Saturday, October 23, 2010

Day 20: Chillin’ in Kathmandu

A monkey cleaning a companion at Swambuktah temple
Today’s goal was to visit the Swambuktah temple, the Buddhist shrine renowned for its hyperactive monkey monks.

A delicious (steaming fresh) apple strudel breakfast and we were off on foot at 7AM, in an attempt to beat the heat of the day. Shorts were at the cleaners so I was wearing my only other pair of trousers which happened to be my waterproof Cactus Lifty ski pants. They are pretty breathable but brisk walks around a 30 degree Kathmandu were probably pushing the limits of their design.

Continuing a theme of navigational creativity we left the map at the hotel and took the scenic route past the banks of the river, sickeningly plastered with household garbage.

Walking past the Bajaj industrial district with its asphyxiating smoke stacks we finally made it to Swambuktah with the guidance of a friendly policeman.

More monkey preening action
We knew we were on the money when we spied a large surly primate snacking on rice. First attempts at photos with the monkeys were cautious as I noted a rabid glint in their eyes.

Yawning monkey
Climbing a marathon set of stair to the temple, the monkey show began in earnest. It seemed as if picking seeds from a companion’s fur was the preferable way to spend the day with dual benefits of clean fur for one monkey and a nutty snack for the other.

A monkey with no friends has to clean himself
The younger and more energetic leapt from tree to tree with dazzling displays of gymnasticry. Some even attacked a string of prayer flags, double teaming the fabric till it was threadbare.

We sat for a good hour, taking photos and observing the monkey’s remarkably human like behaviour. A truly awesome close encounter with none of the cages or crowds of zoos.

Walking back to Thamel, we set about our final task of spotlessly cleaning our bikes to the high standard of New Zealand Customs. A greasy rag, brush and sample sized bottle of shampoo did the trick and we were all boxed up in time for an afternoon nap.

Our final ceremonial dinner at an authentic Tibetan restaurant came served in dish with an oven of glowing coals at the centre, heating a delicious broth containing all manner of delicacies including our favourite momos.

A relaxing last day in Kathmandu and we are all prepared for our midday flight tomorrow.

It is sad to be leaving this amazing land but both Michi and I are excited to be heading home to New Zealand.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Day 19: Pokhara to Kathmandu

What a day of contrasts. A slow start while we waited for our Rainbow tourist bus was proceeded by a frantic rush to the correct bike stop to load bikes on the roof before it left without us.

Then, defying our expectations of a 2PM arrival time, we were subjected to traffic congestion from hell coupled with the best spine jarring ride that Nepal’s decrepit roads could muster.

Ollie smiling after failing the bottle drink on bumpy bus challenge
At almost 12 hours long for a 200km journey, we are confident we could have ridden our bikes faster (and probably in more comfort) although heat may have been an issue as we were sweltering inside the bus. Boredom was the word of the day, and not even a book I’d picked up from our hotel could keep the itch to jump up and do something at bay.

Roof mounted goat heading for Pokhara
View from the bus in an epic queue
When what seemed like an eternity of start-stop driving had passed and we had crested the final hill into Kathmandu at the pace of a one legged Cheetah we decided to cut our losses and mount bikes for the ride into town.
Bumper to bumper congestion stretching across a distant hill
Immediately our boredom switched to excitement as we readied packs and lights for a daring assault on the bus roof. If stationary this wouldn’t have been a problem, but with the bus still crawling Michi clambered onto the roof, throwing down bikes and bags in the smoggy haze.

With only our fading headlamps for illumination it was a thrilling ride into Thamel, arguably the most nerve racking of the trip. Our senses were flooded with smells, smog, honking and the jarring road but not the sight that would have made the journey less of a hazard.

We dodged speeding buses swerving on the wrong side of the road, and throngs of pedestrians who jumped clear as we burst from the night. Safe to say pulses were racing and hearts were in our mouths.

With luck and some navigational kill on Michi’s part we chanced upon our hotel, relieved beyond belief that we’d made it through the dangerous but thrilling experience of a Kathmandu rush-hour night ride.

