.
That night Steph and I decided to sleep in the open air rather than in a tent. The setting was stunning, and it was certainly an experience, but I don’t think either of us had a full sleep. Giant ants were everywhere and the scorpion we found earlier may have made us jumpy.
The trip was such a exhilarating experience and a huge amount of fun. We absolutely loved it. It was a true adventure with some unexpected and revealing moments. It made us respect the power of the river, respect nature, and respect life in general.
The trip cost 16,000 Nepali Rupees ($160 or about £100) for everything. We used “Adrenaline rush” I think. The staff said they were mostly freelance and work for many different companies, so the reputation of a specific company is hard to guarantee, as your experience will depend on who is working on that particular trip.
The private bus took about 3h at the start and 5h to get home. The food was mostly western, so that part wasn’t so exciting, but being cooked for in that kind of situation was pretty impressive.
A three day journey down the holy Kali Gandakhi river.
(Written by Nick)
I had heard that Nepal was famous for white water rafting, but it wasn’t until we walked into the rafting shop in Pokhara that we realised the scale of it. The image in our heads of a couple of hours on the river was quickly washed away as we learnt of the possibilities of much more adventurous options. This was to be one of those rare instances where an organised trip in South Asia turns out to be better than you imagined.
We booked onto a 3 day, 2 night trip on the Kali Gandakhi river. Neither of us had been rafting before. The closest we’d got was paddling our tiny 2-man dinghie down the miniscule and very calm Itchen river in Winchester, England. The only possible dangers were from swans and angry land-owners, one of whom threatened us, quite unnecessarily, with a theoretical shot gun. The man was both an ex-soldier and an ex-policeman, which may go some way towards explaining why he had issues.
Anyway, the logistics of this trip were as follows:
Six of us would paddle the raft with a guide steering at the back. A separate raft would follow ours with the staff, food, tents and our luggage in waterproof cases. The only other guests were a surprisingly young family of four from Australia, who we fortunately got on well with. The parents Rick and Julie had a love of Nepal and had given their children the Nepalese names of Sunita (15) and Malik (10).
My camera is not waterproof, and although I could have stowed it on board in a waterproof box for retrieval in the evenings, I decided not to risk it. So, unfortunately the only photos I managed to get were on my phone…and of times when we weren’t on the boat!
The fun started immediately as we set off down the wide, roaring river at a decent speed. Even before we reached the first rapids, the power of the river was palpable, and it made you realise just how dangerous a place it could be to swim, or to fall overboard. That hadn’t prevented a few foolhardy children from challenging themselves in the strong currents, though.
By the first rapids we had all been completely soaked by waves that came crashing over both the bow and the sides, and we were all laughing hysterically. Our guide took great pleasure in ordering us to paddle straight into the largest and steepest waves and that anticipation of riding down one side, into an inevitable drenching, never got boring. It often felt like the whole boat would capsize. The only thing better than getting hit by a wave was when it was only Steph’s side of the boat that was hit.
Riding in the raft and paddling around rocky outcrops and through multiple rapids (grades 3 – 4+ apparently) would have satisfied me even without the view. But the scenery – oh my days! The raging river cut its way through steep, narrow mountain valleys, covered in jungle and dotted with houses made of bamboo. We’d round a bend to see the glowing bright greens of terraced rice fields following the gentle contours of the ridge and then spot a solitary house above a sandy beach. This was one of many dream homes we fantasized about owning.
For some of the journey we were lucky enough to have a clear view of a couple of snow-clad peaks looming over us. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, and covered in sun-cream, it was both stunning and surreal, and I couldn’t take my eyes off them.
Throughout the trip, we passed no towns, and when there was a road, it was free of traffic and the sound of horns. Far more common than roads were foot bridges, dangling precariously over the river. There were so many of them, and whenever anyone was walking across, they would stop and wave enthusiastically.
In the afternoon the sky turned an unrealistically deep shade of orange. “Damn. I wish I could take a photo,” I thought for the hundredth time that day.
In fact, the reality wasn’t as natural and serene as it looked. A new road was being cut into the mountain and pneumatic diggers were levelling the way.
