Saturday, June 14, 2014

Namaste Kathmandu! Namaste Pokhara!


Pictures and text by Barry Greville-Eyres



Nepal’s national flag is the only one in the world that is not rectangular in shape and is also considered to be the most mathematical flag ever hoisted. The red represents victory in war or courage/aggression, and is also the color of the rhododendron, the country’s national flower. The flag's blue border signifies peace. The curved moon on the flag is a symbol of the peaceful and calm nature of Nepalese, while the sun represents the aggressiveness of Nepalese Gurkha warriors.

The pride and national flower of Nepal - the exquisite rhododendron or tree rose depicted graphically on the flag above
A composite picture of a rhododendron crown with lichen covered branches, old and emerging foliage and late flowering blooms
Fast Facts  

·       Nepal has a population of approximately 27 million with nearly 2 million absentee or migrant workers living abroad;
·       In 2013, Nepal ranked the 157th place on the Human Development Index (HDI) and is one of the least developed nations in the entire world;
·       Nepal is located in the heart of the Himalayas and bordered to the north by the People’s Republic of China, and to the south, east, and west by the Republic of India;
·       The mountainous north of Nepal has eight of the world's ten tallest mountains, including the highest point on Earth; Mount Everest called Sagarmatha (Mountain of Snows) in Nepali. It contains more than 240 peaks over 20,000 ft (6,096 m) above sea level;
Rooftop views of capital city Kathmandu that is virtually bursting at the seams as a consequence of urbanization, improved safety and security in recent years, a thriving remittance economy and large foreign investment
Kathmandu has grown exponentially in recent years and public utilities including electricity and water provision have lagged behind considerably frustrating native residents and small businesses 
Contrary to expectations and public perception, quality water remains a relatively scarce and invaluable resource particularly in a city like Kathmandu
More Fast Facts 
·       The southern Terai region is fertile and humid. Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Gautam Buddha, is located in this region. It is one of the holiest places of one of the world's great religions, and its remains contain important evidence about the nature of Buddhist pilgrimage centres from as early as the 3rd century BC;
·       Hinduism is practiced by about 81.3% of Nepalis, making it the country with the highest percentage of Hindus. Buddhism is linked historically with Nepal and is practiced by 16%, Kirat 5.1%, Islam by 4.4%, Christianity 1.4%, and animism 0.4%. A large section of the population, especially in hill region, even though they follow Hindu customs, may identify themselves as both Hindu as well as Buddhists which can be attributed to syncretic nature of Hinduism and Buddhism in Nepal;
·       A monarchy throughout most of its history, Nepal was ruled by the Shah dynasty of kings from 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah unified its many small kingdoms;
·       Nepal's exports of mainly carpets, clothing, hemp natural fibre, leather goods, jute goods and grain total $822 million. Import commodities of mainly gold, machinery and equipment, petroleum products and fertilizer total US$2 bn. EU (46.1%), the US (17.4%), and Germany (7.1%) are its main export partners. Recently, the European Union has become the largest buyer of Nepali ready made garments (RMG). Exports to the EU accounted for 46% of the country’s total garment exports. Nepal's import partners include India (47.5%), the United Arab Emirates (11.2%), China (10.7%), Saudi Arabia (4.9%), and Singapore (4%);
·       Remittances are estimated to be equivalent to 25–30 percent of GDP;
The Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu steeped in history and a highly significant spiritual site for Hinduism in Nepal. The real time cremations, in full public view, can be very confronting for most.
Beauty and the Beast captured at the Pashupatinath Temple  
Smoke from a funeral pyre wafts over the grounds of the Pashupatinath Temple  as the departed are prepared for their final send off. 
The entrance/exit fa├žade to the magnificent Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu


Most certainly my type of guesthouse!