It took more than a few lemon teas to settle our nerves but looking back I’m proud of how we handled to situation. Plus, if we hadn’t bailed on the bus we’d probably be still sitting in the traffic queue outside Kathmandu.

Day 18: Hangin’ in Pokhara

Starting the day with a breakfast burrito from Mike’s restaurant (a Pokhara institution) we enjoyed delicious freshly squeezed OJ while watching the locals board row boats for work on the other side of the lake. Picturesque wouldn’t begin to describe the scene.

Sunrise over colourful boats on Lake Pokhara
Then it was off to do mundane things like picking up laundry, catching up on e-mails and a few last minute bargains (sunglasses and a jacket) from an authentic Nepalese fake goods merchant.

Once sorted we decided to head off on a cruisy recovery ride to explore the Pokhara that is so popular with tourists. Clearly we were suckers for punishment, as the ride quickly distorted into a granny gear sweat- fest timed to coincide with the worst mid-day heat.

Climbing the road to the World Peace Pagoda proved more strenuous than initially anticipated, but once finally at the sacred Buddhist site the breathtaking and strangely peaceful views helped quell spiking heart rates.
World Peace Pagoda above Pokhara
The Annapurna range which we had been so close to only days prior was peeking through the clouds and made a dazzling backdrop. Yet again we were reminded of the sheer scale of these mountains.
Gigantic mountains peeking through the clouds
Leaving for some well earned downhill the trail took us down a step laden descent to a dead end. It seems that even on our day off we were destined to carry our bikes, and 15 minutes of toil brought us back up the hill to where we had started the descent.

View down to Lake Pokhara from the peace Pagoda
To save more hard work in the oppressive heat we descended the scary fast access road which was nuggety enough to fulfil the need for sketchy speed.

Rolling back into town, a bakery lunch and nap prepared us for a night on the town, Pokhara style. We were joined by some Swiss-Australian friends we’d serendipitously met in Pokhara after initially meeting on the trail at Thorong Phedi.

Beginning with a return to the steakhouse for half a cow worth of steak, we then attempted to hire a boat but were refused, the proprietor of the rental service citing fading light. Undeterred we danced up a storm to a local DJ’s beats, cutting shapes to a terrific light show complete with lazers and smoke machines. A fitting end to our time in Pokhara.

Up early tomorrow for 6 hour bus to Kathmandu.

Page 17: Jhinu to Pokhara

The view down the valley as we roll out of the Annapurna sanctuary
Leaving the awesome Green View Guest Lodge after now standard issue Tibetan bread, lemon tea and porridge breakfast it was off down some more insanely steep stairs to a bridge, then up some even steeper stairs till we reached some wicked rideable singletrack. I had the overwhelming feeling that we were descending into the energy sapping mug of the tropical jungle and not since Besi Sahar or Tatopani had the overwhelming sensation of sweat drenched exertion been felt.

Looking back to the mountains we are saying goodbye to
Thankfully the singletrack portions were off the scale, striking an excellent balance between gnar and rideability. Rocky with the odd climbing pinch and a smattering of features like waterfalls, steps and exposed edges to keep the fun factor high.

Michi on the trail
Today we saw some ingenious water powered contraptions, utilising a resource the Nepalese obviously have no shortage of. A hydro pipeline with a solid 100m head and a more primitive grain grinding mill were both perched on the track edge so begged for a sneaky inspection.

A hydro-powered grain mill on the trail
Stopping for a pizza and momo lunch (our last Annapurnan indulgence) made the final leg a gut wrenching battle, every acceleration met with a puff of half digested momo gas. Riding out from Nyapul and the culture shock hit us, honking taxis and buses and all manner of traders hocking wares shattered the alpine tranquillity of the last two weeks.

The solid 15km climb was a welcome reprieve, its gradual gradient and sweeping switchbacks making for an enjoyable final hurdle. I even got to test my new set of altitude enhanced lungs with some uphill motorpacing from one of the dirty local buses.