They were simply bulldozing everything in their way off the side of the road to roll down the mountain and into the river. It was this that created the browny-orange haze in the valley. Our guide, Gotam, whistled loudly to let the workers know we were approaching and they did what any considerate fellow human would do – carried on regardless! The river was far too powerful to paddle upstream, so we had to attempt to steer away from the river’s edge and hope we weren’t hit by the boulders rolling down the mountain and crashing into the water.
The road building was interesting to see. The boulders took out the trees on their way down and all other vegetation was covered in a blanket of soil. Previously a lush green jungle, now everything below the road was a brown or grey scar.
Normally the staff take kerosene to cook with, but because of the problems with Nepal’s fuel and gas supply, following the signing of the new constitution, we had to improvise. Gotam had us try to moor the raft on a bank so that we could look for firewood, but we didn’t paddle hard enough and ended up landing on a different riverbank on the other side of the confluence of the Modi river. This seemed like as good a place to seek wood, but the Nepalese guys were acting strangely. As we set about the rocky beach poking around for timber, they warned us not to take any bamboo we found. Ok, fair enough – I guess it doesn’t burn so well. Anyway, I was one of the first to find a decent lump of wood, so I was keen to find more.
“Where did you find that wood?” I was asked.
“It’s ok – it’s dry,” was my reply.
“But where did you find it?” He repeated suspiciously.
“Just over there; it’s the remains of someone else’s fire.”
It was at that point the explanation for the change in atmosphere was revealed. It was not what I expected.
“This river, the Kali Gandakhi, is a holy river, and where two rivers meet is a sacred place for us. It is our custom to bury people in these places.”
I dropped the wood and immediately stepped back. The rock pile I was approaching had two lengths of bamboo emerging from it and some rags amongst it. I was looking at a grave on the river bank. The bamboo poles were the edges of a stretcher used to transport the body, and the “rags” were the materials that person was buried in. I lifted my head and looked around. With fresh eyes I now noticed there were 8 graves on our one small beach.
Then I noticed the smell. Certainly enough to ward you off if you’re downwind. If you’re curious like I was, it was fishy and putrid, exactly like a rotten animal or fish.
Before we got back in the raft I went for a wee and had to avoid, first a pelvis, and then a shin bone.
When we arrived in Nepal, our aim was to do three weeks volunteering. 6 weeks later, we had managed a sum total of 14 days. Here’s what happened…
By the end of this summer we had handed in our notice at work, were just about to get married and were due to go travelling for 6-8 months. It was to be an indulgent honeymoon, in time, if not in standards. We would put some of this time to good use, we thought, and decided to volunteer in Nepal before heading off on our planned route around South East Asia. We found out about a grassroots charity that was helping rebuild after the 2015 earthquakes; it was expensive to volunteer with them, and with a wedding coming up and fundraising exhausted, we weren’t sure if we could manage it, but we would try.
One missed skype date and several emails with vague information later, we finally got the list of what we needed to bring…2 days before leaving. We went through the list. Okay, yup, no problem. Then we got to “Tent.” Now it’s not that we don’t love camping, but this wasn’t exactly what we had envisioned. Off for 8 months, we weren’t that keen on the idea of lugging a tent around, so we packed the Tesco value tent without too much thought; we would leave it after the volunteering…
We arrived in Kathmandu to torrential rain and thunder storms. “I’ve just remembered,” announced Nick, “my legs stick out the end of the tent.” Plus we had two backpacks, each the size of a small person, to fit in. Fantastic. This was not going to work.
Luckily for us, there is no better place to find out about volunteering in Nepal than in Nepal itself. We had met some guys doing day by day volunteering with another organisation, just nearby to our guesthouse. They were called “All Hands,” and we were told you could just turn up with a pair of closed shoes and some insurance to say you would be covered if someone pic-axed your leg, or threw a rock at your head. We were in.