A superb tourist precinct within the grounds of the Boudhanath Stupa where one can soak up the atmosphere, while away the time by browsing around or enjoy a relaxing and refreshing Tuborg at one of the many strategically placed, rooftop restaurants

The ancient stupa with its massive mandala makes it one of the largest spherical stupas in Nepal and in the world in fact. The Buddhist stupa of Boudhanath dominates the skyline and Tibetan merchants have rested and offered prayers here for many centuries 

The Great Stupa is 36 m in height and is a UNESCO declared World Heritage Site and by far one of the most popular tourist sites in Kathmandu

The outer perimeter of the Great Stupa has been painstakingly and loving restored to the delight and pleasure of countless tourists 

·       In 2012 the number of international tourists visiting Nepal was 598,204, a 10% increase on the previous year. The tourism sector contributed nearly 3% of national GDP in 2012 and is the second biggest foreign income earner after remittances;
·       The rate of unemployment and underemployment approaches half of the working-age population. Thus many Nepali citizens move to other countries in search of work. Top destinations include India, Qatar, the United States, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Brunei Darussalam, Australia, and Canada;
·       A long-standing economic agreement underpins a close relationship with India. The country receives foreign aid from India, Japan, the UK, the US, the EU, China, Switzerland, and Scandinavian countries;
·       Agriculture employs 76% of the workforce, services 18% and manufacturing/craft-based industry 6%. Industry mainly involves the processing of agricultural produce, including jute, sugarcane, tobacco, and grain. Its workforce of about 10 million suffers from a severe shortage of skilled labor;

The ancient city of Bhaktapur, a short drive from Kathmandu is the 3rd largest city in the Kathmandu Valley dating back several centuries and currently has a population of approximately 300,000 inhabitants
The living and working ancient city of Bhaktapur has the best preserved Palace courtyards and old city center in Nepal and is listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its rich culture, temples and wood, metal and stone artwork
Another Bhaktapur perfectly restored Palace courtyard with ancient clay brick/stone and wood work
More Fast Facts
·       Erosion of the Himalayas is a very important source of sediment, which flows via several great rivers (the Indus to the Indian Ocean, and the Ganges and Brahmaputra river system) to the Bay of Bengal;  
·       Nepal is one of the few countries in Asia to abolish the death penalty and the first country in Asia to rule in favor of same-sex marriage. Nepal's Supreme Court in 2007 granted full rights for LGBT individuals, including the right to marry and now can get citizenship as a third gender rather than male or female;
·       Human trafficking is a major problem in Nepal. Nepali victims are trafficked within Nepal, to India, the Middle East, and other areas such as Malaysia and forced to become prostitutes, domestic servants, beggars, factory workers, mine workers, circus performers, child soldiers, and others. Sex trafficking is particularly rampant within Nepal and to India, with as many as 5,000 to 10,000 women and girls trafficked to India alone each year;
·       The dramatic differences in elevation found in Nepal result in a variety of biomes, from tropical savannas along the Indian border, to subtropical broadleaf and coniferous forests in the Hill Region, to temperate broadleaf and coniferous forests on the slopes of the Himalaya, to montane grasslands and shrublands and rock and ice at the highest elevations;
·       Energy needs are primarily met by fuel wood (68%) agricultural waste (15%), animal dung (8%), and imported fossil fuel (8%). Except for some lignite deposits, Nepal has no known oil, gas or coal deposits. All commercial fossil fuels (oil and coal) are either imported from India or from international markets routed through India and China. Fuel imports absorb over one-fourth of Nepal's foreign exchange earnings. Only about 1% energy need is fulfilled by electricity.
·       Paradoxically, the perennial nature of Nepali rivers and the steep gradient of the country's topography provide ideal conditions for the development of some of the world's largest hydroelectric projects;
·       Only about 40% of Nepal's population has access to electricity. The electrification rate in urban areas is 90%, whereas the rate for rural areas is only 5%. Power cuts of up to 22 hours a day takes place in peak demand periods of winter and the peak electricity demand is almost double the capability or dependable capacity;
·       Disease prevalence is higher in Nepal than it is in other South Asian countries, especially in rural areas. Leading diseases and illnesses include diarrhea, gastrointestinal disorders, goiter, intestinal parasites, leprosy, visceral leishmaniasis (black or Dumdum fever and is the second-largest parasitic killer in the world after malaria) and tuberculosis;