The view down to Lake Pokhara from the top of the hill
An equally epic 15km descent and Pokhara began to take shape, the odd house becoming an apartment block until we were in a hectic haze reminiscent of Kathmandu all those days ago.

For dinner we fulfilled a long held desire for animal protein, demolishing what must have been a 500g steak at the Everest Steak house. Ice-cream sundaes capped off a fine meal, and now having retired to our soft hotel beds (with working hot showers) we can begin to reflect on the experiences we’ve had.

Day 16: Annapurna Base Camp to Jhinu

Sun rising over the Annapurna range
After a rough night sleep in the storeroom at the Base Camp lodge where we were periodically woken by clanging pots and the manager describing the blanket distribution process we awoke to catch the sunrise over the most amazing mountain scene I’ve ever laid eyes on. Wall to wall 7000m+ peaks all glowing in the light of the fresh day. Again my efforts to capture the scene on film won’t do the scene any sort of justice.
The sacred mountain of Machapuchre in the morning light
On beginning our descent it struck me how here in Nepal the land doesn’t really seem to rise up to the mountains as in New Zealand. Already insanely high at 4100m, peaks still tower above us as if the impossibly high ridges were invented as a joke, the near vertical slopes of ice clinging to rock left to match the 3000m step the valleys below.

An actual Himilayan  mountain goat
Fresh as it was, we set off briskly stopping only to take snaps of the sacred Machapuchre from new angles. We were on fine form as we half skipped, jumped and ran from village to village. Stopping only to pass pole flailing trekkers or to mock the travel times listed at guest house murals.

In short we managed the ten hour trek in under six, albeit with some aching calves for our troubles.
Michi was blisteringly fast in the morning, but faded by lunch, still managing to ascend the countless stairs up to Chhomrong with typical pluck. One porter described my climbing style as ‘like a goat’ during a daring rock move to pass the porter’s train. I’m taking it as a compliment.

Michi doing his best mountain goat impersonation
Pizza lunch at Chhomrong was followed by bike collection then a blat down the hill (steep unrideable stairs) to Jhinu. Hot pools failed to live up to the high standard set by Tatopani but were still heaven on fatigued muscles. All that is left is an epic dinner of momos, chocolate cake for desert, then to bed for our final day in the Annapurna sanctuary. The ride out to Pokhara shouldn’t be too strenuous and we plan to take heed advice to seek the most rideable western route.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Day 15: Chhomrong to Annapurna Base Camp

Ditching our bikes proved to be one of our smarter moves as much of the trail was composed of flight after flight of steep stairs that would have reduced us to a grovelling carry.

Perilously steep steps on the way to Annapurna Base Camp
Michi and I were infact quite the speed trekkers, ditching 15kg of bikes and gear left us with a spring in our steps, and we typically took half the expected time posted on map boards in villages along the way. We half powered through Bamboo, Himalaya, Deurali to Machapuchre Base Camp, then finally Annapurna Base Camp, 2000m above our starting point of Chhomrong.

A waterfall crossing the trail

Lunch in Deurali heralded a delicious cheese and tomato pizza. Plenty of cheese and some herbs made for a delicious treat, here on the southern side of the Annapurnas they don’t seem to hold back on the cheese as they do on the North side. Whilst descending to a river crossing and attempting a hot line I slipped on some steep scree and diced my hand and elbow, but both seem to be healing well already. Funny that after two weeks of the arguably more dangerous act of mountain biking, it took a casual walk for me to lose some skin.

Hiker Ollie looks up the valley to Machapuchre

It seems we are both well acclimatised as I felt no effects like shortness of breath and could smash it up the hill.

The final stretch was in light rain then hail, but through the mist we spotted herds of black and white sheep, the odd struggling trekker and finally the bright blue corrugated iron of the Base Camp guest houses. Apparently the place is booked out so we are double bunking in a storeroom (head to tail). Prices here are ridiculous (500 Rupee Coke) but this is obviously the price of luxury at 4130m.