Today we did manage to get up, and after a brief stretch, we were off. The descent seemed to be neverending, and as we got lower, and the temperature got hotter, we were both getting impatient to reach our destination of Dunche. And then, a glorious sight – the roaring river! We weren’t stupid enough to bathe, but we managed to have a splash and a wash, and even scrub our stinky clothes!
Our plan was to rent a motorbike from Dunche for the day, and head to the next town, Syabru Besi. Nick was keen to get out on the rocky, windy mountain roads, and we figured there might be more be going on there. We would get the bus back to Kathmandu the next day, we decided. Wrong. What we weren’t banking on was the guy at the rental place being seriously disinterested in both of us, or in renting a bike at all. The quote for his most knackered bike was astronomical and he wasn’t as keen on negotiating as Nick so we cut off our noses to spite our faces and got the local bus.
Ahh, the local bus. Fun times to be had; a bit like a really terrifying fairground ride, but with the actual possibility of death. Still, we laughed through the swerving and catapulting of the vehicle, only briefly pausing to hold our breath when the tyres of the bus looked like they were actually hanging over the edge. ” I hope this place is worth it.”
The guesthouse alone was worth it. Named “Namaste,” (Nepalese greeting, and literally meaning “I see God in you”), the owner spoke better English than some of my friends (sorry if that’s you 😉 ) Here we had hot water, a double bed, an attached bathroom with a western toilet, and for the rock bottom price of 500R for the room (£3). Bargain. And a good job we liked it too…
That evening on every TV screen, people were glued to the results of the new Nepalese Constitution. Little did we know, but this had been in the making for nearly a decade, and was eagerly awaited by all parties, looking to know if, after all these years, they would finally be represented in the way they had hoped.
The bus we wanted to take would normally have left every morning. Only not the next morning. Celebrations were due to be had. So, we booked a jeep, which was definitely going. “Definitely” in Nepal terms. When we turned up at 6.45am for the 7am departure, no one seemed to know if we were going. No one actually announced this, but the lack of getting into the vehicle, coupled with lots of Nepalese chatter between the drivers and the ticket seller roused our suspicion. When pressed as to what was going on, we were told “tomorrow, ok.” This was not a rhetorical question, nor did it come with an explanation.
Panicking slightly at the fact that the only ATM in the town didn’t except visa, and having only a couple of quid to our names, we pryed as to what the situation was due to. We were even more confused when we were then told that maybe the bus would go. No one really knew. The Maoists, the rebel group that took control of most of the country in the Civil war only a decade before, were unhappy with the results of the constitution. Their way of expressing this? Apparently to attack anyone on the road, damaging vehicles and threatening lives. Our driver was too scared to risk it, even with tourists. And quite frankly, we were too. We would wait til the next day to be crammed into the jeep like sardines for the 8 hour journey…but that’s another story 😉
Footnote – thank you to Maureen for the dollars!! Luckily our guesthouse owner said she would get her father to exchange these as we were completely out of rupees and stuck! We were so thankful to have had these with us!!
We woke up late (ha! I never thought I would call 8am late!) and decided that as the journey was going to be another 5 or so hours downhill, and me feeling my dodgy dancer’s knees, we would spend a day chilling in Sing Gompa and set off early the next day. There wasn’t a great deal to do here, but it was nice to have a western toilet and a nice, if basic, room.
Come evening time, we gathered in the dining area, huddled around the fire with all the Nepalese workers who had been working to rebuild a wall during the day. This was fascinating to watch – old school to the max – checking levels with string tied to wooden sticks and flattening rocks with a chisel, a hammer and a great deal of brut force. Still, they had the art down to a tee.