Bhaktapur boasts guesthouses and restaurants in an out of this - old world, medieval setting


Old world meets new - Bhaktapur City

Patan Durbar Square - Kathmandu
Pokhara is arguably the second largest Nepalese city with a population of 300,000 inhabitants, making it one of the most densely populated cities in the country. The city is located approximately 200 km west of the country's capital, Kathmandu and is the most popular tourist destination in Nepal. Three out of ten highest mountains in the world - Dhaulagiri, Annapurna I and Manaslu are within 30 miles (linear distance) of the city, so that the northern skyline of the city offers a very close view of the Himalayas. Due to its proximity to the Annapurna mountain range, the city is also a base for trekkers undertaking the Annapurna Circuit through the ACAP region of the Annapurna ranges and the Himalayas; Pokhara is the largest tourist city in the country, home to great Himalayan treks, residence of a large number of British and Indian Gurkha soldiers. This makes Pokhara the most expensive city in the country.

Pokhara with its signature Lake is a must see, must visit for every tourist visiting Nepal

Centre Point - the main Pokhara thoroughfare where human development and nature appear to co-exist beside one another in a rather bizarre fashion

The environment takes priority Lakeside Pokhara
Adventure tourism central - where it all begins!

Pokhara has countless accommodation options ranging from budget to top of the range - upmarket accommodation in a laid back and relatively uncongested, lakeside environment ideal for both hiking and trekking.

Bargains galore!
Nepalese Graffiti - Pokhara
Lakeside leisure - Pokhara


Local garments on offer - Pokhara

Hiking and trekking accoutrements

Nepalese Legends - 3 Salutes and 3 Cheers!


 Light Shed on Pokhara, Kathmandu and Nepal!





Friday, June 13, 2014

Trekking in Nepal

Incorporating parts of Annapurna Conservation Area  – Kimche, Ghandruk, Tadapani, Ghorepani, Hile, Birethanti.

Pictures and text by Barry Greville-Eyres

Quintessential Nepal and Himalayas - moody and mystical - local landmarks festooned with Tibetan prayer flags


My Nepalese sojourn commenced with a hop and skip (Kabul-New Delhi-Kathmandu) on Spicejet, India’s funky and appropriately branded budget carrier. The  absolutely no frills airline  is relatively efficient and in spite of a mad dash transfer in New Delhi, my final destination was beckoning well within half a travel day.

On a wing and prayer to Kathmandu 

On arrival in Kathmandu I was made acutely aware, even before setting foot on hallowed Nepalese soil, of the extent to which people's lives - locals as well as tourists - are in the hands of the Gods and bio-physical elements. The loss of 16 Sherpas on the slopes of Everest, to a deadly avalanche of ice and snow, barely weeks earlier was one such cataclysmic event. This resulted in the closure of the 2014 climbing season (with its short April-June window), part expressions of solidarity, respect and frustration by the Sherpa and climbing community at government  intransigence at putting together a comprehensive social welfare and benefits package for the tragically departed mountain guides and their remaining families.

Another was more real and personal. The short flip from New Delhi was uneventful but on our final approach to Kathmandu we were promptly put in a holding pattern as we began to circle, at arm's length, towering stacks of angry and badly bruised cumulonimbus storm clouds. After what seemed like a lifetime and dozens of dizzying circuits we finally landed. We were immediately greeted by a congested, capital city in helter-skelter mode as passengers, pedestrians and commuters scattered in the darkness under torrential downpours. The theme infinitesimal, inconsequential and fallible stayed with me throughout my visit and short trek as we were exposed to the discomfort of whimsical weather, steep terrain and fast flowing rivers, all the while buzzed in the distance by search and rescue helicopters going about their business.

Due to my general aversion for capital cities, I was booked on an early morning domestic flight to Pokhara, barely hours after my arrival. There was however ample time to enjoy the heart-warming hospitality of a former work colleague and his family with authentic Nepali cuisine and a tall, cracked Tuborg beer.