Prayer flag covered climbers memorial at Annapurna Base Camp
At base camp itself the air is chilly but once clouds had cleared we braved the wind to take photos galore. When the cool proved too much to bear we ducked inside for a game of chess, and even a sneaky chapter or two from a book I found in the restaurant called ‘Hullabaloo on the Guava Orchard’ – Seems good. A book is something that I wish I’d brought along, as a few chapters of reading is a great way to pass the downtime between dinner and napping.

Clouds roll over the south face of Annapurna
Bracing for the cold night we are glad to have brought our winter sleeping bags and have layered up with a couple of polypro layers just to be safe. A light breakfast of porridge (all we can afford on our tight high altitude budget) and then we’ll be off to pick up our bikes in Chhomrong. There is even talk of hot pools at Jhinu. Nice!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Day 14: Ghorepani to Chhomrong

Himalayan sunrise over Poon Hill
Ignoring a kerfuffle downstairs at 4AM we maximised all important sleep time and woke at 5:30AM for a 20 minute dash to the peak of nearby Poon Hill, just in time to watch the sun rise over endless ranges of the most beautiful mountains one could imagine. What seemed like 500 people had all awoken before us and crowded the peak, all trying desperately to capture the moment in stunning digital clarity. It is moments like this when I wonder if it isn’t better to just live the moment rather than trying to capture the uncapturable. Quite simply no photo could do this Himalayan sunrise scene justice.

Photographers capturing their own portion of the sunrise's slendour
Back down to our lodge for a round of porridge and Tibetan bread and we were off again, this time with bikes in tow for what would turn out to be an awesome day of jungle singletrack on steeply undulating terrain.

Michi on morning's the climb from Ghorepani

Parts of today’s ride reminded me of sections of Nelson’s Black Diamond ridge. Root strewn sections with soil eroded away made for plenty of chain ring-obstacle interaction. A big squishy bike would have been the ticket but our short travel 29er hardtails still fared surprisingly well. Anything too steep to ride usually had a raggedy set of stairs with a death cliff at the end which gave ample motivation for playing it safe.

Michi on the descent to Chhomrong
Flight after flight of stairs with a sprinkling of perfect singletrack was the order of the day.

After one section I noted a leg of my Freeload buzzing the tire, so stopped to realign it. A rare lapse in an otherwise commendable performance by the rack so far. Michi opted to tighten his straps only he cranked the webbing so hard it tore. Some ingenious use of a belt and we were rolling again.

Lunch was a delicious potato, vegetable and cheese number, and afterwards I entertained our hosts (at their request) with a daring display of trials riding. He recorded it on his camera phone but made no promises to make me the next You-tube hit.

Ollie carves a corn field turn
More descent and more climbing and we’d made our goal of Chhomrong. Tomorrow we plan to drop bikes for a speed trek to the Annapurna Base Camp, as all reports are that this out and back section would be a nightmare on wheels.

Day 13: Tatopani to Ghorepani

On leaving our quaint accommodation the Namaste Lodge at 8AM, Michi offered the young boy who helped out at the lodge a ride on his El Padrino. The boy was beaming and clearly Michi’s kind gesture had made his day.

Turning off the road and back onto the trail we immediately began to be pestered by children selling fruit including green oranges and some of the blackest bananas I’ve seen. Never an issue on other parts of the trail, here our irritation was no doubt magnified by the tropical clamminess we were climbing through, limbs glistening and helmet juice falling from our heads like rain.

Michi slogs out the steps to Ghorepani
Fortunately, the higher we got the more a breeze made its presence felt and the bike carrying became less of a chore. Steps were the unifying theme of the day, but with our carry techniques dialled from the early sections of the trek it didn’t faze us.

Michi demonstrating his effortless carrying technique
Lunch was at the Dhulghiri View Lodge where an absent minded waiter neglected to write down my order, resulting in a longer than intended (although not unpleasant) wait in the sun.

A sign at lunch reckoned the final stretch at two hours, but an hour later we had huffed and puffed our way to Ghorepani. Here I note a softer breed of trekking tourist, many opting for the bus ride and day walk from Pokhara.