Over dinner, the Buddhist owners put on a video of a large group of people, dressed in traditional clothing, singing and dancing. The sense of unity and joy between them was magical, and I found myself mesmerised by them. When I asked who these people were and what event this was, the lady owner informed me that these were people from the Langtang Valley in a festival that had taken place one year beforehand. “Now 50% of these people dead,” she told me. The Langtang Valley had been completely destroyed in the earthquakes, being a site of so many landslides. The ones that were still living were lucky enough to be so because many of them were visiting children that were studying in Kathmandu at the time. A wave of sadness hit me. Watching how alive those people were, and knowing that so many of them were no longer, was heartbreaking. What must it be like for the people that knew them, who lived through this tragic experience, watching this one year on, I wondered? We slipped off to bed, and left them with their video and their thoughts…
Laurebina (3900m) to Gosaikunda (4400m) and back to Sing Gompa (3300m):
(Written by Steph)
We got up early today, partly because we had a lot of walking ahead of us, and partly due to the insistence of the cockrel outside our window. Boy was it worth it. The previous days had been engulfed in layers of a dreamy mist, but today we were rewarded with bright blue skies, and a view of the snowy Langtang Mountain Range that borders Tibet. Magnificent. Beyond the tree line, our trek started off with less of the impact of the forest, and a steep, and veeeery slow climb. Slower than a snail.
After about an hour, the climb turned into a ridge which we were to walk along. However, relief was shortlived, as Nick swung himself around on the path with his usual carefree style, getting dangerously close to the edge with the deathly sheer drop. My heart was in my mouth for much of the Indiana Jones-esque trail, and I feared my newly married status might be short lived. Despite this, we finally reached the summit, Nick still intact, me still not a widow!
By this time, the cloud had set in and the Lakes, although beautiful, were covered in a sea of mist. We took time to enjoy an amazing Chow Mein in the Tibet Guest House; they were the only one open, and even they had only been back for 5 days, they said. It was pretty darn cold up there, so after a hang out and some picture taking at the Lakes, we started the descent; a mission that would take us several hours of practically running downhill. A bit like an episode of Challenge Anika, I loved it.
To break up the descent, and to ease my whirring brain, we had a pit stop at Laurebina to warm our cockles with a masala chai (a spiced milk tea) and to say our final goodbyes to the family we had grown so fond of. We swapped emails, and I bought some of the weaving that Chirring worked on so tirelessly day and night. She gave us each a friendship bracelet as a gift, and I gave her some money in return. She was so humble and she had never fished for money or made us feel like we were money vessels, as you can, and sometimes do, feel with some people less fortunate than yourselves. On the contrary, she didn’t want to take it, but when I said it was to buy some books etc for Bipasa, she seemed content with that. We both brushed away a tear and said our goodbyes. “I’ll never forget you,” she said to me, and I knew that I felt the same, as we continued on the downward journey to Sing Gompa.
Laurebina (3900m) to Cholang Pati (3600m) & back again:
(Written by Nick)
I had hoped the headache from the previous evening was down to dehydration. Sadly that wasn’t the case. Neither of us could get to sleep at all and the headaches persisted the next morning. Both Steph and I were suffering from altitude sickness.
I knew it was a risk on this trek, and that it would be foolish to carry on despite being only a few hours from the lakes. We took the decision to descend 300 metres to Cholang Pati and to spend the day in the mystical forest.
Chirring had reminded us what we’d forgotten from Biology class, which is that trees give out most of their oxygen in the day. That explained why it wasn’t until night that our bodies started complaining about the lack of oxygen at 3900m.
The forest was just as magical as it looks in the photos, and it was the perfect atmosphere for some Yoga breathing exercises. The peace and serenity was only marginally tainted by our tag-along-dog barking at the roaming cows.
The second stage of our acclimatisation effort was to walk an hour higher than we’d stayed the previous night, and have a snack of dry instant noodles before descending to Laurebina for the night. It worked for Steph, but I still only managed a few hours sleep.
Today we afforded ourselves a much needed lie-in after yesterday’s climb, and set off at 8am. Somehow the early evenings (everyone was in bed by 7.30pm last night) made this manageable for us night owls. I had been beginning to wonder what we were thinking after yesterday, but today, it all became clear. We were still heading upwards, but the landscape made today’s journey quite far removed from yesterday’s.
I had to pinch myself a few times, as we climbed through a forest that can only be described as “epic.” Huge trees framed winding stone paths upwards, and more than once I felt like an extra on the set of “Lord of the Rings”. As a green girl, I felt completely at peace here, and the oxygen-giving trees somehow eased the continuing upward journey.