My first full day in Nepal was not without its own drama as it appeared as if the entire mountain kingdom was clouded out and flights thoroughly grounded despite the attentions of countless giddy and impatient foreigners. The domestic departure lounge resembled an inner-city, base camp struck down with a sinister malaise as passengers idled around for the weather to clear. I blended into the drab decor with my very ordinary apparel and outdated 'hiking' gear, outdone by a ‘branded’ frenzy of specialist, outdoor adventure equipment every conceivable colour of the neonic rainbow. It reminded me that I should make a point of procuring a hilariously funny, anti-consumerism branded t-shirt with a catchy ‘Hey Fuck Face’ phrase ripping off the well-known adventure brand.

It was not particularly comforting to think that the gaudy garb and get up of the average trekker is probably valued at more than the average Nepali annual wage – more than likely far in excess when one considers that GDP per capita earnings are around $800 pa - sobering to say the least! I was quickly educated as to the distinction between hiking and trekking, the Nepalese way, in this part of the world. It's a rather significant one when you consider that the trekking brand is synonymous with Nepal and the Himalayas. Mere, less cool, mortals hike and sightsee basing themselves out of fixed tourist accommodation conducting mainly day trips into the immediate area, often unguided, before returning to the creature comforts of their home base.

Trekking most certainly has a more serious side .....dressed stone and masonry work of exceptional quality - solid, sustainable, earthy and very pleasing to the eye 

Trekking is mainly guided and 'rolling' in nature where village-based guesthouses or lodges are used, en route, with all amenities including catering (dinner and breakfast) and bedding provided as part of a package deal. Its mainly the super-cool that trek and its worn as a badge of courage. A variation to the theme, the exclusive domain of the uber wealthy, is camp trekking which is a throwback to the original form of trekking prior to the introduction of homestays or guesthouses. Porters are used extensively to carry the full set of camping equipment and accoutrements in addition to the trekking guide(s) and camp is set up at the end of each day at designated camp sites. A typical colonial African safari, of sorts, in Asia minus the lions, elephants and antelope. It was not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s for porters to be saddled with loads of up to 100kgs per day over extended treks. Decades later the loads dropped to approximately 70kgs and nowadays porters do not normally shoulder more than 30kgs per day.

Easier on the eye and some of the older, more traditional accommodation establishments catering primarily for trekkers depicting high quality stonework with exquisite surrounding mountain views

A more upmarket accommodation establishment en route to Ghandruk

Accommodation options aplenty at both Upper and Lower Ghorepani bring into question the issues of sustainability and over-development

It was pleasing to note that a regulatory framework has been introduced, into the entire trekking industry, by the Nepali government through a qualification and registration system for service providers – guesthouses/lodges, trekking guides and porters with the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal (TAAN).  Similarly, trekkers are legally required by the National Trust for Conservation to have a valid entry permit into the relevant trekking area. In our case this was the Annapurna (Nepali for Goddess of the Harvest) Conservation Area. Furthermore, the Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) captures all relevant data into a database enabling, presumably, accurate tracking of trekker whereabouts and area-wide carrying capacities expressly for management purposes.

Measures put in place by the government and allied trekking association to regulate the industry  

Access point to the Annapurna Conservation Area

According to my own expert trekking guide, Krisna Bahadur Gurung ( Mobile no. +977- 9846104807 Government license no.406 from ACME Adventure Treks) its not only highly recommended but also mandatory to contract the services of a suitably qualified guide on any trek. On our short trek it was evident that this requirement is openly flaunted by foreigners to the detriment of the trekkers themselves (personal safety and security as well as the loss of an important socio-cultural teaching and learning opportunity) and also the industry (employment and revenue generation opportunities for Nepal). Its understandable that free-spirited individuals or groups would wish to do their own thing but I have an issue when people are downright irresponsible and blatantly break the law.