A donkey train gets on the feed bags outside our lodge
The pleasure of dry boots while trekking cannot be put in words, and while the numerous river crossing of yesterday had overcome the leather/Gore-Tex combination the dry conditions up high today had kick started the toe dehydration process. While they didn’t quite dry out today I hold out hope they will soon.

Tomorrow we rise at sparrow’s fart to conquer the 30 minute Poon Hill trek, hoping to catch the unrivalled views of the Annapurna range and Dhulghiri illuminated by the rising sun.

Day 12: Muktinath to Tatopani

Waking to sunshine through condensation soaked glass, we had both enjoyed one of the best sleeps thus far, the combined effects of food coma, the previous day’s epic descent, lower altitudes and fading man flus.

Another epic breakfast and we were off down the hill, descending steeply on what could loosely be described as a road, more a rough four wheel drive track littered with rocks and dust. Our Ventana 29ers were in their element on these fast roads, squashing potholes and loose rocks and shredding past trekkers, tractors and tourist laden jeeps.

Michi pushes his bike through a washed out section of road
The sheer diversity of landscape we ended up passing through today was amazing. Starting in eroded high altitude hills where the only sign of moisture was in deep scoured gullies, gradually the land got greener and wetter till trees started to appear, then forests and finally the thick rainforest we find ourselves in here in Tatopani.

Michi riding the cliff edge road to Tatopani

A common theme across each landscape were herds of goats being brought down from high up for the yearly Dashain festival. Not something the goats themselves probably celebrate given it begins with a marathon walk and ends with them in a curry.

Goats on their way downhill
In Jomsom the goats had red dots on their backs and horns as wide as DH bars, while lower down they were skittery as pinballs, much to the chagrin of their herders.

Almost by accident we spotted the sign for the world’s deepest gorge on today’s ride. Turns out gorges are measured from the high surrounding peaks. The gorge itself was a bit of a non-event, but with the awesome 8000m+ height of the Annapurnas to the east and Dhulghiri to the west it clearly deserved its world beating status.

Looking down to Andha gorge; the world's deepest
Tatopani is a hidden gem on the Annapurna circuit. Arriving at 3PM we hit the hot pools which rival the best in New Zealand for laid back ambience. Sipping now reasonably priced Cokes we soaked in the warmth with a handful of fellow trekkers. When heat grew unbearable we would cool off with a hose bringing water from the raging torrent of a river only metres away.

The view to Nilgiri South from Tatopani
I’m trying the famed Nepali dish of Dal Bhat for the first time tonight. The bottomless lentil/rice combination should be more than sufficient to fuel us for the biggest single climb of the trip so far, up to Ghorepani, a gruelling 1700m above us.

Day 11: Thorong Phedi to Muktinath via Thorong La Pass

An early start with a light breakfast of honey porridge (the best so far) and jam toast. We choked back our Diamox, packed our bags and began the slog to High Camp, making it there in just under an hour. While this first section was too rocky to ride, a more pressing concern was the tingly pins-and-needles sensation that robbed my digits of their function. A documented side effect of the Diamox formed a tag team with the frozen air, dropping a painful body slam on my ability to grip and forcing me to push me bike upwards with only my palms.

While waiting for Michi at high camp the pain grew to an excruciating degree, as if my digits were about to explode. Hastily retrieving Cactus SPG gloves from my pack I swapped out riding gloves for these toasty numbers and with extensive use of spirit fingers the pain started to fade. By the time we were pushing again my fingers had returned to normal and I could focus on the challenging but and occasionally rideable trail to the pass.
Michi soldiers on to the pass
Surprisingly, breathing was not too laboured, although the fact that a yak train following the same route dropped me was a humbling sign that I couldn’t match the blistering pace of these large Nepalese mammals. An hour in the riding got really good, as I was able to follow the narrow bench that had been compacted into the scree by so many trekkers and porter trains.