About 2 hours later, Nick and I arrived at a stop gap named Cholangpati. This was one point that had suffered damage during the earthquakes, but even though there were two guesthouses open, we wanted to plough on. Instead, we decided to stop for tea, as we had at a few other points, trying our best to give these ghost towns even a small bit of our business. Some of the people running the guesthouses had only been back for a few weeks since the earthquakes and had business to make up for, though they lacked the tourists to do so. As we ourselves had found, not many really knew the state of play on the route, and information tended to come only at the point before the next chunk of the journey. So, it seemed, we were some of the first tourists to try the trek post earthquake.
For the most part, the paths were fine, but there was certainly evidence of landslides carved into the mountain face, and it was crazy to imagine the huge boulders we saw, hurtling down as the earthquakes hit. We saw many destroyed buildings, mainly those made of stone, on the way. However, it wasn’t until we arrived at Laurebina that we felt just how devastating an impact the earthquakes had had. Here there was only one guest house open – Morning View. The others were destroyed, abandoned, or replaced with U.S. aid tarpaulin shacks. We went inside to find a mother, Chirring, and her 4 year old daughter, Bipasa, the latter of whom was very grumpy because she had just woken up; some things are the same wherever you are from.
A bit about Chirring & her family:
It wasn’t long before we were chatting away, and Nick and I were both surprised to discover that Chirring had learnt her English from Tourists. She came from the same village as our host in Dunche, Thulo Syabru, which is part of the Langtang Valley, and was arguably one of the very worst hit places from the earthquake. Everyone from that place had been dispersed by it.
It seemed that even before the earthquake, life had had its challenges, with lack of education being a big issue in the government school in her village. From what she told us, it appeared there were many parallels with India; teachers not caring or not turning up, resources a plenty in some places, but no knowledge of how to utilise them. Chirring had done what many with no other options do – got married early and immediately had a child. She and her husband relied on the tourists coming to make enough to survive, but even before profit, they had to pay 1 Lakh (roughly £665) to the government in taxes, just to be there, because the Langtang area is deemed a National Park. Ironically, their village is also within the National Park and is where they were born. Their only sources of income were selling the weaved bags that Chirring slaved over every minute of the day (so labour-intensive!) and renting out rooms to tourists on the trekking route. As they charge around £3 for a room per night, you can see how this might be a struggle! On top of this, the government take payment of about £35 from every tourist that enters the area, with the promise that 30/40% goes back to the people that live there. There was little evidence of this. In fact, many whose guesthouses were destroyed didn’t know whether they should even attempt rebuilding, as their spots will be up for tender in the next couple of years anyway. If they can’t pay enough, the government will likely replace them with people that can. With everything I had already heard about the Nepalese government, these facts compounded my scepticism about them. “Where was their support?” I asked myself.
I couldn’t help but kick myself that the few stationary bits and bobs I had leftover from India, I had left in Kathmandu. As “Stationary Queen,” I had not lived up to my title. Bipasa fed the chickens, helped her father, and sang along with her mother’s songs, but I couldn’t help feel for her; the sole child up in the mountains for months on end, with not even some paper and pens to entertain herself. Instead, as with so many poor Asian families, she had a mobile phone! I noticed she was watching lots of Bollywood dances, so I decided to show her mine and Nick’s first wedding dance, which I happened to have on the tablet. Her eyes flickered from the screen to my face and as a smile crept onto her previously serious face, I knew that from this point on, we would be friends.
We got to the guest house of a couple of Nepalese guys we had met on the bus at 6.45am. They were scientists called Mokti and Santosh, heading up the mountain as far as Laurebina to analyse the plant life for their PHD. It was evident that the negotiations with their porter had not yet been concluded, and when we saw the bag they wanted him to carry, I thought maybe this was the reason – it was a bag of epic proportions, and by the way it was lifted, it seemed to have a weight to match! We were told by Mokti that it had scientific equipment inside. When pressed further, this apparently amounted to a measuring tape and a camera. Something had to have been lost in translation!