Krisna trying his hand in the kitchen at one of our overnight stops

Nothing beats the heat of a good wood burning stove! The blogger is flanked by Buddhi (L) and Krisna (R), seasoned trekking guides that have racked up over 50 years solid experience between the two of them throughout the Himalayas


Onto more pleasurable pursuits …. trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area which is, essentially, a fascinating, highly successful, age-old sustainable tourism / local economic development model that WORKS. It's so simple and seems to come so naturally to the rural Nepalese people, largely without any support or direct intervention from the government. It’s predominantly centred upon the best-fit and sustainable use of bio-physical and other resources at their disposal. Have the intoxicating and invigorating Himalayan mountains (Nepali for Mountain of Snows); an extensive working and community maintained network of trails/treks; countless villages with rudimentary or more advanced homestays; spice it up with a dash of danger – masochism; the allure and mystic of Tibetan Buddhism spirituality; throw in Nepali nonchalance and charm and it all contributes to an adventure tourism cocktail par excellence.

A snow-melt swollen river which will soon convey heavy monsoon rains down to the lowlands

Pre-dawn view of Machhapuchhre or Fishtail Range with the peak itself rising to 6997m captured from Tadapani  

A series of spectacular waterfalls encountered, prior to the onset of the monsoon season, along the descending trek from Hile to Birethanti

The mountainous massif of Annapurna South


The theme of Nepali self-determination, resilience and sustainability is all pervading -  most foodstuffs are grown or produced locally - organic vegetables (potatoes, green beans, corn, cabbage, spinach, field greens; diary (buffalo & beef); poultry (primarily for egg production) and cereal crops (rice, millet, wheat). Other essentials are packed in by mule-trains or by horseback. As transient travellers it’s fascinating to observe highly successful farming practices in action - irrigation, planting, mulching, soil improvement and enrichment with manure from small and large livestock.

Highly prized mule-trains and their drivers traverse the mountains doing the heavy lifting from road heads to remote villages packing almost every conceivable commodity including building materials

The farm gate to dinner plate scenario plays itself out daily and whilst trekking you have the unique opportunity to sample some of the fresh farm produce on offer. Dal baht or specifically Nepali chicken dal baht powerpacking Himalayan Power for 24 hours - is standard trekking fare for guides, porters and trekkers alike providing a solid, wholesome meal. Dal or lentils in the form of a watery gruel is served together with chicken soup; lightly curried potatoes and green beans; local greens or Asian spinach with onion and garlic; copious amounts of rice; and a side serving of spicy pickles.

Chicken dal baht for 24 hour Himalayan Power .... standard trekking fare village grown and cooked organic food that is wholesome and nutritious

 Average guesthouse, on trek, accommodation is priced at around $15 p.n. including a light breakfast. Lunches and dinners average $5 per meal - hot beverages - an assortment of teas with masala being my favourite are under a dollar a cup with pots being slightly cheaper. Alcohol is generally on offer at most guesthouses and large Nepalese brewed beers including Tuborg, Everest, Gorkha are priced at around $4-5.

Trek-side accommodation, dressed up in the local architectural style, providing solid and comfortable lodgings for transient trekkers throughout the Annapurna Conservation Area
In my shortest of interludes I did, however, observe some flaws particularly around the issue of sustainability and government regulation. Paradoxically, this is the case in that guesthouse development is burgeoning, seemingly unchecked, without due consideration for environmental, aesthetic and pyscho-social carrying capacities. One wonders whether there will be a reasonable rate of return on capital investments as quaint, trek-side hamlets mushroom into misplaced dormitory-styled lodgings.

Uncontrolled, local guesthouse development poses a threat to an 'authentic trekking experience' where there is seemingly little or no regard for ecological and  psycho-social impacts

Yet another eye-catching, trek side accommodation establishment

In the area where ostensibly regulation is in place i.e. the requirement to use, as a non-negotiable, TAAN trained and certified guides this has apparently fallen by the wayside in recent years. No matter how tame and user-friendly the trekking experience may seem (which is definitely not the case) I'm of the view that no-one should be permitted to trek without using the service of a qualified guide.
Whereas trekking masses may find Wi-Fi, internet and mobile phone access cool and a natural extension of their everyday life, I personally find it inappropriate, intrusive and uncool in a place like Nepal especially in the Himalayan Mountains. One has the desire to ‘get away from it all’ but when confronted with fellow trekkers phubbing away and /or surfing the net on their mobiles or glued to television screens spruiking gibberish it becomes a bit too much.