Yaks leading the charge to Thorong La
Spinning the final gradual climb to the pass and as I crested the summit a tangle of prayer flags signalled I’d made it. Clearly a celebratable accomplishment as flags were a metre deep in places, filling the barren pass with a vibrant and joyful energy.

Clumps of prayer flags signal our arrival at the pass
Michi was some way back, battling with the altitude and recent case of the runs, but when he finally made the top we celebrated with a block of chocolate and a call to both our families on the Speck’s satellite phone. Both families seemed pretty surprised to hear where we were calling from.

Ollie calls home from the pass
Gathering extensive photo evidence of our feat, we rugged up and dropped into the biggest gears our Rohloff’s could muster to begin the 1600m vertical descent. Growing in a crescendo of gnarl, the trail was never more than 2 feet wide and always littered with jagged scree ranging from toaster to kidney bean sized. Periodically we would stop and swap position in the train, primarily to give searing brake pads a chance to cool, but also to allow the other person to get photo and video footage capturing the feats of riding bravado against the immeasurably beautiful backdrop.
Michi shreds it down to Muktinath

Jaw dropping mountains were never in short supply, with Dhulghiri (7th highest in the world) forming a perfect triangular icon, and the rapidly expanding villages still a thousand metres below giving culture to the gnar. To my great surprise all of the trail bar two yak affected switchbacks were rideable, so as we buzzed into Muktinath at 1PM the stoke level was pretty high.

Ollie hooks a turn above Muktinath

Such an intense and draining descent was of course followed by a nap, then a stroll around the temple that gives the town its name. Water played a large role at this holy site, powering prayer wheels and a 108 spout fountain where we watched a strange cleansing ritual.

Some of the 108 fountain spouts at the Muktinath temple
On the cards tomorrow is another 2600m descent, but the 62km it is stretched over should be easier on the nerves and braking fingers than today’s memorable ride.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Day 10: Manang to Thorong Phedi

We pre-ordered a proven winner in the Yeti Hotel’s set breakfast, which made for a lightning fast 7:30AM getaway. In no time we were riding the smooth rocky steps out of town, with liberal bell use required to scatter the morning donkey trains.

Michi rides skyward from Manang
The skyward ride was surprisingly and enjoyably very ridable, only the odd gravelly pinch requiring a bit of extra grunt and an associated fit of puffing on completion.

Yak Yakara was where we spied our first of the woolliest of Himalayan mammals, the Yak. They were sunning themselves on the grassy slopes and posed non chalantly for photos.

Yak poses at Yak Yakara

We also witnessed a battle royale between mountain goats, clashing horns in a war for supremacy over the stinky herd. Michi and I placed bets on our favourite but the battle ended in a draw as they fled the scene.

Goats clash for herd supremacy
This high up there was a significant drop in trail traffic, with only the odd porter. A coke now costs eight times what it did in Kathmandu so porters that do make the effort are hopefully rewarded.

Big wheels monstering the trail to Thorong Phedi
We had planned to take the whole day to get to our destination but rolled into Thorong Phedi at 11:30AM, deciding to settle in with a game of chess over a pot of lemon tea.

The quality library at our guest house had clearly been established by people with time to kill acclimatising and was stocked with everything from Stephen King to Seven Years in Tibet (the book). I even garnered some sneaky tips from a guidebook for the Annapurna Trek.

One rather alarmingly reported that at least two days acclimatisation was the norm for this final section of the trek. Still feeling fine apart from the odd tingly appendage; a side effect of the Diamox we are taking to keep altitude sickness at bay.

Mist shrouded cliffs at Thorong Phedi
In the afternoon I braved the chill mountain air to get some pictures of the amazing cliffs and ranges surrounding us. One especially awesome use of prayer flags had them strung over a 100 metre canyon, and one could only speculate what combination of extreme rockclimbing or explosive devices had put the flags in place.

Guest lodge at Thorong Phedi, note insane prayer flag string in top right
We hit the hay early for an early breakfast and 6AM start to push for Thorong La pass then Muktinath arguably our biggest day so far.