Anyway, having set off on our trek adorned in fleeces and jackets, it soon became apparent that we weren’t going to need them for this first part of the trek. Mokti laughed as he told us of a woman he had been with on this same hike once before, and how after only one hour, the exertion and the sweat had brought her to tears. There may have been some part of me that was that girl; although pride kept me going strong, inside I was my former 5 year old, stamping my feet and saying “I don’t wanna!”
Six tough hours later, we had ascended almost all of the 1000m from Dunche, up impressive stone steps and through some forest, though there was still not much of a view to distract from the hard slog. Our noses, however, did teach us one important fact about the flora of the forest. Weed – there was loads of it growing freely, a bit like that scene in “The Beach,” but with less people yielding guns. This made sense, as about every second person in the centre of Kathmandu had tried to sell it to us. Either we looked like easy targets, or it was in massive supply.
The forest was also full of bamboo. Though we failed to spot living red panda, which apparently reside there, we were even more excited (and relieved!) when we finally reached Sing Gompa, and our own “Red Panda” guest house. It actually looked pretty nice from the outside, and we were doubly impressed to find they had Western toilets, and that much coveted hot water! Since Nick had taken “packing light” to the extremes, and not wanting to seem like I couldn’t slum it with the best of them, I had agreed to leave my deodorant behind in Kathmandu, along with the majority of my clean clothes and a towel. This was the first of several packing mistakes, and one that would lead us to get to know each other better than we ever really needed, or wanted.
Two days after arriving in Kathmandu we were heading out of the city on our way into the Himalayas.
The 16h flight from London via Delhi had been stress-free with decent veggie curry, a few beers and a couple of invitations to the houses of our co-passengers. We were flying with an Indian airline so none of this was a surprise of course. Perhaps the only thing that caught us off-guard was that Jet Airways hadn’t made us throw away a suitcase like they had last time.
In our somewhat frantic mission to get our trekking permits, book the bus, buy some essentials and have a beer with fellow travellers we had successfully missed every one of the must-see sights of the city. We saw one of the pagodas of Durbar square looming behind a row of buildings before being asked for a 700 rupees (£5) “entry ticket” to what looked like just the second half of the street we were already on. More interested in food at that point we gave it a miss. I was fairly sure I’d seen news footage showing most of the buildings reduced to rubble from the earthquakes in April 2015 so figured I had missed the opportunity to see it in its glory.
Our first journey was a fairly gentle 8 hour affair that got us into the swing of things to come on our half-year honeymoon. We were headed for Dunche in the Langtang national park for some trekking.
Well, the journey was ok for me but Steph had apparently drunk a little more vodka than me the night before and didn’t fully appreciate the bumpy, windy roads or the high-pitched Nepalese pop screeching out of the broken speakers. Unsure of when, or if, there would be a toilet break, drinking lots of water wasn’t the obvious cure it normally is.
“It’ll all be alright when we find a hotel. We can have a shower and go out for a meal.”
That was to be the first of many lies I was to inadvertently make in an attempt to be optimistic. Every hotel in town was full and panic set in as night fell. Eventually a hero stepped up and offered us a room for 300 rupees (£1.90) above what looked like a tea shop in a concrete lock-up. All I can say is that the room was beautiful compared to the shared bathroom down the hall. With no light in the corridor, finding your way in the dark may have been tricky if it weren’t for the smell. You just had to follow your nose.
There was no shower, no bath and no toilet you could sit on, so perhaps the term bathroom is overstating it. Having being appalled when hearing of the kind of accommodation I had frequented when travelling in India & Bangladesh 3 years ago, I had made a promise to avoid the particularly grim. Another promise shattered and only 3 days into our trip. “Happy honeymoon darling.”
Why call the owner of such an establishment a hero? He was a porter from the nearby village of Thulu Syabru in the Langtang Valley which was near the epicentre of the recent earthquakes. 148 out of the 158 homes in his village were either damaged or destroyed. His wasn’t one of the lucky ones. He showed us a photo of the pile of rubble with a roof a metre high that used to be his house. Even though his wife, his young son and he were displaced people they were still willing to take in others looking for a temporary roof over their head.