Creature comforts such as home-made apple pie, mobile phone networks, Wi-Fi and pizzas are largely misplaced in such an extraordinary setting, in my view, and discerning trekkers will find signs like this somewhat amusing but beyond that intrusive and off-putting. 

One of the more interesting signs encountered - it DOES NOT indicate a Wi-Fi free zone but rather significant, village-based WASH - water, sanitation and hygiene improvements

A frequent, personal lament was for a trek less travelled and trammelled because I found the sheer numbers of people on the trek and overnighting at guesthouses difficult to contend with but I had to remind myself that the land use option or protected area status (conservation) was far from pristine wilderness, where carrying capacities are reduced significantly for specific ecological and social reasons. In spite of the heavy trekking traffic, which includes regular mule trains, the walking surface was in superb condition (well drained, expertly stepped, contoured and more often than not paved with durable stone slabs) and litter was almost non-existent. 

Krisna on the slow, steady ascent to Ghandruk with a clear view of the excellent trekking surface

Traditional gateway to many of the villages and accommodation establishments within the Annapurna Conservation Area

Some of my most vivid trekking recollections include: the multi-national composition of trekkers and the respective groups including countless orderly Asians (mainly Koreans, Chinese and Japanese); Europeans - Germans and odd Australians with representation across all age groups. Strikingly, a fair percentage of trekkers were solitary men and women with their own trekking guide - testimony to the trust, safety and security, credibility, and reliability of the TAAN professional association system. Trekking days were generally very enjoyable and varied, filled with 1001 Namastes and hi's due to ‘moderate’ trekking traffic which tends to peak during the high season which extends from September–December. The month of May is on the cusp of the 3 month monsoon season which extends through to early September where water and river levels rise appreciably and often dramatically in the form of flash flooding and rockfalls/mudslides.

This gently meandering stream will turn into a raging torrent in a few months with the onset of the monsoon season

The Annapurna Autobahn - a private joke shared with Krisna on our final descent from Ghorepani when we encountered a large, boisterous group of German trekkers

One can only but wonder .......

Krisna Bahadur Gurung was a revelation, fantastic trekking guide and wonderful travel companion.  His quick wit and ‘old world’ turn of phrase was quaint and very amusing. Krisna would refer to the ‘mountains as being shy’ when they were obscured by clouds; bashfully introduced me to raksi – a local, millet-brewed white spirit which is obviously a cure for all ills – when taken in moderation. On an assessment of menus at respective guesthouses he would refer to two main categories of meals – light or heavy with an obvious reference to calorific intake to sustain one throughout a trekking day. He revelled in our celebratory drink at the end of our trek and time together and was obviously highly appreciative of the generous tip that was deservedly bestowed on him.
One of my most bizarre on trek observations was that I soon became convinced, by the look on people’s faces and associated body language, how little they were prepared for or were actually enjoying their trekking experience. It was rare to encounter happy, smiling trekkers and there was a real sense that many of the trekkers had been conned or seduced by sexy marketing, unwittingly, into the experience. I was on a perpetual high with the ‘entire package deal’ and found it very difficult to relate to strained, bland or occasional pissed off  faces – it all seemed so out of place. 

A creative, non-verbal way to express, in more ways than one,  the immense satisfaction and exhilaration derived from trekking Nepal! Photo: Courtesy of Gerda Kollmann

One of many guesthouses encountered catering for the needs of most trekkers including spectacular mountain views

Finally..... yet another guesthouse in the Ghandruk area clearly depicting the care, pride and pleasure put into keeping trekkers comfortable, secure and safe